A Grape not to be Ignored

Looking back, I’m amazed at how rarely I’ve blogged about the world’s most widely planted wine grape: Cabernet Sauvignon.  Yes, I’ve mentioned it in passing when talking about other wines, but as for focussing on this most popular of red varieties – nothing!  Time to put that right as, at its best, it really is a grape not to be ignored.

‘Home’ for Cabernet Sauvignon is France’s most prestigious wine region, Bordeaux, where it has been grown for more than 200 years but it wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that growers beyond that region started to realise the potential of the grape.  As a result, world-wide plantings more than doubled between 1990 and 2010 and the variety is now found in virtually every major wine producing country, even in England where, historically, the climate hasn’t been warm enough to ripen this sun-loving variety. 

The words ‘sun-loving’ mean thoughts turning to Australia, although it was actually quite a late starter there with the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines only imported in the 1960s and the first commercial bottling released in 1967.  But from that quiet beginning the variety has thrived, with especially good examples found in Coonawarra in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia (WA).

And it was a bottle from WA that we opened recently.  The Wine Society’s Exhibition Cabernet Sauvignon (£16.50) is made for the Society by one of WA’s oldest and most successful producers, Vasse Felix and is full of all those aromas and flavours Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers are familiar with and love: blackcurrant and cassis fruit, some herbiness and hints of black cherry and mint.  The 2019 vintage on the Wine Society’s current list is drinking well now and should continue at its peak for a couple of years yet but, as with most wines from this grape, it benefits from opening an hour or so in advance of drinking and teaming with red meat – grilled lamb would be perfect – or hard cheese.

Cabernet Sauvignon is certainly a grape not to be ignored – whether I blog about it or not!

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A Perfect Ending

“This rhubarb flan I’ve just made would go beautifully with a glass of sweet wine.  I don’t suppose we’ve got anything suitable?”  My wife had barely finished her question before I was heading towards our wine rack.

We often think of the different styles of dry wines pairing well with particular main course dishes – white Burgundy with chicken, perhaps, Rioja or Claret with lamb – but it is the same with sweet wines and desserts.  A delicate pudding would be overwhelmed by a powerful Australian ‘stickie’, yet that’s exactly the wine you would be thinking of to match a rich chocolate dessert or Christmas Pudding.

So, how did I choose a partner for our rhubarb flan?  Rhubarb can be quite acidic so we cooked it with some orange zest and juice to counter that and a little cinnamon for a soft, spicy flavour.  And those additions pointed me in a particular direction for the wine.  Flavours of orange or marmalade are often found in wines made with botrytised grapes.  (This happens when the grapes are left on the vine until they are attacked by the botrytis fungus which shrivels the berries and concentrates the sugars).  Thin skinned grapes (Semillon is a good example) grown in vineyards in humid areas are particularly prone to this – Sauternes in southern Bordeaux is probably the best known – but I opened a bottle from the Australian producer, De Bortoli, who also use the same grape variety.

Their ‘Florence Broadhurst’ Botrytis Semillon (Majestic, £9.99 for a half-bottle) is, as you can see, a wonderful deep gold colour with lovely honey, orange and spice flavours – just a perfect match for our rhubarb flan.  But, although the flavour is quite intense, this is not a heavy wine as, unlike many sweet wines, this has just 10% alcohol – an important consideration if you’ve already enjoyed a dry wine with your main course.

We love sweet wines and have always got a few bottles in stock for occasions such as this where a pudding is just crying out for a glass of something to end a lovely meal perfectly.

For Australia’s National Day

If you’ve ever opened a bottle of Chianti, then you’ve tasted the grape variety Sangiovese with its typical flavours of bitter cherries and herbs.  It’s the No1 variety in Italy in terms of area and it’s far more widely planted than just in Chianti; it’s found throughout the regions of Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Marche but its home is, I suppose, in Tuscany (think Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano as well as Chianti). 

Outside Italy, though, Sangiovese is far harder to find.  To me, that’s surprising considering the number of families of Italian origin who have emigrated and settled in many different countries across the world.  They’ve planted a couple of thousand acres in Argentina and a little in California (notably Antinori’s Atlas Peak) but, beyond that, very little.  Although I recently found a bottle from Australia made by an ex-Italian family, now living in Victoria’s King Valley, who have imported a range of vines – not just Sangiovese but several other Italian varieties, too – which they grow and use for all their wines.

Pizzini’s Pietra Rossa Sangiovese (Wine Society, £18) is more Brunello than Chianti in style, rounded and full of lovely fresh plum and cherry flavours with a hint of spice.  The wine has spent 14 months in barrel, with a proportion of that in new oak, but I found no overt oak flavour, just a savoury, harmonious mouthful.  The 2019 vintage is still quite tannic so needs decanting and pairing with chunky flavours.

The King Valley is not well-known (although it is the home of the famous Brown Brothers company) but it is an interesting area, a good couple of hours drive north-east of Melbourne.  The key for vine growing here is the closeness to the foothills of the Australian Alps where the heat of the growing season is offset by the altitude.  This allows the grapes to ripen fully yet still retain that essential freshness that showed well in Pizzini’s wine.

A little bit of Italy in Australia and perfect for celebrating Australia’s National Day (26 January).