Sunday, 1 December 2013

Talking about Christmas Wine

With a host of Christmas wine offers on the shelves now is the time to be thinking about what you’ll be serving, to whom and when, over the festive period. 

And just as importantly, what you’ll be saying about it. 

Because let’s face it, anybody can plonk a couple of bottles of plonk into the middle of the table and say, 

‘Red or white?’

Wouldn’t you rather be saying,

‘They hailed this is the best vintage ever – the year after the best vintage ever …’ (2001 Claret)
The year after the best vintage ever?

Or

‘Jancis Robinson regards this as the world’s greatest white grape. If it’s good enough for her …’? (Riesling)

Start with the ‘big meal’ wines, and I suggest that the moment you begin counting those big meals you will find you need more wine than you think. 

Christmas lunch or dinner – we all know about that. Maybe you’re hosting a Christmas Eve soirée, perhaps a post-Christmas Mass supper? Boxing Day – who are you seeing? Are people dropping in? Or are you dropping in, to some annual Bridget Jones style ghastly affair? 

Wouldn’t you like to arrive clutching a bottle of something that will so impress the host it will have to be hidden from the rest of the guests? 

So here are some suggestions for wines to keep tongues wagging.

Fizz. Sparkling wine. Bubbly. Call it what you will, it’s very difficult to get away from Champagne, not least as the snobbery attached to it means everything else just isn’t. Isn’t Champagne that is. So here’s your choice. Buy a case or two of an unusual non-vintage Champagne, such as Lucas Carton, which was made for the eponymous Michelin-starred Parisien restaurant that has since closed and know that if you don’t get through it all, it will be even better next year. 

What to say: Non-vintage Champagne takes on many of the qualities of vintage Champagne over time. At half the price.

Alternatively, buy a big name great vintage Champagne, like Pol Roger or Laurent Perrier – 2002 was outstanding – and say,

“Of course, all the 1988, 1989 and 1990 is long gone, but the 2002 is just as endearing. And ready for drinking now.”

Red wine. As a minimum you need two kinds, or styles, of red wine, maybe three. Firstly, dinner wine. 

This needs to be heavyweight and hard hitting to cut through all the rich Christmas flavours. Big wines like Italian giant, Amarone – it’s just about the only dry red wine made from dried out grapes you know. Yes, raisins! – or Bordeaux, which the British should stick to calling Claret. Just to keep a line drawn around these isles. The 2000s and 2001s need drinking up.

Burgundy is delightful at best but so unpredictable that unless you know exactly what you’re buying it’s better left to the experts. 

Rioja has something to offer of course but only in its traditional, oak-matured Reserva or Gran Reserva guise. Besides, anything less than 10 years old leaves you with nothing to say. In fact, Young Rioja is a contradiction in terms isn’t it? Rioja is supposed to have weight and authority. Gravitas. 

What to say: “You can’t have a young Judge any more than a young Pope. Young Rioja is like a young lawyer. And there’s little worse than a know-it-all young lawyer.”

And you need a lunch wine. For a lighter red wine you’re looking at either a young fruit-packed wine or a mature wine that uses a red wine grape with a lighter touch. In France, that would be Gamay, but from the rest of the world you’re probably looking at a New World Pinot Noir, with New Zealand and the USA producing the stand-out everyday candidates. Sadly, such is the American wine market they reserve their best wines for themselves so little of the best US wines make their way across the Atlantic. By contrast, the UK is the antipodes’ number one market.

Among white wines two candidates stand out from the crowd, Chablis and Riesling. 

In the 1980s Chablis came to be associated with excess almost as much as red braces and the whale tail guards red Porsche 911 of the same era. Which is a shame as it’s a drink we should return to. At its best it is limpid and mineral rich with barely a hint of oak.

What to say: “Hugh Johnson, him of the beetle brow, lists Chablis Premier Cru, rather than Grand Cru, as his favourite white wine because he finds it more expressive of the appellation.”

While Chablis is therefore quite rightly regarded by the French as one of the greatest expressions of the Chardonnay grape, Riesling is treated with such contempt that it can’t be grown in France more than 30 miles from the German border. 

