Saturday, 19 April 2008

Wines for Spring

Snow and hail showers one minute, bright sunshine the next – it must be Spring. Thinking of wines to drink at this time of year has its problems. Are the skies grey and the temperatures low, making you want to reach for a chunky, comforting red? Or has the sun emerged and you feel that Summer is surely only round the corner? When the weather is “in betweeny” like this, you need versatile wines that can adapt to changing conditions.

My first bit of advice is to have something red and something white and chilled ready for the off. If you’re braving an optimistic outdoor lunch, or even the first barbecue of the year, you probably want something cool to match the mood. But when the sun goes down at this time of year, the cold soon returns, so you might be after a spicy red to warm the cockles. Secondly, I find rosés just too summery for this time of year, so I’d rather hold off on those until the warm weather is really with us.

So, what to drink? For white wines, there’s something innately Spring-like in the herbaceous aromas and zingy acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. We are currently spoilt for choice in this country for Sauvignons, so attached are we to its gooseberry, leafy charms. You still need a little more weight and depth of flavour now than in Summer, when coolness and refreshment are of prime importance, so go for the fuller styles, such as those from New Zealand and Chile. Threshers/Wine Rack has Vidal Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand at £7.99 single bottle price or £5.33 as part of their 3 for 2 offer. Or you could try their Saint Clair Vicar’s Choice Sauvignon Blanc for £11.99/£7.99 for classic New Zealand pungent, ripe fruit. Majestic have a good value southern French Sauvignon Blanc, Les Fumées Blanches, which is £5.99 or down to £4.79 if you buy two.

If you fancy a change from the Sauvignon norm, head to Waitrose to sniff out a bottle of Hatzidakis Assyrtiko from the Greek Island of Santorini for £8.99. Banish all thoughts of evil Retsina and open your mind to the zesty, mineral intensity that the Assyrtiko grape produces on Santorini’s volcanic soils. I’m a big fan of this wine and it’s a great one to give to friends blind and play “guess the country” with.

Viognier is another grape that fits well with this time of year: it has a lovely apricotty/peachy character, plus some spice. When the weather hots up some can lack freshness because of their lowish acidity, but at this time of year their lush fruit is very welcome. Anakena Single Vineyard Viognier from the Rapel Valley in Chile is available at Threshers/Wine Rack for £8.49 or £5.66 if you buy three (when are they going to give up this absurd pricing I wonder, £5.66 is the real price, so don’t let yourself pay the higher one). This made me think more of pineapple than apricots, but delicious nevertheless.

What about reds?
Very light reds, like Beaujolais, which work really well slightly chilled, are, for me, all about Summer drinking: we’re not quite there yet. That rather dull-sounding term, mid-weight, is what it’s all about and here are some of my favourites.

The Loire is mostly known here for its white wines, but it does produce a fair amount of red. We are generally not as keen on them as the French are themselves, but they are great “wine bar” wines (as in good to drink on their own or with a token amount of food) and just right for Spring. Threshers/Wine Rack offers the uninspiringly-named Haut Poitou Rouge, made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc at £6.99/£4.66. Plenty of juicy fruit with a smoky edge to it and (important for lighter-bodied reds) low tannins. The vintage I tried was 2005, which was particularly good, so try to make sure you find the same one. Joguet Les Petites Roches from Chinon in the Loire is a 100% Cabernet Franc, available at Waitrose for £8.35. It’s rather more weighty and serious than the Haut Poitou Rouge, so one to have with food.

Pinot Noir is a supremely flexible grape which can suit many different foods and occasions. I recommended it to go with Christmas turkey and I make no apologies for bringing it up again now. Pinot Noir’s low tannin and softly spicy fruit are the keys to its adaptability – it’s great with or without food, and is light-bodied enough to match up to warming weather. Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand is available from Wine Rack at £11.99/£7.99 and is certainly worth the 3 for 2 price. From Chile, Waitrose have Valdivieso Pinot Noir Reserva at £8.99, with plenty of ripe, but not overdone, fruit.

A final note: I’ve checked all prices for accuracy as far as possible at the time of writing. However, due to budget increases on duty as well as rising costs in other areas, wine prices are in a rather fluid state – be aware that prices may have changed by the time you go shopping!

Friday, 4 April 2008

Organic and biodynamic wines

In the Autumn, collect some fresh cow manure, put it into a cow horn and bury it in your vineyard on the Autumn equinox. Six months later, at the Spring equinox, dig up the horn, remove the manure and put it in a barrel of water. Using a long stick, stir vigorously for one hour: the biodynamic preparation 500 (cow horn manure) is now ready to spray on your vineyard, preferably when the moon is descending and in front of a “fruit” or “root” constellation. This is just one example of a variety of preparations used by biodynamic wine growers, used in harmony with the movements of the moon and planets.

