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.

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A Shy and Reticent Wine?

The English are often described as ‘reserved’ people: shy, reticent, not very forthcoming.  But the word ‘reserve’ can have other meanings: I can reserve a table at a restaurant or set a reserve – a minimum sale price – at an auction, for example. But what does it mean to wine lovers?

Look along the shelves of your local supermarket or wine merchant and you’ll notice that Reserve (or a local variant such as Reserva or Riserva) is one of the words most commonly found on the labels.  So, does it mean that the wine is shy, reticent and not very forthcoming?  Unfortunately not!  But, what it does mean (if anything) varies a lot, depending on where the wine comes from.

Things are clearest in Spain.  Spanish wine tasting (2)There, Reserva denotes a red wine that has been aged for at least 3 years before being released for sale, at least one year of which must have been in oak barrels.  For whites and rosés, the figure is 2 years (6 months in barrel).  The requirements for Gran Reservas are longer: for reds, 5 years (2 in oak barrel), for whites and rosés, 4 years (6 months in barrel).

Across the border in Portugal, the rules for their Reserva are much less specific, simply requiring the wine to be from a ‘good’ vintage (how do you define that?) with an alcohol level at least ½% above the regional minimum (which varies from place to place).

Italy’s equivalent is Riserva.

41 SelvapianaThis also varies from place to place – as do most things in Italy; it, too, denotes a certain minimum ageing, usually at least a year, although, for Barolo, it is as long as 5 years!  Often, higher alcoholic strength and other requirements are also included in the local rules.

And that’s as far as the regulated use of these terms goes.  Anywhere else and the word has no official meaning.  It might be used to suggest that the wine is of a higher quality, as in the French ‘Réserve du Patron’ or terms like Estate Reserve or Reserve Selection, or has seen some oak ageing, but, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy, none of this is guaranteed.

To my mind, we ought to reserve (sorry!) the use of the word to those places where it does have a legal meaning, but I’m not going to make a fuss about it because I’m English and too reserved!

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.

Chianti: love it or hate it?

24 Ricasoli winesFor me, the answer for many years has been ‘both’. Chianti is an enormous area and produces a vast quantity of wine ranging from the outstanding to the barely drinkable. So, how do you distinguish one from the other? There’s no simple method – Italian wine laws are massively complicated – but some knowledge of the best areas and the good producers has usually led me in the right direction. But a recent short break visiting some vineyards there showed that the whole thing is now becoming even more of a nightmare!

The word Riserva on the label of a bottle of Chianti indicates wines from selected grapes that have had longer ageing to produce a more complex and harmonious wine. These wines often come from a single estate and so the term Riserva can be a good guide to the best wines. But now, one part of the Chianti region, the part known as Chianti Classico has, controversially, come up with a sort of super Riserva to be known as Gran Selezione, where the wines have had extra ageing and all the grapes must come from a single estate. Spot the difference? No, nor do some of the producers we spoke to, who are refusing to use the term, while others are busy relabeling their Riservas as Gran Selezione.

And, if that isn’t complicated enough, some producers are adding a small proportion of Cabernet or Merlot grapes to the main Chianti grape, Sangiovese and ageing their wines in small French oak barriques. Others insist that only traditional local grape varieties should be blended with the Sangiovese and the wine aged in very large old oak or chestnut barrels. Both are quite within the rules of Chianti but, having tasted examples of each, I can say that these decisions make a real difference to the taste and character of the wine, yet there is no indication on the label which you’re getting. So, a system that Jancis Robinson MW once described as ‘that glorious confusion’ has been made worse, not better.

But we did taste some lovely wines during our trip and I’ll tell you about them next time.

Sancerre Style, not Sancerre prices

ReuillySancerre and Pouilly Fumé, the twin towns of the eastern Loire, turn out some lovely wines. But, because they are famous names and always in demand, the best tend to be expensive (you can easily pay £15 – £20 or even more). And, if you go for some of the cheaper examples found in supermarkets instead, they can be quite disappointing. So, how do you get the lovely, racy, pungent flavours of a good Loire Sauvignon Blanc without paying these sorts of prices?

Look at a map of the area and, just to the west of Sancerre, you’ll see Menetou-Salon; a little further west and you come to Quincy and Reuilly. All three of these villages also produce Sauvignon Blanc in much the same style as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, yet, as they are not nearly as widely known, prices – comparing wines of similar quality, of course – are far more reasonable.

Take Denis Jamain’s Les Pierres Plates Reuilly, for example. We opened a bottle recently and it went beautifully with some grilled sardines. It was absolutely textbook Loire Sauvignon with wonderful clean, fresh, gooseberry and green pepper flavours. Only a real expert could confidently say this wasn’t a high quality Sancerre. But, when you check the price, you’ll notice the difference: £11.50 from The Wine Society. And, in case you want to try value alternatives from the other two villages I mentioned, Wine Society also have Domaine Pellé’s Menetou-Salon (£11.95) and Majestic are offering Jean-Charles Borgnat’s Quincy (£11.49). Both recommended.

If you’re searching for reliable Loire Sauvignon even cheaper still, you may need to choose carefully, but I’d suggest you look even further west, over the border into Touraine, the region surrounding the town of Tours. At their best, wines labelled Sauvignon de Touraine can give you much of the same style and freshness as a modest Sancerre, but, production here is quite large and quality can be a bit variable, which is why I say you need to be selective. Above all, avoid Loire Sauvignon at bargain basement prices (which, these days, means below about £6) as cheap examples are often dominated by tart acidity with very little fruit – very unpleasant!

And finding bargains by seeking alternatives to famous names doesn’t stop on the Loire. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Pouilly Fuissé and many others have their value alternatives. But that’s a Bristol Wine Blog for another day. In the meantime, just look around.

