A Birthday Celebration


2016-10-19-09-34-50You may not think a trip to a vineyard would be anything special or unusual for my wife – we’ve visited many together over the years (“too many”, do I hear?) – but that’s exactly how she asked to spend her birthday recently.  And not even a vineyard in some exotic location!  We travelled barely 40 miles (65km) north of Bristol to Three Choirs Vineyard, close to the town of Newent in Gloucestershire.

We’ve been to Three Choirs a number of times and watched it develop into what it is today: one of England’s largest vineyards with some 30 hectares (75 acres) of vines growing at least a dozen different grape varieties.  From these, Martin Fowke, their well-respected and multi-award winning winemaker, blends a range of wines available in their on-site shop and restaurant as well as on-line.

The restaurant gives you the chance to taste the wines and see how well they work with food.  We sampled four during our 2 night stay: the Classic Cuvée is an elegant, Traditional Method sparkling wine that makes a very pleasant aperitif, while Coleridge Hill is a light, dry, fragrant and easy-drinking white for fish or chicken.  Ravens Hill is the surprise package – a proper English red!  Understandably light-bodied but with aromas and flavours of damsons and pepper, you could easily take this for a good Valpolicella.  And finally, perhaps even rarer, the gently sweet Late Harvest is a good partner for a delicate fruity- or creamy-dessert.

But the real bonus is that, after dinner, you can stay overnight; choose a room close to the restaurant and winery or, for the more adventurous (like us!) one of the individual wooden lodges right in the middle of the vineyards.  There’s little to compare with waking up in the morning to a view of vines touched by the morning sun, changing to their autumn colour and framed by trees, followed by a short walk through the vines to breakfast.   

In many countries, vineyards are now offering accommodation and meals to those who want to get close to where their favourite wine is made – try one – you won’t regret it!

Valpolicella: So Misunderstood


valpolicellaSay the name ‘Valpolicella’ to many wine lovers and you’re likely to hear a fairly negative reaction.  I take a different view: Yes, there’s a glut of pretty ordinary examples among the bargain basement offerings on supermarket shelves and these have caused Valpolicella’s reputation to suffer in recent years.  But, leave those alone (and pay a few £s more) and you’ll find some delightful, fresh and deliciously fruity reds that are ideal for drinking on their own or with, for example, a seared tuna steak.

My suggested food match is a key to what you should expect from this red wine from the Veneto region of northern Italy: it’s a delicate red, not heavy or chunky but light-bodied, refreshing and easy drinking.  You can even chill it for a summer picnic.  One of the best producers is Allegrini whose wines bring out all the lovely bitter black cherry flavours that are so typical of a good Valpolicella (available from Bristol’s Grape & Grind, £12.50 or the Wine Society, £10.95).  This wine is now available under screw cap after Allegrini fought a long battle with the regional authorities who were insisting on cork closures.

Just as you need to take care to avoid poor examples of Valpolicella, there are a number of very different wines with similar names:  Amarone della Valpolicella is made in the same region, but using partially dried grapes to give a much fuller, richer and robust wine, while if you see the word ‘Ripasso’ on the label alongside Valpolicella, this is a kind of halfway house between the two – but still much bigger in style than a simple example.  And finally, Recioto della Valpolicella is a sweet wine.  All these can be delicious, but check the label carefully to see you’re buying the style you want – and, above all, avoid the ultra-cheapies that have so damaged the reputation of these attractive, but misunderstood wines.

A Dream Comes True


I guess that many Bristol Wine Blog readers have lists of ‘dream’ wines – bottles that they’d love to taste at least once in their lives.  Sadly, by their very nature, ‘dream’ bottles are often either fantastically expensive or incredibly rare – frequently both.  So dreams remain dreams.

But, just once in a while, an opportunity comes along and a dream becomes reality.  And that’s what happened for me recently thanks to a tasting organised jointly by the Bristol Tasting Circle and the West of England Wine and Spirit Association.  Our speaker was Christian Seely, Managing Director of AXA Millésimes, who brought along a selection of wines and ports from their multiple award-winning estate, Quinta do Noval, including one of my dream wines, Nacional Vintage Port.


