I have become very keen on South African wine. The country delivers high quality and great value in my opinion and to continue with this gross generalisation, it also makes wines that are less definitively New World in style than the likes of Australia and California. There is always something drier and more savoury about South African than most other New World wines, and they also have more fruit than the traditional leaner and drier French wines.
Another wonderful thing about South African wine is that they use an eclectic palate of grape varieties and so produce an amazing array of wine styles. I would also add that it is a great wine producing country to visit from the UK as the time difference is only an hour, so there’s no chance of jet-lag, and the wine regions are so compact. Almost all South African wine is produced in the Western Cape and the majority of producers are within a couple of hours of Cape Town Airport. What’s more they are superbly geared up for wine tourism with restaurants and bars, as well as some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
Anyway, I recently tasted some wines made by the KWV and I thought they were all pretty good. KWV wines were widely available when I first started in wine. Their Roodeberg blend, Pinotage and Steen (aka Chenin Blanc) were to be found in pretty much every wine shop, offered great value for money and were very popular.
Vineyards in Stellenbosch.
The KWV – Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Suid-Afrika – was originally created in 1918 as a wine producing cooperative. From the 1920s onwards it became an official organisation that regulated wine and brandy production in the Cape as an official arm of the government. After the introduction of democracy KWV became a private company and for a while the wines lost their way rather – however the brandies and fortified wines did not. For quite a few years I have been convinced that they are back on form with an impressive line up of wines. Recently I have tried quite a few of their wines and have been seriously impressed.
Wine map South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view.
Their 2016 Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc – available from Morrison’s for £8.50 – is from a cool coastal zone of South Africa (Walker Bay) and is crisp, elegant and very drinkable with lovely citrus freshness and something mineral about it too (88/100 points). Their 2016 Grenache Blanc – available from the Co-op for £7.99 – is a bit more me actually with a textured richness and herbal quality. It feels broad a soft where the Sauvignon is lean and fresh and it is a little creamy too making it a nice introduction to this delicious grape (87/100 points).
2014 KWV The Mentors Petit Verdot W.O. Stellenbosch South Africa
Petit Verdot is a Bordeaux grape variety, but is historically hard to ripen in France – which is how it got the name Little Green, as it could be under ripe with green tannins – so has been relegated to a blending role in Red Bordeaux. Many winemakers believe that a little Petit Verdot adds some elegance and class to a Claret, especially on the Left Bank. So, in order to fulfil the grape’s potential, it has been taken up by producers in hot countries, especially California, Spain, in Jumilla especially, and South Africa. All of these have a Mediterranean climate and that long hot summer help ripe the shy Petit Verdot to perfection.
This is basically a single vineyard wine grown in low vigour shale soils. The heat is tempered by the south-easterly winds, which slows the growing season down and ensures the grapes have a slow build up of sugars and a lot of flavour. The yields are very low too – 8 tons per hectare – which ensures good concentration and also helps the flavour profile. Added to that, this wine is made from a careful selection of the best fruit. There is a cold maceration to extract flavour and colour before the fermentation. It was fermented in stainless steel tanks with pump overs for good colour extraction and then sent to barrel – 60% new – where malolactic took place and the wine was aged for 18 months.
The wine has a dense, opaque black cherry colour that is bright and inviting.
The nose is rich with black cherry and plum together sith a dusting of tobacco, cocoa, pencil shavings and spice.
The palate is smooth, velvety, succulent, rounded and juicy with barrowloads of ripe dark fruit, red and black, giving lovely primary fruit sweetness, and there is a balancing fresh acidity and lovely fine grain tannins giving just a little edge to the wine.
The oak gives a spiciness while the ripe fruit makes it a hedonists delight. It still has its soft, juicy pupy fat but there is some good structure and complexity underneath all that primary pleasure and I would love to taste it again in 5 years or so – 93/100 points.
Frankly right now this wine will go with anything. It is even supple enough to be drunk on its own if that is your thing, but would be absolutely perfect with steaks and venison and roast beef.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ChâteauLangoa-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 thelovely 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.
So often when we talk about Spanish wine, we mean wine from northern Spain. This is simply because up until the late twentieth century the south was just too hot to make anything that was considered worthwhile. So the good wines, the wines with a reputation for high quality, came from the cooler zones with Atlantic influence. Chief amongst those, of course, was Rioja. Most of Spain’s other wines were relegated to making everyday wines for local consumption.
Much has changed for the better in Spain since it joined the EU in 1986. Not least that modern wine making technology is now reaching into every corner of this exciting wine producing country.
As a result good – and great – wines are now being made in regions that were once regarded as bywords for undrinkable wine. Clean, protective winemaking has lifted the wines of Spain’s hot, southern regions to a level that would have been unthinkable just thirty years ago.
Perhaps the most exciting of these is the Comunidad Valenciana. This is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and consists of the provinces of Alicante, Valencia – pronounced Bah-len-thya – and Castellón – pronounced Cas-tay-yon.
The Comunidad Valenciana contains several wine regions that are very much on the up; DO Alicante, DO Valencia and DO Utiel-Requena.
DO / denominación de origen wines come from recognised regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance.
Since Spain has enjoyed increased prosperity, renewed infrastructure and access to wealthy markets these regions have curbed their desire to make high volume, bulk wines. Instead they have focussed on improving quality and producing finer, artisan wines.
Historically the wines from this part of Spain are really a story of three grape varieties – two black and one white. Despite much experimentation they remain the most important.
The main black grape of Alicante, and nearby Jumilla, is Monastrell. More famous under its French name, Mourvèdre it’s used in many Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Rhône blends and is known as Mataro in much of the New World. In the wrong hands, Monastrell can be very tannic and rustic and was long thought only suitable for producing large quantities of everyday wine, as the high yields reduced the tannins by making the wines dilute. Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow. It needs a lot of heat and also a fair amount of water. Added to which it is susceptible to all sorts of mildews, is very vigorous and can easily get overripe. Add all that together and it is not surprising that it had to wait until modern times, squeaky clean wineries and skilled grape growers for it to become a grape with a following.
The little known Bobal (pronounced boh-BAHL) grape reigns supreme in Utiel-Requena and is actually the third most planted grape in Spain – after Airén and Tempranillo, yet most of us have never heard of it. Until relatively recently Bobal was considered too tannic and un-tameable, so was often blended with other, softer grape varieties, such as Tempranillo and Garnacha (known as Grenache in France). However recent advances in handling Bobal have led winemakers to recognise its qualities and to unequivocally make it the signature grape of the region.
Both provinces also have a long tradition of making sweet, fortified wines from Moscatel, (Muscat in French), grapes. In recent years the advent of cold fermentation in stainless steel has led to the production of very good dry whites made from Moscatel too. Fresh and aromatic, these are excellent with seafood.
Historically the region fermented its wines in the tinajas – traditional large clay jars often inaccurately called amphorae. These fell out of use when people realised that it was hard to get clean results from them. However modern knowhow and technology means such vessels can now be cleaned and so tinajas have started to be used again, to great effect.
Famously the Comunidad Valenciana enjoys a Mediterranean climate with long, hot, dry summers and short winters. Historically this has been a problem as too much heat can produce flabby,uninteresting wines. Careful positioning of vineyards though, can produce wines with more freshness and elegance from subtly cooler sites.
Utiel-Requena is actually as far inland as it is possible to be in Valencia and is right on the border with Castilla-La Mancha. This puts these vineyards much higher than the coastal plain, at around 600-900 metres above sea level. The slightly cooler and windy conditions up there alleviate the summer temperatures, that frequently top 40˚C, and slow down the growing season to produce finer wine than was once thought possible.
Further south in Alicante the better vineyards also tend to be inland where the land rises to around 400 metres. Even in August you need a jacket if you want to sit out at night in Monòver, the heart of the vineyard area.
DO Valencia is more spread out and varied, but excellent everyday wines are made on the lower land towards the coast, while more ambitious wines are made by passionate producers at higher altitudes around Ontinyent near the border with Castilla-La Mancha.
