Category Archives: wine tasting

Europe wins at last!

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Eu v RoW 1Are most of the wines you drink from Europe? Or do you usually choose something from the rest of the world? Some wine lovers have strong preferences one way or the other but are they actually buying wines that are best suited to their taste? Should, for example, dedicated French wine drinkers really be opening something from California – or vice versa?

A couple of days ago, at Stoke Lodge Adult Education Centre in Bristol, a group who were clearly willing to have their views on this challenged, came to a ‘Europe against the Rest of the World’ tasting I ran. I chose 12 different wines and divided them by style into pairs, each pair featuring one bottle from Europe and one from the Rest of the World. We tasted them ‘blind’, so that the group didn’t know which was which. Then, before I revealed the identities, I asked everyone to vote for the wine they preferred.

Based on a number of previous experiences of running this sort of event, I was sure that the Rest of the World would win – they always have in the past. How wrong I was! This time, 5 of the 6 rounds went to Europe including winning the vote for the most popular wine of the day overall: the lovely, crisp and spicy Domane Wachau’s Grüner Veltliner (a real bargain at Lidl for £6.99).

Among other European successes were the delicate, aromatic Sainsbury’s Pinot Blanc from Germany’s Pfalz region (£8) and the rich, intense Torre de Ferro red from the under-rated Dão area of Portugal (Lidl again, £7).

Eu v RoW 2In fact, the sole (but well-deserved) non-European success was a creamy Chenin Blanc with delightfully restrained oak influence from Stellenbosch Manor in South Africa (Sainsbury’s, £8.49).

Did the results change anyone’s mind? I think, on the day, perhaps not but allowing your preferences to be challenged is all part of the fun of these events and, who knows, there’s always something different to try.

And, if you thought the title meant that Bristol Wine Blog was turning political, I’m sure you’ll be happy to see that it hasn’t!

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“A Sort of Winey Flavour!”

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“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. So said Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. It seems that some who prepare tasting notes for the back labels of bottles use words in the same way – words they understand but that mean little to the reader. Take a bottle I opened recently: “bright floral aromas, apricot kernel, quince and a hint of spicey white pepper. The palate reveals intense riverstone minerality combined with white peach, lime sorbet and fresh dill before revealing a chalky yet vibrant long finish”. Some interesting ideas, but what do all those words tell you and just how much do they say to the customer who may be considering buying? And, if you didn’t know the wine, what would you drink it with?

I also use words to describe wine – everyone in the wine industry from sommeliers to wine writers and professional buyers does – but I like to think that I use language that tells the customer what they need to know and that they can relate to. How many would know what apricot kernel smells like or understand ‘riverstone minerality’? Not too many, I suggest.

Waimea Gru VSo, my description of the same wine – Waimea’s Grüner Veltliner from Nelson in New Zealand (Majestic, £10.99) – would simply say that it was fresh with attractive peach and citrus aromas and flavours and would pair nicely with some white fish in a creamy sauce.

And then I picked up this month’s edition of Decanter magazine. Just a few pages in I read, “an uncompromising Champagne, open, elemental, stony. It tasted of frost”. Really? I think I prefer a description a friend gave of a wine I served: “Well, it’s got a sort of winey flavour”.

2018: Looking Back

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Around this time last year, a friend asked me “How many different wines do you drink in a year?”  I had to confess that I had no idea.  But, the question intrigued me and so, geek that I am, I decided to try and count them in 2018!  Amazingly, I persevered and, with just a few days left of the year, the total has just passed …..550!

Mathematicians among you will have calculated instantly that that’s about 1½ wines a day so, before anyone thinks I’ve spent the entire year in a permanent drunken stupor, I should say that the majority of the 550 have been at tastings where it’s been sniff, slurp, spit, scribble a quick note and on to the next wine – very little actually swallowed.

Not satisfied with mere numbers, I can also report that I’ve tasted wines from 23 different countries and from at least 99 different grape varieties – ranging alphabetically from agioritiko to zweigelt (Greek and Austrian reds, respectively).  I say ‘at least’ 99 because I only counted the major component of any blend and there were a couple of wines that I couldn’t discover which grape was involved.

The obvious next question must be ‘which was your favourite?’ and that, I’m afraid, is the hardest of all to answer – I’ve been lucky enough to taste so many truly delicious wines.  But I can say which was the most memorable:

Colares Branco 1969On a damp, chilly autumn day, my wife and I went to an event at Bristol’s Underfall Yard where an assortment of Portuguese products had been brought from Porto to the UK carried by a century-old sailing boat, the Bessie-Ellen.  Among the cargo was a few bottles of Adega Viúva Gomes’ Collares Reserva Branco 1969.  This incredible 49 year old wine is difficult to describe; perhaps closest would be to say it was in the style of a white port or madeira (even though it was not fortified as they would be) – deep golden colour, tangy and nutty and a finish that lasted for ever.  Remarkably, it was still full of life – and easily the most memorable wine of my busy, fruitful year.  (www.xistowines.co.uk may have some left, about £45)

The Life of a Wine Educator

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WSET tastingThis shows just a small selection of the wines I tasted one day earlier this week, as part of a class I was running for a group of students – a couple of enthusiastic amateurs but mainly people already working in the wine industry (in hotels, restaurants or wine shops) – who wanted to further their careers by studying for professional qualifications via the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

They had reached  Level 3 of their study (Level 4 – the Wine Diploma – is the highest WSET course only topped by Master of Wine, of whom there are just a few hundred in the world).  The Level 3 stage is when the class focuses on the question ‘what makes this wine taste as it does?’  That sounds quite simple but, at this fairly advanced point of their journey, it is anything but – for me, also, at times, as their enthusiastic questioning often challenges my knowledge!

