Category Archives: wine

‘Use By’ Dates for Wine?

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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.

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David and Goliath

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As a Wine Educator, this is one of the busiest – and most interesting -times of my working year but I’ve just run my last tasting of 2017 and so I can relax for a few weeks.  This year, that final event featured one of my most popular themes: a contest between wines from Europe against the Rest of the World with the audience voting for their favourites.  It’s one that almost always makes for an enjoyable evening.

With the sales figures showing that UK customers prefer wines from the Rest of the World to those originating in Europe, it’s often a surprise to many when I tell them that the tasting is a David and Goliath battle – with Europe, not the Rest of the World, as Goliath.  In fact, most years Europe produces around twice as much wine as the Rest of the World and either France or Italy alone turns out more than USA, Argentina and Australia (the 3 largest non-European producers) together.  2017 was a different story but that’s a blog for another day.

The contest this time featured 8 different wines in 4 matched pairs, all tasted blind so that no-one (except me!) knew the identity of any wine.  When the votes were added up, the Rest of the World was the narrow winner overall, but Europe put up a fair fight winning one of the 4 rounds and tying in another.

2017-12-07 10.01.23The European success was the delightful, herby, fragrant Stella Alpina Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige in northern Italy (£10.99 – all the wines for this tasting were bought from Majestic), while the ‘Rest’ winners were from California and Chile.  The latter, Montes’ Single Vineyard Chardonnay from the 2017-12-07 10.18.18cool Casablanca Valley (£8.99) showed a lovely buttery richness and just a hint of vanilla and spice from brief oak ageing.

California’s winner, Majestic’s Parcel Series Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, was the cheapest wine of the evening 2017-12-07 10.18.11and a real bargain at £7.49.  5 years old and with all the soft, harmonious flavours that age produces – this is remarkable for the price.

And, indeed, with none of the wines above £11, this tasting showed that, by shopping around you really don’t have to spend a fortune to find winning wines.

A Sparkling Evening

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“Can you run a tasting of sparkling wines for us?”  It’s not a request I get often – sparkling wines can be quite expensive and, perhaps, more for a celebration than for talking about.  But there’s plenty to say (for me, at least!) and a vast choice.  It’s not just Champagne and Prosecco, virtually every cool climate area of the wine world produces some fizz.

Why the emphasis on a cool climate?  Both the most common ways of making sparkling wine (the ‘traditional’ method – the one that used to be known as the Champagne method until the Champenois objected – and the ‘tank’ method) involve a second fermentation – adding more grape sugar and yeast to an already made still wine to produce the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles.  But this process also raises the alcohol level in the wine by 1 – 1.5%.  If you try this with a wine that is already 13% or more, as is typical in warm climates, you lose the aromatics and the wine becomes heavy and unappetising.  Hence the importance of a cool climate and a lower alcohol level to start with.

What of the evening itself?  We sampled 6 wines ranging through France, Italy, Spain, England (of course!), South Africa and New Zealand and at prices from £10 to £25. 

And the reaction of the tasters?  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Champagne (Charles Lecouvey’s Brut Reserve) was the clear winner with everyone present scoring it in their top 2.  ChampagneAlthough not expensive for a Champagne (£23.99 from Waitrose), the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave it a lightness and freshness that appealed to all. 

The same grape varieties were used (although with Pinot Noir dominating rather than Chardonnay) for the group’s 2nd favourite: Lindauer’s Special Reserve Brut Rosé from New Zealand (widely available from supermarkets and wine shops at between £11 and £14).  Lindauer FizzDelicate crushed strawberry flavours and aromas and a really attractive pink colour made this a delight.  Certainly one to consider if you’re looking for an easy-drinking fizz at an attractive price for the festive season.

Mushrooms and Malbec

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norton malbecSome good friends of ours don’t eat meat so, when we visit them, we are normally treated to some interesting fish dish and, almost always, to an attractive white wine to accompany it.  But, not this time!  Dinner was a rich and flavoursome mushroom and chestnut casserole – something that even the most assertive white wine would have had trouble in matching.  Happily, our hosts came to the same conclusion and served Norton’s Malbec from Mendoza in Argentina, which worked admirably.

As someone who enjoys both meat and fish, I get less practice in pairing wine with vegetarian dishes but the process really is no different: first, consider whether the dish is delicate or robust (or somewhere in-between) and look for wines that are similarly delicate or robust.  Then, what are likely to be the dominant flavours on the plate?  How can you match those?

Taking our mushroom casserole as an example, there are some quite strong flavours so the wine needs to be able to stand up to them and not be overpowered.  It must also cope with the umami (savoury) taste of the mushrooms and the earthiness of the chestnuts.  Which is why the Malbec worked so well: weighty enough (14% alcohol) yet with plenty of juicy fruit and not too much in the way of drying tannins.

Yet, you can also find vegetarian dishes at the other end of the spectrum. Risotto Primavera (rice with young vegetables) is much lighter and more delicate and, with the creamy texture of the risotto, a white Maçon-Villages or something similar would be a good choice; not too heavy and with just a touch of richness.

With those ideas – and without the encumbrance of ‘white wine with chicken, red wine with meat’ – food and wine pairing with vegetarian dishes really shouldn’t prove too difficult.

Just one final point for strict vegetarians: some wines are clarified using egg whites; although no residues remain in the bottle, if you want to avoid these, check the back label of any wine you’re buying to see that it is suitable or, failing that, the producer’s website should give you the relevant information.

 

 

 

 

Bordeaux, Burgundy or…?

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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.

Carmenère – the Clear Winner!

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2017-11-13 18.25.40In the minds of many who enjoy a glass of wine, Chile is the place to look for something fresh, fruity, easy-drinking and not too expensive – the sort of wines the Australians used to call ‘sunshine in a glass’.  But that’s only part of the story: Chile is full of ambitious young winemakers eager to break away from the ‘cheap and cheerful’  tag and experiment with something more interesting that will appeal to those prepared to pay a little more. 

Typical of this trend is the Errazuriz Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon I blogged about earlier this year but, for a much wider selection, I joined  a tasting organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle recently and supported by ‘Wines of Chile’.  Committee member and wine educator, Tim Johnson’s choice included wines from all the main international grape varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  A particularly nice example of the latter (Falernia’s Reserva from the Elqui Valley, £14.95 from Great Western Wine) got my top mark of the evening.  

Among the less well-known was Huaso de Sauzal’s País (also Great Western Wine, £22.95).  País was brought to South America by the Spanish in the 16th century and, after decades, even centuries, of neglect, has recently attracted the attention of a number of winemakers who are coaxing lovely red and black fruit flavours out of this formerly unloved variety.

These days, no tasting of Chilean wines could be complete with examples of Chile’s ‘own’ grape, Carmenère.  Once thought to be Merlot, it has been embraced enthusiastically since the error was discovered in the closing years of last century and, appropriately, provided the overall joint winners of the evening from Santa Ema (Tanners, £12.80) and Los Vascos’ Grande Reserve (Slurp, £13.95).

So, sunshine in a glass?  Yes!  But a whole lot more, too!

If you would like to join the Bristol Tasting Circle and enjoy tastings like this, please leave your details in the comment box below and I will pass them onto the membership secretary.

 

What Kind of Chardonnay?

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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.