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.
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.
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.
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 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.
So often when we talk about Spanish wine, we mean wine from northern Spain. This is simply because up until the late twentieth century the south was just too hot to make anything that was considered worthwhile. So the good wines, the wines with a reputation for high quality, came from the cooler zones with Atlantic influence. Chief amongst those, of course, was Rioja. Most of Spain’s other wines were relegated to making everyday wines for local consumption.
Much has changed for the better in Spain since it joined the EU in 1986. Not least that modern wine making technology is now reaching into every corner of this exciting wine producing country.
As a result good – and great – wines are now being made in regions that were once regarded as bywords for undrinkable wine. Clean, protective winemaking has lifted the wines of Spain’s hot, southern regions to a level that would have been unthinkable just thirty years ago.
Perhaps the most exciting of these is the Comunidad Valenciana. This is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and consists of the provinces of Alicante, Valencia – pronounced Bah-len-thya – and Castellón – pronounced Cas-tay-yon.
The Comunidad Valenciana contains several wine regions that are very much on the up; DO Alicante, DO Valencia and DO Utiel-Requena.
DO / denominación de origen wines come from recognised regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance.
Since Spain has enjoyed increased prosperity, renewed infrastructure and access to wealthy markets these regions have curbed their desire to make high volume, bulk wines. Instead they have focussed on improving quality and producing finer, artisan wines.
Historically the wines from this part of Spain are really a story of three grape varieties – two black and one white. Despite much experimentation they remain the most important.
The main black grape of Alicante, and nearby Jumilla, is Monastrell. More famous under its French name, Mourvèdre it’s used in many Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Rhône blends and is known as Mataro in much of the New World. In the wrong hands, Monastrell can be very tannic and rustic and was long thought only suitable for producing large quantities of everyday wine, as the high yields reduced the tannins by making the wines dilute. Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow. It needs a lot of heat and also a fair amount of water. Added to which it is susceptible to all sorts of mildews, is very vigorous and can easily get overripe. Add all that together and it is not surprising that it had to wait until modern times, squeaky clean wineries and skilled grape growers for it to become a grape with a following.
The little known Bobal (pronounced boh-BAHL) grape reigns supreme in Utiel-Requena and is actually the third most planted grape in Spain – after Airén and Tempranillo, yet most of us have never heard of it. Until relatively recently Bobal was considered too tannic and un-tameable, so was often blended with other, softer grape varieties, such as Tempranillo and Garnacha (known as Grenache in France). However recent advances in handling Bobal have led winemakers to recognise its qualities and to unequivocally make it the signature grape of the region.
Both provinces also have a long tradition of making sweet, fortified wines from Moscatel, (Muscat in French), grapes. In recent years the advent of cold fermentation in stainless steel has led to the production of very good dry whites made from Moscatel too. Fresh and aromatic, these are excellent with seafood.
Historically the region fermented its wines in the tinajas – traditional large clay jars often inaccurately called amphorae. These fell out of use when people realised that it was hard to get clean results from them. However modern knowhow and technology means such vessels can now be cleaned and so tinajas have started to be used again, to great effect.
Famously the Comunidad Valenciana enjoys a Mediterranean climate with long, hot, dry summers and short winters. Historically this has been a problem as too much heat can produce flabby,uninteresting wines. Careful positioning of vineyards though, can produce wines with more freshness and elegance from subtly cooler sites.
Utiel-Requena is actually as far inland as it is possible to be in Valencia and is right on the border with Castilla-La Mancha. This puts these vineyards much higher than the coastal plain, at around 600-900 metres above sea level. The slightly cooler and windy conditions up there alleviate the summer temperatures, that frequently top 40˚C, and slow down the growing season to produce finer wine than was once thought possible.
Further south in Alicante the better vineyards also tend to be inland where the land rises to around 400 metres. Even in August you need a jacket if you want to sit out at night in Monòver, the heart of the vineyard area.
DO Valencia is more spread out and varied, but excellent everyday wines are made on the lower land towards the coast, while more ambitious wines are made by passionate producers at higher altitudes around Ontinyent near the border with Castilla-La Mancha.
