The Grapes of Froth Rod Smith MW
Champagne - known for centuries as the Wine of Kings and the King of Wines, any fine meal should start with a glass of Champagne as its apéritif. It is a perfect ice-breaker, delicious palate whetter and will make a celebration out of any dinner party or lavish lunch. But all too often the flute glasses get left in the reception area and are not taken to the dinner table. This may be to deprive your guests of experiencing some of the greatest - albeit possibly less obvious - of food and wine matching accompaniments.
Almost all of the great French wine regions make a sufficient variety of styles to drink throughout a meal - although sweet wines in Burgundy are something of a rarity. Champagne, perhaps incorrectly, is rarely viewed in this light, partly because almost all the production is sparkling (still wines from the area are called Côteaux Champenoise). Firstly it is important to reiterate that Champagne the wine can only originate from this region of northern France. No other sparkling wine in the world is able to style itself “Champagne” any longer, and even the term “Methode Champenoise” has been superseded by “Methode Traditionelle”. Champagne as a region is unusual in France, and Europe in that its wines & traditional cuisine appear at odds with one another. Its wine is the epitome of refinement, whilst the local food is the sturdy, rustic, cold weather fodder of the North - based on root vegetables, game, pâté & andouillettes.
It is also quite tricky to come to terms with the Champenois’ idea of drinking mature vintage Champagne with game & red meat, but very often it does work surprisingly well. Examples include cold roast game birds with moderately youthful vintage Champagne - try something like Billecart Salmon Brut 1998 (subtle, complex and medium bodied with creamy vanilla flavours) with cold roast partridge or similar. However, the region’s most exclusive restaurants have also developed a repertoire of lighter dishes, often cooked in champagne sauces (think Pan-fried Sea Bream with Leeks in a Champagne & Caviar Sabayon). For these a classic non-vintage Champagne will often be a greater match than even the finest single year wine.
There are, however, some rather more obvious and heavenly food & wine marriages with Champagne. For example a classy absolutely bone dry Champagne such as Laurent Perrier Ultrabrut (light, supremely elegant, refreshingly tart, minerally and with a beautifully lime and elderflower hint to the finish) with Oysters (“Brut” Champagnes, the vast majority, are lightly sweetened to off-set their piercing acidity). As everyone knows, some sweet wines can work with savoury dishes - the classic pairings of Sauternes with Foie Gras or Roquefort spring to mind. Using Demi-Sec champagne with imagination can give some heavenly results, for example Seared Scallops served with such as Pol Roger's splendid "Rich" Demi-Sec (perfectly balanced with hints of ginger, cream and baked apples) - it must however be an exemplary example as cheap sweet fizz simply won't do a delicate seafood dish justice.
Gravadlax, Smoked Salmon and even delicate Smoked Trout work well with Chardonnay dominant Champagne blends such as Ruinart “R” NV Brut (stylish crisp with biscuitty hints but apple & citrus flavours). Another delightful quality of Champagne is that it is one of few wines that can be enjoyed throughout the day without either ill effects or a guilty conscience! Indeed breakfast is a perfect time to crack open a bottle, and if wine at that time of day seems a shade too much then try Bucks Fizz made with freshly squeezed orange juice and a Champagne with plenty of tangy fruit with a zippy mousse such as Perrier Jouët NV. Good Brut champagnes with some weight such as Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV (smoky, rich, complex and restrained) with more black grapes in the blend work well with Thai and Asian flavours where hot, sour, salty and sweet are often found together. These flavours risk making a Brut champagne taste a little sweeter & more bland so complementing the food perfectly - in this instance a Demi-Sec would be a complete mis-match!
Rosé Champagne of course has now acquired ubër-trendy status, whether it is the best-selling Laurent Perrier Brut Rosé NV, (raspberry and leafy, floral scents) in its distinctive skittle-shaped bottle, or a prestige cuvée such as the ethereal Dom Pérignon Rose 1996 (sublime orchid-like perfume with redcurrant fruit flavours and gentle brioche notes). Rosé Champagne is a wonderful accompaniment to smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, or even charcuterie and other really quite strongly flavoured meaty dishes. With top Rosé Champagne the sign to look for is a delicate orange tinge which indicates that the hint of colour has been present from the very beginning, and has come from the grapes by a process called saignée (bleeding) rather than by the addition of red wine at some subsequent point in the process. This progression of the colour is due to the ageing, and with the best vintage Champagnes, this is at least 5 years. Champagne is really the only style of wine where a five-year old Rosé would still be drinkable, let alone at its apogee.
So it becomes apparent that there is more to Champagne than just as an apéritif introduction to the evening’s wines or events. Champagne is truly a wine of diversity, something that was so neatly encapsulated by Madame Lilly Bollinger:
"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone.
When I have company I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and I drink it when I am.
Otherwise I never touch it, - unless I'm thirsty."
Wine Tour de France
The wines of Europe in general, and those of France in particular, can seem very confusing. This is especially true for people who may have grown up with more familiarly labelled New World wines. In essence the difference for this is that wines from the New World are usually labelled with their grape variety. If you discover that you like Australian Shiraz X, it’s not too much of a push to imagine you’ll like Australian Shiraz Y. The same is not, however, true for French Villages, wines from France will normally be labelled with their place of origin, and not a great deal else apart from who made it.
