Lebanon – an ancient land, modern wines

Vineyards in the Bekaa Valley – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

Lebanon caught my imagination as a wine country a long time ago. We tend to think of it as a new wine producer, but the Phoenicians – the ancient people of Lebanon – were among the world’s first maritime traders and exported wines from Tyre and Sidon all over the Mediterranean world and so helped to spread wine and viticulture to western Europe.

Château Musar is of course world famous and it’s wines widely available, so you could be forgiven for thinking that it is the only Lebanese wine producer. That is not the case though and Musar isn’t even the oldest wine estate in Lebanon either. However good Musar’s wines are – and they are – there is a lot more on offer from this fascinating country

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut.

I know that technically Lebanon is in Asia, but when you are there it doesn’t feel so very different from the European countries of the southern Mediterranean. In fact apart from the Arabic script on the signs, Lebanon often reminded me of Spain, Greece or Sicily. Beirut and the other towns I saw seemed chaotic and boisterous in much the same way as Seville or Catania. The landscape too was very similar to these places and of course the food has a lot in common with Greek cuisine and I even noticed some similarities to Sicilian cooking as well.

The main road through Chatura in the Bekaa Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

I suspect this European feel is partly because Lebanon has a mixed population of Muslims and Christians and enjoys a complex system of power sharing to ensure that no single part of the community dominates the other. As a consequence the place seems very free and easy to the casual observer with alcohol being readily available. Lively restaurants and street life with attractive bars are everywhere. In order to preserve this balance no official census has been taken since 1932, in case they discover there is a higher proportion of Muslims or Christians than they had thought.

I found it very interesting that despite France only governing the country for a little over 20 years, 1920 – 1943, French is widely spoken and the French influence lives on in almost every aspect of life. One of the most obvious examples is the wine names. All the wine producers are Domaine this or Château that and the wine styles often have a very French feel to them too.

Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, so the country has enjoyed almost 30 years of relative stability punctuated by sporadic turmoil caused by their neighbours. I was told many times that Lebanon is fortunate in everything, except its neighbours. As Lebanon borders Syria and Israel, you can see their point.

Map of Lebanon showing the wine regions and the major wineries. Click for a magnified view.

This stability has been enough for wine making to really start to flourish and for the longer established producers to consolidate the markets for their wines. If Lebanese wines were a novelty thirty years ago, they are much more normal today. Indeed the number of wineries has grown from just five in 1990 to over 50 today.

The oldest wine producer in the country is Château Ksara which was founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks who quickly recognised that the Bekaa Valley was a suitable place to grow grapes and brought in a trained viticulturist monk to create and tend their vineyards. His plantings of Cinsault, together with those at the nearby Domaine des Tourelles in 1868, started the Lebanese wine revival which is still with us to this day.

Everything changed in Lebanon after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and Lebanon was awarded to the French as a League of Nations Mandate. French soldiers and administrators came to the country and brought their thirst with them. The country’s two wine producers just weren’t enough to cope with demand and so other wineries – together with breweries and distilleries – were created throughout the 1920s and thirties.

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley.

All the early vineyards were planted in the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country and although there are now some other regions, it remains the major centre of production. This was partly because it was already established as the principal agricultural area of Lebanon and also because it’s so suitable. It is an exciting place to visit. The road winds steeply upwards out of Beirut and you quickly realise just how mountainous Lebanon is. The whole country is pretty small and within 20 kilometres you are already approaching 1000 metres above sea level. It is that height which makes fine winemaking possible as the air gets cooler the higher you go. There is of course plenty of sun and heat – Beirut lies at 34˚ north, as do Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in California and Rabat in Morocco – so grapes can ripen no problem, in fact you can sometimes detect an over-ripe, raisiny character in the more rustic wines. The Bekaa Valley has no coastal influence to temper the heat and give elegance, as it sits between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, instead it has altitude.

The Bekaa Valley is very fertile and every where you look you can see produce being grown – wine of course suits the rockier, less vigorous and better drained soils. The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with cold winters and hot dry summers. That heat is tempered by cool breezes because of the valley’s altitude and big temperature drops between day and night, often around 20 degrees, also help to retain freshness and elegance in the wines.

In recent years some new wine regions have begun producing wines and most of these are even higher than the Bekaa Valley.

Lebanon’s French influence is very apparent in the varieties they grow. Grapes from the French Mediterranean dominate the country’s vineyards, with most traditional reds being blends that include Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Grenache, together with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and increasingly some Syrah too. In recent years Tempranillo has become a popular grape as well, but almost always in blends.

The white wines, sadly overlooked, but very impressive, are often blends including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Clairette and Viognier, but I also came across some astonishingly good wines made from Obeidi and Merwah. These are indigenous white grapes that were traditionally used for Arak in the past.

Quite a few Lebanese wineries now export their wines to the UK. Here is a selection that are worth seeking out:

Château Ksara

An aerial view of Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, this is the oldest and biggest winery in the country. In 1898 they discovered a two kilometre Roman cave system beneath the winery that ever since has been used as the estate’s cellar. It remains at a constant 11˚C and houses thousands of bottles, many going back to the nineteenth century.

The ancient cave system below Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

The Wines

Ksara makes a wide range including a fine Chardonnay, two white blends, Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay, Sauvignon & Sémillon) and Blanc de L’Observatotre (Obadei, Sauvignon, Muscat & Clairette). My favourite though is their new pure Merwah made from 80 year old, dry farmed Merwah vines. It’s a lovely herbal dry white with a rich, pithy citrus zestiness.

Wine maturing in barrels in the ancient cave system below Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

The heart of their range though is their red wines. They have two everyday drinking reds, Le Prieuré – a fresh, juicy and lightly spicy Mediterranean style blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre – and Réserve du Couvent, a soft, brambley and bright blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with ripe, supple tannins and generous fruit.

Their most famous wine is Château Ksara itself, which is a complex and cedary, Médoc inspired blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, barrel aged for 12 months. The wine has supple tannins and that classic dry, but ripe fruit and leafy character that will delight claret lovers. The wine ages very well and mature vintages are available.

