Monthly Archives: October 2016

A Wine Worth Keeping

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How long should you keep a bottle of wine before drinking it?  That’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions!  Of course, it depends on the wine – most whites are probably best within a year of purchase, most reds within 2 years – but also on your personal taste.  A friend of ours thinks we drink our wine too young, whereas I think that many of the bottles he opens are passed their peak.  We’ll never agree, but that’s the beauty of wine.

And, although I said that most wines are best within a year or two, there are definitely some – mainly reds, but also quite a few whites – that will only improve for keeping.  Which ones?  Try looking at the back label which may recommend drinking dates.  Otherwise ask a reliable wine merchant or you may be able to check on-line (but always bear in mind what I said above about personal preferences).

I’ve had a bottle of Meerlust Red 2011 from Stellenbosch in South Africa sitting quietly in a wine rack under the stairs for at least a couple of years and, as the label recommended drinking within 8 years of the vintage, I decided recently that now was the time to uncork it – especially as we were having some good friends to dinner who I knew would appreciate it (another important consideration when thinking when to open a bottle!)meerlust-red

This lovely, rich and flavoursome blend of 4 of the Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) was, most definitely, drinking well now.  Even so, I took the precaution of decanting a couple of hours in advance to let a little air finish the process.  The ripe, red fruit flavours were beautifully vibrant and, despite the warmth of Stellenbosch being reflected in 14% alcohol, there was no burn to the wine, all was nicely in balance.

My one regret: it’s the only bottle of this wine I bought and I can see it still drinking well five or more years from now – for my taste, that target of 2019 shown on the back label looks a bit conservative.

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Re-thinking Greek Wine

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Greece has been making wine since ancient times.  Remains of grapes and winemaking equipment dating back to at least 2000BC have been found.  And, through trade, Greece had an enormous influence on the early development of wine right across southern Europe.  Yet, in more recent times, the reputation of Greek wines has dipped dramatically.  Even today, mention the country’s wine to some and the reply will be ‘retsina’, often with some derogatory comment attached.

That’s not my experience at all.  There are some excellent Greek wines around and, as often happens in places with a long wine heritage, you can find a vast array of distinctively flavoured native grape varieties, some perfectly adjusted to conditions in just one small area of the country.

Take the white grape variety Assyrtiko (“ass-seer-tick-o”) grown on the island of Santorini, for example.  Santorini is one of the windiest islands in the Mediterranean.  Training the vines along wires would be impossible; the whole thing – vines, posts, wires, the lot – would simply blow over; even growing as a bush doesn’t work in many parts.  Instead, the vine has to be knotted into a basket shape, kept close to the ground to protect the grapes from the winds (see picture below).  Few grape varieties would tolerate such treatment, but Assyrtiko grows happily there.santorini-vines

Fortunately, in the right hands, it also makes delicious wine.  Hatzidakis’ bottling (Grape and Grind, £12.99, Wine Society, £13.50) is crisp and fresh, quite citrusy but with a little weight behind it, too.  We found the flavours developed nicely after a while in the glass; my wife suggested that decanting might help – I think she was right. 

And that’s what you find with these lesser-known grapes – they give you all sorts of surprises.  You won’t like them all, but I always think they’re worth trying once and Assyrtiko, in particular, really should be on every wine lover’s list.  

A Birthday Celebration

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2016-10-19-09-34-50You may not think a trip to a vineyard would be anything special or unusual for my wife – we’ve visited many together over the years (“too many”, do I hear?) – but that’s exactly how she asked to spend her birthday recently.  And not even a vineyard in some exotic location!  We travelled barely 40 miles (65km) north of Bristol to Three Choirs Vineyard, close to the town of Newent in Gloucestershire.

We’ve been to Three Choirs a number of times and watched it develop into what it is today: one of England’s largest vineyards with some 30 hectares (75 acres) of vines growing at least a dozen different grape varieties.  From these, Martin Fowke, their well-respected and multi-award winning winemaker, blends a range of wines available in their on-site shop and restaurant as well as on-line.

The restaurant gives you the chance to taste the wines and see how well they work with food.  We sampled four during our 2 night stay: the Classic Cuvée is an elegant, Traditional Method sparkling wine that makes a very pleasant aperitif, while Coleridge Hill is a light, dry, fragrant and easy-drinking white for fish or chicken.  Ravens Hill is the surprise package – a proper English red!  Understandably light-bodied but with aromas and flavours of damsons and pepper, you could easily take this for a good Valpolicella.  And finally, perhaps even rarer, the gently sweet Late Harvest is a good partner for a delicate fruity- or creamy-dessert.

But the real bonus is that, after dinner, you can stay overnight; choose a room close to the restaurant and winery or, for the more adventurous (like us!) one of the individual wooden lodges right in the middle of the vineyards.  There’s little to compare with waking up in the morning to a view of vines touched by the morning sun, changing to their autumn colour and framed by trees, followed by a short walk through the vines to breakfast.   

In many countries, vineyards are now offering accommodation and meals to those who want to get close to where their favourite wine is made – try one – you won’t regret it!

Valpolicella: So Misunderstood

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valpolicellaSay the name ‘Valpolicella’ to many wine lovers and you’re likely to hear a fairly negative reaction.  I take a different view: Yes, there’s a glut of pretty ordinary examples among the bargain basement offerings on supermarket shelves and these have caused Valpolicella’s reputation to suffer in recent years.  But, leave those alone (and pay a few £s more) and you’ll find some delightful, fresh and deliciously fruity reds that are ideal for drinking on their own or with, for example, a seared tuna steak.

