Managing editor and member of our Fine Wine Team Martin Brown picks a trio of fine reds starting from just £9.50 that are ready to add charm and colour to the cooler months.
I spend a lot of time tasting, writing and thinking about wines that will fit certain occasions and in this regard, autumn is both an easy and a difficult time. While the demands of seasonal foods and the need for some warmth seem uncontroversial assets, I've also noticed that autumn can prompt quite unexpectedly strong opinions – curious perhaps for a season so famously and poetically linked with the poetic vaguenesses of mistiness and mellowness.
One former colleague prior to my time at The Society was disconcertingly adamant that autumn drinking = pinot noir. In many respects this is a safe assumption, and the grape makes regular appearances at this time of year, being suggested for any number of recipes and occasions. I remember trying to suggest a few alternatives at the time and being given short shrift.
Pinot noir is often seen as the classic autumnal grape, but Martin thinks we should broaden our horizons
A somewhat more wistful memory in the current climate concerns a crowded gig in London (remember those?). 'This is the first time we've visited your country in the fall,' the soft-spoken guitarist of a touring band from Kansas enthused as between-song tuning was concluded. The bellow of beer-addled belligerence came swiftly from the audience: 'AUTUMN.'
'Oh yeah! Sorry, you guys call it autumn.' Still not content, the heckler growled over the first few bars of the next song: 'AUTUMNAL.'
It makes me laugh to this day to consider the band starting to play and wondering firstly what they had done to so offend, and secondly perhaps, that he had a point: what adjective is there for the American version beyond 'fall-like'? It's enough to make someone miss their drum cue.
When I was asked which autumnal, or indeed fall-like, reds stand out as particularly good choices for 2020, I therefore tried not to overthink, but was conscious that pinot noir is suggested as often as it is for a reason. It can indeed give a mellow fruitfulness of flavour, backed with the quintessentially seasonal bonfire-whiffed forest walk. These three wines all offer something of this, but none are pinot noir.
Other considerations included price: I've kept things below the £20 mark but chosen bottles that I still consider to be fine wines. This opens another area people can feel strongly about; but I hope that if you try them, you'll see what I'm getting at. Just as many of us have been promised 'fine dining' only to be disappointed, many will also have had the experience of eating a truly great meal in a place you didn't necessarily expect to find it. These bottles, for me, offer something of that particular pleasure. I hope you enjoy them.
For (just) under £10, this is a bargain. Mencía is a grape that has been on something of a mission creep in my wine rack over the last few years: at its best, it combines gorgeous, pure red fruit that’s as crunchy and satisfying as stepping on a pile of dried autumn leaves, along with a flinty quality that adds interest and energy. Pinot noir comparisons are apt, but there’s a more direct, floral, mouthwatering charm at play in this Iberian gem.
Though grown in Portugal too, it’s in north-western Spain that the grape’s most celebrated examples are found, particularly Galicia’s Ribeira Sacra. This one from nearby Bierzo, however, is arguably a better choice for autumnal drinking. Further inland than Galicia, these vines enjoy more heat, resulting in a more grippy, powerful structure.
Made without oak, this one manages to combine fruit, flintiness and tannin in an unforced, elegant way that works brilliantly with the hearty vegetable dishes and risottos that come into their own at this time of year. If your brisk autumnal stroll hasn't turbo-charged your senses enough, a glass of this upon your return should provide just as much stimulation.
Jean-Marc Burgaud at his cellar last January
While much Beaujolais is quintessential summer wine, the structure and intensity that comes from a good cru vineyard in a warm year can give us bottles that deserve a more mellow setting and a richer plate of food. Morgon Côte du Py and 2018 offer such a combination and in the hands of the wonderful Jean-Marc Burgaud, this delivers at harvest-festival levels of abundance.
I first tasted this from barrel at his cellar last January and was amazed by the intensity, generosity and warmth that at that time was packed quite tightly into an envelope of tannins. These are now starting to soften and while his wines age beautifully (tasting a 2005 blind a few years ago was a revelation and the 2013 was on haunting form earlier this year), its current balance between bolshy brambly fruit, bosky sophistication and noticeable but unintrusive structure has already proven a star turn with a comforting lunch of stuffed peppers and aubergines after our Indian summer abruptly disappeared.
Pumpkin soup: a surprisingly good match for Austrian red
For a (just) under-£20 bottle to complement the season, this is the wine I'd turn to. The 2014 is currently sitting on our Fine Wine Champions podium, but the warmer 2015 vintage has a little more oomph and body, and as such feels a more seasonal choice. That we have put our name to a Society-label Blaufränkisch this year shows that we are excited about this variety's Austrian prowess; Birgit Braunstein's biodynamic marvel from a tiny plot in the coveted Leithaberg area offers a step up from this wine.
You don't have to be an Austrian wine geek, a seasoned (no pun intended) pinot noir drinker or a low-interventionist to fall for this, but many in these camps will, and my first encounter with a previous vintage some years ago now stopped me in my tracks. Austria buyer Freddy Bulmer told me the next thing to do would be to try an aged example, as the wine evolves into something even more complex and rewarding after a few years in bottle. Clearly a man to take his own advice, Freddy has done this for us and we are now offering this five-year-old parcel. It's in a great spot now, its plush red-fruit flavour now complemented by the mature and, dare I say it, autumnal flavours that come with a few years of age. What's more, there's enough pleasing tannin to frame many a dish – most hearty fare will do, but it also surprised me with a pumpkin soup recently; and what could be more seasonal than that?
With the sound of stubborn pinot noir advocates and testy gig-heckling linguists ringing in my ears, I hasten to emphasise that the ideal autumn wine is, really, whatever you like to drink. Nevertheless, I hope I've justified why I think these three wines deserve a try, and why now would be an especially fun time to do so. I would love to hear what you think of these wines if you decide to give them a go, but I'd also be fascinated to discover which bottles you yourselves turn to at this time of year.
Read more articles by Martin Brown