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SWIMMING AGAINST THE TIDE

1st Oct 2018

Throughout the history of wine, it has been subject to the vicissitudes of fashion.  From the ‘pints of port’ of the 18th century to the Queen Victoria-driven mania for Hock in the 19th century, there have always been certain wines which are in vogue – and therefore, others which are out of fashion.

In recent years we have seen this happen at a much faster pace.  The Chardonnay fixation of the early 1990s gave way to the rise of ‘blush’ wines, which in turn were overtaken by Pinot Grigio.  Today the Prosecco craze still shows no sign of fading, although it surely will when the next big thing comes along.

All of this is great news for those involved in selling wine, and, for a period at least, the producers in the trendy regions.  But for the wine drinker, it inevitably leads to inflated prices, and then a drop in quality as careful winemaking is sacrificed in order to keep up with demand.

The savvy drinker will see the obvious: if in-vogue wines are suffering from price and quality issues, then it stands to reason that amongst the untrendy ones you will find bargains.  Following the herd might help you fit in at parties, but swimming against the tide means you will be drinking better wines for less money.  And it’s always fun to be the maverick, anyway.

I have written before in these pages about how the resolutely unfashionable world of sherry offers some of the biggest bargains in the wine world.  Still tainted with the ‘decanter full of sweet, sticky liquid on grandmother’s sideboard’ image, those charged with promoting sherry have struggled to get across the wonderful, fresh, diverse drink that offers arguably better value than any other wine.

But there are plenty of other wines which have fallen out of favour for no other reason than our ridiculous quest to be chic and up-to-the-minute. 

Often it’s only when you visit a wine region that you find yourself wondering why more people aren’t branching out and trying something new – or, indeed, something which used to be popular and isn’t any more.

Over the summer I spent three very happy weeks in the Veneto region of northeast Italy.  Stretching inland from the wonderful city of Venice, this is a land of fertile plains where cereal crops dominate, and gently undulating hills which are ideal for cultivating grapes.

More wine is grown in this region than anywhere else in Italy apart from Puglia and Sicily, and it is home to two of my favourite wines, both of which were once much more popular in the UK than they are now: Soave and Valpolicella.

Both these names are object lessons in what can happen when a wine becomes fashionable.  Meeting soaring demand meant chasing quantity over quality, and as a result people fell out of love with both of them.  It took a bit of time, but both then realised the route back to prosperity was to find the quality again.

Tellingly, both wines rely on resolutely untrendy native grape varieties that few drinkers would be able to identify.  The Garganega which is the backbone of Soave is – provided yields are kept in check – redolent of lemon and almonds, and can yield wines of real character with wood ageing. 

Top makers like Pieropan and Anselmi are producing really fine quality wines which, whilst not cheap, certainly offer stunning value.  The region’s winemakers have expanded their repertoire by reviving sweet Recioto di Soave; Pieropan’s Le Colombare Recioto would be one of my desert island wines.

Meanwhile over in Valpolicella, quality is still very variable, but there are plenty of decent wines finding their way back onto the UK’s shelves.  The star grape here is Corvina, with Rondinella and Molinara in the mix as well.

The blockbuster and expensive Amarone di Valpolicella has always been around at the top end of things, but the real value is to be found in the rarer Valpolicella Ripasso, a technique which sees the unpressed skins of Amarone wines, once they have finished their fermentation, added to the wine to add extra flavour, alcohol and character.

Neither Soave nor Valpolicella sits in any top ten chart of fashionable wines.  For me that’s a good thing, because it means that whilst it takes a little more effort to find them, the quality and the value is worth it.  And anyway, who wants to be a slave to fashion?

 

Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month

Co-op Chablis 2017

East of England Co-op, £12.99

An own-label Chablis made by the respected family firm of J.M.Brocard, this has an appealing mix of citrus and minerality, with a good acidity which is the hallmark of Chablis.  Simple enough, but easy drinking and good value.

Co-op Fairtrade Malbec 2016

East of England Co-op, £6.99

Grown at high altitude in the Famatina Valley of Argentina, this barrel-aged Malbec is bursting with plum, cherry and jam aromas.  On the palate it offers pleasing tannins, and a good balance.  A good wine for that Friday evening steak.

Valpolicella Ripasso Villa Borghetti 2016

Majestic, £11.99 as part of a mixed case of six bottles

Made right in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico region by Famigla Pasqua, this wine is pumped over the pomace from the production of the Estate's Amarone adding a richness and depth to the fine cherry, blueberry and sweet spice flavours.  A big wine with big flavours, and at this price, a steal.

This article was first published in Feast Norfolk magazine.