Cakebread – a great Napa winery

Wine makers and winery owners are usually engaging and interesting people and I have been fortunate enough to meet quite a few in my career. However one of the most agreeable and charming I have ever met is Bruce Cakebread, President and C.O.O. of Cakebread Cellars – the winery that bears his family name.

I was thrilled to meet him in Napa last year, I have always loved Cakebread wines, so a it was great to put a personality and a face to the wine. Bruce not only runs the family winery, but is also president of the board of directors for the Napa Valley Vintners.

Bruce Cakebread

I have been lucky enough to bump into him a couple of times since then and his wines always impress me with their finesse and elegance, so I thought it was about time that I told you a little about them. Continue reading

Sad news from Napa

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Aldo Biale. In partnership with his son Robert, Dave Pramuk, and winemaker Al Perry he was part owner and guiding force behind the wonderful Robert Biale Vineyards.

I would like to send my best wishes to the family and everyone involved in that great winery.

Aldo & Clementina Biale

I have a huge amount of respect for what Robert Biale Vineyards does and the people who do it. I had a fantastic couple of days there not so long ago and the night I arrived Aldo had just been taken into hospital, but I was able to meet Clementina his wife of over 50 years, who was a gracious and kindly lady.  You can read about my visit here.

http://www.robertbialevineyards.com/

The Napa Valley – a world class wine region

I have long had a fascination for wines from California and as Napa Valley is the most famous wine region in California I was honoured to be invited to attend the Master Napa Valley Course 2009.

This was an intensive course spread over three days visiting wineries and vineyards as well as hearing from wine makers and leading wine industry figures. It was especially interesting as only the week before I had attended something similar in Burgundy and was thus able to compare many aspects of these two seemingly different wine regions. Continue reading

The Araujo Estate – a Napa legend

The Napa Valley showing the Araujo Estate

The Napa Valley showing the Araujo Estate

Ever since working for the late Geoffrey Roberts in the mid 1980’s I have loved good California wines. I have found it irritating, therefore that the types of California wine that most people drink bear no relation to the greatest examples. The trouble is that they are shockingly expensive to most of us and so they get relegated to special occasion wine status, or never get tasted at all and consumers go around thinking that all wine from California is like Blossom Hill. Continue reading

Montefalco – Italy’s Rising Star

The Bocale winery and vineyards, showing the landscape of Montefalco – photo courtesy of Montefalco wine.

I love Italian wine and am fascinated by the enormous potential there is in every corner of that amazing wine producing country. 

Excitingly every now and again a region emerges from relative obscurity to sit alongside the famous classic wine regions such as Barolo and Chianti. We might well be experiencing such a moment right now.

Map of Umbria’s wine areas – click for a larger view.

The landlocked province of Umbria neighbours Tuscany but feels more rural and quiet. Wine has been produced here for centuries with the whites of Orvieto and reds of Torgiano enjoying some success. Neither though have managed to break through into the ranks of the great regions.

Umbria might now have found its true champion though in the tiny wine region of Montefalco. I visited recently and loved what I found. This delightful place is well off the beaten track – my taxi to Montefalco from Rome Airport covered nearly half the distance on unmade roads – and is centred on the pretty hilltop medieval town of Montefalco.

The hilltop town of Montefalco – photo courtesy of Tabarrini.

It’s small, but utterly charming with beautiful narrow streets, fortified town walls and a scattering of wine shops as well as some excellent restaurants. It’s a delightful place to wander around but at its heart is the wine produced in the surrounding countryside.

The delightful main street and gate of Montefalco – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The place enjoys a Mediterranean climate – they grow olives here in abundance – with some aspects of a continental climate, including very cold winters.

Two distinct styles dominate local red wine production, Montefalco Rosso DOC and Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG.

DOC / Denominazione di origine controllata wines come from recognised traditional regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance. DOCG / Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is a step above and the rules are more stringent, with longer ageing and lower yields.

