Tag Archives: the Bristol Wine Blog

A Frozen Delight

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Growing grapes to make wine is not a job for anyone who values certainty.  The weather, vine diseases and pests can all intervene and make the difference between a glorious success and a total loss.  And, with the weather, especially, there’s not much you can do to influence things.

Spring frosts will damage or destroy tiny vine shoots, rain during the flowering period (early summer) will interfere with pollination and cool or wet summers will restrict ripening.  Rain during the autumn harvest can introduce rot or dilute the juice. And, hail at any time can destroy an entire crop in minutes.

But, even if the weather behaves as you would like, a number of vineyard diseases can be a nuisance – albeit most are treatable – and lovely sweet, ripe grapes are a great attraction to birds and often mammals, too.

So, not surprisingly, there are often big celebrations when the harvest is safely gathered in.  For most, that will be by late autumn – unless you’re trying to make Ice Wine (“Eiswein” in Germany and Austria).  For this, you need to leave your grapes on the vine (and untouched by pests) until late November or even December when the temperatures reach -8˚C (18˚F) – cold enough to turn the water content of the grape pulp into ice. Then, pickers go out into the vineyard and rush the grapes back to the winery press before they thaw.  The press releases the sugar in the berries but leaves the water content behind as ice pellets.  In this way, the sugar is greatly concentrated and wonderful, sweet wines result.

Given the process and the risks involved, you won’t be surprised to hear that Ice Wine is quite rare and incredibly expensive (expect to pay £30 – £40 a half bottle retail, rather more in restaurants).  Apart from Germany and Austria, some of the best comes from Canada.  A local Bristol restaurant, Adelina Yard, had an example on their list when we visited with some good friends recently and, of course, we couldn’t resist. 

Ice wine 1 (2)Stratus’s Ice Wine from Niagara on the Lake in Canada is made from Riesling – probably the best variety for the style giving a wonderful balancing acidity to the surprisingly delicate, but intense sweetness of the wine. 

A real delight and a triumph for the growers.

 

My Kind of Lesson

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I used to hate history lessons when I was at school.  I just couldn’t see any reason for learning about things that had happened so long ago.  And geography wasn’t much better.  Why should I be interested in places that, at the time, I never thought I would visit?

Of course, I know better now – I’ve been to some of the places I learnt about and realise that much of what is happening today is as a result of what happened in the past.  And, through my interest in wine, both history and geography have come to life – something my teachers could never manage to do.  For example, the back label of a bottle of wine I opened recently told me that the Aglianico grape from which the wine was made had been grown in the Campania region of southern Italy for over 2000 years.  But that bare fact hides something more: the name Aglianico (“alley-annie-co”) derives from “the Hellenic (or Greek) one”, so we know that, although the grape has been grown in Italy for 2 millennia, it was originally brought there across the Aegean Sea by early Greek traders.  History and geography in a single bottle!

But, what about the wine? 

AglianicoTerredora di Paolo’s Aglianico (Waitrose, £12.99) has a typical southern Italian intensity and richness with attractive wild berry and cherry flavours and a distinct underlying acidity that helps it go so well with food – try it with grilled lamb chops.  And, despite the warmth of Campania, the alcohol is quite restrained (13%) giving the wine a nice balance.

I’m sure my history and geography teachers would be proud of me now – I certainly gave them no reason to be at the time.  But then, their lessons couldn’t explain things in my kind of way – through the medium of wine!

 

Too Young? Too Old?

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I guess that anyone reading this Blog enjoys drinking wine but many will think it’s almost as enjoyable talking about it and discussing it.  And from there, it’s just a small step to arguing about it!  Of course, such arguments can never really be resolved – we’ve all got our own likes and dislikes and everyone’s sense of taste is unique to them.  So, when a good friend of mine tells me (as he does regularly) that I always open bottles when they’re too young and I, in return, accuse him of leaving them until they’re well past their best, we’re both right in our own minds.

