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 perfect Summer Sauvignon

The Morgenhof Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

For a long time I have been of the opinion that South Africa has really got into its stride with Sauvignon Blanc and from a quality point of view is giving some other places some real competition.

I love visiting South Africa’s Western Cape and have lots of happy memories there, some of which involve looking at beautiful views and eating amazing seafood washed down with some fantastic white wines, many of which are made from Sauvignon Blanc. Each time I visit I wonder why South African Sauvignon is not more popular and sought after.

The seafood in Cape Town is amazing – strangely the calamari is always what excites me there – it really is superb

The reason I think I like it so much is that the wines are all thoroughly modern, but are bone dry and less tropical than others and sometimes, not always, that suits me very well as they are very food friendly.

Good examples can be found from quite a few different wine regions of the Western Cape – South African wine regions are called Wine of Origin or WO on the label – including Durbanville, Constantia, Elgin and Durbanville, Constantia, Elginastal Region, which blends fruit from across a good few more famous regions.

Well the other day I tasted one from Stellenbosch and it struck me that it was a perfect Summer wine – so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view.

The Morgenhof Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Morgenhof Sauvignon Blanc
WO Simonsberg Stellenbosch
Morgenhof Estate
Stellenbosch
South Africa

Morgenhof is one of the great and venerable names of South African wine, having been founded in 1692. It is just a kilometre or so from the beautiful town of Stellenbosch, which is one of my favourite places, and the main building is a fabulous example of classic Cape Dutch architecture, while the whole place is a haven of tranquility.

The estate nestles on the lower slopes of the dramatic Simonsberg Mountain and is stunningly beautiful, as is common in this amazing country. What makes the Western Cape so remarkable is that the soils, aspect and altitude change very quickly over a very small distance, which is why there are such diverse styles and such a huge range of grape varieties successfully grown.

Morgenhof have 213 hectares, but only plant 78 of those with vines, the rest helps to retain biodiversity and the beauty of the location – they also host events and weddings. They dry farm without irrigation to ensure maximum flavour and concentration and the vineyards vary in altitude between 65 metres above sea level and 450 metres – so they can find somewhere to suit pretty much any grape and indeed grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

The Morgenhof Estate looking down from some of the vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Sauvignon is planted in two parcels, one is 30 years old at 180 m above sea level on a north-north west facing slope on stony, gravelly soils. While the other is about 10 years old and sits at 200-240 metres on a terraced south west facing slope. The grapes are picked in the cool of the morning, de-stemmed and the pulp has between 6-12 hours skin contact, which makes for a richer mouthfeel. 50% is fermented with the wild yeasts, which again enriches the mouthfeel. The fermentation is long and very cool at 9-11˚C, which retains freshness and acidity.

The nose delivers lovely, classic aromas of a mixture of lemon and lime, gooseberry, elderflower, grass, some fresh green pepper, herbs, wet stone and a touch of the seashore.

The palate has all those aromas as flavours together with some crunchy blackcurrant leaf, lots more lemon and lime and a lovely, gentle ripe creamy quality. The acidity is refreshing and high, but the wine is never tart. Instead it is balanced and cohesive with good richness, texture and fruit as well.

Sauvignon Blanc is not always my favourite grape, but this is a lovely wine with great balance and poise. It is both delicate and ripe all at the same time and that tension makes it very stylish and very elegant – 90/100 points.

This is incredibly versatile, utterly delicious and very easy to drink with food or without. I can see this will become my go to white wine this summer.

Available in the UK for £12 per bottle from The Drink Shop

Wine of the Week – a Delicious Petit Verdot from South Africa

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I have become very keen on South African wine. The country delivers high quality and great value in my opinion and to continue with this gross generalisation, it also makes wines that are less definitively New World in style than the likes of Australia and California. There is always something drier and more savoury about South African than most other New World wines, and they also have more fruit than the traditional leaner and drier French wines.

Another wonderful thing about South African wine is that they use an eclectic palate of grape varieties and so produce an amazing array of wine styles. I would also add that it is a great wine producing country to visit from the UK as the time difference is only an hour, so there’s no chance of jet-lag, and the wine regions are so compact. Almost all South African wine is produced in the Western Cape and the majority of producers are within a couple of hours of Cape Town Airport. What’s more they are superbly geared up for wine tourism with restaurants and bars, as well as some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Anyway, I recently tasted some wines made by the KWV and I thought they were all pretty good. KWV wines were widely available when I first started in wine. Their Roodeberg blend, Pinotage and Steen (aka Chenin Blanc) were to be found in pretty much every wine shop, offered great value for money and were very popular.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

The KWV – Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Suid-Afrika – was originally created in 1918 as a wine producing cooperative. From the 1920s onwards it became an official organisation that regulated wine and brandy production in the Cape as an official arm of the government. After the introduction of democracy KWV became a private company and for a while the wines lost their way rather – however the brandies and fortified wines did not. For quite a few years I have been convinced that they are back on form with an impressive line up of wines. Recently I have tried quite a few of their wines and have been seriously impressed.

Wine map South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view.

Their 2016 Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc – available from Morrison’s for £8.50 – is from a cool coastal zone of South Africa (Walker Bay) and is crisp, elegant and very drinkable with lovely citrus freshness and something mineral about it too (88/100 points). Their 2016 Grenache Blanc – available from the Co-op for £7.99 – is a bit more me actually with a textured richness and herbal quality. It feels broad a soft where the Sauvignon is lean and fresh and it is a little creamy too making it a nice introduction to this delicious grape (87/100 points).

