My Visit to Ticino – Italian speaking Switzerland

Not too long ago I told you all about my wine experiences in the French speaking parts of Switzerland. I loved touring around Lake Geneva and Valais and thought the wines were terrific and well worth seeking out if you get the chance.

However, my Swiss experiences were not restricted to the French speaking parts of that beautiful country. The little group of wine writers and educators that I was with then went on to Ticino, the small Italian speaking park of Switzerland – remember to click on all the links.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

What a trip it was, four changes of train had taken our little group – with very different levels of comfort and mixed availability of seats and luggage space – from Sierre in French speaking Valais, over to Ticino.

We eventually arrived in Lugano with enough time for lunch and a chance to pull ourselves together before heading off for our first visit in this very different part of the country.

Being culturally Italian, wine has of course been made in Ticino since before Roman times, but it was the planting of Merlot from 1906 onwards that transformed the quality of the region’s wines and the grape now accounts for well over 80% of the vineyards. To a large degree the whole concept of quality wine here is synonymous with Merlot. The grape was considered perfect for the region because, although Ticino is sunny with some aspects of a Mediterranean climate – palm trees thrive here – it can also be very rainy, and Merlot copes pretty well with those conditions. Before 1906 the region used a wide spread of grapes similar to those found in Piemonte as well as the local speciality Bondola which is enjoying something of a modest renaissance.

In addition to vitis vinifera, American grape varieties and hybrids are grown here – principally Isabella / Albany Surprise – for the production of grappa.

Ticino Map QS watermarked

Wine map of Ticino, click for a larger view.

There are two sub-regions of Ticino, Sopraceneri in the north – it means above Monte Ceneri and is where Bondola can be found – and Sottoceneri, below or south of Monte Ceneri. This southern part straddles Lake Lugano and spreads down to the Italian border.

Most growers and producers in this region are very small indeed, but Gialdi Brivio, is one of the few large winemakers. However, they own no vineyards and so act as a negociant. Some 400 growers bring their grapes to them and their viticultural team are also active in managing these vineyards. The vineyards are often steep and hard to work and so somewhat amazingly the average cost of a kilo of grapes here is CHF4.50 (roughly £3.20 / €4.20) – pretty much the same as in Champagne.

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Gialdi Brivio’s warehouse and winery at the foot of Monte Generoso.

Gialdi Vini was founded in 1953 and makes wines from grapes grown in Sopraceneri, while Brivio Vini was created by Guido Brivio in the late 1980s and specialises in wines from the Sottoceneri. His family has a background in the wine and spirits industry, but his dream was always to make high quality wine. The two companies merged in 2001 and now share winery, cellaring, bottling and distribution premises in Mendrisio, which is 3 km south of Lake Lugano and 3 km north of the Italian border. They also act as an importer and distributer for many Italian wines in Switzerland. Guido was our host for the afternoon as well as later at dinner and he was charming, welcoming, knowledgeable and justly proud of what they do and the region in which they operate.

Something that I had never encountered before, was that because they make almost all their wines from Merlot, whether they are red, white or rosé, they have spare grape skins which they can add to the fermenting must to increase the colour of their reds. Conversely, in order to accentuate the freshness of their white wines, which are almost all made from 100% Merlot, they mostly stop them from going through malolactic fermentation and filter them through charcoal to ensure there is no residual colour.

For two of their top red wines – Gialdi’s Trentasei Merlot and Brivio’s Platinum Merlot – they concentrate the sugars in the grapes by drying them using large fans for about 3 weeks in their cool, dry cellar conditions. This reduces the water content of the grapes by around 50% and a proportion of these dried grapes are added to normally ripe grapes, so making the whole wine more rich and concentrated.

One of the vents in the cellars.

One of the vents in the cellars.

One amazing aspect of the place is the cellars and how they are cooled. Most of their red wines are aged in a series of ten little stone cellars, called grotti, which are built into the base of Monte Generoso which is behind the winery. When it rains the water drains through the mountain into Lake Como. This draining water forces fresh, cool air through fissures in the rock causing a sort of natural air conditioning which keeps the cellars at a constant 11˚C. They have installed vents to channel the air into the cellars and the amount of cool air pouring through is astonishing – it truly is astounding what nature can do. According to Guido this cool temperature ensures that any sediment falls to the bottom of the casks quite quickly and this fast stabilisation means they lose less of the wine to absorption by the barrels, which is usually 2 litres per month.

Guido Brivio.

Guido Brivio.

This enthralling tour of the winery and cellars was followed by a comprehensive tasting of their wines. It was an impressive lineup of mostly Merlots, including 2 whites and 1 rosé. The quality was high and I particularly rated the 2013 Contrada Bianco di Merlot which is unoaked and because there is no Malolactic Fermentation has just enough acidity to be fresh and lively. Of the reds my favourites were the supple 2011 Sassi Grossi Merlot from Gialdi and the silky 2011 Riflessi d’Epoca Merlot from Brivio with its cedary oak and fine grain tannins.

Guido Brivio are also involved in the Swiss Premium Wine project in which four producers – counting Gialdi and Brivio separately – blend a cuvée called Quatromano, another 100% Merlot, which consists of 25% from each of the different winemakers. The other two contributors are Tamborini and Delea, both of whom I visited the following day.

All in all it was fascinating introduction to Ticino that was then made all the better by Guido taking our group to a local restaurant for dinner. The place is called Grotto Bundi and, like the cellars, is built into the mountainside. However over 80 years the place has evolved into a complex series of rooms on several floors and an attractive outside area, on what is now a pedestrianised road, with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Guido had planned a traditional feast of polenta accompanied by lots of different casserole dishes, beef, pork, lamb, sausage – which was most people’s favourite – mushrooms, the list goes on. It was all delicious and washed down with copious amounts of Gialdi Brivio wine it was an evocative and joyful taste of Ticino culture.

Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone.

Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone.

Other visits were to the boutique estate of Cantina Kopp Von der Crone Visini. It’s run by the delightful Ueli Kopp and Barbara von der Crone whose passion and commitment shows in everything they do. Their red wines are superb, especially the Balin blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa (a crossing between Merlot and Petit Verdot).

