Wine with Altitude

Every wine book will tell you that, if you want to grow grapes successfully to produce wine, your vineyards should lie between latitudes 30° and 50° north of the equator or the same south of the equator.  And, looking at the major wine making regions of the world, that is broadly true.  At lower latitudes than 30°, it’s likely to be too dry for vines to survive while, further from the equator than 50°, you’re rarely going to get enough warmth or sun to ripen your grapes properly. 

Taking this a stage further, the style of wine you can expect will vary enormously depending how close to the 30° or 50° line you are: big, chunky, ripe alcoholic wines come, in general, from the lower, warmer latitudes while something crisper, fresher and more aromatic is typical of wines grown closer to 50°.

But a bottle I opened recently didn’t fit these last 2 rules at all.  Tabali’s Barranco Viognier (Wine Society, £14.95) comes from Chile’s Limarí Valley, which sits almost exactly on the warm 30°S line, yet this wine was delightfully fresh and clean with attractive flavours of ripe pear, red apple and a little fragrant peachiness. And, although 13.5% alcohol, this was in no way heavy or chunky, just nicely mouth-coating.

So how have Tabali achieved characteristics typical of much cooler climates at such a latitude?  The answer is altitude; the Río Hurtado vineyard, from where the grapes for this wine come, lies at 1600 metres above sea level (almost 5000 feet) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.  At that height, despite benefitting from 300 days of sunshine a year, the temperatures are far cooler than they would be closer to sea level and, as a result, the grapes ripen more slowly and retain that vital streak of acidity that make this wine so refreshing and drinkable.  One maybe to enjoy on its own but, even better, to accompany either fish or poultry in a creamy sauce or, perhaps, a pasta carbonara.

Meet Franc from Friuli

There are a number of grape varieties with ‘Cabernet’ in their name – Cabernet Sauvignon, the best known and most widely planted, is actually a cross (probably some time in the 19th century) between Sauvignon Blanc and another Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, hence the name.  All 3 are found in the vineyards of Bordeaux, so I can only guess what Franc and Sauvignon were up to a couple of hundred years ago!

Cabernet Franc is usually part of a blend in Bordeaux, often included to add attractive freshness and a certain leafy or herby character to the wine, but look further north to France’s Loire region and you find 100% Franc wines in ACs such as Chinon and Bourgueil – and very enjoyable many of them are, too.  But I’ve never associated the grape with Italy until I saw a bottle on the shelves of Bristol independent merchant, Grape and Grind.  The wine is from Tenute Tomasella who grows the variety in vineyards in the very far north-east of the country, in the Friuli region, close to the border with Slovenia.  It looks very appealing in the glass: ‘dressed in cardinal purple’ according to the back label and is a real bargain at £12.99.  Lovely fresh red fruits – cherries and plums – and a real lightness of touch, helped, no doubt, by only 12½% alcohol.

It seems strange to be saying ‘only’ 12½%; at one time that would have been considered a medium to high alcohol level, but not these days.  A combination of global warming and better vineyard management techniques means that grapes can now be picked with much higher sugar levels than was once the case and that translates directly into higher alcohol.  Of course, the public appetite for such wines (encouraged by a certain American writer) has contributed, too.  As a result, 13½%, 14% and even more is now the norm.  That works for some wines but others become rather unbalanced with the alcohol overpowering the fruit. 

The more moderate level on the Cabernet Franc was quite noticeable (and very pleasant) – yes, a delicate wine, but not thin and really flavoursome.

Perhaps other producers should take notice.

A Proper Winter Wine

It’s October, the days are getting shorter and the temperature dropping. Real signs that the season is changing. For us, that means it’s time to think about some of those more robust, warming winter dishes. Like the delicious shin beef casserole full of chunky root vegetables such as celeriac and carrot we enjoyed last night. Of course, with the food reflecting the time of year, you also need to look to an altogether different style of wine – one that won’t be over-powered by all the strong flavours of the dish.
It would have to be red to go with the beef and the rich, savoury gravy but, more specifically, I was looking at something from one of the warmer parts of the world which would have the weight to balance the food. A number of possibilities came to mind: an Australian Shiraz or Californian Zinfandel would work perfectly or, perhaps, something from southern Europe or around the Mediterranean basin.


I finally settled on a wine from the Côtes du Roussillon, a much under-rated area near Perpignan in the very far south of France – indeed the vineyards for Domaine Gardiés Clos de Vignes (Wine Society, £17) are barely 30 miles from the Spanish border. I decanted the wine a couple of hours before we were going to drink it and found it opened up beautifully to reveal a lovely, savoury, satisfying red (made from a blend of mainly 70 year old Carignan and Grenache vines with small additions of Syrah and Mourvèdre). The wine was perfectly dry with attractive black fruits on the palate and a clear hint of cedar or cigar box flavours from the ageing in older, large wooden barrels. It’s certainly a big wine – it needed to be to complement the dish – but not so overwhelming that one glass was enough and the 14% alcohol is perfectly integrated so you’re not left with a burn on the finish.
All in all, a proper winter wine.