Beyond the Familiar

When buying wine, particularly white wine, I find myself increasingly looking away from France.  It’s not that I don’t like French wines – I do – but there are just so many interesting and different grape varieties to explore.  And the more widely I look, the more exciting and attractive flavours I find. 

Take Italy for a start.  I’ve been a big fan of their whites for many years.  If you’ve not tried Greco, Fiano, Verdicchio or Vermentino, then do; you’ve got some delightful surprises awaiting you.  Then there’s the lovely whites from Albariño and Loureiro grown in Galicia in north-west Spain.  And don’t forget Austria’s Grűner Veltliner – I blogged about that a few weeks ago.

You may be familiar with all of those, but the 2 bottles pictured above feature varieties that fewer will recognise.  Firstly, Malagouzia.  That’s native to Greece and Giannikos Winery’s example from the Peloponnese region is a fragrant delight.  Tangy and fresh with lovely peach and apricot flavours, this would be perfect on its own or with fish, delicately cooked chicken dishes or light summer salads.  Local independent wine merchant Grape and Grind have it for £15.99 and it’s worth every penny.

With Fitapreta’s Ancestral from Portugal’s Alentejo region (Corks, £16.50) you get – not one obscure grape variety, but a blend of 6 including 2 – Tamarez and Alicante Branco – that the winemaker says have been rescued from near extinction.  I’ve not heard of either, so I won’t argue.  On pouring, the wine is almost gold in colour, so much so, that I wondered at first if it was oxidised.  But no, it was in perfect condition, rich, tangy, honeyed and savoury with real body to it; a friend who shared it with us thought that, tasting it blind, he would have said it was a red wine.  I know what he means; it’s likely that there was some skin-contact involved in the winemaking.  Not your standard easy-quaffing white, but a really enjoyable and deeply flavoured glass suited to more robustly flavoured poultry or, perhaps, young game birds.

2 very different bottles but each showing the benefits of looking beyond the familiar. 

An Alternative Fizz

If you’re looking for a bottle of sparkling wine but don’t want to pay Champagne prices, there are plenty of options.  Prosecco has had a fantastic rise in popularity over the past few years and so is probably the first name that springs to mind.  But its popularity has also been its downfall and, though generally very pleasant, easy drinking, I can’t recall the last bottle of Prosecco that made me say ‘Wow!’  Much the same fate befell Cava a few years earlier and I’ve tended to avoid that too, although I have read some more favourable reviews recently and it might be time to revisit some of the more individualistic examples.

One group of alternatives that seem to have been almost ignored, however, are the Crémants.  These are a range of wines, made in several different regions of France – Loire, Alsace and Burgundy being the most common – using the same method as Champagne (with a 2nd fermentation in the bottle), but usually with different, often local, grape varieties.  They are generally dry and the best have some ageing to give a hint of the ‘leesy’ character of Champagne but at a fraction of the price.

I opened a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace recently (Lidl, £8.99 – you may still find a bottle in your local branch but their website shows that this is sold out).  Although not over-complex – what do you expect for that money? – it was clean, fresh and pleasantly citrussy with lots of small, persistent bubbles.  Made from a typical Alsace blend of Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, this is ideal for a summer picnic or celebration.  Make sure you chill it well in advance.

So, next time you’re in the market for a bottle of good, enjoyable fizz at a very fair price, think beyond Prosecco or Cava and reach for a Crémant – be it from Alsace, the Loire, or just about anywhere in France – apart from Champagne, of course.

My Favourite Lesson

I used to hate History and Geography lessons when I was at school; I could see no point in learning about things that had happened long ago or in places I was never likely to visit.  Of course, as the years passed, I’ve realised how wrong I was and how much history and geography influence so many aspects of the world we live in.

Take wine for example. 

I opened a bottle of Gérard Bertrand’s Saint-Chinian recently (Grape & Grind, £14.25) and my attention was drawn to the date 1877 on the label.  Clearly that wasn’t the vintage but, turning the bottle round, I found the explanation: 1877 was the year that the first railway line opened linking that part of the south of France with Paris.  Suddenly, the market for the local growers expanded enormously although the boom was short-lived as the deadly phylloxera bug was already wreaking havoc among the region’s wines.

