Wine of the Week – a sumptuous and great value Rioja

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Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

I love red Rioja. Spain has much more to offer the wine enthusiast than just Rioja, but Rioja can make very fine wines indeed – hence its fame.

The trouble with Rioja is the question of what you are going to get. They aren’t all good, some are downright ordinary in fact, so you must be wary. However, red Rioja can deliver a great deal of pleasure and many very high quality wines.

As far as good value is concerned though the picture is also mixed. I generally hold it to be true that cheaper Reservas and Gran Reservas, from bodegas that have no fame or are just made up brands for the supermarkets, are normally not worth drinking. For me the reliable, value category of red Rioja is the Crianza level, which spend the shortest time ageing in oak.

However, one of the great joys of wine is that every now and again a wine pops up that confounds our beliefs.

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Vineyards near Haro in Rioja.

Recently I presented a very well received tasting of the wonderful wines of CVNE, one of the truly great Rioja houses recently. All the wines were really good, but for me the absolute star wines were the magnificent 2012 Imperial Reserva, ready to drink and wonderfully refined and elegant – stockists here and here – and the quirkily delicious 2014 Monopole Clasíco white.

Rioja Map 2013

CVNE, like many of the original band of Rioja bodegas, are based in Haro.

I showed a fabulous Crianza from CVNE’s Viña Real estate in Rioja Alavesa. It offered rich fruit and lots of character and showed just how good a Crianza wine can be. However, good though it was, another wine stood out for the mix of quality and amazing value for money. Indeed I liked it so much that it is my Wine of the Week.

CVNE GR2011 Cune Gran Reserva
DOCa Rioja
Haro
Rioja
Spain

Founded in 1879 and still owned and run by members of the founding family, C.V.N.E. – the Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España – is one of the great Rioja houses. I love showing their wines at tastings because they have such a wide range of styles, quality levels and labels as their stable includes the famous Monopole range, the great classic Imperial wines and the two single estate wines of Viña Real and Contino.

The wines labelled as Cute – CVNE in old copperplate script – are their base level wines, but still very good in my opinion. The Barrel Fermented white is a wonderful example of getting the oak just right, while the Crianza is a great value gem and the Cune Reserva is, to quote my friend Tom Canavan, a ‘proper wine’. 

However it is this beauty that currently represents the most amazing value for money and it is a really lovely wine.

The blend is 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 5% Mazuelo – no Grenache – from vineyards around Haro in Rioja Alta. It is aged for ged for 2 years in mainly American oak, but some French oak as well, and 3 years in bottle. The French oak allows for a little tingle of tannin that suits the wine.

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Wines ageing in the Imperial barrel cellar at CVNE. This cellar was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

This is an unashamedly rich Rioja, the lack of Grenache allows the dark fruits to hold sway. It has spice, vanilla, dark plums, blackberries and blueberries on the nose with a light dusting of fresher red plum and raspberry too. The palate is soft, silky, refined and deeply upholstered – sumptuous in fact. There are some savoury, leather notes, a little bite of tannin and some nice freshness all giving definition. It has wonderful concentration – the vintage was very good – with loads of ripe fruit and good length and could have a long life ahead of it if you can resist. Whether you drink it or keep it, I would recommend that you grab some now – 92/100 points.

Drink it with lamb, beef or roast pork, but above all, drink it.

Available in the UK @ £12.50 per bottle – yes £12.50! from Tesco and Tesco Wine by the Case.

Wine of the Week – a fine, affordable and organic Chianti

Poggiotondo

The beautiful Poggiotondo Estate.

Well a Happy New Year to all and apologies for getting off to such a late start this year. It has been a busy January and we are about to get into February, so I thought a nice gentle start might be appropriate.

Recently I was teaching a wine course and one wine stood out. It was an inexpensive Chianti. Now many of you know that my heart sinks somewhat when we have affordable or everyday versions of famous wine regions – as they normally just do not hack it. A cheaper Bordeaux, Chianti, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Sancerre, Burgundy, you name it, normally gives only the vaguest idea as to what these wines are really about. No, to enjoy the classics you normally ned to go a little upscale.

I was delighted therefore to stumble across an exception and I enjoyed it so much that I thought it would be my first Wine of the Week of 2018.

Tuscany Poggiotondo

Wine map of Tuscany – the red circle roughly marks where you can find Poggiotondo.

1.Poggiotondo_Organic_chianti_DOCG_scontornato-copia2016 Poggiotondo Organic Chianti
DOCG Chianti
Cerreto Guidi
Tuscany
Italy

This charming organic estate is in the northern bit of Chianti between Florence and Pisa and not far from Empoli, or Lucca for that matter. I know this patch pretty well as one of my favourite Tuscan producers, Pietro Beconcini Agricola is in nearby San Miniato, while Carmignano, home to Tenuta di Capezzana, is just a few kilometres away.

This lovely 28 hectare estate has been owned by the Antonini family since 1968 and has been certified organic since 2014. The vines grow on a series of gently rolling southwest facing hills at about 100 metres above sea level. The soils around here are fossil rich ancient seabed, just as at Beconcini, and would normally be regarded as much more suitable for white wines – the soil seems to emphasise the acidity – but also suits those Tuscan reds which should be all about verve, tension and balance.

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Carlo Alberto Antonini at work in the vineyard. Photo courtesy of the winery.

 

 

This is their entry level Chianti and like all their reds is a traditional blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Canaiolo and 5% Colorino.

The fermentation is spontaneous using the wild yeasts, to give more character and complexity. Fermentation is in concrete tanks while the wine was aged for 8 months in a mixture of large, untoasted, oak vats and concrete tanks.

The wine immediately looked lively and enticing in the glass – and stayed that way over 2 days – a medium ruby colour with some garnet hints creeping in.

The nose was fragrant, lifted and lively with fresh red plums, cherries, pepper, mocha, rosemary, freshly turned earth and a hint of creamy vanilla too.

The palate is medium bodied and very soft with a nice touch of fine grain tannins, lively red fruit and refreshing acidity giving balance and tension. All in all this is a lovely wine that is very drinkable and comes at an excellent price too. A proper wine that will go superbly with all manner of food and tastes far better than its price tag would suggest – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £7.99 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar and Ocado.

The Variety of Champagne

Vineyards around Dizy in Champagne.

Recently I have led a few Champagne tastings, well it is Christmas. I showed a wide range of Champagnes each time and they were very well received.

What fascinated me was how many questions were asked and the lengthy discussions that grew out of the tastings. In my experience that level of enquiry is relatively rare at wine tastings and I loved it.

