Alsace – time for me to rethink


I am currently rekindling my love affair with Alsace wines. Alsace is a fascinating place, it is very beautiful, has wonderful cuisine and produces wines that are never less than interesting – even if you don’t like them – oh and it makes some of the best lager in the world too! Continue reading

Wine of the Week – a Scintillating Riesling

Some of Pfaffl’s vineyards at Stetten – photo courtesy of the winery.

I love Riesling and while I know that many of you do not, I am just going to on and on about it until you change your mind – well it worked for Bill Cash and Nigel Farage!

Riesling comes in many different guises, the delicate off-dry Mosel style is possibly my favoured option, but then the mineral and slightly bolder Alsace versions also excite me, as do the lime-drenched Australian ones and the vivacious offerings from New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Washington State and New York. However I also have a new favourite – Austria.

I am always excited by Austrian wines. That feeling of pristine, Alpine purity in the wines speaks to me – indeed I love Swiss, Slovenian, Northern Italian and even Gallician wines for the same reason. Austrian Riesling tends to be more full in style than German examples, dry, yet somehow steelier and more vibrant than those from Alsace – certainly at lower price points anyway.

Well I recently tasted a lovely Austrian Riesling and so with the better weather I thought it would make a great Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Austria – Pfaffl are marked by a red dot a little north of Vienna.

Roman Josef Pfaffl in the Vienna vineyards – see the city in the background – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Riesling Neubern
Qualitätswein Trocken/dry
Pfaffl
Niederösterreich/Lower Austria
Austria

I really like Pfaffl. I visited their winery once and they make good wines that to me feel very Austrian. They are precise, they are pure and exciting too. Pfaffl are based in Stetten some 15 km or so north of Vienna. Their vineyards are spread around the village on 10 sites and they also have vineyards in Vienna.

Vienna is the only capital with proper commercial vineyards in it and it even has its own style, the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC. These are field wines that must contain at least 3 grape varieties grown together, harvested, pressed and fermented together. The permitted grapes Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc and the wines are traditionally served in the Heurigen, seasonal taverns in Vienna that sell that years wine.

Pfaffl also make a more modern style blend from Vienna, their Pfaffl 1 which has 60% Riesling blended after fermentation with 20% each of Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Blanc. I love Pfaffl 1 but have yet to taste their field blend.

Heidi and Roman Josef Pfaffl are a brother and sister with Roman being the winemaker and Heidi the administrator. Roman crafts a largish range of wines, with many single vineyard Grüners and different Rieslings, as well as beautifully drinkable reds made from Pinot Noir and Zweigelt and a stunning sparkling Grüner Veltliner. Altogether they farm around 110 hectares and craft some superb wines from single vineyard sites as well as some bigger production blended across the estate.

My Wine of the Week is one of their bigger production numbers and it is utterly delightful. The nose is fresh and lively with lemon and lime notes, the richer input of apple and pear and some scintillating floral characters too, jasmine and orange blossom. The palate is light, lithe and refreshing with lots of flavour and a clean ethereal presence on your senses. The citrus and apple is there together with a deeper tang of apricot. All in all the wine is poised and elegant with a light touch to it. I liked it a lot, especially with a Thai meal – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £8.99 per bottle.

Drink this on a warm Spring day, a Summer picnic, on its own as an aperitif, with a cold collation or with spicy and oriental cuisine.

The Variety of Champagne

Vineyards around Dizy in Champagne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vineyards in the Valley of the Marne.

Blending Wine from Different Harvests

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

Grape Varieties

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

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

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

Oak or No Oak

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

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

Ageing

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

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

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

Sweetness

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

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

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

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

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

Light, fresh Champagnes 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Chaurey Brut NV
Champagne Oudinot
Epernay

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

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

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

H Blin Brut NV
Champagne H Blin & Co
Vincelles

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

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

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

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

Taittinger Brut Réserve NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

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

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

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

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

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

Champagne vineyards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The softer side of Champagne

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

Taittinger Nocturne Sec NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

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

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

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

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

Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

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

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

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

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

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

The Richer Side of Champagne

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

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

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

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

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

One of my two favourite Champagne village names.

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

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

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

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

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

Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

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

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

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

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

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

Taittinger Les Folies de la Marquetterie Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

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

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

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

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

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

Alfred Gratien Brut Vintage 2004
Champagne Alfred Gratien
Epernay

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

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

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

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

Taittinger Brut Vintage 2009
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

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

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

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

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

And some Ultimate Luxury…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chilied red wines

As it’s Summer I thought that I would write about something that I like, but it seems to me that many people resist the idea, in the UK anyway – chilled red wine.