The reason for this is largely historical. Vineyards across Europe were as a general rule established by the Romans, who planted vines pretty much wherever they went. Even as far north as Grimsby in Yorkshire. Many of these vineyard areas, including Grimsby alas, do not survive because - presumably – the wine wasn’t up to much. The vineyard areas that do still exist are because the resulting wine was good at the time and continues to be so.
The Romans didn’t know a great deal about individual grape varieties. Understandably, they named the wines after where they were produced – the most obvious difference between them. Today’s wine drinker needs, therefore, to have a little grasp of geography in order to fight their way through. It’s worth the fight however, as your existing knowledge of liking (or indeed disliking) a particular style can help you find its French counterpart to embrace or avoid in the restaurant, wine merchant or supermarket.
In general wines from cool climates are more likely to be white, and crisp in acidity - it is more difficult to ripen the grapes. Wines from warmer places will be more likely red, higher in alcohol and softer in acidity as the more ripened grapes produce greater amounts of sugar (which becomes alcohol). Grapes develop colour in their skin for the same reason we do – a defence to the sun. This is less of a problem in Kent than in Corsica.
In the north of France, of course, is Champagne. This is the only sparkling wine allowed to call itself Champagne these days and is made from the black grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the white grape Chardonnay. A Champagne that is labelled ’Blanc de Blancs’ will be made wholly from Chardonnay – ‘white from white’). Most New World sparkling wines follow the Pinot/Chardonnay mixture.
Northern France’s other cool wine region is the Loire Valley which produces dry and sweet wines from Chenin Blanc (in, for example, Saumur and Vouvray), and some light, elegant reds (mainly from Cabernet Franc, as in Saumur and St Nicholas de Bourgeuil). Whilst Sauvignon Blanc is now almost as famous from New Zealand as it is from anywhere, the grape variety reaches its height in two Loire villages: Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. Both display a particular minerality (the French call this ‘terroir’). In Sancerre the soil is flinty, and Pouilly-Fumé is chalky (in fact the ‘fumé’ part comes from the smoke-like chalk dust that billows in the wind).
East from here, but with a climate tempered by being so far inland, are the vineyard areas of Alsace. This picture-postcard region has been batted politically back and forth by Germany and France so much that it has its own identity, culture, and cuisine. The wines, similarly, are French but with a very German accent. From Riesling, Pinot Gris (Grigio) and Gewurztraminer the winemakers of Alsace craft wonderfully rich-yet-dry examples of wines found nowhere else.
Back west of here is the northernmost part of Burgundy. In the region of Chablis, the variety Chardonnay produces its crispest, leanest examples (still a cool climate). Usually without any oak flavour, these are the perfect Chardonnays for shellfish and unlike almost all New World examples (apart from those from Otago in New Zealand, or Washington State and British Columbia in North America).
Further south in Burgundy, Chardonnay becomes riper and more golden, and so does its wines. These are the famous White Burgundies which sport the very famous names such as Meursault, Corton-Charlemagne and lots of things ending ‘–Montrachet’. These Chardonnays will often have oak maturation as part of their make up. They can be the most expensive dry white wines on Earth.
Burgundy is also the home to Pinot Noir – which produces the most ethereal and wonderfully textured red wines of all. They are not always pale, but usually more red than purple. At the top end there is nothing finer, although cheap Pinot Noir can often be worth avoiding. Once again this variety is no great sun lover and the best wines are from cooler climes – New Zealand and Oregon are providing the best competition to Burgundy currently.
Just below Burgundy is Beaujolais, where the variety Gamay produces light, chillably fruity easy to drink wines. Forget ‘Nouveau’ and look for the name of a village such as Fleurie or Morgon.
South of Beaujolais, but on the same granite rocky soil is the famous Rhône Valley. Here the sun shines reliably and the vineyards are perfect for ripening Syrah (which is widely known in the New World as Shiraz). In the northern Rhône, wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are the essence of inky violetty Syrah - perfect with roast or even barbecued meat.
A little further south, the Rhône begins to broaden as its estuary grows to form the marshes of Marseilles and the Carmargue. The sometimes arid higher land, the Côtes du Rhône, is perfect for growing a melange of grape varieties – up to thirteen different permitted in the most famous wine of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
South-east of here are the swathes of vineyards of Provence, justifiably famous for its Rosé, as often as not made from Grenache. West of Marseilles begins the vast Languedoc-Roussillon area making robust sundrenched reds as well as white, rosé and some fortified wines such as Maury (sort of French Port). The varieties here: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan are all noted understandably for their tolerance to heat and sun.
