Ribera del Duero – a great wine region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

Penafiel Castle dominates the wine making town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

v_0392572011 Pago de los Carraovejas Reserva
Pago de los Carraovejas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other type of Vintage Port

The beautiful Douro Valley.

The beautiful Douro Valley.

I love Port. I just love everything about it. The story, the landscape, the quintas – or wine farms – and the lodges all taken together have a romance perhaps unique in the world of wine. If you have never been to Port country – the Douro Valley in north Portugal – then you have a treat in store. It is simply one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.

Recently I tutored a very well received Port tasting and I was astonished that most of us – we were all Brits – expected all Port to be deep, dark, full-bodied and opaque. Which of course Vintage Ports, Ruby Ports and Late Bottled Vintage Ports are. However, the first four Ports in my tasting were quite different. We tried Cálem White & Dryread about it here, the delicious Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny – read about it here and then some Colheita Ports before we reached the darker and richer stuff – 2009 Quinta do Infantado Late Bottled Vintageread about it here, 1997 Quinta do Retiro Vintage Port from Weise & Krohn and the magnificent 2011 Sandeman Vintage Port if you are interested.

The Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny was superb and everyone loved it, but it was the Colheitas that really astonished everyone. A Colheita you see is a Tawny Port from a single harvest. The big difference between a Vintage – apart from the quality of the year – is that a Vintage Port does almost all its ageing in the bottle. This means that the oxygen cannot get to it, so it retains its richness and fruit for much longer and so ages very slowly. A Colheita though is aged in oak barrels, usually of 600 litres and not new, for at least 8 years, so the oxygen can get to the wine and gently oxidise it, so it goes transparent and orange, or tawny in colour. This means that the flavours and complexity of a Colheita develop mainly because of the ageing. You can make a Colheita in pretty much any harvest, whereas a Vintage Port can only be produced in the occasional exceptional vintage – hence the name of the style.

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

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

A faded Cálem poster near Pinhao.

A faded Cálem sign in the vineyards near Pinhão.

0235-calem-colheita-2000-gallery-3-973x13952000 Cálem Colheita Porto
Cálem Porto
Vila Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

Cálem were founded in 1859  and historically most of their business was with Brazil and Portugal and although they make all styles I don’t think it would be unfair to say that they are something of a White Port and Tawny, including Colheita, specialist. Nowadays Cálem is owned by the Sogevinus Group, as are Barros, Kopke and Burmester. The vineyard this wine hails from is the Quinta da Arnozelo near Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the upper reaches of the Douro – the Douro Superior.

This was the only Colheita that came from a generally declared Vintage Port year and that extra concentration showed, added to which it was the youngest Colheita that I showed. The blend was 25% Touriga Nacional, 25% Tinta Roriz, 25% Touriga Franca, 25% Tinta Barroca.

The colour was quite deep, more brown than orange and the nose was pretty full on with nuts, coffee and dried fruit notes. There was still some tannin here on the palate and it was pretty mouth-filling with a silky mouthfeel, rich cooked and dried fruit, spices, nuts, espresso and a long finish. It seemed sweeter than the younger wines somehow because the fruit was still quite vibrant – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £35.00 per bottle from Vintage Wine & Port.

The Douro Valley near Pinhão.

The Douro Valley near Pinhão.

barros_colheita_19961996 Barros Colheita
Barros Porto

Vila Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

I have always had a soft spot for Barros ever since I sold their wines in another life,  so I was really pleased to see how good this was. Originally a small private house founded by Manuel de Almeida in 1913. It eventually took over lots of other smaller Port houses, including Kopke, until it too became part of the Sogevinus Group in 2006.

The blend was again 25% Touriga Nacional, 25% Tinta Roriz, 25% Touriga Franca, 25% Tinta Barroca.

The colour was a deep russet, while the nose was smokey, with coffee, spice, dried fruit and buttery caramel notes and a touch of dried and caramelised orange. The palate was just so joyous that we all stopped talking and looked at each other. There was nutty caramel, dried orange, dried fig, strong coffee and even nougat. The texture was so silky it was almost creamy and the finish went on and on – 93/100 points.

