Voyage of Discovery

Britain is one of the few winemaking countries in the world that drinks more wine that it makes. As a result, everyone else is keen to export their surplus production to quench our thirsts. This is lucky for us as, without too much difficulty, it means we can find wines from all over the world without leaving our shores. In fact, I’ve personally tasted wines from more than 20 different countries this year.

So, when I was asked to put on a tasting showcasing wines from some of the less well-known parts of the world, I was happy to take up the invitation. I called it ‘Voyage of Discovery’.

I chose wines from European countries like Slovenia, Hungary and Macedonia – and England, of course – I couldn’t ignore the home side – alongside some from further afield: Chile and Lebanon. And I looked for some unusual grapes, too, like Furmint, Ribolla Gialla and Pais.

Not surprisingly, the different styles of wine from these countries and grapes provoked some widely different reactions from members of the group – but that’s part of tasting something new. But, when it came to the vote at the end, there was a narrow winner among both whites and reds.

Discovery white

Krasno’s crisp but mouth-filling blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the local speciality Ribolla Gialla (Majestic, £8.49) from Slovenia was the favourite white. Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, has made enormous strides in the past couple of decades, particularly the Goriška Brda region, from which this wine comes, which is so close to north-east Italy that some vineyards actually span the national boundary.

Discovery red

The winning red was also from the Balkans region, although this time rather further south in Macedonia. The Tikveš Vranec/Merlot (a real bargain from Majestic at just £7.99) was, again a blend of a popular international variety with a native grape. This reminded some of a good Beaujolais; quite light-bodied but very drinkable, with lovely clean red fruits and a slightly smoky finish. A wine to drink on its own or with lighter dishes – one of the group suggested baked trout as an interesting pairing.

But these were just the winners – every wine had some supporters and several left the tasting thinking about their own Voyage of Discovery.

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Fond of Fondue?

We paid a brief visit to a very good friend in Geneva recently and so, of course, we had to sample the national dishes, raclette and fondue. Both are cheese-based; raclette is a semi-hard cows’ milk cheese from the Alpine regions which, traditionally, was heated in front of a fire (now electric ‘toasters’ are more commonly used) and then the melted part scraped off and served on bread, like a sort of Welsh Rarebit.

For a fondue, the cheese is melted in a large pot, mixed with wine and garlic (or anything else, depending on local whim) and then you dip bread on a long-handled fork into the creamy, steaming pot.

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Here, rules seem to be less specific about exactly which cheeses to use (gruyere and emmental are said to be best, although the version we had included some delicious vacherin). Less traditionally, fondues can also be made with meat or chocolate mixtures in the pot – just don’t tell the Swiss!

Both raclette and fondue make simple, filling meals, best shared with friends. But, this is a Wine Blog, so the question inevitably arises: what should I drink with it? For me, white goes better than red with the creamy texture of the softened cheeses. And, as I always want to sample the local output, I chose a bottle made from the most widely planted variety in the region, Chasselas (also known sometimes as Fendant).

Fondue wine

From the Cave de l’Hôpital Epesses, in the close-by Lavaux region, this was fresh, crisp and a very drinkable match with the dishes.

There’s little point in searching for it (or many other Swiss wines) outside the region, as the Swiss export barely 2% of their entire production – a shame because the quality is usually quite high; a fact that was certainly a very pleasant surprise to our locally-based friend.

Sharing a Secret

Garda winesThose of you who read my last blog, “Garda: A Lake of Wines” might have been left with the impression that my wife and I did nothing but eat and drink wine while we were there. That’s not entirely true – we did plenty of walking and explored the wonderful scenery too, although I’ll share a secret with you: we both exceeded the Government’s recommended limits for units of alcohol consumed in a week. But, hey-ho, we were on holiday and, with such a great choice of wines wherever we stopped for lunch or dinner, who could blame us? We’ll certainly return to sample more but, perhaps, not for a few years. Also, as many of the wines we saw aren’t on sale in the UK, I was keen to taste them while I could – within reasonable limits, of course.

And, thinking about those that are available here, have you noticed that wines somehow never seem to taste quite the same at home as they do when you’re in the region they’re produced? Some would argue that it’s that wines don’t travel well; I disagree with that – after all, unless you live in a winemaking area, all our wine has had to travel before it reaches our shelves. No! I think it’s more to do with us, with our state of mind whilst on holiday, the fact that we’re there to relax and enjoy ourselves. And, in moderation, I think wine is a part of that.

But, even when on holiday, I can’t deny my interest and my wife always waits for my first ‘there’s a vineyard over there!’ comment. In and around Lake Garda, it would be difficult not to spot one – unless it was hidden by the olive groves that produce the other great local speciality: fragrant, tangy olive oil.

Garda: A Lake of Wines

Bardolino early morningBardolino, on Italy’s glorious Lake Garda – the perfect wine lover’s holiday destination! Joking? No! My wife and I have just spent a relaxing week there enjoying the superb scenery, delicious food, and, yes, some excellent wines.