Wine Glass Almost Empty!

Glass almost emptyAn almost empty wine glass – not the way I usually head my Bristol Wine Blog! – but that was my first thought when I read recent newspaper reports that a global wine shortage is in prospect.

Research carried out by Morgan Stanley suggests that wine lovers worldwide will soon be drinking more wine each year than is produced, resulting in shortages. They blame increased wine consumption, particularly in China and the United States, coupled with some poor harvests in several of the major wine producing countries in 2012 and 2013.

Just 10 years ago, things were very different. Over 7000 million bottles of wine a year were remaining unsold. Not surprisingly, producers cut back in an attempt to shift their surplus stock and some growers would have decided that their vineyards just weren’t economic any longer. As a result, output fell by almost 10% – and that was before the poor weather that has reduced crops in many parts of Europe this year and last.

At the same time, demand for wine in China has risen at a remarkable rate, quadrupling in just the last 5 years (albeit from quite a low starting point) – a trend that is almost certain to continue. And in the United States, too, wine drinking is becoming much more widespread.

But, read on! Things are not as bad as the headline would lead you to believe – are they ever?

There may be a few short-term problems as the historic surpluses disappear and we depend more on wines from the 2012 and 2013 vintages; prices are almost certain to rise a little. But those two poor years are very much the exception. If the weather in 2014 is better and normal levels of production resume across Europe and countries like South Africa and Chile continue to plant new vineyards, we’ll very soon forget any talk of a shortage.

And I’ve only mentioned China in terms of the population consuming rapidly increasing amounts of wine. The country is also becoming a very significant producer. Indeed from almost nothing 20 years ago, China is now thought to be No5 in the world. Not much is seen outside China yet, but, within the next few years, I expect that to change.

So, yes, we may find some of our favourite wines missing from the shelves for a little while; personally, I’d take that as an opportunity to try something different. But longer term, I see a rosier picture: my wine glass being half full – at least!

Ungrafted vines – revisited

Some time ago, I wrote a blog titled “Ungrafted Vines: A Taste of History”. It has since become the most read of all my blogs. Even now, 21 months later, several people every week hit on it. So, perhaps, it’s time to revisit a topic that’s clearly of interest to many of you.

Firstly, what do I mean by an ungrafted vine? It’s a vine where the whole plant – including the roots – is a single entity. You might think that all vines are like that, but most vines used for the wines we drink today are not – and we need to look back over a hundred years for the reason why.

In the 1860s, phylloxera, a microscopic bug that attacks vine roots and eventually kills the vine, was found in a vineyard in southern France. Over the following four decades or so, it spread quickly and devastated many vineyards in Europe and beyond. At the time, no-one knew what it was or how to deal with it. It was feared that the world’s entire wine industry would be wiped out. The cause of the problem was finally identified in the 1880s, but the solution took far longer to discover.

Phylloxera came to Europe from America where the native vine has developed resistance, but the European vine, which is genetically different, has not, so all our familiar varieties are vulnerable to attack. One solution considered was to plant American vines in place of European, but the wine they produced was not found to be of the same quality.

Fortunately, it was eventually realised that, by using the roots of an American vine and grafting (attaching) a European vine to them, you could have wines from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or whatever and protection from phylloxera. Problem solved!

So what about ungrafted vines? There are a few places in the world where you’ll still find them. They are either so remote from other vineyards that the bug has never spread there or the soil is very sandy (which the bug doesn’t like). Parts of Chile, a small area of Portugal and parts of Cyprus are among the places you’ll find that little bit of history – a vine that is a single entity from tip to root, but everywhere else, grafted vines are the only way to produce the wines we like.

Ungrafted Vines: A Taste of History

Wine labels. Do you ever really look at them? Yes, you probably notice an attractive design, take in the fact that the wine is made from such-and-such a grape or comes from this place or that. But how much else? Is there anything useful or interesting on the label or is it just the result of a marketing department somewhere?

I do read labels – well, yes, I would, wouldn’t I? Often, it’s just marketing speak, but there’s usually some information about what’s in the bottle.  And occasionally, I find out something fascinating about the wine I’m about to drink. And that was the case a few days ago. I had just opened a bottle of De Martino El Leon from the Maule Valley in Chile, made from the southern French grape Carignan, when I saw the words ‘ungrafted vines’ on the label. I was tasting a piece of history! Let me explain.

In the late 1800s, a terrible disease attacked Europe’s vineyards. It was called phylloxera. It originated in America and consisted of a microscopic bug that attacked vine roots and eventually killed the vine. It was first seen in southern France but quickly spread through much of Europe and beyond. At one time, it was thought that the entire wine industry was at risk of being wiped out. It took almost 20 years for the cause of the problem to be identified, but, even then, the cure remained elusive. Eventually, it became clear that most American vines were immune to attack, only the European vine, vitis vinifera, which is genetically different, is vulnerable.

So, problem solved: let’s plant American vines. Unfortunately not. All the great wines of the world are made from European vines; Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz – all are vitis vinifera – and nothing could stop the phylloxera bug from munching its way through their roots. Except, what if you could somehow attach a European vine to the roots of an American vine? The roots would be immune to attack and you would still have the Chardonnay or Merlot or whatever grapes that you wanted.

And that is exactly how virtually all the grapes for the wines we love are grown these days – attached (grafted is the technical word) to American vine roots. So, to find a wine made from ungrafted vines – vines that are still being grown on their own roots – as I did, is something unusual – and only possible in a few places in the world, in this case in Chile which, because of the isolation of some of their vineyards, means that no American vine has ever been grown there.

And what did our wine taste like? Wonderful! Intense, rich, full flavoured. And the fact that I was tasting a piece of history made it even more special.