Wine of the Week – a lovely red wine for Summer

The beautiful south facing slopes at Domaine de Noblaie.

I know we are all supposed to drink rosé wines in summer, and why not, there are some superb rosés around, but even in hot weather you shouldn’t ignore reds completely.

All sorts of red wines are suitable for summer drinking, sparkling reds for instance and smooth fruity red wines with a barbecue, but the most fun style is light red wines.

A lot of people rather poo-poo light red wines, in the UK anyway. Too many people buy into the theory that unless a wine beats you up as you drink it then it isn’t any good. Which is a great shame as lighter red wines can be utterly delightful.

There are many more light and lightish red wines than you might think too, Beaujolais of course, but Valpolicella, Bardolino, Rioja Joven, Swiss Dôle and Gamay, Touraine Gamay, Alsace Pinot Noir, Austrian reds, German reds, red Vinho Verde (if you dare), red Mâcon and a lot of the world’s Pinot Noir.

Any, or all of those, especially New Zealand Pinot Noir, can be perfect in summer. Serve them with lighter food and lightly chilled and you will have a lovely time.

I say lightly chilled, but it depends on the day really. WSET say light reds can be chilled down to about 13˚C, but on a 34˚C day, you might want it cooler than that. It’s up to you.

Recently I was presenting a red wine to big group of people and I really liked it and so did they. It was a Chinon made from Cabernet Franc grapes in the Touraine district of the Loire Valley and although it was pretty light in body, it was very fruity and delicious. What’s more it was a very hot day and so I served it chilled and it went down a storm. I liked it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

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

In my experience the three best appellations for red wines made from Cabernet Franc in the Loire are Saumur-Champigny, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon. The last of the three actually makes white wines from Chenin Blanc grapes too, but only in tiny quantities, so it is the red wines that we actually see in the shops. Red Chinon has long been a favourite of mine as it is pretty reliable and very good value for money. Chinon is something of a secret in the UK, most consumers simply don’t know about it, but there is usually one on the wine list of any decent French bistrot or brasserie, whether here or in France, and I always order it.

Chinon castle where Joan of Arc met the Dauphin and persuaded him to let her lead the French army against the English.

Although it is in the Loire region, the town of Chinon sits on the north shore of the Vienne River. It is surrounded by 18 other communes (villages) that can make wines that are labelled as Chinon. These estates are on both sides of the Vienne, Domaine de La Noblaie is on the south bank.

It is worth mentioning that Chinon is a delightful town to visit. It is a very beautiful place with lovely little streets, half-timbered buildings, bustling squares lined with cafés, fabulous restaurants and much to see. The Castle sits on the hill above the town and you really do feel as though you have stepped back in time. A visit to the castle is a must. It was once home to Richard I – who together with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried at the nearby Fontevraud Abbey, which is stunning and even boasts a fine restaurant – it was also where Joan of Arc met with the French Dauphin and there is a museum dedicated to her. Rabelais was once mayor of Chinon and they are rightly proud of him. He was born nearby at La Devinière, where there is a museum dedicated to him and his writings.

2014 Le Temps de Cerises
Domaine de La Noblaie
AC / PDO Chinon
Touraine
Loire Valley

This is an old domaine. The site was originally home to some crusaders and was a taxing station used to finance the Crusades. The current house was built in the fifteenth century and it commands a hilltop site some two and a half kilometres south east of Chinon itself. The rock is a chalky limestone called tuffeau and the property has old cellars duck into this rock, perfect for ageing wine. They still use a vat carved into the stone in the 16th century, so wine has clearly been made here for a long time. Further proof is in the name of the hamlet, Le Vau Breton. Breton is the old local name for the Cabernet Franc grape, so it is called Cabernet Franc Valley.

Jérôme Billard.

The grapes are carefully hand harvested, with ruthless selection of the fruit first. The bunches are then carefully laid in plastic hods so as not to bruise or damage the grapes.

Today four generations farm here, but the estate is run by Jérôme Billard who is considered to be one of the great, young talents of Chinon. For a young guy he has quite a career, with stints at Château Petrus, Dominus in California and Sacred Hill in New Zealand before going home to run the family property. They have been certified organic since 2005 and all harvesting is done by hand. Fermantations are spontaneous with the indigenous yeast and the fermentations vary between stainless steel, barrel and that chalk, limestone vat.

That stone vat, used exclusively for his top red cuvée Pierre de Tuf.

The cellars carved into the limestone hillside at Domaine de Noblaie.

Le Temps de Cerises is Jérome’s lowest tier wine, his calling card if you will. It is made from 30 year old vines blended from across the estate. The grapes are hand picked and rigorously selected by the harvesters and everything is done to keep that Cabernet Franc ‘greeness’ at bay, but to preserve the freshness and vitality. The wine is fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks and aged in them on the fine lees for 8 months.

I love this wine, it is delightfully fresh and appealing. It smells of fruit, cherries especially – it has to live up to its name after all – and raspberries with perhaps a dash of blackberry in the mix. There is something leafy and herbaceous there too, but not too much, just enough for interest. On the palate it is juicy and ripe with loads more cherry, some plums and raspberries, a light touch of tannin, fresh acidity and a leafy quality. Overall it feels very smooth, soft and supple, silky even. Serve it cool and enjoy it with almost anything inside or out this summer. It is especially good with cheeses and charcuterie. This is a delicious and very accomplished, simple, little wine that delivers a lot of pleasure – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10-£13 per bottle from:
The Wine Society (2015 vintage), Hayes Hanson & Clark, Adnams, Frazier’s, Hawkshead Wines, Gusto Wines, Slurp.co.uk.

