I cannot claim to have a favourite grape, let alone one that I drink to the exclusion of all others. I find the less trodden wine paths to be so fascinating that I simply cannot resist lesser known grapes – Carmenère, Zweigelt, St Laurent, Grenache Gris, Nascetta, Romorantin and the like all speak to me and demand their attention. I am never professionally happier or more excited than when experiencing a new grape variety for the first time.
A fine Riesling would probably be my desert island wine of choice as I never seem to tire of that beguiling grape, but for the rest I enjoy a wide spectrum of grapes with very different characters. Regular readers will know though that my passion for all things Spanish often breaks through and trumps my affection for wines from other places, so I think that if push comes to shove Tempranillo might well be my favoured red wine grape – unless I happen to be in a particular Cabernet, Pinot or Syrah sort of mood.
Very different conditions for old vine Tempranillo / Tinto del País in Castilla y León
And why am I so fond of Tempranillo? Well I cannot give you a neat answer to that really, but it speaks to me. Unlike the classic French grapes, which are only grown in specific areas of the country, Tempranillo is used all over Spain and so produces a wide range of wine styles and yet they often seem to be attractive wines to me – the well made examples anyway. Even at quite low price points Tempranillo can be enjoyable to drink.
Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero
As someone who celebrates diversity in wine it pains me that the differences are being ironed out. Many marketeers seem to believe that wine should be simplified for the UK consumer, even if they have to stretch the truth to do so. Nowadays you are more likely to find Tempranillo on a Spanish wine label from whatever region it hails when to my mind they should have used the old local name: Cencibel in Valdepeñas, Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Tinto del País in Cigales, Tinta de Toro in Toro and the poetic Ull De Llebre in Cataluña. What’s more many people believe these grapes have evolved apart and so are now only very closely related rather than being absolutely identical to Tempranillo – not least the great Carlos Falco, Marqués de Griñon.
It is Tempranillo’s fame as the main grape of Rioja that brings it to most people’s attention, but given Rioja’s popularity it always amazes me how few people grow Tempranillo outside Spain. It has become a dominant grape in Portugal – where it is called Tinto Roriz and Aragonez depending on where you are. There is even some grown in the south of France and I have tasted some from Virginia and Texas and even had one from Peru the other day, but Tempranillo has not yet become a true international grape. The plantings outside Europe remain small and relatively inconsequential, except in Argentina, but even there it is treated as an everyday grape rather than being given the star treatment it deserves. Surely Tempranillo is capable of challenging for Malbec‘s Argentinean throne?
Perhaps it is this very diversity that I like about Tempranillo? That sense of never knowing quite what you are going to get. As with Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans there is no one flavour to Tempranillo. Some people taste black fruit and some red, some regions produce dry savoury wines from it while other areas make richly fruity examples. Some wine makers craft bright, modern Tempranillos that celebrate fruit and liveliness, while many winemakers stick to the traditional silky, oaky style that made the grape famous in the first place.
Although most famous as the principal grape of red Rioja, Tempranillo – and its near relatives – is also responsible for an array of lovely wines from across Spain and in my opinion it deserves to be as celebrated as much more famous and widely used grape varieties. Which is why I made sure that I tasted some on 8th November which just happened to be International Tempranillo Day:
Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement
2011 Beronia Tempranillo Rosado Bodegas Beronia, Ollauri, Rioja Alta, D.O.Ca Rioja
The colour is a vivid strawberry juice hue, but it looks like real fruit rather than a confection. The nose is fresh, floral and gently fruity while the palate is dry, rich-ish, crisp-ish, nicely balanced and very nice to drink with almost anything. It won’t win any prizes for complexity, but will make lots of people happy. Spain makes very good rosé, but why isn’t Tempranillo used for more of them? Personally I think it is much more suitable than the more normal Garnacha – 86/100 points
2010 Beronia Tempranillo Elaboración Especial Bodegas Beronia, Ollauri, Rioja Alta, D.O.Ca Rioja
100% Tempranillo (in Rioja it is traditionally blended with Garnacha and others to make the wines fruitier) aged 8 months in new American Oak barrels.
Deep opaque plummy-black colour.
The nose is fragrant and enticing with spice, vanilla and a touch of mocha.
Pretty full-bodied for Rioja (which despite its reputation is rarely more than medium-bodied) with rich sweet black plummy fruit, fragrant vanilla and dried fruit notes too. The palate is round, rich and succulent with rich cherry on the the end of the mid palate together with a touch of fruit cake and a light dusting of cocoa and coffee and a lovely sinewy texture of gentle tannins and oak. This is a terrific wine to drink and enjoy without thinking about too much. The soft, fruity and modern side of Tempranillo and Rioja it scores high for pleasure and sheer drinkability – 88/100 points
2008 Matarromera Crianza Bodega Matarromera, Valbuena de Duero, D.O. Ribera del Duero
100% Tinto Fino / Tempranillo aged 12 months in mixture of French & American Oak barrels. Matarromera were only founded in 1988, but they are in the heartland of Ribera del Duero and are right up there in quality with some of the much more famous producers of this great wine region which needs to be better known in the UK.
Intense aromas of plum, cocoa together with smoky, cedary spices.
The palate was sumptuous, soft and succulent at first with rich plum fruit and other mixed dark fresh and stewed fruit with fig and black cherry. The oak is very tasty indeed, coconut, vanilla, cocoa and coffee with some spice too. the tannins give a lovely fine grain texture which is so wrapped up in ripe fruit that’s there is no astringency. This is a big, but still medium bodied and dry wine and although the fruit is ripe it is not sweet at all. A beautifully balanced and concentrated wine that is hugely enjoyable and quite delicious. Not yet as complex as it will become – it needs time to develop, but it is really delicious and extremely pleasurable already and has much to offer for a long time to come – 91/100 points
2010 Finca Constancia Tempranillo Parcela 23 Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, Otero, Toledo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla
Special single parcel bottling of 100% Tempranillo aged 6 months in mixture of new French & American Oak barrels. Better known for Sherry, in 2006 Gonzalez Byass created this stunning modern estate in a part of Spain that seems at first glance to be a backwater for wine. However it is in the Sierra de Gredos, renowned for old vine Garnacha and the area is also home to Carlos Falco’s great Dominio de Valdepusa which produces some of Spain’s greatest wines in this seemingly unlikely place.
This will also make many friends as it is a very user friendly, winter warmer kind of wine. The nose really shows that new oak, smoky, toasty and very vanilla and coconut like those marshmallow sweets rolled in coconut! There was rich, stewed blackberry and plum fruit too as well as a dash of spice. The palate was at the top end of medium bodied with ripe plums, sweeter strawberry fruit, rich cherry and a touch herbs as you get in Chianti and all along this sweet vanilla, smooth, leathery oak giving a touch of toffee too. This is one to drink relatively soon and it is a bargain, so gets high marks from me for value – 88/100 points
There is no doubt that the Ribera del Duero was the finest of these, so do try it if you can, but all the wines showed well and reminded me how fond I am of wines made from Tempranillo and its relatives and the good news is we can drink them whenever we like, not just on International Tempranillo Day.
Vineyards in the Bekaa Valley – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.
Lebanon caught my imagination as a wine country a long time ago. We tend to think of it as a new wine producer, but the Phoenicians – the ancient people of Lebanon – were among the world’s first maritime traders and exported wines from Tyre and Sidon all over the Mediterranean world and so helped to spread wine and viticulture to western Europe.
Château Musar is of course world famous and it’s wines widely available, so you could be forgiven for thinking that it is the only Lebanese wine producer. That is not the case though and Musar isn’t even the oldest wine estate in Lebanon either. However good Musar’s wines are – and they are – there is a lot more on offer from this fascinating country
The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut.
I know that technically Lebanon is in Asia, but when you are there it doesn’t feel so very different from the European countries of the southern Mediterranean. In fact apart from the Arabic script on the signs, Lebanon often reminded me of Spain, Greece or Sicily. Beirut and the other towns I saw seemed chaotic and boisterous in much the same way as Seville or Catania. The landscape too was very similar to these places and of course the food has a lot in common with Greek cuisine and I even noticed some similarities to Sicilian cooking as well.
The main road through Chatura in the Bekaa Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.
I suspect this European feel is partly because Lebanon has a mixed population of Muslims and Christians and enjoys a complex system of power sharing to ensure that no single part of the community dominates the other. As a consequence the place seems very free and easy to the casual observer with alcohol being readily available. Lively restaurants and street life with attractive bars are everywhere. In order to preserve this balance no official census has been taken since 1932, in case they discover there is a higher proportion of Muslims or Christians than they had thought.
I found it very interesting that despite France only governing the country for a little over 20 years, 1920 – 1943, French is widely spoken and the French influence lives on in almost every aspect of life. One of the most obvious examples is the wine names. All the wine producers are Domaine this or Château that and the wine styles often have a very French feel to them too.
Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, so the country has enjoyed almost 30 years of relative stability punctuated by sporadic turmoil caused by their neighbours. I was told many times that Lebanon is fortunate in everything, except its neighbours. As Lebanon borders Syria and Israel, you can see their point.