In all of these areas, careful positioning of vineyards, modern training techniques, earlier picking for lower alcohol and better balance, clean winemaking and careful use of oak has led to a revolution in how the wines taste. Today at the very least the wines are clean, fresh and enjoyable. At their best they are amongst the very best that Spain has to offer.
There are far too many producers to mention them all, but these are some of my favourites:
Bodegas Enrique Mendoza:
Founded in 1989, Mendoza has a winery and showroom near Benidorm, but most of their vineyards are around 40 km inland at Villena. This place is between 370 metres and 650 metres above sea level, so gets cooling breezes in the summer.
Pepe Mendoza organically farms around 80 hectares and makes several different wines from pure Monastrell, or as he puts it, ‘paints plenty of pictures from the same grape’.This place – with its winds, extreme heat in summer, cold in winter, low vigour, stony soils and only just enough water – makes the vines struggle and so they produce small crops of very concentrated grapes. In fact so stressed are the vines that they remain stunted and cling to the ground, so Pepe calls them his ‘bonsai vines’.
2016 La Tremenda Monastrell DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Enrique Mendoza Alicante
A single vineyard wine, this is Pepe’s calling card and it is one of the best value wines around. Fermented in stainless steel and aged for 6 months in American oak barrels, it’s richly fruity, fleshy and succulent with velvety tannins, a kiss of vanilla oak, a touch of cocoa and a wild, spicy side that keeps it exciting. This will appeal to people who like Shiraz and Syrah – 90/100 points.
Also try: The single vineyard Estrecho and Las Quebradas are both magnificent Monastrell wines with great depth and complexity, while Pepe’s sweet, fortified Moscatel de la Marina is one of the finest I have tasted.
Enrique Mendoza wines are distributed in the UK byC & D Wines.
Artadi – El Sequé:
Created by Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacaille in Rioja in 1981, Artadi was a pioneer and champion of single vineyard wines in Spain. Today they farm 65 hectares in Rioja, 40 hectares at Bodegas Artazu in Navarra and the 80 hectare El Sequé estate in Alicante. This property is situated at 600 metres above sea level near Pinoso, west of Monòver close to the border with the Región de Murcia.
2016 El Sequé Monastrell DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas y Viñedos El Sequé Alicante
Another single vineyard wine grown at around 600 metres. Pure Monastrell fermented in open topped vats with daily pump overs for extraction. The wine is aged in 500 litre French oak barrels for 12 months.
The result is a wine with rich black fruit, spice and balsamic notes. The palate is plush and concentrated with rich, sweet, ripe fruit, supple tannins, beautifully integrated oak and good balance. This is a true fine wine and very impressive and it needs hearty, winter food – 94/100 points.
A division of Bodegas Schenk, a big wine company that originated as a cooperage in Switzerland before acquiring wine estates in various regions of Switzerland after World War 1. Schenk then expanded into Spain in the 1920s, where it has several estates throughout the Comunidad Valenciana. This one was the first estate they bought in Spain and was known as Bodegas Schenk until 2002 when it started focussing on premium rather than bulk wine production.
This is a very different take on Monastrell. It is unoaked, so retains more brightness, but it still has lovely black fruit aromas, a touch of that sweet and sour, fruity and pepper and balsamic thing on the palate. In short it’s a spicy, bright, ripe and concentrated wine that sees no oak at all and retains a juicy freshness – 88/100 points.
Tucked away in Parcent in the Xaló Valley, a little inland from Jávea, Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega was one of the very first to show that Alicante could make great wine. He has farmed 12 hectares here since 1978 and produces a fascinating range of wines.
2014 Casta Diva Cosecha Miel DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega Alicante
Sweet Moscatel wines are very much the tradition in this part of Spain. In the past they were somewhat oxidised and lacked excitement, but have recently reinvented themselves in spectacular style. This wine is the link between the old and the new waves and has been made continuously since 1978, thus inspiring new winemakers to make more interesting wines from Moscatel. This is barrel fermented and barrel aged, in all sorts of barrels of different sizes. The oak isn’t new, so the flavours of the oak do not mask the taste of the grapes, but the oxygen trickling in makes the wine rounder and more mouth filling.
The wine is aromatic with wonderful orange blossom, caramel and wild herb notes. The palate is honeyed, sumptuous and complex with rich, ripe orchard fruit and zingy, caramelised orange – without doubt the finest example of this classic local style – 93/100 points.
Also try: Viña Ulises – an enticing, elegant blend of Monastrell and Garnacha that combines ripe fruit and wilder, savoury black olive characters.
This go ahead cooperative is the giant of Alicante wine and was created by merging 11 smaller co-ops. Don’t let that put you off though, they produce some excellent wines. Their wines are never less than good, even at the lower end and they are always coming up with new and exciting things, like sparkling red Monastrell and sparkling Moscatel.
2018 Marina Alta DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Bocopa Alicante
I don’t always like dry wines made from Muscat, but this is a delicious take on the style. It is fresh and lively with floral and grapey aromatics. The palate is light and refreshing with low (11%) alcohol and some zingy citrus freshness. Wonderful to drink on a sun-drenched terrace and perfect with Gambas al Ajillo – 87/100 points.
Created in 2000 by unifying two old established family vineyards, the 67 hectare Finca Fuenteseca sits at nearly 1000 metres above sea level. It is west of Utiel, right on the border with Castilla-La Mancha and is certified organic as the dry conditions make it a perfect site for organic viticulture.
2016 Pasión de Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Bodega Sierra Norte Valencia
A great introduction to Bobal, this is made from old vines and low yields. Fermented in barrels and aged in barrels for a further 6 months.
It is a thoroughly modern wine that tastes traditional and of its place. It’s richly fruity scented with blackberry, raspberry and balsamic, umami, savoury notes. The palate is generous, rich and mouth filling with powerful black fruit together with nicely balanced mocha-like oak and suave, refined tannins – 90/100 points.
Also try: Pasión de Bobal Rosado – a beautifully balanced, pale rosé that delivers bright cranberry and strawberry fruit and crisp, refreshing acidity.
Bodega Sierra Norte wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.
Dominio de la Vega:
Three winemaking families joined forces in 2001 to create this estate focussed on premium wines. Housed in a beautiful 19th century manor house, the site is lovely and the wines are impressive.
2014 Finca La Beata Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Dominio de la Vega Valencia
This is a fine, concentrated red made from 100 year old, ungrafted vines and aged 18 months in barrel. Layers of ripe fruit, ripe tannins, spice, espresso and chocolate-like oak balanced with fresh acidity make it complex and vibrant – 94/100 points.
Also try: Their superb range of Reserva Cavas – fine Spanish sparkling wines made by the traditional method.
Dominio de la Vega wines are distributed in the UK by Jeroboams.
Pago de Tharsys:
This estate dates back to 1805, but its modern life began in 1981 when the Garcia family, bought it. They went on to purchase most of the adjacent vineyards in the 1990s – so like most estates around here it’s a young label and very much a project in progress. They organically farm 12 hectares and produce a wide range including superb sparkling wines that are stunningly packaged.
2018 Pago de Tharsys Albarino – Vendimia Nocturna DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Pago de Tharsys Valencia
Albariño is of course a grape from Spain’s Galicia region, but it is beginning to be grown elsewhere as it is recognised as one of the best white grapes in the Iberian Peninsular – it also grows in Portugal, where it is called Alvarinho.
The nose offers ripe, tropical pineapple and floral notes together with little touches of aromatic Turkish delight.
The palate delivers fruit characters reminiscent of pineapple, lime and grapefruit together with a lovely creamy ripe texture and green tea notes. This is a soft wine in the mouth, well balanced and quite long with green fruit emerging on the finish. Night harvesting helps retain the grape’s natural acidity 91/100 points.
Also try: Their Unico Blanc di Negre, a complex sparkling Bobal made by the traditional method, it cannot be called Cava as Bobal is not a permitted Cava grape.
Pago de Tharsys wines are distributed in the UK by Moreno Wines.
