Gruner Veltliner and Merlot: two wines for Autumn

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While the weather in London continues to flirt with temperatures of in the 20s and teasing us with afternoons of glorious warm sunshine it still feels too soon to turn to heavy Cabernet Sauvignons and hefty Pinot Noirs.

After a long, hot summer we’ve had our fill of fresh rosé and crisp, delicate Sancerre and fruit-driven Chablis, so what wines should we turn to in as we gently ease into Autumn?

At a recent Wine Wednesday Grapes Deconstructedevent at Unwinedin Tooting Market owner Laura Aitken talked us through two grape varieties that pair perfectly with crunchy leaves and cosy Autumn evenings.

Not just for ski holidays

First up was Gruner Veltliner. My experience to date with this native Austrian variety has been wine served alongside hotel dinners on ski holidays, and it’s true this refreshing white wine is widely acknowledged as food friendly.

75% of Gruner Veltliner comes from Austria, with Hungary, Slovenia and Czech Republic making up the bulk of the remainder and pockets of production in the US and New Zealand.

With the name meaning “green fruit” you can expect green apple on the nose alongside aromas of citrus and white pepper. These typical characteristics of Gruner Veltliner have earned it a reputation as “Sauvignon Blanc from a cool climate on steroids” but it’s also a popular choice for fans of Burgundy Chablis, which tends to have more citrus notes.

With a food friendly reputation and crowd-pleaser attributes, why is Gruner Veltliner not as famous as ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc? Austrian Wine is still recovering from the 1985 scandal where several Austrian Wineries were caught illegally using diethylene glycol to adulterate their wines to replicate sweetness and full-bodied style of late harvest wines and as a result, relatively little was exported in subsequent years.

With their international reputation damaged, Austrian vineyards quietly continued production and focused on the home market. Then in 2002, Austrian Gruner Veltliner beat Burgundy wines in a blind taste test across the board sending shockwaves through the wine world. Since then, Austrian wine has still enjoyed an underdog reputation but is championed by sommeliers and wine bars as an ideal pairing for a number of dishes. As so little is still exported, it isn’t the cheapest wine on supermarket shelves, but the quality is hard to beat.

Lower Austrian Lois

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First up we tried Loimer ‘Lois’ 2017 from lower Austria. This winemaker produces a lot of single vineyard wines and the Gruner Veltliner was a textbook representation of the grape. It had green apple crispness but was low acidity with medium body. Given the shelf price of £18.00 it’s something of a treat for a midweek wine but would pair fantastically with pork chops for an autumnal dinner with friends. It was  but was confirmed to be a little too easy to drink by the tasting group.

As good as apple pie

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Next up was Sepp Moser ‘Fundamental’ 2017, which was cloudy, closer to the colour of baked apples in colour and aroma. There was a distinctive clove note rather than the usual white pepper, and it would have been delicious with a tart apple pie but at £22 a bottle was more of a quirky wine to sample than something to stock up on regularly.

NZ GV

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Our third Gruner Veltliner was Blank Canvas 2013 from Marlborough, New Zealand which was my favourite of the three. Given Laura’s earlier description of Gruner Veltliner as a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc on steroids and Marlborough’s infamy as Sauvignon Blanc central, it was interesting to sample the difference the South Island climate made on this distinctive grape.

It had the aromatics of a Reisling, balanced and well-rounded with medium body and a decent acidity on the finish. The oak aging was evident, giving added complexity. For £19.50 this was one I’d pick up myself and save for a special autumn day.

Maligned Merlot

As usual with Wine Wednesday, we moved on to red next, sampling two reds side by side. Merlot is the most planted grape in France, with Italy following second, where Merlot is the fifth most planted behind native grape varieties.

This easy to grow and consistent grape is thin skinned and ripens early. It is often considered an insurance policy for when Cabernet doesn’t hold its own in a poor vintage.

Merlot was much maligned after the film Sideways was released in which the Pinot Noir loving protagonist trashed Merlot. Paul Giamatti and the filmmakers owe poor Merlot an apology as sales have still not recovered to 1990’s level.

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The fruit forward characteristics of Merlot shone through in our first wine tasting, a Napa Valley Merlot from 2015. It had an attractive pale ruby hue and aromas of red fruit and spice on the nose. On the palate the fruit shone through, with medium texture, medium tannins and a decent finish. Six months of oak aging gave it a little bit of a jammy texture, and it came in at £18.00 a bottle.

