Richard's wine column & wines of the month 1999 - 2000
Enjoy a bit of retro chic browsing through over 200 tasting notes of my chosen wines of the month, including selections to go with the magazine's imaginative recipes (wine reviews here will be completed shortly with full notes and scores where missing). These follow or form part of the editorial: my monthly wine column in 'Home' for most of the period April 1999 to December 2000 (the missing months are lost in the mists of time, unless you're a hoarder like me and have got actual copies of those issues). Interesting to note, nearly ten years later, how things have changed since then: this page was rebuilt summer 2008 (although still needs a few finishing touches...)
It would be difficult not to have noticed the extraordinary changes in the world of wine in the UK over the past few years: just walk the aisles in any supermarket and take in the bewildering array of labels, grape varieties and countries that assault the eye (and hopefully the taste buds). ‘World of wine’ are the right words too - few other countries have such diversity on sale as we do here.
For a nation that likes to pretend not to be Francophile, French wines still occupy pole position in our off-licences and sell even more in restaurants, hotels and bars. Both Germany and Italy at two and three have gradually lost share, but much of this loss appears to be cheap wines. Australia looks poised to overtake Spain this year and boasts the highest average retail price of £4.50 per bottle. We drank over four million cases of South African wine in 1997 and this is set to continue upwards; next in line come Bulgaria, Chile and the USA all jostling for position. I’d also expect to see Portugal and Argentina making greater inroads into our wine drinking, and the potential of many eastern European states remains unfulfilled.
Labelling by grape variety has almost become the norm, so here’s a quick résumé of the main varieties:
Beloved Chardonnay, effectively now a brand, is very versatile and adaptable. It’s responsible for the great names (but not always great wine) of Burgundy such as Chablis or Puligny-Montrachet. California and Australia pioneered the big, tropical, oaky styles we still seem fond of, although the Aussies have since introduced more subtlety. Chile is offering good value ripe and peachy Chardies, and if you prefer a touch of elegance, look to the lesser known regions of north-east Italy.
Sauvignon Blanc has been planted everywhere but fundamentally only suits certain climates, where its aromatic crisp qualities shine. The best examples can be found in the Loire (e.g. Touraine, Pouilly Fumé), New Zealand, cooler areas of Chile and some white Bordeaux.
Riesling continues to find the going tough over here due to flavour prejudice (“cheap and sweet”) and association with (Laski) Rizling, not actually the same grape. But fine German estate wines are beginning to make their mark by offering zippy elegance and different flavours, aided by a wave of super-citrus Aussie Rieslings and Alsace doing it with attitude.
Merlot has become a very hip grape, probably because it offers soft plummy flavours in young, inexpensive examples (like French Vins de Pays, Chile, Bulgaria) but can make superb and complex wines (St. Emilion, the best areas of California and South Africa), which become velvety and gamey in character with age.
Pinot Noir is regarded as a “difficult” grape to grow and satisfactorily coax flavour-wise, but can be moulded into sublime reds, often elusive in style (sweet & savoury, mushroom/earthy with age) and in price. The best wines from Burgundy can reach Baudelairesque heights, now closely followed by certain cooler regions of California, Oregon, and even New Zealand and Tasmania.
Syrah produces the rich, spicy reds of the northern Rhone and has made its home in Australia as Shiraz. The South Africans can make decent stuff as well, more often opting for Shiraz. In California, they usually prefer Syrah!
Here wine makers are also rather good at producing top Cabernet Sauvignon, the classic Bordeaux grape. Australia’s Coonawarra region has established a justified reputation, and Cab Sauv is showing its class in central Italy in the so-called ‘Super Tuscan’ wines. European styles tend to be more austere, the New World leans towards those typical blackcurrant characters. The best Cabernets have great ageing potential.
So much for the ‘international’ grapes: of course, this unfairly leaves out hundreds of wonderful ‘local’ varieties. Let’s hear it for Sangiovese, Malbec, Tempranillo, Grenache, Alvarinho, Pinot Grigio, Zenit… And all those great wines deliberately made out of a blend of varieties that are all the better for it.
Sauvignon Blanc - 1998 Jackson Estate, Marlborough, New Zealand; £8.99 Majestic Oddbins Tesco.
Riesling - 1997 Kendermanns Dry, Pfalz, Germany; £4.49 Safeway Bottoms Up Oddbins Victoria Wine.
Chardonnay - 1996 Macon Domaine les Ecuyers (Talmard), France; £6.99 Sainsbury’s.
Merlot - 1998 Viña Gracia, Chile; £4.49 Co-op, or 1997 Reserve £7.49 Unwins.
Cabernet Sauvignon - 1996 Peter Lehmann, Barossa Valley, Australia; £7.99 Safeway Oddbins, £8.49 Wine Cellar.
Syrah - 1997 Finca Flichman, Mendoza, Argentina; £3.99 Oddbins.
Pinot Noir - 1996 Calera, Central Coast, California; £10.99 Majestic & Bibendum (as below).
Starter - seared trout
1997 Big Frank’s Viognier, Vin de Pays d’Oc - £4.99 Majestic.
Main - pesto stuffed lamb with Marsala sauce
1995 d’Arenberg d’Arry’s Original Shiraz/Grenache, McLaren Vale - £6.99 Oddbins; Bibendum Wines, London NW1 (0171 722 5377).
Pudding - chocolate tart
Marsala Pellegrino - £5.99 Safeway Sainsbury’s Tesco.
Things are stirring on the western side of the Iberian peninsula – the Portuguese have cruised confidently into the late 20th Century and are enthusiastic to take on their European colleagues in the next. Economic growth, extensive road building, EU funded projects; all this was symbolised by last year’s Expo in Lisbon and the wondrous new 13km long bridge, which sweeps you into that buzzing capital. Now the traditional sleepy wine industry (as opposed to Port) has come alive: fresh investment in technology, flying wine makers and reorganisation of chaotic vineyards have all helped to reveal a wealth of exciting regions and native grape varieties. So let’s discover Periquita, Maria Gomes, Trás-os-Montes and Terras do Sado (no relation to a certain French Marquis), as long as you speak Polish. Portuguese wines are as individual as their language: looks a bit like Spanish but...
A brief tour around some of the regions from north to south:
Vinho Verde - more than just medium and fizzy, it’s also home to zingy dry whites made from the Alvarinho or Loureiro grapes, such as 1997/8 Quinta de Azevedo (£4.95 The Wine Society 01438 741177 Stevens Garnier Oxford 01865 263303) and 1997/8 Qta da Franqueira (£5.99 Selfridges Adnams Southwold 01502 727222).
Trás-os-Montes - source of great value, fruity but interesting punter-friendly reds. Try 1996/7 Terra Boa, Caves Aliança (£3.75 Oddbins) made from Bastardo and Tinta Roriz.
Douro wines have been overshadowed by Port production, but the UK is seeing more and more high quality table reds, like the well-priced ‘96/7 Tuella (about £4.50 Connolly's Birmingham 0121 236 9269 Holland Park Wine Co 0171 221 9614 D.Byrne Clitheroe 01200 423152) right up to the stonking ‘91 Duas Quintas Reserva at £15! (Justerini & Brooks London and Edinburgh).
