Chilied red wines

As it’s Summer I thought that I would write about something that I like, but it seems to me that many people resist the idea, in the UK anyway – chilled red wine.

In the UK it seems to be a cultural fixation that the only acceptable way to serve a red wine is at the temperature of the room that you happen to occupy. Because that is what ‘room temperature’ is – right?

We seem to all be taught that red wine should be served at ‘room temperature’, and most people that I meet interpret that to mean that you should serve it pretty warm. I have even heard more than one self appointed wine expert in a pub or restaurant telling people that red wine is better served as warm as possible.

Well the truth is that this fabled ‘room temperature’ concept long predates modern central heating. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the sorts of houses that had decent wine in them were large and unheated, therefore they wouldn’t have been hot by our standards at all, unless you were standing right by the fire.

The Wine and Spirit Education Trust, who are the leading wine education body in the world, deem room temperature to be between 15˚ and 18˚C, much cooler than most centrally heated rooms today.

As far as I can discover this focus on room temperature, like so many ‘traditional’ things is a purely Victorian invention. The Victorians loved to bring rules into things, perhaps to make it easier to spot who was socially acceptable and who was not.

I was always taught that the reason we serve red wine on the warm side is that if you have cool red wine it makes the tannins more aggressive and if you warm it, the tannins are smoother.

And up to a point that is true, but like so much to do with wine, it isn’t totally true.

Even the purists admit that you can lightly chill light-bodied red wines – the likes of Beaujolais or Valpolicella, but personally I would go further than that.

Go to Spain and chilled red wine – even fine red wine, is completely normal. I well remember several years ago attending a tasting of superb Spanish wines from the Grandes Pagos de España group of producers. It was led by the wonderful Carlos Falcó, the Marques de Griñon himself and he carefully brought his own wines from his hotel in order to be able to serve them as he wanted to. These are some of the finest and most expensive wines of Spain and the bottles were frosted with moisture. These were cold, not just lightly chilled – and they were perfect that way too.

Many years ago I was in Belthazar’sthat most marvellous wine bar in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront complex and trying two different examples of Syrah from South Africa. They were both excellent wines, but served at the traditional temperature in Cape Town’s Summer heat they tasted like a bowl of soup and were pretty heavy going.

I have found that, for me anyway, red wines are best served a little cooler than is traditionally thought to be wise. I always like the bottle to feel cool to the touch, whereas when I was younger I wanted the bottle of a red wine to feel a little warm. For me this touch of coolness accentuates the freshness of the wine, and I like freshness. It prevents the wine from feeling gloopy and soupy and so keeps it drinkable.

As for cool red wines being more obviously tannic, well I don’t always find that to be the case. It does depend on the wine though and the food I am eating and the situation. The warmer the weather the cooler I want the wine.

Having said all that, I am not inclined to chill an overly tannic red wine. Left bank Bordeaux for instance does not work with chilling at all, even for me. Which makes me wonder if that is where the concept came from originally, as Bordeaux was the first modern fine wine region – hence its reputation. So the lighter choices are still the best ones, but for me, but the list is much longer than just Beaujolais and Valpoicella.

Personally I really like chilled Cabernet Franc from the Loire, especially the lighter and unoaked versions. Chinon works especially well in my opinion – try this lovely example as long as the wine is light with the emphasis on the crunchy red fruit, rather than oak and structure, then it will work nicely. Like so many of these chilled red wines, serve it with charcuterie, crusty bread and pickled cornichons, with the vinegar drained out, for a delicious combination.

Be careful with expanding this concept to new world Cabernet Franc as these tend to be more akin to red Bordeaux in structure, so are probably best not chilled.

Another grape variety that works chilled is Pinot Noir – even the purists accept that Burgundy should be served at cellar temperature. The soft tannins of Pinot lend themselves very well to being served cool as there is plenty of acidity to make the wine feel fresh. Great Pinots to be chilled include the lovely, bright fruity versions from Alsace or red Sancerre, but perhaps the best ones are from New Zealandthis example would work particularly well chilled. These bright, seductively fruity wines are silky with very little tannin and are lovely chilled and paired with salmon or summery chicken dishes – or enjoyed at a barbecue.

