Friuli Delights

It’s been quite a year for extending my understanding of Italian wines. Recently I visited parts of the Prosecco production area in the Veneto region, but earlier in the year I was part of a study tour of a fascinating wine region called Friuli Isonzo.

This wine region is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC – or a PDO in overarching EU parlance – and can be found in the extreme north east of Italy. It stretches from near Monfalcone – where you find Trieste Airport – to Goriza on the border with Slovenia. It is all flat land, the neighbouring DOC of Carso has the mountains and Collio the hills – it even means hills in Italian. So basically the whole DOC of Friuli Isonzo is an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and sea breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (the Soča in Slovenia).

I was seriously impressed by what I found and enjoyed the experience very much. This is a culturally rich and varied part of Italy because the outside influences are very strong. Nearby is the amazing ancient Roman city of Aquileia which was the ancient capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The cohesion of the area was destroyed by the collapse of the Roman Empire with the Franks and the Lombards settling in the western part of the region while Alpine Slavs made their homes in the eastern part of Friuli near Trieste. This difference was reinforced by Friuli becoming part of the Venetian Republic in 1420 while the former free city states of Trieste and Goriza became part of the Hapsburg Empire at roughly the same time.

This border of course remained until 1797 with Napoleon’s destruction of the Venetian Empire and the whole of Friuli-Venezia Giulia was ceded to Austria. Eventually the wars for Italian unification led to the great majority of the region, the Italian parts, joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. The new border however left the more Slovene parts in the Austrian Empire. After the First World War the whole place was taken by Italy and the previously Austrian port of Trieste became an Italian city.

The Second World War shook things up yet again and Tito’s Partisans not only liberated Yugoslavia, but also Trieste. Tito had hopes of absorbing the city and it’s surrounding region into Yugoslavia, however it was not to be and the area was awarded to Italy again in 1954. In turn of course Slovenia declared itself independent of Yugoslavia in 1991 and so the region now borders Slovenia, now a democracy and member of the EU.

Wine map of northern Italy. Friuli is in the north east, between Veneto and Slovenia.

Sketch wine map of Friuli-Venezia-Guilia, click for a larger view.

This history shows in the wines with a wide range of grape varieties and blends that sometimes echoes the styles produced over the border – and vice versa of course.

The principal white grape varieties are Chardonnay, Friulano, Gewürztraminer, Malvasia, Moscato, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Verduzzo and Welschriesling (Riesling Italico).

Varietally labelled wines – those with a grape variety as the most important piece of information on the label – must contain 100% of that grape, while blends – labelled as “blanco” can contain any blend of the grapes listed above.

The red grapes are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Franconia (Blaufränkisch), Merlot, Moscato Rosa, Pignolo, Pinot Nero, Refosco and Schioppettino and again the varietals must contain 100% of that grape and red blends – “rosso” can contain any proportions of the above grape varieties.

There are also rosé wines, which can be made from any permitted grape other than Gewürztraminer, and a separate DOC for rosés made from the Moscato Rosa grape.

The region also makes some excellent sparkling wines (Spumante in Italian) – as most Italian regions do – including Chardonnay Spumante with a minimum of 85% Chardonnay and a maximum of 15% Pinot Nero / Pinot Noir blended in.
There is also Moscato Giallo Spumante, Moscato Rosa Spumante, Pinot Spumante made from any proportions of Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Nero / Pinot Noir, Verduzzo Spumante from 100% Verduzzo and Rosso Spumante which follows the same rules as still Rosso.

Fundamentally the soils are a mixture of ponka (a sandstone-marl mixture) along with more alluvial gravel and clay with some limestone and the land is flat with good sun exposure and good cooling from the air draining down the mountains. This results in wines that can be anything from quite austere and mineral to moderately rich and fruity.

Here are a few of the wines and wineries that really impressed me on the trip:

Borgo San Daniele

This thrilling winery is run by brother and sister Alessandra and Mauro Mauri. Their father had converted their mixed farm to a vineyard and bought some more vineyards and they both trained as winemakers in nearby Cividale – meaning they are steeped in the local traditions – and their first vintage was in 1991.

They farm 18 hectares spread over a wide area, giving them lots of different sites and conditions as well as grape varieties. They are certified organic and farm biodynamically, so do not use use any pesticides or herbicides and plant their vines at high density and seek low yields and are quite happy to wait for full ripeness – for weeks in necessary. Winemaking is totally traditional and yet new wave too, with long maceration on the skins for the whites, spontaneous fermentations and long lees ageing in wood.

I loved their Friulano and Malvasia, but what excited me the most were their blends.

2015 Arbis Blanc
IGT Venezia Giulia

This is a single vineyard wine from a site called San Leonardo and is a blend of 40% Sauvignon, 20% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Bianco and 20% Friulano. The different varieties are picked separately when fully ripe, then the musts are blended together and fermented together – it is a variation on a traditional field blend. The wine is then aged on the lees in large, 2000 litre, Slavonian oak casks. Confusingly Slavonia is not in Slovenia, but is a region in neighbouring Croatia.

In effect this is a solera aged blend as 30% is from the 2014 vintage which also contains some older components, and so on. That is why it has to be labelled as a humble IGT rather than DOC. Arbis means herb in the local dialect and is called that because of the cover crops that grow between the rows and temper the vigour of the vines.

The nose is wild, enticing and exotic with peachy and apricot fruit, dense citrus, waxy hibiscus, shortbread, accacia and light honey. There is jasmin, blossom and a mineral note of wet stones.
The palate has lovely weight and integration and a texture that flows wonderfully across the palate with a succulent feel, a deep flavour of rich lemon, cooked apple, melted butter, sage and something. It is very long, delicious and really interesting – 94/100 points.

2013 Arbis Ròs
DOC Friuli Isonzo

This is also a single vineyard wine from a site called Ziris and is 100% Pignolo. The grape has hardly been cultivated at all since WWII as it produces such tiny crops, but of course that suits the new wave of boutique wine growers who have supplanted the large production wineries of the 1960s to 1990s. Pignolo is a very rare grape now with just 60 hectares in Friuli and so the world.

The wine spends 3 years in oak of various sizes before being blended in tonneau – which are 550 litre in Italy – and then aged for another year in Slavonian oak barrels.

The lovely deep ruby colour is enticing.
The nose delivers bright cherry notes together with freshly turned earth, red dust, Lapsang souchong and five spice.
The palate has a sensual, silky, velvety feel, mid weight, nice freshness with cherry fruit and acidity, rich plums, chocolate and violets on the finish. The finish is long with this intense cherry with a bit of blood orange too – 94/100 points.

Castello di Spessa

This amazing winery is a beautiful castle and country house set in a beautiful landscape. The house is a luxury hotel and golf resort, while the winery is based around the medieval cellars. They farm 55 hectares in both DOC Friuli Isonzo and DOC Collio.

The amazing cellars at Castello di Spessa – photo courtesy of the winery.