What became apparent to me – even more so that I had expected – was how misunderstood, or rather how pigeonholed Champagne is. To most people who came to the tastings Champagne was just one thing, posh sparkling wine for special occasions. Very few of the tasters, before they came anyway, saw Champagne as a wine and very few understood, again before the tasting, just what variety there is in Champagne.

It is that variety that makes Champagne so fascinating and that I sought to illustrate in these tastings. The truth is that Champagne is much more than just a sparkling wine to be drunk at special parties. Sure there are plenty of Champagnes that make a good aperitif – and therefore toast – wine, but there are others that partner pretty much every type of food too.

There is a whole world of Champagne out there with styles to suit every mood and occasion.

Firstly Champagne is defined by the climate of the region. The Champagne region is east of Paris, and some of it slightly north too, so it is not blessed with the best conditions to make wine. The climate is grudging – about as far north as it is possible to grow grapes – and if it was not for the hills of the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs Côtes des Sezanne and the Côtes des Bar then Champagne would not really be a wine region at all. Just as in nearby Chablis, these slopes allow the grapes grown on them to catch much more sun than if they were grown on flat land. This makes ripening the grapes possible which is why Champagne became a place that made wine at all. Therefore, although there are different levels of ripeness in the wines of Champagne, it is all relative. This cool climate region is a place to make delicate white wines, not bold reds – unless global warming really gets going anyway.

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

The second thing to define Champagne is the chalky soil. This chalk is the second factor that makes it possible to grow grapes and make good wine here. It is very well drained and so negates the bad effects of the rain that can happen pretty much all through the growing cycle. The chalky soil ensures that rain just runs away, leaving the grapes concentrated and healthy. Perversly though this fossil rich chalk, rich in lime and calcite, also retains moisture – a bit like a sponge – and releases it when conditions are dry. It also stays at a constant temperature all year round – pretty crucial in a cool place as it gives the warming up of the season a quick start and helps ripening. The chalk itself is ancient sea-bed and full of fossils and that also helps in the development of complex flavours in the wines. Whether or not it imparts the minerality that can be found in many good Champagnes is open to question – see my article here for more on minerality.

Vineyards in the Valley of the Marne.

Blending Wine from Different Harvests

Because of the lack of heat and sunshine, the Champenois (Champagne producers) have, over the centuries, developed a way of making the best use of the weather that they do get. Most Champagne is sold as Non Vintage – or NV on a wine list –  (Multi Vintage in the US) – with no year on the label – and is made by blending wine from different harvests together. This allows the producer, or house, to always blend the wine to be pretty much the same year in year out. To do this they have to keep back stocks of older base wines to give them the blending options that they need.

Grape Varieties

By and large Champagne can be made from just three different grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – so just one white grape and 2 black grapes. Remember that white wine, which is what most Champagne is, can be made from any colour grapes as you only ferment the juice after pressing and leave the skins out. The colour of a red wine comes solely from the skins. Therefore a good bit of the different styles comes about because of the blend of grape varies used or sometimes which single grape is used. The great majority of Champagnes are a blend of all three grapes, in differing proportions, while those made purely from Chardonnay can be called Blanc de Blancs and those made from either or both of the two Pinots can be labelled as Blanc de Noirs. Generally speaking a Blanc de Blancs will feel brighter, lighter and fresher than Blanc de Noirs Champagnes.

There are always exceptions in wine and there was a much bigger list of grape varieties grown in the past and although the modern rules forbids the planting of anything other than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, you can still use them if you have them – it seems that you can even replant them too. Up until the First World War Pinot Blanc, Fromenteau / Pinot Gris, Arbane, Petit Meslier, Gamay, Chasselas, Savagnin Blanc, Sacy (also known as Tressallier), Troyen and Morillon were found quite widely in the region.

Nowadays they are pretty rare, but it is still possible to taste Champagnes made from some of these old grapes if you are prepared to work at it – and pay for them. Champagne Fleury produce a pure Pinot Blanc – click here, as do Chassenay d’Arce, while Pierre Gerbais’ L’Originale is made from a parcel of Pinot Blanc vines planted in 1904 – click here. Champagne Moutard make a pure out of Arbane as well as the Cuvée 6 Cépages made from equal proportions of  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Arbane, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier. Duval Leroy make a Champagne from pure Petit Meslier. Champagne Aubry produce three different Cuvées (blends) using these ancient grape varieties, while Champagne Drappier‘s Quattuor is made from equal parts of Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay.

Oak or No Oak

Oak barrels at Champagne Alfred Gratien in Epernay. Gratien are very traditional and one of the few houses to barrel ferment the majority of their base wines. Photo courtesy of Champagne Alfred Gratien.

The base wine for some Champagnes, the still wine that is later made fizzy,  are aged or fermented in oak barrels before they are made sparkling, which will make them richer and more complex still. Champagnes made this way seem to be bolder and more obviously savoury, so making them less suitable for frivolous drinking and more suitable for drinking with food.

Ageing

It isn’t only the grapes that determine the flavours and the differences between the different Champagnes though. Length of ageing is very important. Any Non Vintage Champagne has to be aged on the lees – the dead yeast cells left over from the second fermentation in the bottle – for at least 15 months. Most good houses age them a fair bit longer than that though, perhaps for three years or so.

Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs undergoing long ageing in Taittinger’s chalk cellars below Reims. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Vintage Champagne is the product of a single exceptional harvest – Non Vintage is made from fruit from more than one harvest – so Vintage Champagne will be richer and fruitier than Non Vintage. In addition Vintage Champagne must be aged at least 36 months on the lees before release, so will be more complex too. The longer you age a Champagne on the lees, the more the rich biscuit, brioche, flaky pastry and nutty characters develop. We call this ageing yeast autolysis.

Sweetness

The sweetness also has an effect on how the wine tastes. The drier it is the more you will notice the acidity and Champagne being so far north, where there isn’t so much sun to ripen the fruit, has a good deal of acidity to make your mouth water. If acidity is not your thing, I love it because it is so refreshing, then there are options available to you, a sweeter Champagne.

Most Champagnes are Brut, which is very much on the dry side. Brut Champagne contains 0 – 12 grams per litre of sugar, equivalent to half a teaspoon or so per glass. In practice the posher Champagnes like Taittinger are usually about 8 – 12 grams and the cheaper and own label ones usually have that little bit more sugar. Extra Brut is a bit drier than Brut, whereas rather confusingly Extra Dry or Extra Brut is less dry!

Sec Champagne is less dry again and contains 17 – 32 grams per litre of sugar, equivalent to a teaspoon or so per glass. Before the First World War most Champagne was pretty sweet, but nowadays these wines are pretty rare. I am sure there are others, but Taittinger’s superb Nocturne Sec is the only one widely available in the UK and at 17.5 grams per litre of sugar it contains the bare minimum amount of sugar to be Sec, so is not actually sweet at all.

