Australia: An Eye-Opener

Since the turn of the century, wine lovers in the UK have bought more wine from Australia than from any other country. The combination of approachable, attractive, fruity flavours, well-known and reliable brand names and frequent special offers is clearly a winning formula.
So, why don’t I mention Australian wines more often in Bristol Wine Blog? It’s the same reason that my wife and I go against the trends and drink so little from there (apart from the occasional Clare or Eden Valley Riesling or Margaret River Cabernet). It’s certainly not any anti-Australia bias on our part – my aunt emigrated from the UK and lived there happily for many years and became a citizen. No, it’s simply that the wine world is so big and diverse these days; there’s just so much to taste and try.
But, having said that, I really should buy Australian wine more often. It’s a vast country; virtually the same distance east to west as from Lisbon to Istanbul or from coast to coast in the USA and with so many different soils and climates. That means opportunities for an incredible range of different wine styles. One of Australia’s major producers, De Bortoli, are focussing on this diversity with their ‘Regional Classics’ range and I was drawn to a bottle of Tumbarumba Chardonnay (Majestic, £13.99, when you buy a mixed case of 6 or more).
The Tumbarumba vineyards lie in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains west of Canberra at an altitude of around 550m above sea level (1700 ft). This makes it a relatively cool area – indeed, many of the grapes from here are turned into sparkling wines. Not this Chardonnay, though. Initially quite spicy and oaky on the nose, the palate is deliciously fruity with lime and peach and very delicate oak – not at all intrusive, just adding a subtle hint of cinnamon and some breadth to the taste.
So, for those who look at an Australian Chardonnay and think ‘big, woody and overpowering’, this bottle from De Bortoli will be a real eye-opener. And proof that I really should be blogging about Australian wines more often.

2nd Wines: the Smart Choice

After 2 Blogs about the red wines of Burgundy, I think it’s time to move on to France’s other flagship region, Bordeaux.  There are a few similarities between the 2 – stratospheric prices for the top wines and an active investment market among them – but many differences which make it easier to find something drinkable at an affordable – if, perhaps, not exactly every day – price.

One of these differences is size: Bordeaux produces more than 3 times as much wine as Burgundy in a typical year and there’s nothing like the same fragmentation of vineyards that causes the supply problems in Burgundy.  This is due to the fact that many of Bordeaux’s estates are now owned by companies rather than individuals, easing inheritance problems, plus the Bordeaux Appellation system is rather simpler, only dividing down as far as villages, rather than identifying vineyards as they do in Burgundy.

Despite those advantages, you can still easily pay £50 – £100 for well-known wines, but, if you avoid the big names and choose carefully, there is some value available.   As I found recently when I opened an attractive red from the excellent 2010 vintage with the benefit of a good few years of barrel and bottle maturity behind it.

Moulins de Citran (Majestic, £16.99 as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles) is quite lean and austere in a typical Bordeaux way but has good blackcurrant and raspberry fruit and some cedary spice and leather flavours.  There’s fair length, too, and, despite its age, it has a good few years of happy drinking ahead of it.

So, why is this under £20 and not £50?  Firstly, it is not from one of the prestigious villages – it’s simply AC Haut-Medoc but, perhaps, more importantly, it’s the estate’s ‘2nd wine’.  Many Bordeaux properties are large enough to make 2 or even 3 different wines each year.  Their best grapes from their oldest wines will go into their top wine (which would be named ‘Chateau de Citran’ in this case), but that still leaves good grapes from, perhaps, younger vines or vines in less good parts of the vineyard spare.  These will go into the 2nd wine – still made by the same winemaker in the same winery but often sold at less than half the price of the main Chateau wine.

So, if you love Bordeaux wines but don’t want to pay too much, then 2nd wines of good estates in less fashionable parts of the region are a really smart choice.

Burgundy: Your Feedback

My Blog last time, “Burgundy: A Nightmare”, provoked several comments, thank you to those who did.  Let’s look at what you had to say.

Firstly, why didn’t I name the wine I tasted: “you tell us the wines you like, why didn’t you ‘name and shame’ this one?”  It was something I thought about while I was writing the Blog but I decided against.  I had no reason to criticise the producer, who is well-respected, nor the – usually reliable -supplier.  And, the wine itself was well-made; it was just that I found it disappointing for the money.  Yet, it was the sort of price you should expect to pay for that type of wine based on the supply and demand situation I mentioned last time.  At half the price, it would have been a ‘recommend’.

An interesting suggestion was that wine might have been slightly ‘corked’.  Corkiness occurs when wine is in contact with a cork that has been affected by a fungus which, in severe cases, produces a nasty, musty, mouldy smell and taste in the wine.  But, when the problem is more minor, you don’t get these strong, pervasive smells and flavours, just a dumbing down of the aromas and tastes.  A possibility here but the cork on this bottle was one of these new high-tech versions that is supposed to eliminate 99.99% of cork problems.   

So, should we, as one reader commented, “simply leave red Burgundy to the wealthy”?  It’s a good question!  There’s certainly better value elsewhere for Pinot Noir lovers – New Zealand, for example.  But, when my wife and I visited Burgundy on a wine tour a few years ago, we tasted some lovely bottles that I’d be reluctant to ignore altogether.  Perhaps reserve them for very special occasions?