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten.

Château Kefraya 

A panoramic view of the beautiful vineyards at Château Kefraya – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

Kefraya has been owned by the de Bustros family for generations, but the vineyard was not planted until 1946. At first they sold their grapes to other Bekaa Valley producers before eventually releasing their first vintage in 1979.

The 430 hectares of vines are interspersed with rocky outcrops that contain an ancient cave system that was used for tombs in biblical times. Outside the tombs seats were carved into the rock to allow mourners to sit and weep in comfort. They still turn up Roman finds while tending the fields and have a small museum of coins and artefacts in the Château. The current wine maker, Fabrice Guiberteau, is one of the most engaging and inspiring I have ever met and he’s brimming over with energy and enthusiasm for this place and the wines he makes here.

Fabrice sitting on the mourner’s seat carved into the rock of the ancient tomb.

The Wines 

Château Kefraya Blanc de Blancs is a beautifully textured and deliciously creamy dry white with good acidity. It’s made from an unlikely blend of Viognier, Clairette, Muscat, Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdejo.

Château Kafraya Rouge is an oak aged blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. It’s a lovely wine with spice notes as well as rich black fruit and some earthiness too. The drying tannins give some nice structure to the sweet, ripe fruit.

The ‘flagship’ wine here is Comte de M, an intense, concentrated and fine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah that spend 18 months in new French oak barrels.

The traditional Lebanese Amphorae used to mature some wines at Château Kefraya – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

In recent years Fabrice has turned his attention to using clay amphorae for maturing wines. Such vessels have long been used in Lebanon for ageing Arak and the project has resulted in two top cuvées that aim to capture the terroir of the country. The red, simply called Chateau Kefraya Amphora is an aromatic and floral blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Tempranillo. Lots of red fruit, herbs and spice vie with each other round the palate, while there is a lively freshness, enticing minerality and suave tannins. 

The white partner, Chateau Kefraya Adéenne (French for DNA), is an extraordinary blend of Merwah, Obeidi and Mekssessé, Lebanon’s indigenous white grapes. Fermented and aged in three year old barrels, the wine is intensely herbal and mineral, with soft stone fruit and rich, pithy bergamot citrus. The palate is salty, nutty, delicately creamy and silky by turn and is deliciously savoury and complex.

Domaine des Tourelles

Domaine des Tourelles – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This beautiful estate is the oldest secular wine producer in Lebanon, having been created by Jura-born Frenchman François-Eugène Brun in 1868. Nowadays it is run by the delightful Faouzi Issa who crafts a very fine range of wines and believes in non-interventionist winemaking using spontaneous fermentations in the winery’s nineteenth century concrete fermenting vats. In fact all the equipment is original here, nothing is new. By keeping to traditional methods and using the old equipment from the nineteenth century Faouzi creates wines that are completely in step with the natural wine movement.

Faouzi Issa, the head winemaker at Domaine des Tourelles – photo courtesy of Domaine des Tourelles.

The Wines

His dry Domaine des Tourelles White is an enticing, aromatic blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, Obeidi and Muscat, while his Chardonnay is delicately exotic and creamy. The Domaine des Tourelles Rosé is a beautifully textured, full-flavoured blend of Cinsault, Tempranillo and Syrah that is perfect with the flavours of the Mediterranean.

The Domaine des Tourelles Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cinsault giving it that very Bekaa Valley combination of the Rhône and Bordeaux making it structured and spicy. It has rich, dark cherry fruit, smooth tannins and wild Mediterranean herbs.

Faouzi also makes a pure Cinsault made from 60 year old vines. It is beautifully bright and spicy with red cherry and plums as well as a touch of dried spices, dried fruit and an earthy, savoury quality. Above all it has a real purity to it that keeps you coming back for more.

Their Marquis des Beys is a stylish, dark brooding and spicy blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It delivers plenty of concentrated blackcurrant, deep, mocha-like flavours from 18 months in oak, fine tannins and balancing freshness.

All of these are excellent, but the pinnacle of the range is their Syrah du Liban. 100% Syrah, it’s powerful yet balanced, fragrant, floral and spicy with dark fruit vying with fresher raspberry and red cherry on the palate, together with cracked black pepper and those wild Mediterranean herbs.

Domaine des Tourelles wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Château Musar

An aerial view of some of Musar’s vineyards in the Bekaa Valley – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

The producer that springs to mind for most people when Lebanese wine is mentioned. Musar was founded in 1930 in the cellars of the 18th century Mzar Castle in Ghazir, a village on the coast some 30 kilometres north of Beirut. Mzar means ‘place of beauty’ and was adapted as the name of the wine itself. The French focus became strengthened by a close friendship developing between founder Gaston Hochar and Ronald Barton (of Château Langoa-Barton in Saint-Julien) who was stationed in Lebanon during WWII.

Gaston’s son Serge took over the winemaking in 1959 and set about perfecting the blend and style. It took him nearly twenty years, with the 1977 red – the first vintage I ever tasted – being the vintage that brought Musar international renown as a fine wine.

Some of Musar’s vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, two and a half hours drive from their winery – photo by Quentin Sadler.

In recognition of all this as well as his perseverance and dedication during Lebanon’s civil war in keeping the winery going without losing a single vintage, Serge was chosen as Decanter Magazine’s first ‘Man of the Year’ in 1984.

Today the winery is run by Serge’s son Gaston. It has been officially organic since 2006 makes wines in a non-interventionist, natural way.

The Wines

Musar’s fabulous eighteenth century cellars beneath the Mzar Castle in Ghazir – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

The red Château Musar itself is the grand vin of the estate and is always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Cinsault and Carignan. It is fermented and aged in concrete tanks before spending a further year in French oak barrels and another four maturing in bottle. It is always rich, spicy, leathery and earthy and has a sort of beguiling sense of mystery about it which sets it apart.