The Montefalco Rosso wines are blends based on 60-80% Sangiovese, the famous grape of Chianti in Tusacny, together with 10-25% of the local Sangrantino grape and often some Barbera and Merlot. 

One of the oldest estates in Montefalco is the wonderfully named Scacciadiavoli – it means to banish devils and celebrates an exorcist who lived nearby. It was founded in 1884 and this is where they created the local Rosso blend of Sangiovese and Sangrantino as an alternative to Chianti.

Montefalco DOC was created in 1979 as a recognition for the improvement in the local wines. Some fine dry whites are made here as well as reds, from blends based on the excellent Trebbiano Spoletino grape – which is a variety on its own and not Trebbiano. There are also some lovely crisp whites made from Grechetto (grek-ketto).

Trebbiano Spoletana vines growing the trees at Tabarrini – photo courtesy of Tabarrini.

I would also add that the nearby Spoleto DOC, which overlaps with Montefalco, produces some truly great white wines made from Trebbiano Spoletino.

Without a shadow of a doubt though the premier wine from this region is the Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG and it is this which is fast becoming one of Italy’s star red wines. Originally it was simply a part of the Montefalco DOC, but was separated out and promoted to DOCG status in 1992. The rules specify that the wine must be aged for a minimum of 37 months, including at least 12 months in barrel and 4 months in bottle.

Historically Sagrantino was considered so harsh and tannic that they either made sweet wines from it or blended it with softer, less tannic varieties. 

Scacciadiavoli made the first dry red wine made from the Sagrantino grape, that we know about anyway. It was in 1924 for a local festival and was only made once, before they reverted to the more normal sweet wines.

The move to dry reds happened slowly from the 1960s onwards. The sweet wines still exist though with many producers making a Passito Sagrantino from grapes that have been dried to concentrate the sugars.

The approach to Arnaldo Caprai – photo by Quentin Sadler.

One of the most famous estates here is Arnaldo Caprai which was a pioneer in adopting modern techniques that lifted the quality of the dry wines. This foresight made the wines more exciting for foreign markets and helped others to see the potential. As a result the few old established estates here seem to have raised their game and to have produced more ambitious and finer wines, while newcomers have flocked to the region to create new vineyards. Today there are over 50 producers of Montefalco Sagrantino.

In some ways the wines appear similar in flavour to Sangiovese, with red berry fruit characters, an earthy quality and plenty of food friendly acidity to give balance. The bigger wines, from riper vintages and the more internationally focussed producers, combine these with deeper black fruit flavours too, while a little bit of age brings out the complexity of dried fruit and leather. The wines always have that tannic structure that is more reminiscent of Barolo than Chianti though.

It seems to me that although it has been a very long time coming, Sagrantino has found its moment. Greater understanding and modern knowhow, including gentle handling, cold fermentation and less new oak seems to have tamed Sagrantino’s tannins, delivering ripe fruit and seductive charms that give the wines much wider appeal than ever before. Yes indeed there are tannins, but they are approachable and enjoyable, giving the wine structure rather than bite.

I have tasted some older vintages that I enjoy, but for me the quality of the wines really took off from the excellent 2011 harvest onwards. Time and again it was the, cool, 2014 vintage and the ripe, generous 2015 and 2016 wines that impressed me the most.

Yes these are bold wines with big flavours, but there is real elegance and finesse here too so they should appeal to lovers of Bordeaux, California and Rioja, as well as Barolo, Brunello and Chianti. The opulence, generous fruit and elegance makes these excellent restaurant wines that partner so much more than just Italian food.

Montefalco Sagrantino truly has become one of Italy’s new star regions.