Again I really liked a lot of their wines, the Pinot Grigio was very good, as was the unoaked Chardonnay and somewhat austere Sauvignon. However the standout for me was the Friulano:

2016 Castello di Spessa Friulano
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Friulani used to be called Tocai – that is no longer allowed to save confusion with actual Tokaji from Hungary and Slovakia – and has been part of the viticultural landscape in Friuli for centuries.

This is a single vineyard wine, called Capriva del Friuli, and is made from 25 year old vines in a totally normal manner. The grapes are crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged on the lees for a further 6 months in 5000 litre stainless steel tanks.

In the past I have really struggled to see the joy in Friulano, but this wine helped open my eyes to what it can do. It delivered very attractive aromas of fresh peach and apricots together with orange blossom and toasted almonds. There is something a little salty and mineral here too.
The palate is bone dry, round and fresh and fleshy with good richness, cooked apple, some pastry and bread flavours and high acid on the finish. I love the generosity, the bitter almonds and the touch of sea air about it and think it would be perfect with all sorts of nibbles and ham and cheese – 93/100 points.

I Feudi di Romans

I like this winery and am always impressed by the wines. They make a large range of very stylishly crafted wines that tend to be very seductive and charming. The winery itself sits on the flat land of the region just near the banks of the Isonzo river.

Looking across the Isonzo to the mountains.

2016 Sontium
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Friulani used to be called Tocai – that is no longer allowed to save confusion with actual Tokaji from Hungary and Slovakia – and has been part of the viticultural landscape in Friuli for centuries.

Sontium by the way is the Latin name for the Isonzo River.

This is a single vineyard wine, called Capriva del Friuli, and is made from 25 year old vines in a totally normal manner. The grapes are crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged on the lees for a further 6 months in 5000 litre stainless steel tanks.

In the past I have really struggled to see the joy in Friulano, but this wine helped open my eyes to what it can do. It delivered very attractive aromas of fresh peach and apricots together with orange blossom and toasted almonds. There is something a little salty and mineral here too.
The palate is bone dry, round and fresh and fleshy with good richness, cooked apple, some pastry and bread flavours and high acid on the finish. I love the generosity, the bitter almonds and the touch of sea air about it and think it would be perfect with all sorts of nibbles and ham and cheese – 93/100 points.

Drius

Mauro Drius creates a big range of varietal wines, and the odd blend, on his family estates near Cormòns. He farms about 15 hectares on the flatlands as well as the slopes of Mount Quarin.

2016 Pinot Bianco
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Pinot Blanc is the unsung hero of the Pinot family for me and I think it deserves to be more widely appreciated – I would almost always rather drink Pinot Blanc than Pinot Gris!

The wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and 80% was then aged in stainless steel tanks. 20% of it though was aged in large two year old Slavonian oak vats. Both components had regular bâtonnage.

The nose delivers lovely, clean and pure aromas of butter, toast, nuts, light peach, orange and something floral.

The palate is very soft, round, gentle and attractive with a almost a little caramel and some nuts and ripe orange and peach. Medium acidity gives some nice freshness and makes the wine feel very drinkable indeed – 91/100 points.

 

Tenuta di Blasig

This was my second visit to this estate and it is a beautiful spot. It is very near Trieste Airport, in Ronchi dei Legionari. The name of the town was originally Ronchi Monfalcone and was only changed in 1925 to commemorate the fact that nationalist, war hero, poet and proto fascist, Gabriele D’Annunzio‘s legionnaires set off from here in 1919 to seize the port of Fiume / Rijeka (now in Croatia) from the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, soon to be called Yugoslavia. D’Annunzio wanted Fiume to be part of Italy, as was the rest of Istria at the time. His occupation of the city lasted for 16 months and made him a national hero. D’Annunzio was a friend of the Blasig family and actually stayed in the house before sailing to Fiume and a whole wall near the kitchen is covered in amazing photographs of D’Annunzio and his men.

Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli talking about her beloved Malvasia.

Tenuta di Blasig was founded by Domenico Blasig in 1788 with the aim of making fine Malvasia wine and Malvasia remains the focus. The charming Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli is the eighth generation of the family to manage the estate and she seems to do a vey good job, producing wines of elegance and depth. They farm 18 hectares, but the vineyards are spread out and often found surrounded by suburban buildings – Trieste Airport is very close indeed and the winery is right next to the town hall.

I really like the wines here. The Friulano with a light touch of oak is a wonderful example of the type, while the Merlot, that has no oak at all, and the Rosso Affreschi Merlot and Refosco blend were both lovely wines. However the standouts for me were:

2016 Malvasia
DOC Friuli Isonzo

This Malvasia is a single vineyard wine from the nearby village of Vermegliano. It is cold fermented in stainless steel and aged on the lees for 6 months.

The nose is fresh, but not that aromatic with melon and floral blossom notes.

There are also little glimpses of orange nuts and a saline note.The palate is medium-bodied and slightly fleshy with a little succulence and almond and toffee and a little salty minerality too, like a fine Chablis.

That orange comes back, giving a soft, citric twist, while the weight and the salty minerality dominate the finish, which is pretty long.

This is a very complex wine that shows just how good Malvasia can be – 91/100 points.

 

2014 Elisabetta Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso
DOC Friuli Isonzo

I am a big fan of Refosco and think it is brilliant with almost all Italian dishes. There are at least two Refoscos, this is the one with red stems and is quite prevalent in Friuli. This wine is only fermented in stainless steel and has no oak at all.

The nose has a lovely heady mix of plums, dark cherry, milk chocolate and prune.

The palate is smooth with medium body, highish acid, nice purity, brightness and drinkability. The flavours are cherry, blueberry, plum, milk chocolate, tea, herbs and light spice as well as that very Italianate bitterness of almonds and cherry stones, that sounds weird but is actually delicious – 92/100 points.

 

 

Borgo Conventi

An aerial view of the Borgo Conventi estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

Another beautiful estate that produces both DOC Collio and DOC Friuli Isonzo wines. Founded in 1975 in an area that contained monasteries – Borgo Conventi means “hamlet monastery” – since 2001 it it has been owned and completely overhauled by the Folonari family’s Ruffino estate in Tuscany.

Again this estate produces a large range. They directly own around 20 hectares in the Collio and Friuli Isonzo regions, but also control and manage lots of other vineyards that they do not own. I enjoyed all the wines, especially the Sauvignon among the whites, but the standouts here were the reds:

2016 Merlot
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Merlot grown in pebbly clay soil, a bit like St Emilion.

The vines are around 30 years old and the wine is fermented and stainless steel vats and aged in stainless steel tanks on the lees for 6 months.

They want this wine to be fresh and fruity, so the maceration is short and there is no oak.

The colour is an enticing, shining, bright plum.
The nose is direct with lifted sweet fruit making it vibrant and lively. There are brambles and plums and blueberries and some herbal and earthy notes.
The palate is vibrantwith fresh plums and cherries, strawberry even. This makes it lively and pure with silky tannins and a little acidity to give nice freshness.

A nice medium bodied, supple red that is easy drinking and interesting – 90/100 points.

The beautiful winery at Borgo Conventi – photo courtesy of the winery.

