No Hammers, Please!

The debate between cork and screwcap has been going on for ages.  Some think the sound of a cork being drawn from a wine bottle is the perfect prelude to a glassful and anything else takes away part of the enjoyment.  Others prefer the simplicity of a screwcap, knowing that they don’t have to go searching for a corkscrew wherever they happen to be and risking their wine might be ‘corked’.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both corks and screwcaps that I won’t go into here but, personally, I’m more concerned with what’s inside the bottle rather than how it’s kept secure until I’m ready to drink it.

But occasionally, you will see a different sort of closure and the first time you meet it, it may not be immediately obvious how it opens.  It’s made of glass and in its closed form it looks like the picture below, sometimes with a plastic or foil cap over it:

The easiest way to open it is to run a knife round the top of the neck of the bottle and lever the stopper off – the picture below shows the bottle with the stopper raised ready to simply lift off. 

You might also find something similar which, although also made of glass, works just like a screwcap.  It should be obvious which you’re dealing with.  They are both relatively expensive to make so you won’t see them too often.  Cork lovers will still miss the lovely sound that a cork makes, but they look stylish and the bottles can be re-used as the stopper fits back into the neck properly.

A word of warning, though: don’t do what a friend of mine did.  Normally a sensible, practical person, he couldn’t work out at all how to open it so phoned me for advice.  Sadly, I was out at the time and missed his call.  In frustration, he used a hammer on the top of the bottle resulting in a lot of mess and wasting a very nice wine!  I don’t let him forget it!

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Big but Balanced

I’ve been blogging for weeks about our record-breaking summer and the wines we have enjoyed to accompany lighter meals, often eaten outdoors on our lovely terrace.  Suddenly all has changed.  Autumn has arrived in a hurry and so we have turned to richer, more robust food, better suited to the cooler season.  Daube de Boeuf has long been one of our favourites – a flavoursome beef casserole with the meat marinaded in a mixture of red wine, herbs and a twist of orange rind before long, slow cooking.

The wine to drink with it?  Red, of course! 

Alain Jaume’s Vacqueyras (Majestic, £15.99) is a chunky blend of mainly Grenache and Syrah (Shiraz) that has been sitting on our wine rack for many months, just waiting for the right dish to pair it with.  It is, indeed, a big, mouth-filling wine – the label says 15% but I’d never have guessed that high as it is so well balanced.  It does need food, however, to show at its best and our Daube was ideal.  The first impression is of intense black fruits, herbs and a certain smokiness but, as the wine opens in the glass, attractive dried fruit flavours kick in alongside.  Our bottle, from the 2019 vintage, was still quite tannic – decanting in advance certainly helped – but, with hindsight, I should probably have left it unopened for another couple of years at least.

Vacqueyras is one of the villages of the southern Rhône valley, just a short drive from Châteauneuf du Pape and producing wines in a generally similar style to its more famous neighbour (although, as it is less well-known, they are often rather better value for money). 

Summers can be very hot in this part of France and heat-loving grapes like Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre thrive, giving very full-bodied reds with, it seems, ever-increasing levels of alcohol.  The challenge for producers now and (even more) in the future is to harness this and make wines that, as with the bottle recommended here, are big, rich and lush yet still properly balanced and with no unpleasant ‘burn’ on the finish.  

A Depressing Vintage

As the calendar ticks over into September, vineyard owners across Europe would traditionally be returning from their August holiday and thinking about when they should be harvesting their grapes.  They would know there’s a narrow window when there’s enough sugar in the berries to provide the flavour and alcohol needed but the grapes still retain some acidity ensuring that their wine is vibrant and refreshing.  Too soon or too late – it’s always a tricky call, sometimes made more difficult by forecasts of rain which can dilute the juice or introduce off-flavours through rot or, worse, hailstorms that can damage the vines as well as the crop.

But not this year!  The record-breaking temperatures have given producers a different – and possibly more challenging – problem.  In some places the grapes have ripened weeks earlier than usual and with worryingly low acidity levels.  As a result, many European growers have already finished their harvests – some in the south of France starting to pick as early as the last week of July.  Even the normally relatively cool Bordeaux region will begin harvesting its reds within the next couple of weeks, rather than in early October.  And growers there will be hoping that the impact of the recent forest fires will be less disastrous than was at one time feared.