Some of the vineyards at Azienda Mondò.

Some of the vineyards at Azienda Mondò.

Antonio Girardi and Giorgio Rossi of Azienda Mondò.

Antonio Girardi and Giorgio Rossi of Azienda Mondò.

Azienda Mondò is another boutique winery that farms 6 hectares speed over 30 parcels of hillside to produce some superb wines. I was particularly taken with their Bondola, which is a local grape which is only just clinging on to life as it is thin skinned and can rot quite easily. There are only 11 hectares – all in northern Ticino – and almost exclusively grown by the small producers, so almost none is seen on the market. Mondò have about 10% of it and their Rosato di Bondola del Nonu Mario is superb with the local salami.

By contrast, Cantina Tamborini is the local giant producer that owns 23 hectares, but they also buy a large amount of grapes from contract growers. In effect they operate as an estate and a negotiant and craft some very good wines. Their single vineyard San Zeno Costamagna Merlot Riserva is particularly impressive and I have shown it in tastings since – it tastes a bit spicy, rather like a good Carmenère.

Ticino vineyards, these south facing vines are the most southerly in Switzerland, Italy is a short walk away. These vineyards belong to Tenuta Montalbano, a co-op that is the biggest wine producer in Ticino. It has 380 associated members and also owns this 22 hectare estate which is the largest single block of vines in Switzerland.

Ticino vineyards, these south facing vines are the most southerly in Switzerland, Italy is a short walk away. These vineyards belong to Tenuta Montalbano, a co-op that is the biggest wine producer in Ticino. It has 380 associated members and also owns this 22 hectare estate which is the largest single block of vines in Switzerland.

Another view of Tenuta Montalbano.

Another view of Tenuta Montalbano.

All in all I found Ticino fascinating. It is a very beautiful place full of wonderful scenery and great Italian food – as long as you like polenta. The people are charming and the wines are very good and well worth trying, especially as they make so many different styles from, in the main, a single grape variety.

They are quite hard to get outside of Switzerland, but grab some of you can. Alpine Wines sell some wines from Ticino in the UK and as usual the US is well served by wine shippers bringing in more unusual wines including Swiss ones.

Wine Without Borders – travels in Slovenia & Friuli

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

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

Recently I was invited on a trip called Wines Without Borders. It was organised by my friend Paul Balke and we visited the wine regions of Colli Orientali, Collio and Friuli Isonzo in north eastern Italy and Brda, Vipava Valley and Koper in Slovenia.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

The whole focus was that the modern borders of the area bear no relation to reality and are merely lines on a map that ignore the peoples and cultures that straddle them. I was aware that the Slovenian people are to be found on both sides of the frontier, although the ones in Italy are often outwardly Italian and speak Italian, at least to foreigners.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Most of what we now call Slovenia was for centuries part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and much of Slovenia remains very Austro-Germanic. Ljubljana, the delightful capital city – called Laibach in imperial times – was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1895 and was rebuilt in an Austrian style, so resembles parts of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Most menus offer dumplings, schnitzel and cream cakes, while the inns and coffee houses often resemble those of Vienna. What’s more that great Austrian icon, the Lipizzaner Horse – of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School fame – has been bred at the Lipica Stud Farm in western Slovenia for over 400 years.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran main Square.

Piran Tartini Square was originally an inner harbour, boat trips leave from Piran for Venice every day.

Some of the western parts of Slovenia also have Italian influence, the coastal towns were all originally Venetian and rather charmingly still look it – Piran is one of the loveliest and most elegant seaside towns that I have ever visited. Even today people in these coastal zones often speak Italian, pasta is on every menu and the ice cream is as splendid as that in Italy itself.

As for Friuli in that north eastern corner of Italy, all of it together with Veneto had been in the old Austrian Empire until 1866. Right up until 1914 the border was a little further west than it is now. Trieste was Austria’s principal port – it still has an Austrian / Mitteleuropean feel – and further to the west Trentino-Atlo Adige (Südtirol) was still Austrian, infact the border cut through Lake Garda.

The First World War changed everything here. The Isonzo Front went right through the frontier zone between Italy and Austria, basically following the line of the river and the mountains, and the brutal fighting in these mountains was as hard as anything seen in Flanders. At the end of the war the Italians had seized Trentino-Alto Adige and the mixed Slovene / Italian city of Trieste. Both are still part of Italy today, while the western regions of what is now Slovenia – including the Istrian Peninsula – only remained Italian from 1919 before being handing over to Yugoslavia in 1947 before being inherited by Slovenia and Croatia in 1991.

After the Second World War Slovenia was a Republic within Tito’s Yugoslavia, and although the country was relatively liberal and outward looking by Eastern European standards – Yugoslavia was never part of the Warsaw Pact – the border was still strongly guarded.

This gave winemakers all sorts of problems as the border was drawn in such a way that it often cuts through vineyards, so many growers found themselves growing grapes in both Italy and Yugoslavia.

Nowadays of course both Italy and Slovenia are members of the EU, so the border is open and there are umpteen unguarded crossing points. Back then there were many fewer frontier posts and it was all more rigorously controlled, with growers having to drive hours out of their way in order to be able to tend grapes that grew only yards from their home. Anti Europeans often forget many of the good things that have come about because of the EU.

The border situation is most dramatic in Brda, which is arguably the most important wine region in Western Slovenia, it is certainly the most famous. Brda means hills in Slovenian and is simply a part of Italy’s Collio region that was detached when the border was fixed in 1947 – Collio means hills in Italian.

As you might expect they grow much the same grapes at the Italians grow in Collio and nearby Colli Orientali, although the names are not always the same:

Italian Name Slovenian name
Ribolla / Ribolla Gialla Rebula
Malvasia Malvazija
Refosco Refošk
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio Sivi Pinot
Friulano (formerly known as Tokaj) Sauvignonasse / Jakot (Tokaj backwards)
Pinot Noir / Pinot Negro Modri Pinot
Pinot Blanc / Pinot Bianco Beli Pinot

Of course they also use the classic international grapes like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and have done for centuries. Interestingly Cabernet Franc often appears on labels here, and indeed it is grown, but the grape actually used is very often Carmenère. Just as in Collio it is very hard to generalise about the wines as such a wide range of grape varieties and blends is used, but this does for make for very exciting variety.

