Le Sud-Ouest – delights from south west France

Recently I have led some tastings of wines from France’s south west,the south west of France, or le Sud-Ouest.

I have written this region of France before, but a another mention will not go amiss as it is a very misunderstood place.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

For starters, many people get confused by the term and imagine it includes the Languedoc – it doesn’t. The south west is a wide area mainly to the south of Bordeaux and never straying further east than the delightful town of Millau in the Aveyron department of the Midi-Pyrénées region near the Auvergne. The most northerly wine areas are way over in the north east around the town of Rodez, also in the Aveyron department. Here the rarely encountered wine regions of Entraygues – Le Fel and Estaing with just 20 hectares of vineyards each are attempting to bring themselves back to life after decades of decline. The nearby region of Marcillac is already doing well with some 200 hectares that produce delightful red and rosé wines that are well worth a try. The landscape here is quite beautiful with steep south facing slopes:

Domaine du Cros - photo from the winery.

Domaine du Cros – photo from the winery.

marcillac-domaine-du-cros-lo-sang-del-pais2012 Domaine du Cros Lo Sang del Païs
A.C. Marcillac

This is a delightful, if earthy and rustic wine made from 100 % Fer Servadou, or Manses to the locals and here known as the blood of the country or Lo Sang del Païs.
It is a dry, lean red, quite light bodied, but with a freshness of raspberry and cherry fruit in a rustic Pinot Noir kind of way that makes it an excellent wine with lighter foods.
This will not be for everyone, but it is a fascinating glimpse of classic French wine that many people no longer see, perfect with steak frîtes – 87/100 points.

From £8.50 a bottle in the UK from The Wine Society, Joseph Barnes, Les Caves de Pyrène & The Smiling Grape Company.

The next thing to realise about the south west is that grape growing is so spread out it barely counts as a single wine region. As so few of the wine producing areas touch each other or have much in common it is more a region of convenience, or a wine region in name only. grape growing and wine production in these places has struggled since a nineteenth century heyday, so many of them produce tiny amounts of wine with viticulture dwarfed by other forms of agriculture. In many ways it is better to regard each wine producing area as a region in its own right. The climate varies across the whole place too with most of it enjoying a relatively dry maritime continental climate although a little Mediterranean influence does creep in further east. This shows itself in the choices of grape variety, with Bordeaux grapes holding sway in the west and a gradual progression through to Syrah in the east, it seemingly never gets warm or dry enough for Grenache here.

Gaillac
This delightfully sleepy part of France, near Albi, has much to offer in the way of wine. The slightly fizzy Gaillac Perlé was quite popular in the 1960s and I think deserves to be rediscovered as all the examples I have tried are lovely white wines. My favourite so far is:

Château Clement Termes

Château Clement Termes in Gaillac – photo from the winery.

HT_FD_F23A_00901628_NC_X_EC_02012 Château Clement Termes
Gaillac Blanc Perlé, A.C. Gaillac
A blend of the local Loin de l’Oeil / Len de l’el and Muscadelle  aged on the lees over winter. At only 12% this is delightfully light and fresh with high but not tart acidity, scented and herbal with green tinged fruit and a nettle-like, stony character. If you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or Picpoul, then I cannot imagine you not falling for this wines delicate, linear charms, certainly I think it is an excellent classic French dry white. That tiny hint of spritz keeps it fresh and emphasises the savoury side too, which makes it a lovely aperitif or perfect with classy fish and chips – the back label proclaims it to be ‘indispensable with fruits de mers’ and I would love to try it with goats cheese some time too – 87/100 points.

From £8.99 a bottle in the UK from Marks & Spencer & The Smiling Grape Company.

10273803_isGaillac though is also an excellent, if unexpected source of red wines and this  next wine thrilled everyone at my tastings:

2009 Domaine Rotier Renaissance Rouge
A.C. Gaillac
This is a sumptuous, supple blend of 40% Duras – a local grape grown nowhere else, with 25% Braucol – the local name for Fer Servadou - & 35% Syrah aged 12 months in barrel. I loved the inky intensity, the delicate smoke notes and the touch of savoury, fresh compost on the nose. The palate was supple and dense with rich black fruit and compact, chewy tannins that were very smooth and pleasurable. A terrific wine that pleased everyone who tried it and would be superb with all manner of meat dishes  – 90/100 points.

I can no longer find a stockist for this wine, but the same producer’s very similar Les Gravels Rouge is available in the UK from The Wine Society at £9.50 per bottle.

Saint Mont

Saint Mont is in the Basque lands of Gascony with ancient links to the Pilgrim's route to Santiago in Spain.

Saint Mont is in the Basque lands of Gascony with ancient links to the Pilgrim’s route to Santiago in Spain.

Previously known as Côtes de Saint Mont, this exciting region is an enclave carved out of the Côtes de Gascogne and using many of the same grapes as Madiran and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. All the wines I have ever tasted from here are made by the excellent Plaimont Producteurs cooperative. If there are other producers then I have yet to find them, but these guys do a superb job.

I have a particular liking for the tasty white wines of the area and Plaimont have gone to great lengths to bring the traditional grape varieties and blends of Arrufiac, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng back to life in recent years:

retrouv2011 Saint Mont Les Vignes Retrouvées
Plaimont Producteurs
Made from a blend of 60% Gros Manseng, 20 % Petit Courbu and 20% Arrufiac, this is an exciting wine, dry, medium-bodied and tangy with a rich citrus acidity and a richer stone fruit and pithy citric palate with texture and a juicy succulence – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £11.00 per bottle from Les Caves de Pyrène & The Smiling Grape Company.

LN_574506_BP_a_42011 Saint Mont Le Passé Authentique
Plaimont Producteurs
Another deliciously tangy blend of Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Arrufiac. Gros Manseng always reminds me of tangly pithy grapefruit, so if you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc this could be a good style for you. It is aromatic, dry, citric and vibrant with a rich texture, lots of freshness, all in all a lovely wine – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Waitrose at £9.99 per bottle – £7.49 until 20/04/14.

The red wines of Saint Mont are made from blends of Tannat, Pinenc - yet another local name for Fer Servadou, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and are rather good too, especially this one:

empreinte_de_saint_mont_rouge_2008_hd_300dpi2010 Saint Mont L’Empreinte de Saint Mont
Saint Mont
Plaimont Terroirs & Châteaux
This blend of Tannat and Pinenc – yet another local name for Fer Servadou – is concentrated, weighty, but soft, supple and richly fruity. In fact the key word is soft, it is also very smooth with no obvious tannin feel and very drinkable, as there is also a freshness running through it that stops it being jammy – 87/100 points.

2008 vintage available in the UK at £14.99 per bottle from Vinopic. The white Saint Mont L’Empreinte de Saint Mont is delicately oaky and quite superb too and is stocked by The Wine Society & Adnams Celler & Kitchen.

Irouléguy

Domaine Brana in Irouléguy - photo from http://www.winesofsouthwestfrance.com

Domaine Brana in Irouléguy – photo from http://www.winesofsouthwestfrance.com

Irouléguy is a beautiful mountainous region in the basque lands with a wine making history that goes back to Roman times and steeply sloped vineyards at heights that range between 100-400m above sea-level. They cling to the French side of the Pyrenees at a place where they wiggle a bit, so run north to south rather than the expected west to east. This means the vineyards face south and south east giving them much more sun than seems logical – if like me you foolishly assumed that the Pyrenees went in a straight line from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean that is. For those cheese fiends amongst you, Ossau-Iraty comes from around here too.

In truth although the region has a long history, like many of the other bits of the south west it almost stopped producing wine after phylloxera and the industry had to be rebuilt to make the good quality modern wines that we now experience. The grapes are classic from this part of the world, but often given their Basque names: Bordelesa Beltza / Tannat, Axeria / Cabernet Franc, Axeria Handia / Cabernet Sauvignon, while the whites are somewhat more exotic: Izkiriota / Gros Manseng, Izkiriota Ttipia / Petit Manseng and Xuri Zerratia / Petit Courbu.

The local coperative, La Cave Irouléguy, is the producer that I have encountered the most, but my favourite wines so far come from Domaine Brana.

Jean and Martine Brana farm 22 hectares of steep slopes in a non interventionist, partly biodynamic way – but not totally biodynamic since 2003 – and the care they take really shows in the finished product. They do not seek to make blockbuster wines, but more elegant wines with medium weight and plenty of elegance.

Domaine-Brana-blanc2011 Irouléguy Domaine Brana Blanc
Irouléguy
This is a classy, elegant and refined blend of 50% Gros Manseng, 30% Petit Courbu and 20% Petit Manseng. It has lovely complexity and richness, tangy mouth-watering acidity and a creamy texture together with a dash of savoury minerality. All in all a very fine wine indeed – 91/100 points.

Sadly I can no longer find a stockist for this wine, but The Wine Society used to stock it, so keep an eye out if they get some more.

Domaine-Brana-rouge2009 Irouléguy Domaine Brana Rouge
Irouléguy
An elegant blend of 60% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Tannat. A developed and beautifully integrated wine showing dried fruit, caramel and mocha oak and hints of leather. The palate has medium weight with intense flavour concentration with lovely intensity of fruit and balancing freshness. There is still a touch of fine grain tannins too giving lovely balance and an elegant restrained feel – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society at £19.00 per bottle.

Sweet Wines
This part of France has a great tradition of producing desert wines of course Sauternes and Barsac are not far away, while Monbazillac and Saussignac produce very similar wines from the same grape varieties in nearby Bergerac.

The speciality regions for sweet wines in the Sud-Ouest proper though are Jurançon, which uses the wonderful Petit-Manseng to great effect, and the nearby region of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. This PDO / AOC covers the same territory as Madiran, but is only for white wines made from Arrufiac, Courbu, Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng. Wines labelled Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec are dry. The areas odd name apparently means ‘vines supported on stakes in the old country’ in the local dialect, which is how the vines are grown, which was historically quite rare in France, but is of course very common today.

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Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh & Madiran vineyards – photo courtesy of winesofsouthwestfrance.com.

1790-vin-pacherenc-du-vic-billa-saint-albert-75cl2011 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Saint-Albert
Plaimont Producteurs
A late harvest wine made from a blend Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu left to ripen on the vine until 15 November – Saint Albert’s day. It really is delicious as it seems very fresh and lively with the sweetness keeping in the background, there are some orange marmalade notes, apricot and something more exotic about it too and the acidity keeps the luscious sweetness from dominating your palate. A lovely, beautifully balanced dessert wine, not massively complex, but very attractive. Everybody loved this precisely because it has so much freshness and is not as intense as some other dessert wines – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at £13.95 per 50 cl bottle from Corney & Barrow.

All the tasters have been very impressed by the wines that I have shown them from south west France, so if you want to try something a little more unusual and interesting, it might be an excellent place to try for some delicious wines. Think of it as less of a wine region and more of a voyage of discovery.

 

 

Spanish Delights

As many of you are aware, I love Spain, Spanish culture and Spanish wine. I really do think that Spain is one of the most exciting wine producing countries right now. It isn’t all Rioja or Rioja look alikes either, the place makes wonderful wines from so many different regions, in so many different styles and from a broad palette of grape varieties that there is bound to be something for everyone.

Recently I have tasted a few very exciting Spanish wines that I thought I would share with you.

 

Bruce Jack -  - photo courtesy of La Báscula

Bruce Jack – - photo courtesy of La Báscula

La Báscula – which means weighing scales – is a range of wines sourced across many Spanish regions and was created by Ed Adams M.W. and winemaker Bruce Jack. I have bumped into Ed a few times in my time and he is a likeable guy who knows Spain like the back of his hand, while Bruce is one of the most interesting and engaging winemakers I have ever come across. I first met him in his native South Africa, where he is the founder and winemaker of  the excellent Flagstone Wines. He always makes good wines, so I was thrilled when he teamed up with Ed and spread his wings to make wine in Spain too.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

The range seems to tour the country taking in many famous and some not so well known wine regions. They produce wines in Rioja, Rueda, Jumilla, Yecla and Alicante as well as Terra Alta, the amazing region in Catalunya’s deep south, inland from Tarragona and the more famous Priorat and Monstant. From the examples I have tried recently, this region really deserves to be much better known and positively sought out as a source of great wines at good value price points and great quality too.

The rugged Catalan landscape.

The rugged Catalan landscape.

Terra Alta means High Land and is a place of extremes, searingly hot in the summer and often freezing cold in winter. It is dry, mountainous and rugged, with the extreme heat of the growing season tempered by the altitude and the influence of the Ebro River, although the vineyards are only moderately high at 400 metres above sea level.

