Wine of the Week – a Scintillating Riesling

Some of Pfaffl’s vineyards at Stetten – photo courtesy of the winery.

I love Riesling and while I know that many of you do not, I am just going to on and on about it until you change your mind – well it worked for Bill Cash and Nigel Farage!

Riesling comes in many different guises, the delicate off-dry Mosel style is possibly my favoured option, but then the mineral and slightly bolder Alsace versions also excite me, as do the lime-drenched Australian ones and the vivacious offerings from New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Washington State and New York. However I also have a new favourite – Austria.

I am always excited by Austrian wines. That feeling of pristine, Alpine purity in the wines speaks to me – indeed I love Swiss, Slovenian, Northern Italian and even Gallician wines for the same reason. Austrian Riesling tends to be more full in style than German examples, dry, yet somehow steelier and more vibrant than those from Alsace – certainly at lower price points anyway.

Well I recently tasted a lovely Austrian Riesling and so with the better weather I thought it would make a great Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Austria – Pfaffl are marked by a red dot a little north of Vienna.

Roman Josef Pfaffl in the Vienna vineyards – see the city in the background – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Riesling Neubern
Qualitätswein Trocken/dry
Pfaffl
Niederösterreich/Lower Austria
Austria

I really like Pfaffl. I visited their winery once and they make good wines that to me feel very Austrian. They are precise, they are pure and exciting too. Pfaffl are based in Stetten some 15 km or so north of Vienna. Their vineyards are spread around the village on 10 sites and they also have vineyards in Vienna.

Vienna is the only capital with proper commercial vineyards in it and it even has its own style, the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC. These are field wines that must contain at least 3 grape varieties grown together, harvested, pressed and fermented together. The permitted grapes Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc and the wines are traditionally served in the Heurigen, seasonal taverns in Vienna that sell that years wine.

Pfaffl also make a more modern style blend from Vienna, their Pfaffl 1 which has 60% Riesling blended after fermentation with 20% each of Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Blanc. I love Pfaffl 1 but have yet to taste their field blend.

Heidi and Roman Josef Pfaffl are a brother and sister with Roman being the winemaker and Heidi the administrator. Roman crafts a largish range of wines, with many single vineyard Grüners and different Rieslings, as well as beautifully drinkable reds made from Pinot Noir and Zweigelt and a stunning sparkling Grüner Veltliner. Altogether they farm around 110 hectares and craft some superb wines from single vineyard sites as well as some bigger production blended across the estate.

My Wine of the Week is one of their bigger production numbers and it is utterly delightful. The nose is fresh and lively with lemon and lime notes, the richer input of apple and pear and some scintillating floral characters too, jasmine and orange blossom. The palate is light, lithe and refreshing with lots of flavour and a clean ethereal presence on your senses. The citrus and apple is there together with a deeper tang of apricot. All in all the wine is poised and elegant with a light touch to it. I liked it a lot, especially with a Thai meal – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £8.99 per bottle.

Drink this on a warm Spring day, a Summer picnic, on its own as an aperitif, with a cold collation or with spicy and oriental cuisine.

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.

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.

Wine of the Week – a delicious & great value Priorat

Beautiful vineyards in priorat.

Beautiful vineyards in priorat.

The other week I was wandering around the Three Wine Men event in London and I found myself trying the wines on the Lidl stand.

Many of you will know that I have a lot of time for Lidl. They offer very interesting products and, like Aldi, they seem to be able to put some excellent wines on the market at very good prices. Whether or not these great prices survive our leaving the EU remains to be seen, but right now they offer some staggering value.

The beautiful Priorat landscape. Photo courtesy of Oficina de Turisme del Priorat.

The beautiful Priorat landscape. Photo courtesy of Oficina de Turisme del Priorat.

All the Lidl wines I tried that day were pretty good, but the star was something that absolutely astonished me. It was a red wine from Priorat, one of the very best wine regions in Spain, which normally produces some of Spain’s most expensive wines, but this one is an absolute bargain.

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, see Priorat in the north east – click for a larger view

The beautifully rugged Priorat landscape.

