Alcohol: Where else could I start? In wine, alcohol is produced by yeasts fermenting sugar in the ripe grapes. Alcohol itself is tasteless, but it does affect the way that wine tastes. For a wine to be perfectly balanced, the alcohol level shouldn’t be noticeable. Any feeling of hotness in the back of the throat means the wine is unbalanced and best avoided.
Bardolino: The light, juicy, cherryish, Bardolino wine takes its name from the town of Bardolino on the shores of Lake Garda in north-east Italy. It’s stylistically similar to Valpolicella, can be drunk chilled and is usually comprised of the Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grape varieties.
Chardonnay: Right now, Pinot Grigio is the white wine of choice for most but back in the day, or at least in the 80’s and 90’s, it was Chardonnay. Especially, Australian Chardonnay. Back then, the Aussies wowed us sun starved, thirsty Brits with easily affordable, luminously golden offerings that seemed almost to taste of tropical sunsets. Initially, we gorged on the exoticism and ignored the far less pleasant, underlying notes of synthetic oak (oak chips were used to mimic barrel fermentation at a fraction of the cost). Until, presumably, the iffy oak hangovers became all too much, and ABC (anything but Chardonnay) became the new cry and benign, but often bland, Pinot Grigio the new favourite.
Thankfully, that’s not quite the end of the story, as Chardonnay is back. Albeit, a very different style of Chardonnay. Earlier picked, more refreshing styles of the grape are in, cumbersome oak flavours are out and more people than ever are aware that perennial favourite, Chablis, is made from 100% Chardonnay.
Duty: UK Excise Duty is a fixed cost set annually in the Chancellor’s Budget and charged in bands depending on the alcoholic strength of the wine. For still table wines between 5.5% and 15% ABV, the government takes nearly £2.50 for every 75cl bottle as duty and tax.
After other factors such as winery labour, shipping costs and retail margin are accounted for it’s estimated that the actual value of wine in a £ 5 bottle is approximately 3%. Whereas – with the costs remaining fixed – the value of wine in a £ 10 bottle is approx. 30%.
Therefore spending a, and you’d expect me to say this, little more actually gets you a much better value wine. Honestly!
El Escoces Volante: One of my favourite winemakers is ‘El Escoces Volante’ or, as his mother knows him, Norrel Robertson. Hailing from Aberdeen, Norrel makes exceptional wine from gnarly old vines in Catalonia and his nickname, unsurprisingly but amusingly, translates as the Flying Scotsman.
Norrel is one of only 300 Masters of Wine in the world and the only one producing wines at everyday prices. He’s particularly adept at fashioning great wine from the Garnacha grape and his La Multa Old Vine Garnacha 2011 punches well above its weight with huge, ripe berry fruit, lots of spice, sweet oak and a long rich finish.
Faults: Viewed scientifically, wine is simply the intermediate phase between sweet grape juice and vinegar and it’s up to the winemaker to ensure that it’s a stable phase. More evocatively, this phase should be a true expression of the grape variety and the area in which it is grown.
Faults in wine are avoidable, and generally derive from poor decisions in the winery. However, winemakers can’t be held responsible for ‘corked’ wines. ‘Corked’ wines are the result of an infection, TCA, in the cork itself, which causes the wine to smell musty and taste unpleasant.
Grüner Veltliner: Sadly, lots of people only think of Austrian wine in relation to the infamous scandal of 1985. In short, a couple of bulk wine producers unaccountably hit upon the idea of adding ethylene glycol (antifreeze) to their wine to make it taste sweeter. The resulting furore blighted Austria’s reputation for decades but is now seen as a watershed moment when all that was substandard was swept away.
Grüner Veltliner is the most planted grape variety in Austria and the main factor in Austria’s burgeoning reputation as a producer of quality wine. Sepp Grüner Veltliner has a touch of honey on the nose with flavours of bright lime, lemon and grapefruit and a refreshing acidity. Try it with a poached chicken salad.
Harvest: Historically, when wine production was solely a European affair, harvest time was September/October. With the coming of the New World (the Americas, Australasia and South Africa), harvests in March/April were added to the wine calendar. Dual global wine harvests also led to the advent of flying winemakers.
