Monthly Archives: May 2018

Breaking the Rules

Standard

When buying a bottle of French wine, the first thing many of us look for are the words ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ (AC) on the label.  And with good reason.  The AC tells us which part of France the wine comes from and, frequently, what sort of wine to expect when the bottle is opened.  However, contrary to the commonly held view, it doesn’t guarantee quality – only that the wine is typical of the AC claimed. 

But, perhaps surprisingly, less than half of all French wine falls into the AC category.  Another quarter is classified Indication Géographique Protegée (IGP), the new name for Vin de Pays (Country wines) – a source of many attractive, well-priced, easy-drinking bottles.  Of the rest, some is distilled into brandies (or industrial alcohol!) leaving just 10% in the category which used to be known as Vin de Table (Table wine), which, since 2010, has been renamed Vin de France.

Under the Vins de Table label, you used to find nothing but the cheapest, most basic wines and discerning wine lovers sensibly avoided them.   But, it seems, it’s not just the name that has changed with Vin de France.  Looking through the catalogue of the highly respected Bristol-based wine merchant, Vine Trail, you’ll find a number of Vins de France – and at some lofty prices.  So, what is going on? 

There’s a small band of dedicated independent-minded producers who don’t choose to play by the rules.  They are making high quality wines but prefer to experiment with styles that are rejected for the AC as they aren’t recognised as ‘typical’ by the vetting panel.  But, these people are confident in their own ability and are happy that their wines are sold as Vins de France instead.

We opened one recently:

Balmet 1Jerome Balmet has his vineyard in Beaujolais and grows Gamay, the Beaujolais grape.  But his wine is nothing like any Beaujolais I’ve ever tasted.  Initially full of vibrant bitter cherry flavours, it develops fig and prune flavours in the glass and, by the end of the evening, had taken on a savoury, meaty character.  Really distinctive and very enjoyable (Vine Trail, £16.36). 

And, although you still need to treat some bottles in the Vin de France category with caution, wines such as this are a great recommendation and a fascinating way to try something different.

Advertisements

Wine with Asparagus?

Standard

Asparagus is often thought to be a difficult food to pair with wine, but it doesn’t need to be – especially if you look out for the more delicate English variety that is in its (sadly very brief) season at the moment.  Certainly, you need to choose your wine with some care but many crisp, dry whites work quite well: Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Alsace Pinot Gris and Austrian Grüner Veltliner all spring to mind – or, how about an English wine, perhaps a Bacchus, to go with English asparagus?  On the other hand, I’ve yet to find a red that will pair happily – not even a Beaujolais or Valpolicella, two reds that often work where you’d normally consider a white.

But my wife, Hilary, was thinking along a different track; looking at the meal we were cooking – a typical warm summer evening ‘special’ of Salmon Steaks with a herb crust and creamy mushroom sauce, Jersey Royal potatoes and the previously mentioned asparagus – she lifted a rosé off the wine rack: Château Sainte Anne from Bandol in the Provence region of the south of France (Vine Trail, £20).

Bandol rose

Bandol is best known for robust, long-lived reds made from a mix of grapes, typically Mourvedre with Grenache and Cinsault in support.  This rosé uses the same combination but the shorter skin contact needed for a rosé produced a fresher, lighter wine, ideally suited to this time of year, yet still sharing the herby, spicy flavours of the red.  My wife was right – it paired perfectly with the meal (including the asparagus), as well as making delicious drinking on its own later in the evening.

So, next time you’re faced with a supposedly ‘difficult’ ingredient, do experiment.  You may find a surprisingly good match where you least expect to.

Tasting Kosher Wines

Standard

Kosher TastingAs a Wine Educator, I get asked to run tastings on a range of different topics.  Among the most interesting was one for a 10th Anniversary party, when the hosts wanted wines from places they had visited together as a way of bringing back happy memories.  But a subject recently was a first for me: Kosher Wines – and the tasting was in a room in the local synagogue, no less.

So, aren’t all wines Kosher?  Absolutely not!  For a wine to be Kosher (and therefore acceptable for Jewish wine lovers) it must only be handled by observant Jews during the winemaking process and anything used must also be Kosher.  This particularly restricts ingredients widely used for clarifying wine before bottling, many of which are derived from animal, dairy or fish products forbidden to Jews.  Acceptable options are egg whites (provided the eggs are from Kosher sources) or bentonite clay. 

Many Kosher wines also undergo flash pasteurisation – necessary to retain their status should the wine be opened or served by someone who is not an observant Jew.  Some experts have suggested that this damages the wine, destroying the fruit character and making it taste dull and lifeless.  On the evidence of the bottles I selected for the tasting, I disagree; all the wines were as I would have expected from similar, non-pasteurised examples.

Of the wines on the night, the one that stood out for me was the Barkan Classic Pinot Noir from Israel’s Negev region (available from kosherwines.co.uk, £10.99).  Pinot Noir is the fussiest of grapes – not liking conditions too hot or too cold.  So, how would it get on in a vineyard more than 800 metres (2500 feet) above sea level in the semi-desert of the Negev?  A sophisticated, computer controlled irrigation system ensures that the vines receive enough moisture, but, even so, it is quite an achievement to produce such an attractive Pinot Noir with delightfully clean raspberry and redcurrant fruit in such a site. 

