Wine of the Week 53 – a celebration of Albariño

Once again I was spoilt for choice, so have decided to have a pair of Wines of the Week.

They are both from different countries and different winemakers, but they are both made from the same grape – Albariño, although neither of them hail from that superb grape’s native country – Spain. The grape originates in Gallicia north western Spain, where it is famously used to make Rias Baixas wines – this is one of the very best you will find. This region is just above Portugal, which also grows the grape and produces superb wines from it, but the Portuguese call it Alvarinho – this is a superb Portuguese example, as is this.

Loving Albariño can be an irritating pastime as, like Pinot Noir, it can be so inconsistent and not always show its true beauty, but when it does it truly deserves to be included in a list of the world’s finest white grapes. Lower quality examples can be a bit dilute and lack minerality in favour of peachy fruit, so are always at least nice to drink, but at their best Albariños – like this one here – have poise, balance, purity and a thrilling quality.

By the way, if is is consistency that you are looking for with Spanish white wines, then I would recommend that you try a Verdejo from Rueda, this grape never fails to deliver and I wrote about a superb example here.

Good Albariño excites me and I have long thought it a shame that it has not managed to break out from the ghetto and become a true international grape variety. However, it seems that this might be about to change as I have recently tasted two really exciting and fine Albariños, one from New Zealand and another from California, neither of them are oaked.

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

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

Marimar Albarino2012 Marimar Estate Albariño
Marimar Estate, Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA, Sonoma, California

Marimar Torres is an amazing lady. Born into the winemaking Torres family of Spain, she is Miguel’s sister, Marimar carved out her own niche by relocating to California and establishing a boutique winery in Sonoma. The estate specialises in Chardonnay and Noir and the viticulture is entirely organic and moving towards biodynamic. Because of Marimar’s Spanish roots they also grow a little Tempranillo, which she blends with Syrah, and recently have planted a small parcel of Albariño. Originally Marimar planted the grape on the cool Sonoma Coast, but amazingly it was too cold for it to ripen properly – it was cooler than Galicia. After 4 years of trying there they gave up and grafted the same vines onto rootstock in their slightly warmer Don Miguel Vineyard in their Russian River Valley Estate. It is a true boutique wine with only 287 cases produced.
Albariño is an aromatic grape and the nose is richly exotic and fragrant with floral notes, pineapple, mango and some peach and nectarine too. It isn’t all fruit though, there is even a touch of something saline and mineral there.
The palate is quite round, but also delivers lovely acidity to offset the succulent fruit. Lovely concentration of fruit, peach and apricot, even peach stone at times. Touch of white pepper too. Lovely balance and tension between the freshness and the juicy fruit. A glorious wine, subtle and hedonistic at the same time. The finish is dominated by lovely tangy stone fruit and is very long – 93/100 points.
Try it with simply cooked fish and a salad, but the sheer weight of this Albariño will suit garlicky chicken well too.
Available in the UK for around £28 a bottle from Vintage Marque and Edgmond Wines. Further stockist information is available from Fells.
US stockist information is available here.
The second exciting Albariño that I have tasted recently is from an equally unlikely place, New Zealand.
NZ map QS 2011 watermark

New Zealand wine map – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Richard Painter, Te Awa's talented winemaker.

Richard Painter, Te Awa’s talented winemaker.

Left Field Albarino2014 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Hawke’s Bay, New ZealandTe Awa is another enterprising winery, this time based in the Gimblett Gravels zone of North Island’s Hawkes Bay region. They produce an exciting range of wines, but also like to show their whimsical side in their Left Field range of less usual grape varieties that are not always grown on their own vineyards. They augment these wines with a wonderfully irreverent set of labels, which you must read. The Albariño fruit was sourced from a small vineyard in Gisborne, which again shows that you do not want too cold a place for Albariño to thrive – Gisborne is pretty warm and is regarded as great Chardonnay country. Again it is an experimental lot with just 250 cases produced.
There is a startling purity to this with like juice and pumice notes together with some honeysuckle and orange blossom on the nose.
The palate is lean and clean, like a lunge with a foil, with acidity rather than weight to the fore, but the fruit is delicious too, sort of dancing on your senses with delicate flavours of melon, peach and nectarine. Another gorgeous wine and clean as a whistle, grab some while you can – 92/100 points.
This lighter, zestier style would suit shell fish and tapas very well as well as all manner of lighter dishes.
Available in the UK for around £13 a bottle from Stone Vine & SunTaurus Wines and The Halifax Wine Company. Further stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield.
Both these wines are really fine examples of Albariño and show that this terrifically exciting grape is finally on the march.