What’s so special about Nacional?  It’s produced from a single, wonderfully sited vineyard of just 2 hectares (4½ acres) where all the vines still remain on their own rootstocks (so, not grafted onto American rootstocks, as most vines are, to guard against the deadly phylloxera bug).  Output of Nacional Port is tiny – just 3100 bottles of the 2003 vintage – the one we tasted – were produced and demand always exceeds supply many times over.

Did it live up to my dreams?  You bet it did!  Although still young (good ports can easily last 50 years), it showed marvellous concentration of fruit – damsons, plums, cloves and just so much more.  Truly, a once in a lifetime treat!

And though my attention was, understandably, on the Nacional, it wasn’t the only superb bottle on show: we also tasted the regular 2003 Vintage Port (from other Noval vineyards) and a tawny from the same year; either would have been the star of most tastings, as would Noval’s Douro red wine: unfortified and made from the same grape varieties as the ports, this would be a perfect match with robust food.  But the Nacional was just in a different league.

And just a mention for Bristol readers: the Douro will be one of the subjects of ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’, a 5 week course (Wednesday evenings) at Stoke Lodge starting in November during which we will be talking about (and tasting, of course) a selection of wines reflecting the title.  For more details: http://www.bristolcourses.com

Too Warm? Too Cool?


“What’s the right temperature for serving my wine?”  One of those tricky questions I’m often asked.  My usual reply: “whatever temperature you enjoy” rarely ends the conversation.  But it’s true.  Each of us has our own preferences; take a friend of ours – she prefers her white wines much cooler than I would want to serve them, so cool, in fact, that I think much of the flavour is lost. We’ll never agree – but that’s true for so much in wine.

But, back to the original question.  The guidelines recommended by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) allow for individual tastes and so quote a range of temperatures for each different type of wine.  So, for example, they suggest sparkling wines should be served well chilled (6 – 10°C, 43 – 50°F), light-bodied whites and rosés a degree or so warmer and fuller-bodied and oaked whites a little warmer still, say 10 – 13°C, 50 – 55°F.  Unless you’ve got a temperature-controlled wine fridge, you’ll need to experiment a bit, but a half an hour to an hour in a domestic fridge should be about right.

And for reds?  You’ve probably heard the advice about serving at room temperature.  But, when that was first suggested, it was before centrally-heated houses were common and rooms were usually far cooler than we would expect today.   WSET suggest around 15 – 18°C (59 – 64°F) for most reds but with lighter-bodied examples, such as Beaujolais and Valpolicella, lightly chilled to around 13°C, 55°F.

A bottle I opened recently took the idea of correct temperature to a whole new level with a touch-sensitive heat guide on the label. 

temperature-indicatorWakefield’s Clare Valley Shiraz (Majestic, £8.99) has a lovely, fresh black cherry nose with attractive dried fruits – dates and prunes – and spice on a rich and full palate.  A delicious, flavoursome wine, perfect with game, red meat or hard cheeses – even if we did serve it ‘too warm’ according to the temperature guide on the bottle!

The Judgement of Paris Revisited


judgement-dinnerBack in May, Bristol Wine Blog remembered a famous event in the wine world that had occurred 40 years earlier, in 1976: the tasting that has come to be known as the ‘Judgement of Paris’.   A young Englishman, Steven Spurrier, living and working in Paris, invited a group of renowned French judges – restauranteurs, producers and wine writers – to compare (blind) a selection of top Californian wines – Chardonnays and Cabernets – with leading Burgundies and Bordeaux. The expectation was that the French wines would win easily.  Only it didn’t work out like that!

So, what would happen if a similar tasting took place today?  Great Western Wines in conjunction with Bath’s Allium Restaurant decided to find out.  They organised an anniversary dinner including recent vintages of the 2 winning wines, the most prestigious of the losers and, to make things interesting, a couple of other ‘mystery’ wines.  With the chance to taste such potential delights, my wife and I were quick to book tickets.

The dinner, good though it was, was always going to play second fiddle to the tastings which, mimicking the original event, comprised a group of  Chardonnays and another of Cabernet Sauvignons (or Cabernet dominated blends), all, of course, tasted blind.  Everyone present was invited to vote for their 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each category and the results were added up.   

