Côtes du Rhône Unravelled

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cotes-du-rhoneCôtes du Rhône: surely one of the most recognisable and popular wines on our shelves.  But how many who casually pick up a bottle in their local supermarket realise how much more there is to Côtes du Rhône than its usual reputation as just an easy drinking, good value, medium bodied red?

It’s one of the largest – and most diverse – Appellations in France with an annual output of over 250 million bottles.  The area stretches for more than 70 miles from just south of Valence to beyond Avignon, encompassing a vast range of microclimates and soils.  And, although most producers will use a Grenache dominated blend of grapes for their wine, there is almost infinite leeway to create their own favoured style as almost 20 different varieties are permitted for use in Côtes du Rhône blends.  So, finding a producer whose style you like is important.

There’s a quality hierarchy, too: at the entry level are attractive, fruity wines simply labelled ‘Côtes du Rhône’.  A step up in quality, complexity and, usually, price is ‘Côtes du Rhône-Villages’ which comes from some of the more favoured sites within the area.  Within this category, certain villages have been promoted and can either append their names to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages designation or have their name stand alone on the label.  Among the best of these are Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Cairanne.  All produce wines from the same range of grapes as basic Côtes du Rhône but, again, there is considerable variety from place to place and even within individual villages.  Prices of these are a little higher still.

Then there’s the most famous individual Rhône village of all: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Their best wines are undoubtedly excellent but they come at prices that reflect both their own quality and the popularity of the village as a whole.  And, away from these, some can be a little disappointing.  So, for me, for value and interesting drinking, I mainly look to the lesser-known villages mentioned above.

And, finally, to complete the message of diversity (or, perhaps, confusion), you might have noticed from the picture that not all Côtes du Rhône is red – there’s some white and rosé, too!

 

3rd Cheapest on the List?

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I was in a restaurant with some friends recently when, inevitably, I was handed the wine list and asked to choose something nice for the group to drink.  I’d got as far as asking whether people preferred red or white when the person on my left offered the suggestion of the ‘3rd cheapest wine on the list’.

Not surprisingly, I queried the idea.  The reply was interesting: ‘the restaurant will know that no-one wants to buy the cheapest wine on the list, so they put the biggest profit mark-up on the 2nd cheapest.  So, the 3rd cheapest is probably best value for money’.   I would hope that not many restaurants were quite that cynical in their approach although I have often had the sense that famous names such as Chablis, Rioja and Chianti have attracted a bigger mark-up than less well-known bottles.

But what about 3rd cheapest as a strategy?  What happens if you don’t know the wine or whether it will go with the food you are choosing?  Or, even worse, if you do know the wine and hate it?  Do you trade up or trade down?  Perhaps you decide to just drink water instead?

For those who really aren’t confident about finding their way round a wine list, I have a better suggestion:  decide about how much you want to pay then, when your server comes to ask, point to a couple of bottles on the list at around that price and say, ‘I’m thinking of something like this, but what do you recommend?’  That way, you’re not going to be offered the dearest wine on the list and you will get some advice from someone who, hopefully, knows the wines on the list better than you.

So what did I choose?  A nice Old Vine Carignan from the south of France.  I thought it would go perfectly with the food we had ordered.  It just happened to be the 3rd cheapest red wine on the list!

 

Beaujolais: Nouveau or Cru?

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I haven’t seen any Beaujolais Nouveau for sale this year.  It’s not that I’m a great fan of it, but there’s usually plenty around in the weeks after its official release date, the 3rd Thursday in November.  And, it’s a big seller – in supermarkets, especially – so they would normally be keen to put on an eye-catching display.  But this year, nothing!

So, what is Beaujolais Nouveau?  It’s a red wine made from Gamay grapes grown in France’s Beaujolais region, the southern-most part of Burgundy.  The grapes are harvested in late September or early October and then vinified very quickly before being bottled ready for sale just a few weeks later.

