The Variety of Champagne

Vineyards around Dizy in Champagne.

Recently I have led a few Champagne tastings, well it is Christmas. I showed a wide range of Champagnes each time and they were very well received.

What fascinated me was how many questions were asked and the lengthy discussions that grew out of the tastings. In my experience that level of enquiry is relatively rare at wine tastings and I loved it.

What became apparent to me – even more so that I had expected – was how misunderstood, or rather how pigeonholed Champagne is. To most people who came to the tastings Champagne was just one thing, posh sparkling wine for special occasions. Very few of the tasters, before they came anyway, saw Champagne as a wine and very few understood, again before the tasting, just what variety there is in Champagne.

It is that variety that makes Champagne so fascinating and that I sought to illustrate in these tastings. The truth is that Champagne is much more than just a sparkling wine to be drunk at special parties. Sure there are plenty of Champagnes that make a good aperitif – and therefore toast – wine, but there are others that partner pretty much every type of food too.

There is a whole world of Champagne out there with styles to suit every mood and occasion.

Firstly Champagne is defined by the climate of the region. The Champagne region is east of Paris, and some of it slightly north too, so it is not blessed with the best conditions to make wine. The climate is grudging – about as far north as it is possible to grow grapes – and if it was not for the hills of the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs Côtes des Sezanne and the Côtes des Bar then Champagne would not really be a wine region at all. Just as in nearby Chablis, these slopes allow the grapes grown on them to catch much more sun than if they were grown on flat land. This makes ripening the grapes possible which is why Champagne became a place that made wine at all. Therefore, although there are different levels of ripeness in the wines of Champagne, it is all relative. This cool climate region is a place to make delicate white wines, not bold reds – unless global warming really gets going anyway.

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

The second thing to define Champagne is the chalky soil. This chalk is the second factor that makes it possible to grow grapes and make good wine here. It is very well drained and so negates the bad effects of the rain that can happen pretty much all through the growing cycle. The chalky soil ensures that rain just runs away, leaving the grapes concentrated and healthy. Perversly though this fossil rich chalk, rich in lime and calcite, also retains moisture – a bit like a sponge – and releases it when conditions are dry. It also stays at a constant temperature all year round – pretty crucial in a cool place as it gives the warming up of the season a quick start and helps ripening. The chalk itself is ancient sea-bed and full of fossils and that also helps in the development of complex flavours in the wines. Whether or not it imparts the minerality that can be found in many good Champagnes is open to question – see my article here for more on minerality.

Vineyards in the Valley of the Marne.

Blending Wine from Different Harvests

Because of the lack of heat and sunshine, the Champenois (Champagne producers) have, over the centuries, developed a way of making the best use of the weather that they do get. Most Champagne is sold as Non Vintage – or NV on a wine list –  (Multi Vintage in the US) – with no year on the label – and is made by blending wine from different harvests together. This allows the producer, or house, to always blend the wine to be pretty much the same year in year out. To do this they have to keep back stocks of older base wines to give them the blending options that they need.

Grape Varieties

By and large Champagne can be made from just three different grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – so just one white grape and 2 black grapes. Remember that white wine, which is what most Champagne is, can be made from any colour grapes as you only ferment the juice after pressing and leave the skins out. The colour of a red wine comes solely from the skins. Therefore a good bit of the different styles comes about because of the blend of grape varies used or sometimes which single grape is used. The great majority of Champagnes are a blend of all three grapes, in differing proportions, while those made purely from Chardonnay can be called Blanc de Blancs and those made from either or both of the two Pinots can be labelled as Blanc de Noirs. Generally speaking a Blanc de Blancs will feel brighter, lighter and fresher than Blanc de Noirs Champagnes.

There are always exceptions in wine and there was a much bigger list of grape varieties grown in the past and although the modern rules forbids the planting of anything other than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, you can still use them if you have them – it seems that you can even replant them too. Up until the First World War Pinot Blanc, Fromenteau / Pinot Gris, Arbane, Petit Meslier, Gamay, Chasselas, Savagnin Blanc, Sacy (also known as Tressallier), Troyen and Morillon were found quite widely in the region.

Nowadays they are pretty rare, but it is still possible to taste Champagnes made from some of these old grapes if you are prepared to work at it – and pay for them. Champagne Fleury produce a pure Pinot Blanc – click here, as do Chassenay d’Arce, while Pierre Gerbais’ L’Originale is made from a parcel of Pinot Blanc vines planted in 1904 – click here. Champagne Moutard make a pure out of Arbane as well as the Cuvée 6 Cépages made from equal proportions of  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Arbane, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier. Duval Leroy make a Champagne from pure Petit Meslier. Champagne Aubry produce three different Cuvées (blends) using these ancient grape varieties, while Champagne Drappier‘s Quattuor is made from equal parts of Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay.

Oak or No Oak

Oak barrels at Champagne Alfred Gratien in Epernay. Gratien are very traditional and one of the few houses to barrel ferment the majority of their base wines. Photo courtesy of Champagne Alfred Gratien.

The base wine for some Champagnes, the still wine that is later made fizzy,  are aged or fermented in oak barrels before they are made sparkling, which will make them richer and more complex still. Champagnes made this way seem to be bolder and more obviously savoury, so making them less suitable for frivolous drinking and more suitable for drinking with food.

Ageing

It isn’t only the grapes that determine the flavours and the differences between the different Champagnes though. Length of ageing is very important. Any Non Vintage Champagne has to be aged on the lees – the dead yeast cells left over from the second fermentation in the bottle – for at least 15 months. Most good houses age them a fair bit longer than that though, perhaps for three years or so.

Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs undergoing long ageing in Taittinger’s chalk cellars below Reims. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Vintage Champagne is the product of a single exceptional harvest – Non Vintage is made from fruit from more than one harvest – so Vintage Champagne will be richer and fruitier than Non Vintage. In addition Vintage Champagne must be aged at least 36 months on the lees before release, so will be more complex too. The longer you age a Champagne on the lees, the more the rich biscuit, brioche, flaky pastry and nutty characters develop. We call this ageing yeast autolysis.

Sweetness

The sweetness also has an effect on how the wine tastes. The drier it is the more you will notice the acidity and Champagne being so far north, where there isn’t so much sun to ripen the fruit, has a good deal of acidity to make your mouth water. If acidity is not your thing, I love it because it is so refreshing, then there are options available to you, a sweeter Champagne.

Most Champagnes are Brut, which is very much on the dry side. Brut Champagne contains 0 – 12 grams per litre of sugar, equivalent to half a teaspoon or so per glass. In practice the posher Champagnes like Taittinger are usually about 8 – 12 grams and the cheaper and own label ones usually have that little bit more sugar. Extra Brut is a bit drier than Brut, whereas rather confusingly Extra Dry or Extra Brut is less dry!

Sec Champagne is less dry again and contains 17 – 32 grams per litre of sugar, equivalent to a teaspoon or so per glass. Before the First World War most Champagne was pretty sweet, but nowadays these wines are pretty rare. I am sure there are others, but Taittinger’s superb Nocturne Sec is the only one widely available in the UK and at 17.5 grams per litre of sugar it contains the bare minimum amount of sugar to be Sec, so is not actually sweet at all.

I loved showing a range of different Champagnes at these tastings and seeing how interesting the tasters found them. They just were not expecting to experience so many different flavours and styles.

Here are some of the Champagnes that I have shown in my recent tastings, these all found particular favour with the crowds on the night, sometimes for very different reasons.

Light, fresh Champagnes 

This is how most people imagine Champagne and indeed the style of Champagne that most of us drink most of the time. They are perfect to drink on their own, for the toast or the aperitif or to serve with light nibbles like cheese straws, fresh light cheeses, fish and chips and Asian cuisine.

Veuve Monsigny Brut No III NV
Champagne Philizot et Fils
Reuil, near Reims

I know nothing about Philizot, but they appear to be a genuine Champagne house rather than a dreamed up brand name. They must be quite big, even though very few of us have ever heard of them, because they have to be selling a great deal of this. The blend is one third each of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

This is genuinely a nice bottle of Champagne, fresh, lively and very appley with a soft mousse and palate. Not the most complex, but very decent and well made with nice acidity and some of the elegance and purity that generally sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines.

How they do this at the price I really do not know, but I am glad they do – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £10.99 per bottle from Aldi.

Bissinger & Co Grande Prestige Premium Cuvée Brut NV
Vranken-Pommery
Tours-sur-Marne

I know next nothing about this Champagne house except that it used to be based in Aÿ and has history dating back to 1875. Since 2012 it has been part of the mighty Vranken-Pommery group and continues to make good wines that deliver excellent value for money too.

It looks good in its fancy shaped bottle and it tastes pretty good too. It might not be quite as dry as other Champagnes, but that makes it soft and very drinkable indeed – and it is still dry. There is a little more richness here too, from longer ageing than the Verve Montigny I assume. I liked this and so did my tasters – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £17.99 per bottle from Lidl.

Louis Chaurey Brut NV
Champagne Oudinot
Epernay

Oudinot is a pretty prestigious house with history going back to the dawn of the nineteenth century when Jules Edouard Oudinot started making Champagne from his vineyard in Avize in the Côtes des Blancs south of Epernay. Today it is part of the great Laurent-Perrier and they make this label for Marks & Spencer. Again the blend uses all three typical grapes, but I am unaware of the blend.

This is very Epernay in style, very apply, very citrus. In short it is light, fresh and refreshing. Thoroughly enjoyable and that light touch of crushed digestive biscuit gives it enough interest and richness. A perfectly decent Champagne – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £34.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer – make sure to buy it when on offer which comes around about twice a year, 50% off and another 25% off when you buy 2 cases of 6 bottles.

H Blin Brut NV
Champagne H Blin & Co
Vincelles

I have always been a fan of H Blin. Based in Vincelles some 20 km west of Epernay they have farmed grapes for generations, but only started making their own Champagnes after World War II. Being based in the Valley of the Marne they champion the somewhat unloved Pinot Meunier, even to the extent of making an excellent still red from it under the Coteaux Champenois appellation.

