Wine of the Week – Mature Chardonnay from Villa Maria from my Cellar

The beautiful Wairau River in Marlborough, New Zealand.

Recently I had a wonderful wine experience. I was working at the Decanter Fine Wine Experience and Sir George Fistonich was there. Now George, if you do not know is one of the great figures in the world of wine.

Sir George Fistonich, the founder, owner and driving force behind Villa Maria. I took this photograph at the Esk Valley winery in Hawke’s Bay, which is also part of the group.

He founded Villa Maria, the famous New Zealand wine producer, in 1961 and owns it to this day. His achievements are amazing and from humble beginnings Villa Maria is now the largest privately owned winery in New Zealand, indeed it is the largest New Zealand owned winery in the country.

I have been involved with Villa Maria either directly or indirectly since 1987 and the wines are never less than good and frequently very good indeed. As a whole the range is very impressive and it is easy to see why it one of Drinks International’s Most Admired Wine Brands in the world. In addition George also owns the Vidal, Esk Valley and Te Awa estates in Hawke’s Bay as well as the Thornbury range, whose Central Otago Pinot Noir is one of New Zealand’s best value wines.

What I especially admire about Villa Maria is that they make wines that people really love and that have huge recognition among consumers, but are still keen to innovate and try new styles of wine and new ways of working. George led the charge on the move to screw cap seals for instance. That seems a long time ago now, but it was only 2004 in fact. Among much else they have also experimented, very successfully, with Albariño, Orange Wine and a new wine called Ngakirikiri, a super premium release is a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend from the Gimblett Gravels growing area in Hawkes Bay and it is a magnificent wine.

I was chatting away to George and commented that I had found an old bottle of Villa Maria wine in my cellar and asked if he was around the next day to try it with me. Well he was and so I brought the bottle in on the tube.

It was my last bottle of 1994 Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay from Marlborough. I hadn’t kept it deliberately, but it was left over from a tasting about 20 years ago and I simply never got around to doing anything with it. The level looked pretty good, but the colour slightly worried me. It looked quite dark, although it was hard to tell through the green bottle.

Opening an old bottle of wine is always nerve wracking. How old is too old? I was certainly nervous about this one. Would it be oxidised and just too far gone to drink. Frankly at 23 years old it could well have been.

George in his early days – photo courtesy of Hatch Mansfield Agencies.

I opened it very slowly and very carefully, but even so the bottom quarter of the cork broke off and I couldn’t retrieve it, so it was rather un-stylishly bobbing about in the wine. However the rest of the cork was nice and damp and smelled clean, which made me more optimistic that all would be well.

I poured some into George’s glass before mine and together we inspected the colour and then sniffed the wine before taking a sip. First I felt a sense of relief that it was still alive after all this time, then a sense of joy that it was actually still quite fresh and bright, then feeling of exuberance because it was actually rather fabulous.

 

 

Wairau Valley vines

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

1994 Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay
Villa Maria Estate
Marlborough – the label rather elegantly states “Marlborough Region”
New Zealand

One great thing about this bottle is that the back label is wonderfully detailed, unlike the current labels. So, I actually know a great deal about how this wine was made. It is a blend of 70% Waldron Vineyard and 30% Fletcher Vineyard fruit. The two vineyards are very close to each other in the Rapaura district of the Wairau Plains, the ‘Golden Triangle’. Waldron is a warm, stony site that produces full flavoured, richly concentrated fruit that makes for vividly fruity wines. Fletcher, farmed by Colin, Chris and Michelle Fletcher, is on especially low vigour stony soils.

According to the fabulously informative back label just 17% of the wine went through malolactic fermentation, which made sense once I tasted it and noticed the high acidity. The wine was aged for just 5 months in oak barriques (225 litre barrels).

The colour was a beautiful bright yellow, light toffee, slightly orange and peach skin sort of colour. The nose was good, yes there was a slight touch of oxidation, but also real honeyed richness of peach and pineapple with something fresh, stony and mineral together with a light touch of caramel and butterscotch.

The real surprise though came with the palate. It was overwhelmingly fresh with lively acidity making it seem positively youthful and playful. Those flourishes of richness, pineapple and caramel mainly were in the background with something nutty and spicy from the oak, while the stony fresh acidity was to the fore making the wine seem pure and mineral.

23 years in bottle had not dimmed the wine in any way. I remember it as being a very good wine at the time, but now, all those years later, it has developed into something that brought all the different strands of Chardonnay together perfectly – ripe fruit richness, judicial use of oak, cleansing acidity and minerality. It had become a great wine and tasting it was a wonderful experience.

Wairau Valley vines.

So you see, Chardonnay is a great grape variety – indeed personally I think that New Zealand should enjoy a higher reputation for its Chardonnays than its Sauvignon Blancs – and Villa Maria makes wines that age brilliantly – even for a long time in the less than perfect conditions of my “cellar” – into something complex and extraordinary.

There are many things to enjoy about wine, the freshness, the fruit, the direct pleasure are all important, but sometimes the complexity of an aged wine is more beguiling and fascinating, while the shared pleasure of a rare wine can be a truly memorable experience.

 

The Marimar Estate – wines of elegance & beauty

I am so very lucky to do what I do. I get to see fabulous places and to meet many fascinating people. The wine world is full of winemakers and estate owners who are well known, even famous in my world and sometimes I have known their wines for years, so meeting them can often be a great experience.

Marimar Torres tasting with me in London. Thanks to Kate Sweet for taking the photograph, as I was enjoying myself so much that I clean forgot!

Marimar Torres tasting with me in London. Thanks to Kate Sweet for taking the photograph, as I was enjoying myself so much that I clean forgot!

