The Rare Roussanne

France’s Rhône Valley is best known for its red wines – think Châteauneuf du Pape, Hermitage and Côtes du Rhône.  But about 1 bottle in 5 produced there is white wine made from grape varieties such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Clairette, although you could be forgiven for not recognising any of these names; in common with much of France, the wines of the Rhône are labelled by region or village, rather than by grape variety.

This lack of familiarity has meant that, away from the immediate area and the Languedoc to the south-west, few producers have planted these varieties, preferring instead something that customers can identify with more easily: Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

There are, happily, a few exceptions to this: Tahbilk, based in Victoria, Australia, have been growing Marsanne since the 1860s and are still using vines planted in 1927 in their wines today – believed to be the oldest surviving Marsanne vines in the world.  I used to be a big fan of this wine but haven’t seen it on the shelves here for quite a while.

Perhaps the highest quality Rhône white variety, Roussanne, has found its way to California (although examples of the grape from there are rare in the UK).  But, on a more positive note, South Africa’s Franschhoek-based producer Bellingham’s Roussanne is available in Sainsbury’s supermarket (on offer at £9 just before Christmas, usually £11.99).  This is a delicious, full-bodied, unoaked mouthful with attractive floral aromas followed by complex flavours of ripe pear and pineapple leading to a long, rich, savoury finish.  Principally a food wine – something in a creamy sauce would match perfectly – although I’d also be happy drinking it as a tangy aperitif.  Even at full price, this is good value and highlights how much we are missing that this lovely, distinctive variety is not more widely planted.

Just one complaint (and a familiar one): why the ridiculously heavy bottle (840 grams empty)?  It’s not necessary to safely transport the wine to the UK so, please, Bellingham, consider the environment and lighten the load a little.

Go Wild!

The label says ‘Wild Ferment’ in big red letters. So, is this something special we ought to know about? Well, something interesting: yes; but something special: not really.
Before the middle of the 19th century and Louis Pasteur’s work, all wines would effectively have been ‘wild ferment’. Indeed, the earliest wines almost certainly happened in this way – by accident when some grapes were picked and left somewhere warm and the yeasts naturally present in the vineyard reacted with them to produce a sort of crude and basic wine. So, a wild ferment simply means using the naturally occurring yeasts.
The alternative to a wild ferment is the use of cultured yeasts. This really only took off in the 2nd half of the 20th century when the popularity of wine expanded and most bottles were bought from supermarkets. The new customers demanded a consistent product – not something that was always possible with wild ferments – and, as a result, many producers turned to cultured yeasts that could be controlled and standardised to give a more predictable outcome.
But others thought that using cultured yeasts destroyed any sense of ‘terroir’ – the distinctive taste of the individual vineyard – and have remained with (or gone back to) using wild yeasts instead. These producers are in the minority today hence the specific mention of the words on the bottle label.
And the wine itself? Delheim’s Chenin Blanc is a fresh, grassy white from Stellenbosch in South Africa (Wine Society, £10.95). The attractive herby nose is followed by quite a full and complex palate. There’s subtle spicy, savoury flavours from partial barrel fermentation and a few months left on its lees (the dead yeast cells that keep working even after the fermentation has finished). And plenty of ripe melon and peach, too. All topped off with a long mouth-filling finish.
So, does the wild ferment make a difference? It’s difficult to say but I found quite a distinctive character about this wine that says more than ‘this is a simple Chenin Blanc’. And it’s a real bargain at just over a tenner.

South Africa Emerges

It’s almost 30 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison and South Africa began to emerge from the bleak days of apartheid. Many things have changed since then, not least their wine industry, which was in a sorry state. By contrast, today, that country is producing some really high quality bottles.

So, I was particularly pleased when the Bristol Tasting Circle invited Duncan Pilbeam, from the historic Babylonstoren Estate north of Stellenbosch, to talk to us and show us some of the estate’s wines.

We began with Sprankel (£31.99), a soft, fresh traditional-method sparkling wine made from Chardonnay grown at altitude. More than 4 years on its lees gave it a savoury, biscuity character.

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A quartet of whites followed – a Chenin Blanc, a Viognier and a ‘farm blend’, all well-made and pleasant easy drinking, but, for me, the standout white was the Chardonnay (£19.99). Almost Burgundian in nature with well-judged, subtle oak and lovely rounded tropical fruit flavours; this would be even better with food – something rich and creamy making a perfect partner.

I expected the reds to be better than the whites and so it proved. The Cabernet Sauvignon (£15.99) had a pure eucalyptus nose and rich black fruits on the palate while the Shiraz (£16.99) was a chunky mouthful with an attractive smoky edge. Both were food wines and both would improve for a further couple of years in bottle at least.

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The evening’s final wine, the Estate’s flagship, Nebukadnesar (£27.99), is a blend of the 5 main Bordeaux grapes, aged in new French oak barrels for 2 years. This is a big wine that, again, is still very young – even decanted 3 hours before tasting, the tannins were still really prominent. Like so much in South Africa, it’s a wine for the future, but you will need to be patient.

For more information about any of the wines mentioned or to buy, contact the Wine Shop at Winscombe (www.thewinetastingco.com)

What’s in a Name?

Naming is vital. Get it right, and your product is on everyone’s lips; on the other hand, failing to check what your wonderful name means in other languages can be disastrous. Take the car company Vauxhall, for example. They named a car ‘Nova’; that’s great in English but, in a number of European languages, No va means ‘it doesn’t go’ – hardly the basis for a good marketing strategy!

In wine, too, names have been used to good effect: to my mind, one of the best is the South African producer who mocked Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages perfectly with Goats do Roam and Goats do Roam in Villages, although I also like the style of an American grower, annoyed that he wasn’t allowed to use the name ‘port’ for his fortified port-style wine, called it Starboard!

And then there are the attempts to attract buyers with particular interests: some friends of ours, knowing that I love cricket, shared a bottle called ‘Men in White Coats’ with us recently.

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(For non cricket-lovers among you, I should explain that cricket umpires traditionally wear white coats and the raised finger gesture on the label is the umpire’s signal that the batsman is out and his innings is over). The wine itself – a clean, crisp, easy-drinking Viognier from South Africa – was, however, less of a talking point during the evening than the name, which, to all of us, had another, less flattering, meaning.

Back in our youth, when someone was behaving strangely, it was often said that the men in white coats would soon be coming to get that person – the men in question being the nursing staff at a local facility for the mentally ill.

So, did our friends’ bottle really refer to the cricket or were they thinking of the current state of the country here in England?