Wine of the Week – a winter warmer from Greece

Domaine Skouras vineyards - photo courtesy of the winery.

Domaine Skouras vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

I know what you are thinking. More Greek wine. I know, I know, but I showed it in a tasting and it was so well received and it is so good that I couldn’t resist having yet another Greek Wine of the Week.

The Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea - photo by my friend Ted Lelekas - © Ted Lelekas 2016

The Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea – photo by my friend Ted Lelekas – © Ted Lelekas 2016

My involvement and love of Greek wine goes back a long way. Well over 20 years ago I was involved with marketing Greek wines in the UK and we did very well from a small base, but even now Greek wines have never really broken through onto the UK market. However, there are very, very good wines and this one – and last week’s Wine of the Week –  is a case in point. I loved it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

st_george_2011_1024x10242012 Saint George Aghiorghitiko
Domiane Skouras
PDO Nemea
Peloponnese
Greece

100% Aghiorghitiko aged for 12 months in second fill 225 litre French oak barrels.

Nemea is the largest and most important wine region of southern Greece, perhaps in the whole country, although at just 3000 hectares of vines it isn’t huge in world terms – Bordeaux covers 42,000 and Rioja a whopping 57,000, so Nemea compares more in size to Sancerre’s 2600 hectares of vines. It’s is situated in the north west Peloponnese – not far from Argos and the archeological site of Mycenae – and is only an hour or so from Athens and very near the lovely seaside town of Nafplio, so makes an excellent place to visit while in Greece. Wine has been made here for thousands of years and Nemea was famous for being where Heracles killed the Nemean Lion. During the struggle the lion bit off one of his fingers, so locally the wine was known as ‘the blood of Hercules’.

vineyard-2

Domaine Skouras nestling amongst the vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

Nemea is always red and is made from 100% Aghiorghitiko, or Saint George – it mean’s Saint George’s grape, which is Greece’s most planted grape variety. In terms of style it produces all sorts of different wines from soft, easy everyday plonk to complex and structured versions. The better wines have lots of dark fruit and firm tannin, not entirely unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, but with less acidity than Cabernet. As a consequence the better wines come from higher vineyards where the air is cooler and preserves some of those essential acids and freshness – Nemea is around 500-700 metres above sea level.

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Vineyards in Nemea – photo by my friend Ted Lelekas – © Ted Lelekas 2016

As well as being used on its own in Nemea, Aghiorghitiko also blends very successfully with Cabernet Sauvignon to produce sort of ‘Super-Peloponnese’ wines – Skouras’s Megas Oenos is one of the leading examples and it is superb.

Very roughly you can think of Nemea as being the Bordeaux of Greece and Naoussa the Burgundy – Chianti for Nemea and Barolo for Naoussa  would also be suitable comparisons and give you some idea of the respective styles.

George Skouras was born locally, in Argos, but studied wine making at Dijon before working as a winemaker all around the world. He eventually returned home ready to help lead the Greek wine revolution and created Domaine Skouras in Neamea in 1986, although his current state of the art winery was not finished until 2004. The focus is on the reds made from Aghiorghitiko, but he also makes some excellent whites from the local aromatic Moscofilero grape together with some Viognier and Chardonnay too.

A deeply coloured wine with a lifted, aromatic nose of rich black fruit – blackberry and cooked strawberry – together with clove and cinnamon spice and a touch of coffee notes and earthy minerality. The palate is pretty full-bodied with rich mouth filling fruit, smooth, but firm tannins and rich savoury, earthy characters. This wine is utterly delicious and would be perfect with lamb, roasts, casseroles or steaks. Right now the tannins are quite firm, in a lovely way, but will soften in a year or two if that is what you like. If you like Claret, Chianti or Rioja, you are bound to enjoy this wine – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.95 per bottle and from The General Wine Company for £13 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

If you have never tried a Greek wine, but want a good, rich dry red with a nice meal, then this will certainly hit the spot. It is a serious bottle of red wine and any serious wine drinker would love it.

Greece – Part 2: A Taste of Monastic Life

The delightful sights of the coast of Mount Athos

Earlier in the year I had a wonderful tour around the vineyards of Northern Greece. Initially our little party were guests of Tsantalis (pronounced Santar-lee), who make some really good wines that are widely available.

The first part of the trip was a couple of days at their headquarters and main winery near Thessaloniki together with a visit to the wilds of Rapsani near Mount Olympus. The scenery was beautiful, the people welcoming, the food stunning and the wines – even for a longtime fan of Greek wine like me – were a revelation.

If the delights of Greek wine have passed you by, Tsantali produce two wines that are amongst my favourite for great value right now: Tsantali Rapsani and Tsantali Organic Cabernet – they really do take a lot of beating for price and quality.

With the nights closing in and the onset of Winter I find myself reliving the heat, clear blue skies and fierce sun of the Eastern Mediterranean and thought that I would share more of the experiences with you.

Mount Athos taken from near Lerissos

Some of you may remember from reading part 1 that we were a small all male group because the centrepiece of the trip was a visit to Mount Athos, where women are not allowed – hell even female animals are forbidden! This area takes its name from The Holy Mountain of Mount Athos and is actually a peninsula which forms a closed community made up of some 20 Monasteries. 17 of these are Greek Orthodox with the others being Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian and we were to be guests of the Agiou Panteleimonos, or St. Panteleimon, Russian Monastery.

Mount Athos is a part of Greece, but is basically self-governing and enjoys ‘special status’ within the Greek State and the E.U., so a permit – essentially a visa – is needed to get there, but the centuries old ban on women is still in force. Frankly I don’t suppose I would have ever have got to visit if I had not been the guest of Tsantali, but more of them later.

Our journey to The Holy Mountain started early – there’s nothing like a little suffering to make you feel like a pilgrim. We were breakfasted and packed by 7 a.m. and waiting in the cool morning air for the straggler to materialise so that we could finally set off. There was a sort of reality show sense of jeopardy about all this as time was finite – we had a ferry to catch. There is only one ferry a day and the implication was that all our plans would come to nothing if we didn’t get there on time.

It was a long drive East from Thessaloniki to our destination, the distance is only about 150 kilometres, but we were on small roads in a heavily laden van and all the while we were in a race against the clock and frankly it looked as though we were going to loose.

Map of Greece & Mount Athos – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Mount Athos forms the lower two thirds of the Easternmost prong sticking down from the Halkidiki Peninsula and although there is a road of sorts it seems that the only way to visit the Monasteries on the Western shore of the peninsula is to catch a ferry from Ouranoupoli, the last town on the Greek side of the border. A similar service operates from Lerissos on the East coast which we passed through and both these ports seemed very attractive towns –  information that I filed away for another day.

Possibly my favourite shop sign in the world!

My permit to enter The Holy Mountain

All the excitement ended in a bit of an anticlimax really. We were definitely late, but the ferry was still there and even though our hosts had to spend ages in the Pilgrims’ Bureau getting our permissions in order we made the ship easily. For the first time in my life I was officially a Pilgrim and on my way to Mount Athos!

The voyage was delightfully relaxing and the views of Mount Athos were stunning, so I thought I would just show you my photographs and comment where appropriate…please click the photographs for a larger view.

Leaving Ouranoupoli behind.

Left: Last glimpse of Ouranoupoli. Right: A skete.

Views from the ferry – olives by the shore & a monastic settlement or skete.

The shoreline of the Mount Athos peninsula was dotted with little settlements and often the ferry would pull up by their jetty and waiting groups of monks would board – we were forbidden to photograph the monks I am afraid.

Our happy band of Pilgrims arrives at Agiou Panteleimonos. At times I was put in mind of Lhasa by the monastery buildings we saw.

The ferry & our speedboat to the vineyards…

After touring the monastery for a while – which we were not allowed to photograph, but whose gift shop sold blessings as well as icons of Tsar Nicholas 11 and President Putin – we were taken by speedboat to the Tsantali managed vineyards of Metoxi Chromitsa whose winery is housed in a cloister settlement belonging to the Agiou Panteleimonos Monastery.

Tsantali vineyards – Metoxi Chromitsa with Ouranoupoli in the distance.

My first experience of the landscape amazed me. There was such tranquility and beauty, the vistas magnificent and the weather was perfection, I am not sure I have ever seen such beautiful vineyards and the feeling of peace was quite overwhelming.

Metoxi Chromitsa – vineyards around the cloisters of St. Panteleimon / Agiou Panteleimonos.

Nothing had prepared me for the grandeur of arriving at the Cloister, we were on dirt tracks rather than roads, so it was the closest I will ever get to the feeling that a mediaeval person would have had when arriving at a castle or monastery. The building dominated the landscape and reassured by its very presence and I felt quite detached from the modern world.

Our Pilgrim band arriving at the winery in the cloisters. The right hand photo is taken from the balcony you can see in the left hand one at top right.

The winery, and our little group, were housed in a part of the Cloister that appeared quite tumbledown, but the important bits had been done up and our quarters were perfectly comfortable, while the views from the balcony were stunning.

Left: The Cloister’s garden and vineyards. Right: Pilgrims going about their devotions in the room that backs onto the balcony in photo above.

The meals we were served were superb and consisted of many dishes like rather grand mezes. In the main the monks and any visitors are vegetarian, but there is some leeway to allow them to eat fish. All the vegetable were locally grown, the honey was made by the monks and their bees and all seemed right with the world.

