Wine with Altitude

Every wine book will tell you that, if you want to grow grapes successfully to produce wine, your vineyards should lie between latitudes 30° and 50° north of the equator or the same south of the equator.  And, looking at the major wine making regions of the world, that is broadly true.  At lower latitudes than 30°, it’s likely to be too dry for vines to survive while, further from the equator than 50°, you’re rarely going to get enough warmth or sun to ripen your grapes properly. 

Taking this a stage further, the style of wine you can expect will vary enormously depending how close to the 30° or 50° line you are: big, chunky, ripe alcoholic wines come, in general, from the lower, warmer latitudes while something crisper, fresher and more aromatic is typical of wines grown closer to 50°.

But a bottle I opened recently didn’t fit these last 2 rules at all.  Tabali’s Barranco Viognier (Wine Society, £14.95) comes from Chile’s Limarí Valley, which sits almost exactly on the warm 30°S line, yet this wine was delightfully fresh and clean with attractive flavours of ripe pear, red apple and a little fragrant peachiness. And, although 13.5% alcohol, this was in no way heavy or chunky, just nicely mouth-coating.

So how have Tabali achieved characteristics typical of much cooler climates at such a latitude?  The answer is altitude; the Río Hurtado vineyard, from where the grapes for this wine come, lies at 1600 metres above sea level (almost 5000 feet) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.  At that height, despite benefitting from 300 days of sunshine a year, the temperatures are far cooler than they would be closer to sea level and, as a result, the grapes ripen more slowly and retain that vital streak of acidity that make this wine so refreshing and drinkable.  One maybe to enjoy on its own but, even better, to accompany either fish or poultry in a creamy sauce or, perhaps, a pasta carbonara.

Wine Quiz: The Answers

Last time, I set you a wine quiz to test your knowledge and, hopefully keep you amused for a little while.  Those who tried the questions are, I’m sure, keen to know the answers and find out how well they did.

Question 1: The grapes used to make Prosecco are grown in vineyards about 50 miles north of Venice so answer (b) is correct.

Question 2: Margaret River is in Western Australia and so grapes from there could not be included in a bottle labelled ‘Wine of South-East Australia’.  Answer (c) is the one you were looking for.

Question 3: The highest altitude commercial vineyard in the world is Colomé Altura in northern Argentina at 3111m (10206 ft) above sea level.  Answer (d) is correct.

Question 4: Answer (a) Sicily – it not only produces the most wine of any Mediterranean island, it also produces more than the total of the other 3 islands named in the question taken together.

Question 5: Rosado, Blush and Chiaretto are all terms for rosé wine.  The odd one out is therefore (d) Tinto, which signifies a red wine in Spain and Portugal.

Question 6: I share my birth year with the first vintage of Penfolds Grange, so, although I would like the answer to be either (a), (b) or (c), the correct answer is (d) 1950s (and I’ll leave those of you who are interested to Google the actual year!)

Question 7: the ‘Chateau’ part of the name may sound French but Musar is actually Lebanon’s most famous wine.  You were looking for answer (c).

Question 8: Vintage Champagne must age for a minimum period of 3 years before it can be sold, so the most recent vintage you might find to buy now, in early 2021, is (c) 2017.  Earlier vintages will, of course, still be available but the 2018 and subsequent vintages are still ageing.

Question 9: The word ‘Trocken’ in German means dry so answer (c) is correct.  But beware: you might also see the word ‘trockenbeeren’ on a label which translates as ‘dried berries’ and a wine made from dried berries will usually be sweet.

Question 10: you are looking for answer (d) Luxembourg.  Citizens of that country consume an average of more than 60 litres of alcohol per person per year.  By comparison, here in the UK, the figure is 24.

So, how did you do?  If you got 9 or 10 correct: you are a Grand Cru wine quizzer; 7 or 8: Premier Cru; 5 or 6: Cru Bourgeois; 3 or 4: Vin Ordinaire; Less than 3: so long as you enjoy your wine, does it really matter?

Hope this quiz kept you amused and interested. Take Care and Stay Safe.

A Wine Quiz

With the current Covid restrictions likely to continue for a few more weeks at least, I thought you might like a little wine quiz to keep yourselves amused and your brains active during these difficult times.  I’ve given you 4 possible answers for each of the questions.  It’s just for fun and there are no prizes.  

