Let me start by wishing you all a Happy and Peaceful 2018 and hope that the natural disasters that afflicted many in the wine world last year won’t be repeated.
As you might expect, my wife and I enjoyed some nice wines over the holiday period, but one white was a particular surprise (a pleasant one, I should add). It came from the cool Loire region in northern France and I assumed, for that reason, it would be crisp, fresh and citrusy. But Château de Fesles’ old vine Chenin Blanc ‘La Chapelle’ from Anjou (Majestic, £11.99) didn’t fit the pattern at all.
At 14% alcohol, it’s a big chunky mouthful. And then there’s the fruit character: not the green apples and citrus of a northern climate but ripe pineapple and mango with a touch of orange at first and all wrapped up in tangy, spicy oak.
So what’s going on? Part of the answer lies in the words on the label: ‘Vieilles Vignes’ (old vines), in this case mainly over 50 years. As vines age, their root system expands and so they can pick up more moisture and nutrients from the soil. At the same time, they tend to produce fewer bunches so all this extra goodness is concentrated into fewer grapes. The result is more intense flavour which shows through on the finished wine.
But it’s not just that. Often, grapes struggle to ripen in the cool Loire climate. At Fesles, they hand-harvest very carefully choosing only the best and ripest grapes. This may cut down on the amount of wine they make, but it ensures the quality. They are also moving towards organic methods which the owners believe will further improve the wine.
In the winery, fermentation is in oak barrels followed by 6 months on the lees. Interestingly, Fesles prefer 400 litre barrels to the more common 225 litre and shun new oak arguing that the use of larger barrels and older wood gives a more subtle oak character.
All this comes together to make a very classy full, rich white and a real bargain at the price. Drink it with flavoursome white meat or poultry dishes and you, too, may be pleasantly surprised.
As a Wine Educator, this is one of the busiest – and most interesting -times of my working year but I’ve just run my last tasting of 2017 and so I can relax for a few weeks. This year, that final event featured one of my most popular themes: a contest between wines from Europe against the Rest of the World with the audience voting for their favourites. It’s one that almost always makes for an enjoyable evening.
With the sales figures showing that UK customers prefer wines from the Rest of the World to those originating in Europe, it’s often a surprise to many when I tell them that the tasting is a David and Goliath battle – with Europe, not the Rest of the World, as Goliath. In fact, most years Europe produces around twice as much wine as the Rest of the World and either France or Italy alone turns out more than USA, Argentina and Australia (the 3 largest non-European producers) together. 2017 was a different story but that’s a blog for another day.
The contest this time featured 8 different wines in 4 matched pairs, all tasted blind so that no-one (except me!) knew the identity of any wine. When the votes were added up, the Rest of the World was the narrow winner overall, but Europe put up a fair fight winning one of the 4 rounds and tying in another.
The European success was the delightful, herby, fragrant Stella Alpina Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige in northern Italy (£10.99 – all the wines for this tasting were bought from Majestic), while the ‘Rest’ winners were from California and Chile. The latter, Montes’ Single Vineyard Chardonnay from the cool Casablanca Valley (£8.99) showed a lovely buttery richness and just a hint of vanilla and spice from brief oak ageing.
California’s winner, Majestic’s Parcel Series Old Vine Zinfandel 2012, was the cheapest wine of the evening and a real bargain at £7.49. 5 years old and with all the soft, harmonious flavours that age produces – this is remarkable for the price.
And, indeed, with none of the wines above £11, this tasting showed that, by shopping around you really don’t have to spend a fortune to find winning wines.
“Drink with lobster risotto or rare prime rib”. Winemakers often put advice on their labels concerning possible food matches but, I must say, this one really surprised me. Why? Because, in my mind, I can’t imagine a single wine that might pair successfully with these 2 dishes; indeed, in many ways, I’d be looking at almost diametrically opposite wines.
The richness of the lobster and the creaminess of a good risotto would point me towards a big rich white – something from Burgundy or the Rhône, perhaps, or a full-bodied Californian or Australian Chardonnay. And, although I’m not someone who subscribes blindly to the ‘white with fish, red with meat’ theory, for me, a rare prime rib is definitely red wine territory with a wide range to choose from.
So, what was this miracle wine that the winemaker thought might pair with either dish?
Cline Cool Climate Syrah from California’s Sonoma Coast region (Majestic, £13). Delightfully full and rich with intense red fruit flavours and just a hint of the kind of spicy, peppery flavours that many good Rhône Syrahs display, this is undoubtedly a big wine (14% alcohol), yet everything is so beautifully in balance that you’d never feel overwhelmed – or think that you’d have to stop after a single glass.
We drank it with some orange and molasses sugar marinated venison steaks and it went really well – the fruitiness in the wine matching the sweetness in the marinade and the pepperiness going with the gamey flavours of the meat.
But, personally, I still can’t see the wine going with either lobster or risotto. But that is the wonder of food and wine pairing – everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them and different from everyone else. And so it should be; without that, we’d lose the very diversity of food and wines that make this such a fascinating subject.
