Best of the Rest

In 1855, around 60 of the leading estates in the Médoc and Graves areas of Bordeaux joined together to form an exclusive club. Known variously as the Classed Growths, the Crus Classés or simply the 1855 Classification, these 60 were then sub-divided into 5 categories called 1st to 5th Growths in English, Premiers to Cinquièmes Crus in French.

That Classification has remained largely undisturbed in the 160 years since. Surprising? Perhaps. Yet, being at the top of this pinnacle has given the 4 original 1st Growth estates (joined by a 5th member in 1974) enormous pricing power and, as a result, the ability to re-invest massively to ensure the continuing predominance of their wines. Even those at the lower end of this select group – the 4th or 5th Growths – are, in the main, highly sought-after and you can often pay £50 and more for a ready-to-drink bottle from one of their better vintages.

But, look outside this elite classification and you can find attractive wines, typical of the Bordeaux region, at much more affordable prices. I often point my students to a group of these that I describe as ‘the best of the rest’. They’re known as the Crus Bourgeois.

One of the most recognised of these is Château Cissac. (Around £20 a bottle for the excellent 2010 vintage from specialist wine merchants).

Cissac (2)

Cissac is well placed right in the heart of the Haut-Médoc, close to the boundaries of the St Estèphe and Paulliac Appellations. Its wines, mainly made from Cabernet Sauvignon blended with some Merlot and a small addition of Petit Verdot, are quite aromatic but fairly restrained and need time to reach their peak – even the 2010 I opened recently was still showing some tannin.

Although, no doubt, without the length and complexity of some of the top Classified estates (speaking from reports rather than recent personal experience!), wines such as this provide pleasant, satisfying drinking and are recommended for those who enjoy the more traditional style of wine found in Bordeaux.

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The 1st Rosé of Summer

It’s only taken a few warm days over the recent holiday weekend and my wife and I immediately took to drinking rosé. OK, it wasn’t just the weather (although that helped), but the Michelin-starred pub where we were staying had one of Domaine Maby’s delicious Tavel rosés on their list.

TavelI’ve bought that producer’s wines – red, white and rosé – many times before and know them all to be good. The current Wine Society list has their rosé for £11.50; sadly, at dinner, we had to pay more than 3 times that amount. Justified? I don’t think so but it’s typical of restaurants nowadays and if customers – including me – are willing to pay that excessive mark-up without protest, then can we really blame business owners for pricing wines at that level?

So, although the cost may have left a sour taste in the mouth, the wine certainly did not. Tavel is, without doubt, the outstanding village in France’s southern Rhône region for rosé wines and Maby’s example is a crisp but full-bodied (14% alcohol) blend of local varieties including Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The grapes are selected from 3 different vineyards, each giving their own character to the wine and from vines averaging almost 50 years old. The wine itself is bone dry but with lovely flavours of strawberries and redcurrants and a persistent, fruity finish. Although it’s a wine I would happily drink on its own, it really shows best with food and was a perfect match with both my wife’s risotto of young spring vegetables and my roast breast of guinea fowl.

While a warm spring or summer day is undoubtedly the obvious time for rosés, wines as good as this are worth opening at any time and for any occasion.

Sweet but Delicate

Mention dessert wines and most wine lovers will immediately think of Sauternes – the famous golden nectar from Bordeaux. And why not? But Sauternes is only one of hundreds of sweet wines which, incidentally, aren’t just marvellous accompaniments to the pudding course; they are often equally delicious partnering a blue cheese or a rich paté. And, of course, don’t ignore how good some sweet wines can also be as an aperitif!

But, in general, this style of wine is designed to go with the dessert, and, if trying to match the two, it’s always a good idea to ensure the wine is sweeter than the food; the other way round and the wine will be drained of much of its sweetness and may taste sharp and thin.

I opened a dessert wine at a dinner party with some good friends recently – not one from Sauternes but from an estate in the less well-known Côtes de Gascogne, about an hour’s drive south.

Tariquet sweetDomaine du Tariquet’s Dernières Grives (Wine Society, £15.50) is, perhaps, a little less sweet than a typical Sauternes yet has a lovely delicacy and charm – thanks to only 11.5% alcohol. That makes it a perfect partner for a lighter pudding – the apple fool that we served or a crème brulée or some fresh strawberries are other possibilities that come to mind.

The wine is mainly made from the local Petit Manseng grape (a variety that lovers of the wines of Jurançon would be familiar with), left on the vine late into the autumn to over-ripen and then picked (as the producers note on their website) before the local birds, especially the thrushes, get to them! They even name the wine after the birds – dernières grives is the French for last thrushes.

This is a delicious alternative sweet wine – without the power or richness of a Sauternes, but beautifully balanced and fresh and a simple delight at the end of our enjoyable, sociable meal with friends.

Look South for Value

S France tasting 1More than a quarter of all French wine comes from the south: the regions of Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence. It’s not surprising given the Mediterranean coast’s ideal climate for ripening grapes. But it’s only in last 30 years or so that the potential for quality wines from this climate has been realised. For much of 20th century, the emphasis here was on cheap, bulk wines and, as a result, most wine lovers rightly ignored this part of the world completely.

