Compare and Contrast

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“Compare and Contrast” – probably a phrase familiar to anyone who has ever sat or set an exam. But the idea is also a basic part of wine tasting. I tried the 2 bottles pictured above on successive days recently and I was struck by how similar the 2 wines were in both their style and characteristics.

Now, some of you might have expected that – they’re both made from 100% Chardonnay, after all – but I didn’t. Chardonnay is the most variable of all the major grape varieties and the wines it makes are very dependent on where it is grown and what happens in the winery – think of a Chablis compared to a big oaky example from a warmer corner of California or Australia and you’ll know what I mean.

So, the fact that these 2 were grown, by my calculation, some 8000 miles apart in 2 different continents with very different climates and conditions made me expect 2 very different wines. But I was wrong!

The Montagny (Majestic Wine, £10.99), made from old vines (Vieilles Vignes on the label) by the always reliable co-operative in the southern Burgundy village of Buxy, was attractively crisp with peach, apple and lemon zest aromas and flavours and a slightly savoury, buttery texture.

The Cono Sur (£1 dearer, also from Majestic) is from a single vineyard barely 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. The closeness of the sea and the influence of the Humboldt Current straight from the Antarctic keeps this vineyard much cooler than might be expected from its 34° South latitude and results in a lovely, well-balanced wine, again with lemon and red apple flavours and a long creamy finish.

Either would be perfect drunk, slightly chilled, on their own as an aperitif or with dishes featuring elegant, creamy sauces.

‘Compare and Contrast’ questions in exams were never as enjoyable to tackle as this tasting proved!

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!

South Africa Emerges

It’s almost 30 years since Nelson Mandela was released from prison and South Africa began to emerge from the bleak days of apartheid. Many things have changed since then, not least their wine industry, which was in a sorry state. By contrast, today, that country is producing some really high quality bottles.

So, I was particularly pleased when the Bristol Tasting Circle invited Duncan Pilbeam, from the historic Babylonstoren Estate north of Stellenbosch, to talk to us and show us some of the estate’s wines.

We began with Sprankel (£31.99), a soft, fresh traditional-method sparkling wine made from Chardonnay grown at altitude. More than 4 years on its lees gave it a savoury, biscuity character.

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A quartet of whites followed – a Chenin Blanc, a Viognier and a ‘farm blend’, all well-made and pleasant easy drinking, but, for me, the standout white was the Chardonnay (£19.99). Almost Burgundian in nature with well-judged, subtle oak and lovely rounded tropical fruit flavours; this would be even better with food – something rich and creamy making a perfect partner.

I expected the reds to be better than the whites and so it proved. The Cabernet Sauvignon (£15.99) had a pure eucalyptus nose and rich black fruits on the palate while the Shiraz (£16.99) was a chunky mouthful with an attractive smoky edge. Both were food wines and both would improve for a further couple of years in bottle at least.

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The evening’s final wine, the Estate’s flagship, Nebukadnesar (£27.99), is a blend of the 5 main Bordeaux grapes, aged in new French oak barrels for 2 years. This is a big wine that, again, is still very young – even decanted 3 hours before tasting, the tannins were still really prominent. Like so much in South Africa, it’s a wine for the future, but you will need to be patient.

For more information about any of the wines mentioned or to buy, contact the Wine Shop at Winscombe (www.thewinetastingco.com)

Round Italy in 10 Wines

How do you choose just 10 wines to represent Italy – a country that produces almost ⅕ of the world’s wine each year? That was the problem facing Graeme Ewins of Great Western Wine who hosted a recent meeting of the Bristol Tasting Circle. His solution? Avoid the obvious like Chianti and Barolo and focus on producers who are creating something interesting and distinctive.

That is certainly true of Roberto Anselmi from the Veneto region.

20200210_193121His deliciously rich, medium-sweet I Capitelli (£25 per half bottle) was a bold start to the tasting with its intense flavours of orange, peach and honey from the often bland Garganega grape (think Soave).

Next came Lambrusco, that (justifiably) much-maligned lightly sparkling red.

20200210_194005But Sassomoro (£14.95) is quite different with its refreshing bitter cherry and blackberry fruit, this would perfectly cut through any fattiness in a plate of dried or cured meats, which just happen to be a speciality of the region of its production.