Brda
Traditionaly this region is known as Goriška Brda after the local capital of Gorizia, which was awarded to Italy in 1947, so Tito’s regime built the replacement town of Nova Gorica right on the border. Strictly speaking Brda is a sub-region, or district, of the Primorje wine region. This means by the sea and the whole place enjoys a broadly Mediterranean climate. The sheer range of wines produced in Brda is quite bewildering, especially when you realise that the estates are all pretty small, normally between 4 and 20 hectares in size, many with vineyards on both sides of the border.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

The general quality is very high indeed, even from the local cooperative which is the largest producer in Slovenia. Most of the producers though are boutique wineries using organic techniques and low sulphur in their wines. I was very impressed by Mavrič (a superb Jacot and Sivi Pinot), Iaquin (whose production is tiny but who own a couple of very attractive looking guest houses), Čarga (whose Rebula is superb, as is their Cabernet Franc which is actually 75% Carmenère) and Ščurek whose blends – both red and white – were great wines.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

We also visited Movia, which is one of the star wineries of the country. The quality is very high and the wines are very exciting. I have been before, but this was a very different visit, so will write about it separately. We were also treated to a tasting of the wines of Marjan Simčič, who is a great winemaker who made some of the best wines that I tried on the trip. I have met him before and tasted his wines several times and they never cease to thrill me – I will write about him very soon too.

The other sub-regions of Primorje are: Koper, named for the beautiful town of the same name, this covers the coastal area and is the warmest and sunniest part of Slovenia. This coastal region – along with Kras – is where you find most of the Slovenian Refošk or Refosco. Just as with Malvasia, there appear to be several different Refoscos, which may or may not be related to each other – strangely it seems that the grape is also the Mondeuse Noire used in France’s Savoie Region. The low yielding Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is the variant most commonly used in Friuli and is named for its red stems. Slovenia by and large uses the higher yielding Refosco dal Pedunculo Verde, which has green stems. Either of them might or might not be Teran when grown on Terra Rossa soils, or Teran might be a separate strain, sources disagree and I have not been able to find a definitive answer. Refosco has high acid and high tannins, so can appear somewhat rustic to the unwary palate. Modern winemaking can get around this and I have tasted some delicious examples from both Italy and Slovenia, I would particularly recommend the Refosco from Tenuta di Blasig in Friuli, the Refošk from Santomas in Koper and the Organic Refošk from the Polič Estate between Koper and the Croatian border.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia's tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia’s tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Sparkling pink Refosk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

Sparkling pink Refošk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

The Kras, or Karst, is a limestone plateau just inland from Trieste, it is riddled with cave systems and underground rivers and gives its name to this sort of landscape worldwide. A visit to the Postojna Caves is an incredible experience and one not to be missed. Henry Moore described them as ‘the best exhibition of nature’s sculpture I have ever seen’. Lipica Stud Farm is another attraction worth visiting in this area.

The soils here are iron rich red terra rossa and that iron minerality often finds its way in to the wines. The climate here is harsh and variable, storms are frequent and winds powerful, but the wines can be very rewarding. The beloved local speciality is Teran, which is a type of Refosco, as far as I can discover it is probably a local variant of the Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (although it might not be) and as you might expect it is also produced in the neighbouring Italian Carso DOC. We did not visit any wineries in Kras on this trip, but I have been very impressed by the wines from Čotar in the past, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon and their Terra Rossa red blend of Teran, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Vipava Valley is a beautiful place just inland from the Kras and Koper. Strong winds rip through here, tempering the conditions and making a sub-Mediterranean climate and allowing them to make some stunning light and fresh white wines and some very elegant reds, including some made from the Barbera grape more commonly associated with Piemonte in north western Italy.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

Vineyards in Vipava.

Vineyards in Vipava.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

One of my very best experiences on this trip was a wonderful tasting and lunch in Vipava with a handful of generous and passionate wine makers who showed us some thrilling wines. The quality impressed me enormously, especially the wines from Sutor, Tilia Estate, Posestvo Burja (an organic producer that still makes the field blends that were the traditional style of the area until WW11), Lepa Vida (whose oOo is one of the most enjoyable Orange wines that I have ever tasted) and Guerrila who produce stunning white wines made from the local Zelen and Pinela grapes, as well as very toothsome red blends.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

In Italy we visited the Isonzo area, which is basically an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and ocean breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene). I was very impressed by all the wines of Tenuta di Blasig and some of the Pinot Grigios that I tasted. It is very unusual for me to like Pinot Grigio, but they just seem to have so much more character and interest here than the bland examples that most people drink in the UK. I particularly enjoyed the Pinot Grigio from Masùt da Rive.

Vineyards of Collio.

Vineyards of Collio.

Our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Some of our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Collio, or Collio Goriziano, is historically the same region as neighbouring Brda before the 1947 border split them up and the words mean the same things – hills. As you might expect both sides of the frontier are very hilly, but in a very attractive, gently rolling kind of way – it really is a delightful landscape. Just as in Brda the range of grape varieties and wines made from them is enormous, from both single varietals and blends, but production favours whites more than reds. Ribolla Gialla and Friulano might well be the signature grapes here, but both Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco are produced, as are Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Cooking the polenta in Collio.

Cooking the polenta at the Osteria de la Subida near Cormons in Collio.

The polenta is ready.

The polenta is ready.

