A Fair Glass of Wine

Who benefits when you buy a bottle of wine? Well, hopefully, you do, when you open it and enjoy the contents. Not far behind is the government, who pick up a hefty chunk of your purchase price in duty and tax. The retailer, of course, takes a cut, as does the company that imported the wine, the bottle maker and many, many more along the line. But none of this could happen without the farmer growing the grapes and the producer making the wine.

Producers range from large multi-million pound companies to small, artisan winemakers. But, there’s one group of producers where your purchase may be helping a lot of people that have rather less than most of us. I’m thinking of those whose bottles bear the Fair Trade logo.

Fair Trade

The Fair Trade Foundation, which is 25 years old this month, works with all types of small-scale farmers – not just those within the wine industry – ensuring that all those involved on the estates are paid a fair price for their crop and a fair wage for their labour. The Foundation also contributes to help local communities provide essential services such as education, sanitation and health care. Typical of the beneficiaries is the La Riojana co-operative, a group of grape growers in northwest Argentina who now also process, bottle and export their wine to Europe and the US.

Fair Trade wines are quite widely available but the largest retailer of them in the UK is the Co-operative supermarket group. Knowing of the benefits that come from Fair Trade’s involvement, I find it hard to recommend just one of their wines; do I have the right to say which community benefits and which does not?

What I will say is that those I have tried are very drinkable and excellent value for my money and the benefits for those less fortunate than me cannot be overstated.

200 Years? Not Yet!

The 1st vines were planted in New Zealand in 1819. But don’t start raising a glass to 200 years of New Zealand wine yet! Those vines were planted by Samuel Marsden of the Church Missionary Society, a group whose anti-alcohol views were both robust and well-known. So, unless someone made some wine in secret – always possible – the true bi-centenary celebration will have to go on hold for a few more years.

How many? Even Keith Stewart’s ‘Chancers and Visionaries’, a fascinating history of New Zealand wine, can’t be precise although, by the mid-1830s, James Busby and others were certainly very active in their wineries. But wine drinking and winemaking never really thrived at that time in New Zealand, nor, indeed, well into the 20th century, thanks to restrictive laws. It wasn’t really until the 1970s that the modern New Zealand wine industry was born – an amazing fact when you think of the success that country’s wines enjoy today.

But, as regular Bristol Wine Blog readers know, I’m always happy to open a bottle from there, even if we are celebrating a little too soon.

NZ P NoirTwo Paddocks ‘Picnic’ Pinot Noir (Grape and Grind, £18.99) is a lovely smooth and fresh red with all those typical flavours and aromas of a good Pinot Noir: dried fruits and a certain undergrowth smell on the nose followed by black and dried fruits on the palate, quite savoury and a little smoky, but really complex and a finish that goes on and on. But, at the same time, it’s very drinkable – not heavy, so best with lighter meats or cheeses; very much a food wine. And remarkable value for money: if this was from Burgundy, I suspect the price would be double.

So, celebrating or not, this is a bottle well worth opening – and, perhaps, getting a 2nd one to keep under the stairs because, in a couple of years, I suspect it might be even better.

Voyage of Discovery

Britain is one of the few winemaking countries in the world that drinks more wine that it makes. As a result, everyone else is keen to export their surplus production to quench our thirsts. This is lucky for us as, without too much difficulty, it means we can find wines from all over the world without leaving our shores. In fact, I’ve personally tasted wines from more than 20 different countries this year.

So, when I was asked to put on a tasting showcasing wines from some of the less well-known parts of the world, I was happy to take up the invitation. I called it ‘Voyage of Discovery’.

I chose wines from European countries like Slovenia, Hungary and Macedonia – and England, of course – I couldn’t ignore the home side – alongside some from further afield: Chile and Lebanon. And I looked for some unusual grapes, too, like Furmint, Ribolla Gialla and Pais.

Not surprisingly, the different styles of wine from these countries and grapes provoked some widely different reactions from members of the group – but that’s part of tasting something new. But, when it came to the vote at the end, there was a narrow winner among both whites and reds.

Discovery white

Krasno’s crisp but mouth-filling blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the local speciality Ribolla Gialla (Majestic, £8.49) from Slovenia was the favourite white. Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, has made enormous strides in the past couple of decades, particularly the Goriška Brda region, from which this wine comes, which is so close to north-east Italy that some vineyards actually span the national boundary.

Discovery red

The winning red was also from the Balkans region, although this time rather further south in Macedonia. The Tikveš Vranec/Merlot (a real bargain from Majestic at just £7.99) was, again a blend of a popular international variety with a native grape. This reminded some of a good Beaujolais; quite light-bodied but very drinkable, with lovely clean red fruits and a slightly smoky finish. A wine to drink on its own or with lighter dishes – one of the group suggested baked trout as an interesting pairing.

But these were just the winners – every wine had some supporters and several left the tasting thinking about their own Voyage of Discovery.

Fond of Fondue?

We paid a brief visit to a very good friend in Geneva recently and so, of course, we had to sample the national dishes, raclette and fondue. Both are cheese-based; raclette is a semi-hard cows’ milk cheese from the Alpine regions which, traditionally, was heated in front of a fire (now electric ‘toasters’ are more commonly used) and then the melted part scraped off and served on bread, like a sort of Welsh Rarebit.

For a fondue, the cheese is melted in a large pot, mixed with wine and garlic (or anything else, depending on local whim) and then you dip bread on a long-handled fork into the creamy, steaming pot.

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Here, rules seem to be less specific about exactly which cheeses to use (gruyere and emmental are said to be best, although the version we had included some delicious vacherin). Less traditionally, fondues can also be made with meat or chocolate mixtures in the pot – just don’t tell the Swiss!

Both raclette and fondue make simple, filling meals, best shared with friends. But, this is a Wine Blog, so the question inevitably arises: what should I drink with it? For me, white goes better than red with the creamy texture of the softened cheeses. And, as I always want to sample the local output, I chose a bottle made from the most widely planted variety in the region, Chasselas (also known sometimes as Fendant).

Fondue wine

From the Cave de l’Hôpital Epesses, in the close-by Lavaux region, this was fresh, crisp and a very drinkable match with the dishes.

There’s little point in searching for it (or many other Swiss wines) outside the region, as the Swiss export barely 2% of their entire production – a shame because the quality is usually quite high; a fact that was certainly a very pleasant surprise to our locally-based friend.