4 Wines, 4 Cheeses

How do you choose wines to pair with cheese? There are so many different wines and so many different cheeses. It’s not a new problem: the former French President, Charles de Gaulle, once complained of the difficulty of governing a nation that makes 246 different kinds of cheese – and he didn’t even consider the wine pairing element!

Here in the UK, we may not make quite as many cheeses – although I think we have some that are equal to or better than many from France – but the choice on our shelves, including imports from all over the world, is vast.   So, how do you start matching them with wine?

The first point to remember is that everyone’s taste is different, so, when I was asked to bring along a selection of wines for tasting alongside a cheese board at an event recently, I chose 4 very different styles hoping the guests would find some pairings that worked for them.

Soroptimists tastingFirst was Domaine Sainte Rose’s ‘Le Marin Blanc’, a soft and fairly full-bodied white from southern France (Majestic, £9.99). I expected this blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier would go well with most soft cheeses, yet several people commented that the flavours of the Brie emphasised the acidity in the wine. A Wensleydale with cranberries worked better – the sharpness of the fruit offsetting the crisper elements of the wine.

As a less obvious pairing, I took along a rosé: Muga’s clean and fruity Rioja Rosado (most supermarkets, around £10). Views, as I expected, were mixed, with some pleasantly surprised at the quality of the wine and the way it worked with the cheeses while others, again, noting the acidity. Clearly, something I’ll have to bear in mind when pairing cheese with wine in the future.

There were no such complaints about my choice of red; Errazuriz’s Max Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile (£12.99, Waitrose Cellar) had just that right blend of black fruit and subtle oaky spice to match the Cheddar perfectly.

And finally, a sweet wine. I love Domaine des Forges’ Chenin Blanc from France’s Loire Valley (£10.99 for a 50cl bottle, Waitrose Cellar). You can happily drink it on its own, with a sweet dessert or, as here, with a blue Stilton. The combination of the sweetness in the wine and the saltiness in the cheese worked really well and it proved a most popular end to an enjoyable evening.

Rioja at Bar 44

While we were enjoying a delicious tapas lunch at our new favourite wine bar, Bar 44 in Clifton, we noticed a Rioja dinner advertised at the same venue. 6 delicious-sounding courses each accompanied by a matching wine. We booked straight away and we weren’t disappointed.

Tempranillo is the main grape for Rioja’s reds but, as with most red wine grapes, its pulp is colourless so, by careful pressing you can also make an attractive white wine which, here, was served as aperitif and with the opening scallop starter.  Pumpkin gazpacho followed alongside a second white: an old favourite of ours, the complex and subtly oaky Murrieta Capellania.

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The next 3 courses, a risotto, some wonderful lamb with aubergine and roast fennel and some rosemary infused manchego cheese allowed us to explore the range of ageing and oaking that typifies Rioja. Quinta Milú’s unoaked young example was full of simple red fruits, while Beronia’s Reserva 2014, made, unusually with Mazuelo (perhaps better known as Carignan) rather than Tempranillo, had a lovely blend of fruit and gentle smokiness, although will, in my view, be rather better after a further 2 or 3 years in bottle.

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The final red, served with the cheese, was Beronia’s Gran Reserva 2010. I mainly avoid Gran Reservas as, in the past, I’ve often found them dried out and vegetal from just too long sitting in oak barrels. Not here! This was fresh with just the perfect mix of young fruit and spicy, oaky complexity.

The beautiful, tasty dessert of pears prepared 3 ways provided an ideal foil for a not over-sweet dessert wine.

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Bodegas Vivanco’s blend of 4 late-harvested red varieties was an unusual but successful choice with a lovely honeyed nose and palate of red fruits with a certain nuttiness.

What stood out for us in this evening was not just the quality of the food, nor even the interesting nature of the wines but, above all, the care and respect for both the food and the wines that was obvious in the pairing of the two. Congratulations to Bar 44.

 

2018: Looking Back

Around this time last year, a friend asked me “How many different wines do you drink in a year?”  I had to confess that I had no idea.  But, the question intrigued me and so, geek that I am, I decided to try and count them in 2018!  Amazingly, I persevered and, with just a few days left of the year, the total has just passed …..550!

Mathematicians among you will have calculated instantly that that’s about 1½ wines a day so, before anyone thinks I’ve spent the entire year in a permanent drunken stupor, I should say that the majority of the 550 have been at tastings where it’s been sniff, slurp, spit, scribble a quick note and on to the next wine – very little actually swallowed.

