Malbec means Mendoza

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Argentina is the world’s 6th largest wine producer yet, until quite recently, their output was almost completely ignored in the UK.  And, although things are beginning to change, compared to the other large New World countries, the USA, Australia and Chile, they are still under-represented on our shelves.

This is a shame as even their cheaper wines are almost always very attractive and approachable.  And, moving a little up-market, you’ll find wines that are truly delicious – in a leaner, more European style than, say, Chile – and also excellent value.  This is particularly true of their reds with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec the varieties to look out for.  The least-known of these, Malbec, is often described as Argentina’s ‘signature’ grape or unique selling point.  Indeed, for many of today’s wine lovers, Malbec is synonymous with the Mendoza region.

But, like many varieties found in the New World, Malbec’s origins are in France, in Cahors in the south-west – an area I’d recommend that those who enjoy this grape should investigate further.  It was also once widely grown in Bordeaux but the vast popularity of Cabernet and Merlot and the difficulty of ripening Malbec in the relatively cool climate has meant that its importance has reduced significantly there. 

MalbecSo, the largest plantings now are in Mendoza in the foothills of Argentina’s Andes Mountains where it seems to thrive.  Malbecs from brands such as Catena, Trapiche and Argento are reliably good and widely available in supermarkets and wine shops, but I was particularly impressed with a bottle of Don Nicanor’s Nieto Sentiner that I found in a local independent wine merchant, Grape and Grind in Bristol’s Gloucester Road (£13.99).

Rich and quite full-bodied but in no way heavy, lovely blackcurrant and blackberry fruit flavours followed an enticing aroma of violets.  There was also a subtle smokiness in there from 12 months in barrel.  All in all, a delightfully harmonious and rewarding red, ideal with red meat or, for vegetarians, perhaps, an aubergine bake.

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One Grape or More?

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Some winemakers make their wines entirely from a single grape variety whereas others prefer to mix 2 varieties – and there are many instances of producers blending 3, 4 or even more different grapes into their wines.  Why the difference and which is better?

The answer depends on who you speak to:

Red Burgundya Burgundian, whose whites would be made exclusively from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir would say that a single variety is best; they would argue that it produces a more focussed wine and lets the quality of the grape variety used show through.  They would also, no doubt, add that it had been that way for generations in Burgundy so why change?

Someone from Bordeaux or the Rhône would strongly disagree.  Both regions regularly make their wines from a mix of varieties – up to 13 different ones in some Côtes du Rhône.  Their view would be that blending different varieties gives a more complex wine, with the characteristics of each variety contributing to the final product. 

2017-11-16 10.44.11But, there’s another reason for blending in cooler climates such as Bordeaux: as an ‘insurance policy’ in case of poor weather.  There, a spring frost would damage the young shoots of the early-flowering Merlot but leave the Cabernet Sauvignon untouched.  On the other hand, if there is rain at harvest time, the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon may be the one to suffer while the Merlot will already be picked and in the winery, starting to ferment.   

That last comment also answers I question I hear quite often: when is the blending done when different varieties are used?  Although there are a few examples of 2 varieties being fermented together (Syrah and Viognier in some parts of the Northern Rhône, for example), more usually, each variety is fermented separately immediately after harvesting and the blending is done at the end of the process.

So which is better – a single variety or a blend?  For me, both are equally good in their own way, but, as with so much in the wine world, it’s all down to your personal taste.

Cheap and Bland?

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I went out for a reunion meal with some friends and former colleagues at Bristol’s River Station restaurant recently and, inevitably, the wine list was pushed in my direction.  Choosing wine for a dozen people is never easy, particularly when, as here, I didn’t know much about the tastes of many of them.  I also had to bear in mind that we were there to catch up with each other and to chat, not to taste and appreciate the wine.  As a result, my focus was on wines that no-one could really dislike at prices that few could object to.  I could have been forgiven for choosing something cheap and bland, but I wanted to do better than that.