It’s funny because 1996 was considered to be a dire Port vintage and yet this wine really shone, which just goes to show that the vintage guides are wrong, or all that time in wood can work wonders!

Available in the UK for around £35.00 per bottle – click here for stockists.
For US stockist information – click here.

The lovely tiled railway station in Pinhão.

The lovely tiled railway station in Pinhão.

kopke_colheita_19961996 Kopke Colheita
Kopke Porto
Vila Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

Kopke – pronounce Cop-key – was founded in 1638 by Germans Cristiano and Nicolaus Kopke and is thus the very oldest Port house of all – the next oldest is Warre’s and that was founded in 1670, some 32 years later. 378 years later Kopke are the leading producer of Colheitas, producing more than 25% of the style. The fruit, much of it from 100 year old vines, all comes from their Quinta São Luiz which is near Pinhão in the heart of the Douro.

The colour is more red this time, like a robin’s red breast. The nose has confided peel, caramelised orange, dried fruit, toasted nuts and a dash of spice. The palate again is smooth and silky with a slight creamy quality, loads of dried fruit and some salted caramel too. This is delicious, really hedonistic and delicious – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer.
For US stockist information – click here.

p1060720

Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia.

kopke_colheita_19841984 Kopke Colheita
Kopke Porto
Vila Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

This showed its age a little I am afraid. It was lovely and it was a treat, but it seemed a little fragile and brittle.  It was very aromatic and had some coffee and nut and orange and dried fruit notes, while the palate was very smooth and light with dried fruit and spice – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £50.00 per bottle – click here for stockists.
For US stockist information – click here.

A Colheita is a lovely style of Port and is perfect with all manner of things at Christmas, mince pies, panforte, Christmas cake, you name it. So I really do recommend that you get some in for the festive season. I certainly will.

Wine of the Week – a great, great value Rioja & a couple of real treats for Christmas

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

Rioja is – I think – one of the great wine regions of the world. However, there is plenty of pretty underwhelming Rioja – and I am talking about red Rioja here, I have written about white Rioja here – produced. Increasingly there is reliable, but unexciting Rioja at lower prices, while the more exciting examples – and here I really mean the Reservas and Gran Reservas – cost a bit more than most of us can justify for an everyday sort of wine. I have written extensively about the history of Rioja and you can read the piece by clicking here.

Rioja Map 2013

Map of Rioja – click for a larger view. Non watermarked maps are available by agreement.

Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Well the other day I tasted an affordable Rioja Reserva that was quite delicious, full of character, full of flavour and full of fruit. I kept coming back to it to check, but it really was very good. So I have made it my Wine of the Week.

cune_reserva2011 Cune Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

CVNE, or Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España (The Wine Company of Northern Spain) was founded in 1879 by Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa and is still controlled by their direct descendants. CVNE was written as Cune in the old days, so that became the brand and is pronounced ‘Coon-eh’. Over the decades other labels have been introduced, Monopole, Imperial, Viña Real and Contino, but the Cune wines themselves remain the core of the range and provide the more everyday wines and the midweek treats.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

As such an old established and still family run producer, CVNE are often regarded as being very traditional. However, I am rather of the opinion that this is not entirely the case. There are traditional aspects to them certainly, but having been familiar with their wines for many decades now, I think the wines are richer than they used to be, with more emphasis on fruit – which for me is a very good thing.

This Reserva comes from the stunning 2011 vintage which is officially classified as ‘Excelente’ or excellent. It is a classic Rioja blend of  85% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha, 5% Mazuelo and 5% Graciano. The grapes were hand picked and then fermented in stainless steel and the wine was aged for aged for 18 months in American oak barrels and some French oak barrels too. The wine was aged for a further year in bottle before release.

The colour is deep and bright and the nose has lifted, fragrant fruit, cherry, plum, blackberry all mingle together with vanilla and spice and coffee together with a touch of something leathery and savoury. The palate is rich, concentrated and rounded with supple tannins, intense dark fruit, spice and a little touch of welcome, balancing freshness. It finishes pretty long and is very satisfying.

