Tag Archives: the Bristol Wine Blog

Plain and Simple

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I think it was the former US President Bill Clinton who used the phrase ‘Keep it simple, stupid’.  Those who design most traditional German wine labels should take note!  Take the example below:

German Label

It has the producer’s name, the vintage, the grape variety, the region, village and vineyard in which the grapes were grown and even an indication of how ripe the grapes were at harvest.  This is typical of German wine labels and makes them among the most informative in the world.  But that – and the common use of the difficult-to-read antique font – also puts off many wine lovers who don’t want – or understand – all the detail.  “Just give me a clear idea what the wine is going to taste like”!

So, I was pleasantly surprised recently to find a German wine with one of the barest labels I’ve seen:

Grauburgunder

Just the producer’s name, the grape variety (Grauburgunder is the German name for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris) and the vintage.  Anyone interested in the region (Rheinhessen) or village (Nierstein) could check the back label where you also find, far more importantly, that the wine is dry (trocken) and has, unusually for a German white, 14% alcohol. In some wines, this level of alcohol can taste ‘hot’ or dominate the flavour but not here; it brings a lovely richness in the mouth – closer in style to a good Alsace Pinot Gris rather than a light and quaffable Pinot Grigio.  The wine is quite savoury with a delightful saline character that makes it really food-friendly – a noble fish in a creamy sauce comes to mind. 

From the label to the taste and style, this is about as far away from normal expectations of a German wine as it could be, but it’s really delicious.  And a bargain, too: Louis Guntrum’s Grauburgunder is just £11.50 from the Wine Society.

Hot – or too hot?

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harvest 2017It’s difficult to believe as I look out of my window in cool and rainy Bristol, that, across much of southern Europe at the moment, there is a heatwave and a drought.  Daytime temperatures there have reached the mid 40s (over 110˚F) for several days in a row, with nights remaining over 30˚ (86˚F) and many places have seen no rain for months.  It may be fine for the tourists (some of them, anyway – I’d find it too hot) but, how about the locals trying to work – or, indeed, the crops?

Vines need both warmth and sunshine to thrive and produce good ripe grapes for wine but, when, as now, conditions get too hot, one of 2 things happen: if there’s plenty of water for irrigation (and local rules allow its use), the combination of great heat and water cause the grapes to swell quickly and rush to ripeness, gaining high levels of sugar (and so high potential alcohol) but not much flavour – that comes from long, slow ripening.  Also, without cooler nights, the acidity that is crucial to making a refreshing wine will drop sharply.  The result: poor quality ‘jug’ wines appealing only to those seeking bargain price quaffing.

When drought conditions accompany a heatwave, as we’re seeing now in southern Europe, or where irrigation is banned, things are very different.  Without water, the vines will begin to shut down in order to protect themselves; the grapes will shrivel and fall off and the harvest will be much reduced.  Producers then need to decide quickly: pick straight away and salvage some of the crop or wait and hope that September will produce cooler temperatures, rain and better prospects.   That is the choice being faced by many now.  When similar extreme conditions occurred in 2003, most chose to pick in August rather than wait.  A few good wines were made, but many were unattractive with baked or dried fruit flavours and some normally long-lasting wines faded quickly. 

But, although 2003 and 2017 are truly exceptional, growers right across Europe are reporting that, even in ‘normal’ years, they are harvesting 2 or 3 weeks earlier than their parents did and picking riper grapes.  And varieties that once only grew in certain places are now thriving in regions that were previously thought too cool. 

Something is certainly happening to the world’s weather.  The climate is changing and all of us, not just the winemakers will need to adjust to it.

Monsieur Kir’s Discovery

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What do you do with some white wine without much flavour but that has too much acidity to make enjoyable drinking?   I might use it for cooking or in a salad dressing replacing the vinegar or lemon juice.  But Felix Kir, mayor of the town of Dijon in France just after the 2nd World War, had a better plan: he mixed it with some local blackcurrant liqueur and served it at official receptions.  Thus, the delicious aperitif we now call Kir, after the man himself, was born.