  1. The vineyards used to make Prosecco are closest to which of these Italian cities?  (a) Milan (b) Venice (c) Rome (d) Turin

2. Wine from which of these areas could not be included in a bottle labelled ‘Wine of South-East Australia’?  (a) Adelaide Hills (b) Riverina (c) Margaret River (d) Barossa Valley

3. The highest altitude commercial vineyards in the world are found in which country?  (a) Algeria (b) Switzerland (c) Georgia (d) Argentina

4. Which of these Mediterranean islands produces most wine?  (a) Sicily (b) Sardinia (c) Corsica (d) Crete

5. Which of the following is the odd one out?  (a) Rosado (b) Blush (c) Chiaretto (d) Tinto

6. The iconic Australian red wine, Penfolds Grange, was first produced in which decade?  (a) 1980s (b) 1970s (c) 1960s (d) 1950s

7. Chateau Musar was first introduced to the UK public at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1978, but where is it produced?  (a) France (b) South Africa (c) Lebanon (d) Israel

8. By law, producers of Vintage Champagne must age it for a period of time before sale.  What is the most recent vintage of Champagne that you might find to buy now, in early 2021?  (a) 2015 (b) 2016 (c) 2017 (d) 2018

9. The word ‘Trocken’ on a German wine label indicates what sort of wine?  (a) Aged in oak barrels (b) Sparkling (c) Dry (d) Delicate and slightly sweet

10. Based on alcohol consumed per head of the population, which of the following countries contains the keenest drinkers?  (a) UK (b) Denmark (c) Croatia (d) Luxembourg

I’ll give you the answers next time.  Happy Thinking and Stay Safe. 

Rosé – in February?

It’s often said that rosé is the perfect wine for summer.  So, why am I writing about it on a bitterly cold February day?

A couple of nights ago, we were about to cook some lovely tuna steaks that we’d bought from our local fishmonger.  The sauce we had prepared to go with them – a mixture of tomatoes, basil and capers – was slowly cooking away and smelt heavenly.  The flavours reminded us of Mediterranean holidays and of the sort of dishes we had enjoyed eating there.  As we were reminiscing and drinking in the smells, Hilary, my wife, suggested how well the dish would go with a glass of wine.  It didn’t take long for me to agree, even though it was a Wednesday and we don’t normally open a bottle mid-week, apart from on special occasions.

With those aromas and our thoughts, the wine just had to be from the Mediterranean.  And with tuna and that type of sauce, a rosé was the obvious choice – even though the weather outside was distinctly un-rosé.

Santa Tresa Rosé (Majestic, £10.99) from Sicily is attractively smoky with soft raspberry fruit flavours and a clean, fresh finish, typical of so many rosés you find around the south of France, Italy and the Mediterranean islands.  It is also beautifully dry which made it an excellent accompaniment to our tuna in sauce.  A blend of 2 high quality local grapes – Nero d’Avola and Frappato – both of which can also make delicious red wines; for the rosé, the juice spends just a few hours in contact with the skins to give a lovely delicate pink colour before being gently pressed and for the fermentation to complete – the juice alone – as it would for a white wine.

So, rosé may be the perfect wine for summer – but it’s also perfect for forgetting about winter and dreaming of better things.

Whole Bunch

One sharp-eyed reader spotted the words ‘Whole Bunch’ on the label of the Bellingham Roussanne I blogged about a couple of weeks ago and wondered what the significance was.  There’s a clue in the small print which mentions ‘gentle treatment’, ‘soft handling’ and ‘delicate extraction of the juice’. 

It all starts in the vineyard:

When grapes are harvested by hand, the pickers usually cut off whole bunches, not just individual grapes (you can see the stalks in the picture below); the main exception to this is when high quality sweet wine is being made, when the harvesters will go through the vineyard several times, only snipping out the ripest grapes from the bunches each time.  Machine harvesting is different: this works in the same way as shaking a tree to get apples off, so just the grapes are dislodged and caught in a net – the stalks stay on the vine (although this method also yields some leaves, bits of twig and anything else that’s loose on the vine, which has to be sorted out later).

Now let’s move to the winery.  Normally, if whole bunches have been picked, they will be tipped into a machine called a Crusher/Destemmer – which does just what the name suggests: gently crushes the grapes to begin the fermentation process and removes the fruit from the stems.  Bellingham – and many other producers – do things a little differently; they miss out the destemming and gently press the whole bunches to release the juice.  The stems not only form a cradle round the grapes, protecting them from harder pressure, they also act as runways enabling the juice to be collected more easily.  The idea being that higher quality juice produces better wine.