I have known this wine for a long time and often show it on my courses, but it was nice to reacquaint myself with it and to realise what a very good wine it actually is. It also delivers a huge amount of pleasure – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £11-£13 per bottle from Majestic, Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, Ocado, Asda Wine Shop and Bargain Booze and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $20- $25, for US stockists click here.

Recently I have also tasted a couple of other wines from CVNE, the Imperial Reserva and Gran Reserva. Launched in the 1920s as a premium Rioja the wine was originally aimed at the UK market and bottled in Imperial Pints, hence the name. They were both magnificent wines and would be wonderful to enjoy over Christmas:

Wines ageing in the Imperial barrel cellar at CVNE. This cellar was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Wines ageing in the Imperial barrel cellar at CVNE. This cellar was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

imp_reserva2010 Imperial Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

Another stellar vintage, this 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo blend was aged for 2 years in American and French oak casks and another 2 years in bottle.

The nose is rich and powerful with ripe black and red fruit, vanilla, spice, herbs, coffee and leather. The palate is pretty full and silky with that rich fruit and the herbal, spice, earthy tastes giving an almost sweet and sour character. A complex and delicious wine that drinks very well already, but that touch of chalkiness to the tannins will soften and it would get more complex with age – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20-£24 per bottle from Majestic, The Wine Reserve, The Co-operative, Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, The Wine Society and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $32- $38 – for US stockists click here.

imp_granreserva2008 Imperial Gran Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Bodegas CVNE
Haro
Rioja
Spain

2008 was not rated quite as highly as 2010 and 2011, but CVNE still got some fabulous results. This 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo blend was aged in American and French oak casks for 2 years and in bottle for another three years before release.

This is a big wine still, but beginning to show a little maturity. The colour is more ruby and the fruit is more strawberry with a touch of richer blackberry. There is also vanilla,  spicy, toasty oak and a real savoury note. This follows onto the palate with umami, balsamic characters as well as the rich fruit, leathery and earthy flavours, dried fruit, spice and supple, silky tannins. All in all this is a real treat and a fine Rioja – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20-£24 per bottle from Tanners, The Wine Society (2010 vintage), The Wine Reserve and many others – click here for more stockists.
Available in the US for around $70 – for US stockists click here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I do sometimes do some work for CVNE, but the views expressed here are my own and I was not asked or paid to write the piece.

Wine of the Week – another stunning English Sparkler

I seem to have tasted a lot of good English sparkling wines lately – read about them here and here – well the other day I tasted yet another one that excited me enormously. So much so in fact that I made it my Wine of the Week.

house-and-vineyard

Hambledon Vineyard on a south facing slope overlooked by Mill Down House. This was the birthplace of modern English wine in 1952 – photo courtesy of the estate.

hambledon-ccHambledon Classic Cuvée Brut
Hambledon Vineyard
Hambledon
Hampshire
England

The Hambledon Vineyard is historically very important to the English wine industry, because it was the first one to make a reputation for itself and can claim to be where the English wine revival started – bizarre as it sounds, Hambledon can also claim to be where cricket as we know it today began. The estate was originally planted in 1952 and although the wines did create a stir and even won some awards, the vineyard remained tiny, between 1 and 4 acres at various times, and so was essentially a hobby rather than a business, as is borne out by this amazing bit of film – click here to watch it. In fact by the 1990s the few grapes they grew there were being sold to other vineyards.

The estate was bought by Ian Kellet in 1999 and he decided to restore Hambledon and to make wine again. First he studied oenology at Plumpton College and then researched what would suit his land. As it is a south facing chalky slope, sparkling wine seemed a great idea and so in 2005 he planted a 10 acre test plot of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Having proved that the grapes were successful there, he planted more and created the winery. Today they farm 50 acres and make the wine in a state of the art, gravity fed winery – this is much gentler on the grapes than pumping. Since 2011 they have also employed Hervé Jestin as Chef de Caves, a position he had previously held at Champagne Duval-Leroy.

