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.
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!
Some winemakers make their wines entirely from a single grape variety whereas others prefer to mix 2 varieties – and there are many instances of producers blending 3, 4 or even more different grapes into their wines. Why the difference and which is better?
The answer depends on who you speak to:
a Burgundian, whose whites would be made exclusively from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir would say that a single variety is best; they would argue that it produces a more focussed wine and lets the quality of the grape variety used show through. They would also, no doubt, add that it had been that way for generations in Burgundy so why change?
Someone from Bordeaux or the Rhône would strongly disagree. Both regions regularly make their wines from a mix of varieties – up to 13 different ones in some Côtes du Rhône. Their view would be that blending different varieties gives a more complex wine, with the characteristics of each variety contributing to the final product.
But, there’s another reason for blending in cooler climates such as Bordeaux: as an ‘insurance policy’ in case of poor weather. There, a spring frost would damage the young shoots of the early-flowering Merlot but leave the Cabernet Sauvignon untouched. On the other hand, if there is rain at harvest time, the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon may be the one to suffer while the Merlot will already be picked and in the winery, starting to ferment.
That last comment also answers I question I hear quite often: when is the blending done when different varieties are used? Although there are a few examples of 2 varieties being fermented together (Syrah and Viognier in some parts of the Northern Rhône, for example), more usually, each variety is fermented separately immediately after harvesting and the blending is done at the end of the process.
So which is better – a single variety or a blend? For me, both are equally good in their own way, but, as with so much in the wine world, it’s all down to your personal taste.
I’m pleased to say that, over the past year, Bristol Wine Blog has attracted a whole host of new readers; in fact numbers have more than doubled compared to earlier times. Welcome to all of you! Interestingly, most of the newcomers are from the United States and so, as we’re closing in on the 4th of July, I thought I’d give you one Brit’s take on the wines you send over to us, starting with a delicious bottle we opened last night:
Clos du Bois Pinot Noir (Majestic, £14.99) had all the lovely silky smoothness I expect from this quality grape along with plenty of red cherry fruit and an attractive smokiness. And, with only 13.5% alcohol, it wasn’t too heavy and proved really food-friendly with pan fried duck breast strips with a tomato and mushroom sauce. It also brought back happy memories – it was a wine we used to sell at Harveys when I worked there way back before they closed their Bristol base.
But, sadly, it’s not often I can find such a gem; although we import more wine from the USA than from any other country except Australia, the vast majority is simple stuff from the major mass-market brands (Barefoot, Echo Falls and the like) at pretty much bargain basement prices. Now, clearly those please a lot of people and sell very well so I’m not knocking them, but, let’s be honest, when it comes to true wine lovers, there really isn’t much in these bottles to get excited about – or to blog about.
Yet, I know the US produces some wonderful wines. The problem is that the choice of good ones here is quite limited and the prices sky high: typically £25 to £60 – way above what most UK customers are prepared to pay. I’d just love to find something attractive at a more affordable ticket, but I struggle.
So, please, dear American readers (and others!): think about the wines you enjoy in your own home or in your favourite local restaurant. Are any of these from US producers who would like to sell something interesting and appealing in the UK and can get it on the shelves here around £15 to £20? If so, then do urge them to take the plunge. There are a lot of UK wine lovers who would happily pay that sort of money and so celebrate the 4th of July with an appropriate bottle!
As a Wine Educator, I get asked to run tastings on a range of different topics. Among the most interesting was one for a 10th Anniversary party, when the hosts wanted wines from places they had visited together as a way of bringing back happy memories. But a subject recently was a first for me: Kosher Wines – and the tasting was in a room in the local synagogue, no less.
So, aren’t all wines Kosher? Absolutely not! For a wine to be Kosher (and therefore acceptable for Jewish wine lovers) it must only be handled by observant Jews during the winemaking process and anything used must also be Kosher. This particularly restricts ingredients widely used for clarifying wine before bottling, many of which are derived from animal, dairy or fish products forbidden to Jews. Acceptable options are egg whites (provided the eggs are from Kosher sources) or bentonite clay.
Many Kosher wines also undergo flash pasteurisation – necessary to retain their status should the wine be opened or served by someone who is not an observant Jew. Some experts have suggested that this damages the wine, destroying the fruit character and making it taste dull and lifeless. On the evidence of the bottles I selected for the tasting, I disagree; all the wines were as I would have expected from similar, non-pasteurised examples.