For US stockists contact European Cellars.

Wine of the Week – a beautiful summer white wine

At this time of year I love to drink delicious white wines, perhaps with some fish or chicken or even on their own. I recently presented a very well received tasting of Australian wines that I thought were suitable for summer and although they are all really good, one in particular stood out.

Lodge Hill Vineyard complete with Kangaroo.

It was a white wine made from a very unusual grape variety. Indeed it is the only example of that grape in Australia and together with the wonderful Rieslings (also click here) and the delicious Hancock & Hancock Fiano – that I wrote about recently – is clear proof that Australia is really good at bright, fresh white wines.

The wine in question is made from the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. This is the main grape variety used in Santorini where it is responsible for producing some of the very finest dry white wines – and great dessert wines too – of the entire Mediterranean. At their best these wines are bright, mineral and refreshing and there is nothing better with a bit of fish or some calamares. If you like crisp, dry, taut white wines, along the lines of Sancerre or Chablis, then you would certainly like a dry white Santorini.

Sue and Peter Barry in the Lodge Hill Vineyard August 2012.

Peter Barry certainly does. He is the third generation winemaker at his family’s Jim Barry winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. In 2006 he and his wife Sue were on holiday on Santorini and they were astonished by the quality of the local wines. Their bracing acidity reminded them of the Rieslings that they made back home, but they had something extra too. That something extra was probably minerality, which is what the combination of the Assytiko grape and the volcanic soils delivers.

Lodge Hill Vineyard.

Peter had got the bug and returned to the island in 2008 in order to collect some cuttings of Assyrtiko from the always excellent Ktima Aryros, Argyros Estate. After a period of quarantine the vines were eventually planted at their beautiful Lodge Hill Vineyard. Peter was convinced that although the soils were very different, the other conditions would really suit Assyrtiko.

There has only been one vintage released to date, the 2016, and I would say that it bears him out. I loved it, as did the other tasters. In fact I loved it so much it is my Wine of the Week.

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

Lodge Hill Vineyard from the air.

2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko
Jim Barry Wines
Clare valley
South Australia

There is nothing fancy about the winemaking here, just perfectly ripe grapes cold fermented at low temperatures in order to retain all the freshness and delicate flavours of the grape.

The nose is lovely, floral, citric and lifted with some richer notes of apricot and pear and even a hint of sage. The palate is gorgeous, bright, fresh, pure and pristine with a lovely little touch of silky succulence balancing the high acidity. There are lime, orange, pear, apricot and nectarine flavours together with a little chalky minerality. It balances purity and freshness with fruit and texture beautifully. It’s quite a beguiling wine, but in the end delivers a wonderfully vibrant wine with crisp acidity, pure minerality and delicious fruit. It is a tad richer and softer than a Santorini, but that just adds to the sensation of trying something totally new. This is a fine white wine – 93/100 points.

This is a perfect wine to serve with some clams in white wine and garlic, seared scallops, grilled prawns, moreton bay bugs, some sea bass, sea bream, swordfish or tuna, or try it with spaghetti all vongole

By the way, they only made around 3,000 bottles, so grab it while you can!

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Corking Wines, Noel Young Wines, The Solent Cellar, D Vine Cellars, Eagle’s Wines, Vagabond and House of Townend.

The Loire Valley – delicious sparkling for summer

So Summer finally seems to be here and at such times lighter, fresher wines seem to be the order of the day. I never actually go on a pic-nic, but my mind always turns to the sorts of wines that would be great with one at this time of year.

Recently I have been showing quite a lot of Loire Vally wines at consumer events – I was also thinking bout the Loire because of my travel guide of the region –  and it struck me that the wines of the Loire are often just right to go with eating outdoors, whether a proper picnic, or sitting in the garden.

The beautiful Loire Valley.

The Loire of course produces many different wine styles along its banks, but by and large they are fresher rather than richer, so they feel light and easy to drink even in warm weather. This makes them more refreshing too.

I really enjoyed showing a range of sparkling wines from the Loire valley at the recent Three Wine Men event in London. I don’t think that Sparkling wines, other than Champagne and Prosecco, get enough attention. There are so many lovely sparkling wines out there from all sorts of places and sometimes you simply do want Champagne or cannot justify the cost of Champagne. I certainly liked all of these and think they are well worth seeking out.

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

Loire Valley Sparkling Wines

While pretty much every wine producing country makes good sparkling, France makes something of a speciality of it with nigh on every region making quality sparkling wine, many of them are called Crémant followed by the name of the wine region. By this I mean a sparkling wine made fizzy by the traditional method as used for Champagne. Indeed any French sparkling wine with an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – call it what you will, they are the same thing – must be made fizzy by the Traditional or Ancestral Method. The Ancestral Method / Méthode Ancestrale is an older more primitive version of what became the Traditional Method. The wines can also be called Pétillant Naturel, or even Pét-Nat by the hipster community, and unlike Champagne etc. the yeast is left in the bottle instead of being removed and this often leaves the wines cloudy. 

