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.

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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.

Europe wins at last!

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!

“A Sort of Winey Flavour!”

“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

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

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.

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.