Excitingly the region has made the Garnacha Blanca, white Grenache, its speciality grape and I think this – along with Grenache Gris – can make delicious white wines. Terra Alta claims to produce 90% of the world’s Garnacha Blanca / Grenache Blanc – Grenache is originally a Spanish grape, so really ought to always be called Garnacha in my opinion.

Pepe Fuster (centre)

Pepe Fuster (centre) – photo courtesy of La Báscula

Both of these wines come from Terra Alta, although you will look in vain for the D.O. on the red, indeed they both come from the Celler Comes d’en Bonet winery in Gandesa some 90 km inland from Tarragona. This 30 hectare estate has been owned by the Fuster family for over 60 years and viticulturist Pepe Fuster is a passionate champion of this land and its traditional grape varieties, but is equally keen to experiment and do something new. Around half the estate is currently farmed organically with the rest in transition.

catalan-eagle-white_bg-2012-22013 La Báscula Catalan Eagle Organic Garnacha Blanca & Viognier
DO Terra Alta
60% Garnacha Blanca, 25% Viognier & 15% Rousanne with no oak.
I have tasted a previous vintage of this and although I liked it I was not overly excited, but with the 2013 this white has really come of age.
The nose is clean and mineral with enticing apricot and nectarine, blossom and honey notes.
The palate is soft and textured with a fine balance of acidity making it fresh and lively, but not crisp, while the fruit really dominates the mid palate and the finish has a minerality and purity to it that kept me coming back for more. Delicious, versatile and so very drinkable – 89/100 points.

£9.99 a bottle in the UK from D.Byrne & Co, Highbury Vintners, John Hattersley WinesNoel Young WinesWoodwinters Wines & Whiskies, more stockist information available from Boutinot.
Distributed in the US by Fairest Cape.

no-stone-unturned_bg2012 No Stone Unturned Old Vine Garnacha Tinta & Cariñena
DO Terra Alta (but not mentioned on the label)

62% 50 year old Garnacha Tinta, 23%Cariñena & 15% a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah all aged 10 months in French oak.
The deep, opaque ruby red colour is very enticing.
Rich lifted brambles, damsons, blackberry, dark cherry vies with sweet spice and fresh red earth notes on the nose.
The palate is intense, but smooth with supple tannins and a soft texture, almost creamy.
The sweetly ripe fruit is a blast from start to finish giving rich plums, morello cherries and blackberries with a rich inky intensity, delicately smoky oak and a firm, but gentle tannin smear on the finish. there is sweet spice and liquorice and a lovely freshness. The wine is rich and interesting, but pristine too.
This is one of those wines that you could keep for a while, but the fruit and supple texture are so delicious now, why would you want to? Very food friendly wine that would go with almost any meal, grab a bottle and take it to your local BYO …91/100 points

£15.99 a bottle in the UK from D.Byrne & Co, Noel Young Wines, Viader Vintners, more stockist information available from Boutinot.
Distributed in the US by Fairest Cape.

If you like Rhône Valley wines then you will enjoy these, but they are not copies of anything else, but exciting and beautifully made wines in their own right. What’s more they are deliciously modern, vibrant and full of fruit.

 

Birth of a Region

We live in a golden age for wine, it has never been better made, more exciting or as affordable as now.

I often think though how much more thrilling it must have been to have been around while the great regions were emerging and while their reputations were being originally earned. All the truly great wine regions that we talk about in reverential and hushed tones – in the old world anyway – were established long ago and so now have something of the past about them. This is not to be critical by the way, merely acknowledging that these places are often steeped in tradition.

Of course what constitutes a great wine region can vary from opinion to opinion, but I am pretty sure there is a broad agreement about the very best wine regions. They must produce wines that talk of that place, be terroir wines, they must produce complex and layered wines that can be aged – whether you do age them or even want to is another matter. They must be wines that command a following and a premium price – after all that is one of the key criteria for the Cru Classé of Bordeaux and the Grands Crus of Burgundy.

Taking all of those points into account, there is one leading, world class wine region in Europe that at first glance would seem to be as old as any of them, but is actually a pretty recent phenomenon.

That region is Portugal’s Douro Valley.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

Of course the Douro has existed for ever and has produced wine of a sort since records began. However for many complex reasons, the place developed a particular style of wine – sweet and fortified – that to some degree sets it aside from places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, Tuscany and Rioja.

Unfortified table wine from the Douro though has only been produced in relatively recent times, certainly in any quantity and to a world class standard. It was not really until 1979 that they received any recognition at all, with the creation of the Douro D.O.C..

Baron Forrester of course famously championed the production of table wines and advocated the Port producers stop ‘adulterating’ their wines with spirit, a fact that led to many conspiracy theories about his untimely death.

Before phylloxerra unfortified wines from Port country were known as ‘consumo’, which certainly implies that they were simple wines drunk quite quickly after production and their market was limited to Portugal and Brazil. It seems that after phylloxerra they nigh on disappeared with the bulk of the grapes being used to produce the spirit for Port.

The beautiful Douro.

The beautiful Douro.

The Douro remained purely a region for fortified wines until 1952 when Ferreira produced the first vintage of Barca Velha. It wasn’t made every year, but I well remember how this wine acquired almost mythical status and a high reputation which had a knock on effect on other producers causing them too to use surplus port grapes to make a table wine – often just on an experimental basis. It took well over 20 years for such wines to become anything other than a novelty.

Portuguese membership of the E.U. had an enormous effect on wine production, massive investment in the 1990s transformed many wineries and the entire outlook of the country. Huge strides were made and development was so fast that by the turn of the 21st century Douro wines were well established.

What is astonishing though is that at some point within the last dozen or so years the Douro has clearly and unambiguously taken its place amongst the great wine regions of the world and overtaken all its Portuguese rivals. Obviously this is no overnight success, but it is a remarkable achievement none the less.

I have been excited by the wines for many years, indeed I used to sell a couple of Douro reds in the mid 1990s when they were still a rarity, but I have been thrilled by the amazing development I saw on a recent trip to the Douro as a guest of the Discover the Origin campaign and at the New Douro tasting in February.

Map of the Douro – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of the Douro – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

There were many highlights, but these producers stood out:

Domingos Alves de Sousa were among Douro’s table wine pioneers and produce exciting reds and whites .

Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal BrancoTheir 2007 Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal Branco is a very individualistic sort of wine, full of character and depth. For this dry white they decided to make a wine with some of the personality and intensity of a white Port. To achieve this it was fermented (on the skins for the first 48 hours) in new French oak with hyper-oxidation and hard pumping over and a further 6 months in new French oak. The result is extraordinary, full flavoured, concentrated and quirky with barley sugar, caramelised orange, rich apricot, spices and honey, in fact it sort of tastes like a very rich Sauternes, but is bone dry. It put me in mind of those new wave amphora aged wines and orange wines, but unlike most of those it is utterly delicious – 93/100 points.

The Abandanado Vineyard, these ancient vines create an extraordinary wine.

The Abandanado Vineyard, these ancient vines create an extraordinary wine.

Their top red is the Abandonado crafted from an 80 year old vineyard that was abandoned for many years – hence the name – before being nurtured back to life. I tasted the 2009:

Abandonado2009 Abandonado
Field-blend of old vine Tinta Amarela, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and some other grapes too and aged for 18 months in new Portuguese and French oak.
Lovely nose, a red fruit and black fruit melange, smoky too, with stewed plums, sugar plums, herbs, some eucalyptus and tar.
Lovely palate, great weight, fruit, tar, earth, slate, minty, supple texture with fine smoky wood and fine grain tannins.
Superbly integrated and balanced, quite brilliant – 92/100 points.

The beautiful Quinta do Noval

The beautiful Quinta do Noval

Quinta da Noval is justifiably famous for both ports and wines and I was excited to stay there last year and enjoyed tasting their whole range. Everything was good, but my stand out wine was the 2009 Quinta do Noval:

quinta_do_noval_2007_douro_doc_3__39102_big2009 Quinta do Noval
A blend of 80% Touriga Nacional and 20% Touriga Franca.
The colour was a lovely opaque and intense cassis, while the very rich nose offered liquorice, earthy mineral notes, wild herbs, mocha and a hint of spice.
The palate was very smooth and supple with fine grain tannins, fleshy black fruit to the fore, a supple texture and touches of warm granite, clean earth, leather and eucalyptus. I really loved this wine, it was rich, concentrated and pretty full-bodied, but still had plenty of freshness and elegance – 93/100 points

The view from Niepoort.

The view from Niepoort.

Ramos Pinto is a family owned Port house that has been around since 1880, but has been at the forefront of the Douro’s table wine revolution. Which is hardly surprising given that the current owner’s father created Barca Velha. Their table wines are called Duas Quintas because they are a blend of fruit from 2 different estates, but I am sure that you could have worked that out for yourself.

The 2011 Duas Quintas (cask sample) was as reliable as ever with rich fruit, supple tannins and that slatey minerality to the finish. The 2011 Duas Quintas Reserva (cask sample) was more intense with richer fruit and more concentration.

Duas2009 Duas Quintas Reserva
50% Touriga Nacional, 40% Touriga Franca & 10% Tinta da Barca with 18 months barrel ageing.
This great wine was equally intense, but more developed, smoky and earthy and mineral with some leather touches and rich raisined fruit giving a slight Port-like feel. Incredibly concentrated, but vibrant and modern in a really delicious and stylish way – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from the Wine Society @ £25.00 per bottle.

 

More of the beautiful Douro.

More of the beautiful Douro.

Symington Family Estates is of course one of the firms that dominates the Port business – amongst other brands they own Cockburn, Warre’s, Dow’s and Graham’s. I visited them at Graham’s Lodge in Porto and was very impressed by what I tasted – dinner in the new Vinum Restaurant at the Graham’s Lodge was rather stunning too and Johnny Symington was a charming, entertaining and informative host. Renewing acquaintance with their wines at the New Douro tasting in London I was wowed all over again – even their relatively humble Six Grapes Reserve Ruby Port was delicious.

Johnny Symington

Johnny Symington

The Symingtons main table wine brand is Altano and even the standard wine is very good, with rich fruit and a distinctive minerality, but I really enjoyed the

Organic2011 Altano Quinta do Ataide Organic
This blend of organically grown Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca grapes was cold fermented and aged in second fill French oak for 10 months.
This offers great concentration and depth and wonderfully vibrant fruit and a slatey minerality, it gives lots of pleasure and is sinfully drinkable. This is stunning quality for its price and should be more popular – 90/100 points because of the great value.

Available in the UK from Waitrose & Ocado @ £9.99 per bottle.

The 2009 Altano Reserva Quinta do Ataide is a bit more serious and concentrated still, showing a little ageing, but the fruit is still intense and it has that spicy, earthy, mineral and inky character that reminds me of Priorat’s licorella and which I have come to identify with the Douro – 91/100 points.

quinta-do-vesuvio-2008-red-wineThey also produce a pair of deeply impressive wines at their Quinta do Vesúvio estate in the Douro Superior zone. The 2009 Quinta do Vesúvio was my favourite red wine of 2013. It is intensely ripe, fragrant and floral, concentrated and so gloriously fruity that the complexity and structure is a little hidden, but it’s there, with silky tannins, mocha tinged oak and that rocky herbal, slate minerality on the finish. This is a magnificent wine and was the most impressive Douro I tried on my trip, perhaps only by a whisker, but I loved the intensity of the fruit, the concentration, the supple tannins and the incredible spectrum of flavours – 93/100 points.

The second wine, the 2009 Pombal do Vesúvio is very good too, just that bit lighter and more stony in character – 91/100 points.

The Symingtons also produce wines in partnership with Bruno Prats at Prats & Symington which is based on the fruit from Quinta de Perdiz and Quinta de Roriz, which are close together midway between Bonfim and Malvedos. Unusually, given that these properties are bang in the middle of premium Port country, it is Douro table wines that is the focus here and so the best fruit is selected for that, although a little vintage Port is also produced. The company was formed in 1998 with wines following in 2000, so it is all still very new, but also very assured. The principal wine is called Chryseia which means gold in Greek – Douro also means gold. The 2011 Chryseia promises much, being intense and concentrated with plush fruit and lots of that licorella-like minerality. It isn’t just big though, there is freshness and balance too making it very fine.

chryseiaThe 2007 Chryseia is 50% each of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca and showed more development. It is beautifully supple and richly fruity, but with more dried fruit showing now. The minerality is still there giving an almost bitter twist like tapenade and strong espresso to the finish, while the tannins are just beginning to be silky – 93/100 points.

There are two second wines, the 2011 Post Scriptum has bags of fruit and an elegant juiciness. While the 2011 Prazo de Roriz too had lots of fruit, it was more earthy, mineral and savoury with a bitterness reminiscent of unsweetened dark chocolate.