When making a sparkling wine, what you need most is acidity to make the finished wine fresh and lively and the Loire uses a grape that delivers plenty of this freshness – Chenin Blanc.

There are several different sparkling wine PDOs in the Loire, Crémant de Loire, Touraine Mousseux, Vouvray and Saumur and there’re many excellent wines produced. The examples that I particularly enjoyed recently were:

Monmousseau Cuvée J M Brut
AC / PDO Touraine
Monmousseau
Loire
France

Monmousseau is a large producer founded by Alcide Monmousseau in 1886 when he turned a large quarry, previously a source of building stone for the the Châteaux of the Loire, into a cellar for ageing sparkling wine. This quarry became a network of 15 km of galleries that are remain at a constant 12˚C, the perfect temperature to age wine.

This wine is one of their top sparklers – named in honour of Justin-Marcel Monmousseau, the nephew and heir of Alcide Monmousseau – and is made from a blend of 80% Chenin Blanc, the typical grape for Loire Valley sparklers, and 20% Chardonnay. It is aged on the yeast sediment (lees in English / lies in French) left over from the second fermentation in the bottle, for some 24 months. This ageing on the yeast sediment gives the classic complexity of yeast autolysis, biscuit, brioche, flakey pastry and sometimes caramel too.

The aromas are light and fresh with green apple, citrus and jasmine flowers and a little touch of digestive biscuit. The palate is crisp and taut with fresh, clean acidity, apple and lemon fruit together with some chalky /earthy / minerality – it grows in chalky soils – and a touch of biscuity richness on the finish. A very nice, well made sparkler that would be perfect as an aperitif or served with anything light. It met with wine approval when I showed it recently – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Spirited Wines
For US stockists – click here.

The Loire in Touraine.

Château de la Presle Jean-Marie Penet Brut
AC / PDO Crémant de Loire
Château de la Presle, Domaine Penet
Loire
France

Another Touraine producer that started about the same time as Monmousseau in fact in 1885. It is now run by the fifth generation of the same family, but until 1970 was mixed farm whereas now the focus is purely wine. Since 1998 it has been run by Anne-Sophie Penet and her Burgundian wine maker husband Frédéric Meurgey.

This Cuvée is their top sparkler and is made from 75% Chardonnay with 25% of the little known Arbois. I do not know how long it is aged on the lees, but it seems like it was quite a long time to me.

This is a richer, deeper more serious sparkling wine with a richer, nutty, brioche-like aroma together with peach and apple. The palate is again rich and rounded with a softness and a feeling of dry honey and apple strudel. This is a superb sparkling wine, full of character and flavour. It makes a sophisticated, intimate aperitif or would go beautifully with rich fish dishes, rice dishes and white meat – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Gerrard Seel, St Andrews Wine Company, Silver Fox Wines & Wood Winters

Vouvray cellars dug into the rock.

Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau Vouvray Pétillant Brut
AC / PDO Vouvray
Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau
Loire
France

An exemplary estate in Vouvray, Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau was founded in 1875 and is farmed by the fifth generation of the Vigneau-Chevreau to make wine here. Over that time the domaine has expanded from 5 to over 30 hectares and is one of only two biodynamic producers in the area.

This wine is, as always for Vouvray, 100% Chenin Blanc, has less fizz than normal sparkling wine – full sparkling wines are Mousseux, this is Pétillant – and it is aged on the lees / yeast sediment for 18 months.

This carries its ageing week as it is a light, lithe and precise wine with aromas of pear, apple and citrus and a palate of crisp green apple, richer pear and a hint of apricot and quince. The acidity and minerality make it a mouthwatering aperitif and a bright aperitif – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Roberts & Speight, The Solent Cellar, David Bell McCraith and Wood Winters – more stockist information is available from Thorman Hunt & Co Ltd.
For US stockists – click here.

The beautiful Chateau de Moncontour.

Château Moncontour Vouvray Tête de Cuvée Brut
AC / PDO Vouvray
Château Moncontour
Loire
France

A very old estate, this was purchased by the Feray Family in the 1990s and it has never looked back. Again 100% Chenin Blanc, this is a Cuvée (blend) made from the best fruit and aged for around 18 months on the yeast – although it tastes like it was aged longer.

Yeast autolysis dominates this wine, it even smells of toast – yeast / lees can give a good impression of oak sometimes. Rich pear, cooked lemon, quince, honey, apple compote are all here as well as some frangipane / bakewell pudding sort of character making it feel pretty rich and flavourful, although the brisk acidity certainly cleanses the palate making it balanced. An intriguing wine that I enjoyed very much – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
Slurp.co.uk
For US stockists – click here.

So you see, further proof that there is much more to sparkling wine than just Champagne, Cava and Proseco. The sparklers from the Loire are very varied in style and often very good indeed.

Loire Valley – a short travel guide

With Summer just over the horizon I thought you might enjoy another one of my travel articles, this time it’s about Anjou-Saumur and Touraine in the Loire Valley.

Angers and the Loire from the ramparts of Angers Castle.

