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ABOUT WINE

This is the page all about wine, with the emphasis being on informing and teaching about wine and the pleasure of drinking wine, information it is hoped the wine lovers amongst you will find helpful and informative.

At regular intervals there will be pages added to this About Wine section of the site. Articles of interest both to expert wine connoisseur and novice enthusiast alike.

A Tour of Europe's Wine Regions
Wine expert Joe Wadsack talks Pinot Noir Epiphanies and how to pair hors d'oeuvres with your favourite tipple . . . read more

Italian Wine
It is often said, both by experts and amateurs alike, "There is an awful lot of rubbish written about wine". This is another contribution . . . read more

In the new Minervois . . . discovering some old history and a revolution or two
Imagine, you have decided to take a well deserved break and try to discover more about the Minervois wine region in the Languedoc, south of France. After a bumpy landing at Carcassonne airport, you drive your hire car in the direction of Narbonne; you have decided on the slower green route, the D5, where you will pass one after another tumbledown cave co-operative and sleepy village . . . read more

Ever fancied a cooking holiday? Ever fancied learning
to make bread - www.cookingholidays.co.uk

Spring in the vineyards of Languedoc - Spring has eventually arrived in the Languedoc The vines stand naked in serried ranks lovingly pruned and waiting for the warmth of the sun to arrive. The almond trees line the roads, their pink blossom heralding . . . read more

Do or Die, the turning point for the Co-operatives - Deep in the Languedoc region of southern France, an area of wine production surpassing any other in the country, there is a struggle for survival for the old village 'Cave Co-operatives' trying to exist in the 21st century with the onslaught of international competition in an over abundant marketplace . . . read more

The Wine Co-operatives of France ~ Chateau de Ventenac Minervois - Ventenac is a lovely little village located in the Minervois wine-growing region of the Languedoc, set on the banks of the picturesque Canal du Midi with the northerly protection of the Montagne Noire behind. The village is only small, yet is extremely welcoming and well worth a visit not only for its wine cave but also for the ambiance of its setting. Here you can sit on the banks of the canal and watch the world go by, or eat in one of its busy, yet non-expensive restaurants, overlooking the Cana . . . read more

HOW TO SAMPLE WINES

How to sample Wines

Midhurst Wine ShippersHow to taste wine to really appreciate the taste and to start to notice and measure the quality of the wine that you’re drinking:

If you want to remember a wine for later reference or comparison, the chances are you’re going to find it easier to keep a record that to rely on your memory.

You’ll be using your sense of sight, smell and taste, so sensibly you’ll want these to have their best chance of evaluating the wine, so neutral conditions are the most helpful, with no strong opposing smells, and good lighting will help.

It’ll be sensible for you, too to have a clear palate, so chew some bread or sip some water first if you have a distinct taste of something else in your mouth.

Domaine du Fontsainte: DemoisellePrepare

Have something to write on, a glass, some water and plain bread if you intend to try several wines and something to spit or pour into. Then choose some bottles to try. You might want to try several Sancerres against each other or similar wines to get a better assessment, or just something you fancy to really taste objectively. White wine should be cool but not too cold, red a little warmer. Taste the lighter, white wines first, dry before sweet, before moving on to the somewhat heavier reds.

Use a clean clear glass so that you can see the colour of the wine and the density of that colour. It should have a stem so you hold that and not the bowl. It should curve inwards at the top so it traps the smell (nose) of the wine. If possible, wash the glass by hand, not in the dishwasher as you’re going to swirl the wine around and watch how it falls down the sides and you can’t do that if it’s been in the dishwasher.

In ideal conditions you’d be in bland surroundings so as not to distract and you’d have at least a white piece of paper so you can tilt the glass to see the colour against a white background.

If tasting more than one wine, be prepared to spit it out – you really will get the taste that way and you’re senses won’t be muddled by too much sampling (believe me, otherwise you’d like each one progressively more)

Method

Pour a small sample of the wine into the glass and hold it against a white background so you can see the colour. Tilt the glass to notice whether the colour is the same at the edge (rim) as it is in the middle. Wine tasters go on about the rim being wide or narrow

Look at the colour – for reds, is it bright purpley or deeper or going towards brown? Red wine will go lighter and less intensely red with age and a red Bordeaux will usually be a deeper colour than red Burgundy. White wines may have a greenish tinge when they’re young, deepen with age and end up a deep yellow-gold. If it’s cloudy, there could be something wrong, a re-fermentation happening in the bottle, bacteria or in the case of very old fine wines, it may not have been decanted well, or just have been difficult to do so. If you’re taking notes for the future, try to describe the colour as descriptively as you can.