Map of Lebanon showing the wine regions and the major wineries. Click for a magnified view.
This stability has been enough for wine making to really start to flourish and for the longer established producers to consolidate the markets for their wines. If Lebanese wines were a novelty thirty years ago, they are much more normal today. Indeed the number of wineries has grown from just five in 1990 to over 50 today.
The oldest wine producer in the country is Château Ksara which was founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks who quickly recognised that the Bekaa Valley was a suitable place to grow grapes and brought in a trained viticulturist monk to create and tend their vineyards. His plantings of Cinsault, together with those at the nearby Domaine des Tourelles in 1868, started the Lebanese wine revival which is still with us to this day.
Everything changed in Lebanon after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and Lebanon was awarded to the French as a League of Nations Mandate. French soldiers and administrators came to the country and brought their thirst with them. The country’s two wine producers just weren’t enough to cope with demand and so other wineries – together with breweries and distilleries – were created throughout the 1920s and thirties.
Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley.
All the early vineyards were planted in the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country and although there are now some other regions, it remains the major centre of production. This was partly because it was already established as the principal agricultural area of Lebanon and also because it’s so suitable. It is an exciting place to visit. The road winds steeply upwards out of Beirut and you quickly realise just how mountainous Lebanon is. The whole country is pretty small and within 20 kilometres you are already approaching 1000 metres above sea level. It is that height which makes fine winemaking possible as the air gets cooler the higher you go. There is of course plenty of sun and heat – Beirut lies at 34˚ north, as do Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in California and Rabat in Morocco – so grapes can ripen no problem, in fact you can sometimes detect an over-ripe, raisiny character in the more rustic wines. The Bekaa Valley has no coastal influence to temper the heat and give elegance, as it sits between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, instead it has altitude.
The Bekaa Valley is very fertile and every where you look you can see produce being grown – wine of course suits the rockier, less vigorous and better drained soils. The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with cold winters and hot dry summers. That heat is tempered by cool breezes because of the valley’s altitude and big temperature drops between day and night, often around 20 degrees, also help to retain freshness and elegance in the wines.
In recent years some new wine regions have begun producing wines and most of these are even higher than the Bekaa Valley.
Lebanon’s French influence is very apparent in the varieties they grow. Grapes from the French Mediterranean dominate the country’s vineyards, with most traditional reds being blends that include Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Grenache, together with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and increasingly some Syrah too. In recent years Tempranillo has become a popular grape as well, but almost always in blends.
The white wines, sadly overlooked, but very impressive, are often blends including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Clairette and Viognier, but I also came across some astonishingly good wines made from Obeidi and Merwah. These are indigenous white grapes that were traditionally used for Arak in the past.
Quite a few Lebanese wineries now export their wines to the UK. Here is a selection that are worth seeking out:
An aerial view of Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.
Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, this is the oldest and biggest winery in the country. In 1898 they discovered a two kilometre Roman cave system beneath the winery that ever since has been used as the estate’s cellar. It remains at a constant 11˚C and houses thousands of bottles, many going back to the nineteenth century.
The ancient cave system below Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.
Ksara makes a wide range including a fine Chardonnay, two white blends, Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay, Sauvignon & Sémillon) and Blanc de L’Observatotre (Obadei, Sauvignon, Muscat & Clairette). My favourite though is their new pure Merwah made from 80 year old, dry farmed Merwah vines. It’s a lovely herbal dry white with a rich, pithy citrus zestiness.
Wine maturing in barrels in the ancient cave system below Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.
The heart of their range though is their red wines. They have two everyday drinking reds, Le Prieuré– a fresh, juicy and lightly spicy Mediterranean style blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre – and Réserve du Couvent, a soft, brambley and bright blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with ripe, supple tannins and generous fruit.
Their most famous wine is Château Ksara itself, which is a complex and cedary, Médoc inspired blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, barrel aged for 12 months. The wine has supple tannins and that classic dry, but ripe fruit and leafy character that will delight claret lovers. The wine ages very well and mature vintages are available.
Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten.
A panoramic view of the beautiful vineyards at Château Kefraya – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.
Kefraya has been owned by the de Bustros family for generations, but the vineyard was not planted until 1946. At first they sold their grapes to other Bekaa Valley producers before eventually releasing their first vintage in 1979.
The 430 hectares of vines are interspersed with rocky outcrops that contain an ancient cave system that was used for tombs in biblical times. Outside the tombs seats were carved into the rock to allow mourners to sit and weep in comfort. They still turn up Roman finds while tending the fields and have a small museum of coins and artefacts in the Château. The current wine maker, Fabrice Guiberteau, is one of the most engaging and inspiring I have ever met and he’s brimming over with energy and enthusiasm for this place and the wines he makes here.
Fabrice sitting on the mourner’s seat carved into the rock of the ancient tomb.
Château Kefraya Blanc de Blancs is a beautifully textured and deliciously creamy dry white with good acidity. It’s made from an unlikely blend of Viognier, Clairette, Muscat, Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdejo.
Château Kafraya Rouge is an oak aged blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. It’s a lovely wine with spice notes as well as rich black fruit and some earthiness too. The drying tannins give some nice structure to the sweet, ripe fruit.
The ‘flagship’ wine here is Comte de M, an intense, concentrated and fine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah that spend 18 months in new French oak barrels.
The traditional Lebanese Amphorae used to mature some wines at Château Kefraya – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.
In recent years Fabrice has turned his attention to using clay amphorae for maturing wines. Such vessels have long been used in Lebanon for ageing Arak and the project has resulted in two top cuvées that aim to capture the terroir of the country. The red, simply called Chateau Kefraya Amphora is an aromatic and floral blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Tempranillo. Lots of red fruit, herbs and spice vie with each other round the palate, while there is a lively freshness, enticing minerality and suave tannins.
The white partner, Chateau Kefraya Adéenne (French for DNA), is an extraordinary blend of Merwah, Obeidi and Mekssessé, Lebanon’s indigenous white grapes. Fermented and aged in three year old barrels, the wine is intensely herbal and mineral, with soft stone fruit and rich, pithy bergamot citrus. The palate is salty, nutty, delicately creamy and silky by turn and is deliciously savoury and complex.
Domaine des Tourelles
Domaine des Tourelles – photo by Quentin Sadler.
This beautiful estate is the oldest secular wine producer in Lebanon, having been created by Jura-born Frenchman François-Eugène Brun in 1868. Nowadays it is run by the delightful Faouzi Issa who crafts a very fine range of wines and believes in non-interventionist winemaking using spontaneous fermentations in the winery’s nineteenth century concrete fermenting vats. In fact all the equipment is original here, nothing is new. By keeping to traditional methods and using the old equipment from the nineteenth century Faouzi creates wines that are completely in step with the natural wine movement.
Faouzi Issa, the head winemaker at Domaine des Tourelles – photo courtesy of Domaine des Tourelles.
His dry Domaine des Tourelles White is an enticing, aromatic blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, Obeidi and Muscat, while his Chardonnay is delicately exotic and creamy. The Domaine des Tourelles Rosé is a beautifully textured, full-flavoured blend of Cinsault, Tempranillo and Syrah that is perfect with the flavours of the Mediterranean.
The Domaine des Tourelles Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cinsault giving it that very Bekaa Valley combination of the Rhône and Bordeaux making it structured and spicy. It has rich, dark cherry fruit, smooth tannins and wild Mediterranean herbs.
Faouzi also makes a pure Cinsault made from 60 year old vines. It is beautifully bright and spicy with red cherry and plums as well as a touch of dried spices, dried fruit and an earthy, savoury quality. Above all it has a real purity to it that keeps you coming back for more.
Their Marquis des Beys is a stylish, dark brooding and spicy blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It delivers plenty of concentrated blackcurrant, deep, mocha-like flavours from 18 months in oak, fine tannins and balancing freshness.
All of these are excellent, but the pinnacle of the range is their Syrah du Liban. 100% Syrah, it’s powerful yet balanced, fragrant, floral and spicy with dark fruit vying with fresher raspberry and red cherry on the palate, together with cracked black pepper and those wild Mediterranean herbs.
Domaine des Tourelles wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.
An aerial view of some of Musar’s vineyards in the Bekaa Valley – photo courtesy of Château Musar.
The producer that springs to mind for most people when Lebanese wine is mentioned. Musar was founded in 1930 in the cellars of the 18th century Mzar Castle in Ghazir, a village on the coast some 30 kilometres north of Beirut. Mzar means ‘place of beauty’ and was adapted as the name of the wine itself. The French focus became strengthened by a close friendship developing between founder Gaston Hochar and Ronald Barton (of ChâteauLangoa-Barton in Saint-Julien) who was stationed in Lebanon during WWII.
Gaston’s son Serge took over the winemaking in 1959 and set about perfecting the blend and style. It took him nearly twenty years, with the 1977 red – the first vintage I ever tasted – being the vintage that brought Musar international renown as a fine wine.
Some of Musar’s vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, two and a half hours drive from their winery – photo by Quentin Sadler.