This is their standard non vintage Cuvée made from 80% Pinot Meunier with 20% Chardonnay and 2 years ageing

The nose is of toasted brioche and cooked lemon, while the palate gives zesty green apples, a touch of red apple, some light nuts and even a touch of caramel from the ageing development. A very tasty, but also refined and elegant Champagne – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £28.00 per bottle from Oddbins.

Taittinger Brut Réserve NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

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

This is the standard wine from the house and I always enjoy it. 40% Chardonnay dominates the wine together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier blended from vineyards across the region and then aged 3 years on the lees.

I really enjoy this wine because it light, fresh and vibrant, but has depth of flavour too. There is a creaminess running all the way through it, as well as citrus, green apple and a touch of peach. There is crisp, but not startling acidity and the mousse is soft and creamy without being frothy. There is also a touch of caramel and digestive biscuit to the palate that gives a nice smack of complexity, but the finish is dry and clean.

I always think this wine is deceptively straightforward and sinfully drinkable. Indeed it is a wine that you can focus attention on and savour its subtle charms, or just enjoy it and let those charms wash over you – 91/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £37.00 per bottle – Majestic reduce that to £27.73 when you mix 6 bottles of anything. Asda’s price is £27.

Champagne vineyards.

Franck Bonville Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Avize NV
Champagne Franck Bonville
Avize

This small, family run Champagne house has always attracted me. They winemaker is fourth generation Olivier Bonville whose grandfather Franck started it all just after World War I. Altogether they farm just 20 hectares in the Grand Cru Côtes des Blancs villages of Avize, Over and Le Mesnil.

This wine blends 70% of Avise fruit with 30% from Oger and it is aged for 30 months on the lees. The nose gives a lovely touch of ozone or rock pools – which I find fairy typical of lean Chardonnay.

The palate has plenty of orchard fruit too, apples and white peach. There is a lovely, playful tension in this wine between the almost creamy richness of the Chardonnay and the freshness and acidity of the style. The result is wine that gives softness and generosity together with that purity, almost salty quality that a fine dry white can have. An excellent and complex aperitif wine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £35.00 per bottle from Premiers Grands Crus and Cadman Fine Wines.

Legras & Haas Chouilly Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut
Champagne Legras & Haas
Chouilly

Champagne Legras & Haas is a Champagne domaine founded as recently as 1991. Before he created his own estate in 1991, together with his wife Brigitte – whose maiden name was Haas, François Legras was the winemaker at R & L Legras as his forebears had been since the sixteenth century. It was his desire to be a true vigneron, a grower with a domaine that made him strike out on his own and today the house has 31 hectares mainly in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. Today the house is run by François’s sons Rémi and Olivier Legras and I think the wines they produce are remarkably fine.

Extra Brut has a dosage of less than 5 grams per litre, so the wine is allowed to dominate the style. There is no softness here, no fat, just precision and austerity. This means that the Champagne has to be perfect first time – like a water colour.

They got it right, the wine has concentration, but is about minerality and tension. If you like Chablis you will enjoy this. It has that same nervy character and stony depth to it. The bubbles really are tiny and persistent and add some structure to the wine. Four years ageing on the lees has also added little flourishes of flakey pastry, but for me this is all about the minerality, finesse and elegant austerity – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £48.00 per bottle from Uvinum.

The softer side of Champagne

If all that acidity is not your thing, you can still enjoy Champagne, but a slightly less dry Sec version might suit you better. Rosé Champagne is softer too as the great majority of rosé Champagnes get their colour from some still, red Pinot Noir being added to the base wine before it is made fizzy. This gives red fruit characters and makes the wine seem riper and rounder and so softens that acidity,

Taittinger Nocturne Sec NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

40% Chardonnay together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, aged 4 years on the lees. Much of the fruit comes from Taittinger’s own estates including some from their Château de la Marquetterie.

The idea here is to make a soft Champagne that is drinkable after dinner and long into the night – or indeed any other time, I find it’s good at breakfast! People often assume that this will be sweet, but it isn’t at all. There is 17.5 grams per litre of residual sugar, but remember how high the acidity is in Champagne, well here the acidity and the sugar balance each other perfectly, so the wine finishes clean and balanced. It is soft, not sweet at all, the palate is creamy and there is a gentle nectarine quality to it and and an eating apple crunch.

This might be perfect if acidity is not your thing, or if you want a Champagne that can withstand traces of something sweet on your palate. This also lived up to its name by remaining quite delicious throughout the tasting and even after all the others were finished – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £47.00 per bottle from Asda and Waitrose Cellar.

Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

I love Rosé Champagne as it always feels so hedonistic and almost naughty. I think this is one of the best on the market.

35% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier with 15% of the Pinot Noir being red to give the colour – the Pinot comes from Ambonnay, Bouzy & Les Riceys. The finished wine is aged 3 years on the lees.

This is a real charmer of a wine, the colour is a deep wild salmon meets strawberry and the richness of red fruit makes the wine seem much less dry and acidic than it actually is. So if you like a softer style of Champagne then this could be for you, certainly the palate gives lots of red fruit, raspberry and even blood orange.

If you age it for a few years the fruit mellows somewhat to a more rose petal quality making the wine quite different, but just as lovely – 91/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £50.00 per bottle – however the Asda Wine Shop price appears to be just £27!

The Richer Side of Champagne

I am lucky, I like all styles of Champagne including the rich ones. These are often based on black grapes rather than Chardonnay, so gives more weight. They are also often aged longer and sometimes have some oak influence too. These Champagnes go very well with surprisingly rich food too, like foie gras, game and charcuterie.

Barnaut Grande Réserve Grand Cru Brut NV
Champagne Barnaut
Bouzy (yes, Bouzy, really, it is a Grand Cru village in the Montagne de Reims and rather wonderfully Dizy is not far away either!)

This little grower-producer is a new find for me and they are pretty good. Based in Bouzy they base their wines on Pinot Noir – and even make a still red wine and rosé too. This cuvée is two thirds Pinot Noir and one third Chardonnay from their own vineyards in Bouzy, Ambonnay and Louvois. The wine is aged for 4 years on the lees and has a low dosage of just 6 grams per litre, making it almost Extra Brut.

In truth this Champagne is only slightly richer than those above, so could be enjoyed on its own, but there is a touch of something richer from all that Pinot and the longer ageing. There is a touch of red fruit here together with a deeper biscuity note. It is wonderfully focussed and pure though and very dry, but with the sensation of very ripe fruit, so there is plenty of tension in the wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £27.00 per bottle from Lea & Sandeman.

One of my two favourite Champagne village names.

AR Lenoble Blanc de Noirs Premier Cru Bisseuil Brut 2009
Champagne A R Lenoble
Damery

AR Lenoble was founded in 1920 and is still family owned by sister-and-brother team Anne and Antoine Malassagne, the great-grandchildren of founder Armand-Raphaël Graser from Alsace. He called his house Lenoble as it sounded more French than his somewhat Germanic name of Graser. AR Lenoble owns 18 hectares in three prime locations in Champagne. Chouilly, Bisseuil and Damery. All their Chardonnay comes from the Grand Cru village of Chouilly, their Pinot Noir comes the Premier Cru village of Bisseuil and their Pinot Meunier comes from their home village of Damery.

100% Pinot Noir with 35% fermented and aged in oak before the second fermentation and aged on the lees for 4 years. This is a powerful, heady and concentrated Champagne. The dosage is only 5%, so could be labelled as Extra Brut if they chose, however it is so full of flavour that it is far from austere and has a wonderful spicy cinnamon and vanilla note from the oak.

A wonderfully intense Champagne with real richness that comes from the use of just black grapes, long ageing, barrel fermenting and ageing and the quality of the vintage – 93/100 pints.

Available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle from Plus de Bulles and Premiers Grands Crus. Also contact Ellis of Richmond who are the UK agents.

Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

What to do? You want vintage Champagne with all that richness and savoury brioche character, but cannot be doing with ageing some and anyway you want a slightly softer fruit character to give a touch of the frivolous, yet still keep it elegant and refined. You probably guessed it – you drink this.

50% Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs – including Avize and Le Mesnil sur Oger – blended with  50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims – including Mailly and Ambonnay. The finished wine is aged 5 years on the lees.

Another glorious cuvée from Taittinger that manages to be intense and soft all at the same time. This makes it very appealing with rich fruit and similarly rich leesy characters and complexity. The mousse is markedly softer than on Taittinger’s vintage, yet firmer and more precise than on their Brut Réserve Non-Vintage. In truth this Champagne goes with everything and nothing, it is just splendid – 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £40 per bottle: John Lewis, Great Western Wine, Majestic, Champagne Direct.

Taittinger’s beautiful Château de la Marquetterie. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Taittinger Les Folies de la Marquetterie Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

A single vineyard Champagne – a very rare beast indeed – from the vineyards around Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry near Epernay, which quite apart from being a beautiful place has a south and southwest exposure and so creates beautifully ripe fruit.

The blend is 55% Pinot Noir to 45% Chardonnay a small portion of the latter is fermented in oak vats which lends a subtle toasty spice to the finish as well as weight to the palate. It is aged for 5 years on the lees.

This is an exciting Champagne with richness and real savoury qualities. Again it is concentrated, but has bigger bolder characters and in some ways feels like a mature vintage Champagne.

Personally I do not regard this as a Champagne to drink while standing and nibbling twiglets, for me this needs a meal  – although feel free to serve it to me with nibbles – and would be perfect with a lovely piece of good quality fish – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £50 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Fareham Wine Cellar,  The Drink Shop among others.

