Wine of the Week 44 – a classy and classic Bordeaux-like blend from South Africa

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

I have been visiting South Africa semi regularly now for well over 10 years and over that time the wines have continued to improve and become even more exciting. Very few places can touch South Africa’s Western Cape – the main centre of wine production – for sheer diversity, whether it is in soils, altitude or aspect. This allows them to grow an extraordinary array of different grape varieties and they put this to good use by producing an incredible variety of wines, often from quite a small area.

The Cape is very beautiful too, which makes it a real joy to visit. What’s more the wine regions are all pretty compact and most of the estates are within an hour or 2 of Cape Town airport. I love visiting the place, the beauty of the place never fails to get to me. Many of the wineries are old with the charming Cape Dutch architecture. Even the modern ones are lovely places to visit, as they are usually very well geared up to receive visitors and most have good restaurants too, like the excellent Terroir at Kleine Zalze. But even if they don’t it doesn’t matter as Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Paarl and Franschhoek are all full of lovely places to eat excellent food and drink good wine.

As far as wine is concerned, the place produces such variety that it is hard to say what is best, but I have been seriously impressed with many South African Sauvignon Blancs recently, especially this one and this one, they really are world class and can often give great value for money too – like this one here.

As for reds I am struggling to single out trends, as so many styles from the Cape are good. I still admire this Cabernet Franc from KWV, which was a former Wine of the Week. The Chocolate Box blend from Boekenhoutskloof is also hugely impressive and enjoyable and there is much else to enjoy, including some superb and enjoyable examples of Pinotage and this lovely Sangiovese.

However, last night I showed a very exciting South African Bordeaux-blend at a tasting. I have tasted the wine many times before from previous vintages and it never fails to impress, as well as to offer great value for mine, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

South Africa map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine map of South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Bordeaux blends, wines made from a blend of the grapes that are famously used in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec (Cot) are a very traditional South African style and something of a speciality of the Stellenbosch area, so are well worth trying. This one is from the venerable Meerlust Estate, which has belonged to the Myburgh family since 1756, but was actually founded in 1693. Situated very near the sea in False Bay, southern Stellenbosch, the site benefits from cool ocean breezes and mists that temper the extreme heat of summer and must have made the place a logical place to build.

The name Meerlust apparently means ‘pleasure of the sea’, but I do not know in what language – as far as I can detect it is neither German, the original owner was German, Dutch or Afrikaans. I can get sea in the meer bit (mer), but cannot help feeling that lust implies something more than pleasure!

Whatever the name means though, it was a fortunate site to choose for wine too, as the cool conditions allow Meerlust to produce excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay too. However their main focus has always been their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends – Meerlust Rubicon is their Grand Vin – as well as some single varietal wines. My Wine of the Week is in effect their second wine made from younger vines and declassified vats, but it is still very good indeed.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust-Red2012 Meerlust Red
W.O. Stellenbosch
Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc and 9% Petit Verdot aged in 55% new French oak.

Frankly this is more like a classic Claret from my youth than most Claret nowadays. The nose is fragrant and scented with very attractive leafy herbaceous notes, not green though. Just behind this there is plenty of vibrant fruit too, cassis, plums and a touch of blackberry. However the fruit is delicate and more European in style, rather than lifted, rich and sweetly ripe, as drinkers often expect from the new world. There is also a little touch of leather, cedar, pencil shavings, mocha and espresso bean, that all give a nice feeling of complexity and elegant sophistication.
The palate is medium-bodied and fresh tasting with some nice cleansing acidity balancing the succulent ripe fruit that gives cassis, dried and fresh, a touch of creamy vanilla, mocha again and some attractive leather too. The tannins are lovely and ripe, with a nice fine-grain texture giving just a little touch of astringency to the finish, which gives the wine some nice focus and definition – structure is the official word. The freshness really dominates the finish, which adds to that sense of focus and poise in the wine, while the finish is extraordinarily long. I love this wine and think it would happily grace a dinner party table as well as being great value for more frequent drinking. Perfect with Sunday roast, game, meat and semi-hard cheese – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from The Wine Society, WinerackN.D.John, Lea and Sandeman, South African Wines Online, Slurp and Exel Wines – more stockist information is here.
Meerlust wines are distributed in the US through Maisons Marques & Domaines.

If you like classic Bordeaux wines you will certainly enjoy this, but even if you have never tried a Claret it is still a delicious wine that will find favour with almost anyone who enjoys Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Wine of the Week 19 – a superior Bordeaux Supérieur

Vineyards in Entre-Deux-Mers.

Vineyards in Entre-Deux-Mers.

I’m not a great one for the cheaper end of Bordeaux, the sort of wine that was described as ‘luncheon claret’ when I joined the wine trade. Red Bordeaux more than any other type of wine really ought to make you stop, think and smile. Claretany red Bordeaux – can be the most thought provoking, elegant and refined wines in the world, but of course wine like that costs money. Sad to say that cheaper Bordeaux only hints at what is possible, while downright cheap Bordeaux almost never has anything about it to suggest how good the wines from this region can be.

I say almost never, because I think I have tasted an exception. I was tasting an array of value for money claret and this was by some distance the best of the wines at under £10 a bottle – no mean feat when you consider that if you strip the retailer’s merging, excise duty, VAT, packaging costs and transport out, this wine cost something like £1.70!

Behind the scenes at an Entre-Deux-Mers Château.

Behind the scenes at an Entre-Deux-Mers Château.

Darzac2011 Château Darzac Cuvée Réserve
A.C. Bordeaux Supérieur
Vignobles Claude Barthe
76% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc and 11% Cabernet Sauvignon partially aged in oak barrels for 8 months. The Château has been owned and run by the same family for generations and although they are white wine specialists – Darzac is in the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation for whites and about 8 km south east of Libourne – this is a very good effort indeed. By the way incase you are wondering a Bordeaux Supérier can be produced anywhere within Bordeaux, but is made according to slightly stricter rules that standard Bordeaux. These rules include higher minimal alcohol levels and longer ageing times.
Bright, slightly purple, but basically ruby red.
The nose is slightly spicy and cedary with plums and red fruit.
The palate is clean and smooth with lovely raspberry and blackcurrant fruit, there is real freshness here from the acidity which gives it a feel of elegance, this is helped by the merest touch of coffee and cedary spice. Smoky tannins dominate the finish at the moment, giving more structure, but they are not aggressive at all. It is a fruity wine, but not in a blockbuster style, indeed it is a classic medium-bodied, dry red Bordeaux.

I drank this over 2 days and it was much better by the second day. I approached this with some trepidation, but it is a nice wine and gives some idea of what claret should be like, albeit in an easier drinking more everyday style. Try it with steak-frîtes, cheese or meat dishes – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK for £8.00 a bottle from Asda.

This is exactly the sort of claret that will win Bordeaux friends even at what passes for a cheap price nowadays, do try it sometime.

 

Bordeaux – much more than just wine

In the world of wine we talk about Bordeaux all the time, we all know what we mean by the word. Strangely though I take it for granted and never think about what we do not mean by it. And we do not really mean the city of Bordeaux at all. I have been to Bordeaux quite a few times over the years, but have hardly ever seen the city itself.

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The Garonne in Bordeaux

No, by Bordeaux we generally mean the wines of Bordeaux and the vineyard areas around the city where the grapes are grown and these wines are made. So I was delighted to be invited to spend some time in Bordeaux recently getting to know the city a little and some of the delights that it has to offer the visitor.

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Bordeaux’s beautiful La Porte Cailhau.

Of course wine looms large in Bordeaux and is hard to avoid, especially – I suppose – as we were guests of Olivier Dauga the larger than life consultant wine maker, style guru and former rugby player. Yes Olivier wanted us to taste his wines and to understand his views on winemaking, but he also wanted us to experience his Bordeaux, his friends as well as the restaurants and bars that he loves.

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The ever colourful Olivier Dauga – I started to wonder if he always matched the paintings?

It was to be a wine visit with no vineyards, wineries or bottling lines. In fact the only vines I saw all trip were the ones that decorate Bordeaux Airport. I had met Olivier before, in London, at a tasting of his Ukranian wines and knew that he was a very interesting winemaker and well worth talking to, so I was really looking forward to the trip.

