Alto Piemonte – Italy’s Hidden Treasure from Alpine Piemonte

The beautiful vineyards of Gattinara.

The dramatic vineyards of Gattinara.

When a wine lover thinks of Piemonte, or Piedmont, then the chances are that their very next thought is of Barolo. This small area of wine production south of Turin is capable of producing sublime red wines from the local Nebbiolo grape. They come at a price though. Barolo can be very expensive indeed and even the everyday examples are approaching £20 a bottle nowadays. That being said, those basic examples of Barolo are now generally much better than they used to be some ten or fifteen years ago.

Nearby the wines of Barbaresco, also made from Nebbiolo, can also be wonderful, and often much more charming than Barolo, but are often also very highly priced – and prized.

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

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

A glance at my map will show you the geography of Piemonte. Turin sits in an ampitheatre surrounded by the Alps that mark the frontiers to the south, west and north and so the flatter south eastern part of Piemonte is historically the most productive. Together the Langhe, where you will find Barolo and Barbaresco among other wines, and Monferrato, where many wines including Asti are produced, account for over 90% of Piemonte’s wine production.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas on Piemonte’s northern fringes, Alto Piemonte, were once very imporatnt. Many have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries, and could possibly be famous again.

I have recently returned from a fascinating trip to Piemonte, one that focussed solely on these more northerly and less well known wine areas. Not for us the well worn path to Barolo and Barbaresco and the rolling Langhe Hills. No, our little group of wine writers was whisked north of Turin to the very foot of the Alps. Here, over the course of several days, we visited vineyards and sampled the wines from twelve wine producing areas, only two of which were known to me beforehand. I even tasted a grape variety that I had never, ever heard of before – which is always an exciting experience.

Many different grape varieties are grown in Piemonte, but for the really famous reds, it is Nebbiolo that is considered to be the true aristocrat. Indeed together with Sangiovese it is traditionally regarded as one of the noble black grapes of Italy. The grape gets its name from the thick fogs – called Nebbia – that descend from the mountains in the late Autumn, just before harvest, and so causing ripening problems for this famously late ripening grape variety.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

Spanna – Nebbiolo in the North
Further north Nebbiolo is also widely grown, but in the past they often called the grape Spanna up there. Although it is Nebbiolo, it is a different clone of the grape and so gives subtly different results, a bit like Tempranillo and Tinto Fino. I remember seeing Spanna on wine labels in my very early days, but as far as I can see true Nebbiolo has either taken over in the areas where Spanna once ruled supreme, or is just treated as though it and Nebbiolo are completely the same. Certainly – again much as with Tinto Fino and Tempranillo – some growers told me that Spanna and Nebbiolo are identical, just different names for the same thing, while others were certain they were different. Whatever the case, I am sure that Nebbiolo is easier to sell than Spanna, just as Malbec is easier to sell than Cot and Tempranillo than Tino Fino.

Centuries ago this area was much more important than it is now, with the wines enjoying more fame than those of southern Piemonte, but all sorts of things changed that. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant high up 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. 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 couldn’t pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

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.

This was all new territory to me and it was tremendously exciting. We visited three districts, with Piemonte being the region. These districts had PDOs and also contained village level appellations – Crus in the same sense that Fleurie is a Cru of Beaujolais and Pouilly-Fuissé a Cru of Mâcon. The Italians producers themselves seem to only use the word Cru in the specific vineyard sense, as in the Grand Crus of Alsace.

Your author amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Your author making notes amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Coste delle Sesia
Our first visits were to the Coste delle Sesia. This DOC – or PDO – covers vineyards near the River Sesia in the Provinces of Vercelli and Biella. One white can be made from Erbaluce, a new grape for me, but from what I saw it was the reds that rule supreme here and these must contain at least 50% of Nebbiolo, Bonarda (Uva Rara), Vespolina, Croatina or Barbera.

