Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Fussy Pinot


Pinot Noir is, undoubtedly, one of the fussiest and most difficult of all the major wine grapes to grow.  Plant it somewhere too cold and it simply won’t ripen, too warm and you get coarse, jammy flavours and the ‘sweet spot’ between these two can be perilously small.  It thrives, of course, in its French homeland, Burgundy, and there are some delightful examples elsewhere, including in Germany, Chile, New Zealand and the cooler parts of the USA (especially Washington State and Oregon but, despite the film ‘Sideways’, less frequently in California in my experience). 

Obviously, you can forget much of Australia – it’s just too hot, although there a few areas where the cold Antarctic winds and tidal currents make the climate far cooler (and so Pinot Noir friendly) than you might expect from the latitude.  Among these are the Great Southern region of Western Australia and Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula.   On the other hand, surprisingly, there is one part of Australia where it’s so cool that growers need to seek out sheltered spots with good exposure to the sun to ripen their Pinot Noir at all.  That is the island state of Tasmania, about 100 miles south of the mainland which is, in fact, on the same latitude as New Zealand’s Marlborough region.

Tasmanian P NoirAnd it’s from Tasmania that Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir (Wine Society, £14.95) comes.  I tasted it recently: a typical Burgundian ‘farmyardy’ nose greets you but this is followed on the palate by lovely raspberry and cranberry flavours, a hint of cinnamon and a really long, crisp finish.  Given the price of good Pinots from elsewhere, I thought this was excellent value for money and an ideal match for our pan fried duck breasts with a honey and thyme sauce.

But, before I make you too hungry, I’ll end with a wine trivia question for you: what is the most westerly Designated wine region (Appellation Contrôlée or local equivalent) in mainland Europe?  I’ve just enjoyed a wine from there and I’ll tell you about it next time.


A ‘Blind’ Challenge


Two glassesTwo glasses of wine; you’re told that they’re from the same region and the same blend of grapes but nothing else – except that one is from the bargain basement shelf (£4.50), the other more than twice as expensive (£11).  How confident would you be of distinguishing which was which?

That’s the challenge I gave to a group recently during one of the day courses I was running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  How did they do?  All except 1 person got it right!

So, are ‘blind’ challenges easy?  It depends on what you’re being asked to do.  Those where you have to completely identify a wine are difficult – no, let’s be honest – they’re bordering on impossible unless you’re an expert in that particular type of wine.  However, simply having to pick the better quality wine is much easier.  In fact, as I told my group, you need to ignore what the wines taste like and just concentrate on two aspects:

Firstly, which of the wines has greater length in the mouth?  By this, I mean, when you have tasted both and swallowed or spat them out, which has flavours that remain in your mouth for longer?  Better wines usually have more staying power while cheaper ones, however attractive at first, disappear very quickly.

If that doesn’t answer the question, then see how many different flavours you can pick in each wine.  Complexity is always a sign of a good wine and the more different flavours, the better.

By choosing a £4.50 wine as one of the players, I actually made the test much easier than if I had asked the group to compare, say, a £10 and a £20 wine.  In the UK, the way we tax our wines means that, proportionally, a cheap wine bears a higher rate of duty than a more expensive one.  Stripping out this and other non-wine costs (the bottle, transport, retailer’s profit, etc) meant that the wine alone in the dearer bottle was worth not twice the cheaper but closer to 10 times as much.  A tip for us all!

Wine on TV


Wine Show Series 2(picture: thanks to Channel 5)

With so many of us drinking wine these days, it’s an obvious theme for a TV programme.  Yet, with the occasional notable exception (Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course many years ago still springs to mind), it seems wine is a difficult subject for programme makers to get right.  Understandably keen to attract a wide audience (and the advertising revenue that brings), they concentrate on making their programme entertaining and fun and, as a result, usually produce something that contains little of interest to real wine lovers. 

The 1st series of ‘The Wine Show’, transmitted in 2016 on ITV4, certainly fell into that trap, so I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about its return last week, this time on Channel 5.  My one hope was that the addition of the previously mentioned Jancis Robinson MW to the presentation team would introduce more substance without losing the entertainment.

Sadly, she made little difference.  In the one programme transmitted so far, her input was restricted to choosing between a pair of rosés sourced by fellow presenters, actors Matthew Goode and James Purefoy during a delightful looking lunch overlooking the Provence countryside.  And, indeed, it was the glorious scenery – both in California and in Provence, where the team is based for this series – that was, for me, the best part of the show. 

Far better than co-host Joe Fattorini’s attempt to find a wine for a ‘Sprite’ drinker for whom anything dry – or even medium dry – was instantly rejected.  His search involved a lightning tour of some of California’s wine shops, a fleeting visit to the bar that was used in the film ‘Sideways’ and, for no obvious reason, performing a stand-up routine in a California Comedy Club.  Joe’s wine knowledge is without question but, as for being a comedian, I suggest he sticks with the day job!

I’m certain that, with all the tools available to producers, it is possible to make a wine programme that is both really entertaining and informative.  On the evidence so far, regrettably, it’s not this one.

