Friday, 28 February 2014

Spring is here - or is it?

Pity the poor wine writer. As I pen this column, the weather is looking fairly Spring-like. I can hear birds tweeting (“our” Greater Spotted Woodpecker was heard for the first time this year a couple of days ago), the snowdrops and hellebores are in full swing and the buds of the first daffodils are swelling. Skies may be grey but the rain, thankfully, has let up and the sun, when it appears, has a growing warmth to it.

However, what the weather will be doing by the time you read this is anyone’s guess.  Spring may have well and truly sprung and we could be seeing signs of incipient Summer to come; or the battering of Atlantic storms may have returned; or we may have been given a dose of the proper Winter weather that failed to arrive at the usual time – or indeed anything in between.

Pity me, then, having to make suitable wine recommendations for this time of year. I know, in all our preoccupation with flooding , storm damage and potential loss of life, no-one (quite rightly, before you get a lynch mob together) stops to think of the impact on wine writers – even ones with their tongues firmly in their cheeks.

So when is Spring, officially? In calendar terms, the year is divided into the four seasons, each lasting three months, with Spring spanning the beginning of March to the end of May. This is solid enough logic, though I cannot remember when we last had a Summer that lasted from the beginning of June until the end of August.

The Spring Equinox, on or around 21st March, is the point at which we reach equal amounts of daylight and night-time in a 24-hour period, so there is a case for making this the official first day of Spring. Ecologists apparently add in a couple of extra seasons to cover those in-between times of the year which are neither one thing nor t’other, referring to the “prevernal” period following the “hibernal” (winter) and preceding the “vernal” (Spring). We must be getting at least prevernal by now I feel.

No matter what the weather is doing, the days are getting noticeably longer and nature is getting on with the business of springing back into life after the cold and wet (OK mostly wet) Winter. Ergo, it is, I reckon, Spring. Sort of.

Springtime-ish drinking recommendations

Peter Yealands Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013 – usually £9.99, but currently on offer at Sainsbury’s (until 4th March) at £7.49
It can jar a little to see a 2013 label, when we’ve only just said goodbye to that year in this hemisphere. Downunder, of course, they’re ahead of us in wine terms and are now thinking about getting ready for the 2014 harvest.

This Sauvignon Blanc is made by gifted young winemaker (and fellow glases wearer) Tamra Washington, whose wines for Yealands Estate have garnered many an award recently and show a restraint that is unusual in Marlborough. This wine manages to combine the typical vibrancy of Kiwi Sauvignon with the fine acidity and class of Loire versions. Aromas of elderflower and tropical fruit pave the way for a crisp palate with juicy acidity and mouthfilling fruit, with an edge of blackcurrant leaf. In short, all the verdant freshness of Spring in a glass, even if Spring itself has gone AWOL.

I remember being looked at askance by a French sommelier when I and my fellow diners asked for a bottle of rosé to accompany our lunch. It was early March, the sun was out and the temperature had hit 18⁰C – bingo! Rosé time, we thought. Except, we were in Provence, where, as far as they were concerned, this was still woolly jumper and warming red wine weather; the sommelier advised us that they had not yet taken delivery of any rosé that year, so we tugged our metaphorical forelocks  and ordered a bottle of Vacqueyras. The shame!

However, in this country, days like that are rare enough to warrant being greeted with open arms and a glass of the pink stuff, so you should ensure you have some suitable rosé squirreled away.

M de Minuty Côtes de Provence Rosé – currently £10.99 if you buy 2 bottles at Majestic (usually £14.99) for the 2012. Taurus Wines of Bramley will be getting their consignment of 2013 in soon, which will have more freshness  - and Surrey Advertiser readers can benefit from a special reader offer of £10.99
I have a soft spot for the pale negligée pink rosés of Provence, whose gentle colours and herb-tinged flavours are so redolent of summer days.  M de Minuty is one of the most consistently enjoyable Provence pinks that I’ve tried over the years and has a loyal following in this country – and it comes in one of those curvy “Bardot” bottles.  

Torres Viña Sol – widely available at around £7
The sun in the name and on the label make this eminently suitable for this time of year, when we yearn for the sun to brighten and warm the days. This venerable wine was made for the first time back in 1963 (when it was labelled “Spanish Chablis”; those were the days) by the then young gun Miguel A Torres. Viña Sol was intended to bring modern winemaking to Spain and was made then, as now, without oak, the Grenache Blanc and Parellada grapes fermented at low temperature to preserve freshness and fruit. Crisp Granny Smith apple flavours combine with the weight and white pepper of the Grenache to make a delicious lunchtime wine (especially as it’s just 11.5% alcohol).