In the UK it seems to be a cultural fixation that the only acceptable way to serve a red wine is at the temperature of the room that you happen to occupy. Because that is what ‘room temperature’ is – right?

We seem to all be taught that red wine should be served at ‘room temperature’, and most people that I meet interpret that to mean that you should serve it pretty warm. I have even heard more than one self appointed wine expert in a pub or restaurant telling people that red wine is better served as warm as possible.

Well the truth is that this fabled ‘room temperature’ concept long predates modern central heating. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the sorts of houses that had decent wine in them were large and unheated, therefore they wouldn’t have been hot by our standards at all, unless you were standing right by the fire.

The Wine and Spirit Education Trust, who are the leading wine education body in the world, deem room temperature to be between 15˚ and 18˚C, much cooler than most centrally heated rooms today.

As far as I can discover this focus on room temperature, like so many ‘traditional’ things is a purely Victorian invention. The Victorians loved to bring rules into things, perhaps to make it easier to spot who was socially acceptable and who was not.

I was always taught that the reason we serve red wine on the warm side is that if you have cool red wine it makes the tannins more aggressive and if you warm it, the tannins are smoother.

And up to a point that is true, but like so much to do with wine, it isn’t totally true.

Even the purists admit that you can lightly chill light-bodied red wines – the likes of Beaujolais or Valpolicella, but personally I would go further than that.

Go to Spain and chilled red wine – even fine red wine, is completely normal. I well remember several years ago attending a tasting of superb Spanish wines from the Grandes Pagos de España group of producers. It was led by the wonderful Carlos Falcó, the Marques de Griñon himself and he carefully brought his own wines from his hotel in order to be able to serve them as he wanted to. These are some of the finest and most expensive wines of Spain and the bottles were frosted with moisture. These were cold, not just lightly chilled – and they were perfect that way too.

Many years ago I was in Belthazar’sthat most marvellous wine bar in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront complex and trying two different examples of Syrah from South Africa. They were both excellent wines, but served at the traditional temperature in Cape Town’s Summer heat they tasted like a bowl of soup and were pretty heavy going.

I have found that, for me anyway, red wines are best served a little cooler than is traditionally thought to be wise. I always like the bottle to feel cool to the touch, whereas when I was younger I wanted the bottle of a red wine to feel a little warm. For me this touch of coolness accentuates the freshness of the wine, and I like freshness. It prevents the wine from feeling gloopy and soupy and so keeps it drinkable.

As for cool red wines being more obviously tannic, well I don’t always find that to be the case. It does depend on the wine though and the food I am eating and the situation. The warmer the weather the cooler I want the wine.

Having said all that, I am not inclined to chill an overly tannic red wine. Left bank Bordeaux for instance does not work with chilling at all, even for me. Which makes me wonder if that is where the concept came from originally, as Bordeaux was the first modern fine wine region – hence its reputation. So the lighter choices are still the best ones, but for me, but the list is much longer than just Beaujolais and Valpoicella.

Personally I really like chilled Cabernet Franc from the Loire, especially the lighter and unoaked versions. Chinon works especially well in my opinion – try this lovely example as long as the wine is light with the emphasis on the crunchy red fruit, rather than oak and structure, then it will work nicely. Like so many of these chilled red wines, serve it with charcuterie, crusty bread and pickled cornichons, with the vinegar drained out, for a delicious combination.

Be careful with expanding this concept to new world Cabernet Franc as these tend to be more akin to red Bordeaux in structure, so are probably best not chilled.

Another grape variety that works chilled is Pinot Noir – even the purists accept that Burgundy should be served at cellar temperature. The soft tannins of Pinot lend themselves very well to being served cool as there is plenty of acidity to make the wine feel fresh. Great Pinots to be chilled include the lovely, bright fruity versions from Alsace or red Sancerre, but perhaps the best ones are from New Zealandthis example would work particularly well chilled. These bright, seductively fruity wines are silky with very little tannin and are lovely chilled and paired with salmon or summery chicken dishes – or enjoyed at a barbecue.

The great value Pinot Noirs from Chile, Romania – and here – and southern Germany are absolutely perfect for chilling too. They have soft, silky tannins and bright, vivid fruit all held together by refreshing acidity that makes the wines feel juicy and fresh, everything that works best in a chilled red wine.

