Reviewed: Aglianico del Vulture and GSM two ways

It came as a shock, but someone recently told me I should review more wine and spend less time writing about the usual nonsense that blackens these pages. Under normal circumstances I would scoff at a suggestion like this, but then a clutch of sample bottles turned up at my doorstep and I realised I might have to do some actual work for a change.

In entirely unrelated news,  this past weekend I found myself entangled in one of those weird exchanges on a friend’s Facebook status update where a preference for wine was being determined through nationalism. I expect this with sports and even the way words are spelled (aluminum vs aluminium being a typical example), but wine?

The only thing I am truly nationalistic about is maple syrup and hockey. And even then, maybe only the maple syrup (if it’s made in Vermont, it isn’t allowed in my house). This is for good reason. Only recently has Canadian wine become something to be proud about, so it will take us some time to develop deep-seated nationalistic feelings towards it.

So, anyway, the main thing that I learned from this experience was that, for some people, there is only one wine worth drinking. The mere thought of this frightened me. What do we do if phylloxera were to decimate all of France’s vines again? If global warming renders California too hot for grapes? If invasive species overtake Australia? Better to have a taste for all of the world’s wines, I should think.

With that in mind, the following is a themeless and unstructured round-up of several wines that I’ve been tasting – and actually enjoying – lately.

More from the Berry Bros case
As I discussed in the spring, Berry Bros offered me a short trial of their new wine club and since then I have been putting their selection to the test. One such test was to including one that faced the most challenging crowd of all at the regular 7WordWineReview dinner. That wine, a St Hubert’s Pinot Noir Yarra Valley 2011, earned high praise. So far, so good.

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Yarra Valley pinot is a bit too easy though. So here we have something from a region of Italy that most wine drinkers probably don’t know very well: Basilicata. This region borders Puglia and is in the centre of the instep of the boot of Italy. The wine, made from the aglianico grape and known as Aglianico del Vulture, is deep in colour and backed up by tannins, acidity and ample dark cherry fruit to match.

This Musto Carmelitano Serra del Prete Aglianico del Vulture 2011 doesn’t come cheaply, but you would be hard pressed to find this kind of quality at a lower price. This isn’t just some over-baked red wine from broiling hot southern Italy. It is deep and savoury, balanced with tannin and acidity, and surprisingly fresh with that dose of minerality that people talk about so much these days.

Out of the Penfolds bin
And now, to Australia. There is something about Australian wines that I always find distinctive. To call it ‘sterile’ would be insulting. What I mean to say is that there is a preciseness about them that makes them razor-sharp, fresh and clean. There is often a touch of eucalyptus or mint in there that adds to this effect.

20140715-071004-25804582.jpgThis wine, a Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2012, is a long way removed from those lesser Penfolds wines you find in the supermarket. It is approachable now, but it gives clues of its ageworthiness. It is precise, finely balanced in acidity, tannin and fruit, but is also deep and bold without having any flabby characteristics.

This is one of those GSM wines (grenache, shiraz/syrah, mourvedre/mataro) that have become popular not only in Australia but other realms that offer ideal growing conditions for Rhone-style wines. I am not entirely sure of all the major retailers of this wine, but you can buy this one from Frazier’s Wine Merchants for £22.50.

This is a good wine that is worth seeking out if you want something Australian that aspires to deliver more than those Aussie shirazes and Rhone blends on supermarket shelves.

GSM the old world way
Let’s say you just want to drink an old world version of this wine. Surely the whole point of jumping on the GSM bandwagon is to select something genuine, right? Something cheap, something rustic, something from, say, the Rhone itself? Grenache, syrah and mourverdre are just three of 19 grapes found in the southern Rhone, so there is the potential for a lot of variety here, but the reality is that they tend to most commonly appear in wines from this region.

I could rattle of dozens of Rhone wines worth trying. Coudoulet de Beaucastel, while still not cheap at about £17, is one of the best. Then there are the old standby volume-made wines: Guigal Cotes du Rhone Villages and M. Chapoutier Cotes due Rhone Belleruche, each for around £11-£12.

As always, I recommend asking your local wine merchant to suggest a bottle. They probably have a great one on the shelf that was made in limited quantities by small producers.

20140715-071004-25804421.jpgWe aren’t limited to just the Rhone, here. There are plenty corners of the south of France that get ignored because Rhone shouts the loudest. When thinking of GSM, we probably don’t drink enough wine from Saint-Chinian. This bottle, a Terrasses de Balaussan Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2010 that I bought for £12.49, was one of those wines I brought along to a 7WordWineReview dinner hoping for the best.

