Cork v3.0 – Cork Fights Back

Cork oaks with their trunks stripped – photo courtesy of Diam.

The cork or screw cap debate is getting interesting again – click here for an article that I wrote about it quite a few years ago. For many years I, along with many in the British wine trade, have long championed the use of screw cap over cork.

My main reason for doing so is that for a long time we had far too high a proportion of bottles that were corked. This happens when a cork is infected by a compound called trichloroanisole, TCA for short, and that gets passed on to the wine in the bottle, killing the fruit in the wine and making it smell and taste musty like mouldy cardboard.

A compelling second reason to favour screw caps is that with corks there is a significant amount of bottle variation as some give a better seal than others, so little bit of oxidation can occur making some bottles seem less vibrant and more muted than others.

Screwcaps do not get rid of all of this, it is possible to get TCA into a wine by another route, so I have had 4 ‘corked’ bottles sealed with screw caps. That is 4 in over 20 years though. By comparison my record for corked wine that was sealed with corks was 6 bottles from a single case on a single day!

I also like the glass closures, they look very classy and I think if I made wine that is what I would choose. The rather more funky  Zork closure is rather good too, especially for sparkling wine.  It makes a noise like a cork popping and you can reseal it.

However, many people are more traditional than me and like to cling to things because they are used to them or sometimes because they think they are best and so cork is still used to seal the majority of wine bottles.

In the 10 years from 2006 to 2106 the use of cork has dropped from 78% of closures to 61%, so it is still the dominant material. In that time screw caps have grown from just 5% to 26%. If those figures seem low to you, outside of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland, cork is considered superior and screwcaps are widely viewed as suitable only for the cheapest wines.

The tops of various types of cork.

Well cork seems to be fighting back and the charge is lead by a new form of cork that manages to get round the traditional problems that cork has.

Natural cork.

Most of you will be able to picture a traditional cork, that is a cylinder of cork stamped out a single piece of cork oak bark. Being a single piece if it is contaminated by TCA, this will infect the wine.

Agglomerate cork.

Agglomerate cork was an attempt to get around that by making the cork out of lots of tiny pieces of cork glued together. However these are usually considered less suitable for ageing wine as there is almost no oxygen ingress, or trickle of oxygen through the cork, to age the wine. In addition they are less pliable than natural cork, so again less suitable for long term ageing.

Synthetic cork.

Synthetic corks have certainly proved to be effective for early drinking wines. The risk of TCA infection is almost completely removed, unless TCA gets into the wine via wood or filter pads or by another route – this can also happen with screw cap wines, but it is rare. However many of them can harden over a relatively short time, making them less effective and allowing air into the wine. Added to which they are really difficult to get off the corkscrew once you have removed them from the bottle. In my opinion these are really only suitable for early drinking wines, but a screw cap would be a better seal and preserve the fresh character of the wine and the fruit much better.

Recently I was invited to France to tour a cork factory that belongs to a company that is changing everything – that company is Diam.

A Diam 3 cork.

Basically Diam manufacture a type of agglomerate cork, but a very high tech and high quality one. I cannot pretend to understand the science, but basically they harvest high quality cork, season it outside for up to 12 months, just as natural cork would be. They then wash it and crush it into granules which are then filtered to remove foreign bodies and the woody parts. This leaves them with pure suberin, which unlike lesser cork is inert. This substance undergoes a similar process to the one that removes caffeine from coffee, which removes all impurities from the cork granules, they actually store the TCA that they remove as it can be used in the manufacture of some skin creams – so the next time auntie smells of cork taint, perhaps she hasn’t been drinking! The gaps between the cork granules are filled with microspheres which increases the elasticity of the finished cork. They are then bound together with a food grade binding agent before being moulded, machined and finished to the correct size and finish.

They tell me that with their process there is no risk of TCA, the cork is pliable enough to ensure there is minimal risk of premature oxidation – which makes Diam corks particularly popular in Burgundy – and stops bottle variation as they perform consistently.

If you look at the Diam cork above, you will see in the bottom right it says Diam 3, they actually make Diam 2, Diam 3, Diam 5, Diam 10 and Diam 30 for still wines, the number tells you how long they guarantee the cork for. They also make sparkling wine corks and spirit stopper corks.

An unused Diam 5.

It was a fascinating visit. The factory floor was almost entirely unmanned, with robotic machines doing all the work. The whole place had a rather wonderful toasty, malty, toffee, caramel sort of smell which is what the corks smell of when still warm.

