Sweet Surprises

Wherever we go on holiday, I’m always hoping to taste the best of the local wines or any unusual grape varieties rarely found elsewhere.  Things don’t always work out that way, of course; we recently enjoyed a short break on the Isle of Man where, as far as I know, there are no commercial vineyards and so no local wine to try (although perhaps someone will correct me!)

But that doesn’t mean that our time on the island was completely ‘dry’.  A little advance research identified several restaurants where it seemed likely that we would eat and drink well.  We weren’t disappointed with our choices. 

Wine Down is a wine shop, wine bar and restaurant similar to Bristol’s much-missed Wine Library.  You can buy a bottle and take it home or you can choose anything from the shelves and drink it with your meal for a very reasonable £10 extra on top of the shop price.  I selected a crisp, yet rich and complex dry Vouvray (£31 including corkage), which was a perfect accompaniment to our lovely main course of Halibut.  But it was when we started chatting to the sommelier that she recommended something really unusual to drink with our desserts.  Stein’s Streihween from the Mosel in Germany is made from Riesling grapes harvested and then dried on straw mats to concentrate the sugars.  The result was a fresh, delicate wine with gentle sweetness balancing the natural acidity of the Riesling grape.  Delicious!

You don’t see dried grape wines that often, so it was a surprise to find another on the wine list of Enzo’s, the restaurant we chose the next day.  Firriato’s L’Ecru Passito from Sicily is made slightly differently in that a sweet wine is made from late-harvested Zibbibo (aka Muscat) grapes and then extra sun-dried grapes are added to the made wine.  This was altogether more robust and rather sweeter, but with the attractive fragrance of the muscat grape showing through.

So, despite there being no local wines to taste on the island, the local restaurants came good and we had plenty of interest to drink alongside some very enjoyable, flavoursome dishes.

Right Vine, Right Place

In my piece last time, I blogged about how Pinot Noir was a really difficult variety to grow successfully.  But many other wine grapes also have their preferences, even if they are not quite as fussy as Pinot Noir.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise; any gardener will tell you that plants can be choosy.  Grow them in the right place and they will thrive and give you endless pleasure.  On the other hand, put them in the wrong place and they will sulk and give you nothing.  So, it’s natural the same should apply to vines. 

There are many famous examples in the wine world of varieties that are clearly well suited to a particular place.  Think New Zealand; its relatively cool climate is ideal for the aromatic Sauvignon Blanc.  Germany’s the same, but with Riesling rather than Sauvignon Blanc and Argentina’s warm and sunny conditions are just perfect for Malbec.  Although each of these countries grows a number of different varieties, many making very drinkable – sometimes outstanding – wines, in every case, just one grape stands out – the one that’s best suited to the local conditions. 

Grűner Veltliner is another.  Less well-known, it can produce some delicious wines but mainly from the steep, south-facing slopes overlooking the Danube to the west of Austria’s capital, Vienna.  I opened a bottle recently: Domane Wachau’s Federspiel (Grape and Grind, £14.50).  Clean and fresh with attractive crisp acidity, it made an ideal aperitif, yet had just enough body and richness to accompany some veal escalopes in a creamy sauce.  The slight spiciness of the wine (typical of the grape variety) matching the fresh herbs in the sauce really well.

Look for Grűner Veltliner outside this narrow area, however, and you’re struggling.  I’ve seen a few examples in California (where it’s often abbreviated to Gru V – groovy!) and New Zealand but rarely elsewhere.  A perfect example of the right vine in the right place.

The Fussiest Grape

Ask a group of customers to name their favourite red wine grape and the answer is likely to be Cabernet Sauvignon, or, perhaps, Merlot, or even Syrah/Shiraz.  Pose the same question to someone in the wine industry and the reply is far more likely to be Pinot Noir – the grape of red Burgundy and part of the blend in many Champagnes (except those labelled ‘Blanc de Blancs’). 

But buying Pinot Noir can be tricky – it’s one of the most difficult wine grapes to get right; (even Burgundians don’t manage it all the time resulting in expensive disappointments).  Part of the reason is that Pinot Noir is such a fussy variety.  Grow it somewhere too cool and it simply won’t ripen; too warm and it produces a wine that’s coarse and jammy.  And the ‘sweet spot’ between those 2 extremes is quite narrow.

One place that seems to succeed with the variety more often than not is New Zealand, although, remarkably, 50 years ago, there wasn’t a single Pinot Noir vine planted there commercially. 

