Compare and Contrast

compare

“Compare and Contrast” – probably a phrase familiar to anyone who has ever sat or set an exam. But the idea is also a basic part of wine tasting. I tried the 2 bottles pictured above on successive days recently and I was struck by how similar the 2 wines were in both their style and characteristics.

Now, some of you might have expected that – they’re both made from 100% Chardonnay, after all – but I didn’t. Chardonnay is the most variable of all the major grape varieties and the wines it makes are very dependent on where it is grown and what happens in the winery – think of a Chablis compared to a big oaky example from a warmer corner of California or Australia and you’ll know what I mean.

So, the fact that these 2 were grown, by my calculation, some 8000 miles apart in 2 different continents with very different climates and conditions made me expect 2 very different wines. But I was wrong!

The Montagny (Majestic Wine, £10.99), made from old vines (Vieilles Vignes on the label) by the always reliable co-operative in the southern Burgundy village of Buxy, was attractively crisp with peach, apple and lemon zest aromas and flavours and a slightly savoury, buttery texture.

The Cono Sur (£1 dearer, also from Majestic) is from a single vineyard barely 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. The closeness of the sea and the influence of the Humboldt Current straight from the Antarctic keeps this vineyard much cooler than might be expected from its 34° South latitude and results in a lovely, well-balanced wine, again with lemon and red apple flavours and a long creamy finish.

Either would be perfect drunk, slightly chilled, on their own as an aperitif or with dishes featuring elegant, creamy sauces.

‘Compare and Contrast’ questions in exams were never as enjoyable to tackle as this tasting proved!

The Coffee Test

How do you like your coffee? Black? With Milk?

Coffee Test

That may sound a strange question on a Wine Blog but one man doesn’t think so. I was watching an episode of ‘The Wine Show at Home’ on You Tube recently and the presenter, Joe Fattorini, mentioned Master of Wine Tim Hanni’s ‘coffee test’. I’d not heard of it before but Tim believes that, depending on your answers to 5 simple questions, you can find out the type of wines you ought to be buying. I was fascinated, so googled the questions:

  1. Do you prefer your coffee/tea black?
  2. Do you like the taste of scotch?
  3. Do you prefer salty snacks over sweet snacks?
  4. Do you prefer semi-sweet dark chocolate to sweet milk chocolate?
  5. Do you think that cream/sugar in coffee/tea ruins it?

For every ‘yes’, score 2 points, for a ‘sometimes’ or ‘maybe’ score 1 point and for ‘no’ score 0.

Then add up your points. The higher you score (maximum 10), the more tolerant you are likely to be of intensely flavoured or tannic wines (or, similarly, powerfully flavoured foods). So, if you are up around 7 – 10 points, you’ll enjoy strongly flavoured foods but also big, rich, flavoursome wines.  You may find lighter wine styles quite insipid.

Scores between 4 – 6 show some sensitivity to tannins, bitterness and acidity in wine. You’ll probably prefer smooth reds and lighter whites, although may grow to appreciate some fuller flavoured reds or whites. As for foods, you’ll be happy with a range of tastes.

If you scored 3 or fewer, you are hyper-sensitive to tastes (and, as a result, would be a very good wine taster). Tannins, bitterness and acidity in wine will all hit you hard and you’ll prefer more delicate reds, lighter, more subtle whites and will delight in elegant, restrained food flavours.

My wife and I both did the test. I scored 4 which is, perhaps, a bit lower than I might have expected, but Hilary’s score, 7, is almost the opposite of the truth.

So, based on this very limited sample, I have some doubts, but do try the coffee test for yourself and I’d be interested to hear how it works for you.

Red or White?

white and red

I saw an interview recently with someone who claimed one of their ‘hidden skills’ was to be able to distinguish between red and white wine blindfold, so just by tasting. What’s so clever about that? Surely, it’s easy!

Well, no! There have been a number of studies carried out where people have been asked to do just that and the results, surprisingly, have almost always been that most only get it right half the time.

So, during these extra days spent at home, why not put on a blindfold and experiment for yourself? Ask someone to pour you 2 glasses and taste. And here’s a simple tip: look for tannin – that’s the drying sensation that you feel on your cheeks or gums when you taste red wine. Tannin comes mainly from grape skins and, as red wines are fermented in contact with their skins to produce the colour, you also get the tannin. For white wines, on the other hand, the winemaker usually separates the juice from the skins before fermentation and therefore, there’s little detectable tannin in the wine.

It’s not 100% guaranteed, however: as red wines age, they soften and their tannin becomes more integrated into the wine and so less noticeable, so that might mislead. Also, some wines, like simple Beaujolais, for example, are made using a different type of fermentation (it’s called carbonic maceration if you want to look it up!) which produces rather less tannin than a ‘normal’ fermentation. So that, too, might put you off track.

And how about white wines? Will they never have any tannin? Well, they might. Especially the currently fashionable so-called ‘orange’ wines – these are made using white wine grapes but fermented partly with the skins as a red wine would be. But, it would be a bit of a low trick if someone would give you one of these as your test.

But do have a try; it’s good fun and interesting – and you’ve got some wine to enjoy after you’ve finished. But, remember: no cheating and peaking out from behind the blindfold!

Tasting Skills Tested

20200131_210228What better way to mark the final evening of the UK’s membership of the European Union than a wine tasting evening organised by the Bristol-Oporto Twinning Association? The Association fosters links and arranges exchange visits between Bristol and Oporto, the Portuguese city from whom Bristol has bought goods, particularly port, for centuries.  And, for this meeting, we also welcomed representatives from two of Bristol’s other Twinning groups, Bordeaux and Hannover.

