Good or Very Good?

How do you decide how good a wine is?  Most professionals today will give it a mark out of 100 – the higher the score, the better they rate the wine (although I wonder why 100 was chosen as nothing ever gets less than 50 and few score below 70).  This system originated in the USA with Robert Parker and has largely replaced the one most European judges used until a few years ago: marks out of 20 – although the same criticism applies: virtually nothing scored less than 10.  Indeed, the Australian wine critic Len Evans once crudely observed, “even the spit bucket gets 7 out of 20!”

Some wine lovers will buy their wines based on these scores (fine if your taste and that of the critic scoring the wine coincide, but beware if not), but, for most, the best way to assess a wine is ‘do I like it?’, possibly closely followed by ‘is it worth the price?’

When my wife and I share a bottle (frequently!), we usually sample it while we’re cooking, continue with it during the meal and, if any remains, drink it through the evening afterwards.  Although some wines don’t last that long!  We opened one like that recently:

Pazo villareiPazo de Villarei’s Albariño from Galicia in North West Spain (Wine Society, a bargain at £10.50) was just so drinkable.  Lovely peach and pineapple aromas and flavours and a real richness that went perfectly with some baked hake with chorizo.  The bottle went down so quickly, there was no need to consider whether we liked it – our empty glasses told the tale.

But not all wines disappear that fast and, if some lingers throughout the evening, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not enjoying it.  There are some wines that are made like that; the Italians have a lovely name for them: Vino da meditazione, literally, ‘a wine for meditation’, a wine to be savoured, to be enjoyed slowly, a wine of depth and character.  They can be just as good as our rapidly disappearing Albariño, but different.

And, after all, who wants to eat or drink the same thing all the time?

Rioja at Bar 44

While we were enjoying a delicious tapas lunch at our new favourite wine bar, Bar 44 in Clifton, we noticed a Rioja dinner advertised at the same venue. 6 delicious-sounding courses each accompanied by a matching wine. We booked straight away and we weren’t disappointed.

Tempranillo is the main grape for Rioja’s reds but, as with most red wine grapes, its pulp is colourless so, by careful pressing you can also make an attractive white wine which, here, was served as aperitif and with the opening scallop starter.  Pumpkin gazpacho followed alongside a second white: an old favourite of ours, the complex and subtly oaky Murrieta Capellania.

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The next 3 courses, a risotto, some wonderful lamb with aubergine and roast fennel and some rosemary infused manchego cheese allowed us to explore the range of ageing and oaking that typifies Rioja. Quinta Milú’s unoaked young example was full of simple red fruits, while Beronia’s Reserva 2014, made, unusually with Mazuelo (perhaps better known as Carignan) rather than Tempranillo, had a lovely blend of fruit and gentle smokiness, although will, in my view, be rather better after a further 2 or 3 years in bottle.

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The final red, served with the cheese, was Beronia’s Gran Reserva 2010. I mainly avoid Gran Reservas as, in the past, I’ve often found them dried out and vegetal from just too long sitting in oak barrels. Not here! This was fresh with just the perfect mix of young fruit and spicy, oaky complexity.

The beautiful, tasty dessert of pears prepared 3 ways provided an ideal foil for a not over-sweet dessert wine.

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Bodegas Vivanco’s blend of 4 late-harvested red varieties was an unusual but successful choice with a lovely honeyed nose and palate of red fruits with a certain nuttiness.

What stood out for us in this evening was not just the quality of the food, nor even the interesting nature of the wines but, above all, the care and respect for both the food and the wines that was obvious in the pairing of the two. Congratulations to Bar 44.

 

Ribeira Sacra – for the adventurous

The Spanish DO (designated wine area) of Ribeira Sacra isn’t at all well-known – even among keen wine lovers. In fact, in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (nicknamed the ‘Winelovers’ Bible’ with good reason), it merits just 2 lines. And the Wine and Spirit Education Trust ignores it completely until students reach ‘Diploma’ level. But, based on the wines I’ve tasted from there, it’s certainly an area worth exploring – and not just for the adventurous.

So, where is Ribeira Sacra? Look to Spain’s far north-west where you find the cool, Atlantic-influenced region of Galicia, which is becoming increasingly popular due, in particular, to the high quality Albariño grape. This white variety thrives near the coast but, go just 50 miles or so inland, and it’s a local red grape, Mencia, that dominates in ancient, almost impossibly steep rocky vineyards; you’ll see the words ‘viticultura heroica’ on the label pictured. Growing vines here is heroic viticulture indeed!

MenciaBut, if you’d expect Regina Viarum Mencia (Wine Society, a bargain at £11.50) to reflect this harsh, uncompromising landscape with a wine of a similar character, you’d be wrong. It’s a wine that, for me, had the same silky smoothness of a nice Pinot Noir – interesting as some thought that Mencia might be related to that grape, although apparently not. This classy example is delightfully fresh with lovely slightly bitter cherry aromas and flavours. Completely unoaked, the pure fruit shows through to give a refreshing and very satisfying red wine. Food-friendly as you might guess – but nothing too big or robust: partridge or duck, perhaps.

Ribeira Sacra’s production is tiny and wines from there may be difficult to find but, next door, in Bierzo, they also grow the Mencia grape and Majestic have a good example in Pizarras de Otero (£7.49).

Either way, this is a grape and a region worth getting to know.

A Shy and Reticent Wine?

The English are often described as ‘reserved’ people: shy, reticent, not very forthcoming.  But the word ‘reserve’ can have other meanings: I can reserve a table at a restaurant or set a reserve – a minimum sale price – at an auction, for example. But what does it mean to wine lovers?

Look along the shelves of your local supermarket or wine merchant and you’ll notice that Reserve (or a local variant such as Reserva or Riserva) is one of the words most commonly found on the labels.  So, does it mean that the wine is shy, reticent and not very forthcoming?  Unfortunately not!  But, what it does mean (if anything) varies a lot, depending on where the wine comes from.

Things are clearest in Spain.  Spanish wine tasting (2)There, Reserva denotes a red wine that has been aged for at least 3 years before being released for sale, at least one year of which must have been in oak barrels.  For whites and rosés, the figure is 2 years (6 months in barrel).  The requirements for Gran Reservas are longer: for reds, 5 years (2 in oak barrel), for whites and rosés, 4 years (6 months in barrel).

Across the border in Portugal, the rules for their Reserva are much less specific, simply requiring the wine to be from a ‘good’ vintage (how do you define that?) with an alcohol level at least ½% above the regional minimum (which varies from place to place).

Italy’s equivalent is Riserva.

41 SelvapianaThis also varies from place to place – as do most things in Italy; it, too, denotes a certain minimum ageing, usually at least a year, although, for Barolo, it is as long as 5 years!  Often, higher alcoholic strength and other requirements are also included in the local rules.

And that’s as far as the regulated use of these terms goes.  Anywhere else and the word has no official meaning.  It might be used to suggest that the wine is of a higher quality, as in the French ‘Réserve du Patron’ or terms like Estate Reserve or Reserve Selection, or has seen some oak ageing, but, outside Spain, Portugal and Italy, none of this is guaranteed.

To my mind, we ought to reserve (sorry!) the use of the word to those places where it does have a legal meaning, but I’m not going to make a fuss about it because I’m English and too reserved!