Alfred Gratien Brut Vintage 2004
Champagne Alfred Gratien
Epernay

A tiny Champagne house that was long part of Gratien and Meyer in the Loire. It was founded in 1864 and was for a long time run by the Seydoux family who were related to the Gratiens and also the Krugs. Nowadays it is owned by German sparkling wine giant Henkell & Söhnlein, but all they seem to have done is to pay for much needed repairs and vineyard purchases, the style and devotopn to tradition remains the same, as does the cellar master in fact.

Alfred Gratien was the first Champagne house, indeed the first winery that I ever visited back in 1984 at the age of nineteen and I have been fond of what they do ever since. They ferment their base wines in oak barrels that they buy second hand – you don’t want too much oak – from the Chablisienne cooperative in Chablis. As a consequence their wines are rich and heady and brooding and very fine.

This is two thirds Chardonnay with the rest equal parts of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The nose is nutty, citric and toasty with flecks of flint. The palate is broad and deep, yet with that lively purity that makes Champagne so wonderful. There is toasted brioche, smoke, peach and apple and citrus and a warmth and fullness that belies the zing of the acidity. That tension between those two makes it feel very fine and long in the mouth – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £42 per bottle from The Wine Society.

Taittinger Brut Vintage 2009
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from mainly Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs for the Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for the Pinot and then aged 5 years on the lees.

If you are ever feeling jaded and tired of life then this wine has a wonderfully restorative quality. The sensations here are of concentrated fruit as the vintage is only made in occasional exceptional years, however not only is the fruit more powerful, but the acidity is fresher and the weight is greater too, so this is a very intense wine. Red fruit notes and ripe peach vie with each other on your senses, while the savoury, nutty, brioche lees characters add more depth and the rich seam of acidity keeps it all fresh and elegant too.

A glorious Champagne with a firm and steady mousse and a wonderful feeling of tension running through it giving it poise and elegance – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £50 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Amazon,  The Drink Shop and Great Western Wine among others.

And some Ultimate Luxury…

Most major Champagne houses produce a Cuvée de Prestige using the very best fruit. These wines have care and attention lavished upon them and are aged longer than the normal cuvées and usually come in a fancy bottle that looks lovely and shows you that everything has been done by hand as these bottles do not fit the machines.

I like Taittinger as a house and think that their Cuvée de Prestige is one of the very best on the market. It certainly wowed everyone I showed it to at the tasting.

Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs in the punters in the chalk cellars below Reims. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2006
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

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

James Bond fans will know this was the favoured Champagne of Ian Fleming’s spy in the early books and I for one can see why – JFK seemed to enjoy it too. This is the most delicate. mineral and fine Chamapagne that I have ever tasted. It oozes finesse and breeding and subtlety, but has many more obvious charms too. I often think this is the most ‘wine-like’ Champagne that I know, it sort of seems like the finest Chablis you can imagine, but with a delicate and taut mousse – 95/100 points.

This very fine stuff and makes a superb aperitif, but is even better served with light seafood dishes like oysters or scallops. It would even go with a light fishy (sea bass) or chicken main course.

Available in the UK @ around £120 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Majestic,  Marks & Spencer and Ocado among others.

Obviously this line up barely scratches the surface of the different styles of Champagne that is out there, but is shows how different they can be and made for some fascinating and thought provoking tastings.

If you have only had a single view of what Champagne does, perhaps you might enjoy a little experimentation too, try some different examples and see what you think.

Wine of the Week – Nebbiolo with a twist

Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

In recent months I have become seriously obsessed by the wines of Italy and I think with good reason. There is such variety, such diversity and such pleasure to be had. So much so in fact that I have been giving some tastings called Hidden Corners of Italy that shines a little light on the areas of Italy that people might not encounter all that much.

The wines really seem to have captured people’s imaginations and opened their eyes as to the huge variety that Italy offers. I have shown some stunning sparkling wines, wonderful whites and fine complex reds and will write about them all very soon. However one red in particular showed extremely well recently and I noticed that it is once again available in the UK, so thought that I would make it my Wine of the Week.

It comes from Piemonte, which would normally be regarded as a far from hidden corner of Italy, but it actually comes from the north of the region up towards the Alps from a little known PDO / DOC called Lessona. In fact Lessona is a commune in the Province of Biella some 70 kilometres north of Turin and although it was created a Denominazione di Origine Controllata / DOC as long ago as 1976, there are only 14 hectares of vineyards there.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas in the Alto Piemonte were once very important and like Lesona have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant here on mountainous terrain than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land over many decades. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades. The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they found it hard to pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north. As a result, by the time I joined the wine trade 30 odd years ago, the wines of this part of Piemonte were almost never mentioned.

Which is a great shame as the DOCs and DOCGs of this part of Italy produce some seriously impressive wines, especially the reds of Carema, Gattinara, Ghemme, Bramaterra and Lessona. There are many great producers here that deserve to be much more widely known – you can read a bit about them here.

While I was there many producers captured my imagination, but I developed a particular affection for the wines of Tenute Sella. Based in Lessona, although it has vineyards in Bramaterra too, this estate has been owned by the Sella family since 1671 when silk merchant Comino Sella founded it. Today the estate is run by the engaging and charming Marco Rizzetti, who is CEO of the winery and part of the Sella family on his mother’s side.

Tenute Sella vineyards in Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

Today Tenuta Sella farms 7 hectares in Lessona – 50% of the PDO – plus 10 hectares in Bramaterra. The Lessona vineyards are pretty fragmented and on Pliocene marine deposits, so comprise well drained sandy soils.

2011 Lessona
DOC Lessona

The principal wine from the estate and the wine they have produced ever since 1671. This is a blend of 85% Nebbiolo (traditionally called Spanna up here) with 15% Vespolina, a close relative of Nebbiolo. The vines are on average 55 years old and the vineyard is at 300 metres above sea level with a south facing slope. The grapes were destemmed and crushed before being fermented in stainless steel vats and the wine was matured for 24 months in large (2500 litre) Slavonian oak barrels, where it also went through the malolactic fermentation. Viticulture is all low impact, near organic with no pesticides.

2011 was a difficult year with periods of heavy rainfall and drought while hail in July severely depleted the crop making yields lower than normal. They are very pleased with what the vintage finally produced, as was I.

The colour was a little bricky like Burgundy, while the nose delivered lovely complex red fruits, spice, pepper, espresso and light smoke with an enticing mix of sweet fruit and savoury characters.

The palate was quite haunting with lovely refreshing acidity, tannins that certainly made themselves known but were not aggressive, making the texture quite supple. The flavours were deep red fruit, plums especially, with dried fruit, earthy, coffee bean, tomato stem, savoury spicy characters and a lovely gamey, leathery development. It really is a lovely wine, more perfumed, more supple than we normally think of Nebbiolo. I could not help feeling that this would be great with Christmas dinner – 93/100 points.

The cellar at Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

A beguiling and complex food wine, if you like Barolo, Northern Rhône wines or Burgundy then you will love this. As well as turkey and goose, this would be wonderful with beef dishes and an array of cheeses.

Available in the UK for between £17 and  £23 per bottle from Vinissimus and Tannico.co.uk.

If you want even more of a bit of a treat for Christmas, then Vintage Wine & Port have a few bottles of the 2000 vintage Tenute Sella Lessona for £39.00 per bottle.

 

Wine of the Week – Mature Villa Maria Chardonnay from my Cellar

The beautiful Wairau River in Marlborough, New Zealand.

Recently I had a wonderful wine experience. I was working at the Decanter Fine Wine Experience and Sir George Fistonich was there. Now George, if you do not know is one of the great figures in the world of wine.

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.

He founded Villa Maria, the famous New Zealand wine producer, in 1961 and owns it to this day. His achievements are amazing and from humble beginnings Villa Maria is now the largest privately owned winery in New Zealand, indeed it is the largest New Zealand owned winery in the country.

I have been involved with Villa Maria either directly or indirectly since 1987 and the wines are never less than good and frequently very good indeed. As a whole the range is very impressive and it is easy to see why it one of Drinks International’s Most Admired Wine Brands in the world. In addition George also owns the Vidal, Esk Valley and Te Awa estates in Hawke’s Bay as well as the Thornbury range, whose Central Otago Pinot Noir is one of New Zealand’s best value wines.

What I especially admire about Villa Maria is that they make wines that people really love and that have huge recognition among consumers, but are still keen to innovate and try new styles of wine and new ways of working. George led the charge on the move to screw cap seals for instance. That seems a long time ago now, but it was only 2004 in fact. Among much else they have also experimented, very successfully, with Albariño, Orange Wine and a new wine called Ngakirikiri, a super premium release is a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend from the Gimblett Gravels growing area in Hawkes Bay and it is a magnificent wine.

I was chatting away to George and commented that I had found an old bottle of Villa Maria wine in my cellar and asked if he was around the next day to try it with me. Well he was and so I brought the bottle in on the tube.

It was my last bottle of 1994 Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay from Marlborough. I hadn’t kept it deliberately, but it was left over from a tasting about 20 years ago and I simply never got around to doing anything with it. The level looked pretty good, but the colour slightly worried me. It looked quite dark, although it was hard to tell through the green bottle.

Opening an old bottle of wine is always nerve wracking. How old is too old? I was certainly nervous about this one. Would it be oxidised and just too far gone to drink. Frankly at 23 years old it could well have been.

George in his early days – photo courtesy of Hatch Mansfield Agencies.

I opened it very slowly and very carefully, but even so the bottom quarter of the cork broke off and I couldn’t retrieve it, so it was rather un-stylishly bobbing about in the wine. However the rest of the cork was nice and damp and smelled clean, which made me more optimistic that all would be well.

I poured some into George’s glass before mine and together we inspected the colour and then sniffed the wine before taking a sip. First I felt a sense of relief that it was still alive after all this time, then a sense of joy that it was actually still quite fresh and bright, then feeling of exuberance because it was actually rather fabulous.

