Grenache – a huge variety and many different names

cantine-di-orgosolo

Grenache vines at Cantine di Orgosolo, Sardinia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite wines of the competition were:

France

Wine map of France - click for a larger view.

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

la_verriere182

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

terroir_paisaje_general

Bodegas San Alejandro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

garnacha_borsao

Garnacha bush vines at Bodegas Borsao.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26146999742_167359daa5_b

Vines in Terra Alta – photo by Angela Llop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italy

wine map of southern Italy - click for a larger view

Wine map of southern Italy – click for a larger view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

audarya2015 Audarya
Audarya
DOC / PDO Cannonau di Sardegna
Sardinia
Italy

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

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

 

The other type of Vintage Port

The beautiful Douro Valley.

The beautiful Douro Valley.

I love Port. I just love everything about it. The story, the landscape, the quintas – or wine farms – and the lodges all taken together have a romance perhaps unique in the world of wine. If you have never been to Port country – the Douro Valley in north Portugal – then you have a treat in store. It is simply one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.

Recently I tutored a very well received Port tasting and I was astonished that most of us – we were all Brits – expected all Port to be deep, dark, full-bodied and opaque. Which of course Vintage Ports, Ruby Ports and Late Bottled Vintage Ports are. However, the first four Ports in my tasting were quite different. We tried Cálem White & Dryread about it here, the delicious Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny – read about it here and then some Colheita Ports before we reached the darker and richer stuff – 2009 Quinta do Infantado Late Bottled Vintageread about it here, 1997 Quinta do Retiro Vintage Port from Weise & Krohn and the magnificent 2011 Sandeman Vintage Port if you are interested.

The Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny was superb and everyone loved it, but it was the Colheitas that really astonished everyone. A Colheita you see is a Tawny Port from a single harvest. The big difference between a Vintage – apart from the quality of the year – is that a Vintage Port does almost all its ageing in the bottle. This means that the oxygen cannot get to it, so it retains its richness and fruit for much longer and so ages very slowly. A Colheita though is aged in oak barrels, usually of 600 litres and not new, for at least 8 years, so the oxygen can get to the wine and gently oxidise it, so it goes transparent and orange, or tawny in colour. This means that the flavours and complexity of a Colheita develop mainly because of the ageing. You can make a Colheita in pretty much any harvest, whereas a Vintage Port can only be produced in the occasional exceptional vintage – hence the name of the style.

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

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

A faded Cálem poster near Pinhao.

A faded Cálem sign in the vineyards near Pinhão.

0235-calem-colheita-2000-gallery-3-973x13952000 Cálem Colheita Porto
Cálem Porto
Vila Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

Cálem were founded in 1859  and historically most of their business was with Brazil and Portugal and although they make all styles I don’t think it would be unfair to say that they are something of a White Port and Tawny, including Colheita, specialist. Nowadays Cálem is owned by the Sogevinus Group, as are Barros, Kopke and Burmester. The vineyard this wine hails from is the Quinta da Arnozelo near Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the upper reaches of the Douro – the Douro Superior.

This was the only Colheita that came from a generally declared Vintage Port year and that extra concentration showed, added to which it was the youngest Colheita that I showed. The blend was 25% Touriga Nacional, 25% Tinta Roriz, 25% Touriga Franca, 25% Tinta Barroca.

The colour was quite deep, more brown than orange and the nose was pretty full on with nuts, coffee and dried fruit notes. There was still some tannin here on the palate and it was pretty mouth-filling with a silky mouthfeel, rich cooked and dried fruit, spices, nuts, espresso and a long finish. It seemed sweeter than the younger wines somehow because the fruit was still quite vibrant – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £35.00 per bottle from Vintage Wine & Port.

The Douro Valley near Pinhão.

The Douro Valley near Pinhão.

barros_colheita_19961996 Barros Colheita
Barros Porto

Vila Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

I have always had a soft spot for Barros ever since I sold their wines in another life,  so I was really pleased to see how good this was. Originally a small private house founded by Manuel de Almeida in 1913. It eventually took over lots of other smaller Port houses, including Kopke, until it too became part of the Sogevinus Group in 2006.

The blend was again 25% Touriga Nacional, 25% Tinta Roriz, 25% Touriga Franca, 25% Tinta Barroca.

The colour was a deep russet, while the nose was smokey, with coffee, spice, dried fruit and buttery caramel notes and a touch of dried and caramelised orange. The palate was just so joyous that we all stopped talking and looked at each other. There was nutty caramel, dried orange, dried fig, strong coffee and even nougat. The texture was so silky it was almost creamy and the finish went on and on – 93/100 points.

It’s funny because 1996 was considered to be a dire Port vintage and yet this wine really shone, which just goes to show that the vintage guides are wrong, or all that time in wood can work wonders!

Available in the UK for around £35.00 per bottle – click here for stockists.
For US stockist information – click here.

The lovely tiled railway station in Pinhão.

The lovely tiled railway station in Pinhão.

kopke_colheita_19961996 Kopke Colheita
Kopke Porto
Vila Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

Kopke – pronounce Cop-key – was founded in 1638 by Germans Cristiano and Nicolaus Kopke and is thus the very oldest Port house of all – the next oldest is Warre’s and that was founded in 1670, some 32 years later. 378 years later Kopke are the leading producer of Colheitas, producing more than 25% of the style. The fruit, much of it from 100 year old vines, all comes from their Quinta São Luiz which is near Pinhão in the heart of the Douro.

