Thursday, 13 October 2016

Bordeaux rising

Bordeaux is a gargantuan wine region, its annual production of 5.5 million hectolitres accounting for over a quarter of France’s total. It is home to some of the most famous, prestigious and highly-valued wines in the world – but these wines account for less than 5% of the total.

What of the other 95%? A good deal of it is rather thin, weedy red wine that is made and sold cheaply. In between these two extremes, however, are winemakers struggling to make a living by making the best wine they can from their vines, in the face of prices that are pegged back by those lowest common denominator wines. The stratospheric, to merely high, prices of the top wines may feel geographically close, yet they are out of reach for these producers.

Could white wine be a brighter future for Bordeaux’s “squeezed middle”? It might at least be part of it. While a dampish, maritime climate like Bordeaux’s can struggle to ripen red grapes each year, it poses less of a problem for faster ripening white varieties.

So, Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre and even white Burgundy fans, pin back thy lugs, as what follows could be of interest to you.

Bordeaux’s whites are predominantly based on Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes with a little of that under-rated but quality variety, Semillon too. The part of Bordeaux known as Entre-Deux-Mers (literally “between two seas” though the seas in question are actually the Garonne and Dordogne rivers) nowadays produces rather too much so-so red wine, which accounts for much of the everyday Bordeaux  and Bordeaux Superieur that we see on supermarket shelves. But it is also still home to some white grapes, predominantly Sauvignon Blanc.

West of there, south of Bordeaux, the Graves area has long been famous for both its red and white wines. Since 1987, the northern part of Graves was sliced off to be known as Pessac-Léognan, which is now home to Bordeaux’s most prestigious dry white wines.

Calvet Réserve Sauvignon Blanc 2015 - £8.99 at Waitrose (down to £6.74 until 11 October)
This wine, along with Dourthe No 1 (£8.50 from The Wine Society), makes a great case for Bordeaux’s ability to make fresh, zippy and appealing – but not green or underripe – Sauvignon Blanc at a sensible price. Both these négociant winemakers will choose parcels of wine from across the region to contribute to their blend, in order to get the flavour profile they want. These light styles are perfect on their own or are made for lighter seafood dishes like mussels, oysters, simply served crab and delicate fish dishes. See also Marks & Spencer’s own Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (£8.50), sourced from Entre-Deux-Mers. It is understated enough not to fight with whatever’s on your plate, but delivers spritzy, lemon zest fruit and a nicely textured palate.

Laithwaite’s Sauvignon Blanc 2015 - £9.99 from Laithwaites
This wine is made from parcels of vines in the Entre-Deux-Mers and has the fresh, citrus flavour of the Calvet, but also a more delicate elderflower aroma and a touch of savoury, leesiness on the palate. This could stand up to more full flavoured dishes like roasted cod or possibly scallops.

Château Bouscaut Blanc 2009, Péssac-Léognan - £31 from The Wine Society

Here’s why the wines of Pessac-Léognan are so valued – they develop beautifully with age and deliver rich complexity combining lime acidity combined with toast and hay. This is a blend of 55% Sauvignon Blanc and 45% Semillon that has been fermented aged in oak barrels, contributing texture and an extra flavour dimension to the wine. As well as rich seafood dishes like shrimp and lobster, this would be knockout with Christmas dinner. This one is for you, white Burgundy lovers.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Aperitivo time

Time was, an aperitif meant a hugely expensive gin and tonic served in a fancy restaurant while you perused the menu. I’m not one to turn down a G&T, but a broader range of pre-dinner snifters is very welcome.

Of course many of these aperitif drinks have a long and distinguished history and what we are experiencing is actually a re-discovery. But the expansion of bar and cocktail culture is also driving new uses for them to whet the appetites of a new generation of drinkers.

Vermouth is probably the most famous style of specialist aperitif and it is great for drinking alone, over ice, but also adds depth and interest to cocktails.  

