White Wines from the Rhône

Mountain vista of the southern Rhône – photo by Quentin Sadler.

France’s Rhône Valley is a fascinating wine region that is traditionally much more famous for its red wines than its whites. Indeed a mere 6% of production is white, but that does not mean that it doesn’t make really good white wines that will repay a little seeking out – it does.

Having been a cheerleader for the region’s red wines for many years, I visited the region last year and fell totally in love with the whites.

We talk about the Rhône as a single region, but in reality it is two quite different places.

Wine map of the Rhône valley – click for a larger view.

The Northern Rhône accounts for just 6% or so of the Rhône Valley’s wine production – despite boasting many of the region’s famous vineyard areas. The reason for this small size is simple. The climate here is continental with short summers and harsh winters, so the grapes only really ripen when grown on the steep, sun-drenched slopes that form the Valley wall. Most famously Viognier is used here to make Condrieu and the even more rare Château-Grillet, which is an appellation for a single estate covering just eight and a half acres.

Some of Jean-Luc’s vineyards near Saint-Péray – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

On my travels I was very excited to discover some lighter, fresher examples of Viognier that are much easier to drink as well as being a great match with food.

Perhaps even more exciting for me were the unexpected joys of the white wines from the other areas of the northern Rhône, especially Saint Péray – typically made from blends of Roussanne and Marsanne.

The Southern Rhône is part of the Mediterranean world with long, hot summers. This delivers greater ripeness and often higher alcohol, which is why traditionally the wines have been overwhelmingly red. Modern knowhow can make it much easier to make good white wines in hot areas and this has become a theme throughout the Mediterranean world – which is good as white wines suit Mediterranean cuisine and relaxed seaside drinking.

Classic stony soils of the Southern Rhône – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The white wines of the southern Rhône are usually blends made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul Blanc and Bourboulenc although Viognier gets a look in as well. I love these grapes as they are full of character, flavour and interest. Single varietals are permitted, although most white wines here are blends of more than one grape variety. These grapes are also widely used in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of course.

Grenache Blanc – is actually Spanish in origin so should be called Garnacha Blanca (Garnatxa Blanca in Catalan) – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern, cold fermentation techniques keep it fresh and bring out the lovely herbal aromas and flavours and it also has a silky texture that can be very satisfying.

Roussanne is also favourite of mine and is another aromatic and herbal scented grape variety that has a nutty character too. The wonderful thing about Roussanne is though that it has loads of flavour and aroma but also reasonably high acidity, so the wines feel fresh – even when blended with Grenache Blanc.

Marsanne is a much fleshier and lower acid grape and can make big and flabby wines unless care is taken – which is why it is so seldom seen as a grape variety on its own, although even they can be superb.
When blended with Roussanne it can often give a succulent texture and a rich mouthfeel.

Bourboulenc is a grape variety that I have really come to love in recent years too. It is widely grown in southern France, being used in Bandol, Cassis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and La Clape in the Languedoc amongst other places. It has good refreshing acidity and zingy citrus flavours too and while almost never used on its own can really give some elegance and finesse to a blend of richer grapes.

Clairette is a fascinating grape as well. It is low in acid and can be flabby unless care is taken. This is another herbal grape with fennel like aromas and rich orange and peach flavours. In the Rhône it’s a blending grape but is used as a single varietal in Clairette de Bellegarde. This is a small wine region within the Costières de Nimes area, south of Avignon, and the wines can be wonderfully mineral and flavourful.

Viognier of course is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. Generally it is low in acid, intensely aromatic and very rich when used to make wine on its home turf of the northern Rhône.

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Most of us are familiar with the basic wines from the region. These are labelled simply as Côtes-du-Rhône, an origin – or appellation – which covers the widest area of production. These generally provide good everyday drinking, while examples from conscientious producers can often be much better than you expect. Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages is an appellation for the parts of that area that are considered capable of making wines with more depth and personality. These vineyards are scattered throughout the Côtes-du-Rhône zone.

Experts generally agree that the very best Rhône wines come from the Crus. A Cru is a part of the region that is traditionally thought to produce the most complex wines and have a more specific stated origin on the label. Therefore, as in Beaujolais, they are labelled by the name of the specific place where the grapes are grown, rather than the name of the region. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous example, but there are many others including Lirac, Gigondas, Hermitage and Saint-Péray.

My love for these wines was rekindled recently when I tasted a couple of wines from the great Jean-Luc Colombo.

Jean-Luc Colombo with his wife Anne and daughter Laure, they all work in the vineyards – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

Jean-Luc hails from Provence and only bought his first vineyard, Les Ruchets, in 1987, so is something of a newcomer to the Rhône and I think that shows a little in his wines. There is a brightness and a purity that sets him apart from the more traditional producers and made him something of a trailblazer for the younger type of Rhône winemaker. He and his daughter, Laure craft wines that manage to combine power, purity and vivid, pleasurable fruit in a way that is decidedly modern and yet completely natural. All their own vineyards are organic, which is only fitting as they live on their estate in Cornas in the northern Rhône.

The whole range is good with some amazing wines at all the price points. As far as the whites are concerned, I love his Condrieu Amour de Dieu, but the two wines that I have enjoyed most recently are:

2017 Côtes du Rhône Les Abeilles Blanc
AC/PDO Côtes du Rhône
Jean-Luc Colombo
France

80% Clairette makes this mineral and crisp, while 20% Roussanne gives it some fat and more aromatics. The wine is called The Bees in French because the Colombo family love their bees that pollinate their vineyards. Indeed they have their own beehives and make honey as well as funding bee research in France, the US and UK.

There is nothing fancy about this wine. It is cold fermented, clean as a whistle and sees no oak at all, but therein lies it’s genius. The wine is bright, direct and effortless to drink and yet it has that feel of quality. It has backbone, substance – class if you will. It’s refreshing and you will find yourself quaffing it, but banal it most surely is not – 87/100 points

Available in the UK at around £10.50 per bottle from Templar Wines

 

Some of Jean-Luc’s vineyards near Saint-Péray – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

 

2016 Saint-Péray La Belle de Mai
AC/PDO Saint-Péray
Jean-Luc Colombo
France

This blend of 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne is fermented and aged in oak barrels, but only a little is new making sure the oak remains subtle and supportive rather than dominant, adding a silky, refined texture. Historically Saint Péray specialised in sparkling wines and enjoyed a high reputation before almost withering away. Wines like this show the enormous potential the appellate has for high quality.

Everything that I like about these white Rhône wines is to be found here. It is generous, floral, fruity and aromatic with notes of wild herbs and flowers together with honey and pine trees. The palate is sumptuous and rich without over playing its hand. There is an underlying subtlety that makes that richness all the more intriguing. The fat, succulent fruit dominates the mouthfeel, with flavours of apricots, pineapple, oranges, lemon and melon, while vanilla, clove, pepper and cardamon play around the edges. All the while refreshing acidity balances that richness of the fruit and there is a lovely touch of minerality, a little saline in fact. A wonderful white wine with presence and aplomb but also kept in check by natural elegance and sophistication – 92/100 points

Available in the UK at around £20.00 per bottle from Wine Direct, Hennings Wine Merchants and Millesima – UK.

More information is available from Jean-Luc Colombo’s UK distributor, Hatch Mansfield.

These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes really well. Perfect with roast chicken, grilled fish and all sorts of Mediterranean fare. The Saint-Péray is amazing with my roast lamb – smothered in Mediterranean herbs, lemon and garlic and slow cooked for 6 hours or more. Garlic, olive oil and lemon all work brilliantly with these grape varieties. They are also perfect with a cheese board and what I usually serve with a selection of cheeses that includes both hard and softer types. I believe that a white wine like these is a much better match with a selection of cheeses than a red wine.

So now you know – white wines from the Rhône are well worth searching out.

Montefalco – Italy’s Rising Star

The Bocale winery and vineyards, showing the landscape of Montefalco – photo courtesy of Montefalco wine.

I love Italian wine and am fascinated by the enormous potential there is in every corner of that amazing wine producing country. 

Excitingly every now and again a region emerges from relative obscurity to sit alongside the famous classic wine regions such as Barolo and Chianti. We might well be experiencing such a moment right now.

Map of Umbria’s wine areas – click for a larger view.

The landlocked province of Umbria neighbours Tuscany but feels more rural and quiet. Wine has been produced here for centuries with the whites of Orvieto and reds of Torgiano enjoying some success. Neither though have managed to break through into the ranks of the great regions.

Umbria might now have found its true champion though in the tiny wine region of Montefalco. I visited recently and loved what I found. This delightful place is well off the beaten track – my taxi to Montefalco from Rome Airport covered nearly half the distance on unmade roads – and is centred on the pretty hilltop medieval town of Montefalco.

