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.

Italy: Not so Confusing

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Italy is the 2nd largest supplier of wine to UK – behind Australia and just in front of USA. But, despite this popularity, I think most UK customers are missing the best Italy has to offer. The biggest sellers here include bargain-basement Pinot Grigio and Prosecco plus other famous names such as Chianti, Soave, Valpolicella and Frascati. Sadly, all of these can disappoint as often as they thrill.

Other wine drinkers in the UK simply ignore Italy completely: ‘it’s all just too confusing’ is a frequent comment. And one that I understand. The problem is that Italy produces so much wine and is so diverse that it’s hard to pick the real gems from the mass of ordinary bottles that are alongside them on the shelves.

SL Italy 3 (2)

A few pointers are always useful and that is just what I tried to give those who signed up for my recent course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. We tasted a dozen wines over the day including examples from half of Italy’s 20 regions. Of the whites, the clean, fresh Nord Est Vermentino from Sardinia (Majestic, £8.99) with its delightful pear and peach flavours was clearly most popular but the reds produced much more discussion and divided opinions.

SL Italy 2 (2)

I said earlier that Chianti can often disappoint but Medici Riccardi’s Classico Riserva that I found in Lidl for less than £7 proved to be an incredible bargain. Its dusty, slightly bitter black fruit flavours and attractive smokiness made it one of the group favourites. Sadly, I see it has disappeared from their website and so may already be sold out.

The other joint winner among the reds is, happily, still available. Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso (Majestic, £11.99) was full of figs and dried fruit flavours typical of the ‘Ripasso’ process. This is where a young wine is re-fermented on the skins of an Amarone wine, so picking up some of the richer, fuller character that comes from the drying process used for Amarones.

No-one went away an expert on Italian wines – that would take a lifetime – but most were convinced that it was worth looking beyond the confusion to discover the marvellous diversity.

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A Stand-out Riesling

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The French wine region of Alsace shares a border and considerable historic links with Germany and so, perhaps not surprisingly, you’ll find many of the same grape varieties in both places. The Pinot family – Noir, Gris and Blanc – are found in both, although in Germany are known as Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder respectively; (I think the French names are a little easier to pronounce!) Gewurztraminer also appears on both sides, but, most importantly of all, so does Riesling.

Almost half the world’s plantings of Riesling are in Germany and they proudly declare that most of their best wines are made with that variety. In Alsace, too, Riesling is considered their most noble grape, but the styles of wine each country produces from the variety are totally different from each other.

Apart from the delicious wines both make to be enjoyed specifically as dessert wines, German producers tend towards an off-dry style. Here, a little sweetness balances Riesling’s high acidity and that is normally combined with exceptionally low levels of alcohol (8 or 9% typically). More recently, some in Germany are beginning to follow the demands of the market and making more dry or almost dry examples (often labelled ‘trocken’) but this still remains the minority. Alsace, on the other hand, has always preferred to ferment its wines out completely dry giving a much richer taste and with higher levels of alcohol.

Alsace RieslingA bottle from Alsace I opened recently showed this perfectly: Domaine Leon Boesch’s Grandes Lignes Riesling (Vine Trail, £13.99) was beautifully fresh and clean and with surprising weight for only 12% alcohol. It had real intensity and the typical young Riesling aromas and flavours of grapefruit and lemon peel. The acidity was there, of course but not intrusive; in fact, it was just enough to make it food-friendly, although it’s a wine you could equally well drink on its own.

The Boesch estate is certified biodynamic which can, most simply, be described as an ultra-organic philosophy with everything in the vineyard being carried out completely in harmony with nature. Some question the science of the idea and I won’t comment on that. All I will say is that this, along with many other biodynamic wines I have tasted, have an intensity and a richness that makes them stand out from the crowd.

“A Sort of Winey Flavour!”

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“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. So said Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. It seems that some who prepare tasting notes for the back labels of bottles use words in the same way – words they understand but that mean little to the reader. Take a bottle I opened recently: “bright floral aromas, apricot kernel, quince and a hint of spicey white pepper. The palate reveals intense riverstone minerality combined with white peach, lime sorbet and fresh dill before revealing a chalky yet vibrant long finish”. Some interesting ideas, but what do all those words tell you and just how much do they say to the customer who may be considering buying? And, if you didn’t know the wine, what would you drink it with?

