A Winning Riesling

“The Wines of Germany, Austria and Hungary” – perhaps not the most popular choices for a wine course. But every place on a day course I ran recently at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre was booked. We tasted samples right across the spectrum: white, red, rosé, dry, off-dry and various degrees of sweetness. And, as usual, I asked the group to vote for their favourites at the end of the day.

Their top choices were as diverse as the wines. The narrow winner was Schloss Lieser’s classy, intense dry Riesling from the Mosel in Germany (Wine Society, £12.50).

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This showed the beautiful balance between fruit and acidity that all the best Rieslings have and was also beginning to develop interestingly in the glass – if only we could have lingered over it a little longer.

Just a single vote behind, there was a triple tie for 2nd place with one wine each from each of the 3 featured countries.

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From Germany, Johann Wolf’s Pinot Noir Rosé (Waitrose Cellar, £9.99) was deliciously clean and fresh with subtle strawberry fruit flavours. Above all, it was perfectly dry making it an ideal accompaniment to light food dishes.

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On the other hand, the group’s favourite red, A.Gere’s Kekfrankos from the volcanic Villany Hills region in southern Hungary (Wine Society, £11.25), needed to partner a really robust dish. Rich and with intense black fruits and a hint of spice, this is a bottle to leave under the stairs for a couple of years, as it will undoubtedly develop with time.

I might have guessed that the day’s final wine would have been the overall winner, but it, too, had to share 2nd place.

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Feiler-Artinger’s Traminer Beerenauslese from Rust in Austria (Waitrose Cellar, £12.49 per half bottle) is a wonderful, focussed sweet wine made by specially selecting the ripest grapes from the bunches. Yet, alongside the sweetness, there is a crisp balancing acidity meaning that the wine is not cloying at all, just really enjoyable either on its own or with a pudding or blue cheese.

So, although these 3 countries might not be among the most popular for all wine lovers, they certainly provided plenty of discussion and real drinking pleasure for our group.

Bristol in the News!

Greta(picture thanks to Getty Images)

It’s not often that Bristol is mentioned in the national news – even rarer that it’s the top story. But that was what happened recently when teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg visited the city to address an audience estimated to be around 20000 people followed by a march around the centre of town.

Her message that we need to look after our planet for the benefit of future generations is compelling but what can wine lovers and those in the wine industry do to support those aims? For the answer, we need to look at the role of the harmful gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) in the production and distribution process.

At the very beginning, there’s a positive effect. Vines, like all woody plants, absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and use it in the photosynthesis process which drives the plant’s growth. Sadly, it’s mainly downhill from then on, particularly once the grapes are harvested and arrive in the winery.

There, fermentation converts the sugar in the ripe grapes into alcohol, but this chemical reaction produces CO2 as a by-product. Fine if you’re making sparkling wine – the CO2 is captured in the bottles to make the fizz; not so good if you want still wine as then the CO2 is simply released into the atmosphere. Anyone who has been in a winery while the winemaking is ongoing will, hopefully, have been warned of this as high levels of CO2 in a confined space can be fatal.

And the negatives don’t stop there: I’ve blogged before about my hatred of over-heavy wine bottles, but there’s no doubt that they need more power to move them to the customer – and what results? More CO2!

So, what can we do (apart from stopping drinking wine, of course, which isn’t really an option for me!)? Encourage producers to use lighter bottles or other packaging materials, perhaps, or even dispense with the insistence that Quality wines have to be bottled at source; shipping to the UK in bulk and bottling here has less impact. Or, most pleasurably of all, drink more of your local sparkling wine.

 

 

 

Supermarket Bargains

More than half of all wine bought in the UK comes from supermarkets, but I rarely run courses focussing entirely in that area. Perhaps I should do so more often as my advert in Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre’s brochure gained an immediate response and the session was fully booked long before the day.

Supermarket customers expect low prices so I set myself a budget of £100 to buy 12 bottles – an average of around £8 a bottle. Among the wines I chose, several were from the supermarkets’ own label ranges, which are often good value and are the result of collaboration between their wine buyers and major producers in the various regions.