A modern estate that is another part of Bodegas Schenk, or more accurately Schenk are a shareholder and the ‘Suizas’ in the name of the winery. Right from the start this project was about producing premium wines in Utiel-Requena. The potential of the region had been seen for a few years, but they were still pioneers. Today they farm 46 hectares of vines around their beautiful farmhouse and another 15 less than half a kilometre away. All of this is just west of the lovely town of Requena and the focus is on Bobal, although they grow other grape varieties too.
2016 Bobos ‘Finca Casa La Borracha’ Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Bodegas Hispano+Suizas Valencia
An intriguing and delicious red that is made from 70 year old, low yielding Bobal vines. The grapes are de-stemmed and put in 400 litre American oak barrels, standing up without the tops, to ferment. After the barrel fermentation the wine is aged for 10 months in new French Allier oak barrels. A vibrant and forthright wine that packs a spicy, toasty punch with rich fruit and balsamic/tapenade notes. The tannins are beautifully tamed and velvety, the oak is well integrated and there is good balancing acidity. This is a serious wine, but immensely drinkable too – 92/100 points.
FYI, Casa la Borracha means ‘house of the drunken woman’!
Bodegas Hispano+Suizas wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.
Mustiguillo was founded by businessman Toni Sarrion in the late 1990s with the aim of rescuing Bobal from its reputation for mediocrity and creating fine wines from it. As such it became the engine for change in this formerly obscure region and showed what could be done in this place and what is more was instrumental in showing the locals just how good Bobal can be. Mustiguillo consists of two organically farmed estates, Finca Terrerazo at around 600 metres above sea level and Finca Calvestra which sits at 920 metres.
Calvestra is cooler and where they grow their white grapes, especially the rare Merseguera which Mustiguillo have helped to rescue from near extinction to become the, still rarely seen, speciality white grape for the whole Comunidad Valenciana.
2017 Mestizaje DO/PDO Pago El Terrerazo Bodega Mustiguillo Utiel Valencia Comunidad Valenciana
Mestizaje means melting pot and it’s a blend of mainly Bobal with small amounts of Syrah (10%) and Garnacha/Grenache (16%). The grapes are fermented in a mixture of French oak and stainless steel fermentation tanks and the wine is aged for 10 months in a mixture of French oak vats and barrels.
The result is a hugely drinkable, medium-bodied wine that has plenty of red and black fruit, gentle spices, freshness, elegance and precision – 91/100 points.
A big producer that started life in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, in 1831 when Vittore Valsangiacomo opened a winery. His son Cherubino Valsangiacomo decided to open a wine export company in Valencia and Alicante, before eventually opening winery facilities in Chiva, Requena, Utiel, Monóvar, Yecla and in El Grao de Valencia in 1890. As their wineries cover all the important wine areas of the Comunidad Valenciana, they produce a large range of wines from all the DOs in the region.
In 2008 the company undertook an exciting project by taking over the old Sanjuan Cooperative that’s halfway between Utiel and Requena. The aim is to use the wonderful old vineyards and concrete tanks at Sanjuan to make great wines from Bobal.
There are 10 hectares of up to 100 year old Bobal vines around this old winery and it is exclusively those vines that are used in this wine. They are sited on a plateau at around 750 metres above sea level. This exposes them to the cooling ‘solano’ winds that blow in from the east and temper the hot summer conditions by increasing the temperature drop between day and night. The winery is quite old and was equipped with 70 large fermentation tanks made of concrete. Cherubino Valsangiacomo believe these are perfect for Bobal as if left unlined, or raw, you can achieve a small micro oxygenation of the wine due to the pores in the concrete. This tames Bobal’s famous tannins.
A lively and fresh wine with an attractive lifted nose of ripe red fruit and a dash of spice. The palate is smooth, earthy and spicy with medium weight wine, supple tannins and juicy blackberry, cherry and raspberry fruit. The freshness shines through, showing the absence of oak, and the finish is long with a satisfying savoury twist – 90/100 points.
Cherubino Valsangiacomo wines are distributed in the UK by Bibbendum.
Celler Del Roure:
This extraordinary estate is planted at 600 metres above sea level in the south west of Valencia province, west of Ontinyent. Pablo Calatayud originally created the winery in the late 1990s to make wines from international grapes. However in recent years he has completely changed his approach and now farms organically and champions local grape varieties like Mandó and Verdil that had almost become extinct. Pablo also uses the traditional tinajas – large clay jars often inaccurately called amphorae – to ferment and mature the wines. What’s more these tinajas are deep underground in an ancient Roman cellar.
2015 Parotet DO/PDO Valencia Celler Del Roure Valencia
An old vine (between 30 and 70 years old) blend of 75% Mando with 25% Monastrell, organically farmed and verging on natural winemaking. The fruit is all hand harvested, partially de-stemmed (the stems contain a lot of tannins, so leaving in some stems can increase the tannin if required), indigenous fermentation using the natural yeast, fermentation and malolactic in the tinajas followed by 14 months ageing on the lees in those tinajas.
The result is scented and vibrant wine with herbal, balsamic and fresh red fruit aromas. The palate is similarly bright with fresh red fruit, savoury herbs and that balsamic tang. The texture is velvety and supple and the wine has lots of energy – 93/100 points.
Also try: Cullerot – an extraordinarily complex blend of Verdil, Pedro Ximénez, Macabeo, Malvasía, Chardonnay and Tortosina macerated on the skins and aged for 6 months one the lees in those tinajas.
Celler Del Roure wines are distributed in the UK by Alliance Wine.
Wines from this part of Spain are really exciting me right now. From humble beginnings the Comunidad Valenciana is fast becoming one of the most thrilling and varied wine producing areas of Spain. What’s more most of them are made from indigenous, local grape varieties. So the flavours are unique and all the wines seem to have that casual Mediterranean feel of charm and elegance. They are incredibly food friendly and generally offer great value for money too, so go on do a bit of exploring of wines from the Comunidad Valenciana.
I seem to have become a bit obsessed by Italian wine of late and there is nothing wrong with that. The country has a great deal to offer, hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, dozens of wine producing areas, every imaginable style – some uniquely Italian – and everything from honest, everyday wine to some of the grandest fine wine producers in the world.
In the last couple of years I have enjoyed many trips to Italy and tasted many good – and great – wines. However recently I was invited to a wonderful wine dinner and tasting in London as a guest of Baron Francesco Ricasoli, one of the grandest Italian producers of them all.
Brolio Castle and some of its vines.
The Ricasoli family are very old and emerged as feudal lords from Lombardy in the times of Charlemagne. They settled in Tuscany in the area now known as Chianti – perhaps it was then too as the name is thought to be that of an Etruscan family – more specifically what is now the Chianti Classico. The family took ownership of Brolio Castle in 1141 and have been there ever since, which makes them officially the oldest winery in Italy – quite an achievement when you consider that the castle marked the border between Florence and Siena. I found it extraordinary to be having dinner and chatting away with a man whose direct ancestors would have had dealings with the Medici family and be involved in the intrigue and violent politics of Florence in the Renaissance.
From a wine point of view though his most important ancestor, in modern times anyway, was Bettino Ricasoli, 2nd Baron Ricasoli. Born in 1809, Bettino eventually became the Tuscan Minister of the Interior and was instrumental in pushing for the union of Tuscany with the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piemonte) that took place in 1860 and established the Kingdom of Italy. He went on to serve two terms as Prime Minister of the newly unified Italy.
As if that was not enough for one lifetime, Bettino also made an enormous contribution to the history of Chianti.
Wine map of Tuscany showing the location of Brolio Castle – click for a larger view.
The wine had been around for centuries, indeed Henry VIII was known to drink it, but originally it was only made in the area called the Chianti Hills just to the north of Siena. Indeed the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’Medici, issued an edict creating the boundaries of the region which today broadly correspond with those of modern Chianti Classico. Brolio is at the heart of this region, in Gaiole in Chianti some 10 km north east of Siena.
The idea of what constituted a Chianti wine seemed to be somewhat fluid in those days. Indeed there is some evidence, as with Rioja, that it was a white wine in the past. It was not until Bettino had finished his stint as Prime Minister that he was able to bring some clarity to what Chianti actually was. He had worked very hard at restoring the Brolio estate, replanting and experimenting with what grape varieties really suited the land and making the best expression of Chianti that he thought possible. In the end he settled on a blend of three grapes, Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia, or Sangioveto, Canajuolo and Malvagia as they were known back then and sometimes still are locally.
