Stick with tradition and enjoy claret this Easter
Spring is in the air, and this year's very early Easter is just two weeks away. Thoughts turn to the seasonal feast. Lamb is a shoo-in, of course, but which wine?
There is a convention that the correct choice is claret. You might suppose it's an old English tradition, but it isn't. It's French, and originates, along with claret, in the region of Bordeaux. An estuarial landscape on south west France's Atlantic coast where the mighty river Gironde exits to the sea, Bordeaux is an excellent location for growing grapes, but a poor one for grazing. The only livestock that thrive on the salt marshes – the only useful ground besides the vineyards – are sheep.
So, the cooks and farmers of Bordeaux have for centuries put it about that their native wine and their local meat are a marriage made in heaven. It's a notion that caught on over here as long ago as 1154, when our king, Henry II, married Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, whose dowry included all of Bordeaux. Claret at once became de rigueur in the English court, and of course in the households of all those with courtly aspirations.
In fairness, it was pretty decent wine in its own right anyway, and a natural partner to any sort of roasted meat. Mutton in the Middle Ages was the staple meat, because English farmers kept vast flocks of sheep, not just for slaughter but for the nation's most valuable commodity, wool.
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So there you have it. Open a bottle of claret with the Easter lamb and you're showing due deference to a very old Anglo-French tradition.
You get plenty of choice. Bordeaux is notorious for producing the most expensive wines in the world, but there is value to be found, if you know where to look. There is even an estate called Mouton Rothschild, which sounds a bit like a millionaire's sheep farm, but at £450 (larger Waitrose outlets) even for the rather ordinary 2007 vintage, it's not much of a bargain.
Enterprising merchants in Bordeaux produce generic wines craftily blended to make easy, early drinking at very much more competitive prices. Among supermarket own-brands, I never tire of recommending Asda Extra Special Bordeaux Supérieure Roc-Montalon 2010 at £6.98. It's a well-integrated claret, inky purple, long and dense with structured black fruit, smoothly textured sleekness and proper Bordeaux mint, cedar and plum. Last tasted a year ago, I forecast it will "mellow for years to come".
Over at Tesco, Finest Château Fonguillon Montagne St Emilion 2009 at £9.99 is from an individual estate in one of the St Emilion "satellite" appellations. It's a classic "right bank" wine – St Emilion is on the other side of the river from the city of Bordeaux, where Merlot grapes dominate, producing earlier maturing wines than the left-bank vineyards, where Cabernet Sauvignon is king.
This is elegant, blackberry-ripe, cedary-slinky and grippingly savoury. From the famously sun-drenched vintage of 2009, it has a hearty alcohol level of 14%, which comes out as richness and intensity in the maturing wine.
At Waitrose I have two strong contenders. Château Segonzac 2010 at £9.99, my wine of the week only a short while ago, is a proper vigorous but slinky dark-fruit blend from six parts Merlot and two each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. From the Côtes de Blaye, a right bank zone well north of St Emilion, it's a remarkably ripe and ready-to-drink wine with an extraordinary 14.5% alcohol, thanks to another sunny ripening season, this time 2010.
Château Liversan 2009, reduced from £12.99 to £9.74 at Waitrose, is a well-known estate of the Haut-Médoc, north of Bordeaux, where most of the fabled "grands crus" estates are sited. This is a lovely intense wine, lush, succulent and minty with sleek black fruit and proper claret poise. I have tasted wines from neighbouring châteaux in this vintage priced two and even three times higher, and liked them less.
But there is no compulsion to choose claret with the Easter lamb. After all, it's not as if the lamb we'll be eating is French, or even English. It's just as likely to be Welsh. Or, let's face it, Kiwi.
Now we're talking. New Zealand produces plenty of wines that will go very fittingly with a joint of their own lamb. I am not talking about all that ubiquitous grassy white Sauvignon Blanc, or even the growingly popular reds from Pinot Noir. What I mean is Kiwi claret – reds made from the classic Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Take the plunge by trying Villa Maria Private Bin Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 from Majestic. Usual price is £11.99, but if you buy two bottles as part of the six-bottle-any-mix minimum purchase, the price comes down to a very approachable £8.99. I love this wine for its heart-warmingly rich and minty blackcurrant flavours, lifted by the distinctive, edgy ripeness that is such a hallmark of Kiwi reds.