Have Some Madeira


“How many wines do you drink in a year?” a friend asked me recently.  I had to confess that I had no idea.  But, thinking about wines that I taste – at events or courses I run or at tastings organised by others – as well as those we drink at home or when we go out to friends or restaurants, I’m sure the number runs into hundreds.  But that’s still only a guess.  So, I’ve decided to try and count them this year!  Watch this space!

The figure is starting to tick up rapidly.  With just 8 days of the year behind us, my wine count already stood at 16, although half of that number was due to a fascinating tasting of ports and Madeiras organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle last week.

The ports were lovely, particularly a 20 year old Fonseca Tawny, but it was the rare chance to taste high quality examples of Madeira’s 4 noble grape varieties together that was the highlight of the evening.

MadeiraFirst was the Sercial, the driest style.  Henriques and Henriques 15 year old, with its attractive almond aromas and tangy, clean palate, would make a perfect aperitif as, indeed, would the next wine tasted, the Verdelho.  More medium dry than dry and a little richer than the Sercial, this still has Madeira’s characteristic acidity but with an attractive smoky edge.

Richer still and decidedly sweet was the Boal (sometimes spelt ‘Bual’) – flavours of raisins, nuts and caramel dominated and a finish that could be measured in minutes rather than seconds – perhaps my own personal favourite.  And then finally there was the wonderfully rich and luscious Malvasia (sometimes labelled ‘Malmsey’) with its palate of figs, prunes, walnuts and caramel; a dessert wine capable of matching the most intense of puddings – or why not just drink it on its own instead?

A word of caution: you’ll sometimes see bottles of Madeira labelled simply with generic terms such as ‘dry’, ‘medium sweet’ or ‘full rich’.  While these are often very drinkable and certainly very reasonably priced, to share the real treat I experienced, you need to look for the grape names I’ve mentioned on the label. 

If all the wines in my count are as good as these, it will, indeed, be a very Happy New Year!


A Weighty Problem


We may have just welcomed in a New Year but some things haven’t changed, so, for this Bristol Wine Blog, I’m returning to an old grievance of mine.

Some time ago, a friend mentioned that she’d noticed a number of wines in really heavy bottles and asked me whether I thought that was any guide to quality.  Intrigued by the suggestion, I carried out some (not particularly scientific) research.  The result?  It was clear that some more expensive wines did come in a heavier bottle (although cost doesn’t always reflect quality nor whether the wine is to your personal taste, of course).  But it wasn’t a reliable guide; although most very cheap wines use lighter bottles, which, no doubt, cost less to produce, I also found some high end producers doing the same in a laudable effort to be environmentally aware.

Sine then, apart from muttering about the waste of the earth’s resources when I found a particularly heavy bottle, I thought little more about the subject until I picked a wine out of our rack recently and almost dropped it due to the weight.  Now, I expect sparkling wines to be in heavy bottles – they need to be made from thicker glass to contain the pressure of the bubbles – but this was a still wine and it had no such excuse.  Once empty (one of the benefits of this sort of experiment!), I checked and found the bottle weighed in at a massive 971 grams – that’s just over 2lbs 2oz. 

Although I wouldn’t normally do so, this time, I feel I must ‘name and shame’. 

heavy bottleThe wine was Avancia’s Godello from Galicia in north-west Spain; very enjoyable but I won’t be buying it again until they rethink their policy and ditch their ridiculous and wasteful bottle. 

Incidentally, does anyone know where I can get some of those ‘heavy, take care’ warning stickers that you sometimes see on cases in airports?  I think I ought to use one to alert the people who collect our bottles for recycling!

A Loire Surprise


Let me start by wishing you all a Happy and Peaceful 2018 and hope that the natural disasters that afflicted many in the wine world last year won’t be repeated.

As you might expect, my wife and I enjoyed some nice wines over the holiday period, but one white was a particular surprise (a pleasant one, I should add).  It came from the cool Loire region in northern France and I assumed, for that reason, it would be crisp, fresh and citrusy.  But Château de Fesles’ old vine Chenin Blanc ‘La Chapelle’ from Anjou (Majestic, £11.99) didn’t fit the pattern at all. 

Loire CheninAt 14% alcohol, it’s a big chunky mouthful.  And then there’s the fruit character: not the green apples and citrus of a northern climate but ripe pineapple and mango with a touch of orange at first and all wrapped up in tangy, spicy oak.

So what’s going on?  Part of the answer lies in the words on the label: ‘Vieilles Vignes’ (old vines), in this case mainly over 50 years.  As vines age, their root system expands and so they can pick up more moisture and nutrients from the soil.  At the same time, they tend to produce fewer bunches so all this extra goodness is concentrated into fewer grapes.  The result is more intense flavour which shows through on the finished wine.

But it’s not just that.  Often, grapes struggle to ripen in the cool Loire climate.  At Fesles, they hand-harvest very carefully choosing only the best and ripest grapes.  This may cut down on the amount of wine they make, but it ensures the quality.  They are also moving towards organic methods which the owners believe will further improve the wine.

In the winery, fermentation is in oak barrels followed by 6 months on the lees.  Interestingly, Fesles prefer 400 litre barrels to the more common 225 litre and shun new oak arguing that the use of larger barrels and older wood gives a more subtle oak character.

All this comes together to make a very classy full, rich white and a real bargain at the price.  Drink it with flavoursome white meat or poultry dishes and you, too, may be pleasantly surprised.