Written by Captain Rod Hatch as a guide for all those New World stewards and stewardesses who are new to this industry and to the Old World of Europe, part 1 of A Beginner’s Guide to European Wines takes you on a journey through France and Italy.
As an introductory overview for newcomers to the whole field of European wines, these words are not comprehensive or exhaustive. These notes will not teach you everything about the subject, but they will give a foundation on which to build your own knowledge. The notes include a few hints about how to develop and exploit your knowledge as you progress up the career ladder. A useful reference book to have on board is the Hugh Johnson Pocket Wine Guide, which is updated and republished annually.
During your career you may be privileged to handle and serve some of the world’s greatest wines. They are not inert bodies of liquid contained in glass bottles. They are living and developing entities. They are sensitive to vibration and random temperature changes. Be aware of all this, and over time as your experience and background knowledge become noticed by an owner or principle charter guest, you may even become entrusted to select and purchase wines on their behalf.
As yachting is a luxury industry, and the wine most identified with luxury is champagne, then bubbly wines are where we shall begin our exploration of the wines of the major European wine producers: France, Italy, and Spain. Other producers, secondary but not to be overlooked, are Germany, Austria, Portugal, Bulgaria, Rumania, Greece, Hungary, Switzerland, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and the UK.
French wines are demarcated by region and quality. The easiest way to navigate around the labels is to become familiar with the main regions, looking for the initials A.O.C. on the label. A.O.C. stands for Controlled Region of Origin and it is a guarantee that the contents come from the region named on the label. It also lets you know that only certain grape varieties, specifically approved for that region, have been used in its production.
(Note: sometimes an individual grower within an A.O.C. region will produce an excellent wine from non-approved grapes, in which case he will have to sell it without the A.O.C. label, maybe as a simple vin de table (table wine). They are hard to find but can be of great value, occasionally surpassing others which carry the A.O.C. label).
Champagne - made strictly in the Champagne region, which is conveniently near Paris, top wines are the Grande Marques, names such as Krug, Bollinger, Pol Roger, Louis Roederer, Veuve Clicquot, Perrier-Jouet, Tattinger, among others. Krug is regarded by its aficionados as in a class of its own: there is Krug, and then there are the rest. A small, almost cult producer is Jacqueson, said to have been Napoleon’s favourite. As well as their standard blends, the major houses also produce vintage champagnes in years which have given them a harvest of very high-quality grapes and market special blends (or cuvees), such as Veuve Clicqout’s La Grande Dame, Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon and L. Roederer’s Cristal. Towering over them all is Krug’s Clos de Mesnil. Vintage and other special champagnes may be kept on their “lees” (small bits left over from the grape pressing) in barrel for three to 10 years before bottling, and can then age for another 20 or more years, developing a particular bouquet and flavour, rich, toasty and maybe a hint of old socks. Over-aged champagne which has lost its fizz has a distinctive love-it-or-hate-it taste. If you are served such a bottle in a restaurant and love the taste when it’s poured and sits flat in your glass, negotiate a huge discount, finish the bottle and then put the balance towards ordering a second bottle with regular bubbles.
Bordeaux - there are many sub-regions in Bordeaux such as Graves, Pomerol, Medoc, St. Emilion, Margaux and Pauillac and there is a complicated system of classification of some Bordeaux wines which requires some studying to understand. First up there are grand vineyards such as the classed First Growths of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Haut Brion, and Margaux. Quantities are limited, very expensive and need very careful handling. Long periods on yachts are not good for their health! There are many hundreds of chateaux below the First Growths, some almost equally expensive, others offering excellent value for special occasions or everyday drinking. It is a matter of reading, tasting and learning. Red Bordeaux the wine of choice for roast lamb. Bordeaux whites are less well known, but Graves whites have a special repute.
Burgundy - this region produces some very famous names such as Romanee-Conti, La Tache), and the reds epitomize wines from the pinot noir grape. The region is even more complex than Bordeaux in terms of labeling - quality within the A.O.C. system from individual producers may vary enormously and price is no true indicator of quality. Chickens are terrified of red Burgundies, and with good reason: it’s where many of them end up as coq au vin! Similarly with the whites (such as from Chablis or Macon), which in turn epitomize chardonnay wines, and make certain varieties of fish, such as sole and turbot and trout, very nervous.
Rhone - the main sub-regions, from north to south, are Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and these are most famous for their powerful reds. As for whites, they are produced throughout the region, but Condrieu, just south of Cote Rotie is renowned as the home of the Viognier grape (think apricots). Condrieu includes the legendary Chateau-Grillet, a single vineyard which is the smallest Appelation Controle in France. The top reds from the sub-regions named above can command forbidding prices, but they all have affordable bottles too. Gigondas in particular offers good value, with hearty wines, a little smokey sometimes, and with a hint of chocolate.
Loire - this is a region best known for whites, with Muscadet and Sancerre the usual suspects to accompany seafood. The reds need to be served at the same temperature as for whites, and Saumur-Champigny is probably the most serious of the Loire reds. Good-value sparkling wines come from this valley, namely Saumur, Vouvray and Cremant de Loire, which are all produced by the traditional champagne method and are well suited for fish, shellfish and white meats in creamy sauces.
