Wine of the Week – a surprise from Chile

Vines at Casa Silva.

Readers of these pages will know that I revel in finding something new. For me loving wine is all about seeking out the unexpected, the different and the surprising.

Whether it is a region that I have never heard of, a grape variety, or a whole new wine producing country, that is what excites me most about wine.

So, in truth the wine I want to share with you today doesn’t fall into any of those categories, but it does come close.

It’s from Chile, which is not unusual, but it is made from an obscure grape called Romano, more usually called César. There isn’t much César left in the world and most of that grows northwest of Dijon in Burgundy, where it is principally used to make up to 10% of the blend, together with Pinot Noir, in the wines of Irancy.

The names come from the long held belief that the grape was introduced into the region by the invading Roman Legions who were led by Julius Ceasar. With DNA testing we now know that is not true, but it was believed for centuries.

Huasos, Chilean cowboys in Colchagua – photo courtesy of Enoturismo, Chile.

Strangely enough the only other pure César that I have tasted is also from Chile, made by Morandé from a vineyard that no longer exits. The destruction of Morande’s vineyard may well have led to the rumours that this grape variety had actually become extinct, but that was always unlikely given its traditional use in Irancy.

To me it seems to have been an odd choice to plant this grape in Chile’s Colchagua region, given that it has a Mediterranean climate. All that sunshine and warmth together with pretty much no rain during the growing season means that the grapes can have plenty of hang time and get fully ripe. This is the exact opposite of what happens in Irancy, which is very near Chablis, so has a Continental climate with a short growing season meaning the red wines of Irancy are usually light and acidic.

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

Whatever their rationale for planting César/Romano was, I am glad they did though because it has produced a style of wine in Chile that is totally unlike the examples of this grape that we get from France. In fact it has produced a wonderful wine that I really enjoyed and I think others will too.

The old Casa Silva winery and its grounds – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Romano Viñedo Original 
DO  Valle de Colchagua
Viña Casa Silva
Chile

Casa Silva is one of the great wine estates of the Colchagua Valley. They were originally a French family of grape growers who came to Chile in 1892 and have been growing grapes there ever since. However the family vineyards became divided up with multiple owners and it was not until the 1970s that Mario Silva pieced the estate together again and they have been bottling and labelling their own wines since 1997. They are based in Angostura where their beautiful original homestead is now a hotel and well worth a visit. The land around the house is their initial plantings with vineyards going back to 1912. This is where they have some fabulous speciality grapes including old vine Carmenère, Sauvignon Gris and this Romano. All of these are ungrafted, so grow on their own roots. This helps the vines to live longer and old vines produce smaller crops and smaller berries that have more concentrated flavours. Old vines also ripen with less sugar, so produce wines with lower alcohol, which makes for better balance and more elegance.

The harvest was done by hand with a further manual selection of grapes at the sorting table before the grapes were de-stemmed – stalks can give harsh tannins. There is a pre-fermentation cold soak, a cold fermentation in stainless steel followed by a further maceration on the skins. Half the wine was aged in stainless steel and half in second use French oak barrels. This older oak means that the wine is not overly oaky in taste, but has the softening that ageing in barrels gives as the oxygen gets to the wine through the wood, making it rounder and richer.

The barrel ageing room at Casa Silva – photo courtesy of the winery.

The wine looks very appealing with a deep and bright ruby colour. The nose is full of rich red fruits like strawberry, cherry, a hint of raspberry, black pepper and a delicate mushroomy/earthy savoury note. The palate is smooth, round and mouth filling with rich ripe red fruit, smooth, supple tannins and some lovely freshness too. There is plenty of beautiful, concentrated fruit, but good structure and that attractive earthy, savoury quality. This will appeal to Pinot Noir drinkers – and Syrah and Grenache drinkers too – in my opinion, as well as anyone who wants a really flavourful, suave and supple red wine that is full-flavoured and medium bodied. It really is a gorgeous wine – 93/100 points

This is a very versatile wine too. It is mellow enough to be enjoyable without food, has enough freshness to go with pizzas and pastas, has enough elegance and structure to partner haute cuisine and enough richness to go with cheese and enough pizzazz to go with burgers, chilli con carne or shepherd’s pie and to keep everyone happy.

