Moreish Loire Reds

The River Loire is mainly known for the variety of delicious white wines that are made from vineyards sited all along the banks of one of France’s longest rivers.  Starting in the west, there’s the crisp, dry Muscadet from near the Atlantic coast – generally much improved, if you haven’t tried a bottle recently.  Then, upstream, the Chenin Blanc grape takes over in the districts around Vouvray and Saumur making wines that can be sparkling, dry, off-dry or, in the Layon, just to the south, some of the best value and most attractive sweet wines in the whole of France.  Continuing your journey east through Touraine, you then move into Sauvignon Blanc country with, amongst others, the steely, minerally Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.

But not all Loire wines are white.  There’s some Pinot Noir grown in Sancerre for reds and (fairly pricy!) rosés and there are also some rosés from Anjou, although the quality there can be quite variable.  But it’s the surprisingly little-known reds from the area around Saumur that I really want to mention: names such as Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon.  All made with 100% Cabernet Franc grapes and all benefitting greatly from the global warming we’ve seen over the last couple of decades helping this underrated variety to reach full ripeness.

It’s difficult to choose just one wine from this group but I’ve picked an absolute bargain – Domaine de la Noblaie’s ‘Le Temps des Cerises’ Chinon (Wine Society, £11.50).  The name translates to ‘cherry time’ – completely appropriate for this fresh, medium-bodied red, full of bright cherry and raspberry flavours and with a long vibrant finish.  Very drinkable, even on its own, but perfect teamed with some grilled lamb chops, so long as you leave the mint sauce in the cupboard – please!  And, on a warm evening, we gave it a half hour in the fridge before opening it which worked fine.

So, whether you choose Chinon or one of the other local Appellations I’ve mentioned above, you’ll find some excellent producers and some delightful, moreish drinking.

Distinctly Spicy

Some very good friends of ours, who share our love of good food and wine, brought us back some authentic paprika from a River Danube cruise recently.  So, of course, we wanted to cook a suitable recipe to enjoy some of this lovely hot, pungent spice at its best.  No problem!  One of our favourite dishes is a variant of a well-known Eastern European recipe: chicken paprikas.  Our version features chicken thighs casseroled with onions, the paprika and chicken stock and finished with sour cream, although I have seen similar recipes that include tomatoes as well.  Either way, it’s a delicious, rich, flavoursome dish, so the wine to accompany it needs to have enough character not to be overpowered.

I’d happily drink white or a light-bodied red with it but, as we were going to enjoy dinner on our terrace on a warm summer evening, my wife really thought a white would work best, so who was I to argue?

Going on the old idea that the food and wine of an area often pair well together, my first thoughts turned to a dry Furmint or a Grűner Veltliner but, as luck would have it, we’d already drunk our stock of those and so I had to look elsewhere.

Angelo Negro’s Roero Arneis from Piedmont in north-west Italy (Great Wine Company, £16) was a more than adequate substitute.  A delightful, rich, creamy, unoaked white with interesting complex savoury flavours and enough body to match the dish.  The Arneis variety is little-known outside the immediate area of Roero and was even at risk of disappearing completely in the 1970s but, happily, it has now been rescued and plantings are on the rise again.  I’ve also read of some in California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand so, hopefully, this wider interest will ensure the survival of an attractive variety and one that is happy pairing with such a distinctive spice.

Not just Liebfraumilch

Like many of my vintage, my first experience of wine was in the 1970s when the German white, Liebfraumilch, was in every supermarket.  I knew nothing about wine at the time but this was simple and undemanding stuff and, of course, drinking wine, rather than beer, was cool!   Sadly, as a result, many of my generation formed the view that all German wine was similarly sweet and bland and I still meet those who avoid it even to this day.

They are making a big mistake!

Riesling is Germany’s most widely planted grape variety and many respected judges, Jancis Robinson MW among them, regard it – and not Chardonnay – as the world’s greatest white wine grape.  Depending on its ripeness when harvested, it can make crisp, zingy dry wines (look for the word ‘Trocken’ on the label), wonderful, delicate dessert wines, often with only 7 or 8% alcohol as well as the more common off-dry ‘Kabinett’ style.

Lovers of red wine shouldn’t ignore Germany, either.  Global warming has helped here but there are now many sites where Pinot Noir (known locally as ‘Spätburgunder’) thrives, yielding fragrant, medium-bodied wines that are often the equal of a village Burgundy at about half the price.

