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On the Grapevine  by Colin Kaye


Update March 27, 2015

French Connections

Vineyards in Bordeaux (Photo: Michael Clarke)

In recent weeks, I’ve been trying quite a few South American reds and nearly always been impressed by their high quality. Chile of course has been making excellent wines for years and more recently Argentina has appeared on the international wine scene with some very fine wines, especially those made from Malbec, its signature grape. South American wines are mentioned regularly wine magazines like Wine Spectator and often receive high ratings from that most influential of wine critics, Robert Parker. And I’ll tell you why.

Mr Parker tends to prefer big authoritative, fruity wines with loads of body and character. When they’re good, he gives them a high rating which invariably encourages other wine makers to produce wines of a similar style. And so it goes on in a vicious circle. They sell like hot cakes in America and also presumably in Australia where there is a taste for hefty wines. It won’t last, you know. Fashions come and go, especially in the wine world and I bet you that during the coming years, public taste will drift towards lighter and fresher styles of wine which have always been popular in France and Italy.

I can’t say that I share Mr Parker’s enthusiasm for these big reds. Sometimes they have an alcoholic content so high that after a couple of glasses you think twice about climbing on the water-buffalo, let alone the push-bike. Given the choice, I would invariably opt for a light French red. A decent bottle of Bordeaux will do me fine, thank you. Or even some of those attractive light and refreshing wines from the South of France which have become so much better in recent years. So this week, I’m returning to a couple of very pleasant French reds which make excellent everyday wines, or least they would have done in the Good Old Days when they cost about two hundred baht less.

These two L’Esprit de Bacchus (Spirit of Bacchus) wines are produced by Seignouret Frčres, a distinguished company founded in 1830 and one of the oldest trading houses in Bordeaux, exporting wines world-wide. It’s actually a négociant, which is the French name for a company that buys grapes, juice or bulk wine which it then produces, bottles and markets on a larger scale under the its own label. A single négociant will invariably buy wines from almost anywhere in France and may have any number of different brands and labels. I have found that these wines tend to be reliable and not excessively expensive. Some of the best-known Burgundy producers are actually négociants, including top names like Jadot, Drouhin, and Bouchard Pčre & Fils. You’ve probably seen these wines in many outlets and they’re invariably good value.

L’Esprit de Bacchus, Graves 2012 (red) France (Bt. 739 @ Foodland)

The label of this wine carries the old-style Appellation Graves Contrôlée designation, which puts it a cut above the more basic Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée. Since the French revised their wine classification system, the top category is now AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) which indicates the geographical origin, quality and style of the wine. You’ll see the older AOC (like this one) for many years to come, especially on wines with a long life. Although it’s sold under a brand name, it actually originates at Château Saint Loubert, a family estate of about eighty acres and one of the oldest châteaux in the region. The wine is made by traditional methods and the vineyard has typical sandy, gravelly soil. In fact, it’s this gravelly soil that gives Graves its name. It has nothing to do with graves for the deceased, although no doubt some people make that assumption.

The wine is a lovely, deep red and long legs appear inside the glass when you swirl it around. You’ll probably pick up that typical Cabernet Sauvignon aroma of black fruit, cherry, a dash of spice and dried herbs. You might even notice a hint of dark chocolate which is one of the many surprising aromas that Cabernet can produce.

Made from a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot the wine has a smooth, silky texture. It’s medium-bodied and as dry as they come, but the plentiful soft fruit balances the dryness. There’s a good foundation of supple tannin which persists beautifully through the long finish. At just 13% alcohol content, it would make a good partner for red meats, many Asian dishes and fairly strong cheeses. This wine even has ageing potential and you could probably keep it for up to five years if you have the somewhere cool enough.

L’Esprit de Bacchus, Merlot 2012 (red), France (Bt. 569 @ Foodland)

From the south of France, this is an attractive ruby-red wine. It’s a Vin de Pays, which is the older classification for French country wines from a specific region and a notch up from basic table wines. Vin de Pays means “wine of the land” or “country wine” but these days they’re usually labelled Indication Géographique Protégée (“Protected Geographical Region”) usually known as IGP. This bright ruby red wine is made from 100 percent Merlot grapes and has a lovely floral aroma of raspberry, dark fruit, dusty herbs and hints of leather. The wine has a good, dry medium body with mild tannins up front and plenty of fruit on the palette. There’s an attractive dry finish too, with tannic overtones. This is really quite an easy-drinker and would be fine with pizza, grilled meats or richly flavoured cheeses. It has an attractive traditional-looking label too, making the bottle appear rather more expensive than it actually is.

