Lebanon – an ancient land, modern wines

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

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

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

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Château Ksara

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

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten.

Château Kefraya 

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

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

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

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

The Wines 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domaine des Tourelles

Domaine des Tourelles – photo by Quentin Sadler.

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Château Musar

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clos St Thomas

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

The Wines

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

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

Ixsir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Switzerland – a beautiful country with wonderful wine

Vineyards in Valais, overlooking the Rhône Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Switzerland is famous for many things; banks, mountains, lakes, cheese, chocolate and, erroneously – courtesy of Orson Wells – cuckoo clocks. Not many people, in Britain anyway, seem to associate this Alpine country with wine.

Swiss wine is a bit of a mystery because almost none of it is exported. The Swiss are a thirsty lot and they drink 98% of their own wine and still import two thirds of what they consume. So it is hardly surprising that so little Swiss wine leaves the country. Astonishingly Switzerland has a mere 0.2% of the world’s wine growing area. With just 15,000 hectares of vines in the whole country, it’s half the size of France’s Burgundy region – itself far from being a large producer.

Despite this lack of an international reputation, Swiss wines are really exciting and deserve our attention. It is a beautiful country with some of the most stunning scenery in Europe. Swiss food is hearty and delicious and in its simplicity and honesty shows how agrarian Switzerland has always been. The cheeses, such as Emmental and Gruyère are far finer than the versions that we generally buy in our supermarkets and seem to genuinely reflect their origins. Of course a meal of fondue or raclette takes eating cheese to another, more exciting level. The peasant roots of Swiss cuisine also show in that other famous and satisfying dish, rösti. Not all Swiss food is heavy though, around Lac Léman perch fillets from the lake are a delicious speciality and are perfect with a glass or two of the local wine. 

Perch fillets from Lac Léman, a popular local speciality – photo by Quentin Sadler.

When in Switzerland I am always struck by the high quality of all the produce, including the wine, of which the country produces a plethora of styles. White wine is dominant, as you might imagine from the cool climate, but the reds can be astonishingly good too. Chasselas is the most famous and important white grape within Switzerland – and yet few non Swiss wine drinkers would ever give it a moment’s thought. Of course there is also plenty of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer as well as the indigenous white grapes of Petite Arvine, Humagne Blanc, Heida and Réze. Pinot Noir and Gamay are the most widely encountered black grapes, while Merlot and Syrah are also highly prized. Indigenous black grapes include Humagne Rouge, Cornalin, Gamaret, Diolinoir and Garanoir. 

Strangely the principal grape variety of Ticino – the Italian speaking part of Switzerland – is Merlot, where unusually it is used to make both red and white wines.

I have travelled extensively in the French speaking areas in recent years and thought I would share some of these exciting wines with you as they are very versatile with food and would be really exciting to see on restaurant wine lists.

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

The Regions – Vaud

La Suisse paddle steamer, one of the small fleet of pre First World War steamers that criss-cross Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Vaud is probably Switzerland’s most famous wine region. This is where you find Lausanne and Montreux and one of the most iconic landscapes in Europe. At its heart is the steeply terraced vineyards of Lavaux on the north shore of Lac Léman – Lake Geneva to us Brits.

The key grape here is Chasselas, which is taken very seriously in Switzerland despite being little-loved anywhere else. It seems to be common practice to put the better wines through Malolactic Conversion, which softens the acidity and gives a pleasing creamy quality and mouthfeel that makes them a perfect partner to cheese. Lucky that, as in one form or another they eat a great deal of cheese in Switzerland.

The dominant black grape is Pinot Noir, which is used to great effect in Chablais and around Lake Neuchâtel to make very fruity reds, finer, more structured reds and some excellent rosés, labelled as Oeil-de-Perdrix.

Vaud: Lavaux 

Vineyards of Dézaley and Epesses with Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Lavaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with stunning vineyards cascading down the slopes and terraces to the shore of Lac Léman. There are six appellations, or ‘Crus’: Lutry, Villette, Epesses, Saint-Saphorin, Chardonne and Montreux-Vevey. In addition Dézaley and Calamin are both classified as Grand Cru, which means the grapes must contain higher sugar than normal at harvest. This ensures the wines will be richer and rounder.

Dézaley vineyard sign from Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The chalky limestone soils should suit Chardonnay perfectly, but around here the speciality is Chasselas. In fact it accounts for 80% of production and if no other grape is mentioned on the label of a Lavaux white, then it’s made from 100% Chasselas.

The vineyards are steep, so everything must be done by hand and it’s backbreaking work. Marcel Dubois, who makes wine near Epesses, famously said: ‘We are condemned to make expensive wine so we might as well make it good wine’. And it seems to me that the Swiss have taken that concept of quality to heart.

Lavaux from the deck of La Suisse paddle steamer, one of the small fleet of pre First World War steamers that criss-cross the lake – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The wines made here benefit from what the locals call the ‘three suns’, there is direct sunshine, reflected sunshine from the surface of the lake and the light and heat reflected off the stone walls that define the vineyards. All of this makes the Chasselas from here richer, more structured and more intense than other areas.

Recommended producers:

Domaine Louis Bovard

Domaine Louis Bovard and Lac Léman – photo courtesy of Domaine Louis Bovard.

Louis-Philippe Bovard is the 10th generation of the family to farm their 18-hectare estate in Cully near Epesses. He grows many different grapes, but Chasselas is his main focus.

His Médinette Dézaley Grand Cru has a very delicate weight, but a solid core of concentrated fruit and a long, stony mineral finish.

Luc Massy

Luc Massy’s vineyards above Lac Léman – photo courtesy of Luc Massy.

Luc is one of the region’s famous producers and farms breathtakingly beautiful vineyards in Epesses, Clos du Boux, Saint-Saphorin, Dézaley-Marsens and Dézaley – all the greatest sites of Lavaux.

The real speciality here is the legendary Dézaley Chemin de Fer. Late in the nineteenth century, the railway line was put through and some of the land in Dézaley had to be sacrificed to make way for progress. Little parcels of land were left at the bottom of the slope around the railway lines and Luc’s grandfather acquired the rights to plant on them. The wine is a magnificent, mineral and complex white wine with that touch of creaminess and generosity that sets Swiss Chasselas apart.

Vaud: La Côte

The magical Château de Vufflens just up the slope from Morges on La Côte – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This Vaud sub-region curves around the north western shore of Lac Léman from the outskirts of Lausanne to the edge of Geneva. The vineyards slope – La Côte means slope – down towards the lake shore on the foothills of the Jura Mountains. It’s a big, productive area that makes some terrifically drinkable wines.