And, although Germany doesn’t grow the wide range of grape varieties found in, say, Italy or Portugal, there are still some interesting ones that adventurous drinkers could look out for.  Take Trollinger, for example. 

I opened a bottle from the respected producer Aldinger, based at Fellbach in the Wűrttemberg region, recently (Wine Society, £16).  Quite pale in colour with an attractive savoury nose leading to delicate flavours of dried plum, smoke and spice on the palate.  With similar weight to a Cru Beaujolais and restrained tannins, this benefitted from a half hour in the fridge before pairing well with one of our favourite duck breast recipes, cooked with honey and thyme.

So, for those who still think Germany is all about Liebfraumilch, do think again – you have some pleasant surprises awaiting you.

The Best of Geneva

We’ve just got back from a few days away visiting a very good friend – close enough for us to consider her an adopted daughter – in Geneva.  Our trip gave us an opportunity to enjoy meals with her at some of that city’s excellent restaurants and, for me, a bonus of a rare chance to taste some Swiss wines, which are almost impossible to find outside the country.

Although wine is made in all of Switzerland’s 26 cantons (administrative regions), I tried to focus on bottles from the area most local to where we were staying; wines made with grapes ripened on the wonderfully exposed south-facing slopes overlooking Lake Geneva.  Another consideration in choosing was that temperatures for our entire stay were well into the 30s (90°F and above) and so we were looking for refreshing chilled whites.  Chasselas is the most widely-planted local white variety but it rarely produces really characterful wines and something else caught my eye on one restaurant’s list. 

Domaine Dugerdil has its vineyards just to the west of Geneva at Dardagny and their organically-grown Pinot Blanc was delicious.  Dry and medium- to full-bodied with lovely savoury, spicy flavours, a rich, creamy palate and excellent length.  I was surprised to see 14.5% alcohol, but the wine was well-balanced with no burn on the finish and paired beautifully with the pan-fried Lake perch – the signature dish of every local restaurant.

At Neuchâtel, a few miles to the north, one of the local specialities is known as ‘Oeil de Perdrix’ (Partridge’s eye), a dry rosé made from Pinot Noir.  Of course, rosés, too, can be chilled and I chose an example from Châtenay Bouvier to accompany another excellent fishy meal.  Quite deeply coloured (many Oeil de Perdrix wines are barely pink at all), this was fresh, clean and smoky and, although bone dry, had lovely strawberry fruit, good intensity and a long finish.

I’ve just picked out 2 examples of the wines we enjoyed while we were in Geneva.  Clearly, the locals know a good thing when they taste it; sadly, they keep almost all of it for themselves!

A Grape not to be Ignored

Looking back, I’m amazed at how rarely I’ve blogged about the world’s most widely planted wine grape: Cabernet Sauvignon.  Yes, I’ve mentioned it in passing when talking about other wines, but as for focussing on this most popular of red varieties – nothing!  Time to put that right as, at its best, it really is a grape not to be ignored.

‘Home’ for Cabernet Sauvignon is France’s most prestigious wine region, Bordeaux, where it has been grown for more than 200 years but it wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that growers beyond that region started to realise the potential of the grape.  As a result, world-wide plantings more than doubled between 1990 and 2010 and the variety is now found in virtually every major wine producing country, even in England where, historically, the climate hasn’t been warm enough to ripen this sun-loving variety. 

The words ‘sun-loving’ mean thoughts turning to Australia, although it was actually quite a late starter there with the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines only imported in the 1960s and the first commercial bottling released in 1967.  But from that quiet beginning the variety has thrived, with especially good examples found in Coonawarra in South Australia and Margaret River in Western Australia (WA).

And it was a bottle from WA that we opened recently.  The Wine Society’s Exhibition Cabernet Sauvignon (£16.50) is made for the Society by one of WA’s oldest and most successful producers, Vasse Felix and is full of all those aromas and flavours Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers are familiar with and love: blackcurrant and cassis fruit, some herbiness and hints of black cherry and mint.  The 2019 vintage on the Wine Society’s current list is drinking well now and should continue at its peak for a couple of years yet but, as with most wines from this grape, it benefits from opening an hour or so in advance of drinking and teaming with red meat – grilled lamb would be perfect – or hard cheese.