The event was hosted by Alan, the owner of Clifton Cellars, one of Bristol’s best independent wine merchants, who brought along a selection of wines with bottles and labels concealed and challenged the group to identify the grape or region, country of origin and price of each. ‘Blind’ tastings border on the impossible, even for wine professionals like me, so I approached the evening with some trepidation – fully justified, as it turned out, even with Alan’s helpful hints!

As we discovered when all was revealed, our test began with the smooth, creamy Talmard Macon Chardonnay with its lovely ripe fruit on the palate. By contrast, the 2nd white, a Rioja, Viña Real, showed a decidedly spicy, oaky character. These were followed by a trio of reds which, as Alan suggested, were even more tricky to identify. The first, Ca’ Vittoria Appassimento from Italy, was made from partially dried grapes in the style of an Amarone, but without that wine’s usual heaviness (or sky-high price!) Next, a Portuguese red – inevitable, I suppose, given that this was an Oporto Twinning Association meeting. Vina do Mouro had the fresh, blackcurrant aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon enhancing the flavours of a blend of Portugal’s native grapes.

All too soon we had reached the final wine – a nicely balanced and satisfying Merlot-dominated red Bordeaux, Château Trébiac from the Graves region. And then it was time to add up the scores which showed that 2 members of the group had achieved more than 70% correct. As Alan himself said, the winners’ bottle prizes could not have been more well deserved.

A delicious cheese and paté buffet ended the evening – a chance to chat with friends and to try some of the wines again – obvious, of course, when you can see the labels!

All wines are available from Clifton Cellars and are priced between £12 and £15.

The Meaning of ‘Oak-Aged’

A couple of weeks ago in Bristol Wine Blog I wrote about an oak-aged wine. It seems I didn’t explain the term ‘oak-aged’ or say how can you tell if a wine tastes ‘oaky’?

The words relate to the fact that wine has to be made and stored in some kind of container before it is bottled ready for sale and the material used for that container will have an effect on how the wine tastes. Fermentation and storage tanks will often be made of stainless steel, which is inert, that is it has no flavour of its own.

Ch Dauzac Fermentation tanksWines made and stored in such tanks (pictured above) will taste fresh and clean and fruit flavours are most likely to predominate; typically, we might talk about the wine tasting of citrus or melon or tropical fruits. The same would be true of other neutral containers such as those made from concrete or glass.

Ch Dauzac barrelOn the other hand, the winemaker might use wooden barrels – large as above or much smaller – (usually made of oak, but other woods like chestnut can sometimes be used) to ferment or store the wine in. Wood is not inert – the grain is very slightly porous; not enough to allow the liquid to seep out, but sufficient to allow tiny amounts of air in. This air softens the wine slightly and changes its character. Also, depending on the age of the barrel, the wood itself may have a flavour which is transmitted into the wine; this is the ‘oaky’ taste I referred to and can include flavours like cinnamon, cloves or other spices, vanilla, toast, cigar boxes or pencil shavings. In all these cases, the flavours of the fruit should still be there but they will no longer be the principal taste.

If you want to sample the difference, I suggest you get 2 bottles of Rioja – 1 labelled Gran Reserva and the other without the words Crianza or Reserva on the label and taste them alongside one another. The Gran Reserva will be the oaky one.

Final question: is an oaked wine better than an unoaked? It all depends on your palate but, for me, there is a place for both.

 

 

 

What Kind of Chardonnay?

ChardonnayAsk many wine lovers to name their favourite white wine grape and they will reply unhesitatingly ‘Chardonnay’.  Yet, you’ll also find plenty who take precisely the opposite view; so much so that I have been persuaded to run an ‘Anything but Chardonnay’ course at Stoke Lodge Centre next spring.  So, why the extreme difference of views?

The answer is simple: Chardonnay is so versatile in where it grows and so amenable to different treatments in the winery that you can fairly say that no two examples are the same. 

Taste Chardonnay from a cool climate, like Chablis for example, and you get crisp, citrus or green apple flavours.  A little warmer, perhaps around Pouilly Fuissé, and that turns into ripe pear or peach.  Further south in France or in parts of Australia and California that are warmer still will give quite tropical flavours – pineapple or melon. 

And all that variety before the winemaker gets to work.  Chardonnay is quite a favourite with winemakers as they often see it as a blank canvas, ready to be manipulated into just the sort of wine that they, or their customers, want.  For example, they can put it through malolactic fermentation (a process that softens the harsher acids and creates a creamy, buttery texture) or they can leave the wine on the lees for a while to add richness or, then again, they can use oak barrels – new or older – to add woody, spicy flavours.  And, of course, they can put it through a 2nd fermentation and make Champagne or sparkling wine.

Or, they can do none of these; ferment and mature in stainless steel tanks and simply let the delicious, ripe fruit shine through. 

Vire ClessePierre Ponnelle’s Viré Clessé from southern Burgundy (Majestic, £13.99) is a perfect example of this ‘less is more’ approach.  Delightfully fresh and clean with attractive citrus and peach flavours; no oak, just very pure fruit and excellent length. 

I’d recommend it to Chardonnay lovers and haters alike – but, as you’ve seen, it’s just one of many possible styles of wine from this most versatile of all grapes.  If this one isn’t to your taste, don’t give up on the variety, just keep looking.