The process to make it sounds straightforward enough: various botanicals are steeped in grape spirit for a period of time and then mixed with wine and caramel to give the required level of sweetness to balance the dryness of the wine and the bitterness of the herbs. In order to qualify as vermouth, one of the botanicals must be wormwood, or Artemisia absinthium. The Latin name gives you a clue that this is the same herb used to flavour Absinthe, rocket fuel of the Parisian demi monde, the wormwood giving it its hallmark green tinge.  

The German for wormwood, Wermut, gives us vermouth in English. Vermouths tend to be around 14-20% alcohol, roughly the same as sherry and port.   

The birthplace of vermouth is Italy and its second home is France. The big names, Cinzano and Martini, are both based in Turin, northern Italy and their various incarnations are widely available. Noilly Prat, the classic French vermouth hails from Marseillan, not far from Béziers in southern France. Noilly Prat Original Dry, with its full flavoured, very dry style and hint of herbal bitterness would be my choice for a classic vodka martini. 

If you’ve dipped your toe into the aperitif pool in recent years, it may well have been Aperol that tempted you in. Aperol shares some characteristics with vermouth, but the dominant flavouring is quinine, a bitter tasting substance derived from the bark of the quinquina tree, rather than wormwood. Such drinks are collectively known as quinquinas.  

Aperol originated in Padua in Italy and became popular between the wars. It’s a slightly disconcertingly bright orange colour and has a bitter-sweet flavour profile – think of a less brightly coloured and less intensely  flavoured Campari.  The in vogue way to drink it is as a spritz: 3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda water, over ice with a  slice of orange. As Aperol is only around 11% alcohol to start with, this ends up being a lightish option as an aperitif and has the added virtue of being fizzy, which is what we Brits seem to require in our drinks currently. 

There are no hard and fast rules about the different categories of aperitif and in addition to vermouth and quinquina you might also come across Americano, which is usually grouped with the quinquinas as this ingredient is generally part of the recipe. Another issue which muddies the waters is that these drinks usually involve proprietary blends of herbs and spices and the exact recipes will be jealously guarded.   

Other quinquinas you might encounter include Dubonnet (£9 from Tesco), which was originally developed as a way of making quinine palatable to French foreign legionnaires fighting in malaria-infested parts of Africa.  

The French have a fondness for a range of herbal-infused drinks, including  Suze, which is flavoured with gentian, making for a really bitter drink, and St Raphael, which is red, fruity sweet and only slightly bitter. It’s hard to know if these should be classed as vermouths or quinquinas. You might also come across Dolin from Chambéry on the edge of the French alps, which is possibly a “true” vermouth (£10.49 in Waitrose). 

I wasn’t aware that Spain had also had a part to play in the vermouth story, but have recently been put right. Peruse the aperitif section of a Spanish restaurant – Iberica, for example (branches in London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow) lists six vermouths, all from Spain – and you’ll see what I mean. 

Finally, neither a vermouth, nor a quinquina (or Americano come to that) Pedrino Alcoholic Tonic (£1.90 for a 200ml bottle from Waitrose) is, nevertheless, most definitely an aperitif. It’s a blend of Pedro Ximenez sherry, quinine, citrus and sparkling water that is initially sweet, then tangy, nicely grippy with a  slightly bitter finish.  On its own, it’s a light alcohol 5.5% - combined with gin, it’s a bit more hardcore.  

Salud! Santé! Cin Cin!

Friday, 9 September 2016

Back to work blues? There's a wine for that

The French have a phrase, “la rentrée”, that encompasses not only our own “back to school”, but also the notion of returning to work post Summer holiday.

How, having got back into the workaday routine, can we recapture some of the freewheeling spirit of Summer? Well, in a phrase that I am hoping will catch on, there’s a wine for that.

It’s a well-known phenomenon that the “best wine you’ve ever tasted” amid the azure skies and limpid seas of holiday, will magically turn to dull and ho hum when drunk back in the land of the 9-5 and everyday worries. But here are some wines from holiday destinations, tried and tested in laboratory (well, deepest Surrey) conditions, which can give you a reminder of sunnier days and still work their magic back on home soil.

