A Bottle in the Chef?

I’ve mentioned before in my Bristol Wine Blog how often the food and wine of an area pair well together. Perhaps the most famous and obvious example is a dish from France’s Burgundy region, Coq au Vin – chicken cooked in the local red wine. Traditionally it is said that you should put a bottle of Burgundy into the pot to cook the dish and another on the table to drink with it. Given the price of even basic Burgundy these days, many would seek a cheaper alternative to cook with.

I remember when I worked as a wine guide in Harveys Cellars, one chef in the restaurant there had a different view: “Ian, you have got it wrong – it is a bottle of good Burgundy in the dish and another in the chef while he is cooking”! Perhaps that explains why Harveys restaurant closed many years ago!

But the idea of drinking something similar to the wine that the dish is cooked in does make sense, even if the quality of the 2 wines used is rather different.

When we cooked a version of coq au vin recently, we didn’t use a Burgundy in the dish but a simple red wine, which seemed to do the job perfectly well.

NZ P Noir

And we didn’t drink a red Burgundy either but the same grape – a Pinot Noir – but from New Zealand (Zephyr Estate from Marlborough, Wine Society, £13.50): fresh, full of red fruit flavours and not too heavy – in short an ideal match for the chicken. For me, a white wine, perhaps a more obvious choice with chicken normally, is unlikely to work as well with the fuller flavours of a dish cooked in red wine.

So, next time you’re wondering what to drink with your meal, think where the dish comes from and try and find a wine from the same area or, failing that, something that you feel reflects the same sort of place.

 

Best of the Year?

“What’s the best wine you’ve tasted in 2019?” A question that’s almost inevitable as the year draws to an end. And impossible to answer. I calculated a few years back that I tasted more than 500 wines in a year, so you see the problem of choosing just one.

I try the line that “there’s a couple of weeks to go this year; I hope I haven’t tasted it yet” but that brings an unbelieving smile; both my questioner and I know that I’m dodging the answer.

In truth, I don’t think there has been 1 stand out wine this year but I’ve tasted many very enjoyable ones. Here’s a few of the less obvious examples at real value for money prices:

Mantinia

Among the whites, Seméli’s Mantinia Nassiakos from Greece (Wine Society, £10.95) has been a favourite of ours for years. Made from the local moschofilero grape, it’s quite floral on the nose with a lovely citrussy freshness and a hint of spice on the palate. Try with lighter dishes or as an aperitif.

Discovery white

Hungary’s Royal Tokaji Dry White (Majestic, £9.99) (in the centre of the picture above) is a little fuller and richer with flavours of green apples and herbs and a subtle touch of oak. This works well with fish or white meat.

Mencia

From the reds, another wine I’ve blogged about before: Regina Viarum’s Mencia from Galicia in north-west Spain (Wine Society, £11.50). Delightfully smooth and fresh with lovely, slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through and would make a perfect accompaniment to partridge or duck, perhaps.

Alsace P Noir

And finally, Paul Blanck’s Alsace Pinot Noir (Waitrose, £14.99). Pinot Noir can be quite a tricky grape to grow and, as a result, some examples from Alsace can be thin and sharp. Not this one! Ripe raspberry and cranberry flavours show through in a wine of real elegance and style. One for a seasonal turkey or the lowish tannin would also point to pairing it with a robust fish dish, say a tuna steak.

I’d happily nominate any of these as the best value wines I’ve tasted this year. As for the best of all? I’m still hoping!

200 Years? Not Yet!

The 1st vines were planted in New Zealand in 1819. But don’t start raising a glass to 200 years of New Zealand wine yet! Those vines were planted by Samuel Marsden of the Church Missionary Society, a group whose anti-alcohol views were both robust and well-known. So, unless someone made some wine in secret – always possible – the true bi-centenary celebration will have to go on hold for a few more years.

How many? Even Keith Stewart’s ‘Chancers and Visionaries’, a fascinating history of New Zealand wine, can’t be precise although, by the mid-1830s, James Busby and others were certainly very active in their wineries. But wine drinking and winemaking never really thrived at that time in New Zealand, nor, indeed, well into the 20th century, thanks to restrictive laws. It wasn’t really until the 1970s that the modern New Zealand wine industry was born – an amazing fact when you think of the success that country’s wines enjoy today.

But, as regular Bristol Wine Blog readers know, I’m always happy to open a bottle from there, even if we are celebrating a little too soon.