Around the cloisters.

All over Europe monasteries had been the keepers of knowledge for centuries, and that included knowing how to grow grapes and make wine, but it seems the twentieth century saw a marked decline in winemaking on Mount Athos.  The Tsantali company have been producing wine and spirits since long before this region was part of Greece, Ottoman rule finally ended here in 1913. Evangelos Tsantalis came to Metoxi Chromitsa in 1971 and noticing that the vineyards were no longer tended he offered his family’s expertise to bring them back to life – as long as he could also make some commercial wine. The deal was done and soon wines from Mount Athos were commercially available for the first time.

Evangelos knew a good thing when he saw one. The place has a classic Mediterranean climate, the winters relatively mild and dry, with just enough rain and snow melt water off Mount Athos and sea breezes that temper the dry heat of summer. I suspect these conditions that suit grapes so well also made it a perfect place for the monks to settle too.

These growing conditions allow Tsantalis to farm organically which helps with the biodiversity of this beautiful place. Also the deep sandy-clay soils are pretty thin with have very little organic matter which forces the vine to put down deep roots seeking out nutrients, which can help to keep yields down and to increase complexity in a finished wine.

In order to experience the wines from this amazing place we headed off down the slopes towards the sea and sat on the terrace of a beautiful tasting room that overlooks the vineyards and the sparkling waters of the Singitic Gulf or Gulf of Agion Oros / Holy Mountain with the Sithonia Peninsula shimmering in the distance.

Probably the best view I have ever seen from a tasting…

The Wines

2011 Agioritikos white
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
A dry white wine blend of Assyrtiko, Athiri & Roditis grapes
The colour is very pale straw with a little lemon citrine brightness.
The nose is very fresh and clean with lively with citrus and  some herbal components too.
The palate is surprisingly soft rather than crisp, fresh though with enough acidity to keep it zesty, some weight makes it feel quite like a fat, floral and rich Vinho Verde. The zing is rich like lemon peel rather than light lemon juice. This is not a wine to particularly think about, but it is very good with Greek cuisine and I found myself returning to it again and again with lunch – 86/100 points.

Widely available in Greece, it really is good with the food, it is stocked in the UK by Wine Rack at £8.99.

2011 Metoxi Chromitsa X white
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
This blend of 40% Assyrtico, 40% Sauvignon Blanc & 20% Athiri is one of the top white wines they produce here and the quality shows in the concentration and complexity.

The nose is wonderfully aromatic, but not in a sweet perfumed way, but more akin to a herb garden; broom, thyme and fennel herb notes dominate and are kept fresh by some underlying lemon and lime.
The mouthfeel is fatter and richer than crisp, textured even, even the high acidity has a richness rather than crisp or tart quality. There is a stony flinty mineral character too as well as a fresh citric tang giving a long citric finish. This is a pretty good wine and goes superbly with classic Greek food – 88/100 points.

2007 Metoxi Chromitsa X red
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
This limited release wine is a blend of some of the best parcels of grapes grown on the estate; 20% Xinomavro (pronounced Kersi-naw-mav-ro), 30% Limnio and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and aged for 12 months in heavy toast French oak barrels.
The colour is a bright, just opaque plum with some garnet showing. The nose is warm, soft and deep with rich plum and cherry fruit and some crunchy raspberry fruit adding a fresh acidic note as well as a touch of vanilla, like cream soda, some spice and pepper. A little twist of dried cranberry is there too, showing that the wine has a little age.
The palate offers rich black cherry mingling with a little brighter more acidic red cherry too. The texture is quite chewy with dry tannins, quite high acid and tangy raspberry characters all the way through. This medium bodied wine is surprisingly fresh and elegant – 89/100 points.

2007 Agioritiko Abaton
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
This 80% Cabernet Sauvignon & 20% Limnio blend is almost the top tier of production and represents a rigorous selection of fruit, fermented in open topped wooden vats with the finished wine being aged 12 months in new French oak. Abaton by the way means ‘untrodden’ and refers to the cut off and monastic nature of Mount Athos.
Deep red with very little black, but more garnet. The nose gives cedar and developed leather notes, a touch of prune and even some leather. It smells mature with bitter cherry, chocolate and cassis.
The palate is very soft  and pretty juicy with ripe black cherry verging on over ripe. There is prune, toffee, coffee and earth making it quite complex and nice with a smoky mocha quality. This wine feels very traditional, even attractively rustic and it cries out for all the meat dishes we could not eat on Mount Athos – 89/100 points

2001 Metoxi Chromitsa red
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
This mature example predated the production of the higher rated Metoxi Chromitsa X wines, but gave us a good idea as to what these wines do with some age. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon & Limnio fermented in old open wooden vats and then aged in new French oak barrels for 8 months.
The colour showed much more brown and had a brambly hue too.
The nose was a little meaty and singed and had some earthiness, dried fruit, coffee and smoke.
The palate was lovely, supple and concentrated with smoky dried leather and fruit, cedar, spice, mocha and caramel. There was a little acidity and supple tannins giving a nice texture – 90/100 points.

The 1999 Metoxi Chromitsa red was equally good if a little more fragile with orange peel and cranberry characters.

As the Monastery is Russian their top wine, Kormilitsa Gold – which we didn’t taste – is frequently served at the Kremlin.

Left: sunset from the vineyards. Right: the border.

I’m not sure that I would want to spend my whole life here – the cells were very hot at night – but visiting Mount Athos, seeing some of the Monasteries and the stunning landscape was a great experience that I will cherish. As was getting a taste of what the monks eat and trying these fascinating wines in the place where they are made.

Can I thank the Agiou Panteleimonos Monastery and the Tsantali company for their wonderful hospitality and the great Ted Lelekas (his blog is here, in Greek) for doing all the hard work and making it happen. Thank you all, the visit was a superb experience.

Please, the next time you visit Greece take a little care over the wines you have and I think you will be astonished by how good they can be. By the same token, the next time you want to drink something different at home – give Greek wines a go. You will not be disappointed and if you drink it while looking at my photographs here, then you won’t really need to go abroad –  will you?

Greece – Part 1: Tsantali and Rapsani

Rapsani Vineyards

One of the best things about wine for me is the excitement of new experiences. Too many wine drinkers seem to restrict themselves to a very narrow range of possibilities, so I love to show them just what an amazing variety of good wine there is. Just because a wine seems unusual to us does not make it necessarily an oddity or a niche wine, just one we have not yet tried.

So, whether they are made from grapes I have never experienced before or produced in regions that are new to me I get very excited by new wines – as long as they are good. You can imagine my excitement therefore when I was invited on a tour of vineyards in northern Greece. I had never been before, but did know something about the wines from my days at The Greek Wine Bureau in London during the early 1990s. I was only a small cog there, but I helped to create a little interest in Greek wines in the UK and have retained a love of them ever since. Updating that knowledge and actually seeing the regions sounded like a wonderful opportunity.

We were a small, all male group of wine writers, bloggers and educators who set off to explore the wine regions of Macedonia, it is unusual for these things to be men only, but that was a stipulation this time. You see the centrepiece of our journey was a visit to Mount Athos and this self governing part of Greece is a monastery-covered peninsula where women are not allowed to set foot.

I have been back from Greece for a few weeks now and have been telling everyone I meet how great it was and how good the wines were. They all seem to expresses amazement that I find Greek wines so interesting and it seems that even those who have enjoyed holidays there have a low opinion of the wines. Well I don’t know what they drank, but we tasted dozens of different wines from different regions, made from many different grapes in a wide variety of styles. A few were merely acceptable quality, but most were very good indeed.

The trip was made possible by the generosity of the Tsantali (pronounced Santar-lee) company and they certainly did us proud by taking us to places that were either physically very hard to get to or, as in the case of Mount Athos, just picky – apparently very few non monks or pilgrims are allowed to visit. Continue reading

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.

Australia’s wine dark sea

Go into any supermarket or wine shop and browse the shelves of New World wines and you could be forgiven for thinking that there are only about 6 different grape varieties in existence.

The French role model for wine is so embedded that it is the classic grapes from that country that are most widely used and the styles of France that are emulated around the world.

It therefore comes as quite a shock to learn that most of the wine regions in countries outside Europe have climates very different from those in the classic regions of France, be it Bordeaux or Burgundy.

The harvest at d’Arenberg in the McLaren Vale, perhaps the most Mediterranean-like region of Australia.

Time after time the climates of the wine making zones in Chile, South Africa, California and Australia are described as Mediterranean, and yet most producers in these places grow Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot. Traditionally only the mavericks and the odd obsessive seem to have actually grown grape varieties that originate in the Mediterranean.

Actually I am nor sure that is entirely true. Very often viticulture in these places began with a wide range of grape varieties, but in modern times the focus has been on the famous ones – which usually turns out to be the French grapes – rather than grape varieties that are associated with less well known and less admired wine types from Europe. Very often all sorts of grapes are grown, often in the most unlikely places, but they do not catch on for all sorts of reasons, be they fashion or snobbery.

Well, I detect a change.

I have experienced that change in Chile  – see here and here – as well as South Africa – see hereCalifornia and even New Zealand, but I found the change most marked in my recent trip to Australia.

I took this photograph at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley. All the wines were superb here and I was thrilled to take this photo, but had to wait ages for her to look up so that I could see the joey in the pouch.