Bairrada - we’re seeing ‘new wave’ whites made from Bical (‘96/7 Galeria £5.89 PH Wines Bexleyheath 0181 301 3455; ‘97/8 Bela Fonte £4.39 Oddbins) and Maria Gomes (‘97 Qta de Pedralvites £5.45/95 Stevens Garnier Nadder Wines Salisbury 01722 325418). For fans of traditional tannic reds, the Baga grape delivers: Luis Pato’s are amongst the best and stocked by Unwins, Adnams and House of Townend (01482 326891). Less demanding is the spicy, ‘modern’ 1997 Atlantic Vines Baga sourced from a wider area known as Beiras (£3.99 Tesco Asda Somerfield).
Dão is one of the few spots already known over here for good value earthy reds; now top class wines are appearing and much better whites like ‘96/7 Duque de Viseu (£5.45 Stevens Garnier, Nadder) named after that beautiful old city (worth a visit).
Estremadura on the west coast offers eye-opening whites from Bucelas and Colares (made from Arinto grape), red varietals such as Bright Brothers’ 97 Trincadeira Preta (Asda £3.99), and also more serious reds from Alenquer north of Lisbon (’95/6 Qta da Abrigada £6.49/95 Selfridges Portland Wine Co Manchester 0161 928 0357).
Ribatejo - the flatlands stretching from north-east of Lisbon to the Beiras central belt, where many easy-drinking wines are to be found.
Terras-do-Sado - Periquita is one of the main grapes for reds: look out for Fonseca’s 1995 (£3.99/4.29 Tesco Majestic). In addition producers in Palmela south-east of Lisbon are making wonderfully rustic reds like Caves Aliança's 1994 (£4.69 Oddbins).
Alentejo - flatter and hotter still, this vast area spreads to the Spanish border and down to the Algarve. The lovely town of Évora is home to Cartuxa, the winery that sets the standard with its top reds (the superb ’95 is over £10 at Lea & Sandeman 0171 376 4767 Martinez Ilkley 01943 603241) and distinctive whites. The region also produces good inexpensive regional wines; try the ’97 red Tinto da Talha (£5.49/99 Wine Cellar & Berkeley Wines Selfridges).
El Niño (Spanish for child) may have done strange things to the weather in South America last year, but Chile has emerged blossoming from its tantrum, no longer the precocious new kid on the block. Now it’s gone all grown-up and serious. Chilean wine has already established itself as provider of good value, easy-drinking familiar varietals such as Safeway’s crisp grapefruity 1998 Sauvignon Blanc (£3.99). The next phase nudges us up a few steps and brings an impressive array of ‘reserve’ quality wines, where years of work to find the best vineyard sites and control production yields are coming to fruition.
Errázuriz is one of many estates at the forefront of this and also the most vocal in ‘coming out’ about Chilean Merlot. The industry estimates 60 to 90% of ‘Merlot’ planted in Chile is actually the Carmenère grape, both mixed together in the vineyards and resulting wines. So what’s the difference in taste? Errázuriz’s ’98 Merlot (£5.49/99 widely available), a typical blend of Carmenère, Merlot and a tad of Cabernet Sauvignon, has fair weight with plummy and earthy fruit. On tasting their pure Merlot against pure Carmenère from the same vineyard in the Aconcagua Valley, it’s clear that Carmenère gives a spicier, deeper wine with red pepper and soy sauce (really!) characters rather than softer, perfumed plum/cherry. Some wineries are already selling Carmenère under separate labels: Viña Carmen, whose regular and Reserva Merlots are first rate, makes a dense oaky Grand Vidure (another name for the Carmenère grape just to add confusion!) / Cabernet (96/7 £6.99/7.99 Oddbins Wine Cellar); Santa Inés ’98 (£4.49 Tesco) shows good pepper and herbs.
Cabernet Sauvignon is styled to suit every taste and pocket, from inexpensive, ripe berry-fruit quaffers to some very serious wines indeed. Or settle inbetween and try Mont Gras ’97 Reserva (£5.99 Sainsbury), which is reminiscent of classy Bordeaux without the price tag.
The Casablanca Valley, located north-west of Santiago, benefits from cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean and is producing some super, well-balanced Chardonnays and Sauvignons. But for something different, try Viña Casablanca Santa Isabel Estate Gewürztraminer ’98 (£6.49 Oddbins) which is perfumed and tropical but has restraining zip. Even Pinot Noir is looking very promising in Casablanca, if Villard’s ’97 (£7.99 Oddbins) is an indicator.
Montes is an interesting winery whose range of reds is impressive, but one white is also worth highlighting: the very rich flagship Alpha Chardonnay ’97 (£9.99 Majestic, Wm. Morrison) with oak and acidity to match.
I’ll conclude with a few unusual lesser-knowns that neatly sum up Chile’s pioneering leanings. Semillon is cropping up more frequently – the ‘97/8 Soleca (£4.99 Bottoms Up & Wine Rack) has appealing peachy, waxy texture. As for reds, a whole host of grapes are now shouting for attention on our shelves: Valdivieso’s ’97 Cabernet Franc Reserva (£8.99 widely available) has superb leathery depth.
Tiger prawns with aubergine and asparagus:
1998 Viña Casablanca ‘White Label’ Sauvignon Blanc, Chile - £4.99 Oddbins
This is crisp and grapefruity, should be ideal.
Spiced salmon with pea purée:
1998 Château de Sours Bordeaux Rosé - £5.99 Wine Cellar, Majestic and Corney & Barrow (London)
Top dry rosé with plenty of summer fruits and long acidity giving freshness.
Rose red fruits with vanilla ice:
1997/8 Le Monferrine Moscato d’Asti, Italy - £3.59 Safeway
Elegant and refreshingly grapey, this is light (only 5% alcohol), sweet but well balanced - can’t you just conjure up those summer evenings al fresco!
REEZLING NOT RYESLING
Laski Rizling has a lot to answer for. This grape has undermined and clouded people's perceptions about 'real' Riesling but is actually a different, inferior variety. Riesling (pronounced Reezling please!), sometimes called Johannisberg or Rhine Riesling, can offer much understated pleasure and is quietly getting a bit of a following. Germany is overcoming its image problems, the Aussies have taken up the challenge and Alsace does it with attitude and elegance. The result is a diversity (dry to sweet) of subtly to full flavoured distinctive whites, which make you want to drink more and partner food surprisingly well. For this reason particularly and because they are often misunderstood as all being sweet, I'll focus on dry(ish) Rieslings.
Alsace Riesling is either very dry (mostly) or occasionally lusciously sweet. The climate and soils tend to produce richer flavours than, say, Germany and higher alcohol, but also beautiful balance. A good example is the racy Haegelin 1997 Bollenberg (£5.99 Majestic; £5.49 if you buy two until August 2). Trimbach is a long established family operation who make very classy wines; they're expensive but fine Riesling costs money to produce. Their 1993 Frédéric Emile (£18/19 Wimbledon Wines 0181 540 9979; Peter Green, Edinburgh 0131 229 5925) is superb and should age forever.
