A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

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

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

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

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

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

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

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

Grape Varieties

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

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prix de la Presse

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

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

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

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

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

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

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

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

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

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

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

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

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

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

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

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

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

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

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

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

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

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

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

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

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

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

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

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

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

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

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

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

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

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

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

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

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

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

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

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grenache – a huge variety and many different names

cantine-di-orgosolo

Grenache vines at Cantine di Orgosolo, Sardinia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite wines of the competition were:

France

Wine map of France - click for a larger view.

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

la_verriere182

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

terroir_paisaje_general

Bodegas San Alejandro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

garnacha_borsao

Garnacha bush vines at Bodegas Borsao.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26146999742_167359daa5_b

Vines in Terra Alta – photo by Angela Llop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy

wine map of southern Italy - click for a larger view

Wine map of southern Italy – click for a larger view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

audarya2015 Audarya
Audarya
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

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

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

 

South Africa – a beautiful land of wonderful wine

Table Mountain from Stellenbosch

Table Mountain from Stellenbosch

My relationship with South Africa has taken off quite dramatically in recent years. For a long time I had reservations about the quality of many of the wines coming out of the country. To me there seemed to be flashes of brilliance amidst a sea of unreliability and perhaps I unfairly focussed on the latter.

My first visit to the Cape, in 2005, reinforced that view – luckily I mainly visited the brilliant producers and was able to see for myself how ambitious and capable many of the winemakers were – something that might not have been apparent from the general supermarket offerings of South African wines in the UK at the time. What I had not expected though was to be quite so bowled over by the place. The Western Cape of South Africa is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and a wonderful part of the world to visit and I fell in love with it.

The dramatic landscape of Stellenbosch at Kleine Zalze Vineyards.

The dramatic landscape of Stellenbosch at Kleine Zalze Vineyards

So much so that when I was invited to become a judge at the excellent Michelangelo International Wine Awards I leapt at the chance. This is one of the leading South African wine competitions and is run by the wonderful Lorraine Immelman and Sue van Wyk. I am so glad that they invited me as my trips down there to taste and judge hundreds of wines – overwhelmingly, but not exclusively from South Africa – has allowed me to experience the wines of the region in a way that I would otherwise not have been able to do. It means that I have been able to really see what is going on in South Africa and to notice the amazing development over a very short period of time. It has also allowed me to make friends with many of my fellow judges from around the world and to get to know Stellenbosch very well indeed. In fact nowadays the place really does feel a little like home when I arrive at Cape Town.

Another benefit is the wonderful visits we judges get to make to a an array of wineries who sometimes mark the occasion by giving us some of their prized bottles to taste:

1937 KWV fortified Muscadelle, it was outstanding and a real privilege to taste it - especially as there were only 168 bottles ever made!

1937 KWV fortified Muscadelle – ‘Likeurwyn’ in Afrikaans, it was outstanding & a real privilege to taste it – especially as there were only 168 bottles ever made!

Charles Back spoilt us with one of Fairview's earliest vintages of Pinotage. It had a savoury fragility that showed up the Pinot Noir side of its parentage.

Charles Back spoilt us with one of Fairview’s earliest vintages of Pinotage. It was the 1976, look carefully at the bottom left of the label, & it had a savoury fragility that showed up the Pinot Noir side of its parentage.

In my visits there I have come to know and greatly admire a range of stunning wine estates that are producing wines that are at least the equal of anywhere else – Springfield and Diemersdal for instance never fail to impress me. For quite a few years now I have been a judge in the Michelangelo – with perhaps a year or 2 gap between each visit – and the progress South African wines have made in such a short time is remarkable. On my first visit the style of South African red wines was overwhelmingly not mine. It seemed to me, for quite a long time that there was over extraction, over oaking, over working – just too much of everything really, which resulted in many bitter and tarry wines – which I do not enjoy.

I have seen this fading for a while now, but my visit in 2012 saw pretty much all the wines that I tasted had emerged from this old style and were now triumphantly almost all tasting bright, fresh, fruity and balanced. The entire experience pleased me immensely and I gained an even keener love for South Africa and her wines. The trip was one of my many highlights of 2012 – but for some reason I failed to mention it in my round up of the year.

