Monthly Archives: August 2018

Wine Lovers Beware!

Standard

Glass almost emptyI have some bad news for those of us who enjoy a glass of wine (or two): a recent study published in The Lancet, the respected international medical journal, found that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.  The previous view that moderate drinking may protect against heart disease remains true but the latest view is that the greater risk of cancer and other diseases outweighs any pluses.

But, before we all reach for a bottle to drown our sorrows, let’s look behind the eye-catching headlines at what the report actually says about the risks:

Taking 100,000 non-drinkers, 914 could expect to develop certain cancers in any one year.  A similar size group who have 1 drink a day causes this figure to rise by just 4 people.  With 2 drinks, it becomes 981 and with 5 drinks a day (which equates to a little more than half a bottle of wine) to 1252.  So, share a bottle of wine with a friend every day and you have just over a 1 in 100 chance of contracting one of these diseases.   If you don’t drink at all, your chance is just under 1 in 100.  In other words, even drinking at the highest level surveyed, you have almost 99 chances in 100 of avoiding these ailments – and ultimately dying of something not alcohol-related!

Of course, nothing in life is completely without risk; just ask my wife, Hilary, who is currently recovering from a broken ankle sustained while she was crossing the road, while completely sober!  You just need to manage that risk which, for those who enjoy a glass of wine involves drinking responsibly and in moderation, avoiding binge drinking or drinking before driving. 

Ignoring sensationalist headlines that really don’t reflect the true findings of this important study may also lower your blood pressure! 

Advertisements

No Bad Wines?

Standard

SL Supermkt 1“You never say anything bad about a wine on your blog” commented a friend recently.  “Does that mean you never open a bottle that was truly awful?”

It’s a good question but, thinking about it, I can’t recall the last really poor wine I tasted.  I have, of course, opened faulty bottles, which isn’t the same thing at all: bottles can be corked or oxidised or display some other characteristic that means that the wine doesn’t taste how the winemaker intended it to taste.  Faulty bottles can occur in any number of ways – bad batches of corks or poor storage, for example – but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor wine; another bottle of the same bought at a different time might be delicious and so it would be unfair to blog about the bad one.

But, back to the question about truly awful wines.  This is a bit more subjective but, taking the standard as one that was so badly made or unpleasant tasting as to be almost undrinkable, I really can’t remember the last time I met a wine like that.  Admittedly, I’ve opened some that had very little character (and so didn’t blog about them as there wasn’t anything interesting to say!), but even those, in the main, were correctly made and not unpleasant to drink, simply rather bland.  Incidentally, some that fall into this category are among the best-selling brands on the UK supermarkets’ shelves!

Things weren’t always as good as this; turn the clock back to when I first started appreciating the wine I was drinking and I often found bottles that were only fit for pouring down the sink.  Maybe such wines are still made but the fact that they almost never reach our shelves is down to the skill of the professional wine buyers who visit growers on behalf of the major supermarkets, high street wine chains or wholesalers.  They are the people who weed out the rubbish and ensure that, although there may be the odd faulty bottle or wine that isn’t to our taste, we rarely open one that is truly awful.

 

 

 

Austria’s ‘Groovy’ Grape

Standard

Ask a wine lover about Argentina’s most important grape variety and the answer will, most probably, be Malbec.  The same goes for New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc and Germany and Riesling.  Although each of these countries grows other varieties, they are all best known for one grape, which has become a ‘signature’ variety for them.  Interestingly, only 1 of these (the Riesling) is actually native to the country concerned.  But there’s another pairing of this kind that has attracted increasing interest in recent years: Austria and Grüner Veltliner.  Some find the grape name difficult to pronounce and so it sometimes gets shortened to Gru V (groovy!); it should sell well to those who remember the 1960s! 

Gru VGrüner Veltliner is planted in about a third of Austria’s vineyards, making it easily their most common variety.  Given that, it’s inevitable that some examples will be better than others but, in my experience, you rarely find a bad bottle.  At the cheaper end, it makes a simple, pleasant everyday drinking white with hints of citrus and, often, an attractive white pepper tang.  But, in the hands of a skilled producer, such as Domaine Huber (Waitrose, £10.79), Grüner Veltliner can really shine.  Lovely pear flavours and hints of peach make this very moreish and, although only 12.5% alcohol, it has the body and richness to go with a range of dishes – fish, poultry, white meat – particularly those with a light, creamy sauce.

