Monday, 20 October 2008

The Rhône - wines from the warm south

We need to face facts: it’s over, done, finished. The good times are well and truly over – the summer I mean, not anything else that might be playing on your mind…

We might get an optimistically sunny day from now on, but there’s no getting away from it: nights are drawing in, the Halloween tat has an aisle to itself in the supermarkets and those money-grabbing marketeers at Disneyland Paris are advertising Christmas already.

The place to turn for wines to match the season has to be the Rhône Valley, especially the southern Rhône. These warming wines are just made for longer, darker evenings – if you are looking for a wine to go with roasted chestnuts, bonfire night bangers or just a rib-sticking stew, then the Rhône should be your destination.

In the northern Rhône red wines are all syrah (or shiraz, as it’s also known) based. In the southern part of the valley this grape is joined by a pair of other varieties: grenache and mourvèdre. Syrah is undoubtedly a noble grape, giving long-lived, muscular and meaty wines. Grenache adds a lighter touch of red fruit and a distinct white pepper kick, making the wines of the south approachable for early drinking. Mourvèdre acts as a kind of seasoning, providing backbone, spice and dense blueberry fruit to provide depth to the flavours. Southern Rhône wines are, for me, some of the most easy to drink wines around, with plenty of spicy red and black fruit to flesh out the tannic structure and a warming, alcoholic finish.

Where to start?
Côtes du Rhône is the most widely available and cheapest way to get started on these wines. In general, any wine in the region comes under this umbrella designation and gives you a cheap and cheerful taste of what the region can do. That’s what you might call entry level – the next step up is Côtes du Rhône Villages, meaning the wine comes from areas judged to make better wine than the norm. Somewhat confusingly (but hey, this is France, they don’t like to make things easy for you) the best villages in this area are also allowed to put their village name alongside Côtes du Rhône on the label. So you might see, for example, Côtes du Rhône Villages on its own, or Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret, or any of a number of other village names. Either way, these Côtes du Rhône Villages wines give you a chance to see what the fuss is about, representing an area under vine around 1/8th the size of the straight Côtes du Rhône area.

Still with me? At the top of the southern Rhône tree are villages who have been deemed to make such noteworthy wines that they no longer use the label Côtes du Rhône at all: such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres. Each has its own style and character, so have some fun searching out bottles to try.

The jewel in the crown of the southern Rhône is, without doubt, Châteauneuf du Pape. The name is one of the most recognizable in the world of wine, its fame based on full-bodied expressions of the blend of up to 13 grape varieties permitted here. This is not unexplored territory – Châteauneuf du Pape 2005 Clos des Papes was voted “Best Wine in the World” by US-based Wine Spectator magazine this year. And if you need to ask the price, well, I think you know what I’m going to say. About a hundred quid a bottle if you must know.

There are, for sure, cheaper Châteauneufs to be had – but the trouble is, the region is so well known, some producers are able to sell rather mediocre wine purely on the strength of the name, so finding a good one can be problematic.

For the value-conscious wine consumer (and aren’t we all now?) it pays to search out pastures new; those areas that have yet to win fame with wine pundits. My hot tip would be to search out wines from the Côtes du Ventoux. Technically part of the wider Côtes du Rhône area, it was for many years a kind of Bart Simpson region: underachiever and proud of it. My first taste of its wines, ten years ago or so, didn’t win me over: mean fruit, excessive tannin and just no fun.

Now however, as the wine-making cliché goes, a new generation of young, ambitious winemakers are keen to show just what they can do. Based on the same trio of grapes (syrah, grenache and mourvèdre) as you find elsewhere, the best producers are now making wines to rival the best of the southern Rhône villages. Producers to look out for are Domaine des Anges and Domaine de Fondrèche. Cadman Fine Wines ( stock the outstanding 2005 Fondrèche Fayard for £7.99 a bottle; offers a case of the 2005 Domaine des Anges for around £8.50 a bottle. Not quite the same quality level, but more easily available is La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Ventoux, £5.69 at Waitrose, made by the owners of renowned Châteauneuf du Pape producers, Château de Beaucastel.

Exploring the southern Rhône
The southern Rhône is one of the most attractive wine regions of France to explore – and there’s nothing like actually visiting a region to really get to grips with its wines.
Other than soaking up the wine and the scenery, a trip to the region’s studenty, relaxed capital, Avignon is not to be missed. The famous bridge is something of a non-event (it doesn’t even cross the river – call me old fashioned, but I thought that was the point of a bridge - and you have to pay to go on it), but the Palais des Papes is well worth a look. The palace was the result of some papal bust up in the 14th century, when the Pope decamped from Rome to Avignon – and apparently built a new holiday home in what is now Châteauneuf du Pape, hence its name: “the Pope’s new castle”.
If you’d like to combine learning about wine, including visits to wineries, with a relaxing break within view of cycling mecca Mont Ventoux, then have a look at A friendly and knowledegable English couple run wine weekends there throughout the year.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Some like it sweet

Do you like sweet wine? Thought not. Admitting to liking sweet wine is social suicide, a guilty pleasure to be indulged in in the privacy of your own home. I would like to use this column to come out as a lover of sweet wines – and I am going to try to convince you to join me in trying to overthrow one of wine’s great taboos.

