A Grape not to be Ignored

Looking back, I’m amazed at how rarely I’ve blogged about the world’s most widely planted wine grape: Cabernet Sauvignon.  Yes, I’ve mentioned it in passing when talking about other wines, but as for focussing on this most popular of red varieties – nothing!  Time to put that right as, at its best, it really is a grape not to be ignored.

‘Home’ for Cabernet Sauvignon is France’s most prestigious wine region, Bordeaux, where it has been grown for more than 200 years but it wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that growers beyond that region started to realise the potential of the grape.  As a result, world-wide plantings more than doubled between 1990 and 2010 and the variety is now found in virtually every major wine producing country, even in England where, historically, the climate hasn’t been warm enough to ripen this sun-loving variety. 

The words ‘sun-loving’ mean thoughts turning to Australia, although it was actually quite a late starter there with the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines only imported in the 1960s and the first commercial bottling released in 1967.  But from that quiet beginning the variety has thrived, with especially good examples found in Coonawarra in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia (WA).

And it was a bottle from WA that we opened recently.  The Wine Society’s Exhibition Cabernet Sauvignon (£16.50) is made for the Society by one of WA’s oldest and most successful producers, Vasse Felix and is full of all those aromas and flavours Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers are familiar with and love: blackcurrant and cassis fruit, some herbiness and hints of black cherry and mint.  The 2019 vintage on the Wine Society’s current list is drinking well now and should continue at its peak for a couple of years yet but, as with most wines from this grape, it benefits from opening an hour or so in advance of drinking and teaming with red meat – grilled lamb would be perfect – or hard cheese.

Cabernet Sauvignon is certainly a grape not to be ignored – whether I blog about it or not!

A Taste of the Med

My wife and I have enjoyed quite a few Mediterranean holidays over the years although none since the Covid virus interrupted all travel (and much else).  But we still love cooking and eating Mediterranean-style food – especially when the weather is warm and sunny.  And the wine to go with our Mediterranean dishes? Well, how often do you find the food of a country or region matches the wines from the same area perfectly?

Of course, when considering Mediterranean wines, you have a vast range to choose from: parts of Spain, the whole of the south of France, much of Italy and Greece and so many others besides.

This time, looking at the dish we were cooking didn’t help to narrow the choice at all; seared tuna steaks with a soy and balsamic glaze would probably have worked with many fuller-bodied whites, a flavoursome dry rosé or even a light and fruity red.  In the end, we settled for Tenuta Flaminio’s rosato (rosé) from Brindisi in Italy’s south-eastern Puglia region. 

Made with the local Negroamaro grape variety (which can also contribute to some delicious reds from the same area), this crisp, fresh, dry rosé is full of lovely crushed strawberry flavours with some attractive smoky hints.  It teamed beautifully with the tuna although it was so good as an aperitif that there wasn’t too much left to enjoy with the food.  Best lightly chilled – not too cold; about a half hour in the fridge is all that it needs.  A real bargain at £8.95 from The Wine Society.

Rosés are widely produced throughout the Mediterranean and are often thought of as just wines for summer.  But, although they obviously do work well at this time of year, many of the drier examples – and this is important – are very food-friendly and are worth considering to match fish, chicken or just about any Mediterranean dish throughout the year.

English Wine Week

This is English Wine Week, the annual celebration of our local wine industry.  And this year, my birthday fell during the week so, of course, we celebrated with a glass of Furleigh Estate Classic cuvee at a restaurant at Beaminster, Dorset, just a few miles from the vineyard. 

Back in Bristol, the next day, we met with some good friends of ours and, again, out came the English fizz, this time from Hattingley Valley Estate in Hampshire.

But the main event of the week was an English Wine dinner at Harvey Nichols (HN) restaurant here in Bristol.  A chance to taste 4 more English wines and to see how they match with food.  The evening started with canapés accompanied by a glass of HN’s own label sparkler, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with some of the characteristic creaminess from 3 years ageing.