The great value Pinot Noirs from Chile, Romania – and here – and southern Germany are absolutely perfect for chilling too. They have soft, silky tannins and bright, vivid fruit all held together by refreshing acidity that makes the wines feel juicy and fresh, everything that works best in a chilled red wine.

Bardolino is another light red wine from northern Italy that is good chilled. It comes from the shores of Lake Garda, very close to Valpolicella in fact, and is at its best when chilled. There is very good Bardolino around, but even a basic one will be more attractive served cool. This example is joyfully fruity, direct and pleasurable – just the thing for an alfresco meal or a barbie.

Italy actually has quite an array of lighter red wines, perhaps more than anywhere else. The bright, light, fresh style of Barbera from Piemonte can fit the bill perfectly too. Don’t chill an expensive one, that will be oaky and fine, but a standard one that will be all about sour cherry fruit and refreshing acidity with soft, low tannins.

The Italians often like their red wines to be juicy and refreshing and a good starting point for chilled red wine can be Lambrusco. This fascinating wine style with its bright purple foam has its detractors, but the real thing – it should only be red and has a Champagne style cork – is so delicious and slips down with so many foods, especially the rich fatty cuisine of its native Emilia-Romagna. However it is also a good with a smoky barbecue, curry – yes really – or cold cuts and cheese. Try this one, this one, this one and this one to to see what you have been missing.

Another exciting Italian wine that is light and extravagantly fruity is a Frappato from Sicily. You don’t come across them every day, but they can be delicious, bursting with red fruit and have refreshing acidity. It’s a style of wine that probably explains why the Sicilians like red wine and fish so much. Try this one chilled with any al fresco meal, or even pizza.

 

Central European reds are sometimes not as popular as they ought to be in the UK, but Blaufränkisch can be utterly delicious. It is principally known as an Austrian grape and like Pinot Noir can produce lovely wines as a rosé, light red or something finer and more structured. The Germans, and Americans call it Lemberger – not Limberger, which is a cheese from the the Belgian/German/Dutch border – while in Hungary they call it Kékfrankos. It makes great wines in Slovenia too, where it is usually known as Modra Frankinja.

Another Austrian grape that I like to drink chilled is Zweigelt, which is especially good with the sorts of grilled food that I enjoy in summer. It is actually a cross made from Blaufränkisch and St Laurent and at its best leans in a sort of spicy but not quite Syrah and soft but not quite Pinot kind of way. Try this, this or this example.

Still in central Europe, there is a grape called Trollinger. It originated in the South Tyrol – hence the name Trollinger / Tirolinger – but has become mainly associated with the Württemberg region of Germany, where it grows on some of the most beautiful vineyards in Europe. The wines can be very pleasant, although I much prefer the other local speciality, Schwarzriesling. This, of course, means Black Riesling, which is the local term for Pinot Meunier. The reds made from this are deliciously fruity, but savoury too and again the lighter versions are lovely chilled – you can read about some here if you scroll to the bottom of the story. There is a good one available here too.

Trollinger is still grown in the Alto Adige / Sud Tirol and Trentino regions where it is known as Vernatsch or Schiava. The wines are quite extraordinary and very scented, but can be delicious, light, fruity – strawberry – and a little smoky, so again good with grilled food and barbecue when chilled. Like Beaujolais these wines are usually made in a way to emphasise the fruit and not tannin, so you also often get those candy floss and bubblegum characters that you get in many Beaujolais wines.

If you are looking for something a tad more serious, but still lovely chilled, then perhaps a Poulsard might do the trick. This grape is mainly grown in France’s tiny but fascinating Jura region – click here for the definitive guide to the wines of Jura with maps drawn by yours truly. Like Pinot Noir, Poulsard is thin skinned, so gives light red wines in terms of colour, tannin and body, so a Pinot lover should like them. I find them to have red fruit, spice and to be somewhat earthy and rustic, but in a really nice way, which makes them perfect food wines and something a little different. Try this one or this one.

I am sure that there are plenty more red wines that are good served chilled – in fact Spanish Garnacha with hearty meat dishes or a barbecue – but that is surely enough for now? I just wanted to propose some things that were a little different to help push the idea of chilled red a little.