Our little group on the factory floor and yes that is Charles Metcalfe in the centre. I reached the conclusion that the protective clothing was a French joke as none of the management wore it!

Diam corks are tested for their elasticity as they want them to be as pliable as possible. This elastic property ensures that they give a perfect seal and apparently do not need to be kept damp – so if you know it has a Diam cork you do not need to lie it down, or so Diam say.

Diam Origine.

Diam have been around since 2005 and their share of the market keeps rising, their share of the cork market has risen from a very healthy 4% in 2006 to 10% 10 years later. And by the way that 10% represents 1.3 billion corks a year!

Now they have launched an organic version called Diam Origine. Initially this will just be in a Diam 10 and a Diam 30 version, but more will follow. The organic corks uses beeswax emulsion and a binding agent made from plants and I expect that we will begin to see them used on more and more organic and biodynamic wines.

The Pic du Canigou from Diam’s factory near Collioure in the Roussillon region of France.

It was a very different visit from my normal wine trips, but it was very interesting and informative and the weather was gorgeous, the only lovely weather I have had this year so far. I was very impressed by what I saw and heard and feel much more confident about cork now than I have for a long time, as long as it is Diam.

It’s just a pity that you cannot tell whether the wine is sealed with a Diam cork before you buy it. Perhaps they ought to find a way of letting us know before we part with our money?

 

 

 

A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

Wine of the Week – Fiano Spreads its Wings

Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

I like Fiano. It is a fabulous white grape from Campania in southern Italy. Campania is a great region, centred on Naples it produces some of Italy’s most exciting wines, using a palate of high quality indigenous grapes including Fiano. The best examples are widely considered to be those from vineyards on the volcanic slopes around the town of Avellino. Fiano di Avellino is a DOCg and is a prestigious, fine and mineral dry white, while other examples from Campania, grown on non-volcanic soils, tend to be softer and easier to drink.

Fiano is an ancient variety that is believed to have been used to make the famous Apianum wine in Roman times. Back then the grape was known as Vitis Apiana beacuse it apparently attracted bees (apis). Of all Campania’s whites I find the best Fiano to be the most refined and most balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.

Fiano is also found in other parts of Campania, including the Sorrento peninsula, and Puglia – the heel of Italy. I was vaguely aware that a few people grew the grape else where. Jenny Dobson makes one at Bush Hawk Vineyards in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, but it seems that Australia has really taken this, slightly exotic grape to its heart and around 70 producers have now started making examples of Fiano – which is hardly surprising as Italian food and Mediterranean style is big down under, so Fiano would be a perfect accompaniment.

Well, recently I tasted – actually retasted – one that excited me so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Chris Hancock.

Map of South Eastern Australia, McLaren Vale is to the south of Adelaide – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

2016 Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard Fiano
Hancock & Hancock
McLaren Vale
South Australia

For the second week running I am telling you bout an Australian take on a Mediterranean classic. It is a bit more widely made than last week’s Montepulciano, but it is still pretty rare. Which is a pity, because it seems to suit the climate superbly, as well as the cuisine.

Many times while in Australia last year I enjoyed some simply cooked prawns, Moreton Bay Bugs or clams with garlic and oil and lemon together with a glass of white wine made from a suitably Mediterranean grape variety – my favourite place for such delights was Claypots Evening Star in South Melbourne Market and my favourite grape was Fiano, although there was one Assyrtiko as well, more of which another day.

Chris and his brother John Hancock have owned their Home Vineyard in McLaren Vale for over 10 years now. They farm some 80 year old Grenache and Shiraz, together with Cabernet and Touriga, as well as having a 2 hectare plot of Fiano that was head grafted, in situ, onto Chardonnay in 2012. Chris Hancock, who is an honourary Master of Wine, worked with Robert Oatley for many years and Chris is still involved with the Robert Oatley company which distributes his Hancock & Hancock wines.

A part of this was fermented in neutral, old, oak barrels to give roundness and volume rather than flavour, but most was fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures.

To look at the wine has a crystalline purity about it, then on the nose it has nectarine and white peach together with some lemon zest, dry honey and herbs. On the palate there slots of fruit giving a juiciness which is then balanced by freshness and a little taut minerality in the background. The texture is succulent, ever so slightly creamy even which together with the lemon, stone fruit and touch of herbs makes it delicious and very drinkable.

