10 Years and Counting

English Wine Walk Sussex 2012 006Why the picture of the celebratory wine glasses?  Well, it’s hard to believe but it’s 10 years since I pressed ‘Publish’ for the first Bristol Wine Blog on 28 July 2010.  At that time, I couldn’t have guessed that I would still be blogging 10 years later – or that anyone would still be reading it!  But I am and you are, so Thank You!

It hasn’t turned out quite how I imagined it would, though.  At the start, I was aiming to create a forum for those in and around Bristol to share their thoughts about wine and their recommendations for the best local buys.  But I underestimated how much wine lovers enjoy reading and talking about wine (almost as much as we enjoy drinking it!) and my hoped-for local community soon spread way beyond the city limits.  Indeed, WordPress tell me that, in the last month alone, the Blog has been read by people from more than 20 countries, so, welcome all you ‘honorary Bristolians’!

Counting back, I must have written more than 500 blogs since that first one.  Many have become out of date and so I have deleted them, but I’ve kept quite a few in the archive as they seem to keep attracting attention.  The most popular is one I posted way back in 2011 titled “Ungrafted Vines: A Taste of History”.  It has clocked up more than 2500 reads over the years and is certainly still relevant today.  It talks about the ongoing battle to combat the deadly vine disease, phylloxera, and explains why most of today’s wine comes from European vines (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc) grafted onto American vine rootstocks – a positive example of transatlantic co-operation!

And looking forward? Well, with the current pandemic, there will be fewer blogs about wine tasting events or courses and not so many mentions of restaurant meals, but my wife and I are still enjoying our wine so, what better plan for the next 10 years of Bristol Wine Blog than to go back to my original idea: to write and share thoughts about wine and recommendations for the best local buys?  And, to read your responses, of course.

The Coffee Test

How do you like your coffee? Black? With Milk?

Coffee Test

That may sound a strange question on a Wine Blog but one man doesn’t think so. I was watching an episode of ‘The Wine Show at Home’ on You Tube recently and the presenter, Joe Fattorini, mentioned Master of Wine Tim Hanni’s ‘coffee test’. I’d not heard of it before but Tim believes that, depending on your answers to 5 simple questions, you can find out the type of wines you ought to be buying. I was fascinated, so googled the questions:

  1. Do you prefer your coffee/tea black?
  2. Do you like the taste of scotch?
  3. Do you prefer salty snacks over sweet snacks?
  4. Do you prefer semi-sweet dark chocolate to sweet milk chocolate?
  5. Do you think that cream/sugar in coffee/tea ruins it?

For every ‘yes’, score 2 points, for a ‘sometimes’ or ‘maybe’ score 1 point and for ‘no’ score 0.

Then add up your points. The higher you score (maximum 10), the more tolerant you are likely to be of intensely flavoured or tannic wines (or, similarly, powerfully flavoured foods). So, if you are up around 7 – 10 points, you’ll enjoy strongly flavoured foods but also big, rich, flavoursome wines.  You may find lighter wine styles quite insipid.

Scores between 4 – 6 show some sensitivity to tannins, bitterness and acidity in wine. You’ll probably prefer smooth reds and lighter whites, although may grow to appreciate some fuller flavoured reds or whites. As for foods, you’ll be happy with a range of tastes.

If you scored 3 or fewer, you are hyper-sensitive to tastes (and, as a result, would be a very good wine taster). Tannins, bitterness and acidity in wine will all hit you hard and you’ll prefer more delicate reds, lighter, more subtle whites and will delight in elegant, restrained food flavours.

My wife and I both did the test. I scored 4 which is, perhaps, a bit lower than I might have expected, but Hilary’s score, 7, is almost the opposite of the truth.

So, based on this very limited sample, I have some doubts, but do try the coffee test for yourself and I’d be interested to hear how it works for you.

Red or White?

white and red

I saw an interview recently with someone who claimed one of their ‘hidden skills’ was to be able to distinguish between red and white wine blindfold, so just by tasting. What’s so clever about that? Surely, it’s easy!

Well, no! There have been a number of studies carried out where people have been asked to do just that and the results, surprisingly, have almost always been that most only get it right half the time.

So, during these extra days spent at home, why not put on a blindfold and experiment for yourself? Ask someone to pour you 2 glasses and taste. And here’s a simple tip: look for tannin – that’s the drying sensation that you feel on your cheeks or gums when you taste red wine. Tannin comes mainly from grape skins and, as red wines are fermented in contact with their skins to produce the colour, you also get the tannin. For white wines, on the other hand, the winemaker usually separates the juice from the skins before fermentation and therefore, there’s little detectable tannin in the wine.

It’s not 100% guaranteed, however: as red wines age, they soften and their tannin becomes more integrated into the wine and so less noticeable, so that might mislead. Also, some wines, like simple Beaujolais, for example, are made using a different type of fermentation (it’s called carbonic maceration if you want to look it up!) which produces rather less tannin than a ‘normal’ fermentation. So that, too, might put you off track.

And how about white wines? Will they never have any tannin? Well, they might. Especially the currently fashionable so-called ‘orange’ wines – these are made using white wine grapes but fermented partly with the skins as a red wine would be. But, it would be a bit of a low trick if someone would give you one of these as your test.

But do have a try; it’s good fun and interesting – and you’ve got some wine to enjoy after you’ve finished. But, remember: no cheating and peaking out from behind the blindfold!

The Meaning of ‘Oak-Aged’

A couple of weeks ago in Bristol Wine Blog I wrote about an oak-aged wine. It seems I didn’t explain the term ‘oak-aged’ or say how can you tell if a wine tastes ‘oaky’?

