Tag Archives: Wine

Burgundy by the Barrel

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hospices-de-beauneNext Sunday, 18th November, the famous Hospice de Beaune wine auction will take place.  It’s an event that has happened annually since 1859 with the funds raised mainly supporting the running and upkeep of the magnificent Hôtel Dieu, pictured above.  The building was formerly a medieval hospital, founded in 1443 in the Burgundy town of Beaune, and is now a museum. 

The wine auctioned comes from vineyards donated by benefactors over the centuries, the first of which dates back to 1457.  Today, the area owned by the Hospice totals around 60 hectares (150 acres), mostly planted with Pinot Noir, although there is some Chardonnay, too.  85% of the production of these vineyards is rated Premier Cru or Grand Cru. 

These days, the auction is organised by Christies and wines are sold by the barrel – traditional Burgundy-sized ‘pièces’, each holding 228 litres, just over 300 bottles (a fraction larger than a Bordeaux barrique).  Not surprisingly for such a prestigious event, hammer prices are usually well above normal commercial levels.  For example, last year’s top lot sold for 420000 euros and the entire auction of almost 800 barrels raised some 13.5 million euros (£12m, $16m).

If your budget won’t stretch to bidding for one of these lots but you have a strong stomach, the weekend is still worth a visit as it is also the occasion of ‘Les Trois Glorieuses’ – 3 great feasts held in and around the town on the Saturday evening before, on the Sunday night and on the Monday lunchtime.  It’s quite an occasion!

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A Little Bit of Magic

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Conde Vimioso 1When I first saw the name on the bottle, Conde Vimioso, I thought it sounded like a magic spell that might be invoked in one of J.K.Rowling’s famous Harry Potter books.  But, no!  It’s a delightful, really juicy, everyday quaffing Portuguese red, full of flavours of sweet ripe blackberries, with some soft tannins and a longer finish than you could possibly expect from a £7.25 wine (available from The Wine Society).   

So, how can the producers make a wine of this quality at the price?  Perhaps part of the answer is that it’s only a Vinho Regional – the same level as Vin de Pays in France – and, as such, would be considered less prestigious than DOC, the local equivalent of Appellation Contrôlée. 

It comes from the Tejo region, which stretches inland from the capital, Lisbon, along the River Tagus (Tejo in Portuguese) and is an unusual blend of 4 varieties – 2 local: Touriga Nacional and Aragonez (also found in Spain as Tempranillo) – plus some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  The wine even gets 6 months barrel ageing and here, in an important area for oak trees, it really does mean ageing in barrels, not oak flavouring using oak chips as more commonly found in wines at this price.

So, regardless of the Harry Potter-like name, this wine’s unfashionable origin means that we can taste a delicious wine for a barely believable price.  Now, that really is a little bit of magic.

Alsace’s Lotus Flower

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My wife and I love the wines of Alsace, particularly the whites – they’re so approachable and food-friendly and, thinking back, I really can’t remember opening a bad bottle.  They also benefit from some of the most straight-forward labelling of any French wines – no complicated Appellations Contrôlées (just Alsace or, for the best single vineyard wines, Alsace Grand Cru) – and then generally just the grape variety (unusual in itself in France) and the name of the producer.

Among the latter, Hugel and Trimbach are the biggest and best known but here, size and popularity are no disadvantages – wines from both companies are always reliable and good quality.  But it’s not just these names to look out for, there are many other very good, even excellent producers in the region.

Lesser known but a particular favourite of ours since visiting a few years back is the family-run Josmeyer with sisters Celine and Isabelle as Managing Director and winemaker respectively.  Run on organic lines for many years and biodynamically since 2000, Josmeyer’s wines always have a particular intensity and focus, a feature based, no doubt, on the fact that their yields are among the lowest in the region.

Fleur de Lotus

I thought I knew most of their wines so, when I saw a different one in a local restaurant recently, I had to give it a try.  Fleur de Lotus – Lotus Flower (around £20 retail from a number of on-line suppliers, much more in the restaurant, of course) is crisp and fresh with an exotically perfumed nose and a vibrant, just off-dry palate.  No specific grape names were mentioned on the label just a ‘blend of local varieties’ but the nose and palate screamed gewürztraminer to me and possibly muscat, too.  Further research on line proved contradictory with one site suggesting a gewürztraminer and pinot gris blend, while another listed auxerrois, gewürztraminer and riesling.  Josmeyer’s own site simply says an ‘assemblage’ (a blend), so no further forward.

But, whatever’s in it, it confirms my high opinion of the wines of Alsace generally and of Josmeyer especially.  Do try them if you get the chance.

Dealing with a Dumb Wine

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Maby 5

I opened a bottle of Domaine Maby’s La Fermade Lirac Blanc recently (Wine Society, £10.50) and, as usual, immediately had a sniff of the wine to check for any faults.  No obvious problems – no smell of corkiness or oxidation.  But wait!  There was also no smell of any fruit or spice or any of the aromas I expect from a nice southern Rhône white.  The nose of the wine was completely dumb and, when I tasted it, there wasn’t much coming through on the palate, either.  This surprised me as, although I’d never bought this wine before, others from the same producer had always been excellent quality. 

I decided to decant it, not something I often do with a white, but, by aerating it, I hoped to ‘wake it up’ and let it show what it had to offer.  But, all through dinner, my wife and I kept tasting it and still got very little. Then, later in the evening, I decided to try again – there was plenty left in the decanter as neither of us had poured much up to that point.  Suddenly, all that I’d hoped for from this wine came out: lovely flavours of cooked apples and spices backed by a real richness. 

Did it continue to improve?  I can’t say.  Perhaps it might have been perfect about 2am the following morning but that was too late.  By then, my wife and I were safely asleep! 

