Wine label facts #1: Helping you understand the gobbledegook on a bottle

I’ve always been mesmerised by red cars. My first one was a Mini I named Charlie and it had a hole in its floor and when it rained the passengers would bail out with a teacup I kept in the car for the purpose.

One red car blew up on the motorway; another was stolen; yet another lost an embarrassing argument with a car park wall. I’ve been driven up the garden path by red cars because of seeing with my eyes and not thinking with my brain.

A red car! I must have it!! Then I’m lured into the misery beneath.

Wine can be the same. We’re tempted into buying because we like the look of the label. They’re clever, those marketing people.

To help you buy wines based on wine label facts, and not on marketing, here’s a run-through of some terms you might see on a wine bottle.

Wine label facts

Vieilles vignes: This is French for old vines. Old vines are the wise things of the vineyard. They’re not young and giddy, they don’t produce lots of grapes, but the ones which are harvested have a special, concentrated, quality from those sage old vines.

Classico: This Italian term indicates that a wine was produced in the heart of a region where the terroir is “classic” for that style. You’ll find Chianti wines – but a step above is Chianti Classico; and then there’s basic Soave wines and Soave Classico and so on.

Hand-harvested : If you read that grapes have been hand-harvested, the wine producer has put money into manpower. The grapes might be grown on slopes which are inaccessible by machine harvesters, or even better, human decisions could be involved in selecting the best grapes for the new wine to come. I like it when I see this on a label.

Wine label facts: Many grapes are picked in the cool of the night. Don't read this on a label and think ... ah!! This is so romantic!!
Wine label facts: Many grapes are picked in the cool of the night. Don’t read this on a label and think … ah!! This is so romantic!!

Picked in the cool of the night : Many, many grape varieties are picked in the coolest part of the night so they are more stable and the start of the winemaking process is easier; also vineyard workers aren’t struggling in the sun. It isn’t unusual, no matter how poetic it reads on a label. It’s like a shop putting up a notice “we stacked these eggs carefully so we wouldn’t break them”. I ask myself, was there something more interesting to put on the label about this wine? Possibly not.

Sur lie: This means “upon the lees”. The lees is the residue at the bottom of the fermentation vessel when the yeast has finished its busy-body challenge of turning the grape sugars into alcohol. Some winemakers leave the new wine sitting on top of the lees occasionally stirring it. This will add a creamy mouthfeel and more depth to the wine.

Frizzante: If your sparkling wine has the Italian word frizzante on the label it means it is semi-sparkling. This is opposed to spumante, which is fully-sparkling. If you like your bubbles, don’t miss out on half of them!

Oak: If you see the words “new oak” it will mean that the winemaker has invested a bit of money into the wine which can only be a good thing. New oak isn’t cheap. Think of it as a teabag. New teabags impart lots of flavours, just like new oak. Oak will add notes of vanilla, spice and toast.

Joven: You’ll see this on Spanish wines and it means young. If you like aged rioja  with classic smoky, woody and vanilla notes, you won’t get that in a joven wine. They are young, fruit-forward, fresh and easy to drink.

Gran Reserva: The polar opposite of joven. Rioja wines are treated with extra care and spend at least two years in oak and three in bottle before being released to the likes of you and me.

I could go on for a very long time. If you’re baffled drop me a line Only about wine mind. I can’t help with plumbing or wallpapering.

PS I still drive a red car.

Based on wine columns written for Merseyside’s Good Taste magazine and Trinity Mirror regional newspapers

Rioja wine, its a glorious taste of Spain

Marqués de Griñón Tempranillo 2010

THE sun surprisingly came out at the weekend and so did the Rioja. I blinked and the sun was still there … if only I could say the same about the Rioja.

A glorious taste of Spain; the signature red wine of the country. It is so elevated that Rioja was the first wine to be granted the superior Spanish classification status.

The Spanish DO (Denominación de Origen) system is the equivalent of the French AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) – but there is a higher status in Spain, DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada).

Rioja was granted the status when it was first introduced in 1991, due to the region’s record in consistently producing top-quality wines.

The Rioja wine region lies in the north of Spain and takes its name from the Rio (river) Oja.

It is divided into three regions: Rioja Alta (concentrated fruity, velvety wines), Rioja Alavesa (firm character) and Rioja Baja (best for blending).

Rioja has a varied range of soil and topographical features. The Cantabrian Mountains provide shelter from the influences of the Atlantic Ocean, but also protect the vineyards from severe winds. Temperatures vary as do the soils, ranging from chalk to iron, limestone and clay.

Now it doesn’t seem as simple to say a glass of Rioja does it! All the taste permutations of soil, air, wind, mountains and varied temperatures combine into this taste of summer; the memory of a Spanish holiday or tapas treat.

A wine which is young and fruity, or aged and velvety.

Tempranillo is the signature grape and occupies more than 75% of the region’s vineyards.

Yes, it is joined along the journey in blends, but it is the thin-skinned tempranillo grape (meaning ‘little early one’ as it ripens two weeks before garnacha) which thrives on the clay and limestone-based soils of the best vineyard sites.

It is often blended with garnacha which brings along spicy body and high alcohol.

Other grape varieties which find their way into Rioja can be mazuelo (also known as carignan) for colour, tannin and aging and graciano (morrastel) for fresh flavour and aroma. Cabernet Sauvignon peeks in now and again.Marqués de Griñón Alea Tempranillo 2010

But the mainstay of a tasty Rioja is its oak aging. Time in an American oak barrel adds the yumminess that is coconut and vanilla.

Rioja can appear in four styles.

Joven: Wines in their first or second year which keep their fresh fruitiness. Crianza which are at least in their third year, having spent a minimum of one year in casks. Reserva: Selected wines of the best vintages that have been aged for a minimum of three years, with at least one in casks. Finally, Gran Reserva which have spent at least two years in oak casks and three in the bottle.

Back to my north Liverpool garden and the surprise, the sun, the wine.

Beronia Tempranillo Rioja Especial 2010 (£11.99, from Waitrose and selected independents. Bronze at the 2012 Decanter awards) This was smoky, chewy liquorice to taste with mocha, chocolate and vanilla on the nose. Deep, deep red and incredibly moreish.

Marqués de Griñón Alea Tempranillo 2010 (£6.99, Tesco, Morrisons). From the Rioja Alta region, this wine had smoky red fruits on the nose; but a little spicy harshness which could do well with maturing.

Altos de la Guardia Tempranillo 2008 (£8.99, A delight? I think so. Winner of a silver at the 2011 International Wine Challenge. Silky, spicy, autumn plum sunshine and an oaky nuttiness.

First published in the Liverpool Post, September 6th 2012