Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas top wine tips and picks

If you’re still casting around for ideas to inspire your wine choices for Christmas, read on. Also read on if you’re one of those people, like me, who has already laid in the necessary, but can’t resist a quick scan of others’ recommendations, to see if they have the good sense to choose the same wines as you would. In which case, we should both probably get out more, but hey, don’t let me stop you reading.

La Noë Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu sur lie 2012 - £11.75 from Lea and Sandeman; Château du Cléray Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur lie (Sauvion) - £9.99, or £8.99 if you buy two at Majestic
If you spend a bit more than the minimum on Muscadet, you’ll be reminded why it was such a popular style in the first place. The Sauvion has more classic citrus freshness, whereas La Noë’s structure comes not from acidity but with a certain mineral weight, possibly influenced by the granitic soils of the vineyard. Either would make a classy aperitif or fine accompaniment to seafood. 

Christmas Day
Domaine Champalou, Le Portail 2010 - £22.90 from Caves de Pyrène, near Guildford
Feel free to drink white wine if that’s what you fancy with Christmas dinner – and I don’t think it matters a great deal what the meat is (if any). All the flavours we pile up onto one plate mean a couple of things: avoid anything too subtle, which will be overwhelmed (eg Chablis); or too flamboyantly flavoured, which might clash (eg Gewurztraminer). Christmas dinner is often a multi-generational affair too and you don’t want to intimidate those who maybe don’t enjoy wine that much or even drink it for most of the year.

But if you do want to splash out a bit, this is the kind of thing I’d plump for. It is a 100% Chenin Blanc from Vouvray in the Loire which has been given the white Burgundy treatment, with fermentation and ageing in oak barrel for 18 months before bottling. This is not a typical Vouvray, but the Champalou family like this style of wine, so they make it. It fulfills much the same function as would a white Burgundy, or any high quality white with barrel fermentation and ageing characters, but the Chenin grape imparts its own personality, giving hints of fresh ginger and honey in harmony with the spice of the oak.

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2011 - £22.50 down to £17.99 if you buy two at Majestic
I am a big fan of Pinot Noir for Christmas dinner: the vibrant red fruit rubs along with rather than fights with the multiple flavours on the plate and there is just a hint of tannin, but good acidity to refresh the palate and cut through the richness. 

This one is from Martinborough, New Zealand, which produces the kind of exuberant fruit we associate with the New World, but with a powerful underlying structure and food-friendly savouriness.

Château Musar 2005 - £19.99 at Majestic, (and £20 at The Wine Society, though their Christmas ordering deadline has now passed)
This is for those who like to live by the mantra: claret for Christmas – but with a twist. Young red Bordeaux is I feel too tannic and structured to meld with the wide variety of flavours (including sweet) that are involved in Christmas dinner. However, mature ones are more mellow and harmonious and this is an example of that mature style, but not from Bordeaux. A really good Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva with some maturity would also do a grand job.

The Musar is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan grown in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Unusually it is not released until a full seven years after harvest, having been fermented and matured in cement tank and then French oak barrels, before spending more time back in tank before a final rest of four years in bottle. It has a combination of high-toned pungency and mellow spiced fruit with hints of leaves and leather that will appeal to fans of mature wine.

Stanton & Killeen Classic 12 year old Muscat - £15.60 (for a half bottle) from Caves de Pyrène
What, I hear you cry, are we to drink with Christmas pudding (or Christmas cake, or mince pies)? I have tried many different accompaniments over the years and there are in fact a good many vinous matches for these dried fruit and spice-heavy concoctions. A rich, sweet, old Oloroso would be wonderful; ditto a 20-year old tawny Port, Malmsey (or Malvasia) Madeira, a solera-aged Maury or Banyuls. A less obvious, but successful, choice is Moscatel de Valencia, whose distinct orange peel flavour marries with the dried fruit and candied peel of the pudding or cake.

However, Rutherglen muscat from Australia is the closest you can get to Christmas pudding in liquid form, with its intensely sweet yet tangy flavours of dates, treacle, caramel, nuts – it’s one of those wines in which you find something new with every sip.

Boxing Day
Les Hauts de Bergelle 2011, Saint Mont - £7.99 at Majestic, down to £6.99 if you buy two
You may never have heard of the region of Saint Mont, which is an area between Bordeaux and the Pyrenees, tucked in next to Gascony. You are unlikely to have heard of the grape varieties involved here either (Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac), let alone tasted them before. These disadvantages are more than made up for by the fact that this is made by one of France’s very best co-operatives and that the grape varieties, while rare, make wonderfully characterful wines. An intense grapefruity tang, allied to hints of apple and quince and a subtle whisp of honey make for a punchy wine that would pep up Boxing Day cold meat and pickles.

Bellingham The Bernard Series Roussanne 2013 - £10.99, down to £7.99 at Sainsbury’s
Roussanne hails originally from the Rhône valley, but it has been on its travels and appears here in a South African incarnation. This is another weighty, characterful wine with a rich mixture of stone fruit, pear, citrus and herbs and a hint of damp wool. Quite a full-on style, but refreshing. 

Next time – the party’s over: hangover advice for the compulsively convivial.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Things that go pop in the night

Even those of us who eschew sparkling wines at any other time of year suddenly feel the need to pop the cork on a bottle of fizz come Christmas time. The sound is emblematic of celebration and instantly puts people in a party mood.

As well as marking Christmas and New Year celebrations, fizz comes in handy for lightening the mood in many ways. Don’t grimace when yet another Christmas card from a distant acquaintance containing a nauseating and boastful round robin update on their triumphant achievements in 2013 drops onto the hall carpet – crack open a bottle of fizz and settle down to read it with a smile on your face.

This year a group of some of my oldest friends has agreed that we will write our own round robins – but they must contain no achievements and focus instead on minor disappointments (goodness knows plenty of those stack up by the end of the year). So no mentions of Lulu’s Grade 5 flute success or once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable holidays in far flung places. Instead it will feature things like broadband speeds remaining stubbornly sluggish, failed vegetable growing attempts and the new stair carpet still giving off a huge amount of fluff despite being down for months now. I can see I’m going to take to this round robin of misery like a duck to water. And I’m going to enjoy composing mine all the more with a glass of something sparkling by my side.