It is light and crisp enough to be refreshing, yet juicy enough and succulent enough to feel interesting and more complex. In a kind of way it shows the ripeness of the place it is from and some the beguiling minerality of the grape, which gives it an inbuilt tension. Lovely with fish,chicken, Mediterranean food, or just to drink on its own – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, Farnham Wine Cellar, Flagship Wines, The Wine Reserve, Drinkfinder, Amazon.co.uk, Eynsham Cellars, Luvians Bottleshop, Ann et Vin, Warren Wines & Amp Fine Wines.

Wine of the Week – A Bit of Australian Hedonism

South Australia vineyards.

Australia is a great and exciting wine producing country and I discovered lots of amazing things on my tour there last year. One of the refreshing things going on down under is groups of independent, young, fearless winemakers making boutique wines in rented winery space in unlikely corners of Australia’s vineyards. In many ways they resemble the bands of hip craft brewers that seem to roam east London, New Zealand and the US.

These are often made in unusual styles and from grape varieties not normally associated with Australian wine. I tasted a good few of that sort of thing, for instance there is quite a fashion nowadays for Spanish and Italian grape varieties from Australia. I have tried some excellent Tempranillo and Garnacha from the Barossa Valley, Fiano from the McLaren Vale, Vermentino from all sorts of places and most recently a delicious Montepulciano from Riverland in South Australia.

In fact it was so delicious that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of South Eastern Australia, this wine comes from eastern Riverland, near the state border – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

2016 The Bullet Dodger Montepulciano
Delinquente Wine Company
Riverland
South Australia

Not a grape you often see in Australia, but the the guys at Delinquente – pronounced ‘dellin-qwentay’, it’s Italian for delinquent – seem to like being different. The driving force is the wonderfully named Con-Greg Grigoriou. They use Italian grapes and one of their team, Jason Ankles, draws their striking, if somewhat disturbing labels.

Riverland is not a glamorous wine region. It is one of the big irrigated regions of Australia that traditionally produces work horse wines rather than the boutique wines, Berri Estates, Banrock Station and Angove’s are all nearby. However, Con-Greg loves the place. He grew up here by the Murray River and is utterly convinced that it can makes wines as good as anywhere else in the country – on this showing I would have to agree.

Con-Greg Grigoriou amongst his Riverland vines.

Montepulciano is widely grown in Italy, in fact it can be used in over 40 different DOCs or DOCgs. The most famous wine it makes though is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast of Italy. These are usually attractively fruity, inexpensive, easy drinking wines with soft tannins, but there are more ambitious versions produced as well as some impressive Montepulciano and Sangiovese blends from the Conero DOCg in the Marche region near Ancona.

The fruit is all from a single vineyard, owned by Bassham Wines in Barmera. It was originally planted with Chardonnay, but was top grafted- i.e. in situ – in 2009 with more adventurous grape varieties and it is farmed organically. It is fermented in stainless steel and sees no wood at all. The aim appears to be to capture the pure, vivid, ripe fruit and he succeeds in that. The palate is succulent, juicy, creamy and generous like a smoothie of rich plum, black cherry and blackberry together with a little spice. The tannins are very soft, so the wine has no astringency and I defy anyone not to enjoy it. This is utterly delicious and comforting in a richly hedonistic way – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from £14 per bottle from: The Good Wine Shop, Forest Wines, Kwoff, Unwined in Tooting. More Information is available from Indigo Wines, the UK distributor.

I’m not very good at drinking red wine without food, but this could do the trick. It would also be perfect with a barbecue, or almost any meaty or rich food actually, but I enjoyed my bottle with a curry, it was a great match.

Normally with my Wine of the Week, I talk about a specific wine, but use it to inform my readers about that region and style, so that they can try other wines from that place or grape regardless of whether they can find the specific wine. With this it is bit more tricky and I suppose the real message here is to drink widely and to experiment.

Wine of the Week – a classy dry Riesling

Clare Valley vineyards in South Australia.

As anyone who reads these pages knows that I love Riesling. At its best Riesling produces some of the most delicious, light, beguiling, delicious and versatile white wines available.

I love all sorts of styles of Riesling from the light off-dry Mosel style to bone dry and mineral versions from many parts of Germany as well as Alsace and Austria. Australia too has a reputation for producing good Rieslings and I have enjoyed many different examples over the years – try this if you get a chance, and this as well.