The best thing is to experiment with it and find out what temperature you like best – it’s your wine after all.

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.

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.

P1130728

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.

P1130810

The beautiful vine covered landscape.

P1130824

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

P1130972

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 6 – a great dry white wine & great value too

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, courtesy of Maison Trimbach.

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, courtesy of Maison Trimbach.

I presented a wine at a tasting last night that had all the criteria to be my wine of the week. It is delicious to drink, stunning quality and great value for money – what more could you ask for?

Well, for me nothing, but it will leave a great many people cold because this wine is a Riesling. Riesling – pronounced Reez-ling – is one of my absolute favourite grapes. It is a grape that, when it’s good, shows such diversity of styles and yet always maintains a purity and a minerality which makes the wines feel poised, fine and elegant.

Most UK consumers seem to resist the delights of Riesling because they think that they shouldn’t like it, just as they shouldn’t like Chardonnay anymore, because they now drink Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Many UK consumers assume that all Riesling is sweet and even when they taste a dry one often pull a face and pronounce it to be sweet. I find the resistance to Riesling in this country to be very odd, I love dry Riesling and I also love Riesling with some sweetness – what’s not to like about a wine with a little sweetness?

Anyway, my wine of the week is a dry Riesling from the wonderful French region of Alsace. Despite being in the north east of the country Alsace is one of the driest, warmest and sunniest spots in France and that is why they can produce fully ripe, dry Rieslings.

With the Vosges mountains, its half timbered houses and walled medieval villages it is also one of France’s most beautiful regions, although it’s Germanic culture does set it apart from the rest of the country. The people speak a Germanic language and much of the superb cuisine has a German slant to it. It is that Germanic culture that has given them both of their most important grape varieties – Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

trimbach_riesling_bot2011 Trimbach Riesling
Maison Trimbach
Ribeauvillé
A.C. Alsace

Founded in 1626 Trimbach is one of the great old wine houses of Alsace and 12 generations on is still family run in the delightful town of Ribeauvillé. They produce a wide range of wines including all the famous Alsatian grapes, but are something of Riesling specialists as they produce two of the most iconic examples in their Riesling Clos Sainte Hune and Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile.

This example though is their most humble Riesling from their ‘classic’ range, but it is a splendid example of just how delicious Alsace Riesling can be.

This wine is bone dry with an elegant, stony and apply nose. The palate is wonderfully concentrated with some fresh and cooked apple notes, lemons and dry honey. It also has pure, fresh, clean acidity and minerality that keeps it lively, crisp and taut. The finish is refreshing, thrilling and long with some apple and pear skin succulence to it too.

This is a superb dry white wine that everyone should try as it is delicious and versatile. I would expect anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would enjoy it if they are open  index enough to give it a taste. It is wonderful as an aperitif, with fish or light meals and even with Thai cuisine – 89/100 points, it scores high marks for being such great value.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.95 per bottle and £11.99 per bottle from Majestic. Other UK stockists are available here.
US stockists are available here.

So, please do try this wine, it is a great dry white for summer that will go with all sorts of food, it’s salads and goat’s cheese as well as fish, white meat and spicy food. What’s more if you don’t finish the whole case, the high acidity ensures that it ages well too, so there’s no hurry to drink it all.

 

Languedoc – innovation & surprises

It is a strange fact of life in the modern wine world that many times each week I am told that France has been overtaken as a producer of good wines by the new world giants of Australasia and South America. It is wine consumers who tell me this, people who want straightforward wines that deliver a lot of character, punch and fruit – people who more often than not drink wine without food.

I find it remarkable that people can seem to just write off the delights of all French wines. All those great wines and much great value too, but then I know people who claim not to like cheese or fish, which also seems a bit of a sweeping statement to me.

Of course there is some truth in the view that France somehow gives out a very traditional image as a wine producing nation and to many consumers appears to be very complicated. Whereas Australian and New Zealand wine is very simply presented, often easy to understand and sports an image of exciting, cutting edge winemaking.