Here are some sparkling wines on which I would be happy to pop the cork this festive season:


 From almost complete obscurity in this country 20 years ago, Prosecco has now almost become the default sparkling wine for any occasion.  The Prosecco grape’s naturally high acidity is traditionally mitigated with some sweetness in the wine, so the most common style we see here is labelled “Extra Dry” which, counter-intuitively, actually means off-dry.  Properly dry versions will have “Brut” on the label.  Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Prosecco Conegliano Brut is usually £9.99, but has been reduced to £7.49, and if you act quickly to take advantage of their 25% off 6 bottles promotion running until 10 December, you can snap it up for just £5.62. Or you can give it large with a magnum for just £10.49. It has plenty of fresh, ripe pear aromas and fine bubbles and is perfectly nice for a pre-lunch glass or evening aperitif, if not particularly refined.  Caves de Pyrène’s Prosecco Bellenda Brut 2012 has more elegance, but then it will set you back £14.76.

Pink fizz
Rosé wines have been the only growth category in UK wine consumption in recent years. This, along with our unquenchable thirst for fizz, has made the pink sparkling wine category a success story. The upside is that there is more choice than ever before – the predictable downside, that quality is not always what it should be.

I’ve yet to find a rosé Cava that I could recommend and pink Prosecco seems disappointing - more material for my round robin there. For a good value party pink fizz I’d plump for The Society’s Saumur Rosé Brut NV (£9.95 from The Wine Society). Made by the venerable house of Gratien & Meyer from Cabernet Franc with a little of the un-prepossessingly named Grolleau, it has a delightful fruity freshness. Light enough to drink on its own, it would also be happy to keep company with that Christmas staple, smoked salmon.

Other sparkling wines
As you are no doubt heartily fed up of hearing, any sparkling wine made anywhere than the designated Champagne region in northern France cannot legally use that name. However, France is awash with other sparkling wines, many made in the same way, though perhaps not with the special magic of Champagne itself.

I have particularly enjoyed Champalou Vouvray Brut NV (£15.97 from Caves de Pyrène or £14.50 from Great Western Wine) recently. The Champalous make their sparkling wine from Vouvray’s Chenin Blanc grape and, unusually, let the second fermentation in bottle use nothing but the residual sugar in the base wine to create the fizz – usually sugar is added along with the yeast.  The result is a wine that has a delicious light, floral character as well as Chenin’s appley fruit, and a gentler mousse. It is refined yet quaffable – which can be a dangerous combination.


There are so many Champagnes out there and many of you will have houses that you favour. If you are open to some suggestions, though, I can heartily recommend Sainsbury’s own label Blanc de Noirs Brut NV. I snapped up a few bottles of this food-friendly, savoury Champers made from the black-skinned varieties Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, earlier this year when it was on offer. In the meantime, it has managed to bag itself a Gold medal at this year’s International Wine Challenge. There’s nothing like having your own good opinion of something confirmed by others for making you feel even more well-disposed towards it. Even better, this bottle is currently available at Sainsbury’s for a frankly ridiculous £12.75 a bottle, as part of their buy 6 bottles and save 25% promotion until 10 December. If you’re not squeamish about putting a supermarket label fizz on the table (and I’m not) then get thyselves to Sainsbury’s pronto.

Waitrose’s Champagne Brut Special Reserve Vintage 2004 (reduced to £25.99 from £30.99 from now until January) is a Pinot Noir dominated blend (60%), with the rest Chardonnay. It has lovely maturing flavours of bread, toast and spice along with baked apple.  The long ageing (3 years on the lees, then further in bottle before release) has given it a fine mousse that makes it particularly suitable for food.

These supermarket labels are far better value than the “never heard of them before” Champagnes that supermarkets offer at “half price” at this time of year. I’d always rather see a tried and trusted supermarket name on the label. Here endeth the lesson. 

Friday, 22 November 2013

Everything you think you know about wine is wrong

Back in the mists of time, I remember being taught that all wine-producing grapevines (Vitis vinifera) are grafted onto American rootstocks, to protect them against the splendidly named Phylloxera vastatrix.  Phylloxera is a louse with a complex life-cycle which includes feeding off the roots of vines.  The damaged roots allow in other diseases which can lead to the death of the plant.

Phylloxera is native to North America and arrived in Europe in the second half of the 19th century.  Over the following decades vine disease and death became endemic across Europe’s vineyards, causing concern, bordering on panic, that winemaking could be wiped out by an unknown enemy.  Once the culprit had been identified the search for a solution began.

The answer lay back in North America, where native vines such as Vitis rupestris had evolved in the presence of Phylloxera and had developed a thick enough “skin” on their roots to resist the attentions of the pest.  All was not plain sailing, though, as these native American vines differed from European varieties, producing wines with what we politely call “foxy” flavours.

The eventual solution was to develop hybrids of these natives and to use only their rootstocks, allowing growers to graft their familiar Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay and indeed any Vitis Vinifera variety onto them.

Without the sturdier, hybrid rootstocks based on the native American vines, I gathered, not a single vine of the European Vitis vinifera would be left standing.

Grand tastings of ancient and rare wines sometimes trumpet “pre-phylloxera” vintages of claret, Port or Madeira – providing a fleeting glimpse of wine as it used to taste before the technique of grafting changed it forever.  For most of us, it’s a taste we can experience only vicariously by reading tasting notes of the lucky few who have tried them.

But then I began to come across to exceptions to the American rootstocks model, such as the ungrafted vines found in Colares, Portugal.  There, the incredibly sandy soil is a barrier that the Phylloxera louse has never been able to cross, avoiding the need to graft the vines onto protective rootstocks.  Bollinger Champagne also famously has its tiny walled vineyards of ungrafted vines in Äy, producing its “Vieilles Vignes Françaises” cuvée.  There are also vineyards in Chile where ungrafted vines flourish, because natural barriers (the Pacific Ocean, the Andes, snow and ice to the south and arid desert to the north) as well as strict quarantine on imported vine stocks have kept the country Phylloxera-free.

