Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Wine of the week

Fitou l'Exception 2006, Cave de Mont Tauch - £10.00 (or buy 2 for £9.99 each) at Majestic

There was a time when Fitou was all the rage - around the mid-nineties I think. Much of it was supermarket own-label stuff and its popularity then probably had something to do with the disappearance of a previous source of bargain reds, namely Bulgaria. We always need a suppy of decent, cheapish red wine - and for a few years, Fitou was it. French, but mercifully easy to pronounce, rustically easy to enjoy - that'll do nicely.

After its brief day in the sun, however, Fitou faded from view as we transferred our affections (what fickle serial monogamists we are) to the "sunshine in a glass" provided by New World wines. Fitou has not stopped being produced, of course, and the Mont Tauch co-operative has been quietly toiling away over the years, turning out vast amounts of wine from a mind-boggling 1950 hectares of vineyard owned by 250 different growers.

Not all of it is worth seeking out, by any means, but I was quite taken with this one, made from grapes grown in the best vineyard sites. It's a blend of carignan and grenache with a little syrah. Carignan is an often-despised variety, accused of adding nothing but colour, alcohol and rusticity - but older vines give an inky, spicy character too. This is not all about the black, spicy fruit - it has plenty of that savoury, herbal aroma of southern French garrigue, which seems unique to wines from Languedoc and Roussillon. Great for a dark, late Autumn evening and some suitably hearty food - wild boar sausages would be just about perfect.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Wine of the week

Loacker Atagis Gewurztraminer 2008, Alto Adige - £16.95 (2006 vintage) from www.greatwesternwine.co.uk

Alto Adige is a bit of a conundrum; technically part of Italy, but essentially German-speaking; a disconcerting mix of Tyrolean alpine scenery, dotted with palms and fig trees; an area where Muller Thurgau is taken seriously as a grape variety, instead of being derided. It's hard to know what to make of it.

The varieties grown in this region are, as you might expect, not typically Italian: alongside Pinot Grigio sit Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Reds are traditionally made from the local varieties Schiava and Lagrein, though some Pinot Noir is making its mark.

Rainer Loacker's wines, however, are a soothing balm to confused minds. He was the first grower in this region to become organic and biodynamic, using only homeopathic remedies to treat his vines since 1979.

Gewurztraminer, though usually made as a dry wine here, can become rather fat and flabby in Alto Adige's hot summers. This version though, has great precision and freshness which reins in the variety's broad lychee and rose petal fruit. Alto Adige will never be a low-cost production area and Loacker never a maker of cheap wines - but there's a uniqueness here which is worth paying for.

By the way, just in case you were wondering - yes, they are part of the same family who own Loacker Wafers, beloved of UK coffee shops.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

What's it all about, Amarone?

Thank goodness for the onset of cold, dark evenings. At last we can get stuck into winter warmer red wines – and they don’t come in more comforting winter weight than Amarone della Valpolicella.

Valpolicella we all know, right? Light-bodied, soft and juicy wines that you might glug down with a bowl of pasta or a pizza. But Amarone? What’s that about?

The difference between Amarone and straight Valpolicella is all down to grape drying – a process that the winemakers in this part of the Veneto in north eastern Italy have known about and practised since at least the time of the Romans. In simple terms, winemakers pick their best grapes slightly earlier than the main harvest and then air dry them on racks for around three months before crushing and fermenting to make wine.

The grape varieties themselves can sound like a mouthful – including Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara. An old wine teacher of mine suggested Cinderella and the two ugly sisters as a way of remembering the names – it's worked for me!

During the drying process the grapes will, of course, lose moisture – weighing around half what they did originally by the time comes to crush and ferment. With less water in the grapes, they are proportionally higher in sugar, which will be converted to alcohol during fermentation.

Amarone, then, is a high alcohol wine - legally the minimum level is 14%, but can exceed 16%. But some other things happen to the grapes during the drying process as well, which create massive concentration of aromas and flavours, as well as a great ability to age and to develop layers of complexity. With alcohol at these levels, this is not a “session wine”; it’s what the Italians call a “vino da meditazione”, a meditation wine to sip on its own.

These are wines that might start out smelling and tasting of sour cherries, dark chocolate and tobacco leaf, but develop in the glass, changing each time you take a sip, evolving and tempting you back again and again. As you might expect, these wines take to ageing like ducks to water and continue to grow in fascination and enjoyability over many years.

Not cheap to produce: that extra picking separate from the main harvest; the drying process itself; grapes that can be lost to rot and can't be used to make wine; the fact that dried grapes will naturally make less wine than freshly-picked grapes – they all mean that Amarone cannot be made as cheaply as normal wine.

But prices paid for grapes destined for Amarone have been dropping, while the amount of Amarone made has been steadily rising, leading to concerns that corners are being cut and quality levels are perhaps not always what they should be. A group of leading Amarone producers, the self-styled Amarone Families, is seeking to address these issues, imposing stricter quality measures in an effort to maintain the reputation – and high price – of Amarone della Valpolicella.

Last week they came to London to showcase their wines, focussing on the outstanding 2000 vintage. It's a mark of the wines' ageworthiness that many of these wines were still youthful and barely into their stride, even after nine years.

Amarone is not a cheap wine habit to take up, with prices starting at £20, but if you fancy an exploration of the style, there is no better place to head than The Vineyard in Dorking (http://www.wineunlimited.co.uk). John is an Amarone fanatic and stocks around twenty different ones at any one time, whereas most merchants will have one or two.

Amarone on the High Street
Amarone “Le Vigne” Ca' del Pipa 2004 - £25 at Majestic (Fine Wine section)
Dense, dark and truffley – great for game.

Amarone Classico Brigaldara 2006 - £34.99, £27.99 as part of a mixed case at Oddbins
One of the Amarone Families group, Brigaldara make wines in a modern style, ie using new French oak in addition to older, larger oak casks. Polished and powerful.

Amarone Allegrini 2004 - £45.95 from Imbibros near Godalming (http://www.imbibros.co.uk), £50 from Waitrose
One of the foremost modernists of the Amarone Families, Allegrini make wonderfully expressive wines – at a price.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Grapes are not the only fruit

It's wine, but not as we know it. The British Isles have a long tradition of making wines – just not the kind that is made from grapes. We probably all have memories of a relative who made dandelion or elderberry wine, which bubbled away in demi-johns in the airing cupboard, making intriguing noises and smells but not, alas, anything remotely drinkable when the moment came to try it.

Lurgashall Winery, in an intensely rural setting between Haslemere, Midhurst and Petworth, specializes in making wines and liqueurs from an array of fruits and vegetables, as well as mead from honey. They are trying to change our view of what are called country wines (to distinguish them from normal wines made from grapes). They are proud to point out that they use only fresh fruits and vegetables in their wines, with no artificial essences or ingredients – not all country wines are made in the same way it seems.

Mead is surely the most ancient alcoholic drink in the country, requiring only water and honey as ingredients. Our ancient forebears would have relied on the wild yeasts which surround us in the air; the winemaker at Lurgashall uses cultivated yeast, in order to be sure of a consistent finished product.

Lurgashall's owner is the slightly eccentric US-born Jerry Schooler, self-styled “lord of Lurgashall”. A background in industrial engineering is not perhaps the natural qualification for taking on a wine and mead business in the UK – but it must undoubtedly have come in handy when Jerry needed more buildings for the winery. Instead of building from scratch, Jerry found a Medieval barn in Billingshurst, which he then had dismantled, moved to Lurgashall and rebuilt on-site.

Eccentricity appart, Lurgashall will be celebrating its 25th birthday next year, so Jerry must be doing something right.

As well as selling from the winery shop, Lurgashall make wines for a huge number of heritage institutions, from the National Trust to Chatsworth and Balmoral. The US is also an export market, along with Canada, Japan and Scandinavia. Americans, it seems, can't get enough of their Tower of London Mead.

What of the wines themselves? Grapes are, of course, fruits. There is no reason why, say, a blackberry should not make a palatable wine, as it has the same basic ingredients of sweet pulp with fruit acid and skins containing tannins. But silver birch sap? And rose petals?

I will not be abandoning my passion for more “normal” wines, in order to take up these charming oddities, but I have to say they do have a certain appeal. The Gooseberry Wine is reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, but why not just have a sauvignon blanc? It's not as if there is a shortage of the stuff. However, the more esoteric flavours give more interest, as long as you discard any notions of wines to go with food – other than the gooseberry, all the wines are essentially off-dry to really very sweet. These are wines to be drunk on their own, or even mixed with fizzy water or sparkling wine.

Their red Elderberry Wine and rosé Plum Wine I found most closely resembled grape wines, because they are relatively dry and have flavours and aromas that you could also find in mainstream wines.

For sheer weirdness I was drawn to the Silver Birch Wine – made from the sap of their own birch trees. It's nothing like a normal wine, but has an intriguing “woodiness” which I find hard to describe, but appealing nevertheless.

The frankly bonkers Rose Petal wine is a beautifully delicate pale pink to look at and smells and tastes of, well, rose petals. A little bit like drinking perfume, I wouldn't recommend it on its own, but with sparkling wine (not a posh one, please!) or in a gin and tonic? Mmmmm.

Of the meads, I favoured the Dry Mead and the Reserve Mead, which has had some barrel ageing to provide more depth of flavour. Mead is, by its nature, very sweet, so this is to be treated like a liqueur or a dessert wine, even the “dry” version.

The liqueurs are where the fruits themselves really get to sing. The Raspberry Liqueur is so full of fruit flavours it's practically like drinking alcoholic raspberry jam. For a real taste of tradition their Sloe Liqueur (they aren't allowed to call it Sloe Gin) has great depth of sour cherry sloe flavour with a cleansing kick of bitterness at the end – I found this the most grown-up of the liqueurs and one I would be happy to drink by the fire in the months to come.

Country wines are not about to knock regular wines off their pedestal, but they are fun – and we all need some of that.