The Loire Valley encapsulates everything I think of when daydreaming about France. As Ratty said, ‘there is nothing – absolutely nothing, half so worth doing as – simply messing about in boats!’ As a confirmed landlubber of course I stretch the principle somewhat to include messing around near boats. Life always seems more pleasurable and peaceful near a river and the Loire is one of the most tranquil and picturesque rivers that I have ever seen. It meanders through gorgeous places and seems to cast a spell over all of them. Buildings that would seem quite ordinary elsewhere, exude an enticing charm. Luckily a great many of them are cafés and restaurants whose gardens and terraces provide tranquil views of the Loire or one of its many tributaries.

Chinon with Chinon Castle above. This where Joan of Arc met the dauphin of France.

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

Think of the Loire Valley and it isn’t long before castles spring to mind, there are over 80 châteaux here and they are key to the region’s image. In fact they were the main reason that Unesco gave the Loire Valley World Heritage status in 2000. They range from true medieval defensive structures like the wonderful castles at Angers and Chinon to the more flamboyant 17th Century confections, such as the Château de Cheverny that was Hergés inspiration for Marlinspike Hall in his Tintin books.

Château de Cheverny.

Make sure you see the Château de Chenonceau, it is simply breathtaking. This exquisite building acts as a bridge that spans the River Cher not far from Vouvray, amazingly it marked the border between Vichy and Occupied France and was the scene of much clandestine border crossing during the war. The gardens, complete with a maze, are equally lovely and they have a couple of restaurants and a wine cellar if you need some refreshment. Equally sublime is the early renaissance Château Azay-le-Rideau near Chinon, and it must not be missed.

The exquisite Château de Chenonceau.

The beautiful Chateau-Azay-le-Rudeau.

 

The imposing main gate of Angers Castle.

Strolling through the narrow lanes and bustling squares of Anger’s old town is time well spent, and make sure you take a tour round the castle that dominates this attractive city. Once home to Catherine de Medici and where the future Duke of Wellington received his military education, the harsh defensive exterior does not prepare you for the haven of peace inside. It is a delightful place complete with rampart walk, gardens, orchards and even a small vineyard. Most famously though, it houses the incredible Apocalypse Tapestry which really is one of the jewels of early French culture. As you might imagine, Angers is heaving with eateries, but Mets & Vins is both a stylish restaurant and excellent wine shop. It has no wine list, instead you browse the shelves and see what takes your fancy.

La Croisette, try the Sandre for a taste of local tradition, or (strangely) some of the best calamares I have ever tasted.

Leaving Angers, head south to where the Maine and Loire rivers meet. The river is wide here and there are lots of islands which add to that sense of tranquility. Savennières is a good place to explore before finding lunch in a traditional Guinguette, which is a casual riverside restaurant, often looking like a riverside beach bar. My favourite is La Croisette which is on the river bank on an island in the Loire, make sure you try the local speciality of Sandre, a fish known as Pike-Perch in English.

From here it’s fun to follow the Layon river as it winds through the beautiful villages of Anjou and the Coteaux du Layon. The village of Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay houses the Vine and Wine Museum of Anjou-Saumur which is well worth a visit. If hunger strikes then head for La Table de la Bergerie. This delightful modern restaurant is set amongst vines in the middle of the countryside, making it a magical place to sit outside and enjoy your aperitif.

Louresse-Rochemenier.

The evocative cellars at the wonderful Domaine de Bablut in Anjou.

Nearby is the village of Louresse-Rochemenier, which is fascinating with its troglodyte dwellings cut into the tuffeau cliff face. In the past this stone was excavated and used to build the châteaux and wealthy towns of the region. In turn, the local poor moved in to the holes left behind and they were lived in until the 1930s. Many such caves are also used as cellars as they provide perfect conditions to age wines.

The charmingly eccentric Château de Brissac.

Another view of the Château de Brissac.

Next, head up to Brissac-Quincé on the banks of the Aubance, this attractive town has the remarkable Château de Brissac at its heart and it’s a delight in every way. The gardens are beautiful, while the building is now a fascinating museum and boasts that it is the ‘tallest castle’ in France as it is has sections from the 17th century built on top of a medieval castle.

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

Returning to the River Loire itself, Saumur is a must see town on the south bank of the river. Everything is built out of the local honey coloured tuffeau stone and many of the buildings are magnificent, especially the City Hall and the imposing Château de Saumur. Saumur is a great food town too, with an amazing array of places to eat, try Le Gambetta or Le Carrousel for a treat, or one of the many bistrots by the river. In addition, try not to leave town before you have experienced Gérard Girardeau’s superb charcuterie and wine shop, it really is one of the very best.

Vines in Souzay-Champigny.

A little way south east is the village of Souzay-Champigny. Champigny itself is a few kilometres south and lends its name to the Saumur-Champigny appellation which produces some of the best red wines of the Loire. It’s a sleepy little place, but worth a visit for more of those troglodyte houses.

Carry on east and you come to the Touraine area, whose vineyards include Bourgueil, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon. Bourgueil is pretty and a joy to explore, with a 10th century abbey that is now a museum, a busy street market on Tuesday and a gastronomic market held in the medieval market hall every Saturday. If you have worked up appetite, La Rose de Pindare is a delightful restaurant serving local food and wine in the centre of the village.

That giant bottle outside the Church.

Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil is a very small place that is mainly worth visiting for the wine, but it does boast a giant wine bottle outside the church, it serves as a fountain, and the excellent Saint Nicolas Gourmand restaurant just across the road.

