AS I PUSHED my supermarket trolley down another aisle of dull whites this weekend, I realised that we all need a little more democracy in our glasses. This is Party Conference season, after all.
I am talking, of course, about the Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc duopoly. In the past few years these two grape types have pushed all others in Britain to the edge of oblivion. A quick look at the Majestic website tells me that of all the 371 white wines they sell, around two thirds, are made from these two grapes.
Don’t get me wrong: these are two wonderful grapes. But frankly a large proportion of Sauvignon is thin and acidic, and the Chardonnay is often over-oaked and artificial. I can understand why British palates are scared to move too far from their safety zone where white wine is concerned. It is only a couple of decades since they were assailed by the horrors of Blue Nun or sugared Gewurztraminer. But we need to break free of our prejudices.
So, together with a few friends on Monday evening, I formed the Minority Wine Appreciation Hoedown (MWAH for short) to champion the attractions of less-regarded grape varietals.
Inevitably at our inaugural meeting we held a modest tasting. First up was an £8.99 Picpoul. Now, Picpoul has been the wine lovers’ fashion item of summer ’13 – fresh and citrusy with more fruit and depth than many Sauvignons. I like to serve Picpoul as an aperitif, since it's light but never bland. We tried the Picpoul de Pinet Prestige, grown a few miles inland from the Mediterranean beaches – it was as bright as summer.
Next was a £17.49 Pinot Gris. Interestingly, this divided MWAH’s opinion strongly, such is the antipathy towards sweeter white wines that linger in England still. “A bit Downtown Abbey,” condemned one delegate. “Rich and full, sweet but not too sweet,” said another, clearly more discerning. Pinot Gris is the great grape grown in Alsace with an unique oily, fruity taste that I adore. We, however, drank Saint Clair Pioneer from the Marlborough Valley – and what a treat it was.
Then came the £12.99 Albarino, an all-time favourite of mine. Every time I serve Albarino from the Rias Baixas region in Spain to guests I am besieged by questions – “what’s this?” “where is it from?’. For me, Rias Baixas is the Chablis of Spain, turning out aromatic wines of depth and character worth far more attention than they get. I won't plug the one we tasted since it was a poor example of its kind, but perhaps I will return to the subject in a later column.
Then came two blockbusters. First an £8.99 Marsanne from the South of France. This was a rich, adult wine with an aroma of honey and ripe fruit. The whole MWAH committee was impressed and voted it best of the night. Interestingly Marsanne is normally found in the Northern Rhone in wines likes St Joseph, but this was a Pays D’Oc from the South, the Paul Mas Estate La Forge Vineyard. The sun had worked its magic on this one – it was full, complex and a bargain at the price.
And finally: a wine that blew us all away, a £14.99 Rousanne. As an introduction, Rousanne is a rare grape at the best of times, normally restricted to the Southern Rhone. This, though, was from Stellenbosch in South Africa, the Rustenberg Rousanne. It was glorious, rich and powerful, with a creamy fruitiness. Powerful in every sense, with an alcohol content of 15 per cent. A keeper – we all agreed it would improve with a year or three in the bottle.
So that’s a brief tour of highly affordable and rather special wines that aren’t Sauvignon Bland. Next time you’re weighing up the wine list, broaden your mind and you will be surprised at the result.