Better than Chateauneuf?

Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf du Pape: familiar names to almost every wine lover. But, they have more in common than most casual observers realise; indeed, a producer in Châteauneuf du Pape could, in theory, label their wine as Côtes du Rhône instead if they chose. How is that possible? Because Châteauneuf du Pape is just one of dozens of individual villages in the 75000 acres of south-eastern France in which the Appellation Contrôlée (AC, now renamed Appellation Protegée or AP) of Côtes du Rhône can be used.

Châteauneuf du Pape may be the best-known village but does it make the best wines? Now there’s a question! Undoubtedly, there are some outstanding Châteauneufs and many very good ones, but I’ve also come across some rather ordinary examples that attract undeserved high prices simply because of the name. So, for value, it’s often worth looking at some of the other villages. But a word of caution: there are so many different micro-climates in this vast region and so many different grape varieties allowed by the AC regulations, that defining what a good Rhône red should be is actually quite difficult. I would suggest that finding a producer whose style you like is probably more important than the village itself.

Montvac

A good example is a wine I opened recently: Domaine Montvac is based in Vacqueyras (“vac-ker-rah”), barely 10 miles north-east of Châteauneuf. They produce a number of different wines but their ‘Variation’ bottling is unusual for the region in that it isn’t a blend but made from 100% Grenache harvested from vines planted in the 1940s. This had lovely black berry fruits together with hints of coffee, smoke and leather; absolutely delicious but it needed to be paired with some pan-fried venison steaks which perfectly complemented the weight of the wine.

Wines such as this – and most Châteauneufs – benefit from a few years ageing to soften the tannins and make the wine altogether more harmonious. My bottle was from 2012 and it has been lying quietly under our stairs for a few years (hence, I’ve long forgotten where I bought it or how much). But, at 7 years old, it was drinking well, although, if I had bought more than 1 (which I didn’t!), I would happily wait and enjoy that in another 2 or 3 years time.

 

Bordeaux Style not Bordeaux Price

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are, according to official figures, the 2 most widely grown wine grapes in the world. It wasn’t always that way but, thanks to the reputation and popularity of red Bordeaux, there has been a trend over the last 30 years or so for wine estates all over the world to plant these 2 varieties in the hope of reproducing the quality and success of one of France’s most prestigious regions.

Some of these newcomers have made great wines, but not all. The problem is that climate, soil and other factors that influence wine style vary so much across the globe and Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, can be quite a fussy variety. Grow it somewhere too cool and you get unripe ‘green’ flavours, such as herbs and green peppers. Too warm and the wine turns out coarse and jammy. So, you need to find somewhere just right.

How about looking for similar conditions to Bordeaux? Sounds like a good idea yet, until recent years and global warming, at least 2 or 3 Bordeaux vintages each decade were just too cool to ripen the Cabernet properly; that’s why the region has always grown Merlot, too – this less demanding grape is a more reliable ripener, even in cooler conditions.

But, there are places across the world with climates similar to Bordeaux: Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, for example. Here, growing season temperatures are just a fraction cooler (although with longer hours of sunshine) and a touch drier.   And, as you might expect, you find Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon widely planted.

NZ Cab Mer

The Wine Society’s Exhibition Hawkes Bay Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (supplied by top producer, Craggy Range) actually includes small amounts of 2 other red Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, to produce a wine with lovely red plum and black berry flavours, a hint of subtle smoky oak and a long silky finish.

And one advantage of buying from New Zealand rather than from Bordeaux – the price: £12.95. For this quality, a Bordeaux could easily have cost twice as much.

 

4 Wines, 4 Cheeses

How do you choose wines to pair with cheese? There are so many different wines and so many different cheeses. It’s not a new problem: the former French President, Charles de Gaulle, once complained of the difficulty of governing a nation that makes 246 different kinds of cheese – and he didn’t even consider the wine pairing element!

Here in the UK, we may not make quite as many cheeses – although I think we have some that are equal to or better than many from France – but the choice on our shelves, including imports from all over the world, is vast.   So, how do you start matching them with wine?

The first point to remember is that everyone’s taste is different, so, when I was asked to bring along a selection of wines for tasting alongside a cheese board at an event recently, I chose 4 very different styles hoping the guests would find some pairings that worked for them.

