Drink Local!

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Not so long ago, English Wine was a joke – and a not very funny one at that!  The pioneering growers in the 1960s and 70s chose to plant the varieties they thought were likely to ripen in our climate – often the unexciting Muller-Thurgau (the main grape in Liebfraumilch).  They then tried to balance the inevitable acidity of barely ripe grapes by leaving plenty of residual sweetness in the wine, often back-blending in the German style (“sussreserve”) for extra sweetness.  The result: wines that were, in the main, ‘interesting’ – in a masochistic sort of way!

How things have changed in the last 2 decades!  English wines have improved beyond all recognition and many are multiple international award winners – often against the best in Champagne.  In particular, our sparkling wines grown in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire on the same chalk soils you find in Champagne and using the same grape varieties.  Many are so good that Champagne producers are buying up land in the south of England to produce their own versions.  But, despite this, many customers’ views of English wine are still conditioned by the past and it remains an uphill struggle to convince them. 

But there’s a great opportunity soon for those who haven’t tasted an English wine recently (or even those who have): English Wine Week begins on Saturday 27th May and many vineyards and wine merchants are holding special events to celebrate.

Sharpham Estate SelnNot wanting to be caught out without a relevant bottle or two to open during that week, I’ve been collecting a few examples on recent shopping trips.  The problem is, once they’re sitting on the wine rack, the temptation is close at hand and, in fact, the empty bottle from the Devon-based Sharpham vineyard’s Estate Selection dry white (Waitrose, £13.99) is already in the recycling bin.  It was delightfully fresh and floral and, although only 11.5% alcohol, there was enough weight to go with some flavoursome smoked whiting.

English wines really have changed.  Do give them a try.

 

 

The Price of Bordeaux

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A case of red wine was sold at auction last month for £11000.  Admittedly, it was Château Latour, one of the most prestigious estates in Bordeaux and from the highly acclaimed 2010 vintage, but it set me wondering whether any wine is worth almost £1000 a bottle.  And, of course, the buyer of this case is likely to have to wait at least a decade before the wine is at its peak, assuming, that is, that he or she is going to drink it, rather than (more likely) re-selling it at a profit.

The prices of top wines are now silly – the Liv-ex Index calculates that they have tripled since 2004 – and the sad fact is that it is putting the best wines way out of reach of most wine lovers.  When I first started taking an interest in wine, you could buy one of these top Bordeaux for about 20 times the price of an ordinary wine – just about affordable for a really special occasion – now that figure stands at 150 and rising steadily.

So, for those of more modest means, is there any way you can sample a decent Bordeaux?  Happily, I’d say yes!  Look for wines with the words ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on the label.  These are from estates which fall outside the Classified Growth system.  Many are, nevertheless, well situated and with talented and dedicated winemakers.  But, because they are not listed among the privileged few, prices are far more reasonable.

A couple of days ago I opened such a bottle that I’d kept under the stairs for a few years – even lesser bottles take a while to reach their peak. 

Senejac BxChâteau Senejac 2006 had become nicely mellow and mature with soft, leathery flavours and a long spicy finish.  You’d probably pay around £15 – £20 for the equivalent today.  Don’t expect the length or complexity of a Latour, just really pleasant drinking – and at a sensible price.

Beyond Sunshine in a Glass

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Australia built much of its early reputation in the UK on crowd-pleasing Chardonnays.  The recipe was simple but effective: plenty of up-front tropical fruit and oak flavours and generous levels of alcohol.   “Sunshine in a glass” as they were often described.  And, although these wines are still popular – look on any supermarket shelf – there are many wine lovers who would never even consider, let alone buy, an Oz Chardonnay.  Their reputation, at one time so helpful, now puts off some of those who grew up on the early Chardonnays but who are now looking for something more interesting and complex.

Yet, if you search a little wider (and pay a little more), there are some really talented winemakers in Australia who are using the country’s favourite grape to produce delightful, flavoursome bottles in a subtle style that would have been totally alien 2 decades ago.  Take Lenton Brae’s Southside Chardonnay from Margaret River (Wine Society, £14.95) for example. 

Lenton Brae Chard They use older vines (some planted in the pioneering days of 1982) to make a rich, mouth-filling wine with lovely green apple and pear flavours.  Fermenting in a mix of new and used French oak barrels adds a restrained spiciness.  But despite this, there was also enough crispness and freshness to go perfectly with asparagus – a dish I’d normally associate with a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry English white.

Margaret River in Western Australia has always done things a little differently.  2000 miles away from the more famous vineyards in the south-east of the country and with cooler influences from the Indian Ocean, WA has never produced wine in the volumes of those further east.  It has always concentrated more on quality than quantity as shown perfectly by this Lenton Brae.

But wines such as this are also a timely reminder to those who have ignored Oz Chardonnay for so long to take a fresh look.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Pinot Noir from …..Germany?

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I always find it hard to convince wine lovers to try German Rieslings – so many people still think of them as being nasty, sweet and all tasting like cheap Liebfraumilch.  The truth may be the complete reverse but, sadly, the reputation remains.  And, if German whites are a hard sell, how about their reds?  In fact, did you even know that Germany made red wine?  Give yourself a big pat on the back if you said yes and a bonus mark if you’ve ever tasted one!

We visited Assmanshausen on the Rhine last year, one of the few villages in Germany dedicated almost exclusively to red wines.  They are made from a grape called Spätburgunder locally (we probably know it better as the Burgundy variety, Pinot Noir) and we loved what we tasted so much that I’ve been looking out for them ever since.

Given what I said in the first paragraph, they’re not going to be on every UK wine merchant’s shelf but, again, the Wine Society has come up trumps with a delicious example from Martin Wassmer (£12.95).

