Part of the beauty of enjoying wines is the memories it can trigger. A bottle a good friend of ours, who is currently working in Switzerland, brought back for us on one of her brief visits did just that. You very rarely find Swiss wine in the UK; production is small and almost none of it is exported – figures showing that more than 95% is consumed locally, so her gift was especially welcome.
Cave St-Pierre’s Pinot Noir comes from the Valais region, home to some of the highest vineyards in Europe. Here, the steep, south-facing slopes overlook the infant River Rhône before it empties into Lake Geneva (Lac Leman to the locals) and provide ideal sites for vineyards, offering the vines excellent exposure to the sun and good drainage – both essential to full ripening of the fussy Pinot Noir grape.
And the result is delicious: a quite light-bodied red – more reminiscent of an Alsace Pinot Noir than one from Burgundy – but smooth and with lovely raspberry fruit, good balanced acidity and a long, dry, elegant finish.
In recent times, as tastes have moved in favour of red wines, Pinot Noir has taken over from the white variety Chasselas as the most widely planted in Switzerland, although Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, Silvaner and Pinots Gris and Blanc are still widely planted. Among red varieties, Gamay, Merlot (strangely also made into a white wine in the Italian-speaking Ticino region) and Syrah (Shiraz) are well represented but it’s almost certain that you’ll need to travel to the country itself to enjoy any of these.
And the memory I hinted at earlier? I’m fairly sure that the first time I ever tasted a Swiss wine was over a meal at the long-closed Swiss Centre in London many years ago. I have a particular reason to remember the occasion because my dining companion at the time, Hilary, soon became my wife – and now, more than 40 years later, we were able to celebrate with this bottle given by our friend, who had no idea of its significance!
I’m pleased to say that, over the past year, Bristol Wine Blog has attracted a whole host of new readers; in fact numbers have more than doubled compared to earlier times. Welcome to all of you! Interestingly, most of the newcomers are from the United States and so, as we’re closing in on the 4th of July, I thought I’d give you one Brit’s take on the wines you send over to us, starting with a delicious bottle we opened last night:
Clos du Bois Pinot Noir (Majestic, £14.99) had all the lovely silky smoothness I expect from this quality grape along with plenty of red cherry fruit and an attractive smokiness. And, with only 13.5% alcohol, it wasn’t too heavy and proved really food-friendly with pan fried duck breast strips with a tomato and mushroom sauce. It also brought back happy memories – it was a wine we used to sell at Harveys when I worked there way back before they closed their Bristol base.
But, sadly, it’s not often I can find such a gem; although we import more wine from the USA than from any other country except Australia, the vast majority is simple stuff from the major mass-market brands (Barefoot, Echo Falls and the like) at pretty much bargain basement prices. Now, clearly those please a lot of people and sell very well so I’m not knocking them, but, let’s be honest, when it comes to true wine lovers, there really isn’t much in these bottles to get excited about – or to blog about.
Yet, I know the US produces some wonderful wines. The problem is that the choice of good ones here is quite limited and the prices sky high: typically £25 to £60 – way above what most UK customers are prepared to pay. I’d just love to find something attractive at a more affordable ticket, but I struggle.
So, please, dear American readers (and others!): think about the wines you enjoy in your own home or in your favourite local restaurant. Are any of these from US producers who would like to sell something interesting and appealing in the UK and can get it on the shelves here around £15 to £20? If so, then do urge them to take the plunge. There are a lot of UK wine lovers who would happily pay that sort of money and so celebrate the 4th of July with an appropriate bottle!
Alsace is a region that looks two ways. When you visit, the architecture, the food, the local dialect and many of the place names all suggest you are in Germany, which lies just a few miles to the east across the River Rhine. This view is supported by two of the most widely planted grape varieties there being Riesling and Gewurztraminer. But despite times under German rule in the past, today Alsace is firmly in France – although many of the locals would probably say that they’re from Alsace first and France second.
The climate, too, is not quite what you’d expect: lying around 48˚N (similar to Champagne and more northerly than Chablis), and with Riesling and Gewurztraminer thriving, you’d be thinking it would be decidedly cool. Yet, thanks to the shelter of the Vosges Mountains to the west, Alsace is often one of the sunniest and driest regions in the whole of France, allowing more warmth-loving varieties such as Muscat, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to ripen, if planted in the right spots.
And Domaine Paul Blanck has certainly found those, with vineyards ideally situated around the village of Kientzheim, just north of Colmar.