Germany has been fighting back with 'new wave' drier Rieslings and by simplifying labels, which historically have been too wordy and unhelpful to the uninitiated. Two top growers in the Pfalz region have had some success. Rainer Lingenfelder's '98 Bird Label Riesling is £4.99 in Oddbins, and Montrachet (London SE1) has a full range of his styles. The 1997 Amand Kabinett from Von Buhl (£6.99/7.49 Majestic & Oddbins) shows off-dry class, and a real bargain is Oberemmeler Rosenberg 1993 halbtrocken (£4.49 Majestic, who often buy parcels of well-priced, older Rieslings), again off-dry, elegant and minerally.
Australia could be key in popularising Riesling - their winemakers can't put a foot wrong over here, it seems - and is producing some great wines. Look out for Rieslings from 'cooler' areas such as Clare or Eden valley (they’re not really), like the splendid '98 Domaine Leasingham, or Western Australia: '97 Capel Vale (£7.49 Majestic), which is limey and peachy with essential balancing acid. The island state of Tasmania has also been attracting attention: Pipers Brook 1998 Riesling (£10.49 Tesco) shows us why; it's bursting with zingy, floral fruit. New Zealand's climate seems to suit Riesling, and we'll be seeing more of them: Montana's '98 Marlborough (£4.99 Tesco) is a good place to start, or try their single vineyard Reserve (see recipe suggestions).
1998 Montana Awatere Reserve Riesling, New Zealand, £7.99 Oddbins
1998 Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Rosado, £4.49 Oddbins
1997 D’istinto Syrah, Sicily, £4.99 Fullers, Wine Cellar, Cellar 5
The white and rosé are both pretty versatile and should go with all of the dishes, particularly the Riesling with the fish and salad and Rosado with the fish and chicken. The red is quite rich and spicy with some sweet oak character, perfect for that strongly flavoured chicken. If on hols, seek out local equivalents.
Imagine: from Sevilla, Barcelona to London and Glasgow; people lounging in trendy bars, nibbling toasted almonds and quaffing crisp chilled dry sherry. Young and not embarrassed to order another bottle of Fino “as long as it's cold, mate”. Alas, this is in danger of becoming merely a romantic image even in Spain, where cool young things are more likely to order a beer or vodka. Why, it’s surely the ultimate aperitif?
There are basically three types of sherry and these are bone dry, whatever the colour. However the wines are often sweetened to produce the so-called traditional brands for this country (Pale Cream is sweetened Fino, for example). It can only be called sherry if it originates from the Jerez region of Andalusia, and all dry sherry is made from Palomino, a local white grape variety.
The style is largely determined by the growth – or not – of a type of wild yeast called flor, which forms a film over the slowly maturing wines in certain casks. The greater the growth of flor, the slower the oxidation and hence the paler the colour; these are Fino styles. Their tangy character comes from this process, and they are fortified to about 15%. The wines become a regularly refreshed blend of different ages, as they pass down a complicated maturation system comprised of barrels known as criaderas and soleras.
Some say Manzanilla, a Fino style from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the coast, has a saltier tang of the sea! The widely available Fino brand Tio Pepe (about £7.69) is a decent bench-mark; also La Gitana Manzanilla is a bargain at £3.49 per half bottle (Oddbins & independents; £5.99 for 75cl at Majestic). Valdespino’s Manzanilla Deliciosa is classically crisp (£6.95 Lea & Sandeman shops 0171 376 4767 and Oddbins Fine Wines). And Osborne Fino Quinta is smoky and almondy (£8-8.50 Fortnums and Selfridges).
Amontillado starts off as Fino but develops with more oxidative ageing, when the flor dies naturally or by manipulation, so it becomes darker and fuller bodied. Emilio Lustau’s Amontillado Los Arcos has real length and depth of flavour (£8.99 Majestic, Noel Young of Cambridge 01223 566744).
Oloroso undergoes no flor ageing, hence the deep colour and intense nutty characters derived from greater exposure to oxygen. These are fortified to 20% or more and are still very dry when made in this classic way. However, the award-winning Gonzalez Byass Oloroso Muy Viejo Matusalem is very rich, sweet but balanced (£9.99-10.19 half Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway).
Dry sherries are also versatile with food. Chilled Fino and Manzanilla cry out for tapas, spicy chilled soups and seafood. Dry Amontillados and Olorosos can work really well with cheese - the stronger and bluer the better. Part of sherry's image problem stems from the circumstances it is usually served in. It's no use opening a bottle at Christmas and shoving the remains back in the cupboard until the next year, expecting it to taste the same. Avoid half-empty bottles on warm pub shelves, untouched by human hand. Drink it within a few days, preferably in one sitting - with company of course!
1997 Domaine Boyar Premium Oak Chardonnay; Shumen, Bulgaria, £4.99-5.29 Europa, Fullers, Unwins, Waitrose - Ripe and lightly toasty with pineapple fruit and citrus finish; should allow the tarragon to do the talking and charm the salad!
1995 Alasia Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Italy, £4.99 Fullers - ‘Bitter’ dark cherry fruit with scented oak should balance the aromatic, creamy chicken.
1995 Seaview Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, Aus, £8.49 widely available - Top fizz to start, with the mains or great with the muffins; but only if you’ve got a good icebox!
La Gitana Manzanilla dry sherry (see feature): take a chilled half bottle along on the picnic for an aperitif, and try with the chicken or prawns.
Tesco seem to be making a concerted effort to increase their range of premium wines (i.e. over £5) judging by what’s been appearing on the shelves. One such addition is a tempting duo of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Tasmania, Australia’s Island State, where the cooler climate results in more elegant styles. The 1998 Chardonnay (£6.99 in approx. 440 stores) has fresh, pungent kiwi and pineapple fruit with citrus zip. When I discovered two new whites labelled ‘Crisp Elegant’ and ‘Smooth Voluptuous’ and two reds as ‘Huge Juicy’ and ‘Monster Spicy’, the gimmick-alarm bells rang. However, they do inject a bit of fun into wine shopping whilst helping the “don’t know what I want” crowd. The whites are pleasant enough quaffers but the reds are best, particularly the Monster Spicy Argentinean Syrah, which is chunky and creamy with tobacco and cloves’ spiciness. Each costs £4.99 in about 300 stores.
Marks & Spencer have been gradually overhauling the wine section in some of their stores, including interactive wine style guides (if you like this, then try that…), ‘Wine Developers’ in situ and tastings at the snazzy new ‘Zinc Bar’ counters. This coincides with improvements and extensions in the wine selection. The Gold Label range of French varietals goes from strength to strength with the addition of a Syrah and three oak-aged ‘Barrique’ wines. There’s more from Italy: ’98 Ponte d’Oro Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is particularly good value at £3.99 and has lots of typical sunny Italian character; while the ’97 vintage of their Chianti Classico from Villa Cafaggio (£7.99) is a super, special occasion bottle with concentrated figgy and earthy fruit. Have a look too at the choice now available from Chile and Australia. Oh, and those classy Champagnes…
Asda’s summer wine tasting proved harder work to find the stars, but there are a few. From the whites, try the bargain ’98 Tramontane Viognier (£3.99) with its pungent flowers and apricot or 1998 Peter Lehmann Riesling from Oz (£5.49) bursting with zingy lime flavours. Italian reds crop up again, this time from Puglia in the south-east: ’98 Toggia (£3.99) has deep colour and warmth with smoky undertones. Or spend a few quid more on Cono Sur’s ’98 Chilean Zinfandel (£5.99), definitely a food red with its serious leather style and chewy finish. They’ve also got some tasty bottled beers such as San Francisco’s Anchor Liberty Ale (£1.39 355ml), which is lovely and creamy but balanced by aromatic hops.