Swill it around the glass to watch for the "legs", the trails of wine that cling to the side of the glass. Legs indicate more concentrated flavour, high alcohol content or could indicate sugar content. This action will also aerate the wine, which helps to reveal the wine aroma, particularly in young wines that might still have some of the oak smell about them, for instance.

* Most important . Put your nose in and take a good sniff –just one will do. What does it remind you of? Can you smell a buttery or floral or vegetable or whatever? The nose can detect more than a hint of what you might expect or confirm in the tasting. A young wine might have a smell of the grape whilst an older one might be more likely to smell more complex. You can tell a lot from the "nose"; corkiness, a musty smell from a tainted cork, sulphur, sometimes in cheaper white wines; smells a little like burnt matches; vinegar; a burnt smell like the wines of Madeira, sometimes called "maderised".

Sip enough to grasp a good taste, preferably tilt it to the front of your tongue and pull some air over it – probably making that funny noise that is indicative of a professional taster – it does open up the taste. If not, think first about the taste and then "chew" it to get the wine around the mouth. How long does the taste last? Poor quality wines tend to leave little aftertaste or a nasty taste. Fine wines linger on.

Spit it out into a suitable receptacle! (You’ll soon get blasé about this.)

Chateau HauteriveMore detail
Under each process above, make notes on:

  • Appearance -clear, dull, pale or deep, colour in detail, note a wide or narrow rim and the colour or intensity of that

Nose:
Condition – clean or not, corky, "madeirised", bad smell of sulphur, floral, aromatic, vegetal, grassy or even a bit like rotten cabbages, strong or weak smell
Intensity – weak or strong
Maturity – young or mature

  • Palate:
    Sweetness - dry, medium, sweet
    Acidity - low, medium or high
    Tannin – (like strong tea) low, medium or high, body
    Body – light, medium or full
    Intensity – weak or strong
    Fruit character – fruity, can you taste the blackcurrant or gooseberry?
    Floral, does it smell/taste aromatic?
    Vegetal, is it grassy or even a bit like rotten cabbages?
    Spicy, like some Australian Chardonnays or Shiraz’s?
    Alcohol – (not easy for most wines unless heavy or light) light, medium or high
    Length of taste in the mouth, short, medium or long
  • Conclusions:

Quality - poor, acceptable or good

Maturity – ready to drink?

HOW TO CHOOSE THE WINE

Midhurst Wine ShippersOkay, so you’re in a restaurant and you want to order the wine but are faced with a difficult wine list.

You don’t need to know everything about wine (and who does?) to get to a wine you’d enjoy with your food. First, it’s a good idea to ask if any of your party has a preference for white or red. This can be illuminating, as some people will only drink one or the other. Next, a good rule of thumb if you’re not sure, is to choose a wine at a price you’re happy with.

In a new restaurant I usually opt for a mid-price wine or will even try their house wine as I think it’s a fair guide to how good the place is, unless I’m sure of what I want to drink on that particular occasion. It’s a safe bet to stick with familiar names if you see one – they’re the most popular.

If in doubt, always ask the wine waiter or whoever handed you the wine list. After all, it’s their job to help you. Don’t forget to tell them what style you’d like, how dry, or spicy, strong flavour or delicate, etc or ask what they think would go well with the food.

The year (vintage)

For most new world wines, the year makes little difference; the weather is more consistent and the wine-making methods are standardised. As for the French, well, you can keep an encyclopaedia in your pocket or your head, but not everyone knows – or wants to know that the 96 Beaujolais cru should be better than the 98 because it rained a lot in 98 (too much water in the grapes). So make it easy on yourself and either disregard the date or ask your friendly wine waiter for a recommendation or description.

HOW TO JUDGE THE STRENGTH OF THE WINE

Midhurst Wine ShippersThe strength / volume - by law, the label should show the % abv (alcohol by volume).

For wine to be called wine, it has to have 8.5% alcohol in the EC, but the Germans can have 6.5% (yes, really) and a maximum of 15% (except the Greeks who are allowed up to 17% for their table wine). So, wine would normally be between 8.5% and 15%

Generally the lighter tasting wines have less alcohol and the heavier tasting wines would have more "head-banging" capabilities but this is not always the case.

A good red Sancerre, for instance, can be deceptively higher in alcoholic content than its taste might suggest, and some Chilean Sauvignon Blancs are 13%, so white wine is not necessarily less in alcohol. Around 12 - 12˝% would be the most popular and there should be plenty of body without the consequences.

HOW TO KNOW IF THE WINE IS CORKED

Midhurst Wine ShippersThe sampling - once over the hurdle of selecting the wine you’re then expected to do the ritual of the first sip.