Yet it is so extraordinarily versatile it is responsible for some of the world’s greatest white wines made in both northern Germany and southern California.

Young dry wines are ideal as an aperitif, especially if you’re having seafood, maybe salmon, and you’d probably opt for a German wine. 

Something with some bottle age is just right for enhancing a festive meal with an Asian influence and the softer, fruitier and weightier Californian Rieslings may be a more approachable as they are more European in style than the Germans. 

What to say: “All the flavour comes from the fruit and the minerals in the soil rather than the alcohol so it’s so light you can drink it all day long. Responsibly of course!”

With desserts and especially puddings you’ll want a sweet wine. Not everybody likes sweet wine – maybe they expect it to taste like wine, when it’s actually more like a liqueur. Just better.
Frozen bunches of grapes go
into Inniskillin Vidal Icewine


The best are devilishly difficult to make as the natural sweetness comes from three main grape selections that concentrate the sugars. Dried grapes as used in Italy’s Recioto della Valpolicella, frozen bunches of grapes as in German Eiswein and Canadian Icewine, or the selection of grapes that have attracted the benevolent botrytis ‘noble rot’ that creates some of the most sophisticated of all sweet wines, most notably Sauternes and the great Hungarian sweet wine, Tokaji Aszu.

What to say: “If you start your meal with foie gras the great thing about Sauternes is you can return to it with your dessert, and your cheese.”

Whatever you choose to serve over the festive period, remember you can always blame somebody else, 

“Sorry that wine was so weird – you can never trust anything on the internet can you?” 

Recommendations

Aperitifs:
Champagne
English Sparkling Wine
German Riesling

Lunch:
California Riesling
New Zealand Pinot Noir
Beaujolais Villages

Dinner:
Sauternes (only with foie gras)
Chablis Premier Cru
2000/2001 Claret
Rioja Gran Reserva
Amarone
Hungarian Tokay or Canadian Icewine.



Monday, 3 September 2012

Labor Day Libation


The really great thing about wine is that virtually every country, nation, region, state, appellation, has its own style.

The United States of America now offers wine grown from grapes drawn from virtually every corner of the world, in styles that range from cheap and cheerful Chateau Cardboard, through innovative blends of grapes from different continents, to exclusive low-volume high ticket premium wines made with all the care and craftsmanship that the great melting pot of winemaking skills can muster.

But the USA also offers one wine that has become as synonymous with America as hamburgers, hot dogs and, especially, pizza. It's as American as basketball, baseball and gridiron.

It's Zinfandel.

As with the development of the pizza, America has taken something distinctly Italian - in this case the Primitivo grape - and moulded and re-moulded it to fit the needs of, at just 236 years of age - a comparatively youthful nation, experimenting continually - not always successfully - to create and recreate something now distinctly American.

And as with pizza there have been hiccups along the way - Blush still outsells red Zinfandel by six to one in the USA.

Outside the States, American Zinfandel has established a significant niche for itself and the range on offer meets everybody's needs.

Just as you can grab a basic cheese and tomato calzone from a sidewalk vendor, so you can find boxed Blush on the shelves of cornershops in London and can see Ridge Zinfandel on the shelves of quality wine merchants right around the globe.

In England the Ravenswood range is a massive seller. The style to which winemaker Joel Peterson adheres gives his red Zinfandel as distinctive a sense of terroir as any Old World wine and his uncompromising loyalty to the essence of the grape makes his wines the stand out choice for Labor Day.

Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zinfandel is deep ruby red with the weight of alcohol at 13.5% sticking it to the glass, thick with black cherry aromas and hints of liquorice pepper and vanilla, medium to fullish bodied with flavours of blueberries and raspberries, cherries and oak spice in a fruit laden red. Supple and balanced, eminently drinkable. Glug glug glug.

Happy Labor Day.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Denmark vs Portugal. Wine by Wine.

How to celebrate a Danish 
victory over Portugal?
Not renowned for its winemaking Denmark. Maybe you didn't know the Danes make wine? The country is famous for its beer. Well, two beers, Tuborg and Carlsberg. Danish drinkers drink one or the other. None drink both and there's something of a rivalry between drinkers. Oddly, Tuborg is owned by Carslberg.