This is the style of easy-drinking earthy wine that you find in many a French bistro and a far removed from the big wines of South America. Quite honestly, this would be my choice for a daily red, if I could buy it at French prices. But sadly, the taxes on wine here push the prices ever skywards. There are only two choices of course: pay up or do without.

Update March 21, 2015

Big Wines with a Light Touch

Winemaker John Quarisa

If your taste in wine runs to full and fruity reds then perhaps you should look out for Shiraz. The dark red grapes that make Shiraz (SHEE-raz) originally became famous in France, or to be more exact the northern parts of the Rhône Valley where they’re known as Syrah (see-RAH). The biggest, fruitiest Shiraz wines tend to come from Australia where the grapes have become a huge favourite among winemakers. They’re relatively easy to grow too and they can produce many styles of wine ranging from fruity easy-drinkers to richer, more concentrated wines resplendent with dense flavours of red and black berries, violet, pepper and spices.

Wines made from the Shiraz grape are invariably rather full-bodied. And just in case you’re new to these things, perhaps I should mention that the “body” of a wine refers to the texture and “weight” of the wine in the mouth. Full bodied wines tend to feel rather more viscous, in the same way that full-cream milk feels “thicker” in the mouth than non-fat milk. Full bodied wines get their weighty quality in three ways; through higher residual sugar content, higher alcohol and lower acidity. Actually, alcohol content is the primary contributor to the body of a wine, which it why high levels of alcohol are found in many wines today, in order to meet perceived consumer demands for heavier, fruitier products. Although big fruity Shiraz wines tend to be dry, they often have sweetish overtones because of the low acidity and they may also be oaked to infuse them with secondary aromas and flavours. Some grape varieties contain more sugar than others, which leads to higher residual sugar content and of course, more alcohol.

But you know, full-bodied wines don’t have to hit you in the face like a sack of cherries. Some of the better quality full-bodied wines can also have a beguiling lightness of touch and gentleness to their character. This week I’ve found two such wines that might interest you. They’re available at Wine Connection which incidentally, opened a new branch in Jomtien some time ago, fairly close to Pattaya Provincial Court.

30 Mile Shiraz 2012 (red), Australia (Bt. 590 @ Wine Connection)

This wine is a rich, dark crimson with hints of purple and a slightly oily appearance, which always seems to me a good sign. The aroma is quite complex with rich black cherries, spices and fresh pepper which will probably come through first. If you concentrate you might pick up wine gums and raspberry jam. I thought I could detect a whiff of licorice too. Open the bottle about half an hour in advance, so that the wine has a chance to reveal its aromatic secrets.

The wine was made by the lively and enthusiastic John Quarisa who has consistently been recognised for his winemaking skills for over twenty years. He has received some of Australia’s top wine honours. He’s made wines for some of Australia’s largest and most well-known brands and developed a reputation as a committed, quality winemaker who knows how to make a wine that people will enjoy drinking.

The wine showed every sign of being a super-powerful Shiraz and I was expecting it to hit the palette like a torpedo. To my surprise and delight, even though it’s full-bodied it has a lovely gentle touch. The wine is very dry of course but it has a soft, almost silky mouth-feel and a satisfying smooth foundation of tannin with beautifully balanced fruit flavours. There’s a long, soft and satisfying dry cherry finish too. This is a real beauty, no doubt about it. If you like a big, bold and luscious Australian Shiraz with over 14% alcohol content, give this a try. You will not be disappointed.  Neither were the wine professionals, for it has already won several prestigious awards. Try it with grilled red meat or bring it out for that special barbeque.

