Happy Christmas to you all

2019 draws to a close and a new future for the United kingdom beckons, one that I feel no optimism for at all. We are promised ‘sunny uplands’ and a ‘new golden age’ outside of the EU. I do not believe these promises as they have no basis in logic and ignore the reasons why we joined in the first place, but desperately hope that I am wrong. It all makes me terribly sad for my country and fearful for the future.

In the meantime I will take solace in wine. In some ways 2019 has been a good year, Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page was voted Wine Blog of the Year and I managed to visit some fascinating places, meet many wonderful people and try some really good wines. There is a lot of good wine on the market, but sadly it isn’t always easy to buy the good stuff. You often have to wade through a sea of mediocrity to find it, which I suppose is my job!

Here are a few ideas for wines to enjoy over the holiday period and beyond, I hope that you like them:

Sparkling wines:

Arthur Metz’s vineyards in Alsace – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Crémant d’Alsace
Alsace
France

Non Champagne sparkling wine is so underrated in the UK – unless it’s Prosecco – which is very sad as there are some terrific fizzes made using the traditional method, the same process used to make Champagne sparkling. Some of them are really good value too, so they can be enjoyed everyday and not just saved for celebrations. Most wine regions in France produce good quality sparkling and call it Crémant. If you see that word on the label you know that it is made using the traditional method and, more importantly, aged on the lees, for at least 9 months, to develop complexity. We call this ageing ‘yeast autolysis’ and the biscuit, brioche, flaky pastry characters that it produces ‘autolytic’.

Wine Map of France – click for a larger view.

This wine, made by Arthur Metz (part of Grand Chais de France) is a blend of 63% Auxerrois (grown in Alsace and Luxembourg this is a similar grape to Pinot Blanc but has lower acid – they are often blended together and marketed as Pinot Blanc), 25% Pinot Gris, 8% Pinot Blanc and 4% Riesling. It is bright, fresh and fruity with some peach, apricot, apple and citrus notes and flavours as well as some almonds, spice and toasty characters. A softness, ripeness and creamy richness balances the freshness and makes it hugely enjoyable  – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK at £8.29 per bottle from Aldi.

Kleine Zalze Méthode Cap Classique Chardonnay-Pinot Noir Brut
Stellenbosch
South Africa

South Africa, specifically the Western cape, has a long tradition of making high quality sparkling wine. So much so that they have their own term for the traditional method, they call it the Méthode Cap Classique – or MCC for short. It is a blend of 60% Chardonnay grown in cool areas of Robertson and 40% Pinot Noir grown near the False Bay coast in Stellenbosch and aged for ten months on the lees.

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

There is a real sense of tension and elegance in this wine. There is lovely fruit, stone fruit, baked apple, crisp apple and even a little strawberry and raspberry peaking through. All this is enhanced by some biscuit and pastry notes a dollop of cream and balanced by refreshing, zingy acidity and a brisk mousse  – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £16.00 per bottle from Cheers Wine Merchants, Amps Wine Merchants and Ministry of Drinks.

White wines:

Wine map of Slovenia – click for a larger view.

2018 Tilia Estate Pinot Gris
Vipava Valley
Slovenia

Almost anyone who knows me would say that I really do not like Pinot Gris. I find most Pinot Grigio to be on the bland side and the great majority of Alsace Pinot Gris to be lacking in freshness, so by and large avoid the grape. This version though is made by my good friend Matjaž Lemut in the beautiful Vipava Valley in western Slovenia and I love it.

Matjaž Lemut in his vineyards in the Vipava Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler © Quentin Sadler 2019

 

Matjaž is a great winemaker, a great character and a real force of nature and this wine could be considered his calling card. Lees ageing and stirring for four months gives the wine a creamy richness and complexity that can be surprising. The wine has lovely brightness and freshness too and so the overall effect is to be really well balanced and very, very drinkable indeed  –  91/100 points.

A delicious, mid weight, versatile wine that is lovely on its own and very good with a wide array of food, even creamy dishes.

Available in the UK at £10.50 per bottle from Solaris Wines.

Matjaž is really a Pinot Noir specialist, one of the very best in Slovenia, and Solaris Wines carry the whole range. They are quite a muscular style with rich fruit, but really good wines.

2018 La Penombre Blanc
IGP/Vin de Pays d’Oc
France

I love the whites from the Languedoc-Roussillon-Roussillon region, but they often get overlooked in favour of the reds. Good as the reds from here are, I think the whites deserve far more attention and respect – after all they are often made from some very exciting grape varieties. This blend is no exception and consists of 40% Grenache Blanc with some Terret, Bourett, Vermintino, Rousanne and Marsanne. It is picked in the early evening, hence the name La Penombre, which means twilight, and is unoaked.

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

The wine is very fresh, with a sense of purity about it – it is actually made in Pinet, just not from Picpoul – there are pine, herb and lemon scents with a dry, savoury, herbal (rosemary) salty and gently apricot flavours on the palate together with a silky texture and a touch of salinity and minerality as well as a slight bitter nutty quality on the finish  – 90/100 points.

A perfect aperitif and equally good with seafood and lighter fish dishes – I enjoyed it with smoked salmon and potted .

Available in the UK at £11.99 per bottle from Virgin Wines.

Vineyards in Valais showing the amazing dry stone walls, some of the highest in the world.