In particular though I have been impressed by their The Mentors range which are very good wines indeed. I have enjoyed quite a few from this range including the Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and The Orchestra Bordeaux Blend. However recently I tasted their Petit Verdot and I loved it, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

2014 KWV The Mentors Petit Verdot
W.O. Stellenbosch
South Africa

Petit Verdot is a Bordeaux grape variety, but is historically hard to ripen in France – which is how it got the name Little Green, as it could be under ripe with green tannins – so has been relegated to a blending role in Red Bordeaux. Many winemakers believe that a little Petit Verdot adds some elegance and class to a Claret, especially on the Left Bank. So, in order to fulfil the grape’s potential, it has been taken up by producers in hot countries, especially California, Spain, in Jumilla especially, and South Africa. All of these have a Mediterranean climate and that long hot summer help ripe the shy Petit Verdot to perfection.

This is basically a single vineyard wine grown in low vigour shale soils. The heat is tempered by the south-easterly winds, which slows the growing season down and ensures the grapes have a slow build up of sugars and a lot of flavour. The yields are very low too – 8 tons per hectare – which ensures good concentration and also helps the flavour profile. Added to that, this wine is made from a careful selection of the best fruit. There is a cold maceration to extract flavour and colour before the fermentation. It was fermented in stainless steel tanks with pump overs for good colour extraction and then sent to barrel – 60% new – where malolactic took place and the wine was aged for 18 months.

The wine has a dense, opaque black cherry colour that is bright and inviting.
The nose is rich with black cherry and plum together sith a dusting of tobacco, cocoa, pencil shavings and spice.
The palate is smooth, velvety, succulent, rounded and juicy with barrowloads of ripe dark fruit, red and black, giving lovely primary fruit sweetness, and there is a balancing fresh acidity and lovely fine grain tannins giving just a little edge to the wine.
The oak gives a spiciness while the ripe fruit makes it a hedonists delight. It still has its soft, juicy pupy fat but there is some good structure and complexity underneath all that primary pleasure and I would love to taste it again in 5 years or so – 93/100 points.
Frankly right now this wine will go with anything. It is even supple enough to be drunk on its own if that is your thing, but would be absolutely perfect with steaks and venison and roast beef.
Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Ocado, Slurp, SH Jones, Perold Wine Cellars & Amazon.

Castello di Brolio – the resurgence of a great Chianti estate

I seem to have become a bit obsessed by Italian wine of late and there is nothing wrong with that. The country has a great deal to offer, hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, dozens of wine producing areas, every imaginable style – some uniquely Italian – and everything from  honest, everyday wine to some of the grandest fine wine producers in the world.

In the last couple of years I have enjoyed many trips to Italy and tasted many good – and great – wines. However recently I was invited to a wonderful wine dinner and tasting in London as a guest of Baron Francesco Ricasoli, one of the grandest Italian producers of them all.

Brolio Castle and some of its vines.

The Ricasoli family are very old and emerged as feudal lords from Lombardy in the times of Charlemagne. They settled in Tuscany in the area now known as Chianti – perhaps it was then too as the name is thought to be that of an Etruscan family – more specifically what is now the Chianti Classico. The family took ownership of Brolio Castle in 1141 and have been there ever since, which makes them officially the oldest winery in Italy  – quite an achievement when you consider that the castle marked the border between Florence and Siena. I found it extraordinary to be having dinner and chatting away with a man whose direct ancestors would have had dealings with the Medici family and be involved in the intrigue and violent politics of Florence in the Renaissance.

From a wine point of view though his most important ancestor, in modern times anyway, was Bettino Ricasoli, 2nd Baron Ricasoli. Born in 1809, Bettino eventually became the Tuscan Minister of the Interior and was instrumental in pushing for the union of Tuscany with the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piemonte) that took place in 1860 and established the Kingdom of Italy. He went on to serve two terms as Prime Minister of the newly unified Italy.

As if that was not enough for one lifetime, Bettino also made an enormous contribution to the history of Chianti.

Wine map of Tuscany showing the location of Brolio Castle – click for a larger view.

The wine had been around for centuries, indeed Henry VIII was known to drink it, but originally it was only made in the area called the Chianti Hills just to the north of Siena. Indeed the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’Medici, issued an edict creating the boundaries of the region which today broadly correspond with those of modern Chianti Classico. Brolio is at the heart of this region, in Gaiole in Chianti some 10 km north east of Siena.

The idea of what constituted a Chianti wine seemed to be somewhat fluid in those days. Indeed there is some evidence, as with Rioja, that it was a white wine in the past. It was not until Bettino had finished his stint as Prime Minister that he was able to bring some clarity to what Chianti actually was. He had worked very hard at restoring the Brolio estate, replanting and experimenting with what grape varieties really suited the land and making the best expression of Chianti that he thought possible. In the end he settled on a blend of three grapes, Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia, or Sangioveto, Canajuolo and Malvagia as they were known back then and sometimes still are locally.

Just as an aside, in those days it was normal to grow lots of grapes together, to pick them together and to vinify them together too as a field blend. Such wines that included white grapes were much paler and lighter than most red wines of today. I was fortunate enough to taste a wine made in this fashion at Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Monticello, Virginia and it was a real eye opener to wines of the past.

So after decades of research and winemaking Bettino finally wrote down what he had learned and sent it in a letter to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa in 1872:

‘…I verified the results of the early experiments, that is, that the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption…’

I find it fascinating that even then he knew the Malvasia diluted the wine – softening it to make it drinkable – and could be left out if you wanted to age the wine instead. Malvasia is no longer a permitted grape for Chianti – although it is still grown in the region for other wines – all the grapes used in Chianti must now be black.