Lurgashall Winery, near Petworth, www.lurgashall.co.uk

Country wines are all £7.50 for a 50cl bottle, the meads range from £7.50 to £9.45 for the Reserve Mead. Liqueurs cost from £9.95 to £11.45 for a 37.5cl bottle.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Wine of the week

Trenel Fleurie 2007, Beaujolais, France - £9.95 at The Wine Society

Beaujolais suffers an image problem, but this wine shows what proper Beaujolais can and should be. No confected, bubblegummy flavours here. This is pretty grown-up stuff with delicious, slightly musky, deeply fruity flavours, with a whisper of tannin and a touch of savouriness. Just the thing for this week, when you could have it lightly chilled while the sun shines, or have it at room temperature in the evening. Great for charcuterie, or a good old banger.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Chile set to rule the world?

Should we be worried about Chile?

It seems that,whatever Chileans turn their determined, competent hands to, they succeed. Luckily for us, they seem not to be set on world domination, content instead to bombard us with nothing more threatening than their delicious wines.

From small beginnings in the late eighties, Chile is now the fifth most popular source of wine for UK drinkers and they lead the world in terms of the proportion of wine that they export, compared to what they produce. What this tells us is that Chile's growth as a wine producer is not built on domestic consumption: their eyes have always been firmly focused on export markets and you would have to admit that they have succeeded.

Five or more years ago it was fair to say that Chile was fine as a source of straightforward, fruity, gluggable wines for under £5, but that they had a long way to go before they had anything serious to offer in the way of fine wine. Not any more.

At the recent Decanter World Wine Awards Chile (and Australia) were the top performing countries when it came to the ultimate accolades of International Trophies. “Chile's performance”, says Decanter Magazine “was notable for spanning the whole range – red and white, under and over £10.”

Over the last decade Chile's winemakers have worked tirelessly to improve their wines, to broaden the range of varieties they grow and to find the best places in their “paradise for winemakers” for each variety to perform at its best. Rather than following wine styles from other countries, Chile is developing its own unique styles of sauvignon blanc, of syrah and most of all of carmenère, fast becoming the signature grape of the country.

Now, in characteristically efficient and single-minded style, the Chilean wine industry is addressing issues of sustainability. They are doing this not just because consumers are starting to take an interest in it, but because it will give them a strategic advantage over other countries. They have identified that lack of sustainability will be a barrier to growth in years to come and something that simply must be addressed to ensure the continued success of their export-led wine industry.

If all this sounds as if accountants and management consultants are running the Chilean wine industry, rather than horny-handed honest toilers among the vines, then be reassured that the wines themselves are anything but dull. I had the opportunity to taste my way through fifty-odd Chilean wines which had all won either a Gold medal or a Trophy at recent international competitions.

Here are my favourites from the best of the best of Chile:

Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Casablanca – Gold Medal at the International Wine Challenge
The Casablanca valley has built a reputation for high quality, relatively cool-climate wines with a balance of elegance and flavour. This is not in the New Zealand mould of pungent sauvignon with tropical fruit salad aromas and flavours – rather it's dry and satisfying with a more restrained grapefruit character making it a great food wine.
Taurus Wines of Bramley has the 2008 for £8.99; Majestic has the 2007 vintage for £9.99.

Cono Sur Reserva Riesling 2008, Bío Bío – Decanter World Wine Awards International and Regional Trophies for Riesling under £10
It's a cliché that everyone in the wine trade loves riesling, but that wine drinkers, at least in the UK, can't seem to get on with it. If you've yet to be seduced by riesling's lively, limey fruit then this user-friendly example is a great place to start. Bío Bío Valley is relatively recently-developed and one of the most southerly of Chile's wine regions. This being the southern hemisphere, the further south you go, the cooler (and wetter) it gets – so Bío Bío is a great source of cool-climate wines and Riesling has found a home here.
Tesco, £8.07

Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2007, Casablanca – Annual Wines of Chile Awards Gold medal and Trophy for Best Chardonnay
Just what is wild ferment I hear you ask? Not as exciting as it sounds perhaps, it refers to the fact that wild yeasts exist all around us and are capable of inducing alcoholic fermentation in grapes. Most New World winemakers prefer not to leave things to chance and will buy specific strains of commercially-available yeast in order to get the wine style they want. Wild yeasts are unpredictable, but can also give a broader range of aromas and flavours. This is youthful and lively-tasting, with juicy, nutty fruit and great length.
£10.50 from Stone Vine & Sun near Winchester (www.stonevine.co.uk)

The Co-op Santa Helena Pinot Noir 2008, Casablanca – Decanter World Wine Awards International and Regional Trophies for Pinot Noir under £10
Pinot noir is another variety that likes things not too hot and seems to respond well to the cooling influence of the Pacific in the Casablanca Valley. This has great purity of fruit and is entirely unshowy for a New World pinot.
£7.99 from the Co-operative

Terra Andina Reserva Carmenère 2007, Rapel Valley – International Wine Challenge Gold Medal
Rescued from near-extinction in its native France, Carmenère has found a new home and great acclaim in Chile. This wine has the variety's hallmark aromas of bonfires and red fruits with good acidity to keep the fruit juicy. An impressive balance of power and restraint.
www.everywine.co.uk has the award-winning 2007 vintage for £100.09 for a case of 12 bottles. Chilean specialists www.qpwines.com list the 2006 vintage for £43.99 for six bottles, £86.95 for twelve.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Wine notes and queries

The world of wine can be mysterious and one that most of us, in our essentially non-winemaking country, are rather distanced from. We don't have the same deep cultural ties with wine that people who live in countries who make the stuff do. Yet we are increasingly a nation of wine drinkers and some are naturally curious about what they are drinking.

Do you have a burning question about wine that you've always wanted to find the answer to? I often find someone saying something like: “This is a really stupid question but...” There really are no silly questions when it comes to wine, so to start the ball rolling I've listed a couple of queries that crop up fairly frequently.

If you have a wine related query you can send it to me via Twitter at http://twitter.com/wineandwords. You can also keep track of my wine blog postings and general wine musings by following me on Twitter. Or if that's a little too new media for you, you can email me at heather@redwhiteandrose.co.uk. Don't be shy...ask away! You could find your question forms the basis of a future Surrey Advertiser column.

What's the difference between Pouilly Fumé and Pouilly-Fuissé?

Both these wines have a good level of recognition among British wine drinkers, but it wasn't until someone asked me this question that I realised there is ample room for confusing the two. They are also hard for English speakers to get their tongues round, which could lead to even more confusion. Pouilly Fumé is pronounced “Pou-ee foomay”; Pouilly-Fuissé, “Poo-ee fwee-say”.

Pouilly Fumé is the name for wines made from the sauvignon blanc grape around the small town of Pouilly-sur-Loire. It's bang next door to Sancerre and the wines are pretty similar – though Sancerre being much easier to say and to remember must account for at least some of its popularity in this country. Traditionally the wines of Pouilly Fumé tend to have more mineral and elegant characters compared with Sancerre's more overtly fruity and pungent flavours; though in practice you're more likely to find differences between producers than between the two neighbouring vineyard areas. Fumé, meaning smoked or smoky, is a reference to the smoky, gunflint character sometimes exhibited by the wines.

Pouilly-Fuissé, on the other hand, is the name of a vineyard area in the Mâconnais, in southern Burgundy. Pouilly and Fuissé are the names of two settlements where the grapes are grown. White wine in Burgundy essentially equals chardonnay and Pouilly-Fuissé wines carry the highest quality reputation in the Mâcon, so will often be given the traditional Burgundian oak barrel-ageing treatment. You might also see the names Pouilly-Vinzelles or Pouilly-Loché, which are neighbouring areas.

How is rosé wine made?

With our recent embrace of the pink stuff comes a natural curiosity about how it's made. Essentially there are three ways it can happen:

  • Mixing a little red wine into white wine

It sounds like cheating and, for most winemakers in the EU at least, it is. In the rest of the world, however, it is quite permissible to make a pink wine by adding some red wine. European winemakers are, understandably, pretty sniffy about this way of making rosé wine – unless they are in the Champagne region, where they are allowed to make their pink Champagne in this way. If you see the words “rosé d'assemblage” on a Champagne bottle, it has been made by blending in some red wine. “Rosé de saignée” indicates a more traditional rosé-making method – see below.

  • The saignée method

This is becoming a more widespread. Red grapes ultimately destined to make red wine are held in a vat; some of the light red juice coloured by the crushed grapes is allowed to run out; fermenting this light red juice results in a pink wine. The reason for its popularity amongst winemakers is that they can then go on to make a red wine from the remaining grapes, as well as the rosé: two wines from a single batch of grapes – you can see the attraction.

  • "Pressurage direct"

The most traditional way to make rosé wine and, purists would argue, the best, is the “pressurage direct” or direct pressing method, used by winemakers in Provence, for example. Unlike the rest of the world, here they take pink wine very seriously and view rosés made by any other method as inherently inferior. The winemaker selects red grapes for rosé wine which are then crushed and then left for a brief period in the vat, giving the final wine a delicate, paler pink hue and, arguably, a more refined flavour than the saignée method.

There must be other things that you've been intrigued or confused by: why does Champagne cost so much more than Cava? Why does red wine give me a hangover when white wine doesn't? Why don't most French wines tell you which grape variety the wine is made from?

To get your question answered, go to http://twitter.com/wineandwords and ask away.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Wine of the week

Sainsbury's Taste the Difference PX, £6.49 for 50cl
A sweet, treacly sherry may not seem like the obvious wine for high summer (oh please). But I can tell you this is the one drink that was just right for a damp camping trip in Shropshire last week. Sitting outside when it's not really warm enough is what British summers are all about and rather than clasping a cold glass of rosé and pretending it's fun, embrace the charms of this unctuous and ludicrously underpriced liquid. It's all figs, prunes and raisins and will warm anyone's cockles. If by any chance it is actually hot, you can always pour it over your ice cream...mmm.

Are UK wine drinkers spooked by odd-looking bottles?

