2 Bottles to Remember

As we approach the end of another difficult year, I suspect that most people will be hoping that in 2022, we might finally get this wretched Covid 19 under control.  Perhaps even start doing the things I was dreaming of in the blog I posted this time last year: going on holiday, eating out in restaurants and running wine courses.  While still exercising care for ourselves and our fellow citizens, of course.

But, before finally leaving 2021 altogether, I’d like to mention a couple of wines we particularly enjoyed over the recent holiday season – both excellent value.

Sauternes is, perhaps, the best-known dessert wine in the world but it isn’t the only sweet wine made in the Bordeaux region.  Across the Garonne River, 3 other Appellations, Cadillac, Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, make wines in a similar style, if a little lighter in body, using the same grape varieties (Semillon and Savignon Blanc).  The last named of these villages has been a favourite of ours since visiting as part of a wine walk many years ago.  It was the end of a long day and a glass of the local liquid nectar was the perfect reviver.  Chateau La Rame is one of the best producers there, the wine sweet but not cloying and full of delicious orange, honey and marmalade flavours (available from Majestic, £12.99 for a 50cl bottle).

Another bottle also brought back memories of a trip abroad, this time to the Greek island of Crete.   Among the exciting producers there is Domaine Lyrarakis, who specialises in showcasing Crete’s marvellous range of native grapes, some only recently rescued from near-extinction.  Varieties such Dafni and Vidiano (both white) and Kotsifali (red) are all worth seeking out, but our bottle was made from Thrapsathiri – a grape that was completely new to me.  Full and rich, a little in the style of a white Rhône, this subtly oaked wine had flavours of peach and melon with a little spice and a delicious long herby, grassy finish.  Bought from the Wine Society for £14.50, but, sadly, now sold out.

Two bottles to remember from a year that, otherwise, many will wish to forget.

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Don’t Ignore Austria

I wasn’t going to blog about wines to drink over the holiday season this year.  Looking around, I thought that there’s enough advice elsewhere and you’ve probably got your own ideas anyway.  But then I opened a bottle over the weekend that would be just perfect as the accompaniment to a turkey dinner – or many other poultry, white meat or robust fish dishes for that matter – and so, not for the first time, I changed my mind.

Loimer’s Manhart (Majestic, £14.99) is a blend of 3 grape varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc – that are almost always seen on their own but that, on this evidence, work really well together.  The first sensation on the nose is one of toasty oak confirming that both fermentation and brief ageing was in oak barrels.  But, once you taste, there is no real sensation of oak at all, just a lovely, rich, creamy, almost oily white, full of crisp apple, peach, apricot and tropical fruit flavours with a hint of warm spice (I thought nutmeg, my wife thought cumin) and an exceptionally long, dry tangy finish.  We paired it with some monkfish wrapped in Parma ham and quickly roasted in the oven.  Absolutely delicious and just the kind of full-flavoured dish that is a lovely match for the wine.

It would have been easy to ignore the bottle on Majestic’s shelves – its very plain, sparse label certainly doesn’t shout ‘buy me’ – but, happily, I had enjoyed Loimer’s wines previously (their Riesling and Gruner Veltliner are both worth buying if you can find them) and thought it worth chancing this one from vineyards in the Niederösterreich region of Austria, overlooking a tributary of the River Danube.  I’m very pleased I did.

Austria’s wines experienced some difficult times in the 1980s but, as a result, have been completely transformed and are now on a high.  If you’ve not explored them recently, wines such as this would be a great place to start.

From Apples to Wine

I’ve often commented how much the wine world has changed in the first 2 decades of this century, but nowhere is this more true than in South Africa.  Looking back to the 1990s, the isolation of the Apartheid years had left their wine industry in a terrible state: outdated winery equipment, winemaking methods firmly stuck in the 1950s and everything controlled by the dead hand of the Co-operative Growers Association meant that the country had a mountain to climb to meet the challenges ahead.

Fortunately, a whole generation of young wine producers was just waiting for the opportunity and quickly began travelling the world’s wine regions to gain understanding of new techniques and inspiration (and often investment, too) for their projects back home.  Historic areas, such as those around Stellenbosch, where wine had been made since the 17th century, were transformed into a hive of activity and interest, but new areas also started to emerge.

Among these was Elgin, a district to the south-east, cooled by Antarctic currents, that was previously a centre for apple orchards.  But, where apples will grow, the climate is often suitable for grapes, too and the family estate of Paul Cluver was well-placed to explore the possibilities, having owned land there for around 100 years.

We opened a bottle of their Pinot Noir recently (Majestic, £14.99, excellent value) and straight away recognised the distinctive Pinot Noir smell, most politely described as ‘farmyardy’.  On the palate, the wine is medium bodied with slightly bitter red cherry flavours and attractive earthy, mushroomy hints leading to a long, savoury finish.  The 2018 vintage was still a little tannic but worked well with our meal (pan-fried pigeon breasts with mushrooms – yummy!).  The 2020 is also in the shops but, if you buy this, it may benefit from a couple of years before opening.

It is inconceivable that a wine of this quality could have come out of South Africa – and certainly not Elgin – 30 years ago.  Further proof, if needed, of how far that country’s wines have improved and why they are really worth looking out for now.