In The Beginning

I like a challenge so, when I got an email asking about a tasting mentioning all the Biblical references to wine and suggesting that, as a result, countries like Israel and Lebanon must have some interesting old vineyards, it sounded like a great theme. And I took the idea a stage further and included wines from other countries with long wine histories including Georgia; archaeological evidence suggests that might have been the first country in the world where wine was actually made, some 8000 years ago. The title I gave to the tasting: ‘In the Beginning’.

Traditionally, Georgian wine was made in qvevris – clay pots that were filled with grapes, sealed and buried in the ground for several months while the fermentation took place. That process is still in use there – and elsewhere, as those who read my last blog, ‘Clay Pots or Lunch’ will know.

Georgian white

But not all Georgian wine is made in this way and the example we tasted, Schuchmann’s Mtsvane (Wine Society, £11.50), is tank fermented. The native Mtsvane grape gave this white an attractive freshness and herbiness and a pleasant underlying richness, with delicately nutty hints on the finish from brief ageing in oak barrels.

Israel’s wines are not widely available in the UK, so I was pleased to pick up a bottle of Recanati’s Carignan/Petite Sirah in Marks and Spencer’s for £10.

Israeli red

This red, from the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, was lighter than I expected based on the blend of grapes, but very fruity and flavoursome and easily drinkable nevertheless.

Ksara red

The Ksara Reserve du Couvent, a Cabernet/Syrah blend from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (Wine Society, £10.50) was altogether chunkier and more full-bodied and would have benefitted from being tasted with robust food and, probably, from decanting, too. But it was a very appropriate wine for an ‘In the Beginning’ tasting as the monks at Ksara were instrumental in introducing new French vine varieties and production methods into Lebanon in the mid-19th century, creating the basis of the modern wine industry in the country.

So, something that started as an unusual challenge ended, by general agreement, as a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting tasting.

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Clay Pots or Lunch?

Cos1 Cos2

I saw a bottle of COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria on the shelf of Grape and Grind, one of our excellent local independent wine merchants, recently and I eagerly handed over my £16.99 to buy it. Not just because I knew the wine to be good but also, it brought back memories of a visit to the producer in the very early 2000s.

My wife and I were on a guided tour of the vineyards of Sicily and our group arrived at COS late one morning. The itinerary said something about a brief tour of the winery followed by a tasting and lunch. It didn’t quite work out that way!

We were greeted by the owner/winemaker who was keen to tell us about a recent visit he’d made to Georgia in which he’d seen wine made in the ancient way: putting crushed grapes in a clay pot, sealing it, burying it in the ground and leaving the wine to ferment naturally. This was the way all wine should be made and he’d bought a selection of clay pots that he just had to show us:

amphora at COSAs time passed, our initial interest in his clay pots was overtaken by a desire to move on to the tasting and then – as it was now approaching 3 o’clock – to lunch.

But, I must have forgiven him for our hunger, as I’ve been a keen follower of COS wines ever since.

In fact, the bottle I opened was not made in one of his clay pots, but in tank. An unusually intense nose of black fruits greeted me on drawing the cork followed, on tasting, by a really savoury mixture of cooked plums and prunes – a delightful wine, strongly flavoured but in no way heavy; in some aspects like a lighter version of a good Barolo.

This clearly is a wine made with the passion he showed that day and, even after all these years, it is this impression that floods back every time I open one of his wines.

The Bordeaux-Chile Link

Los Vascos Cab S

A few brief words on the back label of a bottle I opened recently caught my attention: “…vineyard with ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaux rootstock.” But the wine wasn’t from Bordeaux, it was from Chile – Los Vascos’ Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £9.99) – and the phylloxera bug hit Bordeaux in the 1870s. So, what’s the link between Bordeaux and Chile, was the vineyard really planted almost 150 years ago before phylloxera and what does it mean that the rootstocks are ungrafted?

To start answering those questions, we need to turn the clock back to around 1850 when a number of wealthy Chileans began to travel to Europe. Not only did they enjoy the sights, they also experienced some of its fine wines, which were very different from those available in Chile at the time.

One visitor was so impressed, he imported a selection of vine varieties from Bordeaux and hired a French winemaker to make his wine for him. This, of course, was some 20 years before France’s phylloxera infestation, and so no-one had even thought about the need to graft vines to combat the disease.

What is grafting? It involves planting a vine root in the ground that is resistant to phylloxera (or whatever pest you’re trying to protect against) and then connecting your chosen non-resistant vine (eg Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or almost any of the other varieties we know and love) to it. It is now universally accepted as the best method of protecting against phylloxera, for which there is no known cure.

Chile has been lucky – today it’s one of the few wine producing countries that remains free of this particular pest and so most of its vines are ungrafted.