Some producers worth seeking out:

Marco Caprai, whose vision and drive helped to inspire the region – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Arnaldo Caprai – In many ways the estate that set Montefalco Sagrantino on the path to its current glory. Founded in 1971, Marco Caprai took over the reins from his father Arnaldo in 1988 and immediately started an in-depth analysis of the Sagrantino grape, the clones on the estate and how to grow this tricky variety. The results speak for themselves with the wines achieving a global following and wide acclaim. In many ways these are amongst the most international and opulent – indeed there is a touch of Napa Valley to the winery and tasting room – but the range is impressive and the quality is very high across the board.

Try: Valdimaggio single vineyard Montefalco Sangrantino with its rich, but balanced fruit, spice notes and silky texture.

Arnaldo Caprai wines are distributed and retailed in the UK by Mondial Wine.

Matteo Basili, the winemaker at Beneditti & Grigi – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Beneditti & Grigi – Founded as recently as 2014, this newcomer makes very high quality wines under the guidance of Matteo Basili who is a passionate, honest, openminded and engaging winemaker. He creates two ranges; the easier drinking La Gaita del Falco and the more complex Beneditti & Grigi line.

Try: Adone DOC Montefalco Grechetto white is a stunning take on the Grechetto grape. It is partially barrel fermented and is both delicate and rich with lovely refreshing acidity. 

Their Beneditti & Grigi Montefalco Sangrantino is a great wine with a seductive smoothness that shows how well they tame those infamous tannins.

They also make a Sagrantino that does not adhere to the DOCg rules and so is labelled as IGT Umbria. It only has a little oak and is a fresh, lively and drinkable take on this tannic grape.

Beneditti & Grigi wines are available, until Brexit anyway, from XtraWine, Tannico.co.uk and Uvinum – all of whom ship the wine to you directly and very efficiently – ah the joys of being in TheSingle Market.

Liù Pambuffetti, winemaker and custodian of Scacciadiavoli’s history – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Scaccadiavoli – The original innovator in Montefalco, this beautiful estate was founded in 1884 and created the recipe for what is now Montefalco Rosso. Amilcare Pambuffetti worked here as a young vineyard worker and was eventually able to buy the property in 1954 when he was 71. Today the fourth generation of his family farm 40 hectares of vines.

Try: Their elegant Montefalco Sangrantino has a traditional, savoury character while they also make a fine traditional method sparkling rosé from 100% Sagrantino.

Some Scaccadiavoli wines are imported into the UK by The Wine Society.

Giampaolo Tabarrini, the force of nature behind Tabarrini’s success – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Tabarrini – Giampaolo Tabarrini, whose family have farmed here since the 1840s, is a true force of nature. He took his family winery that made local wine for everyday consumption and since 1996 has transformed it into one of the leading estates of this up and coming region. He is effortlessly charming, hugely entertaining and well worth listening to – which is good as he seldom keeps quiet, or stands still for that matter. The farming is entirely organic and the focus is firmly on their 18 hectares of vineyard.

Try: Adarmando Trebbiano Spoletana is made from hundred year old vines that are trained high up in trees, like wild vines, and is one of the very best white wines here. Giampaolo’s three single vineyard, or Cru, Montefalco Sagrantinos are exquisite with concentrated fruit, refined tannins and integrated oak.

Tabarrini wines are distributed in the UK by Raeburn Fine Wines and are available from the excellent Uncorked and the equally first rate The Good Wine Shop.

Valentino Valentini, the passionate and precise winemaker of Boale and Montefalco’s youngest ever mayor – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Bocale – The Valentini family have farmed in Montefalco for generations but only created their own estate in 2002. Now run by Valentino Valentini, Montefalco’s youngest ever Mayor, the emphasis is very much on quality. He makes true artisan wines that echo his passionate, yet precise character. The estate covers 9 hectares, farming is organic and all the fermentations are spontaneous. From 2009 they have picked later, for optimum ripeness, and aged the wines in large French oak casks to soften those tannins.

Try: Their Montefalco Sangrantino is concentrated, spicy and herbal with nicely judged tannins that are firm but far from hard going.

Bocale wines are distributed in the UK by Dolce Vita Wines and are available from Hedonism.

