Ooh la la! It's time to get French!
On Bastille Day 2017, twenty eager tasters gathered in the beautiful gardens of the Richard Jefferies museum for a wine "Tour de France". Here's what happened...
Our welcome drink was not fizz from Champagne - that seemed a little too obvious, and most people have had Champagne on previous occasions. So we went for a sparkling wine from the Languedoc-Rousillon region in the South of France. Its a Val de Salis "Blanc de Blancs" Brut, available at Lidl for £7.99.
Lidl have a ratings system whereby 3 Masters of Wine rate all the wines under strictly controlled conditions and then score them out of a 100. You’ll find information on the wine ratings next the wines in the Wine Cellar section of each store. The 100 point system of rating wines is the official rating system for most wine critics and wine competition, and the blanc de blancs scored an impressive 87.
With the sunnier climate further south, the grapes ripen better, so this sparkling wine has less acidity and is a little sweeter than it's more northerly counterparts. It's lemon-scented, softer and rounder on the palate than Champagne. It was a hit with our tasters.
Stage One - La Terrasse 2015 Chablis, Sainsbury's £12
We moved inside the museum to start the proper tasting and began our tour in the northern most part of the Burgundy region - Chablis. The appellation is actually closer geographically to the Champagne region than some of its counterparts in Burgundy, and for that reason the wine enjoys the benefit of chalky soil with a Kimmeridge clay layer. One of the guests commented that the Chablis reminded her of Sancerre wine from the Loire Valley, which is just a short hop away. We talked about the cool northerly climate, and the fact the vines are trained close to the ground to maximise heat from the earth.
The Northern Burgundy region is prone to hail and frost, and if this hits at the wrong time in the growing cycle, complete harvests can be ruined. 2016 was one such year, so the low production of that vintage will make it hard to find on the shelves.
This is a 2015 Chablis, available from Sainsbury's (£12). The tasting notes for the wine describe it as "a crisp, fresh white, rich in the quintessential mineral characteristics of Chardonnay from the Chablis region. With great acidity, elegant tones of green apples and citrus flavours accompanied by a long, lingering finish."
It was a wine that divided our guests - some loved the dry freshness of it, others weren't so keen. Chablis is sometimes known for a flinty steely taste, although our guests struggled to identify it. Maybe we needed to up the game with a Grand Cru!
Stage Two - 2016 Vouvray, Tesco £7.20
For the next stage of our tour we went to the Loire Valley, where 4000 wineries line the banks of the longest river in France. The appellation of Vouvray is in the centre of the middle Loire, and the wine is made from Chenin Blanc grapes. Many of our tasters recognised Chenin Blanc as a major grape variety of South African wines, but it originates from the Loire, and it was Dutch explorers that took the vine and planted it in South Africa.
On the nose, this wine has floral aromas and can be "boisterous" on the palate. "Oooh," observed one of the guests. "It leaves a slight fizz on the tongue."
Many approved of this wine, and enjoyed its juicy taste and balanced sweetness.
Chenin Blanc can be a versatile grape and it goes into some sparkling wines, as well as sweet wines and brandies. Due to its versatility, it can pair with a variety of food including creamy sauces and asian food. Its brilliant with brie, so as if on cue, out came the selection of French cheeses and breads and crackers for everyone to nibble on.
Stage Three - Tesco finest Gewurtztraminer, £8
Our third and final white wine is from the Alsace region, close to the border with Germany. The region has had a turbulent history and changed hands between Germany and France; thus the German influences. The main grape varieties that Alsace specialises in are Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer. In France, the umlaut over the "u" is dropped - possibly for political reasons, but I like to think they just can't find it on their keyboards. The other interesting thing about the Alsace wines, is the fact they are served in the tall bottles called the "Alsace flute". This is a nifty marketing strategy as it makes the bottles easier to spot on the shelves when you're in a hurry, but is actually law for Alsation wines. My guests were curious to know why, so I've found the answer on the Oxford wine blog:
"The reason Alsatian and Germanic wine bottles are the classic, tall flute shape is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a matter of economics. The main trade route out of these regions was on smooth-sailing barges along the Rhine. Bottles did not need to be as strong as those from other regions with more strenuous trade routes and thus did not require a punt at the bottom of the bottle. The long flute shape was found to be ideal for maximising packing efficiency in crates.
What was once a matter of common sense and practicality has now become embedded in tradition – or even law. For example, Alsace AOC white wines must be bottled in the flutes."