The colour is more red this time, like a robin’s red breast. The nose has confided peel, caramelised orange, dried fruit, toasted nuts and a dash of spice. The palate again is smooth and silky with a slight creamy quality, loads of dried fruit and some salted caramel too. This is delicious, really hedonistic and delicious – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £30.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer.
For US stockist information – click here.

p1060720

Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia.

kopke_colheita_19841984 Kopke Colheita
Kopke Porto
Vila Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

This showed its age a little I am afraid. It was lovely and it was a treat, but it seemed a little fragile and brittle.  It was very aromatic and had some coffee and nut and orange and dried fruit notes, while the palate was very smooth and light with dried fruit and spice – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £50.00 per bottle – click here for stockists.
For US stockist information – click here.

A Colheita is a lovely style of Port and is perfect with all manner of things at Christmas, mince pies, panforte, Christmas cake, you name it. So I really do recommend that you get some in for the festive season. I certainly will.

Wine of the Week – a delicious Vermouth from Rioja

The Vermouth display at La Casa del Abuelo in Madrid.

The Vermouth display at La Casa del Abuelo in Madrid.

Until recently I could not remember the last time I had drunk any Vermouth. In my early years I used to sell it and it was so fashionable that it was positioned right at the back of the shop, next to the equally popular Sherries and Tonic Wines – ah the early 1980s really were another country.

Recently though I have started becoming aware of Vermouth being much more visible than I can remember for a very long time – I suppose it might be because of the big trend for Gin and Martinis, whatever the reason it is fascinating to see this old favourite having a resurgence, however modest.

A Vermouth is a fascinating wine style – even if you don’t like them. It is both a fortified wine and an aromatised wine.

There are four components in the making of Vermouth:

Base wine

Sugar syrup or a mistelle (fortified grape juice)

Spirit

Herbs, roots, plants and spices to give the flavouring – the most historically important flavouring is the wormwood shrub, wermut in German – pronounced vermut – from which the drink gets its name.

It is worth noting that like gruit and hops in beer, the herbs and spices were originally meant to act as a preservative and to have medicinal purposes too, not just to be a flavouring, in the distant past they probably covered up the smell and taste of some pretty rank wine too!

How you make Vermouth:

The base wine is sweetened with the sugar syrup or the mistelle. The herbs are macerated in the spirit and this flavoured alcohol is blended into the sweetened wine – it can then be aged for complexity or left as it is for freshness.

Apparently the first Vermouth to be bottled and sold was created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin, Piemonte, in 1786. His invention was the first commercial red Vermouth and a form of it is still available as Carpano Classico Vermouth, while a newer recipe, called Antica Formula Carpano caught my eye recently and that has gone for a bigger flavour and the artisan look, so much so that you could be forgiven for assuming that it is the older product.

All other commercial styles – as opposed those made by farmers for their own consumption – seem to have been based on what Carpano created and white, rosé and drier styles followed over time. White Vermouth was apparently created by Dolin in Chambéry in Savoie in 1821. Interestingly Chambéry is just over the Alps from Piemonte and in 1932 Chambéry was created an appellation contrôlée, or PDO, the only one for Vermouth. In my youth I remember enjoying Dolin’s Chamberyzette – available here and here, this is their white Vermouth blended with wild Alpine strawberry juice – I used to love, perhaps I still would if I tried it?

The wonderful menu mirror at

The wonderful menu mirror at La Casa del Abuelo.

I bet you are wondering where this is leading, well recently I was in Madrid and was having a happy time in one of the great bars of that city of great bars, La Casa del Abuelo the original one at 12 Calle Victoria. This Madrid institution has been around since 1906 – it seems that Ernest Hemingway was a frequent visitor during the 1920s and ’30s, but then every bar in Madrid claims that, and he drank so much they may well all be right – and it only serves prawns. The other branches have bigger menus, but the original one only serves gambas done six different ways. The classics are Gambas al AjilloGambas a la Plancha, Langostinos con Gabardina (big prawns in batter – hence gaberdines or overcoats! They rather wonderfully translate it as muffled shrimps) and their Croquetas de Gamba Roja (red prawn croquettes – they’re really good).

They have a small wine list nowadays, but the first time I went there – some 30 years ago – they only served 2 drinks, both of which are still available, a sweet red wine or a red Vermouth.

Well on my recent rip I ordered the Vermouth because a friend had mentioned this particular drink to me – he actually ships it into the UK, and I was intrigued. I tried it and really enjoyed it, so have made it my Wine of the Week.

VermutVermut Lacuesta Rojo
Bodegas Martinez Lacuesta
Haro
Rioja
Spain

I have long been an admirer of Bodegas Martinez Lacuesta. Founded in Haro in 1895 they have quietly got on with making superb wines ever since. They produce four different wine ranges, the classic Martinez Lacuesta wines and the somewhat funkier Comprador range which have more Garnacha in them than Tempranillo – Garnacha is usually very much in the supporting role in Rioja. Nowadays they also make make some excellent speciality Riojas and a couple of white Ruedas.

‘Vermut’ is a real speciality of the bodega – they have been bottling it since 1937, but I bet it has been made since the beginning. Nowadays they actually produce five different Vermuts, Blanco (white), Reserva Roble Francés (Reserva aged in French oak), Reserva Acacia (Reserva aged in acacia wood barrels) and a Limited Edition – Vermut Edición Limitada – which is aged in barrel for 14 months.

However, it is the Rojo, or red Vermut, that is the mainstay of their Vermouth production. It is all hand made in small batches from grapes grown in Martinez Lacuesta’s own vineyards. The twist here is that the botanicals, herbs etc, are added to white wine and then aged in American oak barrels for three years – this also introduces sweet vanilla flavours that show up in the finished Vermouth. This mixture is then added to the base red wine along with sugar, caramel and alcohol and aged in French oak barrels for another three months.

