Category Archives: Buying wine

Labels can Deceive

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Bonfire Hill

Wine labels can sometimes tell you a lot about what is in the bottle: where the wine comes from, what grapes are involved and, perhaps, even whether the wine has been fermented in barrel or tank. And, of course, they are a useful marketing tool. Which of us has not picked up a bottle with an interesting label and then gone on to buy it?

But marketing can also go wrong. I saw the label above in Grape and Grind, one of our excellent local wine merchants and my first thought was ‘No!’ Bold, ‘in your face’ and gimmicky is just not my scene – and that was what this label said to me. And I was just about to move on when I saw the words in much smaller type: ‘a wine by Bruce Jack’.

Bruce is a South African who has been involved in a number of interesting projects, both in his home country – Flagstone and Fish Hoek spring to mind – and elsewhere: his collaboration with Ed Adams to produce the ‘La Bascula’ range in Spain is a favourite of mine.

So, I sank my prejudices against the label and bought a bottle of Bonfire Hill (£11.50). As I might expect from Bruce Jack, the wine was an unusual blend of grape varieties – Shiraz and Grenache native to the Rhône, Malbec with its origins in Bordeaux and south-west France (although these days more likely associated with Argentina) and Portugal’s Touriga Nacional – and from different vineyards across South Africa: the Swartland, Overberg and Paarl regions are all mentioned on the label.

And the taste? Not at all what I expected from my first look at the label; attractive stewed and dried fruits with hints of coffee. Quite a chunky mouthful with, at the moment, plenty of tannin but very drinkable after an hour or so in a decanter and pairing with a robust dish.

So, next time you see a label you absolutely hate, do check a little further as it might just conceal something attractive.

 

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One Grape or More?

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Some winemakers make their wines entirely from a single grape variety whereas others prefer to mix 2 varieties – and there are many instances of producers blending 3, 4 or even more different grapes into their wines.  Why the difference and which is better?

The answer depends on who you speak to:

Red Burgundya Burgundian, whose whites would be made exclusively from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir would say that a single variety is best; they would argue that it produces a more focussed wine and lets the quality of the grape variety used show through.  They would also, no doubt, add that it had been that way for generations in Burgundy so why change?

Someone from Bordeaux or the Rhône would strongly disagree.  Both regions regularly make their wines from a mix of varieties – up to 13 different ones in some Côtes du Rhône.  Their view would be that blending different varieties gives a more complex wine, with the characteristics of each variety contributing to the final product. 

2017-11-16 10.44.11But, there’s another reason for blending in cooler climates such as Bordeaux: as an ‘insurance policy’ in case of poor weather.  There, a spring frost would damage the young shoots of the early-flowering Merlot but leave the Cabernet Sauvignon untouched.  On the other hand, if there is rain at harvest time, the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon may be the one to suffer while the Merlot will already be picked and in the winery, starting to ferment.   

That last comment also answers I question I hear quite often: when is the blending done when different varieties are used?  Although there are a few examples of 2 varieties being fermented together (Syrah and Viognier in some parts of the Northern Rhône, for example), more usually, each variety is fermented separately immediately after harvesting and the blending is done at the end of the process.

So which is better – a single variety or a blend?  For me, both are equally good in their own way, but, as with so much in the wine world, it’s all down to your personal taste.

Burgundy by the Barrel

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hospices-de-beauneNext Sunday, 18th November, the famous Hospice de Beaune wine auction will take place.  It’s an event that has happened annually since 1859 with the funds raised mainly supporting the running and upkeep of the magnificent Hôtel Dieu, pictured above.  The building was formerly a medieval hospital, founded in 1443 in the Burgundy town of Beaune, and is now a museum. 

The wine auctioned comes from vineyards donated by benefactors over the centuries, the first of which dates back to 1457.  Today, the area owned by the Hospice totals around 60 hectares (150 acres), mostly planted with Pinot Noir, although there is some Chardonnay, too.  85% of the production of these vineyards is rated Premier Cru or Grand Cru. 