I have never really warmed to Friulano, I have always considered it a very odd grape, it is certainly hard to pin down. Long known in Italy as Tocai or Tocai Friulano, it was likewise called Tokaj in Slovenia, but it has nothing to do with the Hungarian Tokaj at all. It is actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, which was widely planted in Chile where it was believed to be Sauvignon Blanc – it isn’t. Well you will be pleased to know that on this trip I did warm to the Friulano grape and had some splendid examples in every region that we visited, but perhaps my favourite was a single vineyard wine made by Raccaro, their Friulano Vigna del Rolat. I also greatly enjoyd the wines of Carlo di Pradis and Borgo del Tiglio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

We returned to Collio a few days later to stay in a place called San Floriano del Collio, which though in Italy had a view of our first hotel just 3 or 4 kilometres away in Slovenia. Whilst here we visited Oslavia a village a kilometre or 2 further south and it was a fascinating day. Firstly it was a very beautiful place, secondly all the ‘Italians’ that I met spoke Slovenian and thirdly the wines were fascinating. I must admit that I even found the name Oslavia interesting, surely that means place of the west Slavs? If so how amazing that it is about as west as Slavs can be found even today. The focus for this part of the trip was the local speciality of Ribolla Gialla, although we tasted other wines too. Ribolla is said to get its name from the fact that historically the wines were not very stable and would re-ferment, so bubble away and look as though they were reboiling. The grape is not very aromatic and can seem a bit strange when you first taste it, but there are some superb wines made from it.

Most of the wines that we tasted here were Orange wines, white wines made with long skin contact – hence the orange colour – they were also organic and often biodynamic and low sulphur too. I have to be honest, wines like that are not often for me, I usually find them more interesting than drinkable, but I did try a few here that were both. Fiegl’s wines impressed me, but these are the only ones here that were not Orange at all and instead had freshness and purity. The others were about the complexity of long skin contact and barrel ageing on the lees, sometimes for years. I was very impressed by Primosic, whose 2010 Klin was my wine of the day. Radikon also made an excellent Ribolla, which is officially a wine with no sulphur, as the amounts are so low they cannot be measured – I have never seen that before. I also liked their Slatnik blend of Chardonnay and Friulano. Dario Prinčič also makes a fascinatingly complex Orange style Ribolla.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Colli Orientali was an interesting place to visit too, if hard to get a handle on. It is a big place with lots going on. Lots of grape varieties and lots of blends are produced here too. Historically it has been seen as more prestigious than Collio and the wines were certainly more visible in the UK than those of Collio. One reason might be that this is often said to be the birthplace of varietal labelling, soon after World War 11, so the labels were easier to understand, who knows? Again this is mainly a white wine region, or at least the wines that have made it famous and prosperous tend to be white, but plenty of red is made too. Dry white wine production is dominated by Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and the local Verduzzo, the best of which now has its own DOCg Ramandolo. Picolit, another local grape variety, is used to make light sweetish wines.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Although plenty of famous black grapes are grown and red wine is made, the speciality red is Schioppettino. This grape variety was rescued from near extinction only in the 1980s and is enjoying something of a modest renaissance, which is good as the wines seem to be very good, with a lovely rich fruity quality, smooth texture and delicate spice characters.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

We visited the rather lovely Azienda Agricola Moschioni where we were able to taste a wide range of local wines produced by them and other local wineries. I was very taken with the wines of Bastianich, particularly their Friulanos, white blend and incredibly concentrated Calabrone red blend. Rodaro‘s Schiopottino Romain made from dried, overripe grapes and aged 18 month in barrel was a delight, as was their intense Refosco dal Peduncolo Rossa Romain. I was also really impressed by the concentrated and spicy Moschioni Shioppettino.

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Looking down on the Isonzo from Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino. Some of the fiercest fighting of WW1 took place in this terrain.

A Wonderful Corner of Europe
I loved this trip to this wonderful part of the world that is somewhat neglected by tourists, certainly ones from the UK. I loved the countryside, I loved the people, their food, their wines and their spirit of hospitality. I even got the chance to clamber about in some of the First World War trenches high on Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino where some of the fiercest fighting took place between the Austro-Hungarians and the Italians. Ethnic Italians and ethnic Slovenes fought on both sides and today share this landscape in a peaceful, productive and creative way. So many things are better today, I just cross my fingers and hope that Europe does not revert back to the destructive ways of nationalism and formal borders. We all suffer if we do that. People suffer, our culture suffers, our pleasures diminish and wine will be the poorer.

I like my Wines Without Borders.

Wine of the Week 54 – Coyam, a fine Chilean red

I love Chile, it is a very beautiful country, full of wonderful things to see Everything is dramatic and exciting, especially the mountains, lakes, desserts, glaciers and volcanoes, as being the most fantastic place to observe the night sky. Do visit if you get the chance, but if that is something that you have to put off for now, then you can always treat your self to a bottle of exciting wine from Chile.

Colchagua Valley vineyards - photo courtesy of Wines of Chile.

Colchagua Valley vineyards – photo courtesy of Wines of Chile.

Chilean wine gets better all the time, more styles and more variety seems to be available with every passing year, so if Chilean wine has passed you by recently, it might be a good idea to give them another look. Not so long ago Chile was regarded above all as a safe place to buy a reliable bottle of wine from, now most people know that Chile can produce wines of world class standard that can compare to anybody else’s. I was leading a tasting on Chilean wines the other day and I showed this wine that is so delicious and so wonderful and so different  that I just had to make it my Wine of the Week.

Coyam, the animals help to create biodiversity and balance in the vineyard - photo courtesy of Wines of Chile.

Coyam, the animals help to create biodiversity and balance in the vineyard – photo courtesy of Wines of Chile.

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

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

Coyam2011 Coyam
Los Robles Estate, Viñedos Organicos Emiliana
D.O. Valle de Colchagua, Chile

Coyam is the brainchild of superstar Chilean winemaker Alvaro Espinoza who is the head winemaker at Viñedos Organicos Emiliana. Almost all Emilian’s vineyards are farmed organically, with the rest in transition, but the Los Robles estate is biodynamic too – Robles means oak in Spanish, while Coyam means oak in the native language. The wine is a blend, which changes every year as it reflects the vineyard, this vintage is 38% Syrah, 31% Carmenère, 19% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Mourvèdre and 1% Malbec. The grapes are harvested by hand and go through a triple selection process to ensure only the best grapes get into Coyam. Only native yeast is used for the fermentation and the wine is aged 13 months in oak barrels, 80% French and 20% American, it is only very lightly filtered.

