It’s amazing how often the food speciality of a region and the local wine go well together – shellfish with Muscadet and the little goats’ cheese crottins with Sancerre are 2 examples that spring immediately to mind, although there are many, many more. So, when we decided to cook a cassoulet (a delicious rich stew made from mixed meats, haricot beans, tomatoes and fresh herbs originating from the area around Toulouse in the South West of France) for some good friends recently, it seemed only natural to turn to a wine from Madiran, just a short drive to the west of the city.
Madiran is not one of the most widely-known Appellations – probably because much of the relatively small production is enjoyed locally – but the best producers turn out some really lovely intense red wines, based around the astringent, tannic local grape variety, Tannat, sometimes ‘softened’ by a little Cabernet (Sauvignon or Franc) and another native variety, Fer.
Among the names to look out for are Alain Brumont’s Montus (£26.99 from Corks) or Bouscassé, Château Laffitte-Teston or Château d’Aydie and it was this latter estate’s cuvee Odé d’Aydie (Wine Society, remarkable value at £9.99) that we opened and decanted a couple of hours before drinking – always worth doing with Madiran.
Even so, the 2013 vintage was still quite tannic at first – it has at least another 5 years good drinking ahead – but, once we started enjoying it with the robust flavours of the cassoulet, it showed as I’d hoped – mellowing admirably with attractive blackberry and spice coming to the fore.
The reason behind local food and local wine working well together remains a mystery to me; does the food come first and wines develop to match it or is it the other way around? Or is it purely by chance? Either way, next time you start thinking, ‘what should I drink with this?’, look where the dish comes from and hope they make wine there.
Spending a few days in Bordeaux recently, I expected to be drinking some good red wine. It didn’t work out that way! Wherever we decided to eat, the most appealing dishes on the menu were fish. And, while I’m quite happy to pair a nice tuna steak with a low tannin red wine such as Beaujolais, Valpolicella or even some Pinot Noirs, none of these is native to Bordeaux and the local Cabernet- or Merlot-dominated reds just don’t work.
Fortunately, about 1 bottle in 12 produced in the Bordeaux region is a dry white, so I was still able to pursue my ‘drink local’ policy – and explore a group of wines that, for no particular reason, I often seem to ignore.
Bordeaux’s dry whites fall into 2 distinct groups: the traditional style, now in decline, are mainly made using the Semillon grape with some Sauvignon Blanc added, with one, or sometimes both, varieties either fermented or aged in (mainly old) oak barrels. More frequently now, you find wines with 100% or at least a very high proportion of Sauvignon Blanc – fresh, zingy and providing attractive drinking for a very reasonable price. We found good examples of each style.
Representing the modern group, Chateau Vermont from Entre Deux Mers had a lovely floral nose with pink grapefruit and peach on the palate and a clean, refreshing finish. A simple wine, but quite moreish. In a different league entirely and showing how good traditional white Bordeaux can be was L’Abeille de Fieuzal Blanc from Pessac Leognan, the best part of the Graves District, just south of the city of Bordeaux. Full, rich and buttery with hints of smokiness but also lovely fruit: citrus and bitter orange and a long, complex finish.
But, good as these were, my wife knows how much I like Bordeaux’s luscious dessert wines and her picture above shows me enjoying one to the full – our accompanying puddings were about to arrive!
Ever since Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin (City of Wine) opened last year, it has been on my ‘to do’ list. So, when we visited that part of south-west France for a few days recently, we took the 10 minute tram ride from the centre and found ourselves in front of the very striking piece of architecture that was designed and built specifically to house the wine exhibition.
Buying our tickets in advance on line (20 euros each if you specify a date, 5 euros extra for an ‘Open’ ticket you can use any day), we could (and should) have avoided the queues in the foyer. But we eventually made our way to the 1st floor for a fascinating display on ‘Georgia, the birthplace of wine’. Dozens of artefacts, some dating back more than 2000 years, combined with a couple of short films and some very detailed display boards (in English and French) told the story of the early days of wine and highlighted how some ancient processes – like fermenting in clay urns buried in the ground – were still being used today. Sadly, this part of the exhibition is only temporary and will close in early November to be replaced by something as yet unspecified.
