My visit to the Wine Pantry: A tiny corner of English wine heaven

NOT FAR FROM my office in Southwark is a small shop in Borough Market that sells nothing but English wine. It’s smaller than my bedroom, has bottles stacked to the ceiling and looks like it would be downright uncomfortable working there in the winter given opens like a garage-door onto the street.

But the Wine Pantry seems to be doing something right. In the short time I was there, people were out front sipping from glasses in the sun and there was no shortage of people popping in looking for something new to try.

A decade ago, or even five years ago now I think about it, this would have been a laughable business model. Just imagine how the conversation might have gone with a bank manager back then, when English wine was mostly a curiosity except for a few Champagne-beating sparklers.

A shop selling just English wine? When there’s a wine lake in France overflowing our shores already?

Much has changed in the English wine market lately. The quality is now becoming exceptional, and that’s not just the fizz. Also, it seems enthusiasts are willing to pay the higher prices this wine commands now it’s of a high enough calibre, whereas in the past anything other than the fizz was often of touch-and-go drinkability.

My introduction to the Wine Pantry was one of mild embarrassment where I was put on the spot by my good friends. Knowing I blog about wine here, on www.12×75.com and also at Ella Mag, they thought it absurd I’d never stopped in previously. And they’re right; I’ve procrastinated ever since the shop opened.

Knowing I was a wine blogger, the two women in the shop were quick to give me samples of every manner of wine they had in stock, ranging from sparklers I’d lusted after for some time (after all these years I finally got to try Break Bottom) to still whites, rosés and reds that no one will ever see in a supermarket.

Will I be back again? Definitely. I fear I’ve fallen madly in love with this place. For every wine I tried, there were four or five more to sample on my next visit.

That evening I walked away with two wines from Wine Pantry, one of which was a gift from a friend and the other a gift to myself.

The gift from my friend was a Hush Heath Estate Nannette’s Rosé 2010, made from the second pressing of the estate’s sparkling rosé.

Nannette’s is a delicate rosé that is pale in colour and has just a hint of a strawberry aroma, as all good pink wines should. This is certainly no fruity imposter. It’s more mineral and grassy in flavour, with low alcohol that is perfect for sunny days in the garden with perhaps some seafood to keep it company. I was reminded of proper Provençal rosé, with its pale, almost salmon pink colour, and complex palate.

Switching gears slightly, the gift I bought for myself was the Breaky Bottom Cuvée Francine 2007 sparkling wine. Made from the standard three Champagne grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pino meunier – as well as the estate’s somewhat quirky use of seyval blanc, this is still a bit young and needs time in bottle to develop more of those Champenois flavours that are hanging around in the background.

My beef with most English sparkling wine is it is released to the market far too early, a long time before their complex flavours have truly come to the fore. Another year or two in bottle can’t hurt almost any of the fizz coming from these shores and the same can be said of this one from Breaky Bottom. If I drink it before the year is out, it will be because I had a moment of weakness.

Wine of the week: Limoux – France’s first fizz

IF I ASKED YOU to name the main sparkling wines of the world, chances are you will list off Champagne, cava and prosecco.

Such a response would be entirely accurate and similar to what anyone else would say. Sure, sparkling wine is also made in England, New Zealand, California, Canada, Australia and many other regions, but none so far has gained as much prominence as the three above.

But while Champagne is France’s – if not the world’s – most famous sparkling wine region, it isn’t the only one.

In fact, almost every wine-producing area in France has a sparkling wine, often known as ‘crémant’ and  made in the traditional method like Champagne.

The most important of all these crémants is comes from one of the oldest and most important sparkling wine regions of the world: Limoux.

Sadly, most people probably haven’t heard of Limoux as a sparkling wine producer. Yet, like Champagne, most of its wines are of the fizzy variety and, in fact, there are claims that a group of monks at a local monastery produced the world’s first bubbly back in 1531.

This region isn’t exactly in a place you would think fizz would originate. It is almost as far south as you can go in France before hitting Spain, tucked away in the Languedoc region near the Pyrenees. While the Languedoc is known for being a hot corner of France – with the wine styles to prove it – Limoux is a slightly cooler part of this region.

The great thing about these wines is they are much cheaper than Champagne but can offer just as much enjoyment.

Now, the reason I’m writing all of this mumbo-jumbo today is because last weekend as I was headed to Manchester to visit a friend I decided I wanted a sparkling wine as an aperitif. I wanted to find a bargain (not because I don’t think my friend is deserving of expensive wine or anything like that), but beyond that I didn’t have many requirements.

As I was shopping I bounced from an English sparkler to Champagne and then…to a bottle of Roche Lacour Crémant de Limoux.

We can’t say for sure if the monks in Limoux really did produce the first sparkling wine in the world, long before it appeared in Champagne (a competing story says it was invented in England first), but it’s a good story.

Limoux sparkling wines come in two versions: Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux.

Blanquette de Limoux must be made with a minimum 90% of the mauzac grape, also known as ‘blanquette’, with the remainder being chardonnay and chenin blanc.

Crémant de Limoux, on the other hand, can contain 40-70% chardonnay, 20-40% chenin blanc, 10-20% mauzac and 0-10% pinot noir.