Everything is done to make sure you get the whole wine and it shows as Coyam is a wonderfully expressive wine. The grape varieties used are a mixture of extremely fruity ones and seductively spicy ones and that is how the finished wine seems too. The colour is opaque purpley black, while the nose is vibrant and full of blackberry, rich plum, black cherry, herbs, soft spices – pepper and liquorice – vanilla, smoke, cedar wood and a touch of prune. All these aromas and more follow onto the palate, giving a barbecued meat and mushroom character, together with vivid black fruit and even some red, together with tobacco, mocha, caramel (from the oak), wild herbs and peppery spice. This is mouth filling and full-bodied, with beautifully integrated oak, loads of flavour and concentration. I love this wine and think that anyone whole likes big reds will too, however it is elegant and refined too. It isn’t just a monster and the tannins are supple and round – 91/100 points.

This is a big wine that could well repay some cellaring, as the tannins will soften – although they are quite approachable already – and the the fruit will fade allowing the complexity to develop, so there is no hurry to drink it, but it is delicious now. Try this with hearty stews, pies, roasts and strong, hard cheeses.

Available in the UK for around £18 a bottle from Tanners, Slurp, D & D Wine and Virgin Wines, while the 2010 vintage is available from The Wine Society. Further stockist information is available here.
US stockist information is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

Lebanon Part 2 – the producers

Earlier in the year I was invited to visit Lebanon and so was able to tour some of the wineries in the Bekaa Valley. Lebanon is a beautiful and vibrant country full of smiling, friendly people, incredible landscapes, wonderful food and excellent quality wines.

Of course in world terms it is a tiny producer, just 0.06% of total world production in 2010, but the average quality does seem very high. Not even the biggest producers in Lebanon count as bulk producers though. So it is a land of boutique winemakers, people who feel driven to make wine, who strive for quality and do not cut corners. This means that most Lebanese wine isn’t cheap – even in Lebanon – but is usually well worth trying.

Map of Lebanon including the wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Lebanon including the wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Most Lebanese wines come from the Bekaa Valley, which is a beautiful fertile valley between Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, which form the border with Syria. It’s very fertile and every where you look you can see produce being grown – wine of course suits the rockier, less fertile soils.  The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with cold winters and hot dry summers that can ripen grapes perfectly. The heat is tempered by cool breezes because the valley is at very high altitude, between 900 and 1250 metres above sea level. The big temperature drops between day and night, often around 20 degrees, also helps to retain freshness and elegance in the wines. Some of the newer regions just starting to produce wines, like Jezzine in the south and Batroun in the north, are cooler and look promising for more delicate grape varieties like Rielsing and Sauvignon Blanc.

When I first got back I wrote a little about Lebanon and have since put on a couple of well received Lebanese tastings as well, but I thought it might be useful to go into a little detail about some of the producers whose wines you might be able to buy where you live.

Château Ksara

Château Ksara.

Château Ksara.

Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, this is the oldest and biggest winery in the country. It all started when the monks of nearby Tabauk Monastery were left 25 hectares of farming land near Zahle in the Bekaa Valley. It seems that one of their number – Father Kirn – was rather keen on wine and persuaded his colleagues that this place had great potential for growing grapes and making wine. It seems they aimed high right from the start and eventually employed a trained team of viticulturist monks, which seems an odd concept to a modern ear, but remember that the monasteries had been the guardians of winemaking knowledge – and indeed the wine innovators too – for hundreds of years. The secularisation of wine was a long journey that has lasted from the 1500s in Bordeaux onwards and even today monasteries still cultivate grapes and make wine around the world – see my article about Mount Athos.

Ksara had a an amazing stroke of luck in the final years of the nineteenth century, when some children, who worked on the farm were trying to stop a fox from terrorising the chickens. In the excitement they stumbled on a Roman cave system on the site. The monks instantly realised that these ancient caves were a perfect place to store their wine as the temperature stays constant at 11˚C throughout the year. These cellars are quite amazing to see and have been central to the Ksara story ever since their discovery and help to explain why Ksara is such a popular tourist destination – although numbers of visitors have declined recently with the civil war raging in nearby Syria.

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

Ksara carried on as before, but with bigger markets and more demands, until the Vatican noticed that wine making had become a major focus for the monastery – by this time they were producing 1.5 million bottles. The Vatican didn’t really approve and so in 1973 encouraged the monastery, as well as many others, to sell off any money making enterprises. So Ksara became a private company belonging to a group of local businessmen. Their timing wasn’t great as the Lebanese civil war started in 1975 and lasted for the best part of twenty years, devastating the country and making commerce next to impossible. The absolute low point for Ksara was when the Battle of Zahle raged just down the road and the winery was actually occupied by Syrian troops for a time.

Vines at Château Ksara.

Vines at Château Ksara.

The 1990s saw Ksara bounce back with determination. New planting, replanting and investments in modern equipment have paid real dividends. My hosts here were the charming Elie Maamari – who is officially the export manager, but seems to know everything about and everybody to do with wine in Lebanon and was instrumental in my being there – and James Palgé the talented and engaging wine maker.

James Plagé.

James Plagé.

Like all the Bekaa Valley wineries I saw, the place is very peaceful, which is astonishing considering that it’s almost in the centre of a bustling little town. However photographs from as recently as the 1960s show that it was originally in the countryside with nothing around it except vineyards.

The winery is like a little haven of peace with a museum in the reception area. It’s full of wonderfully antiquated wine making equipment and reinforces how old this winery is, over 150 years now. Upstairs there is a lovely tasting area and excellent restaurant, but the real wonder is the cellars which lie beyond an arched door with 1857 carved into the keystone. These extraordinary tunnels appear to go on for miles – actually just over 2 kilometres – and it is fascinating to meander through them seeing the little alcoves lined with bottles and barrels. They still store some old wines that the monks made there in the nineteenth century.

The cellars at Ksara.