The starter, soft shell crab, was accompanied by a vibrant mango, chilli and coriander salsa – perhaps not the easiest to match with a wine but the lively, crushed strawberry fruit of HN’s Cotswold Pinot Noir rosé managed admirably; the wine made for HN by the well-regarded Woodchester Valley vineyard near Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Historically, England has struggled to ripen grapes sufficiently for a red wine so finding a pairing for a main course of lamb might have proved challenging.  But not in one of the best English vintages of recent years, 2018, where Litmus estate’s Pinot Noir, grown in Kent, reached 13% alcohol and, after 19 months in oak, had the richness and savouriness to work ideally with the lamb.

Then it was back to fizz to end the meal – not just in the glass but in the dessert itself: an elegant raspberry jelly made with Nyetimber wine accompanied, of course, with the same producer’s demi-sec (medium-sweet) Cuvee Cherie. 

A very sweet dessert would have overpowered the delicate and not-too-sweet wine, but that didn’t happen here; the balance of weight and sweetness was just right and a lovely way to end the meal.

A busy week of tasting– and there’s still 2 days to go until the end of this year’s English Wine Week.

A Perfect Ending

“This rhubarb flan I’ve just made would go beautifully with a glass of sweet wine.  I don’t suppose we’ve got anything suitable?”  My wife had barely finished her question before I was heading towards our wine rack.

We often think of the different styles of dry wines pairing well with particular main course dishes – white Burgundy with chicken, perhaps, Rioja or Claret with lamb – but it is the same with sweet wines and desserts.  A delicate pudding would be overwhelmed by a powerful Australian ‘stickie’, yet that’s exactly the wine you would be thinking of to match a rich chocolate dessert or Christmas Pudding.

So, how did I choose a partner for our rhubarb flan?  Rhubarb can be quite acidic so we cooked it with some orange zest and juice to counter that and a little cinnamon for a soft, spicy flavour.  And those additions pointed me in a particular direction for the wine.  Flavours of orange or marmalade are often found in wines made with botrytised grapes.  (This happens when the grapes are left on the vine until they are attacked by the botrytis fungus which shrivels the berries and concentrates the sugars).  Thin skinned grapes (Semillon is a good example) grown in vineyards in humid areas are particularly prone to this – Sauternes in southern Bordeaux is probably the best known – but I opened a bottle from the Australian producer, De Bortoli, who also use the same grape variety.

Their ‘Florence Broadhurst’ Botrytis Semillon (Majestic, £9.99 for a half-bottle) is, as you can see, a wonderful deep gold colour with lovely honey, orange and spice flavours – just a perfect match for our rhubarb flan.  But, although the flavour is quite intense, this is not a heavy wine as, unlike many sweet wines, this has just 10% alcohol – an important consideration if you’ve already enjoyed a dry wine with your main course.

We love sweet wines and have always got a few bottles in stock for occasions such as this where a pudding is just crying out for a glass of something to end a lovely meal perfectly.

France’s Hidden Corners

I’m returning to the topic I blogged about a couple of weeks ago: the interesting and different tastes you can find by exploring wine regions and grapes other than those you are familiar with.  Wines from lesser-known areas and rare native varieties can often result in unusual and distinctive flavours; you may not like them all but, just sometimes, you’ll find a new favourite.  That, for me, is what exploring is all about.

I concentrated then on wines from outside France as most wine lovers will be reasonably familiar with the diverse choices found in that most widely-available of all wine growing countries.  But, if you look carefully, even France has some fascinating and unique grapes tucked away in hidden corners.  One of my favourites is Petit Manseng, grown in the Jurançon region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  It comes in dry or glorious sweet versions and, if you’ve never tasted one, I can highly recommend either.  Then there’s ‘Vin Jaune’, made in a sherry style from the local Savagnin grape (not to be confused with Sauvignon) in the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border.

Or why not a juicy, herby, black-fruited unoaked red from the Gaillac region which straddles the River Tarn, north of Toulouse?  Chateau Vignals’ L’Herbe Folle is a blend of 2 local varieties – Braucol and Duras – with small additions of much more familiar Syrah and Merlot.  It’s a lovely soft, mellow red which would team perfectly with some pan-fried duck breasts or with a tasty hard cheese.  Gaillac wines are not widely stocked beyond the region of production but this one is available on-line from Joie de Vin, www.joiedevin.co.uk, for a very reasonable £14.50.