These days, the auction is organised by Christies and wines are sold by the barrel – traditional Burgundy-sized ‘pièces’, each holding 228 litres, just over 300 bottles (a fraction larger than a Bordeaux barrique).  Not surprisingly for such a prestigious event, hammer prices are usually well above normal commercial levels.  For example, last year’s top lot sold for 420000 euros and the entire auction of almost 800 barrels raised some 13.5 million euros (£12m, $16m).

If your budget won’t stretch to bidding for one of these lots but you have a strong stomach, the weekend is still worth a visit as it is also the occasion of ‘Les Trois Glorieuses’ – 3 great feasts held in and around the town on the Saturday evening before, on the Sunday night and on the Monday lunchtime.  It’s quite an occasion!

For the Adventurous

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BTC Novel winesThe world of wine is expanding.  How often have I said that?  And it’s moving so fast that it’s almost impossible for any 1 person to keep up with all the changes.  That’s where small, independent companies come to the fore.  They can focus on particular areas ignored by others and gain in-depth knowledge of where the best wines are made and, perhaps, more importantly, who are the best producers.

One such independent is Novel Wines based in Bath.  India, Brazil, Croatia and Turkey are among the unlikely names on their list and a tasting they hosted recently for the Bristol Tasting Circle proved a fascinating opportunity to sample the offerings from some of the wine world’s less well-known countries.

The delightful Olaszrizling from the St Donat estate in Hungary (£17.95) was, for me, the pick of the whites.  The grape variety – no relation to Riesling despite the similarity of part of its name – isn’t generally regarded as particularly interesting but here gave lovely, tangy, herby flavours with well-integrated spicy oak and a good long dry finish.

BTC Cab S

Guliev Tremelov’s Cabernet Reserve from Odessa in the Ukraine (£17.50) was one of 2 stand-out reds.  Showing plenty of the blackcurrant fruit typical of the grape, backed up by some attractive toasty oak, this had good length and some complexity but, above all, was really drinkable, although, like so many reds, would be even better with food.

My other red choice was from Serbia.  DiBonis’ DiFranc (£27.95) used the ‘other’ Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, to give a wine with a perfumed, bitter cherry nose and lovely, sweet fruit on the palate.  One colleague said the wine reminded her of Black Forest Gateau, another said marzipan.  To me, it had shades of a good Valpolicella, but with, perhaps, rather more intensity.  Hardly a typical Cabernet Franc but a lovely wine, nonetheless, and, again, just crying out to accompany food – pan roasted duck breast in particular.

A fascinating tasting proving just how many different flavours are out there if you are adventurous and seek out the small companies, like Novel, who can point you in the right direction.

A Bargain Burgundy

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It’s easy to spend a lot of money on a really good white Burgundy.  Yet, Burgundy is, surely, the most complicated of all of France’s Appellations Contrôlées (ACs) and, as a result, it’s just as easy to make an expensive mistake.  But, this same complexity allows you, just occasionally, to find a bargain – or as close to a bargain as is possible among the wines of this famous, much sought-after region.

A bottle I opened recently falls into this category.

Oncle Vincent

A quick glance at the label, showing the lowest level of the Burgundy hierarchy (AC Bourgogne), suggests it might be a simple everyday drinking wine, the kind you find in every supermarket for around £10 – £12.  But, look further: Olivier Leflaive is a well-respected name and the ‘Oncle Vincent’ tag looks like a special bottling, as indeed it is.  A tribute to Leflaive’s uncle and mentor, the grapes for this are from vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet, one of the most sought-after villages in the Côte de Beaune, where the top wines frequently sell for £50 a bottle and upwards. 

This example has lovely flavours of white fruits – peach and pear – made deliciously tangy and spicy from 10 months in barrels and has great length.  It’s really one of the nicest wines I’ve tasted all year.  This was the 2014 vintage I bought from the Wine Society a few years back, but they now have the 2016 vintage in their list at £20 and, if it’s as good (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be), then it certainly is a bargain, even at that price.  I’d keep it a couple of years before opening it, though.

