The Truth about Rioja

Rioja is one of Spain’s best known and most popular wines.  But, based on comments made to me, it’s also one of the most misunderstood.  Over the years, I’ve been told that Rioja is a brand name, a grape variety, that it can only be red and that it’s always very oaky in taste.  If you agree with any of those statements (or even if you don’t), then please read on!

In fact, Rioja is a wine region.  It’s in northern Spain starting about an hour and a half drive south of Bilbao and running roughly south-east in a wide swathe on both sides of the River Ebro ending a way short of the town of Zaragoza.  Climatically, it’s quite a diverse region with the north-west being relatively cool with a continental climate while, further east, there is a distinct Mediterranean influence making that part of the region much warmer.

The wine is usually made from a blend of grape varieties: Tempranillo and Garnacha (aka Grenache) are the main grapes for the reds and rosados (rosés) while Viura and Malvasia are used for the whites.

So, if Rioja isn’t a grape variety and doesn’t have to be red, how about the suggestion that its wines are always very oaky?  Well, that’s not true either as you can easily discover by taking a quick look at the label. 

If it says ‘Reserva’ or ‘Gran Reserva’, the wine will, by law, have spent some time in oak barrels – at least 2 years for Gran Reservas, but even they are not necessarily very oaky in taste.  The Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva I opened recently (Majestic, £17.99) had plenty of red and black fruit flavours and was beautifully rounded and soft.  Yes, there was some oak influence as you might expect – hints of vanilla and leather – but this was in no way a wine dominated by its oak character.

But, if this isn’t your style, look for wines labelled ‘Crianza’, (which will, admittedly, have spent a few months in a barrel, but not long enough to impart any real oaky flavour) or, perhaps better, a wine with none of these designations on their label which will, very likely, have been aged entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve their full fruit character.

And, as for Rioja being a brand?  Well, I suppose it’s well enough known to be described as such, but that’s not the truth of the name.

2nd Wines: the Smart Choice

After 2 Blogs about the red wines of Burgundy, I think it’s time to move on to France’s other flagship region, Bordeaux.  There are a few similarities between the 2 – stratospheric prices for the top wines and an active investment market among them – but many differences which make it easier to find something drinkable at an affordable – if, perhaps, not exactly every day – price.

One of these differences is size: Bordeaux produces more than 3 times as much wine as Burgundy in a typical year and there’s nothing like the same fragmentation of vineyards that causes the supply problems in Burgundy.  This is due to the fact that many of Bordeaux’s estates are now owned by companies rather than individuals, easing inheritance problems, plus the Bordeaux Appellation system is rather simpler, only dividing down as far as villages, rather than identifying vineyards as they do in Burgundy.

Despite those advantages, you can still easily pay £50 – £100 for well-known wines, but, if you avoid the big names and choose carefully, there is some value available.   As I found recently when I opened an attractive red from the excellent 2010 vintage with the benefit of a good few years of barrel and bottle maturity behind it.

Moulins de Citran (Majestic, £16.99 as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles) is quite lean and austere in a typical Bordeaux way but has good blackcurrant and raspberry fruit and some cedary spice and leather flavours.  There’s fair length, too, and, despite its age, it has a good few years of happy drinking ahead of it.

So, why is this under £20 and not £50?  Firstly, it is not from one of the prestigious villages – it’s simply AC Haut-Medoc but, perhaps, more importantly, it’s the estate’s ‘2nd wine’.  Many Bordeaux properties are large enough to make 2 or even 3 different wines each year.  Their best grapes from their oldest wines will go into their top wine (which would be named ‘Chateau de Citran’ in this case), but that still leaves good grapes from, perhaps, younger vines or vines in less good parts of the vineyard spare.  These will go into the 2nd wine – still made by the same winemaker in the same winery but often sold at less than half the price of the main Chateau wine.

So, if you love Bordeaux wines but don’t want to pay too much, then 2nd wines of good estates in less fashionable parts of the region are a really smart choice.

