Wine Club: Travels with a glass in hand

Sparkling wine production in Franciacorta.
Sparkling wine production in Franciacorta.
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Christine Austin looks back on a globe-trotting 2014 that took here from Madeira to Chile via Italy and Paris.

As you read this I will be boarding a plane, heading home after Christmas overseas – 2014 was a tough year for me on a personal level and so a shot of winter sunshine has put the world to rights and 2015 already seems to have started on the right foot.

Of course a Christmas away meant that my usual collection of special bottles were not lined up to take their turn to accompany the seasonal fare of goose, salmon and pudding. But we managed to dip into some less familiar drinks and wines, so this has been not just a holiday but a fact-finding mission. It also means that there isn’t the scattering of pine needles on the carpet, a tall tree to wrestle out through the front door and the decorations to put away. Just once in a while it is good to have a change of habit.

But as I look forward to the next round of tastings and trips I am tempted to review some of the best bottles and visits of 2014.

As always it was the trip I made with the winners of the Fiendish Wine Quiz that was the highlight of my year. Having scored full marks in the quiz and been lucky in the lucky-dip draw from my virtual ice bucket, Andrew Rees, from Sheffield, was selected as winner of the trip to Madeira as guest of Blandy’s. At this point, while this year’s quiz is still being tackled, it might be worthwhile explaining how my virtual ice bucket works, since I am frequently asked this question. Although I studiously ignore all names when I am marking quiz entries, by the time they are whittled down to just a handful of 100 per cent correct papers, I probably will have glanced at some of the names. To avoid any kind of bias in selecting the winner, because by now I know quite a few of you, these papers are now numbered (randomly, not alphabetically) and I call my son who lives in Vancouver and ask him to choose one. So if you feel that your entry has not had the attention it deserves, perhaps you could take this up with him, not me.

The Madeira trip was fantastic. I met up with Andrew and his wife Anne at the airport and we jetted off to the green jewel island. Hosted by the Blandy family, we toured the island, looking at vineyards; we tasted through a fabulous range of wines and we smelt the glorious aromas of old wines maturing in cask. We also ate rather well. Espada fish, fresh from the sea, sizzling limpets and the local form of barbecue called espetada made of chunks of beef skewered on a bay leaf stalk were just some of the delicious dishes we enjoyed during our few days there.

We also enjoyed drinking Madeira. A dry, nutty Sercial before lunch and maybe a rich raisiny Bual or Malmsey after dinner was the pattern and they were good to set up the taste buds. My taste for Bual continues and there is an opened bottle at home, right next to the uniced rich fruitcake that serves as our Christmas cake. I am looking forward to a slice of the cake, with Wensleydale cheese and a glass of Bual, when I get home.

There have been other trips. Sicily was a real highlight, visiting the vineyards and wineries of the Planeta family who have been largely responsible for changing the direction of Sicilian wine over the last 20 years. Started by Diego Planeta and continued by his daughter Francesca and her cousins Alessio and Santi, the Planeta family has driven the need for quality from this island, looking for individuality and regional style. Now the vibrant flavours of Fiano, Frappato, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and Nero d’Avola are the key flavours from Sicily. Field & Fawcett in York has a good selection from this range, but one of the best ways to try this new wave of Sicilian wines from Planeta is at Salvo’s Italian restaurant in Headingley. Not only do they have many Planeta wines on the list, you can also buy them to take away and drink at home. Even better they stock the wonderful Planeta olive oil which is essential for any summer salad. If you are looking for a good place to stay in Sicily then La Foresteria, the hotel owned and run by the Planeta family, is thoroughly recommended for relaxation, food and wine (www.platetaestate.it).

A visit to Franciacorta in northern Italy showed me that there is a lot more to Italian sparkling wine than Prosecco. Using the classic grapes of Pinot Nero, Chardonnay plus an occasional splash of Pinot Bianco and a long, in-bottle fermentation, this region is making complex, toasty, elegant wines that have a distinct, elegant style. This is a fascinating region, situated on the edge of ancient glacial moraines with the huge Lago d’Iseo creating the right climate for grape-growing. Find Franciacorta wines at Majestic, Le Langhe in York and The Halifax Wine Company.

A two-day trip to Paris to indulge in the complex art of food and wine matching was too good an invitation to turn down which is how I ended up having dinner with Pierre-Henry Gagey, president of Louis Jadot, in one of the city’s best wine-friendly restaurants. 110 Taillevent has 110 wines available by the glass, but Pierre-Henry had brought his own few bottles. I will go into this tasting in more detail in a few weeks, but to experience 1992 Corton Charlemagne, Volnay Clos de la Barre 2000 and 1985 Musigny all from Louis Jadot was quite extraordinary. Several of Louis Jadot wines are available at Majestic but for the top wines you need to seek them out at an independent such as Penistone Wine Cellars.

I have also been on a wonderful trip to Chile and Argentina, but this was such a monumental, recent experience that I am still sorting out my pictures and tasting notes. I look forward to telling you all about it in a few weeks, but it does involve a drive over the Andes, which is a fabulous, breathtaking experience.

Happy New Year!