Skip sauvignon and pinot grigio – try albarino

In the world of wine, it seems most people stick to the same grape varieties day in, day out. This means there are dozens/hundreds/thousands of delicious, but perhaps a little bit obscure, wines that are simply ignored by the masses.

So, on that basis, wow many white grape varietals can you name right now? Go on…give it a try.

How many did you get? Three? Five? After sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pino grigio, riesling and semillon, what else can you name?

Did you get chenin blanc? Roussanne? Marsanne or viognier? Maybe even melon de bourgogne (used to make Muscadet) or gewurztraminer? This may seem like a lot of grapes to remember, yet they are just a few drops in a sea of wines to discover.

There are so many well-made, fruity and fresh white wines out there made with lesser-known grape varieties, but they are unfortunately overshadowed by the marketing machines behind sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Italy alone has dozens of excellent white wines that few people outside the country could pronounce – let alone commit to memory – yet the average person still defers to the same international grape varieties over and over again.

This leads us to albarino, which is grown primarily in Spain and Portugal, two countries probably better known for their red wine production. This is a shame because both countries produce some beautiful whites; I need only point to white Rioja as an example of another great wine that all too often goes unnoticed. Perhaps the reason for white Rioja’s low profile is its minute production compared to its crimson cousin, but perhaps also because it is often an acquired taste among white wine drinkers who prefer zingy acidity and freshness to white Rioja’s nutty, slightly oxidised flavours.

Albarino in Spain most often comes from the Rías Baixas region in the northwest. Until recently it was used in blended wines but these days it has emerged as a varietal in its own right, producing wines fresh wines that come with ripe fruit flavours.

As with many white wines, albarino makes a good match for seafood, poultry or creamy pasta dishes depending on its style.

Two albarinos to try are Orballo Albarino Rias Baixas 2010 (£9.99, Virgin Wines) and Val do Salnes Albarino 2010 (£11.99, Marks and Spencer).

Orballo’s albarino has wonderful lemon and peach aromas mixed in with a hint of sea breeze and minerality, followed by a nice layer to acidity, that make it a fine accompaniment to seafood. It also goes nicely with creamy chicken pasta dishes. For slightly less than £10 a bottle, this is affordable enough to have during the week or even on the patio for a Sunday afternoon lunch.

Meanwhile, the Val do Salnes albarino comes in a little more expensive than the Orballo but offers up intense fruity flavours of peach and apricot with a good zing of acidity to follow. This is a little more off-dry than the Orballo version but is not at all sweet. It will go nicely with rich seafood dishes, such as those cooked with butter or other flavourful sauces, but it will also match nicely with scallops and squid.

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If science says wine stops colds, why am I sick?

This has been a bad week for me in wine-drinking terms. It’s not that the wine I’ve drank has been bad; it’s that I’ve been stricken with such a severe cold for so long that I simply can’t bring myself to drink anything at all. And the times I have tried to enjoy a drink, I either couldn’t taste anything at all or it had the same aroma as paint thinner.

About a decade ago a Spanish study was reported to have found that drinking wine – particularly the red stuff – helped to prevent the common cold. The same conclusion was not drawn from drinking beer or spirits, interestingly enough.

Academics at five universities studied 4,000 volunteers and found that people who drank more than two glasses of wine a day had 44 per cent fewer colds than teetotallers.

From my perspective, I’m not convinced. I’ve been ill for the past week and I also had a cold last week. If wine is supposed to keep the rhinovirus at bay, I’m clearly not drinking enough of the stuff.

But there could be another factor at play here. Studies have found that athletic people are more susceptible to common illness than their more sedentary counterparts. This is particularly true among elite athletes, but a former colleague of mine who had been a pharmacist in the past asked me if I had a tendency to get sick a lot.

Why? Because I do a lot of cycling. And not just the sort of cycling that involves whizzing down to the supermarket and back, but the sort where I’m out pushing myself to my physical limit for anywhere between three and five hours each ride.

So it might just be that any disease-fighting good my love of wine provides is being eroded by my tendency to exhaust myself on the bike.

Or, as many people might say, this is all a bunch of bunk. Decide for yourself.