Château Musar White is a blend of barrel fermented and long aged Obeidi and Merwah. It’s an extraordinary wine reminiscent of an aged white Graves from Bordeaux. An acquired taste perhaps, but one worth acquiring.

Bottles maturing in Château Musar’s cellars – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

Their Hochar Père et Fils red is an approachable blend of Cinsault, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, from a single vineyard. It is fermented in concrete tanks, and then aged in barrel and bottle before being released four years after harvest.

The estate’s easiest drinking wines are the Musar Jeune range. There is a red, a white and a rosé and they are fresh and approachable while still having much of the Musar savoury style.

Chateau Musar wines are distributed in the UK by Chateau Musar UK.

Clos St Thomas

This exciting winery is the brainchild of Saïd Touma whose family have been making Arak in the Bekaa Valley for over 130 years. Inspired by that experience and the wineries that came before him he created this estate in 1990 and now farms some sixty five hectares that sits in the Bekaa at 1000 metres above sea level. His son, Joe-Assaad, is now in charge after training as a winemaker in Montpelier and gaining a great deal of experience in Bordeaux – that French link is still alive and well it seems. It is still very much a family concern with the entire family working in the business. Joe-Assaad grows all the normal Bekaa grapes, but like others is also now seeking more of a Lebanese identity. To that end he too has started using the indigenous Obeidi – or Obeidy as he calls it – in their white blends and, since 2012, as a single varietal.

The Wines

Château St Thomas Chardonnay is a nice combination of ripe, tropical fruit, nutty, creamy vanilla and a balancing freshness, while the Clos St Thomas Les Gourmets Blanc is an altogether zestier style made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and the local Obeidy. The Château St Thomas Les Emirs Rouge is a richly fruity blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with spicy Grenache and Syrah, while the star must be their Pinot Noir. Grown in a single plot at 1200 metres this is a vibrant, juicy Pinot with big fruit, smooth tannins and lovely smoky, savoury and truffle-like aromas. To make Pinot this good in place this hot is a real triumph.

Clos St Thomas wines are distributed in the UK by Lebanese Fine Wines.

Ixsir

Ixsir’s stunning high altitude vineyards in Batroun – photo courtesy of Ixsir.

Ixsir – named for Al-Iksir or Elixir, a secret potion that grants eternal youth and love – is an exciting winery created in 2008 by a group of successful businessmen together with Gabriel Rivero, the Spanish-born former winemaker of Kefraya. It’s based in a beautiful and brilliantly renovated seventeenth century Ottoman farmhouse in the hills above Batroun. During Byzantine times Batroun was called Botrus, which is Greek for grape and it was an important port for grape and wine exporting.

They have vineyards around the winery, but also source grapes from the Bekaa Valley and Jezzine in the south where the vineyards are planted 1350 metres above sea level and show the vital cooling effect of the altitude.

The beautiful barrel cellar at Ixsir – photo courtesy of Ixsir.

Their entry level wines are the Altitudes Ixsir range. Available in all three colours, the wines are very drinkable. The red is a sappy, lightly oaked, fruit forward blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Caladoc (a cross between Grenache and Malbec) and Tempranillo, while the white is a bright, aromatic, unoaked blend of Obeideh, Muscat, Viognier. 

Their Ixsir Grande Reserve wines are more ambitious, complex and fine. The red is a rich, smoky and spicy barrel aged blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa (a cross between Merlot and Petit Verdot. The white is a succulent, judiciously oaked blend of Viognier, Sauvignon and Chardonnay that balances succulence and freshness really well.

The top of the range is their El Ixsir wines. The red, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, once again combines Bordeaux structure with the fleshier, spicier characteristics of Southern France. It is dense, concentrated and richly fruity with minty, herbal flavours, black pepper and loads of black fruit – perfect with lamb.

Ixsir wines are distributed in the UK by Enotria & Coe.

I would add that all of these producers also make excellent rosés. When I was in Lebanon I enjoyed them very much, as being that much lighter than the reds I found them perfect with the  lovely Mediterranean mezze

Of course in world terms Lebanon is a tiny producer, just 0.06% of total world production in 2010, but the average quality seems very high. Not even the biggest producers in Lebanon count as bulk producers though, so it is a land of boutique winemakers, people who feel driven to make wine, who strive for quality and do not cut corners. What’s more the wines are incredibly food friendly. So a Lebanese offering would enhance any restaurant wine list as they go superbly with all sorts of food, from haute cuisine to relaxed Mediterranean fare, and offer a wonderful combination of classic French style and vibrant Mediterranean flavours that can be really exciting.

Switzerland – a beautiful country with wonderful wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Regions – Vaud

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

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

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

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

Vaud: Lavaux 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended producers:

Domaine Louis Bovard

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

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

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

Luc Massy

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

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

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

Vaud: La Côte

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

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

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

Recommended producers:

Domaine de Maison Blanche

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

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

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

Vaud: Chablais

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

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

Recommended producers:

Orbrist

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

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

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

Bernard Cavé Vins, Aigle

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

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

Badoux Vins, Aigle

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

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

The Regions – Neuchâtel

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

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

Recommended producers:

Château d’Auvernier

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

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

The Regions – Valais

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended producers:

Provins, Sion

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

Cave Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz, Fully 

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

Robert Gilliard, Sion

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

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

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

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

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

Domaine Jean-René Germanier, Vétroz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valencia – a great wine region rises

Moscatel vines growing in Xabia/Jávea in Alicante’s Marina Alta. They are used to make the traditional sweet Muscats and more modern dry versions.

So often when we talk about Spanish wine, we mean wine from northern Spain. This is simply because up until the late twentieth century the south was just too hot to make anything that was considered worthwhile. So the good wines, the wines with a reputation for high quality, came from the cooler zones with Atlantic influence. Chief amongst those, of course, was Rioja. Most of Spain’s other wines were relegated to making everyday wines for local consumption.

Much has changed for the better in Spain since it joined the EU in 1986. Not least that modern wine making technology is now reaching into every corner of this exciting wine producing country. 

