Beware: Eruptions!

Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano with major eruptions every few years and almost constant rumbling in between.  So why, when there are so many more hospitable sites to plant your vineyard, would growers choose this unpredictable and potentially dangerous corner of Sicily? 

There are many reasons:  Vines will grow in places where little else will survive and there have been vineyards here since the ancient Greeks colonised the island more than 2000 years ago.  But that doesn’t fully explain the enormous rise in the popularity of the area in recent years which has seen an influx of newcomers and major investments in the vineyards and in new wineries.  The attraction? A combination of soil, climate and what’s planted in those ancient vineyards. 

The volcanic soils of the mountain’s slopes are rich in minerals, especially potassium, thought to be the most important element in promoting vine health.  The climate, too, is ideal with Mediterranean warmth ensuring perfectly ripe grapes every year.  And many of the vineyards are planted at altitude (up to 1000m or 3300ft above sea level).  This provides a cooling effect, ensuring that the grapes retain plenty of balancing acidity when harvested.  And then, there’s the vines themselves.  Many are over 100 years old – some of the few remaining that pre-date phylloxera (the bug couldn’t survive in the volcanic soil) and so have never been grafted (the technique used worldwide to combat the vine-killing louse).

So, what about the wines?  I opened a bottle of Etna white recently, made from local varieties Carricante and Catarratto.  Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Bianco (Wine Society, £12.50) is deliciously mouth-filling and rich with lovely flavours of ripe pear, melon and a hint of lemon peel.  Delicious on its own or with fully-flavoured fish or poultry dishes.  I can also recommend the same producer’s red (also available from The Wine Society at the same price).  Again made from local grapes (this time Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) and with attractive fresh cherry and liquorice flavours.

Making wine on the slopes of Etna may be a challenge – a nightmare, even, sometimes – but many growers think it’s worth it and, on the evidence of these and other Etna wines I have tasted in recent years, I have to agree.

The Rare Roussanne

France’s Rhône Valley is best known for its red wines – think Châteauneuf du Pape, Hermitage and Côtes du Rhône.  But about 1 bottle in 5 produced there is white wine made from grape varieties such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Clairette, although you could be forgiven for not recognising any of these names; in common with much of France, the wines of the Rhône are labelled by region or village, rather than by grape variety.

This lack of familiarity has meant that, away from the immediate area and the Languedoc to the south-west, few producers have planted these varieties, preferring instead something that customers can identify with more easily: Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

There are, happily, a few exceptions to this: Tahbilk, based in Victoria, Australia, have been growing Marsanne since the 1860s and are still using vines planted in 1927 in their wines today – believed to be the oldest surviving Marsanne vines in the world.  I used to be a big fan of this wine but haven’t seen it on the shelves here for quite a while.

Perhaps the highest quality Rhône white variety, Roussanne, has found its way to California (although examples of the grape from there are rare in the UK).  But, on a more positive note, South Africa’s Franschhoek-based producer Bellingham’s Roussanne is available in Sainsbury’s supermarket (on offer at £9 just before Christmas, usually £11.99).  This is a delicious, full-bodied, unoaked mouthful with attractive floral aromas followed by complex flavours of ripe pear and pineapple leading to a long, rich, savoury finish.  Principally a food wine – something in a creamy sauce would match perfectly – although I’d also be happy drinking it as a tangy aperitif.  Even at full price, this is good value and highlights how much we are missing that this lovely, distinctive variety is not more widely planted.

Just one complaint (and a familiar one): why the ridiculously heavy bottle (840 grams empty)?  It’s not necessary to safely transport the wine to the UK so, please, Bellingham, consider the environment and lighten the load a little.

Meet Franc from Friuli

There are a number of grape varieties with ‘Cabernet’ in their name – Cabernet Sauvignon, the best known and most widely planted, is actually a cross (probably some time in the 19th century) between Sauvignon Blanc and another Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, hence the name.  All 3 are found in the vineyards of Bordeaux, so I can only guess what Franc and Sauvignon were up to a couple of hundred years ago!

