Wine of the Week – a touch of Spanish tradition

rio-vino-tondonia-copyRecently I led a tasting of wines made by Bodegas López de Heredia in Rioja – it was at the West London Wine School, check out more of their tastings here. All the wines were excellent, but even in such exalted company, some stood out from the pack. The undisputed highlights were the astonishing 1994 Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas, both red and white, which were wines of incredible finesse and beauty. As you might expect, wines of that quality and age are not cheap, but there were some stunning wines at lower prices that offered superb value for money too. I loved one of them so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Rioja Map 2013

gravonia2005 Viña Gravonia Blanco Crianza 
Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
DOCa / PDO Rioja

Bodegas López de Heredia was only the third bodega to be founded in Rioja after the wine revolution began there in the 1840s-1860s. They were founded in 1877, so really were at the forefront of making Rioja the great region that we know today. Rioja’s development was a slow process in truth, you can read a history of Rioja that I wrote by clicking here, it is a story worth reading as it might not quite be what you expect.

López de Heredia was founded by Don Rafael López de Heredia y Laneta and it is still owned and run by his family to this day. A visit there is always worthwhile as it widely regarded as the most traditional Rioja producer there is. Rioja actually took quite a while to develop its style and to formulate its ‘traditions’, even López de Heredia. Oak ageing was used from the beginning, it was what set Rioja apart from the rest of Spain, but the use of the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva was not established until the 1920s at the earliest and the ageing regulations were not established until the 1940s. So whether the wines are traditional or merely idiosyncratic, I couldn’t really say. I just know they are very good.

The wines are very unusual, especially the whites. They undergo long ageing in wood and develop very complex characters as a result. This ageing leads to a note of oxidation in the white wines that is not totally unlike a Fino or Manzanilla sherry. This resemblance can be over stated though, I do not really enjoy Sherry, but I love these wines, so don’t let that idea put you off.


López de Heredia’s vineyards, Viña Tondonia is contained within the loop of the Ebro River in the foreground, Viña Gravonia is just behind – photo courtesy of the winery.

They make their most famous wines from their  Tondonia vineyard, which is why Viña Tondonia forms part of the company’s name. Tondonia can be either red or white and are labelled as Reserva or Gran Reserva. They also produce red Reservas and Gran Reservas from the nearby Viña Bosconia vineyard, while their red Crianza is called Viña Cubillo and comes from the Viña Cubillas vineyard. Their white Crianzas come from the Viña Laconia vineyard and are labelled as Viña Gravonia.


Map of López de Heredia’s vineyards – courtesy of the winery.

All of these wines are aged for a lot longer in wood than the regulations require. Gran Reserva reds spend 9 years in barrel and the whites 10 years. Reservas spend 6 years in barrel, while red Crianzas are aged for 3 years in barrel and the whites for 4.

López de Heredia stick to using American oak, as is traditional in Rioja – you can read why here. However, it is American oak with a difference. They buy whole trees and ship them to Spain where they are split, seasoned outside and turned into barrels. This contrasts with American oak barrels made in America which are sawn – which cuts the grain allowing more flavour to come out – and seasoned in a kiln, which concentrates the lactones to give that creamy, sweet vanilla character so typical of American oak and Rioja. So although López de Heredia age their wines in American oak for a long time, it is a more subtle process than you might expect. Also the wines are aged for a short time in new oak before being racked into old, neutral barrels for the extended ageing.

Barrel ageing at López de Heredia - photo courtesy of the winery.

Barrel ageing at López de Heredia – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Viña Gravonia Crianza Blanco is 100% Viura, the Tondonia whites also have 10% Malvasia to make them a little richer. It was fermented in big wooden vats with a spontaneous fermentation of the wild yeast and then aged for 4 years in barrel.

The nose is extraordinary, with that touch of Fino sherry, toasted almonds, olives, a note of the sea, honeysuckle, beeswax, gentle spice, orange pekoe tea, firm white peach, quince and orange peel. The palate is dominated by the acidity and mineral character together with cinder toffee, honeycomb, dried apricots, caramelised orange, waxy lemon and almonds. There is even a very subtle feel of tannin on the long, long finish. It is an extraordinary wine and has a little more weight, concentration and fat then the more widely available 2006 vintage – 2005 was the better year.

Try it with classic fish dishes like sole meunière, or grilled Dover sole, but I expect it would be great with just about any fish dish, anything in a creamy sauce and roast chicken too – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £19 per bottle – for stockists click here.
For US stockists click here.

It won’t be for everyone, but this wine is a delicious example of a really rare style of wine. It certainly excited me at the tasting and thrilled everyone else there too. What’s more it gives an idea of what these great old style Rioja whites are like without having to pay a fortune. Do try it or a Viña Tondonia white if you can.


Wine of the Week – a winter warmer from Greece

Domaine Skouras vineyards - photo courtesy of the winery.

Domaine Skouras vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

I know what you are thinking. More Greek wine. I know, I know, but I showed it in a tasting and it was so well received and it is so good that I couldn’t resist having yet another Greek Wine of the Week.

The Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea - photo by my friend Ted Lelekas - © Ted Lelekas 2016

The Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea – photo by my friend Ted Lelekas – © Ted Lelekas 2016

My involvement and love of Greek wine goes back a long way. Well over 20 years ago I was involved with marketing Greek wines in the UK and we did very well from a small base, but even now Greek wines have never really broken through onto the UK market. However, there are very, very good wines and this one – and last week’s Wine of the Week –  is a case in point. I loved it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

st_george_2011_1024x10242012 Saint George Aghiorghitiko
Domiane Skouras
PDO Nemea

100% Aghiorghitiko aged for 12 months in second fill 225 litre French oak barrels.

