TUSCAN TONGUE-TWISTER.

OR, TONGUE-PLEASER? 

BRUNELLO DI MONTALCINO 2011. Banfi. (£22.00 when you buy 2 at Majestic).

When it comes to Italy’s most famous reds, ask any wine lover on the wine aisle and the “Big Three” are always mentioned; Barolo, Chianti and Valpolicello. Brunello di Montalcino rarely gets a look in … perhaps because it’s difficult to say? Or is it the price tag that frightens us off? Either way, at its best it’s a wine worth getting to know.

The attractive Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino is 100 kilometres south of Florence and 540 metres above sea level. My illusion that these illustrious vineyards rolled down the town’s spectacular hillside slopes and then spilled over in a limited sweep across the adjacent hills was destroyed when, during a recent visit, I discovered that the region stretched over an area of 40 kilometres by 40 kilometres! So much for my small, classic Italian region!

This extensive, Mediterranean-influenced area is divided into four sub regions that are known simply as ‘north-east’, ‘south-east’, ‘north-west’ and ‘south-west’. Not very romantic but hellish effective. Not surprisingly, each producer extols the virtues of their particular compass-located vineyard zone which, again not surprisingly, leads to contradictions. Add altitude, varying soil types and vineyard slope and aspect into the equation and an interesting discussion was never too far away.

By Italian wine law the grape variety must be hand picked 100% Sangiovese, or Brunello as the locals call it, hence the wine’s name. So far so good. That law’s fine but when it comes to insisting that Brunello di Montalcino must, yes must, spend a minimum of 2 years in oak casks, I start to ask questions. What happens if the fruit harvested in a poor year is weak and not up to it? Then you’re left with a lifeless, low fruit, woody, and don’t forget expensive, wine that can only disappoint. I think they should consider changing the law to give the winemaker more freedom but hey, they won’t listen to me!  On top of the oak regime, ‘Brunello’ must also be aged in the bottle for a minimum of 4 months; even more pressure on the fruit in poorer vintages!

The Banfi Brunello 2011 has handled the oak ageing relatively well so its crisp (that’s the mouthwatering acidity bit) black fruit and tannic edge (that’s the stuff that dries your mouth) will match your Sunday lunch really well, be it beef, lamb or pork. That’s not surprising as the Italians are the one nation of winemakers that make their wine specifically to get the very best out of their fantastic food.

So, next time your looking to ‘go Italian’ and you’re feeling flush, give this little known Italian classic a go; you may even start talking about Italy’s “Big Four”.

MY WINE OF THE WEEK.

 

CHABLIS PREMIER CRU. Fourchaume 2013. Seguinot-Bordet. (£25, Majestic).

‘Was working with a chef recently who thought that I should recommended matching Chablis with his delicious so-called ‘simple’ lemon cake. I agreed but had one proviso; it couldn’t be a common-or-garden Chablis. The cake, even though the chef called it ‘simple’, needed a Chablis with lots of oouumph. So, cutting to the quick, we’re looking for a label announcing Premier Cru or Grand Cru.

Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards yield better grapes which, in turn, produce better, more concentrated wines. As the old saying goes, “you can only make top wine from top grapes; you can’t make good wine from bad grapes”. There is a downside of course. As you can guess if ‘normal’ Chablis rocks in at about £15, Premier Cru will set you back about £25 and, deep breaths, Grand Cru will carry a £40 plus price tag.

The Chablis vineyards surround the quiet stone walled town of Chablis in central France and are part of Burgundy, even though they’re over an hour’s drive north of Beaune, the region’s spiritual capital. But, in true Burgundian style, the vineyards are the key to Chablis quality, hence, their designation into Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Chablis and Petit Chablis plots. The French have a name for all the stuff that makes a vineyard good, bad or amazing be it soil, aspect, drainage, microclime, protection, slope etc, etc. That word’s ‘terroir’. It’s a strange ‘mot’ but it comes in handy sometimes.

