Have you noticed how drinking wine can often trigger memories? That was certainly true when I opened a bottle of red from Crete recently. My wife and I visited the Greek island a few years ago – and not just to taste the wine.
We’re both fans of the music of Joni Mitchell and I was always fascinated by the line in the song ‘Carey’ released, amazingly, 50 years ago this year on her ‘Blue’ album. What did she mean about ‘the wind was in from Africa and last night I couldn’t sleep’? Leafing through a tourist guide before we went to Crete, I discovered the answer: for a time in the late 1960s, Joni Mitchell travelled round Europe and lived with some friends for a few months in the Cretean village of Matala in caves facing the sea into which an unpleasantly hot wind blew straight from Africa. Hence the start of the song.
We just had to take a bus across the island to the same village which still had a real hippy feel about it.
But what about the local wines? We sampled quite a few while we were there and some were very good indeed. We were particularly impressed with those made from a local red grape, Kotsifali.
Unfortunately, not many reach the UK, so it was a rare treat recently to be able to find a bottle from the producer Lyrarakis made from that same Kotsifali grape (Corks, £11.99). If you like Merlot, you’ll love this: really refreshing with attractive soft, black fruits, just enough tannin to make the wine interesting and quite a long gentle finish. A really satisfying and quaffable red; perhaps not over complex but so drinkable.
Food match: we enjoyed it with grilled lamb – the grilling giving the meat a smoky edge which complemented the wine well; barbecuing would have the same effect. But I also had some left in my glass later in the evening when I discovered that this is one of the reds that works really well with dark chocolate – with a Joni Mitchell record playing in the background, of course!
The United States is the world’s 4th largest wine producer (behind Italy, France and Spain) and, surprisingly, every one of America’s 50 states has some commercial wineries. Yes – even Alaska, apparently, despite its location way further north than the normally accepted limits for ripening grapes. Top of the tree is California – that state makes almost 90% of the USA’s entire wine output including some of the world’s most expensive bottles as well as many for more every day drinking that you can find on any supermarket shelf.
But, for today, I’m going to ignore both of these extremes and focus on Washington state. It actually has the 2nd largest wine production after California – a very distant 2nd, admittedly, making less than a tenth as much wine as that giant, but look around the shelves and you’ll find some interesting and attractive wines from there in a diversity of styles.
The majority of the state’s vineyards are away from the Pacific coast, to the east of the Cascade Mountains and in their rain shadow, which means that much of the area is semi-desert and growing vines is dependent on irrigation using water from the local rivers. Washington’s location, straddling the 46°N line of latitude (which equates to northern Bordeaux/southern Burgundy in European terms), is ideal for vineyards and the short, hot, sunny, dry summers are perfect for ripening both red and white grapes.
We opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon recently from Chateau Ste Michelle, easily the state’s biggest producer (Majestic, £14.99). Lovely deep colour with subtle black fruit and cinnamon on the nose. The palate is fresh with more black fruits – blackberries and black plums – soft tannins and a distinctly oaky overtone. The finish is, perhaps, a little shorter than you might expect from a wine at this price but it’s a very drinkable glassful, nonetheless, particularly when paired with a tasty beef or game casserole.
It may be easier to find something from California but, on the strength of this and a few others I have tasted, Washington state has some attractive offerings, too.
“The Sea Breeze” may seem a strange name for a wine. But, in the case of Château La Négly’s La Brise Marine (to give the wine its French title), it’s not just a piece of marketing, there is definitely a reason behind it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, without the cooling effect on the vines of the winds from the sea, this wine could never have been made – certainly not in the lovely aromatic, crisp style we found when we opened a bottle recently (available from Corks or Grape and Grind, around £16).
Let me explain. La Brise Marine is from vineyards near Narbonne in the Languedoc, that delightful, sun-drenched part of southern France. However, summer temperatures here can top 40°C (104°F); indeed, a couple of years ago, a new French record high of 46°C (close to 115°F) was set in a village not far to the east of La Négly’s vineyards. At these temperatures, vines struggle and often shut down completely to protect themselves. The one saving factor is often a cooling sea breeze so, having vineyards in the Appellation of La Clape, less than 10 miles from the Mediterranean, allows La Brise Marine to be produced and the unusual naming reflects this.