2012 Schioppettino
IGT Venezia Giulia

This near extinct grape is a speciality of the region and likes the cool areas with coastal influence or cool draining mountain air. The grape is sometimes known as Ribolla Nera and Pocalza in Slovenia. The grape has high acidity and a somewhat peppery character.

The harvest is done by hand with several passes through the vineyard to pick individual ripe grapes. A further selection of the grapes takes place inside the winery. 20% of the grapes are partially dried, like Amarone  to improve the concentration. Fermentation is in wooden vats with refrigeration gear to keep the temperature low. This takes about 15 days with regular pump overs for extraction.The wine is then aged in second fill, new wood would give a more obvious oak character, French oak barriques (225 litre) for 12 months

The colour is a lovely ruby to pale terracotta red.
The nose gives earthy notes, cooked plums, bitter cherry, raspberry and herbs together with black pepper, cloves and cinnamon.
The palate is very smooth with high acid, sweet dried red fruit, medicinal notes, herbal notes.
Silky tannins and high acid make the wine soft and supple but refreshing and intrigueing. It’s not a big wine, in fact it is quite Pinot Noir like (with a bit of peppery Syrah in the mix for good measure) so it is medium bodied, but it is very savoury and tasty with some delicate chocolate and espresso on the finish from the oak. I love this wine, it is  delicate but rich and long – 94/100 points.

Simon di BrazzanI found this winery to be utterly fascinating. Friuli – and neighbouring Slovenia – is pretty much the epicentre of the Orange Wine movement – skin fermented white wines. Now I like these wines, but never because they are Orange, but because the wines that I like are good. Orange wines are very popular with Sommeliers right now and all sorts of people in the wine business and one hears all sorts of claims about them – and their near relations, “Natural Wines” – that they are the only wines worth drinking. Well I do not take that view, when I like them, I like them. When they are undrinkable then I don’t.

Daniele Drius farms a small estate that he inherited from his grandfather and over the last few years has converted it to organic and biodynamic viticulture. To me he seems to produce the best of both worlds, “fresh” tasting Orange wines and serious, complex “fresh” wines – just like my friend Matjaž Lemut at his Tilia Estate and Aleš Kristančič at his Movia Estate. Both of these are in Slovenia and these two dynamic – and talkative! – winemakers were school friends together.

2016 Blanc di Simon Friulano
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Friulano one third fermented in barrel on the skins with the rest fermented in stainless steel and left on the lees for a further 6 months.

It was fermented using the indigenous yeast.

The nose is quite developed with bees wax and honey notes as well as dried apricot, white pepper and something mineral.

The palate has lovely concentration with an abundance of ripe peach, peach skin, red apple, orange, something floral, something mineral and nice, balanced acidity just oiling the wheels.

I loved this and bet it goes down a treat with the local Prosciutto di San Daniele – 93/100 points.

 

2012 Blanc di Simon Friulano Tradizion
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Friulano fermented in 8 year old 2500 litre wooden vats with skin contact.

The wine is then aged in those vats for 30 months.

The staves are a mixture of French oak and Slavonian oak.

This has a beautiful, rich golden colour and a lovely nose, rich and lifted, with apricots, candied fruit, coffee and chopped nuts – especially almonds.

The palate is rich, viscous and heady with ripe stone fruit, orange, rich lemon, apple compote, honey, maple syrup, malt and caramel.

The finish is very long, silky and refined. This is a very enticing wine, full of flavour and bursting with energy – 94/100 points.

 

I really enjoyed my time in Friuli Isonzo. The place is very lovely and steeped in history. I met some remarkable winemakers and enjoyed some wonderful hospitality. It a place that seems full of wine. What’s more that wine is incredibly varied. There are many different grape varieties and a huge array of possible blends as well as very different styles and approaches to winemaking.

This is a region that will repay some experimentation. Who knows, your new favourite wine might be from Friuli Isonzo.

Wine of the Week – A Great Cava

The vineyards at Roger Goulart – photo courtesy of the winery.

I like sparkling wine. Yes I really like Champagne too, but sparkling wine does not just have to be for when you cannot afford Champagne you know – many are superb in their own right.

Recently I have tried a couple of delicious Cavas that really got me thinking – why is that in the UK so many consumers fail to see the beauty of Cava and regard it purely as a cheap alternative to Champagne? The Cavas that I tasted were both very different, made in different parts of Spain, from different grape varieties, but had one thing in common – quality. They were both really good and would please any wine drinker who was prepared to be open minded and to enjoy the wines on their merits.

Cava counts as a wine region, because it is a Denominación de origen / DO – or PDO in the overarching EU parlance. The great majority of Cava is produced in Catalonia, the DO covers great swathes of the autonomous region, but Cava can be made in parts of Rioja, Valencia, Navarra, Aragón and Extremadura as well.

My wine map of Cataluña. I created this for the new Wine Scholar Guild Spanish Wine Course which will be launched next year.

The DO regulates where Cava can be produced. The style was created in 1872 in Penedès by the Raventos family who own Codorniu, one of the two giant Cava companies – the other being Frexinet.

The traditional white grapes are Xarello, Macabeo (aka Viura) and Parellada 20.0%, but Malvasia and Chardonnay are also permitted. Black grapes are used to – either to make rosado / rosé Cava or white cava in a Blanc de Noirs style – so Garnacha, Monastrell, Pinot Noir and Trepat are also allowed.

Of course any Cava must be made sparkling by the Traditional Method, as used for Champagne. This process usually makes the most complex sparkling wines.

Just like the wines of Rioja – and indeed most of Spain – not all Cavas are equal either. A Cava labelled simply as Cava must be aged on the lees for a minimum of 9 months. Cava Reserva is aged for at least 15 months, while Cava Gran Reserva spends a minimum of 30 months on the lees. Basically the longer the wine is aged on the lees, or yeast sediment left over from the second fermentation, then the more the wine develops those complex, savoury, bread, flakey pastry and brioche characters. Of course, as in Champagne, the best producers often age their wines for much longer than the legal minimum time.

There is also a new top-tier category of single estate Cavas, called Cava de Paraje Calificado.

Sadly only one of the Cavas that I tasted is readily available so I will limit myself to that one for now – luckily it is really, really good…

2011 Roger Goulart Brut Gran Reserva 
DO / PDO Cava
Cavas Roger Goulart
Sant Esteve Sesrovires
Alt Penedès, Cataluña
Spain

Based in Sant Esteve Sesrovires, which is near Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Roger Goulart was founded in 1882 by Magí Canals. He bought the land from the Goulart family, just ten years after Cava was invented. The winery now farms 20 hectares of vines and boasts a kilometre of deep tunnels and cellars where the wines are aged. Above ground is a stunning winery designed by Ignasi Mas i Morell who was a contemporary of the great Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí.

The winery at Roger Goulart – photo courtesy of the winery.

Everything here is done by hand with an eye to detail. This wine is a blend of the three classic Cava grape varieties 60% Xarello, 20.0% Macabeo (Viura) and 20% Parellada, although they do also have Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The grapes are hand harvested in the very early morning to ensure the grapes are in perfect condition and the acidity, so crucial for sparkling wine, is retained.