I tasted a few excellent wines from this appellation, but the real excitement came from the examples that had a grape variety on the label too. I was very impressed by some of the Coste della Sesia Nebbiolo as well as the few examples of the deliciously spicy Coste della Sesia Vespolina that we got to try. As far as I can see, Vespolina is a very appealing grape that only grows arpound here and a little over the border in Lombardy.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, especially their Orbello red and Majoli rosé.
Pietro Cassina, especially his delicious Coste della Sesia Vespolina.
Travaglini, who really produce Gattinara, but who use their younger vines in an excellent Nebbiolo Coste della Sesia

The Communes of the Coste delle Sesia
Wholly contained within the Costa delle Sesia are three commune – or village – appellations, Cru if you like. Many of these had a very hard twentieth century and are desperately trying to come back from that near death experience. A mixture of Phyloxerra, follwed by mass migration to America and Argentina, wars, depressions and then the rise of the local textile industry – it was relief for the locals to earn a steady wage working in the textle factories after so much instability, so they lefy the land in droves – all took a toll and nearly killed off wine producing in these parts.

Climate wise the area benefits from being south facing, so good sun exposure and having a long growing season, just what Nebbiolo needs. There are also big night time temperature drops which helps retain acidity and finesse in the grapes, as does the cool air that descends from the Alps, tempering the summer heat.

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The beautiful vineyards at Tenute Sella.

Lessona DOC is a tiny PDO which only makes red wines and as far as I can see deserves to be better known. Fundamentally they are made from Nebbiolo – 85% minimum, but a little Vespolina and the wonderfully named Uva Rara is permitted. The wines must be aged before release for a minimum of 22 months, 12 in wood, usually big old 3000 litre wooden foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riserva wines are aged for at least  46 months, 30 of which are in wood.

Once upon a time the area had hundreds of hectares under vine. Now most of those have returned to forest and by the mid 1990s there were only 6.5 hectares of grapes left, but a modest rennaisence is underway and there are now somewhere around 23 hectares with a few new producers just getting started as well, which bodes well for the future.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, this producer’s top wines are all from this PDO. With a history going back to 1671, Sella has long been the commune’s beating heart and the wines are very impressive.
Pietro Cassina is a new producer, but his previous profession as an architect seems to have given him an eye for detail that ensures his wines are very good indeed.
La Badina, especially their Lessona Riserva 2010.

Massimo Clerico, my new favourite drinking buddy makes very good wines that age pretty well – his 2005 is perfectly mature.
Proprietà Sperino, an exciting producer created by Paolo De Marchi whose father founded the Isole & Olena estate in Chianti Classico.

Bramatera DOC is another miniscule PDO that makes good Nebbiolo – or Spanna – wines. Again they are oftem blends with a maximum of 30% Croatina, 20% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina.

The wines must be aged for a minimum of 22 months, 18 in wood, again normally foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riservas are aged for at least 34 months, 24 of which are in wood.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, I know it’s repetitive, but they make very good wines and have vineyards in three different PDO areas.

Looking down on gattinara from

Looking down on gattinara from the vineyards.

Gattinara DOCG is perhaps the most famous of all the PDOs in the northern part of Piemonte. Once upon a time it was more highly praised than Barolo. Indeed it was famous before Barolo had even decided to make the wines as we know them today. I saw old photographs which showed the hills to the north of Gattinara town to be completely covered in vineyards. This was only in 1906 – just four years before my aunt was born – but today just 60 hectares remain.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi - my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn't open one.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi – my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn’t open one.

In Gattinara it’s normal, and traditional, to soften the potentially hard edged Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 10% Uva Rara and 4% Vespolina. The wines have to be aged for at least 35 months, 24 of which are in wood. Riserva wines receive at least 47 months, of which 35 are in wood and sometimes a proprtion are aged in barrique – 225 litre barrels. Like a good few of the PDOs around here, Gattinara has some volcanic soils in the mix which can often boost acidity and produce elegant wines.

Our little group hard at work.

Our little group hard at work.

From what I experienced, the quality here is very high. I was hugely impressed by the wines that I tasted, they had real class, elegance, finesse, whatever you want to call it, but they were very good wines indeed.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi's vineyards.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi’s vineyards.

Recommended producers: Nervi, the oldest producer in the area is now under new ownership and appears to be in fine fettle. I loved their wines, which seemed to have the merest touch of modernity to them. The whole range was first rate including their standard Gattinara, but the Valferana and Molsino Cru wines from specific vineyard sites were maginificent – only a tiny proportion of the very best parcels of the Crus are bottled seperately, the rest is blended in to their Gattinara. I also greatly enjoyed their traditional method pink sparkling Nebbiolo called Jefferson 1787 and really regret not buying a bottle now.