La Clape is an unusual limestone outcrop that was once an island (in fact, as recently as Roman times) and is quite distinct from the area surrounding. Unsurprisingly with the climate, most of the wines from here are reds – Grenache and Syrah dominating – but La Brise Marine is a white made from a blend of an ancient local grape variety, Bourboulenc, together with 2 imports from the southern Rhône Valley, Roussanne and Clairette.
Together they make a satisfying, quite full-bodied dry white with ripe pear and peach flavours and perhaps even a slightly saline tang – or am I just dreaming of the sea?
Choosing a wine to drink with a particular dish is a very personal thing – each of us has our own preferences. So, I always advise drinking something you like rather than the wine that someone tells you is ‘right’ for the food.
But, if you keep an open mind, you can sometimes find a pleasant surprise – a combination that you would never have thought about that works perfectly. And sometimes, it will be just the opposite!
We’ve been great fans of wines from the Sicilian producer Donnafugata since we were lucky enough to visit them on a wine tour many years ago. Their ‘Sherazade’ (Corks, £15.99) is a delicious blackberry and herb flavoured red made using the local Nero d’Avola grape. We usually drink it with lighter red meats like duck leg or, perhaps, a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish would work well with its slightly earthy flavours.
The bottle’s back label has an entirely different idea: “drink as an aperitif or pair with pasta dishes, grilled fish or pizza”. We actually tasted a glass before our dinner so tested the ‘aperitif’ theory: both my wife and I thought it was OK but would go better with food. As for pasta, it would rather depend on the accompanying sauce and the same with pizza – you can have all sorts of toppings, some would work others not. And then there’s the grilled fish suggestion. For me, this is a definite ‘no’.
Now, I’m not someone who says that only white wine goes with fish – I’m perfectly happy to drink dry rosé and certain reds with seafood, particularly with the more ‘meaty’ and robust fishes, such as tuna or swordfish. But Sherazade is a red with (at present – we drank the 2019) quite significant tannins – one reason why it made a less than ideal aperitif. Tannic reds will often taste quite metallic and unpleasant with fish dishes. We didn’t try this bottle with any fish, but, from experience, I wouldn’t recommend the pairing.
But, clearly, the winemaker would, so it all comes back to my 1st sentence: that wine and food pairing is a very personal thing.
We opened a bottle of Muscadet recently. It’s a wine I don’t often buy; many examples I’ve tasted have been rather thin and with unpleasantly high levels of acidity. But there may also be another explanation for my reluctance which goes back to an embarrassing moment many years ago.
My wife and I were on holiday in northern France, not far from where Muscadet is produced. Of course, we had to sample a glass of the local wine and so went into a small café. I asked (in French) for “two glasses of Muscadet, please” pronouncing the name of the wine as we do in England: ‘muss-cad-day’. The lady behind the counter repeated the “two glasses of” and then looked at me blankly. I pointed to the bottle on the shelf behind her. “Ah, it’s Muscadet, monsieur”. She had said ‘moose-cad-day’ and it was clear that the 2 glasses in front of her on the counter would remain empty until I’d repeated the name and pronounced it correctly!
I’ve been rather anti-Muscadet ever since. But I’ve seen a number of very favourable reviews of different bottles recently and I decided to swallow my pride and buy one: Le Clos du Château l’Oiselinière (Wine Society, £13.50). I’m pleased I did.
My first surprise was that the wine was from the 2015 vintage. Surely, I thought, Muscadet is a wine to drink young. Would a 5 year old example still be drinkable or would it be way past its best? I needn’t have worried. The wine was delightfully fresh and attractive and with lots of complexity. It had spent more than 2 years resting on its lees (the dead yeast cells that remain after the fermentation has ended) before being bottled and this had clearly mellowed the acidity. It was now perfectly in harmony with clean, citrus flavours and a full, long finish.
Definitely a wine to look out for – however you pronounce its name.