Our little group was put up in the lovely Maison Fredon, an arty boutique hotel in the Rue Porte de la Monnaie. It is housed in a beautiful old house and only has 5 rooms, but each one has a distinct personality and is furnished in a different and quirky style. The hotel is the latest venture of Olivier’s friend Jean-Pierre Xiradakis who has been one of the stars of the local restaurant scene ever since he created La Tupina – just over the road from the hotel – in 1968.

La Tupina from my window.

La Tupina from my window.

La Tupina is a lovely relaxed restaurant that specialises in the flavoursome traditional food of Bordeaux and the Sud-Ouest. This includes foie gras prepared in many different ways and a wonderful array of grilled and spit roast meats.

Spit roast chicken being cooked at la Tupina - photo courtesy of La Tupina.

Spit roast chicken being cooked at la Tupina – photo courtesy of La Tupina.

Apparently when Jean-Pierre started here the area was pretty run down and considered to be far from the centre. Now he has made the area quite the place to go to for good food. In fact Jean-Pierre calls Rue Porte de la Monnaie the ‘Rue Gourmande‘ as over the years he has created quite a few interesting bars and restaurants here that includes the informal wine bar / bistrot Cave Bar de la Monnaie and Kuzina the Greek influenced fish restaurant – after all Jean-Pierre’s surname is Xiradakis! As if that wasn’t enough the Café Tupina is a lovely neighbourhood bar while the delightful Au Comestible is a casual restaurant and fine grocery store – Jean-Pierre is right, this street really is foodie heaven.

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Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

Jean-Pierre showing us how to cook asparagus.

Jean-Pierre showing us how to cook asparagus.

La Tupina.

La Tupina.

The next morning we were up and ready to explore the city with a stroll around the old ramparts and the lively Marché des Capucins, the historic food market of Bordeaux. The place is a delight to stroll around with fabulous fish stalls, butchers, charcuterie stalls, bakers, cheese stalls, greengrocers, basque food specialists  – and, as is normal in civilised countries, the odd bar to provide liquid refreshment.

Marché des Capucins.

Marché des Capucins.

Bordeaux is a terrific city to wander around, the centre is small and so none of the distances seem daunting and there is always something to catch the eye and bring the lovely narrow streets to life, whether its interesting shops, churches, peaceful squares or lively cafés.

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Place Saint-Pierre.

Repairing the cobble stones.

Repairing Bordeaux’s cobble stones.

Our wanderings were not just random by the way, we were touring the city centre and stopped off here and there for a tasting of some of Olivier’s wines. Our first such pit-stop was at one of the city’s many fabulous wine shops, La C.U.V. or Cave Utile en Ville or Urban Wine Shop is a great place to while away a little time looking at the array of bottles from all corners of France and beyond. The original branch is situated in 7 Place Maucaillou, very near the market, the little place has that village-like feel of a place where people actually live and work. So successful have these self confessed inquisitive terroirs lovers been that they have opened a second shop in Place Nansouty, which just goes to show – that contrary to what people think – the French consumer is open to trying and buying wines from places other than their own region and country. In fact one of the things that particularly delighted me about Bordeaux was the vibrant wine shop and wine bar scene with the differences between the two often being blurred.

The First Wine Tasting
Here we had our first formal tasting of some of the wines that Olivier makes in his role as consultant winemaker. I had spoken to him a little before this and I was very impressed by what he sought to do. It is his intention to respect the wishes of the owner in terms of style and to faithfully reflect the terroir of the estate. He does not seek to impose his own winemaking style on the wines at all and there was a great deal of difference across the wines that he is responsible for. Often you can tell if the same winemaker has made a range of wines, but in these it was nigh on impossible to detect a common style. There was a common thread though, which was fruit and delicacy – none of these were blockbusters, but none were dusty either – which is pretty much exactly the style of wine that Olivier told me he approves of. Simply put he seems to believe that wine should be approachable and enjoyable – and I certainly think those are laudable aims.

This first tasting was all red wines and, with one exception, they were all from Bordeaux. If you are looking for good quality and value red Bordeaux then you could do a lot worse than try any of these:

2010 Château Les Gravières de la Brandille, Bordeaux Supérieur
65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. I really liked this unoaked, juicy claret and think it would make many friends who want a good medium bodied dry red that has ample fruit and supple tannins. 86/100 points.
2010 of course was a great Bordeaux year of course, but so was 2009 and you can buy the 2009 in the UK from Stone, Vine & Sun @ £9.75. 

2010 Château Roques Mauriac Cuvée Classique, Bordeaux Supérieur
40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Another unoaked clare that I enjoyed, it has a freshness and fleshy quality to the fruit that makes it very drinkable and pleasurable, especially as the tannins are very soft. 86/100 points.
I am told that it is available in the UK from Virgin Wines @ £9.49.

2011 Château de Rivereau, Côtes de Bourg
70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon – although Olivier did say there was a drop of cabernet franc here too. This has a little time in oak and it showed with some coffee tinges and fruit cake spice just adding a little complexity to the supple fruit and attractive, clean chalky tannins. 86/100 points.

2011 Château de La Jaubertie, Bergerac
This estate is of course not in Bordeaux, but nearby Bergerac, but this area makes wines in a similar style and offers superb value for money. Jaubertie is famously owned by the Ryman family of stationery fame. 60% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 10% Malbec with 20% fermented in barrel and the whole wine was aged on the lees for 6 months with 10% aged in new American oak for 6 months. I thought this was a nice wine, direct honest and juicy with a slight oak spice tinge and a delicate herbal green edge to the black fruit. Nicely balanced, very drinkable and utterly classic, but well made – 86/100 points.

2011 Château La Pirouette, Cru Bourgeois Médoc
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 25% aged 12 months in new oak barrels. The extra class and complexity showed here. There was a precision to the wine and a structure to it that made it very clean and taut, but still had good fruit and lovely balance. 88/100 points.

Amélie Durand with her red wine.

Amélie Durand with her Cuvée Amélie red wine in La C.U.V.

BTCA032010 Château Doms Cuvée Amélie, Graves
80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 25% aged in oak barrels, one third new. This is the top cuvée from the estate and is named in honour of the owner’s mother, while the estate is run and the wine is made – with Olivier’s help – by the owner’s daughter, Amélie. She was there to present her wines to us and what’s more she drove me to the airport the next day when I had been left behind!
I like Amélie’s wines, very much indeed. They have an elegance and a finesse that pleased me, as well as good concentration and balance. The fruit was fleshy and plump while the oak spice was nicely integrated giving mocha notes and complexity. There was a nice cut of acidity too and the tannins were ripe and not astringent – 90/100 points.

The Second Wine Tasting
Having done the reds we set off once more for a stroll through Bordeaux’s attractive cobbled streets to sample some of Olivier’s white wines along with some excellent local seafood at Le Rince Doigt, a casual little place that calls itself a guinguette , guinguette à fruits de mer in fact and it aims to be a seaside seafood bar in the middle of the city. To give that relaxed holiday feel  the whole place was dressed up as though we actually were on the beach, with sandy floors and deck chairs and the simple menu was wonderful with oysters, moules frites, moules farcies, spicy cod fritters and much more.

The indoor beach at Le Rince Doigt and yes that is John Salvi!

The indoor beach at Le Rince Doigt and yes that is John Salvi eyeing the table football!

So we settled on to our indoor beach and the white wines started flowing – sometimes my work is just too hard. I really like white Bordeaux wines, I think they are very underrated – like white Rioja – and can be some of the best – and best value – dry white wines around. These were my favourites here:

2012 Château Les Combes, Bordeaux Blanc – although the estate is in Lussac-St. Émilion
90% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Sémillon – no oak, but 3 months on the lees.
A lovely beautifully balanced and aromatic dry white bursting with elderflower aromas, green fruit, lemon, lime and salad herbs, the lees ageing has introduced a nice layer of complexity too. A very good dry white, much more interesting than budget Sancerre – 86/100 points.
Available in the UK from Stone, Vine & Sun @ £9.75. 