Once you start looking, it seems, there are ungrafted Vitis vinifera vines almost everywhere, from Australia and Argentina to China and Crete.
Henry Marionnet's Touraine winery
Recently in Touraine in the Loire Valley, I was intrigued to discover a producer, Henry Marionnet, who has 6 hectares of ungrafted vines, including Sauvignon Blanc and Gamay, as part of his 62 hectare Domaine de la Charmoise estate.  M Marionnet is not blind to the risks he is taking and is fully aware that Phylloxera is as prevalent in his vineyard as it is anywhere else.  Currently, however, the fungal-based diseases eutypa and esca are more pressing concerns for winemakers in the Loire, where they are currently responsible for vine dieback and death on a worrying scale.  While Henry Marionnet has no plans to increase the proportion of ungrafted vines on his estate, thus far disaster has not struck and he has succeeded in making delicious wines from his ungrafted vines, sold under the label Viniféra.
Henry Marionnet
While I have grown used to stumbling across ungrafted vines at almost every turn nowadays, it is unusual for a winemaker to make a wine purely from such vines. My inner wine geek rejoiced as I was treated to a tasting of two wines – made from the same variety and from the same vineyard and vinified in exactly the same way, but one from ungrafted Sauvignon Blanc and  the other grafted onto a rootstock in the usual way.  While the grafted wine made perfectly textbook Touraine Sauvignon, with plenty of herbal, blackcurrant leaf flavours, the ungrafted wine was a revelation.  It had greater intensity, more pronounced fruit and with a broader range of flavours – a more substantial wine in every way.
Marionnet Sauvignon Blanc Viniféra
The same experiment with M Marrionet’s Touraine Gamay provided a different illustration of the role of rootstocks.  The ungrafted wine had more structure, but also more elegance and delicacy than the grafted one.
Marionnet's Cot from ungrafted vines
Henry Marionnet’s Viniféra wines are not widely available in the UK, but you can find his Gamay Viniféra at Caves de Pyrène of Guildford for £15.97 a bottle or at Exel Wines for £90.09 for six bottles.  His Provignage, made from ungrafted vines of the very rare Romorantin grape is available through The Wine Society for £42 a bottle.
Provignage, made from Romorantin grapes
Heny Marionnet’s wines were a fine illustration that the world of wine is not static and will always contain more complexity and contradictions that you will ever find in a text book.  The wine world, as with real life as a whole, is often messier and more interesting than the theory.  Those working at the margins are often the people who propel the world of wine forward into other, more interesting places, enriching it for us all.  Even if sometimes they make us despair of ever being certain of anything ever again.

Maybe not everything you think you know about wine is wrong – but it seems there is always something new to learn.  Sadly, I hear we are now supposed to refer to Dactulosphaira vitifoliae instead of good old Phylloxera vastatrix.  Is nothing sacred?

Monday, 11 November 2013

How do you hedge that?

No, I have not taken up answering horticultural queries.  This was a question posed by a merchant banker recently when I explained the risks involved in making great dessert wines such as Sauternes.

Wine growers in Sauternes, Tokaji in Hungary, Bonnezeaux and Vouvray in the Loire Valley, or indeed anywhere where the sweet wines depend on the development of botrytis cinerea (or noble rot) in order to attain their signature intensity and complexity, have an anxious time of it each harvest time.  Ideal conditions for noble rot combine morning mist with warm, sunny afternoons in the weeks leading up to harvest.

Filaments of botrytis cinerea fungus pierce thin-skinned grapes, such as Semillon and Chenin Blanc, resulting in loss of moisture from inside the grape, thereby increasing the concentration of sugar and acids, relative to the water content – but the same is true for grapes left to shrivel on the vine.  What makes noble rot so special is that it also leads to chemical changes within the grape which, rather than spoiling the flavour and making it taste mouldy, lead to the development of an array of additional flavours ranging from barley sugar to marmalade.     

In order for the beneficial effects to happen, botrytis cinerea  needs to affect ripe, healthy grapes.  Unripe or damaged grapes will go on instead to develop regular bunch rot, which will only spoil, rather than enhance flavours.  And healthy grapes can also be affected by bunch rot, rather than the noble kind.  While a small percentage of rotten berries in white wine will not affect the flavour (as I witnessed this September in Muscadet), because the grapes are immediately pressed and only the juice is fermented.  Any amount of rot (noble or not) in red wine can spell disaster for the wine, as the entire berry, mouldy skin and all, is required in the fermentation tank and the resulting wine is at risk of developing off-flavours and being undrinkable.

Almost as bad as the wrong kind of rot, is no noble rot.  Winemakers cannot legislate for noble rot and are subject to the weather delivering the goods at the right time in the ripening cycle.  If it doesn’t arrive in the vines, producers can make a late harvest dessert wine, or demi-sec style wine, but these will never have the complexity and age-worthiness of nobly rotten wines.

So, the right kind of rot pitches up at the right time, now you need to pick the grapes – sometimes individual bunches, sometimes individual berries affected by rot are picked.  Either way, several pickings or “tries” are needed to gather the grapes, adding to the expense of the process.

Since the grapes will have lost a great deal of moisture, yields will be incredibly low.  Whereas a grape vine might produce a single bottle of good quality dry wine (or perhaps 2-3 bottles of mass market wine), it will produce just a single glass of highly concentrated dessert wine. 

Finally, the winemaking is hardly a doddle.  Imagine trying to extract juice from a raisin and you begin to see the difficulty in pressing nobly rotten grapes.  The small amount of resulting juice is so high in sugar that fermentation is slow and can stop readily – a problem known as stuck fermentation.

Given all the trouble that goes into making them (if they can be made at all), these wines are really woefully underpriced and underappreciated.  It’s a wonder anyone carries on doing it – how do you hedge that indeed?  Perhaps the only logical answer is, "By having already made a fortune as a merchant banker."

