Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Is Alto Adige a pointless wine region?

If I were to appear on Pointless and the category was Italian wine regions, I’d be quietly confident that Alto Adige would be a pointless answer.

Italy is home to many renowned wine names – Chianti, Brunello, Barolo, Soave, Valpolicella... But there are plenty more where that came from. Italy vies with France as the biggest producer of wine in the world and is the source of more indigenous grape varieties than anywhere else: the learned tome, Wine Grapes, lists Italy as the origin of 377 varieties (ahead of France on 204).

In short, there’s always something new to discover in Italy and becoming an expert in its wines is truly a life’s work.

Tucked up into the Dolomites in the far north of Italy, Alto Adige is a region of intriguing clashes of culture, climate and language. The fact that it is also known as Südtirol, and that German, rather than Italian, is more often the first language are pointers that this area was, until the First World War, part of the Austrian Empire. Mussolini encouraged immigration from the south, in an attempt to “Italianise” the region, but met with resistance.

 
trellised vines march down the mountainsides
  

The surrounding snow-capped mountains provide a novel backdrop not just to terraces of vines, but also to the palm and fig trees that grow there. We may be in the far north, with ski-ing the main winter activity, yet Bolzano, the capital of the region, can sometimes be the hottest city in the country in the summer. Its steep, terraced hillsides make some of the most exquisite wines from the Italian peninsula, while the flat valley floor is home to industrial-scale orchards churning out Pink Lady apples by the tonne. Alto Adige is a region that confounds and intrigues at every turn.

 
the flat valley floor of Val Venosta in Alto Adige, land of the Pink Lady

The fact that this region lies a long way from the Brits’ favoured Italian holiday destinations is one of the reasons for its under the radar status. Another is that few of its wines make their way to us – and those that do tend to be on the pricey side. But for those who want to explore another side of apparently familiar varieties and to experience wines with altitude, there’s plenty to see here.

St Michael-Eppan Pinot Grigio 2015 - £11.99 from Waitrose
At the more affordable end of things, this is a good introduction to the region and its wines from its biggest co-op. Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige tends to have much more character (it could hardly have less) than the ubiquitous Veneto version.

Terlano Pinot Bianco Vorberg Riserva 2014, Cantina Terlano - £28.35 from Field and Fawcett; Petersham Cellar sells a case of six of the 2013 for £180
Two things about this wine might surprise you, given the price. Firstly it’s made by a co-op and it’s made from the apparently lowly Pinot Bianco/Pinot Blanc grape. Cantina Terlano, however, is one of the most eminent of the region’s many co-ops (12 co-ops account for 70% of the region’s wine output). And here, Pinot Blanc from steep, sunny vineyards at up to 900 metres altitude are fermented and aged in oak to give a wine of real charm. It has weight and depth with lovely fresh yellow plum fruit and wonderful texture. Like many of Alto Adige’s best white wines, this will age well – not something you might associate with Pinot Blanc from anywhere else. A less eyewatering option, pricewise, would be Hofstätter Pinot Bianco 2015 - £10.95 a bottle from The Wine Society.

Franz Haas Pinot Nero 2013/14 – Hedonism has the 2014 for £29. 50, or £25.75 from Winedirect, D&D Wine has the 2013 for £20
Franz Haas wines are some of the better distributed wines in the UK. Prices are rather steep, but theirs are some of the best Pinot Noirs you’ll find in the region.

Sauvignon Blanc Lafoá 2015, Cantina Colterenzio - £30 from Great Western Wine
Abandon hope, all ye Marlborough Sauvignon lovers who enter here. This is not about pungent gooseberry and tropical fruit and zingy acidity. Here it’s all about texture; the variety’s potent aromatics have been tamed by barrel fermentation to make something that is dry, food-friendly and ageworthy. Great Western Wine also list some of this producer’s other wines, all under £15 a bottle.

Where to buy Alto Adige wines ?
No-one has a very long list of wines from here, partly because production is pretty small to begin with. In addition to stockists already mentioned, Alpine Wines, as you might expect, have a small but decent selection; and Guildford’s Caves de Pyrène have a few well-chosen producers on their list.  