But, a couple of bottles my wife and I have enjoyed recently have made me wonder if I should have a bit of a re-think.  I ordered a bottle of Moulin-a-Vent, one of the village Beaujolais, when we tried an excellent new Bristol restaurant, Box E, last week.  Now, I would expect to drink this within, perhaps, 3 or 4 years of harvest at most, yet the bottle I was served (a 2009 vintage) was deliciously fresh with lovely fruit and, despite already being more than 7 years old, clearly would have had several more years of pleasurable drinking ahead of it.

And then, at the weekend, we opened a bottle of Fayolle’s ‘Sens’ Crozes Hermitage (Corks of Cotham, £15.99).

  CrozesThis one was 6 years old (2010) but was full of silky, youthful blackberry fruit flavours and hints of pepperiness.  But, accompanying this were distinct tannins – showing a wine that was still young and, indeed, would certainly improve if carefully stored.  (A word of warning: decant this before serving and pour carefully as you’ll find plenty of sediment in the bottle).

So, this leaves me with the question: should I wait a few years before opening all my 2015 and 2016 wines?  Probably not!  But, I may take a chance on a few and will, hopefully, be pleasantly surprised.  And, if you’re like me, why not try the same? 

One final thought: if you open something in a few years time and wish you’d have drunk it sooner, you’ll probably have forgotten that it was me who suggested it!

 

A Bargain Montalcino

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Brunello di Montalcino is one of Italy’s most prestigious red wines.  It’s made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes, the same variety used in Chianti, in a designated area around the small town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany.  Here, in the warm, dry climate, the Sangiovese (known locally as Brunello) reaches maximum ripeness leading to fuller, richer wines than many of those found in Chianti.  14% alcohol and more is not unusual, particularly in a hot year.

The rules for Brunello demand 4 years ageing at the winery (at least 2 of which must be in oak barrels) before the wine can be sold.  And even once they are on the market, most Brunellos still need considerable time before they really reach their peak – 10 -15 years after vintage is a commonly suggested drinking window.

But, with 4 years to wait before producers get any income from sales of Brunello, most also make another wine, Rosso di Montalcino, usually from younger or less well-sited vines.   This only has to be aged for a year after which it can be sold.  In normal years, a Rosso di Montalcino from a good producer is an attractive, approachable red wine ready for early drinking but, in warm years like 2015, when there was a large harvest of almost uniformly high quality grapes, it becomes a really interesting proposition.  The producers, eager for some early income, won’t want to put all their grapes into their Brunello even if the quality might allow them to do so.  No, in these years, some go into the Rosso making it altogether richer and more characterful.

Rosso di MontalcinoAnd that is exactly what had happened in the example I opened recently from Gianni Brunelli.  This is quite complex and full of lovely bramble flavours.  There’s still some tannin there – we decanted it and drunk it with some grilled herbed lamb – but it would certainly improve for another couple of years or so.  And, compared to the same producer’s Brunello (£34 for the 2012 vintage from the Wine Society), the Rosso (£15.50, same supplier) is a real bargain.

Beyond Sunshine in a Glass

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Australia built much of its early reputation in the UK on crowd-pleasing Chardonnays.  The recipe was simple but effective: plenty of up-front tropical fruit and oak flavours and generous levels of alcohol.   “Sunshine in a glass” as they were often described.  And, although these wines are still popular – look on any supermarket shelf – there are many wine lovers who would never even consider, let alone buy, an Oz Chardonnay.  Their reputation, at one time so helpful, now puts off some of those who grew up on the early Chardonnays but who are now looking for something more interesting and complex.

Yet, if you search a little wider (and pay a little more), there are some really talented winemakers in Australia who are using the country’s favourite grape to produce delightful, flavoursome bottles in a subtle style that would have been totally alien 2 decades ago.  Take Lenton Brae’s Southside Chardonnay from Margaret River (Wine Society, £14.95) for example. 

Lenton Brae Chard They use older vines (some planted in the pioneering days of 1982) to make a rich, mouth-filling wine with lovely green apple and pear flavours.  Fermenting in a mix of new and used French oak barrels adds a restrained spiciness.  But despite this, there was also enough crispness and freshness to go perfectly with asparagus – a dish I’d normally associate with a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry English white.

