Honey from Austria

I’ve mentioned Austria’s ‘own’ grape variety, Grűner Veltliner, before in Bristol Wine Blog but I recently opened a bottle that was so good, it persuaded me to write about it again.

Just one sniff of Rabl’s example from around the town of Langenlois in Austria’s Kamptal region (Novel Wines, £16.99) and my wife and I said in unison ‘honey’!  But don’t assume from that description that this is a sweet wine – far from it; it is quite dry on the palate, if fairly rich (despite only 12.5% alcohol) and succulent.  The honied aromas and flavours come from the beautifully sweet, ripe fruit grown in vineyards planted on sunny, south-facing terraces overlooking a tributary of the River Danube.  These grapes are blended with fruit from cooler, windier sites chosen to ensure the ripeness of flavour is balanced with attractive, refreshing acidity.

In the winery, only indigenous yeasts are used in the fermentation followed by extended lees contact (where the wine rests on the dead yeast cells after fermentation is completed) producing greater complexity and savoury flavours.

And the wine itself?  Apart from the honey, there are lovely floral hints on the nose with peach, apple and melon on the palate, set off by a certain slight pepperiness that seems to be a trademark of the Grűner Veltliner variety.

All this results in a really impressive mouthful which works well as an aperitif but, for me, is even better with food.  We paired it with a stir-fried turkey stroganoff and it proved a good match for the slightly spicy flavours and the sour cream we used to finish the dish.

Grűner Veltliner is becoming quite fashionable – and with good reason, given its quality – so look out for it, mainly from Austria at present.  It’s a good and interesting alternative to fuller flavoured whites; lovers of wines from southern Burgundy (Maçon Villages, Pouilly Fuissé, etc) should certainly give it a try.

Franc in Mendoza

Think of Argentinian wine and it’s likely that one grape will spring immediately to mind: Malbec.  And with good reason; it has become that country’s ‘signature’ variety and its rich, dark, savoury flavours are a perfect foil for the local beef-dominated cuisine.  

Yet, although Malbec is the most widely planted wine grape in Argentina, it accounts for only one sixth of the total vineyard area.  Other red varieties such as Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah occupy significant chunks of the land as do less well-known but more traditional grapes such as Criolla Grande and Cereza (both pink-skinned) and whites such as Pedro Giminez (not to be confused with Spain’s Pedro Ximinez) and Torrontes.

But there’s one variety that, while it barely registers there at the moment, may have more potential to thrive in Argentina than any of those: Cabernet Franc.  Native to France, it can often struggle to ripen fully in Bordeaux producing ‘green’, herbaceous flavours in the wine as a result, while in the Loire, it has definitely performed better as the climate has warmed in the last decade or so, giving some delicious Chinons and Saumur-Champignys. 

So, it seems that warmth and sunlight are important to getting the best out of Cabernet Franc, and it should get plenty of both in the thin, unpolluted air at altitude in Argentina’s Mendoza region. 

Monteagrelo’s Bressia Cabernet Franc (Grape and Grind, £14.99) is a good example of the results we can expect.  Clearly no issues with ripeness here as the wine comes out at 14.5% alcohol (although there was no sense of this level from the wine in the glass).  But you do find a lovely richness in the mouth and a mixture of attractive cooked plum and dried-fruit flavours, all rounded out by 12 months in barrel – almost certainly mainly older wood as there is no overt oakiness in the wine.

Next time you’re buying wine from Argentina, look beyond Malbec (however tasty some of those wines are) and seek out a Cabernet Franc instead.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

To Decant or Not?

Looking back on my blogs, I’ve realised just how often I’ve suggested that a wine should be decanted but I’ve never really explained why or how.  Time to put that oversight right.

Firstly, why?  There are 2 main reasons for decanting: number 1 is that some wines – mainly reds, but also Vintage ports – are bottled without being filtered.  As a result, they may have some dark sediment in the bottle which, although completely harmless, you wouldn’t want to pour into your glass.  So, you decant the wine and leave the sediment behind in the bottle, ensuring that every glass you pour is clear, bright wine.

