Wine articles

Pursuing balance in California

What do we know about wine from California? If you had to ask me to name three things, I would have said: they’re big, they’re expensive and they’re not over here. I was in LA recently combining a visit to the in-laws with some research on behalf of World of Booze and found out that my preconceptions were two thirds wrong.

At the annual California tasting in London last year I was dismayed by how most of the wines I tried lived up to the big & dumb stereotype. I’d hoped for more (or less rather). When I spoke to a friend who knew a bit about Californian wine, he’d even written a book on it, he said that that’s the style, I’d just have to get used to it. Whilst I was in LA, I was keen to find out if there was an alternative. Knowing next to nothing about California wine, I asked for recommendations in two wine merchants, stating that I wanted something made from Rhone varieties for about $20.

From an old school shop, Duck Blind in Santa Monica, I bought a Punchdown Syrah 2010 and from the trendy Domaine LA in Santa Monica, I bought Lucques Rouge 09. The first reminded me of something very chic from the Northern Rhone but with a distinct Californian brightness about it. The second one reminded me of Beaujolais, really good Beaujolais at its most moreish, like something from George Descombes. This was the last thing that I  expected to find in California.

I had unwittingly stumbled on a movement in California wines: low alcohol, low extract and lowish price. They call it In Pursuit of Balance. Actually the low price thing isn’t an intrinsic part of pursuing balance but I like to think that they are pursuing moderation in all areas. Later my wife and I took a trip with our friend Ari up to Santa Barbara to visit Qupé whose Grenache impressed me recently. Not everything was good but all their Syrahs were delicious and for the most part affordable.

59710_10151503840311204_1336356778_nPerhaps the best thing we had on our trip, however, was cheaper still, about $17 retail though we drank it at the Hungry Cat  (great food, not so good service) in Santa Barbara. It was the Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2011 from Tablas Creek, a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. This producer is owned by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel fame and are famed for their pricey Chateauneuf-de-Pape-style estate wines. This is a new venture using grapes from other people’s vineyards as well as their own estate much as their parent company does in the Southern Rhone (see Cotes-du-Rhone challenge.)

So Californian wines are not necessarily big nor even particularly expensive but sadly most of these wines are not available in Britain. Oddbins have the more expensive wines from Tablas Creek at £38 a bottle. You can also buy some Qupé wines but by the time they’ve made it over here they go from $25 to £25.

These producers don’t care if we can’t buy their wines. They can sell everything without a problem to an eager home audience. Unlike the Australians or New Zealanders they’re not interested in the prestige of having their wines internationally available. We should care though because we’re missing out on some of the most downright delicious wines in the world.

Some tips if you’re in California:

Punchdown Syrah, Spicerack Vineyards, Sonoma Coast 2010 – This smelt of cloves, liquorice with a touch of coffee. It’s medium-bodied with some tannin and vibrant vein of acidity. The finish was long with a touch of vanilla. $26

Lucques Rouge, North Coast 2009 – A blend of Grenache, Syrah and some other things. It’s bright red and smells a little pooey. It’s light-bodied with bright fruit and a slight bitter taste. It’s not hugely complex but it is tremendously appealing. $20

Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2011 – Initially very dry and a little peachy and floral. After warming up a bit becomes fatter and honeyed with some length and complexity. Delicious. Approx $17 retail.

Qupé, Bien Nacido Syrah 2008 – Meaty nose, light body and then really fragrant with ripe fruit and some spiciness. Intense and long but also refreshing. Superb value at $25 from the winery.

In amendment to this article I am delighted to say that Divine Fine Wines in Birmingham (that’s Birmingham, England) sell Californian wines at reasonable prices including the Bien Nacido Syrah at £18.95 


Wine articles

Rhone Olympics

As a student I got into a drunken argument with someone about who made the best Cotes-du-Rhone, Guigal or Chapoutier (it was in the bar of University College, Oxford, I was visiting.) I knew very little about wine at the time, in fact I had never tried the Guigal, I just thought the label was rubbish and therefore the wine must not be very good. Since then the Guigal has become a firm favourite of mine whilst I rarely buy the Chapoutier anymore.  I thought that it would be fun to put these two great names head-to-head to find out once and for all who is best and whilst I was at it try the cheapest wines from some of the other big names of the Rhone. There is one glaring omission: Jaboulet – I couldn’t find a bottle of their once-ubiquitous Parallel 45.

To make things more interesting we tasted all the wines blind and I threw in a Spanish red made from Rhone varieties. I asked my guests to give them a score out of ten but they ignored me and decided to guess how much each one cost. The tasting was not entirely scientific as the wines were of different vintages, different prices and we were eating cheese and quite spicy salami. Also there was no spitting. I’m not sure Michael Broadbent would approve.