Unusually for my recent contributions to these dinners, this one wasn’t rubbish. Sometimes, the wines you buy are duds. but this one earned praise. It expresses the warmth of the south of France, the garrigue, the stones, the sun and the dark fruits.

This is just an honestly good wine that offers genuinely enjoyable drinking for the price.

Where is this Saint-Chinian place then? Well, it’s between Minervois and Faugeres. Has that confused you yet? Look on a map of France, find the border with Spain on the Mediterranean and look for a city called Beziers. It’s about 40 km inland from there.

The Rhone isn’t the only part of southern France that does wine well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo post: California Zinfandel…just can’t say no

pedroncelliThere are certain wines, and wines from specific regions, that I simply can’t resist.

In this case, it’s a region: California.

More specifically: Sonoma County.

Even more specifically: Dry Creek Valley.

I bought this wine not because I know it to be incredible. The reviews for it on CellarTracker suggest it is good, but not a masterpiece. But Dry Creek is one of those areas where you can still stumble upon a winner you’d never heard of before.

So as I was impulse-shopping on my lunch break, the prospect of this being a winner was too good to pass up.

As you drive down Dry Creek Road between Healdsburg and Cloverdale, you have about as much chance of missing some vineyards if you happen to blink while you are passing by their driveways. I recall making multiple passes down that road to find some wineries. Over and over. And over.

And so this: Pedroncelli Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2011.

Now let’s hope it’s a winner.

Rosé, merlot and something from the Balkans: Better than you think

This post would have been a perfect round-up of three wines from countries competing in the FIFA World Cup were it not for the fact Bulgaria isn’t even at the event. This is what happens when you don’t actually pay attention to the sport.

So, now that I’ve got the pointless and frankly unrelated mention of the World Cup out of the way, let’s talk about wine.

Let’s start with merlot. It can divide a room. Few grape varieties find themselves on the receiving end of as much revile and hatred as merlot does.

Blame Rex Pickett Alexander Payne. Few people could be considered more responsible for the derision aimed at this grape than the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Sideways. While most of the story was centred on the wonder of pinot noir, merlot was the whipping boy. Pinot: lithe and lovely; merlot: fat and flabby.

Anyone who has sampled a merlot from California’s bad old days will understand. Overbaked, over-extracted, over-oaked and overdone – not much about it was charming. So too the chardonnays.

photo 3This is a real shame because there is no sane reason to be opposed to merlot in the same way there is no sane reason for anyone to have luposlipaphobia.

All of this rushed through my mind when I was drinking a Bulgarian merlot that I found on a shelf at Marks & Spencer. Peach Garden Merlot 2012 didn’t fill me with many expectations; Merlot fromBulgaria excites me about as much as chardonnay from California’s Central Valley.

I’m not going to say this wine knocked my socks off. It was basic, lacking in complexity and not memorable. But, for around £7, you can’t expect too much either.

A few reviews online castigate it for lacking fruit, for being thin, for being the embodiment of all those negative qualities that come with cheap merlot. But I am going to stand up and say that, for a simple, cheap wine, it isn’t that bad. It’s correct to the merlot style. It’s medium-bodied and basic, but it has the red fruit you would expect and an easy-drinking style. If you want complexity, spend more money. If you want a perfectly serviceable wine that you can pour into your gravy and sip on the sly, this one will do.

photo 1And so this brings me to another wine that gets a bad press. Rosé. As was written in these pages some time ago, rosé is one of those wines that can divide a room. This is particularly true among those people whose only experience with the wine includes the sickly sweet Blossom Hill and Echo Falls offerings, it can attract leers.

But this is summer and sometimes we not only want a crisp, cold drink, but we want something that says F-U-N.

And so rosé.

In fact: I love rosé.

Recently I was sent a sample bottle of Gerard Bertrand Gris Blanc 2013. I drank it over two warm evenings.

Many rosés from the south of France are brimming with the pleasant aroma of strawberries and cream with a dry palate that often pairs well with seafood. This one delivers exactly this, although it seems less full-on with the red berry notes than other wines of its type. This one is particularly crisp and a little bit more like a typical white wine, complete with a spritz and a good deal of minerality. For a wine in the region of £8 to £10, this is well worth a look, although it doesn’t seem widely available in the UK just yet.

photo 5Now, moving back to the Balkans.

Croatia might be best known at the moment for its football team’s penchant for nudity, but perhaps it should be better known for its wine.