Friday, 24 February 2017

Rioja - a known unknown?

So, we all know the name, but what does it actually mean? Does Rioja refer to a style of wine? A grape variety? A region of origin? In fact, Rioja is the last of these three: a wine producing region of northern Spain.

Like most of Spain, vines and winemaking were introduced here by the Romans, a tradition which has continued ever since, albeit with a substantial break during the years of the Moorish occupation from 711 AD.

From the middle ages until the late 19th century, wine from Rioja, as in most parts of Spain, was made for consuming locally and with no great ceremony. Wine was a part of the peasant diet, no more, no less. Workers’ rations at a Riojan monastery in 1205 consisted of “Bread, cheese and wine at midday, bread and wine in the afternoon and bread, meat and wine in the evening.”

What changed Rioja’s fortunes was the arrival of phylloxera vastatrix in France in the 1860s. This splendidly-named vine pest from America attacked the roots of grapevines, causing them to die. Merchants from Bordeaux, whose vineyards were some of the first to succumb, travelled over the Pyrenées in search of substitute wines to sell – and Rioja is where they found what they were looking for.

These were merchants, not grape growers or winemakers, so they confined themselves to sourcing, blending and ageing wines from across the region. They also brought the idea of ageing in oak barrels with them – though it was American rather than French oak which dominated in those early years.

These two elements – blending wines from across the region and ageing in oak barrels – continue to be a hallmark of Rioja today.

After its initial success, there followed an almost inevitable rise to international fame, followed by a long period of whittling away at its own reputation by an industrial attitude to production and little respect for quality. Since the 1990s, however, thanks to greater competition from within and outside Spain, Rioja has been forced to up its game and to begin to justify its reputation once again.

Riojas ancient and modern
Marquès de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 2007 - £66 a bottle from Hard to Fine Wines and other independent merchants
Two Marqueses, de Murrieta and de Riscal, probably helped lure those first Bordelais merchants over the Pyrenées. Founded in 1852, Marques de Murrieta has been a constant feature of the Riojan wine scene ever since. This wine is made in the best years, mostly Tempranillo with 14% Mazuelo (aka Carignan), aged for 26 months in American oak, then a minimum of three years in bottle before release. This is a taste of tradition, with gentle maturing charms.

Marquès de Cáceres Rioja Reserva 2011 - £12.99 (mix six price) from Majestic
This bodega was the first to introduce new French oak to the region in 1970 and it continues to have a thoroughly modern approach to its wines: plenty of juicy fruit and only a little oak influence.

López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva 2003 - £25.95 from Hennings, £28.50 from Woodwinters; Avery’s list the 2002 for £26
Yes, those vintages are correct. Viña Tondonia is an ultra-traditional, long-lived style of both red and white wine. In this white wine, Viura grapes (a humdrum, inexpressive variety) are transformed via six years’ ageing in barrel and more in bottle into a rich golden, bone dry wine of depth and elegance. It is fabulous with wild mushroom dishes or mature hard cheeses.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Wine and dine your Valentine

Dry January, thank goodness, is behind us and the first official occasion of the year for making a bit of a splash, wine-wise, is upon us. Valentine’s Day is a perfect time to make a grand romantic gesture to your loved one – and if that gesture is a bottle of something, you get to share it too – win-win I’d say.

What to buy your Valentine?
 The obvious choice is pink and sparkling, so here are some recommendations, from the budget bottle to the (very) grand gesture.

Langlois-Château Brut Rosé NV – from £12, The Champagne Company, winedirect.co.uk, Amazon, Cellar Magneval (Woking)
This is a crémant (made in the same way as Champagne) from the Loire Valley and given a distinctive character from  the Cabernet Franc grapes that go to make it. A delicate salmon pink, with a creamy mousse and real fruitiness with a little strawberry shortbread, it delivers plenty of flavour at the price.

Moët & Chandon Rosé Imperial NV – RRP £43, Sainsbury’s, Majestic, Selfridges, The Finest Bubble
Moët’s supple, fruity style suits those new to the Champagne drinking lark. It has plenty of up-front, lively charm that is fresh and suitable for drinking on its own. A fine way to kick off the evening.

Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé NV - £54.95 in a gift box at The Finest Bubble, £43.99 at Waitrose
Laurent-Perrier’s rosé Champagne is one of the few which gets its pink hue from contact of the skins of the black grapes with the juice – most are made by adding a certain amount of red wine to the blend. Whether one method or the other makes for a better Champagne is a point of debate, but this has undoubted appeal, from its distinctive bottle to the lively redcurrant-tinged fruit and fresh flavour. A magnum would taste even better, with more complexity and elegance.



Bollinger Grande Année 2005 - £94.95 at Finest Bubble (£92.95 each if you buy six – they won’t go off), £85-£88 at Drink Supermarket, The Drink Shop
I have a soft spot for this pink Bollinger vintage, which combines the power of the house style with such indulgent finesse. Slightly decadent, this is very much one for a romantic night in.


Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002 – RRP £200, Harrods, Selfridges, Hedonism Wines, Jeroboams and Finest Bubble (who offer same day or next day delivery in Surrey)
This is an utterly beguiling champagne which would surely win over any fan of fine white Burgundy. It is 80% Chardonnay, plus 20% of Pinot Noir as red wine. The colour is a mellowing coral with orange highlights and the nose is redolent of a maturing white Burgundy, combining rich and expressive fruit with a featherlight delicacy. The Pinot Noir gives spice and breadth on the finish and the wine’s long maturation on lees and under cork makes for exquisite complexity. This is one to savour over lobster or other rich seafood dishes.


Try before you buy
Cellar Wines in Ripley are putting on a free sampling of a range of wines this Saturday 11th February, including a couple of manager Andy’s favourite pink sparklers: Antech Cuvée Emotion Rosé 2014 from Limoux in southern France and Champagne Goutorbe-Bouillot Brut Rosé NV. And there’s 10% off single bottles on the day – there’s no rule that says you can’t be romantic AND canny.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

A wine by any other name...

Have you ever tried a wine made from the Aubaine grape? How about Luisant? Or Clevner? You might think not, but I am prepared to bet that you have. If I tell you that these are all aliases for the same grape, and that one of its other synonyms is Chaudenay, then perhaps you’ve guessed its better-known name.

Yes, Chardonnay, the most widely planted white grape in the world, is known by all these names – and many more.

How does this happen? In the days before ampelography (the science of grape vine identification), commercial vine cutting propagation and import controls and quarantine for plant materials, it’s easy to imagine how a variety, either newly arrived in a region, or already established, could end up with a myriad of aliases, with growers free to decide on a name.

Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes known as Bordeaux in Switzerland and Bordo in Romania – a neat illustration both of how grape varieties are often known by their (sometimes supposed) origin, and how those names can mutate as they cross national and linguistic boundaries.

Not that a grape variety needs to travel very far at all to be given a different name. Some of the very many synonyms for Cabernet Sauvignon, purely within its native Bordeaux, include Bidure, (Petite) Vidure, Bouchet, Carbonet, Carbouet and Marchoupet. Carbonet may derive from Cabernet, but the others seem to bear little or no relationship to the now official name.

Just how do grape variety names come about? Some are cryptic to us now. But they sometimes refer, as with Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux, to the geographical origin. Or they describe characteristics of the vine itself – such as Pinot Meunier. Meunier means “of the miller” in French, and the vine’s leaves have a whitish floury dust on their undersides. But in other cases and with vine names often dating back many hundreds of years, their origins can remain mysterious.

Take Aglianico, a black grape famed for making deep-flavoured, smoky and tannic reds in Campania, southern Italy. The name has been thought to be a mangling over the centuries of the Italian word “hellenico”, meaning Greek. For quite a while, an accepted hyphothesis was that this variety may have been brought to Italy by the wine-loving Greeks. However, since the emergence of DNA profiling – yes, it’s not just used to catch criminals – we know that Aglianico bears no similarity to any current Greek variety, but that it does share genetic similarities with other black grapes of southern Italy. So bang goes that theory.

