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.




Riesling from British Columbia and why I need to find $7.9-million

Hey brother, can you spare $7.9-million? If so, you could own your very own vineyard in a beautiful setting among British Columbia’s Gulf Islands.

That’s right, Saturna Island Family Estate Winery is up for sale – again – and the property could be yours if you can make the mortgage payments. It’s best if you’re into your cool climate and aromatic white wines, however, because I doubt you’ll b able to make anything good other than riesling, pinot gris and chardonnay. But that’s okay, because as it turns out, British Columbia is a good place to make riesling and other aromatic white wines. That is, if you aren’t among the masses who think they’re all sickly sweet German concoctions.

Depending on your upbringing, riesling is either the greatest white wine in the world or a sickly sweet concoction often associated brands like Black Tower and Blue Nun (even if they’re actually blends of several white grape varieties).

But put a decent glass of riesling in the hands of the uninitiated – whether it is sweet, semi-sweet or bone dry – and more often than not the reaction is positive in nature.

We associate riesling with Germany and Austria, where the cooler climates in these countries suit this grape well. But the rest of the world is catching up. Australia, New Zealand, New York’s Finger Lakes; each of these regions does a great job of it. Washington State has also proved to be an ideal climate for riesling and Chateau Ste Michelle, its most widely recognised vineyard, has grown to become the world’s largest single producer of the wine.

So if Washington State can do it, why not British Columbia? First things first, riesling is not a new grape for British Columbian wine producers. There are plenty of vineyards growing it and fermenting it, but it isn’t exactly the region’s signature white grape either. Perhaps it ought to be.

There are plenty of interesting producers in B.C. but I am going to pick out two that completely blew my socks off rather than prattle on about all the others.

First up, a dry riesling fermented with wild yeasts from Saturna Island Family Estate Winery.  Where is Saturna Island, you ask? Right here.

As islands go, Saturna is sparsely populated, having about 350 permanent residents. It is close to Victoria and Vancouver as the crow flies, but feels remote and rural given that it can only be accessed by sea or air.

But if you do end up buying this vineyard, don’t expect it to be a major tourist attraction. It takes a bit of time to get there by ferry, so only the truly determined customers are likely to schlep all that way.

BCwineSaturna Riesling Wild Ferment next to a Sumac Ridge Stellar’s Jay Brut

The 2011 Wild Ferment is crisp and dry with a moderate alcohol level of 12%. It is full of citrus flavours and offered pleasant drinking overall, and seemed to have a bit of a spritz to it. I’d say it could use with a bit more refinement, but it was worth the money (about $18) and is unique in being made with indigenous yeasts. Definitely one to watch.

Next up, Tantalus Vineyards, which also makes a pinot noir that I discussed in another post.

They make two standard rieslings at Tantalus, their ‘Riesling’ and their ‘Old Vines Riesling’. There is also an icewine variant, but I won’t get into that here.

The Tantalus Riesling 2012 is a blend of old and new vines, and is off-dry with medium acidity. It has a fruity, floral aroma, and is grassy with plenty of citrus on the palate. This is the cheaper of the two, at $23, and is well worth the price.

The Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2010 is a more mature, more rounded wine than its baby brother. The nose is full of gasoline/petrol aromas and it has plenty of citrus and lemon flavours. This is made in a dry style, but it is backed up with enough fruit to make it seem almost off-dry at times. This is definitely not a bone-dry, almost ‘stealy’ riesling. It has a lingering, fruity finish and is truly elegant. Cost? $30.

You can also find B.C. riesling at plenty of other vineyards, of course. Quails’ Gate, Nk’Mip, Cedar Creek, See Ya Later Ranch, Orofino, Snychromesh, and so on.

Now, how much would the mortgage repayments on $7.9-million be?

B.C. pinot noir: Apparently it is award-winning

Good news, everyone. A wine from British Columbia has been declared ‘best in the world.’ Yes, you read that right — the world. And not just any wine, but the most challenging of them all, the heartbreak grape, pinot noir.