Nemea is the largest and most important wine region of southern Greece, perhaps in the whole country, although at just 3000 hectares of vines it isn’t huge in world terms – Bordeaux covers 42,000 and Rioja a whopping 57,000, so Nemea compares more in size to Sancerre’s 2600 hectares of vines. It’s is situated in the north west Peloponnese – not far from Argos and the archeological site of Mycenae – and is only an hour or so from Athens and very near the lovely seaside town of Nafplio, so makes an excellent place to visit while in Greece. Wine has been made here for thousands of years and Nemea was famous for being where Heracles killed the Nemean Lion. During the struggle the lion bit off one of his fingers, so locally the wine was known as ‘the blood of Hercules’.


Domaine Skouras nestling amongst the vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

Nemea is always red and is made from 100% Aghiorghitiko, or Saint George – it mean’s Saint George’s grape, which is Greece’s most planted grape variety. In terms of style it produces all sorts of different wines from soft, easy everyday plonk to complex and structured versions. The better wines have lots of dark fruit and firm tannin, not entirely unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, but with less acidity than Cabernet. As a consequence the better wines come from higher vineyards where the air is cooler and preserves some of those essential acids and freshness – Nemea is around 500-700 metres above sea level.


Vineyards in Nemea – photo by my friend Ted Lelekas – © Ted Lelekas 2016

As well as being used on its own in Nemea, Aghiorghitiko also blends very successfully with Cabernet Sauvignon to produce sort of ‘Super-Peloponnese’ wines – Skouras’s Megas Oenos is one of the leading examples and it is superb.

Very roughly you can think of Nemea as being the Bordeaux of Greece and Naoussa the Burgundy – Chianti for Nemea and Barolo for Naoussa  would also be suitable comparisons and give you some idea of the respective styles.

George Skouras was born locally, in Argos, but studied wine making at Dijon before working as a winemaker all around the world. He eventually returned home ready to help lead the Greek wine revolution and created Domaine Skouras in Neamea in 1986, although his current state of the art winery was not finished until 2004. The focus is on the reds made from Aghiorghitiko, but he also makes some excellent whites from the local aromatic Moscofilero grape together with some Viognier and Chardonnay too.

A deeply coloured wine with a lifted, aromatic nose of rich black fruit – blackberry and cooked strawberry – together with clove and cinnamon spice and a touch of coffee notes and earthy minerality. The palate is pretty full-bodied with rich mouth filling fruit, smooth, but firm tannins and rich savoury, earthy characters. This wine is utterly delicious and would be perfect with lamb, roasts, casseroles or steaks. Right now the tannins are quite firm, in a lovely way, but will soften in a year or two if that is what you like. If you like Claret, Chianti or Rioja, you are bound to enjoy this wine – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.95 per bottle and from The General Wine Company for £13 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

If you have never tried a Greek wine, but want a good, rich dry red with a nice meal, then this will certainly hit the spot. It is a serious bottle of red wine and any serious wine drinker would love it.

Wine of the Week – delicious Greek treats


Looking towards the sea from Rapsani’s vineyards.

I love Greek wine and wish they were more popular and easier to buy in the UK than they are. I really enjoy presenting Greek wines to wine societies and recently I talked a wine group into agreeing to a tasting of Greek wines. Despite being nervous at first the tasters really enjoyed them. All the wines showed really well and impressed the tasters. Of course a handful particularly stood out and proved to be widely popular in the room and I will mention three of those today and tell you about some of the others another time.

The first one was a superb dry white from the Island of Santorini made from the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. I showed a terrific, mineral example made by the Santo Wines cooperative, which you can buy mail order in the UK – click here . If you want to try a more easily available example, Marks & Spencer stock a lovely, affordable version made by the splendid Argyros Estate – click here for details. I have written about Santorini wines in more detail before – click here.

Amongst the reds I showed a couple of wines form the same region as a contrast and I loved them so much that together they are my joint Wine of the Week.


The village name in the Greek alphabet as well as ours.

That wine region is called Rapsani and it is a very beautiful place in Thessaly near Mount Olympus. I visited a few years ago and it was wonderfully peaceful up there with stunning views of Mount Olympus to the north west and the Aegean Sea to the east. The vineyards sit at between 250 and 800 metres above sea level allowing for a staggered harvest giving very different characters and complexity to the wines. The soil higher up also put me in mind of Priorat, as there is a lot of schist, red, iron-rich schist in this case which warms up quickly and drains superbly.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

The wine has long enjoyed local fame and respect and historically the Rapsani cooperative was strong, however it fell on hard times and the Tsantali company took it over in 1991 and brought in much needed investment and know-how. For a long time they were the only producers here and remain the most important and widely seen label.

Traditionally Rapsani wines were a blend of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto and Tsantali keeps to that tradition by using one third of each grape in a field blend – so the grapes are fermented together, not blended. The latter two by the way only grow here while Xinomavro is used right across northern Greece. This makes Rapsani quite different as on its own Xinomavro has something of the dry structure of Nebbiolo about it, while the other two grapes add a feeling of more body and alcohol.

Rapsani Vineyards

Rapsani Vineyards

tsantali-rapsani2012 Rapsani
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 6 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 30% new.

The grapes for this wine are harvested from the lower slopes of Rapsani, 250m above sea, and the extra heat shows in a slightly raisiny nose with richer dried cherry, some fresher, sweet raspberry aromas as well as the classic tomato stem of Xinomavro. There is sun dried tomato and tapenade too, which gives it a real savoury tang. The palate is medium bodied and very smooth with little touches of vanilla and caramel and lots of rich fruit. This is a terrific wine with just a an attractive touch of the rustic about it. It will appeal to Rioja drinkers and go perfectly with lamb and Mediterranean style food – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies and Evingtons Wines – for £8.50-£10 per bottle and from for £28.58 per case of 3 bottles.
For US stockists – click here.

tsantali-rapsani-reserve2012 Rapsani Reserve
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 50% new.

