Greece Comes to Bristol

My wife and I had so many plans for this year.  From simple things like quiet meals at our favourite restaurants, walking by the Welsh coast, visiting a friend in Geneva and a few days away for English Wine Week.  But, paraphrasing Robert Burns (yes, I had to look up the reference!) “the best laid schemes of mice and men oft go awry”.  And, when that happens, the only positive thing to do is to make the best of it.

For us, that means buying good food and wine and, perhaps, choosing both to remind us of places we’ve been.  Then, whatever the world outside throws at us, we have our own little corner of France or Italy or, in this case, Greece, right here in the centre of Bristol.

3 years ago, we enjoyed a wine tour there (you can read my blogs of the trip on this site under the index tab for ‘Greece’) and one of the vineyards we visited was the dynamic and beautiful Alpha Estate in the less well-known Amyndeon region in the north of the country.  There, we tasted a range of their wines including a delicious red made from the local variety, Xinomavro.  Fortunately, this wine, unusually named ‘Hedgehog’ (a local species of the animal nests in the vineyard), is available in the UK from specialist Greek food and wine merchant, Maltby and Greek (www.maltbyandgreek.com) (£17.20).  We have been buying it ever since.

Its lovely, spicy, bramble and black cherry flavours are ideal to match with lamb and, in keeping with our Greek theme, we chose a recipe for Kleftiko – a dish in which lamb shanks are marinated for 2 days in a mixture of red wine, orange zest and juice, garlic and herbs and then cooked very slowly until the meat almost falls off the bone.  Delicious!  The marinade gives the lamb a sweetness that pairs perfectly with the black fruit flavours in the wine. 

And, on a sunny evening, we could just about imagine that we were enjoying the tastes back in northern Greece with panoramic views across Lake Petron.

Good or Very Good?

How do you decide how good a wine is?  Most professionals today will give it a mark out of 100 – the higher the score, the better they rate the wine (although I wonder why 100 was chosen as nothing ever gets less than 50 and few score below 70).  This system originated in the USA with Robert Parker and has largely replaced the one most European judges used until a few years ago: marks out of 20 – although the same criticism applies: virtually nothing scored less than 10.  Indeed, the Australian wine critic Len Evans once crudely observed, “even the spit bucket gets 7 out of 20!”

Some wine lovers will buy their wines based on these scores (fine if your taste and that of the critic scoring the wine coincide, but beware if not), but, for most, the best way to assess a wine is ‘do I like it?’, possibly closely followed by ‘is it worth the price?’

When my wife and I share a bottle (frequently!), we usually sample it while we’re cooking, continue with it during the meal and, if any remains, drink it through the evening afterwards.  Although some wines don’t last that long!  We opened one like that recently:

Pazo villareiPazo de Villarei’s Albariño from Galicia in North West Spain (Wine Society, a bargain at £10.50) was just so drinkable.  Lovely peach and pineapple aromas and flavours and a real richness that went perfectly with some baked hake with chorizo.  The bottle went down so quickly, there was no need to consider whether we liked it – our empty glasses told the tale.

But not all wines disappear that fast and, if some lingers throughout the evening, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not enjoying it.  There are some wines that are made like that; the Italians have a lovely name for them: Vino da meditazione, literally, ‘a wine for meditation’, a wine to be savoured, to be enjoyed slowly, a wine of depth and character.  They can be just as good as our rapidly disappearing Albariño, but different.

And, after all, who wants to eat or drink the same thing all the time?

Where does Tannin come from?

Where does tannin come from? That was a debate my wife was asked to adjudicate on recently; one person said that it came from the grape skins, another was equally sure it came from wooden barrels. As you might expect, Hilary knew the answer and, fortunately in this case, was able to tell both protagonists that they were correct.

Let me first define what we mean by tannin: you can’t actually taste it but it’s that drying or astringent sensation you feel on your gums and the sides of your mouth when you drink many red wines, especially young reds made with grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Much more rarely, you might also find some tannin on a rosé and even on the odd white – I’m thinking mainly of the current fashion for ‘orange’ wines – white wines made in the same way as a red. And you get the same feeling if you drink tea that has been left brewing too long.

harvest 2017

The reason you find tannin in red wines more than in whites is down to the different way the wines are made; reds are fermented with the juice in contact with the skins in order to extract colour and, as a by-product, the process extracts  tannins from the grape-skins too. For most white wines, on the other hand, the juice is normally separated from the skins before the fermentation takes place and so tannin from that source is left behind.

Ch Dauzac barrel

But, as one of the people in the discussion said, tannin can also come from wooden barrels. Not all wines are made or stored in wood but, if they are, and especially if the wood is new, then you might find a similar, drying tannin sensation (although many people simply regard it as part of the oaky taste). How to distinguish between grape-skin tannins and wood tannins in a red wine is one for the experts and, unless you’re particularly sensitive to them, isn’t something that most people need worry about.

But, if you open a wine and find it is too tannic for your taste, simply decant it and leave it in contact with air for as long as you can before drinking it. And, let it accompany protein-rich food. These 2 ‘tricks’ will help and make the tannins appear ‘softer’ and the wine will seem more harmonious and attractive.

The reasons behind the differences in taste between one type of wine and another are covered in more detail in a piece I’ve written for the Stoke Lodge website.  Go to http://www.bristolcourses.com and type in ‘Wine’ in the key words box and follow the link.

Compare and Contrast

compare

“Compare and Contrast” – probably a phrase familiar to anyone who has ever sat or set an exam. But the idea is also a basic part of wine tasting. I tried the 2 bottles pictured above on successive days recently and I was struck by how similar the 2 wines were in both their style and characteristics.

Now, some of you might have expected that – they’re both made from 100% Chardonnay, after all – but I didn’t. Chardonnay is the most variable of all the major grape varieties and the wines it makes are very dependent on where it is grown and what happens in the winery – think of a Chablis compared to a big oaky example from a warmer corner of California or Australia and you’ll know what I mean.

So, the fact that these 2 were grown, by my calculation, some 8000 miles apart in 2 different continents with very different climates and conditions made me expect 2 very different wines. But I was wrong!

The Montagny (Majestic Wine, £10.99), made from old vines (Vieilles Vignes on the label) by the always reliable co-operative in the southern Burgundy village of Buxy, was attractively crisp with peach, apple and lemon zest aromas and flavours and a slightly savoury, buttery texture.

The Cono Sur (£1 dearer, also from Majestic) is from a single vineyard barely 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. The closeness of the sea and the influence of the Humboldt Current straight from the Antarctic keeps this vineyard much cooler than might be expected from its 34° South latitude and results in a lovely, well-balanced wine, again with lemon and red apple flavours and a long creamy finish.

Either would be perfect drunk, slightly chilled, on their own as an aperitif or with dishes featuring elegant, creamy sauces.

‘Compare and Contrast’ questions in exams were never as enjoyable to tackle as this tasting proved!