Understanding Alsace – Lunch & Learn 5

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Riesling

Misunderstood and under-appreciated, the wines of Alsace are fabulous with food but it can be hard to guess what’s behind the label. Here, Wine School’s latest recruit Isabelle Tan explores the region.

What does Alsace mean to you? For me it means good memories, delicious food, great wines, a part of France where people have their own language (although they also speak French) and attractive architecture. I am from Lyon, which is close to Beaujolais and Côte-Rôtie, but I have a thing for Alsace.

For me, Alsace is one of the best wine regions of France, not only for its wines, but also for personal reasons. My grandfather loves Alsace. Most of his cellar is made up of its wines, and it’s his tradition to serve Muscat Vieilles Vignes and Gewürztraminer Vieilles Vignes at every Christmas lunch. Sometimes, when we are lucky, he opens a Séléction de Grains Nobles. Even before I became passionate about wine, I remember walking in the Alsace vineyards, meeting producers and listening to my grandfather explaining the entire wine-making process, the influences of the climate and the history of the grape ‘Pinot Gris’. (Now, of course, I wish I’d been paying closer attention.)

Most Alsace wines are white (although very good Pinot Noir is grown there too). On one hand, choosing Alsace wines should be easy: the label indicates the grape variety used, and each grape has a particular profile. Personally, I like white wines that are sharp, mineral-rich, with just the right amount of acidity to provide freshness without being too acidic. In other words, I love Riesling. Many people prefer Gewürztraminer’s typical notes of rose and lychee.

On the other hand, Alsace is more complicated than just understanding the grape varieties. There are a host of different producers, and there are no short-cuts to understanding their wines other than tasting them (or asking your wine merchant!). Equally, how do you know if a wine is going to be sweet or dry? This is a notoriously difficult question to answer, and so I consulted Anne McHale MW:

“This is a tricky one and an area of some controversy (our very own Catriona Felstead MW did her master of wine dissertation on this very topic) – many Alsace ‘dry’ wines have some residual sugar in them and even with the same producer this can vary from vintage to vintage. Your best bet is to ask the sommelier or wine merchant; alternatively some producers have come up with their own sweetness scales which they have put on the label so this can help. There is no one unified sweetness scale agreed on by all producers in the region – although, hopefully, in time, this can be resolved,” she says.

The most important thing that Alsace can teach you is the value of asking questions and advice. Even if it sometimes feels embarrassing – just go for it. Wine is a wonderful world that evolves every vintage and there is always something new to learn. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by fantastically knowledgeable people at Berry Bros. & Rudd. I plan to bombard them with questions and taste as many Alsatian wines as possible. I would advise you to do the same…

If you are intrigued by the idea of the Alsace, and would like to learn and taste more, then join Wine School’s Barbara Drew for an informative introduction to this food-friendly region. Her Lunch & Learn session takes place on 15th December.

Category: Old World,Wine School

How to match Champagne with food – Lunch & Learn 4

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

You might be reading this while tucking into an al-desko sandwich, but don’t let that stop you contemplating more luxurious fare. For day four of our Lunch & Learn series, Wine School’s Barbara Drew explores the potential of Champagne as a superb food wine.

When most people hear the word Champagne they think of canapés and receptions, parties and aperitifs – but as well as being an excellent celebration wine and the perfect start to an elegant evening, Champagne is one of the most versatile food wines around.

Champagne has two key features that make it fantastic for matching with food. The wine is highly acidic, with the grapes growing in a cold climate and being picked a little earlier than those used for still wine. As a result, the wine is tart and mouthwatering, ideal for cleansing your palate or cutting through rich foods such as smoked salmon or cheese. In addition, acidic dishes or those with acidic dressings can often cause problems with wine, making wines lose their definition, or seem “flabby”, but the high acidity in Champagne means it has no problem with such matches.

Secondly, the bubbles themselves increase the effect of cleansing your palate, and enhance the flavour of what you’re eating. This means Champagne is one of the most food friendly wines around, and can match a wide variety of different sustenance, from the everyday to the extravagant. Classic matches range from smoked salmon blinis to traditional fish & chips.

Not all Champagnes are alike, and the variety of different styles ensures plenty of opportunities for different food and wine pairings. For example, a young, steely blanc de blancs Champagne with flavours of lemon and green apple is perfect for starters, lighter dishes, or creamy cheeses. Try pairing with seared scallops, or a salad topped with a tangy vinaigrette.

Blanc de noirs wines from the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier tend to be a little more full bodied and can pair more readily with heartier dishes and those dominated by flavours of red fruits, such as duck with cherries.

With an aged, vintage Champagne, (apart from savouring it on its own of course) the richness, nuttiness and savoury notes which start to develop with age are an ideal match for more “umami” dishes based on legumes, mushrooms and even meats such as lamb or beef. Wines such as these are often served in wine glasses rather than flutes, to allow their complex and expressive aromas to be appreciated as much as possible.

Finally the demi-sec, or sweeter styles of Champagne are perfect for desserts or afternoon tea. Once the style of champagne favoured by the Russian tsars, sweeter champagnes are something of a rarity now but are perfect with a fruit tart or that classic summer favourite, strawberries with lightly sweetened mascarpone.

