Unfamiliar wines in familiar places


MENTION the word “Sancerre” and most wine drinkers will immediately think of a dry white wine, then slip the name “Beaujolais” into conversation and they’ll picture a light and fruity red.

We’re all guilty of it – we taste a wine we enjoy from a specific region and it becomes fixed in our mind, to the exclusion of all others.

Yet few appellations produce only a single wine and so looking beyond the headline-grabbing bottles from a defined area can reveal some hidden gems.

Pinot noir from the Loire

Sancerre is best known as the home of sauvignon blanc, packed full of its signature gooseberry and cut-grass characteristics. Yet one one-in-seven of its bottles is red, made from the noble pinot noir grape.

When it’s grown in cool climates, pinot noir’s acid can run rampant and so it’s important to find wines with enough fruity flavours to balance the grape’s natural tartness.

Both the 2015 Chaumeau-Balland Domaine de la Grande Maison Sancerre (£15.50, Corney & Barrow), which focuses on strawberry-led flavours, and the raspberry-centred 2014 Domaine Tabordet Sancerre Rouge (£15.76, Find Me That Wine) have the depth of fruit needed to balance their acidity.

Some of the pinots from Sancerre can develop even more intense fruit flavours, like the 2014 Vincent Pinard Sancerre Rouge (£13.33, Justerini & Brooks), which has blackcurrant aromas on the nose, along with smoke and vanilla with a touch of herb on the palate.

With a bit of ageing, the 2012 Lucien Crochet La Croix du Roy Sancerre Rouge (£12.92, Justerini & Brooks) has even more concentrated black cherry and blackcurrant flavours, along with a long, fruity finish – not what I’d expect from pinot in a cool climate at all, so a refreshing surprise.

Whites among a sea of reds

Think Beaujolais, think gamay, think red wine – but growers are permitted to turn over up to 10% of their vineyards to white grapes, mostly chardonnay, but with a small amount of aligoté, which is being phased out.

Few wine merchants have as much expertise in Beaujolais blanc as Chris Piper, who set up his business in 1979 after working as a winemaker in the region.

He stocks the 2015 Chateau Thivin Clos de Richeborne Beaujolais-Villages Blanc (£15.80, Christopher Piper Wines), which delivers concentrated pear and green apples aromas on the nose and then a rounded feeling in the mouth, which comes from ageing the wine on its lees, the remains of the yeast left over from the fermentation that creates the alcohol.

The simpler and fruitier style of the 2014 Domaine Louis Jadot Chateau des Jacques Beaujolais Blanc (£14.75, Penistone Wine Cellars) comes from making the wine in stainless steel tanks instead of oak, which retains more of the fresh lemon aromas and flavours, but creates a less-textured mouthfeel.

Further south in the Rhone valley, Chateauneuf-du-Pape has an even more illustrious reputation for its reds – yet around one-in-16 bottles from this famous appellation are white.

The 2012 Domaine de Nalys Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (£19.95, Fromvineyardsdirect.com) is a prime example of what can be done with a blend of grenache blanc, clairette and bourboulenc grapes, with concentrated and complex aromas of ripe pear, lemon and straw, following through onto the full-bodied palate.

Bubbling away

Cava, Spain’s flagship sparkling wine, is traditionally made from a blend of local grape varieties xarello, parellada and macabeo, which is also known as macabeu or maccabeo in Roussillon in south-west France and viura in Rioja.

No matter which name it goes by, the grape can not only be used to make fresh and racy fizz but if handled right can also produce crisp and bright still wines too, as shown by the 2015 La Serrana Macabeo Vino de la Tierra de Castilla (£4.99, Majestic Wine), which is much fruitier on the palate than the nose, with lemon and grapefruit flavours almost touching on lime and a good balance between the fruit and the acidity.

Sticking with Spain, Jerez is the centre of the sherry industry, producing fortified wines that range from uber-dry to super-sweet.

The family-owned Bodegas Ximénez-Spinola specialises in a single grape – pedro ximenez – which produces some of the sweetest and most syrup-like sherries. But since 2010, the company has also made a table wine and the 2015 Bodegas Ximénez-Spinola Exceptional Harvest (£20.95, Drinkmonger) is like drinking apple crumble, with its bruised red apple, nutty almond and creamy vanilla flavours and its off-dry sweetness.

Its sister wine, the 2015 Bodegas Ximénez-Spinola Fermentacion Lenta (£28.87, Fine Wine Company), is equally as unusual and interesting, with caramel and toffee aromas coupled with much fresher green apple and lemon flavours, with a crack of white pepper on the finish.

Many ports in a storm

Port is sherry’s spiritual cousin and drinks cabinet companion, but the Douro valley in Portugal produces much more than just fortified red and white wines.

The 2015 Quinta de la Rosa Dourosa Tinto (£13.75, Oddbins) shows what’s happening with red table wines in the Douro, with the traditional port varieties touriga nacional, touriga franca and tinta roriz – also known as tempranillo – being used to create dry reds.

All the familiar black and red cherry notes are present on the nose, along with an unmistakable warm earth aroma that can only come from Portugal. The tannins are firm and gripping and the fruit is almost like cherry drops, reminiscent of the carbonic maceration technique popular in Beaujolais.

Reds aren’t the only game in town in the Douro though, with the 2015 Planalto White Reserva Douro (£9.99, Majestic Wine) showing an interesting mix of fresh lemon and riper lemon sherbet tastes. There’s a great fruit-acid balance and a long fruity finish.

The town of Tokaj in Hungary is another place that’s best-known for its sweet wines. The 2011 Majoros Birtok Tokaji Deak Furmint (£14.33, Find Me That Wine) shares some of the same intense aromas of tinned peaches, but is much fresher on the palate, with the furmint grape’s tell-tale acidity shining through.

The 2012 St Tamas, Dry Furmint (£41.79, Fine Wine Company) focuses more on flavours of red apples and quince, with a touch of creaminess.

Going beyond the obvious choices from specific regions can yield some intriguing results – whether it’s red wines from famous white areas or table wines from still and fortified appellations.