Time after time in wine shops, restaurants and wineries I found Australian wines made from an exciting array of grape varieties, quite unlike the relatively narrow range that fills the shelves of the Australian section in wine shops and supermarkets in the UK. There was a huge variety just presented as normal over there and most of the more intriguing grape varieties originated in Mediterranean countries.

As a consequence of the exciting wines that I found in Australia I have recently put on a few very well received tastings of these wines – in the main you have to seek them out, but the work is worth it.

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

White Wines

I am always saddened that so few consumers – even in the countries make them –  have caught on to the delights of the white wines from Mediterranean countries. To my mind some of the most exciting white wines around come  from Italy, Spain, Portugal and even Greece – or are made from the grapes that hail from those places. It shouldn’t surprise us really as the cuisine of the Mediterranean tends to go much better with white wine than red. However historically it was much more difficult to make good white wines in hot places until well into the twentieth century, so the white wines of that part of the world were pretty much written off as no good and that reputation has become embedded in our memory.

The Eden Valley, the cool part of Barossa.

2014 Peter Lehman H&V Verdejo
Peter Lehman
Barossa Valley
South Australia

I have long been a fan of Verdejo (Ver-deh-ho) it is a lovely grape that is native to Castilla y León and to my mind makes Spain’s most reliable white wines in the little wine region of Rueda. The grape has travelled a little bit, I have had good Verdejo from Virginia – click here –  for instance, but I was thrilled to find it producing excellent whites in Australia too. Normally Verdejo makes wines that are very much in the mould of a Sauvignon Blanc, but the vine can cope with much hotter conditions that Sauvignon, so it could be a big part of the future of white wine in Australia.

Sadly I rather get the impression that this is the only vintage ever made of this wine. If that is so, they really should rethink as I have shown this at 2 tastings now and people have absolutely loved it.

Interestingly it is quite different from a Spanish Verdejo. It is much lighter, fresher – even at 3 years old – and more zingy. The colour is very pale, while the nose gives lime and tangerine with just a touch of something salty.

The beautiful southern end of the Eden and Barossa Valleys.

The palate is pure, mineral and and light – it is 11.5% abv – with a tiny touch of petillance, clean citrus and light stone fruit. It is very refreshing and quite delicious. The style leans more towards a fine Vinho Verde or Txakoli than Rueda and while it is not like nothing else produced in Australia – except some of the fabulously taut and lean Eden Valley Rieslings – it is a real triumph in my opinion. If you can find any, try it with some garlic prawns, grilled fish or barbecued sardines – 89/100 points.

I can no longer find any stockists for this lovely wine, so contact Peter Lehman wines for information.

Many times on the trip I enjoyed some simply cooked prawns, Moreton Bay Bugs or clams with garlic and oil and lemon together with a glass of white wine made from a suitably Mediterranean grape variety – my favourite place for such delights was Sydney Fish Market or Claypots Evening Star in South Melbourne Market and my favourite grape to accompany them was Fiano which seems to be becoming very popular down under.

The busy but tiny kitchen at Clay Pots Evening Star, a great place for seafood and wine.

2016 Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard Fiano
Hancock & Hancock
McLaren Vale
South Australia

I like Fiano. It is a fabulous white grape from Campania in southern Italy. Campania is a great region, centred on Naples it produces some of Italy’s most exciting wines, using a palate of high quality indigenous grapes including Fiano. The best examples are widely considered to be those from vineyards on the volcanic slopes around the town of Avellino. Fiano di Avellino is a DOCg and is a prestigious, fine and mineral dry white, while other examples from Campania, grown on non-volcanic soils, tend to be softer and easier to drink.

Fiano is an ancient variety that is believed to have been used to make the famous Apianum wine in Roman times. Back then the grape was known as Vitis Apiana beacuse it apparently attracted bees (apis). Of all Campania’s whites I find the best Fiano to be the most refined and most balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.

Fiano is also found in other parts of Campania, including the Sorrento peninsula, and Puglia – the heel of Italy. I was vaguely aware that a few people grew the grape else where. Jenny Dobson makes one at Bush Hawk Vineyards in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, but it seems that Australia has really taken this, slightly exotic grape, to its heart and around 70 producers have now started making examples of Fiano – which is hardly surprising as Italian food and Mediterranean style is big down under, so Fiano would be a perfect accompaniment.

Chris Hancock.

Chris and his brother John Hancock have owned their Home Vineyard in McLaren Vale for over 10 years now. They farm some 80 year old Grenache and Shiraz, together with Cabernet and Touriga, as well as having a 2 hectare plot of Fiano that was head grafted, in situ, onto Chardonnay in 2012. Chris Hancock, who is an honourary Master of Wine, worked with Robert Oatley for many years and Chris is still involved with the Robert Oatley company which distributes his Hancock & Hancock wines.

Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

A part of this was fermented in neutral, old, oak barrels to give roundness and volume rather than flavour, but most was fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures.

To look at the wine has a crystalline purity about it, then on the nose it has nectarine and white peach together with some lemon zest, dry honey and herbs. On the palate there lots of fruit giving a juiciness which is then balanced by freshness and a little taut minerality in the background. The texture is succulent, ever so slightly creamy even which together with the lemon, stone fruit and touch of herbs makes it delicious and very drinkable.

It is light and crisp enough to be refreshing, yet juicy enough and succulent enough to feel interesting and more complex. In a kind of way it shows the ripeness of the place it is from and some the beguiling minerality of the grape, which gives it an inbuilt tension. Lovely with fish, chicken, Mediterranean food, or just to drink on its own – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, Farnham Wine Cellar, Flagship Wines, The Wine Reserve, Drinkfinder, Amazon.co.uk, Eynsham Cellars, Luvians Bottleshop, Ann et Vin, Warren Wines & Amp Fine Wines. More stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield, the distributor.

2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko
Jim Barry Wines
Clare Valley
South Australia

The wonderful Assyrtiko grape is the main grape variety used on the island of Santorini in Greece. This amazing grape is responsible for producing some of the very finest dry white wines – and great dessert wines too – of the entire Mediterranean world. At their best these wines are bright, mineral and refreshing and there is nothing better with a bit of fish or some calamares. If you like crisp, dry, taut white wines, along the lines of Sancerre or Chablis, then you would certainly like a dry white Santorini.

Sue and Peter Barry in the Lodge Hill Vineyard August 2012.

Peter Barry certainly does. He is the third generation winemaker at his family’s Jim Barry winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. In 2006 he and his wife Sue were on holiday on Santorini and they were astonished by the quality of the local wines. Their bracing acidity reminded them of the Rieslings that they made back home, but they had something extra too. That something extra was probably minerality, which is what the combination of the Assytiko grape and the volcanic soils delivers.

Peter had got the bug and returned to the island in 2008 in order to collect some cuttings of Assyrtiko from the always excellent Ktima Aryros, Argyros Estate. After a period of quarantine the vines were eventually planted at their beautiful Lodge Hill Vineyard. Peter was convinced that although the soils were very different, the other conditions would really suit Assyrtiko.

Lodge Hill Vineyard.

There is nothing fancy about the winemaking here, just perfectly ripe grapes cold fermented at low temperatures in order to retain all the freshness and delicate flavours of the grape.

The nose is lovely, floral, citric and lifted with some richer notes of apricot and pear and even a hint of sage. The palate is gorgeous, bright, fresh, pure and pristine with a lovely little touch of silky succulence balancing the high acidity. There are lime, orange, pear, apricot and nectarine flavours together with a little chalky minerality. It balances purity and freshness with fruit and texture beautifully. It’s quite a beguiling wine, but in the end delivers a wonderfully vibrant wine with crisp acidity, pure minerality and delicious fruit. It is a tad richer and softer than a Santorini, but that just adds to the sensation of trying something totally new. This is a fine white wine – 93/100 points.

This is a perfect wine to serve with some clams in white wine and garlic, seared scallops, grilled prawns, moreton bay bugs, some sea bass, sea bream, swordfish or tuna, or try it with spaghetti all vongole

By the way, they only made around 3,000 bottles, so grab it while you can!

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Corking Wines, Noel Young Wines, The Solent Cellar, D Vine Cellars, Eagle’s Wines,Vagabond and House of Townend.

Red Wines

The reds are just as exciting and more prolific too. Everywhere I went there were delicious Mediterranean grapes on offer, even places that didn’t release one often had them to taste. The wonderful restaurant at Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley offered litres of Sangiovese straight from the barrel, but did not sell it to take away. It went superbly with their fabulous pizzas and local meats.

2015 La La Land Tempranillo
Wingara Wines
Murray Darling
Victoria

Tempranillo is of course famous as the main grape of Rioja. In Rioja the style of wine is as much about the ageing in wooden barrels as anything else, so the fruit is not always the most important character of the wine. Elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula you get Rioja look alikes as well as wines with brighter fruit and less obvious oak ageing. Very often in Iberia Tempranillo goes by other local names such as; Ull de Llebre (Catalunya), Cencibel (La Mancha), Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto del Toro (Castilla y León), Aragonez (southern Portugal) and Tinta Roriz (northern Portugal, especially the Douro).

Although there are some plantings of Tempranillo in Argentina, Chile, California, New Zealand and South Africa I have always been surprised that the grape has not yet really broken through to be a proper mainstream international grape variety. Well, there was a lot of it in the wine shops in Australia, so perhaps its time has come?

