A Stand-out Riesling

The French wine region of Alsace shares a border and considerable historic links with Germany and so, perhaps not surprisingly, you’ll find many of the same grape varieties in both places. The Pinot family – Noir, Gris and Blanc – are found in both, although in Germany are known as Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder and Weissburgunder respectively; (I think the French names are a little easier to pronounce!) Gewurztraminer also appears on both sides, but, most importantly of all, so does Riesling.

Almost half the world’s plantings of Riesling are in Germany and they proudly declare that most of their best wines are made with that variety. In Alsace, too, Riesling is considered their most noble grape, but the styles of wine each country produces from the variety are totally different from each other.

Apart from the delicious wines both make to be enjoyed specifically as dessert wines, German producers tend towards an off-dry style. Here, a little sweetness balances Riesling’s high acidity and that is normally combined with exceptionally low levels of alcohol (8 or 9% typically). More recently, some in Germany are beginning to follow the demands of the market and making more dry or almost dry examples (often labelled ‘trocken’) but this still remains the minority. Alsace, on the other hand, has always preferred to ferment its wines out completely dry giving a much richer taste and with higher levels of alcohol.

Alsace RieslingA bottle from Alsace I opened recently showed this perfectly: Domaine Leon Boesch’s Grandes Lignes Riesling (Vine Trail, £13.99) was beautifully fresh and clean and with surprising weight for only 12% alcohol. It had real intensity and the typical young Riesling aromas and flavours of grapefruit and lemon peel. The acidity was there, of course but not intrusive; in fact, it was just enough to make it food-friendly, although it’s a wine you could equally well drink on its own.

The Boesch estate is certified biodynamic which can, most simply, be described as an ultra-organic philosophy with everything in the vineyard being carried out completely in harmony with nature. Some question the science of the idea and I won’t comment on that. All I will say is that this, along with many other biodynamic wines I have tasted, have an intensity and a richness that makes them stand out from the crowd.

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Jurançon: Sweet or Dry

Many years ago, in my early days of studying wine (rather than just drinking it), one of the bottles our tutor brought in for us to taste was a delightful sweet wine that none of us had ever heard of before.  It was called Jurançon and it resulted in an immediate ‘Wow!’ from the whole class.  I’ve been buying it ever since – when I can find it, that is, because production is not large and much of it is drunk locally, which, in this case, is in the far south-west corner of France in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

I couldn’t recommend one producer over another – they all have their own slightly different styles – but I haven’t had a bad bottle yet, so, if you enjoy dessert wine and see Jurançon, then I’d suggest you give it a try.

As I got to know these wines better, I realised that, apart from the lovely sweet bottles, there was also a dry equivalent: Jurançon Sec – if it doesn’t have ‘sec’ on the label it will be sweet.  Both are made from a blend of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng, with some Courbu and Camaralet added to some of the dry versions.  All are local grape varieties; none, as far as I know, is grown outside the region, so those in search of membership of the ‘100 Club’ should take note!

Jurancon SecAs with the sweet versions, Jurançon Sec from most producers is worth buying although we particularly enjoyed Domaine Montesquiou’s Cuvade Préciouse (Vine Trail, £13) recently.  Its tangy flavours of citrus and herbs and just a hint of spicy smokiness from the gentle oak ageing reminded me of a nice white Burgundy – there were certainly shades of the same flavours in an Auxey-Duresses we had in a restaurant a few days later; the only difference: excluding the inevitable restaurant mark-up, the Jurançon would be about half the price!

Breaking the Rules

When buying a bottle of French wine, the first thing many of us look for are the words ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ (AC) on the label.  And with good reason.  The AC tells us which part of France the wine comes from and, frequently, what sort of wine to expect when the bottle is opened.  However, contrary to the commonly held view, it doesn’t guarantee quality – only that the wine is typical of the AC claimed. 

But, perhaps surprisingly, less than half of all French wine falls into the AC category.  Another quarter is classified Indication Géographique Protegée (IGP), the new name for Vin de Pays (Country wines) – a source of many attractive, well-priced, easy-drinking bottles.  Of the rest, some is distilled into brandies (or industrial alcohol!) leaving just 10% in the category which used to be known as Vin de Table (Table wine), which, since 2010, has been renamed Vin de France.

Under the Vins de Table label, you used to find nothing but the cheapest, most basic wines and discerning wine lovers sensibly avoided them.   But, it seems, it’s not just the name that has changed with Vin de France.  Looking through the catalogue of the highly respected Bristol-based wine merchant, Vine Trail, you’ll find a number of Vins de France – and at some lofty prices.  So, what is going on? 

There’s a small band of dedicated independent-minded producers who don’t choose to play by the rules.  They are making high quality wines but prefer to experiment with styles that are rejected for the AC as they aren’t recognised as ‘typical’ by the vetting panel.  But, these people are confident in their own ability and are happy that their wines are sold as Vins de France instead.

We opened one recently:

Balmet 1Jerome Balmet has his vineyard in Beaujolais and grows Gamay, the Beaujolais grape.  But his wine is nothing like any Beaujolais I’ve ever tasted.  Initially full of vibrant bitter cherry flavours, it develops fig and prune flavours in the glass and, by the end of the evening, had taken on a savoury, meaty character.  Really distinctive and very enjoyable (Vine Trail, £16.36). 

And, although you still need to treat some bottles in the Vin de France category with caution, wines such as this are a great recommendation and a fascinating way to try something different.

Wine with Asparagus?

Asparagus is often thought to be a difficult food to pair with wine, but it doesn’t need to be – especially if you look out for the more delicate English variety that is in its (sadly very brief) season at the moment.  Certainly, you need to choose your wine with some care but many crisp, dry whites work quite well: Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Alsace Pinot Gris and Austrian Grüner Veltliner all spring to mind – or, how about an English wine, perhaps a Bacchus, to go with English asparagus?  On the other hand, I’ve yet to find a red that will pair happily – not even a Beaujolais or Valpolicella, two reds that often work where you’d normally consider a white.

But my wife, Hilary, was thinking along a different track; looking at the meal we were cooking – a typical warm summer evening ‘special’ of Salmon Steaks with a herb crust and creamy mushroom sauce, Jersey Royal potatoes and the previously mentioned asparagus – she lifted a rosé off the wine rack: Château Sainte Anne from Bandol in the Provence region of the south of France (Vine Trail, £20).

Bandol rose

Bandol is best known for robust, long-lived reds made from a mix of grapes, typically Mourvedre with Grenache and Cinsault in support.  This rosé uses the same combination but the shorter skin contact needed for a rosé produced a fresher, lighter wine, ideally suited to this time of year, yet still sharing the herby, spicy flavours of the red.  My wife was right – it paired perfectly with the meal (including the asparagus), as well as making delicious drinking on its own later in the evening.

So, next time you’re faced with a supposedly ‘difficult’ ingredient, do experiment.  You may find a surprisingly good match where you least expect to.