Fires hit vineyards again

Sonoma fires(picture thanks to NCG and wine-searcher)

For anyone who loves wine or is involved in the industry, watching the news over the last couple of weeks has been really distressing. I refer, of course, to the terrible wildfires that are, yet again this year, devasting parts of California. Thankfully, at the time of writing, it seems that no-one has died but the loss of vineyards and at least one major winery means that the local industry, especially in the famous Sonoma Valley, will take some time to fully recover. It’s not clear yet how much damage has been done and, of course, it’s too soon to say when any replanting can take place. But new vines don’t produce a crop instantly; it will be at least 3 years before they bear any usable grapes and possibly another decade before they start having fruit of good enough quality to yield the top quality wines we expect from this prestigious area.

And what of this year’s crop? Here, the news is mixed. Many of the estates had already harvested so the grapes for the 2019 vintage should be fermenting by now. However, ferments need to be monitored and often cooled, so any interruption in power supply or in workers being able to access the winery could be a problem. And, in those sites where picking hadn’t started or was still underway, even where the vineyards are not affected by the flames, it’s likely that any grapes remaining on the vines will be useless due to smoke taint.

So, all in all, a pretty depressing picture and one that, I’m afraid, with global warming, is likely to become more, rather than less common. Meanwhile, we can only offer our sympathy to those affected and raise a glass in support of their efforts to recover.

Sugar, Spice and Wine

Mondavi CSWhen I was growing up, there was a nursery rhyme that said that little girls were made of “sugar and spice and all things nice”.  (Boys, on the other hand, were supposed to be from “snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails”!)  I’ve not heard the rhyme for years (perhaps that’s a good thing!), but a dish we cooked for a close friend recently might have been created with the description of ‘little girls’ in mind.  Sugar in the form of chocolate and raisins,  cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, tabasco and a chilli representing the spices and the remaining ingredients (beef, tomatoes, onions and herbs) as the ‘all things nice’. 

It might have made a good nursery rhyme and it certainly makes a delicious dish (described in the recipe as an ‘authentic’ chilli con carne – I’m sure some readers will dispute that), but how do you find a wine that will work with all those strong and contrasting flavours – and a sour cream dip on the side?

Let’s consider the spices first: spices, especially ‘hot’ spices like chilli and cayenne, tend to exaggerate tannin, bitterness and any alcoholic heat in the wine and, at the same time, make the wine taste drier and less fruity.  To combat this, you could try a low tannin wine with only moderate levels of alcohol (Beaujolais, for example) or something fresh and fruity – perhaps a New World Merlot.  And go easy on the chilli – too much and you won’t taste anything of the wine.

And what about the sweetness of the chocolate and raisins?  Interestingly, sweetness in food often has a similar effect to the spices on the wine – making it taste drier and less fruity.  Of course, with a truly sweet dish, you’d want a dessert wine.  But here, that wouldn’t work at all; the beef and the other ingredients point me back in the direction of the wines I suggested earlier.

I actually opened the delightfully fruity Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (pictured above) brought back from the US by our friend – delicious and a really good match with the flavours.

Wine with Lobster and Beef

“Drink with lobster risotto or rare prime rib”.  Winemakers often put advice on their labels concerning possible food matches but, I must say, this one really surprised me.  Why?  Because, in my mind, I can’t imagine a single wine that might pair successfully with these 2 dishes; indeed, in many ways, I’d be looking at almost diametrically opposite wines. 

The richness of the lobster and the creaminess of a good risotto would point me towards a big rich white – something from Burgundy or the Rhône, perhaps, or a full-bodied Californian or Australian Chardonnay. And, although I’m not someone who subscribes blindly to the ‘white with fish, red with meat’ theory, for me, a rare prime rib is definitely red wine territory with a wide range to choose from.

So, what was this miracle wine that the winemaker thought might pair with either dish? 

Cline SyrahCline Cool Climate Syrah from California’s Sonoma Coast region (Majestic, £13).  Delightfully full and rich with intense red fruit flavours and just a hint of the kind of spicy, peppery flavours that many good Rhône Syrahs display, this is undoubtedly a big wine (14% alcohol), yet everything is so beautifully in balance that you’d never feel overwhelmed – or think that you’d have to stop after a single glass.

We drank it with some orange and molasses sugar marinated venison steaks and it went really well – the fruitiness in the wine matching the sweetness in the marinade and the pepperiness going with the gamey flavours of the meat.

But, personally, I still can’t see the wine going with either lobster or risotto.  But that is the wonder of food and wine pairing – everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them and different from everyone else.  And so it should be; without that, we’d lose the very diversity of food and wines that make this such a fascinating subject.

Love Chablis, Hate Chardonnay!

Chablis“Love Chablis; hate Chardonnay”. How many times have I heard that said – or, indeed, the reverse? It’s a comment that needs to be answered carefully because, as many Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, all wines from the Burgundy district of Chablis and claiming that designation must be made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. But it’s clear from the statement that many people buying wine don’t know that.

And, in a way, their comment is understandable. Chablis is a very particular expression of Chardonnay, a grape which makes wines that vary enormously in flavour depending on where it’s grown and what happens to it in the winery.

So, in a coolish climate, Chardonnay produces wines such as the Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis which we enjoyed with a friend recently – clean, fresh and minerally with attractive green apple flavours – whereas in the hottest parts of California or Australia, the much riper grapes give much fuller, richer, more alcoholic wines tasting of tropical fruits, pineapple and the like.

And winemakers love working with Chardonnay as it is a good base on which they can impose their individual style and preferences, especially when it comes to using – or not using – oak. Fermenting or maturing wine in oak barrels, particularly if the barrels are new, adds a completely different dimension to the wine with spicy, nutty flavours either overlaying or replacing the natural flavours of the fruit.

As a result, someone liking the delightfully refreshing 12% alcohol Chablis mentioned above might not appreciate a wine like the rich, creamy Saintsbury Chardonnay from Carneros in California (Majestic, £13.99 if you buy 2 bottles) with its subtle toasty oak character and the full flavour and weight that comes from a warmer climate and 13.5% alcohol. For me, both are good, yet, there is nothing that obviously says that they both come from the same grape variety.

Given that, I can understand why some people can say they love Chablis, but hate Chardonnay – but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with as a Wine Educator when faced with the comment!