Choose Just One Region

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When you next meet up with a group of wine loving friends, why not pose them a little problem: “If you had to spend a whole year drinking nothing but the wines of just one area of the world, where would you choose?”

I’ve been asked this on a number of occasions and have usually suggested France’s Loire region – excellent whites, both dry and sweet, attractive fruity reds, the odd decent rosé and some very drinkable fizz – although I was once told that I was cheating; the Loire was too big to be considered a single area!  Among my friends Bordeaux and Burgundy are popular choices and, no doubt, California would get a lot of votes if there was more choice from there here in the UK.

But a bottle I opened recently made me think of somewhere else: South Australia’s state capital, Adelaide, is surrounded by vineyards: McLaren Vale to the south, Adelaide Hills to the east and the famous Barossa Valley to the north-east with the Eden Valley beyond.  And, even though these areas are so close to one another, there is a tremendous variety of wines coming out of them – more than enough choice to keep me interested for a year.

Chunky Barossa Valley Shiraz, fruity Cabernets from the McLaren Vale, lovely, elegant Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Adelaide Hills and the wine that prompted this blog, Riesling from the Eden Valley. 

Rolf Binder RieslingAt altitudes up to 400 metres (1200 feet), Eden is one of the cooler parts of the region and suits the Riesling variety perfectly.  Rolf Binder’s ‘Highness’ (Waitrose, £10.99) is an excellent example with all the typical floral rose scents and zesty lime and grapefruit flavours that so typify the Riesling grape here and, with just 12.5% alcohol, it’s beautifully refreshing, either with food (mildly spiced Asian dishes work well) or just on its own as an aperitif.

So, how about you?  Why not ask your friends and see if they’d choose the Adelaide region or somewhere else?  Do let me know and why.

 

Going for Gold?

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I opened a bottle recently displaying a sticker proclaiming that the wine had won a Gold Medal in a certain Wine Competition. 

Assyrtiko Gold MedalSo, how much should that influence you in buying?  Or is it just another marketing ploy? 

It’s certainly marketing but how seriously you should take the award depends on a number of things.  There are many wine competitions all around the world each year and it’s often impossible to know how strong the opposition was, who the judges were and how skilled they were and whether they knew which wines they were tasting (and so might have been influenced by the labels) or if they were tasting ‘blind’? 

As a result, with one or two exceptions for internationally recognised competitions, I generally ignore medal stickers – and not just for the uncertainties I’ve already mentioned.

However professional the judging and however strong the competition, medals are the opinion of a small number of people (sometimes just one) tasting the wine on a particular day.  Wines that stand out from the crowd – either because they have intense flavours or are in some way different – often attract attention from judges whereas subtle and elegant bottles (which may be far more food-friendly) tend to be ignored.  The same applies to wines that open up slowly once in the glass – busy judges may spend just a few seconds on each wine and miss this development.  And several weeks (or even months) later when the results go public, the wine itself will have changed – either improving or going past its best.  But, perhaps most important of all, do you and the judge have the same likes and dislikes?  There’s one judge (who shall remain nameless) whose high scoring wines I carefully avoid!

But, back to the wine that prompted this blog.  I already knew it well and have recommended it previously (Hatzidakis’ Assyrtiko from the Greek Island of Santorini, £13.50 from The Wine Society or Waitrose).  I knew it was good and was pleased it had been recognised in this way, even though an award from the Thessaloniki Wine Competition may not have the prestige of some!

So, by all means, look at stickers, but there’s so much more important information to help you on a wine label than the fact that it has won a medal.

 

Wine For Summer

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The temperature touched 30˚C (86˚F) in Bristol last week – a reminder that summer is here – something that’s often quite easy to forget in our climate!  And, for my wife and me, summer means a different style of eating: salads, yes, but also lighter, fresher dishes that are easier to digest.  And, of course, the wines to match.

I’ve often said in this Blog that food and wine should be equal partners with neither dominating the other.  So, with lighter dishes, I look for lighter wines.  Not necessarily lighter in colour (although whites and rosés do often go better with summer dishes than reds), but lighter in body.  Chunkier styles – and that usually means higher alcohol bottles – stay on the shelf in favour of more delicate wines, those with plenty of fruit and good acidity.