I said I’m not a great fan of it; a friend once described it as ‘alcoholic Ribena’ and I can’t better that as a way to explain the taste.  For me, the problem is that the whole process is rushed through to meet the key date and there is no time for the flavours to mature and develop.

But, not all Beaujolais is ‘Nouveau’; wines labelled just Beaujolais (without the Nouveau suffix) or, even better, Beaujolais-Villages are often very attractive and refreshing, especially when lightly chilled on a warm summer day.  But, to enjoy the best the region has to offer, look to wines labelled with the name of one of the 10 individual villages or ‘crus’ (see below).  Despite all being made from the same Gamay grape and from villages just a few miles from each other, each is subtly different from its neighbour and many make really excellent food wines.

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The Domaine Crêt des Garanches Brouilly (Grape and Grind, Bristol, £12.50) I opened recently was a good example – quite light and delicate in body but deliciously fresh and full of really intense blackberry flavours.  No rush to get this to market – it was from the 2014 harvest; the time it had been given to develop was definitely time well spent.

(The crus are: Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Chenas, Chirouble, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie and Saint-Amour)

Lebanon’s Bristol Connection

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lebanon-btcLebanon isn’t one of the world’s largest wine producing countries nor, for many consumers, one of the best-known, but it’s certainly one of the oldest with a history going back to ancient times.  During the Middle Ages, Lebanese wines were highly regarded and widely traded but, once the region was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, winemaking was restricted to that needed for religious purposes only.

Thanks to the Jesuits, things improved during the latter half of the 19th century and wine was again exported.  But it wasn’t until an event in Bristol – yes! Bristol – that Lebanese wine really hit the headlines internationally. 

The date was 1979 and, at Bristol’s Wine Fair that year, Serge Hochar took a stand to promote his wine, Chateau Musar.  At the time, no-one in England had heard of Musar, but influential writer Michael Broadbent tasted it and declared it the ‘discovery of the Fair’.  That opened the gates for Lebanese wine and they have been open ever since.

So, when the Bristol Tasting Circle announced that writer Michael Karam, surely one of Lebanon’s best wine ambassadors, was to host a tasting, I knew it was not to be missed.  And, just to prove that Lebanon is so much more than just Musar, he brought along wines from 6 other estates.

The whites were more aromatic than might be expected from the warm latitude in which they are grown but the Bekaa Valley stands at an altitude of over 1000m (3000ft) which clearly has a cooling effect.  Blends mainly involved well-known grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat, although local speciality Obeideh added spice and a certain exotic character where it was used.

The reds were generally based around southern French varieties – Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache – plus Cabernet Sauvignon and, while mainly quite chewy and robust in style, all showed good depth of fruit and an attractive lightness of touch.

It was difficult to pick a favourite from so many delicious wines but, perhaps Ksara’s Reserve du Couvent Red just edged it for me.  But, in truth, the real winner on the night was Michael Karam, himself, whose justifiable passion for his country and its wines shone through for all to see.

Oz Chardonnay’s New Look

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Not so long ago, opening a bottle of Australian Chardonnay would have inevitably meant a wine with lots of sweet tropical fruit (pineapples, melons, lychees and the like), a strong oaky taste and plenty of heat and power deriving from a likely alcohol content of 14% or sometimes even more.  These wines, along with robust, chunky Shiraz- and Cabernet-based reds, were the mainstay of Australia’s great success over here.  You still find them in every supermarket, mainly sold under a famous brand name and often benefitting from a discount or special offer price.  But, they weren’t (and aren’t) to everyone’s taste.  In fact, I (and quite a number of my good friends) avoid them completely.  For us, they are just too big and dominating to be enjoyable.

Which is why you might be surprised to find me blogging about opening a bottle of Australian Chardonnay.  But this one was different! 

hay-shed-hill-oz-chardHay Shed Hill Chardonnay (Wine Society, £14.50) has just 13% alcohol, delicate, subtle oaking and the sort of delightful citrus and green pear aromas and flavours that you’d normally associate with a good Chablis.  So what is going on?

