Perhaps surprisingly, Argentina is the world`s fifth largest wine producer, one below USA, and one above Chile. Pretty good going considering the generational dominance of Old World wines. Italy, Spain, and France still lead the table, but their share of the market is ebbing away, while the New World is increasing its share, led by Argentina and for the greatest part, a single grape variety. You guessed it: Malbec. What an extraordinary success story Malbec is. Although a French grape – one of six grapes allowed in the making of claret, and still the dominant grape of Cahors – more than three-quarters of the world`s supply of Malbec comes from Argentina. They have made it their own, and it`s been a triumph. Interestingly, the berries are smaller than in France, and it`s debatable why. Some have concluded it must be a specific clone of Malbec, shipped in the mid-19th century; its disappearance in France possibly due to killer frosts. Others point to Argentina`s high altitudes, where Malbec thrives. At any rate, in Argentina these small purple berries produce inky dark full-bodied wines with the most amazing concentration and freshness, seemingly the higher they are grown. The grapes are able to reach full phenolic ripeness there, while retaining their acidity. They have aromas and flavours of plum and violet and juicy, velvety, ripe tannins. The most prestigious, it would appear, come from the foothills of the Andes in Mendoza, in the Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valleys, at altitudes ranging from 800 – 1500 metres. Argentina`s fabulous steaks are the perfect match for the best of these, but they all make ideal barbecue wines. One we recommend highly is Brazos de los Andes, £11.99 per bottle. Of course, it`s not all about Malbec. In Argentina`s province of Salta, for example, in the Calchaqui valley, at some 1,800 metres altitude we are delighted to offer Amalaya Riesling-Torrontés, a zingy, fresh, intensely aromatic white wine which is a bargain for £12.99 per bottle. And, of course, Argentina grows many of the other international grapes also; all worth exploring and on offer in-store now.
I am lucky enough to have visited Chile twice now, and so I have something of a handle on the wine scene. For expediency I will ignore its rich history and get to the nub of where we are today in wine terms, qualitatively speaking, and in respect of its diversity, which is a leap forward from thirty or even twenty years ago, when their wines were still average to middling, quite honestly, or at least, most of them. So, what has happened? Its geography hasn`t changed. It is still the thin strip of land on South America`s west side – the world`s narrowest country – 2,600 miles long, just 110 miles wide. It still has the high Andes at its back, to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Coastal Range between, through which the morning fog and sea breezes are drawn, cooling the grapes. And top and bottom respectively there is still the dry Atacama Desert, and the wet Patagonia fjords. The international wine grapes which so prosper there have also been around a long time. But not everywhere, which is to my point. Because in the pursuit of producing fine wines, brave winemakers have been venturing out these past decades to areas previously unexplored, to new coastal areas, and to difficult-to-navigate high altitude territories. While the main movement is west, others are planting at altitude elsewhere, to the east, and even to the extreme north, bordering the desert, as well as to the extreme south, where it rains cats and dogs, with winds so severe vines struggle to take hold. And yet the potential for making fine wine in these places has proven too tempting. The goal, always, in an otherwise warm climate country, is to plant vines in super-cool temperatures, providing wine grapes with long growing seasons which enable them to develop slowly to phenolic ripeness. It`s what it takes to get concentration, freshness, and character in wine, where warmer climes have always produced mediocrity. We call them extreme wines. I urge you to explore them! On offer in-store now.
Brazil, a personal journey
I recall visiting Brazil as a young man. I travelled from chaotic Sau Paulo to the very south, to Rio Grande do Sul, where Brazil borders Uruguay and Argentina on the 29th parallel south, which is just about cool enough for growing wine grapes, at altitude, as well as in the lower lying coastal valleys. I was both a student of wine, and in the business of selling wine to national outlets. I was escorting the wine buyer for Victoria Wine (remember them?), a young lady called Ann Tonks. At the time I was working for an American company called Heublein Inc. who owned Vinicola Aurora, the biggest winery in all of Brazil. I recall the winemaking at the time was heavily influenced by immigrants from Argentina and Italy. It was some thirty-five years ago, and there had been substantial investment in the winery by the new owner, but viticulturally speaking it was still relatively backward. The wines were okay: fruity, clean, easy-going and of varietal character (vaguely) but without complexity or intensity. My client committed to buying at least a few containers of the best of them, Aurora Castel Chatelet Cabernet, in a partnership which saw the first Brazilian wine sold in the UK. For every bottle sold we made a combined contribution to helping fight the deforestation of the Amazon forests. I recall we had a conversation about the status of Brazil as a wine producing country. We agreed it could swamp all of Europe in volume terms, but qualitatively speaking it would likely always be behind Argentina, Chile, and even its southern neighbour, Uruguay. The second part remains true to this day, the first never materialised; but may still; already it is the third largest wine producer in Latin America, after Argentina and Chile. Moreover, the wines of Brazil are improving, as they are elsewhere, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, even Columbia (despite the poverty). But there is a reason we stock only the wines of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, and that`s because they are better. On offer in-store now.