I loved showing a range of different Champagnes at these tastings and seeing how interesting the tasters found them. They just were not expecting to experience so many different flavours and styles.

Here are some of the Champagnes that I have shown in my recent tastings, these all found particular favour with the crowds on the night, sometimes for very different reasons.

Light, fresh Champagnes 

This is how most people imagine Champagne and indeed the style of Champagne that most of us drink most of the time. They are perfect to drink on their own, for the toast or the aperitif or to serve with light nibbles like cheese straws, fresh light cheeses, fish and chips and Asian cuisine.

Veuve Monsigny Brut No III NV
Champagne Philizot et Fils
Reuil, near Reims

I know nothing about Philizot, but they appear to be a genuine Champagne house rather than a dreamed up brand name. They must be quite big, even though very few of us have ever heard of them, because they have to be selling a great deal of this. The blend is one third each of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

This is genuinely a nice bottle of Champagne, fresh, lively and very appley with a soft mousse and palate. Not the most complex, but very decent and well made with nice acidity and some of the elegance and purity that generally sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines.

How they do this at the price I really do not know, but I am glad they do – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £10.99 per bottle from Aldi.

Bissinger & Co Grande Prestige Premium Cuvée Brut NV
Vranken-Pommery
Tours-sur-Marne

I know next nothing about this Champagne house except that it used to be based in Aÿ and has history dating back to 1875. Since 2012 it has been part of the mighty Vranken-Pommery group and continues to make good wines that deliver excellent value for money too.

It looks good in its fancy shaped bottle and it tastes pretty good too. It might not be quite as dry as other Champagnes, but that makes it soft and very drinkable indeed – and it is still dry. There is a little more richness here too, from longer ageing than the Verve Montigny I assume. I liked this and so did my tasters – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £17.99 per bottle from Lidl.

Louis Chaurey Brut NV
Champagne Oudinot
Epernay

Oudinot is a pretty prestigious house with history going back to the dawn of the nineteenth century when Jules Edouard Oudinot started making Champagne from his vineyard in Avize in the Côtes des Blancs south of Epernay. Today it is part of the great Laurent-Perrier and they make this label for Marks & Spencer. Again the blend uses all three typical grapes, but I am unaware of the blend.

This is very Epernay in style, very apply, very citrus. In short it is light, fresh and refreshing. Thoroughly enjoyable and that light touch of crushed digestive biscuit gives it enough interest and richness. A perfectly decent Champagne – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £34.00 per bottle from Marks & Spencer – make sure to buy it when on offer which comes around about twice a year, 50% off and another 25% off when you buy 2 cases of 6 bottles.

H Blin Brut NV
Champagne H Blin & Co
Vincelles

I have always been a fan of H Blin. Based in Vincelles some 20 km west of Epernay they have farmed grapes for generations, but only started making their own Champagnes after World War II. Being based in the Valley of the Marne they champion the somewhat unloved Pinot Meunier, even to the extent of making an excellent still red from it under the Coteaux Champenois appellation.

This is their standard non vintage Cuvée made from 80% Pinot Meunier with 20% Chardonnay and 2 years ageing

The nose is of toasted brioche and cooked lemon, while the palate gives zesty green apples, a touch of red apple, some light nuts and even a touch of caramel from the ageing development. A very tasty, but also refined and elegant Champagne – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £28.00 per bottle from Oddbins.

Taittinger Brut Réserve NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

Taittinger is a rare beast for a Champagne house, in being owned and managed by the family whose name is on the label. This is no mean feat in the modern world when Champagne is often seen as a luxury brand product rather than a wine as such. As far as I am aware Bollinger is the only other world famous Champagne house to remain a family company. It must focus the mind somewhat having your name on every bottle and being ultimately responsible for the quality and style of wine that your family produces and under the management of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger I think the wines have evolved and the quality has really shone.

This is the standard wine from the house and I always enjoy it. 40% Chardonnay dominates the wine together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier blended from vineyards across the region and then aged 3 years on the lees.

I really enjoy this wine because it light, fresh and vibrant, but has depth of flavour too. There is a creaminess running all the way through it, as well as citrus, green apple and a touch of peach. There is crisp, but not startling acidity and the mousse is soft and creamy without being frothy. There is also a touch of caramel and digestive biscuit to the palate that gives a nice smack of complexity, but the finish is dry and clean.

I always think this wine is deceptively straightforward and sinfully drinkable. Indeed it is a wine that you can focus attention on and savour its subtle charms, or just enjoy it and let those charms wash over you – 91/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £37.00 per bottle – Majestic reduce that to £27.73 when you mix 6 bottles of anything. Asda’s price is £27.

Champagne vineyards.

Franck Bonville Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Avize NV
Champagne Franck Bonville
Avize

This small, family run Champagne house has always attracted me. They winemaker is fourth generation Olivier Bonville whose grandfather Franck started it all just after World War I. Altogether they farm just 20 hectares in the Grand Cru Côtes des Blancs villages of Avize, Over and Le Mesnil.

This wine blends 70% of Avise fruit with 30% from Oger and it is aged for 30 months on the lees. The nose gives a lovely touch of ozone or rock pools – which I find fairy typical of lean Chardonnay.

The palate has plenty of orchard fruit too, apples and white peach. There is a lovely, playful tension in this wine between the almost creamy richness of the Chardonnay and the freshness and acidity of the style. The result is wine that gives softness and generosity together with that purity, almost salty quality that a fine dry white can have. An excellent and complex aperitif wine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £35.00 per bottle from Premiers Grands Crus and Cadman Fine Wines.

Legras & Haas Chouilly Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut
Champagne Legras & Haas
Chouilly

Champagne Legras & Haas is a Champagne domaine founded as recently as 1991. Before he created his own estate in 1991, together with his wife Brigitte – whose maiden name was Haas, François Legras was the winemaker at R & L Legras as his forebears had been since the sixteenth century. It was his desire to be a true vigneron, a grower with a domaine that made him strike out on his own and today the house has 31 hectares mainly in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly. Today the house is run by François’s sons Rémi and Olivier Legras and I think the wines they produce are remarkably fine.

Extra Brut has a dosage of less than 5 grams per litre, so the wine is allowed to dominate the style. There is no softness here, no fat, just precision and austerity. This means that the Champagne has to be perfect first time – like a water colour.

They got it right, the wine has concentration, but is about minerality and tension. If you like Chablis you will enjoy this. It has that same nervy character and stony depth to it. The bubbles really are tiny and persistent and add some structure to the wine. Four years ageing on the lees has also added little flourishes of flakey pastry, but for me this is all about the minerality, finesse and elegant austerity – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £48.00 per bottle from Uvinum.