In recognition of all this as well as his perseverance and dedication during Lebanon’s civil war in keeping the winery going without losing a single vintage, Serge was chosen as Decanter Magazine’s first ‘Man of the Year’ in 1984.
Today the winery is run by Serge’s son Gaston. It has been officially organic since 2006 makes wines in a non-interventionist, natural way.
Musar’s fabulous eighteenth century cellars beneath the Mzar Castle in Ghazir – photo courtesy of Château Musar.
The red Château Musar itself is the grand vin of the estate and is always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Cinsault and Carignan. It is fermented and aged in concrete tanks before spending a further year in French oak barrels and another four maturing in bottle. It is always rich, spicy, leathery and earthy and has a sort of beguiling sense of mystery about it which sets it apart.
Château Musar White is a blend of barrel fermented and long aged Obeidi and Merwah. It’s an extraordinary wine reminiscent of an aged white Graves from Bordeaux. An acquired taste perhaps, but one worth acquiring.
Bottles maturing in Château Musar’s cellars – photo courtesy of Château Musar.
Their Hochar Père et Fils red is an approachable blend of Cinsault, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, from a single vineyard. It is fermented in concrete tanks, and then aged in barrel and bottle before being released four years after harvest.
The estate’s easiest drinking wines are the Musar Jeune range. There is a red, a white and a rosé and they are fresh and approachable while still having much of the Musar savoury style.
This exciting winery is the brainchild of Saïd Touma whose family have been making Arak in the Bekaa Valley for over 130 years. Inspired by that experience and the wineries that came before him he created this estate in 1990 and now farms some sixty five hectares that sits in the Bekaa at 1000 metres above sea level. His son, Joe-Assaad, is now in charge after training as a winemaker in Montpelier and gaining a great deal of experience in Bordeaux – that French link is still alive and well it seems. It is still very much a family concern with the entire family working in the business. Joe-Assaad grows all the normal Bekaa grapes, but like others is also now seeking more of a Lebanese identity. To that end he too has started using the indigenous Obeidi – or Obeidy as he calls it – in their white blends and, since 2012, as a single varietal.
Château St Thomas Chardonnay is a nice combination of ripe, tropical fruit, nutty, creamy vanilla and a balancing freshness, while the Clos St Thomas Les Gourmets Blanc is an altogether zestier style made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and the local Obeidy. The Château St Thomas Les Emirs Rouge is a richly fruity blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with spicy Grenache and Syrah, while the star must be their Pinot Noir. Grown in a single plot at 1200 metres this is a vibrant, juicy Pinot with big fruit, smooth tannins and lovely smoky, savoury and truffle-like aromas. To make Pinot this good in place this hot is a real triumph.
Ixsir’s stunning high altitude vineyards in Batroun – photo courtesy of Ixsir.
Ixsir – named for Al-Iksir or Elixir, a secret potion that grants eternal youth and love – is an exciting winery created in 2008 by a group of successful businessmen together with Gabriel Rivero, the Spanish-born former winemaker of Kefraya. It’s based in a beautiful and brilliantly renovated seventeenth century Ottoman farmhouse in the hills above Batroun. During Byzantine times Batroun was called Botrus, which is Greek for grape and it was an important port for grape and wine exporting.
They have vineyards around the winery, but also source grapes from the Bekaa Valley and Jezzine in the south where the vineyards are planted 1350 metres above sea level and show the vital cooling effect of the altitude.
The beautiful barrel cellar at Ixsir – photo courtesy of Ixsir.
Their entry level wines are the Altitudes Ixsir range. Available in all three colours, the wines are very drinkable. The red is a sappy, lightly oaked, fruit forward blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Caladoc (a cross between Grenache and Malbec) and Tempranillo, while the white is a bright, aromatic, unoaked blend of Obeideh, Muscat, Viognier.
The top of the range is their El Ixsir wines. The red, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, once again combines Bordeaux structure with the fleshier, spicier characteristics of Southern France. It is dense, concentrated and richly fruity with minty, herbal flavours, black pepper and loads of black fruit – perfect with lamb.
I would add that all of these producers also make excellent rosés. When I was in Lebanon I enjoyed them very much, as being that much lighter than the reds I found them perfect with thelovely Mediterranean mezze
Of course in world terms Lebanon is a tiny producer, just 0.06% of total world production in 2010, but the average quality seems very high. Not even the biggest producers in Lebanon count as bulk producers though, so it is a land of boutique winemakers, people who feel driven to make wine, who strive for quality and do not cut corners. What’s more the wines are incredibly food friendly. So a Lebanese offering would enhance any restaurant wine list as they go superbly with all sorts of food, from haute cuisine to relaxed Mediterranean fare, and offer a wonderful combination of classic French style and vibrant Mediterranean flavours that can be really exciting.
So often when we talk about Spanish wine, we mean wine from northern Spain. This is simply because up until the late twentieth century the south was just too hot to make anything that was considered worthwhile. So the good wines, the wines with a reputation for high quality, came from the cooler zones with Atlantic influence. Chief amongst those, of course, was Rioja. Most of Spain’s other wines were relegated to making everyday wines for local consumption.
Much has changed for the better in Spain since it joined the EU in 1986. Not least that modern wine making technology is now reaching into every corner of this exciting wine producing country.
As a result good – and great – wines are now being made in regions that were once regarded as bywords for undrinkable wine. Clean, protective winemaking has lifted the wines of Spain’s hot, southern regions to a level that would have been unthinkable just thirty years ago.
Perhaps the most exciting of these is the Comunidad Valenciana. This is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and consists of the provinces of Alicante, Valencia – pronounced Bah-len-thya – and Castellón – pronounced Cas-tay-yon.
The Comunidad Valenciana contains several wine regions that are very much on the up; DO Alicante, DO Valencia and DO Utiel-Requena.
DO / denominación de origen wines come from recognised regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance.
Since Spain has enjoyed increased prosperity, renewed infrastructure and access to wealthy markets these regions have curbed their desire to make high volume, bulk wines. Instead they have focussed on improving quality and producing finer, artisan wines.
Historically the wines from this part of Spain are really a story of three grape varieties – two black and one white. Despite much experimentation they remain the most important.
The main black grape of Alicante, and nearby Jumilla, is Monastrell. More famous under its French name, Mourvèdre it’s used in many Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Rhône blends and is known as Mataro in much of the New World. In the wrong hands, Monastrell can be very tannic and rustic and was long thought only suitable for producing large quantities of everyday wine, as the high yields reduced the tannins by making the wines dilute. Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow. It needs a lot of heat and also a fair amount of water. Added to which it is susceptible to all sorts of mildews, is very vigorous and can easily get overripe. Add all that together and it is not surprising that it had to wait until modern times, squeaky clean wineries and skilled grape growers for it to become a grape with a following.
The little known Bobal (pronounced boh-BAHL) grape reigns supreme in Utiel-Requena and is actually the third most planted grape in Spain – after Airén and Tempranillo, yet most of us have never heard of it. Until relatively recently Bobal was considered too tannic and un-tameable, so was often blended with other, softer grape varieties, such as Tempranillo and Garnacha (known as Grenache in France). However recent advances in handling Bobal have led winemakers to recognise its qualities and to unequivocally make it the signature grape of the region.
Both provinces also have a long tradition of making sweet, fortified wines from Moscatel, (Muscat in French), grapes. In recent years the advent of cold fermentation in stainless steel has led to the production of very good dry whites made from Moscatel too. Fresh and aromatic, these are excellent with seafood.
Historically the region fermented its wines in the tinajas – traditional large clay jars often inaccurately called amphorae. These fell out of use when people realised that it was hard to get clean results from them. However modern knowhow and technology means such vessels can now be cleaned and so tinajas have started to be used again, to great effect.
Famously the Comunidad Valenciana enjoys a Mediterranean climate with long, hot, dry summers and short winters. Historically this has been a problem as too much heat can produce flabby,uninteresting wines. Careful positioning of vineyards though, can produce wines with more freshness and elegance from subtly cooler sites.
Utiel-Requena is actually as far inland as it is possible to be in Valencia and is right on the border with Castilla-La Mancha. This puts these vineyards much higher than the coastal plain, at around 600-900 metres above sea level. The slightly cooler and windy conditions up there alleviate the summer temperatures, that frequently top 40˚C, and slow down the growing season to produce finer wine than was once thought possible.
Further south in Alicante the better vineyards also tend to be inland where the land rises to around 400 metres. Even in August you need a jacket if you want to sit out at night in Monòver, the heart of the vineyard area.
DO Valencia is more spread out and varied, but excellent everyday wines are made on the lower land towards the coast, while more ambitious wines are made by passionate producers at higher altitudes around Ontinyent near the border with Castilla-La Mancha.
In all of these areas, careful positioning of vineyards, modern training techniques, earlier picking for lower alcohol and better balance, clean winemaking and careful use of oak has led to a revolution in how the wines taste. Today at the very least the wines are clean, fresh and enjoyable. At their best they are amongst the very best that Spain has to offer.
There are far too many producers to mention them all, but these are some of my favourites:
Bodegas Enrique Mendoza:
Founded in 1989, Mendoza has a winery and showroom near Benidorm, but most of their vineyards are around 40 km inland at Villena. This place is between 370 metres and 650 metres above sea level, so gets cooling breezes in the summer.