Today the estate is the largest in Chianti Classico – 12000 hectares in total with 236 hectares of vines and olive trees and it might all seem rosy, but that is only because of a great deal of hard work and foresight.

The charming Baron Francesco Ricasoli.

In the 1960s the Ricasoli family sold their name, their brand, to Seagrams. They managed the vineyards and sold the wine to Seagram who marketed it around the world. It may seem strange today, but at the time it made total sense. Many fine wine regions were struggling, astonishingly both Chablis and Côte Rôtie almost disappeared at that time, and Chianti was going through a hard time too. The wines had lost their reputation for quality and many producers had lost confidence in their grapes and their land – this was the time when some Chianti makers saw their future in Cabernet and Merlot and the ‘Super-Tuscans’ were born.

The Seagrams deal saved them at the time, but undermined their history and reputation. Baron Francesco Ricasoli took over the family business in 1990 and decided to put that right. The first thing he did was extensive replanting to ensure the quality came right in the vineyard. Then when Seagrams sold out to Hardy’s in 1993 he was able to buy the family brand back. From then on the focus has been on quality and re-establishing the prestige of their brand.

Brolio Castle.

Francesco was not a winemaker by trade, but a professional photographer, so since 1990 has been operating outside his comfort zone in many ways – although frankly it doesn’t show. He is assured, charming, deeply knowledgeable about his land and I could have listened to him forever. He introduced his wines with modesty and was keen to emphasise that he had built a team to make this project work, but you could hear the pride in his voice when he told us that in 20 years Ricasoli went from being almost forgotten to being regarded once more as a great estate.

Key to the progress they have made with their wines is their zoning project. This is a study in collaboration with the Experimental Institute for the Study and Protection of the Soil in Florence, which is mapping each parcel of vineyards by soil and climate to ensure that the correct grapes varieties are planted where they should be and on the most suitable rootstock.

The tasting was held at Pied à Terre in Charlotte Street in London and the food was an exquisite backdrop to these wonderful wines.

The aperitif:

2015 Torricella
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was our aperitif and it was a  blend of 75% Chardonnay blended with 25% Sauvignon Blanc. The Chardonnay was aged for 9 months in used barriques and tonneaux on the lees. the sauvignon was aged on the lees in stainless steel for 9 months.

This was a terrific wine with a lovely, beguiling, balance of richness and texture with freshness, acidity and minerality. I have had a few wines over the years that blend these two grape varieties together and they always seem good to me, so I often wonder why more people don’t don’t do it. This example is very fine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from:
Fareham Wine Cellar and Slurp.

Served with Roasted quail, baby beetroots and wild mushrooms:

2013 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

A single vineyard Super-Tuscan wine that has been produced since 1993. It was originally pure Sangiovese, but is now 100% Merlot. The vineyard is south facing and the soil is chalky clay. The different blocks were aged for between 18 and 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux before blending.

I am not always a fan of Merlot, but this was delicious stuff. The colour was deep, vibrant and plummy, while the lifted nose offered mocha, chocolate, plums and coffee with a touch of earth and even a whiff of the Mediterranean. The palate was smooth, creamy almost with light grainy tannins, vanilla, rose hips, plums and a dusting of cocoa. The flavours really build in the mouth and it is very long. It was a great match – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Tannico and Just in Cases.

2006 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was the last vintage that blended 30% Merlot and 70% Sangiovese together, from 2007 Casalferro has been pure Merlot. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques.

Beginning to show its age with a tawny rim and a briny, balsamic dominated aroma together with leather, earth, dried fruits and strong coffee. The palate was very soft, yet savoury and earthy with something almost medicinal about it. The tannins and the fruit were smooth and velvety and the acidity, presumably from the Sangiovese, kept it youthful and bright. This was magnificent with the quail meat, especially the crispy roast quail legs – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Hedonism Wines.

Served with venison, celeriac, watercress, sprouts and chestnuts:

2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine, now labelled as Gran Selezione – the first eligible vintage was 2010, is the Grand Vin of the estate. Gran Selezione is an attempt to firm up the quality credentials of top Chianti Classico. Historically the Riserva wines were the pinnacle of production, but normal Chianti Classico could be aged longer in wood and be labelled as a Reserve, so nothing really set the wines apart as being great quality.

Gran Selezione wines must be made from estate grown fruit, not bought in. The minimum alcohol must be 13% compared to 12.5% for Riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 months for Riserva. There is some controversy around the adoption of this new system, but I can see the point of it.

This 90% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

The nose offered bright plums and pomegranates together with rich earth and mocha notes. The palate was supple, youthful, joyous and delicious with fine grain tannins, sweet red fruit and a harmonious feel. I could drink it now, but it really needs time – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Waitrose Cellar, Tannico and Millésima.

2008 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 28 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

2008 is not considered a great vintage, but Francesco is very fond of it and wanted to share it with us. I am glad he did, I thought it was terrific.

The age is beginning to show here with more toffee, caramel and balsamic, soy sauce and general umami note The palate was very supple, very smooth with nice freshness, dried fig fruit, mushrooms, smoky coffee and caramel flavours. The finish was long, savoury and saline with a touch of mocha and cedar too. A beautiful wine ageing gracefully – 93/100 points.

2003 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

One of the hottest vintages to date, this was a blend of  Sangiovese with a little cabernet sauvignon. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques – 65% new.

The age shows here, but it is very good. the nose is earthy, mushroomy, truffles, meaty, dried figs and rich coffee, even a touch of stout on the nose. The palate is again very supple with sweet dried figs, almost no tannins and a meaty, savoury richness that makes it great with food – 93/100 points.