The truth is much more mixed and balanced. In reality there is excitement in every wine producing country just as much as there is stodgy conservatism. So to dismiss France should be impossible for any real lover of wine. France has exciting and innovative wine makers in all her regions and they come in many guises, from new kids on the block in traditional regions to out and out mavericks creating something new.

Languedoc map QS 2011 watermark

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

I was very excited recently to try two wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region – in France’s deep south on the Mediterranean coast – that were truly astonishing as it had never occurred to me that anyone would or could make them. Both wines were made from aromatic grape varieties. One is Iberian in origin and although one of them is famously used in Alsace, I have never come across it from other parts of France before.

The first wine I stumbled across at the Vinisud wine fair while a guest of Les Vignobles Foncalieu, which is a union of cooperatives who produce many different ranges of wines from entry level to premium, varietal to classic A.C. and blends to single estate wines,  but who always show flair and imagination in all they do. I will be writing more about them soon.

ALBARINO2013 Foncalieu Albariño
IGP d’Oc from vineyards around Carcassonne.
This is the first vintage of Albariño as the grape has only been permitted in the region since 2009. I have never tried this grape from France before, only from Spain, Portugal (where it is called Alvarinho) as well as Virginia and California, but nowhere else in Europe.
The aromas are quite rich and peachy with floral honeysuckle notes making it seem quite rich, yet aromatic.
This carries on to the palate with a slightly oily texture and rich peach fruit making it feel very succulent, while a moderate amount of apricot and pear drop acidity freshens it up to provide balance. This is a pretty good effort for the first vintage and it was lovely to drink, I have certainly had less enjoyable examples from Spain. Great on its own as a wine bar wine, or with a wide array of lighter dishes – 86/100 points.

This is a new wine, so as yet there are no stockists of which I am aware. More information is available from Clementine Coummunications Ltd.

The second wine to tell you about is similarly unexpected from France’s deep south. Again it is made by a large dynamic company, but this is a negociant and winemaker rather than a cooperative:

maison-vialade-gewurztraminer2012 Maison Vialade Gewurztraminer
IGP d’Oc made by Domaines Auriol from fruit grown between Narbonne and Béziers.
Again this is the first vintage as the grape has only been permitted since 2011. To retain some freshness and acidity 7% sauvignon Blanc is blended in to the fatter, richer Gewurztraminer.
Heady aromas of peach juice and peach skin, cooked apricot and touch of more exotic lychee too.
The palate is soft with very low acid and some residual sugar making it textured in the mouth.
The finish is like succulent orchard fruit, this is very nice stuff, medium dry, well made and great fun. A good alternative to lower end Alsace Gewurztraminer – 86/100 points.

Available from The Smiling Grape Company @ £8.99 per bottle. More stockist information is available from Myliko International Wines Ltd.

So you see, the next time someone tells me that France isn’t innovating in wine or is being left behind, I really will have to set them right.

In praise of sparkling wine

I have been musing quite a bit about Sparkling wine over the festive period which seems so long ago now – where does time go?

I love Champagne, it is one of the greatest wine styles and wine regions in the world, but sadly I cannot often afford to drink it. Nor do I always want it as many other sparkling wines are wonderful wines that give a great deal of pleasure in their own right.

Which brings me on to my theme here – sparkling wine in restaurants. Very few eateries seem to want to sell me a bottle of sparkling wine, while they all want to sell me a bottle of Champagne, but of course never from the affordable end of the spectrum. It’s always big names and famous brands, which is all very nice, but a bit beyond most of us except for a special occasion. But here’s the thing – restauranteurs take note – my finances will not stretch to Champagne at restaurant prices very often, so on the very few occasions that I order Champagne I almost never order another bottle as well. If the restaurant listed a good quality sparkling wine at a fair price though I would almost certainly start with a bottle of that AND have a bottle of wine afterwards – surely I cannot be alone in that?

Few other sparkling wines quite reach that level of finesse or complexity that Champagne can reach. Few have that sensation of tension and utter purity that the chalky soils and cold climate of Champagne can achieve – even some very good value Champagnes, but there are many very good sparkling wines around that deliver all sorts of other pleasures and they deserve a fair hearing and not just to be dismissed as something ‘lesser’. In truth a good sparkling wine is different, not inferior and can make a lovely aperitif or partner the starter, fish dishes or Chinese and Thai food beautifully as well as many other dishes.

