Dreaming of the Sea?

“The Sea Breeze” may seem a strange name for a wine.  But, in the case of Château La Négly’s La Brise Marine (to give the wine its French title), it’s not just a piece of marketing, there is definitely a reason behind it.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, without the cooling effect on the vines of the winds from the sea, this wine could never have been made – certainly not in the lovely aromatic, crisp style we found when we opened a bottle recently (available from Corks or Grape and Grind, around £16). 

Let me explain.  La Brise Marine is from vineyards near Narbonne in the Languedoc, that delightful, sun-drenched part of southern France.  However, summer temperatures here can top 40°C (104°F); indeed, a couple of years ago, a new French record high of 46°C (close to 115°F) was set in a village not far to the east of La Négly’s vineyards.  At these temperatures, vines struggle and often shut down completely to protect themselves.  The one saving factor is often a cooling sea breeze so, having vineyards in the Appellation of La Clape, less than 10 miles from the Mediterranean, allows La Brise Marine to be produced and the unusual naming reflects this. 

La Clape is an unusual limestone outcrop that was once an island (in fact, as recently as Roman times) and is quite distinct from the area surrounding. Unsurprisingly with the climate, most of the wines from here are reds – Grenache and Syrah dominating – but La Brise Marine is a white made from a blend of an ancient local grape variety, Bourboulenc, together with 2 imports from the southern Rhône Valley, Roussanne and Clairette.

Together they make a satisfying, quite full-bodied dry white with ripe pear and peach flavours and perhaps even a slightly saline tang – or am I just dreaming of the sea?

Two Glasses of…..?

We opened a bottle of Muscadet recently.  It’s a wine I don’t often buy; many examples I’ve tasted have been rather thin and with unpleasantly high levels of acidity.  But there may also be another explanation for my reluctance which goes back to an embarrassing moment many years ago.

My wife and I were on holiday in northern France, not far from where Muscadet is produced.  Of course, we had to sample a glass of the local wine and so went into a small café.  I asked (in French) for “two glasses of Muscadet, please” pronouncing the name of the wine as we do in England: ‘muss-cad-day’.  The lady behind the counter repeated the “two glasses of” and then looked at me blankly.  I pointed to the bottle on the shelf behind her.  “Ah, it’s Muscadet, monsieur”.  She had said ‘moose-cad-day’ and it was clear that the 2 glasses in front of her on the counter would remain empty until I’d repeated the name and pronounced it correctly!

I’ve been rather anti-Muscadet ever since.  But I’ve seen a number of very favourable reviews of different bottles recently and I decided to swallow my pride and buy one: Le Clos du Château l’Oiselinière (Wine Society, £13.50).  I’m pleased I did.

My first surprise was that the wine was from the 2015 vintage.  Surely, I thought, Muscadet is a wine to drink young.  Would a 5 year old example still be drinkable or would it be way past its best?  I needn’t have worried.  The wine was delightfully fresh and attractive and with lots of complexity.  It had spent more than 2 years resting on its lees (the dead yeast cells that remain after the fermentation has ended) before being bottled and this had clearly mellowed the acidity.  It was now perfectly in harmony with clean, citrus flavours and a full, long finish.

Definitely a wine to look out for – however you pronounce its name.   

Wine for Wine Haters?

Wines made from the grape variety Pinot Grigio have got themselves a bit of a poor reputation in recent years.  I’ve even heard them described by someone in the wine trade as ‘the wines I’d recommend for someone who didn’t really like wine’!  Ouch!

In a way I can see why.  Pinot Grigio, like another member of the Pinot family, Pinot Noir, is fairly sensitive to how it is handled, particularly in the vineyard.  If you train and prune the vines to give you a heavy crop and so make large volumes of wine, they will oblige.  But, if you do this, the grapes you pick will have little flavour or character and the wine you produce from them will be simple, neutral and inoffensive.  Hence the comment reported above.

Sadly, this is true of much – if not most – of the Pinot Grigio you find in UK supermarkets and my advice to wine lovers would be to avoid the cheaper bottles (say £7 or less – yes, that’s relatively cheap, these days).   