Served with the cheese course:

2013 Colledilà Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine is a site specific, pure Sangiovese Chianti Classico that is now labelled as a Gran Selezione. In effect it is a Cru from a vineyard on the estate that sits at 380 metres above sea level and faces south west. 

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 40% new.

I am not always wowed by the top wines of an estate, but this really seduced me. What’s more it was from a difficult vintage with lots of hail. It was fragrant, floral, perfumed with sweet red fruit, mocha and a touch f tobacco. The palate was smooth, supple, smoky with fine grain tannins, ripe red fruit and a beautifully fresh, lightly flesh and succulent mid weight to it. This was stunning wine and I would add that the label is utterly beautiful too – 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £50 per bottle from:
Hedonism and Millésima.

2010 Colledilà Chianti Classico
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 18 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux.

Showing some lovely bottle age, this is much more savoury and meaty with dried fruit, walnuts and coffee aromas, even some toffee. The palate is wonderfully cohesive with an underlying freshness balancing the richness and binding it all together. The tannins are supple and there is a dried fruit and savoury, earthy flavours and a sense of purity about it that makes it sing. It was magnificent with the Comté – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £32 per bottle from:
Vintage Wine & Port.

Served with the petit fours:

2007 Vin Santo
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This blend of Malvasia and  Sangiovese is made from late harvested grapes that are then dried over the winter to concentrate the sugars further.  The juice is then fermented and the wine then aged for 4-5 years in French oak barriques.

This was the colour of Malt Whiskey and had a nose of cinder toffee, caramel, oranges, dried apricots together with a whiff of old books, leather, pipe tobacco and coffee. The palate is a wonderfully sumptuous blend of sweet and sour with chestnut, coffee, dried fig, maple syrup and concentrated apricot fruit. The finish is firm and surprisingly unsweet with great acidity and balance. The end is almost savoury and salty with reminders of Sherry, Sauternes and Madeira on the nose and plate – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £33 per half litre from:
Hennings Wine.

The whole evening was a memorable experience of good company, excellent food and magnificent wines. If you want to see what Chianti can be, do try one of the wines from Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli, they are quite a revelation.

The wines that I have written about here are the pinnacle of Barone Ricasoli’s production. If you want to dip a toe in the water and try their wines without quite such a large price tag, then they make many other wines including their superb Barone Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico Riserva, their excellent Brolio Chianti Classico  – also here – and the Waitrose in Partnership Chianti Classico, which is very good and great value for money.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the UK by John E Fells.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the US by Domaine Select & Liber Selections,

Great Sauvignon Blancs from Chile

Errazuriz's Manzanar Vineyard in the Aconcagua Costa -photo courtesy of the winey.

Errazuriz’s Manzanar Vineyard in the Aconcagua Costa -photo courtesy of the winey.

Recently I have been getting more interested in Sauvignon Blanc than ever before, probably because of my trip around New Zealand last year – more of which soon.

Many people instantly think of New Zealand or France’s Loire Valley as the best places to find good wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and of course they are not wrong – New Zealand, especially but not only Marlborough,  Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and other parts of the Loire can all produce outstanding wines made from Sauvignon. However, they are not alone.

Over the Christmas period, and since, in a vain attempt to get a feel of Summer, I have been enjoying some Sauvignon Blancs from Chile and the wines that really stood out were these – in a way they are my Wines of the Week for January so far.

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

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

leyda_garuma2014 Leyda Single Vineyard Garuma Sauvignon Blanc
DO Valle de Leyda
Viña Leyda
Chile

I really admire Viña Leyda, they carved their estate out of virgin territory and put a new region on the wine map of Chile. What a region it is too, with almost no coastal mountains between it and the Pacific, it gets the full effects of the cooling wind from the ocean. This delays ripening and allows the grapes to hang on to more acidity than they otherwise would. Acidity, of course, gives the finished wine freshness and zest – which are the hallmarks of good Sauvignon Blanc.

The grapes come from two parcels in a single south-west facing block, so away from the sun and cool. It is called Garuma after the local word for the Grey Gull that is widely seen around here. It is hard harvested and they made two passes through the vineyard, one quite early to get the fresh, zesty, acidic character and the other for 70% of the wine, twelve days later to capture the ripe fruit characters. 6% was fermented in old French oak barrels, so gave no oak flavour, but added texture to the palate as well as some weight and a touch of complexity. The wine was also aged for six months on the lees in stainless steel tank to add complexity and depth. They only grow Davis Clone 1, the same as the Sauvignon Blanc clone overwhelmingly grown in New Zealand.

Viviana Navarrete the talented winemaker at Viña Leyda - photo courtesy of Winebow Group, Leyda's US agent.

Viviana Navarrete the talented winemaker at Viña Leyda – photo courtesy of The Winebow Group, Leyda’s US importer.

I liked it from the first sniff. The nose was richly citric, grapefruit and grapefruit pith, with something creamy and tropical as well. There was even the classic blackcurrant leaf aroma and a touch of something herbal, green tea or fennel perhaps? The palate had this lovely zing of acidity that cut through it all, but then there was this richer, weightier mouhfeel that makes it really delicious. The promised creamy quality came through on the palate, as did those herbs and ripe green fruit, which made it feel juicy and then the acidity and a dash of something mineral made it feel fresh and lively.