Sunset in the vineyards at Kaapzicht

Sunset in the vineyards at Kaapzicht

Sauvignon Blanc
The first thing I noticed last summer was just how good the white wines have become. Drop in anywhere around Cape Town and the winelands – the bars and restaurants are spectacular – and you can order a Sauvignon Blanc with confidence – even at the lower price points. Because it has such wide distribution over there I drank a good few bottles of Durbanville Hills Sauvignon Blanc and not only was it pretty cheap, but it was also pretty good – just the thing with the stunning seafood in Cape Town. Lourensford, Klein Constantia, Kaapzicht and Allée Bleue Sauvignon Blancs also all hit the spot with some of the wonderful calamari they serve down there too – as does Springfield‘s Life From Stone and Special Cuvée, Dornier‘s Cocoa Hill and the lovely Sauvignon from Southern Right and those from the Diemersdal Estate – including the rosé version.

It is crude to generalise, but broadly speaking I reckon that South African Sauvignons lean towards a French style – dry, mineral and crisp, but with more ripe fruit, without ever becoming quite as aromatic or upfront as classic New Zealand examples. As a style I like it very much – of course that is an oversimplification as there is huge variety, but there is enough of a truth in it to make it a reliable guide for the average drinker.

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

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

Chenin Blanc
Good though South Africa’s Sauvignons are – and they are. The traditional white grape here is that other Loire Valley white grape – Chenin Blanc. For me these really come into their own when some richness is involved and I love drinking the tropical (ripe guava flavours), delicately honeyed and concentrated examples from Kleine Zalze, Oldenburg and Stellenrust – and Stellenrust’s Sauvignon Blanc is pretty good too by the way. These are wonderful with fish pie and rich pork or chicken dishes – even asian flavours.

Red Wines
All of these were lovely and a delight to taste in the competition or enjoy during our time off, but what really amazed me last year were the red wines. I tasted hundreds of red wines from the Cape and flight after flight showed balance, fruit and careful tannin management.

Some of the Merlots that we judged at the Michelangelo Awards were especially impressive – Lourensford‘s 2011 Winemaker’s Selection Merlot and uniWines Fairtrade Palesa Merlot 2011 were both superb, with lovely fruit and supple tannins.

I have also been very impressed by Cabernet Sauvignons from Springfield – their Whole Berry Cabernet 2008 is a seductive marvel – while the magnificent Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve 2008 is layered, complex and fine, as was the Oldenburg Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 that I tasted recently.

Lourensford Estate - looking south to False bay

Lourensford Estate – looking south to False Bay & Somerset West

Pinotage
All these were very good, but I personally became very excited by Pinotage – of all things. Pinotage gets a very bad press, or at best seems to divide people, much like Marmite. Well I love Marmite, but until last year I would not even remotely have considered myself to be a fan of Pinotage. I had enjoyed a few in my time – Flagstone‘s wittily named The Writer’s Block Pinotage always impresses me and the 2011 rightly won a Gold Medal at the 2012 Michelangelo – but something has usually held me back from enjoying most of the Pinotages that had come my way until recently. Well it seems that something about the wines – or me – has changed, because during my time in South Africa in 2012 I started to really enjoy Pinotage – so much so that I ordered Pinotage twice while I was last in South Africa and even requested a refill during a dinner at KWV / Laborie.

This unusual grape is South Africa’s speciality and it originated here as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut / Cinsault (historically known as Hermitage in South Africa). Like most things that appear traditional though it isn’t actually as old as you might think. The cross does go back to the 1920s, but commercially it has only really been around since the 1960s. In the past people have said that Pinotage smelled and tasted of rusty nails and bananas, which may be true, but it no longer seems to be the case in the ones that I have tasted of late. Rich fruit and supple tannins seem to be the hallmark, together with a spicy quality.

I have tasted a few different vintages now of the Diemersdal Pinotage Reserve and their 2011 vintage walked with the Pinotage Trophy (Sue van Wyk Pinotage Trophy) at the 2012 Michelangelo and it was well deserved – grab a bottle if you can find one. It was this wine more than any other that started my change of mind about the grape, but Deetlefs Estate Pinotage 2011 was very nearly as impressive and for sheer drinkability I also greatly enjoyed the spicy and juicily fruity KWV Mentors Pinotage 2010 – indeed it was this one that I requested more of during a rather fine dinner!