The hilltop town of Montefalco – photo courtesy of Tabarrini.

It’s small, but utterly charming with beautiful narrow streets, fortified town walls and a scattering of wine shops as well as some excellent restaurants. It’s a delightful place to wander around but at its heart is the wine produced in the surrounding countryside.

The delightful main street and gate of Montefalco – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The place enjoys a Mediterranean climate – they grow olives here in abundance – with some aspects of a continental climate, including very cold winters.

Two distinct styles dominate local red wine production, Montefalco Rosso DOC and Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG.

DOC / Denominazione di origine controllata wines come from recognised traditional regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance. DOCG / Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is a step above and the rules are more stringent, with longer ageing and lower yields.

The Montefalco Rosso wines are blends based on 60-80% Sangiovese, the famous grape of Chianti in Tusacny, together with 10-25% of the local Sangrantino grape and often some Barbera and Merlot. 

One of the oldest estates in Montefalco is the wonderfully named Scacciadiavoli – it means to banish devils and celebrates an exorcist who lived nearby. It was founded in 1884 and this is where they created the local Rosso blend of Sangiovese and Sangrantino as an alternative to Chianti.

Montefalco DOC was created in 1979 as a recognition for the improvement in the local wines. Some fine dry whites are made here as well as reds, from blends based on the excellent Trebbiano Spoletino grape – which is a variety on its own and not Trebbiano. There are also some lovely crisp whites made from Grechetto (grek-ketto).

Trebbiano Spoletana vines growing the trees at Tabarrini – photo courtesy of Tabarrini.

I would also add that the nearby Spoleto DOC, which overlaps with Montefalco, produces some truly great white wines made from Trebbiano Spoletino.

Without a shadow of a doubt though the premier wine from this region is the Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG and it is this which is fast becoming one of Italy’s star red wines. Originally it was simply a part of the Montefalco DOC, but was separated out and promoted to DOCG status in 1992. The rules specify that the wine must be aged for a minimum of 37 months, including at least 12 months in barrel and 4 months in bottle.

Historically Sagrantino was considered so harsh and tannic that they either made sweet wines from it or blended it with softer, less tannic varieties. 

Scacciadiavoli made the first dry red wine made from the Sagrantino grape, that we know about anyway. It was in 1924 for a local festival and was only made once, before they reverted to the more normal sweet wines.

The move to dry reds happened slowly from the 1960s onwards. The sweet wines still exist though with many producers making a Passito Sagrantino from grapes that have been dried to concentrate the sugars.

The approach to Arnaldo Caprai – photo by Quentin Sadler.

One of the most famous estates here is Arnaldo Caprai which was a pioneer in adopting modern techniques that lifted the quality of the dry wines. This foresight made the wines more exciting for foreign markets and helped others to see the potential. As a result the few old established estates here seem to have raised their game and to have produced more ambitious and finer wines, while newcomers have flocked to the region to create new vineyards. Today there are over 50 producers of Montefalco Sagrantino.

In some ways the wines appear similar in flavour to Sangiovese, with red berry fruit characters, an earthy quality and plenty of food friendly acidity to give balance. The bigger wines, from riper vintages and the more internationally focussed producers, combine these with deeper black fruit flavours too, while a little bit of age brings out the complexity of dried fruit and leather. The wines always have that tannic structure that is more reminiscent of Barolo than Chianti though.

It seems to me that although it has been a very long time coming, Sagrantino has found its moment. Greater understanding and modern knowhow, including gentle handling, cold fermentation and less new oak seems to have tamed Sagrantino’s tannins, delivering ripe fruit and seductive charms that give the wines much wider appeal than ever before. Yes indeed there are tannins, but they are approachable and enjoyable, giving the wine structure rather than bite.

I have tasted some older vintages that I enjoy, but for me the quality of the wines really took off from the excellent 2011 harvest onwards. Time and again it was the, cool, 2014 vintage and the ripe, generous 2015 and 2016 wines that impressed me the most.

Yes these are bold wines with big flavours, but there is real elegance and finesse here too so they should appeal to lovers of Bordeaux, California and Rioja, as well as Barolo, Brunello and Chianti. The opulence, generous fruit and elegance makes these excellent restaurant wines that partner so much more than just Italian food.

Montefalco Sagrantino truly has become one of Italy’s new star regions.

Some producers worth seeking out:

Marco Caprai, whose vision and drive helped to inspire the region – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Arnaldo Caprai – In many ways the estate that set Montefalco Sagrantino on the path to its current glory. Founded in 1971, Marco Caprai took over the reins from his father Arnaldo in 1988 and immediately started an in-depth analysis of the Sagrantino grape, the clones on the estate and how to grow this tricky variety. The results speak for themselves with the wines achieving a global following and wide acclaim. In many ways these are amongst the most international and opulent – indeed there is a touch of Napa Valley to the winery and tasting room – but the range is impressive and the quality is very high across the board.

Try: Valdimaggio single vineyard Montefalco Sangrantino with its rich, but balanced fruit, spice notes and silky texture.

Arnaldo Caprai wines are distributed and retailed in the UK by Mondial Wine.

Matteo Basili, the winemaker at Beneditti & Grigi – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Beneditti & Grigi – Founded as recently as 2014, this newcomer makes very high quality wines under the guidance of Matteo Basili who is a passionate, honest, openminded and engaging winemaker. He creates two ranges; the easier drinking La Gaita del Falco and the more complex Beneditti & Grigi line.

Try: Adone DOC Montefalco Grechetto white is a stunning take on the Grechetto grape. It is partially barrel fermented and is both delicate and rich with lovely refreshing acidity. 

Their Beneditti & Grigi Montefalco Sangrantino is a great wine with a seductive smoothness that shows how well they tame those infamous tannins.

They also make a Sagrantino that does not adhere to the DOCg rules and so is labelled as IGT Umbria. It only has a little oak and is a fresh, lively and drinkable take on this tannic grape.

Beneditti & Grigi wines are available, until Brexit anyway, from XtraWine, Tannico.co.uk and Uvinum – all of whom ship the wine to you directly and very efficiently – ah the joys of being in TheSingle Market.

Liù Pambuffetti, winemaker and custodian of Scacciadiavoli’s history – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Scaccadiavoli – The original innovator in Montefalco, this beautiful estate was founded in 1884 and created the recipe for what is now Montefalco Rosso. Amilcare Pambuffetti worked here as a young vineyard worker and was eventually able to buy the property in 1954 when he was 71. Today the fourth generation of his family farm 40 hectares of vines.

Try: Their elegant Montefalco Sangrantino has a traditional, savoury character while they also make a fine traditional method sparkling rosé from 100% Sagrantino.

Some Scaccadiavoli wines are imported into the UK by The Wine Society.

Giampaolo Tabarrini, the force of nature behind Tabarrini’s success – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Tabarrini – Giampaolo Tabarrini, whose family have farmed here since the 1840s, is a true force of nature. He took his family winery that made local wine for everyday consumption and since 1996 has transformed it into one of the leading estates of this up and coming region. He is effortlessly charming, hugely entertaining and well worth listening to – which is good as he seldom keeps quiet, or stands still for that matter. The farming is entirely organic and the focus is firmly on their 18 hectares of vineyard.

Try: Adarmando Trebbiano Spoletana is made from hundred year old vines that are trained high up in trees, like wild vines, and is one of the very best white wines here. Giampaolo’s three single vineyard, or Cru, Montefalco Sagrantinos are exquisite with concentrated fruit, refined tannins and integrated oak.

Tabarrini wines are distributed in the UK by Raeburn Fine Wines and are available from the excellent Uncorked and the equally first rate The Good Wine Shop.

Valentino Valentini, the passionate and precise winemaker of Boale and Montefalco’s youngest ever mayor – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Bocale – The Valentini family have farmed in Montefalco for generations but only created their own estate in 2002. Now run by Valentino Valentini, Montefalco’s youngest ever Mayor, the emphasis is very much on quality. He makes true artisan wines that echo his passionate, yet precise character. The estate covers 9 hectares, farming is organic and all the fermentations are spontaneous. From 2009 they have picked later, for optimum ripeness, and aged the wines in large French oak casks to soften those tannins.

Try: Their Montefalco Sangrantino is concentrated, spicy and herbal with nicely judged tannins that are firm but far from hard going.

Bocale wines are distributed in the UK by Dolce Vita Wines and are available from Hedonism.