The softer side of Champagne

If all that acidity is not your thing, you can still enjoy Champagne, but a slightly less dry Sec version might suit you better. Rosé Champagne is softer too as the great majority of rosé Champagnes get their colour from some still, red Pinot Noir being added to the base wine before it is made fizzy. This gives red fruit characters and makes the wine seem riper and rounder and so softens that acidity,

Taittinger Nocturne Sec NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

40% Chardonnay together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, aged 4 years on the lees. Much of the fruit comes from Taittinger’s own estates including some from their Château de la Marquetterie.

The idea here is to make a soft Champagne that is drinkable after dinner and long into the night – or indeed any other time, I find it’s good at breakfast! People often assume that this will be sweet, but it isn’t at all. There is 17.5 grams per litre of residual sugar, but remember how high the acidity is in Champagne, well here the acidity and the sugar balance each other perfectly, so the wine finishes clean and balanced. It is soft, not sweet at all, the palate is creamy and there is a gentle nectarine quality to it and and an eating apple crunch.

This might be perfect if acidity is not your thing, or if you want a Champagne that can withstand traces of something sweet on your palate. This also lived up to its name by remaining quite delicious throughout the tasting and even after all the others were finished – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £47.00 per bottle from Asda and Waitrose Cellar.

Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

I love Rosé Champagne as it always feels so hedonistic and almost naughty. I think this is one of the best on the market.

35% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier with 15% of the Pinot Noir being red to give the colour – the Pinot comes from Ambonnay, Bouzy & Les Riceys. The finished wine is aged 3 years on the lees.

This is a real charmer of a wine, the colour is a deep wild salmon meets strawberry and the richness of red fruit makes the wine seem much less dry and acidic than it actually is. So if you like a softer style of Champagne then this could be for you, certainly the palate gives lots of red fruit, raspberry and even blood orange.

If you age it for a few years the fruit mellows somewhat to a more rose petal quality making the wine quite different, but just as lovely – 91/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £50.00 per bottle – however the Asda Wine Shop price appears to be just £27!

The Richer Side of Champagne

I am lucky, I like all styles of Champagne including the rich ones. These are often based on black grapes rather than Chardonnay, so gives more weight. They are also often aged longer and sometimes have some oak influence too. These Champagnes go very well with surprisingly rich food too, like foie gras, game and charcuterie.

Barnaut Grande Réserve Grand Cru Brut NV
Champagne Barnaut
Bouzy (yes, Bouzy, really, it is a Grand Cru village in the Montagne de Reims and rather wonderfully Dizy is not far away either!)

This little grower-producer is a new find for me and they are pretty good. Based in Bouzy they base their wines on Pinot Noir – and even make a still red wine and rosé too. This cuvée is two thirds Pinot Noir and one third Chardonnay from their own vineyards in Bouzy, Ambonnay and Louvois. The wine is aged for 4 years on the lees and has a low dosage of just 6 grams per litre, making it almost Extra Brut.

In truth this Champagne is only slightly richer than those above, so could be enjoyed on its own, but there is a touch of something richer from all that Pinot and the longer ageing. There is a touch of red fruit here together with a deeper biscuity note. It is wonderfully focussed and pure though and very dry, but with the sensation of very ripe fruit, so there is plenty of tension in the wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ £27.00 per bottle from Lea & Sandeman.

One of my two favourite Champagne village names.

AR Lenoble Blanc de Noirs Premier Cru Bisseuil Brut 2009
Champagne A R Lenoble
Damery

AR Lenoble was founded in 1920 and is still family owned by sister-and-brother team Anne and Antoine Malassagne, the great-grandchildren of founder Armand-Raphaël Graser from Alsace. He called his house Lenoble as it sounded more French than his somewhat Germanic name of Graser. AR Lenoble owns 18 hectares in three prime locations in Champagne. Chouilly, Bisseuil and Damery. All their Chardonnay comes from the Grand Cru village of Chouilly, their Pinot Noir comes the Premier Cru village of Bisseuil and their Pinot Meunier comes from their home village of Damery.

100% Pinot Noir with 35% fermented and aged in oak before the second fermentation and aged on the lees for 4 years. This is a powerful, heady and concentrated Champagne. The dosage is only 5%, so could be labelled as Extra Brut if they chose, however it is so full of flavour that it is far from austere and has a wonderful spicy cinnamon and vanilla note from the oak.

A wonderfully intense Champagne with real richness that comes from the use of just black grapes, long ageing, barrel fermenting and ageing and the quality of the vintage – 93/100 pints.

Available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle from Plus de Bulles and Premiers Grands Crus. Also contact Ellis of Richmond who are the UK agents.

Taittinger Prelude Grands Crus Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

What to do? You want vintage Champagne with all that richness and savoury brioche character, but cannot be doing with ageing some and anyway you want a slightly softer fruit character to give a touch of the frivolous, yet still keep it elegant and refined. You probably guessed it – you drink this.

50% Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs – including Avize and Le Mesnil sur Oger – blended with  50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims – including Mailly and Ambonnay. The finished wine is aged 5 years on the lees.

Another glorious cuvée from Taittinger that manages to be intense and soft all at the same time. This makes it very appealing with rich fruit and similarly rich leesy characters and complexity. The mousse is markedly softer than on Taittinger’s vintage, yet firmer and more precise than on their Brut Réserve Non-Vintage. In truth this Champagne goes with everything and nothing, it is just splendid – 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ around £40 per bottle: John Lewis, Great Western Wine, Majestic, Champagne Direct.

Taittinger’s beautiful Château de la Marquetterie. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Taittinger Les Folies de la Marquetterie Brut NV
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

A single vineyard Champagne – a very rare beast indeed – from the vineyards around Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry near Epernay, which quite apart from being a beautiful place has a south and southwest exposure and so creates beautifully ripe fruit.

The blend is 55% Pinot Noir to 45% Chardonnay a small portion of the latter is fermented in oak vats which lends a subtle toasty spice to the finish as well as weight to the palate. It is aged for 5 years on the lees.

This is an exciting Champagne with richness and real savoury qualities. Again it is concentrated, but has bigger bolder characters and in some ways feels like a mature vintage Champagne.

Personally I do not regard this as a Champagne to drink while standing and nibbling twiglets, for me this needs a meal  – although feel free to serve it to me with nibbles – and would be perfect with a lovely piece of good quality fish – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £50 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Fareham Wine Cellar,  The Drink Shop among others.

