A Winter Warmer

It’s autumn (fall to my American readers). Or is it? Our TV weather presenters say that autumn began on September 1st while my calendar tells me that the equinox, which I thought marked the start of autumn, falls on September 23rd this year; so, by that measure, we still have a couple of weeks of ‘official’ summer left.

Whichever is right, it’s certainly beginning to feel autumnal here with chilly mornings and evenings and noticeably shorter daylight hours. And, at home, we’re already marking the changing year by putting away most of our lighter, summer recipes and moving towards some of our more robust, wintery dishes. With wines to match, of course!

Lupier

And where better to start my search for winter warmers than with Domaine Lupier’s El Terroir Garnacha (aka Grenache) from the under-rated Spanish region of Navarra (Wine Society, £17.50)? Its mix of intense red fruits with savoury, earthy flavours went perfectly with a chunky beef casserole. The intensity resulted from genuine old vines; I’ve mentioned before that the term has no official meaning, but here, some of the plantings date from 1903, making the vines well over 100 years old. The combination of a vast root system gained over this time and the naturally lower yields of ageing vines contributes a special depth of flavour to the wine.

The savoury, earthy flavours I noted arise mainly from a bit of bottle age; this wine was from the 2012 vintage, so 7 years old and having had an opportunity to mature and soften gently in bottle. Depending on your taste, some drinkers may already find it a little too mature, although I notice that the Wine Society suggests ‘now to 2023’ as a drinking window.

But we certainly enjoyed it and found it a perfect partner for our rich, flavoursome dish.

Priorat Re-vitalised

Most wine drinkers will be familiar with the name ‘Cava’ although, according to a recent survey, surprisingly few who bought it knew where it came from.  The correct answer is, of course, Catalonia, but this region in the north-east of Spain has far more than just the popular sparkling wine to offer.  I’m thinking, in particular, of the marvellous, intense red wines from the remote hills of Priorat. 

Vines were first planted there by Carthusian monks in 12th century and wine has been made there ever since.  But, by the 1980s, Priorat’s vineyards were regularly being abandoned and the area was in danger of disappearing from the wine map.  It was so steep and the stony land so difficult to work that most of the traditional farmers found winemaking there uneconomic and the younger generation were lured towards jobs in the larger towns or the tourist resorts along the coast. 

But a small group, led by Rene Barbier, were moving in the opposite direction.  They recognised the potential in the very old bush vines of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carinena (Carignan) and in the unusual llicorella soil, comprised of decomposed slate and quartz, which reflects the heat and aids the ripening of these late-maturing varieties.  Now, some 30 years later, the area has been re-vitalised and is producing some outstanding wines and, although the most prestigious ones sell for £200 or more, you can find some extremely attractive bottles for a lot less.

PrioratTake Arc de Pedra, available from Majestic, for example (£12.99).  At first sip, you find lovely sweet red fruits but, as it develops in the glass, it reveals raisins, prunes and subtle hints of vanilla and toasted almonds.  As you might expect, this is a big wine (14%) but it is well balanced.  The 2016 vintage that we opened was still showing quite prominent tannins, and although it went well enough with the strong flavours of a venison steak, in truth I probably opened it a couple of years too soon.  But, whether you drink it now or keep it, it would certainly benefit from decanting a couple of hours in advance, a comment that would apply equally to most of the deep, brooding reds from this – happily – rediscovered area.

Acidity: Good or Bad?

Tahbilk Viognier Alsace Gewurz Faustino 1

‘Lemony’, ‘citrussy’, ‘refreshing’, ‘clean’: you often see these words in descriptions of wine.  What they’re really saying is that the wine has plenty of acidity, but in a good way.  And, so long as the acidity doesn’t dominate and is in balance with the rest of the flavours, I’d generally agree that some acidity in a wine is a positive.  It can make the wine more refreshing and attractive on the palate and it can also help make it more food-friendly by cutting through any richness or greasiness in a dish.  But a few people – including a very good friend of ours – are particularly sensitive to acidity and my ‘lemony-freshness’ becomes their ‘tart and shudderingly unpleasant’.  As a result, they need to choose their wine very carefully.

Wines made from certain grapes tend to be naturally more acidic than others: famous varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon all fall into this category.  So, despite their attractions for the rest of us, acidity-haters should concentrate their attention elsewhere.  But it’s not just the grape variety that’s important: as grapes ripen, the level of sugar in them increases but the level of acidity decreases, so wines from warmer regions of the world, where the grapes are likely to be riper, will, in general, be less acidic than those from cooler climates.  Those are two useful factors to bear in mind but, as with much in the wine world, things are not as simple as that:  some producers actually add acidity during the winemaking process – it’s quite legal and they would argue that they’re just compensating for what would otherwise be an unbalanced wine.

So, where should those who dislike acidity look?  The pictures above suggest a few good places to start: for white wines, Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Semillon are all varieties that are naturally quite low in acidity while, for reds, Tempranillo – the main Rioja grape – or Grenache – a key player in many Côtes du Rhônes, are the same.  And, watch out for wines made by less interventionist winemakers, as they are less likely to have acidity added.

But, most of all, taste widely and, if you find wines that suit your palate, stick with them.