Bardolino is another light red wine from northern Italy that is good chilled. It comes from the shores of Lake Garda, very close to Valpolicella in fact, and is at its best when chilled. There is very good Bardolino around, but even a basic one will be more attractive served cool. This example is joyfully fruity, direct and pleasurable – just the thing for an alfresco meal or a barbie.

Italy actually has quite an array of lighter red wines, perhaps more than anywhere else. The bright, light, fresh style of Barbera from Piemonte can fit the bill perfectly too. Don’t chill an expensive one, that will be oaky and fine, but a standard one that will be all about sour cherry fruit and refreshing acidity with soft, low tannins.

The Italians often like their red wines to be juicy and refreshing and a good starting point for chilled red wine can be Lambrusco. This fascinating wine style with its bright purple foam has its detractors, but the real thing – it should only be red and has a Champagne style cork – is so delicious and slips down with so many foods, especially the rich fatty cuisine of its native Emilia-Romagna. However it is also a good with a smoky barbecue, curry – yes really – or cold cuts and cheese. Try this one, this one, this one and this one to to see what you have been missing.

Another exciting Italian wine that is light and extravagantly fruity is a Frappato from Sicily. You don’t come across them every day, but they can be delicious, bursting with red fruit and have refreshing acidity. It’s a style of wine that probably explains why the Sicilians like red wine and fish so much. Try this one chilled with any al fresco meal, or even pizza.

 

Central European reds are sometimes not as popular as they ought to be in the UK, but Blaufränkisch can be utterly delicious. It is principally known as an Austrian grape and like Pinot Noir can produce lovely wines as a rosé, light red or something finer and more structured. The Germans, and Americans call it Lemberger – not Limberger, which is a cheese from the the Belgian/German/Dutch border – while in Hungary they call it Kékfrankos. It makes great wines in Slovenia too, where it is usually known as Modra Frankinja.

Another Austrian grape that I like to drink chilled is Zweigelt, which is especially good with the sorts of grilled food that I enjoy in summer. It is actually a cross made from Blaufränkisch and St Laurent and at its best leans in a sort of spicy but not quite Syrah and soft but not quite Pinot kind of way. Try this, this or this example.

Still in central Europe, there is a grape called Trollinger. It originated in the South Tyrol – hence the name Trollinger / Tirolinger – but has become mainly associated with the Württemberg region of Germany, where it grows on some of the most beautiful vineyards in Europe. The wines can be very pleasant, although I much prefer the other local speciality, Schwarzriesling. This, of course, means Black Riesling, which is the local term for Pinot Meunier. The reds made from this are deliciously fruity, but savoury too and again the lighter versions are lovely chilled – you can read about some here if you scroll to the bottom of the story. There is a good one available here too.

Trollinger is still grown in the Alto Adige / Sud Tirol and Trentino regions where it is known as Vernatsch or Schiava. The wines are quite extraordinary and very scented, but can be delicious, light, fruity – strawberry – and a little smoky, so again good with grilled food and barbecue when chilled. Like Beaujolais these wines are usually made in a way to emphasise the fruit and not tannin, so you also often get those candy floss and bubblegum characters that you get in many Beaujolais wines.

If you are looking for something a tad more serious, but still lovely chilled, then perhaps a Poulsard might do the trick. This grape is mainly grown in France’s tiny but fascinating Jura region – click here for the definitive guide to the wines of Jura with maps drawn by yours truly. Like Pinot Noir, Poulsard is thin skinned, so gives light red wines in terms of colour, tannin and body, so a Pinot lover should like them. I find them to have red fruit, spice and to be somewhat earthy and rustic, but in a really nice way, which makes them perfect food wines and something a little different. Try this one or this one.

I am sure that there are plenty more red wines that are good served chilled – in fact Spanish Garnacha with hearty meat dishes or a barbecue – but that is surely enough for now? I just wanted to propose some things that were a little different to help push the idea of chilled red a little.

The best thing is to experiment with it and find out what temperature you like best – it’s your wine after all.

Wine of the Week – a lovely red wine for Summer

The beautiful south facing slopes at Domaine de Noblaie.

I know we are all supposed to drink rosé wines in summer, and why not, there are some superb rosés around, but even in hot weather you shouldn’t ignore reds completely.

All sorts of red wines are suitable for summer drinking, sparkling reds for instance and smooth fruity red wines with a barbecue, but the most fun style is light red wines.

A lot of people rather poo-poo light red wines, in the UK anyway. Too many people buy into the theory that unless a wine beats you up as you drink it then it isn’t any good. Which is a great shame as lighter red wines can be utterly delightful.