How things have changed! Today, all three regions are making really attractive wines. Yes, you still need to be selective (as you do almost anywhere) but, if you are, your chances of finding something delicious are high – and you won’t have to pay a fortune for it as those who came to a tasting I ran on the subject recently discovered.

I concentrated mostly on wines made from grape varieties that are native to the region – none more so than Picpoul, a fresh, crisp white grown almost exclusively around the beautiful Etang de Thau. Villemarin make a delightful example (only £7.99 from Majestic, where you can find all the wines mentioned in this blog).

Further along the coast, Provence is one of the few wine making regions of the world to concentrate on the production of rosé – it represents more than 80% of the output. Sadly, some of their best examples sell for silly prices and many of the cheaper ones are aimed solely at undemanding tourists. But I found a notable exception in the elegant, dry Vallée des Pins (£8.99), a blend of Grenache and Syrah with lovely strawberry fruit.

Despite the focus of Provence, the south of France is still essentially red wine country and, of the 2 we tasted, preferences were divided between the Fleurs de la Vigne, a young, berry-fruited Carignan-dominated blend from the Fitou area (£8.99) and the slightly more robust, chewy Grenache/ Syrah from Château Guiot in the Costières de Nîmes closer to the Rhône (£7.99).

Everyone had their own favourites on the night but all agreed that this is an area whose wines are worth exploring – particularly as so many are remarkable value for money.

Jones the Winemaker

In Wales, the surname ‘Jones’ is very widespread. Add in the fact that successive generations of a family often share the same first or given name, distinguishing between one Jones and another can become a little difficult. As a result, the habit arose to refer to people by their job; so, you get ‘Jones the Teacher’, ‘Jones the Butcher’ or ‘Jones the Farmer’. But, I suspect, rarely ‘Jones the Winemaker’ (although Wales has always had a few vineyards – a number that has expanded rapidly in the last few years).

But, there is a ‘Jones the Winemaker’, albeit in the south of France, rather than in Wales. After emigrating from the UK and working there for a few years, Katie Jones bought a vineyard in the Languedoc and began to make her own wine. She now has around 12 hectares (30 acres) spread across a number of small sites in the hillier, inland part of the Fitou Appellation. Following the classic recipe for making great wines, she has focussed on patches of low yielding old vines planted on very poor rocky soils.

As a result, life hasn’t been easy, particularly in 2013 when Katie lost her entire white wine production after some vandals opened the taps on her tanks, but, happily, she has fought back and her wines reflect her dedication.

Jones Fitou

Her Fitou (Wine Society, £15.50) is typical; a rich, savoury blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah – some from vines over 100 years old – giving a lovely spicy mouthful of hedgerow fruits, liquorice and leather. The label says 14.5% alcohol, and, although a big wine, this is beautifully balanced. Definitely needing food to show at its best – something full and robust: venison or other game, perhaps, or a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish spring to mind.

Jones the Winemaker is definitely a name to follow.

A Stand-out Riesling

The French wine region of Alsace shares a border and considerable historic links with Germany and so, perhaps not surprisingly, you’ll find many of the same grape varieties in both places. The Pinot family – Noir, Gris and Blanc – are found in both, although in Germany are known as Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder respectively; (I think the French names are a little easier to pronounce!) Gewurztraminer also appears on both sides, but, most importantly of all, so does Riesling.

Almost half the world’s plantings of Riesling are in Germany and they proudly declare that most of their best wines are made with that variety. In Alsace, too, Riesling is considered their most noble grape, but the styles of wine each country produces from the variety are totally different from each other.

Apart from the delicious wines both make to be enjoyed specifically as dessert wines, German producers tend towards an off-dry style. Here, a little sweetness balances Riesling’s high acidity and that is normally combined with exceptionally low levels of alcohol (8 or 9% typically). More recently, some in Germany are beginning to follow the demands of the market and making more dry or almost dry examples (often labelled ‘trocken’) but this still remains the minority. Alsace, on the other hand, has always preferred to ferment its wines out completely dry giving a much richer taste and with higher levels of alcohol.

Alsace RieslingA bottle from Alsace I opened recently showed this perfectly: Domaine Leon Boesch’s Grandes Lignes Riesling (Vine Trail, £13.99) was beautifully fresh and clean and with surprising weight for only 12% alcohol. It had real intensity and the typical young Riesling aromas and flavours of grapefruit and lemon peel. The acidity was there, of course but not intrusive; in fact, it was just enough to make it food-friendly, although it’s a wine you could equally well drink on its own.

The Boesch estate is certified biodynamic which can, most simply, be described as an ultra-organic philosophy with everything in the vineyard being carried out completely in harmony with nature. Some question the science of the idea and I won’t comment on that. All I will say is that this, along with many other biodynamic wines I have tasted, have an intensity and a richness that makes them stand out from the crowd.

Burgundy by the Barrel

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!