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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2 Bottles to Remember

As we approach the end of another difficult year, I suspect that most people will be hoping that in 2022, we might finally get this wretched Covid 19 under control.  Perhaps even start doing the things I was dreaming of in the blog I posted this time last year: going on holiday, eating out in restaurants and running wine courses.  While still exercising care for ourselves and our fellow citizens, of course.

But, before finally leaving 2021 altogether, I’d like to mention a couple of wines we particularly enjoyed over the recent holiday season – both excellent value.

Sauternes is, perhaps, the best-known dessert wine in the world but it isn’t the only sweet wine made in the Bordeaux region.  Across the Garonne River, 3 other Appellations, Cadillac, Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, make wines in a similar style, if a little lighter in body, using the same grape varieties (Semillon and Savignon Blanc).  The last named of these villages has been a favourite of ours since visiting as part of a wine walk many years ago.  It was the end of a long day and a glass of the local liquid nectar was the perfect reviver.  Chateau La Rame is one of the best producers there, the wine sweet but not cloying and full of delicious orange, honey and marmalade flavours (available from Majestic, £12.99 for a 50cl bottle).

Another bottle also brought back memories of a trip abroad, this time to the Greek island of Crete.   Among the exciting producers there is Domaine Lyrarakis, who specialises in showcasing Crete’s marvellous range of native grapes, some only recently rescued from near-extinction.  Varieties such Dafni and Vidiano (both white) and Kotsifali (red) are all worth seeking out, but our bottle was made from Thrapsathiri – a grape that was completely new to me.  Full and rich, a little in the style of a white Rhône, this subtly oaked wine had flavours of peach and melon with a little spice and a delicious long herby, grassy finish.  Bought from the Wine Society for £14.50, but, sadly, now sold out.

Two bottles to remember from a year that, otherwise, many will wish to forget.

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.