An extended version of this process is also used for some red wines and is particularly suited to varieties such as Pinot Noir.  Here, after crushing, the whole bunches are tipped into the fermenting vessel – tank or barrel depending on the winemaker – and the stems remain in there with the grapes until the fermentation is complete and the wine is drained off leaving the solid material behind.  The stems add tannin (so this method isn’t used with thick-skinned varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon) and so increase the complexity of the wine – and hopefully the drinking pleasure.

That explains, in brief, what we mean by ‘whole bunch’.  So much from 2 simple-looking words.

Beware: Eruptions!

Mount Etna is Europe’s most active volcano with major eruptions every few years and almost constant rumbling in between.  So why, when there are so many more hospitable sites to plant your vineyard, would growers choose this unpredictable and potentially dangerous corner of Sicily? 

There are many reasons:  Vines will grow in places where little else will survive and there have been vineyards here since the ancient Greeks colonised the island more than 2000 years ago.  But that doesn’t fully explain the enormous rise in the popularity of the area in recent years which has seen an influx of newcomers and major investments in the vineyards and in new wineries.  The attraction? A combination of soil, climate and what’s planted in those ancient vineyards. 

The volcanic soils of the mountain’s slopes are rich in minerals, especially potassium, thought to be the most important element in promoting vine health.  The climate, too, is ideal with Mediterranean warmth ensuring perfectly ripe grapes every year.  And many of the vineyards are planted at altitude (up to 1000m or 3300ft above sea level).  This provides a cooling effect, ensuring that the grapes retain plenty of balancing acidity when harvested.  And then, there’s the vines themselves.  Many are over 100 years old – some of the few remaining that pre-date phylloxera (the bug couldn’t survive in the volcanic soil) and so have never been grafted (the technique used worldwide to combat the vine-killing louse).

So, what about the wines?  I opened a bottle of Etna white recently, made from local varieties Carricante and Catarratto.  Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Bianco (Wine Society, £12.50) is deliciously mouth-filling and rich with lovely flavours of ripe pear, melon and a hint of lemon peel.  Delicious on its own or with fully-flavoured fish or poultry dishes.  I can also recommend the same producer’s red (also available from The Wine Society at the same price).  Again made from local grapes (this time Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio) and with attractive fresh cherry and liquorice flavours.

Making wine on the slopes of Etna may be a challenge – a nightmare, even, sometimes – but many growers think it’s worth it and, on the evidence of these and other Etna wines I have tasted in recent years, I have to agree.

The Rare Roussanne

France’s Rhône Valley is best known for its red wines – think Châteauneuf du Pape, Hermitage and Côtes du Rhône.  But about 1 bottle in 5 produced there is white wine made from grape varieties such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Clairette, although you could be forgiven for not recognising any of these names; in common with much of France, the wines of the Rhône are labelled by region or village, rather than by grape variety.

This lack of familiarity has meant that, away from the immediate area and the Languedoc to the south-west, few producers have planted these varieties, preferring instead something that customers can identify with more easily: Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

There are, happily, a few exceptions to this: Tahbilk, based in Victoria, Australia, have been growing Marsanne since the 1860s and are still using vines planted in 1927 in their wines today – believed to be the oldest surviving Marsanne vines in the world.  I used to be a big fan of this wine but haven’t seen it on the shelves here for quite a while.

Perhaps the highest quality Rhône white variety, Roussanne, has found its way to California (although examples of the grape from there are rare in the UK).  But, on a more positive note, South Africa’s Franschhoek-based producer Bellingham’s Roussanne is available in Sainsbury’s supermarket (on offer at £9 just before Christmas, usually £11.99).  This is a delicious, full-bodied, unoaked mouthful with attractive floral aromas followed by complex flavours of ripe pear and pineapple leading to a long, rich, savoury finish.  Principally a food wine – something in a creamy sauce would match perfectly – although I’d also be happy drinking it as a tangy aperitif.  Even at full price, this is good value and highlights how much we are missing that this lovely, distinctive variety is not more widely planted.

Just one complaint (and a familiar one): why the ridiculously heavy bottle (840 grams empty)?  It’s not necessary to safely transport the wine to the UK so, please, Bellingham, consider the environment and lighten the load a little.

Meet Franc from Friuli

There are a number of grape varieties with ‘Cabernet’ in their name – Cabernet Sauvignon, the best known and most widely planted, is actually a cross (probably some time in the 19th century) between Sauvignon Blanc and another Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, hence the name.  All 3 are found in the vineyards of Bordeaux, so I can only guess what Franc and Sauvignon were up to a couple of hundred years ago!