The beautifully rugged Priorat landscape.

vinya_carles2011 Vinya Carles Crianza
Bodegas Reserva de la Tierra
DOCa / DOQ / PDO Priorat
Catalunya, Spain

Priorat – Priorato in Castellano, or proper Spanish – is one of Spain’s great regions and it produces many of Spain’s most famous, most expensive and sought after wines. Indeed Priorat is one of only two Spanish regions – the other being Rioja – that is labelled with the prestigious PDO status of Denominación de Origen Calificada / DOCa – Denominació d’Origen Qualificada or DOQ in Catalan. This is a rank above most other Spanish wine regions, which are labelled as Denominación de Origen or DO, and the regulations are more stringent.

It is a wonderful place, beautifully rugged and mountainous with an amazing backdrop of the Montsant Mountains. It is most famous for the fine, spicy reds made from blends of Garnacha and Cariñena, often together with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, although some fascinating, rich and herbal white wines are made too.

I am afraid that I know nothing about the wine, not definitely anyway, as the technical sheet I was sent says that it is a 50/50 blend of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, while the back label on the bottle says it is a Grenache, Carignan / Garnacha, Cariñena blend. I think I believe the back label, as it doesn’t feel as though there is any Cabernet or Tempranillo here.

The colour is a deep, opaque, vibrant purple. The aromas are of warming, spicy, herbs and rich berry fruit; blueberry, mulberry and cooked strawberry together with rich pear and wafts of sweet liquorice and sweet coconut and vanilla from the oak – presumably American oak.

The palate is very juicy and supple, with plump fruit, smooth, ripe tannins and a twist of spice. It is nicely concentrated, richly fruity and very enjoyable indeed. It isn’t very complex, but it is delicious and pretty full-bodied. I cannot imagine anyone failing to be seduced by its charms. This wine over delivers for anything like the money, it was terrific just tasting on its own, but with a venison burger and a salad it gave me a huge amount of pleasure – 87/100 points, I originally gave it 85, but as the bottle went on, I marked it up for the pleasure it gave me.

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

Wine of the Week 70 – the perfect party fizz

Sometimes, particularly during the party season, you find yourself needing lots and lots of fizz – I know that I do. If you are as impecunious as me then this can give you a slight problem, as sparkling wines can be very expensive. The bill soon mounts up if you want to drink lots of it yourself let alone letting your guests hoover up vast quantities of the stuff.

The problem becomes tricker still if like me you are not drawn to Prosecco. Much of the time I find Prosecco dull, overly floral and somewhat sweet, certainly sweeter than it ought to be, so with a few notable and sadly expensive exceptions – Bisol (especially their Bisol Jeio, Adami and Nino Franco for instance – then Prosecco is hardly ever something I want to drink. I prefer the cut of bracing acidity that leaves sparklers made by the traditional method so cleansing and refreshing. Of course the best examples of traditional method sparkling wines can be wonderfully complex and fine with that brioche, biscuity and nutty character, but that tends to come with the more expensive wines.

There is help at hand though, there are some excellent and incredibly good value sparkling wines available and one of the best, it’s positively cheap in fact, is a Cava and I think it is so very good for the price that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Cava vineyards - photo courtesy the Cava Regulatory Board.

Cava vineyards – photo courtesy the Cava Regulatory Board.

cavaArestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel
Sant Sadurní d’Anoia
Catalunya
Spain

I think Cava gets a bad rap with people focussing on the lower end of the price spectrum – although that is exactly what I doing here. There is actually plenty of very fine Cava out there, but there is also no use denying that the cheaper versions can provide some of the best value sparkling wines in the world. This example is made by Vid Vica and is a blend of the three classic Cava grapes Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel·lo aged on the lees in bottle for 9 months. Surprisingly it is actually a proper Cava house and not just an own label.
This seems really very good for anything like the asking price, it’s certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity, like at a party. It is soft, dry and apply in flavour with a touch of pear about it too, it also has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have. It is also clean, fresh and fruity with none of the earthy flavours some Cava can have and there is nice acidity keeping it refreshing without being tart – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made and very drinkable.

Available in the UK from Lidl for the amazing price of £4.79 per bottle.

PS: I have just discovered that Aldi also offer a Cava for £4,79, so will try a bottle of that very soon too.