Anyhow, to wine. Yes the Danes make a little wine. About 40,000 bottles. The long long days mean that while being so northerly, sunshine is at a premium, when it does shine it shines almost until midnight. 

The wine to have is Skærsøgaard Vin. Best of all is the international award winning sparkling version called Don's Cuvée.

Portugal is a different story entirely.

Portugal's most famous wine export is also usually red in that it is Port but for a drink with the football you'll want something slightly less post-prandial.

Not that you need stray far from the home of Port, the winemaking region of Douro, and neighbouring Dao and Bairrada.

This is where many of the better red wines of Portugal are made, whose secrets are an abundance of indigenous grape varieties, few of which are household names even within the country: look out for Touriga Nacional, Baga and Tempranillo, called Tinta Roriz in Portuguese. Don't expect the flashiness of Ronaldo though.

The Symington Family are massive in Portugal. Think of a Port - Graham's, Dow's Warre's - all Symington's.

Their easy drinking reds of predictable and reliable quality include Altano and Quinta da Roriz whose Prazo de Roriz is an unusual choice, a light but spicy fruit-driven red that can also be served chilled - ideal for lunchtime and afternoon drinking.
Animus typifies quality 
Portuguese winemaking

The secret behind the success of many of the better red wines of Portugal is this abundance of indigenous grape varieties including the Port grape, Touriga Nacional, whose structural strength is often complemented by the addition of Touriga Franca.

Miguel Leal of eponymous London-based Portuguese wine specialist Casa Leal  recommends Animus as representative of the traditional Portuguese wine-making style. It's that combination of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca that lies within Animus 2007 Douro DOC. It shows a garnet coloured ageing in the glass, is balanced at 13% alcohol and offers a nose of ripe red berries, and characterful aged fruit flavour with a dash of chocolate and distinctive tannin that shows it will mature still further.

The Wine Society has won the award as Portuguese Wine Retailer of the Year more than once but even so, Portugal still doesn't warrant its own listing, being found under Other Europe, which is a shame as the society actually offers some 58 wines from Portugal, including Port, at prices from £4.95 for Real Lavrador, Branco, Alentejo, 2011 (Adega Co-op Redondo) - an everyday lunchtime white - to £135 for a jeroboam of one of Luis Pato's famous single vineyard reds.

Luis Pato is Bairrada's most
celebrated winemaker
Among whites I suggest you try the Cerejeiras Branco, Lisboa, 2010 (Sanguinhal) at £6.95 - a Muscat-led affordable refresher dominated by the only grape that is truly grapey.

For a really distinctive premium red you need look no further than Vinha Barrosa, Vinha Velha, Beiras, 2005 from the aforementioned pioneer Luis Pato.

This single vineyard 100% Baga varietal may be his best wine, dedicated as he is to the revitalisation of Bairrada and the appreciation of Baga as a grape of character and longevity.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Euro 2012. Wine by Wine. Italy

The Italians disagree about everything. They disagree about how big - or small - Italy should be.

They disagree about who should run the country. The Italian people have had to put up with some 62 governments since 1945 - worth checking in case this has changed as I write. They've had to suffer 39 prime ministers since 1945. Again, worth checking if that's changed too.

They disagree about which is the best football team and who should play for it. They disagree about how much they pay to should bribe the referee.

They disagree about whether a Ferrari is better than a Lamborghini is better than a Maserati. (I've owned two of the three, the former and the latter, and go with the Maserati. Or the Ferrari.)

They disagree on their favourite variety of pasta. And variety is the operative word. Pasta comes in 158 shapes. Or is it 159? They include Scialatelli of Scilatielli. Or is it Scilatielli of Scialatelli? And there's casonsèi. Or is it Casoncelli?

You get my point. And the same applies to grapes. In common with most Old World wine nations including their Euro 2012 opening opponents Spain, every Italian region has its own wine styles. But it goes further than that.

They have their own grapes too. And it's not like France, where Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon dominate the red wines of Bordeaux, while Chardonnay dominates the white wines of Burgundy.

