Category Archives: France

Local Food, Local Wine

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It’s amazing how often the food speciality of a region and the local wine go well together – shellfish with Muscadet and the little goats’ cheese crottins with Sancerre are 2 examples that spring immediately to mind, although there are many, many more.  So, when we decided to cook a cassoulet (a delicious rich stew made from mixed meats, haricot beans, tomatoes and fresh herbs originating from the area around Toulouse in the South West of France) for some good friends recently, it seemed only natural to turn to a wine from Madiran, just a short drive to the west of the city.

Madiran is not one of the most widely-known Appellations – probably because much of the relatively small production is enjoyed locally – but the best producers turn out some really lovely intense red wines, based around the astringent, tannic local grape variety, Tannat, sometimes ‘softened’ by a little Cabernet (Sauvignon or Franc) and another native variety, Fer.

Among the names to look out for are Alain Brumont’s Montus (£26.99 from Corks) or Bouscassé, Château Laffitte-Teston or Château d’Aydie and it was this latter estate’s cuvee Odé d’Aydie (Wine Society, remarkable value at £9.99) that we opened and decanted a couple of hours before drinking – always worth doing with Madiran. 

Madiran AydieEven so, the 2013 vintage was still quite tannic at first – it has at least another 5 years good drinking ahead – but, once we started enjoying it with the robust flavours of the cassoulet, it showed as I’d hoped – mellowing admirably with attractive blackberry and spice coming to the fore.

The reason behind local food and local wine working well together remains a mystery to me; does the food come first and wines develop to match it or is it the other way around?  Or is it purely by chance?  Either way, next time you start thinking, ‘what should I drink with this?’, look where the dish comes from and hope they make wine there.

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Thoughts from Bordeaux

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2017-09-10 12.54.04Spending a few days in Bordeaux recently, I expected to be drinking some good red wine.  It didn’t work out that way!  Wherever we decided to eat, the most appealing dishes on the menu were fish.  And, while I’m quite happy to pair a nice tuna steak with a low tannin red wine such as Beaujolais, Valpolicella or even some Pinot Noirs, none of these is native to Bordeaux and the local Cabernet- or Merlot-dominated reds just don’t work. 

Fortunately, about 1 bottle in 12 produced in the Bordeaux region is a dry white, so I was still able to pursue my ‘drink local’ policy – and explore a group of wines that, for no particular reason, I often seem to ignore. 

Bordeaux’s dry whites fall into 2 distinct groups: the traditional style, now in decline, are mainly made using the Semillon grape with some Sauvignon Blanc added, with one, or sometimes both, varieties either fermented or aged in (mainly old) oak barrels.   More frequently now, you find wines with 100% or at least a very high proportion of Sauvignon Blanc – fresh, zingy and providing attractive drinking for a very reasonable price.  We found good examples of each style. 

Representing the modern group, Chateau Vermont from Entre Deux Mers had a lovely floral nose with pink grapefruit and peach on the palate and a clean, refreshing finish.  A simple wine, but quite moreish.  In a different league entirely and showing how good traditional white Bordeaux can be was L’Abeille de Fieuzal Blanc from Pessac Leognan, the best part of the Graves District, just south of the city of Bordeaux.  Full, rich and buttery with hints of smokiness but also lovely fruit: citrus and bitter orange and a long, complex finish.

But, good as these were, my wife knows how much I like Bordeaux’s luscious dessert wines and her picture above shows me enjoying one to the full – our accompanying puddings were about to arrive!

 

 

The Price of Bordeaux

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A case of red wine was sold at auction last month for £11000.  Admittedly, it was Château Latour, one of the most prestigious estates in Bordeaux and from the highly acclaimed 2010 vintage, but it set me wondering whether any wine is worth almost £1000 a bottle.  And, of course, the buyer of this case is likely to have to wait at least a decade before the wine is at its peak, assuming, that is, that he or she is going to drink it, rather than (more likely) re-selling it at a profit.

The prices of top wines are now silly – the Liv-ex Index calculates that they have tripled since 2004 – and the sad fact is that it is putting the best wines way out of reach of most wine lovers.  When I first started taking an interest in wine, you could buy one of these top Bordeaux for about 20 times the price of an ordinary wine – just about affordable for a really special occasion – now that figure stands at 150 and rising steadily.

So, for those of more modest means, is there any way you can sample a decent Bordeaux?  Happily, I’d say yes!  Look for wines with the words ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on the label.  These are from estates which fall outside the Classified Growth system.  Many are, nevertheless, well situated and with talented and dedicated winemakers.  But, because they are not listed among the privileged few, prices are far more reasonable.

A couple of days ago I opened such a bottle that I’d kept under the stairs for a few years – even lesser bottles take a while to reach their peak. 

Senejac BxChâteau Senejac 2006 had become nicely mellow and mature with soft, leathery flavours and a long spicy finish.  You’d probably pay around £15 – £20 for the equivalent today.  Don’t expect the length or complexity of a Latour, just really pleasant drinking – and at a sensible price.

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!