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.

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.

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!

A Taste of the Med

My wife and I have enjoyed quite a few Mediterranean holidays over the years although none since the Covid virus interrupted all travel (and much else).  But we still love cooking and eating Mediterranean-style food – especially when the weather is warm and sunny.  And the wine to go with our Mediterranean dishes? Well, how often do you find the food of a country or region matches the wines from the same area perfectly?

Of course, when considering Mediterranean wines, you have a vast range to choose from: parts of Spain, the whole of the south of France, much of Italy and Greece and so many others besides.

This time, looking at the dish we were cooking didn’t help to narrow the choice at all; seared tuna steaks with a soy and balsamic glaze would probably have worked with many fuller-bodied whites, a flavoursome dry rosé or even a light and fruity red.  In the end, we settled for Tenuta Flaminio’s rosato (rosé) from Brindisi in Italy’s south-eastern Puglia region. 

Made with the local Negroamaro grape variety (which can also contribute to some delicious reds from the same area), this crisp, fresh, dry rosé is full of lovely crushed strawberry flavours with some attractive smoky hints.  It teamed beautifully with the tuna although it was so good as an aperitif that there wasn’t too much left to enjoy with the food.  Best lightly chilled – not too cold; about a half hour in the fridge is all that it needs.  A real bargain at £8.95 from The Wine Society.

Rosés are widely produced throughout the Mediterranean and are often thought of as just wines for summer.  But, although they obviously do work well at this time of year, many of the drier examples – and this is important – are very food-friendly and are worth considering to match fish, chicken or just about any Mediterranean dish throughout the year.

No Ordinary Soave

Last time, I blogged about looking for interesting and different flavours from lesser-known regions and rare native grapes.  Today, I’m going to the other extreme and focussing on one of the most famous white wines of Italy: Soave.  Made mainly from the local Garganega grape in the north-east of the country, you will see bottles of Soave in every supermarket, often at rock-bottom prices – £5 and below is not unusual. 

So why would I pay more than £20 (Wine Society, £21.50 to be precise) for a bottle of Soave?  And why would I choose a Soave when I wanted a special bottle for a particular anniversary of ours?  Well, as you might guess, the bottle in question – Pieropan’s Calvarino Soave Classico – is no ordinary Soave.

Yes, it does have the crisp, fresh acidity that is one of the trademark characteristics of Soave, but there the similarity ends.  Calvarino – named after the vineyard from which all the grapes are harvested – is altogether a much richer, fuller flavoured wine, tasting of peaches and almonds, with a delightful floral nose full of hints of pear and honey.

So, what makes this wine so different from others with a similar name?  Soave is one of a number of Italian wine regions (Chianti being the most famous) which have (mistakenly, in my view) allowed the area in which the wine can be made to expand over time.  Most of the newer plantings are on flat, fertile land where the emphasis is on volume and meeting supermarkets’ basic price points.  The result is the fairly bland, high acidity wines that Soave has become known for. 

Better quality examples will have the words ‘Soave Classico’ on the label.  The ‘Classico’ is important as this shows that the wine is made from grapes grown in the original area – the craggy hills close to the town of Verona where the vines are older, tending them is more challenging and the grape yields are much smaller.

There are several very good Soave Classicos – admittedly not all costing £20 a bottle – but, for me, this is the best of them and, to celebrate a special anniversary, I couldn’t think of a better choice.

For Australia’s National Day

If you’ve ever opened a bottle of Chianti, then you’ve tasted the grape variety Sangiovese with its typical flavours of bitter cherries and herbs.  It’s the No1 variety in Italy in terms of area and it’s far more widely planted than just in Chianti; it’s found throughout the regions of Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Marche but its home is, I suppose, in Tuscany (think Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano as well as Chianti). 

Outside Italy, though, Sangiovese is far harder to find.  To me, that’s surprising considering the number of families of Italian origin who have emigrated and settled in many different countries across the world.  They’ve planted a couple of thousand acres in Argentina and a little in California (notably Antinori’s Atlas Peak) but, beyond that, very little.  Although I recently found a bottle from Australia made by an ex-Italian family, now living in Victoria’s King Valley, who have imported a range of vines – not just Sangiovese but several other Italian varieties, too – which they grow and use for all their wines.

Pizzini’s Pietra Rossa Sangiovese (Wine Society, £18) is more Brunello than Chianti in style, rounded and full of lovely fresh plum and cherry flavours with a hint of spice.  The wine has spent 14 months in barrel, with a proportion of that in new oak, but I found no overt oak flavour, just a savoury, harmonious mouthful.  The 2019 vintage is still quite tannic so needs decanting and pairing with chunky flavours.

The King Valley is not well-known (although it is the home of the famous Brown Brothers company) but it is an interesting area, a good couple of hours drive north-east of Melbourne.  The key for vine growing here is the closeness to the foothills of the Australian Alps where the heat of the growing season is offset by the altitude.  This allows the grapes to ripen fully yet still retain that essential freshness that showed well in Pizzini’s wine.

A little bit of Italy in Australia and perfect for celebrating Australia’s National Day (26 January).

Too Old or Too Young?