Wine of the Week 52 – a full year of Wines of the Week, so something rather special

Oddly I rather feel as though I have really achieved something by publishing a Wine of the Week every week for the last year, as well as other articles.

I hope that some of you have enjoyed reading about the wines and even tried some of them.

To celebrate the first anniversary of my Wine of the Week I have decided to feature something rather special and delicious. It is an English sparkling wine, which in case you were not aware, is something that England does rather well.

Ridgeview Vineyards, photo by kind permission of James Pike Photography.

Ridgeview Vineyards, photo by kind permission of James Pike Photography. Contact James Pike on 01273 731745, contact@jimpix.com, jimpix.com. Address, Studio F, Stockwell Lodge, Conway Street, Hove, BN3 3LW.

Marksman2010 Ridgeview Marksman Blanc de Blancs Brut
Ridgeview Vineyards
Ditchling
East Sussex

Ridgeview is one of the leading English wine estates and do not seemm to have put a foot wrong since they were established by Mike and Chris Roberts in 1994. English wine had been on the cusp of achieving fame ever since the early 1980s and Ridgeview, along with a few other well known vineyards like Nyetimber, really put English wine on the map.

For a start they specialised. They realised that not only was the climate of southern England remarkably similar to that of Champagne, but that the soils were actually identical. The same start of chalk that makes Champagne what it is, comes up under the channel in Sussex. So Ridgeview set out to make world class sparkling wines right from the start.

What’s more, they had an angle, they called their wines Cuvée Merret in honour of Christopher Merret. Merret was a fascinating man, a Fellow of the Royal Society, he was a physician and scientist who lived from 1614 to 1695. He did all sorts of amazing things, but his chief claim to fame comes from a paper that he presented to the Royal Society in 1662. In this he described adding sugar to a wine to make it sparkling, which is the basis of the Traditional Method process as used in the Champagne region to make the wine sparkling. This presentation predates any such method being used in Champagne itself by some 30 years. So, it’s official, the English made fizz before the French.

It takes guts to even attempt to make wine in England. You need to be dedicated and singleminded, probably being boozy minded helps too as it is not easy. Technically speaking as we lie north of 50˚, we are just too cold in these islands to ripen grapes properly, but happily for us the Gulf Stream tempers conditions enough to make it just about possible to achieve a crop of ripe grapes in most years – but not every year by any means.

I have tasted a good few Ridgeview wines in my time and they always impress me. They seem to have an elegance and a purity about them which is exciting and shows just how good English wine can be. Their vineyards are all in the South Downs National Park and they planted them with the classic Champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – it is astonishing to think that the Champagne region is just 88 miles to the south. Just like in Champagne itself, the cool climate and (hopefully) sunny Autumns, slowly build up ripeness in the grapes, while retaining crisp acidity, which is vital in a good sparkling wine.

Like all English wines, these are artisan wines, hand crafted wines that are produced in tiny quantities, so they are often quite hard to buy. Luckily for us Ridgeview have produced a wine for Marks and Spencer and not only is it more widely available as a consequence, but it is quite superb.

Called Marksman Brut, it is a Blanc de Blancs, so made just from Chardonnay grapes and to allow complex flavours to develop, it was aged for 36 months on the lees – the dead yeast cells left over from the second fermentation.

The wine is quite pale with a persistent mousse of fine bubbles. The aromas are of green apples, minerals,m a touch of ozone and a light dusting of croissant crumbs. At first the palate is very taunt and pure, but it then broadens out to a richer mouthfeel with white peach, tangy apricot, a touch of apples and a pure, almost saline quality, like a touch of the sea. The acidity is crisp and refreshing, while the mousse is firm, yet creamy. This wine is quite superb, with a lightness of touch and a real feel of freshness, but it is less austere, softer and fruitier than you first think. All in all it is a triumph and although a wine like this can never be cheap, it is great value for money – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from Marks and Spencer for £21.00 a bottle. Stockists for other Ridgeview wines are available here.
Some Ridgeview wines are available in the US, stockist information is available here.

Get patriotic and try this great wine as a perfect aperitif, picnic wine, or garden party tipple. It’s perfect with shellfish, white meat, fish or anything light, actually it’s even good with Thai and Chinese food.

 

Wine of the Week 51 – reasons to be cheerful 1,2,3 (4,5)

There are not many reasons to be cheerful in the UK right now, so it is good that I am really excited by this week’s Wine of the Week, for 3 very good reasons.