The vineyards of Bordeaux, on the south-west coast of the Bay of Biscay, are protected from the saline winds of the Atlantic by a huge pine forest. Here there are two different soil types. On the southern ‘Left’ bank of the river estuary the soil is gravel (so much so that one leading area is called ‘Graves’) Here the vines are mainly Cabernet Sauvignon which rejoices in gravel’s drainage properties. On the northern ‘Right’ riverbank, the water-retentive clay is more suited to the thirsty Merlot . Most Bordeaux wines are a blend. If from the Médoc (on the left) the wines are Cabernet with some Merlot, in villages such as Pauillac and Margaux. If on the other side the great wines from Pomerol and St Emilion are usually Merlot with some Cabernet included, often Cabernet Franc.
It would not be easy to sum up the wines of a single village in France in so few words, much less the whole country, but I hope this whirlwind Tour de France has given you a thirst to find more information to help you discover the wine of your dreams.Back to top
A Bluffer’s Guide Rod Smith MW
Burgundy is a minefield, but well worth trying to fight your way through, as the best Burgundies are probably the best (dry) wines of all. Alas, the reverse is also true and bad Burgundy is sometimes worse, and usually much more expensive, than anywhere else’s poor wine. It is always worth noting down some details (producer, vintage, appellation etc) when you encounter a good wine for future reference.
History and stats (supremely) in brief (!)
Rome conquered Gaul in 51BC but archaeological evidence indicates they almost certainly found Celtic winemaking already existent in Burgundy. There is no evidence that the Romans needed to bring wine from Italy with them, suggesting that they found the wine to be good enough. By 591AD Burgundy was already recognised in Dark Age literature as being just about the best wine available. Monastic ownership took over and lasted until the 14th century, the Papal court being based in Avignon for much of the 14th century (hence Châteauneuf du Pape” - new castle of the Pope). Then the Dukes took over, starting with Philip the Bold. The Duchy was so powerful it practically operated as a Kingdom in its own right. But when Charles the Rash (!) got just a bit too rash in 1477, Burgundy was taken wholly back into the Kingdom of France. Vineyards remained in the hands of the church or nobility until the Revolution, when they were split up and redistributed causing mass multi-ownership, a situation exacerbated by Napoleonic equal inheritance law. The consequence now is that a production of 3½% of France’s wine is in the hands of at least 18,000 growers and producers (there are only 1800 exporting producers in the whole of Australia). Overwhelmingly confusing labels, then!
A strip of Limestone running roughly north-south from Auxerre (Chablis) about 100km south east of Paris, to Mâcon about 50km north of Lyon. Only where the limestone is near the surface is Burgundy produced, so Chablis is on its own until you reach Dijon. In between Mâcon and Lyon is Beaujolais, which has largely granite soils. Administratively both Chablis and Beaujolais are part of Burgundy, but vinously they are quite different. The stretch of land roughly 25km north and south of Beaune is where Burgundy really ‘happens’. The best vineyards are on the slopes of the Côte d’Or (slope of gold) ridge. This is divided into the northern Côtes de Nuits (Dijon – Beaune, centred around Nuits St. Georges) and the southern Côtes de Beaune (Beaune – Chagny). South of this is the Côte Chalonnaise, producing red and white Côte d’Or-alike wines often better value, invariably less finesse, for reds look for Mercurey and Givry. South of this is Mâconnais, immediately north of Beaujolais, making white wines and headed by the various villages surrounding Mâcon (Viré, Lugny etc) and headed by the unfathomably popular Pouilly-Fuissé.
- As a generalisation within the Côte d’Or:
- Côtes de Nuits wines are mainly red, full flavoured/coloured, high in tannin, long-lived, serious.
- Côtes de Beaune wines are mainly white, the reds are softer and fruitier.
- Perhaps the only thing that is ‘easy’ about Burgundy!
- Red - Pinot Noir, almost all reds except Beaujolais which is made from Gamay, and Passetoutgrains (below).
- White – Chardonnay, almost all whites, however a tiny amount of Pinot Blanc is also grown in the Côtes de Beaune, but one producer (Jayer-Gilles) has almost all of it. Aligoté, is always labelled as such. This is a very high acid grape which has its fans, and is traditionally the base for Kir, made with the addition of the Crème de Cassis (along with mustard this is the other great epicurian produce of the Dijon area). There is a small appellation called Sauvignon de St. Bris, west of Chablis. Helpfully labelled, it’s 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Technically Burgundy in administrative terms, at its best it resembles Sancerre. Rarely seen outside France.
Classification of Wine all Appellation Contrôlée /Protegée (A.C./P.)
Burgundy has (at time of writing) 669 different Appellations. Bordeaux, for comparison, the largest producing area of AC wine, has 57.
- Bourgogne Passetoutgrains Red (literally ‘all grapes’) a blend of one third Pinot Noir (minimum) and Gamay. Not unlike Beaujolais – affordable, chillable, best when young.
- Bourgogne Red or white from anywhere within the region (ex Chablis/Beaujolais). A good producer’s Bourgogne may well be better than a lesser maker’s more elevated wine.
- Hautes-Côtes de Beaune/Nuits Red or White. Strictly from one ‘end’ of the Côte d’Or or the other, on the slopes, and usually better for that.
- Commune (or Village) E.g. Volnay, Morey St Dennis, Gevrey-Chambertin, Puligny-Montrachet. The closest translation of “Commune” is “Parish”, although in Burgundy there almost always is a village.
