Tastings are Back!

When I lived in London, we had a saying that you’d wait ages for a bus then 2 would come along together.  I’m not sure if that still happens but, just now, the same seems to apply to wine tastings!  I’ve hardly been to any since the start of the Covid-19 restrictions, but this week, there were 2 on successive days.  I went to both.

The 1st, hosted by local wine educator, Tim Johnson, focused on the wines of the Jura – an area of eastern France between Burgundy and the Swiss border.  Vineyards here are quite scattered with most in the foothills of the Jura Mountains.  Tim summarised the region succinctly as ‘The Three Is’: Indigenous varieties, Idiosyncratic styles and Iconic wines.  The examples he produced wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but it was a fascinating exploration of the region nonetheless.

Typical of the Indigenous varieties was Poulsard (£14.95), an early-ripening grape giving a quite pale coloured red with low tannins but plenty of attractive cherry-flavoured fruit.  A little like Beaujolais in style and very drinkable. 

Idiosyncratic styles were almost everywhere in the tasting but I’ll mention 2 in particular:  Vin de Paille (£29.50) is a dessert wine made from late-harvested grapes which are then air-dried to further concentrate the sugars.  Flavours of honey and marmalade predominate.  If you like Italy’s Vin Santo, try this.  Macvin de Jura (£33.16) is also quite sweet but has a grapey freshness being a blend of unfermented juice mixed with local marc (perhaps better known as ‘grappa’) and then barrel aged for 10 months.  Also very drinkable but beware – this is 17.5% alcohol!

And the Iconic wine?  Vin Jaune is made with the local Savagnin grape (not to be confused with Sauvignon) which, after fermentation, is left to mature in cask for more than 7 years and develops in the same way as a dry amontillado sherry, which it resembles in both aroma and taste.  It’s sold in 62cl bottles which is supposed to represent the amount left from a normal bottle size (75cl) after the evaporation that happens during the long ageing.  This loss is known as “the angels’ share” – perhaps someone should have a word with these angels as Château-Chalon’s Vin Jaune sells for more than £60 a bottle!

So, just a brief look at some of the Jura wines we tasted – try Yapp Brothers if you want to sample them yourself.  And catch up with my review of the week’s 2nd tasting next time.

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Big but Balanced

I’ve been blogging for weeks about our record-breaking summer and the wines we have enjoyed to accompany lighter meals, often eaten outdoors on our lovely terrace.  Suddenly all has changed.  Autumn has arrived in a hurry and so we have turned to richer, more robust food, better suited to the cooler season.  Daube de Boeuf has long been one of our favourites – a flavoursome beef casserole with the meat marinaded in a mixture of red wine, herbs and a twist of orange rind before long, slow cooking.

The wine to drink with it?  Red, of course! 

Alain Jaume’s Vacqueyras (Majestic, £15.99) is a chunky blend of mainly Grenache and Syrah (Shiraz) that has been sitting on our wine rack for many months, just waiting for the right dish to pair it with.  It is, indeed, a big, mouth-filling wine – the label says 15% but I’d never have guessed that high as it is so well balanced.  It does need food, however, to show at its best and our Daube was ideal.  The first impression is of intense black fruits, herbs and a certain smokiness but, as the wine opens in the glass, attractive dried fruit flavours kick in alongside.  Our bottle, from the 2019 vintage, was still quite tannic – decanting in advance certainly helped – but, with hindsight, I should probably have left it unopened for another couple of years at least.

Vacqueyras is one of the villages of the southern Rhône valley, just a short drive from Châteauneuf du Pape and producing wines in a generally similar style to its more famous neighbour (although, as it is less well-known, they are often rather better value for money). 

Summers can be very hot in this part of France and heat-loving grapes like Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre thrive, giving very full-bodied reds with, it seems, ever-increasing levels of alcohol.  The challenge for producers now and (even more) in the future is to harness this and make wines that, as with the bottle recommended here, are big, rich and lush yet still properly balanced and with no unpleasant ‘burn’ on the finish.  

Muscadet Revisited

In my Bristol Wine Blog a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in passing just how much Muscadet had improved recently.  Look back 25 years and the 1997 edition of Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was unflattering in its description of the Appellation: ‘bone-dry, light-bodied wines which, with very few exceptions, are ordinary wines at best and often lack balance’.  The advice was ‘drink young’, although, on that basis, why would you want to drink it at all?