DNA profiling has also taught us that California’s “native” variety Zinfandel is in fact identical to southern Italy’s Primitivo – and that both are synonyms for a Croatian variety called Tribidrag. Somehow I doubt California’s winemakers are going to swap Zinfandel for Tribidrag on their labels.

As well as the same variety having bewildering number of aliases, the opposite is also true, where the same name has been given to what are, in fact, distinct varieties. The most renowned of these is Malvasia, a name which you will find on white wines from the Canaries, via Madeira (where we Brits wrangled it into Malmsey), Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Croatia. Sometimes it is the same Malvasia, often not.


How grapes get their names can be mysterious – at other times it can seem rather obvious. Returning to Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems tempting to wonder whether it could perhaps be related to the red Cabernet Franc and the white Sauvignon Blanc? Well yes, thanks, again, to DNA profiling, we now know that indeed it is the offspring of these two parent varieties. Sometimes the answer really has been staring us in the face all along.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Winter wines on a budget

January is a tough time for the average wine lover. There are few excuses to celebrate and, post-Christmas, there is an underlying feeling that perhaps one should lay off the booze for a while, for the good of the liver - and wallet.

On the liver front, without going into too much laborious detail, 2 or 3 alcohol free days a week year-round are what’s required. A month-long moratorium on drinking is perhaps admirable, but will not benefit your liver in the longer term if you simply then return to a daily glass or two thereafter.

And for the wallet…here are some wines that can help to banish the winter blues, and which won’t give your bank balance a bruising.

Mesquiriz Navarra Rosado 2015, Spain - £3.99, Lidl
At this price, this winter-weight Spanish rosé will bring a smile to the lips of any skint wine drinker. The generous strawberry fruit with a little kick of white pepper makes is a perfect midweek wine for bangers and mash.

Trebuchet Chardonnay 2015, South Africa - £5.99 (mix six price until 30 Jan), Majestic
This South African Chardonnay tastes much more expensive than it is, especially at the reduced price. It has creamy fruit with a zesty lemon finish.

Tesco finest* St Mont 2014, France - £6, Tesco
The direction that Tesco’s wine range is heading doesn’t give much to cheer about, but this long-lived member of their own label finest* range is a welcome survivor of recent culls to the list. This blend of Southwest France’s native white varieties Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng and Arrufiac deliver a wine of character, combining grapefruit zing and apricot-tinged fruit.

Casal de Ventozela 2015, Vinho Verde, Portugal - £6.99 (mix six price), Majestic
This medal-winning Vinho Verde is fresh and spritzy with lemon and herbal flavours – a tonic for the jaded.

Setze Gallets Garnacha Monastrell, Spain 2014 - £7.25, The Wine Society
Full-flavoured, fruity and with a level of class that belies its price, this is perfect winter comfort wine. From the sunny climes of Valencia in Spain and aged in amphorae, this red combines the dense dark fruit of Monastrell with the rich liveliness of old vine Garnacha.

Falanghina Sassi del Mare 2015, Italy - £7.99, Lidl
This is part of Lidl’s Christmas wine collection, which you should be able to find until the next collection hits their shelves from 26th January onwards. Try this gem of an Italian white, from Campania, for a taste of springtime honeysuckle in winter.

Tesco finest* Tingleup Riesling 2015, Australia - £8, Tesco
Another long-standing Tesco listing, the wine’s flavour somehow matches the its name – though Tingleup is simply the name of the region of origin in Western Australia. Fresh, juicy lime fruit and waxiness combine in a wine which is dry but never austere.

Mesta Organic Old Vine Tempranillo 2015, Spain - £8, M&S
The same red grape, Tempranillo, as Rioja, but in a richer, riper style that is full of fruit with an edge of tomato leaf -  and without oak.

Zalze Shiraz/Mourvèdre/Viognier 2015, South Africa - £8.29, Waitrose
For people who like their winter reds to pack a punch of both flavour and alcohol, this delivers the necessary with full-flavoured, juicy fruit.

Blason du Rhône 2015, Côtes du Rhône Villages, France - £8.99, Waitrose
The word “Villages” in the name is an important one, signifying a step up in quality from straight Côtes du Rhône. This soothing wine is soft and smooth with strawberry fruit and a hint of herbs on the finish.