Filippo Antonelli, the charming and amusing owner of Antonelli with his amphorae – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Antonelli – Filippo Antonelli is a fascinating and amusing host whose family has owned this estate since 1881. He himself has been in charge here since 1986 and seems justly proud of his wines and heritage. The vineyards cover 40 hectares and have been certified organic since 2012. Like many estates they also produce an amazing olive oil, as well as some wonderful salamis. 

Try: The magnificent amphora fermented and aged Anteprima Tonda Trebbiano Spoletana is one of my favourite white wines of the year. The single vineyard Chiusa di Pannone Montefalco Sagrantino is amongst the very best examples, while his Contrario Sangrantino is a juicy modern, unoaked take on the grape.

Antonelli wines are distributed in the UK by Laytons and Jeroboams and are also available through Tannico.co.uk.

Albertino Pardi, winemaker at Cantina Fratelli Pardi – photo courtesy of Pardi.

Cantina Fratelli Pardi – An 11 hectare family run estate that dates back to 1919, but produces a range of exuberant and bright wines that are modern in every way and yet true to themselves. Sadly I did not get to visit this winery, but I did taste their wines several times and seriously impressed by the quality and the sheer drinkability.

Try: Their Trebbiano Spoletana, with its fresh acidity, touch of texture and tropical fruit, is an excellent introduction to this exciting style, while their Montefalco Sangrantino is complex and incredibly drinkable with its rich, concentrated fruit and supple mouthfeel.

Pardi wines are imported into the UK by Aleksic & Mortimer Winehouse and are available through Tannico.co.uk.

Hawke’s Bay – New Zealand’s Diverse Region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimblett Gravels soils – photo by Quentin Sadler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Te Mata Winery – photo by Quentin Sadler

Te Mata:

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

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

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

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

Trinity Hill:

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

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

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

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

Vidal Estate: 

Vidal Estate Winery – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

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

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

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

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

Craggy Range: 

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

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

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

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

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

Elephant Hill:

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

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

Andreas Weiss of Elephant Hill – photo by Quentin Sadler.

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

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

Esk Valley:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alpha–Domus:

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

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

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

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

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

Villa Maria:

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

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

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

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

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

Wine of the Week – a 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.

Ribera del Duero – a great wine region

As many of you will know, I have a deep love and passion for the wines of Spain. Taken as a whole I think Spain is one of the most exciting wine producing countries in the world. Of course the most famous region – other than Sherry – is Rioja. I like Rioja, I admire Rioja. It is a wonderful region, a lovely place and it produces many fabulous wines, I have written about it often. However, there is much more to Spain than just Rioja and it pains me greatly that so relatively few wines from other regions of Spain are widely available to UK consumers.

Although I will carry on writing about anything and everything that I find interesting in the world of wine, I thought that every now and again I would share some thoughts about Spain’s wine regions with you. Recently I have been tasting quite a few wines from Ribera del Duero, which have reminded me just how good a region it is, so I decided to start there.

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

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

As you can see from my map, Ribera del Duero is in Castilla y León, or Old Spain. In many ways this region to the north west of Madrid is the original heart of Spain, the original home of those that ‘reconquered’ the peninsula from the Moors. Of course it is also home to the language that we usually call Spanish, but is more properly called Castellano or Castilian.

The Duero River – it becomes the Douro in Portugal – cuts through the region and gives the place its name, bank of the Duero.

For centuries this was border country and was defended by castles which are a common sight to this day and explains why it is called the land of castles – Castilla. There are records from about 800 of the Moors calling it Al-Qila, or ‘the castled’ high plains.

As far as wine is concerned, for millennia there must have been wine made here, as there was all over the peninsula, but it must have been fairly rudimentary and just for drinking rather than thinking about.