The nose is very complex with spices, herbs, dried fruit, toffee, vanilla and camomile. The palate is mellow with sweet dried fruit and an attractively herbal and medicinal character. There is plenty of richness and sweetness, but that is balanced by the herbs and touch of bitterness.

I actually found it really appetising, invigorating and unexpectedly satisfying. I don’t think it went with the gambas, but it was a good drink. I drank it neat with ice, but I am willing to bet it would be delicious with a slice of orange and a splash of sparkling water or lemonade, or even some orange juice – 88/100 points.

In the meantime, Vermut Lacuesta Rojo is available in the UK from Basco – formerly Greys Fine Foods – for £13.50 a bottle.
For US stockists click here.

Stop press:

Since returning from Madrid I have discovered that Vermut Lacuesta Rojo makes a superb Marianito cocktail – simpler recipes are available:

Ingredients: 8 parts of Vermut Lacuesta Rojo well chilled
1-2 parts of gin
1-2 parts of Curaçao orange
1 touch of Campari
1 touch of angostura
orange or lemon juice at will
ice
1 green olive

Preparation: Put all the liquid ingredients in a mixing bowl with ice. Mix without shaking and serve with more ice and remember to add the olive, although I prefer a slice of orange.

Wandering around Madrid I quickly realised that Vermouth is now big in Spain and is produced right across the country. There are plenty of examples from Catalunya, even from Priorat, some from Jerez, including those made by Bodegas LustauCruz Conde Vermouth made from Pedro Ximenez in Montilla-MorillesRibera del Duero and there is even a Galician Vermouth made from Albariño grapes and I intend to taste as many as possible in my forthcoming visits to Spain.

It is amazing to think that this drink that I had almost forgotten about is enjoying such an exciting renaissance and giving so much pleasure. If you are open to interesting and complex drinks, do give one a try soon.

Wine of the Week – Cálem White & Dry Port – with tonic to make a lovely Summer drink

The other day I was sent an enticing box that contained a bottle of Cálem White & Dry Port together with some bottles of tonic, elderflower cordial and a pink grapefruit.

I have enjoyed White Port occasionally in the past, but I think that as a drink it really comes into its own on a hot day when mixed with tonic – it’s a fun drink that offers some of the excitement of a cocktail, while being really easy to prepare – as with Gin & Tonic, you don’t even have to be too fussy about the proportions. Certainly it was wonderful to have a lively and refreshing drink in the recent hot weather, so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

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The Cálem cellars in the heart of Villa Nova de Gaia – photo courtesy of the winery.

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Cálem Porto
Port
Douro
Portugal

I have always had a soft spot for Cálem Port, it was founded in 1859 by António Alves Cálem, who initially had a simple aim – to export Portuguese table wines to Brazil. However to avoid the ships coming back empty they would bring back wood, which eventually made them start a cooperage company in Villa Nova de Gaia, a suburb of Porto where many of the Port houses are situated. This in turn led them to mature Port wine in their barrels and then to sell Port, again to Brazil. Today, like Burmester, Kopke and Barros, they are most famous for their wonderful Colheita Ports – a sort of single vintage Tawny that is often aged for decades in barrels – I will be writing about this style in the Autumn. Again, like those other Port houses they are now also part of the Sogevinus group of wineries.

This is a very modern White Port, crisper, fresher and drier than some, but still don’t expect it to be properly dry – Port is fortified with the addition of grape spirit during the fermentation, so Port is by definition sweet, as the sugar that would have been converted into alcohol stays as sugar instead. I am told that this is made from the Malvasia Fina grape variety and the nose is richly floral and a little tropical too and it is that which follows through onto the palate. The fruit is rich and exotic with ripe pear, banana, unctuous peach, even some pineapple and a twist of ripe citrus. The acidity is not bad for a White Port, but still on the low side, so chilling it makes it feel fresher and livelier – as does the slice of grapefruit – while the long, rich, finish shows the sweetness and the high alcohol.

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The official photograph of Cálem White & Dry with elderflower cordial and tonic, garnished with grapes here rather than pink grapefruit – the grapefruit works very well – photo courtesy of Cálem.

It’s actually a pretty nice drink on its own – chilled, but add 10cl of elderflower cordial to 50cl of the Cálem White & Dry Port, top up with tonic water and add a slice of pink grapefruit, then you have something wonderfully refreshing, deliciously different and great fun. The tonic cuts through the richness, the elderflower accentuates the freshness and the grapefruit adds that touch of the exotic and more zing – it works even better if you put the grapefruit in first and squeeze it a little.

I had meant to photograph the drink that I made, but I drank it so quickly that I forgot, so the official photograph above will have to do, it certainly makes you thirsty looking at it, doesn’t it? I enjoyed it very much – 87/100 points on its own and 92/100 points as a long drink.

Cálem White & Dry Port is available in the UK at £13 a bottle, from Amathus and Ministry of Drinks.

 

Clairette – a surprising white grape from the Languedoc

Whilst in the Languedoc recently I was able to go on lots of study trips of the wine areas and also to attend quite a few masterclasses – in fact I have been thrilled this year to learn that the French, Croat and Slovene words for masterclass are, well, masterclass!

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The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

One of the best of these masterclasses was about a little known white wine called Clairette du Languedoc. The appellation / PDO was created in 1948, making it the oldest white wine PDO in the Languedoc. Only one grape is permitted, the Clairette or Clairette Blanche, which is really only found in the Rhône, Provence and Languedoc regions. It is a low acid, but high alcohol grape, so can make pretty flabby wines if you are not careful with it. It is widely grown in the Southern Rhône, where it is used as a blending grape, including in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The grape lends its name to the sweet sparkling Clairette de Die, despite only 25% of Clairette being allowed in the finished wine, the rest must be Muscat – originally it was 100% Clairette.

