Author Archives: Bristol Wine Blog

About Bristol Wine Blog

Bristol Wine Blog is written by Ian Abrahams, a freelance Wine Educator, trading as Wine Talks and Tastings. Ian holds the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Diploma, a high level professional qualification, and is a certified tutor for WSET. He runs courses for both professional and amateur wine lovers in and around Bristol including at Stoke Lodge (see the Bristol Adult Learning Service brochure or online at www.bristolcourses.com). You don’t have to be an expert or wine buff to enjoy Ian's courses, so long as you enjoy a glass of wine. Find him also on Facebook.com/winetalksandtastings.

Contains (fewer) Sulphites

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This month’s gathering of the Bristol Tasting Circle was a rather more sombre affair than usual. The group’s long-serving Secretary, Judith Tyler, died last month and this was our first meeting since that very sad event. Judith, alongside her fellow committee members, Tim and Graeme, had worked hard to widen the appeal of the Tasting Circle and so attracted many new members. The Group will continue but we will miss her infectious enthusiasm.

I’m sure she would have enjoyed our tasting this month with local wine merchant and regular Tasting Circle visitor, Raj Soni (www.rswines.co.uk), presenting a selection of bottles from producers who are making a real effort to reduce sulphur levels in their wines.

Why is this important?  Although sulphur in various forms is widely used in the wine (and food) industries as a disinfectant and preservative, it can cause breathing problems; asthma sufferers are particularly at risk and, as a result, the warning ‘contains sulphites’ appears on virtually all wine labels. Too much sulphur can also affect the taste and smell of wine; think how a struck match smells and that gives you the idea of what to look for. However, wines with too little sulphur can become unstable, so there’s a balance to be drawn. But, from this tasting, it was clear that wines with sulphur levels more than 50% below widely accepted norms can be both stable and delicious.

BTC Low Sulphur

Two reds particularly stood out for me: Château Saint Estève (£12.40), a Grenache-based blend from the southern Rhône, is smooth, intense and mouth-filling with lovely black cherry flavours and great length while Louis Chenu’s Bourgogne (£20) was more delicate but full-flavoured and with a typical Burgundian earthiness.

These, and all the other low sulphur wines we tasted, are available online from www.nfizz.co.uk. Many are also organic (or biodynamic) and most (but not the Rhône wine mentioned above) are suitable for vegans.

 

 

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Ribeira Sacra – for the adventurous

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The Spanish DO (designated wine area) of Ribeira Sacra isn’t at all well-known – even among keen wine lovers. In fact, in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (nicknamed the ‘Winelovers’ Bible’ with good reason), it merits just 2 lines. And the Wine and Spirit Education Trust ignores it completely until students reach ‘Diploma’ level. But, based on the wines I’ve tasted from there, it’s certainly an area worth exploring – and not just for the adventurous.

So, where is Ribeira Sacra? Look to Spain’s far north-west where you find the cool, Atlantic-influenced region of Galicia, which is becoming increasingly popular due, in particular, to the high quality Albariño grape. This white variety thrives near the coast but, go just 50 miles or so inland, and it’s a local red grape, Mencia, that dominates in ancient, almost impossibly steep rocky vineyards; you’ll see the words ‘viticultura heroica’ on the label pictured. Growing vines here is heroic viticulture indeed!

MenciaBut, if you’d expect Regina Viarum Mencia (Wine Society, a bargain at £11.50) to reflect this harsh, uncompromising landscape with a wine of a similar character, you’d be wrong. It’s a wine that, for me, had the same silky smoothness of a nice Pinot Noir – interesting as some thought that Mencia might be related to that grape, although apparently not. This classy example is delightfully fresh with lovely slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through to give a refreshing and very satisfying red wine. Food-friendly as you might guess – but nothing too big or robust: partridge or duck, perhaps.

Ribeira Sacra’s production is tiny and wines from there may be difficult to find but, next door, in Bierzo, they also grow the Mencia grape and Majestic have a good example in Pizarras de Otero (£7.49).

Either way, this is a grape and a region worth getting to know.