But, as I said, things have changed and a bottle I opened a few days ago confirmed that view in the most delicious way – although I suspect that few wine professionals would be able, with any real confidence, to pick Château Thébaud (Joie de Vin, £18.95) as a Muscadet.  Dry, certainly, but with a richness and depth of flavour that is completely at odds with Sotheby’s comment.  So, why the difference?

Our example dated from 2016 – 6 years old – so not a young wine at all and the label tells me that it had spent almost 4 of those 6 years ‘sur lie’.  This is a process where, after the fermentation is complete, a wine is left in the cask resting in contact with the lees (the now dead yeast cells that caused the fermentation).  These impart a savoury, spicy flavour to the wine and also give it ‘texture’ in your mouth.  ‘Sur lie’ is normally just for a few months, occasionally up to a year, so to extend it to 4 years, as Château Thébaud have, accounts for much of the richness and character of this bottle.

We paired it with some seared tuna that we had marinaded in lime juice, honey and ginger – all quite potent flavours – but the wine matched perfectly showing lovely dried pineapple, honey and saffron and a really long complex finish.

I accept that this isn’t cheap at nearly £19 but compared to a good village Burgundy or white Rhône of the same quality, it starts to look like value for money – for a special occasion, at least.  

Moreish Loire Reds

The River Loire is mainly known for the variety of delicious white wines that are made from vineyards sited all along the banks of one of France’s longest rivers.  Starting in the west, there’s the crisp, dry Muscadet from near the Atlantic coast – generally much improved, if you haven’t tried a bottle recently.  Then, upstream, the Chenin Blanc grape takes over in the districts around Vouvray and Saumur making wines that can be sparkling, dry, off-dry or, in the Layon, just to the south, some of the best value and most attractive sweet wines in the whole of France.  Continuing your journey east through Touraine, you then move into Sauvignon Blanc country with, amongst others, the steely, minerally Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.

But not all Loire wines are white.  There’s some Pinot Noir grown in Sancerre for reds and (fairly pricy!) rosés and there are also some rosés from Anjou, although the quality there can be quite variable.  But it’s the surprisingly little-known reds from the area around Saumur that I really want to mention: names such as Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon.  All made with 100% Cabernet Franc grapes and all benefitting greatly from the global warming we’ve seen over the last couple of decades helping this underrated variety to reach full ripeness.

It’s difficult to choose just one wine from this group but I’ve picked an absolute bargain – Domaine de la Noblaie’s ‘Le Temps des Cerises’ Chinon (Wine Society, £11.50).  The name translates to ‘cherry time’ – completely appropriate for this fresh, medium-bodied red, full of bright cherry and raspberry flavours and with a long vibrant finish.  Very drinkable, even on its own, but perfect teamed with some grilled lamb chops, so long as you leave the mint sauce in the cupboard – please!  And, on a warm evening, we gave it a half hour in the fridge before opening it which worked fine.

So, whether you choose Chinon or one of the other local Appellations I’ve mentioned above, you’ll find some excellent producers and some delightful, moreish drinking.

France’s Hidden Corners

I’m returning to the topic I blogged about a couple of weeks ago: the interesting and different tastes you can find by exploring wine regions and grapes other than those you are familiar with.  Wines from lesser-known areas and rare native varieties can often result in unusual and distinctive flavours; you may not like them all but, just sometimes, you’ll find a new favourite.  That, for me, is what exploring is all about.

I concentrated then on wines from outside France as most wine lovers will be reasonably familiar with the diverse choices found in that most widely-available of all wine growing countries.  But, if you look carefully, even France has some fascinating and unique grapes tucked away in hidden corners.  One of my favourites is Petit Manseng, grown in the Jurançon region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  It comes in dry or glorious sweet versions and, if you’ve never tasted one, I can highly recommend either.  Then there’s ‘Vin Jaune’, made in a sherry style from the local Savagnin grape (not to be confused with Sauvignon) in the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border.

Or why not a juicy, herby, black-fruited unoaked red from the Gaillac region which straddles the River Tarn, north of Toulouse?  Chateau Vignals’ L’Herbe Folle is a blend of 2 local varieties – Braucol and Duras – with small additions of much more familiar Syrah and Merlot.  It’s a lovely soft, mellow red which would team perfectly with some pan-fried duck breasts or with a tasty hard cheese.  Gaillac wines are not widely stocked beyond the region of production but this one is available on-line from Joie de Vin, www.joiedevin.co.uk, for a very reasonable £14.50.