Chasselas from here tends to be lighter, fresher and more quaffable than their counterparts in Lavaux, although the Grand Cru sites of Féchy, Morges and Mont-sur-Rolle produce more concentrated and fine examples. Pinot Noir and Gamay are used to make similarly attractive, fruity red wines.

Recommended producers:

Domaine de Maison Blanche

Domaine de Maison Blanche on La Côte – photo courtesy of Domaine de Maison Blanche.

This fabulous 10 hectare estate looks down on the lake from Mont-sur-Rolle, just to the north of Rolle itself. The Maison Blanche dates from the thirteenth century and has belonged to current owners the de Mestral family since 1528.

I have always enjoyed their Chasselas, especially their Mont-sur-Rolle Grand Cru, which is a fine, creamy, floral scented delight. They also make some delicious traditional method sparkling Chasselas.

Vaud: Chablais

The Château d’Aigle – photo courtesy of Mondial du Chasselas.

The southernmost part of Vaud, with vineyards concentrated between the River Rhône and the Alps, the best being on the slopes to the east. The landscape might not be as dramatic as its neighbours to the north and south, but the area can claim to be home to some very fine wines. Of the five Chablais ‘Crus’, Yvorne and Aigle are perhaps the most well known – especially for the whites made from Chasselas. Aigle is dear to my heart as most years I spend a few days at the beautiful Château d’Aigle judging Chasselas wines in the Mondial du Chasselas competition.

Recommended producers:

Orbrist

Clos du Rocher is one of the great estates of Chablais – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This large company owns some amazing vineyards and produces a large range of very well made wine. The pinnacle of what they do is probably the Clos du Rocher Grand Cru Chasselas in Yvonne, a wine I love.

I have been fortunate enough to taste every vintage of Clos du Rocher back to the 1982. All were still fresh and lively, although the older examples had developed a more golden colour, dried fruit and mushroom character. What’s more every vintage since 1990 was sealed with screwcap.

Bernard Cavé Vins, Aigle

The concrete egg shaped fermentation tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins, he calls them amphoras – photo by Quentin Sadler.

All the wines are superb, notably the exquisite Clos du Crosex Grillé Cuvée des Immortels Reserve Aigle Grand Cru. Fermented in concrete eggs, this is textured, round and silky too. In the unlikely event that you tire of his Chasselas, his Marsanne – called Ermitage locally –  is stunningly rich and downright delicious.

Badoux Vins, Aigle

View of Aigle and its vineyards from the ramparts of the Château d’Aigle – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Founded in 1908, Badoux produces a wide range of thoroughly reliable wines. Their most emblematic label is their Aigle Les Murailles, named after the stone walls that support the incredibly steep vineyards of Aigle. The excellent white is a pure and mineral Chasselas with a touch of richness, while the red is a bright, fruity Pinot Noir that has been aged on the lees from Gamaret, a local speciality grape that is a cross of Gamay and Reichensteiner.

The Regions – Neuchâtel

The beautiful lakeside village of Auvernier in Neuchâtel – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This small region sits on a south-east facing slope between the Jura Mountains and the shores of Lakes Neuchâtel and Bienne. It acts like a sun trap and has very poor soils, so can produce beautifully ripe wines.

Recommended producers:

Château d’Auvernier

Château d’Auvernier has been the main winery here since 1603 – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This winery has been in the pretty lakeside village of Auvernier since 1603 and makes a range of really good wines. My favourites would be their elegant and concentrated Neuchâtel Blanc, made from Chasselas, the Pinot Noir and their Oeil-de-Perdrix Pinot Rosé.

The Regions – Valais

The beautiful vineyards of Valais, near Sierre – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The Canton of Valais  is south and east of Lac Léman. The River Rhône flows through here before emptying into Lac Léman and the best vineyards, Grand Crus like Fully, Vétroz, Sion and Sierre, line the bank of the river on incredibly steep slopes that are kept workable by dry stone walls. To get to those owned by Robert Gilliard at Sion, for instance, I was driven up into the mountains to the entrance of a short, narrow tunnel. At the other end of this I found myself on one of the terraces, or ‘tablars’, formed by the stone walls that I had looked up to on the way. Some of them are 20 metres high and I was told they are the highest dry stone walls in the world. 

The views to the south were breathtaking and I could not get enough of them. In the past the grapes had to be taken to the winery through the tunnel, then in the twentieth century a cable car system was adopted. Nowadays a lot of the work is done by helicopter, which gets the grapes to the winery while they are still in perfect condition. These dramatic south facing slopes are warm and dry in the growing season, but always tempered by the fresh, Alpine air – Switzerland’s highest peaks are in the Valais with some of the vineyards near Visp being well over 1000 metres above sea level.

Chasselas is still an important grape in these parts, but locally they call it Fendant – pronounced Fon-dohn – from the French ‘fendre’ meaning to split – as the grape skin easily splits when ripe.

Another important white grape here, perhaps the real speciality, is Petite Arvine. It isn’t grown in many other places, even in Switzerland, except Italy’s tiny Valle d’Aosta region which borders Valais to the south. At its best Petite Arvine has something of the freshness and vivaciousness of Grüner Veltliner and Albariño about it, but often with more salinity, so giving tension, and fruit (especially grapefruit), moderate acidity and a silky quality to the texture.

Valais is also home to the most famous Swiss wine of all – Dôle. This is always a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay and can also include some other black grapes to add complexity. Usually red, Dôle Blanche is an intriguing and very high quality rosé made from the same blend.

Recommended producers:

Provins, Sion

Provins are Switzerland’s largest producer and everything I have tasted from them has been superbly made. My favourite though is their subtly oaked Petite Arvine Maître de Chais – it’s classy, with lots of citrus fruit, a fleshy, creamy texture and a feeling of purity about it, like a mountain stream.

Cave Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz, Fully 

This small estate farms just 8 hectares but makes a wide range from the many grape varieties of Valais. Theirs was the first Petite Arvine that I ever tasted and I was hooked.

Robert Gilliard, Sion

Robert Gilliard’s dramatic Clos de la Cochetta vineyard contains some of the highest dry stone walls in the world – photo courtesy of Robert Gilliard.

This estate boasts some of the most beautiful and dramatic vineyards that I have ever seen. They truly take your breathe away clinging as they do to almost perpendicular slopes kept in place by terrifyingly high stone walls of up to 20 metres.

