Category Archives: wine appreciation

The Wine Olympics

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Olympics logoWith the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio nearing its close, I couldn’t help noticing how many wine producing countries were prominent in the Medals Table. Does this reveal some hitherto undiscovered benefit of wine? Perhaps not!  Indeed, I suspect that, for most of the competitors, wine is nowhere on their training schedule.

But, it did start me thinking about an Olympics for wine.  In fact, there are already wine competitions in virtually every wine region but few that could truly be called Olympic in scale; I know of only 2: the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter Annual World Wine Awards.  In both, thousands of wines are tasted by panels of expert judges with their favourites awarded medals.  But, wine is a very personal thing; I always wonder whether a different judge on a different day might produce a different medal winner.

But, like judges in, say, diving or gymnastics, there are certain basic principles to follow.  For me, these were best summarised by Jane Hunt MW with the acronym BLIC: Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity.  A high quality wine needs to be balanced – no one component should dominate, so alcohol, acidity, fruit, tannin should all harmonise.  It should be long in the mouth; after you’ve swallowed or spit out, the longer the flavours remain with you, the better the wine.  Intensity is important, too – a wine may be subtle but the flavours should be definite and pronounced, not wishy-washy.  And finally, you should look for complexity – if you can only taste one flavour, the wine is unlikely to be great; a favourite phrase of mine to describe a good wine is that ‘there’s a lot going on’ – many different flavours and each time you taste, you discover something new.

So, if you get all of those, the wine might be worthy of a medal.  But do you like it?  That’s another question entirely!

Keeping Leftover Wine

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You’ve opened a bottle of wine and you don’t want to drink it all. How long can you keep the leftovers and what’s the best way to make sure they stay in good condition?

The problem you are dealing with is that, once you’ve opened a bottle, air gets in and any wine left in the bottle will start to oxidise. It’s the same effect you see if you cut an apple; leave the cut side upwards and, in a few minutes, it will start to go brown. But turn the cut side downwards, you exclude the air and the flesh stays white.

So, as with apples, the key to keeping wine fresh is to exclude the air. There are a number of ways to do this: the simplest and cheapest, usually sold in the UK as a ‘Vacu-vin’ comprises a one-way seal you push into the neck of the bottle and a pump to remove the air creating a vacuum inside. VacuvinYou can buy one for around £10 and I’ve found it will keep delicate white wines fresh for a few days (especially if you put them in the fridge) and more robust whites and reds for at least a week. The seals are re-usable.

Equally effective are canisters of argon (or other inert gas). You spray the gas into the bottle and it sits on top of the wine forming a barrier to the air. Make sure the canister says ‘suitable for food use’ or some similar comment and, of course, you use some gas each time so you’ll need to keep buying new canisters.

At the other end of the scale, there’s a high tech solution called a Coravin which draws wine out via a hollow needle inserted through the cork and replaces the wine with inert gas. At about £250, this is for real devotees only although many restaurants and wine bars are now using them to offer a far wider range of wines by the glass than was ever possible.

Whichever you choose, a wine saver is one of those useful gadgets that no wine lover should be without.

 

Alcohol is going up!

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14.5% alcohol
No – I’m not referring to the price this time, but to the amount of it in many bottles of wine on the shelves today. The one in the picture has 14.5%, but wines even stronger than that are no longer a rarity (I’ve seen 15.5% and 16% recently); to put that in context, these wines have acquired roughly the same alcohol content naturally as a Fino sherry to which extra alcohol is added.

It wasn’t always like that. When I first started enjoying wine many years ago (OK, I admit it, more than 40 years ago!), 11 and 12% alcohol was normal and the occasional 13% bottle – perhaps a Châteauneuf du Pape – was considered a real monster. If you wanted more alcohol than that, you were into fortified wines, like sherry or port, or spirits. But times have changed and alcohol levels in wine have gradually crept up and up. Why is that?