Wines to try:

Roche Lacour Crémant de Limoux 2009 (£12.49, Laithwaite’s)
While young for a vintage sparkling wine, this has plenty of yeast and brioche on the nose like you would find with Champagne and nice bubbles without being too fizzy. In the mouth it is fresh with plenty of fruit and, while made in a dry style, has a slight bit of sweetness that makes it great for everyday drinking.

Cuvée Royale Brut NV Crémant de Limoux (£10.44, Waitrose Wine Direct)
Dry with all the richness and biscuity aromas of a sparkling wine made in the traditional method, this is 70% chardonnay, 20% chenin blanc and 10% pinot noir. Fresh and citrusy. Also a bargain at this price.

Tesco Finest 1531 Blanquette De Limoux (£9.99, Tesco)
When a wine is a Blanquette de Limoux, it must adhere to stricter controls on the types of grapes that can be used in the final blend. But this doesn’t mean it is going to be more expensive, as this example proves. This is biscuity and refreshing with apple flavours.

Photo: Rosen Georgiev

This blog also appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.

White wines best known to be red

This article originally appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.

CONTINUING MY theme of looking at white wines (even though the majority of my cellar is dedicated to red wines), this week I want to discuss some great white wines that many people never knew existed.

Mention Rioja or Chateauneuf-du-Pape to the average wine consumer and they are more than likely to think of big, brooding red wines. You know the sort: bold, oaky, full of spice and bursting with the flavour of sunshine beating down on the rocky soil in which the grapevines grow.

Obviously these famous red wines make up the vast majority of the production in these regions, but for every yin there is a yang and, in this case, that is a white wine that can be characterised by profound power and complexity when done right.

White Rioja makes up just a small amount of the region’s annual production, somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent depending on whose statistics you read. This is too bad, because it is a great wine, albeit an acquired taste for wine drinkers who are more accustomed to sauvignon blanc, chardonnay or any of the other popular varietals.

Made from the viura grape (also known as macabeo), which is planted in much fewer numbers than, say, sauvignon or chardonnay, white rioja often displays oxidised flavours that often go against the preferred flavour of a white wine. That is to say it can taste of caramel and a nuttiness, which is most common in sherry.

However, the best white Riojas have a fresh flavour and a pleasant fruity quality to counteract that nutty edge. And because producers are now able to add sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to their blends, the wine will likely take on a more international flavour that is likely to attract more drinkers, even if it means it loses some of its traditional characteristics.

White Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CdP) is an entirely different beast. CdP in general can be made from any combination of 13 different grape varieties, five of which are white. A producer may use just one or all six – depending on how ambitious they feel.

These white varieties are grenache blanc, roussanne, bourboulenc, clairette, picardan, and picpoul. None of these is necessarily a household name for the average wine drinker – much like the viura in white Rioja – although the grenache is probably the most abundant in world wine production.

Because winemakers have freedom to pick and choose white grapes make the final blend in their wines, a white CdP can be quite different from one producer to the next. Clairette may be the main grape in some wines because of its fresh acidity, whereas many producers believe the rousanne should be the main grape because of it tends to have more body and structure than the others.

White CdP is one that divides opinions. Wine collectors say they are short-lived and should be consumed within a couple of years of the vintage, while their producers say they can outlast their red counterparts in the cellar. But that is not the main dig. A lot of wine buffs think white CdP comes up a bit short, but the fact is when they are at their best they can be downright Burgundian and much like a grand cru Chablis.

These wines, full-bodied and lush with fruit, can be fabulous food pairings when done well. Unfortunately, they don’t come cheap. Any CdP selling for less than £15 is likely to be a dud unless it has been heavily discounted.

If your budget won’t stretch to £15 or more for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, go for the white Rioja. You can find the Spanish white for less than £10.

Wines to try:

White Rioja

Cune Barrel-Fermented Blanco 2009/11, Rioja, Spain (Waitrose, £9.01)
Selling for less than £10, this is affordable enough to be a weekday wine but will also go with your weekend dinner. Made in a rich, creamy style and not too overpowering with the fruit,it has notes of citrus on the palate and that nutty, smoky vanilla aroma this wine is famous for.

Rioja Blanco, Barrel Fermented 2009/2010 Marques de Caceres (Majestic, £9.99, Min six bottle order)
This has pear and citrus fruit flavours and the buttery, vanilla notes that come from being fermented in barrel. Made in a dry style, this goes well with food, particularly seafood.

White Cheateaneuf-du-Pape

Clos Saint Michel 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhône, France (Waitrose, £18.99)
Full-bodied, rich and fruity, this is a complex wine as CdPs tend to be. It will go well with food, particularly those from the South of France and the Mediterranean. While many white CdPs are mainly mixtures of roussanne and one or two other grapes, this one is a blend of grenache blanc, roussanne, clairette and bourboulenc.

Domaine des Saumades Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2008, Rhône, France (Berry Bros & Rudd, £23.45)
This wine has a backbone of equal measures of grenache blanc and clairette to make up 80 per cent of the wine, the remaining 20 per cent being mostly bourboulenc and small amount of roussanne. This has the typical notes of peaches and fruits in it for freshness, along with some nuttiness and a creamy quality. It would pair well with fish or cheese, particularly goat’s cheese.

Photo: Stoonn

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.