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.

Little Pleasures – a celebration of a less famous wine

Wine is the lifeblood of Chablis. The vineyards can be seen from the heart of the village and you often see grape growers going about their business.

Ah Chablis! That name conjures up all sorts of thoughts of stylish, sophisticated dry white wine. I love Chablis and think that the appellation / PDO has gone through a real renaissance over the last twenty years or so. There was a time when Chablis was frequently not what it ought to be and was instead a bit thin, green and tart.

This seems to longer be the case and the quality of Chablis available seems to be generally pretty high in my opinion. Sadly so does the price – and that is before Brexit. What makes Chablis such a pleasure though is the complexity, the minerality and is that sense that you are drinking a true thoroughbred – a classic. So why should that be a cheap wine? How can it be a cheap wine?

Cheap Chablis is always a disappointment and never shows you what Chablis should really be all about.

In some ways Chablis is a really simple wine to get your head around:

It is pretty much the northernmost outpost of the Burgundy wine region.

It’s only white.

It’s dry.

It’s only made from Chardonnay (Beauneois to the locals).

After that though it get’s a bit more complex because the differences are usually all about nuance rather than big, bold flavours. However the defining characteristic of Chablis should be all about the minerality in the wine. Minerality is the word we use to describe anything in a wine that does not come from the fruit or the winemaking. What actually causes these mineral characters is unknown and experts disagree – I have my own view that you can read about here – but they show themselves as stony, steely or earthy flavours and aromas.

Chablis’s beautiful vineyards.

Chablis should smell and taste stony and that is the defining character of the wine style. It should have that sense of the fruit being restrained and the wine brooding in the glass – rather than overt fruit leaping out at you. There should be tension in the glass between the (gentle) fruit, the crisp acidity and that minerality. They all vie for your attention, so the wine should feel beguiling and complex. Drinking a good, or great Chablis, should be an occasion.

I will write another day about the higher levels of Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines, but there is another subdivision of Chablis and it often gets overlooked.

That is Petit Chablis. I suspect very few of us go around actually knowing what Petit Chablis is, but it sells. It sells almost certainly because consumers assume that it has a relationship to Chablis itself – which it does.

Wine Map of France – click for a larger view.

The vineyards of Chablis – map courtesy of the BIVB.

The thing about Chablis is that it is really simple, pure even, until it isn’t. Chablis itself is all about the land in which it is grown. There are two important considerations with Chablis, the soil type the grapes are grown in and the aspect of the vineyard.

For a wine to be awarded the use of the Chablis name, or Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru, it must be grown in the vienyards around the (large) village of Chablis and be grown in the correct soils. These are a type of chalky limestone that was formed in the Jurassic era and was first identified in the village of Kimmeridge on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. That is why the soil is known as Kimmeridgian, sometimes Kimmeridgian Clay.

The village of Chablis with the vineyards behind.

The whole area was once ancient seabed – under a warm and shallow sea – and that is why it contains millions of fossilised mussels and oysters. Chablis must be grown in this soil and it is believed that it is this soil that helps the wine take on that mineral character. Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru must also be grown on Kimmeridgian soils, but in those instances they are on slopes facing south, south west or south east – this ensures they are riper than standard Chablis as the grapes get more sun.

Not all the land around the village of Chablis is Kimmeridgian though. At the top of the slopes there is a harder soil called Portlandian Limestone. It would be a waste not to plant anything in this soil, but there is no avoiding the fact that wine produced in these soils is different from Chablis – even if the same grape variety, Chardonnay, is used. That is why the wines grown in these soils are called Petit Chablis, so that we know they are different and perhaps that we should not hold them in such high regard as Chablis itself.

Traditionally we have been told that Petit Chablis is not mineral, instead it is is more fruity, but still crisp and dry. Broadly speaking I would say that is true, although it isn’t quite as clear as that makes out. Recently I have noticed that the quality of Petit Chablis seems to be very good right across the board – just like Chablis itself.

Chablis is a lovely place to visit.

I have to be honest that until a few years ago I was barely aware of Petit Chablis existing, let alone understanding what it was, so my experience of it has all been in the last three or four years. In that time though I have noticed more and more that the wines are on the whole consistently good quality and often fantastic value for money. It really does seem to be a very reliable appellation, I have tasted a good few of late and they all seem to deliver a classy glass of wine.

In fact they might be a perfect reliable classic French dry white wine to fall back on now that the likes of Chablis and Sancerre have become so expensive. Petit Chablis has certainly become something of a house wine Chez moi and something that I frequently order when dining out.

At their best – and all these are very good – Petit Chablis is crisp and refreshing with apple, orchard fruit, some light creamy notes and lots of acidity as well as a little touch of that minerality for which Chablis is so famous. They are of course unoaked so remain bright and lively, so would appeal to Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers as well as lovers of White Burgundy.

Here are a few of the Petit Chablis wines that I have tasted and enjoyed in recent months:

 

2016 Louis Moreau Petit Chablis
Louis Moreau
Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Waitrose

2017 Petit Chablis
Union des Viticulteurs de Chablis
Available in the UK for 12.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer

2017 Petit Chablis Vielles Vignes
Domaine Dampt Frères
Available in the UK for 12.99 per bottle from Laithewaites

2016 Simonnet-Febvre Petit Chablis
Simonnet-Febvre
Available in the UK for 12.99 per bottle from Vinatis and Hay Wines

2017 Louis Jadot Petit Chablis
Louis Jadot
Available in the UK for 16.99 per bottle from Simply Wines Direct

2016 Alain Geoffroy Petit Chablis
Domaine Alain Geoffroy
Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company,Oddbins, Albion Wine Shippers

Anytime you want a true classic French dry white wine, then Petit Chablis seems to me to be a good bet. Please ignore the word Petit in the name, these are all wines that deliver great big dollops of pleasure.

 

Wines of the Week – A Pair of Very Different Sparkling Wines

I do like fizz and it doesn’t always have to be Champagne for me. It can come from anywhere at all as long as it’s good.