Burgundy: A Nightmare

Red wines from France’s Burgundy region are among the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. The price for a single bottle of one of the top names can easily run into 4 figures. Whether such a price can possibly be justified, I leave to you, but many of these wines are made in very limited quantities and, as I learnt in my first Economics lesson at school many years ago, when demand exceeds supply, prices go up. It doesn’t help either that the top wines are bought, not just for drinking, but as investments to re-sell.
The problem of limited supply isn’t just restricted to the trophy bottles, it occurs throughout Burgundy. To explain why, we need to look back into history.
Wine has been made in the region since Roman times and, over those nearly 2000 years, the very best vineyards have been identified and classified. This has given Burgundy the most precise and complicated Appellation Contrôlée regime in the whole of France. The best sites in some villages are designated ‘Grand Cru’ followed by ‘Premier Cru’. Below these come wines from lesser sites in these villages and from less prestigious villages. Finally, at the bottom of the pyramid, you have generic ‘Bourgogne’. By fragmenting the area in this way, you have very limited supplies of any particular wine apart from, perhaps, the generic bottles.
But, it’s worse than that! The region’s vineyards have also suffered from the Napoleonic system of inheritance under which assets were divided equally between the male children. This resulted, over the years, in vineyard holdings becoming smaller and smaller. In many cases, you find adjacent rows of vines being owned by different people – some of whom will be excellent growers and winemakers, others less good. You can see the effect of this in the picture above (taken in spring) where some strips are clearly more advanced than others.
All this means that buying Burgundy, particularly red Burgundy, can be a nightmare. Not only do you need to know one site from another but also, who are the best growers. Added to this, often quite simple bottles aren’t that cheap and, as I found recently, despite my knowledge, anyone can find themselves disappointed. I opened a village-level red with our dinner a few nights ago; it was OK – a bit of cherry fruit and some spice but, at rather more than £20, I really expected a lot more and, as my wife correctly remarked, if this had been a New Zealand Pinot Noir at that price, it would have been something truly special.

Look Beyond the Label

Some wine labels entice you, they tempt you, they just shout ‘buy me’ at you. I blogged about such a bottle a few weeks ago – a wine I bought simply because I was attracted and intrigued by its label. Others – well, take the label pictured above. It’s quite stylish but it doesn’t tell you much: no obvious sign of where the wine comes from nor, unless you happen to recognise the name ‘Furmint’, what the grape variety is. As a result, it would be easy to leave on the shelf and look for something more obviously appealing. But that would be a shame as you would be missing a delightful, full-flavoured white from Hungary made with that country’s high quality native variety, Furmint.
We don’t see many wines from Hungary exported these days but, delving back into history, they produced the most sought-after wine in the Noble Courts across Europe. The wonderful, sweet Tokaji was the first choice of both the Tsars of Russia and Louis XIV of France (who called it the “Wine of kings, king of wines”). It’s still made today in the region from which it takes its name, using a unique production process and still including the Furmint variety as part of the blend.
But, back to our – very different – Furmint, made by Tornai and available from Corks of Cotham at £12.99. It isn’t a dessert wine although it’s just a touch off-dry and made, not in the Tokaji region, but much further west in Nagy-Somló not far from the Austrian border. It’s a lovely, tangy, rich, mouth-filling wine with hints of spice and lemon peel and really good length. The fruit is pure and clean and the wine is unoaked. Although fine to drink on its own, this is really a food wine: anything full-flavoured and, perhaps, a bit spicy would be best.
All in all, a delicious, good value white wine but, unless customers are willing to look beyond the label, how many will ever know what they’re missing?

Good or Very Good?

How do you decide how good a wine is?  Most professionals today will give it a mark out of 100 – the higher the score, the better they rate the wine (although I wonder why 100 was chosen as nothing ever gets less than 50 and few score below 70).  This system originated in the USA with Robert Parker and has largely replaced the one most European judges used until a few years ago: marks out of 20 – although the same criticism applies: virtually nothing scored less than 10.  Indeed, the Australian wine critic Len Evans once crudely observed, “even the spit bucket gets 7 out of 20!”

Some wine lovers will buy their wines based on these scores (fine if your taste and that of the critic scoring the wine coincide, but beware if not), but, for most, the best way to assess a wine is ‘do I like it?’, possibly closely followed by ‘is it worth the price?’