 Rook’s Lane Shiraz 2013 (red), Australia (Bt. 549 @Wine Connection)

Rook's Lane wines hail from the Murray Darling wine region in New South Wales, a state on the East Coast of Australia. This vast area is named after its two major rivers, the Murray and the Darling. The wine is dark red and looks inviting with a concentrated, sweet aroma of ripe black fruits, especially black cherries, blackberries, herbs, mint and a faint reminder of chocolate. A little later in the smelling session (for mine are always rather prolonged) the characteristic spicy and peppery Shiraz aromas come through as well as a hint of vanilla. If all this sounds a bit fanciful, these aromas are quite common for Shiraz. It’s a complex aroma considering the price of the wine, and smells a good deal more expensive than it actually is.

There’s a very smooth mouth-feel and the flavour is packed with fruit, giving it a sense of sweetness. It also has an attractive dash of acidity and a framework of soft tannins which help to give the wine a sense of balance. It’s a medium bodied wine and there’s a persistent fruity and herb-like finish. In many ways it’s a really well-crafted wine with a touch of elegance. One Australian reviewer wrote, “Dollar for dollar, this is as good as it gets...the nose is all ripe berries, black cherries, vanilla and spice…flavours are rich and juicy and there is a nice savoury aftertaste to the proceedings.”

At 13.5% ABV this seems to me something of a food wine and I’d be happy to drink this with my very successful oven-baked lasagna, which is becoming a favourite of the dogs. It would go a treat with dishes like roast beef or roasted rack of lamb. Although I prefer Italian wines with pizza, this Shiraz was perfect with a home-made pizza turbo-charged with capers, spicy salami and bits of those hot little red Thai peppers. Incidentally, one of the wine-trade websites claims that this wine also has the aroma of mulberries, but quite honestly I really can’t remember what a mulberry smells like.

Update March 14, 2015

Fizzy Logic

Vineyards at Valdobbiadene (Photo: Mruzzene).

In Thailand you can’t get a decent bottle of champagne for less than around Bt. 3,000. If you want something with a bit of class like a Pol Roger or Piper-Heidsieck, we’re talking about Bt. 4,000 baht and upwards. Champagne is expensive because apart from the burden of tax, the production is influenced by the choice of grapes, where they’re grown, the quality of the harvest and the time-consuming, complicated and expensive process known as the méthode champenoise. Even if you don’t speak French, that shouldn’t be too tricky to translate.

Of course, there are cheaper alternatives and you’ve probably seen them lining the supermarket shelves. Cheap sparklers are made in much the same way as fizzy drinks, in which still wine is zonked with a dollop of carbon dioxide. European wines made using this charmless process are obliged to use the phrase “aerated sparkling wine” or “added carbon dioxide” on the labels. They might not sound especially appetizing, but there are dozens of them around and a logical choice if you’re on a tight budget. If a bottle of sparkling wine is priced at under Bt. 1,000 it’s almost certainly aerated.

However, there is a middle way, known as the Charmat Method in which the secondary fermentation takes place not in the bottle like Champagne, but in stainless steel or glass tanks. The well-known Italian sparkler Prosecco is produced using the Charmat method, because the short tank fermentation preserves the freshness of the grapes. Prosecco comes from Italy’s Veneto region, up in the north-east of the country.

The temperature of sparkling wine is important and they’re best at between 4-9°C (39-48°F) or slightly above refrigerator temperature. If in doubt, colder is safer. After opening, stick the bottle in a wine bucket containing ice and water and if possible, leave it corked until it's time to taste it. If you don’t manage to finish a bottle of sparkling wine at one session, you can leave it in the fridge for a short time if you can manage keep the air out. There’s no way you’ll get the cork back in again because it expands so much when it’s taken out, but you can buy plastic air-tight stoppers with a pull-down lever that effectively seal the bottle. I’ve found that by re-sealing in this way, the wine stays fresh and the bubbles remain active for up to a couple of days.

Mionetto Prosecco DOC Treviso Brut (sparkling white), Italy. (Bt. 789 @ various outlets)

The name looks a bit daunting so perhaps we’d better decode that first. Mionetto is the name of the company, founded in 1887 by Francesco Mionetto in the small village of Valdobbiadene in North East Italy. Prosecco of course is the style of the wine, produced from vineyards among the hills north of Treviso. They’re usually crisp, dry wines with a generous dose of acidity. The expression DOC is a quality assurance classification and the word brut is usually applied to a sparkling wine that is quite dry with less than twelve grams of sugar per litre. There we are. Easy, wasn’t it?