Recovery was slow and erratic and it’s only in the last 30 years or so that the wines of the Languedoc (of which Saint-Chinian is part) have moved from being simple cheap quaffers to something more interesting, like Bertrand’s example.  Made from a blend of 2 high quality grapes, Syrah and Mourvedre, both of which thrive in the hot, sunny conditions of the south of France, this is, undoubtedly, a big wine – the label says 15% – but it’s so well balanced that you would never realise how alcoholic it was.  Lovely flavours of blackberries, herbs and a hint of chocolate together with some smokiness from part barrel-ageing make this an attractive rounded wine to drink.  It would pair particularly well with a robust casserole or grilled or roast meat and benefits from decanting to soften the tannins.

If only history and geography had been explained this way while I was at school!

An Anxious Time

Looking out of my window onto a bright Bristol spring day, I am aware that this is always an exciting but anxious time of the year for vineyard owners wherever they are in the world. 

In the Southern Hemisphere, summer is already drawing to a close and, depending on the local climate and the weather this year, the grape harvest is either imminent, has just started or, in the warmest areas, has already finished.  For those in the last category, worrying about the vagaries of the weather are behind them and they are now sitting smugly, watching the grapes gently ferment in the winery.  The next group, those that have started to harvest, are fervently hoping that they can complete the job before any rain – or worse, hail – arrives that might damage the grapes still left on the vines. In the coolest areas, harvest won’t yet have started and growers there have the key decision on whether to leave the grapes on the vine a week or two longer so that they will ripen just that bit more or whether to pick now and avoid any chance of the weather turning for the worse.

In the Northern Hemisphere, things for growers at this time of year are equally problematic; the challenges here are different, although they still surround the unpredictable weather.  Spring is the time of the year when the first buds appear on the vines from which the new shoots will grow.  A warm spring, like the one we are currently enjoying, will encourage budding but growers will worry about late frosts which can kill off the young shoots.  This would reduce considerably the quantity of grapes produced later in the year.  On the other hand, a cooler spring would mean that the whole process is delayed so that the grapes may not have time to ripen for an autumn harvest.

So, if you pick up a glass of wine this weekend, think about how it is made and thank those whose hard work and judgement results in your pleasure.

A Happy Return

It’s been a long time – more than 2 years in fact – since I was last able to blog about the Bristol Tasting Circle, a local group of wine enthusiasts and professionals who, until Covid intervened, met monthly, inviting winemakers or independent wine merchants to talk to us and share their wines. 

Happily, we have recently been able to revive the format and our first guests were Tim and Jill North of Hampshire-based Joie de Vin who brought along a selection of interesting bottles from the south of France for us to taste.  Joie de Vin ( focus solely on French wines and seek out artisan growers who make their own wine in small quantities.  All their producers work sustainably, many are organic, some biodynamic and their passion for their products shines through. 

Everyone present had their own favourites but I must mention Domaine Laurens who have a great way with naming: one of their reds translates as ‘like a Sunday under a cherry tree’!

It’s hard to choose just one or two from the bottles we tasted, but a white and a red from the same producer, stood out for me.  Domaine La Toupie is based close to the village of Maury in the foothills of the Pyrennees and uses Macabeu, better known in Spain than France (Viura, the grape of white Rioja, is the same variety), to make a delicious, mouth-filling, tangy, peachy food-friendly white (‘Solo’, £14.95).

La Toupie’s red, Quatuor, (£17.50) is a blend of 4 varieties well-known in this area: Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvedre.  A soft, chunky wine (15% alcohol, but well-balanced, so there’s no alcoholic ‘burn’) with great complexity and flavours of ripe black fruit, cassis and lovely cinnamon spice from the subtle oak ageing.  The 2017 that we tasted, although delicious now, would certainly benefit from a couple more years in bottle.

It’s difficult to convey how good it was to get back to the Tasting Circle after all this time and the wines from Joie de Vin and Tim’s presentation made us all realise just how much we had missed.

A Wine from our Twin

My adopted home city, Bristol, and the 2nd largest city in Portugal, Oporto, have been trading partners for more than 2 centuries, particularly in wine and port.  Some 70 years ago, this partnership was cemented by Bristol and Porto (as the locals know it) formally becoming twin cities and, until the outbreak of Covid, a thriving Twinning Association existed, arranging events and exchange visits.  Sadly, official restrictions and subsequent caution stopped all that until last week, when we were able to meet once again for a Quiz night at a local pub (although one that didn’t sell any Portuguese wine!)