There are many more light and lightish red wines than you might think too, Beaujolais of course, but Valpolicella, Bardolino, Rioja Joven, Swiss Dôle and Gamay, Touraine Gamay, Alsace Pinot Noir, Austrian reds, German reds, red Vinho Verde (if you dare), red Mâcon and a lot of the world’s Pinot Noir.

Any, or all of those, especially New Zealand Pinot Noir, can be perfect in summer. Serve them with lighter food and lightly chilled and you will have a lovely time.

I say lightly chilled, but it depends on the day really. WSET say light reds can be chilled down to about 13˚C, but on a 34˚C day, you might want it cooler than that. It’s up to you.

Recently I was presenting a red wine to big group of people and I really liked it and so did they. It was a Chinon made from Cabernet Franc grapes in the Touraine district of the Loire Valley and although it was pretty light in body, it was very fruity and delicious. What’s more it was a very hot day and so I served it chilled and it went down a storm. I liked it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of the Loire Valley – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

In my experience the three best appellations for red wines made from Cabernet Franc in the Loire are Saumur-Champigny, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon. The last of the three actually makes white wines from Chenin Blanc grapes too, but only in tiny quantities, so it is the red wines that we actually see in the shops. Red Chinon has long been a favourite of mine as it is pretty reliable and very good value for money. Chinon is something of a secret in the UK, most consumers simply don’t know about it, but there is usually one on the wine list of any decent French bistrot or brasserie, whether here or in France, and I always order it.

Chinon castle where Joan of Arc met the Dauphin and persuaded him to let her lead the French army against the English.

Although it is in the Loire region, the town of Chinon sits on the north shore of the Vienne River. It is surrounded by 18 other communes (villages) that can make wines that are labelled as Chinon. These estates are on both sides of the Vienne, Domaine de La Noblaie is on the south bank.

It is worth mentioning that Chinon is a delightful town to visit. It is a very beautiful place with lovely little streets, half-timbered buildings, bustling squares lined with cafés, fabulous restaurants and much to see. The Castle sits on the hill above the town and you really do feel as though you have stepped back in time. A visit to the castle is a must. It was once home to Richard I – who together with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried at the nearby Fontevraud Abbey, which is stunning and even boasts a fine restaurant – it was also where Joan of Arc met with the French Dauphin and there is a museum dedicated to her. Rabelais was once mayor of Chinon and they are rightly proud of him. He was born nearby at La Devinière, where there is a museum dedicated to him and his writings.

2014 Le Temps de Cerises
Domaine de La Noblaie
AC / PDO Chinon
Touraine
Loire Valley

This is an old domaine. The site was originally home to some crusaders and was a taxing station used to finance the Crusades. The current house was built in the fifteenth century and it commands a hilltop site some two and a half kilometres south east of Chinon itself. The rock is a chalky limestone called tuffeau and the property has old cellars duck into this rock, perfect for ageing wine. They still use a vat carved into the stone in the 16th century, so wine has clearly been made here for a long time. Further proof is in the name of the hamlet, Le Vau Breton. Breton is the old local name for the Cabernet Franc grape, so it is called Cabernet Franc Valley.

Jérôme Billard.

The grapes are carefully hand harvested, with ruthless selection of the fruit first. The bunches are then carefully laid in plastic hods so as not to bruise or damage the grapes.

Today four generations farm here, but the estate is run by Jérôme Billard who is considered to be one of the great, young talents of Chinon. For a young guy he has quite a career, with stints at Château Petrus, Dominus in California and Sacred Hill in New Zealand before going home to run the family property. They have been certified organic since 2005 and all harvesting is done by hand. Fermantations are spontaneous with the indigenous yeast and the fermentations vary between stainless steel, barrel and that chalk, limestone vat.

That stone vat, used exclusively for his top red cuvée Pierre de Tuf.

The cellars carved into the limestone hillside at Domaine de Noblaie.

Le Temps de Cerises is Jérome’s lowest tier wine, his calling card if you will. It is made from 30 year old vines blended from across the estate. The grapes are hand picked and rigorously selected by the harvesters and everything is done to keep that Cabernet Franc ‘greeness’ at bay, but to preserve the freshness and vitality. The wine is fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks and aged in them on the fine lees for 8 months.

