Why Age Matters

Stellenrust Chen

The silver seal on the bottle says that the wine is ‘from 53 year old vines’ – that’s quite old for a vine. But does that fact tell me anything about the likely quality of wine in the bottle or is it simply a meaningless marketing tool? I’d suggest the former.

As vines get older, their root system becomes more and more extensive. This means that they can draw up greater quantities of water and other nutrients from the soil enabling the vine to thrive. At the same time, older vines (like some older people!) become less vigorous, producing fewer bunches of grapes. So, all this extra goodness goes to feed fewer grapes; the likely result: a better wine with more intensity and richness of flavour.

And that is certainly true with Stellenrust’s delicious barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa (Majestic Wine, £14.99). Distinctly oaky at first on the nose, but the wood is far better integrated on the palate alongside lovely tropical fruit flavours and a hint of toffee and vanilla. With its 14% alcohol, this is clearly a robust, full-bodied white, but there is no heat on the finish and the alcohol simply contributes an attractive richness and food-friendliness: try with poultry or white meat in a creamy sauce.

While this bottle is specific about the age of the vines, more common is a general reference on the label to ‘Old Vines’ or the equivalent in the local language. So, how old does a vine have to be before it is designated ‘Old’? Sadly, there is no legal definition, although most commentators say about 35 years should be the minimum age to qualify. With fewer grapes per vine, you should expect to pay a little extra for old vines wine but be rewarded with noticeable extra quality.

Italian sun shines in Bristol

Italy tastingA warm summer evening and a tasting for the Westbury Park Festival held in ‘C The World’, a local Travel Agent. What better theme for the event than the Wines of Italy – one of the favourite holiday destinations for us Brits? And the wines I took along to taste reflected that idea, with all coming from areas much visited by tourists.

Our first wine was from the island of Sardinia – a crisp, peachy white: Nord Est Vermentino (£9.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouse, where I bought all the wines for this tasting). Vermentino is a high quality grape variety especially well-suited to some of the warmer parts of the Mediterranean as it retains its refreshing acidity well.

The hills above Pescara on the Adriatic coast provided our 2nd white: Collecorvino’s Pecorino (£9.99). Yes, Pecorino is a cheese, but it’s also a grape variety; there are many explanations for the similarity – none of them particularly believable! This wine was a little fuller and richer than the 1st – the result of some of the grapes being fermented in oak.

For our final white, I looked to the Avellino hills, east of Naples. It’s an area rich with excellent local grape varieties including Fiano and Greco but I chose Terredora’s Falanghina (£11.99) – beautifully crisp and fresh but with an attractive savoury character from 3 months of lees ageing.

It was back to the islands – this time Sicily – for the 1st of the reds. Corolla’s Nero d’Avola (£8.99) was everything a simple, every day wine should be – lots of red fruit flavours and very moreish.

A little more challenging was Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Ripasso (£12.99) from the area to the east of Lake Garda. Valpolicella can also be simple and gluggable but, when the word ‘Ripasso’ is on the label, it takes on a whole new dimension. Refermented on the lees of an Amarone, a wine made with dried grapes, this is intense with delicious prune and fig flavours.

And finally, from Piedmont, in the north-west, De Forville’s Langhe Nebbiolo (£10.99) is effectively a mini-Barolo in all but name (and price!). Ideally, it should be left a few more years to allow the tannins to soften (I opened the 2017) but, if you can’t wait, decant it well in advance and serve with robust food; you’ll find the quality and richness will shine through.

So, there it was: a taste of the Italian sun in Bristol and, hopefully, enjoyed by all.

The Bordeaux-Chile Link

Los Vascos Cab S

A few brief words on the back label of a bottle I opened recently caught my attention: “…vineyard with ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaux rootstock.” But the wine wasn’t from Bordeaux, it was from Chile – Los Vascos’ Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £9.99) – and the phylloxera bug hit Bordeaux in the 1870s. So, what’s the link between Bordeaux and Chile, was the vineyard really planted almost 150 years ago before phylloxera and what does it mean that the rootstocks are ungrafted?

To start answering those questions, we need to turn the clock back to around 1850 when a number of wealthy Chileans began to travel to Europe. Not only did they enjoy the sights, they also experienced some of its fine wines, which were very different from those available in Chile at the time.

One visitor was so impressed, he imported a selection of vine varieties from Bordeaux and hired a French winemaker to make his wine for him. This, of course, was some 20 years before France’s phylloxera infestation, and so no-one had even thought about the need to graft vines to combat the disease.

What is grafting? It involves planting a vine root in the ground that is resistant to phylloxera (or whatever pest you’re trying to protect against) and then connecting your chosen non-resistant vine (eg Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or almost any of the other varieties we know and love) to it. It is now universally accepted as the best method of protecting against phylloxera, for which there is no known cure.

Chile has been lucky – today it’s one of the few wine producing countries that remains free of this particular pest and so most of its vines are ungrafted.

But, back to the wine – the Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon. My wife, Hilary’s first comment was that wine tasted ‘more Old World than New’ and I know what she meant. This was a wine made in quite a restrained, elegant style without lots of the overt fruit flavours found in many New World wines. The reason for this probably lies in the fact that the estate is managed by Domaines Barons de Rothschild of Château Lafite fame; the lean Bordeaux influence certainly shows through and maintains a link to that region now dating back almost 170 years.

Look South for Value

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.

Italy: Not so Confusing

Italy is the 2nd largest supplier of wine to UK – behind Australia and just in front of USA. But, despite this popularity, I think most UK customers are missing the best Italy has to offer. The biggest sellers here include bargain-basement Pinot Grigio and Prosecco plus other famous names such as Chianti, Soave, Valpolicella and Frascati. Sadly, all of these can disappoint as often as they thrill.