Alfred Gratien Brut Vintage 2004
Champagne Alfred Gratien
Epernay

A tiny Champagne house that was long part of Gratien and Meyer in the Loire. It was founded in 1864 and was for a long time run by the Seydoux family who were related to the Gratiens and also the Krugs. Nowadays it is owned by German sparkling wine giant Henkell & Söhnlein, but all they seem to have done is to pay for much needed repairs and vineyard purchases, the style and devotopn to tradition remains the same, as does the cellar master in fact.

Alfred Gratien was the first Champagne house, indeed the first winery that I ever visited back in 1984 at the age of nineteen and I have been fond of what they do ever since. They ferment their base wines in oak barrels that they buy second hand – you don’t want too much oak – from the Chablisienne cooperative in Chablis. As a consequence their wines are rich and heady and brooding and very fine.

This is two thirds Chardonnay with the rest equal parts of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The nose is nutty, citric and toasty with flecks of flint. The palate is broad and deep, yet with that lively purity that makes Champagne so wonderful. There is toasted brioche, smoke, peach and apple and citrus and a warmth and fullness that belies the zing of the acidity. That tension between those two makes it feel very fine and long in the mouth – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £42 per bottle from The Wine Society.

Taittinger Brut Vintage 2009
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from mainly Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs for the Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for the Pinot and then aged 5 years on the lees.

If you are ever feeling jaded and tired of life then this wine has a wonderfully restorative quality. The sensations here are of concentrated fruit as the vintage is only made in occasional exceptional years, however not only is the fruit more powerful, but the acidity is fresher and the weight is greater too, so this is a very intense wine. Red fruit notes and ripe peach vie with each other on your senses, while the savoury, nutty, brioche lees characters add more depth and the rich seam of acidity keeps it all fresh and elegant too.

A glorious Champagne with a firm and steady mousse and a wonderful feeling of tension running through it giving it poise and elegance – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK @ around £50 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Amazon,  The Drink Shop and Great Western Wine among others.

And some Ultimate Luxury…

Most major Champagne houses produce a Cuvée de Prestige using the very best fruit. These wines have care and attention lavished upon them and are aged longer than the normal cuvées and usually come in a fancy bottle that looks lovely and shows you that everything has been done by hand as these bottles do not fit the machines.

I like Taittinger as a house and think that their Cuvée de Prestige is one of the very best on the market. It certainly wowed everyone I showed it to at the tasting.

Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs in the punters in the chalk cellars below Reims. Photo courtesy of Champagne Taittinger.

Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2006
Champagne Taittinger
Reims

One of the greats of Champagne, this cuvée de prestige is 100% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. 5% is aged in new oak barrels for 4 months to add complexity and richness and the finished wine is aged for at least 7 years on the lees before release.

James Bond fans will know this was the favoured Champagne of Ian Fleming’s spy in the early books and I for one can see why – JFK seemed to enjoy it too. This is the most delicate. mineral and fine Chamapagne that I have ever tasted. It oozes finesse and breeding and subtlety, but has many more obvious charms too. I often think this is the most ‘wine-like’ Champagne that I know, it sort of seems like the finest Chablis you can imagine, but with a delicate and taut mousse – 95/100 points.

This very fine stuff and makes a superb aperitif, but is even better served with light seafood dishes like oysters or scallops. It would even go with a light fishy (sea bass) or chicken main course.

Available in the UK @ around £120 per bottle from Waitrose Wine Cellar, Majestic,  Marks & Spencer and Ocado among others.

Obviously this line up barely scratches the surface of the different styles of Champagne that is out there, but is shows how different they can be and made for some fascinating and thought provoking tastings.

If you have only had a single view of what Champagne does, perhaps you might enjoy a little experimentation too, try some different examples and see what you think.

Wine of the Week – Nebbiolo with a twist

Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

In recent months I have become seriously obsessed by the wines of Italy and I think with good reason. There is such variety, such diversity and such pleasure to be had. So much so in fact that I have been giving some tastings called Hidden Corners of Italy that shines a little light on the areas of Italy that people might not encounter all that much.

The wines really seem to have captured people’s imaginations and opened their eyes as to the huge variety that Italy offers. I have shown some stunning sparkling wines, wonderful whites and fine complex reds and will write about them all very soon. However one red in particular showed extremely well recently and I noticed that it is once again available in the UK, so thought that I would make it my Wine of the Week.

It comes from Piemonte, which would normally be regarded as a far from hidden corner of Italy, but it actually comes from the north of the region up towards the Alps from a little known PDO / DOC called Lessona. In fact Lessona is a commune in the Province of Biella some 70 kilometres north of Turin and although it was created a Denominazione di Origine Controllata / DOC as long ago as 1976, there are only 14 hectares of vineyards there.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas in the Alto Piemonte were once very important and like Lesona have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant here on mountainous terrain than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land over many decades. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades. The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they found it hard to pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north. As a result, by the time I joined the wine trade 30 odd years ago, the wines of this part of Piemonte were almost never mentioned.

Which is a great shame as the DOCs and DOCGs of this part of Italy produce some seriously impressive wines, especially the reds of Carema, Gattinara, Ghemme, Bramaterra and Lessona. There are many great producers here that deserve to be much more widely known – you can read a bit about them here.

While I was there many producers captured my imagination, but I developed a particular affection for the wines of Tenute Sella. Based in Lessona, although it has vineyards in Bramaterra too, this estate has been owned by the Sella family since 1671 when silk merchant Comino Sella founded it. Today the estate is run by the engaging and charming Marco Rizzetti, who is CEO of the winery and part of the Sella family on his mother’s side.

Tenute Sella vineyards in Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

Today Tenuta Sella farms 7 hectares in Lessona – 50% of the PDO – plus 10 hectares in Bramaterra. The Lessona vineyards are pretty fragmented and on Pliocene marine deposits, so comprise well drained sandy soils.

2011 Lessona
DOC Lessona

The principal wine from the estate and the wine they have produced ever since 1671. This is a blend of 85% Nebbiolo (traditionally called Spanna up here) with 15% Vespolina, a close relative of Nebbiolo. The vines are on average 55 years old and the vineyard is at 300 metres above sea level with a south facing slope. The grapes were destemmed and crushed before being fermented in stainless steel vats and the wine was matured for 24 months in large (2500 litre) Slavonian oak barrels, where it also went through the malolactic fermentation. Viticulture is all low impact, near organic with no pesticides.

2011 was a difficult year with periods of heavy rainfall and drought while hail in July severely depleted the crop making yields lower than normal. They are very pleased with what the vintage finally produced, as was I.

The colour was a little bricky like Burgundy, while the nose delivered lovely complex red fruits, spice, pepper, espresso and light smoke with an enticing mix of sweet fruit and savoury characters.

