Red with Fish?

Choosing a wine to drink with a particular dish is a very personal thing – each of us has our own preferences.  So, I always advise drinking something you like rather than the wine that someone tells you is ‘right’ for the food.

But, if you keep an open mind, you can sometimes find a pleasant surprise – a combination that you would never have thought about that works perfectly.  And sometimes, it will be just the opposite!

We’ve been great fans of wines from the Sicilian producer Donnafugata since we were lucky enough to visit them on a wine tour many years ago.  Their ‘Sherazade’ (Corks, £15.99) is a delicious blackberry and herb flavoured red made using the local Nero d’Avola grape.  We usually drink it with lighter red meats like duck leg or, perhaps, a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish would work well with its slightly earthy flavours.

The bottle’s back label has an entirely different idea: “drink as an aperitif or pair with pasta dishes, grilled fish or pizza”.  We actually tasted a glass before our dinner so tested the ‘aperitif’ theory: both my wife and I thought it was OK but would go better with food.   As for pasta, it would rather depend on the accompanying sauce and the same with pizza – you can have all sorts of toppings, some would work others not.  And then there’s the grilled fish suggestion.  For me, this is a definite ‘no’.

Now, I’m not someone who says that only white wine goes with fish – I’m perfectly happy to drink dry rosé and certain reds with seafood, particularly with the more ‘meaty’ and robust fishes, such as tuna or swordfish.  But Sherazade is a red with (at present – we drank the 2019) quite significant tannins – one reason why it made a less than ideal aperitif.  Tannic reds will often taste quite metallic and unpleasant with fish dishes.  We didn’t try this bottle with any fish, but, from experience, I wouldn’t recommend the pairing. 

But, clearly, the winemaker would, so it all comes back to my 1st sentence: that wine and food pairing is a very personal thing.

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.

Rosé – in February?

It’s often said that rosé is the perfect wine for summer.  So, why am I writing about it on a bitterly cold February day?

A couple of nights ago, we were about to cook some lovely tuna steaks that we’d bought from our local fishmonger.  The sauce we had prepared to go with them – a mixture of tomatoes, basil and capers – was slowly cooking away and smelt heavenly.  The flavours reminded us of Mediterranean holidays and of the sort of dishes we had enjoyed eating there.  As we were reminiscing and drinking in the smells, Hilary, my wife, suggested how well the dish would go with a glass of wine.  It didn’t take long for me to agree, even though it was a Wednesday and we don’t normally open a bottle mid-week, apart from on special occasions.

With those aromas and our thoughts, the wine just had to be from the Mediterranean.  And with tuna and that type of sauce, a rosé was the obvious choice – even though the weather outside was distinctly un-rosé.

Santa Tresa Rosé (Majestic, £10.99) from Sicily is attractively smoky with soft raspberry fruit flavours and a clean, fresh finish, typical of so many rosés you find around the south of France, Italy and the Mediterranean islands.  It is also beautifully dry which made it an excellent accompaniment to our tuna in sauce.  A blend of 2 high quality local grapes – Nero d’Avola and Frappato – both of which can also make delicious red wines; for the rosé, the juice spends just a few hours in contact with the skins to give a lovely delicate pink colour before being gently pressed and for the fermentation to complete – the juice alone – as it would for a white wine.

So, rosé may be the perfect wine for summer – but it’s also perfect for forgetting about winter and dreaming of better things.

Beware: Eruptions!

Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano with major eruptions every few years and almost constant rumbling in between.  So why, when there are so many more hospitable sites to plant your vineyard, would growers choose this unpredictable and potentially dangerous corner of Sicily? 

There are many reasons:  Vines will grow in places where little else will survive and there have been vineyards here since the ancient Greeks colonised the island more than 2000 years ago.  But that doesn’t fully explain the enormous rise in the popularity of the area in recent years which has seen an influx of newcomers and major investments in the vineyards and in new wineries.  The attraction? A combination of soil, climate and what’s planted in those ancient vineyards. 