Italy has 158 pasta varieties. Or 159.
In Italy, that would never do. So while they do have their own take on the great claret blends in their Super Tuscans and also produce the excellent Gaja and Antinori Chardonnays, these varieties are foreign to Italy.

And many Italian varieties are probably foreign to you and I.

We are familiar of course with the great red wine grape Nebbiolo - it has given us two of the greatest of Italian red wines in Barolo and Barberesco.

Sangiovese too is a household - well a wine-drinking-household - name, giving us both Brunello de Montalcino and ever-popular and highly-variable Chianti. What of Corvina? The air-dried raisin at the very heart of Amarone? Primitivo is the grape, possibly originally from Ireland's opening Euro 2012 opponents Croatia, that many people may know only as Zinfandel.

Who has ever heard of Ciliegolo, Gaglioppo, Lagrein, Pignolo, Refosco, Schiava or Teroldego? The Italian government has approved more than 350 grape varieties for use in winemaking, and a further 500 are thought to be growing on Italian soil.

These 850-plus grapes are as distinctively regional as Italian football teams, and they demand - and command - the same loyalty from their local fans. Sagrantino is Umbrian. Nero d'Avola is the wine of Sicily. Negroamaro comes from Puglia.

It is the sheer extent of these regional variations that makes this country's red wines some of the most original, intriguing and subtle of the Old World.

Among white wines, nowadays Pinot Grigio is the grape most commonly associated with Italy - but like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay it's a stranger in these parts.

While old-fashioned Italian whites such as Lambrusco may be most familiar - and that familiarity has certainly bred contempt - the likes of Verdicchio, the much scorned Garganega as exemplified in the still improving Soave, Ribolla and Greco di Tufo all deserve the attention of fans from beyond their regional catchment areas, beyond Italian borders.

The shelves of London's Vini Italiani creak under a weight of Italian wine
That is where you will find the joy of Italian wines. Beyond the seas of Chianti and Pinot Grigio that lap at our shores are a whole raft of delicate and deserving regional varietals that reward greater exploration.

But almost whatever the wine, whichever the region and whoever you ask, this is where the one rule comes in, upon which virtually everybody associated with Italian wine can agree:

Wine takes second place on the menu, behind the food. There, I've said it.

Italian reds can be almost crunchy with tannin, deep and powerful on the palate, or robustly flavoursome in style - Negroamaro is sometimes translated as 'black and bitter' - while some whites can come across as highly acidic, nutty, even funky and fusty.

As a result they need accompaniment. Italian wines have historically always been created to be enjoyed alongside food. If an Italian is eating he must be drinking. If an Italian is drinking, she must be eating.

Think of the food you most commonly associate with the country and you may think of pasta, pizza, risotto - meals heavy with carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, that need balancing acid or tannin. Rich flavours dominate meals. Sausages, cooked meats like Parma ham and salami, ragu sauces, strong hard cheeses like Grana Padano, Parmigiano; salty Tallegio and Pecorino, or powerful blues like Gorgonzola.

That's the clue to choosing an Italian wine. What are you going to be eating? Because the answer has to be something, rather than nothing.

To paraphrase St. Ambrose, When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Commonplace Italian wines like Chianti can be found on the shelves of most UK supermarkets, major chain wine merchants like Majestic or for a greater selection of distinctive Italian wines you might try a merchant like London specialist Vini Italiani.







Pasta image courtesy   freeimages.co.uk

Ireland. Wine by Wine. Euro 2012.

Who knew the Irish made wine? Really, you did? Go on.

The label carries an image of the Round Tower
of Lusk, which can be seen from the vineyard
David Llewellyn became fascinated with grapevines and winemaking during a spell working with a winemaker in Germany in the 1980s.

From an early start days of experimenting with different vine varieties in the Irish climate, through trying to create drinkable wine and propagating vines for sale, in 2002 he finally planted a small vineyard to produce Irish wine for commercial purposes. Originally a mix of table grapes and wine grapes, David has now established  a vineyard that can produce red and white wine of a consistent quality exclusively from their own grapes - none are bought in.

