Back in March I was party to a very interesting discussion among the wine trade which was trying to determine if France’s wine future lay in brands or in its system of ‘appellations’. I wrote about it here.
Now I think the case is pretty clear cut when it comes to famous names, such as Champagne, Chablis and Chateauneuf-du-Pape to name but a few. Those names roll of the tongue easily and almost act like brands in their own right. With some of the lesser-known appellations it may not be so straightforward. Sometimes I feel France’s strength, it’s appellation system, is also its weakness. It is difficult to understand, complex and full of names that give little clue as to what the wine will taste like to the average consumer. And, although it has been getting better, a distinct lack of information on a back label is making the purchase of a bottle a bit of a gamble. Granted, the internet is helping to provide additional information and many people still read the words ‘Appellation Controlée’ on the label and feel reassured the wine will be of good quality. But unless you know the style of the wine from a particular appellation, will you know what it tastes like and more importantly, are you going to like it?
1753 Campuget – Costieres de Nimes 2009
It may be a bit random but I picked up a wine from the lesser known Costieres de Nimes, an appellation that came into being just over 20 years ago and falls somewhere between the Languedoc and the Rhone Valley. Since 2004 it aligns itself with the Rhone Valley to which it owes much of its style. Similar stony soils and Syrah and Grenache as its main grapes means you can compare it to Cotes du Rhone. A look at Chateau Campuget’s website shows they market themselves as part of the Rhone Valley ‘brand’, probably because the Rhone Valley is better known internationally. Shame about that sound file that ‘welcomes’ you to the site. My French isn’t great so it becomes a bit annoying. I would also have wanted a bit more information on the specific wine, my main reason to visit the site. The back label tells me the name ‘1753’ refers to the date on the earliest document found at the Chateau. Nice, but what did the document say? Anyway, the wine is really rather good. Lots of blackberry and plummy flavours and dark chocolate. It gives the wine a nice richness, not too dry, which means you could drink this on its own but it would be much better with a nice meaty stew, which is exactly what I’ll be having tonight.
A red wine made with white grapes. Sounds unlikely? White grapes have long been used as part of red wine production. It may be pretty obvious that to make a red wine you need the colour from the red grape skins but there is nothing stopping you from adding a little white too. This used to be common practice in Chianti but the choice of grapes impacted the quality so the practice is no longer so common. In the Rhone valley in France the white grape Viognier is often added to Syrah to make the famous wines from Côte Rôtie. In Australia they even make a point of it and put the blend on the label and I’ve heard of many wine producers who experiment with different ways of introducing white grapes into their red wines. One Australian producer put some of his Shiraz into a barrel that had formerly held Chardonnay. He left the fine lees (deposit) in the barrel and the result was an added richness and creaminess to the Shiraz.
It is important to state that this is not about blending red and white wine together, that would mean ending up with a rosé or very light red. Making a red wine this way means you have to ferment the red and white grapes together. The idea is to get plenty of colour and extraction during the fermentation, but combined with a lightness and freshness from the white grapes. Malbrontes is just such a wine even though it does sound more like a long-forgotten character from Jurassic Park. It combines in more than name two of Argentina’s best known grapes. The fragrant Torrontés adds a fresh and floral element to the juicy, rich spiciness of the Malbec. I was sceptical at first but this wine quickly won me over. It has the chunky blackberry fruit from the Malbec but the Torrontés makes the whole thing seem fresher and softer and it’s seriously easy-drinking. You can even chill it down slightly and make it a perfect partner to a barbecue.
Wine Searcher gives an up to date list of where you can get this wine.
There is a popular pastime in Scotland for hillwalkers called “Munro-bagging”. A Munro in Scotland is a hill over 3000ft and the practice of “bagging” involved climbing all of them. There is ongoing debate about the exact number but a recent list puts that number at 283. I’m not a Munro-bagger as I can only lay claim to two. One of these was Ben Lawers, overlooking Loch Tay. The reason I remember it so well is that I climbed it on a gorgeous summer’s day and the views from up on the mountain are nothing short of spectacular. The other reason though was that for 75% of the climb you could see the top of the mountain, or at least, I thought it was the top. Just as you reach the crest you realise that the top is still a mighty long way to go and you’re forced to drop down into a valley before having to climb all the way up again. That last part was very tough going.