I enjoyed this an an aperitif as well as with some spicy prawns. I especially liked the way it was bone dry, but with wonderful concentration of ripe, green fruit balancing any austerity – 91/100 points

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from: 
Great Western Wine, Winedirect and The Drink Shop.
For US stockists click here or contact The Winebow Group.

olterroirsb162016 Montes Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc
DO Zapallar
Viña Montes
Chile

Montes are another Chilean producer that I respect very much, indeed I visited their winery some years ago and was very impressed by their vineyards and their wines. In the years since though they, like many other quality conscious Chilean producers, have really expanded their horizons.They no longer just grow grapes in Colchagua and Casablanca, but are exploring Chile for new places to plant grapes and produce ever better wines. Their desire for world class white wines – and Pinot Noir in fact – has taken them to Zapallar, which is a small holiday resort some 40 km north of Valparaiso. Like Casablanca Zapallar is a sub-zone of the Aconcagua Valley and like Aconcagua Costa, Leyda and Casablanca it benefits from the full cooling effects of the Pacific. The cold nights and the foggy mornings ensure a long growing season and fresh acidity.

The vineyard is about 5 miles inland and Montes have the region – or sub region – to themselves. The vines are planted at around 150 metres above sea level and that modest height helps the maritime influence. Interestingly, although they do grow Davis Clone 1, they also grow some French Sauvignon Blanc clones.

Zapallar, Chile - photo courtesy of srossi.it.

Zapallar, Chile – photo courtesy of srossi.it.

The vintage was cool for Chile, which delayed the hardest by some twelve days. The juice was fermented in stainless steel tanks at low temperatures – between 10˚ and 12˚C – and the wine was aged on the lees for 6-8 months.

I loved this too, it was piercingly fresh and lively with a zesty lime aroma, pink grapefruit, a touch of tomato stem, some stony mineral notes and a whiff of the sea, or something saline anyway. The palate was more brisk and zingy with piecing acidity and crunchy green fruit as well as something like snow peas. Interestingly it had twice as much sugar as the Leyda wine – 4.62 grams per litre as opposed to just under 2 – but it didn’t show because of the refreshingly  high acidity. This was delicious, very refreshing and made a wonderful aperitif and went superbly with spicy food – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from: 
Winedirect, Corking Wines, Toscanaccio, The Fine Wine Company and Brook & Vine.
For US stockists click here.

The Manzanar Vineyard - photo courtesy of the winery.

The Manzanar Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

image-12015 Errazuriz Aconcagua Costa Sauvignon Blanc
DO Aconcagua Costa
Viña Errazuriz
Chile

Errazuriz are another great producer who produce a wide range of high quality wines. They were founded in 1870 and remain family owned, but for the last 20 years or so have focussed on finding the best vineyard sites for specific grape varieties. For white wines this increasingly means they grow their grapes in their Manzanar Vineyard in the cool coastal area of the Aconcagua Valley where the Aconcagua River empties out into the Pacific just north of the holiday resort of Viña del Mar, itself just to the north of Valparaiso.

The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks at low temperatures using aromatic yeast and was aged on the lees for three months to give more weight and complexity.

This cool, coastal area, which produces lovely Sauvignon and Chardonnay – as well as Pinot Noir and Syrah, is pretty new, but the results are extremely good. Like Montes, Errazuriz grow a range of Sauvignon clones and they manage to produce an incredibly fresh and lively wine with zesty citrus aromas, fresh, leafy herbs, tomato stem, lemon grass and a touch of passion fruit. The palate was bone dry, with crisp acidity, something salty, taut minerality and zesty green fruit. This is a bracing and refreshing Sauvignon that makes a superb aperitif and is perfect with smoked salmon, goats cheese and any light meal or seafood. I enjoyed it very much – 91/100 points.

I would add that the less expensive Errazuriz Estate Series Sauvignon Blanc, also from the Aconcagua Valley, is also a very good wine.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle from: 
Waitrose, Winedirect, The Vinorium, Cheers Wine Merchants, Stone, Vine & Sun, Corking Wines, Hawkshead Wines, The Drink Shop and HTF Wines.
For US stockists contact Vintus, Errazuriz’s importer.

In the interests of total disclosure I must mention that I sometimes do some work for Viña Errazuriz, however the above is my honest and unsolicited opinion.

All three of these were very good wines indeed, but what made them especially interesting is all of them came from wine regions that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago. So many things that we take for granted in modern wine are actually really new and just go to show that there are almost certainly plenty of other new regions just waiting to be discovered.

 

Wine of the Week – a great New Zealand Sauvignon

The view from the balcony at Villa Maria's Marlborough winery.

The view from the balcony at Villa Maria’s Marlborough winery.

I’ll be honest with you. I do not always enjoy drinking Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Too many of the basic examples are a little too sweet, for a dry wine, dilute, overly tropical and somewhat one-dimensional.

However, I have always enjoyed good examples and was very excited by some of the Sauvignon Blancs that I tasted while I was in New Zealand recently. One in particular really captured my imagination and as I have discovered that it is widely available, I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of New Zealand's wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

sv-graham-sauvignon-blanc-2011-copy2015 Villa Maria Single Vineyard Graham Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
Villa Maria
Marlborough
New Zealand

I have known Villa Maria‘s wines pretty much my entire working life – I first sold them in 1988 – and they have always impressed me. At the very least they are reliable, pleasurable and never let you down. In fact Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc is probably the benchmark wine of the style. However, the good people of Villa Maria are very ambitious for their wines and constantly striving for quality and really do seek to make great wines.

Sir George Fistonich, the founder, owner and driving force behind Villa Maria. I took this photograph at the Esk Valley winery in Hawke's Bay, which is also part of the group.

Sir George Fistonich, the founder, owner and driving force behind Villa Maria. I took this photograph at the Esk Valley winery in Hawke’s Bay, which is also part of the group.