Being Burgundy, the Chardonnay grape is king and the very best vineyard plots, the seven Grand Cru’s of Blanchots, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudesir, lie on the steep south facing lime-rich Kimmeridgian (limestone and clay) slopes that overlook the River Serein and the town. Two Premier Crus, Montee de Tonnerre and Fourchaume, also flank the Grand Crus on these treasured slopes.

More Premier Cru vineyards, including Cote de Lechet, Vaillons and Montmains, lie behind the town on south facing rolling undulations which provide critical protection and exposure.

The A.C. (Appellation Controllee) Chablis vineyards, dotted all around the town, still lie on the respected Kimmeridgian soils but their sites are less beneficial, again showing the vital importance of ‘terroir’, especially aspect and microclimate in a chilly northerly region where praying for sunshine and fighting for ripeness is an annual event.

Chablis’ marginal climate is, however, the key to its crisp steely fruit trademark. The pity is that although these classic notes shine through in many Premier and Grand Cru’s they are sometimes lacking in the Chablis and Petit Chablis appellations, where thin acidic wines may carry the prestigious name but are at best ordinary. Definitely not a match with the lemon cake, even though it’s simple!

So, if you can stretch to a Premier Cru, the intense citrus aromas and flavours balanced by Chablis’ hallmark mouthwatering acidity will get the lemon cake, and the chef, bouncing!

MY WINE OF THE WEEK.

A ROSE IN EVERY PORT.

CROFT PINK PORT.. (£14.99 at www.selfridges.com) &                                                                      

OFFLEY ROSE PORT. (£11.99 at www.waitrosecellar.com)

‘Was asked this week for a wine to match a special dessert, “we have some exotic friends for dinner on Saturday so my wife’s making an exotic dessert”, my friend smiled. An exotic dessert demands an exotic wine. Sorted! Pink Port. You can’t get much more exotic than that!

Ask a wine lover to name the Port styles and he’ll confidently reel off Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage, Tawny and Ruby but bet your bottom dollar he won’t mention Pink. Come to think of it, chances are I’d miss it out too! So it’s Port and it’s pink, what else do we need to know about this colourful, flavoursome, bighearted wine that will match the exotic dessert blow for blow. Firstly, it’s made from  blend of ‘Port grapes’; the usual suspects are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Cao, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz……. a question coming to a pub quiz near you!

It’s probably too obscure for a pub quiz but why is Croft Rose Port called ‘Pink’ whilst Offley is called ‘Rose’? Answer; because Croft registered the trademark ‘Pink Port’ which is why other Port releases have to use ‘Rose’. Croft and Offley are famous Port Houses by the way; now that is a possible question in Friday night’s pub quiz!

Port is made in the steep, baking vineyards of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal and is a ‘fortified’ wine which means that it’s strengthened with grape spirit. Part way through the fermentation (when the wine reaches about 7 or 8 degrees of alcohol by volume) high strength grape spirit is added. This stops the fermentation stone dead; thus retaining lots of the grapes’ natural sugar and boosting the alcohol to about 20%. For the record, both the Croft and the Offley Pink sweeties weigh in at 19.5% Alcohol by volume.

After resting in the Douro cellars through the Valley’s brass monkey winter temperatures, the following spring the wines are taken down for ageing in the cool ‘lodges’ in the town of Vila Nova da Gaia, just across the river from Porto on the Atlantic coast. It’s here the different Port styles are created, based on the quality of the wines.

To understand Rose Port, Ruby Port is a good place to start! When Ruby arrives at Vila Nova da Gaia the wine is stored in large concrete or stainless steel vats to prevent oxidation and keep the lively young wine fresh and fruity. Rose undergoes the same ageing as Ruby. The main difference in the two styles is that, unlike Ruby, which ferments on the skins for an extended period to give the wine its ‘ruby’ colour, for Rose, the red grape skins are left on the fermenting juice for only a short period of time to give just a touch of colour, the rose bit.

