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.

Some Like it Cool!

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“What temperature should I serve my wine?” – A question I’m often asked. “It depends how you like it” is how I usually start to reply. That may not seem very helpful but, as with so much in the wine world, there is no single right answer. Everyone’s sense of taste is different and so, a wine that is perfectly chilled for one person might be too warm or too cool for someone else.

ice bucketA few hints that might help. Most white wines benefit from a little chilling but don’t overdo it as, if you serve them too cold, you dumb down any flavour or aroma. I’d start with a half hour in a fridge or a cooler, see if that’s to your taste and then adjust as necessary. You might find that crisp, dry whites (such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis) benefit from a little more chilling whereas fuller, richer wines (oaked New World Chardonnays, for example) need less. And I’d normally serve sparkling wines coolest of all.

As for red wines, you often hear ‘serve them at room temperature’, but this advice was from a time when houses were often a lot cooler than they are now. That said, unless your room is exceptionally warm, most reds will be fine. The exceptions are light-bodied reds such as Beaujolais or Valpolicella which I find are much more refreshing after a half hour in a fridge. And, if you see the words ‘serve cellar cool’ on a bottle of red, unless it really has come straight from a cool cellar, a few minutes in a cooler might help.

Finally, a word about wine in restaurants. For me, their whites are almost always served too cold – they’ve been in a commercial fridge and then are put in an ice bucket with the result that you can smell and taste nothing. Get rid of the ice bucket and give them time to recover! Less frequent, but more serious, are reds that have been stored next to a radiator or under hot lights. All you can taste is hot alcoholic fumes. If this happens, send it back and ask for one that has been properly stored.

So the answer to “What temperature should I serve my wine?” is that it’s all down to you. I hope this blog has helped but the important point is to drink it at the temperature that gives you most enjoyment! Cheers!

The Most Misunderstood Grape

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Ask those in the wine trade about their favourite white grape variety and the answer, more often than not, is Riesling. This might surprise many UK customers who have very negative views about one of the world’s most versatile grapes. Comments such as ‘I don’t like German wines’ and references to ‘nasty sweet Liebfraumilch’ show just how misunderstood Riesling is.

I’ll demolish the Liebfraumilch myth first; it isn’t usually made from Riesling at all; Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Kerner are far more likely components. And Riesling is a worldwide phenomenon – growers from Australia, New Zealand, USA and the French region of Alsace have all chosen to plant Riesling and most of their wines are very different in style from those that Germany produced in the past, or from the modern styles they now make. So ….. time for a rethink?

As you might guess, I love Riesling. So much that I went to a tasting recently, dedicated to just the one grape. It was hosted by Alex Pack of Liberty Wines on behalf of the Bristol Tasting Circle and significantly, only 3 of the 10 Rieslings on show came from Germany.

Rieslings of the worldFour were from the New World – a pair from Australia and a couple from New Zealand, all of which demolished another myth: that all Riesling is sweet. These were wonderfully crisp, fresh and definitely on the dry side. Ideal food wines, too, especially with gently spicy fusion cooking. The bottle from Wild Earth in New Zealand’s Central Otago region (£12) brought back very happy memories of a visit there last year while, from Western Australia, Plantagenet’s ‘Museum Release’ (£13) from the 2006 vintage showed just how well Riesling can age – at 9 years, this still has many years of life ahead.

Of the European wines, a rarity from the famous Italian Barolo producer, G.D.Vajra (£22) caught the interest but the just off-dry example from Schloss Vollrads in the Rheingau (£25) showed modern German Riesling at its best. A real delight – but at a price.

So do try some Riesling – German or otherwise. You, too, might find how misunderstood it is.

WA: Quality not Quantity

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When you think of Australia, the wines of Western Australia (WA to its friends) may not be the first that come to mind. Not surprisingly as that state produces less than 5% of Australia’s output each year. But WA turns out some high quality wines and they’re certainly worth looking out for. Its vineyards are more than 1000 miles from their nearest neighbours and the wines they produce are often very different in style from anywhere else in Australia.

