Monthly Archives: August 2017

Sugar, Spice and Wine

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Mondavi CSWhen I was growing up, there was a nursery rhyme that said that little girls were made of “sugar and spice and all things nice”.  (Boys, on the other hand, were supposed to be from “snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails”!)  I’ve not heard the rhyme for years (perhaps that’s a good thing!), but a dish we cooked for a close friend recently might have been created with the description of ‘little girls’ in mind.  Sugar in the form of chocolate and raisins,  cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, tabasco and a chilli representing the spices and the remaining ingredients (beef, tomatoes, onions and herbs) as the ‘all things nice’. 

It might have made a good nursery rhyme and it certainly makes a delicious dish (described in the recipe as an ‘authentic’ chilli con carne – I’m sure some readers will dispute that), but how do you find a wine that will work with all those strong and contrasting flavours – and a sour cream dip on the side?

Let’s consider the spices first: spices, especially ‘hot’ spices like chilli and cayenne, tend to exaggerate tannin, bitterness and any alcoholic heat in the wine and, at the same time, make the wine taste drier and less fruity.  To combat this, you could try a low tannin wine with only moderate levels of alcohol (Beaujolais, for example) or something fresh and fruity – perhaps a New World Merlot.  And go easy on the chilli – too much and you won’t taste anything of the wine.

And what about the sweetness of the chocolate and raisins?  Interestingly, sweetness in food often has a similar effect to the spices on the wine – making it taste drier and less fruity.  Of course, with a truly sweet dish, you’d want a dessert wine.  But here, that wouldn’t work at all; the beef and the other ingredients point me back in the direction of the wines I suggested earlier.

I actually opened the delightfully fruity Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (pictured above) brought back from the US by our friend – delicious and a really good match with the flavours.

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Plain and Simple

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I think it was the former US President Bill Clinton who used the phrase ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.  Those who design most traditional German wine labels should take note!  Take the example below:

German Label

It has the producer’s name, the vintage, the grape variety, the region, village and vineyard in which the grapes were grown and even an indication of how ripe the grapes were at harvest.  This is typical of German wine labels and makes them among the most informative in the world.  But that – and the common use of the difficult-to-read antique font – also puts off many wine lovers who don’t want – or understand – all the detail.  “Just give me a clear idea what the wine is going to taste like”!

So, I was pleasantly surprised recently to find a German wine with one of the barest labels I’ve seen:

Grauburgunder

Just the producer’s name, the grape variety (Grauburgunder is the German name for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris) and the vintage.  Anyone interested in the region (Rheinhessen) or village (Nierstein) could check the back label where you also find, far more importantly, that the wine is dry (trocken) and has, unusually for a German white, 14% alcohol. In some wines, this level of alcohol can taste ‘hot’ or dominate the flavour but not here; it brings a lovely richness in the mouth – closer in style to a good Alsace Pinot Gris rather than a light and quaffable Pinot Grigio.  The wine is quite savoury with a delightful saline character that makes it really food-friendly – a noble fish in a creamy sauce comes to mind. 

From the label to the taste and style, this is about as far away from normal expectations of a German wine as it could be, but it’s really delicious.  And a bargain, too: Louis Guntrum’s Grauburgunder is just £11.50 from the Wine Society.

Hot – or too hot?

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harvest 2017It’s difficult to believe as I look out of my window in cool and rainy Bristol, that, across much of southern Europe at the moment, there is a heatwave and a drought.  Daytime temperatures there have reached the mid 40s (over 110˚F) for several days in a row, with nights remaining over 30˚ (86˚F) and many places have seen no rain for months.  It may be fine for the tourists (some of them, anyway – I’d find it too hot) but, how about the locals trying to work – or, indeed, the crops?

Vines need both warmth and sunshine to thrive and produce good ripe grapes for wine but, when, as now, conditions get too hot, one of 2 things happen: if there’s plenty of water for irrigation (and local rules allow its use), the combination of great heat and water cause the grapes to swell quickly and rush to ripeness, gaining high levels of sugar (and so high potential alcohol) but not much flavour – that comes from long, slow ripening.  Also, without cooler nights, the acidity that is crucial to making a refreshing wine will drop sharply.  The result: poor quality ‘jug’ wines appealing only to those seeking bargain price quaffing.

When drought conditions accompany a heatwave, as we’re seeing now in southern Europe, or where irrigation is banned, things are very different.  Without water, the vines will begin to shut down in order to protect themselves; the grapes will shrivel and fall off and the harvest will be much reduced.  Producers then need to decide quickly: pick straight away and salvage some of the crop or wait and hope that September will produce cooler temperatures, rain and better prospects.   That is the choice being faced by many now.  When similar extreme conditions occurred in 2003, most chose to pick in August rather than wait.  A few good wines were made, but many were unattractive with baked or dried fruit flavours and some normally long-lasting wines faded quickly. 

But, although 2003 and 2017 are truly exceptional, growers right across Europe are reporting that, even in ‘normal’ years, they are harvesting 2 or 3 weeks earlier than their parents did and picking riper grapes.  And varieties that once only grew in certain places are now thriving in regions that were previously thought too cool. 

Something is certainly happening to the world’s weather.  The climate is changing and all of us, not just the winemakers will need to adjust to it.