In all of these areas, careful positioning of vineyards, modern training techniques, earlier picking for lower alcohol and better balance, clean winemaking and careful use of oak has led to a revolution in how the wines taste. Today at the very least the wines are clean, fresh and enjoyable. At their best they are amongst the very best that Spain has to offer.
There are far too many producers to mention them all, but these are some of my favourites:
Bodegas Enrique Mendoza:
Founded in 1989, Mendoza has a winery and showroom near Benidorm, but most of their vineyards are around 40 km inland at Villena. This place is between 370 metres and 650 metres above sea level, so gets cooling breezes in the summer.
Pepe Mendoza organically farms around 80 hectares and makes several different wines from pure Monastrell, or as he puts it, ‘paints plenty of pictures from the same grape’.This place – with its winds, extreme heat in summer, cold in winter, low vigour, stony soils and only just enough water – makes the vines struggle and so they produce small crops of very concentrated grapes. In fact so stressed are the vines that they remain stunted and cling to the ground, so Pepe calls them his ‘bonsai vines’.
2016 La Tremenda Monastrell DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Enrique Mendoza Alicante
A single vineyard wine, this is Pepe’s calling card and it is one of the best value wines around. Fermented in stainless steel and aged for 6 months in American oak barrels, it’s richly fruity, fleshy and succulent with velvety tannins, a kiss of vanilla oak, a touch of cocoa and a wild, spicy side that keeps it exciting. This will appeal to people who like Shiraz and Syrah – 90/100 points.
Also try: The single vineyard Estrecho and Las Quebradas are both magnificent Monastrell wines with great depth and complexity, while Pepe’s sweet, fortified Moscatel de la Marina is one of the finest I have tasted.
Enrique Mendoza wines are distributed in the UK byC & D Wines.
Artadi – El Sequé:
Created by Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacaille in Rioja in 1981, Artadi was a pioneer and champion of single vineyard wines in Spain. Today they farm 65 hectares in Rioja, 40 hectares at Bodegas Artazu in Navarra and the 80 hectare El Sequé estate in Alicante. This property is situated at 600 metres above sea level near Pinoso, west of Monòver close to the border with the Región de Murcia.
2016 El Sequé Monastrell DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas y Viñedos El Sequé Alicante
Another single vineyard wine grown at around 600 metres. Pure Monastrell fermented in open topped vats with daily pump overs for extraction. The wine is aged in 500 litre French oak barrels for 12 months.
The result is a wine with rich black fruit, spice and balsamic notes. The palate is plush and concentrated with rich, sweet, ripe fruit, supple tannins, beautifully integrated oak and good balance. This is a true fine wine and very impressive and it needs hearty, winter food – 94/100 points.
A division of Bodegas Schenk, a big wine company that originated as a cooperage in Switzerland before acquiring wine estates in various regions of Switzerland after World War 1. Schenk then expanded into Spain in the 1920s, where it has several estates throughout the Comunidad Valenciana. This one was the first estate they bought in Spain and was known as Bodegas Schenk until 2002 when it started focussing on premium rather than bulk wine production.
This is a very different take on Monastrell. It is unoaked, so retains more brightness, but it still has lovely black fruit aromas, a touch of that sweet and sour, fruity and pepper and balsamic thing on the palate. In short it’s a spicy, bright, ripe and concentrated wine that sees no oak at all and retains a juicy freshness – 88/100 points.
Tucked away in Parcent in the Xaló Valley, a little inland from Jávea, Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega was one of the very first to show that Alicante could make great wine. He has farmed 12 hectares here since 1978 and produces a fascinating range of wines.
2014 Casta Diva Cosecha Miel DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega Alicante
Sweet Moscatel wines are very much the tradition in this part of Spain. In the past they were somewhat oxidised and lacked excitement, but have recently reinvented themselves in spectacular style. This wine is the link between the old and the new waves and has been made continuously since 1978, thus inspiring new winemakers to make more interesting wines from Moscatel. This is barrel fermented and barrel aged, in all sorts of barrels of different sizes. The oak isn’t new, so the flavours of the oak do not mask the taste of the grapes, but the oxygen trickling in makes the wine rounder and more mouth filling.
