Tag Archives: Great Western Wine

The Unloved Riesling

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Howard Park RieslingRiesling seems to be one of those ‘love it or hate it’ grape varieties.  I’m generally in the former category but I get the feeling from talking to other wine drinkers I meet that I’m in the minority there.  I know that everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them so, clearly, there will be some who just don’t like the sort of flavours Riesling offers.  But, more frequently, those that tell me they hate Riesling point to the semi-sweet bargain-basement Hocks and Liebfraumilchs you used to find in every supermarket as the reason for their view of the variety.  I have to be careful how I reply as I need to gently point out that those wines rarely contain any Riesling (they’re more likely to be made from Muller-Thurgau).   But, even ignoring that misunderstanding, there are so many different interpretations of Riesling worldwide, it’s hardly fair to say you either love them all or, indeed, hate them all.

In Germany alone you find delicate, dry or just off-dry examples (try something from the Mosel), slightly richer bottlings from further south (the Pfalz, perhaps) as well as the wonderful fine dessert wines with only 7 or 8% alcohol.  Across the Rhine, in Alsace, the dry Rieslings are more full-bodied, regularly with 13% alcohol, or there’s the lovely sweet late-harvest bottles.  All very different from each other but all with the distinct refreshing acidity that is so much Riesling’s hallmark.

But, travel to the cooler regions of the New World – Oregon, Washington State, parts of Australia and New Zealand – and you find a particular local take on the variety:  From Australia, especially, the acidity is often in the form of a lovely lime-flavoured freshness and a bottle we opened recently showed this to perfection: Howard Park’s Riesling from the lesser-known Mount Barker region of Western Australia (Great Western Wine, £12.50).  Here, influenced by cool winds and currents from the southern ocean, Riesling ripens just enough and the result is a delicious white, ideal as an aperitif or to accompany lighter dishes with, perhaps, a gentle Asian fragrance.  

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Piedmont: So Much Choice

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If you’re looking to taste an unusual grape variety or a wine from a lesser-known region, then a good place to start is Italy – it grows more different grape varieties than any other country and has countless local DOCs (the Italian equivalent of the French Appellation Contrôlée) – many of which are hardly seen beyond the local area.

Not everything different is good – sometimes there’s a reason why a wine is obscure – but a bottle I opened recently reminded me of the grape variety Arneis and why it really should be much better known. 

Langhe ArneisCristina Ascheri makes a particularly attractive example (Great Western Wine, £13.95): a lightly perfumed white wine, full bodied but not overpowering and with delicious ripe pear and peach flavours and a hint of almonds on the finish.  A pleasant glassful on its own but even better alongside some fish or pasta in a creamy sauce.

Perhaps one reason why Arneis is not so well known is that it is native to Piedmont, a region in north-west Italy with more than its fair share of high quality and famous wines.  Among the reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, both made with the local Nebbiolo grape, stand out, although the Barbera and Dolcetto varieties can also produce very attractive wines – often ready to drink much sooner and more easily approachable.  Among the local whites, I often wonder why Gavi is so much better known than Arneis – I’ve had as many disappointing examples as great ones.  And then there’s the local sparkling wines: sadly, Asti (formerly known as Asti Spumanti) rarely shines these days but the delicately sweet Moscato d’Asti, often with only 5 or 6% alcohol, can be a real delight accompanying a Panna Cotta or Zabaglione dessert.

I started by suggesting you look to Italy for interesting and different wines, but you might not even want to cast your net so wide when the single region, Piedmont, can offer so much choice.

 

Wine and Memories

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Wine is not just a very pleasant drink (provided you choose well!), it can also be a great way of bringing back memories of – hopefully – happy times.  That was certainly true when we opened a bottle of wine from the Central Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island recently.  Although it was more than 4 years since our trip there, we immediately started reminiscing about our stay and, in particular, our wine visits in the expert company of Lance from Queenstown Wine Trail. 

I can’t remember all the vineyards we visited during our stay but the quality of the estates we did drop in on was so high that we were convinced that this was an area whose wines were well worth seeking out.  And the wine that prompted this Blog -Peregrine’s delightful Pinot Gris (Great Western Wine, £19.50) – certainly did not disappoint. 