Among reds successful varieties have proven to be Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Dunkelfelder and Rondo while for whites Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Schoenburger and Gewurztraminer have been the stars. Although production is currently limited to circa 350 bottles per year the aim is to get up to around 1,000 bottles.

Claret grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
have both proven successful growers for Lusca 
The entire winemaking process is carried out at the vineyard, from picking and pressing through the fermentation and maturation without the use of high-tech filters and other equipment. The wine is then allowed to clear naturally and ends up dry by nature. Finally it's bottled and labelled by hand, using traditional 75cl bottles and 37.5cl halves.

Naturally enough for Ireland's sole commercial wine, it's named Lusca, being Gaelic for Lusk and meaning vault or most appropriately, cave.

You can buy Lusca wines direct from Llewellyns Orchard for delivery to anywhere in the European Union and even secure a case or two in advance - en primeur in effect.

Beyond the EU, including for sales to the USA, Wines on the Green can deliver Lusca anywhere in the world, apparently. In Ireland you're spoilt for choice with Dublin-based Fallon & Byrne, drink store and Terroirs.




Saturday, 9 June 2012

Euro 2012. Wine by Wine. Portugal

Portugal's most famous wine export is also usually red in that it is Port but for a drink with the football you'll want something slightly less post-prandial.

Animus typifies quality
Portuguese winemaking
Not that you need stray far from the home of Port, the winemaking region of Douro, and neighbouring Dao and Bairrada.

This is where many of the better red wines of Portugal are made, whose secrets are an abundance of indigenous grape varieties, few of which are household names even within the country: look out for Touriga Nacional, Baga and Tempranillo, called Tinta Roriz in Portuguese. Don't expect the flashiness of Ronaldo though.

The Symington Family are massive in Portugal. Think of a Port - Graham's, Dow's Warre's - all Symington's.

Their easy drinking reds of predictable and reliable quality include Altano and Quinta da Roriz whose Prazo de Roriz is an unusual choice, a light but spicy fruit-driven red that can also be served chilled - ideal for lunchtime and afternoon drinking.

The secret behind the success of many of the better red wines of Portugal is this abundance of indigenous grape varieties including the Port grape, Touriga Nacional, whose structural strength is often complemented by the addition of Touriga Franca.

Miguel Leal of eponymous London-based Portuguese wine specialist Casa Leal  recommends Animus as representative of the traditional Portuguese wine-making style. It's that combination of Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca that lies within Animus 2007 Douro DOC. It shows a garnet coloured ageing in the glass, is balanced at 13% alcohol and offers a nose of ripe red berries, and characterful aged fruit flavour with a dash of chocolate and distinctive tannin that shows it will mature still further.

The Wine Society has won the award as Portuguese Wine Retailer of the Year more than once but even so, Portugal still doesn't warrant its own listing, being found under Other Europe, which is a shame as the society actually offers some 58 wines from Portugal, including Port, at prices from £4.95 for Real Lavrador, Branco, Alentejo, 2011 (Adega Co-op Redondo) - an everyday lunchtime white - to £135 for a jeroboam of one of Luis Pato's famous single vineyard reds.

Luis Pato is Bairrada's most
celebrated winemaker
Among whites I suggest you try the Cerejeiras Branco, Lisboa, 2010 (Sanguinhal) at £6.95 - a Muscat-led affordable refresher dominated by the only grape that is truly grapey.

For a really distinctive premium red you need look no further than Vinha Barrosa, Vinha Velha, Beiras, 2005 from the aforementioned pioneer Luis Pato.

This single vineyard 100% Baga varietal may be his best wine, dedicated as he is to the revitalisation of Bairrada and the appreciation of Baga as a grape of character and longevity.

Euro 2012. Wine by Wine. Germany

Hans Wirsching St Veit 
blends Scheurebe, 
Silvaner and Riesling
German wine history is as old as the nation, viticulture having been established by the Romans.

Riesling is king in Germany. It is the great white grape.

The wines range in style from just dry to cloyingly sweet Trockenbeerenauslese, and vary in strength from just 9% ABV. Prices start competitively, but rare and ancient top quality vintages fetch thousands.