The wine is aromatic with wonderful orange blossom, caramel and wild herb notes. The palate is honeyed, sumptuous and complex with rich, ripe orchard fruit and zingy, caramelised orange – without doubt the finest example of this classic local style – 93/100 points.
Also try: Viña Ulises – an enticing, elegant blend of Monastrell and Garnacha that combines ripe fruit and wilder, savoury black olive characters.
This go ahead cooperative is the giant of Alicante wine and was created by merging 11 smaller co-ops. Don’t let that put you off though, they produce some excellent wines. Their wines are never less than good, even at the lower end and they are always coming up with new and exciting things, like sparkling red Monastrell and sparkling Moscatel.
2018 Marina Alta DO/PDO Alicante Bodegas Bocopa Alicante
I don’t always like dry wines made from Muscat, but this is a delicious take on the style. It is fresh and lively with floral and grapey aromatics. The palate is light and refreshing with low (11%) alcohol and some zingy citrus freshness. Wonderful to drink on a sun-drenched terrace and perfect with Gambas al Ajillo – 87/100 points.
Created in 2000 by unifying two old established family vineyards, the 67 hectare Finca Fuenteseca sits at nearly 1000 metres above sea level. It is west of Utiel, right on the border with Castilla-La Mancha and is certified organic as the dry conditions make it a perfect site for organic viticulture.
2016 Pasión de Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Bodega Sierra Norte Valencia
A great introduction to Bobal, this is made from old vines and low yields. Fermented in barrels and aged in barrels for a further 6 months.
It is a thoroughly modern wine that tastes traditional and of its place. It’s richly fruity scented with blackberry, raspberry and balsamic, umami, savoury notes. The palate is generous, rich and mouth filling with powerful black fruit together with nicely balanced mocha-like oak and suave, refined tannins – 90/100 points.
Also try: Pasión de Bobal Rosado – a beautifully balanced, pale rosé that delivers bright cranberry and strawberry fruit and crisp, refreshing acidity.
Bodega Sierra Norte wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.
Dominio de la Vega:
Three winemaking families joined forces in 2001 to create this estate focussed on premium wines. Housed in a beautiful 19th century manor house, the site is lovely and the wines are impressive.
2014 Finca La Beata Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Dominio de la Vega Valencia
This is a fine, concentrated red made from 100 year old, ungrafted vines and aged 18 months in barrel. Layers of ripe fruit, ripe tannins, spice, espresso and chocolate-like oak balanced with fresh acidity make it complex and vibrant – 94/100 points.
Also try: Their superb range of Reserva Cavas – fine Spanish sparkling wines made by the traditional method.
Dominio de la Vega wines are distributed in the UK by Jeroboams.
Pago de Tharsys:
This estate dates back to 1805, but its modern life began in 1981 when the Garcia family, bought it. They went on to purchase most of the adjacent vineyards in the 1990s – so like most estates around here it’s a young label and very much a project in progress. They organically farm 12 hectares and produce a wide range including superb sparkling wines that are stunningly packaged.
2018 Pago de Tharsys Albarino – Vendimia Nocturna DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Pago de Tharsys Valencia
Albariño is of course a grape from Spain’s Galicia region, but it is beginning to be grown elsewhere as it is recognised as one of the best white grapes in the Iberian Peninsular – it also grows in Portugal, where it is called Alvarinho.
The nose offers ripe, tropical pineapple and floral notes together with little touches of aromatic Turkish delight.
The palate delivers fruit characters reminiscent of pineapple, lime and grapefruit together with a lovely creamy ripe texture and green tea notes. This is a soft wine in the mouth, well balanced and quite long with green fruit emerging on the finish. Night harvesting helps retain the grape’s natural acidity 91/100 points.
Also try: Their Unico Blanc di Negre, a complex sparkling Bobal made by the traditional method, it cannot be called Cava as Bobal is not a permitted Cava grape.
Pago de Tharsys wines are distributed in the UK by Moreno Wines.
A modern estate that is another part of Bodegas Schenk, or more accurately Schenk are a shareholder and the ‘Suizas’ in the name of the winery. Right from the start this project was about producing premium wines in Utiel-Requena. The potential of the region had been seen for a few years, but they were still pioneers. Today they farm 46 hectares of vines around their beautiful farmhouse and another 15 less than half a kilometre away. All of this is just west of the lovely town of Requena and the focus is on Bobal, although they grow other grape varieties too.