The cellars at Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

It isn’t all about the restaurant and the cellars though, there is real dedication here and it shows in the finished wines. James is a passionate and thoughtful winemaker who embraces new techniques while retaining the best of the old. He led me and my friend, fellow wine scribe Stephen Quinn – whose writings and videos can be found here – , through a wide range of Ksara’s wines in their beautiful upstairs tasting room.

The Wines
We started with a pair of rosés and I was very impressed, especially by the 2012 Château Ksara Gris de Gris with it’s delicate, Provence-like colour, subtle spice and delicate fruit, but the more intensely fruity 2013 Ksara Sunset Rosé was very drinkable too. It was a sunny day and the idea of sipping the Gris de Gris with a lovely Lebanese meal was very attractive.

The Bekaa has a huge variety of soils and conditions, so all colours can confidently be made here – indeed one of the revelations of the trip, for me, was the high quality of the white wines – which is good as they also suit the cuisine very well indeed. Certainly Ksara’s 2012 Chardonnay is an accomplished and appealing wine, with a lovely texture, succulent fruit and refreshing acidity it is the sort of wine that could win more drinkers back to Chardonnay.

While I was in Lebanon I totally fell for the traditional and local style of white, which is a blend of different white grape varieties and usually called a Blanc de Blancs. I tasted quite a few I rated and the 2012 Château Ksara Blanc de Blancs was one of them. It is a lovely, nutty, creamy and spicy blend of 55% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Chardonnay and 20% Semillon and is delicious with a nice piece of fish.

The heart of their range though is their red wines and I liked them all, although the stand outs for me were the 2010 Château Ksara itself, which is nicely complex and cedary, Médoc inspired blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot, barrel aged for 12 months. The wine has supple tannins and that classic dry, but ripe fruit and leafy character that will please claret lovers.

The 2011 Ksara Reserve du Couvent is a more approachable wine in terms of structure and price. It is a lovely bright blend of 40% Syrah 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon with ripe, supple tannins and generous fruit – it is a former Wine of the Week because it is so delicious and a great bargain.

The top wine of their range is called Le Souvrain and I was hugely impressed by the 2008 offering. Created to celebrate the wineries 150th anniversary, 2008 Le Souvrain is an opulent blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Arinarnoa, which is cross between Merlot and Petit Verdot, aged in new French oak for 24 months. The wine is full-bodied, creamy, concentrated, supple and sumptuous with the weight of fruit easily carrying all that oak in perfect, seductive  balance.

James carefully opening the 1942 Ksara Vin d'Or.

James carefully opening the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or.

Stephen Quinn, James Palgé and me drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d'Or.

Stephen Quinn, James Palgé and me drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or.

 

It was a brilliant tasting, but James had one more treat in store for us. He collected a mould encrusted bottle from the cellars and carefully removed the cork before pouring samples of this venerable looking bottle. It looked like brandy in fact and had complex aromas of amontillado sherry, barley sugar and orange peel. The palate was glorious with high alcohol, coffee, apricot, walnuts, caramel, honey and brandy characters. We were drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or (no records exist about what grapes were used) which was made by the monks and had lain in the caves beneath Ksara ever since. It was an exquisite wine and a great experience that I will remember forever.

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines.

Thank you Elie and James for a memorable and wonderful visit.

Château Kefraya

Château Kefraya's soils.

Château Kefraya’s soils.

An hour or so further south in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, Château Kefraya seems to be very remote – it is midway between Chitaura and Machghara. It was my first winery visit in Lebanon and I found the place quite magical with a lovely peaceful feel. The landscape seemed biblical to me and had a rugged beauty to it with wild flowers and scrub contrasting with the neatly maintained grounds and foliage around the winery. Lizards darting around and cicadas chirruping added to the exotic ambience.

Kefraya, the area or lieux-dit in French, has been owned by the de Bustros family for generations. However farming here has always been problematic as the soil is so rocky and difficult to work that anything other than subsistence agriculture has proved impossible. It was these conditions that inspired Michel de Bustros to return to the family land in 1946, repair the buildings and set about creating a vineyard. First of all they had to remove a mass of rocks, something which is ongoing as the vineyard area grows, so the first vines were not planted until 1951. At first they sold their grapes to other Bekaa Valley producers, including the excellent Château Nakad.

The rocky soil at Kefraya being tended.

The rocky soil at Kefraya being tended.

Eventually Michel decided the they had enough experience and knowhow to build a winery on the estate too and to create a new Lebanese wine brand. Château Kefraya’s – there is an actual castle that is now quite modernised and serves as the family house – first estate bottled vintage was 1979, although some of the grapes were still sold to other producers at that time.

Of course, again the timing was bad, the civil war was in full flow and Lebanon’s unruly neighbours had to get involved. In 1981 the Israeli Army occupied the area and took over Kefraya for a while – they even arrested the winemaker. Determined to look after his beloved Château, Michel stayed there all through this troubled time. His determination was rewarded as more peaceful times returned, slowly at first, but enough to ensure the winery could start to prosper. They started exporting from 1987 and have gone from strength to strength ever since.

The current wine maker is one of the most engaging and inspiring I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Fabrice Guiberteau is a gentle giant of a man, brimming over with energy and enthusiasm for this place and the wines he makes here. His excitement was palpable and it was a wonderful experience to see the estate through his eyes.

Fabrice tending his Chardonnay vines.

Fabrice tending his Chardonnay vines.

I first glimpsed him driving a tractor around a rocky vineyard. He explained that the site produced his best Chardonnay grapes, so he tended it himself. As the estate is now 430 hectares he cannot do it all, but insists on personally looking after this section. From the moment he greeted us, it was great fun to be there, Fabrice bounded from one topic to the next, explaining it all and being totally honest, as well as modest – both important attributes in a wine maker I think.

The landscape at Kefraya.

The landscape at Kefraya.

Kefraya's vineyards.

Kefraya’s vineyards.

He drove us around the estate in a 4X4, showed us the very different soils – limestone, chalk – particularly good for their Chardonnay – and sand, the different aspects and the different altitudes he grows grapes at.  He showed us the amazing piles of rocks that have been removed from the land before the vines can be planted.

