Wine of the Week 47 – a great experience and a great Rioja

This week I throw caution to the wind and celebrate tasting – and drinking – a rare gem from my cellar. It is most certainly not cheap, it isn’t widely available, but it was very, very good, so it is my Wine of the Week.

I was teaching a WSET level 2 course and none of my students had ever tasted a really mature wine, so we cooked up a plan to share an old bottle from my collection.

I spent a happy hour browsing through my bottles, wiping off the dust, and eventually I chose something really exciting. It had sat in my wine rack for well over twenty years just waiting for its moment and I crossed my fingers that it would live up to the hopes that we had for it.

Actually I just hoped it was still alive and not corked.

The bottle was a Rioja, but not just any old wine from that region. No this was the single vineyard 1970 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva from the great Bodegas López de Heredia in Haro.

Looking south across Rioja's vineyards from the Sierra de Cantabria mountains.

Looking south across Rioja’s vineyards from the Sierra de Cantabria mountains.

López de Heredia are unapologetically old fashioned even now, with long ageing and even producing oaky whites and rosés, but this wine was 45 years old. Franco was still dictator of Spain when it was made and Ted Heath was the UK Prime Minister. It was a very different world back then, without computers or the internet, cheap air travel or mobile phones – what’s more The Beatles hadn’t even officially split up and the first Moon landing was only the year before!

I have visited the bodega once, a long time ago, but it always stays with you as the place is one of the iconic wineries of Spain and their story is pretty good too. Still family run, they were founded in 1877 by Don Rafael López de Heredia Landeta who was actually born in Santiago, Chile. However he was Spanish and when the family returned to Spain in 1869 he went to nearby Bayonne in France to study business. While he was there he must have seen the problems the French were having with their vines – this was in the depths of the phylloxera crisis – and the business potential of applying Spanish wine to French producers who had no wine of their own to sell – click here to read about this period of Rioja’s history.

Rioja Map 2013

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

Don Rafael established his winery in Haro, in the barrio, near the railway station – this area is home to a great concentration of the fine old established Rioja producers, including CVNE and Muga, as the railway made exporting the wines much easier than it was in the past. At first the winery was pretty small, but as demand grew he sought to expand – in every direction.

First they set about digging cellars into the local hillside and then he wanted to enlarge the bodega buildings too. He did this by employing Galician stonemasons to turn the excavated stone into building material and then got an architect to design him an up to date winery that was much larger than he needed to allow for future growth. Amazingly it is still larger than they need, although they have expanded several times in to vacant buildings that Don Rafael put up back in the nineteenth century.

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The beautiful López de Heredia winery, complete with the Txori Toki tower. Photo courtesy of the bodega.

As if developing downwards, by digging cellars, and outwards with more buildings was not enough, the winery was finished off with a lovely art nouveau tower that dominates that part of Haro and makes it impossible to miss the winery. This tower is known as the Txori Toki – bird tower in Basque – and its picture graces their wine labels to this day.

López de Heredia is a lovely bodega to visit, the buildings are beautiful and seem to capture the spirit of a time and a place in Rioja’s early history. The cellars are simply amazing with cavern after cavern opening up as you walk through them and you briefly like an explorer from a different age. At the heart of the cellars is a huge tasting room with an enormous round table and enjoying a tasting there is an experience that you never forget.

Unusually for Rioja their production has always been based upon their own vineyards and the core of their range is a series of single vineyard wines such as Viña Gravonia, Viña Cubillo, Viña Bosconia and most importantly the famous Viña Tondonia. This large, 100 hectare vineyard is so synonymous with the company, that its official name is Bodegas R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia. This extraordinary site produces some of the most iconic and traditional Rioja ones in the form of their great reds, whites and one of the very last of the old style long barrel aged Rosados.

The tasting room deep in the cellars, photo courtesy of the winery.

The tasting room deep in the cellars, photo courtesy of the winery.

vina_tondonia_19701970 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva
Bodegas R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
Haro, Rioja
The blend is something like 75% Tempranillo with 15% Garnacha and some Mazuelo and Graciano.  It fermented in wooden fermentation vats, before being aged for 10 years in 225 litre American oak barrels before being bottled.

Opening wine as old as this is always a gamble and a bit of a worry, but I had stored it well in my small cellar the Big Yellow Wine Storage in Fulham, so I should not have worried and as soon as I sniffed it, I knew it was good.
The colour was a real tawny orange and it had become transparent with age. The aroma was deep and savoury with leathery, earthy, meaty, mushroom notes together with some dried fruit – cherry, raspberry, prune, raisin – as well as orange, walnuts and rich coffee, it was really exciting sniffing this.
The palate too was extraordinary, with plenty of life in it still. There was a nice refreshing, elegant cut of acidity and even a little smear of tannins on the finish, but everything was superbly integrated and had become a whole entity with a silky mouthfeel. The flavours were overwhelmingly savoury with smoky, meaty tones, dried fruit giving that glimmer of sweetness and an intensity that totally dominated my senses. Whats more I have never had a dry wine that had such a long finish, it went on for around 2 minutes!
This was a great wine by any measure and what’s more showed no sign of being tired yet. Probably the finest old Rioja I have ever tasted – 95/100 points.