I love this wine, it is delightfully fresh and appealing. It smells of fruit, cherries especially – it has to live up to its name after all – and raspberries with perhaps a dash of blackberry in the mix. There is something leafy and herbaceous there too, but not too much, just enough for interest. On the palate it is juicy and ripe with loads more cherry, some plums and raspberries, a light touch of tannin, fresh acidity and a leafy quality. Overall it feels very smooth, soft and supple, silky even. Serve it cool and enjoy it with almost anything inside or out this summer. It is especially good with cheeses and charcuterie. This is a delicious and very accomplished, simple, little wine that delivers a lot of pleasure – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10-£13 per bottle from:
The Wine Society (2015 vintage), Hayes Hanson & Clark, Adnams, Frazier’s, Hawkshead Wines, Gusto Wines, Slurp.co.uk.

For US stockists contact European Cellars.

A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

Wine of the Week – a classy dry Riesling

Clare Valley vineyards in South Australia.

As anyone who reads these pages knows that I love Riesling. At its best Riesling produces some of the most delicious, light, beguiling, delicious and versatile white wines available.

I love all sorts of styles of Riesling from the light off-dry Mosel style to bone dry and mineral versions from many parts of Germany as well as Alsace and Austria. Australia too has a reputation for producing good Rieslings and I have enjoyed many different examples over the years – try this if you get a chance, and this as well.

However, I recently tried one that was absolutely superb and it is such great value too that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of South Eastern Australia, Clare Valley is north of Adelaide in South Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

2016 Blind Spot Riesling
Clare Valley
South Australia

The Clare Valley is an old wine region, having been settled in the 1830s, you can tell because nearby Adelaide is named after the wife of King William IV – he ruled 1830-1837. Like many of the places called a valley in Australia, it isn’t really a valley so much as a series of gullies and gentle hills. During the growing season the days are warm, but there are cooling breezes and the nighttime temperature is cool. This helps keep the wines fresh and lively and that is why the two speciality grapes of the region – although many others thrive here too – are Merlot and Riesling, both grape varieties that don’t like too much heat.

The Blind Spot range is a sort of upmarket own label range made for the Wine Society by Mac Forbes who is one of the most exciting young winemakers in Australia today, the whole range is worth a look if you want to broaden your horizons.

This is everything that I want a Riesling to be. It is is bone dry, tangy, mineral, taut and refreshing. It has a pristine, pure quality to it and the palate is drenched with exotic lime, crisp and deliciously drinkable. It is light bodied, but full of flavour, so more akin to the finer and more ethereal Australian Rieslings like Hensche’s stunning Julius Riesling. It has high acid as you would expect, but the ripe lime balances it beautifully.

I loved this wine. It is very good quality and it so much better than the price tag would make you believe – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from the Wine Society for £8.95 a bottle.

Enjoy this as an aperitif, it really makes you hungry, or with any light, delicate dishes, soft cheese, seafood, spaghetti alle vongole, Thai, Malaysian and Keralan cuisine, anything you dip in sweet chilli sauce, or just as a drink on its own. It will certainly be my house wine for the spring and summer.

German Delights – some amazing German wines from my travels

The beautiful Neckar Valley.

The beautiful Neckar Valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wines and the Regions

Germany map QS 2016 blog, watermarked & annotated

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

Heilbronn_Innenstadt_u_Wartberg_20050918

Heilbronn with the vine covered slopes all round.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marienberg Castle above Würzburg.

The Marienberg Castle above Würzburg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonnenhof in the late afternoon.

Sonnenhof in the late afternoon.

Looking south from the Sonnenhof at dusk.

Looking south from the Sonnenhof at dusk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg vineyard at Weingut Wöhrwag.

The Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg vineyard at Weingut Wöhrwag.

The charming Hans-Peter Wöhrwag.

The charming Hans-Peter Wöhrwag.

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

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

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

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

More of the beautiful Neckar Valley.

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

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

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

 

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, 12 of which are in very large oak or chestnut barrels, 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.

New Zealand Spreads its Wings – 5 Wines of the Week and something rather special

Don’t only drink Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – there is so much more to enjoy.

I don’t know what it is with me. Perhaps I have a low boredom threshold when it comes to wine, but I love variety. The very thing that makes wine exciting to me is the infinite variety available. Which seems to put me out of kilter with many wine drinkers here in the UK who would appear to only drink the same few wine styles all the time.

If that is you, please, please branch out, experiment, try something new – what’s the worst that can happen?

Which brings me to my theme – New Zealand. Please remember to click all the links.

Marlborough vineyards - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Marlborough vineyards – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

I have long admired New Zealand wines and well remember my first taste of a wine from that far off country and it excited me very much. It was 1984, I had recently joined the trade and the company I worked for introduced three extraordinary sounding new wines to the range, one wine each from Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon.

