Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Vines on Waltons' Mountain: Virginia wine

If you are of a certain vintage then Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains will mean just one thing:  The Waltons.  I can still hear that rather melancholic signature tune and picture John-boy and Jim-bob in their dungarees, doing some shucking or another mysterious American rural poor activity. 

Now, however, we have to adjust to the fact that Virginia produces more than just wholesome family dramas and has embarked on a mission to make wine. 

As so often happens, what we think of as the New World newcomer actually has a long history of vine-growing:  Virginia’s wine journey had its beginnings in the 1600s.  Its most famous historical influence is Thomas Jefferson, the French wine-loving US president who brought vine cuttings from Bordeaux to his home in Monticello in the 18th century.  However, the modern-day incarnation of its wines really only began around 40 years ago, so its wine-makers are still getting into their stride when it comes to matching the best sites to grape variety and establishing their signature style. 

Virginia ranks as the US’ 5th largest wine producing state but, with just 0.5 million cases produced annually, they are still a small player in the market.  Domestically most of their production is consumed locally – Virginia is lucky that “local” also includes the thirsty capital, Washington DC. 

A company called New Horizon Wines began importing Virginia wines into this country in 2009 and now sell around 2,000 cases a year here – putting us in the novel position of being Virginia’s number one export market. 

Conditions on the Eastern seaboard of the US are somewhat challenging for vine-growing.  Anyone who has visited there in the summer months will know that hot and humid is the norm.  Coastal sites stay fresher, but poor transport links mean this area is under-developed in general, with few vineyards.  The central area has red clay based soils and a high concentration of wineries, though land use pressure from urban development is acting as a cap on new plantings and driving up vineyard prices .  The Blue Ridge Mountains in the north and west of the state are home to a cluster of wineries where the soils (shale, decomposed granite and volcanic), climate and elevation are all favourable. 

The state’s most popular grape varieties are Viognier for white wines, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, alongside Bordeaux blends for reds.  French oak is favoured over American, setting them apart from the leviathan that is California, though a little of the tight-grained Virginian oak can be found.
It’s unusual, to say the least, to find Viognier as a signature white grape – outside of its home in the northern Rhône valley in France, it is generally a supporting actor rather than a lead.  Part of the reason for its popularity here is because its thick skins help to protect it from rot during the humid summers. 

While Virginia wines are not exactly commonplace over here, there are some available for you to search out.  Here are some of my favourites: 

Veritas Viognier 2011 - £19.50 from Prohibition Wines and Bedales
Here, vines from various sites help to give interest and 7% Petit Manseng (a decidedly niche grape really only grown in the very far southwest corner of France) adds its trademark acid structure and grapefruity tang.  Fermented in stainless steel and then given six months in old oak barrels, its intense, pure apricot aromas lead onto a relatively restrained and zesty palate with lingering spice. 

Barboursville Viognier Reserve 2010 - £17 from The Wine Society, also at Christopher Piper and Handford Wines
This was fermented and aged in stainless steel by a producer whose Viogniers are renowned for ageing (albeit for a modest 4-6 years).  The wine is fairly deep-coloured and the nose has an earthy, mineral dimension. The palate is big on texture, with a beginning, middle and end, and flavours of hay, straw and ripe mirabelle plum.  A big-boned but well-proportioned wine. 

One of the things that I particularly enjoy about these two is their fully dry nature and balanced alcohol, which is perhaps lacking in the commercial styles of California wine.   

On the red front, it’s always fun to see what varieties like Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot can do when allowed to shine alone, instead of being subsumed into a Bordeaux blend.   

Barboursville Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 - £18.50 from The Wine Society, also at a range of independents including Oxford Wine Company
There is ripe fruit and plenty of oak, but good freshness too, despite the 14.5% alcohol.  Tannins are ripe, with no hint of greenness.  It has a rich ripeness, and is about as powerful as Cabernet Franc gets. 

White Hall Petit Verdot 2010 - around £20 from Christopher Piper, Prohibition Wines and Selfridges
There is not much Petit Verdot planted as yet but producers are growing in confidence with the variety and are working to achieve elegance and complexity in what can be an overwhelmingly powerful grape. The nose is a typical blend of ink, spice, pepper and quite toasty oak, followed by a ripe and dense attack and acidity backing up the structure.  It still feels very youthful, ripe and opulent, but remains rather immovable.   