I was reminded of this story last night at dinner with Rollo Gabb, owner of the Journey’s End winery in South Africa. I asked him where the name came from and he talked about the location of the winery on the edge of Stellenbosch, only a couple of miles from the coast, overlooking what is know as ‘False Bay’. In the old days many a sailor was drawn into False Bay believing their journey to Cape Town had come to an end (Journey’s End) only to realise they still had the treacherous task of rounding Cape of Good Hope. I suppose that is how I felt coming to the false summit of Ben Lawers.
Rollo makes Journey’s End sound like a pretty special place. Originally from Shropshire he comes from a very entrepreneurial family who have had a hand in bringing many well-known wine brands into the UK. In 1995 the family bought the farm in South Africa and after taking over from his father in 2007it is now Rollo’s aim to grow the estate sufficiently to make premium South African wine but also make it work as a commercial venture. I was already aware of one of the wines, the Pastor’s Blend. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, it is a wine that Rollo describes as his easy drinking wine and he jokingly adds it’s his Monday night wine. The blend changes depending on the vintage and it sees a bit of oak, giving it a softness without losing the fresh fruit. The wine was the result of a slight misunderstanding when Rollo gatecrashed what he thought was a party at a neighbouring property, carrying a case of wine. It turned out to be a church service, but I’m sure the wine didn’t go to waste and Rollo became good friends with the local pastor and the Pastor’s Blend was born.
Journey’s End also produces Chardonnay and for me the 2010 Single Vineyard Chardonnay was stunning. The oak was beautifully integrated, which means it’s not as obvious on the nose and the freshness of this wine when tasted makes it an absolute joy to drink. Rollo has started producing Sauvignon Blanc which we didn’t taste but I’m being told it is beautiful. I was slightly dubious about that considering the estate is in Stellenbosch but Rollo assured me his location, although in Stellenbosch is facing the coast and that brings with it the cooling influence of what is locally known as the ‘Cape Doctor’, an on-shore wind so called because it also helps to keep disease and rot at bay.
Rollo has named his top wines after this wind and we got to try the Cape Doctor Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, as well as the Single Vineyard Merlot 2007. Both are gorgeous wines with the Merlot being soft, spicy with ripe plummy fruit. I found the Cabernet Sauvignon very elegant with a much more savoury, tobacco like nose but none of the green stalkiness you sometimes get with this grape. Journey’s End completed a new winery in 2010 and all of these wines were made by borrowing other wineries’ facilities, so Rollo is very confident that the quality of subsequent wines will really take a jump over the next few years. He certainly isn’t short in ambition in putting premium South African wine firmly on the map and it seems like Rollo’s journey has only just started.
OK, so I was going to have a quick meeting with Andrew Maidment from Wines of Argentina to talk about his new initiative, to celebrate Malbec World Day. Little did I know it would become a masterclass, not only in Malbec, but many other grape varieties, as well as the intricate minutiae of Argentine beef.
Meeting in Gaucho should have been a giveaway I suppose. And Malbec really is at its best served with a juicy steak, or even better the marinated beef known as Churrasco. I am now in a position to tell you what the percentage of fat in each individual cut of beef is, but I’ll refrain for fear of losing you right away.
I started asking Andrew why bother with Malbec World Day? Is it just a gimmick? It seems a bit random to chose a Sunday in the middle of April, but the date, April 17th, is very significant for Argentine wine. On this date in 1853 a bill was passed in Argentina which allowed the planting of a whole host of grape varieties brought over from France and elsewhere. And that’s how Malbec made it across to Argentina. As I mentioned it wasn’t just Malbec, but it somehow seemed to do well in Argentina’s soils and climate and way down the line became internationally recognised as producing wines of excellent quality. Andrew mentions in particular the work done by Zuccardi and Catena in the nineties on researching the particular strains that worked best and propagating those to become even better. Consistent and long-term monitoring and lots of trial and error paid off.