I couldn’t decide which wine to choose, so I have 2 Wines of the Week for you this time. What unites them, and pleases me, is that although these wines are both very good, neither are made using the Traditional Method. The Traditional method is method by which Champagne, and many other sparkling wines like Cava and Crémant, are made fizzy. It requires a second fermentation in the bottle that traps the CO2 from that fermentation in the wine. The wine is then aged on the yeast sediment, lees, to develop the classic toasty, brioche and biscuit characters that often define Champagne. We call this ageing “yeast autolysis”. Some people maintain that you need this process in order to produce a decent sparkling wine. These two wines show that is not the case at all and that we should be more open minded.

 

Kym Milne MW – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Bird in Hand Sparkling Pinot Noir
Adelaide Hills
Bird In Hand Winery
South Australia

My first fizz is made by the wonderful Bird in Hand winery in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills region. I have liked their wines for a long time so am delighted to single out this beauty. The area is covered in nineteenth century gold mines and Bird in Hand was the name of one of them. Nowadays it is a 100 hectare estate renowned for making elegant and refined wines in this cool and beautiful area of South Australia. The chief winemaker is the great Kym Milne MW who has certainly not lost his touch since I first encountered him when he was Villa Maria‘s head winemaker in the 1980s.

Map of South Eastern Australia, the Adelaide Hills are just south of Barossa and east of Adelaide – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

The Pinot grapes are picked at night to keep them cool and then fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel to keep it fresh and lively. To add complexity there was short period of lees ageing for some 4-6 weeks. Then the second fermentation, to make it fizzy, took place in a pressurised tank called an autoclave.It is bottled immediately and so does not develop yeasty, biscuity flavours, so remains fresh and fruity.

Whatever mood you are in I defy you not to be cheered by this wine. The colour is gorgeous with a wild strawberry and wild salmon hue.

The nose is lifted and vibrant with ripe strawberry, raspberry, apple, orange and grapefruit, while the palate is nicely textured with the ripe Australian fruit giving more weight than we might normally expect. The mouse is soft and almost creamy, while the acidity is refreshing and the fruitiness makes the wine seem perhaps just a tiny bit not so dry.

All in all it is utterly delicious, beautifully fruity, juicy and refreshing.

I really enjoyed this and it is a perfect all round crowd pleaser for Christmas – 90/100 points

Available in the UK at around £15.00 per bottle from Frontier Fine WinesTanners, Amazon, Drink FinderWaitrose, Waitrose Cellar. Grab it from Waitrose and Waitrose Cellar before 12/12/18 and it is only £10 a bottle!

More information is available from Bird in Hand’s UK distributor, Seckford Agencies.

My second sparkling wine is rather different and comes from the heart of Prosecco country in northern Italy.

The Villa Sandi, from which the company takes its name, is a Palladian mansion dating from 1622.

2016 Villa Sandi Ribolla Gialla Brut
Vino Spumante di Qualità
Villa Sandi
Veneto, Italy

Ribolla Gialla is a grape most commonly found in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia and neighbouring Slovenia. This example however comes from the Veneto and is made by Villa Sandi, the famous Prosecco producer in Crocetta del Montello near Asolo in the province of Treviso. Surprisingly for such a big name, Villa Sandi is a family run company and I think that shows in the passion they have for what they do together with the care they take in their vineyards and their commitment to looking after the environment.

Villa Sandi are based near Asolo in Treviso, the heartland of Prosecco production.

This is another glorious and very pleasurable sparkling wine that shows that you do not need the Traditional method to achieve complexity. Usually the Charmat / Tank method, or Martinotti method in Italy, is used to make bright, fruity wines, like most Prosecco. Some people however age the wine on the lees in the tank before bottling and this is called the Charmat Lungo or long Charmat. This wine spends 12 months on the lees in the tank / autoclave.

The character of the grape with its savoury qualities really showed on the nose, as did the lees ageing with a nutty, honeyed, cooked apple quality. The palate was brisk and pure with the rich acidity of preserved lemons together with some coconut and wholemeal bread. There is a touch of spice and lovely vibrant apples and green plum fruit. It feels light and fresh but savoury and intriguing.

I loved this and found that it goes with everything and nothing very well, even spicy food and unusually for this part of the world it is a dry sparkling wine – 90/100 points

Available in the UK at around £17.00 per bottle from DolceVita Wines and can be imported from Italy, until Brexit ruins it, via Ur Italian Wines. More information is available from Villa Sandi’s UK distributor, North South Wines.

So you see it is always good to keep an open mind about these things and to taste wines without preconceptions, otherwise you might miss out on a great deal of pleasure.

Wine of the Week – a lovely Fleurie

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

Some of you will remember that not long ago I visited the wonderful Beaujolais producer of Henry Fessy – read about it here. I really admire their wines and what they do as they seem to be one of the major wineries that is reinventing Beaujolais and reintroducing this wine style to modern drinkers.

When I first joined the wine trade Beaujolais was hugely popular, because fruity red wine did not really exist back then. Beaujolais was just about the only “fruity” red wine and was made fruity by being kept light and acidic. Well, ever since the British love affair with New World wine really took off thirty odd years ago, our definition of a fruity wine has changed. Nowadays we want wines to be fruity and ripe and bold and so Beaujolais has somewhat slipped down the scale of regions people enjoy.

Well it is about time that people revisited Beaujolais and my new Wine of the Week is a perfect time to start.

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

2014 Fleurie Le Pavillon
AC / PDO Fleurie
Henry Fessy
Beaujolais
France

Henry Fessy is one of the great producers of Beaujolais. They have been around a long time and make wines from every single appellation in the region as well as growing grapes in 9 out of the 10 crus.

I like what they do. They have never been tempted to go for the carbonic maceration which often gives those bubblegum chad cherryade flavours and aromas to Beaujolais. Instead Fessy ferment in a more normal, traditional way. The grapes are de-stemmed, except for 20% that adds a little tannin and structure, and crushed and then fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures. This retains the freshness without getting the stalky character than can make some Beaujolais feel unbalanced. The wine is handled very gently to ensure it retains that silky character that defines Fleurie and finally it aged for a few months in tank before bottling.

We have been so lucky with Beaujolais vintages of late, so pretty much all the Beaujolais in the shops right now comes from excellent ripe vintages – and 2014 is no exception.

The extra bottle age on this wine has done it nothing but good – I have noticed repeatedly that Fessy Cru Beaujolais respond well to a little time. They retain that zip, but gain some extra depth too. When first released the wines are all about bright, primary fruit, but a year or so introduces some earthy and smoky complexity that makes the wines feel more complete somehow.