When I was a teenager, I knew Croatia as a war-torn land that didn’t seem to be a part of the world where anyone would want to do much of anything. I was only a teenager, after all, and the Balkan war was in full swing.

But today, it does wine. It does wine quite well in fact. I could have chosen to feature a wine from any number of merchants, but my own laziness has brought me back to Marks & Spencer, thanks in part to  spate of shopping sprees there on recent lunch breaks.

We have here a bottle of M&S Golden Valley Grasevina 2012. Grasevina is, apparently, the most widely planted white grape in Croatia and offers up fresh, intense flavours backed up by a good dose of fruit and just the right amount of acidity. There is plenty of citrus and tropical fruit here, and this would be good for shellfish. Definitely worth seeking out if your usual choice for wine is a sauvignon blanc or Bourgogne blanc. And I hear their football team is better than Bulgaria’s.

 

 

 

A reader offer you say? Yes, a reader offer: IWC gold medal tasting

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So the other day the IWC asked me if I would kindly spread the word about their upcoming tasting event for gold medal-winning wines and I thought, why not?

As you might recall, back in November the IWC allowed me to attend one of their judging days and I have been worried ever since not all bothered by the fact that I cocked up their results a little bit. As a consummate professional, I blamed it on the fact they made me taste interminable flights of rough-and-ready Rioja and crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc, rather than my untrained palate.

Now you can decide yourself if I got it right (even though there’s actually no way of knowing which Riojas I judged), rather than take a chance by buying one of those award-emblazoned wines during your next trip to the supermarket.

Not wanting this to read like an advertisement or anyone to be under the impression that I take inducements, the only reason I agreed to do this is because I’ve always been treated kindly by the IWC and its PR team.

So, why not? Here are the details:

The International Wine Challenge is hosting an event that it calls A Taste of Gold on Thursday 26 June. The tasting takes place between 6pm and 9pm at Lindley Hall, The Royal Horticultural Halls, London.

This an annual event featuring IWC gold medal-winning wine and sake, and it is only for producers who have won a gold medal in the current challenge year. They are also allowed to show a selection of other IWC medal winning-wines and sakes from their portfolio, so I apologise in advance if you stumble across the occcasional bronze medal winner (as an aside, a judge once told me that giving a wine ‘commended’ or even bronze medal status is akin to telling the winemaker that it’s crap, but that’s just one person’s opinion).

Tickets for the event are normally £20 but you can get £5 off if you use the promotional code ‘GRAPENUT’. (Note the cute reference to the name of my blog.)

Full disclosure: The IWC has offered me two free tickets to this event. In the spirit of good ethics (and if I actually accept the tickets) I will donate their face value to a yet-to-be-determined charity. Feel free to recommend a charity in the comments section on this page.

And don’t worry, you won’t be stuck in a room full of socially awkward punters and the squirrely folk who run the wineries. The top brass of the IWC will be there too (Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke, Charles Metcalfe, etc).

So, if you have a bone to pick about the medal-winning wines, you’ll be able to hold the senior judges to account.

All the details are here: http://goldmedal.internationalwinechallenge.com/

Domaine Marie Faugeres vs The Real Thing

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Back in the 1990s, one of Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans was to declare that it was ‘the real thing’. This was, of course, intended as a way for Coke to differentiate itself from the imitators out there, something that it has been doing since the late 19th century.

The words never really had much meaning for me. It could have been because I was only 11 at the time. It could also have been because I paid more attention to Cindy Crawford, who adorned their television commercials and billboards at the time. The phrase ‘the real thing‘ was packed full of as much meaning as Fox News’s claim to being ‘fair and balanced’.

What exactly is ‘the real thing’ anyway? Apart from being a tautology, it is also a pointless declaration. Not long ago I discussed the concept of real and natural wine, so I won’t drone on about that again. But what I will do is discuss those times you get the real thing and those times when you get an imposter.

We have all had those moment of success, when that bottle you bought for its striking label it delivered everything you wanted and more.

Perfection.

And then…well then there are the times you found disappointment at the bottom of a rough-and-ready jug wine: something with the consistency of diluted Ribena with a vague flavouring of alcohol.

For instance, Faugeres. This is a small appellation within the Languedoc,  inland of Beziers on the French Mediterranean coast. The production here is mostly red wine from the carignan, cinsault, grenache, mourvedre and syrah grapes, although white wines make up about a fifth of the annual output.

This is a young appellation, having been created in 1982, but like much of the South of France, quality levels are high and consistent these days. Two of my favourite Languedoc wines, Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010 and Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011, both come from Faugeres, selling at £19.50 and £14.50 respectively.

