The French use the word ‘terroir’ a lot when talking about wine. There’s no exact translation in English but I usually think of it as meaning the combination of natural factors that affect how a vine will grow in a particular place and so how the wine made from its grapes will taste. The local soil, slope of the land, exposure to the sun, shelter from the wind and climate are all clearly part of terroir but many would say the local traditions and customs of an area should be added to that list. And, how about the variety or varieties of grapes used? Are they part of terroir or not? Who knows?
But terroir is not unique to France, even if the word is. I recently opened a bottle of Tierras Coloradas Old Vines Carignan from the Montsant region, deep in the hills of Catalonia in North-East Spain (Waitrose, £9.99). This was clearly made with the Spanish equivalent of terroir in mind –why else would the back label highlight the particular soils of the Montsant region – red and yellow clay, slate and chalk – on which the grapes for this wine were grown?
And talking of the grapes, the old vine Carignan is also part of the tradition of the area (although there’s a nod to internationalism here in calling them by their more common French name, Carignan, rather than their usual local alias, Mazuela).
The wine itself is a rugged, earthy red with attractive violet aromas and deep, intense flavours of cooked plums and dried fruits. But, did I taste the terroir in the wine? Well, it’s clearly from somewhere warm (14% alcohol and the cooked and dried flavours) and almost certainly from somewhere quite traditional in style. So, there are certainly some links to its place of origin but, I have to confess that, tasted blind, I doubt whether I’d be able to identify it specifically as a wine from Montsant, but it’s quite delicious and excellent value for money nevertheless.
In my view, Spain is one of the most exciting wine countries in the world today. Wherever you look, you’ll find dedicated and innovative winemakers working with an array of high quality local grapes. And it’s not just in the traditional areas – Rioja and sherry – that you find delicious wines. I recently ran a course at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre concentrating on Spain’s ‘Hidden Corners’ – some of the lesser-known regions and grapes – where you can find wines that are not just very drinkable but, because they are not well-known, they are also great value.
The bottles I found for the group to taste provoked plenty of discussion – and some very diverse views; indeed, when I invited votes for favourite wines of the day, 11 of the 12 wines attracted at least 1 vote. But, there were 2 clear winners:
San Antolin’s Rueda (Waitrose, £8.99) comes from the Upper Duero Valley in western Spain where vineyards are planted more than 600 metres (1800 feet) above sea level. The altitude means cool nights, even in summer, which help to retain precious acidity in the Verdejo grapes from which this wine is made, while the heat of the day results in perfect ripening and a succulent, rich but refreshing white wine. Fine for drinking on its own but even better with some fish in a creamy sauce that reflects the character of the wine beautifully. I’ve enjoyed this Rueda over a number of years and it was an unsurprising winner.
The close runner up, however, was, perhaps, a little less predictable. Not, I hasten to add, due to any lack of quality in the wine, but, I might have expected that the soft, mellow, cooked fruit and spice flavours of an 8 year old red that had spent 2 of those years in old oak casks wouldn’t have had such wide appeal. Happily, I was wrong and Anciano’s Tempranillo Gran Reserva 2008 landed in a well-deserved 2nd place. Had this wine been from Rioja rather than from the deeply unfashionable Valdepeñas area south of Madrid, it would certainly have been at least double the £8.99 I paid for it in Waitrose. A bargain, indeed!
And bargains are what you can expect if you explore ‘Hidden Corners’. You just have to know where to look.
Take a high quality grape variety native to Galicia in North West Spain, plant it in Marlborough in New Zealand and what do you get? A delicious surprise!
Or, so I found when I tasted Stanley Estates Alboriño (Waitrose, £14.99) recently. It has a similar character to examples from its home region: quite rich and mouth-coating but with lovely freshness and aromas and flavours of pink grapefruit, apple and peach. Just a touch off-dry, this would be an excellent match for a fish dish in a creamy sauce, some pan-seared scallops or, thinking of the grape’s Spanish origins, perhaps a paella.