So, however tempting it is to buy the same bottle you know you like again, occasionally take a chance and look at what else is on the shelf.  You might be pleased you did.

No Ordinary Soave

Last time, I blogged about looking for interesting and different flavours from lesser-known regions and rare native grapes.  Today, I’m going to the other extreme and focussing on one of the most famous white wines of Italy: Soave.  Made mainly from the local Garganega grape in the north-east of the country, you will see bottles of Soave in every supermarket, often at rock-bottom prices – £5 and below is not unusual. 

So why would I pay more than £20 (Wine Society, £21.50 to be precise) for a bottle of Soave?  And why would I choose a Soave when I wanted a special bottle for a particular anniversary of ours?  Well, as you might guess, the bottle in question – Pieropan’s Calvarino Soave Classico – is no ordinary Soave.

Yes, it does have the crisp, fresh acidity that is one of the trademark characteristics of Soave, but there the similarity ends.  Calvarino – named after the vineyard from which all the grapes are harvested – is altogether a much richer, fuller flavoured wine, tasting of peaches and almonds, with a delightful floral nose full of hints of pear and honey.

So, what makes this wine so different from others with a similar name?  Soave is one of a number of Italian wine regions (Chianti being the most famous) which have (mistakenly, in my view) allowed the area in which the wine can be made to expand over time.  Most of the newer plantings are on flat, fertile land where the emphasis is on volume and meeting supermarkets’ basic price points.  The result is the fairly bland, high acidity wines that Soave has become known for. 

Better quality examples will have the words ‘Soave Classico’ on the label.  The ‘Classico’ is important as this shows that the wine is made from grapes grown in the original area – the craggy hills close to the town of Verona where the vines are older, tending them is more challenging and the grape yields are much smaller.

There are several very good Soave Classicos – admittedly not all costing £20 a bottle – but, for me, this is the best of them and, to celebrate a special anniversary, I couldn’t think of a better choice.

Beyond the Familiar

When buying wine, particularly white wine, I find myself increasingly looking away from France.  It’s not that I don’t like French wines – I do – but there are just so many interesting and different grape varieties to explore.  And the more widely I look, the more exciting and attractive flavours I find. 

Take Italy for a start.  I’ve been a big fan of their whites for many years.  If you’ve not tried Greco, Fiano, Verdicchio or Vermentino, then do; you’ve got some delightful surprises awaiting you.  Then there’s the lovely whites from Albariño and Loureiro grown in Galicia in north-west Spain.  And don’t forget Austria’s Grűner Veltliner – I blogged about that a few weeks ago.

You may be familiar with all of those, but the 2 bottles pictured above feature varieties that fewer will recognise.  Firstly, Malagouzia.  That’s native to Greece and Giannikos Winery’s example from the Peloponnese region is a fragrant delight.  Tangy and fresh with lovely peach and apricot flavours, this would be perfect on its own or with fish, delicately cooked chicken dishes or light summer salads.  Local independent wine merchant Grape and Grind have it for £15.99 and it’s worth every penny.

With Fitapreta’s Ancestral from Portugal’s Alentejo region (Corks, £16.50) you get – not one obscure grape variety, but a blend of 6 including 2 – Tamarez and Alicante Branco – that the winemaker says have been rescued from near extinction.  I’ve not heard of either, so I won’t argue.  On pouring, the wine is almost gold in colour, so much so, that I wondered at first if it was oxidised.  But no, it was in perfect condition, rich, tangy, honeyed and savoury with real body to it; a friend who shared it with us thought that, tasting it blind, he would have said it was a red wine.  I know what he means; it’s likely that there was some skin-contact involved in the winemaking.  Not your standard easy-quaffing white, but a really enjoyable and deeply flavoured glass suited to more robustly flavoured poultry or, perhaps, young game birds.

2 very different bottles but each showing the benefits of looking beyond the familiar. 

An Alternative Fizz

If you’re looking for a bottle of sparkling wine but don’t want to pay Champagne prices, there are plenty of options.  Prosecco has had a fantastic rise in popularity over the past few years and so is probably the first name that springs to mind.  But its popularity has also been its downfall and, though generally very pleasant, easy drinking, I can’t recall the last bottle of Prosecco that made me say ‘Wow!’  Much the same fate befell Cava a few years earlier and I’ve tended to avoid that too, although I have read some more favourable reviews recently and it might be time to revisit some of the more individualistic examples.