 

 

Wairau Valley vines

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

1994 Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay
Villa Maria Estate
Marlborough – the label rather elegantly states “Marlborough Region”
New Zealand

One great thing about this bottle is that the back label is wonderfully detailed, unlike the current labels. So, I actually know a great deal about how this wine was made. It is a blend of 70% Waldron Vineyard and 30% Fletcher Vineyard fruit. The two vineyards are very close to each other in the Rapaura district of the Wairau Plains, the ‘Golden Triangle’. Waldron is a warm, stony site that produces full flavoured, richly concentrated fruit that makes for vividly fruity wines. Fletcher, farmed by Colin, Chris and Michelle Fletcher, is on especially low vigour stony soils.

According to the fabulously informative back label just 17% of the wine went through malolactic fermentation, which made sense once I tasted it and noticed the high acidity. The wine was aged for just 5 months in oak barriques (225 litre barrels).

The colour was a beautiful bright yellow, light toffee, slightly orange and peach skin sort of colour. The nose was good, yes there was a slight touch of oxidation, but also real honeyed richness of peach and pineapple with something fresh, stony and mineral together with a light touch of caramel and butterscotch.

The real surprise though came with the palate. It was overwhelmingly fresh with lively acidity making it seem positively youthful and playful. Those flourishes of richness, pineapple and caramel mainly were in the background with something nutty and spicy from the oak, while the stony fresh acidity was to the fore making the wine seem pure and mineral.

23 years in bottle had not dimmed the wine in any way. I remember it as being a very good wine at the time, but now, all those years later, it has developed into something that brought all the different strands of Chardonnay together perfectly – ripe fruit richness, judicial use of oak, cleansing acidity and minerality. It had become a great wine and tasting it was a wonderful experience.

Wairau Valley vines.

So you see, Chardonnay is a great grape variety – indeed personally I think that New Zealand should enjoy a higher reputation for its Chardonnays than its Sauvignon Blancs – and Villa Maria makes wines that age brilliantly – even for a long time in the less than perfect conditions of my “cellar” – into something complex and extraordinary.

There are many things to enjoy about wine, the freshness, the fruit, the direct pleasure are all important, but sometimes the complexity of an aged wine is more beguiling and fascinating, while the shared pleasure of a rare wine can be a truly memorable experience.

 

Colli Berici – an exciting wine region in northern Italy

 

Colli Berici vines at the Pegoraro Estate.

I have recently returned from a trip to the Colli Berici and I was very impressed by what I experienced. It is a place that I had heard of, but had seldom tasted the wines that it produced, so I had almost no idea what to expect from the wines. This is especially so as the region seems to produce pretty much every style of wine there is.

Beautiful vineyards in the Colli Berici.

Located between Vicenza and Padua the Colli Berici are a series of limestone hills with red clay and volcanic, basalt soils. This variety together with the subtle differences in weather patterns – it tends to be pretty dry in the hills, but can vary – allows them to grow an impressive array of grape varieties in this tiny region. As you might expect, the best vineyard sites are on the south facing slopes of these hills and it it is the drier and warmer conditions there that make the Colli Berici such a good red wine region.

Wine map of northern Italy. The Colli Berici is in Veneto between Venice and Verona.

They grow a huge range of black grapes here, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot, Pinot Nero and Tai Rosso, the new(ish) name for a grape long believed by the locals to be indigenous, but now known to be Grenache!

The region also makes a wide array of white wines from many different grapes too, Chardonnay, Garganega, Manzoni Bianco, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon and Tai, the new(ish) name for Tocai in Veneto.

Dal Maso

The first winery that I visited here was real revelation. Dal Maso was founded in 1919 and is now run by Nicola, Silvia and Anna Dal Maso, the 4th generation to run the winery and make wine there. The family originally started making wine in the the Montebello area in the tiny neighbouring DOC / PDO of Gambellara, which is solely for white wine made from Garganega grapes – of Soave fame. Dal Maso still make wine there and I came to like the wines very much. They were surprisingly mineral and came across as really quite Chablis-like.

Like most of the producers around here, they also make some very attractive sparkling wine from the Durella grape that grows just to the north in the Monti Lessini area. This is usually made by the tank – or Charmat – method and to my mind generally has more focus than the ever popular Prosecco.

The beautiful winery at Dal Maso, photo courtesy of the winery.

Nowadays they have a beautifully appointed modern winery and tasting room built into a hillside and surrounded by vineyards. It was a fabulous place to get to grips with this region which was almost entirely new to me.

All the wines that I tasted at Dal Masso were very good quality, but the standout wines for me were these:

2016 Montemitorio Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Vinicola Dal Maso

100% Tai Rosso, the local name for Grenache of all things, from their own estate vineyards, de-stemmed and macerated on the skins for 7 days, fermented in stainless steel with regular punchdowns of the skins to keep the juice and skins in contact to help extraction of flavour and colour. The finished wine is aged for 12 months in cement and stainless steel tanks before blending.

The colour is a rich and enticing bright ruby.
The nose offers lovely fresh minty, floral, wild raspberry, plums and – strangely as there is no oak – some mocha notes.
The palate has lovely sweet rich red fruit, soft spices and bright, refreshing acidity making it really really juicy and vibrant. A lovely wine that seems bright and direct, but has plenty of sophistication and elegance too should you chose to think about it. Or you could just enjoy it’s many charms – 88/100 points.
This is a very food friendly wine and would be great with all sorts of food, but lamb would work especially well.

2015 Colpizzarda Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Vinicola Dal Maso

A selection of the best Tai Rosso fruit from the Colpizzarda estate. De-stemmed and macerated on the skins for 10 days, fermented in stainless steel with regular punchdowns of the skins to keep the juice and skins in contact to help extraction of flavour and colour. The finished wine is aged for 14 months in oak barrels.

The colour here shows both the quality and the oak ageing as it is an intense earthy ruby.
Great nose, pure and earthy with some vanilla and cream notes as well rich red fruit, a dusting of spice and coffee and cocoa notes.
The palate is very supple and gives a beautiful balance of richness and freshness with lovely acidity. Rich red fruit, together with some darker notes, attractive, integrated oak characters and a beautiful silky texture. This is elegant and very fine with good balance of freshness and richness great finesse – 92/100 points.

 

Tenuta Cicogna, Cavazza Estate

The setting for dinner at Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna.

Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna.

This is another family run estate that started out in the Gambellara region in 1928. They continue to make their white wines from Garganega grapes grown in the volcanic soils there, but in the 1980s they spread their wings and bought the beautiful Cicogna (stork) Estate in the Colli Berici where they farm their Cabernet Sauvignon, Tai Rosso and Carmenère grapes for their red wines.

Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna, note the red soils.

The estate has a beautiful house and cellar on it and sitting out surrounded by the vines on the Cicogna estate enjoying a tasting and then superb dinner was a wonderful experience and a perfect way to immerse oneself in the landscape.

Once again I was very impressed by the wines, but will just focus on the standouts:

2016 Bocara
DOC Gambellara Classico
Azienda Agricola Cavazza

Gambellara is a tiny DOC sandwiched between the Colli Berici and Soave. It only produces white wines and they are made from the Garganega grape that is used for Soave. Part of Soave is on volcanic soil and so is Gambellara. I have to be honest I had never had a Gambellara before this trip, but was very impressed by the wines.

This is grown on the original Bocara vineyard that the family bought back in 1928. It is regarded as one of their finest white wines, so is a top selection of fruit from the 40 year old vines in the vineyard. Bocara faces southwest and is a gentle slope at about 150 metres above sea level. The soil is volcanic with some layers of tuff / tuff, which is volcanic ash.

The grapes are fermented in stainless steel at 16˚ C and the finished wine is aged on the lees for 3 months. 

The nose is very giving and generous, with mineral notes – stony, steely, ash as well – orange blossom, camomile, almonds and a lovely lees, gently creamy quality too. The palate has a lovely combination of softness – creamy and fruity (apricot, nectarine, green plum) – with taut acidity and a slightly salty mineral core. A really beautiful wine that screams class. This would be wonderful with all manner of lighter dishes, but is also perfect with a selection of softer cheeses – 92/100 points.

I had recently come to the conclusion that Verdicchio might be Italy’s finest white grape, but this is right up there, so perhaps Verdicchio and Garganega are the jointly best white grapes of Italy? But then of course there is Fiano?

2013 Cabernet Cicogna
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Agricola Cavazza

Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown in the Veneto for around 200 years. It is thought to have been introduced at the time of French rule during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. This is a selection of the best Cabernet fruit from the Cicogna estate, handpicked and carefully sorted. The wine is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.

This is very concentrated with an opaque purple colour. The nose is aromatic, lifted and fragrant with bright fruit, rich cassis aromas, leafy, mental, herbal notes, cedar and a touch of pencil shavings.
The palate is concentrated, supple and soft, smooth, with wonderful rich blackcurrant and bramble fruit and smooth tannins. There is a delicate mocha character and a lovely paprika spice quality to it.
This is a deliciously vibrant Cabernet – 92/100 points.
It seems a little counter intuitive to drink Cabernet Sauvignon from Italy, but this wine could well win us all round. If you like Claret you would enjoy this, but the brightness also makes it a good alternative to New World Cabernets too.

Cantine dei Colli Berici

Some of the cooperative’s beautiful vineyards.

Cantine dei Colli Berici, winemaking on a huge scale.

Destemming at Cantine dei Colli Berici.

This impressive cooperative is part of the Collis group that also runs cooperative wineries in the Soave, Valpolicella and Prosecco areas as well as the less well known Arcole and Merlara areas, so 5 wineries in total.  It is always rewarding to visit a large cooperative as it is always far too easy to think of a wine region as just the sum of the boutique producers. Actually very often in Europe the wines people will actually drink from a place on a day to day basis are the cooperative wines and so they often constitute the engine for the region. This was a case in point. They operate on a huge scale, producing over 130 million bottles of wine – although most of it is sold without being bottled – and yet it produced some pretty decent wines, even at very cheap price points, less than a Euro a litre.