Filippo Antonelli, the charming and amusing owner of Antonelli with his amphorae – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Antonelli – Filippo Antonelli is a fascinating and amusing host whose family has owned this estate since 1881. He himself has been in charge here since 1986 and seems justly proud of his wines and heritage. The vineyards cover 40 hectares and have been certified organic since 2012. Like many estates they also produce an amazing olive oil, as well as some wonderful salamis. 

Try: The magnificent amphora fermented and aged Anteprima Tonda Trebbiano Spoletana is one of my favourite white wines of the year. The single vineyard Chiusa di Pannone Montefalco Sagrantino is amongst the very best examples, while his Contrario Sangrantino is a juicy modern, unoaked take on the grape.

Antonelli wines are distributed in the UK by Laytons and Jeroboams and are also available through Tannico.co.uk.

Albertino Pardi, winemaker at Cantina Fratelli Pardi – photo courtesy of Pardi.

Cantina Fratelli Pardi – An 11 hectare family run estate that dates back to 1919, but produces a range of exuberant and bright wines that are modern in every way and yet true to themselves. Sadly I did not get to visit this winery, but I did taste their wines several times and seriously impressed by the quality and the sheer drinkability.

Try: Their Trebbiano Spoletana, with its fresh acidity, touch of texture and tropical fruit, is an excellent introduction to this exciting style, while their Montefalco Sangrantino is complex and incredibly drinkable with its rich, concentrated fruit and supple mouthfeel.

Pardi wines are imported into the UK by Aleksic & Mortimer Winehouse and are available through Tannico.co.uk.

Little Pleasures – a celebration of a less famous wine

Wine is the lifeblood of Chablis. The vineyards can be seen from the heart of the village and you often see grape growers going about their business.

Ah Chablis! That name conjures up all sorts of thoughts of stylish, sophisticated dry white wine. I love Chablis and think that the appellation / PDO has gone through a real renaissance over the last twenty years or so. There was a time when Chablis was frequently not what it ought to be and was instead a bit thin, green and tart.

This seems to longer be the case and the quality of Chablis available seems to be generally pretty high in my opinion. Sadly so does the price – and that is before Brexit. What makes Chablis such a pleasure though is the complexity, the minerality and is that sense that you are drinking a true thoroughbred – a classic. So why should that be a cheap wine? How can it be a cheap wine?

Cheap Chablis is always a disappointment and never shows you what Chablis should really be all about.

In some ways Chablis is a really simple wine to get your head around:

It is pretty much the northernmost outpost of the Burgundy wine region.

It’s only white.

It’s dry.

It’s only made from Chardonnay (Beauneois to the locals).

After that though it get’s a bit more complex because the differences are usually all about nuance rather than big, bold flavours. However the defining characteristic of Chablis should be all about the minerality in the wine. Minerality is the word we use to describe anything in a wine that does not come from the fruit or the winemaking. What actually causes these mineral characters is unknown and experts disagree – I have my own view that you can read about here – but they show themselves as stony, steely or earthy flavours and aromas.

Chablis’s beautiful vineyards.

Chablis should smell and taste stony and that is the defining character of the wine style. It should have that sense of the fruit being restrained and the wine brooding in the glass – rather than overt fruit leaping out at you. There should be tension in the glass between the (gentle) fruit, the crisp acidity and that minerality. They all vie for your attention, so the wine should feel beguiling and complex. Drinking a good, or great Chablis, should be an occasion.

I will write another day about the higher levels of Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines, but there is another subdivision of Chablis and it often gets overlooked.

That is Petit Chablis. I suspect very few of us go around actually knowing what Petit Chablis is, but it sells. It sells almost certainly because consumers assume that it has a relationship to Chablis itself – which it does.

Wine Map of France – click for a larger view.

The vineyards of Chablis – map courtesy of the BIVB.

The thing about Chablis is that it is really simple, pure even, until it isn’t. Chablis itself is all about the land in which it is grown. There are two important considerations with Chablis, the soil type the grapes are grown in and the aspect of the vineyard.

For a wine to be awarded the use of the Chablis name, or Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru, it must be grown in the vienyards around the (large) village of Chablis and be grown in the correct soils. These are a type of chalky limestone that was formed in the Jurassic era and was first identified in the village of Kimmeridge on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. That is why the soil is known as Kimmeridgian, sometimes Kimmeridgian Clay.

The village of Chablis with the vineyards behind.

The whole area was once ancient seabed – under a warm and shallow sea – and that is why it contains millions of fossilised mussels and oysters. Chablis must be grown in this soil and it is believed that it is this soil that helps the wine take on that mineral character. Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru must also be grown on Kimmeridgian soils, but in those instances they are on slopes facing south, south west or south east – this ensures they are riper than standard Chablis as the grapes get more sun.

Not all the land around the village of Chablis is Kimmeridgian though. At the top of the slopes there is a harder soil called Portlandian Limestone. It would be a waste not to plant anything in this soil, but there is no avoiding the fact that wine produced in these soils is different from Chablis – even if the same grape variety, Chardonnay, is used. That is why the wines grown in these soils are called Petit Chablis, so that we know they are different and perhaps that we should not hold them in such high regard as Chablis itself.

Traditionally we have been told that Petit Chablis is not mineral, instead it is is more fruity, but still crisp and dry. Broadly speaking I would say that is true, although it isn’t quite as clear as that makes out. Recently I have noticed that the quality of Petit Chablis seems to be very good right across the board – just like Chablis itself.

Chablis is a lovely place to visit.

I have to be honest that until a few years ago I was barely aware of Petit Chablis existing, let alone understanding what it was, so my experience of it has all been in the last three or four years. In that time though I have noticed more and more that the wines are on the whole consistently good quality and often fantastic value for money. It really does seem to be a very reliable appellation, I have tasted a good few of late and they all seem to deliver a classy glass of wine.

In fact they might be a perfect reliable classic French dry white wine to fall back on now that the likes of Chablis and Sancerre have become so expensive. Petit Chablis has certainly become something of a house wine Chez moi and something that I frequently order when dining out.

At their best – and all these are very good – Petit Chablis is crisp and refreshing with apple, orchard fruit, some light creamy notes and lots of acidity as well as a little touch of that minerality for which Chablis is so famous. They are of course unoaked so remain bright and lively, so would appeal to Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Sauvignon Blanc drinkers as well as lovers of White Burgundy.

Here are a few of the Petit Chablis wines that I have tasted and enjoyed in recent months:

 

2016 Louis Moreau Petit Chablis
Louis Moreau
Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Waitrose

2017 Petit Chablis
Union des Viticulteurs de Chablis
Available in the UK for 12.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer

2017 Petit Chablis Vielles Vignes
Domaine Dampt Frères
Available in the UK for 12.99 per bottle from Laithewaites

2016 Simonnet-Febvre Petit Chablis
Simonnet-Febvre
Available in the UK for 12.99 per bottle from Vinatis and Hay Wines

2017 Louis Jadot Petit Chablis
Louis Jadot
Available in the UK for 16.99 per bottle from Simply Wines Direct

2016 Alain Geoffroy Petit Chablis
Domaine Alain Geoffroy
Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company,Oddbins, Albion Wine Shippers

Anytime you want a true classic French dry white wine, then Petit Chablis seems to me to be a good bet. Please ignore the word Petit in the name, these are all wines that deliver great big dollops of pleasure.

 

Friuli Delights

It’s been quite a year for extending my understanding of Italian wines. Recently I visited parts of the Prosecco production area in the Veneto region, but earlier in the year I was part of a study tour of a fascinating wine region called Friuli Isonzo.

This wine region is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC – or a PDO in overarching EU parlance – and can be found in the extreme north east of Italy. It stretches from near Monfalcone – where you find Trieste Airport – to Goriza on the border with Slovenia. It is all flat land, the neighbouring DOC of Carso has the mountains and Collio the hills – it even means hills in Italian. So basically the whole DOC of Friuli Isonzo is an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and sea breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (the Soča in Slovenia).

I was seriously impressed by what I found and enjoyed the experience very much. This is a culturally rich and varied part of Italy because the outside influences are very strong. Nearby is the amazing ancient Roman city of Aquileia which was the ancient capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The cohesion of the area was destroyed by the collapse of the Roman Empire with the Franks and the Lombards settling in the western part of the region while Alpine Slavs made their homes in the eastern part of Friuli near Trieste. This difference was reinforced by Friuli becoming part of the Venetian Republic in 1420 while the former free city states of Trieste and Goriza became part of the Hapsburg Empire at roughly the same time.

This border of course remained until 1797 with Napoleon’s destruction of the Venetian Empire and the whole of Friuli-Venezia Giulia was ceded to Austria. Eventually the wars for Italian unification led to the great majority of the region, the Italian parts, joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. The new border however left the more Slovene parts in the Austrian Empire. After the First World War the whole place was taken by Italy and the previously Austrian port of Trieste became an Italian city.