As a result good – and great – wines are now being made in regions that were once regarded as bywords for undrinkable wine. Clean, protective winemaking has lifted the wines of Spain’s hot, southern regions to a level that would have been unthinkable just thirty years ago.

Perhaps the most exciting of these is the Comunidad Valenciana. This is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and consists of the provinces of Alicante, Valencia – pronounced Bah-len-thya – and Castellón – pronounced Cas-tay-yon. 

The Comunidad Valenciana contains several wine regions that are very much on the up; DO Alicante, DO Valencia and DO Utiel-Requena. 

Wine map of the Comunidad Valenciana, as well as the neighbouring Región de Murcia.

DO / denominación de origen wines come from recognised regions and are made from grape varieties traditional to that place. Much like the French Appellation d’origine contrôlée regulations these are a guarantee of quality and provenance.

Since Spain has enjoyed increased prosperity, renewed infrastructure and access to wealthy markets these regions have curbed their desire to make high volume, bulk wines. Instead they have focussed on improving quality and producing finer, artisan wines.

Historically the wines from this part of Spain are really a story of three grape varieties – two black and one white. Despite much experimentation they remain the most important.

The main black grape of Alicante, and nearby Jumilla, is Monastrell. More famous under its French name, Mourvèdre it’s used in many Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Rhône blends and is known as Mataro in much of the New World. In the wrong hands, Monastrell can be very tannic and rustic and was long thought only suitable for producing large quantities of everyday wine, as the high yields reduced the tannins by making the wines dilute. Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow. It needs a lot of heat and also a fair amount of water. Added to which it is susceptible to all sorts of mildews, is very vigorous and can easily get overripe. Add all that together and it is not surprising that it had to wait until modern times, squeaky clean wineries and skilled grape growers for it to become a grape with a following.

The little known Bobal (pronounced boh-BAHL) grape reigns supreme in Utiel-Requena and is actually the third most planted grape in Spain – after Airén and Tempranillo, yet most of us have never heard of it. Until relatively recently Bobal was considered too tannic and un-tameable, so was often blended with other, softer grape varieties, such as Tempranillo and Garnacha (known as Grenache in France). However recent advances in handling Bobal have led winemakers to recognise its qualities and to unequivocally make it the signature grape of the region.

Both provinces also have a long tradition of making sweet, fortified wines from Moscatel, (Muscat in French), grapes. In recent years the advent of cold fermentation in stainless steel has led to the production of very good dry whites made from Moscatel too. Fresh and aromatic, these are excellent with seafood.

Historically the region fermented its wines in the tinajas – traditional large clay jars often inaccurately called amphorae. These fell out of use when people realised that it was hard to get clean results from them. However modern knowhow and technology means such vessels can now be cleaned and so tinajas have started to be used again, to great effect.

Ancient tinajas – clay amphorae at Bodegas Murviedro – photo courtesy of Bodegas Murviedro.

Famously the Comunidad Valenciana enjoys a Mediterranean climate with long, hot, dry summers and short winters. Historically this has been a problem as too much heat can produce flabby,  uninteresting wines. Careful positioning of vineyards though, can produce wines with more freshness and elegance from subtly cooler sites.

Utiel-Requena is actually as far inland as it is possible to be in Valencia and is right on the border with Castilla-La Mancha. This puts these vineyards much higher than the coastal plain, at around 600-900 metres above sea level. The slightly cooler and windy conditions up there alleviate the summer temperatures, that frequently top 40˚C, and slow down the growing season to produce finer wine than was once thought possible.

Further south in Alicante the better vineyards also tend to be inland where the land rises to around 400 metres. Even in August you need a jacket if you want to sit out at night in Monòver, the heart of the vineyard area. 

DO Valencia is more spread out and varied, but excellent everyday wines are made on the lower land towards the coast, while more ambitious wines are made by passionate producers at higher altitudes around Ontinyent near the border with Castilla-La Mancha.

In all of these areas, careful positioning of vineyards, modern training techniques, earlier picking for lower alcohol and better balance, clean winemaking and careful use of oak has led to a revolution in how the wines taste. Today at the very least the wines are clean, fresh and enjoyable. At their best they are amongst the very best that Spain has to offer.

There are far too many producers to mention them all, but these are some of my favourites:

Alicante:

Bodegas Enrique Mendoza:

Bodegas Enrique Mendoza and the La Tremenda vineyard – photo courtesy of Bodegas Enrique Mendoza.

Founded in 1989, Mendoza has a winery and showroom near Benidorm, but most of their vineyards are around 40 km inland at Villena. This place is between 370 metres and 650 metres above sea level, so gets cooling breezes in the summer. 

Pepe Mendoza organically farms around 80 hectares and makes several different wines from pure Monastrell, or as he puts it, ‘paints plenty of pictures from the same grape’.This place – with its winds, extreme heat in summer, cold in winter, low vigour, stony soils and only just enough water – makes the vines struggle and so they produce small crops of very concentrated grapes. In fact so stressed are the vines that they remain stunted and cling to the ground, so Pepe calls them his ‘bonsai vines’.

Pepe Mendoza with his beloved ‘bonsai’ vines.

Enrique Mendoza are members of the Grandes Pagos de España, which you can also read about here.

2016 La Tremenda Monastrell
DO/PDO Alicante
Bodegas Enrique Mendoza
Alicante

A single vineyard wine, this is Pepe’s calling card and it is one of the best value wines around. Fermented in stainless steel and aged for 6 months in American oak barrels, it’s richly fruity, fleshy and succulent with velvety tannins, a kiss of vanilla oak, a touch of cocoa and a wild, spicy side that keeps it exciting. This will appeal to people who like Shiraz and Syrah – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £10.00 per bottle from Slurp, Bush Vines and Christopher Piper Wines.

Also try: The single vineyard Estrecho and Las Quebradas are both magnificent Monastrell wines with great depth and complexity, while Pepe’s sweet, fortified Moscatel de la Marina is one of the finest I have tasted.

Enrique Mendoza wines are distributed in the UK by C & D Wines.