Elsewhere the extreme heat accompanied by severe drought has simply caused the vines to shut down to protect themselves, leaving very little to harvest. 

So, with all these problems, what can we expect from the 2022 vintage?  I think a lot is going to depend on the producer, when exactly they are picking and the condition of the grapes at the time.  The dangers are, on the one hand, ‘cooked’ flavours and high levels of alcohol and (for the reds) high levels of tannin, too.  The alternative, for those who have picked very early, is under-ripe, thin wines with little character.  Either way, volumes will be lower than usual and prices will be higher.  Not a happy outlook for wine lovers.

And, if that isn’t depressing enough, global warming means this situation is likely to become more common for future vintages.  What’s that old expression about driving one to drink?!

Muscadet Revisited

In my Bristol Wine Blog a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in passing just how much Muscadet had improved recently.  Look back 25 years and the 1997 edition of Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was unflattering in its description of the Appellation: ‘bone-dry, light-bodied wines which, with very few exceptions, are ordinary wines at best and often lack balance’.  The advice was ‘drink young’, although, on that basis, why would you want to drink it at all?

But, as I said, things have changed and a bottle I opened a few days ago confirmed that view in the most delicious way – although I suspect that few wine professionals would be able, with any real confidence, to pick Château Thébaud (Joie de Vin, £18.95) as a Muscadet.  Dry, certainly, but with a richness and depth of flavour that is completely at odds with Sotheby’s comment.  So, why the difference?

Our example dated from 2016 – 6 years old – so not a young wine at all and the label tells me that it had spent almost 4 of those 6 years ‘sur lie’.  This is a process where, after the fermentation is complete, a wine is left in the cask resting in contact with the lees (the now dead yeast cells that caused the fermentation).  These impart a savoury, spicy flavour to the wine and also give it ‘texture’ in your mouth.  ‘Sur lie’ is normally just for a few months, occasionally up to a year, so to extend it to 4 years, as Château Thébaud have, accounts for much of the richness and character of this bottle.

We paired it with some seared tuna that we had marinaded in lime juice, honey and ginger – all quite potent flavours – but the wine matched perfectly showing lovely dried pineapple, honey and saffron and a really long complex finish.

I accept that this isn’t cheap at nearly £19 but compared to a good village Burgundy or white Rhône of the same quality, it starts to look like value for money – for a special occasion, at least.  

Sicilian Value

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and almost any sea voyage east to west will pass close by its shores.  That key strategic position resulted in the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders and the Moors all taking an interest in the island and evidence of their presence is still clearly visible for tourists to see.  The Greeks and Romans also, undoubtedly, had a major influence in developing the local wine industry although, until the last 20 years or so, very little from Sicily was of any great interest to wine lovers as producers focussed on quantity rather than quality.

Happily, all that has now changed and you can easily find fresh, fragrant whites from grape varieties such as Catarratto, Grillo and Carricante and deep, rich reds from, among others, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese – the latter particularly good when grown on the inhospitable, volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.

But, in the heat of this record-breaking English summer, deep, rich reds are not really the sort of wines we choose to drink with our salads and other lighter dishes.  Fortunately, Nerello Mascalese is also a good blending partner, adding weight and some tannin to softer fruitier varieties such as Frappato. 

Corte Ferro produce an attractive, very quaffable example of this mix (Majestic, £9.99).  Only light-medium bodied but with intense black fruit flavours and surprising complexity and length for the price.  As so often at the moment, we are even giving our reds a half hour in the fridge to bring them down to a more refreshing 16 – 18°C (equivalent to a cool room temperature) and the Corte Ferro drank very well as a result.  (It’s probably best to leave very tannic reds on the wine rack just now, as cooling them tends to emphasise the tannins).

If you have yet to discover Sicily’s wines, I recommend you look out for them.  Many are delicious and most are excellent value for money – an increasingly important factor with so many prices rising so quickly.