This is a terrific wine that should convert many Beaujolais doubters to appreciate the style. It has weight and substance, while still fundamentally being a lighter wine. The nose gives that gorgeous lifted floral note that is Fleurie’s calling card together with a little touch of spice and ripe red fruit. The palate is succulent an full of raspberry, cherry and cranberry fruit while the age has introduced a little earthy savouriness, while the whole thing feels silky, refined and irresistible – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £13.49 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar. Grab it before 27/11/18 and it is only £9.99!

Wine of the Week – a Happy Affordable Red

El Lloar in Western Priorat – photo courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

We all love a bargain, I know that I do. What’s more sometimes you just want a nice, drinkable bottle of wine that makes you happy. Well I have just tried a bottle that does exactly that. The fact that it comes from one of the world’s greatest wine regions is just an added bonus. What’s more it is utterly delicious and delivers outstanding value for money.

The wine comes from Priorat, that wild, rugged mountain region of Catalunya in north east Spain. Priorat is a little inland from Tarragona and is one of jut two wine regions in Spain to be awarded the highest quality status of Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa), or more correctly the Catalan Denominació d’Origen Qualificada (DOQ) – Rioja is the other DOCa.

Wine map of Spain, Priorat is the tiny yellow speck near Barcelona – click for a larger view

Priorat and neighbouring Montsant in a little more detail – map courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

Priorat wines are mainly red, although some wonderful whites are made there, and are often eye-wateringly expensive as production is small and there is huge demand. Generally speaking I would urge people to try the neighbouring wines of Montsant – this small region is equally rugged and surrounds Priorat like a doughnut, or nearby Terra Alta. However, unusually this Priorat is an absolute bargain. What’s more it is delicious, so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The wonderful landscape of Priorat – photo courtesy of the Consell Regulador.

2014 Vinya Carles Crianza
Bodegas Reserva de la Tierra
DOCa / DOQ / PDO Priorat
Catalunya
Spain

As so often the case with supermarket wines that are not established brands, it is difficult to get much information about this wine. The name Vinya would suggest that this is a single vineyard wine, however in truth I know almost nothing about it. I do not even know what grapes are in it. Priorat is normally a blend based on Garnacha / Grenache and often has some Carignan and perhaps some Syrah or Cabernet too, but I have no idea what this is – except that it tastes good.

I do know that it’s a Crianza though, so it has spent some months in oak.

Ok, so it is a bright, purple tinged garnet showing both its youth and that touch of barrel. The nose is crushed red and black fruit, fragrant vanilla and sweet baking spice, while the palate is smooth and velvety. The tannins, such as they are, are so soft and ripe and sweet that you do not notice them. The fruit is generous and upfront like a summer pudding, while a little structure is given by the spices, the vanilla oak and a touch of black pepper.

The rugged terrain and bush vines of Priorat – photo courtesy of Turisme Priorat.

I have to warn you, this wine just slips down and bottles empty willy-nilly. It is in the end a pretty simple wine, but very, very drinkable and delivers a great deal of enjoyment for not much outlay. It’s very versatile and soft enough to drink on its own or with easygoing dishes like sausage and mash, pies, pizza or pasta. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the best sub £6 red wine around right now and what’s more it gets better if let open overnight too – 87/100 points. I have marked it up a bit because it delivers such pleasure and deliciousness at a low price.

Perhaps it doesn’t exactly show you very much about Priorat, but it is a very nice glass – or 3 – of wine.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £5.99 per bottle.

If you are after trying Priorat’s more ambitious wines then a good starting point could be the rather lovely Salmos made by Torres at their relatively new, dedicated Priorat winey. It is a legal requirement that Priorat wine must be made and aged within the boundaries of the DOQ / DOCa. This wine on a completely different scale and is a terrific example of what the region does really well.

Wine of the Week – a fine, affordable Zinfandel

Old Zinfandel vines in Lodi.

One of my very early jobs was working for the late Geoffrey Roberts who was an early champion of the wines of California and Australia in the UK. As a consequence I had opportunities to taste some amazing California wine while at a young and impressionable age. As a consequence I have loved California wines pretty much all my working life.

Therefore it pains me that it is so hard to enjoy California wines here in the UK. Yes, there are huge amounts of very everyday stuff that is barely worth drinking – you know the brands, while the fabulous wines that gave California its fame tend to be ludicrously expensive once they arrive in the UK – actually in the US too come to think of it.

So while it is always a struggle to feed my love of California wine, there are some high quality bargains out there. I was fortunate enough to taste one the other day and I enjoyed it so much and it is so delicious – and perfect for the icy weather we are having right now – that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The wine is a Zinfandel and it is worth me giving you a little background on the grape variety from a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago:

As far as we can tell, the grape that became Zinfandel was taken to the eastern United States from Europe in the 1820’s – long before the annexation of California. Records show that it was taken from the Austrian Imperial nursery in Vienna to Boston and was originally sold as a table grape in New England, but destiny called when cuttings were shipped to California to take advantage of the boom caused by the Gold Rush in 1849. That was all we knew until the 1990s when DNA testing discovered that Zinfandel was identical to the Primitivo that is widely used in Puglia, the heel of Italy.

Further investigation and DNA work then discovered that Primitivo/Zinfandel were one of the parents of the Plavac Mali grape which is used on Croatia’s Dalmation coast. The other parent was Dobričić, an incredibly obscure Croatian grape that only grows on the Dalmatian island of Šolta. This find narrowed the search down and in 2001 a vine that matched Zinfandel’s DNA was discovered in a single vineyard in Kaštel Novi north west of Split on the Croatian coast. The vine was known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or ‘the red grape of Kaštela’. In 2011 the researchers discovered another match, this time with a grape called Tribidrag which is also used on the Dalmatian coast. Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag are as alike as different clones of Pinot Noir, or Tempranillo and Tinto Fino, but  Tribidrag is the more common name, although not much of it is left, so it too is obscure. However, records show the name has been used since at least 1518 and what’s more, Primitivo derives from the Latin for early, while Tribidrag derives from the Croatian for early – they are both early ripening grapes.

Wine map of California – Lodi is near Sacramento and due east of San Francisco.

2014 Brazin (B)Old Vine Zinfandel
AVA Lodi
California
USA
I have long been an admirer of what Delicato do. They seem to produce a wide range of really well made, classic California wines with plump, ripe fruit and lots of character – not to mention charm.
 
