Monthly Archives: March 2018

A Glorious Grenache

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Some grape varieties are always being talked about: I’m thinking of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in particular as well as more recently fashionable grapes like Grüner Veltliner and Alboriño.  Others, you rarely hear anything about.  Take Grenache, for example (or Garnacha, if you prefer the Spanish naming).  Even in the 1990 census, when it was the 2nd most widely planted variety in the world, no-one took much notice of it, it was just there, usually in a blend with other grapes: with Syrah in the southern Rhône, with Tempranillo in Rioja.  And, it was rarely credited on labels – although the Australians used the initial for their ‘GSM’ blends (the SM being Shiraz and Mourvedre).

So, I wasn’t entirely surprised when the latest grape census (University of Adelaide, 2011) showed that more than a third of all Grenache had been grubbed up in the intervening 20 years and the variety had slipped from 2nd to 7th place.  Yet, I think it’s a great grape variety when well handled and, happily, there are still some glorious examples around.  Perrin & Fils’ Gigondas Vieilles Vignes (West End Wines, £22) is one. 

GigondasDeep, intense and really savoury, this wine, from one of the best villages of the southern Rhône, shows the benefit of making wine from old vines (vieilles vignes) – in this case, according to the label, from pre-phylloxera vines (so, by my calculations, vines that are at least 140 years old – the deadly bug struck the region in the 1870s!)

Unusually for the appellation, this Gigondas is made from 100% Grenache, which probably accounts for the high alcohol (15%).  Although typical of this sun-loving, free-ripening variety, here, with all the other flavour elements in balance, there’s no burn and the alcohol complements rather than intruding.

So, while Grenache may never be as popular as Cabernet or Pinot Noir, look carefully and you’ll find some really great drinking.

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Syrah? Shiraz?

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Syrah and Shiraz: two grape names recognised by most wine lovers, but it’s surprising how many don’t know that they’re actually the same variety.  Native to France’s Northern Rhône region, the grape there is always known as Syrah while, in Australia, where it was among the first vines introduced by James Busby soon after the initial European settlers, it’s generally called Shiraz. 

The reason for the 2 names is unclear although a very early spelling of the grape seems to have been ‘Scyras’ which the French might pronounce ‘Syrah’ whereas Australians might be more likely to say Shiraz.  Believe that or not as you like, but the 2 names are probably here to stay. 

And, while, in the past, most New World growers tended to use the name Shiraz for all their wines, more recently, there has been a split: those aiming for a powerful, fruity, high alcohol wine continuing to use Shiraz, while producers looking for a more spicy, lean ‘European’ style adopting the French version of the name.  I wouldn’t rely on that division entirely but I’ve certainly tasted some bottles labelled Syrah recently that tend to support the theory. 

One is Lammershoek’s ‘The Innocent’ Syrah from Swartland in South Africa (Waitrose, £9.99) – love the picture of the sheep on the label! 

Innocent SyrahThis is beautifully soft and restrained with flavours of cooked blackberries and a definite savoury edge to it.  The grapes were selected from unirrigated bush vines up to 50 years old, blending from 3 separate vineyard sites to give complexity.  Following fermentation, part of the wine was aged in large old wooden barrels, again to broaden the palate of flavours, yet always with restraint and subtlety being to the fore.  

Perhaps, not a wine for lovers of the big, chunky Shiraz style, but, for those who enjoy, say, a Crozes Hermitage or a St Joseph, there’s much to like here – and at a very reasonable price.

 

Good Wines, Sensible Prices

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Traditionally, wines have been sold under the name of the producer or a brand name created by them.  There have always been a few exceptions, mainly retailers such as Berry Brothers and the Wine Society putting their own name on wines they have bought in, but this trend has increased greatly in recent years.  Virtually every supermarket has its range of own label wines – some have 2: a basic selection sold on price and a premium range which often includes some interesting bottles which are excellent value.  ‘Tesco Finest’ and ‘Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference’ are examples of this latter category but others do the same – they just spring to mind because they’re my 2 nearest supermarkets.

These premium ranges often involve the supermarkets’ own wine buyers (these days generally Masters of Wine or other well-qualified individuals) working with producers to craft something that reflects the local style but would also appeal to the tastes of customers – and, because the supermarkets can buy in bulk, prices are usually very attractive.

But, it’s not just the supermarkets who do this.  I’ve already mentioned the Wine Society, whose ‘Exhibition’ range is particularly good, but, now, Majestic Wine Warehouse is joining the party with their bottlings under the ‘Agenda’ label.  The examples I’ve tasted so far are well up to standard and excellent value.  It’s difficult to pick just one but their Portuguese red from the Daó region (a real bargain at £7.99 if you buy as part of the ‘mix 6’ offer) is certainly worth trying. 

