ALTHOUGH this column’s main focus is on accessible wine at average price levels, it is time for the quarterly look at more expensive bottles – especially as the run-in to Yuletide tends to loosen purse strings.
Christmas, however, can look after itself; I suggest we focus initially on Keats’ ‘season of mellow fruitfulness’ and the game and other hearty dishes it brings to our tables. Any such talk starts one thinking about the reds from France’s Rhône valley. I have encountered a great deal of indifferent Châteauneuf-du-Pape lately, so it was an absolute joy to uncork 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Clos de L’Oratoire (£23, Majestic). It typifies the rich, smooth but slightly earthy flavours this region does so well and delivers layers of fruit, from cherry to mulberry, yet enlivens them with a spicy cedarwood and chocolate finish that includes a touch of minerality.
Less well known but equally impressive is the tiny Cornas appellation at the bottom end of the northern Rhône, where unblended syrah is king. The low yields and small vineyards keep prices high, but the quality can be terrific. Try, for example, 2009 Cornas Equis (£34, www.yapp.co.uk), with its richly intense bramble and spice flavours and silky smooth complexity. Thanks to skilful wine-making, it is ready to drink now, but it will age beautifully too.
Others argue for pinot noir to accompany game, so it’s worth trying 2009 Migration Anderson Valley Pinot Noir (£28, WoodWinters). Behind the herby, raspberry fruit there is unquestionably enough substance to partner game successfully, but the wine’s leafy, velvety softness and balance give it additional sophistication. The cooler climate in this part of California is ideal for pinot noir, but the locality also supports varieties you do not always associate with that latitude, such as gewürztraminer and riesling.
California is not the only slightly unexpected home for riesling as New Zealand is producing nice versions too. I was particularly impressed by 2012 Tinpot Hut Turner Vineyard Riesling (£13.70, minimum purchase of six bottles, Exel Wines), which has zesty and crisply defined apple and lime flavours but rounds everything out nicely with touches of tropical fruit.
Marlborough – where Tinpot Riesling is produced – is more usually associated with sauvignon blanc, but my choice for this particular grape variety is Spain. The 2010 Torres Fransola Sauvignon Blanc (£19.21, as part of a mixed case of 12, www.vintagemarque.com) is from Penedes and includes a dollop of the cava grape, parellada. This softens the sharper edges of the sauvignon and adds an aromatic peach element but does not compromise the fresh lemon and lime acidity or smother the distinctive minty herb finish.
Further north, 2010 Pouilly Fuissé Verget Les Combes Vieilles Vignes (£20, Oddbins) is a lovely example of the whites produced in this part of Burgundy. Smooth, clean vanilla flavours neatly underpin the lemon acidity and more tropical, floral touches of orange – but the whole thing is wrapped up in a backdrop that includes a delightful edge of minerality.
Further east, the Loire valley’s reds are often neglected. Usually low in tannin, they can be served cool, which works well with cabernet franc. Seek out 2011 Bourgueil Bonn’Heure, Chevalerie (£12.49, www.lescaves.co.uk), which delivers nice spicy hints, but its crowning glory is the vibrantly fresh flavours it draws from the substantial bramble and fleshy raspberry fruit.
2011 F Stephen Millier Angel’s Reserve Viognier - California, USA, 13.5 per cent
This lovely ripe viognier avoids being in your face with a backdrop that combines pear-centred acidity and the sharpness of young rhubarb. None of this, however, compromises the clean, sunny, apricot fruit and attractive sweeter notes. £9.49, Naked Wines
2011 Nuevo Mundo Vineyard Selection Carmenère - Maipo Valley, Chile, 13.5 per cent
Made with organic grapes, this complex red combines soft black cherry and damson flavours with a mellow chocolate-centred perception of sweetness from the oak, but mid-palate develops some clear, meaty and green tomato touches.