In Conclusion

The schist soil in the Douro Valley.

The schist soil in the Douro Valley.

All the wines I had were very good. Some were bargains, many offered great value, while others were great at any price, but in all of them there was elegance and a sense of place. That mineral, slate or licorella taste was always there giving a true taste of the Douro. The water is drawn up through these schist soils and whether that directly effects the wine or not they do have this slatey schistous flavour profile that makes them very distinctive indeed.

It seems to me that any tasting of the Douro will reveal wines worthy of rubbing shoulders with the best. They scream of their terroir – you can taste the wild slate hillsides in the glass. The better wines are certainly layered and complex and can age, while many of them now command and indeed deserve eye watering prices.

These wild, barren, sun-soaked slate / schist hillsides seem to be able to produce extraordinary wines with great depth and often real complexity. What’s more the region has its own grape varieties – used to make Port in the past, but now clearly capable of producing world class dry wines. So if you want classic European wines, but with new flavour profiles, the Douro is a good place to turn. If you like Tuscan wines, Priorat or the wines of the Rhône then these really could be wines for you.

I am certain that we have just lived through the birth of a truly great wine region, they are not yet widely popular or sought after, but as Paul Symington confidently told me, their time will come.

Post Script

The view from Vinum

The view from Vinum

Last year I enjoyed a stunning dinner at the Vinum Restaurant housed in the Grahams Lodge in Villa Nova de Gaia. It is a wonderful place with great food and lovely views across the river. Everything was perfect and as I said above, the 2009 Quinta do Vesúvio was my favourite red wine of 2013. Well as this superb meal drew to a close Johnny Symington set yet another bottle down on the table and some was poured for each of us. I could not have believed that things could get any better at that moment, but they did, because we were about to taste the

Cut-out-bottle-shot11952 Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny (Colheita) Port which was bottled to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Now I love Colheita Ports, I think they are a fabulous and underrated style, but the quality of this took even my breath away. These old wood aged Ports – and this wine has lain undisturbed in wooden pipes for 60 years – lose that opaque colour and look quite brown and nutty. This was fragrant and perfumed with molasses, dried fig and salty caramel aromas. The palate was sensuous and rich with liquor orange, dried apricot, dried figs, sticky toffee pudding and candied pumpkin characters. The finish was long and nutty, but balanced by a nice cut of refreshing acidity to cleanse the senses. A stunning, stunning wine and without a doubt the best thing I drank in 2013 - 96/100 points.

Quality, convenience & a great deal of pleasure

Time was when your local corner shop was the last place you would turn to buy a bottle of wine. I well remember how they used to be, a jumbled assortment of wines with no apparent selection process, vaguely arranged on the shelves with price tags guaranteed to make you wince.

Well it seems that that might all be in the past, at least at Spar stores. We all take Spar stores for granted, there they are on most shopping parades all over the country supplying us with emergency bread and milk and a few other bits and pieces. Well recently I have tasted quite a few of their wines and I have to say that I have been impressed.

The range that I tried consisted of smart, well sourced and sensibly priced wines that hit the spot time and time again. It seems to me that the quality of the Spar wine offer now means that they will no longer be the wine shop of last resort, but somewhere customers can rely on as to provide some really very good bottles of wine.

What’s more they have their 5th Annual Wine Festival coming up which will allow you to try their wines at specially reduced promotional prices.

Red

Modesta Grenache Syrah Mourvedre2012 Modesta Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre
D.O. Valencia, Spain
Opaque purple damson colour, bright.
Plummy, fragrant, bright and fruity.
Chunky fruit, some spice and a feel of happy freshness. The texture is satisfyingly chewy with a sappy quality.
Soft tannins and rich fruit make this very enjoyable and very versatile. Extremely drinkable with or without food – 86/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.00 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £4.00

SPAR Chianti 20122010 Spar Chianti
D.O.C.g Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
Nose of damsons, rich cherries and red berries with a touch of smoke, fragrant spice and flowers.
The palate is smooth and discretely juicy with lovely ripe red plum and cherry fruit supported by soft tannins, subtle oak and a seam of fresh, cleansing acidity. This was either a delight or I seriously wanted a drink! Perfect with pasta and a multitude of Italianate dishes – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.29

Print2009 Valle Vento Barolo
D.O.C.g Barolo, Piemonte, Italy
Made by the lovely people at the Araldica cooperative this is a very modern and fruity Barolo.
Deep ruby colour, not opaque, with a slightly orange rim.
Nice earthy nose, orange peel and savoury mushrooms, even some meat notes.
A very supple palate, smooth and very drinkable. The astringent dryness comes through on the finish much more as do the rose petals and earthy characters. The tannins are there, but not harsh, for a Barolo it is very fruity and upfront, which makes it very attractive and enjoyable – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £14.99 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £12.00

White

XXXX SP_Gavi label design_22011 Gavi
D.O.G.g Gavi, Piemonte, Italy
This was also made by the splendid Araldica cooperative this is a nice, easy drinking Gavi.
Citrus and orange blossom aromas lead to a gentle palate with soft acidity and a touch of almond about it. There is a touch of minerality and a slight creamy feel that makes it feel quite elegant. A very enjoyable, user friendly dry white wine – 86/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £7.29 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £6.00

Sancerre - La Valle des Vignes2012 Sancerre La Valle des Vignes
A.C. Sancerre, Loire Valley, France
Fresh, citric, grassy and elderflower nose.
Green tinged palate with quite rich, soft ripe green fruit and the merest hint of apricot and a juicy palate.
Nicely made, modern, bright and drinkable, not really crisp but very attractive and very drinkable – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £11.99 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £9.00

Sparkling

PrintNV Perlezza Prosecco Brut
D.O.C. Prosecco, Veneto, Italy
I’m not always a fan of Prosecco, they can often be a bit simple and somewhat sweeter than I want, but this is a very nice sparkling wine. Unusually dry and not too cloyingly aromatic, it is elegant, refreshing and crisp with a steely edge and taut appley fruit.
Incredibly versatile and clean as a whistle – 87/100 points.

Available from Spar shops at £9.00 – on promotion from 20th March – 7th May 2014 for £6.00

These were all good wines that I tasted on their own and again with food. They were well made, stylish and very enjoyable, perhaps not the most profound wines or finest and most complex examples of their type, but they were all very enjoyable to drink – I know I certainly derived a great deal of pleasure from drinking them.

So next time you are in your local Spar, stick a bottle of Prosecco in your basket as well as the milk and the hobnobs.

Languedoc – innovation & surprises

It is a strange fact of life in the modern wine world that many times each week I am told that France has been overtaken as a producer of good wines by the new world giants of Australasia and South America. It is wine consumers who tell me this, people who want straightforward wines that deliver a lot of character, punch and fruit – people who more often than not drink wine without food.

I find it remarkable that people can seem to just write off the delights of all French wines. All those great wines and much great value too, but then I know people who claim not to like cheese or fish, which also seems a bit of a sweeping statement to me.

Of course there is some truth in the view that France somehow gives out a very traditional image as a wine producing nation and to many consumers appears to be very complicated. Whereas Australian and New Zealand wine is very simply presented, often easy to understand and sports an image of exciting, cutting edge winemaking.

The truth is much more mixed and balanced. In reality there is excitement in every wine producing country just as much as there is stodgy conservatism. So to dismiss France should be impossible for any real lover of wine. France has exciting and innovative wine makers in all her regions and they come in many guises, from new kids on the block in traditional regions to out and out mavericks creating something new.

Languedoc map QS 2011 watermark

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

I was very excited recently to try two wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region – in France’s deep south on the Mediterranean coast – that were truly astonishing as it had never occurred to me that anyone would or could make them. Both wines were made from aromatic grape varieties. One is Iberian in origin and although one of them is famously used in Alsace, I have never come across it from other parts of France before.

The first wine I stumbled across at the Vinisud wine fair while a guest of Les Vignobles Foncalieu, which is a union of cooperatives who produce many different ranges of wines from entry level to premium, varietal to classic A.C. and blends to single estate wines,  but who always show flair and imagination in all they do. I will be writing more about them soon.

ALBARINO2013 Foncalieu Albariño
IGP d’Oc from vineyards around Carcassonne.
This is the first vintage of Albariño as the grape has only been permitted in the region since 2009. I have never tried this grape from France before, only from Spain, Portugal (where it is called Alvarinho) as well as Virginia and California, but nowhere else in Europe.
The aromas are quite rich and peachy with floral honeysuckle notes making it seem quite rich, yet aromatic.
This carries on to the palate with a slightly oily texture and rich peach fruit making it feel very succulent, while a moderate amount of apricot and pear drop acidity freshens it up to provide balance. This is a pretty good effort for the first vintage and it was lovely to drink, I have certainly had less enjoyable examples from Spain. Great on its own as a wine bar wine, or with a wide array of lighter dishes – 86/100 points.

This is a new wine, so as yet there are no stockists of which I am aware. More information is available from Clementine Coummunications Ltd.

The second wine to tell you about is similarly unexpected from France’s deep south. Again it is made by a large dynamic company, but this is a negociant and winemaker rather than a cooperative:

maison-vialade-gewurztraminer2012 Maison Vialade Gewurztraminer
IGP d’Oc made by Domaines Auriol from fruit grown between Narbonne and Béziers.
Again this is the first vintage as the grape has only been permitted since 2011. To retain some freshness and acidity 7% sauvignon Blanc is blended in to the fatter, richer Gewurztraminer.
Heady aromas of peach juice and peach skin, cooked apricot and touch of more exotic lychee too.
The palate is soft with very low acid and some residual sugar making it textured in the mouth.
The finish is like succulent orchard fruit, this is very nice stuff, medium dry, well made and great fun. A good alternative to lower end Alsace Gewurztraminer – 86/100 points.

Available from The Smiling Grape Company @ £8.99 per bottle. More stockist information is available from Myliko International Wines Ltd.

So you see, the next time someone tells me that France isn’t innovating in wine or is being left behind, I really will have to set them right.

Bergerac – enjoying the road less travelled

Some wines cling to their fame and clearly belong to the Premier League of wine regions. They remain sought after and a byword for style. Bordeaux and Burgundy would both fall into that category.

However France is stuffed full of delights from other places that most of us would enjoy very much if we could just stop focussing on the great wine regions for a bit. Bergerac’s fame mainly rests with its popularity as a tourist destination, many British people visit the area, have houses there or drive through on their way to the south and a great many of them must enjoy the local wines while they are there, but seemingly few of them remember the wines with anything other than a passing affection.

Which is a great shame as there are very good wines to be had from this part of the world. I suppose one problem might be that this is overwhelmingly inexpensive wine country. When you stay there you can get bottles of wine for around €1 or €2, which while unexciting are perfectly serviceable – I know many people who go there buy wine from the local co-ops in bulk bag-in-box containers. However enjoyable or adequate as these might be, they might not get lodged in your memory as a wines worth seeking out. Whereas day trips to nearby St Emilion might well reinforce your mental picture of Bordeaux as a fine and expensive wine region, so the bottles to be remembered and taken home might well be from Bordeaux even though your holiday was in Bergerac or the wider Dordogne region.

Bergerac is in the Dordogne, which is part of Aquitane and is really part of the south west or Sud-Ouest, but from a political point of view the wines of Bergerac are no longer considered wine of the Sud-Ouest, but a region alone.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

This whole area is achingly beautiful and full of gorgeously scenic little towns and villages full of lovely local restaurants serving the most marvellous food – the region is famous for the black Périgord truffles and foie gras. Bergerac is an agricultural area whose population has been in decline since 1850, so the landscape feels empty and rural and the towns small and quiet – a world away from the bustle of Bordeaux.

Bergerac neighbours the Bordeaux region with the eastern boundary of Bordeaux’s  Libournais district – St Emilion, Pomerol, Côtes de Castillon etc. –  giving way to the Côte de Bergerac vineyards. As you might expect the climate is similar to Bordeaux, as are the clay and gravel soils and they even use the same grape varieties to produce wines that are not dissimilar to a wide spread of Bordeaux styles.

The reds are overwhelmingly made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, although Malbec and Cabernet Franc are used, while Fer/ Fer Servadou and the local Mérille also get a look in at the lower end of the price spectrum. The white wines are also made from the Bordeaux classics with the better examples being Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blends, although again Muscadelle, Ondenc, Chenin Blanc and Ugni Blanc are also permitted and find their way into much of the lower priced wines.

Where Bergerac differs from Bordeaux is that the production is much more mixed with red, rosé, dry white, slightly sweet and full on dessert wines produced across the region, however there are sub-divisions to emphasise the local specialities and this has resulted in many different appellations.