Fish pie – 1997 Chateau du Basty Beaujolais Villages (£5.69 Oddbins): quintessential soft cherry-fruit Beaujolais to cope with the smoked fish and dill but hopefully without a tannin clash!
Smoked mackerel pâté – 1998 Domaine Mandeville Viognier, Vin de Pays d’Oc (£4.99 M&S): floral and peachy with good acidity to balance the oiliness and oomph.
Sea bass – 1997 Langhorne Creek Verdelho (£4.99 Tesco): this has unusual greengage/citrus character as balance to its weight; should match the sweeter flavours of the dish and meatiness of sea bass.
Safeway has implemented a fairly spectacular transformation of their wine section over the past year or so. In addition, most of their larger stores should have a trained adviser permanently available in the booze aisle - look out for the “Wine & Beer, Can I help you?” badge. Vins de Pays from the south of France are really showing their style and value: 1998 L’If Grenache Blanc (£4.99) is a ripe, toasty pears and cream white with tingling freshness and subtle length of flavour (despite 13% alcohol), wrapped in well-handled oak. 98 La Source Merlot/Syrah (£4.99) has deep colour, ripe berry fruit then spicy plum finish: a Mediterranean red in Chilean disguise. Hop over to North Africa for a red with little elegance but big personality: 1997 Desert Vines Carignan from Morocco (£3.49). It’s earthy with lots of stewed jam and liquorice. Check out too the diversity of premium higher-priced New World wines, particularly from Australia.
The downside to Majestic Wine Warehouses is having to buy a case of 12 bottles, but it does allow you to take full advantage of the many deals and some crazy prices. And you can spend more time browsing, filling up your trolley just with wine! The ranges from Alsace and the Loire are bolder and more interesting than most. For those who prefer medium-dry whites but with flavour, the 93 Montlouis Chateau Boulay is a give-away at £3.99, showing typical honey and melon Chenin Blanc characters (think Vouvray). From their mind-boggling array of Rhône reds, try 1997 Rasteau Villages (£5.99), which is very peppery yet quite soft on the finish. Behold a decent Soave – the 97 Classico from Tedeschi (£4.99) is surprisingly concentrated and peachy with floral spice. Majestic’s California listings are almost as long as Australia: for example, 98 Firestone Riesling (£5.99) is superb with its oily texture and lime zing. From Western Australia, I recommend trying any of the complex Capel Vale range.
It’s worth digging deeper when in Sainsbury’s to fish out one of the more oddball wines lurking amongst the hundreds of others. One such is a north-eastern Italian red, 1997 L’Arco Cabernet Franc (£4.99) from Friuli-Grave: herbal and minty nose with warm rustic fruit. Without imposing my bias towards fine Germans, if you’re feeling free-spirited spend £8.49 on a 97 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Spätlese, von Kesselstatt (selected stores only). It’s elegant with pungent flowers, long citrus bite and subtle mineral notes set against some rounding sweetness. 1997/8 Abbott’s Cumulus Shiraz (£4.99) is a fine chunky and spicy French red pretending to be an Aussie (it’s made by one), actually hailing from Minervois in the Languedoc.
Puy lentil salad – 1997/98 Tokay Pinot Gris, Alsace (£5.69 Oddbins): this is quite rich and spicy to complement the earthiness of the lentils and pungent flavourings.
Mushroom Stroganoff – 1997 Santa Carolina Merlot Reservado (£5.49 Sainsbury): the soupy, stewed plum and soy sauce flavours could charm this rich mushroom dish. Use some for the sauce.
Apricot puffs – 1998 Nine Pines Botrytis Semillon (£4.99 375ml Asda): rich sweet marmalade notes but plenty of cutting acidity; the pud seems to have similar taste profile.
Bibendum Wines, based in Primrose Hill in north-west London, have expanded enormously from humble beginnings as a fine wine specialist supplying restaurants and private customers. Now they are also agents for a cosmopolitan mix of wines selling to the major retailers, a high profile fine wine broker and continue to develop their mail order business. Here are a few gems chosen from a recent tasting: 1997 Colori Primitivo from Tarantino (£4.10) is a seductive, soft fruity and rustic southern Italian red. Much further up the price spectrum, treat yourself to the 1996 Morgan Winery Pinot Noir (£12.73) from Monterey, dripping with quality and savoury yet raspberry fruit. Or, pricewise at least, somewhere inbetween is an elegant, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa – Springfield Estate special cuvée 98 (also in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s £6.99). Private customer number is 0171 916 7706 or switchboard 722 5577.
There are many exciting wines to be found in Waitrose’s impressive, understated range. Worth more than its £4.99 price is the super 1998 L’Enclos Domeque Marsanne-Roussanne, made from those fashionable white Rhone grapes in the south of France. It’s quite rich and full with exotic perfumed apricots and off-dry finish. Or a brilliant medium-dry German Riesling from one of the best producers in the sunnier Pfalz region: Basserman-Jordan’s 1997 (£6.25) shows ripe grapefruit balanced by mineral tones and gentle acidity. Brown Brothers’ 96 King Valley Barbera (£6.99) could almost be called Aussie Barolo (grape variety and New World style aside), but at half the price of that famous Italian red! It delivers some oak but submerged beneath rustic, bitter dark cherry fruit. And they also list a soft Loire Valley red, best drunk lightly chilled: 98 Saumur les Nivières (£4.25). Customer info: 0800 188884 or Waitrose Wine Direct order no: 0800 188881.
Wine Cellar, the 50+ up-market shops belonging to the Parisa Group (which also owns Berkeley Wines, Cellar 5 and Booze Buster amongst others), has already opened in-store cafés in nearly half of these outlets and now half a dozen Parisa Café Bars too. This praiseworthy idea means you can choose from their big range of wines and only pay £3 corkage on top of the shelf price to drink it there. Whether ‘on’ or ‘off’, you should try the 1997 Château Lamargue Costières de Nimes (£4.99) – a very attractive spicy red with wild violet aromas and blackberry and chocolate finish. Another desirable, if somewhat quirkier, French red is Big Frank’s 1997/8 Cabernet Frank, actually made from the Cabernet Franc grape by a heavyweight Australian! For whites, you could take a look at the adventurous selection from Switzerland, Canada or Washington State. Head office no: 01925 454545.
96 Bacchus, Lamberhurst Vineyard - £4.99 Waitrose - Fairly dry with enough fresh citrus character to balance the salty/sweet flavours of the starter.
97 Teroldego Rotaliano, Ca’Vit - £4.99 Waitrose - Serve cooler than room temperature; the perfumed, spicy mint and liquorice flavours should work well with this hearty casserole.