2012 Château Marzin, Bordeaux Blanc
Sauvignon Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.
I liked this bright dry white with its crisp green fruit aromas and slightly fatter smoky palate that reduces the impact of the acidity – 85/100 points.

2012 Château Piote, Bordeaux Blanc – although the estate is in Lussac-St. Émilion
70% Sémillon and 30% Colombard.
Virginie Aubrion makes some lovely organic wines and this relatively unusual white blend is very attractive with real herbal characters, even some lavender, and a nice touch of weight on the palate – 85/100 points.

BTBG062012 Château Doms, Graves
60% Sémillon and 40% Sauvignon Blanc.
Amélie’s white wine was my absolute favourite here and really is fine. It is unoaked, but still has lovely weight and creamy texture backed up by fresh, crisp acidity, this really punches above its weight. Right now it is fresh and lean with crisp mineral acidity with the texture just adding some plushness and creaminess. It will age well becoming richer and creamier – 90/100 points.

The Cheese Course
Rather than have dessert we took some of our favourite bottles with us and strolled down to the Fromagerie Deruelle which is an amazing cheese shop in Bordeaux’s Rue du Pas-Saint-Georges. I always love cheese shops, they are truly fascinating places to spend some time – the only problem is they always cause me spend far too much money. Deruelle is one of the very, very best cheese shops that I have ever visited with all the cheeses perfectly stored, all clearly labelled and beautifully presented.

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Part of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

More of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

More of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

Here were treated to a taste of 3 different cheeses to try with a white wine, a rosé and a red wine. The cheeses were:
Palet Frais – a fresh goat cheese from Lot et Garonne.
L’Estive – a (semi) hard sheep cheese from the Basque country.
Fourme de Montbrison – is a hard cow’s-milk cheese made in the Rhône-Alpes and Auvergne.

In my opinion the 2012 Château Les Combes white was the best with the cheeses as it went perfectly with the first and second cheese, the Fourme seemed to overpower everything really, so needed a really big red wine with lots of fruit.

Our cheese tasting.

Our cheese tasting.

The End of the Line
So we were now approaching the end of this wine trip with no winery visits and we finished in one of this lovely city’s trendy wine bars – La Ligne Rouge. Right by the beautiful La Porte Cailhau, La Ligne Rouge is a great place where you can browse the shelves from around the world and buy a bottle to take home or drink there with some cheese or charcuterie. They specialise in artisanal wines, often organic or biodynamic and have a terrific range from across France, especially Roussillon and the Languedoc – Bordeaux wines would seem to be in a minority in their range. Surprisingly they list more wines that come from places other than France and have a great selection from Spain, Austria, Chile, Argentina and much more, so next time you are in Bordeaux drop into this lovely shop…bar…shop – whatever, it’s a great place.

Olivier at La Ligne Rouge.

Olivier at La Ligne Rouge.

This was a wine trip with a real difference and I enjoyed it very much. It was very interesting seeing a totally different side to Bordeaux and experiencing for myself what a terrific place it is to stay, to walk around, to eat in and to drink in.

You could do a lot worse than visit Bordeaux for your next break.

Bordeaux Wine Guide – a user friendly reference book

Like many people who enjoy wine I’m a real hedonist. I like the good and sensual stuff of all types. Wine of course figures very high on the list – it’s how I make my living after all. Food is pretty important too though – in fact I hardly ever eat anything else. Like wine the love of food incorporates so much about culture, travel and history that enjoying different food helps make sense of the world and makes other people interesting rather than alarming – I often wonder what people who don’t like food actually do when they travel – answers on a postcard please.

If I can’t actually have some wine and food or travel somewhere interesting, then the next best thing is to read about it, so I love books. As a consequence I own a lot of books about exotic places, books about food and books about wine. I need a lot of wine books too as I constantly have to look things up and check facts and I don’t like to just rely on Wikipedia!

With Christmas coming I thought it might be nice to tell you about some books that I am enjoying and that all you other hedonists out there might find useful, either for your own pleasure or as gifts for others.

By the way if you were planning on giving me anything, please remember that I already have these!

Three books have caught my fancy of late and I will tell you all about them, but am starting with the one that is purely about wine:

Chris Kissack, aka the Wine Doctor, relaxing with something other than Bordeaux

Pocket Guide to the Wines of Bordeaux
by Chris Kissack
Published by MagBooks at £6.99
Also available from Amazon and on Kindle

I know Chris and like him too, he writes an amazingly fine and encyclopaedic wine website called The Wine Doctor, which I find a very useful resource. Well this is the more portable spin-off – no battery life, wifi or 3G signal required either, just a pocket. Actually my only quibble is with the size of this book, exactly how big are your pockets Chris? At 21 cm X 14.8 cm it doesn’t fit any of mine, but hey I’ll stick it in a bag – or perhaps a Christmas stocking.

Chris does write about other wine regions, but his great speciality is Bordeaux and as it is the largest fine wine region earth and the home of fine wine I can understand why. Just like his website, this book is a labour of love and it shows. Chris is steeped in the wines of Bordeaux (quite literally sometimes) he loves them with a passion so strong you cannot help but be swept along, what’s more he has an incredible eye for detail, so this book is full to bursting with useful information and the odd unexpected nugget. For instance I was unaware that the great Château Haut-Brion have 2 hectares of non-permitted grapes including Pinot Noir and Sangiovese.

In the main I would regard this as a book to refer to rather than sit down and read and I can imagine that it could become an indispensable work of reference for anyone who wants to get serious about the region. The contents are attractive and well laid out with clearly marked sections that have in depth, yet easily digested, chunks on all the topics you need for a working knowledge of the region or for buying Bordeaux wines – whether for drinking pleasure or investment.

Amongst the many good things in here is a detailed look at the vintages from 2003 to 2011 and brief notes on the rest back to 1990. There are profiles and histories of the Premier Cru Classé Châteaux, Chris’s personal selection of the top Bordeaux Châteaux for reds and the great sweet wines of Sauternes as well as his top tips for good value.

As if all that isn’t enough there are sections on how they grow the grapes and make the wines as well as chapters that give you sneaky little insights into all the appellations of the region and the various classifications, from the 1855 (official) to the 2011 (unofficial) along with Graves, St Émilion, Sauternes and Cru Bourgeois.

I had better stop heaping praise on Chris before his head totally explodes, but this is an excellent reference book and I intend to keep my copy handy. It contains pretty much anything you need to make your Bordeaux buying and drinking a less haphazard experience and is a perfect gift for those just starting to get into wine – especially Bordeaux.

I will tell you all about another couple of books very soon, so keep coming back.

Cru Bourgeois – great quality & value from Bordeaux

Cru Bourgeois Clarets – polished and renewed for 2009

Of all the world’s great wine regions it is Bordeaux that is dearest to my heart, for the simple reason that the first really good quality wines that I tasted were from there. Many of you are aware that I love Spanish wines and almost anything left of field, but wherever else I roam I am always drawn back to the red wines of Bordeaux. Sadly I have not been to Bordeaux often enough or, as prices have risen, drunk nearly enough of the stuff and I would very much like to put that right.

Well, recently I was in exactly the right place to start that process. Last year I reported in detail on the new Cru Bourgois classification for the Médoc district of Bordeaux. I attended the first unveiling of the new classification last year and the explanation of the new selection process as well as the principals behind it. If you need to catch up on the background my article from last year explains all – read it here.

That first vintage of the newly revamped Cru Bourgeois was the 2008, the new one is the much more exciting 2009. The tasting panels have now done their work and the results are in and 246 wines have achieved the coveted Cru Bourgeois status for the 2009 vintage – three more than last year’s tally. Having seen the unveiling of the new classification last year I was anxious to see how things were progressing. I had a favourable view of the wines last year, but was slightly concerned that as Cru Bourgeois is a guarantee of a minimum quality that it might lend itself to a sort of general sweeping up of otherwise unclassified wine. So I was pleased to  be able to taste a good representative range of these wines.

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Montefalco – Italy’s Rising Star

The Bocale winery and vineyards, showing the landscape of Montefalco – photo courtesy of Montefalco wine.

