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.

Bordeaux’s Wine City

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Ever since Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin (City of Wine) opened last year, it has been on my ‘to do’ list.  So, when we visited that part of south-west France for a few days recently, we took the 10 minute tram ride from the centre and found ourselves in front of the very striking piece of architecture that was designed and built specifically to house the wine exhibition.Cite du Vin

Buying our tickets in advance on line (20 euros each if you specify a date, 5 euros extra for an ‘Open’ ticket you can use any day), we could (and should) have avoided the queues in the foyer.  But we eventually made our way to the 1st floor for a fascinating display on ‘Georgia, the birthplace of wine’.  Dozens of artefacts, some dating back more than 2000 years, combined with a couple of short films and some very detailed display boards (in English and French) told the story of the early days of wine and highlighted how some ancient processes – like fermenting in clay urns buried in the ground – were still being used today.  Sadly, this part of the exhibition is only temporary and will close in early November to be replaced by something as yet unspecified.

One floor up and you move into the main display area – and firmly into the 21st century.  Here, equipped with multi-lingual headphones, you are faced with a series of interactive screens dealing with different aspects of the wine world.  Click one and you can choose from a number of famous growers and wine makers talking about their wines; another and you join a virtual dinner table with top chefs and sommeliers chatting about food and wine matching.  All very cleverly and glossily presented and with admirably little jargon.  One problem: there is just so much to see, you need to be very selective – or come back several times.

After a couple of hours here, we started thinking of lunch.  There’s a formal restaurant on the 7th floor (pre-booking essential) or the ‘Latitude 20’ wine bar on the ground floor where we can recommend the cheese or meat platters (1 is plenty for 2 people to share) together with a glass of wine from an interesting and eclectic list – the soft and warming Georgian red is worth trying.

Before leaving, be sure to take the lift up to the Belvedere on the top floor where you can enjoy a glass of wine (included with your ticket price) and have a marvellous panorama over the city of Bordeaux.

 

 

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The Most Popular Grape

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There’s more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the world than any other wine grape – almost 300,000 hectares (just over 700,000 acres) according to the comprehensive study published by the University of Adelaide in 2013.  That area has more than doubled since 1990 and is almost certainly still growing.  There are now commercial plantings of the variety in more than 30 countries.

I’m not surprised at its popularity with growers; it’s a grape capable of producing very high quality red wines and its name is widely recognised by wine lovers – always a help with marketing.  But it needs to be grown in the right conditions: too cool and you get unripe, leafy flavours; too warm and the wine tastes of jammy or cooked fruit. 

Interestingly, in its home region of Bordeaux, you almost never see a wine made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon – there, they usually blend it with Merlot and other varieties – a legacy of the time when that part of France was, on average, a couple of degrees cooler than it is today and growers regularly struggled to ripen their Cabernet.

But elsewhere – California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the ‘new kid on the block’, China – 100% Cabernets are common and it’s not hard to find a really good bottle, for example Robert Oatley’s Finisterre from Margaret River in Western Australia.  2017-09-03 15.07.33The climate there is ideal with warm, dry summers meaning that harvest can often take place as early as February (equivalent to August in the Northern Hemisphere), minimising the threat from autumn rain. 

Finisterre is quite restrained and subtle but has the lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit flavours that I always associate with a good Cabernet Sauvignon, topped out with some soft spice and just enough tannin to suggest that the 2013 vintage has a good few years more ahead of it.  Usually £18.99 at Waitrose, but it’s worth waiting for one of that supermarket’s regular ‘25% off’ offers when this wine becomes a great bargain and one not to be missed.

 

Cork or screw cap?