An Open Mind

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We human beings are often creatures of habit. And that can be especially true when we’re buying our wines. We’ve enjoyed a bottle in the past, so let’s buy it again. Why take the chance of trying something different, which might not be as good? I understand that although, if I’d taken that view, I’d probably still be drinking the Black Tower Liebfraumilch and Mateus Rosé that I first tasted more years ago than I care to admit!

But the world of wine is changing and perhaps, more importantly, our own tastes may be changing (see the Liebfraumilch comment above!). Maybe it’s time to look again at a wine that we didn’t like previously?

Happily, someone on a recent course of mine did just that. She’d hated Australian whites in the past because they were too alcoholic and oaky but booked in on ‘Wines of Australia’ anyway. The result? She discovered how much has changed. Indeed, of the list of wines she noted to buy again, four were white. Being open-minded and prepared to experiment has opened up a whole new area of enjoyment for her.

Interestingly, one of her new white likes was a Riesling – a grape variety that would benefit from a re-think by many wine drinkers. For too long wrongly associated with low quality sweetish German wines, there are now some delicious dry examples around. And not just from Germany.

Oz RieslingPeter Lehmann’s Wigan Riesling from Australia’s Eden Valley (Wine Society, £12.50) is delightfully dry, crisp and zesty with lovely lime-peel aromas and a delicious honeyed palate. And, with only 11% alcohol and no oaking, it’s just the sort of Australian white that more of us should be discovering.

You just need an open mind.

 

 

 

Try Bordeaux’s Whites too

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Bordeaux’s reputation rests mainly on its Cabernet and Merlot dominated red wines and its luscious sweet Sauternes.  But, as we found when we visited the city a couple of years back, there are some attractive dry whites produced there, too.  These are usually made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc or a mixture of the 2 (occasionally with some Muscadelle added for a little grapey interest), but not always.  We recently opened a bottle that was a much rarer blend of Sémillon with Colombard – and really enjoyed it.

bourg whiteChâteau de la Grave Grains Fins (Wine Society, £10.50) is deliciously refreshing with lovely pineapple and peach flavours and a long clean finish.  The peachiness reminded me a little of Viognier but that’s not an approved variety in Bordeaux so, in this case, the taste was most likely as a result of the inclusion of the Colombard.

Although not a particularly well-known grape variety, Colombard has been grown here for many years but, perhaps more significantly, slightly further north in the Charente region, where it, along with Ugni Blanc, is used in the production of the brandy known as Armagnac.  Sadly, demand for Armagnac has declined sharply in recent years and the producers are increasingly diverting Colombard into good value white wines; look in your supermarkets for Côtes de Gascogne or Charentais where the grape’s peachiness adds to the attraction of these crisp, easy-drinking bottles.

But, back to the Château de la Grave.  Despite the ‘Grave’ name, it’s not from that area of Bordeaux.  Instead, it comes from the Côtes de Bourg, an interesting but not highly-regarded Appellation slightly further north overlooking the Dordogne River.  As with the rest of Bordeaux, white Bourg wines are of secondary importance to reds but, at their best, both can be really drinkable as well as extremely good value.

Durif: a Surprise Winner

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oz tastingAustralia is a vast country; west to east it’s almost the same size as the United States or, if you want to compare it to Europe, it would stretch from Portugal to Turkey.  So, even though most of Australia’s vineyards are concentrated in the southern third of the country, there is such a diverse range of climatic conditions that you can find virtually any wine style there.  And, even better, Australia has the skilled winemakers able to make the best of those conditions.

Given that, perhaps I should have set aside more than a single day to run a course on the subject, but those who joined me at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge centre recently had plenty to think about – and to taste.