They have been in California for well over 100 years, since Gaspare Indelicato arrive from Sicily looking for a better life. It seems the family had grown grapes and made wine in the old country, so he and and his three sons established a vineyard and winery in Lodi in California’s Central Valley. Today the third generation of the family run the business and they now have vineyards in Napa Valley and Monterey as well as Clay Station, their 526 hectare estate in Lodi.

100 year old Zinfandel in Soucie Vineyard, Lodi. Credit: Randy Caparoso.

 
Many Italian families, including the Indelicatos, settled in this area which has a Mediterranean climate and sandy soils not unlike those found in many parts of southern Italy. Zinfandel was already grown here and as it has many Italianate characters would have made them feel right at home. Brazin is all about harnessing the rich fruit character of this hot region and producing a rich, plush and powerful wine. Much of the fruit is bought in from small growers with whom the family have had contracts for generations. The vines are all 40 years old at least – often well over 100 – and old vines really suit Zinfandel. Old vines produce smaller crops with smaller berries and more intense flavours. They also reach full ripeness with lower sugar levels than younger vine – a virtuous circle. The vines are un-grafted and dry-farmed, which again ensures a small and concentrated cop, and head trained in the traditional Californian manner, rather than trellis grown. The soils are sandy and silty.

Old head-trained vines in Lodi.

They want the wine to have rich, bold fruit and so cold ferment in stainless steel, but they also want it to be layered and complex, so age it in a mixture of French – for dry spice – and American – for sweet vanilla – barrels for 8 months.

Everything about this wine screams rich and powerful – bold even, hence the joke on the label. It is opaque, like squished blackberries. The nose gives dense black fruit, spice, mocha, a little prune and raisin, pepper, sweet vanilla, red earth and bitter chocolate. The palate is sumptuous, bright, glossy, mouth-filling, mouth-coating and very tasty. There is a sweetness of rich dark plums, blackberries, blueberries, cassis all lightened by a hint of rich raspberry too. There is a little cooked fruit and dried fruit characters too and the whole thing is just a little bit jammy – in a really good way. Along for the ride there are coffee, cinnamon, vanilla, clove, dark chocolate, liquorice and black pepper flavours while there are supple tannins and enough acidity to balance the whole shebang. It is tasty, balanced – it carries its 14.5% alcohol very well, really enjoyable and sinfully easy to drink – 88/100 points.

A lovely big red wine that will partner all manner of foods, burgers, steaks and barbecues for instance, but in the snowy winter conditions that we have right now in the UK I think it would bee great with a steak and kidney pudding, meat pie, beef stew or other hearty, warming dishes. Zinfandel is also really good with crispy aromatic duck!

Available in the UK for £12.50 – £14  per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar and The Wine Society.

Wine of the Week – a sumptuous and great value Rioja

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Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

I love red Rioja. Spain has much more to offer the wine enthusiast than just Rioja, but Rioja can make very fine wines indeed – hence its fame.

The trouble with Rioja is the question of what you are going to get. They aren’t all good, some are downright ordinary in fact, so you must be wary. However, red Rioja can deliver a great deal of pleasure and many very high quality wines.

As far as good value is concerned though the picture is also mixed. I generally hold it to be true that cheaper Reservas and Gran Reservas, from bodegas that have no fame or are just made up brands for the supermarkets, are normally not worth drinking. For me the reliable, value category of red Rioja is the Crianza level, which spend the shortest time ageing in oak.

However, one of the great joys of wine is that every now and again a wine pops up that confounds our beliefs.

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Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Recently I presented a very well received tasting of the wonderful wines of CVNE, one of the truly great Rioja houses recently. All the wines were really good, but for me the absolute star wines were the magnificent 2012 Imperial Reserva, ready to drink and wonderfully refined and elegant – stockists here and here – and the quirkily delicious 2014 Monopole Clasíco white.

Rioja Map 2013

CVNE, like many of the original band of Rioja bodegas, are based in Haro.

I showed a fabulous Crianza from CVNE’s Viña Real estate in Rioja Alavesa. It offered rich fruit and lots of character and showed just how good a Crianza wine can be. However, good though it was, another wine stood out for the mix of quality and amazing value for money. Indeed I liked it so much that it is my Wine of the Week.

CVNE GR2011 Cune Gran Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Haro
Rioja
Spain

Founded in 1879 and still owned and run by members of the founding family, C.V.N.E. – the Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España – is one of the great Rioja houses. I love showing their wines at tastings because they have such a wide range of styles, quality levels and labels as their stable includes the famous Monopole range, the great classic Imperial wines and the two single estate wines of Viña Real and Contino.

The wines labelled as Cute – CVNE in old copperplate script – are their base level wines, but still very good in my opinion. The Barrel Fermented white is a wonderful example of getting the oak just right, while the Crianza is a great value gem and the Cune Reserva is, to quote my friend Tom Canavan, a ‘proper wine’. 

However it is this beauty that currently represents the most amazing value for money and it is a really lovely wine.

The blend is 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo – no Grenache – from vineyards around Haro in Rioja Alta. It is aged for ged for 2 years in mainly American oak, but some French oak as well, and 3 years in bottle. The French oak allows for a little tingle of tannin that suits the wine.

p1030286

Wines ageing in the Imperial barrel cellar at CVNE. This cellar was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

This is an unashamedly rich Rioja, the lack of Grenache allows the dark fruits to hold sway. It has spice, vanilla, dark plums, blackberries and blueberries on the nose with a light dusting of fresher red plum and raspberry too. The palate is soft, silky, refined and deeply upholstered – sumptuous in fact. There are some savoury, leather notes, a little bite of tannin and some nice freshness all giving definition. It has wonderful concentration – the vintage was very good – with loads of ripe fruit and good length and could have a long life ahead of it if you can resist. Whether you drink it or keep it, I would recommend that you grab some now – 92/100 points.

Drink it with lamb, beef or roast pork, but above all, drink it.

Available in the UK @ £12.50 per bottle – yes £12.50! from Tesco and Tesco Wine by the Case.

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

Poggiotondo

The beautiful Poggiotondo Estate.

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

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

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

Tuscany Poggiotondo

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

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

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

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

DSC7074_tasting_grapes-1-1500x1500

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Variety of Champagne

Vineyards around Dizy in Champagne.