Their Clos de Cochetta Fendant is vibrant, lightly textured, elegant and classy, as is their focussed and pure Clos de Cochetta Petite Arvine.

Just along the terraces is the neighbouring vineyard of Clos de Mont from which they craft a fine, unoaked example of Diolinoir which is a cross between Robin Noir (aka Rouge de Diolly) and Pinot Noir.

The stunning view from Robert Gilliard’s Clos de la Cochetta – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Domaine Jean-René Germanier, Vétroz

A family estate since 1896 and now managed by the third and fourth generation – Jean-René Germanier and his nephew, Gilles Besse. Gilles was originally a jazz saxophonist, but is also a trained wine maker.

Germanier farm sustainably and produce a range of beautifully made, elegant wines, amongst which is their Cayas Syrah. This spicy, yet precise and mineral wine is possibly the best Syrah in the country and made within sight of the Rhône river.

Their Grand Cru Petite Arvine and Fendant Balavaud Grand Cru are equally exciting and impressive, while their Dôle Balavaud is one of the classics of its type.

Every time I have visited Switzerland I have come away with a very positive view of the wine. The dedication, heroism even, needed to tend and harvest the vines in this mountainous landscape is incredible to see. The passion the winemakers show in crafting these raw materials into beautifully made wines that are full of character and interest is always an education. I believe these wines deserve wider recognition and think it would be very exciting to see Swiss wines on restaurant wine lists.

Many of the wines mentioned here are available in the UK from Alpine Wines – www.alpinewines.co.uk. 

Owned and run by Swiss born Joelle Nebbe-Mornod, Alpine Wines are the leading Swiss wine importers and distributors in the UK.

Valencia – a great wine region rises

Moscatel vines growing in Xabia/Jávea in Alicante’s Marina Alta. They are used to make the traditional sweet Muscats and more modern dry versions.

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. 

Wine map of the Comunidad Valenciana, as well as the neighbouring Región de Murcia.

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.

Ancient tinajas – clay amphorae at Bodegas Murviedro – photo courtesy of Bodegas Murviedro.

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:

Alicante:

Bodegas Enrique Mendoza:

Bodegas Enrique Mendoza and the La Tremenda vineyard – photo courtesy of 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’.

Pepe Mendoza with his beloved ‘bonsai’ vines.

Enrique Mendoza are members of the Grandes Pagos de España, which you can also read about here.

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.

Available in the UK at around £10.00 per bottle from Slurp, Bush Vines and Christopher Piper Wines.

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 by C & D Wines.

Artadi – El Sequé:

Vines at El Sequé – photo courtesy of Bodegas Artadi.

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.

Available in the UK at around £30.00 per bottle from Hard to Find Wines.

Artadi wines are distributed in the UK by Pol Roger Portfolio.

Bodegas Murviedro:

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.

Large wooden vats at Bodegas Murviedro – photo courtesy of Bodegas Murviedro.

2017 Galeam Organic Monastrell
DO/PDO Alicante
Bodegas Murviedro
Alicante

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.

Available in the UK at around £9.00 per bottle from Kwoff, All About Wine and T.Wright Wine.

Bodegas Murviedro wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega:

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.

Terraced Vines at Guiterrez de la Vega – photo courtesy of Bodegas Guiterrez de la Vega.

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.

Available in the UK at around £20.00 per 50cl bottle from Field & Fawcett, The Butlers Wine Cellar, Blanco & Gomez Wine Merchants, Wineye.com, Kwoff and Direct Wine Shipments.

Casta Diva Cosecha Miel is distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Also try: Viña Ulises – an enticing, elegant blend of Monastrell and Garnacha that combines ripe fruit and wilder, savoury black olive characters.

Bodegas Bocopa:

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.

Available in the UK at around £7.00 per bottle from Vinissimus and Drinks & Co.

Also try: Laudum Monastrell – a lightly oaked, smooth, spicy and fruity red. Also Laudum Monastrell Rosé, a richly fruity, almost tropical tasting, refreshing rosé.

Utiel-Requena:

Bodega Sierra Norte:

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.

Bodega Sierra Norte – photo courtesy of Bodega Sierra Norte.

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. 

Available in the UK at around £12.00 per bottle from N.D.John, Selfridges, Kwoff, All About Wine and The Whisky Exchange.

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:

Dominio de la Vega – photo courtesy of 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.

Sorting table Dominio de la Vega – photo courtesy of Dominio de la Vega.

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.

Available in the UK at around £36.00 per bottle from Winebuyers.com and Drinks & Co.

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:

Pago de Tharsys, Utiel-Requena.

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.

Bodegas Hispano+Suizas:

Bodegas Hispano+Suizas – photo courtesy of Bodegas Hispano+Suizas.

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’!

Available in the UK at around £20.00 per bottle from Cellar Selected and All About Wine.

Also try: Their Bassus ‘Finca Casilla Herrera’, a complex, rich and brooding blend of Bobal, Petit Verdot  and Syrah.

Bodegas Hispano+Suizas wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Bodega Mustiguillo:

Bobal vines at Bodega Mustiguillo – photo by Quentin Sadler

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. 

Fermntation vats at Bodega Mustiguillo – photo courtesy of Bodega Mustiguillo.

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.

Mustiguillo became a Vino de Pago in 2010 with the the creation of the DO El Terrerazo which covers just their estate. They are also members of the Grandes Pagos de España, which you can also read about here.

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. 

Available in the UK at around £15.00 per bottle from Berry Bros & Rudd, Averys of Bristol, Winedirect and Winebuyers.com.

Also try: The beguiling Finca Calvestra, a wood aged, herbal scented white made from pure Merseguera.

Bodega Mustiguillo wines are distributed in the UK by Berry Bros & Rudd.

Valencia

Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega:

Bobal vines at Cherubino Valsangiacomo’s Sanjuan estate – photo courtesy of Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega.

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.

Concrete tanks at Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega – photo courtesy of Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega.

2016 Bobal de Sanjuan Viñas Viejas
DO/PDO Utiel-Requena
Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega
Valencia

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.

Available in the UK at around £9.00 per bottle from All About Wine, The Fine Wine Company and Winebuyers.com.

Also try: Bobal de Sanjuan Rosado – a bright, crisp, dry fruity and exotically scented rosé.

Cherubino Valsangiacomo wines are distributed in the UK by Bibbendum.

Celler Del Roure:

Pablo Calatayud with his ancient tinajas in the cellars at Celler-del-Roure – photo courtesy of 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. 