Recently I had the chance to meet someone whose wines that I have admired for quite some time – Marimar Torres. Not only were her wines as good as ever, but she was great fun too. Miramar was as elegant and sophisticated as you would expect – she is part of Spain’s Torres winemaking family after all – but she was also very amusing and great company. She came across as totally honest and seemingly without ego – rare in winemakers. We chatted away for well over two hours and in that time I learned a lot about the winery and wines that bear her name, as well as her life and character. I was astonished by how easy she was to talk to, how ready she was to tell me about episodes in her past that I would expect her to keep quiet, as well as mistakes she has made and aspects of her own character that displeased her. Frankly I could have listened to her all day, she was an utter delight. I found that her focus, attention to detail, perfectionist streak and determination shined through all her wines, as did her sheer optimism and sunny disposition. I approve of anyone who takes satisfaction in a job well done.

It’s a hell of a story, the Marimar Torres story – and would make a marvellous film at that. Born into a patrician, winemaking family in Franco’s ultra Catholic Spain, she was in her own words, not so much a rebel as a nonconformist – something that would make life pretty hard and frustrating for her in that place and from that background.

Her parents had her life all planned out, stay at home until she met a rich man to look after her, but Marimar did not see her own future like that at all. She persuaded her parents to let her join the family firm and travelled the world selling Torres wines. Their biggest market was the United States and as a consequence she found herself in San Francisco in the early 1970s and fell in love with the place. In fact she fell in love with more than the city as she soon married an American wine and restaurant critic which allowed her to experience the blossoming food and wine culture of California, a lifestyle that was not available to her in Spain. Miramar told me that she found the whole experience exciting and liberating.

The winery at the Marimar Estate - photo courtesy of the winery.

The winery at the Marimar Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

Eventually being involved with wine wasn’t enough, Marimar wanted to make it too and in the mid 1980s she looked around for somewhere to plant a vineyard. Eventually finding a spot that excited her, she told me that ‘it was love at first sight’, she managed to persuade the family to loan her the money to plant her first vines – she has since bought the rest of the family out and owns the estate together with her daughter Cristina. This vineyard was in the cool Russian River Valley AVA of Sonoma, some 10 miles from the ocean and amazing as it seems, there were no others around at that time. Miramar planted her first Chardonnay vines in 1986-7 and named the vineyard Don Miguel in honour of her father.

The wine regions of Sonoma, showing the location of the Marimar Estate - click map for a larger view.

The wine regions of Sonoma, showing the location of the Marimar Estate – click map for a larger view.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Marimar was pregnant with her daughter at this stage and also decided to go and study winemaking at UC Davis – she is nothing if not determined.

2-CMT-MMT on Winery Patio (horiz)

Marimar, her daughter Cristina and their dogs on the terrace of the winery – photo courtesy of the winery.

Her first wine was the 1989 Chardonnay and her father was able to taste it shortly before he died, pronouncing it to be the best white wine he had ever tasted, which must have been quite a moment. For all that Marimar is a nonconformist and removed herself to a new and liberating setting, she strikes me as being very family conscious, with vineyards named after both her parents and a wine after her daughter.

In 1992 she built on this success by building a winery – in the style of a Masía, or traditional Catalan farmhouse. Today the Don Miguel vineyard contains 12 hectares each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, together with tiny amounts of Syrah, Tempranillo, Albariño and now even a little Godello.

Nothing seems to stand still here though, in 2002 Marimar planted 8 hectares of Pinot Noir in a new vineyard in the cooler Sonoma Coast AVA and named it Doña Margarita, after her mother.

Around the turn of the century Marimar visited Burgundy and noticed that many of the finest wines and best sites were farmed organically. This chimed with her belief in doing everything as naturally as possible and so from 2000 until 2006 the estate was in conversion, finally becoming certified organic in 2006. Nowadays the estate is totally biodynamic and generates all its own power using solar panels as well. As Marimar said to me, it makes perfect sense to go biodynamic as organics is merely a halfway house on the way to being biodynamic, and the theories of biodynamics predate those of organics. The estate even encourages a population of owls which control the gophers that are the major pest as they burrow through the roots and destroy the vines.

 Preparation 500

Biodynamic Preparation 500 at the Marimar Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Marimar Estate has come a long way in a very short time, so it was with real excitement that I tasted the wines, and they did not disappoint.

ALB_02014 Marimar Estate Albariño
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

I believe this is the fifth vintage of Albariño from the Marimar estate and it is a beauty. There is no oak, but 100% goes through malolactic, which helps with the texture.

The wine is fragrant, floral and aromatic with crisp green apple notes and something richer like pithy grapefruit giving a citrus twist. The palate has succulence and texture, with apricot fruit, the merest hint of pineapple and some citrus again. All of this makes it a little weighty and round in the mouth, but there is then a core of refreshing, enlivening acidity, a touch of minerality and it’s even a little saline, all of which makes it very refreshing. A fine Albariño that is wonderful with a bit of sea bass, but works equally well as an aperitif or partner to tapas – 93/100 points.

AC---twist-top2014 Marimar Estate Acero Chardonnay
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

An unoaked (as Marimar says, this is not a word in the dictionary, but everyone understands it) Chardonnay – Acero is the Spanish word for steel, as it is cold fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. Only indigenous yeast is used and the wine goes through 100% malolactic.

The nose is bright, fresh and appetising, as well as restrained and elegant with taught white peach, apple and pear, together with something creamy and rich lurking in the background. The palate offers beautifully ripe and gently opulent fruit with apricot and nectarine notes, a little dash of something tropical and a twist of white pepper too. There is lovely freshness here, but a softness to the texture as well, which makes for a delicious wine – 92/100 points.

marimar_la_masia_chardonnay_generic2013 Marimar Estate La Masía Chardonnay
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

The original wine of the Marimar Estate, La Masía means farmhouse. The grapes were barrel fermented in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new, new oak gives greater oak character than older oak, after 5 years the oak is neutral. The wine then undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation and is then aged for 7 months on the less in the barrels.