On the face of it, Alsace is a pretty straightforward wine region. Wines are labelled with the name of the grape variety, à la New World, making it easy for non-French drinkers to gauge what they’re choosing. To keep things simple, it’s pretty much all about white wines – they do make some red from pinot noir but, to be fair, the reds are never going to set the world on fire. The style of wines from Alsace is fresh, fruity and dry, or almost dry – in other words, easy-going, and particularly good for drinking with the spicy foods of South and East Asia that we love so much in this country. Alsace itself is an almost impossibly pretty region in Eastern France, owing more to Germany than France for its architectural and cultural traditions and with lower rainfall and more hours of sunshine than you would think by just looking at a map. Why then, don’t we drink more Alsace wines in this country?

For one thing, that proximity to Germany (and it used to be more than proximity: Alsace and neighbouring Lorraine were annexed to Germany from 1870 to 1919) has brought not just cute gingerbread villages, but a tradition of using the Germanic “flute” wine bottle. Any combination of Germany and wine is commercially toxic in the UK: if it looks German, we tend to steer clear.

Why we should face our demons and embrace German wines is something for another column, but Alsace has become unfairly embroiled in our rejection of what we deem to be cheap and nasty sweet wines. I’d go so far as to say that a substantial minority of the UK population does not realise that Alsace is French and not German. We Brits don’t tend to holiday there, so it lacks the high profile and instant recognition of, say, the Loire.

If you’d like to indulge in some aversion therapy to overcome your fear of tall, thin wine bottles and try some Alsace wines, where should you start?

Uniquely amongst French wine regions, Alsace has a tradition of putting the name of the grape variety on the label, which makes life so much simpler for the novice. Here are the major varieties you’ll encounter:

Pinot blanc:- The workhorse grape of the region, it is the most widely-planted variety, producing soft, round and fruity wines.
Pinot gris:- The name suggests a relation to pinot blanc (and pinot noir for that matter) and indeed it is part of the same family. Pinot gris produces wines with more defined fruit and perfume than pinot gris, often with a hint of richness and some spice. Pinot gris is our old friend pinot grigio, the UK’s favourite wine –but the best Alsace versions offer infinitely more character than the bland, mass-produced ones from Italy.
Gewurztraminer:- the most aromatic of Alsace varieties, frequently reminding tasters of rose petals, Turkish Delight or lychee. It has the richness and spice of pinot gris and, with age, develops a smoky complexity. A fantastic match for soft, smelly cheeses.
Riesling: - most growers in the region consider Riesling to be the king of grapes, the one which allows them to demonstrate the influence of that very French notion: terroir. Always with a backbone of acidity, it can show a great range of aromas and flavours from fruity and floral to stony and mineral – no really.

Where to buy Alsace wines
You’ll come across odd bottles of Alsace wines in almost any good wine shop and Waitrose have the best range of Alsace wines on the High Street. But, with a region like this, if you want to do more than dip your toe in, it pays to go to a specialist.

The Wine Society (www.thewinesociety.com) is the UK’s oldest wine mail order outfit and run along non-profit making lines as a co-operative making it undisputably a “good thing”. It also has a particularly strong Alsace selection; they were voted Alsace Specialist Merchant of the Year in the 2008 International Wine Challenge. Here are some of my favourites from their mouthwatering list:

Gewurztraminer Tradition 2007 Cave de Turckheim - £7.95
This is made by arguably the region’s best co-op and represents a gentle introduction to the variety with good weight of aromatic fruit and some spice. Waitrose list the, probably almost identical, Cave de Turkheim Gewurztraminer 2007 for £8.09.

Riesling Tradition 2007 Kuentz-Bas - £8.95
This is dry - just (4 grams per litre of residual sugar for those who like to know that kind of thing), but with a lovely floral nose and more citrussy palate and of course crisp acidity. One to try with Asian food that’s not too spicy or sweet.

Riesling Domaine Frédéric Mochel, 2005 - £12.50
To see what the fuss over Alsace Riesling is all about, you really need to drink a wine four or five years old, and here’s your chance. This Riesling is bone dry, in what Frédéric Mochel calls the Protestant style of wine – by which he means dry, linear and pure. With age, hints of petrol (in a good way) add to the tropical fruit. If this gives you a taste for more mature Riesling, the Society also list Mochel’s Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergbieten 2002 at £14.95, which is a super-charged version of the straight Riesling, with even more of those delicious exotic but elegant flavours.

Gewurztraminer, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, 2007 - £14.95
If the notion of a Protestant wine has intrigued you, here is what you might logically call a Catholic wine. Olivier Humbrecht is, arguably, the most gifted and important winemaker in Alsace. The former scientist and first ever Frenchman to become a Master of Wine, has embraced the notion of natural wine-making. His dazzling skills have blazed a trail for organic and biodynamic wines which other growers have since followed, but it’s Domaine Zind-Humbrecht that created the model. If you want to know how a wine can smell and taste of where it’s from, rather than just of the grapes from which it’s made, then you can have no better illustration than the wines of Zind-Humbrecht. All his wines are worth trying – and be warned that prices only go upwards from here. A hands-off, non-interventionist approach means it’s hard to generalise about the wines: dryness levels vary by wine and by year, for example. This wine has a sense of richness rather than sweetness and fantastic concentration. Waitrose have Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Heimbourg 2006 for £20 and Zind, a blend of varieties with great character, for £14.99.

Pinot Gris Hugel Jubilée 2007 - £22
A steep price, though Hugel does make cheaper versions of their varietal wines, under the Tradition rather than Jubilée label which sell for around £12-14. If you want to know what sets Alsace pinot gris apart from Italian pinot grigio, then it pays to splash out. The Hugel family are practically wine-making royalty in Alsace, dating back to 1639. We’re back in the Protestant wine mould here: while there’s richness and concentration in Hugel’s wines, there is also purity and dry restraint which make them extremely food friendly.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Wine of the week

Wine of the week in a week where I've been out of wine-drinking action with swine flu presents its challenges. But I'm no quitter and will not shirk from my duty to bring the thirsty masses the refreshment they deserve.

Domaine de l'Olivette 2007, Vin de Pays des Côteaux de Cabrerisse - £5.99 at Waitrose (£5.69 at www.waitrosewine.com)
I stocked up on this wine recently for a party because, to my mind, it offers unbeatable character and depth for the money. From an all but unknown region in southwestern France, it's a tasty blend of grenache blanc, bourboulenc and marsanne. It has a summery fruity-floral character, but also some herbal and white pepper notes thanks to that cocktail of varieties. The depth of flavour means that it doesn't taste lean and weedy, so it can provide satisfying refreshment even if the weather is not as hot as you might wish... And it's organic too.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Swine flu - wine flu?

Having just recovered from a week confined to bed due to swine flu, it has struck me that I may have stumbled upon an, as yet, unreported consequence of the pandemic.

For the past seven days not a drop of wine has passed my lips - only right and proper, not really ill if you can still face knocking back a glass of wine. But, my point is, that's a week's worth of wine consumption that is lost, never to be recovered.

Let's say I would have normally drunk a couple of glasses of wine on four of those evenings, that makes 8 glasses of wine that have remained undrunk, directly due to swine flu. Multiply that by the number of people in this country who are statistically likely to get swine flu this year, and who are also wine drinkers.

OK I admit I don't have those numbers - but I'd love to know if someone else does. In 2008 UK wine consumption stopped growing and levelled out for the first time in years - could swine flu be the thing that actually leads to a drop in wine drinking in the UK?

Monday, 27 July 2009

Splash out - not literally I hope

Special occasion wines for summer

Most of us don't go spending over £10 on a bottle of wine unless it's a special occasion. But, as you're probably tired of hearing by now, staying in is the new going out and we are all, apparently, abandoning pubs and restaurants to eat at home. Even the most humble house red or white will likely set you back more than ten quid, so why not treat yourself to a really decent bottle of wine for the same price if you're staying home?


Donnafugata Polena 2008, Sicily, Italy - £10.99 at Oddbins

Many of Sicily's wine producers started out as makers of Marsala, the mainly sweet, fortified wine that we really only stick in the cooking rather than drink. Donnafugata was one of the first to start making regular wines with great success. This is an unoaked 50/50 blend of viognier and catarratto grapes: the viognier giving a lovely stone fruit and floral character and the catarratto a more herbal and grassy counterpoint.

Matahiwi Estate Holly Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Wairarapa, New Zealand - £10.99 at Oddbins, down to £8.79 as part of a mixed dozen

There's no doubt that sauvignon blanc's crisp, juicy characters are made for the summer and this one has an extra dimension to it compared with many New Zealand examples. There's a lovely smoky element to the fruit, which has probably developed during the months in bottle – 2007 is long in the tooth for most sauvignon blanc, but this has stood the test of time, though probably not one to hold on to until Christmas.

Masson-Blondelet 2007, Pouilly Fumé, Loire, France - £12.49, Waitrose

There are basically two models to follow for makers of sauvignon blanc – the more restrained, mineral and food-friendly one from the Loire Valley in France; and the more tropical fruit salad style that is typified by New Zealand (see above). If you want a textbook example of the Loire style, then look no further than this classic Pouilly Fumé: with a backbone of fine acidity this has zippy, mineral fruit and great elegance.


Southern Right Pinotage 2007, Walker Bay, South Africa - £11.99 at Waitrose

The pinotage grape is South Africa's gift to the wine world – but for some wine drinkers, they'd rather South Africa kept it to themselves. It's a Marmite of a grape variety which will always divide opinion and it's true that many cheaper versions are a spooky combination of rubber, bubblegum and Bovril that I try to avoid. This one, though, is a different kettle of fish: lovely beetroot and sour cherry aromas lead onto a smooth, fresh palate combining fruit and savoury characters. Nothing spooky about it, I promise!

Joseph Drouhin Rully 2006, Burgundy, France - £12.99 at Waitrose

Pinot noir is the red grape of Burgundy and the region's most serious examples hail from its northern section, the Côte de Nuits. Rully, by contrast, is a village in the southerly Côte Chalonnaise, which produces reds that are, generally, lighter, fruitier and somewhat rustic – but perfect for summer drinking. The bright fruit and softish tannins mean that you could easily chill this lightly to appreciate its refreshing, spicy raspberry flavours.

