Voyage of Discovery

Britain is one of the few winemaking countries in the world that drinks more wine that it makes. As a result, everyone else is keen to export their surplus production to quench our thirsts. This is lucky for us as, without too much difficulty, it means we can find wines from all over the world without leaving our shores. In fact, I’ve personally tasted wines from more than 20 different countries this year.

So, when I was asked to put on a tasting showcasing wines from some of the less well-known parts of the world, I was happy to take up the invitation. I called it ‘Voyage of Discovery’.

I chose wines from European countries like Slovenia, Hungary and Macedonia – and England, of course – I couldn’t ignore the home side – alongside some from further afield: Chile and Lebanon. And I looked for some unusual grapes, too, like Furmint, Ribolla Gialla and Pais.

Not surprisingly, the different styles of wine from these countries and grapes provoked some widely different reactions from members of the group – but that’s part of tasting something new. But, when it came to the vote at the end, there was a narrow winner among both whites and reds.

Discovery white

Krasno’s crisp but mouth-filling blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the local speciality Ribolla Gialla (Majestic, £8.49) from Slovenia was the favourite white. Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, has made enormous strides in the past couple of decades, particularly the Goriška Brda region, from which this wine comes, which is so close to north-east Italy that some vineyards actually span the national boundary.

Discovery red

The winning red was also from the Balkans region, although this time rather further south in Macedonia. The Tikveš Vranec/Merlot (a real bargain from Majestic at just £7.99) was, again a blend of a popular international variety with a native grape. This reminded some of a good Beaujolais; quite light-bodied but very drinkable, with lovely clean red fruits and a slightly smoky finish. A wine to drink on its own or with lighter dishes – one of the group suggested baked trout as an interesting pairing.

But these were just the winners – every wine had some supporters and several left the tasting thinking about their own Voyage of Discovery.

£10 or £20?

Could you tell a £10 wine from one costing twice as much? Surely, it should be quite easy – after all, that’s quite a big price difference and you’d hope that the dearer wine would be altogether better quality, justifying the extra money. But, it may be harder than you think; despite the amount lost to the government in tax (about £4 at this price point), £10 wines are generally well above basic quality and most show some character and individuality.

It’s a challenge I posed to a group of would-be professionals and enthusiastic amateurs who had signed on for a mid-level Wine and Spirit Education Trust course. I wanted to ensure they were comparing like with like (apart from the price) and so I chose a pair of Shirazes, both from South Australia.

Shiraz v Shiraz

The cheaper wine, from the reputable Grant Burge team (widely available from many large supermarkets), was rich and mouthfilling, full of red and black fruit flavours with subtle oak hints and, perhaps most importantly very, very drinkable and easily approachable. Everyone agreed it was a most enjoyable wine.

The £20 wine was an Australian classic: Penfolds Max’s Shiraz (from Waitrose Cellar). Unlike the Grant Burge, this was a wine designed for the long haul – Penfolds suggest drinking over the next 9 years. As a result, it was, perhaps, rather less approachable, with significant tannin, greater subtlety and far less of the immediate fruity appeal. Easy to dismiss at first taste as being of poorer quality than its rival. But looking beyond first impressions, its more complex character clearly shone through. Delightful sweet spice and chocolate intermingled with restrained red fruits and a wonderful long finish. But patience would be needed if it was to be enjoyed at its best.

So, it would be quite understandable if most would choose the Grant Burge. It’s clearly the one to take home for drinking today, although I’d want to leave the Penfolds under the stairs to enjoy around 2025.

Italian sun shines in Bristol

Italy tastingA warm summer evening and a tasting for the Westbury Park Festival held in ‘C The World’, a local Travel Agent. What better theme for the event than the Wines of Italy – one of the favourite holiday destinations for us Brits? And the wines I took along to taste reflected that idea, with all coming from areas much visited by tourists.

Our first wine was from the island of Sardinia – a crisp, peachy white: Nord Est Vermentino (£9.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouse, where I bought all the wines for this tasting). Vermentino is a high quality grape variety especially well-suited to some of the warmer parts of the Mediterranean as it retains its refreshing acidity well.

The hills above Pescara on the Adriatic coast provided our 2nd white: Collecorvino’s Pecorino (£9.99). Yes, Pecorino is a cheese, but it’s also a grape variety; there are many explanations for the similarity – none of them particularly believable! This wine was a little fuller and richer than the 1st – the result of some of the grapes being fermented in oak.