The colour here is a tad more golden than the Acero, while the nose is more pungent, richer and creamier with peach skin, ripe peach and nuts. The palate is gorgeous, restrained, elegant and silky with a creamy vanilla character, rich citrus, green fig and stone fruit. This is a very accomplished wine, very restrained and refined with subtle, but delicious creamy oak in the background and textured, supple fruit. A wonderful wine, I wish I’d had it with a grilled dover sole – 93/100 points.

PN_32012 Marimar Estate La Masía Pinot Noir
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

The Pinot on the Don Miguel Vineyard is grown in Green Valley, which is the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley. The grapes were hand sorted, destemmed and then fermented in small stainless steel tanks. It was then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels with 36% of the barrels being new.

The nose is fragrant with ripe cherry and plum fruit with a backbone of fragrant, spicy oak too. Pinot’s classic savoury, earthy quality is subservient to the wonderfully ripe, concentrated and seductive fruit. That delicious, ripe red fruit gives the wine a lovely succulence and a fleshy texture that makes it feel sensual. The finish is very long with that rich fruit and a feeling of delicate power too – 92/100 points.

DMR2013 Marimar Estate Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir
Doña Margarita Vineyard
Sonoma Coast AVA
Sonoma, California

Sonoma Coast is even cooler than Green Valley, being just 6 miles from the Pacific the cool ocean breezes and sea mists roll in making the place cooler, which gives slower, gentler ripening. Mas Cavalls means horse farm, as Marimar’s equestrian centre is just below the vineyard. The grapes were hand sorted, destemmed and then fermented in small stainless steel tanks. It was then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels with 36% of the barrels being new and it was unfined and unfiltered before bottling.

Wow, this was very different. The nose is more earthy and savoury – those cool conditions really show by making it feel more Burgundian. There is plenty of fruit too, but the savoury notes dominate, there are rich cherries, pungent raspberry and a waft of almost sweet spice. The palate is very savoury too, with forest floor and mushroom characters with some polished, red fruit shining through the gaps. Again this is a very seductive wine, with a rich truffle and spicy finish, perhaps a more purist or Burgundian style, but quite wonderful – 94/100 points.

2013 Marimar Estate Cristina Pinot Noir
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

Named for Marimar’s daughter Cristina, this is a reserve selection of the best lots of Pinot Noir from the estate, the richest, most expressive and age worthy. After a cold fermentation the wine was aged for 4 months in new French oak barrels. The components were then blended and the finished wine was aged for a further year in 40% new and 60% 1 year old French oak barrels.

The nose is wonderfully fragrant with rich cherry and raspberry fruit, even some subtle richer black fruit notes. There is spicy oak too, something toasty, vanilla and attractively charred together with sweeter spice and a citric twist of blood orange. The palate is richly fruity, richly savoury and refined, with silky, ripe tannins, some lovely minerality and a salty note too. This is a bolder, more lush wine, but it is still beautifully balanced – 94/100 points.

Marimar Estate wines are distributed in the UK by John E Fells. For US distribution, contact the winery here.

Miramar's dogs driving a tractor, but it's ok as they don't drink.

Bonita and Chico, Miramar’s dogs driving a tractor, but don’t worry, they don’t drink, although they both have a reserve bottling wine named after them.

This is a marvellous range of wines. There was real beauty in them and they made sense, the same assuredness and lack of showiness – or ego – somehow informed them all and they were as elegant and engaging as the lady herself. Miramar is very proud of the fact that these are not winemaker wines, they are vineyard wines that express the terroir of where they are grown. Do try them if you can, they are hugely enjoyable as well as being elegant and fine wines that deserve a place in any cellar.

New Zealand Spreads its Wings – 5 Wines of the Week and something rather special

Don’t only drink Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – there is so much more to enjoy.

I don’t know what it is with me. Perhaps I have a low boredom threshold when it comes to wine, but I love variety. The very thing that makes wine exciting to me is the infinite variety available. Which seems to put me out of kilter with many wine drinkers here in the UK who would appear to only drink the same few wine styles all the time.

If that is you, please, please branch out, experiment, try something new – what’s the worst that can happen?

Which brings me to my theme – New Zealand. Please remember to click all the links.

Marlborough vineyards - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Marlborough vineyards – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

I have long admired New Zealand wines and well remember my first taste of a wine from that far off country and it excited me very much. It was 1984, I had recently joined the trade and the company I worked for introduced three extraordinary sounding new wines to the range, one wine each from Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon.

NZ map QS 2011 watermark

They all seemed exotic beyond belief. You have to realise that the wine revolution had not yet happened and such things were not widely available. The Lebanese wine was Château Musar 1977, the Australian was Berri Estates South Australian Cabernet-Shiraz and the New Zealand wine was a Gewürztraminer made by an estate called Matawhero in the Gisborne region of North Island. I remember it as being really good and wish that I could still buy it over here.

I had recently fallen for the charms of the Gewürztraminer grape and drank a lot of it at the time – I hardly ever do now as the examples from Alsace seem much sweeter nowadays.