We ordered a bottle of Calathus Malbec 2008 from the south of the Uco Valley in Mendoza. Interestingly, for the boss of Wines of Argentina, this was a new one on him, so that made it an easy choice. It also came recommended by the incredibly knowledgeable waiting staff at Gaucho. Andrew tells me that Phil Crozier, Gaucho’s wine director insists on detailed wine training for all members of the front of house team, and it certainly shows. When quizzed on the various wines on the list detailed information comes naturally. Anyway, back to the wine. A deep black fruit nose, full of spicy, leathery and tobacco aromas. Fairly full-bodied, perhaps slightly too much for lunchtime but delicious with the Churrasco.
I ask Andrew if he agrees with some voices that argue that Malbec is making Argentina a one trick pony. He clearly doesn’t, although he mentions he understands why people would say that. Look towards Chile and you see a whole host of variety coming out of that country that you don’t tend to see in Argentina. Many producers are working with varieties other than Malbec as well though. In particular in blends that are increasingly successful. Without being able to look into the future this is where he feels Argentina can really start to shine on the international stage. Innovation is the buzzword at the moment and experimentation with lots of new varieties will bring more excitement. He also believes the country could become more fragmented with smaller wineries making very individual wines.
But Malbec will remain at the heart of Argentina’s wines and so it should be. Andrew sums this up by explaining what is important for this grape and much of it centres around the Andes. It provides the all-important elevation, shelter, water for irrigation and the old glacial riverbed soils. Couple that with places as far apart as Salta, with some of the highest vineyards in the world, Mendoza at the heart and the much more extreme region of Patagonia in the south, and variety should not come as a surprise.
For Malbec World Day, Wines of Argentina are running a number of events, in both restaurants and wine shops. They are focussing their efforts on the likes of Laithwaites, The Sunday Times Wine Club and Majestic, all of whom have got market-beating ranges of Malbec in their stores and online and have really championed Argentine Malbec. I get the feeling Andrew would love to get a supermarket involved as well in the future but their ranges would have to be extended to make this a reality.
The most unusual initiative goes to a collaboration of English winemaker Chapel Down with Wines of Argentina and Gaucho Restaurants. Chapel Down will for the first time create a unique and authentic Malbec from grapes grown in the Mendoza vineyards of the Gaucho Restaurants. The grapes were picked recently and just this week they were crushed in the Chapel Down winery. The release of this unique wine will be on Malbec World Day 2012 and will be sold mainly in Gaucho but some may even make it into a small selection of shops. Similar collaborations are also taking place in New York and Toronto.
From Gaucho it’s a quick taxi ride to the Argentine Ambassador’s residence and a line-up of a hundred or so wines, about a third of which are Malbec with another dozen being Malbec blends. This is where I get to taste for myself how varied these wines can be. I got a bit of a Malbec awakening as I started to find a common thread in many of them. First I put it down to regional differences, but then I realised it wasn’t that specific. It’s a quality I find difficult to pinpoint. It is something aromatic, reminding me slightly of pine cones or rosemary, fresh woodland but not earthy. I guess I’ll just have to taste a few more to find the answer. A job I’ll gladly take on.
When I started thinking about a Fairtrade tasting, the idea was to get as much wine from the Fairtrade ranges as possible, but it even surprised me how extensive this range has become. So for the purpose of this post I only looked at what supermarkets are offering as part of their own labels. The Coop, always a bit of a front runner when it comes to Fairtrade, still has a very extensive range, with particularly strong offerings from Argentina and South Africa. Sainsbury’s was another retailer with a pretty good selection of Fairtrade wines under their own label, particularly from South Africa. At Tesco I only found one white and one red wine in their own label range both of which were from Argentina and Asda didn’t have any. Both supermarkets do offer Fairtrade wines from a variety of producers such as Stellar Organics, Fairhills and Six Hats though.