Jackson Estate Vintage Widow Pinot Noir 2007, Marlborough, New Zealand - £17.99, down to £14.39 if you buy any two New Zealand wines, at Majestic

Pinot noir again, but this time from New Zealand. The oak ageing has given delicious liquorice overtones to the perfumed fruit in this wine. It is more seriously structured than the Rully above, so I wouldn't chill it.

Chinon Les Varennes du Grand Clos 2001, Charles Joguet, Loire, France - £14.99 at Majestic

The Loire's red wines made from cabernet franc, essentially a lighter-bodied, more perfumed version of cabernet sauvignon, are traditional wine bar favourites in Paris. They also make for top summer reds with their generous, sappy fruit that somehow, don't ask me how, manages to feel cooling in the mouth. This 2001 gives you a chance to see how the grape develops as it matures – a heady, but never heavy, mixture of spiced hedgerow fruits, with a slightly medicinal edge. One for dinner parties rather than the barbecue.

Morgon Côte du Py 2007, Domaine Jean Foillard, Beaujolais, France – £19.90 at Les Caves de Pyrène in Artington

Beaujolais: back in the 1980s we used to love it, until the bubblegum confectedness of Beaujolais Nouveau put us off and we decided it was decidedly naff. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater: there is life beyond Beaujolais Nouveau. In general terms, the quality levels rise from Beaujolais, through Beaujolais-Villages, then, at the top of the tree, the ten named communes, “crus” in French, such as Morgon. The region has many young winemakers prepared to show what their beloved Gamay grape is capable of in the right hands and are not prepared to make wine in the traditional fruity and simple vein. The winemaker here is determined to let the grape shine with minimum intervention (organic and biodynamic methods, no sulphur even, very risky) and if you're feeling adventurous you'll be rewarded with a funky, rainbow explosion of flavours in your mouth. Try it with typical French charcuterie for a taste sensation.


Langlois-Château Crémant de Loire Rosé, Loire, France - £11.99 at Taurus Wines in Bramley; £12.99, or £10.39 as part of a mixed dozen, at Oddbins

Champagne houses, who know a thing or two about making sparkling wine, have a history of hooking up with makers of fizz in the Loire to good effect. Langlois-Château has been under Champagne Bollinger's wing since the 1970s. The terroir and grape varieties may not be the same as in Champagne, but this pink fizz, made entirely from cabernet franc, is a delightful and elegant mouthful of crunchy red fruit.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Wine of the week

Now, it may be tipping it down today, but rumour has it that we might actually get a sunny day, or even two this weekend. So, to get in the mood, have a try of my wine of the week.

Leyda Single Vineyard Garuma Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Leyda Valley, Chile
Stockists - Waitrose £8.99, Great Western Wine have the 2006 vintage for £9.50
I know, I know - a Chilean sauvignon, how very original - not. Wait though, this one has more to recommend it than most at this price level.

Partly this is to do with where it's grown - the Leyda Valley is one of the most recently-planted and most northerly in Chile. Now, Chile being in the southern hemisphere, the further north you go, the nearer the Equator and, therefore the warmer you get, right? Well, uh, no.... It seems the cold, cold Pacific has more of an influence here (13km from the vineyards) than latitude and Leyda is actually a cool-climate area, perfectly suited to producing crisp, aromatic white wines.

This has plenty of lime zesty fruit, with a distinctive peapod/asparagus tinge, which sauvignons often develop as they age. Not remotely thin or weedy, but with mouthwatering juicy fruit, it can more than stand up to, say, barbecued prawns with chilli and ginger. Ooh, now I'm getting hungry...

Friday, 17 July 2009

Wine of the week

A new feature for my blog - one wine to try for every single week of the year - see if you can keep up!

Luna Beberide Mencia 2007, Bierzo, Spain
Averys Wine Merchants, £9.49 (www.averys.com)
Mencia is the name of the variety, Bierzo the region, in Spain's cool and damp Northwest (sound familiar?). I had probably hoped to recommend something light, white and cooling at this time of year, but something tells me that a wine with more warmth and body might be more in order this weekend.
Mencia may not be a grape you've heard of before, but it is one of the new guard of Spain's varieties that we are probably going to be hearing more about. Mencia itself is not new, but the ability to make it into wines that have international appeal, is. This wine is deep-coloured, with plenty of dusky fruit, but with the variety's hallmark acidity giving it structure, it retains freshness. This freshness, combined with pretty soft tannins, make it perfect for summer drinking - even if the summer weather is far from perfect!
This wine has just been named joint winner of the "Best Red under £10" category at the New Wave Spanish Wine Awards.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Summer wines - under £10

Here are my favourite wines, for whatever weather summer might throw at us, for under £10 a bottle, including some rosés. If you would like to read my bargain sub-£5 recommendations, they are in the previous post below.

Torres Vina Esmeralda 2008, Spain - £6.99 at Waitrose and Majestic
This wine is absolutely packed with the essence of summer – fresh, light and aromatic, thanks to its blend of 85% moscatel and 15% gewürztraminer grapes. The musky, floral aromas might lead you to expect something sweet, but it's dry with lively acidity. Perfect for sipping in the garden or with fish and seafood – and don't even think about keeping it beyond the end of September.

Glen Carlou Tortoise Hill White 2007, South Africa – £7.50, or £7 case rate, at Ranmore Wines, Ranmore Common, between Effingham and Dorking
South Africa has a reputation for putting together interesting blends of grapes and this is a great example. A mix of mostly sauvignon blanc, along with some fashionable, apricot-y viognier and a little chardonnay for body and breadth, this has lovely floral aromas and a citrus zest and mineral palate.

Fox Gordon Princess Fiano 2008, Adelaide Hills, Australia – Oddbins £9.99, or £7.99 as part of a mixed dozen
Fiano is a native Italian variety that originates in the hills south of Naples. Recently it's been successfully taken up by winemakers in Sicily, but has also made the longer trek all the way to Australia. It has an alluring nose of honey and apricot with plenty of juicy fruit on the palate – not subtle, perhaps, but could stand up to barbecued food.

Domaine Bégude Chardonnay 2007, Limoux, France - £7.99 at Waitrose
Limoux is a small enclave in the otherwise hot and steamy sweep of southern France that leads down to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. Not, you might think, a promising place to attempt to make elegant white wines. Limoux, however, is a cooler area in the foothills of the Pyrenees, capable of making wines with great fruit expression and good acidity – potential spotted by Domaine Bégude's owners, English couple James and Catherine Kinglake. This wine was fermented and aged in oak barrels, giving it some subtle cinnamon spice to counterpoint the fine acidity – one for cash-strapped Chablis fans.

Torres Viña Sol Rosé 2008, Catalunya, Spain - £5.99 at Waitrose
Plenty of lively, crunchy red fruits in this blend of spicy grenache and dark-fruited carignan. One for easy-going enjoyment.

Château Guiot Rosé 2008, Costières de Nîmes, France - £6.99, or £5.99 when you buy 2 bottles, at Majestic
Deep-coloured, as much light red as deep pink, this has hints of dark damson plum on the nose. It's full-on and has a welcome savoury dimension to the fruit, making it particularly food-friendly.

Muga Rioja Rosado 2008, Rioja, Spain - £8.99, or £7.49 when you buy 2 bottles, Majestic; £7.99 at Waitrose
This is in a different mould to the other two rosés – it's pale, delicate and elegant, with delicious, crisp red fruit.

Canaletto Primitivo 2006, Puglia, Italy – £5.99 at Somerfield and on offer at £4.49 at Waitrose until 21 July
Puglia, the “heel” of Italy, has a fairly low profile as a wine producer – yet this region used to produce more wine than the whole of Australia not so long ago. They still produce plenty, most of which doesn't make it to this country; the primitivo grape makes its most appealing red wines. The smoky, black cherry fruit cries out for barbecued red meat. By the way, don't be tempted by the insipid Canaletto Pinot Grigio, the white partner to this red.

Viña Zorzal Graciano 2007, Navarra, Spain - £8.99, or 2 for £15, at The Vineking in Weybridge and Reigate
I first recommended this wine as part of a selection of Spanish wines earlier this year – since then this wine has won a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge, so I make no apologies for including it again. This has fine, blueberry fruit, with proper tannins and refreshing acidity – not a DVD wine, this is a wine to drink with food, the meatier the better.

Bodegas Castano Hecula 2005, Yecla, Spain - £7.99 from The Vineyard in Dorking
This densely-flavoured wine is made from the grape known as Monastrell in Spain, Mourvèdre in France and Mataro in Australia. Still with me? All you need to know is that this is a delicious mouthful of black fruit, all the more interesting for having some time to mature in the bottle, giving it notes of exotic spices.

The Hedonist Shiraz 2006, McLaren Vale, South Australia - £9.99 at Waitrose
McLaren Vale Shiraz is no shrinking violet, typically with loads of everything – ripe, full-on black fruit and a wallop of alcohol. This wine has all that, but something else too, some extra dimensions of tarry, smooth and spicy notes that make me think of the southern Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape more than Australia. So while ten quid isn't cheap, it's hard to find a decent Châteauneuf at that price. If you're that way inclined, you might like to know that this is a biodynamically-made wine.

Looking through this list, I'm struck by how many Spanish wines have made it in – it certainly wasn't intentional. But it is an indication of just how well they are doing at delivering interesting, value for money wines.

Next time: the final instalment of wines for the summer, looking at special occasion bottles over £10.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Bargain wines for summer

Without wanting to tempt fate, it seems we might actually be having a summer this year. Ever community-minded, I have put together my list of wines to see you through the warmer weather.

What makes a wine good for the summer? There are a number of reasons, but they can probably be summed up in one word: refreshment. This might be conveyed by fresh, zesty flavours, lower alcohol, zippy acidity, or vibrant fruit. So I’ve searched out wines that will complement the lazy days of summer – fingers crossed.