When my wife and I share a bottle (frequently!), we usually sample it while we’re cooking, continue with it during the meal and, if any remains, drink it through the evening afterwards.  Although some wines don’t last that long!  We opened one like that recently:

Pazo villareiPazo de Villarei’s Albariño from Galicia in North West Spain (Wine Society, a bargain at £10.50) was just so drinkable.  Lovely peach and pineapple aromas and flavours and a real richness that went perfectly with some baked hake with chorizo.  The bottle went down so quickly, there was no need to consider whether we liked it – our empty glasses told the tale.

But not all wines disappear that fast and, if some lingers throughout the evening, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not enjoying it.  There are some wines that are made like that; the Italians have a lovely name for them: Vino da meditazione, literally, ‘a wine for meditation’, a wine to be savoured, to be enjoyed slowly, a wine of depth and character.  They can be just as good as our rapidly disappearing Albariño, but different.

And, after all, who wants to eat or drink the same thing all the time?

The Coffee Test

How do you like your coffee? Black? With Milk?

Coffee Test

That may sound a strange question on a Wine Blog but one man doesn’t think so. I was watching an episode of ‘The Wine Show at Home’ on You Tube recently and the presenter, Joe Fattorini, mentioned Master of Wine Tim Hanni’s ‘coffee test’. I’d not heard of it before but Tim believes that, depending on your answers to 5 simple questions, you can find out the type of wines you ought to be buying. I was fascinated, so googled the questions:

  1. Do you prefer your coffee/tea black?
  2. Do you like the taste of scotch?
  3. Do you prefer salty snacks over sweet snacks?
  4. Do you prefer semi-sweet dark chocolate to sweet milk chocolate?
  5. Do you think that cream/sugar in coffee/tea ruins it?

For every ‘yes’, score 2 points, for a ‘sometimes’ or ‘maybe’ score 1 point and for ‘no’ score 0.

Then add up your points. The higher you score (maximum 10), the more tolerant you are likely to be of intensely flavoured or tannic wines (or, similarly, powerfully flavoured foods). So, if you are up around 7 – 10 points, you’ll enjoy strongly flavoured foods but also big, rich, flavoursome wines.  You may find lighter wine styles quite insipid.

Scores between 4 – 6 show some sensitivity to tannins, bitterness and acidity in wine. You’ll probably prefer smooth reds and lighter whites, although may grow to appreciate some fuller flavoured reds or whites. As for foods, you’ll be happy with a range of tastes.

If you scored 3 or fewer, you are hyper-sensitive to tastes (and, as a result, would be a very good wine taster). Tannins, bitterness and acidity in wine will all hit you hard and you’ll prefer more delicate reds, lighter, more subtle whites and will delight in elegant, restrained food flavours.

My wife and I both did the test. I scored 4 which is, perhaps, a bit lower than I might have expected, but Hilary’s score, 7, is almost the opposite of the truth.

So, based on this very limited sample, I have some doubts, but do try the coffee test for yourself and I’d be interested to hear how it works for you.

Best of the Year?

“What’s the best wine you’ve tasted in 2019?” A question that’s almost inevitable as the year draws to an end. And impossible to answer. I calculated a few years back that I tasted more than 500 wines in a year, so you see the problem of choosing just one.

I try the line that “there’s a couple of weeks to go this year; I hope I haven’t tasted it yet” but that brings an unbelieving smile; both my questioner and I know that I’m dodging the answer.

In truth, I don’t think there has been 1 stand out wine this year but I’ve tasted many very enjoyable ones. Here’s a few of the less obvious examples at real value for money prices:

Mantinia

Among the whites, Seméli’s Mantinia Nassiakos from Greece (Wine Society, £10.95) has been a favourite of ours for years. Made from the local moschofilero grape, it’s quite floral on the nose with a lovely citrussy freshness and a hint of spice on the palate. Try with lighter dishes or as an aperitif.

Discovery white

Hungary’s Royal Tokaji Dry White (Majestic, £9.99) (in the centre of the picture above) is a little fuller and richer with flavours of green apples and herbs and a subtle touch of oak. This works well with fish or white meat.

Mencia

From the reds, another wine I’ve blogged about before: Regina Viarum’s Mencia from Galicia in north-west Spain (Wine Society, £11.50). Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely, slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through and would make a perfect accompaniment to partridge or duck, perhaps.