95 Lenz Moser Prestige Beerenauslese, Neusiedlersee - £5.49 half bottle Tesco - Sweet honeyed marmalade flavours with refreshing acidity.
I'll make no excuses for choosing a compact selection of more expensive wines this month, as many of us prefer to experiment and 'trade up' at Christmas (as wine business speak would say). There's certainly no shortage of bargains for party quaffing, but why not indulge in a little quality and luxury for that special dinner or gathering? I've recommended a 'traditional' and 'non-traditional' wine in each category, if such terms still exist or apply.
1997/8 Domaine Laroche Chablis St. Martin (£8.49-9.99 Majestic, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up). It seems rare nowadays to find a Chablis that doesn't cost the earth and isn't a disappointment. This one shows some class with lovely full, buttery and creamy texture; ripe fruit transforms into elegant mineral notes with moderately fresh acidity.
1998 Fetzer Vineyards California Viognier (£7.99 Safeway, Waitrose, Tesco, Oddbins, Majestic, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and Unwins). Fantastic liquid apricots! It also offers fragrant honeysuckle-wild flower aromas with rich, exotic and quite oily fruit, good length and balance.
1996 Château Ramage la Batisse, Haut-Médoc Cru Bourgeois (£12-13 Mill Hill Wines, London 01819596754; D.Byrne, Clitheroe 01200423152; Great Western Wines, Bath 01225322800; George Hill, Loughborough 01509212717).
This easily demonstrates that 1996 Bordeaux is often superior to the much-hyped 95s and 94s: the concentrated, smoky blackcurrant fruit is nicely integrated with the oak; some tannic grip but not overwhelming.
1997 Q Tempranillo, Familia Zuccardi (£7.99 Tesco)
Symbolic of the high quality Argentina can produce from this widely planted Spanish grape, this excellent red is deep and spicy with wild fruits and leathery finish.
1994 Croft Late Bottled Vintage (£10.49 Sainsbury's)
Almond and black cherry nose, soft liquorice fruit, a tad of dry tannin and alcohol on the finish, but there's enough gluggable sweet cherry fruit to stop them overpowering.
Penfold's Magill Tawny (£4.99 half-bottle Thresher, Victoria Wine, Selfridges, Majestic, Fullers, Unwins, Booth's, Safeway, Budgens and Co-Op).
This smooth and nutty, fortified Aussie won a gold medal in Wine magazine's International Challenge; try lightly chilled with fruit, cheese or nuts.
Champagne St. Gall Blanc de Blancs (M&S £16.99) - Classy 100% Chardonnay champers packed with roast apple and nut flavours, it has elegant crisp length and isn’t too dry.
1995 Green Point Brut (£11.99 widely available) - Made at Moet et Chandon's vineyards and winery not far from Melbourne, this is rich and biscuity and well worth the price.
Christmas dinner wines
98 Houghton’s HWB - £5.99 Oddbins and Waitrose. Fresh, zingy melon with aniseed finish: perfect with all that seafood!
97 Louis Jadot Bourgogne Pinot Noir - £8.49-99 Wine Cellar, Berkeley Wines, Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up. Some traditional class to match traditional-ish fare: sweet and savoury strawberry and mushroom flavours.
Blandy’s 5 year old Malmsey - £11.49 Budgens, Majestic, Oddbins. This rich, fruit-pudding but nutty Madeira is a chocolate charmer; try it with strong cheese too.
Champagne folk remain forever aloof and dismissive of critics of their prices, despite the high quality competition from the likes of Australia and California. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that a particularly fine Champagne can transport you into another dimension when the time is right…
I wouldn’t usually recommend a Champagne at £11.99 as the quality at this price level is disappointing, to say the least. However, Bourgeois Père et Fils Brut is really quite good and exclusive to Safeway. Perhaps that’s why it won a bronze medal in the 1999 International Wine Challenge. It’s made from 45% Pinot Meunier, 40% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay.
Somerfield Prince William Rosé, Nicolas Feuillatte - £14.99. Despite the name, this is fairly classy and fruitier than the white equivalent from this go-getting independent house; also shows good balance of aged character and acidity. Grape proportions are 50/35/15 respectively as above, and it’s actually made by blending red and white wines before the second fermentation.
Champagne St. Gall Blanc de Blancs - M&S £16.99. Stylish 100% Chardonnay packed with roast apple and nut flavours, it has elegant crisp length and isn’t too dry. Or trade up to the 1993 Vintage (£19.99) from the same co-operative, which is certainly special. Very crisp yeasty length with subtle richness, it should mature further in bottle.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve ‘Mis en Cave…’ - £23.49 widely available Charlie is a long standing personal favourite and the first house to give an indication of age on non-vintage champers, by declaring the date it was cellared for yeast-lees ageing. So Mis en Cave 1996 is the most recent but still excellent; if you prefer a more mature taste, look out for 92, 93 or 95. A classic blend of Pinot Noir and Meunier and Chardy.
Bollinger 1990 Vintage - £42 widely available. Arguably the best of the superb 90 vintage, this just keeps getting better as it lounges in bottle. It’s very rich and concentrated but still showing a bit of balancing acidity on the finish; try with food too. No wonder James Bond switched to Bolly.
Krug Grande Cuvée – about £70 Majestic, Sainsbury’s, Unwins, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. If you’re really going to town, choose the crème de la crème of non-vintage Champagne. Absolutely gorgeous: opulent yeasty and biscuity, in fact almost meaty but a youthful fruitiness does remain in harmony with all that long-aged fullness of flavour. Perhaps just too creamy and flavoursome to drink it all in one go on its own, it’ll partner different dishes well, and the fizz stays for hours after opening if kept tightly plugged in the fridge!
Oddbins stock lots of funky South African Chenin Blancs: at only £3.69 you get full-on ripe melon flavours (and punchy 13% alcohol too) with Forrester’s 1999 Scholtzenhof Petit Chenin. If you want to baffle dinner guests, spend a little more and serve blind their 1998 Falanghina (£6.39), an obscure dry white with nut and banana flavours from east of Naples. For £4.99, the classy Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 Viña Porta from the Cachapoal valley has ripe currant aromas followed by earthier finish and subtle tannins. On that special occasion treat yourself to Domaine des Souchons 1997/8 Morgon (£7.69), one of the so-called ‘Crus’ Beaujolais, which in this case is justified as it’s quite meaty with dark cherry fruit and a touch of forest mushrooms. In fact, more like good traditional red Burgundy. The Oddbins’ buyers also seem to have gone mad on Greece…watch this space.
Safeway has introduced an exciting Australian pair made by Jindalee Wines, both offering great value for £4.99: the 98 Shiraz displays hallmark spice and cloves and is packed with wild berry fruit; the 98 Chardonnay shows lime characters bolstered by full-bodied oaty texture. 1999 Kleinbosch Bush Vine Dry Muscat (£3.79) is another South African bargain: quite concentrated and crisp with lingering fresh grape aromas. You expect to pay a little more for organic produce but sometimes wonder if it tastes that much better (possibly most people’s criterion). Well, Safeway’s 1998 Soave Superiore (£4.99) does – weightier than most from this still popular region with nutty length too. Viña Morande 1999 Merlot (£4.49) from Chile is rather attractive; I liked its intense red pepper and soy sauce style! I’ve also found something unashamedly old-fashioned and no doubt not to everybody’s liking – 1994 Vranac (grape of the future!) Monte Cheval from Montenegro (£3.99), which is ‘inky’ and seductively mature.