Available in the UK at around £16.00 per bottle from Winebuyers.com.

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.

Vines at Celler Del Roure, Alicante – photo courtesy of Celler Del Roure.

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.

White Wines from the Rhône

Mountain vista of the southern Rhône – photo by Quentin Sadler.

France’s Rhône Valley is a fascinating wine region that is traditionally much more famous for its red wines than its whites. Indeed a mere 6% of production is white, but that does not mean that it doesn’t make really good white wines that will repay a little seeking out – it does.

Having been a cheerleader for the region’s red wines for many years, I visited the region last year and fell totally in love with the whites.

We talk about the Rhône as a single region, but in reality it is two quite different places.

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

The Northern Rhône accounts for just 6% or so of the Rhône Valley’s wine production – despite boasting many of the region’s famous vineyard areas. The reason for this small size is simple. The climate here is continental with short summers and harsh winters, so the grapes only really ripen when grown on the steep, sun-drenched slopes that form the Valley wall. Most famously Viognier is used here to make Condrieu and the even more rare Château-Grillet, which is an appellation for a single estate covering just eight and a half acres.

Some of Jean-Luc’s vineyards near Saint-Péray – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

On my travels I was very excited to discover some lighter, fresher examples of Viognier that are much easier to drink as well as being a great match with food.

Perhaps even more exciting for me were the unexpected joys of the white wines from the other areas of the northern Rhône, especially Saint Péray – typically made from blends of Roussanne and Marsanne.

The Southern Rhône is part of the Mediterranean world with long, hot summers. This delivers greater ripeness and often higher alcohol, which is why traditionally the wines have been overwhelmingly red. Modern knowhow can make it much easier to make good white wines in hot areas and this has become a theme throughout the Mediterranean world – which is good as white wines suit Mediterranean cuisine and relaxed seaside drinking.

Classic stony soils of the Southern Rhône – photo by Quentin Sadler.

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

Grenache Blanc – is actually Spanish in origin so should be called Garnacha Blanca (Garnatxa Blanca in Catalan) – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern, cold fermentation techniques keep it fresh and bring out the lovely herbal aromas and flavours and it also has a silky texture that can be very satisfying.

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

Marsanne is a much fleshier and lower acid grape and can make big and flabby wines unless care is taken – which is why it is so seldom seen as a grape variety on its own, although even they can be superb.
When blended with Roussanne it can often give a succulent texture and a rich mouthfeel.

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

Clairette is a fascinating grape as well. It is low in acid and can be flabby unless care is taken. This is another herbal grape with fennel like aromas and rich orange and peach flavours. In the Rhône it’s a blending grape but is used as a single varietal in Clairette de Bellegarde. This is a small wine region within the Costières de Nimes area, south of Avignon, and the wines can be wonderfully mineral and flavourful.

Viognier of course is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. Generally it is low in acid, intensely aromatic and very rich when used to make wine on its home turf of the northern Rhône.

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Most of us are familiar with the basic wines from the region. These are labelled simply as Côtes-du-Rhône, an origin – or appellation – which covers the widest area of production. These generally provide good everyday drinking, while examples from conscientious producers can often be much better than you expect. Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages is an appellation for the parts of that area that are considered capable of making wines with more depth and personality. These vineyards are scattered throughout the Côtes-du-Rhône zone.

Experts generally agree that the very best Rhône wines come from the Crus. A Cru is a part of the region that is traditionally thought to produce the most complex wines and have a more specific stated origin on the label. Therefore, as in Beaujolais, they are labelled by the name of the specific place where the grapes are grown, rather than the name of the region. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous example, but there are many others including Lirac, Gigondas, Hermitage and Saint-Péray.

My love for these wines was rekindled recently when I tasted a couple of wines from the great Jean-Luc Colombo.

Jean-Luc Colombo with his wife Anne and daughter Laure, they all work in the vineyards – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

Jean-Luc hails from Provence and only bought his first vineyard, Les Ruchets, in 1987, so is something of a newcomer to the Rhône and I think that shows a little in his wines. There is a brightness and a purity that sets him apart from the more traditional producers and made him something of a trailblazer for the younger type of Rhône winemaker. He and his daughter, Laure craft wines that manage to combine power, purity and vivid, pleasurable fruit in a way that is decidedly modern and yet completely natural. All their own vineyards are organic, which is only fitting as they live on their estate in Cornas in the northern Rhône.

The whole range is good with some amazing wines at all the price points. As far as the whites are concerned, I love his Condrieu Amour de Dieu, but the two wines that I have enjoyed most recently are:

2017 Côtes du Rhône Les Abeilles Blanc
AC/PDO Côtes du Rhône
Jean-Luc Colombo
France

80% Clairette makes this mineral and crisp, while 20% Roussanne gives it some fat and more aromatics. The wine is called The Bees in French because the Colombo family love their bees that pollinate their vineyards. Indeed they have their own beehives and make honey as well as funding bee research in France, the US and UK.

There is nothing fancy about this wine. It is cold fermented, clean as a whistle and sees no oak at all, but therein lies it’s genius. The wine is bright, direct and effortless to drink and yet it has that feel of quality. It has backbone, substance – class if you will. It’s refreshing and you will find yourself quaffing it, but banal it most surely is not – 87/100 points

Available in the UK at around £10.50 per bottle from Templar Wines

 

Some of Jean-Luc’s vineyards near Saint-Péray – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

 

2016 Saint-Péray La Belle de Mai
AC/PDO Saint-Péray
Jean-Luc Colombo
France

This blend of 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne is fermented and aged in oak barrels, but only a little is new making sure the oak remains subtle and supportive rather than dominant, adding a silky, refined texture. Historically Saint Péray specialised in sparkling wines and enjoyed a high reputation before almost withering away. Wines like this show the enormous potential the appellate has for high quality.

Everything that I like about these white Rhône wines is to be found here. It is generous, floral, fruity and aromatic with notes of wild herbs and flowers together with honey and pine trees. The palate is sumptuous and rich without over playing its hand. There is an underlying subtlety that makes that richness all the more intriguing. The fat, succulent fruit dominates the mouthfeel, with flavours of apricots, pineapple, oranges, lemon and melon, while vanilla, clove, pepper and cardamon play around the edges. All the while refreshing acidity balances that richness of the fruit and there is a lovely touch of minerality, a little saline in fact. A wonderful white wine with presence and aplomb but also kept in check by natural elegance and sophistication – 92/100 points

Available in the UK at around £20.00 per bottle from Wine Direct, Hennings Wine Merchants and Millesima – UK.