It was particularly fascinating to taste the 2013 Molsino Cru from 4 different wooden vats, Austrian oak, Slavonian (Croatian) oak, Swiss oak and Vosges oak from Alsace. The same wine went into the 3000 litre wooden vats, but 4 entirely different wines came out, which got me seriously wondering about terroir! For me the Slavonian oak was the clear winner, as it really tamed Nebbiolo’s firm tannins.

Finally a decent sized bottle - being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder's great grand-daughter.

Finally a decent sized bottle – being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder’s great grand-daughter.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Travaglini is not quite as old as Nervi, it was founded in the 1920s, but is still run by the original family and appears to be more traditional and, I thought, sees itself as the keeper of the flame of Gattinara. Whether that is true or not, I loved their wines which are all produced from their own fruit grown on the slopes of Gattinara. Real passion came through into the glass and the whole range shone. The standard Gattinaras are very fine, while the Riserva really thrilled me. Travaglini chose not to bottle the Crus seperately, but to blend them all together as they believe that gives the best expression of the region.

I also fell for their white sparkling Nebbiolo. Named Nebolé Brut, they have only made one vintage so far, but it was voted best sparkling in Italy last year by a Sommelier’s association – not a bad start. The wine was pure and mineral and fine and sadly we drank the last bottle. I would also recommend the salami they make that is flavoured with their Gattinara, it is delicious.

Colline Novaresi
East of the Sesia River is the Colline Novaresi – Hills of Novara – which does a similar job to the Coste delle Sesia in the west. Again the white wines must be 100% Erbaluce with the reds made from a minimum of 50% Nebbiolo, Barbera, Vespolina, Croatina or Bonarda.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Villa Horta Vespolina and Abate di Cluny.

There are four commune PDOs here; Boca DOC, Sizzano DOC, Fara DOC and Ghemme DOCG. Sadly I only have experience of Ghemme, but the others are so tiny in terms of production that it would be very unusual to find them in the outside world, indeed, I didn’t even get to try them there!

Our little group in Ghemme.

Our little group in Ghemme.

Ghemme DOCG is yet another miniscule PDO of just 60-65 hectares. The wines must be at least 85% Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 15% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina. The standard wine must be aged for at least 34 months, 18 in wood, while the Riservas must be aged for at least 46 months, with 24 in wood.

At around 400 metres above sea level, the vineyards are the highest on this side of the Sesia River, while the soils are very mixed, but are not volcanic, so the wines can feel a little fatter than in Gattinara.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Ghemme and Collis Breclemæ Cru Ghemme.
Torraccia del Piantavigna, make a wide range of wines, but it their standard Ghemme that shone out for me, although their Gattinara was pretty good too.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

Carema DOC
Our last Nebbiolo visit was to Carema, a place I had heard of and I had even tried the wines, but never visited before. It is an astonishing place, right on the border with the Valle d’Aosta, that tiny Italian region sandwiched between France and Switzerland. We are truly Alpine here, indeeed the landscape reminded me of Switzerland’s vineyards to some degree.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

It only makes red wines in the DOC and they are made from pure Nebbiolo. Standard wines have to be aged for a minimum of 24 months before release, 24 of those in wood, while Riservas have to be aged for at least 36 months, again 12 in wood. These times have been seriously reduced recently, which I suspect has done the wines no end of good. I found the oak to be well integrated and the tannins very well controlled.

The place is extraordinary however you slice it. The vines grow at between 300 and 600 metres above sea level, making them amongst the highest in Europe. There are only 16 hectares grown – roughly 32 acres – and bear in mind that in my mid 1990s copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson MW states that there were then 60 hectares, then a lot have been lost very recently.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

What’s more, 14 of those 16 hectares are controlled by the excellent local cooperative, Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, which has 78 members, so each holding is miniscule as well as being almost perpendicular. The only other producer – yes only two companies make this wine – is Ferrando Vini.