The grapes come from further up, 250-500 metres above sea level, and the wine feels cooler and more elegant. It is also deeper, darker and more concentrated, with rich black fruit aromas, blackberry, cassis and plum, together with wafts of black pepper spice, coffee and leather. There is also a touch of that tomato stem and black olive umami / savoury character, even a touch of balsamic. The palate is concentrated, smooth and plush, with lots of fruit and spice and a lovely core of freshness to give balance and vitality. That savoury / umami note follows on to the palate as well, which makes the wine brilliant with food. A classy and elegant wine that wowed the room at my tasting – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies for £16.95 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

It always surprises people that I bang on about the delights of Greek wines so much, but they really can be very good indeed and well worth trying. The wines are classically European in style and structure, but because Greece has such wonderful indigenous grape varieties, they taste different and wonderfully exciting.

Try either of these with slow cooked lamb, or Kleftiko, and you will not be disappointed.

Wine of the Week – a great New Zealand Sauvignon

The view from the balcony at Villa Maria's Marlborough winery.

The view from the balcony at Villa Maria’s Marlborough winery.

I’ll be honest with you. I do not always enjoy drinking Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Too many of the basic examples are a little too sweet, for a dry wine, dilute, overly tropical and somewhat one-dimensional.

However, I have always enjoyed good examples and was very excited by some of the Sauvignon Blancs that I tasted while I was in New Zealand recently. One in particular really captured my imagination and as I have discovered that it is widely available, I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of New Zealand's wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

sv-graham-sauvignon-blanc-2011-copy2015 Villa Maria Single Vineyard Graham Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
Villa Maria
New Zealand

I have known Villa Maria‘s wines pretty much my entire working life – I first sold them in 1988 – and they have always impressed me. At the very least they are reliable, pleasurable and never let you down. In fact Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc is probably the benchmark wine of the style. However, the good people of Villa Maria are very ambitious for their wines and constantly striving for quality and really do seek to make great wines.

Sir George Fistonich, the founder, owner and driving force behind Villa Maria. I took this photograph at the Esk Valley winery in Hawke's Bay, which is also part of the group.

Sir George Fistonich, the founder, owner and driving force behind Villa Maria. I took this photograph at the Esk Valley winery in Hawke’s Bay, which is also part of the group.

It helps I expect that the company is still privately owned by Sir George Fistonich, the guy who founded the company back in 1961 – his first vintage was 1962. Everyone I met at Villa Maria was, quite rightly, full of admiration for George and his achievements It seems that nothing stands still at Villa Maria for very long and the wines stand testimony to George’s belief in the quality that New Zealand can produce. He really is one of the giants of the wine business, a sort of New Zealand Gérard Bertrand, Robert Mondavi or Miguel Torres.

So, why did this Sauvignon capture my imagination so much? The Graham Vineyard is right by the sea near the Awatere River (pronounced Aw-wah-tree) where it empties out into Clifford Bay, south and east of Blenheim. It is a coastal vineyard, right on the seashore, and that really helps to regulate the temperature of the site, while the stony soils warm up quickly and retain that warmth to create wonderful ripeness. So you get a wonderful balance between warmth and cooling maritime conditions.

This little fella was basking on the beach just in front of Graham Vineyard.

This little fella was basking on the beach just in front of Graham Vineyard.

Because of those conditions the wine seems to have more density than many Marlborough Sauvignons, more savoury and pungent aromas and flavours and to be only subtly tropical – which suits the grape brilliantly.

Sedan Vineyard, Villa Maria's beautiful Seddon Vineyard is just down the Aware River a little way.

Seddon Vineyard, Villa Maria’s beautiful Seddon Vineyard is just inland down the Aware River a little way. This makes it more sheltered and so suits Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris more than Sauvignon Blanc, which enjoy the sea breezes at Graham.

The nose has hints of tropical fruit, but more tomato leaves, jasmine, oregano and something stony and slightly saline too. There are also the classic touches of gooseberry and citrus. The palate is quite rich and has real weight and intensity to it. The tomato leaves come back, as does the jasmine and oregano, together with nettles, a light touch of passionfruit, blackcurrant leaf, stony minerality and the refreshing acidity has a feel of orange sorbet about it, yet the wine finishes totally dry. This is wonderful stuff, complex and fine – 92/100 points.

A very versatile wine, it is a lovely aperitif, great with fish, oriental food or just about anything you can think of. If you think you know Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, think again and try this glorious wine.

Available in the UK from Majestic Wine Warehouse for £15.99 a bottle – £13.99 if you mix 6 bottles.
Fruit from Graham Vineyard is also used as part of the blend in the always excellent Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.
Villa Maria wines are distributed in the US by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Wine of the Week – Txakoli and a final fling of summer

Ameztoi with Getaria in the background.

Ameztoi with Getaria in the background, photo courtesy of the winery.

I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia and New Zealand and will be telling you about some of my experiences over there in the future.

In the meantime, I have returned to some very warm weather and so sought out some lovely fresh white wine to enjoy with some seafood so that I could properly celebrate this last fling of summer.

The wine I found was a Txakoli – Chacolí in Castilian Spanish – which comes from the País Vasco, Spain’s Autonomous Basque Region. Txakoli is a wine style that I love and have written about before, but until recently it has been considered somewhat obscure. Well now it is becoming much better known and easier to find and I discovered that Marks & Spencer carry a rather a good one. In fact I liked it so much that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, see Getariako Txakolina on the Atlantic coast to the east of Bilbao – click for a larger view.

txacoli2015 Alaia Txakoli
PDO / DO Getariako Txakolina
País Vasco

There are three Txakoli DOs, but, much as I like some other Txakoli wines – especially the great Itasas Mendi 7 from DO Bizkaiko Txakolina near Bilbao, try it if you can – UK stockists are here, US stockists here – I am especially drawn to the Getariako Txakolina that is grown on the wild coastline around the beautiful fishing village of Getaria 30km west of San Sebastian. Getaria is a wonderful place almost totally dedicated to hedonism, bars and restaurants line the streets. Much of the cooking is done outside, so the smell of grilling fish is a constant and guaranteed to make you hungry. In many ways it works to go there on your way to San Sebastian as it prepares you for the delights to come.