I don’t drink, or even taste, anything like this very often, but when I do it reinforces my joy of wine and excites me enormously. The sense of history I get when I taste old wine is a real part of the pleasure, so if you ever get the chance to taste a really old Rioja, do give it a go.

The Good Campanians – stories, grapes and wines from Italy’s deep south

The other week I was a guest at Campania Stories, which is a wonderful event designed to immerse wine writers and wine educators in the exciting world of Campania wine.

The view from my Naples hotel balcony, Mount Vesuvius is pretty dominating and dramatic and could erupt again any time. It last erupted seriously in 1944.

The view from my Naples hotel balcony, Mount Vesuvius is pretty dominating and dramatic and could erupt again any time. It last erupted seriously in 1944.

Campania is a fascinating region, very beautiful, amazingly varied, steeped in history and full of wonderful things to see. Naples is of course at its heart, but there is so much more here too. Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia all offer rewarding experiences for the traveller, as do the ancient wonders of Pompeii and Herculaneum. However the less well known inland areas are also extremely interesting and whilst they are a little off the tourist trail, they do produce some of the region’s – and Italy’s – most exciting wines. At first glance the wines here seem very traditional and almost the antithesis of the soft, overtly fruity new world wines that dominate the wine selections in supermarkets around the world. They are of course labelled by place name as is the custom in Europe, but many Italian wine names include the name of the grape variety too, as is often the case here. Pretty much everything in Campania is made from local indigenous grapes, some of which are very old indeed, with histories that reach back into ancient times. These grape varieties are the driving force of Campania, they define the types of wine the region can make, while the climate and soils reinforce those definitions. Man of course can make choices and adjustments, so there can be some differing styles and emphasis in the wines.

Naples fishing harbour with capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the distance.

Ancient Grapes Any search for new flavours and excitement should take in Campania as it is home to such fabulous grape varieties.

The Black Grapes:

Aglianico is the region’s mainstay black grape and its name is either a corruption of ellenico or Helleni that betray Ancient Greek origins, or Apulianicum, the Latin term for southern Italy. Either way we know it is very old and was used to make Falernian which was the most highly rated wine of Ancient Rome, the modern Falerno del Massico is made in the same area. Aglianico is traditionally full-bodied, with high acidity – perfect with food – and high tannin that can seem a little rustic in the wrong hands. Luckily many winemakers increasingly seem to know how to tame those hard tannins.

Piedirosso, was apparently mentioned by Pliny the Elder and its name translates as ‘red foot’ because the stems are red in colour. In fact, in the local dialect it is called Palombina or Per’e Palummo which means ‘little dove’ and ‘dove’s foot’ because the stems are made up of 3 stalks that make it resemble a bird’s foot. This grape also has high acid, but is lighter in tannin, so produces quite soft wines. It is often blended with Aglianico to make the wine fresher, especially in Fallerno del Massico and Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio.

The White Grapes:

Fiano is also 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 balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.

Greco is a fascinating grape, capable of making some great dry whites, the best are traditionally made in the area around the town of Tufo and are very mineral and fine. The jury is out about the origins of the name though. Most books say it was brought to Italy by the Ancient Greeks, but Ferrante di Somma di Circello, whose Cantine di Marzo produces fine Greco di Tufo, told me that it was called Greco because it was the best grape to make Greek style wine, by which people used to mean sweet wine from dried grapes. These were the most sought after wines in the middle ages and were known as Romneys by the English wine trade.

Falanghina, much as I love Fiano and Greco, I reckon Falanghina is Campania’s calling card for white wines. It is capable of being much softer and fruitier than the others and can easily be enjoyed without food. Again this was used by the ancient Romans to produce the famous Falernian.

Coda di Volpe was apparently even named by Pliny the Elder, because the bunches are thought to resemble a fox’s tail. The wines seem to have less acidity and to be more textured than the other Campanian whites. The Caprettone, which is used to make white Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, was long thought to be Coda di Volpe, but recent research has shown it to be a variety on its own.

Ancient Wines I have never been anywhere where so much of the ancient world is still visible and all round you. The Campanians are very proud of their past, both as part of the Roman world and as the separate Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and some producers are keen to keep the links with the ancients alive and I came across two fascinating projects that do just that.

A restaurant in Pompeii, busy, but a little understaffed.

A restaurant in Pompeii, busy, but a little understaffed.

True Amphora Wine
Villa Matilde is a terrific producer which specialises in Falerno del Massico – every time I tasted their wines I marked them very highly indeed – and farms some of the original vineyard slopes that made the Roman Falernian wine. This was the first cult wine of Rome and  records show that it was served to Julius Caesar and even shipped to England. Salvatore Avallone owns Villa Matilde and wanted to create a wine that harked back to how the Romans made it, but was also recognisably wine – the Romans made wines that as far as we can tell were like a sweet syrup to which they added water and spices.