Barbadillo Solear Manzanilla – on offer at £7.49 a bottle until 20 September at Waitrose
I wrote recently that dry Fino and Manzanilla sherries are one of my favourite summer drinks, so I heartily recommend having a bottle of this in the fridge. Fresh, very dry and with a hint of nuttiness and of ozone-y sea air, this is a wonderful aperitif style. Try it with salted almonds or with gazpacho on a sunny weekend lunch.

Hatzidakis Santorini Assyrtiko - £12.99 from Waitrose
This little piece of Greece from the Island of Santorini is surely the epitome of summer. Assyrtiko is a native Greek variety that reaches its apogee on the arid, volcanic soils of Santorini. Grapefruit acidity combines with a juicy stone fruitiness and a whiff of pumice stone to create a flavourful, refreshing mouthful, with wonderful texture. Anything involving seafood, olive oil and garlic will shine with this.

Cune Barrel Fermented Rioja Blanco 2015 - £10.49 from Waitrose; Tanners have the 2014 for £10.30
We mostly think of Rioja as a red wine-producing region – but a warming, oaky red doesn’t quite strike the sunny note we’re after here. White Rioja is less well known, but it is a great style for easing from Summer to Autumn. The flavours are fresh with yellow/green plum fruit, but also some weight and body, as well as spice from the oak fermentation and ageing. This will stand up well to roast or barbecued chicken.

Whispering Angel 2015 - £15.99 (as part of mixed case of 6 – single bottle £19) from The Wine Reserve, Cobham; £15 (if buying 6 or more – single bottle £16.99) from Taurus Wines, Bramley
Rosé has an almost magical property – it can make any glimpse of sun, no matter how fleeting, feel instantly summery.  Whispering Angel is beautifully pale and delicate, but with lovely, slightly herbal flavour and real persistence. Try it with the last of the summer salads, especially if tomatoes are involved.

Feudo di Santa Tresa Frappato Terre Siciliane IGP 2015  - £9.95 from organic specialists Vintage Roots

A perhaps surprisingly fresh, light and delicate red from Sicily, made from the native Frappato variety. With its light body and cherry fruit yet still food-friendly dryness, it is renowned locally as the perfect red wine for fish, and who am I to disagree? If you get a late summer hot day, it will take well to chilling.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Champagne - more to it than meets the eye

A Champagne house’s Non Vintage blend is their shopfront, accounting for 80% or more of their sales. Its job is to reflect the house style, consistently, year in, year out.

Veuve Clicquot, for example, is known for the high proportion of Pinot Noir in its Brut Non Vintage (the iconic Yellow Label), usually accounting for just over half of the blend, followed by Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Other grande marque Champagnes with a similar emphasis on Pinot Noir include Bollinger Special Cuvée and Lanson Black Label Brut NV.

But if you try these three Champagnes, you’ll find big differences in style between them. Lanson is incredibly fresh, with lasting, lemony acidity. Bollinger, by contrast, is full flavoured, rich and spicy. Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label lies perhaps somewhere between the two, with a mix of fruit and brioche aromas, combined with structure and length on the palate.

There is clearly much more to Champagne house styles that just the blend of grapes involved. Things that also have a key role to play are where in Champagne those grapes come from: Chardonnay from the heart of the chalk-rich Côte des Blancs will usually be much more linear, austere even, than Chardonnay from the more southerly but still chalk-rich area of Montgueux, for example. The amount and age of the reserve wines, wines from previous harvests used to smooth out vintage variations and to preserve house style, are also key considerations. How long the wine ages in the cellar (on its lees) before release is considered an important element for quality. Finally, the winemaking itself puts its stamp on the final wine.

One of the key winemaking decisions is whether to use oak for fermentation and/or ageing. Bollinger, again, is perhaps the most well-known Champagne where the use of oak is key to its rich flavour. Moët et Chandon’s Brut Imperial NV has no oak ageing, in keeping with its fresh, supple style.