Getaria harbour.

Getaria harbour.

Fish being cooked in Getaria.

Fish being cooked in Getaria.

One of the great pinxo bars in Getaria.

One of the great pintxo bars in Getaria, note the sea urchin and octopus.

If you are a hedonist and like food and wine, then San Sebastian – Donostia in Basque – is a place you must visit. It is teeming with bars and life, the best tapas in Spain – they call them pintxos – and loads of Michelin star restaurants too, if that is your thing.

Txakoli should really be poured from a great hight into a tumbler – get a Txakoli pourer if you can.

My Txakoli being poured in San Sebastian, note the Txakoli pourer.

My Txakoli being poured in San Sebastian, note the green Txakoli pourer in the end of the bottle, it helps to aerate the wine and they also use them for cider in the Basque country.

For more detail on Txakoli, read the piece that I wrote for Catavino a few years ago, by clicking here.

This particular wine is very clever sourcing by M&S, because the producer, Amesguren, are actually the people who make Ameztoi, which along with Txakolin Gorria, is considered the best producer of Getariako Txakolina. So we know the provenance of this wine is good and this wine has a better label than Ameztoi!

This wine is made from the local Hondarrabi Zuri – I wonder why nobody grows that anywhere else? – and has a light natural fizz from the fermentation, which makes it taste really fresh.

And that is the secret with this stuff, keeping it fresh, light and zesty. The nose is floral and citric and has a touch of the seashore and something saline about it. Then it just dances across your palate, light, fresh, zingy, spritz and yet with waves of flavour, lots of light flavour. Green apples, grapefruit, nettles, lime, blackcurrant leaf are all there, but in a sort of sketched in way, rather than in a fully formed picture. Instead this wine wins with a thrilling mineral and crisp acid finish that just whets your appetite for more – more of this, some seafood and anything else. What’s more it only has 10.5% alcohol, so won’t addle too many brain cells either.

A swankier pinxo bar in San Sebastian.

A swankier pintxo bar in San Sebastian.

Try it with grilled prawns, scallops, oysters, sea bream, sea bass, sushi, a Chinese takeaway or on its own, anyway you have it, it’s a lovely wine – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10 per bottle from Marks & Spencer – right now, September 2016 it is only £8 a bottle.
As far as I am aware, Alaia Txakoli is not available in the US, but Ameztoi is well distributed – for stockists click here.

La Cepa, perhaps the classic pinxo bar in San Sebastian.

La Cepa, perhaps the classic pintxo bar in San Sebastian.


The Marimar Estate – wines of elegance & beauty

I am so very lucky to do what I do. I get to see fabulous places and to meet many fascinating people. The wine world is full of winemakers and estate owners who are well known, even famous in my world and sometimes I have known their wines for years, so meeting them can often be a great experience.

Marimar Torres tasting with me in London. Thanks to Kate Sweet for taking the photograph, as I was enjoying myself so much that I clean forgot!

Marimar Torres tasting with me in London. Thanks to Kate Sweet for taking the photograph, as I was enjoying myself so much that I clean forgot!

Recently I had the chance to meet someone whose wines that I have admired for quite some time – Marimar Torres. Not only were her wines as good as ever, but she was great fun too. Miramar was as elegant and sophisticated as you would expect – she is part of Spain’s Torres winemaking family after all – but she was also very amusing and great company. She came across as totally honest and seemingly without ego – rare in winemakers. We chatted away for well over two hours and in that time I learned a lot about the winery and wines that bear her name, as well as her life and character. I was astonished by how easy she was to talk to, how ready she was to tell me about episodes in her past that I would expect her to keep quiet, as well as mistakes she has made and aspects of her own character that displeased her. Frankly I could have listened to her all day, she was an utter delight. I found that her focus, attention to detail, perfectionist streak and determination shined through all her wines, as did her sheer optimism and sunny disposition. I approve of anyone who takes satisfaction in a job well done.

It’s a hell of a story, the Marimar Torres story – and would make a marvellous film at that. Born into a patrician, winemaking family in Franco’s ultra Catholic Spain, she was in her own words, not so much a rebel as a nonconformist – something that would make life pretty hard and frustrating for her in that place and from that background.

Her parents had her life all planned out, stay at home until she met a rich man to look after her, but Marimar did not see her own future like that at all. She persuaded her parents to let her join the family firm and travelled the world selling Torres wines. Their biggest market was the United States and as a consequence she found herself in San Francisco in the early 1970s and fell in love with the place. In fact she fell in love with more than the city as she soon married an American wine and restaurant critic which allowed her to experience the blossoming food and wine culture of California, a lifestyle that was not available to her in Spain. Miramar told me that she found the whole experience exciting and liberating.

The winery at the Marimar Estate - photo courtesy of the winery.

The winery at the Marimar Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

Eventually being involved with wine wasn’t enough, Marimar wanted to make it too and in the mid 1980s she looked around for somewhere to plant a vineyard. Eventually finding a spot that excited her, she told me that ‘it was love at first sight’, she managed to persuade the family to loan her the money to plant her first vines – she has since bought the rest of the family out and owns the estate together with her daughter Cristina. This vineyard was in the cool Russian River Valley AVA of Sonoma, some 10 miles from the ocean and amazing as it seems, there were no others around at that time. Miramar planted her first Chardonnay vines in 1986-7 and named the vineyard Don Miguel in honour of her father.

The wine regions of Sonoma, showing the location of the Marimar Estate - click map for a larger view.

The wine regions of Sonoma, showing the location of the Marimar Estate – click map for a larger view.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Marimar was pregnant with her daughter at this stage and also decided to go and study winemaking at UC Davis – she is nothing if not determined.

2-CMT-MMT on Winery Patio (horiz)

Marimar, her daughter Cristina and their dogs on the terrace of the winery – photo courtesy of the winery.