Wingara are a big company who make huge volumes of wine, they also own the Deakin Estate and the Katnook Estate in Coonawarra, and this wine comes from their vineyards in the Murray Darling Sunraysia region, which straddles the border between New South Wales and Victoria near the border with South Australia. The vineyards are in Mildura, right on the border with New South Wales. This is a huge region that is irrigated and geared up for volume. However Australia often shows that volume and quality often go hand in hand and this is a terrific wine that is aged for some 8 months in used American oak.

You have to put Rioja out of your mind with this wine. It gives aromas of plums, rich, jammy strawberries, vanilla and sweet spice. The palate soft, juicy and fleshy with sweet red fruit and sweet, ripe tannins, a twist of something darker, vanilla and a light dusting of spice.

This is unashamedly a crowd pleaser of a wine and it certainly pleased my crowds and I know from experience that it goes with almost anything, even chilled at a barbecue – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 per bottle from:
Majestic Wine Warehouse.

2016 The Bullet Dodger Montepulciano
Delinquente Wine Company
Riverland
South Australia

Not a grape you often see in Australia, but the the guys at Delinquente – pronounced ‘dellin-qwentay’, it’s Italian for delinquent – seem to like being different. The driving force is the wonderfully named Con-Greg Grigoriou. They use Italian grapes and one of their team, Jason Ankles, draws their striking, if somewhat disturbing labels.

Riverland is not a glamorous wine region. It is one of the big irrigated regions of Australia that traditionally produces work horse wines rather than boutique wines, Berri Estates, Banrock Station and Angove’s are all nearby. However, Con-Greg loves the place. He grew up here by the Murray River and is utterly convinced that it can makes wines as good as anywhere else in the country – on this showing I would have to agree.

Con-Greg Grigoriou amongst his Riverland vines.

Montepulciano is widely grown in Italy, in fact it can be used in over 40 different DOCs or DOCgs. The most famous wine it makes though is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast of Italy. These are usually attractively fruity, inexpensive, easy drinking wines with soft tannins, but there are more ambitious versions produced as well as some impressive examples from the Conero DOCg in the Marche region near Ancona.

The fruit is all from a single vineyard, owned by Bassham Wines in Barmera. It was originally planted with Chardonnay, but was top grafted- i.e. in situ – in 2009 with more adventurous grape varieties and it is farmed organically. It is fermented in stainless steel and sees no wood at all. The aim appears to be to capture the pure, vivid, ripe fruit and he succeeds in that. The palate is succulent, juicy, creamy and generous like a smoothie of rich plum, black cherry and blackberry together with a little spice. The tannins are very soft, so the wine has no astringency and I defy anyone not to enjoy it. This is utterly delicious and comforting in a richly hedonistic way – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from £14 per bottle from:
The Good Wine Shop, Forest Wines, Kwoff, Unwined in Tooting. More Information is available from Indigo Wines, the UK distributor.

I’m not very good at drinking red wine without food, but this could do the trick. It would also be perfect with a barbecue, or almost any meaty or rich food actually, but I enjoyed my bottle with a curry, it was a great match.

2014 Robert Oatley Signature GSM
Robert Oatley Wines
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Perhaps this is not as unusual or surprising as the other wines in the line up, but it’s really good and fits the theme perfectly. Australian GSM blends – Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre have been with us for quite a while and are gaining popularity. Who knows they may well have kick started the whole Mediterranean grape wave in Australia.  Mourvèdre by the way is the same grape as  Mataro and Monastrell. Of course the blend is a nod towards the style of Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The late Robert Oatley.

Bob Oatley was one of the great characters of Australian wine who founded the famous Rosemount Estate nearly 50 years ago. Rosemount was immensely successful and it grew from a tiny boutique estate into a giant winery and Robert eventually sold it in 2001. However by this time he had also bought the venerable Craigmoor Winery in Mudgee in New South Wales and set up Oatley Vineyards there. This slowly became the hub of an enterprise that makes wine right across the premium vineyard sites of Australia and has cellar doors and restaurants in the Mudgee and Margaret River regions. In the 1990’s Robert Oatley was the first person to make a wine as a ‘GSM’.

This wine is a blend of 50% Grenache, 45% Shiraz and 5% Mourvèdre from southern McLaren Vale, which has a distinctly Mediterranean climate and a gentle maritime influence. The blend is matured in French oak barrels for 9 months.

It’s a wine that always goes down well, with warm aromas of mixed red fruit, rich strawberry and cherry, spices and a touch of leather. The palate is juicy, mouth-coating and sumptuous with concentrated red fruit, liquorice, sweet spice and savoury, gamey, earthy notes and all the while it has that hallmark South Australian softness. All in all a delicious and very, very drinkable wine – 90/100 points.

Serve it with slow cooked lamb, venison, kangaroo, lamb kebabs cooked on rosemary twigs, shepherd’s pie or just about anything hearty.

Available in the UK for around £15.00 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, The Halifax Wine Company, Just in Cases, Fareham Wine Cellar, Winedrop & the Clifton Cellars. More stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield, the distributor.

2012 Alpha Box & Dice Xola Aglianico
Alpha Box & Dice / Viottolo Vineyards
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Aglianico (Ali-ani-coe) is yet another great Italian grape variety. Like Fiano it comes from Campania in the south where it makes all sorts of red wines, and the odd rosé, but is most famous for producing Taurasi GOCg in central Campania and Aglianico del Vulture in the wild landscape of Basilicata.

I love Taurasi. At its best it can be one of the very best red wines of Italy, but the grape is very tannic and very acidic – it’s often called the Barolo of the south, although it is much more full-bodied – so it is best to drink it from a producer who really knows what they are doing. Some of the best examples that I have ever tasted are made by the wonderful Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro – he uses 200 year old vines! – the wonderful Feudo di San Gregorio and the lovely Milena Pepe who makes a huge range of fabulous wines at Tenuta Cavalier Pepe.

Because it can be such a hard grape, I was very excited to find Aglianico in Australia and hoped that the longer growing season and more sun would tame the grape’s wild nature. I was not disappointed.

Alpha Box & Dice cellar door.

Alpha Box & Dice is a little like Delinquente in that they present themselves to the world in a very modern way rather like craft beer producers do. Indeed much like craft beer you will struggle to find any actual information on their labels, just striking artwork and strange mottos for life. The place is quite extraordinary with a very relaxed feel and lots of mismatched furniture at the cellar door, but the wines are breathtaking.

The farming here is all biodynamic and while the labels seem cool and amusing you get the feel that the winemaking is taken very seriously indeed – I think you have to with a grape like Aglianico.

The grape is a very late ripener and even in Australia it is not picked until the very end of the season in late April. Once the grapes have been de-stemmed, to help reduce tannin, and the fermentation has taken place the wine is aged in used oak barrels for 36 months. This allows the air to trickle in and soften the tannins in the wine.

Oh my I loved this, it looks quite earthy and garnet with an amazing nose of flowers, balsamic, umami, liquorice, dried fruit and spice with some coffee thrown in. The palate is a shock, even here in Australia it is very acidic – in a good way – with rich cherry, some blackberry, plum, dry, peppery spice, leather, coffee, meat and lovely supple, ripe tannins that just nibble at your gums. A heady wine indeed that needs chargrilled meat or some really good beef – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
All About Wine, Vincognito, Drinkmonger and WoodWinters. More stockist information is available from Boutinot, the distributor.

2010 D’Arenberg The Cenosilicaphobic Cat Sagrantino-Cinsault
D’Arenberg
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Sagrantino is an amazing grape variety that is nowhere near as well known as it ought to be. It comes from Umbria in Italy where it is used to make the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCg wines and the Montefalco DOC wines that blend it with at least 70% Sangiovese to soften the tannins.

I love D’Arenberg, they are quirky and inventive and never afraid to put themselves out there. The Osborn family have owned it since 1912 and d’Arenberg Osborn – d’Arry – and his son Chester have achieved great things over the last 50 years or so. They actually released the first successful table wine in South Australia as recently as 1955. This was d’Arry’s Original, then called a Red Burgundy, now labelled as Shiraz-Grenache! Their range is large and idiosyncratic, but never disappoints.

Chester & d’Arry Osborn.

This particular wine was new to me this year and I am thrilled by it. 85% Sagrantino is tamed by 15% of light, spicy Cinsault and the South Australian sun. Some of the wine is trodden by foot, it is basket pressed and aged for 2 years in old French and American oak barrels, just to let the air soften those hard ‘gritty’ tannins. Cenosilicaphobic by the way means the fear of an empty glass!

Foot treading the Sagrantino at d’Arenberg.

This is another full on wine with aromas of dried cherry, chocolate, plums, earth, mocha and something wild and floral about it – possibly from the Cinsault. The palate is full and rich with a nice combination of soft, voluptuous richness and hard edged richness. There’re rich fruit, liquorice, balsamic, spices, coffee, chocolate and while there are plenty of tannins they are not aggressive and they have been tamed. A wonderful wine to enjoy with stews and pies – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Quality Wines, ND John, Auswinesonline.co.uk, Drink Finder. More stockist information is available from Enotria & Coe, the distributor.

