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.

Sicily Land of Delights: Etna

Hope fully you enjoyed my piece about Sicilian food and your appetite was suitably whetted to hear some more about the wines from this wonderful island. I wrote about Donnafugata, one of the leading Sicilian estates here, but this article focuses on one of the leading quality wine regions on the island – Etna.

Mount Etna, a wonderful sight and at the heart of an amazing wine region.

Views of Etna dominate the landscape.

The first couple of days of my Sicily trip were spent around Etna and although this wine region is a mere D.O.C. – rather strangely the only D.O.C.g. on Sicily is Cerasuolo di Vittoria. I found Etna to be the most consistently high quality region that I experienced on Sicily. Other areas have some great producers making very good wines, but to me Etna appeared to be Sicily’s most consistently reliable region for making good and interesting wines. The natural conditions seem to lean towards excellence and excitement whereas perhaps the other places need to work that bit harder for really exciting wines? Of course the fact that it is Sicily’s smallest region might help keep the quality up too as it means that by and large Etna is a land of boutique producers and small estates.

Sicily 2013 blog

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

Etna is an amazing area and although wine is produced all over the volcano’s lower slopes and surrounding hillsides, the D.O.C. only covers the northern, eastern and southern slopes – see my map. This can mean that some very good Etna wines only have I.G.P. on the label, as does the fact that the D.O.C. does not cover the very highest slopes – yet.

P1070503

The soil is a fine volcanic dust – see the bird in the sky, look 2 photos down.

A close up of that fine volcanic soil - at Firriato this time.

That volcanic soil again.

The best shot I got of that bird, anyone know what it is? It looks eagle-like to me.

That bird again, as close as I could get it, it looks like an eagle to me. Anyone know what it is?

Altitude varies enormously here from 450m to 1100m above sea level and the eastern slopes enjoy much more rain than the other sides. This tempers the heat and dry conditions, so together with the height making it cooler and the rich mineral, volcanic soils this area is really good for white wine production. Certainly three of my favourite whites from the trip were grown around the village of Milo on the south eastern slopes of Mount Etna – if your Etna Bianco is labelled Superiore then it can only come from Milo.

I really liked a great many wines from around here, but the whites led the pack for me – perhaps because they suited the cuisine so perfectly, but possibly because they were really very good. The secret weapon of the area is their own indigenous white grape called Carricante. It does not seem to be grown anywhere else, but it responds superbly to the local conditions to produce elegant dry white wines with high acidity and wonderful minerality – so can put the drinker in mind of Assyrtiko from Santorini.

My highlights:

Tenuta di Fessina

The beautiful Tenuta di Fessina.

The beautiful Tenuta di Fessina, the site of an ancient lava flow, blocks of volcanic stone are used to build the retaining walls.

Our host at Tenuta di Fessina. Like most Sicilian winemakers she was very difficult to photograph as she never stood still!

Diletta Lavoratorin, our animated and informative host. Like most of our Sicilian hosts she hardly ever stayed still enough for me to get a decent photo! I did wonder about a caption competition for this, so feel free to send ideas in!

This beautiful estate is the brainchild of Tuscan wine producer Silvia Maestrelli and Piemontese Federico Curtaz and is just 10 hectares pieced together by buying up old bush vine vineyards.

a-puddara2011 A’Puddara
D.O.C. Etna Bianco
100% Carricante from 45 year old vines grown in Santa Maria di Licodia at the southern tip of the Etna park and on a southern exposure at around 900 metres and although I loved all the wines here, this was my favourite and the one that I actually bought. Unusually this was seemingly fermented and then aged for 6 months in large French oak barrels, these varied between 1 and 15 years old – leaning towards older and so neutral in taste – but oak does not dominate this wine at all, or detract from the minerality, acidity or tension, or not yet anyway. Perhaps the oak will shine through in a few years time, but I would rather have it now with a pristine, mineral feel to it.
Right now though it is taut, lean, stony and mineral with a thrilling citrus cut of high acidity to the palate and a touch of saltiness too. There is real richness to the palate as well which gives that lovely feeling of tension to the wine. I really really liked this and it went wonderfully with a superb dinner at the winery, the arancini were especially good – 91/100 points.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the UK from Outis.

Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the US through Winebow.

Azienda Vinicola Benanti

Benanti's Vigneto Monteserra.

Benanti’s Sera de la Contessa vineyard.

I was greatly looking forward to visiting Benanti. I had tried a couple of their wines before and knew they were good, so eagerly anticipated trying them in situ and learning about this impressive producer. Technically it was established in 1988 by Giuseppe Benanti, but actually his family had farmed this land for generations and what he did was to really focus it on wine production. Not just any old wine either, right from the start he wanted to produce fine wine. As recently as 1988 no one else was trying to make top quality wine on Etna, so Benanti was the trend setter. He saw the potential in his land and sought outside advice from experts in Burgundy and Piemonte on what to grow and what to do he set off trying to turn Etna into a great wine region.

Antonio Benanti.

Antonio Benanti – the only photo I have of either of them even vaguely in focus as they would not keep still, even when posing for pictures!

Today the place is run by Giuseppe’s twin sons Antonio and Salvino and they really do seem to do a wonderful job. They exude charm and confidence and a real love for their land, although they have both had other careers before joining the family firm.

