Drink Good Wine

A room in which I used to lecture had a sign on the wall which read “Life’s too short to drink bad wine”.  I agree!  Add to that a campaign which was run in France a few years ago which translated as ‘drink less, drink better’ and you have my wine philosophy summed up.

But how do you define ‘bad’ wine?  I used to pose that question to my classes on occasions.  Interestingly, the replies rarely considered the actual quality of the wine; they were usually along the lines of ‘it depends on the sort of wine you like’.  But is that true?

With improvements in vine growing and winemaking knowledge in recent decades, there are almost no badly-made wines on the shelves today (which were once all too common).  You may find the odd faulty bottle – one where the wine is corked or oxidised, for example – but they are, thankfully, quite rare. 

But, having said that about badly-made wines, there are certainly many shades of ‘good’.  Sadly, some of the most famous commercial brands produce wines that are pretty basic and unexciting with very little to interest the genuine wine lover – but even these are technically correctly made.  And many are big sellers, which brings us back to the point about ‘it depends on the wine you like’. 

And, of course, as I have said many times before, people have their own ideas about what is good and bad.  How often have I heard ‘I hate all Chardonnay’? 

Those who share that view would have left Trinity Hill’s example from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand (£18.50) on the shelf at Grape and Grind.  Fortunately, I didn’t and we enjoyed a delicious, fresh, creamy wine with lovely lemon and peach hints and a delightful long, dry finish.  Although the wine was actually fermented in oak barrels, there was none of the overt oak flavouring that I think many Chardonnay haters associate wrongly with the grape variety.  Here, the barrel added just a little extra hard-to-identify complexity that made the wine more interesting and very drinkable.

So, back to that sign on the wall.  But don’t just settle for avoiding the bad.  Look around and find the best you can.  Life’s too short to do anything else.

The Truth about Rioja

Rioja is one of Spain’s best known and most popular wines.  But, based on comments made to me, it’s also one of the most misunderstood.  Over the years, I’ve been told that Rioja is a brand name, a grape variety, that it can only be red and that it’s always very oaky in taste.  If you agree with any of those statements (or even if you don’t), then please read on!

In fact, Rioja is a wine region.  It’s in northern Spain starting about an hour and a half drive south of Bilbao and running roughly south-east in a wide swathe on both sides of the River Ebro ending a way short of the town of Zaragoza.  Climatically, it’s quite a diverse region with the north-west being relatively cool with a continental climate while, further east, there is a distinct Mediterranean influence making that part of the region much warmer.

The wine is usually made from a blend of grape varieties: Tempranillo and Garnacha (aka Grenache) are the main grapes for the reds and rosados (rosés) while Viura and Malvasia are used for the whites.

So, if Rioja isn’t a grape variety and doesn’t have to be red, how about the suggestion that its wines are always very oaky?  Well, that’s not true either as you can easily discover by taking a quick look at the label. 

If it says ‘Reserva’ or ‘Gran Reserva’, the wine will, by law, have spent some time in oak barrels – at least 2 years for Gran Reservas, but even they are not necessarily very oaky in taste.  The Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva I opened recently (Majestic, £17.99) had plenty of red and black fruit flavours and was beautifully rounded and soft.  Yes, there was some oak influence as you might expect – hints of vanilla and leather – but this was in no way a wine dominated by its oak character.

But, if this isn’t your style, look for wines labelled ‘Crianza’, (which will, admittedly, have spent a few months in a barrel, but not long enough to impart any real oaky flavour) or, perhaps better, a wine with none of these designations on their label which will, very likely, have been aged entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve their full fruit character.

And, as for Rioja being a brand?  Well, I suppose it’s well enough known to be described as such, but that’s not the truth of the name.

Wind from Africa

Have you noticed how drinking wine can often trigger memories?  That was certainly true when I opened a bottle of red from Crete recently.   My wife and I visited the Greek island a few years ago – and not just to taste the wine.

We’re both fans of the music of Joni Mitchell and I was always fascinated by the line in the song ‘Carey’ released, amazingly, 50 years ago this year on her ‘Blue’ album.  What did she mean about ‘the wind was in from Africa and last night I couldn’t sleep’?  Leafing through a tourist guide before we went to Crete, I discovered the answer: for a time in the late 1960s, Joni Mitchell travelled round Europe and lived with some friends for a few months in the Cretean village of Matala in caves facing the sea into which an unpleasantly hot wind blew straight from Africa.  Hence the start of the song. 