It was not until Don Eloy Lecanda y Chave returned to his native Castilla y León from Bordeaux, where he had been trained as winemaker. His family owned an estate near Valbuena de Duero, about as far west as you can go on my map and still be in Ribera del Duero, and he returned brimming with ideas of how to transform the wines. He brought French grape varieties, oak barrels and modern French know how and set about creating wines on the Médoc model. He called his wine Vega Sicilia and it remains one of the finest, most expensive and sought after of all Spanish wines. Rioja was being developed in a similar way at the same time and this article about the history of Rioja might help.

For decades Vega Sicilia was all on its own as the sole fine wine of the region and it was not until the twentieth century that others saw the potential for quality wine here. Firstly the Protos cooperative in Penafiel was created in 1927, but it was not really until the 1980s that the Ribera del Duero revolution took place, with new vineyards being planted and wineries built.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

What happened was that modern knowhow had allowed these new pioneers – chef amongst them Alejandro Fernandez of Pesquera – to craft wines that were quite different from Vega Sicilia. More modern, with less oak ageing, more ripe fruit characters and more focus on the the local grape instead of the French varieties.

That grape is a clone of Tempranillo – the grape that made Rioja famous – but in Ribera del Duero it is traditionally called either Tinto del Pais (country red) or more fancifully Tinto Fino.

The wines – and the Denominación de Origen (D.O.) /Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O.) only allows reds and rosés – have to contain at least 75% Tinto Fino with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Garnacha or even the excellent local white Albillo grape.

The climate is one of extremes, with hot, short, summers and pretty hard winters. Basically the place is a high plain and the vineyards sit at around 750 to 800 metres above sea level. The cooling benefits of this altitude are very useful with summer temperatures often reaching over 40˚C. Then there are really big night time drops in temperature, often as much as 20˚C. This Diurnal Temperature Variation allows the vine to rest overnight and preserves acidity and freshness in the grapes, which can make the finished wine more elegant and fine. It also slows down the ripening process, so you have a better chance of producing balanced ripe grapes, rather than overly ripe, alcoholic, raisin-like grapes.

Historically these cool conditions made ripening the grapes very hard indeed and would have produced pretty thin wines. So in the main it had to wait for modern viticulture and winemaking knowledge and techniques for the region to reliably produce wines that could take their place on the world market.

Vega Sicilia is a style and type of wine on its own and has very little in common with most of the red wines of the region – much like Château Musar being quite different from the rest of the wines of Lebanon.

What I like about the region’s wines is how unlike Rioja they are. They may technically be made from Tempranillo, but they never have that dry, savoury tinge that is the hallmark of Rioja to me. No, a good, Ribera del Duero should display concentrated, dark fruits. They should be vivid and rich, with sometimes an almost new world softness to them. However, running through them there should be a backbone of acidity – but not to Sangiovese or Nebbiolo levels – that makes them excellent with the rich, fatty meat dishes that are normal in these parts.

There are a great many wines from Ribera del Duero available. Some are great, many are good and a few even disappoint, but I think there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from this exciting region’s wines.

Technically they use the same labelling system as Rioja; Reservas are aged for at least 12 months in barrel, Gran Reservas are aged for at leat 12 months in oak barrels and a further 2 years in bottle, while wines that do not mention either of those terms are considered to be joven / young wines and would have either no oak ageing, or less that a year.

Here are a few of my favourites from the region, so are very affordable, while others are more expensive, but I think they all offer value for money.

fincaresalso2015 Finca Resalso
Bodegas Emilio Moro
This is the entry level wine from Bodegas Emilio Moro which is one of the very best producers in the region and I think the pedigree really shows. It is relatively light and fresh, but the fruit is nice and ripe, the tannins are smooth and there is a little vanilla and spice from 4 months in oak. 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10 a bottle from:
Majestic – £8.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

legaris-roble-8695482014 Legaris Roble
Bodegas Legaris
I really like this estate, they make deliciously drinkable, velvety smooth wines that are always enjoyable. This is the baby of the range, but no less enjoyable for that. This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged in American oak barrels for 3 months and has big, soft ripe fruit, some spice and smooth tannins. 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from:
Hennings Wine & Ocado.