Firstly there are 2 of them, 2 Wines of the Week, a red and a white,  so something for everyone.

Secondly they come from Romania and I was very, very excited by my recent trip to Romania as the wines were so good.

Thirdly they are marketed in a really interesting way that might, just might, start making consumers more adventurous about wine.

Fourthly (darn, there were four reasons) they are really nice wines.

Fifthly (don’t you hate it when that happens, quite puts you off your stride) they are great value for money.

Both the wines come from Cramele Recaș, which is an excellent, modern and forward looking winery in western Romania, almost Transylvania in fact. Englishman Philip Cox is the driving force here, although he has an Australian and a Spanish winemaker too, and the focus is to make superb vale wines that over deliver at Low price points – although they make some very good premium wines too.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Also they both come from Asda’s new Wine Atlas range which is potentially a very exciting way of marketing wine. Asda are convinced that the consumer is ready for new things and new flavours, wines made from unusual grape varieties in out of the way places and that is what the Wine Atlas wines offer. The range is very interesting and as well as my two Wines of the Week it includes a Sicilian Grillo and Cattaratto, a French Marsanne and a Hungarian Furmint among the whites. As for the reds there is an attractive Marzemino from northern Italy, a smooth and fruity Frappato from Sicily and a very nice Saint-Chinian from the Languedoc region of France.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

The labels are quite funky, flamboyant and colourful and are based on those lovely old travel posters from the 1920s and the sorts of labels we used to see stuck on suitcases and steamer trunks. I hope the idea works and helps Asda’s customers to drink things other than boring old Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.

My Wines of the Week

2014 Wine Atlas Fetească RFRegală
Cramele Recaș  
DOC Recaș , Romania
Fetească Regală (it means Royal Maiden) is an indigenous Romanian grape and was created by a natural crossing of Fetească Alba and Grasa de Cotnari. I have only tried two examples, but it seems to be a very attractive grape, lightly aromatic, fruity and fresh. This particular Fetească Regală is made to be light, bright and lively, without any oak.

The nose is gently aromatic with floral, lemon and light peach notes. The palate is very fresh with soft acidity, so it is not tart, but it is lively, with peachy and apricot fruit and a touch of creamy roundness too. A nice, straightforward and very drinkable dry white wine – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK from Asda and Asda Wine Shop for £5.97 a bottle.

 

FNWine Atlas Fetească Neagră
Cramele Recaș
DOC Recaș , Romania
Fetească Neagră (means Black Maiden) is another indigenous Romanian grape and is the country’s main black grape. Again I do not suppose that I have tasted enough to really know what the grape is like, but I like what I have tried. In style the wines are something like Grenache, but with a bit more tannin and some of the silky quality of Pinot Noir.

The nose is bright and lively with plum, strawberry and cranberry n toes together with a little smoke and savoury herbs. The palate is relatively light, juicy, soft and ripe, with succulent red fruit, especially plum and strawberry, light chalky tannins and freshness giving some structure and elegance. There is also a dusting of pepper and savoury, herbal characters- 87/100 points.

Available in the UK from Asda and Asda Wine Shop for £5.97 a bottle.

 

These are both well made and interesting everyday drinking wines. If you never tried Romanian wines before then these might well be a good place to start. Let me know what you think.

 

Wine of the Week 50 – a fine, delicious and complex Chenin

I cannot really claim to be a fan of Chenin Blanc, there I’ve said it and many of my friends will be shocked that I could make that statement. I have, of course, had some Chenins that I appreciate and a few that I even liked a lot, but by and large it is a grape variety that does not move me, which is strange as I really like acidity, one of Chenins most important attributes. For me the inherent flavours of the grape lack purity, which is something I really like in my white wines.

Well, I like to keep an open mind and so this week when I tasted an absolutely superb Chenin, I made it my Wine of the Week.

Château de Fesles, photo courtesy of Grandes Caves St Roch / Les Grandes Caves de France.

Château de Fesles, photo courtesy of Grandes Caves St Roch / Les Grandes Caves de France.