I would also add that the Wine Society has a wonderful range of own label Australian wines called Blind Spot and that too includes some wines made from some less well known grape varieties. As you can probably guess some of these excellent wines are made from grapes from the Mediterranean world. These include Garganega – a white Italian grape variety famously used to make Soave – and a Barbera – a black grape more normally associated with Piemonte, both from King Valley in north east Victoria near the border with New South Wales. Then there is a delicious Old Vine Mataro – also known as Mourvèdre and Monastrell – from McLaren Vale in South Australia. In my opinion everyone in the UK who is interested in wine should be a member of the Wine Society, as their range is superb and beautifully put together.

So you see there is a great deal of variety available from Australia, even though they might not be in every supermarket. Australia can do so much more than Cabernet, Shiraz and Chardonnay and can bring its own style to a whole raft of grape varieties more normally associated with the Mediterranean world. What’s more all these wines are absolutely delicious and really food friendly too.

Grenache – a huge variety and many different names

cantine-di-orgosolo

Grenache vines at Cantine di Orgosolo, Sardinia.

I recently had a fascinating experience. I was a wine judge in the Grenache du Monde competition. This was the fifth edition of this competition that solely judges wine made from that most beguiling of grape varieties – Grenache.

I only fell for Grenache’s charms relatively recently in fact, but boy did I fall. Red Grenache wines often have lots of fruit, soft tannins and deliver lots of pleasure. I am also drawn to the delicious whites made from Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris and the more elegant red styles from cooler places. So, I do seem to now love Grenache in all its guises and so was thrilled to be invited to judge Grenache wines from all over the world. What’s more the competition was in Sardinia, so all in all it was a pretty exciting week.

So, first of all what did we taste? Well, there are at least four Grenache grapes; 2 black grapes, Grenache Noir and Garnacha Peluda as well as the white Grenache Blanc and the pink tinged Grenache Gris. Grenache Noir is the most important of these, it is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world – indeed it might well be the most planted black grape in the world, because there is so much of it in Spain.

On top of that Grenache goes by more than 20 different names, but I only knowingly got to taste examples called; Grenache (in France and the New World), Garnacha (in Spain), Garnatxa (in Catalunya), Tocai Rosso / Tai Rosso (in Veneto, Italy), Cannonau (in Sardinia) and, confusingly, Gamay.  In Umbria they call Grenache Gamay, or Gamay del Trasimeno or even Gamay Perugino.

What’s more the competition didn’t just taste wines made from pure Grenache, but as it is frequently used as a blending grape – in Côtes du Rhône and the Languedoc-Roussillon for instance –  blends were included in the competition as well, as long as there was at least 60% Grenache in the wine.

There was every style of wine too, dry white, rosé, sparkling, dry red, sweet white and sweet red too.

A total of 684 wines were entered and they came from 8 countries: South Africa, Australia, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Macedonia and Lebanon. There were 100 of us judges and we divided up into panels of 5, so I did not get to taste all the wines during the judging, but I had a darn good try during the tastings afterwards.

I was very impressed by the overall quality of what I tried and personally awarded some pretty high scores. My fellow judges seem to have agreed with me and there were 104 Gold Medals awarded, 87 Silver and 22 Bronze. Spain was the overall winner with 108 medals – out of 322 wines submitted – France entered 149 wines and gained 51 medals, Italy entered 204 and won 51 as well, while Australia, Macedonia and South Africa all gained 1 medal each.

Everything was tasted blind, so it was reassuring to discover that I had given high marks to some old friends as well as exciting to discover completely new things.

My favourite wines of the competition were:

France

Wine map of France - click for a larger view.

Wine map of France, Chêne Bleu are just north of Avignon and Banyuls is on the coast right by the Spanish border in Languedoc-Roussillon – click for a larger view.

la_verriere182

The vineyard and winery at Chêne Bleue, Domaine de la Verrière.

chene-bleu-nv-abelard-bottle-1000x10002010 Abélard
Chêne Bleu
Vin de Pays /IGP de Vaucluse
Domaine de la Verrière
Rhône, France

I love what Chêne Bleu does and have written about them here and here, so it was no surprise that this stunning wine received a Gold Medal. It is a biodynamic blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah aged for 18 months in French oak barrels. The vines are grown at around 500 metres above sea level and are between 30 and 40 years old.
There is concentrated fruit, rich herbal characters and a nice touch of spice too. This is a rich, elegant, refined and utterly delicious wine – 95/100 points.

Available in the from £50 per bottle from Justerini & Brooks, Wine Direct and Waitrose Cellar.
For US stockistsclick here.

ban_premium_ok2015 Banyuls Premium
Terres des Templiers
AC / PDO Banyuls
Roussillon
France

Banyuls is the closest thing to Port produced in France. It is a sweet fortified red wine made right on the border with Spain, from Grenache grapes and it can be utterly delicious. This is wood aged for 12 months, but still opaque, rich, dark and sugary, much like a good Ruby Port. Blackberry and sugar plums and wild raspberry together with wild herbs, sweet spice and cocoa dominate the aroma and flavours. A lovely style that we do not see enough in the UK, try it with something chocolatey  – 93/100 points.

Spain

Spain is always a great wine producing country to go to for value and nothing epitomises that as much as what they do with Grenache, or as they would call it Garnacha or even Garnatxa in Catlunya. 

I love what Bodegas San Alejandro do in Spain’s Calatayud region in Aragon. I fell in love with their wines a long time ago whilst staying in the amazing Monasterio de Piedra – it’s a medieval monastery that is now a hotel within a wonderful natural park that contains a series of waterfalls that are the highest in western Europe and it is a magical place. Anyway, it’s near the winery and so the restaurant lists their wines. In fact it was their Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Viñas Viejas that started me on the way to loving Grenache. The wines are so good that they won four Gold Medals in the competition and all the winning wines are well worth trying. Sadly you cannot get them in the UK, but you can order them to be delivered – until Brexit reimposes limits and duty anyway – from the likes of Uvinum and Bodeboca.com.

Wine map of Spain, Aragonwith Calatayud and Campo deBorja are between Rioja and Barcelona - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, Aragon with Calatayud and Campo de Borja are between Rioja and Barcelona – click for a larger view

bot-crianza-2012_82013 Baltasar Gracián Crianza
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

60% Garnacha with 40% Syrah aged for 12 months in a mix of French and American oak. It’s a big wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well. Intensely ripe and very generous with plenty of coffee, vanilla, liquorice and earthy tones developing as it ages. A lovely wine that I cannot find in the UK – 91/100 points.

terroir_paisaje_general

Bodegas San Alejandro.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-reserva_02013 Baltasar Gracián Reserva
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

70% Garnacha with 30% Syrah aged for 18 months in French oak. Another big wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well. This is soft, rich and spicy with loads of ripe red fruit and coffee and vanilla – 92/100 points.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-garnacha_02015 Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Viñas Viejas
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

A stunning wine made from 80 year old dry farmed bush vine Garnacha grown in slaty mountain soils at about 800 metres above sea level. It spends 10 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels and is simply wonderful. Full of flavour,full of life and personality. It is deeply concentrated, mineral, balsamic and liquoricey with a long finish. Great with game – 93/100 points.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-garnacha-nativa_02013 Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Nativa
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

This version is made from the oldest and highest vines, 82 year old plants growing at 900 metres. The wine is aged for 12 months in new French oak barrels. They only made 2600 bottles and again it is superbly concentrated, but more smoky, intense and savoury this time, while the finish is silky and refined. Like all their wines, it is big and bold, 15% again, but elegant too in its own way – 94/100 points.

Aragon is a great area for Garnacha production and the wonderful Bodegas Borsao in the Campo de Borja – the Borgias came from there – also won 4 Gold Medals as well as a Silver. Again I cannot find any UK stockists, although Wine Rack used to sell them, but they are also available from the likes of Uvinum and Bodeboca.com.

garnacha_borsao

Garnacha bush vines at Bodegas Borsao.

berola-20152014 Borsao Berola
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

80% Grenache, 20% Syrah grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged 14 months in French barriques. This is a fine, aromatic wine with rich red cherry, some black cherry, liquorice, earth and balsamic notes. The tannins are soft and it is delicious – 92/100 points.

crianza-seleccion-new2013 Borsao Crianza Selección
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

This 60% Grenache, 20% Merlot and 20% Tempranillo, also grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged 10 months in French and American barriques is a little silver and firmer, with more savoury and dark fruit characters, more classically Spanish perhaps – 92/100 points.

bole-new2013 Borsao Bole
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

70% Grenache with 30% Syrah, made from younger vines and only aged for 3 months in French oak.It is very ripe, very bright with some lovely firm spice and it still got a Gold Medal despite being around €5 in Spain – 91/100 points.

tinto-seleccion-flores2015 Borsao Tinto Selección
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

Another Gold Medal winner, 85% Garnacha, 10% Tempranillo and 5% Syrah and with no oak. This is juicy and delicious with lovely fruit and spice. Robert Parker said this about a previous vintage, which probably says all you need to know; ‘Possibly the single greatest dry red wine value in the world, this is an unbelievable wine’ – in case you didn’t know, Parker – and perhaps other Americans – use the word ‘value’ in that very odd way that jars. I would say is it’s great value. A value to me is a quite different meaning, ho hum – 92/100 points.

For some reason the next one only gained a Silver Medal rather than a gold, but I think it is brilliant and great value for money too:

trespicos2015 Borsao Tres Picos
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

100% Garnacha from 35-60 year old vines and aged 5 months in French oak barrels. This is very intense with bright, ripe, juicy, succulent fruit, floral aromas, spices and a silky, smooth, rounded palate. A wine that always delivers a huge amount of pleasure – 91/100 points.