In order to create a richer, more autolytic style, they shake the bottles during the ageing period in order to increase lees contact with the wine and so develop a deeper flavour – a little like bâtonnage in still wines. Goulart aim for complex wines and so age their Gran Reservas on the lees for five years before release.

The cellars at Roger Goulart – photo courtesy of the winery.

If you have never tasted a fine Cava then this might be the place to start. It absolutely wowed me because it has that softer fruit profile that Cava has, making it very different from Champagne. There is also lovely brisk acidity keeping it refreshing and delicate, which balances the fruit. Then there is the richness, smoky, nutty, brioche and a touch of flakey pastry from the lees ageing – again this is balanced by the acidity and itself balances the fruit. They wine is very dry, but with a touch of fruit softness, while the mousse is very delicate with a firmness to it that makes the wine feel very elegant and fine.

This is a great sparkling wine and is very versatile. Don’t just save it for celebrations or as an aperitif. It is fabulous with fish and chips, Asian food and light dishes – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £20 per bottle from The BottleneckBin TwoDulwich Vintners, Vino Wines, Ellie’s Cellar, Luvians Bottleshop, Wholefoods Camden, Islington WineChislehurst WinesThe Leamington Wine CompanyRoberts & SpeightShearer’s Fine FoodsThe Shenfield Wine Company

Wine of the Week – a great red Rioja

As any cursory read of these pages shows, I love Spain. I love the country, the people, the history, the culture, the food and the wine. Spain is simply one of the most exciting wine producing countries there is.

The whole country is awash with wine. It is the third largest wine producing country in the world, after France and Italy, but has the largest vineyard plantings of any country on earth.

In the UK we do not give Spain the respect it deserves, Spanish wine is incredibly varied and diverse, but apparently most of us really only drink Rioja and a bit of cheap Cava.

That is a shame as there is so much more going on in this wonderful and colourful country – dip into these pages and you will find a great del about Spanish wine, food and travel.

Recently I attended a most fabulous event. It was a tasting hosted by Bodegas Bilbainas and it was an evening to remember.

Haro_-_Bodegas_Bilbaínas_1

Bodegas Bilbainas in Haro, Rioja

 

Bilbainas are an old Rioja house, founded in 1904 and now owned by Catalan Cava producers Codorníu. It has always been a good house, but seems to have become even better of late. Unusually for a Rioja producer Bodegas Bilbainas have always owned a lot of vineyards, 250 hectares near Haro in Rioja Alta in fact. This is why they label their wines Viña Pomal – Pomal being the name of this estate, as they only make estate wines.

The event was held at the elegant Hispania restaurant in London’s Lombard Street and I have seldom been anywhere so civilised and comfortable. The service was perfect and the food set the wines off perfectly. I tasted a glorious array of wines, all of which were superb, and I will write about them soon, but with winter fast approaching I thought that I would tell you about a really fine red.

Spainish map QS 2012 watermark

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view

Rioja Map 2013

A map of Rioja – click for a larger view.

pomal_gran_reserva2010 Viña Pomal Gran Reserva
DOCa / PDO Rioja
Bodegas Bilbainas
Haro, La Rioja
Spain

Gran Reservas are traditionally thought to be the best wines of Rioja and are only made in the very best vintages and were pretty rare when I was young. Such vintages come along much more frequently today – so you see global warming is not all bad!

2010 was a really great vintage, rated Excellente, and the quality shows. Most Rioja blends Tempranillo with a little Garnacha / Grenache and possibly a dash of Mazuelo (aka Carignan) and the much more rare Graciano. This wine is just 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano and is aged for 12 months in American oak barrels – American oak gives that vanilla character – before being racked, blended and returned to barrel for another year. After that the wine is transferred to wooden vats to fall bright, bottled and aged in bottle for a further three years before going on sale. 

pomales

Viña Pomal is an old, but very strong brand.

 

I sat with this wine, as I had an array of 4 or 5 others to distract me, and I am so glad as it really developed in the glass. It is undeniably pretty with loads of deep red fruit, vanilla, cloves and a light dusting of vanilla, coconut, tobacco and leather, as well as a note of cream. The palate was supple, silky and refined. Just nudging full-bodied it elegantly filled my senses and my palate with rich fruit, but also those classic, mineral, savoury, spicy and balsamic sensations that make Rioja so moreish. The tannins give a light bite while the acidity gives a nice touch of freshness.

This is a brilliant wine. It delivers so much and promises so much too. It is absolutely delicious right now, but will happily age for another decade, and become more savoury and complex – although some of that fruit will fade. It is bright and wonderfully youthful with great structure and real elegance – 93/100 points.

A wine like this is very versatile and would be fabulous with Christmas dinner, but is equally great with any meat dish, or even cheese.

This wine is strangely difficult to buy, but can be ordered online from Vinum.co.uk  and the equally fine 2011 vintage from Decantalo.com, Uvinum.co.uk and Exel Wines.

 

Wine of the Week – A is for Albarossa

The beautiful landscape of Monferrato.

Albarossa! Yes my wine of the Week – or indeed last couple of months as I have not been able to write very much of late due to personal circumstances – is made from the Albarossa grape.

I love discovering wines, regions and grape varieties that are new to me and this was a revelation. Albarossa has a rather muddled history and is not widely used for anything – but on the showing of this one that I tasted recently – it really should.

It is a black grape bred in 1938 by Giovanni Dalmasso in Conegliano, the heart of Prosecco country today. He had intended to cross Nebbiolo and Barber – which both blend together rather splendidly in the Langhe region of Piemonte. DNA testing in 2009 showed that the Nebbiolo used in this crossing though was actually Nebbiolo di Dronero. Dronero is in Piemonte, on the Po some 40km south west of Turin and 20km from the French border, this grape is not actually Nebbiolo at all, but a rare French grape from Ardèche in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France.

By the way consumers often find this sort of thing mystifying, but actually until very recently grape varieties were pretty unimportant. Historically people just grew what they had always grown and as they didn’t travel they gave it their own local name and remained unaware that the same grape grew elsewhere with a different name. Pretty much every grape variety has a whole raft of names in fact. It is simply that the mass communication and world-wide trade of the last 40 years has meant that it is better to standardise names of grape varieties so that people know what they are getting. It’s a bit like EU regulations if that is not too political a thing to say!

It is fair to say that Albarossa has not really taken off as a grape and there are only four producers and just ten hectares planted in the whole of Italy, but if they all make wines like the one that I tasted then there should be more – a lot more.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Banfi Piemonte is just a few kilometres east of the the lovely townof Acqui Terme in Alessandria province. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

The beautiful hills around Strevi.