As usual, Majestic Wine Warehouses are flaunting their bargains with panache. For only £4.99 you can buy a light but decent 1998 Chablis from Domaine Marguerite Carillon; it hints at rich Chardonnay fruit with mineral and citrus finish. Their 96 Ruppertsberg Riesling (£4.49 or 3.99 for 2+ bottles) from Germany’s Pfalz region has tropical style, kiwi fruit nose and an appealing sweeter than dry edge. Looking for a really different white wine? The Capel Vale 98 Verdelho (£7.99 or 6.99 for 2+) displays its Western Australian class with a big mouthful of exotic flavour. Good red Burgundy means money, I’m afraid, but this one would cost more from a supposedly superior area: 96 Marsannay Domaine du Château (£9.99 or 8.99 for 2+) has a cracking, earthy Pinot Noir nose with smooth and ‘sweet’ cherry edge. At only £3.49 you can discover an old-style, smoky and mature Portuguese red from the Terras do Sado region, made by Jão Pires. Minimum purchase is 12 bottles at Majestic.
Starter - Tuna Bites with Tomato and Mint Relish
1998 Domaine de Sours Bordeaux rosé: £4.99 Sainsbury’s - soft strawberry fruit and gentle acidity combine to a dry-ish finish.
1998 Domaine de Sours Bordeaux rosé: £4.99 Sainsbury’s - soft strawberry fruit and gentle acidity combine to a dry-ish finish.
Main Course – Chicken Tagine & Couscous with preserved lemons and dried fruits
1995 Hochar Père et Fils, Chateau Musar: £6.49-99 Majestic; Booth’s supermarkets (01772 251701); Roberson’s, London W14; Villeneuve Wines, Peebles – rich earthy Lebanese red with smooth fig and tobacco tones.
1995 Hochar Père et Fils, Chateau Musar: £6.49-99 Majestic; Booth’s supermarkets (01772 251701); Roberson’s, London W14; Villeneuve Wines, Peebles – rich earthy Lebanese red with smooth fig and tobacco tones.
Dessert - Orange and Almond Cake served with Poached Kumquats
1997 Passito di Pantelleria, Pellegrino: £5.95-6.49 half-bottle Waitrose & Wine Cellar – sweet but aromatic dried fruit style Muscat from Sicily.
1997 Passito di Pantelleria, Pellegrino: £5.95-6.49 half-bottle Waitrose & Wine Cellar – sweet but aromatic dried fruit style Muscat from Sicily.
Here I go again preaching the Riesling sermon. Tesco has a great one from Australia’s Clare Valley, 1998 vintage (£4.99): check out that lovely deep yellow/green colour, quite rich lime and quince fruit and characteristic maturing ‘oily’ finish. Tesco also now does a 97 Grenache from Columbia-Crest in Washington State, USA (£4.99): a light-ish red for white wine drinkers, it nevertheless has loads of spicy blackberry fruit with tangy aftertaste. Richer with greater ‘grip’ is the 98 Finca Lasendal (£3.99) from Tarragona, one of northeast Spain’s exciting new kids on the block. Its modern, no oak style lets the dark plum and soy sauce flavours shine, warmed with spice and a bit of punch. 1998 Villa del Borgo Pinot Grigio (£4.99) comes from Friuli-Grave in northeast Italy and is a fair example of this region’s penchant to make fuller spicier versions of this wonderful grape. It has rounded musky honey flavour but is dry with delicate acidity.
Trust Waitrose to find class Bordeaux red for under a tenner. OK, at £8.95 1996 Château Sigognac Cru Bourgeois Médoc isn’t cheap, but in an age of overpriced Bordeaux this one’s good value. Plenty of earthy blackcurrant depth with some herbaceous pepper character, this is iced with ripe and rustic fruit. Here’s a white that goes with fish curry (provided it’s not too hot): 1998 Villa Flora Lugana (£5.25) comes from next door to Soave but is more concentrated, offering light tropical fruit pinched with balancing acidity. A wacky medium-light quaffing red from Villány in Hungary, the 98 Deer Leap Zweigelt (£3.39) has lightly grassy elderberry fruit but that tartness is supplemented by creamy finish. I’d chill it when the weather gets hotter. Its white partner is fab: 98 Deer Leap Gewürztraminer (£3.99) is fragrantly grapey and spicy with plenty of flavour for the price, towards Alsace in style but not as intense. Waitrose also stocks an attractively different white from Portugal, the 1998 Quinta de Simaens Vinho Verde (£4.99). It’s fresh and dry with apples and a splash of cream, plus celery and mineral edges lurking in there too!
Wine Cellar has travelled to Greece and found two top wines made by Domaine Hatzimichalis, both priced at a special occasion £7.99. The 98 Chardonnay shows malted oat and creamy toastiness, smothered in banana and nuts then rich toffee finish, but actually with dry-ish bite. The 97 Cabernet Sauvignon gives off aromatic cooked blackcurrant jam with a herbaceous and herby edge, is floral and spicy with tart currants running alongside integrated vanilla oak. Then we get moderate tannin and a bit of tobacco! Both are categorised Vins de Pays d’Opountia Locris, from the Atalante valley in central Greece, and are rather good; it’s just a pity they’re not made from local grapes.
Asda are offering a Portuguese bargain just waiting to be taken home: 1997 Duro Douro (£3.99) is a rather flavoursome red with an assault of blackberry, pepper and herbs rounded by liquoricey finish. Or treat yourself to their 94 Rioja Reserva from Baron de Ley (£7.49), one for drinking now or further ageing if you have the inclination. Its rich and concentrated rustic fruit stays with you, good value too in context of the price hikes in this ever-popular region. On the other hand, South American whites may tantalise you - 98/9 Rio de Plata Torrontes (£3.99) displays the attractive, spicy Muscat characters this unusual grape normally delivers. From Chile try Canepa’s oaked Semillon 98 (£4.79), which is peachy and textured with oak in balance. Alternatively, you could buy a bottle of Plymouth Sloe Gin (£9.99), which is the pucker stuff and seriously sweet-and-sour fruity. At only 25% I like it neat on ice after dinner, or create the Plymouth Sloe Motion Cocktail: into a flute glass add decent sparkles, such as Asda’s 1996 Vintage Cava (£6.49), to a measure of Sloe Gin. Lastly I’ll recommend a special occasion red: the 96 Leasingham Shiraz (£9.99) is a big concentrated chap with chewy tobacco finish and has quite a kick.