More information is available from Jean-Luc Colombo’s UK distributor, Hatch Mansfield.

These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes really well. Perfect with roast chicken, grilled fish and all sorts of Mediterranean fare. The Saint-Péray is amazing with my roast lamb – smothered in Mediterranean herbs, lemon and garlic and slow cooked for 6 hours or more. Garlic, olive oil and lemon all work brilliantly with these grape varieties. They are also perfect with a cheese board and what I usually serve with a selection of cheeses that includes both hard and softer types. I believe that a white wine like these is a much better match with a selection of cheeses than a red wine.

So now you know – white wines from the Rhône are well worth searching out.

Hawke’s Bay – New Zealand’s Diverse Region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimblett Gravels soils – photo by Quentin Sadler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Te Mata Winery – photo by Quentin Sadler

Te Mata:

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

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

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

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

Trinity Hill:

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

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

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

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

Vidal Estate: 

Vidal Estate Winery – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

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

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

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

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

Craggy Range: 

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

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

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

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

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

Elephant Hill:

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

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

Andreas Weiss of Elephant Hill – photo by Quentin Sadler.

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

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

Esk Valley:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alpha–Domus:

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

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

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

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

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

Villa Maria:

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

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

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

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

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

Wine of the Week – A is for Albarossa

The beautiful landscape of Monferrato.

Albarossa! Yes my wine of the Week – or indeed last couple of months as I have not been able to write very much of late due to personal circumstances – is made from the Albarossa grape.

I love discovering wines, regions and grape varieties that are new to me and this was a revelation. Albarossa has a rather muddled history and is not widely used for anything – but on the showing of this one that I tasted recently – it really should.

It is a black grape bred in 1938 by Giovanni Dalmasso in Conegliano, the heart of Prosecco country today. He had intended to cross Nebbiolo and Barber – which both blend together rather splendidly in the Langhe region of Piemonte. DNA testing in 2009 showed that the Nebbiolo used in this crossing though was actually Nebbiolo di Dronero. Dronero is in Piemonte, on the Po some 40km south west of Turin and 20km from the French border, this grape is not actually Nebbiolo at all, but a rare French grape from Ardèche in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France.

By the way consumers often find this sort of thing mystifying, but actually until very recently grape varieties were pretty unimportant. Historically people just grew what they had always grown and as they didn’t travel they gave it their own local name and remained unaware that the same grape grew elsewhere with a different name. Pretty much every grape variety has a whole raft of names in fact. It is simply that the mass communication and world-wide trade of the last 40 years has meant that it is better to standardise names of grape varieties so that people know what they are getting. It’s a bit like EU regulations if that is not too political a thing to say!

It is fair to say that Albarossa has not really taken off as a grape and there are only four producers and just ten hectares planted in the whole of Italy, but if they all make wines like the one that I tasted then there should be more – a lot more.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Banfi Piemonte is just a few kilometres east of the the lovely townof Acqui Terme in Alessandria province. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

The beautiful hills around Strevi.

2015 La Lus Albarossa
DOC / PDO Piemonte
Castello Banfi – Banfi Piemonte
Strevi, Piemonte
Italy

Castello Banfi are famous as a Tuscan producer where they craft magnificent Brunello di Montalcino in their hilltop castle and much else besides. Their estates in Piemonte are not so well known, but on this showing they really should be. It is based in the lovely little town of Strevi, in Monferrato, and has been making wine since 1860 in fact. Banfi bought it in the late 1970s not long after the creation of Castello Banfi in Tuscany. In Strevi they farm 45 hectares and make a wide range of wines including traditional method sparklers and a wonderful sweet sparkling red Brachetto d’Aqui that is superb with light chocolate desserts – click here.

This is 100% Albarossa, one of only four such wines in the world, aged for 12 months in French oak barriques.

Oh my this is a enticing wine with a beautifully opaque plum colour, lifted aromas of cherries, plums and redcurrant – that show its Barbera heritage. On top of that is fresh earth, fragrant vanilla, light mocha and spices.

The palate is seductively soft, velvety smooth and round with lovely weight of concentrated fruit making it full-bodied and full-flavoured, but the freshness really shines through making it feel lively and balanced – the Barbera again? Rich plum, cherry, coffee, chocolate, some earth and leather and a creaminess to the texture all make this complex and joyful. The tannins are sinfully soft and the whole thing is utterly, utterly delicious – 92/100 points.

The rolling hills around Acqui Terme.

I tasted this wine the other week with my first Christmas dinner of the year – really. It was a perfect match with everything you expect in a classic British Christmas dinner and was so drinkable. There was a largish group of us there tasting all sorts of different wines with the Christmas dinner, but this was widely thought to be the best match.

Available in the UK at around £18.99 per bottle from Noel Young WinesQuaff Fine Wine,Weavers of Nottingham, Wined Up Here, Hedonism Wines, Tannico.co.uk.

 

Beaujolais – a misunderstood region

P1240108

Beautiful vineyards on the south western border between Fleurie and Beaujolais-Villages.

 

Recently I had a quick trip to Beaujolais as the guest of Henry Fessy and it was a really uplifting experience. I have only been to Beaujolais once before and had come to the view that, with exceptions, the place was generally nicer than the wines. Now I am not so sure as I tasted some fabulous wines from this Cinderella-like region.

Too many Beaujolais wines in my younger days had almost no aromas or flavours at all except that bubblegum and candy floss character that shows the grapes were not crushed and instead the fermentation was carried out by the maceration carbonique process. I can enjoy wines made this way, but usually do not, especially if they are made from Gamay – the black grape of Beaujolais.

Too much of Beaujolais in my past was Beaujolais Nouveau too. This new wine is released in the year it is harvested – on the third Thursday of November. I am sure there are good examples, but on the whole it is very light, very thin, very acidic and, again, tasting of bubblegum, candy floss and cherryade. It is not everyone’s idea of fun and has tainted appreciation of the whole region for many of us, including me. Which is a pity because Beaujolais is about so much more.

Beaujolais can be a surprisingly complicated place for a region that has traditionally achieved most of its fame from producing very approachable wines.

Firstly, although the focus is on the reds, there is a tiny amount of white Beaujolais produced. Made from Chardonnay these white wines are very good quality and well worth seeking out.

French map QS 2018 Chablis & watermark

Wine Map of France showing the position of Beaujolais just to the south of Burgundy, but only semi-detached in some ways – click for a larger view.