Alsace P Noir

And finally, Paul Blanck’s Alsace Pinot Noir (Waitrose, £14.99). Pinot Noir can be quite a tricky grape to grow and, as a result, some examples from Alsace can be thin and sharp. Not this one! Ripe raspberry and cranberry flavours show through in a wine of real elegance and style. One for a seasonal turkey or the lowish tannin would also point to pairing it with a robust fish dish, say a tuna steak.

I’d happily nominate any of these as the best value wines I’ve tasted this year. As for the best of all? I’m still hoping!

The Bargain of the Year

I couldn’t write a wine blog this week without first mentioning the serious fires that have affected Napa, Sonoma and other areas of California.  I’m sure all readers will join with me in sending support and sympathy to all of those affected by the tragic events.

On a happier note, if you took one message from my last blog, “The Price of Wine”, it was probably that you should avoid any bottle selling at £5.58 or less.  However, the wine world is not quite that simple as that, as a tasting I went to earlier this week, organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle, showed.

Our speaker was Master of Wine, Ed Adams, a consultant for discount retailer, Lidl who brought along a selection of their wines for us to taste including a very quaffable juicy Malbec for a mere £4.99 and a crisp, tangy Gavi for just 50p more.  So, were these wines lucky flukes or is there some other explanation?  The answer lies in the fact that Lidl, unlike most large retailers, is a private company, not quoted on the Stock Exchange and therefore with no shareholders receiving an annual dividend.  As a result, their profit margins are often less than 10%, as opposed to the more usual 25%, allowing them to offer even modestly priced bottles for £1 or £1.50 less than the opposition would charge.

But, at just slightly higher prices, the real delights that Ed brought along were from Lidl’s ‘Cellar Range’ – a small, regularly changing selection.  The Cellier de Monterail Rasteau (£7.99), from a village close to Châteauneuf du Pape in the southern Rhône, is a smooth, chewy black-fruit flavoured red with a delightful old rose fragrance.  Rasteau

Lovely though this wine was, my favourite of the night was J.P.Muller’s slightly off-dry Riesling from the Alsace Grand Cru of Mambourg. 

Alsace Grand CruAttractive flavours of citrus peel and ginger and a finish that went on and on – and, if you have the patience to keep it, it will improve with another few years in bottle.  When Ed asked us to guess the price, the replies were between £12 and £14 – for me, the top end of that range didn’t seem excessive.  The actual figure?  £7.99!  Surely, the bargain of the year but get in quickly as the idea of the Cellar Range is that Lidl buy up small quantities and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

 

Wine Glass Almost Empty!

Glass almost emptyAn almost empty wine glass – not the way I usually head my Bristol Wine Blog! – but that was my first thought when I read recent newspaper reports that a global wine shortage is in prospect.

Research carried out by Morgan Stanley suggests that wine lovers worldwide will soon be drinking more wine each year than is produced, resulting in shortages. They blame increased wine consumption, particularly in China and the United States, coupled with some poor harvests in several of the major wine producing countries in 2012 and 2013.

Just 10 years ago, things were very different. Over 7000 million bottles of wine a year were remaining unsold. Not surprisingly, producers cut back in an attempt to shift their surplus stock and some growers would have decided that their vineyards just weren’t economic any longer. As a result, output fell by almost 10% – and that was before the poor weather that has reduced crops in many parts of Europe this year and last.

At the same time, demand for wine in China has risen at a remarkable rate, quadrupling in just the last 5 years (albeit from quite a low starting point) – a trend that is almost certain to continue. And in the United States, too, wine drinking is becoming much more widespread.

But, read on! Things are not as bad as the headline would lead you to believe – are they ever?

There may be a few short-term problems as the historic surpluses disappear and we depend more on wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages; prices are almost certain to rise a little. But those two poor years are very much the exception. If the weather in 2014 is better and normal levels of production resume across Europe and countries like South Africa and Chile continue to plant new vineyards, we’ll very soon forget any talk of a shortage.

And I’ve only mentioned China in terms of the population consuming rapidly increasing amounts of wine. The country is also becoming a very significant producer. Indeed from almost nothing 20 years ago, China is now thought to be No5 in the world. Not much is seen outside China yet, but, within the next few years, I expect that to change.

So, yes, we may find some of our favourite wines missing from the shelves for a little while; personally, I’d take that as an opportunity to try something different. But longer term, I see a rosier picture: my wine glass being half full – at least!