Think I’m pulling your leg? If the Vancouver Sun says it is so, it must be true. And if Decanter hands out the award, well it really must be true.

There it is in the headline:

Mission Hill wins world’s best pinot noir award

Need any more convincing? Here’s a screen grab:

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 9.25.45 PM

That’s a bold statement, isn’t it? Best pinot noir. In the world. Ah, but when we get to the story’s lead line, we are — thankfully — given the qualifying statement:

Mission Hill Family Estate has won ‘World’s Best Pinot Noir’ in the under £15 category at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Oh. Well that’s a bit different, isn’t it? So, with that nugget of information out of the way, let’s move on to the next sentence:

Considered the world’s leading international competition, the stunning win puts B.C.’s Okanagan Valley on the world pinot noir map.

In the past, Canadian wine was reviled. But with any luck, it will soon be revered. Perhaps Canadian winemakers can do a better job with pinot noir than our various national ice hockey teams have been at winning recent world championships.

Anyway, to the more boring part of the article; the bit where I drone on about wine I have tasted.

For years, I had always wondered what all the fuss was with pinot noir. When I first saw the film Sideways, I was intrigued by it for sure, but when I travelled around Santa Barbara County tasting the wine, I wasn’t exactly sold. In fact, I was more taken by the syrah on offer. Perhaps my palate needed time to mature.

This is probably not the sort of thing I should confess given the bottle that got me into wine in the first place was, in fact, a pinot noir from WillaKenzie in Oregon.

But back in June, during a tour of vineyards in my home province of B.C., I began to notice that the pinot noir was actually pretty good. This was a new one for me.

So what did I find? Good pinot noir is available all over the valley, but I couldn’t taste it all. The highlights from my small selection came from Nk’Mip Cellars, Quails’ Gate, La Frenz and Tantalus, although this is by no means an exhaustive list.

The styles vary dramatically. Nk’Mip, which I covered in a previous blog entry, offered a basic pinot and a reserve, the former being more delicate and the latter being more Burgundian and woody. Both are good and worth buying.

However, La Frenz and Tantalus were the two big surprises for me.

La Frenz is a winery I didn’t know before I visited, but its rich pinot won me over and reminded me of the sort you would find in New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Located on the Naramata Bench north of the town of Penticton, La Frenz is in a vineyard area that is earning a reputation for good pinot.


The La Frenz Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 is earthy, very New World and powerful, but with plenty of red fruits, some blackberries and a tannic kick. This is very New World but is also an homage to Burgundy with its woody notes. This was one of my favourites and, while it was powerful and could use some years to mature, it was balanced with dryness, acidity and tannins, so it didn’t have that annoying fruit-bomb characteristic that is found elsewhere.

IMG_0249The view of Lake Okanagan from the La Frenz tasting room

At Quails’ Gate, the operation is bigger, slicker and more commercially minded, but that doesn’t mean the quality of the wine is any lesser. This is a vineyard that makes good rieslings, chardonnays and pinot noirs, as well as a more curious variety called foch. Before you conclude that foch is a lesser wine, try the Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch or the premium Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Old Vines Foch. You might find it surprising.

IMG_0251Quails’ Gate tasting room

As for the pinot, again, there is quality here. The basic Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2011 seemed to offer some of the best value in the Okanagan. With bright red cherry flavours, medium tannins and medium acidity, it is correct to the variety. Meanwhile, the Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2011 was a bigger wine. A very deep red colour with oaky aromas, medium tannins and a long finish, this had lots of bright red fruits and was very enjoyable.

IMG_0252Rows of vines outside the Quails’ Gate tasting room

And finally, to Tantalus. Now this is a winery that produces some satisfying wine. Best known for its incredible rieslings, its pinot noir is just starting to find its legs.

IMG_0261The Tantalus tasting room has impressive aesthetics

When I visited the vineyard, we had the opportunity misfortune to witness an event that all growers dread: a hailstorm.