Pepe Mendoza organically farms around 80 hectares and makes several different wines from pure Monastrell, or as he puts it, ‘paints plenty of pictures from the same grape’.This place – with its winds, extreme heat in summer, cold in winter, low vigour, stony soils and only just enough water – makes the vines struggle and so they produce small crops of very concentrated grapes. In fact so stressed are the vines that they remain stunted and cling to the ground, so Pepe calls them his ‘bonsai vines’.
2016 La Tremenda Monastrell DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Enrique Mendoza Alicante
A single vineyard wine, this is Pepe’s calling card and it is one of the best value wines around. Fermented in stainless steel and aged for 6 months in American oak barrels, it’s richly fruity, fleshy and succulent with velvety tannins, a kiss of vanilla oak, a touch of cocoa and a wild, spicy side that keeps it exciting. This will appeal to people who like Shiraz and Syrah – 90/100 points.
Also try: The single vineyard Estrecho and Las Quebradas are both magnificent Monastrell wines with great depth and complexity, while Pepe’s sweet, fortified Moscatel de la Marina is one of the finest I have tasted.
Enrique Mendoza wines are distributed in the UK byC & D Wines.
Artadi – El Sequé:
Created by Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacaille in Rioja in 1981, Artadi was a pioneer and champion of single vineyard wines in Spain. Today they farm 65 hectares in Rioja, 40 hectares at Bodegas Artazu in Navarra and the 80 hectare El Sequé estate in Alicante. This property is situated at 600 metres above sea level near Pinoso, west of Monòver close to the border with the Región de Murcia.
2016 El Sequé Monastrell DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas y Viñedos El Sequé Alicante
Another single vineyard wine grown at around 600 metres. Pure Monastrell fermented in open topped vats with daily pump overs for extraction. The wine is aged in 500 litre French oak barrels for 12 months.
The result is a wine with rich black fruit, spice and balsamic notes. The palate is plush and concentrated with rich, sweet, ripe fruit, supple tannins, beautifully integrated oak and good balance. This is a true fine wine and very impressive and it needs hearty, winter food – 94/100 points.
A division of Bodegas Schenk, a big wine company that originated as a cooperage in Switzerland before acquiring wine estates in various regions of Switzerland after World War 1. Schenk then expanded into Spain in the 1920s, where it has several estates throughout the Comunidad Valenciana. This one was the first estate they bought in Spain and was known as Bodegas Schenk until 2002 when it started focussing on premium rather than bulk wine production.
This is a very different take on Monastrell. It is unoaked, so retains more brightness, but it still has lovely black fruit aromas, a touch of that sweet and sour, fruity and pepper and balsamic thing on the palate. In short it’s a spicy, bright, ripe and concentrated wine that sees no oak at all and retains a juicy freshness – 88/100 points.
Tucked away in Parcent in the Xaló Valley, a little inland from Jávea, Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega was one of the very first to show that Alicante could make great wine. He has farmed 12 hectares here since 1978 and produces a fascinating range of wines.
2014 Casta Diva Cosecha Miel DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega Alicante
Sweet Moscatel wines are very much the tradition in this part of Spain. In the past they were somewhat oxidised and lacked excitement, but have recently reinvented themselves in spectacular style. This wine is the link between the old and the new waves and has been made continuously since 1978, thus inspiring new winemakers to make more interesting wines from Moscatel. This is barrel fermented and barrel aged, in all sorts of barrels of different sizes. The oak isn’t new, so the flavours of the oak do not mask the taste of the grapes, but the oxygen trickling in makes the wine rounder and more mouth filling.
The wine is aromatic with wonderful orange blossom, caramel and wild herb notes. The palate is honeyed, sumptuous and complex with rich, ripe orchard fruit and zingy, caramelised orange – without doubt the finest example of this classic local style – 93/100 points.
Also try: Viña Ulises – an enticing, elegant blend of Monastrell and Garnacha that combines ripe fruit and wilder, savoury black olive characters.
This go ahead cooperative is the giant of Alicante wine and was created by merging 11 smaller co-ops. Don’t let that put you off though, they produce some excellent wines. Their wines are never less than good, even at the lower end and they are always coming up with new and exciting things, like sparkling red Monastrell and sparkling Moscatel.
2018 Marina Alta DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Bocopa Alicante
I don’t always like dry wines made from Muscat, but this is a delicious take on the style. It is fresh and lively with floral and grapey aromatics. The palate is light and refreshing with low (11%) alcohol and some zingy citrus freshness. Wonderful to drink on a sun-drenched terrace and perfect with Gambas al Ajillo – 87/100 points.
Created in 2000 by unifying two old established family vineyards, the 67 hectare Finca Fuenteseca sits at nearly 1000 metres above sea level. It is west of Utiel, right on the border with Castilla-La Mancha and is certified organic as the dry conditions make it a perfect site for organic viticulture.
2016 Pasión de Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Bodega Sierra Norte Valencia
A great introduction to Bobal, this is made from old vines and low yields. Fermented in barrels and aged in barrels for a further 6 months.
It is a thoroughly modern wine that tastes traditional and of its place. It’s richly fruity scented with blackberry, raspberry and balsamic, umami, savoury notes. The palate is generous, rich and mouth filling with powerful black fruit together with nicely balanced mocha-like oak and suave, refined tannins – 90/100 points.
Also try: Pasión de Bobal Rosado – a beautifully balanced, pale rosé that delivers bright cranberry and strawberry fruit and crisp, refreshing acidity.
Bodega Sierra Norte wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.
Dominio de la Vega:
Three winemaking families joined forces in 2001 to create this estate focussed on premium wines. Housed in a beautiful 19th century manor house, the site is lovely and the wines are impressive.
2014 Finca La Beata Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Dominio de la Vega Valencia
This is a fine, concentrated red made from 100 year old, ungrafted vines and aged 18 months in barrel. Layers of ripe fruit, ripe tannins, spice, espresso and chocolate-like oak balanced with fresh acidity make it complex and vibrant – 94/100 points.
Also try: Their superb range of Reserva Cavas – fine Spanish sparkling wines made by the traditional method.
Dominio de la Vega wines are distributed in the UK by Jeroboams.
Pago de Tharsys:
This estate dates back to 1805, but its modern life began in 1981 when the Garcia family, bought it. They went on to purchase most of the adjacent vineyards in the 1990s – so like most estates around here it’s a young label and very much a project in progress. They organically farm 12 hectares and produce a wide range including superb sparkling wines that are stunningly packaged.
2018 Pago de Tharsys Albarino – Vendimia Nocturna DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Pago de Tharsys Valencia
Albariño is of course a grape from Spain’s Galicia region, but it is beginning to be grown elsewhere as it is recognised as one of the best white grapes in the Iberian Peninsular – it also grows in Portugal, where it is called Alvarinho.
The nose offers ripe, tropical pineapple and floral notes together with little touches of aromatic Turkish delight.
The palate delivers fruit characters reminiscent of pineapple, lime and grapefruit together with a lovely creamy ripe texture and green tea notes. This is a soft wine in the mouth, well balanced and quite long with green fruit emerging on the finish. Night harvesting helps retain the grape’s natural acidity 91/100 points.
Also try: Their Unico Blanc di Negre, a complex sparkling Bobal made by the traditional method, it cannot be called Cava as Bobal is not a permitted Cava grape.
Pago de Tharsys wines are distributed in the UK by Moreno Wines.
A modern estate that is another part of Bodegas Schenk, or more accurately Schenk are a shareholder and the ‘Suizas’ in the name of the winery. Right from the start this project was about producing premium wines in Utiel-Requena. The potential of the region had been seen for a few years, but they were still pioneers. Today they farm 46 hectares of vines around their beautiful farmhouse and another 15 less than half a kilometre away. All of this is just west of the lovely town of Requena and the focus is on Bobal, although they grow other grape varieties too.
2016 Bobos ‘Finca Casa La Borracha’ Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Bodegas Hispano+Suizas Valencia
An intriguing and delicious red that is made from 70 year old, low yielding Bobal vines. The grapes are de-stemmed and put in 400 litre American oak barrels, standing up without the tops, to ferment. After the barrel fermentation the wine is aged for 10 months in new French Allier oak barrels. A vibrant and forthright wine that packs a spicy, toasty punch with rich fruit and balsamic/tapenade notes. The tannins are beautifully tamed and velvety, the oak is well integrated and there is good balancing acidity. This is a serious wine, but immensely drinkable too – 92/100 points.
FYI, Casa la Borracha means ‘house of the drunken woman’!
Bodegas Hispano+Suizas wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.
Mustiguillo was founded by businessman Toni Sarrion in the late 1990s with the aim of rescuing Bobal from its reputation for mediocrity and creating fine wines from it. As such it became the engine for change in this formerly obscure region and showed what could be done in this place and what is more was instrumental in showing the locals just how good Bobal can be. Mustiguillo consists of two organically farmed estates, Finca Terrerazo at around 600 metres above sea level and Finca Calvestra which sits at 920 metres.