Villa Matilde's Amphora wine, the seal has just been broken and you can see the grape matter in the wine.

Villa Matilde’s Amphora wine, the seal has just been broken and you can see the grape matter in the wine.

So he created a wine that is a blend of Aglianico di Falernia with 3% Piedirosso that was fermented and aged in 25 litre amphora that are lined with bees wax. The resulting wine is rich and delicious with concentrated fruit and lots of character.

Up From the Ashes
Every region needs a large scale pioneer and guiding hand, and Campania is lucky enough to have at least two, but the original is Mastroberardino which for a century, between 1878 and about 1980, was the only important commercial winery in the region – everyone else made wine for local consumption. Mastroberardino intially led the way to produce quality wines, to breathe new life into this region and to rescue its indigenous grape varieties. That task has now been taken up by others including Feudo di San Gregorio, but Mastroberardino are still important and make some very fine wines indeed.

One of the Mastroberardino vineyards in Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background. Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 destroying the city and killing everyone within it.

One of the Mastroberardino vineyards in Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background. Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 destroying the city and killing everyone within it.

In 1996 they helped the archeological superintendent of Pompeii to investigate five vineyard sites within the boundaries of Pompeii town itself. They carefully made casts of the vine roots from the holes that had left behind – just as they famously did with the human victims at Pompeii – and identified the vines. They were Piedirosso and Sciascinoso and both are still grown here. Then using all the sources they could they replanted the vineyards using the same viticultural techniques they think the Romans used, which I have to say look very modern to my eye. The resulting wine is called Villa die Misteri and is named after the large villa just outside the city walls that has the most spectacular wall paintings. Sadly I have not tried it as it is very expensive, but the whole project is very exciting and thought provoking.

Stories of Wines & Wineries
Frankly I was spoiled for choice on this trip, so many producers went out of their way to show me wonderful wines and to give me great experiences. Here are the ones that stay with me and for me sort of encapsulate the region. As there is so much ground to cover, I will restrict myself to the highest grade of Italian wines, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita / DOCGs – I will tell you about some of the other wines another day.

Campania watermarked

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

Campania’s most well known and leading wines all come from the Irpinia region, which covers the same territory as Avellino province around 30 miles inland from Naples. The three most important DOCG, one red and two white, nestle together. This dominance of white wine shows just how cool the region can be. The winters are long and harsh judging by the conditions in March and while the summers are hot and dry there is always a tempering influence from the mountains that dominate the landscape.

Vines in Taurasi.

Vines in Taurasi.

Taurasi DOCG is arguably the most well known wine from the region and was made famous by Mastroberardino, which was the only serious, export led winemaker here until the late 1980s, there are now nearly 300 producers. The dominant grape is Aglianico, but it can be blended with up to 15% of Barbera, Piedirosso and Sangiovese, all of which have softer tannins than Aglianico, so make the wines fresher. To give you an idea of what it is like, Taurasi is rather lazily called ‘the Barolo of the south’ and I can see why. The wines have similar tannins and acidity to Barolo, but in truth are more properly full-bodied and are normally much more mineral – I always think you can taste the slate and the salt in Taurasi. The soil is actually sand and sandstone and so the area is Phyloxerra free and the vines are on their own roots. This can be a hard edged and unrelenting wine and so not to everyone’s taste. The best examples though manage to tame the grape’s wilder instincts and make the wines approachable, if still very savoury and dry. I struggled to see the charms in some, but my favourites were simply superb.

Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro.

Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro.

Cantine Guastaferro This small estate made the most impressive Taurasi wines that I tried all trip, indeed they were some of the best red wines that I have tasted over the last 12 months. Raffaele Guastaferro farms 7 hectares at around 300 metres above sea level on south east facing slopes. The great secret is that the vines are – are you sitting down? – between 150 and 200 years old! This means they produce tiny amounts of very concentrated juice and that shows in the finished wines. Raffaele modestly told me that he has a magic vineyard and so he does not have to do much work in the cellar!

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Ancient vines at Cantine Guastaferro. The Pergola system is a traditional way to train vines in Campania. It allows the farmer to use the land below for growing food crops and keeps the grapes away from the humid conditions on the ground.

All Cantine Guastaferro’s wines are superb, although I didn’t taste his white, but his Primum Taurasi  and Primum Riserva was magnificent with great concentration, ripe fruit, beautifully managed tannins, lots of minerality and even a twist of blood orange. My favourite was the 2006, but they all wowed me and deserve a place in any serious cellar.