Cabernet Sauvignon is certainly a grape not to be ignored – whether I blog about it or not!

A Taste of the Med

My wife and I have enjoyed quite a few Mediterranean holidays over the years although none since the Covid virus interrupted all travel (and much else).  But we still love cooking and eating Mediterranean-style food – especially when the weather is warm and sunny.  And the wine to go with our Mediterranean dishes? Well, how often do you find the food of a country or region matches the wines from the same area perfectly?

Of course, when considering Mediterranean wines, you have a vast range to choose from: parts of Spain, the whole of the south of France, much of Italy and Greece and so many others besides.

This time, looking at the dish we were cooking didn’t help to narrow the choice at all; seared tuna steaks with a soy and balsamic glaze would probably have worked with many fuller-bodied whites, a flavoursome dry rosé or even a light and fruity red.  In the end, we settled for Tenuta Flaminio’s rosato (rosé) from Brindisi in Italy’s south-eastern Puglia region. 

Made with the local Negroamaro grape variety (which can also contribute to some delicious reds from the same area), this crisp, fresh, dry rosé is full of lovely crushed strawberry flavours with some attractive smoky hints.  It teamed beautifully with the tuna although it was so good as an aperitif that there wasn’t too much left to enjoy with the food.  Best lightly chilled – not too cold; about a half hour in the fridge is all that it needs.  A real bargain at £8.95 from The Wine Society.

Rosés are widely produced throughout the Mediterranean and are often thought of as just wines for summer.  But, although they obviously do work well at this time of year, many of the drier examples – and this is important – are very food-friendly and are worth considering to match fish, chicken or just about any Mediterranean dish throughout the year.

English Wine Week

This is English Wine Week, the annual celebration of our local wine industry.  And this year, my birthday fell during the week so, of course, we celebrated with a glass of Furleigh Estate Classic cuvee at a restaurant at Beaminster, Dorset, just a few miles from the vineyard. 

Back in Bristol, the next day, we met with some good friends of ours and, again, out came the English fizz, this time from Hattingley Valley Estate in Hampshire.

But the main event of the week was an English Wine dinner at Harvey Nichols (HN) restaurant here in Bristol.  A chance to taste 4 more English wines and to see how they match with food.  The evening started with canapés accompanied by a glass of HN’s own label sparkler, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with some of the characteristic creaminess from 3 years ageing.

The starter, soft shell crab, was accompanied by a vibrant mango, chilli and coriander salsa – perhaps not the easiest to match with a wine but the lively, crushed strawberry fruit of HN’s Cotswold Pinot Noir rosé managed admirably; the wine made for HN by the well-regarded Woodchester Valley vineyard near Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Historically, England has struggled to ripen grapes sufficiently for a red wine so finding a pairing for a main course of lamb might have proved challenging.  But not in one of the best English vintages of recent years, 2018, where Litmus estate’s Pinot Noir, grown in Kent, reached 13% alcohol and, after 19 months in oak, had the richness and savouriness to work ideally with the lamb.

Then it was back to fizz to end the meal – not just in the glass but in the dessert itself: an elegant raspberry jelly made with Nyetimber wine accompanied, of course, with the same producer’s demi-sec (medium-sweet) Cuvee Cherie. 

A very sweet dessert would have overpowered the delicate and not-too-sweet wine, but that didn’t happen here; the balance of weight and sweetness was just right and a lovely way to end the meal.

A busy week of tasting– and there’s still 2 days to go until the end of this year’s English Wine Week.

A Perfect Ending

“This rhubarb flan I’ve just made would go beautifully with a glass of sweet wine.  I don’t suppose we’ve got anything suitable?”  My wife had barely finished her question before I was heading towards our wine rack.

We often think of the different styles of dry wines pairing well with particular main course dishes – white Burgundy with chicken, perhaps, Rioja or Claret with lamb – but it is the same with sweet wines and desserts.  A delicate pudding would be overwhelmed by a powerful Australian ‘stickie’, yet that’s exactly the wine you would be thinking of to match a rich chocolate dessert or Christmas Pudding.