b_alta_db_ecologico2015 Dominio Basconcillos Ecológico 6 Meses en Barrica
Dominio Basconcillos
I only discovered this producer recently, but was really impressed with this, their entry level wine. Aged for 6 months in new French oak, this vividly deep purple wine is big, chunky and richly fruity and has silky tannins. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from £12 a bottle from:
Vinceremos, Vintage RootsOrganic Wine Club & Abel & Cole.

valdubon-roble_hi2014 Valdubón Roblé
Bodegas Valdubón
The Valdubon Estate really do make some lovely, polished wines and this is a deliciously straightforward example with loads of fruit, smooth tannins, creamy ripeness and a light lick of rather nice mocha tinged oak – it is aged for 4 months and Roblé, meaning oak, is an unofficial category that is used to make it clear that it has some oak ageing. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 a bottle from:
Marks & Spencer & Ocado

pago_de_los_capellanes_roble2015 Pago de los Capellanes Roble
Pago de los Capellanes
One of my favourite producers, this artisan estate (Pago means estate) never fails to excite me. This Roble wine spends 5 months in French oak and is juicy and sumptuous, yet smooth. The tannins are nicely integrated as is the oak. The fruit is rich and concentrated, but a little glimmer of red fruit makes the wine fresh and elegant. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

crianza2014 Emilio Moro
Bodegas Emilio Moro
Yes, I could not resist another wine from this great producer – they have many more too, but you get the picture. This full bodied red spends a year in French and American oak and you have the coconut and the spices to show for it. It is plush and rich with deep black cherry fruit, chewy tannins and some mocha and dark chocolate too. 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for £16.99 a bottle from:
Majestic – £14.99 as part of mixed half dozen.

sainsburys-condado-de-haza-ribera-del-duero2014 Condado De Haza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
This second label from the great Pesquera estate is 100% Tinto Fino aged for 18 months in American oak and it is always something of a blockbuster, full-bodied with big, bold fruit and something of a Napa Valley style. There is some freshness though and and elegance too. 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £15.00 a bottle from:
Sainsbury’s.

tinto-pesquera-crianza-20132012 Pesquera Crianza
Bodegas Alejandro Fernández
Further up the range from Pesquera, you really begin to see why wines from this estate put the region on the map in the 1980s and were frequently compared to the wines Pomerol by wine critics of the time. I still think it is more Pomerol meets Napa, but either way this is a plush, concentrated, hedonistic wine, full of deep ripe, almost creamy fruit, smooth tannins and seductive milk chocolate. 18 months in oak has given it some vanilla, cedar and mocha notes. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £21 a bottle from:
Roberson Wine & Tanners.

pago-de-los-capellanes2014 Pago de los Capellanes Crianza
Pago de los Capellanes

This 100% Tinto Fino wine is aged for 18 months in French oak and is even more opulent, concentrated and delicious than the Roble. It’s a little young, but nothing decanting a few hours in advance won’t solve – or you could age it for a few years. 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £22 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

v_0392572011 Pago de los Carraovejas Reserva
Pago de los Carraovejas

Another producer that I really admire. This is Tinto Fino aged for 12 months in French oak and blended with little dollops of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The extra maturity shows in the nose as it offers rich fruit together with smoky and balsamic notes. The palate is still very lively and has lots of dark fruit together with something nutty and seductively savoury. 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30 a bottle from:
De Vinos.

pago-de-los-capellanes2013 Pago de los Capellanes Reserva
Pago de los Capellanes

Good though their Roble and Crianza wines are, this Reserva is on a different level of richness and concentration, but elegance too. It is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrels and that riches shows with cedar, spice and mocha, while the fruit is dense and plush. The tannins still offer a little bite, but nothing too astringent.  93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £38 a bottle from:
Great Western Wine.