My favourite wine of the evening was Antonio Caggiano’s Bechar,

20200210_200337a lovely crisp, fresh, slightly smoky Fiano di Avellino (£18.95) from the hills inland of Naples. Good to drink on its own but even better as a food wine – a creamy risotto springs easily to mind.

Among the reds was an incredible bargain:

20200210_202526Palladino’s Biferno Riserva from the east coast (£9.50) is a blend of Montepulciano and Aglianico giving a wonderfully quaffable wine full of smooth, jammy black fruits. Not greatly complex but oh so drinkable.

Rather more serious was the final red, Varvaglione’s Primitivo di Manduria (£22.50).

20200210_205217A big mouth-filling wine in every way (14.5% alcohol) but with the blackberry fruit and spicy, smoky oak all in complete harmony. A wine for full-flavoured robust winter dishes – a game casserole, perhaps?

So ended a fascinating trip round the wines of a country full of delicious surprises. Special thanks go to our guide, Graeme, for pointing us towards bottles that, before this evening, many of us would have ignored.

Tasting Skills Tested

20200131_210228What better way to mark the final evening of the UK’s membership of the European Union than a wine tasting evening organised by the Bristol-Oporto Twinning Association? The Association fosters links and arranges exchange visits between Bristol and Oporto, the Portuguese city from whom Bristol has bought goods, particularly port, for centuries.  And, for this meeting, we also welcomed representatives from two of Bristol’s other Twinning groups, Bordeaux and Hannover.

The event was hosted by Alan, the owner of Clifton Cellars, one of Bristol’s best independent wine merchants, who brought along a selection of wines with bottles and labels concealed and challenged the group to identify the grape or region, country of origin and price of each. ‘Blind’ tastings border on the impossible, even for wine professionals like me, so I approached the evening with some trepidation – fully justified, as it turned out, even with Alan’s helpful hints!

As we discovered when all was revealed, our test began with the smooth, creamy Talmard Macon Chardonnay with its lovely ripe fruit on the palate. By contrast, the 2nd white, a Rioja, Viña Real, showed a decidedly spicy, oaky character. These were followed by a trio of reds which, as Alan suggested, were even more tricky to identify. The first, Ca’ Vittoria Appassimento from Italy, was made from partially dried grapes in the style of an Amarone, but without that wine’s usual heaviness (or sky-high price!) Next, a Portuguese red – inevitable, I suppose, given that this was an Oporto Twinning Association meeting. Vina do Mouro had the fresh, blackcurrant aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon enhancing the flavours of a blend of Portugal’s native grapes.

All too soon we had reached the final wine – a nicely balanced and satisfying Merlot-dominated red Bordeaux, Château Trébiac from the Graves region. And then it was time to add up the scores which showed that 2 members of the group had achieved more than 70% correct. As Alan himself said, the winners’ bottle prizes could not have been more well deserved.

A delicious cheese and paté buffet ended the evening – a chance to chat with friends and to try some of the wines again – obvious, of course, when you can see the labels!

All wines are available from Clifton Cellars and are priced between £12 and £15.

Voyage of Discovery

Britain is one of the few winemaking countries in the world that drinks more wine that it makes. As a result, everyone else is keen to export their surplus production to quench our thirsts. This is lucky for us as, without too much difficulty, it means we can find wines from all over the world without leaving our shores. In fact, I’ve personally tasted wines from more than 20 different countries this year.

So, when I was asked to put on a tasting showcasing wines from some of the less well-known parts of the world, I was happy to take up the invitation. I called it ‘Voyage of Discovery’.

I chose wines from European countries like Slovenia, Hungary and Macedonia – and England, of course – I couldn’t ignore the home side – alongside some from further afield: Chile and Lebanon. And I looked for some unusual grapes, too, like Furmint, Ribolla Gialla and Pais.

Not surprisingly, the different styles of wine from these countries and grapes provoked some widely different reactions from members of the group – but that’s part of tasting something new. But, when it came to the vote at the end, there was a narrow winner among both whites and reds.

Discovery white

Krasno’s crisp but mouth-filling blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the local speciality Ribolla Gialla (Majestic, £8.49) from Slovenia was the favourite white. Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, has made enormous strides in the past couple of decades, particularly the Goriška Brda region, from which this wine comes, which is so close to north-east Italy that some vineyards actually span the national boundary.