Looking down the slope - photo courtesy of the estate.

Looking down the slope – photo courtesy of the estate.

This is the standard wine of the estate and is a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. 90% comes from the excellent, ripe 2013 vintage, while 10% is reserve wines from previous vintages, some of which were barrel-aged to add extra riches and complexity. In addition 6% of the wine was barrel fermented and barrel aged and after the second fermentation in bottle, the wine was aged for 22 months on the lees.

The nose offers enticing freshly baked bread notes as well as plums, rich apple and a little note of smoky spice too. The palate is beautifully creamy, with a rich mousse, ripe peach and apple fruit and a lovely pure core of acidity and freshness. This sense of purity gives the wine wonderful verve and energy and balances the richness of the vintage. By any definition this is a fine sparkling wine that shows how seriously good English fizz can be – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Hambledon Vineyard at £28.50 per bottle, Waitrose at £30 per bottle, Marks & Spencer at £29.00 per bottle  for other stockists click here and here.

If you have never tasted a great English wine, or not understood all the fuss being made about English sparkling wine, then give this ago, it really is quite superb.

 

Court Garden – a range of fine English Sparkling Wines

We often read about how good, or at least potentially good, English sparkling wine is and it is always interesting to taste some more to see how our home grown wines are coming along.

In that spirit I recently led a tasting of fine English sparkling wines – I have tasted quite a few of those lately, click here. They were all from a single estate in Sussex and really excited everyone at the tasting and captured my imagination too.

Court Garden - photo courtesy of the estate.

Court Garden – photo courtesy of the estate.

The estate is called Court Garden and it is in Ditchling, a little north of Brighton in East Sussex. It has a long history, as a farm anyway, in Saxon times it was the garden far for the local manor house. After the conquest it formed the garden farm for the monastery in nearby Lewes, before being handed over to the crown during the Reformation. Presumably it produced food for the court at this time and this was when it acquired the Court Garden name, although it quite quickly became a privately owned farm as it has been ever since.

Today it is owned by the Corney family – the winemaker is Hugo Corney – who established it as a vineyard in 2005 by planting vines on a beautiful south facing slope. They have added to it over the years and now farm 17 hectares mainly planted with the 3 traditional Champagne grapes, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. They also grow Pinot Gris, Ortega, Dornfelder and Rondo for their new still wines and have recently started planting 3 more grapes that were once widely seen in Champagne, but are no longer permitted to be planted – although a little still grows there – Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and Arbane.

As the crow flies, Court Garden is probably only something like 200 miles north of Champagne – but it is much further to drive – and that is partly why southern England suits sparkling wine so well. Conditions are not that different from Champagne, it is more maritime, so the winters in England are not so harsh and the summers are not as hot – roughly 1˚C cooler in fact. The geology is amazingly similar to Champagne, as the bedrock of chalk carries on under the channel and into the Champagne region.

Court Garden - photo courtesy of the estate.

Court Garden – photo courtesy of the estate.

In effect the conditions are marginal for grape growing and without that south facing slope acting as a sun trap, it just wouldn’t be viable to grow grapes.

We tasted four different sparkling wines from the estate:

classic-cutout-md-2013
2013 Court Garden Classic Cuvée Brut

This is the wine that the estate was created to make, it is the signature cuvée if you like, all the other wines have developed out of this.
The fruit all comes from the 2013 harvest, which was very good. The wine is a blend of 43% Chardonnay, 36% Pinot Noir & 21% Pinot Meunier and it was aged on the lees in bottle for 30 months before being disgorged. Dosage is 9 grams per litre, like most Brut Champagne.

The colour is gorgeous with a light honey, biscuity, bruised apple sort of colour with a touch of silver about it. The nose is terrific too, very yeasty with apple crumble, cooked apple and cider and pear notes, as well as green plum. The palate has a fine mousse, quite soft, with a creamy quality, richer apple, pure acidity cutting through and a long finish. If this is their basic wine, they have done a very, very good job indeed – 90/100 points.

