A Message for 2023

Let me begin this, my first Bristol Wine Blog of 2023, by wishing you a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year.  

After a couple of years when Covid restricted our ability to meet with friends and family, we had hoped for a more positive time this year but, looking around at all the sadness and conflict in the world, my wife and I chose to make the holiday season quite a low-key affair although we did, of course, enjoy a glass or two to remind ourselves that we are among the luckier ones.

The Jurançon region is in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French side and is best known as a source of delicious late-harvested dessert wines.  But the same local grape varieties, picked earlier, are also used to produce some full, rich dry whites (always labelled ‘Jurançon Sec’).  We opened an excellent example to accompany some cheeses shared with a couple of good friends over the holiday break.  Domaine Cauhapé’s ‘Geyser’ Sec (Wine Society, £13.50) has lovely, vibrant flavours of grapefruit and honey and a long satisfying finish.  Not just a wine to pair with cheeses – it would work well with elegant fish dishes, too.

Of the reds we enjoyed, Te Mata’s Syrah from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand (Majestic, £14.99) went perfectly with some slow-cooked lamb shanks.  It’s significant that the producer chose to use the French name for the grape variety, Syrah, (rather than Shiraz), as the wine is definitely made in a more restrained, ‘European’ style with perfumed black fruits and hints of pepper.  Delightful.

And so, to the one question that always arises at this time of year: ‘what was the best wine you tasted last year?’  As ever, I find that almost impossible to answer but I can say which was the most memorable: Purcari’s “Freedom Blend” is a mixture of grapes from Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia with part of the proceeds from sales supporting refugees from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It reflected a friendship between countries and a willingness to use wine for good.  A message for 2023?   

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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.

Jurançon: Sweet or Dry

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!