Here are a few more discoveries at Tesco. Their 1998 Cahors (£4.29) is a bit of a Dark Horse (that’s its name): a fairly soft red from south-west France, it shows the redcurrant and wild fruit flavours I’d expect from Malbec, the grape it’s made from. Sturdier still is the 97 Taruso Valpolicella Ripassato (£6.99), which is earthy with rich cherry, spice and smoke and a sound example of the higher quality wines found in this generally overproducing area. For a slightly different Australian white with style, look out for St. Hallett Poacher’s Blend 98/9 (£5.99 or £2.49 for 25cl). Made from mostly Chenin Blanc, it’s honeyed and juicy with crisp finish. There’s also a brace of £3.99 dry whites, one from Italy and the other Portugal. 98/9 Bianco di Custoza is Soave-esque but fuller with fresh nutty flavour and dry zing; 98/9 Bela Fonte, made from Portugal’s sexy Bical grape, is floral and, well, grapey and concludes with light spice. Another ‘blow the budget but why not’ red is South Africa’s splendid 96 Plaisir de Merle Cabernet Sauvignon (£10.99), which starts with red pepper characters and gets richer and more blackcurranty with tangy length.
Tuna fishcakes – 1998 Viña Porta Chardonnay (£4.99 Oddbins & Macro): quality Chilean with no oak and restrained peachy fruit, enhanced by nutty and limey zippiness.
Spring vegetable Frittata – 1998 Bird Label Dry Riesling, Lingenfelder (£4.99 Oddbins) has nuances of flowers and lemon with refreshingly light but lingering flavour; perfect to enhance these fresh ingredients.
Apricot tartlet – 1998 Van Loveren late harvest Gewürztraminer (£2.99 half, Tesco). This South African’s sweetness and fragrant harmony should pick up the varied tastes here.
Bonterra Vineyards’ organic California (Mendocino County to be precise) Chardonnay and Cabernet are already widely available; now they’ve launched additional limited production wines into Oddbins. They’re expensive but you have to consider the high quality and labour intensive, environmentally friendly methods used. The gorgeous 1998 Viognier (£9.99) boasts masses of floral apricot fruit with lightly toasty but intensely flavoured finish. The 97 Zinfandel (£8.49, also in selected Sainsbury’s) reminds you of aromatic plums and spices, is earthy and full but soft with sweet oak coming through and plenty of blackberry fruit. Top of the range is the 1997 Syrah (£11.99), which is pretty dense, has perfumed spice, berries and rustic edges on the nose and in the mouth, balanced by a rich and smoky dark fruit cocktail. The style is closer, say, to exalted Northern Rhone wines, such as Cornas, than Australian Shiraz. More affordable for casual evenings, here’s a couple of whites at £4.99. From Italy their 98 Villa Felici Orvieto Classico Secco is nutty and apply, showing subtle lingering finish and more character than many from this ubiquitous region. Or perhaps you fancy a South African late harvest Chenin Blanc 1998 from Blaauwklippen, which is medium-sweeter-than-dry but with tangy marmalade, honey and juicy melon flavours. And finally it’s worth a look at the new, small grower Italian reds at Oddbins: Pecchenino’s 98 Dolcetto di Dogliani San Luigi (£7.99) shows lots of colour and fruit extracted from this often average performer (the Dolcetto grape that is), with up-front black cherry style but grippy spicy edge.
Picking up briefly on Bonterra organics (no I don’t have shares in the company!), in addition to the Zinfandel Sainsbury’s has listed their sweet but charmingly grapey 1998 Muscat (£6.99 half-bottle) in selected stores (there isn’t much of it about) - try it simply with fresh fruit or well chilled on its own. Also from California but more straightforward, everyday and quaffable, is the Stonybrook 1998 Chardonnay (£4.99): juicy and rounded with medium weight and thankfully only the slightest hint of oak. As far as reds are concerned, Portugal scores points for good value and easy drinking. The 1998 Terra Boa (£3.99; also at Oddbins), from Tras-os-Montes in the northeast, tastes of ripe damsons and aromatic liquorice with spicy but soft finish. A little more complex and dearer, at £5.99, comes an Argentinean Cabernet Sauvignon – Oak Cask 1995 – from long established and traditional producer Trapiche. Its attractively ripe and mature blackcurrant tones lead to a drier finish that suggests food rather than drink on its own.
Lamb with spicy mash – 1999 La Palmería Merlot (£4.49 Waitrose, Oddbins & Unwins). Vibrant blackcurrant and soy sauce undertones, fruity unoaked style but serious enough for the meat while supple enough for the spicy mash.
Duck – 1998 Beaujolais Villages Louis Jadot (£5.99 Tesco). Proper Beaujolais combining aromatic cherry fruit with soft-ish finish, but retaining the acidity needed for this eclectic sauce!
Chicken – 1999 Villa Maria Reserve Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc (£9.99 Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Unwins). Zesty yeast-lees richness and light toasty creaminess backed up by plenty of classic New Zealand grassy grapefruit and gooseberry style.
Wine Cellar has listed a particularly refreshing and also complex summer Sauvignon Blanc: 1998 Domaine Tariquet (£4.99) is a Vin de Pays from Gascony, made by local star Yves Grassa, and has lively, crisp and grassy asparagus and citrus flavours. It’s ripe and rounded too with moderate acidity, an attractive crossing of Loire Valley style with New Zealand vibrancy. Another but more youthful 99 Sauvignon Blanc has travelled from old favourite Errázuriz in Chile, or more specifically from their la Escultura Estate in the Casablanca Valley not too far from Santiago. It costs £5.49 and has lots of yeast-lees and grapefruit flavours coupled with zing. Made by the same producer and also from the excellent 1999 vintage, but from a different vineyard, is their Merlot El Descanso (£5.99) from the Curicó Valley further south. This is up to their usual standard, harnessing spicy green/red pepper and biscuit characters on the nose followed by earthy, tangy berry and cherry fruit.
It must be Sauvignon Blanc time of year, as Asda stocks one from Spain somewhat surprisingly, but this grape is performing well in the Rueda region to the north-west. Bodegas Corresol’s 1998/9 wine (£4.49) is quite simple but attractive with its pea, citrus and melon overtones and should be drunk well chilled. As a grape theme seems to have developed, let’s look at two reds made from Syrah or Shiraz, one from France and one from Australia. 1997 Crozes-Hermitage (£4.99 in 88 stores only) shows trademark Northern Rhône earthy and medicinal spice, is quite dense and full with sweet blackberry fruit, tangy and dry finish but drinking well now. Try with full-flavoured food. The 1999 Andrew Peace Shiraz (£5.49) from Swan Hill in Victoria is very different but equally good: richly fruity and also with bags of tangy wild blackberries and damsons, it has a hint of oak and offers more up-front style.
New to Tesco’s Finest range is a fab southern French red, 1998 Fitou Réserve Baron de la Tour (£4.99), which has rustic, tobacco leaf style and concentrated chunky fruit in the mouth. Apologies for being obsessive, but we shall return to Sauvignon Blanc, this time from Hungary! The 1999 Emerald (£3.99) made by Hilltop Neszmély is very crisp, reminiscent of sugar snap peas, followed by fuller and riper grapefruit flavours. Tesco has made several additions to their impressive Australian section; from the top I’ve chosen two hand-crafted, blow-the-budget celebration wines, both costing £10.79 and only available in ‘Wine Advisor’ flagship stores, so check first. Descending gracefully from Blue Pyrenees Estate in Victoria comes a mighty 1997 Chardonnay packed with rich butter and oak, but balanced by green fruit acidic bite. It has mammoth flavour, so take it gently. The same applies to this winery’s super 1996 red, very concentrated with mint and leather overtones supported by rich blackcurrant fruit to moderate the hefty grip.