- Premier (1er) Cru An individual vineyard area. The Cru’s name includes or reflects that of its commune* e.g. Gevrey Chambertin Les Evocelles, Puligny-Montrachet les Referts, and Vosne Romanée Clos des Reas. *In fact the boot is actually on the other foot, as the villages usually hyphenated their name with that of their most celebrated vineyard, e.g., the village of Vosne became Vosne-Romanée. This is why there are so many “double-barrelled” village names in Burgundy.
- Grand Cru The very best individual vineyards. These have names of their own, and the commune need not be stated (although is often related, as above) e.g. Montrachet, La Tache, Clos de Vougeot, Richebourg, Chambertin Clos de Bèzes. There are 31 Grands Crus in total. All in the Côtes de Nuits are for red wines (except a small quantity of Le Musigny white), all in the Côtes de Beaune are for white wines, except Corton (which perversely is almost all red). If a wine also states “Monopole” on the label it means that one producer owns the entire vineyard (rare), and may be either Grand or, more usually, 1er Cru.
This is where Burgundy gets truly confusing, as there are thousands. You need to familiarise yourself with those you do and don’t like, and only practice will do that…Rest assured that if it’s managed to get exported or on a shelf, or wine list someone out there thinks it better than its peers.
- Co-operative The co-operative system, by its very nature has a ‘lowest common denominator’ pitfall potential. The growers send their fruit to the group-owned winery, and receive payment in wine and/or cash. Fortunately Burgundy is so limited in its nature that the co-op wines are reliable, inexpensive and often good. Caves de Hautes-Côtes/Caves de Buxy (Côte d’Or), and Caves de Lugny (Mâconnais) are the names. If you can bear it, they also supply most supermarket own-label. NB the same is true, perhaps more so, in Alsace (Caves de Turckheim).
- Négoçiant The traditional way of doing it, and although a little on the wane this still accounts for some 65% of all Burgundy. Because of such tiny vineyard holdings, individual growers may have only enough for one barrel or two of a particular appellation. The Négoçiant will buy this (usually as the fruit), blend it with similar and bottle something consistent. They will usually sell a range of appellations from across the region, including many of the best. Big names are Louis Jadot,, Joseph Drouhin, Bouchard, Louis Latour, Chanson, Labouré-Roi and Jaffelin.
- Domaine An individual producer (only occasionally labelled as Château) that bottles its own wines, although almost invariably they buy-in fruit (except Monopoles, as above). Increasingly people are buying land from others and bottling their own rather than selling to a Négoçiant. Cuts out a middle-man in a way, but this is where the prestige, and therefore the cash is. Celebrated names include Dominique Lafon, Etienne Sauzet, Rousseau, Pousse d’Or, Ramonet, Bonneau de Martray, Michelot, Dujac, Leflaive etc etc. (The most expensive is Domaine de la Romanée Conti).
An Introduction Rod Smith MW
As well as producing many of the world’s very best wines, Bordeaux is a model example of the advantages of blending varieties to achieve a whole greater than the sum of the parts. The best New World producers, even in unsuitably warm climes, often endeavour to make blended wines along the Bordeaux model lines. Most New World wines are easy to spot, lacking the characteristic grainy tannin finish (especially of Cabernet Sauvignon) in Bordeaux. In Italy (the so-called “Super-Tuscans”) and parts of Chile and New Zealand the results are occasionally similar, but the diversity of wines available demonstrates the maxim that the best wines are produced by the conditions that created the grapes rather than any attempt to “copy” a style from elsewhere, no matter how vaunted it is. Many of the “Bordeaux blend” wines from the rest of the world are excellent efforts in themselves, and arguably will satisfy a wider audience, and more diverse food. However, Bordeaux seems unassailable.
Bordeaux Grape Varieties
- SémillonThis is a noble grape variety in the “neutral” style (as Chardonnay, the wines taste more of the process than obvious fruit characters and possess less perfume than aromatic styles). Sémillon has a waxy texture, is eminently suitable to oak fermentation/maturation and often has a candied lemon flavour. Medium to high alcohol and relatively soft acidity mean Sémillon is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. In the New World, the Hunter Valley in New South Wales is producing the best wines in a style all of their own. Sémillon ages very well and also develops Botrytis Cinerea (Noble Rot) under suitably humid conditions, and this is the basis for the great sweet wines of Bordeaux (and elsewhere)
- Sauvignon BlancAlthough famous from the Loire Valley in France (Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé et al) the crisp, citurssy, gooseberry fruit aromas and flavours of Sauvignon are found in all the world’s cooler areas. Whilst some decidedly New Zealand-ish wines are now being produced in Bordeaux, the main use of Sauvignon is to blend with Sémillon, adding acidity and freshness to the end result. This is especially pertinent for the sweet wines of Sauternes/Barsac, but also applies to dry wines, especially those fermented in oak.
- MuscadelleThe third white grape variety, and a relative of the grapey Muscat, this is used to add a floral touch to many white Bordeaux wines. The plantings and percentages involved, however, are tiny.
