Drink Good Wine

A room in which I used to lecture had a sign on the wall which read “Life’s too short to drink bad wine”.  I agree!  Add to that a campaign which was run in France a few years ago which translated as ‘drink less, drink better’ and you have my wine philosophy summed up.

But how do you define ‘bad’ wine?  I used to pose that question to my classes on occasions.  Interestingly, the replies rarely considered the actual quality of the wine; they were usually along the lines of ‘it depends on the sort of wine you like’.  But is that true?

With improvements in vine growing and winemaking knowledge in recent decades, there are almost no badly-made wines on the shelves today (which were once all too common).  You may find the odd faulty bottle – one where the wine is corked or oxidised, for example – but they are, thankfully, quite rare. 

But, having said that about badly-made wines, there are certainly many shades of ‘good’.  Sadly, some of the most famous commercial brands produce wines that are pretty basic and unexciting with very little to interest the genuine wine lover – but even these are technically correctly made.  And many are big sellers, which brings us back to the point about ‘it depends on the wine you like’. 

And, of course, as I have said many times before, people have their own ideas about what is good and bad.  How often have I heard ‘I hate all Chardonnay’? 

Those who share that view would have left Trinity Hill’s example from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand (£18.50) on the shelf at Grape and Grind.  Fortunately, I didn’t and we enjoyed a delicious, fresh, creamy wine with lovely lemon and peach hints and a delightful long, dry finish.  Although the wine was actually fermented in oak barrels, there was none of the overt oak flavouring that I think many Chardonnay haters associate wrongly with the grape variety.  Here, the barrel added just a little extra hard-to-identify complexity that made the wine more interesting and very drinkable.

So, back to that sign on the wall.  But don’t just settle for avoiding the bad.  Look around and find the best you can.  Life’s too short to do anything else.

Australia: An Eye-Opener

Since the turn of the century, wine lovers in the UK have bought more wine from Australia than from any other country. The combination of approachable, attractive, fruity flavours, well-known and reliable brand names and frequent special offers is clearly a winning formula.
So, why don’t I mention Australian wines more often in Bristol Wine Blog? It’s the same reason that my wife and I go against the trends and drink so little from there (apart from the occasional Clare or Eden Valley Riesling or Margaret River Cabernet). It’s certainly not any anti-Australia bias on our part – my aunt emigrated from the UK and lived there happily for many years and became a citizen. No, it’s simply that the wine world is so big and diverse these days; there’s just so much to taste and try.
But, having said that, I really should buy Australian wine more often. It’s a vast country; virtually the same distance east to west as from Lisbon to Istanbul or from coast to coast in the USA and with so many different soils and climates. That means opportunities for an incredible range of different wine styles. One of Australia’s major producers, De Bortoli, are focussing on this diversity with their ‘Regional Classics’ range and I was drawn to a bottle of Tumbarumba Chardonnay (Majestic, £13.99, when you buy a mixed case of 6 or more).
The Tumbarumba vineyards lie in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains west of Canberra at an altitude of around 550m above sea level (1700 ft). This makes it a relatively cool area – indeed, many of the grapes from here are turned into sparkling wines. Not this Chardonnay, though. Initially quite spicy and oaky on the nose, the palate is deliciously fruity with lime and peach and very delicate oak – not at all intrusive, just adding a subtle hint of cinnamon and some breadth to the taste.
So, for those who look at an Australian Chardonnay and think ‘big, woody and overpowering’, this bottle from De Bortoli will be a real eye-opener. And proof that I really should be blogging about Australian wines more often.

Compare and Contrast

compare

“Compare and Contrast” – probably a phrase familiar to anyone who has ever sat or set an exam. But the idea is also a basic part of wine tasting. I tried the 2 bottles pictured above on successive days recently and I was struck by how similar the 2 wines were in both their style and characteristics.

Now, some of you might have expected that – they’re both made from 100% Chardonnay, after all – but I didn’t. Chardonnay is the most variable of all the major grape varieties and the wines it makes are very dependent on where it is grown and what happens in the winery – think of a Chablis compared to a big oaky example from a warmer corner of California or Australia and you’ll know what I mean.

So, the fact that these 2 were grown, by my calculation, some 8000 miles apart in 2 different continents with very different climates and conditions made me expect 2 very different wines. But I was wrong!

The Montagny (Majestic Wine, £10.99), made from old vines (Vieilles Vignes on the label) by the always reliable co-operative in the southern Burgundy village of Buxy, was attractively crisp with peach, apple and lemon zest aromas and flavours and a slightly savoury, buttery texture.

The Cono Sur (£1 dearer, also from Majestic) is from a single vineyard barely 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. The closeness of the sea and the influence of the Humboldt Current straight from the Antarctic keeps this vineyard much cooler than might be expected from its 34° South latitude and results in a lovely, well-balanced wine, again with lemon and red apple flavours and a long creamy finish.

Either would be perfect drunk, slightly chilled, on their own as an aperitif or with dishes featuring elegant, creamy sauces.

‘Compare and Contrast’ questions in exams were never as enjoyable to tackle as this tasting proved!

What Kind of Chardonnay?

ChardonnayAsk many wine lovers to name their favourite white wine grape and they will reply unhesitatingly ‘Chardonnay’.  Yet, you’ll also find plenty who take precisely the opposite view; so much so that I have been persuaded to run an ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ course at Stoke Lodge Centre next spring.  So, why the extreme difference of views?

The answer is simple: Chardonnay is so versatile in where it grows and so amenable to different treatments in the winery that you can fairly say that no two examples are the same. 

Taste Chardonnay from a cool climate, like Chablis for example, and you get crisp, citrus or green apple flavours.  A little warmer, perhaps around Pouilly Fuissé, and that turns into ripe pear or peach.  Further south in France or in parts of Australia and California that are warmer still will give quite tropical flavours – pineapple or melon. 

And all that variety before the winemaker gets to work.  Chardonnay is quite a favourite with winemakers as they often see it as a blank canvas, ready to be manipulated into just the sort of wine that they, or their customers, want.  For example, they can put it through malolactic fermentation (a process that softens the harsher acids and creates a creamy, buttery texture) or they can leave the wine on the lees for a while to add richness or, then again, they can use oak barrels – new or older – to add woody, spicy flavours.  And, of course, they can put it through a 2nd fermentation and make Champagne or sparkling wine.

Or, they can do none of these; ferment and mature in stainless steel tanks and simply let the delicious, ripe fruit shine through. 

Vire ClessePierre Ponnelle’s Viré Clessé from southern Burgundy (Majestic, £13.99) is a perfect example of this ‘less is more’ approach.  Delightfully fresh and clean with attractive citrus and peach flavours; no oak, just very pure fruit and excellent length. 

I’d recommend it to Chardonnay lovers and haters alike – but, as you’ve seen, it’s just one of many possible styles of wine from this most versatile of all grapes.  If this one isn’t to your taste, don’t give up on the variety, just keep looking.

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!