2016 Bobos ‘Finca Casa La Borracha’ Bobal DO/PDO Utiel-Requena Bodegas Hispano+Suizas Valencia
An intriguing and delicious red that is made from 70 year old, low yielding Bobal vines. The grapes are de-stemmed and put in 400 litre American oak barrels, standing up without the tops, to ferment. After the barrel fermentation the wine is aged for 10 months in new French Allier oak barrels. A vibrant and forthright wine that packs a spicy, toasty punch with rich fruit and balsamic/tapenade notes. The tannins are beautifully tamed and velvety, the oak is well integrated and there is good balancing acidity. This is a serious wine, but immensely drinkable too – 92/100 points.
FYI, Casa la Borracha means ‘house of the drunken woman’!
Bodegas Hispano+Suizas wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.
Mustiguillo was founded by businessman Toni Sarrion in the late 1990s with the aim of rescuing Bobal from its reputation for mediocrity and creating fine wines from it. As such it became the engine for change in this formerly obscure region and showed what could be done in this place and what is more was instrumental in showing the locals just how good Bobal can be. Mustiguillo consists of two organically farmed estates, Finca Terrerazo at around 600 metres above sea level and Finca Calvestra which sits at 920 metres.
Calvestra is cooler and where they grow their white grapes, especially the rare Merseguera which Mustiguillo have helped to rescue from near extinction to become the, still rarely seen, speciality white grape for the whole Comunidad Valenciana.
2017 Mestizaje DO/PDO Pago El Terrerazo Bodega Mustiguillo Utiel Valencia Comunidad Valenciana
Mestizaje means melting pot and it’s a blend of mainly Bobal with small amounts of Syrah (10%) and Garnacha/Grenache (16%). The grapes are fermented in a mixture of French oak and stainless steel fermentation tanks and the wine is aged for 10 months in a mixture of French oak vats and barrels.
The result is a hugely drinkable, medium-bodied wine that has plenty of red and black fruit, gentle spices, freshness, elegance and precision – 91/100 points.
A big producer that started life in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, in 1831 when Vittore Valsangiacomo opened a winery. His son Cherubino Valsangiacomo decided to open a wine export company in Valencia and Alicante, before eventually opening winery facilities in Chiva, Requena, Utiel, Monóvar, Yecla and in El Grao de Valencia in 1890. As their wineries cover all the important wine areas of the Comunidad Valenciana, they produce a large range of wines from all the DOs in the region.
In 2008 the company undertook an exciting project by taking over the old Sanjuan Cooperative that’s halfway between Utiel and Requena. The aim is to use the wonderful old vineyards and concrete tanks at Sanjuan to make great wines from Bobal.
There are 10 hectares of up to 100 year old Bobal vines around this old winery and it is exclusively those vines that are used in this wine. They are sited on a plateau at around 750 metres above sea level. This exposes them to the cooling ‘solano’ winds that blow in from the east and temper the hot summer conditions by increasing the temperature drop between day and night. The winery is quite old and was equipped with 70 large fermentation tanks made of concrete. Cherubino Valsangiacomo believe these are perfect for Bobal as if left unlined, or raw, you can achieve a small micro oxygenation of the wine due to the pores in the concrete. This tames Bobal’s famous tannins.
A lively and fresh wine with an attractive lifted nose of ripe red fruit and a dash of spice. The palate is smooth, earthy and spicy with medium weight wine, supple tannins and juicy blackberry, cherry and raspberry fruit. The freshness shines through, showing the absence of oak, and the finish is long with a satisfying savoury twist – 90/100 points.
Cherubino Valsangiacomo wines are distributed in the UK by Bibbendum.
Celler Del Roure:
This extraordinary estate is planted at 600 metres above sea level in the south west of Valencia province, west of Ontinyent. Pablo Calatayud originally created the winery in the late 1990s to make wines from international grapes. However in recent years he has completely changed his approach and now farms organically and champions local grape varieties like Mandó and Verdil that had almost become extinct. Pablo also uses the traditional tinajas – large clay jars often inaccurately called amphorae – to ferment and mature the wines. What’s more these tinajas are deep underground in an ancient Roman cellar.