But this was only 1 example from my selection from around the world – France, Spain and the US also featured, but I could easily have picked wines from Italy, Australia or South Africa instead.  Truly an international phenomenon.

50 Years On

Standard

What were you doing in 1964?  I guess that many who are reading this weren’t even born then.  I was at school at the time and my main interest was the Beatles, then the most famous pop band in the world.  As for wine – I doubt that I’d ever tasted any by then and I certainly knew nothing about it.  But an Italian company, Masi, did; that was the year that they launched a new wine, Campofiorin – a wine that has subsequently become an iconic name and whose 2014 vintage, currently in the shops (Waitrose, £12.99) celebrates the brand’s 50th Anniversary with a specially designed ‘50’ label.

Campofiorin 50

Although sold as a Rosso Verona IGT (IGT is the Italian equivalent of the French term ‘Vin de Pays’), Campofiorin is effectively a high quality Valpolicella in disguise.  It’s made using the traditional grapes from that DOC – Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella – the main difference here is that the grapes are slightly dried before fermentation.  This concentrates the sugars in them and so produces a wine with more body and power than a normal Valpolicella – a technique borrowed from the prestigious Amarone wines from the same region.

Here, the method gives a lovely deep coloured wine with aromas of bitter cherry, prunes and spice. The same flavours, especially the spices, carry through to quite a rich and full palate with hints of chocolate, figs and vanilla on an attractive, long finish.

With good Amarones fetching £20 and more, this really is a bargain for those who like this chunky style – I admit it’s not to everyone’s taste – and no surprise that it is still on the shelves in its 50th vintage. 

Shame about all those wasted years listening to the Beatles and drinking something else!

2 Sides of Alsace

Standard

Alsace is a region that looks two ways.  When you visit, the architecture, the food, the local dialect and many of the place names all suggest you are in Germany, which lies just a few miles to the east across the River Rhine.  This view is supported by two of the most widely planted grape varieties there being Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  But despite times under German rule in the past, today Alsace is firmly in France – although many of the locals would probably say that they’re from Alsace first and France second. 

The climate, too, is not quite what you’d expect: lying around 48˚N (similar to Champagne and more northerly than Chablis), and with Riesling and Gewurztraminer thriving, you’d be thinking it would be decidedly cool.  Yet, thanks to the shelter of the Vosges Mountains to the west, Alsace is often one of the sunniest and driest regions in the whole of France, allowing more warmth-loving varieties such as Muscat, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to ripen, if planted in the right spots.

And Domaine Paul Blanck has certainly found those, with vineyards ideally situated around the village of Kientzheim, just north of Colmar. 

Alsace P NoirHis Pinot Noir (Waitrose, £14.99) is especially recommended.  It’s a grape variety that can be very fussy – thin and tart if under-ripe, jammy if over-ripe – but Blanck has got it just right: quite restrained on the nose but with lovely ripe raspberry and cranberry flavours on the palate leading into a long fresh finish.  The only sign that this comes from a relatively cool site is the modest (12.5%) alcohol, but, for me, that, too is a plus giving the wine elegance and style and making it really food-friendly: duck or turkey certainly, but the lowish tannin would also point to pairing it with some robust fish dish, say a tuna steak.

Although Pinot Noir is most famously grown in Burgundy, it’s also found (as Spätburgunder) in parts of Germany and this example from Alsace is, for me, closer to that country’s style.  One more sign, perhaps, of this region looking two ways.

 

Piedmont: So Much Choice

Standard

If you’re looking to taste an unusual grape variety or a wine from a lesser-known region, then a good place to start is Italy – it grows more different grape varieties than any other country and has countless local DOCs (the Italian equivalent of the French Appellation Contrôlée) – many of which are hardly seen beyond the local area.

Not everything different is good – sometimes there’s a reason why a wine is obscure – but a bottle I opened recently reminded me of the grape variety Arneis and why it really should be much better known. 

Langhe ArneisCristina Ascheri makes a particularly attractive example (Great Western Wine, £13.95): a lightly perfumed white wine, full bodied but not overpowering and with delicious ripe pear and peach flavours and a hint of almonds on the finish.  A pleasant glassful on its own but even better alongside some fish or pasta in a creamy sauce.

Perhaps one reason why Arneis is not so well known is that it is native to Piedmont, a region in north-west Italy with more than its fair share of high quality and famous wines.  Among the reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, both made with the local Nebbiolo grape, stand out, although the Barbera and Dolcetto varieties can also produce very attractive wines – often ready to drink much sooner and more easily approachable.  Among the local whites, I often wonder why Gavi is so much better known than Arneis – I’ve had as many disappointing examples as great ones.  And then there’s the local sparkling wines: sadly, Asti (formerly known as Asti Spumanti) rarely shines these days but the delicately sweet Moscato d’Asti, often with only 5 or 6% alcohol, can be a real delight accompanying a Panna Cotta or Zabaglione dessert.

I started by suggesting you look to Italy for interesting and different wines, but you might not even want to cast your net so wide when the single region, Piedmont, can offer so much choice.