26146999742_167359daa5_b

Vines in Terra Alta – photo by Angela Llop

Perhaps the most highly thought of part of Spain for Grenache based blends  – Aragon and Navarra specialise more in pure Grenache wines – is Catalunya with its trio of exciting regions; Priorat, Montsant and the decidedly up and coming Terra Alta, which as you can see on the map is not far from Calatayud. Historically it was rather cut off because of all the mountains, but the Mediterranean ensures the grapes ripen very well, while the stony soils keep vigour down ensuring the grapes are concentrated and flavoursome. My panel judged a whole flight of 11 red wines from Terra Alta and they were very good indeed, some of my favourite wines of the competition came from this flight – Terra Alta is avery exciting wine region and these examples are the best that I have ever tasted.

seleccio2014 Edetària Selecció Negre
Bodegas Edetària
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This Gold Medal winning wine is a fabulously exciting blend of 60% Garnacha Peluda (Hairy Grenache), 30% Syrah and 10% Cariñena, or Carignan. The vines are over 40 years old and the wine is aged in 500 litre French oak barrels for 12 months, so twice the size of normal barriques, so it softens the wine rather than flavours it. This truly delicious, smooth, rounded, plump, herbal, spicy, mineral, elegant and concentrated, one of my top wines of the whole competition – 94/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Decántalo and Uvinum.

lafou-de-batea2013 Lafou De Batea
Lafou Celler
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This is a blend of mainly Garnacha with a little Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and it is another stunning wine, again concentration is the hallmark here, with rich cherry fruit, balsamic, liquorice, herbal, spicy characters and minerality and freshness giving the whole thing balance. This is a beautiful wine that I want to enjoy with some slow cooked, garlicky lamb – 94/100 points.

Lafou also make a (much) cheaper wine called Lafou El Sender which is available in Waitrose and Waitrose Cellar for £10.99.

lavi-arrufi2014 L’Avi Arrufí Blanco
Celler Piñol
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This organic white wine is 100% Garnatxa Blanca barrel fermented and aged for 8 months in French oak. It is creamy and gently toasty and smoky,with lots of succulent orchard fruit, herbs and spices.There is enough acid to keep it balanced and refreshing, but at its heart it is all about the texture and mouthfeel. A beautiful white wine, full of character and perfect with a selection of different cheeses – 93/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Uvinum.

tempus-1167093-s313-jpg2014 Tempus
Altavins Viticultors
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

Another amazing wine from this up and coming region. The blend changes every year and I have no idea what the 2014 is, but it includes Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Merlot. The vines are 30 year old and grown on rocky slopes with low vigour. The finished wine is aged for 10 months in French oak barrels to round it out and soften it. The fruit is very ripe, deep red fruit with some flashes of blacker fruit notes, even some kirsch. There is plenty of spice here too and the oak gives a lovely touch of coffee and cocoa. This is opulent stuff that needs time or decanting  – 92/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Vinissimus.

Italy

wine map of southern Italy - click for a larger view

Wine map of southern Italy – click for a larger view

Grenache is so associated with Spain and France that it comes as quite a shock to discover it in Italy. In fact it is grown in three different regions, in the Veneto’s Colli Berici region it is called Tai Rosso, formerly Tocai Rosso. In Umbria they call it Gamay del Trasimeno or Gamay Perugino and like Veneto seem to have grown it there since the mid nineteenth century, having brought it from France.

However, it is Sardinia that really specialises in Grenache. They call it Cannonau and the fact that they grow it, indeed specialise in it, is a reminder of their mediaeval past when the island was conquered by the Crown of Aragon, which was a joint Aragon and Catalan Kingdom that also ruled Valencia, Roussillon, the Balearic Islands, Malta, Sicily, Naples, Sardinia and even parts of Greece from 1162 to 1469, when it became linked with the Kingdom of Castille and eventually came to be called Spain. It is presumed that Aragonese or Catalan settlers took Garnacha grapes with them to Sardinia. Certainly Catalan people did settle there and Catalan is an official language around Alghero to this day.

During my time on Sardinia I tasted some rustic, everyday examples, but then I also enjoyed some Cannonaus that were superbly balanced and fine:

1401971753-651486472015 Neale
Cantine di Orgosolo
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

This sumptuous wine is a beautifully balanced blend of 85% Cannonau and 15% Bovale. Bovale is name used for two different grapes, both Spanish in origin; Bovale Grande is Carignan / Carineña / Mazuelo, while Bovale Sardo is Rioja’s Graciano. From a linguistic point of view I had hoped that it would turn out to be the Bobal grape of Valencia, but who knows that might have been the name they used – things were less precise and scientific in those days, people seldom knew what the grape actually was, just that they grew it and the local name for it.  It’s richly fruity, blackberry and plum, and incredibly smooth with nice savoury earthy touches and soft, sweet tannins – 92/100 points.

dicciosu2015 Dicciosu
Cantine Lilliu
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

I know nothing about this wine, but suspect that its bright red fruit, smooth tannins and juiciness means that it is pure Grenache. It is very elegant though with nice freshness and balance. There is nothing rustic or overworked here, instead it has a pristine quality that is rare in Grenache – 93/100 points.

pantumas2015 Pantumas Rosato
Cantine Lilliu
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna Rosato
Sardinia
Italy

Again I know nothing about this wine, except that it was the best rosé that I tasted the whole trip. Delicately scented of rose petals, red cherry and even some blood orange, those flavours follow on to the palate. It is a delicate, fine rosé with elegance and finesse, I loved it – 93/100 points.

audarya2015 Audarya
Audarya
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

I was seriously impressed with this stripped down, acoustic style of wine. There is no oak here, just pristine, bright Grenache fruit that delivers waves of sweet ripe cherries, raspberries, plums and exotic spices. The wine is taut, refreshing and beautifully balanced and yet at heart a simple little thing. Fine wine making indeed and as far as I can see, this is their first vintage – 93/100 points.

So, there you have it, some stunning wines made from members of the Grenache family, or blends that include Grenache. All of these are wonderful wines that certainly captured my imagination whilst I was in Sardinia. All of them have soft tannins, voluptuous fruit, spiciness and drinkability that people like in things like Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so if you enjoy those, then you will like these too. I hope that you get to try some of them, or perhaps just use the information to try Grenache wines from a wider array of places. If so, do tell us all about them, won’t you?

 

Wine of the Week – delicious Greek treats

P1030596

Looking towards the sea from Rapsani’s vineyards.

I love Greek wine and wish they were more popular and easier to buy in the UK than they are. I really enjoy presenting Greek wines to wine societies and recently I talked a wine group into agreeing to a tasting of Greek wines. Despite being nervous at first the tasters really enjoyed them. All the wines showed really well and impressed the tasters. Of course a handful particularly stood out and proved to be widely popular in the room and I will mention three of those today and tell you about some of the others another time.

The first one was a superb dry white from the Island of Santorini made from the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. I showed a terrific, mineral example made by the Santo Wines cooperative, which you can buy mail order in the UK – click here . If you want to try a more easily available example, Marks & Spencer stock a lovely, affordable version made by the splendid Argyros Estate – click here for details. I have written about Santorini wines in more detail before – click here.

Amongst the reds I showed a couple of wines form the same region as a contrast and I loved them so much that together they are my joint Wine of the Week.

P1030691

The village name in the Greek alphabet as well as ours.

That wine region is called Rapsani and it is a very beautiful place in Thessaly near Mount Olympus. I visited a few years ago and it was wonderfully peaceful up there with stunning views of Mount Olympus to the north west and the Aegean Sea to the east. The vineyards sit at between 250 and 800 metres above sea level allowing for a staggered harvest giving very different characters and complexity to the wines. The soil higher up also put me in mind of Priorat, as there is a lot of schist, red, iron-rich schist in this case which warms up quickly and drains superbly.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

The wine has long enjoyed local fame and respect and historically the Rapsani cooperative was strong, however it fell on hard times and the Tsantali company took it over in 1991 and brought in much needed investment and know-how. For a long time they were the only producers here and remain the most important and widely seen label.

Traditionally Rapsani wines were a blend of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto and Tsantali keeps to that tradition by using one third of each grape in a field blend – so the grapes are fermented together, not blended. The latter two by the way only grow here while Xinomavro is used right across northern Greece. This makes Rapsani quite different as on its own Xinomavro has something of the dry structure of Nebbiolo about it, while the other two grapes add a feeling of more body and alcohol.

Rapsani Vineyards

Rapsani Vineyards

tsantali-rapsani2012 Rapsani
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 6 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 30% new.

The grapes for this wine are harvested from the lower slopes of Rapsani, 250m above sea, and the extra heat shows in a slightly raisiny nose with richer dried cherry, some fresher, sweet raspberry aromas as well as the classic tomato stem of Xinomavro. There is sun dried tomato and tapenade too, which gives it a real savoury tang. The palate is medium bodied and very smooth with little touches of vanilla and caramel and lots of rich fruit. This is a terrific wine with just a an attractive touch of the rustic about it. It will appeal to Rioja drinkers and go perfectly with lamb and Mediterranean style food – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies and Evingtons Wines – for £8.50-£10 per bottle and from Amazon.co.uk for £28.58 per case of 3 bottles.
For US stockists – click here.

tsantali-rapsani-reserve2012 Rapsani Reserve
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 50% new.