Amazingly, the team my wife and I were part of managed (somehow) to win and our prize was – of course – bottles of Portuguese wine.  We decided to defer opening them until we could all meet up again, but thoughts of Portugal meant that I chose a Douro red that I had bought previously to enjoy with our dinner the next day.

It was a complete coincidence that the name of the wine I selected was Beira Douro (Grape and Grind, £14.50), as Beira (a city in Mozambique) is also twinned with Bristol although, as far as I know, that Beira has no connection to the wine.  A deeply coloured blend of 2 Portuguese grapes, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, packed with lovely raspberry and crunchy redcurrant flavours with a long dry finish.  Even though our bottle was already over 5 years old, there was still noticeable tannin in the wine, but decanting and teaming it with a juicy venison steak softened that and made it a really harmonious and delicious mouthful.

Twinning is a great way to explore other cultures and traditions and, when it can be celebrated with some wine from a twinned city, so much the better.

A ‘Novel’ Evening

One thing I’ve missed over the last 2 Covid-blighted years is attending wine dinners.  At their best, they are great opportunities to meet producers or wine merchants at local restaurants where they can show off their wines paired with well-chosen dishes in a relaxed, sociable setting.  So, when Novel wines sent out invitations for an evening at Bath’s Green Bird Café recently, my wife and I were keen to book.   

Novel Wines specialise in areas often ignored by other merchants, particularly Hungary and the rest of central, eastern and south-eastern Europe.  They also have an interesting selection of English sparkling wines on their list and a glass of one of these, Woodchester’s crisp, citrussy Cotswold Classic from Gloucestershire (£24.99), greeted us on arrival.

We were promised that chef Dan Moon would treat us to a 5-course Seafood Extravaganza and we were not disappointed.  Among the food highlights of the evening were a lovely piece of cured salmon with a creamy haddock chowder foam, some scallops in a delicious sticky crab risotto (my favourite dish) and, for dessert, panna cotta with rhubarb sorbet.

And then there were the accompanying wines, of course, all introduced by Ben Franks of Novel Wines. 

One of Hungary’s native grape varieties is Furmint which can produce high quality wines in all styles from dry to lusciously sweet.  It was one of the former, the rich, nutty Endre Demeter’s Estate Furmint from the Tokaji region (£24.99) that was my star wine of the evening, perfectly cutting through the oiliness of the salmon.

The choice of a rosé – and particularly one from Turkey – to pair with the risotto surprised me a little but a glass of Kayra Beyaz’s Kalecik Karasi (£15.99) convinced me.  The Kalecik Karasi is, again, a native grape and produced a delicately pink wine with crisp citrus and floral flavours – one to enjoy throughout the summer with salads and other light meals.

I love dessert wines to accompany puddings and Vakakis’ deep, intense but not cloyingly sweet Muscat from the Greek island of Samos made a perfect end to an evening of interesting and delicious wine and food pairings.

All wines are available from Novel Wines of Bath or can be ordered on-line.

Honey from Austria

I’ve mentioned Austria’s ‘own’ grape variety, Grűner Veltliner, before in Bristol Wine Blog but I recently opened a bottle that was so good, it persuaded me to write about it again.

Just one sniff of Rabl’s example from around the town of Langenlois in Austria’s Kamptal region (Novel Wines, £16.99) and my wife and I said in unison ‘honey’!  But don’t assume from that description that this is a sweet wine – far from it; it is quite dry on the palate, if fairly rich (despite only 12.5% alcohol) and succulent.  The honied aromas and flavours come from the beautifully sweet, ripe fruit grown in vineyards planted on sunny, south-facing terraces overlooking a tributary of the River Danube.  These grapes are blended with fruit from cooler, windier sites chosen to ensure the ripeness of flavour is balanced with attractive, refreshing acidity.

In the winery, only indigenous yeasts are used in the fermentation followed by extended lees contact (where the wine rests on the dead yeast cells after fermentation is completed) producing greater complexity and savoury flavours.

And the wine itself?  Apart from the honey, there are lovely floral hints on the nose with peach, apple and melon on the palate, set off by a certain slight pepperiness that seems to be a trademark of the Grűner Veltliner variety.

All this results in a really impressive mouthful which works well as an aperitif but, for me, is even better with food.  We paired it with a stir-fried turkey stroganoff and it proved a good match for the slightly spicy flavours and the sour cream we used to finish the dish.

