Make Mine A Double, Opinion

Monsoon in the Sahara [Make Mine a Double #33]

The Muscat family of grapes is one of the oldest known extant grape families, and has made a home all the way round the Mediterranean and beyond.  Muscat wines come in a variety of styles, from bone dry through to very sweet, from light in alcohol to fortified, from subtle to all-guns-blazingly aromatic. n In the end, whatever their style, most are recognisable as the grapey grape, Muscat!

Here are two very different expression from Top Selection’s portfolio, one very dry (the “Sahara”) and the other quite opposite (the “monsoon”!)

Terra Tangra Thracian Mountain Wine Tamianka 2016 (12.5%, RRP £14.77 from Top Selection)

Tamianka

Tamianka is regarded as a Muscat-like indigenous variety in its home of Bulgaria, but a little digging through Wine Grapes (Robinson, Vouillamoz, Harding) reveals that Tamyanka (and various alternative spellings) is a synonym for Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, and so it truly is Muscat!

This is a rather aromatic wine, with lots of grape and floral notes on the nose.  The palate shows citrus – particularly grapefruit – and a distinct chalkiness.  It’s pithy, with only a little weight, but a lot of texture.  This is more of a food wine than a sipping wine.

Top Selection recommend pairing it “with white meats with a bit of spice heat – for example, spicy marinated chicken served on a bed of black Thai rice and bok choi.”

 

Cereto Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti 2015 (5.5%, RRP £13.92 (375ml) from Top Selection)

ceretto moscato dasti

There are three main ways to make sweet Muscat:

  1. Pick the grapes late, i.e. a late harvest style, so the grapes have more sugar when picked;
  2. Fortify the wine before fermentation has finished, thereby killing the yeast and leaving plenty of sugar unfermented (like the Vin Doux Naturel style);
  3. Stop fermentation early by chilling, without the addition of grape spirit, so the resulting wine is sweet and fairly low in alcohol.

Moscato d’Asti goes for the third route, with some bubbles for good measure!  “Moscato” is now a popular style in Australia and the US due to its eminent drinkability, but Italy still produces the best examples.  This example from Ceretto is sweet but not sickly, lithe, alert, aromatic, heady and refined….just bloody gorgeous!!

The folks at Top Selection recommend partnering Ceretto Moscato d’Asti with Ceretto’s own Panettone – or alternatively a fresh fruit-based dessert.

 

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Opinion

Frankly Wines Top 10 Sweet Wines of 2015

I love sweet wines, whether with dessert, instead of dessert, or at any time I fancy them. They can actually pair well with savoury dishes of many types, depending on their prominent flavours, richness, acidity and sugar levels.  For example, late harvest Gewurztraminer from Alsace is amazing with foie gras, and off dry to medium wines often work well with exotic Asian fare.

There are several methods of making sweet wines, the simplest being to leave the grapes on the vine while they continue to produce sugars, and harvest them later.  A further step is to allow noble rot (botrytis cinerea) to attack the grapes and dry them out, thereby concentrating the sugars.  Other traditions involve sun or air drying to reduce water levels.

Whichever way is used, balance is the key, particularly the balance between sugar and acidity.  This means that even lusciously sweet wines can avoid being cloying, which is usually a turn off.

Here are ten of the sweet wines which really impressed me in 2015:

 

10. Berton Riverina Botrytis Semillon 2013 (€9.99 (375ml), Aldi)

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I first tried a Berton wine from Coonawarra, my favourite red wine region of the world.  It was perhaps a little less fruit forward than some from the area but had the most pronounced spearmint aromas that I’ve ever encountered in a wine (for the avoidance of doubt this is a positive for me!)

The Riverina area in the middle of New South Wales is an irrigated bulk wine producing region, and is where many of Australia’s inexpensive bottles (and boxes!) are produced. Due to humidity close to the major rivers it is also a source for excellent botrytis style stickies (as the locals call them), including the fabulous De Bortoli Noble One.

Semillon’s thin skins make it particularly susceptible to noble rot – which is why it is so successful in Sauternes and Barsac – and so it proves in Berton’s version.  I’m not going to claim that this has the intensity of Noble One but it does a damned good impression – and at a far lower price.  Amazing value for money!

9. Miguel Torres Vendimia Tardia “Nectaria” Botrytis Riesling 2009 (€19.99 (375ml) Sweeney’s of Glasnevin  and Carry Out Off-Licence in Ongar, Dublin 15)

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Familiarity with Spanish or another romance language reveals that this is a Late Harvest style, with the addition of Botrytis characters.  It was one of the stand out wines of the Chilean Wine Fair – though being different in a sea of Sauvignon, Carmenère and Cabernet probably helped.

As you may or may not know, Miguel Torres wines are the Chilean outpost of the Spanish Torres family’s operations, with quality and value both prominent.  The key to this wine is the streak of acidity cutting through the sweetness – the hallmark of a great Riesling dessert wine.  