Happy New Year & 3 Wines of the Week…

Well, here we are at the start of 2015 and still not a jet pack, hover mobile, silver jump suit or meal consisting solely of pills in sight. How wrong all the soothsayers were!

I hope your Christmas and New Years were relaxing, fun and memorable and that you enjoyed plenty of good food and wine. I’m sure you noticed that I took a bit of a break from writing these pages, I hope that you didn’t mind or begrudge me the time off.

Like you I drank a fair amount, mainly good sparkling wines and half decent Champagne if truth be told, but I did indulge with a few select bottles including the 3 that I am about to mention to you. Indeed if I had not taken a break from writing they would have been my Wines of the Week numbers 31, 32 and 33 – so here they are, better late than never eh?

Wine of the Week 31

Christmas seems to be a time for indulgence, when we consume the sorts of things – and the sorts of quantities – that we deny ourselves the rest of the year. Certainly as soon as the grind is over – about halfway through Christmas Eve I find – I do relax more and start drinking at all sorts of odd times of day that I just would not normally. Nothing gets me into a Christmas mood as much as a Panettone and a bottle of a light Moscato for an early Christmas tea – fine Prosecco is also superb with Panettone and I did indeed drink a superb Prosecco just the other day, but you will have to wait a while to hear all about that magnificent wine.

 

Moscato vines growing on Piemonte's rolling hills.

Moscato vines growing on Piemonte’s rolling hills.

image_2711702_full2013 Elio Perrone Sourgal Moscato d’Asti
Casa Vinicola Elio Perrone
Castiglione Tinella, Piemonte, Italy
D.O.C.G. Moscato d’Asti

Moscato d’Asti is less fizzy than Asti itself, but tastes very similar and is similarly light light in alcohol – 5% in this instance. This very lightness makes it a gentle way into the indulgences of the Festive season as it doesn’t make you too tipsy and you can drink rather a lot of it too. That all misses the point somewhat though, I like this style os wine because when they are well made – as this example is – they are utterly delicious. Sourgal by the way is the name of the vineyard, as this is a single vineyard wine.

The wine is very pale, with just a little lemony, sherbet colour and the CO2 gives a lovely lacy look to the surface of the wine – gently frothy is another way of putting it. It is the aromas of these wines that get me every time, they smell of delicate candied fruit, especially lemon peel, with the merest touch of brioche too – yes they really do smell of panettone, which is why they go so well together. There are other gorgeous aromas too, touches of orange, flourishes of acacia and white peach, all of which makes it scintillating and joyous to sniff. The palate is soft and very light, lightly effervescent and very fruity with flavours of grapes, peach and lemon peel. The sweetness is there, but it is beautifully balanced and just comes along for the ride rather than dominating. All in all this is delicious and so, so drinkable, enjoy it on its own or with something lightly sweet like fruit or that panettone – 88/100 points.

If you are labouring under the impression that Moscato d’Asti is an old fashioned wine, or that you won’t like it, just try it with an open mind. These wines deliver pure, uncomplicated pleasure and joy to the drinker, go on, you know you want to try it.

Available in the UK for £7.50 a bottle from The Wine Society.
Stockist details in the US are available here.

Red Bordeaux

Bordeaux map QS 2011 watermark

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

Funny thing Christmas. Lots of us are quite happy drinking wines from across the globe throughout the year, but come Christmas we come over all traditional and start thinking thoughts of Claret. I love Claret, red Bordeaux was my second wine love – after Spain – and the wines continue to excite me, or perhaps I should say are exciting me again as I have made a conscious decision to reengage with Bordeaux wines in recent years.

Well over the festive period two rather splendid Clarets came my way, both were from the superb 2009 vintage, so they were probably too young, but that did not stop them from being hugely enjoyable and impressive, so I have made them both Wines of the Week. What’s more I have only ever stayed in 2 Bordeaux Châteaux and it was these two (but with nearly 30 years between each stay) – coincidence?

Wine of the Week 32 – right bank revelry

Saint-Émilion is a delightful town.

Saint-Émilion is a delightful town.