2015 La Lus Albarossa
DOC / PDO Piemonte
Castello Banfi – Banfi Piemonte
Strevi, Piemonte
Italy

Castello Banfi are famous as a Tuscan producer where they craft magnificent Brunello di Montalcino in their hilltop castle and much else besides. Their estates in Piemonte are not so well known, but on this showing they really should be. It is based in the lovely little town of Strevi, in Monferrato, and has been making wine since 1860 in fact. Banfi bought it in the late 1970s not long after the creation of Castello Banfi in Tuscany. In Strevi they farm 45 hectares and make a wide range of wines including traditional method sparklers and a wonderful sweet sparkling red Brachetto d’Aqui that is superb with light chocolate desserts – click here.

This is 100% Albarossa, one of only four such wines in the world, aged for 12 months in French oak barriques.

Oh my this is a enticing wine with a beautifully opaque plum colour, lifted aromas of cherries, plums and redcurrant – that show its Barbera heritage. On top of that is fresh earth, fragrant vanilla, light mocha and spices.

The palate is seductively soft, velvety smooth and round with lovely weight of concentrated fruit making it full-bodied and full-flavoured, but the freshness really shines through making it feel lively and balanced – the Barbera again? Rich plum, cherry, coffee, chocolate, some earth and leather and a creaminess to the texture all make this complex and joyful. The tannins are sinfully soft and the whole thing is utterly, utterly delicious – 92/100 points.

The rolling hills around Acqui Terme.

I tasted this wine the other week with my first Christmas dinner of the year – really. It was a perfect match with everything you expect in a classic British Christmas dinner and was so drinkable. There was a largish group of us there tasting all sorts of different wines with the Christmas dinner, but this was widely thought to be the best match.

Available in the UK at around £18.99 per bottle from Noel Young WinesQuaff Fine Wine,Weavers of Nottingham, Wined Up Here, Hedonism Wines, Tannico.co.uk.

 

A Fine Gin & Tonic – the Perfect Summer Drink

A bottle of Duck and Crutch together with some of the botanicals used to make it.

I don’t drink many spirits as I am – strangely – a bit wimpy about alcohol. So the only spirits that I do enjoy are those that we drink long with mixers, especially Campari and …gin.

Gin is my favourite drink that isn’t wine or beer and to my mind it is utterly perfect in the late summer and into the autumn. Over the years I have tasted a great many gins, but have kept to a few brands that I like – for me gin has to be aromatic and flavoursome – and not paid too much attention to the current gin revolution I am afraid – the exact opposite of how I want people to be with wine!

So, apart from the odd taste of something new now and again, the gin revolution of recent years has passed me by – which is a shame as there are such exciting gins out there.

My new favourite gin appeared in my life entirely by chance because my sons both know one of the people who makes it. It’s called Duck and Crutch and it is the most wonderfully artisan product imaginable. George and Hollie are the passionate team who make it and the inspiration came from a distilling experience to celebrate Hollie’s 27th birthday a couple of years ago. Hence the name, as Duck and Crutch is apparently the bingo call for 27.

It seems that experience led on to experiments at home with a copper 5 litre pot still, called Bunny, lots of vodka and different botanicals. Botanicals are the things that flavour gin by being put in a pot still with the base spirit, thus infusing the finished spirit with those tastes. Juniper is, of course the most important and famous botanical.

George in the shed with Agnes in the background…

The next step was to go commercial, but really that is hardly the right word as the whole set up is barking – even though it is actually in Kensington. For a start it is just George and Hollie doing the work and it is made in a shed. What’s more it is a tiny shed, smaller than a double bed in fact, but as with any man George thoroughly enjoys the time he spends in his shed getting the gin just right. Everything is done by hand, literally everything as the shed does not even have plumbed water.

George preparing the botanicals for Duck and Crutch gin.

They eventually graduated to a larger, 40 litre, copper pot still called Agnes and are now able to produce a grand total of 42 bottles at a time.

It seems that Hollie and George love Indian food and some of the inspiration for the flavours of their gin came from that passion – and it shows. They start with a neutral grain spirit and then add the standard botanicals like coriander, angelica and citrus peel, but most importantly juniper. To these they add the more exotic, signature botanicals of Darjeeling tea, Bourbon vanilla, fresh thyme, fresh lemon, walnuts, nutmeg and cardamom. You can really see the the Indian influence, which is only fitting as it was there that the very British love of Gin and Tonic started during the days of the Raj.

All this love and care has produced a gin that oozes class and distinction. It is powerfully, yet elegantly aromatic with bright citrus notes, an enticing touch of smoky tea, some  floral aromas, the warming spice notes of nutmeg and a deft background character of juniper and vanilla. The exotic Darjeeling flavours dominate the finish but are nicely balanced by the cut of citrus.

I do not often drink neat gin, but I did try this and the concentration of the flavours is quite amazing. I would not want to drink much of it neat, but it was fabulous, heady but smooth and strangely moreish.

Served, as God intended, with ice, lemon and Fever-Tree tonic the aromas explode onto your senses as though reinvigorated and concentrated. The flavours become more playful and refreshing, yet they are all still there – just as when you add water to Whisky.

This is serious gin, rich, rewarding and refreshing and I recommend it most highly. What’s more Hollie created the brand and the look of the product and what a look it is. Duck and Crutch comes in a stunning bottle that is very tactile and attractive, while the label is a little work of art.

I often get upset about the state of the world right now, but a Duck and Crutch with tonic seems to calm me down and makes me think that a world with such a wonderful gin in it can’t be all that bad – can it?

 

Duck and Crutch gin is available from Jeroboams, Harvey Nichols, Gin Kiosk, Craftr and from Duck and Crutch themselves.

 

Beaujolais – a misunderstood region

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Beautiful vineyards on the south western border between Fleurie and Beaujolais-Villages.

 

Recently I had a quick trip to Beaujolais as the guest of Henry Fessy and it was a really uplifting experience. I have only been to Beaujolais once before and had come to the view that, with exceptions, the place was generally nicer than the wines. Now I am not so sure as I tasted some fabulous wines from this Cinderella-like region.

Too many Beaujolais wines in my younger days had almost no aromas or flavours at all except that bubblegum and candy floss character that shows the grapes were not crushed and instead the fermentation was carried out by the maceration carbonique process. I can enjoy wines made this way, but usually do not, especially if they are made from Gamay – the black grape of Beaujolais.

Too much of Beaujolais in my past was Beaujolais Nouveau too. This new wine is released in the year it is harvested – on the third Thursday of November. I am sure there are good examples, but on the whole it is very light, very thin, very acidic and, again, tasting of bubblegum, candy floss and cherryade. It is not everyone’s idea of fun and has tainted appreciation of the whole region for many of us, including me. Which is a pity because Beaujolais is about so much more.

Beaujolais can be a surprisingly complicated place for a region that has traditionally achieved most of its fame from producing very approachable wines.

Firstly, although the focus is on the reds, there is a tiny amount of white Beaujolais produced. Made from Chardonnay these white wines are very good quality and well worth seeking out.

French map QS 2018 Chablis & watermark

Wine Map of France showing the position of Beaujolais just to the south of Burgundy, but only semi-detached in some ways – click for a larger view.

