Wine from Crete anyone?

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A visit to the Greek island of Crete a while back gave us the chance to explore its fascinating history and culture and, of course, its wine. Many of the grape varieties grown on the island are found nowhere else – not even on the Greek mainland – and I was keen to try some Kotsifali or Liatiko (both reds) and the whites, Vilana and Vidiano. Of course, the local restauranteurs were all happy to serve someone taking an interest – and, at just a few euros a bottle, I could hardly go wrong.

Crete wineI came home with a very positive impression of Crete’s wines but, not surprisingly, found hardly anything I had tried there back here. Until, that is, the latest Wine Society catalogue dropped through my letter box. There it was – the Klima Vidiano from Karavitakis’ winery in Chania (at £9.95, rather more expensive than I’d paid in Crete, but with over a third of the UK price going in tax, that’s to be expected).

But how often have you loved a wine you’ve tasted while on holiday and found it wasn’t as good as you remember when you open it at home? That’s the key test! Well, this one didn’t disappoint at all! It was beautifully perfumed – apricots, peaches, a hint of lychee, almost like a mini-Gewurztraminer. A good aperitif with plenty of herby freshness, but it was also rich and full enough in the mouth to make it an excellent food wine: a creamy turkey stroganoff in our case. Do look out for it – and other wines from Crete. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed either.

And a date for your diary: to celebrate English Wine Week which runs from 23 to 31 May, there will be a tasting of English wines at the Bordeaux Quay restaurant on Bristol’s harbourside on Thursday 28 May from 5pm to 7pm. Tickets are £10 each and are available by emailing Guy Smith on Guy@bibelotwine.co.uk. Many English vineyards will be running special events and some restaurants will be featuring English wines during the week. For full details, google ‘English wine week’ and follow any of the links.

Don’t Forget Italy’s Whites

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When you think of quality Italian wines, it’s probably their reds that come to mind first: Chianti, Barolo, Barbaresco. But what about their whites? Sadly, most of the famous names have got a bit of a mixed reputation: Soave, Orvieto, Frascati, Pinot Grigio. You can find the occasional stunning bottles of any of those (try one of Pieropan’s Soaves if you don’t believe me!) but, more often than not, they’re pleasant, everyday drinking at best.

But, look beyond these and you’ll find that Italy is more than capable of producing really attractive, appealing whites, too. And, being Italy, they go wonderfully with food. One of my favourites is Cantina Terlan’s Pinot Bianco (Corks of Cotham, £14.99) and Tesco’s Finest Fiano is a real bargain at £7.99. The thing these 2 wines have in common is that they are both from unfashionable parts of Italy – the Alto Adige in the far north and Sicily, respectively. And it’s another lesser-known region that provides the wine in the picture.

VerdicchioSartarelli’s Classico (again Corks of Cotham, £11.99) comes from the area of the Castelli di Jesi in the Marche not far from the Adriatic coast around Ancona. It’s made from a lovely – and under-rated – local grape variety called Verdicchio which gives it a fresh, citrusy fragrance and taste. The wine is bone-dry but its rich, mouth-filling character means it’s in no way tart or aggressive. It finishes long with hints of almonds and cloves. We teamed it with a baked trout from our nearby Chew Valley Lake and it went beautifully, but chicken or a risotto would work just as well.

Some good friends of ours have just bought a house near where this wine comes from. I wonder if they’ve discovered it yet?

Small is Beautiful

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One of the great pleasures of exploring a wine-producing area is discovering a passionate, small-scale grower producing wonderful wines. They’re not always easy to find and, unless you go armed with recommendations, there will be many disappointments along the way. The question is, how do you spot the star producers and give the others nearby a miss? That’s been the aim of Bristol-based wine importer, Vine Trail, since their founding a quarter of a century ago and they’ve become pretty skilled at it.

I’ve been to a number of their tastings over the years, including recently at the Bristol Tasting Circle, where Lionel, a long-standing friend of the Circle, presented a selection of wines from lesser-known parts of the south-west of France. And, as Lionel pointed out, ‘lesser-known’ often means great value. The opening white, Domaine San de Guilhem’s Côtes de Gascogne (£7.60) was certainly a bargain; clean, fresh and with a lovely tang of grapefruit on the nose and palate, this would make a delicious aperitif or picnic wine.