Not far away Chinon is one of the major towns of the Loire and a terrific place to visit. In fact the castle alone makes it worthwhile. This sits above the town and although it was the home of Richard I of England – who together with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried at the nearby Fontevraud Abbey, which is stunning and even boasts a fine restaurant – it was also where Joan of Arc had her first meeting with the French Dauphin and there is a museum dedicated to her. Rabelais was once the mayor and Chinon still feels medieval with its narrow streets, gothic buildings and timber frame houses. The markets are on Thursdays and Sundays and there are restaurants galore, but I always choose Les Annees 30 and have never been disappointed. La Cave Voltaire is a superb wine shop that doubles up as a bar offering cheese and charcuterie, the focus is on organic and natural wines from small producers.

The Loire Valley is a hedonists’ paradise, with superb food and produce. There are 6 appellation controlée cheeses in the Loire and they are all made from goats milk, Valençay, Crottin de Chevignol, Chabichou du Poutou, Pouligny St. Pierre, Selles-sur-Cher and Sainte-Maure de Touraine. Legend has it that when the invading Arabs were defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732 they left their goats behind. Whether that is true or not the cheeses are perfect with the local wines.

Charcuterie is important here too, especially rillettes, a soft, fatty paté that tastes delicious. It is usually made from pork, but goose, duck, rabbit and even fish versions are available and while it is normally eaten with bread and cornichons, rillettes are sometimes served with a local unleavened bread called fouaces.

If all this makes you feel spoilt for choice, then don’t worry. There is beauty and there are delights wherever you look in the Loire Valley, the important thing is just to get there.

 

Contacts:

Restaurant Mets & Vins
44 Boulevard Ayrault, 49100 Angers, France
Phone: +33 2 41 87 03 35

La Croisette
rue de la Boire 49170 Béhuard
Phone: +33 02 41 23 19 53

Vine and Wine Museum of Anjou-Saumur
Musée de la vigne et du vin d’Anjou
Cellier de la Coudraye
Place des Vignerons
49750 Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay
Tél: +33 02 41 78 42 75

La Table de la Bergerie
La Bergerie
49380 Champ sur Layon
Tél:. +33 02 41 78 30 62

Restaurant le Gambetta
12 Rue Gambetta
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33 02 41 67 66 66

Restaurant Le Carrousel
15 r Colonel  Michon
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33  02 41 51 00 40

Gérard Girardeau
53 Rue Saint-Nicolas
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33 02 41 51 30 33

La Rose de Pindare
4 Place Hublin
37140 Bourgueil
Tel: +33 2 47 97 70 50

Saint Nicolas Gourmand
Avenue Saint Vincent 28
37140 Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil
Tel: +33 2 47 97 77 37

Les Annees 30
78 rue Voltaire
37500 Chinon
Tel: +33 2 47 93 37 18

La Cave Voltaire
13 Rue Voltaire
37500 Chinon
Tel: +33 02 47 93 37 68

 

 

Tuscany – a short travel guide

The weather is getting better and many of us are turning our thoughts to travel. Every now and again I write wine travel articles for my friends at the excellent 3D Wines Experience wine club and they print them in their Uncorked Magazine. Well, I thought that some of my readers here would enjoy them too, so I will publish them on here in a slow trickle.

My first piece for 3D Wines was about Tuscany and while it isn’t comprehensive it does cover a good swathe of lovely places in Tuscany’s, so I hope that it comes in handy for some of you.

Wine map of Tuscany – click for a larger view.

Tuscany has been attracting visitors for hundreds of years. It has everything from sun, sea and sand to some of the most romantic towns and cities in the world. It is a place that you can visit time and again and yet always find something new to excite you.

Tuscany is home to many famous wines, but Chianti remains its beating heart. The term Chianti was first used to define the hilly area area around Radda, Gaiole and Castellina and is thought to have been the name of an Etruscan family. This is the heartland of Chianti, where it all began and today it’s the core of the Chianti Classico D.O.C.g., but the whole Chianti area is worth exploring.

Castellina in Chianti.

Castellina
Castellina in Chianti is small and still has the feel of a mediaeval walled town. It is a joy to wander along the charming main street – Via Ferruccio – and the Via della Volte, an amazing vaulted, passage now home to shops and restaurants. The main square – Piazza del Comune – is dominated by the Rocca di Castellina castle which houses the Museum of Etruscan Archeology. This is a real gem and if it whets your appetite to learn more about this ancient culture, there is the stunning Etruscan tomb of Montecalvario a few minutes walk away.

It can be very hot here, so some amazing, homemade ice cream from the Antica Deliza Gelateria is highly recommended and almost reason enough to come to Castellina – do try the lemon and sage. If you need something more substantial the Antica Trattoria la Torre serves very good traditional food and is right in the main square.

Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi.

Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina.

Just outside the town is the Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi an old country house turned into a welcoming B&B hotel complete with swimming pool, while the nearby Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina provides high class Tuscan food and a wine list to match.

The rolling hills of the Colli Senesi.

Siena
Chianti Colli Senesi, as you might imagine is produced in the hills around Sienna. Once Florence’s equal as a city state, Siena ultimately lost out politically to its rival in the north, but in every other respect is by far the winner. Siena was never the centre of Renaissance intrigue, or Italy’s capital and so it remains small, with just 53,000 people its population is barely a seventh of Florence. This amazing, compact city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose buildings are almost all the same colour – terra di Siena or ‘Siena earth’ which makes it seem very beautiful.