In the past there were many more vineyards, but such back breaking work doesn’t appeal to younger generations, and hasn’t for decades, so people have left the area for an easier lifestyle. However I am willing to bet that the wines have never been better. I tasted the co-op’s Carema Classico, black label and their Riserva, white label, and I was seriously impressed. The wines were lighter perhaps than the other Nebbiolo wines that I tasted on the trip, but they were at least as complex as the Gattinaras and had great concentration of fruit as well as silky tannins. Like the wonderful wines of from Etna DOC in Sicily, I believe these are worthy of DOCG status.

Alpine Piemonte
All in all it was an excellent trip and really fascinating to discover a part of this hidden corner of Italy. The quality of the wines was very high and the passion and commitment of the producers was very clear. They struggle though, as they don’t have the simple clear message of success that their colleagues in the Langhe enjoy. In many ways, with the possible exception of Gattinara – which has a little fame, they have no clear message to make their wines accessable to the outside world. We had a round table conference about this and I tried to help. I came up with the phrase Alpine Piemonte, which I think does give a clear message, certainly more than Alto Piemonte. As long as you know what Piemonte is and know what Alpine is, then surely it’s clear? I would be willing to let them use the slogan for some fair renumeration, a holiday home in Carema perhaps?

Anyway, I urge you to try the wines, I think you will be surprised and excited by their quality and often by the value they represent as well. We visited a few other wine districts too and tasted some really interesting white and sparkling wines that I will write about another day.

Stockist information for the UK:
Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Ferrando Vini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Travaglini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Nervi are imported into the UK by
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

Stockist information for the US:
For Tenute Sella stockists click here.
For Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema stockists click here.
For Travaglini stockists click here.
For Nervi stockists click here.
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

Wine of the Week – a perfect Summer wine

Quinta de Azevedo - photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

Quinta de Azevedo – photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

If my itchy eyes and sneezing are anything to go by, then Summer is finally here – in the UK anyway. It has taken a long time, but finally we can feel warm and dry for more than one day at a time.

As a consequence my thoughts turn to lighter, fresher styles of wine to accompany the salads and fish that I start to cook in the warmer weather.

Recently I have been giving some very well received seminars on Portuguese wines – come along to one at Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival 10 June – where I show a wine that I have really enjoyed over many years and the recent vintages have become even better. It is a style of wine that people might not think of trying, but once they do, they seem to love it. It is always very popular at the seminars. I love it so much and it is so perfect on a Summer’s day, either on its own or with some fish, shellfish or a salad, that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Vinho Verde - click for a larger view

Map of Vinho Verde, Quinta de Azevedo is roughly midway between Barcelos and Braga – click for a larger view

2015 Quinta de Azevedo
Sogrape Vinhos
DOC / PDO Vinho Verde
Portugal

Vinho Verde is a terrific and underrated wine style and this is one of the best available. It is made by Sogrape who really made their reputation by taking this local style of wine, and introducing modern grape growing and squeaky clean wine making to it. At first the results must have been startling as before that Vinho Verde was traditionally made by farmers for their own consumption and that of their friends. Even now the landscape is very rural and beautiful with lots of old fashioned grape growing on pergola systems, some are even still trained higher up still in the trees. Sogrape were among the first to introduce modern training techniques which help achieve much better ripeness and so tames the high, often tart, acidity that this cold wet region used to achieve and was only tamed by keeping some sweetness in the wines. If your mental view of Vinho Verde is that they are old fashioned and a little sweet, then this wine will be a wonderful revelation to you.

Quinta de Azevedo - photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

Quinta de Azevedo – photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

Sogrape bought this beautiful historic manor house in 1982 and completely renovated the 40 hectare estate and winery. Today they farm in a sustainable manner, actually being organic in this wet landscape is really hard. One of the most exciting things about Portugal is the wonderful array of indigenous grapes and this wine is a blend of 5% Loureiro and 5% Pedernã / Arinto grapes – Loureiro is the most important and widely planted Vinho Verde grapes, while Arinto is another great Portuguese white grape that has wonderful acidity. By the way Sogrape also make the excellent Morgadio da Torre Alvarinho, which could also be a Wine of the Week.