2012 Petite Arvine
Domaine Jean Rene Germanier
Valais, Switzerland

A family estate since 1896 and now managed by the third and fourth generation – Jean-René Germanier and his nephew, Gilles Besse. Gilles was originally a jazz saxophonist, but is also a trained wine maker. Germanier farm sustainably and produce a range of beautifully made, elegant wines. Petite Arvine is one of my favourite white grapes and it is only grown in south west Switzerland and a little bit over the border in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta region.

Wine map of Switzerland – click for a larger view. Do not use without permission.

I love the way the brightness and richness mingle on the palate. The way the stone fruit and the citrus fruit balance each other, how the salty minerality keeps the richness in check and the way the silky texture flows across the palate. This wine is superb and totally beguiling in its beauty – 94/100 points.

This is wonderful with poultry, salmon and of course cheese, whether raw or served in a fondue.

Available in the UK at £35.00 per bottle from Alpine Wines.

Red wines:

The wonderful walled city of Carcassonne – rescued form oblivion and restored on orders of Napoleon III – photo by Quentin Sadler © Quentin Sadler 2019.

2018 Carcassonne
IGP/Vin de Pays Cité de Carcassonne
France

I know almost nothing about this wine except that it comes from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region from vineyards just to the south of the glorious medieval walled city of Carcassonne. The wines from this inland part of the Languedoc-Roussillon often get overlooked, Cabardés is near by and is a source of seriously good reds but we hardly ever see the wines in the UK – there is one here, but on this showing they really shouldn’t be. Apparently it is made from Carignan grapes and seems unoaked to me.

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

This wine triumphs in two way, firstly it is astonishingly smooth, suave even and the palate is so fruity that it delivers a huge amount of pleasure making it incredibly easy to drink. It’s fresh and fleshy and medium-bodies with lots of red fruit and supple texture with very little tannin.  There’s a touch of spice too and it is far, far finer than its modest price tag would lead you to expect. All in all it makes a splendid every day wine  – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK at £4.49 per bottle from Aldi.

Here’s one that I have written about before, but is is such a beautiful wine that would go so well with all sorts of food at Christmas that it deserves another airing!

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

2017 Casa Silva Romano Viñedo Original 
DO  Valle de Colchagua
Viña Casa Silva
Chile

Casa Silva is one of the great wine estates of the Colchagua Valley. They were originally a French family of grape growers who came to Chile in 1892 and have been growing grapes there ever since. However the family vineyards became divided up with multiple owners and it was not until the 1970s that Mario Silva pieced the estate together again and they have been bottling and labelling their own wines since 1997. They are based in Angostura where their beautiful original homestead is now a hotel and well worth a visit. The land around the house is their initial plantings with vineyards going back to 1912. This is where they have some fabulous speciality grapes including old vine Carmenère, Sauvignon Gris and this Romano. All of these are ungrafted, so grow on their own roots. This helps the vines to live longer and old vines produce smaller crops and smaller berries that have more concentrated flavours. Old vines also ripen with less sugar, so produce wines with lower alcohol, which makes for better balance and more elegance.

This is made from an obscure grape called Romano, more usually called César. There isn’t much César left in the world and most of that grows northwest of Dijon in Burgundy, where it is principally used to make up to 10% of the blend, together with Pinot Noir, in the wines of Irancy.

Vines at Casa Silva.

The harvest was done by hand with a further manual selection of grapes at the sorting table before the grapes were de-stemmed – stalks can give harsh tannins. There is a pre-fermentation cold soak, a cold fermentation in stainless steel followed by a further maceration on the skins. Half the wine was aged in stainless steel and half in second use French oak barrels. This older oak means that the wine is not overly oaky in taste, but has the softening that ageing in barrels gives as the oxygen gets to the wine through the wood, making it rounder and richer.

The wine looks very appealing with a deep and bright ruby colour. The nose is full of rich red fruits like strawberry, cherry, a hint of raspberry, black pepper and a delicate mushroomy/earthy savoury note. The palate is smooth, round and mouth filling with rich ripe red fruit, smooth, supple tannins and some lovely freshness too. There is plenty of beautiful, concentrated fruit, but good structure and that attractive earthy, savoury quality. This will appeal to Pinot Noir drinkers – and Syrah and Grenache drinkers too – in my opinion, as well as anyone who wants a really flavourful, suave and supple red wine that is full-flavoured and medium bodied. It really is a gorgeous wine – 93/100 points

This is a very versatile wine too. It is mellow enough to be enjoyable without food, has enough freshness to go with pizzas and pastas, has enough elegance and structure to partner haute cuisine and enough richness to go with cheese and enough pizzazz to go with burgers, chilli con carne or shepherd’s pie and to keep everyone happy. Great with turkey, either hot or cold, and lovely with a pork or game pie too.

Available in the UK at around £15.00 per bottle from Duncan Murray Fine Wines – Market Harborough, Staintons – Lake District, Guildford Wine CoBottle Shops – Cardiff, Penarth, Field & Fawcett – York, Naked Grape – Alresford, Hants, Palmers Wine Store – Dorset, The Vineking – Reigate, East Molesey, Weybridge and the Oxford Wine Company.