Piazza del Campo Siena.

Do spend some time in the Piazza del Campo, this huge piazza is used as the racetrack for the Palio horse race twice a year and is lined with cafés, restaurants, gelaterias and market stalls. Make sure that you climb the Torre del Mangia, the bell tower overlooking the Piazza, heavy going in the heat, but the view is worth it as the whole city opens up before you.

The Duomo, or Siena Cathedral, is not only stunning in itself as it contains bas-reliefs by Donatello, but the site also includes the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo which houses masterpieces such as Duccio’s Maestà. Once you have absorbed all the art another panoramic view awaits you from the terrace of the Il Facciatone tower.

Every Wednesday there is a lively market around the Fortezza Mediceana, where food, wine, antiques, animals and clothes are all for sale and it is a great place to watch the locals going about their lives.

Torre del Mangia Siena.

As you might imagine Siena is bursting with places to eat and it is hard to make a mistake, but my favourite is the Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda which has been run by former Palio jockey Pierino Fagnani since 1973. This place is wonderfully atmospheric and fun with a great wine list and a very traditional menu. Try Pici – a thick hand rolled spaghetti which is only made in Siena and often served with a rich wild boar sauce. This would also be a good place to try some Panforte for dessert, with a glass of Vin Santo perhaps?

Looking down on the Piazza del Campo Siena.

Staying in Siena isn’t always easy as the hotels are usually very old, small and lack air-conditioning, while many of them are up several floors with no lift. The Hotel Duomo is pretty central, air-conditioned and has wonderful views from most rooms, but like many hotels in Siena it does lack parking. If you are seeking something more luxurious then the 5 star Grand Hotel Continental Siena occupies a magnificent 17th century Palazzo once owned by Pope Alexander VII. What’s more their Enoteca SaporDivino is a superb wine bar in the cellar that has to be experienced.

Florence.

The Duomo in Florence, beautiful by day and night.

A colourful procession in Florence.

Further afield – Firenze
I suppose that Florence must be at the heart of many trips to Tuscany, so I should mention some of my favourite delights to be found there. Harry’s Bar was opened on the banks of the Arno in 1952 by a friend of Giuseppe Cipriani who created the original in Venice and it appears to be unchanged. It is so elegant and cosmopolitan that as you sip your Bellini you half expect Clark Gable to appear arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe.

More traditional fare is available at the nearby Cantinetta Antinori which is housed on the ground floor of the ancient Antinori family palazzo. This beautiful place offers a small menu of classical Tuscan cuisine together with an enormous list of wines made by Antinori and their friends throughout the world. You can even try all their Super-Tuscans by the glass.

Trattoria Marione

Both of those are delightful and swanky and perfect if your wallet is full, but if you are after some good food and charming local colour on a tighter budget then the wonderfully bustling Trattoria Marione is nearby in the Via della Spade. The check table cloths, Chianti flasks on the tables and salamis hanging over the bar might make you think it’s a tourist trap, but I have only ever known locals to be in there and they always seem to be happily tucking into wonderful traditional Tuscan food in abundance – try the tagliatelle sul Cinghiale – tagliatelle with wild boar.

Florence is also known for its colourful Fiaschetteria or Vinerie, traditional wine bars that are often no more than a hole in the wall. The upmarket Enoteche are a more salubrious update on the theme, often quite smart and serving an array of wine together with stuzzichini, snacks or appetisers of Crostini, Salami and Affettati – mixed cured meats.

Piazza Napoleone, Lucca.

Walking Lucca’s walls.

Lucca
Far from being filthy, Lucca is a delightful walled town a little north east of Pisa. You can walk all around the walls and see the town before you venture in to the maze of winding streets, some of which look as though they are stuck in the Renaissance, while others like Via Fillungo boast an impressive array of luxury shops – as with Florence jewellery and leather goods are the things to buy here. The oval shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was once the ancient town’s Roman amphitheatre. This is a beautiful space and it is wonderful to soak up all the history for a while in one of the many bars.

Lucca from the air – you can clearly see the walls and fortifications – click for a larger view

Lucca boasts one of my favourite family run restaurants. The Trattoria da Leo has been in the Via Tegrimi since 1974 and is a delightful place to enjoy delicious, simple Tuscan food and while away an hour or two. It is an unpretentious, but totally genuine place that lists just two wines, both red – Vino Toscano at 12.5˚ in either quarter or half litre carafes or the local Vino Colline Lucchesi in bottles.

If you find yourself in need of intellectual stimulation, Puccini was born in Lucca and his house in the Corte San Lorenzo is now a wonderful museum. After which you surely deserve an ice-cream and luckily the Gelateria Santini Sergio is nearby and has been making superb gelato on the premises since 1916 – do try the chocolate and orange.

Just go there
There is so much to enjoy in Tuscany that nothing can really do it justice other than going there and seeing these places as well as Pisa, San Gimignano, San Miniato, Livorno, Pistoia, Elba, Montepulciano, Montalcino and all those other little towns you would stop in along the way and remember for ever more.

Not only is everywhere a feast for the eyes, but every corner of Tuscany is home to something that you can actually feast on. Internationally famous wines, local wines, superb olive oils, honey, hams, cheeses, salamis, mushrooms, meats, herbs, breads and sweets abound – no wonder I am so drawn to the place.