To start with, it’s from Margaret River in Western Australia, an area far from the South-East and its battle for high volume sales.  The vineyards for this wine are situated high on a gravel ridge in the Wilyabrup Valley, quite close to the sea, so benefitting from cooling Ocean currents.  This ensures that the grapes ripen more slowly and retain enough acidity to keep the wines refreshing.  And, of course, skilled winemaking from owner, Michael Kerrigan, formerly of Madfish and Howard Park.

But this is not just one exception to the normal pattern; there’s another Margaret River Chardonnay sitting on our wine rack with just 12½% alcohol.  It seems like a whole new world awaits. 

To Decant or Not?

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In a couple of recent Bristol Wine Blogs I’ve mentioned ‘decanting’ a wine.  It’s a subject that causes considerable debate in the wine world. So, what do I mean by decanting and when and why might I think about doing it?

Thelema redDecanting, simply, is pouring wine out of the bottle it’s sold in into a decanter (or, indeed, any jug large enough to hold the contents).   There are 2 main reasons why you might want to do this: to separate the liquid from any sediment that might be in the bottle or to aerate the wine.

Many wines (and Vintage Ports) are bottled without being filtered (or, at least, with very minimal filtration).  This means that some of the solid matter that results from the fermentation process ends up in the bottle.  This sediment is harmless but you really wouldn’t want to drink it as it’s often quite bitter or astringent.  So, if you expect that there might be sediment in the bottle, it’s best to stand it upright for a few hours or, even, overnight (assuming it’s been stored on its side) to allow the sediment to fall to the bottom.  Then, when you uncork it, pour the wine very slowly into your jug or decanter watching the neck of the bottle to see when the first of the sediment starts to appear.  At that point, stop pouring.  You’ll have a little wine left in the bottle, but the liquid in the decanter will be clear and can be poured into your glasses without worrying.

The other reason for decanting is rather more controversial: to aerate the wine, otherwise known as ‘letting the wine breathe’.  Some, including renowned experts, are firmly opposed to decanting for this purpose, saying that the wine’s aromas are lost in this way.  Others, equally expert, disagree, suggesting that wines, especially robust or tannic wines, can be softened and made more harmonious by decanting.  I’m generally in the latter camp but, as with so much in wine, there are no absolute right and wrong answers. 

My advice is to experiment; open the bottle and taste.  If you’re happy as it is, go on and pour straight away – but have a decanter handy, just in case.

A Wine Worth Keeping

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How long should you keep a bottle of wine before drinking it?  That’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions!  Of course, it depends on the wine – most whites are probably best within a year of purchase, most reds within 2 years – but also on your personal taste.  A friend of ours thinks we drink our wine too young, whereas I think that many of the bottles he opens are passed their peak.  We’ll never agree, but that’s the beauty of wine.

And, although I said that most wines are best within a year or two, there are definitely some – mainly reds, but also quite a few whites – that will only improve for keeping.  Which ones?  Try looking at the back label which may recommend drinking dates.  Otherwise ask a reliable wine merchant or you may be able to check on-line (but always bear in mind what I said above about personal preferences).

I’ve had a bottle of Meerlust Red 2011 from Stellenbosch in South Africa sitting quietly in a wine rack under the stairs for at least a couple of years and, as the label recommended drinking within 8 years of the vintage, I decided recently that now was the time to uncork it – especially as we were having some good friends to dinner who I knew would appreciate it (another important consideration when thinking when to open a bottle!)meerlust-red

This lovely, rich and flavoursome blend of 4 of the Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) was, most definitely, drinking well now.  Even so, I took the precaution of decanting a couple of hours in advance to let a little air finish the process.  The ripe, red fruit flavours were beautifully vibrant and, despite the warmth of Stellenbosch being reflected in 14% alcohol, there was no burn to the wine, all was nicely in balance.

My one regret: it’s the only bottle of this wine I bought and I can see it still drinking well five or more years from now – for my taste, that target of 2019 shown on the back label looks a bit conservative.