Friday, 14 February 2014

Sweep them off their feet - but do your homework first

I claim there ain’t
Another Saint
As great as Valentine. 
-          Ogden Nash

Here we are on that day of the year about which I have mixed feelings:  Valentine’s Day, when we are all supposed to toe the love line and demonstrate our devotion to our loved one. Now who am I to pooh-pooh the notion of a day given over to romance? But the idea that millions, nay billions, of us should all feel the lurve, to order, on 14th February every year induces a certain sullen bolshiness in me.

Romance is dead – it was acquired in a hostile takeover by Hallmark and Disney, homogenized and sold off piece by piece.
-          Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons

And have you seen the Valentine-themed merchandising?

At a local convenience store I spied such treasures as fake sparkly single red roses (sensible, can be re-used), red heart bunting to adorn your love nest (bit OTT and actually a bit scary) and, bafflingly, packs of twenty heart-shaped napkins. Twenty napkins? I didn’t realise Valentine’s Day was a group activity. Have I missed something? Are we supposed to throw Valentine’s parties nowadays, or are they designed for mopping up extravagant food and drink spillages without breaking the romantic spell by having to make a grab for the kitchen roll?

If you have made no particular preparations for your night of romance please do not pick up a card, flowers and a bottle of rosé from the garage on the way home. Nothing says “meh” like forecourt flowers and petrol stations are not renowned for their classy wine choices. Better to go home empty-handed than to bring home gifts that scream zero effort.

Better still is to spend a couple of minutes at your desk researching your options before setting off for home. The best shortcut to celebration is Champagne (I would say that wouldn’t I), though at this late stage you are not in a position to go chasing after a particular grower’s exclusive cuvée. However, there is equally no need to grab a bottle of anything that sports the name Champagne from a gondola end in the nearest supermarket.

May I respectfully point you towards a site called Bring a Bottle (, which provides useful information on where to pick up most of the Champagne grandes marques at the best price from major retailers. My eye was drawn to Bollinger Special Cuvée Rosé NV at £36.99 from Waitrose (hint, hint). One of the things I particularly like about the Bring a Bottle site is that it includes a handy graphic, illustrating price movements over previous weeks for your chosen Champagne – so you can tell whether the best price on offer really is a good deal, or whether you are just getting the going rate. “My” Bollinger Rosé has been pretty consistently available at an average of just under £39, so I’m happy that the Waitrose offer is worth taking up, albeit not a tremendous bargain either.

Other Champagne brands have far more volatile pricing – Veuve Clicquot NV, for example, which frequently varies from between £27 to £35 a bottle. If this is your Champagne of choice, you’d be well advised to wait until the price dips below £30 before buying. The Bring a Bottle site allows you set up an email alert which will advise you when a particular wine drops below its current lowest available price.

If you have more time available to winkle out your chosen bottle then a virtual trip to  allows you to search across a wider range of suppliers, including many independent merchants who also mostly now offer online ordering. This is often the best way to find the keenest price for any particular wine that you are after.

Pink fizz seems to be de rigueur for Valentine’s Day and it will no doubt not have escaped your notice that you have to shell out more for the rosé version of a house’s Champagne. Viz, Bollinger Special Cuvée is currently £32 at Asda, £32.49 at Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, compared to the lowest price for the rosé of £36.99. It would be a churlish valentine who would turn their nose and Champagne flute up at “merely” the Bollinger Special Cuvée, surely.

If you really want to show that you know your stuff, THE pink fizz of the Champagne cognoscenti is the delicate, understated and food-friendly Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé – though at around £50 a bottle currently it is not a bargain. Another favourite is Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé (prices range from £44 to a frankly ridiculous £58), which has more overt red fruit and can be happily sipped on its own.

Do chocolates and Champagne mix? In any objective way, of course not. Champagne lacks the body and sweetness (even the sweeter, demi-sec styles) to stand up to the mouth coating sweetness and richness of chocolate. Putting them together is flattering neither to the Champagne nor the chocolates. If you want a wine to match with a box of chocs, then a rich old Oloroso sherry would be a far better choice. But there is undoubtedly something decadent and endearingly batty about showering your loved one in luxury items, whether they should ever be consumed together or not.

And a final piece of advice if you’re thinking of buying something for your female Valentine to wear, remember that, in the words of Dorothy Parker, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

What have the French got down the back of their sofas?

We are told that it’s a good idea to rootle around in our soft furnishings, with some sources estimating that between us we have around £40 million tucked away in loose change between the cushions of our sofas in Britain.

The French, too, are harbouring some hidden gems in their chaises longues. Vinous gems I mean; little-known, often rare grape varieties that can enrich the life of wine drinkers the world over.

France has famously given us grape varieties which have earned the soubriquet “classic” and which have gone on to conquer the world (the wine world at any rate). Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot – these are wines A listers, names that are instantly recognizable and which are grown the length and breadth of the wine producing world.