Secondly, Beaujolais has traditionally been regarded as part of Burgundy, in the UK anyway. So much so that in a former life when I sold Georges Duboeff’s Fleurie, in tiny letters it stated “Grand Vin de Bourgogne” on the label. Nowadays Beaujolais is mainly regarded as a region on its own and not a sub-zone of Burgundy.

However this isn’t entirely consistent as there is no such thing as Crémant de Beaujolais for instance. Instead they produce Crémant de Bourgogne. The northern border is somewhat imprecise too with the Mâcon appellation / PDO encroaching all the way down to Romanèche-Thorins in the north-east of the region and even overlapping the Beaujolais Cru of St Amour.

Just to confuse matters a little bit more of course there are some odd labelling laws that permit some producers to label wines made from their Beaujolais vineyards as Appellation Controlée / Appellation d’Origine Protégée Bourgogne whilst denying that to others – this is why you can have Gamay de Bourgogne for instance, and very good it can be too as the grapes have to come from the Cru vineyards of Beaujolais – see below.

Putting all that to one side and looking just at the reds that from Beaujolais, there are three quality levels:

Wine map of Beaujolais showing all 3 quality levels and all 10 Crus.

Basic AC Beaujolais – this is generally grown on chalky limestone and produces very light reds with high acidity.

AC Beaujolais-Villages – from the northern part of the region where the soils can produce richer, rounder wines.

The 10 Crus. The Cru wines are named after the village – with 2 exceptions – within whose boundaries the grapes are grown. The appellation / PDO makes no mention of Beaujolais, just the village name. The most famous of these is of course Fleurie, but there are ten in all – see the map above.

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The mill in Romanèche-Thorins after which the wines of Moulin-à-Vent are named.

The two exceptions that are not named after their village are Côte de Brouilly which is named for the slopes of Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, and Moulin-á-Vent which is named after the distinctive old windmill that stands amongst the vines of Romanèche-Thorins.

With classic French regions it is quite a good idea to visit a producer who makes from the entire area, because you get an overview made by the same hand and mindset. That is what I got at Henry Fessy and it really made me revaluate my thoughts on Beaujolais.

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Laurent Chevalier, the charming director at Henry Fessy.

Henry Fessy was a family run estate from 1888 until it was purchased by the great Maison Louis Latour of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, who are still family owned after more than 200 years. The 70 hectare Fessy domaine has been run by the genial Laurent Chevalier ever since, with some help from members of the Fessy family, and it provides a wonderful snapshot of what Beaujolais can do.

They own land across the region and produce every single appellation contained within Beaujolais, as well as wines from the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy and even a very attractive Rosé de Provence. Currently they farm in 9 of the 10 Crus with Chiroubles being the exception. They do however produce an excellent Chiroubles from an estate with which they have long term contracts for supply and control of the vineyard.

Laurent explained that they handpick the best sites and destem 80% of the grapes, leaving 20% whole bunches. Old fashioned Beaujolais is not destemmed as the grapes have to be whole for maceration carbonique, so is fermented on the stems. 30 or 40 years ago those stems would not be as ripe as they nowadays, for many reasons, and so the results could be stalky and green. Nowadays greater control means that using stalks is a real choice because it can help with the manipulation of the must and also in the development of fuller wines and silkier tannins – providing those stalks are ripe.

So, by definition here they are not using maceration carbonique. Instead they do very light macerations with not very much wood, just a little for the top crus. What they are looking for is the taste of Gamay, rather than the more recognisable taste of bubble gum from the maceration carbonique.

The big differences between the different parts of Beaujolais are soil and aspect – isn’t that always the case! In the south the gentle rolling hills of most of the AC Beaujolais are lighter, chalkier limestone which produces lighter more acidic wines. The north however has a more complex arrangement of mainly granite with some schist, volcanic basalt and manganese. These all produce richer, rounder, more complex wines. Add aspect into the equation and you can quickly see why the Crus are so different from the rest of the region.

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Fleurie’s Chapelle de la Madone was built around 1870 to ward off vine diseases. It seems to have worked!

We talk about the slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and some other places too of course, but generally the Crus of Beaujolais are not spoken about in the same hushed ones. Well they should be. They are easily the equal of the Côte d’Or to look at, more beautiful if anything, with lovely dramatic slopes often angled towards the sun. In fact where the Cru of Beaujolais score over their neighbours to the north is that here the slopes do not only face one way as they often form a ridge with a reverse slope too. So you can have south, east and west facing Fleurie, and other Crus, vineyard slopes for instance.

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That rounded hill is Morgon’s Côte du Py lieux-dit. Fessy blend the fruit from their part of the Côte du Py into their Morgon rather than bottle it separately. The soils here are a mixture of granite and schist, decayed slate.

The different soils of the various Crus are important too as the best wines can be very mineral and make you certain that you can taste the various soils in the wines. Some people believe that happens, but most science points to something else explaining minerality in wine. A function of acidity perhaps? My own feeling is that it is a mixture of acidity and a lack of dominating, rich fruit. We are used to so many red wines being big and bold with rich primary fruit characters nowadays. Well, however ripe a Beaujolais is it will be a relatively light style of wine, so the fruit will not totally overpower the palate. Instead it will leave space for acidity and those other flavours that are not fruit, but come across as more savoury – and indeed earthy or mineral.

So the Crus have more poise, more depth and more elegance than the more basic wines because they have components competing for attention on your senses. It isn’t just red fruit, you also get some black fruit from time to time, the earthy and herbal mineral characters and yes sometimes that sense of granite or slate introducing savoury aspects and tension into the wines.

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Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, the soils are blue volcanic basalt. Right at the peak you can just see La Chapelle Notre-Dame-aux-Raisins.

They are balanced and complete and yet again the truth is much more interesting than what we are normally told about Beaujolais. These wines can last. They don’t need to be drunk young, in fact just as with most good quality red wines a few years in bottle will settle them down and draw out the more complex and satisfying attributes. The things that actually make them good wines as to opposed more simple fruit bombs.

I generally go around telling people to ignore vintage with most modern wines – for wines to drink anyway. Normally the freshest vintage is the one to go for, but obviously with classic red wines that is not the case and good Beaujolais, especially the Crus, must join that band of elite regions where vintage is a really important consideration.

2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2016 are all brilliant vintages down in Beaujolais, with 2017 being great as well. There might still be some 2015 around in the shops and I would advise you to grab those bottles while you can.

