Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Steepest Vineyards


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

The End of the Cork?


CorksHow long before the practice of using a cork to seal a wine bottle is consigned to history? It may not happen in 5 years or even 10, but corks are on their way out. In a tasting I ran recently, 5 wines out of 6 were under screwcap. And it’s not only the cheapest bottles that no longer need a corkscrew – these 5 were all good quality wines around £8 – £10. Nor is the trend restricted to the New World; producers in some of the most traditional Appellations of France are also switching: I’ve opened a Chablis and a Crozes-Hermitage recently – both had screwcaps.

For more than 200 years, the cork has been the most commonly used method of sealing a wine bottle. Provided it’s kept moist (which is why bottles should be stored on their side), the cork swells to fill the neck of the bottle, keeping the wine in and the air out. Job done! Except that, occasionally, a cork will become tainted by a naturally occurring fungus, TCA, which affects the wine giving it that nasty, musty aroma and flavour that we call ‘corked’.

Numerous attempts have been made to deal with the problem – and with some success; I certainly find fewer corked bottles now than, say, 10 years ago, but it clearly hasn’t been eliminated altogether. So it’s not surprising that producers have turned to other ways of closing their bottles, the most common being the screwcap.

So, do screwcaps work? In practical terms, the answer is ‘yes’. Trials show that they generally perform well and can even keep wine fresh and in good condition for up to 30 years.

But, if corks do disappear from the wine scene, as I’m sure they will, I guess I won’t be alone in missing that feeling of expectation when I hear the sound of a cork being drawn from a bottle. The turn of a screwcap just isn’t the same!


A Summer of Rosés


How attitudes to rosé wines have changed! Just a few years ago, they were either despised or ridiculed. No longer! To borrow a fashion term – and, after all, a lot of choices in wine are down to fashion – rosé is the ‘new black’!   A good rosé should be fruity, refreshing and a delight to drink, either on its own or with simple food and, especially at this time of year (assuming the rain will stop and we will get some summer in the UK).

So, where should you start in choosing rosé? The big brand White Zinfandels and blush wines that are on every supermarket shelf are very popular but they’re not my taste – I find them too sweet to make a good aperitif or accompaniment to a starter or main course, yet not sweet enough to cope with a pudding. I prefer something crisp and dry. There are lots around: from France, look to Tavel or Provence, or, for something really unusual, to Corsica (try Clos Culombu, available from the Wine Society, £11.50).

Corsican Rose

The reputation of Spanish rosés hasn’t always been great – and that’s being polite! But there’s been a massive transformation in recent times and bottles from Catalonia, Navarre or Rioja (yes, they do make rosé there as well as red – and white) are much fresher now. Waitrose and Majestic both have Muga’s Rioja Rosado at around a tenner – a good one to sample.

And then there’s the New World: take New Zealand, for example; many would agree that some of their Pinot Noir reds are world-class but the rosés from the same grape are pretty tasty, too. I put The Ned Pinot Rosé (Majestic, £8.99 if you buy it as part of a mixed case of 6) on a tasting recently and it showed really well to a group who were, initially, quite sceptical. But I think I convinced them (most of them, anyway) and if you, too, are a little doubtful, hopefully I’ve convinced you to give rosé a try as well.

There really is nothing better when the sun’s shining.


Red Wine with Cheese?


Wine and cheeseYou’re enjoying a good meal with friends and it’s time to bring out the cheese board – whether this should be before or after the pudding, I won’t get into that debate! But, let’s think about the wine – what should you offer with the cheese?

The first suggestion of many would be red wine except if you’re serving stilton and then open a bottle of port. I can see the port and stilton pairing: salty flavours and sweet tastes are a classic match and the stilton’s attractive saltiness is balanced nicely with the sweetness of the port. But you can widen this out: many blue cheeses are quite salty (think Roquefort) and you can choose from a variety of sweet wines, not just port. So, why not try a Sauternes, a sweet Loire white or a Greek Muscat with your Dolcelatte or Bleu d’Auvergne instead?

As for the ‘red wine with cheese’ idea, I think it depends on the sort of cheese: cheddar, comté, pecorino and other hard or semi-hard cheeses are fine with a red (a Rioja Reserva can be particularly good) but with soft cheeses – brie, camembert and like – I find a white usually goes better. What did you drink as aperitif or with your starter? Is there any of that left over? You’re looking here for a wine with plenty of acidity to cut through the fattiness of the cheese – a Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling or crisp Chardonnay, perhaps.

And the Sauvignon will come into its own again if there’s a soft goats’ cheese on the board: Sancerre with a Crottin de Chavignol is a perfect example of matching the food and wine of a region.

But, one final word of warning: if you enjoy the most pungent cheeses, give the wine a miss – there’s little that stands up to a really ripe Epoisses or Stinking Bishop and it would be a shame to open a bottle for it to be completely overwhelmed by its partner. And, of course, all of this comes with the usual caveat: everyone’s sense of taste is different, so the only real answer to which cheese goes with which wine is to taste and see what works best for you.



Celebrating English Wine – Again!


English Wine Week ends today (Sunday June 5th) and, of course, my wife and I have been celebrating by tasting some delightful examples over the past few days. But we also made a brief trip to Devon to visit a couple of the vineyards that are contributing to the rise and rise of English wine.

Devon may be less well-known as a source of English wine than, say, Kent or Sussex, but there are more than 20 producers there and its mild, Atlantic-influenced climate makes it a perfect place to ripen grapes, especially for crisp, refreshing (mainly white) wines.

Many of the county’s growers are small scale and only open to the public by appointment but others, like Sharpham, near the historic town of Totnes, welcome visitors daily (see for details). There, you can have a delicious lunch overlooking the vineyard (with a glass of their local product, of course!), taste a selection of wines and cheeses made on the estate and, if the weather is fine (as it was when we visited) take a marvellous walk among the vines and alongside the picturesque River Dart (see below).


Further north in the county, near Tiverton, is another of our favourite Devon vineyards: Yearlstone. Smaller and less commercial than Sharpham, you always get a warm and personal welcome here – not least from the resident dogs! Timing your visit around lunchtime is a good idea as they, too, have an excellent café but you can also taste the wines and enjoy a peaceful stroll in the vineyard with its wonderful views over the Exe Valley (see below).

DSCN1352Yearlstone’s wines are well worth trying; they aren’t widely available outside the county, but you can buy direct from the vineyard (

And that, perhaps, is part of the problem with English (and Welsh!) wines: they are made in relatively small quantities and so aren’t on every wine merchant’s or supermarket shelf. But do look out for them; either ask your local wine merchant or, if you have a branch of Waitrose close by, they are great supporters of English wines and have Sharpham as well as many other local names on their list.