Now, that country has 3 major areas where the variety thrives: Martinborough, an hour’s drive north of Wellington on the North Island, Marlborough, the northern tip of the South Island, and Central Otago, which has some of the most southerly vineyards in the world.  As you might expect, there are differences in style between wines from each of the 3 areas and the various winemakers also have an important influence on the end-product. 

But, as Neal and Judy Ibbotson, who first planted vines in Marlborough in 1978, found, the soil and exposure to the sun varies even within rows of vines on the same site.  As a result, their Saint Clair Estate wines quote both a vineyard name and a Block Number on the label.  Their Doctor’s Creek Block 14 Pinot Noir (Majestic, £16.99) was a textbook expression of the grape: fresh with a lovely floral, herby nose, a full palate with cherry flavours and a hint of spice from brief wood ageing and a long, dry, spicy finish.

Definitely a wine that might convince those Cabernet or Merlot lovers to switch allegiance.

Found: A Great Find

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the quality and excellent value that you can find in some of the supermarkets’ own-label wines, but suggested you concentrate on their premium ranges.  I specifically mentioned Tesco’s ‘Finest’ and Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ but another major supermarket, Marks & Spencer, is also getting a lot of attention for their ‘Found’ range, launched earlier this year.  There are around a dozen different wines in the range – white, red, a rosé and a fizz – and none costs more than £10 a bottle.

Marks’ stated aim is to take wine lovers out of their comfort zones and, as a result, have chosen wines from less well-known grape varieties and less fashionable regions.  Based on reviews I have read, you should certainly look out for the fizz, a Blanquette de Limoux (£10).  A couple of whites also caught my eye, being from grape varieties that often produce attractive, enjoyable wines: a Ribolla Gialla from north-east Italy (£7) and a Gros Manseng from the Côtes de Gascogne in the far south-west of France (£9). 

Among the reds, I certainly intend to try the Nerello Cappuccio (£7), a grape native to Sicily known for delicious fragrant fruity wines.  But my first venture into the range was through an unusual blend of 2 Greek varieties, Xinomavro and Mandilaria, (£9.50).  A delightful medium-bodied red with no apparent oak influence, this was bursting with fresh raspberry and blackberry flavours and a hint of herbiness on the finish.  It went really with a Greek (of course!) chicken recipe where the bird is marinated first in red wine then cooked with tomatoes and herbs.

The Found range looks set for a successful future, especially as none of  the wines use any animal-based products in the clarification and fining processes making the whole range suitable for vegans. 

No Finesse or Charm?

It’s hard to find a respected wine commentator or judge who has a favourable word to say about wines made from the grape variety Carignan (also known as Cariñena or Mazuelo in Spain, Carignane in the US).  Typical is Jancis Robinson MWs comment in her Oxford Companion to Wine where she describes Carignan as “high in everything – acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness – except finesse and charm”.  Ouch!

Yet, according to an Adelaide University study, this unloved variety is the world’s 7th most widely planted red grape variety.  By my rough calculation, that could mean some 600 million bottles of Carignan are produced each year.  Surely there are a few high-quality examples lurking somewhere among that vast number?  There are – and I found one recently from a long-established winery in an unexpected corner of the wine world.

Chateau Ksara is the oldest and largest wine estate in Lebanon, founded by Jesuit monks in 1857.  But it was the French soldiers and civil servants, drafted into the country at the end of the First World War, who encouraged the planting of the French grape varieties they were familiar with.  As a result, Carignan, among others suited to a warm Mediterranean climate, has been grown there ever since.

Although not dating back quite as far, the wine we opened (Wine Society, £12.95) was made from 60-year-old vines.  Old vines are often a pointer to quality because, as vines age, they produce fewer bunches of grapes, but with greater intensity of flavour.  That was certainly the case here, a delicious mixture of herbs, white pepper and dried- and cooked plums.  Yes, the acidity and tannin identified by Jancis Robinson as typical of the grape were certainly there, but not to excess.  They actually made the wine more food-friendly giving a perfect medium-bodied red to team with some grilled lamb leg steaks in a herby marinade. 

So, not all Carignan wines lack finesse and charm.  I found one attractive example – I guess it’s not the only one; you just have to look for them.

