Friday, 13 June 2008

Searching for the great white

When I first started taking an interest in wine, it was Chardonnay. Then when we’d tired of over-oaked, overdone Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio took over as the “default” white. Now you only have to look at the shelves in the off-licence or supermarket to know that Sauvignon Blanc has become our white wine of choice.

But as soon as any wine has achieved that level of popularity and ubiquity, we start to get dissatisfied with “the usual” and an itch to find the next big thing. If you get the feeling that Delboy would be ordering a glass of Sauvignon Blanc today instead of Beaujolais Nouveau in his Peckham wine bar, you know it must be time to move on.

But where next? What are the candidates for the next big white wine? Here is my shortlist for wines that could make it to the top spot.

Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc’s home is the mid-section of the Loire Valley in France. There they use the grape to make a huge range of wines from light, fresh sparkling Crémant, to bone dry Savennières, Vouvray and Anjou Blanc, to lusciously sweet Côteaux du Layon and Bonnezeaux. Made well, Chenin delivers plenty of round, crisp fruit, sometimes with a hint of honey on the nose, even when bone dry. It has crisp acidity, like Sauvignon Blanc, but tends to be rather more rounded in character, without the herbaceous, grassy character that marks out Sauvignon. Do beware though: Chenin Blanc needs lowish yields to show its true character and South Africa especially is guilty of producing vast quantities of cheap, dull Chenin, so it’s best to spend a little bit more than bargain basement prices.

Waitrose have La Grille Classic Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2006 for £8.25, with plenty of crisp, well-defined fruit and good length. They also stock one of my favourite white wines, Domaine Huet Le Mont Sec Vouvray 2005 at £15.25. Not cheap, but a truly special wine with fantastic depth of flavour, great length, deliciously ripe but crisp fruit – it’s a certified biodynamically-produced wine too.

Wine writers bang on about Riesling, each year predicting that this really will be when Riesling makes its comeback, which then fails to happen. Why on earth do we bother, when it seems clear that most wine drinkers just can’t take Riesling to their hearts? It’s because Riesling is such a fascinating, expressive grape that makes some fantastic wines from around the world. Part of the trouble for many drinkers is that Riesling is unfairly associated with sweet, industrially-produced German wines like Liebfraumilch – which is not even made from Riesling. However, German wines are generally perennially out of fashion, the crimplene flairs of the wine world.

So if you want to ease yourself into the world of Riesling, without fear of coming across something sweet and sickly, I’d head for Australia, which is making some truly exciting and always dry Rieslings. Try O’Leary Walker Polish Hill River Riesling 2007, £8.99 at Waitrose for a taste of this deliciously crisp, racy grape. Majestic have Paulett’s Riesling 2006, Polish Hill River (obviously a hot spot for Riesling) for £9.99, or £8.49 if you buy 2 bottles. Thresher/Wine Rack have the 2006 Leasingham Magnus Riesling from the Clare Valley for £8.99 or £5.99 at the 3 for 2 price, which is textbook Aussie Riesling: crisp, waxy and limey.

Viognier is definitely becoming steadily more fashionable, going from a little-known variety found only in a tiny part of France’s Rhône Valley, to an international grape grown in Chile, Australia, New Zealand – as well as in large swathes of the south of France. In contrast to Chenin and Riesling, Viognier is not characterised by crisp acidity: indeed it can be rather “fat”, even flabby, if not treated carefully in the vineyard. But Viognier’s trump card is its delicious peach/apricot fruit character, sometimes with a little spice. Perhaps the pinnacle of Viognier is its original home in the tiny appellation of Condrieu in the Northern Rhône: Chapoutier’s Condrieu “Invitare” 2006 can show you what all the fuss is about, but it will set you back £25 at Majestic. For more everyday enjoyment try Waitrose’s d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne 2007 for £8.99, hailing from McLaren Vale in Australia, or Sainsbury’s Stamford Brook Viognier 2007 from South East Australia at £5.99.

So will it be one of these three that will ultimately triumph? I’ll let you know in about five years’ time.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

On your marks...