Flying winemakers are the human expression of wine’s globalisation and for them, climactically if not emotionally, life is lived in the sun. The reversal of the seasons in the Northern and Southern hemispheres makes it entirely possible for winemakers to fly across the world and supervise two harvests a year. Many of the early flying winemakers were Australians who, after a little early resistance, bought modern winemaking techniques to Europe and dramatically improved the wine quality in many areas, particularly in the sunny climes of the south of France.
Icewine: Canadian ice wine is one of the wine world’s real treasures. This amazing sweet wine is made from ripe grapes that are picked when frozen on the vine. In Germany, the wine is called eiswein and there, as in Canada, the grapes have to reach at least -8C before picking. Chilly work!
Jerez: Sherry comes from Jerez. Who cares? Well, cast aside any thoughts of vicars or maiden aunts sipping sweet sherry from silly little glasses – that’s not what real Sherry is all about at all. The real stuff is dry, delicious and, in recent years, the toast of Michelin starred restaurants across the land. Try an ice cold Fino or Manzanilla with nuts and olives to see what the fuss is about.
K-Naia: Rueda, a wine region a hundred miles North West of Madrid, is home to the Verdejo grape. Since the 1970’s, when famous Rioja producer, Marques de Riscal, saw the potential for dry white wines in the area, once more famous for its fortified styles, Verdejo has been a rising star.
Verdejo comes in many guises and responds well to barrel fermentation and oak ageing. The K-Naia from Bodegas Naia is an unoaked example that exhibits many of the tropical fruit characteristics often found in New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. There’s pineapple and mango notes alongside pink grapefruit flavours and a zesty, limey acidity. It’s fantastic with oily or grilled fish, new potato salad or prawns in garlic sauce.
La Dolce Vita: Exploratory drinkers need look no further than Italy for a taste of the good life or ‘La Dolce Vita.’ Italy enjoys the prestige of being the only country in the world to produce wine in all its many regions. Historically, it was known as Oenotria (land of the vines) and the present day more than lives up to the legend, with over a thousand different grape varieties being grown in the nation.
Methode Traditionelle: Champagne is produced by the Methode Traditionelle. After the first fermentation, wines from different years are blended (assemblage) and put in bottle with yeast and a small amount of sugar (liqueur de tirage) and a second, bubble producing, fermentation takes place. The wine is then left to age – a minimum of 15 months for non vintage Champagne and 3 years for vintage.
After ageing, the dead yeast cells (lees) are removed by the ‘riddling’ process. Historically, this was done by hand and bottles were laid, neck down, in special racks (pupitres) at a 45° angle and then, each day, the angle was gradually increased by twisting and turning the bottles until, finally, the bottles were upside down and all the yeast was trapped in the bottlenecks. A cellar crammed with Champagne ageing in pupitres is a wonderful sight and it’s a real shame the riddling process is now mechanised.
Next, the lees are removed from the bottle by freezing the bottleneck and the plug of ice containing the dead yeast cells is expelled, a process called degorgement. Immediately after disgorging but before final corking, the liquid level is topped up with a sugar solution called the liqueur d’expédition in a practice known as dosage. It’s this final process that determines the dryness of the finished wine ie. Brut, Demi-Sec etc.
Nebbiolo: Piedmont, in north-west Italy, is the area most closely associated with the red grape variety, Nebbiolo. Most famously, it produces the much admired wines from the village of Barolo. According to folklore, the grape is said to derive its name from the Italian word nebbia (fog), as during harvest, in late October, a deep, intense fog envelopes the region’s vineyards.
Oak: Some grape varieties benefit from fermentation or ageing in oak barrels. Oak adds complexity and texture to white wines and softens the tannins in reds. French oak has a tighter grain, higher tannin and lower aromatics, giving more subtle, savoury notes of coffee, cloves and smoke, while American oak provides more obvious sweet vanilla or creamy coconut notes. New barrels impart the most flavour but are expensive and usually reserved for premium wines.
