My Favourite Lesson

I used to hate History and Geography lessons when I was at school; I could see no point in learning about things that had happened long ago or in places I was never likely to visit.  Of course, as the years passed, I’ve realised how wrong I was and how much history and geography influence so many aspects of the world we live in.

Take wine for example. 

I opened a bottle of Gérard Bertrand’s Saint-Chinian recently (Grape & Grind, £14.25) and my attention was drawn to the date 1877 on the label.  Clearly that wasn’t the vintage but, turning the bottle round, I found the explanation: 1877 was the year that the first railway line opened linking that part of the south of France with Paris.  Suddenly, the market for the local growers expanded enormously although the boom was short-lived as the deadly phylloxera bug was already wreaking havoc among the region’s wines.

Recovery was slow and erratic and it’s only in the last 30 years or so that the wines of the Languedoc (of which Saint-Chinian is part) have moved from being simple cheap quaffers to something more interesting, like Bertrand’s example.  Made from a blend of 2 high quality grapes, Syrah and Mourvedre, both of which thrive in the hot, sunny conditions of the south of France, this is, undoubtedly, a big wine – the label says 15% – but it’s so well balanced that you would never realise how alcoholic it was.  Lovely flavours of blackberries, herbs and a hint of chocolate together with some smokiness from part barrel-ageing make this an attractive rounded wine to drink.  It would pair particularly well with a robust casserole or grilled or roast meat and benefits from decanting to soften the tannins.

If only history and geography had been explained this way while I was at school!

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Not So Traditional

When I see a wine with the word ‘Tradition’ in its name, I get an immediate sense of the taste I expect when I open the bottle.  And that’s particularly true when the label is as classic and restrained as that pictured above.  Depending on where the wine is from, I’m thinking of an old-fashioned style of claret or Burgundy or, perhaps, a Rhône. 

Domaine Richeaume’s Tradition (Wine Society, £16.50) is none of those.  It comes from Provence, in the south of France, North-East of Marseille, an area best known for rosés and simple, everyday drinking reds.  But it’s neither of those either!  In fact, it’s so far from the traditions of the area that it can’t claim any of the local ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ designations, being sold, simply, as an IGP Méditerranée (part of the category formerly known as ‘Vin de Pays d’Oc’).

But it’s far from a simple wine; it’s a delicious, full-bodied (14% alcohol), rich, spicy red packed with lots of juicy black berry and attractive dried fruit flavours, hints of leather and a long savoury finish.  A lovely food-friendly wine just crying out for a good rare steak.

So, why do the producers call it ‘Tradition’ when, as I’ve suggested, it’s nothing of the sort?  My guess is that they’re trying to get over the fact that everything is done carefully by hand, the grapes are harvested at very low yields to maintain intensity of flavour and quality and that the Estate is fully organic (which all vineyards would once have been before the introduction of artificial fertilisers).

On the other hand, they’ve ignored 2 of the most important traditional local grape varieties – Carignan and Cinsault – and the only ‘native’ grape that appears in the blend is Grenache (and that comprises only 15%). Instead, we have Syrah as the key component (widely planted in the south of France now but originally from the Northern Rhône) mixed with more recent arrivals from Bordeaux in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the definitely untraditional (to this area) Tempranillo – a grape from over the border in Spain’s Rioja region. 

Clearly, I didn’t get the wine I was expecting from a quick look at the label, but I did get something delicious and at a ‘buy again’ price.