Category Archives: France

Pick up a Picpoul

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Not so long ago, the name ‘Picpoul de Pinet’ would have meant nothing to all but a tiny minority of wine lovers.  Today, while still not widely known, this crisp, dry white from the Languedoc region in the south of France is beginning to establish a reputation.  And, surprisingly, much of the credit for that change must go to Britain’s major supermarkets, most of whom now have an example in their premium ranges.  Take Tescos:

Picpoul 1their ‘Finest’ Picpoul is just £7 a bottle but is delightfully refreshing with lovely herby, citrusy flavours and enough richness to suggest it would be a perfect accompaniment to many creamy fish or shellfish dishes.  And, it’s not just the supermarkets who are selling Picpoul – Majestic’s Villemarin (£8.99) and the Wine Society’s Domaine Félines-Jourdan (my favourite example and great value at £8.50) mean that it is readily available for those who are looking for something just a little different – but nothing too scary!

Picpoul, the name of the grape variety (occasionally spelt Piquepoul), apparently translates as ‘lip stinger’ in the local dialect (but don’t let that put you off); its home is a tiny area between the towns of Pézenas and Mèze overlooking the Bassin de Thau, a glorious nature reserve within a stone’s throw of the Mediterranean.  Apart from this one wine, this part of the Languedoc is an area far better known for its reds – the southern French sun and heat are too much for most whites.  But not Picpoul – it retains its acidity and freshness and provides a very welcome glass chilled on a hot day. 

And, thanks to the supermarkets, before long, more wine lovers will be able to pick up a Picpoul.

 

 

Why No Grape Names?

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“Why don’t the French put grape names on their wine labels?  It’s so confusing.”  A familiar comment – and one I heard again at a tasting I ran recently. 

I can fully understand the view; grape names (or the 20 or so most popular ones, at least) are recognised by most customers buying wine and they know what to expect when they pick up a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio.  But, when they’re faced with a wine labelled ‘Chiroubles’ or ‘Cairanne’, things aren’t so straightforward.  Sadly, there’s no easy solution.2013-11-18 10.29.53

These – and many other French (and Italian and Spanish) wines – are labelled after the place they come from, not the grape (or grapes) they’re made from.  There’s a good reason for this: in most of the traditional winemaking areas of Europe, there’s a very strong attachment to the land (as anyone who has ever been stuck in a traffic jam behind a French farmers’ protest will confirm!)  So, it’s not just the grape variety that is important, it’s the soil, the climate, the slope of the land, the traditions of the area – all contribute to the taste in the bottle.  The French call this ‘terroir’.  And, given that, why would they single out just the grape name to put on the label when it’s the place and all it offers that makes the wine what it is?

Compare that to much of the New World, where things are very different: particularly in Australia, it’s quite normal to blend grapes grown in different areas, even different States.  So, without the same link to a place, why not use the grape name to sell your wine?  The fact that it’s easier for customers is simply a bonus – one that’s been the foundation of the great New World wine success story over the last 30 years or so.

It may seem strange, but I can’t see the French changing anytime soon.  Terroir is vital to them and so it will remain.  For the rest of us, it’s just a case of learning which grapes make which wine (or, sometimes, checking the back label). 

(For those who are interested, the Chiroubles I mentioned earlier uses the Gamay grape, whereas the Cairanne is likely to be a mixture including Grenache, Syrah – aka Shiraz – and probably several other local varieties).

A Loire Newcomer

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chateau-chenonceau

Chenonceau – one of the most familiar and frequently photographed of the Châteaux of France’s Loire Valley.  But, apart from it being a wonderful sight, why is it heading my Bristol Wine Blog?  The reason: Chenonceau has joined the hundreds of other villages all over France entitled to claim Appellation Contrôlée (or Appellation Protégée as it is now officially known).

So, why does this matter?  Previously, wines from here were lumped under AC Touraine, which covers the whole of the wider area and includes some good and some not-so-good examples.  By breaking out of this general designation, the producers of Chenonceau (and there aren’t many!) hope to gain a real reputation for quality.

And, if the first example I’ve tasted from the new AC is anything to judge by, then Chenonceau will be a name to remember.  The Domaine de la Renne Chenonceau Sauvignon Blanc (£13.50) was the stand-out wine from a Bristol Tasting Circle evening of Loire wines hosted by a relatively new firm, Joie de Vin (Joiedevin.co.uk).   The owners, Tim and Jill North, specialise in sourcing good quality and good value wines from small producers in the Loire and the Languedoc-Roussillon.

chenonceaux

The Renne Chenonceau is beautifully balanced and with all the character of a good Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé but with, perhaps, a little more weight and richness resulting, in part, from 3 years maturation on the lees.  That may sound an extraordinary length of time – it does to me – yet the wine – from the 2013 vintage – still tastes young and fresh and, unlike many Sauvignons, looks to have several years of good drinking ahead of it.

 

Apart from this wine, the other tip I took away from this tasting was that Muscadet is back.  For so long, a source of dull, tart wines best avoided, I have begun to notice some improvements recently, a view confirmed by a couple of examples from Joie de Vin’s portfolio. 

So, 2 areas to look out for – and a supplier to watch, too!

Côtes du Rhône Unravelled

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cotes-du-rhoneCôtes du Rhône: surely one of the most recognisable and popular wines on our shelves.  But how many who casually pick up a bottle in their local supermarket realise how much more there is to Côtes du Rhône than its usual reputation as just an easy drinking, good value, medium bodied red?