Artadi – El Sequé:

Vines at El Sequé – photo courtesy of Bodegas Artadi.

Created by Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacaille in Rioja in 1981, Artadi was a pioneer and champion of single vineyard wines in Spain. Today they farm 65 hectares in Rioja, 40 hectares at Bodegas Artazu in Navarra and the 80 hectare El Sequé estate in Alicante. This property is situated at 600 metres above sea level near Pinoso, west of Monòver close to the border with the Región de Murcia.

2016 El Sequé Monastrell
DO/PDO Alicante
Bodegas y Viñedos El Sequé
Alicante

Another single vineyard wine grown at around 600 metres. Pure Monastrell fermented in open topped vats with daily pump overs for extraction. The wine is aged in 500 litre French oak barrels for 12 months.

The result is a wine with rich black fruit, spice and balsamic notes. The palate is plush and concentrated with rich, sweet, ripe fruit, supple tannins, beautifully integrated oak and good balance. This is a true fine wine and very impressive and it needs hearty, winter food – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £30.00 per bottle from Hard to Find Wines.

Artadi wines are distributed in the UK by Pol Roger Portfolio.

Bodegas Murviedro:

A division of Bodegas Schenk, a big wine company that originated as a cooperage in Switzerland before acquiring wine estates in various regions of Switzerland after World War 1. Schenk then expanded into Spain in the 1920s, where it has several estates throughout the Comunidad Valenciana. This one was the first estate they bought in Spain and was known as Bodegas Schenk until 2002 when it started focussing on premium rather than bulk wine production.

Large wooden vats at Bodegas Murviedro – photo courtesy of Bodegas Murviedro.

2017 Galeam Organic Monastrell
DO/PDO Alicante
Bodegas Murviedro
Alicante

This is a very different take on Monastrell. It is unoaked, so retains more brightness, but it still has lovely black fruit aromas, a touch of that sweet and sour, fruity and pepper and balsamic thing on the palate. In short it’s a spicy, bright, ripe and concentrated wine that sees no oak at all and retains a juicy freshness – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £9.00 per bottle from Kwoff, All About Wine and T.Wright Wine.

Bodegas Murviedro wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega:

Tucked away in Parcent in the Xaló Valley, a little inland from Jávea, Felipe Gutiérrez de la Vega was one of the very first to show that Alicante could make great wine. He has farmed 12 hectares here since 1978 and produces a fascinating range of wines.

Terraced Vines at Guiterrez de la Vega – photo courtesy of Bodegas Guiterrez de la Vega.

2014 Casta Diva Cosecha Miel
DO/PDO Alicante
Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega
Alicante

Sweet Moscatel wines are very much the tradition in this part of Spain. In the past they were somewhat oxidised and lacked excitement, but have recently reinvented themselves in spectacular style. This wine is the link between the old and the new waves and has been made continuously since 1978, thus inspiring new winemakers to make more interesting wines from Moscatel. This is barrel fermented and barrel aged, in all sorts of barrels of different sizes. The oak isn’t new, so the flavours of the oak do not mask the taste of the grapes, but the oxygen trickling in makes the wine rounder and more mouth filling.

The wine is aromatic with wonderful orange blossom, caramel and wild herb notes. The palate is honeyed, sumptuous and complex with rich, ripe orchard fruit and zingy, caramelised orange – without doubt the finest example of this classic local style – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £20.00 per 50cl bottle from Field & Fawcett, The Butlers Wine Cellar, Blanco & Gomez Wine Merchants, Wineye.com, Kwoff and Direct Wine Shipments.

Casta Diva Cosecha Miel is distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Also try: Viña Ulises – an enticing, elegant blend of Monastrell and Garnacha that combines ripe fruit and wilder, savoury black olive characters.

Bodegas Bocopa:

This go ahead cooperative is the giant of Alicante wine and was created by merging 11 smaller co-ops. Don’t let that put you off though, they produce some excellent wines. Their wines are never less than good, even at the lower end and they are always coming up with new and exciting things, like sparkling red Monastrell and sparkling Moscatel.

2018 Marina Alta
DO/PDO Alicante
Bodegas Bocopa
Alicante

I don’t always like dry wines made from Muscat, but this is a delicious take on the style. It is fresh and lively with floral and grapey aromatics. The palate is light and refreshing with low (11%) alcohol and some zingy citrus freshness. Wonderful to drink on a sun-drenched terrace and perfect with Gambas al Ajillo – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £7.00 per bottle from Vinissimus and Drinks & Co.

Also try: Laudum Monastrell – a lightly oaked, smooth, spicy and fruity red. Also Laudum Monastrell Rosé, a richly fruity, almost tropical tasting, refreshing rosé.

Utiel-Requena:

Bodega Sierra Norte:

Created in 2000 by unifying two old established family vineyards, the 67 hectare Finca Fuenteseca sits at nearly 1000 metres above sea level. It is west of Utiel, right on the border with Castilla-La Mancha and is certified organic as the dry conditions make it a perfect site for organic viticulture.

Bodega Sierra Norte – photo courtesy of Bodega Sierra Norte.

2016 Pasión de Bobal
DO/PDO Utiel-Requena
Bodega Sierra Norte
Valencia

A great introduction to Bobal, this is made from old vines and low yields. Fermented in barrels and aged in barrels for a further 6 months.

It is a thoroughly modern wine that tastes traditional and of its place. It’s richly fruity scented with blackberry, raspberry and balsamic, umami, savoury notes. The palate is generous, rich and mouth filling with powerful black fruit together with nicely balanced mocha-like oak and suave, refined tannins – 90/100 points. 

Available in the UK at around £12.00 per bottle from N.D.John, Selfridges, Kwoff, All About Wine and The Whisky Exchange.

Also try: Pasión de Bobal Rosado – a beautifully balanced, pale rosé that delivers bright cranberry and strawberry fruit and crisp, refreshing acidity.

Bodega Sierra Norte wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Dominio de la Vega:

Dominio de la Vega – photo courtesy of Dominio de la Vega.