But it would be a mistake to ignore Pinot Grigio altogether.  Growers who limit their yields produce less wine but the quality can be far better, even though, as a result, the price will be rather higher.  So, where should you look for good Pinot Grigio?  If you enjoy Italian wine, then consider the north-east of the country – I’d say examples from the Alto Adige region are probably a more reliable choice than those from the Veneto.

Alternatively, the same grape is found in northern France, in Alsace, only here the variety is known as Pinot Gris, rather than Pinot Grigio.  One to try from there is Paul Ginglinger’s Les Prelats (Wine Society, £13.50).  But, a word of caution: this is not one of those simple, neutral Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigios.  It’s rich, deliciously mouth-coating and full of lovely ripe pear and apple flavours.  A perfect match to something cooked in a rich, creamy sauce or a risotto, perhaps.

Wherever you look, the rule for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is pay a little extra; you may be very pleasantly surprised.

2nd Wines: the Smart Choice

After 2 Blogs about the red wines of Burgundy, I think it’s time to move on to France’s other flagship region, Bordeaux.  There are a few similarities between the 2 – stratospheric prices for the top wines and an active investment market among them – but many differences which make it easier to find something drinkable at an affordable – if, perhaps, not exactly every day – price.

One of these differences is size: Bordeaux produces more than 3 times as much wine as Burgundy in a typical year and there’s nothing like the same fragmentation of vineyards that causes the supply problems in Burgundy.  This is due to the fact that many of Bordeaux’s estates are now owned by companies rather than individuals, easing inheritance problems, plus the Bordeaux Appellation system is rather simpler, only dividing down as far as villages, rather than identifying vineyards as they do in Burgundy.

Despite those advantages, you can still easily pay £50 – £100 for well-known wines, but, if you avoid the big names and choose carefully, there is some value available.   As I found recently when I opened an attractive red from the excellent 2010 vintage with the benefit of a good few years of barrel and bottle maturity behind it.

Moulins de Citran (Majestic, £16.99 as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles) is quite lean and austere in a typical Bordeaux way but has good blackcurrant and raspberry fruit and some cedary spice and leather flavours.  There’s fair length, too, and, despite its age, it has a good few years of happy drinking ahead of it.

So, why is this under £20 and not £50?  Firstly, it is not from one of the prestigious villages – it’s simply AC Haut-Medoc but, perhaps, more importantly, it’s the estate’s ‘2nd wine’.  Many Bordeaux properties are large enough to make 2 or even 3 different wines each year.  Their best grapes from their oldest wines will go into their top wine (which would be named ‘Chateau de Citran’ in this case), but that still leaves good grapes from, perhaps, younger vines or vines in less good parts of the vineyard spare.  These will go into the 2nd wine – still made by the same winemaker in the same winery but often sold at less than half the price of the main Chateau wine.

So, if you love Bordeaux wines but don’t want to pay too much, then 2nd wines of good estates in less fashionable parts of the region are a really smart choice.

Burgundy: Your Feedback

My Blog last time, “Burgundy: A Nightmare”, provoked several comments, thank you to those who did.  Let’s look at what you had to say.

Firstly, why didn’t I name the wine I tasted: “you tell us the wines you like, why didn’t you ‘name and shame’ this one?”  It was something I thought about while I was writing the Blog but I decided against.  I had no reason to criticise the producer, who is well-respected, nor the – usually reliable -supplier.  And, the wine itself was well-made; it was just that I found it disappointing for the money.  Yet, it was the sort of price you should expect to pay for that type of wine based on the supply and demand situation I mentioned last time.  At half the price, it would have been a ‘recommend’.

An interesting suggestion was that wine might have been slightly ‘corked’.  Corkiness occurs when wine is in contact with a cork that has been affected by a fungus which, in severe cases, produces a nasty, musty, mouldy smell and taste in the wine.  But, when the problem is more minor, you don’t get these strong, pervasive smells and flavours, just a dumbing down of the aromas and tastes.  A possibility here but the cork on this bottle was one of these new high-tech versions that is supposed to eliminate 99.99% of cork problems.   

