Tag Archives: grenache

Summer in a bottle – gorgeous golden pinks from Provence and surprises from further afield

5 Jul

In a midsummer made for pink wine drinking, the Wine Wanderers have challenged themselves to reconsider roses made outside the South of France.   It was a wrench; it’s hard to turn away from the beautiful golden-pink wines which characterise Cotes de Provence and have a quality mostly absent from pinks made elsewhere.  It’s what Jean-Michel Deluc, former head sommelier of the Paris Ritz, speaking of the Clos de l’Ours CdP he sells through Le Petit Ballon, so aptly describes as “a stony minerality”.

 
Our prejudice against deeper-pink wines which often lack any hint of minerality has been fed over the years by some horrid Rose d’Anjou and even nastier “blush” zinfandel first encountered when the Wanderers lived in California.   It was a shock to return to these shores and find that white zinfandel had followed us – but we were close enough to France to pick up endless five-euro bottles of Cotes de Provence in French supermarkets which never disappointed, despite the bargain basement price.

 
CdP has now made it on to UK supermarket shelves, riding the crest of a wave of Brits’ preference for pale pink roses, but costs twice as much here as it does in France, thanks to the duty.   The Wanderers enjoyed Laithwaite’s gorgeous golden-pink Domaine Les Gres(£10.99 or £9.89 if buying 12) but felt it was a bit pricey.    At least both Sainsburys and Waitrose, whose own label CdP’s are decent value on promotion if also pricey otherwise at £8-9, have ramped up their range of pinks in light of sales of tens of million bottles every year and made some good finds elsewhere.

 
It’s not only in Provence where a preponderance of grenache makes for a great drop. Having established on a visit to Langedoc-Roussillon how good winemakers there are at blending this grape with syrah(viz. the excellent value L’Or du Sud by Foncalieu, £5.49 at Lidl), we ventured further north, enjoying a £6 Winemaker’s Selection Cotes de Rhone from Sainsburys, which also blends grenache with Syrah.  Ditto an £8  Barrihuela Rioja Rosado – here the grenache is spelled garnacha – perhaps a little finer than the excellent value £4.99 Rioja rosado from Lidl.

 
Laithwaites’ Pillastro Rosato from Puglia presented the first challenge to our prejudiced palates, not only because it was a slightly suspect strawberry pink, but because the grape was primitivo, the progenitor of zinfandel.   While not as sweet and nasty as the “blush” zinfandel we used to drink in California, the Pillastro was still too jammy for our taste, and a reminder that primitivo/zinfandel does have an inherent sweetness which is subsumed by the alcohol when it appears as a joyous red.    Similarly, we love red pinot noir, but not the New World pink pinot noirs tasted from various sources – a bit sweet and a bit fizzy for our tastebuds.

 
Specially worth mentioning is a great rose from Greece we approached with anticipation, remembering a wonderful cheap as chips rose enjoyed with barbecued pork in a remote corner of Mykonos.   Twin Sails, a Waitrose exclusive, is made from the xinomavro grape, another variety usually reserved for reds but this one performing perfectly as a fragrant pink with not a hint of unwanted sweetness.   Fabulous value at an everyday price of £5.99, all you should really have to pay for a wine that looks and tastes like summer in a bottle.

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Valentine’s drinking – it’s not just about great pinks and fabulous fizz

11 Feb

What to drink with Valentine’s Day dinner?  Marketing hype says it ought to be fizz, still or sparkling pink or at the very least a red or white with a heart on its label.

So far, so cliched; what you really want is a sexy wine which will perfectly complement the aphrodisiac feast you plan to serve – or to enjoy as an aperitif before a dinner out.    In respect of the former, pink sparkling wine is hard to beat; generally less acid than white, it immediately creates a festive air and provides a feast for the eyes as well as a tickle for the tastebuds.

Champagne is no longer de rigeur now that we’re growing our own fizz, and it’s hard to beat a sparkling rose from Chapel Down.   But if the real thing is desired for its ooh-la-la cachet, Lanson rose is a bargain this week on promotion at £25 from Sainsburys.