The wine is pale and silvery lemon with an enticing orange blossom, floral aroma, together with ripe citrus notes, especially lemon. On the palate the wine is very light in body, but has lots of flavour. The overwhelming sensation is of freshness – if you like Sauvignon Blanc you will enjoy this – and there is merest hint of fizz, or petulance, that emphasises that freshness. There is plenty of refreshing acidity, but it is not tart and there is minerality as well, which adds to that feeling of purity and freshness – I swear there is even a touch of the sea, which adds to that bracing quality. There is plenty of ripe lemon, crisp green apple skin, light peach and melon on the palate, together with an attractive herbal quality and a long finish. A lovely, drinkable, refreshing and versatile wine with lots of flavour, but only 11% alcohol – 89/100 points.

Perfect as an aperitif in the garden, or try it with shellfish, fish, salads, soft cheeses, or even with Chinese and Thai cuisine.

Available in the UK at around £8-£10 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, Oddbins and Majestic.
For US stockists, click here.

There are many other Vinho Verdes available, but this example is really very well made and quite delicious.

California Syrah – a winning speciality

Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley - photo courtesy of the vineyard.

Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley – photo courtesy of the vineyard.

I do quite a lot of teaching at The West London Wine SchoolWine and Spirit education Trust / WSET Courses mainly, but every now and again we hold a tasting debate there. What happens is that we choose a grape variety or style to compare in a tasting and then each of the school’s tutors champion a country or region that produces that style. It’s all good fun and I suppose that we shouldn’t read too much into the results, but recently we had a tasting debate on Syrah and the results were extraordinary, so I thought I would tell you about the wines.

I had decided to champion the Americas, while colleagues had each opted for other places; Jimmy Smith chose South Africa, Cherie Agnew is from New Zealand and decided to showcase the increasingly exciting Syrahs from her homeland, while Shane Jones, our resident classicist, took on the job of presenting Syrahs from France.

Whilst thinking about what actual wines to show, I decided to concentrate on just one area. We had already debated Syrah once before and I had shown one from Chile that was very well received, the delicious Errazuriz Aconcagua Costa Syrah  (while the winning wine that previous time was also one of mine, the magnificent Syrah du Liban from Domaine des Tourelles in Lebanon),  so this time I chose to focus on the United States as I have tried quite a few really exciting American Syrahs of late. After a little contemplation both of my wines came from California.

The rules were pretty simple, we each had to present two wines, one per round, with the first one selling for under £20 and the second between £20 and £40.

I will just go off on a brief tangent about the name of the grape – Syrah. The grape originates in France and is called Syrah, as far as I can tell, no one knows why. We do know though that it does not come from Persia and has no link with the Persian city called Shiraz at all. Until the 1970s the Australians called the grape Hermitage – after the Syrah wine of the same name in France’s Rhône Valley. There appears to be no earthly reason why the Australians took to calling it Shiraz, none I can find anyway, so it is possible they just didn’t know how to pronounce Syrah, a strinization of Syrah if you will. Or it was a memory of a famous late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australian fortified wines band – fake Port if you like – called Shirazo. Such has been the success of Australian Shiraz though that many people like to call it Shiraz, wherever it grows. I stick to the original, unless the label specifically states Shiraz.

I will only tell you about my wines, because for the first time in the history of our debates one country won both rounds and had the biggest swing from unfavourable views before the tasting began to favourable views afterwards. That country was the United States. Both my wines came from California and they won both rounds of the tasting and the overall swing.

California map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine Map of California – click for a larger view.

California is of course much more famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay than anything else. Pinot Noir has become big in recent years, since the film Sideways and more importantly since Californian growers worked out which sites suit that fickle grape. Syrah though has been creeping up on the outside for quite a while. Although a little has been grown in the state for as long as the California wine trade has existed, it was the Rhône Ranger movement of the 1980s that really put California Syrah on the map and plantings developed at a great rate during the 1990s. Sadly the economic downturn from 2008 onwards, together with increased popularity of cheaper Australian Shiraz, caused sales of California Syrah to pretty well crash.

Its popularity seems to have peaked, but that means that a lot of the bulk production and vineyards in less suitable areas have now disappeared, leaving California Syrah largely in the hands of the real specialists. Growers who love the grape and grow it in the perfect locations to produce a distinctive style and wines of great quality. It was this that I wanted to illustrate with my two wines.

My first wine was one that I have admired for quite a long time:

Qupé Vineyards and Winery - photo courtesy of the winery.

