My Favourite Lesson

I used to hate History and Geography lessons when I was at school; I could see no point in learning about things that had happened long ago or in places I was never likely to visit.  Of course, as the years passed, I’ve realised how wrong I was and how much history and geography influence so many aspects of the world we live in.

Take wine for example. 

I opened a bottle of Gérard Bertrand’s Saint-Chinian recently (Grape & Grind, £14.25) and my attention was drawn to the date 1877 on the label.  Clearly that wasn’t the vintage but, turning the bottle round, I found the explanation: 1877 was the year that the first railway line opened linking that part of the south of France with Paris.  Suddenly, the market for the local growers expanded enormously although the boom was short-lived as the deadly phylloxera bug was already wreaking havoc among the region’s wines.

Recovery was slow and erratic and it’s only in the last 30 years or so that the wines of the Languedoc (of which Saint-Chinian is part) have moved from being simple cheap quaffers to something more interesting, like Bertrand’s example.  Made from a blend of 2 high quality grapes, Syrah and Mourvedre, both of which thrive in the hot, sunny conditions of the south of France, this is, undoubtedly, a big wine – the label says 15% – but it’s so well balanced that you would never realise how alcoholic it was.  Lovely flavours of blackberries, herbs and a hint of chocolate together with some smokiness from part barrel-ageing make this an attractive rounded wine to drink.  It would pair particularly well with a robust casserole or grilled or roast meat and benefits from decanting to soften the tannins.

If only history and geography had been explained this way while I was at school!

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An Anxious Time

Looking out of my window onto a bright Bristol spring day, I am aware that this is always an exciting but anxious time of the year for vineyard owners wherever they are in the world. 

In the Southern Hemisphere, summer is already drawing to a close and, depending on the local climate and the weather this year, the grape harvest is either imminent, has just started or, in the warmest areas, has already finished.  For those in the last category, worrying about the vagaries of the weather are behind them and they are now sitting smugly, watching the grapes gently ferment in the winery.  The next group, those that have started to harvest, are fervently hoping that they can complete the job before any rain – or worse, hail – arrives that might damage the grapes still left on the vines. In the coolest areas, harvest won’t yet have started and growers there have the key decision on whether to leave the grapes on the vine a week or two longer so that they will ripen just that bit more or whether to pick now and avoid any chance of the weather turning for the worse.

In the Northern Hemisphere, things for growers at this time of year are equally problematic; the challenges here are different, although they still surround the unpredictable weather.  Spring is the time of the year when the first buds appear on the vines from which the new shoots will grow.  A warm spring, like the one we are currently enjoying, will encourage budding but growers will worry about late frosts which can kill off the young shoots.  This would reduce considerably the quantity of grapes produced later in the year.  On the other hand, a cooler spring would mean that the whole process is delayed so that the grapes may not have time to ripen for an autumn harvest.

So, if you pick up a glass of wine this weekend, think about how it is made and thank those whose hard work and judgement results in your pleasure.

A Happy Return

It’s been a long time – more than 2 years in fact – since I was last able to blog about the Bristol Tasting Circle, a local group of wine enthusiasts and professionals who, until Covid intervened, met monthly, inviting winemakers or independent wine merchants to talk to us and share their wines. 

Happily, we have recently been able to revive the format and our first guests were Tim and Jill North of Hampshire-based Joie de Vin who brought along a selection of interesting bottles from the south of France for us to taste.  Joie de Vin (www.joiedevin.co.uk) focus solely on French wines and seek out artisan growers who make their own wine in small quantities.  All their producers work sustainably, many are organic, some biodynamic and their passion for their products shines through. 

Everyone present had their own favourites but I must mention Domaine Laurens who have a great way with naming: one of their reds translates as ‘like a Sunday under a cherry tree’!

It’s hard to choose just one or two from the bottles we tasted, but a white and a red from the same producer, stood out for me.  Domaine La Toupie is based close to the village of Maury in the foothills of the Pyrennees and uses Macabeu, better known in Spain than France (Viura, the grape of white Rioja, is the same variety), to make a delicious, mouth-filling, tangy, peachy food-friendly white (‘Solo’, £14.95).