Discovery red

The winning red was also from the Balkans region, although this time rather further south in Macedonia. The Tikveš Vranec/Merlot (a real bargain from Majestic at just £7.99) was, again a blend of a popular international variety with a native grape. This reminded some of a good Beaujolais; quite light-bodied but very drinkable, with lovely clean red fruits and a slightly smoky finish. A wine to drink on its own or with lighter dishes – one of the group suggested baked trout as an interesting pairing.

But these were just the winners – every wine had some supporters and several left the tasting thinking about their own Voyage of Discovery.

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.

A Sparkling Evening

“Can you run a tasting of sparkling wines for us?”  It’s not a request I get often – sparkling wines can be quite expensive and, perhaps, more for a celebration than for talking about.  But there’s plenty to say (for me, at least!) and a vast choice.  It’s not just Champagne and Prosecco, virtually every cool climate area of the wine world produces some fizz.

Why the emphasis on a cool climate?  Both the most common ways of making sparkling wine (the ‘traditional’ method – the one that used to be known as the Champagne method until the Champenois objected – and the ‘tank’ method) involve a second fermentation – adding more grape sugar and yeast to an already made still wine to produce the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles.  But this process also raises the alcohol level in the wine by 1 – 1.5%.  If you try this with a wine that is already 13% or more, as is typical in warm climates, you lose the aromatics and the wine becomes heavy and unappetising.  Hence the importance of a cool climate and a lower alcohol level to start with.

What of the evening itself?  We sampled 6 wines ranging through France, Italy, Spain, England (of course!), South Africa and New Zealand and at prices from £10 to £25. 

And the reaction of the tasters?  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Champagne (Charles Lecouvey’s Brut Reserve) was the clear winner with everyone present scoring it in their top 2.  ChampagneAlthough not expensive for a Champagne (£23.99 from Waitrose), the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave it a lightness and freshness that appealed to all. 

The same grape varieties were used (although with Pinot Noir dominating rather than Chardonnay) for the group’s 2nd favourite: Lindauer’s Special Reserve Brut Rosé from New Zealand (widely available from supermarkets and wine shops at between £11 and £14).  Lindauer FizzDelicate crushed strawberry flavours and aromas and a really attractive pink colour made this a delight.  Certainly one to consider if you’re looking for an easy-drinking fizz at an attractive price for the festive season.

Carmenère – the Clear Winner!

2017-11-13 18.25.40In the minds of many who enjoy a glass of wine, Chile is the place to look for something fresh, fruity, easy-drinking and not too expensive – the sort of wines the Australians used to call ‘sunshine in a glass’.  But that’s only part of the story: Chile is full of ambitious young winemakers eager to break away from the ‘cheap and cheerful’  tag and experiment with something more interesting that will appeal to those prepared to pay a little more. 

Typical of this trend is the Errazuriz Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon I blogged about earlier this year but, for a much wider selection, I joined  a tasting organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle recently and supported by ‘Wines of Chile’.  Committee member and wine educator, Tim Johnson’s choice included wines from all the main international grape varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  A particularly nice example of the latter (Falernia’s Reserva from the Elqui Valley, £14.95 from Great Western Wine) got my top mark of the evening.  

Among the less well-known was Huaso de Sauzal’s País (also Great Western Wine, £22.95).  País was brought to South America by the Spanish in the 16th century and, after decades, even centuries, of neglect, has recently attracted the attention of a number of winemakers who are coaxing lovely red and black fruit flavours out of this formerly unloved variety.

These days, no tasting of Chilean wines could be complete with examples of Chile’s ‘own’ grape, Carmenère.  Once thought to be Merlot, it has been embraced enthusiastically since the error was discovered in the closing years of last century and, appropriately, provided the overall joint winners of the evening from Santa Ema (Tanners, £12.80) and Los Vascos’ Grande Reserve (Slurp, £13.95).

So, sunshine in a glass?  Yes!  But a whole lot more, too!

If you would like to join the Bristol Tasting Circle and enjoy tastings like this, please leave your details in the comment box below and I will pass them onto the membership secretary.