Dreaming of the Sea?

“The Sea Breeze” may seem a strange name for a wine.  But, in the case of Château La Négly’s La Brise Marine (to give the wine its French title), it’s not just a piece of marketing, there is definitely a reason behind it.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, without the cooling effect on the vines of the winds from the sea, this wine could never have been made – certainly not in the lovely aromatic, crisp style we found when we opened a bottle recently (available from Corks or Grape and Grind, around £16). 

Let me explain.  La Brise Marine is from vineyards near Narbonne in the Languedoc, that delightful, sun-drenched part of southern France.  However, summer temperatures here can top 40°C (104°F); indeed, a couple of years ago, a new French record high of 46°C (close to 115°F) was set in a village not far to the east of La Négly’s vineyards.  At these temperatures, vines struggle and often shut down completely to protect themselves.  The one saving factor is often a cooling sea breeze so, having vineyards in the Appellation of La Clape, less than 10 miles from the Mediterranean, allows La Brise Marine to be produced and the unusual naming reflects this. 

La Clape is an unusual limestone outcrop that was once an island (in fact, as recently as Roman times) and is quite distinct from the area surrounding. Unsurprisingly with the climate, most of the wines from here are reds – Grenache and Syrah dominating – but La Brise Marine is a white made from a blend of an ancient local grape variety, Bourboulenc, together with 2 imports from the southern Rhône Valley, Roussanne and Clairette.

Together they make a satisfying, quite full-bodied dry white with ripe pear and peach flavours and perhaps even a slightly saline tang – or am I just dreaming of the sea?

Red with Fish?

Choosing a wine to drink with a particular dish is a very personal thing – each of us has our own preferences.  So, I always advise drinking something you like rather than the wine that someone tells you is ‘right’ for the food.

But, if you keep an open mind, you can sometimes find a pleasant surprise – a combination that you would never have thought about that works perfectly.  And sometimes, it will be just the opposite!

We’ve been great fans of wines from the Sicilian producer Donnafugata since we were lucky enough to visit them on a wine tour many years ago.  Their ‘Sherazade’ (Corks, £15.99) is a delicious blackberry and herb flavoured red made using the local Nero d’Avola grape.  We usually drink it with lighter red meats like duck leg or, perhaps, a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish would work well with its slightly earthy flavours.

The bottle’s back label has an entirely different idea: “drink as an aperitif or pair with pasta dishes, grilled fish or pizza”.  We actually tasted a glass before our dinner so tested the ‘aperitif’ theory: both my wife and I thought it was OK but would go better with food.   As for pasta, it would rather depend on the accompanying sauce and the same with pizza – you can have all sorts of toppings, some would work others not.  And then there’s the grilled fish suggestion.  For me, this is a definite ‘no’.

Now, I’m not someone who says that only white wine goes with fish – I’m perfectly happy to drink dry rosé and certain reds with seafood, particularly with the more ‘meaty’ and robust fishes, such as tuna or swordfish.  But Sherazade is a red with (at present – we drank the 2019) quite significant tannins – one reason why it made a less than ideal aperitif.  Tannic reds will often taste quite metallic and unpleasant with fish dishes.  We didn’t try this bottle with any fish, but, from experience, I wouldn’t recommend the pairing. 

But, clearly, the winemaker would, so it all comes back to my 1st sentence: that wine and food pairing is a very personal thing.

Two Glasses of…..?

We opened a bottle of Muscadet recently.  It’s a wine I don’t often buy; many examples I’ve tasted have been rather thin and with unpleasantly high levels of acidity.  But there may also be another explanation for my reluctance which goes back to an embarrassing moment many years ago.

My wife and I were on holiday in northern France, not far from where Muscadet is produced.  Of course, we had to sample a glass of the local wine and so went into a small café.  I asked (in French) for “two glasses of Muscadet, please” pronouncing the name of the wine as we do in England: ‘muss-cad-day’.  The lady behind the counter repeated the “two glasses of” and then looked at me blankly.  I pointed to the bottle on the shelf behind her.  “Ah, it’s Muscadet, monsieur”.  She had said ‘moose-cad-day’ and it was clear that the 2 glasses in front of her on the counter would remain empty until I’d repeated the name and pronounced it correctly!

I’ve been rather anti-Muscadet ever since.  But I’ve seen a number of very favourable reviews of different bottles recently and I decided to swallow my pride and buy one: Le Clos du Château l’Oiselinière (Wine Society, £13.50).  I’m pleased I did.