In the Languedoc two areas specialise in the grape Clairette de Bellegarde, in the far east of the region near the Rhône, and Clairette du Languedoc, just west of Montpellier. So troublesome was the grape that in the past it was often used as the basis of vermouth rather than being drunk on its own, and further back in history it was a sweet wine – the dry versions were apparently called Picardon and the sweet ones Clairette. Luckily though, as is so often the case, modern know-how has come to its rescue and in the Clairette du Languedoc zone a modest renaissance is underway. The sea is only 20 km away and sighting the vineyards to catch the sea breezes and the refreshing Tramontane wind is very important to retain freshness.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

The appellation is the smallest in the Languedoc with just 100 hectares of vineyard and 18 producers, 7 of which are cooperatives, but it produces four styles of wine all from the single grape. Fresh, dry whites are made, as well as sweet versions, long wood aged rancio wines and fortified Vins Doux Naturels. I tasted examples of all of these and truthfully found the sweet versions to be a bit light and lacking, which is a shame as there is more sweet wine made here than dry. The drier styles quite excited me though and I brought one back to show in a tasting and it excited everyone there too.

The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

Untitled2014 Domaine La Croix Chaptal Clairette Blanche 
Domaine La Croix Chaptal
AC / AOP Clairette du Languedoc
Languedoc
France

This delightful estate is owned by Charles-Walter Pacaud who hails from the Cognac region, but fell in love with Languedoc’s Terrasses du Larzac while studying winemaking in Montpellier. He managed to buy this estate which has a recorded history going back to the 10th century, but Gallo-Roman archeological finds in the vineyards suggest the land has been in use for a lot longer than that. Most of what he produces is either Coteaux du Languedoc, Languedoc or Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac, with just one hectare being Clairette, but they are old vines that give better concentration and they grow on well drained stony and gravelly soil.

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Charles-Walter Pacaud tending his vines – photo courtesy of the winery.

The grapes are harvested by hand, as required in the appellation, destined and spend a little time macerating on the skins for flavour and texture development. 30% is aged in new oak on the lees, with the rest aged in stainless steel tank on the lees for 18 months.

The aromas are quite beguiling, very mineral, herbal – especially fennel and vanilla – together with honey, almonds, peach skin and light toast. The palate is more fleshy with some burnt orange and a mouth-filling texture. there is even a very attractive touch of Fino sherry about it, just a point of oxidation that makes it quite delicious. The finish is very long and mineral and the more you come back to this wine the better it gets. A wonderful discovery, try it if you can – 91/100 points.

This would be wonderful with rich fish dishes, shellfish with garlic butter, fish pie, Coquilles Saint Jacques, chicken and all manner of cheeses too.

Sadly this excellent wine is not available in the UK, so contact the winery direct. I cannot find any other examples of the region available here either, so make sure you try it when you are over there.
For US stockists, click here.

Wine of the Week – a fine Tawny Port

Vineyards on the banks of the Douro in Port country.

Vineyards on the banks of the Douro in Port country.

I am in a real Port mood at the moment. I cannot imagine why as it is spectacularly unseasonal, but I just seem to have tasted a few Ports recently that have fired up my imagination for this wonderful wine style.

I like Port, I have always liked Port and enjoy it very much, but I don’t actually drink very much of it as it can be pretty heady stuff – especially the rich Ruby types – including LBV – and Vintage.

However, there are lighter styles – Tawnies – and it is some these that I have tasted and enjoyed of late. I say enjoyed, I mean loved!

It is always fascinating to taste a range of Ports and recently I was fortunate enough to taste my way through several that really pleased and impressed me. I will write more about some of those soon, but today I have chosen one of my favourites as my Wine of the Week.

Ruby ports ageing in wooden vats at Quinta do Noval.

Ruby ports ageing in wooden vats at Quinta do Noval.

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Sandeman
Villa Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

We have all heard of Sandman I am sure. Who can have failed to see the iconic caped figure – The Don – on a label or in advertisement at some point, but many of us might not be aware quite what a venerable company it is. It was founded in 1790 by George Sandeman – a direct descendant, also called George Sandeman, is still involved with the company – a young Scot who quickly made his mark. It helped the development of his business that he served on the Duke of Wellington’s staff during The Peninsular War. The Duke, although a great soldier and fine commander, was a notorious snob who looked down on anyone who was not of the nobility, so tended to fill his staff with the scions of wealthy and titled families. Throughout the long campaign these young men were able to enjoy George’s Ports and I am sure that the preference for Sandeman’s Port stayed with them throughout their lives. Certainly business was good for a long time to come, with Sandman being a byword for quality until well into the twentieth century. There was a bit of a dip in its fortunes for 20 years from 1982 when it was taken over by Seagrams, but in 2001 Sandemans became part of the impressive Sogrape group and its future now seems bright.

Although Sandman produce all the important styles of Port, including some superb vintages and single quinta vintages, they appear to be something of a Tawny specialist. A true Tawny Port is one that has been aged for a long time in wood – the best examples are sold with an indication of age on the label, 10 year old etc. All that time in wood makes the wine paler and more orange – or tawny – and less sweet and more nutty and caramel-like than a Ruby Port or an LBV. They can be served lightly chilled too, which makes them more versatile wines.