If you’d like to explore Champagne and food matching a little further (with some delicious examples), then why not join Barbara as she hosts her Lunch & Learn event exploring Champagnes to take you through Christmas on 6th December.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wines,Food & Wine,Wine School

The New, New World? – Lunch & Learn 3

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Vineyards at Borovitza, Bulgaria

Vineyards at Borovitza, Bulgaria

Become a wine buff in your lunch-hour with our series of education pieces from the experts. Today, Martin Hudson MW brings you up to speed on the brave new world of emerging wine regions.

In the trade, we have used the term “New World” as shorthand over the last 30 or so years for the Americas, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. These countries, which did not have native vitis vinifera (grape vine) are now established mainstays of any self-respecting restaurant or retailer’s wine list. The term “New World” was perhaps initially rather patronising, not least when one considers when wine was first produced in some of the countries – in the mid 16th-century in South America, and nearly 50 years before Berry Bros. & Rudd was founded in South Africa.

So now that the New World is well established, what regions are the new big thing in the world of wine? Arguably, the emerging countries are those with a very long history of wine-making, and for the most part a fund of native grape varieties, but a rather chequered viticultural past.

The liberalisation of central and eastern Europe following the fall of the communist regime in the USSR has completely changed the face of their wine industries. No longer is quantity and the need for hard currency the main driver, instead increasing numbers of privately owned wineries are aiming to make the best possible quality. Alongside this is a rediscovery of indigenous grapes that had been ignored in the desire to make wines with a mass appeal. The result is an array of wines to fascinate the most jaded palate with Plavac Mali from Croatia, Gamza or Borovitza from Bulgaria and Feteasca Regala from Romania being typical examples.

In parallel with these developments in Europe, a potential future giant of the wine world is being created in China, a country that according to some statistics already produces more wine than Australia, although these numbers need to be treated with care. Areas in excess of 20,000 acres at a time are being set aside for vineyards, and investment and technology transfer from France and other traditional wine-producing countries are transforming the quality of the wine. With a country this vast, there will inevitably be parcels of terroir that will perfectly match classic grape varietals, so do not be surprised if Chinese wine becomes more than a curiosity to be gingerly sampled when in a Chinese Restaurant. Although vitis amurensis is native to Asia, it is unlikely that wines from native grapes will find favour in export markets in the near future.

Lebanon and Israel are also showing their mettle as wine producing countries, mainly with International (read: French) varieties. The number of wineries in both countries has increased significantly in the last 35 years, as has the technology being used in the winery, and this, coupled with a better understanding of how to match variety to terroir has lead to a significant improvement in quality.

If you are interested in learning more about – and tasting – wine from emerging regions, then join Martin Hudson MW for his Lunch & Learn session on 6 November, which will cover China, Bulgaria, Croatia and beyond.

Category: New World,Wine School

Left Bank versus Right Bank Bordeaux – Lunch & Learn 2

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

Spotting the difference between these two statesman like areas of Bordeaux doesn’t require MW-level knowledge (although it helps). We asked Anne McHale MW to give us a guide to telling your Left Bank from your Right.

Bordeaux is a region known for its range of wine, but is particularly famous for its reds. These come in subtly different styles, all a blend of different grape varieties (the principal two being Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). The two best-known styles of Bordeaux red are called Left Bank and Right Bank. Why is this… and how can we tell the difference?

The landscape in Bordeaux is dominated by rivers. The Garonne river lies to the south and the Dordogne to the north; these two then meet to form the Gironde estuary which flows out into the Atlantic ocean. The land to the south and west of the Garonne and Gironde is known as the ‘Left Bank’, whereas the area to the north and east of the Dordogne is known as ‘The Right Bank’. The rivers mark important dividing lines in the region’s underlying geology. Left Banks soils are mainly gravel with some outcrops of clay; Right Bank soils are dominated by clay-limestone.

These differing soil types cater to the needs of different red grape varieties. The Cabernet Sauvignon vine ripens late in the season and needs to remain as warm and dry as possible. Gravel is perfect for this since it is free-draining and its large stones retain heat. The Merlot vine, on the other hand, ripens earlier and likes to be cool and moist – perfect in clay-limestone.

It follows, then, that the majority of plantings on the Left Bank will be Cabernet Sauvignon and on the Right Bank Merlot. How does this affect the style of the wines? Cabernet Sauvignon is a variety with small, thick-skinned grapes, giving a high skin-juice ratio when the grapes are crushed. Since the skins contain the tannins and colour pigments, this means that Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wines are deeply coloured and very tannic in youth; almost austerely so. They have a distinctive blackcurrant aroma and develop lovely cedary, cigar-box flavours with age. Merlot, on the other hand, has bigger grapes with thinner skins and as a result has lower tannin levels in the wines when young, making them more approachable at an earlier age. It also gives wines with a soft, plummy flavour and some say a ‘voluptuous’ texture which gives a hedonistic feel to Right Bank wines.

So: to summarise, Left Bank wines are mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and will be more tannic and austere when young, but with more ageing potential conferred by the high tannin level. Right Bank wines are mainly Merlot and will usually give more immediate drinking pleasure, but most do not have quite as long a lifespan as their counterparts on the Left Bank. Both, however, are capable of sublime examples and to compare and contrast them directly is a fascinating lesson in the subtleties of great wine.

To learn more about Bordeaux’s breadth, join us at a Lunch & Learn session exploring its various styles on 16th October or 16th December.

Category: Bordeaux Wines,Wine School