This is what a hailstorm looks like from the windows of a tasting room:

IMG_0265Those clouds bring hail…

Okay, so you can’t see much other than dark clouds, but I assure you the looks on the employees’ faces was anything but happiness at that moment.

I simply loved the wines at Tantalus. This 40 acre estate produces mainly riesling and pinot noir, although they also have some chardonnay and even a syrah icewine.

The riesling is the showstopper at this estate. Made in a dry and an off-dry style, it could very well be the best riesling to come out of B.C. (more of which at another time).

But the big surprise was the Tantalus Pinot Noir 2010. Made from fruit harvested from young vines as well as older spätburgunder vines, this is a delicate, supple pinot noir with a good dose of acidity and tart red fruits. It isn’t yet polished as wines go, but there is real elegance here. Matured in 100% new French oak, there is something of a pine or cedar aroma to go along with the fruit. This has plenty of balance but still needs time in bottle.

IMG_0264Rugged Okanagan scenery as viewed from the Tantalus tasting room

And that Mission Hill pinot noir that won the Decanter award? I still haven’t tried it.

How to sound like you know about wine while having the sommelier decide for you instead

ID-100105602Some people think I know ‘a thing or two’ about wine. But what they don’t realise is what I don’t know about wine could probably fill the millions of bottles of Blossom Hill produced each year.

The fact about having a just little bit of knowledge about something is that all the things I don’t know about it become apparent when I’m in the company of those who truly know a lot about it – such as people who actually earn a living working in the wine business rather than those who blog about it incessantly, like yours truly.

Needless to say, I get by with what little I know about wine with a bit of luck and a lot of blagging. I suspect most people are doing this anyway, so it works out for the best one way or another.

So there I was the other week eyeing up the ravioli and Cote de Boeuf at London’s Bleeding Heart restaurant and sweating slightly after being given the task of choosing the wine for the my hosts.

In other words, for the two people who invited me to this lunch specifically because they like wine, they knew I liked wine and they knew they would like wine even more if they drank it with me at what happens to be one of London’s best restaurants.

It was a tall order. And even though I often head straight for the Bordeaux when steak is discussed, I’m also someone who wants to try something different. Lately I’ve been sizing up the offerings from the South of France, so my eyes instantly locked on to the Madiran.

Enter the restaurant’s sommelier, adorned with a bunch-of-grapes pin and a very French accent. Now, when you’re at a restaurant nice – or just expensive – enough to have a full-time sommelier, it can go one of two ways. Either he/she will be attentive, informative and helpful, guiding you to the right wines for the occasion and your tastes. Or he/she will do none of this and give you vague answers to all of your questions and say only positive things about the wines you’re considering.

Sometimes we get sommeliers who just want to please you by agreeing with everything you say. But the last thing we need is a sycophantic sommelier, someone who will only say positive things about your choices. Certainly not.

What I want – and need, because I really don’t know as much as I would like to pretend – is someone who will stop me making a massive gastronomic faux pas, a person who will be willing wedge his body between me and an awful bottle of wine that will make my Chateaubriand taste like a petrified cowboy boot.

So, in terms of the two kinds of sommeliers in the world (I accept there might be more than two), sometimes we get the former, sometimes we get the latter. On this occasion, I got the former, and I tried my utmost not to looked relieved in front of my hosts.

Standing before me was a man who, free from judgement on his face, said matter-of-factly that his Madiran was in a light style and probably wouldn’t give me the satisfaction I desired. How bout the red Pic St Loup, I asked? What you want, he said, is the Faugeres – and you will not be disappointed.

The Faugeres in question, Domaine de Cebene Les Bancels Les Faugeres 2010, was everything we were after. Spice, depth of character, a satisfying viscosity, plenty of black fruits and enough backbone to stand up to the obligatory slab of meat you eat when a person goes to the Bleeding Heart.