Secondly, Beaujolais has traditionally been regarded as part of Burgundy, in the UK anyway. So much so that in a former life when I sold Georges Duboeff’s Fleurie, in tiny letters it stated “Grand Vin de Bourgogne” on the label. Nowadays Beaujolais is mainly regarded as a region on its own and not a sub-zone of Burgundy.

However this isn’t entirely consistent as there is no such thing as Crémant de Beaujolais for instance. Instead they produce Crémant de Bourgogne. The northern border is somewhat imprecise too with the Mâcon appellation / PDO encroaching all the way down to Romanèche-Thorins in the north-east of the region and even overlapping the Beaujolais Cru of St Amour.

Just to confuse matters a little bit more of course there are some odd labelling laws that permit some producers to label wines made from their Beaujolais vineyards as Appellation Controlée / Appellation d’Origine Protégée Bourgogne whilst denying that to others – this is why you can have Gamay de Bourgogne for instance, and very good it can be too as the grapes have to come from the Cru vineyards of Beaujolais – see below.

Putting all that to one side and looking just at the reds that from Beaujolais, there are three quality levels:

Wine map of Beaujolais showing all 3 quality levels and all 10 Crus.

Basic AC Beaujolais – this is generally grown on chalky limestone and produces very light reds with high acidity.

AC Beaujolais-Villages – from the northern part of the region where the soils can produce richer, rounder wines.

The 10 Crus. The Cru wines are named after the village – with 2 exceptions – within whose boundaries the grapes are grown. The appellation / PDO makes no mention of Beaujolais, just the village name. The most famous of these is of course Fleurie, but there are ten in all – see the map above.

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The mill in Romanèche-Thorins after which the wines of Moulin-à-Vent are named.

The two exceptions that are not named after their village are Côte de Brouilly which is named for the slopes of Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, and Moulin-á-Vent which is named after the distinctive old windmill that stands amongst the vines of Romanèche-Thorins.

With classic French regions it is quite a good idea to visit a producer who makes from the entire area, because you get an overview made by the same hand and mindset. That is what I got at Henry Fessy and it really made me revaluate my thoughts on Beaujolais.

P1240049

Laurent Chevalier, the charming director at Henry Fessy.

Henry Fessy was a family run estate from 1888 until it was purchased by the great Maison Louis Latour of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, who are still family owned after more than 200 years. The 70 hectare Fessy domaine has been run by the genial Laurent Chevalier ever since, with some help from members of the Fessy family, and it provides a wonderful snapshot of what Beaujolais can do.

They own land across the region and produce every single appellation contained within Beaujolais, as well as wines from the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy and even a very attractive Rosé de Provence. Currently they farm in 9 of the 10 Crus with Chiroubles being the exception. They do however produce an excellent Chiroubles from an estate with which they have long term contracts for supply and control of the vineyard.

Laurent explained that they handpick the best sites and destem 80% of the grapes, leaving 20% whole bunches. Old fashioned Beaujolais is not destemmed as the grapes have to be whole for maceration carbonique, so is fermented on the stems. 30 or 40 years ago those stems would not be as ripe as they nowadays, for many reasons, and so the results could be stalky and green. Nowadays greater control means that using stalks is a real choice because it can help with the manipulation of the must and also in the development of fuller wines and silkier tannins – providing those stalks are ripe.

So, by definition here they are not using maceration carbonique. Instead they do very light macerations with not very much wood, just a little for the top crus. What they are looking for is the taste of Gamay, rather than the more recognisable taste of bubble gum from the maceration carbonique.

The big differences between the different parts of Beaujolais are soil and aspect – isn’t that always the case! In the south the gentle rolling hills of most of the AC Beaujolais are lighter, chalkier limestone which produces lighter more acidic wines. The north however has a more complex arrangement of mainly granite with some schist, volcanic basalt and manganese. These all produce richer, rounder, more complex wines. Add aspect into the equation and you can quickly see why the Crus are so different from the rest of the region.

P1240087

Fleurie’s Chapelle de la Madone was built around 1870 to ward off vine diseases. It seems to have worked!

We talk about the slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and some other places too of course, but generally the Crus of Beaujolais are not spoken about in the same hushed ones. Well they should be. They are easily the equal of the Côte d’Or to look at, more beautiful if anything, with lovely dramatic slopes often angled towards the sun. In fact where the Cru of Beaujolais score over their neighbours to the north is that here the slopes do not only face one way as they often form a ridge with a reverse slope too. So you can have south, east and west facing Fleurie, and other Crus, vineyard slopes for instance.

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That rounded hill is Morgon’s Côte du Py lieux-dit. Fessy blend the fruit from their part of the Côte du Py into their Morgon rather than bottle it separately. The soils here are a mixture of granite and schist, decayed slate.

The different soils of the various Crus are important too as the best wines can be very mineral and make you certain that you can taste the various soils in the wines. Some people believe that happens, but most science points to something else explaining minerality in wine. A function of acidity perhaps? My own feeling is that it is a mixture of acidity and a lack of dominating, rich fruit. We are used to so many red wines being big and bold with rich primary fruit characters nowadays. Well, however ripe a Beaujolais is it will be a relatively light style of wine, so the fruit will not totally overpower the palate. Instead it will leave space for acidity and those other flavours that are not fruit, but come across as more savoury – and indeed earthy or mineral.

So the Crus have more poise, more depth and more elegance than the more basic wines because they have components competing for attention on your senses. It isn’t just red fruit, you also get some black fruit from time to time, the earthy and herbal mineral characters and yes sometimes that sense of granite or slate introducing savoury aspects and tension into the wines.

P1240043

Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, the soils are blue volcanic basalt. Right at the peak you can just see La Chapelle Notre-Dame-aux-Raisins.

They are balanced and complete and yet again the truth is much more interesting than what we are normally told about Beaujolais. These wines can last. They don’t need to be drunk young, in fact just as with most good quality red wines a few years in bottle will settle them down and draw out the more complex and satisfying attributes. The things that actually make them good wines as to opposed more simple fruit bombs.

I generally go around telling people to ignore vintage with most modern wines – for wines to drink anyway. Normally the freshest vintage is the one to go for, but obviously with classic red wines that is not the case and good Beaujolais, especially the Crus, must join that band of elite regions where vintage is a really important consideration.

2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2016 are all brilliant vintages down in Beaujolais, with 2017 being great as well. There might still be some 2015 around in the shops and I would advise you to grab those bottles while you can.

I really enjoyed everything I tasted at Henry Fessy, but some of the real standout wines were:

Henry Fessy_Beaujolais blanc bottle2016 Beaujolais Blanc
AC / PDO Beaujolais Blanc
Henry Fessy

Less than 3% of the plantings in Beaujolais are Chardonnay and Fessy only have 1 hectare, but on this showing I cannot imagine why as this is a terrific wine.

100% Chardonnay with no oak but 6 months ageing on the lees.

It has a lovely texture, satisfying mouthfeel, ripe apples and peach fruit and even a touch of something more exotic like pineapple and grapefruit. Lovely freshness keeps it poised and pure and the length is fantastic too.