Primum2006 Guastaferro Primum Riserva Taurasi DOCG 1-2 years in Botti (large barrels) From 150-200 year old vines. Opaque, almost black and treacley colour, some slight tawny on the rim. Smoky nose, cinders, meat, ash, caramel, dried red fruit, blood orange and some leather too, as well as that tight minerality. Gorgeous palate, really oily rich and mouth coating, totally dry wine with a fine balance between the fruit and austerity, makes it taut, that slate taste creeps in here too. Glorious, with fine grain tannins, tasty, smoky wood, cooked fruit, gamey and absolutely superb. Some refreshing blood orange acidity lends purity. Lovely spicy tingle on the finish. Simply stunning, the tannins are firm but not too much, they are enjoyable and the finish is epic – 94/100 points.

Feudo di San Gregorio
Produced on an entirely different scale and readily available all around the world, I also found the Taurasi from Feudo di San Gregorio to be very impressive – as well as everything else they made in fact. This is a big winery, but their passion and attention to detail cannot be denied. They have only been in existence since the mid 1980s, but in many ways are the engine – the Mondavi, the Torres – of Campania and put it on the map at least as much as Mastroberardino. For many of us our first taste of this region was a wine from Feudo di San Gregorio. When I visited it was a bitterly cold day, so sadly I saw nothing of the vineyards, I was just grateful to get into the warm of the winery, which also boasts a Michelin starred restaurant.

Antonio Capaldo the energetic and knowledgable chapman of Feudo di San Gregorio.

Antonio Capaldo the energetic and charismatic Chairman of Feudo di San Gregorio.

feudi-di-san-gregorio-taurasi-aglianico-vino-02010 Feudo di San Gregorio Taurasi Taurasi DOCG Deep opaque colour, deep ruby with just a garnet tinge. Gamey, basalt nose, smoky, iron, roses, plums, red cherry, it still offers primary fruit despite being 5 years old. Beautiful palate, very tight and drying fine grain tannins, loads of black fruit, it’s earthy and beginning to be leathery, with coffee and mocha oak and running through it all is some refreshing, balancing acidity. Really good wine, gamey, meaty, rich and fine with liquorice spice and that touch of slate. The fruit carries the tannins and drying character well, without being aggressive – 91/100 points.

There is plenty of Aglianico grown outside the Taurasi zone of course, and many of them are very good wines indeed, have a look at this one which is a very drinkable IGT from Benevento. Tenuta Cavalier Pepe too make a very wide range of quite excellent wines. This blend of 70% Aglianico with 30% Sangiovese was quite delicious and would be my Wine of the Week if it was available in the UK.  In fact Tenuta Cavalier Pepe is an excellent winery and everything I have tasted from them has been very well made, including their Taurasi and Aglianico rosé.

The White DOCGs

The view from my hotel in Avellino - it was bitterly cold.

The view from my hotel in Avellino – it was bitterly cold.

Fiano di Avellino DOCG is probably the most impressive of the three white wine styles produced in Irpinia, although they are all good. Avellino is ringed by mountains and apart from grapes the big crop here is hazelnuts as it has been since Roman times. Although the Italian for hazelnut is nocciola, the Latin is abellana and the Spanish is a still recognisable avellana. I really fell for the Fiano grape, it seems to me that it makes very fine wine indeed, mineral and acidic to be sure – the area has volcanic soils which often make for mineral wines, think of Etna and Santorini – but the best have lovely deep flavours, often of hazelnuts and almonds. The best examples often had orange peel characters too that I like very much, as well as apricot, which put me in mind of Viognier or Gewürztraminer, but with much more acidity, in fact by having texture and acidity, they remind me of the best examples of  Godello from Galicia.

I tasted many fine Fianos, but the stand out wines came from Rocca del Principe. This delightful winery is in Lapio, right on the border between the Taurasi and Fiano di Avellino zones, which means they can make both wines here. The name means fortress of the Prince, because a local royal house were based in Lapio in the early middle ages. Rocca del Principe Fiano vines are grown high at 500-600 metres above sea level, on south east facing slopes. They age the wines for 6 months on the fine lees, which imparts complexity and a delicately creamy richness.

Ercole Zarrella and his wife Aurelia Fabrizio who own Rocca del Principe.

Aurelia Fabrizio and her husband Ercole Zarrella who own Rocca del Principe.

I tasted 9 vintages of the Fiano here, from 2014 tank samples, which were delicious, lovely and fresh, to the 2006 which was showing some age, but was still a great wine. The young wines had a more linear style, while the older bottles had more rounded richness, which suits the wines, I think. They were all superb dry white wines, but my absolute favourite was the 2009. roccadelprincipe_fianodiavellino_bianco09__74317__27016.1407758626.1280.12802009 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino Fiano di Avellino DOCG Musky notes, butterscotch, cinder toffee, apricot and orange peel on the nose, together with some hazelnuts. The palate offers lovely sweet fruit, making it round and rich, but balanced by the minerality and cleansing acidity. I found it very like a dry Gewürztraminer, or perhaps a Godello. The texture is big and mouth coating, oily even, while the fruit and complexity gives it elegance , which together with the acidity and minerality give superb balance. A great dry white wine – 92/100 points.