The palate was quite haunting with lovely refreshing acidity, tannins that certainly made themselves known but were not aggressive, making the texture quite supple. The flavours were deep red fruit, plums especially, with dried fruit, earthy, coffee bean, tomato stem, savoury spicy characters and a lovely gamey, leathery development. It really is a lovely wine, more perfumed, more supple than we normally think of Nebbiolo. I could not help feeling that this would be great with Christmas dinner – 93/100 points.

The cellar at Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

A beguiling and complex food wine, if you like Barolo, Northern Rhône wines or Burgundy then you will love this. As well as turkey and goose, this would be wonderful with beef dishes and an array of cheeses.

Available in the UK for between £17 and  £23 per bottle from Vinissimus and Tannico.co.uk.

If you want even more of a bit of a treat for Christmas, then Vintage Wine & Port have a few bottles of the 2000 vintage Tenute Sella Lessona for £39.00 per bottle.

 

Colli Berici – an exciting wine region in northern Italy

 

Colli Berici vines at the Pegoraro Estate.

I have recently returned from a trip to the Colli Berici and I was very impressed by what I experienced. It is a place that I had heard of, but had seldom tasted the wines that it produced, so I had almost no idea what to expect from the wines. This is especially so as the region seems to produce pretty much every style of wine there is.

Beautiful vineyards in the Colli Berici.

Located between Vicenza and Padua the Colli Berici are a series of limestone hills with red clay and volcanic, basalt soils. This variety together with the subtle differences in weather patterns – it tends to be pretty dry in the hills, but can vary – allows them to grow an impressive array of grape varieties in this tiny region. As you might expect, the best vineyard sites are on the south facing slopes of these hills and it it is the drier and warmer conditions there that make the Colli Berici such a good red wine region.

Wine map of northern Italy. The Colli Berici is in Veneto between Venice and Verona.

They grow a huge range of black grapes here, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot, Pinot Nero and Tai Rosso, the new(ish) name for a grape long believed by the locals to be indigenous, but now known to be Grenache!

The region also makes a wide array of white wines from many different grapes too, Chardonnay, Garganega, Manzoni Bianco, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon and Tai, the new(ish) name for Tocai in Veneto.

Dal Maso

The first winery that I visited here was real revelation. Dal Maso was founded in 1919 and is now run by Nicola, Silvia and Anna Dal Maso, the 4th generation to run the winery and make wine there. The family originally started making wine in the the Montebello area in the tiny neighbouring DOC / PDO of Gambellara, which is solely for white wine made from Garganega grapes – of Soave fame. Dal Maso still make wine there and I came to like the wines very much. They were surprisingly mineral and came across as really quite Chablis-like.

Like most of the producers around here, they also make some very attractive sparkling wine from the Durella grape that grows just to the north in the Monti Lessini area. This is usually made by the tank – or Charmat – method and to my mind generally has more focus than the ever popular Prosecco.

The beautiful winery at Dal Maso, photo courtesy of the winery.

Nowadays they have a beautifully appointed modern winery and tasting room built into a hillside and surrounded by vineyards. It was a fabulous place to get to grips with this region which was almost entirely new to me.

All the wines that I tasted at Dal Masso were very good quality, but the standout wines for me were these:

2016 Montemitorio Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Vinicola Dal Maso

100% Tai Rosso, the local name for Grenache of all things, from their own estate vineyards, de-stemmed and macerated on the skins for 7 days, fermented in stainless steel with regular punchdowns of the skins to keep the juice and skins in contact to help extraction of flavour and colour. The finished wine is aged for 12 months in cement and stainless steel tanks before blending.

The colour is a rich and enticing bright ruby.
The nose offers lovely fresh minty, floral, wild raspberry, plums and – strangely as there is no oak – some mocha notes.
The palate has lovely sweet rich red fruit, soft spices and bright, refreshing acidity making it really really juicy and vibrant. A lovely wine that seems bright and direct, but has plenty of sophistication and elegance too should you chose to think about it. Or you could just enjoy it’s many charms – 88/100 points.
This is a very food friendly wine and would be great with all sorts of food, but lamb would work especially well.

2015 Colpizzarda Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Vinicola Dal Maso

A selection of the best Tai Rosso fruit from the Colpizzarda estate. De-stemmed and macerated on the skins for 10 days, fermented in stainless steel with regular punchdowns of the skins to keep the juice and skins in contact to help extraction of flavour and colour. The finished wine is aged for 14 months in oak barrels.

The colour here shows both the quality and the oak ageing as it is an intense earthy ruby.
Great nose, pure and earthy with some vanilla and cream notes as well rich red fruit, a dusting of spice and coffee and cocoa notes.
The palate is very supple and gives a beautiful balance of richness and freshness with lovely acidity. Rich red fruit, together with some darker notes, attractive, integrated oak characters and a beautiful silky texture. This is elegant and very fine with good balance of freshness and richness great finesse – 92/100 points.

 

Tenuta Cicogna, Cavazza Estate

The setting for dinner at Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna.

Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna.

This is another family run estate that started out in the Gambellara region in 1928. They continue to make their white wines from Garganega grapes grown in the volcanic soils there, but in the 1980s they spread their wings and bought the beautiful Cicogna (stork) Estate in the Colli Berici where they farm their Cabernet Sauvignon, Tai Rosso and Carmenère grapes for their red wines.

Cavazza’s Tenuta Cicogna, note the red soils.

The estate has a beautiful house and cellar on it and sitting out surrounded by the vines on the Cicogna estate enjoying a tasting and then superb dinner was a wonderful experience and a perfect way to immerse oneself in the landscape.

Once again I was very impressed by the wines, but will just focus on the standouts:

2016 Bocara
DOC Gambellara Classico
Azienda Agricola Cavazza

Gambellara is a tiny DOC sandwiched between the Colli Berici and Soave. It only produces white wines and they are made from the Garganega grape that is used for Soave. Part of Soave is on volcanic soil and so is Gambellara. I have to be honest I had never had a Gambellara before this trip, but was very impressed by the wines.

This is grown on the original Bocara vineyard that the family bought back in 1928. It is regarded as one of their finest white wines, so is a top selection of fruit from the 40 year old vines in the vineyard. Bocara faces southwest and is a gentle slope at about 150 metres above sea level. The soil is volcanic with some layers of tuff / tuff, which is volcanic ash.

The grapes are fermented in stainless steel at 16˚ C and the finished wine is aged on the lees for 3 months. 

The nose is very giving and generous, with mineral notes – stony, steely, ash as well – orange blossom, camomile, almonds and a lovely lees, gently creamy quality too. The palate has a lovely combination of softness – creamy and fruity (apricot, nectarine, green plum) – with taut acidity and a slightly salty mineral core. A really beautiful wine that screams class. This would be wonderful with all manner of lighter dishes, but is also perfect with a selection of softer cheeses – 92/100 points.

