Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Attack of the great whites

“The first duty of wine is to be red” pronounced one of the UK wine trade’s grandees, Harry Waugh. It does seem that, when it comes to truly great or fine wine, red has more gravitas.

However, recently I find myself increasingly drawn to white wine – and particularly to the white wines of South Africa.

When I first came across South African wines in the mid-nineties the reds were a mixed bunch: easy drinking, soft reds, others with a bit of rusticity, some just downright tough – and often with a characteristic hint of rubber glove about them. Many whites, usually made from Chenin Blanc, were pretty dull; stripped of personality by high yields.

In the intervening twenty years, the pace of change in South Africa has been breathtaking. In the era of apartheid, grape growers were rewarded for volume rather than quality; the fact that in 1990, 70% of the grape harvest was destined either for brandy or fruit juice production tells its own story. And yet, by 2003, the proportions had reversed and 70% of the harvest went on to be made into wine.

Today South Africa is one of the world’s most exciting wine producing nations. It’s a place where natural and human influences meet. The Cape is at the confluence of two oceans – Atlantic and Indian. Historically it also played a vital role in bridging the divide between the Old and New worlds in the era of the Dutch East Indies company. The very first Cape grapes were pressed to make wine in 1659, when Jan van Riebeck was charged with developing a market garden to supply ships bound for the Indies with fresh produce in order to alleviate scurvy amongst the sailors and merchants.

While much of South Africa is far too hot and dry for wine grape growing, the area around Cape Town, where the winelands cluster, has a benign Mediterranean climate. Additionally the cold Benguela current flowing north from Antarctica and the so-called Cape Doctor southeasterly summer wind combine to ensure this part of the country is cooler than its latitude would suggest, and help to keep vines free of rot.

The most momentous change, however, is in the human sphere. After the isolation of apartheid there has been a new spirit of openness and an explosion of creativity. Stellenbosch, the heartland of quality wine is still the capital of wine production, but winemakers are spreading out to new, cooler areas, as well as reinventing old, poorly regarded areas such as Swartland and reinventing them as the home of sustainable, high quality winemaking.

Wines to look out for:

The Tea Leaf Chenin Blanc 2103 - £12.49 from Noel Young Wines, £10.75 if you buy 6 from allaboutwine.co.uk
Here’s proof that Chenin Blanc is capable of making much more than dull, crisp wines. The Tea Leaf in question here is Rooisbos, South Africa’s indigenous herbal tea (an acquired taste). Auto-suggestion or not, but this Chenin does seem to have a distinct herbal edge alongside its tangy, ripe pineapple fruit, which may or may not be due to the nearby Rooibos plantation. Smart packaging too.

Ghost Corner The Bowline 2012 - £17.99 from SA Wines Online, £19.49 from The Wine Library
This very classy blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc from really very cool Elim, in South Africa’s most southerly district of Cape Agulhas, could be just the thing to refresh the palate of jaded Sauvignon Blanc fans. I find the ubiquitous Sauvignon a bit meh, but this made me stand up and take notice. The Semillon fills out the Sauvignon’s more vegetal flavour profile with lime fruit, and the barrel fermenting and ageing add texture and subtle lees character.

Thorne and Daughters Rocking Horse White 2013 - £24.95 from Edgmond Wines
A new venture, established only in 2012, is responsible for this knockout wine made from parcels of vines from Western Cape – the catch-all name for all of South Africa’s wine lands. Care is evident in every facet of this rich but structured white, based on the Rhône’s Roussanne grape, along with Chardonnay, Semillon and a little Chenin Blanc. A wine to linger over, which shows you something new with every sip.

Reyneke Reserve White - £19.79 for the 2010 from SA Wines Online, also at independent merchants
Reyneke are based in Stellenbosch, South Africa’s wine central. Reyneke, however, depart from tradition and are the country’s leading biodynamic estate. I was surprised to find that this is 100% Sauvignon Blanc: it has such layers and nuances of lush fruit, length and complexity I had assumed it must be a blend.   

Mullineux White Blend 2012 - £17.95 from Berry Brothers, SA Wines Online
Mullineux Family wines was established only in 2007, but has enjoyed a meteoric rise, including being awarded Winery of the Year in the 2014 edition of the influential Platter’s Guide to South African Wines.

They are based in Swartland, arguably the most exciting region in the whole country for its combination of schist and granite soils and store of old, unirrigated Chenin Blanc bush vines. In the past Swartland was used as a source of bulk fruit for blending or distillation. Now smaller growers are moving in, making use of the old vine Chenin and planting Rhône varietals which thrive in the hot, dry climate. Many, including Mullineux, are also focused on quality and non intervention – so no irrigation of the vines or acidification of the wines.