Qupé Vineyards and Winery – photo courtesy of the winery.

qupe-central-coast-syrah2013 Qupé Syrah
AVA Central Coast
Qupé Vineyards
Los Olivos, California

Bob Lindquist created and runs the wonderful Qupé Vineyards and is a real Syrah specialist, perhaps the leading one in the state. Qupé – pronounced kyoo-pay – is the Chumash word for the California poppy. The Chumash people are native to California’s Central and Southern Coast areas.

Bob produces three different Syrahs, with this, his Central Coast Syrah, being his entry level wine, being a blend from different sites with the Central Coast region or AVA / American Viticultural Area. Don’t let that fool you though, it is very good indeed. Actually it is only 98% Syrah with some tiny dollops of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Tempranillo and it is a blend of vineyard sites too. 63% comes from cool areas in Santa Barbara County and Edna Valley, while the rest grows in the warmer, Mediterranean climate, Paso Robles area.

The wine is a blend from different vineyards:
42% comes from the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, originally planted by the last Spanish Governor of California in 1837.
35% from French Camp Vineyard in Paso Robles.
2% is from the Carriage Vineyard – which also has an inn – in Paso Robles
11% from the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in the Edna Valley, which has been biodynamic sine 2009.
4% grows in the Ibarra-Young Vineyard in the Los Olivos District AVA.
6% from Chabot Vineyard in Santa Barbara County.

Remember, apart from  Paso Robles these are cool areas, suitable for Pinot Noir, so the wine is subtle and savoury, despite its 18 months in French oak – neutral so the flavour does not dominate, just adds smoky spice.

The nose is lovely, generous and ripe, with bright, vivid black fruit together with a lighter, fresher note of cherry, as well as dry spice and black pepper. The palate is very smooth, mellow and round with velvety tannins and plenty of blackberry fruit as well as that lighter, fresher, cherry character. There is a touch of vanilla and smoky oak too, so the wine might repay a little bit of ageing or serving with a rich meal – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £17-£20 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company, Eton Vinters and others – click here for other stockists.
For US stockists, click here.

My second wine was from one of my favourite seats and winemakers from anywhere:

photo-vineyard

Joseph Swan Great Oak Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

Swan2008 Joseph Swan Great Oak Vineyard Syrah
AVA Russian River Valley
Joseph Swan Vineyards
Sonoma, California

Joseph Swan started making wines in the Russian River Valley in 1967. The estate is historic and before Swan was only owned by two generations of a single family from the early days of pioneer settlement right up to 1967. The house itself was surrounded by old Zinfandel vines and the estate continues to use these to make one of the very best examples of the grape. In the early 1970 under guidance from André Tchelistcheff  Swan decided to become a Pinot Noir specialist. Some local vineyards had historically grown some Pinot, but he was the first to really specialise in it and he was so successful that today there is a Joseph Swan clone of Pinot Noir. A couple of sites are a bit warmer though and lend themselves to Syrah instead. Swan produce two single vineyard Syrahs, Trenton Estate Vineyard and the Great Oak Vineyard. Joseph Swan retired in 1987 and passed the winery and estate over to his son in law Rod Berglund, who had worked with him for many years. I have met Rod and he is a charming, modest and fascinating winemaker, who puts all his success down to his vineyards – you can see a couple of short interviews I did with him here. Joseph Swan vineyards is a true artisan winery with a hands -off approach similar to classic winemaking in Burgundy and the Northern Rhône.

I cannot tell you how the wine was made I am afraid as the winery did not respond to any of my emails, but that doesn’t really matter. Suffice to say that it is was a real treat.

The nose is rich and savoury, with some pepper and smoke and earth and leather from the ageing – it is 2008. There is plenty of fruit though, blackberry, cherry and raspberry too, together with some mushroom notes. the palate was elegant and refined, not a blockbuster, but no wimp either. It was refined, silky and savoury, but still with a solid core of fruit. There are spices, herbs, leather, earth, mushroom, cherry, blackberry and yes, that brighter, lighter raspberry note too. The finish is wonderfully round and complete. A fine, fine wine that would go with all manner of meat and cheese dishes – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £30-£37 per bottle from The Secret Cellar and The Tasting Room, further stockist information available from Fields, Morris & Verdin.
For US stockists, click here.