So, however tempting it is to buy the same bottle you know you like again, occasionally take a chance and look at what else is on the shelf.  You might be pleased you did.

An Alternative Fizz

If you’re looking for a bottle of sparkling wine but don’t want to pay Champagne prices, there are plenty of options.  Prosecco has had a fantastic rise in popularity over the past few years and so is probably the first name that springs to mind.  But its popularity has also been its downfall and, though generally very pleasant, easy drinking, I can’t recall the last bottle of Prosecco that made me say ‘Wow!’  Much the same fate befell Cava a few years earlier and I’ve tended to avoid that too, although I have read some more favourable reviews recently and it might be time to revisit some of the more individualistic examples.

One group of alternatives that seem to have been almost ignored, however, are the Crémants.  These are a range of wines, made in several different regions of France – Loire, Alsace and Burgundy being the most common – using the same method as Champagne (with a 2nd fermentation in the bottle), but usually with different, often local, grape varieties.  They are generally dry and the best have some ageing to give a hint of the ‘leesy’ character of Champagne but at a fraction of the price.

I opened a bottle of Crémant d’Alsace recently (Lidl, £8.99 – you may still find a bottle in your local branch but their website shows that this is sold out).  Although not over-complex – what do you expect for that money? – it was clean, fresh and pleasantly citrussy with lots of small, persistent bubbles.  Made from a typical Alsace blend of Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, this is ideal for a summer picnic or celebration.  Make sure you chill it well in advance.

So, next time you’re in the market for a bottle of good, enjoyable fizz at a very fair price, think beyond Prosecco or Cava and reach for a Crémant – be it from Alsace, the Loire, or just about anywhere in France – apart from Champagne, of course.

My Favourite Lesson

I used to hate History and Geography lessons when I was at school; I could see no point in learning about things that had happened long ago or in places I was never likely to visit.  Of course, as the years passed, I’ve realised how wrong I was and how much history and geography influence so many aspects of the world we live in.

Take wine for example. 

I opened a bottle of Gérard Bertrand’s Saint-Chinian recently (Grape & Grind, £14.25) and my attention was drawn to the date 1877 on the label.  Clearly that wasn’t the vintage but, turning the bottle round, I found the explanation: 1877 was the year that the first railway line opened linking that part of the south of France with Paris.  Suddenly, the market for the local growers expanded enormously although the boom was short-lived as the deadly phylloxera bug was already wreaking havoc among the region’s wines.

Recovery was slow and erratic and it’s only in the last 30 years or so that the wines of the Languedoc (of which Saint-Chinian is part) have moved from being simple cheap quaffers to something more interesting, like Bertrand’s example.  Made from a blend of 2 high quality grapes, Syrah and Mourvedre, both of which thrive in the hot, sunny conditions of the south of France, this is, undoubtedly, a big wine – the label says 15% – but it’s so well balanced that you would never realise how alcoholic it was.  Lovely flavours of blackberries, herbs and a hint of chocolate together with some smokiness from part barrel-ageing make this an attractive rounded wine to drink.  It would pair particularly well with a robust casserole or grilled or roast meat and benefits from decanting to soften the tannins.

If only history and geography had been explained this way while I was at school!

A Happy Return

It’s been a long time – more than 2 years in fact – since I was last able to blog about the Bristol Tasting Circle, a local group of wine enthusiasts and professionals who, until Covid intervened, met monthly, inviting winemakers or independent wine merchants to talk to us and share their wines. 

Happily, we have recently been able to revive the format and our first guests were Tim and Jill North of Hampshire-based Joie de Vin who brought along a selection of interesting bottles from the south of France for us to taste.  Joie de Vin (www.joiedevin.co.uk) focus solely on French wines and seek out artisan growers who make their own wine in small quantities.  All their producers work sustainably, many are organic, some biodynamic and their passion for their products shines through. 

Everyone present had their own favourites but I must mention Domaine Laurens who have a great way with naming: one of their reds translates as ‘like a Sunday under a cherry tree’!

It’s hard to choose just one or two from the bottles we tasted, but a white and a red from the same producer, stood out for me.  Domaine La Toupie is based close to the village of Maury in the foothills of the Pyrennees and uses Macabeu, better known in Spain than France (Viura, the grape of white Rioja, is the same variety), to make a delicious, mouth-filling, tangy, peachy food-friendly white (‘Solo’, £14.95).