The Second World War shook things up yet again and Tito’s Partisans not only liberated Yugoslavia, but also Trieste. Tito had hopes of absorbing the city and it’s surrounding region into Yugoslavia, however it was not to be and the area was awarded to Italy again in 1954. In turn of course Slovenia declared itself independent of Yugoslavia in 1991 and so the region now borders Slovenia, now a democracy and member of the EU.

Wine map of northern Italy. Friuli is in the north east, between Veneto and Slovenia.

Sketch wine map of Friuli-Venezia-Guilia, click for a larger view.

This history shows in the wines with a wide range of grape varieties and blends that sometimes echoes the styles produced over the border – and vice versa of course.

The principal white grape varieties are Chardonnay, Friulano, Gewürztraminer, Malvasia, Moscato, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Verduzzo and Welschriesling (Riesling Italico).

Varietally labelled wines – those with a grape variety as the most important piece of information on the label – must contain 100% of that grape, while blends – labelled as “blanco” can contain any blend of the grapes listed above.

The red grapes are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Franconia (Blaufränkisch), Merlot, Moscato Rosa, Pignolo, Pinot Nero, Refosco and Schioppettino and again the varietals must contain 100% of that grape and red blends – “rosso” can contain any proportions of the above grape varieties.

There are also rosé wines, which can be made from any permitted grape other than Gewürztraminer, and a separate DOC for rosés made from the Moscato Rosa grape.

The region also makes some excellent sparkling wines (Spumante in Italian) – as most Italian regions do – including Chardonnay Spumante with a minimum of 85% Chardonnay and a maximum of 15% Pinot Nero / Pinot Noir blended in.
There is also Moscato Giallo Spumante, Moscato Rosa Spumante, Pinot Spumante made from any proportions of Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Nero / Pinot Noir, Verduzzo Spumante from 100% Verduzzo and Rosso Spumante which follows the same rules as still Rosso.

Fundamentally the soils are a mixture of ponka (a sandstone-marl mixture) along with more alluvial gravel and clay with some limestone and the land is flat with good sun exposure and good cooling from the air draining down the mountains. This results in wines that can be anything from quite austere and mineral to moderately rich and fruity.

Here are a few of the wines and wineries that really impressed me on the trip:

Borgo San Daniele

This thrilling winery is run by brother and sister Alessandra and Mauro Mauri. Their father had converted their mixed farm to a vineyard and bought some more vineyards and they both trained as winemakers in nearby Cividale – meaning they are steeped in the local traditions – and their first vintage was in 1991.

They farm 18 hectares spread over a wide area, giving them lots of different sites and conditions as well as grape varieties. They are certified organic and farm biodynamically, so do not use use any pesticides or herbicides and plant their vines at high density and seek low yields and are quite happy to wait for full ripeness – for weeks in necessary. Winemaking is totally traditional and yet new wave too, with long maceration on the skins for the whites, spontaneous fermentations and long lees ageing in wood.

I loved their Friulano and Malvasia, but what excited me the most were their blends.

2015 Arbis Blanc
IGT Venezia Giulia

This is a single vineyard wine from a site called San Leonardo and is a blend of 40% Sauvignon, 20% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Bianco and 20% Friulano. The different varieties are picked separately when fully ripe, then the musts are blended together and fermented together – it is a variation on a traditional field blend. The wine is then aged on the lees in large, 2000 litre, Slavonian oak casks. Confusingly Slavonia is not in Slovenia, but is a region in neighbouring Croatia.

In effect this is a solera aged blend as 30% is from the 2014 vintage which also contains some older components, and so on. That is why it has to be labelled as a humble IGT rather than DOC. Arbis means herb in the local dialect and is called that because of the cover crops that grow between the rows and temper the vigour of the vines.

The nose is wild, enticing and exotic with peachy and apricot fruit, dense citrus, waxy hibiscus, shortbread, accacia and light honey. There is jasmin, blossom and a mineral note of wet stones.
The palate has lovely weight and integration and a texture that flows wonderfully across the palate with a succulent feel, a deep flavour of rich lemon, cooked apple, melted butter, sage and something. It is very long, delicious and really interesting – 94/100 points.

2013 Arbis Ròs
DOC Friuli Isonzo

This is also a single vineyard wine from a site called Ziris and is 100% Pignolo. The grape has hardly been cultivated at all since WWII as it produces such tiny crops, but of course that suits the new wave of boutique wine growers who have supplanted the large production wineries of the 1960s to 1990s. Pignolo is a very rare grape now with just 60 hectares in Friuli and so the world.

The wine spends 3 years in oak of various sizes before being blended in tonneau – which are 550 litre in Italy – and then aged for another year in Slavonian oak barrels.

The lovely deep ruby colour is enticing.
The nose delivers bright cherry notes together with freshly turned earth, red dust, Lapsang souchong and five spice.
The palate has a sensual, silky, velvety feel, mid weight, nice freshness with cherry fruit and acidity, rich plums, chocolate and violets on the finish. The finish is long with this intense cherry with a bit of blood orange too – 94/100 points.

Castello di Spessa

This amazing winery is a beautiful castle and country house set in a beautiful landscape. The house is a luxury hotel and golf resort, while the winery is based around the medieval cellars. They farm 55 hectares in both DOC Friuli Isonzo and DOC Collio.

The amazing cellars at Castello di Spessa – photo courtesy of the winery.

Again I really liked a lot of their wines, the Pinot Grigio was very good, as was the unoaked Chardonnay and somewhat austere Sauvignon. However the standout for me was the Friulano:

2016 Castello di Spessa Friulano
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Friulani used to be called Tocai – that is no longer allowed to save confusion with actual Tokaji from Hungary and Slovakia – and has been part of the viticultural landscape in Friuli for centuries.

This is a single vineyard wine, called Capriva del Friuli, and is made from 25 year old vines in a totally normal manner. The grapes are crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged on the lees for a further 6 months in 5000 litre stainless steel tanks.

In the past I have really struggled to see the joy in Friulano, but this wine helped open my eyes to what it can do. It delivered very attractive aromas of fresh peach and apricots together with orange blossom and toasted almonds. There is something a little salty and mineral here too.
The palate is bone dry, round and fresh and fleshy with good richness, cooked apple, some pastry and bread flavours and high acid on the finish. I love the generosity, the bitter almonds and the touch of sea air about it and think it would be perfect with all sorts of nibbles and ham and cheese – 93/100 points.

I Feudi di Romans

I like this winery and am always impressed by the wines. They make a large range of very stylishly crafted wines that tend to be very seductive and charming. The winery itself sits on the flat land of the region just near the banks of the Isonzo river.

Looking across the Isonzo to the mountains.

2016 Sontium
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Friulani used to be called Tocai – that is no longer allowed to save confusion with actual Tokaji from Hungary and Slovakia – and has been part of the viticultural landscape in Friuli for centuries.

Sontium by the way is the Latin name for the Isonzo River.

This is a single vineyard wine, called Capriva del Friuli, and is made from 25 year old vines in a totally normal manner. The grapes are crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged on the lees for a further 6 months in 5000 litre stainless steel tanks.

In the past I have really struggled to see the joy in Friulano, but this wine helped open my eyes to what it can do. It delivered very attractive aromas of fresh peach and apricots together with orange blossom and toasted almonds. There is something a little salty and mineral here too.
The palate is bone dry, round and fresh and fleshy with good richness, cooked apple, some pastry and bread flavours and high acid on the finish. I love the generosity, the bitter almonds and the touch of sea air about it and think it would be perfect with all sorts of nibbles and ham and cheese – 93/100 points.

Drius

Mauro Drius creates a big range of varietal wines, and the odd blend, on his family estates near Cormòns. He farms about 15 hectares on the flatlands as well as the slopes of Mount Quarin.

2016 Pinot Bianco
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Pinot Blanc is the unsung hero of the Pinot family for me and I think it deserves to be more widely appreciated – I would almost always rather drink Pinot Blanc than Pinot Gris!

The wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and 80% was then aged in stainless steel tanks. 20% of it though was aged in large two year old Slavonian oak vats. Both components had regular bâtonnage.

The nose delivers lovely, clean and pure aromas of butter, toast, nuts, light peach, orange and something floral.

The palate is very soft, round, gentle and attractive with a almost a little caramel and some nuts and ripe orange and peach. Medium acidity gives some nice freshness and makes the wine feel very drinkable indeed – 91/100 points.