Moreish Loire Reds

The River Loire is mainly known for the variety of delicious white wines that are made from vineyards sited all along the banks of one of France’s longest rivers.  Starting in the west, there’s the crisp, dry Muscadet from near the Atlantic coast – generally much improved, if you haven’t tried a bottle recently.  Then, upstream, the Chenin Blanc grape takes over in the districts around Vouvray and Saumur making wines that can be sparkling, dry, off-dry or, in the Layon, just to the south, some of the best value and most attractive sweet wines in the whole of France.  Continuing your journey east through Touraine, you then move into Sauvignon Blanc country with, amongst others, the steely, minerally Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.

But not all Loire wines are white.  There’s some Pinot Noir grown in Sancerre for reds and (fairly pricy!) rosés and there are also some rosés from Anjou, although the quality there can be quite variable.  But it’s the surprisingly little-known reds from the area around Saumur that I really want to mention: names such as Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon.  All made with 100% Cabernet Franc grapes and all benefitting greatly from the global warming we’ve seen over the last couple of decades helping this underrated variety to reach full ripeness.

It’s difficult to choose just one wine from this group but I’ve picked an absolute bargain – Domaine de la Noblaie’s ‘Le Temps des Cerises’ Chinon (Wine Society, £11.50).  The name translates to ‘cherry time’ – completely appropriate for this fresh, medium-bodied red, full of bright cherry and raspberry flavours and with a long vibrant finish.  Very drinkable, even on its own, but perfect teamed with some grilled lamb chops, so long as you leave the mint sauce in the cupboard – please!  And, on a warm evening, we gave it a half hour in the fridge before opening it which worked fine.

So, whether you choose Chinon or one of the other local Appellations I’ve mentioned above, you’ll find some excellent producers and some delightful, moreish drinking.

Distinctly Spicy

Some very good friends of ours, who share our love of good food and wine, brought us back some authentic paprika from a River Danube cruise recently.  So, of course, we wanted to cook a suitable recipe to enjoy some of this lovely hot, pungent spice at its best.  No problem!  One of our favourite dishes is a variant of a well-known Eastern European recipe: chicken paprikas.  Our version features chicken thighs casseroled with onions, the paprika and chicken stock and finished with sour cream, although I have seen similar recipes that include tomatoes as well.  Either way, it’s a delicious, rich, flavoursome dish, so the wine to accompany it needs to have enough character not to be overpowered.

I’d happily drink white or a light-bodied red with it but, as we were going to enjoy dinner on our terrace on a warm summer evening, my wife really thought a white would work best, so who was I to argue?

Going on the old idea that the food and wine of an area often pair well together, my first thoughts turned to a dry Furmint or a Grűner Veltliner but, as luck would have it, we’d already drunk our stock of those and so I had to look elsewhere.

Angelo Negro’s Roero Arneis from Piedmont in north-west Italy (Great Wine Company, £16) was a more than adequate substitute.  A delightful, rich, creamy, unoaked white with interesting complex savoury flavours and enough body to match the dish.  The Arneis variety is little-known outside the immediate area of Roero and was even at risk of disappearing completely in the 1970s but, happily, it has now been rescued and plantings are on the rise again.  I’ve also read of some in California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand so, hopefully, this wider interest will ensure the survival of an attractive variety and one that is happy pairing with such a distinctive spice.

Not just Liebfraumilch

Like many of my vintage, my first experience of wine was in the 1970s when the German white, Liebfraumilch, was in every supermarket.  I knew nothing about wine at the time but this was simple and undemanding stuff and, of course, drinking wine, rather than beer, was cool!   Sadly, as a result, many of my generation formed the view that all German wine was similarly sweet and bland and I still meet those who avoid it even to this day.

They are making a big mistake!

Riesling is Germany’s most widely planted grape variety and many respected judges, Jancis Robinson MW among them, regard it – and not Chardonnay – as the world’s greatest white wine grape.  Depending on its ripeness when harvested, it can make crisp, zingy dry wines (look for the word ‘Trocken’ on the label), wonderful, delicate dessert wines, often with only 7 or 8% alcohol as well as the more common off-dry ‘Kabinett’ style.

Lovers of red wine shouldn’t ignore Germany, either.  Global warming has helped here but there are now many sites where Pinot Noir (known locally as ‘Spätburgunder’) thrives, yielding fragrant, medium-bodied wines that are often the equal of a village Burgundy at about half the price.