Still rose is always a joy when well-made, particularly the gorgeous pale golden pinks from Provence.   You’re unlikely to find any of the Miraval made by Brangelina till spring- inevitably this small production sells out every year – but you could try the delicate violet-pink Pure from the similarly-named Mirabeau at Waitrose; not cheap at £12.99 but elegant.

Mirabeau is owned by an English couple, ironic considering that the English are doing a pretty good job with still rose themselves.   The Wanderers enjoyed the Broadwoods Folly, £7.99 at Lidl who have added three English wines to their selection for the first time.

Although rose is an apt partner for chicken, white meats and spicy food, if you have your heart set on oysters, you’ll want a decent white.    One Wanderer believes nothing but Chablis will do for oysters, but the other thinks the money would be better spent on Sainsburys Taste the Difference Sancerre, a sensational example of the genre at £13.  It will also work with asparagus, the other most-touted aphrodisiac food, which M&S have managed to get from their British growers in time for this year’s Valentines weekend.

 
A bottle with a heart on the label which would also partner asparagus is the Bordeaux sauvignon blanc known as Good Ordinary White  from Berry Brothers & Rudd, who got Paul Smith to design a special Valentines Day label for this and their Good Ordinary Claret.  While the white is lovely, the red suffers like most claret under £10 from being too young for full enjoyment.   To accompany steak or duck, better to splash out a fully developed voluptuous wine from southern Europe – the excellent Ribera del Duero by Condado del Hazo, £15 at Sainsburys or the austerely elegant Terre del Barolo from Waitrose, £18.79.  These are pricey treats, but decent reds from the New World are available at Lidl for less, including Lodi zinfandel from California, £4.99, and Axis cabernet sauvignon from Margaret River in Australia, home of great reds, for £6.49.

Paul Smith Good Ordinary White       For value and reliability, you can’t beat the “i heart” range which is a lynchpin of convenience store shelves.  Despite the rather naff label, most are eminently quaffable and true to variety, with the exception of the sauv blanc, which tastes suspiciously sweet – added sugar to please girly palates?   A nice enough drop for an aperitif, but keep it away from the oysters!

Paul Mas – another name flying the flag for Languedoc’s new sumptuous quality wines

7 Jun

This time last year The Wine Wanderers were in the Languedoc discovering the wines of astounding quality which are rebuilding the region’s reputation.   It’s largely down to a handful of visionaries who have persuaded growers to concentrate on quality rather than the quantity for which the region used to be known.  These pioneers are taking risks, producing wines which command more than £20 a bottle in the UK and have to stand competition with the much better-known names from Bordeaux and Burgundy, many of which don’t justify their hefty price tag.

Today’s Languedoc vintners are producing some amazing syrahs in particular and doing gorgeous things with grenache – reds, whites and roses, on their own or in blends – and also with lesser-known varietals including grenache gris, roussanne and vermentino.   They are making good carignan from grapes grown on old vines, giving more prominence to mourvedre and also, surprisingly to the Wanderers, producing good chardonnay and pinot noir more associated with northern climes. We were reminded of our 2014 adventures  when tasting one spectacular wine after another from Domaines Paul Mas, a family wine estate spanning four generations, which deserve more recognition in the UK.

Jean-Claude Mas has been blazing a quality trail since taking the helm of the family firm in 2000, growing the estate from 85 to 550 acres and contracting with 80 outside growers counted on for a superior crop.   It’s a similar pattern to Foncalieu, which we visited last year – not a family firm but a large cooperative in which a couple of great winemakers work their magic on grapes from many growers who concentrate all their efforts on careful cultivation.

We’ve tasted astounding special occasion drops recently from the flagship Chateau Paul Mas range of grand cru appellations, of which the gorgeous Belluguette, a blend of  vermentino, grenache, roussanne and viognier is particularly sumptuous.  It has enough body to stand up to strong tastes like asparagus, whose delicate mineral taste is killed by red wine, and is available at Majestic.   Of the reds, we savoured the Clos de Savignac,  a s50% mourvedre with 30% syrah and 20% grenache, and Clos de Mures, which is almost pure syrah.