 

Tenuta di Blasig

This was my second visit to this estate and it is a beautiful spot. It is very near Trieste Airport, in Ronchi dei Legionari. The name of the town was originally Ronchi Monfalcone and was only changed in 1925 to commemorate the fact that nationalist, war hero, poet and proto fascist, Gabriele D’Annunzio‘s legionnaires set off from here in 1919 to seize the port of Fiume / Rijeka (now in Croatia) from the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, soon to be called Yugoslavia. D’Annunzio wanted Fiume to be part of Italy, as was the rest of Istria at the time. His occupation of the city lasted for 16 months and made him a national hero. D’Annunzio was a friend of the Blasig family and actually stayed in the house before sailing to Fiume and a whole wall near the kitchen is covered in amazing photographs of D’Annunzio and his men.

Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli talking about her beloved Malvasia.

Tenuta di Blasig was founded by Domenico Blasig in 1788 with the aim of making fine Malvasia wine and Malvasia remains the focus. The charming Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli is the eighth generation of the family to manage the estate and she seems to do a vey good job, producing wines of elegance and depth. They farm 18 hectares, but the vineyards are spread out and often found surrounded by suburban buildings – Trieste Airport is very close indeed and the winery is right next to the town hall.

I really like the wines here. The Friulano with a light touch of oak is a wonderful example of the type, while the Merlot, that has no oak at all, and the Rosso Affreschi Merlot and Refosco blend were both lovely wines. However the standouts for me were:

2016 Malvasia
DOC Friuli Isonzo

This Malvasia is a single vineyard wine from the nearby village of Vermegliano. It is cold fermented in stainless steel and aged on the lees for 6 months.

The nose is fresh, but not that aromatic with melon and floral blossom notes.

There are also little glimpses of orange nuts and a saline note.The palate is medium-bodied and slightly fleshy with a little succulence and almond and toffee and a little salty minerality too, like a fine Chablis.

That orange comes back, giving a soft, citric twist, while the weight and the salty minerality dominate the finish, which is pretty long.

This is a very complex wine that shows just how good Malvasia can be – 91/100 points.

 

2014 Elisabetta Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso
DOC Friuli Isonzo

I am a big fan of Refosco and think it is brilliant with almost all Italian dishes. There are at least two Refoscos, this is the one with red stems and is quite prevalent in Friuli. This wine is only fermented in stainless steel and has no oak at all.

The nose has a lovely heady mix of plums, dark cherry, milk chocolate and prune.

The palate is smooth with medium body, highish acid, nice purity, brightness and drinkability. The flavours are cherry, blueberry, plum, milk chocolate, tea, herbs and light spice as well as that very Italianate bitterness of almonds and cherry stones, that sounds weird but is actually delicious – 92/100 points.

 

 

Borgo Conventi

An aerial view of the Borgo Conventi estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

Another beautiful estate that produces both DOC Collio and DOC Friuli Isonzo wines. Founded in 1975 in an area that contained monasteries – Borgo Conventi means “hamlet monastery” – since 2001 it it has been owned and completely overhauled by the Folonari family’s Ruffino estate in Tuscany.

Again this estate produces a large range. They directly own around 20 hectares in the Collio and Friuli Isonzo regions, but also control and manage lots of other vineyards that they do not own. I enjoyed all the wines, especially the Sauvignon among the whites, but the standouts here were the reds:

2016 Merlot
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Merlot grown in pebbly clay soil, a bit like St Emilion.

The vines are around 30 years old and the wine is fermented and stainless steel vats and aged in stainless steel tanks on the lees for 6 months.

They want this wine to be fresh and fruity, so the maceration is short and there is no oak.

The colour is an enticing, shining, bright plum.
The nose is direct with lifted sweet fruit making it vibrant and lively. There are brambles and plums and blueberries and some herbal and earthy notes.
The palate is vibrantwith fresh plums and cherries, strawberry even. This makes it lively and pure with silky tannins and a little acidity to give nice freshness.

A nice medium bodied, supple red that is easy drinking and interesting – 90/100 points.

The beautiful winery at Borgo Conventi – photo courtesy of the winery.

2012 Schioppettino
IGT Venezia Giulia

This near extinct grape is a speciality of the region and likes the cool areas with coastal influence or cool draining mountain air. The grape is sometimes known as Ribolla Nera and Pocalza in Slovenia. The grape has high acidity and a somewhat peppery character.

The harvest is done by hand with several passes through the vineyard to pick individual ripe grapes. A further selection of the grapes takes place inside the winery. 20% of the grapes are partially dried, like Amarone  to improve the concentration. Fermentation is in wooden vats with refrigeration gear to keep the temperature low. This takes about 15 days with regular pump overs for extraction.The wine is then aged in second fill, new wood would give a more obvious oak character, French oak barriques (225 litre) for 12 months

The colour is a lovely ruby to pale terracotta red.
The nose gives earthy notes, cooked plums, bitter cherry, raspberry and herbs together with black pepper, cloves and cinnamon.
The palate is very smooth with high acid, sweet dried red fruit, medicinal notes, herbal notes.
Silky tannins and high acid make the wine soft and supple but refreshing and intrigueing. It’s not a big wine, in fact it is quite Pinot Noir like (with a bit of peppery Syrah in the mix for good measure) so it is medium bodied, but it is very savoury and tasty with some delicate chocolate and espresso on the finish from the oak. I love this wine, it is  delicate but rich and long – 94/100 points.

Simon di BrazzanI found this winery to be utterly fascinating. Friuli – and neighbouring Slovenia – is pretty much the epicentre of the Orange Wine movement – skin fermented white wines. Now I like these wines, but never because they are Orange, but because the wines that I like are good. Orange wines are very popular with Sommeliers right now and all sorts of people in the wine business and one hears all sorts of claims about them – and their near relations, “Natural Wines” – that they are the only wines worth drinking. Well I do not take that view, when I like them, I like them. When they are undrinkable then I don’t.

Daniele Drius farms a small estate that he inherited from his grandfather and over the last few years has converted it to organic and biodynamic viticulture. To me he seems to produce the best of both worlds, “fresh” tasting Orange wines and serious, complex “fresh” wines – just like my friend Matjaž Lemut at his Tilia Estate and Aleš Kristančič at his Movia Estate. Both of these are in Slovenia and these two dynamic – and talkative! – winemakers were school friends together.

2016 Blanc di Simon Friulano
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Friulano one third fermented in barrel on the skins with the rest fermented in stainless steel and left on the lees for a further 6 months.

It was fermented using the indigenous yeast.

The nose is quite developed with bees wax and honey notes as well as dried apricot, white pepper and something mineral.

The palate has lovely concentration with an abundance of ripe peach, peach skin, red apple, orange, something floral, something mineral and nice, balanced acidity just oiling the wheels.

I loved this and bet it goes down a treat with the local Prosciutto di San Daniele – 93/100 points.

 

2012 Blanc di Simon Friulano Tradizion
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Friulano fermented in 8 year old 2500 litre wooden vats with skin contact.

The wine is then aged in those vats for 30 months.

The staves are a mixture of French oak and Slavonian oak.

This has a beautiful, rich golden colour and a lovely nose, rich and lifted, with apricots, candied fruit, coffee and chopped nuts – especially almonds.

The palate is rich, viscous and heady with ripe stone fruit, orange, rich lemon, apple compote, honey, maple syrup, malt and caramel.

The finish is very long, silky and refined. This is a very enticing wine, full of flavour and bursting with energy – 94/100 points.

 

I really enjoyed my time in Friuli Isonzo. The place is very lovely and steeped in history. I met some remarkable winemakers and enjoyed some wonderful hospitality. It a place that seems full of wine. What’s more that wine is incredibly varied. There are many different grape varieties and a huge array of possible blends as well as very different styles and approaches to winemaking.

This is a region that will repay some experimentation. Who knows, your new favourite wine might be from Friuli Isonzo.

Wine of the Week – a great red Rioja

As any cursory read of these pages shows, I love Spain. I love the country, the people, the history, the culture, the food and the wine. Spain is simply one of the most exciting wine producing countries there is.

The whole country is awash with wine. It is the third largest wine producing country in the world, after France and Italy, but has the largest vineyard plantings of any country on earth.

In the UK we do not give Spain the respect it deserves, Spanish wine is incredibly varied and diverse, but apparently most of us really only drink Rioja and a bit of cheap Cava.

That is a shame as there is so much more going on in this wonderful and colourful country – dip into these pages and you will find a great deal about Spanish wine, food and travel.

Recently I attended a most fabulous event. It was a tasting hosted by Bodegas Bilbainas and it was an evening to remember.

