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Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Wine-buying in France; Alsace

There are two things I particularly like when buying wine - firstly, getting a bargain and secondly, trying something local; whilst it's not always true that the locals keep the good stuff for themselves and export the dross, there is certainly some merit in buying wine close to where it is produced - and the smaller the quantities and more obscure the area, the truer this becomes.

Alsace has around 15,000 hectares of vineyards - just over a tenth of the amount in Bordeaux, for example. In practice, this means that there is just not a huge amount of Alsace wine to go around. So, whilst reliable, everyday (and often rather good) examples of Bordeaux can be found in almost any French supermarket, their Alsace selections tend to be more limited and somewhat disappointing. To get the best wines at the best prices from Alsace, a trip there is required.

Alsace is a somewhat curious area of eastern France - for many years a borderland fought over by the French and the Germans, it can be slightly disorienting for the visitor to be in this part of France with its Germanic local dialect, wine labelled by grape variety and sold in tall fluted bottles and distinctly Germanic cuisine - albeit transformed into something very delicious and decidedly French.

It is possible to get to Alsace from Cambridge within a day's driving if you catch an early Le Shuttle train from Folkestone, but it is much nicer to break the journey up with a stop-over in either Champagne or even the Belgian Ardennes for a spot of Trappist beer.

The main cities of Alsace are Strasbourg to the north and Colmar to the South, and both are lovely and well worth a visit; but the Route des Vins, or Alsace wine route, will take you away from the larger towns and through some of the prettiest villages I have ever seen - colourful, timber-framed, gabled houses bedecked with flowers, storks nesting, cobbled streets and views of vineyards, abandoned castles and the Vosges mountains in the background. The best way to explore the area is to stop at a few villages (Riquewhir and Eguisheim are both especially lovely) and also take in the odd vineyard walk as you follow the Route des Vins.

The Vosges are a range of low-lying mountains which form more of a natural border between France and Germany than the river Rhine, hence the region's turbulent past; rising to just over 1,400m at their highest, they provide a rain shadow for the vines growing lower down and allow relatively warm-climate varieties to be grown this far north. French gastronomy has dictated that Alsace wines, unlike their German counterparts across the river, be fermented into something full, dry and aromatic to match with the rich local food which includes tarte flambee, choucroute and coq au riesling.

The Hautes Vosges (Higher Vosges) to the south provide the greatest amount of shelter for the vines and it is here that the best, fullest wines can be found; the main grape varieties grown here are Riesling (totally different from, but equal in stature to Chardonnay as the great white wine grape), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer. The labelling is relatively straightforward as there are no sub-regions of Alsace, merely (basic) AC Alsace and (superior) Grand Cru for still, dry wines. Alsace does, however, also produce both sparkling wine (Cremant d'Alsace) and sweet wines (Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles).

Almost any wine village will have several wineries offering tastings and some are more famous than others. Any self-respecting wine guide should recommend Hugel, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, Paul Blanck and Rolly Gassmann. However, as these are mostly available in Cambridge from either Waitrose or one of our various wine merchants, I wanted to try something not generally (if at all) available in the UK, and so we rolled into the Paul Schneider tasting room in Eguisheim.

In the days - not that long ago - when the pound was reasonably strong against the Euro, the wines here were ridiculously cheap for the quality - the standard range of wines started at €3.50 and maxed out at €6.00 - including a number of prize-winning wines. I sampled three rather excellent wines:

Paul Schneider Pinot Planc 2005 (Medaille d'Or Paris) - €4.50

Crisp, medium weight and delicious with flavours of apples and pears, good as an aperitif or at this age with light dishes, such as white fish or soft cheeses. However, with time, Alsace Pinot Blanc gains body and becomes a much fuller wine altogether.

Paul Schneider Riesling 2006 (Vielles Vignes) - €6.00

An excellent, full Riesling with crisp bite, good body and structure and nice, honeyed finish.

Paul Schneider Pinot Gris 2005 (Medaille d'Or Colmar) - €6.00

The ripest, fullest wine here, rich and fat, sumptuous and savoury, matches well with the local food including quiche and pork.

Sadly, as noted above, Paul Schneider wines are not available in the UK, but other Alsace producers are.

Alsace wines in general match particularly well with "modern international" cuisine - that is, well-seasoned, restaurant-style food with strong flavours and heavily reduced sauces.


Paul Schneider - http://www.vins-paul-schneider.fr/

Image credits

Image of Paul Schneider from the winery's website

Image of Eguisheim by Mschlindwein - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Mschlindwein

Friday, 2 October 2009

Asda, Extra Special 2007 Côtes du Rhône-Villages - and an accompanying recipe

A fellow committee member from the Cambridge Food and Wine Society passed on this Jancis Robinson recommendation to me some months ago.

I do not think I have ever bought a bottle of wine from Asda before, but when the First Lady of Wine gives it the thumbs up, then it's definitely worth a try. Jancis was impressed with its "rich spiciness and the fact that it is not overburdened with dry tannins, while being unmistakably from this beautiful rocky, lavender-scented western corner of Provence".