I love Italian wine and am fascinated by the enormous potential there is in every corner of that amazing wine producing country. 

Excitingly every now and again a region emerges from relative obscurity to sit alongside the famous classic wine regions such as Barolo and Chianti. We might well be experiencing such a moment right now.

Map of Umbria’s wine areas – click for a larger view.

The landlocked province of Umbria neighbours Tuscany but feels more rural and quiet. Wine has been produced here for centuries with the whites of Orvieto and reds of Torgiano enjoying some success. Neither though have managed to break through into the ranks of the great regions.

Umbria might now have found its true champion though in the tiny wine region of Montefalco. I visited recently and loved what I found. This delightful place is well off the beaten track – my taxi to Montefalco from Rome Airport covered nearly half the distance on unmade roads – and is centred on the pretty hilltop medieval town of Montefalco.

The hilltop town of Montefalco – photo courtesy of Tabarrini.

It’s small, but utterly charming with beautiful narrow streets, fortified town walls and a scattering of wine shops as well as some excellent restaurants. It’s a delightful place to wander around but at its heart is the wine produced in the surrounding countryside.

The delightful main street and gate of Montefalco – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The place enjoys a Mediterranean climate – they grow olives here in abundance – with some aspects of a continental climate, including very cold winters.

Two distinct styles dominate local red wine production, Montefalco Rosso DOC and Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG.

DOC / Denominazione di origine controllata wines come from recognised traditional regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance. DOCG / Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is a step above and the rules are more stringent, with longer ageing and lower yields.

The Montefalco Rosso wines are blends based on 60-80% Sangiovese, the famous grape of Chianti in Tusacny, together with 10-25% of the local Sangrantino grape and often some Barbera and Merlot. 

One of the oldest estates in Montefalco is the wonderfully named Scacciadiavoli – it means to banish devils and celebrates an exorcist who lived nearby. It was founded in 1884 and this is where they created the local Rosso blend of Sangiovese and Sangrantino as an alternative to Chianti.

Montefalco DOC was created in 1979 as a recognition for the improvement in the local wines. Some fine dry whites are made here as well as reds, from blends based on the excellent Trebbiano Spoletino grape – which is a variety on its own and not Trebbiano. There are also some lovely crisp whites made from Grechetto (grek-ketto).

Trebbiano Spoletana vines growing the trees at Tabarrini – photo courtesy of Tabarrini.

I would also add that the nearby Spoleto DOC, which overlaps with Montefalco, produces some truly great white wines made from Trebbiano Spoletino.

Without a shadow of a doubt though the premier wine from this region is the Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG and it is this which is fast becoming one of Italy’s star red wines. Originally it was simply a part of the Montefalco DOC, but was separated out and promoted to DOCG status in 1992. The rules specify that the wine must be aged for a minimum of 37 months, including at least 12 months in barrel and 4 months in bottle.

Historically Sagrantino was considered so harsh and tannic that they either made sweet wines from it or blended it with softer, less tannic varieties. 

Scacciadiavoli made the first dry red wine made from the Sagrantino grape, that we know about anyway. It was in 1924 for a local festival and was only made once, before they reverted to the more normal sweet wines.

The move to dry reds happened slowly from the 1960s onwards. The sweet wines still exist though with many producers making a Passito Sagrantino from grapes that have been dried to concentrate the sugars.

The approach to Arnaldo Caprai – photo by Quentin Sadler.

One of the most famous estates here is Arnaldo Caprai which was a pioneer in adopting modern techniques that lifted the quality of the dry wines. This foresight made the wines more exciting for foreign markets and helped others to see the potential. As a result the few old established estates here seem to have raised their game and to have produced more ambitious and finer wines, while newcomers have flocked to the region to create new vineyards. Today there are over 50 producers of Montefalco Sagrantino.

In some ways the wines appear similar in flavour to Sangiovese, with red berry fruit characters, an earthy quality and plenty of food friendly acidity to give balance. The bigger wines, from riper vintages and the more internationally focussed producers, combine these with deeper black fruit flavours too, while a little bit of age brings out the complexity of dried fruit and leather. The wines always have that tannic structure that is more reminiscent of Barolo than Chianti though.

It seems to me that although it has been a very long time coming, Sagrantino has found its moment. Greater understanding and modern knowhow, including gentle handling, cold fermentation and less new oak seems to have tamed Sagrantino’s tannins, delivering ripe fruit and seductive charms that give the wines much wider appeal than ever before. Yes indeed there are tannins, but they are approachable and enjoyable, giving the wine structure rather than bite.

I have tasted some older vintages that I enjoy, but for me the quality of the wines really took off from the excellent 2011 harvest onwards. Time and again it was the, cool, 2014 vintage and the ripe, generous 2015 and 2016 wines that impressed me the most.

Yes these are bold wines with big flavours, but there is real elegance and finesse here too so they should appeal to lovers of Bordeaux, California and Rioja, as well as Barolo, Brunello and Chianti. The opulence, generous fruit and elegance makes these excellent restaurant wines that partner so much more than just Italian food.

Montefalco Sagrantino truly has become one of Italy’s new star regions.

Some producers worth seeking out:

Marco Caprai, whose vision and drive helped to inspire the region – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Arnaldo Caprai – In many ways the estate that set Montefalco Sagrantino on the path to its current glory. Founded in 1971, Marco Caprai took over the reins from his father Arnaldo in 1988 and immediately started an in-depth analysis of the Sagrantino grape, the clones on the estate and how to grow this tricky variety. The results speak for themselves with the wines achieving a global following and wide acclaim. In many ways these are amongst the most international and opulent – indeed there is a touch of Napa Valley to the winery and tasting room – but the range is impressive and the quality is very high across the board.

Try: Valdimaggio single vineyard Montefalco Sangrantino with its rich, but balanced fruit, spice notes and silky texture.

Arnaldo Caprai wines are distributed and retailed in the UK by Mondial Wine.

Matteo Basili, the winemaker at Beneditti & Grigi – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Beneditti & Grigi – Founded as recently as 2014, this newcomer makes very high quality wines under the guidance of Matteo Basili who is a passionate, honest, openminded and engaging winemaker. He creates two ranges; the easier drinking La Gaita del Falco and the more complex Beneditti & Grigi line.

Try: Adone DOC Montefalco Grechetto white is a stunning take on the Grechetto grape. It is partially barrel fermented and is both delicate and rich with lovely refreshing acidity. 

Their Beneditti & Grigi Montefalco Sangrantino is a great wine with a seductive smoothness that shows how well they tame those infamous tannins.

They also make a Sagrantino that does not adhere to the DOCg rules and so is labelled as IGT Umbria. It only has a little oak and is a fresh, lively and drinkable take on this tannic grape.

Beneditti & Grigi wines are available, until Brexit anyway, from XtraWine, Tannico.co.uk and Uvinum – all of whom ship the wine to you directly and very efficiently – ah the joys of being in TheSingle Market.

Liù Pambuffetti, winemaker and custodian of Scacciadiavoli’s history – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Scaccadiavoli – The original innovator in Montefalco, this beautiful estate was founded in 1884 and created the recipe for what is now Montefalco Rosso. Amilcare Pambuffetti worked here as a young vineyard worker and was eventually able to buy the property in 1954 when he was 71. Today the fourth generation of his family farm 40 hectares of vines.

Try: Their elegant Montefalco Sangrantino has a traditional, savoury character while they also make a fine traditional method sparkling rosé from 100% Sagrantino.

Some Scaccadiavoli wines are imported into the UK by The Wine Society.

Giampaolo Tabarrini, the force of nature behind Tabarrini’s success – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Tabarrini – Giampaolo Tabarrini, whose family have farmed here since the 1840s, is a true force of nature. He took his family winery that made local wine for everyday consumption and since 1996 has transformed it into one of the leading estates of this up and coming region. He is effortlessly charming, hugely entertaining and well worth listening to – which is good as he seldom keeps quiet, or stands still for that matter. The farming is entirely organic and the focus is firmly on their 18 hectares of vineyard.