So, should we, as one reader commented, “simply leave red Burgundy to the wealthy”?  It’s a good question!  There’s certainly better value elsewhere for Pinot Noir lovers – New Zealand, for example.  But, when my wife and I visited Burgundy on a wine tour a few years ago, we tasted some lovely bottles that I’d be reluctant to ignore altogether.  Perhaps reserve them for very special occasions?

And, finally, does the same ‘nightmare’ tag apply to white Burgundy, too?  Happily, not to the same extent.  Part of the reason is that white Burgundies are made from Chardonnay which is a whole lot easier to grow than the Pinot Noir used in the reds.  So, although the top wines are similarly pricey, further down the spectrum there is some enjoyable drinking to be found at more reasonable prices.  Check the supermarkets’ ‘own-label’ ranges.  For around a tenner, many will have a wine they’ve bought in from the very reliable ‘Caves de Buxy’ (check the small print on the label) or try one of the 2 bottles pictured above from Majestic for the same price (when bought as part of a mixed case of 6 bottles).  Don’t expect great complexity but any of these should be very, very drinkable and be perfect antidotes to nightmares!

A Proper Winter Wine

It’s October, the days are getting shorter and the temperature dropping. Real signs that the season is changing. For us, that means it’s time to think about some of those more robust, warming winter dishes. Like the delicious shin beef casserole full of chunky root vegetables such as celeriac and carrot we enjoyed last night. Of course, with the food reflecting the time of year, you also need to look to an altogether different style of wine – one that won’t be over-powered by all the strong flavours of the dish.
It would have to be red to go with the beef and the rich, savoury gravy but, more specifically, I was looking at something from one of the warmer parts of the world which would have the weight to balance the food. A number of possibilities came to mind: an Australian Shiraz or Californian Zinfandel would work perfectly or, perhaps, something from southern Europe or around the Mediterranean basin.


I finally settled on a wine from the Côtes du Roussillon, a much under-rated area near Perpignan in the very far south of France – indeed the vineyards for Domaine Gardiés Clos de Vignes (Wine Society, £17) are barely 30 miles from the Spanish border. I decanted the wine a couple of hours before we were going to drink it and found it opened up beautifully to reveal a lovely, savoury, satisfying red (made from a blend of mainly 70 year old Carignan and Grenache vines with small additions of Syrah and Mourvèdre). The wine was perfectly dry with attractive black fruits on the palate and a clear hint of cedar or cigar box flavours from the ageing in older, large wooden barrels. It’s certainly a big wine – it needed to be to complement the dish – but not so overwhelming that one glass was enough and the 14% alcohol is perfectly integrated so you’re not left with a burn on the finish.
All in all, a proper winter wine.

Solving a Mystery

I’m not easily persuaded by a smart wine label but, every now and then, I get drawn in.  Especially when there’s an element of mystery about the wine.  So, when I saw the bottle above in Grape and Grind recently with the starry label proclaiming ‘Objet Viticole Non Identifié’ (unidentified wine object), I was intrigued.

Grape and Grind, like many wine merchants in these Coronavirus affected times, ask customers to try and avoid picking up bottles they are not likely to buy so all I could tell from the front label was the grape variety (Chenin Blanc, which I like) and the producer (J.Mourat about whom I knew nothing).  But Grape and Grind are normally reliable, the wine wouldn’t break the bank (£14.99) so why not try?

Closer inspection made me even more interested; the label bore no vintage date and only the vaguest hint of its origin – Val de Loire (Loire Valley).  I learnt that Objet Viticole Non Identifié (OVNI for short) is the producer’s name for wines that he considers “anti-conformist,” – different from what you might expect. A mystery, indeed!

The wine itself was all I could have hoped for – and more: clean, fresh and quite tangy with lovely green apple flavours, an attractive creaminess in the mouth and a long, smooth finish showing lots of ripe fruit. An ideal aperitif but also good with lighter fish dishes or poultry.

I dug deeper to unlock the mystery.  The grapes are grown close to the coast just south of the Loire River, roughly halfway between Nantes and La Rochelle.  It’s an area that could attract the obscure Appellation Contrôlée Fiefs Vendéens, but Mourat, probably wisely, chose the more recognisable IGP (formerly Vin de Pays) Val de Loire instead.