So, how did the wines go down? There were 4 clear favourites in the vote at the end of the day:

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The top dry white was the delightfully floral and fragrant Fetească Regală from Romania, part of Asda’s Wine Atlas range (an unbelievable bargain at only £5.25). Apart from its gaudy label, this would be an easy bottle to leave on the shelf, but that would be a mistake. Fetească Regală is a native grape to Romania and rarely seen elsewhere, but is clearly capable of producing delicious wines and Asda have found a real winner here.

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2 wines tied as the group’s favourite red: Tesco’s Finest Malbec (£8) was no surprise to me. Made for Tesco by one of Argentina’s most respected producers, Catena, this is lovely with flavours of blackberries and plums with hints of pepper and spice from brief oak ageing.

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The other joint red winner was Zalze’s Shiraz/Mourvèdre/Viognier blend from South Africa. Rich (14.5% alcohol) and spicy and with attractive black & red forest fruits, this will benefit from a little time and from decanting. Currently on special offer at a ridiculously cheap £6 in Morrisons (£7.50 after the 28 January) although Waitrose shoppers will have to pay £9 for the same wine.

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But the most popular of all was the dessert wine that we ended the day with. Lidl’s Pacherenc du Vic Bilh (£7.99) from south-west France is another bottle that would be easy to pass by. Quite delicate for a sweet wine but with lovely peach and honey flavours, this would be perfect with, say, an apple flan or try it with a blue cheese.

Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable day for all and clear proof that, if you look carefully, there are bargains to be found in your local supermarket.

For readers local to Bristol, my next Stoke Lodge course is on Saturday 7 March and focusses on wines from Germany, Austria and Hungary. For more details and to book: http://www.bristolcourses.com

The Sweeter Side

As I promised last time, this Blog focuses on the afternoon session of my ‘Sherry, Port and Madeira’ day course at Stoke Lodge in Bristol where we talked about and tasted some delightful Madeiras and Ports. Both these wines are made by stopping the fermentation process before all the sugar in the grapes has been turned into alcohol so, even bottles labelled ‘dry’ have really quite a bit of sweetness about them.

Sercial is one of 4 ‘noble’ grapes grown on Madeira and is the variety responsible for the driest wines. The example from Henriques and Henriques (Waitrose Cellar, £20) had all the lovely tanginess you’d expect and would make an ideal aperitif. It, like most Madeiras, is a blend of wines from different years so the ’10 Years Old’ reference on the label is an average age of the wines, not a particular vintage.

Madeiras

Bual, Verdelho and Malmsey (or Malvasia) are the other 3 noble varieties in ascending order of sweetness and it was the latter that gave us our 2nd tasting. Blandy’s Malmsey (£19, also Waitrose Cellar) has all the richness and character to go perfectly with a chocolate dessert or, perhaps, for this time of year, Christmas Pudding.

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Moving on to the ports, we began with Niepoort’s Dry White (£15, Wine Society) – crisp, fresh and drier than some so another good choice as aperitif, although, in Portugal, the locals would probably prefer to precede their meal with a 10 Year Old Tawny, lightly chilled, instead. Tawnies are aged mainly in barrels so lose much of their deep red colouring; the Wine Society’s Exhibition 10 Year Old (£17) is one of my – and my wife’s – favourites: mellow, fruity and with great length.

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Ruby ports, by comparison, are a much deeper colour as they are bottled relatively earlier than tawnies. So, ignore the slightly misleading name and enjoy Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage (Waitrose, £12.59) – with its lovely sweet fruit it’s a really satisfying mouthful.

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But the pinnacle of ports is the Vintage and Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha 2004 (Waitrose, £34) lived up to expectations. With a mellowness from 15 years ageing but still with lots of red fruit, this Single Quinta port (from one estate) was a fitting finale to a most enjoyable day.

 

Rioja at Bar 44

While we were enjoying a delicious tapas lunch at our new favourite wine bar, Bar 44 in Clifton, we noticed a Rioja dinner advertised at the same venue. 6 delicious-sounding courses each accompanied by a matching wine. We booked straight away and we weren’t disappointed.

Tempranillo is the main grape for Rioja’s reds but, as with most red wine grapes, its pulp is colourless so, by careful pressing you can also make an attractive white wine which, here, was served as aperitif and with the opening scallop starter.  Pumpkin gazpacho followed alongside a second white: an old favourite of ours, the complex and subtly oaky Murrieta Capellania.

