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 slurp.co.uk, 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! 

Monday, 4 July 2016

That's the way to do it - building a French wine brand

If there’s one thing that French winemakers can’t do, it’s create big successful brands, right? Well, maybe not…

It’s true that French wine is traditionally governed by the dictates of the Appellation Contrôlée laws, so that AC (or AOP nowadays) wines are labelled according to their geographical origin. This is fine for really well known ACs/AOPs like Bordeaux and Champagne which are, in effect, brands which transcend the geographical nature of the regulations.

But what about  AOP Côteaux du Giennois? Or AOP Côtes de Toul maybe, or AOP Tursan? A good number of the over 300 wine AOPs in France are househould names, but many more, like these ones, are not. Consumers (and even wine trade folk) cannot be expected to know where they all are and what style of wine will be in the bottle. And why should understanding wine be such a difficult business anyway?

Building a commercial brand often means departing from the strict regulations of the region’s AOP. Consumers want to see a name that they are familiar with, which provides a feeling of comfort and security - without the need to understand French wine law.

The Vin de Pays category, so successful in the 1980s and 90s, did act as a kind of brand. The vast majority were from that huge swathe of vineyard areas in the south, collectively known as Languedoc-Roussillon. Vin de Pays d’Oc was a boon to wine drinkers: often varietally labelled, usually good value red, white and rosé wines that were easy to understand and appreciate.

Now, however, Vin de Pays is no more and wines should instead be labelled as IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée). Though Languedoc-Roussillon producers can also put the words “Pays d’Oc” on the label, as a nod to the good old days of Vin de Pays d’Oc.

French producers who want to include grape varieties outside the rules of the AOP can often use the IGP as an alternative. For those who want to blend between regions, something that is common in the New World, the catch-all Vin de France category is a useful support. And yet thus far, there have been few truly successful French wine brands.

One French wine company which is doing better than many at building brands is Badet Clément. You may not have heard of the name, but you may well have seen their Les Jamelles wines in the Co-op; or perhaps come across one of their Abbotts & Delaunay range on a restaurant wine list. They also have a range of other brands which are more directed towards other markets across Europe and beyond. Their total annual production of 15.6 million bottles gives you an idea of the scale of their operation.

Surprisingly, perhaps, all this is the work of a husband and wife team, Laurent and Catherine Delaunay, who recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of their business. Of course Badet Clément is more than Laurent and Catherine, who now employ 50 people and boast a shiny new winery to facilitate even further growth in future.

Their Les Jamelles wines are a neat range of varietally labelled wines (all IGP) with plenty of easy-going consumer appeal at keen prices.

Les Jamelles Viognier £5.99 until 12 July (usually £6.99) at the Co-op
A Viognier for people who don’t like the variety’s richness and weight, which can tend to flabbiness. This has good fresh acidity and juicy fruit with just a hint of peach.

Les Jamelles Syrah - £5.99 until 12 July (usually £6.99) at the Co-op
Soft, ripe Syrah with a mix of red and black fruit characters that speaks of the warm south, but with a good brightness and freshness too.

Les Jamelles Réserve Mourvèdre £7.49 at the Co-op
My favourite of the range, this has bags of brooding, black fruit with some herbal character in the background.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Champagne - beyond the brands

Champagne, like no other wine, is dominated by brands. Veuve, Moët, Bolly…I don’t even need to spell out the full name for you to know who I mean.

Brands give the reassurance of familiarity, consistency of quality and a certain cachet. And you don’t need me to tell you to buy them. What you do need from a wine columnist, is a tip for under the radar Champagnes that offer great quality and that over deliver in terms of value for money.

One that springs to mind is Champagne Mailly Grand Cru – a co-operative based in the Grand Cru village of Mailly in the Montagne de Reims. The Wine Reserve in Cobham stocks a range of their high quality, Pinot Noir-dominant, big-boned Champagnes starting at £29.99 for their Grand Cru Brut NV.

This week I had the chance to taste through the range of another Champagne that is not a household name, Champagne de Castelnau.

All Champagnes look to establish a point of difference and in the case of de Castelnau it’s the long lees ageing. For their Brut Réserve Non Vintage blend, that means over six years.

What is lees ageing? 
The Champagne method involves making first a still wine – or in fact a range of still wines. The different grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) and different vineyard parcels will usually be fermented separately. The resulting wines are then reviewed once their fermentation has finished, to assemble the wines to create the desired blend, or cuvée.