The waiter should show you the label and you should be sure it is what you ordered. There are only two good reasons to send the wine away and being offered the wrong wine is one of them.

To look good, you could look at the wine, swill it round, sniff it and finally taste it with all the smiles and grandiose if it’s okay. All that you really need to do is to smell and / or taste if it is off - going too musty which means some bacteria has got into the bottle and the wine is BAD. That’s the only other reason to send it back.

If it’s not to your taste, too bad, you chose it and the wine is good. It is your fault. Little bits of cork floating around are okay, that doesn’t mean it’s corked if there’s nothing wrong with the taste. There might be some crystallisation on the cork looking like sugar and caused by tartrates and this does not affect the wine either. Once you have had a corked wine, you’ll know the smell. That’s why the waiter sniffs the cork.

So, you have successfully chosen the wine and my advice is that if anyone adversely comments – you like it! That is all that matters.

HOW TO UNDERSTAND VINTAGES

Midhurst Wine ShippersRecently two queries have come up regarding the vintage year of wines.

The first was from a restaurateur who wants to show an impressive wine list and wanted a particular year for their Chablis Premier Cru. The year they wanted was 1995.

Now we did stock plenty of 1995 Premier Cru Chablis when we bought it in 97 but since then somehow we are down to just three bottles of that particular year. Time has moved on, unfortunately, and the next delivery could be '98 or even '99. No, that would not do, the year they want is 95 and they would like two cases of it, please. Not that they expect to sell it that quickly, you understand, but they wanted to stockpile it in order to have it remain on their wine list as that year's Chablis.

Now, the funny thing about wine is that it comes from a crop which is harvested each year, so when that year's grapes have been turned into wine, they usually concentrate on growing the next year's crop and hopefully sell each year in turn, so it's actually quite difficult to go back in time to a previous vintage. Unfortunately, it's not common practice to freeze a stockpile of grapes for future demand or even to hold back supplies and not sell so many bottles.

Now, of course, here we could mention the sometimes quite lucrative business of laying down wine in order for it to grow in value, but we had not done that in this case. Well, not being ones to miss a sale, we spoke to the owner of the vineyard and luckily this tale has a happy ending as they are able to send us just two cases of 1995 Chablis Premier Cru and the customer is happy.

The second was from a customer who had seen on one of our wine lists 1990 Amarone. Funnily enough, that was also a very good year and yes, we had sold out. What we then discovered was that the supplier of this wine had had the foresight to present this wine in the year of the millennium in a wooden box, thus justifying the price at more than double the original price. Yes, oh yes, they had plenty of stock. The next vintage available in the ordinary bottle is 1997 and the price on that had gone up, of course.

It is most frustrating as a wine supplier, to receive wine of the next vintage on from the vineyard. Nobody seems happy to accept the newer wine and all the lists have to be changed. We have been known to miss a particular year by ordering more in a good year and none the following year, but it does not always happen, particularly on a fast-selling wine.

The study of vintages is not easy. A good year in one area can be a bad one in another and of course, some wine will grow better over years and then die back. Most white wines do not want to be left too long before they are drunk or the taste will suffer. They go past their best much sooner than reds.

Thankfully, most new world wines are of a similar standard year on year due to the modern wine-making methods and more regular climate conditions but I still think there's something more to be enjoyed in a great French wine of a certain year.

HOW TO CHOOSE FOR A PARTY OR WEDDING

Midhurst Wine ShippersA question we have often been asked:

"I'm having a few friends round / drinks party / my daughter's getting married and I'd like some wine, what do you suggest? "

First:
Budget - are you going to really push the boat out or keep to a reasonable budget?

Second:
What wine - red and white wine will be needed, and do you want to put on some sparkling wine or champagne or bucks fizz & orange as well, to offer as guests arrive?

This is what I would recommend for a drinks party or small wedding reception:

Red and white wine and also a selection of orange juice, champagne and bucks fizz.

Red and white wine:
It's better to have something that most people will like rather than to try to put on an expensive wine that may not be appreciated in the atmosphere of social chatting. Keep the better stuff for a small dinner party.

Red:
Merlot's a good choice because it is softer in flavour and most people will like it. I'd opt for a French from the Languedoc or southern Rhône at a fair price, or a Chilean. These are not so heavy or expensive as Australian wines in general, so should be acceptable to everyone.

White:
I would also stick to French from a similar area, probably a Terret, which is now available as a single grape variety and is light in taste, or I might go for a blend from the southern Rhône which has more flavour and which we sell at £4.17. I'd possibly put on an unoaked Chardonnay, which will not offend those who don't like the heavier oak taste. If you're not sure, ask the wine-seller for a reasonably light tasting wine at good value
for money.