Drinkers will not be disappointed by the Paul Mas Estate range, described as “everyday luxury” wines, some of which are available at Waitrose Cellar for around £8.99 a bottle.   Particularly nice was the GSM – a typically southern blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre in almost equal quantities.   And coming back to premium labels, the GSM by Astelia, a vineyard acquired by Mas in 2014, is out of this world, while their chardonnay is another perfect partner for asparagus and perhaps some indulgent lobster mac cheese.

We also remebered the Languedoc while revisiting Terroirs, a London restaurant known for promoting natural wines, the phenomenon which first brought us to the region, where this style of growing is becoming prevalent.   This time at Terroirs, however, we were turned on to a superb Beaujolais Villages blanc made from unfiltered chardonnay by Remi and Laurence Dufaitre, new kids on that particular block.   A lovely partner to white asparagus with clams and the delicate pork and pistachio pate de campagne the restaurant has made for the delectation of charcuterie loverss every day since it opened.

The Beautiful South Part Deux – Languedoc rocks!

8 Jun

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.

The Beautiful South – rebuilding the rep for fine wine in undervalued Languedoc

26 May

The Beautiful South – rebuilding the rep for fine wine in undervalued Languedoc.

The Beautiful South – rebuilding the rep for fine wine in undervalued Languedoc

26 May

The WineWanderers were invited to Languedoc-Roussillon to see what’s new in the land of syrah, grenache and carignan, not to mention a fascinating selection of white grapes rarely seen outside the region.

 

It’s a massive area, stretching west along the coast and hilly hinterland from Nimes to the Spanish border, and for years it’s been fighting to live down a bad rep which was the legacy of a load of cheap, badly-made wine grown on the flats.   These days, however, it is home to thousands of more mindful growers who realise the future lies in quality rather than quantity, and several inspired wine-makers making some of the most exciting and under-valued French wine on the market.

 

More accessible than Bordeaux and Burgundy, whose reds require more time – and cost – to achieve decent drinking potential, the wines of the beautiful south are surprising for the fresh, zingy whites they produce as well as the rich reds and gorgeous golden roses for which the South of France is famous.
Cotes de Provence rose remains one of the most joyous and consistently great-value drops on the planet – it’s annoying that Brits have to pay £7.99 for a bottle which costs around €5 on its home turf.     But for quite a bit less – £6 a bottle on promotion – we found that same joy in Sainsburys Winemaker’s Selection Languedoc Rose – also a blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah, albeit in different proportions.   Their Taste The Difference  Languedoc White was every bit as fresh and fragrant, thanks to a high proportion of grenache blanc.

 

A truly revelationary Languedoc white which came at us even before we left London was Mas Coutelou’s Pm, an astonishingly rich blend of grenache gris, muscat and sauvignon gris grown so close to the sands around Montpellier, you can almost taste and smell the Med before it gets to your lips.   It’s one of the increasing number of natural wines grown in the Languedoc with practically no added sulphur.   While this can affect consistency from one vintage to another, that’s never a problem with Pm, whose tiny production of just 1500 bottles inevitably sells out, in spite of the hefty £17+ per bottle price tag.  Roberson Wines has what’s left of the 2012.

 

Pm was the white surprise served up by Bastien, the young Languedoc-born sommelier at Hibiscus, a Michelin-starred London restaurant with an excellent list, including many natural wines.   The red was Le Pigeonnier from Terrasse d’Elise, a surprisingly smooth 100 per cent carignan.   Usually saved for blends, quaffable wines made entirely of carignan are a big ask, but not if they are made with low-yielding grapes from old vines, which mellow and become less tough as they approach their half-century.  Winemaker Xavier Braujou comes at his vines in the mountains behind Montpellier from the perspective of his early days as a woodcutter, spending years observing their behaviour in different soils and climates.   This is a stonking wine available in the UK from Lea&Sandeman at £16.50 per bottle, case price.