60% of the grapes harvested in Australia each year are from just 3 grape varieties – Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – and we tasted some attractive examples of each of those.  Other familiar styles such as Eden Valley Riesling, Yarra Pinot Noir and Hunter Semillon also featured and showed very well.  But, in the vote to choose the favourite wine of the day, all were comprehensively defeated by a red wine made from an obscure variety that hardly anyone in the group had previously heard of:

oz tasting durifDurif was first propagated in the Rhône in south-west France in the 1880s, but, these days, is more commonly seen in California, where it’s usually known as Petite Sirah and, as I discovered when I bought De Bortoli’s 1628 Durif in Majestic (£8.99), there are also plantings in the Riverina District of New South Wales.  Rich, chunky and full bodied with intense black fruits, a decided spicy tang and firmish tannins, this was a wine that I thought might divide opinion.  But no!  It proved to be one of the clearest winners I remember.

It obviously thrives in Australia’s heat and looks to be a useful variety there for the future.

 

Lebanon’s Heroic Wines

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musar 4 (2)The wine world has many stories of triumph over adversity yet, surely, the most remarkable is that of Chateau Musar.  Musar’s vineyards are in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and its winery just outside Beirut, a couple of hours drive away over the mountains.  As a result, more than half of the vintages since 1975 have been made in a war zone or, at least, with the threat of war close by.  So, it is a truly heroic achievement that, in all that time, only 1 year has been missed.

And, when you taste the wines, as I did recently with the Bristol Tasting Circle, this desire to survive comes through.  Few of Musar’s wines are designed for drinking young.  The reds we tasted went as far back as 1996, the whites to 1991 and even the rosés – elsewhere often made for drinking within a year or so of the vintage – included a bottle from 2004.

The key to this longevity is a mixture of the growing conditions and the winemaking.  Although the Bekaa Valley sits at a warm latitude of 34˚N, its altitude – over 1000m (3000ft) above sea level – gives cool nights which help to retain the acidity in the organically-grown grapes – a vital element in making these full-bodied wines so well balanced. 

In the winery, everything is done with minimal intervention: indigenous yeasts, little added sulphur, no fining or filtering; simply harvest clean, ripe grapes and then let the natural processes do the rest.

The reds we tasted – interestingly before the whites – were mainly based around southern French varieties, particularly Cinsault and Carignan with a little Cabernet Sauvignon added, while the distinctive, spicy and honeyed dry whites were made from 2 local specialities, Obaideh and Merwah (although Jancis Robinson MW suggests that they may really be Chardonnay and Semillon, respectively).

This was a fascinating tasting of some unique and heroic wines.  All are available from local independent wine merchant ‘The Little Tipple’, email norman@littletipple.co.uk for details and prices.

 

Spain’s Unloved Hills

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I’ve mentioned before in Bristol Wine Blog how much Spain has improved the quality and diversity of its wine over the last couple of decades.  Yet, I regularly meet wine lovers who, with the likely exception of Rioja, have still not caught up with the change and continue to think of Spain as just producing simple, mass market wines. 

And, I’m guessing the one region of Spain that, they believe, this comment most applies to is the hills in the south-east of the country overlooking the Mediterranean.  It’s an area that, in the past, was the source of much cheap ‘plonk’ sold to undemanding tourists holidaying along the beaches of the Costas and, no doubt, these bottles still exist.  But, look a little more carefully and there are some delicious wines – mainly reds – produced from old vineyards of Garnacha (also known as Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvedre) and the very local Bobal.  DO names (Spain’s equivalent to France’s AC) including Jumilla, Yecla and Utiel Requena are among those to seek out.

unde vinumUnde Vinum (Waitrose, £13.99), a Bobal from the last named DO is a typical example of all that’s best from this area.  Soft and harmonious and full of attractive black fruit flavours, there was also a lovely freshness about the wine reflecting, perhaps, the fact that the grapes were from vineyards some 800m (2500ft) above sea level; the altitude nicely offsetting the extreme summer heat often found in this area.

Interestingly, the wine was aged in a mixture of barrels and tinajas (clay pots – see below on the right of the cellar). 

amphorae at frederic magnienI saw these pots in use in Burgundy a couple of years ago where they were thought to age the wine more gently and preserve the fruit flavours.  They’re certainly not a cheap option and their use in Unde Vinum shows the sort of wine the producers of this wine, and others in this still unloved part of Spain, are aiming for.