These Appellations of Bergerac
Bergerac – Bergerac Sec, Bergerac Rosé, Bergerac Rouge – this is the basic catch all appellation that covers the whole region.
Côtes de Bergerac - Côtes de Bergerac Rouge, there are no slopes here, so this A.C. covers the same area as Bergerac, but the wines have a degree more alcohol, which makes this the appellation used for the finer reds of Bergerac. Côtes de Bereac Blanc can be either Sec, Demi-Sec or Moelleux / semi-sweet.
Monbazillac – a great dessert wine appellation for wines made from botrytis affected Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle grapes. These wines are perfect with the local foie-gras, blue cheese or fruit based puddings.
Montravel – this westernmost outpost of Bergerac surrounds the commune of Lamothe-Montravel and makes both reds and dry whites of high quality, sadly not often seen in the UK. The reds must include at least 50% Merlot and are very similar to the nearby Côtes de Castilon wines.
Côtes de Montravel – white wines in a rich semi-sweet style, at between 8 and 54 grams per litre of residual sugar they are not really dessert wines and would normally be labelled as Moelleux.
Haut- Montravel – just like Côtes de Montravel
Pécharmant – a red only appellation widely considered to be the finest in Bergerac.
Rosette – another Moelleux style wine
Saussignac – another dessert wine appellation, from  Sémillon, Sauvignon, Muscadelle, Ondec and Chenin Blanc this time. The wines must have at least 18 grams of residual sugar, the best examples are much sweeter and very like the best Monbazillacs.

I have recently been fortunate enough to taste a few Bergerac wines that are available in the UK.

The Whites & Rosé

1237782012 Grande Reserve Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon
A.C. Bergerac
A very nice dry white wine,  with a slightly fat style from the Sémillon, but underscored by crispish acidity. The aromas are bright with a touch of herbs and a honeysuckle floral quality. Green fruit and a little zing make this very attractive, if undemanding. The nose is gently aromatic with herbs, grassy and goosebery with a soft acidity. Very enjoyable and attractive stuff – 86/100 points.

£8.99 a bottle from Sainsburys - sometimes 2 for £12.

chateau-des-eyssards-bergerac-blanc-sauvignon-blanc-semillon-2012-12012 Château des Eyssards Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon
A.C. Bergerac
I have known this estate for many years and it consistently makes excellent quality wines with more finesse than you would expect. This is aged on the lees which adds a touch of richness that balances all that freshness and zing and that subtle touch of riper, almost tropical fruit. An outstanding example – 89/100 points.

Around £9.50 a bottle from The Wine Reserve & The Oxford Wine Company.

LN_066114_BP_a_42012  Les Parcelles Foncaussade Rosé
A.C. Bergerac

This 50/50 Cabernet and Merlot blend has an enticingly bright medium deep strawberry colour with an elegantly restrained nose of strawberry and rose hip.
Soft, rounded mouthfeel with ripe fruit and soft acidity keeping it fresh enough.
Attractive and pleasant without being great or bracing, but great fun and very enjoyable.
Nice straightforward wine, perfect with anything light and simple, I had it with a lovely piece of Catfish and a salad - 86/100 points.

£7.99 a bottle from Waitrose.

The Reds

640492010 Mon Plaisir Edition Limitée
Château Montplaisir, Bergerac
Pure Merlot blended from 2 different sites on the estate and aged for 12 months in oak at Laithwaite’s beautiful Le Chai au Quai.
An impressively concentrated wine with a deep garnet tinged ruby colour.
The nose gives rich plums, spice, espresso and cocoa notes.
The palate is fleshy with a lovely balancing freshness. Red fruit and leafy herbaceousness melds into the savoury spicy, earthy and coffee characters of oak and age. The tannins are fine, ripe and smoky. The finish is long. A very good, savoury, subtle Merlot with a real touch of finessse especially from the lovely freshness that runs all the way through the wine. A full flavoured, medium-bodied wine with a long finish, this is very good, very drinkable and great value too – 89/100 points.

£9.99 a bottle from Laithewaites.

1150912011 Château des Eyssards Rouge
A.C. Bergerac
This estate never fails me and this is a lovely, serious yet supple red wine. The medium bodied and full flavoured red is a blend is 50/50 Cabernet and Merlot, yet good use of oak keeps the tannins smooth. The touch of spicy oak just adds another dimension and is well integrated with the rich dark plum fruit. Excellent with all types of meals, yet fine enough to grace the dinner party table too – 88/100 points.

Around £8 a bottle from Waitrose.

And finally something sweet

0849362010 Château les Sablines
A.C. Monbazillac
In another life I used to sell this wine and it always pleased me as it offers superb quality and great value for money. Although very similar, I believe that Monbazillac wines are usually richer and more intense than Sauternes at a similar sort of price, so deliver lots more character. The humid conditions here seem to be perfect for botrytis or noble rot to develop which results in richly honeyed, luscious wines like this. The nose and palate are dominated by a rich orange marmalade character and barley sugar flavour while a seam of fresh acidity and a slightly bitter finish stops it from being cloying. Just delicious with all manner of things, roquefort cheese, foie-gras and especially irresistible with Panettone bread & butter pudding – 89/100 points.

£9.99 a bottle from Waitrose.

Personally I think that consumers are missing a trick by not drinking more Bergerac wines and by not demanding more either. The wines from this region are classic French wines and seem to be made to a high general standard, an offer some very good  drinking and deliver great value for money too – what’s not to like?

In praise of sparkling wine

I have been musing quite a bit about Sparkling wine over the festive period which seems so long ago now – where does time go?

I love Champagne, it is one of the greatest wine styles and wine regions in the world, but sadly I cannot often afford to drink it. Nor do I always want it as many other sparkling wines are wonderful wines that give a great deal of pleasure in their own right.

Which brings me on to my theme here – sparkling wine in restaurants. Very few eateries seem to want to sell me a bottle of sparkling wine, while they all want to sell me a bottle of Champagne, but of course never from the affordable end of the spectrum. It’s always big names and famous brands, which is all very nice, but a bit beyond most of us except for a special occasion. But here’s the thing – restauranteurs take note – my finances will not stretch to Champagne at restaurant prices very often, so on the very few occasions that I order Champagne I almost never order another bottle as well. If the restaurant listed a good quality sparkling wine at a fair price though I would almost certainly start with a bottle of that AND have a bottle of wine afterwards – surely I cannot be alone in that?

Few other sparkling wines quite reach that level of finesse or complexity that Champagne can reach. Few have that sensation of tension and utter purity that the chalky soils and cold climate of Champagne can achieve – even some very good value Champagnes, but there are many very good sparkling wines around that deliver all sorts of other pleasures and they deserve a fair hearing and not just to be dismissed as something ‘lesser’. In truth a good sparkling wine is different, not inferior and can make a lovely aperitif or partner the starter, fish dishes or Chinese and Thai food beautifully as well as many other dishes.

In recent months I have tried many excellent sparkling wines and I often wonder why so few of them are available on restaurant wine lists. I have tasted lovely examples from France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, New York, Chile, California, South Africa and Spain amongst many others, here are a few that really stand out, whether for sheer quality, drinkability or value for money, they are all are non vintage unless specified and all made by the traditional – or Champagne – method, so Prosecco will be covered another day:

prod_370121Perle Noire Crémant d’Alsace
Arthur MetzLes Grands Chais de France, Alsace, France

I am always drawn to Crémant d’Alsace, it seems to me that the region makes very good fizz, albeit very different from Champagne. Mostly I favour the ones made from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Chardonnay is allowed too, this super example is made from 100% Auxerrois, which being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir shares the same parents as Chardonnay, but originates in Lorraine and is widely used in Alsace where it is normally blended into wine labelled as Pinot Blanc.
This wine has a lovely apricotty nose with the merest touch of richer raspberry and some brioche notes too. The palate is soft and the mousse slightly creamy and has nice orchard fruit characters. The wine is delicate and delicious and soft, rather than being elegant and poised, but is a very enjoyable bottle of fizz. I wish I could find this in the UK, I would love to buy it and order it in restaurants too – 87/100 points

B052241Benanti Brut Noblesse
Azienda Vinicola Benanti, Etna, Sicily, Italy
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

This pure Chardonnay sparkler is an easy and affordable way to try something from the tiny Jura region of eastern France and it is very good, much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. It is pure Chardonnay and crisp with a lean apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat – 85/100 points
An amazing bargain from Aldi @ £6.99

bw_26661_49bec9c1be734a9e6e6be89610319ec0

Arestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain

I know nothing about this producer at all except that they appear to be a proper Cava House, not just a label and they supply Lidl with their Cava and it seems really very good for anything like the asking price, certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity! It is soft, dry and apply  in flavour with a touch of pear too, but has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made.
Another amazing bargain this time from Lidl @ £4.79

brutMiguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley, Chile
I am always amazed by how little sparkling wine there is in Chile, most of the fizz drunk down there comes from Argentina, but there are a couple of stars, Cono Sur‘s delightful tank method sparkler and this beauty from Miguel Torres. This is a lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

rmc_255x4542011 Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs Brut
Bodegas Codorníu, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain
I have long been a fan of Codorníu, small bottles of their Cava – their Benjamin – were my first drink as a teenager in the discos of Spain. They invented Cava in 1872 and continue to make a wide range of delicious and high quality Cavas, but this is in a different league from most caves available in the UK. Recent vintages of this impressive wine have been pure Pinot Noir and it is that which gives the red fruit richness and depth to the palate, while floral freshness dominates the aromas. 15 months on the lees lend a touch of brioche and creaminess to the wine. If you have only tried cheap Cava in the past you owe it to yourself to give this a go – 91/100 points.
Great value for money from Majestic @ £14.99 – sometimes £9.99 when you buy 2

Sparkling-Pinot-Noir-Chardonnay-nv-150x464Grant Burge Pinot-Noir Chardonnay
Barossa Valley, Australia
I love showing this wine at tastings as it is really very good indeed, full of character and fruit, but also elegant. The fruit comes from vineyards in the cool Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, so there is plenty of fresh acidity, while the ripeness and the 70% of Pinot Noir – there is even a dash of Pinot Meunier – gives it a lovely deep colour with hints of red fruit. Then 30 months or so on the lees gives a richness and biscuity character that is quite delicious. Not a cheap fizz by any means, but fine, tasty, elegant and drinkable too  – 90/100 points.

26548-250x600-bouteille-domaine-vincent-careme-ancestrale-blanc--vouvray2011 Vouvray L’Ancestrale
Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray, Loire Valley
In truth I am not often an admirer of Vouvray’s charms and Chenin is far from a favourite of mine, but this is stunning, which is quite a feat given that Vincent created his domaine from nothing in 1999. He now farms 14 hectares of organically grown Chenin and his wines are always interesting and often delicious, and this might well be my favourite. It is from older vines and the second fermentation takes place without the addition of any sugar or yeast, so takes a long time – 18-24 months apparently, so the flavours build slowly. The palate is rich and appley, even apple pie at times and the finish has a touch of sweetness that blanches the acidity beautifully and adds to the feeling of richness. A real hedonists wine – 91/100 points.

domaine-saint-just-domaine-saint-just-cremant-de-loire-blanc-blanc-2056-994Crémant de Loire Brut
Domaine Saint Just, Saumur, Loire Valley
Wouldn’t you know it, in one breath I tell you how little I like Chenin Blanc and here I am telling you about another superb wine made from it – hey ho that is the beauty of wine I suppose – although in this case 40% Chardonnay adds more elegance I think. This wine is beautiful too, poised, elegant and refined with rich fruit, zesty citrus acidity and some delicately honeyed, biscuity, richness on the long classy finish. If we could prise some of this away from the French and Chinese I think it would prove very popular in the UK – 92/100 points.

IDShot_150x300Tesco Finest Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée 1531
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon
It isn’t always easy to try this wine in the UK, which is a shame as it can be very good indeed. Limoux is in cathar country near Carcassonne and claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne has. This Chardonnay, Chenin and Mauzac – aka Blanquette – blend is pretty classy and elegant with a herbaceous character, from the Mauzac and lovely citrus acidity, apply fruit and yes a bit of toast too. This example is just off-dry – 87/100 points.

0003BB761E64012008 Loridos Bruto
Bacalhoa Vinhos, Portugal
Portugal isn’t often seen as a good fizz producer, but really should be, the few I have tried have been very good indeed. Bacalhoa produce some very good examples at the beautiful Quinta de Loridos near the fabulous town of Obidos near Lisbon. The Chardonnay  Brut is very good too, but my favourite is this Castelão and Arinto blend. Castelao is a red grape, while Arinto is a superb high acid white grape and together they give a lovely taut red apple character and real depth. A very good wine – 90/100 points.