We still don’t like to spend that much on a bottle of wine in this country, with the average amount paid stubbornly hovering just over £4 a bottle. This week I’m going for the bargain end of things, with wine recommendations under £5. My experience of wines at this level is, generally, dispiriting: it’s very hard to put anything characterful in a bottle at that price. I must have tasted hundreds of wines under £5 in order to arrive at this list: there’s a lot of dross out there.

I’ve tasted the dross, but you don’t have to: here are my top 10 wines for under a fiver this summer.

Oddbins Own White 2008 (Vin de pays d’Oc, France), £4.49, £3.59 as part of a mixed dozen
Dull name and a hideous label, but get past those hurdles and you’ll find a wine with all manner of crisp, appley and citrus fruit and nice weight. Made from a veritable cocktail of grape varieties, helping to give extra dimensions of flavour, it’s hard to ask for more at this price.

Virtue Sauvignon Blanc Chardonnay 2008 (Central Valley, Chile), £3.99 Waitrose
The virtue in the name refers to the fact that the wine is shipped in bulk to the UK and bottled here. Shipping wine without the weight of the glass makes it cheaper, as well as giving it a smaller carbon footprint. Why don’t we see more wines like this? The wine itself is full of fresh and juicy fruit, with the chardonnay giving some more weight and depth to the herbaceous sauvignon.

Foraci Tre Cupole Grillo 2008 (Sicily, Italy), £5.99, £4.79 when you buy any two Italian wines, Majestic
Grillo is one of Sicily’s native grape varieties (not all of which are worth discovering), giving this some distinct character amongst the sea of cheap but cheerless whites. Cut pear aromas, with floral and almond flavours, it makes for an interesting mouthful.

Carletti Malvasia 2008 (Abruzzo, Italy), £5.99, £4.79 as part of a mixed dozen, Oddbins
Another Italian white: Italy has always had plenty of grape varieties to work with and now their winemaking is able to do them justice. This is a financially painless way to discover the aromatic Malvasia grape, which has bags of character, a curious mixture of floral and spicy notes.

Undurraga Chardonnay Pinot Noir Brut NV (Maipo Valley, Chile), £9.99, £4.99 if you buy two, Majestic
I probably wouldn’t bother with this sparkling wine at the full price, but at under a fiver it’s hard to resist. It’s not made in the same way as Champagne, but it’s clean and refreshing and, for me, preferable to Cava at the same price.

Oddbins Own Red 2008 (Vin de pays d’Oc, France), £4.49, £3.59 as part of a mixed dozen
The red partner to the white above, so same warning re: cheap and nasty-looking label. The grenache-based blend inside, however, is much more fun: chewy, dense and spicy with bags of peppery black fruit.

Beaux Galets Rouge 2008 (Vin de pays de l’Herault, France) £3.99, Majestic
There is also a white version of this wine, which I didn’t feel able to recommend, but this red, a mixture of merlot, carignan and grenache grapes, is good for the price. Don’t expect depth and complexity, but it has plenty of sweet black and red fruit.

Castillo de Montearagon Reserva 2003 (Cariñena, Spain) £4.49, Tesco
Spain does a pretty good job of delivering good value, if not always exciting, red wines. There is plenty of juicy blueberry fruit here, under a gloss of oak and with some definite tannins: one for food rather than drinking on its own.

Familia Zuccardi FuZion Shiraz/Malbec 2008 (Mendoza, Argentina), £4.49 Waitrose
This is decent stuff with juicy black fruit and shiraz’ hallmark spice balancing out the tannic structure.

Carletti Sangiovese Merlot 2008 (Abruzzo, Italy), £5.99, £4.79 as part of a mixed dozen, Oddbins
The red partner to the white Malvasia is well-balanced, with some tannin to give structure to the spangly fruit.

Interestingly, perhaps, I didn’t find a rosé under £5 that I felt I could recommend – heaven knows we drink enough of them in the UK, so my palate must be seriously out of whack with most British rosé drinkers!

The next instalment will feature wines from £5 to £10 - including some rosés, I promise. Competition is much fiercer at these price levels because winemakers have more to play with and can deliver hugely better quality - and independent wine merchants can get a look in too.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Perfect time for port?

This may seem like an unlikely time of the year to be writing about port. The dark purple, sweet and highly alcoholic drink is something so redolent of winter and, specifically, Christmas, that we don’t give it a second thought for the rest of the year.

It might surprise you to know, then, that port doesn’t have to be deep purple and can be served chilled – even over ice – giving it appeal, even in the warmer months.

On that bombshell, here’s a quick outline of what port really means and how it’s made. It all starts life as grapes grown in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Life for vines (and people) here is tough: the weather is scorching (40˚C is a possible average in summer), the soil is not soil at all but rocky schist and there is nary a flat vineyard to be seen, only varying degrees of slope from fairly gentle to vertigo-inducing. It takes tenacity, some would say pig-headedness, to tend vines here – it also requires grape varieties able to stand up to these conditions. None of your namby-pamby merlot and pinot noir here: this is the land of varieties like touriga nacional, tinta barroca and tinto cão, amongst others even less well known.

Once ripe and full of natural fruit sugar, the grapes are harvested. Grapes for port get only a very short fermentation, so they need to be treated vigorously in order to extract plenty of colour and tannin in that time. For once the mental picture of a swarthy local treading grapes in a vat is true.

Foot-treading in shallow granite troughs, or lagares, is the traditional way, and is still used for the very best or small-production ports. Mostly, though, machines of varying kinds have replaced humans – including robotic feet.

After treading, the fermenting wine is fortified with grape spirit, raising the alchohol level to around 20%. Yeasts cannot exist in this alcoholic environment, so fermentation stops, leaving a wine with some remaining sweetness: embryonic port.

After fermentation, different treatments and length of ageing determine what kind of port will finally result. All ports need some ageing and the Douro Valley, with its extreme climate, is an unsuitable place to do it. Young port is, therefore, traditionally taken downstream to Oporto at the mouth of the Douro River, where it will age in the shippers’ port lodges in the damper and gentler maritime climate. This journey used to be undertaken by picturesque sailing boats, until the Douro was dammed for hydroelectric power: now it’s done by lorry.

Ruby port

This is the most straightforward style of port and accounts for the majority of the port that we drink – predominantly at Christmas, when price wars between the major producers result in silly prices. The bottles rarely have the word ruby on them, preferring their own brand identities, such as Warre’s Warrior or Cockburn’s Special Reserve.

Wines from multiple years are aged for two to three years, then blended and bottled while still deep-coloured, full of youthful berry fruit and a spirity fire. They don’t improve in the bottle, so no point stashing them away for a few years, and there’s no need to decant – other than the fact that it looks good on the table of course.

Prices from around £9 a bottle now – much less come Christmas.

Vintage port
The most famous style of port is also the most rare and expensive, accounting for only around 1% of the total sold, so most of us never actually drink it.

Vintage port is the product of a single year’s harvest, deemed to be of exceptional quality. Like ruby port, it is aged for a short time in wood, then put into very thick, dark glass bottles, where it is destined to remain for years, even decades, before being drunk. The port houses each decide whether to “declare” a vintage every year: the quality of the wine is ostensibly utmost, but in practice a vintage is declared three or four times in a decade.

In years where a port shipper does not “declare” a vintage, they may still, confusingly, produce a single quinta vintage port. These carry the shipper’s name and the name of the vineyard or quinta, such as Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas or Graham’s Malvedos. They are less pricey than the straight vintage and designed to be drunk younger, as they come from less favoured years.

Why does vintage port last so long? All wine needs one or more of the following ingredients to help preserve it and to provide a framework within which the flavours can develop: sweetness, acidity and tannin. Vintage port has all of these in spades, as well as masses of dense fruit to provide the centrepiece to fill out the structural framework. As it ages, the fruit matures to give complex aromas and flavours – and it will always need decanting, to separate the clear wine from the thick deposit in the bottle.

Single quinta ports start at around £25 per bottle, vintage port varies greatly depending on the year, but expect to pay around £40 and up.

Late bottled vintage (LBV)
This is a relatively recent innovation, dating from the 1970s. LBV gives some of the cachet of a vintage port, with the grapes coming from a single year, but the price and quality are somewhere between ruby and vintage. As the name suggests, it spends longer than true vintage port ageing in wood before being bottled (hence late bottled). Most are filtered before bottling so need no decanting. They are designed to offer a full-bodied, dark-coloured port that goes some way towards the flavour of vintage port, but which is cheaper and can be drunk earlier.

Prices for LBVs start at around £10 a bottle.

Tawny port
Unlike the ruby and vintage versions, tawnies are aged in wood for an extended period. The time in barrel results in a mellow, nutty style of port which is deep amber-brown: tawny in fact.

The most basic tawnies can be pale pink rather than deep mahogany brown and don’t have much to recommend them. Instead look for “aged tawny” on the label, or an indication of age. 10 year-old tawny will be an average age of the wines in the bottle, ditto 20, or even over 40 year-old tawny. You might also come across a single vintage tawny, known as “colheita”.

Not deep purple, more mellow than sweet and spirity: this is the port that lends itself to summer drinking. While there’s nothing better than a nip of it next to a crackling fire in the winter months, in summer you can chill it, or even serve it over ice for a refreshing aperitif.

Tawny ports, like ruby, won’t have any sediment or need decanting and won’t improve in the bottle.

Warre’s Otima 10 year old – around £11.99 at Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Thresher/Wine Rack and Waitrose
Quinta do Noval 10 year old - £15.99 at Waitrose
Taylor’s 10 year old - £17.99 at Sainsbury’s
Taylor’s 20 year old - £27.25 at Waitrose
Dow’s 20 year old - £26.25 at Waitrose
Calem 1990 Colheita - £20 at Waitrose

As with all these posts, this article was published in the Surrey Advertiser, but this version is much longer.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Ripe New Zealand reds

“You wine writers need to check your facts!” barked John Buck, of Te Mata Estate, the oldest winery in New Zealand. This to a room full of wine writers, at last week’s London Wine Fair.

