Category Archives: Bristol

Wine Rivers – Revisited

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Back last autumn, I blogged about a series of evening classes I was running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre under the title ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’.  Each week, I chose one of Europe’s rivers and we talked about and tasted the wines that are produced along its length and the influence of the river on those wines.  But, not everyone could give up 5 evenings and so, last Saturday, I ran an abbreviated version in just 1 day.  Despite leaving out a big chunk of the original material and only tasting 12 wines instead of 30, we still explored the importance of rivers to many of the wines we drink.  They affect climate – warming or cooling the area and helping to cut down on the effects of frost, they scour out deep channels with steep banks providing great exposure to the sun and better drainage and, in days when road transport was difficult, they were the easiest way to transport heavy cargoes – like wine – from one place to another.

The rivers I chose – the Loire, Rhône, Rhine, Danube and Douro/Duero – provided a wonderful diversity of wines, from a delicate Rhine Riesling to a rich, sweet LBV port and plenty in between.  And the class favourites on the day were equally diverse with 3 joint winners:

2017-05-19 12.26.50Château de Montfort’s Vouvray (Waitrose, £9.99) was clean and refreshing and just a little off-dry making it a perfect aperitif or a match for light summer meals or picnics. 

2017-05-19 12.27.25Peter and Ulrich Griebeler’s Dry Riesling from the Mosel (Majestic, £10.99) showed just how successful and attractive this modern take on German wine can be – delicate with lovely apple and ripe pear flavours and a really long clean finish. 

2017-05-19 12.28.49Of the reds, Lamatum’s Ribera del Duero Crianza (Majestic, £8.99) was a clear winner.  Made from 100% Tempranillo, this is grown high on Spain’s Central Plateau where the hot summer days are offset by cool nights giving a weighty but well balanced and black-fruited red – one that might be even better in a year or two.

In their different ways, each of the wines showed the effects of their closeness to rivers and the whole group agreed that this relationship was a fascinating topic to explore.

My next courses at Stoke Lodge will be after the summer break.  Log on to www.bristolcourses.com in a month or so when full details will be available and booking open. 

Spain’s Hidden Corners

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In my view, Spain is one of the most exciting wine countries in the world today.  Wherever you look, you’ll find dedicated and innovative winemakers working with an array of high quality local grapes.  And it’s not just in the traditional areas – Rioja and sherry – that you find delicious wines.   I recently ran a course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre concentrating on Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’ – some of the lesser-known regions and grapes – where you can find wines that are not just very drinkable but, because they are not well-known, they are also great value. 

The bottles I found for the group to taste provoked plenty of discussion – and some very diverse views; indeed, when I invited votes for favourite wines of the day, 11 of the 12 wines attracted at least 1 vote.  But, there were 2 clear winners:

ruedaSan Antolin’s Rueda (Waitrose, £8.99) comes from the Upper Duero Valley in western Spain where vineyards are planted more than 600 metres (1800 feet) above sea level.  The altitude means cool nights, even in summer, which help to retain precious acidity in the Verdejo grapes from which this wine is made, while the heat of the day results in perfect ripening and a succulent, rich but refreshing white wine.  Fine for drinking on its own but even better with some fish in a creamy sauce that reflects the character of the wine beautifully.  I’ve enjoyed this Rueda over a number of years and it was an unsurprising winner.

tempranillo-gran-reservaThe close runner up, however, was, perhaps, a little less predictable.  Not, I hasten to add, due to any lack of quality in the wine, but, I might have expected that the soft, mellow, cooked fruit and spice flavours of an 8 year old red that had spent 2 of those years in old oak casks wouldn’t have had such wide appeal.  Happily, I was wrong and Anciano’s Tempranillo Gran Reserva 2008 landed in a well-deserved 2nd place.  Had this wine been from Rioja rather than from the deeply unfashionable Valdepeñas area south of Madrid, it would certainly have been at least double the £8.99 I paid for it in Waitrose.  A bargain, indeed!

And bargains are what you can expect if you explore ‘Hidden Corners’.  You just have to know where to look.

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.

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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!