We just had to take a bus across the island to the same village which still had a real hippy feel about it. 

But what about the local wines?  We sampled quite a few while we were there and some were very good indeed.  We were particularly impressed with those made from a local red grape, Kotsifali.

Unfortunately, not many reach the UK, so it was a rare treat recently to be able to find a bottle from the producer Lyrarakis made from that same Kotsifali grape (Corks, £11.99).  If you like Merlot, you’ll love this: really refreshing with attractive soft, black fruits, just enough tannin to make the wine interesting and quite a long gentle finish.  A really satisfying and quaffable red; perhaps not over complex but so drinkable.

Food match: we enjoyed it with grilled lamb – the grilling giving the meat a smoky edge which complemented the wine well; barbecuing would have the same effect.  But I also had some left in my glass later in the evening when I discovered that this is one of the reds that works really well with dark chocolate – with a Joni Mitchell record playing in the background, of course!

Look to Washington

The United States is the world’s 4th largest wine producer (behind Italy, France and Spain) and, surprisingly, every one of America’s 50 states has some commercial wineries.  Yes – even Alaska, apparently, despite its location way further north than the normally accepted limits for ripening grapes.  Top of the tree is California – that state makes almost 90% of the USA’s entire wine output including some of the world’s most expensive bottles as well as many for more every day drinking that you can find on any supermarket shelf. 

But, for today, I’m going to ignore both of these extremes and focus on Washington state.  It actually has the 2nd largest wine production after California – a very distant 2nd, admittedly, making less than a tenth as much wine as that giant, but look around the shelves and you’ll find some interesting and attractive wines from there in a diversity of styles. 

The majority of the state’s vineyards are away from the Pacific coast, to the east of the Cascade Mountains and in their rain shadow, which means that much of the area is semi-desert and growing vines is dependent on irrigation using water from the local rivers.  Washington’s location, straddling the 46°N line of latitude (which equates to northern Bordeaux/southern Burgundy in European terms), is ideal for vineyards and the short, hot, sunny, dry summers are perfect for ripening both red and white grapes.

We opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon recently from Chateau Ste Michelle, easily the state’s biggest producer (Majestic, £14.99).  Lovely deep colour with subtle black fruit and cinnamon on the nose.  The palate is fresh with more black fruits – blackberries and black plums – soft tannins and a distinctly oaky overtone.  The finish is, perhaps, a little shorter than you might expect from a wine at this price but it’s a very drinkable glassful, nonetheless, particularly when paired with a tasty beef or game casserole.

It may be easier to find something from California but, on the strength of this and a few others I have tasted, Washington state has some attractive offerings, too.

Dreaming of the Sea?

“The Sea Breeze” may seem a strange name for a wine.  But, in the case of Château La Négly’s La Brise Marine (to give the wine its French title), it’s not just a piece of marketing, there is definitely a reason behind it.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, without the cooling effect on the vines of the winds from the sea, this wine could never have been made – certainly not in the lovely aromatic, crisp style we found when we opened a bottle recently (available from Corks or Grape and Grind, around £16). 

Let me explain.  La Brise Marine is from vineyards near Narbonne in the Languedoc, that delightful, sun-drenched part of southern France.  However, summer temperatures here can top 40°C (104°F); indeed, a couple of years ago, a new French record high of 46°C (close to 115°F) was set in a village not far to the east of La Négly’s vineyards.  At these temperatures, vines struggle and often shut down completely to protect themselves.  The one saving factor is often a cooling sea breeze so, having vineyards in the Appellation of La Clape, less than 10 miles from the Mediterranean, allows La Brise Marine to be produced and the unusual naming reflects this. 

La Clape is an unusual limestone outcrop that was once an island (in fact, as recently as Roman times) and is quite distinct from the area surrounding. Unsurprisingly with the climate, most of the wines from here are reds – Grenache and Syrah dominating – but La Brise Marine is a white made from a blend of an ancient local grape variety, Bourboulenc, together with 2 imports from the southern Rhône Valley, Roussanne and Clairette.

Together they make a satisfying, quite full-bodied dry white with ripe pear and peach flavours and perhaps even a slightly saline tang – or am I just dreaming of the sea?

Red with Fish?

Choosing a wine to drink with a particular dish is a very personal thing – each of us has our own preferences.  So, I always advise drinking something you like rather than the wine that someone tells you is ‘right’ for the food.