Try: Adarmando Trebbiano Spoletana is made from hundred year old vines that are trained high up in trees, like wild vines, and is one of the very best white wines here. Giampaolo’s three single vineyard, or Cru, Montefalco Sagrantinos are exquisite with concentrated fruit, refined tannins and integrated oak.

Tabarrini wines are distributed in the UK by Raeburn Fine Wines and are available from the excellent Uncorked and the equally first rate The Good Wine Shop.

Valentino Valentini, the passionate and precise winemaker of Boale and Montefalco’s youngest ever mayor – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Bocale – The Valentini family have farmed in Montefalco for generations but only created their own estate in 2002. Now run by Valentino Valentini, Montefalco’s youngest ever Mayor, the emphasis is very much on quality. He makes true artisan wines that echo his passionate, yet precise character. The estate covers 9 hectares, farming is organic and all the fermentations are spontaneous. From 2009 they have picked later, for optimum ripeness, and aged the wines in large French oak casks to soften those tannins.

Try: Their Montefalco Sangrantino is concentrated, spicy and herbal with nicely judged tannins that are firm but far from hard going.

Bocale wines are distributed in the UK by Dolce Vita Wines and are available from Hedonism.

Filippo Antonelli, the charming and amusing owner of Antonelli with his amphorae – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Antonelli – Filippo Antonelli is a fascinating and amusing host whose family has owned this estate since 1881. He himself has been in charge here since 1986 and seems justly proud of his wines and heritage. The vineyards cover 40 hectares and have been certified organic since 2012. Like many estates they also produce an amazing olive oil, as well as some wonderful salamis. 

Try: The magnificent amphora fermented and aged Anteprima Tonda Trebbiano Spoletana is one of my favourite white wines of the year. The single vineyard Chiusa di Pannone Montefalco Sagrantino is amongst the very best examples, while his Contrario Sangrantino is a juicy modern, unoaked take on the grape.

Antonelli wines are distributed in the UK by Laytons and Jeroboams and are also available through Tannico.co.uk.

Albertino Pardi, winemaker at Cantina Fratelli Pardi – photo courtesy of Pardi.

Cantina Fratelli Pardi – An 11 hectare family run estate that dates back to 1919, but produces a range of exuberant and bright wines that are modern in every way and yet true to themselves. Sadly I did not get to visit this winery, but I did taste their wines several times and seriously impressed by the quality and the sheer drinkability.

Try: Their Trebbiano Spoletana, with its fresh acidity, touch of texture and tropical fruit, is an excellent introduction to this exciting style, while their Montefalco Sangrantino is complex and incredibly drinkable with its rich, concentrated fruit and supple mouthfeel.

Pardi wines are imported into the UK by Aleksic & Mortimer Winehouse and are available through Tannico.co.uk.

Hawke’s Bay – New Zealand’s Diverse Region

Looking North East towards Napier from Te Mata Peak – photo courtesy of Te Mata Winery.

The world seems to love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, especially from Marlborough on South Island. Wine drinkers appear to have an insatiable appetite for this lively style of wine with its crisp, green characters softened with tropical exuberance.

However the other 30% or so of New Zealand’s wines that are not made from Sauvignon Blanc and do not come from Marlborough are also well worth exploring.

My favourite region must be Hawke’s Bay on North Island. This beautiful place is defined by the great sweep of Hawke Bay itself – confusingly the region is called Hawke’s (or more normally Hawkes on wine labels) Bay, while the body of water is Hawke Bay, named by Captain Cook in honour of Sir Edward Hawke, First Lord of the Admiralty. It is a largely rural place and includes some spectacular countryside, but the urban centres offer many charms too. The city of Napier was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and was totally rebuilt in the, then, current Art Deco style. Nearby Hastings is the other centre and was also largely rebuilt in the Art Deco style. This time capsule of 1930s glamour makes these cities wonderfully evocative places to wander around. The Hastings suburb of Havelock North, very near Te Mata peak, with its relaxing villagey feel is a lovely place to visit too.

Wine map of Hawke’s Bay – click for a larger view.

Although it has been surpassed by Marlborough in recent decades and now only produces around 10% of New Zealand’s wine, Hawke’s Bay is still the second largest wine region in the country and the principal centre for red wine production. 

What I love here is the sense of history, the first winery was established in 1851 – 120 years or so before vines were grown in Marlborough. In fact several of the leading producers here including Mission Estate, Te Mata, Church Road, Vidal Estate and Esk Valley were all well established by the 1930s.

Of course history never flows in a straight line and although there was indeed a brief flowering of dry wine production here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the likes of Te Mata winning awards for their pre World War I “clarets”, the real demand in the days of the British Empire was for Port and Sherry substitutes, fortified wines. It was not until the 1970s that the emphasis moved to dry wines and another twenty years before Hawke’s Bay started to acquire the reputation as a wine region, especially for reds, that it enjoys today.

Being half way up North Island, Hawke’s Bay is one of the warmest areas in New Zealand and enjoys a long growing season. This enables Hawke’s Bay to specialise in grape varieties that simply cannot ripen in the cool maritime conditions further south. That being said, it is still a temperate and moderate climate. This contrasts with almost all other “New World” wine producing countries which have hotter Mediterranean climates. The temperatures in the growing season are a bit warmer than Bordeaux, but cooler than California’s Napa Valley. 

Looking south and east across the Tukituki River – photo by Quentin Sadler

Of course nothing is simple, so where the grapes grow within Hawke’s Bay is an important consideration. The coastal zone is appreciably cooler than the areas further inland. This means that the best quality white grapes tend to be grown nearer the ocean, where most of the black grapes will not ripen, and the best black grapes flourish further inland where the extra heat and shelter helps them to achieve full ripeness. These varied conditions mean that Hawke’s Bay can offer an incredible variety of wine styles.

The inland temperatures are some 7˚C or so more than the coast. This makes it possible for Hawke’s Bay to ripen some grape varieties that defeat almost every other New Zealand region, except Waiheke Island far to the north. Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and even Cabernet Sauvignon all thrive here. Of course New Zealand can almost never produce those big, rich, fruity wines like Australia and California do, there just isn’t enough heat for that. So whether you are drinking a Bordeaux style blend of Merlot and Cabernet, or a Syrah, these reds will usually be more delicate than other new world examples, but fruitier and softer than their European counterparts.

Misty hills beyond the vineyards in the Tukituki Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The dominant grapes being Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah is almost serendipitous as New Zealand is famous for producing lamb. Merlot-Cabernet blends, like red Bordeaux from the same grape varieties, are a fine match with lamb. Syrah is not only great with lamb, but also partners venison really well and New Zealand is a major producer of that meat too.

As for white grapes, the real speciality is Chardonnay as these conditions, create wines with ripeness and texture as well as fine acidity – think White Burgundy with more fruit. As you might expect though, they also produce Sauvignon Blanc and these tend to be riper, more mouth filling and textured than those from Marlborough.

Looking towards Cape Kidnappers from Elephant Hill – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The soils provide little nourishment and are free draining, which helps to produce concentrated and complex wines as the vines have to work hard and dig deep for goodness while any excess water just drains away rather than making the grapes dilute. Much of the terrain has been formed by five ancient rivers – the Wairoa, Mohaka, Tutaekuri, Ngaruroro and Tukituki – moving over centuries to form valleys and terraces and leaving behind over 25 different soil types including clay loam, limestone, sand and gravel.

Gimblett Gravels soils – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Gravel is the most famous soil here with one of the most important sub-regions of Hawke’s Bay actually being called Gimblett Gravels. This warm area was formed by the Ngaruroro (pronounced Na-roo-roe-roe) River changing route after a huge flood in 1867. The deep gravel soils it left behind have almost no organic component, so give low vigour and perfect drainage. This means the area can produce world class red wines with concentration and ripeness together with the elegance and freshness that the relatively cool conditions give, even in this warm part of New Zealand.

Ever since wine growers were first aware of the Gimblett Gravels in 1981 it has been seen as primarily a red wine area. It pretty quickly became known for Bordeaux style blends of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, often with some Cabernet Franc and Malbec too. 

Vines growing in the Gimblett gravels – photo by Quentin Sadler.

