Wines from the Graves area in the south of Bordeaux will be well-known to many wine lovers. The area takes its name from the French word for gravel, which describes the soil conditions there – conditions that are shared with many of the most prestigious parts of Bordeaux’s Haut-Medoc (see picture above, thanks to Wine and Spirit Education Trust).
So, why is the gravel so important? Two reasons: firstly, it ensures that the ground is well-drained so that, although the vines can get enough water to help them grow (assuming it rains at the right time), their roots aren’t sitting in water which might rot them. And secondly – and this is particularly important in wine regions with marginal climates such as Bordeaux – each tiny piece of gravel acts as a mini storage heater, absorbing the heat of the sun during the day and radiating it out at night. This means that the vineyard retains heat – and the grapes continue to ripen – even after the sun has gone down.
But Graves isn’t the world’s only wine region where gravel plays its part: the same thing happens in the area known as the Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay. This was an area created less than 150 years ago when a devastating flood caused the River Ngaruroro to change its course and left the deep gravel of the former river bed exposed. Despite the parallels with Bordeaux (including the relatively cool climate), it took more than 100 years before the vine growing potential of the area was recognised. But, since 1990, the Gimblett Gravels have been an important source of – mainly red – wines. And, not surprisingly, the majority of the grapes planted there are Bordeaux varieties.
We opened an exceptional example recently: Craggy Range’s Te Kahu (Majestic, £15.99) is mainly Merlot with some Malbec (yes, that is a Bordeaux variety, even though Argentina is now claiming it as its own!), Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Franc also in the blend. Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely black fruits and just a subtle hint of spice, this is really delicious and a real bargain compared to many Bordeaux reds of this quality.
So, next time you’re in a vineyard, whether in Bordeaux, New Zealand or somewhere else, look down and, if there’s gravel beneath your feet, it is likely that the wine will be something special.
Wine is not just a very pleasant drink (provided you choose well!), it can also be a great way of bringing back memories of – hopefully – happy times. That was certainly true when we opened a bottle of wine from the Central Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island recently. Although it was more than 4 years since our trip there, we immediately started reminiscing about our stay and, in particular, our wine visits in the expert company of Lance from Queenstown Wine Trail.
I can’t remember all the vineyards we visited during our stay but the quality of the estates we did drop in on was so high that we were convinced that this was an area whose wines were well worth seeking out. And the wine that prompted this Blog -Peregrine’s delightful Pinot Gris (Great Western Wine, £19.50) – certainly did not disappoint.
Pinot Gris is a grape variety that, under its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, can often be thin and uninteresting. Not here! The 14% alcohol makes it beautifully mouth-filling but without the accompanying ‘burn’ you can find with wines with this strength. Peach and pear flavours come through joined by lovely sweet spices – cinnamon and ginger – and a crisp, clean finish with hints of citrus. I found this to be a wine that offered something new every time I went back to it during our meal (Baked Brill with a Mushroom Sauce) and then over the course of the evening until, all too soon, the glass was empty.
My wife is often saying – and I agree – that, if only New Zealand was 3 or 4 hours flight away rather than 24, we’d go there more often – and not just to enjoy the wines. But, as it is, we’ll just have to buy bottles like this Pinot Gris and dream instead.
“Can you run a tasting of sparkling wines for us?” It’s not a request I get often – sparkling wines can be quite expensive and, perhaps, more for a celebration than for talking about. But there’s plenty to say (for me, at least!) and a vast choice. It’s not just Champagne and Prosecco, virtually every cool climate area of the wine world produces some fizz.
Why the emphasis on a cool climate? Both the most common ways of making sparkling wine (the ‘traditional’ method – the one that used to be known as the Champagne method until the Champenois objected – and the ‘tank’ method) involve a second fermentation – adding more grape sugar and yeast to an already made still wine to produce the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles. But this process also raises the alcohol level in the wine by 1 – 1.5%. If you try this with a wine that is already 13% or more, as is typical in warm climates, you lose the aromatics and the wine becomes heavy and unappetising. Hence the importance of a cool climate and a lower alcohol level to start with.
What of the evening itself? We sampled 6 wines ranging through France, Italy, Spain, England (of course!), South Africa and New Zealand and at prices from £10 to £25.
And the reaction of the tasters? Perhaps not surprisingly, the Champagne (Charles Lecouvey’s Brut Reserve) was the clear winner with everyone present scoring it in their top 2. Although not expensive for a Champagne (£23.99 from Waitrose), the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave it a lightness and freshness that appealed to all.
The same grape varieties were used (although with Pinot Noir dominating rather than Chardonnay) for the group’s 2nd favourite: Lindauer’s Special Reserve Brut Rosé from New Zealand (widely available from supermarkets and wine shops at between £11 and £14). Delicate crushed strawberry flavours and aromas and a really attractive pink colour made this a delight. Certainly one to consider if you’re looking for an easy-drinking fizz at an attractive price for the festive season.
Pinot Noir is the trickiest grape. It can make great wines or disappointingly ordinary ones. The problem is that it’s very choosy about where it grows: it generally prefers a coolish climate to show off its subtle elegance. But, too cool and it won’t ripen properly resulting in raw, green flavours. On the other hand, too warm and you get thick, jammy fruit. And don’t ask the vines to produce too many bunches or the wine will be dilute and thin. So growing – and buying – Pinot Noir wines can be a nightmare.
The grape is a native of Burgundy, but the growers there only get it right some of the time; the USA turns out some fine examples, as does New Zealand. But good bottles from any of these places are generally quite pricey (£15+) and I usually avoid cheaper – sometimes even mid-priced – examples as they rarely show much Pinot character. So I must have been in a good mood (or not thinking!) as I picked up a bottle from a Tesco shelf recently. Wairau Cove Pinot Noir (£9) is described as from New Zealand’s South Island – an interesting description as I’m more used to seeing a more precise origin such as Marlborough or Nelson or Central Otago. ‘South Island’ sounds as though it might be a blend of fruit from more than one region, although the Wairau River flows through Marlborough. A clue or just a convenient Kiwi-sounding name?
Whichever, the wine itself was a pleasant surprise: a typical earthy, ‘farmyard’ nose (some describe it more explicitly!), quite light-bodied in the mouth but plenty of fruit – stewed plums and some slightly dried fruit flavours – and a reasonable finish, too. So how do Tesco do it for the price? It appears from the label that the wine may have been shipped from New Zealand in tanker and bottled here in the UK. Not what we might expect in a £9 wine, but, in this case, it’s given us a very drinkable Pinot Noir at a fair price. Nothing tricky about that!