Cabernet Franc is usually part of a blend in Bordeaux, often included to add attractive freshness and a certain leafy or herby character to the wine, but look further north to France’s Loire region and you find 100% Franc wines in ACs such as Chinon and Bourgueil – and very enjoyable many of them are, too.  But I’ve never associated the grape with Italy until I saw a bottle on the shelves of Bristol independent merchant, Grape and Grind.  The wine is from Tenute Tomasella who grows the variety in vineyards in the very far north-east of the country, in the Friuli region, close to the border with Slovenia.  It looks very appealing in the glass: ‘dressed in cardinal purple’ according to the back label and is a real bargain at £12.99.  Lovely fresh red fruits – cherries and plums – and a real lightness of touch, helped, no doubt, by only 12½% alcohol.

It seems strange to be saying ‘only’ 12½%; at one time that would have been considered a medium to high alcohol level, but not these days.  A combination of global warming and better vineyard management techniques means that grapes can now be picked with much higher sugar levels than was once the case and that translates directly into higher alcohol.  Of course, the public appetite for such wines (encouraged by a certain American writer) has contributed, too.  As a result, 13½%, 14% and even more is now the norm.  That works for some wines but others become rather unbalanced with the alcohol overpowering the fruit. 

The more moderate level on the Cabernet Franc was quite noticeable (and very pleasant) – yes, a delicate wine, but not thin and really flavoursome.

Perhaps other producers should take notice.

Fish and Sweet Wine?

As regular readers will know, my wife and I enjoy good food as well as good wine – and we like cooking (just as well in these days when eating out is so restricted).  One of our favourite recipe books (one of many) is “Fruits of the Sea” by TV Chef Rick Stein (BBC Publications).  Despite being a professional chef, most of his recipes are quite straightforward to follow and we particularly like the way he combines ingredients that most of us wouldn’t consider together. For example, a fresh ginger and sweet Monbazillac wine sauce to accompany brill, john dorey (or turbot if you’re celebrating).  Fish and sweet wine are certainly not an obvious pairing but, in this case, they complement each other perfectly.

One advantage of the dish is that the recipe only calls for a small glass of the wine, leaving the rest for the chef (and me, the chef’s mate) to enjoy with our desserts.  We didn’t actually use Monbazillac; Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ Muscat de St John de Minervois (a bargain at £5.25 a half bottle) is an excellent substitute with similar levels of sweetness and richness.

St John de Minervois is a tiny enclave in the far north of the much larger Appellation Contrôlée (AC) area of Minervois, in the south of France’s Languedoc region.  Minervois itself is famous for robust, hearty reds but St John, with vineyards in the foothills of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain), has a separate AC for sweet wines made from the delightfully aromatic Muscat grape.  Here, the wines are allowed to start fermenting and then, before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the fermentation is stopped by adding a slug of grape brandy (the same method used for making port).  This kills the yeast (which dies happily, of course!!) and leaves a delicious (15% alcohol) wine with the Muscat variety’s trademark grapey sweetness.

So, that was our dessert wine sorted.  To partner Rick Stein’s delicious fish dish, I’d had a lovely Condrieu – a full bodied white from near Lyons in France – tucked away under the stairs just waiting for the right moment.  The two would have made a lovely combination but sadly, I’d waited too long and the wine was rather past its best – a lesson learnt for the future.

2021: Looking Forward

Let me begin my first Bristol Wine Blog of 2021 by wishing you all a very Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year. 

For both my wife, Hilary, and me, 2021 is a year of ‘big’ birthdays.  We’d obviously like to celebrate in some way but decisions about where and how are on hold for a while.  We’re waiting and hoping that the anti-Covid vaccines are rolled out and are successful even against the newly discovered variants.  Once that happens, planning can begin but I suspect that day may be a few months away yet and all we can do at present is dream.

Talking of dreams, one awful nightmare has just been avoided thanks to the last-minute trade deal agreed with the European Union (EU).   Brexit is a topic I’ve tried to ignore here – I have my views but I know it’s a divisive subject and this is a wine blog, not a political one – but it is clear that ‘No deal’ would have meant the imposition of tariffs on many goods.  Of particular interest to this blog is the major price rise that would have affected all alcoholic drinks.  As it is, we will have to wait and see what effect our new relationship with the EU may have on wine prices and supply.  I’ll be watching the wine shelves carefully and it’s a topic I may be returning to during the year as things become clearer.

But, for now, that’s just one of many uncertainties as we start the New Year.  How long will the restrictions on our movement due to Covid remain, when will we be able to go out to restaurants or have friends round for a meal and when will we be able to travel again?  All questions for the future but, in the meantime, it’s all about taking care and looking out for ourselves and others.  Happy New Year.