Andrea Palladio

The region is justly proud of the architect Andrea Palladio who was born in Padua, part of the Venetian Republic, in 1508 and have spent his entire career in the Vicenza / Treviso region. He created amazingly modern buildings that became the blueprint for grand houses for more than 200 years. His name and style is celebrated in the word Palladian used to describe buildings, like the White House, that were built according to his ideas.

Today the City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto is a World Heritage site that protects the Palladian villas in the region.

Villa Almerico Capra, “La Rotonda” in the Colli Berici just south of Vicenza.

Inama

Marco Inama showing me his new as yet unplanted vineyard, see the red soils.

The Oratorio di San Lorenzo in San Germano dei Berici is right next to Inama’s Carmenère vineyards and a picture of this church adorns the label of their superb Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carmenère Reserve.

Inama’s Carmenère vineyard next to the Oratorio di San Lorenzo.

Inama is really the only well known winery from this region, as far as the UK is concerned anyway. That reputation though is historically for their white wines from Soave, indeed they are a very fine Soave producer indeed. Azienda Agricola Inama was founded by Giuseppe Inama in 1965 and after great success with their white wines they began producing red wines in the Colli Berici made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère in 1997.

My first ever experience of tasting a wine from this area was Inama’s 2006 Carmenère Più, although in those days the wine was simply labelled as an IGT Veneto Rosso as Carmenère was not a permitted grape in the Colli Berici DOC until 2009. In fact the history of the grape is fascinating. Until phylloxera struck in the middle of the nineteenth century, Carmeère was a major Bordeaux grape, but afterwards it was not replanted in a serious way as it is such a late ripening grape. Luckily for us cuttings were taken to Chile, where it was wrongly identified as Merlot, and northern Italy. Here it was widely grown in the Veneto and Friuli, but was originally locally known as “Old Cabernet” and then in 1961 was incorrectly officially identified as Cabernet Franc. It remained Cabernet Franc until it was outed in the 1990s and officially became a permitted grape, indeed one of the speciality grapes, in 2009. It seems that Carmenère is hard to identify.

As expected, I was impressed by all the wines at Inama. We started with their straight Soave and then moved on to taste their entire range of red wines, Carmenère Più, Campo del Lago Merlot, Bradisismo and two vintages of their Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carmenère, which were the stand out wines for me were:

2013 Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carmenère Riserva
DOC Colli Berici Riserva
Azienda Agricola Inama

This wine is made from a selection of the best fruit from the vineyard in the photo above. It faces due south and acts as a sun trap, which must go some way to explaining why Carmenère  can thrive here. The grape alsmot fell out of use in Bordeaux because it takes so long to ripen. Even in Chile, where it has found a new home, it is hard to get right as it is the last grape to ripen even in the Chilean sun.

The grapes were left to dry a little on the vine, to increase concentration, before being handpicked and fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged in French oak barrels for 18 months, 50% new and 50% second use.

The colour is most attractive with a rich plum colour and a little earthy garnet look from the ageing.
The nose is very satisfying too, quite lifted blueberry, cedar, pepper and mocha notes while the palate is concentrated, smooth and silky with soft, rich fruit, slightly spicy and a savoury, earthy richness. There is also a lovely balancing freshness that makes the winery drinkable indeed and pulls all the parts together. A beautiful wine that carries its 15.5 very well indeed  – 92/100 points.

2007 Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carmenère Riserva
IGT Veneto Rosso
before 2009 Carmenère was not allowed in the DOC, so the wine could only labelled as an IGT
Azienda Agricola Inama

This older vintage was more bricky as you would expect and the nose had that meaty mature aroma together with more obvious pepper and vanilla.

The palate was wondrously silky with smooth tannins and that sweet dried fruit character just beginning to emerge. It was very stylish and still had lots of freshness and even some bright dark fruit – 91/100 points.

 

 

 

Pegoraro Estate

The Pegoraro Estate in Massano.

Arriving at the beautiful Pegoraro Estate.

The stunning terrace at the Pegoraro Estate, those lucky nuns.

This was a magical visit. They were all great, but this had something special. For a start we walked there along a wonderful trail in the commune of Massano, that crisscrosses a beautiful stream that powers 12 ancient water mills. Then when we arrived the winery was housed in a medieval nun’s rest home that dates from 1200 and it was the most astonishingly beautiful location and building. What’s more the wines were seriously good and the lunch was superb.

The Pegoraro family have been here since 1927 and they seem very proud of their land and the wines they create. Today Enrico runs the winery while his brother Alessandro is the winemaker. They are both very assured and passionate about what they do, although their father Pasquale is still around to give advice if needed. I really enjoyed the wines here. They were honest wines, immensely drinkable and not showy at all and I respect that. I greatly enjoyed their Tai (Tocai in the old days), their Cabernet (this blend of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc was served lightly chilled), but the wines that impressed me most were these:

2013 Pegoraro Tai Rosso Spumante
DOC Colli Berici Spumante
Pegoraro Societa Agricola Semplice

A traditional method sparkling wine made from Tai Rosso / Grenache. I had just tasted their Charmat (tank method) rosé sparkler also made from Tai Rosso grapes and it was very nice, but this was rather finer and more sophisticated. They claim to be the only winery to make this style and I certainly did not come across any others.

It is a pale rosé with zero dosage and aged for 36/40 months on the lees before disgorging.

The blood orange colour was most enticing, as was the nose of dried orange, apple strudel and cinder toffee.

The palate was delicious with dried orange flavours giving freshness and acidity, butterscotch giving the richness together with some bright red fruit showing the grape variety and then a lovely yeasty quality like a fresh panatone. The finish was very long and it had a mousse that was persistent and firm, with awn almost brittle feel – a dear friend of mine once rather wonderfully described a mousse on a Champagne as “brittle” and I have finally worked out what she meant. This is a terrific wine that makes a very classy aperitif or would go with any lighter dishes and I really regret not buying a bottle – 92/100 points.

2016 Pegoraro Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Pegoraro Societa Agricola Semplice

100% Tai Rosso fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks to preserve the freshness.

The colour was an attractive pale red, almost a rich rosé, but they were adamant that it was not a rosé, but a traditional style of red to the region. The nose balanced bright cherry and strawberry with a touch of spice and savoury, earthy notes and rose hips.

The palate gave bright cherry, strawberry and raspberry fruit flavours together with some spice, gentle tannins, lively cherry acidity and a nice touch of spice. A lovely, honest wine that goes beautifully as with just about anything and can be served chilled too – 89/100 points.

Piovene Porto Godi Estate

 

The family house at Piovene Porto Godi.

The ancient and atmospheric cellars at Piovene Porto Godi.

Yet another extraordinary experience. This estate has been owned by the Piovene Porto Godi family since 1500 and is exactly how you imagine a wealthy farm to have been in the past. The house and winery is walled all the way round like a small fortress and apart from the 220 hectares of land it also consists of landscaped gardens, a mansion and an extensive collection of outhouses, cellars and stables where the winemaking goes on. As well as grapes the estate grows cereal crops and olives too. Although the estate has made wine for centuries, it is the current generation who have become really ambitious for the place and produce bottled, rather than bulk, wine to a very high standard. To achieve this they have in recent years replanted much of the vineyard and revamped the winery too.

We were treated to a comprehensive tasting and these were my my stand out wines:

2016 Garganega Vigneto Riveselle
DOC Colli Berici
Societa Agricola Piovene Porto Godi Alessandro

I think this was the only Garganega that I tasted from the Colli Berici and it was fabulous. It is a limited production wine from the best fruit of a single vineyard – Riveselle – that is south facing on chalky soils at 70 metres above sea level. It was fermented in stainless steel and although I have not been told that it was aged on the less, I am sure that it was.

The nose pleased me straight away. It was peppery like olive oil and rocket / arugula. There was also something almond-like with some smoky notes (lees ageing?), something herbal and lemon rind too. I found the nose rather additive actually.

The peppery and herbal qualities come back on the palate too together with the camomile flavour that I associate with the grape variety. It was also gently creamy and lightly smoky with some dashes of orange and nectarine. It was juicy with a long finish, cleansing acidity and that peppery note all the way through.

A super wine that I kept coming back to and would enjoy with a cold buffet or a selection of soft cheeses – 92/100 points.

2015 Campigie Sauvignon
IGT Veneto
Societa Agricola Piovene Porto Godi Alessandro

This is a style that I enjoy greatly, but sadly most Brits do not – oaky Sauvignon.

The fruit is from the Campigie vineyard which is south facing with a chalky clay soil. The grapes are late harvested to concentrate the sugars and flavour and they are fermented in a mixture of stainless steel and oak barrels. The wines is also aged for 8 months in barrel.

The nose is a mixture of fat and restraint. The oaky richness is obvious but not dominating with as light, attractive resiny character.

The palate is round and smoky, but again not too oaky. The grape’s natural freshness, stony quality and blackcurrant flavours really come out together with something tropical like pineapple and a touch of creaminess.

The finish is very long and satisfying. I would love this with a tuna or swordfish steak – 91 /100 points.

2013 Thovara Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Societa Agricola Piovene Porto Godi Alessandro

A single vineyard Tai Rosso that is one of the top wines of the estate. Again the vineyard is south facing on chalky soils. The grapes were fermented in stainless steel and the wine was aged for 15 months in French oak tonneaux – each one contains 900 litres, the equivalent of 4 barriques or barrels. This larger oak vessel means the oak flavour is less overt, but oxygen still gets into the wine through the wood to soften it.

The nose was smokier, deeper and full of darker fruits than I normally expect from Grenache. There were touches of leather and coffee too.

The palate was joyfully supple with rich raspberry, plum and liquorice characters all viewing for attention together with light touches of mocha and exotic tagine spices. A fascinating wine that has a delicacy and freshness competing with rich fruit and 14% alcohol. I liked this wine a lot and found it very food friendly and drinkable, yet there was good complexity and tension – 92/100 points.