Chenin2011 Château de Fesles Chenin Sec ‘La Chapelle’ Vielles Vignes
Château de Fesles
A.C. Anjou, Loire Valley, France
Château de Fesles is in Thouarcé near the village of Bonnezeaux in France’s Loire Valley and it is very old, in fact the original bits were built as long ago as 1070. Bonnezeaux is famous for its botrytised dessert wines made from Chenin Blanc. They farm 19 hectares  to make  Anjou Rouge from Cabernet Franc (here is a former Wine of the Week made from Cabernet Franc and another, do try them if you can) and Cabernet Sauvignon and Anjou Blanc from Chenin. Another 14 hectares fall within the Bonnezeaux appellation which is famous for making botrytised dessert wines, again from Chenin. The  Château overlooks the Layon River which often causes fogs  and misty mornings which cause the humidity which allows the noble rot / botrytis to set in.

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

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

These sweet wines have long been hard to sell and so the property was struggling and changed hands several times before the mighty Les Grands Chais de France bought it in 2008, although the previous owner – Bernard Germain – had renovated the winery and vineyards. More importantly M. Germain had also started focussing on producing fine dry white Chenin and the new owners have kept this policy going.

The trick is to use old vines – which give more concentrated flavours – and the parcel here consists of 55 year old vines. They conduct a very careful selection of the fruit to make sure only the best grapes go in, oh and they really work hard to ensure those grapes are perfectly ripe in the first place – something that has traditionally been a problem in the cool northern climate of the Loire Valley. In fact they have focussed on the vineyard just as much as the winery and the new owners have started using organic methods.

The wine is then fermented in big – 400 litre – old oak barrels, between 1 and 4 years old – the use of bigger oak – the standard barrel is 225 litre – and older wood gives more subtle oak characters than newer and smaller barrels would. The wine is then aged in barrel for a further 6 months on the lees.

The colour is a rich straw with touches of gold.
On the nose there is lots of baled apple, honey, leafy herbaceous notes, gentle smoke and vanilla and even a touch of light pineapple and quince.
The palate has high acidity cutting through opulent apricot and pineapple fruit and the rich creamy quality. There is a touch of  spicy oak, that leafy quality from the nose, some minerality and a ripe sweetness of fruit (although the wine is dry) reminiscent of membrillo or quince jelly.

The attention to detail, the ripeness, the concentration and the subtle use of has all lifted this Chenin Blanc to a new level of sophistication, elegance and layered complexity too. I should also add that it is really delicious and nice to drink. Some people say it should be aged in order to develop more complexity, but I personally like a wine like this in its youth with freshness there too – 90/100 points.

Drink it with white meats and fish dishes, even those with a creamy sauce. It is also very good with cheese, very, very good in fact. I loved it with some superbly tangy, nutty and somewhat soft and creamy Godminster Organic Cheddar which was a perfect foil for the creamy texture of the wine and its refreshing acidity. Godminster Organic Cheddar is available here, here and here.

Available in the UK for £14 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar.

If you want to taste an exciting white wine that offers some creamy richness and real complexity, then I really do recommend this, give it a try and let us know what you think.

 

A Romanian road trip

Like many of us, a huge part of the pleasure I take in wine is discovering new things. New regions and new grape varieties always excite for me. So when the chance came to go on a trip to Romania as a guest of the Romanian Winegrowers, with fellow wine educators and writers, I jumped at it.

From what I saw Romania is a very rural country and it often seemed like stepping back in time 40 years. Most of the places that we passed through seemed to provide little more than subsistence farming for the local people. Of course for an outsider there is a huge charm in that. Within seconds of stepping outside our hotel on the first morning I had seen my first horse and cart and almost every house had a clutch of chickens pecking away outside on the grassy verge. We travelled vast distances and most of the time we were on small country roads whose surface was not always of the best and even disappeared every now and again.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Romanian traffic in the countryside - taken through the windscreen of our coach.

Romanian traffic in the countryside – taken through the windscreen of our coach.

Although we do not see that many Romanian wines  on UK supermarket shelves, although there are more than you realise, the country has great potential and actually has more vineyards than any other Eastern European country. What’s more because of their Latin roots, and unlike the neighbouring Bulgarians and Hungarians, Romanians actually drink a lot of wine as well as make it. In fact it is still normal for Romanians to make their own wine at home either from grapes they grow themselves, or buy from vineyards. Romania is roughly at the same latitude as France and the climate is continental, except for the grape growing area near the Black Sea, where the hot summers and cold winters are tempered by the maritime influence.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Cramele Recaș
The first visit was to the Recaș Cellar near Timișoara in the far west of the country. Recaș is run by Englishman Philip Cox who has lived in Romania since 1992 and he and some partners bought the local state cooperative in 1999. He had actually started out as the Romanian importer of Heineken, which was very successful. However he was unable to change the currency into something more useful, so hit upon a scheme of producing wine in Romania that he could export for hard currency.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Originally they started with 600 hectares and now farm around 1000, which makes them a very big player in Romania, where many of the producers are much smaller estates. Legend has it that Bacchus spent his childhood in this region and there is evidence of grape growing here going back to Roman times and vineyards were thriving here in 1447, so the area’s potential has long been recognised.

