The Meaning of Terroir

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The French use the word ‘terroir’ a lot when talking about wine.  There’s no exact translation in English but I usually think of it as meaning the combination of natural factors that affect how a vine will grow in a particular place and so how the wine made from its grapes will taste.  The local soil, slope of the land, exposure to the sun, shelter from the wind and climate are all clearly part of terroir but many would say the local traditions and customs of an area should be added to that list.  And, how about the variety or varieties of grapes used?  Are they part of terroir or not?  Who knows?

But terroir is not unique to France, even if the word is.  I recently opened a bottle of Tierras Coloradas Old Vines Carignan from the Montsant region, deep in the hills of Catalonia in North-East Spain (Waitrose, £9.99).  Montsant CarignanThis was clearly made with the Spanish equivalent of terroir in mind –why else would the back label highlight the particular soils of the Montsant region – red and yellow clay, slate and chalk – on which the grapes for this wine were grown?

And talking of the grapes, the old vine Carignan is also part of the tradition of the area (although there’s a nod to internationalism here in calling them by their more common French name, Carignan, rather than their usual local alias, Mazuela).

The wine itself is a rugged, earthy red with attractive violet aromas and deep, intense flavours of cooked plums and dried fruits.  But, did I taste the terroir in the wine?  Well, it’s clearly from somewhere warm (14% alcohol and the cooked and dried flavours) and almost certainly from somewhere quite traditional in style.  So, there are certainly some links to its place of origin but, I have to confess that, tasted blind, I doubt whether I’d be able to identify it specifically as a wine from Montsant, but it’s quite delicious and excellent value for money nevertheless.

 

A Rare Malbec Blend

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Argentina has adopted the Malbec grape as its own, even though the variety is originally a native of France – although whether its home is Bordeaux, Cahors or the Loire is open to doubt.  But France has never really appreciated Malbec in the way it loves Cabernet and Pinot Noir, for example; perhaps that’s because they don’t grow it anywhere with sufficient sunshine and warmth to really ripen the berries.  That isn’t a problem in Argentina, even though most of the plantings are around Mendoza, high in the foothills of the Andes.  Malbec thrives there – and it just happens to make big, rich red wines that are a perfect foil to Argentina’s beef-dominated cooking.

Often, you see Malbec as a single variety wine – and it can be very good, especially in the hands of good producers, such as Catena – but, occasionally, it’s used as part of a blend; Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot are the most common partners, but Viñalba unusually combine it with the Portuguese variety Touriga Nacional (Majestic, £9.99) and the result is a real winner; and that’s not just my view – Decanter magazine awarded it a Gold Medal in their Wine Awards last year.

2017-03-08 11.13.53The wine is intense, rich and powerful – as you’d expect from one with 14.5% alcohol, but it’s well balanced at the same time and there’s no excess heat on the finish.  The fruit comes through well – blackberries and other hedgerow flavours dominate – and there’s something quite floral in there, too (the label suggests violets) and some nice, spicy oak, too.

It’s not a wine to drink on its own; food – and robust food at that – is essential.  No surprise that the producer suggests a grilled steak, but, for me, any red meat, game or hard cheese would work well.

It’s certainly an unusual blend – I know of no other example of these 2 grapes together – but it really does work and, for the quality, it’s quite a bargain.

Spain’s Hidden Corners

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In my view, Spain is one of the most exciting wine countries in the world today.  Wherever you look, you’ll find dedicated and innovative winemakers working with an array of high quality local grapes.  And it’s not just in the traditional areas – Rioja and sherry – that you find delicious wines.   I recently ran a course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre concentrating on Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’ – some of the lesser-known regions and grapes – where you can find wines that are not just very drinkable but, because they are not well-known, they are also great value. 