ImageWine.aspx2010 Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay
Villiera, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a wine very dear to my heart, my good friends Dave and Lorna Hughes live right next to the vineyard these Chardonnay grapes come from and I have often enjoyed a few glasses with them while in Stellenbosch. It is very good, very elegant, very refined, delicate, mineral and crisp apple fruit. Again the second fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast or sugar and the wine is aged for  3 years on the lees – 91/100 points.
Superb value for money from Marks & Spencer @ £10.99

In Conclusion
Of course I could carry on, but you get the picture, there are lovely sparkling wines produced everywhere, so don’t get stuck in a rut, it does not have to be Champagne every time – restauranteurs take note, sommeliers please listen – nor does every alternative have to be Prosecco. Be adventurous, find something new and exciting.

Champagne Taittinger – variety & style

The beautiful vineyards of Champagne.

The beautiful vineyards of Champagne.

A lot of time we talk about Champagne as though it is all the same. The truth is though that the only thing most Champagnes have in common is the fact that they are fizzy.

Each house has a different approach which makes for a wide array of Champagne styles. Some are rich, Pinot Noir dominated and barrel fermented, whereas others are citric and light as air – with lots of variety in between.

No, in reality Champagne is as varied as any other wine, but because the fundamental nature of the different wines is similar the differences are often nuanced. However, because the palate of grapes is very small – really just 3, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, although there are some old plantings of other grapes still in production – the variety is quite astonishing. Much like music, which is all written with 7 notes, Champagne is all created with a tiny repertoire of raw material, which just makes the differences all the more remarkable.

Not many of us get to taste a huge variety of Champagnes – sadly. So I cherish the moments that I can and recently I have been doing some tastings of the Taittinger range and I thought it might interest some of you to know about their different cuvées.

When people say they have had a bottle of Taittinger – or indeed Moët et Chandon, Laurent-Perrier or Bollinger et al – they usually mean that they drank the standard offering – the standard bearer of the house. This is normally the Non Vintage Brut, but almost all houses produce a much wider range than that, making rosés, vintages, a cuvée de prestige and even sweeter or drier Champagnes and these are all often worthy of much more attention as they can provide fabulous wine drinking experiences and give a fuller picture of this amazing wine region.

So, it is always a pleasure to lead tasters through the complete Taittinger range as the wines are all so different and take them by surprise. I really like them too, which is always good.

The harvest in full swing at Taittinger - photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

The harvest in full swing at Taittinger – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

I like the whole feel and ethos of Taittinger, the name is quite hard for a Brit to say, but luckily there are 3 acceptable versions – as far as I can see:

Thai-Ton-Jay would appear to be the proper French pronunciation of Taittinger, but to achieve that I have to concentrate hard and get my tongue in the right place first!

Luckily it seems that we Anglo-Saxons are perfectly ok saying Tatt-inger – phew!

However as the family originally hailed from Austria, way back in history, then a Germanic Thai-ting-er could also be considered quite proper.

Take your pick, but whichever you choose to say, do try the whole range.

Taittinger is a rare beast for a Champagne house, in being owned and managed by the family whose name is on the label. This is no mean feat in the modern world when Champagne is often seen as a luxury rand product rather than a wine as such, as far as I am aware  Bollinger is the only other world famous Champagne house to remain a family company. It must focus the mind somewhat having your name on every bottle and being ultimately responsible for the quality and style of wine that your family produces and under the management of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger I think the wines have evolved and the quality has really shone.

Everyone knows that Champagne is fundamentally dry and that Brut means a dry Champagne, but what many people do not seem to know is that Brut Champagne is a relatively new concept. It first appeared in the late nineteenth century and was aimed at the British market which had always favoured a drier Champagne style. It caught on slowly and the idea of producing more pure styles of Champagne that were more like wines than the sweeter cuvées of the past – many nineteenth century Champagnes had sugar levels akin to dessert wines – was one of the ideas that caught Pierre-Charles Taittinger’s imagination in 1931 when he bought and completely overhauled the venerable Champagne house of Jacques Fourneaux which had been founded in 1734.

So, right from the beginning the idea was to make elegant and pure Champagnes that were dry and in order to do that the Taittingers decided to concentrate on using Chardonnay, as they felt that gave them the lightness, but complexity that they wanted.

They don’t stand still though, in recent years they have made their wines drier still – their Brut wines are now just 9 grams per litre of residual sugar, which I think really shows their purity and finesse – and introduced 2 new exciting cuvées to the range. What’s more I am convinced that the quality has got even better in recent years, with more depth, complexity and elegance, so let’s take a look:

Map of Champagne – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of Champagne – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

ImageHandler.ashxTaittinger Brut Réserve Non-Vintage
40% Chardonnay dominates the wine together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier blended from vineyards across the region and then aged 3 years on the lees.
I really enjoy this wine because it light, fresh and vibrant, but has depth of flavour too. There is a creaminess running all the way through it, as well as citrus, green apple and a touch of peach. There is crisp, but not startling acidity and the mousse is soft and creamy without being frothy. There is also a touch of caramel and digestive biscuit to the palate that gives a nice smack of complexity, but the finish is dry and clean.
It is a wine that you can focus attention on and savour its subtle charms, or just enjoy it and let those charms wash over you.  90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £38.99 per bottle.
ImageHandler.ashx-2Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut Non-Vintage
35% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier with 15% of the Pinot Noir being red to give the colour – the Pinot comes from Ambonnay, Bouzy & Les Riceys. The finished wine is aged 3 years on the lees.
This is a real charmer of a wine, the colour is a deep wild salmon meets strawberry and the richness of red fruit makes the wine seem much less dry and acidic than it actually is. So if you like a softer style of Champagne then this could be for you, certainly the palate gives lots of red fruit, raspberry and even blood orange. If you age it for a few years the fruit mellows somewhat to a more rose petal quality making the wine quite different, but just as lovely. 90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle.

The wonderfully named Champagne village of Dizy, Bouzy is not far away either!

The wonderfully named Champagne village of Dizy, Bouzy is not far away either!

ImageHandler.ashx-3Taittinger Nocturne Sec Non-Vintage
40% Chardonnay together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, aged 4 years on the lees. Much of the fruit comes from Taittinger’s own estates including some from their Château de la Marquetterie.
The idea here is to make a soft Champagne that is drinkable after dinner and long into the night – or indeed any other time, I find it’s good at breakfast! People often assume that this will be sweet, but it isn’t at all. There is 17.5 grams per litre of residual sugar, but remember how high the acidity is in Champagne, well here the acidity and the sugar balance each other perfectly, so the wine finishes clean and balanced. It is soft, not sweet at all, the palate is creamy and there is a gentle nectarine quality to it and and an eating apple crunch. This might be perfect if acidity is not your thing, or if you want a Champagne that can withstand traces of something sweet on your palate. 90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle.

What makes the differences?
Firstly the climate of the Champagne region is not very generous, look where it is on the map, the conditions are very like England actually, but with more extreme winters from the Continental climate, so not every year produces a great harvest – this was especially true in the past before modern viticulture and winemaking gave greater control. As a consequence the tradition developed of holding back stocks of the good years to blend with the more ordinary ones and to create a house style rather than the normal way of making a wine every year. That is why most Champagnes are sold without a year on their label and this method has done wonders for the region and allowed them to create more complex and fascinating wines than would otherwise be the case – in my opinion.

Champagne is about as far north as France can comfortably make wine, so growing grapes there is quite marginal and it isn’t easy to always coax good ripeness out of them, but every now and again – 2, 3 or 4 times a decade and seemingly becoming more frequent – they have a great year and declare a Vintage and sell some of that year as Vintage Champagne which is all the product of that single harvest. As you might imagine these Champagnes are richer and more concentrated and the winemakers let the style of the year shine, rather than their house style.

Other differences can come from the choice of grapes, with 3 to choose from, on the whole anyway, it might seem pretty limited, but a pure Chardonnay – a Blanc de Blancs – Champagne will be very different from a pure Pinot Noir or Pinot Meaner – a Blanc de Noir – Champagne which will tend to be darker in colour and richer on the palate with more red fruit notes.

The use of oak can make a big difference, barrel fermented Champagnes are very different from the fresher, lighter styles, try KrugBollinger or Alfred Gratien if you have never tasted one made that way.

Different Cuvées can be very different from each other too. Really cuvée means blend and different blends of grapes will indeed give very different Champagnes, but the word is also used to designate one wine from another, so just as a producer’s non vintage will taste different from their vintage Champagne, then their other cuvées will be different again. Most famously of course the majority of houses create a top end Cuvée de Prestige made from the finest fruit and usually from a single harvest – although Laurent-Perrier’s Cuvée Grand Siècle is a non vintage cuvee de prestige. These wines are normally from the finest grapes – often from Grand Cru vineyards – or from the best vineyards avaialabe to the house. They are normally made from the first pressings only, which are the most gentle and thought to produce the purest Champagnes. Then to top it off they are bottled and riddled by hand and to prove it – as well as look enticing – these wines are usually bottled in a replica old style bottle that does not fit the machines.

Sweetness of course can make a big difference in how a Champagne tastes and just before the bottles are sealed with a cork a little cane sugar is added – dosage- to each bottle to determine how dry the wine is. Brut is the normal which can vary between 5 and 12 grams per litre – although Taittinger are now 9. This is done mainly to balance the high acidity in the wines rather than to make them sweet and Brut Champagnes seem totally dry, although Exra Brut is drier and Non Dosage has no sugar added at all.

Ageing can also make a big difference to the style and taste of a Champagne. In Champagne this means ageing in the bottle on the lees, which are the dead year cells left over from fermentation. The legal minimum for non vintage is 15 months – 36 for vintage – and the longer you age it the more flavour, complexity and richness you get. Ageing on the lees develops that yeast autolysis character that gives, yeast, bread, brioche and, flaky pastry and digestive biscuit characters.

So as you can see there are many more variables than most occasional drinkers of Champagne realise – back to Taittinger’s wines:

ImageHandler.ashx-4Taittinger Brut Vintage 2005
50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from mainly Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs for the Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for the Pinot and then aged 5 years on the lees.
If you are ever feeling jaded and tired of life then this wine has a wonderfully restorative quality. The sensations here are of concentrated fruit as the vintage is only made in occasional exceptional years, however not only is the fruit more powerful, but the acidity is fresher and the weight is greater too, so this is a very intense wine. Red fruit notes and ripe peach vie with each other on your senses, while the savoury, nutty, brioche lees characters add more depth and the rich seam of acidity keeps it all fresh and elegant too – a glorious Champagne with a firm and steady mousse and a wonderful feeling of tension running through it giving it poise and elegance.  92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £53.00 per bottle.

Taittinger's beautiful Château de la Maruetterie near Pierry.

Taittinger’s beautiful Château de la Maruetterie near Pierry – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

ImageHandler.ashx-5Taittinger Folies de la Marquetterie Brut Non-Vintage
A single vineyard Champagne – a very rare beast indeed – from the vineyards around Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry near Epernay, which quite apart from being a beautiful place has a south and southwest exposure and so creates beautifully ripe fruit.
The blend is 55% Pinot Noir to 45% Chardonnay a small portion of the latter is fermented in oak vats which lends a subtle toasty spice to the finish as well as weight to the palate. It is aged for 5 years on the lees.
This is an exciting Champagne with more richness and savoury qualities than the others. Again it is concentrated, but has bigger bolder characters and in some ways feels like a mature vintage Champagne. Personally I do not regard this as a Champagne to drink while standing and nibbling twiglets, for me this needs a meal  - although feel free to serve it to me with nibbles – and would be perfect with a lovely piece of good quality fish. 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £55.00 per bottle.

ImageHandler.ashx-6Taittinger Prélude Grands Cru  Brut Non-Vintage
What to do? You want vintage Champagne with all that richness and savoury brioche character, but cannot be doing with ageing some and anyway you want a slightly softer fruit character to give a touch of the frivolous, yet still keep it elegant and refined. You probably guessed it, you drink this.
50% Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs – including Avize and Le Mesnil sur Oger – blended with  50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims – including Mailly & Ambonnay. The finished wine is aged 5 years on the lees.
Another glorious cuvée that manages to be intense and soft all at the same time. This makes it very appealing with rich fruit and similarly rich leesy characters and complexity. The mousse is markedly softer than on the vintage, yet firmer and more precise than on the Brut Réserve Non-Vintage. 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £49.00 per bottle.

Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ageing on the lees.

Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ageing on the lees in the Saint Nicaise chalk cellars below the site of the Reims palace of Thibauld 1V King of Navarre and Comte de Champagne – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

ImageHandler.ashx-7Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2005
One of the greats of Champagne this cuvée de prestige is 100% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. 5% is aged in new oak barrels for 4 months to add complexity and richness and the finished wine is aged for at least 7 years on the lees before release.