8. San Felice Vin Santo 2007 (€19.49 (375ml) O’Briens)

Vin Santo

As someone who generally likes Italian wine and has a soft spot for sweet wines, I’ve nearly always been disappointed by Vin Santos I’ve tried. I don’t think my expectations were too high, it’s just that the oxidative (Sherry-like) notes dominated the other aspects of the wines.

This is different – perfectly balanced with lovely caramel and nut characters.  It’s made from widely grown grapes Trebbiano Toscano (75%) and Malvasia del Chianti (25%) which aren’t generally known for their character, but it’s the wine-making process that makes the difference.  Bunches of grapes are dried on mats to reduce water content then pressed as normal.  After fermentation the wine is aged five years in French barriques then a further year in bottle.   A real treat!

7. Le Must de Landiras Graves Supérieurs 2004 (Direct from Château)

Le Must de Landiras

White Graves – particularly those from the subregion of Pessac-Léognan – are in my opinion the most underappreciated of all Bordeaux wines.  Even less commonly known are the sweeter wines from the area – and to be honest the average wine drinker would be hard pressed to know when there’s often no mention of sweetness on the bottle, they are just “expected to know” that “Graves Supérieures” indicated higher sugar rather than higher quality.

Being close to Sauternes shouldn’t make the production of sweet wines a surprise, but then few people carry a map around in their head when tasting!

Simply put, this is probably the best sweet Graves I’ve ever had.  See this article for more details.

6. Longview Epitome Late Harvest Riesling 2013 (€16.99, O’Briens)

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Riesling in Australia is nearly always bone dry and dessert wines usually use Semillon for late harvest styles or Rhône varieties for fortifieds, but when done well they can be sensational.

This was such a hit at the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting that two other of my fellow wine writers picked it out for recommendation, namely Richie Magnier writing as The Motley Cru and Suzi Redmond writing for The Taste.  Imagine the softness of honey with the fresh zip of lime at the same time – something of a riddle in your mouth, but so moreish!

5. De Trafford Straw Wine 2006 (€29.50 (375ml), Kinnegar Wines)

de trafford strawwinelabel00-1_m

In its home region of the Loire, Chenin Blanc comes in all different types of sweetness, with and without botrytis.  Its natural acidity makes it a fine grape for producing balanced sweet wines.

David Trafford picks the Chenin grapes for his straw wine at the same time as those for his dry white, but then has the bunches dried outside for three weeks before pressing. After a very long fermentation (the yeast takes a long time to get going in such a high sugar environment) the wine is matured in barriques for two years.

I had the good fortune to try this delicious wine with David Trafford himself over dinner at Stanley’s Restaurant & Wine Bar – for a full report see here.  Apricot and especially honey notes give away the Chenin origins, and layers of sweetness remain framed by fresh acidity.

 

4. Pegasus Bay Waipara “Encore” Noble Riesling 2008 (~£25 (375ml) The Wine Society

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This is the gift that keeps on giving…I bought my wife a six pack of this wine a few years ago, as it was one we really enjoyed on our honeymoon tour of New Zealand, and she is so parsimonious that we haven’t finished them yet!

This is in a similar vein to the Epitome Riesling but has more botrytis character – giving a mushroom edge, which is much nicer than in sounds – and additional bottle age which has allowed more tangy, tropical fruit flavours to develop and resolve.  A truly wonderful wine.

See this article for more details.

3. José Maria da Fonseca “Alambre” ® DO Moscatel de Setúbal 2008 (€6.45, Portugal)

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I had been meaning to try a Moscatel de Setúbal since a former colleague from the area told me about it.  A holiday to the Algarve provided the perfect opportunity, and I found this beauty in the small supermarket attached to the holiday complex we stayed in – at the ridiculous price of €6.45!

Moscatel / Muscat / Moscato is one of the chief grapes used for dessert wine around the Mediterranean – and can make very dull wines.  This is by some margin the best I’ve tasted to date!   I’m sure most people would swear that toffee had been mixed in, the toffee flavours are so demonstrative.

See this article for more details.

2. Chateau Dereszla Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 2006 (€38.95 (500ml) The Corkscrew)

Château Dereszla Tokaji

Tokaji is one of the great sweet wines of the world – in fact it’s one of the great wines of the world full stop.  It’s usually a blend of a normal grapes and botrytised grapes in differing proportions, the actual blend being the main indicator of sweetness.

Apricot and marmalade are the first things which spring to mind on tasting this, though time has added toffee and caramel notes.  This is the sort of wine that I would happily take instead of dessert pretty much any time!

See this article for more details.

 

1. Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria 2013 (Liberty, from good wine merchants)

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I first came across this wine at Ely Wine Bar on my wife’s birthday a few years ago.  After a filling starter and main course neither of us had room for dessert, but fancied something sweet; Ely is a treat for winelovers as it has an unrivaled selection of wines by the glass, so like a kid in a sweetshop I ordered a flight of different sweeties for us to try:

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All four were lovely but it was the Ben Ryé which stood out.

