Tag Archives: France

A Spicy Choice

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Kedgeree was first introduced to the UK from India in Victorian times by those returning from that country after military or diplomatic service.  Then, it was mainly eaten as a breakfast dish in some of our large country houses.  Today, it is more likely to be seen as a lunch or light supper dish – and that’s when my wife and I enjoy it.  But how do you find a wine to pair with a mixture of smoked haddock, pungent spices like cumin and coriander, the sweetness of sultanas and that simple ingredient that is so often described as a ‘wine killer’: eggs?

Let’s start with the basics.  Although I’m not one for sticking rigidly to the ‘white with fish or poultry, red with red meat’ idea, in this case, the tannins of most red wines are likely to make the spices taste much hotter (and so, out of proportion with the rest of the dish) and I can’t see a rosé – even the most assertive example – standing up to all those strong and powerful flavours.  

So, we’re thinking white wine.  But what sort?  You might have heard ‘oaked with smoked’ and I certainly wouldn’t put you off a nice oaked Chardonnay as a match for the smoked fish, but the sweetness and spices gave me another idea: Gewurztraminer.  The word ‘gewurz’ means ‘spicy’ in German and wines made from this variety often have a slightly spicy edge to them.  It’s a grape that is native to both Germany and France’s Alsace region, although it’s now grown more widely – I’ve tasted some lovely bottles from New Zealand, for example.

Turckheim GewurzBut we had one from the excellent co-operative in the Alsace village of Turckheim on our shelf (Corks of Cotham, £12.99) and the cool, aromatic, slightly off-dry taste went fairly well.  But, as anyone who cooks will know, even if you follow a recipe, dishes don’t turn out tasting exactly the same every time.  Perhaps I was too conservative when adding the spices as this Kedgeree wasn’t nearly as flavoursome as I expected.  As it was, the oaked Chardonnay might have worked better – or an Alsace Pinot Gris or even a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. 

Next time I’ll make sure I taste the food before choosing the wine!

 

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The ‘Other’ Cabernet

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There are 2 wine grapes with ‘Cabernet’ in their name: Cabernet Sauvignon is, by far, the better known, but, without the other Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, one of our favourite red wine grapes would never have existed.  It appears that a spontaneous cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc took place in a vineyard of mixed plantings many years ago and the rest, as they say, is history.

But ‘daddy’ Franc is still around and, in my opinion, can produce some very attractive, very drinkable wines, both as a varietal (a wine made from just one type of grape) and in blends.  The latter are most common in Bordeaux (with Merlot or the ‘other’ Cabernet as partners), while varietal examples can be found as far afield as north-eastern Italy, Hungary, Chile and California.  But the main source of single-variety Cabernet Franc is in the Anjou-Saumur section of France’s Loire Valley, although, in typical French style, the grape name rarely appears on the main label.

Instead, you need to look out for such Appellations Contrôlées as Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, St Nicolas de Bourgueil or Bourgueil.  All will be 100% Cabernet Franc and all, at their best, can produce delicious examples of the grape, especially in warmer years.  I wouldn’t claim to be able to distinguish between a wine from one of these Appellations and another – indeed, due to the influence of different winemaker’s styles, there is often more variety within an Appellation than between one and another.

BourgueilBut a Bourgueil we opened recently was delicious.  Lamé Delisle Boucard’s Cuvée Déchainée (a real bargain from Majestic at £10.99) is smooth with lovely black berry fruit flavours and an almost floral nose.  Quite light-bodied and with soft tannins, this is really food-friendly; try it with chicken or, even, perhaps a robust fish, like tuna.

Which goes to show that, despite all the attractions of Cabernet Sauvignon, it would be a mistake to ignore the ‘other’ Cabernet.

Look for the Gravel

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Gravel

Wines from the Graves area in the south of Bordeaux will be well-known to many wine lovers.  The area takes its name from the French word for gravel, which describes the soil conditions there – conditions that are shared with many of the most prestigious parts of Bordeaux’s Haut-Medoc (see picture above, thanks to Wine and Spirit Education Trust). 