Three winemaking families joined forces in 2001 to create this estate focussed on premium wines. Housed in a beautiful 19th century manor house, the site is lovely and the wines are impressive.

Sorting table Dominio de la Vega – photo courtesy of Dominio de la Vega.

2014 Finca La Beata Bobal
DO/PDO Utiel-Requena
Dominio de la Vega
Valencia

This is a fine, concentrated red made from 100 year old, ungrafted vines and aged 18 months in barrel. Layers of ripe fruit, ripe tannins, spice, espresso and chocolate-like oak balanced with fresh acidity make it complex and vibrant – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £36.00 per bottle from Winebuyers.com and Drinks & Co.

Also try: Their superb range of Reserva Cavas – fine Spanish sparkling wines made by the traditional method.

Dominio de la Vega wines are distributed in the UK by Jeroboams.

Pago de Tharsys:

Pago de Tharsys, Utiel-Requena.

This estate dates back to 1805, but its modern life began in 1981 when the Garcia family, bought it. They went on to purchase most of the adjacent vineyards in the 1990s – so like most estates around here it’s a young label and very much a project in progress. They organically farm 12 hectares and produce a wide range including superb sparkling wines that are stunningly packaged.

2018 Pago de Tharsys Albarino – Vendimia Nocturna
DO/PDO Utiel-Requena
Pago de Tharsys
Valencia

Albariño is of course a grape from Spain’s Galicia region, but it is beginning to be grown elsewhere as it is recognised as one of the best white grapes in the Iberian Peninsular – it also grows in Portugal, where it is called Alvarinho.

The nose offers ripe, tropical pineapple and floral notes together with little touches of aromatic Turkish delight.
The palate delivers fruit characters reminiscent of pineapple, lime and grapefruit together with a lovely creamy ripe texture and green tea notes. This is a soft wine in the mouth, well balanced and quite long with green fruit emerging on the finish. Night harvesting helps retain the grape’s natural acidity 91/100 points.

Also try: Their Unico Blanc di Negre, a complex sparkling Bobal made by the traditional method, it cannot be called Cava as Bobal is not a permitted Cava grape.

Pago de Tharsys wines are distributed in the UK by Moreno Wines.

Bodegas Hispano+Suizas:

Bodegas Hispano+Suizas – photo courtesy of Bodegas Hispano+Suizas.

A modern estate that is another part of Bodegas Schenk, or more accurately Schenk are a shareholder and the ‘Suizas’ in the name of the winery. Right from the start this project was about producing premium wines in Utiel-Requena. The potential of the region had been seen for a few years, but they were still pioneers. Today they farm 46 hectares of vines around their beautiful farmhouse and another 15 less than half a kilometre away. All of this is just west of the lovely town of Requena and the focus is on Bobal, although they grow other grape varieties too.

2016 Bobos ‘Finca Casa La Borracha’ Bobal
DO/PDO Utiel-Requena
Bodegas Hispano+Suizas
Valencia

An intriguing and delicious red that is made from 70 year old, low yielding Bobal vines. The grapes are de-stemmed and put in 400 litre American oak barrels, standing up without the tops, to ferment.  After the barrel fermentation the wine is aged for 10 months in new French Allier oak barrels. A vibrant and forthright wine that packs a spicy, toasty punch with rich fruit and balsamic/tapenade notes. The tannins are beautifully tamed and velvety, the oak is well integrated and there is good balancing acidity. This is a serious wine, but immensely drinkable too – 92/100 points.

FYI, Casa la Borracha means ‘house of the drunken woman’!

Available in the UK at around £20.00 per bottle from Cellar Selected and All About Wine.

Also try: Their Bassus ‘Finca Casilla Herrera’, a complex, rich and brooding blend of Bobal, Petit Verdot  and Syrah.

Bodegas Hispano+Suizas wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Bodega Mustiguillo:

Bobal vines at Bodega Mustiguillo – photo by Quentin Sadler

Mustiguillo was founded by businessman Toni Sarrion in the late 1990s with the aim of rescuing Bobal from its reputation for mediocrity and creating fine wines from it. As such it became the engine for change in this formerly obscure region and showed what could be done in this place and what is more was instrumental in showing the locals just how good Bobal can be. Mustiguillo consists of two organically farmed estates, Finca Terrerazo at around 600 metres above sea level and Finca Calvestra which sits at 920 metres. 

Fermntation vats at Bodega Mustiguillo – photo courtesy of Bodega Mustiguillo.

Calvestra is cooler and where they grow their white grapes, especially the rare Merseguera which Mustiguillo have helped to rescue from near extinction to become the, still rarely seen, speciality white grape for the whole Comunidad Valenciana.

Mustiguillo became a Vino de Pago in 2010 with the the creation of the DO El Terrerazo which covers just their estate. They are also members of the Grandes Pagos de España, which you can also read about here.

2017 Mestizaje
DO/PDO Pago El Terrerazo
Bodega Mustiguillo
Utiel
Valencia
Comunidad Valenciana

Mestizaje means melting pot and it’s a blend of mainly Bobal with small amounts of Syrah (10%) and Garnacha/Grenache (16%). The grapes are fermented in a mixture of French oak and stainless steel fermentation tanks and the wine is aged for 10 months in a mixture of French oak vats and barrels.

The result is a hugely drinkable, medium-bodied wine that has plenty of red and black fruit, gentle spices, freshness, elegance and precision – 91/100 points. 

Available in the UK at around £15.00 per bottle from Berry Bros & Rudd, Averys of Bristol, Winedirect and Winebuyers.com.

Also try: The beguiling Finca Calvestra, a wood aged, herbal scented white made from pure Merseguera.

Bodega Mustiguillo wines are distributed in the UK by Berry Bros & Rudd.

Valencia

Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega:

Bobal vines at Cherubino Valsangiacomo’s Sanjuan estate – photo courtesy of Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega.