It helps I expect that the company is still privately owned by Sir George Fistonich, the guy who founded the company back in 1961 – his first vintage was 1962. Everyone I met at Villa Maria was, quite rightly, full of admiration for George and his achievements It seems that nothing stands still at Villa Maria for very long and the wines stand testimony to George’s belief in the quality that New Zealand can produce. He really is one of the giants of the wine business, a sort of New Zealand Gérard Bertrand, Robert Mondavi or Miguel Torres.

So, why did this Sauvignon capture my imagination so much? The Graham Vineyard is right by the sea near the Awatere River (pronounced Aw-wah-tree) where it empties out into Clifford Bay, south and east of Blenheim. It is a coastal vineyard, right on the seashore, and that really helps to regulate the temperature of the site, while the stony soils warm up quickly and retain that warmth to create wonderful ripeness. So you get a wonderful balance between warmth and cooling maritime conditions.

This little fella was basking on the beach just in front of Graham Vineyard.

This little fella was basking on the beach just in front of Graham Vineyard.

Because of those conditions the wine seems to have more density than many Marlborough Sauvignons, more savoury and pungent aromas and flavours and to be only subtly tropical – which suits the grape brilliantly.

Sedan Vineyard, Villa Maria's beautiful Seddon Vineyard is just down the Aware River a little way.

Seddon Vineyard, Villa Maria’s beautiful Seddon Vineyard is just inland down the Aware River a little way. This makes it more sheltered and so suits Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris more than Sauvignon Blanc, which enjoy the sea breezes at Graham.

The nose has hints of tropical fruit, but more tomato leaves, jasmine, oregano and something stony and slightly saline too. There are also the classic touches of gooseberry and citrus. The palate is quite rich and has real weight and intensity to it. The tomato leaves come back, as does the jasmine and oregano, together with nettles, a light touch of passionfruit, blackcurrant leaf, stony minerality and the refreshing acidity has a feel of orange sorbet about it, yet the wine finishes totally dry. This is wonderful stuff, complex and fine – 92/100 points.

A very versatile wine, it is a lovely aperitif, great with fish, oriental food or just about anything you can think of. If you think you know Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, think again and try this glorious wine.

Available in the UK from Majestic Wine Warehouse for £15.99 a bottle – £13.99 if you mix 6 bottles.
Fruit from Graham Vineyard is also used as part of the blend in the always excellent Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.
Villa Maria wines are distributed in the US by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

New Zealand Spreads its Wings – 5 Wines of the Week and something rather special

Don’t only drink Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – there is so much more to enjoy.

I don’t know what it is with me. Perhaps I have a low boredom threshold when it comes to wine, but I love variety. The very thing that makes wine exciting to me is the infinite variety available. Which seems to put me out of kilter with many wine drinkers here in the UK who would appear to only drink the same few wine styles all the time.

If that is you, please, please branch out, experiment, try something new – what’s the worst that can happen?

Which brings me to my theme – New Zealand. Please remember to click all the links.

Marlborough vineyards - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Marlborough vineyards – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

I have long admired New Zealand wines and well remember my first taste of a wine from that far off country and it excited me very much. It was 1984, I had recently joined the trade and the company I worked for introduced three extraordinary sounding new wines to the range, one wine each from Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon.

NZ map QS 2011 watermark

They all seemed exotic beyond belief. You have to realise that the wine revolution had not yet happened and such things were not widely available. The Lebanese wine was Château Musar 1977, the Australian was Berri Estates South Australian Cabernet-Shiraz and the New Zealand wine was a Gewürztraminer made by an estate called Matawhero in the Gisborne region of North Island. I remember it as being really good and wish that I could still buy it over here.

I had recently fallen for the charms of the Gewürztraminer grape and drank a lot of it at the time – I hardly ever do now as the examples from Alsace seem much sweeter nowadays.

So my first taste of New Zealand wine would now be regarded as  a slightly left field offering, but I did not realise that then. Sauvignon Blanc did exist in New Zealand in those days, but it was early days. There wasn’t very much and it was far from being the most popular or dominant grape. Indeed the now ubiquitous Kiwi ‘Sav’ (why do they miss the U out when they pronounce it?) would have been the oddity then. What’s more the Marlborough region barely produced any wine at all. It is the now largest wine region in the country and produces something like 60% of New Zealand wine, while around 60% of production is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the years I have seen New Zealand wines proliferate on this market and sweep all before them. Everyone now drinks New Zealand wine. Or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc anyway. That is the dominant grape and most widely produced and consumed style.

Which has bugged me for quite a long time.

I like many Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs and can see the attraction, but I want other things too and so wish that wine drinkers would experiment with all the other lovely wines that New Zealand produces. Of course it would help if the major outlets got a little more creative and actually stocked some of the other exciting wines coming out of New Zealand. However, things are getting better, it’s slow, but a wider range of New Zealand wines is beginning to be available.

To make my point I recently put on a tasting of the more unusual wines coming out of New Zealand at the moment. It wasn’t exhaustive by any means, but I managed to find some real variety and excellent wines that many people would enjoy. Collectively they are my Wines of the Week.

The White Wines

New Zealand is a cool climate wine producing country and so the production is overwhelmingly white. Although there are some warmer places and Pinot Noir of course performs well in the cool conditions of South Island, it just isn’t hot enough to ripen black grapes to make red wines in most of the country. My line up of white wines was really good, they all showed well and had that classic Kiwi clean brightness to them that  that I can only sum up as a feeling of purity.