Philip aims to make clean, well made, fruit driven wines that sell and as such he provides a perfect introduction to modern Romanian wines. What’s more they are widely available in the UK under a plethora of labels; Bradshaw and Wine Atlas in Asda, Lautarul in Marks and Spencer, Sole in Waitrose and the widely seen Paparuda amongst many, many others.

All the Recaș wines are very drinkable and the visit gave me my first ever taste of some of Romania’s indigenous grapes. I enjoyed the citric Fetească Regală (Royal Maiden) and the first of many cherry and plum rich wines made from Fetească Neagră (Black Maiden).

They also produce some very good premium wines at Recaș and their Solo Quinta, a white blend based on Chardonnay (the 2014 also includes little dollops of Fetească Regală, Muscat Ottonel, Sauvignon Blanc and even Cabernet Franc) is a delicious and attractively aromatic white that well deserves its £12 price tag from Tanners.

Similarly I was impressed by their Cuvée Überland, which is a wine from a single vineyard site – German names are common round here, as long ago the Hapsburgs recruited Saxon settlers to guard this distant border of their empire. They left after the Second World War, but until then the area had been mainly German, or Schwab and the Überland hill was the most prized site for wine production. Made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and Fetească Neagră, the ripe grapes are dried for 2-3 weeks on the vine to concentrate the sugars. The result is a deliciously intense wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well.

Time Warp
That night we stayed in a renovated Communist era hotel by the banks of the Danube in the small city of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. It was like going back in time to the 1970s when the Cold War was at its height. Despite being on the drinks menu, the concept of a gin and tonic seemed alien to them, luckily the local Timisoreana beer was very good indeed. Once we sat down in the restaurant, we were handed menus and were all happily choosing what we wanted to eat when the waiters started bring out our unordered food! The whole evening was so reminiscent of the 1970s that it felt like a live version of Rates of Exchange, Ray Bradbury’s comic masterpiece set in a fictional Eastern European country called Slaka.

Viticola Corcova

Vineyards at Corcova.

Vineyards at Corcova.

The next morning we visited Corcova in the Mehedinți region. This is a boutique winery 30 km or so from the Danube down in a valley, while its 60 hectares of vineyards occupy the nearby slopes. Like everyone else we visited, Corcova had entirely replanted all the vineyards they bought from the government, as the Communist era plantings were not considered to be good quality and they want to plant with higher density than was common in the 1940s.

The winery here is rather lovely as it was built in 1915 with amazing concrete tanks that are integral in the design and so cannot be removed, they have therefore renovated them and brought them back in to use. Rather astonishingly the tanks were installed and the winery was built by an Austrian firm, which just goes to show that commerce continued even when people were fighting ‘the war to end all wars’. These tanks are very thick, which controls the temperature perfectly without the need for refrigeration.

Robert Marshall (left) and Şerban Dâmboviceanu (right) of Corcova.

Robert Marshall (left) and Şerban Dâmboviceanu (right) of Corcova.

Around here, in the south west of the country, there is a slight Mediterranean influence, which helps with ripeness and enables them to have success with Syrah. Everything is very modern and impressive, with a commitment to work in the vineyard that echoed the property’s past. Back in 1907 the original owner had employed a winemaker from Alsace and today they have Laurent Pfeffer, a French wine maker with a somewhat Germanic name.

Everything is done here to produce subtle, but concentrated wines. Viticulture is very carefully done, but stops short of being organic and they only use the indigenous yeast for their fermentations.

The focus is on international grape varieties, although they also produce Fetească Neagră. I was completely bowled over by the wines, they are of a very high standard, especially their excellent, very elegant and restrained Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet-Merlot, while their late harvest Sauvignon was the best sweet wine we had in Romania. These are fine wines, so I cannot understand why UK agents are not beating a path to their door – they are missing a trick.

Domeniile Ştirbey

Vines at Ştirbey.

Vines overlooking the River Olt at Ştirbey.

30 km or so further east found us in the Dragasani region climbing a narrow ridge overlooking the River Olt. Here we were visiting the Ştirbey estate whose story goes back over 300 years and whose wines were considered to be some of the country’s finest in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries – they still have some fascinating advertising material from the 1910s and 1920s.