2016 Caliterra Edición Limitada ‘B’
DO Valle de Colchagua
Caliterra
Chile

Under the leadership of chief winemaker Rodrigo Zamorano, Caliterra has developed into one of the most exciting wineries in Colchagua – if not Chile. They produce excellent, actually downright delicious, and great value examples of all the famous varietals, but Rodrigo loves to play around with the grapes that he grows and is producing an ever evolving range of premium wines that have something new and exciting to say. At the heart of this range is the three Edición Limitada wines – ‘A’ is for Andean and is a blend of Malbec and Carmenère, ‘M’ is for Mediterranean and the wine is a blend of Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Marsanne, while ‘B’ is for Bordeaux, so this wine is a blend of 41% Petit Verdot, 38% Cabernet Franc and 21% Cabernet Sauvignon. 62% was fermented in stainless steel tanks and 38% in third use barrels. The wine was aged for 18 months in French and American oak barrels – 48% new.

Rodrigo Zamorano in the vineyards at Caliterra – photo courtesy of the winery.

This is a beautiful and very different wine from the Casa Silva Romano. This is powerful and weighty with great concentration of vibrant, lifted fruit. It’s very aromatic and very restrained and elegant, despite the richness. There are herbal and tobacco aromas as well as some black pepper and cassis, blueberry and cherry fruit. Headily delicious now this will age very well over the next decade. This will appeal to Claret lovers, but also has more fruit than most wines from Bordeaux – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £16.00 per bottle from Drink Finder, Edencroft Fine Wines and The Dorset Wine Company.

So there you are, a few recommendations to seek out and try, I think you will enjoy them.

Whatever you are drinking this Christmas, try and keep it interesting and celebrate the great diversity of wine.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

Gosset – perfect Champagne for Christmas

Some of the vineyards near Aÿ that supply Gosset with grapes – photo by Quentin Sadler.

 

At this time of year my thoughts turn to festive fare, especially wine and the stuff that I like to drink at Christmas above all else, because it goes with everything and nothing, is Champagne.

Well as it happens I visited one of the greatest Champagne houses of all the other week and thought that I would share some thoughts about them with you.

The Champagne house is Gosset, which is famous for producing a relatively small amount of Champagne, but of impeccably high quality. They were founded in the beautiful Village of Aÿ in 1584 and claim to be the oldest wine house in the Champagne region. Ruinart actually started making Champagne before they did, but Gosset are older.

Jean-Pierre Cointreau, President and CEO of Champagne Gosset – photo courtesy of Louis Latour Agencies.

 

I have loved what Gosset do for decades, so was delighted to visit and see it all for myself. I have to say that I was not disappointed by anything. The house remained pretty small and still owned by the Gosset family right up until 1993 when they sold it to the Renaud-Cointreau family who own the enormously respected Frapin Cognac house – of which more another day. The new owners were only too aware of what they were buying so wanted to expand production but also retain the ethos, quality and style that had made Gosset’s wines so sought after.

Gosset’s lovely new headquarters building in Epernay – photo courtesy of Louis Latour Agencies.

 

To ensure the expansion worked well they needed more cellar space and so, in 2009, bought a winery and cellars in Epernay, while retaining the original – actually nineteenth century – cellars in nearby Aÿ. This purchase has more than doubled their cellar capacity, which is very important when you consider that every bottle that you sell needs to be replaced by five other bottles. This is because of the long time the wine has to be aged in the bottle. So you can see that expansion is an expensive and space consuming business.

Of course all great wine, whatever style it ends up, is born in the vineyard. Gosset only own a tiny amount of vineyards, but – as is normal in the region – they have long term relationships with many growers whose vineyards they favour. Many of these relationships go back many generations and allow the Gosset winemaking and viticultural teams to control what goes on in the vineyards.

Something that I admire about Gosset is their creative inconsistency. Most Champagne houses construct a range and stick to that vintage after vintage. Gosset seem quite happy to create an astonishing wine, like their Blanc de Noirs made from Pinot Noir, and then only release it once. It means their range is more like the playlist of a great band than a static list. The absolute classics are there but there might well be some real surprises from time to time too.

Odilon de Varine is the head of winemaking at Gosset and as such is the keeper of the style for the house. He is a passionate winemaker who is both creative and has reverence for the wines that came before him – photo by Quentin Sadler © Quentin Sadler 2019

 

Their range is varied, but something, some character, some feel seems to hold them together. This essence, or Gosset-ness, is a sense of purity with minerality and salinity. The Chef de Cave and winemaker, Odilon de Varine, is a charming, amusing and modest man who seems to have Champagne running through his veins, indeed he worked at Deutz for many years and his father was Veuve Cliquot’s vineyard manager. Odilon’s words seemed to echo his Champagnes perfectly as he told me that he likes to capture the minerality in his wines and kept talking about the salinity that is there in all his cuvées. They do no malolactic fermentation (or malolactic conversion as I see we are now supposed to call it) and keep to a low dosage of 8 grams per litre for their Brut wines. All this helps to preserve that bracing, pure acidity, minerality and salinity in the wines. Don’t misunderstand me though, these are not austere wines. That bracing quality is balanced with a generosity in mouthfeel, fruit and structure.

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

 

I have loved all the Gosset Champagnes that I have tasted, but here is a selection that particularly excited me on my recent trip:

Gosset Grande Réserve Brut
AC/PDO Champagne

This is the signature non-vintage cuvée from Gosset, but that is the only standard thing about it. It is a very carefully built blend, Odilon kept saying how he ‘built’ a blend, that has great depth, enticing richness, but also that purity that keeps it light as air. This by the way is all at the same time, so there is real tension here. The blend is 45% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier (sometimes just called Meunier) and 10% Pinot Noir.