When everything goes right – some recommended wines where botrytis plays a part:

The FMC Chenin Blanc 2011 - £24.50 from Great Western Wine, also available via independent merchants
This is not a dessert wine, but late harvesting of the grapes and inclusion of some botrytised Chenin Blanc berries makes for a rich, complex, off-dry style of wine.  Fermented using natural yeasts in new French oak barrels and left on the lees for 12 months, this has flavours of apple, quince, a hint of honey and hay that begins with a rich hit of ripe fruit, but finishes clean with piercing acidity.

Château Climens
2013 is unlikely to go down as a great vintage for red Bordeaux wines, but their loss could be Sauternes’ gain.  The warm and humid weather which arrived in late September provided ideal conditions for the rapid spread of botrytis, inimical to red wine quality and forcing many growers to pick red grapes earlier than they would have liked.  But it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good and makers of sweet wines in the region were treated to an early and rapid spread of noble rot among their vines.  2013 could be a Sauternes vintage to watch out for when it arrives on the market in a couple of years’ time.

If money were no object Château d’Yquem would be my everyday Sauternes.  However, back in the real world, my favourite Sauternes is Château Climens – technically it’s from Barsac, the region adjoining Sauternes, but growers there are entitled to use the better known name of Sauternes.  Owner Bérénice Lurton manages to produce wines that are intensely sweet, yet beautifully drinkable, with elegant, smoky complexity.  While you wait for the 2013 to arrive, you can pick up a half bottle of the 2010 for around £70.

Château de Fesles Bonnezeaux 2010

Fesles is one of the most highly regarded producers in Bonnezeaux,  in the Anjou region of the Loire.  Early morning mist rising from the Layon river in late summer can create the ideal conditions for the development of noble rot, as it did here in 2010.  This is lusciously sweet with huge concentration and a feeling of stoniness as well as flavours of stone fruit.  It will age beautifully.  This vintage seems to be hard to find in the UK, but other botrytis vintages can be found, including the 1999, £26.96 for a 50cl bottle from Vintner’s Selection.  About half the grapes were affected by botrytis, the rest were late harvest, shrivelled berries.  It has a heady nose of honey, toast and quince, with luscious baked fruit on the palate.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Smells like Halloween spirit

My inner grumpy old woman would like to deplore the unstoppable tsunami of trick or treating that has journeyed across the Atlantic from the US to engulf this country in the last ten years.  When I were a lass, Hallowe’en (yeah, we even had an old-fashioned apostrophe in it to show how uncool it was) was the most underwhelming event of the year.

Having watched how it should be done on a classic Charlie Brown cartoon episode – Charlie and friends dress up, go trick or treating and score massive bags of sweets – my sister and I would try and dress up spookily, which involved draping ourselves in as many scarves as we could lay our hands on, there being no such thing as actual Halloween costumes available to buy.  I remember us bursting into the living room one Halloween, looking like bag ladies and trying out our best witchy noises, yet struggling to get our parents to drag their attention away from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.  If we were lucky there might be apple bobbing – a couple of apples in a washing-up bowl of water – unless there weren’t any apples, in which case our Halloween fun was limited to watching the telly in our spooky rags.  Wooh hooh!  Crazy days.

Now my children expect a pumpkin to carve, proper dressing up and a host of willing victims of trick or treating as a minimum, as if it’s always been that way.  How little they know.

So what do I do on Halloween now?  Sit in front of the telly ignoring any unexpected knocks at the door of course.  Oh not really, I’m not that bitter.  I lay in some funsize Mars bars and sit in front of the telly. 

Some people, I understand, even go so far as to have Halloween parties nowadays.  If you are hosting, or just attending one, it might be fun to have a bottle of wine that gives a subtle nod to the spooky season.  Here, for what they’re worth, are my thoughts.

Jackson Estate Grey Ghost Sauvignon Blanc 2010/11 - £17.23 from, £18 from Ocado, £93 for a case of six from Tesco Wine by the case
Red wine more easily chimes with ideas of blood and vampires, but white wine drinkers can join in too with this very classy glass from New Zealand.  “It’s Marlborough Sauvignon, Jim, but not as we know it.” as James T Kirk might have said if he tasted it.  Wild yeast fermentation (less fun than it sounds) in French oak barrels and seven months of lees stirring have resulted in a multi-layered, textured wine that is big on gunflint and even gunpowder aromas, followed by intense passionfruit and starfruit flavours on the palate.

The Grey Ghost in question is the gum tree which has long grown near the family house on Jackson Estate, whose loose strips of bark make spooky noises when the wind blows, leading impressionable children to believe it was home to a ghost.

If you are a real Sauvignon Blanc aficionado (or just a complete show off) then you will want to have a taste of Didier Dagueneau’s Pouilly Fumé “Pur Sang” (pure blood), which will set you back something over £60 a bottle from Hedonism wines and other high end wine suppliers.  Despite bearing his name, Didier Dagueneau himself died five years ago in a microlight flying accident.  He was a one-man revolution, choosing to make Sauvignon Blanc wines in a unique style, unconcerned for the good opinion of others and apparently certain of the rightness of his cause – and the of the high price of his wines.  If you have the cash to splash then you can judge for yourself.   

Domaine du Cros “Lo Sang del Pais” Marcillac 2012 - £7.95 from The Wine Society, £11.49 from Les Caves de Pyrène
“Lo Sang del Pais” means the blood of the country in the local Occitan dialect.  Marcillac is a small, generally unheard of region in Southwest France, not far from Cahors.  The grape here is little known outside the southwest and its low profile is not helped by being known by a variety of pseudonyms even within it – in Marcillac they call it Mansois, in nearby Gaillac it is Braucol, elsewhere it is known as Fer Servadou (or just Fer) or sometimes Pinenc.  Whatever the name, this grape makes lightish bodied, forest fruity wines with a hint of pencil lead to them.  I think of them as great wine bar wines which offer great refreshment, so just the thing for savoury nibbles.

In the same, ahem, vein, you could look out for Gemtree Vineyards “Bloodstone” Shiraz, McLaren Vale - £11 from Hailsham Cellars or £13.50 from  Or Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras Cuvée Fleureto 2010 - £19.95 from Berry Bros & Rudd.

