Wines from the Graves area in the south of Bordeaux will be well-known to many wine lovers. The area takes its name from the French word for gravel, which describes the soil conditions there – conditions that are shared with many of the most prestigious parts of Bordeaux’s Haut-Medoc (see picture above, thanks to Wine and Spirit Education Trust).
So, why is the gravel so important? Two reasons: firstly, it ensures that the ground is well-drained so that, although the vines can get enough water to help them grow (assuming it rains at the right time), their roots aren’t sitting in water which might rot them. And secondly – and this is particularly important in wine regions with marginal climates such as Bordeaux – each tiny piece of gravel acts as a mini storage heater, absorbing the heat of the sun during the day and radiating it out at night. This means that the vineyard retains heat – and the grapes continue to ripen – even after the sun has gone down.
But Graves isn’t the world’s only wine region where gravel plays its part: the same thing happens in the area known as the Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay. This was an area created less than 150 years ago when a devastating flood caused the River Ngaruroro to change its course and left the deep gravel of the former river bed exposed. Despite the parallels with Bordeaux (including the relatively cool climate), it took more than 100 years before the vine growing potential of the area was recognised. But, since 1990, the Gimblett Gravels have been an important source of – mainly red – wines. And, not surprisingly, the majority of the grapes planted there are Bordeaux varieties.
We opened an exceptional example recently: Craggy Range’s Te Kahu (Majestic, £15.99) is mainly Merlot with some Malbec (yes, that is a Bordeaux variety, even though Argentina is now claiming it as its own!), Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Franc also in the blend. Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely black fruits and just a subtle hint of spice, this is really delicious and a real bargain compared to many Bordeaux reds of this quality.
So, next time you’re in a vineyard, whether in Bordeaux, New Zealand or somewhere else, look down and, if there’s gravel beneath your feet, it is likely that the wine will be something special.
‘Lemony’, ‘citrussy’, ‘refreshing’, ‘clean’: you often see these words in descriptions of wine. What they’re really saying is that the wine has plenty of acidity, but in a good way. And, so long as the acidity doesn’t dominate and is in balance with the rest of the flavours, I’d generally agree that some acidity in a wine is a positive. It can make the wine more refreshing and attractive on the palate and it can also help make it more food-friendly by cutting through any richness or greasiness in a dish. But a few people – including a very good friend of ours – are particularly sensitive to acidity and my ‘lemony-freshness’ becomes their ‘tart and shudderingly unpleasant’. As a result, they need to choose their wine very carefully.
Wines made from certain grapes tend to be naturally more acidic than others: famous varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon all fall into this category. So, despite their attractions for the rest of us, acidity-haters should concentrate their attention elsewhere. But it’s not just the grape variety that’s important: as grapes ripen, the level of sugar in them increases but the level of acidity decreases, so wines from warmer regions of the world, where the grapes are likely to be riper, will, in general, be less acidic than those from cooler climates. Those are two useful factors to bear in mind but, as with much in the wine world, things are not as simple as that: some producers actually add acidity during the winemaking process – it’s quite legal and they would argue that they’re just compensating for what would otherwise be an unbalanced wine.
So, where should those who dislike acidity look? The pictures above suggest a few good places to start: for white wines, Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Semillon are all varieties that are naturally quite low in acidity while, for reds, Tempranillo – the main Rioja grape – or Grenache – a key player in many Côtes du Rhônes, are the same. And, watch out for wines made by less interventionist winemakers, as they are less likely to have acidity added.
But, most of all, taste widely and, if you find wines that suit your palate, stick with them.
There’s a saying in the property business that the 3 most important factors in determining how much you can sell your house for are ‘location, location and location’. It seems it’s much the same with wine; a bottle we opened recently could easily have cost twice as much if it had come from one of the more fashionable parts of the wine world – Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé, perhaps – yet the delicious, Sauvignon Blanc-based white, Krasno, was just £7.99 from Majestic! Why? It came from Slovenia.
Not to be confused with Slovakia, (the eastern part of the now divided Czechoslovakia), Slovenia was always the most forward and outward looking part of the former Yugoslavia from a wine point of view and, in 1992, the country was the 1st to declare independence. Some of its vineyards, particularly those in the Goriska Brda area, where Krasno comes from, adjoin those of Italy’s Friuli region and, in fact, a number of growers have land on both sides of the border; how do they label their wine if it’s blended from some grapes from their Italian vineyards and some from Slovenia, I wonder?
But, back to the Krasno: apart from the Sauvignon Blanc, the blend also comprises a high quality grape variety local to both Friuli and Slovenia: Ribolla Gialla. The combination produces an attractive, quite fragrant white with hints of elderflower and lovely ripe pears on the palate. Although the Sauvignon is the majority grape, you wouldn’t immediately identify it as the flavours are richer than a Loire Sauvignon and with less tropical fruit than a New Zealand example. It seems the Ribolla Gialla is punching above its weight and giving the wine real ripeness and character. For just £7.99, the length is excellent, too.
And that’s all due to where this wine comes from. Customers will pay for famous names and well-known regions so, if you’re looking for a real bargain, remember the property motto: location, location and location.