What fascinated me was their belief that Etna is totally unlike the rest of Sicily, they claimed to never even talk about Sicily, just Etna. They regard their wines as mountain wines, Alpine like Austrian or Friulian wines rather than Sicilian Mediterranean wines. I can see what they mean too, their wines – the whites anyway – have a purity about them that seems very unlike the Mediterranean. Although the history of Benanti wines is not long they have come a long way since 1988 and now exclusively champion the native grapes of Etna over the international varieties they started with.

Again I thought all the wines were good, but the stand out wines for me were:

NoblesseBrut Noblesse
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.

Pietramarina2009 Pietramarina
D.O.C. Etna Bianco Superiore
For me this is the standard bearer wine for Sicily – or Etna anyway. Pure Carricante grown in Milo at over 950 metres above sea level, most of the vines are over 80 years old and many are ungrafted. The wine is unoaked, but released after ageing in bottle, 2009 is the new release. This age means that we still get the taut, nervy minerality and high acidity, but it is balanced by some creamy waxy richness that makes the whole wine more complex and interesting and introduces richer orange notes and nuts in to the flavour profile. This is a wonderful wine – 93/100 points.

Yet again it was the whites that really thrilled me and again they were just perfect with the food, but everything Benanti made seemed very good including 2 of the very best Etna reds that I tasted on the trip:

Castiglione di Sicilia.

Castiglione di Sicilia where Rovittello’s grapes are grown.

Castiglione di Sicilia from afar with vineyards in the foreground.

Castiglione di Sicilia from afar with vineyards in the foreground.

The hillsides around Castiglione di Sicilia.

The hillsides around Castiglione di Sicilia.

P1070354

Elders of Castiglione di Sicilia.

Rovittello2005 Rovittello
D.O.C. Etna Rosso
80% Nerello Mascalese – the dominant black grape in these parts – and 20% Nerello Capuccio. Masacali is a village on Etna which lends its name to the Nerello Mascalese. This wine is made from a 80 year old vines on a single vineyard site in Castiglione di Sicilia at 750 metres above sea level and aged in cask for 12 months.
This is a delicious red wine, rich with black cherry characters and iron-like minerality, silky tannins and earthy, mushroomy, leathery, tobacco together with dried fruit and gently rustic and baked Medierranean flavours. The finish is very long and with a wonderful savoury character – 90/100 points.

Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio2006 Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio
I.G.T. Scilia
100% Nerello Capuccio, also from Castiglione di Sicilia, grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged in cask for 8-10 months. This is simply an I.G.T. as the  D.O.C. rules only allow up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio in Etna reds. This is because it is not so widely grown and is very much the junior partner historically.
I did like the Rovittello very much, but this really stood out, everything about this wine is a delight. The colour is intense, the nose is lifted and aromatic with rich red fruit and savoury leather and herbs. On the palate there’s a supple, mouthfilling and velvety texture with soft tannins and intense sweet red fruit, ever so slightly cooked and reminiscent of rich Pinot Noir, especially as there is some freshness of acidity. There are herbs, iron, earth, rich cherry, salami, tobacco and mocha, some of which implies a sort of rustic memory somewhere in this wine’s DNA, but it isn’t rustic at all. A glorious wine – 93/100 points.

I should also point out that the 2006 Il Monovitigno Nerello Mascalese is rather lovely too, but the Cappuccio totally thrilled me that bit more.

Benanti wines are available in the UK from Les Caves De Pyrene.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the US through Wine Warehouse in California.
The road to Cottanera.

The road to Cottanera.

Another family winery that is seeking to make great Etna wines in the Castiglione di Sicilia area, Cottanera was created in the 1990s by brothers Guglielmo and Enzo Cambria when they converted a hazelnut grove into a vineyard. Since Guglielmo untimely death the estate has been run by his daughter Mariangela and Enzo.

cottanera_etnabianco2012 Cottanera Etnabianco
D.O.C. Etna Bianco
The fresher, zestier side of Etna Bianco This is basically a cold fermented Carricante – with a little dollop of Catarratto – that was aged on the lees.
The nose was restrained, tight and mineral with just a touch of lemon, lemon rind and smoky lees. The palate is deceptively rich with zesty lemon rind acidity and some weight of smoky creamy lees in the mouth. It is almost crisp and has pretty high acidity too and is very clean with a feeling of purity and lively with pear and grapefruit on the long finish. A lovely dry wine – 89/100 points.
I also highly rated (90 points) their seductive 2005 Etnarosso which is 90% Nerello Mascalese with 10% Nerello Cappuccio aged for 9 months in a mixture of large wooden vats, new and older barrels.

As I say Etna seemed to me to be the finest and most cohesive of Sicily’s wine regions. I had lovely wines elsewhere, but they seemed more dependent on being made by a good producer, whereas all the Etna wines I have tried have been very good indeed – especially the whites.

In fact after I arrived back in the UK I tried the Wine Society’s bargain 2012 Etna Bianco from a producer called Nicosia and while it was not in the same league as the other whites mentioned in this piece, it was a lovely, fresh, crisp, mineral and tasty dry white wine of real quality at just £8.50.

I also tasted one more Etna white on the trip when I visited Planeta a few days later. This impressive producer started making wine much further West in Sambuca di Sicilia and Menfi, but now has vineyards dotted throughout the island. They created an estate on Etna in 2008 and their first vintage is the 2012. So far they only make a white that it is mainly Carricante blended with something quite surprising – and wow is it good. More of that another time.

In the meantime, do try some wines from Etna – you will enjoy them, I promise.