Ultimately the proof is in the wine and having tasted through a large selection, By and large I am quite impressed with the offering from the Coop. The wines are dependable, particularly those from Argentina. Sainsbury’s is also offering a fairly extensive selection with more of a focus on South Africa. The premium products in the ‘Taste The Difference’ range in particular are very good. I think these wines are really worth their price tag so pick one up with your coffee and chocolates in the next couple of weeks, and support a worthwhile cause.
Coop Fairtrade Torrontes-Chardonnay 2010 – Famatina Valley, Argentina (Coop – £4.49)
Coop’s Fairtrade offering from Argentina is pretty strong with all wines produced by the La Riojana cooperative. I quite liked this very drinkable number. I thought it was a very characterful wine for what is the lowest priced one in the range. A fresh, light floral nose with some peach and elderflower. Melon and zesty lemony freshness on the palate. Don’t expect a complex wine but for the price, I can’t fault it.
Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference Fairtrade Wild Valley Chenin Blanc 2010 Wellington, South Africa￼(Sainsbury’s – £7.99 reduced to £5.99 until 22nd March)
New to Sainsbury’s list is this expressive Chenin Blanc produced by the Bosman Family Vineyards. A ripe, tropical nose showing pineapple and guava. Lovely and clean on the palate with zesty citrus fruit and fresh apples. Very refreshing and lively. Particularly at £5.99 this is a great value white. The same producer is also behind the Cabernet Sauvignon in this range. It’s a couple of pounds more expensive but it is a good, expressive red wine.
Coop Fairtrade Organic Malbec Reserve 2009 – Famatina Valley, Argentina (Coop – £6.99)
￼Lovely deep, glossy colour. Blackberry, vanilla and chocolates, with a slight smokiness on the nose. A full bodied wine with velvety tannins. Intense blackberry, cherry and spicy warmth owing to a bit of oak ageing, with a satisfying length. A nice winter warmer while it is still cold outside. I tasted this against Tesco’s Fairtrade Malbec 2010, which is 50 pence cheaper and also nice, but I found the Coop one to be a bit more complex and warming. Perhaps keep Tesco’s Malbec for the warmer days and the barbecue
It is mid-October and we are spending a mid-week in northern France with the family. To be more specific, we’re staying in the the Davey Crockett Lodge about 10 minutes drive away from Disneyland Paris. The playful set-up of the ‘log cabins’ dotted around the woodlands take you away from the hustle and bustle of the parks itself and is a great alternative for families who want to go self-catering. Having a car with you is an absolute necessity, but taking the car is no punishment when you realise the other ‘big attraction’ on the doorstep; the city of Reims, heart of the Champagne region.
A few of us adults took an afternoon out of the frantic pace that is Disneyland and lavished in an altogether more sedate pace of talking and tasting ‘Champagne’.
The set for the afternoon was the medium-sized house of Henriot and our lovely host, Béatrice made us feel instantly welcome. She talked through the intricacies of the house and its history (unsurprisingly this involves a widow, a given in Champagne it seems) and she introduced us to three of the Champagnes. First up was the Henriot Rosé Brut, an unbelievably soft and elegant wine. The dosage is a bit higher than with the whites at around 10 grams per litre but it accentuates the strawberry fruitiness and balsamic notes.
Next up was the Henriot Brut Souverain. This is an almost 50/50 split of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Henriot tends to use very little or no Pinot Meunier, preferring the more slowly maturing Pinot Noir instead. The wine is fresh and lemony, yet creamy, very mineral, making it pure and clean. But it has richness all the same.
The final wine in the trio was the Henriot Blanc de Blancs. As the name indicates this is 100% Chardonnay. The four years of maturation give it a rich complex nose that’s at once floral and honeyed. Toasted brioche with honey is what sprang to mind for me. The palate is lively and is showing a sweet fruitiness reminiscent of quince jelly. This has to be one of my favourite Blanc de Blancs wines. Before serving us the Blanc de Blancs Béatrice decanted the bottle into a chilled, smooth decanter, a first for me. It may have been pure suggestion but the Champagne seemed very happy.