It is really the maturing that defines a Tawny’s style. It is a blend of different vintages and vineyards aged for different lengths of time in different wooden vessels, none of them new – they don’t want the oak to dominate. This particular Tawny is a blend of wines varying from between 15 and 40 years old.

Tawnies and Colheitas (single vintage Tawnies) ageing in cask at Quinta do Noval.

Tawnies and Colheitas (single vintage Tawnies) ageing in cask at Quinta do Noval.

The nose offers a lively mix of rose hips, orange, apricot and caramel, while the palate is creamy with a buttery caramel quality and a rich nutty feel. There is plenty of fruit too, but it has evolved into a gentle plum, raisins and dried red fruit together with a dash of spice. It doesn’t really feel that sweet, although it is, as the nutty and slight salty feel dominate the palate giving it an umami feel and the illusion of savoury richness. The alcohol is nicely balanced and is part of the whole, while the finish is long and satisfying, helped I think by a nice seam of freshness. A glass or 2 of this before going to bed would make all feel right with the world. Mind you, lightly chilled it would make a lovely late afternoon tipple too, or after lunch, or elevenses, you get the picture. A glorious example of fine Tawny port – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £30-35 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, Slurp, Hedonism Wines, Corking Wines and Lea & Sandeman.
For US stockists, click here.

 

 

The Chasselas Affair – wine travels in Switzerland

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The gorgeous vineyards of Lavaux.

Switzerland is famous for many things; banks, mountains, neutrality, lakes, cheese, chocolate and, erroneously courtesy of Orson Wells, cuckoo clocks. Not many people, in Britain anyway, seem to associate the Alpine country with wine. Not unless they, like me, are fans of Tintin and have read The Calculus Affair very carefully indeed. I have loved this book since I was 9 – for me it is the best in the series and I could probably act it out and quote it to you from memory –  and I always enjoy the scene where Captain Haddock rescues his bottle of ‘excellent Swiss wine’ from a collapsing house.

The beginning of one of the best sequences in The Calculus Affair - the best Tintin book.

The beginning of one of the best sequences in The Calculus Affair – the best Tintin book.

Perhaps that was why I have always wanted to visit Switzerland’s wine regions? Many years ago I ran quite a few Swiss wine tastings, which just made me all the more determined to get to visit the amazing looking vineyards that I saw in the photographs. Well my chance finally came last year when a group of wine writers and wine educators were invited to tour some of Switzerland’s wine regions for ourselves and then I was invited again a few weeks ago to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition.

Swiss wines are a bit of a mystery to most UK wine consumers, because almost none of it is exported. The Swiss are a thirsty lot and they drink 98% of their own wine and import much more. In fact they import two thirds of what they consume, so it is hardly surprising that so little Swiss wine leaves the country – Switzerland has a mere 0.2% of the world’s wine growing area and with just 15,000 hectares in the whole country. It’s half the size of France’s Burgundy region – itself far from a large producer.

So you can begin to see why, when the Swiss thirst is taken into consideration too, Swiss wines are often very expensive. The extreme landscapes that many of the vineyards inhabit add extra costs to the already high prices.

Switzerland has incredible variety in its wine making that makes it impossible to pin it down to any one style, white wines dominate, as you might expect from the climate, but there are many excellent reds too. What’s more they grow an amazing range of grape varieties, many of which are indigenous and hardly grown anywhere else.

My visit last year stuck to the southern parts, the French and Italian speaking areas of the country, with visits in the Vaud and Valais regions (French speaking) and then a trip to Italian speaking Ticino (pronounced Ti-chino). I will tell you about that another time.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Vaud: Lavaux
On both trips my first stop was in the Canton of Vaud and I am really glad of that because the scenery is quite magical. The sheer beauty took my breath away both times.

1907 paddle steamer on Lac Leman.

La Suisse, one of the paddle steamers on Lac Léman / Lake Geneva – she was built in 1907 and the moment I saw her I was determined to sail on her.

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La Suisse coming in to dock at Lausanne. I got my wish and travelled on her on my way to Aigle this year – it was a wonderful experience.

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The beautiful vine covered landscape.

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I took hundreds of photographs from the deck of La Suisse.

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Leaving La Suisse at Montreux.

My first ever winery visit in Switzerland was quite special. Domaine Bovy has belonged to the family since at least 1779, but it seems that the search for quality really only started in 1937 when Maurice Bovy started bottling the wines instead of selling them in bulk. Today the fifth generation, Bertrand and Eric, farm 11 hectares of the Lavaux sub-region. They also have a beautiful looking holiday apartment to let, which has got me thinking…

Eric Bovy in his family cellar, it's very cramped.

Eric Bovy in his family cellar, it’s very cramped – his grandfather painted the vats.

Lavaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and makes a claim to produce Switzerland’s finest wines. The vineyards here cover an amazing slope and terraces that go from 600 metres above sea level to 380, where the lake is. Just as in Burgundy the vineyard areas are divided up by the name of the village they surround, so the wines here are labelled as Lutry, Villette, Epesses, Saint-Saphorin, (the confusingly named) Chardonne and Montreux-Vevey. In addition Dézaley and Calamin are both Grand Cru, which means the wines must come from those sites and have higher sugar content than normal in the grapes at harvest. This aims to ensure the wines will be richer and rounder.

You can see what sets Dézaley apart, the steep slopes face due south, the sun reflects off the water into the vineyards and those stone walls absorb the heat - all of which helps achieve full ripeness.

You can see what sets Dézaley apart, the steep slopes face due south, the sun reflects off the water into the vineyards and those stone walls absorb the heat – all of which helps achieve full ripeness.