Useful Addresses:

Antica Trattoria la Torre
Piazza del Comune15
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57- 774-0236

Albergaccio di Castellina
Via Fiorentina, 63
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57-774-1042

Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda
Via della Galluzza, 26
53100 Siena
+39 (0) 57-728-2208

Harry’s Bar
22R Via Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci 
Firenze, Toscana 50123 
+39 (0) 55-239-6700
Cantinetta Antinori
Piazza Antinori 3
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-292-234

Trattoria Marione
Via della Spada 27R
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-247-56

Trattoria da Leo
Via Tegrimi 1
Lucca, Toscana 55100
+39 (0) 58-349-2236

 

Cork v3.0 – Cork Fights Back

Cork oaks with their trunks stripped – photo courtesy of Diam.

The cork or screw cap debate is getting interesting again – click here for an article that I wrote about it quite a few years ago. For many years I, along with many in the British wine trade, have long championed the use of screw cap over cork.

My main reason for doing so is that for a long time we had far too high a proportion of bottles that were corked. This happens when a cork is infected by a compound called trichloroanisole, TCA for short, and that gets passed on to the wine in the bottle, killing the fruit in the wine and making it smell and taste musty like mouldy cardboard.

A compelling second reason to favour screw caps is that with corks there is a significant amount of bottle variation as some give a better seal than others, so little bit of oxidation can occur making some bottles seem less vibrant and more muted than others.

Screwcaps do not get rid of all of this, it is possible to get TCA into a wine by another route, so I have had 4 ‘corked’ bottles sealed with screw caps. That is 4 in over 20 years though. By comparison my record for corked wine that was sealed with corks was 6 bottles from a single case on a single day!

I also like the glass closures, they look very classy and I think if I made wine that is what I would choose. The rather more funky  Zork closure is rather good too, especially for sparkling wine.  It makes a noise like a cork popping and you can reseal it.

However, many people are more traditional than me and like to cling to things because they are used to them or sometimes because they think they are best and so cork is still used to seal the majority of wine bottles.

In the 10 years from 2006 to 2106 the use of cork has dropped from 78% of closures to 61%, so it is still the dominant material. In that time screw caps have grown from just 5% to 26%. If those figures seem low to you, outside of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland, cork is considered superior and screwcaps are widely viewed as suitable only for the cheapest wines.

The tops of various types of cork.

Well cork seems to be fighting back and the charge is lead by a new form of cork that manages to get round the traditional problems that cork has.

Natural cork.

Most of you will be able to picture a traditional cork, that is a cylinder of cork stamped out a single piece of cork oak bark. Being a single piece if it is contaminated by TCA, this will infect the wine.

Agglomerate cork.

Agglomerate cork was an attempt to get around that by making the cork out of lots of tiny pieces of cork glued together. However these are usually considered less suitable for ageing wine as there is almost no oxygen ingress, or trickle of oxygen through the cork, to age the wine. In addition they are less pliable than natural cork, so again less suitable for long term ageing.

Synthetic cork.

Synthetic corks have certainly proved to be effective for early drinking wines. The risk of TCA infection is almost completely removed, unless TCA gets into the wine via wood or filter pads or by another route – this can also happen with screw cap wines, but it is rare. However many of them can harden over a relatively short time, making them less effective and allowing air into the wine. Added to which they are really difficult to get off the corkscrew once you have removed them from the bottle. In my opinion these are really only suitable for early drinking wines, but a screw cap would be a better seal and preserve the fresh character of the wine and the fruit much better.

Recently I was invited to France to tour a cork factory that belongs to a company that is changing everything – that company is Diam.

A Diam 3 cork.

Basically Diam manufacture a type of agglomerate cork, but a very high tech and high quality one. I cannot pretend to understand the science, but basically they harvest high quality cork, season it outside for up to 12 months, just as natural cork would be. They then wash it and crush it into granules which are then filtered to remove foreign bodies and the woody parts. This leaves them with pure suberin, which unlike lesser cork is inert. This substance undergoes a similar process to the one that removes caffeine from coffee, which removes all impurities from the cork granules, they actually store the TCA that they remove as it can be used in the manufacture of some skin creams – so the next time auntie smells of cork taint, perhaps she hasn’t been drinking! The gaps between the cork granules are filled with microspheres which increases the elasticity of the finished cork. They are then bound together with a food grade binding agent before being moulded, machined and finished to the correct size and finish.

They tell me that with their process there is no risk of TCA, the cork is pliable enough to ensure there is minimal risk of premature oxidation – which makes Diam corks particularly popular in Burgundy – and stops bottle variation as they perform consistently.

If you look at the Diam cork above, you will see in the bottom right it says Diam 3, they actually make Diam 2, Diam 3, Diam 5, Diam 10 and Diam 30 for still wines, the number tells you how long they guarantee the cork for. They also make sparkling wine corks and spirit stopper corks.

An unused Diam 5.

It was a fascinating visit. The factory floor was almost entirely unmanned, with robotic machines doing all the work. The whole place had a rather wonderful toasty, malty, toffee, caramel sort of smell which is what the corks smell of when still warm.

Our little group on the factory floor and yes that is Charles Metcalfe in the centre. I reached the conclusion that the protective clothing was a French joke as none of the management wore it!