So my first taste of New Zealand wine would now be regarded as  a slightly left field offering, but I did not realise that then. Sauvignon Blanc did exist in New Zealand in those days, but it was early days. There wasn’t very much and it was far from being the most popular or dominant grape. Indeed the now ubiquitous Kiwi ‘Sav’ (why do they miss the U out when they pronounce it?) would have been the oddity then. What’s more the Marlborough region barely produced any wine at all. It is the now largest wine region in the country and produces something like 60% of New Zealand wine, while around 60% of production is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the years I have seen New Zealand wines proliferate on this market and sweep all before them. Everyone now drinks New Zealand wine. Or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc anyway. That is the dominant grape and most widely produced and consumed style.

Which has bugged me for quite a long time.

I like many Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs and can see the attraction, but I want other things too and so wish that wine drinkers would experiment with all the other lovely wines that New Zealand produces. Of course it would help if the major outlets got a little more creative and actually stocked some of the other exciting wines coming out of New Zealand. However, things are getting better, it’s slow, but a wider range of New Zealand wines is beginning to be available.

To make my point I recently put on a tasting of the more unusual wines coming out of New Zealand at the moment. It wasn’t exhaustive by any means, but I managed to find some real variety and excellent wines that many people would enjoy. Collectively they are my Wines of the Week.

The White Wines

New Zealand is a cool climate wine producing country and so the production is overwhelmingly white. Although there are some warmer places and Pinot Noir of course performs well in the cool conditions of South Island, it just isn’t hot enough to ripen black grapes to make red wines in most of the country. My line up of white wines was really good, they all showed well and had that classic Kiwi clean brightness to them that  that I can only sum up as a feeling of purity.

Vineyards in Gisborne - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Vineyards in Gisborne – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

image-12015 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Gisborne

Albariño is a Spanish grape from the north western region of Galicia, where it is most famously used to make the often delicious wines of Rias Baixas. They are amongst the best Spanish white wines and are great with seafood. The grape is also grown over the border in Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho. This is the second vintage of this wine that I have tasted and I have loved them both. Te Awa are a wonderful winery, who produce some terrific wines and created the Left Field label specifically for the less widely seen styles of wine. I am thrilled that Albariño might be breaking through as a popular and international grape variety – it certainly deserves to.

The aromas are floral and scented with delicate, but ripe peach and zesty citrus aromas. The palate is bright, fresh and lively with mandarin and nectarine characters and a twist of lime on the finish. This is a light, fresh, crisp style that is really, really good and would be gorgeous with some seared scallops or just on its own. It feels pristine, bright and pure as a mountain stream, surely anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would appreciate this – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle from The Wine Reserve – for more stockists click here.

Yealand's Seaview Vineyard - photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

Yealand’s Seaview Vineyard – photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

yealands-estate-gruner-veltliner-nv2014 Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Grüner Veltliner
Yealands Estate
Awatere Valley, Marlborough

Yealands is an impressive producer and is the brainchild of the engaging Peter Yealand who in his time has farmed mussels and deer as well as wine. Most of their production is from a large single block of vines – the largest single parcel of vines in the county – in the Awatere Valley, the cool south eastern part of Marlborough. It is right by the sea and is called the Seaview Estate as it looks out over Cook Strait.

Grüner Veltliner is the signature white grape of Austria, where it makes some tremendous wines. Much like Albariño, I get the feel that Grüner Veltliner might be on the cusp of breaking through as an international grape and again I think that is an excellent thing. 15% was fermented in second and third use French oak barrels and the wine spent 3 months on the lees with lees stirring to help the complexity and the texture.

Another wine with a lovely aromatic nose that is delightfully floral and gently spicy with a dash of white pepper. Again that purity shines through and the palate is gorgeously silky and lightly textured, being gently creamy like coconut – presumably helped by the oak. There is plenty of discrete apricot like fruit too as well as refreshing citrus acidity giving plenty of zing. Again I cannot imagine anyone that likes Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc not enjoying this, but it is deliciously different – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from Great Western Wine – for more stockists click here.

image-1-22014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Villa Maria
Wairau Valley, Marlborough

Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose, as the skins are pink.
This wine is from Fletcher’s Vineyard which is in the famed Golden Mile, which is a strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the sub-region of Rapaura.

The nose is fresh and enticing with pear, delicately smoky peach and some mineral notes.
The palate is by turns stony and mineral, pear-like and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit and mandarin too. There is a leesy texture here too giving a gentle smokiness and a lightly ‘mealy’ quality that is very attractive.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominant than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from The Pip Stop and The New Zealand House of Wine.

image-12013 Esk Valley Verdelho
Esk Valley Estate
Hawkes Bay

I am very fond of Verdelho as it is a lovely grape and I wonder why we don’t see it more often. Just to be clear, it is not the same as Verdejo or Verdicchio or any of the other similarly named varieties that people often assume are the same. It is actually the Madeira grape, but put to a very different use here. Some authorities think Verdelho might be a long lost clone of Riesling, but they say that about Albariño too.

Esk Valley is a wonderful estate that is much more famous for producing some of New Zealand’s finest red wines, but they also make some marvellous whites, including some excellent Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Selected from two vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and was mainly cold fermented in tank, with some being fermented using the natural yeast in large – 600 litre – French oak casks.

Delightfully aromatic and floral with a real zing of lime and a mineral edge together with a touch of oiliness. On the palate the texture marries beautifully with the freshness and the minerality. The oak just gives a dollop of cream and a bit of complexity, but never dominates, while some tropical fruit and citrus flavours of mandarin and lime make it utterly delicious – 89/100 points.

The 2014 vintage is available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company and The New Zealand House of Wine – for more stockists click here.