The guests were ordering a wide range of different dishes so a white and a red were clearly needed.  I love the Spanish variety Albariño and there was a nice example on the list, similarly a Mâcon-Villages caught my eye.  But I eventually chose Peter Schweiger’s Grüner Veltliner from Austria (around £30 on the wine list) as the white peter-schweiger-gruner-veltliner– fairly rich and full-bodied with plenty of fruit but unoaked; a wine with plenty of character but fresh and harmonious that should pair well with most dishes.

For the red, I was looking at the South American section of the list – a Chilean Merlot or Carmenere or an Argentinian Malbec, perhaps – when our server pointed to Prunus Tinto, a Portuguese wine from the Daô region (also about £30), which was a personal favourite of his and, apparently very popular.  Prunus_Dao_TintoI hadn’t initially considered this – although I’m a big fan of Portuguese wines, they can be tough and tannic, which wasn’t the type of wine I wanted for the group.  But, he assured me that this was very drinkable and I went along with his recommendation.  I’m pleased I did as this proved a real winner: very soft and with lovely black fruits and a slight smoky edge.

My reward for 2 successful choices?  I’ll get the job of choosing again next time!

A Week in Bristol – Part 2

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Now that my crowded week of 4 tastings is behind me, it’s time to reflect on the final 2 events that I couldn’t fit into my Blog last time.

The first continued with the theme of Spain and Portugal with the added interest that my client asked me to choose wines from the ‘Hidden Corners’ of these 2 fascinating countries.  In fact, for many UK wine drinkers, most of Portugal and much of Spain (except, perhaps, Rioja and Cava) are ‘hidden’, so I had plenty of scope to make my selections.

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An early favourite was the Casal de Ventozela Alvarinho from northern Portugal (£9.99 – all the wines for this tasting were from Majestic).  Alvarinho is the same grape as Spain’s Albariño and this delightful, fresh white showed lovely peach and citrus flavours and a long fragrant finish.

But, it was a pair of Spanish reds that attracted the most praise – both for their quality and for their amazing bargain prices.  Pizarras de Otero (£7.49) was intensely fruity with aromas and flavours of ripe strawberries, plums and blackberries.  Made with the Mencia grape variety, local to the Bierzo district in north-west Spain, this reminded one taster of a young Pinot Noir.

The striking label on Matsu’s ‘El Picaro’ (£8.99) from Toro in the west of Spain (left-hand bottle, above) lists the grape variety as ‘Tinta de Toro’, but this is simply a local name for Spain’s best red grape, Tempranillo.  Bigger and richer than the Bierzo and with a little smokey spice and chocolate added to the black fruits, this would have been far more expensive if it had come from one of the better-known Tempranillo areas.

The last tasting of the week was another of my Saturday classes at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Adult Education Centre.  This time, my theme was ‘Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet’.  Despite the title, we did taste 2 examples of each of these grapes to explore their diverse flavours.  But it was one of the Cabernet alternatives that was unanimously voted as best wine of the day. 

20181117_152855_resized (2)Ironically, in view of the focus of my week, it came from Spain: Baron de Ley Rioja Reserva 2014 (Waitrose, £9) was beautifully mellow and spicy from 20 months ageing in oak but still young enough to allow the soft red fruits to show through.  A real delight at a very reasonable price, and a deserved winner.

As for me, after my busy week, it’s time to relax with a nice glass of wine

A Week in Bristol

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I’ve blogged before about how this is my busiest time of the year but 4 tastings in 1 week is exceptional, even for my November schedule.  Interestingly, 3 of the 4 events focussed on Spain or Portugal – 2 countries whose wines have improved so much over the past 20 years or so.

The week started with Ed Adams MW at the Bristol Tasting Circle.  Ed, along with his business partner, South African Bruce Jack, is a winemaker in north-east Spain and showed 2 of his own wines – an attractive creamy white and a rich, intense red, both sold under the La Bascula label.  Then, in conjunction with Great Western Wines of Bath, we also tasted a range of other wines, all from the Basque or Catalan regions of Spain that Ed knows so well. 