LATIN AMERICA, land of salsa, merengue, rumba, samba, and tango! Think of the countries and their great cities, to name a few: Mexico City (Mexico), Caracus (Venezuela), Sau Paulo (Brazil), Bueno Aires (Argentina), Santiago (Chile). These names drip with history; hot, throbbing municipalities which are culturally rich and heave with humanity whose thirst requires quenching. For this they drink beer. Cold beer. And plenty of it. Mexico`s Corona Extra is the leading brand still, despite the coronavirus hitting sales, apparently. Barley and wheat are big croppers in both Central and South America, as is sugarcane which has given rise to a heady consumption of spirit-based drinks. Venezuela is one of the World`s best rum producers, my absolute favourite Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva [on offer in-store now] a molasses-based rum distilled in copper pot stills and matured in whiskey barrels. A superlative silky blend of gingerbread, banana, and custard flavours make for a delicious drink served simply on ice. Another spirit is aguardiente, which translates to fire water, a shot in the arm to many a long drink, mostly made from sugarcane, but also from fruit. Brazil`s national cocktail is Caipirinha, sugars and limes, or lemons, dissolved in aguardiente on ice, the spirit there known as Cachaça. Pisco is another – Aguardiente de Pisco – a colourless brandy, of the grape, especially big in Chile and Peru. Both sugarcane and the grape were introduced by the colonising Spanish and Portuguese, as were their languages and cultures. The indigenous folk before them, the Maya, and the Inca, for example, would ferment plants, corn, and the sap of trees, to produce watery beer-like beverages. The grape struggled to take hold across the entire continent, not least because of the tropical climate which centred on the equator, in the north, at Ecuador. Hybrids offered some success, but eventually, finally, it was European Vitis Vinifera vines which exceled when grown at altitude. And in the coastal south, in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, where the South Pacific and Atlantic oceans extend their cooling influences as well, they flourished.
The title of today`s column is one and the same as a French film I saw many years ago, starring a young Mathieu Amalric as the lead character. It was a Woody Allenesque story of juvenile relationships, and it came to mind when I started to write my first line: “Late August…” I was about to embark on the virtues of the late summer seasonal fruits we have been enjoying. These, incidentally, have been mostly strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, on cereals, but we have also enjoyed lemon tart topped with raspberry coulis, recently, for dessert, accompanied by the slightly effervescent Moncucco Moscato d`Asti golden wine; and we had a memorable moment with Mclaughlin`s superb strawberries, which we partnered with Brachetto d`Acqui Rosa Regale pink spumante. I had been meaning to look ahead to “early September…” and the mouth-watering prospect of blackberries, figs, and plums to come. I had been thinking about the fruit tarts my wife likes to make, and how soon there would be pears and apples as well, and my favourite, apple, and blackberry crumble. All OF THIS, of course, leading to a list of recommended dessert wines to go with fruit tarts of every type, and a tip, advocating use of almond for a dream pastry base. I was going to wax lyrical about sweet wines made from botrytis affected grapes, explain how the mould punctures their skins, shrivelling the fruit, while concentrating the juices, simultaneously imparting its inimitable tell-tale marmalade-like flavours. INSTEAD, I was taken by an unbidden thought, about this film, and, as you can see, the article I had started to write sort of wrote itself, taking me on a tangent. In the film young people are recklessly tasting the various fruits of life, sometimes the Biblical forbidden fruit. A strawberry here, a blueberry there. It`s how we find out what we like, after all, not so unlike the journey of wine. And it occurred to me that the young are right to fill their boots. And how, for myself, now, I just like my wife`s blackberry and apple crumble.
