France’s Hidden Corners

I’m returning to the topic I blogged about a couple of weeks ago: the interesting and different tastes you can find by exploring wine regions and grapes other than those you are familiar with.  Wines from lesser-known areas and rare native varieties can often result in unusual and distinctive flavours; you may not like them all but, just sometimes, you’ll find a new favourite.  That, for me, is what exploring is all about.

I concentrated then on wines from outside France as most wine lovers will be reasonably familiar with the diverse choices found in that most widely-available of all wine growing countries.  But, if you look carefully, even France has some fascinating and unique grapes tucked away in hidden corners.  One of my favourites is Petit Manseng, grown in the Jurançon region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  It comes in dry or glorious sweet versions and, if you’ve never tasted one, I can highly recommend either.  Then there’s ‘Vin Jaune’, made in a sherry style from the local Savagnin grape (not to be confused with Sauvignon) in the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border.

Or why not a juicy, herby, black-fruited unoaked red from the Gaillac region which straddles the River Tarn, north of Toulouse?  Chateau Vignals’ L’Herbe Folle is a blend of 2 local varieties – Braucol and Duras – with small additions of much more familiar Syrah and Merlot.  It’s a lovely soft, mellow red which would team perfectly with some pan-fried duck breasts or with a tasty hard cheese.  Gaillac wines are not widely stocked beyond the region of production but this one is available on-line from Joie de Vin, www.joiedevin.co.uk, for a very reasonable £14.50.

So, however tempting it is to buy the same bottle you know you like again, occasionally take a chance and look at what else is on the shelf.  You might be pleased you did.

No Ordinary Soave

Last time, I blogged about looking for interesting and different flavours from lesser-known regions and rare native grapes.  Today, I’m going to the other extreme and focussing on one of the most famous white wines of Italy: Soave.  Made mainly from the local Garganega grape in the north-east of the country, you will see bottles of Soave in every supermarket, often at rock-bottom prices – £5 and below is not unusual. 

So why would I pay more than £20 (Wine Society, £21.50 to be precise) for a bottle of Soave?  And why would I choose a Soave when I wanted a special bottle for a particular anniversary of ours?  Well, as you might guess, the bottle in question – Pieropan’s Calvarino Soave Classico – is no ordinary Soave.

Yes, it does have the crisp, fresh acidity that is one of the trademark characteristics of Soave, but there the similarity ends.  Calvarino – named after the vineyard from which all the grapes are harvested – is altogether a much richer, fuller flavoured wine, tasting of peaches and almonds, with a delightful floral nose full of hints of pear and honey.

So, what makes this wine so different from others with a similar name?  Soave is one of a number of Italian wine regions (Chianti being the most famous) which have (mistakenly, in my view) allowed the area in which the wine can be made to expand over time.  Most of the newer plantings are on flat, fertile land where the emphasis is on volume and meeting supermarkets’ basic price points.  The result is the fairly bland, high acidity wines that Soave has become known for. 

Better quality examples will have the words ‘Soave Classico’ on the label.  The ‘Classico’ is important as this shows that the wine is made from grapes grown in the original area – the craggy hills close to the town of Verona where the vines are older, tending them is more challenging and the grape yields are much smaller.

There are several very good Soave Classicos – admittedly not all costing £20 a bottle – but, for me, this is the best of them and, to celebrate a special anniversary, I couldn’t think of a better choice.

Beyond the Familiar

When buying wine, particularly white wine, I find myself increasingly looking away from France.  It’s not that I don’t like French wines – I do – but there are just so many interesting and different grape varieties to explore.  And the more widely I look, the more exciting and attractive flavours I find. 

Take Italy for a start.  I’ve been a big fan of their whites for many years.  If you’ve not tried Greco, Fiano, Verdicchio or Vermentino, then do; you’ve got some delightful surprises awaiting you.  Then there’s the lovely whites from Albariño and Loureiro grown in Galicia in north-west Spain.  And don’t forget Austria’s Grűner Veltliner – I blogged about that a few weeks ago.

You may be familiar with all of those, but the 2 bottles pictured above feature varieties that fewer will recognise.  Firstly, Malagouzia.  That’s native to Greece and Giannikos Winery’s example from the Peloponnese region is a fragrant delight.  Tangy and fresh with lovely peach and apricot flavours, this would be perfect on its own or with fish, delicately cooked chicken dishes or light summer salads.  Local independent wine merchant Grape and Grind have it for £15.99 and it’s worth every penny.

With Fitapreta’s Ancestral from Portugal’s Alentejo region (Corks, £16.50) you get – not one obscure grape variety, but a blend of 6 including 2 – Tamarez and Alicante Branco – that the winemaker says have been rescued from near extinction.  I’ve not heard of either, so I won’t argue.  On pouring, the wine is almost gold in colour, so much so, that I wondered at first if it was oxidised.  But no, it was in perfect condition, rich, tangy, honeyed and savoury with real body to it; a friend who shared it with us thought that, tasting it blind, he would have said it was a red wine.  I know what he means; it’s likely that there was some skin-contact involved in the winemaking.  Not your standard easy-quaffing white, but a really enjoyable and deeply flavoured glass suited to more robustly flavoured poultry or, perhaps, young game birds.

2 very different bottles but each showing the benefits of looking beyond the familiar. 

An Alternative Fizz

If you’re looking for a bottle of sparkling wine but don’t want to pay Champagne prices, there are plenty of options.  Prosecco has had a fantastic rise in popularity over the past few years and so is probably the first name that springs to mind.  But its popularity has also been its downfall and, though generally very pleasant, easy drinking, I can’t recall the last bottle of Prosecco that made me say ‘Wow!’  Much the same fate befell Cava a few years earlier and I’ve tended to avoid that too, although I have read some more favourable reviews recently and it might be time to revisit some of the more individualistic examples.

One group of alternatives that seem to have been almost ignored, however, are the Crémants.  These are a range of wines, made in several different regions of France – Loire, Alsace and Burgundy being the most common – using the same method as Champagne (with a 2nd fermentation in the bottle), but usually with different, often local, grape varieties.  They are generally dry and the best have some ageing to give a hint of the ‘leesy’ character of Champagne but at a fraction of the price.

I opened a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace recently (Lidl, £8.99 – you may still find a bottle in your local branch but their website shows that this is sold out).  Although not over-complex – what do you expect for that money? – it was clean, fresh and pleasantly citrussy with lots of small, persistent bubbles.  Made from a typical Alsace blend of Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, this is ideal for a summer picnic or celebration.  Make sure you chill it well in advance.

So, next time you’re in the market for a bottle of good, enjoyable fizz at a very fair price, think beyond Prosecco or Cava and reach for a Crémant – be it from Alsace, the Loire, or just about anywhere in France – apart from Champagne, of course.