At a later trade event put on by Liberty Wines, I noticed that this was one of their wines open for tasting.  With a room full of hardened trade pros (and myself) it was amusing to notice how many people just dropped by the sweet and fortified for a drop of this!

My mate Paddy Murphy of The Vine Inspiration also covered this wine.

 

Don’t forget to also check out Frankly Wines Top 10 Fizz of 2015 and Top 10 Whites of 2015!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long

Lower Alcohol Wines That Taste Good!

For those brave souls that clicked on this to read more, stick with me – this won’t be full or moralising on the evils of alcohol or telling you to drink less.  I’ll leave that to puritans and the government, respectively.  Neither will I be looking at Weightwatchers or Slimming World branded wines which reportedly taste of goat’s piss.  Having tasted neither the diet wines nor hircine urine this is hearsay, but I will leave that trial to others.

Instead I’d like to cover a few wines that I like which happen to be lower in alcohol than the 14%+ blockbusters which populate wine shelves nowadays.  If you fancy a couple of glasses on a school night that won’t leave you with a heavy head in the morning, this is the way to go.

As a general rule, these wines are grown in relatively cool climates.  The moderate sunshine means that grapes aren’t as high in sugar at harvest, but they should still have plenty of flavour.  Lower alcohol is a finished wine is the result of lower sugar at harvest and / or fermentation being stopped by the winemaker before all the sugar has turned to alcohol, which obviously leaves some residual sweetness.

There are lots of other viticultural and vinification techniques which can be used to moderate alcohol levels, including:

  • Picking early
  • Canopy management
  • Clonal selection
  • Yeast selection
  • Reverse osmosis
  • Spinning cone
  • Watering down (!)

So what should you try?

Mosel Riesling

Many consider the Model to be the spiritual home of the Riesling grape.  The cool climate imparts a fierce acidity to the wine, so fermentation is often stopped before all the sugar has turned to alcohol, leaving some to soften the affect of the acidity.  Alcohol levels of 8% are not uncommon here – that’s half the abv of some blockbusters from Australia and California!

German (and Austrian) wines have a fairly complex quality hierarchy based on the sugar at the time of harvest, though the RS in the finished wine is more of a stylistic choice.  If you see Trocken then the wine should taste pretty dry.

Hunter Valley Semillon

I have already established myself as a fan of this style, delicious as a fresh blast of lemon or as a mature, honey and toast loaded beauty.  Alcohol levels here are usually between 10.0% and 11.5% – but they don’t feel to be lacking it when you drink them, the sign of a good, balanced wine.

McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth is a good entry level, though of course Tyrrell’s Vat 1 is the famous star of the area.

Vinho Verde

North and East of the Port producing region Douro, Vinho Verde produces light white, rosé and red wines.  They exhibit fresh acidity and sometimes a light spritz and may not exceed 11.5% apart from one exception*.  Vinho Verde doesn’t have the best reputation, but this is undeserved – the wines won’t be the most complex but they can be delightful in summer.  Modern wine-making techniques have dramatically improved the average quality level.

*The exception is for Alvarinho (the same grape as Albariño just over the border into Galicia) from the areas around the town of Monção

Moscato d’Asti

Erm are we getting into Asti Spumante territory here?  Yes we are!  But don’t worry, like many bad memories of the ’70s, the modern truth is actually far more palatable than the shuddering recollections of the past.

This is a fizzy dessert wine made soley from the grapey grape, Moscato (often known as Muscat).  It often clocks in as low as 5% so it’s the same as many beers, but please use a wine glass, not a pint glass!

North East Italian Reds

The twins of Valpolicella and the even lighter Bardolino are made from Corvina (great), Rondinella and Molinara (neither that great) in the Veneto area between Venice and Lake Garda.  Nowadays the turbocharged Amarone della Valpolicella takes the column inches in wine reviews – and I happen to be a big fan – but at ~15% it doesn’t meet what we’re after here.  The regular table wines can be very pleasant drinking but weighing in at 11.5% or so.  There are unsubstantiated rumours that the beefier Valpolicella wines have been pumped up with stronger southern Italian reds, but surely the wine industry is free from adulteration nowadays??

Forrest Estate ‘The Doctors’

Forrest Estate in Marlborough was set up by the husband and wife team Dr John and Dr Brigid Forrest in 1988.  As well as the usual grapes Marlborough fare they make wine with a few more unusual grapes.  One of these is the Austrian black grape St Laurent which makes a light to medium bodied wine somewhere in between Pinot Noir and cool climate Syrah, though its parentage is still unproven. This comes under their sub brand The Doctors’ and has a lunchtime-friendly 11.0% on the label.

They also make a Riesling under this label which has a Mosel-like 8.5% – give it a try!

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