Like any good wine ought, it made me look like a hero. But in reality it was all a blag, a lucky result garnered from a helpful sommelier who knew what I was after and almost certainly saw how befuddled I had become when handed his tome of a wine list.

Castillon: Fashionably unfashionable

Castillon: it’s getting better and better

Sometimes this whole wine tasting lark opens my eyes to the fact even the most expensive bottles on show don’t necessarily lead to as much satisfaction as, say, that miracle find that cost me less than a tenner.

There I was the other week at the Laithwaite’s press tasting and then a dinner with the managing director of CA Grands Crus, alternating between fine wines from lust-worthy chateaux and reassuringly delicious offerings for midweek drinking.

At the Laithwaite’s event we rolled in at about 3 p.m. with every expectation of slowly working our way through everything they had on show – only to edit out large swathes of wine from the start. Turns out the doors were being shut at 5 p.m. and, given our tendency for non-stop childish banter between each taste, it was going to take several hours to work through the trove ahead of us.

More often than not I found immense satisfaction in wines that came with most price tags as opposed to the icons, giving me reassurance there is hope yet for the punter who can’t – or won’t – pay for the posh stuff.

One of my favourite wines was an affordable viognier in a sexy bottle that plunges from a wide base into an almost too-delicate neck, reminiscent of the new Bollinger Champagne vessel.

Now, I’m not going to say I don’t love expensive wines because that would be a) a lie and b) hypocritical since my cellar is littered with things that you will never see on a half-price offer at Tesco, let alone for sale in a supermarket.

Some of the most memorable drinks I’ve ever tasted have been Lafite, Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc, Yquem and so on. The last thing I will do is tell you expensive wine isn’t any good, because so much of it is, in fact, really rather amazing. I would bathe in them if this was 1) in any way beneficial and 2) financially attainable.

But everyday life is not about drinking first growths. Not if you’re a journalist like me who earns less in a year than Bill Clinton is paid for a single after-dinner speech.

So with that rather sobering thought in mind, it is reassuring I can still find amazing value within my limited budget, the sort that makes you lean back in your chair with incredulity.

Enter Chateau Tertre de Belvés, a wine from the somewhat unfashionable but up-and-coming Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux appellation. This is the place where Tony Laithwaite has his vineyard and French winemaking base even though many of the snootier types turn their noses up at the appellation’s wines.

At the recent #7wordwinereview dinner, this was the wine I pulled out of my cellar to share with the group. It was bought two years ago from the Cafe a Vin at Le Comptoir de Genès, a restaurant/bar/market located a few minutes away from Castillon an one of my local hangouts when I’m in the area.

A few hours before the dinner I nearly decided to go to a shop to buy something different. I’m glad I didn’t, because it received more accolades than most wines that have ever been served at that table, and certainly more than anything I’ve brought in the past.

This bottle cost me no more than £10. But the first time my English friend and I tried it, at The Winemaker’s vineyard back in 2010, we knew it was good. The oak on the nose, the fruit on the palate. While not a perfect wine – it is a bit rough and ready and is missing a few things on the palate here and there – its value for money and rustic charm make it a hit.

And that is the whole point about wine appreciation. If a bottle can bring a smile to your face, it matters very little how much it cost.

Other Castillon wines worth a try:

How to miss the last train from East Dulwich after drinking too much organic wine

Anyone who lives in London has two concerns on a night out: whether they have to cross the river and whether or not the trains will be running late enough to return home easily.

Being one of those types who lives in North London, my nights out in the southern side of the city have only ever ended one of two ways: either very early so I can catch the final train home, or very late because I have  missed said train (Read: Christmas Eve 2007,  when I walked 12 miles home to Highbury from South Wimbledon).

But sometimes missing that final train home and having to string together a series of buses to reach your bed isn’t always a bad thing.This is exactly what happened following my trip to East Dulwich last week in order to try the food and wines at biodynamic and organic wine specialist Green & Blue Wines.