Sound a bit weird? Certainly not mainstream and surely only practised by muesli-eating, goat-wool sock-wearing hippie types? Well, the news from the wine world this week is that Domaine de la Romanée Conti, in the heart of Burgundy and makers of the most expensive wines in the world, have converted all their vineyards to biodynamics from the 2007 vintage.

So what is biodynamics and where did it come from? Biodynamic agriculture was inspired by the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (best known in this country for Steiner schools) at the beginning of the twentieth century. In essence, it takes organic cultivation as a starting point and adds elements of Astrology (the influence of the Moon and planets) along with Homeopathic techniques and principles. Despite sounding New Agey, it can be seen as an attempt to return to an earlier era of agriculture, before mechanisation, before agro-chemicals, before calendars even, when farmers relied on the movements and phases of the moon to guide their activities.

What is the difference between organic and biodynamic?

To drastically over-simplify, organic viticulture essentially lists what a grower CANNOT do: they must not use any man-made chemicals to produce their crop of grapes. Incidentally, there is legally no such thing as “organic wine” in the EU: the technically correct term is “wine made from organically-grown grapes”.

Biodynamic growers do not have to be certified organic (though many of them are), but they should use biodynamic preparations, such as the cow horn manure above to ensure the health of the vineyard soils and vines. The annually produced Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar provides information on planting times (based on the position of the moon) and categorizes each day as either flower, root, leaf or root to guide vineyard operations. If all this sounds too wacky to take on, consider this: Thresher’s/Wine Rack, not noted for sandal-wearing tendencies, make sure they run their wine-tastings for the press on fruit days, as they find wines taste consistently better then than on, say, leaf days.

How do you spot a biodynamic (or organic) wine?
Easier said than done sometimes. Some biodynamic growers choose not to become certified by either Demeter or Biodyvin, the two official bodies. Even some who are certified choose not to mention the fact on their labels: their decision to use biodynamics is to make what they consider better wine, it’s not a marketing technique to appeal to the consumer. In general, each country has its own organic certification body, such as Ecocert in France. Again, though, not all organic growers choose to be certified, or to put any official recognition on the label, preferring the wines to do the talking. My own experience leads me to the conclusion that, the bigger the word “organic” is on a bottle’s label, the poorer the wine will be.

So, it can be hard to spot an organic or biodynamic wine, and the most clearly-labelled ones may not be the best. The good news, however, is that you don’t need to fork out for wines from Domaine de la Romané Conti in order to get a taste of high quality biodynamic wines. Here are some of my favourite wines as well as tips on where to look for organic and biodynamic wines.

If buying organic is important to you, then you should head to This online specialist stocks only organic or biodynamic wines (a s well as beers and ciders) and all are clearly identified as biodynamic, where applicable. Les Caves de Pyrène, in Artington just outside Guildford, is a happy hunting ground for those who are interested in what Les Caves like to call “real wines”. They stock plenty of organic and biodynamic French wines, but also have a great range of Italian wines and some crackers from New Zealand – including the biodynamic Felton Road Pinot Noir at £21.27.

Of the supermarkets, Waitrose is the best at offering a wide range of high quality organic and biodynamic wines. I would pick out Domaine Huet’s delicious whites from the Loire, made from the Chenin Blanc grape: Le Mont Sec is £15.25. They also have what is, as far as I know, the only biodynamic Champagne: Fleury NV at £24.99. Vintage Roots stock the entire Fleury Champagne range, including their delicious rosé at £28.

If reading about biodynamic wines gives the impression that only highly-priced wines could possibly be made in this way, think again. Emiliana Organicos is the largest organic and biodynamic winery in Chile and its Adobe range of wines is available from £4.99 at Majestic. Adobe Carmenère and Merlot are great value wines, but if you want to see what a couple more pounds a bottle gets you, check out the Emiliana Organicos’ Novas wines at Vintage Roots.

Australia in general seems to shy away from organic and, especially, biodynamic wine – with notable exceptions including Cullen in Western Australia’s Margaret River. Vanya Cullen’s reds are the stars of her range and you can get a taste of them at Godalming-based merchant Imbibros, who list her Ellen Bussell Red at £10.95.

Chapoutier is one of the best-known producers in France’s Rhone Valley, but many of its fans don’t know that it is also the largest French producer of biodynamic wines. Their top wines, Hermitage, Cote Rôtie and the like are well in excess of £25 a bottle, but Chapoutier make a huge range of wines and Vintage Roots lists their Côteaux du Tricastin for £7.25. Just a word of warning: Chapoutier make wines from their own vineyards, which are all organic and biodynamic. But they also make wines under the Chapoutier label where they have bought in grapes from other growers: there are no guarantees on organic/biodynamic credentials for these wines. It’s not easy to tell which you’re faced with – sometimes it’s not easy being green!