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.
If you compiled a list of the world’s most important wine producing countries, Morocco would be found closer to the bottom than the top. But it shouldn’t be that way. With a winemaking history dating back to Roman times and spanning latitudes between 30 and 35˚N (similar to Southern California), you’d expect it to be more prominent, specialising in wines in a rich, warm climate style. That was certainly how it was in the distant past, but the 2nd half of the 20th century was not kind to Morocco’s wine industry and, by 1990, ¾ of her vineyards had either been grubbed up or were useless commercially.
Happily, with the assistance of mainly foreign investment, things are beginning to change and there are now a number of producers making interesting and very drinkable wines. But, the legacy of the bad times remains and shops won’t stock wines if customers aren’t asking for them and customers can’t buy wines if shops aren’t stocking them.
So, all credit to the Wine Society (yet again!) for taking a chance and putting the delicious Tandem Syrah on their list (£11.50).
A collaboration between Crozes Hermitage producer Alain Graillot and Thalvin in Morocco, this has all the lovely blackberry fruit of a good Syrah (M.Graillot knows all about getting the best from that variety, of course) together with an attractive richness and some spicy hints from the subtle oak ageing.
As for food matches, well, thinking of North Africa, a tagine with cous-cous comes to mind – a perfect choice. But, in fact, any full-flavoured dish using red meat, aubergines or mushrooms (especially dried ones) would go well with this, as would a nice hard cheese.
And once you’ve taken the plunge and tried this bottle, why not ask your local wine merchant what else they can find from Morocco? It’s time that country realised its potential.
We bought some nice trout recently caught locally in Chew Valley Lake and my wife was poring through some old recipe books looking for a tasty and different way to cook them: “how about baking them and serving them with an anchovy sauce”, she suggested. Just seconds after agreeing that the idea sounded really interesting, I suddenly realised the challenge I’d set myself: what sort of wine could possibly go with it?
The trout wasn’t the problem – unless they are quite old, when they can take on an earthy flavour – trout is quite wine friendly; it was the anchovy sauce that was causing my headache!
Why? Anchovies are both salty and oily and, in addition, have quite an assertive flavour – all characteristics that can have an effect on wine. Saltiness can be an advantage, taming tannin and making wines taste smoother and richer but it also makes wine seem less acidic – and it’s acidity that would be vital to cut through the oiliness of the anchovies. And, with quite a strongly flavoured sauce, the wine would need some character if it wasn’t to be completely overwhelmed.
In all of this, the question of red or white faded into obscurity – until we tasted the almost-finished sauce, when we both agreed that we couldn’t see a red working at all. So, a white; but which one?
The food and wine of a region often work well together and, in this context, Portugal came to mind. Not anchovies, but sardines have many of the same characteristics.
And so we opened the somewhat pretentiously named FP by Filipa Pato (Wine Society, £9.95).
Filipa is the daughter of Luis Pato – the man who, virtually single-handedly, put Portugal’s Bairrada wine region on the map – and she is certainly keeping up the family reputation with this delicious appley-fresh white made from 2 high quality grape varieties native to this area of Portugal – Arinto and Bical.
One final thought: the surname ‘Pato’ means ‘duck’ in Portuguese. I wonder how duck and anchovies might work together? And the wine to match? Any suggestions?
One of my fellow wine bloggers (appetiteforwine.wordpress.com) wrote recently about his aim to become a member of the ‘Century Wine Club’, open to anyone who could show that they had tasted at least 100 different grape varieties. I think I might qualify as I’m always looking for different and unusual wines but I haven’t kept detailed notes going back far enough to prove it.
But I did open a bottle the other day that, if he can find it, will almost certainly get Mr Appetite for Wine (sorry I don’t know him by any other name) one step closer: the Italian producer Cà dei Frati makes their wine I Frati (Wine Society, £12.50) from the grape Turbiana.
Grown on the southern shores of the beautiful Lake Garda and labelled as DOC Lugana, this little-known variety yields a rich, floral and complex white, full of quite subtle tropic fruit flavours; a wine that would be ideal with fish or chicken in a creamy sauce. Unusually, it is matured in barrels of acacia wood – not oak – although there is no hint of any wood ageing on the nose or palate.
Turbiana was once thought to be Trebbiano, Italy’s most widely planted white grape variety. This link surprised me as I know of no wine from that grape that has the richness of flavour that I Frati shows. Research for Jancis Robinson’s book “Wine Grapes” confirmed my doubts – indeed, it showed that there are at least 6 different varieties all using the name Trebbiano. No wonder it apparently produced such a range of different styles!
Trebbiano di Lugana is still sometimes used as a synonym for Turbiana although it now appears that it may be more closely related to Verdicchio – widely grown on Italy’s Adriatic coast and producing some delicious, fresh, lemony whites – than to any of the more common Trebbianos.
I hope my fellow blogger can find a bottle; it will get him 1 closer to his target in a really delicious way. He should, however, be careful in lifting it – the bottle weighs in at a ridiculous 770 grams empty! The contents are good enough to speak for themself without such excesses.
Finally, a word of thanks to an eagle-eyed reader who spotted a mistake in a recent blog: my ‘Hidden Corners of Spain’ wine course at Stoke Lodge will be on Saturday 4th March, not the 7th as I said previously. A few places are still available and you can book via www.bristolcourses.com or by phone to 0117 903 8844.
Not so long ago, opening a bottle of Australian Chardonnay would have inevitably meant a wine with lots of sweet tropical fruit (pineapples, melons, lychees and the like), a strong oaky taste and plenty of heat and power deriving from a likely alcohol content of 14% or sometimes even more. These wines, along with robust, chunky Shiraz- and Cabernet-based reds, were the mainstay of Australia’s great success over here. You still find them in every supermarket, mainly sold under a famous brand name and often benefitting from a discount or special offer price. But, they weren’t (and aren’t) to everyone’s taste. In fact, I (and quite a number of my good friends) avoid them completely. For us, they are just too big and dominating to be enjoyable.
Which is why you might be surprised to find me blogging about opening a bottle of Australian Chardonnay. But this one was different!
Hay Shed Hill Chardonnay (Wine Society, £14.50) has just 13% alcohol, delicate, subtle oaking and the sort of delightful citrus and green pear aromas and flavours that you’d normally associate with a good Chablis. So what is going on?
To start with, it’s from Margaret River in Western Australia, an area far from the South-East and its battle for high volume sales. The vineyards for this wine are situated high on a gravel ridge in the Wilyabrup Valley, quite close to the sea, so benefitting from cooling Ocean currents. This ensures that the grapes ripen more slowly and retain enough acidity to keep the wines refreshing. And, of course, skilled winemaking from owner, Michael Kerrigan, formerly of Madfish and Howard Park.
But this is not just one exception to the normal pattern; there’s another Margaret River Chardonnay sitting on our wine rack with just 12½% alcohol. It seems like a whole new world awaits.