I had recently come to the conclusion that Verdicchio might be Italy’s finest white grape, but this is right up there, so perhaps Verdicchio and Garganega are the jointly best white grapes of Italy? But then of course there is Fiano?

2013 Cabernet Cicogna
DOC Colli Berici
Azienda Agricola Cavazza

Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown in the Veneto for around 200 years. It is thought to have been introduced at the time of French rule during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. This is a selection of the best Cabernet fruit from the Cicogna estate, handpicked and carefully sorted. The wine is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.

This is very concentrated with an opaque purple colour. The nose is aromatic, lifted and fragrant with bright fruit, rich cassis aromas, leafy, mental, herbal notes, cedar and a touch of pencil shavings.
The palate is concentrated, supple and soft, smooth, with wonderful rich blackcurrant and bramble fruit and smooth tannins. There is a delicate mocha character and a lovely paprika spice quality to it.
This is a deliciously vibrant Cabernet – 92/100 points.
It seems a little counter intuitive to drink Cabernet Sauvignon from Italy, but this wine could well win us all round. If you like Claret you would enjoy this, but the brightness also makes it a good alternative to New World Cabernets too.

Cantine dei Colli Berici

Some of the cooperative’s beautiful vineyards.

Cantine dei Colli Berici, winemaking on a huge scale.

Destemming at Cantine dei Colli Berici.

This impressive cooperative is part of the Collis group that also runs cooperative wineries in the Soave, Valpolicella and Prosecco areas as well as the less well known Arcole and Merlara areas, so 5 wineries in total.  It is always rewarding to visit a large cooperative as it is always far too easy to think of a wine region as just the sum of the boutique producers. Actually very often in Europe the wines people will actually drink from a place on a day to day basis are the cooperative wines and so they often constitute the engine for the region. This was a case in point. They operate on a huge scale, producing over 130 million bottles of wine – although most of it is sold without being bottled – and yet it produced some pretty decent wines, even at very cheap price points, less than a Euro a litre.

Andrea Palladio

The region is justly proud of the architect Andrea Palladio who was born in Padua, part of the Venetian Republic, in 1508 and have spent his entire career in the Vicenza / Treviso region. He created amazingly modern buildings that became the blueprint for grand houses for more than 200 years. His name and style is celebrated in the word Palladian used to describe buildings, like the White House, that were built according to his ideas.

Today the City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto is a World Heritage site that protects the Palladian villas in the region.

Villa Almerico Capra, “La Rotonda” in the Colli Berici just south of Vicenza.

Inama

Marco Inama showing me his new as yet unplanted vineyard, see the red soils.

The Oratorio di San Lorenzo in San Germano dei Berici is right next to Inama’s Carmenère vineyards and a picture of this church adorns the label of their superb Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carmenère Reserve.

Inama’s Carmenère vineyard next to the Oratorio di San Lorenzo.

Inama is really the only well known winery from this region, as far as the UK is concerned anyway. That reputation though is historically for their white wines from Soave, indeed they are a very fine Soave producer indeed. Azienda Agricola Inama was founded by Giuseppe Inama in 1965 and after great success with their white wines they began producing red wines in the Colli Berici made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère in 1997.

My first ever experience of tasting a wine from this area was Inama’s 2006 Carmenère Più, although in those days the wine was simply labelled as an IGT Veneto Rosso as Carmenère was not a permitted grape in the Colli Berici DOC until 2009. In fact the history of the grape is fascinating. Until phylloxera struck in the middle of the nineteenth century, Carmeère was a major Bordeaux grape, but afterwards it was not replanted in a serious way as it is such a late ripening grape. Luckily for us cuttings were taken to Chile, where it was wrongly identified as Merlot, and northern Italy. Here it was widely grown in the Veneto and Friuli, but was originally locally known as “Old Cabernet” and then in 1961 was incorrectly officially identified as Cabernet Franc. It remained Cabernet Franc until it was outed in the 1990s and officially became a permitted grape, indeed one of the speciality grapes, in 2009. It seems that Carmenère is hard to identify.

As expected, I was impressed by all the wines at Inama. We started with their straight Soave and then moved on to taste their entire range of red wines, Carmenère Più, Campo del Lago Merlot, Bradisismo and two vintages of their Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carmenère, which were the stand out wines for me were:

2013 Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carmenère Riserva
DOC Colli Berici Riserva
Azienda Agricola Inama

This wine is made from a selection of the best fruit from the vineyard in the photo above. It faces due south and acts as a sun trap, which must go some way to explaining why Carmenère  can thrive here. The grape alsmot fell out of use in Bordeaux because it takes so long to ripen. Even in Chile, where it has found a new home, it is hard to get right as it is the last grape to ripen even in the Chilean sun.

The grapes were left to dry a little on the vine, to increase concentration, before being handpicked and fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged in French oak barrels for 18 months, 50% new and 50% second use.

The colour is most attractive with a rich plum colour and a little earthy garnet look from the ageing.
The nose is very satisfying too, quite lifted blueberry, cedar, pepper and mocha notes while the palate is concentrated, smooth and silky with soft, rich fruit, slightly spicy and a savoury, earthy richness. There is also a lovely balancing freshness that makes the winery drinkable indeed and pulls all the parts together. A beautiful wine that carries its 15.5 very well indeed  – 92/100 points.

2007 Oratorio di San Lorenzo Carmenère Riserva
IGT Veneto Rosso
before 2009 Carmenère was not allowed in the DOC, so the wine could only labelled as an IGT
Azienda Agricola Inama

This older vintage was more bricky as you would expect and the nose had that meaty mature aroma together with more obvious pepper and vanilla.

The palate was wondrously silky with smooth tannins and that sweet dried fruit character just beginning to emerge. It was very stylish and still had lots of freshness and even some bright dark fruit – 91/100 points.

 

 

 

Pegoraro Estate

The Pegoraro Estate in Massano.

Arriving at the beautiful Pegoraro Estate.

The stunning terrace at the Pegoraro Estate, those lucky nuns.

This was a magical visit. They were all great, but this had something special. For a start we walked there along a wonderful trail in the commune of Massano, that crisscrosses a beautiful stream that powers 12 ancient water mills. Then when we arrived the winery was housed in a medieval nun’s rest home that dates from 1200 and it was the most astonishingly beautiful location and building. What’s more the wines were seriously good and the lunch was superb.

