Tag Archives: Waitrose

South Africa Rises Again


Of all the world’s wine producing countries, surely none has experienced as many highs and lows as South Africa.  Their earliest attempts at winemaking, in the 1650s, were described by one contemporary writer as having ‘revolting sourness’ and being ‘astringent – useful only for irritating the bowels!’  Yet, only 30 years later, the famous Constantia Estate was founded, which went on to produce marvellous dessert wines that were in demand across all the major royal courts of Europe – and were even ordered by Napoleon when in St Helena, presumably to make his exile more bearable.   

The fortunes of Constantia – and South Africa’s wines, in general – declined in the 19th century and the arrival there of the phylloxera bug in 1886, decimating the vineyards, seemed like it might be the final straw.  But, happily, it wasn’t, although rebuilding in the 20th century was very slow and mistakenly focussed on quantity rather than quality.  As a result, South Africa’s wine industry was in a dreadful state when the country emerged following the apartheid years. 

Fast forward little more than 2 decades and South Africa has turned round again.  Attractive Chardonnays, intense Cabernet Sauvignons and the local speciality, Pinotage, all make this a country that wine lovers should take notice of.  But, if I had to pick just one grape variety from there, you might be surprised to hear it would be Chenin Blanc.  Originating in France’s Loire Valley, it was, for a long time, used as a workhorse variety in South Africa and remains the most planted grape across the country.  Yes, there are still some poor and rather bland Chenins around, but, provided you ignore those at rock bottom prices, there are some excellent ones, too.   

Morgenhof CheninOne definitely worth trying is from Morgenhof, a company that has survived the highs and lows since its beginnings in 1692, less than 40 years after South Africa’s first wines.  Their bottling from the Simonsberg sub-region (Waitrose, £11.99) starts crisp and citrusy, before opening up with a lovely peachy richness and an almost oily texture (in a nice way!).  All enhanced by some gentle smokiness from restrained use of oak and a long, long fresh finish.  And, because Chenin remains unfashionable, it’s a real bargain at the price.


For Wine Lovers


ValentineMme Lily Bollinger, former head of the famous Champagne house, was once asked when she drank Champagne.  She replied: when she was happy, when she was sad, sometimes when she was alone, always when she had company and whenever she was hungry or not.  Apart from that, she claimed never to touch it – unless she was thirsty!

Now, although my wife and I enjoy our wine (not necessarily Champagne), we agreed long ago that, unlike Mme Bollinger, we wouldn’t open a bottle every day.  So, unless we’re celebrating a birthday or anniversary or we’re entertaining friends, we usually restrict ourselves to a bottle with our dinners at weekends.  But last Wednesday was different – as you’ll see from the picture above, it was Valentine’s Day, and not just that, it was our 40th Valentine’s Day together (I could suggest we met when we were very, very young but it wouldn’t be true!)  So, forget the fact it was a Wednesday, out came the glasses and a bottle of one of our favourite English fizzes: Camel Valley (Cornwall) Pinot Noir Rosé (Waitrose, £28.99).

I’m not sure if it was the effect of the wine, but we started chatting about why February 14th has become so closely linked with romance and why St Valentine?  We found a number of conflicting explanations in Wikipedia and other sources: I liked the one about the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was connected to fertility, being observed around this time of year.  My wife preferred the quote from Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote that St. Valentine’s Day was the day when every bird chooses his mate.  (Although she did point out that it was a woman’s right to choose her mate!)

Whoever is right, by the 19th century, Valentine’s Day and Valentines cards were well established and the practice, happily, is likely to continue for many years to come.  But, back to wine: our celebratory choice had a delightful deep salmon pink colour with an attractive nose of crushed strawberries and a delicate but mouth-filling mousse.   

As for food matches?  Almost anything, so long as it’s shared with a very good friend or partner!

Happy (belated) Valentines Day

The Most Popular Grape


There’s more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the world than any other wine grape – almost 300,000 hectares (just over 700,000 acres) according to the comprehensive study published by the University of Adelaide in 2013.  That area has more than doubled since 1990 and is almost certainly still growing.  There are now commercial plantings of the variety in more than 30 countries.

I’m not surprised at its popularity with growers; it’s a grape capable of producing very high quality red wines and its name is widely recognised by wine lovers – always a help with marketing.  But it needs to be grown in the right conditions: too cool and you get unripe, leafy flavours; too warm and the wine tastes of jammy or cooked fruit. 

Interestingly, in its home region of Bordeaux, you almost never see a wine made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon – there, they usually blend it with Merlot and other varieties – a legacy of the time when that part of France was, on average, a couple of degrees cooler than it is today and growers regularly struggled to ripen their Cabernet.

But elsewhere – California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the ‘new kid on the block’, China – 100% Cabernets are common and it’s not hard to find a really good bottle, for example Robert Oatley’s Finisterre from Margaret River in Western Australia.  2017-09-03 15.07.33The climate there is ideal with warm, dry summers meaning that harvest can often take place as early as February (equivalent to August in the Northern Hemisphere), minimising the threat from autumn rain. 

Finisterre is quite restrained and subtle but has the lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit flavours that I always associate with a good Cabernet Sauvignon, topped out with some soft spice and just enough tannin to suggest that the 2013 vintage has a good few years more ahead of it.  Usually £18.99 at Waitrose, but it’s worth waiting for one of that supermarket’s regular ‘25% off’ offers when this wine becomes a great bargain and one not to be missed.


