A Winter Warmer

It’s autumn (fall to my American readers). Or is it? Our TV weather presenters say that autumn began on September 1st while my calendar tells me that the equinox, which I thought marked the start of autumn, falls on September 23rd this year; so, by that measure, we still have a couple of weeks of ‘official’ summer left.

Whichever is right, it’s certainly beginning to feel autumnal here with chilly mornings and evenings and noticeably shorter daylight hours. And, at home, we’re already marking the changing year by putting away most of our lighter, summer recipes and moving towards some of our more robust, wintery dishes. With wines to match, of course!

Lupier

And where better to start my search for winter warmers than with Domaine Lupier’s El Terroir Garnacha (aka Grenache) from the under-rated Spanish region of Navarra (Wine Society, £17.50)? Its mix of intense red fruits with savoury, earthy flavours went perfectly with a chunky beef casserole. The intensity resulted from genuine old vines; I’ve mentioned before that the term has no official meaning, but here, some of the plantings date from 1903, making the vines well over 100 years old. The combination of a vast root system gained over this time and the naturally lower yields of ageing vines contributes a special depth of flavour to the wine.

The savoury, earthy flavours I noted arise mainly from a bit of bottle age; this wine was from the 2012 vintage, so 7 years old and having had an opportunity to mature and soften gently in bottle. Depending on your taste, some drinkers may already find it a little too mature, although I notice that the Wine Society suggests ‘now to 2023’ as a drinking window.

But we certainly enjoyed it and found it a perfect partner for our rich, flavoursome dish.

In The Beginning

I like a challenge so, when I got an email asking about a tasting mentioning all the Biblical references to wine and suggesting that, as a result, countries like Israel and Lebanon must have some interesting old vineyards, it sounded like a great theme. And I took the idea a stage further and included wines from other countries with long wine histories including Georgia; archaeological evidence suggests that might have been the first country in the world where wine was actually made, some 8000 years ago. The title I gave to the tasting: ‘In the Beginning’.

Traditionally, Georgian wine was made in qvevris – clay pots that were filled with grapes, sealed and buried in the ground for several months while the fermentation took place. That process is still in use there – and elsewhere, as those who read my last blog, ‘Clay Pots or Lunch’ will know.

Georgian white

But not all Georgian wine is made in this way and the example we tasted, Schuchmann’s Mtsvane (Wine Society, £11.50), is tank fermented. The native Mtsvane grape gave this white an attractive freshness and herbiness and a pleasant underlying richness, with delicately nutty hints on the finish from brief ageing in oak barrels.

Israel’s wines are not widely available in the UK, so I was pleased to pick up a bottle of Recanati’s Carignan/Petite Sirah in Marks and Spencer’s for £10.

Israeli red

This red, from the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, was lighter than I expected based on the blend of grapes, but very fruity and flavoursome and easily drinkable nevertheless.

Ksara red

The Ksara Reserve du Couvent, a Cabernet/Syrah blend from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (Wine Society, £10.50) was altogether chunkier and more full-bodied and would have benefitted from being tasted with robust food and, probably, from decanting, too. But it was a very appropriate wine for an ‘In the Beginning’ tasting as the monks at Ksara were instrumental in introducing new French vine varieties and production methods into Lebanon in the mid-19th century, creating the basis of the modern wine industry in the country.

So, something that started as an unusual challenge ended, by general agreement, as a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting tasting.

Vines Must Struggle

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.

A New Grape

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

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

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

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.