Of the wines on the night, the one that stood out for me was the Barkan Classic Pinot Noir from Israel’s Negev region (available from kosherwines.co.uk, £10.99). Pinot Noir is the fussiest of grapes – not liking conditions too hot or too cold. So, how would it get on in a vineyard more than 800 metres (2500 feet) above sea level in the semi-desert of the Negev? A sophisticated, computer controlled irrigation system ensures that the vines receive enough moisture, but, even so, it is quite an achievement to produce such an attractive Pinot Noir with delightfully clean raspberry and redcurrant fruit in such a site.
But this was only 1 example from my selection from around the world – France, Spain and the US also featured, but I could easily have picked wines from Italy, Australia or South Africa instead. Truly an international phenomenon.
Alsace is a region that looks two ways. When you visit, the architecture, the food, the local dialect and many of the place names all suggest you are in Germany, which lies just a few miles to the east across the River Rhine. This view is supported by two of the most widely planted grape varieties there being Riesling and Gewurztraminer. But despite times under German rule in the past, today Alsace is firmly in France – although many of the locals would probably say that they’re from Alsace first and France second.
The climate, too, is not quite what you’d expect: lying around 48˚N (similar to Champagne and more northerly than Chablis), and with Riesling and Gewurztraminer thriving, you’d be thinking it would be decidedly cool. Yet, thanks to the shelter of the Vosges Mountains to the west, Alsace is often one of the sunniest and driest regions in the whole of France, allowing more warmth-loving varieties such as Muscat, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir to ripen, if planted in the right spots.
And Domaine Paul Blanck has certainly found those, with vineyards ideally situated around the village of Kientzheim, just north of Colmar.
His Pinot Noir (Waitrose, £14.99) is especially recommended. It’s a grape variety that can be very fussy – thin and tart if under-ripe, jammy if over-ripe – but Blanck has got it just right: quite restrained on the nose but with lovely ripe raspberry and cranberry flavours on the palate leading into a long fresh finish. The only sign that this comes from a relatively cool site is the modest (12.5%) alcohol, but, for me, that, too is a plus giving the wine elegance and style and making it really food-friendly: duck or turkey certainly, but the lowish tannin would also point to pairing it with some robust fish dish, say a tuna steak.
Although Pinot Noir is most famously grown in Burgundy, it’s also found (as Spätburgunder) in parts of Germany and this example from Alsace is, for me, closer to that country’s style. One more sign, perhaps, of this region looking two ways.
Pinot Noir is, undoubtedly, one of the fussiest and most difficult of all the major wine grapes to grow. Plant it somewhere too cold and it simply won’t ripen, too warm and you get coarse, jammy flavours and the ‘sweet spot’ between these two can be perilously small. It thrives, of course, in its French homeland, Burgundy, and there are some delightful examples elsewhere, including in Germany, Chile, New Zealand and the cooler parts of the USA (especially Washington State and Oregon but, despite the film ‘Sideways’, less frequently in California in my experience).
Obviously, you can forget much of Australia – it’s just too hot, although there a few areas where the cold Antarctic winds and tidal currents make the climate far cooler (and so Pinot Noir friendly) than you might expect from the latitude. Among these are the Great Southern region of Western Australia and Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. On the other hand, surprisingly, there is one part of Australia where it’s so cool that growers need to seek out sheltered spots with good exposure to the sun to ripen their Pinot Noir at all. That is the island state of Tasmania, about 100 miles south of the mainland which is, in fact, on the same latitude as New Zealand’s Marlborough region.
And it’s from Tasmania that Devil’s Corner Pinot Noir (Wine Society, £14.95) comes. I tasted it recently: a typical Burgundian ‘farmyardy’ nose greets you but this is followed on the palate by lovely raspberry and cranberry flavours, a hint of cinnamon and a really long, crisp finish. Given the price of good Pinots from elsewhere, I thought this was excellent value for money and an ideal match for our pan fried duck breasts with a honey and thyme sauce.
But, before I make you too hungry, I’ll end with a wine trivia question for you: what is the most westerly Designated wine region (Appellation Contrôlée or local equivalent) in mainland Europe? I’ve just enjoyed a wine from there and I’ll tell you about it next time.