In my mind I have always really been more of a left bank, Médoc kind of guy than a lover of right bank wines. Something about the firm tannic structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Médoc style appeals to me. Or so I used to think, but don’t people always say that we move to the right as we get older? Well I was most agreeably surprised on 2 recent trips to Bordeaux to find myself falling for the fruity charms of the Saint-Émilion style, as well as the place. Saint-Émilion is an utterly gorgeous town to visit, as long as there are not too many tourists and I was with a group that were put up in a charming and very old Château called Cantin. Most of the properties in Bordeaux are nineteenth century confections rather than genuinely fortified residences, so – much as I like the Second Empire architectural style – the seventeenth century Château Cantin was a bit of a delight. Sadly I did not take many photographs of the Château itself, but if you look at the bottle below, see the label? In the picture the Château has a single turret with a window. Well that was my bedroom and I did take some pictures of the view from it.

Château Cantin - the view from the window in the turret that you can see on the label. That was my bedroom.

Château Cantin – the view from the window in the turret that you can see on the label – that was my bedroom.

Chateau Cantin2009 Château Cantin 
Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
St. Christophe des Bardes, Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux

Although the building is old, Cantin was in the doldrums for a long time and did not really start making any reputation for itself until the Group Les Grands Chais de France took over the management of it and started investing heavily in the vineyard and winery. 2007 was the first vintage of this new regime and the results have been extraordinary. I watched the harvest come in in 2013 and they seem to take the utmost care with everything. It’s all done by hand with 3 selections to make sure only the good grapes get in. The fermentation takes place in a mix of stainless steel and concrete vats and the wine is aged for 12 months in barrel. The blend is something like 80% Merlot with 10% each of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The property was originally built by Benedictine monks as a summer residence for the Canon of Saint-Émilion and the name comes from the Latin word cantio, which means song, perhaps after all the evensong that was sung here?

It strikes me that this is a very modern Claret, the colour is an intense, opaque purply, plum black.
The nose is scented with spice, cinnamon and coffee, with rich plum, blackberry and cooked strawberry notes together with dried cranberry and blueberry too.
The palate is medium to full bodied, dense and velvety with loads of ripe, sweet red to black fruit and supple tannins. It really is wonderfully rich and concentrated while being deliciously drinkable, it’s let down just a tad by the alcoholic heat on the finish – it is 14.5%, but the fruit is so lovely you can forgive it. A terrific wine though with rich savoury development characters just beginning to emerge through the puppy fat of its ripe fruit, more complexity will emerge if you age it for another 4 years or so – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £24.99 per bottle from Waitrose & Waitrose Cellar.

Wine of the Week 33 – left bank lusciousness

My other Christmas Claret came from Bordeaux’s left bank and more specifically the famous commune / village of Saint-Julien.

The Haut-Médoc's gravel soils and the Gironde estuary in the distance.

The Haut-Médoc’s gravel soils and the Gironde estuary in the far distance.

Ch lagrange 20092009 Château Lagrange
Troisièmes Grand Cru Classé
Saint-Julien, Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux

I stayed at this beautiful, and more classic Second Empire style Château on my first ever trip to Bordeaux back in 1986. In those days I stayed in the grape pickers dorms, whereas nowadays I get a proper bedroom, so some things are looking up! The winery was extensively modernised from the 1980s onwards – when the Japanese Suntory Group purchased it – and this has resulted in the wines becoming brighter, bolder and better in my opinion – I have been fortunate to taste vintages back to 1970.

The blend is 73% Cabernet Sauvignon with 27% Merlot, fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged for 20 months in oak barrels, 60% of which are new.

I was very impressed by this wine, the colour was deep, crimson-black and opaque. The nose had lifted sweetly ripe cassis, blackberry, black cherry and blueberry as well as smoke, cedar and espresso notes. There was even a fresh floral quality to it which lightened the load somewhat and gave balance. The palate is concentrated sure, but medium-bodied. The fruit however is very concentrated and would easily satisfy those seeking full on full-bodied wines. Clearly there is plenty of oak – the oaky / espresso quality follows through on to the palate – but there is so much ripe fruit – blackcurrant, blackberry, black cherry – that they balance each other beautifully, neither dominates the other. The tannins too are very ripe and seductive, so they do not seem astringent, but they are there, so the wine will age. There is a little of acidity and minerality too, which also show that it will age if you want to keep it and which freshen up the palate and stop it cloying. Right now though it that richness and softness and sweetly ripe rich fruit that the wine is all about and it delivers almost sensual pleasure and delight. A terrific Bordeaux that is joyous now or will repay cellaring for a good number of years – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for £39.99 from Lidl.
US stockist information is available here.

