Wine from cows’ horns?

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In my previous Bristol Wine Blog, I reviewed a marvellous trip to the vineyards of Burgundy organised by Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours and hosted by Steven Spurrier. I mentioned that all the properties we visited had something in common and I asked for suggestions about what it was. The picture I posted at the foot of the Blog teased you with a clue:

18 Ch de Monthelie manure extraction

It didn’t take long for a regular reader, ‘d d b’ of Wellington, New Zealand, to reply correctly: Biodynamics. Congratulations! And to anyone else who knew but didn’t reply.

Biodynamics is a specialist form of organic growing in which the farm (it’s not just vineyards that work biodynamically) should be self-sustaining, it should use only natural or plant-based preparations on the soil with a view to strengthening the crop’s own defences against disease or adverse weather and finally that planting, pruning, ploughing and harvesting should all be done with regard to the lunar cycle.

So, what was going in the picture? One of the preparations used involves filling cow horns with manure each autumn and burying them until the spring when they are dug up and the manure extracted ready for use. We just happened to turn up at Château de Monthelie just in time to witness this group of people knocking the manure out of the horns. It was then mixed with water and stirred ready to be sprayed onto the vineyard.

If you think all this sounds rather ‘wacky’, I’m not surprised! Yet, in many tastings over a number of years, I’ve found that the wines I’ve given top marks have often been produced in this way. For some reason, biodynamic wines seem to have more character – and in different ways, too; sometimes they are more intense or fruitier, at other times they have purer, cleaner flavours. Whatever the difference, it is remarkable how often they seem to stand out from other wines – even those grown organically but without the ‘extras’.

Whether this is due to the cow-horn manure or working with the phases of the moon – or whether it’s simply the grower working more with nature and getting to know their own vines better, I can’t say. It’s just that for me, the proof is in the glass. Why not try for yourself?

The Mosaic of Burgundy

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9 Gevrey Chambertin

Burgundy’s vineyards are often described as a ‘mosaic’; look at the picture above and you’ll see why. Some strips of land ploughed and bare, others covered with grass. And it’s all due to French inheritance laws which dictate that land and property are divided between all of the children. So, the field may look like a single vineyard but it actually has many different owners, each farming a small part, each having their own ideas about the best way to farm. And, most importantly for wine lovers, each able to decide how the wines made from their particular strip of the vineyard should taste.

The result is that, when you’re buying Burgundy, you don’t only have to check which vineyard the wine comes from, but the grower, too; some are brilliant, others are good but might not make wine to your taste and then there’s a third group: those who know that anything with the name ‘Burgundy’ on the label will sell and don’t make too much effort.

So, if you’re visiting the region, as we did recently with Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours (www.winetours.co.uk), it’s good to have an expert to guide you. Ours, Steven Spurrier, has spent his whole working life in the wine industry and his knowledge of and contacts in Burgundy are unrivalled so the tastings arranged for us were truly exceptional. We visited famous names like Drouhin (the Beaune Clos des Mouches Blanc 2001 was a highlight of our first evening) and Bouchard Aîné (their Corton 2000 is just reaching its peak) as well as some of the best smaller producers – those with interesting and different ideas. Take Frédéric Magnien, for example; he matures some of his wines in clay amphorae – for him, oak barrels mask the fruit. His wines certainly showed great purity of flavour, while Jacques Prieur uses horses rather than tractors to work his vineyards to avoid compacting the soil and restricting the spread of the roots.

Wherever we went, we tasted some fantastic wines – many from old reserve stock no longer on sale – but all reflecting the marvellous diversity of the mosaic of vineyards we saw on the ground.

One final thought: despite their differences, all the producers we visited had one thing in common. If you can work out what’s happening in the picture below (suggestions welcome!), you may know what I’m referring to. If not, I’ll tell you in my next Bristol Wine Blog.

18 Ch de Monthelie manure extraction

 

The Fall and Rise of Viognier

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“Viognier was close to extinction in 1980 when Yalumba pioneered a renaissance of this rare, exotic and alluring variety” – so reads the back label of a delightful example of the grape from Australia’s Eden Valley (currently on offer at Waitrose for £9.74, usually £12.99).Yalumba Viognier

It’s not in doubt that there were only a few acres of Viognier remaining at one time. However, Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand in their book “Grapes & Wines” (Webster’s, 2001) suggest that the low point was rather earlier (1965) and attribute the revival elsewhere – crediting either Josh Jensen of Calera in California or the ‘king of Beaujolais’, Georges Duboeuf. Personally, I don’t mind who ensured the grape’s survival – it’s a fascinating and distinctive variety and deserves to be around.