Merlot blend

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Demonstrating Merlot’s capabilities as a supporting act to Cabernet, we next sampled La Bonne Franquette Rouge, a 2016 Merlot / Cabernet Franc blend from Gascony. This had a ruby hue, and a leafy, wet herbal aroma on the nose. On the palate, red fruit shone through and it the blend had a lovely body. It had a spicy kick on the finish and a grippy mouthfeel thanks to the soft tannins and for £1200 a bottle it was the most affordable bottle of the night.

Passione for Merlot

IMG_2641.jpegLast but certainly not least was my favourite for the night, a Grand Passione Vento Rosso, a beautiful 2017 Merlot. Slightly darker in colour, it had delicious spice balanced by bold yet balanced red fruit flavours. Finding a red that dances the line between medium and full bodied is an ongoing challenge in our household for my black fruit, big bold aged Rioja loving husband so I snapped up a bottle of that at £15.00 as a take home find of the night.

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As ever, we finished our night with a delicious cheese board of Picos blue and Berskwell hard cheese. What’s more, there was 10% off any purchases of the night making for an affordable and informative evening in the lovely surroundings of Tooting Market. While I might need to try a few more Gruner Veltliner producers to find one with less obvious apple on the palate, I’m certainly a convert to Merlot as a go to reliable red wine.

 

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Blockbuster rosé with a reputation to match

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With an inviting pale shade and refined bottle design, this wine looks as good as it tastes. A blend of Grenache and Rolle, it has a delicate nose of strawberries, peach and a floral hint, it reveals complex and balanced red fruits on the palate with a silky smooth mouthfeel.

It was crisp, surprisingly refreshing and totally satisfying with just a suggestion of minerality. The long finish was silky smooth and followed through on the red fruit promised on the nose.

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Château d’Esclans are widely regarded as one of the finest rosé producers in Provence. The care and attention to detail taken throughout the vilification process in temperature controlled stainless steel results in a refined wine that showcases the best of the region

While such a delicate rosé is usually best served as an #aperitif, I bent the rules and paired with nduja tagliatelle and the spicy kick made the red fruit sing. No regrets.

At this price point it’s probably not a wine for everyday drinking but worth savouring with true rosé fans when you need a reminder of our gorgeous London summer.

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Unsung heroes: Malvasia and Grenache

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What are the characteristics of a classic Malvasia?
It’s a trick question. Malvasia is a family of grapes that comes with multiple varieties and subcategories. Despite being one of the oldest grape varieties with references dating back as far as 12th century Greece, it is not particularly well known by consumers as it’s often blended with other grapes such as white Rioja.
This well travelled, adaptable grape thrives in sunny climates but delivers balanced, crisp whites as it doesn’t lose it’s acidity with the sun. Far from it’s coastal Greek origins, today it can be found across the mediterranean, Eastern Europe and the United States and so the range in price, quality and characteristics is vast.
Grapes Deconstructed
Alongside unsung hero Grenache, Malvasia was the focus of the September edition of Grapes Deconstructed at Unwined in Tooting Market.
Hosted once a month as part of their #WineWednesday event series, the tasting was informal, informative and inspiring. Run by Unwined co-founder Laura who talked us through both the history of the wines and the story behind the producers, we tried two very different Malvasia varieties side by side, allowing us to compare and contrast our tasting notes to better explore the characteristics of the grape.
First up was the beautifully labelled Birinchino, a Malvasia Bianca di Piemonte (2015) from Santa Cruz, USA. I had tried this wine as part of the Wine about the Weather menu running throughout August and it was just as memorable on second tasting. Floral, and elegant with a long finish, the tasting group were mostly in agreement that while it wasn’t to everyone’s preferences, the £21 retail price seemed justified and was nice to sample a glass.
Alongside the Birinchino, we tasted the Principe Pallavicini, a Malvasia Puntinata (2017) from Lazio, Italy where they’ve grown Malvasia for over 400 years. This was more savoury and robust, and slightly drier than the Birinchino. The volcanic soil and higher altitude of the terror gave a slightly metallic aroma on the nose, which followed through on a zesty finish but balanced by pleasant fruity flavours of apricot, peaches and cream. Laura highlighted that this zesty, sharp finish was down to the producer allowing the wine to rest on the lees, which gave weight and intensity. At £18.75 retail, this was a pleasing wine, but felt less of a knock out for a celebration.