But, if you keep an open mind, you can sometimes find a pleasant surprise – a combination that you would never have thought about that works perfectly.  And sometimes, it will be just the opposite!

We’ve been great fans of wines from the Sicilian producer Donnafugata since we were lucky enough to visit them on a wine tour many years ago.  Their ‘Sherazade’ (Corks, £15.99) is a delicious blackberry and herb flavoured red made using the local Nero d’Avola grape.  We usually drink it with lighter red meats like duck leg or, perhaps, a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish would work well with its slightly earthy flavours.

The bottle’s back label has an entirely different idea: “drink as an aperitif or pair with pasta dishes, grilled fish or pizza”.  We actually tasted a glass before our dinner so tested the ‘aperitif’ theory: both my wife and I thought it was OK but would go better with food.   As for pasta, it would rather depend on the accompanying sauce and the same with pizza – you can have all sorts of toppings, some would work others not.  And then there’s the grilled fish suggestion.  For me, this is a definite ‘no’.

Now, I’m not someone who says that only white wine goes with fish – I’m perfectly happy to drink dry rosé and certain reds with seafood, particularly with the more ‘meaty’ and robust fishes, such as tuna or swordfish.  But Sherazade is a red with (at present – we drank the 2019) quite significant tannins – one reason why it made a less than ideal aperitif.  Tannic reds will often taste quite metallic and unpleasant with fish dishes.  We didn’t try this bottle with any fish, but, from experience, I wouldn’t recommend the pairing. 

But, clearly, the winemaker would, so it all comes back to my 1st sentence: that wine and food pairing is a very personal thing.

Two Glasses of…..?

We opened a bottle of Muscadet recently.  It’s a wine I don’t often buy; many examples I’ve tasted have been rather thin and with unpleasantly high levels of acidity.  But there may also be another explanation for my reluctance which goes back to an embarrassing moment many years ago.

My wife and I were on holiday in northern France, not far from where Muscadet is produced.  Of course, we had to sample a glass of the local wine and so went into a small café.  I asked (in French) for “two glasses of Muscadet, please” pronouncing the name of the wine as we do in England: ‘muss-cad-day’.  The lady behind the counter repeated the “two glasses of” and then looked at me blankly.  I pointed to the bottle on the shelf behind her.  “Ah, it’s Muscadet, monsieur”.  She had said ‘moose-cad-day’ and it was clear that the 2 glasses in front of her on the counter would remain empty until I’d repeated the name and pronounced it correctly!

I’ve been rather anti-Muscadet ever since.  But I’ve seen a number of very favourable reviews of different bottles recently and I decided to swallow my pride and buy one: Le Clos du Château l’Oiselinière (Wine Society, £13.50).  I’m pleased I did.

My first surprise was that the wine was from the 2015 vintage.  Surely, I thought, Muscadet is a wine to drink young.  Would a 5 year old example still be drinkable or would it be way past its best?  I needn’t have worried.  The wine was delightfully fresh and attractive and with lots of complexity.  It had spent more than 2 years resting on its lees (the dead yeast cells that remain after the fermentation has ended) before being bottled and this had clearly mellowed the acidity.  It was now perfectly in harmony with clean, citrus flavours and a full, long finish.

Definitely a wine to look out for – however you pronounce its name.   

Portugal Transformed

Vines have been grown in Portugal for at least 2500 years and wine has been made for much of that period.  But the quality (with a few exceptions – mainly the fortified ports) was ordinary at best.  And that remained true until well into the last century.  It took a political coup in 1974 and Portugal subsequently joining the European Union (EU) before things really began to change.

As one of the poorest nations in Europe, Portugal benefited greatly from EU funding.  Roads and electricity reached parts of the country for the first time and, in the wine industry, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks transformed the winemaking process.  In the vineyards, too, major reorganisation and replanting occurred setting everything in place for the Portuguese wines we see on the shelves today.

Regions such as the Douro, Dão and Bairrada are, perhaps, the obvious choices, particularly for red wines, but the Alentejo, a vast swathe in the south of the country, hides some real surprises – see my recommendation below.

Portugal’s equivalent of ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ is ‘Denominaçáo de Origem Controlada’ (DOC), but you will also see the term ‘Vinho Regional’ (VR) on labels, which equates to the French ‘Vin de Pays’ and is a category that contains many very drinkable wines from producers who prefer to work outside the DOC rules.