Sweet wines have an image problem, there’s no doubt. For many (for me anyway) it conjures memories of early wine-drinking days when we merrily downed bottles of rather cheap and nasty German wine – Liebfraumilch, Hock and the like. Or family Sunday lunches accompanied by a bottle of Sainsbury’s Medium Sweet Spanish White. Those wines have done the cause of sweet wines immense harm with their artificial, confected sweetness, used merely to disguise the distinctly poor quality wine underneath.

But putting the past aside, consider whether you really don’t like sweet wine. Some of the wines that are considered dry, are in fact technically off-dry – that is, they have some detectable sweetness. It might not surprise you to know that some Australian chardonnays are not bone dry: Hardy’s VR Chardonnay 2007, for example has a residual sugar level of 5.5 grams per litre. Residual sugar is the final amount of sugar left in a wine when it is actually put into the bottle. Moving back a few steps, that sugar starts off in the ripe grapes harvested to make wine. During fermentation, as anyone who ever watched the Holsten Pils advert of the 1980s will remember, the sugar is turned into alcohol. If all the available grape sugar is used up, a bone dry wine results. If not, then the amount left is the residual sugar of the final wine. Humans, apparently, begin to detect sugar at a level of 4 grams per litre – so any wine with a level above this, we will sense as having some sweetness.

In theory anyway: going back to Hardy’s VR Chardonnay, it may be technically off-dry, but I would bet most drinkers would not class it as such. The sweetness is tied up with the ripeness and weight of the wine and does not “stick out”. And it’s not just white wines that have more sugar in than you would think: Concha y Toro Sunrise Merlot 2007 has 6 grams per litre of residual sugar. In both these cases we are looking at relatively cheap (around £5) wines aimed at the mass market, made by big producers who must surely be in complete control of their wine-making processes. That sugar is there deliberately to enhance the wines, to give a sense of ripeness and more body – and perhaps to cover up some less enjoyable characters in the wine.

Sauvignon Blanc – the wine that we can’t get enough of – frequently has sugar levels that technically put it into the off-dry category: Nobilo Five Fathoms Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from New Zealand for example has 8 grams per litre. Champagne routinely has 11 or 12 grams per litre of sugar even though it’s labelled Brut (or dry). What’s the story?

The trouble is, sugar is only one half of the story: lingering in the shadows is acidity, the yin to sugar’s yang in wine. To put it simply, the higher the level of acidity in a wine, the higher the level of sugar can be without us sensing the wine as sweet. Hence Brut Champagne has quite a bit of sugar in it, yet we still perceive it as dry. Equally, Sauvignon Blanc has crisp acidity and can tolerate a higher level of residual sugar than other styles of wine.

So, we’ve established that most of us do in fact drink sweet wines, even as we profess not to like them. Now it’s but a short step to embracing sweet wines and revelling in the sheer pleasure of a luscious dessert wine.

But if that feels like too much too soon, then follow my five easy steps to sweet wine heaven:

1. Start yourself off gently: if you’re having a pudding involving berries, especially autumn raspberries, try a sparkling Moscato d’Asti, or Asti Spumante – light, frothy, fun and definitely sweet.
2. Move onto a chilled Tawny Port with olives, nuts and nibbles. You can even serve Warre’s Otima, widely available for around £11 a bottle, on ice for a classy aperitif.
3. Try a late harvest chenin blanc from the Loire – some of the lightest of the true dessert wines and with fantastic crisp acidity to balance out the sugar. Great to have with any kind of apple pudding, especially apple tart. Give Waitrose’s Château Gaudrelle Réserve Spéciale 2005, Vouvray for £7.99 a go.
4. Now you’re ready for the ultimate dessert wine: Sauternes. Rich, luscious barley sugar, honeycomb and dried apricot flavours are a fantastic match for blue cheese, especially Roquefort. A half bottle of Waitrose’s own label Sauternes, made by top-rated Château Suduiraut costs £9.99 (residual sugar 103 grams per litre by the way).
5. Next time you want an instant dinner party pudding, try top quality vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of Pedro Ximenez (or PX for short) sherry. For extra indulgence you could soak raisins in the PX first and bung them on the ice cream too. This stuff is almost beyond dessert wine with residual sugar of mind-boggling levels of (dentists and nutritionists look away now) 400 grams per litre. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference PX and Tesco’s finest* PX are both absurdly good value at £7.19 and £5.49 respectively.

Once you’ve mastered all five steps you will have conquered your fear and you too can join me as an “out and proud” lover of sweet wine.