But, how did it get into such a perilous state? It’s a grape that is native to the tiny northern Rhône Appellation of Condrieu and, for many years, it was grown there and virtually nowhere else. The vineyards of Condrieu are perched on impossibly steep granite slopes overlooking the Rhône making any work in the vineyard both difficult and dangerous. Not surprisingly, as transport in the region improved, many growers abandoned their vines and sought work in nearby Lyon instead. Indeed, in one year, just 2500 bottles were made from the variety.

Without getting into the debate about who engineered its revival, the prospects for Viognier have been transformed and the grape is now thriving with major plantings in the south of France, California and Australia as well as in the vineyards of its native Rhône.

So, what’s so special about it? At its best, it has a wonderful aromatic perfume – think apricots, peaches and exotic spices – and a full, rich and mouth-filling taste not quite like anything else. It goes perfectly with gently spicy or creamy dishes. For a real treat, ask your local independent wine merchant if they have any Condrieu (expect to pay £30 plus a bottle); otherwise, the example from Yalumba that prompted this blog should convince any doubters.

Tasting Galician Wines

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Galicia, in the far north-west of Spain, is one of that country’s most interesting wine regions. But, if you’re not familiar with their wines – and, sadly, many in Britain are not – you need to forget any existing thoughts about Spanish wine. Galicia is different! Its climate is Atlantic-influenced which means that it is wetter, cooler and more fertile than areas of Spain further inland or those facing the Mediterranean. And it grows a clutch of grape varieties rarely seen elsewhere.

As you might guess, I love their wines – and not just since a really enjoyable visit my wife and I made there a couple of years ago. So I was particularly pleased that the Bristol Tasting Circle’s latest monthly event featured wines from Galicia (plus an intruder from Castille y Leon, just over the regional border!) presented by a long-standing friend of the Circle, Raj Soni of local independent wine merchant RS Wines.

BTC Galicia tastingTypical of the world’s cooler grape growing regions, Galicia makes more white than red. Paso de Marinan uses Godello in a blend with other local varieties to produce a wine with good body and lovely tropical fruit flavours (£9), while Crego e Monaguillo’s 100% Godello (£10) is fresh and clean with hints of mandarins on the palate. The one Galician variety that may be familiar to some (particularly Bristol Wine Blog readers) is Alboriño and Pazo de Barantes (£13) make an excellent example: quite rich and fragrantly perfumed, this wine has length, complexity and is simply delightful to drink.

But Galicia makes reds, too, mainly using the local Mencia grape. It gives soft, gently spicy wines – my wife said cumin – and the stand-out for me was the delicately smoky, barrel aged bottle from Joaquin Rebolledo (£15), who is so superstitious that he labelled his 2013 vintage as ‘2012+1’!

For more details of the wines, you can contact RS Wines on www.rswines.co.uk. Or, if tastings like this one appeal, just email the Bristol Tasting Circle secretary, Judith Tyler on judith.tyler@talktalk.net – new members are always welcome.

 

The TV Wine Show

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Wine programmes on TV: there have been a number over the years. I’ve always watched them (or started to!) but, for me, few have been really successful. Producers seem to fall into one of 2 traps: the first involves targeting those who are already interested in wine and are quite knowledgeable. To please them, they produce something with lots of serious content, but that makes the majority of viewers switch off and the programme quietly disappears after a short series. The alternative is to try and attract those who enjoy a glass or two each week but are quite happy to buy whatever’s on special offer in the supermarket. This group want a lively, entertaining show with some good tips for bottles to buy. But, often it just becomes all too trivial.

So, when I noticed a new series ‘The Wine Show’ (what an original title!) on ITV4 (Sunday evenings, 6.55pm), I approached with a mixture of anticipation and scepticism. Would it fall into one of the traps or would it be that rare example that found a good balance between the two? wine show cast

To me, presenters Matthew Goode and Matthew Rhys came across well as ordinary guys wanting to know a bit more; my wife, however, found them incredibly ‘blokey’. And this sexist theme extended to the show’s 2 wine experts. Joe Fattorini, who managed to be serious enough without being pompous, got to taste at the magnificent Chateau Margaux, while Amelia Singer was left to do the manual tasks (albeit at a winery in Australia). Have the makers of this show still not realised that women now buy the majority of wine in the UK?

