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Each month former Wine magazine editor Chris Losh will be arming pub staff with ideas for boosting wine sales. Cream of California PubChef's simple...

Each month former Wine magazine editor Chris Losh will be arming pub staff with ideas for boosting wine sales.

Cream of California

PubChef's simple guide to grape varieties takes a visit Stateside Zinfandel is California's answer to Pinotage in South Africa, Gruner Veltliner in Australia and Carmenère in Chile. It's the country's point of difference. At least, that was the theory. A couple of years ago, an American research scientist scotched this buoyant marketing spiel by revealing that Zinfandel was genetically linked to the southern Italian grape Primitivo. It may not be as American as apple pie, but it's fair to say that it's as American as pizza.

Nonetheless, while Primitivo is only really starting to gain a name for itself, Zin has had a profile all of its own for a while. In the States, where it has been grown since the 1850s, it has an almost cult appeal, with Zinfandel societies springing up all over the place. Perhaps it's because it's so American that it has a slightly rebellious image - the James Dean to Cabernet's Charles Aznavour. Or perhaps it's because it can make such winning wines when people put the effort in.

Joel Peterson, the highly articulate winemaker at Ravenswood, who makes both more and better Zinfandel than anyone else in the States, believes that much of the grape's appeal lies in its tolerance. When it's picked early, it shows red strawberry fruit flavours; picked at optimum ripeness it shows blackberries, black cherries and spice; even picked late it still has a Portlike vibrancy. It may shift through the colour spectrum, but it still tastes of fruit. It is, in other words, a grape that has a broad range of flavours, all of which are pleasant to the human palate. Compare that to Cabernet, which tastes of asparagus when underripe and old tyres when overripe.

So why, then, has Zin been so under-appreciated? Well, for over a century it's been California's workhorse grape - treated with general abandon and used mostly for jug wine, padding out more prestigious varietals, or to make the simple, sugary blush wine White Zinfandel. It's only really in the last 20 years that it's been treated with the same kind of care afforded to the likes of Cabernet and (some) Chardonnay - and the results are heartening. It makes wines with size, soul and structure - perfect for big food or for drinking tout seul. Regions to look for: Dry Creek and Russian River Valley (Sonoma); Amador County; Mendocino.

Food and wine matching - Thai​ Thai food's increasing popularity might be good news for pubs which are able to sell green curry by the bucket load, but it's not likely to have done much for wine sales. Thai food's exotic spices, tropical fruits and love of chilli all combine to make it tricky to match with wine. As a general rule, for white wines, I'd tend to stick with something fairly neutral (to avoid flavour clashes) but with decent weight so that the wine doesn't get stamped all over by the food. Thai dishes use a lot of chicken and seafood, and it's not too tough finding wines to match these.

Big beef dishes, though, can be awkward - particularly if they're heavy on the chillis. Tannin in red wine exaggerates heat, so you need to find a red that's big enough to stand up to the flavours, but that isn't too tannic. You might notice that none of these wines are particularly pricey, and that's no accident. I just can't see the point of spending big on a wine whose finer points are likely to be marmalised by the big flavours in the food.

Navajas Crianza 2001, Rioja ​ Not many wines have the necessary weight, but also sufficiently soft tannins to go with Thai beef, but this red from Rioja should manage it okay. It's from the excellent 2001 vintage, so there's pretty good plum and strawberry fruit on it, with just a hint of fresh leather. And since it relies for its structure more on acidity than tannin, it shouldn't accentuate any chilli flavours. £65.50/case @ Moreno Wines (020 8960 7161)

Kanu Chenin Blanc 2003​ No, it's nothing to do with the Nigerian footballer - a Kanu is some mythical bird that brings good fortune to those who see it, apparently. This is fitting since, to my mind, decent South African Chenin like this supplies good value, flavourful, mouth-filling wine for a competitive price. This Chenin doesn't have stacks of finesse, but it's a fun, tropical-fruited wine that works well with the flavours of Thai food, like green curries. £49/case + VAT @ Berkmann (020 7609 4711)

Lofthouse Sauvignon Blanc 2002, Marlborough, New Zealand​ Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc's intense flavours can sometimes be a bit overpowering for white meats, but they make a good match with the right Thai dishes. This super-ripe example is all capsicum, spearmint and passion fruit, which should make it a perfect flavour match with peppery Thai salads, while the acidity will help to take out some of the heat. A good price, too, for a NZ white. £95/case @ Corney & Barrow 020 7265 2400

Schoffit Tokay-Pinot Gris 2002, Alsace​ Alsace Pinot-Gris is almost tailor-made for Asian food. Big and ripe, it's more about luscious mouthfeel than wafting aromatics or piercing acidity, which means plenty of weight, but no nasty flavour clashes. This dry, but luscious example from the excellent Bernard Schoffit will match with just about anything. It's pricier than the rest, but worth it. £113/case + VAT @ Heyman, Barwell

This month's recommended wines​ In the spirit of the Euro 2004 footie festival this summer, I've decided to get into the swing of things as well and go for a selection of some of the best European wines I've tasted over the last couple of months. Since the Thai food matches are nearly all white, I've gone mostly for reds to balance things up. Europe has found the going tough over the last five years. It's still selling plenty of wine, but the aggressive discounting policies from the Old World have hit market share. The situation wasn't helped by places like France, Spain and Italy taking way too long to wake up to the threat posed by the likes of Oz, Chile and California.

But at last they seem to be aware of the new reality, specifically the fact that gallons of cheap, thin wine simply won't get sold. Attitude has improved, and quality also, with some areas offering really good value for money and often (whisper it) a bit more character than straight varietal wine from sun-drenched, heavily irrigated vineyards.


Pazo de Barrantes Albariño 2002, Rías Baixas, Spain Spain's non-reputation for white wines is largely well-deserved. But the wines from Galicia in the cool north-west are a glorious exception, particularly those made from the Albariño grape. To me, good Albariño is like a friendly cross between Chardonnay and Riesling, mixing great aromatics with an approachable mouthfeel. This wine shows melons and lemon-zest on the nose with a gentle peachiness on the palate. But it's never flabby, held together with a taut acidity. £114/case +VAT @ Goedhuis & Co (020 7793 7900); Walter Hicks ( 01726 74444); SH Jones (01295 251179); and RS Wines (01179 631780)


Les Candalières 2001, Domaine Seguela, Côtes du Roussillon Villages This wine really leapt out at me when I tried it in a line-up of Southern French reds recently - and when I found out the price I practically dropped my pen in the spit bucket. Terrifically supple damsonny berry fruit with just a brush of earthier tobacco tones. This is a fabulous wine at a steal of a price. £84/case+VAT @ Mayfair Cellars(020 7386 7999)

Georges Vernay Syrah 2002, Collines Rhodaniennes ​Georges Vernay's vineyards are just the wrong side of the appellation border for hallowed Côte Rôtie. It's tough on Georges, who makes fabulous wines in an almost identical style, but can't charge Côte Rôtie prices, but it's good news for us. Vernay's skill as a

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