So to the wine. Gewurtz means spiced in German, and this Tesco finest Gewurtztraminer is a flavoursome, off dry, classic French white with aromas of fresh lychees, roses and subtle hints of spice. The guests found it to have a lingering spicy aftertaste, and could detect the lychee, but weren't as impressed as they were with the previous two offerings.
Stage Four - Georges Debouef 2015 Beaujolais Villages, £9.99, Majestic Wines (or £8.99 on a mix six deal)
We returned to the Burgundy region for our first red, but to the Southern area of Beaujolais. We talked about the young Beaujolais Nouveau wines that are released with an euphoric fanfare on the third Thursday of November. "Some of them are actually OK," commented one of the guests.
To be called a "Beaujolais-Villages", the wine must come from the superior vineyard sites in the hillier parts to the north of Beaujolais. What does superior mean? Well, the combination of soil, topographical features, water quality, sunlight and the daily temperatures is one thing. All of these elements are in balance and harmony for premium grape production. But also the vineyard practices themselves - from hand harvesting grapes, to the team being able to give more attention to the grapes grown on that particular site, ultimately results in a higher quality wine.
Beaujolais wines are made from the Gamay grape. With its thin skin producing little tannin in the wine, they aren't suitable for ageing, and can actually be improved by being served lightly chilled. Master winemaker Georges Duboeuf has created this wine from the best selection of grapes. Packed with juicy strawberry, raspberry and cherry fruit flavours. Everyone agreed it was a bright and youthful wine with a fresh finish. Sometimes Gamay can give off a flavour of boiled sweets, banana and bubble gum, and a few of our tasters detected this (some favourably, some negatively!) That's the great thing about wine tasting - there's no right or wrong - you can like what you like!
Did you know? In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Bold, outlawed the cultivation of Gamay as being "a very bad and disloyal plant", due in part to the variety occupying land that could be used for the more "elegant" Pinot noir. Luckily, the plant was pushed further south to the Beaujolais area, out of the radar of the Burgundy snobs, and the plant thrived.
Stage Five - 2014 Chateauneuf-de-Pape, Reserve de capouliers, Majestic Wines,
£18.99 (or £16.99 on a mix six deal)
An audible murmur of appreciation spread around the room as this wine was poured. Our tour had taken us to sunnier climes of the Côtes du Rhone, where the area of Chateauneuf-de-Pape is relatively large and flat. Chateauneuf-de-Pape translates as "Castle of the Pope" (or colloquially "The Pope's pad / crib") after Pope Clement V moved his headquarters from Rome to Avignon in 1309. Who can blame him when the the wines are this good?
You can buy Chateauneuf-de-Pape in most of the major supermarkets - It's popularity and recognition of the name means that there's now quite a bit of it about. You can read a review of supermarket Chateauneuf-de-Pape.
This was the first wine of the night to be a blend of different grape varieties. Chateauneuf-de-Pape can have up to 12 different grape varieties, but this example from producer Ogiers, had four - Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault - four powerful, robust grape varieties that combine to give a savoury-sweet bouquet of ripe black fruit and peppery spice. The fine tannins and hints of liquorice provide great length.
"I'm converted!" gasped one of the guests, who had previously declared herself to be a white wine drinker, and had never found a red that she liked. There's now one more Chateauneuf fan in the world!
We opened this wine a few hour's before drinking to let it breathe - decanting may have enhanced it even further. "It's definitely a food wine," observed another guest, polishing off the cheese. We agree, and Majestic recommend drinking it with venison casserole.
Stage Six - Chateau Tour Bayard (Montagne St Emilion) 2014, Majestic Wines, £14.99 (or £12.99 on a mix six deal)
Our final stop on the tour was the Bordeaux region, where there are simply too many good wines to pick from. We talked about the Gironde estuary splitting the region in two, and wine drinkers are expected to pin their loyalty to either "right bank" or "left bank" where the styles of wine making differ.
Tonight we favoured right bank, with a "fruit forward" wine from the satellite area of Montagne St Emilion. This Chateau Tour Bayard is made from 40-year-old vines, the grapes are hand picked to give a smooth and powerful wine with big flavours of blackcurrant, liquorice and sweet spices.
We talked about how beautiful the town of St Emilion is, with its charming medieval stone walls, and where every other shop is a wine shop where you're welcomed in to try a range of wines.
Majestic say this wine is drinking beautifully now but could equally be aged for another 5 years. It could be sampled with a rare roast joint of beef.
Our tasters enjoyed the wine, but had a slight preference for the Chateauneuf-de-Pape.