- MerlotThis is the most widely grown red grape variety in the Bordeaux region. Merlot ripens early and is preferred, therefore, in the cooler east of the region. Although it can grow well in most soils it seems to prefer cool moist soils especially those with a clay texture. The quality regions in Bordeaux where it dominates are St. Emilion and Pomerol. Merlot is frequently blended with Cabernet Franc, which adds some acidity and a tannic edge, as well as perfume. Merlot develops more quickly than Cabernet Sauvignon and this tendency to mature early is also seen in the wines of St Emilion and Pomerol.
It will give wines of good colour and alcohol with a moderate acidity and an attractive plum and damson aroma. The tannins tend to be supple but will show up with a dry finish if the wine is over extracted or where it lacks sufficient fruit. It is the suppleness, described by many as smoothness, that is its major attraction to wine beginners or those looking for to start drinking red wine.
Its ability to perform in cooler climates has made it popular in north Italy from the Veneto eastwards and northwards. In the New World the grape performs well giving ripe full wines smooth and with black fruit. America seems to have taken to the variety as does Chile. The Merlot of Chile is quite individual with a pure fruit character and a hint of soy.
- Cabernet SauvignonThis is a late ripening variety that requires more warmth than the Merlot. It favours sites with well-drained heat retentive soils such as the gravels and pebbles of the Left Bank, Médoc, and south of Bordeaux (Graves, Pessac-Léognan). It requires this extra warmth to ripen the phenolics and produces wines with a fine blackcurrant aroma, firm tannins and good acidity. It is the tannin content that allows the wines to age well and evolve complex characters.
DNA analysis has sown the variety to have a parentage of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. These two varieties were grown in the vineyards of Bordeaux and it is likely that a crossing took place naturally. Subsequently it was identified by the growers and this ensured its selection and development. The variety began to make an impact in Bordeaux at the end of the eighteenth century.
What makes Cabernet Sauvignon such a popular variety is the combination of fine aromatics, predominantly black fruit and herbs, with a keen structure due to firm but fine tannins and a good level of acidity. The wines have the ability to age and develop beyond a simple fruit to yield spice and fruit. The grape also has an affinity with oak allowing the winemaker to place a mark upon the wine. Indeed the winemaker has many possibilities available in terms of management of the tannins that will impact upon the final wine. The variety is predominantly grown on the Left Bank of Bordeaux and here the wines made are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The blend is an improvement on the single varietal with each variety adding to the overall complexity and enjoyment of the wine. The blending of Cabernet Sauvignon is common in many areas of South West France where it grows, including Bergerac. In Provence the variety is commonly blended with Syrah, a blend more likely to be found in wines from Australia.
Cabernet Sauvignon is used as a single cépage in France in such areas as Languedoc and in a number of countries in Europe including Italy and Bugaria. Away from Europe the variety is grown widely wherever the climate permits full ripening due to its great appeal and quality. Two areas of interest are California and Chile. In California Cabernet has become the great noble grape and grown in areas such as Napa and Sonoma. Although initially grown for single cépage wines there are now a number of fine “Meritage” wines or Bordeaux blends produced. Good Californian Cabernet Sauvignon tends to express ripe black cherry fruit suffused with a cassis edge and a cream of vanilla and cedar. The wines repay keeping in a manner similar to fine Bordeaux. Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, whose vines are 100% vitis vinifera, have an almost piercing blackcurrant fruit to them, as though a fistful of just-picked minty blackcurrants has just been crushed. The structure is fine and there is a juicy exuberance about them. Although not as fine as Californian they have a finesse of purity of fruit that is enchanting.
- Cabernet FrancThis is widely grown in the Libourne area where it is blended with the Merlot. The variety ripens relatively late compared to Merlot but has a good level of acidity and fine tannins. The fruit character is quite juicy with characters of redcurrants and black fruits. The grape is also grown widely in the cooler region of the Loire Valley in areas such as Chinon in the Touraine.
- Petit VerdotThe fourth variety of Bordeaux, this is a distinctive grape used principally to add colour and lend the wines a beguiling violet perfume. Although the percentages are tiny, all the top Médoc estates will add a small amount of Petit Verdot suggesting that in terms of situation it has preferences similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. Occasionally seen as a single varietal wine, mainly from Australia.
- Others; Malbec & CarmenèreBoth Malbec and Carmenère were widely planted in Bordeaux before the phylloxera blight of the mid-late 19th century. They are still “permitted” varieties, but not found in Bordeaux. However, limited experimental plantings have been made.
Malbec appears to have found its new home in the sundrenched Mendoza region of Argentina where it produces distinctive meaty and blueberry scented wines. It still forms the backbone of wines from Madiran and Cahors in France. The wines from Cahors were once known as the “black wines”, a character that Malbec has retained despite its travels.
Carmenère travelled from Bordeaux to Chile, but was never re-exported to France (most of France’s vineyards were restocked with Chilean vines post-phylloxera). Although it is not certain exactly why, it may be related to Carmenère’s visual similarity to Merlot. Indeed, most Chilean vineyards allegedly of “Merlot” were mixtures, and Carmenère as a separate, single variety is a relatively recent re-discovery. As Carmenère ripens some 4 to 6 weeks later than Merlot, stereotypical Chilean Merlot of old was actually a mixture of over-ripe Merlot and under-ripe Carmenère, which explains the juicy-but-green herbal nature. These days the vineyards are separated, and Carmenère is gaining a following of its own. Only a very few Bordeaux properties have re-planted it so far.