Calvestra is cooler and where they grow their white grapes, especially the rare Merseguera which Mustiguillo have helped to rescue from near extinction to become the, still rarely seen, speciality white grape for the whole Comunidad Valenciana.
2017 Mestizaje DO/PDO Pago El Terrerazo Bodega Mustiguillo Utiel Valencia Comunidad Valenciana
Mestizaje means melting pot and it’s a blend of mainly Bobal with small amounts of Syrah (10%) and Garnacha/Grenache (16%). The grapes are fermented in a mixture of French oak and stainless steel fermentation tanks and the wine is aged for 10 months in a mixture of French oak vats and barrels.
The result is a hugely drinkable, medium-bodied wine that has plenty of red and black fruit, gentle spices, freshness, elegance and precision – 91/100 points.
A big producer that started life in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, in 1831 when Vittore Valsangiacomo opened a winery. His son Cherubino Valsangiacomo decided to open a wine export company in Valencia and Alicante, before eventually opening winery facilities in Chiva, Requena, Utiel, Monóvar, Yecla and in El Grao de Valencia in 1890. As their wineries cover all the important wine areas of the Comunidad Valenciana, they produce a large range of wines from all the DOs in the region.
In 2008 the company undertook an exciting project by taking over the old Sanjuan Cooperative that’s halfway between Utiel and Requena. The aim is to use the wonderful old vineyards and concrete tanks at Sanjuan to make great wines from Bobal.
There are 10 hectares of up to 100 year old Bobal vines around this old winery and it is exclusively those vines that are used in this wine. They are sited on a plateau at around 750 metres above sea level. This exposes them to the cooling ‘solano’ winds that blow in from the east and temper the hot summer conditions by increasing the temperature drop between day and night. The winery is quite old and was equipped with 70 large fermentation tanks made of concrete. Cherubino Valsangiacomo believe these are perfect for Bobal as if left unlined, or raw, you can achieve a small micro oxygenation of the wine due to the pores in the concrete. This tames Bobal’s famous tannins.
A lively and fresh wine with an attractive lifted nose of ripe red fruit and a dash of spice. The palate is smooth, earthy and spicy with medium weight wine, supple tannins and juicy blackberry, cherry and raspberry fruit. The freshness shines through, showing the absence of oak, and the finish is long with a satisfying savoury twist – 90/100 points.
Cherubino Valsangiacomo wines are distributed in the UK by Bibbendum.
Celler Del Roure:
This extraordinary estate is planted at 600 metres above sea level in the south west of Valencia province, west of Ontinyent. Pablo Calatayud originally created the winery in the late 1990s to make wines from international grapes. However in recent years he has completely changed his approach and now farms organically and champions local grape varieties like Mandó and Verdil that had almost become extinct. Pablo also uses the traditional tinajas – large clay jars often inaccurately called amphorae – to ferment and mature the wines. What’s more these tinajas are deep underground in an ancient Roman cellar.
2015 Parotet DO/PDO Valencia Celler Del Roure Valencia
An old vine (between 30 and 70 years old) blend of 75% Mando with 25% Monastrell, organically farmed and verging on natural winemaking. The fruit is all hand harvested, partially de-stemmed (the stems contain a lot of tannins, so leaving in some stems can increase the tannin if required), indigenous fermentation using the natural yeast, fermentation and malolactic in the tinajas followed by 14 months ageing on the lees in those tinajas.
The result is scented and vibrant wine with herbal, balsamic and fresh red fruit aromas. The palate is similarly bright with fresh red fruit, savoury herbs and that balsamic tang. The texture is velvety and supple and the wine has lots of energy – 93/100 points.
Also try: Cullerot – an extraordinarily complex blend of Verdil, Pedro Ximénez, Macabeo, Malvasía, Chardonnay and Tortosina macerated on the skins and aged for 6 months one the lees in those tinajas.
Celler Del Roure wines are distributed in the UK by Alliance Wine.
Wines from this part of Spain are really exciting me right now. From humble beginnings the Comunidad Valenciana is fast becoming one of the most thrilling and varied wine producing areas of Spain. What’s more most of them are made from indigenous, local grape varieties. So the flavours are unique and all the wines seem to have that casual Mediterranean feel of charm and elegance. They are incredibly food friendly and generally offer great value for money too, so go on do a bit of exploring of wines from the Comunidad Valenciana.
I simply do not want the summer to end and one way to delay the return to normalcy is to keep drinking rosé wine.
Nothing says summer like a glass of rosé, so if you keep drinking the pink stuff it will keep you in a summery mood and fend off the Autumn gloom. Or that is my hope anyway.
Personally I love rosé as it gives similar refreshment to white wine, has some the fruit of red wine and goes well with almost any food.
Pretty much everywhere makes rosés and the very pale Provençal style of French rosé is particularly fashionable right now. However, I love Spanish wine and think that no one makes rosés quite like the Spanish do. The Spanish historically don’t really like white wine you see and so Rosé traditionally fills that lighter rôle.
Spain is awash with good rosés – or rosado in Spanish – so as long as you avoid the very cheapest you will probably be ok. Spend a bit more though and you often drink something that overdelivers on quality and flavour. I have had so many wonderful Spanish rosés recently, from such varied places as Navarra, Txakoli, Rioja, Alicante, Jumilla and Ribera del Duero amongst others, that it is hard to limit myself to just one. However I tasted one today that really thrilled me, so I thought that I would share it with you.
It comes from a wine region called Utiel-Requena, which is inland from the wonderful city of Valencia. I love that part of Spain, indeed it is my spiritual home as all my life my family have had a house on the coast to the south of Valencia – pronounced Bah-lenthia.
Map of the wine regions of the Comunidad Valenciana. This is one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain and comprises the Provinces of Alicante, Castéllon and Valencia itself.
2018 Rostro Sonrosado Organic Tempranillo Rosé Bodega Sierra Norte/Boutinot Spain DO Utiel-Requena Comunidad Valenciana Spain
This part of Spain is very beautiful and bursting with good wines, although that has been something of a local secret for quite a few decades, but that secret is now out. The traditional grape of the region is called Bobal, which has been rescued from mediocrity over the last few years and is now making some wonderful wines – more of which next time. However this is made from the far more famous Tempranillo – pronounced Temp-ra-neeyo – the grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
The land is much higher inland – 600-800 metres above sea level – than it is on the coast, so the air is cooler and the powerful breezes off the Mediterranean have an effect too. This allows for slower ripening so gives a slower build up of sugars and good retention of acid. In the right hands that means this area can produce balanced and elegant wines
Utiel-Requena vines at Bodegas Sierra Norte.
For a Spanish rosé this is pretty pale as the wine has just 8 hours skin contact – although I like a good colour on a rosado. The colour comes from the skins and the shorter the time on the skins, the paler the wine.
It’s an enticing medium pink with a little touch of orange, while the nose has red fruit notes of raspberry, redcurrant and a touch of cream too.
The palate delivers lovely flavours of redcurrant, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb and blood orange with that softening, textural cream component too. The flavour is mouth filling and while the wine is textured it is also refreshing and lively. I hate to admit how quickly the bottle emptied. It goes with anything at all, or indeed is lovely on its own, and it makes a perfect partner to tapas. This is a very good rosé indeed as well as being enormously enjoyable – 89/100 points.
Available in the UK at around £10 per bottle from All About Wine – more stockist information is available from Boutinot Wines, the UK distributor
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fromNoble Green.
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 fromNoble 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.
As any cursory read of these pages shows, I love Spain. I love the country, the people, the history, the culture, the food and the wine. Spain is simply one of the most exciting wine producing countries there is.
The whole country is awash with wine. It is the third largest wine producing country in the world, after France and Italy, but has the largest vineyard plantings of any country on earth.
In the UK we do not give Spain the respect it deserves, Spanish wine is incredibly varied and diverse, but apparently most of us really only drink Rioja and a bit of cheap Cava.
That is a shame as there is so much more going on in this wonderful and colourful country – dip into these pages and you will find a great deal about Spanish wine, food and travel.
Recently I attended a most fabulous event. It was a tasting hosted by Bodegas Bilbainas and it was an evening to remember.
Bodegas Bilbainas in Haro, Rioja
Bilbainas are an old Rioja house, founded in 1904 and now owned by Catalan Cava producers Codorníu. It has always been a good house, but seems to have become even better of late. Unusually for a Rioja producer Bodegas Bilbainas have always owned a lot of vineyards, 250 hectares near Haro in Rioja Alta in fact. This is why they label their wines Viña Pomal – Pomal being the name of this estate, as they only make estate wines.
The event was held at the elegant Hispania restaurant in London’s Lombard Streetand I have seldom been anywhere so civilised and comfortable. The service was perfect and the food set the wines off perfectly. I tasted a glorious array of wines, all of which were superb, and I will write about them soon, but with winter fast approaching I thought that I would tell you about a really fine red.
Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view
A map of Rioja – click for a larger view.