Whereas Vintage Port is made to age for decades, Rose Port like Ruby, is made for getting down your neck immediately. The attractive pink hue draws you into a wine which combines the delicacy of rose with the power of Port; the result is an exotic glass (oh, and please use a fine large one, not one of those silly little ‘Port glasses’) with aromas and favours of mango, raspberry and cherry. I think you’ll agree it’s pretty exotic. ‘Think you’ll love it!

 

BURGUNDY – NOT ALWAYS A SECOND MORTGAGE.

WINE OF THE WEEK.  ST. VERAN 2012. Domaine Michel Chavet. £10.99 at WineRack.

GOOD VALUE BURGUNDY – IT DOES EXIST!

Just the mention of white Burgundy brings a big fat French price tag to mind. That’s because wines from the world famous vineyards of Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, in the Cotes de Beaune, (the hills of Beaune) are simply amazing and regulars in the Fine Wine section of your local wine shop. By the way, located smack in the centre of France, Beaune’s a beautiful ‘must-see’ town even if you’re not a wine nut. ‘Some brilliant restaurants too!

The trouble is, you could shell out 30 quid plus for a Top Johnny white Burgundy and be totally under-whelmed. I was in the pub recently and a mate told me he loved white Burgundy but was a bit short of cash, “any ideas”, he smiled. He was surprised when I answered “yes”. To chop the price the first thing you need to do is slide down to the lesser known vineyards south of Beaune.

Pulling a bottle from the Chalonnais, (around the town of Chalon), or  the Maconnais, (surprise, surprise, around Macon) from the shelf you’ll find yourself in the happy £13-19 price bracket. In case you’re wondering, like the rest of Burgundy the white grape is still Chardonnay. Oh, and if you’re looking for a holiday with a difference, you could do far worse than sipping your way through these green, peaceful rolling vineyards.

Look out for the villages of Montagny, Rully, Mercurey and Givry in the Chalonnais and what I call the ‘Pouilly’ villages in the Maconnais. The apple citrus, butterscotch-touched aromas and flavours, topped with a light toasty finish will bring a smile to your face and, you’ll get a handful of change from a twenty quid note.

The most famous ‘Pouilly’ village is Fuisse but just up the road, nestling amongst the rolling limestone-rich vineyards, the neighbouring picturesque villages of Vire, Clesse, Vinzelles and Loche are all well worth checking out. Just for the record, Vinzelles and Loche are allowed to put ‘Pouilly’ in front of their name on the label whilst Vire and Clesse come together as Vire-Clesse having once paraded individually as Macon-Vire and Macon-Clesse.

Whilst we’re talking about this neck of the Burgundian woods, don’t forget Saint-Veran from the commune of Saint-Verand for value; Saint-Veran 2013, carries a reasonable £10.99 tag (reduced from £12.49) at your local Wine Rack at the moment. And of course, just up the road, the village vineyards of Lugny produce the popular wines of Macon-Lugny.

As you can see, the wines of the Chalonnais and Maconnais will save you at least a fiver, often a tenner, on a famed Cote D’Or vin blanc.  OK., the whites of the Chalonnais and Maconnais may not have the ummph or complexity of the great Cotes de Beaune whites but they rarely let your taste buds down.

If you’re still feeling flush in these post election times, splash out on a bottle of Meursault,  Chassagne-Montrachet or Puligny-Montachet, and compare it to one of the Southern Belles; you may be surprised. ‘Drinking white Burgundy with friends and saving a few bob at the same time, not a bad way of spending the warm June evenings promised in the latest forecasts.

STOP BEEFING – GO SPANISH!

MY WINES OF THE WEEK.

ALL SPANISH …. ALL RED!

‘Just back from Spain. When I first saw the itinerary I winced … Spain’s a big place but the Grandes Pagos de Espana had done their homework; our travels worked like clockwork. The Grandes Pagos de Espana are an association of top single wine estates, “equivalent to the Grand Crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy”, according to President Carlos Falco. There are 30 member estates spread throughout Spain from Rioja in the north to Jerez in the south; you can check them all out at www.grandespagos.com.   Look out for the black square logo on the back label. I think the logo’s far too small but hey, they won’t listen to me. Whilst I’m on my soap box can I suggest that the logo should explain a lot more; Adding “Single Estates of Spain” below “Grandes Pagos de Espana” would go a long way in helping us consumers.