NZ P NoirTwo Paddocks ‘Picnic’ Pinot Noir (Grape and Grind, £18.99) is a lovely smooth and fresh red with all those typical flavours and aromas of a good Pinot Noir: dried fruits and a certain undergrowth smell on the nose followed by black and dried fruits on the palate, quite savoury and a little smoky, but really complex and a finish that goes on and on. But, at the same time, it’s very drinkable – not heavy, so best with lighter meats or cheeses; very much a food wine. And remarkable value for money: if this was from Burgundy, I suspect the price would be double.

So, celebrating or not, this is a bottle well worth opening – and, perhaps, getting a 2nd one to keep under the stairs because, in a couple of years, I suspect it might be even better.

Best Vintage Ever

Dunleavy 18 1 (2)With reports that the 2018 wine grape harvest in England and Wales was the best on record, I was really looking forward to the launch of the new vintage from one of my favourite local vineyards – Dunleavy, based at Wrington, just a few minutes’ drive south of Bristol.  And I was not disappointed. One sniff of Ingrid Bates’ Pinot Noir Rosé (£12.95 direct from the vineyard – www.dunleavyvineyards.co.uk – or from local wine merchant Grape and Grind) revealed a glass full of delightful spring blossom fragrances, followed on the palate with lovely raspberry fruit and a hint of smokiness. This is a proper rosé, almost dry, ideal for drinking, well chilled, on its own but with enough body to pair nicely with, perhaps, a fresh tuna steak in a Niçoise salad. In my mind, a deserving winner of a Silver Medal at the Independent English Wine Awards.

Although only the rosé was on show at the launch, appropriately held once again at Bellita Wine Bar, who pride themselves in a winelist comprising all female winemakers, Dunleavy are also now producing a sparkling wine from their own Seyval Blanc grapes. Only 500 bottles of the initial vintage were produced and, not surprisingly, sold out quickly before I was able to get my hands on a bottle. But I look forward to tasting and reporting on this new development later in the year.

As I have said before, English (and Welsh) wine has improved enormously in the last 30 years and there are now almost 500 vineyards operating commercially.  Many will be opening their doors or participating in special events during English Wine Week, the now regular annual celebration of our home-grown product, which begins on Saturday 25 May.  Do check the English Wine Week site for details.

And finally, let me repeat an important clarification: English and Welsh wines are often incorrectly referred to as ‘British wine’. British wine is produced from imported grape juice or concentrate and is not recommended; English (or Welsh, if appropriate) Wine is a quality product made from freshly picked grapes and reflects the place where those grapes are grown.

Swiss Wine Triggers a Memory

Part of the beauty of enjoying wines is the memories it can trigger. A bottle a good friend of ours, who is currently working in Switzerland, brought back for us on one of her brief visits did just that. You very rarely find Swiss wine in the UK; production is small and almost none of it is exported – figures showing that more than 95% is consumed locally, so her gift was especially welcome.

Swiss PN

Cave St-Pierre’s Pinot Noir comes from the Valais region, home to some of the highest vineyards in Europe. Here, the steep, south-facing slopes overlook the infant River Rhône before it empties into Lake Geneva (Lac Leman to the locals) and provide ideal sites for vineyards, offering the vines excellent exposure to the sun and good drainage – both essential to full ripening of the fussy Pinot Noir grape.

And the result is delicious: a quite light-bodied red – more reminiscent of an Alsace Pinot Noir than one from Burgundy – but smooth and with lovely raspberry fruit, good balanced acidity and a long, dry, elegant finish.

In recent times, as tastes have moved in favour of red wines, Pinot Noir has taken over from the white variety Chasselas as the most widely planted in Switzerland, although Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, Silvaner and Pinots Gris and Blanc are still widely planted. Among red varieties, Gamay, Merlot (strangely also made into a white wine in the Italian-speaking Ticino region) and Syrah (Shiraz) are well represented but it’s almost certain that you’ll need to travel to the country itself to enjoy any of these.

And the memory I hinted at earlier? I’m fairly sure that the first time I ever tasted a Swiss wine was over a meal at the long-closed Swiss Centre in London many years ago. I have a particular reason to remember the occasion because my dining companion at the time, Hilary, soon became my wife – and now, more than 40 years later, we were able to celebrate with this bottle given by our friend, who had no idea of its significance!

 

A Romanian Winner

“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.

Eastern Europe tastingAmong 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.