Her first wine was the 1989 Chardonnay and her father was able to taste it shortly before he died, pronouncing it to be the best white wine he had ever tasted, which must have been quite a moment. For all that Marimar is a nonconformist and removed herself to a new and liberating setting, she strikes me as being very family conscious, with vineyards named after both her parents and a wine after her daughter.

In 1992 she built on this success by building a winery – in the style of a Masía, or traditional Catalan farmhouse. Today the Don Miguel vineyard contains 12 hectares each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, together with tiny amounts of Syrah, Tempranillo, Albariño and now even a little Godello.

Nothing seems to stand still here though, in 2002 Marimar planted 8 hectares of Pinot Noir in a new vineyard in the cooler Sonoma Coast AVA and named it Doña Margarita, after her mother.

Around the turn of the century Marimar visited Burgundy and noticed that many of the finest wines and best sites were farmed organically. This chimed with her belief in doing everything as naturally as possible and so from 2000 until 2006 the estate was in conversion, finally becoming certified organic in 2006. Nowadays the estate is totally biodynamic and generates all its own power using solar panels as well. As Marimar said to me, it makes perfect sense to go biodynamic as organics is merely a halfway house on the way to being biodynamic, and the theories of biodynamics predate those of organics. The estate even encourages a population of owls which control the gophers that are the major pest as they burrow through the roots and destroy the vines.

 Preparation 500

Biodynamic Preparation 500 at the Marimar Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Marimar Estate has come a long way in a very short time, so it was with real excitement that I tasted the wines, and they did not disappoint.

ALB_02014 Marimar Estate Albariño
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

I believe this is the fifth vintage of Albariño from the Marimar estate and it is a beauty. There is no oak, but 100% goes through malolactic, which helps with the texture.

The wine is fragrant, floral and aromatic with crisp green apple notes and something richer like pithy grapefruit giving a citrus twist. The palate has succulence and texture, with apricot fruit, the merest hint of pineapple and some citrus again. All of this makes it a little weighty and round in the mouth, but there is then a core of refreshing, enlivening acidity, a touch of minerality and it’s even a little saline, all of which makes it very refreshing. A fine Albariño that is wonderful with a bit of sea bass, but works equally well as an aperitif or partner to tapas – 93/100 points.

AC---twist-top2014 Marimar Estate Acero Chardonnay
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

An unoaked (as Marimar says, this is not a word in the dictionary, but everyone understands it) Chardonnay – Acero is the Spanish word for steel, as it is cold fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. Only indigenous yeast is used and the wine goes through 100% malolactic.

The nose is bright, fresh and appetising, as well as restrained and elegant with taught white peach, apple and pear, together with something creamy and rich lurking in the background. The palate offers beautifully ripe and gently opulent fruit with apricot and nectarine notes, a little dash of something tropical and a twist of white pepper too. There is lovely freshness here, but a softness to the texture as well, which makes for a delicious wine – 92/100 points.

marimar_la_masia_chardonnay_generic2013 Marimar Estate La Masía Chardonnay
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

The original wine of the Marimar Estate, La Masía means farmhouse. The grapes were barrel fermented in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new, new oak gives greater oak character than older oak, after 5 years the oak is neutral. The wine then undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation and is then aged for 7 months on the less in the barrels.

The colour here is a tad more golden than the Acero, while the nose is more pungent, richer and creamier with peach skin, ripe peach and nuts. The palate is gorgeous, restrained, elegant and silky with a creamy vanilla character, rich citrus, green fig and stone fruit. This is a very accomplished wine, very restrained and refined with subtle, but delicious creamy oak in the background and textured, supple fruit. A wonderful wine, I wish I’d had it with a grilled dover sole – 93/100 points.

PN_32012 Marimar Estate La Masía Pinot Noir
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

The Pinot on the Don Miguel Vineyard is grown in Green Valley, which is the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley. The grapes were hand sorted, destemmed and then fermented in small stainless steel tanks. It was then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels with 36% of the barrels being new.

The nose is fragrant with ripe cherry and plum fruit with a backbone of fragrant, spicy oak too. Pinot’s classic savoury, earthy quality is subservient to the wonderfully ripe, concentrated and seductive fruit. That delicious, ripe red fruit gives the wine a lovely succulence and a fleshy texture that makes it feel sensual. The finish is very long with that rich fruit and a feeling of delicate power too – 92/100 points.

DMR2013 Marimar Estate Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir
Doña Margarita Vineyard
Sonoma Coast AVA
Sonoma, California

Sonoma Coast is even cooler than Green Valley, being just 6 miles from the Pacific the cool ocean breezes and sea mists roll in making the place cooler, which gives slower, gentler ripening. Mas Cavalls means horse farm, as Marimar’s equestrian centre is just below the vineyard. The grapes were hand sorted, destemmed and then fermented in small stainless steel tanks. It was then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels with 36% of the barrels being new and it was unfined and unfiltered before bottling.

Wow, this was very different. The nose is more earthy and savoury – those cool conditions really show by making it feel more Burgundian. There is plenty of fruit too, but the savoury notes dominate, there are rich cherries, pungent raspberry and a waft of almost sweet spice. The palate is very savoury too, with forest floor and mushroom characters with some polished, red fruit shining through the gaps. Again this is a very seductive wine, with a rich truffle and spicy finish, perhaps a more purist or Burgundian style, but quite wonderful – 94/100 points.

2013 Marimar Estate Cristina Pinot Noir
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

Named for Marimar’s daughter Cristina, this is a reserve selection of the best lots of Pinot Noir from the estate, the richest, most expressive and age worthy. After a cold fermentation the wine was aged for 4 months in new French oak barrels. The components were then blended and the finished wine was aged for a further year in 40% new and 60% 1 year old French oak barrels.