KirIn fact, Mayor Kir didn’t actually invent the drink – he re-invented it.  The blackcurrant liqueur, Crème de Cassis, was first sold commercially in Burgundy in the mid-1800s and, very soon afterwards, local café owners started adding it to the thin local red wine to make a sweeter, richer and altogether more palatable drink.  And so it continued until much of the red wine disappeared during the War, leaving an excess of white – not the high quality Chardonnay we now expect of white Burgundy but of another variety, the neutral, acidic Aligoté mentioned earlier.  Blanc-cassis, as it was originally known, was born, soon renamed ‘Kir’.

Initially 1 part of Cassis was mixed with 3 parts of wine, although, these days, 1:5 is more common (and the International Bartenders Association surprisingly recommends 1:10).  Variations include using sparkling wine instead of still to make Kir Royale – don’t waste good Champagne for this! – or replacing the Cassis with  Crème de Mûre (blackberry liqueur) or, my favourite as a summer aperitif, Crème de Pêche (peach). 

If you can’t find Aligoté, any crisp and not-too-aromatic white wine works just as well.  Or, try the original red wine mix – now generally known in French restaurants as a ‘Cardinale’ – very pleasant, but more of a winter drink.  And, as for the Cassis, Marks and Spencer’s have a very drinkable one at £10 a bottle – and a little goes a long way. 

But whichever you prefer, next time, raise your glass to Monsieur Kir for his enterprise.

A Bristol Drunkard!

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It’s amazing where an interest in wine can lead you.  For example, it was just a couple of days ago that I discovered that ‘Le Poivrot’ was French slang for a drunkard – not that I can see myself using that information very often!

But Le Poivrot is also the name of the latest addition to Bristol’s thriving wine and food scene – and just 10 minutes’ walk from our home. 

Le PoivrotWe had to try it – and we were pleased we did as it ticks all the boxes that a good wine bar should: around 50 wines by the bottle starting at just over £20 and almost 20 by the glass or 37.5cl (half-bottle size) carafe, encompassing the familiar (Muscadet, Soave, Beaujolais) as well some more interesting and eclectic examples.   I recognised several of the bottles as coming from Vine Trail, a wonderful locally-based importer specialising in wines from small, artisan French domains.

While most wine bars (including another of our favourites, The Library in Cheltenham Road) offer platters of meat or cheese or tapas-style plates to accompany their wines, Le Poivrot also has a small number of delicious sounding main courses: I had wood pigeon with asparagus and girolles while my wife enjoyed some pan-fried ling with poached pear and spinach – both dishes beautifully presented and full of flavour.  To accompany these – and the lovely plate of cheeses we had to follow, I chose two carafes: a crisp, clean, fruity Alsace Sylvaner from Leon Boesch and an attractive Bergerac, simple, but with rich black fruits, both great value at £17 each. And all served by knowledgeable, friendly and well-trained staff – at least 2 of whom have a background in one of Bristol’s Michelin Starred restaurants, Wilks.

We walked home happy but certainly not poivrot!

The ‘Body’ of a Wine

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‘Can you bring along a nice medium-bodied red?’ some good friends of ours suggested when we were going to dinner with them.  That gave me a good steer as to what was wanted but it is interesting that the word ‘body’ was used as it’s one of those wine words that you hear quite a lot but, in my experience, is not always properly understood.  (Our friends clearly did!)

For me, the easiest way to explain it is to contrast drinking water with taking a spoonful of honey or syrup.  The water doesn’t really have any weight in your mouth – if it was a wine, you’d call it ‘light-bodied’ – whereas the honey or syrup seems much denser and heavier – typical of a ‘full-bodied’ wine.  And, of course, wine isn’t just light- or full-bodied, there’s a whole spectrum in between and, in fact, most wines could be described as medium-bodied.

What determines the body of a wine?  The main factor is alcohol and so wines from hotter regions, where the grapes will become riper (and therefore potentially produce more alcohol), are more likely to be fuller bodied than those from cooler climates.  As an example, many German whites have only 8 or 9% alcohol and are some of the lightest bodied wines of all; most English wines, like the Sharpham, below, are similarly lacking in weight.  But you can have light bodied reds, too: most Beaujolais, Bardolino and Valpolicella fall into this category. 