The bottles I found for the group to taste provoked plenty of discussion – and some very diverse views; indeed, when I invited votes for favourite wines of the day, 11 of the 12 wines attracted at least 1 vote.  But, there were 2 clear winners:

ruedaSan Antolin’s Rueda (Waitrose, £8.99) comes from the Upper Duero Valley in western Spain where vineyards are planted more than 600 metres (1800 feet) above sea level.  The altitude means cool nights, even in summer, which help to retain precious acidity in the Verdejo grapes from which this wine is made, while the heat of the day results in perfect ripening and a succulent, rich but refreshing white wine.  Fine for drinking on its own but even better with some fish in a creamy sauce that reflects the character of the wine beautifully.  I’ve enjoyed this Rueda over a number of years and it was an unsurprising winner.

tempranillo-gran-reservaThe close runner up, however, was, perhaps, a little less predictable.  Not, I hasten to add, due to any lack of quality in the wine, but, I might have expected that the soft, mellow, cooked fruit and spice flavours of an 8 year old red that had spent 2 of those years in old oak casks wouldn’t have had such wide appeal.  Happily, I was wrong and Anciano’s Tempranillo Gran Reserva 2008 landed in a well-deserved 2nd place.  Had this wine been from Rioja rather than from the deeply unfashionable Valdepeñas area south of Madrid, it would certainly have been at least double the £8.99 I paid for it in Waitrose.  A bargain, indeed!

And bargains are what you can expect if you explore ‘Hidden Corners’.  You just have to know where to look.

Why No Grape Names?

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“Why don’t the French put grape names on their wine labels?  It’s so confusing.”  A familiar comment – and one I heard again at a tasting I ran recently. 

I can fully understand the view; grape names (or the 20 or so most popular ones, at least) are recognised by most customers buying wine and they know what to expect when they pick up a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio.  But, when they’re faced with a wine labelled ‘Chiroubles’ or ‘Cairanne’, things aren’t so straightforward.  Sadly, there’s no easy solution.2013-11-18 10.29.53

These – and many other French (and Italian and Spanish) wines – are labelled after the place they come from, not the grape (or grapes) they’re made from.  There’s a good reason for this: in most of the traditional winemaking areas of Europe, there’s a very strong attachment to the land (as anyone who has ever been stuck in a traffic jam behind a French farmers’ protest will confirm!)  So, it’s not just the grape variety that is important, it’s the soil, the climate, the slope of the land, the traditions of the area – all contribute to the taste in the bottle.  The French call this ‘terroir’.  And, given that, why would they single out just the grape name to put on the label when it’s the place and all it offers that makes the wine what it is?

Compare that to much of the New World, where things are very different: particularly in Australia, it’s quite normal to blend grapes grown in different areas, even different States.  So, without the same link to a place, why not use the grape name to sell your wine?  The fact that it’s easier for customers is simply a bonus – one that’s been the foundation of the great New World wine success story over the last 30 years or so.

It may seem strange, but I can’t see the French changing anytime soon.  Terroir is vital to them and so it will remain.  For the rest of us, it’s just a case of learning which grapes make which wine (or, sometimes, checking the back label). 

(For those who are interested, the Chiroubles I mentioned earlier uses the Gamay grape, whereas the Cairanne is likely to be a mixture including Grenache, Syrah – aka Shiraz – and probably several other local varieties).

From Galicia to Marlborough

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Take a high quality grape variety native to Galicia in North West Spain, plant it in Marlborough in New Zealand and what do you get?  A delicious surprise!

stanley-alborinoOr, so I found when I tasted Stanley Estates Alboriño (Waitrose, £14.99) recently.  It has a similar character to examples from its home region: quite rich and mouth-coating but with lovely freshness and aromas and flavours of pink grapefruit, apple and peach.  Just a touch off-dry, this would be an excellent match for a fish dish in a creamy sauce, some pan-seared scallops or, thinking of the grape’s Spanish origins, perhaps a paella.

Until now, Alboriño wasn’t a grape I associated with New Zealand – in fact, Stanley Estates claim that they were the first to plant it there and their first vintage from it was only produced in 2012.  But the location was clearly a good choice; both Galicia and Marlborough’s Awatere Valley have relatively cool climates and, with the aromatic Sauvignon Blanc thriving so well in Marlborough, then why not Alboriño?  Except that no-one, apart from Stanley Estates, thought of it.