Available from the estate for £25.65 per bottle – 2 bottles or more and delivery is free in the UK.

rose-cutout-md2011 Court Garden Rosé Brut
The rosé is made up of 65% Pinot Meunier & 35% Pinot Noir with just 0.5% still red Pinot Noir added before bottling to give the colour. The wine spent 54 months on the lees prior to being disgorged.

The colour is delicate and pale, like peach skin. The nose is of quite bright lifted red fruit, strawberry and cranberry especially, with strong autolytic biscuity, brioche and flaky pastry notes. The palate has surprisingly strong red fruit characters, cherry, cranberry, strawberry and red apple too. This is more mouth filling and weight, despite being from a cooler vintage – 91/100 points.

Available from the estate for £27.00 per bottle – 2 bottles or more and delivery is free in the UK.

noirs-cutout-md2010 Court Garden Blanc de Noirs Brut
2010 was a great year with a long, warm summer that produced beautifully ripe fruit. They decided to create a richer style to show off that ripeness. This wine is 60% Pinot Noir & 40% Pinot Meunier and the wine was aged for 66 months on the lees before disgorging.

Lovely colour, green peach skin. The nose is very restrained at the moment, almost dumb – I expect it is a stage it’s going through, but there are hints of ripe green fruit, nuts, peach and apple. The joy here is on the palate though. It is wonderfully textured, flowing across your senses in a sensual, supple way.There are red fruit hints, rich apple and pear, a touch of something tropical and an underlying richness too. I loved this wine – 92/100 points.

Available from the estate for £27.00 per bottle – 2 bottles or more and delivery is free in the UK.

ditchling-reserve-cutout-md2010 Court Garden Ditchling Reserve Brut
The Ditchling Reserve is really the Blanc de Noirs – 60% Pinot Noir & 40% Pinot Meunier – aged for 9 months in used white wine barrels from Burgundy and Bordeaux before the second fermentation. It was then aged for 66 months on the lees before disgorging.

The colour is pale gold straw, while the nose is open and rich with wafts of apple pie, raspberry, strudel, brioche, a touch of spice and creamy vanilla. The palate is rich and seductive with red fruit, ripe peach, apple compôte, honey,  a lovely texture and a long rich finish. A superb sparkling wine, full of character and flavour – 93/100 points.

Available from the estate for £29.55 per bottle – 2 bottles or more and delivery is free in the UK.

This was an impressive line up of fine estate bottled sparkling wines, the fact that they come from England is just a bonus. The quality was very impressive and I look forward to seeing how they wines develop as the vines age. The wines tell a wonderful story, the quality is very high and the represent great value for money too. They might just be the perfect thing for Christmas? Court Garden also host some lovely winery and vineyard tours, which could also make excellent Christmas presents – click here for details.

An Afterthought
Has anyone else been astonished that you cannot buy English Sparkling wines in British Airports? I would grab a bottle to share with people overseas almost every time I flew, but they are not available. There is loads of Champagne – at prices no cheaper than on the high street mind – pimped up Prosecco, but no English fizz.

That shouldn’t be allowed, they should stock our own wines so that people take them all around the world and share the story.

Wine of the Week – a touch of Spanish tradition

rio-vino-tondonia-copyRecently I led a tasting of wines made by Bodegas López de Heredia in Rioja – it was at the West London Wine School, check out more of their tastings here. All the wines were excellent, but even in such exalted company, some stood out from the pack. The undisputed highlights were the astonishing 1994 Viña Tondonia Gran Reservas, both red and white, which were wines of incredible finesse and beauty. As you might expect, wines of that quality and age are not cheap, but there were some stunning wines at lower prices that offered superb value for money too. I loved one of them so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Rioja Map 2013

gravonia2005 Viña Gravonia Blanco Crianza 
Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia
DOCa / PDO Rioja
Haro
Spain

Bodegas López de Heredia was only the third bodega to be founded in Rioja after the wine revolution began there in the 1840s-1860s. They were founded in 1877, so really were at the forefront of making Rioja the great region that we know today. Rioja’s development was a slow process in truth, you can read a history of Rioja that I wrote by clicking here, it is a story worth reading as it might not quite be what you expect.

