Expanding Horizons

In this blog, I’m going to continue with my theme from last time: how do you choose which wine to buy?  One method I’ve found works well is to buy a different wine from a producer whose wines you’ve enjoyed in the past.  Winemakers often have their own preferences which are reflected in the wines they make so, if you’ve enjoyed, for example, a Cabernet Sauvignon from a certain producer, try their Merlot if you see it on the shelf.  That way, you can expand your horizons without taking too many risks.

It’s a plan that I used when I was in Majestic Wine recently.  We’ve long been fans of Domaine Begude’s ‘Etoile’ Chardonnay (£13.99), a subtle, gently oaked, creamy white from Limoux, just south of Carcassonne at the western edge of France’s Languedoc region.  It’s a great value alternative if you like Pouilly-Fuissé!  So, when I saw the same estate’s ‘Le Paradis’ Viognier (£15.99), it was an obvious choice.

The Viognier, as you might expect, is a little more aromatic than the Chardonnay with delightful aromas and flavours of peach, ripe pear and melon and a restrained savoury finish.  The label tells me that the wine spent time in oak barrels but they seem only to have been used to round out the palate, there is no overt oakiness to taste.  We enjoyed it with some red mullet cooked in a rich tomato sauce and the two blended perfectly.

Limoux is not a particularly well-known or fashionable area but Domaine Begude is beautifully situated some 300m (1000ft) above sea level giving that ideal balance of hot sunny days for ripening the grapes and cooler nights to retain vital acidity.  It’s owned by an English couple, who bought it back in 2003 and now run it on entirely organic lines using no pesticides and only natural manures and fertilisers.

The results are clear to see (and to taste) whether you choose the Chardonnay, the Viognier or one of their other varietal wines that – subtle hint – hopefully, Majestic will stock at some future date.

Beaujolais Nouveau Day

If you go into your local supermarket or wine merchant on Thursday (November 18th) or soon afterwards, you may see some insistent marketing proclaiming that ‘Beaujolais Nouveau is here’. So, what is Beaujolais Nouveau?

It’s a red wine made from the Gamay grape grown in the Beaujolais region in the southern part of Burgundy in France.  What’s unusual about Nouveau is that the grapes are picked (generally in late September), quickly fermented and the wine is bottled all within a few weeks so that it can be on sale on the 3rd Thursday of November each year, officially designated ‘Beaujolais Nouveau Day’.

Which brings us to the next obvious question: should you buy it?

The brief timescale in which the wine must be made and bottled to get it on the shelf for the official release day, has a considerable influence on its flavour.  Most wines (including Beaujolais not labelled as ‘Nouveau’) take many months, some even years, for the process that, for Beaujolais Nouveau, is carried out within about 6 or 8 weeks.  The extended period allows other wines the chance to develop complexity and different flavours, perhaps from lees contact or maturation for a time in oak barrels.  None of this development is possible in Nouveau’s abbreviated timeframe, so it can only ever be a simple quaffing wine, at best.

What does it taste like?  Well, I haven’t tasted the 2021 vintage yet, of course, but typically it is light-bodied, with refreshing acidity and plenty of juicy, sometimes slightly bitter, fruit.  A friend of mine once described it as ‘alcoholic Ribena’ and I don’t think I can improve on that.

It would be a perfect accompaniment to a picnic on a lovely warm summer’s day.  Unfortunately, another downside to the speedy production process is that, by the time we get some picnic weather here in the UK, this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau will be past its best!  

Do try it if you never have but I suggest you approach it with limited expectations!

Jurançon: Sweet or Dry

Many years ago, in my early days of studying wine (rather than just drinking it), one of the bottles our tutor brought in for us to taste was a delightful sweet wine that none of us had ever heard of before.  It was called Jurançon and it resulted in an immediate ‘Wow!’ from the whole class.  I’ve been buying it ever since – when I can find it, that is, because production is not large and much of it is drunk locally, which, in this case, is in the far south-west corner of France in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

I couldn’t recommend one producer over another – they all have their own slightly different styles – but I haven’t had a bad bottle yet, so, if you enjoy dessert wine and see Jurançon, then I’d suggest you give it a try.

As I got to know these wines better, I realised that, apart from the lovely sweet bottles, there was also a dry equivalent: Jurançon Sec – if it doesn’t have ‘sec’ on the label it will be sweet.  Both are made from a blend of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng, with some Courbu and Camaralet added to some of the dry versions.  All are local grape varieties; none, as far as I know, is grown outside the region, so those in search of membership of the ‘100 Club’ should take note!

Jurancon SecAs with the sweet versions, Jurançon Sec from most producers is worth buying although we particularly enjoyed Domaine Montesquiou’s Cuvade Préciouse (Vine Trail, £13) recently.  Its tangy flavours of citrus and herbs and just a hint of spicy smokiness from the gentle oak ageing reminded me of a nice white Burgundy – there were certainly shades of the same flavours in an Auxey-Duresses we had in a restaurant a few days later; the only difference: excluding the inevitable restaurant mark-up, the Jurançon would be about half the price!

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

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

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.