Vine Trails tastingThe reds were a fascinating assortment and included 2 wines from purely local grape varieties: Domaine Laurens’ lovely bitter cherry-fruited Marcillac (£9.70) is made with Fer Servadou while Negrette is the grape in Colombière’s Fronton (£11.50) with its flavours of violets and aromatic black fruit.

Malbec will be familiar to many from its success in Argentina, but it’s actually native to south-west France and has been grown in Cahors for generations but, surely, rarely better than at Domaine la Bérangeraie. Their Nuits des Rossignols (£13.20) was already very drinkable 2 years after the harvest, but the tannin showed it was still a long way off its peak and will, doubtless, be a real delight in another 3 or 4 years.

And then there were the sweet wines. I’m a long-time fan of Jurançon – Clos Thou’s was a fine example (£17.95), but Domaine Rotier’s Late Harvest Gaillac (£16.80) trumped it with its wonderful orange blossom nose and intense honeyed flavours.

All these wines are available (minimum 1 mixed case) from Vine Trail, http://www.vinetrail.co.uk.

Pioneers of Wine

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The Port of Bristol’s connection with the wine trade goes back centuries. Our ancient ties to Bordeaux and Oporto – cities whose names are synonymous with wine – are kept alive by being twinned with them and commemorated in the names of the quays along our waterfront. And the world’s best-selling sherry, Harveys Bristol Cream, was first blended here in Victorian times and still bears the city’s name.

Harveys was one of many wine merchants in Bristol in the mid-1800s – a trade directory of the time listed 35. Most stopped trading long ago but, when Harveys finally closed their doors in the city 12 years ago, just one of these traditional names survived: Averys. And it was in their historic cellars that we enjoyed a unique tasting. The theme, entirely appropriate, was ‘Pioneering Wine in Bristol’. Hosted by Mimi Avery, as part of Bristol’s ‘Food Connections’ Festival, she had able assistance from octogenarian, Julian Jeffs, probably the greatest living expert on sherry and Christopher Fielden – a mere 45 years in the wine trade but still counting.

Averys Pioneers tasting 1Apart from a fascinating pair of aged sherries from Avery’s own family cellar, the tasting focussed on wines that the Avery family had been instrumental in introducing to the UK, among them famous names like Cloudy Bay and Felton Road from New Zealand, Penfolds from Australia (sadly, Grange wasn’t included this time) and Hamilton Russell from South Africa. But, more than the wines (good though they were), the highlight of the tasting was the fascinating reminiscences and anecdotes of Jeffs and Fielden, whose knowledge and experiences are unmatched. Mimi, too, had delightful memories of her father and grandfather who, by looking outside Europe for wines, really were pioneers in times when the safe bet was to concentrate on France, sherry and port.

A most enjoyable evening.

Bristol Wine Blog: Election Special!

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No! Don’t worry! This Blog is not turning political; it’s just that Thursday is Election Day here. And my wife, exasperated at the wall-to-wall coverage on TV for the last month, started wondering which wines would be appropriate for supporters of the various parties to drink. It got me thinking, too. Here are my suggestions, but if anyone can come up with something different, I’d love to hear from you. Please fill in the comments box below.

1392654230 redLet’s start with the Labour Party. For them, the choice is easy: any red wine, of course!
1357395743 blueAnd what about the Conservatives? Blue Nun was the first one I thought of for them (based on the name, not a political viewpoint!), but perhaps a Pinot Noir – that grape is sometimes known as Blauburgunder (“the blue Burgundian one”) – or a Blaufränkisch might be more appealing. If none of those, an old claret or Burgundy might be a ‘conservative’ choice. As for their coalition partners, an Orange Muscat would be just right for the Liberal Democrats or something from near Orange in the southern Rhône or from the region of the same name in New South Wales.