Just as an aside, in those days it was normal to grow lots of grapes together, to pick them together and to vinify them together too as a field blend. Such wines that included white grapes were much paler and lighter than most red wines of today. I was fortunate enough to taste a wine made in this fashion at Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Monticello, Virginia and it was a real eye opener to wines of the past.
So after decades of research and winemaking Bettino finally wrote down what he had learned and sent it in a letter to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa in 1872:
‘…I verified the results of the early experiments, that is, that the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption…’
I find it fascinating that even then he knew the Malvasia diluted the wine – softening it to make it drinkable – and could be left out if you wanted to age the wine instead. Malvasia is no longer a permitted grape for Chianti – although it is still grown in the region for other wines – all the grapes used in Chianti must now be black.
Today the estate is the largest in Chianti Classico – 12000 hectares in total with 236 hectares of vines and olive trees and it might all seem rosy, but that is only because of a great deal of hard work and foresight.
The charming Baron Francesco Ricasoli.
In the 1960s the Ricasoli family sold their name, their brand, to Seagrams. They managed the vineyards and sold the wine to Seagram who marketed it around the world. It may seem strange today, but at the time it made total sense. Many fine wine regions were struggling, astonishingly both Chablis and Côte Rôtie almost disappeared at that time, and Chianti was going through a hard time too. The wines had lost their reputation for quality and many producers had lost confidence in their grapes and their land – this was the time when some Chianti makers saw their future in Cabernet and Merlot and the ‘Super-Tuscans’ were born.
The Seagrams deal saved them at the time, but undermined their history and reputation. Baron Francesco Ricasoli took over the family business in 1990 and decided to put that right. The first thing he did was extensive replanting to ensure the quality came right in the vineyard. Then when Seagrams sold out to Hardy’s in 1993 he was able to buy the family brand back. From then on the focus has been on quality and re-establishing the prestige of their brand.
Francesco was not a winemaker by trade, but a professional photographer, so since 1990 has been operating outside his comfort zone in many ways – although frankly it doesn’t show. He is assured, charming, deeply knowledgeable about his land and I could have listened to him forever. He introduced his wines with modesty and was keen to emphasise that he had built a team to make this project work, but you could hear the pride in his voice when he told us that in 20 years Ricasoli went from being almost forgotten to being regarded once more as a great estate.
Key to the progress they have made with their wines is their zoning project. This is a study in collaboration with the Experimental Institute for the Study and Protection of the Soil in Florence, which is mapping each parcel of vineyards by soil and climate to ensure that the correct grapes varieties are planted where they should be and on the most suitable rootstock.
This was our aperitif and it was a blend of 75% Chardonnay blended with 25% Sauvignon Blanc. The Chardonnay was aged for 9 months in used barriques and tonneaux on the lees. the sauvignon was aged on the lees in stainless steel for 9 months.
This was a terrific wine with a lovely, beguiling, balance of richness and texture with freshness, acidity and minerality. I have had a few wines over the years that blend these two grape varieties together and they always seem good to me, so I often wonder why more people don’t don’t do it. This example is very fine – 91/100 points.
Served with Roasted quail, baby beetroots and wild mushrooms:
2013 Casalferro Barone Ricasoli IGT Toscana
A single vineyard Super-Tuscan wine that has been produced since 1993. It was originally pure Sangiovese, but is now 100% Merlot. The vineyard is south facing and the soil is chalky clay. The different blocks were aged for between 18 and 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux before blending.
I am not always a fan of Merlot, but this was delicious stuff. The colour was deep, vibrant and plummy, while the lifted nose offered mocha, chocolate, plums and coffee with a touch of earth and even a whiff of the Mediterranean. The palate was smooth, creamy almost with light grainy tannins, vanilla, rose hips, plums and a dusting of cocoa. The flavours really build in the mouth and it is very long. It was a great match – 92/100 points.
This was the last vintage that blended 30% Merlot and 70% Sangiovese together, from 2007 Casalferro has been pure Merlot. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques.
Beginning to show its age with a tawny rim and a briny, balsamic dominated aroma together with leather, earth, dried fruits and strong coffee. The palate was very soft, yet savoury and earthy with something almost medicinal about it. The tannins and the fruit were smooth and velvety and the acidity, presumably from the Sangiovese, kept it youthful and bright. This was magnificent with the quail meat, especially the crispy roast quail legs – 93/100 points.
Served with venison, celeriac, watercress, sprouts and chestnuts:
2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli DOCg Chianti Classico
This wine, now labelled as Gran Selezione – the first eligible vintage was 2010, is the Grand Vin of the estate. Gran Selezione is an attempt to firm up the quality credentials of top Chianti Classico. Historically the Riserva wines were the pinnacle of production, but normal Chianti Classico could be aged longer in wood and be labelled as a Reserve, so nothing really set the wines apart as being great quality.
Gran Selezione wines must be made from estate grown fruit, not bought in. The minimum alcohol must be 13% compared to 12.5% for Riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 months for Riserva. There is some controversy around the adoption of this new system, but I can see the point of it.
This 90% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.
The nose offered bright plums and pomegranates together with rich earth and mocha notes. The palate was supple, youthful, joyous and delicious with fine grain tannins, sweet red fruit and a harmonious feel. I could drink it now, but it really needs time – 94/100 points.
2008 Chianti Classico Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli DOCg Chianti Classico
This 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 28 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.
2008 is not considered a great vintage, but Francesco is very fond of it and wanted to share it with us. I am glad he did, I thought it was terrific.
The age is beginning to show here with more toffee, caramel and balsamic, soy sauce and general umami note The palate was very supple, very smooth with nice freshness, dried fig fruit, mushrooms, smoky coffee and caramel flavours. The finish was long, savoury and saline with a touch of mocha and cedar too. A beautiful wine ageing gracefully – 93/100 points.
2003 Chianti Classico Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli DOCg Chianti Classico
One of the hottest vintages to date, this was a blend of Sangiovese with a little cabernet sauvignon. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques – 65% new.
The age shows here, but it is very good. the nose is earthy, mushroomy, truffles, meaty, dried figs and rich coffee, even a touch of stout on the nose. The palate is again very supple with sweet dried figs, almost no tannins and a meaty, savoury richness that makes it great with food – 93/100 points.
This wine is a site specific, pure Sangiovese Chianti Classico that is now labelled as a Gran Selezione. In effect it is a Cru from a vineyard on the estate that sits at 380 metres above sea level and faces south west.
100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 40% new.
I am not always wowed by the top wines of an estate, but this really seduced me. What’s more it was from a difficult vintage with lots of hail. It was fragrant, floral, perfumed with sweet red fruit, mocha and a touch f tobacco. The palate was smooth, supple, smoky with fine grain tannins, ripe red fruit and a beautifully fresh, lightly flesh and succulent mid weight to it. This was stunning wine and I would add that the label is utterly beautiful too – 95/100 points.
100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 18 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux.
Showing some lovely bottle age, this is much more savoury and meaty with dried fruit, walnuts and coffee aromas, even some toffee. The palate is wonderfully cohesive with an underlying freshness balancing the richness and binding it all together. The tannins are supple and there is a dried fruit and savoury, earthy flavours and a sense of purity about it that makes it sing. It was magnificent with the Comté – 93/100 points.
2007 Vin Santo
Castello di Brolio
DOCg Chianti Classico
This blend of Malvasia and Sangiovese is made from late harvested grapes that are then dried over the winter to concentrate the sugars further. The juice is then fermented and the wine then aged for 4-5 years in French oak barriques.
This was the colour of Malt Whiskey and had a nose of cinder toffee, caramel, oranges, dried apricots together with a whiff of old books, leather, pipe tobacco and coffee. The palate is a wonderfully sumptuous blend of sweet and sour with chestnut, coffee, dried fig, maple syrup and concentrated apricot fruit. The finish is firm and surprisingly unsweet with great acidity and balance. The end is almost savoury and salty with reminders of Sherry, Sauternes and Madeira on the nose and plate – 93/100 points.