However, I recently tried one that was absolutely superb and it is such great value too that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of South Eastern Australia, Clare Valley is north of Adelaide in South Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

2016 Blind Spot Riesling
Clare Valley
South Australia

The Clare Valley is an old wine region, having been settled in the 1830s, you can tell because nearby Adelaide is named after the wife of King William IV – he ruled 1830-1837. Like many of the places called a valley in Australia, it isn’t really a valley so much as a series of gullies and gentle hills. During the growing season the days are warm, but there are cooling breezes and the nighttime temperature is cool. This helps keep the wines fresh and lively and that is why the two speciality grapes of the region – although many others thrive here too – are Merlot and Riesling, both grape varieties that don’t like too much heat.

The Blind Spot range is a sort of upmarket own label range made for the Wine Society by Mac Forbes who is one of the most exciting young winemakers in Australia today, the whole range is worth a look if you want to broaden your horizons.

This is everything that I want a Riesling to be. It is is bone dry, tangy, mineral, taut and refreshing. It has a pristine, pure quality to it and the palate is drenched with exotic lime, crisp and deliciously drinkable. It is light bodied, but full of flavour, so more akin to the finer and more ethereal Australian Rieslings like Hensche’s stunning Julius Riesling. It has high acid as you would expect, but the ripe lime balances it beautifully.

I loved this wine. It is very good quality and it so much better than the price tag would make you believe – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from the Wine Society for £8.95 a bottle.

Enjoy this as an aperitif, it really makes you hungry, or with any light, delicate dishes, soft cheese, seafood, spaghetti alle vongole, Thai, Malaysian and Keralan cuisine, anything you dip in sweet chilli sauce, or just as a drink on its own. It will certainly be my house wine for the spring and summer.

Wine of the Week – a very different Monastrell from Spain

Vines at Enrique Mendoza.

Just recently I was touring wine estates in Spain’s Comunidad Valenciana or Valencian Community. This is one of Spain’s autonomous regions and includes the cities of Valencia itself, Alicante and Castellón / Castelló de la Plana. From a wine point of view it is a very exciting part of Spain that includes DO Valencia, DO Alicante and DO Utiel-Requena.

It was a wonderful trip, full of wonderful discoveries, great food, delicious wines and memorable characters and I have been very remiss not to tell you all about it before this. Anyway, what set me off on this is that the other day I retried a wine that I had first experienced on that trip and it excited me all over again.

In fact it excited me so much that I am making it my Wine of the Week. I really do think that this wine proves my often repeated claim that Spain is the most exciting wine producing country around today.

Wine map of Spain Villena is right on the border between Alicante and Almansa – click for a larger view

2014 La Tremenda Monastrell
Bodegas Enrique Mendoza
DO / PDO Alicante
Comunidad Valenciana
Spain

I have long admired the wines of Enrique Mendoza and have actually sold them in the past – their Moscatel de la Marina in my view remains the best of its type, far finer than Muscat de Beaumes de Venise for instance. They are in Alicante, not far in distance from the beaches of Benidorm, but a world away in every other regard. They grow their Muscatel near the coast and the black grapes further inland and much higher up. This region is traditionally a place where red wine is made – and the local grape is Monastrell, whereas in Utiel-Requena and Valencia itself they use Bobal.

I should point out though that modern knowhow is starting to mean that the whites look pretty good too, particularly from the little known Merseguera grape.

The Bodega was founded in 1989, but now Enrique’s son José, known as Pepe, runs the property and he is a larger than life, very funny man who loves his vineyards and really understands them. Pepe trained at Raimat and then unusually gained experience outside Spain first, by making wine at Grove Mill in New Zealand, as well as in Argentina.

He grows other grapes, but the focus here is Monastrell, which is known as Mourvèdre in France and often Mataro in other places. The range has changed out of all recognition since I used to sell them. In those days the wines were more international in character – I sold their delicious Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir blend – while now the wines seem to be much more clearly about the place they are from.

Pepe Mendoza with his beloved ‘bonsai’ vines.

Monastrell is not an easy grapes grow. It needs a lot of heat and also a fair amount of water. Added to which it is susceptible to all sorts of mildews, is very vigorous and can easily get overripe. Add all that together and it is not surprising that it had to wait until modern times and squeaky clean wineries and skilled grape growers for it to become a grape with a following that was not just local.

Mendoza has a winery and showroom in l’Alfàs del Pi,very near Benidorm, but most of their vineyards are around 40 km – as the crow flies, much further to drive as this is mountainous country – inland at Villena. This place is between 370 metres and 650 metres above sea level, so gets cooling breezes in the summer – Pepe claimed that they need to wear seaters even in August in the evening – it was certainly very cold in December when I was there.