Among the Chardonnays, the Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru ‘Les Pucelles’ (£210) gained revenge on the Chateau Montelena Napa Chardonnay (£43.50) this time, but both were beaten by the 3rd wine, Koo Yong’s Faultline Chardonnay from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula (£29.50).

The story was the same with the Cabernet Sauvignons.   Stag’s Leap SLV (£98) from California failed to repeat its earlier success.  Indeed, it, too, finished 3rd in its group behind the winning Château Mouton-Rothschild (£400) and the Cyril Henschke from Eden Valley in South Australia (£62).

A wonderful evening and a rare opportunity to taste some great wines – several at prices that I wouldn’t normally think of spending on a single bottle.  But, perhaps, more importantly, the chance to be part of an event commemorating a tasting that changed the face of the wine world for ever.

(The prices shown are those quoted by Great Western Wine.  For more information, email them at wine@greatwesternwine.co.uk).

New and Novel


2016-09-26-08-36-18There’s a new kid in town.  Well, to be precise, in Bath, a few miles down the road.  And that’s where I went recently for the launch party of Novel Wines, a new independent wine merchant specialising, as their publicity suggests, in undiscovered wine.  Or, to put it another way, in countries that might not be top of everyone’s list.

This, to me, should be the role of merchants such as Novel Wines:  to source interesting bottles from passionate, artisan winemakers whose output often is too small for the high street chains or supermarkets.  And, because these independents can take time to get to know their customers and their preferences, they can hand-sell wines outside the mainstream that would otherwise be passed by.   As you might guess, I’m a big fan of these small-scale businesses.  We’re lucky in Bristol with Corks, Grape and Grind, Clifton Cellars and DBM Wines (and a few others) already well established – and, from first experience, Novel Wines look to be a worthy addition.

Their main focus is on Central and South-Eastern Europe with interesting selections from Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, but they’ve also found a few real exotics: wines from Thailand, Japan and India, for example.  And, they’ve got one of the best ranges of English and Welsh wines I’ve seen anywhere.

With over 100 wines open for tasting at their launch party, it was impossible to try everything (although, no doubt, some tried!), but, of those I tasted, my top 3 were Tibor Gal’s lovely red-fruited Titi Bikaver (£12.90) from Hungary, the black fruits and spice of Vina Koslovic’s Teran from Croatia (£11.90) and the soft, harmonious Tower of Dracula Feteasca Neagra – nice wine, shame about the name! – from Romania (£12.50).

If you’d like to give these, or any of their others a try, you can contact them on www.novelwines.co.uk or on Facebook or Twitter.



White Wine from Red Grapes?


2016-09-07-12-06-12We’re all familiar with wines made from Merlot – not surprisingly, as it’s the 2nd mostly widely planted wine grape variety in the world after Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s, perhaps, best known as one of the key red wine grapes of Bordeaux, but at least a dozen countries have major plantings of the variety and, despite the views of one of the principals in the film “Sideways”, it’s often responsible for some excellent red wines.

Yet, as I mentioned last time in my Bristol Wine Blog, in Switzerland’s Ticino region, where Merlot represents 80% of the plantings, they don’t just use it for red wines in a number of different styles, but also for a little rosé and even some white wines.  So how does that work?

Pick up any wine grape and squeeze it and, with very few exceptions, the juice will be colourless (even if the skin is black).  So, by separating the juice quickly from the skins and fermenting it alone, you can easily make white wine from dark skinned grapes.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is Champagne where 2 of the grapes used – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – are both dark-skinned.  But, leave the juice from black grapes in contact with the skins for a few hours and you get rosé, for a few days or longer and the result is red wine.  So, in theory, white Cabernet Sauvignon or white Shiraz is quite possible – although I’ve never seen one – but white Merlot: in the Ticino, certainly!

And the taste?  The white Merlots we had were refreshing, pleasant quaffing wines; interesting as novelty value, but no more.  Clearly, the character of Merlot comes from the skin-contact and the red wine making process.  But, if that’s the grape variety you grow, it makes sense to make the most of it.

By the way, if you’re wondering about red Chardonnay or Riesling, don’t!  They’re both light-skinned varieties, so there’s nothing to tint the juice red.