The vineyard is organic and the wine is vinified in the now-fashionable egg-shaped concrete tanks (see picture below).

The idea of these, according to Jancis Robinson MW, is that the shape offers a high level of contact between the wine and the lees, reducing the need for batonnage (stirring) and encourages convection currents that improve fermentation kinetics. 

An explanation almost as mysterious as the label but who cares when the result is as good as this.

Wine with Veggie Food

Regular readers will know I’m no vegetarian but I’m happy to have meatless and fishless dishes, provided they are tasty and, even better, if they’re wine-friendly.  There are no special guidelines for pairing wine with veggie dishes – just think the same way as you would with any meal: how robust or delicate is the food (the chunkier the food flavours, the more powerful the wine can be) and what is the strongest flavour on the plate (this may not be the main ingredient).

We cooked a dish from an Antony Worrall Thompson cookbook that was a kind of spicy cauliflower cheese although it also contained spinach – a tricky ingredient that can give some red wines an unpleasant metallic taste.  But that wasn’t a problem here as the cauliflower was coated in a lovely creamy cheesy sauce that provided the dominant flavour and that just cried out for a white wine; quite a full, rich white, though, as with the cauliflower and some borlotti beans in the dish, too, this was definitely not on the delicate side.

MarsanneYves Cuilleron’s Marsanne is from the northern part of France’s Rhone Valley and is made from one of the local grape varieties.  It fitted the bill perfectly.  The label suggests some barrel ageing, but there was no overt oak flavouring, just a satisfying, mouth-filling, buttery richness to complement the lovely peach and pear aromas and flavours.  Our bottle was from the 2016 vintage which seems to be sold out now but Bristol independent wine merchant Davis, Bell, McCraith have the 2019 at £14.99.  Based on our experience, I’d recommend keeping the younger wine a couple of years or so – this is a bottle that will definitely improve a little with age.

Finally, as this is a piece talking about vegetarian food, I should remind readers that some producers use egg whites and other animal-based substances to fine (clarify) their wines and, although there is no residue left in the bottle, strict vegetarians may object and, if so, they should check either the label or the website to see if any particular wine is suitable for them.

Provence Comes to Bristol too!

I’m continuing the theme I began last time in my Bristol Wine Blog: that, with a thoughtful choice of food and wine, you can bring back wonderful memories of places you’ve been, even when the present situation means that you can’t stray far from home.  Today, my virtual trip brings us back from Greece to somewhere a little closer to the UK.

Temperatures in Bristol a couple of weeks ago rose above 30°C (close to 90°F for those more comfortable with that scale), so it wasn’t difficult to imagine ourselves somewhere overlooking the Mediterranean – the south of France, perhaps.  The fish markets there always have the most amazing choice of fresh fish and we particularly enjoy tuna.  So, when our local travelling fishmonger arrived this week with some tempting looking steaks in the back of his van, what else could I open to accompany them but a bottle of Côte de Provence Rosé? 

M de Minuty (Majestic, £12.99) is that beautiful, delicate shade of pale orangey pink you find in so many southern French rosés and, although the flavours are quite subtle, matching the colour, the wine is in no way bland.  It opens with an appealing, fragrant, floral nose and a real herby richness on the palate follows through – this is from a relatively warm climate and boasts 13% alcohol after all.  Made with a typical blend of local grapes including Grenache, Cinsault and the much less well-known Tibouren, this is fresh and clean with lovely crushed strawberry flavours and a long savoury finish.  Ideal for drinking on its own, well chilled, as an aperitif but with the body and fullness to accompany our tuna or other similarly flavoursome dishes.

Enjoying the combination outdoors on our terrace on a bright, warm sunny evening, we could easily imagine we were somewhere exotic.  Sadly, even though there is a move to allow travel to certain destinations soon, our own caution means that foreign trips are still on hold for the present. 

But we have our memories and tasty pan-fried tuna accompanied by a delicious Rosé from Provence help keep them alive.

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!