2015 Parotet DO/PDO Valencia Celler Del Roure Valencia
An old vine (between 30 and 70 years old) blend of 75% Mando with 25% Monastrell, organically farmed and verging on natural winemaking. The fruit is all hand harvested, partially de-stemmed (the stems contain a lot of tannins, so leaving in some stems can increase the tannin if required), indigenous fermentation using the natural yeast, fermentation and malolactic in the tinajas followed by 14 months ageing on the lees in those tinajas.
The result is scented and vibrant wine with herbal, balsamic and fresh red fruit aromas. The palate is similarly bright with fresh red fruit, savoury herbs and that balsamic tang. The texture is velvety and supple and the wine has lots of energy – 93/100 points.
Also try: Cullerot – an extraordinarily complex blend of Verdil, Pedro Ximénez, Macabeo, Malvasía, Chardonnay and Tortosina macerated on the skins and aged for 6 months one the lees in those tinajas.
Celler Del Roure wines are distributed in the UK by Alliance Wine.
Wines from this part of Spain are really exciting me right now. From humble beginnings the Comunidad Valenciana is fast becoming one of the most thrilling and varied wine producing areas of Spain. What’s more most of them are made from indigenous, local grape varieties. So the flavours are unique and all the wines seem to have that casual Mediterranean feel of charm and elegance. They are incredibly food friendly and generally offer great value for money too, so go on do a bit of exploring of wines from the Comunidad Valenciana.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The Bocale winery and vineyards, showing the landscape of Montefalco – photo courtesy of Montefalco wine.
I love Italian wine and am fascinated by the enormous potential there is in every corner of that amazing wine producing country.
Excitingly every now and again a region emerges from relative obscurity to sit alongside the famous classic wine regions such as Barolo and Chianti. We might well be experiencing such a moment right now.
Map of Umbria’s wine areas – click for a larger view.
The landlocked province of Umbria neighbours Tuscany but feels more rural and quiet. Wine has been produced here for centuries with the whites of Orvieto and reds of Torgiano enjoying some success. Neither though have managed to break through into the ranks of the great regions.
Umbria might now have found its true champion though in the tiny wine region of Montefalco. I visited recently and loved what I found. This delightful place is well off the beaten track – my taxi to Montefalco from Rome Airport covered nearly half the distance on unmade roads – and is centred on the pretty hilltop medieval town of Montefalco.
The hilltop town of Montefalco – photo courtesy of Tabarrini.
It’s small, but utterly charming with beautiful narrow streets, fortified town walls and a scattering of wine shops as well as some excellent restaurants. It’s a delightful place to wander around but at its heart is the wine produced in the surrounding countryside.
The delightful main street and gate of Montefalco – photo by Quentin Sadler.
The place enjoys a Mediterranean climate – they grow olives here in abundance – with some aspects of a continental climate, including very cold winters.
Two distinct styles dominate local red wine production, Montefalco Rosso DOC and Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG.
DOC / Denominazione di origine controllata wines come from recognised traditional regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance. DOCG / Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is a step above and the rules are more stringent, with longer ageing and lower yields.
The Montefalco Rosso wines are blends based on 60-80% Sangiovese, the famous grape of Chianti in Tusacny, together with 10-25% of the local Sangrantino grape and often some Barbera and Merlot.
One of the oldest estates in Montefalco is the wonderfully named Scacciadiavoli – it means to banish devils and celebrates an exorcist who lived nearby. It was founded in 1884 and this is where they created the local Rosso blend of Sangiovese and Sangrantino as an alternative to Chianti.
Montefalco DOC was created in 1979 as a recognition for the improvement in the local wines. Some fine dry whites are made here as well as reds, from blends based on the excellent Trebbiano Spoletino grape – which is a variety on its own and not Trebbiano. There are also some lovely crisp whites made from Grechetto (grek-ketto).
Trebbiano Spoletana vines growing the trees at Tabarrini – photo courtesy of Tabarrini.
I would also add that the nearby Spoleto DOC, which overlaps with Montefalco, produces some truly great white wines made from Trebbiano Spoletino.