López de Heredia was founded by Don Rafael López de Heredia y Laneta and it is still owned and run by his family to this day. A visit there is always worthwhile as it widely regarded as the most traditional Rioja producer there is. Rioja actually took quite a while to develop its style and to formulate its ‘traditions’, even López de Heredia. Oak ageing was used from the beginning, it was what set Rioja apart from the rest of Spain, but the use of the terms Reserva and Gran Reserva was not established until the 1920s at the earliest and the ageing regulations were not established until the 1940s. So whether the wines are traditional or merely idiosyncratic, I couldn’t really say. I just know they are very good.

The wines are very unusual, especially the whites. They undergo long ageing in wood and develop very complex characters as a result. This ageing leads to a note of oxidation in the white wines that is not totally unlike a Fino or Manzanilla sherry. This resemblance can be over stated though, I do not really enjoy Sherry, but I love these wines, so don’t let that idea put you off.

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López de Heredia’s vineyards, Viña Tondonia is contained within the loop of the Ebro River in the foreground, Viña Gravonia is just behind – photo courtesy of the winery.

They make their most famous wines from their  Tondonia vineyard, which is why Viña Tondonia forms part of the company’s name. Tondonia can be either red or white and are labelled as Reserva or Gran Reserva. They also produce red Reservas and Gran Reservas from the nearby Viña Bosconia vineyard, while their red Crianza is called Viña Cubillo and comes from the Viña Cubillas vineyard. Their white Crianzas come from the Viña Laconia vineyard and are labelled as Viña Gravonia.

ldh-mapa-vinedos-vineyards

Map of López de Heredia’s vineyards – courtesy of the winery.

All of these wines are aged for a lot longer in wood than the regulations require. Gran Reserva reds spend 9 years in barrel and the whites 10 years. Reservas spend 6 years in barrel, while red Crianzas are aged for 3 years in barrel and the whites for 4.

López de Heredia stick to using American oak, as is traditional in Rioja – you can read why here. However, it is American oak with a difference. They buy whole trees and ship them to Spain where they are split, seasoned outside and turned into barrels. This contrasts with American oak barrels made in America which are sawn – which cuts the grain allowing more flavour to come out – and seasoned in a kiln, which concentrates the lactones to give that creamy, sweet vanilla character so typical of American oak and Rioja. So although López de Heredia age their wines in American oak for a long time, it is a more subtle process than you might expect. Also the wines are aged for a short time in new oak before being racked into old, neutral barrels for the extended ageing.

Barrel ageing at López de Heredia - photo courtesy of the winery.

Barrel ageing at López de Heredia – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Viña Gravonia Crianza Blanco is 100% Viura, the Tondonia whites also have 10% Malvasia to make them a little richer. It was fermented in big wooden vats with a spontaneous fermentation of the wild yeast and then aged for 4 years in barrel.

The nose is extraordinary, with that touch of Fino sherry, toasted almonds, olives, a note of the sea, honeysuckle, beeswax, gentle spice, orange pekoe tea, firm white peach, quince and orange peel. The palate is dominated by the acidity and mineral character together with cinder toffee, honeycomb, dried apricots, caramelised orange, waxy lemon and almonds. There is even a very subtle feel of tannin on the long, long finish. It is an extraordinary wine and has a little more weight, concentration and fat then the more widely available 2006 vintage – 2005 was the better year.

Try it with classic fish dishes like sole meunière, or grilled Dover sole, but I expect it would be great with just about any fish dish, anything in a creamy sauce and roast chicken too – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £19 per bottle – for stockists click here.
For US stockists click here.

It won’t be for everyone, but this wine is a delicious example of a really rare style of wine. It certainly excited me at the tasting and thrilled everyone else there too. What’s more it gives an idea of what these great old style Rioja whites are like without having to pay a fortune. Do try it or a Viña Tondonia white if you can.

