Category Archives: Bristol Tasting Circle

Italy’s South Rises Again

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In ancient times, the south of Italy was thought of as one of the great wine regions of the known world.  Fast forward 2000 years and, by the time I started enjoying wine (in the early 1970s, if you must know!), it was a place for wine lovers to avoid.  But, rather than concentrating on the bad times, I’d sooner focus on its re-emergence over the past 20 years or so and on the delicious wines you can find there now – wines that were the subject of a recent evening at the Bristol Tasting Circle, hosted by Alex Pack of Liberty Wines.

Temperatures in this part of the Mediterranean normally favour red wines over white, but Donnafugata’s rich, minerally Vigna di Gabri from Sicily was the exception: full of citrus and herb flavours with an attractive touch of bitterness, this would pair beautifully with poultry or white meats.

The reds mainly showcased the best of the local grape varieties, such as Aglianico, thought to have been originally imported into Italy by the early Greek traders, Nero di Troia and Primitivo (aka Zinfandel).  Opinions on the night were divided as to the best of these with Canace’s Nero di Troia, Zolla’s Primitivo di Manduria and Vesevo’s Taurasi all getting favourable mentions, particularly as partners for robust red meat and game dishes, or with flavoursome hard cheeses.

But, the last wine of the evening stole the show for me and, I guess, many others: again from Donnafugata, their wonderful sweet but refreshing Ben Ryé has intense aromas and flavours of orange and passion fruit.  benryeMade on the tiny island of Pantelleria, off the South West coast of Sicily, this ‘Passito’ uses grapes picked and then traditionally laid out on straw mats to dry and concentrate the sugars.   It must surely rank alongside some of the great sweet wines of the world.

As Liberty Wines supply the trade only, I have not given prices, but a check on, for example, the wine-searcher website will show whether any of these great bottles are available near you.

 

A Loire Newcomer

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chateau-chenonceau

Chenonceau – one of the most familiar and frequently photographed of the Châteaux of France’s Loire Valley.  But, apart from it being a wonderful sight, why is it heading my Bristol Wine Blog?  The reason: Chenonceau has joined the hundreds of other villages all over France entitled to claim Appellation Contrôlée (or Appellation Protégée as it is now officially known).

So, why does this matter?  Previously, wines from here were lumped under AC Touraine, which covers the whole of the wider area and includes some good and some not-so-good examples.  By breaking out of this general designation, the producers of Chenonceau (and there aren’t many!) hope to gain a real reputation for quality.

And, if the first example I’ve tasted from the new AC is anything to judge by, then Chenonceau will be a name to remember.  The Domaine de la Renne Chenonceau Sauvignon Blanc (£13.50) was the stand-out wine from a Bristol Tasting Circle evening of Loire wines hosted by a relatively new firm, Joie de Vin (Joiedevin.co.uk).   The owners, Tim and Jill North, specialise in sourcing good quality and good value wines from small producers in the Loire and the Languedoc-Roussillon.

chenonceaux

The Renne Chenonceau is beautifully balanced and with all the character of a good Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé but with, perhaps, a little more weight and richness resulting, in part, from 3 years maturation on the lees.  That may sound an extraordinary length of time – it does to me – yet the wine – from the 2013 vintage – still tastes young and fresh and, unlike many Sauvignons, looks to have several years of good drinking ahead of it.

 

Apart from this wine, the other tip I took away from this tasting was that Muscadet is back.  For so long, a source of dull, tart wines best avoided, I have begun to notice some improvements recently, a view confirmed by a couple of examples from Joie de Vin’s portfolio. 

So, 2 areas to look out for – and a supplier to watch, too!

Lebanon’s Bristol Connection

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lebanon-btcLebanon isn’t one of the world’s largest wine producing countries nor, for many consumers, one of the best-known, but it’s certainly one of the oldest with a history going back to ancient times.  During the Middle Ages, Lebanese wines were highly regarded and widely traded but, once the region was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, winemaking was restricted to that needed for religious purposes only.

Thanks to the Jesuits, things improved during the latter half of the 19th century and wine was again exported.  But it wasn’t until an event in Bristol – yes! Bristol – that Lebanese wine really hit the headlines internationally. 

The date was 1979 and, at Bristol’s Wine Fair that year, Serge Hochar took a stand to promote his wine, Chateau Musar.  At the time, no-one in England had heard of Musar, but influential writer Michael Broadbent tasted it and declared it the ‘discovery of the Fair’.  That opened the gates for Lebanese wine and they have been open ever since.

So, when the Bristol Tasting Circle announced that writer Michael Karam, surely one of Lebanon’s best wine ambassadors, was to host a tasting, I knew it was not to be missed.  And, just to prove that Lebanon is so much more than just Musar, he brought along wines from 6 other estates.

The whites were more aromatic than might be expected from the warm latitude in which they are grown but the Bekaa Valley stands at an altitude of over 1000m (3000ft) which clearly has a cooling effect.  Blends mainly involved well-known grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat, although local speciality Obeideh added spice and a certain exotic character where it was used.

The reds were generally based around southern French varieties – Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache – plus Cabernet Sauvignon and, while mainly quite chewy and robust in style, all showed good depth of fruit and an attractive lightness of touch.

It was difficult to pick a favourite from so many delicious wines but, perhaps Ksara’s Reserve du Couvent Red just edged it for me.  But, in truth, the real winner on the night was Michael Karam, himself, whose justifiable passion for his country and its wines shone through for all to see.

A Dream Comes True

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I guess that many Bristol Wine Blog readers have lists of ‘dream’ wines – bottles that they’d love to taste at least once in their lives.  Sadly, by their very nature, ‘dream’ bottles are often either fantastically expensive or incredibly rare – frequently both.  So dreams remain dreams.