In recent months I have tried many excellent sparkling wines and I often wonder why so few of them are available on restaurant wine lists. I have tasted lovely examples from France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, New York, Chile, California, South Africa and Spain amongst many others, here are a few that really stand out, whether for sheer quality, drinkability or value for money, they are all are non vintage unless specified and all made by the traditional – or Champagne – method, so Prosecco will be covered another day:

prod_370121Perle Noire Crémant d’Alsace
Arthur MetzLes Grands Chais de France, Alsace, France

I am always drawn to Crémant d’Alsace, it seems to me that the region makes very good fizz, albeit very different from Champagne. Mostly I favour the ones made from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Chardonnay is allowed too, this super example is made from 100% Auxerrois, which being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir shares the same parents as Chardonnay, but originates in Lorraine and is widely used in Alsace where it is normally blended into wine labelled as Pinot Blanc.
This wine has a lovely apricotty nose with the merest touch of richer raspberry and some brioche notes too. The palate is soft and the mousse slightly creamy and has nice orchard fruit characters. The wine is delicate and delicious and soft, rather than being elegant and poised, but is a very enjoyable bottle of fizz. I wish I could find this in the UK, I would love to buy it and order it in restaurants too – 87/100 points

B052241Benanti Brut Noblesse
Azienda Vinicola Benanti, Etna, Sicily, Italy
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

This pure Chardonnay sparkler is an easy and affordable way to try something from the tiny Jura region of eastern France and it is very good, much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. It is pure Chardonnay and crisp with a lean apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat – 85/100 points
An amazing bargain from Aldi @ £6.99

bw_26661_49bec9c1be734a9e6e6be89610319ec0

Arestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain

I know nothing about this producer at all except that they appear to be a proper Cava House, not just a label and they supply Lidl with their Cava and it seems really very good for anything like the asking price, certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity! It is soft, dry and apply  in flavour with a touch of pear too, but has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made.
Another amazing bargain this time from Lidl @ £4.79

brutMiguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley, Chile
I am always amazed by how little sparkling wine there is in Chile, most of the fizz drunk down there comes from Argentina, but there are a couple of stars, Cono Sur‘s delightful tank method sparkler and this beauty from Miguel Torres. This is a lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

rmc_255x4542011 Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs Brut
Bodegas Codorníu, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain
I have long been a fan of Codorníu, small bottles of their Cava – their Benjamin – were my first drink as a teenager in the discos of Spain. They invented Cava in 1872 and continue to make a wide range of delicious and high quality Cavas, but this is in a different league from most caves available in the UK. Recent vintages of this impressive wine have been pure Pinot Noir and it is that which gives the red fruit richness and depth to the palate, while floral freshness dominates the aromas. 15 months on the lees lend a touch of brioche and creaminess to the wine. If you have only tried cheap Cava in the past you owe it to yourself to give this a go – 91/100 points.
Great value for money from Majestic @ £14.99 – sometimes £9.99 when you buy 2

Sparkling-Pinot-Noir-Chardonnay-nv-150x464Grant Burge Pinot-Noir Chardonnay
Barossa Valley, Australia
I love showing this wine at tastings as it is really very good indeed, full of character and fruit, but also elegant. The fruit comes from vineyards in the cool Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, so there is plenty of fresh acidity, while the ripeness and the 70% of Pinot Noir – there is even a dash of Pinot Meunier – gives it a lovely deep colour with hints of red fruit. Then 30 months or so on the lees gives a richness and biscuity character that is quite delicious. Not a cheap fizz by any means, but fine, tasty, elegant and drinkable too  – 90/100 points.