One floor up and you move into the main display area – and firmly into the 21st century. Here, equipped with multi-lingual headphones, you are faced with a series of interactive screens dealing with different aspects of the wine world. Click one and you can choose from a number of famous growers and wine makers talking about their wines; another and you join a virtual dinner table with top chefs and sommeliers chatting about food and wine matching. All very cleverly and glossily presented and with admirably little jargon. One problem: there is just so much to see, you need to be very selective – or come back several times.
After a couple of hours here, we started thinking of lunch. There’s a formal restaurant on the 7th floor (pre-booking essential) or the ‘Latitude 20’ wine bar on the ground floor where we can recommend the cheese or meat platters (1 is plenty for 2 people to share) together with a glass of wine from an interesting and eclectic list – the soft and warming Georgian red is worth trying.
Before leaving, be sure to take the lift up to the Belvedere on the top floor where you can enjoy a glass of wine (included with your ticket price) and have a marvellous panorama over the city of Bordeaux.
There’s more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the world than any other wine grape – almost 300,000 hectares (just over 700,000 acres) according to the comprehensive study published by the University of Adelaide in 2013. That area has more than doubled since 1990 and is almost certainly still growing. There are now commercial plantings of the variety in more than 30 countries.
I’m not surprised at its popularity with growers; it’s a grape capable of producing very high quality red wines and its name is widely recognised by wine lovers – always a help with marketing. But it needs to be grown in the right conditions: too cool and you get unripe, leafy flavours; too warm and the wine tastes of jammy or cooked fruit.
Interestingly, in its home region of Bordeaux, you almost never see a wine made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon – there, they usually blend it with Merlot and other varieties – a legacy of the time when that part of France was, on average, a couple of degrees cooler than it is today and growers regularly struggled to ripen their Cabernet.
But elsewhere – California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the ‘new kid on the block’, China – 100% Cabernets are common and it’s not hard to find a really good bottle, for example Robert Oatley’s Finisterre from Margaret River in Western Australia. The climate there is ideal with warm, dry summers meaning that harvest can often take place as early as February (equivalent to August in the Northern Hemisphere), minimising the threat from autumn rain.
Finisterre is quite restrained and subtle but has the lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit flavours that I always associate with a good Cabernet Sauvignon, topped out with some soft spice and just enough tannin to suggest that the 2013 vintage has a good few years more ahead of it. Usually £18.99 at Waitrose, but it’s worth waiting for one of that supermarket’s regular ‘25% off’ offers when this wine becomes a great bargain and one not to be missed.
Let’s face it: screw caps are becoming more and more widely used these days but, for centuries, the cork was the only practical means of sealing a wine bottle. And, in the main, it was very good at its job: corks are very slightly porous to air, but not to liquids so they allow tiny quantities of air into the bottle to allow the wine to develop at just the right rate. And, if the bottle is stored on its side and so the cork is kept moist, it expands to fill the neck of the bottle and prevents too much air getting in to spoil the wine.
But it’s not perfect: it is estimated that up to 3% of corks (that’s roughly 1 in every 35) are faulty, generally because they are affected by compounds that cause a musty smell and taste – something we call ‘corked’ or ‘corkiness’. At low levels, the problem is difficult to detect and may simply make the wine taste flat and lacking in fruit. At its worst, however, it can be really unpleasant with a lingering taste for anyone unfortunate enough to miss the foul smell and put the wine in their mouth.
If you want to avoid this risk, there are a number of alternatives:
the new ‘technical’ corks, such as Diam (the two on the right) and Nomacorc (on the left including the black one), seem to offer all the advantages of traditional corks without the problems (except they are expensive) and glass stoppers are even pricier (and a friend of mine couldn’t work out how to open one – no, taking a hammer to it is not a good option!). Possibly the worst choice is one of those plastic stoppers, which is almost guaranteed to break your corkscrew.
And then there’s the screw cap. Easy to use, clean and convenient, no corkscrew needed, no cork taint problems – what could be better? Except that some regions of Europe ban them on quality wines and I’ve met a number of wine lovers who ‘just don’t like them’. I accept that you don’t get that wonderful ‘pop’ of the cork or the flourish that a good sommelier produces (and there can be the odd technical problem with screw caps, too) but I’m always happy to see one – especially when it’s removed and the wine is being poured!