Soroptimists tastingFirst was Domaine Sainte Rose’s ‘Le Marin Blanc’, a soft and fairly full-bodied white from southern France (Majestic, £9.99). I expected this blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier would go well with most soft cheeses, yet several people commented that the flavours of the Brie emphasised the acidity in the wine. A Wensleydale with cranberries worked better – the sharpness of the fruit offsetting the crisper elements of the wine.

As a less obvious pairing, I took along a rosé: Muga’s clean and fruity Rioja Rosado (most supermarkets, around £10). Views, as I expected, were mixed, with some pleasantly surprised at the quality of the wine and the way it worked with the cheeses while others, again, noting the acidity. Clearly, something I’ll have to bear in mind when pairing cheese with wine in the future.

There were no such complaints about my choice of red; Errazuriz’s Max Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile (£12.99, Waitrose Cellar) had just that right blend of black fruit and subtle oaky spice to match the Cheddar perfectly.

And finally, a sweet wine. I love Domaine des Forges’ Chenin Blanc from France’s Loire Valley (£10.99 for a 50cl bottle, Waitrose Cellar). You can happily drink it on its own, with a sweet dessert or, as here, with a blue Stilton. The combination of the sweetness in the wine and the saltiness in the cheese worked really well and it proved a most popular end to an enjoyable evening.

Fires hit vineyards again

Sonoma fires(picture thanks to NCG and wine-searcher)

For anyone who loves wine or is involved in the industry, watching the news over the last couple of weeks has been really distressing. I refer, of course, to the terrible wildfires that are, yet again this year, devasting parts of California. Thankfully, at the time of writing, it seems that no-one has died but the loss of vineyards and at least one major winery means that the local industry, especially in the famous Sonoma Valley, will take some time to fully recover. It’s not clear yet how much damage has been done and, of course, it’s too soon to say when any replanting can take place. But new vines don’t produce a crop instantly; it will be at least 3 years before they bear any usable grapes and possibly another decade before they start having fruit of good enough quality to yield the top quality wines we expect from this prestigious area.

And what of this year’s crop? Here, the news is mixed. Many of the estates had already harvested so the grapes for the 2019 vintage should be fermenting by now. However, ferments need to be monitored and often cooled, so any interruption in power supply or in workers being able to access the winery could be a problem. And, in those sites where picking hadn’t started or was still underway, even where the vineyards are not affected by the flames, it’s likely that any grapes remaining on the vines will be useless due to smoke taint.

So, all in all, a pretty depressing picture and one that, I’m afraid, with global warming, is likely to become more, rather than less common. Meanwhile, we can only offer our sympathy to those affected and raise a glass in support of their efforts to recover.

Rioja at Bar 44

While we were enjoying a delicious tapas lunch at our new favourite wine bar, Bar 44 in Clifton, we noticed a Rioja dinner advertised at the same venue. 6 delicious-sounding courses each accompanied by a matching wine. We booked straight away and we weren’t disappointed.

Tempranillo is the main grape for Rioja’s reds but, as with most red wine grapes, its pulp is colourless so, by careful pressing you can also make an attractive white wine which, here, was served as aperitif and with the opening scallop starter.  Pumpkin gazpacho followed alongside a second white: an old favourite of ours, the complex and subtly oaky Murrieta Capellania.

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The next 3 courses, a risotto, some wonderful lamb with aubergine and roast fennel and some rosemary infused manchego cheese allowed us to explore the range of ageing and oaking that typifies Rioja. Quinta Milú’s unoaked young example was full of simple red fruits, while Beronia’s Reserva 2014, made, unusually with Mazuelo (perhaps better known as Carignan) rather than Tempranillo, had a lovely blend of fruit and gentle smokiness, although will, in my view, be rather better after a further 2 or 3 years in bottle.

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The final red, served with the cheese, was Beronia’s Gran Reserva 2010. I mainly avoid Gran Reservas as, in the past, I’ve often found them dried out and vegetal from just too long sitting in oak barrels. Not here! This was fresh with just the perfect mix of young fruit and spicy, oaky complexity.

The beautiful, tasty dessert of pears prepared 3 ways provided an ideal foil for a not over-sweet dessert wine.

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Bodegas Vivanco’s blend of 4 late-harvested red varieties was an unusual but successful choice with a lovely honeyed nose and palate of red fruits with a certain nuttiness.

What stood out for us in this evening was not just the quality of the food, nor even the interesting nature of the wines but, above all, the care and respect for both the food and the wines that was obvious in the pairing of the two. Congratulations to Bar 44.