The volcanic soils of the mountain’s slopes are rich in minerals, especially potassium, thought to be the most important element in promoting vine health.  The climate, too, is ideal with Mediterranean warmth ensuring perfectly ripe grapes every year.  And many of the vineyards are planted at altitude (up to 1000m or 3300ft above sea level).  This provides a cooling effect, ensuring that the grapes retain plenty of balancing acidity when harvested.  And then, there’s the vines themselves.  Many are over 100 years old – some of the few remaining that pre-date phylloxera (the bug couldn’t survive in the volcanic soil) and so have never been grafted (the technique used worldwide to combat the vine-killing louse).

So, what about the wines?  I opened a bottle of Etna white recently, made from local varieties Carricante and Catarratto.  Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Bianco (Wine Society, £12.50) is deliciously mouth-filling and rich with lovely flavours of ripe pear, melon and a hint of lemon peel.  Delicious on its own or with fully-flavoured fish or poultry dishes.  I can also recommend the same producer’s red (also available from The Wine Society at the same price).  Again made from local grapes (this time Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) and with attractive fresh cherry and liquorice flavours.

Making wine on the slopes of Etna may be a challenge – a nightmare, even, sometimes – but many growers think it’s worth it and, on the evidence of these and other Etna wines I have tasted in recent years, I have to agree.

Meet Franc from Friuli

There are a number of grape varieties with ‘Cabernet’ in their name – Cabernet Sauvignon, the best known and most widely planted, is actually a cross (probably some time in the 19th century) between Sauvignon Blanc and another Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, hence the name.  All 3 are found in the vineyards of Bordeaux, so I can only guess what Franc and Sauvignon were up to a couple of hundred years ago!

Cabernet Franc is usually part of a blend in Bordeaux, often included to add attractive freshness and a certain leafy or herby character to the wine, but look further north to France’s Loire region and you find 100% Franc wines in ACs such as Chinon and Bourgueil – and very enjoyable many of them are, too.  But I’ve never associated the grape with Italy until I saw a bottle on the shelves of Bristol independent merchant, Grape and Grind.  The wine is from Tenute Tomasella who grows the variety in vineyards in the very far north-east of the country, in the Friuli region, close to the border with Slovenia.  It looks very appealing in the glass: ‘dressed in cardinal purple’ according to the back label and is a real bargain at £12.99.  Lovely fresh red fruits – cherries and plums – and a real lightness of touch, helped, no doubt, by only 12½% alcohol.

It seems strange to be saying ‘only’ 12½%; at one time that would have been considered a medium to high alcohol level, but not these days.  A combination of global warming and better vineyard management techniques means that grapes can now be picked with much higher sugar levels than was once the case and that translates directly into higher alcohol.  Of course, the public appetite for such wines (encouraged by a certain American writer) has contributed, too.  As a result, 13½%, 14% and even more is now the norm.  That works for some wines but others become rather unbalanced with the alcohol overpowering the fruit. 

The more moderate level on the Cabernet Franc was quite noticeable (and very pleasant) – yes, a delicate wine, but not thin and really flavoursome.

Perhaps other producers should take notice.

Italy’s Treasure Chest

The land of Chianti and Barolo is a real treasure chest for wine lovers – but not just for those 2 famous names. Italy is divided into 20 different regions, each with their own traditions and wine styles, and boasts more native wine grapes than any other country – many that have been grown in just one small area for generations and are found nowhere else.
So, wherever you look in Italy, you’ll discover exciting and different wines. But, perhaps there’s a downside to this: you need to be adventurous and risk buying something you know nothing about. Although, having chanced the unknown on many occasions, I’d say ‘be brave’ – I’ve been pleasantly surprised more often than not. And, don’t worry about making an expensive mistake; lesser-known regions and grape varieties are often cheaper than the more famous names.
A bottle I opened recently supported this.