The soils are chalky limestone, which should suit Chardonnay perfectly, but around here the speciality is Chasselas. It possible that these vineyards produce the definitive style of this grape variety that is unloved pretty much anywhere except Switzerland.

In fact Chasselas accounts for 80% of production and if no other grape is mentioned on the label of a white wine from Lavaux, then it is made from Chasselas.

As I have mentioned, the grape is hardly famous from anywhere else, it makes Pouilly-sur-Loire, the poor relation to Pouilly-Fumé, and is used a little in Alsace and in Germany, where it is called Gutedel, but it is not very often taken seriously anywhere except Switzerland. From my experiences it seems to be common practice to put the wines through Malolactic Fermentation, which makes the Swiss examples less thin and acidic than you might expect. In fact a great many have a very pleasing creamy quality and mouthfeel that makes them a perfect partner to cheese – lucky that, we had a lot of cheese on this trip.

Domaine Bovy have vines in Epesses, Saint-Saphorin and Dézaley and I was fortunate enough to try their Pinot Noir and Merlot, which were both excellent, as was their Chorus Saint-Saphorin dessert wine made from 90% Gewürztraminer with 10% Pinot Gris.

I was also able to taste my very first Diolinoir, which is a cross between Robin Noir (aka Rouge de Diolly) and Pinot Noir. The grape was developed in 1970 as a blending grape to improve the colours of Swiss red wines, but I tasted quite a few varietal examples and liked them all. My notes say that the Bovy Optimus was ‘complex and fascinating’ – actually it is only 80% Diolinoir with 10% each of Gamaret and Garanoir – both of which are crosses of Gamay and Reichensteiner.

Good as the other wines were though, the real joy here though was the Dézaley Grand Cru Chasselas. I tasted both the fresh, yet concentrated and gently creamy 2013 as well as the mature, mineral and honeyed 2000 vintage (sealed with screw cap by the way) which was equally, if differently, delicious and went perfectly with gruyere cheese – and the view.

In a tasting a few days later we also tasted another Dézaley Grand Cru from Domaine Louis Bovard. It was his 2013 Médinette Dézaley Grand Cru Baronnie du Dézaley and it was quite wonderful, with very delicate characters, but a solid core of concentrated fruit and a long, stony mineral finish – as I say, I do like what they do with Chasselas here and have in fact shown this wine at some tastings once I got back to the UK.

Vaud: Chablais
This year I returned to Vaud, but this time to the sub-region of Chablais, which is slightly confusing from a wine point of view. Certainly my spell checker keeps wanting to make it Chablis. What’s more I have noticed that quite a few people of a certain age pronounce Chablis as Chablais (my spell checker made those 2 the same 8 times!), including my father, so I wonder if the wines were available in the UK in the 1950s and ’60s to cause the confusion?

Anyway, this year I was based in the lovely little town of Aigle and enjoyed three mornings of wine judging in the wonderful castle, followed by wine visits in the afternoon.

The stunning Chateau d'Aigle, where I went to work judging Chasselas wines.

The stunning Chateau d’Aigle, where I went to work judging Chasselas wines.

The view from the ramparts of Aigle castle.

The view from the ramparts of Aigle castle.

My favourite visit was to Clos du Rocher in the nearby village of Yvorne, which is another Grand Cru site. Again the vineyards were a delight, this time on more gentle slopes on the south eastern shore of the lake, so not as dramatic, but still very beautiful.

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The lovely Clos du Rocher.

A better view of Clos du Rocher's vineyards.

A better view of Clos du Rocher’s vineyards.

Again Chasselas was the star grape and me and my colleagues were treated to a fascinating tasting of their Clos du Rocher Grand Cru Yvonne, Chablais AC from the 2014 vintage – so delicious that I bought some – back to the 1982. All were still fresh and lively, although the older examples had developed a more golden colour and dried fruit and mushroom character. What’s more every vintage since 1990 was sealed with screwcap.

The beautiful, but very different vineyards of Chablais.

The beautiful, but very different vineyards of Chablais, looking towards Ollon (south east of Aigle) from the excellent Bernard Cavé Vins.

On the last day of judging, just before I took the train back to Geneva Airport, I visited Bernard Cavé Vins. The wines here were very modern, with beautiful packaging and attention to detail, but sadly I could not carry any more bottles back – quite a good thing really as Easyjet managed to break all the bottles in my case, and you were thinking this trip sounded glamorous up to that point weren’t you!

The concrete egg shaped tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins.

The concrete egg shaped tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins, he calls them amphoras.

All Bernard Cavé’s Chasselas wines were superb, notably the exquisite Clos du Crosex Grillé Cuvée des Immortels Reserve Aigle Grand Cru. Fermented in concrete eggs, this was textured, round and silky too. In the unlikely event that you tire of his Chasselas, his Marsanne – called Ermitage locally –  was stunningly rich, concentrated and fine – as well as downright delicious.

On my two trips to Vaud I was very impressed by a good many of the wines, but it was the Chasselas that really pleased me. The individual wines varied of course, but they had a drinkability that was impressive. They were never thin and overtly acidic, instead the acidity was balanced by some weight and they had a delicate creamy quality, good concentration and minerality. As I put it in one of my notes they were capable of being both ‘rich and breezy’, which makes them a lovely style of wine that I enjoy very much.

Valais
After our sojourn in Lavaux – we are back on last year’s press trip, we headed off to the Canton of Valais which is south and east of Lac Léman. The river Rhône empties into the lake, very near Aigle, but before that it bisects the Canton of Valais, turns through a 90 degree angle to the north west and for a while forms the boundary between the Vaud and Valais Cantons. Surprisingly it rises not that far from the source of the Rhine – amazing the difference one letter makes, I wonder if there is a linguistic relationship?

