Category Archives: Rhone wines

A Glorious Grenache

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Some grape varieties are always being talked about: I’m thinking of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in particular as well as more recently fashionable grapes like Grüner Veltliner and Alboriño.  Others, you rarely hear anything about.  Take Grenache, for example (or Garnacha, if you prefer the Spanish naming).  Even in the 1990 census, when it was the 2nd most widely planted variety in the world, no-one took much notice of it, it was just there, usually in a blend with other grapes: with Syrah in the southern Rhône, with Tempranillo in Rioja.  And, it was rarely credited on labels – although the Australians used the initial for their ‘GSM’ blends (the SM being Shiraz and Mourvedre).

So, I wasn’t entirely surprised when the latest grape census (University of Adelaide, 2011) showed that more than a third of all Grenache had been grubbed up in the intervening 20 years and the variety had slipped from 2nd to 7th place.  Yet, I think it’s a great grape variety when well handled and, happily, there are still some glorious examples around.  Perrin & Fils’ Gigondas Vieilles Vignes (West End Wines, £22) is one. 

GigondasDeep, intense and really savoury, this wine, from one of the best villages of the southern Rhône, shows the benefit of making wine from old vines (vieilles vignes) – in this case, according to the label, from pre-phylloxera vines (so, by my calculations, vines that are at least 140 years old – the deadly bug struck the region in the 1870s!)

Unusually for the appellation, this Gigondas is made from 100% Grenache, which probably accounts for the high alcohol (15%).  Although typical of this sun-loving, free-ripening variety, here, with all the other flavour elements in balance, there’s no burn and the alcohol complements rather than intruding.

So, while Grenache may never be as popular as Cabernet or Pinot Noir, look carefully and you’ll find some really great drinking.

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Bordeaux, Burgundy or…?

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When you buy your wine, do you focus on Bordeaux, Burgundy and the other traditional regions of France or, do think, as one friend of mine said, that these areas are living in the past and trading on a reputation that is no longer justified?  For me, that criticism is a little harsh, but I can understand that many find wines from California or Australia are just so much more approachable and usually better value. 

But, I wanted to put the traditional areas to the test and so I advertised a course entitled ‘The Classic Wines of France’ at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre – a good move as the day was fully booked in record time with a waiting list!  No pressure then!  I just had to find the wines for my eager group to taste.

I wanted plenty of variety and so chose 4 wines from each of Bordeaux and Burgundy plus 2 each from the Loire and Rhône.  And, when I asked the group to choose their favourites at the end of the day, the results were very close with a single vote separating the top 4 wines.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the opposition, the 2 Loire whites shared top spot:

2017-11-16 10.43.18Bertrand Jeannot’s steely fresh Pouilly Fumé (Wine Society, £13.50) showed the benefit of extended lees ageing, while the crisp, fragrant demi-sec Vouvray from Château de Montfort (Waitrose, £11.99) had already been a winner at a previous wine course of mine, having been chosen by those who came to the ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’ day earlier in the year.

But reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy (both from the Wine Society) were close behind:  2017-11-16 10.44.11Château Sénéjac is everything you’d hope a Bordeaux red would be – lovely black fruits and just a hint of tannin; the only surprise is the price: £12.95 – a reflection, I suppose, that it is only an AC Haut-Medoc and not something grander.  No such bargains, sadly, from Burgundy but the group clearly thought Domaine Tollot-Beaut’s Chorey-les-Beaune justified its price tag (£23) with the typical, slightly perfumed Côtes de Beaune style of Pinot Noir coming through particularly well. 

So, is the reputation of these areas justified?  I think the day proved conclusively yes!  Provided you’re prepared to pay a little beyond every day prices, the ‘Classic’ areas of France certainly offer some delightful and very drinkable wines that really shouldn’t be ignored by any wine lover.

Too Young? Too Old?

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I guess that anyone reading this Blog enjoys drinking wine but many will think it’s almost as enjoyable talking about it and discussing it.  And from there, it’s just a small step to arguing about it!  Of course, such arguments can never really be resolved – we’ve all got our own likes and dislikes and everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them.  So, when a good friend of mine tells me (as he does regularly) that I always open bottles when they’re too young and I, in return, accuse him of leaving them until they’re well past their best, we’re both right in our own minds.

But, a couple of bottles my wife and I have enjoyed recently have made me wonder if I should have a bit of a re-think.  I ordered a bottle of Moulin-a-Vent, one of the village Beaujolais, when we tried an excellent new Bristol restaurant, Box E, last week.  Now, I would expect to drink this within, perhaps, 3 or 4 years of harvest at most, yet the bottle I was served (a 2009 vintage) was deliciously fresh with lovely fruit and, despite already being more than 7 years old, clearly would have had several more years of pleasurable drinking ahead of it.

And then, at the weekend, we opened a bottle of Fayolle’s ‘Sens’ Crozes Hermitage (Corks of Cotham, £15.99).

  CrozesThis one was 6 years old (2010) but was full of silky, youthful blackberry fruit flavours and hints of pepperiness.  But, accompanying this were distinct tannins – showing a wine that was still young and, indeed, would certainly improve if carefully stored.  (A word of warning: decant this before serving and pour carefully as you’ll find plenty of sediment in the bottle).

So, this leaves me with the question: should I wait a few years before opening all my 2015 and 2016 wines?  Probably not!  But, I may take a chance on a few and will, hopefully, be pleasantly surprised.  And, if you’re like me, why not try the same? 

One final thought: if you open something in a few years time and wish you’d have drunk it sooner, you’ll probably have forgotten that it was me who suggested it!

 

Sotanum – a Roman wine reborn

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Look at most maps of France’s vineyards and they will show a vine-free area between the southernmost tip of Beaujolais and the first of the Northern Rhône Appellations, the Côte Rôtie. Part of that gap is taken up by the town (and gastronomic paradise) of Lyon, but, still, the complete absence of vines is difficult to explain.

It wasn’t always like that. Indeed, in Roman times, contemporary writings note that the vineyards of this area, on the hills overlooking the small town of Vienne, were highly regarded. Black grapes, known as Vitis allobrogica (the ancestor of Syrah, or Pinot Noir, perhaps?) were grown here and 3 wines, Sotanum, Taburnum and Heluicum were made, each from particular vineyards.

And, although these names died out, vines continued to grow here and wine was made from them until the middle of the 19th century when disaster, in the form of a tiny vine-root eating aphid, phylloxera, wiped out these and many other vineyards across Europe and beyond.

Many vineyards were replanted in the early part of the 20th century, but these weren’t and remained abandoned and ignored – until 1996, when a group of 3 growers from a few miles further south, got together to revive winemaking in this area. About 25 acres of Syrah vines were planted. Les Vins de Vienne were born. And, to celebrate the revival, one of the ancient names, Sotanum, was used for the modern wine.

I recently had the opportunity to taste a bottle from the year 2000. This was only the second vintage made after the replanting and the vines were still very young – only 4 years old. Often vines won’t produce their best fruit until they’ve been established for 10 – 15 years, at least. But, in this case, the vines had produced a wine that was delicious and full of flavour. It had matured magnificently in the 11 years since harvest – smooth and rich, but not heavy and a perfect accompaniment to some pan-fried venison steaks.

A lovely wine and a piece of history. I look forward to tasting a more recent vintage which should show even more complexity as the vines establish themselves. Now, all we need is for the wine maps to be corrected.