The Red Wines

Being a cool climate country, New Zealand is nowhere near as famous for its reds as its whites and only a small proportion of the country’s production is red. Pinot Noir is by far the most dominant grape and is the main one used in South Island – by some margin. However, other grape varieties do get a look in and, just as with the whites, the number of grape varieties used is increasing and becoming more exciting. Hawkes Bay – or Hawke’s Bay – in North Island is home to the greatest concentration of red wine production in New Zealand – apart from Pinot Noir which is mainly from South Island. It is warmer here, with well drained soils, so it can produce some good concentrated red wines. The Gimblett Gravels is the most prestigious sub-zone and home to many of the country’s finest red wines. Traditionally it’s Merlot and Cabernet country, but Syrah is quickly becoming pretty mainstream, while Mediterranean grapes like Tempranillo, Montepulciano and even Grenache are beginning to get noticed.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

lf-btl-malbec-nv-d-jpg2014 Left Field Malbec
Te Awa Collection
Hawkes Bay

Malbec has been used in some of the Cabernet-Merlot blends of Hawkes Bay for quite a number of years, just as it is used in Bordeaux, but often with a higher proportion. I have only once before had a single varietal Malbec from New Zealand though and that was in the 2003 vintage (I think) when Esk Valley made one because their Merlot and Cabernet were not up to the mark and so all they had left was Malbec. This version is completely unoaked.

The colour was an extraordinary vivid, deep purple – you could paint with this. The nose gave off rich plum, blueberry and blackberry, together with rich cocoa and some pungent spice notes. The palate was fresh and juicy, with chunky rich fruit and a deep inky feel. There is liquorice and pepper together with black fruit and a dryness from the – artfully tamed – tannins that gives the wine a sappy, briar-like flavour. I love the upfront and juicy quality of this. It feels fresher and cooler than its Argentinian cousins and would go very nicely with a barbecue or a steak, I would enjoy it chilled too – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

trinity-hill-wine-568d7a79694b32014 Trinity Hill Tempranillo
Trinity Hill Estate
Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

Trinity Hill is a great producer – right up there with Craggy Range – that produces some of the best Syrah in the country, as well as many other great wines. One of the best ways to taste their wines in the UK is by visiting the excellent Bleeding Heart restaurant, which is part owned by John Hancock who owns Trinity Hill. The Tempranillo was fermented in stainless steel and then aged in a mixture of tank and French and American oak barrels for a short time.

Again this youthful wine had a bright and vivid purple colour. The nose was earthy and a bit spicy with juicy plum aromas and the sweeter note of dried currants. The palate was sumptuously fruity with lots of black fruit, a touch of red fruit and a sort of sweet and sour thing going on with a touch of drying tannins. This is totally unlike the Rioja style of Tempranillo, being more fruity and less savoury in style. It might not reach the same heights of excellence as Trinity Hill’s Syrah, but is is a lovely wine with vivid, ripe, chunky fruit – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £18 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

1staete_landt_arie_syrah_20112010 Staete Landt Estate Arie Syrah
Staete Landt Estate
Rapaura, Marlborough

Staete Landt was the brainchild of a charming Dutch couple called Ruud and Dorien Maasdam. In Marlborough’s early wine days they bought an old apple orchard and turned it into one of the most respected wine estates in the country. The estate name is a reference to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered what we now call New Zealand in 1642 and named it ‘Staete Landt’, land for the Dutch state. I like them and I love their wines. They and their wines always have something to interesting to say. In the early days, late 1970s and early 1980s, plenty of people planted Cabernet and Merlot in Marlborough and then discovered that they just cannot ripen properly, so apart from Pinot Noir and the odd maverick, you come across very few black grapes in Marlborough. So, finding someone brave enough to make premium Syrah in the cool conditions of Marlborough is a real thrill.

Just as with the Sauvignon Gris above, the estate is in the ‘Golden Mile’ strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the Marlborough sub-region of Rapaura. Ruud has conducted in-depth soil analysis on his vineyard and identified 24 different blocks which are treated as individual vineyards in effect. Since 2005 Syrah has been planted on two of them, but the 2010 comes just from the Arie block. The grapes were hand-picked and de-stemmed. They had a pre-ferment cold soak for seven days and a long post fermentation maceration as well. These techniques help colour and flavour extraction while not extracting tannin. The wine spent 20 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.

The maturity and class of this wine really showed. The nose was smoky, spicy and earthy with rich cherry, blackberry (some dried, some fresh fruit) and some dark chocolate. The palate was svelte with fine, sweet tannins, some leather and herbs as well as black fruit and some mushroom and truffle from age. It had lovely freshness running all the way through it and was very stylish and fine with a long finish – 92/100 points.

The 2011 is available in the UK for around £22 per bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Which could have been a great end to the tasting, but I had dug deep into my cellar and unearthed a wonderful treasure for the finale:

Vidal Estate in the 1920s - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate in the 1920s – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Soler bottle1998 Vidal Estate Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon
Vidal Estate
Hawke’s Bay

I have always been fascinated by the Vidal Esate for as long as I have known about it. Founded in 1905 it is the oldest NZ winery that was just a winery and not a mixed farm as well. Spaniard José Sole, had been making wine in New Zealand since 1865 and had anglicised his name to Joseph Soler. His nephew, Anthony Vidal, arrived in New Zealand from Spain in 1888 to help his uncle at his winery in Wanganui on the West coast of North island. Eventually Vidal wanted to set up his own winery and he bought an old stables and half a hectare of land near Hastings in the southern part of Hawke’s Bay, which was warmer and drier that Wanganui and boasted well drained stony soils. Today Vidal is part of the Villa Maria group and one of their best vineyards in Hawke’s Bay is named in honour of Joseph Soler.

I am always in awe of them when I think what drive and what determination the pair of them must have had to go all that way around the world in sailing ships to an isolated place with a tiny population and an uncertain future. 

