Sadly, once again I find myself blogging about the woes affecting California’s vineyards. The state has ideal summer weather, perfect for ripening grapes, but the heat and dryness brings the risk of wildfires which, over the past few years seem to have worsened, becoming a serious and unwelcome regular event. Two of the most extensive fires ever recorded have struck the area recently with, tragically, a number of fatalities plus several injuries and many homes and businesses destroyed. The fires are mainly in or close to key wine producing areas and already I have seen reports of extensive fire damage to 2 wineries, one in Solano County and one in the Santa Cruz Mountains and more minor damage to vines and outbuildings elsewhere including at 3 estates in Napa. But the damage caused directly by the fire is only part of the story as far as wine producers are concerned. Acrid smoke hangs in the air around the fires and can be smelt many miles beyond; a number of official warnings for poor air quality are in force. Although this is bad for the local population, this year, more than ever before, it is affecting the grapes, too. The 2020 fire season has begun earlier than usual and, as a result, many of the grapes are still on the vines, unlike previous years when most would already have been harvested and be safely in the winery fermenting. This creates a particular problem, especially for red grapes. If smoke gets into the grape skins, it will taint the flavours and produce bitter, unpleasant tastes. White wines will be less affected as the winemakers can quickly press the grapes releasing the juice and the impact should be minimal. Not so for reds, where the skins are a crucial part of the process, essential for flavour and texture in the wine. It has been suggested that more rosé will be made as a consequence, but that isn’t really what the premium areas of California are aiming for. The very latest reports are that the temperatures have moderated slightly giving the firefighters a chance to get the blazes under control. We can only hope that continues but, with the fire season still far from over, the problem could be around for some time to come. I join with all wine lovers to say we will be thinking of the people affected and wishing them well.
My wife and I had planned to return to one of our favourite cities for a holiday this year. Oporto (or Porto as it is known to the locals and its friends) is a real treasure tumbling down the hillside, as you can see from the picture above taken across the spectacular River Douro. Hilary has even been studying Portuguese – a notoriously difficult language – so that we would be fully prepared. But the continuing impact of coronavirus has caused us to have a re-think; perhaps next year will be better. But we can still dream and plan and, to help us, we opened a bottle of Casa de Mouraz red (Corks, £15.99) with our dinner recently.
The Mouraz estate is about a couple of hours drive south-east of Porto in the Dão DOC (DOC is the Portuguese equivalent of the French Appellation Controlée), where the wines are often made in a similar style to the Douro region. They also grow many of the same grape varieties, 9 of which, majoring on the high quality Touriga Nacional, go into the wine we enjoyed, and all are named on the eye-catching label. The grapes for this wine come from a number of different vineyards across the DOC but, rather than planting each vineyard with a single variety as is the modern trend, here you find an assortment of grapes, known as a ‘Field Blend’ in each plot – a method that used to be much more common than it is today. Under this system, each vineyard is harvested as a whole and all the different grapes are fermented together and only at the final stage are the wines produced from each vineyard blended together to produce the product in the bottle. The wine itself was quite full and mouth-filling with fresh red cherry fruit and a little dried fruit – raisin, sultana – on the finish. There was no sign of age, although our bottle was almost 6 years old from the 2014 harvest, just a delightful, soft and harmonious red that went very well with our lamb and sparked our interest for plans for the future.
We’re all familiar with the advice ‘drink white wine chilled, red wine at room temperature’, but what do we mean by ‘room temperature’? I’ve noted before in this Blog that normal room temperature today (especially in winter) is likely to be rather higher than our pre-central heating ancestors would have been used to. As a result, we’re probably serving our red wines quite a bit warmer than was intended when the advice first emerged.
But a brief heatwave in Bristol recently put an entirely new slant on the term; our living room reached close to 30°C (86°F) mid-afternoon and our outside terrace remained well into the 20s for much of the evening. Not the ideal temperature for a red wine.