Portugal: Portugal, is, after Italy, the country that best serves the adventurous drinker. Like Spain, it suffered under a dictatorship until the 1970’s and had very little international trade. This proved to be good for the country’s wine industry as its insularity ensured that it never really embraced international grape varieties. So now Portugal is the proud possessor of over 400 indigenous grape varieties and, don’t forget, it also produces the ever popular fortified wine, Port, in all its many guises.
Quickie: Some Young Punks are a hugely gifted and irreverent group of Australian winemakers who’ve shaken up the wine world with their highly original wine labelling. Inspired by pulp fiction, their roll call includes wines called Passion Has Red Lips and Naked on Roller Skates. Their Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills features a scantily clad heroine, Quickie, on the label and the delicious passionfruity wine contained within, more than lives up to the arresting imagery.
Rhône Valley: The Rhône Valley in France is split in two, both geographically and in wine style. In the south, the Grenache grape is king but in the region’s most famous wine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it’s permissible to use up to thirteen different grape varieties. In the northern Rhône, Syrah (Shiraz) is the sole red grape variety and it finds beautiful expression in the elegant and highly herbaceous wines from the Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie appellations.
Syrah or Shiraz: Syrah and shiraz are genetically the same grape but stylistically there’s a big difference between the two. Wines labelled syrah are usually lighter and leaner with pronounced peppery notes. Whereas, those bearing the shiraz name are generally richer, sweeter, fuller bodied and higher in alcohol.
Classic syrah is found in the northern Rhône Valley in France in wines labelled Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie. Shiraz is grown in many countries but is most synonymous with south Australia, especially the Barossa Valley and Mclaren Vale regions.
Terroir: The French coined the term terroir to describe the total natural environment of any wine growing site and its validity has been much discussed and debated ever since. There’s no precise English equivalent for this quintessentially French term and concept. However, the major components of terroir are soil, topography and climactic conditions. These combine to give each site its own unique identity and, according to believers, the resultant wines reflect the terroir they originate from.
Ullage: Deriving from the French ouillage, ullage refers to the space in the neck of a wine bottle not occupied by wine.
Vital: Antonio Carvalho’s story is both inspirational and tragic. He was a Portuguese winemaker, passionate about indigenous grape varieties from his home region just north of Lisbon, who coaxed greatness from the, previously, little regarded Vital grape variety. Tragically, he died from a heart attack, aged only 41, whilst treading his own grapes, leaving his completely inexperienced, artist partner, Marta Soares, to continue his pioneering mission. Against all the odds, she’s succeeded and her flagship wine, produced entirely from Vital, bears the name Antonio in honour of her late partner.
Wild Earth: Quintin Quider is, to my certain knowledge, the only ex abalone diver I’ve ever met. He’s an engaging Californian who, after hanging up his flippers for good, established one of my favourite New Zealand wineries – Wild Earth – in the Central Otago region on the country’s South Island. Wild Earth shot to world-wide acclaim when it won an impressive five Trophies at the International Wine Challenge and Decanter Awards in 2008 and the praise and plaudits have continued ever since.
Wild Earth Pinot Noir recently won a silver at the Decanter Wine Awards and it has lifted dark plums and spice on the nose with a touch of perfumed violets and toasty oak. In the mouth it has rich, sweet fruit flavours of cherries, plums, raspberries and a touch of spice on the finish.
Xarel-lo: Cava, sparkling wine from Catalonia in Spain, comes to the rescue when we come to the most awkward letter of the alphabet. Traditionally, Cava is comprised of three grape varieties – Macabeo, Parellada and the intriguingly named, Xarel-lo.
Yquem, Château d’: Yquem, the most sought after dessert wine in the world, comes from the Sauternes region of Bordeaux in south-west France. Uniquely, it’s the only dessert wine from Bordeaux to have been given a top ranking (Premier Cru Supérieur) in the region’s, all important, classification system and this is more than reflected in the price – £ 250 plus for a bottle from a recent vintage.
Wines from Château d’Yquem are characterised by their complexity, concentration and sweetness and, with proper care, will keep for a century or more. If you’re tempted, the 1914 vintage is currently available for a mere £ 3,000 per bottle!
Zweigelt: Austria’s most famous red grape variety, Zweigelt, is little known but will appeal to those who enjoy lighter reds such as Beaujolais.