Baron Jakob Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

Baron Jakob Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

From 1873 to 1946 it enjoyed particular success under the control of Prince Barbu Ştirbey. His daughter, Princess Maria Stirbey, inherited the estate shortly before the new Communistic regime nationalised it and the family fled to Austria. Then in 1999 her granddaughter, Baroness Ileana Kripp, rediscovered the property and together with her Austrian lawyer husband, Baron Jakob Kripp, set about reclaiming her family’s long lost property. They were successful and by 2001 were producing wine, with the help of Oliver Bauer a modest and jovial winemaker from Germany. They are a charming couple who entertained us wonderfully and accompanied us to dinner in Bucharest the following evening.

Baroness Ileana Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

Baroness Ileana Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

The vineyards are immaculate and the views down the slopes to the river are breathtaking. It all comes together in excellent quality wines, mostly made from local grapes and some of which are stocked by The Wine Society and Oddbins. I enjoyed their aromatic, dry Tămâioasă Românească (a local Muscat) and their richly fruity red Negru de Dragasani Rezerva. Excitingly they are the only producer in the world to offer a single varietal Novak, and very good it is too. They also produce a field blend of Novak and Negru de Dragasani called Cuvée Genius Loci.

The real excitement though came from the Crâmpoşie grape which only grows in this part of Romania. Ştirbey put it to good use, making a delicately creamy still white called Crâmpoşie Selecționată and a very fine traditional method sparkling version called Prince Ştirbey Vin Spumant Extrabrut. It spends about two years on the lees, is riddled by hand and has no dosage at all – try it if you can, it is world class.

A big range of Prince Ştirbey wines is available through their German importer, Wein-Bastion.

Vinarte
On the way to Bucharest the next morning we stopped at the Vinarte winery. They were established in 1998 by buying vineyards and former cooperative facilities from the government. They farm 350 hectares or so spread over three estates in different parts of the country, but we were visiting the one at Samburești some 100 km north west of Bucharest.

The vineyard is 60 hectares and forms a sort of lieu-dit called Castel Bolovanu. It enjoys a south east facing slope at about 260-300 metres above sea level and whilst we stood there we could certainly feel the cool breezes.

9

Justin Uruco handing out cask samples.

Although Vinarte is a large producer, at this site they only craft two premium wines, the Soare Cabernet Sauvignon and the second wine of the estate, Castel Bolocanu Cabernet Sauvignon. We tasted cask samples of the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon that had been aged in Romanian oak and in French oak barrels. It was marked how the Romanian oak delivered intense mocha and cherry chocolate characters, whilst the French was more delicate and restrained with subtle vanilla. The finished wines are a blend of the two. The chief winemaker here is a very nice Italian called Justin Uruco, who clearly knows his stuff as these are well crafted wines with excellent concentration.

Romanian Wine Laws
I had been peering at the labels all trip trying to understand the appellation system and Justin was able to explain it perfectly. Most of the wines we had seen had DOC / Denumire de Origine Controlată staus which specifies the geography of where a wine originates. So you might have a wine labelled as being a DOC Recaș or DOC Dealu Mare. There were other letters after the DOC as well though, as in Romania they not only control the geography, like an appellation, but the sugar in the grapes at harvest, similar to Germany’s Prädikatswein system and that is what these additional letters refer to.

DOC – CMD is made from fully ripe grapes, DOC – CT is from late harvest grapes and DOC – CIB is from late harvest grapes with noble rot.

Bucharest

The Palace of Parliament.

The Palace of Parliament.

That afternoon we briefly stopped on our way into Bucaharest to see the enormous Palace of Parliament. This is the second largest building on earth after The Pentagon and was originally named the People’s House (Casa Poporului) by Nicolae Ceaușescu. I know it is what most people have heard of in Bucharest, but I could see nothing impressive about it apart from its size and wish Bucharest was known instead for all the other, much nicer things that I saw later. When you realise that a whole section of the old city was demolished to make way for this eyesore it is especially sad that the Romanians have been lumbered with a hideous building on such a scale.

Downtown Bucharest, it wasn’t known as the Paris of the east for nothing.

Downtown Bucharest, it wasn’t known as the Paris of the east for nothing.