Peregrine PGPinot Gris is a grape variety that, under its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, can often be thin and uninteresting.  Not here!  The 14% alcohol makes it beautifully mouth-filling but without the accompanying ‘burn’ you can find with wines with this strength.  Peach and pear flavours come through joined by lovely sweet spices – cinnamon and ginger – and a crisp, clean finish with hints of citrus.  I found this to be a wine that offered something new every time I went back to it during our meal (Baked Brill with a Mushroom Sauce) and then over the course of the evening until, all too soon, the glass was empty.

My wife is often saying – and I agree – that, if only New Zealand was 3 or 4 hours flight away rather than 24, we’d go there more often – and not just to enjoy the wines.  But, as it is, we’ll just have to buy bottles like this Pinot Gris and dream instead.

 

A Red Called ‘Monty’

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“I had a really nice Italian red last week” a friend said to me recently; “it was called Monty-something”.  He looked expectantly as if he was hoping that I would immediately fill the gap.  A dozen ‘Monte’s’ sprang to mind; fortunately, my 3rd guess brought a smile of recognition: ‘yes, that was it – Montepulciano’.  But, there’s not one Montepulciano but two.  Because, like Chardonnay, Montepulciano is both the name of a grape variety and of a wine producing village.  That wouldn’t be a problem if, like Chardonnay (which is grown in the village of the same name in southern Burgundy), the village of Montepulciano (in Tuscany) actually grew the grape Montepulciano.  It doesn’t!  It grows Sangiovese, the Chianti grape.  To find the grape Montepulciano, you need to look further east where Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is the most common example.  Confused?  My friend was! 

I tried to describe the differences: Montepulciano, the grape, tends to be quite soft and fruity, often with flavours of plums or cherries and usually fairly easy drinking.   I frequently describe it as the perfect Spaghetti Bolognese wine.  On the other hand, Montepulciano, the village, produces 2 wines: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and its junior brother, Rosso di Montepulciano.  Vino Nobile (‘the noble wine’) is fashionable and so not cheap (think £25 plus).  It also tends to need a good few years before it is ready to drink but the cheaper Rosso is often a good buy, particularly from a reputable producer.   

I opened a bottle from Poliziano recently (Great Western Wines, £14.95). 

MontepulcianoIt had lovely flavours of dried fruits and cooked plums, black olives, chocolate and a certain smokiness.  At a little over 2 years old, it still had quite noticeable tannins but decanted and accompanying a meal, these softened nicely, although a couple of years extra ageing would be an advantage. 

But, back to the problem: is there a way to tell if a name is a grape or a place – or neither?  A tip that works for many Italian wines: look if there is a ‘d’ or ‘di’ or ‘della’ on the label.  It means ‘from’.  So, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is the noble wine from the named village whereas Montepulciano d’Abruzzo denotes the grape from the region of Abruzzo.  Simple! 

And, by the way, my friend still doesn’t know which Montepulciano he enjoyed!

 

An ‘Adult’ Wine

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“That was an adult wine” said my wife as we cleared the table after a leisurely meal.  I knew exactly what she meant – and it was nothing to do with the sort of movies to which the same adjective is often attached!  No, it was a wine (and this is going to sound very snobby, but it’s not meant to) for sophisticated palates; not one for easy quaffing with lots of up-front fruit, but one with real depth and intensity – although not at first taste.  Decanting helped, of course – I’d say it was essential – but even then, it took some time to open up and really show all it had to offer.

 

Mascota MalbecThe wine in question was Mascota Vineyards Gran Mascota Malbec (Great Western Wine, £14.50) from the Uco Valley, one of the most exciting parts of Argentina’s Mendoza region.  Here, vineyards are planted between 1000 and 1700 metres up in the foothills of the Andes Mountains (3300 to 5600 feet, if you prefer).  The altitude gives the wines a wonderful balance between ripeness and acidity and, in good hands, as, clearly, at Mascota – a new name to me – can produce something really special.  As the evening wore on, the wine revealed lovely flavours of blackberries and cooked plums with vanilla, cinnamon and smoke from the 18 months in French oak barrels.  All this came together beautifully with a long savoury finish.  It’s a wine to sit and enjoy, preferably with a tasty meal and some good company.