26548-250x600-bouteille-domaine-vincent-careme-ancestrale-blanc--vouvray2011 Vouvray L’Ancestrale
Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray, Loire Valley
In truth I am not often an admirer of Vouvray’s charms and Chenin is far from a favourite of mine, but this is stunning, which is quite a feat given that Vincent created his domaine from nothing in 1999. He now farms 14 hectares of organically grown Chenin and his wines are always interesting and often delicious, and this might well be my favourite. It is from older vines and the second fermentation takes place without the addition of any sugar or yeast, so takes a long time – 18-24 months apparently, so the flavours build slowly. The palate is rich and appley, even apple pie at times and the finish has a touch of sweetness that blanches the acidity beautifully and adds to the feeling of richness. A real hedonists wine – 91/100 points.

domaine-saint-just-domaine-saint-just-cremant-de-loire-blanc-blanc-2056-994Crémant de Loire Brut
Domaine Saint Just, Saumur, Loire Valley
Wouldn’t you know it, in one breath I tell you how little I like Chenin Blanc and here I am telling you about another superb wine made from it – hey ho that is the beauty of wine I suppose – although in this case 40% Chardonnay adds more elegance I think. This wine is beautiful too, poised, elegant and refined with rich fruit, zesty citrus acidity and some delicately honeyed, biscuity, richness on the long classy finish. If we could prise some of this away from the French and Chinese I think it would prove very popular in the UK – 92/100 points.

IDShot_150x300Tesco Finest Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée 1531
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon
It isn’t always easy to try this wine in the UK, which is a shame as it can be very good indeed. Limoux is in cathar country near Carcassonne and claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne has. This Chardonnay, Chenin and Mauzac – aka Blanquette – blend is pretty classy and elegant with a herbaceous character, from the Mauzac and lovely citrus acidity, apply fruit and yes a bit of toast too. This example is just off-dry – 87/100 points.

0003BB761E64012008 Loridos Bruto
Bacalhoa Vinhos, Portugal
Portugal isn’t often seen as a good fizz producer, but really should be, the few I have tried have been very good indeed. Bacalhoa produce some very good examples at the beautiful Quinta de Loridos near the fabulous town of Obidos near Lisbon. The Chardonnay  Brut is very good too, but my favourite is this Castelão and Arinto blend. Castelao is a red grape, while Arinto is a superb high acid white grape and together they give a lovely taut red apple character and real depth. A very good wine – 90/100 points.

ImageWine.aspx2010 Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay
Villiera, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a wine very dear to my heart, my good friends Dave and Lorna Hughes live right next to the vineyard these Chardonnay grapes come from and I have often enjoyed a few glasses with them while in Stellenbosch. It is very good, very elegant, very refined, delicate, mineral and crisp apple fruit. Again the second fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast or sugar and the wine is aged for  3 years on the lees – 91/100 points.
Superb value for money from Marks & Spencer @ £10.99

In Conclusion
Of course I could carry on, but you get the picture, there are lovely sparkling wines produced everywhere, so don’t get stuck in a rut, it does not have to be Champagne every time – restauranteurs take note, sommeliers please listen – nor does every alternative have to be Prosecco. Be adventurous, find something new and exciting.

Rotgipfler – Austria’s Mystery Grape

Austria's beautiful Thermenrgion.

Austria’s beautiful Thermenregion.

Whilst enjoying my tour of the beautiful Austrian wine lands the other week I was thrilled to discover a grape variety that was entirely new to me.

I relish discovering new wines and grape varieties as they provide me with the new experiences that expand my knowledge and keep my delight in wine alive. It saddens me that so many wine consumers seem to be happy with drinking a very narrow range of grape varieties and wine styles, so I see it as my duty to highlight wonderful more obscure wines.

Well with only 0.2% of Austria’s plantings, Rotgipfler is pretty obscure. It seems that once upon a time the grape was grown further afield with historical mentions of it in Würrtemberg, Baden and Alsace, but now is only known in Thermenregion to the south of Vienna. As far as I can make out it is indigenous to Thermenregion too, but some evidence suggests that it might have originated in Styria further south.

Austria's wine regions - click for a larger view.

Austria’s wine regions – click for a larger view.

What we can be certain of though is that it was created by a spontaneous crossing between Traminer and Roter Veltliner. This might well lead you to imagine that it is related to Austria’s great Grüner Veltliner, especially as Gru-Vee used to be called Weißgipfler / Weissgipfler.