 

Wine of the Week – delicious Greek treats

P1030596

Looking towards the sea from Rapsani’s vineyards.

I love Greek wine and wish they were more popular and easier to buy in the UK than they are. I really enjoy presenting Greek wines to wine societies and recently I talked a wine group into agreeing to a tasting of Greek wines. Despite being nervous at first the tasters really enjoyed them. All the wines showed really well and impressed the tasters. Of course a handful particularly stood out and proved to be widely popular in the room and I will mention three of those today and tell you about some of the others another time.

The first one was a superb dry white from the Island of Santorini made from the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. I showed a terrific, mineral example made by the Santo Wines cooperative, which you can buy mail order in the UK – click here . If you want to try a more easily available example, Marks & Spencer stock a lovely, affordable version made by the splendid Argyros Estate – click here for details. I have written about Santorini wines in more detail before – click here.

Amongst the reds I showed a couple of wines form the same region as a contrast and I loved them so much that together they are my joint Wine of the Week.

P1030691

The village name in the Greek alphabet as well as ours.

That wine region is called Rapsani and it is a very beautiful place in Thessaly near Mount Olympus. I visited a few years ago and it was wonderfully peaceful up there with stunning views of Mount Olympus to the north west and the Aegean Sea to the east. The vineyards sit at between 250 and 800 metres above sea level allowing for a staggered harvest giving very different characters and complexity to the wines. The soil higher up also put me in mind of Priorat, as there is a lot of schist, red, iron-rich schist in this case which warms up quickly and drains superbly.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

The wine has long enjoyed local fame and respect and historically the Rapsani cooperative was strong, however it fell on hard times and the Tsantali company took it over in 1991 and brought in much needed investment and know-how. For a long time they were the only producers here and remain the most important and widely seen label.

Traditionally Rapsani wines were a blend of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto and Tsantali keeps to that tradition by using one third of each grape in a field blend – so the grapes are fermented together, not blended. The latter two by the way only grow here while Xinomavro is used right across northern Greece. This makes Rapsani quite different as on its own Xinomavro has something of the dry structure of Nebbiolo about it, while the other two grapes add a feeling of more body and alcohol.

Rapsani Vineyards

Rapsani Vineyards

tsantali-rapsani2012 Rapsani
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 6 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 30% new.

The grapes for this wine are harvested from the lower slopes of Rapsani, 250m above sea, and the extra heat shows in a slightly raisiny nose with richer dried cherry, some fresher, sweet raspberry aromas as well as the classic tomato stem of Xinomavro. There is sun dried tomato and tapenade too, which gives it a real savoury tang. The palate is medium bodied and very smooth with little touches of vanilla and caramel and lots of rich fruit. This is a terrific wine with just a an attractive touch of the rustic about it. It will appeal to Rioja drinkers and go perfectly with lamb and Mediterranean style food – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies and Evingtons Wines – for £8.50-£10 per bottle and from Amazon.co.uk for £28.58 per case of 3 bottles.
For US stockists – click here.

tsantali-rapsani-reserve2012 Rapsani Reserve
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 50% new.

The grapes come from further up, 250-500 metres above sea level, and the wine feels cooler and more elegant. It is also deeper, darker and more concentrated, with rich black fruit aromas, blackberry, cassis and plum, together with wafts of black pepper spice, coffee and leather. There is also a touch of that tomato stem and black olive umami / savoury character, even a touch of balsamic. The palate is concentrated, smooth and plush, with lots of fruit and spice and a lovely core of freshness to give balance and vitality. That savoury / umami note follows on to the palate as well, which makes the wine brilliant with food. A classy and elegant wine that wowed the room at my tasting – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies for £16.95 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

It always surprises people that I bang on about the delights of Greek wines so much, but they really can be very good indeed and well worth trying. The wines are classically European in style and structure, but because Greece has such wonderful indigenous grape varieties, they taste different and wonderfully exciting.

Try either of these with slow cooked lamb, or Kleftiko, and you will not be disappointed.