Fast forward to dinner the next evening, when there was still enough left for a glass each.  Fully 24 hours after first pulling the cork, there was, understandably, a touch of oxidation (I hadn’t bothered to vacuum seal the wine as I normally would), but the wine itself was perfectly pleasant, although it had, once again, lost its fruit.

This certainly isn’t an everyday experience, especially not with a white wine, but it does show that, for certain wines, decanting early is the only way to develop the flavours the winemaker intended.  But, to avoid our initial disappointment, it would have been helpful if the label had suggested it!

A Wine Secret

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We all love a mystery, don’t we?  So, when I read that a certain wine was from a secret vineyard location, I was intrigued.   Add in some exclusivity – only 1200 bottles were made (the equivalent of just 4 Bordeaux barriques) and that the wine was intended for the producing family’s own use – and I was properly hooked!  It’s a great marketing story and, of course, it might be true (although the cynic in me is doubtful), but true or not, the ploy worked and I bought a bottle.

And, did it live up to the hype?  Absolutely it did!

QT Carmenere2De Martino’s ‘On the QT’ Carmenere (Waitrose, £19.99), from a ‘tiny plot of special vines tucked away in Chile’s Isla de Maipo’, was full of delicious black fruit flavours and the oak ageing was subtle and just right – in short, it was the best Carmenere I’ve tasted by some way.  Until now, I’d thought it was a grape variety that produced perfectly drinkable medium-bodied reds, but nothing exceptional.  After this, I’m certainly revising my opinion.

Carmenere, itself, is a bit of a mystery grape.  Widely grown in Bordeaux before the phylloxera devastation towards the end of the 19th century, it was mainly ignored when the replanting took place and is now only found in a few isolated spots there.  But, about 20 years ago, it was ‘discovered’ in Chile in some vineyards previously thought to be Merlot (the original cuttings for these vines are said to have come from Bordeaux).  As a result, Chile now has the world’s largest planting of the grape and a unique selling point to offer alongside their real Merlot.

For lovers of mysteries, Waitrose have other bottlings in their ‘On the QT’ series: a Malbec, Gruner Veltliner, Fiano, Grenache and Chardonnay from Australia and even a port.  I’ve not tried any of them yet but, if the Carmenere is typical, they are worth seeking out – if you can find them.

Beyond Rioja

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Think of Spain and the next word that comes to mind for a wine lover is probably Rioja.  And with good reason: some outstanding reds and many other very drinkable ones, whites in both traditional and modern styles and even the odd rosado (rosé).  But Spain is so much more than Rioja; it has the largest area of vineyard of any country in the world – yes, even more than France or Italy, even though they produce more wine – and almost everywhere you look, you can find interesting and different wines.

Basque whiteSometimes, you might not even realise that they’re Spanish at all.  Take Olatu’s Getariako Txakolina (Corks, £15.99) in its unusual blue, flute-shaped bottle; it’s from the Basque region of northern Spain but the only mention of its country of origin is in tiny print on the back label.  And to taste, too, it’s about as un-Spanish as it could be: to start, it’s only 11.5% alcohol – the result of the cool Atlantic winds and currents restricting the ripening of the local Hondarrabi Zuri grapes.  But, unlike many wines light in alcohol, this isn’t thin or sharp; you’ll find quite a bit of richness on the palate and attractive flavours of baked apples and spice.  There’s an apparent hint of sweetness in there, too, although the wine is actually bone dry, really refreshing and finishes quite long.

You might be tempted to think of it as an aperitif wine, as I did, but, in reality, the savoury flavours mean that it works much better with food, even with quite a robust dish like baked river trout on a bed of herbed toasted chickpeas.

Thinking of other Spanish whites – a white Rioja or Albariño from Galicia, perhaps, this couldn’t be more different; proof, if you still need some, that Spanish wines today are really worth looking out for and just so much more than Rioja.

For the Adventurous

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BTC Novel winesThe world of wine is expanding.  How often have I said that?  And it’s moving so fast that it’s almost impossible for any 1 person to keep up with all the changes.  That’s where small, independent companies come to the fore.  They can focus on particular areas ignored by others and gain in-depth knowledge of where the best wines are made and, perhaps, more importantly, who are the best producers.

One such independent is Novel Wines based in Bath.  India, Brazil, Croatia and Turkey are among the unlikely names on their list and a tasting they hosted recently for the Bristol Tasting Circle proved a fascinating opportunity to sample the offerings from some of the wine world’s less well-known countries.

The delightful Olaszrizling from the St Donat estate in Hungary (£17.95) was, for me, the pick of the whites.  The grape variety – no relation to Riesling despite the similarity of part of its name – isn’t generally regarded as particularly interesting but here gave lovely, tangy, herby flavours with well-integrated spicy oak and a good long dry finish.

BTC Cab S

Guliev Tremelov’s Cabernet Reserve from Odessa in the Ukraine (£17.50) was one of 2 stand-out reds.  Showing plenty of the blackcurrant fruit typical of the grape, backed up by some attractive toasty oak, this had good length and some complexity but, above all, was really drinkable, although, like so many reds, would be even better with food.

My other red choice was from Serbia.  DiBonis’ DiFranc (£27.95) used the ‘other’ Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, to give a wine with a perfumed, bitter cherry nose and lovely, sweet fruit on the palate.  One colleague said the wine reminded her of Black Forest Gateau, another said marzipan.  To me, it had shades of a good Valpolicella, but with, perhaps, rather more intensity.  Hardly a typical Cabernet Franc but a lovely wine, nonetheless, and, again, just crying out to accompany food – pan roasted duck breast in particular.

A fascinating tasting proving just how many different flavours are out there if you are adventurous and seek out the small companies, like Novel, who can point you in the right direction.