Other wine drinkers in the UK simply ignore Italy completely: ‘it’s all just too confusing’ is a frequent comment. And one that I understand. The problem is that Italy produces so much wine and is so diverse that it’s hard to pick the real gems from the mass of ordinary bottles that are alongside them on the shelves.

SL Italy 3 (2)

A few pointers are always useful and that is just what I tried to give those who signed up for my recent course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. We tasted a dozen wines over the day including examples from half of Italy’s 20 regions. Of the whites, the clean, fresh Nord Est Vermentino from Sardinia (Majestic, £8.99) with its delightful pear and peach flavours was clearly most popular but the reds produced much more discussion and divided opinions.

SL Italy 2 (2)

I said earlier that Chianti can often disappoint but Medici Riccardi’s Classico Riserva that I found in Lidl for less than £7 proved to be an incredible bargain. Its dusty, slightly bitter black fruit flavours and attractive smokiness made it one of the group favourites. Sadly, I see it has disappeared from their website and so may already be sold out.

The other joint winner among the reds is, happily, still available. Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso (Majestic, £11.99) was full of figs and dried fruit flavours typical of the ‘Ripasso’ process. This is where a young wine is re-fermented on the skins of an Amarone wine, so picking up some of the richer, fuller character that comes from the drying process used for Amarones.

No-one went away an expert on Italian wines – that would take a lifetime – but most were convinced that it was worth looking beyond the confusion to discover the marvellous diversity.

A Week in Bristol – Part 2

Now that my crowded week of 4 tastings is behind me, it’s time to reflect on the final 2 events that I couldn’t fit into my Blog last time.

The first continued with the theme of Spain and Portugal with the added interest that my client asked me to choose wines from the ‘Hidden Corners’ of these 2 fascinating countries.  In fact, for many UK wine drinkers, most of Portugal and much of Spain (except, perhaps, Rioja and Cava) are ‘hidden’, so I had plenty of scope to make my selections.

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An early favourite was the Casal de Ventozela Alvarinho from northern Portugal (£9.99 – all the wines for this tasting were from Majestic).  Alvarinho is the same grape as Spain’s Albariño and this delightful, fresh white showed lovely peach and citrus flavours and a long fragrant finish.

But, it was a pair of Spanish reds that attracted the most praise – both for their quality and for their amazing bargain prices.  Pizarras de Otero (£7.49) was intensely fruity with aromas and flavours of ripe strawberries, plums and blackberries.  Made with the Mencia grape variety, local to the Bierzo district in north-west Spain, this reminded one taster of a young Pinot Noir.

The striking label on Matsu’s ‘El Picaro’ (£8.99) from Toro in the west of Spain (left-hand bottle, above) lists the grape variety as ‘Tinta de Toro’, but this is simply a local name for Spain’s best red grape, Tempranillo.  Bigger and richer than the Bierzo and with a little smokey spice and chocolate added to the black fruits, this would have been far more expensive if it had come from one of the better-known Tempranillo areas.

The last tasting of the week was another of my Saturday classes at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Adult Education Centre.  This time, my theme was ‘Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet’.  Despite the title, we did taste 2 examples of each of these grapes to explore their diverse flavours.  But it was one of the Cabernet alternatives that was unanimously voted as best wine of the day. 

20181117_152855_resized (2)Ironically, in view of the focus of my week, it came from Spain: Baron de Ley Rioja Reserva 2014 (Waitrose, £9) was beautifully mellow and spicy from 20 months ageing in oak but still young enough to allow the soft red fruits to show through.  A real delight at a very reasonable price, and a deserved winner.

As for me, after my busy week, it’s time to relax with a nice glass of wine

Priorat Re-vitalised

Most wine drinkers will be familiar with the name ‘Cava’ although, according to a recent survey, surprisingly few who bought it knew where it came from.  The correct answer is, of course, Catalonia, but this region in the north-east of Spain has far more than just the popular sparkling wine to offer.  I’m thinking, in particular, of the marvellous, intense red wines from the remote hills of Priorat. 

Vines were first planted there by Carthusian monks in 12th century and wine has been made there ever since.  But, by the 1980s, Priorat’s vineyards were regularly being abandoned and the area was in danger of disappearing from the wine map.  It was so steep and the stony land so difficult to work that most of the traditional farmers found winemaking there uneconomic and the younger generation were lured towards jobs in the larger towns or the tourist resorts along the coast. 

But a small group, led by Rene Barbier, were moving in the opposite direction.  They recognised the potential in the very old bush vines of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carinena (Carignan) and in the unusual llicorella soil, comprised of decomposed slate and quartz, which reflects the heat and aids the ripening of these late-maturing varieties.  Now, some 30 years later, the area has been re-vitalised and is producing some outstanding wines and, although the most prestigious ones sell for £200 or more, you can find some extremely attractive bottles for a lot less.

PrioratTake Arc de Pedra, available from Majestic, for example (£12.99).  At first sip, you find lovely sweet red fruits but, as it develops in the glass, it reveals raisins, prunes and subtle hints of vanilla and toasted almonds.  As you might expect, this is a big wine (14%) but it is well balanced.  The 2016 vintage that we opened was still showing quite prominent tannins, and although it went well enough with the strong flavours of a venison steak, in truth I probably opened it a couple of years too soon.  But, whether you drink it now or keep it, it would certainly benefit from decanting a couple of hours in advance, a comment that would apply equally to most of the deep, brooding reds from this – happily – rediscovered area.