Not satisfied with mere numbers, I can also report that I’ve tasted wines from 23 different countries and from at least 99 different grape varieties – ranging alphabetically from agioritiko to zweigelt (Greek and Austrian reds, respectively).  I say ‘at least’ 99 because I only counted the major component of any blend and there were a couple of wines that I couldn’t discover which grape was involved.

The obvious next question must be ‘which was your favourite?’ and that, I’m afraid, is the hardest of all to answer – I’ve been lucky enough to taste so many truly delicious wines.  But I can say which was the most memorable:

Colares Branco 1969On a damp, chilly autumn day, my wife and I went to an event at Bristol’s Underfall Yard where an assortment of Portuguese products had been brought from Porto to the UK carried by a century-old sailing boat, the Bessie-Ellen.  Among the cargo was a few bottles of Adega Viúva Gomes’ Collares Reserva Branco 1969.  This incredible 49 year old wine is difficult to describe; perhaps closest would be to say it was in the style of a white port or madeira (even though it was not fortified as they would be) – deep golden colour, tangy and nutty and a finish that lasted for ever.  Remarkably, it was still full of life – and easily the most memorable wine of my busy, fruitful year.  (www.xistowines.co.uk may have some left, about £45)

Cheap and Bland?

I went out for a reunion meal with some friends and former colleagues at Bristol’s River Station restaurant recently and, inevitably, the wine list was pushed in my direction.  Choosing wine for a dozen people is never easy, particularly when, as here, I didn’t know much about the tastes of many of them.  I also had to bear in mind that we were there to catch up with each other and to chat, not to taste and appreciate the wine.  As a result, my focus was on wines that no-one could really dislike at prices that few could object to.  I could have been forgiven for choosing something cheap and bland, but I wanted to do better than that.

The guests were ordering a wide range of different dishes so a white and a red were clearly needed.  I love the Spanish variety Albariño and there was a nice example on the list, similarly a Mâcon-Villages caught my eye.  But I eventually chose Peter Schweiger’s Grüner Veltliner from Austria (around £30 on the wine list) as the white peter-schweiger-gruner-veltliner– fairly rich and full-bodied with plenty of fruit but unoaked; a wine with plenty of character but fresh and harmonious that should pair well with most dishes.

For the red, I was looking at the South American section of the list – a Chilean Merlot or Carmenere or an Argentinian Malbec, perhaps – when our server pointed to Prunus Tinto, a Portuguese wine from the Daô region (also about £30), which was a personal favourite of his and, apparently very popular.  Prunus_Dao_TintoI hadn’t initially considered this – although I’m a big fan of Portuguese wines, they can be tough and tannic, which wasn’t the type of wine I wanted for the group.  But, he assured me that this was very drinkable and I went along with his recommendation.  I’m pleased I did as this proved a real winner: very soft and with lovely black fruits and a slight smoky edge.

My reward for 2 successful choices?  I’ll get the job of choosing again next time!

A Week in Bristol – Part 2

Now that my crowded week of 4 tastings is behind me, it’s time to reflect on the final 2 events that I couldn’t fit into my Blog last time.

The first continued with the theme of Spain and Portugal with the added interest that my client asked me to choose wines from the ‘Hidden Corners’ of these 2 fascinating countries.  In fact, for many UK wine drinkers, most of Portugal and much of Spain (except, perhaps, Rioja and Cava) are ‘hidden’, so I had plenty of scope to make my selections.

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An early favourite was the Casal de Ventozela Alvarinho from northern Portugal (£9.99 – all the wines for this tasting were from Majestic).  Alvarinho is the same grape as Spain’s Albariño and this delightful, fresh white showed lovely peach and citrus flavours and a long fragrant finish.

But, it was a pair of Spanish reds that attracted the most praise – both for their quality and for their amazing bargain prices.  Pizarras de Otero (£7.49) was intensely fruity with aromas and flavours of ripe strawberries, plums and blackberries.  Made with the Mencia grape variety, local to the Bierzo district in north-west Spain, this reminded one taster of a young Pinot Noir.

The striking label on Matsu’s ‘El Picaro’ (£8.99) from Toro in the west of Spain (left-hand bottle, above) lists the grape variety as ‘Tinta de Toro’, but this is simply a local name for Spain’s best red grape, Tempranillo.  Bigger and richer than the Bierzo and with a little smokey spice and chocolate added to the black fruits, this would have been far more expensive if it had come from one of the better-known Tempranillo areas.

The last tasting of the week was another of my Saturday classes at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Adult Education Centre.  This time, my theme was ‘Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet’.  Despite the title, we did taste 2 examples of each of these grapes to explore their diverse flavours.  But it was one of the Cabernet alternatives that was unanimously voted as best wine of the day. 