Vineyards in Gisborne - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Vineyards in Gisborne – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

image-12015 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Gisborne

Albariño is a Spanish grape from the north western region of Galicia, where it is most famously used to make the often delicious wines of Rias Baixas. They are amongst the best Spanish white wines and are great with seafood. The grape is also grown over the border in Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho. This is the second vintage of this wine that I have tasted and I have loved them both. Te Awa are a wonderful winery, who produce some terrific wines and created the Left Field label specifically for the less widely seen styles of wine. I am thrilled that Albariño might be breaking through as a popular and international grape variety – it certainly deserves to.

The aromas are floral and scented with delicate, but ripe peach and zesty citrus aromas. The palate is bright, fresh and lively with mandarin and nectarine characters and a twist of lime on the finish. This is a light, fresh, crisp style that is really, really good and would be gorgeous with some seared scallops or just on its own. It feels pristine, bright and pure as a mountain stream, surely anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would appreciate this – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle from The Wine Reserve – for more stockists click here.

Yealand's Seaview Vineyard - photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

Yealand’s Seaview Vineyard – photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

yealands-estate-gruner-veltliner-nv2014 Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Grüner Veltliner
Yealands Estate
Awatere Valley, Marlborough

Yealands is an impressive producer and is the brainchild of the engaging Peter Yealand who in his time has farmed mussels and deer as well as wine. Most of their production is from a large single block of vines – the largest single parcel of vines in the county – in the Awatere Valley, the cool south eastern part of Marlborough. It is right by the sea and is called the Seaview Estate as it looks out over Cook Strait.

Grüner Veltliner is the signature white grape of Austria, where it makes some tremendous wines. Much like Albariño, I get the feel that Grüner Veltliner might be on the cusp of breaking through as an international grape and again I think that is an excellent thing. 15% was fermented in second and third use French oak barrels and the wine spent 3 months on the lees with lees stirring to help the complexity and the texture.

Another wine with a lovely aromatic nose that is delightfully floral and gently spicy with a dash of white pepper. Again that purity shines through and the palate is gorgeously silky and lightly textured, being gently creamy like coconut – presumably helped by the oak. There is plenty of discrete apricot like fruit too as well as refreshing citrus acidity giving plenty of zing. Again I cannot imagine anyone that likes Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc not enjoying this, but it is deliciously different – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from Great Western Wine – for more stockists click here.

image-1-22014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Villa Maria
Wairau Valley, Marlborough

Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose, as the skins are pink.
This wine is from Fletcher’s Vineyard which is in the famed Golden Mile, which is a strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the sub-region of Rapaura.

The nose is fresh and enticing with pear, delicately smoky peach and some mineral notes.
The palate is by turns stony and mineral, pear-like and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit and mandarin too. There is a leesy texture here too giving a gentle smokiness and a lightly ‘mealy’ quality that is very attractive.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominant than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from The Pip Stop and The New Zealand House of Wine.

image-12013 Esk Valley Verdelho
Esk Valley Estate
Hawkes Bay

I am very fond of Verdelho as it is a lovely grape and I wonder why we don’t see it more often. Just to be clear, it is not the same as Verdejo or Verdicchio or any of the other similarly named varieties that people often assume are the same. It is actually the Madeira grape, but put to a very different use here. Some authorities think Verdelho might be a long lost clone of Riesling, but they say that about Albariño too.

Esk Valley is a wonderful estate that is much more famous for producing some of New Zealand’s finest red wines, but they also make some marvellous whites, including some excellent Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Selected from two vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and was mainly cold fermented in tank, with some being fermented using the natural yeast in large – 600 litre – French oak casks.

Delightfully aromatic and floral with a real zing of lime and a mineral edge together with a touch of oiliness. On the palate the texture marries beautifully with the freshness and the minerality. The oak just gives a dollop of cream and a bit of complexity, but never dominates, while some tropical fruit and citrus flavours of mandarin and lime make it utterly delicious – 89/100 points.

The 2014 vintage is available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company and The New Zealand House of Wine – for more stockists click here.

The Red Wines

Being a cool climate country, New Zealand is nowhere near as famous for its reds as its whites and only a small proportion of the country’s production is red. Pinot Noir is by far the most dominant grape and is the main one used in South Island – by some margin. However, other grape varieties do get a look in and, just as with the whites, the number of grape varieties used is increasing and becoming more exciting. Hawkes Bay – or Hawke’s Bay – in North Island is home to the greatest concentration of red wine production in New Zealand – apart from Pinot Noir which is mainly from South Island. It is warmer here, with well drained soils, so it can produce some good concentrated red wines. The Gimblett Gravels is the most prestigious sub-zone and home to many of the country’s finest red wines. Traditionally it’s Merlot and Cabernet country, but Syrah is quickly becoming pretty mainstream, while Mediterranean grapes like Tempranillo, Montepulciano and even Grenache are beginning to get noticed.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

lf-btl-malbec-nv-d-jpg2014 Left Field Malbec
Te Awa Collection
Hawkes Bay

Malbec has been used in some of the Cabernet-Merlot blends of Hawkes Bay for quite a number of years, just as it is used in Bordeaux, but often with a higher proportion. I have only once before had a single varietal Malbec from New Zealand though and that was in the 2003 vintage (I think) when Esk Valley made one because their Merlot and Cabernet were not up to the mark and so all they had left was Malbec. This version is completely unoaked.

