Sunday, 23 January 2011

Viavino Wine Course Session Four

This Tuesday saw the fourth session of the Classic French Wine Regions wine tasting and education course I’m running.  The idea is to educate about the world of wine whilst also improving tasting skills.  In the third session we looked at the white grapes of the central Loire (Chenin Blanc) and Bordeaux (Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle).  This time round we looked at the red varieties of the same regions, which are Cabernet Franc from the Loire and the same variety plus Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec from Bordeaux, comparing them with examples from around the world.

Wine 1 – Saumur Champigny

The first wine saw a 2008 Saumur Champigny from the Central Loire, made by Domaine de la Croix de Chaintres, costing around £11 from Waitrose. This was not compared to another example as this sappy type of fresh and deliciously quaffable pure Cabernet Franc is as good as unique to the Loire.

As was hoped the wine was really lovely and gluggable.  In fact it exceeded my expectations.  Packed full of crisp raspberry fruit with some green pepper lift it was refreshing, moreish, really long and quite delicious.  I reckon that's about as good as a Saumur Champigny is going to be and you should all give it a go.  In fact as 2009 was such a good vintage in the Loire (as it was in Germany, Alsace, Bordeaux and Burgundy!), I'm going to buy a case of it as soon as the 2009 comes out.

Wines 2 & 3 – Bergerac Rouge and Argentinian Malbec

Wines 2 and 3 saw a look at two mid-priced wines from 2008 both containing Malbec; a Bergerac Rouge and a pure Malbec from Mendoza in Argentina.

The Bergerac was from the excellent producer Vignobles des Verdots, whose flagship wine Grand Vin de Verdots I've written about before.  The wine in this session was his regular Bordeaux blend, with Merlot to the fore backed-up by Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.  In a Bordeaux blend the basic idea is that Cabernet Sauvignon gives tannin, acidity, structure and precise black fruit flavours and Merlot puts flesh on its bones; giving the blend roundness, mouth-feel and colour.  Merlot on its own has pretty low acidity and tannin, so it needs the Cabernet for the structure.  Malbec has similar characteristics to Merlot and it used to take on the same role in Bordeaux, but it isn't found much in the vineyards there anymore, Merlot having taken over the job.  However, in Bergerac Malbec is still commonly found and jointly performs this role alongside Merlot, hence the blend of the first wine.

This example was fine,  and characteristic of the style, but to be honest it was a bit lacking in complexity and was short of length.  Having said that, I must point out that the producer is fantastic and his other wines come very much recommended.

The comparison wine was a pure Malbec from the quality Argentinian producer Catena Zapata.  In the glass it immediately showed Malbec's depth of colour - it was really inky and purple.  It had quite a strong dark fruit nose with a minty lift and some complexity.  It had a nice rich mouth-feel with lovely vibrant fruit flavours but without being simplistic.  A really decent wine and clearly superior in the comparison.  No surprises it would be good with a really bloody steak.

This can be bought from several places, but I got it from Waitrose for about £11.50.

Wines 4, 5 and 6 – Two Clarets and a Hawkes Bay Bordeaux Blend

Wines 4 and 5 were clarets, the first from the right-bank and the second from the left.  These oft used terms basically mean the following:

  • Claret just means red wine from Bordeaux.

  • Left Bank means wines from the appellations of the Médoc and Graves, which are found on the left bank of the Garonne.

  • Right Bank means wines from the right-bank of the Dordogne, centred on the appellations of St-Emilion and Pomerol.

Red wines from Bordeaux are always a blend of varieties, choosing any combination from the two Cabernets, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec (rare).  The general principal is that you get tannin, acidity and structure from the Cabernets and body, colour and mouth-feel from the Merlot and/or the Malbec.

Left-Bank wines are generally dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, backed up by Merlot, some Cabernet Franc and a drop of Petit Verdot.  They require plenty of time to soften and mature and are generally real food wines, with strong tannins, a robust nature and cleansing acidity.  Right Bank clarets by contrast are generally Merlot dominated with Cabernet Franc taking up to about a third of the blend.  Cabernet Sauvignon is generally not found there as the clay soil is too cold to ripen the grapes properly.  Consequently right-bank clarets are generally softer and more approachable when young.  But on to the wines...

[caption id="attachment_705" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Right Bank Claret"][/caption]

Representing the right-bank we had the current release of Waitrose's own St-Emilion, 2008, which comes in at £11.50.

It was as an honest St-Emilion should be; moderately light, fairly smooth, round and with reasonably soft tannins from the Merlot but with some grip, acidity and savoury nature coming from the Cabernet Franc.  Long-ish it was pretty textbook and a good example of what the appellation should do.  A perfect midweek food wine.  You could argue that it could be one or two quid cheaper, but it's pleasing and certainly easy to drink.

[caption id="attachment_710" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Left Bank Claret"][/caption]

From the left-bank we had the Wine Society's own Exhibition Haut-Médoc.  The bottle we had was from 2004, whereas the current release is 2006 and costs £11.95.

This was a completely different proposition.  Putting aside the fact that I'm more of a left-bank man anyway, this was nevertheless a markedly superior wine.  At seven years old it still had bags of juicy black fruit seamlessly combined with an array of secondary flavours.  A well integrated light-touch with the oak and lots of chewy tannins (the salami on the side was absolutely necessary to break down the tannin), it was savoury, cleansing, strong, complex and long.  A really good wine punching way above its weight.  Well done The Wine Society.

Finally to compare against the two clarets we had an example from the New World; a 2005 bottle of Te Kahu, a blend of Bordeaux varieties by the quality New Zealand producer Craggy Range, who are based in Hawkes Bay.  This particular wine comes from the esteemed Gimblett Gravels vineyard, which is reckoned to be the top place for Bordeaux blends in New Zealand.  The wine came from M&S and cost £17, but is not currently available.

In comparison to the clarets the nose was unsurprisingly ripe with really rich dark fruit aromas.  Similar on the palette but by no means simply a fruit-bomb, it also had decent acidity, some secondary flavours and a long finish.  The tannins were fairly high but much riper than in the clarets and therefore the wine was less demanding of fatty food to break them down.  All in all a good New World example but for my money and a fiver less I think the Exhibition Haut-Médoc clearly won the day.

Another splendid event over, we're now all looking forward to next week, when we'll tackle the wonderful wines of Alsace.  Happy Drinking.


  1. 2008 Saumur Champigny,

    Amazing wine. I'm buying this for Ben as thanks for your wine nights (two classes=one bottle of wine -> great exchange rate for me!).

  2. That is indeed a very good exchange rate - you've done well!

  3. It's an even better deal 'cause I then get to drink Ben's wine with him...My life eh?!