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1495193329586Let’s face it: screw caps are becoming more and more widely used these days but, for centuries, the cork was the only practical means of sealing a wine bottle.  And, in the main, it was very good at its job: corks are very slightly porous to air, but not to liquids so they allow tiny quantities of air into the bottle to allow the wine to develop at just the right rate.  And, if the bottle is stored on its side and so the cork is kept moist, it expands to fill the neck of the bottle and prevents too much air getting in to spoil the wine.2017-09-01 08.46.37

But it’s not perfect: it is estimated that up to 3% of corks (that’s roughly 1 in every 35) are faulty, generally because they are affected by compounds that cause a musty smell and taste – something we call ‘corked’ or ‘corkiness’.  At low levels, the problem is difficult to detect and may simply make the wine taste flat and lacking in fruit.  At its worst, however, it can be really unpleasant with a lingering taste for anyone unfortunate enough to miss the foul smell and put the wine in their mouth. 

If you want to avoid this risk, there are a number of alternatives:

1495193237528the new ‘technical’ corks, such as Diam (the two on the right) and Nomacorc (on the left including the black one), seem to offer all the advantages of traditional corks without the problems (except they are expensive) and glass stoppers are even pricier (and a friend of mine couldn’t work out how to open one – no, taking a hammer to it is not a good option!).  Possibly the worst choice is one of those plastic stoppers, which is almost guaranteed to break your corkscrew. 

And then there’s the screw cap.  1495193245858Easy to use, clean and convenient, no corkscrew needed, no cork taint problems – what could be better?  Except that some regions of Europe ban them on quality wines and I’ve met a number of wine lovers who ‘just don’t like them’.  I accept that you don’t get that wonderful ‘pop’ of the cork or the flourish that a good sommelier produces (and there can be the odd technical problem with screw caps, too) but I’m always happy to see one – especially when it’s removed and the wine is being poured!

Sugar, Spice and Wine

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Mondavi CSWhen I was growing up, there was a nursery rhyme that said that little girls were made of “sugar and spice and all things nice”.  (Boys, on the other hand, were supposed to be from “snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails”!)  I’ve not heard the rhyme for years (perhaps that’s a good thing!), but a dish we cooked for a close friend recently might have been created with the description of ‘little girls’ in mind.  Sugar in the form of chocolate and raisins,  cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, tabasco and a chilli representing the spices and the remaining ingredients (beef, tomatoes, onions and herbs) as the ‘all things nice’. 

It might have made a good nursery rhyme and it certainly makes a delicious dish (described in the recipe as an ‘authentic’ chilli con carne – I’m sure some readers will dispute that), but how do you find a wine that will work with all those strong and contrasting flavours – and a sour cream dip on the side?

Let’s consider the spices first: spices, especially ‘hot’ spices like chilli and cayenne, tend to exaggerate tannin, bitterness and any alcoholic heat in the wine and, at the same time, make the wine taste drier and less fruity.  To combat this, you could try a low tannin wine with only moderate levels of alcohol (Beaujolais, for example) or something fresh and fruity – perhaps a New World Merlot.  And go easy on the chilli – too much and you won’t taste anything of the wine.

And what about the sweetness of the chocolate and raisins?  Interestingly, sweetness in food often has a similar effect to the spices on the wine – making it taste drier and less fruity.  Of course, with a truly sweet dish, you’d want a dessert wine.  But here, that wouldn’t work at all; the beef and the other ingredients point me back in the direction of the wines I suggested earlier.

I actually opened the delightfully fruity Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (pictured above) brought back from the US by our friend – delicious and a really good match with the flavours.

A Rioja for Summer

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Spain is the world’s 3rd largest wine producer (after France and Italy) and is home to some great native grape varieties as well as a host of innovative and dedicated winemakers.  I’ve blogged before about how you can find delicious bargains in some of Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’, but it would be a serious mistake to ignore the wines of her flagship region, Rioja.  Standards there are high wherever you look – so much so that you could almost pick up a bottle at random and be fairly sure of finding something enjoyable.

Of course, if you do so, it’s most likely to be red – more than 8 out of every 10 bottles from Rioja are – and made using Tempranillo, Garnacha – aka Grenache – and possibly some other less well-known varieties.  But there’s also some white produced – at one time rather dull and heavy but, these days, much fresher, more subtly oaked (if at all) and often delicious.   

And then there’s Rosado (the Spanish name for rosé).  I opened a really drinkable bottle from long-established producer, Muga, recently (widely available for about £9). 