Béatrice then suggested we go down into the cellars for a tour and had a treat in store once we were down there. A bottle of the Henriot ’98 vintage was waiting for us there and this is where taking the car became punishment for me, the driver, as I had to severely limit myself, while the others enjoyed the experience. Well, someone has to.
Probably not the world’s biggest Sauvignon Blanc fan, I often find it lacks the interest and complexity to get me really excited, but there are exceptions. And a few weeks ago at a dinner at Gandolfi Fish in Glasgow, I came across one of the best examples I have tasted in a long time. And it was neither Sancerre, nor Marlborough but hailed from Elgin in South Africa. Iona the wine in question is a winery owned by Andrew Gunn since the mid-90’s. ￼
Andrew, a very tall man who can trace his roots to Scotland, was looking for a change from his career as a medical engineer and found an old apple farm in Elgin. He realised quickly that the old apple orchard wasn’t going to sustain him and his family so he decided to plant vines instead. Having travelled extensively through the South African wine regions of the day, Andrew felt the slightly cooler climate of Elgin at an altitude of 450 metres was perfect for growing grapes and Sauvignon Blanc in particular. Around 70% of his production is made up of the grape, which achieves a perfect balance of ripeness and alcohol due to the long ripening season. Andrew calls this optimum physiological ripeness, and the balance this creates is what this wine is all about. It is closer in style to the mineral Sancerre than the abundance of tropical fruit flavours you might expect from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Mineral is a slightly woolly term but you get what I mean when you taste this. It is the aroma you get from soil, freshly rained on stones or even salt. The flinty character in Sauvignon Blanc is often mentioned as a mineral character. Together with the fairly brisk acidity it gives a distinctive and dry feel to the palate which is refreshing and lively at the same time as showing great purity of flavour.
Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2009 – Elgin, South Africa
So here we go with our mineral, flinty nose that has a floral character and slight herbaceousness along the Sancerre style. And then the ripe fruit takes over. Not tropical but more zesty citrus fruit, gooseberry and stonefruit characters. The wine is generously mouth filling with a lively, dry and pure finish. This superbly balanced wine was a joy to taste on its own but when it was paired with a Ballotine of Scottish Salmon with cucumber, horseradish creme and a beetroot reduction it really came to life. I’m sure a pairing with a goat’s cheese tartlet would be equally good but make it something creamy as it will find a perfect balance with the dry and zesty character of the wine.
Gandolfi have this wine on the list and sell all their listed wines retail as well, so even more excuse to pop in now.
Andrew’s other wines are pretty exciting too but are much more difficult to get hold off. Gandolfi Fish expertly matched various dishes to some of these extraordinary wines. The almost Burgundian 2009 Chardonnay was matched with a Confit of chicken, baby leek and black truffle terrine served with toasted spelt bread which was a gorgeous combination.
Pan roasted lamb chop with a potato millefeuille, wilted spinach, stilton and port sauce was matched to the Gunnar 2005, a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot. It had a deep smoky nose and lovely ripe fruit on the palate. Again, I couldn’t fault the combination with the food.
The next course had to match with the Syrah 2007, deliberately using the French spelling indicating a more old-world approach to Syrah. Still, it was a big wine with big flavours and exactly what was needed with the Slow braised shoulder of ‘Venison Wellington’ with fondant potato, Scottish girolles and juniper jus.
The finale was a Plum and frangipane upside down cake with crème anglaise which was paired with Andrew’s dessert wine a Noble Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2007. Delicious hazelnut, orange and honey with plenty of zesty flavours to balance the sweetness of both the wine and dessert.
This was the first time I tasted any of the Iona wines but it certainly won’t be my last. Judging by the reactions on the night, I somehow doubt I am alone in this.