This Petit Verdot, like Virginia as a whole, is one to watch for the future.  Perhaps in time we’ll come to associate the Blue Ridge Mountains with fine wines rather than pick-up trucks and dungarees.  Goodnight John-boy.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Think pink

I’ve been waiting for summer to arrive before writing about my recommendations for rosé wines.  And waiting, and waiting.  But it seems that “summer” is never going to really get into its stride, just come and go in fits and starts.  Given these conditions, where a sunny evening in the garden will be a rare treat that you must be ready to embrace at a moment’s notice, you would be well advised to have a couple of bottles of something pink ready-chilled in the fridge.

Contrary to what you might think based on news coverage, consumption of red and white wine has been falling in the UK in recent years.  It is our increasing fondness for the pink stuff that has been single-handedly responsible for keeping our wine consumption figures essentially flat.  

Rosé wines tend to fall into two styles – on the one hand, deep-coloured “saignée” method wines, whereby juice from a vat of crushed red grapes which has been left to macerate for a short amount of time, is run off to make a fairly deep-coloured and full-flavoured wine.   One the other, the pale pink, elegant wines which are classically produced in Provence.  These last are made by the “direct pressure” method, whereby red grapes are pressed, after little or no maceration, giving only a faint trace of colour to the juice.  Both styles have their fans and in general, ne’er the twain shall meet, with each camp viewing the other with suspicion and convinced that their own style of pink wine is the best. 

Here I’m recommending a few wines in varying styles – arm yourself with a few of these and, when the sun does decide to show itself, you’ll be ready for it. 

Señorio de Sarría Viñedo N⁰5 –   £9.99 from The Vineyard (Dorking), various independent merchants, including Harrods at £11.99
This wine is from Navarra, northern Spain.  Wines from here have a hard time establishing a separate identity for themselves, distinct from their more famous neighbour, Rioja.  What Navarra can do, though, is make a name for itself as Spain’s pre-eminent source of deep-coloured, intensely flavoured and food friendly rosé. 
The best known Navarran Rosado in this country is Chivite’s Gran Feudo, which is quite widely available for around £7.50.  It’s fine as far as it goes, but Sarria’s old vine Garnacha has more class.  The old vines give the wine an effortless concentration and a kind of gentle intensity (can a wine be gently intense?).  Strawberry and apple aromas leap out of the glass and continue on the palate, along with fresh acidity and a long-ish finish.  You could drink this on its own, but it can more than hold its own with things prawn-y and garlick-y. 

Miguel Torres Santa Digna Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 - £7.99 from Taurus Wines (Bramley) and other independent merchants
Miguel Torres is best known for his Spanish wines, but he has fingers in a few pies and this is one of his projects from Chile.   

Small-berried, thick-skinned Cabernet Sauvignon is never going to make a delicate pink wine, but this really is a wine for people who would normally drink red, but would like something  you can chill in the warmer months and drink on its own or with food.  A rosé purist would surely consider it out of order, but I rather like its full on, pure blackcurrant aromas, with more of the same on the palate, along with blackcurrant leaf and something more savoury that stops it being a complete fruit salad.  This could stand up to bangers, burgers or barbecued lamb.

Aldi The Exquisite Collection Côtes de Provence Rosé 2012 - £5.99 from Aldi
Yes, Aldi.  It might not be somewhere you would traditionally head for wine but, along with the unknown brand cheap cereals and spanner sets, they have now put together a pretty good and good value selection of own-label wines.  To spare your blushes, the word Aldi is restricted to small lettering on the back label – though if you’re anything like me you’ll be telling everyone where it’s from, just to see the reaction. 

This doesn’t pretend to be the finest Provence rosé, but it certainly looks the part:  pale, sea-shell pink colour in a curvy “Bardot” bottle.  The nose is fresh, with a hint of rose petal and the palate delivers a gently fruity experience.  £5.99 is a very fair price for it.

Aix, Côteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé 2012 - £19.99 for a magnum from Majestic
If you like the understated charms of Provence rosé, but at the same time fancy givin’ it large at a summer party, a magnum of this should do the job nicely.  The magnum (the equivalent of 2 standard bottles) makes a nice statement of intent, looks great in an ice bucket – and the wine inside is pretty classy too.  Majestic will probably sell out of these, as they did last year, despite the underwhelming weather, so make your move sooner rather than later. 

Vidal-Fleury Côtes du Rhône Rosé 2012 – around £11.49 from amazon.co.uk and Hailsham Cellars (East Sussex)
Pink wines from the Rhône valley sit somewhere in between the pale Provence-style rosés and those deeper-coloured saignée types stylistically.  It has great freshness (surely a prime requirement of pink wines) and a lively palate with a hint of stone fruits about it.  I could happily drink this on its own, but it has enough oomph to stand up to wedding buffet-style food.