The festive season started with some extraordinary fizz for The Wine Wanderers, continuing with a few excellent red wines which have reminded us what spectacular value the high street can offer.
First, the fizz – and none are more festive to look at than the exquisite hand-painted bottles and flutes which distinguish Perrier Jouet(pronounce that Jou-ETT), the favourite Champagne of Grace Kelly and Coco Chanel. The brand has just taken over the Winter Garden of The Sanderson, one of London’s buzziest drinking destinations, for a season of old-fashioned fizz served the old-fashioned way. For £65 a couple can enjoy a glass each of the spectacular Belle Epoque 2007 with a taste of Oscietra caviar, a pairing that always works. The non-vintage Grand Brut is only £15 a glass, but frankly no match for the spectacular Belle Epoque.
We saw in Christmas Day with more fizz, another spectacular vintage bottle from Veuve Cliquot, but the star of our feast was inevitably a rich red wine. Sainsburys Taste the Difference 2012 Amarone made a spectacular partner for our turkey and is worth grabbing while on promotion at £14 until New Years Day. Had we feasted on beef, we would have paired it with the Waitrose In Partnership Reserve Shiraz from St. Hallett, an elegant drop at £11.99.
It’s hard to beat supermarkets on price for still wines, given their buying power, and the quality you can get for under £10 is staggering. One of the best reds we’ve tasted this year was pinotage from Morrisons. The M Signature label was worth every penny of £6.99 for a rich red which Decanter rightly awarded Gold, and the everyday value version which just picked up its own medal in the International Wine & Spirit Competition is ridiculously good value at £4. This is a store whose own-label wine(like its meat department, also to be recommended) should be regularly checked out – out of nine new medals they won in the IWSC, seven were for wines costing less than £5; they include the excellent Morrisons own-label South African merlot which took Silver.
Lidl is no longer a well-kept secret, especially for lovers of affordable luxury, and we’ve greatly enjoyed being able to buy Californian zinfandel, one of our favourite grapes, there for £4.99 a bottle, less than half what a red this good should cost, while stocks last. The only problem with Lidl wines is that when they’re gone they’re gone, but their huge buying power means a great new raft of fine wine bargains will always follow; this store also had its fair share of IWSC winners.
Of course judging wine is subjective, and what shocks the experts can still please the punters. The Wine Wanderers’ guilty supermarket pleasure of the year was Apothic Red, a blend of zinfandel, merlot and petite syrah which has been sweetened up in production by industrial wine-makers Gallo, but to us seems the essence of the California we once lived in enjoying affordable but well-made homegrown wines, whence this blend came. Six out of seven Sainsburys shoppers who reviewed it loved it too( though one agreed with wine critics who deplore the added sugar), and it’s on promotion there at £8 till New Years Day. You may also find it at ASDA and Tesco.
The news of Bandol establishing a new home in the UK was joy to the ears of the Wanderers, who have happy memories of drinking some of the most sublime drops of red and rose in this very particular part of Provence.
This is the home of Domaines Ott, who make rich pale pinks to die for, and Domaine Tempier, from whom we first learnt that the South of France can produced great, stonking reds of enormous elegance.
Both wineries, and some innovative successors, are represented at Bandol, a new casual Fulham restaurant. It aims to showcase the food as well as the wine of le tout Provence, but while while the tapenade and the fragrant bouillabaisse broth were spot-on during the first month of opening, we felt the chef, who is not from the area, needed to taste and replicate more authentic versions of his anchoiade and rouille.
But first to the wine; while Tempier is available by the glass – a huge treat for Londoners – the only choice of pink Provence was between Chateau Minuty, surprisingly austere for the joyous roses of this region, and the richer, more satisfying Miraval from the vineyard owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Why no Bandol roses, though? Tempier makes one of many delicious bottles which belong on the by-the-glass list, and there are many more affordable bottles around.
You could be tempted to stick with the luscious Miraval all night to complement this garlic and herb-scented food which sings of summer, but that would be to overlook the fact that Bandol produces some amazing whites. The superb, organic Terrebrune, a mix of clairette and the ugni blanc and bourboulenc barely known outside the area, is also available by the glass while it lasts.
What we did get before the bottle ran out was rich, robust and packed with exotic minerality, a perfect partner for the bouillabaisse, while the Wanderer among us addicted to Tempier absolutely savoured a glass or two with his perfect, Provencale-style lamb chops on a base of black olives and sauce soubise. At £20.50 for a large glass it cost nearly as much as the lamb, but another Bandol red from Domaine Maubernard is available for just over half that price.
It’s puzzling that only seven wines from Bandol are available by the bottle – a tiny proportion of the list – but there’s a much larger selection from the wider south of France. All complement this style of lustily-seasoned food, of which the petite friture – a generous heap of perfectly battered and deep-fried whitebait, calamari and prawns with aioli – was the standout starter. The Wanderers would be tempted to return for that alone with a carafe of the Terrebrune – heaven on a plate, and in a glass, for the £60 for two you can easily pay for a totally unmemorable taste and drop elsewhere in London.
Last week the Wine Wanderers helped harvest some prime examples of their favourite grape – happily grown down the road from where we live in deepest Sussex. Amazing England now has enough sun to grow decent pinot noir; the Bolney Estate, where we did our own bit of picking and sorting, and Chapel Down just across the border in Kent both make fine examples.
