Friday, 25 April 2014

Malbec - do you come from a land downunder?

It may have escaped your notice, but last Thursday 17th April was Malbec World Day. Why Malbec World Day and not World Malbec Day, I know not. Admittedly I have not turned the British Library upside down in my quest for the truth, nevertheless I haven’t found the answer, so the eccentric word order remains a mystery.

I say Malbec. You say? Argentina I’d wager.

Argentine Malbec has become a successful and succinct partnership in our minds. Usually reasonably priced, often generously fruited and with, it must be said, a fair whack of alcohol, this is a wine style that was always going to find a large following in the UK.

Malbec, as a variety, has a much longer history than our fondness for its South American incarnation. It originates back in France, around the town of Cahors in the Southwest of the country. Back in its native land the variety is most often known as Cot. Cahors is its homeland, but it can also be found as far north as the Loire Valley and downriver from Cahors in Bordeaux. The fact that one of the names the Bordelais gave the grape was Malbec (or sometimes Malbeck) gives us a clue that it was from here that it first made its way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Apparently we can be confident that a certain Michel Pouget first brought Malbec vines to Argentina in 1868. It was clearly a raging success and is now the most widely planted quality wine grape in the country. Argentina is a big producer of wine, perhaps bigger than we imagine, sitting at number 5 in terms of global production behind France, Italy, Spain and the USA. Much of what they produce is consumed by their own thirsty local market, with the US the most important export market.

A few Malbec vines have made it across the Andes to Chile, but it remains mostly an Argentine speciality.

Altitude is all important in Argentina – the weather at lower levels is far too warm to produce good quality wine, so vineyards are generally tucked up into the foothills of the Andes, primarily in the province of Mendoza. In fact, looking at a map, it looks like a mere hop, skip and jump from Mendoza to Santiago in Chile – albeit there is a 6,000m Andean mountain ridge between the two.

The other distinguishing feature of Argentine viticulture is dependence on irrigation – the air in those high altitude (often over 1,000m) sites is clear and dry, with the city of Mendoza itself averaging just 200mm annual rainfall, which is getting on for desert conditions. This means low incidence of problems like rot and easy ripening of grapes, but also means a need to find water from somewhere in order for the vines to survive.   

The immigrants who came to Argentina in the early days, many from Italy and Spain, brought with them their taste for wine; apart from the Welsh, who brought tearooms, crocheted teacosies and Welsh cakes to their enclave in Patagonia.

Recommended Malbec (and Cot)


Trapiche Pure Malbec - £8.99 from the Co-operative
Pure as in unoaked, this intensely coloured wine is so dense it actually feels thick. Plenty of dark chocolate and black cherry flavours to keep fans of big boned wines happy. If the weather is barbecue-friendly, this wine’s smoky, punchy flavours would be just the ticket.

Bodega Colomé proudly trumpet wines made from the highest altitude vines in Argentina (and possibly the world) from their vineyards in Salta, far north of Mendoza. Their Colomé Estate Malbec is £17.49 in Waitrose and combines full-bodied fruit (and 14.5% alcohol) with altitude-driven freshness in a beguiling way. Their Amalaya red blend is predominantly Malbec, plus some Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tannat and gives a taste of the same style at a more consumer-friendly price of £10.99 (£9.99 if you buy 2) at Majestic. The price is due to rise to £11.99 from 29th April, so it would be worth your while to sniff some out sooner rather than later if you can.

The name Susanna Balbo is synonymous with quality, so if you see it, give the wine a punt. Majestic again have Ben Marco Malbec from her Dominio del Plata winery for £15.99 (down to £12.99 when you buy 2). She is also the winemaker behind The Society’s Argentine Malbec (£7.25 a bottle from The Wine Society).

Nicolas Catena was a pioneer of high altitude winemaking in Argentina and his Malbecs are ever-reliable. His Catena Alta label is top of the quality tree but will set you back getting on for £30 a bottle. More readily available is the straight Catena Malbec:  £13.99 or £9.99 if you buy two at Majestic, or £12.99 from Waitrose.


Back where it all started, Malbec, or Cot, from Cahors typically has more tannin and acid structure and a more savoury character than the Argentine version. Basic Cahors can be a rather underwhelming experience, but ambitious producers are doing their best to build (or perhaps rebuild) a reputation for quality with concentrated and ageworthy wines.

The wines of two of the best producers, Clos Triguedina (£20.49) and Château du Cèdre Cahors (£17.99), are available at Guildford’s own Caves de Pyrène and other independent merchants. Clos Triguedina is also available through The Wine Society for £16 a bottle.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Lamb and chocolate anyone?

This Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the days in the run up to Easter and with it the end of Lent. Some of you, no doubt, have been giving up something for Lent and are probably eagerly looking forward to gorging yourselves on whatever the forbidden fruit has been. I don’t seem to have the constitution for depriving myself of things I enjoy, so I haven’t joined in with any Lenten fasting – but I am ready and prepared to participate in the Easter feasting with gusto.

Lamb is a popular choice for Easter Sunday and the good news (for us, rather than for the lambs) is that it is a very wine-friendly meat.

If you’re eating the first of the spring lamb, such delicate and tender meat would go best with a lighter red such as a Pinot Noir or Gamay, or even a full-flavoured rosé such as a Spanish rosada.