It’s not a variety that’s exclusive to Austria – I’ve seen, but not tasted, bottles from the Czech Republic and Hungary and there’s also a lovely, herby fresh example from Yealands Estate in New Zealand’s Marlborough region (Great Western Wine, £13.95).  But, for now, you’ll most frequently see Grüner Veltliner from Austria and, from my experience, it’s a combination you can buy with confidence.

A Hot Topic

Standard

Kir Yianni Vyd 3There won’t be many northern hemisphere vineyards currently looking as green as the one in the picture above.  Last week’s record-breaking temperatures – up to 47˚C (116˚F) – in Spain and Portugal mean that most vineyards there will be brown and parched.  And over in California, the baking heat and drought conditions have resulted in catastrophic fires; there, the loss of life and homes are of more immediate concern than any damage to the vines.

But, vineyard owners are survivors and, in most places, wines will be made – but how much and what sort of quality?  The last time I remember heat close to this year’s was in 2003 when growers had to rush back from their holidays in August to harvest quickly before the grapes shrivelled. That year, many wines tasted ‘cooked’ and lacked freshness and most were past their best much sooner than expected.  I fear that, unless we have cooler temperatures and rain soon, 2018 may be the same.

Although grapes need both heat and sunshine to ripen, the prolonged intensity of both this year will result in higher than usual sugar levels leading, potentially, to ultra-alcoholic and heavy, unbalanced wines.  The heat will also mean that the grapes will ripen too quickly, giving them little time to develop the complex flavours that come from nutritious minerals and trace elements in the soil.  Some vines may shut down completely as a way of protecting themselves, leading to a much reduced crop.

And then, there’s the night time temperatures, which, unusually, have also remained very high, frequently above 30˚C (86˚F).  Often, in hot weather, nights are quite a bit cooler.  This gives the vines a chance to rest, helping them retain crucial acidity in the grapes.  Without this, wines taste dull and flat and will lack that important refreshing character.  Acid can be added artificially during the winemaking process to counter this but it’s not as good as natural freshness.

So, with all these challenges, how will 2018’s wines from the affected areas turn out?  I suspect they will be variable; some producers will, no doubt, find the key to making something special, but many will not.   Perhaps the best option for consumers is to seek out wines from more northerly vineyards, some of which will have avoided the most extreme temperatures and so the worst of the problems.

The ‘Other’ Cabernet

Standard

There are 2 wine grapes with ‘Cabernet’ in their name: Cabernet Sauvignon is, by far, the better known, but, without the other Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, one of our favourite red wine grapes would never have existed.  It appears that a spontaneous cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc took place in a vineyard of mixed plantings many years ago and the rest, as they say, is history.

But ‘daddy’ Franc is still around and, in my opinion, can produce some very attractive, very drinkable wines, both as a varietal (a wine made from just one type of grape) and in blends.  The latter are most common in Bordeaux (with Merlot or the ‘other’ Cabernet as partners), while varietal examples can be found as far afield as north-eastern Italy, Hungary, Chile and California.  But the main source of single-variety Cabernet Franc is in the Anjou-Saumur section of France’s Loire Valley, although, in typical French style, the grape name rarely appears on the main label.

Instead, you need to look out for such Appellations Contrôlées as Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, St Nicolas de Bourgueil or Bourgueil.  All will be 100% Cabernet Franc and all, at their best, can produce delicious examples of the grape, especially in warmer years.  I wouldn’t claim to be able to distinguish between a wine from one of these Appellations and another – indeed, due to the influence of different winemaker’s styles, there is often more variety within an Appellation than between one and another.

BourgueilBut a Bourgueil we opened recently was delicious.  Lamé Delisle Boucard’s Cuvée Déchainée (a real bargain from Majestic at £10.99) is smooth with lovely black berry fruit flavours and an almost floral nose.  Quite light-bodied and with soft tannins, this is really food-friendly; try it with chicken or, even, perhaps a robust fish, like tuna.

Which goes to show that, despite all the attractions of Cabernet Sauvignon, it would be a mistake to ignore the ‘other’ Cabernet.