The colour is a lovely pale gold that shows its 36 months ageing on the lees. The nose is lifted with some honey, green apple, lemon peel and jasmine, while the palate is by turns delicately creamy, bracingly crisp and subtly autolytic with subtle pastry, nut and biscuit flavours from the lees ageing. All the while there is a tinge of fruit compote including apple, peach, plum and even some cherry. All that tension really informs the palate, with all the flavours and sensations contradicting each other, but coming together to make a whole wine.

This might be their basic cuvée, but it’s a great wine and a wonderful Christmas treat that makes a sumptuous aperitif or will go with many dishes including a classic Christmas dinner – 93/100 points.

An impeccable all round Champagne – a stylish aperitif that can partner anything, even Chinese and Thai food.

Widely available in the UK at around £50.00 per bottle including from Hennings, The Whisky Exchange, Fortunum & Mason, Amazon, Lea & Sandeman and many more.

Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut
AC/PDO Champagne

Pure Chardonnay from some great vineyard sites, including the Crus of Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Villers-Marmery and Trépail. A lower dosage of just 6 grams per litre helps keep the purity of the style. For Odilon a Blanc de Blancs is the quintessence of Champagne minerality and should deliver a chalky, mineral and playful wine.

A paler creamier magnolia colour with a more austere character of crisp lemon, green apple and taut white peach notes together with a dash of oyster shell and a niggle of toast. The palate offers lots of nectarine and apricot fruit balanced by a nervy, chalky minerality and some salinity as well as a light touch of shortbread and even some lemon drizzle cake and a smoky, mineral feel to the long finish.

A very elegant, refined and beguiling Bland de Blancs – 94/100 points.

Light and elegant, this is perfect with seafood like oysters, prawns and scallops as well as delicate fish like sea bass.

Widely available in the UK at around £60.00 per bottle including from Fortunum & Mason, The Whisky Exchange, Champagne Direct, Berry Bros, Mr Wheeler and many more.

More of Gosset’s vineyards – photo by Quentin Sadler.

 

Gosset Grande Rosé Brut
AC/PDO Champagne

Odilon likes to make his rosés by blending, because he reckons that you cannot build the blend and the complexity the same way if the colour comes from skin contact. Therefore this is made from 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, but of that Pinot component, 8% was still red wine from the best named wine village in the world, Bouzy in the Montagne de Reims.

A lovely coral or salmon colour, the nose is fresh and vibrant with lively, lifted strawberry notes, some red cherry and the merest hint of biscuit. The palate has beautiful strawberry fruit, fresh and dried too, there is some creaminess, some cinnamon and some ripe stone fruit like peaches and nectarines. The acidity is bright and the wine is held together by that hall-mark minerality and salinity.

A beautifully hedonistic wine that is also very elegant – 93/100 points.

Rosé Champagne is brilliant as an aperitif and with lighter and spicy dishes as well as smoked salmon and other seafood.

Widely available in the UK at around £50.00 per bottle including from Hennings, Berry Bros, Davy’s, Averys and many more.

 

Gosset 2012 Grand Millésime Brut
AC/PDO Champagne

Youthful by Gosset standards as the previous vintage release was 2006 but this is non the worse for being relatively fresh. The fruit is all from the exceptional 2012 harvest and the wine is a blend of 67% Chardonnay and 33% Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay comes from the Crus (villages) of Avize, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Trépail and Ambonnay, while the Pinot Noir comes from Verzy, Mailly, Ambonnay and Aÿ, Gosset’s traditional home. The wine is aged for 5 years on the lees and the dosage is 8 grams per litre.

From a generous vintage and with long ageing, this wine has more richness and more concentration. This shows in the nose as apples and pears and peach with wafts of spice, curds, acacia, honey and brioche. The palate is luxurious with peach and lemon coulis, taste au citron, pastry, gingerbread, some creaminess, that brisk acidity and a nibbling salinity that balances all the richness – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £60.00 per bottle including from Hedonism, Millesima, Vinatis, and many more.

A richer style like this partners all sorts of dishes really well, white meat as well as fish and is lovely with cheese.

You can still find the richer 2006 around – click here -. It has more Pinot Noir and even longer lees ageing and is a very different style, but magnificent and beautifully balanced.

Gosset Celebris 2007 Extra Brut
AC/PDO Champagne

Celebris is the Gosset Cuvée de Prestige, created in 1993 to show the purity of their style. They don’t make much and they don’t make it often but it is always one of the greatest Champagne Cuvées. The blend is 57% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs Crus of Vertus, Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Verzy and Trépail in the Montagne des Reims. 43% is Pinot Noirs from the Montagne des Reims Crus of Aÿ, Bouzy and Ambonnay and from Cumières, Avenay in the Vallée de la Marne. The wine has a dosage of just 3 grams per litre and is aged on the lees for 10 years before release.

Incredibly concentrated aromas of toasted almonds, pithy lemon, green apple, yeasty, flaky pastry notes and even a touch of spice. The palate delivers preserved lemon, freshly baked bread, almonds, coconut – almost Peshwari naan flavours – jasmine, green tea, pithy lemon, grapefruit, softer peach and pure, taut minerality a touch of salinity and toasted Panettone. This is a beguiling wine with so much going on, so many exciting contradictions. It is so complex, so finely drawn but yes so delicious to drink too – 96/100 points.