Drink white wine chilled, red wine at room temperature. Isn’t that the first thing every wine lover is told? But is it always true? I’d say it’s not necessarily as simple as that. To start with, you’re the customer – if you prefer your Chablis warm and your Claret straight from the fridge, why shouldn’t you have it that way? (Just don’t expect me to spend time drinking with you!)
In the main, I prefer my white wines chilled, although not – as some people serve them – so cold that any taste is frozen out of them. But, as for red wines, I think we need to look behind the idea of serving at ‘room temperature’. When this suggestion was made – at least a century ago, as far as I can make out – central heating was rare and most living rooms were, as a result, far cooler than we expect these days. In fact, they were probably around 18 – 20˚C (64 – 68˚F), an ideal temperature to serve most red wine. That’s not so now when 22 – 24˚C (71 – 75˚F) is, perhaps, more common. So, you might argue that you shouldn’t serve red wines at today’s room temperature but slightly chill them instead; I say slightly chill them, not reduce them to a typical white wine temperature.
But there are a few reds that, personally, I would choose to drink even a bit cooler than this – and those are reds that are well suited to the very hot, sunny weather we have enjoyed (or not!) in Bristol for the last couple of weeks or so: light-bodied reds such as Beaujolais, Valpolicella, some Loire reds and some Pinot Noirs can all benefit from a half an hour in the fridge to bring them down to, perhaps, 14 – 16˚ C (57 – 61˚F). I find the chilling makes them more refreshing without masking the flavours.
But, that’s my view. If you want to drink your reds at present-day room temperature, then there’s nothing wrong in that; as I said before, you’re the customer and the customer is always right!
Riesling seems to be one of those ‘love it or hate it’ grape varieties. I’m generally in the former category but I get the feeling from talking to other wine drinkers I meet that I’m in the minority there. I know that everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them so, clearly, there will be some who just don’t like the sort of flavours Riesling offers. But, more frequently, those that tell me they hate Riesling point to the semi-sweet bargain-basement Hocks and Liebfraumilchs you used to find in every supermarket as the reason for their view of the variety. I have to be careful how I reply as I need to gently point out that those wines rarely contain any Riesling (they’re more likely to be made from Muller-Thurgau). But, even ignoring that misunderstanding, there are so many different interpretations of Riesling worldwide, it’s hardly fair to say you either love them all or, indeed, hate them all.
In Germany alone you find delicate, dry or just off-dry examples (try something from the Mosel), slightly richer bottlings from further south (the Pfalz, perhaps) as well as the wonderful fine dessert wines with only 7 or 8% alcohol. Across the Rhine, in Alsace, the dry Rieslings are more full-bodied, regularly with 13% alcohol, or there’s the lovely sweet late-harvest bottles. All very different from each other but all with the distinct refreshing acidity that is so much Riesling’s hallmark.
But, travel to the cooler regions of the New World – Oregon, Washington State, parts of Australia and New Zealand – and you find a particular local take on the variety: From Australia, especially, the acidity is often in the form of a lovely lime-flavoured freshness and a bottle we opened recently showed this to perfection: Howard Park’s Riesling from the lesser-known Mount Barker region of Western Australia (Great Western Wine, £12.50). Here, influenced by cool winds and currents from the southern ocean, Riesling ripens just enough and the result is a delicious white, ideal as an aperitif or to accompany lighter dishes with, perhaps, a gentle Asian fragrance.
I’m pleased to say that, over the past year, Bristol Wine Blog has attracted a whole host of new readers; in fact numbers have more than doubled compared to earlier times. Welcome to all of you! Interestingly, most of the newcomers are from the United States and so, as we’re closing in on the 4th of July, I thought I’d give you one Brit’s take on the wines you send over to us, starting with a delicious bottle we opened last night:
Clos du Bois Pinot Noir (Majestic, £14.99) had all the lovely silky smoothness I expect from this quality grape along with plenty of red cherry fruit and an attractive smokiness. And, with only 13.5% alcohol, it wasn’t too heavy and proved really food-friendly with pan fried duck breast strips with a tomato and mushroom sauce. It also brought back happy memories – it was a wine we used to sell at Harveys when I worked there way back before they closed their Bristol base.
But, sadly, it’s not often I can find such a gem; although we import more wine from the USA than from any other country except Australia, the vast majority is simple stuff from the major mass-market brands (Barefoot, Echo Falls and the like) at pretty much bargain basement prices. Now, clearly those please a lot of people and sell very well so I’m not knocking them, but, let’s be honest, when it comes to true wine lovers, there really isn’t much in these bottles to get excited about – or to blog about.
Yet, I know the US produces some wonderful wines. The problem is that the choice of good ones here is quite limited and the prices sky high: typically £25 to £60 – way above what most UK customers are prepared to pay. I’d just love to find something attractive at a more affordable ticket, but I struggle.
So, please, dear American readers (and others!): think about the wines you enjoy in your own home or in your favourite local restaurant. Are any of these from US producers who would like to sell something interesting and appealing in the UK and can get it on the shelves here around £15 to £20? If so, then do urge them to take the plunge. There are a lot of UK wine lovers who would happily pay that sort of money and so celebrate the 4th of July with an appropriate bottle!