Available in the UK for around £33 per half litre from: Hennings Wine.
The whole evening was a memorable experience of good company, excellent food and magnificent wines. If you want to see what Chianti can be, do try one of the wines from Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli, they are quite a revelation.
A small Syrah vineyard at the Hacienda Zorita Organic farm. They mainly use this wine as a rub for one of their cheeses.
Long ago before my country decided to become foolish and voted by a tiny majority to leave the EU, I was invited to Spain as a guest of the Concordia Family Estates, which is a group of companies that is really on the rise. It’s run by some very passionate people and it shows. It all started with the Hacienda Marqués de la Concordia in Rioja Baja and over the years they have added other wineries, labels and brands to their stable. Bodegas Lagunilla was first in 1994 and since then Marqués de Monistrol have joined the group, allowing them to make some fine Cavas. Federico Paternina added another famous Rioja bodega, while with Bodega Rioja Santiago they acquired the second oldest producer in the region – it was founded in 1870. In Rioja they also own Viña Alarde, which produces more modern styles of value for money wines.
Further afield they also own an amazing estate in Andalusia called Ándalus which even grows Petit Verdot.
I’ll be honest, this company – or these companies – have so many strings to their bow that it is very hard to get a grip on it, but it doesn’t really matter, because everything was wonderful and each component made sense.
The beautiful Hacienda Zorita photo – courtesy of the hotel.
Storks are a common sight in these parts, this one is on the roof of the Hacienda.
I was invited visit the Hacienda Zorita, which is a charming boutique hotel that belongs to the company, they call it the Hacienda Zorita Wine Hotel & Spa. It is a few kilometres outside the beautiful cathedral city of Salamanca and it really is idyllic. It dates back to 1366 and was both the hospitality buildings for the local Dominican Monks and their farm, complete with water mill to make their bread – amazingly they say that Christopher Columbus – Cristobal Colon – came here when he was trying to raise funds for his first voyage.
My very comfortable room at the Hacienda.
This is a wonderful part of the world and the Tormes River flows right by the Hacienda before winding the 40 or so kilometres to the border with Portugal where it flows into the Duero / Douro at Fermoselle in Arribes del Duero.
The organic farm.
They have buffalo on the farm…
… and Iberian pigs.
The wonderful finished products.
Not content with being in hotels and wine, the company is also into fine food production. Many of their wine estates also grow olives and make superlative oil, but they also have an organic farm where they produce some stunning cheeses and the finest jamon and chorizothat I have ever tasted. They have recently started producing balsamic vinegar too, I got to try it and it is shockingly good, the older barrels were almost solid like toffee, but it isn’t yet ready to put on the market.
The balsamic vinegar ageing in different size casks, the older it is the smaller the cask as it evaporates.
Not far from Femoselle and the frontier with Portugal they also have the Hacienda Zorita Natural Reserve, which is a wine estate in the wilds of the Arribes del Duero wine region and the Arribes del Duero Natural Park which also covers the Douro Valley over the border in Portugal. Traditionally this area grows Juan Garcia, a grape that is not particularly loved, but that can make very good things when treated right. However at Zorita they decided to base their wines on Tempranillo, which is permitted in the DO. In addition, acting under advice from Richard Smart, they also decided to plant Syrah, and while this is not permitted in the local DO, it seems to perform very well indeed.
Hacienda Zorita Natural Reserve Unamuno Vineyard – there’s a billiard table at the top of that tower!
The estate from the top of the tower.
The estate is named in honour of Miguel Unamuno, who was a great writer and philosopher of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was Rector of Salamanca University and travelled widely in the Duero Valley writing about his journeys.
The presumably much repaired Roman Bridge over the Tormes River at Ledesma, just think how many people will have crossed that over the centuries. My ancestor William Sadler served under Wellington in the Peninsular War and some of Wellington’s army marched this way in 1812, so I might not have been the first member of my family to walk on that bridge.
Wine regions of northern Spain, Salamanca and the Hacienda Zorita are where ‘del’ is in Tierra del Vino de Zamora – click for a larger view
Over the course of the visit I managed to taste a few of their wines and these were the standouts for me:
Marqués de la Concordia MM Reserva de la Familia Rosado Brut DO Cava, so made by the traditional / Champagne method Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya
70% Pinot Noir with 30% Monastrell aged 48 months on the lees. It was made at Mas Monistrol, the home of Marqués de Monistrol.
This has a pretty, pale wild salmon colour and a fine persistent mousse. The nose offers rose petals and red fruit – a melange of strawberry and cherry – together with a touch of toffee and brioche, while the palate is, clean, zesty, taut and finely textured with succulent red fruit and a touch of shortbread. All in all a very stylish Cava with lots of finesse – 88/100 points
Available in the UK from Amazon for £37.50 for a case of 3 bottles.
2015 Vega de la Reina DO Rueda Castilla y Léon
I am a big fan of Rueda wines and think it is the most reliable white region in Spain. At the very least the wines never disappoint and the Verdejo grape is a terrific grape that is not unlike Sauvignon Blanc, but usually a tad richer and more herbal.
This wine is basically a Verdejo with 5% Sauvignon blended in. The grapes were picked at night to retain the freshness. Cold fermented using aromatic yeast and then aged for 3 months on the lees.
The nose has rich aromas, with a touch of olive oil, olives, ripe peach and a touch of apricot skin, citrus, some a little light pineapple too.
The palate has quite a rich mouthfeel, textured, and again with an olive twist, peach skin and even a little spritz. It has a rich, fat style, with nectarine succulence and a slight feel of tannin, perhaps from skin contact. The palate is lightly creamy and is balanced by the zesty quality of lemon rind and grapefruit pith – 88/100 points.
Available in the UK from Ocado for £10 per bottle and from Amazon where a case of 3 bottles is £22.57.
2011 Hacienda Zorita Natural Reserve Syrah
Vino de la Tierra Castilla y León
100% Syrah aged for 18 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels.
Unusually this offers bright, red fruit notes, as well as being lightly floral, a little earthy, with some tobacco and a little sweet vanilla too.
Very supple palate, with lots of rich red fruit and good refreshing acidity making it feel svelte and poised. There are some attractive fine grain tannins and the oak makes it gently smoky. Avery attractive wine, the sweet vanilla works well and lovely juicy fruit is nicely kept in check. Nice tingling spicy finish blanks the bright fruit, it was very attractive to drink, but will become even more complex in 3 or 4 years time.
Available in the UK for about £15 a bottle from Ocado and Amazon.
2009 Marqués de Concordia Reserva DOCa Rioja Rioja
100% Tempranillo aged for 24 months in French and American oak barrels.
This has a great nose, lifted, peppery and savoury, with some dark fruit, especially dark cherry. Earthy notes balance all that seductive power making it really attractive.
Opens up in the mouth with a supple texture, still peppery, spicy, polished velvety tannins and lots of smoky, tobacco, vanilla oak.
Very attractive stuff, but wow, this is a big modern, almost New World style Rioja – 90/100 points.
Available in the UK from Majestic for around £11.50 per bottle
2012 Marqués de Concordia HZ12 Zorita Abascal Crianza
DO Ribera del Duero
Castilla y Léon
The grapes are grown in the Abascal Vineyard, which is next to Vega Sicilia, one of the most famous wines in the world.
This is pure Tempranillo – known as Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero and it spends 18 months in American and French oak.
The colour is black, dense and opaque.
The nose is similarly ‘yuge’ with rich sweet notes of dark fruit, balsamic and fresh earth, black olive and bitter chocolate.
The palate has loads of fat and richness, with cocoa, mocha and ripe black plum flavours. Rich and concentrated, fleshy and succulent, but there is some balancing freshness there too, the tannins are ripe and the it is dominated by a mixture of velvety fruit and sweet umami characters. A monster of a wine, but I really liked it – 90/100 points.
The garden of the Hacienda just outside my villa.