The grapes come from further up, 250-500 metres above sea level, and the wine feels cooler and more elegant. It is also deeper, darker and more concentrated, with rich black fruit aromas, blackberry, cassis and plum, together with wafts of black pepper spice, coffee and leather. There is also a touch of that tomato stem and black olive umami / savoury character, even a touch of balsamic. The palate is concentrated, smooth and plush, with lots of fruit and spice and a lovely core of freshness to give balance and vitality. That savoury / umami note follows on to the palate as well, which makes the wine brilliant with food. A classy and elegant wine that wowed the room at my tasting – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies for £16.95 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

It always surprises people that I bang on about the delights of Greek wines so much, but they really can be very good indeed and well worth trying. The wines are classically European in style and structure, but because Greece has such wonderful indigenous grape varieties, they taste different and wonderfully exciting.

Try either of these with slow cooked lamb, or Kleftiko, and you will not be disappointed.

Lebanon Part 2 – the producers

Earlier in the year I was invited to visit Lebanon and so was able to tour some of the wineries in the Bekaa Valley. Lebanon is a beautiful and vibrant country full of smiling, friendly people, incredible landscapes, wonderful food and excellent quality wines.

Of course in world terms it is a tiny producer, just 0.06% of total world production in 2010, but the average quality does seem 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. This means that most Lebanese wine isn’t cheap – even in Lebanon – but is usually well worth trying.

Map of Lebanon including the wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Lebanon including the wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Most Lebanese wines come from the Bekaa Valley, which is a beautiful fertile valley between Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, which form the border with Syria. It’s very fertile and every where you look you can see produce being grown – wine of course suits the rockier, less fertile soils.  The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with cold winters and hot dry summers that can ripen grapes perfectly. The heat is tempered by cool breezes because the valley is at very high altitude, between 900 and 1250 metres above sea level. The big temperature drops between day and night, often around 20 degrees, also helps to retain freshness and elegance in the wines. Some of the newer regions just starting to produce wines, like Jezzine in the south and Batroun in the north, are cooler and look promising for more delicate grape varieties like Rielsing and Sauvignon Blanc.

When I first got back I wrote a little about Lebanon and have since put on a couple of well received Lebanese tastings as well, but I thought it might be useful to go into a little detail about some of the producers whose wines you might be able to buy where you live.

Château Ksara

Château Ksara.

Château Ksara.

Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, this is the oldest and biggest winery in the country. It all started when the monks of nearby Tabauk Monastery were left 25 hectares of farming land near Zahle in the Bekaa Valley. It seems that one of their number – Father Kirn – was rather keen on wine and persuaded his colleagues that this place had great potential for growing grapes and making wine. It seems they aimed high right from the start and eventually employed a trained team of viticulturist monks, which seems an odd concept to a modern ear, but remember that the monasteries had been the guardians of winemaking knowledge – and indeed the wine innovators too – for hundreds of years. The secularisation of wine was a long journey that has lasted from the 1500s in Bordeaux onwards and even today monasteries still cultivate grapes and make wine around the world – see my article about Mount Athos.

Ksara had a an amazing stroke of luck in the final years of the nineteenth century, when some children, who worked on the farm were trying to stop a fox from terrorising the chickens. In the excitement they stumbled on a Roman cave system on the site. The monks instantly realised that these ancient caves were a perfect place to store their wine as the temperature stays constant at 11˚C throughout the year. These cellars are quite amazing to see and have been central to the Ksara story ever since their discovery and help to explain why Ksara is such a popular tourist destination – although numbers of visitors have declined recently with the civil war raging in nearby Syria.

Everything changed in Lebanon after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and Lebanon was awarded to the French as a United 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.

Ksara carried on as before, but with bigger markets and more demands, until the Vatican noticed that wine making had become a major focus for the monastery – by this time they were producing 1.5 million bottles. The Vatican didn’t really approve and so in 1973 encouraged the monastery, as well as many others, to sell off any money making enterprises. So Ksara became a private company belonging to a group of local businessmen. Their timing wasn’t great as the Lebanese civil war started in 1975 and lasted for the best part of twenty years, devastating the country and making commerce next to impossible. The absolute low point for Ksara was when the Battle of Zahle raged just down the road and the winery was actually occupied by Syrian troops for a time.

Vines at Château Ksara.

Vines at Château Ksara.

The 1990s saw Ksara bounce back with determination. New planting, replanting and investments in modern equipment have paid real dividends. My hosts here were the charming Elie Maamari – who is officially the export manager, but seems to know everything about and everybody to do with wine in Lebanon and was instrumental in my being there – and James Palgé the talented and engaging wine maker.

James Plagé.

James Plagé.

Like all the Bekaa Valley wineries I saw, the place is very peaceful, which is astonishing considering that it’s almost in the centre of a bustling little town. However photographs from as recently as the 1960s show that it was originally in the countryside with nothing around it except vineyards.

The winery is like a little haven of peace with a museum in the reception area. It’s full of wonderfully antiquated wine making equipment and reinforces how old this winery is, over 150 years now. Upstairs there is a lovely tasting area and excellent restaurant, but the real wonder is the cellars which lie beyond an arched door with 1857 carved into the keystone. These extraordinary tunnels appear to go on for miles – actually just over 2 kilometres – and it is fascinating to meander through them seeing the little alcoves lined with bottles and barrels. They still store some old wines that the monks made there in the nineteenth century.

The cellars at Ksara.

The cellars at Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

It isn’t all about the restaurant and the cellars though, there is real dedication here and it shows in the finished wines. James is a passionate and thoughtful winemaker who embraces new techniques while retaining the best of the old. He led me and my friend, fellow wine scribe Stephen Quinn – whose writings and videos can be found here – , through a wide range of Ksara’s wines in their beautiful upstairs tasting room.

The Wines
We started with a pair of rosés and I was very impressed, especially by the 2012 Château Ksara Gris de Gris with it’s delicate, Provence-like colour, subtle spice and delicate fruit, but the more intensely fruity 2013 Ksara Sunset Rosé was very drinkable too. It was a sunny day and the idea of sipping the Gris de Gris with a lovely Lebanese meal was very attractive.

The Bekaa has a huge variety of soils and conditions, so all colours can confidently be made here – indeed one of the revelations of the trip, for me, was the high quality of the white wines – which is good as they also suit the cuisine very well indeed. Certainly Ksara’s 2012 Chardonnay is an accomplished and appealing wine, with a lovely texture, succulent fruit and refreshing acidity it is the sort of wine that could win more drinkers back to Chardonnay.

While I was in Lebanon I totally fell for the traditional and local style of white, which is a blend of different white grape varieties and usually called a Blanc de Blancs. I tasted quite a few I rated and the 2012 Château Ksara Blanc de Blancs was one of them. It is a lovely, nutty, creamy and spicy blend of 55% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Chardonnay and 20% Semillon and is delicious with a nice piece of fish.

The heart of their range though is their red wines and I liked them all, although the stand outs for me were the 2010 Château Ksara itself, which is nicely complex and cedary, Médoc inspired blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot, barrel aged for 12 months. The wine has supple tannins and that classic dry, but ripe fruit and leafy character that will please claret lovers.

The 2011 Ksara Reserve du Couvent is a more approachable wine in terms of structure and price. It is a lovely bright blend of 40% Syrah 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon with ripe, supple tannins and generous fruit – it is a former Wine of the Week because it is so delicious and a great bargain.

The top wine of their range is called Le Souvrain and I was hugely impressed by the 2008 offering. Created to celebrate the wineries 150th anniversary, 2008 Le Souvrain is an opulent blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Arinarnoa, which is cross between Merlot and Petit Verdot, aged in new French oak for 24 months. The wine is full-bodied, creamy, concentrated, supple and sumptuous with the weight of fruit easily carrying all that oak in perfect, seductive  balance.

James carefully opening the 1942 Ksara Vin d'Or.

James carefully opening the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or.

Stephen Quinn, James Palgé and me drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d'Or.

Stephen Quinn, James Palgé and me drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or.

 

It was a brilliant tasting, but James had one more treat in store for us. He collected a mould encrusted bottle from the cellars and carefully removed the cork before pouring samples of this venerable looking bottle. It looked like brandy in fact and had complex aromas of amontillado sherry, barley sugar and orange peel. The palate was glorious with high alcohol, coffee, apricot, walnuts, caramel, honey and brandy characters. We were drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or (no records exist about what grapes were used) which was made by the monks and had lain in the caves beneath Ksara ever since. It was an exquisite wine and a great experience that I will remember forever.

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines.

Thank you Elie and James for a memorable and wonderful visit.

Château Kefraya

Château Kefraya's soils.

Château Kefraya’s soils.

An hour or so further south in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, Château Kefraya seems to be very remote – it is midway between Chitaura and Machghara. It was my first winery visit in Lebanon and I found the place quite magical with a lovely peaceful feel. The landscape seemed biblical to me and had a rugged beauty to it with wild flowers and scrub contrasting with the neatly maintained grounds and foliage around the winery. Lizards darting around and cicadas chirruping added to the exotic ambience.

Kefraya, the area or lieux-dit in French, has been owned by the de Bustros family for generations. However farming here has always been problematic as the soil is so rocky and difficult to work that anything other than subsistence agriculture has proved impossible. It was these conditions that inspired Michel de Bustros to return to the family land in 1946, repair the buildings and set about creating a vineyard. First of all they had to remove a mass of rocks, something which is ongoing as the vineyard area grows, so the first vines were not planted until 1951. At first they sold their grapes to other Bekaa Valley producers, including the excellent Château Nakad.

