50 years ago, there wasn’t a single commercial vine planted in New Zealand’s Marlborough region. Today, wherever you look, you see little else. This incredible transformation was begun by the giant Montana company (now trading as Brancott Estate) but it was Cloudy Bay that really put Marlborough – and New Zealand wine in general – on the world wine map in 1985 with the launch of their iconic Sauvignon Blanc.
So influential was this wine that the Sauvignon Blanc variety now accounts for more than half of New Zealand’s entire vineyard area and more than 80% of its wine exports.
As you might guess, I love New Zealand’s wines but with a warning: they’re rarely cheap; good value given their generally high quality, yes, but not cheap. In fact, the average price of New Zealand wines sold in the UK is higher than for those from any other country. Many factors contribute to this: the cool and unpredictable climate, the relatively small production and the distance they have to be shipped are among the most important.
So I had to shop carefully when I needed to include one in a tasting recently and was given a fairly tight budget to work to. Happily, a wine I’ve bought before, Hartley’s Block Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, again came to the rescue.
It shows all the style I’m looking for and yet is comparatively reasonably priced at £7.49 in Waitrose. Not bargain-basement I’ll admit, but pretty good for New Zealand and actually remarkably good value for money.
It’s quite restrained for a New Zealand Sauvignon – none of the assertive flavours (often rudely described as ‘cats pee’) you sometimes find – just lovely pink grapefruit and aromatic hints of elderflower combined with a surprising richness given the coolish climate.
All in all, a delightful wine for the money and one that confirms New Zealand’s reputation as one of the most reliable countries from whom to buy wine.
In Wales, the surname ‘Jones’ is very widespread. Add in the fact that successive generations of a family often share the same first or given name, distinguishing between one Jones and another can become a little difficult. As a result, the habit arose to refer to people by their job; so, you get ‘Jones the Teacher’, ‘Jones the Butcher’ or ‘Jones the Farmer’. But, I suspect, rarely ‘Jones the Winemaker’ (although Wales has always had a few vineyards – a number that has expanded rapidly in the last few years).
But, there is a ‘Jones the Winemaker’, albeit in the south of France, rather than in Wales. After emigrating from the UK and working there for a few years, Katie Jones bought a vineyard in the Languedoc and began to make her own wine. She now has around 12 hectares (30 acres) spread across a number of small sites in the hillier, inland part of the Fitou Appellation. Following the classic recipe for making great wines, she has focussed on patches of low yielding old vines planted on very poor rocky soils.
As a result, life hasn’t been easy, particularly in 2013 when Katie lost her entire white wine production after some vandals opened the taps on her tanks, but, happily, she has fought back and her wines reflect her dedication.
Her Fitou (Wine Society, £15.50) is typical; a rich, savoury blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah – some from vines over 100 years old – giving a lovely spicy mouthful of hedgerow fruits, liquorice and leather. The label says 14.5% alcohol, and, although a big wine, this is beautifully balanced. Definitely needing food to show at its best – something full and robust: venison or other game, perhaps, or a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish spring to mind.
Jones the Winemaker is definitely a name to follow.
Italy is the 2nd largest supplier of wine to UK – behind Australia and just in front of USA. But, despite this popularity, I think most UK customers are missing the best Italy has to offer. The biggest sellers here include bargain-basement Pinot Grigio and Prosecco plus other famous names such as Chianti, Soave, Valpolicella and Frascati. Sadly, all of these can disappoint as often as they thrill.
Other wine drinkers in the UK simply ignore Italy completely: ‘it’s all just too confusing’ is a frequent comment. And one that I understand. The problem is that Italy produces so much wine and is so diverse that it’s hard to pick the real gems from the mass of ordinary bottles that are alongside them on the shelves.
A few pointers are always useful and that is just what I tried to give those who signed up for my recent course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. We tasted a dozen wines over the day including examples from half of Italy’s 20 regions. Of the whites, the clean, fresh Nord Est Vermentino from Sardinia (Majestic, £8.99) with its delightful pear and peach flavours was clearly most popular but the reds produced much more discussion and divided opinions.