vega-sicilia-valbuena-5-2009-es-bl-0199-09a2011 Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5˚
Bodegas Vega Sicilia

This is often described as the ‘second wine’ of Vega Sicilia – the ‘grand vin’ is called Unico – but I think it is really just a different wine. For a start it is 100% Tinto Fino, whereas Unico is a blend, and secondly it is only aged in oak for 3 years – and then a further 2 in bottle before being released in its 5th year – hence 5˚. This is a brilliant wine from a fabulous vintage, it is complex, fine and perfumed too. There is a lot going on and the tannins are just beginning to be silky, serve it with lamb. 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £84 a bottle from:
The Wine Society.

As you can see, there are is a great variation in price, but all these wines are very good examples at their different levels. I am absolutely certain that any serious red wine drinker would enjoy these wines, indeed I could have included a few more, but I had to stop somewhere! So the next time you are choosing a red to go with that special dinner, give one of these a go.I am sure it will be just the thing.

Wine of the Week 48 – it’s all change in Bulgaria

Back in my early days in wine, 30 odd years ago now, a big chunk of the cheaper wines available here in the UK were from Bulgaria. Every retailer stocked a decent range of wines from this, then, Communist Block country, as no one at the time could touch them for quality, low prices and value for money. Some of the wines were merely acceptable and cheap, while others were really very good indeed – I have very fond memories of the excellent 1978 Sakar Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – Sakar is an appellation or PDO in the Thracian Valley in Bulagaria’s south east.

UK consumers seemed to love the wines and/or the value they represented and so we soaked up all the Bulgarian wine we could get.

After the fall of Communism though it all changed. The Bulgarian industry had lost its traditional big market, the Soviet Union, and the upshot was that the big nationalised wineries were privatised, the vineyards fell into decline – many were abandoned – and a downward spiral set in. Certainly Bulgarian wine totally disappeared from the UK market, so much so that most of my students have no idea that the country makes wine at all.

Bulgaria has a lot going for it wine-wise, a long history of winemaking, a (mainly) Mediterranean climate and a burgeoning tourist industry on its Black Sea coast and as a skiing destination in the mountains. So it makes perfect sense that Bulgarian wine is beginning to reemerge onto the market. Gone are the days of the huge cooperative cellars – most of them anyway – and the days when all that mattered was earning hard currency, so the wines were sold at low prices. Now it is the turn of the passionate boutique producer and I have to say that what I have tasted is very promising indeed.

The most exciting that I have tried was a Chardonnay from a promising, small boutique producer called the Rossidi Winery, which has their own vineyard in the Thracian village of Nikolaevo some 30 miles west of Sliven click here for a map of Bulgaria. I thought it was excellent and that it deserves a wider audience, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Stephen Spurrier tasting Rossidi wines at Vagabond in Fulham, London.

Steven Spurrier tasting Rossidi wines at Vagabond Wines in Fulham, London. The Chardonnay is on the left, while their Gewürztraminer is in front of him.

Chardonnay-132012 Rossidi Egg Fermented Chardonnay
Nikolaevo Vineyard, PGI Thracian Valley
Rossidi Winery
Sliven, Bulgaria
Most of the wine is fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and concrete eggs – hence the name. 5% is fermented in old, large (400 litre) French oak barrels. Egg shaped fermenters are relatively new – the first one was made in 2001 – and very exciting. The shape means there are no dead corners where wines get trapped, instead the wine can flow around the curved walls of the vat, which means that everything is more uniform. It also helps with the lees stirring and can make the wine seem rounder and more textured, but without the oak characters we usually associate with such a wine.

The wine was a deep buttery golden colour, while the nose offers cream, butter and cardamom, hazelnuts and a light dash of caramel.
The palate is ripe, rich, round and creamy with succulent peachy fruit together with some lemon curd, glacé pineapple and enough acidity keeps it focussed and fresh. A generous, delicious and moreish style that goes perfectly with creamy risotto, rich fish dishes, including fish pie, and garlicky chicken – 88/100 points.