Both of these Clarets were a real treat and put a smile on the face of everyone who tasted them, so if you need something a little special, Bordeaux can deliver the goods at prices that are not too outrageous – leave a little space for the Moscato though…

Happy New Year to you all and let’s hope that 2015 is a good one with peace breaking out everywhere and a modicum of sanity returning to the world.

 

 

 

 

Wine of the Week 29 – my bargain red of the year?

Whilst struggling with what to serve the thirsty masses at Christmas I have been considering all sorts of wines at prices varying from the highish to the high, when I was given this wine to try. It strikes me as excellent red that a lot of people would enjoy and yet it hardly breaks the bank, so will enable me to to relax if I have to open yet another bottle.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain, Toro is North West of Madrid on the Duero River – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

It come from Toro, which is an excellent region in Castilla y León which makes big, tannic wines from the local Tinta do Toro grape. This is actually Tempranillo, but it has evolved separately over time to produce wines that generally have a less savoury character, more red fruit and less earthiness than their Rioja cousins. However, they often have somewhat rustic tannins, that I think hold the region back from becoming one of Spain’s really great source’s of wines. The patches of brilliance here are from people who manage the tannins well to produce supple and concentrated wines. Well this wine does and what’s more does it at a very low price, so I have made it my Wine of the Week:

The bodega in 1997, I loved the lettering going over the roller door! This building is now a museum.

The bodega in 1997, I loved the lettering going over the roller door! This building is now a museum.

Tulga Toro Crianza2011 Tulga Crianza
D.O. Toro
Bodegas Pagos del Rey
Morales de Toro
Castilla y León, Spain
Nowadays this bodega is part of the dynamic multi-regional producer Felix Solis / Pagos del Rey, but I visited it nearly twenty years ago when it was the local cooperative cellars of Morales de Toro, a small town outside Toro itself. They made – and continue to make – the splendid Bajoz wines and their cheaper Moralinos de Toro was for a long time the house red of Winetrack, my wine company.

It was an amazing place to visit, slightly grubby and messy in a way that just would not happen today – that old winery is now a wine museum in fact. They shared a forecourt with a café too, but the wines they produced – and continue to produce – were astonishing for the money. They have got even better over the years and deserve to be more popular than they are, as does Toro as a region.

Toro's Roman Bridge from the town.

Toro’s Roman Bridge from the town.

Toro town is a very attractive place on a cliff overlooking the Duero River. The town is dominated by the Collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor and one of the famous features is the Roman Bridge across the river. I was thrilled when I was last there to look out of my hotel window, which was quite high up and to see a stork flying along below me.

This wine is a Crianza, which means it has been aged in oak either a barrel – 225/228 litres or something bigger – for at least 6 months. This wine claims to have been aged in new American and French oak barrels and the garnet colour shows the oak influence, as does the vanilla and spice aroma. The nose is slightly funky too with rich, brambly fruit for sure, but also a wild, earthy, mushroomy character, this is certainly because of brett, which normally I don’t like at all, but in this instance the sweaty, animal character sort of suits it, like it does with Château Musar or a lot of Châteuneuf-du-Pape.
The palate is rich, rounded and even a little creamy, with spices and chocolate as well as, ripe juicy plum, black cherry and blackberry fruit. The tannins are very well managed, being smooth and supple and there’s some freshness too, making the wine very drinkable indeed. What’s more, there is nothing bland about it, it might not be the most complex wine in the world, but it is full of character – 86/100 points – I have awarded it high marks for value.

Available in the UK from Lidl  £5.49 per bottle – possibly the bargain of the year!

With quality like this coming through at such a good price, we are going to have to get used to wines from Lidl being taken a bit more seriously than they were in the past, just like we are with Aldi who also offer some excellent wines at great prices.