Perfect with slightly richer food from grilled Dover Sole to fish pie to lighter meat dishes – great with a cheeseboard too.

Available in the UK at around £120.00 per bottle including from Winebuyers.com, The Whisky Exchange, Millesima, Vinatis, Cru World Wine, Amazon, Hedonism and many more.

If you are looking for something extra special to help Christmas go with a bang then you need not look any further than Gosset. Their wines are always impressive, alway fascinating, complex and detailed, but are always full of joy and give high amounts of pleasure too. Actually they are downright delicious and everyone should try these superb Champagnes at least once if they can.

By the way, please don’t just regard Champagne as something to drink for a celebration. Champagne is a very versatile wine style. It makes the perfect aperitif, or drink at any time, and goes with all sorts of foods

Some beautiful olive oils

Recently I was sent some olive oils to taste and I must say that I found the experience really interesting. I do not know a huge amount about olive oil, but it is a fascinating subject and has much in common with wine – and chocolate, coffee, tea and I expect many other things that make life better.

The similarities of course are that olive oil, like wine, is an agricultural product. Therefore where the olives grow has an effect on the finished oil. The type of olives used do too, just like different grape varieties, cocoa beans or coffee beans. Apparently there are more than a thousand olive varieties, all of which have something interesting to offer and their own unique flavour. Of course, just as with wine, how the oil is made will also have an influence on the finished result, whether it is small batch or made on an industrial scale for instance.

The oils that I was sent were made by a big Italian olive oil producer called Basso Fedele e Figli. They are based in Campania, San Michele di Serino just outside Avellino – so very much wine country, and have been making oil since 1904. Originally it was small scale production from olive trees in the local area, but nowadays they source olives from across southern Italy.

Much like wine producers often seek to produce small parcels of something more interesting, this led them to get more ambitious, so they put together a small range of premium quality Extra Virgin Olive Oils from different places or sometimes specific olive varieties. The range is named after the owner of the company Sabino Basso and is beautifully packaged in a Kolio style bottle.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest grade of olive oil and is made by simply crushing olives, no solvents or high temperatures are allowed. It is supposed to be bright, fresh and vivacious and for me Extra Virgin Olive Oil seems very healthy, light and appetising.

Map of Italy showing the major wine regions, regional boundaries and the areas where the olives were grown for these oils – Click for a magnified view. All rights reserved.

Olives growing near Bari in Puglia.

 

Sabino Basso Extra Virgin Olive Oil Terra di Bari
DOP/PDO Terra di Bari, Puglia

This was the most intense of the oils and made a statement as soon as I poured it. It looked rich, with an almost egg-yolk yellow colour and gave off aromas of white pepper, ginger and clove together with truffle and mushroom notes.

The palate was spicy and vibrant with all those aromas following through, especially the truffle and ginger, but also grassy, vegetal flavours – in my mind it reminded me of artichoke leaves – and bitter almonds too.

This oil come from the area around Bari in Puglia and is made from Coratina olives, which are famous for their spicy flavours and for being particularly high in antioxidants.

Olive trees and vines on the Donnafugata Estate at Contessa Entellina near Sciacca – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Sabino Basso Extra Virgin Olive Oil Sicilia
IGP Sicilia, Sicily

Made from a blend of Biancolilla olives, grown in southwestern Sicily, and Cerasuola olives grown near Sciacca, near Donnafugata, on Sicily’s south coast. Cerasuola is a term that I come across quite a lot in wine. It means cherry red and is often used to describe a rosé wine in Italy – like Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, or sometimes even a red wine like Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the only DOCG wine on Sicily.

The colour was very light and lemony and the oil smelt fresh, floral and grassy with some peppery notes, vegetal aromas and even some of that lovely, slightly spicy, aromatic tomato and tomato stem smell. The texture was delicately creamy with a flavour of artichoke hearts and tomato stems as well as a nice peppery flavour that wasn’t too powerful. It was lovely drizzled on burrata and bresaola.

The dramatic vineyards of Marisa Cuomo on the Sorrento Peninsula. These same terraces also grow lemons and olives – photo courtesy of Marisa Cuomo.

Sabino Basso Extra Virgin Olive Oil Penisola Sorrentina
DOP/PDO Penisola Sorrentina, Campania

I loved all these oils, but perhaps this was my favourite and I think I can work out why. I know the wines from the Sorrento Peninsula in Campania and they are some of my favourite wines in Italy – the whites in particular are incredible. I presume that same dramatically terraced landscape that cascades down the hillsides to the sea and produces superb grapes and lemons, for limoncello, also produces perfect olives.

The variety for this oil is Minucciola and it is an altogether more restrained style than the Bari oil. The colour is bright and lemony and it smells creamy with light black pepper, hay, grass and delicate fresh cheese. The flavour is intriguing with some fresh cheese, basil, rosemary and thyme flavours as well as Sichuan pepper.

So if you fancy experimenting with new flavours and combinations, try some different olive oils. There are so many different styles, they can be really surprising, great fun and above all delicious. You don’t have to use it in the cooking either, olive oil makes a great condiment. A little drizzle of olive oil can make an astonishing amount of difference to a dish.

Lebanon – an ancient land, modern wines

Vineyards in the Bekaa Valley – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

Lebanon caught my imagination as a wine country a long time ago. We tend to think of it as a new wine producer, but the Phoenicians – the ancient people of Lebanon – were among the world’s first maritime traders and exported wines from Tyre and Sidon all over the Mediterranean world and so helped to spread wine and viticulture to western Europe.