Champagne:
I would obviously use our own non-vintage brut, which is excellent and has earned great respect but sells at less than the branded names. Otherwise I would use Tesco's or someone else's own brand, as these are usually good. In summer or on a lower budget, perhaps try a good Australian bubbly or even a rosé bubbly. For buck's fizz I would use a sparkling wine because the orange juice will soften the taste.

Serving:
Ask someone to be at the entrance to offer drinks and someone to be responsible for topping up everyone's glass. It's a good ice-breaker if you have the right person; if it's a man, you could persuade him to put on a bow tie and smile at them. Having other people to pour and to clear glasses leaves you free to take an over all view and to circulate.

HOW TO UNDERSTAND WINE LABELS

Midhurst Wine ShippersI thought it might be useful to explain what the label can tell you about
the wine you are about to drink. Labelling laws are complicated and can be explained in more detail later but I will start with French wines.

French wine is controlled by two organisations:

  • Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (IANO), which controls the hierarchy of French quality wines.
  • Service de Repression des Fraudes, which is responsible for seeing that the laws on wine are carried out. From the moment that the grapes are picked they are subject to documentation until they are purchased.

The wine laws of France have now been brought under the European Community's regime and have, in fact, provided much of the framework for that regime.

These are the terms you might expect to see on the labels of French wines, which describe the quality of the wine:

QWPSR:
Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region

France has two grades of QWPSR:

  • Appellation Contrôlée
  • Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure

and two of table wine:

  • Vin de Pays
  • Vin de Table

Quality Wine

AC or AOC:
Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée

This is the highest level that French wine can attain. The requirements vary from region to region but these things will always feature:

  • Areas of production
  • Grape varieties allowed
  • Viticultural practices (planting distances, pruning methods etc.)
  • Maximum permitted yield per hectare
  • Vinification methods (wine production) including ageing
  • The minimum alcoholic degree in the wine that must be achieved without must-enrichment

Some regions have the right to the additional qualification superiéur, e.g. Bordeaux Supérieur, Mâcon Supérieur. That means that these wines have a slightly higher alcohol amount than the normal basic appellation.

VDQS:
Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure

This is in between table wine and AC wine and this category is dying as many wines are progressing to the higher level (e.g. Minervois and Corbières) but some wines do stay at this level (e.g. Bugey). The laws are roughly the same as for AC but these days are often less stringent on yields or grape varieties.

Table Wines

Vin de Pays

There are 141 types of vin de pays all over France and represent about 20% of total production. It was brought in mainly to help give added value to certain Vins de Table and also to help reduce the quantity of bulk wine produced in areas such as the Midi, which were known for high yield and low quality.

Area of production can be regional (e.g. Vin de Pays d'Oc which covers four départments or Vin de Pays de'Aude which is one départment). It can even be zonal within a départment.

Grape varieties:
This is usually much broader than for a local AC or VDQS.

Yields:
Maximum yields being normally 90 hl/ha.

Analytical standards:
Minimum strength of 9% in the north and 10% in the south and other levels of sulphur and volatile acidity levels.

Vins de Table

Accounts for 30% of French wine. It can be produced anywhere in the country with no restrictions on grape variety, but the wine must not be chaptalised (must-enrichment, addition of sugar to increase the alcohol level) No maximum yield is stipulated, but a proportion of wine over 100hl/ha must be sent for distillation and the greater the over-production, the lower the price paid per hectolitre for distilling wine.

The regulations have been changed to encourage growers to produce lower yields of better quality wines.

Some French labelling terms

Blanc : white
Brut : dry (usually sparkling wine)
Cave : cellar (often underground) or winemaking establishment
Cave Co-operative : winemaker's co-operative
Cépage : grape variety
Chai : warehouse for storing wine, usually in barrels, above ground
Châteaux estate : It may or may not have a manor house
Clos : walled vineyard (walls might have been lost in time)
Côte : hillside
Coteaux : hillsides
Cru : growth, usually high quality vineyard or district
Cru Classé : classified vineyard, usually in Bordeaux
Cuve : vat or tank
Cuvée : blend (has a special meaning in champagne)
Demi-sec : medium dry
Départment : French political region, a bit like an English county
Domaine : estate
Doux : sweet
Eau-de-vie : spirit
Grand vin de ... : great wine of, but just a marketing term
Manipulant : grape grower who also makes wines from those grapes, especially champagne
Mis en bouteille : bottled
Mis en bouteille au château : château bottled
Raisin : grape
Rouge : red
Sec : dry
Supérieur : indicated extra 0.5% or 1% volume
Vignoble : vineyard
Vin : wine

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