So much more than Rioja


Spain is one of the most exciting countries in the world today for wine lovers. The changes that have taken place over a generation are immense but, because most customers haven’t yet realised how much Spanish wines have improved, prices are still very reasonable for the quality. And it’s not just the traditional favourites like Rioja and sherry (good though they still are), but everywhere you look, there are dedicated, skilled winemakers making appealing wines, many using little-known native grape varieties.

Spanish Tasting 4So, when the super, friendly Library Wine Bar on Bristol’s Cheltenham Road decided to hold a Spanish wine tasting recently (accompanied by a selection of their own tapas, of course), I was keen to join in. The evening was hosted by Diego and Bea of Iberian Drinks, who specialise in importing wines from small-scale, often organic, producers from all over Spain (plus a few from Portugal, too). And they have certainly found some winners; here are my highlights:

A beautifully clean, bone dry Cava from El Celleret (£13.40) was a perfect start to the evening. Cava is often seen as Champagne’s poor relation, but not here; this was really light, delicate and moreish. A pair of contrasting whites from one of my favourite wine regions, Gallicia, followed – Alter (£14.20), a fragrant, refreshing blend of local grapes Treixadura and Godello and the richer, more complex 7 Cepas Alboriño (£13.20).

Spain is, perhaps, better-known for its reds and particularly, Rioja. But a rather unusual example was on show here. Viña Santurnia (£10.65) is made in the style of a Beaujolais – light, fruity and very drinkable, even chilled. Altogether more serious was the smoky, black-fruited Lavia (£14.25) from Bullas in the hills of Murcia – perfect with some slow cooked lamb, I’d suggest.

We finished with a selection of fortified wines and liqueurs. I loved the wonderfully clean, delicately sweet Moscatel from Bodegas Alvear (£9.50). A really lively and entertaining evening with some outstanding wines. Even the two delightful Spanish ladies we shared a table with were impressed!

All the wines mentioned are available locally in Viandas Spanish Deli on Park Row.

Drink it or Keep it?


How long after buying your wine do you drink it? For many, the answer will be ‘a few hours’ – they mainly buy wine to drink the same day. For others, a few days, perhaps a week or two is the norm. I don’t fit either of these patterns; I usually buy our wine in mixed cases so some bottles will be opened quickly, the rest might sit in the wine rack for months. That’s not a problem; indeed, some wines keep improving for months, even years, before they reach their peak (and many of those will be sold out long before best time to drink them, which means you need to get in early).

So, how do I know that a wine might need time? I’m afraid it’s often down to past experience although there are a number of sources that might help – Hugh Johnson’s annual Pocket Wine Book is quite useful and your local wine merchant should be able to advise, too. But, if you want to keep wine for, say, a few years, you need to put it somewhere with a relatively cool, even temperature where it won’t be disturbed. Serious collectors may go for a wine fridge or professional storage but I manage very well with a couple of racks in a handy, dark corner under the stairs, well away from any radiators.

Cissac 08And it was from one of those racks that I recently pulled out a bottle of Chateau Cissac 2008 that, judging by the dust on it, I must have had for 3 or 4 years, at least. I opened a bottle last year and it was still quite tannic, so made a note to try again this year. This time, I decanted it well in advance to release the aromas and flavours. It was everything you’d expect from a good quality red Bordeaux – quite lean, restrained black fruits and that classic dry, savoury character. The tannins, by now, were quite well integrated and there was a longish, dry, but slightly sour finish.

It had been worth keeping and, from this tasting, there’s no hurry to drink up any similar 2008 Bordeaux you might have stored. Happily, I’ve still got another, which I’ll probably leave under the stairs until next year.

Back to School


Stoke Lodge 5

It’s September and back to school time for the kids. But how about us adults? We can still learn something new, too. And what better subject than wine? I’ve already started running this term’s lectures here in Bristol for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust but that’s quite serious, intense stuff aimed at would-be wine professionals. Perhaps better suited to those who enjoy a glass of wine but want to know a little more are my classes at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. Each runs for just a single Saturday from 11 am to around 4pm during which time we’ll talk about (and taste, of course!) wines based on a particular theme.

