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.

Wine ‘Falls Apart’

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ageingWine is a living thing; just like the people in the picture above (thanks to all-free-download.com), it has a youth, a middle period when it’s in its prime and an old age. And, depending on the wine, that lifespan can range from as little as a year, as in a Beaujolais Nouveau, to several decades or even longer for a fine Bordeaux or Rhône.

But, once you open a bottle, the wine will start to change – for better or worse – as a result of the wine coming into contact with the air. So, a very old wine may have become quite fragile over its lifetime and will only show its character for a few minutes once uncorked and poured into your glass before moving to a sad, vinegary end. At the other extreme, a young, tannic red may be completely ‘closed’ at first – lacking in any smell or much taste – until it is decanted, which exposes it to lots of air and brings out the flavours that were initially hidden. In a few cases, like some Portuguese wines, this process may take up to 24 hours, but it’s worth it.

But a young white I opened recently surprised me. At first, it made pleasant, easy drinking as an aperitif and continued very attractively accompanying our meal. But, there was some left in my glass at the end of dinner that (unusually) I forgot about and, when I went back to it a couple of hours later, the wine had noticeably darkened in colour and, in my wife’s words, ‘it has fallen apart’. This described perfectly what we were now tasting: the wine had become oxidized, with that distinctive sherry-like taste, the acidity had become far more prominent and sharper and, although alcohol has no actual taste, you could clearly detect the alcohol on the wine that had not been noticeable earlier.

The reason for the change? I suspect a spoiling bacteria called acetobacter – the same rogue I mentioned earlier responsible for turning an old wine into vinegar. But, it is very rare for this change to happen so quickly in a young wine. Although the winemaking may have been at fault, acetobacter thrives in high temperatures and, more likely is that, somewhere on its way to me, this bottle had been kept in an overheated warehouse. A disappointing finish, but most of the bottle was very drinkable.

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Why Age Matters

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Stellenrust Chen

The silver seal on the bottle says that the wine is ‘from 53 year old vines’ – that’s quite old for a vine. But does that fact tell me anything about the likely quality of wine in the bottle or is it simply a meaningless marketing tool? I’d suggest the former.

As vines get older, their root system becomes more and more extensive. This means that they can draw up greater quantities of water and other nutrients from the soil enabling the vine to thrive. At the same time, older vines (like some older people!) become less vigorous, producing fewer bunches of grapes. So, all this extra goodness goes to feed fewer grapes; the likely result: a better wine with more intensity and richness of flavour.

And that is certainly true with Stellenrust’s delicious barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa (Majestic Wine, £14.99). Distinctly oaky at first on the nose, but the wood is far better integrated on the palate alongside lovely tropical fruit flavours and a hint of toffee and vanilla. With its 14% alcohol, this is clearly a robust, full-bodied white, but there is no heat on the finish and the alcohol simply contributes an attractive richness and food-friendliness: try with poultry or white meat in a creamy sauce.

While this bottle is specific about the age of the vines, more common is a general reference on the label to ‘Old Vines’ or the equivalent in the local language. So, how old does a vine have to be before it is designated ‘Old’? Sadly, there is no legal definition, although most commentators say about 35 years should be the minimum age to qualify. With fewer grapes per vine, you should expect to pay a little extra for old vines wine but be rewarded with noticeable extra quality.

What’s in a Name?

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Naming is vital. Get it right, and your product is on everyone’s lips; on the other hand, failing to check what your wonderful name means in other languages can be disastrous. Take the car company Vauxhall, for example. They named a car ‘Nova’; that’s great in English but, in a number of European languages, No va means ‘it doesn’t go’ – hardly the basis for a good marketing strategy!

In wine, too, names have been used to good effect: to my mind, one of the best is the South African producer who mocked Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages perfectly with Goats do Roam and Goats do Roam in Villages, although I also like the style of an American grower, annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to use the name ‘port’ for his fortified port-style wine, called it Starboard!

And then there are the attempts to attract buyers with particular interests: some friends of ours, knowing that I love cricket, shared a bottle called ‘Men in White Coats’ with us recently.

white coats

(For non cricket-lovers among you, I should explain that cricket umpires traditionally wear white coats and the raised finger gesture on the label is the umpire’s signal that the batsman is out and his innings is over). The wine itself – a clean, crisp, easy-drinking Viognier from South Africa – was, however, less of a talking point during the evening than the name, which, to all of us, had another, less flattering, meaning.

Back in our youth, when someone was behaving strangely, it was often said that the men in white coats would soon be coming to get that person – the men in question being the nursing staff at a local facility for the mentally ill.

So, did our friends’ bottle really refer to the cricket or were they thinking of the current state of the country here in England?

 

Give Croatia a Try

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It’s been a long time since I blogged about a wine from Croatia. Not surprisingly as very little is seen in the UK. Croatia is one of the countries that emerged after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, but there’s a long history of winemaking in the area, dating back to the ancient Greeks or even before. However, sadly, the Balkans war at the end of the last century was devastating for the region and many parts are still struggling to recover.

Vines are grown in several distinct regions of the country with international varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot widely planted alongside a number of interesting local varieties including Plavac Mali (related to Zinfandel), Graševina (perhaps better known as Welschriesling – which is very different from Riesling) and the grape that prompted this Blog, Malvazija Istarska.

This latter variety is mainly found in the coastal vineyards along the Adriatic, particularly in the Istrian peninsula bordering Slovenia and just across from northern Italy. Here, there’s a favourable Mediterranean climate, ideal for grape growing but also perfect for attracting many tourists (one reason why not much Croatian wine is exported!)

