Tag Archives: France

Best of the Rest

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In 1855, around 60 of the leading estates in the Médoc and Graves areas of Bordeaux joined together to form an exclusive club. Known variously as the Classed Growths, the Crus Classés or simply the 1855 Classification, these 60 were then sub-divided into 5 categories called 1st to 5th Growths in English, Premiers to Cinquièmes Crus in French.

That Classification has remained largely undisturbed in the 160 years since. Surprising? Perhaps. Yet, being at the top of this pinnacle has given the 4 original 1st Growth estates (joined by a 5th member in 1974) enormous pricing power and, as a result, the ability to re-invest massively to ensure the continuing predominance of their wines. Even those at the lower end of this select group – the 4th or 5th Growths – are, in the main, highly sought-after and you can often pay £50 and more for a ready-to-drink bottle from one of their better vintages.

But, look outside this elite classification and you can find attractive wines, typical of the Bordeaux region, at much more affordable prices. I often point my students to a group of these that I describe as ‘the best of the rest’. They’re known as the Crus Bourgeois.

One of the most recognised of these is Château Cissac. (Around £20 a bottle for the excellent 2010 vintage from specialist wine merchants).

Cissac (2)

Cissac is well placed right in the heart of the Haut-Médoc, close to the boundaries of the St Estèphe and Paulliac Appellations. Its wines, mainly made from Cabernet Sauvignon blended with some Merlot and a small addition of Petit Verdot, are quite aromatic but fairly restrained and need time to reach their peak – even the 2010 I opened recently was still showing some tannin.

Although, no doubt, without the length and complexity of some of the top Classified estates (speaking from reports rather than recent personal experience!), wines such as this provide pleasant, satisfying drinking and are recommended for those who enjoy the more traditional style of wine found in Bordeaux.

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Look South for Value

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S France tasting 1More than a quarter of all French wine comes from the south: the regions of Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence. It’s not surprising given the Mediterranean coast’s ideal climate for ripening grapes. But it’s only in last 30 years or so that the potential for quality wines from this climate has been realised. For much of 20th century, the emphasis here was on cheap, bulk wines and, as a result, most wine lovers rightly ignored this part of the world completely.

How things have changed! Today, all three regions are making really attractive wines. Yes, you still need to be selective (as you do almost anywhere) but, if you are, your chances of finding something delicious are high – and you won’t have to pay a fortune for it as those who came to a tasting I ran on the subject recently discovered.

I concentrated mostly on wines made from grape varieties that are native to the region – none more so than Picpoul, a fresh, crisp white grown almost exclusively around the beautiful Etang de Thau. Villemarin make a delightful example (only £7.99 from Majestic, where you can find all the wines mentioned in this blog).

Further along the coast, Provence is one of the few wine making regions of the world to concentrate on the production of rosé – it represents more than 80% of the output. Sadly, some of their best examples sell for silly prices and many of the cheaper ones are aimed solely at undemanding tourists. But I found a notable exception in the elegant, dry Vallée des Pins (£8.99), a blend of Grenache and Syrah with lovely strawberry fruit.

Despite the focus of Provence, the south of France is still essentially red wine country and, of the 2 we tasted, preferences were divided between the Fleurs de la Vigne, a young, berry-fruited Carignan-dominated blend from the Fitou area (£8.99) and the slightly more robust, chewy Grenache/ Syrah from Château Guiot in the Costières de Nîmes closer to the Rhône (£7.99).

Everyone had their own favourites on the night but all agreed that this is an area whose wines are worth exploring – particularly as so many are remarkable value for money.

Jones the Winemaker

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In Wales, the surname ‘Jones’ is very widespread. Add in the fact that successive generations of a family often share the same first or given name, distinguishing between one Jones and another can become a little difficult. As a result, the habit arose to refer to people by their job; so, you get ‘Jones the Teacher’, ‘Jones the Butcher’ or ‘Jones the Farmer’. But, I suspect, rarely ‘Jones the Winemaker’ (although Wales has always had a few vineyards – a number that has expanded rapidly in the last few years).

But, there is a ‘Jones the Winemaker’, albeit in the south of France, rather than in Wales. After emigrating from the UK and working there for a few years, Katie Jones bought a vineyard in the Languedoc and began to make her own wine. She now has around 12 hectares (30 acres) spread across a number of small sites in the hillier, inland part of the Fitou Appellation. Following the classic recipe for making great wines, she has focussed on patches of low yielding old vines planted on very poor rocky soils.

