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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Happy Christmas to you all

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

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

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

Sparkling wines:

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

2017 Crémant d’Alsace
Alsace
France

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

Wine Map of France – click for a larger view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White wines:

Wine map of Slovenia – click for a larger view.

2018 Tilia Estate Pinot Gris
Vipava Valley
Slovenia

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 Petite Arvine
Domaine Jean Rene Germanier
Valais, Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

Red wines:

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

2018 Carcassonne
IGP/Vin de Pays Cité de Carcassonne
France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vines at Casa Silva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lebanon – an ancient land, modern wines

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

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

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

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Château Ksara

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

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten.

Château Kefraya 

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

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

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

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

The Wines 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domaine des Tourelles

Domaine des Tourelles – photo by Quentin Sadler.

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Château Musar

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clos St Thomas

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

The Wines

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

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

Ixsir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.