So, how did I choose a partner for our rhubarb flan?  Rhubarb can be quite acidic so we cooked it with some orange zest and juice to counter that and a little cinnamon for a soft, spicy flavour.  And those additions pointed me in a particular direction for the wine.  Flavours of orange or marmalade are often found in wines made with botrytised grapes.  (This happens when the grapes are left on the vine until they are attacked by the botrytis fungus which shrivels the berries and concentrates the sugars).  Thin skinned grapes (Semillon is a good example) grown in vineyards in humid areas are particularly prone to this – Sauternes in southern Bordeaux is probably the best known – but I opened a bottle from the Australian producer, De Bortoli, who also use the same grape variety.

Their ‘Florence Broadhurst’ Botrytis Semillon (Majestic, £9.99 for a half-bottle) is, as you can see, a wonderful deep gold colour with lovely honey, orange and spice flavours – just a perfect match for our rhubarb flan.  But, although the flavour is quite intense, this is not a heavy wine as, unlike many sweet wines, this has just 10% alcohol – an important consideration if you’ve already enjoyed a dry wine with your main course.

We love sweet wines and have always got a few bottles in stock for occasions such as this where a pudding is just crying out for a glass of something to end a lovely meal perfectly.

France’s Hidden Corners

I’m returning to the topic I blogged about a couple of weeks ago: the interesting and different tastes you can find by exploring wine regions and grapes other than those you are familiar with.  Wines from lesser-known areas and rare native varieties can often result in unusual and distinctive flavours; you may not like them all but, just sometimes, you’ll find a new favourite.  That, for me, is what exploring is all about.

I concentrated then on wines from outside France as most wine lovers will be reasonably familiar with the diverse choices found in that most widely-available of all wine growing countries.  But, if you look carefully, even France has some fascinating and unique grapes tucked away in hidden corners.  One of my favourites is Petit Manseng, grown in the Jurançon region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  It comes in dry or glorious sweet versions and, if you’ve never tasted one, I can highly recommend either.  Then there’s ‘Vin Jaune’, made in a sherry style from the local Savagnin grape (not to be confused with Sauvignon) in the Jura Mountains near the Swiss border.

Or why not a juicy, herby, black-fruited unoaked red from the Gaillac region which straddles the River Tarn, north of Toulouse?  Chateau Vignals’ L’Herbe Folle is a blend of 2 local varieties – Braucol and Duras – with small additions of much more familiar Syrah and Merlot.  It’s a lovely soft, mellow red which would team perfectly with some pan-fried duck breasts or with a tasty hard cheese.  Gaillac wines are not widely stocked beyond the region of production but this one is available on-line from Joie de Vin, www.joiedevin.co.uk, for a very reasonable £14.50.

So, however tempting it is to buy the same bottle you know you like again, occasionally take a chance and look at what else is on the shelf.  You might be pleased you did.

No Ordinary Soave

Last time, I blogged about looking for interesting and different flavours from lesser-known regions and rare native grapes.  Today, I’m going to the other extreme and focussing on one of the most famous white wines of Italy: Soave.  Made mainly from the local Garganega grape in the north-east of the country, you will see bottles of Soave in every supermarket, often at rock-bottom prices – £5 and below is not unusual. 

So why would I pay more than £20 (Wine Society, £21.50 to be precise) for a bottle of Soave?  And why would I choose a Soave when I wanted a special bottle for a particular anniversary of ours?  Well, as you might guess, the bottle in question – Pieropan’s Calvarino Soave Classico – is no ordinary Soave.

Yes, it does have the crisp, fresh acidity that is one of the trademark characteristics of Soave, but there the similarity ends.  Calvarino – named after the vineyard from which all the grapes are harvested – is altogether a much richer, fuller flavoured wine, tasting of peaches and almonds, with a delightful floral nose full of hints of pear and honey.

So, what makes this wine so different from others with a similar name?  Soave is one of a number of Italian wine regions (Chianti being the most famous) which have (mistakenly, in my view) allowed the area in which the wine can be made to expand over time.  Most of the newer plantings are on flat, fertile land where the emphasis is on volume and meeting supermarkets’ basic price points.  The result is the fairly bland, high acidity wines that Soave has become known for. 

Better quality examples will have the words ‘Soave Classico’ on the label.  The ‘Classico’ is important as this shows that the wine is made from grapes grown in the original area – the craggy hills close to the town of Verona where the vines are older, tending them is more challenging and the grape yields are much smaller.

There are several very good Soave Classicos – admittedly not all costing £20 a bottle – but, for me, this is the best of them and, to celebrate a special anniversary, I couldn’t think of a better choice.