It’s February already! Which means that the Super Bowl has just been won (and lost) for another year, the Oscars are just around the corner … and we’re on an unavoidable collision course with that most ‘romantic’ of day’s mid-month, Valentine’s Day.
Granted, all the Hallmark cards, red roses and ‘I ♥ U’ balloons may reek of commercialism, but dig a little and there are some rather heartwarming stories and traditions to warm even the coldest hearts of the more cynical amongst us. Many of which involve wine, hooray!
After all, it’s easy to forget that there really was a Saint Valentine, a 3rd century saint martyred and buried near Rome on the 14th of February, around 270 AD. He would become one of the world’s most recognized saints; the patron saint of love and happy marriages, (as well as bee-keepers, epilepsy, fainting and the plague), yet there’s sadly precious little known about him.
We do know the whereabouts of his relics, however. They are scattered throughout the Christian world; from Rome to Dublin and Prague … and the French village of Roquemaure. Found on the banks of the mighty Rhône River, across from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the vineyards of Roquemaure were, like much of the wine world, devastated by phylloxera in the 19th century. A local landowner made a pilgrimage to Rome, returning with relics of Saint Valentine to help in the fight against the destructive louse. Today the (again thriving) vines of Roquemaure fall under the renowned Rhône appellation Lirac and the Vignerons de Roquemaure commemorate their savior saint by producing a Cuvée Saint Valentin, a romantic blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, in his honour.
In fact, the French have wholeheartedly embraced this patron saint of love, rather fitting for a country so synonymous with romance. In the Loire valley, the village of Saint-Valentin may not produce wine itself, but the neighbouring vineyards of Reuilly are some of the region’s best kept secrets. A Reuilly Blanc, made from Sauvignon Blanc, is a great value alternative to the more famous Sancerre and the appellation is also renowned for their distinctive rosés and quality red’s, made from Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir respectively.
The most romantic of French appellations, however, is found in one of the country’s most misunderstood wine regions: Beaujolais. Yes, we all have our opinion on how good Beaujolais Nouveau actually is (and we usually all agree that the answer is not that good), but the region has so much more to offer than the hastily made and heavily marketed vin de primeur celebrated every third Thursday of November.
In fact, there are ten cru villages of Beaujolais, who, using the same soils (gravel) and grape variety (Gamay), create world-class wines which bear no resemblance to the under-ripe, fruit bomb concoctions we all love to hate. Each of these villages boast their own appellation, none of which mentions the dreaded ‘B’ word in their name, and carry such evocative names as Fleury, Moulin à Vent, Chiroubles, Chénas, and Saint-Amour!
Named for Saint-Amateur, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and founded a monastery overlooking the River Saône, the village of St-Amour-Bellevue is at the northern tip of the region and the vineyards surrounding it produce a wine which flies off the shelves come February! A bottle of Saint-Amour is the perfect mid-winter treat, offering luscious red fruit and floral aromas, and like the sweetest love, only gets better with age!
Saint-Amour image credit Yquem45
If you look around the world of wine today, you'll notice that most wine is made with the same grape varieties. Pretty much every 'New World' country produces wines made from grapes native to France; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot... the list goes on. This is no bad thing as stylistically, all the above varieties can be drastically different depending upon climate, soil, viticulture and vinification. The vast majority of glossy, bold Shiraz from Australia is, literally and figuratively, a world away from the savoury, peppery wines of the Northern Rhone, for example. However, in the last 10 years the fashion has been to move away from seeking out the 'best' examples of these well known varieties and instead to look for unique expressions, typically from grapes native to specific countries and regions. This has seen the emergence of some new stars in the world of wine, from the austere, mineral wines of Mount Etna in Sicily to the powerful, racy Assyrtiko of Santorini in Greece. Austria has re-modelled its vinous reputation with the versatile Grüner Veltliner and even as afar as South America, Bonarda and Pais are resurging on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile respectively.
However, no country has been rediscovered in quite the same way as Spain. There are somewhere in the region of 600 grape varieties on the Iberian Peninsula, the vast majority of them indigenous and regionally specific in production. Despite this, Spain was for decades synonymous with oaky, extracted wines from Rioja, and to a lesser extent Ribera del Duero, with Tempranillo the only celebrated indigenous grape hailing from the country. Short-sighted producers ripped up their old, unfashionable vineyards and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and anything that was currently selling, not realising that in doing so they were giving up their major point of difference on the international market-place. However, this wasn't true for all producers and quietly, many went about their business as they had done for centuries; cultivating their families vineyards and producing wines of distinction and style, as their vines slowly became older, sturdier and produced better quality fruit. To look at the market now compared to 20 years ago is staggering. Shops in Barcelona are awash with local Catalan wines, Galician field-blends are appearing in top restaurants across the world and even Sherry is making a come-back! To cover the entirety of this resurgence would take a strong liver and a lot of time, but I'd like to share a few exciting varieties from my own little corner of Spain, the fiercely independent Catalunya:
Wine is a fussy product. Starting from its very beginnings as embryonic genetic material located on the buds of vines, to its moment of glory in your glass, there are countless chemical reactions, pitfalls and opportunities to be navigated and controlled in order to create a good bottle of wine. The vast majority of these is, fortunately, taken care of by the time we actually buy a bottle of wine, as the vigneron has spent the entire year wrestling against nature, ensuring the right balance of sugars, acids and flavour compounds, before handing over the baton to the wine-maker. This is where the grapes will be converted into wine through the magical process of fermentation, possibly aged and then bottled with care being taken to ensure biological stability. Then depending on where the wine is to be sold, it will go through a long or short supply route, potentially crossing oceans, continents and all sorts of checks before it finally appears on a shop shelf or restaurant list somewhere in the world.
Enter us; the consumer. We purchase the wine with the intention of one day drinking it, whether that be within minutes of the purchase, or 20 years down the line, after extended storage to allow for it to evolve within the bottle. Assuming the bottle has been purchased close to home and you intend to drink it in the near future, this is all well and good as any issues of storage are very much the responsibility of the retailer/restaurant and bottles can be returned for a refund. However, if you're buying the wine far from home, possibly, abroad, we run into some potential issues quite quickly.
Having just come back from a two week trip to the Mount Etna region of eastern Sicily we thought we'd share some of the best wine stores we came across travelling in the region. I must say I love the "enoteca" concept in Italy, where you can come for an aperitivo, taste local wines by the glass with some food, and then purchase bottles that you've tasted and liked. We loved visiting and tasting wines directly at the wineries of course, but the experience of tasting different producers side by side, and the ability to try older vintages can only be done at an enoteca.