Waitrose Romanian Pinot Noir 2012 - £6.99
If you are on the prowl for a Halloween-tinged party bottle, then look no further than this Pinot Noir, from the land of Count Dracula himself.  Pinot purists might baulk at the suggestion of off-dryness and soft, ripe fruit – but those who have more important things to worry about will happily glug this all night.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Who says wine-making isn't a sport?

While they may not be literally running round the vineyards, vignerons in Muscadet at the far western end of the Loire Valley are currently racing to gather as much of their grape crop as they can, before rot renders it unusable.

Cool, damp weather early in September, followed by hot, humid days created ideal conditions for rot to gallop through the vineyards.  Now winemakers are trying to harvest what they can, gambling on ripe enough, healthy enough grapes to make decent Muscadet in 2013.  Who would be a wine-maker?

Melon de Bourgogne grapes - with some rotten berries

Around the time that I started taking an interest in wine, by which I mean, when I stopped buying it based on the number of millilitres per pound sterling and actually sought out wines that I thought would taste nice, Muscadet was hugely fashionable.  I remember how impossibly sophisticated I felt ordering a bottle of Muscadet to accompany a family meal of moules marinières in a Paris bistro circa 1986.
Pierre-Jean Sauvion of Château du Cléray
Since then, the problems have piled up for Muscadet.  Never an expensive style of wine, it has the misfortune to be competing at the same price point as a huge variety of wines from all corners of the world – a crowded market.  Additionally, from the 1990s onwards, UK consumers tended to prefer full-flavoured and, generally, red wines instead of light, fresh whites.  This trend has reversed in recent years, with UK drinkers turning away from red wine – but both red and white wine consumption have fallen, leaving rosé as the only wine style growing in popularity.
Vine's eye view of a mechanical harvester
Muscadet faces many challenges, with wine consumption in France at an all-time low and its biggest export market, the UK, also following a downward trend.  Despite being one of the most recognizable names in wine, typical French adherence to bureaucratic norms means that, even in its own region, the name is strangely absent.  Driving through the vineyards this September, I saw signs proudly proclaiming that we were driving through the “vignoble du Pays Nantais” or even “Val de Loire” – but of Muscadet, nary a word.  Muscadet is technically the name of the wine, not the region, nor the grape variety, so the signs are perfectly correct.  But such subtleties are lost on all but the most anorakish of wine geeks.  Would it hurt to let tourists know they are in Muscadet country?
This is what your glass of Muscadet starts out as - freshly pressed juice
The grape in question is the Melon de Bourgogne which, as its name suggests, originated in Burgundy and was introduced to the (here we go) Pays Nantais region in the 17th century by monks, who can always be relied on to trail alcoholic drinks in their wake.  Melon was subsequently banned from Burgundy, but became wildly popular in the western Loire.  Despite a decline in plantings, even today Melon de Bourgogne still accounts for over a third of all white grapes grown across the whole Loire valley – more than Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, which dominate white plantings from Anjou eastwards.   It is the fourth most planted variety in all of France, just ahead of Semillon. 

In summary, despite the challenges, a lot of Muscadet is made and much of it ends up here.
Lees in a barrel - there isn't normally a light in there

The heartland of production is the Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, where the vast majority of vines grow.  All Muscadet producers also have the option to label their wines as “sur lie”:  such wines are aged on the fine lees (dead yeast cells) until at least 1st March of the year following harvest.  Melon is a pretty neutral variety, so exposure to the lees imparts additional flavour and texture to the wine, as well as giving it a characteristic “spritz” of carbon dioxide.
Working quickly in the vineyard
Time will tell whether rot or the winemakers have won the grape harvest race this year, but in the meantime, here are some Muscadets from earlier vintages that I’ve enjoyed recently:

Château du Cléray Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur lie 2012 - £9.99, currently £8.99 if you buy two bottles at Majestic
 The Sauvion family bought this estate in 1935, moving from the business of selling pigs to making wine.  Pierre-Jean is the third generation of Sauvions  to take charge of wine-making here. His experience making wine elsewhere in France and the world has helped give him a clear focus on what he is trying to achieve with his own vineyards.   2012 was a tricky year for Muscadet, but Pierre has managed to make a pretty textbook version, combining light body and a subtle range of citrus and apple flavours with sufficient concentration and length to make it a satisfying drink. 

Muscadet is generally treated as a DYA (drink youngest available) wine, but I had the chance to taste the 1997 Château du Cléray, which was full of life, with dry mineral richness and still eminently drinkable.  Also look out for their Carte d’Or bottling at independent merchants and on restaurant wine lists.

Champteloup 2012 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine 2012 - £6.99 from Waitrose
Champteloup shares a common owner with Château du Cléray (Grands Chais de France, most widely known for its JP Chenet brand) and winemaker in Pierre-Jean Sauvion, but the terroir is different and thus the style of wine.  This one is not labelled “sur lie”, though it does spend time on the lees, just not long enough to meet the legal requirements.  Glad that’s all clear as mud.  Back to the wine, it has more defined citrus notes, even a feel of citrus pith about it, as well as a hint of stone fruit.  Perhaps not as authentic a Muscadet as Pierre’s Ch du Cléray, but a refreshing and good value wine nevertheless.

Pierre Luneau-Papin Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine 2012, “Clos des Allées” - £12.49 from Caves de Pyrène, £11.25 from AG wines

This one certainly wins the prize for longest wine name.  Here is another Muscadet which knocks the stereotype of a wine that should be drunk as young as possible.  Low yields from old vines make for a wine that is tight, steely and mineral, with a tangy saltiness.

Friday, 27 September 2013

"season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" may live up to its name

I can still see the 1970s TV advert in my mind’s eye:  dew spotted apples being harvested while the voiceover intoned “Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.  The advert was promoting the “exceedingly good cakes” of Mr Kipling, so my adolescent brain made a connection between the line of verse and writer, poet and patriot Rudyard Kipling.  Did I also think he made cakes in his spare time?

