Expanding Horizons

In this blog, I’m going to continue with my theme from last time: how do you choose which wine to buy?  One method I’ve found works well is to buy a different wine from a producer whose wines you’ve enjoyed in the past.  Winemakers often have their own preferences which are reflected in the wines they make so, if you’ve enjoyed, for example, a Cabernet Sauvignon from a certain producer, try their Merlot if you see it on the shelf.  That way, you can expand your horizons without taking too many risks.

It’s a plan that I used when I was in Majestic Wine recently.  We’ve long been fans of Domaine Begude’s ‘Etoile’ Chardonnay (£13.99), a subtle, gently oaked, creamy white from Limoux, just south of Carcassonne at the western edge of France’s Languedoc region.  It’s a great value alternative if you like Pouilly-Fuissé!  So, when I saw the same estate’s ‘Le Paradis’ Viognier (£15.99), it was an obvious choice.

The Viognier, as you might expect, is a little more aromatic than the Chardonnay with delightful aromas and flavours of peach, ripe pear and melon and a restrained savoury finish.  The label tells me that the wine spent time in oak barrels but they seem only to have been used to round out the palate, there is no overt oakiness to taste.  We enjoyed it with some red mullet cooked in a rich tomato sauce and the two blended perfectly.

Limoux is not a particularly well-known or fashionable area but Domaine Begude is beautifully situated some 300m (1000ft) above sea level giving that ideal balance of hot sunny days for ripening the grapes and cooler nights to retain vital acidity.  It’s owned by an English couple, who bought it back in 2003 and now run it on entirely organic lines using no pesticides and only natural manures and fertilisers.

The results are clear to see (and to taste) whether you choose the Chardonnay, the Viognier or one of their other varietal wines that – subtle hint – hopefully, Majestic will stock at some future date.

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Buying Memories

How do you choose which wine to buy?  Well, something you’ve enjoyed before is always a good start.  Not surprisingly, we have quite a few that fall into that category; wines that I’ll always pick up when I see them. But I also like experimenting; always drinking the same wines and never trying anything new doesn’t appeal at all.  So, I’m often attracted by an unusual grape or a different wine region.  Sometimes I’ll research it before I buy, sometimes not.  And the results can be mixed, as you might expect!

But, perhaps, my favourite way to choose a bottle is to find one that brings back happy memories.  A few years ago, we were lucky enough to visit New Zealand and, of course, we arranged some wine tours while we were there. A couple of days exploring the Central Otago region on the South Island with Lance from Queenstown Wine Trail still stand out in my mind and especially a visit to the Mount Difficulty estate, the stunning view from their terrace pictured above.

We’ve loved their ‘Roaring Meg’ Pinot Noir ever since so, when I saw the same label’s Pinot Gris in Majestic (£13.99), it was an easy decision.

Pinot Gris (aka Pinot Grigio) can be very variable, as I’ve noted before in these blogs, ranging from thin, neutral and acidic through to rich, aromatic and flavoursome.  The Roaring Meg was certainly one of the latter; just a little off-dry – in no way sweet, but just retaining a pleasing touch of residual sugar balancing the variety’s naturally high acidity – with plenty of richness to fill the mouth (13.5% alcohol), attractive pear and peach flavours and a lovely long savoury finish.

The label recommends drinking it as an aperitif or with Asian dishes.  I’d widen that out considerably; this wine is deliciously food-friendly and would pair nicely with just about any dish in a subtle creamy or herby sauce. 

And for us, the wonderful memories come free as an added extra!

Beaujolais Nouveau Day

If you go into your local supermarket or wine merchant on Thursday (November 18th) or soon afterwards, you may see some insistent marketing proclaiming that ‘Beaujolais Nouveau is here’. So, what is Beaujolais Nouveau?

It’s a red wine made from the Gamay grape grown in the Beaujolais region in the southern part of Burgundy in France.  What’s unusual about Nouveau is that the grapes are picked (generally in late September), quickly fermented and the wine is bottled all within a few weeks so that it can be on sale on the 3rd Thursday of November each year, officially designated ‘Beaujolais Nouveau Day’.

Which brings us to the next obvious question: should you buy it?