All in all I had an amazing time in a wonderful place and came back relaxed and restored. It wasn’t their fault that my country went completely mad on the night I got back – June 23rd 2016, a day that will live in infamy.
It is an astonishingly beautiful part of the world, the hotel was a total joy, sitting in the garden there was one of those moments that I felt totally at peace, just staring into the velvety Spanish night sky. The wines were splendid, the food excellent, our hosts charming and for a brief moment all was right with the world.
However, my Swiss experiences were not restricted to the French speaking parts of that beautiful country. The little group of wine writers and educators that I was with then went on to Ticino, the small Italian speaking park of Switzerland – remember to click on all the links.
Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.
What a trip it was, four changes of train had taken our little group – with very different levels of comfort and mixed availability of seats and luggage space – from Sierre in French speaking Valais, over to Ticino.
We eventually arrived in Lugano with enough time for lunch and a chance to pull ourselves together before heading off for our first visit in this very different part of the country.
Being culturally Italian, wine has of course been made in Ticino since before Roman times, but it was the planting of Merlot from 1906 onwards that transformed the quality of the region’s wines and the grape now accounts for well over 80% of the vineyards. To a large degree the whole concept of quality wine here is synonymous with Merlot. The grape was considered perfect for the region because, although Ticino is sunny with some aspects of a Mediterranean climate – palm trees thrive here – it can also be very rainy, and Merlot copes pretty well with those conditions. Before 1906 the region used a wide spread of grapes similar to those found in Piemonte as well as the local speciality Bondola which is enjoying something of a modest renaissance.
There are two sub-regions of Ticino, Sopraceneri in the north – it means above Monte Ceneriand is where Bondola can be found – and Sottoceneri, below or south of Monte Ceneri. This southern part straddles Lake Lugano and spreads down to the Italian border.
Most growers and producers in this region are very small indeed, but Gialdi Brivio, is one of the few large winemakers. However, they own no vineyards and so act as a negociant. Some 400 growers bring their grapes to them and their viticultural team are also active in managing these vineyards. The vineyards are often steep and hard to work and so somewhat amazingly the average cost of a kilo of grapes here is CHF4.50 (roughly £3.20 / €4.20) – pretty much the same as in Champagne.
Gialdi Brivio’s warehouse and winery at the foot of Monte Generoso.
Gialdi Vini was founded in 1953 and makes wines from grapes grown in Sopraceneri, while Brivio Vini was created by Guido Brivio in the late 1980s and specialises in wines from the Sottoceneri. His family has a background in the wine and spirits industry, but his dream was always to make high quality wine. The two companies merged in 2001 and now share winery, cellaring, bottling and distribution premises in Mendrisio, which is 3 km south of Lake Lugano and 3 km north of the Italian border. They also act as an importer and distributer for many Italian wines in Switzerland. Guido was our host for the afternoon as well as later at dinner and he was charming, welcoming, knowledgeable and justly proud of what they do and the region in which they operate.
Something that I had never encountered before, was that because they make almost all their wines from Merlot, whether they are red, white or rosé, they have spare grape skins which they can add to the fermenting must to increase the colour of their reds. Conversely, in order to accentuate the freshness of their white wines, which are almost all made from 100% Merlot, they mostly stop them from going through malolactic fermentation and filter them through charcoal to ensure there is no residual colour.
For two of their top red wines – Gialdi’s Trentasei Merlot and Brivio’s Platinum Merlot – they concentrate the sugars in the grapes by drying them using large fans for about 3 weeks in their cool, dry cellar conditions. This reduces the water content of the grapes by around 50% and a proportion of these dried grapes are added to normally ripe grapes, so making the whole wine more rich and concentrated.
One of the vents in the cellars.
One amazing aspect of the place is the cellars and how they are cooled. Most of their red wines are aged in a series of ten little stone cellars, called grotti, which are built into the base of Monte Generoso which is behind the winery. When it rains the water drains through the mountain into Lake Como. This draining water forces fresh, cool air through fissures in the rock causing a sort of natural air conditioning which keeps the cellars at a constant 11˚C. They have installed vents to channel the air into the cellars and the amount of cool air pouring through is astonishing – it truly is astounding what nature can do. According to Guido this cool temperature ensures that any sediment falls to the bottom of the casks quite quickly and this fast stabilisation means they lose less of the wine to absorption by the barrels, which is usually 2 litres per month.
This enthralling tour of the winery and cellars was followed by a comprehensive tasting of their wines. It was an impressive lineup of mostly Merlots, including 2 whites and 1 rosé. The quality was high and I particularly rated the 2013 Contrada Bianco di Merlotwhich is unoaked and because there is no Malolactic Fermentation has just enough acidity to be fresh and lively. Of the reds my favourites were the supple 2011 Sassi Grossi Merlot from Gialdi and the silky 2011 Riflessi d’Epoca Merlot from Brivio with its cedary oak and fine grain tannins.
Guido Brivio are also involved in the Swiss Premium Wine project in which four producers – counting Gialdi and Brivio separately – blend a cuvée called Quatromano, another 100% Merlot, which consists of 25% from each of the different winemakers. The other two contributors are Tamborini and Delea, both of whom I visited the following day.
All in all it was fascinating introduction to Ticino that was then made all the better by Guido taking our group to a local restaurant for dinner. The place is called Grotto Bundi and, like the cellars, is built into the mountainside. However over 80 years the place has evolved into a complex series of rooms on several floors and an attractive outside area, on what is now a pedestrianised road, with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Guido had planned a traditional feast of polenta accompanied by lots of different casserole dishes, beef, pork, lamb, sausage – which was most people’s favourite – mushrooms, the list goes on. It was all delicious and washed down with copious amounts of Gialdi Brivio wine it was an evocative and joyful taste of Ticino culture.
Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone.
Other visits were to the boutique estate of Cantina Kopp Von der Crone Visini. It’s run by the delightful Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone whose passion and commitment shows in everything they do. Their red wines are superb, especially the Balin blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa (a crossing between Merlot and Petit Verdot).
Some of the vineyards at Azienda Mondò.
Antonio Girardi and Giorgio Rossi of Azienda Mondò.
Azienda Mondò is another boutique winery that farms 6 hectares speed over 30 parcels of hillside to produce some superb wines. I was particularly taken with their Bondola, which is a local grape which is only just clinging on to life as it is thin skinned and can rot quite easily. There are only 11 hectares – all in northern Ticino – and almost exclusively grown by the small producers, so almost none is seen on the market. Mondò have about 10% of it and their Rosato di Bondola del Nonu Mario is superb with the local salami.
By contrast, Cantina Tamboriniis the local giant producer that owns 23 hectares, but they also buy a large amount of grapes from contract growers. In effect they operate as an estate and a negotiant and craft some very good wines. Their single vineyard San Zeno Costamagna Merlot Riserva is particularly impressive and I have shown it in tastings since – it tastes a bit spicy, rather like a good Carmenère.
Ticino vineyards, these south facing vines are the most southerly in Switzerland, Italy is a short walk away. These vineyards belong to Tenuta Montalbano, a co-op that is the biggest wine producer in Ticino. It has 380 associated members and also owns this 22 hectare estate which is the largest single block of vines in Switzerland.
Another view of Tenuta Montalbano.
All in all I found Ticino fascinating. It is a very beautiful place full of wonderful scenery and great Italian food – as long as you like polenta. The people are charming and the wines are very good and well worth trying, especially as they make so many different styles from, in the main, a single grape variety.
They are quite hard to get outside of Switzerland, but grab some of you can. Alpine Wines sell some wines from Ticino in the UK and as usual the US is well served by wine shippers bringing in more unusual wines including Swiss ones.
I do try you know. I try very hard to mix things up on these pages, but I do seem to keep returning to Spanish wine. Obviously I write about other things too, but Spain often delivers such great quality and value that I keep finding new and exciting Spanish wines to tell you about – well my new Wine of the Week is another one.
So often when we talk about Spanish wine, we mean northern Spain. This is simply because up until the late twentieth century the south was just too hot to make anything that was considered worthwhile, so the good wines, the wines with a reputation, came from the cooler zones with Atlantic influence. Chief amongst those of course was Rioja. Most of Spain’s other wines were relegated to making local wines for local people.