This place with its winds, extreme heat in summer, cold in winters, low vigour, stony soils and only enough water makes the vines struggle and suffer and so they produce small crops of very flavourful grapes. The vines themselves remain small and hug the ground, making them Pepe’s ‘bonsai’ vines. The contrast with Marlborough in New Zealand, where the vines grow like trees, could not be more marked. Pepe farms around 200 acres and makes several different wines from pure Monastrell, or as he puts it, ‘paints plenty of pictures from the same grape’.

An old Monastrell vine at Enrique Mendoza.

This wine is his starting point, or calling card wine. It’s a single vineyard red from the La Tremenda vineyard, which is at around 600 metres above sea level and comprises well drained sand and limestone soils. The grapes are grown organically and biodynamically and are fermented using indigenous yeasts. The wine is then aged for 6months in used American oak barriques – 225 litre – this is intended to soften the wine , but not to flavour it too much.

It has an enticing  medium purple colour, almost plummy. The nose offers fresh red cherry and plum together with a smattering of black plum, sweet spice, Mediterranean herbs and a little cocoa from the oak.

The palate delivers lovely freshness with herbs, dried grass, succulent red cherry and plum, cooked cherry and smooth, silky tannins. A succulent, fleshy and juicy wine with that wonderful freshness making it feel very elegant. Very drinkable and quite lovely, this is a very bright wine, which shows that Pepe has successfully tamed the wild Monastrell grape, but underneath all the succulence and elegance there lurks a deeper, wild, dangerous note. A terrific wine that carries its 14.5% alcohol very well and shows the elegant side of Monastrell at a great price – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from: Simply Wines Direct, Ultracomida, Christopher Piper Wines, Christopher Keiller and Ministry of Drinks. More information is available from the UK importer, C & D Food & Wines.

For US stockists, click here.

This is a very versatile wine, with enough freshness to partner pretty much everything and to be enjoyable without food. However, it really comes into its own with casseroles, jamon and lamb.

Pepe also produces two more single block Monastrells, Estrecho and Las Quebradas. These were both planted in the 1940s and so produce wines with amazing concentration. They are great, but sadly not available in the UK, although they are imported into the US by the Winebow Group.

Grenache – a huge variety and many different names

cantine-di-orgosolo

Grenache vines at Cantine di Orgosolo, Sardinia.

I recently had a fascinating experience. I was a wine judge in the Grenache du Monde competition. This was the fifth edition of this competition that solely judges wine made from that most beguiling of grape varieties – Grenache.

I only fell for Grenache’s charms relatively recently in fact, but boy did I fall. Red Grenache wines often have lots of fruit, soft tannins and deliver lots of pleasure. I am also drawn to the delicious whites made from Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris and the more elegant red styles from cooler places. So, I do seem to now love Grenache in all its guises and so was thrilled to be invited to judge Grenache wines from all over the world. What’s more the competition was in Sardinia, so all in all it was a pretty exciting week.

So, first of all what did we taste? Well, there are at least four Grenache grapes; 2 black grapes, Grenache Noir and Garnacha Peluda as well as the white Grenache Blanc and the pink tinged Grenache Gris. Grenache Noir is the most important of these, it is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world – indeed it might well be the most planted black grape in the world, because there is so much of it in Spain.

On top of that Grenache goes by more than 20 different names, but I only knowingly got to taste examples called; Grenache (in France and the New World), Garnacha (in Spain), Garnatxa (in Catalunya), Tocai Rosso / Tai Rosso (in Veneto, Italy), Cannonau (in Sardinia) and, confusingly, Gamay.  In Umbria they call Grenache Gamay, or Gamay del Trasimeno or even Gamay Perugino.

What’s more the competition didn’t just taste wines made from pure Grenache, but as it is frequently used as a blending grape – in Côtes du Rhône and the Languedoc-Roussillon for instance –  blends were included in the competition as well, as long as there was at least 60% Grenache in the wine.

There was every style of wine too, dry white, rosé, sparkling, dry red, sweet white and sweet red too.

A total of 684 wines were entered and they came from 8 countries: South Africa, Australia, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Macedonia and Lebanon. There were 100 of us judges and we divided up into panels of 5, so I did not get to taste all the wines during the judging, but I had a darn good try during the tastings afterwards.