It was not only made from a relatively obscure grape variety – Pecorino – but also came from one of Italy’s less fashionable wine regions, the Abruzzo on the eastern, Adriatic coast. You may recognise the grape name is also the name of a local cheese; I’ve heard a number of explanations for this – none of them is particularly convincing!
The wine, Contesa’s Pecorino (Wine Society, a bargain at £9.95) is a delicious, fresh, zesty unoaked white, quite full-bodied (13% alcohol) and with lots of lovely ripe fruit flavours – pineapple, melon and peach in particular. Really easy-drinking either on its own or with fish or chicken or pasta in a creamy sauce.
The grapes are from a vineyard close to the town of Pescara and, although not certified organic, the producer has abandoned all use of weed killers and pesticides in favour of more natural methods.
So, if you see Pecorino or another Abruzzo wine (the red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is also worth looking out for), do give them a try; these are just 2 examples of why I think Italy is such a treasure chest for wine lovers, particularly those open to trying something new.

A Sicilian Blend

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, has been at the crossroads of trade routes linking the Middle East, North Africa and Europe for thousands of years.  The result is a place with a fascinating mixture of influences and cultures.  So, it’s not surprising to find a Sicilian wine made from a blend of 4 different grape varieties, 2 of which are Italian (although one of those has its origins in Greece) and the others are native to France.  Most importantly, this multi-national co-operation is delicious, despite its understated label and designation.

PlanetaPlaneta’s ‘La Segreta’ (Grape and Grind, £12.99, but also fairly widely available from smaller, independent wine merchants) is a lovely, tangy, fresh white with hints of pink grapefruit on the nose and palate and some attractive, subtle dry apricot on the finish.  It makes a perfect aperitif, but also has the character to match with fish or chicken.  I left some in the glass for a couple of hours after dinner and found some new, savoury, herby flavours emerging.  My wife thought it might even benefit from decanting – a little left-field, but I could see her point.

And the 4 grapes that make up this wine?  The main player in the blend is Grecanico, now widely planted across southern Italy and Sicily but, from its name, it was clearly imported from Greece some time in the distant past.  Then there’s some Chardonnay – Planeta make a very good 100% Chardonnay, so the grape clearly thrives in the Sicilian climate.  The 3rd variety is Fiano, a high quality grape native to the island and southern Italy and, happily, becoming quite fashionable.  And finally there’s Viognier – the source of that tantalising apricot finish I noticed.  Together, they produce a delicious, very drinkable white, far more complex than I would expect at the price.  Definitely one to buy again.

Italian sun shines in Bristol

Italy tastingA warm summer evening and a tasting for the Westbury Park Festival held in ‘C The World’, a local Travel Agent. What better theme for the event than the Wines of Italy – one of the favourite holiday destinations for us Brits? And the wines I took along to taste reflected that idea, with all coming from areas much visited by tourists.

Our first wine was from the island of Sardinia – a crisp, peachy white: Nord Est Vermentino (£9.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouse, where I bought all the wines for this tasting). Vermentino is a high quality grape variety especially well-suited to some of the warmer parts of the Mediterranean as it retains its refreshing acidity well.

The hills above Pescara on the Adriatic coast provided our 2nd white: Collecorvino’s Pecorino (£9.99). Yes, Pecorino is a cheese, but it’s also a grape variety; there are many explanations for the similarity – none of them particularly believable! This wine was a little fuller and richer than the 1st – the result of some of the grapes being fermented in oak.

For our final white, I looked to the Avellino hills, east of Naples. It’s an area rich with excellent local grape varieties including Fiano and Greco but I chose Terredora’s Falanghina (£11.99) – beautifully crisp and fresh but with an attractive savoury character from 3 months of lees ageing.

It was back to the islands – this time Sicily – for the 1st of the reds. Corolla’s Nero d’Avola (£8.99) was everything a simple, every day wine should be – lots of red fruit flavours and very moreish.

A little more challenging was Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Ripasso (£12.99) from the area to the east of Lake Garda. Valpolicella can also be simple and gluggable but, when the word ‘Ripasso’ is on the label, it takes on a whole new dimension. Refermented on the lees of an Amarone, a wine made with dried grapes, this is intense with delicious prune and fig flavours.