We flew into Madrid and then took a smooth 3 hour plus train journey south to Jerez – the train is a great way of seeing Spain by the way. We were welcomed by the Sherry Bodega of Valdespino and under the 30 degree sun walked their legendary white chalk (Albariza) Macharnudo vineyards before exploring their cathedral-like bodegas, tasting wines that ranged from Fino (bone dry and nutty) to sweet, honeyed Moscatel. Crack open a bottle of Valdespino Don Gonzalo Dry Olorosso (£16.95, www.leaandsandeman.co.uk) as an aperitif when your guests arrive … ‘great start to any get-together!

A short drive from Jerez found us at Finca Moncloa where winemaker Jose Manuel Pinedo is passionate about blending classic varieties with traditional Tempranillo. Finca Moncloa (£13.99, Ocado) is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Tempranillo whilst Finca Moncloa ‘11 Barrels’ 2008, £28.99, www.oxfordwine.co.uk) is a blend of Cab. and Syrah aged in French and American oak barrels – my choice with next week’s Sunday roast. 

From Jerez we drove east across the mountains to Ronda, the incredible white walled town that straddles its famous deep rock gorge; the wines from the region surprised me bigtime. After tasting from several  barrels in Los Aguilares’ cool winery we enjoyed their refreshing crushed strawberry (Tempranillo and Petit Verdot) Rosado 2014 (rose to you and me) in the vineyards under a 300 year old oak. At lunch we opened Aguilares’ acclaimed Tadeo 2012 (100% Petit Verdot) and Pago El Espino (Petit Verdot, Tempranillo and Merlot); £11.90 and £21 respectively at www.georgesbarbier.co.uk, Aguilares’ Pinot Noir surprised me – how is it possible to make such a balanced wine from this most flirtatious of grapes in such a hot climate? Crisp and controlled, this red fruit beauty was an eye opener.

Then it was back to Madrid for a night on the town before an early start and the high speed train heading south-east to Albacete; we were there by 11.00 to be whisked off to Finca (Estate) Elez near El Bonillo, a small, deserted village in La Mancha. In the middle of nowhere at over 1000 metres above sea level, the daytime summer temperatures climb to 40 degrees; evidently no worries to the Tempranillo, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay vines. ‘MM’ Escana barrel-aged Syrah 2007 impressed me although the Escana Syrah 2013 would be even better. Unfortunately it’s not due to be released for years. Pity, I think they should release Escana sooner but hey, what do I know! In case you’re wondering, ‘MM’ is the owner of the estate, the famous Spanish actor Manuel Manzaneque.

A drive across the dry plains of La Mancha saw us in Bobal (grape) territory. At Finca Sandoval, a Bobal, Syrah and Monistrell (aka Mouvedre) blend grown on limestone soils in the cool 2013 vintage produced a crisp, tannin edged blackberry red of note.

A smoother hour’s drive east saw us at Bodega Mustiguillo near Utiel, just 90 kilometres from Valencia where Bobal is still king. Some of their vines date back to 1919; these knurled vines, each yielding only 3 bunches produce dense, tannic wines. Tannin (that’s the stuff from the skins that puckers your mouth) plays a big part in Bobal wines, so they’re excellent with food … Mustiguillo’s Quincha Corrall 2012 went really well with the local beef – if you can stretch to a £55 price tag (www.bbr.com) that is. If £18.95 sounds better, pull the cork on Mustiguillo’s Finca Calvestra, also at Berry Bros.

At Mustiguillo I discovered a new white grape variety called Merseguera. I don’t think Chardonnay will be losing too much sleep but it’s well worth trying – good for those mellow moments at the end of the meal I thought.

A 300 kilometre dash back to Madrid, the ‘plane to Gatwick and home to 13 degrees; how to lose 20 degrees in just 2 hours! Happily I didn’t lose the memories of an amazing country, good food and some wonderful wines.