Barolo Style – but Affordable

Chianti may be Italy’s most recognised wine, but, for many wine lovers, Barolo and Barbaresco are the names to look out for.  The reds from these 2 villages, barely 20km (12 miles) apart in north-western Italy’s Piedmont region, are rich, full-bodied and powerful and usually benefit from long ageing.  Their popularity and limited production ensures sky-high prices – top names can fetch £100 a bottle and more – and even the astute buying of the Wine Society can offer nothing under £20.

But there is a way to enjoy Piedmont reds that are generally similar in style at more every-day prices – and the bonus is that you can drink these in the next year or so.  The key is knowing that the grape variety used to make both Barolo and Barbaresco – Nebbiolo – is not just grown in these 2 villages; it is found quite widely throughout the surrounding areas of Alba and the Langhe Hills.

Look for bottles labelled ‘Nebbiolo d’Alba’.  I opened one from the respected producer Manfredi recently (Wine Society, £10.95).  Typical of the thin-skinned Nebbiolo, the wine wasn’t particularly deeply coloured and even had traces of tawny brown, despite being a relatively young 2018 vintage.  The wine was delicious and savoury with attractive dried- and cooked plum flavours together with some slightly bitter cherry and just a hint of tannin.  The finish was long and almost floral in style.  This is undoubtedly a big wine, although the 14% alcohol is really well-balanced – but it needs food (something substantial like lamb or beef, perhaps) to show at its best.

You’ll also find wines labelled ‘DOC Langhe’ but these need a little care as this appellation allows a range of different local grapes, which may vary in style. So, seek out bottles with both ‘Langhe’ and ‘Nebbiolo’ on the label.  Some of these may even be declassified Barolos or Barbarescos (often done if the vines are not yet old enough to qualify for those DOCs) but all – and those from Alba – will give you some of the style of one of the big names at a fraction of the price.

A Supermarket Bargain

In the UK today, we buy most of our wines from supermarkets and the familiar big brands like Hardys, Barefoot, McGuigan and Yellowtail are the most popular sellers.  But a large chunk of space in the wine aisles is also taken up with bottles bearing the supermarket’s own label. 

These can be divided into 2 groups: the first are usually the cheapest wines the supermarket sells and are normally found on the bottom shelf; Tesco’s Australian Red or Sainsbury’s House White are typical examples.  They’re generally well-made but without any particular character or interest; they provide good simple quaffing and are perfect for their target customers: those with little interest in wine who buy purely on price.

The 2nd group are much more interesting; they are the supermarkets’ premium own-label wines and go by names like Tesco Finest or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference.  These are often the result of the supermarket’s professional wine buyers working directly with the producers to create a wine specifically for their customers.  Sometimes, these wines may be ‘tweaked’ to be more attuned to UK customers’ tastes: so, they may be made a little less dry, a little less acidic, a little less tannic, a little fruitier, a little more alcoholic, etc, than would normally be the case.  And, because the supermarkets work directly with the suppliers, these are often excellent value – even if they’re a couple of £s dearer than their basic range. 

A bottle I opened recently proved the point: Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Australian Chardonnay (£7) is sourced from Chateau Tanunda in South Australia and is full of delicious rich, ripe fruit – peaches and melons – with a hint of crispness to make it super-refreshing.  And, at 13% alcohol, there’s none of the heat that marred Australian Chardonnay a few years ago, nor the over-oaky flavours that were also so typical.  This all fruit, very very drinkable – and a bargain at the price.

A Pointless Blog!

If you read many wine blogs and articles, you’ll often see a score, usually a number in the 80s or 90s, next to the recommended wines.  It’s not something I include in my reviews, but I know many customers use them in choosing a wine – but should you?

The system of awarding wines points out of 100 is generally attributed to the influential American wine writer and critic, Robert Parker, although a similar system (but with a scale of 0 – 20) was in use, mainly in Europe, for many years.  Theoretically, a score of 100 denotes a ‘perfect’ wine (however you define that) and anything over 95 is an ‘outstanding wine of great character and complexity’.  Below that, the various score ranges are usually explained as follows:

90 – 94 is a very accomplished wine with impressive complexity

86 – 89 is a well-made, straightforward and enjoyable wine

83 – 85 is an acceptable and simple wine

70 – 82 denotes bland, ordinary or unbalanced wines with little character

50 – 69 means that the wine is faulty in some way.  The 0 – 49 range is never used – don’t ask me why!

That system seems very reasonable and understandable, so why don’t I include points scores in my Blog? 