20181117_152855_resized (2)Ironically, in view of the focus of my week, it came from Spain: Baron de Ley Rioja Reserva 2014 (Waitrose, £9) was beautifully mellow and spicy from 20 months ageing in oak but still young enough to allow the soft red fruits to show through.  A real delight at a very reasonable price, and a deserved winner.

As for me, after my busy week, it’s time to relax with a nice glass of wine

A Turkish Delight!

Turkish tastingIf history had turned out differently, Turkey might, by now, have been one of the great wine producing countries of the world.  Some of the oldest known relics of winemaking have been found near its border – in Georgia and Armenia – and, with the moderating influence of both the Mediterranean and Black Seas, a number of areas of the country have an ideal climate for grape growing.  Indeed, Turkey has the 5th largest vineyard area of any country in the world.  Unfortunately for wine lovers, its cultural and religious heritage means that most of its grapes are harvested to sell for eating or as raisins or sultanas; only 3% of the crop is made into wine – and barely 1 bottle in 10 of that is exported – a shame as many critics have noted that Turkey has some really interesting native grape varieties.

I was able to find out for myself recently as the Bristol Tasting Circle organised an evening dedicated to Turkish wines.  And, sure enough, alongside the familiar names – Cabernet, Syrah and Sauvignon – were wines made from Emir, Narince, Kalecik Karasi, Çalkarasi and Ökügözü.

The first 2 named, both local white varieties, were blended to produce one of my favourite wines of the night: Cankaya, an attractive, soft, peachy white made by one of Turkey’s largest producers, Kavaklidere (£8.99, available, as are the other wines mentioned in this blog, from www.tasteturkey.com).

Of the reds, Kayra Alpagut’s Ökügözü (£19.99) had the sort of tangy, herby flavours that reminded some at the table of a nice Loire Cabernet Franc but I preferred the mellowness of Vinkara’s subtle, red-fruit flavoured Kalecik Karasi Reserve (£18.45, although the Wine Society have the same producer’s non Reserve bottling of the same grape at £9.95.  Is the Reserve worth nearly twice the price?  I tried the other some time ago and, for me, the cheaper wine is the better buy).

Turkey is clearly producing some interesting, attractive wines but, because amounts exported are small, they will never be cheap and may be hard to find.  But, if you’re looking for something a little different, why not try a bottle – it may prove to be a Turkish Delight!

 

 

 

Bordeaux, Burgundy or…?

When you buy your wine, do you focus on Bordeaux, Burgundy and the other traditional regions of France or, do think, as one friend of mine said, that these areas are living in the past and trading on a reputation that is no longer justified?  For me, that criticism is a little harsh, but I can understand that many find wines from California or Australia are just so much more approachable and usually better value. 

But, I wanted to put the traditional areas to the test and so I advertised a course entitled ‘The Classic Wines of France’ at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre – a good move as the day was fully booked in record time with a waiting list!  No pressure then!  I just had to find the wines for my eager group to taste.

I wanted plenty of variety and so chose 4 wines from each of Bordeaux and Burgundy plus 2 each from the Loire and Rhône.  And, when I asked the group to choose their favourites at the end of the day, the results were very close with a single vote separating the top 4 wines.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the opposition, the 2 Loire whites shared top spot:

2017-11-16 10.43.18Bertrand Jeannot’s steely fresh Pouilly Fumé (Wine Society, £13.50) showed the benefit of extended lees ageing, while the crisp, fragrant demi-sec Vouvray from Château de Montfort (Waitrose, £11.99) had already been a winner at a previous wine course of mine, having been chosen by those who came to the ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’ day earlier in the year.

But reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy (both from the Wine Society) were close behind:  2017-11-16 10.44.11Château Sénéjac is everything you’d hope a Bordeaux red would be – lovely black fruits and just a hint of tannin; the only surprise is the price: £12.95 – a reflection, I suppose, that it is only an AC Haut-Medoc and not something grander.  No such bargains, sadly, from Burgundy but the group clearly thought Domaine Tollot-Beaut’s Chorey-les-Beaune justified its price tag (£23) with the typical, slightly perfumed Côtes de Beaune style of Pinot Noir coming through particularly well. 

So, is the reputation of these areas justified?  I think the day proved conclusively yes!  Provided you’re prepared to pay a little beyond every day prices, the ‘Classic’ areas of France certainly offer some delightful and very drinkable wines that really shouldn’t be ignored by any wine lover.