And, although Germany doesn’t grow the wide range of grape varieties found in, say, Italy or Portugal, there are still some interesting ones that adventurous drinkers could look out for.  Take Trollinger, for example. 

I opened a bottle from the respected producer Aldinger, based at Fellbach in the Wűrttemberg region, recently (Wine Society, £16).  Quite pale in colour with an attractive savoury nose leading to delicate flavours of dried plum, smoke and spice on the palate.  With similar weight to a Cru Beaujolais and restrained tannins, this benefitted from a half hour in the fridge before pairing well with one of our favourite duck breast recipes, cooked with honey and thyme.

So, for those who still think Germany is all about Liebfraumilch, do think again – you have some pleasant surprises awaiting you.

The Best of Geneva

We’ve just got back from a few days away visiting a very good friend – close enough for us to consider her an adopted daughter – in Geneva.  Our trip gave us an opportunity to enjoy meals with her at some of that city’s excellent restaurants and, for me, a bonus of a rare chance to taste some Swiss wines, which are almost impossible to find outside the country.

Although wine is made in all of Switzerland’s 26 cantons (administrative regions), I tried to focus on bottles from the area most local to where we were staying; wines made with grapes ripened on the wonderfully exposed south-facing slopes overlooking Lake Geneva.  Another consideration in choosing was that temperatures for our entire stay were well into the 30s (90°F and above) and so we were looking for refreshing chilled whites.  Chasselas is the most widely-planted local white variety but it rarely produces really characterful wines and something else caught my eye on one restaurant’s list. 

Domaine Dugerdil has its vineyards just to the west of Geneva at Dardagny and their organically-grown Pinot Blanc was delicious.  Dry and medium- to full-bodied with lovely savoury, spicy flavours, a rich, creamy palate and excellent length.  I was surprised to see 14.5% alcohol, but the wine was well-balanced with no burn on the finish and paired beautifully with the pan-fried Lake perch – the signature dish of every local restaurant.

At Neuchâtel, a few miles to the north, one of the local specialities is known as ‘Oeil de Perdrix’ (Partridge’s eye), a dry rosé made from Pinot Noir.  Of course, rosés, too, can be chilled and I chose an example from Châtenay Bouvier to accompany another excellent fishy meal.  Quite deeply coloured (many Oeil de Perdrix wines are barely pink at all), this was fresh, clean and smoky and, although bone dry, had lovely strawberry fruit, good intensity and a long finish.

I’ve just picked out 2 examples of the wines we enjoyed while we were in Geneva.  Clearly, the locals know a good thing when they taste it; sadly, they keep almost all of it for themselves!

A Grape not to be Ignored

Looking back, I’m amazed at how rarely I’ve blogged about the world’s most widely planted wine grape: Cabernet Sauvignon.  Yes, I’ve mentioned it in passing when talking about other wines, but as for focussing on this most popular of red varieties – nothing!  Time to put that right as, at its best, it really is a grape not to be ignored.

‘Home’ for Cabernet Sauvignon is France’s most prestigious wine region, Bordeaux, where it has been grown for more than 200 years but it wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that growers beyond that region started to realise the potential of the grape.  As a result, world-wide plantings more than doubled between 1990 and 2010 and the variety is now found in virtually every major wine producing country, even in England where, historically, the climate hasn’t been warm enough to ripen this sun-loving variety. 

The words ‘sun-loving’ mean thoughts turning to Australia, although it was actually quite a late starter there with the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines only imported in the 1960s and the first commercial bottling released in 1967.  But from that quiet beginning the variety has thrived, with especially good examples found in Coonawarra in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia (WA).

And it was a bottle from WA that we opened recently.  The Wine Society’s Exhibition Cabernet Sauvignon (£16.50) is made for the Society by one of WA’s oldest and most successful producers, Vasse Felix and is full of all those aromas and flavours Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers are familiar with and love: blackcurrant and cassis fruit, some herbiness and hints of black cherry and mint.  The 2019 vintage on the Wine Society’s current list is drinking well now and should continue at its peak for a couple of years yet but, as with most wines from this grape, it benefits from opening an hour or so in advance of drinking and teaming with red meat – grilled lamb would be perfect – or hard cheese.

Cabernet Sauvignon is certainly a grape not to be ignored – whether I blog about it or not!