It’s not often that I can say I’ve tasted a wine from a grape variety that’s completely new to me, but I did so recently. The grape was Novac and the wine came from the Romanian producer Prince Stirbey (Wine Society, £13.95). A little research showed Novac to be a cross between another Romanian variety, Negru (which I had also never met before), with the rather more common Saperavi, widely found in vineyards in Russia, Georgia, Moldova and Bulgaria. To add to its mystery, it seems that Prince Stirbey own the only vineyards planted to Novac in the world.
This is a shame because the example I tasted had lovely fresh, juicy red fruit flavours and an attractive smoothness. Not too heavy – in fact, it’s one of those rare reds that could quite happily be chilled for a brief while to make a really refreshing summer glass.
Romania may not be the first place you think of for quality wines, but much of the country has a favourable Mediterranean climate and vine growing in the region dates back more than 4000 years. Indeed, the family of Prince Stirbey first owned vineyards in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps near Dragasani around 3 centuries ago. The present generation reclaimed the historic family property in 1999 and have since worked hard to restore its former high reputation, installing modern equipment but concentrating on traditional local grape varieties. Apart from Novac, the delicious, fragrant, but almost unpronounceable white variety, Tamâioasa Româneasca is certainly worth looking out for and is also available from the Wine Society (£10.50).
Romania and Prince Stirbey are both names to remember, especially if you are looking to find new grapes and new and exciting flavours.
We noticed some goat meat on sale in our local butcher’s recently. It’s something you rarely see in the UK, but we’ve enjoyed it in restaurants while we’ve been on holiday, particularly in Spain and Portugal, where Cabrito Asado – roasted young goat – is a familiar sight on menus.
So, we decided to buy some and cook it for ourselves. A quick scan of the internet revealed quite a choice of recipes but the one that most caught our eye involved braising our goat chops with fennel, spices and the juice of an orange. An interesting mix of flavours there, so a bit of a challenge to find a wine to match it. Red, of course, but which one? Thinking back to our travels, I would certainly have ordered a wine local to wherever we were – possibly a Rioja or a Mencia-based bottle in Spain and a Douro or Dão in Portugal. And all of those would work well with plain roasted meat. But here, I was tempted to look for something more characterful to match with the aniseed flavour of the fennel, the spices and the sweetness of the fruit juice. I settled on Luigi Einaudi’s Dogliani from Piedmont in north-west Italy (Wine Society, £11.50).
Made with the local Dolcetto grape, this has the delicious richness I was looking for but is also quite soft and harmonious. Lovely black fruits come through with a hint of garrigue herbs and a long, dry, slightly earthy finish. Einaudi is one of the most famous and historic producers of the region, once owned by a former Italian president who helped establish the reputation of the Dogliani DOC – one that is certainly upheld by this really attractive and good value red. It worked perfectly with the goat, but, if goat’s as scarce with you as here, it would be great with some lamb, too.
A guided tour of a local vineyard followed by a wine tasting and a light supper. What better way to spend an evening in June? My wife and I quickly signed up for the Bristol Tasting Circle’s summer outing: a visit to Aldwick Estate vineyard, a few miles south of Bristol. We were looking forward to it but, as ever in Britain, the weather can spoil the best laid plans. And, on this particular evening in June, it was as far from summer as you could imagine: cool and with rain lashing down – more like November.
But, the trip went ahead and, after a welcoming glass of Aldwick’s Jubilate fizz, most of the group were happy to ignore the rain and go to see the vines – my wife was more sensible and stayed behind! So, along with Sandy Luck, the owner, we donned our wellies and waterproofs and stoically walked round the vineyard hearing about the varieties planted, the different methods of vine pruning used and the threat to the fruit from badgers.
Back in the warm and dry, we tasted 3 of the estate’s wines. Bacchus is becoming quite a common variety in English vineyards and ripens well in our relatively cool climate. Aldwick’s example was delightfully fresh and showed all the aromatic, elderflower character that is so much of Bacchus’ attraction. Next up was Mary’s Rosé, named after the owner’s mother and already a medal winner from the International Wine Challenge. The blend of the rare Solaris grape, together with Pinot Noir and Regent produced a delicate but flavoursome strawberry-fruited dry wine that I sense would be quite food-friendly. And finally, just to prove how far English wines have developed, we were served the estate’s attractive, peppery red made entirely from their Regent vines.
With delicious charcuterie and cheese boards to follow, you could almost forget the weather – until, of course, the time came to leave for home!
We don’t often go to London, even though it’s less than a couple of hours away by train. So, when we do, we enjoy trying some of the capital’s restaurants – and, of course, our emphasis isn’t just on good food, but an interesting wine list with, hopefully, something different for us to try. A recent discovery is Margot, an Italian restaurant just a few minutes’ walk from Covent Garden tube.
We both chose a fishy main course and, in casting my eye down the extensive list of Italian whites, my eye was drawn to a bottle from Donnafugata, a Sicilian producer we visited some years ago and whose wines we’ve followed ever since. But here was a new one to me: called ‘SurSur’, it was made with Grillo, one of Sicily’s excellent local grape varieties. Lovely and fresh and floral on the nose, the palate showed attractive peach and ripe pear flavours and was, as I would expect from an Italian wine, properly food-friendly.
Then, when it came to dessert, the menu offered a further temptation: each dish had a recommended sweet wine to accompany it – and by the glass, too. Again, I chose something I’d not tasted before: Bissoni’s Albana Passito from Emilia Romagna in the north-east of the country.
Passito is a method widely used in Italy and involves drying the grapes after harvesting to concentrate the sugars and so produce a more intensely sweet wine. Traditionally this was done by spreading the grapes out on straw mats on the ground, but more commonly these days takes place in heated drying rooms. But Bissoni have gone a stage further by adding a proportion of nobly-rotted grapes to the blend to give extra complexity and interest. The result was a wine with an enticing bouquet of dried figs and honey with vanilla and sweet spice on the palate. Delicious and, like the restaurant with its wonderful wine list, a real find.
Wines from South America have become familiar sights in UK supermarkets but are almost always from that region’s 2 major players: Argentina and Chile. Yet, virtually every country in South America makes some wine – I’ve tasted some attractive bottles from Brazil, for example – and I recently opened a delicious rosé from Uruguay, South America’s 4th largest producer.
Atlantico Sur’s Tannat Rosé (Wine Society, £12.50) is delightfully fresh and clean with tangy cranberry and raspberry fruit, a slight smokiness and a lovely crisp, dry finish. The Tannat grape may not be widely known but it’s Uruguay’s most planted variety, accounting for about a quarter of the country’s vineyards. Originally brought over by settlers from the French and Spanish Basque regions in the late 19th century, it is more usually used, both in Uruguay and in its European heartlands, for deep, robust reds which, as the name implies, are often pretty tannic in their youth. Those who have tasted Madiran from south-west France will know what I mean.
But the variety grows well in Uruguay’s climate. Most of the country’s vineyards are close to the capital, Montevideo, which means they benefit from an important Atlantic influence – vital in moderating the temperatures in this relatively warm latitude (around 35˚S). Unfortunately, this also results in high levels of rainfall and humidity, so planting on well-drained soils and training the vines high to ensure good air circulation are key if undesirable rot is to be avoided.
The size of Uruguay’s vineyard and the keenness of its inhabitants on drinking their own wine means that Uruguay is unlikely to become a major player on the world wine stage but, based on this and a few other examples I have tasted, if you see a bottle on the shelf of your local wine merchant, it may be worth giving it a try.