As a result, life hasn’t been easy, particularly in 2013 when Katie lost her entire white wine production after some vandals opened the taps on her tanks, but, happily, she has fought back and her wines reflect her dedication.

Jones Fitou

Her Fitou (Wine Society, £15.50) is typical; a rich, savoury blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah – some from vines over 100 years old – giving a lovely spicy mouthful of hedgerow fruits, liquorice and leather. The label says 14.5% alcohol, and, although a big wine, this is beautifully balanced. Definitely needing food to show at its best – something full and robust: venison or other game, perhaps, or a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish spring to mind.

Jones the Winemaker is definitely a name to follow.

A Stand-out Riesling

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The French wine region of Alsace shares a border and considerable historic links with Germany and so, perhaps not surprisingly, you’ll find many of the same grape varieties in both places. The Pinot family – Noir, Gris and Blanc – are found in both, although in Germany are known as Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder respectively; (I think the French names are a little easier to pronounce!) Gewurztraminer also appears on both sides, but, most importantly of all, so does Riesling.

Almost half the world’s plantings of Riesling are in Germany and they proudly declare that most of their best wines are made with that variety. In Alsace, too, Riesling is considered their most noble grape, but the styles of wine each country produces from the variety are totally different from each other.

Apart from the delicious wines both make to be enjoyed specifically as dessert wines, German producers tend towards an off-dry style. Here, a little sweetness balances Riesling’s high acidity and that is normally combined with exceptionally low levels of alcohol (8 or 9% typically). More recently, some in Germany are beginning to follow the demands of the market and making more dry or almost dry examples (often labelled ‘trocken’) but this still remains the minority. Alsace, on the other hand, has always preferred to ferment its wines out completely dry giving a much richer taste and with higher levels of alcohol.

Alsace RieslingA bottle from Alsace I opened recently showed this perfectly: Domaine Leon Boesch’s Grandes Lignes Riesling (Vine Trail, £13.99) was beautifully fresh and clean and with surprising weight for only 12% alcohol. It had real intensity and the typical young Riesling aromas and flavours of grapefruit and lemon peel. The acidity was there, of course but not intrusive; in fact, it was just enough to make it food-friendly, although it’s a wine you could equally well drink on its own.

The Boesch estate is certified biodynamic which can, most simply, be described as an ultra-organic philosophy with everything in the vineyard being carried out completely in harmony with nature. Some question the science of the idea and I won’t comment on that. All I will say is that this, along with many other biodynamic wines I have tasted, have an intensity and a richness that makes them stand out from the crowd.

A Bargain Burgundy

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It’s easy to spend a lot of money on a really good white Burgundy.  Yet, Burgundy is, surely, the most complicated of all of France’s Appellations Contrôlées (ACs) and, as a result, it’s just as easy to make an expensive mistake.  But, this same complexity allows you, just occasionally, to find a bargain – or as close to a bargain as is possible among the wines of this famous, much sought-after region.

A bottle I opened recently falls into this category.

Oncle Vincent

A quick glance at the label, showing the lowest level of the Burgundy hierarchy (AC Bourgogne), suggests it might be a simple everyday drinking wine, the kind you find in every supermarket for around £10 – £12.  But, look further: Olivier Leflaive is a well-respected name and the ‘Oncle Vincent’ tag looks like a special bottling, as indeed it is.  A tribute to Leflaive’s uncle and mentor, the grapes for this are from vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet, one of the most sought-after villages in the Côte de Beaune, where the top wines frequently sell for £50 a bottle and upwards. 

This example has lovely flavours of white fruits – peach and pear – made deliciously tangy and spicy from 10 months in barrels and has great length.  It’s really one of the nicest wines I’ve tasted all year.  This was the 2014 vintage I bought from the Wine Society a few years back, but they now have the 2016 vintage in their list at £20 and, if it’s as good (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be), then it certainly is a bargain, even at that price.  I’d keep it a couple of years before opening it, though.

So, why label a wine as a simple generic Burgundy when the fruit comes from a top village?  The explanation lies in the complexity of the Burgundy ACs I mentioned earlier.  Different vineyards have different classifications – one may be Grand Cru or Premier Cru while its neighbour may just be village AC.  Clearly, Leflaive has some less favoured patches, or perhaps younger vines or even grapes not needed for more expensive wines.  Whichever is the truth, Oncle Vincent is certainly a wine that Burgundy lovers looking for value should seek out.

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!

 

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.