Both of these wines are superb, as proven by the fact that they won their rounds of the tasting debate. Both of them really impressed the tasters and made the whole room feel very positive about California Syrah. So why don’t you try them? I think you will really enjoy the wines, they are subtle, fine and beautifully made. So the nest time you deserve a treat, give them a go and let us all know what you think.

Clairette – a surprising white grape from the Languedoc

Whilst in the Languedoc recently I was able to go on lots of study trips of the wine areas and also to attend quite a few masterclasses – in fact I have been thrilled this year to learn that the French, Croat and Slovene words for masterclass are, well, masterclass!

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The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

One of the best of these masterclasses was about a little known white wine called Clairette du Languedoc. The appellation / PDO was created in 1948, making it the oldest white wine PDO in the Languedoc. Only one grape is permitted, the Clairette or Clairette Blanche, which is really only found in the Rhône, Provence and Languedoc regions. It is a low acid, but high alcohol grape, so can make pretty flabby wines if you are not careful with it. It is widely grown in the Southern Rhône, where it is used as a blending grape, including in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The grape lends its name to the sweet sparkling Clairette de Die, despite only 25% of Clairette being allowed in the finished wine, the rest must be Muscat – originally it was 100% Clairette.

In the Languedoc two areas specialise in the grape Clairette de Bellegarde, in the far east of the region near the Rhône, and Clairette du Languedoc, just west of Montpellier. So troublesome was the grape that in the past it was often used as the basis of vermouth rather than being drunk on its own, and further back in history it was a sweet wine – the dry versions were apparently called Picardon and the sweet ones Clairette. Luckily though, as is so often the case, modern know-how has come to its rescue and in the Clairette du Languedoc zone a modest renaissance is underway. The sea is only 20 km away and sighting the vineyards to catch the sea breezes and the refreshing Tramontane wind is very important to retain freshness.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

The appellation is the smallest in the Languedoc with just 100 hectares of vineyard and 18 producers, 7 of which are cooperatives, but it produces four styles of wine all from the single grape. Fresh, dry whites are made, as well as sweet versions, long wood aged rancio wines and fortified Vins Doux Naturels. I tasted examples of all of these and truthfully found the sweet versions to be a bit light and lacking, which is a shame as there is more sweet wine made here than dry. The drier styles quite excited me though and I brought one back to show in a tasting and it excited everyone there too.

The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

Untitled2014 Domaine La Croix Chaptal Clairette Blanche 
Domaine La Croix Chaptal
AC / AOP Clairette du Languedoc
Languedoc
France

This delightful estate is owned by Charles-Walter Pacaud who hails from the Cognac region, but fell in love with Languedoc’s Terrasses du Larzac while studying winemaking in Montpellier. He managed to buy this estate which has a recorded history going back to the 10th century, but Gallo-Roman archeological finds in the vineyards suggest the land has been in use for a lot longer than that. Most of what he produces is either Coteaux du Languedoc, Languedoc or Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac, with just one hectare being Clairette, but they are old vines that give better concentration and they grow on well drained stony and gravelly soil.

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Charles-Walter Pacaud tending his vines – photo courtesy of the winery.

The grapes are harvested by hand, as required in the appellation, destined and spend a little time macerating on the skins for flavour and texture development. 30% is aged in new oak on the lees, with the rest aged in stainless steel tank on the lees for 18 months.

The aromas are quite beguiling, very mineral, herbal – especially fennel and vanilla – together with honey, almonds, peach skin and light toast. The palate is more fleshy with some burnt orange and a mouth-filling texture. there is even a very attractive touch of Fino sherry about it, just a point of oxidation that makes it quite delicious. The finish is very long and mineral and the more you come back to this wine the better it gets. A wonderful discovery, try it if you can – 91/100 points.

This would be wonderful with rich fish dishes, shellfish with garlic butter, fish pie, Coquilles Saint Jacques, chicken and all manner of cheeses too.

Sadly this excellent wine is not available in the UK, so contact the winery direct. I cannot find any other examples of the region available here either, so make sure you try it when you are over there.
For US stockists, click here.

