FOOD & DRINK: GRAPEVINE

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The Independent Culture
LUC and Jean Vienniet were losing money and miserably contemplating grubbing up their vineyards. Then they bumped into Angela Muir, an English wine broker and master of wine, in a restaurant in the South of France.

In the early Eighties, both brothers had planted up their separate large farms near Sete with all the fashionable vines - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Viognier - but also with some unusual ones such as the Spain's fine Tempranillo and the Vermen-tino of Italy. The grapes turned out fine, but the wines, made by an old French cellar master, were mediocre and hard to sell. They called in the inevitable Australian, but this one fell foul of the French cellar master, and in any case arrived two weeks after the white grapes were ripe and made head-splitting 15- degree Chardonnay.

So for the 1994 vintage, Angela organised them a pukka Australian, the British-based Nick Butler, plus a British importer. The first results are available in Kwik Save: Skylark Hill Very Special Red, Vin de Pays d'Oc (£2.99), a bright purply-red made from Tempranillo and Syrah, rich and plummy with a savoury edge and firm tannin; and Skylark Hill Vermentino, Vin de Pays d'Oc (£2.89), a very attractive, crisp white with ripe apple and peach fruit and a hint of almond, unusual at this price.

WINE-MAKING gurus usually go from New to Old World, but occasionally the reverse happens. You might easily take the newly arrived Chilean 1994 Terra Noble Merlot (£4.99 Asda) for a Loire red, with its lovely, grassy aroma and light, juicy, raspberry fruit. That's because the Touraine winemaker Henri Marrionnet, who was called in to advise on a new Chilean wine estate, made it in the same style as his Touraine Gamay. "Carbonic maceration", the technique of fermenting whole red grapes rather than a crushed mush, "extracts the maximum you can get from the grapes", says Marrionnet, now back among his French vines. "You get all the colour, the aromas, all the fruit, and very little of the toughness of other red wines. I love Merlot grapes, though it's too cold to grow them in the Loire valley."

Marrionnet was called over to Chile two years ago by a group of Chilean businessmen, including an old friend of his. They wanted to invest in a new 100-hectare vineyard, and took Marrionnet the length of Chile, tasting wines of different grape varieties to decide what and where they should plant. Marrionnet plumped for the deep (cooler) south, 300km south of Sant-iago and way south of the main grape-growing areas. "It's the ideal climate, not too hot, no vine diseases, no need for irrigation." The vineyards are still being planted, and the first wines (a pleasant Sauvignon as well as the delicious Merlot) were made last year from grapes Marrionnet selected and bought in from neighbours of the new vineyard. Like his Loire Reds, the Chilean one is delicious chilled for summer drinking.

IT'S RARE for Merlot to be made in this style in Chile or anywhere else. Much more typical of Chile at its best, but this time made by a New Zealander, is the fuller, rich and raisiny 1994 Errazuriz Merlot (£4.99 Tesco). Also excellent value from Tesco are the Chilean 1994 Calitera Cabernet Merlot (£3.75), soft, fruity and slightly minty, and the superb 1993 Errazuriz Don Maximiano Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva (£6.99), a wonderful blackcurranty red.

SNAP up a good red bargain at Somerfield/Gateway, at an introductory price just for the next couple of days. Ctes du Roussillon, Jeanjean (£1.99 until 16 May, then £3.05) is the new 1994 vintage, a light, low- tannin easy glugger.

FULLERS have two new Chardonnays from South Africa, both at £4.99. 1994 Bellingham Chardonnay is attractively Burgundian-style, very buttery but subtle. 1994 Van Loveren Spes Bona Chardonnay is riper and more typically South African, but also fresh and buttery.

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