I also tasted a range of vintages at Ciro Picariello, which is another superb little, 7 hectares again, estate that produces excellent Fiano di Avellino, as well as Fiano Irpinia from outside the boundaries of the DOCG, and once again the wines are well worth trying.

I also found the 2013 Fiano di Avellino from Feudo di San Gregorio was very good indeed, while their single vineyard version, the 2013 Pietracalda Fiano di Avellino had a little more fat on its bones, so was richer and finer, yet still very mineral and had great finesse.

Vineyards in Lapio.

Vineyards in Lapio.

The fortress in Lapio.

The fortress in Lapio.

Fiano is also grown outside the boundaries of Avellino too and especially good examples are available from the Sannio DOC just to the north, take a look at this one here.

Greco di Tufo is quite different. The wines made from this grape, in the area around Tufo anyway, tend to be leaner and more overtly mineral. In fact some of them reminded me of bone dry Rieslings, although a better comparison might be to Assyrtico from Santorini. Greco of course is more widely grown in southern Italy, but can be pretty inconsequential from elsewhere. It seems to need the  tuff soils of Tufo, after which the town is named, which is compressed volcanic ash, which allows the minerality to really shine through.

Once again Feudo di San Gregorio’s wines were a very good introduction to the grape, both their normal Greco di Tufo and their single vineyard Cutizzi Greco di Tufo are very good quality indeed. I loved the taut mineral style, but with concentrated fruit and just a touch of richer cream adding weight.

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The flamboyant and charming Ferrante di Somma di Circello of Cantine di Marzo, whose ancestor brought the Greco grape to Tufo.

I was also very impressed with the Greco di Tufo made by the venerable Cantine di Marzo, I really approved of the lithe, taut, mineral style, which also suits their excellent traditional method sparkling Greco called Anni Venti.

Equally good were the Greco di Tufo from the wonderful Tenuta Cavalier Pepe, all of whose wines seem to be first rate, and the excellent low sulphur example from the Azienda Vitivinicola Le Ormere, but I will tell you about those producers another day.

One last DOCG Aglianico is widely grown and the increasing quality caused the authorities to create a new DOCG in 2011. This is Aglianico del Taburno which covers the Benevento area, where much more easy drinking Aglianico is produced as well, much of it IGT. The vineyards are often very high, up to 650 metres above sea level and the wines that I have tasted certainly have a fresher style than the intensely mineral Taurasi wines. I especially enjoyed the two example that I tried at Fattoria La Rivolta. This is an excellent winery that is one of the leading lights of  Benevento and farms in a near organic way. Their wines pleased me greatly, but then I was eating a rather lovely rustic lunch at the same time, so I might be biased!

Vincenzo Mercurio the winemaker at Fattoria La Rivolta.

Vincenzo Mercurio the winemaker at Fattoria La Rivolta, which is a rising star in Benevento.

AGLIANICO TABURNO  ROSATO2013 Le Mongolfiere a San Bruno rosé DOCG Aglianico del Taburno Fattoria La Rivolta 100% Aglianico The colour was most attractive, a sort of cross between copper and coral with ripe strawberry and cherry. The palate was very pure and fresh with high acidity and ripe cherry all the way through to the end. I enjoyed this very dry rosé, which was perfect with the local salami – 88/100 points.

Fattoria La Rivolta vineyards.

Fattoria La Rivolta vineyards.

Rivolta AGLIANICO DEL2011 Terra di Rivolta Aglianico del Taburno DOCG Aglianico del Taburno Fattoria La Rivolta 100% Aglianico aged 18 months in barriques The nose was rich and offered ripe black cherry and plums, some coffee spice, earthiness, liquorice and dark chocolate too. The palate had lovely supple tannins, sugar plums and black cherry flavours and some refreshing high acidity. There was a savoury bitterness that built up from the mid palate, but it was delicious, like the inherent astringency in Nebbiolo. I thought this wine was very good indeed – 91/100 points.

The Good Campanians

There is much to enjoy from Campania. There are good wines, exciting grapes and fascinating stories everywhere you look. There is so much passion there, so much dedication and so much determination to make great wines. I have only scratched the surface in this piece with a peep at the DOCGs, and a few other delights, but I hope that something took your interest. Anyone who loves good wine would enjoy most of the wines that I have mentioned. The variety of wine in Campania is enormous, but so too is the potential. We shall return to Campania soon, so keep dropping back.

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

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

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

California map QS 2015 watermarked

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Wine of the Week 45 – an elegant and delicious Port

I love Port, as well as the unfortified wines of Portugal’s Douro region (do try this one here), and given how reluctant winter is to leave us this year, in the UK anyway, I thought this delicious Port that I discovered recently would be a lovely, warming Wine of the Week.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

Port has long been dominated by the big brands, many of them still with British names, such as Grahams, Dows, Cockburns, Taylors etc., but that has been changing ever since 1986. Until that year, Port had to be taken from the vineyards in the Upper Douro Valley to the Port Lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, near Porto, where the big Port houses are based. It was these companies who aged and shipped the wine rather than the grape growers. After 1986 though, the growers were allowed to age and ship their own wines direct from their estates or Quintas in the Upper Douro.

