A ‘Novel’ Evening

One thing I’ve missed over the last 2 Covid-blighted years is attending wine dinners.  At their best, they are great opportunities to meet producers or wine merchants at local restaurants where they can show off their wines paired with well-chosen dishes in a relaxed, sociable setting.  So, when Novel wines sent out invitations for an evening at Bath’s Green Bird Café recently, my wife and I were keen to book.   

Novel Wines specialise in areas often ignored by other merchants, particularly Hungary and the rest of central, eastern and south-eastern Europe.  They also have an interesting selection of English sparkling wines on their list and a glass of one of these, Woodchester’s crisp, citrussy Cotswold Classic from Gloucestershire (£24.99), greeted us on arrival.

We were promised that chef Dan Moon would treat us to a 5-course Seafood Extravaganza and we were not disappointed.  Among the food highlights of the evening were a lovely piece of cured salmon with a creamy haddock chowder foam, some scallops in a delicious sticky crab risotto (my favourite dish) and, for dessert, panna cotta with rhubarb sorbet.

And then there were the accompanying wines, of course, all introduced by Ben Franks of Novel Wines. 

One of Hungary’s native grape varieties is Furmint which can produce high quality wines in all styles from dry to lusciously sweet.  It was one of the former, the rich, nutty Endre Demeter’s Estate Furmint from the Tokaji region (£24.99) that was my star wine of the evening, perfectly cutting through the oiliness of the salmon.

The choice of a rosé – and particularly one from Turkey – to pair with the risotto surprised me a little but a glass of Kayra Beyaz’s Kalecik Karasi (£15.99) convinced me.  The Kalecik Karasi is, again, a native grape and produced a delicately pink wine with crisp citrus and floral flavours – one to enjoy throughout the summer with salads and other light meals.

I love dessert wines to accompany puddings and Vakakis’ deep, intense but not cloyingly sweet Muscat from the Greek island of Samos made a perfect end to an evening of interesting and delicious wine and food pairings.

All wines are available from Novel Wines of Bath or can be ordered on-line.

Honey from Austria

I’ve mentioned Austria’s ‘own’ grape variety, Grűner Veltliner, before in Bristol Wine Blog but I recently opened a bottle that was so good, it persuaded me to write about it again.

Just one sniff of Rabl’s example from around the town of Langenlois in Austria’s Kamptal region (Novel Wines, £16.99) and my wife and I said in unison ‘honey’!  But don’t assume from that description that this is a sweet wine – far from it; it is quite dry on the palate, if fairly rich (despite only 12.5% alcohol) and succulent.  The honied aromas and flavours come from the beautifully sweet, ripe fruit grown in vineyards planted on sunny, south-facing terraces overlooking a tributary of the River Danube.  These grapes are blended with fruit from cooler, windier sites chosen to ensure the ripeness of flavour is balanced with attractive, refreshing acidity.

In the winery, only indigenous yeasts are used in the fermentation followed by extended lees contact (where the wine rests on the dead yeast cells after fermentation is completed) producing greater complexity and savoury flavours.

And the wine itself?  Apart from the honey, there are lovely floral hints on the nose with peach, apple and melon on the palate, set off by a certain slight pepperiness that seems to be a trademark of the Grűner Veltliner variety.

All this results in a really impressive mouthful which works well as an aperitif but, for me, is even better with food.  We paired it with a stir-fried turkey stroganoff and it proved a good match for the slightly spicy flavours and the sour cream we used to finish the dish.

Grűner Veltliner is becoming quite fashionable – and with good reason, given its quality – so look out for it, mainly from Austria at present.  It’s a good and interesting alternative to fuller flavoured whites; lovers of wines from southern Burgundy (Maçon Villages, Pouilly Fuissé, etc) should certainly give it a try.

20 Years On

It’s more than 20 years since I passed my Wine Diploma so, when my wife suggested a de-cluttering session around the house recently, I decided that it was time that my old study files could go.  But not before I had a quick read through to remind myself of how the wine world looked at the end of the last century.  How different it was!

Even though wines from Australia, New Zealand and California were already common on our shelves, the syllabus devoted more time to each of Bordeaux and Burgundy than it did to the whole of the ‘New World’.  And the prices!  Simple wines for less than £3 and a 2nd Growth Bordeaux for about £20.  Those were the days!

But, perhaps, most significant of all were the alcohol levels of our tasting samples: some were as low as 8%.  The majority were around 11% or 12% and only a Châteauneuf du Pape and an Amarone reached 13%!

Anyway, back to 2022 and later in the day I opened a Greek red to accompany our dinner – the only mention of Greek wines in my old files was a rather dismissive note about Retsina. 

Seméli’s Nemea Reserve (Novel Wines, £15.99) was a delicious, complex red made from the local Agiorgitiko (aka St George) grape; it was full of lovely black fruits (bitter cherries and blackberries) together with some dried fruits and subtle spicy oak from its 12 months maturation in barrel and, despite its 14% alcohol (what would they have made of that in 1999!), it was beautifully balanced with no signs of alcoholic burn. 

Like most reds, this definitely needs food to show at its best – a nice juicy steak springs to mind – and benefits from decanting an hour or so before you drink it to let it open up and show its true character.