James Bond fans will know this was the favoured Champagne of Ian Fleming’s spy in the early books and I for one can see why – JFK seemed to enjoy it too. This is the most delicate. mineral and fine Chamapagne that I have ever tasted. It oozes finesse and breeding and subtlety, but has many more obvious charms too. I often think this is the most ‘wine-like’ Champagne that I know, it sort of seems like the finest Chablis you can imagine, but with a delicate and taut mousse. 94/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £147.00 per bottle.

jfk-menu

JFK was served the 1953 Taittinger Comte de Champagne at Hollywood’s La Scala restaurant in December 1962.

So you see there is enormous variety just from one Champagne house, which is good isn’t it. Something to suit every mood, food or occasion and so much more to enjoy.

Further stockist information for the UK is available from Hatch Mansfield.
Taittinger is represented in the US by Kobrand.

In the spirit of openness, I do sometimes do some presenting work for Taittinger, but this is my genuine and unsolicited opinion. I happen to like their Champagnes very much indeed.

Navarra – diversity, delights & surprises

 

Navarra's landscape - count the windmills - Don Quixote would have had his work cut out today!

Navarra’s landscape – count the windmills – Don Quixote would have had his work cut out today!

I have recently returned from my first wine trip to Navarra and I am excited, as well as mystified, by what I found.

History long ago robbed Navarra of its coastline, although the northern tip is very near the sea, while modern economics has so far deprived the region of an international airport, so the easiest way to visit is either via nearby Bilbao or Biarritz and it is well worth the effort.

The thronging streets of Pamplona.

The thronging streets of Pamplona.

Pamplona's beautiful town hall.

Pamplona’s beautiful city hall.

One of Pamplona's many excellent bars.

One of Pamplona’s many excellent bars.

Dinner, Spanish ham is the very best thing with any wine.

Dinner, Spanish ham is the very best thing with any wine.

Pamplona, the region’s capital, is a compact, handsome Spanish city with a lovely mediaeval centre whose main square, the delightful Plaza del Castillo, is surrounded by enticing little streets lined with superb tapas bars and teeming with life – except on a Sunday night. The square itself is home to the famous Café Iruña which is well worth a visit as it is a great bar serving just about anything you could imagine from chocolate y churros to full meals. It is also a tourist attraction itself though, as it is an incredibly beautiful building whose sumptuous interior dates from 1888 and was once Ernest Hemingway’s watering hole of choice – indeed their restaurant on the mezzanine floor is named in his honour and there is a bronze statue of him at the bar.

Hemingway at the Café Iruña.

Hemingway at the Café Iruña.

There is much for a hedonist to enjoy in Pamplona and I would highly recommend that you spend a few days there. I was also very glad to renew my acquaintance with Olite which is a small Navarran town that is home to the 14th century Palacio Real de Olite and whose Parador is in a 15th century palace and castle. I spent my 4th birthday there and well remember the mixture of excitement and trepidation I felt when passing the suits of armour on the stairs leading up to our turret room – perhaps I had watched too much Scooby-Doo, as I was certain they would come to life and attack me!

The heart of Olite.

The heart of Olite.

Lovely though all that was, I was here for the wine. I really wanted to get to grips with what made Navarra tick, how its wine industry sees itself and what it does well. I had some ideas, but what I experienced was a real surprise.

I found a very mixed picture indeed. I know the region produces a great deal of Garnacha (Grenache) rosé / rosado, but I went there expecting to find a confident wine region that produced good quality Tempranillo based red blends. In the main I anticipated tasting lots of good wines a bit like Rioja, but offering better value for money and which had some Cabernet and Merlot in them. In my mind Navarra was right up there with Rioja and Ribera del Duero as a quality wine region, but was somehow ignored by the consumer.

Well, broadly speaking I was right about the value for money and the general quality, but not much else. What I found instead was a wine region with incredible variety. In fact if there was any single message I could take away it was that Navarra has great diversity and produces an extraordinary array of wines.

Which we are all used to from the new world, but not so much from European regions and it makes it very difficult to sum up what Navarra is all about. Which must be at least one reason why it is so hard to find Navarra wines for sale in the UK – diversity of styles is not an easy sell. Try as I might I just cannot sum Navarra up in a simple phrase or single style, which might make the wines difficult to sell, but it also makes them pretty interesting.

However this lack of a single identity seems to echo that of the region itself. The place is cool, green and mountainous in the north where it borders France’s Basque regions and at one point is just 12 km from the Atlantic. To the south Navarra is a hot, arid plain and more like the Spain of our imaginations – in fact every time we ventured south of Tafalla the rain stopped and the landscape was noticeably drier.

Historically too the region has a very mixed heritage. It was once home to the Vascones, a tribe who managed to negotiate a respected place for themselves within the Roman Empire and the whole Ebro Valley became Romanised, rich and known as Ager Vasconum. In later history these people became both the Basques and the Gascons and the wider area became the Kingdom of Navarre. This country straddled the Pyrenees and from 1224 was ruled by French dynasties including that of Thibault 1 the Comte de Champagne – which partly explains why Taittinger Champagne is so widely available in Pamplona. It was not until 1512 that Navarra was incorporated into Spain, making it the last piece of mainland Spain to be absorbed. Even then it retained its own systems and some autonomy, while the people still kept many of their traditional freedoms that made Navarra less feudal than much of Spain.

A glance at my map will show you that the Navarra wine region only covers a part of the southern half of the region. They shy away from growing grapes in the cooler north or the mountains – even though Navarra has land very close to Getariako Txakolina and borders France’s Irouléguy regions – and plant solely where there is more sun to ripen the grapes.

Many of the wine areas are very close to Rioja and indeed some parts of Navarra’s southern fringes that hug the Ebro River are included in the Rioja Denominación de Origen Calificada / DOCa rather than Navarra’s Denominación de Origen / DO.

In all honesty I find it very hard to get to grips with Navarra’s wine history. It would appear to have all the same things going for it that made Rioja such a force to be reckoned with – in fact it is even closer to Bordeaux and has more French connections if anything. So why phyloxerra was the making of nearby Rioja, but almost destroyed Navarra seems to be something of a mystery. Of the 50.000 hectares of vines in production before Phyloxerra struck, 48,500 were wiped out and it took a long, long time to recover and even now they only have some 12,000 hectares.

Having studied the history of Rioja to some degree and toured Navarra, it strikes me that even today Navarra is a land of grape growers and estates, whereas Rioja is only just returning to being a land of wine estates after a century and a half of being dominated by producers who mainly made wine brands with bought in fruit. The difference might be as simple as that, Rioja was in great part controlled by big producers with the money and knowhow to turn bought grapes into good wine and Navarra’s growers would have struggled to keep up with nothing like the clout or economies of scale.

So, Navarra missed its moment and had to watch as Rioja became the dominant Spanish wine region and for a long time the only one with true international demand and world renown. The consequences of that are still apparent today and I was really very surprised how there is no clear identity for Navarra even now. They use a broad palette of grapes and produce many different styles of wine. Which makes it slightly harder for the consumer to navigate their way around, but much of what I tasted proved that Navarra is well worth the effort.

Navarra with watermark QS

Map of Navarra – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Navarra’s Sub-zones & Climate
Navarra, like Rioja, is made up of sub-zones – 5 of them in fact, however they do not seem to be mentioned on the labels or wine details. So although they are different, have varied soils and differing climatic conditions, the consumer does not really notice whether the wine is from one or the other or is a blend from across the region.

Senorio de Saría in .

Senorio de Saría in Valdizarbe.

Valdizarbe is the most northerly and cool, often with chalky soils.

Tierra Estella.

Tierra Estella.

Tierra Estella is a beautiful and lush place with limestone soils and gently warm with noticeably moist ( sub-humid) conditions – it was certainly damp while I was there.

Old vines in Baja Montaña.

Old vines in Baja Montaña.

Baja Montaña is unlike all the other sub-zones. It produces very little wine and is high and cool, however these sunny, but cool hilly vineyards have well drained gravel and limestone soils that together with cool nights seem to be able to produce some astonishing wines – this struck me as a place to watch.

Bodegas Inurieta in Ribera Alta.

Bodegas Inurieta in Ribera Alta.

Ribera Alta is a large area that accounts for around a third of all Navarra production. The soils are sand and limestone in the main with a gentle Mediterranean climate that makes it warmer than the 3 northern sub-zones.

Vines in Ribera Baja.

Vines in Ribera Baja.

Ribera Baja is actually south of Rioja and is the warmest and driest part of Navarra with an arid Mediterranean climate that produces piquillo peppers as well as being home to the largest number of bodegas in Navarra. This arid plain is a sun trap with sandy soils. Moscatel / Muscat performs well here as well as the red varieties.

Piquillo peppers hung out to dy.

Piquillo peppers hung out to dy.

Right now these sub-zones seem to me to be largely an irrelevance which reduces the impact of a simple message about Navarra DO. Remember that Rioja on the whole ignores its sub-zones, but perhaps they will become more important and relevant as Navarra builds its following.

Rosado – Navarra’s standard-bearer
I suspect that most wine drinkers will have tried a Rosé Garnacha from Navarra – even if they unaware of what it was. These wines are hard to avoid in Spain and are perfect with tapas – our little group of wine writers tasted quite a few examples while in Navarra and many were very good indeed. I have not always been excited by Garnacha rosado, usually being more tempted by Tempranillo or Bobal versions, but the sheer pleasure that some of them delivered has turned me – all of these were deliciously drinkable if undemanding and I would happily drink them with anything or nothing:

botella_vino_inurrieta_mediodia2012 Garnacha Rosado Mediodia
Bodegas Inurietta
This is also sold by Adnams as their Adnams Selection Rosado ‘Monte Arlas’

2012 Nekeas Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Nekeas – they also produce Morrisons Signature Navarra Garnacha Rosé

gran-feudo-rosado-12012 Gran Feudo Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Chivite
We actually had this a few times as it is omnipresent in Pamplona’s tapas bars – indeed it is the best selling Rosé in Spain.

It is delightful and goes with anything at all – a vibrant, happy, juicy wine bursting with fruit.

2G2012 Señorio de Sarria Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Señorio de Sarria

A lovely, vibrant and bright wine with rich red fruit, almost, but not quite sweetly ripe and a nice dash of tangy acidity. This would perhaps be my choice as representative of good Garnacha rosado.

rosado_de_lagrima2012 Ochoa Rosado de Lagrima
Bodegas Ochoa
This is made by the delightful Adriana Ochoa who has worked around the world, especially in Australia with Yalumba and the influences show – both ways actually as she persuaded Yalumba to make Tempranillo. This was the palest rosé that I tried on the trip and it was made from a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha. It was perhaps the most delicate that we tasted, which gave it a little more class with some minerality, fresh acidity, red fruit and even a touch of tannin making it balanced as well as delicious – it was perfect with our delicious alfresco lunch.

However, some producers make more complex and demanding rosés as well and these are really very special:

8G2012 Señorio de Sarria Viñedo N° 5 Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Señorio de Sarria
Made from 56 year old vines, this is quite superb with real wine aromas of earth, mushroom and savoury herbs as well as bright red fruit notes. The palate is rich, full and textured with ripe red fruit and brambley fruit balanced by a bite of acidity and excellent balance. I really liked this very much indeed, it is intense and full of flavour, a great rosé – 89/100 points.

imagen_escala_ancho.php2011 Chivite Collecion 125 Rosado
J. Chivite Family Estates
Now quite seperate from Gran Fuedo, the Chivite Family Estates are at Aberin in the Tierra Estella Sub-zone. This is an ambitious wine that aims to be a fine rosé wine. Made from a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha it is aged on its lees for 6 months in French oak barrels with weekly lees stirring to add texture and complexity – an astonishingly good rosé, one of the very best I have ever tasted – 91/100 points.

The Whites – focus on Chardonnay
I really like white wine and have taken to it more and more the older I get. I particularly like Spain’s white wines nowadays. Navarra’s whites puzzled me a bit though, with few exceptions the favoured white grape of the region seems to be Chardonnay and while I have nothing against Chardonnay, many consumers do – in the UK anyway. What’s more, if I want Chardonnay then my thoughts would not really turn to Spain, unless I was in Spain, but then I would want an Albariño, Godello, Verdejo, barrel fermented Rioja or even Txakoli - all classic Spanish styles. I can see that a Spaniard might want a Chardonnay from time to time, but I really think Navarra producers are holding themselves back by over relying on this grape.

That being said there were some very nice examples and  some that excited me. The lively and fresh unoaked 2012 Chardonnay from Bodegas Señorio de Sarria – think slightly tropical Chablis with a hint of lactic creaminess, while the 2012 Gran Feudo Chardonnay from Bodegas Gran Feudo / Chivite was a little more textured and creamy – but still with good acidity and freshness – was also a lovely wine, both score 87/100 points.