The rocks that were removed before the vines could be planted.

The rocks that were removed before the vines could be planted.

The vines are interspersed with rocky outcrops that, it was recently discovered, contain an ancient cave system that was used for tombs in biblical times. Outside the tombs seats were carved into the rock to allow mourners to sit and weep in comfort. It looked for all the world like the tombs mentioned in the bible and was amazing to think that this rural landscape has been inhabited for more than 2000 years. They still turn up Roman finds while tending the fields and have a small museum of coins and artefacts in the Château.

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

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

Fabrice gave us three wonderful tastings in different parts of the winery, tasting vat and cask samples as well as finished wines.

The Wines
2012 Château Kefraya Blanc de Blancs  is a beautifully textured and deliciously creamy dry white with good acidity. It’s made from an unlikely blend of Viognier, Clairette, Muscat, Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc (Fabrice is from Cognac country!), Chardonnay and Verdejo.

The 2012 Château Kefraya Chardonnay is beautifully balanced with rich figgy fruit and well integrated oak. While a tank sample of the Provencal-like 2013 Château Kefraya Rosé was quite delightful with a little creamy ripeness to the red fruit notes, good acidity and a touch of spice – it would go perfectly with a classic Lebanese meal.

The 2010 Château Kafraya Rouge is a blend of 60% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Mourvèdre aged for 18 months in oak, 50% new. It is a lovely wine with spice notes as well as rich black fruit and some earthiness too. The drying tannins give some nice structure to the sweet, ripe fruit.

The ‘flagship’ wine here is called Comte de M and the 2010 Comte du M Rouge is an intense, concentrated and fine blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 30% Syrah that spent 18 months in new French oak barrels, Fabrice has experimented with American oak, but he hates it! I found the wine to be opulent, but elegant too, full of rich fruit, with lovely fresh, cleansing acidity and supple tannins.

Fabrice also gave us some fascinating cask samples, most memorably his 2012 Carmenère (with 20% Syrah) that had 18 months in new French oak. It was sublime with beautiful blackberry fruit, fruity intensity, those savoury notes, supple tannins and a touch of spice and mocha. He only made one barrel, so try it if you can!

Thank you too Fabrice for a wonderful visit and for your infectious enthusiasm.

Château Kefraya wines are distributed in the UK by Lebanese Fine Wines.
Château Kefraya wines are distributed in the US by Volubilis.

Both these visits were great experiences and introduced me to a wider array of styles from Lebanon than I was expecting and whetted my appetite for more Lebanese wine, so I will report on a couple of more wineries soon.

Tempranillo Day – Celebrating the Tempting Tempranillo

Tempranillo & Mazuelo vines at Contino in Rioja Alavesa

I cannot claim to have a favourite grape, let alone one that I drink to the exclusion of all others. I find the less trodden wine paths to be so fascinating that I simply cannot resist lesser known grapes – Carmenère, Zweigelt, St Laurent, Grenache Gris, Nascetta, Romorantin and the like all speak to me and demand their attention. I am never professionally happier or more excited than when experiencing a new grape variety for the first time.

A fine Riesling would probably be my desert island wine of choice as I never seem to tire of that beguiling grape, but for the rest I enjoy a wide spectrum of grapes with very different characters. Regular readers will know though that my passion for all things Spanish often breaks through and trumps my affection for wines from other places, so I think that if push comes to shove Tempranillo might well be my favoured red wine grape – unless I happen to be in a particular Cabernet, Pinot or Syrah sort of mood.

Very different conditions for old vine Tempranillo / Tinto del País in Castilla y León

And why am I so fond of Tempranillo? Well I cannot give you a neat answer to that really, but it speaks to me. Unlike the classic French grapes, which are only grown in specific areas of the country, Tempranillo is used all over Spain and so produces a wide range of wine styles and yet they often seem to be attractive wines to me – the well made examples anyway. Even at quite low price points Tempranillo can be enjoyable to drink.

Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero

As someone who celebrates diversity in wine it pains me that the differences are being ironed out. Many marketeers seem to believe that wine should be simplified for the UK consumer, even if they have to stretch the truth to do so. Nowadays you are more likely to find Tempranillo on a Spanish wine label from whatever region it hails when to my mind they should have used the old local name: Cencibel in Valdepeñas, Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero, Tinto del País in Cigales, Tinta de Toro in Toro and the poetic Ull De Llebre in Cataluña. What’s more many people believe these grapes have evolved apart and so are now only very closely related rather than being absolutely identical to Tempranillo – not least the great Carlos Falco, Marqués de Griñon.

Tempranillo and olives in Utiel-Requña

It is Tempranillo’s fame as the main grape of Rioja that brings it to most people’s attention, but given Rioja’s popularity it always amazes me how few people grow Tempranillo outside Spain. It has become a dominant grape in Portugal – where it is called Tinto Roriz and Aragonez depending on where you are. There is even some grown in the south of France and I have tasted some from Virginia and Texas and even had one from Peru the other day, but Tempranillo has not yet become a true international grape. The plantings outside Europe remain small and relatively inconsequential, except in Argentina, but even there it is treated as an everyday grape rather than being given the star treatment it deserves. Surely Tempranillo is capable of challenging for Malbec‘s Argentinean throne?

Tempranillo in the softer Tuscan landscape

Perhaps it is this very diversity that I like about Tempranillo? That sense of never knowing quite what you are going to get. As with Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans there is no one flavour to Tempranillo. Some people taste black fruit and some red, some regions produce dry savoury wines from it while other areas make richly fruity examples. Some wine makers craft bright, modern Tempranillos that celebrate fruit and liveliness, while many winemakers stick to the traditional silky, oaky style that made the grape famous in the first place.

