Friday, 27 April 2012

Days of wine and rosés

Rosé, like Champagne, is a wine that signifies more than just a drink. Champagne is shorthand for victory, celebration, excess even. Rosé shares some of Champagne's sense of occasion – it's a wine that has strong associations with the sun, the coming of summer, frivolity, holidays and some of the glamour of the Côte d'Azur.

When I hear the pop of a Champagne cork, I immediately wonder what the occasion is that's being celebrated. Similarly, when I see someone enjoying a glass of rosé, especially if the sun is out, I feel that I would like to share some of that carefree, holiday spirit.

Nowadays, with the ubiquity of pink wines, you can pick up a bottle of rosé made almost anywhere in the world, but Provence in the south of France can claim to have the longest tradition of making it. Grapes were probably brought here by the ancient Greeks to the colony they founded in Marseille in around 600BC. While we have no real way of knowing what style of wines they made, the Provençals are nevertheless keen to promote the idea that these first wines were also pink – so Provence has a claim to be the ancient birthplace of rosé.

Winemakers there are specialists in the art of making rosé – and they get lots of practice at it too, as 88% of wine production from southern Provence is rosé. Red wines account for just 9% and whites a measly 3%.

Provence is the only wine region in the world that specialises in the production of rosé and, despite its frivolous image, winemakers there take it very seriously. That typical pale negligée pink of a Provence rosé is a result of giving the red skinned grapes (usually predominantly Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault) a short period (as little as 45 minutes in some cases) of maceration after crushing. During that time the skins transfer some of their colour and flavours to the juice of the grapes. After maceration the grapes are pressed and the resulting pink juice is fermented into wine.

Of the legions of more deeply-coloured pink wines that adorn our supermarket and wine merchant shelves many are made by a different method, known as saignée, or bleeding. Here red grapes are lightly crushed to rupture the skins and put into a vat. The free run juice is run off from the bottom of the tank and then fermented. The really clever thing about this method is that the winemaker can get a bonus wine, a BOGOF, in the process. After running off the juice and fermenting it he will have a more or less deep-coloured pink wine. But he will also have the option to make a red wine made from the juice and grapes that remain after the saignée. This red wine – and this is the really clever part – will have been given additional concentration and fruit intensity due to the separation of the lighter coloured juice first.

While I can't fault the clever marketing that allows winemakers to produce two wines from a single batch of grapes, it's important to realise that rosés made this way will always be a different beast from their paler pink Provençal cousins. In Provence, the grapes that make rose have been selected, grown and made into wine with the single intention of making a pink wine. The gentle maceration period is also thought to produce a more subtle range of aromas and flavours than the saignée method.

Recommended Provence roses

Famille Négrel, Côtes de Provence Sainte Victoire 2010 - £9.99 from Majestic
Still relatively pale for a rosé, but with more richness and sappy fruit than lighter Provence styles, this is one to crack open with a meal. Salad niçoise would be a joy with this.

Château de Berne, Côtes de Provence Grande Récolte 2011, £9.99 from Majestic
On its own this wine impresses with its pure linearity. But with food the palate opens up and is able to cope with a wide range of foods. It even managed the seemingly impossible task of standing up to steak. A great all rounder rosé.

Château de Galoupet, Côtes de Provence Cru Classé 2010, £13.08 (for a 50cl bottle) from London Wine Shippers
This wine is a great illustration of the canny knack that Provence rosés have of being pale and delicate, yet having plenty of lingering flavour. I'd recommend this one for crab, or any other full-flavoured seafood.

Aix, Côteaux d'Aix en Provence 2011 - £19.99 for a magnum at Majestic
Clearly marketing is a strong suit with Eric Kurver, the Dutch owner of this domaine. His stated ambition on taking up winemaking five years ago was “to make the best rosé in the world” - I wonder how many people take up wine with the aim of producing a so-so wine? The masterstroke of bottling this in 1.5 litre magnums, with a bold label makes this a statement wine to bring out for summer celebrations. Luckily, the wine lives up to its own hype (leaving aside the best in the world moniker): fully dry, structured, and refreshing with plenty of lively grapefruit acidity.

Domaine OTT, Clos Mireille Coeur de Grain 2010, £27.95 from Roberson Wine
No discussion of Provence rosés is complete without the daddy of ambitious (with price tag to match) wines – Domaine OTT. This is a minimalist wine: pale, with a delicate, floral nose and a palate that is soft, savoury, peppery and persistent. Fine, refreshing stuff. 


Monday, 16 April 2012

What have the Greeks ever done for us?