But, just once in a while, an opportunity comes along and a dream becomes reality.  And that’s what happened for me recently thanks to a tasting organised jointly by the Bristol Tasting Circle and the West of England Wine and Spirit Association.  Our speaker was Christian Seely, Managing Director of AXA Millésimes, who brought along a selection of wines and ports from their multiple award-winning estate, Quinta do Noval, including one of my dream wines, Nacional Vintage Port.

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What’s so special about Nacional?  It’s produced from a single, wonderfully sited vineyard of just 2 hectares (4½ acres) where all the vines still remain on their own rootstocks (so, not grafted onto American rootstocks, as most vines are, to guard against the deadly phylloxera bug).  Output of Nacional Port is tiny – just 3100 bottles of the 2003 vintage – the one we tasted – were produced and demand always exceeds supply many times over.

Did it live up to my dreams?  You bet it did!  Although still young (good ports can easily last 50 years), it showed marvellous concentration of fruit – damsons, plums, cloves and just so much more.  Truly, a once in a lifetime treat!

And though my attention was, understandably, on the Nacional, it wasn’t the only superb bottle on show: we also tasted the regular 2003 Vintage Port (from other Noval vineyards) and a tawny from the same year; either would have been the star of most tastings, as would Noval’s Douro red wine: unfortified and made from the same grape varieties as the ports, this would be a perfect match with robust food.  But the Nacional was just in a different league.

And just a mention for Bristol readers: the Douro will be one of the subjects of ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’, a 5 week course (Wednesday evenings) at Stoke Lodge starting in November during which we will be talking about (and tasting, of course) a selection of wines reflecting the title.  For more details: http://www.bristolcourses.com

A ‘Wild’ Sauvignon

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Before I start this Bristol Wine Blog, I’d like to offer support and sympathy to the people of Nice and those affected by the terrible events of Thursday night.  Nice is a lovely city with kind, generous and hospitable people.  It is somewhere that we will certainly return to.

On a happier note, the members of the Bristol Tasting Circle are a pretty knowledgeable bunch so the wines for our ‘bring your own’ annual dinner are always interesting – how often have you tasted a sweet wine from Uzbekistan, for example?

My wife and I, rather than bringing 2 bottles, chose to take along a single wine to the same total value.  Fortunately, we share the philosophy of ‘drink less, drink better’ and a budget of £25 brought all kinds of wonderful wines into range – the sort we just wouldn’t consider for everyday drinking.  We were asked for a white to go with starter or main course, so what did we choose? 

A potentially tricky problem was solved when my wife noticed a New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc lurking on the bottom shelf at Corks of Cotham.  But, ‘you can buy a Marlborough Sauvignon for £7.99’ I hear you say, so this had to be something truly special – and it was!  Kevin Judd was formerly the winemaker at the iconic Cloudy Bay estate before he left to make wines under his own name and his Greywacke Wild Ferment Sauvignon (£25) is one of his top offerings.

Greywacke Sauv Bl

‘Wild Ferment’ means that only indigenous yeasts – those naturally occurring in the winery -are used and the juice is allowed to ferment spontaneously; this is far less predictable than using cultured or introduced yeast, but, at its best, is capable of producing wines of remarkable depth and character.  In addition, Judd uses old oak barrels for the fermentation rather than the temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks seen virtually everywhere else in Marlborough.  A little risky but Judd’s view seems to be ‘let the wine be as it will be’ and, judging by the bottle we opened, it’s a view that works exceptionally well.

Not that you’d immediately say ‘Marlborough Sauvignon’ on first taste; yes, there’s the Sauvignon crispness there but, in place of the tropical fruits you might expect, a quite subtle rich, savouriness comes through – perhaps the closest match I could suggest is a Grand Cru Chablis.  A tremendous wine, a little individual in style, but just the sort to please real enthusiasts and a great match for all kinds of dishes.

Tasting Galician Wines

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Galicia, in the far north-west of Spain, is one of that country’s most interesting wine regions. But, if you’re not familiar with their wines – and, sadly, many in Britain are not – you need to forget any existing thoughts about Spanish wine. Galicia is different! Its climate is Atlantic-influenced which means that it is wetter, cooler and more fertile than areas of Spain further inland or those facing the Mediterranean. And it grows a clutch of grape varieties rarely seen elsewhere.

As you might guess, I love their wines – and not just since a really enjoyable visit my wife and I made there a couple of years ago. So I was particularly pleased that the Bristol Tasting Circle’s latest monthly event featured wines from Galicia (plus an intruder from Castille y Leon, just over the regional border!) presented by a long-standing friend of the Circle, Raj Soni of local independent wine merchant RS Wines.

BTC Galicia tastingTypical of the world’s cooler grape growing regions, Galicia makes more white than red. Paso de Marinan uses Godello in a blend with other local varieties to produce a wine with good body and lovely tropical fruit flavours (£9), while Crego e Monaguillo’s 100% Godello (£10) is fresh and clean with hints of mandarins on the palate. The one Galician variety that may be familiar to some (particularly Bristol Wine Blog readers) is Alboriño and Pazo de Barantes (£13) make an excellent example: quite rich and fragrantly perfumed, this wine has length, complexity and is simply delightful to drink.

But Galicia makes reds, too, mainly using the local Mencia grape. It gives soft, gently spicy wines – my wife said cumin – and the stand-out for me was the delicately smoky, barrel aged bottle from Joaquin Rebolledo (£15), who is so superstitious that he labelled his 2013 vintage as ‘2012+1’!

For more details of the wines, you can contact RS Wines on www.rswines.co.uk. Or, if tastings like this one appeal, just email the Bristol Tasting Circle secretary, Judith Tyler on judith.tyler@talktalk.net – new members are always welcome.