In our small tasting group the Birinchino won out as the more elegant and refined wine. the highly floral aroma didn’t overpower or alienate and the silky smooth finish ensured the quality stood out.

 

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On to Grenache

Laura generously laid on three reds for us to sample (a bargain considering the £15 ticket price, including cheese!) and next up was Grenache.

Similar to the Malvasia grape, Grenache is easy to grow, full of red fruit and is well planted across the globe. Of over 500,000 acres globally, over half of all Grenache is in the South of France.

Hearty, thin-skinned Grenache is fruity and bold, which gives it good body and alcohol. These characteristics hides a multitude of sins and the difficulties of other grapes making it a popular blend choice. It is the backbone of many superstar varieties, including the celebrated Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

While Grenache lacks the warm complexity of a Pinot Noir, aged well it will open up and pairs beautifully with food. It is considered a solid savoury alternative to a big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon or a dense fruity Malbec.

During our tasting the first red we tried was Dokeyjote, a 100% Garnacha (2017) from Navarra, Spain, retailing for £12. It promised red fruit and cherry on the nose, and was pleasant on first sip, but lacked a strong, well rounded finish with tannins overpowering the fruit. Laura mentioned that given the poor growing conditions in 2017 across Europe, we should not consider it their best vintage and to try others to see the best of the producer. After my first disappointment of the summer from a Navarra rosado which also lacked finish, it was a lesson in paying attention to weather impact on varieties in different regions.

Next up was a Rhône Valley Grenache / Syrah blend from Les Plan Des Moines La Cape VAcqueryas (2016).  This wine demonstrated how wine can open up as it ages, as one of our tasting group observed it would have been simply unapproachable if drunk young.  On the nose were aromas of Grenache’s typical red fruit and while it was light on the palate, savouring revealed the fruit promised at the start. With just 20% Syrah, this helped contrast with the typical characteristics of the 100% Grenache Dokeyjote.

Ending our reds, we tried a 2002 Grenache / Carignan / Cabernet / Merlot blend from Cellar Sangenis. The Priorat was medium to full bodied and carried the high alcohol of the Grenache carried well with an exceptionally smooth finish.

While it stood out as a well aged quality wine, opinion was divided; It was hard to imagine drinking it without food or in high volume given it’s very savoury, slate heavy finish.

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Fortify yourself

Brining the evening to a close were two fortified wines; one Malvasia and a Grenache. Justinos 10 year old 100% Malvasia di Candida from Madeira was nutty and indulgent, but we did balk at the £45 price tag.

Domaine Cazes ‘Clos les Paulilles’ (2015) from Banyuls, France was a stand out. With much lower sugar, it was well rounded with a soft finish and less typical for a fortified wine it is best served chilled. Unlike ruby red aged ports best saved for Christmas, it was light enough to enjoy on an autumn night and was heaven paired with a strong blue cheese.

Making the night even more of a bargain, there was 10% off any wines in store which was lucky as both I and two of my friends picked up a bottle of the Banyuls to take home as our favourite of the night and planned a cheese and wine night for this weekend. What more could you want on a cold September Wednesday evening?

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Hungarian Wines at Lidl

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Lidl’s Summer 2018 range has quite a selection of unique vintages and lesser known varieties, including an extensive range of Hungarian wines.

For fun, I thought I’d try them one by one without reading the labels or any descriptions on line to put to the test what I learned about the ‘5 S’s’ of wine tasting – See, Swirl, Smell, Sip, Savour.

Tornai Juhfark (2017) for £6.99

This was my first wine tasting fail. Despite a pleasing almost greenish yellow colour for a promising start, I could pick up very little on the nose, only a vague citrusy aroma.

As soon as I sipped, I immediately thought of supermarket prosecco, and couldn’t move past it. I put it back in the fridge for another hour and tried again, and found the finish a little more crisp but I still found it had a prosecco aftertaste that left a residue on my tongue and a dryness in my mouth. I’m not a prosecco fan at the best of times, so feel this was a lack of wine tasting experience and a personal bias.

Reading the wine tasting notes on the Lidl website afterwards, they note that the Balatan region in Hungary is know for bracing, complex wines with a rich finish. While this would normally sound right up my street, this was not one for me. I plan to try it on some prosecco loving friends to see if they have a different take and will have to go back to the drawing board on my wine tasting 5 S’s.

