Beyond the Familiar

When buying wine, particularly white wine, I find myself increasingly looking away from France.  It’s not that I don’t like French wines – I do – but there are just so many interesting and different grape varieties to explore.  And the more widely I look, the more exciting and attractive flavours I find. 

Take Italy for a start.  I’ve been a big fan of their whites for many years.  If you’ve not tried Greco, Fiano, Verdicchio or Vermentino, then do; you’ve got some delightful surprises awaiting you.  Then there’s the lovely whites from Albariño and Loureiro grown in Galicia in north-west Spain.  And don’t forget Austria’s Grűner Veltliner – I blogged about that a few weeks ago.

You may be familiar with all of those, but the 2 bottles pictured above feature varieties that fewer will recognise.  Firstly, Malagouzia.  That’s native to Greece and Giannikos Winery’s example from the Peloponnese region is a fragrant delight.  Tangy and fresh with lovely peach and apricot flavours, this would be perfect on its own or with fish, delicately cooked chicken dishes or light summer salads.  Local independent wine merchant Grape and Grind have it for £15.99 and it’s worth every penny.

With Fitapreta’s Ancestral from Portugal’s Alentejo region (Corks, £16.50) you get – not one obscure grape variety, but a blend of 6 including 2 – Tamarez and Alicante Branco – that the winemaker says have been rescued from near extinction.  I’ve not heard of either, so I won’t argue.  On pouring, the wine is almost gold in colour, so much so, that I wondered at first if it was oxidised.  But no, it was in perfect condition, rich, tangy, honeyed and savoury with real body to it; a friend who shared it with us thought that, tasting it blind, he would have said it was a red wine.  I know what he means; it’s likely that there was some skin-contact involved in the winemaking.  Not your standard easy-quaffing white, but a really enjoyable and deeply flavoured glass suited to more robustly flavoured poultry or, perhaps, young game birds.

2 very different bottles but each showing the benefits of looking beyond the familiar. 

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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 Wine from our Twin

My adopted home city, Bristol, and the 2nd largest city in Portugal, Oporto, have been trading partners for more than 2 centuries, particularly in wine and port.  Some 70 years ago, this partnership was cemented by Bristol and Porto (as the locals know it) formally becoming twin cities and, until the outbreak of Covid, a thriving Twinning Association existed, arranging events and exchange visits.  Sadly, official restrictions and subsequent caution stopped all that until last week, when we were able to meet once again for a Quiz night at a local pub (although one that didn’t sell any Portuguese wine!)

Amazingly, the team my wife and I were part of managed (somehow) to win and our prize was – of course – bottles of Portuguese wine.  We decided to defer opening them until we could all meet up again, but thoughts of Portugal meant that I chose a Douro red that I had bought previously to enjoy with our dinner the next day.

It was a complete coincidence that the name of the wine I selected was Beira Douro (Grape and Grind, £14.50), as Beira (a city in Mozambique) is also twinned with Bristol although, as far as I know, that Beira has no connection to the wine.  A deeply coloured blend of 2 Portuguese grapes, Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, packed with lovely raspberry and crunchy redcurrant flavours with a long dry finish.  Even though our bottle was already over 5 years old, there was still noticeable tannin in the wine, but decanting and teaming it with a juicy venison steak softened that and made it a really harmonious and delicious mouthful.

Twinning is a great way to explore other cultures and traditions and, when it can be celebrated with some wine from a twinned city, so much the better.

Franc in Mendoza

Think of Argentinian wine and it’s likely that one grape will spring immediately to mind: Malbec.  And with good reason; it has become that country’s ‘signature’ variety and its rich, dark, savoury flavours are a perfect foil for the local beef-dominated cuisine.  

Yet, although Malbec is the most widely planted wine grape in Argentina, it accounts for only one sixth of the total vineyard area.  Other red varieties such as Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah occupy significant chunks of the land as do less well-known but more traditional grapes such as Criolla Grande and Cereza (both pink-skinned) and whites such as Pedro Giminez (not to be confused with Spain’s Pedro Ximinez) and Torrontes.

But there’s one variety that, while it barely registers there at the moment, may have more potential to thrive in Argentina than any of those: Cabernet Franc.  Native to France, it can often struggle to ripen fully in Bordeaux producing ‘green’, herbaceous flavours in the wine as a result, while in the Loire, it has definitely performed better as the climate has warmed in the last decade or so, giving some delicious Chinons and Saumur-Champignys. 

So, it seems that warmth and sunlight are important to getting the best out of Cabernet Franc, and it should get plenty of both in the thin, unpolluted air at altitude in Argentina’s Mendoza region. 

Monteagrelo’s Bressia Cabernet Franc (Grape and Grind, £14.99) is a good example of the results we can expect.  Clearly no issues with ripeness here as the wine comes out at 14.5% alcohol (although there was no sense of this level from the wine in the glass).  But you do find a lovely richness in the mouth and a mixture of attractive cooked plum and dried-fruit flavours, all rounded out by 12 months in barrel – almost certainly mainly older wood as there is no overt oakiness in the wine.

Next time you’re buying wine from Argentina, look beyond Malbec (however tasty some of those wines are) and seek out a Cabernet Franc instead.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

A Green Wine

The word ‘green’ has many meanings.  It’s a colour, of course, and, these days, is often used as a shortcut to describe environmental issues or, with a capital G, the political parties that are trying to advance those issues.

And, in Portugual, there’s a Green Wine (the English translation of Vinho Verde) but the meaning is different again; the green is used here in the sense of being young or immature.  Traditionally, Vinho Verde was consumed within a year of the harvest and so was always ‘green’ (with, in general, little character apart from mouth-tinglingly high acidity). 

Despite this, for almost a century, Vinho Verde has also been a DOC, the Portuguese equivalent of France’s Appellation Contrôlée, with designated geographic boundaries (roughly stretching from the Minho River in the north to just beyond the Douro in the south) and a list of allowable grape varieties, all native to the region of production.

Historically, most Vinho Verde was red and you will still find some like that if you visit the region.  But, today, overwhelmingly, Vinho Verde is white and the quality has improved enormously with many examples able to develop well in bottle for a year or 2 at least.  Look, especially, for wines made with Alvarinho (the local name for the currently very fashionable and attractive variety, Albariño, but, in Portugal, made in a rather leaner and crisper style than over the border in Spain), also Treixadura (sometimes spelt Trajadura) and Loureiro.

It was a bottle of the latter from producer Quinta de Gomariz that I opened recently (Grape and Grind, £14.50).  Rather fuller and richer than many Vinho Verdes despite still being only 11.5% alcohol, but retaining a typical floral character alongside a fresh, citrussy flavour and a delightful dry, honeyed finish.  A wine to enjoy on its own or to accompany many fish or chicken dishes.

And this particular Vinho Verde takes the ‘green’ theme even further – it is imported by Xisto Wines who, amazingly, bring all their stock over to the UK from Portugal in sailing boats, priding themselves in using no fossil fuels.  A Green Wine, indeed!

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.