La Toupie’s red, Quatuor, (£17.50) is a blend of 4 varieties well-known in this area: Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvedre.  A soft, chunky wine (15% alcohol, but well-balanced, so there’s no alcoholic ‘burn’) with great complexity and flavours of ripe black fruit, cassis and lovely cinnamon spice from the subtle oak ageing.  The 2017 that we tasted, although delicious now, would certainly benefit from a couple more years in bottle.

It’s difficult to convey how good it was to get back to the Tasting Circle after all this time and the wines from Joie de Vin and Tim’s presentation made us all realise just how much we had missed.

A Wine from our Twin

My adopted home city, Bristol, and the 2nd largest city in Portugal, Oporto, have been trading partners for more than 2 centuries, particularly in wine and port.  Some 70 years ago, this partnership was cemented by Bristol and Porto (as the locals know it) formally becoming twin cities and, until the outbreak of Covid, a thriving Twinning Association existed, arranging events and exchange visits.  Sadly, official restrictions and subsequent caution stopped all that until last week, when we were able to meet once again for a Quiz night at a local pub (although one that didn’t sell any Portuguese wine!)

Amazingly, the team my wife and I were part of managed (somehow) to win and our prize was – of course – bottles of Portuguese wine.  We decided to defer opening them until we could all meet up again, but thoughts of Portugal meant that I chose a Douro red that I had bought previously to enjoy with our dinner the next day.

It was a complete coincidence that the name of the wine I selected was Beira Douro (Grape and Grind, £14.50), as Beira (a city in Mozambique) is also twinned with Bristol although, as far as I know, that Beira has no connection to the wine.  A deeply coloured blend of 2 Portuguese grapes, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, packed with lovely raspberry and crunchy redcurrant flavours with a long dry finish.  Even though our bottle was already over 5 years old, there was still noticeable tannin in the wine, but decanting and teaming it with a juicy venison steak softened that and made it a really harmonious and delicious mouthful.

Twinning is a great way to explore other cultures and traditions and, when it can be celebrated with some wine from a twinned city, so much the better.

A ‘Novel’ Evening

One thing I’ve missed over the last 2 Covid-blighted years is attending wine dinners.  At their best, they are great opportunities to meet producers or wine merchants at local restaurants where they can show off their wines paired with well-chosen dishes in a relaxed, sociable setting.  So, when Novel wines sent out invitations for an evening at Bath’s Green Bird Café recently, my wife and I were keen to book.   

Novel Wines specialise in areas often ignored by other merchants, particularly Hungary and the rest of central, eastern and south-eastern Europe.  They also have an interesting selection of English sparkling wines on their list and a glass of one of these, Woodchester’s crisp, citrussy Cotswold Classic from Gloucestershire (£24.99), greeted us on arrival.

We were promised that chef Dan Moon would treat us to a 5-course Seafood Extravaganza and we were not disappointed.  Among the food highlights of the evening were a lovely piece of cured salmon with a creamy haddock chowder foam, some scallops in a delicious sticky crab risotto (my favourite dish) and, for dessert, panna cotta with rhubarb sorbet.

And then there were the accompanying wines, of course, all introduced by Ben Franks of Novel Wines. 

One of Hungary’s native grape varieties is Furmint which can produce high quality wines in all styles from dry to lusciously sweet.  It was one of the former, the rich, nutty Endre Demeter’s Estate Furmint from the Tokaji region (£24.99) that was my star wine of the evening, perfectly cutting through the oiliness of the salmon.

The choice of a rosé – and particularly one from Turkey – to pair with the risotto surprised me a little but a glass of Kayra Beyaz’s Kalecik Karasi (£15.99) convinced me.  The Kalecik Karasi is, again, a native grape and produced a delicately pink wine with crisp citrus and floral flavours – one to enjoy throughout the summer with salads and other light meals.

I love dessert wines to accompany puddings and Vakakis’ deep, intense but not cloyingly sweet Muscat from the Greek island of Samos made a perfect end to an evening of interesting and delicious wine and food pairings.

All wines are available from Novel Wines of Bath or can be ordered on-line.