The nose is wonderfully fragrant with rich cherry and raspberry fruit, even some subtle richer black fruit notes. There is spicy oak too, something toasty, vanilla and attractively charred together with sweeter spice and a citric twist of blood orange. The palate is richly fruity, richly savoury and refined, with silky, ripe tannins, some lovely minerality and a salty note too. This is a bolder, more lush wine, but it is still beautifully balanced – 94/100 points.

Marimar Estate wines are distributed in the UK by John E Fells. For US distribution, contact the winery here.

Miramar's dogs driving a tractor, but it's ok as they don't drink.

Bonita and Chico, Miramar’s dogs driving a tractor, but don’t worry, they don’t drink, although they both have a reserve bottling wine named after them.

This is a marvellous range of wines. There was real beauty in them and they made sense, the same assuredness and lack of showiness – or ego – somehow informed them all and they were as elegant and engaging as the lady herself. Miramar is very proud of the fact that these are not winemaker wines, they are vineyard wines that express the terroir of where they are grown. Do try them if you can, they are hugely enjoyable as well as being elegant and fine wines that deserve a place in any cellar.

German Delights – some amazing German wines from my travels

The beautiful Neckar Valley.

The beautiful Neckar Valley.

German wines just do not get the respect they deserve. Germany is an exciting, stimulating wine producing country, yet so many people – in the UK anyway – have a very limited view of what German wines are all about. The folk memory of cheap German wines of the 19760s and ’70s lingers on in the UK to everyone’s detriment. You can still buy those sweetish wines like Liebfraumilch, but you have to look for them. Leave them to your memories though and try some of the more interesting and exciting German wines that are now being made.

A few months ago I had an amazing trip to Germany, to some of the lesser known regions – lesser known from a UK perspective anyway – Württemberg, Franken and Baden. I loved it so much and was so impressed that I recently put on a tasting of some fantastic German wines that I discovered on that trip and at some subsequent tastings.

VDP_logoMany of these producers are member of The Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, abbreviated VDP). This a voluntary grouping of some quality conscious producers nationwide who have grouped together to apply higher winemaking standards than the national regulations require.

There are 4 quality levels in the VDP classification, in descending order:

VDP Grosse Lage is roughly the equivalent of Grand Cru and come from sites carefully selected and classified by the VDP. Yields must be very low, harvesting must be by hand and the grapes must be at least ripe enough ripe enough to qualify for Spätlese level. A dry wine from a Grosse Lage site must be labelled as Grosses Gewächs and bottled in a special bottled marked with GG. Dry examples must be labelled as Qualitätswein Trocken. Off dry versions can be labelled as halbtrocken or feinherb, but these terms do not have to be on the label. The label must bear the name of the village and the vineyard site, like the Würzburger Stein Silvaner Trocken below.

VDP Erste Lage means first class vineyards and are supposed to have a distinctive character, much like Premier Cru vineyards in France. Yields have to be low and the grapes must be harvested by hand and must be at least ripe enough to qualify for Spätlese level. Dry examples must be labelled as Qualitätswein Trocken. Off dry versions can be labelled as halbtrocken or feinherb, but these terms do not have to be on the label. The label must bear the name of the village and the vineyard site, like the Würzburger Stein Silvaner Trocken below. Sweet versions are labelled with one of the traditional Prädikats (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein or Trockenbeerenauslese), provided they qualify for that specific Prädikat.

VDP Ortswein is like a village wine – like AC St Emilion or Meursault – dry examples must be labelled as Qualitätswein Trocken,  trocken means dry. Ortswein does not have to appear on the label. Sweeter versions can be made with the specific Prädikat appearing on the label, if they qualify

VDP Gutswein is like a regional wine – like AC Bordeaux or Bourgogne – they can have the specific Prädikat on the label, if they qualify and Gutswein does not have to appear on the label.

The Wines and the Regions

Germany map QS 2016 blog, watermarked & annotated

Württemberg is a wonderful wine region, ridiculously beautiful and full of stunning traditional towns and vineyard sites that take your breathe away. Many of these are either on slopes by the rivers, especially the Neckar, or on a scattering of south facing hillsides to the north and east of Stuttgart. Because of the excellent exposure it is the premier red wine region in Germany growing Lemberger, or Blaufränkisch, TrollingerSpätburgunder, Dornfelder and Portugieser among others.


Heilbronn with the vine covered slopes all round.

2014-riesling-theresa-trocken-heilbronn-an-vdportswein-weingut-kistenmacher-hengerer-a3c2015 Flein Weisser Riesling Theresa Trocken
Weingut Weingut Kistenmacher & Hengerer
Deutscher Qualitätswein Trocken / VDP Ortswein
Württemberg – number 1 on the map

Like many of the producers I showed, the Hengerer family have been growing grapes and making wine since the fifteenth century. The estate, weingut in German, is run by a very talented winemaker called Hans Hengerer and he is really good. They are based in Heilbronn Again like many of these producers he has a small estate, just 12 hectares, but he makes terrific wines form it, using old vines and wild yeast fermentations.

This is very unlike my normal view of German Riesling, it is properly dry and the wild yeast and malolactic fermentation and lees ageing give it a fat, textured style that is backed up by, rather than dominated by, Riesling’s hallmark acidity. Lovely length and finesse, this is a beautiful wine – 93/100 points.

2014-gelber-muskateller-trocken-weingut-kistenmacher-hengerer-59d2015 Heilbronn am Neckar Gelber Muskateller Trocken
Weingut Weingut Kistenmacher & Hengerer
Deutscher Qualitätswein Trocken / VDP Ortswein
Württemberg – number 1 on the map

This wine really made me sit up and take notice. Hans Hengerer has done something amazing here, he has made a dry Muscat that I really love. I think what sets it apart if that it is made from the Yellow Muscat rather than the more famous White Muscat, or Muscat Ottonel, and it has loads of character.

The aromas are simply stunning, lifted and peachy with some wonderful peach blossom and roses fragrance too. The palate carries on the delights with a touch of rich, peachy acidity, loads of ripe fruit and some lightly creamy texture from the lees ageing. A very unusual style for me and I totally fell for its charms and think it would make a superb aperitif or partner to fine Asian cuisine – 92/100 points.