Veuve Clicquot’s Yellow Label Brut NV, has, for the past few years, contained a very small proportion (as little as 1-2%) of oaked wines. This development has been driven by their cellar master, Dominique Demarville, who has pioneered the use of oak in Veuve’s vintage Champagnes since his first vintage in 2008. 

Vintage Champagnes, by definition, must only contain wines from a single year of production. Dominique’s thinking was to give Veuve’s Vintage Champagnes some of the spice and complexity that their Non Vintage Champagnes gain from the addition of older reserve wines. The amount of oak used, even in the Vintage, is small – only 5% in the newly released 2008.

Can you tell it’s there? Ultimately, it’s impossible to say, as Veuve Clicquot do not release an oaked and an oaked version of their wines. However, sampling oak aged and tank aged samples of wines from the 2015 vintage, the effect on the individual wines is pronounced, changing not only the flavours of the wine, but also its texture, how it feels in the mouth.

Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2008, the finished article, has aromas of rich, creamy spice and baked apple. It is a full flavoured wine with lovely depth and fruity, savoury notes. The oak aged element obviously contributes to the overall picture, but I would be hard pressed to detect any actual oakiness. I’d be delighted to drink it now, but like all Vintage Champagnes, it is designed to age and develop further depth and complexity over the coming decade or more. The Vintage Rosé 2008 is, if anything, even more delicious, with added depth from the addition of still red Pinot Noir, the traditional way to make rosé Champagne.
So, while Champagne can seem like the most frivolous and easy to enjoy of wines, the work that goes into crafting it is intricate and always evolving. Something to ponder next time you pop the cork on a bottle.

Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label – RRP £38 (but usually on offer somewhere – shop around)
Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2008 – £54.99
Veuve Clicquot Rosé Vintage 2008 – £59.99

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Summer time is sherry time

Have I gone mad? What on earth am I doing writing about Sherry in the summer? Is it not condemned to gather dust on the shelves until December, when you get in a bottle for granny to sip?

But no, for me, sherry is one of THE quintessential summer drinks, especially the light, dry styles – fino and manzanilla. I buy a bottle and stash it in the fridge, waiting for a balmy evening to arrive, then enjoy it in the sun with tapas.

Both fino and manzanilla start out life as a rather ordinary white wine, made from Palomino grapes grown in the chalk-rich albariza soils of Jerez. The magic that transforms them from ho hum to aperitif par excellence comes from fortification by grape spirit and ageing in barrel for three or more years.

Sherry ageing is special for a couple of reasons. Firstly it uses a solera system, so that new wines are added at the metaphorical “top” of the stack of barrels. As new wines are added to these barrels, some of the older wines are moved down the stack to make room. Wine that is ready to be bottled is drawn from barrels at the “bottom” of the stack, which contain a mix of wines with a range of ages. So you can never really say exactly how old a solera-aged sherry is, as it is a blend of all of the wines in the solera, mostly the younger ones, but including tiny amounts of much older wines. This helps to give sherry its consistent character and adds characteristic complexity.

The other oddity of sherry ageing for finos and manzanillas is that they are aged in not quite full barrels where a layer of yeast (or flor) develops on the top, imparting a unique dryness and body to the wine over time.

Both fino and manzanilla are made in this way, but manzanilla is distinguished by being made and aged around the port of Sanlúcar. It is generally the lightest and driest of the finos, with a faint marine tang.

What to drink with fino? The Andalucians have a handy aide-memoire to help: If it swims, serve fino. If it flies, serve amontillado. If it runs, serve oloroso.

I agree that fishy things go wonderfully with the dry tanginess of fino. Spanish-style anchovies (boquerones) and squid have no better drinking partner. But I also crave an ice cold glass of it with a range of tapas – gazpacho, tortilla, olives….I could go on.

En Rama styles of fino have become fashionable recently, and with good reason. These unfined and unfiltered wines (en rama means raw) are like regular fino with the volume turned up. They are the sexier, more flamboyant fino brother. Deeper in colour, they have richer flavours and feel weightier, yet still bone dry. This makes them even more food friendly and you could easily keep sipping this throughout your meal.

