Tag Archives: syrah

Big black wines to see winter out

3 Mar

Just when we thought an early spring had arrived the weather turned brutal again, and the Wine Wanderers have been getting through the last of winter with some big, black wines we don’t drink at other times of the year.
Not to say we eschew rich reds altogether – we always enjoy a good syrah with a hunk of lamb – but there are wines which pack so much punch we approach them with caution, including our beloved Barolo, reserved for special occasions.

Biggest and blackest of all wines is malbec, too rarely tempered with a soupcon of anything, which we tired of for a while after tasting more than 70 in a week on a visit to Argentina(wine-makers here are doing much more interesting things with other varietals), but have now acknowledged the need to revisit.

Malbec, however much the Argentinians claim it for their own, was the pride of Cahors in south-west France before the wine-makers of Mendoza decided to get seriously stuck into it.   While always big and in the hands of the Argentinians pretty reliable, it can be a one-note wine devoid of any subtlety.   However, the Wanderers got the chance to appreciate its finer nuances courtesy of Chateau de Mercues, a distinguished domaine which makes some very fine bottles indeed in the Cahors region.

The Wanderers thought the Prestige Cuvee 6666 2014 was as good as it was going to get at a recent London tasting until the very special Icone WOW 2009 from sister domaine Chateau de Haute-Serre was poured – simply sumptuous.   Annoyingly, there is not yet any UK distribution for these bottles and vintages, but Dulwich Vintners does sell Mercues’s slightly less elevated Grand Vin at prices from £18 per bottle, depending on the vintage.  One delightful way of getting Mercues’s top wine would be to visit the vineyard, which is attached to a Relais & Chateaux hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, and pick up the 6666 for 28 euros a bottle, the Icone an eye-watering five times as much at the cellar door.

Encouraged by how fine a malbec can be in the hands of good winemakers, we decided to sample an award-winning Argentinian example from Aldi, their Exquisite Collection Malbec, which has bagged a Which? Best Buy award as well as winning Silver in competition.   It was fine, but paled into insignificance beside an astonishing big black bottle from France Aldi is currently fielding.   Bonfleur Languedoc Reserve 2011 may not contain any malbec whatsoever, but for a syrah/grenache/mourvedre blend, always a good bet for body and flavour, it is absolutely huge, positively forcing you to sip and savour rather than quaff.

The secret is the age – this wine was found lying around the chateau by the new owners of the domaine, Mas des Belles Eaux.  It had somehow been forgotten for four or five years, and has gained enormously in complexity during that time.   Tasting as good as a bottle three times the price, this £6.99 wonder is one to bag now before the limited stock vanishes forever; note Aldi offer free delivery and allow you to make up your own case in the unlikely event you wouldn’t want to buy at least six of these(we are about to order our next half-dozen, if there are any left).

Another limited edition offering is from Lidl – an inky-looking syrah which somehow has been listed in their “Naturally Light” range.  That’s because their MW taster found “freshness” in Cave du Tain, a rich Rhone with a deep colour and slightly gamey taste.   But unlike some malbecs, it only looks inky and doesn’t actually taste of black ink!

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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.

From the and of milk and honey-wines to swoon over

27 Jun

From the and of milk and honey-wines to swoon over.

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.