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.

 

Sherries to Inspire

What better theme for a tasting at this time of the year than ‘Sherry, Port and Madeira’? Although sales of all alcoholic drinks peak around now, wine merchants will tell you that these 3 are particularly seasonal. And so, for my latest day course at Stoke Lodge in Bristol, I took along a selection of old favourites combined with some less well-known bottles hoping to inspire the group of enthusiasts who signed up.

As the Ports and Madeiras all had an element of sweetness in them, I began with the sherries and the most delicate and driest of all, a Fino.

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La Ina is widely available around £9.50 but its purity of flavour and length suggests something much more expensive. While grapes for a Fino can be grown anywhere within the Jerez region of south-west Spain, the Manzanilla vineyards are nearer the coast around the town of Sanlucar de Barameda, giving that sherry a slightly salty tang. My choice, a Pasada (£11.95 from the Wine Society), is a particular kind of Manzanilla which has spent around 7 years in barrel, giving a more mellow, nutty flavour.

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Oloroso sherries are altogether richer and fuller in taste and are a much darker colour. Many are sweetened before bottling but I found a delicious dry example in Lustau’s Almacenista range (£17.99, Waitrose Cellar) – as smooth as any I have tasted.

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For the final sherry, I went to the opposite extreme: the lusciously sweet, almost treacly Tio Toto Pedro Ximenez (Wine Society, £13.95). Pedro Ximenez, or PX to its friends, is often used to sweeten other sherries but here, on its own, it would make a perfect accompaniment to Christmas Pudding or – my favourite – poured over good quality vanilla ice cream. It also paired nicely with some chocolate cake generously brought along by one of the class to celebrate a birthday.

And then we broke for lunch. A good place to end this Blog. Next time, I’ll tell you about the equally delightful Madeiras and Ports I shared with the group in the afternoon.

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.

Bordeaux, Burgundy or…?

When you buy your wine, do you focus on Bordeaux, Burgundy and the other traditional regions of France or, do think, as one friend of mine said, that these areas are living in the past and trading on a reputation that is no longer justified?  For me, that criticism is a little harsh, but I can understand that many find wines from California or Australia are just so much more approachable and usually better value. 

But, I wanted to put the traditional areas to the test and so I advertised a course entitled ‘The Classic Wines of France’ at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre – a good move as the day was fully booked in record time with a waiting list!  No pressure then!  I just had to find the wines for my eager group to taste.

I wanted plenty of variety and so chose 4 wines from each of Bordeaux and Burgundy plus 2 each from the Loire and Rhône.  And, when I asked the group to choose their favourites at the end of the day, the results were very close with a single vote separating the top 4 wines.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the opposition, the 2 Loire whites shared top spot:

2017-11-16 10.43.18Bertrand Jeannot’s steely fresh Pouilly Fumé (Wine Society, £13.50) showed the benefit of extended lees ageing, while the crisp, fragrant demi-sec Vouvray from Château de Montfort (Waitrose, £11.99) had already been a winner at a previous wine course of mine, having been chosen by those who came to the ‘Wine Rivers of Europe’ day earlier in the year.

But reds from Bordeaux and Burgundy (both from the Wine Society) were close behind:  2017-11-16 10.44.11Château Sénéjac is everything you’d hope a Bordeaux red would be – lovely black fruits and just a hint of tannin; the only surprise is the price: £12.95 – a reflection, I suppose, that it is only an AC Haut-Medoc and not something grander.  No such bargains, sadly, from Burgundy but the group clearly thought Domaine Tollot-Beaut’s Chorey-les-Beaune justified its price tag (£23) with the typical, slightly perfumed Côtes de Beaune style of Pinot Noir coming through particularly well. 

So, is the reputation of these areas justified?  I think the day proved conclusively yes!  Provided you’re prepared to pay a little beyond every day prices, the ‘Classic’ areas of France certainly offer some delightful and very drinkable wines that really shouldn’t be ignored by any wine lover.