Although individual tastes vary, there are a few basic rules about wine serving temperatures. The coldest should be sweet whites and sparkling wines (5 – 7°C), next: crisp dry whites (7 – 9°) and full flavoured, especially oaky, whites can benefit from serving temperatures as high as 14°. The lightest reds, wines such as Beaujolais and delicate Loire reds will be best served around the same temperature: 12 – 14°, whilst full flavoured reds, particularly those with lots of tannin, will be best around 16 – 18°. Bear in mind that the phrase ‘room temperature’ first came around well before central heating and should not be taken literally. Especially if the room concerned is in a yacht in the summer. It is always possible to warm a wine up in the glass, but not to cool it down. The quickest way to get a bottle of wine cold is in an ice bucket with a mixture of ice and water.Back to top
Brunello di Montalcino
This exquisite medieval village in the south of Tuscany produces the world’s finest wines from the Sangiovese grape. In some ways the wines can be regarded as a sort of ‘turbo-Chianti’, as there are strict limits on how much fruit each vine can produce and the length of time the wine must age in barrels before release. Dense, dark and subtle, with spice, and coffee hints and bright cherry fruit, the best accompany meaty Mediterranean dishes especially well.
This village at the northern end of France’s Rhône Valley nestles just beneath the fabled red wine vineyards of Côte Rôtie (‘roasted slope’). However, it is for white wines from the fashionable Viognier variety, that these absurdly steep slopes are most famous. Good Condrieu is expensive, but deserves to be. Redolent of apricot, blossom, candied lemon and mineral aromas and flavours, these are wonderful whites for the cheeseboard.
The finest reds from Burgundy are in the north of the Côte d’Or (slopes of gold), centred around the towns of Nuits St George and Gevrey. From the latter, the most celebrated vineyard is Le Chambertin. As with many Burgundian villages the best vineyard’s name is added to that of the village, making for many ‘double-barrelled’ names such as Puligny-Montrachet, Chambolle-Musigny and Gevrey-Chambertin. Essence of the pale and ethereal Pinot Noir grape here - powerful yet delicate and with red fruit and earthy flavours to accompany the finest cuisine.
Easily the most well known of New Zealand’s wines, Cloudy Bay is actually owned by a French Champagne House. The most famous vineyards are planted with Sauvignon Blanc, the great grape of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in France’s Loire Valley. Astonishingly, the Marlborough region of New Zealand’s North Island was first planted with vines as recently as 1973, and Cloudy Bay’s are amongst the best. Zingy, fresh gooseberry flavours abound, with a nettle-sherbet undercurrent. Perfect on its own or with shellfish, or goat’s cheeses.
John Talbot was sent by Henry VI to put down the French rebellion in Bordeaux in the fifteeenth century. An odd choice because he was 80 years old and, in thanks for previous kindnesses, refused to bear arms against them. The battle of Castillon duly saw the unarmed Talbot forfeit his life and England lose Bordeaux after 300 years. Presumably the vineyards that now comprise Château Talbot were so named in gratitude. The wines they produce are well balanced showing good ripe, luscious Cabernet Sauvignon fruit and cedar wood, typical of Bordeaux and St Julien.
Cheval Blanc combines both approachability even when young, and complexity. The 1999 for example is drinking well now, whilst the 1982 will one day vie for the accolade of the wine of the (twentieth) century. The proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon is very unusual, only 1%. The main grape is Cabernet Franc (57%) a variety of good colour and structure, with flavours of pepper and plums. Merlot, the most famous grape of St Emilion and Pomerol constitutes 40% of the blend.
The distinctive look of this wonderful Champagne provides a clue to its heritage. The bottle and packaging were developed as a result of the Czar of Russia being obsessed (presciently as it transpired) that people were trying to kill him, although in this case via the medium of poison. He therefore commissioned Roederer to present the cuvée bearing a double-headed eagle and the Romanov crest on the label, in clear glass, and with a flat bottomed crystal bottle, in order that any such tampering would be more easily visible. The wine within is worth these extreme efforts!
One of the ultimate symbols of luxury in liquid form, it may come as a surprise to discover that Dom Pérignon was a teetotal monk. He didn’t actually do any of the things for which he is credited, but was an innovator in the production of high quality wine in Champagne, and probably its most famous son. The Champagne that bears his name is elegant and fresh in a light and deliciously easy to drink way.
Maison Krug is one of the few remaining Champagne houses to age their base wines in oak barrels, which imparts a wonderful extra layer of deep, spicy waxed-melon fruit and a chocolate-digestive character to the wines. Their Grande Cuvée is a blend of vintages, including some wines decades old, to ensure supreme consistency of style, and is probably therefore the ultimate ‘non-vintage’ wine. They occasionally release vintage and single vineyard wines – always kept until ready to drink, of which the Pinot Noir Clos d’Ambonnay is the rarest and most expensive. Indeed it is the most expensive current release wine in the world, and yet still sells out immediately.