Recently I have led a few Champagne tastings, well it is Christmas. I showed a wide range of Champagnes each time and they were very well received.

What fascinated me was how many questions were asked and the lengthy discussions that grew out of the tastings. In my experience that level of enquiry is relatively rare at wine tastings and I loved it.

What became apparent to me – even more so that I had expected – was how misunderstood, or rather how pigeonholed Champagne is. To most people who came to the tastings Champagne was just one thing, posh sparkling wine for special occasions. Very few of the tasters, before they came anyway, saw Champagne as a wine and very few understood, again before the tasting, just what variety there is in Champagne.

It is that variety that makes Champagne so fascinating and that I sought to illustrate in these tastings. The truth is that Champagne is much more than just a sparkling wine to be drunk at special parties. Sure there are plenty of Champagnes that make a good aperitif – and therefore toast – wine, but there are others that partner pretty much every type of food too.

There is a whole world of Champagne out there with styles to suit every mood and occasion.

Firstly Champagne is defined by the climate of the region. The Champagne region is east of Paris, and some of it slightly north too, so it is not blessed with the best conditions to make wine. The climate is grudging – about as far north as it is possible to grow grapes – and if it was not for the hills of the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs Côtes des Sezanne and the Côtes des Bar then Champagne would not really be a wine region at all. Just as in nearby Chablis, these slopes allow the grapes grown on them to catch much more sun than if they were grown on flat land. This makes ripening the grapes possible which is why Champagne became a place that made wine at all. Therefore, although there are different levels of ripeness in the wines of Champagne, it is all relative. This cool climate region is a place to make delicate white wines, not bold reds – unless global warming really gets going anyway.

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

The second thing to define Champagne is the chalky soil. This chalk is the second factor that makes it possible to grow grapes and make good wine here. It is very well drained and so negates the bad effects of the rain that can happen pretty much all through the growing cycle. The chalky soil ensures that rain just runs away, leaving the grapes concentrated and healthy. Perversly though this fossil rich chalk, rich in lime and calcite, also retains moisture – a bit like a sponge – and releases it when conditions are dry. It also stays at a constant temperature all year round – pretty crucial in a cool place as it gives the warming up of the season a quick start and helps ripening. The chalk itself is ancient sea-bed and full of fossils and that also helps in the development of complex flavours in the wines. Whether or not it imparts the minerality that can be found in many good Champagnes is open to question – see my article here for more on minerality.

Vineyards in the Valley of the Marne.

Blending Wine from Different Harvests

Because of the lack of heat and sunshine, the Champenois (Champagne producers) have, over the centuries, developed a way of making the best use of the weather that they do get. Most Champagne is sold as Non Vintage – or NV on a wine list –  (Multi Vintage in the US) – with no year on the label – and is made by blending wine from different harvests together. This allows the producer, or house, to always blend the wine to be pretty much the same year in year out. To do this they have to keep back stocks of older base wines to give them the blending options that they need.

Grape Varieties

By and large Champagne can be made from just three different grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – so just one white grape and 2 black grapes. Remember that white wine, which is what most Champagne is, can be made from any colour grapes as you only ferment the juice after pressing and leave the skins out. The colour of a red wine comes solely from the skins. Therefore a good bit of the different styles comes about because of the blend of grape varies used or sometimes which single grape is used. The great majority of Champagnes are a blend of all three grapes, in differing proportions, while those made purely from Chardonnay can be called Blanc de Blancs and those made from either or both of the two Pinots can be labelled as Blanc de Noirs. Generally speaking a Blanc de Blancs will feel brighter, lighter and fresher than Blanc de Noirs Champagnes.

There are always exceptions in wine and there was a much bigger list of grape varieties grown in the past and although the modern rules forbids the planting of anything other than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, you can still use them if you have them – it seems that you can even replant them too. Up until the First World War Pinot Blanc, Fromenteau / Pinot Gris, Arbane, Petit Meslier, Gamay, Chasselas, Savagnin Blanc, Sacy (also known as Tressallier), Troyen and Morillon were found quite widely in the region.

Nowadays they are pretty rare, but it is still possible to taste Champagnes made from some of these old grapes if you are prepared to work at it – and pay for them. Champagne Fleury produce a pure Pinot Blanc – click here, as do Chassenay d’Arce, while Pierre Gerbais’ L’Originale is made from a parcel of Pinot Blanc vines planted in 1904 – click here. Champagne Moutard make a pure out of Arbane as well as the Cuvée 6 Cépages made from equal proportions of  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Arbane, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier. Duval Leroy make a Champagne from pure Petit Meslier. Champagne Aubry produce three different Cuvées (blends) using these ancient grape varieties, while Champagne Drappier‘s Quattuor is made from equal parts of Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay.

Oak or No Oak

Oak barrels at Champagne Alfred Gratien in Epernay. Gratien are very traditional and one of the few houses to barrel ferment the majority of their base wines. Photo courtesy of Champagne Alfred Gratien.

The base wine for some Champagnes, the still wine that is later made fizzy,  are aged or fermented in oak barrels before they are made sparkling, which will make them richer and more complex still. Champagnes made this way seem to be bolder and more obviously savoury, so making them less suitable for frivolous drinking and more suitable for drinking with food.

Ageing

It isn’t only the grapes that determine the flavours and the differences between the different Champagnes though. Length of ageing is very important. Any Non Vintage Champagne has to be aged on the lees – the dead yeast cells left over from the second fermentation in the bottle – for at least 15 months. Most good houses age them a fair bit longer than that though, perhaps for three years or so.

Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs undergoing long ageing in Taittinger’s chalk cellars below Reims. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Vintage Champagne is the product of a single exceptional harvest – Non Vintage is made from fruit from more than one harvest – so Vintage Champagne will be richer and fruitier than Non Vintage. In addition Vintage Champagne must be aged at least 36 months on the lees before release, so will be more complex too. The longer you age a Champagne on the lees, the more the rich biscuit, brioche, flaky pastry and nutty characters develop. We call this ageing yeast autolysis.

Sweetness

The sweetness also has an effect on how the wine tastes. The drier it is the more you will notice the acidity and Champagne being so far north, where there isn’t so much sun to ripen the fruit, has a good deal of acidity to make your mouth water. If acidity is not your thing, I love it because it is so refreshing, then there are options available to you, a sweeter Champagne.

