Some wine labels entice you, they tempt you, they just shout ‘buy me’ at you. I blogged about such a bottle a few weeks ago – a wine I bought simply because I was attracted and intrigued by its label. Others – well, take the label pictured above. It’s quite stylish but it doesn’t tell you much: no obvious sign of where the wine comes from nor, unless you happen to recognise the name ‘Furmint’, what the grape variety is. As a result, it would be easy to leave on the shelf and look for something more obviously appealing. But that would be a shame as you would be missing a delightful, full-flavoured white from Hungary made with that country’s high quality native variety, Furmint. We don’t see many wines from Hungary exported these days but, delving back into history, they produced the most sought-after wine in the Noble Courts across Europe. The wonderful, sweet Tokaji was the first choice of both the Tsars of Russia and Louis XIV of France (who called it the “Wine of kings, king of wines”). It’s still made today in the region from which it takes its name, using a unique production process and still including the Furmint variety as part of the blend. But, back to our – very different – Furmint, made by Tornai and available from Corks of Cotham at £12.99. It isn’t a dessert wine although it’s just a touch off-dry and made, not in the Tokaji region, but much further west in Nagy-Somló not far from the Austrian border. It’s a lovely, tangy, rich, mouth-filling wine with hints of spice and lemon peel and really good length. The fruit is pure and clean and the wine is unoaked. Although fine to drink on its own, this is really a food wine: anything full-flavoured and, perhaps, a bit spicy would be best. All in all, a delicious, good value white wine but, unless customers are willing to look beyond the label, how many will ever know what they’re missing?
The label says ‘Wild Ferment’ in big red letters. So, is this something special we ought to know about? Well, something interesting: yes; but something special: not really. Before the middle of the 19th century and Louis Pasteur’s work, all wines would effectively have been ‘wild ferment’. Indeed, the earliest wines almost certainly happened in this way – by accident when some grapes were picked and left somewhere warm and the yeasts naturally present in the vineyard reacted with them to produce a sort of crude and basic wine. So, a wild ferment simply means using the naturally occurring yeasts. The alternative to a wild ferment is the use of cultured yeasts. This really only took off in the 2nd half of the 20th century when the popularity of wine expanded and most bottles were bought from supermarkets. The new customers demanded a consistent product – not something that was always possible with wild ferments – and, as a result, many producers turned to cultured yeasts that could be controlled and standardised to give a more predictable outcome. But others thought that using cultured yeasts destroyed any sense of ‘terroir’ – the distinctive taste of the individual vineyard – and have remained with (or gone back to) using wild yeasts instead. These producers are in the minority today hence the specific mention of the words on the bottle label. And the wine itself? Delheim’s Chenin Blanc is a fresh, grassy white from Stellenbosch in South Africa (Wine Society, £10.95). The attractive herby nose is followed by quite a full and complex palate. There’s subtle spicy, savoury flavours from partial barrel fermentation and a few months left on its lees (the dead yeast cells that keep working even after the fermentation has finished). And plenty of ripe melon and peach, too. All topped off with a long mouth-filling finish. So, does the wild ferment make a difference? It’s difficult to say but I found quite a distinctive character about this wine that says more than ‘this is a simple Chenin Blanc’. And it’s a real bargain at just over a tenner.
The land of Chianti and Barolo is a real treasure chest for wine lovers – but not just for those 2 famous names. Italy is divided into 20 different regions, each with their own traditions and wine styles, and boasts more native wine grapes than any other country – many that have been grown in just one small area for generations and are found nowhere else. So, wherever you look in Italy, you’ll discover exciting and different wines. But, perhaps there’s a downside to this: you need to be adventurous and risk buying something you know nothing about. Although, having chanced the unknown on many occasions, I’d say ‘be brave’ – I’ve been pleasantly surprised more often than not. And, don’t worry about making an expensive mistake; lesser-known regions and grape varieties are often cheaper than the more famous names. A bottle I opened recently supported this.
It was not only made from a relatively obscure grape variety – Pecorino – but also came from one of Italy’s less fashionable wine regions, the Abruzzo on the eastern, Adriatic coast. You may recognise the grape name is also the name of a local cheese; I’ve heard a number of explanations for this – none of them is particularly convincing! The wine, Contesa’s Pecorino (Wine Society, a bargain at £9.95) is a delicious, fresh, zesty unoaked white, quite full-bodied (13% alcohol) and with lots of lovely ripe fruit flavours – pineapple, melon and peach in particular. Really easy-drinking either on its own or with fish or chicken or pasta in a creamy sauce. The grapes are from a vineyard close to the town of Pescara and, although not certified organic, the producer has abandoned all use of weed killers and pesticides in favour of more natural methods. So, if you see Pecorino or another Abruzzo wine (the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is also worth looking out for), do give them a try; these are just 2 examples of why I think Italy is such a treasure chest for wine lovers, particularly those open to trying something new.
It’s October, the days are getting shorter and the temperature dropping. Real signs that the season is changing. For us, that means it’s time to think about some of those more robust, warming winter dishes. Like the delicious shin beef casserole full of chunky root vegetables such as celeriac and carrot we enjoyed last night. Of course, with the food reflecting the time of year, you also need to look to an altogether different style of wine – one that won’t be over-powered by all the strong flavours of the dish. It would have to be red to go with the beef and the rich, savoury gravy but, more specifically, I was looking at something from one of the warmer parts of the world which would have the weight to balance the food. A number of possibilities came to mind: an Australian Shiraz or Californian Zinfandel would work perfectly or, perhaps, something from southern Europe or around the Mediterranean basin.
I finally settled on a wine from the Côtes du Roussillon, a much under-rated area near Perpignan in the very far south of France – indeed the vineyards for Domaine Gardiés Clos de Vignes (Wine Society, £17) are barely 30 miles from the Spanish border. I decanted the wine a couple of hours before we were going to drink it and found it opened up beautifully to reveal a lovely, savoury, satisfying red (made from a blend of mainly 70 year old Carignan and Grenache vines with small additions of Syrah and Mourvèdre). The wine was perfectly dry with attractive black fruits on the palate and a clear hint of cedar or cigar box flavours from the ageing in older, large wooden barrels. It’s certainly a big wine – it needed to be to complement the dish – but not so overwhelming that one glass was enough and the 14% alcohol is perfectly integrated so you’re not left with a burn on the finish. All in all, a proper winter wine.