 

Colli Berici

For me it is always a joy tasting wines from new regions and it pains me every time I see consumers in supermarkets buying from such a narrow range of wines. I have thought about this a lot and it is a terrible thing that so many British people who drink wine have absolutely no idea what variety and excitement is out there if they just opened their minds and stopped drinking the same old thing. There is so much more to life than Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Rioja and Shiraz.

In fact it seems that the wine world is just full of exciting places where talented and passionate people are working hard to make wines that might just be your new favourite – if you ever get to taste them. I was thrilled by the wines that I found in the Colli Berici – and in neighbouring Gamberella – and wish they were better represented on the shelves of wine shops and supermarkets in the UK.

Wine of the Week – a Delicious Petit Verdot from South Africa

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I have become very keen on South African wine. The country delivers high quality and great value in my opinion and to continue with this gross generalisation, it also makes wines that are less definitively New World in style than the likes of Australia and California. There is always something drier and more savoury about South African than most other New World wines, and they also have more fruit than the traditional leaner and drier French wines.

Another wonderful thing about South African wine is that they use an eclectic palate of grape varieties and so produce an amazing array of wine styles. I would also add that it is a great wine producing country to visit from the UK as the time difference is only an hour, so there’s no chance of jet-lag, and the wine regions are so compact. Almost all South African wine is produced in the Western Cape and the majority of producers are within a couple of hours of Cape Town Airport. What’s more they are superbly geared up for wine tourism with restaurants and bars, as well as some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Anyway, I recently tasted some wines made by the KWV and I thought they were all pretty good. KWV wines were widely available when I first started in wine. Their Roodeberg blend, Pinotage and Steen (aka Chenin Blanc) were to be found in pretty much every wine shop, offered great value for money and were very popular.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

The KWV – Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Suid-Afrika – was originally created in 1918 as a wine producing cooperative. From the 1920s onwards it became an official organisation that regulated wine and brandy production in the Cape as an official arm of the government. After the introduction of democracy KWV became a private company and for a while the wines lost their way rather – however the brandies and fortified wines did not. For quite a few years I have been convinced that they are back on form with an impressive line up of wines. Recently I have tried quite a few of their wines and have been seriously impressed.

Wine map South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view.

Their 2016 Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc – available from Morrison’s for £8.50 – is from a cool coastal zone of South Africa (Walker Bay) and is crisp, elegant and very drinkable with lovely citrus freshness and something mineral about it too (88/100 points). Their 2016 Grenache Blanc – available from the Co-op for £7.99 – is a bit more me actually with a textured richness and herbal quality. It feels broad a soft where the Sauvignon is lean and fresh and it is a little creamy too making it a nice introduction to this delicious grape (87/100 points).

In particular though I have been impressed by their The Mentors range which are very good wines indeed. I have enjoyed quite a few from this range including the Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and The Orchestra Bordeaux Blend. However recently I tasted their Petit Verdot and I loved it, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

2014 KWV The Mentors Petit Verdot
W.O. Stellenbosch
South Africa

Petit Verdot is a Bordeaux grape variety, but is historically hard to ripen in France – which is how it got the name Little Green, as it could be under ripe with green tannins – so has been relegated to a blending role in Red Bordeaux. Many winemakers believe that a little Petit Verdot adds some elegance and class to a Claret, especially on the Left Bank. So, in order to fulfil the grape’s potential, it has been taken up by producers in hot countries, especially California, Spain, in Jumilla especially, and South Africa. All of these have a Mediterranean climate and that long hot summer help ripe the shy Petit Verdot to perfection.

This is basically a single vineyard wine grown in low vigour shale soils. The heat is tempered by the south-easterly winds, which slows the growing season down and ensures the grapes have a slow build up of sugars and a lot of flavour. The yields are very low too – 8 tons per hectare – which ensures good concentration and also helps the flavour profile. Added to that, this wine is made from a careful selection of the best fruit. There is a cold maceration to extract flavour and colour before the fermentation. It was fermented in stainless steel tanks with pump overs for good colour extraction and then sent to barrel – 60% new – where malolactic took place and the wine was aged for 18 months.

The wine has a dense, opaque black cherry colour that is bright and inviting.
The nose is rich with black cherry and plum together sith a dusting of tobacco, cocoa, pencil shavings and spice.
The palate is smooth, velvety, succulent, rounded and juicy with barrowloads of ripe dark fruit, red and black, giving lovely primary fruit sweetness, and there is a balancing fresh acidity and lovely fine grain tannins giving just a little edge to the wine.
The oak gives a spiciness while the ripe fruit makes it a hedonists delight. It still has its soft, juicy pupy fat but there is some good structure and complexity underneath all that primary pleasure and I would love to taste it again in 5 years or so – 93/100 points.
Frankly right now this wine will go with anything. It is even supple enough to be drunk on its own if that is your thing, but would be absolutely perfect with steaks and venison and roast beef.
Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Ocado, Slurp, SH Jones, Perold Wine Cellars & Amazon.

Fine White wines, Rosés and Sparklers from an Unexpected Corner of Italy

Beautiful vineyards and landscape of northern Piemonte.

In the last few years I have travelled extensively in Italy and have ben fortunate enough to explore a great many wine regions. Italy is a fascinating wine producing country and it’s not only full of world famous wines styles and grape varieties either. Everywhere you go there are constant surprises and new discoveries to be made.

I have travelled to Campania, Sicily, the Marche, Veneto, Friuli, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Trentino and the north of Piemonte, as well as the more famous regions of Tuscany and the south of Piemonte. In all of these places I have found wines that have really excited me.

All of these regions are full of wine, sometimes famous and often less well known. Even in the most prestigious regions such as Piemonte and Veneto you can find wines that have almost no presence on the export market and are appreciated almost solely at home.

Italy is most known for her red wines and Italians, like the Spanish, often hold white wine in very low esteem. I expect this view became fixed because Italy, like Spain, is on the whole a hot country in the summer when the grapes are growing. So in the past – before cold fermentation, modern knowhow and clean wineries – the white wines would have been somewhat ropey – especially when compared to the more full-flavoured red wines.

In my formative years Italy’s reputation for white wines – in the UK anyway – was based upon cheap Soave, Frascati, Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi and Orvieto. However good those wines can be now – and they can be very good indeed – in the 1970s and 1980s they were often less than interesting. Usually based on the high yielding and rather bland Trebbiano, rather than the more interesting grape varieties that had made these wines famous in the first place, they slowly fell out of favour when compared to the competition coming from elsewhere, especially the New World.

It is interesting to note that Frascati was the wine that gave birth to the phrase that a wine ‘didn’t travel well’ and so you should only drink it where it was made. Like most of these white wines it was not regularly bottled until after the Second World War, so until the late 1940s – often much later – it was served by the carafe straight from the barrel or demijohn.

A vineyard in northern Piemonte.

This allowed another Italian white wine to force its way onto export markets and to enjoy success – Gavi. Coming from Piemonte and made from the quite acidic Cortese grape, Gavi – certainly when I first tasted it in the 1980s – seemed more distinguished and refined than those other white wines from Italy at the time. Gavi continues being successful to this day and what helped Gavi create a name for itself is surely the timing. It emerged later than the likes of Frascati, when wineries were already using modern techniques of being ultra clean, using stainless steel fermentation tanks and fermenting at low temperatures. Much of Europe had to play catch up you see as the new world, with less wine making tradition, had often gone the high tech route from the start.

It might be the downward spiral of sales or the example of Gavi, but Italian white wines have fought back and are today in a quite different place from where they were just 20 years ago. Indeed I would say that the white wines of Italy are some of the most exciting you will find from anywhere. This story by the way is repeated in Spain, Portugal and even the less well know corners of France.

Many things have changed how the white wines of Italy taste, but the most important, apart from clean wineries and cold fermentations, are carefully sited vineyards to make sure the grapes do not bake – this retains acidity. Lower yields ensure more concentration and so more flavour, while later picking also gives more flavour – as long as the vines are in a good place to retain freshness and balance.

So I have tasted my way through astonishingly good Vermentino from Sardinia, Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi from the Marche, Lugana from Veneto and Lombardy, Soave from Veneto, Tai from the Colli Berici in Veneto, Fiano, Greco, Falanghina, Coda di Volpe and Caprettone from Campania, Carricante from Etna in Sicily as well as world class sparkling wines made by the Traditional Method from Trentino (Trento DOC), Lombardy (Franciacorta), Campania (Falanghina), Marche (Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi ), Lugana and Piemonte (Gavi and some Nebbiolo sparkling too).

Which brings me on to my theme for today, the white, rosé and sparkling wines of northern Piemonte.

Piemonte’s fame almost all rests on the wines produced south of Turin, which is a great shame as there are wonderful wines made to the north in more Alpine conditions. Most of these wine making areas are actually older than the likes of Barolo and Barbaresco in the south and were much more famous in the past. For many reasons – I wrote about them here – the modern wine revolution passed these places by and so they have had a much harder job getting their wines onto the world stage.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

I loved a wide array of the red wines from these fascinating outposts in northern Piemonte and wrote about them here, but the area produces some pretty exciting whites and sparkling wines too, most of them made from a grape variety that was totally new to me – Erbaluce (pronounced Urr-ba-luch-eh). Rather fascinatingly Nebbiolo also gets a look in for the rosé wines, both still and sparkling.

This intriguing grape is indigenous to Piemonte and doesn’t seem to grow anywhere else. The most ‘famous’ wine made from it is Caluso DOCG – often known as Erbaluce di Caluso – and they must be 100% Erbaluce, as must the whites of the nearby Canavese DOC, Coste della Sesia DOC and Colline Novaresi DOC. It is known as a high acid grape and certainly the best examples for me where the ones that retained refreshing acidity.

The wines

 

Tenuta Sella.