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The next 3 courses, a risotto, some wonderful lamb with aubergine and roast fennel and some rosemary infused manchego cheese allowed us to explore the range of ageing and oaking that typifies Rioja. Quinta Milú’s unoaked young example was full of simple red fruits, while Beronia’s Reserva 2014, made, unusually with Mazuelo (perhaps better known as Carignan) rather than Tempranillo, had a lovely blend of fruit and gentle smokiness, although will, in my view, be rather better after a further 2 or 3 years in bottle.

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The final red, served with the cheese, was Beronia’s Gran Reserva 2010. I mainly avoid Gran Reservas as, in the past, I’ve often found them dried out and vegetal from just too long sitting in oak barrels. Not here! This was fresh with just the perfect mix of young fruit and spicy, oaky complexity.

The beautiful, tasty dessert of pears prepared 3 ways provided an ideal foil for a not over-sweet dessert wine.

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Bodegas Vivanco’s blend of 4 late-harvested red varieties was an unusual but successful choice with a lovely honeyed nose and palate of red fruits with a certain nuttiness.

What stood out for us in this evening was not just the quality of the food, nor even the interesting nature of the wines but, above all, the care and respect for both the food and the wines that was obvious in the pairing of the two. Congratulations to Bar 44.

 

Italian sun shines in Bristol

Italy tastingA warm summer evening and a tasting for the Westbury Park Festival held in ‘C The World’, a local Travel Agent. What better theme for the event than the Wines of Italy – one of the favourite holiday destinations for us Brits? And the wines I took along to taste reflected that idea, with all coming from areas much visited by tourists.

Our first wine was from the island of Sardinia – a crisp, peachy white: Nord Est Vermentino (£9.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouse, where I bought all the wines for this tasting). Vermentino is a high quality grape variety especially well-suited to some of the warmer parts of the Mediterranean as it retains its refreshing acidity well.

The hills above Pescara on the Adriatic coast provided our 2nd white: Collecorvino’s Pecorino (£9.99). Yes, Pecorino is a cheese, but it’s also a grape variety; there are many explanations for the similarity – none of them particularly believable! This wine was a little fuller and richer than the 1st – the result of some of the grapes being fermented in oak.

For our final white, I looked to the Avellino hills, east of Naples. It’s an area rich with excellent local grape varieties including Fiano and Greco but I chose Terredora’s Falanghina (£11.99) – beautifully crisp and fresh but with an attractive savoury character from 3 months of lees ageing.

It was back to the islands – this time Sicily – for the 1st of the reds. Corolla’s Nero d’Avola (£8.99) was everything a simple, every day wine should be – lots of red fruit flavours and very moreish.

A little more challenging was Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Ripasso (£12.99) from the area to the east of Lake Garda. Valpolicella can also be simple and gluggable but, when the word ‘Ripasso’ is on the label, it takes on a whole new dimension. Refermented on the lees of an Amarone, a wine made with dried grapes, this is intense with delicious prune and fig flavours.

And finally, from Piedmont, in the north-west, De Forville’s Langhe Nebbiolo (£10.99) is effectively a mini-Barolo in all but name (and price!). Ideally, it should be left a few more years to allow the tannins to soften (I opened the 2017) but, if you can’t wait, decant it well in advance and serve with robust food; you’ll find the quality and richness will shine through.

So, there it was: a taste of the Italian sun in Bristol and, hopefully, enjoyed by all.

A Sparkling Evening

“Can you run a tasting of sparkling wines for us?”  It’s not a request I get often – sparkling wines can be quite expensive and, perhaps, more for a celebration than for talking about.  But there’s plenty to say (for me, at least!) and a vast choice.  It’s not just Champagne and Prosecco, virtually every cool climate area of the wine world produces some fizz.

Why the emphasis on a cool climate?  Both the most common ways of making sparkling wine (the ‘traditional’ method – the one that used to be known as the Champagne method until the Champenois objected – and the ‘tank’ method) involve a second fermentation – adding more grape sugar and yeast to an already made still wine to produce the carbon dioxide that forms the bubbles.  But this process also raises the alcohol level in the wine by 1 – 1.5%.  If you try this with a wine that is already 13% or more, as is typical in warm climates, you lose the aromatics and the wine becomes heavy and unappetising.  Hence the importance of a cool climate and a lower alcohol level to start with.