Of course you all knew that the poem is by Keats, the opening line of his ode “To Autumn” and makes no mention of apple slices, fondant fancies or any other favourite of the cake magnate.

This year Autumn may live up to Keats’ breathless description as we are experiencing what naturalists call a “mast year”, where trees and other plants produce a bumper crop of fruit and seeds.  What exactly causes a mast year is not fully understood, but I can certainly vouch for the utterly ridiculous amount of acorns being deposited by the oak trees in our back garden; and I have already made a batch of bramble jelly and look forward to a good few blackberry and apple crumbles before the season is out.  Why, even our useless Egremont russet and pathetic pear have produced a crop this year.  Clearly something is afoot out in nature.

If you spent any time in this country in the summers of 2012 and 2011, you will appreciate that winemakers in England and Wales had a thin time of it in the past couple of years.  Cool, damp, grey summers do not make for large crops of healthy grapes.  Indeed last year Nyetimber, one of the foremost makers of English sparkling wine, decided to give up on a bad job and made no wine at all in 2012.  Growers desperately need a good year:  with the abundance of Mother Nature apparent all around us, will they get one?
Healthy, ripening grapes this week
Signs are good, so far.  Growers are reporting a potentially large harvest of healthy, ripe grapes.  Nick Wenman of Albury Organic Vineyard was able to show me Seyval Blanc, Pinots Noir and Meunier and Chardonnay all looking healthy and plentiful this week.  At the other end of the country, Bob Lindo of Camel Valley in Cornwall, one of the country’s largest commercial vineyards, reports a large crop of clean healthy grapes.  Sybilla Tindale of High Clandon Estate confirmed that her vineyard is full of healthy fat bunches of grapes.  All looks set for success.
Nick Wenman of Albury Organic Vineyard
Yet, at latitudes this far north, grapes are nowhere near fully ripe now.  We really need more warmth and sun in order to ripen the grapes and turn a potential harvest into vats of fermenting must in the winery.  Grape harvests here are likely to be towards the end of October – despite that lovely summer weather, which allowed the grapes to catch up a week or so after the setbacks of the long, cold spring and early summer, ripening is still 1-2 weeks behind schedule.  So now, as Sybilla Tindale says, the challenge will be to ripen those bunches.
"Bougies" - heaters ready in the vineyard just in case

Here are some wines to enjoy, while we wait:

Theale Vineyard Blanc de Blancs 2007 – made by Laithwaite’s, sadly not commercially available
I know, what a wind up – sorry! However, in case you should come across a bottle of this or another vintage, let nothing come between it and you.  This is a classy glass of fizz in anyone’s book.  Made from 100% Chardonnay and with plenty of textbook bottle aged character:  the nose is pure McVitie’s Digestive biscuit, with a hint of strawberry shortcake.  This leads onto a many-layered palate of appley fruit, fine and complex.   If someone gave me this and told me it was vintage Champagne, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

And what of Nick Wenman’s Albury Organic Vineyard?  The first commercial release of the estate’s sparkling wine is planned in time for Christmas 2014, so we have a while to wait to taste the fruits of his labour.  However, there should be (barring disaster in the next couple of weeks) some of his still wine, Silent Pool Rosé 2013 available from May 2014.  The entire vineyard is run organically, but Nick is also hoping to be able to produce a small proportion of biodynamic still rosé, an experiment that I would love to taste the results of.

High Clandon Queen’s Jubliee Cuvée 2008 - £29 from
If you are big on sourcing locally then the sparkling wine from  this tiny property with just an acre of vines on a site facing north (and with fantastic views towards London), will be just up your street.  Owners Bruce and Sybilla Tindale are originally from South Africa and seemingly thought nothing of planting a vineyard in their grounds.  Their vineyard may be tiny but they’ve done things properly, studying wine-making at Plumpton College – and getting award-winning English winemaker Sam Linter (of Bolney Estate in Sussex) to make their wine.

The wine is a blend of the traditional three varieties used in Champagne:  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  The 2008, their first commercial release, spent nearly four years on the lees (ie ageing in the cellar post-fermentation), which is a key quality element for any traditional method sparkling wine.  The north-east facing site ensures marked citrus acidity in the wine, along with great length and persistence of flavour.

Sybilla is not a fan of the moniker “English sparkling wine” and favours Quintessence as a more evocative term which could be used instead.  Attempts have been made in the past to get winemakers to unite around names like Britagne (a non-starter if you ask me), but now that the Duchess of Cornwall herself has derided the term “English sparkling wine”, perhaps the time is ripe to make a change.

If you would like to suggest a new, more snappy name for English sparkling wine, please get in touch with me,  It could be the start of something big.

In the meantime, it’s fingers crossed for fine, warm and dry weather for the next few weeks, so that in due course we can taste the sweet rewards of our mast year.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Vive la différence!

How does rhubarb and mint grab you?  No, not as something to drink, but something to wash your dishes with.

At a time when globalisation and international mega brands are making foreign places feel ever less foreign, it’s comforting to know that, just a short hop across the Channel, some things are still refreshingly different.  Viz, France’s fondness for whacky washing up liquid flavours and a big trend this year:  metallic brown cars. 

And for a country which has something of a reputation for being stuck in a rut when it comes to wine, there has been a mass invasion of French supermarkets by “boissons aromatisées à base de vin” – wine-based drinks with flavourings.

This was not a trend that I could ignore, so I sacrificed my tastebuds in the name of research and plumped for a bottle of Very Pamp’ – a rosé wine combined with pink grapefruit flavour (pamplemousse being the French for grapefruit, hence the name).  The bottle advised me to serve it very cold – but, dear reader, I don’t think I could ever make this stuff cold enough to be palatable.  The smell was fairly pleasant, with a nice fresh and zesty pink grapefruit whiff.  The palate was incredibly sweet, like drinking sugar syrup, with a more generic fruitiness and then a kick of alcohol to round off the experience (it’s 10% alcohol).  The biggest added ingredient after wine is clearly sugar.

