Vines Love Gravel

Many of Bordeaux’s most sought-after wines are from vineyards planted on gravel-rich soils: the 1st Growth Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Margaux to name just 3.  But it’s not just in Bordeaux that gravel is highly regarded for vines.  A bottle I opened recently from New Zealand boasted of its origins in the Gimblett Gravels.  So, what is the link between this type of soil and high quality wine?

Gravel is a good base for a vineyard for a number of reasons.  It’s usually low in fertility which means that the vines have to struggle to extract the moisture and nutrients they need for growth.  This struggle puts the vine into survival mode, so it produces more grapes which contain the pips which are the vine’s way to propagate itself.

Also, gravel is porous so, in wetter areas, rainfall can drain through meaning that the vines’ roots aren’t sitting in water where they may rot.  But vines still need some water so they extend their roots to find it and, at the same time, pick up extra nutrients which are often linked to more flavoursome grapes.

Finally, in cooler areas, gravel acts like tiny storage heaters, soaking up the heat of the sun during the day then releasing it as the sun goes down in the evening allowing the ripening process to extend over a couple more hours.

This is particularly important in both Bordeaux and New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels – both are relatively cool areas where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown.  Cabernet is quite a late-ripening variety and needs all the warmth it can get, so the little extra from the gravelly soil may just make the difference allowing the harvesting of fully ripe berries giving a wine that’s rich and appealing.

This was clearly the case with Saint Clair’s Pioneer Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £17.99); full of lovely damson and black plum flavours and hints of smoky oak – a delicious wine, although some may want to leave the 2019 vintage for a year or 2 as the bottle I opened was still a little firm and tannic.

I have to finish on a sad note with the news of the death this week of Steven Spurrier after a career in the wine industry spanning more than 50 years. He was best known as a wine writer and educator, but he was also the person who, almost single-handedly, brought Californian wines to attention of the wider world. For anyone who doesn’t know the amazing story, google ‘The Judgement of Paris’.

2nd Wines: the Smart Choice

After 2 Blogs about the red wines of Burgundy, I think it’s time to move on to France’s other flagship region, Bordeaux.  There are a few similarities between the 2 – stratospheric prices for the top wines and an active investment market among them – but many differences which make it easier to find something drinkable at an affordable – if, perhaps, not exactly every day – price.

One of these differences is size: Bordeaux produces more than 3 times as much wine as Burgundy in a typical year and there’s nothing like the same fragmentation of vineyards that causes the supply problems in Burgundy.  This is due to the fact that many of Bordeaux’s estates are now owned by companies rather than individuals, easing inheritance problems, plus the Bordeaux Appellation system is rather simpler, only dividing down as far as villages, rather than identifying vineyards as they do in Burgundy.

Despite those advantages, you can still easily pay £50 – £100 for well-known wines, but, if you avoid the big names and choose carefully, there is some value available.   As I found recently when I opened an attractive red from the excellent 2010 vintage with the benefit of a good few years of barrel and bottle maturity behind it.

Moulins de Citran (Majestic, £16.99 as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles) is quite lean and austere in a typical Bordeaux way but has good blackcurrant and raspberry fruit and some cedary spice and leather flavours.  There’s fair length, too, and, despite its age, it has a good few years of happy drinking ahead of it.

So, why is this under £20 and not £50?  Firstly, it is not from one of the prestigious villages – it’s simply AC Haut-Medoc but, perhaps, more importantly, it’s the estate’s ‘2nd wine’.  Many Bordeaux properties are large enough to make 2 or even 3 different wines each year.  Their best grapes from their oldest wines will go into their top wine (which would be named ‘Chateau de Citran’ in this case), but that still leaves good grapes from, perhaps, younger vines or vines in less good parts of the vineyard spare.  These will go into the 2nd wine – still made by the same winemaker in the same winery but often sold at less than half the price of the main Chateau wine.

So, if you love Bordeaux wines but don’t want to pay too much, then 2nd wines of good estates in less fashionable parts of the region are a really smart choice.

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.