La Toupie’s red, Quatuor, (£17.50) is a blend of 4 varieties well-known in this area: Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvedre.  A soft, chunky wine (15% alcohol, but well-balanced, so there’s no alcoholic ‘burn’) with great complexity and flavours of ripe black fruit, cassis and lovely cinnamon spice from the subtle oak ageing.  The 2017 that we tasted, although delicious now, would certainly benefit from a couple more years in bottle.

It’s difficult to convey how good it was to get back to the Tasting Circle after all this time and the wines from Joie de Vin and Tim’s presentation made us all realise just how much we had missed.

Not So Traditional

When I see a wine with the word ‘Tradition’ in its name, I get an immediate sense of the taste I expect when I open the bottle.  And that’s particularly true when the label is as classic and restrained as that pictured above.  Depending on where the wine is from, I’m thinking of an old-fashioned style of claret or Burgundy or, perhaps, a Rhône. 

Domaine Richeaume’s Tradition (Wine Society, £16.50) is none of those.  It comes from Provence, in the south of France, North-East of Marseille, an area best known for rosés and simple, everyday drinking reds.  But it’s neither of those either!  In fact, it’s so far from the traditions of the area that it can’t claim any of the local ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ designations, being sold, simply, as an IGP Méditerranée (part of the category formerly known as ‘Vin de Pays d’Oc’).

But it’s far from a simple wine; it’s a delicious, full-bodied (14% alcohol), rich, spicy red packed with lots of juicy black berry and attractive dried fruit flavours, hints of leather and a long savoury finish.  A lovely food-friendly wine just crying out for a good rare steak.

So, why do the producers call it ‘Tradition’ when, as I’ve suggested, it’s nothing of the sort?  My guess is that they’re trying to get over the fact that everything is done carefully by hand, the grapes are harvested at very low yields to maintain intensity of flavour and quality and that the Estate is fully organic (which all vineyards would once have been before the introduction of artificial fertilisers).

On the other hand, they’ve ignored 2 of the most important traditional local grape varieties – Carignan and Cinsault – and the only ‘native’ grape that appears in the blend is Grenache (and that comprises only 15%). Instead, we have Syrah as the key component (widely planted in the south of France now but originally from the Northern Rhône) mixed with more recent arrivals from Bordeaux in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the definitely untraditional (to this area) Tempranillo – a grape from over the border in Spain’s Rioja region. 

Clearly, I didn’t get the wine I was expecting from a quick look at the label, but I did get something delicious and at a ‘buy again’ price.

Expanding Horizons

In this blog, I’m going to continue with my theme from last time: how do you choose which wine to buy?  One method I’ve found works well is to buy a different wine from a producer whose wines you’ve enjoyed in the past.  Winemakers often have their own preferences which are reflected in the wines they make so, if you’ve enjoyed, for example, a Cabernet Sauvignon from a certain producer, try their Merlot if you see it on the shelf.  That way, you can expand your horizons without taking too many risks.

It’s a plan that I used when I was in Majestic Wine recently.  We’ve long been fans of Domaine Begude’s ‘Etoile’ Chardonnay (£13.99), a subtle, gently oaked, creamy white from Limoux, just south of Carcassonne at the western edge of France’s Languedoc region.  It’s a great value alternative if you like Pouilly-Fuissé!  So, when I saw the same estate’s ‘Le Paradis’ Viognier (£15.99), it was an obvious choice.

The Viognier, as you might expect, is a little more aromatic than the Chardonnay with delightful aromas and flavours of peach, ripe pear and melon and a restrained savoury finish.  The label tells me that the wine spent time in oak barrels but they seem only to have been used to round out the palate, there is no overt oakiness to taste.  We enjoyed it with some red mullet cooked in a rich tomato sauce and the two blended perfectly.

Limoux is not a particularly well-known or fashionable area but Domaine Begude is beautifully situated some 300m (1000ft) above sea level giving that ideal balance of hot sunny days for ripening the grapes and cooler nights to retain vital acidity.  It’s owned by an English couple, who bought it back in 2003 and now run it on entirely organic lines using no pesticides and only natural manures and fertilisers.

The results are clear to see (and to taste) whether you choose the Chardonnay, the Viognier or one of their other varietal wines that – subtle hint – hopefully, Majestic will stock at some future date.