This means that more and more Port is now made by the growers on their own estates, which can only add to the romance of the product. It is also in keeping with the rest of the wine world, where it is very common to find estates that have been growing grapes for decades, or longer, who in recent years have stopped selling their grapes to the big local producer, or cooperative and instead have started making the wines for themselves.

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

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

This is exactly what happened with the Quinta do Infantado, which is a delightful family run Port estate near the lovely village of Pinhão in the heart of the Douro. The Roseira family have been in charge here for well over a century, but the Quinta actually dates back to 1816, when it was founded by the Portuguese Crown Prince, or Infante – hence Infantado. Of course, like all the other growers, the Roseiras, and the Infante before them, sold their grapes to the big names shippers until 1986 – which is presumably explains why the Port houses were called ‘shippers’ rather than producers, which was something I always found odd.

The beautiful tiled railway station in Pinhão.

The beautiful tiled railway station in Pinhão.

The beautiful tiled railway station in Pinhao.

The beautiful tiled railway station in Pinhão.

The Douro is a very beautiful, rugged, wild place with a very hot climate in the growing season. The land slopes dramatically down to the Douro River and so much of the landscape is terraced to allow for efficient agriculture and to stop soil erosion. The soil is schist, which is decayed slate, so everything makes this a hard landscape to work and ensures that pretty much everything still has to be done by hand – and sometimes by foot – just as it always has. Rather wonderfully at Quinta do Infantado they do still tread the grapes in the traditional manner – this gives a rapid extraction of colour in the shallow, stone fermentation tanks called a lagares.

Vineyards are everywhere you look in Pinhão.

Vineyards are everywhere you look in Pinhão.

Large wooden vats for ageing Port. These are at Quinta do Noval.

Large wooden vats for ageing Port. These are at Quinta do Noval, which is near Quinta do Infantado.

lbv 20092009 Quinta do Infantado LBV Port
Port
The blend is 30% Touriga Franca, 30% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) with 10% of other local grapes. The grapes are trodden and the finished Port is aged for around 4 years in large (25,000) wooden vats that are over 100 years old and so give no wood flavour to the wine, but do soften the tannins. The finished wine is not filtered or fined before bottling. An LBV, or Late Bottled Vintage, is technically a Reserve Ruby Port from a single vintage.

The colour is an enticing intense, vibrant, deep ruby.
The nose is lifted, scented and lively with rich black fruit notes of blackberry and black cherry, warming spice, liquorice, aniseed, clove, smoke and cedar. There is a floral prettiness there too, even a twist of orange peel.
The palate is sumptuous and fresh tasting with delicious sweet black fruit and lots of red fruit too – rich red plum and cherry, gentle sweet spice, some dry spice and a little smoky, fine grain tannin on the finish. This was also a pretty dry style of Port, not dry exactly, but drier than most.
This is joyous, vibrant and beautifully balanced with excellent integration between the fruit and the alcohol, indeed for a Port it carries its 19.5% alcohol very well indeed.
If more affordable Port tasted this fresh and juicy, I would drink more of it – 91/100.

I greatly enjoyed this with some Manchego and Gorgonzola cheese, but it also goes superbly with chocolate.

Available in the UK for around £15 a bottle from The Wine Reserve, Slurp, Eclectic Tastes, The Drink Shop, Little Big Wine, Exel Wines and the Fine Wine Company. Further stockist information is available from the UK distributor, Liberty Wines.
The US distributor is Louis/Dressner Selections / LDM WINES INC and more stockist information is available here.

Do try this if you get the chance, it is utterly delicious without being overly heavy or spirity either, Quinta do Infantado also produce a wide range of other Ports and table wines too. If I get the chance to taste them I will report back on what those are like too.

Wine of the Week 44 – a classy and classic Bordeaux-like blend from South Africa

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

I have been visiting South Africa semi regularly now for well over 10 years and over that time the wines have continued to improve and become even more exciting. Very few places can touch South Africa’s Western Cape – the main centre of wine production – for sheer diversity, whether it is in soils, altitude or aspect. This allows them to grow an extraordinary array of different grape varieties and they put this to good use by producing an incredible variety of wines, often from quite a small area.

The Cape is very beautiful too, which makes it a real joy to visit. What’s more the wine regions are all pretty compact and most of the estates are within an hour or 2 of Cape Town airport. I love visiting the place, the beauty of the place never fails to get to me. Many of the wineries are old with the charming Cape Dutch architecture. Even the modern ones are lovely places to visit, as they are usually very well geared up to receive visitors and most have good restaurants too, like the excellent Terroir at Kleine Zalze. But even if they don’t it doesn’t matter as Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Paarl and Franschhoek are all full of lovely places to eat excellent food and drink good wine.