The colour was an extraordinary vivid, deep purple – you could paint with this. The nose gave off rich plum, blueberry and blackberry, together with rich cocoa and some pungent spice notes. The palate was fresh and juicy, with chunky rich fruit and a deep inky feel. There is liquorice and pepper together with black fruit and a dryness from the – artfully tamed – tannins that gives the wine a sappy, briar-like flavour. I love the upfront and juicy quality of this. It feels fresher and cooler than its Argentinian cousins and would go very nicely with a barbecue or a steak, I would enjoy it chilled too – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

trinity-hill-wine-568d7a79694b32014 Trinity Hill Tempranillo
Trinity Hill Estate
Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

Trinity Hill is a great producer – right up there with Craggy Range – that produces some of the best Syrah in the country, as well as many other great wines. One of the best ways to taste their wines in the UK is by visiting the excellent Bleeding Heart restaurant, which is part owned by John Hancock who owns Trinity Hill. The Tempranillo was fermented in stainless steel and then aged in a mixture of tank and French and American oak barrels for a short time.

Again this youthful wine had a bright and vivid purple colour. The nose was earthy and a bit spicy with juicy plum aromas and the sweeter note of dried currants. The palate was sumptuously fruity with lots of black fruit, a touch of red fruit and a sort of sweet and sour thing going on with a touch of drying tannins. This is totally unlike the Rioja style of Tempranillo, being more fruity and less savoury in style. It might not reach the same heights of excellence as Trinity Hill’s Syrah, but is is a lovely wine with vivid, ripe, chunky fruit – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £18 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

1staete_landt_arie_syrah_20112010 Staete Landt Estate Arie Syrah
Staete Landt Estate
Rapaura, Marlborough

Staete Landt was the brainchild of a charming Dutch couple called Ruud and Dorien Maasdam. In Marlborough’s early wine days they bought an old apple orchard and turned it into one of the most respected wine estates in the country. The estate name is a reference to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered what we now call New Zealand in 1642 and named it ‘Staete Landt’, land for the Dutch state. I like them and I love their wines. They and their wines always have something to interesting to say. In the early days, late 1970s and early 1980s, plenty of people planted Cabernet and Merlot in Marlborough and then discovered that they just cannot ripen properly, so apart from Pinot Noir and the odd maverick, you come across very few black grapes in Marlborough. So, finding someone brave enough to make premium Syrah in the cool conditions of Marlborough is a real thrill.

Just as with the Sauvignon Gris above, the estate is in the ‘Golden Mile’ strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the Marlborough sub-region of Rapaura. Ruud has conducted in-depth soil analysis on his vineyard and identified 24 different blocks which are treated as individual vineyards in effect. Since 2005 Syrah has been planted on two of them, but the 2010 comes just from the Arie block. The grapes were hand-picked and de-stemmed. They had a pre-ferment cold soak for seven days and a long post fermentation maceration as well. These techniques help colour and flavour extraction while not extracting tannin. The wine spent 20 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.

The maturity and class of this wine really showed. The nose was smoky, spicy and earthy with rich cherry, blackberry (some dried, some fresh fruit) and some dark chocolate. The palate was svelte with fine, sweet tannins, some leather and herbs as well as black fruit and some mushroom and truffle from age. It had lovely freshness running all the way through it and was very stylish and fine with a long finish – 92/100 points.

The 2011 is available in the UK for around £22 per bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Which could have been a great end to the tasting, but I had dug deep into my cellar and unearthed a wonderful treasure for the finale:

Vidal Estate in the 1920s - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate in the 1920s – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Soler bottle1998 Vidal Estate Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon
Vidal Estate
Hawke’s Bay

I have always been fascinated by the Vidal Esate for as long as I have known about it. Founded in 1905 it is the oldest NZ winery that was just a winery and not a mixed farm as well. Spaniard José Sole, had been making wine in New Zealand since 1865 and had anglicised his name to Joseph Soler. His nephew, Anthony Vidal, arrived in New Zealand from Spain in 1888 to help his uncle at his winery in Wanganui on the West coast of North island. Eventually Vidal wanted to set up his own winery and he bought an old stables and half a hectare of land near Hastings in the southern part of Hawke’s Bay, which was warmer and drier that Wanganui and boasted well drained stony soils. Today Vidal is part of the Villa Maria group and one of their best vineyards in Hawke’s Bay is named in honour of Joseph Soler.

I am always in awe of them when I think what drive and what determination the pair of them must have had to go all that way around the world in sailing ships to an isolated place with a tiny population and an uncertain future. 

This wine was a rigorous selection from a single block of the Soler vineyard, which had only been planted in 1993, so was very young. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented in open vats with hand plunging four times a day to extract colour and flavour. It was pressed after two weeks post ferment maceration and then aged for 21 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. 1998 was a great vintage in Hawke’s Bay and perhaps the first to serve notice that this is a great red wine region.

The colour was quite gamey and brown, like Brown Windsor Soup, and a great deal of tannin had adhered to the inside of the bottle. The nose was vivacious and alive with currants, leather, cocoa, gamey / meaty, espresso and mint notes. The palate was very smooth with those currants again, dried blackcurrants, a savoury, meaty character, rich coffee, figs, fine milk chocolate and the merest touch of ripe, fine grain tannins. It had great complexity and concentration and was still vibrant and delicious with a wonderful decayed sweetness like rich dried fruit. I loved the wine and would like to try it with an old fashioned saddle of mutton or steak and kidney pudding, luckily I still have another bottle – 94/100 points.

This is no longer available anywhere that I am aware of, unless you want to offer me a lot of money for my last remaining bottle!

It was an excellent tasting, even though I say so myself, and gave a little snapshot of some of the new styles and interesting things coming out of this dynamic wine producing country – and not a Sauvignon Blanc in sight.

So the next time you drink something from New Zealand, try a different grape variety or style. I think you’ll enjoy it.