Haro_-_Bodegas_Bilbaínas_1

Bodegas Bilbainas in Haro, Rioja

 

Bilbainas are an old Rioja house, founded in 1904 and now owned by Catalan Cava producers Codorníu. It has always been a good house, but seems to have become even better of late. Unusually for a Rioja producer Bodegas Bilbainas have always owned a lot of vineyards, 250 hectares near Haro in Rioja Alta in fact. This is why they label their wines Viña Pomal – Pomal being the name of this estate, as they only make estate wines.

The event was held at the elegant Hispania restaurant in London’s Lombard Street and I have seldom been anywhere so civilised and comfortable. The service was perfect and the food set the wines off perfectly. I tasted a glorious array of wines, all of which were superb, and I will write about them soon, but with winter fast approaching I thought that I would tell you about a really fine red.

Spainish map QS 2012 watermark

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view

Rioja Map 2013

A map of Rioja – click for a larger view.

pomal_gran_reserva2010 Viña Pomal Gran Reserva
DOCa / PDO Rioja
Bodegas Bilbainas
Haro, La Rioja
Spain

Gran Reservas are traditionally thought to be the best wines of Rioja and are only made in the very best vintages and were pretty rare when I was young. Such vintages come along much more frequently today – so you see global warming is not all bad!

2010 was a really great vintage, rated Excellente, and the quality shows. Most Rioja blends Tempranillo with a little Garnacha / Grenache and possibly a dash of Mazuelo (aka Carignan) and the much more rare Graciano. This wine is just 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano and is aged for 12 months in American oak barrels – American oak gives that vanilla character – before being racked, blended and returned to barrel for another year. After that the wine is transferred to wooden vats to fall bright, bottled and aged in bottle for a further three years before going on sale. 

pomales

Viña Pomal is an old, but very strong brand.

 

I sat with this wine, as I had an array of 4 or 5 others to distract me, and I am so glad as it really developed in the glass. It is undeniably pretty with loads of deep red fruit, vanilla, cloves and a light dusting of vanilla, coconut, tobacco and leather, as well as a note of cream. The palate was supple, silky and refined. Just nudging full-bodied it elegantly filled my senses and my palate with rich fruit, but also those classic, mineral, savoury, spicy and balsamic sensations that make Rioja so moreish. The tannins give a light bite while the acidity gives a nice touch of freshness.

This is a brilliant wine. It delivers so much and promises so much too. It is absolutely delicious right now, but will happily age for another decade, and become more savoury and complex – although some of that fruit will fade. It is bright and wonderfully youthful with great structure and real elegance – 93/100 points.

A wine like this is very versatile and would be fabulous with Christmas dinner, but is equally great with any meat dish, or even cheese.

This wine is strangely difficult to buy, but can be ordered online from Vinum.co.uk  and the equally fine 2011 vintage from Decantalo.comUvinum.co.uk and Exel Wines.

 

Beaujolais – a misunderstood region

P1240108

Beautiful vineyards on the south western border between Fleurie and Beaujolais-Villages.

 

Recently I had a quick trip to Beaujolais as the guest of Henry Fessy and it was a really uplifting experience. I have only been to Beaujolais once before and had come to the view that, with exceptions, the place was generally nicer than the wines. Now I am not so sure as I tasted some fabulous wines from this Cinderella-like region.

Too many Beaujolais wines in my younger days had almost no aromas or flavours at all except that bubblegum and candy floss character that shows the grapes were not crushed and instead the fermentation was carried out by the maceration carbonique process. I can enjoy wines made this way, but usually do not, especially if they are made from Gamay – the black grape of Beaujolais.

Too much of Beaujolais in my past was Beaujolais Nouveau too. This new wine is released in the year it is harvested – on the third Thursday of November. I am sure there are good examples, but on the whole it is very light, very thin, very acidic and, again, tasting of bubblegum, candy floss and cherryade. It is not everyone’s idea of fun and has tainted appreciation of the whole region for many of us, including me. Which is a pity because Beaujolais is about so much more.

Beaujolais can be a surprisingly complicated place for a region that has traditionally achieved most of its fame from producing very approachable wines.

Firstly, although the focus is on the reds, there is a tiny amount of white Beaujolais produced. Made from Chardonnay these white wines are very good quality and well worth seeking out.

French map QS 2018 Chablis & watermark

Wine Map of France showing the position of Beaujolais just to the south of Burgundy, but only semi-detached in some ways – click for a larger view.

Secondly, Beaujolais has traditionally been regarded as part of Burgundy, in the UK anyway. So much so that in a former life when I sold Georges Duboeff’s Fleurie, in tiny letters it stated “Grand Vin de Bourgogne” on the label. Nowadays Beaujolais is mainly regarded as a region on its own and not a sub-zone of Burgundy.

However this isn’t entirely consistent as there is no such thing as Crémant de Beaujolais for instance. Instead they produce Crémant de Bourgogne. The northern border is somewhat imprecise too with the Mâcon appellation / PDO encroaching all the way down to Romanèche-Thorins in the north-east of the region and even overlapping the Beaujolais Cru of St Amour.

Just to confuse matters a little bit more of course there are some odd labelling laws that permit some producers to label wines made from their Beaujolais vineyards as Appellation Controlée / Appellation d’Origine Protégée Bourgogne whilst denying that to others – this is why you can have Gamay de Bourgogne for instance, and very good it can be too as the grapes have to come from the Cru vineyards of Beaujolais – see below.

Putting all that to one side and looking just at the reds that from Beaujolais, there are three quality levels:

Wine map of Beaujolais showing all 3 quality levels and all 10 Crus.

Basic AC Beaujolais – this is generally grown on chalky limestone and produces very light reds with high acidity.

AC Beaujolais-Villages – from the northern part of the region where the soils can produce richer, rounder wines.

The 10 Crus. The Cru wines are named after the village – with 2 exceptions – within whose boundaries the grapes are grown. The appellation / PDO makes no mention of Beaujolais, just the village name. The most famous of these is of course Fleurie, but there are ten in all – see the map above.

P1240075

The mill in Romanèche-Thorins after which the wines of Moulin-à-Vent are named.

The two exceptions that are not named after their village are Côte de Brouilly which is named for the slopes of Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, and Moulin-á-Vent which is named after the distinctive old windmill that stands amongst the vines of Romanèche-Thorins.

With classic French regions it is quite a good idea to visit a producer who makes from the entire area, because you get an overview made by the same hand and mindset. That is what I got at Henry Fessy and it really made me revaluate my thoughts on Beaujolais.

P1240049

Laurent Chevalier, the charming director at Henry Fessy.

Henry Fessy was a family run estate from 1888 until it was purchased by the great Maison Louis Latour of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, who are still family owned after more than 200 years. The 70 hectare Fessy domaine has been run by the genial Laurent Chevalier ever since, with some help from members of the Fessy family, and it provides a wonderful snapshot of what Beaujolais can do.

They own land across the region and produce every single appellation contained within Beaujolais, as well as wines from the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy and even a very attractive Rosé de Provence. Currently they farm in 9 of the 10 Crus with Chiroubles being the exception. They do however produce an excellent Chiroubles from an estate with which they have long term contracts for supply and control of the vineyard.

Laurent explained that they handpick the best sites and destem 80% of the grapes, leaving 20% whole bunches. Old fashioned Beaujolais is not destemmed as the grapes have to be whole for maceration carbonique, so is fermented on the stems. 30 or 40 years ago those stems would not be as ripe as they nowadays, for many reasons, and so the results could be stalky and green. Nowadays greater control means that using stalks is a real choice because it can help with the manipulation of the must and also in the development of fuller wines and silkier tannins – providing those stalks are ripe.

So, by definition here they are not using maceration carbonique. Instead they do very light macerations with not very much wood, just a little for the top crus. What they are looking for is the taste of Gamay, rather than the more recognisable taste of bubble gum from the maceration carbonique.

The big differences between the different parts of Beaujolais are soil and aspect – isn’t that always the case! In the south the gentle rolling hills of most of the AC Beaujolais are lighter, chalkier limestone which produces lighter more acidic wines. The north however has a more complex arrangement of mainly granite with some schist, volcanic basalt and manganese. These all produce richer, rounder, more complex wines. Add aspect into the equation and you can quickly see why the Crus are so different from the rest of the region.

P1240087

Fleurie’s Chapelle de la Madone was built around 1870 to ward off vine diseases. It seems to have worked!

We talk about the slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and some other places too of course, but generally the Crus of Beaujolais are not spoken about in the same hushed ones. Well they should be. They are easily the equal of the Côte d’Or to look at, more beautiful if anything, with lovely dramatic slopes often angled towards the sun. In fact where the Cru of Beaujolais score over their neighbours to the north is that here the slopes do not only face one way as they often form a ridge with a reverse slope too. So you can have south, east and west facing Fleurie, and other Crus, vineyard slopes for instance.