I have also tried and enjoyed the following Pinotages over the last few months – Wine of Origin / W.O. is the South African appellation system and guarantees the source of the grapes:

DVHP2010 Durbanville Hills Pinotage
W.O. Durbanville, South Africa
Medium-bodied, supple and juicy with very soft tannins and a gentle touch of spice. This is easy drinking, but very enjoyable and well made and would go with almost anything meaty – 86/100 points.

Durbanville Hills is a big brand, but they seem to be very reliable – their Sauvignon Blanc is very good for the price – and as they are well distributed in South Africa they are quite hard to miss, most of the umbrellas outside restaurants in Cape Town seem to be theirs.

£8.50 a bottle in the UK from SA Wines On Line.
Distributed in the US by Aveniu Brands.

southern-right-pinotage-nv2010 Southern Right Pinotage 
W.O. Hemel-en-Aarde, Hermanus, South Africa
This concentrated example is made by Anthony Hamilton-Russell, who is normally thought of as a Pinot Noir specialist, but here he shows that he can coax wonderful flavours and mouthfeel out of Pinotage, albeit with tiny amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Syrah blended in.
The palate is rich, smooth and silky with ripe damson and blackberry fruit and soft spice notes as well as cocoa from the oak ageing. This is beautifully made and very elegant – 89/100 points.

£13.50 a bottle in the UK from Waitrosedirect.com.
Distributed in the US by Vineyard Brands.

KZ Pin2009 Kleine Zalze Family Reserve Pinotage  
W.O. Coastal Region, South Africa
Wow this is an amazingly concentrated wine, deep, opaque blue-black. The nose delivers damson, espresso coffee, liquorice, dark chocolate and aromatic spices. The palate is towards full-bodied and is very supple with velvety tannins and some nice refreshing acidity too and rich dark fruit, leather, coffee and beautifully integrated vanilla and mocha oak. This is a glorious wine with an epically long finish – 92/100 points.

This is Kleine Zalze‘s top Pinotage, but their more humble examples under the Zalze label are rather good too. They also have a rather lovely restaurant at the winery by the way.

£26.99 a bottle in the UK from SA Wines On Line.

Osiris2009 Wildekrans Estate Osiris Pinotage  
W.O. Bot River, South Africa
Lifted aromas of smoky spices and chocolate together with dried red fruit and ripe black fruit. The palate offers coffee as well as damsons, blackberry and cooked strawberry fruit. Again the tannins are a very silky and the finish is long, but slightly marred by some heat from the alcohol – 91/100 points.

Wildekrans wines are in the UK from SA Wines On Line.

From my recent tastings of Pinotage I would say that the at its best the grape has a decidedly Mediterranean character showing spice and warmth – as you might expect from the Cinsault side of its ancestry. However the fruit is richer and glossier, when handled correctly – as you might imagine from the fact that it is used in a sunny place so the grapes can ripen fully. In addition the tannins seem to be very light – as indeed they are in both the parent grapes – so the good examples seem very soft and supple. And that is the key, for that delicious fruity, velvety smoothness to shine, the grapes must be really ripe and any touch of greeness will throw that balance out of kilter and spoil the pleasure I now take in a good example of Pinotage.

Much more besides
Of course it isn’t only those grapes and blends that can do well in South Africa, Altydgedacht Estate produces a stunning Gewürztraminer and possibly the best Gamay that I have ever tasted, while KWV delighted me with their fabulously drinkable, ripe and juicy Mentors Cabernet Franc, which rightly won a trophy at the 2012 Michelangelo Awards. I have also become very impressed by some of the Syrahs, especially the wonderfully supple, delicately spicy and seductive Oldenburg Estate Syrah 2009.

Michelangelo International Wine Awards
Remember that if you want to explore the wines of South Africa, but are unsure where to start, the Michelangelo International Wine Awards website lists all the winners they ever had since the competition started in 1997, take a look, it might well help you to choose some interesting wines to try. I know the effort that we put into judging them and the high standards that we adhere to, so if it won a medal or trophy at the Michelangelo it is going to be a good wine and an excellent example of its type.

Another thing to bear in mind is that South Africa is one of the best wine countries to visit as the countryside and main wine towns of Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are all beautiful, and unlike Europe the wineries are superbly geared up for visitors with lovely restaurants and elegant tasting rooms.  What’s more everything is very compact and within an hour or 2 of Cape Town airport, which makes it an easy place to tour around.

