Tag Archives: the Bristol Wine Blog

Beyond Rioja

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Think of Spain and the next word that comes to mind for a wine lover is probably Rioja.  And with good reason: some outstanding reds and many other very drinkable ones, whites in both traditional and modern styles and even the odd rosado (rosé).  But Spain is so much more than Rioja; it has the largest area of vineyard of any country in the world – yes, even more than France or Italy, even though they produce more wine – and almost everywhere you look, you can find interesting and different wines.

Basque whiteSometimes, you might not even realise that they’re Spanish at all.  Take Olatu’s Getariako Txakolina (Corks, £15.99) in its unusual blue, flute-shaped bottle; it’s from the Basque region of northern Spain but the only mention of its country of origin is in tiny print on the back label.  And to taste, too, it’s about as un-Spanish as it could be: to start, it’s only 11.5% alcohol – the result of the cool Atlantic winds and currents restricting the ripening of the local Hondarrabi Zuri grapes.  But, unlike many wines light in alcohol, this isn’t thin or sharp; you’ll find quite a bit of richness on the palate and attractive flavours of baked apples and spice.  There’s an apparent hint of sweetness in there, too, although the wine is actually bone dry, really refreshing and finishes quite long.

You might be tempted to think of it as an aperitif wine, as I did, but, in reality, the savoury flavours mean that it works much better with food, even with quite a robust dish like baked river trout on a bed of herbed toasted chickpeas.

Thinking of other Spanish whites – a white Rioja or Albariño from Galicia, perhaps, this couldn’t be more different; proof, if you still need some, that Spanish wines today are really worth looking out for and just so much more than Rioja.

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For the Adventurous

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BTC Novel winesThe world of wine is expanding.  How often have I said that?  And it’s moving so fast that it’s almost impossible for any 1 person to keep up with all the changes.  That’s where small, independent companies come to the fore.  They can focus on particular areas ignored by others and gain in-depth knowledge of where the best wines are made and, perhaps, more importantly, who are the best producers.

One such independent is Novel Wines based in Bath.  India, Brazil, Croatia and Turkey are among the unlikely names on their list and a tasting they hosted recently for the Bristol Tasting Circle proved a fascinating opportunity to sample the offerings from some of the wine world’s less well-known countries.

The delightful Olaszrizling from the St Donat estate in Hungary (£17.95) was, for me, the pick of the whites.  The grape variety – no relation to Riesling despite the similarity of part of its name – isn’t generally regarded as particularly interesting but here gave lovely, tangy, herby flavours with well-integrated spicy oak and a good long dry finish.

BTC Cab S

Guliev Tremelov’s Cabernet Reserve from Odessa in the Ukraine (£17.50) was one of 2 stand-out reds.  Showing plenty of the blackcurrant fruit typical of the grape, backed up by some attractive toasty oak, this had good length and some complexity but, above all, was really drinkable, although, like so many reds, would be even better with food.

My other red choice was from Serbia.  DiBonis’ DiFranc (£27.95) used the ‘other’ Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, to give a wine with a perfumed, bitter cherry nose and lovely, sweet fruit on the palate.  One colleague said the wine reminded her of Black Forest Gateau, another said marzipan.  To me, it had shades of a good Valpolicella, but with, perhaps, rather more intensity.  Hardly a typical Cabernet Franc but a lovely wine, nonetheless, and, again, just crying out to accompany food – pan roasted duck breast in particular.

A fascinating tasting proving just how many different flavours are out there if you are adventurous and seek out the small companies, like Novel, who can point you in the right direction.

A Bargain Burgundy

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It’s easy to spend a lot of money on a really good white Burgundy.  Yet, Burgundy is, surely, the most complicated of all of France’s Appellations Contrôlées (ACs) and, as a result, it’s just as easy to make an expensive mistake.  But, this same complexity allows you, just occasionally, to find a bargain – or as close to a bargain as is possible among the wines of this famous, much sought-after region.

A bottle I opened recently falls into this category.