MY WINE OF THE WEEK; IT’S ENGLISH!!

MY WINE OF THE WEEK …… IT’S ENGLISH!!

NYETIMBER DEMI-SEC. NV. (£28.99, www.ewwines.co.uk).

 

I was on BBC’s ‘Countryfile’ a couple of years ago with the lovely Julia Bradbury and the perky Matt Baker; before we started filming there was an air of ‘English Sparkling isn’t great but it’ll make an interesting programme’ wafting around the crew.

The slot ended with Julia, Matt and myself comparing Champagne and English Sparkling Wine … that changed things, “this is good stuff”, Matt smiled. Bingo, that was Matt and the crew converted! So, they’ll all love Nyetimber’s Demi-Sec (semi-sweet) sparkler. So will you.

I have a confession to make, I’m not be a big fan of English still wine but I am the world’s no. 1 fan of English Sparkling Wine. That said, it isn’t so surprising that English Sparkling Wine is so good.

Champagne may still be the bubble to beat but England is very similar to the king of sparklers in so many ways. England’s chilly, northerly climate’s is similar to the Champagne region in northern France and, what’s more, Champagne’s famous chalk soils slide under Paris, dip under the Channel and emerge in the south of England …… the white cliffs of Dover and all that?

It doesn’t stop there. The grape varieties are the same. The ‘Champagne’ grapes of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier now account for over fifty per cent (and growing) of all English vineyard plantings and, as English bubbly is made in exactly the same way as Champagne, you can see why for me, English Sparkling Wine is the ultimate Champagne lookalike. To help create the crisp, mouth watering acidity so important to balance the sweetness in the wine, winemaker Cherie Spriggs uses 100% Chardonnay in Nyetimber’s Demi-Sec.

Nyetimber, a beautiful manor house in West Chiltington near Pulborough on the Sussex Downs, was mentioned in the Domesday Book and was once the home of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife. The house is now set amongst vineyards, first planted in 1988.

Champagne and English Sparkling are made in the same way, that is, thanks to a second fermentation in the bottle when a pinch of sugar and a touch of yeast is added to a blended dry white wine before the bottle is sealed. The yeast reacts with the sugar to give a little more alcohol and carbon dioxide gas – the fizz. This gas builds up in the sealed bottle and as it can’t escape becomes an integral part of the wine. Hey presto – we have English Sparkling!
Image result for nyetimber BOTTLE PHOTOS FREE

Following the second fermentation, the exhausted yeast leaves a very fine sediment (known as ‘lees’) in the bottle. Twisting and tilting the bottle by hand over about 6 weeks – known as ‘riddling’ – drives the sediment into the neck; the top of the bottle is then frozen to form a small ice plug of sediment and wine which is then expelled to leave a clear, dry sparkling wine. A quick top up with English Sparkling which is sweetened (or not) to the chosen style, (getting technical, the Demi-Sec has 45 grams per litre of sugar), a cork, a securing wire, a label and presto, after a resting period, the bottle’s ready for the shelf and our lucky taste buds.

Non Vintage Champagne has to stay ‘on its lees’ for a minimum of 15 months (too short in my book but what do I know) but this is nowhere near long enough for Nyetimber who are looking for more of those wonderful ‘quality defining’ yeasty, bakers oven tones borne from long periods ‘on the lees’. Nyetimber’s crisp, cracking Blanc de Blancs 2007 (100% Chardonnay) stayed nearly 5 years on the lees before ‘disgorgement’, (£29.50, The Champagne Company).

If you’re feeling flush in this post-election era you can start the meal with Nyetimber’s Blanc de Blancs – great as an aperitif or with the fish course – and end with an amazing sweet dessert matched with the Demi-Sec. What you serve with the main course will probably fade from memory ….. Nyetimber will have stolen the show from start to finish!

WHAT’S YOUR DEATH BED WINE?

WHITE BURGUNDY DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN A SECOND MORTGAGE!

Thinking about my death bed wine!