So, if Spanish wine to you is only Rioja, then do try this. The country has so much more to offer than most people realise, as the whole country is covered in fascinating wine regions that deserve wider appreciation.

Wine of the Week 21 – blast from my past

Saint-Émilion with vineyards in the background.

Saint-Émilion with vineyards in the background.

Long ago when I was just a boy I was a trainee wine shop manager. Not knowing as much about wine as my miss-spent youth had led me to expect – I well remember asking what claret was! – I set out trying all the wines in the shop that I could afford.

It was 1984 and Bordeaux was big. The 1982 vintage was being talked about with reverence and it had a huge positive effect on the Bordeaux trade. My shop was awash with impressive looking clarets in wooden boxes. Not all of them were silly money either, we had the 1982 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose and 1982 Connétable Talbot for sale at £4.99.

Eager to try this famous vintage I splashed out on a swanky looking bottle of Saint-Émilion Grand Cru called Château du Cauze. It was £3.99 and I was very proud of it. It seemed such a lot of money for a bottle of wine,  my father and brother thought I was mad, although I seem to remember they both helped me drink it! Sadly I did not write tasting notes in those days, merely kept labels, so I do not know what it tasted like, but I do remember that I loved it. It was a life changing moment as I felt that I had tasted good claret. The cases it came in were even those posh wooden ones and I still have a wooden 1982 Château du Cauze box that I use for tools all these years later.

Saint=Émilion really is a beautiful town and well worth visiting.

Saint=Émilion really is a beautiful town and well worth visiting.

As the song says, I have often stopped and thought about Château du Cauze, but have never actually seen it for sale since. Until the other day, when I thought I should really get down to Lidl and check out their much vaunted new range of wines French wines. The range focuses on Bordeaux in some detail, but also includes wines from the Loire, Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, the Rhône, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and the South-West. The idea, it seems, is to wean the wine buying middle classes away from Waitrose and get them coming to Lidl and certainly the range looks interesting and we are promised more to come this month too.

Well, blow me if one of the wines wasn’t Château du Cauze, 2011 this time though, not 1982. ’82 was, of course a great vintage of legendary high quality, whereas 2011 is much more mixed, but I just couldn’t resist buying a bottle just for old times’ sake. What’s more, I liked it so much I made it my Wine of the Week.

Saint-Émilion vineyards.

Saint-Émilion vineyards.

Ch du Cauze2011 Château du Cauze
Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
Bordeaux, France
A proper Château graces the label and it actually looks like that in real life too. It is built on the sight of a medieval bastide that was destroyed during the Hundred Years War – Saint Émilion was right on the border between English Aquitaine and France. Just down the road is Castillon, which makes its Côtes de Castillon wines in a similar style to St-Émilion. The capital is fittingly called Castillon-la-Bataille as it was the site of the last battle of the Hundred Years War. That was in 1453, the English were defeated and their commander, John Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury was killed.
Château du Cauze belongs to the Laporte family who also own another château in Montagne-Saint Émilion. The wine is a blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and around half of it gets aged in barrel for 12 months.
The colour is pretty deep, opaque, ruby with touches of purple and garnet.
There’s lots of fruit on the nose, plums, blackberry and blackcurrant together with a whiff of pencil lead and cedar. There is rich elderflower too, caramel and a touch of dried fruit.
The palate is soft, with supple tannins just adding touch of structure, while a little acidity cleans it up and makes it fresher than the colour suggests. Nice weight of fruit and concentration, fresh acidity and layers of flavour make it seem quite complex for the price.

While I wasn’t as bowled over by it as I seem to remember I was by the 1982, I still think it is a good wine – I am a great deal more experienced and knowledgeable than I was then, so am probably assessing it more accurately. Perfectly nice to drink now, I think this could age nicely for 4 years or so too. I am sure it is plusher and more fruity than the 1982 and at 14.5% it’s certainly more alcoholic, but it carries this very well thanks to the freshness and balance – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Lidl @ £11.99 per bottle.

I was very pleased to discover that this is still a good wine, what’s more it is sensibly and honestly priced. It seems to me that this wine has a lot more to it than all those £12 bottles which are artificially discounted down to £8 or £6. If you fancy a bottle of claret at a good price then this fits the bill perfectly and is lovely with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb.