Not so long ago, the name ‘Picpoul de Pinet’ would have meant nothing to all but a tiny minority of wine lovers. Today, while still not widely known, this crisp, dry white from the Languedoc region in the south of France is beginning to establish a reputation. And, surprisingly, much of the credit for that change must go to Britain’s major supermarkets, most of whom now have an example in their premium ranges. Take Tescos:
their ‘Finest’ Picpoul is just £7 a bottle but is delightfully refreshing with lovely herby, citrusy flavours and enough richness to suggest it would be a perfect accompaniment to many creamy fish or shellfish dishes. And, it’s not just the supermarkets who are selling Picpoul – Majestic’s Villemarin (£8.99) and the Wine Society’s Domaine Félines-Jourdan (my favourite example and great value at £8.50) mean that it is readily available for those who are looking for something just a little different – but nothing too scary!
Picpoul, the name of the grape variety (occasionally spelt Piquepoul), apparently translates as ‘lip stinger’ in the local dialect (but don’t let that put you off); its home is a tiny area between the towns of Pézenas and Mèze overlooking the Bassin de Thau, a glorious nature reserve within a stone’s throw of the Mediterranean. Apart from this one wine, this part of the Languedoc is an area far better known for its reds – the southern French sun and heat are too much for most whites. But not Picpoul – it retains its acidity and freshness and provides a very welcome glass chilled on a hot day.
And, thanks to the supermarkets, before long, more wine lovers will be able to pick up a Picpoul.
“Can we have a tasting of wines for summer drinking?” a client asked me recently. Of course! It gave me the chance to concentrate on refreshing, easy-drinking bottles – perfect for that picnic or barbie – or just for drinking chilled on their own in the garden. And, because wines like these focus more on enjoyment than on deep appreciation of their finer points, they’re not usually that expensive; in fact, I bought all the wines in Majestic and none cost more than £8 (based on their offers for mixed cases of at least 6 bottles).
We started with a Vinho Verde from northern Portugal: Quinta de Azevedo (£6.99) is a delightfully crisp and fresh white made from a blend of little-known local grapes. To follow, something more floral and fragrant: Mayu’s dry Pedro Ximenez (PX) from Chile (same price). This wine surprised me when I first tasted it as PX is more commonly found in Spain’s sherry region, where it’s mainly used for sweetening, yet, here, it shows a completely different (and most attractive) side to its character.
I can drink rosé at any time of year but there’s no denying that sales peak in the summer and so it was an obvious choice for this tasting. I took along a couple: The Ned Pinot Rosé from New Zealand (£7.99) is an old favourite of mine – full of lovely summer berry fruit flavours – while Cune’s Rioja Rosado (a bargain at just £5.99) is simply a lighter, more delicate version of a young red from the region.
In warm weather, you’re usually looking for something you can serve cool and, of course, you can’t chill red wine – or can you? I wouldn’t suggest putting your best claret in the fridge (but that’s hardly a wine for a summer picnic, anyway), but lighter reds such as Beaujolais or Valpolicella are actually better for a half hour chilling. The same applies to Allegrini’s Tenuta di Naiano Bardolino (£7.49), from the next door region to Valpolicella, with its tangy flavours of bitter cherries.
And, finally, to barbecues. An Australian Shiraz would be the choice of many – and I wouldn’t argue, but why not try a French example of the same grape? Domaine les Yeuses ‘Les Épices’ Syrah (£7.99) is my choice – similar spicy, peppery flavours and lovely violet aromas.
So there we have it – my selection of wines for summer. The group I ran the tasting for enjoyed them all, although the Vinho Verde just edged it in the final vote. Try them – I hope you like them, too.
“Will you run a wine tasting for me?” That’s a request I hear (fortunately!) quite frequently. After discussing a few practical aspects – numbers, dates, venue – I usually ask whether the client has a particular theme in mind. Different grape varieties, a ‘battle’ between Old World and New World wines or an individual country or region are popular choices and all make for good tastings. But, occasionally, someone will send me in a very different direction.
“Can we have a tasting of Eastern European wines” was a recent request – a first, as far as I can recall. And, of course, I said yes; it depends how you define ‘Eastern Europe’ -Germany, Austria and Hungary all make lovely wines – although I did recommend including South-Eastern Europe as well (Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and the former Yugoslav republics) as this would make a better and more varied evening.
So, do these countries produce anything worth drinking? Absolutely, yes! And, because they’re unfashionable, the wines they make are often remarkable value. You can even find them at High Street outlets – 3 of the bottles I selected were from Majestic and the other 3 from Waitrose.
Among the favourites on the night were Puklavec’s tangy, fresh Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Grigio from Slovenia (Waitrose, £7.99) and Aemilia’s chunky, dark-fruited Macedonian Shiraz/Vranac blend (also Waitrose, £7.49) – both brilliant value. But the clear winner was from Romania: Incanta’s Pinot Noir (Majestic, £6.99, if you buy it as part of a mixed 6 bottle case). Quite pale in colour (a fact, not a criticism) and reasonably light-bodied (only 12% alcohol) but full of lovely red fruit flavours – strawberries and redcurrants – and a clean, savoury, if slightly short, finish. This is an easy drinking yet satisfying wine that would work well on its own on a summer evening in the garden, slightly chilled, perhaps, or to accompany a seared tuna steak or baked chicken breast; nothing too heavy or robust to overwhelm it, though.
If the thought of a tasting like this (not necessarily the same theme) appeals and you’re close to Bristol, please leave me a message in the Comment box and I’ll get back to you.