In more recent years Syrah has started to challenge that dominance and although the amount of Syrah grown is quite small it has quickly earned a very high reputation for quality. Some other black grapes grow here too, with small plantings of Grenache and Tempranillo showing great promise. White grapes make up about 10% of the plantings with some superb Chardonnays and Viogniers as well as a little Arneis, Gewürztraminer and even Riesling.

The Bridge Pa Triangle is an area just a little further inland from Gimblett Gravels. It has similar gravel soils but under a deep layer of loam topsoil, which often makes the wines softer and more aromatic. 

There are other sub-zones of Hawke’s Bay too, but you are unlikely to see their names appearing on labels anytime soon.

To my mind the wines coming out of Hawke’s Bay make perfect restaurant wines. They can provide an attractive half-way house between new world fruitiness and richness and the dryness of European wines. This makes them very food friendly and versatile with food or without. What’s more they have that clean and bright New Zealand character that can be very appealing. Also like most new world wines, they usually deliver as soon as the bottle is opened, without needing to be left to breathe for a little while to show at their best.

Looking towards the Te Mata Hills from Craggy Range – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The Hawke’s Bay specialities are most certainly Chardonnay, Bordeaux-style blends of Merlot and Cabernet and Syrah, but there is so much more going on too. Reds from Malbec, Tempranillo, Grenache and even some Pinot Noir in the cooler places. As for whites there is also fine Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Sémillon, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Arneis, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and more. So, stylistically it is very hard to pin the region down, but very rewarding to try.

Here is my a brief selection of Hawke’s Bay wines & wineries for you to try – of course the other wines by these producers are very good too:

The Te Mata Winery – photo by Quentin Sadler

Te Mata:

One of the grand old names of Hawke’s Bay, Te Mata has been continuously operating since 1892 and is based in a beautiful Art Deco building right by Te Mata peak. The vineyards and winery were completely renovated in the 1980s and they have never looked back. Today they have extensive vineyard holdings in Woodthorpe and the Bridge Pa Triangle as well as the original nineteenth century vineyards at the foot of Te Mata peak itself. Made under the guidance of Peter Cowley, one of the funniest winemakers I have ever met, the range is wonderfully creative and includes a fine oaked Sauvignon and delicious single vineyard Gamay.

Peter Cowley, the witty, engaging and passionate Technical Director at Te Mata. One of those winemakers that I could listen to for days – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Te Mata Coleraine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Aged for 18 months in barrel it is widely considered one of the very best red wines from New Zealand. I consistently like the restrained, elegant style and the freshness that keeps it irresistibly drinkable.

Available in the UK for £56.99 per bottle from The New Zealand House of Wine.

Trinity Hill:

Warren Gibson, long serving chief winemaker at Trinity Hill – photo courtesy of New Zealand Winegrowers.

This winery only dates back to 1993, but that makes them almost pioneers as far as New Zealand wine is concerned and they have certainly made their mark. Initially it was a joint venture between famed Australian winemaker John Hancock and Robert and Robyn Wilson, owners of London’s The Bleeding Heart restaurant. Chief winemaker Warren Gibson has been there since 1997 and he produces a range of beautiful wines that perfectly illustrate how diverse Hawke’s Bay can be – they even make a rich and aromatic blend of Marsanne and Viognier and a suave Pinot Noir.

Try: Trinity Hills Gimblett Gravels Syrah – this shows perfectly why Hawke’s Bay is good for Syrah. The cooler climate really defines this wine with its lively fruit and floral aromas. The luscious palate has ripe blackberry fruit, soft spices, integrated oak and ripe, sweet tannins. There is always a sense of freshness and purity in good Hawke’s Bay Syrah that sets it apart.

Available in the UK for £20.99 per bottle from The New Zealand House of Wine.

Vidal Estate: 

Vidal Estate Winery – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Spaniard Anthony Vidal opened his eponymous winery in an old racing stable in 1905. Owned by Villa Maria since the 1976 it opened New Zealand’s first, and still very fine, winery restaurant in 1979. Hugh Crichton has been the winemaker for many years now and his deft hand seems to do no wrong. He has a particularly high reputation for his Chardonnays, but the Syrahs and Cabernet blends are mighty fine too.

Hugh Crichton (left) in the cellar – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Try: Vidal Estate Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon is a great introduction to Hawke’s Bay reds. The palate is bold and richly fruity with smooth tannins, smoky oak and a touch of spice – 5% Malbec in the blend helps with the pizzazz.

Available in the UK for £14.00 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar.

Craggy Range: 

Vineyards at Craggy Range from their fabulous restaurant – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Businessmen Terry Peabody and revered viticulturist / winemaker Steve Smith MW created Craggy Range in the 1990s and quickly established themselves as one of the great names of Hawke’s Bay. Today chief winemaker Matt Stafford crafts a superb range of wines from vineyards in the Gimblett Gravels and the cooler coastal area near Cape Kidnappers.

Matt Stafford, the chief winemaker at Craggy Range – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay – the cool coastal conditions really define this wine with its freshness and minerality, subtle richness and restrained use of oak – think Chablis 1er Cru with a bit more soft fruit.

Available in the UK for £17.99 per bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

Elephant Hill:

The only elephant at Elephant Hill Winery – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Founded in 2003 this estate is another newcomer that has a built a huge reputation for itself very fast. It is managed by the charming Andreas Weiss whose parents created Elephant Hill after falling in love with the area while on holiday from their native Germany. The winery is surrounded by vines and sits almost on the cliff edge at Te Awanga. This is where they grow their white grapes while the reds and richer whites are grown in their Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle vineyards. The winery boasts incredible views and a great restaurant. As to the name, Andreas told me, “there’s no hill and there’s no elephant, but you certainly remember it”.

Andreas Weiss of Elephant Hill – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Elephant Hill Sauvignon Blanc – a pure and vivacious style, but rounder and more textured than a typical New Zealand Sauvignon. It feels clean, precise and beautifully defined too, with wonderful salty minerality cutting through the ripe citrus fruit.

Available in the UK for £16.50 per bottle from Corney & Barrow.

Esk Valley:

Esk valley’s terraced vineyard, home to the Terraces, one of New Zealand’s finest reds – photo courtesy of Esk Valley.

This famous winery sits right on the coast some 10 km north of Napier and was originally a fortified wine producer that fell into disuse by the 1970s. George Fistonich of Villa Maria bought it in 1986 and it has never looked back. For the last 20 odd years it has been left in the talented hands of winemaker Gordon Russell who has happily put all the old prewar concrete fermentation vats to use for his red wines and who revels in his reputation for being something of a maverick who makes true handmade wines. 

Gordon Russell with his beloved pre-war concrete fermentation vats at Esk Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Gordon crafts one of New Zealand’s most famous reds, Esk Valley The Terraces, from a one hectare block of vines on a terraced vineyard overlooking the ocean right by the winery.

Try: Esk Valley Verdelho – this grape is mainly used to make fortified Madeira,  but this is an unfortified style that has a lovey brightness to it and enticing aromatics. I love the mandarin-like acidity, the rich palate and the little touch of salinity on the fresh, lively finish. It’s wonderful with oriental food.

Available in the UK for £13.75 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company.

Alpha–Domus:

The Ham Family of Alpha Domus – photo courtesy of the winery.

This estate is a real pioneer of the Bridge Pa Triangle. It was founded in 1990, pretty early for this sub-region, by the Ham family from the Netherlands. The first names of the five family members who founded and run the winery are; Anthonius and Leonarda together with their sons Paulus, Henrikus and Anthonius – Alpha! They produce a fine range of single vineyard, estate wines from the classic Hawke’s Bay grape varieties of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah, as well as Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Cumulus, a Traditional Method sparkling Chardonnay.

Try: Alpha–Domus The Wingwalker Viognier – in France’s northern Rhône,  where Syrah originates, Viognier grows next door, so it makes perfect sense that we are beginning to see more of this exotic, aromatic grape grown in Hawke’s Bay and used either on its own or co-fermented in tiny amounts with Syrah.

This is a rich but fresh example with exotic ripe fruit aromas and a succulent and silky palate with ripe peach, pineapple, coconut cream and a touch of shortbread. The balance is lovely and it makes the wine seem pure, yet powerful. Great with firm fish and white meat dishes.