The blend is then put into bottle, along with yeast and sugar, in order to undergo a second fermentation – this is the one that will transform the still wine into one with bubbles. Fermentation lasts a few weeks, but all Champagnes must then be left in the bottle for a period of time (legally 12 months at a minimum) before disgorgement of the yeast sediment and re-corking. During that time in bottle, the wine will interact with the lees (dead yeast cells), thereby developing additional flavours and complexity. Champagne makers who want their wines to express youthful fruitiness and freshness in their wines will generally age them for a shorter time on the lees. Those looking for greater depth and complexity will, naturally, want to age their Champagnes for longer – sometimes much longer.

I’m no accountant, but even I can work out that long ageing has a financial cost – not being able to sell your Champagne until it is over six years old is going to impact your cash flow. Champagnes like these cannot be made cheaply or quickly.

Where to find de Castelnau Champagnes?
They are stocked by restaurants and independent wine merchants. Spirited Wines (http://www.spiritedwines.co.uk/) and Nicolas wine shops list the full range of de Castelnau Champagne.

De Castelnau Brut Réserve NV - £29.99 Spirited Wines/Nicolas
This is what they like to call “a Vintage soul in a Brut Non Vintage body”, with its complexity and depth of flavour. It makes for a very versatile style with hints of wild mushroom, toastiness and nuts.

De Castelnau Brut Vintage 2002 - £39 Spirited Wines/Nicolas
2002 is regarded as a great year for Champagne, so this is one for real Champagne lovers to search out. With eleven years on the lees, this has developed a range of quite savoury flavours – it is a gastronomic Champagne to serve with food.

In order to signal their high quality credentials, and to mark their centenary in 2016, de Castelnau are launching a prestige cuvée, dubbed Hors Catégorie, the name a nod to the toughest climbs of the Tour de France. The style is a departure from their house style, with “just” five years on the lees and with a blend of three different years in the cuvée. This finely etched Champagne is made in tiny quantities, in eye-catching packaging. If you spy a bottle, it can be yours for £85.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Romanian wines have come a long way

Sometimes I am brought up sharply by the realisation of just how much change has gone on in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism.

My children (13 and 14) are very used to rubbing shoulders with tourists from all over the world, including Eastern Europe, on trips to London. So when I tell them that, until the 1990s, for citizens of Poland, Latvia, Romania and elsewhere, free travel to Western Europe did not exist, they have a look of blank incomprehension. The idea that a government could forbid its own people from visiting whichever country they liked is beyond their understanding.
Travel was only one area of life that was state-controlled in the not so distant past. The wine industry was too - and industry it certainly was, with no reward for quality but a utilitarian focus on maximising production, just like any other agricultural product in Soviet-era Eastern Europe. In Romania this meant planting vines on unsuitable land and planting low quality (but high yielding) hybrid varieties.

Now these countries are working hard to re-build their wine industries, based on quality this time -  and on making wines that people actually want to drink.

Romania has been one of the most successful in the new, open era and remains the biggest wine producer in Eastern Europe. The vineyard area may be 20-30% smaller now than it was under Communism, but there is an undoubted ambition and pride in what is made there – though we see very little of it here in the UK, as only 3-4% is exported.

Romanian wine producers in recent years have tended to rely on producing good value versions of international style wines from internationally recognized varieties, most notably Pinot Noir. Now, however, more producers are emerging who are also intent on building a reputation for their store of native grape varieties, which represent around half of all plantings in Romania.  

Cramele Recas, one of the country’s biggest and most forward thinking wineries, straddles both these camps, and with some success. They are responsible for producing attractively labelled, consumer-friendly wines made from both international varieties and native Romanian ones – as well as more ambitious wines.

Bradshaw Pinot Noir 2014 - £5 from Asda
Recas make some of the most appealing (and almost bizarrely cheap) Pinot Noir in Romania. It has lightweight, cherry fruit with real Pinot character. Don’t expect Grand Cru Burgundy at this price, but it certainly over delivers for the price.

The Wine Atlas Feteasca Regala 2015 - £4.97 from Asda
Another clever Recas label (this one makes me think of inter-war film posters) with a neat wine in the bottle. You can see why Romania’s native varieties will not be troubling the likes of Chardonnay and Shiraz on the global stage: Feteasca Regala, a white grape, is never going to trip off the tongue quite so easily. However, I like the juicy, ripe, fruit and crisp finish of this, another absolute bargain.