BTC Spain 2It was hard to pick just one favourite but, both my wife and I loved the crisp, grapefruit flavoured white Adur Txakolina from the Basque country (£17.95) while, among the reds, Franck Massard’s El Brindis from the Montsant region (£12.50) was great value even though to get the best from this deep, weighty Cariñena/Garnacha blend would require real patience – perhaps 3 or 4 years.

The following evening, the Bristol-Oporto Twinning Association invited Alan Wright from Clifton Cellars to run a tasting for us.  Alan doesn’t believe in ‘run of the mill’ wines but one of his well-chosen selections was unique, even by his standards.  Oporto 1Quinta do Romeu’s ‘Westerlies’ (£14.75) was specially made and bottled for a journey under sail from Portugal to Bristol by the century-old trading ketch, the Bessie-Ellen.  Sadly, the old ship had to stop at Fowey for repairs but her cargo continued by road for us to enjoy.  Made from one of Portugal’s lesser-known grape varieties, Sousão, this red showed lovely black fruits and although quite deeply flavoured, had an attractive lightness about it.  Oporto 2Despite the temptation of the glorious, sweet Adega de Palma Moscatel de Setubal (£12.50) and others that we tasted, this had to be the wine of the night, if only for the wonderful story it told.

That only takes me as far as Tuesday and my tasting count is already well into double figures for the week (spitting out, of course!).  Perhaps I’d better defer blogging about the week’s other 2 tastings, both of which I was hosting, until next time.

Burgundy by the Barrel

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hospices-de-beauneNext Sunday, 18th November, the famous Hospice de Beaune wine auction will take place.  It’s an event that has happened annually since 1859 with the funds raised mainly supporting the running and upkeep of the magnificent Hôtel Dieu, pictured above.  The building was formerly a medieval hospital, founded in 1443 in the Burgundy town of Beaune, and is now a museum. 

The wine auctioned comes from vineyards donated by benefactors over the centuries, the first of which dates back to 1457.  Today, the area owned by the Hospice totals around 60 hectares (150 acres), mostly planted with Pinot Noir, although there is some Chardonnay, too.  85% of the production of these vineyards is rated Premier Cru or Grand Cru. 

These days, the auction is organised by Christies and wines are sold by the barrel – traditional Burgundy-sized ‘pièces’, each holding 228 litres, just over 300 bottles (a fraction larger than a Bordeaux barrique).  Not surprisingly for such a prestigious event, hammer prices are usually well above normal commercial levels.  For example, last year’s top lot sold for 420000 euros and the entire auction of almost 800 barrels raised some 13.5 million euros (£12m, $16m).

If your budget won’t stretch to bidding for one of these lots but you have a strong stomach, the weekend is still worth a visit as it is also the occasion of ‘Les Trois Glorieuses’ – 3 great feasts held in and around the town on the Saturday evening before, on the Sunday night and on the Monday lunchtime.  It’s quite an occasion!

A Little Bit of Magic

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Conde Vimioso 1When I first saw the name on the bottle, Conde Vimioso, I thought it sounded like a magic spell that might be invoked in one of J.K.Rowling’s famous Harry Potter books.  But, no!  It’s a delightful, really juicy, everyday quaffing Portuguese red, full of flavours of sweet ripe blackberries, with some soft tannins and a longer finish than you could possibly expect from a £7.25 wine (available from The Wine Society).   

So, how can the producers make a wine of this quality at the price?  Perhaps part of the answer is that it’s only a Vinho Regional – the same level as Vin de Pays in France – and, as such, would be considered less prestigious than DOC, the local equivalent of Appellation Contrôlée. 

It comes from the Tejo region, which stretches inland from the capital, Lisbon, along the River Tagus (Tejo in Portuguese) and is an unusual blend of 4 varieties – 2 local: Touriga Nacional and Aragonez (also found in Spain as Tempranillo) – plus some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  The wine even gets 6 months barrel ageing and here, in an important area for oak trees, it really does mean ageing in barrels, not oak flavouring using oak chips as more commonly found in wines at this price.

So, regardless of the Harry Potter-like name, this wine’s unfashionable origin means that we can taste a delicious wine for a barely believable price.  Now, that really is a little bit of magic.