We stayed just outside the town of Sierre in a wonderful early twentieth century mansion called Château Mercier, it is surrounded by vineyards and quite beautiful. I loved my early morning walks through the vines.

Château Mercier, Sierre.

Château Mercier, Sierre, my room was in the turret on the far left.

The view from my early morning walk.

The view from my early morning walk.

The views as it got lighter.

The views as it got lighter.

While here we participated in the VINEA Swiss Wines Fair, when producers set up stalls in the centre of Sierre that enables people to go from on to the other tasting, drinking and buying wine – it is a lot of fun and a great experience.

Our first day was rounded off with another great experience, an evening of Raclette, my first one ever. It is a simple dish of melted cheese served with whole, firm boiled potatoes, pickles and ham and like most simple traditional fare it’s delicious. Our Raclette was quite special and consisted of five different cheeses from different different villages. Each one was progressively more mature and so stronger in taste. The cheeses were Orsières, Les Haudères, Vissoie, Simplon and Gomser 55.

The different cheeses waiting to be melted for Raclette.

The different cheeses waiting to be melted for Raclette.

While in Sierre we had various tastings that enabled us to taste all sorts of wines, even from other regions of Switzerland. Two of these were a bit odd and contrived. In one our hosts matched Pinot Noirs with perfumes that they thought went with each wine. The second took place in the Fondation Pierre Arnaud, which is an amazing gallery specialising in ethnic and surreal art. The curators had paired wines with objects from the collection, which was all very strange and subjective, but the wines were good and very interesting – as were some of the exhibits.

My highlights from these tastings were, for the whites:

2013 Petite Arvine Maître de Chais from Provins in Sion, Valais – Provins are Switzerland’s biggest producer, but this was a classy wine with lots of citrus fruit and a fleshy, creamy texture and a feeling of purity about it, like a mountain stream.

2013 Petite Arvine from Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz in Fully on the banks of the Rhône. These were my first two Petite Arvignes, I had never even heard of it in fact, but wow what a lovely grape it is. It 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. I totally fell in love with this grape.

Petite Arvigne is an old indigenous vine from the Valais region, records show it has been farmed here since around 1600. While it is not really grown any where else, I have tasted one excellent French example from the Languedoc region made by Domaine la Grange de Quatre Sous (available hereand know that it is widely grown in the tiny Italian region of Valle d’Aoste, which is just over the border in Italy and also claims the grape as their own.

And the reds:

2012 Lampert’s Sélection Maienfelder Pinot Noir from Weingut Heidelberg in Maienfeld, Graubünden which is in the German speaking zone near Davos in Switzerland’s dramatic Rhine Valley. This is a very successful Pinot with good weight of fruit, a nice dusting of spice and appetising tannins. All in all it was very elegant and seductive with a refined and silky mouthfeel.

2011 Hohle Gasse Grand Cru Pinot Noir from Jauslin Weine in Muttenz near Basel. This was beautifully concentrated, rich and rounded with lots of sweet ripe fruit and fragrant spice – really delicious, elegant and fine.

2011 Pinot Noir Barrique Cuvée Pur Sang from Domaine de Chambleau near Neuchâtel on the north shore of Lac de Neuchâtel – which is a French speaking area. Again this was a sumptuous style of Pinot with rich fruit, tobacco and smoke as well as silky tannins and good weight – all three of these were world class.

Two Great Winery Visits
Whilst in Valais I experienced two extraordinary visits that were truly memorable.

Robert Gilliard's Clos de la Cochetta - photo courttesy of the winery.

Robert Gilliard’s Clos de la Cochetta – photo courttesy of the winery.

The first one was to Robert Gilliard in Sion and I have never seen anything like it. Their vineyards line the bank of the Rhône river on incredibly steep slopes that are kept workable by dry stone walls, some of which are 65 feet high, the highest in the world I was told. To get to these we were driven up and up into the mountains before debussing at the entrance to a short, narrow tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel we found ourselves on one of the terraces formed by the stone walls we had seen earlier. The views were breathtaking and I could not get enough of them. In the distant past all the grapes had to be taken to the winery through the tunnel, then in the twentieth century a cable car system was adopted, while nowadays a lot of the work is done by helicopter, which gets the grapes to the winery while they are still fresh and in perfect condition.

The entrance to the tunnel.

The entrance to the tunnel.

The view that awaited us.

The view that awaited us.

The view the other way.

The view the other way.

We enjoyed a tasting and lunch here!

We enjoyed a tasting and lunch here!

The descent begins.

The descent begins.

Some of the stairways were scarier than others, none had railings!

Some of the stairways were scarier than others, none had railings!

Luckily I didn't have to use this one!

Luckily I didn’t have to use this one!

It was truly breathtaking - in every sense.

It was truly breathtaking – in every sense.

I could not get enough of these vineyards.

I could not get enough of these vineyards.

The vineyards were utterly gorgeous, which boded well for the wines – or so I hoped. Good vineyards produce good wines and this was no exception. Robert Gilliard obviously have great attention to detail, the vines are immaculate, the packaging of their wines is superb and the wines themselves were really delicious and well made.

We focussed on Robert Gilliard’s premium wines from these steep vineyards, they call the range Les Grands Murs:

Whites:
2013 Clos de Cochetta Fendant AC Valais – Chasselas is called Fendant in Valais – is a gently creamy, softly acidic, grapefruit and stone fruit flavoured wine with some salinity and minerality. It is vibrant, lightly textured, elegant and classy – I loved it.