Later we strolled through Bucharest on our way to a restaurant for dinner and so were able to take in some of the sites of the old city. Parcul Cișmigiu (Cișmigiu Gardens) is a delightful city centre park complete with boating lake and a rather attractive looking café. There are run down areas too, but the old city centre is a delight of winding lanes and restaurant lined cobbled streets. A real highlight is the Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn) which is a beautiful Ottoman inn that was built in 1808 – Romania was a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878.

The amazing Manuc's Inn (Romanian: Hanul lui Manuc, an Ottoman inn and market complex dating from 1808.

The amazing Manuc’s Inn (Romanian: Hanul lui Manuc, an Ottoman inn and market complex dating from 1808.

The dinner at the Lacrimi si Sfinti restaurant was very good, traditional Romainan food, with starters of Telemea cheese, salată de icre (taramasalata made of carp roe – carp is rather wonderfully called crap in Romanian!), alată de vinete (smoked and roast aubergine dip), pârjoale (meatballs) and all manner of sausage, followed by lots of meat, potatoes and polenta, all washed down with local black beer and wine. We rounded off the evening with steins of rather good beer in the Caru’ cu Bere. This is a vast, beautiful, Germanic beer hall that was founded in 1879, so is as old as Romania itself. Touristy it might be, but it was great fun.

Some of the starters.

Some of the starters.

The meaty mains.

The meaty mains.

One thing that makes Romania a good country to visit is that because the people are not Slavs, Romanian – as its name implies – is a Romance language and it has much in common with Spanish, French, Italian and Catalan. In truth I found it much easier to make sense of it when written down rather than spoken, but that means that most of us wine types can read the shop signs and the wine labels without too much effort. Take a look at the map, I don’t think I could do that in any of the neighbouring countries!

S.E.R.V.E.
The next morning we headed off to the Dealu Mare region some 40 km north of Bucharest. S.E.R.V.E. (which stands for The European-Romanian Society for Exquisite Wines) was founded in 1994 by Frenchman Guy Tyrel de Poix. Sadly he died in 2011, but Mihaela Tyrel de Poix, his charming Romanian wife, has kept the winery going from strength to strength.

Mihaela Tyrel de Poix CEO of SERVE.

Mihaela Tyrel de Poix CEO of SERVE.

Most of their 142 hectares grow in the Dealu Mare region, but they also farm 42 hectares in Babadag near the Black Sea. Standing in the vineyards was quite an experience, they are on south facing slopes and although they don’t look high we had wound up and up from the valley floor and the cool wind was blowing directly onto us and the vines.

Vineyards at SERVE.

Vineyards at SERVE.

It was interesting standing up there looking around at the vines. Just as we had seen elsewhere, there were as many rubbed out and derelict vineyards as tended ones. This is for two reasons, firstly the rules for accession to the EU mean that all the hardy, productive hybrids have to be grubbed up by 2014 and secondly with the former mass market of the Soviet Union just a distant memory, quality not quantity is the way forward. So fewer vineyards, but on better sites and using better clones is the way Romania is going – and it shows.

S.E.R.V.E. produce two ranges, the entry level Vinul Cavalerului wines which sell chiefly on the Romanian market and the premium Terra Romana. Both were good, in fact I think the Vinul Cavalerului Pinot Noir, Riesling and Fetească Neagră were the best everyday wines I tasted on the trip.

The premium wines were good too. I especially enjoyed the the lees aged Terra Romana Fetească Albă (White Maiden) with a delicately creamy palate and citric acidity and the Terre Romana Cuvée Guy de Poix, which is a very fine Fetească Neagră that feels a little like Grenache, but more tannic. Some of their wines are available in Calais.

Halewood
Our final winery visit was to Halewood, whose importance cannot be underestimated. John Halewood was a well known wine trade figure in my youth, he created his company in 1978 and in 1987 started importing Romanian wines into the UK. It was a very successful venture and Halewood was for a long time the major name in Romanian wine. So much so that within ten years of that start they had created a Romanian subsidiary and were making their own wines for export. Today they have vineyards in Dealul Mare, Transylvania and near the Black Sea in Murfatlar.

Lorena Deaconu (left) Senior Winemaker at Halewood and Diana Niculescu (right) Export Manager at Halewood.

Lorena Deaconu (left) Senior Winemaker at Halewood and Diana Niculescu (right) Export Manager at Halewood.

In Dealul Mare they have a lovely manor house where we tasted a huge part of their massive range together with Lorena Deaconu, their bubbly and modest senior winemaker. All the wines were clean and sound and are widely available at very good prices, for instance these from Waitrose and this single vineyard Pinot Noir from The Wine Society. Lorena was very keen to show us her premium wines though and this is where the excitement was to be found. Their Neptunus Shiraz and Hyperion Cabernet were particularly impressive, but are sadly not yet available in the UK.