DaoIt is just so drinkable – soft and rounded with flavours of cooked plums and herbs. A hint of oak gives a savoury edge and there are the gentlest of tannins. For me, this makes perfect every day drinking, especially to accompany some mildly spicy sausages.

And that’s exactly what these premium own label ranges are designed to do: nothing fancy, just good drinking at sensible prices.

 

 

 

A Red Called ‘Monty’

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“I had a really nice Italian red last week” a friend said to me recently; “it was called Monty-something”.  He looked expectantly as if he was hoping that I would immediately fill the gap.  A dozen ‘Monte’s’ sprang to mind; fortunately, my 3rd guess brought a smile of recognition: ‘yes, that was it – Montepulciano’.  But, there’s not one Montepulciano but two.  Because, like Chardonnay, Montepulciano is both the name of a grape variety and of a wine producing village.  That wouldn’t be a problem if, like Chardonnay (which is grown in the village of the same name in southern Burgundy), the village of Montepulciano (in Tuscany) actually grew the grape Montepulciano.  It doesn’t!  It grows Sangiovese, the Chianti grape.  To find the grape Montepulciano, you need to look further east where Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the most common example.  Confused?  My friend was! 

I tried to describe the differences: Montepulciano, the grape, tends to be quite soft and fruity, often with flavours of plums or cherries and usually fairly easy drinking.   I frequently describe it as the perfect Spaghetti Bolognese wine.  On the other hand, Montepulciano, the village, produces 2 wines: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and its junior brother, Rosso di Montepulciano.  Vino Nobile (‘the noble wine’) is fashionable and so not cheap (think £25 plus).  It also tends to need a good few years before it is ready to drink but the cheaper Rosso is often a good buy, particularly from a reputable producer.   

I opened a bottle from Poliziano recently (Great Western Wines, £14.95). 

MontepulcianoIt had lovely flavours of dried fruits and cooked plums, black olives, chocolate and a certain smokiness.  At a little over 2 years old, it still had quite noticeable tannins but decanted and accompanying a meal, these softened nicely, although a couple of years extra ageing would be an advantage. 

But, back to the problem: is there a way to tell if a name is a grape or a place – or neither?  A tip that works for many Italian wines: look if there is a ‘d’ or ‘di’ or ‘della’ on the label.  It means ‘from’.  So, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is the noble wine from the named village whereas Montepulciano d’Abruzzo denotes the grape from the region of Abruzzo.  Simple! 

And, by the way, my friend still doesn’t know which Montepulciano he enjoyed!

 

South Africa Rises Again

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Of all the world’s wine producing countries, surely none has experienced as many highs and lows as South Africa.  Their earliest attempts at winemaking, in the 1650s, were described by one contemporary writer as having ‘revolting sourness’ and being ‘astringent – useful only for irritating the bowels!’  Yet, only 30 years later, the famous Constantia Estate was founded, which went on to produce marvellous dessert wines that were in demand across all the major royal courts of Europe – and were even ordered by Napoleon when in St Helena, presumably to make his exile more bearable.   

The fortunes of Constantia – and South Africa’s wines, in general – declined in the 19th century and the arrival there of the phylloxera bug in 1886, decimating the vineyards, seemed like it might be the final straw.  But, happily, it wasn’t, although rebuilding in the 20th century was very slow and mistakenly focussed on quantity rather than quality.  As a result, South Africa’s wine industry was in a dreadful state when the country emerged following the apartheid years. 

Fast forward little more than 2 decades and South Africa has turned round again.  Attractive Chardonnays, intense Cabernet Sauvignons and the local speciality, Pinotage, all make this a country that wine lovers should take notice of.  But, if I had to pick just one grape variety from there, you might be surprised to hear it would be Chenin Blanc.  Originating in France’s Loire Valley, it was, for a long time, used as a workhorse variety in South Africa and remains the most planted grape across the country.  Yes, there are still some poor and rather bland Chenins around, but, provided you ignore those at rock bottom prices, there are some excellent ones, too.   

Morgenhof CheninOne definitely worth trying is from Morgenhof, a company that has survived the highs and lows since its beginnings in 1692, less than 40 years after South Africa’s first wines.  Their bottling from the Simonsberg sub-region (Waitrose, £11.99) starts crisp and citrusy, before opening up with a lovely peachy richness and an almost oily texture (in a nice way!).  All enhanced by some gentle smokiness from restrained use of oak and a long, long fresh finish.  And, because Chenin remains unfashionable, it’s a real bargain at the price.