The wine is a pale gold colour with aromas of apple and a touch of citrus, peach and pomelo. I thought I could pick up hints of dill and oregano in the background. As expected, the wine is zesty and refreshing on the palate with quite a bit of well-balanced acidity there too. It’s a lively young sort of wine with a delicate touch of white fruit on the taste and a surprisingly long clean, dry finish. At just 11% ABV it would make an excellent apéritif but would also make a good partner for things like vegetable soups, mushrooms or barbecued fish with a richly flavoured sauce.

Prosecco used to be the name for both the wine and the grape. Confusingly, Prosecco is also the name of a village near Trieste where the grape may have originated. Or not, as the case may be. Then the Italian authorities changed the regulations and ever since 2009, the Prosecco grape has been known officially as the Glera. The reasons for the change are purely technical and not especially interesting, but few things are simple in Italian wine culture. Glera is not one variety but several and in the Euganean Hills, the grape goes by its local synonym Serprina.

Mont Clair Sparkling Brut (white), Thailand. (Bt. 379 @ various outlets)

If your budget doesn’t stretch to the Mionetto, let alone real champagne, here’s a good budget sparkler produced by Siam Winery. It’s a very light gold colour with a plentiful supply of bubbles. There’s a lovely fresh, fruity aroma of peaches and passion fruit with citrus and herbs in the background. It’s dry and light-bodied, with a lively refreshing mouth-feel, plenty of fruit up-front and a zesty dash of acidity that gives the taste a refreshing bite. There’s also a long, dry finish with fruit and peppery overtones and it actually tastes quite Champagne-like.

The wine originates in South Africa’s Breede River Valley and it’s been blended in Thailand with a small quantity of local fruit wine. But don’t let that put you off, because this light-hearted easy-drinker would be terrific for any social event. At just 12.5% alcohol, it would make a lively pre-dinner drink too, but be sure to serve it really cold. I know this tends to subdue the aroma but the wine will soon warm up. Of course, you can drink it with food if you want, but I think sparklers are invariably better on their own, enjoyed with lively conversation.

The bottle has a sensible plastic stopper, so if you don’t finish the wine, you can bash the stopper back and put the bottle back in the fridge. This way, the wine will keep its fizz for a couple of days. Far be it from me to encourage dishonesty, but if you conceal the label with a tasteful white cloth, your friends might assume that you’re dishing up The Real Thing.

Update March 7, 2015

The Song of the Earth

Mayer Amschel Rothschild: founder of the dynasty

If the title seems familiar, it’s probably because the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler used it for his 1909 work Das Lied von der Erde. The previous year saw the publication of a collection of early Chinese poetry translated into German. It included poems by the eighth century poet Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty. Mahler was so impressed with the lightness of touch that he set seven of the poems to music in an impressive work for voices and orchestra lasting for over an hour. It was performed in London in 1913 under the conductor Henry Wood, who evidently thought that it sounded “excessively modern”. But that was a hundred years ago.

The first movement is an ode to the joy of wine: “a goblet of wine at the right time is worth more than all the kingdoms of this earth”. That might sound a bit exaggerated but perhaps Chinese poets used more than their share of poetic licence. I wish I could tell you that Li Bai also wrote, “The vines draw water from the earth and bear its fruit: wine is the song of the earth”. Sadly, he didn’t. I made it up. It would have been immensely satisfying to have a connection between songs, earth and wine. However, Liu Yuxi, another poet from the Tang Dynasty actually did write a poem called The Song of the Grape but the title rather lacks gravitas.

Incidentally, we know precious little about wine in ancient China except that during the Tang Dynasty, the consumption of grape wine was quite common. Of course, what the wine actually tasted like is anyone’s guess. 

Baron Philippe de Rothschild Mapu Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (white), Chile (Bt. [email protected] Foodland)

In the language of the indigenous people of Chile, the word mapu means “earth” and the word Mapuche, which is what they call themselves, literally means “people of the earth”. The range of superb Mapu wines is made in Chile’s Maipo Valley under the supervision of Rothschild wine-makers.