Does this sound familiar? You’re in the supermarket and want to pick up a couple of bottles of reliable wine, nothing fancy, while you’re there. With a budget of £6 and only a couple of minutes to spare, you’re looking for surefire, good value wines. Get ready for supermarket wine sweep. Here are my hot tips for good value, reliable wines from the aisles.
First things first: avoid the big names (you know what I mean: Blossom Hill, Gallo, Hardy's and the like). I know, I know, it's tempting when you're in a hurry to go for the familiar, but please resist! All that advertising and promotion doesn't pay for itself you know, so there is just not that much money left to spend on the wine at around a fiver a bottle.
What's the region that offers the most reliable, good value wines at this price? Top of the list has to be Chile, so I’d head here first.
Concha y Toro is the largest winemaker in Chile, but they have respect in the wine trade for producing quality wines from the bottom to the top of their range. One of their star bargains is Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s on offer at Sainsbury's for just £4.49 until 20th May and at Morrison’s for £4.44 until 8th June. This is a great price for a delicious red, with plenty of juicy, ripe black fruit and a hint of dark chocolate. Just the thing for summer barbecues. There’s a Sauvignon Blanc in the Casillero del Diablo range (£4.49 at both Sainsbury’s and Morrisons), but you don’t need me to tell you to buy it – the stuff just flies off the shelves all by itself, as we can’t seem to get enough of this variety. If you fancy a bit of a change and are a fan of oak, try Casillero del Diablo Limari Chardonnay 2007, £5.99 at Sainsbury’s. Yes, it’s oaky, but there’s plenty of fresh, juicy fruit, courtesy of the cool climate of the Limari Valley. Still within the Concha y Toro stable, their Sunrise Merlot 2007 is on offer at £3.99 at Waitrose until 3 June: very decent summer glugging.
Over on the other side of the Andes, there are bargains to be had in Argentina. Malbec has become that country’s signature grape and it offers plenty of dark, brambly fruit with soft tannins. Tesco have Argento Malbec, just sneaking in under £6 at £5.99.
Leaving South America behind, there are still plenty of reliable performers in Australia – as long as you steer clear of Oxford Landing/Hardy’s and the like. Peter Lehmann is a large-scale producer in the Barossa Valley, known for his big, beefy Shirazes. If this is your thing, then go for it by all means – but in the summer you might find Peter Lehmann Semillon more refreshing: crispy, textured fruit. Just the thing for people who don’t fancy Chardonnay, but can’t stomach Sauvignon Blanc either. And it’s £6.15 at Tesco, a little over the budget, but rules are there to be broken.
What about the Old World? Can Europe really not compete in the reliable bargain category? Yes it can, but we’ve been at this wine-making lark so long that things have got, well, complicated. There are countless well-made, interesting and well-priced bottles available from all over Europe: the trouble is we lack the kind of big brand names which have helped New World wines win such popularity in our hearts and wallets. However, to try and level the playing field a little, I will give an honourable mention to Sicily. They’ve been making wine here for centuries, of course, but have seen a revolution in vine-growing and winemaking here in the last decade. They’ve adopted New World techniques to make consumer-friendly wines from Italy and Sicily’s own wide range of grape varieties, many of them not too expensive either. The label of Casa Mia Fiano 2007 (£5.15 at Sainsbury’s) tells you squarely that this is aimed at “the ladies”. Despite that, the Fiano grape can’t help but make attractive wine: ripe and perfumed. Waitrose have a veritable bargain in Trinacria Rosso 2007 for £3.79. Made from a trio of indigenous grapes, it’s soft and plummily fruity.
Finally, should you have time to do a bit of swatting up before you go (easy if you’re shopping online) don’t forget to consult This useful little site lists all the wines on offer at supermarkets and High Street merchants, so that you can check out the best deals before you go shopping. Or, if you are very organized, you can search for your current wine favourites and see which supermarket has them on offer currently and thus make sure you buy them at the best price. Some wines are always on offer somewhere, so this can really save you money.
Now just put on your running shoes and see how long it takes you to bag a bargain!