Peter Ranscombe travels back in time to explore some of the history of grape growing and winemaking.
PART of the attraction of wine is its blend of components – it’s part geography, part sociology and part history.
Diana Thompson’s latest Wine Events Scotland online tastings have focused on the third leg of that triumvirate.
Thompson teamed up with Scottish wine merchant Woodwinters to tell the historic stories behind six classic wines over the course of two sessions.
Her first evening concentrated on new world examples, with some tales of modern history.
She explained how the UK joining what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 had reduced New Zealand’s access to one of its major markets for lamb and dairy.
Instead, Kiwi farmers embraced grape growing, aided by the relaxation of their domestic licensing laws.
The first sauvignon blanc vines were planted in the mid-1970s and the first bottles were released in the late 1970s.
It’s hard to imagine that New Zealand’s all-conquering style of sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region has been with us for less than 50 years.
Thompson chose the 2019 Esk Valley Sauvignon Blanc (£10.75, Woodwinters) as her example from Marlborough; it’s a blend of grapes from the region’s Wairau and Awatere areas.
Its aromas really leap out the glass and slap you in the face in that classic Kiwi style, with guava and passionfruit, along with more Loire-like cat pee notes.
On the palate, the tropical fruits are joined by more savoury lemon and lemon rind flavours, with plenty of tell-tale teeth-squeaking acidity too.
Taking on the old world
Crossing the Tasman Sea to Australia, Thompson explained how winemaker Bob Oatley had created the country’s first blend of grenache, shiraz and mataro.
Blending grenache with syrah and mourvedre – or shiraz and mataro as they’re often known in the new world – is the backbone of the Southern Rhone region in the South of France, but Oatley wanted to put his own stamp on the process.
His business focused on sourcing the best grapes that had been grown in the most suitable soils for each variety.
Although Oatley died in 2016, his legacy lives on in wines like the 2016 Robert Oatley McLaren Vale Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre (£12), made up of 40% grenache, 33% shiraz and 27% mourvedre.
It was my favourite of the three wines on the first night, with its bright and fruity nose, full of redcurrant, blackcurrant and light wood smoke.
Lots of sweet fruit on the palate too, with blackcurrant, blackberry, raspberry jam and spun sugar.
It’s a wine with heft, combining fresh acidity, ripe but grainy tannins, and mint, dark chocolate and a spicy black pepper twist on the finish.
Thompson also used the 2018 Caliterra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva (£9) – with its brooding dark nose of coffee, wood smoke, chocolate and roast meat leading into crunchy blackcurrant and bitter dark chocolate on the palate – to illustrate how Eduardo Chadwick went about staging a blind tasting in Berlin in 2004, pitching cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends from his native Chile, California and Australia against the classics from Bordeaux in France.
Two of Chadwick’s wines took first and second place, helping Chile to start shedding its reputation for reliable but dull Volvo-like wines.
As a Volvo driver, I have to protest that the comparison has never done the car any favours either…
What have the Romans ever done for us?
For the second session, Thompson ventured closer to home with old world wines and further back in time.
She explained how first the Benedictine monks and later their Cistercian successors had kept winemaking alive in Burgundy following the collapse of the Roman empire, keeping meticulous records of which grape varieties grew best on which sites, laying the foundations for the modern classification system in Burgundy.
While the 2018 Louis Jadot Couvent des Jacobins Bourgogne Chardonnay (£14.50) may sit on the bottom rung of that classification ladder as a “mere” regional wine – made from a blend of grapes from both the Côte d’Or and Mâconnais areas – it still represents excellent quality.
It’s a classic example, with pear, red apple, cream and light woodsmoke aromas, plus crisp acidity and fresher lemon and green apple tastes.
The Romans also had a hand in the style of winemaking that persisted in Spain for centuries, with the grapes crushed and turned into wine in large open-topped stone tanks and then kept in animal hides.
When rich landowners from Rioja tasted Claret in London’s clubs, they realised red wine didn’t have to “taste of dead pig” and so instead began to adopt the Bordeaux style of making wine in oak barrels, with pioneers including the Marqués de Riscal and the Marqués de Murrieta.
A modern example of the resulting style is the 2015 Cune Rioja Crianza (£9), which has sweet spicy aromas of vanilla and cinnamon on the nose, but without masking its fruity redcurrant and red plum notes; the vanilla from its time in oak really comes through strongly on the palate, alongside savoury roast meat and leathery notes from its ageing.
Bordeaux and Rioja are also linked by the phylloxera louse – when it devastated French vineyards in the 1870s, Bordelais winemakers moved to Rioja and wine buyers followed.
An area that had already been destroyed by phylloxera was the Rhone Valley in the South of France, from where the 2019 M Chapoutier Bio Cotes du Rhône (£12) hails, showing off its bright blackcurrant and violet aromas and its sweeter blackcurrant jam notes on the palate.
While Thompson skilfully explained Chapoutier’s prominence as a biodynamic farmer and winemaker, it was another tale that stayed with me – since 1996, all the brand’s labels have included braille as a tribute to Maurice Monier de la Sizeranne, the inventor of the first abridged version of the aid for blind people.
Thompson’s next online tasting takes place on Friday, when she’ll be joined by Neil Phillips – also known as “The Wine Tipster” thanks to his horseracing work – who will promote prosecco during her “Fizz Friday” session.
Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.