Priced at under a fiver, this is very much in "everyday wine" territory and as an everyday wine, or even something for a Sunday lunch with the family, it is very good, but (in our household, at least) not necessarily something to impress guests with. Smooth, fruity and complex, it is not quite as well made as the two previous red wines I have reviewed here and which I was able to buy for just a few pennies more (albeit, seriously discounted from their full list prices).

However, as it would be a shame to use up either the Californian Merlot or the New Zealand Syrah-Viognier in a casserole (not least because they were available in only limited quantities), and since Asda's stocks of this wine are plentiful, I put half into a beef casserole and we drank the rest with the meal.

There are two main herbs in this recipe and both will grow easily in a pot in a sunny aspect of the garden (in Cambridge, at least) - rosemary and thyme. The rosemary leaves need to be finely chopped and the stalks discarded; the thyme should tied in a bundle with cotton and removed at the end of cooking.


Beef casserole with red wine and Mediterranean herbs, served with creamy mashed potato and green beans - serves 3/4

It should go without saying that good quality beef is the key to this recipe; Cambridge and its surrounding villages have plenty of good butchers, but for this I used beef from Waitrose.



A little sunflower oil
500g braising / stewing steak or similar
1 large onion
2 stalks of celery
2 large carrots
1/2 bottle Asda Extra Special 2007 Côtes du Rhône-Villages
300ml stock
Chopped rosemary (1 stalk or to taste)
Bundle of thyme, tied tightly with cotton
2 bay leaves
Crushed garlic (1/2 clove - 2 cloves according to taste)

Creamy Mashed Potato

5 large potatoes
Salt and pepper


For the stock:

You can of course buy stock, but the easiest way is simply to simmer the left-over bones from a roast dinner in a pan of water seasoned with salt, pepper, bay leaf and an onion for an hour or so. Alternately, some butchers will give away bags of bones for stock-making (try Andrew's on Burleigh Street).

For the casserole:

Wash the meat, pat dry with kitchen roll and season generously all over with salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and brown the meat in small batches, transferring each batch to a dish once browned; the meat should be crispy on the outside with caramelised juices

Having removed all the browned meat, add the onion, carrot and celery to the pan, a little more oil if needed and cook through for 5 - 10 minutes, then turn the heat right down and continue cooking very gently for a further 10 minutes to bring out the sweetness of the vegetables

Add back the browned beef and pour in the wine, bring to the boil under a high flame for around a minute to boil off all the alcohol

Add the stock, crushed garlic and herbs, cover and simmer on the gentlest of flames with bubbles barely breaking the surface for 2 - 3 hours

If you can afford to wait, this dish will improve significantly if left to stand overnight and a good heavy-bottomed pan will keep it gently cooking for many hours after you have turned off the heat.

For the creamy mashed potato:

Peel the potatoes and cut into 8 along the same axis to give long, thin strips, rather than cubes

Simmer very gently in unsalted water for around 20 minutes until the potatoes are almost falling apart

Strain, put into a bowl add a generous helping of butter, milk, salt and pepper and mash thoroughly until a deliciously smooth creamy consistency is achieved

Serve the casserole and mash with green beans and plenty more of the Côtes du Rhône-Villages.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Los Osos Merlot 2006; J Lohr, Paso Robles, California

This wine from J. Lohr is another out of my usual "comfort range" but which I decided to try-and-see.

New World wine countries have really taken to Merlot; it is an easy-growing variety that can produce easy-quaffing wines with ripe fruit and low tannins that appeal either to novice wine drinkers or those who want their red wine without food.

My experience of Californian wines is based on a recent business trip to the US where I followed my usual routine of ordering a glass of something local with my food. In both cases, the wines were well-made but varietal and a little bit "text book", tasting exactly as that particular variety of wine should - a dependable sort of good ol' boy with an easy, natural charm but not too much of his own personality.

Personally, I prefer a touch more Gallic insouciance in my red wines - even if that means a little less finesse - but I saw this wine marked down by 50% on the bottle at Waitrose the other week and, having reason to believe the discount was genuine, could not resist both the bargain and the chance to try out something a little unusual (for me).

The grapes for this wine were grown in the Estrella River area of Paso Robles which the winemaker, Jerry Lohr, claims to be "one of three appellations in California that produces world class Merlot". I don't know either way, but the ever-trusty Oz Clarke in his Pocket Wine Book 2004 describes Paso Robles as "a large AVA at the northern end of San Luis Obispo county" with no mention of either Merlot or Estrella River. He does, however, give J Lohr one star out of three, meaning "a particularly good wine or producer in its category".

On the nose, even poured straight into the glass without any airing, the wine was fruity and rich with a pleasant vanilla aroma; the palate had the same red-berry fruit, an extremely smooth texture, good acidity and a noticeably rich sweetness whilst being dry on the finish with a hint of tannic grip.

However, with a some more air contact and time in the glass, a touch more personality started to emerge with gentle hints of something a little earthier, such as licorice and plums, and a lovely finish.

This is a very well-made wine with, when aired, plenty of subtle nuances, rather than strong primary flavours. Low-ish tannins also mean that it is not a great match for robust meaty dishes or hearty stews. Try matching with plain roast chicken or perhaps something gamier, such as duck or quail.

Los Osos Merlot - £9.99 from Waitrose (full price, but purchased at £5.09).