A Winter Warmer

It’s autumn (fall to my American readers). Or is it? Our TV weather presenters say that autumn began on September 1st while my calendar tells me that the equinox, which I thought marked the start of autumn, falls on September 23rd this year; so, by that measure, we still have a couple of weeks of ‘official’ summer left.

Whichever is right, it’s certainly beginning to feel autumnal here with chilly mornings and evenings and noticeably shorter daylight hours. And, at home, we’re already marking the changing year by putting away most of our lighter, summer recipes and moving towards some of our more robust, wintery dishes. With wines to match, of course!

Lupier

And where better to start my search for winter warmers than with Domaine Lupier’s El Terroir Garnacha (aka Grenache) from the under-rated Spanish region of Navarra (Wine Society, £17.50)? Its mix of intense red fruits with savoury, earthy flavours went perfectly with a chunky beef casserole. The intensity resulted from genuine old vines; I’ve mentioned before that the term has no official meaning, but here, some of the plantings date from 1903, making the vines well over 100 years old. The combination of a vast root system gained over this time and the naturally lower yields of ageing vines contributes a special depth of flavour to the wine.

The savoury, earthy flavours I noted arise mainly from a bit of bottle age; this wine was from the 2012 vintage, so 7 years old and having had an opportunity to mature and soften gently in bottle. Depending on your taste, some drinkers may already find it a little too mature, although I notice that the Wine Society suggests ‘now to 2023’ as a drinking window.

But we certainly enjoyed it and found it a perfect partner for our rich, flavoursome dish.

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Ribeira Sacra – for the adventurous

The Spanish DO (designated wine area) of Ribeira Sacra isn’t at all well-known – even among keen wine lovers. In fact, in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (nicknamed the ‘Winelovers’ Bible’ with good reason), it merits just 2 lines. And the Wine and Spirit Education Trust ignores it completely until students reach ‘Diploma’ level. But, based on the wines I’ve tasted from there, it’s certainly an area worth exploring – and not just for the adventurous.

So, where is Ribeira Sacra? Look to Spain’s far north-west where you find the cool, Atlantic-influenced region of Galicia, which is becoming increasingly popular due, in particular, to the high quality Albariño grape. This white variety thrives near the coast but, go just 50 miles or so inland, and it’s a local red grape, Mencia, that dominates in ancient, almost impossibly steep rocky vineyards; you’ll see the words ‘viticultura heroica’ on the label pictured. Growing vines here is heroic viticulture indeed!

MenciaBut, if you’d expect Regina Viarum Mencia (Wine Society, a bargain at £11.50) to reflect this harsh, uncompromising landscape with a wine of a similar character, you’d be wrong. It’s a wine that, for me, had the same silky smoothness of a nice Pinot Noir – interesting as some thought that Mencia might be related to that grape, although apparently not. This classy example is delightfully fresh with lovely slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through to give a refreshing and very satisfying red wine. Food-friendly as you might guess – but nothing too big or robust: partridge or duck, perhaps.

Ribeira Sacra’s production is tiny and wines from there may be difficult to find but, next door, in Bierzo, they also grow the Mencia grape and Majestic have a good example in Pizarras de Otero (£7.49).

Either way, this is a grape and a region worth getting to know.

Spain’s Unloved Hills

I’ve mentioned before in Bristol Wine Blog how much Spain has improved the quality and diversity of its wine over the last couple of decades.  Yet, I regularly meet wine lovers who, with the likely exception of Rioja, have still not caught up with the change and continue to think of Spain as just producing simple, mass market wines. 

And, I’m guessing the one region of Spain that, they believe, this comment most applies to is the hills in the south-east of the country overlooking the Mediterranean.  It’s an area that, in the past, was the source of much cheap ‘plonk’ sold to undemanding tourists holidaying along the beaches of the Costas and, no doubt, these bottles still exist.  But, look a little more carefully and there are some delicious wines – mainly reds – produced from old vineyards of Garnacha (also known as Grenache), Monastrell (Mourvedre) and the very local Bobal.  DO names (Spain’s equivalent to France’s AC) including Jumilla, Yecla and Utiel Requena are among those to seek out.

unde vinumUnde Vinum (Waitrose, £13.99), a Bobal from the last named DO is a typical example of all that’s best from this area.  Soft and harmonious and full of attractive black fruit flavours, there was also a lovely freshness about the wine reflecting, perhaps, the fact that the grapes were from vineyards some 800m (2500ft) above sea level; the altitude nicely offsetting the extreme summer heat often found in this area.