2014 Doranda
DOC Coste della Sesia

 

I was very taken by the wines at Tenuta Sella. It is a beautiful estate in Lessona, although they have vineyards in Bramaterra too – and has a long history going back to 1671 and have always been owned by the same family. Until the unification of Italy Piemonte and Sardinia constituted a single country called the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Sella family, which had married into the Mosca family, also owned Sella & Mosca one of the most prestigious wine estates in Sardinia.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce, grown in estate vineyards in Lessona and Bramaterra, both of which are DOCs for red wines only, which is why this is labelled as Coste della Sesia. Some vintages from a wider source of vineyards are labelled a DOC Piemonte.
I enjoyed this wine, it was aromatic, fresh and floral with a rich, pithy note too. The palate was quite rich and creamy because of skin contact and and lees ageing. It was nicely balanced with juicy grapefruit and more succulent peach flavours. A good introduction to Erbaluce but with less overt acidity than many – 89/100 points.

 

Vineyards at Tenute Sella.

2015 Majoli Rosato
DOC Coste della Sesia

 

This rosé is pure Nebbiolo and from 45 year old vines, old vines helps give depth and concentration to the wine. The vineyards are in the two ‘Cru’ appellations, Lessona (95%) and Bramaterra (5%), which is why the wine is labelled Coste della Sesia, as that is the wider area. The Bramaterra component is made by bleeding some juice off their red wine while it is fermenting. The Lessona component gets 36 hours cold soak pre fermentation to help extract flavours and complexity and is then direct pressed. The wine has malolactic fermentation and has a 6 month ageing on the lees in tank.
This has real Nebbiolo character on the nose, with earthy and rose petal notes, blood orange, cranberry and spice too. The palate is quite full, with some weight and intensity and texture – those lees? It is also very tasty with lots of rich red fruit, that twist of bitter orange, some spice and a good fresh acidity and minerality making it lively. This is a fine rosé and it would go with all manner of dishes from salads and fish to veal and pasta dishes – 92/100 points.

 

2015 (no vintage on the label as it is not a DOC or DOCG wine) Clementina Brut Rosato
Vino Spumante

 

This is 100% Nebbiolo from their estate vineyards in Bramaterra and it was my first sparkling Nebbiolo ever. It is made sparkling by the Charmat, or tank method  – known locally as the Martinotti Lungo method – in order to emphasis freshness and downplay Nebbiolo’s hard tannins.

 

The first thing that hits you about this wine is the beautiful colour. It is vibrant and a little orange as befitting a wine called Clementina! The nose is bright, scented, floral and fruity while the palate is fresh, lively, fruity – strawberry and cherry – and a little creamy too. A delicious and very unusual take on Nebbiolo – 90/100 points.

 

The view north from Nervi’s vineyards.

2015 Nervi Bianca
Vitivinicola Nervi
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

I loved visiting Nervi. They are one of the 2 main producers in Gattinara, a DOCG that should be much, much more famous than it is. Their wines were really impressive, they were very gracious hosts and their cellars were a joy to see.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce with modern handling, cold fermentation in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation and a little lees ageing. 
This was bright, fresh, zesty and pure with a little touch of miner laity, or salinity. A fresh, lively, modern dry white wine that is very appealing – 88/100 points.

 

The view south across Nervi’s vineyards.

2014 (no vintage on the label as it is not a DOC or DOCG wine) Jefferson 1787 Nebiule Rosato Brut Spumante
Vitivinicola Nervi
Vino Spumante di Qualità

 

A Traditional Method sparkling Nebbiolo this time. It is a pale rosé with 4 hours skin contact to give the colour, zero dosage (so very dry) and 9 months ageing on the lees. This was the last bottle left of the first vintage and the wine was proclaimed by Gambero Rosso to be the best sparkling wine in Italy! The DOCG Gattinara does nor permit sparkling wines, so it is simply labelled as Vino Spumante di Qualità.

 

The wine is named in honour of Thomas Jefferson who travelled extensively in Europe while serving as Minister (Ambassador) to France. He was a great wine lover who spent a lot of time and effort trying to grow vitas vinegar grapes at his Monticello estate in Virginia. He wrote glowingly of Nebbiolo, or Nebiule as it was then known, saying ‘there is a red wine of Nebiule which is very singular. It is about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate a Bordeaux and as brisk (sparkling) as Champagne’. Which just goes to show that Nebbiolo has changed beyond all recognition in a little over 200 years!

 

This is a lovely orangey, wild salmon colour with a touch of rose petal. The aromas are also rose petal with cherry and raspberry notes. The palate has a softness of ripe strawberry, cherry and raspberry together with thrilling, lively acidity and a fine mousse. There is also something very taut and lean about it, like Champagne, with a touch of minerality, something savoury and balsamic and a long, crisp finish. This is a very fine sparkling wine – 94/100 points.

 

Alberto Arlunno in his vineyards.

NV Mia Ida Brut Rosato
Vino Spumante

 

I loved visiting this family owned estate in Ghemme. Alberto Arlunno, who took over the running of the estate from his father in 1993, was a charming host and their wines were very good indeed – especially their Ghemme made from Nebbiolo, which was an area that I had only ever heard of before, not tasted.

 

This is a sparkling Nebbiolo, again made by the Charmat method and named after Alberto’s mother Ida.
Again the colour was spectacular, it looked like an Aperol Spritz! The aromas were fruity and lively with a little cherry and raspberry, while the palate had loads of flavour. Soft red fruit, raspberry and strawberry, mingled with blood orange and cherry, so giving a delicious richness and lovely bright, balancing acidity. A really nice, drinkable sparkling rosé – 89/100 points.

 

Masere and pergolas.

2015 Anima Erbaluce di Caluso
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

I was impressed by La Masera which is a new winery founded by a group of friends in 2005. Today they farm 5 hectares within the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG zone. They grow Barbera, Freisa, Vespolina, Neretto and Nebbiolo, but focus on Erbaluce in dry, sparkling and sweet, passito, styles. Their name comes from the Masere which are the thick stone walls between each vineyard.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce, grown in the rocky morainic hills of Canavese at 250 metres above sea level, hand harvested, cold fermented at 16˚C and aged 6 months on the lees in stainless steel tanks.
This was the first Erbaluce that made me really sit up and take notice. It is very modern and very bright. It has a very fresh nose that is slightly leesy with rich citrus, green apple and light floral notes.

 

The palate is bright, lively and fresh with brisk, lively acidity and lightly herbal, savoury and nutty. There is purity here, with a little saline on the finish.
Straightforward, but well made and very drinkable with thrilling acidity. A very nicely made and versatile dry white wine that would have broad appeal, especially with Sauvignon drinkers – 89/100 points.

2014 Macaria Erbaluce di Caluso
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Anima’s big brother, this is 100% Erbaluce macerated on the skins and part fermented in stainless steel and then half way through the ferment 70% of the wine is transferred to oak barrels. Lees stirring takes place on both components – the 70% in oak barrels and the 30% in stainless steel tanks – and it is aged for 7 months on the lees before blending.

The nose is attractive with nice herbal, oily creamy notes and a touch of olive oil and vanilla.

On the palate it has a good texture, that fresh lively acidity, savoury, herbal flavours, orange-like flavour and feel – like barrel aged Viura can have – together with a creamy quality. It has a long finish with apricot succulence making it an attractive and well balanced wine – 90/100 points.

The winery, vineyards and views at Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo.

2011 Masilé Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante

 

I liked their white wines, but my favourite wine from La Masera was this sparkling Erbaluce. Interestingly the grapes were grown on a traditional pergola system, which is finding favour once again after having been seen as old fashioned for many decades. Long seen as hard to ripen, pergolas might just be perfect with the sunnier conditions as a consequence of global warming. They also allow for good movement of air to keep the fruit cool and healthy.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce cold fermented and then aged on the lees in a mixture of barrels and tanks for 6 months, with lees stirring. It is then bottled and undergoes the Traditional Method to become sparkling. Once fizzy it is aged for a further 36 months on the lees before disgorging giving it 48 months on lees in total.

 

Complex stuff with a great nose of apricots, brioche, rich pear and sweet spice. The pear carries through to the palate, dollops of honey and ginger and cooked fruit and brioche, flakey pastry . The lovely rich style is tempered by the fresh acidity and the delicate, persistent mouse. A triumph – 91/100 points.

 

2015 La Rustia
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Another small producer, this estate has a much longer history having been founded n 1894. However at first it was a restaurant with wine being made just for the customers to drink with their food. Over time it was the wine that became famous and nowadays the Orsolani family focus almost solely on Erbaluce with a few black grapes too. They actually produce a Carema, which I assume is from bought in fruit as carom famously only has 2 producers, Ferrando and the Carema cooperative.

 

100%  Erbaluce grown on a pergola on south facing slopes at 350 metres above sea level, hand harvested and cold fermented and aged on the lees for 6 months.
This is aromatic and more steely and quite herbal and nettle-like in style. The palate has some softness and roundness that is attractive, while the acidity keeps it clean and fresh. Despite all the zing though it feels textured from lees ageing for 6 months. Again very drinkable and good, but a little richer in style – 90/100 points.

Vineyards in Ghemme.

2011 Cuvée Tradizione
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante Gran Riserva

 

Another ambitious and delicious Erbaluce sparkler made by the Traditional Method. Partly barrel fermented and partly tank fermented the wine is aged for 48 months on the lees before disgorging. There is no dosage, or added sugar, but there is 3 grams per litre of residual sugar.

 

A bright nose of seashore, bread, flakey pastry together with dried lemon and light apple notes.
The palate delivers a lovely balance between richness – honey, nuts, dried fruit – and lemon / apple freshness and there is some nice minerality too – 91/100 points.

 

2009 Cuvée Tradizione 1968
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante Gran Riserva

Gianluigi Orsolani is the winemaker at the family estate today, but it was his father Francesco who made the region’s first traditional method sparkling wine back in 1968. This wine is named for that first vintage and is aged on the lees for 60 months to give even more depth and complexity60 months on the lees. Again there is no dosage, just the sweetness of the ripe Erbaluce grapes.