The brief timescale in which the wine must be made and bottled to get it on the shelf for the official release day, has a considerable influence on its flavour.  Most wines (including Beaujolais not labelled as ‘Nouveau’) take many months, some even years, for the process that, for Beaujolais Nouveau, is carried out within about 6 or 8 weeks.  The extended period allows other wines the chance to develop complexity and different flavours, perhaps from lees contact or maturation for a time in oak barrels.  None of this development is possible in Nouveau’s abbreviated timeframe, so it can only ever be a simple quaffing wine, at best.

What does it taste like?  Well, I haven’t tasted the 2021 vintage yet, of course, but typically it is light-bodied, with refreshing acidity and plenty of juicy, sometimes slightly bitter, fruit.  A friend of mine once described it as ‘alcoholic Ribena’ and I don’t think I can improve on that.

It would be a perfect accompaniment to a picnic on a lovely warm summer’s day.  Unfortunately, another downside to the speedy production process is that, by the time we get some picnic weather here in the UK, this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau will be past its best!  

Do try it if you never have but I suggest you approach it with limited expectations!

Action, not Words

As I write this, many of the world’s leaders and their support teams are meeting in Glasgow at the COP26 Conference to discuss climate change and what can be done to limit its impact on our planet.  Although undoubtedly a serious problem for us, it’s one that, without urgent action, could prove catastrophic to the generations that follow us.  It will be interesting to see how those attending face up to their enormous responsibility.

The problem isn’t new and many parts of the world have already been badly affected by climate change.  The wine industry hasn’t escaped, of course; wildfires in the USA and Australia and serious flooding in Germany have affected vineyards and wineries and these are just a few of the most serious examples. 

But, for more than 2 decades now, many vineyard owners have noticed changes; their grapes are ripe enough to harvest weeks earlier than they used to be.  As a result, in some of the world’s warmer vine growing areas, producers are looking to plant at higher altitudes to benefit from the cooler conditions that may be available there.  Elsewhere, drought is causing real problems and may result in some vineyards, particularly those that rely on irrigation, becoming unviable; at the very least, different, more heat- and drought-resistant varieties will need to be introduced, as Bordeaux, for example, have already decided to do.

Conversely, areas like Germany and Britain, who, in the past have struggled to ripen grapes sufficiently for quality wine, are now finding perfect conditions.  How long before northern Canada and Scandinavia become centres of vine growing excellence?

But the wine industry must also look at itself.  The fermentation process that creates wine releases Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere (admittedly, in relatively small quantities) and its use of bottles – sometimes unnecessarily heavy bottles – and their transportation around the world clearly has an impact.

For the sake of the planet and, especially, for future generations, I hope that something positive comes out of the Conference and not just words. Any promises must be followed by real action.  I have to say, sadly, that I’m not confident.

Wine from the Co-op

No – this blog isn’t about wines you can find in your local Co-op supermarket (although I’ve found some good bottles there from time to time), I’m thinking about the enterprises that produce a fair amount of Europe’s wine (as well as olive oil and many other processed agricultural products).

In many villages across the continent, you’ll find a number of individually owned smallholdings, often just a couple of acres, sometimes less, producing several different crops, not just grapes and, frequently, tending a few animals, too.  Individually, their grape harvest would be no more than enough to make a little wine for themselves and their immediate family and, perhaps, a few bottles to sell at the farm gate.  So, joining with their neighbours to form a co-operative is often a good choice.  It means that, between them, they can produce wine in quantities that can be sold commercially allowing them to afford better winemaking equipment, employ a specialist winemaker and even someone to market the end products to supermarkets.

Historically, most of the co-operatives concentrated on quantity and quality was often moderate, at best.  Today, this is rarely true and many co-operatives are producing excellent wine.  For example, look on any supermarket shelf for Chablis and it almost certainly comes from the local co-operative – and very good (and good value) it is too.  The same can be said for wines from Cave de Turckheim in Alsace, also in many supermarkets.

Another of my favourite co-operatives, the Cantina di Terlano, was founded in 1893 and is based in the northern Italian region of Alto Adige.  It produces some delicious wines including their Pinot Bianco (Corks of Cotham, £18.99).  

An enticing nose of apples and limes follows through onto a surprisingly rich palate with flavours of pear, peach and a long, savoury finish.  Although attractive on its own as an aperitif, I think it really comes to life with food – the producers recommend pasta carbonara but, really, it would co-operate happily with any fish, poultry or vegetables in a creamy sauce.