NZ map QS 2011 watermark

They all seemed exotic beyond belief. You have to realise that the wine revolution had not yet happened and such things were not widely available. The Lebanese wine was Château Musar 1977, the Australian was Berri Estates South Australian Cabernet-Shiraz and the New Zealand wine was a Gewürztraminer made by an estate called Matawhero in the Gisborne region of North Island. I remember it as being really good and wish that I could still buy it over here.

I had recently fallen for the charms of the Gewürztraminer grape and drank a lot of it at the time – I hardly ever do now as the examples from Alsace seem much sweeter nowadays.

So my first taste of New Zealand wine would now be regarded as  a slightly left field offering, but I did not realise that then. Sauvignon Blanc did exist in New Zealand in those days, but it was early days. There wasn’t very much and it was far from being the most popular or dominant grape. Indeed the now ubiquitous Kiwi ‘Sav’ (why do they miss the U out when they pronounce it?) would have been the oddity then. What’s more the Marlborough region barely produced any wine at all. It is the now largest wine region in the country and produces something like 60% of New Zealand wine, while around 60% of production is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the years I have seen New Zealand wines proliferate on this market and sweep all before them. Everyone now drinks New Zealand wine. Or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc anyway. That is the dominant grape and most widely produced and consumed style.

Which has bugged me for quite a long time.

I like many Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs and can see the attraction, but I want other things too and so wish that wine drinkers would experiment with all the other lovely wines that New Zealand produces. Of course it would help if the major outlets got a little more creative and actually stocked some of the other exciting wines coming out of New Zealand. However, things are getting better, it’s slow, but a wider range of New Zealand wines is beginning to be available.

To make my point I recently put on a tasting of the more unusual wines coming out of New Zealand at the moment. It wasn’t exhaustive by any means, but I managed to find some real variety and excellent wines that many people would enjoy. Collectively they are my Wines of the Week.

The White Wines

New Zealand is a cool climate wine producing country and so the production is overwhelmingly white. Although there are some warmer places and Pinot Noir of course performs well in the cool conditions of South Island, it just isn’t hot enough to ripen black grapes to make red wines in most of the country. My line up of white wines was really good, they all showed well and had that classic Kiwi clean brightness to them that  that I can only sum up as a feeling of purity.

Vineyards in Gisborne - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Vineyards in Gisborne – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

image-12015 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Gisborne

Albariño is a Spanish grape from the north western region of Galicia, where it is most famously used to make the often delicious wines of Rias Baixas. They are amongst the best Spanish white wines and are great with seafood. The grape is also grown over the border in Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho. This is the second vintage of this wine that I have tasted and I have loved them both. Te Awa are a wonderful winery, who produce some terrific wines and created the Left Field label specifically for the less widely seen styles of wine. I am thrilled that Albariño might be breaking through as a popular and international grape variety – it certainly deserves to.

The aromas are floral and scented with delicate, but ripe peach and zesty citrus aromas. The palate is bright, fresh and lively with mandarin and nectarine characters and a twist of lime on the finish. This is a light, fresh, crisp style that is really, really good and would be gorgeous with some seared scallops or just on its own. It feels pristine, bright and pure as a mountain stream, surely anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would appreciate this – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle from The Wine Reserve – for more stockists click here.

Yealand's Seaview Vineyard - photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

Yealand’s Seaview Vineyard – photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

yealands-estate-gruner-veltliner-nv2014 Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Grüner Veltliner
Yealands Estate
Awatere Valley, Marlborough

Yealands is an impressive producer and is the brainchild of the engaging Peter Yealand who in his time has farmed mussels and deer as well as wine. Most of their production is from a large single block of vines – the largest single parcel of vines in the county – in the Awatere Valley, the cool south eastern part of Marlborough. It is right by the sea and is called the Seaview Estate as it looks out over Cook Strait.

Grüner Veltliner is the signature white grape of Austria, where it makes some tremendous wines. Much like Albariño, I get the feel that Grüner Veltliner might be on the cusp of breaking through as an international grape and again I think that is an excellent thing. 15% was fermented in second and third use French oak barrels and the wine spent 3 months on the lees with lees stirring to help the complexity and the texture.

Another wine with a lovely aromatic nose that is delightfully floral and gently spicy with a dash of white pepper. Again that purity shines through and the palate is gorgeously silky and lightly textured, being gently creamy like coconut – presumably helped by the oak. There is plenty of discrete apricot like fruit too as well as refreshing citrus acidity giving plenty of zing. Again I cannot imagine anyone that likes Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc not enjoying this, but it is deliciously different – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from Great Western Wine – for more stockists click here.

image-1-22014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Villa Maria
Wairau Valley, Marlborough

Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose, as the skins are pink.
This wine is from Fletcher’s Vineyard which is in the famed Golden Mile, which is a strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the sub-region of Rapaura.