The Pegoraro family have been here since 1927 and they seem very proud of their land and the wines they create. Today Enrico runs the winery while his brother Alessandro is the winemaker. They are both very assured and passionate about what they do, although their father Pasquale is still around to give advice if needed. I really enjoyed the wines here. They were honest wines, immensely drinkable and not showy at all and I respect that. I greatly enjoyed their Tai (Tocai in the old days), their Cabernet (this blend of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc was served lightly chilled), but the wines that impressed me most were these:

2013 Pegoraro Tai Rosso Spumante
DOC Colli Berici Spumante
Pegoraro Societa Agricola Semplice

A traditional method sparkling wine made from Tai Rosso / Grenache. I had just tasted their Charmat (tank method) rosé sparkler also made from Tai Rosso grapes and it was very nice, but this was rather finer and more sophisticated. They claim to be the only winery to make this style and I certainly did not come across any others.

It is a pale rosé with zero dosage and aged for 36/40 months on the lees before disgorging.

The blood orange colour was most enticing, as was the nose of dried orange, apple strudel and cinder toffee.

The palate was delicious with dried orange flavours giving freshness and acidity, butterscotch giving the richness together with some bright red fruit showing the grape variety and then a lovely yeasty quality like a fresh panatone. The finish was very long and it had a mousse that was persistent and firm, with awn almost brittle feel – a dear friend of mine once rather wonderfully described a mousse on a Champagne as “brittle” and I have finally worked out what she meant. This is a terrific wine that makes a very classy aperitif or would go with any lighter dishes and I really regret not buying a bottle – 92/100 points.

2016 Pegoraro Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Pegoraro Societa Agricola Semplice

100% Tai Rosso fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks to preserve the freshness.

The colour was an attractive pale red, almost a rich rosé, but they were adamant that it was not a rosé, but a traditional style of red to the region. The nose balanced bright cherry and strawberry with a touch of spice and savoury, earthy notes and rose hips.

The palate gave bright cherry, strawberry and raspberry fruit flavours together with some spice, gentle tannins, lively cherry acidity and a nice touch of spice. A lovely, honest wine that goes beautifully as with just about anything and can be served chilled too – 89/100 points.

Piovene Porto Godi Estate

 

The family house at Piovene Porto Godi.

The ancient and atmospheric cellars at Piovene Porto Godi.

Yet another extraordinary experience. This estate has been owned by the Piovene Porto Godi family since 1500 and is exactly how you imagine a wealthy farm to have been in the past. The house and winery is walled all the way round like a small fortress and apart from the 220 hectares of land it also consists of landscaped gardens, a mansion and an extensive collection of outhouses, cellars and stables where the winemaking goes on. As well as grapes the estate grows cereal crops and olives too. Although the estate has made wine for centuries, it is the current generation who have become really ambitious for the place and produce bottled, rather than bulk, wine to a very high standard. To achieve this they have in recent years replanted much of the vineyard and revamped the winery too.

We were treated to a comprehensive tasting and these were my my stand out wines:

2016 Garganega Vigneto Riveselle
DOC Colli Berici
Societa Agricola Piovene Porto Godi Alessandro

I think this was the only Garganega that I tasted from the Colli Berici and it was fabulous. It is a limited production wine from the best fruit of a single vineyard – Riveselle – that is south facing on chalky soils at 70 metres above sea level. It was fermented in stainless steel and although I have not been told that it was aged on the less, I am sure that it was.

The nose pleased me straight away. It was peppery like olive oil and rocket / arugula. There was also something almond-like with some smoky notes (lees ageing?), something herbal and lemon rind too. I found the nose rather additive actually.

The peppery and herbal qualities come back on the palate too together with the camomile flavour that I associate with the grape variety. It was also gently creamy and lightly smoky with some dashes of orange and nectarine. It was juicy with a long finish, cleansing acidity and that peppery note all the way through.

A super wine that I kept coming back to and would enjoy with a cold buffet or a selection of soft cheeses – 92/100 points.

2015 Campigie Sauvignon
IGT Veneto
Societa Agricola Piovene Porto Godi Alessandro

This is a style that I enjoy greatly, but sadly most Brits do not – oaky Sauvignon.

The fruit is from the Campigie vineyard which is south facing with a chalky clay soil. The grapes are late harvested to concentrate the sugars and flavour and they are fermented in a mixture of stainless steel and oak barrels. The wines is also aged for 8 months in barrel.

The nose is a mixture of fat and restraint. The oaky richness is obvious but not dominating with as light, attractive resiny character.

The palate is round and smoky, but again not too oaky. The grape’s natural freshness, stony quality and blackcurrant flavours really come out together with something tropical like pineapple and a touch of creaminess.

The finish is very long and satisfying. I would love this with a tuna or swordfish steak – 91 /100 points.

2013 Thovara Tai Rosso
DOC Colli Berici
Societa Agricola Piovene Porto Godi Alessandro

A single vineyard Tai Rosso that is one of the top wines of the estate. Again the vineyard is south facing on chalky soils. The grapes were fermented in stainless steel and the wine was aged for 15 months in French oak tonneaux – each one contains 900 litres, the equivalent of 4 barriques or barrels. This larger oak vessel means the oak flavour is less overt, but oxygen still gets into the wine through the wood to soften it.

The nose was smokier, deeper and full of darker fruits than I normally expect from Grenache. There were touches of leather and coffee too.

The palate was joyfully supple with rich raspberry, plum and liquorice characters all viewing for attention together with light touches of mocha and exotic tagine spices. A fascinating wine that has a delicacy and freshness competing with rich fruit and 14% alcohol. I liked this wine a lot and found it very food friendly and drinkable, yet there was good complexity and tension – 92/100 points.

 

Colli Berici

For me it is always a joy tasting wines from new regions and it pains me every time I see consumers in supermarkets buying from such a narrow range of wines. I have thought about this a lot and it is a terrible thing that so many British people who drink wine have absolutely no idea what variety and excitement is out there if they just opened their minds and stopped drinking the same old thing. There is so much more to life than Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Rioja and Shiraz.

In fact it seems that the wine world is just full of exciting places where talented and passionate people are working hard to make wines that might just be your new favourite – if you ever get to taste them. I was thrilled by the wines that I found in the Colli Berici – and in neighbouring Gamberella – and wish they were better represented on the shelves of wine shops and supermarkets in the UK.

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

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

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

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

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

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

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

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

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

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

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

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

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

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

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

Castello di Brolio – the resurgence of a great Chianti estate

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

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

Brolio Castle and some of its vines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The charming Baron Francesco Ricasoli.

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

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

Brolio Castle.

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

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

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

The aperitif:

2015 Torricella
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

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

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

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

Served with Roasted quail, baby beetroots and wild mushrooms:

2013 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

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

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

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

2006 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2008 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

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

2003 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

Served with the cheese course:

2013 Colledilà Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

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

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

2010 Colledilà Chianti Classico
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

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

Served with the petit fours:

2007 Vin Santo
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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