My first surprise was that the wine was from the 2015 vintage.  Surely, I thought, Muscadet is a wine to drink young.  Would a 5 year old example still be drinkable or would it be way past its best?  I needn’t have worried.  The wine was delightfully fresh and attractive and with lots of complexity.  It had spent more than 2 years resting on its lees (the dead yeast cells that remain after the fermentation has ended) before being bottled and this had clearly mellowed the acidity.  It was now perfectly in harmony with clean, citrus flavours and a full, long finish.

Definitely a wine to look out for – however you pronounce its name.   

Portugal Transformed

Vines have been grown in Portugal for at least 2500 years and wine has been made for much of that period.  But the quality (with a few exceptions – mainly the fortified ports) was ordinary at best.  And that remained true until well into the last century.  It took a political coup in 1974 and Portugal subsequently joining the European Union (EU) before things really began to change.

As one of the poorest nations in Europe, Portugal benefited greatly from EU funding.  Roads and electricity reached parts of the country for the first time and, in the wine industry, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks transformed the winemaking process.  In the vineyards, too, major reorganisation and replanting occurred setting everything in place for the Portuguese wines we see on the shelves today.

Regions such as the Douro, Dão and Bairrada are, perhaps, the obvious choices, particularly for red wines, but the Alentejo, a vast swathe in the south of the country, hides some real surprises – see my recommendation below.

Portugal’s equivalent of ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ is ‘Denominaçáo de Origem Controlada’ (DOC), but you will also see the term ‘Vinho Regional’ (VR) on labels, which equates to the French ‘Vin de Pays’ and is a category that contains many very drinkable wines from producers who prefer to work outside the DOC rules.

I opened one of these VRs recently – a delicious, fruity red, Vinha do Mouro (Corks, £14.99).  A blend of local variety Trincadeira, Aragonez (Spain’s Tempranillo) and Alicante Bouschet with a hint of Cabernet Sauvignon for added tannin and body.  The wine had lovely dusty red fruits on the nose with vibrant blackberries and sour cherries on the palate.   Despite the warmth of the Alentejo, this wine retains plenty of acidity and would pair extremely well with red meat in a tomato-based sauce.

One last word: most Portuguese reds benefit from an hour or so in a decanter if you’re to enjoy them at their best.

Wine for Wine Haters?

Wines made from the grape variety Pinot Grigio have got themselves a bit of a poor reputation in recent years.  I’ve even heard them described by someone in the wine trade as ‘the wines I’d recommend for someone who didn’t really like wine’!  Ouch!

In a way I can see why.  Pinot Grigio, like another member of the Pinot family, Pinot Noir, is fairly sensitive to how it is handled, particularly in the vineyard.  If you train and prune the vines to give you a heavy crop and so make large volumes of wine, they will oblige.  But, if you do this, the grapes you pick will have little flavour or character and the wine you produce from them will be simple, neutral and inoffensive.  Hence the comment reported above.

Sadly, this is true of much – if not most – of the Pinot Grigio you find in UK supermarkets and my advice to wine lovers would be to avoid the cheaper bottles (say £7 or less – yes, that’s relatively cheap, these days).   

But it would be a mistake to ignore Pinot Grigio altogether.  Growers who limit their yields produce less wine but the quality can be far better, even though, as a result, the price will be rather higher.  So, where should you look for good Pinot Grigio?  If you enjoy Italian wine, then consider the north-east of the country – I’d say examples from the Alto Adige region are probably a more reliable choice than those from the Veneto.

Alternatively, the same grape is found in northern France, in Alsace, only here the variety is known as Pinot Gris, rather than Pinot Grigio.  One to try from there is Paul Ginglinger’s Les Prelats (Wine Society, £13.50).  But, a word of caution: this is not one of those simple, neutral Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigios.  It’s rich, deliciously mouth-coating and full of lovely ripe pear and apple flavours.  A perfect match to something cooked in a rich, creamy sauce or a risotto, perhaps.

Wherever you look, the rule for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is pay a little extra; you may be very pleasantly surprised.

Vines Love Gravel

Many of Bordeaux’s most sought-after wines are from vineyards planted on gravel-rich soils: the 1st Growth Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Margaux to name just 3.  But it’s not just in Bordeaux that gravel is highly regarded for vines.  A bottle I opened recently from New Zealand boasted of its origins in the Gimblett Gravels.  So, what is the link between this type of soil and high quality wine?

