Category Archives: Bristol

Not just Soave: Classico

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The Italian white wine, Soave, hasn’t got the best of reputations: thin, acidic, cheap and nasty would be common descriptions – and, for some examples I have tasted, I would say that description is entirely justified.  So, why would I choose to open a bottle to accompany a starter of pan-fried scallops in ginger and garlic on a special occasion recently?  The answer: the majority of Soave you see on supermarket shelves is in no way typical of the flavours and quality of true Soave.

To find the good – I might even say great – bottles of Soave, firstly, you need to look for the word ‘Classico’ on the label.  Let me explain.

Like many of Italy’s famous name wines, Soave has suffered from its fame.  Many years ago, producers outside the area originally designated as Soave started to use the name illegally.  Sadly, the authorities did nothing to stop them and the practice spread until, eventually, Soave had expanded to 3 or 4 times its original area onto flat land completely unsuited to producing quality wine.

Eventually, the producers in the original area decided they had had enough and protested.  Yet, with a true Italian compromise, the authorities simply confirmed the use of the name Soave in the wider area.  The one concession – and a very important one – was that those producers in the hills that formed the original area were allowed to add the word ‘Classico’ on their labels.  Which makes that word key to finding the best Soaves.  The same word is important for finding quality in a number of other Italian famous names – Chianti, perhaps, the best known of all.

soave

But, back to Soave, and, for me, some of the best of the Classicos come from the producer, Pieropan.  Their top bottling is La Rocca (around £20 but worth it) with wonderful – almost white Burgundy – richness.  But, even their entry level wine, simply labelled Soave Classico (Avery’s £13.99), is a real treat and it was this that we opened – and loved – on our special occasion.

Yes, you pay rather more for a good Soave but isn’t life too short to drink ordinary wine?

A Year in Wine

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As this is my last Bristol Wine Blog of 2016,  I thought I’d like to share some highlights of a very busy year with you.

Back in the spring, on a trip to Burgundy, I got first-hand experience of what biodynamic winemaking really means:

18 Ch de Monthelie manure extraction
Here, a group from the local village are retrieving manure from cow horns. The manure is packed into the horns in the autumn and buried all winter. It is then recovered in the spring, mixed with water and spread in the vineyard to promote growth. Surprisingly, the manure smelt quite sweet – not at all what I was expecting.

Then, in the height of summer, a wonderful visit to the Rhine and Mosel. As often as I had read of the exceptional steepness of the vineyards there, it isn’t until you see them first hand that you really realise what is meant by hillside vineyards:

DSCN1357But this visit was also memorable for the extraordinary warmth shown to us by the locals the day after the result of the British vote to leave the European Union was announced.

A September visit to Lugano in Switzerland just happened to coincide with the local wine fair! I really didn’t know this in advance – honestly!!

2016-09-10-18-14-32But I took advantage of the opportunity to taste a few bottles that I’ve never seen in Britain.  I’m not convinced that White Merlot – one of the local specialities – has much of a future beyond the region!

Perhaps the best wines I tasted during the year were at the dinner organised by Great Western Wine at Bath’s Allium Restaurant to mark the 40th Anniversary of the so-called ‘Judgement of Paris’.  This was the blind tasting held in 1976 at which a group of French wine experts preferred a  selection of top Californian wines to those from Burgundy and Bordeaux.

judgement-dinnerSadly, despite this result and even 40 years on, there are still some who think that only France can make top quality wines.

And then, as the leaves fell to mark autumn, a superb overnight stay at Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire. A delightful walk up through the vines from our room followed by breakfast looking out over this view. Could anything be more perfect?

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So now, as 2016 comes to an end, all that remains is to thank you for your continuing support and wish you a very happy and peaceful New Year.

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.

The Wine Rivers of Europe

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Have you ever thought how many of the main wine regions of Europe are close to rivers?  The Rhone, Mosel and Douro Rivers are all so closely linked to wine that they have wine regions named after them.  The Loire has vineyards along more than half of its length, the Rhine features in a number of German regional wine names and Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rioja all have rivers running through or close to them – the Garonne and Dordogne, Saone and Ebro, respectively.  And there are many others. 

This is no coincidence: rivers affect climate, they can excavate deep valleys with steep sides ideal for vineyards, they provide water for irrigation and, in centuries past when road transport was difficult, they provided the easiest way to transport heavy cargoes such as wine.  In these and so many other ways rivers have been helpful either to grape growing (and so to winemaking) or, perhaps, more importantly, in ensuring that a particular wine can reach its market.

And it’s this fascinating subject – “The Wine Rivers of Europe” – that I’ve chosen for a series of talks I’m running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre this autumn. 

SL Brochure 2016Each week, I’ll concentrate on a particular river and we’ll talk about (and taste, of course!) the wines that can be found along its length.  Provisionally, the talks will comprise the Loire, Rhine, Danube, Rhone and Douro.  They will run for 5 consecutive Wednesday evenings from 7pm to 9pm starting 2nd November.  The cost for the whole series is £60 plus a share of the cost of the wines tasted (which will be limited to a maximum of £8 per person per week).  Booking is essential as places will be very limited and can be made online at www.bristolcourses.com or by phone on 0117 903 8844.

If this doesn’t appeal or you can’t make the dates, have a look at the same website for some of the one day Saturday courses I’ll be running at Stoke Lodge during the first half of 2017. Hope to meet some of you there!

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.

Bristol’s Local Vineyard

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Grapes picked, wine made and bottled. For a vineyard owner, all that remains of a year’s journey is to hear what customers think of the latest vintage. So, a release party is always an exciting and nervous time, particularly when it’s just your 3rd commercial vintage and you’ve won International Wine Challenge awards for your first two.

But Ingrid Bates from Bristol’s local vineyard, Dunleavy, need not have worried. Her delightful, crisp but delicate Pinot Noir Rosé is, if anything, better than ever. Lovely pale strawberry colour, nose of crushed red fruits and a juicy, fresh palate – this is the perfect wine to serve lightly chilled on a warm summer evening in the garden.

DunleavyIngrid planted her vineyard in the Wrington Vale, just a stone’s throw from Bristol, in 2008 and made her first wine (just 100 bottles!) 4 years later. 2013 saw the wine’s commercial release and I’ve keenly followed its progress ever since. The 2015 has a smart new label featuring a design by a local artist and, more significantly, a screw cap replaces the previous cork closure – a sensible decision for a wine made to be drunk young and fresh.

At present, this rosé is the only wine Dunleavy produces although Ingrid has plans for a sparkling at some time in the future; one step at a time! The wine is available direct from the vineyard (email hello@dunleavyvineyards.co.uk) or (along with a tempting selection of other English wines) from local independent wine merchant Grape and Grind in Gloucester Road where the launch party was held. I’m sure it will also continue to be on the lists at a number of restaurants in and around the city.

Regular Bristol Wine Blog readers will know that I’m a great supporter of English wines and this Dunleavy Rosé just confirms that view. English Wine Week runs from 28th May to 5th June; make sure you have a bottle of something local handy to celebrate!