2010 Viña Pomal Gran Reserva DOCa / PDO Rioja Bodegas Bilbainas Haro, La Rioja Spain
Gran Reservas are traditionally thought to be the best wines of Rioja and are only made in the very best vintages and were pretty rare when I was young. Such vintages come along much more frequently today – so you see global warming is not all bad!
2010 was a really great vintage, rated Excellente, and the quality shows. Most Rioja blends Tempranillo with a little Garnacha / Grenache and possibly a dash of Mazuelo (aka Carignan) and the much more rare Graciano. This wine is just 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano and is aged for 12 months in American oak barrels – American oak gives that vanilla character – before being racked, blended and returned to barrel for another year. After that the wine is transferred to wooden vats to fall bright, bottled and aged in bottle for a further three years before going on sale.
Viña Pomal is an old, but very strong brand.
I sat with this wine, as I had an array of 4 or 5 others to distract me, and I am so glad as it really developed in the glass. It is undeniably pretty with loads of deep red fruit, vanilla, cloves and a light dusting of vanilla, coconut, tobacco and leather, as well as a note of cream. The palate was supple, silky and refined. Just nudging full-bodied it elegantly filled my senses and my palate with rich fruit, but also those classic, mineral, savoury, spicy and balsamic sensations that make Rioja so moreish. The tannins give a light bite while the acidity gives a nice touch of freshness.
This is a brilliant wine. It delivers so much and promises so much too. It is absolutely delicious right now, but will happily age for another decade, and become more savoury and complex – although some of that fruit will fade. It is bright and wonderfully youthful with great structure and real elegance – 93/100 points.
A wine like this is very versatile and would be fabulous with Christmas dinner, but is equally great with any meat dish, or even cheese.
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.
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!
I love red Rioja. Spain has much more to offer the wine enthusiast than just Rioja, but Rioja can make very fine wines indeed – hence its fame.
The trouble with Rioja is the question of what you are going to get. They aren’t all good, some are downright ordinary in fact, so you must be wary. However, red Rioja can deliver a great deal of pleasure and many very high quality wines.
As far as good value is concerned though the picture is also mixed. I generally hold it to be true that cheaper Reservas and Gran Reservas, from bodegas that have no fame or are just made up brands for the supermarkets, are normally not worth drinking. For me the reliable, value category of red Rioja is the Crianza level, which spend the shortest time ageing in oak.
However, one of the great joys of wine is that every now and again a wine pops up that confounds our beliefs.
Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.
Recently I presented a very well received tasting of the wonderful wines of CVNE, one of the truly great Rioja houses recently. All the wines were really good, but for me the absolute star wines were the magnificent 2012 Imperial Reserva, ready to drink and wonderfully refined and elegant – stockists here and here – and the quirkily delicious 2014 Monopole Clasíco white.
CVNE, like many of the original band of Rioja bodegas, are based in Haro.
I showed a fabulous Crianza from CVNE’s Viña Real estate in Rioja Alavesa. It offered rich fruit and lots of character and showed just how good a Crianza wine can be. However, good though it was, another wine stood out for the mix of quality and amazing value for money. Indeed I liked it so much that it is my Wine of the Week.
Founded in 1879 and still owned and run by members of the founding family, C.V.N.E. – the Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España – is one of the great Rioja houses. I love showing their wines at tastings because they have such a wide range of styles, quality levels and labels as their stable includes the famous Monopole range, the great classic Imperial wines and the two single estate wines of Viña Real and Contino.
The wines labelled as Cute – CVNE in old copperplate script – are their base level wines, but still very good in my opinion. The Barrel Fermented whiteis a wonderful example of getting the oak just right, while the Crianza is a great value gem and the Cune Reserva is, to quote my friend Tom Canavan, a ‘proper wine’.
However it is this beauty that currently represents the most amazing value for money and it is a really lovely wine.
The blend is 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo – no Grenache – from vineyards around Haro in Rioja Alta. It is aged for ged for 2 years in mainly American oak, but some French oak as well, and 3 years in bottle. The French oak allows for a little tingle of tannin that suits the wine.
Wines ageing in the Imperial barrel cellar at CVNE. This cellar was designed by Gustave Eiffel.
This is an unashamedly rich Rioja, the lack of Grenache allows the dark fruits to hold sway. It has spice, vanilla, dark plums, blackberries and blueberries on the nose with a light dusting of fresher red plum and raspberry too. The palate is soft, silky, refined and deeply upholstered – sumptuous in fact. There are some savoury, leather notes, a little bite of tannin and some nice freshness all giving definition. It has wonderful concentration – the vintage was very good – with loads of ripe fruit and good length and could have a long life ahead of it if you can resist. Whether you drink it or keep it, I would recommend that you grab some now – 92/100 points.
Drink it with lamb, beef or roast pork, but above all, drink it.
As regular readers will know, I love Riesling. There is something so fascinating, mysterious and beguiling about this grape. It is hard to pin down. The flavours and aromas seem to come and go and to give you unformed sketches rather than fully formed pictures – much like Pinot Noir does for red wine.
I find Riesling to be very versatile – I will happily drink it on its own and it is equally good wth most light dishes as well as being perfect with Mediterranean dishes – it seems to really compliment olive oil and garlic. Riesling is also perfect with spicy cuisine – especially Thai, south east Asian and Keralan (southern Indian). What’s more the wine is usually quite low in alcohol – rarely more than 12% – so it never takes the same toll of my few remaining brain cells that a red wine does. Add to that the high acidity makes it not only clean and – hopefully – vibrant, but refreshing too.
Wine map of Western Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement
Well, the other day I tasted a stunning Riesling from the Great Southern region of Western Australia that was delicious and hugely enjoyable. So much so in fact that I made it my Wine of the Week.
Larry Cherubino’s Riversdale North Vineyard in Frankland River.
Robert Oatley was an amazing man who had many business interests and passions. He famously owned the racing yacht Wild Oats XI and created Hunter Valley’s Rosemount Estate in 1968, making him a true Australian wine pioneer. After he sold Rosemount, Robert and his family set up Robert Oatley Vineyards in 2009 by purchasing the old Craigmoor Estate, which was founded in 1858 and was the first winery in Mudgee. They are based there, but also farm and make wine from grapes grown in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia, the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley in Victoria and Pemberton, the Great Southern and Margaret River regions of Western Australia. They aim to show the diversity of Australian winemaking and all the wines that I have tried show that their quality is very high. Sadly Robert died last year, but the winery that bears his name lives on and from what I can see makes some very good wines.
We see quite a lot of wines from the Margaret Riverregion in this sparsely populated state, but not much from the other wine making areas. The Great Southern and its sub zones is a pretty impressive wine region – the largest Geographical Indicator in the world at 150 km north to south and 100 km east to west – and seems to be producing some very high quality wines, especially Riesling, but also Cabernet, the Mediterranean grapes – Fiano, Tempranillo, Grenache, Mencia, Counoise and even a little Pinot Noir. Broadly speaking the climate is Mediterranean, although more continental as you move inland and this wine is made from fruit grown in the Porongurup, Frankland River and Mount Barker zones.
Larry Cherubino’s Riversdale South Vineyard in Frankland River.
The great Larry Cherubino is the chief winemaker for Robert Oatley wines. Larry produces his own wines too and his vineyards are all in Western Australia, especially the Great Southern and Margaret River.
The wine making for this wine is simple, as befits Riesling, leaving the fruit to speak for itself. Only free run juice is used, cold fermented with neutral yeast.
The wine has an alluring pale lime and silvery hue, while the nose is bright, but pure, stony and taut with a waft of lifted lime, dry honey and the merest hint of Riesling’s trademark kerosene – don’t let that put you off though, it’s lovely.
The palate sings with this cleansing feel of high, lime-drenched acidity making it feel pure, like a mountain spring. There is however an underlying richness and texture to the wine that balances that freshness beautifully. A real triumph with a long clean finish bursting with zesty lime flavours – 91/100 points.
Go into any supermarket or wine shop and browse the shelves of New World wines and you could be forgiven for thinking that there are only about 6 different grape varieties in existence.
The French role model for wine is so embedded that it is the classic grapes from that country that are most widely used and the styles of France that are emulated around the world.
It therefore comes as quite a shock to learn that most of the wine regions in countries outside Europe have climates very different from those in the classic regions of France, be it Bordeaux or Burgundy.
The harvest at d’Arenberg in the McLaren Vale, perhaps the most Mediterranean-like region of Australia.
Time after time the climates of the wine making zones in Chile, South Africa, California and Australia are described as Mediterranean, and yet most producers in these places grow Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot. Traditionally only the mavericks and the odd obsessive seem to have actually grown grape varieties that originate in the Mediterranean.
Actually I am nor sure that is entirely true. Very often viticulture in these places began with a wide range of grape varieties, but in modern times the focus has been on the famous ones – which usually turns out to be the French grapes – rather than grape varieties that are associated with less well known and less admired wine types from Europe. Very often all sorts of grapes are grown, often in the most unlikely places, but they do not catch on for all sorts of reasons, be they fashion or snobbery.
Well, I detect a change.
I have experienced that change in Chile – see here and here – as well as South Africa – see here, California and even New Zealand, but I found the change most marked in my recent trip to Australia.