Ever since a trip to France’s Beaujolais region in the early 1990s, where we found restaurants always served the local wines chilled, we’ve given light-bodied reds, like Beaujolais, a half an hour in the fridge before drinking and find them more refreshing that way. But, where we store our wines is quite cool and we usually serve anything heavier than a Beaujolais straight from the wine rack. But, during our heatwave, it was time for a re-think. What else might benefit from chilling?
I picked Yves Cuilleron’s Syrah from France’s northern Rhône region (Grape and Grind, Bristol, £13.25) – not as big and chunky as many Australian Shirazes, but by no means a light-bodied red. A half an hour in an ice bucket worked beautifully, bringing out all the wine’s deep blackberry fruit and subtle spiciness without making the tannins harsh or too intrusive. A real treat sitting out on our terrace and accompanying some delicious goat chops cooked in a tomatoey sauce (the tomatoes also grown on our terrace!) with fennel.
I’m not suggesting you chill a young claret or a robust Zinfandel – leave those for cooler weather – but for a nice medium-bodied red on a hot evening, room temperature is definitely not the way to go.
Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, has been at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Middle East, North Africa and Europe for thousands of years. The result is a place with a fascinating mixture of influences and cultures. So, it’s not surprising to find a Sicilian wine made from a blend of 4 different grape varieties, 2 of which are Italian (although one of those has its origins in Greece) and the others are native to France. Most importantly, this multi-national co-operation is delicious, despite its understated label and designation.
Planeta’s ‘La Segreta’ (Grape and Grind, £12.99, but also fairly widely available from smaller, independent wine merchants) is a lovely, tangy, fresh white with hints of pink grapefruit on the nose and palate and some attractive, subtle dry apricot on the finish. It makes a perfect aperitif, but also has the character to match with fish or chicken. I left some in the glass for a couple of hours after dinner and found some new, savoury, herby flavours emerging. My wife thought it might even benefit from decanting – a little left-field, but I could see her point.
And the 4 grapes that make up this wine? The main player in the blend is Grecanico, now widely planted across southern Italy and Sicily but, from its name, it was clearly imported from Greece some time in the distant past. Then there’s some Chardonnay – Planeta make a very good 100% Chardonnay, so the grape clearly thrives in the Sicilian climate. The 3rd variety is Fiano, a high quality grape native to the island and southern Italy and, happily, becoming quite fashionable. And finally there’s Viognier – the source of that tantalising apricot finish I noticed. Together, they produce a delicious, very drinkable white, far more complex than I would expect at the price. Definitely one to buy again.
Why the picture of the celebratory wine glasses? Well, it’s hard to believe but it’s 10 years since I pressed ‘Publish’ for the first Bristol Wine Blog on 28 July 2010. At that time, I couldn’t have guessed that I would still be blogging 10 years later – or that anyone would still be reading it! But I am and you are, so Thank You!
It hasn’t turned out quite how I imagined it would, though. At the start, I was aiming to create a forum for those in and around Bristol to share their thoughts about wine and their recommendations for the best local buys. But I underestimated how much wine lovers enjoy reading and talking about wine (almost as much as we enjoy drinking it!) and my hoped-for local community soon spread way beyond the city limits. Indeed, WordPress tell me that, in the last month alone, the Blog has been read by people from more than 20 countries, so, welcome all you ‘honorary Bristolians’!
Counting back, I must have written more than 500 blogs since that first one. Many have become out of date and so I have deleted them, but I’ve kept quite a few in the archive as they seem to keep attracting attention. The most popular is one I posted way back in 2011 titled “Ungrafted Vines: A Taste of History”. It has clocked up more than 2500 reads over the years and is certainly still relevant today. It talks about the ongoing battle to combat the deadly vine disease, phylloxera, and explains why most of today’s wine comes from European vines (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc) grafted onto American vine rootstocks – a positive example of transatlantic co-operation!
And looking forward? Well, with the current pandemic, there will be fewer blogs about wine tasting events or courses and not so many mentions of restaurant meals, but my wife and I are still enjoying our wine so, what better plan for the next 10 years of Bristol Wine Blog than to go back to my original idea: to write and share thoughts about wine and recommendations for the best local buys? And, to read your responses, of course.