The UK Independence Party would clearly want an English or Welsh wine and the latter would also satisfy Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, while, no doubt, the Scottish Nationalists would reject the idea of wine altogether in favour of a good malt whisky.
1357395743-greenAnd then there’s the Green Party; a Grüner Veltliner, obviously – but it would have to be an organic one!

So, there you have it, Bristol Wine Blog’s brief and light-hearted look at our forthcoming General Election. And for the winners? If the Opinion Polls are correct, it looks as though no-one will be uncorking any Champagne. Instead, we’ll need to open several different bottles and start blending!

The Mediterranean Comes to Bristol

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In a previous Bristol Wine Blog, I noted that the Mediterranean has an ideal climate for vine growing and many of the countries surrounding it have a culture of wine making (and drinking!) stretching back thousands of years. For both these reasons, I think it’s one of the most fascinating areas of the wine world to explore.

Stoke Lodge 5And that’s exactly what we did during a day-long course I ran at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre last Saturday. I brought along 12 very different wines from 7 countries reflecting the wonderful diversity of the region and showing how much quality has improved over recent years. Yet, despite this, prices remain surprisingly modest – one of the group’s favourites (Domaine Félines-Jourdain’s delightfully fruity Syrah-Grenache blend from the south of France) is under £6 a bottle – and most of the rest were less than £10. All the wines mentioned today are available from The Wine Society.

The Mediterranean climate is generally thought to be better suited to red wines, but, in a vote at the end of the day, the clear winner was a white: Seméli’s Nassiakos from Mantinia, Greece (£9.50). This lovely, crisp, clean, aromatic wine, made from the local Moschofilero grape, would make a delicious aperitif but also a fine accompaniment to a wide range of fish dishes and light summer foods. And, if anyone still thinks that all Greek wine tastes like Retsina, do try this – you have a treat awaiting you!

But a Greek white wasn’t the only pleasant surprise on the day. Many will be familiar with the Lebanese red, Chateau Musar, but Chateau Ka, (£10.50), also from the Bekaa Valley, is a fresher, lighter alternative. And, finally, two real wild card reds: Plantaze’s very drinkable Vranac from Montenegro is a bargain at £7.50 and from Turkey – yes, Turkey! – Vinkara’s Karasi (£9.50) shows just how far some of the Mediterranean’s lesser-known regions have advanced. Shame about the label – (see picture, above, on the right)!

All these wines are worth trying – and not just for their novelty!

Making the Perfect Blend

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Regular Bristol Wine Blog readers will know I often refer to “blends” – a phrase that usually describes a wine made from more than one grape variety. The blend might be just Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but it could involve the 13 different varieties allowed in Châteauneuf du Pape. Both can be described as blends. Confusingly, it might also refer to blends of the same grape from different vineyards.

But have you ever thought about what is involved in blending? I had the chance to find out recently when I went to an event at Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire organised by the Wine Society. After a brief look over the vineyard and through the winery, led by winemaker, Martin Fowke, the 30 of us were divided into teams and set to work.

3 Choirs Blending workshopThree Choirs grows an assortment of different grape varieties and 3 – Reichensteiner, Phoenix and Madeline Angevine – were chosen for our task which was to blend the varieties in proportions of our choosing to make an enjoyable dry white wine. And, of course, if you’re selling wine, price is important so, to make things more realistic, ‘values’ were put on each variety and we were restricted in our budget.

We started by tasting wines produced from each of the individual varieties to assess their character – the Reichensteiner’s appley freshness, the Phoenix’s leafiness and the more neutral Madeline Angevine – and then began blending. My initial suggestion, though an attractive wine, was way over our ‘budget’ – why was my wife not surprised at this, I wonder?! After a couple more attempts – a little more of this, a little less of that – we finally came up with something that we were happy with – and that costed in.

At the lunch that followed, we had a chance to taste, not only our own blend, but that of one of the other teams who, using the same basic ingredients, had produced an entirely different wine. When we were also offered Three Choirs own blend, we quickly decided that Martin Fowke’s job as winemaker was not under immediate threat!

Blending: it all sounded so easy, by, only by trying it, have I appreciated the skill and knowledge that goes into making a consistent and appealing wine.