There is an abundance of seasonal produce in August, and today we look at the local vegetables, and how they may influence your wine choice. With the old meat-and-two-veg of yesteryear, post-war times, you would likely pair a cup of tea, or a beer. Wine was for posh folk. Later we had the big brands of the 70`s, 80`s and 90`s, such as Paul Masson, Blue Nunn, Mateus Rose, Le Piat D`Or, amongst others. And some of you will remember those overly vanilla-flavoured Chardonnays from Australia. How we loved them, back then. But none of these were much suited to food, and certainly not for fine dining. There were others, of course, which were, and these were increasing steadily in number and quality, beginning to catch on here in UK, appearing in our restaurants and wine shops. Even the pub chains and supermarkets caught on, eventually. But it took decades to spread to any meaningful volumes, and the “with food” concept remained pretty much binary and crude to all except the best restaurants. It was generally understood that red wine went with red meat, while white wine was more suited to white meat, and fish, a rule of thumb which still stands today; except, of course, it wasn’t the extent of it, by half. Nowadays our tastes have expanded, and there is more general recognition of other considerations. For example, what else is on the plate? Is there a sauce? Is it tomato-based, or creamy? Is it a white fish, or an oily fish? What type of meat? And yes, is there a leading in-season vegetable? And why not? The very best example of this is our early summer asparagus which goes so well with Sauvignon Blanc, but in August we have aubergines, peppers, beetroots, broad beans, and peas. These offer great opportunities for interesting wine pairings. Try these: baked aubergine parmigiana, with Cotes du Rhone red, mince-beef stuffed roasted peppers with aged Australian Semillon, beetroot and feta cheese with Sauvignon Blanc, fresh broad bean salad with Vermentino, and pea risotto with Picpoul de Pinet.
Choosing local food in season will give you the best tasting products, at the best possible prices, most sustainably. So let`s look at what`s fresh, and British, right now in August. First, in meat, well and truly on the menu is beef, lamb, and venison. It`s a great time for beef steak, lettuce salad, and fries, but why not replace the potato chips with some delicious wild mushrooms; so good, and much better for you! Wood and field mushrooms are out there for the picking, but if you`re not sure what you are doing, visit your local farm shop. Indeed, farm shops deserve, and need, our support. Use them; or lose them! My choice of wine for your steak and mushroom feast is Spain`s Protos `Roble`, Ribera del Duero 2019, £16.99. We have enjoyed this beauty enormously with Hungarian Beef Goulash, roasted lamb, and Kerridge`s best fillet steak. This week it will be dry-aged ribeye, and whatever edible mushrooms we can find! It is a stylish, full-bodied red wine from the Tempranillo grape, grown in Spain`s high-altitude Ribera del Duero region. The wine offers forest floor aromas amid red and black fruits, accompanied by spicy and lightly toasted notes from six months maturation in American barrels. Its crunchy tannins will simply disappear set against the background of the food, and the wine`s innate earthiness should meld seamlessly, and deliciously. IN FISH, there`s a store of treasures available out there, but why not take a trip out to Mersea Island to buy the local catch there? About now there will almost certainly be mackerel, monkfish, and plaice. Monkfish is a fabulous fish to enjoy with a squeeze of lemon, and a glass of White Burgundy. Its meaty white flesh is textbook set against oaked Chardonnay, the lemon enhancing both fish and wine. As it happens this week`s recommendation has no oak whatsoever, but it offers a simple purity and richness which goes perfectly with Mersea Island Monkish. It is our all-time favourite Louis Latour Macon-Lugny Les Genievres 2019, £16.99. Oh joy!