Available in the UK for £18.50 per bottle from Noble Green.

Villa Maria:

Sir George Fistonich, the great New Zealand wine pioneer, whose Villa Maria group also owns Vidal and Esk – photo by Quentin Sadler

Villa Maria is an extraordinary company. Created singlehandedly in 1961 by a 21 year old New Zealander with Croatian roots. That young man is now Sir George Fistonich, one of the great figures of the wine world and he still has the same drive and passion all these years later. Villa Maria have vineyards and a winery in Marlborough and Auckland as well as Hawke’s Bay including owning one of the largest parcels of the Gimblett Gravels. To my mind they never put a foot wrong and consistently produce elegant wines that people enjoy, at all price points. Their Merlots, Merlot-Cabernet blends and Syrahs are all from their Hawke’s Bay vineyards. They recently launched a super premium Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon called Ngakirikiri which means “the gravels” in Maori. It’s a stunning wine with beautiful fruit, incredible richness, but also elegance and poise with gentle, supple tannins.

Try: Villa Maria Cellar Selection Gimblett Gravels Grenache – a surprisingly rich take on this grape that loves heat and sun. It’s richly fruity with black cherry and dried strawberry characters and lots of spice in the form of white pepper, fresh ginger and clove.

Available in the UK for £16.00 per bottle from Noble Green.

Of course this selection barely scratches the surface, there are many more fabulous wines from the producers mentioned here, let alone other wineries in Hawke’s Bay. These are all very good though, are easily available and show the quality and diversity that this exciting wine region can produce.

Côtes-du-Rhône with a twist

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Think Côtes-du-Rhône, think red wine, that was their advertising slogan for quite a few years and indeed the popular perception would be that the Côtes-du-Rhône is all about red wines. Which is understandable as this region of France produces a lot of wine – 372 million bottles or so a year in fact, but only 6% of that total is white.

A lot of places are like that  – Bordeaux and Rioja for instance – the red wines get all the glory and all the column inches and I can understand it, but it limits people’s appreciation of some wonderful wines from these places too – the whites.

Recently I was travelling around the southern Rhône Valley where I visited some fabulous estates and tasted some brilliant wines. It may have been because of the hot weather, or because we were given quite light food to eat, but very often the wines that caught my imagination the most were the whites.

The white wines of the southern Rhône are usually blends made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul Blanc and Bourboulenc although Viognier gets a look in as well. I love these grapes, well except for Viognier, as they are full of character, flavour and interest. Single varietals are permitted, although most white wines here are blends of more than one grape variety. These grapes are also widely used in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of course.

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape.

Grenache Blanc – it is Spanish in origin so should be called Garnacha Blanca (Garnatxa Blanca in Catalan) – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. Which is odd for me because it is relatively low in acidity, but handled correctly can still offer enough freshness to balance the alcohol and the aromas. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern, cold fermentation, techniques keep that freshness and bring out the lovely herbal aromas and flavours and it also has a silky texture that can be very satisfying.

Roussanne is also favourite of mine and is another aromatic and herbal scented grape variety that has a nutty character too. The wonderful thing about Rousaanne is though that it has loads of flavour and aroma but also reasonably high acidity, so the wines feel fresh – even when blended with Grenache Blanc.

Marsanne is a much fleshier and lower acid grape and can make big and flabby wines unless care is taken – which is why it is so seldom seen a a grape variety on its own, although even they can be superb. Like Roussanne – which which it is often blended – Marsanne also originates in the northern Rhône.

Bourboulenc is a grape variety that I have really come to love in recent years. It is widely grown in southern France, being used in Bandol, Cassis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and La Clape in the Languedoc amongst other places. It has good refreshing acidity and good citrus flavours too and while almost never used on its own can really give some elegance and finesse to a blend of richer grapes.

Clairette is a fascinating grape. It is low in acid and can be flabby unless care is taken. This is another herbal grape with fennel like aromas and rich orange and peach flavours.In the Rhône this is a blending grape but it is used as a single varietal in Clairette du Languedoc with great success – see here.

Viognier of course is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. Generally low in acid and very intense and oily in its home turf of the northern Rhône, where it makes Condrieu. Personally I do not usually like the grape unless it is a lighter fresher example, but a little in blends can work.

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes very well. Perfect with roast chicken, fish dishes, but also brilliant with roast lamb as long as you pile on the herbs and garlic – garlic works very well with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc especially, as does olive oil. They are also perfect with a cheese board and what I usually serve with a selection of cheeses that includes both hard and softer types.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône – click for a larger view.

Here are some of the white wines that impressed me the most on my recent trip to the Rhône:

Vines at the Château de Montfaucon.

2016 Lirac Blanc Comtesse Madeleine
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

One of the absolute highlights of my trip was the Château de Montfaucon who are based near Châteauneuf-du-Pape and mainly produce Côtes-du-Rhône and Lirac wines – Lirac is another Cru of the Rhône like Châteauneuf but less well known. They farm organically, although are not yet certified and the range was thrilling from top to bottom, but it was the whites that especially drew me.

This wine is a blend of Marsanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Picpoul Blanc and the proportions vary quite widely each year. The greater part was the Marsanne and Grenache Blanc and these components were barrel fermented and aged on the lees, but with no lees stirring as the wine is textured enough naturally. It is all spontaneous fermentation with no added yeast, which also adds to the texture of the wine.

For me this is a beautifully complex and pleasurable wine with, smoke, toast, grapefruit, apricot, just a touch of oiliness and that tangy acidity in the background.
The palate is beautifully textured, almost mealy, with fresh pear and nectarine fruit and beautiful balance. The finish is surprisingly savoury and saline and has great length – 91/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Wine Society.

Winemaker Julien Thorn in the magnificent cellar at Château de Montfaucon.

2015 Vin de Madame la Comtesse de Montfaucon
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

Basically this is made from a single plot of ancient Clairette vines planted in 1870 in very stony and sandy soils on Mount Peguierol, overlooking the river Rhône near Montfaucon. They only make 7 or 8 barrels and it is fermented in oak barrels and aged in them for a few months afterwards with no lees stirring.

The label is a rather wonderful old one that was created for the estate back in 1829 and they claim it is the oldest Rhône label of all as very few wines from this region were bottled until well into the twentieth century.

Complex aromas of pastry, apricot, fennel, annis, apricot strudel, truffles and buttery grilled almonds. The aroma is heavenly and oozes style.
The palate is luscious and rich with just enough acidity and freshness to balance the full and succulent mouthfeel. There is a touch of bitterness and a touch of struck match too, while the finish is lightly oily and creamy with something mineral and saline and a long lingering flavour of orange, apricot and a little peach. Quite a wine – 93/100 points.

I cannot find any stockists for this, but it is well worth seeking out.

Christine Saurel at Domaine Montirius.

Vines at Montirius.

2016 Vacqueyras Minéral
AC / PDO Vacqueyras Blanc
Domaine Montirius
Rhône Valley
Franc

Only 3% of Vacqueyras, yet another Cru of the southern Rhône, is white. This great estate is run with passion and precision by Christine and Eric Saurel. Originally members of the local cooperative they went biodynamic in 1996 – their families thought they had joined a sect – left the cooperative once they had failed to persuade them to convert too, and never looked back.

Christine was our host as Eric was busy in the cellar but wow she feels passionately about how the estate is run, telling us that with biodynamics that if something has to be done it has to be done right then in the moment otherwise it can go wrong.

They have used no oak at all since 1999 and aim for wines that are authentic and minimalist, just as I like them. I was hugely impressed with the whole range here, especially the Vacqueyras Minéral Blanc, which is a blend of 50% Bourboulenc with 25% each of Grenache Blanc and Rousanne fermented in stainless steel with a spontaneous fermentation. Really the only thing they do is to introduce oxygen into the fermentation to stop reduction spoiling the pleasure of their wines.

Rather intriguingly the Grenache Blanc and Roussanne were co-fermented – picked together and fermented together and then blended with the Bourboulenc.