And his gripe? That too many wine guides state that, while New Zealand produces great white wines, its red wines lack fruit and have a tell-tale unripe, green, character. To prove his point, we then proceeded to taste a range of top flight Kiwi reds, all from the highly promising 2007 vintage, none of them showing a trace of anything unripe, yet with the New Zealand hallmark clearly-etched fruit. That was us told.

In defence of wine writing in general, I feel I should note that the leafy, unripe character of New Zealand’s reds is not a figment of our imagination. It was most definitely there when I first started tasting Kiwi reds back in the mid-nineties; I tasted it as recently as a couple of years ago in some Hawkes Bay syrahs. However, New Zealand’s winemakers are a determined bunch and have clearly worked hard to bring up the standard of their red wines, demonstrated by those impressive 2007s.

New Zealand’s first red wine successes came with pinot noir, which, ironically, has a reputation as one of the fussiest grapes in the world and hard to get right. Much of New Zealand’s neighbour, Australia, is too hot for top class pinot noir, for example, resulting in baked or stewed fruit flavours. New Zealand, however, has been arguably the most successful producer of fine, perfumed pinot noir, outside of its ancestral French home in Burgundy.

Pinot Noir producers to watch
New Zealand is, by any measure, at the cooler end of the winemaking world. However, its length from North (warmest) to South (coolest, this being the southern hemisphere), the varying influence of the cool Pacific and Southern Oceans, the variety of soils and sites, all make for wine regions which produce different styles of wine – even when based on the same grape variety.

Ata Rangi
The daddy of New Zealand’s pinot noir makers. They epitomize the muscular, relatively full-on style of Martinborough pinot. This spot at the southern tip of the North Island is about as far north as pinot ventures in New Zealand, making for depth of flavour, complexity and savoury richness. Burgundian in style – and price.
Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2007, £31.49 from New Zealand House of Wine, Majestic (Fine Wine) £45 per bottle, down to £36 if you buy any 2 New Zealand wines.

Jackson Estate
Based in Marlborough, at the northern tip of the South Island, Jackson Estate has a reputation for elegant, Loire-ish sauvignon blanc. Their pinot noirs, though, are equally alluring and a great illustration of the lighter, more juicy style of Marlborough pinot.
Jackson Estate Vintage Widow Pinot Noir 2006, Majestic, £17.99, down to £14.39 if you buy any 2 New Zealand wines.

Felton Road
This is a small outfit with a huge reputation. Based in Otago deep in the South Island, the most southerly wine region in the world, they turn out deceptively effortless wines. The sunny days and cool nights in Otago give their pinots perfumed fruit and delicate tannins; light, but with no lack of flavour. Biodynamic practices may also have something to do with the poise and depth.
Felton Road Pinot Noir 2007, £25.50 from Imbibros, £25.99 (£22.50 case rate) from The Vineking, £26.20 from Les Caves de Pyrène (though the 2007 has yet to arrive and they have sold out of the 2006). They also make a number of wines from particular vineyards or blocks of vines, available in tiny quantities, including Calvert Vineyard and Block 3 – hard to find and prices start at £30 and up.

Other varieties
If New Zealand was going to succeed with any red variety, then pinot noir would be top of the list, with its liking for cooler conditions. Surely the warmer climate varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah are more of a struggle. Well, they have been, hence the talk of green, leafy wines.

However, the North Island, and specifically Hawkes Bay, has a warmer, maritime-influenced climate capable of ripening these varieties. Particularly important for syrah is an area called the Gimblett Gravels, with large pebbles from an ancient riverbed. These stones absorb heat from the sun during the day and radiate this heat during the night, helping to ripen the grapes – in much the same way that the “pudding stones” of Chateauneuf-du-Pape do in France’s southern Rhône Valley.

Producers to watch

Trinity Hill
With an uncompromising attitude to quality, Trinity Hill’s wines are ambitious and a signpost to the future of New Zealand reds. Their syrahs are all worth trying.
Trinity Hill Homage Syrah 2006, £75 from Swig. Less eye-watering prices for the Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007, £19.95 from Swig, £17.35 from New Zealand House of Wine.

Craggy Range
The winery may be in Hawkes Bay, but Craggy Range specialise in producing single vineyard wines from all over New Zealand, made from a range of grape varieties by Master of Wine Steve Smith. Highly-rated by people in the know, they command respect from everyone who has come across them.
Craggy Range Sophia 2006, a blend of mostly merlot, with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and malbec in support, is £25 at Waitrose. Wine Direct have the 2005 for £24.95, New Zealand House of Wine the 2004 at £23.75. For a more affordable taste try Craggy Range Syrah Block 14, Gimblett Gravels 2006, £16.99 from Waitrose.

Te Mata
Finally, back to New Zealand’s oldest producer, dating from the 1890s. They have a long-standing reputation for producing outstanding red wines (hence John Buck’s impatience with the “green” label), which have long commanded international recognition. Coleraine, their flagship red, is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a fair dollop of cabernet franc. The 2007 is embryonic, but already mouthwatering and a delicious prospect, especially if you are prepared to wait a few years to allow it to develop.
Te Mata Coleraine 2007, £27.99 from The Vineyard (due in a couple of weeks, so check first!). The 2006 is available from New Zealand House of Wine for £28.25 and from Wine Direct for £26.75.

Stockist details
Imbibros – branches in Godalming and Farnham, http://www.imbibros.co.uk/
Les Caves de Pyrène – retail outlet in Artington, Guildford, http://www.lescaves.co.uk/
Majestic – various branches and online at http://www.majestic.co.uk/
New Zealand House of Wine – online-only: http://www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk/
Swig – online-only: http://www.swig.co.uk/
The Vineking – branches in Weybridge and Reigate, http://www.thevineking.com/
The Vineyard – Dorking, http://www.vineyard-direct.co.uk/
Waitrose – various branches and online at http://www.waitrosewine.com/
Wine Direct – on-line only: http://www.winedirect.co.uk/

Friday, 15 May 2009

Are English wines coming of age?

English wines are at an awkward adolescent stage in their growth. They are past the early years when they were viewed as something of a joke, and not a very funny one at that. Today, more and more consistently enjoyable wines are being made across England (and Wales) and conditions seem right for a growth spurt to take them into adulthood with the other big boys of the wine world.

Of course wine-making in this country is not a new thing: the traditional view conjures pictures of Roman Britons lounging in their villas (presumably with the hypocaust turned up high), downing goblets of locally-produced wine. Sadly there is no evidence to support these imaginings: grapes seem to have been grown here in Roman times, but there is nothing to suggest that any wine was made from them.

However, it is true that wine was made, probably in a rather patchy and piecemeal way, over the intervening centuries. Wine was intimately connected with monastic and church ritual, but any lasting progress was hampered by the Black Death, the dissolution of the monasteries, easier trade routes with wine regions further south and climate change. The renaissance of English wine began shortly after the second world war, when the first commercial vineyard was planted at Hambledon in Hampshire.

So perhaps, given this long history, it’s churlish of me to talk of English wines being still only adolescent. Well you have to recognize that we don’t have the ideal climate for grape-growing and wine-making. If you’ve visited other wine-making regions around the world, you can’t help noticing that they are, well, warmer than here. Our climate is the limiting factor on our wine industry: it dictates which grape varieties can be grown, and only then in the most favoured spots, and only in the warmer years too.

These tricky conditions have led English wimemakers to plant grape varieties specifically bred to survive and ripen in our marginal climate. There’s nothing wrong with these varieties per se, but mostly they were developed in Germany and have correspondingly Germanic-sounding names: Huxelrebe, Schönburger, Würzer, Dornfelder. These are not names to tempt English wine drinkers – if those varieties are any good, why aren’t they grown elsewhere? Never seen a Siegerrebe from Chile or Australia, have we? And any combination of “Germany” and “wine” is commercial poison. There’s also some, perhaps correct, snobbishness about these varieties: they are mostly hybrids (made from crossings of other varieties) and there is a view that hybrids can never produce good quality wine, certainly not great wine.

As time has gone on, many of these older Germanic varieties and hybrids have started to die out in favour of other grapes, as our climate has warmed, as vine-growing and wine-making know-how have improved. They are still there and still used, but their names are not trumpeted on labels; they are mostly blended together in wines with inoffensive-sounding names like Autumn Spice or Surrey Gold.

Varieties that have proved themselves over time and which look likely to grow further in popularity are Bacchus, for white wines and Pinot Noir for reds.

Bacchus, despite being pretty much unknown outside these shores does have some advantages. It doesn’t sound German and even sounds like it might have something to do with wine. Perhaps more importantly (but only perhaps), it makes wines that are attractive to the average wine drinker. Bacchus wines have some things in common with our current favourite white, Sauvignon Blanc: fresh, herbal and nettley-smelling with attractive fruit.

Pinot noir – ah, finally we get to grow a variety that people have already heard of, that is actually grown in other countries. Pinot noir is the grape that makes red Burgundies; it is also one of the trio of grapes that are permitted to make Champagne. That’s quite a pedigree and, by some stroke of good fortune, we English seem to be able to grow it here.

Making red wines in England has been a bit of a struggle, frankly. Red grape varieties are more difficult to ripen here, so growers have had to resort to those unfamiliar-sounding hybrids in the past. Now, however, Pinot Noir has arrived and seems to suit the climate – and perhaps the climate has changed a little too, to meet it halfway. You still see other varieties in bottles of English red wine, but the future looks increasingly pinot-tinted. And, as a bonus, if the weather isn’t good enough to ripen the pinot noir to make red wine, then growers can use it to make sparkling wine instead.

Sparkling wines are perhaps the area where English wines have taken the greatest strides in the last few years. In Ridgeview and Nyetimber, both based in Sussex, England has sparkling wine makers whose ambition is to emulate Champagne itself in style and quality. People may have found the idea laughable not so many years ago – but they’re not laughing now. Indeed the Queen, it is said, serves Nyetimber sparkling wine at Buckingham Palace – though I don’t believe her Majesty is obliged to divulge all expense receipts (yet), so I can’t be categorical.