The unanimous winner was: Cotes-du-Rhone Mon Coeur JL Chave 09 – this was easily the most expensive wine (£15.95 from Berry Bros) and everyone guessed this one at £15. It’s powerful stuff almost like a baby Hermitage with real structure and length. Really excellent.

Silver went to Pigeolet de Brunier 09 – if the Chave was a baby Hermitage this is a baby Chateauneuf: heady, spicy, mellow, raspberry fruit, very elegant with gentle tannins. Just the sort of thing you would expect from the second wine of Vieux Telegraphe. My guests said £12 – House of Townend have it for under a tenner.

Bronze went to Gran Sangre de Toro Reserva 07 (Co-op £7.99) I guessed this as the Spanish one probably because it was clearly the oldest.  We agreed that it tasted like £12’s worth of wine. Nose was rich and spicy and in the mouth it’s mellow with a very long finish. There may have be some nuttiness there too. I can’t read my handwriting. And in no particular order the other wines were:

La Veille Ferme 2010 – my wife guessed this one immediately. It’s like Rhone Beaujolais. Nice but completely different animal to the above wines and pointless to compare them. (£7.99 Majestic)

Cotes-du-Rhone, Belleruche, Chapoutier 2010 – I thought this was awful. A little green on the nose and then it was short rough, sweet and raw. I remember it used to be light and peppery. What’s going on here? Other people quite liked it. We guessed £7 (Majestic £9.99 on offer now two bottles for £6.99)

Cotes-du-Rhone Guigal 2009 – normally a favourite of mine. This one suffered from following the Chave. Nice meaty stuff with some brambly fruit but no real length. Perhaps it just needs a little time. We gave it a £9 rating. (£10 Waitrose)

Cotes-du-Rhone ‘Les Vignes Rousses’ Jean-Luc Colombo – tasted very young, very fruity, damsons and plums on the nose, light-bodied. I was very surprised to have something so light from this producer. £7 rating which I think is a little unfair. (Majestic £9.99 on offer two bottles for £6.99)

Cotes-du-Rhone Reserve Perrin 2010 – another one from the Perrin stable. Violets on the nose, light-bodied, some red fruit. Very nice stuff.  The team scored it at £9 (Wine Society £8.99)

Thanks to Berry Bros, House of Townend, Majestic and the Wine Society for providing the wines. Winners will appear in a forthcoming Lady column. Thanks for my guests for being Rhone guinea pigs. Finally here’s hoping that I don’t get arrested for using the words Olympics, bronze, gold and silver all in the same article.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Wine of the Week: Côtes du Rhone Guigal 2007

Some wines are so familiar that I ignore them when shopping. There’s an element of snobbery at work here; it feels so much cooler (do people still say cool?) to be drinking something obscure. When I worked at Oddbins we never touched the Moët, the Jacob’s Creek or the Campo Viejo; we even used to be snobbish about which lager we drank after work insisting that Superbok was vastly superior to Beck’s. Guigal’s Côtes du Rhone was just such a wine. I don’t remember any fellow Oddbinites drinking it or recommending it to customers. When people used to buy it, to my shame, I looked down my prominent nose at them.

Well more fool me because year in, year out, it’s one of the best value wines in existence. It’s made by one of the most lauded names in the Rhone, Marcel Guigal, a hero to most though not of course to Kermit Lynch who describes Guigal’s heavily oaked Côte-Rôties as ‘Freak Wines.’ These single vineyard wines cost ££££ but there is another side to his business producing wines from bought-in grapes. The Cotes du Rhone is his cheapest and it is made in vast quantities: over 3.5 million bottles of this latest vintage. It’s made from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre and is a masterpiece of the blender’s art with Guigal buying in grapes from dozens of growers across the Southern Rhone. Unusually for a mass market wine, it’s also matured for at least 18 months before release.

It may be my memory playing tricks on me but the 07 seems even more delicious than previous vintages. It has more structure and so opens up after decanting or being left open overnight. There a lot of fruit – blackcurrants, figs, something red perhaps – but also some lovely mellow woody flavours owing to maturity with a very long finish. I ‘tested’ it against another 07 Côtes-du-Rhone from a legendary Northern Rhone producer, in this case JL Chave with his ‘Mon Coeur‘. The Chave tasted classier, cooler, more Northern Rhone whereas the Guigal is defiantly Southern but none the worse for it. Where the Guigal wins out is that it still tastes young & robust, in comparison the Chave is at its peak and starts to fall apart when left open overnight.

There’s an element of urgency to this post because not only is the Guigal only £7.99 at Waitrose until 20th March but they have the 07 whereas most other people are on to the 09. I’m sure the new vintage is good but 2007 was one of the great years in the Rhone and this wine does love a bit of age.