“Experts are predicting pinot noir will become the nation’s go-to bottle,” says Sam Linter, MD and head winemaker at Bolney, who says research shows our nation of white wine drinkers is now buying more red than white for the first time. Certainly pinot noir, so light and elegant compared to sledgehammer grapes like shiraz and malbec, would be the varietal most likely to convert a white-wine drinker.
As Bolney is predicting a bumper crop, thanks to the Wimbledon heat assisting flowering this year, we were glad to help Sam with a morning’s labour and see the beautiful estate while some of the pinot noir – astonishingly, considering how much gorgeous floral, fragrant white wine we produce in the UK, is our second most prolific grape – were still on the vine.
It was Sam’s parents who planted the first three acres in 1972, creating what was then only the sixth commercial vineyard in England. Now Bolney’s vines have expanded more than tenfold across 39 acres, with a state of the art winery leading to a UK Wine Producer of the Year title in the 2012 IWSC(International Wine and Spirit Competition).
It was strange to learn that the soil through which we trudged is known as Upper Tunbridge Wells Sand, and interesting that Bolney’s pinot noir grapes flower two weeks earlier than the norm, so we clipped bunches off the vines in pouring rain feeling relieved professional pickers had already got in most of the crop. Then we helped on the sorting tables; Bolney is almost unique in sorting grapes before they’re pressed, apparently.
We warmed up from the cold and wet with a glass of Bolney’s pink bubbly, which is also made from 100 per cent pinot noir; pale and delicious, no wonder it’s accumulated a slew of awards. As for the still wine, which we enjoyed with some Burwash Rose from our excellent local Stonegate Dairy, the 2013 vintage took silver in this year’s International Wine Challenge.
English wine remains pricey, thanks to small production, but it deserves to reach a wider home audience. Forward-looking Sussex hotels like Ockenden Manor, where we stayed the night before and enjoyed a superb dinner by Michelin-starred chef Stephen Crane, supports Bolney and other local wineries. Those not close enough to drink it on the doorstep can find the pinot noir at Waitrose, which is leading supermarkets in championing English wines, for £15.99 a bottle. Just the thing for a special Sunday lunch or, down the line, to accompany the Christmas turkey.
The Wine Wanderers finally got to Puglia this summer, where we were expecting extraordinary food from the home of burrata, that luscious form of mozzarella stuffed with fresh cream, and capocollo, a wonderful cut of cured pork neck little seen outside the region, but rather ordinary wine. For decades Puglia has been Italy’s wine barrel, sending millions of gallons of red to other parts of the country to enrich their blends, and marketing some rather indifferent primitivo, the same grape as the Wanderers’ beloved zinfandel.
In the flesh, though, it was a different story. Back-Roads Touring ferried us by mini-bus between some highly authentic restaurants serving up a decent drop with food which exceeded our wildest expectations – italy’s finest antipasti on plates piled high not only with burrata and capocollo, but stuffed vegetables and rarefied dishes not seen elsewhere like the ubiquitous mashed broad been dip – Puglian hummus! – served with wild local bitter greens.
While we drank our favourite bottles in restaurants not on the tour – Terranima in Bari, which showed us how great Puglian primitivo could be in a bottle of Petrigiovani and Coco Pazzo in Martina Franca, where we discovered Puglia can do decent white too in a luscious La Voliera fiano, we have Back-Roads to thank for a visit to Azienda Castel di Salve, a winery with British heritage which makes wonderful, incredibly well-priced wines with the region’s indigenous grapes.
Surprisingly, our favourites from this vineyard were not primitivo, but the delicious Santimedici Rosato, a rose made from negroamaro, and Priante – a blend of 50 per cent negroamaro and 50 per cent montepulciano – rich and voluptuous. The quaffability a big dollop of montepulciano can bring to the wines of this region is a trick not lost on Waitrose, whose Rich and Intense Italian Red NV Puglia is a blend of 20 per cent montepulciano, 30 per cent primitivo and 50 per cent nero di troia, fine value at £4.99
Laithwaites are fielding their own interesting primitivo blends, unusually mixing it in their Tenuto di Somaro with the aglianico found in this region as well as in neighbouring Basilicata. Their La Fonte d’Oro, in which Primitivo meets the often tough and difficult negroamaro, is simply voluptuous. They are also importing a Puglian grape we never saw on the ground – a ssusumaniello, which was pleasant enough but not nearly as interesting the two aforementioned blends.
Of the Puglians available on the high street, there is a marked difference in quality, not surprising given how much indifferent primitivo gets on to the market. While the Palastri we tasted from Sainsburys seemed thin and bland, the supermarket’s flagship Taste The Difference Primitivo del Salento yielded all the warm voluptuousness of the best primitivos the Wanderers tasted in situ and much better value at £6 on promotion than the £6.50 Palastri. As rich and amazing as anything we drank in Puglia is the award-winning Villa Magna Primitivo di Mandoria, £10 from M&S and worth every penny, a close runner-up the Terre di Faiano organic Primitivo del Salento exclusive to Waitrose for £9.49,
As this tour also took us back to Matera, the urban jewel of neighbouring Basilicata, with its famous urban caves teetering down the hillside, the Wanderers also decided to taste the a
glianicos associated with this region which are available on the high street; this lesser-known grape deserves a wider audience. Sainsburys TTD version from the foot of the dramatically-named Mount Vulture is smooth, elegant and very fair value at £8 a bottle, and the £10 Messapi from M&S simply glorious.
Visit http://backroadstouring.com/ for details of their next trip to Puglia coming up in October; being ferried by mini-bus is a better idea than a hire car when you have two-hour lunches with wine to look forward to every day!