This is a really good alternative to anything at the more affordable end of white Burgundy – do try it if you can – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Mr Wheeler & Hay Wines.

Henry Fessy_Morgon bottle2016 Morgon
AC / PDO Morgon
Henry Fessy

Fessy only have 2 hectares of Morgon and so blend the Côte du Py with the Corcelles fruit. They believe the Côte gives the body and the other part gives the sumptuous fruit quality.

I found this lifted, aromatic and very attractive. There was a seductive raspberry and smoke tinged perfume to it while the palate was silky and refined yet rounded and weighty with cherry strudel sorts of flavours and a crack pepper together with some lovely delicate structure from the refreshing nature of the acidity and the light touch of tannin playing around the finish.

Fresh, lively and fruity for sure, but supple and concentrated too. – in fact the concentration and balance was a revelation to me – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Fareham Wine Cellar.

2015 Brouilly
AC / PDO Brouilly
Henry Fessy

The abnormal character of the vintage really showed here with rich fruit that still shows that playful, fresh character.

This was 80% destemmed with 6 months ageing in stainless steel tanks.

The nose offered plums and violets, orange peel and that mineral earthy je ne sais quoi. The palate was full and ripe, succulent, juicy with a lovely, lively combination of red and black fruit, spice too and a touch of firm tannins. This was not so immediately about fun as the Morgon, there was a very serious, brooding wine lurking in there with an earthy, slate minerality, there was even a touch of Côte du Rhône about it. Great wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

2016 Régnié Château des Reyssiers
AC / PDO Régnié
Henry Fessy

I have always had a soft spot for Régnié as it was the last of the 10 Cru to be created and I remember where I was the day it was announced back in 1988.

This was made from 40 year old vines grown on a single site at the base of Mont Brouilly. The Châteai itself dates back to 1706 and wine has been produced here for over 300 years prior to Henry Fessy taking over the management of the estate. As usual with Fessy 80% of the vines was destemmed and the wine was aged for 6 months ageing in concrete tanks.

Lovely bright, but deep cherry aromas with a touch of something smoky and savoury. The palate had lovely weight, fruit density and concentration that made me really like this wine.

There was lots of classic fresh red fruit, but plum and blackberry too. There was something wild about the wine at times that was most attractive and all the while a sense of tension, something taut, offset the softness of the fruit and was enhanced by the gently firm earthy finis – 90/100 points.

2017 Saint Amour
AC / PDO Saint Amour
Henry Fessy

Sadly I have experienced precious little Saint Amour in my life – on this showing it was my loss too.

Fessy only farm 1 hectare in Saint Amour but they put it to good use as this was stunning and I was not alone in raving about it at the tasting.

The wine showed its youth with milky, lactic notes and then a vibrant melange of red fruit, cassis and delicate spice notes.

The palate was beautifully concentrated, but bright and pristine all at the same time. The fruit was just joyous and bright and well, downright pretty. It was supple and and ripe even though the winemaking esters were very apparent at this stage. There was a lovely supple, rounded, almost creamy texture and more tannin than you would expect, although it was not aggressive in any way, it just helped give the wine definition. One to watch I think- 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

By the way just in case you like to age wines, you can relax as these wines can age really well, from the great vintages anyway. At Lunch Laurent served us his 2009 Moulin-à-Vent and it was sensational. It had aged beautifully into a supple yet profound wine with silky tannins and concentrated earthy, savoury, light leather and dried fruit characters. In many ways it resembled a Gevrey-Chambertinn but with more sensual fruit and a slightly brighter nature.

So there you have it, a little cross action of what one very fine Beaujolais producer does. These are wonderful wines that deserve to be taken seriously and enjoyed often. They would go with so many different dishes and be suitable for just about any occasion. Who knows perhaps the balance between concentration but not heavy, ripe fruit and freshness might be just right for now? Perhaps Beaujolais’s time has come? Laurent certainly felt that he was “taking Beaujolais back” and showing just what Beaujolais can be.

The realisation may have struck me late in life, but there is no doubt that Beaujolais does make some lovely wines and I really must start enjoying them instead of avoiding them – and so must you.

 

Strawberry Fields Forever

red soils

Les Freses de Jesús Pobre.

Spain never lets me down. I love wine from all around the world and am passionate about wines from everywhere and about the countries and regions that spawn them, but I always return to my first love – Spain.

I am only in this business because of my misspent youth in Spain and the healthy relationship – I hope – that gave me to alcohol. It certainly made me like wine, but I am not sure that is entirely the same thing.

Over the years I have seen huge changes in Spanish wine. Once upon a time only the reds were really good and even then only from one or two regions – principally Rioja of course. During my 34 years in the wine business the wine revolution has spread out throughout Spain and produced startlingly good results.

Rioja has got better and better and high quality reds are now made in more and more unlikely places and the reds of the south are now at least as exciting as the more traditional regions of northern Spain. Look out for red wines from Valencia and Utiel Requena made from the Bobal grape and wines from Alicante and Jumilla made from Monastrell – aka Mourvédre and Mataro.

Torres led the way with modern whites in the 1960s and ’70s and today the white wines of Spain are amongst the most exciting of all. Galicia, Rueda and Rioja all make world class white wines today, but so too do some much less well known areas like Terra Alta in Catalunya which produces blindingly good Garnacha Blanca / Garnatxa Blanc / Grenache Blanc. Albillo is making some stunning white wines in Castilla y León, while Merseguera is the white grape to watch in the Comunidad Valenciano, especially Alicante.

One of the really lovely things that I have noticed in Spain in recent years is the way passionate people are training as winemakers, working in the industry for a while to gain experience and then buying or renting small parcels of vines in order to craft very personal wines. These projects are really thrilling and you can see them up and down the country, budding winemakers nurturing forgotten vineyards and coaxing them back to life – or sometimes planting them from scratch – and producing wonderfully expressive wines. The classic examples of course are Enrique Basarte and Elisa Úcar’s Domaine Lupier in Navarra and Charlotte Allen’s Piritia in DO Arribes on the Western fringes of Castilla y León, but such micro-wineries can be found everywhere and they often give interesting impetus to regions that in the past have often been very over reliant on the local cooperatives. In much of Spain from the 1940s onwards big production was the thing, so the cooperatives churned out huge volumes of palatable – by local standards – wine to slake the thirst of local workers with almost no regard to quality as we would understand it today. All that is changing of course, but anything that can help that is all to the good and the creation of new, quality focused estates even in unlikely corners of Spain can only help.

Casa-T view

The view from the family home, Casa Tranquilla – photo by Hilary Sadler, my brother. That mountain is the Montgó, you will note that we can see the sea between the land and the sky. Las Freses is perhaps half a kilometre round the terraced hill in the foreground, behind and to the left of the tree in the front and centre of the photograph you can just about make out the road that curves around to the crossroads.

