It’s amazing how often the food speciality of a region and the local wine go well together – shellfish with Muscadet and the little goats’ cheese crottins with Sancerre are 2 examples that spring immediately to mind, although there are many, many more. So, when we decided to cook a cassoulet (a delicious rich stew made from mixed meats, haricot beans, tomatoes and fresh herbs originating from the area around Toulouse in the South West of France) for some good friends recently, it seemed only natural to turn to a wine from Madiran, just a short drive to the west of the city.
Madiran is not one of the most widely-known Appellations – probably because much of the relatively small production is enjoyed locally – but the best producers turn out some really lovely intense red wines, based around the astringent, tannic local grape variety, Tannat, sometimes ‘softened’ by a little Cabernet (Sauvignon or Franc) and another native variety, Fer.
Among the names to look out for are Alain Brumont’s Montus (£26.99 from Corks) or Bouscassé, Château Laffitte-Teston or Château d’Aydie and it was this latter estate’s cuvee Odé d’Aydie (Wine Society, remarkable value at £9.99) that we opened and decanted a couple of hours before drinking – always worth doing with Madiran.
Even so, the 2013 vintage was still quite tannic at first – it has at least another 5 years good drinking ahead – but, once we started enjoying it with the robust flavours of the cassoulet, it showed as I’d hoped – mellowing admirably with attractive blackberry and spice coming to the fore.
The reason behind local food and local wine working well together remains a mystery to me; does the food come first and wines develop to match it or is it the other way around? Or is it purely by chance? Either way, next time you start thinking, ‘what should I drink with this?’, look where the dish comes from and hope they make wine there.
I think it was the former US President Bill Clinton who used the phrase ‘Keep it simple, stupid’. Those who design most traditional German wine labels should take note! Take the example below:
It has the producer’s name, the vintage, the grape variety, the region, village and vineyard in which the grapes were grown and even an indication of how ripe the grapes were at harvest. This is typical of German wine labels and makes them among the most informative in the world. But that – and the common use of the difficult-to-read antique font – also puts off many wine lovers who don’t want – or understand – all the detail. “Just give me a clear idea what the wine is going to taste like”!
So, I was pleasantly surprised recently to find a German wine with one of the barest labels I’ve seen:
Just the producer’s name, the grape variety (Grauburgunder is the German name for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris) and the vintage. Anyone interested in the region (Rheinhessen) or village (Nierstein) could check the back label where you also find, far more importantly, that the wine is dry (trocken) and has, unusually for a German white, 14% alcohol. In some wines, this level of alcohol can taste ‘hot’ or dominate the flavour but not here; it brings a lovely richness in the mouth – closer in style to a good Alsace Pinot Gris rather than a light and quaffable Pinot Grigio. The wine is quite savoury with a delightful saline character that makes it really food-friendly – a noble fish in a creamy sauce comes to mind.
From the label to the taste and style, this is about as far away from normal expectations of a German wine as it could be, but it’s really delicious. And a bargain, too: Louis Guntrum’s Grauburgunder is just £11.50 from the Wine Society.
Wine lovers with long memories may be wary of Austrian wine. The so-called ‘anti-freeze’ scandal of the 1980s has cast a long shadow. For those readers who are puzzled by my opening comments, the problem was that a few of that country’s producers illegally added diethylene glycol (not anti-freeze, but with a chemically similar sounding name) to their wines to increase their sweetness. The addition apparently caused no harm to anyone drinking the wines but it shouldn’t have happened and it proved far from harmless to the Austrian wine industry, which was devastated with sales collapsing both at home and abroad.
It has taken decades to rebuild but now, 30 years later and backed by some of the strictest wine laws in the world, Austria is re-emerging as a producer of high quality wines at generally affordable prices. The local speciality is Grüner Veltliner, a grape that is becoming quite fashionable (with good reason) and there are some delicious Rieslings available, too, both dry, in the style of Alsace, and wonderfully sweet. But a combination of changes in consumers’ taste and a bit of global warming has meant that Austrian reds, at one time, a tiny part of their output, have become much more important. And that’s a good thing if a bottle I opened recently is a typical example:
Hans Igler’s Zweigelt Classic (Wine Society, £9.50) is quite light-bodied but full of flavour – blackberries, black pepper and a subtle hint of wood. The Zweigelt grape (another local speciality) gives it good, refreshing acidity and attractive soft tannins. Good for drinking now (decant an hour or so in advance) or keep another couple of years.
As someone who remembers the Austrian wines of the 1980s and the scandal that followed, it’s been good to see their re-emergence onto the international scene over the past few years. Austria today produces a range of reliable, good quality and good values wines – still mainly white but now their reds are clearly worth looking at, too.