This wine was a rigorous selection from a single block of the Soler vineyard, which had only been planted in 1993, so was very young. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented in open vats with hand plunging four times a day to extract colour and flavour. It was pressed after two weeks post ferment maceration and then aged for 21 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. 1998 was a great vintage in Hawke’s Bay and perhaps the first to serve notice that this is a great red wine region.

The colour was quite gamey and brown, like Brown Windsor Soup, and a great deal of tannin had adhered to the inside of the bottle. The nose was vivacious and alive with currants, leather, cocoa, gamey / meaty, espresso and mint notes. The palate was very smooth with those currants again, dried blackcurrants, a savoury, meaty character, rich coffee, figs, fine milk chocolate and the merest touch of ripe, fine grain tannins. It had great complexity and concentration and was still vibrant and delicious with a wonderful decayed sweetness like rich dried fruit. I loved the wine and would like to try it with an old fashioned saddle of mutton or steak and kidney pudding, luckily I still have another bottle – 94/100 points.

This is no longer available anywhere that I am aware of, unless you want to offer me a lot of money for my last remaining bottle!

It was an excellent tasting, even though I say so myself, and gave a little snapshot of some of the new styles and interesting things coming out of this dynamic wine producing country – and not a Sauvignon Blanc in sight.

So the next time you drink something from New Zealand, try a different grape variety or style. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Happy Christmas and a great 2016 to all plus a review of my year

Wow another Christmas is upon us and I have barely achieved a fraction of the things that I wanted to this year.

However, it was a great year for me for learning about amazing wines and visiting beautiful wine regions, so I can’t really complain. Here a few of my highlights of the year, I hope you enjoy them.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Back in March I visited Campania for the first time, seeing Naples and Pompeii as well as the wine regions of Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, Sannio and many more. It was a great experience full of wonderful wines and interesting stories. You can read all about it by clicking here.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

One of my favourite photographs of Slovenian vineyards.

Italy was very much the theme of the year for me as I visited four times in all. The first one was actually an amazing trip to study the wines produced in the north east edge of Italy and over the frontier in neighbouring Slovenia – the tour was called Wine Without Borders. That whole part of the world is very beautiful and produces some stunning wines too and you can read all about it by clicking here.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the Romanian countryside.

One of my most exciting trips of 2015 was to Romania. I had never been to the country at all before and had no idea what to expect from the wines. It turned out to be a beautiful country full of lovely people and some astonishing wines. I did not taste a single terrible wines and was very excited about the quality of most of them. You can read all about it by clicking here.

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

In June I was thrilled to go on my first dedicated trip to Chablis and I learned ever such a lot about what makes these wines quite so important. Ever since I have enjoyed talking about Chablis to all my students, but have yet to write about the visit – watch this space.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux on Lake Geneva’s north shore.

In the same month I was honoured to be invited to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition in Switzerland. Chasselas is a real speciality grape in Switzerland, but comes close to being unloved almost anywhere else. Well I think the breadth of wines that I tasted and the sheer quality of most them proves the Swiss are right to love the grape and I loved the trip, as well as the big trip I made to Switzerland’s wine regions in late 2014. You can read all about my Swiss adventures by clicking here.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

New discoveries and experiences continued with a terrific trip to Germany in September. Excitingly I visited Württemberg and the Neckar Valley as well as the amazing Stuttgart Wine Festival. This part of Germany is slightly off the beaten track wine-wise, certainly when compared to the Mosel or Rheingau, but it is well worth seeing as the landscape is very beautiful and some of the wines are stunning. Weingut Wöhrwag‘s 2013 Pinot Noir Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg Großes Gewächs was certainly the best Pinot I tasted in 2015 and one of the very best red wines that I drank all year. I aim to write all about it soon.

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo in Trento, the beautiful capital of Trentino.

My Italian adventures continued in October with an enjoyable trip to Trentino in the north of the country. It is a fascinating and beautiful region that has only been part of Italy since 199, so is steeped in history. The wines were pretty good too, but then so was the beer – you can real all about it by clicking here.

Verona's amazing Roman Arena.

Verona’s amazing Roman Arena.

One added bonus of this trip was that I managed to stay an extra night in Verona and so saw that wonderful little city and was able to experience the delights of Lugana, a white wine from the southern shore of Lake Garda – it might well be my favourite Italian white right now and this delicious example is my Christmas white wine.

As well as overseas visits I have tasted some amazing wines over here too. I was particularly thrilled to meet the charming David Mazza who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, but makes an amazing range of wines from Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties – you can read about him by clicking here.

The new discoveries kept coming too, new grapes like Tibouren from Provence and Cserszegi Fűszeres from Hungary, exciting old vine blends from Chile, a light red or a deep rosé from Tuscany, made from Tempranillo at that! Try as I might I simply could not leave Spain alone, I kept finding amazing Spanish wines that moved and excited me and that offered great value for money too – have a look here, here, here and here.

Along the way too I tasted a superb Albariño from California and another from New Zealand – Albariño is on the march it seems and you can read about them by clicking here.