But, back to the wine – the Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon. My wife, Hilary’s first comment was that wine tasted ‘more Old World than New’ and I know what she meant. This was a wine made in quite a restrained, elegant style without lots of the overt fruit flavours found in many New World wines. The reason for this probably lies in the fact that the estate is managed by Domaines Barons de Rothschild of Château Lafite fame; the lean Bordeaux influence certainly shows through and maintains a link to that region now dating back almost 170 years.

Burgundy by the Barrel

hospices-de-beauneNext Sunday, 18th November, the famous Hospice de Beaune wine auction will take place.  It’s an event that has happened annually since 1859 with the funds raised mainly supporting the running and upkeep of the magnificent Hôtel Dieu, pictured above.  The building was formerly a medieval hospital, founded in 1443 in the Burgundy town of Beaune, and is now a museum. 

The wine auctioned comes from vineyards donated by benefactors over the centuries, the first of which dates back to 1457.  Today, the area owned by the Hospice totals around 60 hectares (150 acres), mostly planted with Pinot Noir, although there is some Chardonnay, too.  85% of the production of these vineyards is rated Premier Cru or Grand Cru. 

These days, the auction is organised by Christies and wines are sold by the barrel – traditional Burgundy-sized ‘pièces’, each holding 228 litres, just over 300 bottles (a fraction larger than a Bordeaux barrique).  Not surprisingly for such a prestigious event, hammer prices are usually well above normal commercial levels.  For example, last year’s top lot sold for 420000 euros and the entire auction of almost 800 barrels raised some 13.5 million euros (£12m, $16m).

If your budget won’t stretch to bidding for one of these lots but you have a strong stomach, the weekend is still worth a visit as it is also the occasion of ‘Les Trois Glorieuses’ – 3 great feasts held in and around the town on the Saturday evening before, on the Sunday night and on the Monday lunchtime.  It’s quite an occasion!

50 Years On

What were you doing in 1964?  I guess that many who are reading this weren’t even born then.  I was at school at the time and my main interest was the Beatles, then the most famous pop band in the world.  As for wine – I doubt that I’d ever tasted any by then and I certainly knew nothing about it.  But an Italian company, Masi, did; that was the year that they launched a new wine, Campofiorin – a wine that has subsequently become an iconic name and whose 2014 vintage, currently in the shops (Waitrose, £12.99) celebrates the brand’s 50th Anniversary with a specially designed ‘50’ label.

Campofiorin 50

Although sold as a Rosso Verona IGT (IGT is the Italian equivalent of the French term ‘Vin de Pays’), Campofiorin is effectively a high quality Valpolicella in disguise.  It’s made using the traditional grapes from that DOC – Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella – the main difference here is that the grapes are slightly dried before fermentation.  This concentrates the sugars in them and so produces a wine with more body and power than a normal Valpolicella – a technique borrowed from the prestigious Amarone wines from the same region.

Here, the method gives a lovely deep coloured wine with aromas of bitter cherry, prunes and spice. The same flavours, especially the spices, carry through to quite a rich and full palate with hints of chocolate, figs and vanilla on an attractive, long finish.

With good Amarones fetching £20 and more, this really is a bargain for those who like this chunky style – I admit it’s not to everyone’s taste – and no surprise that it is still on the shelves in its 50th vintage. 

Shame about all those wasted years listening to the Beatles and drinking something else!

Ungrafted vines – revisited

Some time ago, I wrote a blog titled “Ungrafted Vines: A Taste of History”. It has since become the most read of all my blogs. Even now, 21 months later, several people every week hit on it. So, perhaps, it’s time to revisit a topic that’s clearly of interest to many of you.

Firstly, what do I mean by an ungrafted vine? It’s a vine where the whole plant – including the roots – is a single entity. You might think that all vines are like that, but most vines used for the wines we drink today are not – and we need to look back over a hundred years for the reason why.

In the 1860s, phylloxera, a microscopic bug that attacks vine roots and eventually kills the vine, was found in a vineyard in southern France. Over the following four decades or so, it spread quickly and devastated many vineyards in Europe and beyond. At the time, no-one knew what it was or how to deal with it. It was feared that the world’s entire wine industry would be wiped out. The cause of the problem was finally identified in the 1880s, but the solution took far longer to discover.

Phylloxera came to Europe from America where the native vine has developed resistance, but the European vine, which is genetically different, has not, so all our familiar varieties are vulnerable to attack. One solution considered was to plant American vines in place of European, but the wine they produced was not found to be of the same quality.

Fortunately, it was eventually realised that, by using the roots of an American vine and grafting (attaching) a European vine to them, you could have wines from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or whatever and protection from phylloxera. Problem solved!

So what about ungrafted vines? There are a few places in the world where you’ll still find them. They are either so remote from other vineyards that the bug has never spread there or the soil is very sandy (which the bug doesn’t like). Parts of Chile, a small area of Portugal and parts of Cyprus are among the places you’ll find that little bit of history – a vine that is a single entity from tip to root, but everywhere else, grafted vines are the only way to produce the wines we like.