When the Wine Wanderers were invited to a dinner matching wines of the Loire to Indian dishes at London’s Cinnamon Club, we had a couple of preconceptions to get our heads around. First, that dry wines make good partners for spicy food – our natural choice would be a gewurtztraminer – and secondly that there was sufficient variety in Loire wines to get excited about.
Laurent Chaniac, the restaurant’s wine buyer, changed our minds, at least to some extent, serving unexpected partners to the delectable dishes at this clubby Westminster restaurant which strives more towards haute cuisine than its rivals in the capital whose Indian food has earned a Michelin star. But we didn’t love all the wines we tasted, certainly not the Savennieres which came with our king prawns with cardamom and green mango-coconut chutney. Chenin blanc is a difficult grape to get right, and we haven’t been able to embrace it since being put off by some horrible domestic vintages when we lived in California.
What the Loire is rightly most famous for is Sancerre, about as perfect a sauvignon blanc as you’ll find to accompany fish and seafood, so no complaints about the 2008 Sancerre Moularde by CC. But when we followed the Cinnamon Club dinner with our own tasting of Loires on the high street, we realised there IS a better Loire white out there than Sancerre, our old favourite Pouilly-Fume, which Chaniac chose not to showcase at the dinner. The “fume” is said to refer either to the flint in the limestone where it grows, or the early morning fog which often blankets the Loire, but either way, it’s just that much more rich and sumptuous than the more austere Sancerre.
We took bottles of both these queens of the Loire to a cottage in Cornwall, where the voluptuous Pouilly-Fume Les Charmelles from Waitrose made a super partner for home-cooked lobster with lemony butter, and we were also impressed by the Signature Poullly-Fume from Morrisons. But a nice Sancerre from M&S wasn’t bad either – we tasted a couple from their selection, of which Le Mont is currently a great buy on a 25 per cent off promotion, bringing the price below £10, a rare opportunity. Also on this promotion is Les Ruettes, which won Gold in this year’s International Wine Challenge.
Before leaving whites, it’s worth noting that cheaper than either Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume, Muscadet is another barely talked-about Loire which makes a great partner for seafood. although it inexpllicably fell out of fashion a couple of decades ago and has never really hit the radar since. It’s invariably better bottled “sur lie”, which means straight from the tankm without filtering. We enjoyed a great bottle of Sainsburys Taste the Difference in this category, outstanding value at £7.
We had been excited about the prospect of tasting a pinot noir, one of our favourite grapes, at the Loire dinner, but were warned those made in this region could be deeply disappointing, and tasting a red Sancerre from M&S, we could see why. Much more successfully cultivated in this region is the cabernet franc grape, the mainstay of both Chinon and Saumur appellations.
The Saumur-Champigny Cuvee Bruyn 2010 by CC was a great partner for Romney Marsh lamb with sesame-tamarind sauce, but at home it’s a whole raft of Chinons from the high street we’ve really enjoyed with light meats like veal and chicken. Notably Les Complices de Loire Les Graviers, though it’s only available in 17 branches of Waitrose, and the more widely available Domaine du Colombier from Sainsburys, a particularly nice drop at £7, two-thirds the price of Les Graviers.
Overall, we feel you can’t go wrong with Muscadet when summer shellfish is on the menu, but if you’re going to push the boat out, a Pouilly-Fume for around the same price as a Sancerre delivers extra richness. And that Chinon can be a perfect summer red, so long as you appreciate that it’s meant to be light, elegant and slightly chalky and totally different from the rich, ripe fruity reds of the south.
The Wihe Wanderers have been in Israel, which has been knocking our socks off for several years now, with increasing numbers of boutique wineries producing some staggering vintages. The soil, climate and slopes of the Galilee and the Judean Hills, the principal growing areas, turn out to be well suited to syrah, cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends, but also to some marvellous whites.
A year ago we sat in the ancient port of Jaffa sipping a sublime glass of something really rare – 100 per cent roussanne from the Tabor winery. It was Israel’s first attempt at making wine exclusively from a grape which the French invariably blend with marsanne, but Tabor’s expert agronomist, Michal Akerman, took a bet that roussanne would perform better in Israel than in the Rhone Valley. “In our climate, it turned out to be a lot more aromatic,” she says. “It’s new now, but you’re going to see more and more roussanne made here.”
Tabor acquired the talents of Akerman – and some of the world’s best wine-making equipment – with a huge cash injection from Israel’s Coca-Cola distributors, who were looking for a boutique winery with huge potential. Founded in 1999 by a grower of fine Galilee grapes who wanted to do his own thing, Tabor was identified in 2007 as the one to go for. That founding partner, Arie Sela, stayed with the company, although his co-investors sold out, and the original veteran winemaker Arie Nesher also remains.
No longer a boutique winery with sales of nearly two million bottles a year, Tabor has gone on to win many prizes, and their Adama merlot – by no means top of the range, price-wise – was awarded an unprecedented 93 points by the Wine Enthusiast, their highest-ever marks for an Israeli wine. You can get it on Amazon for £15 per bottle, and won’t be disappointed. Sadly, the roussanne is not yet shipping to the UK, but Tabor’s signature sauvignon blanc is available and a selection of decent reds, of which the flagship is the Limited Edition cabernet sauvignon. This gold medal winner is strictly special occasion wine at £30-plus, but it is staggeringly fabulous.