TacchettoBardolino’s reds can be thin and uninteresting but Guerrieri Rizzardi’s Tacchetto includes a touch of Merlot alongside the local Corvina grape to add richness and a little more body without losing the lovely black cherry fruit. And the local rosés, known as Chiaretto (key-a-rett-toe) – were pale, dry and very refreshing; ideal lunchtime drinking, especially alfresco overlooking the lake.

Bordering the Bardolino region to the east is Valpolicella, also very much influenced by the Lake’s microclimate but another area with a rather mixed reputation. I often look for bottles labelled ‘Ripasso’, which are more concentrated, and the wine list of a super little local restaurant, La Piccola Osteria, had a few to choose from.

20190920_191401Our server liked the one from Pietro Zardini, not a name I was familiar with, but I was happy to take her recommendation. It was a real winner with intense dried fruits and spices and a long smoky finish.

BrolettinoOn another night, I noticed the same restaurant had Cà dei Frati’s Brolettino on their list. I’ve blogged before about this producer’s I Frati, a crisp, fresh white from Lugana, on the south shore of the Lake, but Brolettino is one of their top bottlings, altogether more complex and with very subtle oak hints – a gem. And the same producer’s Tre Filer is a lovely, honeyed dessert wine made, unusually, from a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc plus some local varieties.

While on sweet wines, another local restaurant, Due Torri, recommended a superb sweet red, Valpolicella Recioto, made with semi-dried grapes and a perfect accompaniment to a chocolate pudding. The same restaurant had a Soave on their list from my favourite producer in that DOC, Pieropan. Sadly, it was out of stock so our server offered Suavia’s Massifitti instead.

20190919_191355Another wine that was new to me and not actually a Soave – labelled as an IGT Veronese instead – but a high quality oak-aged white with much of the style and character of my original choice.

So, Bardolino on Lake Garda. Good food, friendly people and, if you’re selective, wonderful wines. We will be back soon!

£10 or £20?

Could you tell a £10 wine from one costing twice as much? Surely, it should be quite easy – after all, that’s quite a big price difference and you’d hope that the dearer wine would be altogether better quality, justifying the extra money. But, it may be harder than you think; despite the amount lost to the government in tax (about £4 at this price point), £10 wines are generally well above basic quality and most show some character and individuality.

It’s a challenge I posed to a group of would-be professionals and enthusiastic amateurs who had signed on for a mid-level Wine and Spirit Education Trust course. I wanted to ensure they were comparing like with like (apart from the price) and so I chose a pair of Shirazes, both from South Australia.

Shiraz v Shiraz

The cheaper wine, from the reputable Grant Burge team (widely available from many large supermarkets), was rich and mouthfilling, full of red and black fruit flavours with subtle oak hints and, perhaps most importantly very, very drinkable and easily approachable. Everyone agreed it was a most enjoyable wine.

The £20 wine was an Australian classic: Penfolds Max’s Shiraz (from Waitrose Cellar). Unlike the Grant Burge, this was a wine designed for the long haul – Penfolds suggest drinking over the next 9 years. As a result, it was, perhaps, rather less approachable, with significant tannin, greater subtlety and far less of the immediate fruity appeal. Easy to dismiss at first taste as being of poorer quality than its rival. But looking beyond first impressions, its more complex character clearly shone through. Delightful sweet spice and chocolate intermingled with restrained red fruits and a wonderful long finish. But patience would be needed if it was to be enjoyed at its best.

So, it would be quite understandable if most would choose the Grant Burge. It’s clearly the one to take home for drinking today, although I’d want to leave the Penfolds under the stairs to enjoy around 2025.

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.

A Canadian Treat

We rarely see wines from Canada here in the UK so, when a good friend shared a bottle with us that had been brought back from a trip specially for him, it was a real treat.

Canadian red

I’m not familiar with Therapy Vineyards but their wonderfully named ‘Freud’s Ego’ is a delicious blend of Merlot backed up with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc. The mix of grapes may be typical of a Right Bank Bordeaux, but this is a very different take on the blend; rich and chocolatey with lovely black fruits and hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. At 14%, it’s quite intense and full-bodied but in no way heavy and with a lightness of touch in the winemaking. A lovely bottle.

The richness rather surprised me because I note that Therapy Vineyards are based in the Okanagan Valley, about 200 miles east of Vancouver in the west of the country. Here, vineyards are at a latitude of around 50°N – roughly the same as the southern UK so, to ripen these varieties, particularly the fussy Cabernet Sauvignon, is quite a remarkable achievement. The key is the closeness of the deep, glacial Okanagan Lake which minimises the effects of spring frosts and moderates the climate, especially in winter. And, with both summer heat and sunshine being rather more dependable here than in Bordeaux and longer days due to the higher latitude, the result is the grapes ripening perfectly and reliably.

Canadian production is relatively small and costs are high so I don’t expect to see bottles from there flooding UK shelves anytime soon but, if you do see one, or you’re visiting, I suggest you try it; on the basis of my (admittedly limited) experience, I suspect you will not be disappointed.