Now, I have to say I’m lucky enough to have great shops like Highbury Vintners and The Sampler on my doorstep, while English wine specialist Wine Pantry and a Laithwaites outlet are near my office.

I’ve always been polyamorous when it comes to wine shops, however, so I felt no sense of disloyalty making the trip down to East Dulwich after being invited there by Kate, the owner of this shop/restaurant/deli (full disclosure: this dinner and the wine were paid for by Green & Blue wines).

Organics are something I became well-acquainted with growing up on Canada’s west coast, where it was impossible not to have a concern for green issues given it’s an area known for tree huggers and ardent recyclers.

But shops like Green & Blue and all the others I buy from are a bit of a revelation for me.

You see, I grew up in British Columbia where, if I wanted to buy alcohol, I had three options. I could shop at the BC Liquor Store where the stock was dictated by what would make an easy sell at each location, at a cold beer and wine store attached to a pub, or at a VQA wine shop, which sold only specialist wines made in Canada.

So there I was in East Dulwich trying to find my way to Green & Blue. This isn’t a place you’ll have trouble finding. Situated in the middle of the high street, it occupies the width of two storefronts and is painted in a bright, lime green. If the objective was to be noticed, Kate scores full points here.

Now, to the food and the wine.

One thing I love is the idea of merging a wine merchant with a restaurant. This is something I admire about St John Bar and Restaurant, and have noticed popping up among other retailers. If you can do it well, it’s a fantastic plan.

This was the menu for the evening:

  • Roast summer vegetable salad with goat’s curd
  • Sardines with chilli, garlic and dill
  • Slow roast shoulder of lamb with vegetable ragout
  • Dark Chocolate Pot (served with fino sherry)

Forgive me now while I say very quickly the food was superb (and I really do mean it was fantastic and I would recommend it to everyone) so I can move on to the wine.

First up, Domaine Jean Maupertuis Petillant Pink Bulles. This is made from gamay grapes, comes from the Loire and is really just a simple and fun sparkling wine. There isn’t much complexity here; fizz and a medium-sweet flavour dominates. There is some nuttiness, strawberries and lots of fruits, but overall it isn’t a complex wine. This is something to drink very cold on the patio when the sun is shining.

With our starter and the sardines I opted for the next wine on offer, a rosé from Rousillon. This was the Les Casot de Mailloles Canta Manana Rose 2010. Unfortunately this wasn’t showing at its best, but it was very perfumed with a lot of floral tones and red fruits. On first whiff it had the odour of a hair salon, which didn’t go over well, but I have to say it matched nicely with the food. I wouldn’t say I was totally in love with this wine, but I’d be willing to try it again to reassess.

The wine to accompany the lamb shoulder was a very lightly fizzed Vittorio Bera Barbera Monferrato ‘Le Verrane’, which had that classic barbera flavour of cherries and berries, plus the acidic backbone to stand up to the meat. While the slight fizz is common to many Italian wines, I have to say I’d prefer it was completely still, but it was a good wine and definitely worth a try if you haven’t had this style before.

Once we’d made it past these three bottles, I lost track of everything else that was going on. Another bottle of red came out, but sadly I have no photo of it or even a note to tell me what it was like. Events became a blur.

Then when the pudding came out we had a glass of fino sherry to accompany it, but again there is no photographic evidence to back it up. What I do know is fino and dark chocolate can go together nicely even if you think it is all wrong, although I found it better to have a few sips of it rather than a full glass, otherwise the dryness of the sherry overwhelms the palate.

Not only did I lose track of what we were drinking, but I also lost track of time entirely. By the time I’d hunted down and bought a bottle of Qupé Central Coast Syrah 2009 from Kate and walked out the door, it was midnight. And apparently at midnight in East Dulwich it is impossible to catch a train back to London Bridge, which meant I had to wait 15 minutes for a bus to take me north of the Thames, from where I caught another bus home.

By the time I got to bed, it was 1:30 a.m.