I prefer the flavour of older lamb; and last year’s lambs, now known as hogget, may require more cooking, but offer more meaty flavour too. A trip to Rioja in May a couple of years ago provided more than ample evidence for the affinity of the region’s red wines with lamb. Having eaten more of the tasty little beasts in a few days there than I would normally do in months, I got the message: Rioja and lamb make a good match.

The other prime constituent of most of our Easters is of course chocolate. Wine and chocolate is not a natural combination you might think - and you’re probably right.  Chocolate is quite a challenge for any alcoholic drink, with its dense, rich sweetness, its sheer “sticks around in your mouth for ages”-ness.  Mostly I’d probably go for a cup of tea, or coffee, if I’m eating some chocolate.  But in the interests of research I have been looking around for wines that might just work.

Which leads me to the first issue – chocolate is such a broad term.  There’s a world of difference between your Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and your 70% cocoa solids plain chocolate; what might go with an airy, creamy milk chocolate mousse is probably not going to suit a dark chocolate roulade with raspberry coulis.  Chocolate itself has different characters – and, to add to the complexity, we love to use it in all manner of puddings, sweets, biscuits and to combine it with cream, nuts, fruit – you name it.

So chocolate and wine combinations have more to them than meets the eye.  Here are some suggestions, based on the type of chocolate you’re dealing with.

White chocolate
White chocolate is hardly chocolate in some ways, as it contains no cocoa mass, just cocoa butter, vanilla and masses of sugar of course.  This makes it the lightest and sweetest type of chocolate which needs a light and sweet wine to match.

A fun option would be a Moscato d’Asti, from Piedmont in Italy.  It’s lightly sparkling, light in alcohol (only 5-6%) and definitely sweet.  Treat it as a guilty pleasure – it might be uncool, but its sweet, grapey, pear-tinged bubbles are a delight with white chocolate puddings (as well as fruit salads, incidentally).  The Wine Society lists Elio Perrone Moscato d’Asti 2013 at £7.50.  A less refined version is wine labelled “Asti” rather than “Moscato d’Asti” which you can pick up for between £5 and £10 more widely.

Milk chocolate and light chocolate puddings
If you’re planning on helping the children finish their supply of milk chocolate eggs, then you could do worse than try a glass of tawny port to go with it.

All port starts out life as a deep-coloured red wine, whose fermentation is stopped by the addition of grape spirit, leaving a fortified, naturally sweet wine as a result.  Ruby port, the regular stuff, is aged for a short time in barrel, then bottled while it is still deepest ruby and full of brambly fruit. 

The tawny version of port has a lighter, yes tawny, colour, brought about by long term ageing in barrel.  As the wine loses its deep colour, it takes on a more mellow, nutty character, making it a remarkably versatile drink, one that can stand up to milk chocolate and lighter chocolate puddings.

Look for an aged tawny, at least 10 years old:  the older the wine, the more mellow and complex it will be.  A good introduction to the style is Warre’s Otima 10 year old Tawny Port, around £13.50 for 50cl at Tesco, Waitrose and elsewhere.

An interesting twist on the tawny port style is Mavrodaphne of Patras; Kourtaki’s version is fairly widely available for at around £5-6. It’s made in the same way as port, but from the splendidly-named Mavrodaphne grape, native to Greece.  It has also been aged in casks, giving it that hallmark caramel flavour with a hint of spice.

Another option is Nuy Red Muskadel (£8.95 a bottle from The Wine Society), a fresh yet very sweet fortified dessert wine from South Africa, with the emphasis on red fruit with a hint of rose petal.

Dark chocolate and rich, dark chocolate puddings
These can be some of the most difficult things to pair with wine, because of their full-on flavours and richness.  You might come across some surprising matches, however.

You could echo the richness and slight bitterness of the food with a wine with similar traits.  Ruby port could work here, as could wines from Maury or Banyuls in the Southwest of France: another form of sweet, fortified red wine made in a similar way to port – who knew there were so many of these things around? – the young versions of these wines combine a bitter chocolate character with a trace of black fruit.  If this sounds like the pudding you’re eating, then give a Maury or Banyuls a go.  Waitrose have an own label Seriously Plummy Maury at £10.99 for a half bottle.

In all these matches I’m obeying the food and wine matching premise that the wine should be sweeter than the food that you’re eating.  Though I’m generally not a fan of rules when it comes to choosing wines, I do find wines that are less sweet than what I’m eating end up tasting overly dry and lacking in fruit.

However, it’s horses for courses (as the frozen lasagne manufacturer said to the food inspector) and people who baulk at the idea of any sweet wine might prefer to have a dry red with chocolate.  Again, it makes sense to look for wines which have plenty of ripe, dark fruit with a hint of chocolate flavour – full-on Zinfandels from California, for example.  I would also recommend an Amarone from Italy:  these wines are made from partly dried grapes, which give a full-bodied wine with masses of dark, ripe black cherry fruit and an edge of bitter chocolate.  Not a cheap option (£20 and up), but Phil Jones of The Vineyard in Dorking is a fan of the style and should be able to point you in the right direction.

If all that sounds a little overwhelming, remember it’s hard to beat the great British cuppa with anything sweet.