Italy’s South Rises Again

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In ancient times, the south of Italy was thought of as one of the great wine regions of the known world.  Fast forward 2000 years and, by the time I started enjoying wine (in the early 1970s, if you must know!), it was a place for wine lovers to avoid.  But, rather than concentrating on the bad times, I’d sooner focus on its re-emergence over the past 20 years or so and on the delicious wines you can find there now – wines that were the subject of a recent evening at the Bristol Tasting Circle, hosted by Alex Pack of Liberty Wines.

Temperatures in this part of the Mediterranean normally favour red wines over white, but Donnafugata’s rich, minerally Vigna di Gabri from Sicily was the exception: full of citrus and herb flavours with an attractive touch of bitterness, this would pair beautifully with poultry or white meats.

The reds mainly showcased the best of the local grape varieties, such as Aglianico, thought to have been originally imported into Italy by the early Greek traders, Nero di Troia and Primitivo (aka Zinfandel).  Opinions on the night were divided as to the best of these with Canace’s Nero di Troia, Zolla’s Primitivo di Manduria and Vesevo’s Taurasi all getting favourable mentions, particularly as partners for robust red meat and game dishes, or with flavoursome hard cheeses.

But, the last wine of the evening stole the show for me and, I guess, many others: again from Donnafugata, their wonderful sweet but refreshing Ben Ryé has intense aromas and flavours of orange and passion fruit.  benryeMade on the tiny island of Pantelleria, off the South West coast of Sicily, this ‘Passito’ uses grapes picked and then traditionally laid out on straw mats to dry and concentrate the sugars.   It must surely rank alongside some of the great sweet wines of the world.

As Liberty Wines supply the trade only, I have not given prices, but a check on, for example, the wine-searcher website will show whether any of these great bottles are available near you.

 

Chile Going Places

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Not so long ago, I blogged about a Chilean wine that was voted overwhelmingly the best of the day at a course on the wines of the Americas I ran at Stoke Lodge.  And now, another bottle from the same country, opened at home recently, has confirmed my view that Chilean wine really is going places.

errazuriz-cab-sErrazuriz’s Max Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Waitrose, £12.99) is full of lovely red berry fruits enhanced with subtle vanilla flavours from 12 months oak ageing.  At almost 3 years old, the tannins are still noticeable but neither they, nor the 14% alcohol are in any way intrusive.  This wine is just beautifully balanced.

Errazuriz is a long established company producing a number of different wines.  Their entry level bottles – widely available in supermarkets and other high street chains for around £8 – £10 – are always reliable and worth buying, while their more premium offerings often outshine wines selling for several £s more.   

Their ‘Max’ range, named in honour of the company’s founder, Don Maximiano Errazuriz, is from sites at the foot of Mount Aconcagua where the combination of warm days and cool nights is ideal for ripening the grapes while retaining good acidity.  The Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted comes from vines planted more than 20 years ago on gravel-rich soils.  This copies what we find in Bordeaux where the best Cabernet Sauvignon regularly comes from vines planted on well-drained, gravelly soils; the reflected heat from the stones helps ripen the grapes while the good drainage means the vines have enough water to grow but aren’t rooted in cold, damp earth.  The use of older vines, too, is a sign of quality – they typically yield wines with more intensity and character.

So, while wines from Chile are already deservedly popular in the UK, I’d suggest exploring those at a slightly higher price – that’s where the bargains really begin.

 

The Century Wine Club

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One of my fellow wine bloggers (appetiteforwine.wordpress.com) wrote recently about his aim to become a member of the ‘Century Wine Club’, open to anyone who could show that they had tasted at least 100 different grape varieties.  I think I might qualify as I’m always looking for different and unusual wines but I haven’t kept detailed notes going back far enough to prove it.

But I did open a bottle the other day that, if he can find it, will almost certainly get Mr Appetite for Wine (sorry I don’t know him by any other name) one step closer: the Italian producer Cà dei Frati makes their wine I Frati (Wine Society, £12.50) from the grape Turbiana.