 

The Italians have a marvellous name for this sort of wine: they call it a Vino da Meditazione.  Literally translated, that’s a wine for meditation but, really, they mean a wine that encourages you to linger, to sit and chat and put the world to rights.  Or, as my wife said so succinctly, an adult wine.

Sicily Transformed

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Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, holds a key strategic position and so has attracted traders and invaders since ancient times.  Each of these has left their mark, not least where vines and winemaking are concerned.  But sadly, for much of the last century, the island’s focus was firmly on bulk wine and, in 2001, barely 2% of Sicily’s output was of DOC or IGT quality, the remainder just lowly Table Wine.  (Even now, this figure is only 15%).

Yet, change is definitely happening and some of the diverse range of grape varieties planted in former times are, at last getting the recognition they deserve.  To the west of the island, Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto, once used to produce the sweet, fortified Marsala are now turned into crisp, refreshing dry whites which, given Sicily’s latitude, surprisingly outnumber their reds. 

But, for me, it’s the reds that are the main attraction:  on the precarious volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, vineyards are planted at up to 3000 feet above sea level where they produce some delightful wines from the Nerello Mascalese variety with its intense herb and red berry flavours (Wine Society have a good example for £9.50).

Towards the south east coast, the island’s only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, can be found.  The most famous producer here, COS, has revived the ancient tradition of fermenting the wine in clay amphorae buried in the ground to make some interesting and distinctive wines.  Others, such as Planeta, use more modern techniques. 

Planeta redTheir example, a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola with 40% Frappato (£15.50 from Great Western Wines), undergoes a cool fermentation in large stainless steel tanks.  This preserves the lovely red fruit aromas of the grapes and gives attractive vibrant and fresh bitter cherries on the palate and a good long savoury finish. 

I know £15 isn’t cheap – even though I think it’s worth every penny – (and wines from COS are even dearer), but many Sicilian wines are real bargains, and will remain so until customers recognise the transformation in winemaking on the island in recent years.

The Judgement of Paris Revisited

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judgement-dinnerBack in May, Bristol Wine Blog remembered a famous event in the wine world that had occurred 40 years earlier, in 1976: the tasting that has come to be known as the ‘Judgement of Paris’.   A young Englishman, Steven Spurrier, living and working in Paris, invited a group of renowned French judges – restauranteurs, producers and wine writers – to compare (blind) a selection of top Californian wines – Chardonnays and Cabernets – with leading Burgundies and Bordeaux. The expectation was that the French wines would win easily.  Only it didn’t work out like that!

So, what would happen if a similar tasting took place today?  Great Western Wines in conjunction with Bath’s Allium Restaurant decided to find out.  They organised an anniversary dinner including recent vintages of the 2 winning wines, the most prestigious of the losers and, to make things interesting, a couple of other ‘mystery’ wines.  With the chance to taste such potential delights, my wife and I were quick to book tickets.

The dinner, good though it was, was always going to play second fiddle to the tastings which, mimicking the original event, comprised a group of  Chardonnays and another of Cabernet Sauvignons (or Cabernet dominated blends), all, of course, tasted blind.  Everyone present was invited to vote for their 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each category and the results were added up.   

Among the Chardonnays, the Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru ‘Les Pucelles’ (£210) gained revenge on the Chateau Montelena Napa Chardonnay (£43.50) this time, but both were beaten by the 3rd wine, Koo Yong’s Faultline Chardonnay from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula (£29.50).

The story was the same with the Cabernet Sauvignons.   Stag’s Leap SLV (£98) from California failed to repeat its earlier success.  Indeed, it, too, finished 3rd in its group behind the winning Château Mouton-Rothschild (£400) and the Cyril Henschke from Eden Valley in South Australia (£62).

A wonderful evening and a rare opportunity to taste some great wines – several at prices that I wouldn’t normally think of spending on a single bottle.  But, perhaps, more importantly, the chance to be part of an event commemorating a tasting that changed the face of the wine world for ever.

(The prices shown are those quoted by Great Western Wine.  For more information, email them at wine@greatwesternwine.co.uk).