What of the evening itself?  We sampled 6 wines ranging through France, Italy, Spain, England (of course!), South Africa and New Zealand and at prices from £10 to £25. 

And the reaction of the tasters?  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Champagne (Charles Lecouvey’s Brut Reserve) was the clear winner with everyone present scoring it in their top 2.  ChampagneAlthough not expensive for a Champagne (£23.99 from Waitrose), the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave it a lightness and freshness that appealed to all. 

The same grape varieties were used (although with Pinot Noir dominating rather than Chardonnay) for the group’s 2nd favourite: Lindauer’s Special Reserve Brut Rosé from New Zealand (widely available from supermarkets and wine shops at between £11 and £14).  Lindauer FizzDelicate crushed strawberry flavours and aromas and a really attractive pink colour made this a delight.  Certainly one to consider if you’re looking for an easy-drinking fizz at an attractive price for the festive season.

The Most Popular Grape

There’s more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the world than any other wine grape – almost 300,000 hectares (just over 700,000 acres) according to the comprehensive study published by the University of Adelaide in 2013.  That area has more than doubled since 1990 and is almost certainly still growing.  There are now commercial plantings of the variety in more than 30 countries.

I’m not surprised at its popularity with growers; it’s a grape capable of producing very high quality red wines and its name is widely recognised by wine lovers – always a help with marketing.  But it needs to be grown in the right conditions: too cool and you get unripe, leafy flavours; too warm and the wine tastes of jammy or cooked fruit. 

Interestingly, in its home region of Bordeaux, you almost never see a wine made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon – there, they usually blend it with Merlot and other varieties – a legacy of the time when that part of France was, on average, a couple of degrees cooler than it is today and growers regularly struggled to ripen their Cabernet.

But elsewhere – California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the ‘new kid on the block’, China – 100% Cabernets are common and it’s not hard to find a really good bottle, for example Robert Oatley’s Finisterre from Margaret River in Western Australia.  2017-09-03 15.07.33The climate there is ideal with warm, dry summers meaning that harvest can often take place as early as February (equivalent to August in the Northern Hemisphere), minimising the threat from autumn rain. 

Finisterre is quite restrained and subtle but has the lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit flavours that I always associate with a good Cabernet Sauvignon, topped out with some soft spice and just enough tannin to suggest that the 2013 vintage has a good few years more ahead of it.  Usually £18.99 at Waitrose, but it’s worth waiting for one of that supermarket’s regular ‘25% off’ offers when this wine becomes a great bargain and one not to be missed.

 

Choose Just One Region

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.

 

A Portuguese Rosé

Congratulations if you looked at the title and still decided to read the blog!  Particularly if, like me, you were old enough to drink wine in the 1970s.  Because, in those far off days, the words ‘Portuguese’ and ‘Rosé’ meant just one thing: the most popular wine of the era, Mateus Rosé, sold in that familiar, dumpy shaped bottle that, when empty, made a perfect base for a table lamp.  At its peak, in 1978, it accounted for over 40% of Portugal’s wine exports and sold a cool 42 million bottles in just one year.  That’s a lot of table lamps!

Mateus Rosé is still around (and this year celebrates 75 years since it was first produced) but, as readers of this blog will, no doubt, know, it isn’t the only Portuguese rosé on the market.

With summer in mind, I picked up a bottle of Ciconia Rosé from Corks of Cotham recently (£8.99). 

Portuguese roseA blend of 3 grape varieties: touriga nacional, one of the main components in port and many high quality Portuguese reds, syrah (shiraz) and aragonez, one of the Portuguese names for Spain’s best red grape, Tempranillo.  These three together made a wine about as different from my memories of Mateus as it is possible to be: slightly off-dry and really refreshing with attractive strawberry fruit and a clean juicy finish.  Great for drinking on its own or, perhaps, even better, with fish in a tomato based sauce (Cod Portuguaise) or a bouillabaisse.

I’m happy to drink rosé at any time of year, although I think it works best with lighter, summery foods.  But the wine must be dry – or off-dry at most; for me, the sweeter rosés such as Mateus and some of the commercial White Zinfandels that are widely available are just too sweet for a main course yet not sweet enough for a pudding. 

But they sell, so someone loves them – just leave me with the Ciconia, the other Portuguese rosé.