I really enjoyed everything I tasted at Henry Fessy, but some of the real standout wines were:

Henry Fessy_Beaujolais blanc bottle2016 Beaujolais Blanc
AC / PDO Beaujolais Blanc
Henry Fessy

Less than 3% of the plantings in Beaujolais are Chardonnay and Fessy only have 1 hectare, but on this showing I cannot imagine why as this is a terrific wine.

100% Chardonnay with no oak but 6 months ageing on the lees.

It has a lovely texture, satisfying mouthfeel, ripe apples and peach fruit and even a touch of something more exotic like pineapple and grapefruit. Lovely freshness keeps it poised and pure and the length is fantastic too.

This is a really good alternative to anything at the more affordable end of white Burgundy – do try it if you can – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Mr Wheeler & Hay Wines.

Henry Fessy_Morgon bottle2016 Morgon
AC / PDO Morgon
Henry Fessy

Fessy only have 2 hectares of Morgon and so blend the Côte du Py with the Corcelles fruit. They believe the Côte gives the body and the other part gives the sumptuous fruit quality.

I found this lifted, aromatic and very attractive. There was a seductive raspberry and smoke tinged perfume to it while the palate was silky and refined yet rounded and weighty with cherry strudel sorts of flavours and a crack pepper together with some lovely delicate structure from the refreshing nature of the acidity and the light touch of tannin playing around the finish.

Fresh, lively and fruity for sure, but supple and concentrated too. – in fact the concentration and balance was a revelation to me – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Fareham Wine Cellar.

2015 Brouilly
AC / PDO Brouilly
Henry Fessy

The abnormal character of the vintage really showed here with rich fruit that still shows that playful, fresh character.

This was 80% destemmed with 6 months ageing in stainless steel tanks.

The nose offered plums and violets, orange peel and that mineral earthy je ne sais quoi. The palate was full and ripe, succulent, juicy with a lovely, lively combination of red and black fruit, spice too and a touch of firm tannins. This was not so immediately about fun as the Morgon, there was a very serious, brooding wine lurking in there with an earthy, slate minerality, there was even a touch of Côte du Rhône about it. Great wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

2016 Régnié Château des Reyssiers
AC / PDO Régnié
Henry Fessy

I have always had a soft spot for Régnié as it was the last of the 10 Cru to be created and I remember where I was the day it was announced back in 1988.

This was made from 40 year old vines grown on a single site at the base of Mont Brouilly. The Châteai itself dates back to 1706 and wine has been produced here for over 300 years prior to Henry Fessy taking over the management of the estate. As usual with Fessy 80% of the vines was destemmed and the wine was aged for 6 months ageing in concrete tanks.

Lovely bright, but deep cherry aromas with a touch of something smoky and savoury. The palate had lovely weight, fruit density and concentration that made me really like this wine.

There was lots of classic fresh red fruit, but plum and blackberry too. There was something wild about the wine at times that was most attractive and all the while a sense of tension, something taut, offset the softness of the fruit and was enhanced by the gently firm earthy finis – 90/100 points.

2017 Saint Amour
AC / PDO Saint Amour
Henry Fessy

Sadly I have experienced precious little Saint Amour in my life – on this showing it was my loss too.

Fessy only farm 1 hectare in Saint Amour but they put it to good use as this was stunning and I was not alone in raving about it at the tasting.

The wine showed its youth with milky, lactic notes and then a vibrant melange of red fruit, cassis and delicate spice notes.

The palate was beautifully concentrated, but bright and pristine all at the same time. The fruit was just joyous and bright and well, downright pretty. It was supple and and ripe even though the winemaking esters were very apparent at this stage. There was a lovely supple, rounded, almost creamy texture and more tannin than you would expect, although it was not aggressive in any way, it just helped give the wine definition. One to watch I think- 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

By the way just in case you like to age wines, you can relax as these wines can age really well, from the great vintages anyway. At Lunch Laurent served us his 2009 Moulin-à-Vent and it was sensational. It had aged beautifully into a supple yet profound wine with silky tannins and concentrated earthy, savoury, light leather and dried fruit characters. In many ways it resembled a Gevrey-Chambertinn but with more sensual fruit and a slightly brighter nature.

So there you have it, a little cross action of what one very fine Beaujolais producer does. These are wonderful wines that deserve to be taken seriously and enjoyed often. They would go with so many different dishes and be suitable for just about any occasion. Who knows perhaps the balance between concentration but not heavy, ripe fruit and freshness might be just right for now? Perhaps Beaujolais’s time has come? Laurent certainly felt that he was “taking Beaujolais back” and showing just what Beaujolais can be.

The realisation may have struck me late in life, but there is no doubt that Beaujolais does make some lovely wines and I really must start enjoying them instead of avoiding them – and so must you.

 

Côtes-du-Rhône with a twist

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

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

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

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

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

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

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

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

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

Vines at the Château de Montfaucon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Saurel at Domaine Montirius.

Vines at Montirius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beautiful Château Beauchêne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beautiful and peaceful Domaine des Escaravailles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine of the Week – a Happy, Happy Syrah

Tain-l’Hermitage – photo courtesy of Maison Les Alexandrins.

Personally I think a lot of talk and writing about wine – and I am guilty of this myself – focuses on how fine, interesting or different a wine is rather than how much pleasure it delivers.

Which is really very strange as wine is all about pleasure isn’t it? If a wine does not give you pleasure, then what is the point? I certainly think about the pleasure a wine offers while I am tasting it but do my descriptions and writing about a wine always convey that? I am not sure.

All of this flashed through my mind recently when I tasted a wine that in more normal circumstances I might well have ignored.

For a start it is made from Syrah, or that is what it says on the label anyway. Be prepared to gap in astonishment, but I am not especially drawn to Syrah, or don’t generally think I am anyway, so rarely seek it out – although that seems to be changing.

Secondly the wine is not from an appellation contrôlée / AC / appellation d’origine protégéeor / AOP / PDO or not even a Vin de Pays / PGI, but is a humble Vin de France. This most basic quality level of French wine replaced Vin de Table a few years ago, with similar changes right across the EU.

Fundamentally what changed was that they were given the right to state the grape variety, or the blend on the label. They are also allowed to show the vintage, which means that we can be more selective, choosing the better vintages and perhaps also the fresher years – especially useful with white wines, but a good idea with most modern red wines too.