Until now, Alboriño wasn’t a grape I associated with New Zealand – in fact, Stanley Estates claim that they were the first to plant it there and their first vintage from it was only produced in 2012. But the location was clearly a good choice; both Galicia and Marlborough’s Awatere Valley have relatively cool climates and, with the aromatic Sauvignon Blanc thriving so well in Marlborough, then why not Alboriño? Except that no-one, apart from Stanley Estates, thought of it.
Stanley is a new name to me – although, perhaps, it shouldn’t be: after completing Horticulture degrees at Bath University, just a few miles down the road from here in Bristol, the owners, Bridget Ennals and Steve Pellett travelled the world for a few years before putting down roots – and vine roots! – in their present base in Marlborough. Within 2 years of their first bottling, they had won the award for Best International Sauvignon Blanc at the 2011 London International Wine Challenge – a variety they still produce alongside some Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Alboriño and another little-known variety that I must look out for, the northern Italian native, Lagrein.
I’m always happy to see some of the lesser-known grapes that were previously restricted to quite a small area, finding their way to new locations, especially when such high quality varieties as Alboriño land in what appears to be perfect conditions for it to thrive and show its best.
Not so long ago, I blogged about a Chilean wine that was voted overwhelmingly the best of the day at a course on the wines of the Americas I ran at Stoke Lodge. And now, another bottle from the same country, opened at home recently, has confirmed my view that Chilean wine really is going places.
Errazuriz’s Max Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Waitrose, £12.99) is full of lovely red berry fruits enhanced with subtle vanilla flavours from 12 months oak ageing. At almost 3 years old, the tannins are still noticeable but neither they, nor the 14% alcohol are in any way intrusive. This wine is just beautifully balanced.
Errazuriz is a long established company producing a number of different wines. Their entry level bottles – widely available in supermarkets and other high street chains for around £8 – £10 – are always reliable and worth buying, while their more premium offerings often outshine wines selling for several £s more.
Their ‘Max’ range, named in honour of the company’s founder, Don Maximiano Errazuriz, is from sites at the foot of Mount Aconcagua where the combination of warm days and cool nights is ideal for ripening the grapes while retaining good acidity. The Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted comes from vines planted more than 20 years ago on gravel-rich soils. This copies what we find in Bordeaux where the best Cabernet Sauvignon regularly comes from vines planted on well-drained, gravelly soils; the reflected heat from the stones helps ripen the grapes while the good drainage means the vines have enough water to grow but aren’t rooted in cold, damp earth. The use of older vines, too, is a sign of quality – they typically yield wines with more intensity and character.
So, while wines from Chile are already deservedly popular in the UK, I’d suggest exploring those at a slightly higher price – that’s where the bargains really begin.
“Which are your favourites of the wines you’ve tasted today?” is a question I frequently ask at the end of a wine course or tasting that I’ve run. The result is normally very close, often with 2 or 3 of the wines tying for the most popular. That isn’t surprising; tastes vary enormously with everyone having their own particular preferences. And those preferences will be reflected in how they vote, which is why it is rare for one wine to have a clear win.
So, on the few occasions when it does happen, the winner must be quite special and have wide appeal – not always the same thing. Such a wine emerged from a recent day course on the Wines of the Americas that I ran at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre. From a dozen wines from such diverse countries as the USA, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay and Brazil, Tabali’s Encantado Reserva Viognier from Chile’s Limari Valley (Waitrose, £9.99) was not just a clear winner – it secured more than twice as many votes as any of the other wines we tasted.
Although I can’t remember such a decisive result before, I wasn’t surprised this wine was popular; I’ve opened it on a number of occasions previously. It has really appealing floral and citrus aromas which carry through onto a rich, just off-dry palate balanced by good, clean acidity and with flavours of ginger and apricot. A lovely wine: complex, fruity and characterful.