I was also excited by the 2011 Nekeas Barrel Fermented Chardonnay made by the charming Concha Vecino at Bodegas Nekeas. It was textured and beautifully integrated with peach, cinnamon, poached pear, gentle oak spice and creaminess all balanced by fresh acidity that kept it delicate and elegant. I would certainly order that if I saw it on a wine list in Spain, it would be wonderful with a sole or a creamy fish pie. This lovely wine is so well balanced it would win many people back to Chardonnay, Concha believes it to be one of the very best in Spain and considering it sells in Spain for around €8, then I think she is right – 91/100 points for quality and value.

The one Chardonnay that I have tasted from Navarra which is on a completely different level of complexity is the 2009 Chivite Collecion 125 Blanco from J. Chivite Family Estates. This superb wine spends nine months on the lees in Allier oak and is beautifully rich, creamy, textured and opulent, but well balanced with lovely acidity and good integration of the gently spicy and nutty oak. It isn’t cheap, but is very fine and complex. This is a wonderful wine, wherever it comes from and some claim it to be Spain’s finest white – 93/100 points.

Sauvignon Blanc et al
As for whites made from anything other than Chardonnay, I only tried a few. Bodegas Inurietta make something of a speciality of Sauvignon Blanc and produce 2 versions. Their unoaked version is called Orchidea and is a nice, direct, limey and attractive Sauvignon. Their oaked version, Orchidea Cuvée is more complex, textured with a leesy lime curd character and a cut of grapefruit-like acidity, it’s a lovely and interesting wine but sadly they only make 5000 bottles.

Much as I liked all of these – and I really did – I kept wanting some whites that were just a bit more – well Spanish, or different at least. They planted the French varietals in Navarra because of their historic links north of the border, so what about Basque grapes to give some difference – Gros Manseng makes stunning whites in Gascony and the Basque lands, so what about some more diverse white grapes guys, something you could make your own?

The Reds
For most Spanish wine regions the red wines is what it is really all about and that is certainly true of Navarra. Navarra has long grown the classic Spanish grapes that we normally associate with Rioja, but that are widely grown throughout Spain, Tempranillo, Garnacha and even Graciano and Mazuelo. Over the last 40 years or so though most producers have added classic Bordeaux grapes to their vineyards. They always say this is because of their traditional link with Gascony and Aquitaine north of the Pyrenees and those regions do indeed grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – I even heard of some Malbec in Navarra too. However these traditional grapes were apparently helped to return to Navarra – if indeed they had ever grown there before – by Juan Magaña who had worked in Bordeaux and wanted to create Navarran wines with the finesses and sophistication of top Bordeaux. To that end he famously smuggled cuttings over the border during the early 1970s – when Spain was still a dictatorship and near siege economy. He planted his vineyard and built Bodegas Viña Magaña in Barillas near Cascante in Ribera Baja. If you have not tried his wines they are quite magnificent and I hope to visit next time.

I had been looking forward to the Tempranillo based wines and various blends and I enjoyed a good number of them including the following stand out examples.

Bodegas Inurietta
Falces, Ribera Alta sub-zone

Grapes arriving at Inurietta.

Grapes arriving at Inurietta.

This winery was the first one that I visited and they really impressed me. The winery is very modern and well equipped, even though the the land has belonged to the owning family for well over 100 years. Inurietta is the name of the parcel of land near Falces in the Ribera Alta zone. They grow their grapes at various heights in the valley from 300 to 480 m, which certainly seems to help retain good freshness in the wines. The soils vary from sand and silt to gravels, clay and limestone.
Overall I think their wines seem to be very good quality, well made with ripe fruit and an approachable, modern style.

Bodegas Inurietta wines are distributed in the UK through C & D Wines.

botella_menu_vino_inurrieta_cuatrocientos.p:Users:quentinsadler:Desktop:botella_menu_vino_inurrieta_cuatrocientos2010 Inurietta Quatrocientos Crianza
I greatly enjoyed this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Graciano and Petit Verdot aged for 14 months in French and American oak. It had good rich cassis and black cherry fruit with soft, but firm fine grain tannins and a cut of fresh acidity as the vines are grown at quite high altitudes – 87/100 points.

botella_menu_vino_altos_de_inurriera2008 Altos de Inurietta Reserva
A 50/50 blend of Syrah and Petit Verdot aged for 14 months in new French oak barrels.
This was a hugely impressive and modern style red wine, gloriously smooth and richly fruity with soft, rounded tannins. The oak is nicely balanced with the fruit and supports rather than dominates – 88/100 points.

botella_menu_vino_ladera_inurrieta2010 Laderas de Inurietta
100% Graciano aged for 15 months in new French and American oak barrels.
I’m not always a fan of Graciano on its own and prefer it in blends, but this joins the ranks of the few varietal examples (especially Contino) that I have really enjoyed. The nose offered rich creamy black fruit and freshly turned earth (nicer than it sounds). The palate gives rich, sweet, ripe black fruit and plums together with soft, sweet tannins and a ripe, creamy texture to the fruit and silky tannins. A beautifully made and modern wine with a new world feel – 89/100 points.

Bodegas Señorio de Sarria
Puente de la Reina, Valdizarbe sub-zone

Puente la Reina from Señorio de Saría.

Puente de la Reina from Señorio de Saría.

I have always been fond of this beautiful winery ever since I used to sell the 1978 Gran Reserva in another life and their wines always please the crowds when I show them at tastings.
The estate is very peaceful as it sits in rolling tree covered hills, deep in the Sarria Estate which farms many other things other than grapes. Milk and cheese is a speciality too, in fact of 1500 hectares, only 210 are used for wine production. Most of the vines are on south facing slopes at between 400 – 500m allowing the wines to keep good balance between fruit and freshness.

Señorio de Sarria wines are distributed in the UK through Boutinot.

13G2010 Señorio de Sarria Viñedo Sotés
I have always been fascinated by this single vineyard multi-varietal blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Graciano and Mazuelo. The vines are 53 years old and grown around the Castillo de Sotés just over the hill from Saría itself.  The wine was aged 9 months in French oak barrels.
This has lovely intensity and weight, with a creamy ripeness of fruit, the palate also has a firmness that I like, the acidity is there but masked by everything else, it just supports. Medium-bodied, dry and structured, but a lovely wine for posh everyday drinking – 87/100 points.

32004 Señorio de Sarria Gran Reserva
This wine has always delivered superb value for money and is a great bottle of wine that tastes as Spanish as they come, despite only having French grapes in it! The blend is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon to 30% Merlot aged for 36 months in oak, the Cabernet in French and the Merlot in American.
The colour was an earthy garnet, while the nose offered leather, dried fruit and fragrant smoke. The palate gave prunes, plums, mocha tinged oak and intense sweet ripe fruit together with savoury characters, lovely weight and a silky texture. 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Caviste @ £14.95 per bottle.

Their Reserva Especial was also rather good by the way.

Bodegas Nekeas
Añorbe, Valdizarbe sub-zone

Nekeas Valley.

Nekeas Valley.

Another beautiful spot in Valdizarbe, the sunny Nekeas Valley seems to produce some good wine and I had never stumbled across them before. They claim to have the most northerly olive groves in Spain too and make some superb olive oil.
Historically the place was an important producer, but the vineyards were unused for 100 years before being brought back to life in 1989. The vines form a single block, interspersed with olives, growing between 450 and 650m.

Concha Vecino winemaker at Nekeas.

Concha Vecino winemaker at Nekeas.

Nekeas’s secret weapon is their wonderful winemaker Concha Vecino. She has such passion for the place and what she does and love for “my grapes” and “my wines” that she is hard to resist. Her enthusiasm is catching and what is more she really knows what she is doing. Subtlety seems to be her watchword and she makes very good wines which really try to capture the character of the place. As Concha says “Oak and tanks are for everyone, but my valley is just for me”.

temp_cab_crianza2010 Nekeas Crianza Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon
A 60/40 blend grown at the top of the valley slopes. The wine is aged for 14 months in French oak and is unfined and unfiltered.
This gave a lovely aroma of wild herbs, earth and flowers together with studs of deep red fruit. The palate had great concentration of rich cassis and redcurrant with high, fresh, clean, tangy acidity. Very soft, smooth texture, there is a seam of gently firm tannin leaving a slightly chalky finish. Intense, but delicious, the finish gives herbs and lavender. Over all it has lovely balance and purity – 88/100 points.

cab_merlot_reserva112008 Nekeas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot
A 50/50 blend grown in very high vineyards on poor, thin, stony soils. The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak of around a year old.
The colour is dense, blue black and opaque.
The nose offers rich notes of mocha and sweet tobacco with clean earth together with dried cassis and the beginnings of prune and fig.
The palate is rich, creamily ripe and succulent, with deep sweet black fruit and is pretty full bodied and concentrated with good acidity and running through it. This is very good and attractive wine – 89/100 points.

We will hear a little more about Nekeas very soon….

Bodegas Julian Chivite / Gran Feudo
Cintruénigo, Ribera Baja sub-zone
I am so glad to have finally visited Chivite, even if it was a rush. They are so important to Navarra, having been grape growers since 1647 (which is just before lunch in Spain) and have produced wine since at least 1860 – their superb Colección 125 range was created in 1985 to celebrate the 125th  anniversary of their first wine exports and have always been some of the very best Spanish wines. 
Now the Colección 125 are produced at the Chivite Family Estates at Aberin in the Tierra Estella sub-zone, sadly I did not get there, but did try the range and they are all magnificent wines.

We had a light lunch here and the centrepiece was a stunning Tortilla. We asked the lady who made it what the secret was of that lovely soft texture and it seems it was a litre of olive oil poured into the egg mixture! You live, you learn.

After years of family problems an 11th generation Chivite is once more in charge, Julian, no less and I was so excited to meet him that I forgot to take a photograph!

GF Crianza2008 Gran Feudo Crianza
50% Tempranillo, 30% Garnacha and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 18 months in French and American oak.
A wonderful wine with the punch of young Grenache dominating the pure red fruit and spice laden nose.
Rich, supple palate with the Tempranillo providing the weight and taut, smooth tannins, while the Garnacha gives the fleshy texture and brightness. Lovely supple freshness, medium bodied and elegant with a lovely savoury finish, smooth supple tannins, vanilla and mocha oak notes and fresh acidity all dominated by rich red cherry and blackberry fruit – 88/100 points.

The Gran Feudo Reserva was very good too, but the next wine was a real treat:

GF Res VV2008 Gran Feudo Viñas Viejas Reserva
50% Tempranillo and 50% Garnacha from  vineyards planted between 1954 and 1960. The wine was aged for 12 months in American oak.
A lovely wine, it somehow feels classy with fine grain tannins and burnished coffee character as well as bright black cherry fruit, vanilla and spice. A lovely elegant, easy wine – 89/100 points.

chivite-coleccion-125-reserva-62009 Chivite Collecion 125 Reserva
This vintage was pure Tempranillo aged 14 months in French oak barrels 40% were new and 60% second use.
I had not tried this for a while and it was as good as I remember, rich and concentrated but still elegant, classy and complex with lovely fruit concentration giving a creamy quality, deep black fruit, subtle use of oak giving nice spice nuances and some mineral, earthy characters. A beautiful wine of great finesse – 93/100 points.

Ochoa Vinedos y Bodegas
Olite, Ribera Alta sub-zone
Now all the wineries that I have written about here make lovely wine that I rate highly, but Ochoa was such a wonderful visit. The Ochoa family seem to have been involved in Navarra wine for centuries, but the winery only goes back to 1908, but like so many other producers around the world, the focus on quality wines only began in recent times when the delightful Javier Ochoa took over. In recent years Javier has been joined by his daughter Adriana as enologist and her passion for the vines and the wines she makes from them really shows. What also helps is that Adriana has made wine all around the world and especially has experience of making wine at Yalumba in Australia and her go getting attitude really shows. I thought that all her wines were very good quality indeed.

Javier & Adriana Ochoa.

Javier & Adriana Ochoa.

The Ochoas farm 143 hectares just south of Olite on clay and limestone soils that face south giving excellent sun exposure.
I loved their enthusiasm and exuberance, touring their vineyards was a delight, whilst riding a grape harvester was just a wild experience – oh and the lunch was superb too.

The view from the top of a harvester - I's never been on a harvester before...

The view from the top of a harvester at Ochoa – I’d never been on a harvester before…
The Ochoas, like most Navarra producers I met – and Miguel Torres – are certain that machine harvesting is just as good as picking by hand.