Malvazija

Viña Laguna’s Malvazija (Wine Society, £7.95) is a lovely, elegant, aromatic dry white, good for drinking on its own or with delicate fish dishes – nothing too big or heavy, though, as you wouldn’t want to overpower the delicacy of flavour. The same variety is also grown in north-east Italy, but there are many other grapes with a similar name – often spelt with an s rather than a z, which are unrelated and different.

I suspect that Croatia is never going to be a major supplier of wine to the UK market, but, if you see a bottle, or visit the area, I can certainly recommend that you give it a try.

All Change in Bordeaux

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Ch MargauxWhisper it quietly but, in Bordeaux, that most traditional of winemaking areas, change is about to happen. For generations, the rules for the region’s red wines have insisted that only 6 grape varieties are allowed in the blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the best-known plus Petit Verdot, Malbec (yes – the grape that Argentina claims as its own) and, if you can find any, Carmenère.   If you want to make your wine from anything else – Pinot Noir or Syrah, for example – that’s fine, but you can’t call it Bordeaux, it’s simply Table Wine (or Vin de France as it’s now known).

But last month, in a surprising turn around, the Bordeaux growers voted to allow 4 additional varieties: Touriga Nacional, a major component in Port and many other Portuguese wines, Marselan, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Grenache cross found in some southern French reds, Arinarnoa, another Cabernet Sauvignon cross, this time with Tannat (the Madiran variety) and finally, Castets, an old local variety that is virtually extinct.

Looking at the first 3 newcomers, the reason for the change quickly becomes obvious: all are from warmer areas and so are rather more heat- and drought-tolerant than the traditional varieties – qualities that have come massively to the fore in recent weeks where record temperatures have been seen across Europe.

Bordeaux’s whites are to get a makeover, too, with Portugal’s Alvarinho (grown in Spain as Albariño), south-west France’s lovely Petit Manseng and the obscure Liliorila, a Chardonnay cross, all being admitted, subject (as are the new red varieties) to the approval of France’s regulatory body, the INAO. If this is granted, official planting will be allowed from late next year, so, allowing 3 years for the vines to begin producing, the wines, under the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur Appellations only (commune level wines, and Classified Growths such as Chateau Margaux, pictured above, remain unchanged) should start appearing on our shelves around 2024.

I look forward to tasting them.

Italian sun shines in Bristol

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Italy tastingA warm summer evening and a tasting for the Westbury Park Festival held in ‘C The World’, a local Travel Agent. What better theme for the event than the Wines of Italy – one of the favourite holiday destinations for us Brits? And the wines I took along to taste reflected that idea, with all coming from areas much visited by tourists.

Our first wine was from the island of Sardinia – a crisp, peachy white: Nord Est Vermentino (£9.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouse, where I bought all the wines for this tasting). Vermentino is a high quality grape variety especially well-suited to some of the warmer parts of the Mediterranean as it retains its refreshing acidity well.

The hills above Pescara on the Adriatic coast provided our 2nd white: Collecorvino’s Pecorino (£9.99). Yes, Pecorino is a cheese, but it’s also a grape variety; there are many explanations for the similarity – none of them particularly believable! This wine was a little fuller and richer than the 1st – the result of some of the grapes being fermented in oak.

For our final white, I looked to the Avellino hills, east of Naples. It’s an area rich with excellent local grape varieties including Fiano and Greco but I chose Terredora’s Falanghina (£11.99) – beautifully crisp and fresh but with an attractive savoury character from 3 months of lees ageing.

It was back to the islands – this time Sicily – for the 1st of the reds. Corolla’s Nero d’Avola (£8.99) was everything a simple, every day wine should be – lots of red fruit flavours and very moreish.

A little more challenging was Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Ripasso (£12.99) from the area to the east of Lake Garda. Valpolicella can also be simple and gluggable but, when the word ‘Ripasso’ is on the label, it takes on a whole new dimension. Refermented on the lees of an Amarone, a wine made with dried grapes, this is intense with delicious prune and fig flavours.

And finally, from Piedmont, in the north-west, De Forville’s Langhe Nebbiolo (£10.99) is effectively a mini-Barolo in all but name (and price!). Ideally, it should be left a few more years to allow the tannins to soften (I opened the 2017) but, if you can’t wait, decant it well in advance and serve with robust food; you’ll find the quality and richness will shine through.

So, there it was: a taste of the Italian sun in Bristol and, hopefully, enjoyed by all.

Vines Must Struggle

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It’s often said that the best wines are made when the vines have to struggle. That may surprise you but, if you make life too easy for them, with rich soils, plenty of sunshine and warmth and liberal amounts of water, your grapes will ripen quickly, but not pick up much flavour. Or, the vine will make plenty of leaf growth, shading your grapes so they won’t ripen properly. Either way, the result will be nothing special.

But, plant your vineyard on poor, rocky soils, where the vines have to fight to get every little drain of moisture and the picture is very different, assuming, that is, that you are somewhere with enough sunshine and warmth to ripen the crop.

And, of all the fine vineyards of the world, one of the best examples of this kind of challenging terrain is found in eastern Sicily, on the slopes of the still active volcano, Mount Etna. Amazingly, despite the constant threat of volcanic eruptions, there are vineyards planted all over the mountain and the growers have to face the fact that, to make the wine they want, they need to accept also the danger.

Etna Rosso

It’s something I thought about when I opened a bottle of Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Rosso recently (Wine Society, £12.50). Grown in volcanic soil overlooking the sea, about 650 metres (2000 feet) up, it’s made from a blend of traditional local grape varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Delicious and elegant, it’s a red with lovely bitter cherry flavours together with hints of thyme and other fresh herbs. Although rich and satisfying, it’s not at all heavy and would make an excellent accompaniment to red meat, game or hard cheeses.

But, when you open a bottle, do think of the struggle the vines – and the growers – have been through before this wine gets to your glass.