Oncle Vincent

A quick glance at the label, showing the lowest level of the Burgundy hierarchy (AC Bourgogne), suggests it might be a simple everyday drinking wine, the kind you find in every supermarket for around £10 – £12.  But, look further: Olivier Leflaive is a well-respected name and the ‘Oncle Vincent’ tag looks like a special bottling, as indeed it is.  A tribute to Leflaive’s uncle and mentor, the grapes for this are from vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet, one of the most sought-after villages in the Côte de Beaune, where the top wines frequently sell for £50 a bottle and upwards. 

This example has lovely flavours of white fruits – peach and pear – made deliciously tangy and spicy from 10 months in barrels and has great length.  It’s really one of the nicest wines I’ve tasted all year.  This was the 2014 vintage I bought from the Wine Society a few years back, but they now have the 2016 vintage in their list at £20 and, if it’s as good (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be), then it certainly is a bargain, even at that price.  I’d keep it a couple of years before opening it, though.

So, why label a wine as a simple generic Burgundy when the fruit comes from a top village?  The explanation lies in the complexity of the Burgundy ACs I mentioned earlier.  Different vineyards have different classifications – one may be Grand Cru or Premier Cru while its neighbour may just be village AC.  Clearly, Leflaive has some less favoured patches, or perhaps younger vines or even grapes not needed for more expensive wines.  Whichever is the truth, Oncle Vincent is certainly a wine that Burgundy lovers looking for value should seek out.

The Life of a Wine Educator

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WSET tastingThis shows just a small selection of the wines I tasted one day earlier this week, as part of a class I was running for a group of students – a couple of enthusiastic amateurs but mainly people already working in the wine industry (in hotels, restaurants or wine shops) – who wanted to further their careers by studying for professional qualifications via the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

They had reached  Level 3 of their study (Level 4 – the Wine Diploma – is the highest WSET course only topped by Master of Wine, of whom there are just a few hundred in the world).  The Level 3 stage is when the class focuses on the question ‘what makes this wine taste as it does?’  That sounds quite simple but, at this fairly advanced point of their journey, it is anything but – for me, also, at times, as their enthusiastic questioning often challenges my knowledge!

As we consider the question, we look at the vineyard – its soil, its slope, the climate, how good is its exposure to the sun – and the decisions taken by the grower – whether to go for quality or quantity and, perhaps most important of all: when to harvest the crop for optimum ripeness.

Then, there’s what happens in the winery: are you going to ferment with whole bunches, grapes only or carbonic maceration – explaining that one is always challenging (I’ll leave it for another day, but you can Google it if you’re interested!).  Also, are oak barrels used to hold the wine or stainless steel?  And how long is the wine kept before it is bottled and shipped out?

And all this while tasting (and spitting out, of course!) more than 20 wines.  Just another day in the life of a wine educator – or student!

Happily, not all the classes I teach are this detailed or aimed at would-be professionals.  For those who enjoy a glass of wine but simply want to learn a little more, I also run regular 1 day events at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  The next one, “Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet” is on Saturday 17 November.  Places are still available, but it is booking up fast.  Go to www.bristolcourses.com for more details and to book. 

I hope to meet some of you there.

The 2018 Harvest

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harvest 2017A few weeks ago, I blogged about the record high summer temperatures across much of Europe and how these might lead to the same problems growers experienced in the heatwave year of 2003.  Then, many wines tasted ‘cooked’ and lacked freshness and most were past their best much sooner than expected.  But, the reports I’ve seen recently suggest that my worries may have been misplaced.  In fact, the word is that, so far, the grapes harvested this year have shown excellent levels of ripeness and volumes are up on 2017.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there have been no challenges during the growing season; many have noted that, as the heat was accompanied by humidity, vine diseases, notably mildew which attacks both leaves and berries, have been a major problem.  And harvesting has had to be careful and painstaking as pickers are often finding healthy grapes and shrivelled, dried out berries in the same bunches.

But the 2018 harvest is only part way through and, where later ripening varieties are involved, things are still uncertain.  Take Bordeaux as an example: there, the white grapes were all gathered in by the end of August and are now safely in the fermentation tanks.  Now, thoughts are turning to the Merlot, which, in most places will be reaching full ripeness.  I’ve not heard that the storms that affected the UK last week had an impact on Bordeaux to any great extent and, hopefully, that variety will be soon be picked and it, too, will no longer be subject to the vagaries of our autumn weather.