Most Champagnes are Brut, which is very much on the dry side. Brut Champagne contains 0 – 12 grams per litre of sugar, equivalent to half a teaspoon or so per glass. In practice the posher Champagnes like Taittinger are usually about 8 – 12 grams and the cheaper and own label ones usually have that little bit more sugar. Extra Brut is a bit drier than Brut, whereas rather confusingly Extra Dry or Extra Sec is less dry!

Sec Champagne is less dry again and contains 17 – 32 grams per litre of sugar, equivalent to a teaspoon or so per glass. Before the First World War most Champagne was pretty sweet, but nowadays these wines are pretty rare. I am sure there are others, but Taittinger’s superb Nocturne Sec is the only one widely available in the UK and at 17.5 grams per litre of sugar it contains the bare minimum amount of sugar to be Sec, so is not actually sweet at all.

I loved showing a range of different Champagnes at these tastings and seeing how interesting the tasters found them. They just were not expecting to experience so many different flavours and styles.

Here are some of the Champagnes that I have shown in my recent tastings, these all found particular favour with the crowds on the night, sometimes for very different reasons.

Light, fresh Champagnes 

This is how most people imagine Champagne and indeed the style of Champagne that most of us drink most of the time. They are perfect to drink on their own, for the toast or the aperitif or to serve with light nibbles like cheese straws, fresh light cheeses, fish and chips and Asian cuisine.

Veuve Monsigny Brut No III NV
Champagne Philizot et Fils
Reuil, near Reims

I know nothing about Philizot, but they appear to be a genuine Champagne house rather than a dreamed up brand name. They must be quite big, even though very few of us have ever heard of them, because they have to be selling a great deal of this. The blend is one third each of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

This is genuinely a nice bottle of Champagne, fresh, lively and very appley with a soft mousse and palate. Not the most complex, but very decent and well made with nice acidity and some of the elegance and purity that generally sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines.

How they do this at the price I really do not know, but I am glad they do – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £10.99 per bottle from Aldi.

Bissinger & Co Grande Prestige Premium Cuvée Brut NV
Vranken-Pommery
Tours-sur-Marne

I know next nothing about this Champagne house except that it used to be based in Aÿ and has history dating back to 1875. Since 2012 it has been part of the mighty Vranken-Pommery group and continues to make good wines that deliver excellent value for money too.

It looks good in its fancy shaped bottle and it tastes pretty good too. It might not be quite as dry as other Champagnes, but that makes it soft and very drinkable indeed – and it is still dry. There is a little more richness here too, from longer ageing than the Verve Montigny I assume. I liked this and so did my tasters – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £17.99 per bottle from Lidl.

Louis Chaurey Brut NV
Champagne Oudinot
Epernay

Oudinot is a pretty prestigious house with history going back to the dawn of the nineteenth century when Jules Edouard Oudinot started making Champagne from his vineyard in Avize in the Côtes des Blancs south of Epernay. Today it is part of the great Laurent-Perrier and they make this label for Marks & Spencer. Again the blend uses all three typical grapes, but I am unaware of the blend.

This is very Epernay in style, very apply, very citrus. In short it is light, fresh and refreshing. Thoroughly enjoyable and that light touch of crushed digestive biscuit gives it enough interest and richness. A perfectly decent Champagne – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £34.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer – make sure to buy it when on offer which comes around about twice a year, 50% off and another 25% off when you buy 2 cases of 6 bottles.

H Blin Brut NV
Champagne H Blin & Co
Vincelles

I have always been a fan of H Blin. Based in Vincelles some 20 km west of Epernay they have farmed grapes for generations, but only started making their own Champagnes after World War II. Being based in the Valley of the Marne they champion the somewhat unloved Pinot Meunier, even to the extent of making an excellent still red from it under the Coteaux Champenois appellation.

This is their standard non vintage Cuvée made from 80% Pinot Meunier with 20% Chardonnay and 2 years ageing

The nose is of toasted brioche and cooked lemon, while the palate gives zesty green apples, a touch of red apple, some light nuts and even a touch of caramel from the ageing development. A very tasty, but also refined and elegant Champagne – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £28.00 per bottle from Oddbins.

Taittinger Brut Réserve NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

Taittinger is a rare beast for a Champagne house, in being owned and managed by the family whose name is on the label. This is no mean feat in the modern world when Champagne is often seen as a luxury brand product rather than a wine as such. As far as I am aware Bollinger is the only other world famous Champagne house to remain a family company. It must focus the mind somewhat having your name on every bottle and being ultimately responsible for the quality and style of wine that your family produces and under the management of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger I think the wines have evolved and the quality has really shone.

This is the standard wine from the house and I always enjoy it. 40% Chardonnay dominates the wine together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier blended from vineyards across the region and then aged 3 years on the lees.

I really enjoy this wine because it light, fresh and vibrant, but has depth of flavour too. There is a creaminess running all the way through it, as well as citrus, green apple and a touch of peach. There is crisp, but not startling acidity and the mousse is soft and creamy without being frothy. There is also a touch of caramel and digestive biscuit to the palate that gives a nice smack of complexity, but the finish is dry and clean.

I always think this wine is deceptively straightforward and sinfully drinkable. Indeed it is a wine that you can focus attention on and savour its subtle charms, or just enjoy it and let those charms wash over you – 91/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £37.00 per bottle – Majestic reduce that to £27.73 when you mix 6 bottles of anything. Asda’s price is £27.

Champagne vineyards.

Franck Bonville Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Avize NV
Champagne Franck Bonville
Avize

This small, family run Champagne house has always attracted me. They winemaker is fourth generation Olivier Bonville whose grandfather Franck started it all just after World War I. Altogether they farm just 20 hectares in the Grand Cru Côtes des Blancs villages of Avize, Over and Le Mesnil.

This wine blends 70% of Avise fruit with 30% from Oger and it is aged for 30 months on the lees. The nose gives a lovely touch of ozone or rock pools – which I find fairy typical of lean Chardonnay.

The palate has plenty of orchard fruit too, apples and white peach. There is a lovely, playful tension in this wine between the almost creamy richness of the Chardonnay and the freshness and acidity of the style. The result is wine that gives softness and generosity together with that purity, almost salty quality that a fine dry white can have. An excellent and complex aperitif wine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £35.00 per bottle from Premiers Grands Crus and Cadman Fine Wines.