P1240059

That rounded hill is Morgon’s Côte du Py lieux-dit. Fessy blend the fruit from their part of the Côte du Py into their Morgon rather than bottle it separately. The soils here are a mixture of granite and schist, decayed slate.

The different soils of the various Crus are important too as the best wines can be very mineral and make you certain that you can taste the various soils in the wines. Some people believe that happens, but most science points to something else explaining minerality in wine. A function of acidity perhaps? My own feeling is that it is a mixture of acidity and a lack of dominating, rich fruit. We are used to so many red wines being big and bold with rich primary fruit characters nowadays. Well, however ripe a Beaujolais is it will be a relatively light style of wine, so the fruit will not totally overpower the palate. Instead it will leave space for acidity and those other flavours that are not fruit, but come across as more savoury – and indeed earthy or mineral.

So the Crus have more poise, more depth and more elegance than the more basic wines because they have components competing for attention on your senses. It isn’t just red fruit, you also get some black fruit from time to time, the earthy and herbal mineral characters and yes sometimes that sense of granite or slate introducing savoury aspects and tension into the wines.

P1240043

Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, the soils are blue volcanic basalt. Right at the peak you can just see La Chapelle Notre-Dame-aux-Raisins.

They are balanced and complete and yet again the truth is much more interesting than what we are normally told about Beaujolais. These wines can last. They don’t need to be drunk young, in fact just as with most good quality red wines a few years in bottle will settle them down and draw out the more complex and satisfying attributes. The things that actually make them good wines as to opposed more simple fruit bombs.

I generally go around telling people to ignore vintage with most modern wines – for wines to drink anyway. Normally the freshest vintage is the one to go for, but obviously with classic red wines that is not the case and good Beaujolais, especially the Crus, must join that band of elite regions where vintage is a really important consideration.

2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2016 are all brilliant vintages down in Beaujolais, with 2017 being great as well. There might still be some 2015 around in the shops and I would advise you to grab those bottles while you can.

I really enjoyed everything I tasted at Henry Fessy, but some of the real standout wines were:

Henry Fessy_Beaujolais blanc bottle2016 Beaujolais Blanc
AC / PDO Beaujolais Blanc
Henry Fessy

Less than 3% of the plantings in Beaujolais are Chardonnay and Fessy only have 1 hectare, but on this showing I cannot imagine why as this is a terrific wine.

100% Chardonnay with no oak but 6 months ageing on the lees.

It has a lovely texture, satisfying mouthfeel, ripe apples and peach fruit and even a touch of something more exotic like pineapple and grapefruit. Lovely freshness keeps it poised and pure and the length is fantastic too.

This is a really good alternative to anything at the more affordable end of white Burgundy – do try it if you can – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Mr Wheeler & Hay Wines.

Henry Fessy_Morgon bottle2016 Morgon
AC / PDO Morgon
Henry Fessy

Fessy only have 2 hectares of Morgon and so blend the Côte du Py with the Corcelles fruit. They believe the Côte gives the body and the other part gives the sumptuous fruit quality.

I found this lifted, aromatic and very attractive. There was a seductive raspberry and smoke tinged perfume to it while the palate was silky and refined yet rounded and weighty with cherry strudel sorts of flavours and a crack pepper together with some lovely delicate structure from the refreshing nature of the acidity and the light touch of tannin playing around the finish.

Fresh, lively and fruity for sure, but supple and concentrated too. – in fact the concentration and balance was a revelation to me – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Fareham Wine Cellar.

2015 Brouilly
AC / PDO Brouilly
Henry Fessy

The abnormal character of the vintage really showed here with rich fruit that still shows that playful, fresh character.

This was 80% destemmed with 6 months ageing in stainless steel tanks.

The nose offered plums and violets, orange peel and that mineral earthy je ne sais quoi. The palate was full and ripe, succulent, juicy with a lovely, lively combination of red and black fruit, spice too and a touch of firm tannins. This was not so immediately about fun as the Morgon, there was a very serious, brooding wine lurking in there with an earthy, slate minerality, there was even a touch of Côte du Rhône about it. Great wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

2016 Régnié Château des Reyssiers
AC / PDO Régnié
Henry Fessy

I have always had a soft spot for Régnié as it was the last of the 10 Cru to be created and I remember where I was the day it was announced back in 1988.

This was made from 40 year old vines grown on a single site at the base of Mont Brouilly. The Châteai itself dates back to 1706 and wine has been produced here for over 300 years prior to Henry Fessy taking over the management of the estate. As usual with Fessy 80% of the vines was destemmed and the wine was aged for 6 months ageing in concrete tanks.

Lovely bright, but deep cherry aromas with a touch of something smoky and savoury. The palate had lovely weight, fruit density and concentration that made me really like this wine.

There was lots of classic fresh red fruit, but plum and blackberry too. There was something wild about the wine at times that was most attractive and all the while a sense of tension, something taut, offset the softness of the fruit and was enhanced by the gently firm earthy finis – 90/100 points.

2017 Saint Amour
AC / PDO Saint Amour
Henry Fessy

Sadly I have experienced precious little Saint Amour in my life – on this showing it was my loss too.

Fessy only farm 1 hectare in Saint Amour but they put it to good use as this was stunning and I was not alone in raving about it at the tasting.

The wine showed its youth with milky, lactic notes and then a vibrant melange of red fruit, cassis and delicate spice notes.

The palate was beautifully concentrated, but bright and pristine all at the same time. The fruit was just joyous and bright and well, downright pretty. It was supple and and ripe even though the winemaking esters were very apparent at this stage. There was a lovely supple, rounded, almost creamy texture and more tannin than you would expect, although it was not aggressive in any way, it just helped give the wine definition. One to watch I think- 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

By the way just in case you like to age wines, you can relax as these wines can age really well, from the great vintages anyway. At Lunch Laurent served us his 2009 Moulin-à-Vent and it was sensational. It had aged beautifully into a supple yet profound wine with silky tannins and concentrated earthy, savoury, light leather and dried fruit characters. In many ways it resembled a Gevrey-Chambertinn but with more sensual fruit and a slightly brighter nature.

So there you have it, a little cross action of what one very fine Beaujolais producer does. These are wonderful wines that deserve to be taken seriously and enjoyed often. They would go with so many different dishes and be suitable for just about any occasion. Who knows perhaps the balance between concentration but not heavy, ripe fruit and freshness might be just right for now? Perhaps Beaujolais’s time has come? Laurent certainly felt that he was “taking Beaujolais back” and showing just what Beaujolais can be.

The realisation may have struck me late in life, but there is no doubt that Beaujolais does make some lovely wines and I really must start enjoying them instead of avoiding them – and so must you.

 

Côtes-du-Rhône with a twist

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Think Côtes-du-Rhône, think red wine, that was their advertising slogan for quite a few years and indeed the popular perception would be that the Côtes-du-Rhône is all about red wines. Which is understandable as this region of France produces a lot of wine – 372 million bottles or so a year in fact, but only 6% of that total is white.

A lot of places are like that  – Bordeaux and Rioja for instance – the red wines get all the glory and all the column inches and I can understand it, but it limits people’s appreciation of some wonderful wines from these places too – the whites.

Recently I was travelling around the southern Rhône Valley where I visited some fabulous estates and tasted some brilliant wines. It may have been because of the hot weather, or because we were given quite light food to eat, but very often the wines that caught my imagination the most were the whites.

The white wines of the southern Rhône are usually blends made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul Blanc and Bourboulenc although Viognier gets a look in as well. I love these grapes, well except for Viognier, as they are full of character, flavour and interest. Single varietals are permitted, although most white wines here are blends of more than one grape variety. These grapes are also widely used in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of course.

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape.

Grenache Blanc – it is Spanish in origin so should be called Garnacha Blanca (Garnatxa Blanca in Catalan) – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. Which is odd for me because it is relatively low in acidity, but handled correctly can still offer enough freshness to balance the alcohol and the aromas. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern, cold fermentation, techniques keep that freshness and bring out the lovely herbal aromas and flavours and it also has a silky texture that can be very satisfying.

Roussanne is also favourite of mine and is another aromatic and herbal scented grape variety that has a nutty character too. The wonderful thing about Rousaanne is though that it has loads of flavour and aroma but also reasonably high acidity, so the wines feel fresh – even when blended with Grenache Blanc.