2017-01-28-11-15-18Grown on the southern shores of the beautiful Lake Garda and labelled as DOC Lugana, this little-known variety yields a rich, floral and complex white, full of quite subtle tropic fruit flavours; a wine that would be ideal with fish or chicken in a creamy sauce.  Unusually, it is matured in barrels of acacia wood – not oak – although there is no hint of any wood ageing on the nose or palate.

Turbiana was once thought to be Trebbiano, Italy’s most widely planted white grape variety.  This link surprised me as I know of no wine from that grape that has the richness of flavour that I Frati shows.   Research for Jancis Robinson’s book “Wine Grapes” confirmed my doubts – indeed, it showed that there are at least 6 different varieties all using the name Trebbiano.   No wonder it apparently produced such a range of different styles!

Trebbiano di Lugana is still sometimes used as a synonym for Turbiana although it now appears that it may be more closely related to Verdicchio – widely grown on Italy’s Adriatic coast and producing some delicious, fresh, lemony whites – than to any of the more common Trebbianos.

I hope my fellow blogger can find a bottle; it will get him 1 closer to his target in a really delicious way.  He should, however, be careful in lifting it – the bottle weighs in at a ridiculous 770 grams empty!  The contents are good enough to speak for themself without such excesses.

Finally, a word of thanks to an eagle-eyed reader who spotted a mistake in a recent blog: my ‘Hidden Corners of Spain’ wine course at Stoke Lodge will be on Saturday 4th March, not the 7th as I said previously.  A few places are still available and you can book via www.bristolcourses.com or by phone to 0117 903 8844.

Down Mexico Way!

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There has been so much in the papers recently about Mexico that, when I noticed a bottle of their wine on Marks & Spencer’s shelves, I decided to try it – especially as it had one of the most eye-catching labels I have seen for a long time featuring a stylised bird dating back to Aztec times.

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Mexico has been making wine for almost 500 years since the days of the earliest Spanish settlers, yet domestic consumption has always been patchy and so the wine industry has never really thrived there. This is a shame as much of the country has an ideal climate, similar to that found in parts of the Mediterranean.  Baja California, the long peninsula off America’s west coast that reaches out into the Pacific, is particularly well-suited.  Here, the cold currents and coastal fogs that make California’s Napa Valley such a premium wine region are also at work, moderating an area that would otherwise be far too hot to grow grapes for quality wine. 

The bottle I bought, Quetzal’s Chardonnay/Chenin Blanc blend (£6.75) comes from the northern part of this coastal strip – the Guadalupe Valley.  It’s a clean, fresh, quite aromatic white, ideal on its own as an aperitif or with seafood – the label suggests seared scallops and I wouldn’t disagree.  The wine has plenty of attractive tropical fruit flavours and the13% alcohol gives it some richness and body.  All in all, quite a bargain at less than £7 and a good example of the unusual and interesting bottles that are now regularly appearing on Marks & Spencer’s wine shelves.

I’m sorry that, if the much talked about wall gets built, my American readers may not be able to buy this, or, indeed, any other Mexican wine; on the evidence of this bottle, your loss is our gain!

Educating a Wine

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There are many ways a label can tell customers that the wine in the bottle has been influenced by oak: the mention of barrel, barrique or cask, the French élevé en chêne (raised in oak) or simply the word oaked or some similar reference.   It can also be implied by the use of spicy or smoky, although neither of those is definitive.  But some words I saw on a red Bordeaux label recently gave a whole new meaning to oak ageing and its purpose: rather than using ‘élevé’, this producer said that his wine was ‘éduqué en fûts de chêne’ (literally, educated or brought up in oak barrels).

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By doing this, he is comparing the ageing of his wine to the bringing up of his children.  Is that a reasonable comparison?  I’d say yes.  I often tell groups that wine is a living thing; good wines, especially, go through a distinct youthful stage, followed sometimes by difficult teenage years, then a comfortable middle age, when the wine is at its peak, before reaching old age and, if you keep it too long, extreme old age.