I took this photograph at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley. All the wines were superb here and I was thrilled to take this photo, but had to wait ages for her to look up so that I could see the joey in the pouch.
Time after time in wine shops, restaurants and wineries I found Australian wines made from an exciting array of grape varieties, quite unlike the relatively narrow range that fills the shelves of the Australian section in wine shops and supermarkets in the UK. There was a huge variety just presented as normal over there and most of the more intriguing grape varieties originated in Mediterranean countries.
As a consequence of the exciting wines that I found in Australia I have recently put on a few very well received tastings of these wines – in the main you have to seek them out, but the work is worth it.
Map of South Eastern Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.
I am always saddened that so few consumers – even in the countries make them – have caught on to the delights of the white wines from Mediterranean countries. To my mind some of the most exciting white wines around come from Italy, Spain, Portugal and even Greece – or are made from the grapes that hail from those places. It shouldn’t surprise us really as the cuisine of the Mediterranean tends to go much better with white wine than red. However historically it was much more difficult to make good white wines in hot places until well into the twentieth century, so the white wines of that part of the world were pretty much written off as no good and that reputation has become embedded in our memory.
The Eden Valley, the cool part of Barossa.
2014 Peter Lehman H&V Verdejo Peter Lehman Barossa Valley South Australia
I have long been a fan of Verdejo (Ver-deh-ho) it is a lovely grape that is native to Castilla y León and to my mind makes Spain’s most reliable white wines in the little wine region of Rueda. The grape has travelled a little bit, I have had good Verdejo from Virginia – click here – for instance, but I was thrilled to find it producing excellent whites in Australia too. Normally Verdejo makes wines that are very much in the mould of a Sauvignon Blanc, but the vine can cope with much hotter conditions that Sauvignon, so it could be a big part of the future of white wine in Australia.
Sadly I rather get the impression that this is the only vintage ever made of this wine. If that is so, they really should rethink as I have shown this at 2 tastings now and people have absolutely loved it.
Interestingly it is quite different from a Spanish Verdejo. It is much lighter, fresher – even at 3 years old – and more zingy. The colour is very pale, while the nose gives lime and tangerine with just a touch of something salty.
The beautiful southern end of the Eden and Barossa Valleys.
The palate is pure, mineral and and light – it is 11.5% abv – with a tiny touch of petillance, clean citrus and light stone fruit. It is very refreshing and quite delicious. The style leans more towards a fine Vinho Verde or Txakoli than Rueda and while it is not like nothing else produced in Australia – except some of the fabulously taut and lean Eden Valley Rieslings – it is a real triumph in my opinion. If you can find any, try it with some garlic prawns, grilled fish or barbecued sardines – 89/100 points.
I can no longer find any stockists for this lovely wine, so contact Peter Lehman wines for information.
Many times on the trip I enjoyed some simply cooked prawns, Moreton Bay Bugs or clams with garlic and oil and lemon together with a glass of white wine made from a suitably Mediterranean grape variety – my favourite place for such delights was Sydney Fish Market or Claypots Evening Star in South Melbourne Marketand my favourite grape to accompany them was Fiano which seems to be becoming very popular down under.
The busy but tiny kitchen at Clay Pots Evening Star, a great place for seafood and wine.
2016 Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard Fiano Hancock & Hancock McLaren Vale South Australia
I like Fiano. It is a fabulous white grape from Campania in southern Italy. Campania is a great region, centred on Naples it produces some of Italy’s most exciting wines, using a palate of high quality indigenous grapes including Fiano. The best examples are widely considered to be those from vineyards on the volcanic slopes around the town of Avellino. Fiano di Avellinois a DOCg and is a prestigious, fine and mineral dry white, while other examples from Campania, grown on non-volcanic soils, tend to be softer and easier to drink.
Fiano is an ancient variety that is believed to have been used to make the famous Apianum wine in Roman times. Back then the grape was known as Vitis Apiana beacuse it apparently attracted bees (apis). Of all Campania’s whites I find the best Fiano to be the most refined and most balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.
Fiano is also found in other parts of Campania, including the Sorrento peninsula, and Puglia – the heel of Italy. I was vaguely aware that a few people grew the grape else where. Jenny Dobson makes one at Bush Hawk Vineyards in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, but it seems that Australia has really taken this, slightly exotic grape, to its heart and around 70 producers have now started making examples of Fiano – which is hardly surprising as Italian food and Mediterranean style is big down under, so Fiano would be a perfect accompaniment.
Chris and his brother John Hancock have owned their Home Vineyard in McLaren Vale for over 10 years now. They farm some 80 year old Grenache and Shiraz, together with Cabernet and Touriga, as well as having a 2 hectare plot of Fiano that was head grafted, in situ, onto Chardonnay in 2012. Chris Hancock, who is an honourary Master of Wine, worked with Robert Oatley for many years and Chris is still involved with the Robert Oatley company which distributes his Hancock & Hancock wines.
Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.
A part of this was fermented in neutral, old, oak barrels to give roundness and volume rather than flavour, but most was fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures.
To look at the wine has a crystalline purity about it, then on the nose it has nectarine and white peach together with some lemon zest, dry honey and herbs. On the palate there lots of fruit giving a juiciness which is then balanced by freshness and a little taut minerality in the background. The texture is succulent, ever so slightly creamy even which together with the lemon, stone fruit and touch of herbs makes it delicious and very drinkable.
It is light and crisp enough to be refreshing, yet juicy enough and succulent enough to feel interesting and more complex. In a kind of way it shows the ripeness of the place it is from and some the beguiling minerality of the grape, which gives it an inbuilt tension. Lovely with fish, chicken, Mediterranean food, or just to drink on its own – 91/100 points.
The wonderful Assyrtiko grape is the main grape variety used on the island of Santorini in Greece. This amazing grape is responsible for producing some of the very finest dry white wines – and great dessert wines too – of the entire Mediterranean world. At their best these wines are bright, mineral and refreshing and there is nothing better with a bit of fish or some calamares. If you like crisp, dry, taut white wines, along the lines of Sancerre or Chablis, then you would certainly like a dry white Santorini.
Sue and Peter Barry in the Lodge Hill Vineyard August 2012.
Peter Barry certainly does. He is the third generation winemaker at his family’s Jim Barry winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. In 2006 he and his wife Sue were on holiday on Santorini and they were astonished by the quality of the local wines. Their bracing acidity reminded them of the Rieslings that they made back home, but they had something extra too. That something extra was probably minerality, which is what the combination of the Assytiko grape and the volcanic soils delivers.
Peter had got the bug and returned to the island in 2008 in order to collect some cuttings of Assyrtiko from the always excellent Ktima Aryros, Argyros Estate. After a period of quarantine the vines were eventually planted at their beautiful Lodge Hill Vineyard. Peter was convinced that although the soils were very different, the other conditions would really suit Assyrtiko.
Lodge Hill Vineyard.
There is nothing fancy about the winemaking here, just perfectly ripe grapes cold fermented at low temperatures in order to retain all the freshness and delicate flavours of the grape.
The nose is lovely, floral, citric and lifted with some richer notes of apricot and pear and even a hint of sage. The palate is gorgeous, bright, fresh, pure and pristine with a lovely little touch of silky succulence balancing the high acidity. There are lime, orange, pear, apricot and nectarine flavours together with a little chalky minerality. It balances purity and freshness with fruit and texture beautifully. It’s quite a beguiling wine, but in the end delivers a wonderfully vibrant wine with crisp acidity, pure minerality and delicious fruit. It is a tad richer and softer than a Santorini, but that just adds to the sensation of trying something totally new. This is a fine white wine – 93/100 points.
This is a perfect wine to serve with some clams in white wine and garlic, seared scallops, grilled prawns, moreton bay bugs, some sea bass, sea bream, swordfish or tuna, or try it with spaghetti all vongole.
By the way, they only made around 3,000 bottles, so grab it while you can!
The reds are just as exciting and more prolific too. Everywhere I went there were delicious Mediterranean grapes on offer, even places that didn’t release one often had them to taste. The wonderful restaurant at Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley offered litres of Sangiovese straight from the barrel, but did not sell it to take away. It went superbly with their fabulous pizzas and local meats.
2015 La La Land Tempranillo Wingara Wines Murray Darling Victoria
Tempranillo is of course famous as the main grape of Rioja. In Rioja the style of wine is as much about the ageing in wooden barrels as anything else, so the fruit is not always the most important character of the wine. Elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula you get Rioja look alikes as well as wines with brighter fruit and less obvious oak ageing. Very often in Iberia Tempranillo goes by other local names such as; Ull de Llebre (Catalunya), Cencibel (La Mancha), Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto del Toro (Castilla y León), Aragonez (southern Portugal) and Tinta Roriz (northern Portugal, especially the Douro).
Although there are some plantings of Tempranillo in Argentina, Chile, California, New Zealand and South Africa I have always been surprised that the grape has not yet really broken through to be a proper mainstream international grape variety. Well, there was a lot of it in the wine shops in Australia, so perhaps its time has come?
