Tastings are Back!

When I lived in London, we had a saying that you’d wait ages for a bus then 2 would come along together.  I’m not sure if that still happens but, just now, the same seems to apply to wine tastings!  I’ve hardly been to any since the start of the Covid-19 restrictions, but this week, there were 2 on successive days.  I went to both.

The 1st, hosted by local wine educator, Tim Johnson, focused on the wines of the Jura – an area of eastern France between Burgundy and the Swiss border.  Vineyards here are quite scattered with most in the foothills of the Jura Mountains.  Tim summarised the region succinctly as ‘The Three Is’: Indigenous varieties, Idiosyncratic styles and Iconic wines.  The examples he produced wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but it was a fascinating exploration of the region nonetheless.

Typical of the Indigenous varieties was Poulsard (£14.95), an early-ripening grape giving a quite pale coloured red with low tannins but plenty of attractive cherry-flavoured fruit.  A little like Beaujolais in style and very drinkable. 

Idiosyncratic styles were almost everywhere in the tasting but I’ll mention 2 in particular:  Vin de Paille (£29.50) is a dessert wine made from late-harvested grapes which are then air-dried to further concentrate the sugars.  Flavours of honey and marmalade predominate.  If you like Italy’s Vin Santo, try this.  Macvin de Jura (£33.16) is also quite sweet but has a grapey freshness being a blend of unfermented juice mixed with local marc (perhaps better known as ‘grappa’) and then barrel aged for 10 months.  Also very drinkable but beware – this is 17.5% alcohol!

And the Iconic wine?  Vin Jaune is made with the local Savagnin grape (not to be confused with Sauvignon) which, after fermentation, is left to mature in cask for more than 7 years and develops in the same way as a dry amontillado sherry, which it resembles in both aroma and taste.  It’s sold in 62cl bottles which is supposed to represent the amount left from a normal bottle size (75cl) after the evaporation that happens during the long ageing.  This loss is known as “the angels’ share” – perhaps someone should have a word with these angels as Château-Chalon’s Vin Jaune sells for more than £60 a bottle!

So, just a brief look at some of the Jura wines we tasted – try Yapp Brothers if you want to sample them yourself.  And catch up with my review of the week’s 2nd tasting next time.

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No Hammers, Please!

The debate between cork and screwcap has been going on for ages.  Some think the sound of a cork being drawn from a wine bottle is the perfect prelude to a glassful and anything else takes away part of the enjoyment.  Others prefer the simplicity of a screwcap, knowing that they don’t have to go searching for a corkscrew wherever they happen to be and risking their wine might be ‘corked’.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both corks and screwcaps that I won’t go into here but, personally, I’m more concerned with what’s inside the bottle rather than how it’s kept secure until I’m ready to drink it.

But occasionally, you will see a different sort of closure and the first time you meet it, it may not be immediately obvious how it opens.  It’s made of glass and in its closed form it looks like the picture below, sometimes with a plastic or foil cap over it:

The easiest way to open it is to run a knife round the top of the neck of the bottle and lever the stopper off – the picture below shows the bottle with the stopper raised ready to simply lift off. 

You might also find something similar which, although also made of glass, works just like a screwcap.  It should be obvious which you’re dealing with.  They are both relatively expensive to make so you won’t see them too often.  Cork lovers will still miss the lovely sound that a cork makes, but they look stylish and the bottles can be re-used as the stopper fits back into the neck properly.

A word of warning, though: don’t do what a friend of mine did.  Normally a sensible, practical person, he couldn’t work out at all how to open it so phoned me for advice.  Sadly, I was out at the time and missed his call.  In frustration, he used a hammer on the top of the bottle resulting in a lot of mess and wasting a very nice wine!  I don’t let him forget it!

Big but Balanced

I’ve been blogging for weeks about our record-breaking summer and the wines we have enjoyed to accompany lighter meals, often eaten outdoors on our lovely terrace.  Suddenly all has changed.  Autumn has arrived in a hurry and so we have turned to richer, more robust food, better suited to the cooler season.  Daube de Boeuf has long been one of our favourites – a flavoursome beef casserole with the meat marinaded in a mixture of red wine, herbs and a twist of orange rind before long, slow cooking.

The wine to drink with it?  Red, of course! 

Alain Jaume’s Vacqueyras (Majestic, £15.99) is a chunky blend of mainly Grenache and Syrah (Shiraz) that has been sitting on our wine rack for many months, just waiting for the right dish to pair it with.  It is, indeed, a big, mouth-filling wine – the label says 15% but I’d never have guessed that high as it is so well balanced.  It does need food, however, to show at its best and our Daube was ideal.  The first impression is of intense black fruits, herbs and a certain smokiness but, as the wine opens in the glass, attractive dried fruit flavours kick in alongside.  Our bottle, from the 2019 vintage, was still quite tannic – decanting in advance certainly helped – but, with hindsight, I should probably have left it unopened for another couple of years at least.

Vacqueyras is one of the villages of the southern Rhône valley, just a short drive from Châteauneuf du Pape and producing wines in a generally similar style to its more famous neighbour (although, as it is less well-known, they are often rather better value for money). 

Summers can be very hot in this part of France and heat-loving grapes like Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre thrive, giving very full-bodied reds with, it seems, ever-increasing levels of alcohol.  The challenge for producers now and (even more) in the future is to harness this and make wines that, as with the bottle recommended here, are big, rich and lush yet still properly balanced and with no unpleasant ‘burn’ on the finish.  

A Depressing Vintage

As the calendar ticks over into September, vineyard owners across Europe would traditionally be returning from their August holiday and thinking about when they should be harvesting their grapes.  They would know there’s a narrow window when there’s enough sugar in the berries to provide the flavour and alcohol needed but the grapes still retain some acidity ensuring that their wine is vibrant and refreshing.  Too soon or too late – it’s always a tricky call, sometimes made more difficult by forecasts of rain which can dilute the juice or introduce off-flavours through rot or, worse, hailstorms that can damage the vines as well as the crop.

But not this year!  The record-breaking temperatures have given producers a different – and possibly more challenging – problem.  In some places the grapes have ripened weeks earlier than usual and with worryingly low acidity levels.  As a result, many European growers have already finished their harvests – some in the south of France starting to pick as early as the last week of July.  Even the normally relatively cool Bordeaux region will begin harvesting its reds within the next couple of weeks, rather than in early October.  And growers there will be hoping that the impact of the recent forest fires will be less disastrous than was at one time feared.

Elsewhere the extreme heat accompanied by severe drought has simply caused the vines to shut down to protect themselves, leaving very little to harvest. 

So, with all these problems, what can we expect from the 2022 vintage?  I think a lot is going to depend on the producer, when exactly they are picking and the condition of the grapes at the time.  The dangers are, on the one hand, ‘cooked’ flavours and high levels of alcohol and (for the reds) high levels of tannin, too.  The alternative, for those who have picked very early, is under-ripe, thin wines with little character.  Either way, volumes will be lower than usual and prices will be higher.  Not a happy outlook for wine lovers.

And, if that isn’t depressing enough, global warming means this situation is likely to become more common for future vintages.  What’s that old expression about driving one to drink?!