Well much has changed in Spain over the last 30 years or so and modern wine making technology is now reaching into every corner of this exciting wine producing country. As a result good wines are now being made in regions that were once regarded as bywords for bad wine. Jumilla is probably the most important of these and a real indicator of what Spain can do in the most unlikely places.
Wine map of Spain, see Jumilla a little way inland from Alicante – click for a larger view.
Jumilla is an up and coming region in the south of Spain. It’s a little inland from Alicante so can be searingly hot in the summer during the growing season, but cool nights and altitudes up to 900 metres above sea level can give some relief. Most producers have a range of grape varieties including Tempranillo, Syrah, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, but the region’s principal grape is Monastrell – which can also be called Mourvèdre and Mataro.
Monastrell vines growing in Jumilla. Photo courtesy of Bodegas Juan Gil.
Jumilla (pronounced Who-meeya) really is producing delicious wines right now – see the wines of Juan Gil, especially his Silver Label – and one that I tasted recently impressed me very much indeed, so I made it my Wine of the Week.
This terrific estate was at the forefront of the wine revolution in Jumilla as in 1985 the Vicente family completely renovated and renewed the winery they had owned since 1941 in order to concentrate on producing the best wines they could. Until that point it had mainly just produced grapes for the local bulk wine that I remember as being particularly nasty in my early days. The winery had originally been started by some Frenchmen in 1870 who were seeking a new start after the ravages of phylloxera back home. Phylloxera never really got a hold here in the very stony, arid clay-less soils and as a consequence the estate has some plantings of very old vines, many of them on their own roots.
This is Casa Castillo’s second tier wine. Their entry level Vendimia is a Monastrell-Tempranillo blend whilst they also produce Las Gravas – a blend of old vine Monastrell with Cabernet and Syrah aged for 12 months in new French oak – and Pie Franco – 100% Monastrell from ungrafted vines planted in 1941 which spends 14 months in a mix of new French and American barrels.
The Monastrell actually has a little – uncredited – Syrah too just to soften the tannins. It is macerated on the skins for colour and cold fermented in stainless steel. This has revolutionised Jumilla’s wines, it was not so long ago they fermented in earthenware tinajas – often called amphorae nowadays (incorrectly in my opinion) – buried in the ground, which were impossible to clean. The modern ways are scrupulously clean and produce far better – and fruitier – results. It get a few months in neutral French and American oak barrels, but oak does not dominate, it just makes the wine a little more rounded, smooth and more complex.
The colour is dense and opaque, like squashed blackberries, while the nose is richly fruity – blueberry and blackberry – with liquorice spice and earthy, savoury and herbal notes. Fresh blue-black fruit dominates the palate with a rich, almost creamy texture and something inky too. Smooth, supple tannins, some surprising freshness and a dusting of spice add to the structure and complexity. The wine is pretty full bodied and very full flavoured, enjoy it with something heart, meaty and warming – 88/100 points.
I have been visiting South Africa semi regularly now for well over 10 years and over that time the wines have continued to improve and become even more exciting. Very few places can touch South Africa’s Western Cape – the main centre of wine production – for sheer diversity, whether it is in soils, altitude or aspect. This allows them to grow an extraordinary array of different grape varieties and they put this to good use by producing an incredible variety of wines, often from quite a small area.
The Cape is very beautiful too, which makes it a real joy to visit. What’s more the wine regions are all pretty compact and most of the estates are within an hour or 2 of Cape Town airport. I love visiting the place, the beauty of the place never fails to get to me. Many of the wineries are old with the charming Cape Dutch architecture. Even the modern ones are lovely places to visit, as they are usually very well geared up to receive visitors and most have good restaurants too, like the excellent Terroir at Kleine Zalze. But even if they don’t it doesn’t matter as Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Paarl and Franschhoek are all full of lovely places to eat excellent food and drink good wine.
As far as wine is concerned, the place produces such variety that it is hard to say what is best, but I have been seriously impressed with many South African Sauvignon Blancs recently, especially this one and this one, they really are world class and can often give great value for money too – like this one here.
However, last night I showed a very exciting South African Bordeaux-blend at a tasting. I have tasted the wine many times before from previous vintages and it never fails to impress, as well as to offer great value for mine, so I made it my Wine of the Week.
Wine map of South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.
Bordeaux blends, wines made from a blend of the grapes that are famously used in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec (Cot) are a very traditional South African style and something of a speciality of the Stellenbosch area, so are well worth trying. This one is from the venerable Meerlust Estate, which has belonged to the Myburgh family since 1756, but was actually founded in 1693. Situated very near the sea in False Bay, southern Stellenbosch, the site benefits from cool ocean breezes and mists that temper the extreme heat of summer and must have made the place a logical place to build.
The name Meerlust apparently means ‘pleasure of the sea’, but I do not know in what language – as far as I can detect it is neither German, the original owner was German, Dutch or Afrikaans. I can get sea in the meer bit (mer), but cannot help feeling that lust implies something more than pleasure!
Whatever the name means though, it was a fortunate site to choose for wine too, as the cool conditions allow Meerlust to produce excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay too. However their main focus has always been their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends – Meerlust Rubicon is their Grand Vin – as well as some single varietal wines. My Wine of the Week is in effect their second wine made from younger vines and declassified vats, but it is still very good indeed.
Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.
2012 Meerlust Red W.O. Stellenbosch Western Cape, South Africa A blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc and 9% Petit Verdot aged in 55% new French oak.
Frankly this is more like a classic Claret from my youth than most Claret nowadays. The nose is fragrant and scented with very attractive leafy herbaceous notes, not green though. Just behind this there is plenty of vibrant fruit too, cassis, plums and a touch of blackberry. However the fruit is delicate and more European in style, rather than lifted, rich and sweetly ripe, as drinkers often expect from the new world. There is also a little touch of leather, cedar, pencil shavings, mocha and espresso bean, that all give a nice feeling of complexity and elegant sophistication.
The palate is medium-bodied and fresh tasting with some nice cleansing acidity balancing the succulent ripe fruit that gives cassis, dried and fresh, a touch of creamy vanilla, mocha again and some attractive leather too. The tannins are lovely and ripe, with a nice fine-grain texture giving just a little touch of astringency to the finish, which gives the wine some nice focus and definition – structure is the official word. The freshness really dominates the finish, which adds to that sense of focus and poise in the wine, while the finish is extraordinarily long. I love this wine and think it would happily grace a dinner party table as well as being great value for more frequent drinking. Perfect with Sunday roast, game, meat and semi-hard cheese – 91/100 points.
If you like classic Bordeaux wines you will certainly enjoy this, but even if you have never tried a Claret it is still a delicious wine that will find favour with almost anyone who enjoys Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
Recently I took part in a wine tasting debate that was all about Cabernet and Merlot blends. My job was to champion the wines of California while other wine educators championed Bordeaux and Australasia.
It took place at the West London Wine School where I do quite a lot of teaching as well as events like this, so keep an eye on the web site, there are more of these debates to come.
Well, I was really thrilled to be able to show people good some really good California wine, the state makes great, great wine that somehow gets ignored, by and large anyway, over here in the UK. I think most UK wine drinkers only ever see the cheap, simple, overly fruity mass market, branded bulk wine examples and assume that is what all California wines are like.
Nothing could be further from the truth and it is a shame that UK wine drinkers don’t often get the chance to try California wines that are a little more complex and interesting as there is plenty of good stuff to be found. It is widely believed, of course, that the good stuff from California is all very expensive and while wines from California can cost a lot of money, that does not mean that you cannot find good value.