Although most famous as the principal grape of red Rioja, Tempranillo – and its near relatives – is also responsible for an array of lovely wines from across Spain and in my opinion it deserves to be as celebrated as much more famous and widely used grape varieties. Which is why I made sure that I tasted some on 8th November which just happened to be International Tempranillo Day:

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

2011 Beronia Tempranillo Rosado
Bodegas Beronia, Ollauri, Rioja Alta, D.O.Ca Rioja
100% Tempranillo 

The colour is a vivid strawberry juice hue, but it looks like real fruit rather than a confection. The nose is fresh, floral and gently fruity while the palate is dry, rich-ish, crisp-ish, nicely balanced  and very nice to drink with almost anything. It won’t win any prizes for complexity, but will make lots of people happy. Spain makes very good rosé, but why isn’t Tempranillo used for more of them? Personally I think it is much more suitable than the more normal Garnacha – 86/100 points

Around £9.00 a bottle in the UK from Ocado.

2010 Beronia Tempranillo Elaboración Especial
Bodegas Beronia, Ollauri, Rioja Alta, D.O.Ca Rioja
100% Tempranillo (in Rioja it is traditionally blended with Garnacha and others to make the wines fruitier) aged 8 months in new American Oak barrels.

Deep opaque plummy-black colour.
The nose is fragrant and enticing with spice, vanilla and a touch of mocha.
Pretty full-bodied for Rioja (which despite its reputation is rarely more than medium-bodied) with rich sweet black plummy fruit, fragrant vanilla and dried fruit notes too. The palate is round, rich and succulent with rich cherry on the the end of the mid palate together with a touch of fruit cake and a light dusting of cocoa and coffee and a lovely sinewy texture of gentle tannins and oak. This is a terrific wine to drink and enjoy without thinking about too much. The soft, fruity and modern side of Tempranillo and Rioja it scores high for pleasure and sheer drinkability – 88/100 points

Around £12.00 a bottle in the UK from Ocado.

2008 Matarromera Crianza
Bodega Matarromera, Valbuena de Duero, D.O. Ribera del Duero
100% Tinto Fino / Tempranillo aged 12 months in mixture of French &  American Oak barrels.

Matarromera were only founded in 1988, but they are in the heartland of Ribera del Duero and are right up there in quality with some of the much more famous producers of this great wine region which needs to be better known in the UK.
Intense aromas of plum, cocoa together with smoky, cedary spices.
The palate was sumptuous, soft and succulent at first with rich plum fruit and other mixed dark fresh and stewed fruit with fig and black cherry. The oak is very tasty indeed, coconut, vanilla, cocoa and coffee with some spice too. the tannins give a lovely fine grain texture which is so wrapped up in ripe fruit that’s there is no astringency. This is a big, but still medium bodied and dry wine and although the fruit is ripe it is not sweet at all. A beautifully balanced and concentrated wine that is hugely enjoyable and quite delicious. Not yet as complex as it will become – it needs time to develop, but it is really delicious and extremely pleasurable already and has much to offer for a long time to come – 91/100 points

Around £25.00 a bottle in the UK from Harvey Nichols.

2010 Finca Constancia Tempranillo Parcela 23
Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, Otero, Toledo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla
Special single parcel bottling of 100% Tempranillo aged 6 months in mixture of new French &  American Oak barrels.

Better known for Sherry, in 2006 Gonzalez Byass created this stunning modern estate in a part of Spain that seems at first glance to be a backwater for wine. However it is in the Sierra de Gredos, renowned for old vine Garnacha and the area is also home to Carlos Falco’s great Dominio de Valdepusa which produces some of Spain’s greatest wines in this seemingly unlikely place.
This will also make many friends as it is a very user friendly, winter warmer kind of wine. The nose really shows that new oak, smoky, toasty and very vanilla and coconut like those marshmallow sweets rolled in coconut! There was rich, stewed blackberry and plum fruit too as well as a dash of spice. The palate was at the top end of medium bodied with ripe plums, sweeter strawberry fruit, rich cherry and a touch herbs as you get in Chianti and all along this sweet vanilla, smooth, leathery oak giving a touch of toffee too. This is one to drink relatively soon and it is a bargain, so gets high marks from me for value – 88/100 points

Around £10.99 a bottle in the UK from the Oxford Wine Company.

There is no doubt that the Ribera del Duero was the finest of these, so do try it if you can, but all the wines showed well and reminded me how fond I am of wines made from Tempranillo and its relatives and the good news is we can drink them whenever we like, not just on International Tempranillo Day.

Wine and Spicy Food

I spent last week-end leading tutored tastings at the West Dean Chilli Fiesta. This is a terrific event that happens every August in the middle of the South Downs just north of Chichester and it celebrates all things spicy – mainly the chilli itself, but also everything connected with it. There are stalls with chilli sauces, chilli dips, chilli plants, paintings of chillis, models of chillis, shirts emblazoned with chillis, pots, pans and chilli ice-cream. There is a plethora of spicy foods to enjoy; Mexican, Jamaican, Indian, Singaporean, Indonesian, Thai and American all washed down by the products in the delightfully English beer tent and made even more fun by the variety of live Latin American music, including salsa and Mariachi.

chill-i out room at West Dean Chilli Fiesta

As far as wine is concerned though it was just me and my colleagues. My job was to lead 6 tutored tastings a day about the wines of Viña Errazuriz who are one of Chile’s top producers – you see what we did there with Chilli/Chile? I covered quite a few topics, different regions of Chile, winemaking styles, I even compared different Syrahs from around the world with one from Viña Errazuriz.

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A pair of elegant red wines

The other day I was fortunate enough to taste two very different wines. They were like chalk and cheese in many ways and yet I think they would appeal to the same sort of drinker.

One was a really classic wine, I know this term is overused, but the wine in question is a Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux that I have tasted on and off throughout my career and one that is much loved by the UK wine trade – Château Caronne Ste Gemme.

The harvest at Château Caronne Ste Gemme

Located just to the south of the commune of St Julien in the Haut-Médoc (number 3 on the map), Caronne Ste Gemme often has some of that famous village’s cedary style, which to many Brits is the quintessence of claret. Unlike the mass of estates further north, this property is on its own, but it occupies some impressively deep, superbly drained, gravel soils which help it to produce concentrated wines from its 45 hectares of vines that are made up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot and 37% Merlot. Continue reading