I also use words to describe wine – everyone in the wine industry from sommeliers to wine writers and professional buyers does – but I like to think that I use language that tells the customer what they need to know and that they can relate to. How many would know what apricot kernel smells like or understand ‘riverstone minerality’? Not too many, I suggest.

Waimea Gru VSo, my description of the same wine – Waimea’s Grüner Veltliner from Nelson in New Zealand (Majestic, £10.99) – would simply say that it was fresh with attractive peach and citrus aromas and flavours and would pair nicely with some white fish in a creamy sauce.

And then I picked up this month’s edition of Decanter magazine. Just a few pages in I read, “an uncompromising Champagne, open, elemental, stony. It tasted of frost”. Really? I think I prefer a description a friend gave of a wine I served: “Well, it’s got a sort of winey flavour”.

Choosing a Blog Wine

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How do I choose the wines I’m going to include in a Blog? The answer is simple: like many wine lovers, when I find a wine I really like, I want to share it with others who might appreciate it. And, if there’s a story to tell about the producer, the grape variety or where the wine comes from as well, so much the better, as that, hopefully, makes the piece more interesting to read. Also, I buy all my wines from shops or on-line and, apart from any case discounts that would be offered to any customer, I never accept ‘incentives’ to include a particular wine in this Blog.

Recently, I’ve been lucky (or chosen well!) as almost everything I’ve opened has been worth sharing and Blogging about. Here are a couple of the nicest:

Oatley SyrahI’d previously enjoyed Robert Oatley’s Finisterre Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River in Western Australia (WA) and that producer’s Syrah from the Great Southern region of WA (Wine Society, £17) is just as good. The wine showed the same subtlety and restraint that I’d liked in the earlier bottle but with Cabernet’s typical blackcurrant flavours replaced with delightfully fragrant black cherry and hedgerow berries. More reminiscent of a Syrah from the northern Rhône than a typical Australian example, it is interesting that Oatley has chosen to use the European version of the grape’s name, in preference to Shiraz.

Crasto DouroCrasto Superior (also Wine Society, £14.50), a full-bodied red from Portugal’s Douro region, is altogether richer and more intense and needs to accompany robust food to enjoy it at its best. Made from a blend of local grapes including Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, this spends 12 months in French oak barrels resulting in lovely spicy flavours adding to the attractive sweet fruit.

Two wines that I’m happy to share with you. I hope you’ll enjoy them, too.

Counting Sheep – or Wine?

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Counting sheep

There’s a theory that counting sheep may help you fall asleep – the idea being, I assume, that the boredom of the whole process gradually lulls you. My wife, Hilary, recently suggested an alternative that might appeal to wine lovers: naming the Crus of Beaujolais! These are the 10 best villages that are allowed to use their own names on the wine label, rather than the generic ‘Beaujolais’. Their status ranks above both ordinary Beaujolais (which includes Beaujolais Nouveau) and Beaujolais-Villages, which, confusingly, relates to wine produced in a group of villages outside the top 10 rather than in these particular villages.

Despite all red Beaujolais being made from the same grape variety, Gamay, the landscape of the region is quite diverse so, as a result, the wines from each of the named villages have their own identity.

Starting in the south, Brouilly is the largest of the Crus and its land entirely surrounds the extinct volcano, Mont Brouilly on whose slopes are found another Cru, Côte de Brouilly which produces more concentrated wines. Régnié, the newest of the Crus to be promoted, has mainly sandy soils leading to soft, early-drinking wines.

To the east, Morgon is very different: many wines from here will age quite well and develop almost Burgundy-like flavours and aromas. Chiroubles has the highest vineyards in the region and produces light, delicate wines while neighbouring Fleurie, probably the best known of the Crus, lives up to its name with floral, charming wines.

Moulin-a-Vent is another village producing more robust, longer-lived styles, while the vineyard area of Chénas, already the smallest of the Crus, is gradually shrinking and I wonder how long it will retain its independence. Juliénas produces stylish wines of real character and then there’s the most northerly Cru of all, Saint-Amour: light wines which, because of their name, have a particular appeal on romantic occasions!

All can be delicious and are rarely expensive but would trying to remember the names help you fall asleep? Or would they, perhaps, encourage you to wake your partner to share a bottle?

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.

 

 

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.