Thankfully, nowadays plenty of young, dry, authentic Rieslings, particularly from Germany, abound with floral scents and flavours ranging from sharp apple, through allspice to honeyed nectarine.

German Rieslings start at just 9% alcohol and don't get that much heavier so can be consumed all day long.



Perfect party wine?
So for everyday drinking I recommend you have it young and fresh in a crisp and elegant Kabinett.

Just one word of caution. Much German Riesling is off-dry or even sweet so if you're unfamiliar with German wine just look for the word trocken on the label. It means dry. Which is how I find German football.

Iris Ellman of specialists The Wine Barn suggests as a perfect party wine the 3 Winzer Riesling 2010 from Rheinhessen at £8.88 or an even more youthful apple-fresh 2011 Hans Wirsching St Veit at £11.40.
Dr Heger Spätburgunder
Sonett 2009

You could always opt for a German red wine of course.

The very Teutonic sounding Spätburgunder is Mesut Oezil to Portugal's silky smooth Ronaldo, and is equally a delightful surprise package - highly prized and highly priced in its intense premium form.

With a dash of liquorice and hints of thyme Dr Heger Spätburgunder Sonett 2009 is available at £14.85 from The Wine Barn.

Football prediction? Expect Germany to make the final.

Friday, 8 June 2012

France vs England. Euro 2012. Wine by Wine.

Champagne owes much to the English
They don’t have much truck with outsiders, the French. The wine shelves of my ‘local’ French supermarket (I holiday nearby at least once a year) tell the story.

Among reds some 60% of shelf space is given over to Bordeaux – half of which is simple Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior.

The 'other' great French red, Burgundy, claims about 30% of the red wine shop window, and, as with so much Burgundy, much of it is of disappointing quality, although in this case it's more to do with the labels – the store's chosen winemakers – rather than the usual problem of the contents not living up to the name of the bottle.

The rest of the reds sit under wooden signs indicating Rhône or Sud (south), which bizarrely includes a few from supposedly lesser red appellations such as Beaujolais and mostly lightweight reds of the Loire and Alsace.

It's a similar story on the opposite side of the aisle, where the whites hold sway. Wines are arranged by region, including a section dedicated solely to Champagne.

Chablis, Burgundy and the Loire, including a couple of stray rosés, dominate here, with a positive display too from Alsace and a minor showing from the Rhône. No Sud, but the end of the row carries quite a selection of better-positioned rosés from Provence.

But what's this, in the corner over there, a narrow shelf devoted to, what? Is that really a Rioja? It is, a Faustina.  Presumably smuggled in through Andorra. In fact, there are a couple of Riojas on the shelf. Plus some Chianti and Barolo. Most odd of all, there's a Chilean Merlot. But nothing sparkling at all. No Prosecco nor Sekt. Rien. Pas une saucisse.

A section of shelving is dedicated solely to the 'other' French sparkling wines, the cremant, mousseaux, blanquette et clairette but even these are kept well away from the Champagne.

With good reason. Because the French appellation system ensures even cheap non-vintage Champagne comes with its own guarantee of quality, almost every week you can find it on special offer somewhere and everybody is your friend when you've got some. You must've experienced that?

You offer somebody a drink and they say 'no thanks' and proffer one of the usual explanations: I'm driving, I'm pregnant, I'm on antibiotics.

Then, when you enquire of the greater gathering whether it's Champagne all round? suddenly your teetotallers are sidling up to you as you fill flute after flute with the French fizzy stuff:

Actually I think it's Clive's turn to drive today and Well one won't hurt and some research did suggest light drinking in pregnancy could in fact be good for boys in the womb and I've got a feeling from the kicks this is an alpha male probably or It's not really the antibiotics per se, just doctor's orders accompanied by a knowing wink from your dodgy uncle.

Your best bet is to buy it in France of course. Typically at around £10 a bottle 'everyday' (if only) Champagne can be found on the shelves of all French supermarkets. Otherwise keep an eye on UK stores by signing up for their email offers as they have the buying power when there's a glut. And there often is. No need to be embarrassed either.