So, why is the gravel so important?  Two reasons: firstly, it ensures that the ground is well-drained so that, although the vines can get enough water to help them grow (assuming it rains at the right time), their roots aren’t sitting in water which might rot them.  And secondly – and this is particularly important in wine regions with marginal climates such as Bordeaux – each tiny piece of gravel acts as a mini storage heater, absorbing the heat of the sun during the day and radiating it out at night.  This means that the vineyard retains heat – and the grapes continue to ripen – even after the sun has gone down.

But Graves isn’t the world’s only wine region where gravel plays its part: the same thing happens in the area known as the Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay.  This was an area created less than 150 years ago when a devastating flood caused the River Ngaruroro to change its course and left the deep gravel of the former river bed exposed.  Despite the parallels with Bordeaux (including the relatively cool climate), it took more than 100 years before the vine growing potential of the area was recognised.  But, since 1990, the Gimblett Gravels have been an important source of – mainly red – wines.  And, not surprisingly, the majority of the grapes planted there are Bordeaux varieties.

Craggy RangeWe opened an exceptional example recently: Craggy Range’s Te Kahu (Majestic, £15.99) is mainly Merlot with some Malbec (yes, that is a Bordeaux variety, even though Argentina is now claiming it as its own!), Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Franc also in the blend.  Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely black fruits and just a subtle hint of spice, this is really delicious and a real bargain compared to many Bordeaux reds of this quality.

So, next time you’re in a vineyard, whether in Bordeaux, New Zealand or somewhere else, look down and, if there’s gravel beneath your feet, it is likely that the wine will be something special.

 

Jurançon: Sweet or Dry

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Many years ago, in my early days of studying wine (rather than just drinking it), one of the bottles our tutor brought in for us to taste was a delightful sweet wine that none of us had ever heard of before.  It was called Jurançon and it resulted in an immediate ‘Wow!’ from the whole class.  I’ve been buying it ever since – when I can find it, that is, because production is not large and much of it is drunk locally, which, in this case, is in the far south-west corner of France in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

I couldn’t recommend one producer over another – they all have their own slightly different styles – but I haven’t had a bad bottle yet, so, if you enjoy dessert wine and see Jurançon, then I’d suggest you give it a try.

As I got to know these wines better, I realised that, apart from the lovely sweet bottles, there was also a dry equivalent: Jurançon Sec – if it doesn’t have ‘sec’ on the label it will be sweet.  Both are made from a blend of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng, with some Courbu and Camaralet added to some of the dry versions.  All are local grape varieties; none, as far as I know, is grown outside the region, so those in search of membership of the ‘100 Club’ should take note!

Jurancon SecAs with the sweet versions, Jurançon Sec from most producers is worth buying although we particularly enjoyed Domaine Montesquiou’s Cuvade Préciouse (Vine Trail, £13) recently.  Its tangy flavours of citrus and herbs and just a hint of spicy smokiness from the gentle oak ageing reminded me of a nice white Burgundy – there were certainly shades of the same flavours in an Auxey-Duresses we had in a restaurant a few days later; the only difference: excluding the inevitable restaurant mark-up, the Jurançon would be about half the price!

Breaking the Rules

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When buying a bottle of French wine, the first thing many of us look for are the words ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ (AC) on the label.  And with good reason.  The AC tells us which part of France the wine comes from and, frequently, what sort of wine to expect when the bottle is opened.  However, contrary to the commonly held view, it doesn’t guarantee quality – only that the wine is typical of the AC claimed. 

But, perhaps surprisingly, less than half of all French wine falls into the AC category.  Another quarter is classified Indication Géographique Protegée (IGP), the new name for Vin de Pays (Country wines) – a source of many attractive, well-priced, easy-drinking bottles.  Of the rest, some is distilled into brandies (or industrial alcohol!) leaving just 10% in the category which used to be known as Vin de Table (Table wine), which, since 2010, has been renamed Vin de France.

Under the Vins de Table label, you used to find nothing but the cheapest, most basic wines and discerning wine lovers sensibly avoided them.   But, it seems, it’s not just the name that has changed with Vin de France.  Looking through the catalogue of the highly respected Bristol-based wine merchant, Vine Trail, you’ll find a number of Vins de France – and at some lofty prices.  So, what is going on? 