His Pinot Noir (Waitrose, £14.99) is especially recommended. It’s a grape variety that can be very fussy – thin and tart if under-ripe, jammy if over-ripe – but Blanck has got it just right: quite restrained on the nose but with lovely ripe raspberry and cranberry flavours on the palate leading into a long fresh finish. The only sign that this comes from a relatively cool site is the modest (12.5%) alcohol, but, for me, that, too is a plus giving the wine elegance and style and making it really food-friendly: duck or turkey certainly, but the lowish tannin would also point to pairing it with some robust fish dish, say a tuna steak.
Although Pinot Noir is most famously grown in Burgundy, it’s also found (as Spätburgunder) in parts of Germany and this example from Alsace is, for me, closer to that country’s style. One more sign, perhaps, of this region looking two ways.
Pinot Noir is, undoubtedly, one of the fussiest and most difficult of all the major wine grapes to grow. Plant it somewhere too cold and it simply won’t ripen, too warm and you get coarse, jammy flavours and the ‘sweet spot’ between these two can be perilously small. It thrives, of course, in its French homeland, Burgundy, and there are some delightful examples elsewhere, including in Germany, Chile, New Zealand and the cooler parts of the USA (especially Washington State and Oregon but, despite the film ‘Sideways’, less frequently in California in my experience).
Obviously, you can forget much of Australia – it’s just too hot, although there a few areas where the cold Antarctic winds and tidal currents make the climate far cooler (and so Pinot Noir friendly) than you might expect from the latitude. Among these are the Great Southern region of Western Australia and Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. On the other hand, surprisingly, there is one part of Australia where it’s so cool that growers need to seek out sheltered spots with good exposure to the sun to ripen their Pinot Noir at all. That is the island state of Tasmania, about 100 miles south of the mainland which is, in fact, on the same latitude as New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
And it’s from Tasmania that Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir (Wine Society, £14.95) comes. I tasted it recently: a typical Burgundian ‘farmyardy’ nose greets you but this is followed on the palate by lovely raspberry and cranberry flavours, a hint of cinnamon and a really long, crisp finish. Given the price of good Pinots from elsewhere, I thought this was excellent value for money and an ideal match for our pan fried duck breasts with a honey and thyme sauce.
But, before I make you too hungry, I’ll end with a wine trivia question for you: what is the most westerly Designated wine region (Appellation Contrôlée or local equivalent) in mainland Europe? I’ve just enjoyed a wine from there and I’ll tell you about it next time.
“Will you run a wine tasting for me?” That’s a request I hear (fortunately!) quite frequently. After discussing a few practical aspects – numbers, dates, venue – I usually ask whether the client has a particular theme in mind. Different grape varieties, a ‘battle’ between Old World and New World wines or an individual country or region are popular choices and all make for good tastings. But, occasionally, someone will send me in a very different direction.
“Can we have a tasting of Eastern European wines” was a recent request – a first, as far as I can recall. And, of course, I said yes; it depends how you define ‘Eastern Europe’ -Germany, Austria and Hungary all make lovely wines – although I did recommend including South-Eastern Europe as well (Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and the former Yugoslav republics) as this would make a better and more varied evening.
So, do these countries produce anything worth drinking? Absolutely, yes! And, because they’re unfashionable, the wines they make are often remarkable value. You can even find them at High Street outlets – 3 of the bottles I selected were from Majestic and the other 3 from Waitrose.
Among the favourites on the night were Puklavec’s tangy, fresh Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Grigio from Slovenia (Waitrose, £7.99) and Aemilia’s chunky, dark-fruited Macedonian Shiraz/Vranac blend (also Waitrose, £7.49) – both brilliant value. But the clear winner was from Romania: Incanta’s Pinot Noir (Majestic, £6.99, if you buy it as part of a mixed 6 bottle case). Quite pale in colour (a fact, not a criticism) and reasonably light-bodied (only 12% alcohol) but full of lovely red fruit flavours – strawberries and redcurrants – and a clean, savoury, if slightly short, finish. This is an easy drinking yet satisfying wine that would work well on its own on a summer evening in the garden, slightly chilled, perhaps, or to accompany a seared tuna steak or baked chicken breast; nothing too heavy or robust to overwhelm it, though.
If the thought of a tasting like this (not necessarily the same theme) appeals and you’re close to Bristol, please leave me a message in the Comment box and I’ll get back to you.
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!