Diam corks are tested for their elasticity as they want them to be as pliable as possible. This elastic property ensures that they give a perfect seal and apparently do not need to be kept damp – so if you know it has a Diam cork you do not need to lie it down, or so Diam say.

Diam Origine.

Diam have been around since 2005 and their share of the market keeps rising, their share of the cork market has risen from a very healthy 4% in 2006 to 10% 10 years later. And by the way that 10% represents 1.3 billion corks a year!

Now they have launched an organic version called Diam Origine. Initially this will just be in a Diam 10 and a Diam 30 version, but more will follow. The organic corks uses beeswax emulsion and a binding agent made from plants and I expect that we will begin to see them used on more and more organic and biodynamic wines.

The Pic du Canigou from Diam’s factory near Collioure in the Roussillon region of France.

It was a very different visit from my normal wine trips, but it was very interesting and informative and the weather was gorgeous, the only lovely weather I have had this year so far. I was very impressed by what I saw and heard and feel much more confident about cork now than I have for a long time, as long as it is Diam.

It’s just a pity that you cannot tell whether the wine is sealed with a Diam cork before you buy it. Perhaps they ought to find a way of letting us know before we part with our money?

 

 

 

Monople Clásico, the return of a Spanish classic

Looking south across Rioja just north of Haro.

I have always had a soft spot for white Rioja, whether fresh and crisp, barrel fermented or aged in oak. Well now there is a new style of dry white Rioja around. I say new, but actually it is an old style that has been brought back to life.

When I was young and just getting into wine I spent a great deal of time in Spain and one of the most widely sold white wines was Monopole made by the wonderful CVNE, Compañía Vinicola del Norte de España. The Monopole had been created in 1914 and was given a French name, because the founding brothers – Eusebio and Raimundo Real de Asúa – loved the white wines of Burgundy, and a German style bottle because German white wines were so commercially important in those days. It was the first white Rioja made in anything like a fresh, lively, modern style. Of course in those days it was partly aged in oak, but it was a complete break with most white Riojas of the times.

Ever since the early 1980s CVNE have made fresher, completely unoaked style of Monopole, which is a very good, just off-crisp wine that is very versatile and pleasurable. However to mark 100 years of Monopole, they have recently returned to making the traditional Monopole as well and it is wonderful to revisit this wine and to experience again what a fascinating – and delicious – wine style it is.

They call this reborn wine Monople Clásico and like the ‘normal’ Monopole it is made from Rioja’s classic white grape Viura, but then it gets very different. Firstly the Viura juice is settled in concrete tanks, then fermented at low temperatures in stainless steel. Then they add a small amount of aged Manzanilla Sherry from the famous Bodegas Hidalgo – yes really. Manzanilla is basically a Fino Sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the Sherry region and so it is dry and ages with the Flor, or yeast, to give it complexity and that nutty, bready character. Then the blended wine is aged for 8 months in 300 and 500 litre barrels – used barrels so it softens the wine rather than flavours it.

Bodegas CVNE in Haro.

Now, I will have to whisper this and you will have to promise never to mention it to anybody else, but I do not really like Sherry. I appreciate it and am very interested in it, but cannot drink much of it for pleasure. What you have to realise is that Sherry holds the same place in many, possibly most, wine people’s hearts that Alfa Romeo does for petrol heads. You simply have no credibility unless you profess to love Sherry, so this will have to remain our little secret.

So, adding Sherry to a wine might seem strange, illegal even given that Rioja is a PDO / appellation and so the grapes must be grown in the correct area for the term Rioja to appear on the label. That is true, but because CVNE had traditionally made the wine this way, they were allowed to do so again. The idea is strange, but it really, really works. It makes for a truly delicious, fine and complex wine that I loved.

It seems that the management of CVNE were reminiscing about the old style Monopole, as the centenary of the brand was about to happen, so they sent down to the cellar for a bottle and could only find a single example left, a bottle from 1979. They tasted it and it was still in great condition, fresh, lively and so delicious that they decided to resurrect the style. To help them they called on the services of Ezequiel Garcia, the retired CVNE winemaker from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Ezequiel was thrilled to be part of the project and had no reservations in resurrecting this classic wine from the past, indeed I am told that he found it a moving experience. The part of that loves 1940s music hopes that Ezequiel cried!

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view

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

2014 Monopole Classico
CVNE
DOCa Rioja
Spain

The nose is very appealing, delicately aromatic and lifted with waxy apples, light custard notes, some spice, wafts of brioche, flakey pastry, rock pools and sea breeze. The palate is very fresh, lively and slightly saline as well sever so slightly succulent with cooked lemons and apple fruit as well as a waxy quality. There is something smoky and haunting about this wine and the flavours build in the mouth becoming slightly rounded and mealy even. This is a beguiling, complex and fascinating wine that is deeply satisfying, bone dry and wonderfully complete with richness and freshness vying with each other to dominate your senses – 93/100 points.

This would be wonderful with some sea bream, sea bass, mussels, clams, garlic prawns, oysters, chicken, pâté, smoked salmon, or anything light.

Available in the UK for around £25 a bottle from: The Wine Reserve.
It is also available mail order from Spain – until Brexit ruins everything – for around €15 a bottle plus shipping – from Decántalo and Uvinum.