Monthly Archives: January 2019

Try Bordeaux’s Whites too

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Bordeaux’s reputation rests mainly on its Cabernet and Merlot dominated red wines and its luscious sweet Sauternes.  But, as we found when we visited the city a couple of years back, there are some attractive dry whites produced there, too.  These are usually made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc or a mixture of the 2 (occasionally with some Muscadelle added for a little grapey interest), but not always.  We recently opened a bottle that was a much rarer blend of Sémillon with Colombard – and really enjoyed it.

bourg whiteChâteau de la Grave Grains Fins (Wine Society, £10.50) is deliciously refreshing with lovely pineapple and peach flavours and a long clean finish.  The peachiness reminded me a little of Viognier but that’s not an approved variety in Bordeaux so, in this case, the taste was most likely as a result of the inclusion of the Colombard.

Although not a particularly well-known grape variety, Colombard has been grown here for many years but, perhaps more significantly, slightly further north in the Charente region, where it, along with Ugni Blanc, is used in the production of the brandy known as Armagnac.  Sadly, demand for Armagnac has declined sharply in recent years and the producers are increasingly diverting Colombard into good value white wines; look in your supermarkets for Côtes de Gascogne or Charentais where the grape’s peachiness adds to the attraction of these crisp, easy-drinking bottles.

But, back to the Château de la Grave.  Despite the ‘Grave’ name, it’s not from that area of Bordeaux.  Instead, it comes from the Côtes de Bourg, an interesting but not highly-regarded Appellation slightly further north overlooking the Dordogne River.  As with the rest of Bordeaux, white Bourg wines are of secondary importance to reds but, at their best, both can be really drinkable as well as extremely good value.

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Durif: a Surprise Winner

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oz tastingAustralia is a vast country; west to east it’s almost the same size as the United States or, if you want to compare it to Europe, it would stretch from Portugal to Turkey.  So, even though most of Australia’s vineyards are concentrated in the southern third of the country, there is such a diverse range of climatic conditions that you can find virtually any wine style there.  And, even better, Australia has the skilled winemakers able to make the best of those conditions.

Given that, perhaps I should have set aside more than a single day to run a course on the subject, but those who joined me at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge centre recently had plenty to think about – and to taste.

60% of the grapes harvested in Australia each year are from just 3 grape varieties – Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – and we tasted some attractive examples of each of those.  Other familiar styles such as Eden Valley Riesling, Yarra Pinot Noir and Hunter Semillon also featured and showed very well.  But, in the vote to choose the favourite wine of the day, all were comprehensively defeated by a red wine made from an obscure variety that hardly anyone in the group had previously heard of:

oz tasting durifDurif was first propagated in the Rhône in south-west France in the 1880s, but, these days, is more commonly seen in California, where it’s usually known as Petite Sirah and, as I discovered when I bought De Bortoli’s 1628 Durif in Majestic (£8.99), there are also plantings in the Riverina District of New South Wales.  Rich, chunky and full bodied with intense black fruits, a decided spicy tang and firmish tannins, this was a wine that I thought might divide opinion.  But no!  It proved to be one of the clearest winners I remember.

It obviously thrives in Australia’s heat and looks to be a useful variety there for the future.

 

Lebanon’s Heroic Wines

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musar 4 (2)The wine world has many stories of triumph over adversity yet, surely, the most remarkable is that of Chateau Musar.  Musar’s vineyards are in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and its winery just outside Beirut, a couple of hours drive away over the mountains.  As a result, more than half of the vintages since 1975 have been made in a war zone or, at least, with the threat of war close by.  So, it is a truly heroic achievement that, in all that time, only 1 year has been missed.

And, when you taste the wines, as I did recently with the Bristol Tasting Circle, this desire to survive comes through.  Few of Musar’s wines are designed for drinking young.  The reds we tasted went as far back as 1996, the whites to 1991 and even the rosés – elsewhere often made for drinking within a year or so of the vintage – included a bottle from 2004.

The key to this longevity is a mixture of the growing conditions and the winemaking.  Although the Bekaa Valley sits at a warm latitude of 34˚N, its altitude – over 1000m (3000ft) above sea level – gives cool nights which help to retain the acidity in the organically-grown grapes – a vital element in making these full-bodied wines so well balanced. 

In the winery, everything is done with minimal intervention: indigenous yeasts, little added sulphur, no fining or filtering; simply harvest clean, ripe grapes and then let the natural processes do the rest.

The reds we tasted – interestingly before the whites – were mainly based around southern French varieties, particularly Cinsault and Carignan with a little Cabernet Sauvignon added, while the distinctive, spicy and honeyed dry whites were made from 2 local specialities, Obaideh and Merwah (although Jancis Robinson MW suggests that they may really be Chardonnay and Semillon, respectively).

This was a fascinating tasting of some unique and heroic wines.  All are available from local independent wine merchant ‘The Little Tipple’, email norman@littletipple.co.uk for details and prices.

 

Spain’s Unloved Hills

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I’ve mentioned before in Bristol Wine Blog how much Spain has improved the quality and diversity of its wine over the last couple of decades.  Yet, I regularly meet wine lovers who, with the likely exception of Rioja, have still not caught up with the change and continue to think of Spain as just producing simple, mass market wines. 