As far as wine is concerned, the place produces such variety that it is hard to say what is best, but I have been seriously impressed with many South African Sauvignon Blancs recently, especially this one and this one, they really are world class and can often give great value for money too – like this one here.

As for reds I am struggling to single out trends, as so many styles from the Cape are good. I still admire this Cabernet Franc from KWV, which was a former Wine of the Week. The Chocolate Box blend from Boekenhoutskloof is also hugely impressive and enjoyable and there is much else to enjoy, including some superb and enjoyable examples of Pinotage and this lovely Sangiovese.

However, last night I showed a very exciting South African Bordeaux-blend at a tasting. I have tasted the wine many times before from previous vintages and it never fails to impress, as well as to offer great value for mine, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

South Africa map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine map of South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Bordeaux blends, wines made from a blend of the grapes that are famously used in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec (Cot) are a very traditional South African style and something of a speciality of the Stellenbosch area, so are well worth trying. This one is from the venerable Meerlust Estate, which has belonged to the Myburgh family since 1756, but was actually founded in 1693. Situated very near the sea in False Bay, southern Stellenbosch, the site benefits from cool ocean breezes and mists that temper the extreme heat of summer and must have made the place a logical place to build.

The name Meerlust apparently means ‘pleasure of the sea’, but I do not know in what language – as far as I can detect it is neither German, the original owner was German, Dutch or Afrikaans. I can get sea in the meer bit (mer), but cannot help feeling that lust implies something more than pleasure!

Whatever the name means though, it was a fortunate site to choose for wine too, as the cool conditions allow Meerlust to produce excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay too. However their main focus has always been their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends – Meerlust Rubicon is their Grand Vin – as well as some single varietal wines. My Wine of the Week is in effect their second wine made from younger vines and declassified vats, but it is still very good indeed.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust-Red2012 Meerlust Red
W.O. Stellenbosch
Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc and 9% Petit Verdot aged in 55% new French oak.

Frankly this is more like a classic Claret from my youth than most Claret nowadays. The nose is fragrant and scented with very attractive leafy herbaceous notes, not green though. Just behind this there is plenty of vibrant fruit too, cassis, plums and a touch of blackberry. However the fruit is delicate and more European in style, rather than lifted, rich and sweetly ripe, as drinkers often expect from the new world. There is also a little touch of leather, cedar, pencil shavings, mocha and espresso bean, that all give a nice feeling of complexity and elegant sophistication.
The palate is medium-bodied and fresh tasting with some nice cleansing acidity balancing the succulent ripe fruit that gives cassis, dried and fresh, a touch of creamy vanilla, mocha again and some attractive leather too. The tannins are lovely and ripe, with a nice fine-grain texture giving just a little touch of astringency to the finish, which gives the wine some nice focus and definition – structure is the official word. The freshness really dominates the finish, which adds to that sense of focus and poise in the wine, while the finish is extraordinarily long. I love this wine and think it would happily grace a dinner party table as well as being great value for more frequent drinking. Perfect with Sunday roast, game, meat and semi-hard cheese – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from The Wine Society, WinerackN.D.John, Lea and Sandeman, South African Wines Online, Slurp and Exel Wines – more stockist information is here.
Meerlust wines are distributed in the US through Maisons Marques & Domaines.

If you like classic Bordeaux wines you will certainly enjoy this, but even if you have never tried a Claret it is still a delicious wine that will find favour with almost anyone who enjoys Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Wine of the Week 43 – an excitingly different Spanish style

Many drinker’s knowledge and experience of Spanish wines revolves almost entirely around Rioja, which is a great shame as there is so very much more to enjoy and experience from this wonderful country.

I love Rioja, it is a great wine region that produces many world class wines. However, Spain is brimming over with other exciting wine regions that all produce fascinating wines that are well worth drinking. What’s more many of them are made in a completely different style from Rioja and are often made from different grape varieties too.

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

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

One region that would repay trying is Bierzo. It’s just in Castilla y León, or Old Castille, but looks and feels more Galician and Celtic than the rest of the province and indeed it was a part of Galicia until the 18th Century. It joins on to the Galician wine region of Valdeorras and has much in common with it. The geography, climate and landscape are very similar and so they use the same grape varieties, Godello for white wines and Mencía for reds. Recently I tasted a really delicious and drinkable Mencía from Bierzo and so I made it my Wine of the Week.

An ordinary night out in Bierzo

An ordinary night out in Bierzo with the late John Radford.

Las Médulas

Las Médulas, a World Heritage Site in Bierzo that was once the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire.

