Midsummer Madness!

AldwickA 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!

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Wine Going Green

For some time now, parts of the wine industry have gained a reputation for not paying sufficient attention to environmental concerns. Overuse of pesticides in the vineyard, long road journeys between grower and customer and – my own personal hate – unnecessarily heavy bottles are just a few of the accusations that have been made. And, sadly, for a significant number of producers, the verdict must be Guilty.

Not all, of course. An increasing number of growers are turning to organic – even biodynamic – practices and I know of several who are using horses rather than tractors to work their land.

But one UK importer has taken the carbon-neutral agenda to a whole new level. Xisto Wines are not only using sailing ships to bring their wines over from Portugal but the vans they use for distribution within the UK are run on Bio-fuel made from used oil collected from the restaurants they supply!

So, it was fascinating to hear Anton Mann from the company at a Bristol Tasting Circle evening recently – and his selection of Portuguese wines were certainly worth tasting.

BTC Xisto 2Among my favourites was the Quinta de Gomariz Alvarinho (£16), a delicious crisp white with a lovely lemon-peel nose. Quite floral and citrusy on the palate and richer in body than many Vinho Verdes, this has excellent length and is really good value at the price.

BTC Xisto 1My choice of the reds was Lagar de Darei’s Sem Abrigo Tinto from the Dão region (£16). Made from a blend of native Portuguese grapes including Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (the same variety as Spain’s Tempranillo), this has attractive raspberry fruit on the nose and spicy, jammy blackberries and smoky hints on the palate.

If you want to be part of the move towards greener wine, these and other wines from Xisto are available, either direct from the supplier or from local independent wine merchants Clifton Cellars and Grape and Grind.

 

Contains (fewer) Sulphites

This month’s gathering of the Bristol Tasting Circle was a rather more sombre affair than usual. The group’s long-serving Secretary, Judith Tyler, died last month and this was our first meeting since that very sad event. Judith, alongside her fellow committee members, Tim and Graeme, had worked hard to widen the appeal of the Tasting Circle and so attracted many new members. The Group will continue but we will miss her infectious enthusiasm.

I’m sure she would have enjoyed our tasting this month with local wine merchant and regular Tasting Circle visitor, Raj Soni (www.rswines.co.uk), presenting a selection of bottles from producers who are making a real effort to reduce sulphur levels in their wines.

Why is this important?  Although sulphur in various forms is widely used in the wine (and food) industries as a disinfectant and preservative, it can cause breathing problems; asthma sufferers are particularly at risk and, as a result, the warning ‘contains sulphites’ appears on virtually all wine labels. Too much sulphur can also affect the taste and smell of wine; think how a struck match smells and that gives you the idea of what to look for. However, wines with too little sulphur can become unstable, so there’s a balance to be drawn. But, from this tasting, it was clear that wines with sulphur levels more than 50% below widely accepted norms can be both stable and delicious.

BTC Low Sulphur

Two reds particularly stood out for me: Château Saint Estève (£12.40), a Grenache-based blend from the southern Rhône, is smooth, intense and mouth-filling with lovely black cherry flavours and great length while Louis Chenu’s Bourgogne (£20) was more delicate but full-flavoured and with a typical Burgundian earthiness.

These, and all the other low sulphur wines we tasted, are available online from www.nfizz.co.uk. Many are also organic (or biodynamic) and most (but not the Rhône wine mentioned above) are suitable for vegans.

 

 

Lebanon’s Heroic Wines

musar 4 (2)The wine world has many stories of triumph over adversity yet, surely, the most remarkable is that of Chateau Musar.  Musar’s vineyards are in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and its winery just outside Beirut, a couple of hours drive away over the mountains.  As a result, more than half of the vintages since 1975 have been made in a war zone or, at least, with the threat of war close by.  So, it is a truly heroic achievement that, in all that time, only 1 year has been missed.

And, when you taste the wines, as I did recently with the Bristol Tasting Circle, this desire to survive comes through.  Few of Musar’s wines are designed for drinking young.  The reds we tasted went as far back as 1996, the whites to 1991 and even the rosés – elsewhere often made for drinking within a year or so of the vintage – included a bottle from 2004.

The key to this longevity is a mixture of the growing conditions and the winemaking.  Although the Bekaa Valley sits at a warm latitude of 34˚N, its altitude – over 1000m (3000ft) above sea level – gives cool nights which help to retain the acidity in the organically-grown grapes – a vital element in making these full-bodied wines so well balanced. 

In the winery, everything is done with minimal intervention: indigenous yeasts, little added sulphur, no fining or filtering; simply harvest clean, ripe grapes and then let the natural processes do the rest.

The reds we tasted – interestingly before the whites – were mainly based around southern French varieties, particularly Cinsault and Carignan with a little Cabernet Sauvignon added, while the distinctive, spicy and honeyed dry whites were made from 2 local specialities, Obaideh and Merwah (although Jancis Robinson MW suggests that they may really be Chardonnay and Semillon, respectively).

This was a fascinating tasting of some unique and heroic wines.  All are available from local independent wine merchant ‘The Little Tipple’, email norman@littletipple.co.uk for details and prices.

 

A Week in Bristol

I’ve blogged before about how this is my busiest time of the year but 4 tastings in 1 week is exceptional, even for my November schedule.  Interestingly, 3 of the 4 events focussed on Spain or Portugal – 2 countries whose wines have improved so much over the past 20 years or so.