Marsanne is a much fleshier and lower acid grape and can make big and flabby wines unless care is taken – which is why it is so seldom seen a a grape variety on its own, although even they can be superb. Like Roussanne – which which it is often blended – Marsanne also originates in the northern Rhône.

Bourboulenc is a grape variety that I have really come to love in recent years. It is widely grown in southern France, being used in Bandol, Cassis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and La Clape in the Languedoc amongst other places. It has good refreshing acidity and good citrus flavours too and while almost never used on its own can really give some elegance and finesse to a blend of richer grapes.

Clairette is a fascinating grape. It is low in acid and can be flabby unless care is taken. This is another herbal grape with fennel like aromas and rich orange and peach flavours.In the Rhône this is a blending grape but it is used as a single varietal in Clairette du Languedoc with great success – see here.

Viognier of course is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. Generally low in acid and very intense and oily in its home turf of the northern Rhône, where it makes Condrieu. Personally I do not usually like the grape unless it is a lighter fresher example, but a little in blends can work.

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes very well. Perfect with roast chicken, fish dishes, but also brilliant with roast lamb as long as you pile on the herbs and garlic – garlic works very well with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc especially, as does olive oil. They are also perfect with a cheese board and what I usually serve with a selection of cheeses that includes both hard and softer types.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône – click for a larger view.

Here are some of the white wines that impressed me the most on my recent trip to the Rhône:

Vines at the Château de Montfaucon.

2016 Lirac Blanc Comtesse Madeleine
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

One of the absolute highlights of my trip was the Château de Montfaucon who are based near Châteauneuf-du-Pape and mainly produce Côtes-du-Rhône and Lirac wines – Lirac is another Cru of the Rhône like Châteauneuf but less well known. They farm organically, although are not yet certified and the range was thrilling from top to bottom, but it was the whites that especially drew me.

This wine is a blend of Marsanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Picpoul Blanc and the proportions vary quite widely each year. The greater part was the Marsanne and Grenache Blanc and these components were barrel fermented and aged on the lees, but with no lees stirring as the wine is textured enough naturally. It is all spontaneous fermentation with no added yeast, which also adds to the texture of the wine.

For me this is a beautifully complex and pleasurable wine with, smoke, toast, grapefruit, apricot, just a touch of oiliness and that tangy acidity in the background.
The palate is beautifully textured, almost mealy, with fresh pear and nectarine fruit and beautiful balance. The finish is surprisingly savoury and saline and has great length – 91/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Wine Society.

Winemaker Julien Thorn in the magnificent cellar at Château de Montfaucon.

2015 Vin de Madame la Comtesse de Montfaucon
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

Basically this is made from a single plot of ancient Clairette vines planted in 1870 in very stony and sandy soils on Mount Peguierol, overlooking the river Rhône near Montfaucon. They only make 7 or 8 barrels and it is fermented in oak barrels and aged in them for a few months afterwards with no lees stirring.

The label is a rather wonderful old one that was created for the estate back in 1829 and they claim it is the oldest Rhône label of all as very few wines from this region were bottled until well into the twentieth century.

Complex aromas of pastry, apricot, fennel, annis, apricot strudel, truffles and buttery grilled almonds. The aroma is heavenly and oozes style.
The palate is luscious and rich with just enough acidity and freshness to balance the full and succulent mouthfeel. There is a touch of bitterness and a touch of struck match too, while the finish is lightly oily and creamy with something mineral and saline and a long lingering flavour of orange, apricot and a little peach. Quite a wine – 93/100 points.

I cannot find any stockists for this, but it is well worth seeking out.

Christine Saurel at Domaine Montirius.

Vines at Montirius.

2016 Vacqueyras Minéral
AC / PDO Vacqueyras Blanc
Domaine Montirius
Rhône Valley
Franc

Only 3% of Vacqueyras, yet another Cru of the southern Rhône, is white. This great estate is run with passion and precision by Christine and Eric Saurel. Originally members of the local cooperative they went biodynamic in 1996 – their families thought they had joined a sect – left the cooperative once they had failed to persuade them to convert too, and never looked back.

Christine was our host as Eric was busy in the cellar but wow she feels passionately about how the estate is run, telling us that with biodynamics that if something has to be done it has to be done right then in the moment otherwise it can go wrong.

They have used no oak at all since 1999 and aim for wines that are authentic and minimalist, just as I like them. I was hugely impressed with the whole range here, especially the Vacqueyras Minéral Blanc, which is a blend of 50% Bourboulenc with 25% each of Grenache Blanc and Rousanne fermented in stainless steel with a spontaneous fermentation. Really the only thing they do is to introduce oxygen into the fermentation to stop reduction spoiling the pleasure of their wines.

Rather intriguingly the Grenache Blanc and Roussanne were co-fermented – picked together and fermented together and then blended with the Bourboulenc.

This has a great nose, floral, citrus, nutty and honeyed with deep citrus, orange and lemon peel notes.
The palate has tangy grapefruit acidity and a lively texture too. Very complex with vanilla, floral, citrus, wax, lemon curd, great fruit concentration and a taut mineral quality.
The finish lasts a good 2 or 3 minutes. This is a fine and beautiful wine – 93/100 points.

Available En Primeur for £195.00 per dozen bottles plus duty, shipping and VAT from Laithwaite’s.

The beautiful Château Beauchêne.

2017 Château Beauchêne Grande Réserve
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

This pristine estate is the focal point for the Bernard family who have been making wine in these parts since 1794. They only bought this perfect picture postcard Château in the 1990s but it is the family home and main winery for the company that makes Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Their range is solid and well made, but the high point was this relatively humble white Côtes-du-Rhône made from 25% Clairette, 25% Grenache Blanc 25% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne and 5% Bourboulenc. It is fermented in stainless steel and completely unoaked and has no malolactic fermentation either.

This is a lovely, joyous wine, full of freshness that makes it feel lively and pure. The palate is concentrated and rich but that purity keeps it refreshing too. The herbal characters and orchard fruit of the grapes together with some lemon curd notes make it delicious and moreish – 89/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Huntsworth Wine Company, London Wine Shippers and D’Arcy Wine Merchants.

2017 Château Beauchêne Viognier
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

Pure Viognier from 20 year old plus vines, farmed organically but not certified as such. The grapes were pressed and juice put straight into oak barrels, second and third use. The wine was fermented and then aged in the barrels for another 6 months on the lees.

Now I am not really a fan of Viognier, but this is an attractive wine, delicately creamy and smoky with some nice peach, floral, herb and peach stone characters. It has a lightness of touch enough to keep it fresh and lively and drinkable – very well made wine – 87/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £14.75 per bottle from  Private Cellar.

The beautiful and peaceful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Gilles Férran of Domaine des Escaravailles, he is as charming and funny as he looks!

2017 Domaine des Escaravailles La Galopine
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Domaine des Escaravailles
Rhône Valley
Franc

Domaine des Escaravailles is an amazing place. It is a beautiful spot up steep and bumpy country lane. It seems very cut off and the peace somehow prepares you for the wines to come. The story began in 1953 when Jean-Louis Férran bought several parcels of vines in the Rasteau, Cairanne and Roaix areas of Côtes-du-Rhône. In 1999 his grandson Gilles took over and made the estate what it is today. They farm using sustainable techniques and most of their vineyard sites – at around 250 metres above sea level – are relatively high and cool. As a consequence they seem to make lovely silky and refined wines that are elegant and balanced and never too powerful despite their generous fruit.

Escaravailles by the way is the local Occitan name for the scarab beetle as well as a nickname for the local black robed monks who inhabited a swathe of local monasteries before the revolution.

This is a blend of 40% Roussane, 40% Marsanne and 20% Viognier, barrel fermented and aged in the same barrels for some 6 more months, with lees stirring to help develop complexity and texture. 26 barrels were made and 4 of those were new oak, so once the wine was blended only a little new oak was used in the whole wine as they do not want the oak to dominate, merely to add some spice and structure. The vineyard this wine comes from is actually within the Cru of Rasteau, but for some odd reason only red wines and rosés can be made in Rasteau, so it has to be labelled as Côtes-du-Rhône instead.

Great aromas of herbs together with peach, blossom and sea salt.
In the mouth it has a beautiful palate with great, lush, texture, dense fruit, cooked and fresh peach, apricot, pear and apple together with some lovely herbs and spices and a feel of some wild honey . The finish is long and rich but also fresh and lively, giving it tension as well as making it delicious and sinfully drinkable – 92/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £22 per bottle from the Wines With AttitudeButlers Wine Cellar and Bowland Forest Vintners.

So you see, the Côtes-du-Rhône is not only red. There is a wealth of fine white wines from the southern Rhône and they are well worth exploring as they are often very good indeed.