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!
Saint-Péray may not be one of the more familiar Appellations of France but, as regular Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, I’m always keen to seek out wines from these less well-known areas. Sometimes, they are better value than their more fashionable neighbours; at other times they just make good and interesting drinking, perhaps with some unusual and different flavours. The Saint-Péray we enjoyed recently (£14.99 from Waitrose) probably fits more into the second category, although, for the quality, it is by no means expensive.
Saint-Péray is on the west bank of the River Rhône, near the town of Valence and used to produce mainly sparkling wines described by Tom Stevenson (in a 20 year old Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that I’ve kept for no logical reason) as ‘overrated, having a coarse mousse and made from the wrong grapes grown on the wrong soil’! Well, the same grapes, Marsanne and Roussane, are still being grown in the same soil; the key things that have changed are that, today, more of the wines are made still rather than sparkling and a number of top producers have moved in and transformed the quality of the grapes in the vineyard and the standards of winemaking.
And it was the name of three of these producers, working together, on the label that attracted me to this wine: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron and François Villard all make their own wines (Cuilleron’s Condrieu is stunningly good) but also collaborate under the banner ‘Les Vins de Vienne’. I wasn’t disappointed; this is a full bodied, flavoursome, dry, rich white that has spent 9 months ageing, partly in barrel. The oak is quite noticeable, as is the alcohol (13.5%) but neither dominates the spicy palate (cinnamon and ginger came to mind) with its attractive sourness – the kind you get from baked apples. And it might be even better after a couple more years in bottle or, if you can’t wait, decanting.
If this is the wrong grape in the wrong soil, then give me more!
A couple of days ago, the latest edition of ‘Decanter’ dropped onto my door mat. Only this time, the ‘thud’ was rather louder than usual as the magazine was accompanied by a bulky supplement announcing the results of the annual Decanter World Wine Awards. Although I had plenty of other things to do, I couldn’t resist a quick flick through the list of the top prizes – the wines that had won Platinum Medals (the new combined name for the old Regional and International Trophies).
One entry caught my eye: the winner of the ‘Best Pinot Noir in Chile’ category – Cono Sur’s ‘20 Barrels’. By chance, we’d got a bottle sitting on our wine rack, bought a few weeks previously in a Waitrose special offer – £14.99 instead of £19.99. We were going to be eating some pan-fried duck breast with a spiced raspberry sauce that evening, so it was a great chance to open it and put it to the test.
I can see why it won; it really is a delicious wine – lots of red and black fruit flavours, plenty of Pinot character, well-balanced and with a good, long finish.
But how does it compare with other Pinots? Decanter have their view, but just a day earlier, I’d included some bottles from New Zealand in a tasting I was running for a local group. If the 20 Barrels was worthy of Platinum in its category, then so, surely, was Martinborough Vineyards’ Te Tera (Majestic, £16.99). Yet, on checking the New Zealand results, that wine was down among the Silver Medalists in its group – not even Gold! Still a creditable result, but a long way short of Platinum. So, why the difference?
Different judges, judging by different standards, perhaps? Or is it that the New Zealand Pinot category as a whole is stronger than Chile and therefore harder to win? It’s difficult to say, but the lesson is clear: awards or points awarded by judges, even professionals, should only ever be used as a guide. In the end, just trust your own taste buds.
How attitudes to rosé wines have changed! Just a few years ago, they were either despised or ridiculed. No longer! To borrow a fashion term – and, after all, a lot of choices in wine are down to fashion – rosé is the ‘new black’! A good rosé should be fruity, refreshing and a delight to drink, either on its own or with simple food and, especially at this time of year (assuming the rain will stop and we will get some summer in the UK).
So, where should you start in choosing rosé? The big brand White Zinfandels and blush wines that are on every supermarket shelf are very popular but they’re not my taste – I find them too sweet to make a good aperitif or accompaniment to a starter or main course, yet not sweet enough to cope with a pudding. I prefer something crisp and dry. There are lots around: from France, look to Tavel or Provence, or, for something really unusual, to Corsica (try Clos Culombu, available from the Wine Society, £11.50).
The reputation of Spanish rosés hasn’t always been great – and that’s being polite! But there’s been a massive transformation in recent times and bottles from Catalonia, Navarre or Rioja (yes, they do make rosé there as well as red – and white) are much fresher now. Waitrose and Majestic both have Muga’s Rioja Rosado at around a tenner – a good one to sample.
And then there’s the New World: take New Zealand, for example; many would agree that some of their Pinot Noir reds are world-class but the rosés from the same grape are pretty tasty, too. I put The Ned Pinot Rosé (Majestic, £8.99 if you buy it as part of a mixed case of 6) on a tasting recently and it showed really well to a group who were, initially, quite sceptical. But I think I convinced them (most of them, anyway) and if you, too, are a little doubtful, hopefully I’ve convinced you to give rosé a try as well.
There really is nothing better when the sun’s shining.