Wine of the Week – a Proustian moment in the Languedoc

Vines on a hill side in Minervois-La Livinière.

Vines on a hillside in Minervois-La Livinière.

Recently I enjoyed a spectacular visit to the Languedoc region in France’s deep south and it was a great, immersive trip with many new and exciting experiences. I was able to try all sorts of fascinating wine styles that I will be sharing with over the coming weeks and months, but one wine in particular made me very happy.

For me it was a Proustian moment, or Prussian as my predictive text would like it to be, because I used to sell the wine that I was tasting. It was my best selling wine and I used to really love it and the memories came flooding back. In fact I enjoyed it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

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Domaine la Borie Blanche
Maison et Vignobles Lorgeril
AC / AOP Minervois-la Livivinière
Languedoc
France

Nicolas and Miren de Lorgeril own the amazing Château de Pennautier in Cabardès, in the Montagne Noire just to the north of Carcassonne. The spectacular Château dominates the village of Pennautier and has belonged to the Lorgeril family since 1620. I will write more about that estate another day, but in 1999 the Lorgerils bought another property in the neighbouring appellation of Minervois. This was perfect timing as the new ‘Cru’ appellation of Minervois-la Livivinière had just been created. This is a district within Minervois and is a counted as a Cru and considered to be a finer sub-district of Minervois. Indeed it was the first Cru in the Languedoc, or as they cheekily say ‘Le Premier Cru du Languedoc’.

This Cru appellation, or finer appellation, is only for red wines – Minervois itself can also be white – and covers the village of La Livinière, as well as five others nearby, Cesseras, Siran, Felines-Minervois, Azille and Azillanet. The rules are stricter than for ordinary Minervois, with lower yields, 45 hectoliters per hectare as compared to the 50 allowed for standard Minervois. The wines have to be aged for eight months longer than more basic Minervois and then every November, one year after harvest, there are tasting panels to select the wines that are allowed the coveted Minervois-la Livivinière appellation. There is a very high failure rate, with around 40% failing to make the grade. The upshot is that most producers here actually carry on making the more traditional Minervois with only a handful making the more ambitious and finer Minervois-la Livivinière wines. 

I tasted a good number of Minervois-la Livivinière wines and it seems to me that as a bunch they have more intensity than the straight Minervois, more focus and precision and have less jammy fruit, in fact they are less about the fruit. In short they have more finesse, more minerality and more complexity.

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Looking south over the rugged terrain of Minervois-la Livivinière.

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Little pockets of vines colonise parts of the hillsides.

The landscape here is remarkable, with the vineyards planted on the Petit Causse foothills of the south-facing Montagne Noire on the northern fringes of Minervois. It is a wild and ruggedly beautiful place with altitudes of around 120 to 400 metres above sea level. As you look around the place you find little pockets of vines growing wherever they can be accessed and worked, rather than a landscape covered in viticulture. The soils are limestone and schist in the main with those wild garrigues herbs growing where nothing else will. A borie, as in Domaine la Borie Blanche, is a stone shelter and you can find these all over the region and in Provence. 

The fermentation vats at Domaine la Borie Blanche - photo courtesy of the winery.

The fermentation vats at Domaine la Borie Blanche – photo courtesy of the winery.

The wine is a blend of 50% Syrah grown on schist – which gives the mineral backbone, 10% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre and another 20% Syrah which is fermented by carbonic maceration, which tames the bitterness and harshness that wines grown on schist can sometimes have. The fermentation is in big oak vats with regular pump overs and half the wine is then aged in barrel with half being aged in wooden vats.

The wine is a deep garnet colour with a nose of rich dried fruit, wild herbs, liquorice, truffle, pepper and ripe cherries. On the palate it is mouth filling, delicately smoky from the oak, with a dash of espresso and cocoa, with velvety tannins, fragrant herbs, rich black fruit and dried fruit too,  all making it wonderfully savoury and long. This is a seriously good and great value bottle of wine – 91/100 points.

This would be superb with almost any rich meaty fare, especially roast lamb I would think.

Available in the UK at around £11 per bottle from Majestic and Le Bon Vin.
For US stockists, click here.

If you cannot find this wine, then other superb Minervois-la Livivinière can be found if you shop around, for instance Waitrose stock an excellent one from Château Maris.