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
Catalunya, tucked away in the North-East corner of Spain, has one of the most fascinating stories to tell. A proud, independent sea-faring nation with prominent ports and military significance, it still suffered various attacks over the centuries from the Greeks, Carathaginans, Romans and the Moors. A convoluted medieval history full of intrigue, betrayal, alliances and war followed and even a lost civil war and extreme dictatorship in the 20th century couldn't quell the local spirit here. Today the capital city of Barcelona is the single largest port in the country, an artistic and cultural wonderland as well as being home to some of the countries best chefs, restaurants and bars. It shouldn't then come as a surprise to learn that Catalan wine is also enthusiastically celebrated locally and increasingly so in international markets as well. 11 of Spain's 69 Denominación de Origen's (Individual, high quality wine regions) are located here, and 95% of the countries entire Cava production as well.
Italy is a country of thousands of wineries large and small. If you are a wine lover planning a trip to visiting Italy, you are surely wondering which wineries are most worth visiting and which wine producers create wines most worth tasting and potentially purchasing to bring back home.
Slow Food International offers an English-language edition of its unique guide to Italian wines whose qualities extend well beyond the palate. Drawing upon visits to more than 300 cellars, the 2000 wine reviews in Slow Wine 2017 describe not only what's in the glass, but also what's behind it: the work, aims, and passion of producers; their bond with the land; and their choice of cultivation and cellar techniques--favoring the ones who implement ecologically sustainable wine-growing and winemaking practices. An essential guide for travelling oenophiles.
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: