Switzerland – a beautiful country with wonderful wine

Vineyards in Valais, overlooking the Rhône Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Switzerland is famous for many things; banks, mountains, lakes, cheese, chocolate and, erroneously – courtesy of Orson Wells – cuckoo clocks. Not many people, in Britain anyway, seem to associate this Alpine country with wine.

Swiss wine is a bit of a mystery because almost none of it is exported. The Swiss are a thirsty lot and they drink 98% of their own wine and still import two thirds of what they consume. So it is hardly surprising that so little Swiss wine leaves the country. Astonishingly Switzerland has a mere 0.2% of the world’s wine growing area. With just 15,000 hectares of vines in the whole country, it’s half the size of France’s Burgundy region – itself far from being a large producer.

Despite this lack of an international reputation, Swiss wines are really exciting and deserve our attention. It is a beautiful country with some of the most stunning scenery in Europe. Swiss food is hearty and delicious and in its simplicity and honesty shows how agrarian Switzerland has always been. The cheeses, such as Emmental and Gruyère are far finer than the versions that we generally buy in our supermarkets and seem to genuinely reflect their origins. Of course a meal of fondue or raclette takes eating cheese to another, more exciting level. The peasant roots of Swiss cuisine also show in that other famous and satisfying dish, rösti. Not all Swiss food is heavy though, around Lac Léman perch fillets from the lake are a delicious speciality and are perfect with a glass or two of the local wine. 

Perch fillets from Lac Léman, a popular local speciality – photo by Quentin Sadler.

When in Switzerland I am always struck by the high quality of all the produce, including the wine, of which the country produces a plethora of styles. White wine is dominant, as you might imagine from the cool climate, but the reds can be astonishingly good too. Chasselas is the most famous and important white grape within Switzerland – and yet few non Swiss wine drinkers would ever give it a moment’s thought. Of course there is also plenty of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer as well as the indigenous white grapes of Petite Arvine, Humagne Blanc, Heida and Réze. Pinot Noir and Gamay are the most widely encountered black grapes, while Merlot and Syrah are also highly prized. Indigenous black grapes include Humagne Rouge, Cornalin, Gamaret, Diolinoir and Garanoir. 

Strangely the principal grape variety of Ticino – the Italian speaking part of Switzerland – is Merlot, where unusually it is used to make both red and white wines.

I have travelled extensively in the French speaking areas in recent years and thought I would share some of these exciting wines with you as they are very versatile with food and would be really exciting to see on restaurant wine lists.

Wine map of Switzerland – click for a larger view. Do not use without permission.

The Regions – Vaud

La Suisse paddle steamer, one of the small fleet of pre First World War steamers that criss-cross Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Vaud is probably Switzerland’s most famous wine region. This is where you find Lausanne and Montreux and one of the most iconic landscapes in Europe. At its heart is the steeply terraced vineyards of Lavaux on the north shore of Lac Léman – Lake Geneva to us Brits.

The key grape here is Chasselas, which is taken very seriously in Switzerland despite being little-loved anywhere else. It seems to be common practice to put the better wines through Malolactic Conversion, which softens the acidity and gives a pleasing creamy quality and mouthfeel that makes them a perfect partner to cheese. Lucky that, as in one form or another they eat a great deal of cheese in Switzerland.

The dominant black grape is Pinot Noir, which is used to great effect in Chablais and around Lake Neuchâtel to make very fruity reds, finer, more structured reds and some excellent rosés, labelled as Oeil-de-Perdrix.

Vaud: Lavaux 

Vineyards of Dézaley and Epesses with Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Lavaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with stunning vineyards cascading down the slopes and terraces to the shore of Lac Léman. There are six appellations, or ‘Crus’: Lutry, Villette, Epesses, Saint-Saphorin, Chardonne and Montreux-Vevey. In addition Dézaley and Calamin are both classified as Grand Cru, which means the grapes must contain higher sugar than normal at harvest. This ensures the wines will be richer and rounder.

Dézaley vineyard sign from Lac Léman – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The chalky limestone soils should suit Chardonnay perfectly, but around here the speciality is Chasselas. In fact it accounts for 80% of production and if no other grape is mentioned on the label of a Lavaux white, then it’s made from 100% Chasselas.

The vineyards are steep, so everything must be done by hand and it’s backbreaking work. Marcel Dubois, who makes wine near Epesses, famously said: ‘We are condemned to make expensive wine so we might as well make it good wine’. And it seems to me that the Swiss have taken that concept of quality to heart.

Lavaux from the deck of La Suisse paddle steamer, one of the small fleet of pre First World War steamers that criss-cross the lake – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The wines made here benefit from what the locals call the ‘three suns’, there is direct sunshine, reflected sunshine from the surface of the lake and the light and heat reflected off the stone walls that define the vineyards. All of this makes the Chasselas from here richer, more structured and more intense than other areas.

Recommended producers:

Domaine Louis Bovard

Domaine Louis Bovard and Lac Léman – photo courtesy of Domaine Louis Bovard.

Louis-Philippe Bovard is the 10th generation of the family to farm their 18-hectare estate in Cully near Epesses. He grows many different grapes, but Chasselas is his main focus.

His Médinette Dézaley Grand Cru has a very delicate weight, but a solid core of concentrated fruit and a long, stony mineral finish.

Luc Massy

Luc Massy’s vineyards above Lac Léman – photo courtesy of Luc Massy.

Luc is one of the region’s famous producers and farms breathtakingly beautiful vineyards in Epesses, Clos du Boux, Saint-Saphorin, Dézaley-Marsens and Dézaley – all the greatest sites of Lavaux.

The real speciality here is the legendary Dézaley Chemin de Fer. Late in the nineteenth century, the railway line was put through and some of the land in Dézaley had to be sacrificed to make way for progress. Little parcels of land were left at the bottom of the slope around the railway lines and Luc’s grandfather acquired the rights to plant on them. The wine is a magnificent, mineral and complex white wine with that touch of creaminess and generosity that sets Swiss Chasselas apart.

Vaud: La Côte

The magical Château de Vufflens just up the slope from Morges on La Côte – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This Vaud sub-region curves around the north western shore of Lac Léman from the outskirts of Lausanne to the edge of Geneva. The vineyards slope – La Côte means slope – down towards the lake shore on the foothills of the Jura Mountains. It’s a big, productive area that makes some terrifically drinkable wines.

Chasselas from here tends to be lighter, fresher and more quaffable than their counterparts in Lavaux, although the Grand Cru sites of Féchy, Morges and Mont-sur-Rolle produce more concentrated and fine examples. Pinot Noir and Gamay are used to make similarly attractive, fruity red wines.

Recommended producers:

Domaine de Maison Blanche

Domaine de Maison Blanche on La Côte – photo courtesy of Domaine de Maison Blanche.

This fabulous 10 hectare estate looks down on the lake from Mont-sur-Rolle, just to the north of Rolle itself. The Maison Blanche dates from the thirteenth century and has belonged to current owners the de Mestral family since 1528.

I have always enjoyed their Chasselas, especially their Mont-sur-Rolle Grand Cru, which is a fine, creamy, floral scented delight. They also make some delicious traditional method sparkling Chasselas.

Vaud: Chablais

The Château d’Aigle – photo courtesy of Mondial du Chasselas.

The southernmost part of Vaud, with vineyards concentrated between the River Rhône and the Alps, the best being on the slopes to the east. The landscape might not be as dramatic as its neighbours to the north and south, but the area can claim to be home to some very fine wines. Of the five Chablais ‘Crus’, Yvorne and Aigle are perhaps the most well known – especially for the whites made from Chasselas. Aigle is dear to my heart as most years I spend a few days at the beautiful Château d’Aigle judging Chasselas wines in the Mondial du Chasselas competition.

Recommended producers:

Orbrist

Clos du Rocher is one of the great estates of Chablais – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This large company owns some amazing vineyards and produces a large range of very well made wine. The pinnacle of what they do is probably the Clos du Rocher Grand Cru Chasselas in Yvonne, a wine I love.

I have been fortunate enough to taste every vintage of Clos du Rocher back to the 1982. All were still fresh and lively, although the older examples had developed a more golden colour, dried fruit and mushroom character. What’s more every vintage since 1990 was sealed with screwcap.

Bernard Cavé Vins, Aigle

The concrete egg shaped fermentation tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins, he calls them amphoras – photo by Quentin Sadler.

All the wines are superb, notably the exquisite Clos du Crosex Grillé Cuvée des Immortels Reserve Aigle Grand Cru. Fermented in concrete eggs, this is textured, round and silky too. In the unlikely event that you tire of his Chasselas, his Marsanne – called Ermitage locally –  is stunningly rich and downright delicious.

Badoux Vins, Aigle

View of Aigle and its vineyards from the ramparts of the Château d’Aigle – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Founded in 1908, Badoux produces a wide range of thoroughly reliable wines. Their most emblematic label is their Aigle Les Murailles, named after the stone walls that support the incredibly steep vineyards of Aigle. The excellent white is a pure and mineral Chasselas with a touch of richness, while the red is a bright, fruity Pinot Noir that has been aged on the lees from Gamaret, a local speciality grape that is a cross of Gamay and Reichensteiner.

The Regions – Neuchâtel

The beautiful lakeside village of Auvernier in Neuchâtel – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This small region sits on a south-east facing slope between the Jura Mountains and the shores of Lakes Neuchâtel and Bienne. It acts like a sun trap and has very poor soils, so can produce beautifully ripe wines.

Recommended producers:

Château d’Auvernier

Château d’Auvernier has been the main winery here since 1603 – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This winery has been in the pretty lakeside village of Auvernier since 1603 and makes a range of really good wines. My favourites would be their elegant and concentrated Neuchâtel Blanc, made from Chasselas, the Pinot Noir and their Oeil-de-Perdrix Pinot Rosé.

The Regions – Valais

The beautiful vineyards of Valais, near Sierre – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The Canton of Valais  is south and east of Lac Léman. The River Rhône flows through here before emptying into Lac Léman and the best vineyards, Grand Crus like Fully, Vétroz, Sion and Sierre, line the bank of the river on incredibly steep slopes that are kept workable by dry stone walls. To get to those owned by Robert Gilliard at Sion, for instance, I was driven up into the mountains to the entrance of a short, narrow tunnel. At the other end of this I found myself on one of the terraces, or ‘tablars’, formed by the stone walls that I had looked up to on the way. Some of them are 20 metres high and I was told they are the highest dry stone walls in the world. 

The views to the south were breathtaking and I could not get enough of them. In the past the grapes had to be taken to the winery through the tunnel, then in the twentieth century a cable car system was adopted. Nowadays a lot of the work is done by helicopter, which gets the grapes to the winery while they are still in perfect condition. These dramatic south facing slopes are warm and dry in the growing season, but always tempered by the fresh, Alpine air – Switzerland’s highest peaks are in the Valais with some of the vineyards near Visp being well over 1000 metres above sea level.

Chasselas is still an important grape in these parts, but locally they call it Fendant – pronounced Fon-dohn – from the French ‘fendre’ meaning to split – as the grape skin easily splits when ripe.

Another important white grape here, perhaps the real speciality, is Petite Arvine. It isn’t grown in many other places, even in Switzerland, except Italy’s tiny Valle d’Aosta region which borders Valais to the south. At its best Petite Arvine has something of the freshness and vivaciousness of Grüner Veltliner and Albariño about it, but often with more salinity, so giving tension, and fruit (especially grapefruit), moderate acidity and a silky quality to the texture.

Valais is also home to the most famous Swiss wine of all – Dôle. This is always a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay and can also include some other black grapes to add complexity. Usually red, Dôle Blanche is an intriguing and very high quality rosé made from the same blend.

Recommended producers:

Provins, Sion

Provins are Switzerland’s largest producer and everything I have tasted from them has been superbly made. My favourite though is their subtly oaked Petite Arvine Maître de Chais – it’s classy, with lots of citrus fruit, a fleshy, creamy texture and a feeling of purity about it, like a mountain stream.

Cave Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz, Fully 

This small estate farms just 8 hectares but makes a wide range from the many grape varieties of Valais. Theirs was the first Petite Arvine that I ever tasted and I was hooked.

Robert Gilliard, Sion

Robert Gilliard’s dramatic Clos de la Cochetta vineyard contains some of the highest dry stone walls in the world – photo courtesy of Robert Gilliard.

This estate boasts some of the most beautiful and dramatic vineyards that I have ever seen. They truly take your breathe away clinging as they do to almost perpendicular slopes kept in place by terrifyingly high stone walls of up to 20 metres.

Their Clos de Cochetta Fendant is vibrant, lightly textured, elegant and classy, as is their focussed and pure Clos de Cochetta Petite Arvine.

Just along the terraces is the neighbouring vineyard of Clos de Mont from which they craft a fine, unoaked example of Diolinoir which is a cross between Robin Noir (aka Rouge de Diolly) and Pinot Noir.

The stunning view from Robert Gilliard’s Clos de la Cochetta – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Domaine Jean-René Germanier, Vétroz

A family estate since 1896 and now managed by the third and fourth generation – Jean-René Germanier and his nephew, Gilles Besse. Gilles was originally a jazz saxophonist, but is also a trained wine maker.

Germanier farm sustainably and produce a range of beautifully made, elegant wines, amongst which is their Cayas Syrah. This spicy, yet precise and mineral wine is possibly the best Syrah in the country and made within sight of the Rhône river.

Their Grand Cru Petite Arvine and Fendant Balavaud Grand Cru are equally exciting and impressive, while their Dôle Balavaud is one of the classics of its type.

Every time I have visited Switzerland I have come away with a very positive view of the wine. The dedication, heroism even, needed to tend and harvest the vines in this mountainous landscape is incredible to see. The passion the winemakers show in crafting these raw materials into beautifully made wines that are full of character and interest is always an education. I believe these wines deserve wider recognition and think it would be very exciting to see Swiss wines on restaurant wine lists.

Many of the wines mentioned here are available in the UK from Alpine Wines – www.alpinewines.co.uk. 

Owned and run by Swiss born Joelle Nebbe-Mornod, Alpine Wines are the leading Swiss wine importers and distributors in the UK.

Wine of the Week – a surprise from Chile

Vines at Casa Silva.

Readers of these pages will know that I revel in finding something new. For me loving wine is all about seeking out the unexpected, the different and the surprising.

Whether it is a region that I have never heard of, a grape variety, or a whole new wine producing country, that is what excites me most about wine.

So, in truth the wine I want to share with you today doesn’t fall into any of those categories, but it does come close.

It’s from Chile, which is not unusual, but it is made from an obscure grape called Romano, more usually called César. There isn’t much César left in the world and most of that grows northwest of Dijon in Burgundy, where it is principally used to make up to 10% of the blend, together with Pinot Noir, in the wines of Irancy.

The names come from the long held belief that the grape was introduced into the region by the invading Roman Legions who were led by Julius Ceasar. With DNA testing we now know that is not true, but it was believed for centuries.

Huasos, Chilean cowboys in Colchagua – photo courtesy of Enoturismo, Chile.

Strangely enough the only other pure César that I have tasted is also from Chile, made by Morandé from a vineyard that no longer exits. The destruction of Morande’s vineyard may well have led to the rumours that this grape variety had actually become extinct, but that was always unlikely given its traditional use in Irancy.

To me it seems to have been an odd choice to plant this grape in Chile’s Colchagua region, given that it has a Mediterranean climate. All that sunshine and warmth together with pretty much no rain during the growing season means that the grapes can have plenty of hang time and get fully ripe. This is the exact opposite of what happens in Irancy, which is very near Chablis, so has a Continental climate with a short growing season meaning the red wines of Irancy are usually light and acidic.

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

Whatever their rationale for planting César/Romano was, I am glad they did though because it has produced a style of wine in Chile that is totally unlike the examples of this grape that we get from France. In fact it has produced a wonderful wine that I really enjoyed and I think others will too.

The old Casa Silva winery and its grounds – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Romano Viñedo Original 
DO  Valle de Colchagua
Viña Casa Silva
Chile

Casa Silva is one of the great wine estates of the Colchagua Valley. They were originally a French family of grape growers who came to Chile in 1892 and have been growing grapes there ever since. However the family vineyards became divided up with multiple owners and it was not until the 1970s that Mario Silva pieced the estate together again and they have been bottling and labelling their own wines since 1997. They are based in Angostura where their beautiful original homestead is now a hotel and well worth a visit. The land around the house is their initial plantings with vineyards going back to 1912. This is where they have some fabulous speciality grapes including old vine Carmenère, Sauvignon Gris and this Romano. All of these are ungrafted, so grow on their own roots. This helps the vines to live longer and old vines produce smaller crops and smaller berries that have more concentrated flavours. Old vines also ripen with less sugar, so produce wines with lower alcohol, which makes for better balance and more elegance.

The harvest was done by hand with a further manual selection of grapes at the sorting table before the grapes were de-stemmed – stalks can give harsh tannins. There is a pre-fermentation cold soak, a cold fermentation in stainless steel followed by a further maceration on the skins. Half the wine was aged in stainless steel and half in second use French oak barrels. This older oak means that the wine is not overly oaky in taste, but has the softening that ageing in barrels gives as the oxygen gets to the wine through the wood, making it rounder and richer.

The barrel ageing room at Casa Silva – photo courtesy of the winery.

The wine looks very appealing with a deep and bright ruby colour. The nose is full of rich red fruits like strawberry, cherry, a hint of raspberry, black pepper and a delicate mushroomy/earthy savoury note. The palate is smooth, round and mouth filling with rich ripe red fruit, smooth, supple tannins and some lovely freshness too. There is plenty of beautiful, concentrated fruit, but good structure and that attractive earthy, savoury quality. This will appeal to Pinot Noir drinkers – and Syrah and Grenache drinkers too – in my opinion, as well as anyone who wants a really flavourful, suave and supple red wine that is full-flavoured and medium bodied. It really is a gorgeous wine – 93/100 points

This is a very versatile wine too. It is mellow enough to be enjoyable without food, has enough freshness to go with pizzas and pastas, has enough elegance and structure to partner haute cuisine and enough richness to go with cheese and enough pizzazz to go with burgers, chilli con carne or shepherd’s pie and to keep everyone happy.

Available in the UK at around £15.00 per bottle from Duncan Murray Fine Wines – Market Harborough, Staintons – Lake District, Guildford Wine CoBottle Shops – Cardiff, Penarth, Field & Fawcett – York, Naked Grape – Alresford, Hants, Palmers Wine Store – Dorset, The Vineking – Reigate, East Molesey, Weybridge and the Oxford Wine Company.

More information is available from Casa Silva’s UK distributor, Jackson Nugent Vintners.

 

Wine of the Week – a stunningly tasty rosé

Vines at Bodegas Sierra Norte, Utiel-Requena.

I simply do not want the summer to end and one way to delay the return to normalcy is to keep drinking rosé wine.

Nothing says summer like a glass of rosé, so if you keep drinking the pink stuff it will keep you in a summery mood and fend off the Autumn gloom. Or that is my hope anyway.

Personally I love rosé as it gives similar refreshment to white wine, has some the fruit of red wine and goes well with almost any food.

Pretty much everywhere makes rosés and the very pale Provençal style of French rosé is particularly fashionable right now. However, I love Spanish wine and think that no one makes rosés quite like the Spanish do. The Spanish historically don’t really like white wine you see and so Rosé traditionally fills that lighter rôle.

Spain is awash with good rosés – or rosado in Spanish – so as long as you avoid the very cheapest you will probably be ok. Spend a bit more though and you often drink something that overdelivers on quality and flavour. I have had so many wonderful Spanish rosés recently, from such varied places as Navarra, Txakoli, Rioja, Alicante, Jumilla and Ribera del Duero amongst others, that it is hard to limit myself to just one. However I tasted one today that really thrilled me, so I thought that I would share it with you.

It comes from a wine region called Utiel-Requena, which is inland from the wonderful city of Valencia. I love that part of Spain, indeed it is my spiritual home as all my life my family have had a house on the coast to the south of Valencia – pronounced Bah-lenthia.

Map of the wine regions of the Comunidad Valenciana. This is one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain and comprises the Provinces of Alicante, Castéllon and Valencia itself.

2018 Rostro Sonrosado Organic Tempranillo Rosé
Bodega Sierra Norte/Boutinot Spain
DO Utiel-Requena
Comunidad Valenciana
Spain

This part of Spain is very beautiful and bursting with good wines, although that has been something of a local secret for quite a few decades, but that secret is now out. The traditional grape of the region is called Bobal, which has been rescued from mediocrity over the last few years and is now making some wonderful wines – more of which next time. However this is made from the far more famous Tempranillo – pronounced Temp-ra-neeyo – the grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

The land is much higher inland – 600-800 metres above sea level – than it is on the coast, so the air is cooler and the powerful breezes off the Mediterranean have an effect too. This allows for slower ripening so gives a slower build up of sugars and good retention of acid. In the right hands that means this area can produce balanced and elegant wines

Utiel-Requena vines at Bodegas Sierra Norte.

For a Spanish rosé this is pretty pale as the wine has just 8 hours skin contact – although I like a good colour on a rosado. The colour comes from the skins and the shorter the time on the skins, the paler the wine.

It’s an enticing medium pink with a little touch of orange, while the nose has red fruit notes of raspberry, redcurrant and a touch of cream too.

The palate delivers lovely flavours of redcurrant, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb and blood orange with that softening, textural cream component too. The flavour is mouth filling and while the wine is textured it is also refreshing and lively. I hate to admit how quickly the bottle emptied. It goes with anything at all, or indeed is lovely on its own, and it makes a perfect partner to tapas. This is a very good rosé indeed as well as being enormously enjoyable  – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £10 per bottle from All About Wine – more stockist information is available from Boutinot Wines, the UK distributor

Wine of the Week – an affordable & delicious orange wine

I am not always one for the current fad and right now Orange wines, or Amber wines, and natural wines are the in thing. Mind you they have been ‘in’ for quite a while, so perhaps they are here to stay.

For those of you who are not yet in the know, an Orange (or Amber wine) is a white wine fermented on the skins – indeed it can also be called skin-contact wine or skin-macerated wine. It is the skins, even of white grapes, that impart the orange/amber colour and is considered a non interventionist style of winemaking. Such winemaking can appear to be a fad, or new idea, but is actually thousands of years old and how wine was made in ancient times.

Orange wines are becoming quite mainstream and easier to buy. In fact an interesting example from Romania came my way recently. I thought it was an excellent way in to appreciating this style of wine, so I thought that I would share it with you.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Asda Orange Natural Wine
Cramele Recaș
Timișoara
Romania

Recaș Cellar is near Timișoara in the far west of Romania and is run by Englishman Philip Cox who has lived in the country since 1992. He had actually started out as the Romanian importer of Heineken, which was very successful. However he was unable to change the currency into something more useful, so hit upon a scheme of producing wine in Romania that he could export for hard currency. To this end he and some partners bought the local state cooperative in 1999.

Originally they started with 600 hectares and now farm around 1000, which makes them a very big player in Romania, where many of the producers are much smaller estates. Legend has it that Bacchus spent his childhood in this region and there is evidence of grape growing here going back to Roman times and vineyards were thriving here in 1447, so the area’s potential has long been recognised.

Philip generally aims to make clean, well made, fruit driven wines that sell and as such he provides a perfect introduction to modern Romanian wines. What’s more they are widely available in the UK under a plethora of labels including Bradshaw and Wine Atlas in Asda, Calusari, Sanziana and the widely seen Paparuda amongst many, many others.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

This particular wine is somewhat different though and as you can see from the name of the wine, this is not only an Orange wine, but is also a Natural wine. Most definitions of natural wine include some or all of the following:
Hand-picked, organically or biodynamically grown grapes. Low-yielding vineyards. No added sugars, no foreign yeasts. No fining or filtration. No adjustments for acidity. No other additives for mouth-feel, colour, etc. No micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis. Little or no added sulphites.

It’s an organic – and vegan – blend of Fetească Alba, Tămâioasă Românească (a local Muscat grape), Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, all fermented on the skins using the indigenous yeast in a spontaneous fermentation.

The colour is pale orange marmalade, while the nose displays peach skin, grape skin, raisin and cider-like notes together with honey, herbs, smoke and a note of creamy lees.

The palate has a lovely tangy acidity with orange and ripe peach as well as the richer flavours of cinder toffee and nuts. There is good freshness here, before the tannins from the skins deliver an attractive, grainy, bitter tannin quality to the finish, while the lees ageing shows in a lovely bready, almost Peshwari naan sort of character.

This is not the most complex Orange wine or Natural wine, but it is a very drinkable example. I tasted it together with one of my WSET Level 2 classes and it met with broad approval. It’s a complete bargain, makes a perfect introduction to the style and is very food friendly. I think it would be especially good with a selection of cheeses – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK from Asda at £6.00 per bottle.

White Wines from the Rhône

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape – photo by Quentin Sadler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawke’s Bay – New Zealand’s Diverse Region

Looking North East towards Napier from Te Mata Peak – photo courtesy of Te Mata Winery.

The world seems to love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, especially from Marlborough on South Island. Wine drinkers appear to have an insatiable appetite for this lively style of wine with its crisp, green characters softened with tropical exuberance.

However the other 30% or so of New Zealand’s wines that are not made from Sauvignon Blanc and do not come from Marlborough are also well worth exploring.

My favourite region must be Hawke’s Bay on North Island. This beautiful place is defined by the great sweep of Hawke Bay itself – confusingly the region is called Hawke’s (or more normally Hawkes on wine labels) Bay, while the body of water is Hawke Bay, named by Captain Cook in honour of Sir Edward Hawke, First Lord of the Admiralty. It is a largely rural place and includes some spectacular countryside, but the urban centres offer many charms too. The city of Napier was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and was totally rebuilt in the, then, current Art Deco style. Nearby Hastings is the other centre and was also largely rebuilt in the Art Deco style. This time capsule of 1930s glamour makes these cities wonderfully evocative places to wander around. The Hastings suburb of Havelock North, very near Te Mata peak, with its relaxing villagey feel is a lovely place to visit too.

Wine map of Hawke’s Bay – click for a larger view.

Although it has been surpassed by Marlborough in recent decades and now only produces around 10% of New Zealand’s wine, Hawke’s Bay is still the second largest wine region in the country and the principal centre for red wine production. 

What I love here is the sense of history, the first winery was established in 1851 – 120 years or so before vines were grown in Marlborough. In fact several of the leading producers here including Mission Estate, Te Mata, Church Road, Vidal Estate and Esk Valley were all well established by the 1930s.

Of course history never flows in a straight line and although there was indeed a brief flowering of dry wine production here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the likes of Te Mata winning awards for their pre World War I “clarets”, the real demand in the days of the British Empire was for Port and Sherry substitutes, fortified wines. It was not until the 1970s that the emphasis moved to dry wines and another twenty years before Hawke’s Bay started to acquire the reputation as a wine region, especially for reds, that it enjoys today.

Being half way up North Island, Hawke’s Bay is one of the warmest areas in New Zealand and enjoys a long growing season. This enables Hawke’s Bay to specialise in grape varieties that simply cannot ripen in the cool maritime conditions further south. That being said, it is still a temperate and moderate climate. This contrasts with almost all other “New World” wine producing countries which have hotter Mediterranean climates. The temperatures in the growing season are a bit warmer than Bordeaux, but cooler than California’s Napa Valley. 

Looking south and east across the Tukituki River – photo by Quentin Sadler

Of course nothing is simple, so where the grapes grow within Hawke’s Bay is an important consideration. The coastal zone is appreciably cooler than the areas further inland. This means that the best quality white grapes tend to be grown nearer the ocean, where most of the black grapes will not ripen, and the best black grapes flourish further inland where the extra heat and shelter helps them to achieve full ripeness. These varied conditions mean that Hawke’s Bay can offer an incredible variety of wine styles.

The inland temperatures are some 7˚C or so more than the coast. This makes it possible for Hawke’s Bay to ripen some grape varieties that defeat almost every other New Zealand region, except Waiheke Island far to the north. Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and even Cabernet Sauvignon all thrive here. Of course New Zealand can almost never produce those big, rich, fruity wines like Australia and California do, there just isn’t enough heat for that. So whether you are drinking a Bordeaux style blend of Merlot and Cabernet, or a Syrah, these reds will usually be more delicate than other new world examples, but fruitier and softer than their European counterparts.

Misty hills beyond the vineyards in the Tukituki Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The dominant grapes being Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah is almost serendipitous as New Zealand is famous for producing lamb. Merlot-Cabernet blends, like red Bordeaux from the same grape varieties, are a fine match with lamb. Syrah is not only great with lamb, but also partners venison really well and New Zealand is a major producer of that meat too.

As for white grapes, the real speciality is Chardonnay as these conditions, create wines with ripeness and texture as well as fine acidity – think White Burgundy with more fruit. As you might expect though, they also produce Sauvignon Blanc and these tend to be riper, more mouth filling and textured than those from Marlborough.

Looking towards Cape Kidnappers from Elephant Hill – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The soils provide little nourishment and are free draining, which helps to produce concentrated and complex wines as the vines have to work hard and dig deep for goodness while any excess water just drains away rather than making the grapes dilute. Much of the terrain has been formed by five ancient rivers – the Wairoa, Mohaka, Tutaekuri, Ngaruroro and Tukituki – moving over centuries to form valleys and terraces and leaving behind over 25 different soil types including clay loam, limestone, sand and gravel.

Gimblett Gravels soils – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Gravel is the most famous soil here with one of the most important sub-regions of Hawke’s Bay actually being called Gimblett Gravels. This warm area was formed by the Ngaruroro (pronounced Na-roo-roe-roe) River changing route after a huge flood in 1867. The deep gravel soils it left behind have almost no organic component, so give low vigour and perfect drainage. This means the area can produce world class red wines with concentration and ripeness together with the elegance and freshness that the relatively cool conditions give, even in this warm part of New Zealand.

Ever since wine growers were first aware of the Gimblett Gravels in 1981 it has been seen as primarily a red wine area. It pretty quickly became known for Bordeaux style blends of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, often with some Cabernet Franc and Malbec too. 

Vines growing in the Gimblett gravels – photo by Quentin Sadler.

In more recent years Syrah has started to challenge that dominance and although the amount of Syrah grown is quite small it has quickly earned a very high reputation for quality. Some other black grapes grow here too, with small plantings of Grenache and Tempranillo showing great promise. White grapes make up about 10% of the plantings with some superb Chardonnays and Viogniers as well as a little Arneis, Gewürztraminer and even Riesling.

The Bridge Pa Triangle is an area just a little further inland from Gimblett Gravels. It has similar gravel soils but under a deep layer of loam topsoil, which often makes the wines softer and more aromatic. 

There are other sub-zones of Hawke’s Bay too, but you are unlikely to see their names appearing on labels anytime soon.

To my mind the wines coming out of Hawke’s Bay make perfect restaurant wines. They can provide an attractive half-way house between new world fruitiness and richness and the dryness of European wines. This makes them very food friendly and versatile with food or without. What’s more they have that clean and bright New Zealand character that can be very appealing. Also like most new world wines, they usually deliver as soon as the bottle is opened, without needing to be left to breathe for a little while to show at their best.

Looking towards the Te Mata Hills from Craggy Range – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The Hawke’s Bay specialities are most certainly Chardonnay, Bordeaux-style blends of Merlot and Cabernet and Syrah, but there is so much more going on too. Reds from Malbec, Tempranillo, Grenache and even some Pinot Noir in the cooler places. As for whites there is also fine Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Sémillon, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Arneis, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and more. So, stylistically it is very hard to pin the region down, but very rewarding to try.

Here is my a brief selection of Hawke’s Bay wines & wineries for you to try – of course the other wines by these producers are very good too:

The Te Mata Winery – photo by Quentin Sadler

Te Mata:

One of the grand old names of Hawke’s Bay, Te Mata has been continuously operating since 1892 and is based in a beautiful Art Deco building right by Te Mata peak. The vineyards and winery were completely renovated in the 1980s and they have never looked back. Today they have extensive vineyard holdings in Woodthorpe and the Bridge Pa Triangle as well as the original nineteenth century vineyards at the foot of Te Mata peak itself. Made under the guidance of Peter Cowley, one of the funniest winemakers I have ever met, the range is wonderfully creative and includes a fine oaked Sauvignon and delicious single vineyard Gamay.

Peter Cowley, the witty, engaging and passionate Technical Director at Te Mata. One of those winemakers that I could listen to for days – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Te Mata Coleraine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Aged for 18 months in barrel it is widely considered one of the very best red wines from New Zealand. I consistently like the restrained, elegant style and the freshness that keeps it irresistibly drinkable.

Available in the UK for £56.99 per bottle from The New Zealand House of Wine.

Trinity Hill:

Warren Gibson, long serving chief winemaker at Trinity Hill – photo courtesy of New Zealand Winegrowers.

This winery only dates back to 1993, but that makes them almost pioneers as far as New Zealand wine is concerned and they have certainly made their mark. Initially it was a joint venture between famed Australian winemaker John Hancock and Robert and Robyn Wilson, owners of London’s The Bleeding Heart restaurant. Chief winemaker Warren Gibson has been there since 1997 and he produces a range of beautiful wines that perfectly illustrate how diverse Hawke’s Bay can be – they even make a rich and aromatic blend of Marsanne and Viognier and a suave Pinot Noir.

Try: Trinity Hills Gimblett Gravels Syrah – this shows perfectly why Hawke’s Bay is good for Syrah. The cooler climate really defines this wine with its lively fruit and floral aromas. The luscious palate has ripe blackberry fruit, soft spices, integrated oak and ripe, sweet tannins. There is always a sense of freshness and purity in good Hawke’s Bay Syrah that sets it apart.

Available in the UK for £20.99 per bottle from The New Zealand House of Wine.

Vidal Estate: 

Vidal Estate Winery – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Spaniard Anthony Vidal opened his eponymous winery in an old racing stable in 1905. Owned by Villa Maria since the 1976 it opened New Zealand’s first, and still very fine, winery restaurant in 1979. Hugh Crichton has been the winemaker for many years now and his deft hand seems to do no wrong. He has a particularly high reputation for his Chardonnays, but the Syrahs and Cabernet blends are mighty fine too.

Hugh Crichton (left) in the cellar – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Try: Vidal Estate Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon is a great introduction to Hawke’s Bay reds. The palate is bold and richly fruity with smooth tannins, smoky oak and a touch of spice – 5% Malbec in the blend helps with the pizzazz.

Available in the UK for £14.00 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar.

Craggy Range: 

Vineyards at Craggy Range from their fabulous restaurant – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Businessmen Terry Peabody and revered viticulturist / winemaker Steve Smith MW created Craggy Range in the 1990s and quickly established themselves as one of the great names of Hawke’s Bay. Today chief winemaker Matt Stafford crafts a superb range of wines from vineyards in the Gimblett Gravels and the cooler coastal area near Cape Kidnappers.