Stanley is a new name to me – although, perhaps, it shouldn’t be: after completing Horticulture degrees at Bath University, just a few miles down the road from here in Bristol, the owners, Bridget Ennals and Steve Pellett travelled the world for a few years before putting down roots – and vine roots! – in their present base in Marlborough.  Within 2 years of their first bottling, they had won the award for Best International Sauvignon Blanc at the 2011 London International Wine Challenge – a variety they still produce alongside some Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Alboriño and another little-known variety that I must look out for, the northern Italian native, Lagrein.

I’m always happy to see some of the lesser-known grapes that were previously restricted to quite a small area, finding their way to new locations, especially when such high quality varieties as Alboriño land in what appears to be perfect conditions for it to thrive and show its best.

 

 

Italy’s South Rises Again

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In ancient times, the south of Italy was thought of as one of the great wine regions of the known world.  Fast forward 2000 years and, by the time I started enjoying wine (in the early 1970s, if you must know!), it was a place for wine lovers to avoid.  But, rather than concentrating on the bad times, I’d sooner focus on its re-emergence over the past 20 years or so and on the delicious wines you can find there now – wines that were the subject of a recent evening at the Bristol Tasting Circle, hosted by Alex Pack of Liberty Wines.

Temperatures in this part of the Mediterranean normally favour red wines over white, but Donnafugata’s rich, minerally Vigna di Gabri from Sicily was the exception: full of citrus and herb flavours with an attractive touch of bitterness, this would pair beautifully with poultry or white meats.

The reds mainly showcased the best of the local grape varieties, such as Aglianico, thought to have been originally imported into Italy by the early Greek traders, Nero di Troia and Primitivo (aka Zinfandel).  Opinions on the night were divided as to the best of these with Canace’s Nero di Troia, Zolla’s Primitivo di Manduria and Vesevo’s Taurasi all getting favourable mentions, particularly as partners for robust red meat and game dishes, or with flavoursome hard cheeses.

But, the last wine of the evening stole the show for me and, I guess, many others: again from Donnafugata, their wonderful sweet but refreshing Ben Ryé has intense aromas and flavours of orange and passion fruit.  benryeMade on the tiny island of Pantelleria, off the South West coast of Sicily, this ‘Passito’ uses grapes picked and then traditionally laid out on straw mats to dry and concentrate the sugars.   It must surely rank alongside some of the great sweet wines of the world.

As Liberty Wines supply the trade only, I have not given prices, but a check on, for example, the wine-searcher website will show whether any of these great bottles are available near you.

 

Chile Going Places

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Not so long ago, I blogged about a Chilean wine that was voted overwhelmingly the best of the day at a course on the wines of the Americas I ran at Stoke Lodge.  And now, another bottle from the same country, opened at home recently, has confirmed my view that Chilean wine really is going places.

errazuriz-cab-sErrazuriz’s Max Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Waitrose, £12.99) is full of lovely red berry fruits enhanced with subtle vanilla flavours from 12 months oak ageing.  At almost 3 years old, the tannins are still noticeable but neither they, nor the 14% alcohol are in any way intrusive.  This wine is just beautifully balanced.

Errazuriz is a long established company producing a number of different wines.  Their entry level bottles – widely available in supermarkets and other high street chains for around £8 – £10 – are always reliable and worth buying, while their more premium offerings often outshine wines selling for several £s more.   

Their ‘Max’ range, named in honour of the company’s founder, Don Maximiano Errazuriz, is from sites at the foot of Mount Aconcagua where the combination of warm days and cool nights is ideal for ripening the grapes while retaining good acidity.  The Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted comes from vines planted more than 20 years ago on gravel-rich soils.  This copies what we find in Bordeaux where the best Cabernet Sauvignon regularly comes from vines planted on well-drained, gravelly soils; the reflected heat from the stones helps ripen the grapes while the good drainage means the vines have enough water to grow but aren’t rooted in cold, damp earth.  The use of older vines, too, is a sign of quality – they typically yield wines with more intensity and character.

So, while wines from Chile are already deservedly popular in the UK, I’d suggest exploring those at a slightly higher price – that’s where the bargains really begin.