The sessions I’ve currently got planned are:-

3rd October: Introduction to Wine Appreciation – a gentle start for those who haven’t been to a wine course before and want to know if it’s for them.

28th November: Wines for Christmas – a look at some high quality wines you might serve to your guests at a celebratory meal.

30th January 2016: Supermarket Wines – these have improved vastly in recent years but what are the good buys and what are the pitfalls to avoid?

5th March 2016: The Hidden Corners of Italy – a look at some of the lesser-known wines from one of the most diverse wine countries of the world.

23rd April 2016: From Grape to Glass – this follows the path that your wine takes from the vine to your table and highlights some of the key factors that make one wine different from another.

Booking in advance is essential for all of these courses. You can do so on line at or by phoning Stoke Lodge on 0117 903 8844. The cost is £30 per person at the time of booking plus the cost of the wines opened during the day will be shared between all on the course (this will be not more than £12 per person for each of the courses apart from the Christmas session which will be not more than £20, but which reflects the higher cost of the wines involved for that day).

If you have any questions, please use the reply section below or leave a message on my Facebook Page “Wine Talks and Tastings”. I look forward to meeting some of you.

The Heart of the Loire


Loire Cab FrWe’re just back from a week in Saumur, a delightful, historic town set in beautiful scenery on the banks of the River Loire in France. Plenty to see, plenty to do and the lovely warm weather we enjoyed was a real bonus. And, as many Bristol Wine Blog readers will undoubtedly be aware, Saumur is in the heart of one of France’s most important and diverse wine regions. Two – sadly under-rated – grape varieties are responsible for virtually all the local wines: the whites – whether crisp and dry, lusciously sweet or somewhere in-between – are made from Chenin Blanc, while Cabernet Franc is used for the most food-friendly dry rosés and light, flavoursome, attractive reds. And with some inexpensive sparkling wines too, the region really has got most bases covered.

But what about the quality? With every café and restaurant wine list focussing almost exclusively on local bottles (as they should) and our visit coinciding with the Saumur wine fair (I didn’t know that in advance – honestly!), we took every opportunity to do some sampling. And we were rarely disappointed. Wines here, as in much of France, are mainly labelled by place, rather than grape variety and names to look for include whites from Vouvray, Savennières and Saumur itself and reds from Chinon, Saumur-Champigny and Bourgeuil. The local sparkling Saumur can be pleasant (Crémant de Loire is usually a better option), but the rosés, as we expected, were a bit of a mixed bag; some are delightfully fresh and appetising, others, including the popular Rosés d’Anjou are, in the main, best avoided. Sweet wines lovers, however, are in for a real treat with some delightful – and not expensive – examples from Coteaux de Layon, in particular.

I haven’t mentioned specific producers in this Blog as many of the wines we tasted were from small-scale growers who sell all their wine in the area and don’t export to the UK. But good wine merchants here – and even larger branches of supermarkets – should have some bottles from this part of the Loire. Based on our experience, they are certainly worth searching out.

Wines from Paradise


The area around Northern Italy’s Lake Garda is a winemaker’s paradise. It has an ideal climate for vine growing and some high quality local grape varieties. Yet, if I mention some of the best-known wines of the area – Bardolino, Valpolicella and Soave – you might wonder about my suggestion of a paradise. And you’d be right; this is a part of Italy where, sadly, you’re far more likely to find a disappointing bottle than a great one. But it really shouldn’t be like that.

The reason why it often is, is that the production of Valpolicella and Soave, in particular, has risen dramatically in recent years in response to increasing demand for recognisable names. This has encouraged some growers to go for higher yields (making more wine from a given volume of grapes) or to expand onto less suitable land. The result is wines that, although relatively cheap, have lost much of their character. To really experience the quality and true taste of Valpolicella and Soave, my advice is to look for the word ‘Classico’ on the labels. This indicates that the wine comes from the original (and best) areas of land where many of the better producers – like Allegrini and Pieropan, for example – are still situated.