What about the fortification? Aren’t these wines are bit high in alcohol to drink in the same way as other wines? Finos are fortified only until they reach around 15%, so they are more alcoholic than most white wines, but not much.

So please, liberate these sherries from the confines of Christmas. They are great food wines, perfect for summer and a brilliant bargain to boot. And please do treat them like wines – keep them in the fridge and, once open, finish within 2-3 days.


Tio Pepe Fino – around £10-11.50, widely available
Gonzalez Byass’ Tio Pepe is probably the best known fino and with good reason. This is textbook stuff with light body, crisp-feeling flavours hinting at apple and bread.

Hennings Wine Merchants have Tio Pepe Fino En Rama at £9.99 for a half bottle.

Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla - £8 from Waitrose
This bottle looks and tastes the part, and has a lovely hint of saltiness giving it extra refreshment value. Incredible value.

Also be sure to check out supermarkets’ own label sherries. They are generally brilliant value, made by some of the most famous names in Jerez. Waitrose’s own label Manzanilla Fina is just £6.99 a bottle and scooped a silver medal in this year’s International Wine Challenge.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Best wines for summer barbecues and parties

It’s always tricky, working out when to recommend wines for hot, summer days, when so often summer itself can be a slippery concept. Nevertheless, the schools have broken up, the Olympics loom: the calendar points to summer, regardless of what the weather might be doing.

Don’t be afraid of the fridge for reds
Refreshment is a key aspect of wines for drinking at any time, but never more so than on a hot day. Don’t be afraid to chill any red wine for a short while (say 30 mins) before serving it. Reds are generally designed to be drunk at rather less than modern room temperature, and much less than the ambient temperature on a warm day, so a quick chill will make it both more refreshing and bring out the more delicate flavours.

Le Monferrine Asti DOCG - £5.50 at Morrison’s
Here’s a guilty pleasure. It’s sweet, it’s fizzy, with a rich grapey flavour that you can serve really chilled to go with picnic-y fruit puddings…or instead of.

Cava Juvé & Camps Selección Reserva 2013 - £11.49 from Waitrose
I’m the first to admit that I’m not a huge Cava fan, but I have a soft spot for this producer, renowned for ageing their Cavas for longer (much longer than the law dictates) on the lees – over 24 months in this case. Apple and citrus fruits combine on the palate, which has lovely freshness.

If refreshment is what you’re after, then two white wine styles readily spring to mind: Chablis and Sauvignon Blanc.

Chablis William Fèvre “La Maladière” 2013 - £13.49 mix six price at Majestic
This is “proper” Chablis. Fresh, light and incisive, but in no way short of flavour. It’s not so much about the lemon and green apple fruit as the texture and feel of the wine. This will quench any thirst.

Dog Point Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2015 - £13.50 from The Wine Society; £15.50 from Winedirect; £19.99 from Laithwaite’s; also available at independent merchants
This Sauvignon Blanc has developed a dedicated fan base – and with good reason. At a comparative tasting of Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs earlier this year, Dog Point stood out as the most classic expression of the style. It has expressive but balanced flavours, with grapefruit and white pepper.

Pure de Mirabeau Côtes de Provence Rosé 2015 - £12.99 from Waitrose
A quintessential Provence rosé, yet it is made by Brit abroad, Stephen Cronk. This is delightfully pale in colour, light and elegant, but with body and flavour. A delight for a sunny evening. Rosés are a great match for all manner of salads, coping admirably with the sharp/oily combination of vinaigrette dressings.

M Signature Champagne Rosé - £20 at Morrison’s
Sometimes you just have to have Champagne and, to capture the spirit of summer, it also has to be pink. You can quickly empty your wallet on rosé Champagne, but here’s one that’s more friendly to those of us who are more flash than cash. Morrison’s own label Champagnes are both good value and classy and this rosé would make a lovely accompaniment to nibbles/smoked salmon and the like.