There are a number of reasons: Global warming and new methods and ideas in the vineyard mean that grapes are now picked riper than previously; riper grapes contain more sugar and more sugar allows the fermentation process to create more alcohol. And in the winery, many producers now use more efficient yeasts that convert more of the sugar to alcohol. As these changes kicked in, producers found that customers liked the higher alcohol wines; they are fuller and richer in your mouth and seem to have a hint of sweetness about them. So they pushed the levels a little further – and then a little further still to the point where, now, 13 and 13.5% is typical and a wine with (only) 12% alcohol can taste quite lean.

Have things gone too far? For me, the answer is probably yes. Although high alcohol wines will sometimes work best with the food I’m eating, I also enjoy more delicate styles – wines with elegance and subtlety. Happily, some producers are taking note, picking their grapes earlier and looking for cooler sites as ways of reining back on the alcohol. But are the days of the 14.5% wine over? I don’t think so! Just look around!

Love Chablis, Hate Chardonnay!

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Chablis“Love Chablis; hate Chardonnay”. How many times have I heard that said – or, indeed, the reverse? It’s a comment that needs to be answered carefully because, as many Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, all wines from the Burgundy district of Chablis and claiming that designation must be made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. But it’s clear from the statement that many people buying wine don’t know that.

And, in a way, their comment is understandable. Chablis is a very particular expression of Chardonnay, a grape which makes wines that vary enormously in flavour depending on where it’s grown and what happens to it in the winery.

So, in a coolish climate, Chardonnay produces wines such as the Domaine Louis Moreau Chablis which we enjoyed with a friend recently – clean, fresh and minerally with attractive green apple flavours – whereas in the hottest parts of California or Australia, the much riper grapes give much fuller, richer, more alcoholic wines tasting of tropical fruits, pineapple and the like.

And winemakers love working with Chardonnay as it is a good base on which they can impose their individual style and preferences, especially when it comes to using – or not using – oak. Fermenting or maturing wine in oak barrels, particularly if the barrels are new, adds a completely different dimension to the wine with spicy, nutty flavours either overlaying or replacing the natural flavours of the fruit.

As a result, someone liking the delightfully refreshing 12% alcohol Chablis mentioned above might not appreciate a wine like the rich, creamy Saintsbury Chardonnay from Carneros in California (Majestic, £13.99 if you buy 2 bottles) with its subtle toasty oak character and the full flavour and weight that comes from a warmer climate and 13.5% alcohol. For me, both are good, yet, there is nothing that obviously says that they both come from the same grape variety.

Given that, I can understand why some people can say they love Chablis, but hate Chardonnay – but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with as a Wine Educator when faced with the comment!

Wine Glass Almost Empty!

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Glass almost emptyAn almost empty wine glass – not the way I usually head my Bristol Wine Blog! – but that was my first thought when I read recent newspaper reports that a global wine shortage is in prospect.

Research carried out by Morgan Stanley suggests that wine lovers worldwide will soon be drinking more wine each year than is produced, resulting in shortages. They blame increased wine consumption, particularly in China and the United States, coupled with some poor harvests in several of the major wine producing countries in 2012 and 2013.

Just 10 years ago, things were very different. Over 7000 million bottles of wine a year were remaining unsold. Not surprisingly, producers cut back in an attempt to shift their surplus stock and some growers would have decided that their vineyards just weren’t economic any longer. As a result, output fell by almost 10% – and that was before the poor weather that has reduced crops in many parts of Europe this year and last.

At the same time, demand for wine in China has risen at a remarkable rate, quadrupling in just the last 5 years (albeit from quite a low starting point) – a trend that is almost certain to continue. And in the United States, too, wine drinking is becoming much more widespread.

But, read on! Things are not as bad as the headline would lead you to believe – are they ever?

There may be a few short-term problems as the historic surpluses disappear and we depend more on wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages; prices are almost certain to rise a little. But those two poor years are very much the exception. If the weather in 2014 is better and normal levels of production resume across Europe and countries like South Africa and Chile continue to plant new vineyards, we’ll very soon forget any talk of a shortage.

And I’ve only mentioned China in terms of the population consuming rapidly increasing amounts of wine. The country is also becoming a very significant producer. Indeed from almost nothing 20 years ago, China is now thought to be No5 in the world. Not much is seen outside China yet, but, within the next few years, I expect that to change.