There’s a small band of dedicated independent-minded producers who don’t choose to play by the rules.  They are making high quality wines but prefer to experiment with styles that are rejected for the AC as they aren’t recognised as ‘typical’ by the vetting panel.  But, these people are confident in their own ability and are happy that their wines are sold as Vins de France instead.

We opened one recently:

Balmet 1Jerome Balmet has his vineyard in Beaujolais and grows Gamay, the Beaujolais grape.  But his wine is nothing like any Beaujolais I’ve ever tasted.  Initially full of vibrant bitter cherry flavours, it develops fig and prune flavours in the glass and, by the end of the evening, had taken on a savoury, meaty character.  Really distinctive and very enjoyable (Vine Trail, £16.36). 

And, although you still need to treat some bottles in the Vin de France category with caution, wines such as this are a great recommendation and a fascinating way to try something different.

Wine with Asparagus?

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Asparagus is often thought to be a difficult food to pair with wine, but it doesn’t need to be – especially if you look out for the more delicate English variety that is in its (sadly very brief) season at the moment.  Certainly, you need to choose your wine with some care but many crisp, dry whites work quite well: Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Alsace Pinot Gris and Austrian Grüner Veltliner all spring to mind – or, how about an English wine, perhaps a Bacchus, to go with English asparagus?  On the other hand, I’ve yet to find a red that will pair happily – not even a Beaujolais or Valpolicella, two reds that often work where you’d normally consider a white.

But my wife, Hilary, was thinking along a different track; looking at the meal we were cooking – a typical warm summer evening ‘special’ of Salmon Steaks with a herb crust and creamy mushroom sauce, Jersey Royal potatoes and the previously mentioned asparagus – she lifted a rosé off the wine rack: Château Sainte Anne from Bandol in the Provence region of the south of France (Vine Trail, £20).

Bandol rose

Bandol is best known for robust, long-lived reds made from a mix of grapes, typically Mourvedre with Grenache and Cinsault in support.  This rosé uses the same combination but the shorter skin contact needed for a rosé produced a fresher, lighter wine, ideally suited to this time of year, yet still sharing the herby, spicy flavours of the red.  My wife was right – it paired perfectly with the meal (including the asparagus), as well as making delicious drinking on its own later in the evening.

So, next time you’re faced with a supposedly ‘difficult’ ingredient, do experiment.  You may find a surprisingly good match where you least expect to.

2 Sides of Alsace

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Alsace is a region that looks two ways.  When you visit, the architecture, the food, the local dialect and many of the place names all suggest you are in Germany, which lies just a few miles to the east across the River Rhine.  This view is supported by two of the most widely planted grape varieties there being Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  But despite times under German rule in the past, today Alsace is firmly in France – although many of the locals would probably say that they’re from Alsace first and France second. 

The climate, too, is not quite what you’d expect: lying around 48˚N (similar to Champagne and more northerly than Chablis), and with Riesling and Gewurztraminer thriving, you’d be thinking it would be decidedly cool.  Yet, thanks to the shelter of the Vosges Mountains to the west, Alsace is often one of the sunniest and driest regions in the whole of France, allowing more warmth-loving varieties such as Muscat, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to ripen, if planted in the right spots.

And Domaine Paul Blanck has certainly found those, with vineyards ideally situated around the village of Kientzheim, just north of Colmar. 

Alsace P NoirHis Pinot Noir (Waitrose, £14.99) is especially recommended.  It’s a grape variety that can be very fussy – thin and tart if under-ripe, jammy if over-ripe – but Blanck has got it just right: quite restrained on the nose but with lovely ripe raspberry and cranberry flavours on the palate leading into a long fresh finish.  The only sign that this comes from a relatively cool site is the modest (12.5%) alcohol, but, for me, that, too is a plus giving the wine elegance and style and making it really food-friendly: duck or turkey certainly, but the lowish tannin would also point to pairing it with some robust fish dish, say a tuna steak.

Although Pinot Noir is most famously grown in Burgundy, it’s also found (as Spätburgunder) in parts of Germany and this example from Alsace is, for me, closer to that country’s style.  One more sign, perhaps, of this region looking two ways.