I opened a bottle recently displaying a sticker proclaiming that the wine had won a Gold Medal in a certain Wine Competition.
So, 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.
Brunello di Montalcino is one of Italy’s most prestigious red wines. It’s made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes, the same variety used in Chianti, in a designated area around the small town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany. Here, in the warm, dry climate, the Sangiovese (known locally as Brunello) reaches maximum ripeness leading to fuller, richer wines than many of those found in Chianti. 14% alcohol and more is not unusual, particularly in a hot year.
The rules for Brunello demand 4 years ageing at the winery (at least 2 of which must be in oak barrels) before the wine can be sold. And even once they are on the market, most Brunellos still need considerable time before they really reach their peak – 10 -15 years after vintage is a commonly suggested drinking window.
But, with 4 years to wait before producers get any income from sales of Brunello, most also make another wine, Rosso di Montalcino, usually from younger or less well-sited vines. This only has to be aged for a year after which it can be sold. In normal years, a Rosso di Montalcino from a good producer is an attractive, approachable red wine ready for early drinking but, in warm years like 2015, when there was a large harvest of almost uniformly high quality grapes, it becomes a really interesting proposition. The producers, eager for some early income, won’t want to put all their grapes into their Brunello even if the quality might allow them to do so. No, in these years, some go into the Rosso making it altogether richer and more characterful.
And that is exactly what had happened in the example I opened recently from Gianni Brunelli. This is quite complex and full of lovely bramble flavours. There’s still some tannin there – we decanted it and drunk it with some grilled herbed lamb – but it would certainly improve for another couple of years or so. And, compared to the same producer’s Brunello (£34 for the 2012 vintage from the Wine Society), the Rosso (£15.50, same supplier) is a real bargain.
Australia built much of its early reputation in the UK on crowd-pleasing Chardonnays. The recipe was simple but effective: plenty of up-front tropical fruit and oak flavours and generous levels of alcohol. “Sunshine in a glass” as they were often described. And, although these wines are still popular – look on any supermarket shelf – there are many wine lovers who would never even consider, let alone buy, an Oz Chardonnay. Their reputation, at one time so helpful, now puts off some of those who grew up on the early Chardonnays but who are now looking for something more interesting and complex.
Yet, if you search a little wider (and pay a little more), there are some really talented winemakers in Australia who are using the country’s favourite grape to produce delightful, flavoursome bottles in a subtle style that would have been totally alien 2 decades ago. Take Lenton Brae’s Southside Chardonnay from Margaret River (Wine Society, £14.95) for example.
They use older vines (some planted in the pioneering days of 1982) to make a rich, mouth-filling wine with lovely green apple and pear flavours. Fermenting in a mix of new and used French oak barrels adds a restrained spiciness. But despite this, there was also enough crispness and freshness to go perfectly with asparagus – a dish I’d normally associate with a Sauvignon Blanc or a dry English white.
Margaret River in Western Australia has always done things a little differently. 2000 miles away from the more famous vineyards in the south-east of the country and with cooler influences from the Indian Ocean, WA has never produced wine in the volumes of those further east. It has always concentrated more on quality than quantity as shown perfectly by this Lenton Brae.
But wines such as this are also a timely reminder to those who have ignored Oz Chardonnay for so long to take a fresh look. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
I always find it hard to convince wine lovers to try German Rieslings – so many people still think of them as being nasty, sweet and all tasting like cheap Liebfraumilch. The truth may be the complete reverse but, sadly, the reputation remains. And, if German whites are a hard sell, how about their reds? In fact, did you even know that Germany made red wine? Give yourself a big pat on the back if you said yes and a bonus mark if you’ve ever tasted one!
We visited Assmanshausen on the Rhine last year, one of the few villages in Germany dedicated almost exclusively to red wines. They are made from a grape called Spätburgunder locally (we probably know it better as the Burgundy variety, Pinot Noir) and we loved what we tasted so much that I’ve been looking out for them ever since.
Given what I said in the first paragraph, they’re not going to be on every UK wine merchant’s shelf but, again, the Wine Society has come up trumps with a delicious example from Martin Wassmer (£12.95).
He has vineyards in the Baden region in the south of Germany where the climate is milder than much of the country and seems to suit the tricky-to-ripen Pinot Noir grape perfectly. The example we tasted had the typical earthy, farmyardy nose that mark out so many good Pinots. It was quite light bodied and relatively low in tannin but with lovely savoury flavours and an intense plummy fruitiness. Really drinkable and moreish, this would partner duck, turkey or chicken beautifully or even lightly chilled on its own.
And once you’ve tried a German red, have a re-think about their whites, too: a good quality dry Riesling (look for the word ‘Trocken’ on the label) is a real delight and about as far from the dreaded Liebfraumilch as it is possible to imagine.