Tabor are no longer restricted to the Galilee; like other winemakers they have realised the potential of the Judean Hills, where ambitious winemakers were once warned they would never be able to properly work the small plots. There is finally a great place to stay here and the Cramim resort in the shadow of Jerusalem is almost a wine university, offering thrice-daily tutored tastings of wines from the region, with bottles available at minimal mark-up to bring to dinner. They have great house blends made up for them by Ella Valley vineyards, but the region’s two greatest wineries remain Flam, whose family winemaker trained in Tuscany, and Castel, whose owner is a self-taught chicken farmer. We prefer Flam’s reds, but Le Blanc de Castel, with all the sumptuous notes of a fine French white Burgundy, is one of Israel’s greatest wines, and Castel has been much-lauded by Robert Parker.
Very little Israeli wine makes it to the British high street, given small production and high prices, but one lovely drop which does is Recanati’s blend of carignan and petite sirah for M&S, also grown in the Judean Hills. It’s a lovely, elegant drop at £9.99 and has more personality than the Barkan cabernet sauvignon you’ll find at Waitrose for the same price. But don’t get us wrong – that is rich and full-bodied, typical of the rich reds grown in the Galilee, although it would be good to see supermarket buyers exploring ambitious blends like the Recanati and less obvious grapes. Roll on mass production of Tabor’s roussanne – we look forward to ordering it one day on Amazon!
Having quashed our misconceptions that there’s little quality wine being made in Languedoc, the WineWanderers were invited by the Foncalieu cooperative to get down to southwestern France and see for themselves some great drops which are being produced in the area.
First, we had to get over some more preconceptions – that every label has its own winemaker, and that every grower of top-quality grapes makes their own wine. Foncalieu is a giant cooperative, bringing 1200 growers together over 5000 diverse hectares stretching from Languedoc east to the Rhone Valley and north into Gascony. The business grew out of Languedoc’s very first co-op, established by 128 winegrowers in 1901.
There seems to be a single winemaker – and she had not yet arrived during our stay in Corbieres to replace another female winemaker whose effots have won accolades for the group. It’s a fairly astonishing achievement that all four of the co-op’s Grands Vins celebrating the area’s winegrowing heritage were awarded more than 90 points by the redoubtable – and influential – US wine critic Robert Parker when vintages were submitted for the first time in 2012.
Much of the credit must go to the resident oenologist Gabriel Ruetsch, who brings much expertise from his native stomping-ground, the Mendoza wine country of Argentina. He has been responsible for establishing strict wine management specifications and vinification plans requiring an understanding of the very different terroirs within the region.
We focussed on the Languedoc lines, starting with entry-level Le Versant, most of which goes to restaurants, but luckily for us is also stocked by our local Secret Cellar.
We were less impressed by the pinot noir and viognier which are UK best-sellers than the rose – what a stylish drop for the price, full of South of France joie de vivre – and the merlot, which Ruetsch is particularly proud of, as it’s a grape hard to make a good wine from in this territory. In the similarly-priced Enseduna range, we enjoyed the 100 per cent petit verdot, a grape reduced to blending status in Bordeaux; well-made, it can certainly stand on its own.
We stayed at one of Foncalieu’s latest acquisitions, the Chateau Haut-Gleon in the Corbieres countryside. But its gites, swimming pool and stony vineyards were less of a thrill than its elegant wines, which command top-end prices. Overcoming one more misconception – that a rose has to be pale to be elegant – we really enjoyed Chateau Haut-Gleon, a strawberry-coloured pink made of 80% syran and just 20% of that south of France rose staple, grenache. It was dry, full-bodied and joyous, and we also enjoyed the 2008 red, comprising 45% syrah, 30% grenache and 25% carignan from old vines.
Of the four Grands Vins we particularly enjoyed Le Lien, a Minervois whose 2011 vintage is rich and ready to drink, unlike the higher-scoring La Lumiere, a Corbieres which will need another couple of years to come into its prime. Both are 100 per cent syrah, but quite different in style.
Back home, we were keen to see what the high street had to offer in quality Languedoc, being mostly supermarket wine shoppers ourselves. We found elegance from Waitrose in both the Chateau de Caraguilhes Corbieres 2012 and the 2011 Maris Minervois, both around £10 per bottle. But Marks and Spencer have really bagged themselves a star in Domaine de Fontseque, a heady blend of 40% carignan, 30% grenache noir, 20& syrah and 10% mourvedre, worth every penny of £10.99 to complement a weekend dinner.
Once again, as the sun made a reappearance and fish got on to the menu, we were reminded that the south also produces phenomenal whites. We loved both M&S’s Chateau de Flaugergues and Waitroses’ Domaine Begude, a rich but fresh chardonnay from the Limoux near Carcassonne. The Flaugergues is 80% Rolle, otherwise known as vermentino, a grape which does so well in Languedoc, especially when combined as here with grenache blanc. In fact grenache in all its colours – watch out for more grenache gris appearing in blends – is the great glory of the Beautiful South and reason alone to try a drop or three of Languedoc now summer is finally here.