I said earlier that Chianti can often disappoint but Medici Riccardi’s Classico Riserva that I found in Lidl for less than £7 proved to be an incredible bargain. Its dusty, slightly bitter black fruit flavours and attractive smokiness made it one of the group favourites. Sadly, I see it has disappeared from their website and so may already be sold out.
The other joint winner among the reds is, happily, still available. Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso (Majestic, £11.99) was full of figs and dried fruit flavours typical of the ‘Ripasso’ process. This is where a young wine is re-fermented on the skins of an Amarone wine, so picking up some of the richer, fuller character that comes from the drying process used for Amarones.
No-one went away an expert on Italian wines – that would take a lifetime – but most were convinced that it was worth looking beyond the confusion to discover the marvellous diversity.
The French wine region of Alsace shares a border and considerable historic links with Germany and so, perhaps not surprisingly, you’ll find many of the same grape varieties in both places. The Pinot family – Noir, Gris and Blanc – are found in both, although in Germany are known as Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder respectively; (I think the French names are a little easier to pronounce!) Gewurztraminer also appears on both sides, but, most importantly of all, so does Riesling.
Almost half the world’s plantings of Riesling are in Germany and they proudly declare that most of their best wines are made with that variety. In Alsace, too, Riesling is considered their most noble grape, but the styles of wine each country produces from the variety are totally different from each other.
Apart from the delicious wines both make to be enjoyed specifically as dessert wines, German producers tend towards an off-dry style. Here, a little sweetness balances Riesling’s high acidity and that is normally combined with exceptionally low levels of alcohol (8 or 9% typically). More recently, some in Germany are beginning to follow the demands of the market and making more dry or almost dry examples (often labelled ‘trocken’) but this still remains the minority. Alsace, on the other hand, has always preferred to ferment its wines out completely dry giving a much richer taste and with higher levels of alcohol.
A bottle from Alsace I opened recently showed this perfectly: Domaine Leon Boesch’s Grandes Lignes Riesling (Vine Trail, £13.99) was beautifully fresh and clean and with surprising weight for only 12% alcohol. It had real intensity and the typical young Riesling aromas and flavours of grapefruit and lemon peel. The acidity was there, of course but not intrusive; in fact, it was just enough to make it food-friendly, although it’s a wine you could equally well drink on its own.
The Boesch estate is certified biodynamic which can, most simply, be described as an ultra-organic philosophy with everything in the vineyard being carried out completely in harmony with nature. Some question the science of the idea and I won’t comment on that. All I will say is that this, along with many other biodynamic wines I have tasted, have an intensity and a richness that makes them stand out from the crowd.
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. So said Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. It seems that some who prepare tasting notes for the back labels of bottles use words in the same way – words they understand but that mean little to the reader. Take a bottle I opened recently: “bright floral aromas, apricot kernel, quince and a hint of spicey white pepper. The palate reveals intense riverstone minerality combined with white peach, lime sorbet and fresh dill before revealing a chalky yet vibrant long finish”. Some interesting ideas, but what do all those words tell you and just how much do they say to the customer who may be considering buying? And, if you didn’t know the wine, what would you drink it with?
I also use words to describe wine – everyone in the wine industry from sommeliers to wine writers and professional buyers does – but I like to think that I use language that tells the customer what they need to know and that they can relate to. How many would know what apricot kernel smells like or understand ‘riverstone minerality’? Not too many, I suggest.
So, my description of the same wine – Waimea’s Grüner Veltliner from Nelson in New Zealand (Majestic, £10.99) – would simply say that it was fresh with attractive peach and citrus aromas and flavours and would pair nicely with some white fish in a creamy sauce.
And then I picked up this month’s edition of Decanter magazine. Just a few pages in I read, “an uncompromising Champagne, open, elemental, stony. It tasted of frost”. Really? I think I prefer a description a friend gave of a wine I served: “Well, it’s got a sort of winey flavour”.