Sorry to be morbid but what’s your ‘death bed’ wine; the last glass you’ll taste in this life? Mine’s Puligny-Montrachet, the famous but expensive white Burgundian. The big price tag’s no hassle if it’s your final pleasure but on a Wednesday evening? Yep, that may be a problem! “But is it possible to buy good value White Burgundy”, a friend asked me recently. He was surprised when I answered “yes”.

Before we dig out the ‘good value’ bottles, for comparison it’s worth taking a quick look at Burgundy’s amazing whites, the wines that hail from the world famous vineyards of Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, in the illustrious Cotes de Beaune, (hills of Beaune).

If anybody tells you that they’re an expert on Burgundy’s Cote D’Or, (the ‘golden slopes’ of the Cotes de Beaune and Cotes de Nuits vineyards), don’t believe them. I know but a handful for this thin strip of some of the world’s most expensive real estate holds mysteries that pass mere mortal’s understanding. Its myriad villages, Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards set your head spinning. The crazy thing is, a Grand Cru vineyard and a ‘village’ vineyard can be only metres apart – one produces a £ 100 bottle, the other a £ 20 bottle! And, yes, you can taste the difference; terroir has a lot to answer for! The crazy thing is that the monks in the 14th century knew the best plots way back then … incredible!

Driving south from Beaune, the quiet village of Meursault soon greets you with its attractive square and 15th century church tower. The vineyards, located around the village on the limestone escarpment have their principal Premier Cru parcels on the beneficial south easterly slopes. The wines ooze subtle yet rich, crisp lemon, honey aromas and flavours and a balanced toasty sheen, the result of cool, slow maturation in French oak barrels.

Just along the road from Meursault, you come to the hallowed ground of Puligny-Montrachet, vineyard plots globally accepted to be some of the world’s finest. The vineyards lie on the gentle slopes above the sleepy village.

It may share a name with its neighbour but Chassagne-Montrachet should not be confused even though it too produces some of the world’s finest whites. If you win the lottery you can celebrate with the Grand Cru’s of Batard-Montrachet and Le Montrachet, the magical postage stamp plots that straddle both Chassagne and Puligny-Montrachet.

A couple of years ago, tasting these fabulous white Burgundies in Joseph Drouhin’s ancient cellars deep under the cobbled streets of Beaune, I was in heaven …. without taking to my deathbed! The group of bankers I was accompanying are still talking about it in Moscow, Geneva, Paris and London!

So, thanks to these amazing wines the mere mention of white Burgundy brings a big fat French price tag to mind. To chop the price the first thing you need to do is slide down to the lesser known vineyards south of Beaune. Pulling a bottle from the Chalonnais, (around the town of Chalon), and the Maconnais, (surprise, surprise, around Macon) regions off the shelf you’ll find yourself in the smiley £11-15 ($20-30) price bracket. In case you’re wondering, like the rest of Burgundy the white grape is still Chardonnay.

Look out for the villages of Montagny, Rully, Mercurey and Givry in the Chalonnais and what I call the ‘Pouilly’ villages in the Maconnais. The apple citrus aromas and flavours, with a touch of honey topped with a light toasty finish will bring a smile to your face and, you don’t have to take out a second mortgage!

The most famous ‘Pouilly’ village is Fuisse but just up the road, nestling amongst the rolling limestone-rich vineyards, the neighbouring picturesque villages of Vire, Clesse, Vinzelles and Loche are all well worth checking out. Just for the record, Vinzelles and Loche are allowed to put ‘Pouilly’ in front of their name on the label whilst Vire and Clesse come together as Vire-Clesse having once paraded individually as Macon-Vire and Macon-Clesse.

Whilst we’re talking about this neck of the Burgundian woods, don’t forget Saint-Veran from the commune of Saint-Verand for value; Saint-Veran 2013, carries a reasonable £12.99 ($20) tag in my local wine shop. And of course, just up the road, the village vineyards of Lugny produce the popular wines of Macon-Lugny.

As you can see, the wines of the Chalonnais and Maconnais will save you a packet on a famed Cote de Beaune vin blanc. OK., they may not have the ummph or complexity of these great wines but they rarely let your taste buds down.