The poor Greeks have been through the wringer in recent times. I don't know what they have made of the wholly erroneous assertion that the only two words to have come to English from Greek are tragedy and crisis. A cursory glance at the dictionary soon gives the lie to this - abacus, abracadabra, academy and academe, acme, acne, acolyte, acoustic, acrobat, acronym, acrophobia, adenoids – all these words have Greek origins, and, as you can see, I didn't even have to finish the As to come up with this list.

The Greeks, it must be said, are suffering from something of a PR problem. Wine lovers, however, have special reason to be grateful to them, for the Ancient Greeks seem to have been instrumental in bringing grapes and specifically wine-making to most, if not all of the Mediterranean countries. From Sicily and Italy, through to Spain and of course, France, the Greeks feature heavily in the history of vines and wines.

Vines were officially brought to France by the Romans in 125BC to the then island off the south coast of France at La Clape. Ancient Rome was an empire built on bureaucracy as well as brute force and they have left us firm written evidence of their work. The Greeks had probably got as far as the Rhone Valley with their vines well before this date, but failed to record their exploits. Oh dear, that habit of not making official records seems to be a hard one to break...

While modern Italy and Greece may not be flavour of the month with their fellow Eurozone members, we wine drinkers should perhaps remember what to be grateful for. Here are some recommended wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon, that vaste swathe of vine-growing that spreads from the right bank of the River Rhone to the Pyrenees and the border with Spain and the jumping off point for ancient wine growers. The region is something of an economic underdog, with none of the swank and hauteur of Bordeaux. What they lack in flash Châteaux and shiny Mercs though, they make up for in great terroirs and some gifted, committed winemakers – and reasonable prices.

Virgile Joly of Domaine Virgile Joly

Château d'Anglès Blanc Classique 2009 - £10.95 at
This white wine springs from the inhospitable, hump-backed outcrop of limestone that is La Clape (no sniggering at the back), which lies between the ancient Roman port of Narbonne, or Narbo Martius to the first inhabitants, and the sea. Nothing much grows here, except vines, wind-blasted pines and olive trees, as there is no soil to speak of; the Mediterranean sun beats down relentlessly, dazzling as it reflects off the bright white of the limestone; it hardly ever rains and it is always windy. Not too promising a site to make any wine, but especially not white wine you might think.

But there is wonderful freshness in this blend of Grenache blanc, Bourboulenc, Marsanne and Roussanne (the eagle-eyed amongst you will no doubt spot this this is pretty much a recipe for white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but not at Châteauneuf prices). The aromas are floral and chalky, leading onto a broad-in-the-beam palate of peppery, herbal flavours.

Domaine Virgile Joly Saturne Rouge 2009 – newly-listed at organic specialists Vintage Roots at around £15.50
Virgile Joly is a leading light of organic viticulture down in the Languedoc. You can read about his beginnings as a winemaker in Patrick Moon's very readable memoir, Virgile's Vineyard: a year in the Languedoc wine country. And have a glass of this beside you while you read, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan plus a little Cinsault. It was aged in concrete tank, so there is no oak to disguise the flavours of the fruit. It's a smooth beast, with the warmth of the south in a hot year – but its minerality gives it freshness and structure. Made from organic grapes, using natural yeasts and minimum amounts of sulphur.

Domaine de Montcalmès 2005 – The Wine Society has the 2004 for £17 or the 2007 for £21. Les Caves de Pyrène at Artington near Guildford has the 2008 for £23.49
This is a classic southern French cocktail of 60% Syrah, with 20% each of Grenache and Mourvèdre – a blend more snappily known as GSM downunder in Australia. Oak-ageing (this has had two years) and that amount of Syrah can dominate a wine, but not here: the damson fruit is fresh and juicy, with savoury notes of tar and spice. It has balance and freshness in abundance.

Mas Amiel Maury 1975 – hard to find in the UK; Caves de Pyrène have the 2009 for £21.49 and £17.95. Closest in style to the 1975 would be the 15 year old Prestige, £23.50 from Lea & Sandeman
Oft overlooked treasures of Roussillon, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, are the aged fortified wines of Maury, Banyuls and Collioure. This one started its life in the same way as Port – that is the fermentation was brought to a premature halt by adding grape spirit, resulting in a wine that still has some sweetness, plus high alcohol. But thereafter comes a quirk: ageing in glass demijohns, which are left outside, exposed to the sun's light and heat, as well the huge differences in temperature between day and night. A year of this seemingly foolhardy treatment oxidises the wine quite thoroughly; normally a disaster for dry wines, it is the making of these “vins doux naturels”. After the demijohns the wine is put in to large, very old oak casks to age further – in this case a further 26 years. These wines have a unique “rancio” character, which sounds bad but means a delicious tangy array of flavours including figs, dates, butterscotch, orange marmalade and nuts. In short, yum.