Margaret River in Western Australia has always done things a little differently.  2000 miles away from the more famous vineyards in the south-east of the country and with cooler influences from the Indian Ocean, WA has never produced wine in the volumes of those further east.  It has always concentrated more on quality than quantity as shown perfectly by this Lenton Brae.

But wines such as this are also a timely reminder to those who have ignored Oz Chardonnay for so long to take a fresh look.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Wine from Dried Grapes

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It would have been so easy to walk past the bottle sitting there on the bottom shelf of a large supermarket display: a rather dull label, a producer I’d never heard of and surrounded by a number of unexciting bargain-basement wines.  And then I spotted the word ‘Appassimento’ on the label.  Suddenly this wine became a lot more interesting.

Appassimento is a method of making wine from dried grapes and dates back at least 3000 years.  In ancient times it was quite common, especially in the warmer southern Mediterranean wine-growing areas.  After harvesting, the grapes were spread out on reed or straw mats under the sun (or hung up in nets) for 3 or even 4 months before being crushed and fermented.  During this time, they lose up to 50 per cent of their moisture, becoming shrivelled and dried up.  This concentrates the sugars in the berries producing a richer, sweeter wine.

Today, the process is much less common and many producers now dry the grapes in drying lodges rather than using the traditional straw mats.  It is mainly practised for sweet wines such as Vin Santo and one of my favourites, Passito di Pantellaria from a tiny island off the south-west coast of Sicily.  There is also one particularly famous dry example: Amarone della Valpolicella. 

The bottle I bought was not so famous but also dry.  This one was from the Puglia region in the ‘heel’ of Italy, made from an unusual blend of grapes: Merlot, Negroamaro and Zinfandel – this latter variety has a long history in the area, although better known locally as Primitivo.

Puglia AppassimentoCa’ Marrone’s Appassimento (Tesco, £8.50) has all the power and richness that this process typically gives to this type of wine, but accompanied by good plum and prune flavours and a certain smokiness.  This isn’t an easy quaffing wine but, with robust food it really comes into its own.  And at the price, it’s a real bargain when you think of the cost of a good Amarone.

 

Why No Grape Names?

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“Why don’t the French put grape names on their wine labels?  It’s so confusing.”  A familiar comment – and one I heard again at a tasting I ran recently. 

I can fully understand the view; grape names (or the 20 or so most popular ones, at least) are recognised by most customers buying wine and they know what to expect when they pick up a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio.  But, when they’re faced with a wine labelled ‘Chiroubles’ or ‘Cairanne’, things aren’t so straightforward.  Sadly, there’s no easy solution.2013-11-18 10.29.53

These – and many other French (and Italian and Spanish) wines – are labelled after the place they come from, not the grape (or grapes) they’re made from.  There’s a good reason for this: in most of the traditional winemaking areas of Europe, there’s a very strong attachment to the land (as anyone who has ever been stuck in a traffic jam behind a French farmers’ protest will confirm!)  So, it’s not just the grape variety that is important, it’s the soil, the climate, the slope of the land, the traditions of the area – all contribute to the taste in the bottle.  The French call this ‘terroir’.  And, given that, why would they single out just the grape name to put on the label when it’s the place and all it offers that makes the wine what it is?

Compare that to much of the New World, where things are very different: particularly in Australia, it’s quite normal to blend grapes grown in different areas, even different States.  So, without the same link to a place, why not use the grape name to sell your wine?  The fact that it’s easier for customers is simply a bonus – one that’s been the foundation of the great New World wine success story over the last 30 years or so.

It may seem strange, but I can’t see the French changing anytime soon.  Terroir is vital to them and so it will remain.  For the rest of us, it’s just a case of learning which grapes make which wine (or, sometimes, checking the back label). 

(For those who are interested, the Chiroubles I mentioned earlier uses the Gamay grape, whereas the Cairanne is likely to be a mixture including Grenache, Syrah – aka Shiraz – and probably several other local varieties).