Château Musar is of course world famous and it’s wines widely available, so you could be forgiven for thinking that it is the only Lebanese wine producer. That is not the case though and Musar isn’t even the oldest wine estate in Lebanon either. However good Musar’s wines are – and they are – there is a lot more on offer from this fascinating country

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut.

I know that technically Lebanon is in Asia, but when you are there it doesn’t feel so very different from the European countries of the southern Mediterranean. In fact apart from the Arabic script on the signs, Lebanon often reminded me of Spain, Greece or Sicily. Beirut and the other towns I saw seemed chaotic and boisterous in much the same way as Seville or Catania. The landscape too was very similar to these places and of course the food has a lot in common with Greek cuisine and I even noticed some similarities to Sicilian cooking as well.

The main road through Chatura in the Bekaa Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

I suspect this European feel is partly because Lebanon has a mixed population of Muslims and Christians and enjoys a complex system of power sharing to ensure that no single part of the community dominates the other. As a consequence the place seems very free and easy to the casual observer with alcohol being readily available. Lively restaurants and street life with attractive bars are everywhere. In order to preserve this balance no official census has been taken since 1932, in case they discover there is a higher proportion of Muslims or Christians than they had thought.

I found it very interesting that despite France only governing the country for a little over 20 years, 1920 – 1943, French is widely spoken and the French influence lives on in almost every aspect of life. One of the most obvious examples is the wine names. All the wine producers are Domaine this or Château that and the wine styles often have a very French feel to them too.

Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, so the country has enjoyed almost 30 years of relative stability punctuated by sporadic turmoil caused by their neighbours. I was told many times that Lebanon is fortunate in everything, except its neighbours. As Lebanon borders Syria and Israel, you can see their point.

Map of Lebanon showing the wine regions and the major wineries. Click for a magnified view.

This stability has been enough for wine making to really start to flourish and for the longer established producers to consolidate the markets for their wines. If Lebanese wines were a novelty thirty years ago, they are much more normal today. Indeed the number of wineries has grown from just five in 1990 to over 50 today.

The oldest wine producer in the country is Château Ksara which was founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks who quickly recognised that the Bekaa Valley was a suitable place to grow grapes and brought in a trained viticulturist monk to create and tend their vineyards. His plantings of Cinsault, together with those at the nearby Domaine des Tourelles in 1868, started the Lebanese wine revival which is still with us to this day.

Everything changed in Lebanon after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and Lebanon was awarded to the French as a League of Nations Mandate. French soldiers and administrators came to the country and brought their thirst with them. The country’s two wine producers just weren’t enough to cope with demand and so other wineries – together with breweries and distilleries – were created throughout the 1920s and thirties.

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley.

All the early vineyards were planted in the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country and although there are now some other regions, it remains the major centre of production. This was partly because it was already established as the principal agricultural area of Lebanon and also because it’s so suitable. It is an exciting place to visit. The road winds steeply upwards out of Beirut and you quickly realise just how mountainous Lebanon is. The whole country is pretty small and within 20 kilometres you are already approaching 1000 metres above sea level. It is that height which makes fine winemaking possible as the air gets cooler the higher you go. There is of course plenty of sun and heat – Beirut lies at 34˚ north, as do Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in California and Rabat in Morocco – so grapes can ripen no problem, in fact you can sometimes detect an over-ripe, raisiny character in the more rustic wines. The Bekaa Valley has no coastal influence to temper the heat and give elegance, as it sits between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, instead it has altitude.

The Bekaa Valley is very fertile and every where you look you can see produce being grown – wine of course suits the rockier, less vigorous and better drained soils. The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with cold winters and hot dry summers. That heat is tempered by cool breezes because of the valley’s altitude and big temperature drops between day and night, often around 20 degrees, also help to retain freshness and elegance in the wines.

In recent years some new wine regions have begun producing wines and most of these are even higher than the Bekaa Valley.

Lebanon’s French influence is very apparent in the varieties they grow. Grapes from the French Mediterranean dominate the country’s vineyards, with most traditional reds being blends that include Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Grenache, together with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and increasingly some Syrah too. In recent years Tempranillo has become a popular grape as well, but almost always in blends.

The white wines, sadly overlooked, but very impressive, are often blends including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Clairette and Viognier, but I also came across some astonishingly good wines made from Obeidi and Merwah. These are indigenous white grapes that were traditionally used for Arak in the past.

Quite a few Lebanese wineries now export their wines to the UK. Here is a selection that are worth seeking out:

Château Ksara

An aerial view of Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, this is the oldest and biggest winery in the country. In 1898 they discovered a two kilometre Roman cave system beneath the winery that ever since has been used as the estate’s cellar. It remains at a constant 11˚C and houses thousands of bottles, many going back to the nineteenth century.

The ancient cave system below Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

The Wines

Ksara makes a wide range including a fine Chardonnay, two white blends, Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay, Sauvignon & Sémillon) and Blanc de L’Observatotre (Obadei, Sauvignon, Muscat & Clairette). My favourite though is their new pure Merwah made from 80 year old, dry farmed Merwah vines. It’s a lovely herbal dry white with a rich, pithy citrus zestiness.

Wine maturing in barrels in the ancient cave system below Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

The heart of their range though is their red wines. They have two everyday drinking reds, Le Prieuré – a fresh, juicy and lightly spicy Mediterranean style blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre – and Réserve du Couvent, a soft, brambley and bright blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with ripe, supple tannins and generous fruit.