The nose is fresh and enticing with pear, delicately smoky peach and some mineral notes.
The palate is by turns stony and mineral, pear-like and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit and mandarin too. There is a leesy texture here too giving a gentle smokiness and a lightly ‘mealy’ quality that is very attractive.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominant than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from The Pip Stop and The New Zealand House of Wine.

image-12013 Esk Valley Verdelho
Esk Valley Estate
Hawkes Bay

I am very fond of Verdelho as it is a lovely grape and I wonder why we don’t see it more often. Just to be clear, it is not the same as Verdejo or Verdicchio or any of the other similarly named varieties that people often assume are the same. It is actually the Madeira grape, but put to a very different use here. Some authorities think Verdelho might be a long lost clone of Riesling, but they say that about Albariño too.

Esk Valley is a wonderful estate that is much more famous for producing some of New Zealand’s finest red wines, but they also make some marvellous whites, including some excellent Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Selected from two vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and was mainly cold fermented in tank, with some being fermented using the natural yeast in large – 600 litre – French oak casks.

Delightfully aromatic and floral with a real zing of lime and a mineral edge together with a touch of oiliness. On the palate the texture marries beautifully with the freshness and the minerality. The oak just gives a dollop of cream and a bit of complexity, but never dominates, while some tropical fruit and citrus flavours of mandarin and lime make it utterly delicious – 89/100 points.

The 2014 vintage is available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company and The New Zealand House of Wine – for more stockists click here.

The Red Wines

Being a cool climate country, New Zealand is nowhere near as famous for its reds as its whites and only a small proportion of the country’s production is red. Pinot Noir is by far the most dominant grape and is the main one used in South Island – by some margin. However, other grape varieties do get a look in and, just as with the whites, the number of grape varieties used is increasing and becoming more exciting. Hawkes Bay – or Hawke’s Bay – in North Island is home to the greatest concentration of red wine production in New Zealand – apart from Pinot Noir which is mainly from South Island. It is warmer here, with well drained soils, so it can produce some good concentrated red wines. The Gimblett Gravels is the most prestigious sub-zone and home to many of the country’s finest red wines. Traditionally it’s Merlot and Cabernet country, but Syrah is quickly becoming pretty mainstream, while Mediterranean grapes like Tempranillo, Montepulciano and even Grenache are beginning to get noticed.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

lf-btl-malbec-nv-d-jpg2014 Left Field Malbec
Te Awa Collection
Hawkes Bay

Malbec has been used in some of the Cabernet-Merlot blends of Hawkes Bay for quite a number of years, just as it is used in Bordeaux, but often with a higher proportion. I have only once before had a single varietal Malbec from New Zealand though and that was in the 2003 vintage (I think) when Esk Valley made one because their Merlot and Cabernet were not up to the mark and so all they had left was Malbec. This version is completely unoaked.

The colour was an extraordinary vivid, deep purple – you could paint with this. The nose gave off rich plum, blueberry and blackberry, together with rich cocoa and some pungent spice notes. The palate was fresh and juicy, with chunky rich fruit and a deep inky feel. There is liquorice and pepper together with black fruit and a dryness from the – artfully tamed – tannins that gives the wine a sappy, briar-like flavour. I love the upfront and juicy quality of this. It feels fresher and cooler than its Argentinian cousins and would go very nicely with a barbecue or a steak, I would enjoy it chilled too – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

trinity-hill-wine-568d7a79694b32014 Trinity Hill Tempranillo
Trinity Hill Estate
Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

Trinity Hill is a great producer – right up there with Craggy Range – that produces some of the best Syrah in the country, as well as many other great wines. One of the best ways to taste their wines in the UK is by visiting the excellent Bleeding Heart restaurant, which is part owned by John Hancock who owns Trinity Hill. The Tempranillo was fermented in stainless steel and then aged in a mixture of tank and French and American oak barrels for a short time.