Just the other day I presented my favourite sparkling wine of the year and I would urge you to try it if you can. It’s rather modestly called Apogee Deluxe Brut and is handmade by the great Andrew Pirie from fruit grown on a  2 hectare vineyard in northern Tasmania. I have long admired what Andrew does and if there is a better Australian fizz than this – indeed any non-Champagne fizz, although it had stiff opposition from Gramona’s amazing 2006 111 Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava – then I have yet to try it. It is certainly a rich style of sparkling wine, but it never gets too serious, the fruit, freshness and frivolity dominate the palate and made me just want to drink more.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I nearly forgot, all right I did forget and had to come back and add this, the most exciting wine that I drank all year. There was lots of competition from the delicious 2011 Chêne Bleu Aliot, the sublime 1978 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from California and the downright amazing 2001 Château La Tour Blanche Sauternes, but my stand out wine was from my own collection and it was a beautifully mature Merlot-Cabernet blend from Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch 19891989 Rozendal
Rozendal Farm
Stellenbosch
South Africa
I was very nervous about opening this. For South Africa it is very old, Nelson Mandela was still in prison when this was made and I know nothing about it. The estate seems to have disappeared. Frankly the wine seemed older and looked older than it was – even the label seems ancient. the nose was classic mature wine, smoky, cedar, earthy and overwhelmingly savoury with some balsamic notes and a touch of dried fruit too. The palate was extraordinary, still all there with that hallmark savoury fragility of very mature wine. Good acidity kept it fresh and provided the secret of its longevity. the tannins were almost totally faded, but for me the big revelation was a solid core of ripe sweet fruit that made it a joy to drink despite its venerable age.

Tasting this was a great moment and one worth recording as mature wine from anywhere other than the classic regions – I include California here – is pretty rare, especially of this quality. If anyone knows anything about Rozendal please let me know, I tried to contact them, but to no avail.

All in all 2015 went too fast, but it was good fun – despite me turning 50 in January – so let’s hope for even more excitement in 2016.

Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year and thank you so much for reading my wine page.

 

The Chasselas Affair – wine travels in Switzerland

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The gorgeous vineyards of Lavaux.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

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

1907 paddle steamer on Lac Leman.

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

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

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The beautiful vine covered landscape.

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

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Leaving La Suisse at Montreux.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from the ramparts of Aigle castle.

The view from the ramparts of Aigle castle.

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

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The lovely Clos du Rocher.

A better view of Clos du Rocher's vineyards.

A better view of Clos du Rocher’s vineyards.

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

The beautiful, but very different vineyards of Chablais.

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

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

The concrete egg shaped tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins.

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

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

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

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

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

Château Mercier, Sierre.

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

The view from my early morning walk.

The view from my early morning walk.

The views as it got lighter.

The views as it got lighter.

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

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

The different cheeses waiting to be melted for Raclette.

The different cheeses waiting to be melted for Raclette.

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

My highlights from these tastings were, for the whites:

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

2013 Petite Arvine from Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz in Fully on the banks of the Rhône. These were my first two Petite Arvignes, I had never even heard of it in fact, but wow what a lovely grape it is. It has something of the freshness and vivaciousness of Grüner Veltliner and Albariño about it, but often with more salinity, so giving tension, and fruit (especially grapefruit), moderate acidity and a silky quality to the texture. I totally fell in love with this grape.

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

And the reds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The entrance to the tunnel.

The entrance to the tunnel.

The view that awaited us.

The view that awaited us.

The view the other way.

The view the other way.

We enjoyed a tasting and lunch here!

We enjoyed a tasting and lunch here!

The descent begins.

The descent begins.

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

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

Luckily I didn't have to use this one!

Luckily I didn’t have to use this one!

It was truly breathtaking - in every sense.

It was truly breathtaking – in every sense.

I could not get enough of these vineyards.

I could not get enough of these vineyards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from Cave la Romaine.

The view from Cave la Romaine.

More views from Cave la Romaine.

More views from Cave la Romaine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whites:

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

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

Red:

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

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A last view from cave La Romaine.

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

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

Wine of the Week 56 – a delicious and refreshing Godello

I know that Albariño gets all the fame and much of the plaudits, but in the general run of things I am much happier drinking that other great white grape from Galicia, Godello.

Albariño is a wonderful grape, but I often find that it disappoints unless it is very fine and costly. For a grape variety whose reputation is for high acidity, poise, elegance and being crisp, the cheaper versions can frequently be a bit soft and nondescript. Godello however is much more reliable and produces attractive wines at many different price points. I have always been drawn to Godello, but at the moment I seem to be liking it more and more.

What’s more, we are fortunate to have the grape at all, as Godello very nearly went extinct as a consequence of Franco’s agricultural policies – his government guaranteed prices for agricultural goods, wine amongst them. One result of this policy is that as vineyards were replanted they replaced quality grapes with grapes that produced quantity more than anything else. I assume that Rioja and Tempranillo avoided this potential fate as it already had an international market.

Godello is principally grown in the Valdeorras region of Galicia and Bierzo in Castilia y León – the 2 regions were historically both in Galicia and use the same grape varieties and have broadly the same conditions. Godello is also grown in Monterrei and Ribera Sacra to great effect.

Given that it has survived and we can now enjoy Godello, I would love for it to be more popular – and Spanish white wines in general actually, which are often very good quality indeed.

Anyway recently I tasted an excellent Godello that was delicious and great value for money, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of the Wine Regions of North West Spain including Galica – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of the Wine Regions of North West Spain including Galica – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Las Médulas

Las Médulas, a World Heritage Site in Bierzo that was once the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire. Valdeorras, the Valley of Gold, gets its name form these gold mines.