So, yes, we may find some of our favourite wines missing from the shelves for a little while; personally, I’d take that as an opportunity to try something different. But longer term, I see a rosier picture: my wine glass being half full – at least!

Nasty, smelly wine!

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Ians mugshotYou open a bottle of wine and instead of the lovely, fresh appealing aromas you were hoping for, a nasty smell hits your nose. Something is obviously wrong, but what? – and what, if anything, can you do about it?

It depends on the smell. Perhaps the most likely is a musty, mouldy smell. This suggests a ‘corked’ wine. Corked wine is nothing to do with bits of cork floating about in the glass, which are harmless (take them out with a spoon or your finger and be more careful opening the bottle next time) – but is the result of a problem in the cork production process which has tainted the cork, which, in turn, has spoiled the wine. Nothing you can do except take the bottle back for a replacement or refund.

Another possibility is the wine might smell a bit like sherry or vinegar and a white wine might also be an unduly dark colour. This wine is oxidised – oxygen will, somehow, have got into the bottle and ruined the wine. This happens at times with plastic bottle stoppers that don’t fit properly or with poor corks or poor storage and, again, there’s no remedy – just take it back for a refund.

The opposite of oxidation – where too little oxygen is present can also be a fault. It is usually called ‘reduction’ (and that’s a useful shorthand, although I know that some scientists think the term is misleading). Reduction is most often – but not exclusively – found in screw-capped bottles and shows in a number of ways: smells of sewage, manure or rotten eggs are common. Happily, this problem is not always terminal; introducing some oxygen to the wine by, for example, decanting or simply leaving it in the glass for a few minutes, can revive the wine but, if it doesn’t, your remedy is as before.

There are other faults that are less common, but sometimes even wines in good condition can have unusual and unpleasant smells; one winemaker used to say that “good Burgundy smells like s**t!” So, how can you tell if there’s a problem? Perhaps, only by experience, and, in fact, even experts often argue whether certain smells represent a fault or are a characteristic of the style of wine.

I should say that none of the faults I have mentioned would actually harm you if you drank the wine. But you wouldn’t enjoy it, so my advice is, if you’re unhappy with how a wine smells, then reject it. Most wine waiters, wine merchants and supermarkets are keen to please their customers and will usually exchange or refund quite willingly. But you do need to ask – and sometimes be persistent!

Sotanum – a Roman wine reborn

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Look at most maps of France’s vineyards and they will show a vine-free area between the southernmost tip of Beaujolais and the first of the Northern Rhône Appellations, the Côte Rôtie. Part of that gap is taken up by the town (and gastronomic paradise) of Lyon, but, still, the complete absence of vines is difficult to explain.

It wasn’t always like that. Indeed, in Roman times, contemporary writings note that the vineyards of this area, on the hills overlooking the small town of Vienne, were highly regarded. Black grapes, known as Vitis allobrogica (the ancestor of Syrah, or Pinot Noir, perhaps?) were grown here and 3 wines, Sotanum, Taburnum and Heluicum were made, each from particular vineyards.

And, although these names died out, vines continued to grow here and wine was made from them until the middle of the 19th century when disaster, in the form of a tiny vine-root eating aphid, phylloxera, wiped out these and many other vineyards across Europe and beyond.

Many vineyards were replanted in the early part of the 20th century, but these weren’t and remained abandoned and ignored – until 1996, when a group of 3 growers from a few miles further south, got together to revive winemaking in this area. About 25 acres of Syrah vines were planted. Les Vins de Vienne were born. And, to celebrate the revival, one of the ancient names, Sotanum, was used for the modern wine.

I recently had the opportunity to taste a bottle from the year 2000. This was only the second vintage made after the replanting and the vines were still very young – only 4 years old. Often vines won’t produce their best fruit until they’ve been established for 10 – 15 years, at least. But, in this case, the vines had produced a wine that was delicious and full of flavour. It had matured magnificently in the 11 years since harvest – smooth and rich, but not heavy and a perfect accompaniment to some pan-fried venison steaks.

A lovely wine and a piece of history. I look forward to tasting a more recent vintage which should show even more complexity as the vines establish themselves. Now, all we need is for the wine maps to be corrected.