One group of alternatives that seem to have been almost ignored, however, are the Crémants.  These are a range of wines, made in several different regions of France – Loire, Alsace and Burgundy being the most common – using the same method as Champagne (with a 2nd fermentation in the bottle), but usually with different, often local, grape varieties.  They are generally dry and the best have some ageing to give a hint of the ‘leesy’ character of Champagne but at a fraction of the price.

I opened a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace recently (Lidl, £8.99 – you may still find a bottle in your local branch but their website shows that this is sold out).  Although not over-complex – what do you expect for that money? – it was clean, fresh and pleasantly citrussy with lots of small, persistent bubbles.  Made from a typical Alsace blend of Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, this is ideal for a summer picnic or celebration.  Make sure you chill it well in advance.

So, next time you’re in the market for a bottle of good, enjoyable fizz at a very fair price, think beyond Prosecco or Cava and reach for a Crémant – be it from Alsace, the Loire, or just about anywhere in France – apart from Champagne, of course.

My Favourite Lesson

I used to hate History and Geography lessons when I was at school; I could see no point in learning about things that had happened long ago or in places I was never likely to visit.  Of course, as the years passed, I’ve realised how wrong I was and how much history and geography influence so many aspects of the world we live in.

Take wine for example. 

I opened a bottle of Gérard Bertrand’s Saint-Chinian recently (Grape & Grind, £14.25) and my attention was drawn to the date 1877 on the label.  Clearly that wasn’t the vintage but, turning the bottle round, I found the explanation: 1877 was the year that the first railway line opened linking that part of the south of France with Paris.  Suddenly, the market for the local growers expanded enormously although the boom was short-lived as the deadly phylloxera bug was already wreaking havoc among the region’s wines.

Recovery was slow and erratic and it’s only in the last 30 years or so that the wines of the Languedoc (of which Saint-Chinian is part) have moved from being simple cheap quaffers to something more interesting, like Bertrand’s example.  Made from a blend of 2 high quality grapes, Syrah and Mourvedre, both of which thrive in the hot, sunny conditions of the south of France, this is, undoubtedly, a big wine – the label says 15% – but it’s so well balanced that you would never realise how alcoholic it was.  Lovely flavours of blackberries, herbs and a hint of chocolate together with some smokiness from part barrel-ageing make this an attractive rounded wine to drink.  It would pair particularly well with a robust casserole or grilled or roast meat and benefits from decanting to soften the tannins.

If only history and geography had been explained this way while I was at school!

An Anxious Time

Looking out of my window onto a bright Bristol spring day, I am aware that this is always an exciting but anxious time of the year for vineyard owners wherever they are in the world. 

In the Southern Hemisphere, summer is already drawing to a close and, depending on the local climate and the weather this year, the grape harvest is either imminent, has just started or, in the warmest areas, has already finished.  For those in the last category, worrying about the vagaries of the weather are behind them and they are now sitting smugly, watching the grapes gently ferment in the winery.  The next group, those that have started to harvest, are fervently hoping that they can complete the job before any rain – or worse, hail – arrives that might damage the grapes still left on the vines. In the coolest areas, harvest won’t yet have started and growers there have the key decision on whether to leave the grapes on the vine a week or two longer so that they will ripen just that bit more or whether to pick now and avoid any chance of the weather turning for the worse.

In the Northern Hemisphere, things for growers at this time of year are equally problematic; the challenges here are different, although they still surround the unpredictable weather.  Spring is the time of the year when the first buds appear on the vines from which the new shoots will grow.  A warm spring, like the one we are currently enjoying, will encourage budding but growers will worry about late frosts which can kill off the young shoots.  This would reduce considerably the quantity of grapes produced later in the year.  On the other hand, a cooler spring would mean that the whole process is delayed so that the grapes may not have time to ripen for an autumn harvest.

So, if you pick up a glass of wine this weekend, think about how it is made and thank those whose hard work and judgement results in your pleasure.