It’s one of the largest – and most diverse – Appellations in France with an annual output of over 250 million bottles.  The area stretches for more than 70 miles from just south of Valence to beyond Avignon, encompassing a vast range of microclimates and soils.  And, although most producers will use a Grenache dominated blend of grapes for their wine, there is almost infinite leeway to create their own favoured style as almost 20 different varieties are permitted for use in Côtes du Rhône blends.  So, finding a producer whose style you like is important.

There’s a quality hierarchy, too: at the entry level are attractive, fruity wines simply labelled ‘Côtes du Rhône’.  A step up in quality, complexity and, usually, price is ‘Côtes du Rhône-Villages’ which comes from some of the more favoured sites within the area.  Within this category, certain villages have been promoted and can either append their names to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages designation or have their name stand alone on the label.  Among the best of these are Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Cairanne.  All produce wines from the same range of grapes as basic Côtes du Rhône but, again, there is considerable variety from place to place and even within individual villages.  Prices of these are a little higher still.

Then there’s the most famous individual Rhône village of all: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Their best wines are undoubtedly excellent but they come at prices that reflect both their own quality and the popularity of the village as a whole.  And, away from these, some can be a little disappointing.  So, for me, for value and interesting drinking, I mainly look to the lesser-known villages mentioned above.

And, finally, to complete the message of diversity (or, perhaps, confusion), you might have noticed from the picture that not all Côtes du Rhône is red – there’s some white and rosé, too!

 

The wrong grapes on the wrong soil?

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Saint-Péray may not be one of the more familiar Appellations of France but, as regular Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, I’m always keen to seek out wines from these less well-known areas.  Sometimes, they are better value than their more fashionable neighbours; at other times they just make good and interesting drinking, perhaps with some unusual and different flavours.  The Saint-Péray we enjoyed recently (£14.99 from Waitrose) probably fits more into the second category, although, for the quality, it is by no means expensive.

Saint Peray

Saint-Péray is on the west bank of the River Rhône, near the town of Valence and used to produce mainly sparkling wines described by Tom Stevenson (in a 20 year old Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that I’ve kept for no logical reason) as ‘overrated, having a coarse mousse and made from the wrong grapes grown on the wrong soil’!  Well, the same grapes, Marsanne and Roussane, are still being grown in the same soil; the key things that have changed are that, today, more of the wines are made still rather than sparkling and a number of top producers have moved in and transformed the quality of the grapes in the vineyard and the standards of winemaking.

And it was the name of three of these producers, working together, on the label that attracted me to this wine: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron and François Villard all make their own wines (Cuilleron’s Condrieu is stunningly good) but also collaborate under the banner ‘Les Vins de Vienne’.  I wasn’t disappointed; this is a full bodied, flavoursome, dry, rich white that has spent 9 months ageing, partly in barrel.  The oak is quite noticeable, as is the alcohol (13.5%) but neither dominates the spicy palate (cinnamon and ginger came to mind) with its attractive sourness – the kind you get from baked apples.  And it might be even better after a couple more years in bottle or, if you can’t wait, decanting.

If this is the wrong grape in the wrong soil, then give me more!

 

 

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

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Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.

Sancerre Style, not Sancerre prices

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ReuillySancerre and Pouilly Fumé, the twin towns of the eastern Loire, turn out some lovely wines. But, because they are famous names and always in demand, the best tend to be expensive (you can easily pay £15 – £20 or even more). And, if you go for some of the cheaper examples found in supermarkets instead, they can be quite disappointing. So, how do you get the lovely, racy, pungent flavours of a good Loire Sauvignon Blanc without paying these sorts of prices?

Look at a map of the area and, just to the west of Sancerre, you’ll see Menetou-Salon; a little further west and you come to Quincy and Reuilly. All three of these villages also produce Sauvignon Blanc in much the same style as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, yet, as they are not nearly as widely known, prices – comparing wines of similar quality, of course – are far more reasonable.

Take Denis Jamain’s Les Pierres Plates Reuilly, for example. We opened a bottle recently and it went beautifully with some grilled sardines. It was absolutely textbook Loire Sauvignon with wonderful clean, fresh, gooseberry and green pepper flavours. Only a real expert could confidently say this wasn’t a high quality Sancerre. But, when you check the price, you’ll notice the difference: £11.50 from The Wine Society. And, in case you want to try value alternatives from the other two villages I mentioned, Wine Society also have Domaine Pellé’s Menetou-Salon (£11.95) and Majestic are offering Jean-Charles Borgnat’s Quincy (£11.49). Both recommended.

If you’re searching for reliable Loire Sauvignon even cheaper still, you may need to choose carefully, but I’d suggest you look even further west, over the border into Touraine, the region surrounding the town of Tours. At their best, wines labelled Sauvignon de Touraine can give you much of the same style and freshness as a modest Sancerre, but, production here is quite large and quality can be a bit variable, which is why I say you need to be selective. Above all, avoid Loire Sauvignon at bargain basement prices (which, these days, means below about £6) as cheap examples are often dominated by tart acidity with very little fruit – very unpleasant!

And finding bargains by seeking alternatives to famous names doesn’t stop on the Loire. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Pouilly Fuissé and many others have their value alternatives. But that’s a Bristol Wine Blog for another day. In the meantime, just look around.