 

Final surprises before we got as far as Foncalieu Wines, the largest cooperative in Languedoc, came on the doorstep itself, in Carcassonne, where the cooperative has its HQ.    Baptiste, the young sommelier at the Barbacane restaurant in the Hotel de la Cite, served up In Fine, a rich, fragrant mixture of grenache blanc and grenache gris, to partner jellied veal’s head with little cubes of goose liver pate, peas and carrots.   This wonderful white from Cave de l’Abbe Rous is a Collioure, made on the doorstep of the Spanish border.
From the Haute Vallee de l’Aude, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Baptiste served up a  surprisingly good  Domaine de Mouscaillo pinot noir to go with the Bresse chicken with the morels.   Who knew they could make wonderful pinot noir in an area perceived to be too warm and too flat(get up into the hills and it’s neither(?    As we were to find out at Foncalieu,  an even greater challenge for the region is to make a decent Merlot.   More to come about our adventures on the ground – but meanwhile, take a closer look at Languedoc when combing the wine shelves for an interesting drop at a fair price.

Exciting wines from Chile? A reality, thanks to Aurelio Montes

1 Apr

I was privileged to take wine recently with Aurelio Montes, a legend in his own Latin American lifetime.  A free thinker who believes his grapes and the men who tend them benefit from spiritual sustenance like beautiful music while they work, Montes is that rare creature among Chilean wine-makers, a risk-taker.

If Chile has been missing a mention in these pages, it’s because their wines tend to be so darn bland.   Reliable, yes – you’ll rarely find a £5 bottle of Chilean which is undrinkable(with the exception of some carmeneres) – but rarely exciting enough to write home about.   The Argentinians on the other side of the Andes have been making most of the wild experiments with varying degrees of success, but the result that much more excitement has been coming out of Mendoza than Casablanca, Colchagua and the Central Valley.

Montes, named 1995 Chilean Winemaker of the Year, has shown faith by expanding the Chilean terroir, planting grapes in a coastal valley where no wine-makers have attempted to cultivate before.   Namely in the hinterlands of Zapallar, a little Pacific beach resort where summer sea breezes and morning fog inform the wine, as does slow ripening during a cool autumn.

The Outer Limits experiment has worked; these are terrific wines, even given their hefty price points(around £17 for the beautiful, grassy but full Sauvignon Blanc, £27 for the  pinot noir, heady with violets, and the somewhat more austere CGM – carignan spiked with grenache and mourvedre).

The Icon range is an even riskier venture in a recession; for £30-plus per bottle, the drinker has a right to expect something out of the ordinary.   Folly. which commands £40,  is certainly an outstanding Syrah, with all the complexity the grape can offer; it would be hard to find a better partner for red meat.    However, I  take issue with Montes on Purple Angel.   Chile has embraced carmenere as its own, but there’s a reason it disappeared from European vineyards 150 years ago, and it may well be that austere aftertaste of burnt coffee.

However, Montes is to be applauded in every other respect – not least for making very drinkable wines at the £12.99 level; in this Alpha range, the Chardonnay is to be particularly recommended, with unusual apple and pineapple notes which lend it extra liveliness.   And he makes an entry-level range at £7.99 I will be prepared to take on trust if I come across it.

Montes says the secret of his wines is that he lays out the barrels on feng shui principles and plays Gregorian chants to them 24/7 while they mature.   It sounds daft, and is bound to have taken an extra investment in the winery.  But it’s all part of what makes Montes wines much more worth drinking than the average bottle of Chilean plonk – you can taste the investment.

Incidentally, Montes is now growing in Argentina, too, and bottling under the Kaiken label.  Naturally, there’s a Malbec, but I think I prefer his Chilean Malbec overall for its subtety, ditto Montes’s Chilean chardonnay to the Kaiken, which does not display the old-fashioned white Burgundy sumptuousness Argentina’s Catena Zapata winery has brought to this much-mistreated grape.