bolo2014 Bolo Mountain Wine Godello
DO Valdeorras
Galicia, Spain 

This wine is made by the great Rafael Palacios, whose brother Alvaro is one of the movers and shakers in Spain’s great Priorat region. Rafael fell in love with Godello in 1996, when it was incredibly rare – I think I am right that there were only 7 producers of it in the world by that time – and went on to piece together a 21 hectare estate of Godello grapes in the beautiful Val do Bibei high in the mountains near the village of Bolo. What he fell in love with was the bright, cool Atlantic influence, but also the extra depth and weight that Godello has over the region’s other grape varieties. He was also fortunate in that the vines he managed to get his hands on include some seriously old material, some of it nearly 100 years old. The Bolo Mountain Wine is his straightforward , unoaked take on Godello, he makes 2 more serious examples, but I still think it is a lovely wine.
A supremely fresh and lively dry white. It is light and easy to drink, even with a slight petillance on the palate, which I find very enticing.
The nose is honeysuckle and gentle peach, while the palate is soft and fresh and reminded me of some of the Swiss wines I was tasting near Montreux the other day. The acidity doesn’t dominate, so there is a softness and creaminess, but it is still very fresh with a core of minerality that gives the wine real poise and elegance. Overall the wine has a real mountain feel, there is a purity about it that I love and what’s more is is sinfully drinkable – 89/100 points.
Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from The Wine Society. More stockist information is available from Indigo Wine.
Available in the US for around $12 a bottle, stockist information is available here.
I would urge you to try this wine, it is superb quality, great value and very versatile indeed. It is lovely as an aperitif, but equally good with fish, poultry, pork, creamy cheeses and spicy food. I think that I will drink a fair amount of it this Summer.

Wine of the Week 53 – a celebration of Albariño

Once again I was spoilt for choice, so have decided to have a pair of Wines of the Week.

They are both from different countries and different winemakers, but they are both made from the same grape – Albariño, although neither of them hail from that superb grape’s native country – Spain. The grape originates in Gallicia north western Spain, where it is famously used to make Rias Baixas wines – this is one of the very best you will find. This region is just above Portugal, which also grows the grape and produces superb wines from it, but the Portuguese call it Alvarinho – this is a superb Portuguese example, as is this.

Loving Albariño can be an irritating pastime as, like Pinot Noir, it can be so inconsistent and not always show its true beauty, but when it does it truly deserves to be included in a list of the world’s finest white grapes. Lower quality examples can be a bit dilute and lack minerality in favour of peachy fruit, so are always at least nice to drink, but at their best Albariños – like this one here – have poise, balance, purity and a thrilling quality.

By the way, if is is consistency that you are looking for with Spanish white wines, then I would recommend that you try a Verdejo from Rueda, this grape never fails to deliver and I wrote about a superb example here.

Good Albariño excites me and I have long thought it a shame that it has not managed to break out from the ghetto and become a true international grape variety. However, it seems that this might be about to change as I have recently tasted two really exciting and fine Albariños, one from New Zealand and another from California, neither of them are oaked.

The wine regions of Sonoma - click map for a larger view

The wine regions of Sonoma – click map for a larger view

Marimar Albarino2012 Marimar Estate Albariño
Marimar Estate, Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA, Sonoma, California

Marimar Torres is an amazing lady. Born into the winemaking Torres family of Spain, she is Miguel’s sister, Marimar carved out her own niche by relocating to California and establishing a boutique winery in Sonoma. The estate specialises in Chardonnay and Noir and the viticulture is entirely organic and moving towards biodynamic. Because of Marimar’s Spanish roots they also grow a little Tempranillo, which she blends with Syrah, and recently have planted a small parcel of Albariño. Originally Marimar planted the grape on the cool Sonoma Coast, but amazingly it was too cold for it to ripen properly – it was cooler than Galicia. After 4 years of trying there they gave up and grafted the same vines onto rootstock in their slightly warmer Don Miguel Vineyard in their Russian River Valley Estate. It is a true boutique wine with only 287 cases produced.
Albariño is an aromatic grape and the nose is richly exotic and fragrant with floral notes, pineapple, mango and some peach and nectarine too. It isn’t all fruit though, there is even a touch of something saline and mineral there.
The palate is quite round, but also delivers lovely acidity to offset the succulent fruit. Lovely concentration of fruit, peach and apricot, even peach stone at times. Touch of white pepper too. Lovely balance and tension between the freshness and the juicy fruit. A glorious wine, subtle and hedonistic at the same time. The finish is dominated by lovely tangy stone fruit and is very long – 93/100 points.
Try it with simply cooked fish and a salad, but the sheer weight of this Albariño will suit garlicky chicken well too.
Available in the UK for around £28 a bottle from Vintage Marque and Edgmond Wines. Further stockist information is available from Fells.
US stockist information is available here.
The second exciting Albariño that I have tasted recently is from an equally unlikely place, New Zealand.
NZ map QS 2011 watermark

New Zealand wine map – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Richard Painter, Te Awa's talented winemaker.

Richard Painter, Te Awa’s talented winemaker.

Left Field Albarino2014 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Hawke’s Bay, New ZealandTe Awa is another enterprising winery, this time based in the Gimblett Gravels zone of North Island’s Hawkes Bay region. They produce an exciting range of wines, but also like to show their whimsical side in their Left Field range of less usual grape varieties that are not always grown on their own vineyards. They augment these wines with a wonderfully irreverent set of labels, which you must read. The Albariño fruit was sourced from a small vineyard in Gisborne, which again shows that you do not want too cold a place for Albariño to thrive – Gisborne is pretty warm and is regarded as great Chardonnay country. Again it is an experimental lot with just 250 cases produced.
There is a startling purity to this with like juice and pumice notes together with some honeysuckle and orange blossom on the nose.
The palate is lean and clean, like a lunge with a foil, with acidity rather than weight to the fore, but the fruit is delicious too, sort of dancing on your senses with delicate flavours of melon, peach and nectarine. Another gorgeous wine and clean as a whistle, grab some while you can – 92/100 points.
This lighter, zestier style would suit shell fish and tapas very well as well as all manner of lighter dishes.
Available in the UK for around £13 a bottle from Stone Vine & SunTaurus Wines and The Halifax Wine Company. Further stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield.
Both these wines are really fine examples of Albariño and show that this terrifically exciting grape is finally on the march.