Rioja RosadoA blend of 3 grapes: the red varieties Garnacha and Tempranillo as above and one white, Viura.  It was dry, clean and beautifully refreshing – ideal at this time of year – with a lovely smoky edge to it; delicious on its own (perhaps with an olive or two to nibble alongside) but with enough weight to match with a range of dishes – we found it a perfect cooling foil to a mildly spicy root vegetable curry, but I can also see it going well with smoked fish or charcuterie.

After a period in the doldrums, rosés in all styles and from all over the world are seeing a resurgence but, for me, the dry style, of which this Rioja is a great example, is the way forward.

Plain and Simple

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I think it was the former US President Bill Clinton who used the phrase ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.  Those who design most traditional German wine labels should take note!  Take the example below:

German Label

It has the producer’s name, the vintage, the grape variety, the region, village and vineyard in which the grapes were grown and even an indication of how ripe the grapes were at harvest.  This is typical of German wine labels and makes them among the most informative in the world.  But that – and the common use of the difficult-to-read antique font – also puts off many wine lovers who don’t want – or understand – all the detail.  “Just give me a clear idea what the wine is going to taste like”!

So, I was pleasantly surprised recently to find a German wine with one of the barest labels I’ve seen:

Grauburgunder

Just the producer’s name, the grape variety (Grauburgunder is the German name for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris) and the vintage.  Anyone interested in the region (Rheinhessen) or village (Nierstein) could check the back label where you also find, far more importantly, that the wine is dry (trocken) and has, unusually for a German white, 14% alcohol. In some wines, this level of alcohol can taste ‘hot’ or dominate the flavour but not here; it brings a lovely richness in the mouth – closer in style to a good Alsace Pinot Gris rather than a light and quaffable Pinot Grigio.  The wine is quite savoury with a delightful saline character that makes it really food-friendly – a noble fish in a creamy sauce comes to mind. 

From the label to the taste and style, this is about as far away from normal expectations of a German wine as it could be, but it’s really delicious.  And a bargain, too: Louis Guntrum’s Grauburgunder is just £11.50 from the Wine Society.

Hot – or too hot?

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harvest 2017It’s difficult to believe as I look out of my window in cool and rainy Bristol, that, across much of southern Europe at the moment, there is a heatwave and a drought.  Daytime temperatures there have reached the mid 40s (over 110˚F) for several days in a row, with nights remaining over 30˚ (86˚F) and many places have seen no rain for months.  It may be fine for the tourists (some of them, anyway – I’d find it too hot) but, how about the locals trying to work – or, indeed, the crops?

Vines need both warmth and sunshine to thrive and produce good ripe grapes for wine but, when, as now, conditions get too hot, one of 2 things happen: if there’s plenty of water for irrigation (and local rules allow its use), the combination of great heat and water cause the grapes to swell quickly and rush to ripeness, gaining high levels of sugar (and so high potential alcohol) but not much flavour – that comes from long, slow ripening.  Also, without cooler nights, the acidity that is crucial to making a refreshing wine will drop sharply.  The result: poor quality ‘jug’ wines appealing only to those seeking bargain price quaffing.

When drought conditions accompany a heatwave, as we’re seeing now in southern Europe, or where irrigation is banned, things are very different.  Without water, the vines will begin to shut down in order to protect themselves; the grapes will shrivel and fall off and the harvest will be much reduced.  Producers then need to decide quickly: pick straight away and salvage some of the crop or wait and hope that September will produce cooler temperatures, rain and better prospects.   That is the choice being faced by many now.  When similar extreme conditions occurred in 2003, most chose to pick in August rather than wait.  A few good wines were made, but many were unattractive with baked or dried fruit flavours and some normally long-lasting wines faded quickly. 

But, although 2003 and 2017 are truly exceptional, growers right across Europe are reporting that, even in ‘normal’ years, they are harvesting 2 or 3 weeks earlier than their parents did and picking riper grapes.  And varieties that once only grew in certain places are now thriving in regions that were previously thought too cool. 

Something is certainly happening to the world’s weather.  The climate is changing and all of us, not just the winemakers will need to adjust to it.