For our final white, I looked to the Avellino hills, east of Naples. It’s an area rich with excellent local grape varieties including Fiano and Greco but I chose Terredora’s Falanghina (£11.99) – beautifully crisp and fresh but with an attractive savoury character from 3 months of lees ageing.

It was back to the islands – this time Sicily – for the 1st of the reds. Corolla’s Nero d’Avola (£8.99) was everything a simple, every day wine should be – lots of red fruit flavours and very moreish.

A little more challenging was Villa Borghetti’s Valpolicella Ripasso (£12.99) from the area to the east of Lake Garda. Valpolicella can also be simple and gluggable but, when the word ‘Ripasso’ is on the label, it takes on a whole new dimension. Refermented on the lees of an Amarone, a wine made with dried grapes, this is intense with delicious prune and fig flavours.

And finally, from Piedmont, in the north-west, De Forville’s Langhe Nebbiolo (£10.99) is effectively a mini-Barolo in all but name (and price!). Ideally, it should be left a few more years to allow the tannins to soften (I opened the 2017) but, if you can’t wait, decant it well in advance and serve with robust food; you’ll find the quality and richness will shine through.

So, there it was: a taste of the Italian sun in Bristol and, hopefully, enjoyed by all.

2018: Looking Back

Around this time last year, a friend asked me “How many different wines do you drink in a year?”  I had to confess that I had no idea.  But, the question intrigued me and so, geek that I am, I decided to try and count them in 2018!  Amazingly, I persevered and, with just a few days left of the year, the total has just passed …..550!

Mathematicians among you will have calculated instantly that that’s about 1½ wines a day so, before anyone thinks I’ve spent the entire year in a permanent drunken stupor, I should say that the majority of the 550 have been at tastings where it’s been sniff, slurp, spit, scribble a quick note and on to the next wine – very little actually swallowed.

Not satisfied with mere numbers, I can also report that I’ve tasted wines from 23 different countries and from at least 99 different grape varieties – ranging alphabetically from agioritiko to zweigelt (Greek and Austrian reds, respectively).  I say ‘at least’ 99 because I only counted the major component of any blend and there were a couple of wines that I couldn’t discover which grape was involved.

The obvious next question must be ‘which was your favourite?’ and that, I’m afraid, is the hardest of all to answer – I’ve been lucky enough to taste so many truly delicious wines.  But I can say which was the most memorable:

Colares Branco 1969On a damp, chilly autumn day, my wife and I went to an event at Bristol’s Underfall Yard where an assortment of Portuguese products had been brought from Porto to the UK carried by a century-old sailing boat, the Bessie-Ellen.  Among the cargo was a few bottles of Adega Viúva Gomes’ Collares Reserva Branco 1969.  This incredible 49 year old wine is difficult to describe; perhaps closest would be to say it was in the style of a white port or madeira (even though it was not fortified as they would be) – deep golden colour, tangy and nutty and a finish that lasted for ever.  Remarkably, it was still full of life – and easily the most memorable wine of my busy, fruitful year.  (www.xistowines.co.uk may have some left, about £45)

A Week in Bristol – Part 2

Now that my crowded week of 4 tastings is behind me, it’s time to reflect on the final 2 events that I couldn’t fit into my Blog last time.

The first continued with the theme of Spain and Portugal with the added interest that my client asked me to choose wines from the ‘Hidden Corners’ of these 2 fascinating countries.  In fact, for many UK wine drinkers, most of Portugal and much of Spain (except, perhaps, Rioja and Cava) are ‘hidden’, so I had plenty of scope to make my selections.

20181115_182813_resized (2)

An early favourite was the Casal de Ventozela Alvarinho from northern Portugal (£9.99 – all the wines for this tasting were from Majestic).  Alvarinho is the same grape as Spain’s Albariño and this delightful, fresh white showed lovely peach and citrus flavours and a long fragrant finish.

But, it was a pair of Spanish reds that attracted the most praise – both for their quality and for their amazing bargain prices.  Pizarras de Otero (£7.49) was intensely fruity with aromas and flavours of ripe strawberries, plums and blackberries.  Made with the Mencia grape variety, local to the Bierzo district in north-west Spain, this reminded one taster of a young Pinot Noir.

The striking label on Matsu’s ‘El Picaro’ (£8.99) from Toro in the west of Spain (left-hand bottle, above) lists the grape variety as ‘Tinta de Toro’, but this is simply a local name for Spain’s best red grape, Tempranillo.  Bigger and richer than the Bierzo and with a little smokey spice and chocolate added to the black fruits, this would have been far more expensive if it had come from one of the better-known Tempranillo areas.