So, the upbringing analogy is a good one.  The producer has taken his newly made wine, full of bright young fruit and probably quite firm tannins, and put it into oak barrels.  What happens in those barrels is interesting: oak is slightly porous – not porous enough for the wine to leak out, but porous enough for tiny amounts of air to get in.  The air reacts with the wine, softening the tannins and making the wine more rounded and harmonious.  In addition, if the barrels are new (or reasonably new), they might also impart an oaky or smoky flavour to the wine, changing it further.

In this way, the raw young wine is transformed into a rounded, characterful bottle ready to take its place at table.  Just like turning a brash infant into a mature adult.  So, a wine, like a person can, indeed, be ‘éduqué’.

 

A Clear Chilean Winner

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“Which are your favourites of the wines you’ve tasted today?” is a question I frequently ask at the end of a wine course or tasting that I’ve run.  The result is normally very close, often with 2 or 3 of the wines tying for the most popular.  That isn’t surprising; tastes vary enormously with everyone having their own particular preferences.  And those preferences will be reflected in how they vote, which is why it is rare for one wine to have a clear win.

So, on the few occasions when it does happen, the winner must be quite special and have wide appeal – not always the same thing.  Such a wine emerged from a recent day course on the Wines of the Americas that I ran at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  From a dozen wines from such diverse countries as the USA, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay and Brazil, Tabali’s Encantado Reserva Viognier from Chile’s Limari Valley (Waitrose, £9.99) was not just a clear winner – it secured more than twice as many votes as any of the other wines we tasted. 

tabali-viognierAlthough I can’t remember such a decisive result before, I wasn’t surprised this wine was popular; I’ve opened it on a number of occasions previously.  It has really appealing floral and citrus aromas which carry through onto a rich, just off-dry palate balanced by good, clean acidity and with flavours of ginger and apricot.  A lovely wine: complex, fruity and characterful.

It is only in the last 20 years or so that the Limari Valley has started to concentrate on quality wines – previously much of the production there was distilled into pisco, the local brandy – and Viognier is hardly a mainstream grape for the area but Tabali’s site, just 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean with its cooling influences, is clearly well suited to this tricky but high quality variety.  Perhaps we’ll see wider plantings there in future.

And, looking to the future, a date for your diary: on Saturday 7th March my next course at Stoke Lodge will be on ‘The Hidden Corners of Spain’.  We’ll focus on wines from some of that country’s less well-known regions and grapes.  Places are still available but booking is essential: www.bristolcourses.com or 0117 903 8844.

A Loire Newcomer

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chateau-chenonceau

Chenonceau – one of the most familiar and frequently photographed of the Châteaux of France’s Loire Valley.  But, apart from it being a wonderful sight, why is it heading my Bristol Wine Blog?  The reason: Chenonceau has joined the hundreds of other villages all over France entitled to claim Appellation Contrôlée (or Appellation Protégée as it is now officially known).

So, why does this matter?  Previously, wines from here were lumped under AC Touraine, which covers the whole of the wider area and includes some good and some not-so-good examples.  By breaking out of this general designation, the producers of Chenonceau (and there aren’t many!) hope to gain a real reputation for quality.

And, if the first example I’ve tasted from the new AC is anything to judge by, then Chenonceau will be a name to remember.  The Domaine de la Renne Chenonceau Sauvignon Blanc (£13.50) was the stand-out wine from a Bristol Tasting Circle evening of Loire wines hosted by a relatively new firm, Joie de Vin (Joiedevin.co.uk).   The owners, Tim and Jill North, specialise in sourcing good quality and good value wines from small producers in the Loire and the Languedoc-Roussillon.

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The Renne Chenonceau is beautifully balanced and with all the character of a good Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé but with, perhaps, a little more weight and richness resulting, in part, from 3 years maturation on the lees.  That may sound an extraordinary length of time – it does to me – yet the wine – from the 2013 vintage – still tastes young and fresh and, unlike many Sauvignons, looks to have several years of good drinking ahead of it.

 

Apart from this wine, the other tip I took away from this tasting was that Muscadet is back.  For so long, a source of dull, tart wines best avoided, I have begun to notice some improvements recently, a view confirmed by a couple of examples from Joie de Vin’s portfolio. 

So, 2 areas to look out for – and a supplier to watch, too!