Again this youthful wine had a bright and vivid purple colour. The nose was earthy and a bit spicy with juicy plum aromas and the sweeter note of dried currants. The palate was sumptuously fruity with lots of black fruit, a touch of red fruit and a sort of sweet and sour thing going on with a touch of drying tannins. This is totally unlike the Rioja style of Tempranillo, being more fruity and less savoury in style. It might not reach the same heights of excellence as Trinity Hill’s Syrah, but is is a lovely wine with vivid, ripe, chunky fruit – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £18 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

1staete_landt_arie_syrah_20112010 Staete Landt Estate Arie Syrah
Staete Landt Estate
Rapaura, Marlborough

Staete Landt was the brainchild of a charming Dutch couple called Ruud and Dorien Maasdam. In Marlborough’s early wine days they bought an old apple orchard and turned it into one of the most respected wine estates in the country. The estate name is a reference to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered what we now call New Zealand in 1642 and named it ‘Staete Landt’, land for the Dutch state. I like them and I love their wines. They and their wines always have something to interesting to say. In the early days, late 1970s and early 1980s, plenty of people planted Cabernet and Merlot in Marlborough and then discovered that they just cannot ripen properly, so apart from Pinot Noir and the odd maverick, you come across very few black grapes in Marlborough. So, finding someone brave enough to make premium Syrah in the cool conditions of Marlborough is a real thrill.

Just as with the Sauvignon Gris above, the estate is in the ‘Golden Mile’ strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the Marlborough sub-region of Rapaura. Ruud has conducted in-depth soil analysis on his vineyard and identified 24 different blocks which are treated as individual vineyards in effect. Since 2005 Syrah has been planted on two of them, but the 2010 comes just from the Arie block. The grapes were hand-picked and de-stemmed. They had a pre-ferment cold soak for seven days and a long post fermentation maceration as well. These techniques help colour and flavour extraction while not extracting tannin. The wine spent 20 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.

The maturity and class of this wine really showed. The nose was smoky, spicy and earthy with rich cherry, blackberry (some dried, some fresh fruit) and some dark chocolate. The palate was svelte with fine, sweet tannins, some leather and herbs as well as black fruit and some mushroom and truffle from age. It had lovely freshness running all the way through it and was very stylish and fine with a long finish – 92/100 points.

The 2011 is available in the UK for around £22 per bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Which could have been a great end to the tasting, but I had dug deep into my cellar and unearthed a wonderful treasure for the finale:

Vidal Estate in the 1920s - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate in the 1920s – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Soler bottle1998 Vidal Estate Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon
Vidal Estate
Hawke’s Bay

I have always been fascinated by the Vidal Esate for as long as I have known about it. Founded in 1905 it is the oldest NZ winery that was just a winery and not a mixed farm as well. Spaniard José Sole, had been making wine in New Zealand since 1865 and had anglicised his name to Joseph Soler. His nephew, Anthony Vidal, arrived in New Zealand from Spain in 1888 to help his uncle at his winery in Wanganui on the West coast of North island. Eventually Vidal wanted to set up his own winery and he bought an old stables and half a hectare of land near Hastings in the southern part of Hawke’s Bay, which was warmer and drier that Wanganui and boasted well drained stony soils. Today Vidal is part of the Villa Maria group and one of their best vineyards in Hawke’s Bay is named in honour of Joseph Soler.

I am always in awe of them when I think what drive and what determination the pair of them must have had to go all that way around the world in sailing ships to an isolated place with a tiny population and an uncertain future. 

This wine was a rigorous selection from a single block of the Soler vineyard, which had only been planted in 1993, so was very young. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented in open vats with hand plunging four times a day to extract colour and flavour. It was pressed after two weeks post ferment maceration and then aged for 21 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. 1998 was a great vintage in Hawke’s Bay and perhaps the first to serve notice that this is a great red wine region.

The colour was quite gamey and brown, like Brown Windsor Soup, and a great deal of tannin had adhered to the inside of the bottle. The nose was vivacious and alive with currants, leather, cocoa, gamey / meaty, espresso and mint notes. The palate was very smooth with those currants again, dried blackcurrants, a savoury, meaty character, rich coffee, figs, fine milk chocolate and the merest touch of ripe, fine grain tannins. It had great complexity and concentration and was still vibrant and delicious with a wonderful decayed sweetness like rich dried fruit. I loved the wine and would like to try it with an old fashioned saddle of mutton or steak and kidney pudding, luckily I still have another bottle – 94/100 points.

This is no longer available anywhere that I am aware of, unless you want to offer me a lot of money for my last remaining bottle!

It was an excellent tasting, even though I say so myself, and gave a little snapshot of some of the new styles and interesting things coming out of this dynamic wine producing country – and not a Sauvignon Blanc in sight.

So the next time you drink something from New Zealand, try a different grape variety or style. I think you’ll enjoy it.