Monthly Archives: April 2019

Best of the Rest

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In 1855, around 60 of the leading estates in the Médoc and Graves areas of Bordeaux joined together to form an exclusive club. Known variously as the Classed Growths, the Crus Classés or simply the 1855 Classification, these 60 were then sub-divided into 5 categories called 1st to 5th Growths in English, Premiers to Cinquièmes Crus in French.

That Classification has remained largely undisturbed in the 160 years since. Surprising? Perhaps. Yet, being at the top of this pinnacle has given the 4 original 1st Growth estates (joined by a 5th member in 1974) enormous pricing power and, as a result, the ability to re-invest massively to ensure the continuing predominance of their wines. Even those at the lower end of this select group – the 4th or 5th Growths – are, in the main, highly sought-after and you can often pay £50 and more for a ready-to-drink bottle from one of their better vintages.

But, look outside this elite classification and you can find attractive wines, typical of the Bordeaux region, at much more affordable prices. I often point my students to a group of these that I describe as ‘the best of the rest’. They’re known as the Crus Bourgeois.

One of the most recognised of these is Château Cissac. (Around £20 a bottle for the excellent 2010 vintage from specialist wine merchants).

Cissac (2)

Cissac is well placed right in the heart of the Haut-Médoc, close to the boundaries of the St Estèphe and Paulliac Appellations. Its wines, mainly made from Cabernet Sauvignon blended with some Merlot and a small addition of Petit Verdot, are quite aromatic but fairly restrained and need time to reach their peak – even the 2010 I opened recently was still showing some tannin.

Although, no doubt, without the length and complexity of some of the top Classified estates (speaking from reports rather than recent personal experience!), wines such as this provide pleasant, satisfying drinking and are recommended for those who enjoy the more traditional style of wine found in Bordeaux.

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The 1st Rosé of Summer

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It’s only taken a few warm days over the recent holiday weekend and my wife and I immediately took to drinking rosé. OK, it wasn’t just the weather (although that helped), but the Michelin-starred pub where we were staying had one of Domaine Maby’s delicious Tavel rosés on their list.

TavelI’ve bought that producer’s wines – red, white and rosé – many times before and know them all to be good. The current Wine Society list has their rosé for £11.50; sadly, at dinner, we had to pay more than 3 times that amount. Justified? I don’t think so but it’s typical of restaurants nowadays and if customers – including me – are willing to pay that excessive mark-up without protest, then can we really blame business owners for pricing wines at that level?

So, although the cost may have left a sour taste in the mouth, the wine certainly did not. Tavel is, without doubt, the outstanding village in France’s southern Rhône region for rosé wines and Maby’s example is a crisp but full-bodied (14% alcohol) blend of local varieties including Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The grapes are selected from 3 different vineyards, each giving their own character to the wine and from vines averaging almost 50 years old. The wine itself is bone dry but with lovely flavours of strawberries and redcurrants and a persistent, fruity finish. Although it’s a wine I would happily drink on its own, it really shows best with food and was a perfect match with both my wife’s risotto of young spring vegetables and my roast breast of guinea fowl.

While a warm spring or summer day is undoubtedly the obvious time for rosés, wines as good as this are worth opening at any time and for any occasion.

Sweet but Delicate

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Mention dessert wines and most wine lovers will immediately think of Sauternes – the famous golden nectar from Bordeaux. And why not? But Sauternes is only one of hundreds of sweet wines which, incidentally, aren’t just marvellous accompaniments to the pudding course; they are often equally delicious partnering a blue cheese or a rich paté. And, of course, don’t ignore how good some sweet wines can also be as an aperitif!

But, in general, this style of wine is designed to go with the dessert, and, if trying to match the two, it’s always a good idea to ensure the wine is sweeter than the food; the other way round and the wine will be drained of much of its sweetness and may taste sharp and thin.

I opened a dessert wine at a dinner party with some good friends recently – not one from Sauternes but from an estate in the less well-known Côtes de Gascogne, about an hour’s drive south.

Tariquet sweetDomaine du Tariquet’s Dernières Grives (Wine Society, £15.50) is, perhaps, a little less sweet than a typical Sauternes yet has a lovely delicacy and charm – thanks to only 11.5% alcohol. That makes it a perfect partner for a lighter pudding – the apple fool that we served or a crème brulée or some fresh strawberries are other possibilities that come to mind.

The wine is mainly made from the local Petit Manseng grape (a variety that lovers of the wines of Jurançon would be familiar with), left on the vine late into the autumn to over-ripen and then picked (as the producers note on their website) before the local birds, especially the thrushes, get to them! They even name the wine after the birds – dernières grives is the French for last thrushes.

This is a delicious alternative sweet wine – without the power or richness of a Sauternes, but beautifully balanced and fresh and a simple delight at the end of our enjoyable, sociable meal with friends.

Wine Going Green

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For some time now, parts of the wine industry have gained a reputation for not paying sufficient attention to environmental concerns. Overuse of pesticides in the vineyard, long road journeys between grower and customer and – my own personal hate – unnecessarily heavy bottles are just a few of the accusations that have been made. And, sadly, for a significant number of producers, the verdict must be Guilty.