The vast majority of Vin de France are, as you might imagine, pretty basic, everyday wines – which is why I would normally pass on by. However, as with the Syrah that I tasted some producers use this level to make something altogether more interesting and worthwhile. Certainly this Syrah is a lovely wine – so good in fact that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The stunning Northern Rhône Valley – photo courtesy of Maison Les Alexandrins.

2016 Syrah
Vin de France 
France

Maison Les Alexandrins is a very interesting project that produces some rather good wines. It is another example of a thoroughly modern phenomenon – a micro-négociant that focuses on high quality wines. It grew out of the Domaine Les Alexandrins and is a joint venture between Nicolas Jaboulet, formerly of the eponymous winery in Tain and now the head of Maison Nicolas Perrin, winemaker Guillaume Sorrel and viticulturalist Alexandre Caso. The aim is to give Nicolas Perrin a presence in the Northern Rhône and they aim to buy really good parcels of fruit from top growers across the area and to craft expressive wines from them. Eventually they will have a permanent base as they are building a new winery in Tain-l’Hermitage.

Wine Map of France, the Northern Rhône is just south of Lyon – click for a larger view.

This is the bottom rung of the wines they make, but don’t let that bother you. It comes from a great vintage and the quality shows, but so does the skill of the winemaker.

The fruit comes from younger vines across the Northern Rhône and although the label calls it a Syrah, there is actually 8% Viognier in there too, co-fermented with the Syrah. There was a cold soak to extract flavour before the fermentation which was in stainless steel. Half was then aged in tank for 6 months and the other half was aged in barrel, but from the taste of it I would say very little new wood at all.

Everything about this wine is bright and fresh. The colour is a vivid cerise – like a sorbet. The nose gives bright cherry and blackberry with lightly creamy notes, some spice and a little touch of freshly turned earth.

The palate just delivers pure pleasure. It is fresh, fleshy and juicy and cram packed with bright cherry, cranberry and plum fruit together with bright, refreshing acidity and just enough soft tannins for interest. It is beautifully balanced, perfectly judged, delicious and dangerously hedonistic. All in all it is a fine bottle of really well crafted happy juice.

This is a lithe, fresh and punchy red that will go with almost anything and is a very attractive wine to drink on its own too. Personally I think its charms are mainly upfront in the fruit, but it might be interesting to see what it’s like in five years or so as underneath all that pleasure I am sure there is a more serious wine trying to get. This is so delicious, so drinkable and made me so happy that I will award it 90/100 points – it earned extra points for severing extreme pleasure.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from South Downs Cellars. More stockist information is available from Liberty Wines the UK importers.

Frankly the only mystery about this wine is why it does not have more stockists. Sealed with a screw cap it would make a perfect restaurant wine too.

Wine of the Week – Nebbiolo with a twist

Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

In recent months I have become seriously obsessed by the wines of Italy and I think with good reason. There is such variety, such diversity and such pleasure to be had. So much so in fact that I have been giving some tastings called Hidden Corners of Italy that shines a little light on the areas of Italy that people might not encounter all that much.

The wines really seem to have captured people’s imaginations and opened their eyes as to the huge variety that Italy offers. I have shown some stunning sparkling wines, wonderful whites and fine complex reds and will write about them all very soon. However one red in particular showed extremely well recently and I noticed that it is once again available in the UK, so thought that I would make it my Wine of the Week.

It comes from Piemonte, which would normally be regarded as a far from hidden corner of Italy, but it actually comes from the north of the region up towards the Alps from a little known PDO / DOC called Lessona. In fact Lessona is a commune in the Province of Biella some 70 kilometres north of Turin and although it was created a Denominazione di Origine Controllata / DOC as long ago as 1976, there are only 14 hectares of vineyards there.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas in the Alto Piemonte were once very important and like Lesona have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant here on mountainous terrain than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land over many decades. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades. The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they found it hard to pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north. As a result, by the time I joined the wine trade 30 odd years ago, the wines of this part of Piemonte were almost never mentioned.

Which is a great shame as the DOCs and DOCGs of this part of Italy produce some seriously impressive wines, especially the reds of Carema, Gattinara, Ghemme, Bramaterra and Lessona. There are many great producers here that deserve to be much more widely known – you can read a bit about them here.

While I was there many producers captured my imagination, but I developed a particular affection for the wines of Tenute Sella. Based in Lessona, although it has vineyards in Bramaterra too, this estate has been owned by the Sella family since 1671 when silk merchant Comino Sella founded it. Today the estate is run by the engaging and charming Marco Rizzetti, who is CEO of the winery and part of the Sella family on his mother’s side.

Tenute Sella vineyards in Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

Today Tenuta Sella farms 7 hectares in Lessona – 50% of the PDO – plus 10 hectares in Bramaterra. The Lessona vineyards are pretty fragmented and on Pliocene marine deposits, so comprise well drained sandy soils.

2011 Lessona
DOC Lessona

The principal wine from the estate and the wine they have produced ever since 1671. This is a blend of 85% Nebbiolo (traditionally called Spanna up here) with 15% Vespolina, a close relative of Nebbiolo. The vines are on average 55 years old and the vineyard is at 300 metres above sea level with a south facing slope. The grapes were destemmed and crushed before being fermented in stainless steel vats and the wine was matured for 24 months in large (2500 litre) Slavonian oak barrels, where it also went through the malolactic fermentation. Viticulture is all low impact, near organic with no pesticides.

2011 was a difficult year with periods of heavy rainfall and drought while hail in July severely depleted the crop making yields lower than normal. They are very pleased with what the vintage finally produced, as was I.

The colour was a little bricky like Burgundy, while the nose delivered lovely complex red fruits, spice, pepper, espresso and light smoke with an enticing mix of sweet fruit and savoury characters.

The palate was quite haunting with lovely refreshing acidity, tannins that certainly made themselves known but were not aggressive, making the texture quite supple. The flavours were deep red fruit, plums especially, with dried fruit, earthy, coffee bean, tomato stem, savoury spicy characters and a lovely gamey, leathery development. It really is a lovely wine, more perfumed, more supple than we normally think of Nebbiolo. I could not help feeling that this would be great with Christmas dinner – 93/100 points.

The cellar at Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

A beguiling and complex food wine, if you like Barolo, Northern Rhône wines or Burgundy then you will love this. As well as turkey and goose, this would be wonderful with beef dishes and an array of cheeses.

Available in the UK for between £17 and  £23 per bottle from Vinissimus and Tannico.co.uk.

If you want even more of a bit of a treat for Christmas, then Vintage Wine & Port have a few bottles of the 2000 vintage Tenute Sella Lessona for £39.00 per bottle.