Actually it would appear that there there is no link at all between Grüner Veltliner and Roter Veltliner and just the one parent in common for Grüner Veltliner and Rotgipfler.

Rotgipfler, again despite its name, is a white grape. The rot – red in German – part of its name comes from the red shoots, or the red leaf tips or even leaf veins the plant has at harvest time. Reports vary as to which of these is the actual reason for the red name.

Reading about Rotgipfler sine I got back I am somewhat surprised by the lack of respect it seems to have. Jancis Robinson is pretty damning when she calls it ‘ponderous’ in my ancient copy of Vines, Grapes and Vines, whilst she describes it as ‘the marginally less noble of the two white wine grapes’ (associated with Thermenregion).

Personally that is not how I found it, perhaps things have moved on? I also have no time for the concept of ‘noble’ grapes anymore – after all I was taught that Sauvignon Blanc and Tempranillo were not noble!

Historically Rotgipfler is most famously used as one half of the blend in the local Thermenregion speciality wine of Gumpoldskirchen. The other half is the equally obscure Zierfandler and the wine originates in the beautiful village of GumpoldskirchenI have yet to taste one, but am looking at a bottle of it on my desk as I write this and will let you know what it’s like soon. 

The beautiful Church in Gumpoldskirchen with Johanneshof Reinisch vineyards all around.

The beautiful Church in Gumpoldskirchen with Johanneshof Reinisch vineyards all around.

I was able to taste some wonderful examples of Zierfandler though and would highly recommend trying one of those- the one from Johanneshof Reinisch was delicious as was Biegler’s and the wonderfully exotic and mandarin-like 1969 Zierfandler from the local co-operative.

Interestingly Zierfandler may be the inadvertent origin of the Zinfandel name as both grapes originate in Croatia and a linguistic mix up may have occurred over the grape’s name.

Hannes Reinisch, winemaker at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Hannes Reinisch, winemaker
at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Weingut Johanneshof Reinisch, Tattendorf, Thermenregion, Niederösterreich2012 Johanneshof Reinisch Rotgipfler
Thermenregion
Austria
This impressive estate has been organic since 2004, but will only be certified so from the 2013 harvest onwards.
The wine has an enticing pale peach skin colour and is wonderfully aromatic and scented without being over the top in any way. There are delicate peach skin and honey notes together with pear and the merest hint of red fruits and spice.
The palate is quite textured and creamy, it is fermented using wild yeasts in stainless steel tank and in large neutral wooden vats, which do not give wood flavour, but can enrich the mouthfeel. This will be further enhanced by the 4 months on the lees. It is medium bodied with a nice feeling of weight, but not heavy. The succulence dominates while a clean cut of apricot and citrus acidity cleans it off and makes it refreshing. There is also a lovely taut seam of something mineral flowing right through it to the long finish. This is delicious, beautifully made and very drinkable and is very user friendly being delicious with almost any food – even spicy – or on its own – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Eclectic Tastes and through Astrum Wine Cellars.
Available in the US through Circo Vino.

Foudres at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Foudres at Johanneshof Reinisch.

The beautiful cellar at Johanneshof Reinisch.

The beautiful cellar at Johanneshof Reinisch.

Heinrich Hartl 111

Heinrich Hartl 111

10-great-wines-0012012 Heinrich Hartl Rotgipfler
Thermenregion
Austria
Heinrich comes from a long line of vignerons and is a terrific winemaker and although I did not taste this in Austria I have had it since – I did try his superb Saint Laurent though and can highly recommend that richly fruity and Burgundy-like wine.

Again the nose is scented and exotic with pear, some light asian spice and honey. The palate is quite creamy – 5 months on the lees here – and peppery with a dash of ginger and cleansing acidity giving a citrus twist and yes it still has that minerality that makes the wine more complex, taut and fine. Another delicious food friendly wine with a delicate touch of the exotic about it – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Merry Widows  and through Waitrose Direct.
Check here for availability in other countries.

I really have come to like Rotgipfler very much indeed. It seems to be delicious and very drinkable and to go perfectly with all manner of foods – or none. I really think it is a grape variety that many of you would enjoy very much if you get the chance to try it, so keep a look out and do give Rotgipfler a go if you can.