I was very impressed by the overall quality of what I tried and personally awarded some pretty high scores. My fellow judges seem to have agreed with me and there were 104 Gold Medals awarded, 87 Silver and 22 Bronze. Spain was the overall winner with 108 medals – out of 322 wines submitted – France entered 149 wines and gained 51 medals, Italy entered 204 and won 51 as well, while Australia, Macedonia and South Africa all gained 1 medal each.

Everything was tasted blind, so it was reassuring to discover that I had given high marks to some old friends as well as exciting to discover completely new things.

My favourite wines of the competition were:

France

Wine map of France - click for a larger view.

Wine map of France, Chêne Bleu are just north of Avignon and Banyuls is on the coast right by the Spanish border in Languedoc-Roussillon – click for a larger view.

la_verriere182

The vineyard and winery at Chêne Bleue, Domaine de la Verrière.

chene-bleu-nv-abelard-bottle-1000x10002010 Abélard
Chêne Bleu
Vin de Pays /IGP de Vaucluse
Domaine de la Verrière
Rhône, France

I love what Chêne Bleu does and have written about them here and here, so it was no surprise that this stunning wine received a Gold Medal. It is a biodynamic blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah aged for 18 months in French oak barrels. The vines are grown at around 500 metres above sea level and are between 30 and 40 years old.
There is concentrated fruit, rich herbal characters and a nice touch of spice too. This is a rich, elegant, refined and utterly delicious wine – 95/100 points.

Available in the from £50 per bottle from Justerini & Brooks, Wine Direct and Waitrose Cellar.
For US stockistsclick here.

ban_premium_ok2015 Banyuls Premium
Terres des Templiers
AC / PDO Banyuls
Roussillon
France

Banyuls is the closest thing to Port produced in France. It is a sweet fortified red wine made right on the border with Spain, from Grenache grapes and it can be utterly delicious. This is wood aged for 12 months, but still opaque, rich, dark and sugary, much like a good Ruby Port. Blackberry and sugar plums and wild raspberry together with wild herbs, sweet spice and cocoa dominate the aroma and flavours. A lovely style that we do not see enough in the UK, try it with something chocolatey  – 93/100 points.

Spain

Spain is always a great wine producing country to go to for value and nothing epitomises that as much as what they do with Grenache, or as they would call it Garnacha or even Garnatxa in Catlunya. 

I love what Bodegas San Alejandro do in Spain’s Calatayud region in Aragon. I fell in love with their wines a long time ago whilst staying in the amazing Monasterio de Piedra – it’s a medieval monastery that is now a hotel within a wonderful natural park that contains a series of waterfalls that are the highest in western Europe and it is a magical place. Anyway, it’s near the winery and so the restaurant lists their wines. In fact it was their Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Viñas Viejas that started me on the way to loving Grenache. The wines are so good that they won four Gold Medals in the competition and all the winning wines are well worth trying. Sadly you cannot get them in the UK, but you can order them to be delivered – until Brexit reimposes limits and duty anyway – from the likes of Uvinum and Bodeboca.com.

Wine map of Spain, Aragonwith Calatayud and Campo deBorja are between Rioja and Barcelona - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, Aragon with Calatayud and Campo de Borja are between Rioja and Barcelona – click for a larger view

bot-crianza-2012_82013 Baltasar Gracián Crianza
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

60% Garnacha with 40% Syrah aged for 12 months in a mix of French and American oak. It’s a big wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well. Intensely ripe and very generous with plenty of coffee, vanilla, liquorice and earthy tones developing as it ages. A lovely wine that I cannot find in the UK – 91/100 points.

terroir_paisaje_general

Bodegas San Alejandro.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-reserva_02013 Baltasar Gracián Reserva
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

70% Garnacha with 30% Syrah aged for 18 months in French oak. Another big wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well. This is soft, rich and spicy with loads of ripe red fruit and coffee and vanilla – 92/100 points.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-garnacha_02015 Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Viñas Viejas
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

A stunning wine made from 80 year old dry farmed bush vine Garnacha grown in slaty mountain soils at about 800 metres above sea level. It spends 10 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels and is simply wonderful. Full of flavour,full of life and personality. It is deeply concentrated, mineral, balsamic and liquoricey with a long finish. Great with game – 93/100 points.

botella-vino-baltasar-gracian-garnacha-nativa_02013 Baltasar Gracián Garnacha Nativa
Bodegas San Alejandro
DO / PDO Calatayud
Aragon
Spain

This version is made from the oldest and highest vines, 82 year old plants growing at 900 metres. The wine is aged for 12 months in new French oak barrels. They only made 2600 bottles and again it is superbly concentrated, but more smoky, intense and savoury this time, while the finish is silky and refined. Like all their wines, it is big and bold, 15% again, but elegant too in its own way – 94/100 points.

