A Sweet Treat

There are many variations in sweet wine making but, perhaps, the most unusual is Ice Wine (or Eiswein as it is spelt in the Germanic speaking countries of Europe where it is often found).

Ice WineThis delicate but focussed sweet wine is made by leaving the grapes on the vine far beyond normal autumn harvesting dates until November or even December when there is a severe frost and temperatures reach minus 8°C (18°F) or below. When that happens, pickers are sent out into the vineyard before dawn to harvest the grapes while they are still frozen (the grapes as well as the pickers!). The crop is then rushed back to the winery and the grapes are pressed before they defrost. This releases the sugar in the grapes but leaves the water behind as ice pellets. The intensely sugar-rich liquid is then fermented as far as is possible – yeast struggles to cope with the level of neat sugar and surrenders (dying happily!!) way before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. Result: a beautifully balanced sweet wine but with relatively low alcohol.

Because these conditions can’t be guaranteed every year, Ice Wine/ Eiswein is quite rare (and consequently seriously expensive!). But recently, due to the temporary enforced closure of many businesses due to the corona virus, a local restaurant decided to sell some of its wine stocks. And, among the bottles I was lucky enough to buy from them was a delicious Ice Wine from Pelee Island on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, Canada. Made from the Vidal grape variety, a Canadian speciality, this had wonderful flavours of honey, grapefruit and marmalade and a finish that could be measured in minutes not seconds.

This was a real treat but, sadly, one unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

Not Normal Times

Book and Wine

At this time of year, I’m normally busy attending tastings, running wine classes or events or preparing for them or, perhaps, planning a trip away – spring and early summer are lovely times to visit winemaking areas. But these are not normal times – we’re now almost 4 weeks into the coronavirus restrictions so, instead, I’d like to share some tips that might help wine lovers fill those spare at-home hours and try to make the best of these unprecedented and anxious times.

I’d been meaning to re-read Don and Petie Kladstrup’s ‘Wine and War’ for some time. It’s a fascinating insight into how the French wine industry coped under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Set against the tragic background, the book tells the stories of real winemaking families as they tried to survive – and protect their finest wines from theft or destruction.

I’ve also been following a series of mini wine talks on You Tube, recommended to me by Diana, a fellow wine educator and Secretary of the (currently suspended) Bristol Tasting Circle. ‘The Wine Show at Home’ is a spin-off from The Wine Show which is due to start a new series on TV soon. The ‘at home’ version features wine writer Joe Fattorini – always interesting to listen to with his wine-related anecdotes and informed recommendations. Definitely worth catching up with.

Although my wife, Hilary, and I have had to find new routines, there’s one aspect of our life that won’t change: our tradition of opening a bottle to share over dinner at weekends. Dr Bϋrklin-Wolf’s dry Riesling from Wackenheim in Germany’s Pfalz region (Wine Society, £10.95) is an absolute bargain. Delightfully crisp and fresh and with that typical tang – often strangely described as ‘petrol’ – of a Riesling with a few years in bottle (this one was 2015 vintage). A perfect partner for some oven-baked salmon steaks with a creamy spinach and avocado dressing.

So, that’s some of the things I’ve been doing; if you have any interesting or unusual suggestions for wine lovers to do during the present restrictions, do, please, share them in the comments box below.

Take care and stay safe.

Spain’s Best Grape

Momo Ribera del Duero

If you’ve ever drunk a glass of Rioja – and most wine lovers will at some time – then you’ve tasted Tempranillo. It’s the main grape variety used in almost every red Rioja, sometimes standing alone, more often blended with Garnacha (aka Grenache) and other local varieties. Tempranillo isn’t limited to this one region, it’s grown in several countries across the world. There’s plenty in Portugal (where it’s known as Tinta Roriz or Aragonez) and a little in France. California, Argentina and Australia have some, too, but it’s native to Spain and that’s where we find the majority of the plantings.

Few would dispute that it’s Spain’s best as well as their most popular grape – and not just in Rioja. For example, 60 miles (100km) south-west of Rioja, on Spain’s high central plateau, is the region of Ribera del Duero where the red wines are made from Tinto Fino or Tinto del Pais, both synonyms for Tempranillo. Here, in vineyards at altitudes averaging 2800 ft (850m) above sea level, conditions are very different from Rioja and, as a result, you find an entirely different expression of Tempranillo. Momo’s Vendimia Seleccionada (Wine Society, £13.50) is typical. Rich and concentrated with lovely intense red fruits, a hint of spicy oak and a long savoury finish, this is fuller bodied than many Riojas as might be expected from the 14% alcohol.

Ribera del Duero tends to have hotter summer days than Rioja, allowing the grapes to become riper but, on the other hand, the altitude means that nights can be really cool, preserving precious acidity in the fruit and giving the wines the attractive freshness that was certainly a feature in this example.

As with many Spanish wines, the Momo is particularly food-friendly: team with grilled or roasted red meat or game or your Easter lamb to enjoy this delicious Tempranillo at its best.

Red or White?

white and red

I saw an interview recently with someone who claimed one of their ‘hidden skills’ was to be able to distinguish between red and white wine blindfold, so just by tasting. What’s so clever about that? Surely, it’s easy!

Well, no! There have been a number of studies carried out where people have been asked to do just that and the results, surprisingly, have almost always been that most only get it right half the time.

So, during these extra days spent at home, why not put on a blindfold and experiment for yourself? Ask someone to pour you 2 glasses and taste. And here’s a simple tip: look for tannin – that’s the drying sensation that you feel on your cheeks or gums when you taste red wine. Tannin comes mainly from grape skins and, as red wines are fermented in contact with their skins to produce the colour, you also get the tannin. For white wines, on the other hand, the winemaker usually separates the juice from the skins before fermentation and therefore, there’s little detectable tannin in the wine.

It’s not 100% guaranteed, however: as red wines age, they soften and their tannin becomes more integrated into the wine and so less noticeable, so that might mislead. Also, some wines, like simple Beaujolais, for example, are made using a different type of fermentation (it’s called carbonic maceration if you want to look it up!) which produces rather less tannin than a ‘normal’ fermentation. So that, too, might put you off track.

And how about white wines? Will they never have any tannin? Well, they might. Especially the currently fashionable so-called ‘orange’ wines – these are made using white wine grapes but fermented partly with the skins as a red wine would be. But, it would be a bit of a low trick if someone would give you one of these as your test.

But do have a try; it’s good fun and interesting – and you’ve got some wine to enjoy after you’ve finished. But, remember: no cheating and peaking out from behind the blindfold!