The words relate to the fact that wine has to be made and stored in some kind of container before it is bottled ready for sale and the material used for that container will have an effect on how the wine tastes. Fermentation and storage tanks will often be made of stainless steel, which is inert, that is it has no flavour of its own.

Ch Dauzac Fermentation tanksWines made and stored in such tanks (pictured above) will taste fresh and clean and fruit flavours are most likely to predominate; typically, we might talk about the wine tasting of citrus or melon or tropical fruits. The same would be true of other neutral containers such as those made from concrete or glass.

Ch Dauzac barrelOn the other hand, the winemaker might use wooden barrels – large as above or much smaller – (usually made of oak, but other woods like chestnut can sometimes be used) to ferment or store the wine in. Wood is not inert – the grain is very slightly porous; not enough to allow the liquid to seep out, but sufficient to allow tiny amounts of air in. This air softens the wine slightly and changes its character. Also, depending on the age of the barrel, the wood itself may have a flavour which is transmitted into the wine; this is the ‘oaky’ taste I referred to and can include flavours like cinnamon, cloves or other spices, vanilla, toast, cigar boxes or pencil shavings. In all these cases, the flavours of the fruit should still be there but they will no longer be the principal taste.

If you want to sample the difference, I suggest you get 2 bottles of Rioja – 1 labelled Gran Reserva and the other without the words Crianza or Reserva on the label and taste them alongside one another. The Gran Reserva will be the oaky one.

Final question: is an oaked wine better than an unoaked? It all depends on your palate but, for me, there is a place for both.

 

 

 

Best of the Year?

“What’s the best wine you’ve tasted in 2019?” A question that’s almost inevitable as the year draws to an end. And impossible to answer. I calculated a few years back that I tasted more than 500 wines in a year, so you see the problem of choosing just one.

I try the line that “there’s a couple of weeks to go this year; I hope I haven’t tasted it yet” but that brings an unbelieving smile; both my questioner and I know that I’m dodging the answer.

In truth, I don’t think there has been 1 stand out wine this year but I’ve tasted many very enjoyable ones. Here’s a few of the less obvious examples at real value for money prices:

Mantinia

Among the whites, Seméli’s Mantinia Nassiakos from Greece (Wine Society, £10.95) has been a favourite of ours for years. Made from the local moschofilero grape, it’s quite floral on the nose with a lovely citrussy freshness and a hint of spice on the palate. Try with lighter dishes or as an aperitif.

Discovery white

Hungary’s Royal Tokaji Dry White (Majestic, £9.99) (in the centre of the picture above) is a little fuller and richer with flavours of green apples and herbs and a subtle touch of oak. This works well with fish or white meat.

Mencia

From the reds, another wine I’ve blogged about before: Regina Viarum’s Mencia from Galicia in north-west Spain (Wine Society, £11.50). Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely, slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through and would make a perfect accompaniment to partridge or duck, perhaps.

Alsace P Noir

And finally, Paul Blanck’s Alsace Pinot Noir (Waitrose, £14.99). Pinot Noir can be quite a tricky grape to grow and, as a result, some examples from Alsace can be thin and sharp. Not this one! Ripe raspberry and cranberry flavours show through in a wine of real elegance and style. One for a seasonal turkey or the lowish tannin would also point to pairing it with a robust fish dish, say a tuna steak.

I’d happily nominate any of these as the best value wines I’ve tasted this year. As for the best of all? I’m still hoping!

Italian sun shines in Bristol

Italy tastingA warm summer evening and a tasting for the Westbury Park Festival held in ‘C The World’, a local Travel Agent. What better theme for the event than the Wines of Italy – one of the favourite holiday destinations for us Brits? And the wines I took along to taste reflected that idea, with all coming from areas much visited by tourists.

Our first wine was from the island of Sardinia – a crisp, peachy white: Nord Est Vermentino (£9.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouse, where I bought all the wines for this tasting). Vermentino is a high quality grape variety especially well-suited to some of the warmer parts of the Mediterranean as it retains its refreshing acidity well.

The hills above Pescara on the Adriatic coast provided our 2nd white: Collecorvino’s Pecorino (£9.99). Yes, Pecorino is a cheese, but it’s also a grape variety; there are many explanations for the similarity – none of them particularly believable! This wine was a little fuller and richer than the 1st – the result of some of the grapes being fermented in oak.

For our final white, I looked to the Avellino hills, east of Naples. It’s an area rich with excellent local grape varieties including Fiano and Greco but I chose Terredora’s Falanghina (£11.99) – beautifully crisp and fresh but with an attractive savoury character from 3 months of lees ageing.

It was back to the islands – this time Sicily – for the 1st of the reds. Corolla’s Nero d’Avola (£8.99) was everything a simple, every day wine should be – lots of red fruit flavours and very moreish.

A little more challenging was Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Ripasso (£12.99) from the area to the east of Lake Garda. Valpolicella can also be simple and gluggable but, when the word ‘Ripasso’ is on the label, it takes on a whole new dimension. Refermented on the lees of an Amarone, a wine made with dried grapes, this is intense with delicious prune and fig flavours.

And finally, from Piedmont, in the north-west, De Forville’s Langhe Nebbiolo (£10.99) is effectively a mini-Barolo in all but name (and price!). Ideally, it should be left a few more years to allow the tannins to soften (I opened the 2017) but, if you can’t wait, decant it well in advance and serve with robust food; you’ll find the quality and richness will shine through.

So, there it was: a taste of the Italian sun in Bristol and, hopefully, enjoyed by all.

Love Chablis, Hate Chardonnay!

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!

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!

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

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.