Interestingly, the wine was aged in a mixture of barrels and tinajas (clay pots – see below on the right of the cellar). 

amphorae at frederic magnienI saw these pots in use in Burgundy a couple of years ago where they were thought to age the wine more gently and preserve the fruit flavours.  They’re certainly not a cheap option and their use in Unde Vinum shows the sort of wine the producers of this wine, and others in this still unloved part of Spain, are aiming for.

A Week in Bristol – Part 2

Now that my crowded week of 4 tastings is behind me, it’s time to reflect on the final 2 events that I couldn’t fit into my Blog last time.

The first continued with the theme of Spain and Portugal with the added interest that my client asked me to choose wines from the ‘Hidden Corners’ of these 2 fascinating countries.  In fact, for many UK wine drinkers, most of Portugal and much of Spain (except, perhaps, Rioja and Cava) are ‘hidden’, so I had plenty of scope to make my selections.

20181115_182813_resized (2)

An early favourite was the Casal de Ventozela Alvarinho from northern Portugal (£9.99 – all the wines for this tasting were from Majestic).  Alvarinho is the same grape as Spain’s Albariño and this delightful, fresh white showed lovely peach and citrus flavours and a long fragrant finish.

But, it was a pair of Spanish reds that attracted the most praise – both for their quality and for their amazing bargain prices.  Pizarras de Otero (£7.49) was intensely fruity with aromas and flavours of ripe strawberries, plums and blackberries.  Made with the Mencia grape variety, local to the Bierzo district in north-west Spain, this reminded one taster of a young Pinot Noir.

The striking label on Matsu’s ‘El Picaro’ (£8.99) from Toro in the west of Spain (left-hand bottle, above) lists the grape variety as ‘Tinta de Toro’, but this is simply a local name for Spain’s best red grape, Tempranillo.  Bigger and richer than the Bierzo and with a little smokey spice and chocolate added to the black fruits, this would have been far more expensive if it had come from one of the better-known Tempranillo areas.

The last tasting of the week was another of my Saturday classes at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Adult Education Centre.  This time, my theme was ‘Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet’.  Despite the title, we did taste 2 examples of each of these grapes to explore their diverse flavours.  But it was one of the Cabernet alternatives that was unanimously voted as best wine of the day. 

20181117_152855_resized (2)Ironically, in view of the focus of my week, it came from Spain: Baron de Ley Rioja Reserva 2014 (Waitrose, £9) was beautifully mellow and spicy from 20 months ageing in oak but still young enough to allow the soft red fruits to show through.  A real delight at a very reasonable price, and a deserved winner.

As for me, after my busy week, it’s time to relax with a nice glass of wine

A Week in Bristol

I’ve blogged before about how this is my busiest time of the year but 4 tastings in 1 week is exceptional, even for my November schedule.  Interestingly, 3 of the 4 events focussed on Spain or Portugal – 2 countries whose wines have improved so much over the past 20 years or so.

The week started with Ed Adams MW at the Bristol Tasting Circle.  Ed, along with his business partner, South African Bruce Jack, is a winemaker in north-east Spain and showed 2 of his own wines – an attractive creamy white and a rich, intense red, both sold under the La Bascula label.  Then, in conjunction with Great Western Wines of Bath, we also tasted a range of other wines, all from the Basque or Catalan regions of Spain that Ed knows so well. 

BTC Spain 2It was hard to pick just one favourite but, both my wife and I loved the crisp, grapefruit flavoured white Adur Txakolina from the Basque country (£17.95) while, among the reds, Franck Massard’s El Brindis from the Montsant region (£12.50) was great value even though to get the best from this deep, weighty Cariñena/Garnacha blend would require real patience – perhaps 3 or 4 years.