Wingara are a big company who make huge volumes of wine, they also own the Deakin Estate and the Katnook Estate in Coonawarra, and this wine comes from their vineyards in the Murray Darling Sunraysia region, which straddles the border between New South Wales and Victoria near the border with South Australia. The vineyards are in Mildura, right on the border with New South Wales. This is a huge region that is irrigated and geared up for volume. However Australia often shows that volume and quality often go hand in hand and this is a terrific wine that is aged for some 8 months in used American oak.
You have to put Rioja out of your mind with this wine. It gives aromas of plums, rich, jammy strawberries, vanilla and sweet spice. The palate soft, juicy and fleshy with sweet red fruit and sweet, ripe tannins, a twist of something darker, vanilla and a light dusting of spice.
This is unashamedly a crowd pleaser of a wine and it certainly pleased my crowds and I know from experience that it goes with almost anything, even chilled at a barbecue – 88/100 points.
Not a grape you often see in Australia, but the the guys at Delinquente – pronounced ‘dellin-qwentay’, it’s Italian for delinquent – seem to like being different. The driving force is the wonderfully named Con-Greg Grigoriou. They use Italian grapes and one of their team, Jason Ankles, draws their striking, if somewhat disturbing labels.
Riverland is not a glamorous wine region. It is one of the big irrigated regions of Australia that traditionally produces work horse wines rather than boutique wines, Berri Estates, Banrock Station and Angove’s are all nearby. However, Con-Greg loves the place. He grew up here by the Murray River and is utterly convinced that it can makes wines as good as anywhere else in the country – on this showing I would have to agree.
Con-Greg Grigoriou amongst his Riverland vines.
Montepulciano is widely grown in Italy, in fact it can be used in over 40 different DOCs or DOCgs. The most famous wine it makes though is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast of Italy. These are usually attractively fruity, inexpensive, easy drinking wines with soft tannins, but there are more ambitious versions produced as well as some impressive examples from the Conero DOCg in the Marche region near Ancona.
The fruit is all from a single vineyard, owned by Bassham Wines in Barmera. It was originally planted with Chardonnay, but was top grafted- i.e. in situ – in 2009 with more adventurous grape varieties and it is farmed organically. It is fermented in stainless steel and sees no wood at all. The aim appears to be to capture the pure, vivid, ripe fruit and he succeeds in that. The palate is succulent, juicy, creamy and generous like a smoothie of rich plum, black cherry and blackberry together with a little spice. The tannins are very soft, so the wine has no astringency and I defy anyone not to enjoy it. This is utterly delicious and comforting in a richly hedonistic way – 92/100 points.
I’m not very good at drinking red wine without food, but this could do the trick. It would also be perfect with a barbecue, or almost any meaty or rich food actually, but I enjoyed my bottle with a curry, it was a great match.
Perhaps this is not as unusual or surprising as the other wines in the line up, but it’s really good and fits the theme perfectly. Australian GSM blends – Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre have been with us for quite a while and are gaining popularity. Who knows they may well have kick started the whole Mediterranean grape wave in Australia. Mourvèdre by the way is the same grape as Mataro and Monastrell. Of course the blend is a nod towards the style of Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The late Robert Oatley.
Bob Oatley was one of the great characters of Australian wine who founded the famous Rosemount Estate nearly 50 years ago. Rosemount was immensely successful and it grew from a tiny boutique estate into a giant winery and Robert eventually sold it in 2001. However by this time he had also bought the venerable Craigmoor Winery in Mudgee in New South Wales and set up Oatley Vineyards there. This slowly became the hub of an enterprise that makes wine right across the premium vineyard sites of Australia and has cellar doors and restaurants in the Mudgee and Margaret River regions. In the 1990’s Robert Oatley was the first person to make a wine as a ‘GSM’.
This wine is a blend of 50% Grenache, 45% Shiraz and 5% Mourvèdre from southern McLaren Vale, which has a distinctly Mediterranean climate and a gentle maritime influence. The blend is matured in French oak barrels for 9 months.
It’s a wine that always goes down well, with warm aromas of mixed red fruit, rich strawberry and cherry, spices and a touch of leather. The palate is juicy, mouth-coating and sumptuous with concentrated red fruit, liquorice, sweet spice and savoury, gamey, earthy notes and all the while it has that hallmark South Australian softness. All in all a delicious and very, very drinkable wine – 90/100 points.
Serve it with slow cooked lamb, venison, kangaroo, lamb kebabs cooked on rosemary twigs, shepherd’s pie or just about anything hearty.
Aglianico (Ali-ani-coe) is yet another great Italian grape variety. Like Fiano it comes from Campania in the south where it makes all sorts of red wines, and the odd rosé, but is most famous for producing Taurasi GOCg in central Campania and Aglianico del Vulture in the wild landscape of Basilicata.
I love Taurasi. At its best it can be one of the very best red wines of Italy, but the grape is very tannic and very acidic – it’s often called the Barolo of the south, although it is much more full-bodied – so it is best to drink it from a producer who really knows what they are doing. Some of the best examples that I have ever tasted are made by the wonderful Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro– he uses 200 year old vines! – the wonderful Feudo di San Gregorio and the lovely Milena Pepe who makes a huge range of fabulous wines at Tenuta Cavalier Pepe.
Because it can be such a hard grape, I was very excited to find Aglianico in Australia and hoped that the longer growing season and more sun would tame the grape’s wild nature. I was not disappointed.
Alpha Box & Dice cellar door.
Alpha Box & Dice is a little like Delinquente in that they present themselves to the world in a very modern way rather like craft beer producers do. Indeed much like craft beer you will struggle to find any actual information on their labels, just striking artwork and strange mottos for life. The place is quite extraordinary with a very relaxed feel and lots of mismatched furniture at the cellar door, but the wines are breathtaking.
The farming here is all biodynamic and while the labels seem cool and amusing you get the feel that the winemaking is taken very seriously indeed – I think you have to with a grape like Aglianico.
The grape is a very late ripener and even in Australia it is not picked until the very end of the season in late April. Once the grapes have been de-stemmed, to help reduce tannin, and the fermentation has taken place the wine is aged in used oak barrels for 36 months. This allows the air to trickle in and soften the tannins in the wine.
Oh my I loved this, it looks quite earthy and garnet with an amazing nose of flowers, balsamic, umami, liquorice, dried fruit and spice with some coffee thrown in. The palate is a shock, even here in Australia it is very acidic – in a good way – with rich cherry, some blackberry, plum, dry, peppery spice, leather, coffee, meat and lovely supple, ripe tannins that just nibble at your gums. A heady wine indeed that needs chargrilled meat or some really good beef – 93/100 points.
2010 D’Arenberg The Cenosilicaphobic Cat Sagrantino-Cinsault D’Arenberg McLaren Vale South Australia
Sagrantino is an amazing grape variety that is nowhere near as well known as it ought to be. It comes from Umbria in Italy where it is used to make the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCg wines and the Montefalco DOC wines that blend it with at least 70% Sangiovese to soften the tannins.
I love D’Arenberg, they are quirky and inventive and never afraid to put themselves out there. The Osborn family have owned it since 1912 and d’Arenberg Osborn – d’Arry – and his son Chester have achieved great things over the last 50 years or so. They actually released the first successful table wine in South Australia as recently as 1955. This was d’Arry’s Original, then called a Red Burgundy, now labelled as Shiraz-Grenache! Their range is large and idiosyncratic, but never disappoints.
Chester & d’Arry Osborn.
This particular wine was new to me this year and I am thrilled by it. 85% Sagrantino is tamed by 15% of light, spicy Cinsault and the South Australian sun. Some of the wine is trodden by foot, it is basket pressed and aged for 2 years in old French and American oak barrels, just to let the air soften those hard ‘gritty’ tannins. Cenosilicaphobic by the way means the fear of an empty glass!
Foot treading the Sagrantino at d’Arenberg.
This is another full on wine with aromas of dried cherry, chocolate, plums, earth, mocha and something wild and floral about it – possibly from the Cinsault. The palate is full and rich with a nice combination of soft, voluptuous richness and hard edged richness. There’re rich fruit, liquorice, balsamic, spices, coffee, chocolate and while there are plenty of tannins they are not aggressive and they have been tamed. A wonderful wine to enjoy with stews and pies – 92/100 points.
I would also add that the Wine Society has a wonderful range of own label Australian wines called Blind Spot and that too includes some wines made from some less well known grape varieties. As you can probably guess some of these excellent wines are made from grapes from the Mediterranean world. These include Garganega – a white Italian grape variety famously used to make Soave – and a Barbera – a black grape more normally associated with Piemonte, both from King Valley in north east Victoria near the border with New South Wales. Then there is a delicious Old Vine Mataro – also known as Mourvèdre and Monastrell – from McLaren Vale in South Australia. In my opinion everyone in the UK who is interested in wine should be a member of the Wine Society, as their range is superb and beautifully put together.
So you see there is a great deal of variety available from Australia, even though they might not be in every supermarket. Australia can do so much more than Cabernet, Shiraz and Chardonnay and can bring its own style to a whole raft of grape varieties more normally associated with the Mediterranean world. What’s more all these wines are absolutely delicious and really food friendly too.