The last tasting of the week was another of my Saturday classes at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Adult Education Centre.  This time, my theme was ‘Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet’.  Despite the title, we did taste 2 examples of each of these grapes to explore their diverse flavours.  But it was one of the Cabernet alternatives that was unanimously voted as best wine of the day. 

20181117_152855_resized (2)Ironically, in view of the focus of my week, it came from Spain: Baron de Ley Rioja Reserva 2014 (Waitrose, £9) was beautifully mellow and spicy from 20 months ageing in oak but still young enough to allow the soft red fruits to show through.  A real delight at a very reasonable price, and a deserved winner.

As for me, after my busy week, it’s time to relax with a nice glass of wine

A Week in Bristol

I’ve blogged before about how this is my busiest time of the year but 4 tastings in 1 week is exceptional, even for my November schedule.  Interestingly, 3 of the 4 events focussed on Spain or Portugal – 2 countries whose wines have improved so much over the past 20 years or so.

The week started with Ed Adams MW at the Bristol Tasting Circle.  Ed, along with his business partner, South African Bruce Jack, is a winemaker in north-east Spain and showed 2 of his own wines – an attractive creamy white and a rich, intense red, both sold under the La Bascula label.  Then, in conjunction with Great Western Wines of Bath, we also tasted a range of other wines, all from the Basque or Catalan regions of Spain that Ed knows so well. 

BTC Spain 2It was hard to pick just one favourite but, both my wife and I loved the crisp, grapefruit flavoured white Adur Txakolina from the Basque country (£17.95) while, among the reds, Franck Massard’s El Brindis from the Montsant region (£12.50) was great value even though to get the best from this deep, weighty Cariñena/Garnacha blend would require real patience – perhaps 3 or 4 years.

The following evening, the Bristol-Oporto Twinning Association invited Alan Wright from Clifton Cellars to run a tasting for us.  Alan doesn’t believe in ‘run of the mill’ wines but one of his well-chosen selections was unique, even by his standards.  Oporto 1Quinta do Romeu’s ‘Westerlies’ (£14.75) was specially made and bottled for a journey under sail from Portugal to Bristol by the century-old trading ketch, the Bessie-Ellen.  Sadly, the old ship had to stop at Fowey for repairs but her cargo continued by road for us to enjoy.  Made from one of Portugal’s lesser-known grape varieties, Sousão, this red showed lovely black fruits and although quite deeply flavoured, had an attractive lightness about it.  Oporto 2Despite the temptation of the glorious, sweet Adega de Palma Moscatel de Setubal (£12.50) and others that we tasted, this had to be the wine of the night, if only for the wonderful story it told.

That only takes me as far as Tuesday and my tasting count is already well into double figures for the week (spitting out, of course!).  Perhaps I’d better defer blogging about the week’s other 2 tastings, both of which I was hosting, until next time.

The Life of a Wine Educator

WSET tastingThis shows just a small selection of the wines I tasted one day earlier this week, as part of a class I was running for a group of students – a couple of enthusiastic amateurs but mainly people already working in the wine industry (in hotels, restaurants or wine shops) – who wanted to further their careers by studying for professional qualifications via the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

They had reached  Level 3 of their study (Level 4 – the Wine Diploma – is the highest WSET course only topped by Master of Wine, of whom there are just a few hundred in the world).  The Level 3 stage is when the class focuses on the question ‘what makes this wine taste as it does?’  That sounds quite simple but, at this fairly advanced point of their journey, it is anything but – for me, also, at times, as their enthusiastic questioning often challenges my knowledge!

As we consider the question, we look at the vineyard – its soil, its slope, the climate, how good is its exposure to the sun – and the decisions taken by the grower – whether to go for quality or quantity and, perhaps most important of all: when to harvest the crop for optimum ripeness.

Then, there’s what happens in the winery: are you going to ferment with whole bunches, grapes only or carbonic maceration – explaining that one is always challenging (I’ll leave it for another day, but you can Google it if you’re interested!).  Also, are oak barrels used to hold the wine or stainless steel?  And how long is the wine kept before it is bottled and shipped out?

And all this while tasting (and spitting out, of course!) more than 20 wines.  Just another day in the life of a wine educator – or student!

Happily, not all the classes I teach are this detailed or aimed at would-be professionals.  For those who enjoy a glass of wine but simply want to learn a little more, I also run regular 1 day events at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  The next one, “Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet” is on Saturday 17 November.  Places are still available, but it is booking up fast.  Go to www.bristolcourses.com for more details and to book. 

I hope to meet some of you there.