If you do visit – and I highly recommend it – make sure you see a bit of Cape Town too, it is a delightful city and the V&A Waterfront complex is an absolute gem, stuffed with bars, shops and restaurants of very fine quality. While you are there be sure to drop in at Vaughan Johnson’s Wine Shop. Vaughan is one of the wine trade’s great characters and a delight to chat to while browsing the bottles in his lovely shop.

The man himself - Vaughan Johnson

The man himself – Vaughan Johnson

Vaughan's words of wisdom

Vaughan’s words of wisdom

So, if you have not really got into exploring South African wines yet, now is a great time to start as the quality of the wines coming out of the Cape now is very high indeed.

Catalan élan

The wines of Codorníu

Recently I presented a tasting of some wonderful wines from Spain. I know that I bang on about Spain and Spanish wines, but really I do believe that country makes wonderful, wonderful wines and can boast one of the most vibrant and exciting European cultures as well.

Regular readers will be aware that earlier in the year I spent a week with Miguel Torres, a giant of Spanish and Catalan wine whose importance to the development of wine in Spain cannot be underestimated. However he is not alone in being a leading producer of good wine in Catalunya. All my adult life I have been a fan of Codorníu which is famous as the leading brand of Cava – Spanish quality sparkling wine made by the Champagne method/Traditional method. However Codorníu is much more than a Cava producer, they have been growing grapes since 1551 and making Cava since 1872 – indeed they created it – but over the last 100 years they have expanded their portfolio and production to include most of the important wine regions of Spain – and beyond. Unlike Torres though they leave each winery as a stand alone brand and you will look in vain for the name of Codorníu on the labels.

Instead they have either created new estates from scratch or bought leading producers and the results are startlingly good. I presented some of these wines in a tasting recently and everyone was hugely impressed by the quality, variety and value for money that the wines represented. Catalans see themselves as the dynamic Spaniards, the busy creative Spaniards with modern ideas, a sense of chic and no manaña mentality, so perhaps Codorníu have brought that drive and sense of élan to their outposts in other regions?

Continue reading

Cru Bourgeois reborn

It is a sad fact of wine life that many consumers find French wine terms confusing. Often it is not the fact that they are in French, as much as they are confusing concepts to translate. Cru Classé, Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé, Premier Cru, Premier Grand Cru Classé all have a meaning that gets somewhat lost in translation. What is more, the same word or phrase can mean subtly different things in various regions of France.

I often tell my students not to go looking for logic in French wine terminology, as that way madness lies.

I really think it is best not to translate them and just to accept them as they are. Strangely I was taught that Cru means ‘growth’, which always struck me as odd and not an easy word to sell to the consumer. Happily, I have researched it myself and discovered that one of its meanings is ‘vineyard’, which is altogether more satisfying and simple to understand.

Replace Cru with vineyard, as well as translating classé and you have; Classified Vineyard, Great Vineyard, Classified Great Vineyard, Premier Vineyard and Premier Classified Vineyard. Which nearly make sense, anyone can tell that these words on a wine label imply that the bottle contains something that is highly regarded by someone. Continue reading

Stellenbosch – good friends, delicious food & fine wines

I really enjoyed judging in this years Michelangelo Awards. To me the overall quality of the wines seemed higher than last year – I certainly awarded more gold medals in 2010 than 2009.

I am still coming down from the trip and processing all I saw, so please forgive a somewhat self indulgent piece today, the sort that I do not normally write.

Sadly I do not know what the wines that I tasted at the Michelangelo Awards were yet, but will report back once the results are published.

In the meantime, I really finished my trip to South Africa on a high note – or two high notes in fact! Continue reading

Stellenbosch part 3 – Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront

I love Cape Town, it is a vibrant and exciting place. When in need of some relaxation and a break from tasting and judging wines, then a stroll around Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is absolutely perfect. The air is lovely, there are shops that cater to every need and want and bars and restaurants galore. In fact the only downside is the abundance of dive-bombing seagulls.

The Waterfront is a gentrified harbour that has been spruced up and turned into a shopping centre and leisure complex, as found the world over from San Francisco to Valencia, but it is very well done and provides a splendid place to relax.

I spent a pleasant evening there last night, strolling, window shopping and drinking – all followed by a memorable dinner in a seafood restaurant called Baia, which means bay and is pronounced ‘ba-hia‘. Continue reading