Without a shadow of a doubt though the premier wine from this region is the Montefalco Sangrantino DOCG and it is this which is fast becoming one of Italy’s star red wines. Originally it was simply a part of the Montefalco DOC, but was separated out and promoted to DOCG status in 1992. The rules specify that the wine must be aged for a minimum of 37 months, including at least 12 months in barrel and 4 months in bottle.
Historically Sagrantino was considered so harsh and tannic that they either made sweet wines from it or blended it with softer, less tannic varieties.
Scacciadiavoli made the first dry red wine made from the Sagrantino grape, that we know about anyway. It was in 1924 for a local festival and was only made once, before they reverted to the more normal sweet wines.
The move to dry reds happened slowly from the 1960s onwards. The sweet wines still exist though with many producers making a Passito Sagrantino from grapes that have been dried to concentrate the sugars.
The approach to Arnaldo Caprai – photo by Quentin Sadler.
One of the most famous estates here is Arnaldo Caprai which was a pioneer in adopting modern techniques that lifted the quality of the dry wines. This foresight made the wines more exciting for foreign markets and helped others to see the potential. As a result the few old established estates here seem to have raised their game and to have produced more ambitious and finer wines, while newcomers have flocked to the region to create new vineyards. Today there are over 50 producers of Montefalco Sagrantino.
In some ways the wines appear similar in flavour to Sangiovese, with red berry fruit characters, an earthy quality and plenty of food friendly acidity to give balance. The bigger wines, from riper vintages and the more internationally focussed producers, combine these with deeper black fruit flavours too, while a little bit of age brings out the complexity of dried fruit and leather. The wines always have that tannic structure that is more reminiscent of Barolo than Chianti though.
It seems to me that although it has been a very long time coming, Sagrantino has found its moment. Greater understanding and modern knowhow, including gentle handling, cold fermentation and less new oak seems to have tamed Sagrantino’s tannins, delivering ripe fruit and seductive charms that give the wines much wider appeal than ever before. Yes indeed there are tannins, but they are approachable and enjoyable, giving the wine structure rather than bite.
I have tasted some older vintages that I enjoy, but for me the quality of the wines really took off from the excellent 2011 harvest onwards. Time and again it was the, cool, 2014 vintage and the ripe, generous 2015 and 2016 wines that impressed me the most.
Yes these are bold wines with big flavours, but there is real elegance and finesse here too so they should appeal to lovers of Bordeaux, California and Rioja, as well as Barolo, Brunello and Chianti. The opulence, generous fruit and elegance makes these excellent restaurant wines that partner so much more than just Italian food.
Montefalco Sagrantino truly has become one of Italy’s new star regions.
Some producers worth seeking out:
Marco Caprai, whose vision and drive helped to inspire the region – photo by Quentin Sadler.
Arnaldo Caprai – In many ways the estate that set Montefalco Sagrantino on the path to its current glory. Founded in 1971, Marco Caprai took over the reins from his father Arnaldo in 1988 and immediately started an in-depth analysis of the Sagrantino grape, the clones on the estate and how to grow this tricky variety. The results speak for themselves with the wines achieving a global following and wide acclaim. In many ways these are amongst the most international and opulent – indeed there is a touch of Napa Valley to the winery and tasting room – but the range is impressive and the quality is very high across the board.
Try: Valdimaggio single vineyard Montefalco Sangrantino with its rich, but balanced fruit, spice notes and silky texture.
Arnaldo Caprai wines are distributed and retailed in the UK by Mondial Wine.
Matteo Basili, the winemaker at Beneditti & Grigi – photo by Quentin Sadler.
Beneditti & Grigi – Founded as recently as 2014, this newcomer makes very high quality wines under the guidance of Matteo Basili who is a passionate, honest, openminded and engaging winemaker. He creates two ranges; the easier drinking La Gaita del Falco and the more complex Beneditti & Grigi line.
Try: Adone DOC Montefalco Grechetto white is a stunning take on the Grechetto grape. It is partially barrel fermented and is both delicate and rich with lovely refreshing acidity.
Their Beneditti & Grigi Montefalco Sangrantino is a great wine with a seductive smoothness that shows how well they tame those infamous tannins.
