2018: Looking Back

Around this time last year, a friend asked me “How many different wines do you drink in a year?”  I had to confess that I had no idea.  But, the question intrigued me and so, geek that I am, I decided to try and count them in 2018!  Amazingly, I persevered and, with just a few days left of the year, the total has just passed …..550!

Mathematicians among you will have calculated instantly that that’s about 1½ wines a day so, before anyone thinks I’ve spent the entire year in a permanent drunken stupor, I should say that the majority of the 550 have been at tastings where it’s been sniff, slurp, spit, scribble a quick note and on to the next wine – very little actually swallowed.

Not satisfied with mere numbers, I can also report that I’ve tasted wines from 23 different countries and from at least 99 different grape varieties – ranging alphabetically from agioritiko to zweigelt (Greek and Austrian reds, respectively).  I say ‘at least’ 99 because I only counted the major component of any blend and there were a couple of wines that I couldn’t discover which grape was involved.

The obvious next question must be ‘which was your favourite?’ and that, I’m afraid, is the hardest of all to answer – I’ve been lucky enough to taste so many truly delicious wines.  But I can say which was the most memorable:

Colares Branco 1969On a damp, chilly autumn day, my wife and I went to an event at Bristol’s Underfall Yard where an assortment of Portuguese products had been brought from Porto to the UK carried by a century-old sailing boat, the Bessie-Ellen.  Among the cargo was a few bottles of Adega Viúva Gomes’ Collares Reserva Branco 1969.  This incredible 49 year old wine is difficult to describe; perhaps closest would be to say it was in the style of a white port or madeira (even though it was not fortified as they would be) – deep golden colour, tangy and nutty and a finish that lasted for ever.  Remarkably, it was still full of life – and easily the most memorable wine of my busy, fruitful year.  (www.xistowines.co.uk may have some left, about £45)

One for the Holiday Table

“You’ve not blogged about wines to drink at Christmas” a friend said to me recently in an accusatory tone.  He was someone whose knowledge made him more than capable of deciding what do drink for himself – and I told him so.  “Yes, but there will be some people who would welcome some tips” he replied.  OK, he’s right, but, at the moment, every media site I look at seems to have the same idea, so there’s no shortage of advice.  And, of course, as I’ve said many times before, everyone’s taste is different, unique to them, so how useful is that advice really?

Having said that, I did Blog on the subject way back in December 2016 and, for those who are interested, those posts are still available in my archives.  Most of the wines I mentioned then are also still available and good (although the vintages and, particularly, the prices will have changed). 

So, with apologies to my friend and to others who would have liked an update, I’m going to Blog instead about a delicious white I opened last week – one that would certainly be good enough to grace any table over the holiday period:

Chilean ChardEmiliana’s Signos de Origen from Chile is a real bargain at £12.50 from Bristol independent wine merchant, Grape and Grind.  Lovely peach and pink grapefruit aromas greet you on first sniff and those flavours follow through onto the palate.  Although 14%, there is no heat to this wine, just a full, rich and flavoursome mouthful from the unusual grape blend of Chardonnay supported by the 3 white Rhône varieties Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.  I like the clean freshness of the wine, a result, no doubt, of the cool Pacific influences on the Casablanca Valley where La Vinilla vineyard lies.

We enjoyed it with some roast salmon with spiced sweet potato wedges but I can see it going equally well with other fish, soft cheeses and – dare I say it – even with turkey!

Malbec means Mendoza

Argentina is the world’s 6th largest wine producer yet, until quite recently, their output was almost completely ignored in the UK.  And, although things are beginning to change, compared to the other large New World countries, the USA, Australia and Chile, they are still under-represented on our shelves.

This is a shame as even their cheaper wines are almost always very attractive and approachable.  And, moving a little up-market, you’ll find wines that are truly delicious – in a leaner, more European style than, say, Chile – and also excellent value.  This is particularly true of their reds with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec the varieties to look out for.  The least-known of these, Malbec, is often described as Argentina’s ‘signature’ grape or unique selling point.  Indeed, for many of today’s wine lovers, Malbec is synonymous with the Mendoza region.

But, like many varieties found in the New World, Malbec’s origins are in France, in Cahors in the south-west – an area I’d recommend that those who enjoy this grape should investigate further.  It was also once widely grown in Bordeaux but the vast popularity of Cabernet and Merlot and the difficulty of ripening Malbec in the relatively cool climate has meant that its importance has reduced significantly there. 

MalbecSo, the largest plantings now are in Mendoza in the foothills of Argentina’s Andes Mountains where it seems to thrive.  Malbecs from brands such as Catena, Trapiche and Argento are reliably good and widely available in supermarkets and wine shops, but I was particularly impressed with a bottle of Don Nicanor’s Nieto Sentiner that I found in a local independent wine merchant, Grape and Grind in Bristol’s Gloucester Road (£13.99).

Rich and quite full-bodied but in no way heavy, lovely blackcurrant and blackberry fruit flavours followed an enticing aroma of violets.  There was also a subtle smokiness in there from 12 months in barrel.  All in all, a delightfully harmonious and rewarding red, ideal with red meat or, for vegetarians, perhaps, an aubergine bake.

One Grape or More?

Some winemakers make their wines entirely from a single grape variety whereas others prefer to mix 2 varieties – and there are many instances of producers blending 3, 4 or even more different grapes into their wines.  Why the difference and which is better?

The answer depends on who you speak to:

Red Burgundya Burgundian, whose whites would be made exclusively from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir would say that a single variety is best; they would argue that it produces a more focussed wine and lets the quality of the grape variety used show through.  They would also, no doubt, add that it had been that way for generations in Burgundy so why change?

Someone from Bordeaux or the Rhône would strongly disagree.  Both regions regularly make their wines from a mix of varieties – up to 13 different ones in some Côtes du Rhône.  Their view would be that blending different varieties gives a more complex wine, with the characteristics of each variety contributing to the final product. 

2017-11-16 10.44.11But, there’s another reason for blending in cooler climates such as Bordeaux: as an ‘insurance policy’ in case of poor weather.  There, a spring frost would damage the young shoots of the early-flowering Merlot but leave the Cabernet Sauvignon untouched.  On the other hand, if there is rain at harvest time, the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon may be the one to suffer while the Merlot will already be picked and in the winery, starting to ferment.   

That last comment also answers I question I hear quite often: when is the blending done when different varieties are used?  Although there are a few examples of 2 varieties being fermented together (Syrah and Viognier in some parts of the Northern Rhône, for example), more usually, each variety is fermented separately immediately after harvesting and the blending is done at the end of the process.

So which is better – a single variety or a blend?  For me, both are equally good in their own way, but, as with so much in the wine world, it’s all down to your personal taste.