Lightening the Gloom

The last 18 months have been a difficult time with Covid affecting all of us in some way or another.  So, when my wife, Hilary, had a ‘big’ birthday recently, we decided it was important to find something to lighten the gloom and celebrate.  And, like so many before, we decided it had to be fizz.  Traditionally, that would have meant Champagne; today, the choice is so much wider. 

Sales of Prosecco are booming, with its lighter, fruitier and slightly sweeter taste appealing to many.  The quality of Spanish Cava, once thought of as only a cheap and cheerful alternative, is improving greatly, too (although I still think you need to choose carefully).  And then there’s New Zealand with its perfect cool climate for fizz, Australia, South Africa, California.  How many birthdays would we need to sample all of those?

And the choice doesn’t end there.  There are different methods of production – traditional (as used in Champagne), tank, transfer, ancestral and so on – with each giving its own style and character to the wine as does the grape variety (or varieties) used.

So, with all these to choose from, what did we open? 

A delightful dry rosé sparkler from the Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall.  Made with Pinot Noir, one of the Champagne grapes, this was light and elegant with lovely strawberry fruit, a mouth-filling mousse and a long herby finish.  Delicious!  It’s quite widely available but we bought it from the Wine Society for £28 – a bargain when compared to equivalent quality rosé Champagne.

Regular readers will know that we’re great fans of English sparkling wines (indeed, English and Welsh wines in general) and this bottle confirmed our view.  But don’t just take my word for it, look at the number of medals and top awards our local bottles are winning and you’ll see why it really is time to take our home product very seriously.

A Spanish Rarity

I love seeking out wines from less well-known areas or from rarely seen grape varieties.  Inevitably, not all turn out to be good – perhaps that’s why they’ve been ignored – but often you can find interesting and different flavours.  And, because these wines are hard to sell because no-one recognises the names on the label, prices can sometimes offer excellent value, too.

You can find these unusual bottles from all over the wine world. 

Take the Clos Lojen Bobal from the Manchuela region of Spain that I picked up in Corks of Cotham recently (£15).  Bobal is actually Spain’s 2nd most widely planted red grape variety after Tempranillo but, despite that, it still counts as a rarity as you don’t see it on our shelves very often.  I’ve only tasted it a few times before and certainly not for some time.  And, as for DO (Spain’s equivalent of Appellation Contrôlée) Manchuela, I had to check my Wine Atlas to confirm that it’s inland from Valencia on the eastern edge of Spain’s high central plateau with many vineyards above 800 m (2500 ft) above sea level.

I also did some research on Clos Lojen, again a producer I hadn’t heard of, but, it seems, clearly one with high ambitions.  The vines on the estate are up to 90 years old, giving the wines the kind of intensity you only find with true old vines; some are even still planted on their own root stocks and all are farmed biodynamically (the super-organic regime I’ve commented on previously).  The owner has spent time working with Telmo Rodríguez, one of Spain’s star winemakers and shares his ethos of ‘letting the wine make itself’, using only natural processes and minimal intervention.

And the result of all this?  A lovely, food-friendly, fresh, clean red with attractive dried fruit flavours, a hint of warm spice – my wife thought cardamon – some very subtle woody notes from brief ageing in large old oak barrels and a long savoury finish.  Try it with grilled lamb chops.  Delicious!

A Green Wine

The word ‘green’ has many meanings.  It’s a colour, of course, and, these days, is often used as a shortcut to describe environmental issues or, with a capital G, the political parties that are trying to advance those issues.

And, in Portugual, there’s a Green Wine (the English translation of Vinho Verde) but the meaning is different again; the green is used here in the sense of being young or immature.  Traditionally, Vinho Verde was consumed within a year of the harvest and so was always ‘green’ (with, in general, little character apart from mouth-tinglingly high acidity). 

Despite this, for almost a century, Vinho Verde has also been a DOC, the Portuguese equivalent of France’s Appellation Contrôlée, with designated geographic boundaries (roughly stretching from the Minho River in the north to just beyond the Douro in the south) and a list of allowable grape varieties, all native to the region of production.

Historically, most Vinho Verde was red and you will still find some like that if you visit the region.  But, today, overwhelmingly, Vinho Verde is white and the quality has improved enormously with many examples able to develop well in bottle for a year or 2 at least.  Look, especially, for wines made with Alvarinho (the local name for the currently very fashionable and attractive variety, Albariño, but, in Portugal, made in a rather leaner and crisper style than over the border in Spain), also Treixadura (sometimes spelt Trajadura) and Loureiro.

It was a bottle of the latter from producer Quinta de Gomariz that I opened recently (Grape and Grind, £14.50).  Rather fuller and richer than many Vinho Verdes despite still being only 11.5% alcohol, but retaining a typical floral character alongside a fresh, citrussy flavour and a delightful dry, honeyed finish.  A wine to enjoy on its own or to accompany many fish or chicken dishes.

And this particular Vinho Verde takes the ‘green’ theme even further – it is imported by Xisto Wines who, amazingly, bring all their stock over to the UK from Portugal in sailing boats, priding themselves in using no fossil fuels.  A Green Wine, indeed!