This month’s gathering of the Bristol Tasting Circle was a rather more sombre affair than usual. The group’s long-serving Secretary, Judith Tyler, died last month and this was our first meeting since that very sad event. Judith, alongside her fellow committee members, Tim and Graeme, had worked hard to widen the appeal of the Tasting Circle and so attracted many new members. The Group will continue but we will miss her infectious enthusiasm.
I’m sure she would have enjoyed our tasting this month with local wine merchant and regular Tasting Circle visitor, Raj Soni (www.rswines.co.uk), presenting a selection of bottles from producers who are making a real effort to reduce sulphur levels in their wines.
Why is this important? Although sulphur in various forms is widely used in the wine (and food) industries as a disinfectant and preservative, it can cause breathing problems; asthma sufferers are particularly at risk and, as a result, the warning ‘contains sulphites’ appears on virtually all wine labels. Too much sulphur can also affect the taste and smell of wine; think how a struck match smells and that gives you the idea of what to look for. However, wines with too little sulphur can become unstable, so there’s a balance to be drawn. But, from this tasting, it was clear that wines with sulphur levels more than 50% below widely accepted norms can be both stable and delicious.
Two reds particularly stood out for me: Château Saint Estève (£12.40), a Grenache-based blend from the southern Rhône, is smooth, intense and mouth-filling with lovely black cherry flavours and great length while Louis Chenu’s Bourgogne (£20) was more delicate but full-flavoured and with a typical Burgundian earthiness.
These, and all the other low sulphur wines we tasted, are available online from www.nfizz.co.uk. Many are also organic (or biodynamic) and most (but not the Rhône wine mentioned above) are suitable for vegans.
The Spanish DO (designated wine area) of Ribeira Sacra isn’t at all well-known – even among keen wine lovers. In fact, in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (nicknamed the ‘Winelovers’ Bible’ with good reason), it merits just 2 lines. And the Wine and Spirit Education Trust ignores it completely until students reach ‘Diploma’ level. But, based on the wines I’ve tasted from there, it’s certainly an area worth exploring – and not just for the adventurous.
So, where is Ribeira Sacra? Look to Spain’s far north-west where you find the cool, Atlantic-influenced region of Galicia, which is becoming increasingly popular due, in particular, to the high quality Albariño grape. This white variety thrives near the coast but, go just 50 miles or so inland, and it’s a local red grape, Mencia, that dominates in ancient, almost impossibly steep rocky vineyards; you’ll see the words ‘viticultura heroica’ on the label pictured. Growing vines here is heroic viticulture indeed!
But, if you’d expect Regina Viarum Mencia (Wine Society, a bargain at £11.50) to reflect this harsh, uncompromising landscape with a wine of a similar character, you’d be wrong. It’s a wine that, for me, had the same silky smoothness of a nice Pinot Noir – interesting as some thought that Mencia might be related to that grape, although apparently not. This classy example is delightfully fresh with lovely slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through to give a refreshing and very satisfying red wine. Food-friendly as you might guess – but nothing too big or robust: partridge or duck, perhaps.
Ribeira Sacra’s production is tiny and wines from there may be difficult to find but, next door, in Bierzo, they also grow the Mencia grape and Majestic have a good example in Pizarras de Otero (£7.49).
Either way, this is a grape and a region worth getting to know.
We human beings are often creatures of habit. And that can be especially true when we’re buying our wines. We’ve enjoyed a bottle in the past, so let’s buy it again. Why take the chance of trying something different, which might not be as good? I understand that although, if I’d taken that view, I’d probably still be drinking the Black Tower Liebfraumilch and Mateus Rosé that I first tasted more years ago than I care to admit!
But the world of wine is changing and perhaps, more importantly, our own tastes may be changing (see the Liebfraumilch comment above!). Maybe it’s time to look again at a wine that we didn’t like previously?
Happily, someone on a recent course of mine did just that. She’d hated Australian whites in the past because they were too alcoholic and oaky but booked in on ‘Wines of Australia’ anyway. The result? She discovered how much has changed. Indeed, of the list of wines she noted to buy again, four were white. Being open-minded and prepared to experiment has opened up a whole new area of enjoyment for her.
Interestingly, one of her new white likes was a Riesling – a grape variety that would benefit from a re-think by many wine drinkers. For too long wrongly associated with low quality sweetish German wines, there are now some delicious dry examples around. And not just from Germany.
Peter Lehmann’s Wigan Riesling from Australia’s Eden Valley (Wine Society, £12.50) is delightfully dry, crisp and zesty with lovely lime-peel aromas and a delicious honeyed palate. And, with only 11% alcohol and no oaking, it’s just the sort of Australian white that more of us should be discovering.
You just need an open mind.