Gravel is a good base for a vineyard for a number of reasons.  It’s usually low in fertility which means that the vines have to struggle to extract the moisture and nutrients they need for growth.  This struggle puts the vine into survival mode, so it produces more grapes which contain the pips which are the vine’s way to propagate itself.

Also, gravel is porous so, in wetter areas, rainfall can drain through meaning that the vines’ roots aren’t sitting in water where they may rot.  But vines still need some water so they extend their roots to find it and, at the same time, pick up extra nutrients which are often linked to more flavoursome grapes.

Finally, in cooler areas, gravel acts like tiny storage heaters, soaking up the heat of the sun during the day then releasing it as the sun goes down in the evening allowing the ripening process to extend over a couple more hours.

This is particularly important in both Bordeaux and New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels – both are relatively cool areas where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown.  Cabernet is quite a late-ripening variety and needs all the warmth it can get, so the little extra from the gravelly soil may just make the difference allowing the harvesting of fully ripe berries giving a wine that’s rich and appealing.

This was clearly the case with Saint Clair’s Pioneer Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £17.99); full of lovely damson and black plum flavours and hints of smoky oak – a delicious wine, although some may want to leave the 2019 vintage for a year or 2 as the bottle I opened was still a little firm and tannic.

I have to finish on a sad note with the news of the death this week of Steven Spurrier after a career in the wine industry spanning more than 50 years. He was best known as a wine writer and educator, but he was also the person who, almost single-handedly, brought Californian wines to attention of the wider world. For anyone who doesn’t know the amazing story, google ‘The Judgement of Paris’.

Wine with Altitude

Every wine book will tell you that, if you want to grow grapes successfully to produce wine, your vineyards should lie between latitudes 30° and 50° north of the equator or the same south of the equator.  And, looking at the major wine making regions of the world, that is broadly true.  At lower latitudes than 30°, it’s likely to be too dry for vines to survive while, further from the equator than 50°, you’re rarely going to get enough warmth or sun to ripen your grapes properly. 

Taking this a stage further, the style of wine you can expect will vary enormously depending how close to the 30° or 50° line you are: big, chunky, ripe alcoholic wines come, in general, from the lower, warmer latitudes while something crisper, fresher and more aromatic is typical of wines grown closer to 50°.

But a bottle I opened recently didn’t fit these last 2 rules at all.  Tabali’s Barranco Viognier (Wine Society, £14.95) comes from Chile’s Limarí Valley, which sits almost exactly on the warm 30°S line, yet this wine was delightfully fresh and clean with attractive flavours of ripe pear, red apple and a little fragrant peachiness. And, although 13.5% alcohol, this was in no way heavy or chunky, just nicely mouth-coating.

So how have Tabali achieved characteristics typical of much cooler climates at such a latitude?  The answer is altitude; the Río Hurtado vineyard, from where the grapes for this wine come, lies at 1600 metres above sea level (almost 5000 feet) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.  At that height, despite benefitting from 300 days of sunshine a year, the temperatures are far cooler than they would be closer to sea level and, as a result, the grapes ripen more slowly and retain that vital streak of acidity that make this wine so refreshing and drinkable.  One maybe to enjoy on its own but, even better, to accompany either fish or poultry in a creamy sauce or, perhaps, a pasta carbonara.

Wine Quiz: The Answers

Last time, I set you a wine quiz to test your knowledge and, hopefully keep you amused for a little while.  Those who tried the questions are, I’m sure, keen to know the answers and find out how well they did.

Question 1: The grapes used to make Prosecco are grown in vineyards about 50 miles north of Venice so answer (b) is correct.

Question 2: Margaret River is in Western Australia and so grapes from there could not be included in a bottle labelled ‘Wine of South-East Australia’.  Answer (c) is the one you were looking for.

Question 3: The highest altitude commercial vineyard in the world is Colomé Altura in northern Argentina at 3111m (10206 ft) above sea level.  Answer (d) is correct.

Question 4: Answer (a) Sicily – it not only produces the most wine of any Mediterranean island, it also produces more than the total of the other 3 islands named in the question taken together.

Question 5: Rosado, Blush and Chiaretto are all terms for rosé wine.  The odd one out is therefore (d) Tinto, which signifies a red wine in Spain and Portugal.

Question 6: I share my birth year with the first vintage of Penfolds Grange, so, although I would like the answer to be either (a), (b) or (c), the correct answer is (d) 1950s (and I’ll leave those of you who are interested to Google the actual year!)

Question 7: the ‘Chateau’ part of the name may sound French but Musar is actually Lebanon’s most famous wine.  You were looking for answer (c).