I thought that rosé and pink grapefruit was a relatively safe choice – there are plenty of more scary concoctions on offer:  lemon sounds OK, but what about mandarin, white peach, wild strawberry and cranberry, raspberry?  Especially when you know that those flavours are coming not from the fruits in question, but in the form of flavourings – accompanied by lashings of sugar.  Add to that brand names like “Sucette” (lollipop) and it all adds up to a sickly combination that would surely fall foul of UK licensing laws which forbid branding which might appeal to minors.

I sincerely hope this wine trend doesn’t cross the Channel, but at least I have provided an early warning, so you can be prepared and make suitable preparations for avoidance.

Thankfully, there are still some things that you can count on France to deliver – and wine is, of course top of my list.  This summer I had the chance to re-visit one of my favourite areas, the Loire Valley.

The Loire as a region is hard to pin down.  Unlike the classic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, it doesn’t  produce a single, predominating style of white or red wine, based on a single grape variety or consistent blend.  This is hardly surprising given the geographical and climatic differences that intervene on the river’s journey from the vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, almost bang in the centre of the country, to the intensely maritime Muscadet area around Nantes, with many a twist and turn in between.  Across the entire region, every conceivable style of wine is made, from bone dry whites, to off-dry rosés and sappy, juicy reds, via sparkling  wines of every hue and taking in luscious, lip-smacking and long-lived dessert wines.  Grape varieties are many and yes, varied, including the all-conquering Sauvignon Blanc, the underrated and mighty Chenin Blanc and the Melon de Bourgogne of Muscadet for whites.  Reds can be made from, amongst others,  the high-quality Cabernet Franc  grape (which also fills in on rosé duty) or sometimes Gamay or even Cot (aka Malbec).

Here in Britain we have developed an increasing fondness for fizz in recent years, with the chief beneficiaries Italy’s light, fruity Prosecco and Spain’s “Champagne-lite” style Cava – in addition to Champagne itself.  The Loire has been making good quality sparkling wines for many years and they offer an alternative with something of the fruitiness of Prosecco, but more depth of flavour and without the cloying sweetness; and more finesse than many a Cava.

The UK’s three most-readily available Loire sparkling wine makers also happen to have (or have had) links to Champagne houses, whose expertise at making fine quality fizz must surely have a role in their success.   Central to the style of these wines is the use of the region’s Chenin Blanc grape, which has naturally high acidity, even when ripe, making for sparklers which retain their zip and freshness, even when combined with baked apple fruit.  The wines are made using what we are obliged to call traditional method (which then requires further explanation to specify that this is the same method used to make Champagne), instead of the more readily understandable “méthode Champenoise”. 

Gratien & Meyer – The Wine Society has a long-standing relationship with this producer, producers of The Society’s Saumur Brut (£9.50 a bottle).  Majestic also list the (surely overwhelmingly similar) Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut NV for £13.49, down to £11.99 if you buy two.

Langlois-Château – Champagne Bollinger is the more famous Champagne name in the background at this high quality producer.  Around £11-13 from independent merchants.

Bouvet-Ladubay – once owned by Taittinger, this family-run house makes an elegant fizz which is available currently from Majestic at £8.99 a bottle.

If you get the chance to venture to the Loire in person, some of the most characterful, high-quality and good value sparkling wines will be made by small family producers, especially in areas like Vouvray, which specialises in sparkling wine production.  Often these artisan wines are either difficult or impossible to find here – but it’s always worth checking out independent merchants, who can deal with the smaller producers.

So, of all the things that could possibly make the leap across the Channel, here’s my verdict:  wine-based drinks – no; brown cars – hmm; grower-produced sparkling Vouvray – yes please.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

How to taste wine

How to taste wine

When you picture someone tasting wine, what comes to mind?  A wine professional, perhaps, working their way through a line up of wines, noisily slurping and then spitting out each wine?

That’s one way of tasting, for sure, but it is only one way.  We all taste things all the time, every day – from our morning cereal and cup of tea to the Friday night take-away curry.  Probably what we don’t do, most of the time, is pay attention to what we’re tasting.  By being alert to the smells and tastes we experience, we can train ourselves to become better tasters and to appreciate differences that we hadn’t noticed before.  We can’t all become experts - but we can all get better.  Read on for my step by step guide.

We taste with our eyes – think about how much you look forward to eating something in a restaurant that’s been attractively presented.  Looking at a wine will give you the first clues as to what the wine tastes like.

Look at the colour and intensity of the wine in the glass.  White wines get deeper in colour as they age, so a white wine that is pale is likely to be younger.  Older wines, especially concentrated dessert wines, are usually more golden, even amber in colour.

Red wines, by contrast, become lighter in colour as they mature.  The youngest red wines will generally be purplish in colour, moving to ruby, then garnet with age.  Venerable old wines continue on to brick-red or mahogany as they mature gracefully.

Smelling a wine is, arguably, the most important part of tasting.  Our noses are incredibly sensitive to a wide range of smells and aromas.

Swirl the wine in your glass, then have a couple of good sniffs.  Assuming the first impression is pleasant and the wine is not faulty, you can start thinking about what it actually smells of.  This is something that some people find easier than others – but practice is really the key to improving.

Most wines will have some kind of fruity smell – citrus and apple are common for white wines; red or black fruit for red.  In addition, there is a whole array of other kinds of aroma that you might find – something spicy, like vanilla perhaps, is common in wines that have been oaked.  The sauvignon blanc grape is often notable for its gooseberry aromas – which some people might find redolent of cat’s pee instead, or even sweaty onion.

And here’s the point – one person’s cat’s pee is another person’s gooseberry.  Tasting is, in the end, personal.  If you can smell sweet corn in a wine, then let no man (or woman) say you can’t.

OK, down to business – actually taste the wine.  Take a sip, move it around your mouth, then swallow.  Spitting is definitely needed if you will be tasting quite a few wines, to keep your critical faculties tuned, if nothing else.  However, sometimes, it’s best not to – guests at a dinner party might think it a bit odd – so judge what’s appropriate for the occasion.