I have family in Spain so visit rather a lot. Indeed my family have had a holiday home in the Xàbia, or Jávea, area of the Comunidad Valenciana since 1965, the year I was born and the year that I first went to Spain. Initially we had an apartment on the Arenal, or beach area, and I well remember standing on the balcony and looking out at orange groves and vineyards as far as my eyes could see. Today all you see is more blocks of flats – thankfully for the view they are all low rise. In the early 1970s my father had a villa built near the tiny village of Jesús Pobre some 12 kilometres or so inland and that is where he now lives.

Spain QS Map incl Javea & watermark

Map of Spain’s wine regions. I have marked Javea and Jesús Pobre.

Last week was my father’s 91st birthday and so I popped out to help him celebrate.

Just around the corner from our house – and down a very steep hillside – is a crossroads. When I was a boy that crossroads was in a deep pine forest. As more and more villas were built, more and more land was cleared for more building, so the pine trees were cut down on our side of the road with a view to putting up some villas. Things move slowly in Spain and permission was not forthcoming, so as a stopgap the owner turned the land into a strawberry farm, which it remained for many years.

In the meantime there were quite a lot of vineyards around that grew Moscatel – Muscat – to produce the local Moscatel de la Marina, – also see here – a lightly fortified Muscat made from overripe and partially dried grapes. Slowly people lost the taste for this wine and the vineyards often fell into disuse, almost never grubbed up, but abandoned.

the winery

Les Freses complete with the Montgó and all that remains of the pine trees behind.

A few years ago the land around our village was declared agricultural land and no new building is permitted. The owner could no longer develop it and sold it to Mara Bañó who from 2009 has transformed it into a vineyard. She has also built a beautiful and superbly equipped micro-winery –  I have seen smaller, but not many – that is just full of the most wonderful new equipment and made me itch to have a go at winemaking.

In order to show continuity with the past Mara named her new estate and winery Les Freses de Jesús Pobre. I assume that les freses is the Valenciano word for strawberries, but Valenciano is usually the same or similar to Catalan and I understand that the Catalan word for strawberries is maduixes – so who knows.

I had wanted to try the wines ever since I heard about them, so dropped in and had a chat with Mara and tried all her wines that were available.

What I found amazed me. This area has no real tradition of producing quality wines at all and almost no tradition of producing dry wine, yet here were world class wines being made in a place that is never mentioned in any of the wine books.

As you might expect from a small estate made in a dry place by a young and passionate wine maker, these are “natural wines grown organically, fermented spontaneously with the wild yeast and have as little intervention as possible and as little sulphur used as is possible.

Mara does grow some black grapes and so a red wine and a rosé are in the pipeline, but the focus is the whites for the moment, which I think suits the region, its food and climate.

Given their diet – this near the coast anyway – it is strange how resistant the Spanish have always been to white wines. They even have a saying “si no es tinto, no es vino“, which means if it isn’t red then it isn’t wine and until very recently they lived by that. Nowadays the sheer quality of Spanish white wines seems to have broken that down somewhat and they are beginning to stock pretty good ranges of white in the shops and supermarkets. Even my favourite restaurant in Valencia, which used to only list 1 white wine, compared to 25 reds, has now greatly expanded its offering.

Les Freses

Young wire trained vines at Les Freses with the Montgó behind – photo courtesy of the winery.

Mara only grows one white grape at the moment, the traditional Moscatel de Alejandría – Muscat of Alexandria –  but she makes three very different wines from it. The estate forms a single, triangular shaped block on the lower, very gentle slopes of the iconic Montgó mountain which rears up very near our house like a huge squatting elephant. It rises to 753 metres above sea level and dominates the area. It runs west to east, so vines on its south face sit in a perfect sun trap. The soils are pretty rocky limestone with rich red clay too.

The wines

the bottles

2017 Les Freses Blanc Moscatell Sec

100% Moscatel, harvested by hand and sent to the sorting table for a rigorous selection and manual destemming. Spontaneous fermentation in stainless steel, with its own yeasts and then aged for 4 months on the lees in 54 litre glass demijohns – that is very traditionally Spanish but usually only seen for rancio wines and dessert wines.

This is the standard wine from the estate and it is very appealing, lively with lifted notes of peach, peach skin, almonds and sea salt.

The palate is pristine, salty, mineral and ever so slightly smoky – those lees? – with a silky texture, taut peach and succulent grape flavours, enough acidity and freshness to balance it and that saline touch on the finish. Perfect with sea bass and much else I am sure – 90/100 points.

€10 per bottle locally.

It is at this point that I should admit that I generally avoid dry Muscat wines. I do not like it as a grape generally, finding it cloying, flowery and low in acidity. That being said I loved this, it really worked and I drank it all up!

Bush vines

Bush vines at Les Freses.

2017 Les Freses Àmfora Blanc Sec

This is the top dry white from the estate with a careful selection of the best fruit and then fermented in a big tinaja, which is like a big earthenware pot like a Qvervi in Georgia. They are very traditional in Spain and were widely used up until the 1970s/1980s. In those days they were usually buried in the ground and fell out of favour because they were usually very old and hard to clean so spoiled the wine in many cases. Nowadays they are much better made and easier to clean.

The nose is less vivacious and more dense but with lovely notes of almond and delicate orange.

This wine is much more about the palate and is more concentrated with a gorgeous silky texture that flows very attractively across your senses. There is dense stone fruit, the acidity feels more vibrant, there is a twist of orange peel, those almonds are toasted this time. It has that salinity and a tangy, vibrant feel that balances the viscosity and richness. This wine is amazingly intense and fundamentally dry, but the intensity of the fruit almost makes you think it is slightly sweet – so it feels sort of sweet and sour. A great wine – 92/100 points.

€20 per bottle locally.

2017 Les Freses Dolç

I actually do not know how this wine is made. It is not fortified, or doesn’t taste it anyway, so I think the grapes are late harvested and slightly dried.

It has a lovely golden caramel colour with aromas of light raisins, dates and figs, rich nuts, buttery caramel and orange peel.

The palate is sweet without being cloying. Caramel, creamy orange, fig, cinder toffee, intensely ripe apricots and fleshy peaches all swirl around the palate. A touch of bitterness and sweet spice keeps it balanced and accentuates the complexity. A stunning dessert wine of great class and complexity – 93/100 points.

€17 per bottle locally.

Carob tart

The carob tart that I enjoyed with the Les Freses Dolç in Pedro’s, the main bar and restaurant in the small village of Jesús Pobre. I had never tasted carob before, except for nibbling on the beans plucked from the trees growing around our house when I was a boy, it was very good and perfect with the wine.

These are wines of the highest order, yet made quite casually by a single passionate person. They are produced in a place long written off by the great and the good of wine production and because they come from my spiritual home I was pretty emotional about them and more delighted to taste them than you can imagine. Do try them if you get the area – and I know lots of people do – you can buy them at the winery and in the local wineshops – such as this one: Vins i Mes, but not supermarkets. Many of the local restaurants – including Pedro’s – have them too.

I was put in mind of this quote by Matt Kramer the American wine writer: “The greatest wines today are not, paradoxical as this may sound, the so-called great wines”. The wines that excite me most and give me the most pleasure often come from the unlikely corners and forgotten places.