There can be few people who’ve never encountered the name of Rothschild. The family started their banking business in the 1760s and is believed to be the wealthiest family in human history. Wine lovers everywhere know the name Château Mouton Rothschild, even if they haven’t managed to scrape enough money together to buy a bottle.

This is a light, bright gold and has a rich floral aroma of orange and peach with fresh grassiness in the background. As the air gets to the wine the orange aroma seems to intensify. Take a taste and the unmistakable Sauvignon Blanc character asserts itself, for this is quite an assertive wine. The mouth-feel is smooth and there’s a generous dash of typical grassy acidity with hints of herbs and minerals. It’s completely dry of course but it’s also crisp, fresh and aromatic with a long, lemony finish. This strikes me as very much a food wine, although it would make a terrific pre-dinner drink because there’s enough acidity to perk up the appetite. It would probably go a treat with roast chicken or veal and would work with many Thai dishes too and it has enough character to hold its own against brightly flavoured food.

This is a wine to enjoy and take your time over. It’s not a “knock-it-back and gimme more” wine as I wrote of the 2009 vintage, but something to think about, appreciate and enjoy. It’s a Mozart Piano Trio, not a Strauss waltz. On further reflection, perhaps it’s more Poulenc than Mozart.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild Mapu Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (red), Chile (Bt. 649 @ Foodland)

Somehow you can recognise a quality wine just by the appearance, even before you get to work on the aroma. This is one such wine. It looks positively inviting. It’s a bright red with purple reflections and rich syrupy-looking legs but give the aroma a bit of time because it’s worth waiting for. Swirl the glass around for a bit and you’ll get that rich and unmistakable smell of black cherry. There’s a tang of herbs and further in the background you might pick up aromas of blackberry and moist tobacco. If all this sounds a bit fanciful, these are typical aromas that come from Cabernet Sauvignon, especially those from Chile.

The style seems rather French to me, and after the seductive aroma, the taste may take you by surprise because it has a real “sit-up-and-listen” kind of character. I happen to prefer wines that have something interesting to say, which I suppose goes for people too.  The mouth-feel is smooth with an attractive bite at the start and the clean dry tannins come through well, giving way to satisfying flavours of cherry and raspberry with a dash of white pepper followed by a long and satisfying finish. The wine is completely dry with a lean, firm body, a bit like I had a few years ago. Well, more than a few to be perfectly honest, but let’s not quibble over trivialities. This is a multi-dimensional wine both in aroma and taste and the flavours literally change in your mouth. The makers suggest serving it at 15°C, so in this neck of the woods you’ll need to chill it slightly – but not too much.

This is a well-crafted wine but at just over 13% alcohol, I’d prefer to drink it with food. If you like more fruit on the taste and a little less tannin, open the bottle half an hour before you need it, or better still tip the whole lot into a decanter. The air contact will soften the wine and bring the fruit forward.

Oh, and by the way, for a time Gustav Mahler was the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1900 he took it to Paris for the Exposition Universelle. The concerts were poorly attended and lost so much money that Mahler had to borrow a substantial sum to pay the orchestra’s fare home. The money, you might have guessed, came from the Rothschilds.

Update March 1, 2015

The Green Grape of Veltlin

Gruber Röschitz label

Yes, I know it sounds like the title of a rustic Slovak folk song, but it’s actually the English translation of Grüner Veltliner, the most widely-planted white wine grape in Austria. The grape is also found in Slovakia and the Czech Republic and probably dates back to the days of the ancient Rome. In case you’re wondering, Veltlin was a historical area in the lower Alps but today it’s part of the commune of Valtellina in Northern Italy.

I’m probably simplifying things a bit here, but there are two types of Grüner Veltliner (GROO-ner FELT-lee-ner). The most common are the crisp, young wines which have sprightly acidity and flavours of lime, lemon, grapefruit or sometimes apple. They often have herby mineral flavours, hints of white pepper and sometimes a distinctive touch of spritziness. The more expensive, matured wines eventually take on a gold colour and a rich, honeyed character. Incidentally, the Austrians often refer colloquially to Grüner Veltliner as GrüVe. It’s also known by over seventy other different names but I shall resist the temptation to list them. (That’s a relief – Ed.)