To the wine – it’s a blend of predominantly Chenin Blanc, with a dash of Rhône varieties Clairette and Viognier. Fermentation relies on natural wild yeasts and takes place in (older) oak barrels, where the wine stays until bottled six months later. If you like to have a sense of where your wine comes from and don’t object to minerality in your wine, to the extent that it can feel like a bit of that schist must have been in the barrel with it, then this is for you.

All that fizzes is not Champagne

The British have a huge appetite for fizz – not only are we the number one export market for Champagne, but we also lap up a host of other sparkling wines.

This has been a huge success story and has kick-started our renewed love of “everyday” fizz in recent years. From a niche product 20 years ago, it has now become ubiquitous.

Why do we love it so? It’s a Martini type of drink – any time, any place, anywhere. It’s easy going, fresh and fruity, usually a little sweet, but, importantly, doesn’t overtly say so on the label. The most commonly encountered version of Prosecco is “Extra Dry”, which in effect means off dry – Brut is sparkling winespeak for dry. It’s very easy to enjoy on its own, which suits the UK way of drinking.

Prosecco now exists in two quality levels. Prosecco DOCG is, at least in theory, top of the Italian wine pyramid of quality and applies to Prosecco produced in the heartland around the villages of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. The larger Prosecco DOC area covers a large area of the Veneto in north eastern Italy and tends to produce simpler, less intense styles.

What accounts for its style?
-          The grape variety – Glera is fairly neutral with naturally high acidity, which usually requires some sweetness to balance it.
-          The region of production – this part of the Veneto, especially the DOCG area, is made up of green, hilly sites and is relatively cool.
-          Production method – Prosecco uses the prosaic-sounding tank method, which helps to preserve the freshness of the fruit and cool fermentation aromas of pear, apple and elderflower.

What is tank method?
All sparkling wine starts its life as a still wine and a second fermentation is usually used to make it sparkle. Any alcoholic fermentation will naturally produce carbon dioxide (CO₂) which, if not allowed to escape into the atmosphere, will be forced into the wine, making it fizzy.

For Prosecco and many other types of sparkling wine, this second fermentation takes place in a sealed tank.

Before the arrival of Prosecco, Cava was our go-to bargain fizz. Cava refers to the method of production rather than a specific area – Cava can be made in many parts of Spain – but the vast majority (85%) and pretty much all we see here is from Penedès in Catalonia.

Cava is made using the same method as Champagne, which we are duty bound to call traditional method, or “méthode traditionelle”, but is often aged for less time.

Traditional method is distinguished from tank method in that the second fermentation takes place in bottle and involves spending a certain amount of time ageing “on the lees” in the bottle. In this way a relatively small amount of wine is gently interacting with the lees (predominantly dead yeast cells post fermentation) so over time there is the opportunity for a process known as autolysis to take place.

Autolytic characters can be hard to pin down and indeed there is some debate about how long a wine needs to be on its lees before this has any effect. It is generally associated with the richer mouthfeel and biscuit and bready notes that can be found in long lees-aged sparkling wines.

Separating the wine from its lees involves some processing – riddling is undertaken to bring the sediment into the neck of the bottle, now mostly done automatically in robotic machines known as “gyropalettes”. The necks of the bottles are then immersed in a freezing solution to freeze the sediment solid. The bottle is uncorked and the plug of frozen sediment shoots out under pressure from the CO₂ in the wine. The bottle is topped up with a mixture of wine and sugar known as “liqueur d’expédition”, which determines the final sweetness level, and re-corked.  The whole process is known as disgorgement.

Chardonnay has started to creep in to some Cavas, giving it a more international style but the three traditional Catalan varieties of Macabeu, Xarel.lo and Parellada help to give Cava its own distinct style. For my money Cava tends to have a very fresh character, slightly earthy and, sometimes, a less welcome hint of burnt rubber.

Legally, non vintage Champagne must spend 15 months maturing in bottle, though in practice most spend longer than this on their lees, resulting in those biscuity autolytic aromas which are such a hallmark of Champagne.

The big Champagne names, often called houses, each have their own style, exemplified in their non vintage blend, on which they labour to maintain consistency from year to year and bottle to bottle.

Most non vintage Champagnes draw on the classic trio of grape varieties in differing proportions: Chardonnay, which gives elegance and finesse; Pinot Noir, for backbone, power and longevity; and Pinot Meunier, which has lovely expressive fruit, especially in youth. It is often Pinot Meunier which provides much of the interest in young Champagnes, taking centre stage before the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir get into their stride as time goes on.

