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 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 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 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 ( 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.