Franken is another scattered wine region that consists of steep hillsides bordering the Main River. The summers are short and autumns are pretty cool, so early ripening grapes are the most suitable, which is why Riesling is not widely grown, instead the signature grape is Silvaner. Many wines are bottled in the traditional flask shaped Bocksbeutel, which has been used in the region ever since glass bottles became normal in the 17th century onwards.

The Marienberg Castle above Würzburg.

The Marienberg Castle above Würzburg.

The gorgeous chocolate-box town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, 30 km south east of Würzburg.

The gorgeous chocolate-box town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, 30 km south east of Würzburg.

31042014 Würzburger Stein Silvaner Trocken
Weingut Bürgerspital
VDP Erste Lage
Franken – number 2 on the map

The Weingut Bürgerspital was originally created in 1321 to fund an old people’s nursing home, Bürgerspital, at the gates of the beautiful town of Würzburg, which has an amazing castle nestled amongst the vine covered slopes above it.

In the past I never thought much of Silvaner, especially from Alsace, but having now tasted quite a few examples from Franken, I am much more excited by the grape than I ever thought possible. This example comes from one of the most famous vineyards in the region, Stein, which is a steeply sloped site with poor, stony soils. The wine it makes is taut, bone dry and mineral in a very Chablis-like way. The wine aged for several months on the lees in big old wooden barrels and the extra complexity shows. I loved this wine, it was a splendid aperitif and the left overs were fabulous with fish and chips the next day – 93/100 points.

Wittman's south west facing slopes capture the afternoon sun photo courtesy of the winer.

Wittman’s south west facing slopes capture the afternoon sun – photo courtesy of the winery.

Wittman's magnificent cellar - photo courtesy of the winery.

Wittman’s magnificent cellar – photo courtesy of the winery.

63742014 Grauer Burgunder Trocken
Weingut Wittman
VDP Gutsein / Qualitätswein
Rheinhessen – number 3 on the map

This wine isn’t really from an unusual place, but I enjoyed its style very much, so I stuck it in the tasting. Grauer Burgunder is another grape variety more commonly associated with Alsace, as it is Pinot Gris. The Germans can also call it Rülander, although if that is on the label it is often a tad sweet, and Pinot Grigio has become widely seen on the cheaper, lighter versions.

Weingut Wittman is another venerable estate, having been making wine in the beautiful old market town of Westhofen in southern Rheinhessen since 1663. Today Philipp Wittman organically and biodynamically farms 28 hectares – 69 acres – of fertile soil and grows mainly Riesling, but good as his Rieslings are, this wine really drew me.  He carries out slow fermentations and uses wild yeast, so his wines have a lot of texture and that and the aromatics is where this wine really wins.

The nose was leesy and creamy with some smoke and rich orchard fruit too, especially spiced pear. The palate was textured, creamy again, but there was good acid balance for a Pinot Gris. It was quite rich and powerful and definitely made a statement, I loved it – 90/100 points.

Sachsen is a wine region around near Meißen and just to the north west of Dresden. We are quite a long way north here and so most of the vineyards are planted on very steep slopes along the Elbe River in order to get enough sunshine to ripen the grapes – the Czech border is not far away either, so it is easy to forget that this is wine country.


Schloss Proschwitz, the castle is also a hotel and restaurant – photo courtesy of the winery.


Schloss Proschwitz vineyards on the bank of the Elbe River – photo courtesy of the winery.

48482008 Scheurebe Kabinett Trocken
Schloss Proschwitz
Prädikatswein / VDP Ortswein
Sachsen – number 4 on the map

I love this wine and if you are interested you can click here to read a piece I wrote in 2009 about how I became aware of it. Scheurebe is a terrific grape that was created by Dr. Georg Scheu in 1916. He thought he was crossing Riesling with Silvaner, to produce a superior Silvaner, but it now seems that he made a mistake and actually crossed Riesling with an unknown wild vine that has been lost to science. Until 1945 the grape was known by the serial number that Scheu had given it, Sämling 88, or Seedling 88, and it is still called Sämling or Sämling 88 in Austria. In 1945 it was named Scheurebe in Scheu’s honour.

Schloss Proschwitz is in the old DDR, eastern Germany, and is owned by Georg Prinz zur Lippe, whose family had their lands confiscated by the occupying Soviet forces in 1945. After Reunification Georg was able to slowly buy back his family’s wine estates and is today a beacon for wine quality in this sadly overlooked wine region. 

The nose was fragrant, with citrus and peach blossom, with some ripe nectarine and some honeyed, waxy development notes. The palate was slightly rounded and textured – malolactic and lees perhaps – with some lovely orchard fruit, dashes of honey and white pepper. As well as that softness, there is an underlying core of acidity and minerality keeping the whole thing refreshing and fine – 92/100 points.

Sonnenhof in the late afternoon.

Sonnenhof in the late afternoon.

Looking south from the Sonnenhof at dusk.

Looking south from the Sonnenhof at dusk.

11142012 Lemberger Hades
Weingut Sonnenhof
Vaihingen an der Enz
Württemberg – number 5 on the map

I saw so many stunning vineyards in Württemberg that it was easy to become quite blasé about the beauty all around me, but sitting tasting wines in the vineyards at Weingut Sonnenhof was quite an experience and explained why the site is called Sonnenhof, or sun yard – even halo in some translations. It is a wondrously sunny spot on a south facing ridge halfway between Stuttgart and Heilbronn and completely lived up to its name. Interestingly the whites from the estate were really pretty rich because of all the sun and heat and it was the reds that really appealed to me here, although their barrique aged Chardonnay was pretty good.