Many UK wine drinkers either forget, or never knew, how important California is in terms of wine. It has a long history of making premium wine and it makes a lot of it to. California would be the fourth largest wine producer in the world if it was a separate country. I love the history of the place, but will leave that for another time. It’s cultural importance as a wine producer really began in the 1960s when a group of pioneers – I was lucky enough to meet many of them early in my career, including Bob Mondavi, Joe Heitz, Paul Draper of Ridge, Warren Winiarskiof Stag’s Leap, Jamie Davies of Schramsberg and Frank Woods of Clos du Bois – started to seriously make ambitious wine. Of course they were building on those that had come before them, but they realised the potential in this sunny state that had dry conditions and a Mediterranean climate. Really they created the modern world of wine. Before this we had never seen wines that were so technically well made – it helped that UC Davis had become one of the world’s preeminent agriculture and viticulture research stations by this time – and what’s more they were amongst the very first wines sold with a simple grape variety name on the label – new world wine as we know it was born.
Wine map of California – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.
Well, my love of California wine clearly rubbed off on to the tasters on the night of the debate as I won, but in truth the credit goes to the wines. I showed 3 wines at 3 different price points, the first 2 both came from the Napa Valley, which is perhaps the most famous A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area, the US equivalent of a P.D.O. or P.G.I.) within California for Cabernet Sauvignon:
Wine map of The Napa Valley – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.
This is a single vineyard blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot grown high up – at 450–675 metres above sea level, it may interest you to know that Napa itself is only at 5 metres! – in the Mayacamas Mountains that define the border between Napa and Sonoma. This wine is astonishingly complex and fine and is far from the fruit bomb of popular imagination for California wines. The fruit is beautifully ripe making the wine rounded and supple, but there is so much more here too. It is a beautiful and very fine wine – 93/100 points.
UK stockist information is here. US stockist information is here.
At about half the price we tasted the very nearly as fascinating:
Napa Valley – looking West from St helena towards the Mayacamas Mountains.
Another exciting blend, from several vineyard sites across Napa this time, including Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain District and the original Beringer vineyards in St Helena this a superbly supple and complex blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot and 1% Merlot. The concentrated fruit dominates a bit more here in the classic Napa style, but the finish is savoury, while the fine chalky tannins and touch of minerality add to the finesse and balance. I used to sell Beringer wines a long time ago and am really pleased to see that they are even better now – 91/100 points.
UK stockist information is here. US stockist information is here.
Both od these wines were superb and a lovely treat, but I also wanted to show that California could turn out out top notch affordable wine – and I did just that witht he first wine I showed at the tasting. It is so good and such good value for money that I have made it my Wine of the Week:
Napa Valley vineyards.
2012 Pedroncelli Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Pedroncelli Winery Dry Creek Valley A.V.A. Sonoma California
Although labelled as a Cabernet, this too is a blend; 76% Cabernet Sauvignon (wines from the US only need 75% to be a labelled as a single variety, most places are 85%) 16% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petite Verdot. As you might imagine the Pedroncelli family are Italian in origin and they have owned this land since 1927, obviously because of prohibition they had to wait a few years before they could make wine – honest officer. They consistently produce wines of very high quality, but which are affordable and very drinkable too. This is a lovely easy drinking, very fruity style of Cabernet, but it has a nice touch of acidity to balance the rich fruit together with very gentle oak which just softens the already smooth tannins, what’s more the fruit, rather than the normal blackcurrant of Cabernet, feels much lighter and plum and raspberry-like. A very happy bottle of wine that is marvellous value for money – 88/100 points.
UK stockist information is here. US stockist information is here.
So the next time you want something utterly delicious and rewarding to drink, have a think about California, there is fantastic quality there and often great value for money too.
Stellenbosch vineyard with Table Mountain in the distance.
Cabernet Franc is a grape whose charms have seduced me more and more over the years. When I was younger I usually found it green, hard and dusty, but growers seem to really know how to manage this tricky grape nowadays to produce wines that are smooth, rich and ripe. Of course Cabernet Franc originates in France’s Loire Valley region where it makes the lovely red wines of Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Anjou Rouge, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, but it is increasingly grown all around the world and superb examples are starting to emerge from many new world countries, notably this lovely wine from Valdivieso in Chile, or this one from Lagarde in Argentina. It is also one of the parents of the more widely seen Cabernet Sauvignon grape, the other parent being Sauvignon Blanc.
Well the other day I presented a tasting of wines to Verulam Wine Tasting Club, which is a wine society in St Albans that I love visiting. The theme was wines that I had found on my travels that would be great for Christmas. I showed them all sorts of delights, most of which I will write about soon, but 2 of the red wines seem to have gone down especially well – as did the sparkling, the 3 amazing white wines and the sumptuous sweet wine too. One of the reds was the Domaine Lupier El Terroir, which was my second Wine of the Week all those months ago. The other wine was KWV The Mentors Cabernet Franc.
This is a wine that means quite a lot to me. I first tasted it – the 2010 vintage anyway – in South Africa while judging in the Michelangelo International Wine Awards. Obviously we tasted it blind, but it totally thrilled the whole panel and we gave it a Grand Gold Medal and because I loved it so much I took note of the sample number so that I could find out what the wine was once the results had been released. And blow me down if it didn’t turn out to be a Cabernet Franc from KWV.
The KWV is very famous in the context of South African wine. It was a cooperative created by the government in 1918 to regulate the production of South African wine and many UK wine drinkers remembers their Roodeberg and Pinotages from the late 1970s with affection. In addition to table wines they have always produced excellent brandy and delicious fortified wines – this superb KWV Tawny from Marks & Spencer is well worth trying. In truth after democracy came to South Africa, KWV lost its way somewhat and the wines were a shadow of their former selves for quite a while. So, this tasting was my first inkling that things had begun to turn around. The second chance I had to see how KWV had changed was when I enjoyed a memorable tasting and dinner there hosted by Richard Rowe, their head wine maker, at the Laborie Wine Farm in Paarl.
It was a great experience with superb food – including my first taste of Bunny Chow – and a wonderful setting, but it was the wines that thrilled me the most. We tasted a wide range of their new Mentors range which was created from 2006 onwards with its own purpose built cellar and winery to create small production wines from parcels of outstanding fruit. As a consequence the Mentors range comes from different appellations and locations and the range varies from year to year, for instance there was no Cabernet Franc in 2011, all of which helps to make it really interesting.
The KWV Mentors range includes one of my favourite Pinotages, excellent Shiraz, superb Grenache Blanc and a first rate Petit Verdot, as well as a couple of fascinating blends; The Orchestra is a classic Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec blend, while the Canvas is a more unusual blend of Shiraz, Tempranillo, Mourvèdre and Grenache Noir.
It was the KWV Mentors Cabernet Franc that first wowed me though and it was what I showed at the tasting and so I have made it my new Wine of the Week.
KWV’s Laborie Wine Farm in Paarl.
2012 KWV Mentors Cabernet Franc W.O. Stellenbosch South Africa The 2012 comes from Stellenbosch, whereas the 2010 was from W.O. Coastal Region and certainly the difference shows, as there is much more fruit intensity here. The wine is all about fruit selection, choosing the best parcels and blocks in their best vineyards, fruit that shows optimum ripeness and expression. After the initial selection, there is a further hand selection in the winery to ensure only perfect grapes get in. The wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks with regular pump overs to extract colour, flavour and tannins from the skins. Malolactic took place in barrel before 18 months ageing in French oak barrels, of which 70% were new.
The colour is intense, opaque, vivid and youthful – it looks like a blackcurrant coulis.
The nose is aromatic, earthy and vibrantly fruity with raspberry, cherry, truffles, cedar and cinnamon.
The palate is lusciously textured with creamy ripe fruit, coffee and cocoa. There are firm, fine grippy tannins balanced by the wonderfully rich fruit and a nice refreshing cut of acidity.
This is deeply impressive, rich, intensely concentrated and quite delicious. If you prefer less tannin or less obvious fruit then age it for a few years, as the oak is certainly dominating to some degree at the moment, but it works really well and the fruit is big enough to just about hold its own. Age it for 4-5 years, or open it early and serve with something hearty like a casserole or rib of beef – 93/100 points.
This wine is tremendously good and deserves a wider audience, so do try it if you get the chance. It would certainly impress your guests over the festive season and grace any dinner party perfectly. It really would be superb with a casserole or a pie, shepherd’s pie – anything meaty really and it goes superbly with hard cheeses too.