What do we mean by “aromatic”? Derived from the word “aroma” it is perhaps obvious, but worth commenting on, nonetheless, because most wines have aroma of one kind or another. However, when a wine is described as “aromatic”, in wine-speak, the term suggests an aroma which is pronounced, and primarily of a fruity and floral nature, derived from the grape. Different grape varieties have different signature aromas, possessing a high number of natural aroma compounds, which are also found in fruits and flowers. A good winemaker will take care to preserve them in his or her finished wine exactly because they are the essence of the grape. Gewurztraminer is in many ways the most bombastic of these, boasting lychee, roses, lavender, and pink grapefruit among its aromas, and sometimes tangerine. Turkish Delight comes to mind. We have an especially fruity rendition from Chile`s Rapel Valley, “Emiliana Adobe Gewurztraminer 2020, £9.99 per bottle”. Produced from organically grown grapes, the wine represents fabulous value for money, ideal with sushi, smoked salmon, soft cheeses, and Asian food. For us it`s an easy “go to” with Thai and Chinese takeaways. Other aromatic grapes include Riesling, Muscat, Albarino, Torrontes, Viognier, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc. The latter of these has been much discussed in wine circles of late, because of the very particular nature of its aromatics in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. These, it would appear, are not after all an innate compound of the grape, but rather they are formed as a biproduct of yeast action during fermentation. Technically, not aromatic, therefore? Or is this being pedantic? At any rate, they yield exotic aromas, most notably that of passionfruit, and the aroma compound is most prevalent in Sauvignon Blanc grapes picked late. Early picked Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Marlborough are naturally high in levels of organic compounds which give typically green, herbaceous aromas, and the two, the late picked and the early picked, give us the instantly recognisable exotic and zingy wines so renown of Marlborough today. And while it will wash down well with Thai and Chinese, for me it sings its merriest tune when accompanied, simply, with goat`s cheese on melba toast. Oh boy!
The title to today`s blog is customers most-asked-question about Rosé wines. The second, we`ll get to. First then: If we adopt the mainstream of acceptance according to European Union (Old World) regulations, there is one principal method of Rosé production, and this is skin contact. It`s much the same as making red wine, but briefer. In short: Grape juice, which is clear, becomes coloured when macerated with the grape skins, skins which are rich in anthocyanins, or pigments. A deep red wine will have had a long maceration, weeks or even months, while a pale Rosé, a blush wine, will have had a brief maceration, sometimes just a few hours. The juice is then racked or pressed off the skins, and the pink juice is left to ferment into wine. There are many variations consistent to this method with differences in the detail, and results, but I wonder if you knew that within Europe, uniquely, it is only in the Champagne region that they are allowed to arrive at the pink colour by blending a red wine with a white in the making of Champagne Brut Rosé. Interesting, eh. Second most-asked-question is “What is blush?” The original term “blush”, meaning pink wine, you`ll recall, was from California: “Blush Zinfandel”, introduced as “White Zinfandel” to denote the skin contact method of winemaking. In essence it was saying: “Red grapes used to produce pink wine, using white wine methods, save for the briefest of skin-contact”. After a while, the “White Zinfandel” tag proved too confusing and was dropped, while the “blush” descriptor not only stuck, but was widened to incorporate all Rosé. The question most rarely asked about Rosé is this one: “What grape or grapes make the best Rosé?” My answer is this: Each to their own preference, but grapes matter. They influence colour and flavour just as much or more than the length of skin-contact. Grenache, for example, an orange-pink hue, tastes of strawberries and currants; Syrah, cherry-red, of summer berries. And colour matters, as you know, because we buy with our eyes.
We have just added another winning Rosé to our portfolio which is another must-buy for you wine lovers. Zefir Rosé de Capion, £19.99, of France`s Languedoc region, is simply delicious. This is Chateau Capion`s latest just-released 2020 vintage, which is aromatic, crisp, and elegant, with generous, intense berry notes. The palate is structurally defined by its barrel aging, and it has a fresh saline quality which speaks of its clay-limestone and gravel soils. Moreover, it comes in yet another beautiful bottle to add to our collection. So many star-quality Rosé wines to choose from nowadays. Of some interest to me is Capion`s choice of grape varieties: 70% Syrah, 30% Grenache. The use of such a high proportion of Syrah is atypical in Languedoc Rosé wines, with use of Grenache and Cinsault more usual, in the Provence style. I wonder if winemaker Claude Gros is going for a Rhone style Rosé, with emphasis on bright red berries. This, a nod to Capion`s deep passion for the Syrah grape, perhaps? At any rate this got me thinking, and I started to wonder what you all, the consumer, must make of the vast number of Rosé wines on the market today. Are you interested in the grape varieties used? Or not the least bit bothered, so long as the colour is a pale pink, and it is crisp, and dry. In reds, and whites, you seem to care very much about the grape, because it is an indicator of the style. Perhaps this is less the case in Rosé wines because the colour generally tells you that: the paler, the drier, the deeper, the sweeter. Though that says little of aroma and flavour, of course. I just checked in the shop, and of thirty or so Rosé wines, only two show the grape varieties. This suggests that the producers don`t think they are of real significance, either. Yet, for me, they are the essence of it. They are a nod to style, origin, and flavour, and perhaps even, like Capion`s deep passion for Syrah, a nod to the producer itself.