And, finally, does the same ‘nightmare’ tag apply to white Burgundy, too?  Happily, not to the same extent.  Part of the reason is that white Burgundies are made from Chardonnay which is a whole lot easier to grow than the Pinot Noir used in the reds.  So, although the top wines are similarly pricey, further down the spectrum there is some enjoyable drinking to be found at more reasonable prices.  Check the supermarkets’ ‘own-label’ ranges.  For around a tenner, many will have a wine they’ve bought in from the very reliable ‘Caves de Buxy’ (check the small print on the label) or try one of the 2 bottles pictured above from Majestic for the same price (when bought as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles).  Don’t expect great complexity but any of these should be very, very drinkable and be perfect antidotes to nightmares!

Burgundy: A Nightmare

Red wines from France’s Burgundy region are among the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. The price for a single bottle of one of the top names can easily run into 4 figures. Whether such a price can possibly be justified, I leave to you, but many of these wines are made in very limited quantities and, as I learnt in my first Economics lesson at school many years ago, when demand exceeds supply, prices go up. It doesn’t help either that the top wines are bought, not just for drinking, but as investments to re-sell.
The problem of limited supply isn’t just restricted to the trophy bottles, it occurs throughout Burgundy. To explain why, we need to look back into history.
Wine has been made in the region since Roman times and, over those nearly 2000 years, the very best vineyards have been identified and classified. This has given Burgundy the most precise and complicated Appellation Contrôlée regime in the whole of France. The best sites in some villages are designated ‘Grand Cru’ followed by ‘Premier Cru’. Below these come wines from lesser sites in these villages and from less prestigious villages. Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, you have generic ‘Bourgogne’. By fragmenting the area in this way, you have very limited supplies of any particular wine apart from, perhaps, the generic bottles.
But, it’s worse than that! The region’s vineyards have also suffered from the Napoleonic system of inheritance under which assets were divided equally between the male children. This resulted, over the years, in vineyard holdings becoming smaller and smaller. In many cases, you find adjacent rows of vines being owned by different people – some of whom will be excellent growers and winemakers, others less good. You can see the effect of this in the picture above (taken in spring) where some strips are clearly more advanced than others.
All this means that buying Burgundy, particularly red Burgundy, can be a nightmare. Not only do you need to know one site from another but also, who are the best growers. Added to this, often quite simple bottles aren’t that cheap and, as I found recently, despite my knowledge, anyone can find themselves disappointed. I opened a village-level red with our dinner a few nights ago; it was OK – a bit of cherry fruit and some spice but, at rather more than £20, I really expected a lot more and, as my wife correctly remarked, if this had been a New Zealand Pinot Noir at that price, it would have been something truly special.

To Decant or Not?

I often mention in a blog about having decanted a wine. But, it wasn’t until a reader left a comment for me that I realised that none of the blogs currently on this site’s archive actually explains what I mean by decanting and when and how you might do it. So, thank you, ‘Miss Judy’, for the prompt and I hope this answers your question.
Basically, there are 2 reasons for decanting: one is visual, the other is about how the wine will taste. Let’s start with the visual. You’ve got a lovely decanter and want to show it off to friends when you invite them round to dinner, so you tip the wine from the bottle into the decanter and put that on the table instead. Or, more practically, if you think that your wine is likely to have some sediment in it, you might want to decant it so that you can pour it easily without worrying about ‘bits’ going into your glass – words like ‘unfined’ or ‘unfiltered’ on the label are hints that there could be sediment in the bottle.
The other reason for decanting is if you think the wine would benefit from some aeration to soften it a little. So, if you open a wine and find it’s very tannic and harsh, then it might be one for decanting. (Tannin is that drying sensation you feel on your gums and the sides of your mouth when you drink some red wines). Aeration is more likely to benefit younger, chunkier reds such as a Shiraz, Zinfandel or Châteauneuf du Pape but possibly not a Beaujolais or Chilean Pinot Noir. At this point, I should say that there are arguments between professionals about the merits or not of aerating wine – my advice is: try it; if it works for you, do it, if not, don’t.
So that, briefly, is the answer to ‘when’ and ‘why’ you might decant. Now let’s turn to ‘how’: If your wine has been lying down, any sediment will have gathered on one side of the bottle. Carefully take it from the rack and gently stand it upright, leaving it in this position for a few hours if you can. This will allow any sediment to settle in the bottom of the bottle. When you’re ready to open it, uncork the wine and, with a light behind the bottle (traditionally a candle, but a lamp is better), slowly pour the wine out watching the bottle for when the first signs of any sediment start appearing in the neck. At that point, stop pouring. The wine in your decanter will be clear and bright and the sediment is left behind in the bottle. Of course, if there’s no sediment, this whole process is a lot easier!
Perhaps the only other point to mention is how long in advance should you decant? If you’re decanting for aesthetic reasons, it really doesn’t matter but, for aeration, my guide would be: the bigger the wine, the earlier you open it, but, typically, an hour. And, beware if you have any very old, frail wines – they are unlikely to benefit from decanting and you could destroy them.
I hope I’ve covered everything but, if not, as ‘Miss Judy’ did, please leave a comment in the box below and I’ll try and reply.