If I weren’t ill tonight, I’d probably be drinking something from Bordeaux.

Most of what critics say will be lost on you

This is not a statement of snobbery. This is not an argument that wine should be saved only for those who can appreciate it. Nor is this an argument that people who aren’t all that fussed about the nuanced flavours in wine are somehow ignorant.

No.

The fact is that some people can taste all those things and some can’t. And it’s not necessarily something we can control, either.

Okay, so we’ve all heard that a bunch of academics recently reported on this notion of some people being “supertasters” who can detect more flavours with their tongues than those airport X-ray machines can illicit liquids and objects. That these are people with a genetic gift who, by virtue of their abilities, for some reason also gravitate toward the wine profession.

Apparently this is a fact. Fine. I had initially tried to deny it, believing instead that wine enthusiasts develop this trait over time and after countless hangovers and hundreds of dollars/pounds of teeth-whitening treatments. But as one critic writes in the Globe and Mail, the genetic argument may in fact convince me.

But all this academic mumbo -jumbo is not the only reason why what wine critics say will be lost on people. There is a much more straightforward reason, and that is because wine critics write for people who are a lot like them, not the average person on the street who probably just wants to be swayed to something other than Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc for a change.

Some people just want to be directed to something that won’t disappoint them, rather than be told that they should be able to pick out flavours of cedar, violet and that aromatic dry grass you get on rocky hillsides in August.

Most people justHokey pokey ice cream want to know why a certain wine is worth looking at, what it might taste like in terms that they understand (does graphite or forest floor really matter to the average person?) and whether it is drier than a scorpion’s armpit in Death Valley or more saccharine than a politician kissing a baby.

Take the ice cream cone to the left. I bought it when I was in New Zealand in February. It’s called hokey pokey, which is apparently a distinctly Kiwi flavour. If you were asking me to tell you what it tastes like and whether I’d recommend it, I’d say it’s a vanilla ice cream with lumps of honeycomb toffee mixed through. Would I recommend it? Yes – if you like vanilla ice cream with chunks in it.

I wouldn’t get bogged down by the intricate flavours in the ice cream (although I imagine aficionados might) or discuss whether the vanilla is strong or weak enough to stand up to the texture and sweetness of the toffee. Actually, if I wanted, I probably could, but most people I know don’t want that much information. Is it good? Yes or no.

I could, of course, be completely misinterpreting all of this, but I think sometimes people just want an honest opinion without all the ponce. This doesn’t change the fact that, if you’re writing for a publication like Decanter or Wine Spectator, the readers want all those details. I read them and I enjoy it. But if your audience isn’t so precise, perhaps people just want you to cut the theatrics and get on with it?

Murky glimpse of my makeshift cellar

A few bottles in my collection. Some for immediate drinking, some for a later date.

People often ask me what my cellar is like, so here it is. First thing to notice is that it is anything but glamorous. But the temperature is fairly consistent, it has some humidity, it is dark and, most important of all, it ensures my wine isn’t being stored next to my fridge.

On the bottom row is a collection of various things that need some ageing. Nothing is particularly expensive, but they are all interesting in one way or another. For example, there is a Mas de Daumas Gassac 2008, a Ch Doisy-Daene Grand Vin Sec 2009, Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2006 and 2007, as well as a Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel 2007.

I also have a few bottles of fizz, both French and English, most important of all being the Dom Perignon 2002, just out of view in this photo, which is looking for a reason to be popped.

Supermarket gems

A colleague asked me if I would write an article recommending dinner party wines to people who might find the entire process intimidating. The objective, of course, was to keep the price per bottle at less than £10 and find them at supermarkets in the UK.

Initially I thought this would be a challenge, but in fact there is a lot of great wine to be had. The following is the result of my expedition (and I admit it’s heavy on Waitrose wines, mainly because its selection is simply superior to other supermarkets).

Putting on a dinner party can be a stressful experience, so the last thing you want to do is find out the wine you’ve chosen is a dud.

The good news is matching wine to food isn’t difficult once you know a few basic rules. And you don’t have to spend a lot either; impressive bottles can be found for £10 or less. The best way to do this is to understand which wines go with which kinds of foods and, above all, to be adventurous and try things you haven’t had before.