The wine world has certainly moved on in 20 years – in some ways better, in others not, but the rise of wines from previously ignored countries gives a diversity that I could only have imagined as I sat my exam papers all those years ago.

A Versatile Red

I was chatting to a friend about Italian wines when my wife called over to me ‘don’t forget to mention those lovely Sardinian whites’.  I agreed and duly passed on the recommendation for the island’s very drinkable and often good value Vermentino-based wines.

I must have still had Sardinia on my mind when I was choosing a wine to drink with dinner that night as I picked Isola’s Cannonau di Sardegna (Novel Wines, £13.99) out of our wine rack. 

For those not familiar with the name ‘Cannonau’, it’s the islanders’ name for the grape more commonly known as Grenache – part of the blend in Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf du Pape or the ‘G’ in Australia’s GSMs.  (It’s also called Garnacha in Rioja and generally in the Spanish-speaking world).

Whatever you call it, this one was a delicious, silky smooth unoaked medium-bodied red full of attractive black fruit flavours.  I tasted damsons and plums together with some peppery spice and even hints of chocolate (which may have been a nudge to what was to follow).  The finish was medium length and the tannins very soft and restrained.  It worked really well with a game casserole made from a mixture of pheasant, partridge, venison and who knows what else from our local butcher.

But the wine had a surprise for me.  As I often do, I left a little in my glass after dinner to sip throughout the evening.  When it came to coffee time, my wife and I split a bar of bitter chocolate and I tried the wine again.  I found the chocolate bringing out some lovely cherry fruit in the wine that I hadn’t noticed earlier.  I know some reds do go well with dark chocolate (Argentinian Malbecs, for example) but I wasn’t expecting this pairing to be so successful.

Which just proves that food and wine matching is far from an exact science; some of the most unlikely combinations can sometimes deliver the most pleasant of surprises.

Oh No! Not White Wine Again!

My wife and I like to vary what we cook and eat to reflect the seasons so, at this time of year, we’re usually aiming for warming, hearty dishes.  And, when we open a bottle to accompany them, it’s more likely to be red than white – reds generally working better with that sort of food.  But it just isn’t happening that way at the moment – the white section of our wine rack is looking particularly bare while the reds are still sitting there.  I’m not sure why; it could be that, until recently, this winter has been particularly mild and that has influenced what we’ve been cooking (and drinking).  I hope it’s not that we’re losing our taste for red wines!

Last weekend was no different; the nicest wine I opened was yet another white, this one an interesting and unusual bottle from Hungary. 

Gizella’s Barát Hárslevelű (Novel Wines, £15.79) is a dry wine from Tokaj, a region far better known for its delicious and unique style of sweet wines.  Crisp, medium-bodied and fresh with delightful flavours of citrus, ripe pear and melon and a long, herby finish.  It paired beautifully with some pan-fried pheasant breasts.

The Hárslevelű grape variety is native to Hungary and is quite widely grown across the country as well as in Austria and Romania, but, here, in the Tokaj region, is more commonly found blended with Furmint in those lovely sweet wines I mentioned earlier. But the bottle we opened was a varietal wine (made with 100% of the one variety), grown in the Barát vineyard, locally recognised as a Grand Cru.  It certainly showed the potential of the grape, particularly in the hands of a talented winemaker as we clearly have here.

I’ve mentioned Bath-based Novel Wines (www.novelwines.co.uk) previously in these blogs.  They specialise in importing bottles from small artisan producers in less familiar areas of the wine world, particularly Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and are well worth seeking out by more adventurous wine lovers looking for different and interesting flavours.

East or West?

It’s become popular in the media these days to talk about a ‘North/South divide’ in England, contrasting the poorer north with the richer south.  It’s an interesting idea with some truth in it, although it’s not really as simple as that.

But I have a contrast of my own to put forward: in wine terms, the east/west split in Europe – between the unfashionable east (Germany, Hungary, Greece and the Baltic countries) as opposed to the fashionable west (principally France and Spain) with Italy lying somewhere in the middle.

For those willing to explore, there are some real delights to be found among the unfashionable – and, because the wines are generally less well-known, a few bargains, too.

Take the delightful St Donat Tihany Rosé from Hungary, for example (Novel Wines, £11.49).  The pretty pale pink shade suggests a subtle, even neutral flavoured wine, but the colour is deceptive in that there is plenty of character in this delicious, dry rosé, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and the local speciality, Kekfrankos.

Grown in the Lake Balaton area in the west of Hungary, the vines benefit from 2 natural features: the influence of the lake moderating the climate and the low-fertility volcanic soil which limits the grape yield and so intensifies the flavours. The wine is completely unoaked to preserve its fruity character but then spends six months on its lees for extra texture and flavour.

The result is fresh and lively, full of red fruit flavours, particularly crushed strawberries, crisp, but with enough body to make it surprisingly food-friendly – a garlicky fish stew with tomatoes springs to mind.

Finally, a word about Novel Wines, from whom I bought this wine.  They are a relatively young (started in 2016) Bath-based company who specialise in wines from smaller producers mainly from across central and eastern Europe (especially Hungary), but also have an interesting selection of English wines. If you are interested in exploring the unusual, you can find them at www.novelwines.co.uk and they will deliver.