It is only in the last 20 years or so that the Limari Valley has started to concentrate on quality wines – previously much of the production there was distilled into pisco, the local brandy – and Viognier is hardly a mainstream grape for the area but Tabali’s site, just 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean with its cooling influences, is clearly well suited to this tricky but high quality variety. Perhaps we’ll see wider plantings there in future.
And, looking to the future, a date for your diary: on Saturday 7th March my next course at Stoke Lodge will be on ‘The Hidden Corners of Spain’. We’ll focus on wines from some of that country’s less well-known regions and grapes. Places are still available but booking is essential: www.bristolcourses.com or 0117 903 8844.
Millions of holidaymakers will speed south through France on the Autoroute du Soleil this summer heading for the Mediterranean resorts and beyond. Few, I suspect, will realise (or even care) just how close they are passing to some of the world’s most famous vineyards. Those of Burgundy are generally just out of sight from the road but, if you stop a little later in the journey, things are very different. From several of the picnic sites on the stretch between Vienne and Valence, the spectacularly steep and rocky vineyards of the northern Rhône can be seen clearly on the far bank of the river.
Your first thought might be to question why anyone would choose to plant vines in such difficult terrain. The answer: to give the grapes the best chance of ripening. The majority of the vines here will be Syrah (although the grape name will rarely appear on the label) – a variety that thrives on plenty of heat and sunshine. It’s the same variety that, under its alternative name of Shiraz, does particularly well in Australia’s warmest areas. In fact, it’s that country’s most widely planted variety, accounting for around 30% of the annual harvest.
But the northern Rhône is nowhere near as warm or sunny as the Barossa so, here, the Syrah vines need everything to be in their favour to ripen well: the steep, south-east facing vineyards get the most sunshine and are sheltered from cold northerly winds; the rocky soil is well drained and the rocks play their part by reflecting more heat onto the vines.
Even so, bottles from these vineyards are often a world away in style from an Aussie Shiraz.
The one I opened recently was only 12.5% alcohol. Cave Saint Desirat’s Saint Joseph (Waitrose, £13.99) is delightfully elegant with lovely raspberry and blackberry fruit and a hint of pepperiness – ideal with a steak or, perhaps better, pan fried venison. A lovely wine – and one that is only possible by growers battling the daunting slopes you’ll see if you pause on your route through France.
Sweet wines – and I mean here those that you can happily enjoy with a dessert – can be a real delight and I’m constantly amazed by just how diverse the choice is. For maximum pleasure, just make sure the wine is a little bit sweeter than the pudding.
For gently sweet desserts (think zabaglione or panna cotta), look for something at the delicate end of the spectrum: a slightly sparkling Moscato d’Asti or one of the German selected harvest Rieslings, the latter often with just 6% alcohol. A little weightier are the well-known wines of Sauternes and the, sadly, under-rated bottles from the Loire or Jurançon – perfect with lemon tart or Tarte Tatin. And then, there’s the heavyweights: Australian ‘stickies’, Banyuls from the south of France, port and PX sherry – wines to pair with chocolate or Christmas Pudding.
With so many different styles to choose from, surely, there’s something for everyone? But, no – there are still some wine lovers that won’t touch a sweet wine.
And, I suppose the Anthemis Muscat from the Greek island of Samos wouldn’t be my first choice to convince them otherwise – it’s just a bit too scary! Just look at the colour: a lovely mahogany brown. The nose is all Christmas cake spices and nuts. And, in the mouth, there’s a wonderfully coating texture full of the same spices along with honey, figs, dates and prunes. Sweet, yes, but in no way cloying. We served it alongside some beautifully ripe peaches and apricots and it went perfectly – but a blue cheese would be a really good alternative.
It’s super-concentrated, so a little goes a long way. A half bottle, available from the Wine Society (£6.95), will easily serve 4 or 5 people, while the slightly larger, 50cl, bottle sold in Waitrose for £9.99 will give you 6 or 7 glasses. Delicious!