The week started with Ed Adams MW at the Bristol Tasting Circle.  Ed, along with his business partner, South African Bruce Jack, is a winemaker in north-east Spain and showed 2 of his own wines – an attractive creamy white and a rich, intense red, both sold under the La Bascula label.  Then, in conjunction with Great Western Wines of Bath, we also tasted a range of other wines, all from the Basque or Catalan regions of Spain that Ed knows so well. 

BTC Spain 2It was hard to pick just one favourite but, both my wife and I loved the crisp, grapefruit flavoured white Adur Txakolina from the Basque country (£17.95) while, among the reds, Franck Massard’s El Brindis from the Montsant region (£12.50) was great value even though to get the best from this deep, weighty Cariñena/Garnacha blend would require real patience – perhaps 3 or 4 years.

The following evening, the Bristol-Oporto Twinning Association invited Alan Wright from Clifton Cellars to run a tasting for us.  Alan doesn’t believe in ‘run of the mill’ wines but one of his well-chosen selections was unique, even by his standards.  Oporto 1Quinta do Romeu’s ‘Westerlies’ (£14.75) was specially made and bottled for a journey under sail from Portugal to Bristol by the century-old trading ketch, the Bessie-Ellen.  Sadly, the old ship had to stop at Fowey for repairs but her cargo continued by road for us to enjoy.  Made from one of Portugal’s lesser-known grape varieties, Sousão, this red showed lovely black fruits and although quite deeply flavoured, had an attractive lightness about it.  Oporto 2Despite the temptation of the glorious, sweet Adega de Palma Moscatel de Setubal (£12.50) and others that we tasted, this had to be the wine of the night, if only for the wonderful story it told.

That only takes me as far as Tuesday and my tasting count is already well into double figures for the week (spitting out, of course!).  Perhaps I’d better defer blogging about the week’s other 2 tastings, both of which I was hosting, until next time.

For the Adventurous

BTC Novel winesThe world of wine is expanding.  How often have I said that?  And it’s moving so fast that it’s almost impossible for any 1 person to keep up with all the changes.  That’s where small, independent companies come to the fore.  They can focus on particular areas ignored by others and gain in-depth knowledge of where the best wines are made and, perhaps, more importantly, who are the best producers.

One such independent is Novel Wines based in Bath.  India, Brazil, Croatia and Turkey are among the unlikely names on their list and a tasting they hosted recently for the Bristol Tasting Circle proved a fascinating opportunity to sample the offerings from some of the wine world’s less well-known countries.

The delightful Olaszrizling from the St Donat estate in Hungary (£17.95) was, for me, the pick of the whites.  The grape variety – no relation to Riesling despite the similarity of part of its name – isn’t generally regarded as particularly interesting but here gave lovely, tangy, herby flavours with well-integrated spicy oak and a good long dry finish.

BTC Cab S

Guliev Tremelov’s Cabernet Reserve from Odessa in the Ukraine (£17.50) was one of 2 stand-out reds.  Showing plenty of the blackcurrant fruit typical of the grape, backed up by some attractive toasty oak, this had good length and some complexity but, above all, was really drinkable, although, like so many reds, would be even better with food.

My other red choice was from Serbia.  DiBonis’ DiFranc (£27.95) used the ‘other’ Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, to give a wine with a perfumed, bitter cherry nose and lovely, sweet fruit on the palate.  One colleague said the wine reminded her of Black Forest Gateau, another said marzipan.  To me, it had shades of a good Valpolicella, but with, perhaps, rather more intensity.  Hardly a typical Cabernet Franc but a lovely wine, nonetheless, and, again, just crying out to accompany food – pan roasted duck breast in particular.

A fascinating tasting proving just how many different flavours are out there if you are adventurous and seek out the small companies, like Novel, who can point you in the right direction.

A Turkish Delight!

Turkish tastingIf history had turned out differently, Turkey might, by now, have been one of the great wine producing countries of the world.  Some of the oldest known relics of winemaking have been found near its border – in Georgia and Armenia – and, with the moderating influence of both the Mediterranean and Black Seas, a number of areas of the country have an ideal climate for grape growing.  Indeed, Turkey has the 5th largest vineyard area of any country in the world.  Unfortunately for wine lovers, its cultural and religious heritage means that most of its grapes are harvested to sell for eating or as raisins or sultanas; only 3% of the crop is made into wine – and barely 1 bottle in 10 of that is exported – a shame as many critics have noted that Turkey has some really interesting native grape varieties.

I was able to find out for myself recently as the Bristol Tasting Circle organised an evening dedicated to Turkish wines.  And, sure enough, alongside the familiar names – Cabernet, Syrah and Sauvignon – were wines made from Emir, Narince, Kalecik Karasi, Çalkarasi and Ökügözü.

The first 2 named, both local white varieties, were blended to produce one of my favourite wines of the night: Cankaya, an attractive, soft, peachy white made by one of Turkey’s largest producers, Kavaklidere (£8.99, available, as are the other wines mentioned in this blog, from www.tasteturkey.com).

Of the reds, Kayra Alpagut’s Ökügözü (£19.99) had the sort of tangy, herby flavours that reminded some at the table of a nice Loire Cabernet Franc but I preferred the mellowness of Vinkara’s subtle, red-fruit flavoured Kalecik Karasi Reserve (£18.45, although the Wine Society have the same producer’s non Reserve bottling of the same grape at £9.95.  Is the Reserve worth nearly twice the price?  I tried the other some time ago and, for me, the cheaper wine is the better buy).

Turkey is clearly producing some interesting, attractive wines but, because amounts exported are small, they will never be cheap and may be hard to find.  But, if you’re looking for something a little different, why not try a bottle – it may prove to be a Turkish Delight!