There are essentially two elements to think about when tasting – the structure of the wine and its flavours.  Structure relates to the elements that give the wine its overall shape – namely dryness (or sweetness), acidity, body or weight, tannin (for red wines only) and length.

Most wines we drink in this country are broadly dry.  You can sense sweetness on the tip of your tongue.  Acidity is more of a sensation than a taste – it gives the wine freshness and zip and leads to a mouthwatering sensation.  As you move the wine around your mouth, think about the sense of weight of the wine – most reds are fuller-bodied than white and have a more mouth-filling sensation.  Tannins are the substances in red wines that can be unpleasantly drying, reminiscent of stewed tea.  In the right quantities, however, they give the wine some pleasant “grip” and a counterpoint to the fruit.  Length – how long the flavour of the wine lasts after you have swallowed it – is a good indicator of quality for a wine.

The flavours of a wine usually relate – and should relate – to the characters that you detected on the nose.  Think about the types of fruit or other characters you can sense.

Also think about:  does the wine change if you leave it in the glass for a while?  Has it got more or less interesting?  How intense are the aromas and flavours? Whether this is like other wines you have tasted?

Once you start actively tasting wine, you’ll soon be able to develop your own internal library of wine flavours, opening up a new world of wine to explore.

Here is a pair of current favourites.  Have a taste and see if you agree with my version:

Louis Latour Grand Ardèche 2011- around £10.99 from Milford Wine Centre, Tanner’s and Davy’s Wine Merchants
Maison Louis Latour is a name more usually associated with Burgundy, but here they have turned their skilful hands to getting the very best from Chardonnay grown in the more lowly region of the Ardèche.  8-10 months ageing in oak barrels has given this a subtle toasty note on the nose, as well as a nice mealy savouriness on the palate.  There is also appealingly fresh and ripe citrus and pear fruit.

Beaumont Bot River Mourvèdre 2009 - £18 from The Wine Society

Mourvèdre is a classic grape of Provence and southern France and widely grown, as Monastrell, in Spain – clearly it’s a warm climate variety, with a reputation for being happiest with a view of the sea.  The unattractively-named Bot River is in the region of Walker Bay in South Africa, renowned for its cool climate – but clearly not too cool as this is wonderfully ripe and dense with a pure dark blueberry flavour, and freshening acidity.    

Feel the fear and do it anyway - everything you need to know about ordering wine in restaurants

You've arrived at the restaurant, pleasantly peckish and looking forward to poring over the menu.  The food sounds good, you're feeling relaxed - then you realise you're going to have to choose something from the wine list.
Do you:
a)  Order a bottle of Pinot Grigio/Rioja (they always have some and it's a safe choice)
b)  Order the second least expensive wine on the list so as not to look too cheap?
c)  In a panic order something way too expensive because you think that's what's expected?

There are other options!
First of all - take your time, don't panic, even if faced with a phone directory of a wine list.  Take as much time over the wine choice as over the food if you want to - if the restaurant has taken the time to amass a huge list then they must expect you to spend a while looking through it.
If there is a wine waiter/sommelier, they should be happy to make a recommendation - but if you feel they're pushing you towards a wine that's too pricey, just let them know and ask them if there's a less expensive option.  They are there to make the food and wine look good, not make the diners feel uncomfortable. 
In many restaurants there is no sommelier and your waiter/waitress may have little or no wine knowledge   Here are some pointers to help you out.

  • In general, if the food is from a particular country or region, then choose wines from the same place - Spanish with tapas, Italian with pasta.  Indian restaurants pose a challenge here:  my limited experience of Indian wines would lead me to say, avoid.
  • If the restaurant is at all decent then their house wines should be good - these are the wines they've chosen as the best all-rounders to go with their menus.
  • The big names which are wine list stalwarts – Sancerre, Châteauneuf-du-Pape etc – will probably be there, but will often also be over-priced.  Sommeliers and restaurant wine buyers pride themselves on searching out interesting wines at reasonable prices.  So an unknown wine region or grape could be worth a punt.
  • You don’t have to depart from your normal tastes in wine - if you like Chilean wine, don't feel you "should" be having something else and order claret or white Burgundy.  Going out for a meal is supposed to be fun and the wine should be no different.
  • If you're still really stuck, many places will do wines by the glass, which could provide an easy way out and prevent an expensive mistake. 

"Would you like to try the wine?" 

The waiter brings the bottle you've ordered and asks if you'd like to try it.  
 Do you:
a)  Say "I'm sure it's fine, just pour it please."
b)  Say "Yes", but with no real idea of what to do then.
c)  Say "No, my wife/husband/friend/partner/anyone but me will taste it" (I’m quite familiar with this one)

What should you really do?  What is the waiter expecting of you?  Read on...
Usually the waiter shows you the bottle (unopened) for you to confirm that they've brought the one you ordered.  Do check that it is (if you can remember) as, once it's opened it's too late.  By the way, if they have brought the wrong wine already opened, then you can and should send it back.
One of my pet peeves is a lack of vintage information on wine lists – this is especially important for wines that you should drink young, or for those fine wines from classic regions where varying weather conditions lead to vintage variation.  Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is one of the former, so I would expect the current vintage of 2012 to appear on lists, with 2013s soon to arrive.  If they don’t print a year on the list, I would always ask – and remember to check that it matches the year on the bottle when it arrives.
The waiter will pour a small amount of wine into your glass.  Your job is to assess that the wine is not faulty - you're not really being asked whether you like it or not. 
Firstly, swirl the glass a little and take a sniff.   If there’s something wrong, our noses will pick it up.  Does it smell pleasant?  If not, then there may be something wrong.  Musty, damp cardboard or mouldy aromas may mean the wine is corked.  Taste the wine and see if it tastes OK.  If you still think there's something wrong, tell the waiter you're not sure about it.  Don't be afraid - they want you to enjoy the meal and any bottles of faulty wine will be sent back to their supplier - it won't cost them anything.
If the wine smells and tastes fine, your work is done.  Now you can relax and enjoy the meal! 

Top tip:  little bits of cork floating in a wine do not mean it's corked - there are just...little bits of cork floating in it.