Views from Ochoa's Traibuenas vineyard near Olite.

Views from Ochoa’s Traibuenas vineyard near Olite.

The same view with the harvester.

The same view with the harvester.

reserva2007 Ochoa Reserva
55% Tempranillo, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot aged for 15 months in French and American oak.
Gosh I really liked this wine. We might technically have had finer wines on the trip, but this was so good and so joyful to drink that I rank it pretty high. It still has lovely fruit, giving a soft and succulent character, but there is just the beginning of dried fruit, leather, coffee and mocha too. The tannins are smooth and silky while the flavour lasts and lasts – 90/100 points.

Conclusions so far
So, from everything I had experienced so far, Navarra’s ability to produce good rosé from a range of grapes, but especially Grenache / Garnacha is well deserved and my view of them as good quality rosés is increased.

My opinion of the white wines from Navarra has certainly grown, I tasted many good Chardonnays made in many different styles – and some non-Chardonnays too – most of them I would happily order and drink with pleasure. My only quibble is that here in the UK anyway the word Chardonnay is not considered a good thing to have on a wine label. To me it feels limiting to major on a foreign white grape that cannot ever really be your own, especially when Spain and the Basque lands are full of wonderful white grapes, but that might just be me. All I know is that most UK consumers would not want to buy a Chardonnay and I am unlikely to ever order a Spanish Chardonnay, even if it’s good, because I want more traditional Spanish styles.

As far as the red wines were concerned, I liked what I saw from all the producers that I have written about here and more. I had always seen Navarra as a producer of Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot blends and I found many of them to be very good quality indeed and well deserving of being more popular and sought after.

The surprises
However the red wines that I found the most startling and exciting were not made from Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot at all. They were actually made from a grape variety that I am not particularly keen on either. I knew Navarra grew it because they make rosés out of it, Grenache / Garnacha is a classic Spanish grape, but I hardly ever seek it out. It of course produces great results in blends in Rioja and Priorat, but as a varietal it hardly ever moves me. In Spain it is grown in the hot regions of southern Aragón – Calatayud, Cariñena and Campo de Borja – where it makes nice affordable wines that can be fun and great value, but hardly ever amazing.

So you could have knocked me down with a feather when I tasted a Garnacha from Navarra – pretty much against my will – and I loved it, I became hooked and wanted more, so tasted all the Garnacha I could find. I was wondering why I liked them so much when Concha Vecino put her finger on it. She described them as the “Pinot Noir of Garnachas” and the only Atlantic Grenaches in the world.

We are so used to Grenache being seen as hot climate grape that hearing how well it does in a cool area is quite astonishing and changes all the rule. However it must be said that another favourite Grenache of mine this year was the magnificent 2007 Villa Maria Reserve Grenache from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, another place that is pretty cool and with a sort of Atalantic climate. Sadly this wine is so far produced in such small amounts that it is not available in Europe. The good news is though that these cool climate Garnachas from Navarra are available and often deliver great value for money.

Old vines at Nekeas.

Old vines at Nekeas.

Chap Garnacha

2011 El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa Old Vine Garnacha
Bodegas Nekeas, Añorbe, Valdizarbe sub-zone
These vineyards this wine comes from are at the highest point of the valley – the high plain or chaparral – and the vines are between 70 and 100 years old. The wine has a short time in French oak to give it a dusting of spice and touch of complexity. It gives rich aromas of red fruit with caramel, vanilla, red fruit and spice.
The palate is rich, smooth, supple, savoury and nicely tarry, with gently firm tannins and lovely intense rich sweet fruit, while throughout the wine is this lovely freshness, purity and cut of clean acidity. Do try it – 90/100 points.
Old vines with Bodegas Palacio de Sada behind.

Old vines with Bodegas Palacio de Sada behind.

Sada2012 Palacio de Sada Garnacha
Bodegas Palacio de Sada, Sada, Baja Montaña sub-zone 
Palacio de Sada are very near Sangüesa in cool high land with stony soils. It has been left behind by time a little, so they still have 200 hectares of old vine Garnache, much of it over 100 years old. Even with the newer 400 hectares the average age of their vines is still over 30 years old!
This was my first Garnacha from cool climate Navarra and I was very taken by it. It is simple, unoaked and juicy, but wow it’s delicious. If I had a wine bar or wine company I would order it straight away. It smells of freshly crushed raspberries and tastes of a whole melange of fresh red fruit and spice – my note says “Sangria for grown ups”! The cool, high altitude conditions give this wine a lovely seam of freshness which I think makes it such a joy - 90/100 points, mainly for the pleasure it delivers.
Palacio de Sada wines are distributed in the UK by Amathus.

La Dama

2009 Domaines Lupier La Dama Garnacha
Bodegas Domaines Lupier, San Martín de Unx, Baja Montaña sub-zone
75 year old Garnacha bush vines organically grown on dispersed plots on cool rocky soils at 600 – 750m. It the brainchild of  mavericks, or fanatics (in the best sense) Enrique Basarte and Elisa Úcar who say of their wines that “Atlantic Grenache, mountain viticulture, spectacular soils make it possible to obtain this ‘savage’ expression of the Grenache Grape”. The finished wine was aged 14 months in French oak.
I saw the road signs to the wonderfully named San Martín de Unx and it stuck in my mind. I wish we had gone, because this was the most exciting wine of the trip, only just and even then because it was so unexpected as much as anything else, but it really is a great wine.
The nose is fragrant and elegant with a purity about it. The palate is balanced and fine with poise and elegance and it carries the 14.5% alcohol perfectly. It is quite rich and concentrated, but also fresh and lively and feels much more Burgundian than Rhône-like. A great, great Grenache that I would love to try in a couple of years – 93/100 points.
Domaines Lupier wines are distributed in the UK by Fields, Morris & Verdin.

_0004_sta-cruz-artazu-2010

2010 Santa Cruz de Artazu Garnacha
Bodegas y Vinédos Artazu, Puente de la Reina, Valdizarbe sub-zone 
Juan Carlos Lopez of Bodegas Artadi fame has spread his wings since 1996, making superb wines in Alicante and also Navarra as well. Their Navarra estate is situated in Artazu just over the river Arga from Señorio de Saría and not far from the Camino de Santiago. Their vineyards grow at 500m and the primary focus is red Garnacha, especially in the flagship wine Santa Cruz de Artazu. Which in itself is interesting as at nearby Saría they were adamant that the best use of their old Garnacha vines was in their  Viñedo N° 5 Rosado, rather than in a red wine.

Certainly it is warmer and more humid here than in Baja Montaña and it shows with a heavier, richer and more brooding and spicy style that has intense smoky sweet black fruit and smoky fine tannins. This is a very different take, but still very fine. It needs a lot of time and a lot of food – 92/100 points.
Artadi and Artazu wines are distributed in the UK by Fields, Morris & Verdin.

However much I liked many of the other reds – and I did – it seemed to me that with red Grenache Navarra has found its star grape. I have never tasted Garnacha as fine, complex or interesting as these – do try some if you can.

At risk of out staying my welcome though I have one more surprise:

Something sweet to finish

I have tasted many Muscats – Moscatel in Spanish – from Navarra and have enjoyed them all in their different ways. Some were light, fresh and clean, while most were lightly fortified like a Vin Doux Naturel. I would highly recommend the following Navarra Moscatels:

moscatel_dulce2011 Ochoa Moscatel Vendimia Tardía
The freshest example I have tried, it is not fortified and the grapes are only a little bit over-ripe. It’s so light and clean and pure that it seems to sing. It feels very simple in many ways, but is so, so deliciously full of fresh, lively peaches, honey, flowers and almonds that it is almost impossible to resist – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Winedrop.co.uk @ £11.75 per half litre / 500cl.

5G

Señorío de Sarría Moscatel
This is a richer , but still fresh, and honeyed, sweet and a delicious take on the style. The aromas are quite lifted and vibrant with honey, blossom and aniseed as well as lemon shortbread notes. Interestingly the partially fermented grape juice is fortified with local Orujo – a Spanish grappa.

Quite a classic style in Spain - 87/100 points.

chivite-coleccion-125-vendimia-tardia-22008 Chivite Collecion 125 Vendimia Tardía
A more complex style, this is late harvested and partly botrytised Moscatel / Muscat with he grapes being picked in 12 successive tris through the vineyard to get the ripest grapes. The wine is fermented and aged for 5 months in French oak and it really is stunning, honeyed, concentrated and rich as the Sultan of Brunei – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from Waitrose @ £19.99 per half bottle.

So, just when I thought I knew what Navarra Moscatel was all about, I was given this:

caprichoMoscatel Capricho de Goya
Bodegas Camilo Castilla, Corella, Ribera Baja sub-zone
This wine is bonkers! It is amazingly concentrated and ripe with deep prune, fig and raisin characters, rum, caramel and nutty toffee too. It is made a bit like a Madeira with ageing in a mixture of wooden barrels and glass demijohns on the roof for 7 years. It is so, so lovely, like sticky toffee pudding in a glass – who needs the dessert? In style it is like a joyous cross between PX and Rutherglen Muscat with more freshness and salinity. It is intensely sweet, but also has an intense savoury richness, truly great wine – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Templar Wines @ £19.25 per half litre / 500cl.

So, the whole trip was quite an experience and Navarra delivered up more variety and more unexpected gems than I could imagine. I loved the wines and the place and if you drink a few of these wines that I have mentioned, then so will you.

A dramatic Navarra sunset.

A dramatic Navarra sunset.

Torres Viña Sol – 50 Years Old & Still Fresh

I don’t often learn about wine from the postman, but a knock on my door this morning made me  realise that the Viña Sol wine brand, made by Miguel Torres in Spain, is now over 50 years old having been produced in every vintage since 1962.

Viña Sol cannot be underestimated, it certainly put Miguel Torres squarely on the world wine map, showed that Catalunya was an up and coming wine region and proved to sceptic drinkers everywhere that Spain could make bright, crisp dry white wines.

At dinner with Miguel Torres in Vilafranca del Penedés in 20011.

At dinner with Miguel Torres in Vilafranca del Penedés in 2011.

The wine is still good and at the very least provides a well made and reliable wine to cling to when all else fails. Nowadays the grapes are sourced from  Denominación de Origen Catalunya which covers the whole region, but the quality remains high. Made from the local Parellada – also one of the key Cava grapes – Viña Sol is bright, crisp, fresh and lively and at only 11.5% alcohol is light and very drinkable indeed. Above all I always think of Viña Sol as a fresh wine, so I was amused to read the slogan in the leaflet that was also in the box: “Fifty years of freshness“.

It is no mean feat for someone to have created a wine that is still popular and respected after 50 years of production, but of course that is just one of the things that Miguel Torres has achieved. During that half century he was also one of the people most responsible for modernising Spanish wine with the introduction of modern wine making techniques including the use of stainless steel and cold fermentation. He also brought French grape varieties to Spain to help produce a more internationalised range of wines in the 1960s, before championing Spain’s native grape varieties in more recent times.

All that of course would be more than enough for most of us, but from 1979 he did all this all over again in Chile and was at the forefront of modernising the Chilean wine industry and it’s outlook too. Not many people can claim to have anything like the level of influence on the world of wine that Miguel Torres has and continues to have with his strong brands and wide range of very good quality wines.

The box containing 2 bottles of Viña Sol & decorated with replicas of Viña Sol labels through the ages.

The box containing 2 bottles of Viña Sol & decorated with reproductions of Viña Sol labels through the ages.

I know that Viña Sol is 50 years old because this morning my postman thrust a parcel into my hand – always an exciting event. When I opened it I found it contained a wonderful gift box decorated with photographs of Torres wine being made and loaded onto trucks. These pictures have no date on them, but do have that unmistakable feel of the 1960s, that look of a world very alien to our own and yet not totally different either.

The 2 bottles, snug in their box. The current label is on the left, “Spanish Chablis" on the right.

The 2 bottles, snug in their box. The current label is on the left, “Spanish Chablis” on the right.

Nestling inside the box are 2 bottles of 2012 Torres Viña Sol, one with the current label and screw cap, while the other is dressed in the traditional style  that I remember from my childhood. It is complete with a real cork and rather bravely the label even proclaims itself to be “Spanish Chablis” just as Viña Sol used to be labelled back in the ’60s when wine was still considered to be a “French” thing, by British drinkers anyway.

I am thrilled by this gift box, happy memories spent drinking Torres wine came flooding back, but it has given me a real problem. Do I keep the lovely special edition bottle with the old style label, or simply drink it and enjoy it as wine should be?

Whatever I decide I will wish Viña Sol a very happy birthday.

Torres Viña Sol is widely available in the UK from Waitrose, Majestic, Tesco, Ocado and Wine Rack among many others.