Although Non Vintage, most of these Champagnes will be based predominantly on the harvest of a single year, with the addition of a proportion of reserve wines from previous vintages to give depth and to preserve consistency. Another element in the blend is the availability of vineyard holdings in the different villages (or Crus) which make up the region. The houses tend to own some vines, but never enough to cater for their total requirements, so they will buy in grapes (or juice) from some of the region’s hundreds of individual growers.

Thus a “standard” non vintage blend will often be the made up from fruit grown in many sites from across Champagne. Taittinger’s Brut Réserve Non Vintage contains fruit from a total of 35 villages. The mosaic of sites with different soils, aspects, varieties – terroir in short – provides a rich source on which to draw.

That mixture of art and science which constitutes the blending process to combine young, raw – and still – wines from each parcel of vines into a finished non vintage cuvée is, I think, what really helps to set Champagne apart. Things like experience of past harvest conditions, how different parcels perform in a blend over time, how the different varieties interact and so on, build up over years and rely on knowledge passing from generation to generation. And this is what we are tasting when we pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne.  

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Corkscrews and canvas - tales of a wine-loving camper

Since acquiring a jolie-laide 1981 VW camper van seven years ago, I’ve become a habitual camper after a decades-long hiatus. Being wine-obsessed, I have naturally made it my mission to try to combine my two passions.

A welcome sign

It has been scientifically proven that beer tastes better when drunk in the shelter of a beer tent while rain gently falls outside, perfuming the air with the scent of mud and wet grass. OK, I made that up, but you can kind of see how it might be true can’t you?
The van takes in the view
In the same vein, I think there’s enjoyment to be had combining the fruit of the vine with the great outdoors. Here, for what it’s worth, are the pearls of wisdom that I have unearthed over the years.

-          The experience of eating and drinking while camping is not great on paper, I admit. Drinking white wine that’s too warm or red that’s too cold and trying to eat from a plate in your lap while avoiding coleslaw oozing onto your shorts, as midges and mossies feast on any exposed flesh – any volunteers?
-          It’s well nigh impossible to keep things properly cold (as indeed it is to serve up properly hot food) so avoid those wines that need to be well chilled in order to be enjoyed fully. I don’t want to come over as impossibly precious, the kind of person who insists on drinking their white Burgundy at exactly 12⁰C – heaven knows, that’s easy enough to achieve in a typical British summer. But Champagne or sparkling wine that really isn’t cold enough is an undedifying experience. Red is always going to be the safest option.  And lightly chilled, fruity reds are great.
-          Glasses – plastic is pretty nasty, but it’s not wise to take your best Riedels either. I compromise with glass tumblers – no spindly stems to worry about. When camping, if anything can fall over, it will. 
-          A nip of sweet Sherry does a great job of providing instant central heating following a stint in the sea, or just a damp day in the hills.
-          And finally, if you’re wondering whether to have one final glass of grog before turning in – remember, the loos are probably a dark and guy-rope ridden walk away.  

France is where I’ve done most of my camping in recent years and it is a wine-lover’s dream. I’m not sure my family get quite as excited about it as I do, especially when I pull over yet again to take photos of some really good pudding stones in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or get caught up in a conversation about vintage conditions with a winemaker. But they also have their own wine-themed memories – how many boys can say they have bumped into a glass wall at Champagne Drappier before the age of 12?

 A plentiful supply of both campsites and wine regions are crying out to you to make your own French discoveries. The network of Campings municipaux means you are rarely more than a few kilometres from somewhere to pitch camp and they are generally well laid out with flat pitches (British campsite owners take note – a soggy, sloping field does not make a for a good site). We rarely book any sites in advance and just hop on a ferry and head south until the weather suits our clothes, as the song goes.

A word to the wise, a quirk of French campsite loos means that they tend to have either loo seats or loo roll, but very rarely both. On the plus side, many sites will get a visit from the local boulangerie in the morning, so you can enjoy the proper French breakfast experience to set you up for a day’s strenuous wine tasting.
Zero tolerance
Sometimes you don’t even have to leave your site to taste some of the local wine. On more than one occasion, wine producers have actually turned up at our campsite to offer a try before you buy tasting, making for a very civilised way to choose something to go with that evening’s salade niçoise. We eat a lot of salade niçoise on holiday.

Memorable campsites with a wine connection

La Grappe d’Or in Burgundy is not especially remarkable as campsites go, though it does have a decent swimming pool which observes the peculiar French habit of closing for a long lunch break. What makes this special for wine lovers is the location, surrounded as it is by the vineyards of Meursault. Where else can you do your washing up outdoors with a view of Premier Cru vines in the setting sun?