Pork and Pepper Kebabs with couscous - 1996 Château Haute-Roque Faugères, £4.99 Wine Cellar: rustic and quite soft with spicy liquorice finish. Or try the Asda Crozes as above.
Parma wrapped Cod Loin - 1997 Yalumba Viognier, £4.99 Tesco (220 stores): apricot and aniseed flavours with fair bite to cope with the stronger dimension of this dish.
Barbecued Chicken Fajitas - 1999 Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence rosé, £4.49 M&S: dry and full classic style with subtle fruit, good match for the mix of spicy, sweet and sour.
The amount and diversity of Italian wines have broadened further still at Oddbins. 1999 Bidoli Pinot Grigio (£4.99), from the exciting Grave-Friuli region in the northeast, tastes lemony with zingy length and gummy flavour. From the other side – Monferrato in Piemonte – famed winemaker Michele Chiarlo has created a full-bodied and luscious red called Airone 1996 (£7.99), loaded with sour cherry and blackcurrant fruit smoothed off with earthy basil. In addition Oddbins’ vast range from Greece just got bigger: Domaine Gerovassiliou, located in Greek Macedonia near Thessaloniki, gives you a great 98 white (£6.49) with full, herby and honeyed Viognier-style fruit (but made from local grapes Asyrtiko and Malagouzia) followed by dry finish and gentle acidity. At £5.99 the 96 Cabernet Sauvignon from Domaine Tselepos isn’t particularly Greek but offers good drinking nevertheless; in fact quite soft and reminiscent of cooked blackcurrants, prunes and spicy rhubarb.
Safeway really has become the pioneer for Eastern European wines. Now they’ve listed two respectable reds from Georgia, the most seductive being at £4.99 (but alas only in 72 stores) – the mature and minty 1998 Tamada Saperavi, which is rustic with rich leather undertones and rather dry, so drink with weighty food. Who said Chardonnay was going out of style (probably a wine writer)? You won’t find many whites for £3.99 as satisfying as Safeway’s 1999 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault – classic style Chardy showing ripe peach and subtle balance. Argentina’s whites are rapidly improving such as the 1999 Caballo de Plata Torrontés, which is a bargain at £3.49 with its aromatic grape and spice flavours and citrus peel zippiness. With that special dinner, I recommend a fabulous mature red from the same country and one of the best vineyard areas, Lujan de Cuyo. Weinert 1994 Malbec (£8.99, 79 stores) has bags of traditional character with shades of dried thyme and liquorice.
Waitrose is really going for the organic thing: Château Pech-Latt 1998 Corbières red (£4.99) is one of the tastiest around and packs a fair punch. Its meaty dark fruits reveal a herb and cinnamon undercurrent followed by pretty firm finish. Or splash out on a delicious and serious Australian Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot – 98 Tatachilla (£8.99) from McLaren Vale gives you rich currants, earthy texture and grippy length. As for whites, try the summery Chapel Down Flint Dry 1998 (£4.99) from Kent: an attractive combination of green and aromatic fruits, crisp but rounded by ‘yeasty’ zing. The Chenin Blanc grape can transform itself into zesty dry quaffing whites in South Africa and superb sweeties in the Loire Valley; we see less of the dry styles from the latter. Waitrose has a bargain 99 Saumur Blanc les Andides (£3.99), which has all the typical honeyed and almond flavour you’d want.
Raspberry Pavlova ice cream - 1999 Seriously Fruity Rosé, Argentina, £4.99 Tesco (330 stores): all those boiled sweets and fruity jam flavours will work better with this pud than drinking it on its own.
Peach Tarts with Passionfruit cream - 1999 Neethlingshof Gewürztraminer, £5.99 Oddbins: medium-dry style with plenty of aromatic Turkish delight taste pinched by zingy acidity.
Summer berry crepes - 1996 Bouvier Beerenauslese, Austria, £5.95 50cl Waitrose: its rich honey & marmalade character should combine well with the fresh tangy fruits.
Wines chosen to match these recipes:
1996 Ironstone Vineyards Shiraz, California (Sainsbury's £5.99) - soft, rustic Morello cherry fruit and spicy mint to balance the varied meaty/spicy/acidic/dairy flavours.
1997 St. Hallett Riesling, Eden Valley, Australia (£8.99 Bottoms Up) - perfumed lime and quince yet oily richness; should be perfect with the sweet, sour and spice of this dish.
Brie & ham pastries
1997 Fetzer Vineyards Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, California (£6.99 Waitrose, Oddbins, Sainsbury, Victoria Wine, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Unwins, Spar, Europa) - classic depth of blackcurrant, pruney earthiness and mint to cope with the rich, smooth and smoky flavours.
1998/9 Pra Soave Classico Superiore (£6.49 Oddbins) - may seem a lot for Soave but this full yet subtle wine has floral, celery undertones and creamy finish; ideal to complete this Italian/Mediterranean experience!
1998 Gewurztraminer Baron de Turckheim, Alsace (£7.49 Asda) - rich rose water and lychee characters, full-bodied and off dry; should charm the sweet and aromatic tastes in this tantalising dessert.
Christmas sparkling wine selection:
Seaview Brut NV £6.49-6.99 widely available – this popular Australian is back on form and elegantly uplifting, with enough yeasty and ripe apple flavours to satisfy.
1997 Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée Princesse d’Aimery, £6.59 Unwins – good value from the south of France, lightly toasty balanced by tinge of acidity.
1995 Cray Crémant de Loire Rosé, £5.99-£6.99; Booth’s Supermarkets (25 stores – H.O. 01772 251701); D. Byrne & Co, Clitheroe (01200 423152); Mill Hill Wines, London NW7 (020 8959 6754); Bretzel Foods, London N1 (020 7359 5386); Corks of Cotham, Bristol; George Hill of Loughborough (01509 212717); Noble Rot Wine Warehouse, Bromsgrove (01527 575606); Peckhams, Glasgow & Edinburgh (0141 445 4555); Define Food & Wine, Sandiway (01606 882101). Alternatively contact the producer and importer Boutinot Wines on 0161 908 1300 for other local stockists.
Perfect for those who say they don’t like Champagne – this light fine & subtle, salmon-tinged sparkler has tangy fruit laced with almond, and crisp mouth-watering finish.
Taltarni Brut Tâché, £9.99 Winecellar & good independents – delicately pink bubbles from Victoria State Oz, this successfully combines summer fruits with classy aged richness.
1997 Green Point Brut, Chandon Australia; £11.99 widely available – pricier but top quality from the Champagne house’s winery near Melbourne; offers rich bready depth and plenty of cleansing balance.
Champagne Oudinot Brut NV, M & S £11.99 on offer.
Creamier and fruitier than many Champers yet still refreshingly light, Oudinot is consistently good and has fennel undertones with a crisp finish that subtly gets richer too.
All rights Richard M James