Lower Austria is the country’s largest quality wine-growing area and almost fifty percent of it is planted with Grüner Veltliner. The local German name for Lower Austria is Niederösterreich, which I mention only because the word invariably appears on wine labels of the region. You might reasonably assume that Lower Austria is down somewhere in the south, but it’s not. Strangely enough, it’s the most northern province of the country. The name evidently derives from its down-river position on the Danube.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any Austrian wines of in most retail outlets in Thailand. Wine Garage, however, offers an interesting selection from around Bt. 740 upwards. If you are getting a bit jaded with the usual commercial wines in the supermarkets, you might be pleased to know that Wine Garage specialises in artisanal wines. They also have some interesting boutique wines from Germany. You can order online and pay by bank transfer or PayPal, which makes things ever so easy. They’ll deliver anywhere in Thailand and the QR code shown will take you to their website. 

Gruber Grüner Veltliner, Röschitz 2013 (white), Austria (Bt. 950 @ Wine Garage)

Let’s begin by deciphering the label. Gruber (GROO-ber) is the name of the company and it’s been producing wine since 1814. If you have been concentrating, you’ll already know what Grüner Veltliner means. Röschitz (RER-shitz) is a small village in Lower Austria about fifty miles from Vienna.

The first thing you’ll probably notice about this wine is the playful label with whimsical drawings of the “Gruber Wine Spirits”. The drawings are apparently inspired by the micro-organisms which exist on the vines and in the fermenting wine, and they’re visible only under a microscope. They have become the mascots of the company and appear in various fanciful forms on all their wine labels and on their web site.

A pale straw colour, the wine looks bright and invitingly oily in the glass. The aroma is even more inviting, though you’ll need to give it a bit of time to develop. I found that five minutes in the decanter made all the difference. It has a “clean and lean” bright, floral aroma with a touch of tropical fruit, a dash of citrus, herby minerals and something else which I couldn’t quite identity. Never mind, I’ll get it in a minute.

The fruit is well forward, giving a hint of sweetness. But after this brief first impression a more powerful drier taste comes through and leads to a long, rich and dry finish. It’s really quite a fascinating tasting experience which makes you sit up and take notice, because the taste actually changes in your mouth. At just 12.5% ABV this would make a splendid apéritif if you can share it with people who appreciate these things. The wine would make an excellent partner for chicken dishes or ham, but I’d be perfectly happy to enjoy it on its own. Oh yes, I have just realised what I missed in the aroma earlier. Do you remember the song Little Green Apples, made famous by one Ocie Lee Smith in 1968? He sold over a million copies and the song was recorded the same year by others in the trade, including Frank Sinatra. That’s what the aroma reminds me of. Apples I mean, not Frank Sinatra.

Ott Grüner Veltliner, Am Berg 2013 (white), Austria (Bt. 1,150 @ Wine Garage) 

Based in the small village of Feuersbrunn in Lower Austria, the distinguished Ott family has been producing wine since 1889. Bernhard Ott is the fourth generation of wine makers and has managed the winery since 1995, when he took over from his father.  The Am Berg (“On the mountain”) wines are their entry-level range but even so, this wine is worth the extra two hundred baht, which I suppose is one of the first questions that might spring to mind.

I couldn’t resist comparing this wine with the Gruber. In the glass, they look more-or-less identical, but there the similarity ends. The Ott has a richer, more unctuous aroma with a delicate sweet floral touch. It has a lovely “come-and-get-me” sort of smell and this follows through on the palate. There’s a hint of sweetness too, soon replaced by a firmer, more authoritative flavour. Somehow you can sense the experience behind this wine. It feels more “grown-up”, although it’s joyfully young at heart. It’s finely-balanced, crisp, light and refreshing which is what a young Grüner Veltliner is supposed to be. There’s a satisfying long, dry finish as well as a very soft touch of acidity.

These are both splendid wines. The Ott is slightly softer on the palate but if you want to try an interesting Grüner Veltliner you won’t go wrong with either of these. I don’t want to sound ungenerous, but I think I’ll keep these two bottles to myself. The dogs won’t even get a sniff. Well, maybe just one.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

French Connections

Big Wines with a Light Touch

Fizzy Logic

The Song of the Earth

The Green Grape of Veltlin