In praise of sparkling wine

I have been musing quite a bit about Sparkling wine over the festive period which seems so long ago now – where does time go?

I love Champagne, it is one of the greatest wine styles and wine regions in the world, but sadly I cannot often afford to drink it. Nor do I always want it as many other sparkling wines are wonderful wines that give a great deal of pleasure in their own right.

Which brings me on to my theme here – sparkling wine in restaurants. Very few eateries seem to want to sell me a bottle of sparkling wine, while they all want to sell me a bottle of Champagne, but of course never from the affordable end of the spectrum. It’s always big names and famous brands, which is all very nice, but a bit beyond most of us except for a special occasion. But here’s the thing – restauranteurs take note – my finances will not stretch to Champagne at restaurant prices very often, so on the very few occasions that I order Champagne I almost never order another bottle as well. If the restaurant listed a good quality sparkling wine at a fair price though I would almost certainly start with a bottle of that AND have a bottle of wine afterwards – surely I cannot be alone in that?

Few other sparkling wines quite reach that level of finesse or complexity that Champagne can reach. Few have that sensation of tension and utter purity that the chalky soils and cold climate of Champagne can achieve – even some very good value Champagnes, but there are many very good sparkling wines around that deliver all sorts of other pleasures and they deserve a fair hearing and not just to be dismissed as something ‘lesser’. In truth a good sparkling wine is different, not inferior and can make a lovely aperitif or partner the starter, fish dishes or Chinese and Thai food beautifully as well as many other dishes.

In recent months I have tried many excellent sparkling wines and I often wonder why so few of them are available on restaurant wine lists. I have tasted lovely examples from France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, New York, Chile, California, South Africa and Spain amongst many others, here are a few that really stand out, whether for sheer quality, drinkability or value for money, they are all are non vintage unless specified and all made by the traditional – or Champagne – method, so Prosecco will be covered another day:

prod_370121Perle Noire Crémant d’Alsace
Arthur MetzLes Grands Chais de France, Alsace, France

I am always drawn to Crémant d’Alsace, it seems to me that the region makes very good fizz, albeit very different from Champagne. Mostly I favour the ones made from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Chardonnay is allowed too, this super example is made from 100% Auxerrois, which being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir shares the same parents as Chardonnay, but originates in Lorraine and is widely used in Alsace where it is normally blended into wine labelled as Pinot Blanc.
This wine has a lovely apricotty nose with the merest touch of richer raspberry and some brioche notes too. The palate is soft and the mousse slightly creamy and has nice orchard fruit characters. The wine is delicate and delicious and soft, rather than being elegant and poised, but is a very enjoyable bottle of fizz. I wish I could find this in the UK, I would love to buy it and order it in restaurants too – 87/100 points

B052241Benanti Brut Noblesse
Azienda Vinicola Benanti, Etna, Sicily, Italy
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

This pure Chardonnay sparkler is an easy and affordable way to try something from the tiny Jura region of eastern France and it is very good, much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. It is pure Chardonnay and crisp with a lean apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat – 85/100 points
An amazing bargain from Aldi @ £6.99

bw_26661_49bec9c1be734a9e6e6be89610319ec0

Arestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain

I know nothing about this producer at all except that they appear to be a proper Cava House, not just a label and they supply Lidl with their Cava and it seems really very good for anything like the asking price, certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity! It is soft, dry and apply  in flavour with a touch of pear too, but has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made.
Another amazing bargain this time from Lidl @ £4.79

brutMiguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley, Chile
I am always amazed by how little sparkling wine there is in Chile, most of the fizz drunk down there comes from Argentina, but there are a couple of stars, Cono Sur‘s delightful tank method sparkler and this beauty from Miguel Torres. This is a lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

rmc_255x4542011 Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs Brut
Bodegas Codorníu, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain
I have long been a fan of Codorníu, small bottles of their Cava – their Benjamin – were my first drink as a teenager in the discos of Spain. They invented Cava in 1872 and continue to make a wide range of delicious and high quality Cavas, but this is in a different league from most caves available in the UK. Recent vintages of this impressive wine have been pure Pinot Noir and it is that which gives the red fruit richness and depth to the palate, while floral freshness dominates the aromas. 15 months on the lees lend a touch of brioche and creaminess to the wine. If you have only tried cheap Cava in the past you owe it to yourself to give this a go – 91/100 points.
Great value for money from Majestic @ £14.99 – sometimes £9.99 when you buy 2