The following evening, the Bristol-Oporto Twinning Association invited Alan Wright from Clifton Cellars to run a tasting for us.  Alan doesn’t believe in ‘run of the mill’ wines but one of his well-chosen selections was unique, even by his standards.  Oporto 1Quinta do Romeu’s ‘Westerlies’ (£14.75) was specially made and bottled for a journey under sail from Portugal to Bristol by the century-old trading ketch, the Bessie-Ellen.  Sadly, the old ship had to stop at Fowey for repairs but her cargo continued by road for us to enjoy.  Made from one of Portugal’s lesser-known grape varieties, Sousão, this red showed lovely black fruits and although quite deeply flavoured, had an attractive lightness about it.  Oporto 2Despite the temptation of the glorious, sweet Adega de Palma Moscatel de Setubal (£12.50) and others that we tasted, this had to be the wine of the night, if only for the wonderful story it told.

That only takes me as far as Tuesday and my tasting count is already well into double figures for the week (spitting out, of course!).  Perhaps I’d better defer blogging about the week’s other 2 tastings, both of which I was hosting, until next time.

Beyond Rioja

Think of Spain and the next word that comes to mind for a wine lover is probably Rioja.  And with good reason: some outstanding reds and many other very drinkable ones, whites in both traditional and modern styles and even the odd rosado (rosé).  But Spain is so much more than Rioja; it has the largest area of vineyard of any country in the world – yes, even more than France or Italy, even though they produce more wine – and almost everywhere you look, you can find interesting and different wines.

Basque whiteSometimes, you might not even realise that they’re Spanish at all.  Take Olatu’s Getariako Txakolina (Corks, £15.99) in its unusual blue, flute-shaped bottle; it’s from the Basque region of northern Spain but the only mention of its country of origin is in tiny print on the back label.  And to taste, too, it’s about as un-Spanish as it could be: to start, it’s only 11.5% alcohol – the result of the cool Atlantic winds and currents restricting the ripening of the local Hondarrabi Zuri grapes.  But, unlike many wines light in alcohol, this isn’t thin or sharp; you’ll find quite a bit of richness on the palate and attractive flavours of baked apples and spice.  There’s an apparent hint of sweetness in there, too, although the wine is actually bone dry, really refreshing and finishes quite long.

You might be tempted to think of it as an aperitif wine, as I did, but, in reality, the savoury flavours mean that it works much better with food, even with quite a robust dish like baked river trout on a bed of herbed toasted chickpeas.

Thinking of other Spanish whites – a white Rioja or Albariño from Galicia, perhaps, this couldn’t be more different; proof, if you still need some, that Spanish wines today are really worth looking out for and just so much more than Rioja.

Priorat Re-vitalised

Most wine drinkers will be familiar with the name ‘Cava’ although, according to a recent survey, surprisingly few who bought it knew where it came from.  The correct answer is, of course, Catalonia, but this region in the north-east of Spain has far more than just the popular sparkling wine to offer.  I’m thinking, in particular, of the marvellous, intense red wines from the remote hills of Priorat. 

Vines were first planted there by Carthusian monks in 12th century and wine has been made there ever since.  But, by the 1980s, Priorat’s vineyards were regularly being abandoned and the area was in danger of disappearing from the wine map.  It was so steep and the stony land so difficult to work that most of the traditional farmers found winemaking there uneconomic and the younger generation were lured towards jobs in the larger towns or the tourist resorts along the coast. 

But a small group, led by Rene Barbier, were moving in the opposite direction.  They recognised the potential in the very old bush vines of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carinena (Carignan) and in the unusual llicorella soil, comprised of decomposed slate and quartz, which reflects the heat and aids the ripening of these late-maturing varieties.  Now, some 30 years later, the area has been re-vitalised and is producing some outstanding wines and, although the most prestigious ones sell for £200 or more, you can find some extremely attractive bottles for a lot less.

PrioratTake Arc de Pedra, available from Majestic, for example (£12.99).  At first sip, you find lovely sweet red fruits but, as it develops in the glass, it reveals raisins, prunes and subtle hints of vanilla and toasted almonds.  As you might expect, this is a big wine (14%) but it is well balanced.  The 2016 vintage that we opened was still showing quite prominent tannins, and although it went well enough with the strong flavours of a venison steak, in truth I probably opened it a couple of years too soon.  But, whether you drink it now or keep it, it would certainly benefit from decanting a couple of hours in advance, a comment that would apply equally to most of the deep, brooding reds from this – happily – rediscovered area.