The Little Sweet One

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Anyone who has ever enjoyed a meal in an Italian restaurant (haven’t we all?) will be familiar with the word ‘dolce’ – the dessert or pudding course.  But you might also find a ‘dolce’ on the cheese board: dolcelatte (“sweet milk”).  And who of a certain age could ever forget Fellini’s famous film, ‘La Dolce Vita’ (The Sweet Life)?  There’s that word again.  But there’s a ‘dolce’ for wine lovers to look out for, too: dolcetto – a delicious and under-rated red grape variety native to the Piedmont region in Italy’s north-west.

Mention Piedmont and red wine and most will immediately think of Barolo or Barbaresco and there’s little doubt that the Nebbiolo grape that goes to make these wonderful, powerful, age-worthy wines is Piedmont’s most respected variety.  But 2 other high quality red grapes are also widely grown in the region: Barbera, that I blogged about some months ago, and Dolcetto.

Dolcetto – the ‘little sweet one’ takes its name from the small size of its grapes and their lovely flavour, yet, despite the ‘dolce’, the wines made from it are almost invariably dry.  And, happily for those who find Italian wine complicated, you’ll usually see the grape name on the label as Dolcetto d’Alba or Dolcetto d’Asti (Alba and Asti being the areas from which the wines come).

DolcettoLong established producer Ascheri makes 2 Dolcettos from different vineyards (as well as a selection of Barolos, Barberas and other interesting bottles).  I opened an example from the Nirane vineyard in Alba recently (Great Western Wine, £13.95): a lovely summer wine; not too heavy – you could even lightly chill it if you wanted and the fresh, clean fruit of this unoaked red shines through – delightful bitter cherries to perfectly cut through rich food.  We enjoyed it with a spicy chicken dish but duck or, as the label suggests, fresh water fish would be other good matches.

And, of course, ideal to share with your own ‘sweet one’!

 

Rioja: Grape, Brand or Region?

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Rioja CrianzaWhat is Rioja?  Certainly, a famous name but, despite its popularity, some are clearly confused about it.  In fact, I’ve been asked the same question twice in just the last few weeks – and both times, a wrong answer was suggested to me. 

So, let me put the record straight: Rioja is not a grape variety.  Nor is it a brand name (although some would argue that, given its familiarity, it’s close to becoming one).  It’s actually a legally defined wine region in northern Spain stretching out on both banks of the River Ebro famous mainly for red wines (although some rosé and white is also made).  The main grape for the reds is Tempranillo although, in many of the wines, some Garnacha (also known as Grenache) and other minor local varieties are blended in.

The one thing both questioners knew (or thought they knew) about Rioja is that it’s quite oaky.  Well, yes, it can be – but it isn’t always.  Look at the label.  If you see ‘Gran Reserva’, it will certainly have a distinct oak flavour, having spent at least 2 years in barrel.  The word ‘Reserva’ alone (without the ‘Gran’) or bottles labelled ‘Crianza’ will only have had half that time in barrel and so will have more emphasis on the fruit, less on the oak.  And, if none of these words appear, the wine may never have seen oak at all – or just briefly.

A perfect example of a wine with just a subtle hint of nutty oak is Arienzo de Marques de Riscal Crianza (Great Western Wine, £10.95).  Nicely mellow, with delicious, vibrant red fruits, this is really well-balanced and harmonious.  Easy drinking either on its own or, even better, with some lamb or a hard cheese. 

If you’re still confused about Rioja, try this bottle as a most enjoyable lesson 1!  And, even if you’re not, it’s well worth tasting anyway!

A ‘Wild’ Sauvignon

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Before I start this Bristol Wine Blog, I’d like to offer support and sympathy to the people of Nice and those affected by the terrible events of Thursday night.  Nice is a lovely city with kind, generous and hospitable people.  It is somewhere that we will certainly return to.

On a happier note, the members of the Bristol Tasting Circle are a pretty knowledgeable bunch so the wines for our ‘bring your own’ annual dinner are always interesting – how often have you tasted a sweet wine from Uzbekistan, for example?

