Sherries to Inspire

What better theme for a tasting at this time of the year than ‘Sherry, Port and Madeira’? Although sales of all alcoholic drinks peak around now, wine merchants will tell you that these 3 are particularly seasonal. And so, for my latest day course at Stoke Lodge in Bristol, I took along a selection of old favourites combined with some less well-known bottles hoping to inspire the group of enthusiasts who signed up.

As the Ports and Madeiras all had an element of sweetness in them, I began with the sherries and the most delicate and driest of all, a Fino.

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La Ina is widely available around £9.50 but its purity of flavour and length suggests something much more expensive. While grapes for a Fino can be grown anywhere within the Jerez region of south-west Spain, the Manzanilla vineyards are nearer the coast around the town of Sanlucar de Barameda, giving that sherry a slightly salty tang. My choice, a Pasada (£11.95 from the Wine Society), is a particular kind of Manzanilla which has spent around 7 years in barrel, giving a more mellow, nutty flavour.

Sherry 1

Oloroso sherries are altogether richer and fuller in taste and are a much darker colour. Many are sweetened before bottling but I found a delicious dry example in Lustau’s Almacenista range (£17.99, Waitrose Cellar) – as smooth as any I have tasted.

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For the final sherry, I went to the opposite extreme: the lusciously sweet, almost treacly Tio Toto Pedro Ximenez (Wine Society, £13.95). Pedro Ximenez, or PX to its friends, is often used to sweeten other sherries but here, on its own, it would make a perfect accompaniment to Christmas Pudding or – my favourite – poured over good quality vanilla ice cream. It also paired nicely with some chocolate cake generously brought along by one of the class to celebrate a birthday.

And then we broke for lunch. A good place to end this Blog. Next time, I’ll tell you about the equally delightful Madeiras and Ports I shared with the group in the afternoon.

Rioja at Bar 44

While we were enjoying a delicious tapas lunch at our new favourite wine bar, Bar 44 in Clifton, we noticed a Rioja dinner advertised at the same venue. 6 delicious-sounding courses each accompanied by a matching wine. We booked straight away and we weren’t disappointed.

Tempranillo is the main grape for Rioja’s reds but, as with most red wine grapes, its pulp is colourless so, by careful pressing you can also make an attractive white wine which, here, was served as aperitif and with the opening scallop starter.  Pumpkin gazpacho followed alongside a second white: an old favourite of ours, the complex and subtly oaky Murrieta Capellania.

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The next 3 courses, a risotto, some wonderful lamb with aubergine and roast fennel and some rosemary infused manchego cheese allowed us to explore the range of ageing and oaking that typifies Rioja. Quinta Milú’s unoaked young example was full of simple red fruits, while Beronia’s Reserva 2014, made, unusually with Mazuelo (perhaps better known as Carignan) rather than Tempranillo, had a lovely blend of fruit and gentle smokiness, although will, in my view, be rather better after a further 2 or 3 years in bottle.

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The final red, served with the cheese, was Beronia’s Gran Reserva 2010. I mainly avoid Gran Reservas as, in the past, I’ve often found them dried out and vegetal from just too long sitting in oak barrels. Not here! This was fresh with just the perfect mix of young fruit and spicy, oaky complexity.

The beautiful, tasty dessert of pears prepared 3 ways provided an ideal foil for a not over-sweet dessert wine.

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Bodegas Vivanco’s blend of 4 late-harvested red varieties was an unusual but successful choice with a lovely honeyed nose and palate of red fruits with a certain nuttiness.

What stood out for us in this evening was not just the quality of the food, nor even the interesting nature of the wines but, above all, the care and respect for both the food and the wines that was obvious in the pairing of the two. Congratulations to Bar 44.

 

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.

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.

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.

‘Use By’ Dates for Wine?

There’s been lots of talk in the press here recently about the use of ‘Best Before’ or ‘Use by’ dates on food packaging and whether products are safe to eat after the date shown.  But how about wine?  Does it have a shelf life and, if it does, should it, too, have a recommended date on it?

I certainly don’t recall ever seeing such a date on a wine bottle but I generally advise that most white wines bought in supermarkets and cheaper bottles (say under £10) bought elsewhere are normally best within about a year of purchase; for red wines, you can probably extend this to two years.  The wine should still be perfectly safe even after this time, but wine matures and changes when it is in the bottle and so it may be past its best if left too long.

On the other hand, many (usually more expensive) wines take much longer than this to reach their peak and it would be a shame to open them too early.  Often, good wine merchants and websites will quote ‘drinking windows’ – the period during which they suggest a wine is likely to be at its best.  But these are only a guide; everyone’s taste is different and, unless you know the wine, deciding when you should open any particular bottle is, unfortunately, a bit of trial and error.

A wine I think is drinking perfectly now is Faustino 1 Rioja Gran Reserva 2004 (Sainsbury’s, £15). 

Faustino 1It is already 13 years old and has spent more than 2 years in oak barrels and a further 3 years at the winery (as required by the ‘Gran Reserva’ designation).  Yet, when I took it along to a tasting recently, a couple of my colleagues suggested that it needed still more time or, at least, should have been opened earlier in the evening to further soften the tannins.

I’m not convinced but, as I said before, everyone’s taste is different.  However, this is certainly a wine made to be drunk with food and its mellow, harmonious flavours would work well with so many of the rich dishes that are likely to be on the table over the festive season.

What’s in a Name?

Flower and BeeThere are many good reasons for choosing a bottle of wine: something you’ve enjoyed before, a recommendation, a wine on special offer.  And then there are the impulse buys; I’m sure most of us have made those on occasions.  “I wonder what that wine’s like?” as we pick up a bottle that our eye is drawn to.  And the wine pictured above must be a prime candidate for that sort of purchase: unusually named ‘The Flower and the Bee’ and, with a label reflecting the name and even the foil over the cork in yellow and black ‘bee’ colours, the entire packaging of this wine says ‘look at me’.  And ‘buy me’, of course.

But the design is not the only reason for giving this wine a try: it’s on the Association of Wine Educators list of the top 100 wines under £25 and, having tasted it (bought from Grape and Grind in Bristol, £13.99), I can confirm that it fully deserves its place.

It’s a delicious unoaked dry white from the Ribeiro region in the north-west of Spain, made from the local Treixadura grape.  Quite peachy and fresh on the nose leading to a rich, full flavoured mouthful with lovely peach and ripe pear flavours and a good, long finish.  Although I’d be happy to drink it on its own, it’s also a great food wine: ideal for some white fish in a creamy sauce.

So, why ‘The Flower and the Bee’?  The wine comes from the Coto de Gomariz estate which is run organically (although not certified as such) and is moving towards biodynamic methods which involve nurturing the entire eco-system of the estate; the flowers and the bees are as important as the grapes to the producers and the naming and the label reflect that.

It’s a neat idea and certainly good marketing.  But, try the wine and I’m sure you’ll buy it again – regardless of the eye-catching packaging.