Many whites fall into this lighter category – the main exception being those which are strongly oaked – as do almost all rosés; if you’re not usually a rosé fan, try one gently chilled on a warm summer’s day, especially something from a good producer in the south of France – I’d be surprised if you’re not convinced.

Reds can be a bit more of a problem; many are quite high in alcohol these days and, when you add in oak ageing and significant tannins (both features of many of the best reds), they’re not that well-suited to warm weather.  But choose carefully – look for something refreshing, a wine that can be chilled lightly without ruining it – and the picture looks very different.  Try a Loire red, or one from Germany or Austria, a Valpolicella (avoiding the ultra-cheap examples) or, perhaps most reliable of all, a Beaujolais from one of the 10 named villages or Crus*.

From this last group, we found that Henry Fessy’s Brouilly (Waitrose, £12.99) fitted the bill nicely. 

BrouillyDelicious, clean, refreshing cherry fruit with attractive hints of bitterness, quite light in the mouth (12.5%) and really lively and welcoming after a half hour in the fridge.  Just perfect for a warm summer day – but that was last week; what a shame it’s back to sweater weather today!

*(The 10 Beaujolais Crus are: Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié and Saint-Amour).

 

A Frozen Delight

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Growing grapes to make wine is not a job for anyone who values certainty.  The weather, vine diseases and pests can all intervene and make the difference between a glorious success and a total loss.  And, with the weather, especially, there’s not much you can do to influence things.

Spring frosts will damage or destroy tiny vine shoots, rain during the flowering period (early summer) will interfere with pollination and cool or wet summers will restrict ripening.  Rain during the autumn harvest can introduce rot or dilute the juice. And, hail at any time can destroy an entire crop in minutes.

But, even if the weather behaves as you would like, a number of vineyard diseases can be a nuisance – albeit most are treatable – and lovely sweet, ripe grapes are a great attraction to birds and often mammals, too.

So, not surprisingly, there are often big celebrations when the harvest is safely gathered in.  For most, that will be by late autumn – unless you’re trying to make Ice Wine (“Eiswein” in Germany and Austria).  For this, you need to leave your grapes on the vine (and untouched by pests) until late November or even December when the temperatures reach -8˚C (18˚F) – cold enough to turn the water content of the grape pulp into ice. Then, pickers go out into the vineyard and rush the grapes back to the winery press before they thaw.  The press releases the sugar in the berries but leaves the water content behind as ice pellets.  In this way, the sugar is greatly concentrated and wonderful, sweet wines result.

Given the process and the risks involved, you won’t be surprised to hear that Ice Wine is quite rare and incredibly expensive (expect to pay £30 – £40 a half bottle retail, rather more in restaurants).  Apart from Germany and Austria, some of the best comes from Canada.  A local Bristol restaurant, Adelina Yard, had an example on their list when we visited with some good friends recently and, of course, we couldn’t resist. 

Ice wine 1 (2)Stratus’s Ice Wine from Niagara on the Lake in Canada is made from Riesling – probably the best variety for the style giving a wonderful balancing acidity to the surprisingly delicate, but intense sweetness of the wine. 

A real delight and a triumph for the growers.

 

My Kind of Lesson

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I used to hate history lessons when I was at school.  I just couldn’t see any reason for learning about things that had happened so long ago.  And geography wasn’t much better.  Why should I be interested in places that, at the time, I never thought I would visit?

Of course, I know better now – I’ve been to some of the places I learnt about and realise that much of what is happening today is as a result of what happened in the past.  And, through my interest in wine, both history and geography have come to life – something my teachers could never manage to do.  For example, the back label of a bottle of wine I opened recently told me that the Aglianico grape from which the wine was made had been grown in the Campania region of southern Italy for over 2000 years.  But that bare fact hides something more: the name Aglianico (“alley-annie-co”) derives from “the Hellenic (or Greek) one”, so we know that, although the grape has been grown in Italy for 2 millennia, it was originally brought there across the Aegean Sea by early Greek traders.  History and geography in a single bottle!