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Egri Csillag Bolkyi (2017) for £6.99 

This was more up my street. With an even lighter colour than the Tornai Juhfark, this was an aromatic wine but not overly fruity on the nose with more of a savoury tone.

It was fresh, but lively; savoury throughout but mellowed don the finish staying the right side of high mineral rather than full-on salty.

From the wine notes on Lidl and a Decanter review,  this is made in the Eger region in Northern Hungary.  The minerality most likely comes from the fact that it is made in cellars carved into an old quarry. The other thing I missed was that the subtle fruit scent I picked up was peach.

Again here I felt my own bias was working against me. I’m a fan of balanced whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Reisling, and this had both blended with local Hungarian grapes.

I also tend to favour peach over citrus or tropical fruit notes so when I tasted the high minerality I was distracted by it and couldn’t pick out the more subtle peach scent. Perhaps the next time I try a wine and can’t pinpoint why I like it I should question if there’s peach throwing me off.

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Late season Tokaji (2016) for £7.99

This had a striking medium gold colour and an elegant, delicately spiced aroma. Far lighter than Spanish sweet wines, this had balance with a honey smooth finish. Reading online they recommended this as an excellent complement to blue cheese, an alternative to dessert all of its own or a summer aperitif with wasabi peas which is one of the more intriguing wine pairing suggestions I’ve heard.

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Hungary for more

While this was far from a hat trick of wines for me, I am intrigued to learn more about the range and variety of Hungarian wines. I’ll be keeping an eye on the range in Lidl and doing my best to test myself further on my wine tasting abilities, since this is clearly a good way to separate what I know I like from what I think I know.

As an aside, how stunning are these labels? They’re certainly hard to miss on the supermarket shelves.  Egészségére, Lidl!

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Learning to use “wine words”

While I’ve always appreciated a well paired glass of wine on its own or matched with a meal, it’s only been the last year that I could articulate the types of wines I prefer. Or, as my husband put it, started using “wine words” and went “full wine nerd”.

While I’m in it for the long haul and have WSET Level 3 as my long term goal, there are easy ways to get started and avoid being intimidated by the world of wine labels, jargon and complicated tasting notes.

Here are the top tips I share with friends on how to be more adventurous with wine:

Read the label!

Supermarkets will all have labels that at the very least list the wine’s name, variety (the grape type), region, vintage and of course, the price! Many will also describe whether a wine is light or full bodied and give you some information about what flavours to expect. If you know what wine you already like, look out for this and then experiment with other factors such as variety and body.

Read reviews

Again, taking the wine you know you like as a baseline, you can find similar options online. Read up on the basics of the wine you know you like and see what stands out to you. If you can taste flavours of green apple and you like it, look for wines with a similar description. It’s also helpful to read if other more experienced wine drinkers (or at least experienced reviewers) found it typical of the variety and region or if they recommend similar wines.

Ask the experts

Go to a specialist wine retailer or wine bar and tell them what your favourite wine variety is, and what you like about it and ask them to recommend something with a similar profile. Many specialist retailers will have sampling sessions and more in-depth tasting notes and have a vested interest in helping you find your new favourite wine.

Many specialist wine bars and even many restaurants will be happy to let you try before you commit to a full glass, or will offer flights of wine which are 50ml pours that will allow you to compare wines side by side.

Give wine tasting a try with the ‘5 S’ 

Become a wine tasting beginner! It’s not hard to try out the basic ‘5 S’ of wine tasting. We already do a little bit of See, Sniff and Sip but we tend to skip through the steps.

  • See: Assess the colour, this can tell you the age of the wine)
  • Swirl: This is an important step to allow the wine to breathe and will release the wine aromas (typical characteristics of the variety) and bouquet (features of the wine making process of fermenting and ageing). As you swirl, the wine will hit the sides of the glass. Called the ‘legs’, this will indicate how full-bodied the wine is.
  • Sniff: This will give you the first indication of how the wine will taste.
  • Sip: The wine will taste different as it hits your tongue. The front detects sweetness, sourness and acidity on the inside, saltiness on the outerside and bitterness and alcohol in the back of the tongue.
  • Savour: Hold the wine in your mouth for up to a minute (spit or swallow, it’s your choice). Some wines lose their impact quickly and others you will find new flavours coming to the fore later. This finish can be very different to what you first expected from Sniff and Sip.