Together they meet all of those expectations that form when opening a bottle of wine: fragrant, rich, earthy, complex and hedonistic.

So to be fair to Domaine Marie Faugeres 2012, it was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. A mere supermarket wine selling for £8.49 at Waitrose could not be expected to be the real thing.

It is lighter in body than the others, big on fruit with a scattering of spices and an easy-drinking style. So what’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t quite tick all of the boxes. That it is another affordable wine that falls short of expectations. That I am sure siphoning the essence from the tank of a clapped out Citroen would yield a similar result.

This is one of those wines that reminds you why you should have spent more. It is why people buy a Tag Heuer watch rather than a Timex. One is weighty and expresses quality; the other is light, flimsy and made for mass market consumption.

If you goal is to achieve that slight buzz that only three glasses of wine can produce, Domaine Marie does it just as well as the others. But a fine wine experience it is not.

It appears that in Faugeres, if you want the real thing, you need to spend real money.

 

 

 

Oranges and Turkeys: If the underpants don’t excite you, the wines will

Looking back at a year’s worth of credit receipts, it seems I really only buy underpants, socks and the odd bottle of wine from Marks & Spencer. I blame this on where I work.

Anyone who has worked in the City of London can attest that there is a dearth of decent wine retailers. Apart from Uncorked up at Bishopsgate, Amathus at Leadenhall Market  and The Wine Library at Tower Hill, there are not many other places you can go for a browse on your lunch break or even after work.

If it’s a wine bar you want, there are plenty. El Vino. Planet of the Grapes. 28-50. The list is long and varied before even mentioning the more corporate offerings. But a mere scattering of wine shops? You can find yourself scanning the same shelves over and over and over again. A man can return to the same merchant only so often.

It turns out some of the most daring wine offerings on the high street are being sold at what is probably one of the most traditional and staid British retailers: Marks & Spencer.

I haven’t exactly discovered something new. We’ve been reading about the wine selection at M&S for quite some time. As far back as 2008, Tim Atkin was telling us how much M&S wine had improved, while also revealing his choice when it comes to underpants (unlike me, he does not buy his pants from M&S).

For a big retailer, the wine options are rather bold. During a single visit to M&S, I counted wines from Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Georgia, Lebanon and Turkey. These are daring offerings considering that the most popular wine brands in the UK include the likes of Blossom Hill, Hardy’s, Echo Falls and Gallo.

I have not drunk any of these big brand wines in quite some time, but something tells me they are nothing at all like a malagousia from Greece, a okuzgozu from Turkey or even a much more conservative Turkish blend of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. This could be because the average M&S shopper is not the same as the average person who buys their wine from their local off licence.

IMAG0927-1Reading that last line, it occurs to me that I have become one of them, a person who seeks out obscure wines and grape varieties and then blogs about them in a fury. It appears I am behind the curve on this one. And I am definitely a long way off making it into the Wine Century Club. I would have to keep track of all the grapes I am trying, for a start.

Of course, M&S isn’t the only retailer offering wines made from the less familiar end of the grape spectrum. There are too many good merchants to name, although I will make special mention of Red Squirrel Wine for carving a niche out of selling wines that are out of the ordinary.

So. Back to M&S. On a recent trip during a rather bored lunch hour, I noticed this Georgian wine, Tbilvino Qvevris 2011. An orange wine, this wine is made by fermenting the grape juice in contact with the skins, resulting in textured, tannic white that has a pale orange colour and a slightly nutty, almost sherry-like characteristic.

In a Daily Mail article about this very wine, people who posted comments on the article said they were disappointed to learn that the wine wasn’t actually made with oranges or that the wine’s actual colour wasn’t the orange they had expected.

IMAG0929I paused after reading this and wondered why people bother to even write comments under these articles. And then I wondered why I was reading about wine in the Daily Mail in the first place.

At the same time I also bought this Greek wine, Thymiopoulos Xinomavro 2011. Made  from the xinomavro grape, this wine is said to be comparable to a fine Italian red. Is it true? I will find out soon and report back.

A few years ago, Greek wine would have been a no-go for most people. Their white wines might have been acceptable, but a red wine? Could it really be palatable? But these days, Greek wine is beginning to hit its stride. From assyrtiko to malagousia and naoussa, the country that for many was known for retsina and little else is beginning to turn heads.

M&S isn’t the only place to find wines like this. Online retailers, national merchants and local merchants have boosted their ranges to include something out of the ordinary. Go to your local independent merchant and give them your support.