But, what about the wine? 

AglianicoTerredora di Paolo’s Aglianico (Waitrose, £12.99) has a typical southern Italian intensity and richness with attractive wild berry and cherry flavours and a distinct underlying acidity that helps it go so well with food – try it with grilled lamb chops.  And, despite the warmth of Campania, the alcohol is quite restrained (13%) giving the wine a nice balance.

I’m sure my history and geography teachers would be proud of me now – I certainly gave them no reason to be at the time.  But then, their lessons couldn’t explain things in my kind of way – through the medium of wine!

 

Too Young? Too Old?

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I guess that anyone reading this Blog enjoys drinking wine but many will think it’s almost as enjoyable talking about it and discussing it.  And from there, it’s just a small step to arguing about it!  Of course, such arguments can never really be resolved – we’ve all got our own likes and dislikes and everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them.  So, when a good friend of mine tells me (as he does regularly) that I always open bottles when they’re too young and I, in return, accuse him of leaving them until they’re well past their best, we’re both right in our own minds.

But, a couple of bottles my wife and I have enjoyed recently have made me wonder if I should have a bit of a re-think.  I ordered a bottle of Moulin-a-Vent, one of the village Beaujolais, when we tried an excellent new Bristol restaurant, Box E, last week.  Now, I would expect to drink this within, perhaps, 3 or 4 years of harvest at most, yet the bottle I was served (a 2009 vintage) was deliciously fresh with lovely fruit and, despite already being more than 7 years old, clearly would have had several more years of pleasurable drinking ahead of it.

And then, at the weekend, we opened a bottle of Fayolle’s ‘Sens’ Crozes Hermitage (Corks of Cotham, £15.99).

  CrozesThis one was 6 years old (2010) but was full of silky, youthful blackberry fruit flavours and hints of pepperiness.  But, accompanying this were distinct tannins – showing a wine that was still young and, indeed, would certainly improve if carefully stored.  (A word of warning: decant this before serving and pour carefully as you’ll find plenty of sediment in the bottle).

So, this leaves me with the question: should I wait a few years before opening all my 2015 and 2016 wines?  Probably not!  But, I may take a chance on a few and will, hopefully, be pleasantly surprised.  And, if you’re like me, why not try the same? 

One final thought: if you open something in a few years time and wish you’d have drunk it sooner, you’ll probably have forgotten that it was me who suggested it!

 

A Bargain Montalcino

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Brunello di Montalcino is one of Italy’s most prestigious red wines.  It’s made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes, the same variety used in Chianti, in a designated area around the small town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany.  Here, in the warm, dry climate, the Sangiovese (known locally as Brunello) reaches maximum ripeness leading to fuller, richer wines than many of those found in Chianti.  14% alcohol and more is not unusual, particularly in a hot year.

The rules for Brunello demand 4 years ageing at the winery (at least 2 of which must be in oak barrels) before the wine can be sold.  And even once they are on the market, most Brunellos still need considerable time before they really reach their peak – 10 -15 years after vintage is a commonly suggested drinking window.

But, with 4 years to wait before producers get any income from sales of Brunello, most also make another wine, Rosso di Montalcino, usually from younger or less well-sited vines.   This only has to be aged for a year after which it can be sold.  In normal years, a Rosso di Montalcino from a good producer is an attractive, approachable red wine ready for early drinking but, in warm years like 2015, when there was a large harvest of almost uniformly high quality grapes, it becomes a really interesting proposition.  The producers, eager for some early income, won’t want to put all their grapes into their Brunello even if the quality might allow them to do so.  No, in these years, some go into the Rosso making it altogether richer and more characterful.

Rosso di MontalcinoAnd that is exactly what had happened in the example I opened recently from Gianni Brunelli.  This is quite complex and full of lovely bramble flavours.  There’s still some tannin there – we decanted it and drunk it with some grilled herbed lamb – but it would certainly improve for another couple of years or so.  And, compared to the same producer’s Brunello (£34 for the 2012 vintage from the Wine Society), the Rosso (£15.50, same supplier) is a real bargain.