Grűner Veltliner is becoming quite fashionable – and with good reason, given its quality – so look out for it, mainly from Austria at present.  It’s a good and interesting alternative to fuller flavoured whites; lovers of wines from southern Burgundy (Maçon Villages, Pouilly Fuissé, etc) should certainly give it a try.

Franc in Mendoza

Think of Argentinian wine and it’s likely that one grape will spring immediately to mind: Malbec.  And with good reason; it has become that country’s ‘signature’ variety and its rich, dark, savoury flavours are a perfect foil for the local beef-dominated cuisine.  

Yet, although Malbec is the most widely planted wine grape in Argentina, it accounts for only one sixth of the total vineyard area.  Other red varieties such as Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah occupy significant chunks of the land as do less well-known but more traditional grapes such as Criolla Grande and Cereza (both pink-skinned) and whites such as Pedro Giminez (not to be confused with Spain’s Pedro Ximinez) and Torrontes.

But there’s one variety that, while it barely registers there at the moment, may have more potential to thrive in Argentina than any of those: Cabernet Franc.  Native to France, it can often struggle to ripen fully in Bordeaux producing ‘green’, herbaceous flavours in the wine as a result, while in the Loire, it has definitely performed better as the climate has warmed in the last decade or so, giving some delicious Chinons and Saumur-Champignys. 

So, it seems that warmth and sunlight are important to getting the best out of Cabernet Franc, and it should get plenty of both in the thin, unpolluted air at altitude in Argentina’s Mendoza region. 

Monteagrelo’s Bressia Cabernet Franc (Grape and Grind, £14.99) is a good example of the results we can expect.  Clearly no issues with ripeness here as the wine comes out at 14.5% alcohol (although there was no sense of this level from the wine in the glass).  But you do find a lovely richness in the mouth and a mixture of attractive cooked plum and dried-fruit flavours, all rounded out by 12 months in barrel – almost certainly mainly older wood as there is no overt oakiness in the wine.

Next time you’re buying wine from Argentina, look beyond Malbec (however tasty some of those wines are) and seek out a Cabernet Franc instead.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

To Decant or Not?

Looking back on my blogs, I’ve realised just how often I’ve suggested that a wine should be decanted but I’ve never really explained why or how.  Time to put that oversight right.

Firstly, why?  There are 2 main reasons for decanting: number 1 is that some wines – mainly reds, but also Vintage ports – are bottled without being filtered.  As a result, they may have some dark sediment in the bottle which, although completely harmless, you wouldn’t want to pour into your glass.  So, you decant the wine and leave the sediment behind in the bottle, ensuring that every glass you pour is clear, bright wine.

The 2nd reason – and this is much more controversial, even among wine professionals – is to get air into the wine.  If you are opening a young red wine or one that may be quite tannic, decanting lets the wine absorb some oxygen which supporters say will soften the tannins and make the wine more approachable.  Opponents argue that, in decanting, you lose some of the aroma and flavour and the wine is lessened as a result.  There’s no absolute right or wrong answer; you’re the customer, you pay the money, you decide what’s right for you. 

Personally, I generally decant young, robust, tannic wines, but not usually lighter-bodied reds, such as Pinots Noir or Beaujolais. 

So, if you’ve decided to decant, how do you do it?

Assuming your wine has been laying on its side in a wine rack, take it out several hours before you want to drink it and stand it upright.  This will encourage the sediment to collect in the bottom of the bottle.  Then, when you’re ready to decant (generally an hour or so before you want to drink it if you’re decanting to aerate), remove the capsule and the cork and gently pour the wine into your decanter (or jug – anything large enough to hold the entire contents will do).  If you have a light source behind the bottle (traditionally a candle but, a lamp or even a torch will do), you will be able to watch the wine as it is poured out and see when the first signs of sediment reach the neck of the bottle, when you stop pouring.

You may also choose to wash out the bottle and leave it to dry before gently pouring the wine back in just before you serve it, so that your guests can see exactly what they are drinking.

Finally, if you’re opening a very old wine – and I mean one old enough to be fragile – only decant, if at all, just before you’re ready to drink, otherwise you may lose the last vestige of quality the wine possesses.

So those, briefly, are the whys and hows of decanting.  Now you know that, the choice is yours.