Although the first vineyards in WA were planted in the Swan Valley close to Perth in the 1830s, it would take more than 100 years for a wine from there to have anything other than local success; Houghton’s (misnamed) ‘White Burgundy’ became Australia’s best-selling white wine and remained so for several decades.

But the Swan Valley was too hot for high quality wines and it wasn’t until the late 1960s when producers like Vasse Felix, Cullens and Moss Wood started planting in the Margaret River area 150 miles further south that really put WA on the wine map. Margaret River has a climate similar to Bordeaux, so the potential was clear. Summers are warm ensuring the grapes ripen, but are tempered by cooling winds from the Indian Ocean helping the grapes retain the acidity necessary for well-balanced wines. Autumns are long and dry – perfect for the harvest (and the envy of many in Bordeaux where picking is so often disrupted by rain or hail). Add in some very talented winemakers and wines such as Vasse Felix’s Cabernet Merlot (Majestic, £15.99) are the result. Vasse Felix Cab MerlotA lovely rich red, full of blackberry fruit and gentle spice with a finish that lasts for minutes. I was surprised to see 14.5% alcohol on the label as there was no hint of a burn, just a harmonious, mouth-filling glassful that went really well with some pan-fried duck breast.

Not cheap, but worth every penny and typical of the wines coming out of WA today.

Wines of the Mediterranean

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Wines of the Mediterranean – the theme of my next wine course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. And the date for your diary: Saturday 25 April.

Assyrtiko SantoriniThe 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. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating areas of the wine world to explore. Not just the obvious places – France, Italy and Spain – but, these days, Greece, Lebanon, some of the Balkan countries and even Turkey are producing interesting and very attractive and drinkable wines. And everywhere you look there are unique local grapes – Picpoul, Plavac Mali, Agiorgitiko – which, over the years, local growers have developed into distinctive wine styles, some of which, of course, we will talk about and taste during the day.

If you are interested, booking is essential and can be done on line at http://www.bristolcourses.com or by telephoning the Centre on 0117 903 8844. The price is £30 plus the cost of wines tasted will be shared between those attending on the day (a maximum of an extra £12 per person). The course starts at 11 am sharp and runs until around 4pm. You can buy tea and coffee on site but there are no lunch facilities, so I suggest you bring some sandwiches.

Hope to see you there, but, for those that live far from Bristol, a review will be on this Blog shortly afterwards.

The only choice for Easter Lunch

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Easter is just around the corner and, for many, the only possible choice for lunch at this time of year is lamb. I learnt this on a visit to the Greek island of Kythira a while back, where all the local families gathered on a sunny beach, each with their lunch spit-roasting in front of them, generously dousing it at regular intervals with fragrant herbs and tangy olive oil. Roast lamb1Of course, there was far too much meat for just the families and so friends, visitors and just about anyone in the area was invited to share. And not just the food, the wine flowed freely, too. I didn’t ask what it was, (local, of course and out of jugs, not bottles) but, unsurprisingly, it went very well!

But even if your seasonal lamb isn’t served in quite the same idyllic surroundings, you’ll still want to enjoy some wine to help it down. Fortunately, lamb, particularly when simply cooked, is very wine-friendly. Almost any soft red will work well – Rioja is an obvious choice – or any other Tempranillo-based wine; Merlot, too, is worth considering – Chile make some good value examples and there are some interesting ones from New Zealand. There are also some delightful Greek reds – Nemea or Naoussa, for example, although you may think I’m a little biased by my experience!

For those who prefer the lovely delicate taste of new season’s lamb, you might want to choose something a little lighter to go with it, such as a good cru Beaujolais or an elegant Pinot Noir but the golden rule with lamb is don’t overpower the beautiful sweet flavours of the meat, so leave big, chunky reds, like Châteauneuf du Pape or Barossa Shiraz on the shelf for another day.

All we need now is some spring sunshine to go with it!

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

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Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.