As we consider the question, we look at the vineyard – its soil, its slope, the climate, how good is its exposure to the sun – and the decisions taken by the grower – whether to go for quality or quantity and, perhaps most important of all: when to harvest the crop for optimum ripeness.

Then, there’s what happens in the winery: are you going to ferment with whole bunches, grapes only or carbonic maceration – explaining that one is always challenging (I’ll leave it for another day, but you can Google it if you’re interested!).  Also, are oak barrels used to hold the wine or stainless steel?  And how long is the wine kept before it is bottled and shipped out?

And all this while tasting (and spitting out, of course!) more than 20 wines.  Just another day in the life of a wine educator – or student!

Happily, not all the classes I teach are this detailed or aimed at would-be professionals.  For those who enjoy a glass of wine but simply want to learn a little more, I also run regular 1 day events at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  The next one, “Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet” is on Saturday 17 November.  Places are still available, but it is booking up fast.  Go to www.bristolcourses.com for more details and to book. 

I hope to meet some of you there.

Have Some Madeira

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“How many wines do you drink in a year?” a friend asked me recently.  I had to confess that I had no idea.  But, thinking about wines that I taste – at events or courses I run or at tastings organised by others – as well as those we drink at home or when we go out to friends or restaurants, I’m sure the number runs into hundreds.  But that’s still only a guess.  So, I’ve decided to try and count them this year!  Watch this space!

The figure is starting to tick up rapidly.  With just 8 days of the year behind us, my wine count already stood at 16, although half of that number was due to a fascinating tasting of ports and Madeiras organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle last week.

The ports were lovely, particularly a 20 year old Fonseca Tawny, but it was the rare chance to taste high quality examples of Madeira’s 4 noble grape varieties together that was the highlight of the evening.

MadeiraFirst was the Sercial, the driest style.  Henriques and Henriques 15 year old, with its attractive almond aromas and tangy, clean palate, would make a perfect aperitif as, indeed, would the next wine tasted, the Verdelho.  More medium dry than dry and a little richer than the Sercial, this still has Madeira’s characteristic acidity but with an attractive smoky edge.

Richer still and decidedly sweet was the Boal (sometimes spelt ‘Bual’) – flavours of raisins, nuts and caramel dominated and a finish that could be measured in minutes rather than seconds – perhaps my own personal favourite.  And then finally there was the wonderfully rich and luscious Malvasia (sometimes labelled ‘Malmsey’) with its palate of figs, prunes, walnuts and caramel; a dessert wine capable of matching the most intense of puddings – or why not just drink it on its own instead?

A word of caution: you’ll sometimes see bottles of Madeira labelled simply with generic terms such as ‘dry’, ‘medium sweet’ or ‘full rich’.  While these are often very drinkable and certainly very reasonably priced, to share the real treat I experienced, you need to look for the grape names I’ve mentioned on the label. 

If all the wines in my count are as good as these, it will, indeed, be a very Happy New Year!

 

David and Goliath

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As a Wine Educator, this is one of the busiest – and most interesting -times of my working year but I’ve just run my last tasting of 2017 and so I can relax for a few weeks.  This year, that final event featured one of my most popular themes: a contest between wines from Europe against the Rest of the World with the audience voting for their favourites.  It’s one that almost always makes for an enjoyable evening.

With the sales figures showing that UK customers prefer wines from the Rest of the World to those originating in Europe, it’s often a surprise to many when I tell them that the tasting is a David and Goliath battle – with Europe, not the Rest of the World, as Goliath.  In fact, most years Europe produces around twice as much wine as the Rest of the World and either France or Italy alone turns out more than USA, Argentina and Australia (the 3 largest non-European producers) together.  2017 was a different story but that’s a blog for another day.

The contest this time featured 8 different wines in 4 matched pairs, all tasted blind so that no-one (except me!) knew the identity of any wine.  When the votes were added up, the Rest of the World was the narrow winner overall, but Europe put up a fair fight winning one of the 4 rounds and tying in another.

2017-12-07 10.01.23The European success was the delightful, herby, fragrant Stella Alpina Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige in northern Italy (£10.99 – all the wines for this tasting were bought from Majestic), while the ‘Rest’ winners were from California and Chile.  The latter, Montes’ Single Vineyard Chardonnay from the 2017-12-07 10.18.18cool Casablanca Valley (£8.99) showed a lovely buttery richness and just a hint of vanilla and spice from brief oak ageing.

California’s winner, Majestic’s Parcel Series Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, was the cheapest wine of the evening 2017-12-07 10.18.11and a real bargain at £7.49.  5 years old and with all the soft, harmonious flavours that age produces – this is remarkable for the price.

And, indeed, with none of the wines above £11, this tasting showed that, by shopping around you really don’t have to spend a fortune to find winning wines.

A Sparkling Evening

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“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.