On a positive note, features on the differing wine making techniques in Australia and Bordeaux were interesting for more knowledgeable viewers but were put across in such a way as to be approachable for a wider audience, as was the piece on South Africa’s sweet wines – with the glorious scenery there making a wonderfully photogenic background. Even the ‘fun’ item on a barrel rolling competition at Montepulciano was relevant and added to the show’s colour.

So, a bit of a mixed start; let’s see what next week brings.

The Other Ch.. Grape

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Chardonnay is probably the best known white wine grape in the world. But it’s not the only one beginning with the letters ‘ch’. The other one may not be as popular nor as widely planted but, in the right place and in the right hands, it is certainly capable of making delicious white wines. Its name: Chenin Blanc.

It’s a native of France’s Loire region – if you’ve explored that wonderful stretch of the river between Angers and Tours, you’ll almost certainly have tasted Chenin Blanc; Vouvray, Savennières, Saumur (both still and sparkling), Montlouis and the wonderful sweet wines of the Coteaux du Layon – all are made from the grape. And, as you’ll see from that list, it’s pretty versatile, too.

Yet, it’s a variety in serious decline, with almost 25000 hectares (60000 acres) of Chenin grubbed up in the last 25 years – a reduction of 40%. It’s all about fashion: grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are ‘in’, so are easy to sell. Growers everywhere are keen to plant them. Chenin, on the other hand, is ‘out’. This is a shame – and not just because of the delightful wines it makes in the Loire. There is almost twice as much of the variety planted in South Africa as in France and, for the present, it remains the most widely-planted grape there – although, I don’t know for how much longer, as there, too, it is being uprooted in favour of the other ‘ch’.

For a long time, Chenin was dismissed as a ‘workhorse’ grape in South Africa used only to make unexciting, quaffable bottles at rock-bottom prices. These are still made – and are worth avoiding. But, many producers have realised that it doesn’t have to be like this. Take the Stellenbosch producer, Morgenhof. Morgenhof CheninThey use 45 year-old vines to make something really attractive (available from Waitrose, currently on offer at £8.99, usually £11.99). It’s a rich and creamy white with just a delicate hint of oak, lovely refreshing ripe citrus flavours and a long savoury finish. Although 14% alcohol, there’s no burn – just a beautifully balanced wine.

A great example of why this ‘Ch’ really should be better known.

Red Wine with Chicken?

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Which wine goes with which food? It’s a debate that’s been going on for ages – certainly from long before I was taking an interest in the subject. And, no doubt, it will continue long after I’ve ceased writing Bristol Wine Blog. The one certainty in the debate is that there is no single right answer – which wine goes with which food depends entirely on your sense of taste. And, in that, every one of us is unique.

Depending on your point of view, food and wine pairing can either be very simple or endlessly complicated. Take the simple view first: if you’re happy to drink your favourite wine or the current special offer from the supermarket whatever you are eating then, so long as you enjoy it, that’s all that matters. If, however, finding the ‘right’ wine to drink with a particular dish is important to you, then where should you start looking?

The traditional view is white wine with fish or poultry, red wine with meat. And, if you like your food cooked plainly, that’s a good place to start. If, on the other hand, you enjoy sauces or combinations of flavours, then things get a little trickier. Let’s take coq au vin – chicken cooked in a red burgundy wine sauce – as an example. The chicken on its own might go well with a white wine but the strongest flavour in this dish is likely to be the sauce and so I’d try and match that. Burgundy locals would agree; they would say a bottle of red Burgundy in the dish, another on the table to drink – a good example of the food and wine of a region going well together – something that happens quite often and is also worth bearing in mind.Red Burgundy

I also think it’s important not to overpower the food with the wine or the other way around. So, I’d choose a delicate wine with subtly flavoured food, something chunkier with more robust dishes.

But, these are just suggestions. When it comes to pairing food and wine, there are no hard and fast rules – find something that you enjoy – and hope the others at the table agree with you.