More problematic is the Cabernet Sauvignon which some growers are insisting needs at least another three weeks of dry, warm weather to fully ripen.  Will they get it?  There will certainly be nervous eyes looking at the skies for rain clouds.  The decision of when to pick is such a crucial one; too early means the grapes are short of peak ripeness and the wine will taste thin and green but waiting may risk rain, rot and a ruined crop.

The challenges of being a winemaker!

 

 

 

An Elegant Aussie Shiraz

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‘When you find a wine you like, keep buying it’ sounds like good advice.  But things aren’t always as simple as that.  Weather variations might mean that next year’s bottle will taste very different to this year’s.  Also, winemakers move on and their replacement may have other ideas and, over time, styles and fashions change.  And, of course, so might your own taste as you sample more widely.  As a result, the wine you loved a few years ago may not be the wine you want to buy now.

But there’s another reason for abandoning an old favourite:

Langi Ghiran Shiraz

I first tasted Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz more than 20 years ago and loved it instantly.  Although a big, concentrated wine, it was far more elegant than any other Australian Shiraz I had ever tasted.  And, for a good reason: rather than coming from the Barossa or one of the other warm regions noted for the grape, this was from the much cooler, high altitude Grampians region of Western Victoria.  The lower temperatures meant that the grapes ripened slowly, picking up more flavours than would otherwise have been the case, and could be picked at lower potential alcohol levels, resulting in the style I was so taken with.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only person who found Langi Ghiran attractive and, over the years, the price has consequently gone through the roof.  A bottle that could once be (almost) every day drinking is now £50 plus – a figure I only stretch to for very, very special occasions.  But, thanks to the Wine Society, I can still enjoy a Shiraz made by Langi Ghiran: the Society’s Exhibition Victoria Shiraz (the 2014 vintage is currently available for £16) is made by the same producer and, whether it is made from younger vines or bought-in grapes, I don’t know.  But it does give much of the taste and style of the estate wine – at an affordable price.

We recently opened a bottle of the 2012 vintage that had been sitting on a rack under our stairs for a number of years and it was quite delicious with some venison steaks marinaded in sugar and orange juice and with a gin and juniper berry sauce.  It was, however, only just ready to drink (after several hours decanting) so, if you buy the 2014, as I will, do leave it for a couple of years at least before you enjoy an outstanding wine and a real bargain.

 

A Spicy Choice

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Kedgeree was first introduced to the UK from India in Victorian times by those returning from that country after military or diplomatic service.  Then, it was mainly eaten as a breakfast dish in some of our large country houses.  Today, it is more likely to be seen as a lunch or light supper dish – and that’s when my wife and I enjoy it.  But how do you find a wine to pair with a mixture of smoked haddock, pungent spices like cumin and coriander, the sweetness of sultanas and that simple ingredient that is so often described as a ‘wine killer’: eggs?

Let’s start with the basics.  Although I’m not one for sticking rigidly to the ‘white with fish or poultry, red with red meat’ idea, in this case, the tannins of most red wines are likely to make the spices taste much hotter (and so, out of proportion with the rest of the dish) and I can’t see a rosé – even the most assertive example – standing up to all those strong and powerful flavours.  

So, we’re thinking white wine.  But what sort?  You might have heard ‘oaked with smoked’ and I certainly wouldn’t put you off a nice oaked Chardonnay as a match for the smoked fish, but the sweetness and spices gave me another idea: Gewurztraminer.  The word ‘gewurz’ means ‘spicy’ in German and wines made from this variety often have a slightly spicy edge to them.  It’s a grape that is native to both Germany and France’s Alsace region, although it’s now grown more widely – I’ve tasted some lovely bottles from New Zealand, for example.

Turckheim GewurzBut we had one from the excellent co-operative in the Alsace village of Turckheim on our shelf (Corks of Cotham, £12.99) and the cool, aromatic, slightly off-dry taste went fairly well.  But, as anyone who cooks will know, even if you follow a recipe, dishes don’t turn out tasting exactly the same every time.  Perhaps I was too conservative when adding the spices as this Kedgeree wasn’t nearly as flavoursome as I expected.  As it was, the oaked Chardonnay might have worked better – or an Alsace Pinot Gris or even a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. 

Next time I’ll make sure I taste the food before choosing the wine!