My wife and I, rather than bringing 2 bottles, chose to take along a single wine to the same total value.  Fortunately, we share the philosophy of ‘drink less, drink better’ and a budget of £25 brought all kinds of wonderful wines into range – the sort we just wouldn’t consider for everyday drinking.  We were asked for a white to go with starter or main course, so what did we choose? 

A potentially tricky problem was solved when my wife noticed a New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc lurking on the bottom shelf at Corks of Cotham.  But, ‘you can buy a Marlborough Sauvignon for £7.99’ I hear you say, so this had to be something truly special – and it was!  Kevin Judd was formerly the winemaker at the iconic Cloudy Bay estate before he left to make wines under his own name and his Greywacke Wild Ferment Sauvignon (£25) is one of his top offerings.

Greywacke Sauv Bl

‘Wild Ferment’ means that only indigenous yeasts – those naturally occurring in the winery -are used and the juice is allowed to ferment spontaneously; this is far less predictable than using cultured or introduced yeast, but, at its best, is capable of producing wines of remarkable depth and character.  In addition, Judd uses old oak barrels for the fermentation rather than the temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks seen virtually everywhere else in Marlborough.  A little risky but Judd’s view seems to be ‘let the wine be as it will be’ and, judging by the bottle we opened, it’s a view that works exceptionally well.

Not that you’d immediately say ‘Marlborough Sauvignon’ on first taste; yes, there’s the Sauvignon crispness there but, in place of the tropical fruits you might expect, a quite subtle rich, savouriness comes through – perhaps the closest match I could suggest is a Grand Cru Chablis.  A tremendous wine, a little individual in style, but just the sort to please real enthusiasts and a great match for all kinds of dishes.

The wrong grapes on the wrong soil?

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Saint-Péray may not be one of the more familiar Appellations of France but, as regular Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, I’m always keen to seek out wines from these less well-known areas.  Sometimes, they are better value than their more fashionable neighbours; at other times they just make good and interesting drinking, perhaps with some unusual and different flavours.  The Saint-Péray we enjoyed recently (£14.99 from Waitrose) probably fits more into the second category, although, for the quality, it is by no means expensive.

Saint Peray

Saint-Péray is on the west bank of the River Rhône, near the town of Valence and used to produce mainly sparkling wines described by Tom Stevenson (in a 20 year old Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that I’ve kept for no logical reason) as ‘overrated, having a coarse mousse and made from the wrong grapes grown on the wrong soil’!  Well, the same grapes, Marsanne and Roussane, are still being grown in the same soil; the key things that have changed are that, today, more of the wines are made still rather than sparkling and a number of top producers have moved in and transformed the quality of the grapes in the vineyard and the standards of winemaking.

And it was the name of three of these producers, working together, on the label that attracted me to this wine: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron and François Villard all make their own wines (Cuilleron’s Condrieu is stunningly good) but also collaborate under the banner ‘Les Vins de Vienne’.  I wasn’t disappointed; this is a full bodied, flavoursome, dry, rich white that has spent 9 months ageing, partly in barrel.  The oak is quite noticeable, as is the alcohol (13.5%) but neither dominates the spicy palate (cinnamon and ginger came to mind) with its attractive sourness – the kind you get from baked apples.  And it might be even better after a couple more years in bottle or, if you can’t wait, decanting.

If this is the wrong grape in the wrong soil, then give me more!

 

 

The Best Pinot Noir

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A couple of days ago, the latest edition of ‘Decanter’ dropped onto my door mat.  Only this time, the ‘thud’ was rather louder than usual as the magazine was accompanied by a bulky supplement announcing the results of the annual Decanter World Wine Awards.  Although I had plenty of other things to do, I couldn’t resist a quick flick through the list of the top prizes – the wines that had won Platinum Medals (the new combined name for the old Regional and International Trophies).

One entry caught my eye: the winner of the ‘Best Pinot Noir in Chile’ category – Cono Sur’s ‘20 Barrels’.  By chance, we’d got a bottle sitting on our wine rack, bought a few weeks previously in a Waitrose special offer – £14.99 instead of £19.99.  We were going to be eating some pan-fried duck breast with a spiced raspberry sauce that evening, so it was a great chance to open it and put it to the test.  20 Barrels P Noir

I can see why it won; it really is a delicious wine – lots of red and black fruit flavours, plenty of Pinot character, well-balanced and with a good, long finish.