Aragon is a great area for Garnacha production and the wonderful Bodegas Borsao in the Campo de Borja – the Borgias came from there – also won 4 Gold Medals as well as a Silver. Again I cannot find any UK stockists, although Wine Rack used to sell them, but they are also available from the likes of Uvinum and Bodeboca.com.

garnacha_borsao

Garnacha bush vines at Bodegas Borsao.

berola-20152014 Borsao Berola
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

80% Grenache, 20% Syrah grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged 14 months in French barriques. This is a fine, aromatic wine with rich red cherry, some black cherry, liquorice, earth and balsamic notes. The tannins are soft and it is delicious – 92/100 points.

crianza-seleccion-new2013 Borsao Crianza Selección
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

This 60% Grenache, 20% Merlot and 20% Tempranillo, also grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged 10 months in French and American barriques is a little silver and firmer, with more savoury and dark fruit characters, more classically Spanish perhaps – 92/100 points.

bole-new2013 Borsao Bole
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

70% Grenache with 30% Syrah, made from younger vines and only aged for 3 months in French oak.It is very ripe, very bright with some lovely firm spice and it still got a Gold Medal despite being around €5 in Spain – 91/100 points.

tinto-seleccion-flores2015 Borsao Tinto Selección
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

Another Gold Medal winner, 85% Garnacha, 10% Tempranillo and 5% Syrah and with no oak. This is juicy and delicious with lovely fruit and spice. Robert Parker said this about a previous vintage, which probably says all you need to know; ‘Possibly the single greatest dry red wine value in the world, this is an unbelievable wine’ – in case you didn’t know, Parker – and perhaps other Americans – use the word ‘value’ in that very odd way that jars. I would say is it’s great value. A value to me is a quite different meaning, ho hum – 92/100 points.

For some reason the next one only gained a Silver Medal rather than a gold, but I think it is brilliant and great value for money too:

trespicos2015 Borsao Tres Picos
Bodegas Borsao
DO / PDO Campo de Borja
Aragon
Spain

100% Garnacha from 35-60 year old vines and aged 5 months in French oak barrels. This is very intense with bright, ripe, juicy, succulent fruit, floral aromas, spices and a silky, smooth, rounded palate. A wine that always delivers a huge amount of pleasure – 91/100 points.

26146999742_167359daa5_b

Vines in Terra Alta – photo by Angela Llop

Perhaps the most highly thought of part of Spain for Grenache based blends  – Aragon and Navarra specialise more in pure Grenache wines – is Catalunya with its trio of exciting regions; Priorat, Montsant and the decidedly up and coming Terra Alta, which as you can see on the map is not far from Calatayud. Historically it was rather cut off because of all the mountains, but the Mediterranean ensures the grapes ripen very well, while the stony soils keep vigour down ensuring the grapes are concentrated and flavoursome. My panel judged a whole flight of 11 red wines from Terra Alta and they were very good indeed, some of my favourite wines of the competition came from this flight – Terra Alta is avery exciting wine region and these examples are the best that I have ever tasted.

seleccio2014 Edetària Selecció Negre
Bodegas Edetària
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This Gold Medal winning wine is a fabulously exciting blend of 60% Garnacha Peluda (Hairy Grenache), 30% Syrah and 10% Cariñena, or Carignan. The vines are over 40 years old and the wine is aged in 500 litre French oak barrels for 12 months, so twice the size of normal barriques, so it softens the wine rather than flavours it. This truly delicious, smooth, rounded, plump, herbal, spicy, mineral, elegant and concentrated, one of my top wines of the whole competition – 94/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Decántalo and Uvinum.

lafou-de-batea2013 Lafou De Batea
Lafou Celler
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This is a blend of mainly Garnacha with a little Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and it is another stunning wine, again concentration is the hallmark here, with rich cherry fruit, balsamic, liquorice, herbal, spicy characters and minerality and freshness giving the whole thing balance. This is a beautiful wine that I want to enjoy with some slow cooked, garlicky lamb – 94/100 points.