Legras & Haas Chouilly Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut
Champagne Legras & Haas
Chouilly

Champagne Legras & Haas is a Champagne domaine founded as recently as 1991. Before he created his own estate in 1991, together with his wife Brigitte – whose maiden name was Haas, François Legras was the winemaker at R & L Legras as his forebears had been since the sixteenth century. It was his desire to be a true vigneron, a grower with a domaine that made him strike out on his own and today the house has 31 hectares mainly in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. Today the house is run by François’s sons Rémi and Olivier Legras and I think the wines they produce are remarkably fine.

Extra Brut has a dosage of less than 5 grams per litre, so the wine is allowed to dominate the style. There is no softness here, no fat, just precision and austerity. This means that the Champagne has to be perfect first time – like a water colour.

They got it right, the wine has concentration, but is about minerality and tension. If you like Chablis you will enjoy this. It has that same nervy character and stony depth to it. The bubbles really are tiny and persistent and add some structure to the wine. Four years ageing on the lees has also added little flourishes of flakey pastry, but for me this is all about the minerality, finesse and elegant austerity – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £48.00 per bottle from Uvinum.

The softer side of Champagne

If all that acidity is not your thing, you can still enjoy Champagne, but a slightly less dry Sec version might suit you better. Rosé Champagne is softer too as the great majority of rosé Champagnes get their colour from some still, red Pinot Noir being added to the base wine before it is made fizzy. This gives red fruit characters and makes the wine seem riper and rounder and so softens that acidity,

Taittinger Nocturne Sec NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

40% Chardonnay together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, aged 4 years on the lees. Much of the fruit comes from Taittinger’s own estates including some from their Château de la Marquetterie.

The idea here is to make a soft Champagne that is drinkable after dinner and long into the night – or indeed any other time, I find it’s good at breakfast! People often assume that this will be sweet, but it isn’t at all. There is 17.5 grams per litre of residual sugar, but remember how high the acidity is in Champagne, well here the acidity and the sugar balance each other perfectly, so the wine finishes clean and balanced. It is soft, not sweet at all, the palate is creamy and there is a gentle nectarine quality to it and and an eating apple crunch.

This might be perfect if acidity is not your thing, or if you want a Champagne that can withstand traces of something sweet on your palate. This also lived up to its name by remaining quite delicious throughout the tasting and even after all the others were finished – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £47.00 per bottle from Asda and Waitrose Cellar.

Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

I love Rosé Champagne as it always feels so hedonistic and almost naughty. I think this is one of the best on the market.

35% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier with 15% of the Pinot Noir being red to give the colour – the Pinot comes from Ambonnay, Bouzy & Les Riceys. The finished wine is aged 3 years on the lees.

This is a real charmer of a wine, the colour is a deep wild salmon meets strawberry and the richness of red fruit makes the wine seem much less dry and acidic than it actually is. So if you like a softer style of Champagne then this could be for you, certainly the palate gives lots of red fruit, raspberry and even blood orange.

If you age it for a few years the fruit mellows somewhat to a more rose petal quality making the wine quite different, but just as lovely – 91/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £50.00 per bottle – however the Asda Wine Shop price appears to be just £27!

The Richer Side of Champagne

I am lucky, I like all styles of Champagne including the rich ones. These are often based on black grapes rather than Chardonnay, so gives more weight. They are also often aged longer and sometimes have some oak influence too. These Champagnes go very well with surprisingly rich food too, like foie gras, game and charcuterie.

Barnaut Grande Réserve Grand Cru Brut NV
Champagne Barnaut
Bouzy (yes, Bouzy, really, it is a Grand Cru village in the Montagne de Reims and rather wonderfully Dizy is not far away either!)

This little grower-producer is a new find for me and they are pretty good. Based in Bouzy they base their wines on Pinot Noir – and even make a still red wine and rosé too. This cuvée is two thirds Pinot Noir and one third Chardonnay from their own vineyards in Bouzy, Ambonnay and Louvois. The wine is aged for 4 years on the lees and has a low dosage of just 6 grams per litre, making it almost Extra Brut.

In truth this Champagne is only slightly richer than those above, so could be enjoyed on its own, but there is a touch of something richer from all that Pinot and the longer ageing. There is a touch of red fruit here together with a deeper biscuity note. It is wonderfully focussed and pure though and very dry, but with the sensation of very ripe fruit, so there is plenty of tension in the wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £27.00 per bottle from Lea & Sandeman.

One of my two favourite Champagne village names.

AR Lenoble Blanc de Noirs Premier Cru Bisseuil Brut 2009
Champagne A R Lenoble
Damery

AR Lenoble was founded in 1920 and is still family owned by sister-and-brother team Anne and Antoine Malassagne, the great-grandchildren of founder Armand-Raphaël Graser from Alsace. He called his house Lenoble as it sounded more French than his somewhat Germanic name of Graser. AR Lenoble owns 18 hectares in three prime locations in Champagne. Chouilly, Bisseuil and Damery. All their Chardonnay comes from the Grand Cru village of Chouilly, their Pinot Noir comes the Premier Cru village of Bisseuil and their Pinot Meunier comes from their home village of Damery.

100% Pinot Noir with 35% fermented and aged in oak before the second fermentation and aged on the lees for 4 years. This is a powerful, heady and concentrated Champagne. The dosage is only 5%, so could be labelled as Extra Brut if they chose, however it is so full of flavour that it is far from austere and has a wonderful spicy cinnamon and vanilla note from the oak.

A wonderfully intense Champagne with real richness that comes from the use of just black grapes, long ageing, barrel fermenting and ageing and the quality of the vintage – 93/100 pints.

Available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle from Plus de Bulles and Premiers Grands Crus. Also contact Ellis of Richmond who are the UK agents.

Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

What to do? You want vintage Champagne with all that richness and savoury brioche character, but cannot be doing with ageing some and anyway you want a slightly softer fruit character to give a touch of the frivolous, yet still keep it elegant and refined. You probably guessed it – you drink this.

50% Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs – including Avize and Le Mesnil sur Oger – blended with  50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims – including Mailly and Ambonnay. The finished wine is aged 5 years on the lees.