Alsace - one chooses by grape varietal and producer here rather than by sub-sub-region or commune, and it produces mostly white wines which are very adaptable to many dishes, from delicate freshwater fish to wild game, roasted or stewed. The best-known grapes are Sylvaner, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer which are renowned for being aromatic and fruity, even while tasting dry in the mouth. Vendange tardive (late picked) Gewurtraminer can be quite viscous, unctuous, and beguiling, and the wine is distinctively spicy with a hint of roses and lychees. It goes well with Asian cuisine and can accompany grilled fresh sardines or a tarte tatin. It can also be enjoyed on its own, to be sipped and chewed – get beyond the immediate obvious taste of raisins, concentrate on the flavours in your mouth, and find all the ingredients of a Christmas pudding in a single mouthful.
The South West and Languedoc-Rousillon and Provence - these regions together encompass a huge area, producing many everyday wines but also many separate A.O.C. standouts. When charter guests order rosé wine, they’ll be looking at this area. One popular producer, Domaine Ott, has stood out ahead of the crowd by canny marketing. Back in the early 1990’s they sold their wine out of a small dusty hole-in-the-wall shop in Antibes, but they had grander ambitions. Their bottles have an instantly recognizable profile - they even engaged Antibes’ resident “souffleur” (glass-blower) to design special glasses to underline their brand. The souffleur is still there behind the old walls, and the Ott brand is going strong (charterers seem happy to pay for the name), but the old shop is gone and the glasses have disappeared into the hands of a few antiquarian wine glass collectors.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the huge variety of grapes, regions and a chaotic classification system – after all, this is Italy we’re dealing with here.
Venice - starting with sparkling wines, Prosecco is the term popularly applied to just about any Italian fizz from any area, but strictly speaking, Prosecco comes from the area around Venice. No longer perceived as a cheap alternative to champagne, Prosecco now stands on its own feet and has penetrated the international market so much so that in recent years it has been taking market share away from champagne in the UK.Although the styles of the two wines are different, with Prosecco being marked by freshness and simplicity and Champagne valued for its complexity, one may expect better value from a €20 Prosecco than a €20 champagne. Where does Prosecco belong on a charter yacht’s wine list? Offer it as a local wine to pair with local food if the yacht is visiting Venice, as it may be offered as an aperitif which is a little lighter then Champagne. It also belongs behind the bar for making Bellinis.
Trento - another region producing quality sparkling wine, and a cut above the Veneto’s Prosecco, is the Trento, which uses the same traditional method as in Champagne. Top producer Ferarri now commands retail prices approaching €50 a bottle for recent vintage releases, and the Franciacorta region also uses the traditional method to produce its wines – look for the Saten version. The bad news about all these wines is that the Chinese have now discovered them, so we can expect an above-inflation increase of easily €3-5 per bottle in the mid-range and upper-range of quality Italian sparklers.
Verona - among the reds, Valpolicella is produced in the north east around Verona. The version of this wine, which is made from partially dried grapes, is called Amarone della Valpolicella and with some aging, it develops depths of flavours such as molasses and chocolates. A similar version, known as Ripasso, is made by macerating Valpolicella grapes on top of skins and seeds from earlier crushing for a more concentrated flavour.
Tuscany - probably the most recognized name, almost synonymous with Italian red wine, is Chianti. Made in Tuscany from the Sangiovese grape, the basic tourist stuff in straw covered flasks does not belong on superyachts. Chianti Classico comes from the central part of the region and prides itself on being a cut above generic Chianti. The term ‘Riserva’ on the label means the wine has been through a specified period of aging in cask then in bottle, and may be ready then for long keeping. A special sub-zone within Chianti is Ruffina, with top producers Frecobaldi and Antonori. Another Tuscany sub-zone growing the same grapes is Brunello di Montalcino - a contender for the title ‘King of Italian Reds’. The other challengers for this title are Barolo and Barbaresco, while Barbera and Bardolino – although worthy wines - are not of the same stature as the first three. Amarone stands out in this category and if you propose this wine, you can present it to your guests as being from the grape favoured by Verona’s famous lovers, Romeo and Juliet. (Never let historical accuracy get in the way of a good story).
Still Italian whites, unlike the sparklers, are not widely known outside Italy, perhaps with the exception of Verdicchio in its distinctive curved bottle. When cruising the Italian coast between Porto Venere and Portofino, encourage guests to pair the local whites from Ciinque Terre with Ligurian seafood. When visiting Elba, tell them to seek out the local red wine from the Aquabona vineyard. Further South, around the Bay of Naples and the islands, point them towards the wines from Casa d’Ambra on Ischia. You can also impress guests with your expertise by proposing Mastroberardino’s Greco di Tuffo with its citrus hints for their fish course at lunchtime. This wine is at the top for quality among Italian whites and can actually handle some bottle-ageing.
Part 2: Next week, read all about wines from Spain, Portugal and beyond.
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