I have no qualms whatsoever about filling a trolley with NV Champagne and nothing else, and nor have my erstwhile wine merchant colleagues. On one occasion when word got around of a heavily discounted household Champagne name on offer at the local supermarket the shop manager had to limit sales to five cases per person such was the rush of wine trade insiders and restaurateurs eager either to fill their stomachs or their boots.

What they knew was that even such huge volume, big brand, non-vintage Champagne has one often unheralded quality that earns it it a place in many a cellar. It gets better with age.

So much so that in just a couple of years or three it acquires qualities comparable with vintage Champagne. Which means that when you do encounter a genuine bargain half-price offer you can afford to indulge yourself secure in the knowledge that you don't have to hurry to enjoy it by drinking it with every meal, marking obscure saints days or even share it with friends.

Just keep it, open a bottle when you fancy it. Compare it with your tasting notes from 18 months ago. Have fun with the changing flavours and texture, the increased elegance then eventually the inevitable drift towards maderisation through oxidation.

Champagne by any other name

In stark contrast to French insularity, almost uniquely amongst winemaking countries the English buy and drink very little of their own wine.

It’s not really a vine-growing nation, England, being half a degree north of the typical wine-growing latitudes between 30 and 51 degrees (N). England only makes two million bottles itself. To put that into context, the nation is the world’s largest importer, bringing in 1.6 billion bottles of wine.

Viticulture is labour intensive and this makes English wines very expensive to make and, like all alcohol, wine is also very heavily taxed so that too acts as a deterrent to we local would-be buyers.

What’s more, winemaking here in England has historically therefore been very much the preserve of enthusiasts, many of whom were hobbyists not dependant on the income from their wine sales for a livelihood.

 Cuvée Merret honours Christopher Merret
who documented the traditional
method sparkling wine process
30 years before Champagne.
Consequently distribution of wine made in England is really poor. Very few wine merchants nor supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine here in England) even stock English wines: most are sold at the wineries, many of which are also forced by circumstance to be managed as visitor and tourist attractions.

However there is one wine style at which England excels. Really excels. Coincidentally, it's Champagne. It can’t be called Champagne of course, but to all intents and purposes that’s what it is.

Crafted from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, it’s made from the same three grape varieties using the méthode traditionnelle – traditional method – as Champagne. And the grapes are even grown on the same layer of chalk soil that extends geologically beneath our feet all the way from England to Champagne.

To name it correctly, English Sparkling Wine, is now world class.

Which should come as little surprise, as traditionally-made sparkling wine, including Champagne, is a drink whose possibilities owe so much to the English,

For it was the English who brought together the scientific understanding of sparkling wine and the durability of glassware that could withstand the pressure inside a sparkling wine bottle. And it is the English who are also credited with the re-discovery of a piece of cork as the perfect bottle stopper.

Top of my list of English Sparkling Wine producers is RidgeView Winery, high up on the rolling South Downs of the very English county of Sussex.

The wine names themselves are redolent of Englishness and therefore ideal to celebrate any victory over the French: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Knightsbridge and Belgravia. And I understand RidgeView bubbly was served at the Queen’s 80th birthday party.

No wonder. Bottles can be found in the food halls of London’s top department stores Harrods and Fortnum & Mason and on the shelves of leading wine merchants plus upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose.

RidgeView offers all the styles. Grosvenor is a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc; Fitzrovia a Brut Rosé. South Ridge Cuvée Merret is named after Christopher Merret, the Englishman who in 1662 published one of the first known scientific papers on the production of sparkling wine.

As I write, Laithwaites, itself something of an English institution, has Cuvée Merret 2009 on offer at just £15.99 a bottle, which prices it right alongside Champagne when you order half a dozen. Probably enough for a modest celebratory dinner or lunch.

Other notable English Sparkling Wine producers include Nyetimber, whose 2001 Brut Chardonnay is exceptional and creamy, Gusbourne Estate, Hush Heath from Kent, Camel Valley in Cornwall, Chapel Down and Carr-Taylor.