Sparkling-Pinot-Noir-Chardonnay-nv-150x464Grant Burge Pinot-Noir Chardonnay
Barossa Valley, Australia
I love showing this wine at tastings as it is really very good indeed, full of character and fruit, but also elegant. The fruit comes from vineyards in the cool Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, so there is plenty of fresh acidity, while the ripeness and the 70% of Pinot Noir – there is even a dash of Pinot Meunier – gives it a lovely deep colour with hints of red fruit. Then 30 months or so on the lees gives a richness and biscuity character that is quite delicious. Not a cheap fizz by any means, but fine, tasty, elegant and drinkable too  – 90/100 points.

26548-250x600-bouteille-domaine-vincent-careme-ancestrale-blanc--vouvray2011 Vouvray L’Ancestrale
Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray, Loire Valley
In truth I am not often an admirer of Vouvray’s charms and Chenin is far from a favourite of mine, but this is stunning, which is quite a feat given that Vincent created his domaine from nothing in 1999. He now farms 14 hectares of organically grown Chenin and his wines are always interesting and often delicious, and this might well be my favourite. It is from older vines and the second fermentation takes place without the addition of any sugar or yeast, so takes a long time – 18-24 months apparently, so the flavours build slowly. The palate is rich and appley, even apple pie at times and the finish has a touch of sweetness that blanches the acidity beautifully and adds to the feeling of richness. A real hedonists wine – 91/100 points.

domaine-saint-just-domaine-saint-just-cremant-de-loire-blanc-blanc-2056-994Crémant de Loire Brut
Domaine Saint Just, Saumur, Loire Valley
Wouldn’t you know it, in one breath I tell you how little I like Chenin Blanc and here I am telling you about another superb wine made from it – hey ho that is the beauty of wine I suppose – although in this case 40% Chardonnay adds more elegance I think. This wine is beautiful too, poised, elegant and refined with rich fruit, zesty citrus acidity and some delicately honeyed, biscuity, richness on the long classy finish. If we could prise some of this away from the French and Chinese I think it would prove very popular in the UK – 92/100 points.

IDShot_150x300Tesco Finest Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée 1531
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon
It isn’t always easy to try this wine in the UK, which is a shame as it can be very good indeed. Limoux is in cathar country near Carcassonne and claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne has. This Chardonnay, Chenin and Mauzac – aka Blanquette – blend is pretty classy and elegant with a herbaceous character, from the Mauzac and lovely citrus acidity, apply fruit and yes a bit of toast too. This example is just off-dry – 87/100 points.

0003BB761E64012008 Loridos Bruto
Bacalhoa Vinhos, Portugal
Portugal isn’t often seen as a good fizz producer, but really should be, the few I have tried have been very good indeed. Bacalhoa produce some very good examples at the beautiful Quinta de Loridos near the fabulous town of Obidos near Lisbon. The Chardonnay  Brut is very good too, but my favourite is this Castelão and Arinto blend. Castelao is a red grape, while Arinto is a superb high acid white grape and together they give a lovely taut red apple character and real depth. A very good wine – 90/100 points.

ImageWine.aspx2010 Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay
Villiera, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a wine very dear to my heart, my good friends Dave and Lorna Hughes live right next to the vineyard these Chardonnay grapes come from and I have often enjoyed a few glasses with them while in Stellenbosch. It is very good, very elegant, very refined, delicate, mineral and crisp apple fruit. Again the second fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast or sugar and the wine is aged for  3 years on the lees – 91/100 points.
Superb value for money from Marks & Spencer @ £10.99

In Conclusion
Of course I could carry on, but you get the picture, there are lovely sparkling wines produced everywhere, so don’t get stuck in a rut, it does not have to be Champagne every time – restauranteurs take note, sommeliers please listen – nor does every alternative have to be Prosecco. Be adventurous, find something new and exciting.