One of our favourite events of the calendar is just around the corner, next Tuesday to be precise. It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, when everyone celebrates being Irish, whether or not we are! March 17th is an annual excuse to wear ridiculous green novelty hats and glasses, roll out our excruciatingly bad Irish accents and drink a pint or two of Guinness, wherever we are in the world.
That we pay homage to the patron saint of Ireland by drinking the country’s (even world’s) favourite malt beverage is hardly a surprise; after all, the Emerald Isle doesn’t exactly boast a thriving wine industry, does it? Yet, it made us wonder what saintly wines existed, so we did a bit of research. It turns out that the French may be the holiest of them all, with an impressive array of appellations (AOC’s) bearing a saintly name.
What are the first names that come to mind when you think of saintly wines? I bet that most people jump straight to the Bordeaux communes Saint-Emilion AOC and Saint-Julien AOC. After all, these are two of the most beloved names in red wine. Saint-Julien is found on the Cabernet-Sauvignon dominated left bank of the Garonne River and boasts properties from the famous 1855 classification including Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou and Château Léoville-Las Cases. Over on the Merlot dominated right bank, Saint-Emilion is a UNESCO world heritage site and the mere mention of wines made here from such properties as Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc sends wine lovers to a vinous utopia.
If we dig a little further, however, there are some little known saintly appellations which are great value discoveries. Burgundy is home to its fair share, such as the Côte de Beaune’s Saint-Aubin AOC, made using traditional Burgundian varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for white and red wines. Further south in the Mâcon, Saint-Véran AOC is a purely white wine appellation also made entirely from Chardonnay. Yet, it’s to the north of Burgundy that one of the region’s quirkiest appellations can be found; Saint-Bris, famous for being the only AOC in Burgundy whose wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc, a very un-Burgundian grape variety!
Syrah (or Shiraz) is the king of the Northern Rhône vineyards, which thrive on the banks of the mighty Rhône River between Vienne and Montélimar. Whilst wines from appellations such as Côte-Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage can command prices similar to top Bordeaux and Burgundy, for many the Saint-Joseph AOC offers consistently high quality and affordable access to the region’s renowned red wines. Yet there’s another lesser known wine from the Northern Rhône which also bears a saintly name; the Saint-Péray AOC. One of the earliest and smallest appellations in France, the production is mostly sparkling wine made from Marsanne and Roussanne. At the height of its popularity in the 19th century, it was even more highly regarded than Champagne!
In the Languedoc-Rouissillon, home to some of France’s most exciting wines and innovative wineries, Saint-Chinian AOC is the oldest vineyard of the region, dating from the Roman era, and is reputed for robust reds, crisp rosés and dry white wines. Further towards the Pyrenees, in Armagnac country, the Saint-Mont AOC is named for the 11th century Benedictine Monastery which carries the same name. Tannat, which has found fame as the great grape of Uruguay, is the main ingredient in a Saint-Mont red, whilst fruity whites and dry rosés are also produced. Even more obscure are the wines of Saint-Sardos AOC. Granted appellation status in 2011, this vineyard north of Toulouse may be of France’s newest, but it boasts a viticultural history dating from the Middle Ages and is the only appellation in France with Syrah and Tannat as the principle grape varieties.
Image credits: no_typographic_man and florriebassingbourn.
Chrissie McClatchie is an Australian freelance writer and wine specialist who has been living in France since 2008. You can follow her on Twitter @RivieraGrape as she explores the wines of the French Riviera and Italy's Liguria.
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.