Question 8: Vintage Champagne must age for a minimum period of 3 years before it can be sold, so the most recent vintage you might find to buy now, in early 2021, is (c) 2017.  Earlier vintages will, of course, still be available but the 2018 and subsequent vintages are still ageing.

Question 9: The word ‘Trocken’ in German means dry so answer (c) is correct.  But beware: you might also see the word ‘trockenbeeren’ on a label which translates as ‘dried berries’ and a wine made from dried berries will usually be sweet.

Question 10: you are looking for answer (d) Luxembourg.  Citizens of that country consume an average of more than 60 litres of alcohol per person per year.  By comparison, here in the UK, the figure is 24.

So, how did you do?  If you got 9 or 10 correct: you are a Grand Cru wine quizzer; 7 or 8: Premier Cru; 5 or 6: Cru Bourgeois; 3 or 4: Vin Ordinaire; Less than 3: so long as you enjoy your wine, does it really matter?

Hope this quiz kept you amused and interested. Take Care and Stay Safe.

A Wine Quiz

With the current Covid restrictions likely to continue for a few more weeks at least, I thought you might like a little wine quiz to keep yourselves amused and your brains active during these difficult times.  I’ve given you 4 possible answers for each of the questions.  It’s just for fun and there are no prizes.  

  1. The vineyards used to make Prosecco are closest to which of these Italian cities?  (a) Milan (b) Venice (c) Rome (d) Turin

2. Wine from which of these areas could not be included in a bottle labelled ‘Wine of South-East Australia’?  (a) Adelaide Hills (b) Riverina (c) Margaret River (d) Barossa Valley

3. The highest altitude commercial vineyards in the world are found in which country?  (a) Algeria (b) Switzerland (c) Georgia (d) Argentina

4. Which of these Mediterranean islands produces most wine?  (a) Sicily (b) Sardinia (c) Corsica (d) Crete

5. Which of the following is the odd one out?  (a) Rosado (b) Blush (c) Chiaretto (d) Tinto

6. The iconic Australian red wine, Penfolds Grange, was first produced in which decade?  (a) 1980s (b) 1970s (c) 1960s (d) 1950s

7. Chateau Musar was first introduced to the UK public at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1978, but where is it produced?  (a) France (b) South Africa (c) Lebanon (d) Israel

8. By law, producers of Vintage Champagne must age it for a period of time before sale.  What is the most recent vintage of Champagne that you might find to buy now, in early 2021?  (a) 2015 (b) 2016 (c) 2017 (d) 2018

9. The word ‘Trocken’ on a German wine label indicates what sort of wine?  (a) Aged in oak barrels (b) Sparkling (c) Dry (d) Delicate and slightly sweet

10. Based on alcohol consumed per head of the population, which of the following countries contains the keenest drinkers?  (a) UK (b) Denmark (c) Croatia (d) Luxembourg

I’ll give you the answers next time.  Happy Thinking and Stay Safe. 

Rosé – in February?

It’s often said that rosé is the perfect wine for summer.  So, why am I writing about it on a bitterly cold February day?

A couple of nights ago, we were about to cook some lovely tuna steaks that we’d bought from our local fishmonger.  The sauce we had prepared to go with them – a mixture of tomatoes, basil and capers – was slowly cooking away and smelt heavenly.  The flavours reminded us of Mediterranean holidays and of the sort of dishes we had enjoyed eating there.  As we were reminiscing and drinking in the smells, Hilary, my wife, suggested how well the dish would go with a glass of wine.  It didn’t take long for me to agree, even though it was a Wednesday and we don’t normally open a bottle mid-week, apart from on special occasions.

With those aromas and our thoughts, the wine just had to be from the Mediterranean.  And with tuna and that type of sauce, a rosé was the obvious choice – even though the weather outside was distinctly un-rosé.

Santa Tresa Rosé (Majestic, £10.99) from Sicily is attractively smoky with soft raspberry fruit flavours and a clean, fresh finish, typical of so many rosés you find around the south of France, Italy and the Mediterranean islands.  It is also beautifully dry which made it an excellent accompaniment to our tuna in sauce.  A blend of 2 high quality local grapes – Nero d’Avola and Frappato – both of which can also make delicious red wines; for the rosé, the juice spends just a few hours in contact with the skins to give a lovely delicate pink colour before being gently pressed and for the fermentation to complete – the juice alone – as it would for a white wine.

So, rosé may be the perfect wine for summer – but it’s also perfect for forgetting about winter and dreaming of better things.