Lemberger, or Blaufränkisch which means Blue Wine of Franconia, is the central European black grape par excellence and it’s found all over Germany, Austria, Hungary, where it is called Kékfrankos, and Slovenia, where it is often called Modra Frankinja, as well as Slovakia – it is also an important grape in upstate New York, where it is also known as Lemberger. There is actually a small town called Lemberg – Lemberg pri Šmarju – in Slovenia’s Lower Styria region and some sources say it was from there that the grape was exported to Germany in the nineteenth century and hence the reason for the Lemberg name there and in the USA – although of course the area was part of Austria at that time.

This wine is called Hades because it comes from the warmest, sunniest blocks on the estate. It is a careful selection of the best fruit and is aged for 20 months in oak barrels. The colour is amazing, dense and opaque with a deep black cherry colour. Black cherry, blackberry, plums, spice and a little tobacco and mocha dominate the nose, while the palate is rounded, smooth and seductive. There are mouth filling, concentrated dark fruit characters, together with some of the acidity of dark cherries and stewed plums, while the oak gives the complexity of  cigars, mocha, fine milk chocolate and graphite. There is some nice freshness and appealing fine grain tannins on the long finish. I was very impressed by this wine and enjoyed it immensely – 92/100 points.

Baden is a very hard wine region to pin down, because it is so spread out, but the next two wines come from the Tauberfranken, which is in the north east of the region where Baden and Württemberg meet.


The Reicholzheimer First vineyard at Weingut Schlör, from below – photo courtesy of the winery.

schloer-schwarzriesling_5374ad9a1742c2014 Schwarzriesling
Weingut Schlör
Qualitätswein / VDP Ortswein
Baden – number 6 on the map

The Schlör family have been making wine for well over 300 years, but Weingut Schlör was created in 1984 by a charming couple called Konrad and Monika Schlör, and as far as I can see they do everything. This wine is made from Schwarzriesling, which is the local name for Pinot Meunier, which is a common grape in these parts, although few that I tried had the depth of the examples made by Schlör.

The grapes were handpicked and carefully selected, cold fermented and then matured in French oak casks for 8 months. The wine is a lovely Pinot colour, with a fragrance and perfume that is very enticing, there is a leafy, lightly spicy quality and savoury scented red fruit. The palate is medium bodied and has that spicy, earthy quality and lovely ripe red fruit, smooth tannins and that spice character. I loved this wine and would serve it lightly chilled I think – 92/100 points.


Konrad Schlör working in his beloved vines at Weingut Schlör – photo courtesy of the winery.

dt_xl_Schwarzrielsing_R_Schloer_1000x1000_8838282014 Schwarzriesling R
Weingut Schlör
VDP Erste Lage Reicholzheimer First
Baden – number 6 on the map

This is a single vineyard wine from Reicholzheimer, Reicholzheimer First which is very near Wertheim on an S shaped bend in the Tauber River. The steep vineyard faces south west, so gets perfect exposure. The site is an Erste Lange, Weingut Schlör is the only VDP member in the Tauber Valley and this is the only rated vineyard. Interestingly the First vineyard appears on maps from 1476 onwards – it was then spelt Fyerst – and was next to the Bronnbach Monastery, which was founded by Cistercians monks from Burgundy, who by creating monasteries across Europe, did much to spread skilful viticulture too.

The fruit was handpicked and only the wild yeast was used for the fermentation, which gives a longer, slower fermentation. After a cold fermentation, the wine was aged in French oak barrels for 18 months.

This wine is more complex and concentrated, with a richly smoky nose. On the palate the tannins are velvety and the spicy, smoky oak and rich dark red fruit are really well integrated. I think this wine needs time to show its best, but it was tremendous right now too – 93/100 points.

The Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg vineyard at Weingut Wöhrwag.

The Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg vineyard at Weingut Wöhrwag.

The charming Hans-Peter Wöhrwag.

The charming Hans-Peter Wöhrwag.

woehrwag-untertuerkheimer-herzogenberg-lemberger-gutsabfuellung-flasche_55e6ab64848a42013 Pinot Noir GG Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg
Weingut Wöhrwag
Württemberg – number 7 on the map

Weingut Wöhrwag was one of my favourite visits on my trip, they were lovely people and all the wines were magnificent – I loved his Rieslings. The winery and the Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg vineyard are in a suburb of Stuttgart just to the the north east of the city – there is an U Bahn station just a short stroll away from the vines. The vineyard itself is a magnificent site, a steep hill whose south and south west facing slopes overlook the Neckar River.

I had never heard of Wöhrwag before, which is hardly surprising as they have a strong local following. 50% of their production is sold at the winery and the rest within 60 kilometres – mainly in Stuttgart. Hans-Peter Wöhrwag and his wife Christin farm the 20 hectares of the Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg – it is a monopoly – vineyard using sustainable viticulture. They do not irrigate as they want the vines to dig deep into the ground for water and complexity. For Hans-Peter everything is decided in the vineyard as the quality of the wine is all about the quality of the grapes.

This wine has a lovely colour, rich medium ruby cherry sort of hue.
The nose offers great aromas of smoke and red fruit, earthy mushrooms and fragrant wild raspberry.
The palate has a beautiful texture, silky smooth – just some fine tannins – with sweet red fruit, raspberry, rich, concentrated fruit and great finesse. Superb balance, great concentration, silky mouthfeel and mouth filling flavour, I found this superb wine to be lingering and seductive and I wish I had more – 94/100 points.
More of the beautiful Neckar Valley.

More of the beautiful Neckar Valley.

So you see, Germany has a lot more to offer than many people think. Great wines, wonderful variety and stunning scenery – I feel another trip coming on.

Really though, if you have never tried a fine, dry German wine, there has never been a better time to give it a go as a German wine revolution is in full swing and the wines have never looked better. You probably won’t find these exact wines – unless you go to Germany – but a little time spent on Google will find you wine merchants with good German lists, or you could always start at The Wine Barn, which is a German specialist merchant and wine club.

More information is available from Wines of Germany (UK) and Wines of Germany (USA).