Not all, of course. An increasing number of growers are turning to organic – even biodynamic – practices and I know of several who are using horses rather than tractors to work their land.

But one UK importer has taken the carbon-neutral agenda to a whole new level. Xisto Wines are not only using sailing ships to bring their wines over from Portugal but the vans they use for distribution within the UK are run on Bio-fuel made from used oil collected from the restaurants they supply!

So, it was fascinating to hear Anton Mann from the company at a Bristol Tasting Circle evening recently – and his selection of Portuguese wines were certainly worth tasting.

BTC Xisto 2Among my favourites was the Quinta de Gomariz Alvarinho (£16), a delicious crisp white with a lovely lemon-peel nose. Quite floral and citrusy on the palate and richer in body than many Vinho Verdes, this has excellent length and is really good value at the price.

BTC Xisto 1My choice of the reds was Lagar de Darei’s Sem Abrigo Tinto from the Dão region (£16). Made from a blend of native Portuguese grapes including Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (the same variety as Spain’s Tempranillo), this has attractive raspberry fruit on the nose and spicy, jammy blackberries and smoky hints on the palate.

If you want to be part of the move towards greener wine, these and other wines from Xisto are available, either direct from the supplier or from local independent wine merchants Clifton Cellars and Grape and Grind.

 

Europe wins at last!

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Eu v RoW 1Are most of the wines you drink from Europe? Or do you usually choose something from the rest of the world? Some wine lovers have strong preferences one way or the other but are they actually buying wines that are best suited to their taste? Should, for example, dedicated French wine drinkers really be opening something from California – or vice versa?

A couple of days ago, at Stoke Lodge Adult Education Centre in Bristol, a group who were clearly willing to have their views on this challenged, came to a ‘Europe against the Rest of the World’ tasting I ran. I chose 12 different wines and divided them by style into pairs, each pair featuring one bottle from Europe and one from the Rest of the World. We tasted them ‘blind’, so that the group didn’t know which was which. Then, before I revealed the identities, I asked everyone to vote for the wine they preferred.

Based on a number of previous experiences of running this sort of event, I was sure that the Rest of the World would win – they always have in the past. How wrong I was! This time, 5 of the 6 rounds went to Europe including winning the vote for the most popular wine of the day overall: the lovely, crisp and spicy Domane Wachau’s Grüner Veltliner (a real bargain at Lidl for £6.99).

Among other European successes were the delicate, aromatic Sainsbury’s Pinot Blanc from Germany’s Pfalz region (£8) and the rich, intense Torre de Ferro red from the under-rated Dão area of Portugal (Lidl again, £7).

Eu v RoW 2In fact, the sole (but well-deserved) non-European success was a creamy Chenin Blanc with delightfully restrained oak influence from Stellenbosch Manor in South Africa (Sainsbury’s, £8.49).

Did the results change anyone’s mind? I think, on the day, perhaps not but allowing your preferences to be challenged is all part of the fun of these events and, who knows, there’s always something different to try.

And, if you thought the title meant that Bristol Wine Blog was turning political, I’m sure you’ll be happy to see that it hasn’t!

Look South for Value

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S France tasting 1More than a quarter of all French wine comes from the south: the regions of Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence. It’s not surprising given the Mediterranean coast’s ideal climate for ripening grapes. But it’s only in last 30 years or so that the potential for quality wines from this climate has been realised. For much of 20th century, the emphasis here was on cheap, bulk wines and, as a result, most wine lovers rightly ignored this part of the world completely.

How things have changed! Today, all three regions are making really attractive wines. Yes, you still need to be selective (as you do almost anywhere) but, if you are, your chances of finding something delicious are high – and you won’t have to pay a fortune for it as those who came to a tasting I ran on the subject recently discovered.

I concentrated mostly on wines made from grape varieties that are native to the region – none more so than Picpoul, a fresh, crisp white grown almost exclusively around the beautiful Etang de Thau. Villemarin make a delightful example (only £7.99 from Majestic, where you can find all the wines mentioned in this blog).

Further along the coast, Provence is one of the few wine making regions of the world to concentrate on the production of rosé – it represents more than 80% of the output. Sadly, some of their best examples sell for silly prices and many of the cheaper ones are aimed solely at undemanding tourists. But I found a notable exception in the elegant, dry Vallée des Pins (£8.99), a blend of Grenache and Syrah with lovely strawberry fruit.

Despite the focus of Provence, the south of France is still essentially red wine country and, of the 2 we tasted, preferences were divided between the Fleurs de la Vigne, a young, berry-fruited Carignan-dominated blend from the Fitou area (£8.99) and the slightly more robust, chewy Grenache/ Syrah from Château Guiot in the Costières de Nîmes closer to the Rhône (£7.99).

Everyone had their own favourites on the night but all agreed that this is an area whose wines are worth exploring – particularly as so many are remarkable value for money.