Matt Stafford, the chief winemaker at Craggy Range – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Craggy Range Kidnappers Vineyard Chardonnay – the cool coastal conditions really define this wine with its freshness and minerality, subtle richness and restrained use of oak – think Chablis 1er Cru with a bit more soft fruit.

Available in the UK for £17.99 per bottle from Waitrose Cellar.

Elephant Hill:

The only elephant at Elephant Hill Winery – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Founded in 2003 this estate is another newcomer that has a built a huge reputation for itself very fast. It is managed by the charming Andreas Weiss whose parents created Elephant Hill after falling in love with the area while on holiday from their native Germany. The winery is surrounded by vines and sits almost on the cliff edge at Te Awanga. This is where they grow their white grapes while the reds and richer whites are grown in their Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle vineyards. The winery boasts incredible views and a great restaurant. As to the name, Andreas told me, “there’s no hill and there’s no elephant, but you certainly remember it”.

Andreas Weiss of Elephant Hill – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Try: Elephant Hill Sauvignon Blanc – a pure and vivacious style, but rounder and more textured than a typical New Zealand Sauvignon. It feels clean, precise and beautifully defined too, with wonderful salty minerality cutting through the ripe citrus fruit.

Available in the UK for £16.50 per bottle from Corney & Barrow.

Esk Valley:

Esk valley’s terraced vineyard, home to the Terraces, one of New Zealand’s finest reds – photo courtesy of Esk Valley.

This famous winery sits right on the coast some 10 km north of Napier and was originally a fortified wine producer that fell into disuse by the 1970s. George Fistonich of Villa Maria bought it in 1986 and it has never looked back. For the last 20 odd years it has been left in the talented hands of winemaker Gordon Russell who has happily put all the old prewar concrete fermentation vats to use for his red wines and who revels in his reputation for being something of a maverick who makes true handmade wines. 

Gordon Russell with his beloved pre-war concrete fermentation vats at Esk Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Gordon crafts one of New Zealand’s most famous reds, Esk Valley The Terraces, from a one hectare block of vines on a terraced vineyard overlooking the ocean right by the winery.

Try: Esk Valley Verdelho – this grape is mainly used to make fortified Madeira,  but this is an unfortified style that has a lovey brightness to it and enticing aromatics. I love the mandarin-like acidity, the rich palate and the little touch of salinity on the fresh, lively finish. It’s wonderful with oriental food.

Available in the UK for £13.75 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company.

Alpha–Domus:

The Ham Family of Alpha Domus – photo courtesy of the winery.

This estate is a real pioneer of the Bridge Pa Triangle. It was founded in 1990, pretty early for this sub-region, by the Ham family from the Netherlands. The first names of the five family members who founded and run the winery are; Anthonius and Leonarda together with their sons Paulus, Henrikus and Anthonius – Alpha! They produce a fine range of single vineyard, estate wines from the classic Hawke’s Bay grape varieties of Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah, as well as Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Cumulus, a Traditional Method sparkling Chardonnay.

Try: Alpha–Domus The Wingwalker Viognier – in France’s northern Rhône,  where Syrah originates, Viognier grows next door, so it makes perfect sense that we are beginning to see more of this exotic, aromatic grape grown in Hawke’s Bay and used either on its own or co-fermented in tiny amounts with Syrah.

This is a rich but fresh example with exotic ripe fruit aromas and a succulent and silky palate with ripe peach, pineapple, coconut cream and a touch of shortbread. The balance is lovely and it makes the wine seem pure, yet powerful. Great with firm fish and white meat dishes.

Available in the UK for £18.50 per bottle from Noble Green.

Villa Maria:

Sir George Fistonich, the great New Zealand wine pioneer, whose Villa Maria group also owns Vidal and Esk – photo by Quentin Sadler

Villa Maria is an extraordinary company. Created singlehandedly in 1961 by a 21 year old New Zealander with Croatian roots. That young man is now Sir George Fistonich, one of the great figures of the wine world and he still has the same drive and passion all these years later. Villa Maria have vineyards and a winery in Marlborough and Auckland as well as Hawke’s Bay including owning one of the largest parcels of the Gimblett Gravels. To my mind they never put a foot wrong and consistently produce elegant wines that people enjoy, at all price points. Their Merlots, Merlot-Cabernet blends and Syrahs are all from their Hawke’s Bay vineyards. They recently launched a super premium Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon called Ngakirikiri which means “the gravels” in Maori. It’s a stunning wine with beautiful fruit, incredible richness, but also elegance and poise with gentle, supple tannins.

Try: Villa Maria Cellar Selection Gimblett Gravels Grenache – a surprisingly rich take on this grape that loves heat and sun. It’s richly fruity with black cherry and dried strawberry characters and lots of spice in the form of white pepper, fresh ginger and clove.

Available in the UK for £16.00 per bottle from Noble Green.

Of course this selection barely scratches the surface, there are many more fabulous wines from the producers mentioned here, let alone other wineries in Hawke’s Bay. These are all very good though, are easily available and show the quality and diversity that this exciting wine region can produce.

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.