And finally, from Piedmont, in the north-west, De Forville’s Langhe Nebbiolo (£10.99) is effectively a mini-Barolo in all but name (and price!). Ideally, it should be left a few more years to allow the tannins to soften (I opened the 2017) but, if you can’t wait, decant it well in advance and serve with robust food; you’ll find the quality and richness will shine through.

So, there it was: a taste of the Italian sun in Bristol and, hopefully, enjoyed by all.

Wine from Dried Grapes

It would have been so easy to walk past the bottle sitting there on the bottom shelf of a large supermarket display: a rather dull label, a producer I’d never heard of and surrounded by a number of unexciting bargain-basement wines.  And then I spotted the word ‘Appassimento’ on the label.  Suddenly this wine became a lot more interesting.

Appassimento is a method of making wine from dried grapes and dates back at least 3000 years.  In ancient times it was quite common, especially in the warmer southern Mediterranean wine-growing areas.  After harvesting, the grapes were spread out on reed or straw mats under the sun (or hung up in nets) for 3 or even 4 months before being crushed and fermented.  During this time, they lose up to 50 per cent of their moisture, becoming shrivelled and dried up.  This concentrates the sugars in the berries producing a richer, sweeter wine.

Today, the process is much less common and many producers now dry the grapes in drying lodges rather than using the traditional straw mats.  It is mainly practised for sweet wines such as Vin Santo and one of my favourites, Passito di Pantellaria from a tiny island off the south-west coast of Sicily.  There is also one particularly famous dry example: Amarone della Valpolicella. 

The bottle I bought was not so famous but also dry.  This one was from the Puglia region in the ‘heel’ of Italy, made from an unusual blend of grapes: Merlot, Negroamaro and Zinfandel – this latter variety has a long history in the area, although better known locally as Primitivo.

Puglia AppassimentoCa’ Marrone’s Appassimento (Tesco, £8.50) has all the power and richness that this process typically gives to this type of wine, but accompanied by good plum and prune flavours and a certain smokiness.  This isn’t an easy quaffing wine but, with robust food it really comes into its own.  And at the price, it’s a real bargain when you think of the cost of a good Amarone.

 

A Shy and Reticent Wine?

The English are often described as ‘reserved’ people: shy, reticent, not very forthcoming.  But the word ‘reserve’ can have other meanings: I can reserve a table at a restaurant or set a reserve – a minimum sale price – at an auction, for example. But what does it mean to wine lovers?

Look along the shelves of your local supermarket or wine merchant and you’ll notice that Reserve (or a local variant such as Reserva or Riserva) is one of the words most commonly found on the labels.  So, does it mean that the wine is shy, reticent and not very forthcoming?  Unfortunately not!  But, what it does mean (if anything) varies a lot, depending on where the wine comes from.

Things are clearest in Spain.  Spanish wine tasting (2)There, Reserva denotes a red wine that has been aged for at least 3 years before being released for sale, at least one year of which must have been in oak barrels.  For whites and rosés, the figure is 2 years (6 months in barrel).  The requirements for Gran Reservas are longer: for reds, 5 years (2 in oak barrel), for whites and rosés, 4 years (6 months in barrel).

Across the border in Portugal, the rules for their Reserva are much less specific, simply requiring the wine to be from a ‘good’ vintage (how do you define that?) with an alcohol level at least ½% above the regional minimum (which varies from place to place).

Italy’s equivalent is Riserva.

41 SelvapianaThis also varies from place to place – as do most things in Italy; it, too, denotes a certain minimum ageing, usually at least a year, although, for Barolo, it is as long as 5 years!  Often, higher alcoholic strength and other requirements are also included in the local rules.

And that’s as far as the regulated use of these terms goes.  Anywhere else and the word has no official meaning.  It might be used to suggest that the wine is of a higher quality, as in the French ‘Réserve du Patron’ or terms like Estate Reserve or Reserve Selection, or has seen some oak ageing, but, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy, none of this is guaranteed.

To my mind, we ought to reserve (sorry!) the use of the word to those places where it does have a legal meaning, but I’m not going to make a fuss about it because I’m English and too reserved!