So, why label a wine as a simple generic Burgundy when the fruit comes from a top village?  The explanation lies in the complexity of the Burgundy ACs I mentioned earlier.  Different vineyards have different classifications – one may be Grand Cru or Premier Cru while its neighbour may just be village AC.  Clearly, Leflaive has some less favoured patches, or perhaps younger vines or even grapes not needed for more expensive wines.  Whichever is the truth, Oncle Vincent is certainly a wine that Burgundy lovers looking for value should seek out.

No Bad Wines?

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SL Supermkt 1“You never say anything bad about a wine on your blog” commented a friend recently.  “Does that mean you never open a bottle that was truly awful?”

It’s a good question but, thinking about it, I can’t recall the last really poor wine I tasted.  I have, of course, opened faulty bottles, which isn’t the same thing at all: bottles can be corked or oxidised or display some other characteristic that means that the wine doesn’t taste how the winemaker intended it to taste.  Faulty bottles can occur in any number of ways – bad batches of corks or poor storage, for example – but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor wine; another bottle of the same bought at a different time might be delicious and so it would be unfair to blog about the bad one.

But, back to the question about truly awful wines.  This is a bit more subjective but, taking the standard as one that was so badly made or unpleasant tasting as to be almost undrinkable, I really can’t remember the last time I met a wine like that.  Admittedly, I’ve opened some that had very little character (and so didn’t blog about them as there wasn’t anything interesting to say!), but even those, in the main, were correctly made and not unpleasant to drink, simply rather bland.  Incidentally, some that fall into this category are among the best-selling brands on the UK supermarkets’ shelves!

Things weren’t always as good as this; turn the clock back to when I first started appreciating the wine I was drinking and I often found bottles that were only fit for pouring down the sink.  Maybe such wines are still made but the fact that they almost never reach our shelves is down to the skill of the professional wine buyers who visit growers on behalf of the major supermarkets, high street wine chains or wholesalers.  They are the people who weed out the rubbish and ensure that, although there may be the odd faulty bottle or wine that isn’t to our taste, we rarely open one that is truly awful.

 

 

 

Acidity: Good or Bad?

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Tahbilk Viognier Alsace Gewurz Faustino 1

‘Lemony’, ‘citrussy’, ‘refreshing’, ‘clean’: you often see these words in descriptions of wine.  What they’re really saying is that the wine has plenty of acidity, but in a good way.  And, so long as the acidity doesn’t dominate and is in balance with the rest of the flavours, I’d generally agree that some acidity in a wine is a positive.  It can make the wine more refreshing and attractive on the palate and it can also help make it more food-friendly by cutting through any richness or greasiness in a dish.  But a few people – including a very good friend of ours – are particularly sensitive to acidity and my ‘lemony-freshness’ becomes their ‘tart and shudderingly unpleasant’.  As a result, they need to choose their wine very carefully.

Wines made from certain grapes tend to be naturally more acidic than others: famous varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon all fall into this category.  So, despite their attractions for the rest of us, acidity-haters should concentrate their attention elsewhere.  But it’s not just the grape variety that’s important: as grapes ripen, the level of sugar in them increases but the level of acidity decreases, so wines from warmer regions of the world, where the grapes are likely to be riper, will, in general, be less acidic than those from cooler climates.  Those are two useful factors to bear in mind but, as with much in the wine world, things are not as simple as that:  some producers actually add acidity during the winemaking process – it’s quite legal and they would argue that they’re just compensating for what would otherwise be an unbalanced wine.

So, where should those who dislike acidity look?  The pictures above suggest a few good places to start: for white wines, Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Semillon are all varieties that are naturally quite low in acidity while, for reds, Tempranillo – the main Rioja grape – or Grenache – a key player in many Côtes du Rhônes, are the same.  And, watch out for wines made by less interventionist winemakers, as they are less likely to have acidity added.

But, most of all, taste widely and, if you find wines that suit your palate, stick with them.