This has a great nose, floral, citrus, nutty and honeyed with deep citrus, orange and lemon peel notes.
The palate has tangy grapefruit acidity and a lively texture too. Very complex with vanilla, floral, citrus, wax, lemon curd, great fruit concentration and a taut mineral quality.
The finish lasts a good 2 or 3 minutes. This is a fine and beautiful wine – 93/100 points.

Available En Primeur for £195.00 per dozen bottles plus duty, shipping and VAT from Laithwaite’s.

The beautiful Château Beauchêne.

2017 Château Beauchêne Grande Réserve
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

This pristine estate is the focal point for the Bernard family who have been making wine in these parts since 1794. They only bought this perfect picture postcard Château in the 1990s but it is the family home and main winery for the company that makes Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Their range is solid and well made, but the high point was this relatively humble white Côtes-du-Rhône made from 25% Clairette, 25% Grenache Blanc 25% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne and 5% Bourboulenc. It is fermented in stainless steel and completely unoaked and has no malolactic fermentation either.

This is a lovely, joyous wine, full of freshness that makes it feel lively and pure. The palate is concentrated and rich but that purity keeps it refreshing too. The herbal characters and orchard fruit of the grapes together with some lemon curd notes make it delicious and moreish – 89/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Huntsworth Wine Company, London Wine Shippers and D’Arcy Wine Merchants.

2017 Château Beauchêne Viognier
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

Pure Viognier from 20 year old plus vines, farmed organically but not certified as such. The grapes were pressed and juice put straight into oak barrels, second and third use. The wine was fermented and then aged in the barrels for another 6 months on the lees.

Now I am not really a fan of Viognier, but this is an attractive wine, delicately creamy and smoky with some nice peach, floral, herb and peach stone characters. It has a lightness of touch enough to keep it fresh and lively and drinkable – very well made wine – 87/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £14.75 per bottle from  Private Cellar.

The beautiful and peaceful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Gilles Férran of Domaine des Escaravailles, he is as charming and funny as he looks!

2017 Domaine des Escaravailles La Galopine
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Domaine des Escaravailles
Rhône Valley
Franc

Domaine des Escaravailles is an amazing place. It is a beautiful spot up steep and bumpy country lane. It seems very cut off and the peace somehow prepares you for the wines to come. The story began in 1953 when Jean-Louis Férran bought several parcels of vines in the Rasteau, Cairanne and Roaix areas of Côtes-du-Rhône. In 1999 his grandson Gilles took over and made the estate what it is today. They farm using sustainable techniques and most of their vineyard sites – at around 250 metres above sea level – are relatively high and cool. As a consequence they seem to make lovely silky and refined wines that are elegant and balanced and never too powerful despite their generous fruit.

Escaravailles by the way is the local Occitan name for the scarab beetle as well as a nickname for the local black robed monks who inhabited a swathe of local monasteries before the revolution.

This is a blend of 40% Roussane, 40% Marsanne and 20% Viognier, barrel fermented and aged in the same barrels for some 6 more months, with lees stirring to help develop complexity and texture. 26 barrels were made and 4 of those were new oak, so once the wine was blended only a little new oak was used in the whole wine as they do not want the oak to dominate, merely to add some spice and structure. The vineyard this wine comes from is actually within the Cru of Rasteau, but for some odd reason only red wines and rosés can be made in Rasteau, so it has to be labelled as Côtes-du-Rhône instead.

Great aromas of herbs together with peach, blossom and sea salt.
In the mouth it has a beautiful palate with great, lush, texture, dense fruit, cooked and fresh peach, apricot, pear and apple together with some lovely herbs and spices and a feel of some wild honey . The finish is long and rich but also fresh and lively, giving it tension as well as making it delicious and sinfully drinkable – 92/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £22 per bottle from the Wines With AttitudeButlers Wine Cellar and Bowland Forest Vintners.

So you see, the Côtes-du-Rhône is not only red. There is a wealth of fine white wines from the southern Rhône and they are well worth exploring as they are often very good indeed.

Wine of the Week – a fine, affordable and organic Chianti

Poggiotondo

The beautiful Poggiotondo Estate.

Well a Happy New Year to all and apologies for getting off to such a late start this year. It has been a busy January and we are about to get into February, so I thought a nice gentle start might be appropriate.

Recently I was teaching a wine course and one wine stood out. It was an inexpensive Chianti. Now many of you know that my heart sinks somewhat when we have affordable or everyday versions of famous wine regions – as they normally just do not hack it. A cheaper Bordeaux, Chianti, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Sancerre, Burgundy, you name it, normally gives only the vaguest idea as to what these wines are really about. No, to enjoy the classics you normally ned to go a little upscale.

I was delighted therefore to stumble across an exception and I enjoyed it so much that I thought it would be my first Wine of the Week of 2018.

Tuscany Poggiotondo

Wine map of Tuscany – the red circle roughly marks where you can find Poggiotondo.

1.Poggiotondo_Organic_chianti_DOCG_scontornato-copia2016 Poggiotondo Organic Chianti
DOCG Chianti
Cerreto Guidi
Tuscany
Italy

This charming organic estate is in the northern bit of Chianti between Florence and Pisa and not far from Empoli, or Lucca for that matter. I know this patch pretty well as one of my favourite Tuscan producers, Pietro Beconcini Agricola is in nearby San Miniato, while Carmignano, home to Tenuta di Capezzana, is just a few kilometres away.

This lovely 28 hectare estate has been owned by the Antonini family since 1968 and has been certified organic since 2014. The vines grow on a series of gently rolling southwest facing hills at about 100 metres above sea level. The soils around here are fossil rich ancient seabed, just as at Beconcini, and would normally be regarded as much more suitable for white wines – the soil seems to emphasise the acidity – but also suits those Tuscan reds which should be all about verve, tension and balance.

DSC7074_tasting_grapes-1-1500x1500

Carlo Alberto Antonini at work in the vineyard. Photo courtesy of the winery.

 

 

This is their entry level Chianti and like all their reds is a traditional blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo and 5% Colorino.

The fermentation is spontaneous using the wild yeasts, to give more character and complexity. Fermentation is in concrete tanks while the wine was aged for 8 months in a mixture of large, untoasted, oak vats and concrete tanks.

The wine immediately looked lively and enticing in the glass – and stayed that way over 2 days – a medium ruby colour with some garnet hints creeping in.

The nose was fragrant, lifted and lively with fresh red plums, cherries, pepper, mocha, rosemary, freshly turned earth and a hint of creamy vanilla too.

The palate is medium bodied and very soft with a nice touch of fine grain tannins, lively red fruit and refreshing acidity giving balance and tension. All in all this is a lovely wine that is very drinkable and comes at an excellent price too. A proper wine that will go superbly with all manner of food and tastes far better than its price tag would suggest – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £7.99 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar and Ocado.

Colli Berici – an exciting wine region in northern Italy

 

Colli Berici vines at the Pegoraro Estate.

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

Beautiful vineyards in the Colli Berici.

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

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

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

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

Dal Maso

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Montemitorio Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Vinicola Dal Maso

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

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

2015 Colpizzarda Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Vinicola Dal Maso

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

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

 

Tenuta Cicogna, Cavazza Estate

The setting for dinner at Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna.

Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna.

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

Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna, note the red soils.

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

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

2016 Bocara
DOC Gambellara Classico
Azienda Agricola Cavazza

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

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

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

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

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

2013 Cabernet Cicogna
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Agricola Cavazza

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

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

Cantine dei Colli Berici

Some of the cooperative’s beautiful vineyards.

Cantine dei Colli Berici, winemaking on a huge scale.

Destemming at Cantine dei Colli Berici.

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

Andrea Palladio

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

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

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

Inama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Pegoraro Estate

The Pegoraro Estate in Massano.

Arriving at the beautiful Pegoraro Estate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Pegoraro Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Pegoraro Societa Agricola Semplice

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

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

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

Piovene Porto Godi Estate

 

The family house at Piovene Porto Godi.

The ancient and atmospheric cellars at Piovene Porto Godi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Campigie Sauvignon
IGT Veneto
Societa Agricola Piovene Porto Godi Alessandro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Colli Berici

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

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