Their most famous wine is Château Ksara itself, which is a complex and cedary, Médoc inspired blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, barrel aged for 12 months. The wine has supple tannins and that classic dry, but ripe fruit and leafy character that will delight claret lovers. The wine ages very well and mature vintages are available.

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten.

Château Kefraya 

A panoramic view of the beautiful vineyards at Château Kefraya – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

Kefraya has been owned by the de Bustros family for generations, but the vineyard was not planted until 1946. At first they sold their grapes to other Bekaa Valley producers before eventually releasing their first vintage in 1979.

The 430 hectares of vines are interspersed with rocky outcrops that contain an ancient cave system that was used for tombs in biblical times. Outside the tombs seats were carved into the rock to allow mourners to sit and weep in comfort. They still turn up Roman finds while tending the fields and have a small museum of coins and artefacts in the Château. The current wine maker, Fabrice Guiberteau, is one of the most engaging and inspiring I have ever met and he’s brimming over with energy and enthusiasm for this place and the wines he makes here.

Fabrice sitting on the mourner’s seat carved into the rock of the ancient tomb.

The Wines 

Château Kefraya Blanc de Blancs is a beautifully textured and deliciously creamy dry white with good acidity. It’s made from an unlikely blend of Viognier, Clairette, Muscat, Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdejo.

Château Kafraya Rouge is an oak aged blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. It’s a lovely wine with spice notes as well as rich black fruit and some earthiness too. The drying tannins give some nice structure to the sweet, ripe fruit.

The ‘flagship’ wine here is Comte de M, an intense, concentrated and fine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah that spend 18 months in new French oak barrels.

The traditional Lebanese Amphorae used to mature some wines at Château Kefraya – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

In recent years Fabrice has turned his attention to using clay amphorae for maturing wines. Such vessels have long been used in Lebanon for ageing Arak and the project has resulted in two top cuvées that aim to capture the terroir of the country. The red, simply called Chateau Kefraya Amphora is an aromatic and floral blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Tempranillo. Lots of red fruit, herbs and spice vie with each other round the palate, while there is a lively freshness, enticing minerality and suave tannins. 

The white partner, Chateau Kefraya Adéenne (French for DNA), is an extraordinary blend of Merwah, Obeidi and Mekssessé, Lebanon’s indigenous white grapes. Fermented and aged in three year old barrels, the wine is intensely herbal and mineral, with soft stone fruit and rich, pithy bergamot citrus. The palate is salty, nutty, delicately creamy and silky by turn and is deliciously savoury and complex.

Domaine des Tourelles

Domaine des Tourelles – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This beautiful estate is the oldest secular wine producer in Lebanon, having been created by Jura-born Frenchman François-Eugène Brun in 1868. Nowadays it is run by the delightful Faouzi Issa who crafts a very fine range of wines and believes in non-interventionist winemaking using spontaneous fermentations in the winery’s nineteenth century concrete fermenting vats. In fact all the equipment is original here, nothing is new. By keeping to traditional methods and using the old equipment from the nineteenth century Faouzi creates wines that are completely in step with the natural wine movement.

Faouzi Issa, the head winemaker at Domaine des Tourelles – photo courtesy of Domaine des Tourelles.

The Wines

His dry Domaine des Tourelles White is an enticing, aromatic blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, Obeidi and Muscat, while his Chardonnay is delicately exotic and creamy. The Domaine des Tourelles Rosé is a beautifully textured, full-flavoured blend of Cinsault, Tempranillo and Syrah that is perfect with the flavours of the Mediterranean.

The Domaine des Tourelles Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cinsault giving it that very Bekaa Valley combination of the Rhône and Bordeaux making it structured and spicy. It has rich, dark cherry fruit, smooth tannins and wild Mediterranean herbs.

Faouzi also makes a pure Cinsault made from 60 year old vines. It is beautifully bright and spicy with red cherry and plums as well as a touch of dried spices, dried fruit and an earthy, savoury quality. Above all it has a real purity to it that keeps you coming back for more.

Their Marquis des Beys is a stylish, dark brooding and spicy blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It delivers plenty of concentrated blackcurrant, deep, mocha-like flavours from 18 months in oak, fine tannins and balancing freshness.

All of these are excellent, but the pinnacle of the range is their Syrah du Liban. 100% Syrah, it’s powerful yet balanced, fragrant, floral and spicy with dark fruit vying with fresher raspberry and red cherry on the palate, together with cracked black pepper and those wild Mediterranean herbs.

Domaine des Tourelles wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Château Musar

An aerial view of some of Musar’s vineyards in the Bekaa Valley – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

The producer that springs to mind for most people when Lebanese wine is mentioned. Musar was founded in 1930 in the cellars of the 18th century Mzar Castle in Ghazir, a village on the coast some 30 kilometres north of Beirut. Mzar means ‘place of beauty’ and was adapted as the name of the wine itself. The French focus became strengthened by a close friendship developing between founder Gaston Hochar and Ronald Barton (of Château Langoa-Barton in Saint-Julien) who was stationed in Lebanon during WWII.

Gaston’s son Serge took over the winemaking in 1959 and set about perfecting the blend and style. It took him nearly twenty years, with the 1977 red – the first vintage I ever tasted – being the vintage that brought Musar international renown as a fine wine.