They also make a Sagrantino that does not adhere to the DOCg rules and so is labelled as IGT Umbria. It only has a little oak and is a fresh, lively and drinkable take on this tannic grape.
Beneditti & Grigi wines are available, until Brexit anyway, from XtraWine, Tannico.co.uk and Uvinum – all of whom ship the wine to you directly and very efficiently – ah the joys of being in TheSingle Market.
Liù Pambuffetti, winemaker and custodian of Scacciadiavoli’s history – photo by Quentin Sadler.
Scaccadiavoli – The original innovator in Montefalco, this beautiful estate was founded in 1884 and created the recipe for what is now Montefalco Rosso. Amilcare Pambuffetti worked here as a young vineyard worker and was eventually able to buy the property in 1954 when he was 71. Today the fourth generation of his family farm 40 hectares of vines.
Try: Their elegant Montefalco Sangrantino has a traditional, savoury character while they also make a fine traditional method sparkling rosé from 100% Sagrantino.
Giampaolo Tabarrini, the force of nature behind Tabarrini’s success – photo by Quentin Sadler.
Tabarrini – Giampaolo Tabarrini, whose family have farmed here since the 1840s, is a true force of nature. He took his family winery that made local wine for everyday consumption and since 1996 has transformed it into one of the leading estates of this up and coming region. He is effortlessly charming, hugely entertaining and well worth listening to – which is good as he seldom keeps quiet, or stands still for that matter. The farming is entirely organic and the focus is firmly on their 18 hectares of vineyard.
Try: Adarmando Trebbiano Spoletana is made from hundred year old vines that are trained high up in trees, like wild vines, and is one of the very best white wines here. Giampaolo’s three single vineyard, or Cru, Montefalco Sagrantinos are exquisite with concentrated fruit, refined tannins and integrated oak.
Tabarrini wines are distributed in the UK by Raeburn Fine Wines and are available from the excellent Uncorked and the equally first rate The Good Wine Shop.
Valentino Valentini, the passionate and precise winemaker of Boale and Montefalco’s youngest ever mayor – photo by Quentin Sadler.
Bocale – The Valentini family have farmed in Montefalco for generations but only created their own estate in 2002. Now run by Valentino Valentini, Montefalco’s youngest ever Mayor, the emphasis is very much on quality. He makes true artisan wines that echo his passionate, yet precise character. The estate covers 9 hectares, farming is organic and all the fermentations are spontaneous. From 2009 they have picked later, for optimum ripeness, and aged the wines in large French oak casks to soften those tannins.
Try: Their Montefalco Sangrantino is concentrated, spicy and herbal with nicely judged tannins that are firm but far from hard going.
Filippo Antonelli, the charming and amusing owner of Antonelli with his amphorae – photo by Quentin Sadler.
Antonelli – Filippo Antonelli is a fascinating and amusing host whose family has owned this estate since 1881. He himself has been in charge here since 1986 and seems justly proud of his wines and heritage. The vineyards cover 40 hectares and have been certified organic since 2012. Like many estates they also produce an amazing olive oil, as well as some wonderful salamis.
Try: The magnificent amphora fermented and aged Anteprima Tonda Trebbiano Spoletana is one of my favourite white wines of the year. The single vineyard Chiusa di Pannone Montefalco Sagrantino is amongst the very best examples, while his Contrario Sangrantino is a juicy modern, unoaked take on the grape.
Albertino Pardi, winemaker at Cantina Fratelli Pardi – photo courtesy of Pardi.
Cantina Fratelli Pardi – An 11 hectare family run estate that dates back to 1919, but produces a range of exuberant and bright wines that are modern in every way and yet true to themselves. Sadly I did not get to visit this winery, but I did taste their wines several times and seriously impressed by the quality and the sheer drinkability.
Try: Their Trebbiano Spoletana, with its fresh acidity, touch of texture and tropical fruit, is an excellent introduction to this exciting style, while their Montefalco Sangrantino is complex and incredibly drinkable with its rich, concentrated fruit and supple mouthfeel.
Pardi wines are imported into the UK by Aleksic & Mortimer Winehouse and are available through Tannico.co.uk.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 fromNoble Green.
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 fromNoble 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.