English Wine Week – 23rd – 31st May
This is the annual celebration of all things English and winey and a great excuse to get out and visit a vineyard or two. Over the course of the week vineyards across England will be opening their doors to welcome visitors and offer a variety of activities, including tours, tastings and sales or hosting special events. Details of all activities are available on www.englishwineweek.co.uk.

Recommended English Wines
A highly personal selection of my current favourite English wines.

Ridgeview Fitzrovia Brut 2006, £21.95 from Ridgeview themselves or £21.99 from Waitrose
Ridgeview’s take on a rosé Champagne, made authentically from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. All of Ridgeview’s wines are worth a try and their commitment to quality is always impressive – the only trouble being, their wines sell out so quickly that it’s hard to buy them at their peak of maturity.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2001/3, £25.99, from Waitrose
Nyetimber are, by far, the largest sparkling wine producer in the country and further expansion is planned. They don’t suffer from false modesty and consider their wines on a par with Champagne. It’s a fine and elegant sparkling wine in any case.

Camel Valley Brut 2006, £19.99 from Waitrose, £19.95 from the vineyard
Unlike Ridgeview and Nyetimber, at Camel Valley, based in Cornwall, they pursue a more English idiom of sparkling wine, rather than apeing Champagne. This fruity and easy-going wine is made from a blend of Seyval blanc, Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner grapes.

Chapel Down Bacchus 2007, £9.49 at Waitrose, £9.99 direct from the vineyard in Tenterden, Kent
If you’ve yet to try Bacchus, this is a good place to start. Chapel Down is the country’s largest wine producer, making wines from grapes from their own substantial vineyards, as well as buying in grapes from growers all over Kent, Sussex, Essex and even the Isle of Wight. Although described as a dry wine, this wine is essentially off-dry, which is I feel the best way to appreciate most English white wines. The small amount of sweetness helps to round out the palate and enhances the fruit.

Bookers Vineyard Dark Harvest 2005, £7.99 from Waitrose, or £8.95 at Bookers Vineyard
What I really wanted to recommend is Samantha Linter’s pinot noir – but, sadly, she hasn’t had ripe enough grapes to make any in the last two summers, and the 2006 vintage is now sold out. One of only a small handful of female wine-makers in England, Samantha seems to have found her niche with her attractive, scented pinot. The Dark Harvest is made from the more reliably performing Dornfelder and Rondo grapes. Its jewel-like purple colour is matched by plenty of juicy berry fruit.

Denbies Hillside Chardonnay, £13.50 from the vineyard
I couldn’t write about English wines without mentioning Denbies, the largest single vineyard in the country (rather than the biggest producer). Denbies make a wide range of wines and, overall, quality is high and consistent. They can’t get the chardonnay grapes ripe enough every year to make a still, 100% chardonnay wine, but this is a great signpost of what English wine is capable of in the right hands and with favourable weather. No funny-sounding grape varieties, no hiding behind residual sweetness, just a well-made chardonnay that doesn’t automatically make you think, “OK for an English wine”.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Oddbins v Majestic

Most wine in the UK is bought in supermarkets, but there is still a place, albeit a shrinking one, for specialist wine merchant chains on our High Streets. Oddbins and Majestic are, I would guess, the most interesting of the chains for people interested in wine.

I’ll come clean straight away – I once worked for Oddbins. Only for 10 months or so, until I found that selling wine and selling tins of beans had too much in common for me. But I will do my best not to get all misty-eyed about how things used to be “back in my day” and attempt to give a fair comparison of these two giants of UK wine retailing.

How do they stack up? Publicly-listed Majestic currently has 147 wine warehouses across the country, compared with 132 Oddbins shops, privately owned by Simon Baile and his business partner. The distinguishing factor for Majestic is that shoppers must buy a minimum of 12 bottles of wine (or beer or spirits); at Oddbins you always have the option of popping in for just a single bottle. I get the feeling that Oddbins eye this case-only policy jealously and would love to have their customers do the same. I can see their point: it’s so much easier to serve 20 customers in a day, each of them spending, say, £80 each to earn £1600 income; rather than having to deal with more like 160 customers, spending an average of £10 each.

Additionally, it must irk Oddbins’ owners that their rival can essentially build in a case discount to all their prices, whereas they must offer a single bottle price, which is necessarily higher. In order to address this imbalance, Oddbins offers discounts of up to 15 and even 20% on particular wines if you buy a mixed case, in order to encourage shoppers to buy more each time they visit. However, interestingly, Majestic are trialling a minimum purchase of six bottles in some of its stores, rather than the traditional twelve – so it may be that the benefits of their case-only policy are wearing thin in these straitened times.

Majestic’s management has had nothing more troublesome to deal with than the transition of power from long-time CEO Tim How, to Steve Lewis last year. From the outside at least, their progress looks assured, including snapping up fine wine specialists Lay & Wheeler in March this year.

Oddbins, by contrast, has been through a particularly torrid time in the last decade or so. In the eighties and nineties Oddbins was owned by Seagram, as part of its spirit and wine brand portfolio. During this time Oddbins grew rapidly to over 200 shops and stood head and shoulders above other High Street merchants – a funky image, eclectic range and pioneers of new wines to the UK and a foregone conclusion as the International Wine Challenge’s Wine Merchant of the Year.

Then in 2002, Oddbins, that champion of the new, the exciting, the sometimes, frankly, odd, was bought by a French company, Castel Frères. It should never have worked and it didn’t. Finally, last year, Castel sold Oddbins to the son of one of its former owners – not without first having cherry-picked the most profitable sites for its own group of underwhelming French wine merchants, Nicolas.

Oddbins’ new owners face challenges on many fronts – breathing life into their wine range, so neglected under Castel; retaining and motivating staff; regaining their place in the hearts of the UK’s wine lovers – and all at a time of unprecedented economic slowdown. I don’t envy them their task.

If Oddbins have been known for their funky, risky side of wine retail, then Majestic are more steady Eddy. They don’t take chances with their wine range – if someone’s going to champion a new wine country or region, you can bet it won’t be Majestic. However, while Oddbins have, to all intents and purposes, been absent from the UK wine scene, Majestic has stolen a march on its long-time rival and turned ex-Oddbins shoppers into loyal Majestic customers.

It’s not an easy time for anyone selling anything quite so frivolous as wine and it would be a shame to see either of these two retail institutions suffer. And, while it’s too early to say if Oddbins can rekindle its old magic, a rejuvenated wine presence on the High Street can only be welcomed.

Top wine picks from Oddbins
Oddbins Own White and Oddbins Own Red 2008 - £4.49 (£3.59 as part of a mixed dozen)
The Castel-era versions of these wines were dreary. Now, though, they are fantastic value for money wines made by the enterprising Domaines Paul Mas in the Languedoc – though it’s a shame they haven’t changed the fright of a label on the bottle. The white is a veritable cocktail of grapes: grenache blanc, vermentino, chenin blanc, colombard, ugni blanc and chasan which deliver a fresh, crisp yet weighty mouthful of apple and citrus fruit. The red, meanwhile, is made up of grenache, cinsault, syrah and carignan and offers lively, dark fruits with a touch of spice. At this price don’t expect greatness - but they are honest and cheerful.

Fox Gordon Princess Fiano 2008 - £9.99 (available mid-May)
This is the kind of off the wall wine we love Oddbins for – a cultish southern Italian grape variety, used to make a wine in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. It has a gorgeous, alluring nose of honey and apricot – in the vein of viognier, but with more freshness – a full-on and interesting mouthful.

Margrain Pinot Noir Home Block 2007 - £14.99 (£11.99 as part of a mixed dozen). Available from end of May.
The case price is great value for such an accomplished Pinot Noir from Martinborough in New Zealand. This spot, at the very southern tip of the North Island, across the water from Marlborough, seems to produce the most intensely-flavoured and “masculine” of New Zealand’s pinots – this is rich, ripe, spicy and smoky, but with typical pinot noir lively acidity and perfume.

Top picks from Majestic
Dr L Riesling 2008 - £6.99
Despite its complete lack of popularity with the wine-drinking public, Majestic valiantly continues to stock a small but well-chosen range of wines from Germany. This riesling is just off-dry, with plenty of zesty, peachy fruit and at just 8.5% alcohol with a screwcap it’s a perfect picnic wine.

Hautes Cotes de Beaune Blanc, Domaine de Mercey 2004 - £9.99 (£7.99 if you buy two)
This is the kind of thing that Majestic do so well – white Burgundy is hardly original, but they have searched out a less fashionable area and found a great example of maturing Burgundian chardonnay at a very reasonable price. There’s a hint of honeyed ripeness to the appley fruit, along with a touch of peach and spice.

De Martino 347 Vineyards Carmenère Reserva 2007 - £7.49 (£5.99 if you buy any two Chilean wines)
If you’re planning a barbecue then look no further – it practically smells like barbecue steak already. The palate is a mass of juicy black cherry fruit.

Monday, 20 April 2009

State of independence - Surrey's wine merchants

They may not have been demonstrating in the streets during the G20 summit, but independent wine merchants in Surrey are on a mission to free wine drinkers from the dead hand of the supermarket and multiple chain. With their help, we wine drinkers can cast off the shackles of the BOGOF and 3for2 offer and dare to explore new wine horizons in search of true wine value.

I have just spent an enjoyable day talking to a small cross-section of Surrey’s independent wine merchants, finding out what makes them tick and what keeps them going, despite the onslaught of the deep discounting behemoths. What struck me most, talking to these people, is their passion for wine and their desire to share it with as many people as possible. And, while they show no lack of ambition, it’s probably also true that few of them are going to grow hugely rich by selling wine. In fact there’s a well-worn saying that the way to make a small fortune in the wine trade, is to start with a large one.

Supermarkets lure customers with 3 wines for £10; and research has shown that the number one deciding factor on which wine to buy is a price promotion, above grape variety or personal recommendation. So how can the independents hope to compete?