But how does it compare with other Pinots?  Decanter have their view, but just a day earlier, I’d included some bottles from New Zealand in a tasting I was running for a local group.  If the 20 Barrels was worthy of Platinum in its category, then so, surely, was Martinborough Vineyards’ Te Tera (Majestic, £16.99).  Yet, on checking the New Zealand results, that wine was down among the Silver Medalists in its group – not even Gold!  Still a creditable result, but a long way short of Platinum.  So, why the difference?

Different judges, judging by different standards, perhaps?  Or is it that the New Zealand Pinot category as a whole is stronger than Chile and therefore harder to win?  It’s difficult to say, but the lesson is clear: awards or points awarded by judges, even professionals, should only ever be used as a guide.  In the end, just trust your own taste buds.

 

More Thoughts from Germany

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Mosel SpatleseAs I said in my last Bristol Wine Blog, we’ve just returned from a few days in Germany visiting the famous wine regions of the Rheingau and the Mosel. Of course, we sampled some of the local product which, in general, was made from Riesling. Not surprising given that almost 80% of the Rheingau and well over half of the Mosel vineyards are planted with that single variety.

Riesling has long had a poor reputation in the UK but that comes, in the main, from the bargain-basement German bottles which customers associate with Riesling but are usually some inferior variety such as Muller-Thurgau. So, set any preconceived views on one side; there are some real treasures to be discovered.

Riesling is a grape with naturally high acidity, a trait accentuated by being grown in relatively cool climates. To appreciate it at its best, the key is to find a wine where the acidity is balanced with just enough sweetness – I’m not talking about a dessert wine but one that just off-dry. The word to look for on the label is ‘Spätlese’. Made from grapes picked a little later than the usual harvest and therefore with a higher sugar content, these typically are allowed to reach between 8% and 10% alcohol before the fermentation is stopped. This leaves a few grams per litre of sugar to give that balance I mentioned earlier. Sadly, many of the wines we tasted are not available in the UK but Majestic have a good example: Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium’s Mosel Trittenheim Apotheke Spätlese (£9.99).

But, we didn’t just taste Riesling. We stayed in the village of Assmannshausen on the Rhine which is one of the few there specialising in red wines. They even hold a ‘Red Festival’ each year to celebrate, ending with a display of fireworks all in red. The grape they grow is known there as Spätburgunder, to the rest of us, it’s Pinot Noir. Not cheap and even more difficult to find in the UK than good Riesling, but if you see a bottle from there, it’s well worth trying.

The Steepest Vineyards

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DSCN1357We’ve just returned from a few days in Germany visiting the famous wine regions of the Rheingau and the Mosel. Of course, I’d seen lots of pictures of the area and read plenty about it, but this was my first visit and I was truly amazed by what I saw. Wherever I looked, there were vines clinging to impossibly steep hillsides – some up to 65% elevation. How can people possibly work those sites? And why do they choose to plant there?

The answer to the first of those questions may be obvious: with great difficulty! There are posts at the top of some of the vineyards that workers can tie ropes onto and let themselves down to prune the vines or harvest and, in some of the more high-tech places, you find miniature monorail systems that run up and down the slopes to carry the grapes to somewhere slightly more accessible.

But why plant on these slopes? The area is at the northern-most boundary of where wine grapes will ripen properly so growers have to take every opportunity to help the vines. Using south-facing slopes gives better exposure to the sun and protection from cold north winds. The slopes mean that rain drains quickly so that the vines’ roots are in warmer, dry earth and frosts roll away down the hillside; also much of the ground itself is comprised of decomposed slate which acts like a storage heater and holds the heat.

Even with all these advantages, growers still need to choose a variety that will survive the bitterly cold winters. And, for most, the one that works best is Riesling. It’s a grape that many in the UK avoid but, for me, apart from the very cheapest examples, it’s a variety that can produce some remarkable wines. I’ll tell you more about them in my next blog.

We travelled with Railtrail Tours Ltd. For more information about this and other tours they run, go to http://www.railtrail.co.uk.