A very intense and ripe wine with a lovely, lifted nose of pineapple cubes, toasted brioche, flakey pastry, nuts and caramel. The palate follows on with rich flavours of cooked orchard fruit – apple and peach – with more brioche, biscuit and nuts.  Full-flavoured and rich with a long finish – 92/100 points.

 

2012 Pietro Cassina Spumante Metodo Classico
Vitivinicola Pietro Cassina
Vino Spumante di Qualità

Pietro Cassina is a charming fellow who farms 6 hectares and makes lovely wines in a fabulous new winery in Lessona, another place that I had only heard of before this trip. As well as Nebbiolo, he grows some Erbaluce and makes this lovely traditional method sparkling wine from it. He ages it on the lees for 36 months. His reds are DOC Lessona or DOC Costa  della Sesia, neither of which permit sparkling wines, so his fizz is simply labelled as Vino Spumante di Qualità.

A lively gold colour with a rich, smoky, leesy, pastry, brioche nose. The palate is rich, biscuity and creamy with nutty and caramel flavours and a good cut of acidity. This is classy stuff indeed – 92/100 points.

 

2012 T
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Cieck are another impressive producer that is relatively new. It was originally founded, in 1985, to produce sparkling wines, but they have branched out and today they farm 16 hectares of vines, mainly Erbaluce, but grow Nebbiolo and Barbara too.

 

This special cuvée is a selection of fruit from Cieck’s Misobolo Vineyard. Harvested late, in November, with skin contact for 36, then cold fermented and finally aged in untoasted Slavonian (Croatian) oak tonneau of 1500 litres for 8-10 months.
This remarkable wine has and rich, intense nose of ripe greengage together with something tropical, herbaceous and it’s slightly mealy and nutty too as well as having a waft of jasmine about it.

 

The palate has great concentration, super acidity that cuts through the fatty texture giving tension and a mineral feel. A delicious and great wine with a very long finish – 93/100 points.

Walking through vineyards in Gattinara.

2011 San Giorgio Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

This was the original product of the estate and it is pretty good. The base wine is cold fermented and after the second fermentation in bottle – Traditional Method – the wine is aged for 36 months on the lees. 

 

Given the long lees ageing the nose is remarkably fresh and lively, with floral, jasmine and camomile too as well as biscuit, pastry and fresh naan bread.

 

The palate has lots of soft fruit and a cut of zesty acidity making it very balanced and refreshing too. A lovely aperitif wine – 88/100 points.

 

2010 Calliope Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Cieck’s most complex sparkler with some 35% of the base wine fermented in new oak barrels and aged on the lees for 9 months. This component is then blended with cold, stainless steel tank fermented wine and the second fermentation takes place after bottling – Traditional Method. After the second fermentation in bottle the  wine is aged for 36 months on the lees. 

 

This offers a really lovely nose of ripe citrus, lime, lemon together with richer leesy, pastry, biscuit and nutty notes.

 

The palate delivers rich cooked lemon, cooked apricot and apple together with more savoury spicy, wholemeal bread and pastry flavours. It has refreshing, brisk acidity and something that I have wondered about for a long time. A good friend of mine and perhaps the greatest taster that I have ever known once described a sparkling wine to me as having a ‘brittle mousse’. I have always struggled to understand the phrase, but liked it at the same time. I now understand what it means as this too has a brittle mousse. It feels like it will shatter in your mouth, which just makes the wine even more intriguing! Great stuff – 92/100 points.

Lake Viverone from Cellagrande.

 

2004 San Michele Brut Brut
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso – became DOCG in 2010

 

Set on the northern shore of Lake Viverone about as far north as you can get in the Caluso zone, Cellagrande farm a small estate and winemaker Fabrizio Ruzzon crafts their wines in the remains of a beautiful twelfth century convent. Only the church, bell tower and cellars remain and they are put to good use as the perfect place to age their sparkling wines.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce grown on south facing slopes dropping down to the north shore of Lake Viverone. Cold fermented then bottled and after the second fermentation the wine is aged on the lees for a minimum of 36 months, often much longer. This 2004 had only just been disgorged.

 

This was a deep golden colour with a wonderfully enticing nose of rich apples, apricots, pastry and spices. The palate was rich and creamy with cooked apples, a touch of pineapple, dry honey, caramel, biscuits and pastry all kept balanced by some lovely, bright, cleansing acidity. This is serious stuff and a real triumph – 93/100 points.

 

Vineyards in Ghemme.

Sweet Wines

Given how important sweet wines were in the past – they were the most sought after wines in ancient times and the middle ages because they kept whereas other wines did not – this may well be the oldest wine style from Piemonte. Sweet wines made from dried grapes, to get rid of water and so increase the proportion of sugar have been made all over the Mediterranean world since the beginning of civilisation.

 

2007 Alladium Passito
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso Passito

 

For this wine they select the best bunches of ripest Erbaluce fruit on the estate and then dry them in ventilated rooms on special racks. The dry conditions stop the grapes from going mouldy. After crushing the juice is fermented and the finished wine is aged for 3 years in oak barrels.
A light dessert wine with honey, orange, fig, orange peel and a touch of oak spice and tea on the nose. The palate is full and rounded with a soft viscous texture, caramelised orange, cooked apricot, a little treacle and cinder toffee. A very attractive wine, fresh and delightfully drinkable rather than complex – 88/100 points.

 

2009 Sulé Passito
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso Passito

 

This passito – a sweet wine made from dried grapes –  wine is fermented in oak barrels and then aged in those barrels on the lees for 3 more years.

 

A richer style with a caramel colour and aromas of creme brûlée, burnt sugar, caramelised orange, coffee and sweet spice. The palate is intense and figgy, almost like a an Australian Liqueur Muscat with buttery toffee, molasses, coffee, dried orange, caramel and cinnamon. It is viscous, silky and mouth-filling and has a long finish – 90/100 points.

 

I was very impressed with these white wines and sparklers from northern Piemonte. I went expecting to taste red wines made from Nebbiolo and although there were plenty of those that were very good indeed, I also enjoyed these whites and sparkling wines. Which just goes to show what an excellent wine region it is.

 

So you see, Italy can always surprise you, even astonish you, with wonderful whites and sparkling wines from places where you least expect them. This can be from regions that you have never heard of and grape varieties that you have never even heard mentioned before. Personally I think that is a good thing as it means the world of wine is even more exciting than we thought and it gives us even more good reasons to keep an open mind and and to try everything.

 

Try them if you get the chance and let us know what you thought of them.

Wine of the Week – Aussie Riesling personified

Larry Cherubino’s Panoo Vineyard in Porongurup.

As regular readers will know, I love Riesling. There is something so fascinating, mysterious and beguiling about this grape. It is hard to pin down. The flavours and aromas seem to come and go and to give you unformed sketches rather than fully formed pictures – much like Pinot Noir does for red wine.

I find Riesling to be very versatile – I will happily drink it on its own and it is equally good wth most light dishes as well as being perfect with Mediterranean dishes – it seems to really compliment olive oil and garlic. Riesling is also perfect with spicy cuisine – especially Thai, south east Asian and Keralan (southern Indian). What’s more the wine is usually quite low in alcohol – rarely more than 12% – so it never takes the same toll of my few remaining brain cells that a red wine does. Add to that the high acidity makes it not only clean and – hopefully – vibrant, but refreshing too.

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

Well, the other day I tasted a stunning Riesling from the Great Southern region of Western Australia that was delicious and hugely enjoyable. So much so in fact that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Larry Cherubino’s Riversdale North Vineyard in Frankland River.

2015 Robert Oatley Signature Series Riesling
Robert Oatley Vineyards
Great Southern
Western Australia

Robert Oatley was an amazing man who had many business interests and passions. He famously owned the racing yacht Wild Oats XI and created Hunter Valley’s Rosemount Estate in 1968, making him a true Australian wine pioneer. After he sold Rosemount, Robert and his family set up Robert Oatley Vineyards in 2009 by purchasing the old Craigmoor Estate, which was founded in 1858 and was the first winery in Mudgee. They are based there, but also farm and make wine from grapes grown in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia, the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley in Victoria and Pemberton, the Great Southern and Margaret River regions of Western Australia. They aim to show the diversity of Australian winemaking and all the wines that I have tried show that their quality is very high. Sadly Robert died last year, but the winery that bears his name lives on and from what I can see makes some very good wines.

We see quite a lot of wines from the Margaret River region in this sparsely populated state, but not much from the other wine making areas. The Great Southern and its sub zones is a pretty impressive wine region – the largest Geographical Indicator in the world at 150 km north to south and 100 km east to west – and seems to be producing some very high quality wines, especially Riesling, but also Cabernet, the Mediterranean grapes – Fiano, Tempranillo, Grenache, Mencia, Counoise and even a little Pinot Noir. Broadly speaking the climate is Mediterranean, although more continental as you move inland and this wine is made from fruit grown in the Porongurup, Frankland River and Mount Barker zones.

Larry Cherubino’s Riversdale South Vineyard in Frankland River.

The great Larry Cherubino is the chief winemaker for Robert Oatley wines. Larry produces his own wines too and his vineyards are all in Western Australia, especially the Great Southern and Margaret River.

The wine making for this wine is simple, as befits Riesling, leaving the fruit to speak for itself. Only free run juice is used, cold fermented with neutral yeast.

The wine has an alluring pale lime and silvery hue, while the nose is bright, but pure, stony and taut with a waft of lifted lime, dry honey and the merest hint of Riesling’s trademark kerosene – don’t let that put you off though, it’s lovely.

The palate sings with this cleansing feel of high, lime-drenched acidity making it feel pure, like a mountain spring. There is however an underlying richness and texture to the wine that balances that freshness beautifully. A real triumph with a long clean finish bursting with zesty lime flavours – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from the Cambridge Wine Merchants (currently 2014 vintage), The Halifax Wine Company (currently 2014 vintage), Hailsham Cellars (currently 2014 vintage), Wine Direct (currently 2014 vintage), Bon Coeur Fine Wines (currently 2013 vintage).