Monday, 28 November 2016

Applause for La Clape

The vast expanse of Languedoc-Roussillon and its swathes of vineyards making a myriad of different wines can be daunting to get to grips with.

At its simplest, IGP Pays d’Oc is the catch all appellation for wines made anywhere across the region, often with varietal labelling. And while I’m pleased Pays d’Oc exists, there are many worthwhile wines to be found by digging deeper into Languedoc and Roussillon.

But there are so many names to remember! Here are just a few wine appellations off the top of my head: Fitou, Minervois, Pic St Loup, Faugères, Saint Chinian, Picpoul de Pinet – there are many, many more. Oh, and you might also come across AOC Languedoc; and IGP Côtes Catalanes functions like IGP Pays d’Oc for Roussillon. In short, the picture is, as always, complicated.

To help decode some of the mystique, here’s a quick guide to one of the appellations responsible for some of the most exciting and characterful wines from the region. It also helps that the name is simple for Anglophones to get their tongues round:  La Clape.

La Clape is a one-time island, which now forms a conspicuous bump of limestone on the coastal plain between the city of Narbonne and the Mediterreanean. The environment is harsh – the salt-laden wind, poor rocky soils and baking sun make it fit really for only for vines and olives.

Wines from here seem to have a unique character, which must be influenced by their singular growing environment. Flavours are ripe, but with a grip and freshness that might surprise you, given their southerly origins.

White
Château Rouquette Cuvée Arpège 2015 - £10.95 from the Wine Society
All white wines from La Clape must include some Bourboulenc – a variety native to the Rhône Valley. It can be rather characterless, but in La Clape it assumes a richness of flavour, while retaining all-important freshness, alongside “grip” – a certain texture that red wines usually have, but white wines tend not to. Here it is blended with Rhône bedfellow Roussanne, and is unoaked, making for vibrant, fresh fruit flavours that refresh and cleanse the palate.

Château d’Anglès Grand Vin Blanc 2012 - £19.80 from Hedonism Wines
Eric Fabre, ex of Château Lafite Rothschild, knows a thing or two about crafting fine wines. His Classique blanc is in the same mould at Ch Rouquette above, but this Grand Vin, a blend of Bourboulenc, Grenache, Roussanne and Marsanne has been fermented and aged in oak, giving a wine of power and complexity. You can also find Château d’Anglès Grand Vin Rouge 2010 at online merchant Vin Cognito for £14.50.

Red
Château Rouquette 2014 - £10.95 from the Wine Society
The red incarnation of Ch Rouquette combines old vine Carignan with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre – hardly an unusual recipe in this part of the world; but the singularity of La Clape gives the wine a saline tang and wonderful texture.



Upcoming wine events in Surrey

I'm involved in a few wine events between now and the end of the year. It would be great to see some readers at one or both.

6 December, 8pm – Wine Discovery evening at Cellar Magneval, Woking – a relaxed evening of wine tasting and learning at Woking’s cool and quirky wine bar, focusing on wines for Christmas. See: http://www.cellarmagneval.com/woking-events

15 December, 8pm – The fine wines of Burgundy at Cellar Wines, Ripley – do the ultimate Christmas Day wines come from Burgundy? More details and booking: https://www.cellarwines.co.uk/events/the-fine-wines-of-burgundy/





Thursday, 10 November 2016

Time for a Carignan rehabilitation

Carignan is probably not a grape variety whose name readily trips off the tongue. It’s not one of the highly regarded, “noble” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Nor is it, like Pinot Grigio, so ubiquitous that people ask for a glass of it by name in their local gastro pub.

So, a potted biography of Carignan is perhaps in order.

Carignan is mostly found in Languedoc-Roussillon, where it generally forms part of a blend and is rarely seen or its own, or, indeed trumpeted on a front label. It originates, however, in Aragon in northeastern Spain. Back in its native land, it is often known as Mazuelo (or Mazuela in Rioja) or, in Catalonia, Samsó, though you may also see Cariñena (which is also, confusingly, the name of a wine region). Outside France and Spain, you are most likely to come across it in Chile where, thankfully, it is called simply Carignan. There is some in North America, where it has acquired an extra “e” as Carignane.

Carignan has been recorded in southern France since Medieval times, but this longevity has not led to respect and it tends to be labelled a workhorse variety at best. At worst it is derided or even despised. Why?

Carignan needs a long, warm growing season to ripen fully, so it has never spread to cooler parts of France. Its influence in southern France has been waning in recent years, but it was valued by growers, especially up until the latter part of the 20th century, as a high yielding grape which added colour, alcohol and acidity to otherwise weedy wines.

The Carignan vine is a vigorous grower which will provide high yields, if allowed to, which give a deep coloured, high acid wine that is long on tannin and short on fruit. Sounds good, huh? But, but – lower yielding old vines that have not been irrigated and whose fruit has been treated carefully can give wines with distinct, rich inky black fruit, accompanied by present but pleasant tannins and that acidity gives a freshness that is welcome in wines from a warm climate.

Many Carignan vines have been pulled up in Languedoc-Roussillon, partly encouraged by government vine pull schemes. Those that remain are, increasingly, those older bushvines on better land away from the flat, fertile plains – and they make correspondingly better, increasingly very good, wines.

So, now is the time to discover and rehabilitate Carignan – say its name with pride.

3C, Cariñena 2015 (Spain)- £5.25 The Wine Society
Ignore the hideous label and tuck into the delightlful unoaked Carignan within. There is plenty of juicy black fruit and a lick of tannin that will hit the spot on many a chilly, dark night. You are unlikely to find another red wine that packs so much flavour in at this price.

Les Crouzes, Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2015 - £6.49 Co-op
Despite its ubiquity, it is still rare to find a 100% Carignan wine in the Languedoc. This is the essence of the Midi, where a certain rusticity meets fresh and fruity to great effect.

Torres Cordillera Carignan 2009 (Chile) - £13.99 Taurus Wines, Bramley
This is a brilliant example of Carignan made from old, unirrigated bush vines in the Maule region of Chile. Producers there have now banded together to form the VIGNO project, designed to highlight the wines made from these increasingly rare old (sometimes up to 100 years old) vines. This is full of black, brambly fruit with bay leaf herbal characters and a lipsmacking freshness.


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.


 Fino

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.

Manzanilla
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.