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.

Sherry 3

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.

Sherry 2

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.

Italy: Not so Confusing

Italy is the 2nd largest supplier of wine to UK – behind Australia and just in front of USA. But, despite this popularity, I think most UK customers are missing the best Italy has to offer. The biggest sellers here include bargain-basement Pinot Grigio and Prosecco plus other famous names such as Chianti, Soave, Valpolicella and Frascati. Sadly, all of these can disappoint as often as they thrill.

Other wine drinkers in the UK simply ignore Italy completely: ‘it’s all just too confusing’ is a frequent comment. And one that I understand. The problem is that Italy produces so much wine and is so diverse that it’s hard to pick the real gems from the mass of ordinary bottles that are alongside them on the shelves.

SL Italy 3 (2)

A few pointers are always useful and that is just what I tried to give those who signed up for my recent course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. We tasted a dozen wines over the day including examples from half of Italy’s 20 regions. Of the whites, the clean, fresh Nord Est Vermentino from Sardinia (Majestic, £8.99) with its delightful pear and peach flavours was clearly most popular but the reds produced much more discussion and divided opinions.

SL Italy 2 (2)

I said earlier that Chianti can often disappoint but Medici Riccardi’s Classico Riserva that I found in Lidl for less than £7 proved to be an incredible bargain. Its dusty, slightly bitter black fruit flavours and attractive smokiness made it one of the group favourites. Sadly, I see it has disappeared from their website and so may already be sold out.

The other joint winner among the reds is, happily, still available. Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso (Majestic, £11.99) was full of figs and dried fruit flavours typical of the ‘Ripasso’ process. This is where a young wine is re-fermented on the skins of an Amarone wine, so picking up some of the richer, fuller character that comes from the drying process used for Amarones.

No-one went away an expert on Italian wines – that would take a lifetime – but most were convinced that it was worth looking beyond the confusion to discover the marvellous diversity.

Durif: a Surprise Winner

oz tastingAustralia is a vast country; west to east it’s almost the same size as the United States or, if you want to compare it to Europe, it would stretch from Portugal to Turkey.  So, even though most of Australia’s vineyards are concentrated in the southern third of the country, there is such a diverse range of climatic conditions that you can find virtually any wine style there.  And, even better, Australia has the skilled winemakers able to make the best of those conditions.

Given that, perhaps I should have set aside more than a single day to run a course on the subject, but those who joined me at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge centre recently had plenty to think about – and to taste.

60% of the grapes harvested in Australia each year are from just 3 grape varieties – Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – and we tasted some attractive examples of each of those.  Other familiar styles such as Eden Valley Riesling, Yarra Pinot Noir and Hunter Semillon also featured and showed very well.  But, in the vote to choose the favourite wine of the day, all were comprehensively defeated by a red wine made from an obscure variety that hardly anyone in the group had previously heard of:

oz tasting durifDurif was first propagated in the Rhône in south-west France in the 1880s, but, these days, is more commonly seen in California, where it’s usually known as Petite Sirah and, as I discovered when I bought De Bortoli’s 1628 Durif in Majestic (£8.99), there are also plantings in the Riverina District of New South Wales.  Rich, chunky and full bodied with intense black fruits, a decided spicy tang and firmish tannins, this was a wine that I thought might divide opinion.  But no!  It proved to be one of the clearest winners I remember.

It obviously thrives in Australia’s heat and looks to be a useful variety there for the future.

 

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.

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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 ‘Blind’ Challenge

Two glassesTwo glasses of wine; you’re told that they’re from the same region and the same blend of grapes but nothing else – except that one is from the bargain basement shelf (£4.50), the other more than twice as expensive (£11).  How confident would you be of distinguishing which was which?

That’s the challenge I gave to a group recently during one of the day courses I was running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  How did they do?  All except 1 person got it right!

So, are ‘blind’ challenges easy?  It depends on what you’re being asked to do.  Those where you have to completely identify a wine are difficult – no, let’s be honest – they’re bordering on impossible unless you’re an expert in that particular type of wine.  However, simply having to pick the better quality wine is much easier.  In fact, as I told my group, you need to ignore what the wines taste like and just concentrate on two aspects:

Firstly, which of the wines has greater length in the mouth?  By this, I mean, when you have tasted both and swallowed or spat them out, which has flavours that remain in your mouth for longer?  Better wines usually have more staying power while cheaper ones, however attractive at first, disappear very quickly.

If that doesn’t answer the question, then see how many different flavours you can pick in each wine.  Complexity is always a sign of a good wine and the more different flavours, the better.

By choosing a £4.50 wine as one of the players, I actually made the test much easier than if I had asked the group to compare, say, a £10 and a £20 wine.  In the UK, the way we tax our wines means that, proportionally, a cheap wine bears a higher rate of duty than a more expensive one.  Stripping out this and other non-wine costs (the bottle, transport, retailer’s profit, etc) meant that the wine alone in the dearer bottle was worth not twice the cheaper but closer to 10 times as much.  A tip for us all!

Bordeaux, Burgundy or…?

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.

Wine Rivers – Revisited

Back last autumn, I blogged about a series of evening classes I was running at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre under the title ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’.  Each week, I chose one of Europe’s rivers and we talked about and tasted the wines that are produced along its length and the influence of the river on those wines.  But, not everyone could give up 5 evenings and so, last Saturday, I ran an abbreviated version in just 1 day.  Despite leaving out a big chunk of the original material and only tasting 12 wines instead of 30, we still explored the importance of rivers to many of the wines we drink.  They affect climate – warming or cooling the area and helping to cut down on the effects of frost, they scour out deep channels with steep banks providing great exposure to the sun and better drainage and, in days when road transport was difficult, they were the easiest way to transport heavy cargoes – like wine – from one place to another.

The rivers I chose – the Loire, Rhône, Rhine, Danube and Douro/Duero – provided a wonderful diversity of wines, from a delicate Rhine Riesling to a rich, sweet LBV port and plenty in between.  And the class favourites on the day were equally diverse with 3 joint winners:

2017-05-19 12.26.50Château de Montfort’s Vouvray (Waitrose, £9.99) was clean and refreshing and just a little off-dry making it a perfect aperitif or a match for light summer meals or picnics. 

2017-05-19 12.27.25Peter and Ulrich Griebeler’s Dry Riesling from the Mosel (Majestic, £10.99) showed just how successful and attractive this modern take on German wine can be – delicate with lovely apple and ripe pear flavours and a really long clean finish. 

2017-05-19 12.28.49Of the reds, Lamatum’s Ribera del Duero Crianza (Majestic, £8.99) was a clear winner.  Made from 100% Tempranillo, this is grown high on Spain’s Central Plateau where the hot summer days are offset by cool nights giving a weighty but well balanced and black-fruited red – one that might be even better in a year or two.

In their different ways, each of the wines showed the effects of their closeness to rivers and the whole group agreed that this relationship was a fascinating topic to explore.

My next courses at Stoke Lodge will be after the summer break.  Log on to www.bristolcourses.com in a month or so when full details will be available and booking open.