The rocky soil at Kefraya being tended.

The rocky soil at Kefraya being tended.

Eventually Michel decided the they had enough experience and knowhow to build a winery on the estate too and to create a new Lebanese wine brand. Château Kefraya’s – there is an actual castle that is now quite modernised and serves as the family house – first estate bottled vintage was 1979, although some of the grapes were still sold to other producers at that time.

Of course, again the timing was bad, the civil war was in full flow and Lebanon’s unruly neighbours had to get involved. In 1981 the Israeli Army occupied the area and took over Kefraya for a while – they even arrested the winemaker. Determined to look after his beloved Château, Michel stayed there all through this troubled time. His determination was rewarded as more peaceful times returned, slowly at first, but enough to ensure the winery could start to prosper. They started exporting from 1987 and have gone from strength to strength ever since.

The current wine maker is one of the most engaging and inspiring I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Fabrice Guiberteau is a gentle giant of a man, brimming over with energy and enthusiasm for this place and the wines he makes here. His excitement was palpable and it was a wonderful experience to see the estate through his eyes.

Fabrice tending his Chardonnay vines.

Fabrice tending his Chardonnay vines.

I first glimpsed him driving a tractor around a rocky vineyard. He explained that the site produced his best Chardonnay grapes, so he tended it himself. As the estate is now 430 hectares he cannot do it all, but insists on personally looking after this section. From the moment he greeted us, it was great fun to be there, Fabrice bounded from one topic to the next, explaining it all and being totally honest, as well as modest – both important attributes in a wine maker I think.

The landscape at Kefraya.

The landscape at Kefraya.

Kefraya's vineyards.

Kefraya’s vineyards.

He drove us around the estate in a 4X4, showed us the very different soils – limestone, chalk – particularly good for their Chardonnay – and sand, the different aspects and the different altitudes he grows grapes at.  He showed us the amazing piles of rocks that have been removed from the land before the vines can be planted.

The rocks that were removed before the vines could be planted.

The rocks that were removed before the vines could be planted.

The vines are interspersed with rocky outcrops that, it was recently discovered, 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. It looked for all the world like the tombs mentioned in the bible and was amazing to think that this rural landscape has been inhabited for more than 2000 years. They still turn up Roman finds while tending the fields and have a small museum of coins and artefacts in the Château.

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

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

Fabrice gave us three wonderful tastings in different parts of the winery, tasting vat and cask samples as well as finished wines.

The Wines
2012 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 (Fabrice is from Cognac country!), Chardonnay and Verdejo.

The 2012 Château Kefraya Chardonnay is beautifully balanced with rich figgy fruit and well integrated oak. While a tank sample of the Provencal-like 2013 Château Kefraya Rosé was quite delightful with a little creamy ripeness to the red fruit notes, good acidity and a touch of spice – it would go perfectly with a classic Lebanese meal.

The 2010 Château Kafraya Rouge is a blend of 60% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Mourvèdre aged for 18 months in oak, 50% new. It is 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 called Comte de M and the 2010 Comte du M Rouge is an intense, concentrated and fine blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 30% Syrah that spent 18 months in new French oak barrels, Fabrice has experimented with American oak, but he hates it! I found the wine to be opulent, but elegant too, full of rich fruit, with lovely fresh, cleansing acidity and supple tannins.

Fabrice also gave us some fascinating cask samples, most memorably his 2012 Carmenère (with 20% Syrah) that had 18 months in new French oak. It was sublime with beautiful blackberry fruit, fruity intensity, those savoury notes, supple tannins and a touch of spice and mocha. He only made one barrel, so try it if you can!

Thank you too Fabrice for a wonderful visit and for your infectious enthusiasm.

Château Kefraya wines are distributed in the UK by Lebanese Fine Wines.
Château Kefraya wines are distributed in the US by Volubilis.

Both these visits were great experiences and introduced me to a wider array of styles from Lebanon than I was expecting and whetted my appetite for more Lebanese wine, so I will report on a couple of more wineries soon.

Wine of the Week 17 – a delicious & great value Cabernet

My Wine of the Week is a favourite value wine of mine. It is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Greece, which is not exactly a place that is famous for Cabernet, but this wine really is delicious and worth trying. I love Greek wines and think they are sadly neglected and underrated by the UK consumer. I greatly enjoyed touring the country’s wine regions in 2012 as Greece has a lot of excellent wines to offer and this wine might well be a good place to start your own personal Greek wine odyssey – remember to click all the links.

Some of Tsantali's beautiful vineyards.

Some of Tsantali’s beautiful vineyards

Greece is culturally a white wine drinking nation – certainly their whites are superb with their cuisine – but, Santorini aside, most of their most famous wines are red and made from indigenous grapes at that. So, this is a relatively rare chance to see what an international grape can be like from Greece and I think it is an extremely good wine.

Vineyards in northern Greece with Mount Olympus in the background across the water.

Vineyards in northern Greece.

Tsantali CabIt is made by the excellent Tsantali company, which is one of Greece’s most important and dynamic wine producers and makes wine in many different regions in the country. Tsantali products are highly visible in Greece as they distil ouzo and act as a negociant marketing wines from all over the country. The real focus of this family company though is as grape growers, vineyard owners and winemakers. This particular wine comes from grapes grown on the beautiful, sun-drenched Halkidiki Peninsula near Thessalonika in northern Greece. The dry conditions there lend themselves especially well to organic farming as fungal diseases are very rare.

2011 Tsanatli Organic Cabernet Sauvignon
Halkidiki P.G.I.
Tsantali Vineyards
The wine is aged for 8 months in new French oak.
This really is a terrific Cabernet, the nose is dominated by loads of sweet ripe fruit, soft spice and some mint with even a touch of dried fruit showing it comes from somewhere hot. There is a lovely rich texture to the palate of ripe cassis and blackberry, but also slightly stewed fruit giving a big mouthfeel with smooth tannins that are still a little bit tight, which gives the wine an elegant and fine feel. This terrific wine just gets better and better in the glass, it is a rich powerful wine, medium-bodied wine, but very well balanced with a lovely feel of elegance about it. What’s more it is made from organically grown grapes.

Perfect with roast lamb, as well as any other joints, rich dishes and meats, a terrific steak frîtes wine too – 90/100 points.

A great bargain at £9.49 a bottle in the UK from Waitrose & Ocado.

Wine of the Week 8 – return of a favourite

Episkopi, Santorini - photo from Athenee Importers.

Episkopi, Santorini – photo from Athenee Importers.

With summer sporadically here, I was very excited to see that one of my favourite dry white wines had returned to Marks and Spencer, it’s great value too.

Regular readers will know that I love wines that are just slightly unusual and a little off the beaten track. There are so many great wines out there made from places and grape varieties that most people just do not think of trying and I see it as my mission to tell the world about them.

For many, many years I have loved exciting Greek wines. Greece is not high on many wine drinkers lists of places to explore, but it really should be, the country makes a dazzling array of styles of indigenous and international grapes and I would urge you to try a few Greek wines.

Some of Greece’s very best wines come from the beautiful island of Santorini. Santorini in my opinion is truly a great wine region and it makes some of the best white wines in the entire Mediterranean area, the reds aren’t too shabby either by the way.

Harvest at Argyros - photo from the Argyros Estate.

Harvest at Argyros, back breaking work, but worth the effort.

MS_FD_F23A_00885010_NC_X_EC_0-22013 Atlantis White
Argyros Estate
Santorini
P.G.I. Cyclades (like a Vin de Pays, but actually could be labelled as a P.D.O. Santorini)

This estate has been family owned since 1903, but most of the success has been since 1974 when the founder’s grandson, Yiannis Argyros, took over. Yiannis managed to dramatically expand the vineyard holding to 65 acres, which is massive for Santorini. The vineyards are all in Episkopi Gonia Thiras, not far from the airport, and the vines are trained into a basket to protect them from the extreme winds. What’s more they the vines hug the ground to keep them out of the wind and to maximise the effects of the morning dew in this hot, dry climate.

The secret weapon for white wine on Santorini is the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. It is high in acid, so makes clean refreshing wines even in the heat and like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, as well as Sicily’s Carricante, usually has something mineral about it.

Atlantis white is 90% Assyrtiko grapes  with 5% each of the richer Aidani & Athiri.

White Santorini wines vary quite a bit in style from rich and heady to taut, mineral and crisp. The blend here makes this wine somewhere between crisp and soft as it is slightly fleshy and textured, so it feels less mineral than some pure Assyrtiko wines. However it is still utterly delicious, bone dry and very drinkable – indeed my bottle emptied in minutes. The palate gives a touch of pear that softens the citrus, while the nose has a touch of the sea. This makes a stunning aperitif as well as being perfect with a bit of fish, a salad and some grilled prawns or squid – 89/100 points.

I have tried three vintages of this wine now and always been impressed, the estate actually produces ten different wines, including dessert wines and I hope to taste some of the others before too long.

If you have never tried a Greek wine, or a Santorini, or just want a lovely dry white wine, do give it a go, I promise you won’t regret it.

Available in the UK from Marks & Spencer at £10.49 per bottle.
Distributed in the US by Athenee Importers.