Prince Stirbey, by contrast, is a producer determined to champion the native varieties of Romania.

Prince Stirbey Tamaioasa Romaneasca 2015 - £9.50 from The Wine Society
Tamaioasa, (often known as “the frankincense grape”) is a local clone of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, a variety known primarily for making lusciously sweet wines with floral, grapey aromas. This, though, is a dry wine, with just hints of exotic rose petal and spice aromas. It is dry and quite fleshy, without being flabby.

Prince Stirbey Feteasca Regala 2015 - £12.50 from Oddbins
Meaning “royal maiden”, Feteasca Regala is Romania’s most widely planted grape variety. It too has some Muscat-like aromas, with a lovely textured palate and a pleasantly dry finish, thanks to the variety’s natural tannins.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The state of the (English wine) nation

Every year London hosts the English Wine Producers’ tasting, featuring hundreds of English - and Welsh - wine, though no Scottish wine (yet) that I’m aware of. I manage to get along to the tasting most years and there is no denying that the overall quality of the wines on show is getting better and better as the years pass.

Proof, if any were needed, that English sparkling wine is really coming of age, is that the Champenois have a bit of a bee in their bonnet about it. Last year, apparently, they were all abuzz about the threat of Prosecco; this year, it’s English fizz that is exercising them. And I’ve already written about Champagne Taittinger’s investment in vineyard land in a joint venture in Kent (see Surrey Advertiser 22 April edition or read it online here: http://yourliquidassets.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/the-irrestistible-rise-of-english-wines.html.

Some styles of wine are always going to be a challenge to produce in the UK: it’s just not possible to reliably make red wines in our cool climate. There are usually some red wines made, somewhere in England, every year. But it’s unusual for the same producer to be able to make a red wine, year in , year out.

New World winemakers often talk about some of their wines coming from cool climates, but it’s all relative. They should stand in an English vineyard on the North Downs in March if they want to know what cool climate really means.

Still white and rosé wines are a much safer bet in our climate, but it is, still, the sparkling wines that are England’s vinous crowning glory.

My thoughts following the English Wine Producers’ tasting this year:

  • Red wines, even in the favourable conditions of 2014, are still a niche style (together red and rosé wines account for just 10% of total production).
  • English still rosés do best when they do not try to copy other countries, but develop their own style, with the emphasis on delicate, red fruit, a tiny bit of sweetness to balance the crisp acidity and lowish alcohol.
  • There remain too many still white wines that are rather lollyish and floral – a legacy of using Germanic hybrid grape varieties designed to withstand the cold weather.
  • Sparkling wines are still the pinnacle of our national wine scene, witnessed by the huge medal haul achieved in international competition this year. Some of the best producers have been at it for a while (such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview), but there are some really exciting newcomers too, including Hattingley Valley and Exton Park.

Here is a smattering of some of my favourite wines from the tasting:

Greyfriars Pinot Gris 2014 - £13.50, available from the vineyard/online
Mike and Hilary Wagstaff took over this vineyard in 2010 and have been focused on growth and quality improvements ever since. This has lovely Pinot Gris juicy stone fruit with a touch of spice. It’s low in alcohol (11.5%) and pleasingly dry. Check out their sparkling Blanc de Blancs too.

Chapel Down English Rose 2015 - £10.49 from Majestic, £10.99 from Waitrose and elsewhere
I think the Rose – not Rosé – in the name is quite intentional. Chapel Down are a long-established name in the English wine scene and manage to make consistently good still wines, as well as sparkling. This Pinot Noir dominant blend makes for a lovely combination of strawberry fruit and a whiff of English hedgerows in Maytime.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 – widely available at around £33
One of the pioneers and still showing its class. I like the way they release their wines with a bit of age – the naturally high acidity in English wine means they benefit from the mellowing effect of more time maturing on the lees and in the cellar before drinking. This is a blend of the classic Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir (just over half the blend), with Chardonnay and a little Pinot Meunier. It’s a classically rich style with baked apple and bready flavours.

Where to find English wines
English wine lovers should get themselves to a branch of Waitrose or Marks & Spencer. Both have been supporters for a while, but are both in the process of radically increasing the number of English wines on their shelves.

English Wine Week
You can get up close and personal with English wines during English Wine Week, which takes place from Saturday 28th May to Sunday 5th June. Details of events, vineyard open days and more can be found here: http://www.englishwineproducers.co.uk/news/eww/