Rhein and Cie
A few years ago Halewood also bought Rhein and Cie, which is a specialist sparkling wine producer based in the small ski resort of Azuga in the the Carpathian Mountains. This is where we went next and it was a fitting finale to our trip. Rhein and Cie were founded in 1892 by a German called Rhein and have always focussed on making traditional method fizz, indeed the wonderful old posters they have in their museum call it Şampania Rhein!

Remuage still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co, part of Halewood.

Remuage still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co, part of Halewood.

Disgorging still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co.

Disgorging still carried out the old fashioned way at Rhein & Co.

The base wine is produced by Lorena at Halewood and then brought up to Azuga for the second fermentation, remuage and disgorging, all of which is done by hand. It is a beautiful winery, nestling in the snow covered mountains, so the whole experience was quite magical. The wines were impressive too, especially the Rhein & Cie Brut Rosé which is made from Pinot Noir grown in the Sebeș Alba / Alba Iulia region of Transylvania.

Azuga, Prahova a ski reswort where Rhein & Co are based and we spent out last night in Romania.

Azuga, Prahova a ski reswort where Rhein & Co are based and we spent out last night in Romania.

The magnificent Peleș Castle near Azuga in the Carpathian Mountains.

The magnificent Peleș Castle near Azuga in the Carpathian Mountains.

Conclusions
I loved this trip. Everything was excellent and I experienced many new things and saw some wonderful sights. The wines exceeded all my hopes, let alone my expectations. I didn’t taste anything that was bad and only a few wines that were not to my taste. In truth I have still not tasted enough or travelled widely enough in Romania to really get to grips with the differences between the regions and I realise that I only scratched the surface of what is available, but on this showing Romanian wine has a very bright future.

Wine of the Week 49 – South African succulence

Recently I tasted the new vintage of a wine that I have enjoyed for many years and it was so drinkable that I have made it my new Wine of the Week.

Vines at Kleine Zalze.

Vines at Kleine Zalze.

The wine comes from Kleine Zalze, which is a beautiful estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Indeed it’s one of my favourite South African producers, and – like the country as a whole – their wines just seem to get better and better. What’s more, this is true whether the wines are at the lower end of their range like this delicious Sangiovese, or more upmarket examples like their stunning Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Family Reserve Shiraz,  Family Reserve Pinotage – one of the very best examples of this difficult grape that I have ever tasted – and the wonderful Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.

South Africa map QS 2015 watermarked

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

 

The wine is an intriguing blend of Shiraz (Syah) with Mourvèdre and a little Viognier to add aromatics and complexity.

Vines at Kleine Zalze.

Vines at Kleine Zalze.

Zalze2013 Zalze Shiraz-Mourvèdre-Viognier
Wine of Origin / W.O. Western Cape
Kleine Zalze Vineyards
Stellenbosch, South Africa

80% is Shiraz from Kleine Zalze’s own vineyards in Stellenbosch together with 15% Mourvèdre from the cooler Durbanville area and then 5% Viognier from Tulbagh in the mountains. They were fermented separately, Kleine Zalze mainly use wild yeasts for this, the 2 reds in stainless steel and the Vignier on 4th fill barrels, this old wood ensures the oak influence is very subtle. All 3 components are aged in 3rd and 4th fill barrels for 14 months before being blended together.

The aroma gives lifted notes of ripe blackberry, raspberry and peach with a little touch of freshly turned earth and truffle (very Mourvèdre), spice and even some chocolate, espresso and cigar.
The palate is richly fruity and succulent with deliciously juicy ripe blackberry, black cherry, redcurrant and even some plum and some lovely savoury herbs like the French garrigue. The tannins are sweet, ripe and smooth, the oak lends some nice spice and a touch of mocha, whole a touch of refreshing acidity balances it all nicely. I really enjoyed this, it is very drinkable, beautifully made and not dull. There is enough complexity to make it interesting and the blend brings a freshness that Shiraz on its own seldom delivers.
Really attractive wine that goes with all sorts of things including barbecue, pizza and pasta, be warned though, it is moreish – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for £8.29 a bottle from Waitrose and Ocado – £5.99 a bottle from Waitrose if you get in quick and £6.21 from Ocado if you grab it by 12/-05/15!

If you have let South African wines pass you by, then this might be a very good starting point, enjoyable to drink and great value to boot.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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