Wassmer P NoirHe has vineyards in the Baden region in the south of Germany where the climate is milder than much of the country and seems to suit the tricky-to-ripen Pinot Noir grape perfectly.   The example we tasted had the typical earthy, farmyardy nose that mark out so many good Pinots.  It was quite light bodied and relatively low in tannin but with lovely savoury flavours and an intense plummy fruitiness.  Really drinkable and moreish, this would partner duck, turkey or chicken beautifully or even lightly chilled on its own.

And once you’ve tried a German red, have a re-think about their whites, too: a good quality dry Riesling (look for the word ‘Trocken’ on the label) is a real delight and about as far from the dreaded Liebfraumilch as it is possible to imagine.

 

 

A Lack of Taste

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The people who collect our recycling had a surprise last week: alongside the usual pile of paper and the mountain of cardboard and plastic wrapping, there was just one empty wine bottle.  No, we hadn’t been away on holiday nor had we given up alcohol for Lent, it’s simply that my wife and I both had colds.  Now I know that’s nothing compared to a relative and some of our good friends who are suffering much more serious health problems – all good wishes to them for a speedy recovery – but, while the colds were at their height, we found we really didn’t want to eat or drink much at all and then, as the worst part came to an end, blocked noses took over.

So, why was that a problem?  Well, as I regularly explain to classes, most of what we usually call ‘taste’ is actually done through the nose and so, if your nose is blocked, as it often is after a cold, your sense of taste is diminished.  The technical explanation for this is that our brain senses what we call flavours and aromas in the olfactory bulb, which is mainly reached via the nostrils but, also, from a channel at the back of the mouth called the retronasal passage.  If those avenues are cut off or restricted by the after-effects of a cold or by other medical conditions or treatments, we struggle to smell or taste anything.  And, as most of us drink wine because we enjoy the taste and smell, then, if those pleasures are denied, its best to leave the bottles where they are until, hopefully, healthier times arrive.   

But, we have missed our wine.  As the marvellous Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” says, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.  Exactly!  Perhaps that’s why a traditional toast is “Good Health!”

Interesting and Unusual

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Regular Bristol Wine Blog readers know I’m always keen to taste wines made from different grape varieties or in obscure wine regions.  So, the Bristol Tasting Circle’s latest theme, ‘Interesting and Unusual Wines’, was just perfect for me.  Especially as the wines were chosen and presented by Rachel from one of our best local independent wine merchants, Corks of Cotham (and now of North Street and at Cargo, too).

And from the moment I first looked at the tasting list, my anticipation was heightened: almost half the wines were from grape varieties I’d never tasted before.  But, it’s not good enough for a wine just to be unusual, it has to be enjoyable, too.  And these, in the main, certainly were.

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Among the reds, 2 in particular stood out for me: 7 Fuentes Suertes del Marques (£15.99) is a juicy, black-fruited wine made mainly with the Listan Negra grape variety grown on volcanic soils in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.  This is still young and will benefit from a couple more years or decanting whereas Envinate’s Tinto Amarela (£21) from Estramadura on the Spanish mainland would be delicious now – quite fresh in character and full of attractive sour cherry flavours.  

Spain also provided one of my 2 top whites, the simply named Reto Ponce (£17.99).  Herby and citrusy with pleasant aromas of fennel, this is from the local Albillo grape grown in the hills above Valencia, an area hitherto much better known for its reds, particularly from the variety Monastrel (aka Mourvedre).

But my favourite wine of the evening was from Austria.

2017-04-10 19.13.33Johanneshof Reinisch’s Gumpoldskirchner Tradition (£14.99) is both a mouthful to pronounce and a delicious mouthful to taste.  From a blend of Zierfandler and Rotgipfler, this is wonderfully fragrant – almost like a Gewurztraminer on first nose – with spicy, honeyed flavours but a completely dry finish just begging to be teamed with a noble fish in a creamy and perhaps slightly spicy sauce.

All in all, a fascinating tasting, showing just how many different tastes and styles are out there just waiting to be discovered – and, incidentally, the benefits of a good independent wine merchant who can home in on the best of them for their customers.

Moroccan Wine? Yes Really!

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If you compiled a list of the world’s most important wine producing countries, Morocco would be found closer to the bottom than the top.  But it shouldn’t be that way.  With a winemaking history dating back to Roman times and spanning latitudes between 30 and 35˚N (similar to Southern California), you’d expect it to be more prominent, specialising in wines in a rich, warm climate style.  That was certainly how it was in the distant past, but the 2nd half of the 20th century was not kind to Morocco’s wine industry and, by 1990, ¾ of her vineyards had either been grubbed up or were useless commercially.

Happily, with the assistance of mainly foreign investment, things are beginning to change and there are now a number of producers making interesting and very drinkable wines.  But, the legacy of the bad times remains and shops won’t stock wines if customers aren’t asking for them and customers can’t buy wines if shops aren’t stocking them.

So, all credit to the Wine Society (yet again!) for taking a chance and putting the delicious Tandem Syrah on their list (£11.50). 

Moroccan SyrahA collaboration between Crozes Hermitage producer Alain Graillot and Thalvin in Morocco, this has all the lovely blackberry fruit of a good Syrah (M.Graillot knows all about getting the best from that variety, of course) together with an attractive richness and some spicy hints from the subtle oak ageing.  

As for food matches, well, thinking of North Africa, a tagine with cous-cous comes to mind – a perfect choice.  But, in fact, any full-flavoured dish using red meat, aubergines or mushrooms (especially dried ones) would go well with this, as would a nice hard cheese.

And once you’ve taken the plunge and tried this bottle, why not ask your local wine merchant what else they can find from Morocco?  It’s time that country realised its potential.