Cabernet Franc is usually part of a blend in Bordeaux, often included to add attractive freshness and a certain leafy or herby character to the wine, but look further north to France’s Loire region and you find 100% Franc wines in ACs such as Chinon and Bourgueil – and very enjoyable many of them are, too.  But I’ve never associated the grape with Italy until I saw a bottle on the shelves of Bristol independent merchant, Grape and Grind.  The wine is from Tenute Tomasella who grows the variety in vineyards in the very far north-east of the country, in the Friuli region, close to the border with Slovenia.  It looks very appealing in the glass: ‘dressed in cardinal purple’ according to the back label and is a real bargain at £12.99.  Lovely fresh red fruits – cherries and plums – and a real lightness of touch, helped, no doubt, by only 12½% alcohol.

It seems strange to be saying ‘only’ 12½%; at one time that would have been considered a medium to high alcohol level, but not these days.  A combination of global warming and better vineyard management techniques means that grapes can now be picked with much higher sugar levels than was once the case and that translates directly into higher alcohol.  Of course, the public appetite for such wines (encouraged by a certain American writer) has contributed, too.  As a result, 13½%, 14% and even more is now the norm.  That works for some wines but others become rather unbalanced with the alcohol overpowering the fruit. 

The more moderate level on the Cabernet Franc was quite noticeable (and very pleasant) – yes, a delicate wine, but not thin and really flavoursome.

Perhaps other producers should take notice.

Fish and Sweet Wine?

As regular readers will know, my wife and I enjoy good food as well as good wine – and we like cooking (just as well in these days when eating out is so restricted).  One of our favourite recipe books (one of many) is “Fruits of the Sea” by TV Chef Rick Stein (BBC Publications).  Despite being a professional chef, most of his recipes are quite straightforward to follow and we particularly like the way he combines ingredients that most of us wouldn’t consider together. For example, a fresh ginger and sweet Monbazillac wine sauce to accompany brill, john dorey (or turbot if you’re celebrating).  Fish and sweet wine are certainly not an obvious pairing but, in this case, they complement each other perfectly.

One advantage of the dish is that the recipe only calls for a small glass of the wine, leaving the rest for the chef (and me, the chef’s mate) to enjoy with our desserts.  We didn’t actually use Monbazillac; Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ Muscat de St John de Minervois (a bargain at £5.25 a half bottle) is an excellent substitute with similar levels of sweetness and richness.

St John de Minervois is a tiny enclave in the far north of the much larger Appellation Contrôlée (AC) area of Minervois, in the south of France’s Languedoc region.  Minervois itself is famous for robust, hearty reds but St John, with vineyards in the foothills of the Montagne Noire (Black Mountain), has a separate AC for sweet wines made from the delightfully aromatic Muscat grape.  Here, the wines are allowed to start fermenting and then, before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, the fermentation is stopped by adding a slug of grape brandy (the same method used for making port).  This kills the yeast (which dies happily, of course!!) and leaves a delicious (15% alcohol) wine with the Muscat variety’s trademark grapey sweetness.

So, that was our dessert wine sorted.  To partner Rick Stein’s delicious fish dish, I’d had a lovely Condrieu – a full bodied white from near Lyons in France – tucked away under the stairs just waiting for the right moment.  The two would have made a lovely combination but sadly, I’d waited too long and the wine was rather past its best – a lesson learnt for the future.

2021: Looking Forward

Let me begin my first Bristol Wine Blog of 2021 by wishing you all a very Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year. 

For both my wife, Hilary, and me, 2021 is a year of ‘big’ birthdays.  We’d obviously like to celebrate in some way but decisions about where and how are on hold for a while.  We’re waiting and hoping that the anti-Covid vaccines are rolled out and are successful even against the newly discovered variants.  Once that happens, planning can begin but I suspect that day may be a few months away yet and all we can do at present is dream.

Talking of dreams, one awful nightmare has just been avoided thanks to the last-minute trade deal agreed with the European Union (EU).   Brexit is a topic I’ve tried to ignore here – I have my views but I know it’s a divisive subject and this is a wine blog, not a political one – but it is clear that ‘No deal’ would have meant the imposition of tariffs on many goods.  Of particular interest to this blog is the major price rise that would have affected all alcoholic drinks.  As it is, we will have to wait and see what effect our new relationship with the EU may have on wine prices and supply.  I’ll be watching the wine shelves carefully and it’s a topic I may be returning to during the year as things become clearer.

But, for now, that’s just one of many uncertainties as we start the New Year.  How long will the restrictions on our movement due to Covid remain, when will we be able to go out to restaurants or have friends round for a meal and when will we be able to travel again?  All questions for the future but, in the meantime, it’s all about taking care and looking out for ourselves and others.  Happy New Year.