The most important reason is that everyone’s taste is different, unique to them and, however experienced and talented the judge, the points awarded are, to some extent, subjective.  They reflect that judge’s preferences – which may or may not be similar to yours.  And different judges’ views vary.  To see this in practice, check out the ‘Panel Reviews’ section of any edition of Decanter magazine where 3 expert judges rate the wines.  Examples of one judge scoring a wine 82 (an ‘ordinary’ wine) with another giving the same wine 92 (‘very accomplished and complex’) are not unusual. 

And, even if you find a judge you wholly agree with, the score they give reflects the wine on the particular day the judge tasted it.  You may be opening the bottle several weeks, even months, later, when the wine may have improved considerably or, perhaps, passed its best.

So, given these uncertainties, the Bristol Wine Blog will remain pointless!

Nice Wine, Poor Packaging

The world of wine is very competitive.  There are thousands of producers out there wanting to sell you their wine and, understandably, they will try all kinds of methods to do it.  Apart from advertising, the most obvious, perhaps, is a distinctive label – one that makes you pick up the bottle and have a closer look.  Once you’ve done that, you’re probably halfway to parting with your cash (or plastic, as is more often the case these days).

But some attempts at unusual, eye-catching presentations may put off as many as they attract.  For example, what do you think about the bottle pictured above?  A simple brown paper wrapper tied at the neck with raffia string.  Yes, it has all the necessary information on it – producer, country and region, grape variety and vintage, but it’s all so dull, would I have actually picked it up off the shelf?  (I bought it on-line from Novel Wines, who specialise in importing bottles from lesser-known parts of the world, particularly Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, so the 1st time I saw the packaging was when I opened the carton containing my order).

Happily, the wrapping concealed a rather more interesting bottle – a soft, juicy red from Romania.  Balla Geza’s ‘Classic’ (£12.99) is made from Kadarka, a grape variety I don’t remember tasting before, but native to the region and widely grown in Romania, Bulgaria (where it is known as Gamza) and Hungary.  This one reminded me a little of a Merlot, if slightly lighter in body and with a touch more acidity.  It had attractive plum and red cherry flavours with a hint of green pepper and a pleasant, slightly dusty, leathery finish from the brief oak ageing.

This would be a good partner for duck or lamb and was very refreshing lightly chilled on one of those rare hot evenings when dining alfresco in Bristol was a great option.

Understanding Port (Part 2)

Last time, I blogged about the basics of understanding port.  So, what should you look for on the label to identify the style that will appeal to your particular taste?

If you like mellow, savoury styles of wine, like Rioja Reservas, then you’ll probably prefer a ‘Tawny’ Port.  Ignore those labelled with just the words ‘Tawny’ or ‘Fine Tawny’ and look for bottles marked ’10 Year Old’, for example Warre’s Otima 10.  These will be a blend of wines that have spent an average of 10 years in large, old oak barrels, taking on a softness and a raisiny, toasty character.  A glass of lightly chilled 10 Year Old Tawny is the port producers’ (and my wife’s!) favourite aperitif.   You will also see 20 Year Old Tawnies and, occasionally, 30 and 40 Year Olds.  These will be more expensive than the 10 Year Olds and show greater maturity. 

If you prefer your wines more fruity and can tolerate some tannin, look for a ‘Ruby’ Port.  Again, ignoring those labelled just ‘Ruby’ or ‘Fine Ruby’, a good introduction to this style is through ports marked ‘Reserve’, ‘Special Reserve’ or ‘Premium Ruby’, which will have been aged mainly in bottle.  These will be ripe, spicy and full of black berry fruits. 

A step up but generally similar in style is ‘Late Bottled Vintage’ (LBV).  These will have spent a few years in old oak barrels but not long enough to take on the character of a Tawny.  Taylor’s LBV 2016 is widely available and perfect for drinking now.

The pinnacle of Ruby ports is the Vintage Port.  Expect to pay £50 a bottle at least as these are made from grapes only from the very best vineyards and only released in years where the weather has produced perfect ripeness – typically about 3 times a decade.  They are extremely tannic when young and often need at least 20 years ageing before they are really ready to drink.  If you don’t want to wait that long or pay that much, a good value alternative is a ‘Single Quinta’ port.  Quinta da Cavadinha or Quinta da Vargellas are often available for around £30 in larger branches of Waitrose or Majestic.  Decant a couple of hours before drinking.

Whichever style you choose, ports are delicious.  If you’ve not already discovered the pleasure, do try one – and let me know how you enjoyed it.