The first concrete egg I ever saw, at Domaine Carneros in the Napa Valley.

The first concrete egg I ever saw, at Domaine Carneros in the Napa Valley.

I also greatly enjoyed the rather rich and deliciously fruity Rossidi Pinot Noir.

Available in the UK for £12.99 a bottle from Zelas.

On the subject of Bulgarian wine, I recently also tasted the excellent 2011 Berulé Mavrud from the Villa Melnik winery, that is a lovely wine too and if it was available in the UK would also be a Wine of the Week.

So, if you remember Bulgarian wines from the past and want to see what they are like now, or just want to taste something new and exciting, then give this a go. It is very good quality indeed and shows that Bulgaria is really on the up.

 

 

 

 

Wine of the Week 46 – it’s Zinfandel, but not as most people imagine it

Zinfandel is a wonderful grape variety, that is pretty hard to pin down – in many different ways. What it actually is and where it comes from has taken a very long time to get straight. The grape is often regarded as America’s own grape, but if any vine can make that claim it is actually the wayward Norton. Of course Zinfandel made its reputation in California, but it was a long time coming. For much of its time there Zinfandel has been regarded as a very inferior grape indeed and it has only been in the last 20 years or so that it has received the attention that it deserves.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

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.

Plavac Mali vines in the amazing Dingac vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula.

Plavac Mali vines in the amazing Dingac vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula near Dubrovnik in Croatia.

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.

Ok, so the roots of Zinfandel are sorted, but then we have the the worry as to exactly what sort of wine Zinfandel makes. Many UK consumers assume that Zinfandel primarily makes sweetish rosé, white Zinfandel, but most of the books and wine courses tell us that it makes high alcohol (15% and more), rich, dry, spicy red wines with rich dried fruit – prune and raisin – characters. That can certainly be true of the old vine Zinfandels that are produced in the hot Central Valley areas of Amador and Lodi, but there is another, totally different style of Zinfandel in California too.

This style comes from cooler production areas nearer the coast and is more elegant – by which I mean less powerful, less of a blunt instrument, instead it has delicate fruit characters, normally red – raspberry in fact – together with some freshness too. I recently tasted a delicious example, that is very good value for money, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

California map QS 2015 watermarked

The wine regions of Sonoma - click map for a larger view.

The wine regions of Sonoma – click map for a larger view.

 

Zin2013 De Loach Heritage Reserve Zinfandel
De Loach Vineyards,
Russian River Valley, Sonoma
California
100% Zinfandel aged for a few months in American and Hungarian oak barrels. The grapes mainly come from De Loach’s own organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards, with some fruit from other, warmer areas of California. Sonoma’s Russian River Valley has a long slow even growing season that seems to coax real elegance out of Zinfandel, making the wines quite different from the usual take on the grape. The alcohol is a modest 13.5%.

The colour is a lovely deep, but bright ruby red, while the nose is scented and lifted, offering rich, intense raspberry together with black pepper, smoke and vanilla. The palate is medium-bodied, but is richly textured with rounded ripe fruit filling the mouth with flavour. Those flavours are raspberry and cracked pepper spice together with some cherry and blackberry too. While this is not the most complex Zinfandel in the world, the tannins are soft and velvety and while the fruit dominates from start to finish, making the wine juicy and soft, there is a lovely seam of freshness in the wine, that makes it deliciously drinkable too – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from Eclectic Tastes and Exel Wines, further stockist information is available from the UK distributor, Liberty Wines.
US stockist information is available here.

If your experience of Zinfandel makes you think they are all huge monsters with high alcohol, this gives a totally different take on the grape and is superb value for money too. A very food friendly wine, this is perfect with almost anything, from burgers, pastas and pizzas, to Sunday roasts and finer fare.