A big producer that started life in Ticino, the Italian part of Switzerland, in 1831 when Vittore Valsangiacomo opened a winery. His son Cherubino Valsangiacomo decided to open a wine export company in Valencia and Alicante, before eventually opening winery facilities in Chiva, Requena, Utiel, Monóvar, Yecla and in El Grao de Valencia in 1890. As their wineries cover all the important wine areas of the Comunidad Valenciana, they produce a large range of wines from all the DOs in the region.

In 2008 the company undertook an exciting project by taking over the old Sanjuan Cooperative that’s halfway between Utiel and Requena. The aim is to use the wonderful old vineyards and concrete tanks at Sanjuan to make great wines from Bobal.

Concrete tanks at Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega – photo courtesy of Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega.

2016 Bobal de Sanjuan Viñas Viejas
DO/PDO Utiel-Requena
Cherubino Valsangiacomo Bodega
Valencia

There are 10 hectares of up to 100 year old Bobal vines around this old winery and it is exclusively those vines that are used in this wine. They are sited on a plateau at around 750 metres above sea level. This exposes them to the cooling ‘solano’ winds that blow in from the east and temper the hot summer conditions by increasing the temperature drop between day and night. The winery is quite old and was equipped with 70 large fermentation tanks made of concrete. Cherubino Valsangiacomo believe these are perfect for Bobal as if left unlined, or raw, you can achieve a small micro oxygenation of the wine due to the pores in the concrete. This tames Bobal’s famous tannins.

A lively and fresh wine with an attractive lifted nose of ripe red fruit and a dash of spice. The palate is smooth, earthy and spicy with medium weight wine, supple tannins and juicy blackberry, cherry and raspberry fruit. The freshness shines through, showing the absence of oak, and the finish is long with a satisfying savoury twist – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £9.00 per bottle from All About Wine, The Fine Wine Company and Winebuyers.com.

Also try: Bobal de Sanjuan Rosado – a bright, crisp, dry fruity and exotically scented rosé.

Cherubino Valsangiacomo wines are distributed in the UK by Bibbendum.

Celler Del Roure:

Pablo Calatayud with his ancient tinajas in the cellars at Celler-del-Roure – photo courtesy of Celler Del Roure.

This extraordinary estate is planted at 600 metres above sea level in the south west of Valencia province, west of Ontinyent. Pablo Calatayud originally created the winery in the late 1990s to make wines from international grapes. However in recent years he has completely changed his approach and now farms organically and champions local grape varieties like Mandó and Verdil that had almost become extinct. Pablo also uses the traditional tinajas – large clay jars often inaccurately called amphorae – to ferment and mature the wines. What’s more these tinajas are deep underground in an ancient Roman cellar.

2015 Parotet
DO/PDO Valencia
Celler Del Roure
Valencia

An old vine (between 30 and 70 years old) blend of 75% Mando with 25% Monastrell, organically farmed and verging on natural winemaking. The fruit is all hand harvested, partially de-stemmed (the stems contain a lot of tannins, so leaving in some stems can increase the tannin if required), indigenous fermentation using the natural yeast, fermentation and malolactic in the tinajas followed by 14 months ageing on the lees in those tinajas.

The result is scented and vibrant wine with herbal, balsamic and fresh red fruit aromas. The palate is similarly bright with fresh red fruit, savoury herbs and that balsamic tang. The texture is velvety and supple and the wine has lots of energy – 93/100 points. 

Available in the UK at around £16.00 per bottle from Winebuyers.com.

Also try: Cullerot – an extraordinarily complex blend of Verdil, Pedro Ximénez, Macabeo, Malvasía, Chardonnay and Tortosina macerated on the skins and aged for 6 months one the lees in those tinajas.

Celler Del Roure wines are distributed in the UK by Alliance Wine.

Vines at Celler Del Roure, Alicante – photo courtesy of Celler Del Roure.

Wines from this part of Spain are really exciting me right now. From humble beginnings the Comunidad Valenciana is fast becoming one of the most thrilling and varied wine producing areas of Spain. What’s more most of them are made from indigenous, local grape varieties. So the flavours are unique and all the wines seem to have that casual Mediterranean feel of charm and elegance. They are incredibly food friendly and generally offer great value for money too, so go on do a bit of exploring of wines from the Comunidad Valenciana.

Wine of the Week – a stunningly tasty rosé

Vines at Bodegas Sierra Norte, Utiel-Requena.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Utiel-Requena vines at Bodegas Sierra Norte.

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

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

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

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

Wines of the Week – A Pair of Very Different Sparkling Wines

I do like fizz and it doesn’t always have to be Champagne for me. It can come from anywhere at all as long as it’s good.

I couldn’t decide which wine to choose, so I have 2 Wines of the Week for you this time. What unites them, and pleases me, is that although these wines are both very good, neither are made using the Traditional Method. The Traditional method is method by which Champagne, and many other sparkling wines like Cava and Crémant, are made fizzy. It requires a second fermentation in the bottle that traps the CO2 from that fermentation in the wine. The wine is then aged on the yeast sediment, lees, to develop the classic toasty, brioche and biscuit characters that often define Champagne. We call this ageing “yeast autolysis”. Some people maintain that you need this process in order to produce a decent sparkling wine. These two wines show that is not the case at all and that we should be more open minded.

 

Kym Milne MW – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Bird in Hand Sparkling Pinot Noir
Adelaide Hills
Bird In Hand Winery
South Australia

My first fizz is made by the wonderful Bird in Hand winery in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills region. I have liked their wines for a long time so am delighted to single out this beauty. The area is covered in nineteenth century gold mines and Bird in Hand was the name of one of them. Nowadays it is a 100 hectare estate renowned for making elegant and refined wines in this cool and beautiful area of South Australia. The chief winemaker is the great Kym Milne MW who has certainly not lost his touch since I first encountered him when he was Villa Maria‘s head winemaker in the 1980s.