Many Champagne producers would like to lay claim to the accolade of being the longest established house, but only one may do so in truth. And that house is Ruinart, a business established in 1729 by Nicolas Ruinart. The Royal decree which permitted the transport of bottled wines (casks are not much use for the transport of sparkling wines) was only passed in 1728. The wines are lively and fresh with a high percentage of Chardonnay.
The energetic and talented Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin married into the Clicquot family in 1799, but her husband died shortly after, aged just 30. With no suitable male heirs around her elderly father-in-law, Philippe Clicquot, decided there was little to do but sell the company. But he hadn’t taken into account the fiery spirit of his son’s widow – ‘veuve’ in French. Nicole-Barbe dedicated the rest of her life to perfecting the Champagne making process – it might still be cloudy were it not for her. The classic and reliable ‘yellow label’ Veuve Clicquot has become in many ways the Champagne of the sea.Back to top
Using the right glasses can enhance a wine drinking experience immeasurably. This will often be down to the taste of your guest. The most important consideration may be that the glassware is part of the occasion or presentation of the table in general. Otherwise aim for stemware that enhances the wine’s aroma. Such glasses will be in some way ‘tulip-shaped’ - narrower at the rim than their bowl. This will help capture the aromas of the wine, and the more aromatic the wine is, the larger the bowl can afford to be (full aged reds like Burgundy and fine mature spirits such as Cognac for example). The exception of course is Champagne which should be served from tall, thin flutes to maximise the gas bubbles and limit the wine getting warm in the hand.Back to top
It would be difficult to design somewhere worse for the long term storage of wine than a moving vessel. Whilst these days there are wine storage fridges and even gyroscopic storage to minimise the effect of movement, the best place for long term wine storage will always be a cellar with just the right degree of humidity and an even temperature. This is why we at VSF major on the finest, ready-to-drink vintages being always available from our temperature-controlled storage on the Côte d’Azur. On board ensuring consistency of temperature and limiting exposure to light are the most important considerations. Wine will deteriorate if kept too cool for too long – the right temperature for serving Champagne (5 – 7° as found in your food fridge) will be too cold to keep it for more than a week or two.Back to top
The climate of an area often creates its wine styles – Champagne and New Zealand for example can only produce their very distinctive wine styles because of having the long ripening season that their cool climate gives. The vintage however - the annual weather - can make just as profound a difference, especially in Europe. Amongst its many consequences, the dramatic heatwave of 2003 in Europe had the effect of producing riper, richer wines than normal. Rest assured we at VSF have collated a list only of the finest vintages available.Back to top
Books could be, and have been, written about matching food and wine. At VSF we have the expertise to choose wines to match the ingredients in your chef’s most creative menu, and are happy to compile the wines for a specific dinner or charter based on such requirements. The right wine with the right food can enhance both. Strong flavour sensations such as chilli, saltiness, high acidity or fat will make demands on the wine, often in quite unexpected ways.
Cold wine with cold food, light wine with light food and rich wine with rich food is a good place to start, but there is so much more and we’ll be more than happy to advise.Back to top
Producing the inkiest and deepest flavoured wines in the world, Cabernet is one of the smallest grapes, with the highest ratio of skin to pulp, making for intense flavour and plenty of tannic backbone.
With its distinct blackcurrant flavours, and suitability for oak ageing, Cabernet is the author of the most long-lived of all red wines. It comes to its zenith in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, especially in such communes as Pauillac, Margaux and St Julien. Hugely adaptable, the grape also produces wines of similar style and quality in areas as diverse as Tuscany, California, Australia and South Africa.
Merlot is a the most delightfully chameleon-like of grape varieties. At one level it offers wines of plummy, redcurrant fruitiness for easy drinking, but in the hands of a talented winemaker it is capable of producing the most extraordinarily flavoursome of the world’s finest wines. This is especially true in its spiritual homeland of Pomerol and neighbouring St Emilion in Bordeaux. Pétrus, the most famous and valuable of all Bordeaux’ wines is often made entirely from Merlot, and is therefore almost the only single-varietal Claret. Nevertheless, Merlot is a critical part of all red Bordeaux, as it blends so well with Cabernet to form more than the sum of its parts.
Elsewhere in the world, from Italy to California and South America, Merlot weaves similar magic.
The most ethereal of all black grapes, Pinot Noir has a thin skin and is therefore susceptible to all manner of vineyard problems from frost and hail to moths and birds. But the sheer magnificence of the wines it is capable of producing make all these problems worth overcoming (although often at a price). Responsible for the greatest, and certainly the most fabulously rare and expensive wines of all, in Burgundy, good Pinot Noir manages to combine violet perfume, cherry fruit flavours, exquisite structure and a wonderful earthy, almost savoury undertone. Well chosen inexpensive examples have an immediate, chillably light fruitiness to them whilst the greatest require careful cellaring, the perfect glassware, well-crafted food and a degree of reverence. Outside Burgundy it is certainly the similar climate of New Zealand that is producing the world’s best Pinot.