2012 Clos de Cochetta Petite Arvine AC Valais was a little bit more acidic, more taut and less soft. It was beautifully aromatic, floral and citrus with some peachy fruit too. The finish was mineral, saline again and very focussed and pure – a great wine.

Red:
2012 Clos de Mont Diolinoir AC Valais – if we had carried on walking long the terraces from the Clos de Cochetta we would have come to the Clos de Mont, which is a hotter site which favours reds. This Diolinoir has no oak, which clearly suits the grape very well, as this gives lots of pleasure. It is brimming over with juicy blackberry fruit, a touch of spice and fresh, balancing acidity.

The second really memorable visit was to Cave la Romaine and Clos de Tsampéhro.

Arriving at Cave La Romaine, I love the way it is built into the vineyard with vines on its roof.

Arriving at Cave la Romaine, I love the way it is built into the vineyard with vines on its roof.

Joël Briguet owns Cave la Romaine, his family’s winery and in partnership with Christian Gellerstad, his old army buddy, Vincent Tenud and Emmanuel Charpin he also runs Clos de Tsampéhro, which aims to only produce the very best wines from blends of grapes. It shares facilities with Cave la Romaine, but has its own specifically planted vineyard on a three hectare site at about 600 metres above sea level.

The view from Cave la Romaine.

The view from Cave la Romaine.

More views from Cave la Romaine.

More views from Cave la Romaine.

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Clos de Tsampéhro – a south facing sun trap on a slope between the mountains and the Rhône – and more mountains.

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Clos de Tsampéhro – that’s the Rhone at the bottom of the vineyard.

The state of the art barrel room at Clos de Tsampéhro.

The state of the art barrel room at Clos de Tsampéhro.

So, it looked stunning, what about the wines? Would’t you know it, they are good too. They only make three wines, a sparkling, a white and a red and they are all blends, which is relatively unusual in Switzerland, where single varietals are much more normal:

Tsampéhro Brut – 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Petite Arvine, fermented in oak barrels and aged for 36 months on the lees. This is finely textured with a persistent and fine mousse, rich flavours and refreshing acidity that all makes it very elegant and very fine.

2011 Tsampéhro Blanche – 70% Heida and 30% Rèze, fermented in oak casks and aged on the lees for 18 months. A great wine, full of personality and charm, with wonderfully integrated oak giving nuances of vanilla and pine nuts, rich intense fruit with fig, plum and pineapple and a bracing cut of acidity.

Heida is the Swiss name for the Savagnin, of Jura fame – where it often makes the Sherry-like Vin Jaune. Rèze is an even lesser known grape that originates in Valais and strangely enough is traditionally used to make a Sherry-like wine, the traditional Valais speciality Vin des Glaciers.

2011 Tsampéhro Rouge – 45% Cornalin, 30% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc, aged 24 months in French oak barrels. This is certainly a fine red, but right now the oak really dominates, although you can sense the concentrated fruit lurking beneath and it does slowly open up in the glass. I would love to taste it again in 5 years.

Cornalin is not to be confused with the Cornalin D’Aoste (Humagne Rouge), but is a grape known rather vaguely as Rouge du Pays – rather like Spain’s Tinta del Pais – until 1972, when it was awarded the Cornelian name as that grape had pretty much died out, so an Italian bottle labelled Cornalin D’Aoste and a Swiss wine labelled Cornelin are not made from the same grape, despite being only 30 miles or so apart – phew!

Impressed as I was by the Tsampéhro wines, I also greatly enjoyed the wines of Cave la Romaine:

Whites:

2013 Petite Arvine Castel d’Uvrier Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, was one of my favourite examples of this delicious grape, Castel d’Uvrier is the vineyard in case you were wondering. I actually wrote that ‘this sings’ with grapefruit aromas and a slightly herbal, mineral and saline finish, ‘a joy’ – I think I liked it, I certainly drank a lot of it with lunch.

2013 Humagne Blanche Réserve Castel d’Uvrier Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, Humagne Blanche is another grape that originates in Valais, records show it has been here since 1313 and today there are only 29 hectares of it left in the world. It is a richer grape than Chasselas and Petire Arvigne, with more neutral fruit, so suits oak very well and this was barrel fermented and aged for 6 months in 3 and 4 year old barrels. It did not undergo malolactic fermentation, which keeps the acidity fresh. The nose offers heather, honey, beeswax and herbs, while the palate is both fresh and rich with a Marsanne-like quality. That fresh acidity cuts through the herbal and oily richness making it beautifully balanced and delicious.

Red:

2011 Diolinoir Réserve Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, again this was one of my favourite examples of this grape, it was very drinkable and I kept returning to it over lunch. In fact I liked it so much I bought the last magnum in existence and I am looking at it now!

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A last view from cave La Romaine.

I really enjoyed these two trips to Switzerland, my only previous visit to Switzerland had been a hurried affair while I was Interrailing in the early 1980s and so these chances to see much more of the country were really exciting. The sheer variety that I discovered in Switzerland was surprising. Lots of Chasselas for sure, but also lots of other unexpected white grape varieties, some of which I had never heard of before. There reds were a real discovery too, there were lots of delicious red wines, not just the ones that I have mentioned, I tasted good Gamays and marvellous Merlots as well as the more unusual indigenous grape varieties. I learned a lot about the regions and their grape varieties, but the best thing was seeing those magical vineyards, to take in the views, meeting the producers and tasting a wide range of the wines that Switzerland produces. I came away with a very positive view of Swiss wine, the quality seemed to be very high and the styles fascinating.

Next time someone offers you Swiss wine, grab the chance, there are so many good things to try.