I opened one of these VRs recently – a delicious, fruity red, Vinha do Mouro (Corks, £14.99).  A blend of local variety Trincadeira, Aragonez (Spain’s Tempranillo) and Alicante Bouschet with a hint of Cabernet Sauvignon for added tannin and body.  The wine had lovely dusty red fruits on the nose with vibrant blackberries and sour cherries on the palate.   Despite the warmth of the Alentejo, this wine retains plenty of acidity and would pair extremely well with red meat in a tomato-based sauce.

One last word: most Portuguese reds benefit from an hour or so in a decanter if you’re to enjoy them at their best.

Wine for Wine Haters?

Wines made from the grape variety Pinot Grigio have got themselves a bit of a poor reputation in recent years.  I’ve even heard them described by someone in the wine trade as ‘the wines I’d recommend for someone who didn’t really like wine’!  Ouch!

In a way I can see why.  Pinot Grigio, like another member of the Pinot family, Pinot Noir, is fairly sensitive to how it is handled, particularly in the vineyard.  If you train and prune the vines to give you a heavy crop and so make large volumes of wine, they will oblige.  But, if you do this, the grapes you pick will have little flavour or character and the wine you produce from them will be simple, neutral and inoffensive.  Hence the comment reported above.

Sadly, this is true of much – if not most – of the Pinot Grigio you find in UK supermarkets and my advice to wine lovers would be to avoid the cheaper bottles (say £7 or less – yes, that’s relatively cheap, these days).   

But it would be a mistake to ignore Pinot Grigio altogether.  Growers who limit their yields produce less wine but the quality can be far better, even though, as a result, the price will be rather higher.  So, where should you look for good Pinot Grigio?  If you enjoy Italian wine, then consider the north-east of the country – I’d say examples from the Alto Adige region are probably a more reliable choice than those from the Veneto.

Alternatively, the same grape is found in northern France, in Alsace, only here the variety is known as Pinot Gris, rather than Pinot Grigio.  One to try from there is Paul Ginglinger’s Les Prelats (Wine Society, £13.50).  But, a word of caution: this is not one of those simple, neutral Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigios.  It’s rich, deliciously mouth-coating and full of lovely ripe pear and apple flavours.  A perfect match to something cooked in a rich, creamy sauce or a risotto, perhaps.

Wherever you look, the rule for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris is pay a little extra; you may be very pleasantly surprised.

Vines Love Gravel

Many of Bordeaux’s most sought-after wines are from vineyards planted on gravel-rich soils: the 1st Growth Châteaux Lafite, Latour and Margaux to name just 3.  But it’s not just in Bordeaux that gravel is highly regarded for vines.  A bottle I opened recently from New Zealand boasted of its origins in the Gimblett Gravels.  So, what is the link between this type of soil and high quality wine?

Gravel is a good base for a vineyard for a number of reasons.  It’s usually low in fertility which means that the vines have to struggle to extract the moisture and nutrients they need for growth.  This struggle puts the vine into survival mode, so it produces more grapes which contain the pips which are the vine’s way to propagate itself.

Also, gravel is porous so, in wetter areas, rainfall can drain through meaning that the vines’ roots aren’t sitting in water where they may rot.  But vines still need some water so they extend their roots to find it and, at the same time, pick up extra nutrients which are often linked to more flavoursome grapes.

Finally, in cooler areas, gravel acts like tiny storage heaters, soaking up the heat of the sun during the day then releasing it as the sun goes down in the evening allowing the ripening process to extend over a couple more hours.

This is particularly important in both Bordeaux and New Zealand’s Gimblett Gravels – both are relatively cool areas where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown.  Cabernet is quite a late-ripening variety and needs all the warmth it can get, so the little extra from the gravelly soil may just make the difference allowing the harvesting of fully ripe berries giving a wine that’s rich and appealing.

This was clearly the case with Saint Clair’s Pioneer Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £17.99); full of lovely damson and black plum flavours and hints of smoky oak – a delicious wine, although some may want to leave the 2019 vintage for a year or 2 as the bottle I opened was still a little firm and tannic.

I have to finish on a sad note with the news of the death this week of Steven Spurrier after a career in the wine industry spanning more than 50 years. He was best known as a wine writer and educator, but he was also the person who, almost single-handedly, brought Californian wines to attention of the wider world. For anyone who doesn’t know the amazing story, google ‘The Judgement of Paris’.