The great grape of France’s Rhône Valley, Syrah produces wonderfully flavoured sumptuous wines with violet scents, spicy peppery blueberry fruit and a leathery undertone, especially with age. It reaches its apogee in the northern Rhône where it experiences a combination of blazing sunshine and cooling Mistral. The best are from Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie (literally ‘roasted slope’), but Syrah forms an important component of other Rhône delights such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The grape has proved itself especially adaptable to cultivation in Australia and other sunny parts of the New World. Here called Shiraz for not entirely obvious reasons (Chinese whispers as likely as not), its flavours are of more vibrant juicy fruit and often with a minty eucalyptus touch. Perfect with the barbecue!
The almond and cherry scented Sangiovese grape is the hallmark of fine wines from Tuscany. Almost exclusively grown in Italy, the variety has the rare ability to retain good levels of acidity despite favouring sunnier climes. Good acidity in a red wine is of huge use and importance in cutting through oily or greasy food, from charcuterie and salami all the way to beautifully prepared duck dishes, and of course anything heavy on the oil from pizza to spaghetti bolognaise.
The grape makes a range of styles from light and fruity in basic Chianti, right up to seriously ageworthy in Chianti Classico Riserva and especially the beautiful structured wines of Brunello di Montalcino. Sangiove’s other great ability is to lend an Italian edge to Cabernet and Merlot when used in the so called ‘Super-Tuscan’ blends epitomised by such names as Tignanello and Solaia.
The most adaptable and versatile of the great grape varieties Chardonnay happily ripens in England at one extreme and the Lebanon at the other. No other variety does this, and the result is a huge range of styles from crisp, minerally, fresh and zesty – as in Chablis and Champagne, to tropical, weighty and rich from warm areas such as California and Sicily. Anyone who thinks they don’t like Chardonnay is probably basing their belief on only one example of this broad range and may therefore be missing out. Supremely adaptable to maturation in oak barrels 9which adds buttery, spicy, the only thing Chardonnay does not do at world-class levels is sweet wines. Responsible for almost all white Burgundy, Chardonnay is the grape behind everything –Montrachet, which probably helps explain its enduring popularity throughout the world.
Sauvignon prefers a cool climate and usually gets over-ripe in very hot and sunny places. Its origins lie in northern France’s Loire Valley, and most famously from the neighbouring villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The zesty, green fruit, lime and elderflower flavours here are augmented by a wonderful mineral touch from the local chalky/flinty soils. These are the perfect wines for all manner of fish and shellfish.
The region of Marlborough on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island has proved to be Sauvignon’s greatest new world success. Despite having only been planted as recently as 1973, names such as Cloudy Bay and Jackson Estates are now a mainstay of any decent wine list. The citrusy fruit flavours of Sauvignon here are often accompanied by a tropical passion-fruit edge and sometimes a grassy asparagus touch.
In many ways and to many people, Riesling is the greatest white grape variety of all. Responsible for many of the world’s very finest sweet wines, it is Riesling’s rare ability to make off-dry and medium wines which is both its trump card and its curse. This probably because of the fall in popularity of these styles, largely a legacy of horrors such as Liebfraumilch – which were never made from Riesling in the first place. Off-dry wines can be a superb, and often the only, match for Asian and fusion food where sweet chilli, nut oil or fruit flavours will often scupper a dry wine.
But Riesling does make dry wines. In Alsace, Austria and Australia the pungent lime flavours are often accompanied by a rich fruity texture. Back in Germany, whether dry or sweet, Riesling has a wonderful floral, lime blossom aroma and a delightfully refreshing citrus and grapey flavour that makes it incredibly easy to enjoy on a hot summers day.
Decanting a wine is often a good idea for two different reasons.
A young wine will benefit from being allowed contact with oxygen ('breathing') this is best achieved not simply by opening the bottle in advance, but by pouring the contents into another container, usually a decanter (although at home a sterilised empty bottle or even a jug will often enhance your wine's flavour). To achieve the maximum effect the decanting can be quite violent, you can even get devices that will specifically splay the wine across as much of the decanter's interior surface as possible. Once the contents are in the decanter you can swirl it around to increase the surface area of wine in contact with the air.
Any wine that benefits from ageing in the bottle would also benefit from this decanting, and that includes white wines too, especially those that have oak flavours. Be aware of the difficulties of keeping decanters cool though!
The second motive for decanting is to draw clear wine off any sediment that may have formed in the bottle over time. This happens to fine red wines. Here the objective is not to disturb the 'bits', so ideally the bottle will have been standing upright for at least 24 hours beforehand. The decanting needs to be done slowly, with a steady hand, from bottle to decanter, preferably using a wine funnel or strainer.
Sometimes the motive for decanting will be both of the above, so decant slowly, but once you are confident that you have all and only the clear wine, you can then swirl the decanter to aerate the wine. In general older wines need less of this though, as the softening effect of the oxygen has already occurred during its maturation in bottle.
Don't forget that the grounds from the bottle can be very useful in the galley for thickening sauces and adding flavour. One famous British chef even recommends pouring into an ice cube tray and freezing for future use!Back to top