My suggested food match is a key to what you should expect from this red wine from the Veneto region of northern Italy: it’s a delicate red, not heavy or chunky but light-bodied, refreshing and easy drinking.  You can even chill it for a summer picnic.  One of the best producers is Allegrini whose wines bring out all the lovely bitter black cherry flavours that are so typical of a good Valpolicella (available from Bristol’s Grape & Grind, £12.50 or the Wine Society, £10.95).  This wine is now available under screw cap after Allegrini fought a long battle with the regional authorities who were insisting on cork closures.

Just as you need to take care to avoid poor examples of Valpolicella, there are a number of very different wines with similar names:  Amarone della Valpolicella is made in the same region, but using partially dried grapes to give a much fuller, richer and robust wine, while if you see the word ‘Ripasso’ on the label alongside Valpolicella, this is a kind of halfway house between the two – but still much bigger in style than a simple example.  And finally, Recioto della Valpolicella is a sweet wine.  All these can be delicious, but check the label carefully to see you’re buying the style you want – and, above all, avoid the ultra-cheapies that have so damaged the reputation of these attractive, but misunderstood wines.

A Dream Comes True

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I guess that many Bristol Wine Blog readers have lists of ‘dream’ wines – bottles that they’d love to taste at least once in their lives.  Sadly, by their very nature, ‘dream’ bottles are often either fantastically expensive or incredibly rare – frequently both.  So dreams remain dreams.

But, just once in a while, an opportunity comes along and a dream becomes reality.  And that’s what happened for me recently thanks to a tasting organised jointly by the Bristol Tasting Circle and the West of England Wine and Spirit Association.  Our speaker was Christian Seely, Managing Director of AXA Millésimes, who brought along a selection of wines and ports from their multiple award-winning estate, Quinta do Noval, including one of my dream wines, Nacional Vintage Port.

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What’s so special about Nacional?  It’s produced from a single, wonderfully sited vineyard of just 2 hectares (4½ acres) where all the vines still remain on their own rootstocks (so, not grafted onto American rootstocks, as most vines are, to guard against the deadly phylloxera bug).  Output of Nacional Port is tiny – just 3100 bottles of the 2003 vintage – the one we tasted – were produced and demand always exceeds supply many times over.

Did it live up to my dreams?  You bet it did!  Although still young (good ports can easily last 50 years), it showed marvellous concentration of fruit – damsons, plums, cloves and just so much more.  Truly, a once in a lifetime treat!

And though my attention was, understandably, on the Nacional, it wasn’t the only superb bottle on show: we also tasted the regular 2003 Vintage Port (from other Noval vineyards) and a tawny from the same year; either would have been the star of most tastings, as would Noval’s Douro red wine: unfortified and made from the same grape varieties as the ports, this would be a perfect match with robust food.  But the Nacional was just in a different league.

And just a mention for Bristol readers: the Douro will be one of the subjects of ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’, a 5 week course (Wednesday evenings) at Stoke Lodge starting in November during which we will be talking about (and tasting, of course) a selection of wines reflecting the title.  For more details: http://www.bristolcourses.com

The Judgement of Paris Revisited

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judgement-dinnerBack in May, Bristol Wine Blog remembered a famous event in the wine world that had occurred 40 years earlier, in 1976: the tasting that has come to be known as the ‘Judgement of Paris’.   A young Englishman, Steven Spurrier, living and working in Paris, invited a group of renowned French judges – restauranteurs, producers and wine writers – to compare (blind) a selection of top Californian wines – Chardonnays and Cabernets – with leading Burgundies and Bordeaux. The expectation was that the French wines would win easily.  Only it didn’t work out like that!

So, what would happen if a similar tasting took place today?  Great Western Wines in conjunction with Bath’s Allium Restaurant decided to find out.  They organised an anniversary dinner including recent vintages of the 2 winning wines, the most prestigious of the losers and, to make things interesting, a couple of other ‘mystery’ wines.  With the chance to taste such potential delights, my wife and I were quick to book tickets.

The dinner, good though it was, was always going to play second fiddle to the tastings which, mimicking the original event, comprised a group of  Chardonnays and another of Cabernet Sauvignons (or Cabernet dominated blends), all, of course, tasted blind.  Everyone present was invited to vote for their 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each category and the results were added up.   

Among the Chardonnays, the Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru ‘Les Pucelles’ (£210) gained revenge on the Chateau Montelena Napa Chardonnay (£43.50) this time, but both were beaten by the 3rd wine, Koo Yong’s Faultline Chardonnay from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula (£29.50).

The story was the same with the Cabernet Sauvignons.   Stag’s Leap SLV (£98) from California failed to repeat its earlier success.  Indeed, it, too, finished 3rd in its group behind the winning Château Mouton-Rothschild (£400) and the Cyril Henschke from Eden Valley in South Australia (£62).

A wonderful evening and a rare opportunity to taste some great wines – several at prices that I wouldn’t normally think of spending on a single bottle.  But, perhaps, more importantly, the chance to be part of an event commemorating a tasting that changed the face of the wine world for ever.

(The prices shown are those quoted by Great Western Wine.  For more information, email them at wine@greatwesternwine.co.uk).