If you’re still feeling flush in these challenging, cash-strapped times, splash out on a bottle of Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet or Puligny-Montachet, and compare it to one of the Southern Belles; you may be surprised. Drinking white Burgundy with friends and saving a few pounds, dollars or euros at the same time, not a bad way of spending a Wednesday evening!

GIVE ASTI ANOTHER CHANCE!

With the Rhubarb and Custard pots, John recommends …….

Asti Moscato Bianco NV. Martini. (£7.75, Asda).

 

I can already see the raised eyebrows as you clock this week’s wine, “Asti?” I know that Asti carries a lot of baggage but don’t jump to conclusions without giving this Italian sweetie another chance. Rhubarb is a difficult customer to match but Asti does a sterling job. Go on, give Asti a go …. ‘forget those memories of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s when Asti Spumante became the wine shop’s laughing stock. Things have changed. Honest.

Although controversial, in 1993 the wine was granted has Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status, Italy’s highest quality category. To mark the occasion the name ‘Spumante’ was dropped by most wine winemakers as ‘Asti’ took on a new life.

This sweet, low alcohol sparkler comes from the Moscato Bianco grape (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) grown in the Piemonte region of north-west Italy, around the medieval towns of Asti and Alba. The key to the Asti fizz is a single fermentation in a sealed stainless steel tank (as my anorak readers will know it’s known as the Charmat Method) – as opposed to the second fermentation in the bottle that gives Champagne its bubbles. The grapes are gently pressed and the juice transferred to large tanks where the temperature is lowered; a cunning move to prevent the fermentation kicking off. The tanks are then closed, sealed and pressurised before the temperature is allowed to slowly rise which, in turn, allows the fermentation to begin.

Getting slightly technical, the standard fermentation equation of ‘sugar (grapes) plus yeast equals alcohol (wine) plus carbon dioxide (CO2)’ then takes its course … the carbon dioxide can’t escape and so it’s trapped in the tank where it becomes married into the wine. We have the fizz! Now for the sweetness of Asti. Where does that come from?

The fermentation carries on until the wine reaches about 7.0 to 9.5 degrees of alcohol by volume before the wine is chilled … a process that stops the fermentation stone dead. Hence we still have sugar left in the wine. The yeasts are a little p….d off of course as they were looking forward to eating all the sugars to make more alcohol. Before they get too upset though, the wine is then centrifuged to remove and filter out all the yeasts from the wine thus ensuring that no more fermentation can occur. The wine is then bottled for our sweet and sparkling delight.

All sweet wines need enough acidity (the stuff that makes your mouth water) to balance the sugars; Asti achieves this admirably. This balance, linked to the peach and apricot flavours make the rhubarb and custard pots and the pistachio prauline sing. You’ll be singing too after discovering a wine that before today you would never have taken off the shelf.

It’s bonus time …… here’s the recipe.

Rhubarb and custard pots with pistachio praline

200g rhubarb, cut into 1cm lengths150g sugar5 star anise75g sugar75g pistachios Zest of 1 orange2 leaves gelatineRhubarb liquor to taste1  qty crème bavaroise a la vanille flavoured to taste with pistachio paste
·      Place the rhubarb in a metal bowl with the sugar, star anise and orange zest. Toss to coat the rhubarb. Cover with cling film.·      Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and leave for 45 minutes. Gently agitate the bowl occasionally.·      When the rhubarb has released its juices and is tender, carefully strain off the juice and discard the star anise. Place the cooked rhubarb in the bottom of four glasses.·      Soak the gelatine in cold water. Add enough water to reserved syrup to make it up to 200ml, add rhubarb liquor to taste.·      Remove the gelatine from the water and squeeze out the excess water. Add the gelatine to the syrup, heating to dissolve. Cool over ice. When it is at the point of setting pour over the rhubarb in the glasses and leave to set.·      Melt the sugar in a heavy based saucepan with 100ml water. Boil to a light caramel. Add the pistachios, stir once and pour out onto an oiled baking sheet. Leave to cool. When cold roughly grind the praline and place a layer on top of the set rhubarb jelly.·      Make the bavarois and flavour to taste with pistachio paste, approximately 1 tbsp. When it is on the point of setting pour over the praline and leave to set completely.