Or you could turn your attention to another part of Lake Garda, to a far less well-known wine area a few miles to the south, close to the peninsula on which the historic town of Sirmione stands. Here, you’ll find the attractive white wines of Lugana (not to be confused with those of Lugano in the Swiss Ticino). Zenato produce a good example (Waitrose, remarkable value at £9.99); fresh and tangy with flavours of pineapple, apricots and herbs, this would make a lovely aperitif but is rich and full enough to pair with fish or chicken with creamy sauces.

I stay with my suggestion that the area around Lake Garda is a winemaker’s paradise but you need to be really selective to choose wines that are a true reflection of the idyllic conditions.

The Delights of Tempranillo


Tempranillo – according to the most recent survey, the 4th most widely planted wine grape variety in the world (what are the top 3? see below for answers). And, in my view, it deserves that position, producing lovely, soft, fruity reds almost everywhere it’s grown. So, where is it grown? There’s a little planted across the New World, especially in Argentina, and some in Portugal (where it’s known as Tinta Roriz or Aragonez, depending where in the country you are), but the vast majority of Tempranillo is found in just one country: its native home – Spain. You’ll find it under quite a few different names there: Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto de Toro, Cencibel and Ull de Llebre among them. But let’s just stick with Tempranillo (“temp-ran-eel-yo”).

Despite there being so much of it planted, you don’t see its name on labels that often, but if you’ve ever enjoyed a glass of red Rioja (and which wine lover hasn’t?), then you’ve been drinking Tempranillo, possibly in a blend with Garnacha and some other local grapes, possibly on its own.

The name Tempranillo comes from the Spanish word ‘temprano’ which means early, as in early ripening – which is particularly important in one of the grape’s main centres of planting in Spain: Ribera del Duero. Here, at altitudes of up to 800m (2600 ft) above sea level, the growing season is very short with baking hot days followed by cold, sometimes almost freezing nights. A later ripening grape couldn’t cope, but Tempranillo thrives with the cooler nights helping to preserve the acidity in the grapes, resulting in better balanced wines.

Capellanes Ribera del Duero
To see what I mean, try Pago de los Capellanes (Great Western Wine, £14.95) a lovely, velvety smooth red with delicious raspberry fruit and beautifully soft tannins. Perfect with grilled lamb or roast guinea fowl with porcini.

And finally, for those of you who have been wondering about the question I posed earlier: if you said 1st: Cabernet Sauvignon, 2nd: Merlot, 3rd: Airen (a local Spanish white variety), congratulations! Or did you read it a while back in Bristol Wine Blog?

The Rise of Marlborough Sauvignon


There can be few wines more easily recognisable in the glass than a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – from the first sniff of vibrant tropical fruits, the crisp, refreshing not-quite-dry palate through to the tangy, clean finish. It just couldn’t be anything else. This ease of recognition would be surprising for any wine but it is simply amazing when you know that the first Sauvignon vines were only planted in this sunny corner of New Zealand’s South Island just over 40 years ago. Before that, the area was mainly given over to sheep farming.

But a few pioneering locals saw the potential alternative use of the land and, when Australian David Hohnen arrived and created his iconic Cloudy Bay brand, Marlborough Sauvignon was firmly established on the international wine map. Of course, Cloudy Bay still exists – and much more widely available than it once was – but now, it’s far from the only example of the style worth looking out for as I found out when I opened a bottle of Ara’s Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Waitrose, £10.99).
NZ Sauv BlThe unmistakeable nose was followed by a palate full of character with the distinctive, refreshing crispness enhanced with hints of peach, lime and grapefruit. Delicious! This is a wine that can easily be enjoyed without food, although I find it also pairs well with fish in a citrus-flavoured sauce (lemon or lime) or with mildly spicy Thai or Chinese dishes.

Clearly, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t appeal to everyone. Critics describe the flavours as too intense or the wines rather one-dimensional. But many of those growing the variety are still relative newcomers to the scene and a large proportion of the vines are very young. Even so, already, a number of producers are experimenting with differing winemaking techniques like subtle oak ageing or blending with other grape varieties to develop more complex styles.

So the rise of Marlborough Sauvignon will certainly continue. Who knows what it will have become by the time it celebrates its 50th year?