Lafou also make a (much) cheaper wine called Lafou El Sender which is available in Waitrose and Waitrose Cellar for £10.99.

lavi-arrufi2014 L’Avi Arrufí Blanco
Celler Piñol
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

This organic white wine is 100% Garnatxa Blanca barrel fermented and aged for 8 months in French oak. It is creamy and gently toasty and smoky,with lots of succulent orchard fruit, herbs and spices.There is enough acid to keep it balanced and refreshing, but at its heart it is all about the texture and mouthfeel. A beautiful white wine, full of character and perfect with a selection of different cheeses – 93/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Uvinum.

tempus-1167093-s313-jpg2014 Tempus
Altavins Viticultors
DO / PDO Terra Alta
Catalunya
Spain

Another amazing wine from this up and coming region. The blend changes every year and I have no idea what the 2014 is, but it includes Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Merlot. The vines are 30 year old and grown on rocky slopes with low vigour. The finished wine is aged for 10 months in French oak barrels to round it out and soften it. The fruit is very ripe, deep red fruit with some flashes of blacker fruit notes, even some kirsch. There is plenty of spice here too and the oak gives a lovely touch of coffee and cocoa. This is opulent stuff that needs time or decanting  – 92/100 points.

Available to order for delivery into the UK – Brexit permitting – from Vinissimus.

Italy

wine map of southern Italy - click for a larger view

Wine map of southern Italy – click for a larger view

Grenache is so associated with Spain and France that it comes as quite a shock to discover it in Italy. In fact it is grown in three different regions, in the Veneto’s Colli Berici region it is called Tai Rosso, formerly Tocai Rosso. In Umbria they call it Gamay del Trasimeno or Gamay Perugino and like Veneto seem to have grown it there since the mid nineteenth century, having brought it from France.

However, it is Sardinia that really specialises in Grenache. They call it Cannonau and the fact that the grow it, indeed specialise in it, is a reminder of their mediaeval past when the island was conquered by the Crown of Aragon, which was a joint Aragon and Catalan Kingdom that also ruled Valencia, Roussillon, the Balearic Islands, Malta, Sicily, Naples, Sardinia and even parts of Greece from 1162 to 1469, when it became linked with the Kingdom of Castille and eventually came to be called Spain. It is presumed that Aragonese or Catalan settlers took Garnacha grapes with them to Sardinia. Certainly Catalan people did settle there and Catalan is an official language around Alghero to this day.

During my time on Sardinia I tasted some rustic, everyday examples, but then I also enjoyed some Cannonaus that were superbly balanced and fine:

1401971753-651486472015 Neale
Cantine di Orgosolo
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

This sumptuous wine is a beautifully balanced blend of 85% Cannonau and 15% Bovale. Bovine is name used for two different grapes, both Spanish in origin; Bovale Grande is Carignan / Carineña / Mazuelo, while Bovale Sardo is Rioja;s Graciano. From a linguistic point of view I had hoped that it would turn out to be the Bobal grape of Valencia, but who knows that might have been the name they used – things were less precise and scientific in those days, people seldom knew what the grape actually, just that they grew it and the local name for it.  It’s richly fruity, blackberry and plum, and incredibly smooth with nice savoury earthy touches and soft, sweet tannins – 92/100 points.

dicciosu2015 Dicciosu
Cantine Lilliu
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

I know nothing about this wine, but suspect that its bright red fruit, smooth tannins and juiciness means that it is pure Grenache. It is very elegant though with nice freshness and balance. there is nothing rustic or overworked here, instead it has a pristine quality that is rare in Grenache – 93/100 points.

pantumas2015 Pantumas Rosato
Cantine Lilliu
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna Rosato
Sardinia
Italy

Again I know nothing about this wine, except that it was the best rosé that I tasted the whole trip. Delicately scented of rose petals, red cherry and even some blood orange, those flavours follow on to the palate. It is a delicate, fine rosé with elegance and finesse, I loved it – 93/100 points.

audarya2015 Audarya
Audarya
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

I was seriously impressed with this stripped down, acoustic style of wine. There is no oak here, just pristine, bright Grenache fruit that delivers waves of sweet ripe cherries, raspberries, plums and exotic spices. The wine is taut, refreshing and beautifully balanced and yet at heart a simple little thing. Fine wine making indeed and as far as I can see, this is their first vintage – 93/100 points.

So, there you have it, some stunning wines made from members of the Grenache family, or blends that include Grenache. All of these are wonderful wines that certainly captured my imagination whilst I was in Sardinia. All of them have soft tannins, voluptuous fruit, spiciness and drinkability that people like in things like Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so if you enjoy those, then you will like these too. I hope that you get to try some of them, or perhaps just use the information to try Grenache wines from a wider array of places. If so, do tell us all about them, won’t you?