Majestic stocks the Chapel Down range of English sparkling wines from £14.99 a bottle along with the vintage Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2004 at £24.99.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Euro 2012. Wine by Wine. Croatia

Hvaing recently visited the melting pot that is still Sarajevo I was intrigued to find out more about the wines of neighbouring Croatia on my return. I am therefore almost entirely indebted to Judith Burns and Trevor Long of Croatia specialists Pacta Connect for what follows.
Everyday refreshment
is found in a light,
Italian style white

Although developed in the smallest of Croatia's three, or some argue for four, winemaking regions, the wines of Istria are probably the most accessible to the British palate, as being but a few hours from Venice the area's style of winemaking in many ways reflects northern Italy, of which it was once a part. 
Minimum intervention is the
order of the day at Piquentum

Istria's main white wine is Malvazija Istarska (Istrian), a gluggable crisp and dry white wine typically drunk young (usually spending six months in stainless steel tanks before bottling) but the grape is also blended with Chardonnay or Pinot Gris and can be aged in oak or acacia. 

Franco Cattunar of the eponymous Vina Cattunar is one of the larger independent producers in the region, and sells through various wine merchants and wine bars. His Malvazija offers capsicums and elderflowers and he also produces a deep and dark Teran. 

Teran is the region's principal red wine and is a somewhat robust and earthy red that lends itself well to barrique aging. 

At Piquentum Dimitri Brečević is the half-French and half-Croatian winemaker who trained at the University of Bordeaux and worked on vintages both there and in the New World vineyards of New Zealand and Australia, before returning to his father's native Croatia to produce the wines of Piquentum using 'natural' processes that involve minimum intervention. 

There is also a white muškat which is produced in a small area of northern Istria, called Muškat Bijeli Momjanski (the white muškat of Momjan).  Momjan is a tiny village where only a handful of winemakers produce an off-dry white Muškat.

Plavac Mali (literally small blue) is a cross between Zinfandel and Dobričić grapes and the principal red wine grape of the Dalmatian coast and I've been recommended Bura-Mrgudić from Dingač, Nick Bura's organically farmed, oak matured unfiltered red wine that is noted for its intensity of fruit.

Among whites, the multiple award-winning Korta Katarina's citrus and stonefruit ripe Pošip suggests an easy drinking introduction to the dominant white wine grape of the Island of Korcula.

Euro 2012. Wine by Wine. Spain

Every country - indeed many an individual region within the Old World winemaking countries - has its own wine style. Across most of Spain, this is mature red wine. Red wine that has been allowed to age in its own time in serried ranks of oak barrels beneath the winery. Wine that is made and then left. For years and years.

Yes, I know about modern Spain and the modern trend for modern young juicy fruitful easy-gluggers, but to me that's just not Spain. Traditionally and historically Spanish winemakers have used regional grape varieties to create a number of variations on a age-old or aged old theme.

Originally the wire caging around Rioja
bottles was a fraud prevention measure
A theme exemplified by traditional Rioja. Rioja with vanilla, with leather, with dark and spicy overripe red fruit. Red wine that is really quite brown. At the top of the quality tree Rioja Gran Reserva is aged four years or more in oak, Ribera del Duero gets better with the passing years and even cultish young pretender Priorat shouldn't be touched until it's had five years ageing.

But you can find everyday, affordable representations of this brown red style in wine merchants and on supermarkets shelves - even in corner shops - across the UK. You'll recognise the bottles, they're wrapped in a gold wire cage.

Nowadays it's an affectation, something to attract your attention, a bit of nice window dressing.  Historically it was a quality guarantee - proof that the contents were as the bottle left the winery, to stop crafty restaurateurs refilling expensive Rioja bottles with cheaper stuff then passing it off as Gran Reserva.

Today you'll even see the golden cages on wines from supposed lesser regions like Valdepeñas on the central plain of La Mancha or Calatayud in Aragón - but the wines are still typical. Names like Anciano, Carta Roja, Castillo de Montearagon, Conde Galiana, Palacio del Conde and Vina Albali, spring to mind but the key is the combination of age, six or seven years plus, and wire, and brown red wine. Like Rioja, many are also based around the Tempranillo grape.

Contemporary Viña Tondonia vintages are available from many wine merchants including winedirect and for Spanish wines direct from Barcelona you might try out Vinissimus.




© 2011 John Alexander

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