Bierzo2013 Mencía Luna Beberide
D.O. Bierzo
Bodegas Luna Beberide
Cacabelos, Léon
Castilla y León, Spain

100% Mencía and unoaked, this could not be more different from Rioja if it tried. Alejandro Luna is the owner and winemaker at this wonderful little estate. He is a local boy who travelled all over Spain learning his craft before he returned home to the far north west of Castille. Some of his vines are well over 60 years old and are grown high up – between 600 and 750 metres above sea level – on south facing slopes. This means they have good sun exposure to make them ripe, but are protected from the Atlantic rains, while the cooler air at that altitude retains the grape’s natural freshness and acidity, the conditions are so cool actually that he can also grow some Riesling and Pinot Noir. All the farming is organic with no pesticides or herbicides used. Harvesting is all done by hand and the wine is unfiltered.

VIÑAS-CABALLO-1

Ploughing the old fashioned way at Bodegas Luna Beberide, see how high they are and how wild the landscape is. Photo courtesy of the winery.

The colour is an attractive, opaque, yet bright violet purple.
The nose gives off lovely lifted aromas of blackberry, sugar plums, cherry and violets together with a little liquorice spice and earthy minerality.
The palate is soft, round, juicy and lively with freshness balancing the rich dark fruit. Mulled wine flavours together with  Blueberry, bilberry and blackberry dominate together with cherry stones and light, supple tannins. It is light to medium bodied with lots and lots of character. A hugely enjoyable wine that should appeal to Syrah / Shiraz lovers as well as Burgundy and Beaujolais drinkers – 90/100 points.

A very food friendly wine that is perfect with pastas, pizzas and lighter meat dishes and is soft enough to drink without food too.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from Devinos and Grey’s Fine Foods.
Available in the US through Grapes of Spain and these stockists here.

If you have never tried a Bierzo, or Mencía as it is grown in other regions, then this fruity and supple example might be a very good place to start. Alejandro Luna also makes more high end wines and I will tell you about some of those another day.

Wine of the Week 42 – Campania’s calling card

As regular readers will know, I have recently returned from the wonderful Campania region of Italy. It is an amazing part of the world whose capital is the vibrant and exciting city of Naples and includes the astonishing archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculanium, as well as the dazzling Amalfi coast. Campania also boasts a dramatic and mountainous hinterland that contains several high quality wine regions and is also home to some superb indigenous grape varieties, including Aglianico, Greco and Falanghina.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the distance.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the distance.

While I was there, my colleagues and I often discussed how the Campanian producers could reach a wider audience with their wines and which of their many excellent grapes would provide the calling card for the region. We pretty much all agreed that Aglianico, with its firm tannins and savoury, bitter flavours, was not a wine for beginners or to be drunk without food – although there are exceptions. Most of us also felt that the white Greco grape, while delicious and very fine, produces very taut and mineral wines with a linear structure rather than a rich, friendly, soft character that most wine drinkers – in the UK anyway – favour for their everyday wines.

Much as we loved those structured grapes that produce serious and fine wines, we were pretty much all of the view that Campania wines will become more popular and well known through people trying and enjoying their other white grape, the Falanghina. In truth this process has started, go and have a look in most wine shops and supermarkets nowadays and you will normally find a Falanghina there somewhere. Hopefully this exciting grape is poised to follow Picpoul de Pinet, Grüner Veltliner and Albariño in a successful breach of the stranglehold that Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio seem to have on the market for everyday drinking white wines.

Falanghina, pronounced falang-geena with a hard G sound, is an ancient grape variety that was almost certainly used by the Romans, experts think it was the base for the famous Falernian wine. I have tasted a good many examples now and think that Falanghina always delivers a good depth of flavour, even at the value end of the price spectrum. The wines are always tangy and drinkable, so could well be the next big thing. They go very well with all manner of lighter foods and are also nice to drink on their own.

The other day I tasted these excellent, good value examples and enjoyed them so much that I have made them my joint Wine of the Week.

Falanghina2013 Sainsbury’s Winemaker’s Selection Falanghina
IGT Beneventano
Benevento
Campania, Italy

Attractive nose of grapefruit, herbs, a little pineapple and a twist of orange zest.
The palate has nice succulence with lovely fruit, orange and peach, which makes for a very soft dry white wine that is easy to drink, but not boring at all. There is even a nice touch of tropical, pineapple, fruit on the palate, balanced by a touch of fresh acidity and a bit of minerality. This is a very attractive easy drinking wine, simple, but very nice to drink – 85/100 points

Available in the UK from Sainsbury’s for £6.50 per bottle.

Vineyards in Benevento.

Vineyards in Benevento.

M&S Falanghina2013 Marks & Spencers Falanghina
IGT Beneventano
La Guardiense
Benevento
Campania, Italy

This example is made by my friends at the La Guardiense cooperative and is actually a tad finer, with greater concentration and richer fruit. It is still soft and easy to drink though and has a gorgeous touch of tangerine fruit to the palate and the nose – 87/100 points

Available in the UK from Marks and Spencer for £7.00 per bottle.

Both of these are very nicely made attractive examples of Falanghina, richer more concentrated and finer versions are available too and I will mention some of those soon.

Go on, give Falanghina a try, you never know, you might even start a trend.