Map of South Eastern Australia, the Adelaide Hills are just south of Barossa and east of Adelaide – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

The Pinot grapes are picked at night to keep them cool and then fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel to keep it fresh and lively. To add complexity there was short period of lees ageing for some 4-6 weeks. Then the second fermentation, to make it fizzy, took place in a pressurised tank called an autoclave.It is bottled immediately and so does not develop yeasty, biscuity flavours, so remains fresh and fruity.

Whatever mood you are in I defy you not to be cheered by this wine. The colour is gorgeous with a wild strawberry and wild salmon hue.

The nose is lifted and vibrant with ripe strawberry, raspberry, apple, orange and grapefruit, while the palate is nicely textured with the ripe Australian fruit giving more weight than we might normally expect. The mouse is soft and almost creamy, while the acidity is refreshing and the fruitiness makes the wine seem perhaps just a tiny bit not so dry.

All in all it is utterly delicious, beautifully fruity, juicy and refreshing.

I really enjoyed this and it is a perfect all round crowd pleaser for Christmas – 90/100 points

Available in the UK at around £15.00 per bottle from Frontier Fine WinesTanners, Amazon, Drink FinderWaitrose, Waitrose Cellar. Grab it from Waitrose and Waitrose Cellar before 12/12/18 and it is only £10 a bottle!

More information is available from Bird in Hand’s UK distributor, Seckford Agencies.

My second sparkling wine is rather different and comes from the heart of Prosecco country in northern Italy.

The Villa Sandi, from which the company takes its name, is a Palladian mansion dating from 1622.

2016 Villa Sandi Ribolla Gialla Brut
Vino Spumante di Qualità
Villa Sandi
Veneto, Italy

Ribolla Gialla is a grape most commonly found in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia and neighbouring Slovenia. This example however comes from the Veneto and is made by Villa Sandi, the famous Prosecco producer in Crocetta del Montello near Asolo in the province of Treviso. Surprisingly for such a big name, Villa Sandi is a family run company and I think that shows in the passion they have for what they do together with the care they take in their vineyards and their commitment to looking after the environment.

Villa Sandi are based near Asolo in Treviso, the heartland of Prosecco production.

This is another glorious and very pleasurable sparkling wine that shows that you do not need the Traditional method to achieve complexity. Usually the Charmat / Tank method, or Martinotti method in Italy, is used to make bright, fruity wines, like most Prosecco. Some people however age the wine on the lees in the tank before bottling and this is called the Charmat Lungo or long Charmat. This wine spends 12 months on the lees in the tank / autoclave.

The character of the grape with its savoury qualities really showed on the nose, as did the lees ageing with a nutty, honeyed, cooked apple quality. The palate was brisk and pure with the rich acidity of preserved lemons together with some coconut and wholemeal bread. There is a touch of spice and lovely vibrant apples and green plum fruit. It feels light and fresh but savoury and intriguing.

I loved this and found that it goes with everything and nothing very well, even spicy food and unusually for this part of the world it is a dry sparkling wine – 90/100 points

Available in the UK at around £17.00 per bottle from DolceVita Wines and can be imported from Italy, until Brexit ruins it, via Ur Italian Wines. More information is available from Villa Sandi’s UK distributor, North South Wines.

So you see it is always good to keep an open mind about these things and to taste wines without preconceptions, otherwise you might miss out on a great deal of pleasure.

Wine of the Week – a fine pink fizz

Vines in Saumur – photo courtesy of Bouvet-Ladubay.

I do enjoy a nice bottle of fizz. At any time really, although it seems even more pleasurable in the summer. There’s something wonderfully hedonistic – and a little bit naughty – in enjoying some pink fizz whilst idling away time in a garden, in the summer.

Such a moment is about pleasure and sharing and so the wine itself can take a back seat. It does not have to be something fine or rare, just something that will deliver pleasure to everyone there, ease the conversation and allow them to enjoy that moment.

The other day I tried a sparkling rosé from France’s Loire Valley and it provided just such a moment. In fact I enjoyed it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Vines at Château de Saumur, photo courtesy of Bouvet-Ladubay.

Wine map of the Loire Valley – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Bouvet Saumur Rosé Brut
AC / PDO Saumur
Bouvet-Ladubay
Loire Valley
France

Bouvet-Ladubay was founded in 1851 just at the dawn of the prosperous reign of Emperor Napoléon III and was the first serious producer of sparkling wines in the Loire. The company was created by Etienne Bouvet and his wife, Celestine Ladubay in Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent near the lovely riverside town of Saumur.

The cellars at Bouvet.

The whole area is a warren of cave systems as stone was excavated from here to build the great Châteaux of the Loire. Etienne bought 8 km of these galleries to use them as cellars for ageing sparkling wine and enjoyed great success throughout the nineteenth century. Etienne died in 1908 but three quick successive deaths meant there were no direct heirs left to run the business and so it was eventually bought by Monmousseau in 1932. They owned it until 1974 when it became part of the Champagne Taittinger group who in turn sold it to Diagio before it returned to Monmousseau in 2015.

Patrice Monmousseau, Chairman and managing Director, in the cellars.

They make something like 6 million bottles a year and everything that I have ever tried from Bouvet has been very nice to drink.

This particular cuvées is made from Cabernet Franc – the main black grape of the region. The colour comes from a short maceration on the skins and the juice is fermented in stainless steel tanks. The parcels are then blended and bottled prior to the second fermentation and it is aged on the yeast sediment for two years before release.

The wine has a slightly orange or onion skin colour, while the nose offers red-currants, toasted pine nuts and orange peel notes.

The palate is soft and ever so slightly creamy with red fruits reminiscent of a summer pudding, a twist of citrus and a little spice. The mousse is fine and beautifully persistent.

Who knows whether it was the weather, my mood, the company or if I was just thirsty, but I enjoyed this very much and the bottle emptied itself at an alarming rate.

This is a lovely aperitif or partners almost any food from crisps and a cheese straw to fish and chips, Chinese, Thai or even some fancy fish or a barbecue – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK at £12.99 per bottle from Majestic Wine Warehouses – and £9.99 as part of 6 mixed bottles.

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 Sec 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.