Waitrose Southern French Grenache 2015 - £6.49 from Waitrose
Hardly an inspiring name for a wine, but this is well suited to a summer barbecue with its ripe, sweet-tasting fruit. I would definitely give this a quick blast in the fridge before cracking it open on a warm evening.

Recchia Bardolino 2015 - £7.99 from Waitrose

Bardolino is a hugely unfashionable style of red wine: pale red colour that is almost rosé and with very light body. Often in the mass produced versions it can also mean sharp acidity and an unappealing weediness. But this, with its pale ruby colour and soft, cherryish fruit is just made for summer picnics. In other words, a perfect summer red.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Taking Le Tour through wines

Looking through my archives I find that almost exactly four years ago to the week I was writing that England had crashed out of the Euros and that it was time to train our beer (or wine) goggles on Wimbledon. Plus ça change, eh? Though we now face an altogether more serious exit from Europe, rather than just a sporting one.

The wine trade was (is?) broadly pro-Remain and there’s no doubt that imported wines will become more expensive in the coming months, thanks to the falling value of the pound against the Euro (that word again) and other currencies.

Is there something more positive to focus on? As I write, Andy Murray has yet to complete his semi-final match, so I can’t know whether Wimbledon has been a case for celebration or disappointment.

But the annual Tour de France still has a while to run and there is actual British success in the form of multiple stage winner Mark Cavendish and the prospect of more from Chris Froome in the overall classification.

So it’s time to drinkalong-a-Tour with my handy guide to some of the main contenders and what to drink while cheering them on:

The Froome Dog - UK
English sparkling wine’s top dog seems a fitting tribute to the two-time Tour winner.
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2009 - £35.95 from, RRP £41 from independent merchants
Beautiful baked apple fruit with a hint of cream and honey – but with fine acidity holding it all together. Truly delicious.

Alejandro Valverde – Spain
I’ll side-step the obvious choice of Rioja and plump instead for something off the beaten track.
Cien y Pico Doble Pasta 2011 - £12.99 from The Wine Reserve (Cobham) and other independents
This is not a wine for the fainthearted. From old bush vines (Cien y Pico, meaning one hundred and something apparently refers to their age) in the almost desert-dry conditions of central Spain comes this intensely coloured and flavoured red. It packs a punch of Intense blueberry fruit with plenty of flavour and structure (and 14.5% alcohol).

Nairo Quintana – Colombia
A more tricky proposition, this. Colombia is known for a few things, but wine is not one of them. The national drink is Aguardiente (from the Latin for fire water- be warned) a blend of sugar cane spirit, anise and water, making it something akin to Pernod or Ouzo.
If you’d rather stick to wine, a compromise on something from the high altitude vineyards of Argentina seems apposite for a master climber like Quintana.
Catena Malbec 2013 - £9.99 mix six price at Majestic
Catena were the pioneers of high altitude wine making in Argentina and their wines are still modern classics.

Warren Barguil, Thibault Pinot (nice name) and Romain Bardet - France
These three riders are the home nation’s best hopes for success. The biggest success story in French wine right now is Provence rosé and you’ll be spoilt for choice on merchants’ shelves.
Mirabeau Côtes de Provence Rosé 2015 – usually £9.99, down to £7.79 until 26 July at Waitrose
This delightful pale pink has delicate fruit flavours and is light yet flavoursome with a slightly savoury finish. And it’s just scooped a Gold Medal at the International Wine Challenge, making it something of a bargain.

Tejay Van Garderen
The man with possibly the silliest name of the Tour hails from the US. And you can’t get more American than Zinfandel.
Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel 2013 £12.99, down to £9.69 until 26 July at Waitrose; £11.50 at The Wine Society
For a grape that is renowned for making big-boned, powerful almost Port-like red wines, this has a surprising delicacy and freshness to it – but don’t worry, it also has plenty of blackberry fruit with a dash of vanilla, as well as 14.5% alcohol.

Now you’re all set. Allez allez allez!