Meursault vines at La Grappe d'Or

Champagne lovers should make a bee-line for the Camping Municipal at Epernay, which puts you within striking distance of many of the big names, as well as countless smaller ones of Champagne. It shares a site with the canoe-kayak club, so the energetic can paddle along the Marne for an hour or so. A bakery van calls every morning, its presence announced by a prolonged toot on its horn – no lie-ins here.

The perfect wine and camping scenario is that offered by Champagne Nowack at Vandières in the Marne Valley. A small site set amongst the vines (a bit sloping, but with flat places) with luxurious hotel-standard loos and showers, barbecues to borrow and table tennis to play. The best bit though, is that you can pop into reception and pick up a chilled bottle of their Champagne, an ice bucket and proper glasses to drink from. Technically speaking, it’s not the best fizz I’ve ever had, but let me tell you, on a hot evening after a day’s travelling it’s like the nectar of the Gods. 

Nowack nectar of the Gods

Wine-ing in the great outdoors

Summer’s long and, currently, balmy evenings are here and it feels like you haven’t really made the most of them until you’ve enjoyed something cold and (in my book) alcoholic in the garden. We have even had the weather to eat comfortably outside of an evening, so I feel duty bound to offer some helpful hints for which wines to choose to fit the occasion.

Everyone loves a top 10 (or Top 100 if you’re Channel 4), so here they are:

Top 10 Tips for Outdoor Summer Drinking

1.       Complexity and subtlety are the first casualties of outdoor drinking (along with any sense of moderation some might say), so now is not the time to uncork the treasured bottle of white Burgundy or fine claret that you’ve been squirreling away for a special occasion.
2.       Go for simple, bold aromas and flavours that can stand up to being drunk outside.
3.       At lunchtime, keep it light – both in terms of the wine style and alcohol level.  Prosecco fits the bill on both counts, as does Vinho Verde and dry Semillon from Australia. 
4.        Will you be dressing for dinner? If a vinaigrette dressing features on the menu, you’ll find rosé will stand up well to the combination of sharpness and oiliness. White wines can often end up sharp tasting and short of fruit when paired with a dressed salad; the tannins in red wine can react badly with it and make for a horrible combination. Rosé drinkers are spoilt for choice nowadays, but a classic match for a classic salade niçoise would be an elegantly pale, dry and savoury Provence rosé. If the dressing is lemon and/or lime dominant, I would go for a dry Riesling (try Austrian or Australian), or again a dry Semillon from Australia.  
5.       Barbecues, our default setting when eating outdoors, are the enemy of anything understated – you need to think big and bold.  Aussie Shiraz springs to mind, but think also of the savoury spice of a good Côtes du Rhône, or the pronounced smokiness of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a Chilean Carmenère.
6.       White wine drinkers have plenty to choose from too. I might sometimes deplore Kiwi Sauvignon, and its ilk, for its lack of finesse and downright “slap you round the chops” pungency – but it’s a blessing here. For a change you could also look for wines made from Viognier (weighty, peachy fruit) or Grenache Blanc (weighty, herbal/spicy flavours).
7.       If fridge space is tight, or you’re just in a hurry to cool things down, an ice bucket (or just a bucket) with ice AND water is the quickest way to chill drinks. Please don’t plonk an ice cube straight into a glass of wine – or not into mine anyway.
8.       Think about chilling red wine – on a hot day, red wine at room temperature can seem a bit soupy and unrefreshing. Chilling won’t suit all red wines – but what’s the worst that can happen? You can always just let it warm back up again. Reds that work well chilled need to have plenty of fruit and not much tannin – think Beaujolais or New World Pinot Noir.
9.       If guests arrive hot and thirsty, it would be both kind and sensible to offer something low in alcohol – or even non-alcoholic as an initial thirst quencher, rather than have them plunge straight into a glass of 14% alchohol red wine on arrival. I’m planning on unleashing my Aperol Spritz on guests this weekend, (3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol, 1 part soda water) which I reckon should be under 10% alcohol. I have it on good authority that non-drinkers (and designated drivers) now find elderflower cordial a bit meh, so try and find something new to tempt them. Try a lemonade punch – strong tea, lemon juice and sugar, topped up at the last minute with ginger ale and mint sprigs. You can of course also add rum.

10.   Finally, a word of warning: beware Pimm’s. It’s so inoccuous-tasting that you forget you’re drinking something alcoholic and it can slip down all too easily in the sun. All that fruit floating around in it does not, I’m afraid, cancel out the alcohol.