I used to have regular discussions with a friend of mine over the wines we tasted together.  He would say that I always opened my wines too young, before they had a chance to develop all their complexities.  I would counter that he always kept his wines too long, so that they lost their fruit and freshness and were past their best.  Of course, we were both right and both wrong; wine is about tastes and opinions and his and mine clearly differed.

But he had a point; most of the wines my wife and I drink at home are quite young.  So, when I opened a 9-year-old Rioja recently, it was a bit of a shock at first.  I had to adjust to the different tastes and search hard for the words to describe its character. 

Urbina’s Rioja Crianza 2012 (Wine Society, a bargain at £10.95) was at an interesting stage of its development, still retaining some of its youthful cassis fruit alongside some attractive cooked plum flavours, more typical of wines showing a bit more age.  All this was wrapped up with distinct coconut and cedar flavours from the oak ageing. I was actually a little surprised at the oakiness of the wine; the Crianza category only requires wine to spend 6 months in oak barrels, although many of the more traditional producers – among them, I suspect, Urbina – significantly exceed this minimum without upgrading to Reserva status.

Overall, we both enjoyed the wine with its – for us – different tastes, and it certainly went really well with some rib-eye steak.  But did it convince us to buy older wines more often?  I don’t think so.  And should we have waited until it was even older before opening it?  I would say firmly ‘no’; my friend, I am sure, would be equally convinced that it would improve further after a few more years in the bottle.

Life would be so boring if we all liked the same.

2 Bottles to Remember

As we approach the end of another difficult year, I suspect that most people will be hoping that in 2022, we might finally get this wretched Covid 19 under control.  Perhaps even start doing the things I was dreaming of in the blog I posted this time last year: going on holiday, eating out in restaurants and running wine courses.  While still exercising care for ourselves and our fellow citizens, of course.

But, before finally leaving 2021 altogether, I’d like to mention a couple of wines we particularly enjoyed over the recent holiday season – both excellent value.

Sauternes is, perhaps, the best-known dessert wine in the world but it isn’t the only sweet wine made in the Bordeaux region.  Across the Garonne River, 3 other Appellations, Cadillac, Loupiac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, make wines in a similar style, if a little lighter in body, using the same grape varieties (Semillon and Savignon Blanc).  The last named of these villages has been a favourite of ours since visiting as part of a wine walk many years ago.  It was the end of a long day and a glass of the local liquid nectar was the perfect reviver.  Chateau La Rame is one of the best producers there, the wine sweet but not cloying and full of delicious orange, honey and marmalade flavours (available from Majestic, £12.99 for a 50cl bottle).

Another bottle also brought back memories of a trip abroad, this time to the Greek island of Crete.   Among the exciting producers there is Domaine Lyrarakis, who specialises in showcasing Crete’s marvellous range of native grapes, some only recently rescued from near-extinction.  Varieties such Dafni and Vidiano (both white) and Kotsifali (red) are all worth seeking out, but our bottle was made from Thrapsathiri – a grape that was completely new to me.  Full and rich, a little in the style of a white Rhône, this subtly oaked wine had flavours of peach and melon with a little spice and a delicious long herby, grassy finish.  Bought from the Wine Society for £14.50, but, sadly, now sold out.

Two bottles to remember from a year that, otherwise, many will wish to forget.

Sancerre Style, not Sancerre prices

ReuillySancerre and Pouilly Fumé, the twin towns of the eastern Loire, turn out some lovely wines. But, because they are famous names and always in demand, the best tend to be expensive (you can easily pay £15 – £20 or even more). And, if you go for some of the cheaper examples found in supermarkets instead, they can be quite disappointing. So, how do you get the lovely, racy, pungent flavours of a good Loire Sauvignon Blanc without paying these sorts of prices?

Look at a map of the area and, just to the west of Sancerre, you’ll see Menetou-Salon; a little further west and you come to Quincy and Reuilly. All three of these villages also produce Sauvignon Blanc in much the same style as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, yet, as they are not nearly as widely known, prices – comparing wines of similar quality, of course – are far more reasonable.

Take Denis Jamain’s Les Pierres Plates Reuilly, for example. We opened a bottle recently and it went beautifully with some grilled sardines. It was absolutely textbook Loire Sauvignon with wonderful clean, fresh, gooseberry and green pepper flavours. Only a real expert could confidently say this wasn’t a high quality Sancerre. But, when you check the price, you’ll notice the difference: £11.50 from The Wine Society. And, in case you want to try value alternatives from the other two villages I mentioned, Wine Society also have Domaine Pellé’s Menetou-Salon (£11.95) and Majestic are offering Jean-Charles Borgnat’s Quincy (£11.49). Both recommended.

If you’re searching for reliable Loire Sauvignon even cheaper still, you may need to choose carefully, but I’d suggest you look even further west, over the border into Touraine, the region surrounding the town of Tours. At their best, wines labelled Sauvignon de Touraine can give you much of the same style and freshness as a modest Sancerre, but, production here is quite large and quality can be a bit variable, which is why I say you need to be selective. Above all, avoid Loire Sauvignon at bargain basement prices (which, these days, means below about £6) as cheap examples are often dominated by tart acidity with very little fruit – very unpleasant!

And finding bargains by seeking alternatives to famous names doesn’t stop on the Loire. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Pouilly Fuissé and many others have their value alternatives. But that’s a Bristol Wine Blog for another day. In the meantime, just look around.