Some of Musar’s vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, two and a half hours drive from their winery – photo by Quentin Sadler.

In recognition of all this as well as his perseverance and dedication during Lebanon’s civil war in keeping the winery going without losing a single vintage, Serge was chosen as Decanter Magazine’s first ‘Man of the Year’ in 1984.

Today the winery is run by Serge’s son Gaston. It has been officially organic since 2006 makes wines in a non-interventionist, natural way.

The Wines

Musar’s fabulous eighteenth century cellars beneath the Mzar Castle in Ghazir – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

The red Château Musar itself is the grand vin of the estate and is always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Cinsault and Carignan. It is fermented and aged in concrete tanks before spending a further year in French oak barrels and another four maturing in bottle. It is always rich, spicy, leathery and earthy and has a sort of beguiling sense of mystery about it which sets it apart.

Château Musar White is a blend of barrel fermented and long aged Obeidi and Merwah. It’s an extraordinary wine reminiscent of an aged white Graves from Bordeaux. An acquired taste perhaps, but one worth acquiring.

Bottles maturing in Château Musar’s cellars – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

Their Hochar Père et Fils red is an approachable blend of Cinsault, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, from a single vineyard. It is fermented in concrete tanks, and then aged in barrel and bottle before being released four years after harvest.

The estate’s easiest drinking wines are the Musar Jeune range. There is a red, a white and a rosé and they are fresh and approachable while still having much of the Musar savoury style.

Chateau Musar wines are distributed in the UK by Chateau Musar UK.

Clos St Thomas

This exciting winery is the brainchild of Saïd Touma whose family have been making Arak in the Bekaa Valley for over 130 years. Inspired by that experience and the wineries that came before him he created this estate in 1990 and now farms some sixty five hectares that sits in the Bekaa at 1000 metres above sea level. His son, Joe-Assaad, is now in charge after training as a winemaker in Montpelier and gaining a great deal of experience in Bordeaux – that French link is still alive and well it seems. It is still very much a family concern with the entire family working in the business. Joe-Assaad grows all the normal Bekaa grapes, but like others is also now seeking more of a Lebanese identity. To that end he too has started using the indigenous Obeidi – or Obeidy as he calls it – in their white blends and, since 2012, as a single varietal.

The Wines

Château St Thomas Chardonnay is a nice combination of ripe, tropical fruit, nutty, creamy vanilla and a balancing freshness, while the Clos St Thomas Les Gourmets Blanc is an altogether zestier style made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and the local Obeidy. The Château St Thomas Les Emirs Rouge is a richly fruity blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with spicy Grenache and Syrah, while the star must be their Pinot Noir. Grown in a single plot at 1200 metres this is a vibrant, juicy Pinot with big fruit, smooth tannins and lovely smoky, savoury and truffle-like aromas. To make Pinot this good in place this hot is a real triumph.

Clos St Thomas wines are distributed in the UK by Lebanese Fine Wines.

Ixsir

Ixsir’s stunning high altitude vineyards in Batroun – photo courtesy of Ixsir.

Ixsir – named for Al-Iksir or Elixir, a secret potion that grants eternal youth and love – is an exciting winery created in 2008 by a group of successful businessmen together with Gabriel Rivero, the Spanish-born former winemaker of Kefraya. It’s based in a beautiful and brilliantly renovated seventeenth century Ottoman farmhouse in the hills above Batroun. During Byzantine times Batroun was called Botrus, which is Greek for grape and it was an important port for grape and wine exporting.

They have vineyards around the winery, but also source grapes from the Bekaa Valley and Jezzine in the south where the vineyards are planted 1350 metres above sea level and show the vital cooling effect of the altitude.

The beautiful barrel cellar at Ixsir – photo courtesy of Ixsir.

Their entry level wines are the Altitudes Ixsir range. Available in all three colours, the wines are very drinkable. The red is a sappy, lightly oaked, fruit forward blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Caladoc (a cross between Grenache and Malbec) and Tempranillo, while the white is a bright, aromatic, unoaked blend of Obeideh, Muscat, Viognier. 

Their Ixsir Grande Reserve wines are more ambitious, complex and fine. The red is a rich, smoky and spicy barrel aged blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa (a cross between Merlot and Petit Verdot. The white is a succulent, judiciously oaked blend of Viognier, Sauvignon and Chardonnay that balances succulence and freshness really well.

The top of the range is their El Ixsir wines. The red, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, once again combines Bordeaux structure with the fleshier, spicier characteristics of Southern France. It is dense, concentrated and richly fruity with minty, herbal flavours, black pepper and loads of black fruit – perfect with lamb.

Ixsir wines are distributed in the UK by Enotria & Coe.

I would add that all of these producers also make excellent rosés. When I was in Lebanon I enjoyed them very much, as being that much lighter than the reds I found them perfect with the  lovely Mediterranean mezze

Of course in world terms Lebanon is a tiny producer, just 0.06% of total world production in 2010, but the average quality seems very high. Not even the biggest producers in Lebanon count as bulk producers though, so it is a land of boutique winemakers, people who feel driven to make wine, who strive for quality and do not cut corners. What’s more the wines are incredibly food friendly. So a Lebanese offering would enhance any restaurant wine list as they go superbly with all sorts of food, from haute cuisine to relaxed Mediterranean fare, and offer a wonderful combination of classic French style and vibrant Mediterranean flavours that can be really exciting.