And, I’m guessing the one region of Spain that, they believe, this comment most applies to is the hills in the south-east of the country overlooking the Mediterranean.  It’s an area that, in the past, was the source of much cheap ‘plonk’ sold to undemanding tourists holidaying along the beaches of the Costas and, no doubt, these bottles still exist.  But, look a little more carefully and there are some delicious wines – mainly reds – produced from old vineyards of Garnacha (also known as Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvedre) and the very local Bobal.  DO names (Spain’s equivalent to France’s AC) including Jumilla, Yecla and Utiel Requena are among those to seek out.

unde vinumUnde Vinum (Waitrose, £13.99), a Bobal from the last named DO is a typical example of all that’s best from this area.  Soft and harmonious and full of attractive black fruit flavours, there was also a lovely freshness about the wine reflecting, perhaps, the fact that the grapes were from vineyards some 800m (2500ft) above sea level; the altitude nicely offsetting the extreme summer heat often found in this area.

Interestingly, the wine was aged in a mixture of barrels and tinajas (clay pots – see below on the right of the cellar). 

amphorae at frederic magnienI saw these pots in use in Burgundy a couple of years ago where they were thought to age the wine more gently and preserve the fruit flavours.  They’re certainly not a cheap option and their use in Unde Vinum shows the sort of wine the producers of this wine, and others in this still unloved part of Spain, are aiming for.

Terroir in Chile?

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Talk about wine to anyone in France and, before long, you will hear the word ‘terroir’.  The local climate, soil, slope of the land and grape variety or varieties planted all contribute to the terroir and some include local traditions and winemaking in the mix, too.  In that broader sense, terroir is what makes one wine different from another. 

Given that, it’s surprising that you rarely hear the word used by growers outside France.  They’re aware of it, of course – anyone who has ever tried to grow anything, either professionally or for fun, knows that certain plants grow in certain places and not in others – they just don’t seem to use the word.

So, I was interested when, a few years back, the Chilean producer Undurraga introduced a range of wines under the ‘Terroir Hunter’ name.  Was this simply a bit of marketing or was there something behind the name?  The first example I tried – a Grenache blend, I think – showed clearly that these were quality wines and I’ve looked out for them ever since.

terroir cab fThe latest is a blend of 85% Cabernet Franc with 15% Merlot (Wine Society, £14.95) from the Catemito vineyard described on the back label as being on shallow, sandy clay soil on an alluvial terrace overlooking the Maipo River.  The terroir concept continues by noting that the local climate is temperate with cool breezes encouraging the slow ripening of the grapes. 

And the taste?  A lovely herby, green pepper nose greets you (my wife thought ‘spearmint’) followed on the palate with rich, dark blackberry and chocolate flavours.  There are still some well-integrated tannins there even though the wine is already more than 5 years old and a super, long, dry finish.  One slight reservation: the 14% alcohol shows through a bit making the wine a little ‘hot’ but, with the right food – red meat, game, mushrooms, aubergines or tasty hard cheeses all spring to mind – and decanting in advance to clear the sediment, this is a real winner and a credit to the use of the term ‘terroir’.

 

Wine and Sharing

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May I begin by wishing all my readers a Happy and Peaceful New Year and, in this, my first Bristol Wine Blog of 2019, I’d like to share with you a brief summary of some of the delicious wines my wife and I enjoyed over the holiday period. 

Greek pair 

Many were old favourites including 2 Greek wines I’ve mentioned before in this Blog: Domaine Sigalas’ Assyrtiko/Athiri blend from Santorini (£20.40) is wonderfully rich and mouth-filling yet still crisp and citrusy and with a clean, long, long finish – undoubtedly one of our favourite whites – while the lovely fresh and elegant, black-fruited Alpha Estate ‘Turtles’ Syrah from the northern, Florina, region (£16.70) fills a similar place for us among the reds.  Both are available on-line from Greek Specialist, Maltby & Greek.

Pieropan Calvarino

I’ve also praised Pieropan’s range of Soaves previously but this was the first time I’d tasted their single vineyard, Calvarino, bottling (Wine Society, £18).  Less full-bodied than their superb ‘La Rocca’, this is still light years away from any standard Soave.  Quite restrained but with an attractive herbiness and, again, a seriously long finish.

Borthwick PG 

A new name to me is the New Zealand producer, Paddy Borthwick.  His Pinot Gris (Grape and Grind, £14.50) is just off-dry and with attractive tropical fruit flavours; definitely a grower to look out for.

Moulin a Vent

And finally, for lovers of reds, a stand-out Beaujolais: not in the light and quaffable style but much deeper and more intense.  Louis Boillot’s Moulin-a-Vent (Wine Society, £15.50) could easily be mistaken for a good village Burgundy – quite savoury and with earthy black fruit flavours; very much a food wine and one to be savoured.

So, in welcoming the New Year, I’d like to think that wine and sharing might help the world become a calmer and more tolerant place in 2019 than it seems to have been of late.