 

 

Crème bavaroise à la vanille

150ml milk1 vanilla pod1 ½  leaves gelatine2 egg yolks 30g sugar1tsp vanilla sugar150ml double cream,lightly whisked
·      Heat the milk with the vanilla pod. Leave to infuse. Soak the gelatine in cold water.·      Mix the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla sugar in a small bowl, pour on the milk and return to the saucepan which has been rinsed out. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. It must not boil.·       Remove the gelatine from the water and squeeze out the excess moisture. Add the gelatine to the hot custard, stir well and strain into a clean bowl.·       Leave in a cold place or over a bowl of iced water, stirring from time to time. When the custard mixture is on the point of setting, fold in the cream and use as required.

MY WINES OF THE WEEK.

Rioja Reserva Blanco 2008, Capellania, Marques de Murrieta, (£19.95, Berry Bros. Rudd). 

Cune’s Barrel Fermented Rioja Blanco 2013, (£10.49, Waitrose).

DON’T BLANK OUT WHITE RI-OK-A.

 

A few years ago (!!) a friend of mine popped into a Victoria Wine shop (anybody remember them?) for a bottle of white Rioja. The shop assistant looked at him haughtily over his glasses and announced, “Rioja’s red sir”. My friend protested but he’d have none of it; he’d obviously never heard of white Rioja. ‘Pity, it’s a wine well worth searching out; I recently cracked open a bottle of Rioja Reserva Blanco 2008, Capellania, from Marques de Murrieta, (£19.95, Berry Bros. Rudd). Expensive but wonderful!

In support of the hapless assistant, when you mention ‘Ri-oka’ a soft fruity, friendly oak-touched red comes to mind not a toasty citrus white. Until now that is …. so don’t blank out white Rioja.

White Rioja, just like red, comes from northern Spain where the region is divided into three districts, namely La Rioja Alta, La Rioja Alavesa and La Rioja Baja. The Capellania 2008 Blanco comes from Viura grapes grown in Marques de Murrieta’s Capellania vineyard, a 50 year old plot located at the highest altitude of their 300-hectare Ygay Estate in La Rioja Alta. Viura can be neutral and uneventful when its young but give the wine a few months in a barrel followed by time in the bottle and things change; those lazy months in cool cellars bring forth golden tones, toasty complexity and an attractive richness to Viura’s citrus flavours.

If you visit Rioja you may hear the winemakers talking about the Macabeo grape; don’t worry, that’s just another name for Viura. You may also be surprised to hear our ol’ mates Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc mentioned in conversation – that’s because in 2007 a law was passed allowing these classic varieties to be used alongside the Spanish locals of Viura, Malvasía and Garnacha Blanca in the production of white Rioja. To maintain its Spanish roots white Rioja must have at least 51 per cent of Viura in the blend. Bravo to the Riojans I say!

If you’re wondering what ‘Reserva’ means on the label it refers to the time that the wine must be aged in both barrel and bottle by law, before finding its way onto our shelves and down our necks. White Reserva Rioja has to spend a minimum of 6 months in the barrel and at least 18 months in the bottle before release. White ‘Gran Reserva’ Rioja means that the wine must spend a minimum of 6 months in the barrel and at least 4 years in total in the bodega (winery) before gracing our glass.

If the £19.95 price tag for the Capellania Reserva Blanco is daunting twist the screwcap on Cune’s Barrel Fermented Rioja 2013, (£10.49, Waitrose). The wine was fermented in American oak barrels to give a satisfying roundness and richness. Further barrel ageing, following the fermentation, for about 4 months adds complexity to the flavours and aromas of this smashing ‘blanco’.

I can already smell the barbeques smouldering under the summer sun; ‘fish’ is the ‘new steak’ this season so pour white Rioja to lift those fantastic flavours even higher.

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