But France amounts to much more than these wine superstars. If you have a virtual rummage down the back of France’s vinous sofa, all sorts of surprises result: varieties you’ve never heard of, even some that were thought to be extinct.

How does this happen? As Kirsty and Phil would tell you: location, location, location. Many of France’s smaller wine-growing regions are in rural, sparsely populated, isolated areas, far from anything that might resemble the beaten track. In “la France profonde” such as this local customs – and very local grape varieties – can persist where elsewhere progress, development and fashion have swept them away in favour of more recognizable varieties.

Here I invite you to embark on a virtual tour of some of France’s hidden gems that are worth winkling out.

Domaine Bruno Lupin, Roussette de Savoie, Frangy 2012 - £12 Caves de Pyrène

 Savoie is France’s only true mountain vineyard and the surprise is not only that it harbours its own unique varieties, but that this snowy, alpine environment is capable of producing wine at all. Roussette is the local name for the variety Altesse and if you’ve been to Savoie to ski then you might have downed a glass of this to accompany your fondue.

The vast majority of Savoie’s wines, most made from the unremarkable Jacquère grape, are consumed locally, much of it by thirsty skiers; as wine writer Andrew Jefford put it, the region benefits from “buoyant and undiscerning local demand”.

Roussette/Altesse seems to originate in Savoie itself and makes mountain air fresh wines with a herbal flavour and rather soft, pear-y fruit.

Château d’Anglès La Clape Classique 2010 - £12.49 Hawkshead Wines, £13 The Cheese and Wine Co (Hampton)
This wine highlights a white variety that is normally found in the role of second fiddle elsewhere in France. Bourboulenc, for it is he (she?), is one of the 13 varieties permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and is grown widely across much of southern France. Only here, in La Clape, however, is it the focus of the white wines.

La Clape is a former island which now forms a limestone massif between Narbonne and the Mediterranean. Legend has it that when it was still an island off the coast of the Roman city of Narbo, Julius Caesar gave Roman legionaries permission to plant the first grapes here.

Whatever the historical truth, La Clape today is a viticultural one-off, its limestone blinding in the strong southern sun, the vines and olive trees that manage to grow in its stony soils blasted by winds. Benign it is not.

And yet this is where Bourboulenc reaches its true potential as a variety. At Château d’Anglès, the situation is also helped by having Eric Fabre as its owner – a man who had previously spent 8 years as the winemaker at a certain Château Lafite Rothschild.

This Classique cuvée, a blend of 50% Bourboulenc with 30% Grenache blanc and a dash each of Roussanne and Marsanne, is made without the use of oak and really showcases the variety’s innate ability to produce wines with as much texture as flavour, combining fennel, a hint of honey and a mineral stoniness.

Domaine du Cros Marcillac “Lo Sang del Païs” 2012 - £7.95 The Wine Society

Marcillac really is in the middle of nowhere – technically it is in the Aveyron, north of Rodez, but middle of nowhere about covers it.

The grape that locals here know as Mansois changes its name in other parts of France’s southwest variously to Braucol, Fer or Fer Servadou and finally Pinenc. You don’t need to know all this to enjoy this delightful little wine though. Its bright, slightly twiggy fruit is a perfect foil to a bit of bread and pâté – and could even be chilled in the summer.

Domaine d’Alzipratu Cuvée Pumonte, Corse Calvi 2011 - £18 The Wine Society

Corsica’s history of being ruled by both Pisa and Genoa before becoming part of France has resulted in an intermingling of French and Italian influences, and this is reflected in its wines.

Nielluciu (the Corsicans seem to be fond of adding a “u” to an obviously Italian word to make it more “Corsican”) is widely grown on the island – but is in fact none other than the classic Tuscan variety, Sangiovese. Here it appears in a supporting role to a variety that can be claimed as one of Corsica’s own: Sciacarella.

Sciacarella, meaning crunch in Corsican dialect, does in fact originate in Tuscany as well, but is all but extinct there. This wine has dark, brooding fruit aplenty with a wild, herbal streak and a structure that demands food.

La Magendia de Laypeyre, Jurançon 2009 - £19.75 Caves de Pyrène

Where better to finish our tour than with a most delicious dessert wine, made on steeply sloping vineyards tucked into the foothills of the Pyrenees.

The variety here is Petit Manseng, whose thick skins permit it to remain on the vine long into Autumn (sometimes even into Winter) without being affected by rot. The grapes shrivel in a process known as “passerillage” and are then fermented and aged in oak. The result is an intense experience combining the flavours of honey, quince, mandarin and grapefruit marmalade, shot through with piercing acidity that gives it a characteristic clean finish. Try it with a tangy blue cheese and die happy.