Choose Just One Region


When you next meet up with a group of wine loving friends, why not pose them a little problem: “If you had to spend a whole year drinking nothing but the wines of just one area of the world, where would you choose?”

I’ve been asked this on a number of occasions and have usually suggested France’s Loire region – excellent whites, both dry and sweet, attractive fruity reds, the odd decent rosé and some very drinkable fizz – although I was once told that I was cheating; the Loire was too big to be considered a single area!  Among my friends Bordeaux and Burgundy are popular choices and, no doubt, California would get a lot of votes if there was more choice from there here in the UK.

But a bottle I opened recently made me think of somewhere else: South Australia’s state capital, Adelaide, is surrounded by vineyards: McLaren Vale to the south, Adelaide Hills to the east and the famous Barossa Valley to the north-east with the Eden Valley beyond.  And, even though these areas are so close to one another, there is a tremendous variety of wines coming out of them – more than enough choice to keep me interested for a year.

Chunky Barossa Valley Shiraz, fruity Cabernets from the McLaren Vale, lovely, elegant Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Adelaide Hills and the wine that prompted this blog, Riesling from the Eden Valley. 

Rolf Binder RieslingAt altitudes up to 400 metres (1200 feet), Eden is one of the cooler parts of the region and suits the Riesling variety perfectly.  Rolf Binder’s ‘Highness’ (Waitrose, £10.99) is an excellent example with all the typical floral rose scents and zesty lime and grapefruit flavours that so typify the Riesling grape here and, with just 12.5% alcohol, it’s beautifully refreshing, either with food (mildly spiced Asian dishes work well) or just on its own as an aperitif.

So, how about you?  Why not ask your friends and see if they’d choose the Adelaide region or somewhere else?  Do let me know and why.


Going for Gold?


I opened a bottle recently displaying a sticker proclaiming that the wine had won a Gold Medal in a certain Wine Competition. 

Assyrtiko Gold MedalSo, how much should that influence you in buying?  Or is it just another marketing ploy? 

It’s certainly marketing but how seriously you should take the award depends on a number of things.  There are many wine competitions all around the world each year and it’s often impossible to know how strong the opposition was, who the judges were and how skilled they were and whether they knew which wines they were tasting (and so might have been influenced by the labels) or if they were tasting ‘blind’? 

As a result, with one or two exceptions for internationally recognised competitions, I generally ignore medal stickers – and not just for the uncertainties I’ve already mentioned.

However professional the judging and however strong the competition, medals are the opinion of a small number of people (sometimes just one) tasting the wine on a particular day.  Wines that stand out from the crowd – either because they have intense flavours or are in some way different – often attract attention from judges whereas subtle and elegant bottles (which may be far more food-friendly) tend to be ignored.  The same applies to wines that open up slowly once in the glass – busy judges may spend just a few seconds on each wine and miss this development.  And several weeks (or even months) later when the results go public, the wine itself will have changed – either improving or going past its best.  But, perhaps most important of all, do you and the judge have the same likes and dislikes?  There’s one judge (who shall remain nameless) whose high scoring wines I carefully avoid!

But, back to the wine that prompted this blog.  I already knew it well and have recommended it previously (Hatzidakis’ Assyrtiko from the Greek Island of Santorini, £13.50 from The Wine Society or Waitrose).  I knew it was good and was pleased it had been recognised in this way, even though an award from the Thessaloniki Wine Competition may not have the prestige of some!

So, by all means, look at stickers, but there’s so much more important information to help you on a wine label than the fact that it has won a medal.


Wine For Summer


The temperature touched 30˚C (86˚F) in Bristol last week – a reminder that summer is here – something that’s often quite easy to forget in our climate!  And, for my wife and me, summer means a different style of eating: salads, yes, but also lighter, fresher dishes that are easier to digest.  And, of course, the wines to match.

I’ve often said in this Blog that food and wine should be equal partners with neither dominating the other.  So, with lighter dishes, I look for lighter wines.  Not necessarily lighter in colour (although whites and rosés do often go better with summer dishes than reds), but lighter in body.  Chunkier styles – and that usually means higher alcohol bottles – stay on the shelf in favour of more delicate wines, those with plenty of fruit and good acidity.

Many whites fall into this lighter category – the main exception being those which are strongly oaked – as do almost all rosés; if you’re not usually a rosé fan, try one gently chilled on a warm summer’s day, especially something from a good producer in the south of France – I’d be surprised if you’re not convinced.

Reds can be a bit more of a problem; many are quite high in alcohol these days and, when you add in oak ageing and significant tannins (both features of many of the best reds), they’re not that well-suited to warm weather.  But choose carefully – look for something refreshing, a wine that can be chilled lightly without ruining it – and the picture looks very different.  Try a Loire red, or one from Germany or Austria, a Valpolicella (avoiding the ultra-cheap examples) or, perhaps most reliable of all, a Beaujolais from one of the 10 named villages or Crus*.

From this last group, we found that Henry Fessy’s Brouilly (Waitrose, £12.99) fitted the bill nicely. 

BrouillyDelicious, clean, refreshing cherry fruit with attractive hints of bitterness, quite light in the mouth (12.5%) and really lively and welcoming after a half hour in the fridge.  Just perfect for a warm summer day – but that was last week; what a shame it’s back to sweater weather today!

*(The 10 Beaujolais Crus are: Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié and Saint-Amour).


My Kind of Lesson


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!