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With the dark days of winter behind us, what wines should we be drinking to welcome in the spring? Simon Woods shares his top tips for seasonal drinking
After a winter of brawny wines, spring is a time to move on to something lighter and livelier. But that doesn’t mean sacrificing flavour and complexity. Chenin Blanc in its home territory of the Loire Valley offers white wines that combine complexity and fruit with vibrant freshness. They’re a great match for lighter spring dishes, especially fish and buttered spring greens. Less familiar but – at their best – no less attractive are the rapidly improving whites of Greece. On the red side, decent Bordeaux offers layers of interest without excess weight. So too does Pinot Noir, which is perfect with spring lamb. The two recommended opposite come from Chile, a country making strides with this often fickle grape. Last but not least, we have a couple of Cavas. Forget cheap and cheerful, these are stylish fizzes of the highest order.
Chenin Blanc is often overlooked in lists of the world’s top grape varieties. You need look no further than its past performance in its home territory of the Loire Valley to find the reason. There have been some fabulous wines of various degrees of sweetness, but there have also been some over-sulphured, under-ripe, rot-affected shockers. Thankfully, with better work in both vineyards and cellars, and also with a succession of warmer vintages, quality is most definitely on the up. These two wines show the qualities of dry Chenin.
Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau Vouvray Sec Silex 2008 (£12.96, Colchester Wine Company)
Beautifully balanced young wine with a slightly flinty edge from the soil, but also a wealth of fruit – green apples, lemons and a more exotic passion fruit-like character. Holding it all together is a backbone of earthy minerality and fresh acidity.
Domaine FL Anjou Blanc Le Chenin 2007 (£13.99, Liberty Wines)
A richer style of wine than the Vouvray, with more of a peachy mouthfeel. There’s still a note of apples, but here it’s more in the warm, apple Charlotte spectrum. Once again, there’s the classic tangy Chenin backbone to provide decorum and freshness.
As with much of southern Europe, Greece has undergone a vinous renaissance in recent years and now has plenty of interest to offer the adventurous wine drinker. As in Italy and Portugal, there are plantings of familiar grape varieties, but the real gems are to be found among the local talent. With many of the vineyards lying in warm regions, you would expect red grapes to have the upper hand, but currently the whites are more than holding their own. Banish Retsina from your mind and try these two gems.
Xerolithia White 2008, Crete (£7.99, Oddbins)
This rounded yet never too fleshy wine made from the Vilana grape offers a nice mix of richness and crispness, with some pineapple flavours, but also a slightly pithy, piney edge and an almost volcanic note on the finish.
Hatzidakis Santorini 2008 (£9.49, Waitrose)
Made mostly from Assyrtiko, which for me is the pick of Greece’s white grapes. It’s a taut youngster that reminds me of a combination of white Bordeaux and Australian Riesling. Imagine a wine that offers the smoky pear and nutty edges of the former with the taut citrus fruit and mineral edges of the latter and you won’t be far off the mark.
While 2009 looks as if it will be one of the best-ever vintages in Bordeaux, it’s going to be a few years before the top wines filter through. Never mind, nature has been kind to the world’s most famous wine region in the past couple of decades, and while the top wines command jaw-dropping prices, there’s plenty available at less stratospheric levels.
Chateau Haut Cabut Premieres Cotes de Blaye 2006 (£11.95, Lea & Sandeman)
The vineyards of Blaye look across the Gironde estuary to some of the most famous châteaux in the Médoc, and the wines here offer good value for those in search of honest, Merlot-based Bordeaux. This one has some of the smoky allure of new oak, adding gloss
and sheen to the plush, plummy berry fruit. Add a touch of cedar and some earthy tannins and you have a very satisfying wine.
Chateau de Lamarque Haut-Medoc 2004 (£17.99, Corney & Barrow)
Now showing some fragrant maturity, this wine is all about gentleness, with just-ripe blackcurrant and raspberry fruit, smoky coffee notes and an earthy finish with a touch of herbs. Classic roast lamb wine.
Ask people to spend £20 on a bottle of Champagne and they won’t bat an eyelid. Ask them to spend the same amount on Cava, Spain’s main contribution to the world of sparkling wine, and you’ll get a very different response. That’s a pity, because upmarket Cava can often shame similarly priced Champagne. Here are two that are well worth seeking out.
Codorniu Reina Maria Cristina Cava Brut Reserva 2007 (£17.99, Majestic)
This contains the traditional Cava grapes Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, but Chardonnay makes up 50% of the blend. It’s a relaxed, confident style of wine, with a touch of biscuity maturity, a core of earthy, almost herby citrus fruit, and a soft, gentle finish.
Raventos i Blanc L’Hereu Brut Reserva 2007 (£15, SWIG)
The Raventós family was the driving force behind Cava giant Freixenet, but sold up in the 1980s to concentrate on making much smaller amounts of top-quality wine. This is the baby of their range, but it’s an impressive wine – dry, crisp and serious, with smoky lemon fruit, a lightly toasty edge and a fine-boned finish.
In the past 10 years Chile has begun to produce Pinot Noirs that deserve attention, and often at razor-sharp prices. As exploration continues into newer, cooler vineyard regions, and as the winemaking styles mature, there’s no reason why quality shouldn’t continue to increase. Regions to look out for include San Antonio, Limarí and Bío-Bío, but the two I’ve chosen are both from the Casablanca Valley.
Emiliana Reserva Pinot Noir 2008, Casablanca (£7.99, Noel Young Wines)
The joyful young fruit – red cherries, strawberries, raspberries – is what you notice first, but then a touch of smoky oak comes through, along with a fresh, sappy edge that cleans your mouth and leaves you wanting more. Not complex, but vibrant and tasty.
Undurraga TH Pinot Noir 2008, West Casablanca (£13.49, M&S Wines Direct)
A richer, more seductive style, still with the same juicy red fruit flavours, but there’s more of that feral, forest-floor edge here, and with time in the glass, hints of coffee and truffle start to emerge. Again, complexity isn’t its forte, but it more than makes up for that with its rounded, fleshy allure.