Tag Archives: Wine Society

Vines Must Struggle

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It’s often said that the best wines are made when the vines have to struggle. That may surprise you but, if you make life too easy for them, with rich soils, plenty of sunshine and warmth and liberal amounts of water, your grapes will ripen quickly, but not pick up much flavour. Or, the vine will make plenty of leaf growth, shading your grapes so they won’t ripen properly. Either way, the result will be nothing special.

But, plant your vineyard on poor, rocky soils, where the vines have to fight to get every little drain of moisture and the picture is very different, assuming, that is, that you are somewhere with enough sunshine and warmth to ripen the crop.

And, of all the fine vineyards of the world, one of the best examples of this kind of challenging terrain is found in eastern Sicily, on the slopes of the still active volcano, Mount Etna. Amazingly, despite the constant threat of volcanic eruptions, there are vineyards planted all over the mountain and the growers have to face the fact that, to make the wine they want, they need to accept also the danger.

Etna Rosso

It’s something I thought about when I opened a bottle of Tenuta Nicosia’s Fondo Filara Etna Rosso recently (Wine Society, £12.50). Grown in volcanic soil overlooking the sea, about 650 metres (2000 feet) up, it’s made from a blend of traditional local grape varieties, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. Delicious and elegant, it’s a red with lovely bitter cherry flavours together with hints of thyme and other fresh herbs. Although rich and satisfying, it’s not at all heavy and would make an excellent accompaniment to red meat, game or hard cheeses.

But, when you open a bottle, do think of the struggle the vines – and the growers – have been through before this wine gets to your glass.

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A New Grape

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Stirbey (2)

It’s not often that I can say I’ve tasted a wine from a grape variety that’s completely new to me, but I did so recently. The grape was Novac and the wine came from the Romanian producer Prince Stirbey (Wine Society, £13.95). A little research showed Novac to be a cross between another Romanian variety, Negru (which I had also never met before), with the rather more common Saperavi, widely found in vineyards in Russia, Georgia, Moldova and Bulgaria. To add to its mystery, it seems that Prince Stirbey own the only vineyards planted to Novac in the world.

This is a shame because the example I tasted had lovely fresh, juicy red fruit flavours and an attractive smoothness. Not too heavy – in fact, it’s one of those rare reds that could quite happily be chilled for a brief while to make a really refreshing summer glass.

Romania may not be the first place you think of for quality wines, but much of the country has a favourable Mediterranean climate and vine growing in the region dates back more than 4000 years. Indeed, the family of Prince Stirbey first owned vineyards in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps near Dragasani around 3 centuries ago. The present generation reclaimed the historic family property in 1999 and have since worked hard to restore its former high reputation, installing modern equipment but concentrating on traditional local grape varieties. Apart from Novac, the delicious, fragrant, but almost unpronounceable white variety, Tamâioasa Româneasca is certainly worth looking out for and is also available from the Wine Society (£10.50).

Romania and Prince Stirbey are both names to remember, especially if you are looking to find new grapes and new and exciting flavours.

Wine with Goat

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We noticed some goat meat on sale in our local butcher’s recently. It’s something you rarely see in the UK, but we’ve enjoyed it in restaurants while we’ve been on holiday, particularly in Spain and Portugal, where Cabrito Asado – roasted young goat – is a familiar sight on menus.

So, we decided to buy some and cook it for ourselves. A quick scan of the internet revealed quite a choice of recipes but the one that most caught our eye involved braising our goat chops with fennel, spices and the juice of an orange. An interesting mix of flavours there, so a bit of a challenge to find a wine to match it. Red, of course, but which one? Thinking back to our travels, I would certainly have ordered a wine local to wherever we were – possibly a Rioja or a Mencia-based bottle in Spain and a Douro or Dão in Portugal. And all of those would work well with plain roasted meat. But here, I was tempted to look for something more characterful to match with the aniseed flavour of the fennel, the spices and the sweetness of the fruit juice. I settled on Luigi Einaudi’s Dogliani from Piedmont in north-west Italy (Wine Society, £11.50).

Dogliani (2)

Made with the local Dolcetto grape, this has the delicious richness I was looking for but is also quite soft and harmonious. Lovely black fruits come through with a hint of garrigue herbs and a long, dry, slightly earthy finish. Einaudi is one of the most famous and historic producers of the region, once owned by a former Italian president who helped establish the reputation of the Dogliani DOC – one that is certainly upheld by this really attractive and good value red. It worked perfectly with the goat, but, if goat’s as scarce with you as here, it would be great with some lamb, too.

The 1st Rosé of Summer

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It’s only taken a few warm days over the recent holiday weekend and my wife and I immediately took to drinking rosé. OK, it wasn’t just the weather (although that helped), but the Michelin-starred pub where we were staying had one of Domaine Maby’s delicious Tavel rosés on their list.

TavelI’ve bought that producer’s wines – red, white and rosé – many times before and know them all to be good. The current Wine Society list has their rosé for £11.50; sadly, at dinner, we had to pay more than 3 times that amount. Justified? I don’t think so but it’s typical of restaurants nowadays and if customers – including me – are willing to pay that excessive mark-up without protest, then can we really blame business owners for pricing wines at that level?

So, although the cost may have left a sour taste in the mouth, the wine certainly did not. Tavel is, without doubt, the outstanding village in France’s southern Rhône region for rosé wines and Maby’s example is a crisp but full-bodied (14% alcohol) blend of local varieties including Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The grapes are selected from 3 different vineyards, each giving their own character to the wine and from vines averaging almost 50 years old. The wine itself is bone dry but with lovely flavours of strawberries and redcurrants and a persistent, fruity finish. Although it’s a wine I would happily drink on its own, it really shows best with food and was a perfect match with both my wife’s risotto of young spring vegetables and my roast breast of guinea fowl.

While a warm spring or summer day is undoubtedly the obvious time for rosés, wines as good as this are worth opening at any time and for any occasion.

Sweet but Delicate

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Mention dessert wines and most wine lovers will immediately think of Sauternes – the famous golden nectar from Bordeaux. And why not? But Sauternes is only one of hundreds of sweet wines which, incidentally, aren’t just marvellous accompaniments to the pudding course; they are often equally delicious partnering a blue cheese or a rich paté. And, of course, don’t ignore how good some sweet wines can also be as an aperitif!

But, in general, this style of wine is designed to go with the dessert, and, if trying to match the two, it’s always a good idea to ensure the wine is sweeter than the food; the other way round and the wine will be drained of much of its sweetness and may taste sharp and thin.

I opened a dessert wine at a dinner party with some good friends recently – not one from Sauternes but from an estate in the less well-known Côtes de Gascogne, about an hour’s drive south.

Tariquet sweetDomaine du Tariquet’s Dernières Grives (Wine Society, £15.50) is, perhaps, a little less sweet than a typical Sauternes yet has a lovely delicacy and charm – thanks to only 11.5% alcohol. That makes it a perfect partner for a lighter pudding – the apple fool that we served or a crème brulée or some fresh strawberries are other possibilities that come to mind.

The wine is mainly made from the local Petit Manseng grape (a variety that lovers of the wines of Jurançon would be familiar with), left on the vine late into the autumn to over-ripen and then picked (as the producers note on their website) before the local birds, especially the thrushes, get to them! They even name the wine after the birds – dernières grives is the French for last thrushes.

This is a delicious alternative sweet wine – without the power or richness of a Sauternes, but beautifully balanced and fresh and a simple delight at the end of our enjoyable, sociable meal with friends.

Jones the Winemaker

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In Wales, the surname ‘Jones’ is very widespread. Add in the fact that successive generations of a family often share the same first or given name, distinguishing between one Jones and another can become a little difficult. As a result, the habit arose to refer to people by their job; so, you get ‘Jones the Teacher’, ‘Jones the Butcher’ or ‘Jones the Farmer’. But, I suspect, rarely ‘Jones the Winemaker’ (although Wales has always had a few vineyards – a number that has expanded rapidly in the last few years).

But, there is a ‘Jones the Winemaker’, albeit in the south of France, rather than in Wales. After emigrating from the UK and working there for a few years, Katie Jones bought a vineyard in the Languedoc and began to make her own wine. She now has around 12 hectares (30 acres) spread across a number of small sites in the hillier, inland part of the Fitou Appellation. Following the classic recipe for making great wines, she has focussed on patches of low yielding old vines planted on very poor rocky soils.

As a result, life hasn’t been easy, particularly in 2013 when Katie lost her entire white wine production after some vandals opened the taps on her tanks, but, happily, she has fought back and her wines reflect her dedication.

Jones Fitou

Her Fitou (Wine Society, £15.50) is typical; a rich, savoury blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah – some from vines over 100 years old – giving a lovely spicy mouthful of hedgerow fruits, liquorice and leather. The label says 14.5% alcohol, and, although a big wine, this is beautifully balanced. Definitely needing food to show at its best – something full and robust: venison or other game, perhaps, or a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish spring to mind.

Jones the Winemaker is definitely a name to follow.

Choosing a Blog Wine

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How do I choose the wines I’m going to include in a Blog? The answer is simple: like many wine lovers, when I find a wine I really like, I want to share it with others who might appreciate it. And, if there’s a story to tell about the producer, the grape variety or where the wine comes from as well, so much the better, as that, hopefully, makes the piece more interesting to read. Also, I buy all my wines from shops or on-line and, apart from any case discounts that would be offered to any customer, I never accept ‘incentives’ to include a particular wine in this Blog.

Recently, I’ve been lucky (or chosen well!) as almost everything I’ve opened has been worth sharing and Blogging about. Here are a couple of the nicest:

Oatley SyrahI’d previously enjoyed Robert Oatley’s Finisterre Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River in Western Australia (WA) and that producer’s Syrah from the Great Southern region of WA (Wine Society, £17) is just as good. The wine showed the same subtlety and restraint that I’d liked in the earlier bottle but with Cabernet’s typical blackcurrant flavours replaced with delightfully fragrant black cherry and hedgerow berries. More reminiscent of a Syrah from the northern Rhône than a typical Australian example, it is interesting that Oatley has chosen to use the European version of the grape’s name, in preference to Shiraz.

Crasto DouroCrasto Superior (also Wine Society, £14.50), a full-bodied red from Portugal’s Douro region, is altogether richer and more intense and needs to accompany robust food to enjoy it at its best. Made from a blend of local grapes including Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, this spends 12 months in French oak barrels resulting in lovely spicy flavours adding to the attractive sweet fruit.

Two wines that I’m happy to share with you. I hope you’ll enjoy them, too.