Another glorious cuvée from Taittinger that manages to be intense and soft all at the same time. This makes it very appealing with rich fruit and similarly rich leesy characters and complexity. The mousse is markedly softer than on Taittinger’s vintage, yet firmer and more precise than on their Brut Réserve Non-Vintage. In truth this Champagne goes with everything and nothing, it is just splendid – 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £40 per bottle: John Lewis, Great Western Wine, Majestic, Champagne Direct.

Taittinger’s beautiful Château de la Marquetterie. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Taittinger Les Folies de la Marquetterie Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

A single vineyard Champagne – a very rare beast indeed – from the vineyards around Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry near Epernay, which quite apart from being a beautiful place has a south and southwest exposure and so creates beautifully ripe fruit.

The blend is 55% Pinot Noir to 45% Chardonnay a small portion of the latter is fermented in oak vats which lends a subtle toasty spice to the finish as well as weight to the palate. It is aged for 5 years on the lees.

This is an exciting Champagne with richness and real savoury qualities. Again it is concentrated, but has bigger bolder characters and in some ways feels like a mature vintage Champagne.

Personally I do not regard this as a Champagne to drink while standing and nibbling twiglets, for me this needs a meal  – although feel free to serve it to me with nibbles – and would be perfect with a lovely piece of good quality fish – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £50 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Fareham Wine Cellar,  The Drink Shop among others.

Alfred Gratien Brut Vintage 2004
Champagne Alfred Gratien
Epernay

A tiny Champagne house that was long part of Gratien and Meyer in the Loire. It was founded in 1864 and was for a long time run by the Seydoux family who were related to the Gratiens and also the Krugs. Nowadays it is owned by German sparkling wine giant Henkell & Söhnlein, but all they seem to have done is to pay for much needed repairs and vineyard purchases, the style and devotopn to tradition remains the same, as does the cellar master in fact.

Alfred Gratien was the first Champagne house, indeed the first winery that I ever visited back in 1984 at the age of nineteen and I have been fond of what they do ever since. They ferment their base wines in oak barrels that they buy second hand – you don’t want too much oak – from the Chablisienne cooperative in Chablis. As a consequence their wines are rich and heady and brooding and very fine.

This is two thirds Chardonnay with the rest equal parts of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The nose is nutty, citric and toasty with flecks of flint. The palate is broad and deep, yet with that lively purity that makes Champagne so wonderful. There is toasted brioche, smoke, peach and apple and citrus and a warmth and fullness that belies the zing of the acidity. That tension between those two makes it feel very fine and long in the mouth – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £42 per bottle from The Wine Society.

Taittinger Brut Vintage 2009
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from mainly Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs for the Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for the Pinot and then aged 5 years on the lees.

If you are ever feeling jaded and tired of life then this wine has a wonderfully restorative quality. The sensations here are of concentrated fruit as the vintage is only made in occasional exceptional years, however not only is the fruit more powerful, but the acidity is fresher and the weight is greater too, so this is a very intense wine. Red fruit notes and ripe peach vie with each other on your senses, while the savoury, nutty, brioche lees characters add more depth and the rich seam of acidity keeps it all fresh and elegant too.

A glorious Champagne with a firm and steady mousse and a wonderful feeling of tension running through it giving it poise and elegance – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £50 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Amazon,  The Drink Shop and Great Western Wine among others.

And some Ultimate Luxury…

Most major Champagne houses produce a Cuvée de Prestige using the very best fruit. These wines have care and attention lavished upon them and are aged longer than the normal cuvées and usually come in a fancy bottle that looks lovely and shows you that everything has been done by hand as these bottles do not fit the machines.

I like Taittinger as a house and think that their Cuvée de Prestige is one of the very best on the market. It certainly wowed everyone I showed it to at the tasting.

Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs in the punters in the chalk cellars below Reims. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2006
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

One of the greats of Champagne, this cuvée de prestige is 100% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. 5% is aged in new oak barrels for 4 months to add complexity and richness and the finished wine is aged for at least 7 years on the lees before release.

James Bond fans will know this was the favoured Champagne of Ian Fleming’s spy in the early books and I for one can see why – JFK seemed to enjoy it too. This is the most delicate. mineral and fine Chamapagne that I have ever tasted. It oozes finesse and breeding and subtlety, but has many more obvious charms too. I often think this is the most ‘wine-like’ Champagne that I know, it sort of seems like the finest Chablis you can imagine, but with a delicate and taut mousse – 95/100 points.

This very fine stuff and makes a superb aperitif, but is even better served with light seafood dishes like oysters or scallops. It would even go with a light fishy (sea bass) or chicken main course.

Available in the UK @ around £120 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Majestic,  Marks & Spencer and Ocado among others.

Obviously this line up barely scratches the surface of the different styles of Champagne that is out there, but is shows how different they can be and made for some fascinating and thought provoking tastings.

If you have only had a single view of what Champagne does, perhaps you might enjoy a little experimentation too, try some different examples and see what you think.

Colli Berici – an exciting wine region in northern Italy

 

Colli Berici vines at the Pegoraro Estate.

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

Beautiful vineyards in the Colli Berici.

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

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

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

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

Dal Maso

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Montemitorio Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Vinicola Dal Maso

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

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

2015 Colpizzarda Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Vinicola Dal Maso

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

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

 

Tenuta Cicogna, Cavazza Estate

The setting for dinner at Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna.

Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna.

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

Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna, note the red soils.

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

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

2016 Bocara
DOC Gambellara Classico
Azienda Agricola Cavazza

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

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

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

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

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

2013 Cabernet Cicogna
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Agricola Cavazza

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

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

Cantine dei Colli Berici

Some of the cooperative’s beautiful vineyards.

Cantine dei Colli Berici, winemaking on a huge scale.

Destemming at Cantine dei Colli Berici.

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

Andrea Palladio

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

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

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

Inama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Pegoraro Estate

The Pegoraro Estate in Massano.

Arriving at the beautiful Pegoraro Estate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Pegoraro Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Pegoraro Societa Agricola Semplice

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

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

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

Piovene Porto Godi Estate

 

The family house at Piovene Porto Godi.

The ancient and atmospheric cellars at Piovene Porto Godi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Campigie Sauvignon
IGT Veneto
Societa Agricola Piovene Porto Godi Alessandro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Colli Berici

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

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