For dishes that tend to be salads, white meats, fish or shellfish, white wines tend to be the best matches. If the flavours in the food are subtle or more savoury, go for a wine that isn’t too acidity or sweet, such as a chenin blanc or a pinot blanc. For oysters and other shellfish or seafood, you could even do well with a Muscadet. The trick is that you don’t want the wine to overpower the food you’re eating.

For something spicy, you will want a wine with more backbone, so a riesling or sauvignon blanc might go best with hotter foods. And if the dish has some spice to it, an off-dry or slightly sweeter wine will stand up better than something that is particularly dry.

For red wines, the wine served should complement the style of the dish, so try to match heavy reds with heavy meals and lighter reds with dishes that have more subtle flavours or are lighter in their consistency. For example, a cabernet sauvignon or perhaps one of the bigger Italian wines will go nicely with a roast beef or steak.

If the dish is lighter and has more delicate flavours, or is something like a soup or stew, you could opt for a merlot or a cabernet franc. If you are serving roast turkey or chicken, or perhaps a tuna steak or even pasta, you might want a pinot noir or even something like a Beaujolais.

There are no hard and fast rules in the end, but what you want to do is make sure you aren’t serving a tannic cabernet sauvignon-based wine with something that has delicate flavours or a light and supple wine with a brooding T-bon steak, otherwise neither the wine nor the food will taste as it should.

And finally, when it comes to dessert, the basic rule is that the wine has to be sweeter than what you’re serving. For example, you can’t serve a dry red or white wine with a very sweet dessert. Two good examples of versatile dessert wines are Sauternes and Tokaji.

WHITES

Cave de Lugny Chardonnay 2010 Macon-Villages, Burgundy, France (£7.49 Waitrose)
Macon-Villages is a bargain. Classic buttery chardonnay but with crisp lemon notes, it pairs well with poultry and soft cheeses.

Triade Campania Bianco 2010, Italy (£8.99 Waitrose)
This is made from three grapes – greco, fiano and falanghina – and works well with fish and shellfish. With a creamy texture and an aroma of vanilla and peach, an excellent wine at a very low price.

Cave de Beblenheim Pinot Gris Reserve, France (£9.49 Waitrose)
Alsatian wines don’t get enough publicity. This example is off-dry, meaning it is a bit more sweet and floral, but this makes it excellent as an aperitif or a partner for spicy dishes, such as Asian stir fry. It also goes well with smoked hams or fish.

Springfield Estate Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa (£8.99 Sainsbury’s)
Sauvignon blanc is a go-to white wine for most people. In flavour this sits somewhere between the minerality of a French sauvignon from the Loire and the fruitiness of Marlborough. Perfect on its own as an aperitif or even with mussels or a rich seafood dish.

REDS

Vinchio Vaglio, I Tre Vescovi 2009 Barbera s’Asti Superiore, Piedmont, Italy (£8.99 Waitrose)
Barbera is a grape that makes for versatile wines with wonderful flavours and a strong backbone but is often ignored by the average consumer. With flavours of cherries, dried fruits and woods, this wine goes well with game, venison and meat dishes with deep flavours.

Les Nivieres Saumur 2010, France (£7.99 Waitrose)
Cabernet franc is a grape normally known for making up blends in Bordeaux varieties but in the Loire Valley it stands on its own. Fruity and balanced with some tannin, this makes for a fairly versatile dinner wine that can be matched with meats and cheeses.

Domaine de Marie Faugeres 2010, France (£7.99 Waitrose)
If you want a beautiful red from the south of France but don’t want to pay for Chateauneuf-de-Pape, this blend of grenache, syrah and carignan will likely tick all the boxes. Full-bodied, rich and spicy gives you mulberry fruit and lots of earthy flavours that will go well with roasts and meat dishes.

Gran Tesoro Garnacha 2010, Spain (£4.07 Tesco)
If you want to go even cheaper than the Faugeres, this is an absolute bargain and yet still peppery and spicy like a good grenache-based wine ought to be. This has flavours of cherries and belies its sub-£5 price tag, going well with grilled meats and other robust dishes.