The 2nd reason – and this is much more controversial, even among wine professionals – is to get air into the wine.  If you are opening a young red wine or one that may be quite tannic, decanting lets the wine absorb some oxygen which supporters say will soften the tannins and make the wine more approachable.  Opponents argue that, in decanting, you lose some of the aroma and flavour and the wine is lessened as a result.  There’s no absolute right or wrong answer; you’re the customer, you pay the money, you decide what’s right for you. 

Personally, I generally decant young, robust, tannic wines, but not usually lighter-bodied reds, such as Pinots Noir or Beaujolais. 

So, if you’ve decided to decant, how do you do it?

Assuming your wine has been laying on its side in a wine rack, take it out several hours before you want to drink it and stand it upright.  This will encourage the sediment to collect in the bottom of the bottle.  Then, when you’re ready to decant (generally an hour or so before you want to drink it if you’re decanting to aerate), remove the capsule and the cork and gently pour the wine into your decanter (or jug – anything large enough to hold the entire contents will do).  If you have a light source behind the bottle (traditionally a candle but, a lamp or even a torch will do), you will be able to watch the wine as it is poured out and see when the first signs of sediment reach the neck of the bottle, when you stop pouring.

You may also choose to wash out the bottle and leave it to dry before gently pouring the wine back in just before you serve it, so that your guests can see exactly what they are drinking.

Finally, if you’re opening a very old wine – and I mean one old enough to be fragile – only decant, if at all, just before you’re ready to drink, otherwise you may lose the last vestige of quality the wine possesses.

So those, briefly, are the whys and hows of decanting.  Now you know that, the choice is yours. 

For Ukraine

When I sat down to write my Blog this week, my thoughts were filled – not with wine – but with the tragic events taking place in Ukraine.  The senseless and unprovoked invasion by Putin’s Russian war machine has caused countless deaths and injuries and massive destruction and has resulted in perhaps, a million or more Ukrainian citizens being forced to flee their country and seek refuge abroad.  This latter point makes all these events personal for me:  in the early 1900s, my own grandfather was forced to flee from Russia in the face of anti-Jewish violence encouraged by the Tsars, who ruled the country at the time.  He settled happily in England but never returned to his homeland.  I fear the same may be true for many of today’s refugees.

It’s not entirely inappropriate that I should be writing about Ukraine in a wine blog.  The country does (or at least did) have an active wine industry centred, sadly, in the south around the Black Sea towns of Kherson (which has already apparently fallen to the invading troops) and Odessa (which seems to be next in line).  Little Ukrainian wine is exported to the UK and I don’t recall ever tasting any.  I suspect that now I never will.

I hope readers will forgive me for hijacking this space for something other than a wine blog – some things are just more important than wine – and that you will join me in conveying support for all Ukrainians, wherever they may be.  I trust you will get your country back some day.

20 Years On

It’s more than 20 years since I passed my Wine Diploma so, when my wife suggested a de-cluttering session around the house recently, I decided that it was time that my old study files could go.  But not before I had a quick read through to remind myself of how the wine world looked at the end of the last century.  How different it was!

Even though wines from Australia, New Zealand and California were already common on our shelves, the syllabus devoted more time to each of Bordeaux and Burgundy than it did to the whole of the ‘New World’.  And the prices!  Simple wines for less than £3 and a 2nd Growth Bordeaux for about £20.  Those were the days!

But, perhaps, most significant of all were the alcohol levels of our tasting samples: some were as low as 8%.  The majority were around 11% or 12% and only a Châteauneuf du Pape and an Amarone reached 13%!

Anyway, back to 2022 and later in the day I opened a Greek red to accompany our dinner – the only mention of Greek wines in my old files was a rather dismissive note about Retsina. 

Seméli’s Nemea Reserve (Novel Wines, £15.99) was a delicious, complex red made from the local Agiorgitiko (aka St George) grape; it was full of lovely black fruits (bitter cherries and blackberries) together with some dried fruits and subtle spicy oak from its 12 months maturation in barrel and, despite its 14% alcohol (what would they have made of that in 1999!), it was beautifully balanced with no signs of alcoholic burn. 

Like most reds, this definitely needs food to show at its best – a nice juicy steak springs to mind – and benefits from decanting an hour or so before you drink it to let it open up and show its true character.

The wine world has certainly moved on in 20 years – in some ways better, in others not, but the rise of wines from previously ignored countries gives a diversity that I could only have imagined as I sat my exam papers all those years ago.