The answer seems to be that there is a loyal band of wine drinkers who are prepared to look beyond the BOGOF. These people value the effort a wine merchant has put into choosing their range and trust them to offer advice, service and “real value” wines, as well as a genuine interest in their customers.

Do you have to spend more at an independent wine merchant? If you’re looking for 3 for £10 wines then the answer is generally yes. But from around £5 a bottle, the choice for a curious and interested wine shopper is far more inspiring than the supermarket wall of wine. And, interestingly, though all the merchants I spoke to offer wines from around £5 and up, the average amount people spend on a bottle ranges from around £7, up to £12 or so.

This statistic seems to back up what I heard the merchants saying to me today: people come back to them again and again. So customers might start off looking for the bargain bottles, but as they build up trust with the merchant, they’re willing to trade up and spend a little more.

Should we be spending more on each bottle of wine? On average we are loath to pay more than £4 a bottle in this country. Of the average price of £4.18, £1.57 and 55p are duty and VAT respectively, leaving just over £2 for the wine itself – including the bottle it comes in, shipping costs and any marketing overheads. The actual amount that could realistically be spent on what’s actually in the bottle is, therefore, closer to £1 at best. As the £4 is an average amount, there are plenty of people spending even less. How anyone makes wine that sells for £3 or under is something of a mystery to me and is clearly not sustainable. Someone has to be losing out – not least the wine drinker, I would argue.

Independent merchants, on the whole, fully understand that they cannot, and would not wish to, try and compete at the bottom end of the market. Their customers are probably already interested in wine and value the input of someone who can help them discover new ones, often with bottles on tasting at the shop. Or they could even track down something they wouldn’t normally stock. We’ve come to expect services like free delivery and glass loan, but independents frequently also offer tastings of their wines and/or special events. Last but not least, the actual shopping experience is enjoyable, a world away from throwing a couple of bottles in along with your weekly supermarket shop.

What do we want? An inspiring and interesting selection of wines that represent true value for money and which help support our local economy! Well I don’t think anyone will be chanting that any time soon on the streets of London, but it’s a start.

Who is your local wine merchant?
Les Caves de Pyrène, Artington, Guildford – eclectic selection of “real wines”, including many organic and biodynamic producers.
Guildford Wine Company, Shalford – friendly and knowledgeable local merchant with a broad range to appeal to a wide local customer base.
Ranmore Wines – a new venture expanding its smallish, hand-picked range, with a good selection of fizz from a former Champagne-only specialist.
Taurus Wines, Bramley – a broad but carefully-chosen range from around the world and plenty of expertise in wines for weddings and parties.
The Vineyard, Dorking – broad range of wines and prices in a welcoming, smart shop and the biggest selection of Amarones I’ve ever seen.
The Vineking, Reigate and Weybridge – a huge range (especially in the larger, newly-opened Weybridge shop) of anything but dull wines, chosen by a Viking (I kid you not).

There are many more, including: A&A in Cranleigh, Arthur Rackham in Burpham, Imbibros in Godalming and Farnham, Haslemere Cellars, Vicki’s in Chobham...the list goes on. Find your nearest merchant by Googling “independent wine merchant Surrey”.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Like wine for chocolate

Easter is just around the corner and for many of us that means chocolate. Chocolate eggs of all shapes and sizes, chocolate bunnies, boxes of chocolate, chocolate anything in fact, and lots of it.

This got me thinking about wine and chocolate – not a natural combination you might think - and you’re probably right. Chocolate is quite a challenge for any alcoholic drink, with its dense, rich sweetness, its sheer “sticks around in your mouth for ages”-ness. Most of the time I’d probably go for a cup of tea, or coffee, if I’m eating some chocolate. But in the interests of research I have been looking around for wines that might just work with the dark stuff.

Which leads me to the first issue – chocolate is such a broad term. There’s a world of difference between your Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and your 70% cocoa solids plain chocolate; what might go with an airy, creamy milk chocolate mousse is probably not going to suit a dark chocolate roulade with raspberry coulis. Chocolate itself has different characters – and, to add to the complexity, we love to use it in all manner of puddings, sweets, biscuits and to combine it with cream, nuts, fruit – you name it.

So chocolate and wine combinations have more to them than meets the eye. Here are some suggestions, based on the type of chocolate you’re dealing with.

White chocolate
White chocolate is hardly chocolate in some ways, as it contains no cocoa as such, just cocoa butter, vanilla and masses of sugar of course. This makes it the lightest and sweetest type of chocolate which needs a light and sweet wine to match.

A fun option would be a Moscato d’Asti, from Piedmont in Italy. It’s lightly sparkling, light in alcohol (only 5-6%) and definitely sweet – could there be a more unfashionable combination in a wine? Treat it as a guilty pleasure – it might be uncool, but its sweet, grapey, pear-tinged bubbles are a delight with white chocolate puddings (as well as fruit salads, incidentally). Oddbins have Michele Chiarlo’s Moscato d’Asti “Nivole” at £9.99 for a half bottle. A less refined version of this is available as wines labelled “Asti” rather than “Moscato d’Asti”: the most widely distributed version is Asti Martini NV, £5.96 from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

Milk chocolate and light chocolate puddings
If you’re planning on helping the children finish their supply of milk chocolate eggs, then you could do worse than try a glass of tawny port to go with it.

All port starts out life as a deep-coloured red wine, whose fermentation is stopped by the addition of grape spirit, leaving a fortified, naturally sweet wine as a result. Ruby port, the regular stuff, is aged for a short time in barrel, then bottled while it is still deepest ruby and full of brambly fruit. This style of port also has its uses with chocolate – I’d be tempted to try it with unadulterated plain chocolate, as well as with dark chocolate puddings that involve berry fruits.

The tawny version of port has a lighter, yes tawny, colour, brought about by long term ageing in barrel. As the wine loses its deep colour, it takes on a more mellow, nutty character, making it a remarkably versatile drink, one that can stand up to milk chocolate and lighter chocolate puddings.

That nutty character would also make a nice match with chocolate sweets involving nuts…chocolate brownies, perhaps?

Look for an aged tawny, at least 10 years old: the older the wine, the more mellow and complex it will be. A good introduction to the style is Warre’s Otima 10 year old Tawny Port, £11.99 for 50cl at Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Thresher/Wine Rack and Waitrose.

An interesting twist on the tawny port style is Mavrodaphne of Patras (in Greece), available for £4.99 at Waitrose. This is made in the same way as port, but from the splendidly-named Mavrodaphne grape, native to Greece. It has also been aged in casks, giving it that hallmark caramelly flavour with a hint of spice. I recently enjoyed this wine with a seemingly difficult to match pud involving milk chocolate mousse in a cup of dark chocolate with raspberries on top – the Mavrodaphne took all this in its stride.

Dark chocolate and rich, dark chocolate puddings
These can be some of the most difficult things to pair with wine, because of their full-on flavours and richness. You might come across some surprising matches, however.

I unexpectedly enjoyed Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise with posh dark chocolates. Not sure if I can explain why. The wine is a lightly fortified sweet white wine made from the same grape as the Moscato mentioned above and I can only deduce that somewhere between the sweet fruit of the wine and the rich bitterness of the chocolates, some harmony was reached. Tesco and Waitrose both stock Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise made by the winegrowers’ co-operative for around £5.50 for a 50cl bottle.

A more mainstream solution is to echo the chocolatey richness and slight bitterness of the food with a wine with similar traits. Ruby port could work here, as could wines from Maury or Banyuls in the Southwest of France. Another form of sweet, fortified red wine made in a similar way to port – who knew there were so many of these things around? – the young versions of these wines combine a bitter chocolate character with a trace of black fruit. If this sounds like the pudding you’re eating, then give a Maury or Banyuls a go. Waitrose have Domaine Pouderoux Maury 2002/3 for £9.99 for 50cl.

In all these matches I’m obeying the food and wine matching premise that the wine should be sweeter than the food that you’re eating. I’m generally not a fan of rules when it comes to choosing wines, but I find wines that are less sweet than what I’m eating end up tasting overly dry and lacking fruit.

However, it’s horses for courses and people who baulk at the idea of any sweet wine might prefer to have a dry red with chocolate. Again, it makes sense to look for wines which have plenty of ripe, dark fruit with a hint of chocolate flavour – full-on Zinfandels from California are often touted as a good chocolate companion. I would also recommend trying an Amarone from Italy: these wines are made from partly dried grapes, which gives a full-bodied wine with masses of dark, ripe black cherry fruit and an edge of bitter chocolate. Not a cheap option (£20 and up), but Phil Jones of The Vineyard in Dorking is a fan of the style and should be able to point you in the right direction.

The richest, sweetest chocolate puddings are quite possibly beyond the reach of most wines…except one. Liqueur muscats from Australia are a unique wine style and a gift from Australia to the rest of the wine world. Muscat grapes (I’m intrigued how often this grape variety is cropping up here) are harvested late, when they have begun to shrivel and raisin on the vine. The grapes are part-fermented, then fortified to produce, port-style, a sweet, fortified wine. Aged in casks in tin-roofed huts under the hot Australian sun, these syrupy wines turn dark in colour, with a spectrum of flavours including figs, marmalade, treacle, nuts…I could go on. Not wimpy wines, they can stand up to just about any pudding you care to throw at them.

Majestic stock De Bortoli Show Liqueur Muscat for £11.99 a bottle. A step up in quality, though, is Stanton and Killeen Classic Rutherglen Muscat, £13.15 for a half bottle at Waitrose.

And finally…if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, try an Australian sparkling shiraz. These wines are never serious, but can be serious fun – and their full-on sweet, black fruit with notes of dark chocolate give a clue that they might just work with puddings. You can pick up Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Shiraz at Sainsbury’s for £8.98 and Banrock Station Sparkling Shiraz is £8.79 at Waitrose.

If all that sounds a little overwhelming, remember it’s hard to beat the great British cuppa with anything sweet.