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At the other end of the scale, there are a few full bodied whites – some Rhones and Australian and Californian Chardonnays – but many more reds: Zinfandels, Italian Amarones and Châteauneuf du Pape all often weigh in around 15% alcohol or even more, and are likely to be decidedly full bodied. 

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Why is all this important?  In trying to pair food with wine, you don’t want the food overpowering the wine nor vice versa.  So, with a delicate, subtly flavoured dish, choose something at the lighter end of the range – it can be white, red or rosé – while for a more robust dish, a fuller bodied example will probably work better.

There’s a lot more to say about food and wine pairing (some other time, perhaps) but thinking about the body of the wine is a first step.

Austria’s Revival

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Wine lovers with long memories may be wary of Austrian wine.  The so-called ‘anti-freeze’ scandal of the 1980s has cast a long shadow.  For those readers who are puzzled by my opening comments, the problem was that a few of that country’s producers illegally added diethylene glycol (not anti-freeze, but with a chemically similar sounding name) to their wines to increase their sweetness.  The addition apparently caused no harm to anyone drinking the wines but it shouldn’t have happened and it proved far from harmless to the Austrian wine industry, which was devastated with sales collapsing both at home and abroad.

It has taken decades to rebuild but now, 30 years later and backed by some of the strictest wine laws in the world, Austria is re-emerging as a producer of high quality wines at generally affordable prices.  The local speciality is Grüner Veltliner, a grape that is becoming quite fashionable (with good reason) and there are some delicious Rieslings available, too, both dry, in the style of Alsace, and wonderfully sweet.  But a combination of changes in consumers’ taste and a bit of global warming has meant that Austrian reds, at one time, a tiny part of their output, have become much more important.  And that’s a good thing if a bottle I opened recently is a typical example:

ZweigeltHans Igler’s Zweigelt Classic (Wine Society, £9.50) is quite light-bodied but full of flavour – blackberries, black pepper and a subtle hint of wood.  The Zweigelt grape (another local speciality) gives it good, refreshing acidity and attractive soft tannins.  Good for drinking now (decant an hour or so in advance) or keep another couple of years.

As someone who remembers the Austrian wines of the 1980s and the scandal that followed, it’s been good to see their re-emergence onto the international scene over the past few years.  Austria today produces a range of reliable, good quality and good values wines – still mainly white but now their reds are clearly worth looking at, too.

Reaching out across the World

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As a major trading port, Bristol has been reaching out across the world for centuries – and a wine tasting I went to this week really brought that home to me.

It was organised by the Bristol-Hannover and Bristol-Bordeaux Twinning Associations who are celebrating their 70th anniversaries this year, having started just after the 2nd World War in an effort to reach out and support other devastated European cities.

The tasting itself was on board a replica of John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, that, in 1497, sailed from Bristol and across the Atlantic to become the first Europeans known to have landed on the North American mainland (although Norse sagas suggest that their sailors may have done so several centuries earlier).  The original ship was lost but the replica was built here in the city in the 1990s and repeated the original voyage to commemorate the 500th anniversary.  These days, the ‘new’ Matthew is used for educational purposes, appears in films and television programmes and is a major tourist attraction in Bristol Docks.  And, of course, it can be hired for events – including the wine tasting I mentioned earlier.

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And the fact that the tasting was hosted by Mimi Avery, on behalf of the historic Bristol company that bears her name (it was founded in 1793), also fitted the ‘reaching out’ theme.  Mimi’s grandfather, Ronald, was one of very few British wine merchants to actually visit foreign vineyards and meet the growers while her father, John, travelled widely and introduced many New World wines into the UK that have subsequently become iconic.

But, let’s not forget the wines: 

DSCN1503of course Mimi found some interesting bottles from Bordeaux to show us.  And, although Hannover is not a wine producing area of Germany, we tasted some attractive examples from elsewhere in that country.   But, perhaps Mimi’s most innovative thinking went into our aperitif: a Prosecco which reflected John Cabot’s Italian heritage (he was previously known as Zuan Chabboto, although his name has long been anglicized).

So, all in all, a fascinating and most enjoyable evening and a perfect example of how generations of Bristolians (and adopted citizens, such as Cabot) have reached out across the world.