Available in the UK at around £15.00 per bottle from Duncan Murray Fine Wines – Market Harborough, Staintons – Lake District, Guildford Wine CoBottle Shops – Cardiff, Penarth, Field & Fawcett – York, Naked Grape – Alresford, Hants, Palmers Wine Store – Dorset, The Vineking – Reigate, East Molesey, Weybridge and the Oxford Wine Company.

More information is available from Casa Silva’s UK distributor, Jackson Nugent Vintners.

 

50 Shades of Gris

Domaine Jones

Domaine Jones

Wine isn’t all noir and blanc

I know what you’re thinking. I bet you think this piece is about Pinot Gris, dont’y ya, don’t ya?

Well you are wrong, I might mention Pinot Gris in passing – see I just did – but actually this piece is going to be about a couple of others grapes with Gris in their name.

Pinot Gris is not a grape that I gravitate towards, I think it is usually just too low in acidity for me, but there are some honourable exceptions – what’s more, I am so broadminded I have even been known to enjoy the odd Pinot Grigio.

Until 10 years or so ago I was under the impression that Pinot Gris was the only grape called Gris. I knew there were others that are ‘gris’ or pink skinned, just as grapes called ‘noir’ are red or purple skinned and those called ‘blanc’ have green skins – I think they named them from engravings before colour photography was invented. Gewürztraminer of course has pink skins when fully ripe, so does Koshu and Moschofilero which makes Mantinia in the Peloponnese region of Greece, but none of those have ‘gris’ in their name.

Sauvignon Gris
Well, one day in 2003 I was with a group of fellow wine educators in Chile and we were served a bottle of white wine with our fish that I – and most of our party – assumed was Sauvignon Blanc. Only it didn’t taste quite like Sauvignon Blanc, we even wondered if it was a dodgy bottle for a while until one bright eyed individual noticed that the label didn’t claim it to be a Sauvignon Blanc at all, but a Sauvignon Gris. It was made by a famous old producer from the Maipo Valley called Cousiño-Macul and it was pretty good, but most of all it was interesting. I have tried more recent vintages of this wine and it seems to me that like almost everything else they have improved greatly over that time.

I later learnt that the vine was imported into Chile in the nineteenth century in mistake for Sauvignon Blanc – mind you they did the same thing with Sauvignon Vert too, which is also known as Sauvignonasse and (Tocai) Friulano.

A few days later I was able to try another example of Sauvignon Gris, this time it was made from very old vines in Colchagua Valley by a winery called Casa Silva and I loved it.

Sauvignon Gris is thought 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 is fatter and less aromatic than its sibling. 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, indeed so excited was I by the Casa Silva wine that I actually became the first person ever to ship a few cases to the UK.

A few others followed my lead and now you can find some Sauvignon Gris wines if you shop around. Mark and Spencer lead the pack as they offers two, one from Argentina that I have not tasted and another from Chile that I like very much indeed. I have mentioned Viña Leyda before, they are a great producer in Chile’s Leyda Valley and they also make the excellent Secano Estate wines whose Sauvignon Gris is a delight.

It can be found in France too, where there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire, where 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.

Recently I was able to taste this terrific example from the flamboyantly named Xavier Frissant of Touraine-Amboise at the Absolutely Cracking Wines From France event:

2010 touraine blanc les roses du clos2010 Les Roses du Clos
Cépage Fié Gris
Xavier Frissant, A.C. Touraine
Touraine is usually associated with Sauvignon Blanc, so this is an interesting variation on the theme. The grapes are harvested by hand and the wine is fermented and aged on the lees in 400 litre oak barrels, but the oak does not show at all – unless it adds to the texture.
The nose was bright, vibrant and fresh with an underlying stoney / mineral quality and a deeper, denser apricot-like note too.
The palate offers high, but rich, not citric, apricot acidity and textured apricot fruit, while some grapefruit characters freshen it up and keep it balanced by giving it some real tang, in fact it is more tangy than zingy. It is clean and fresh, but has a lovely juicy weight to to as well which balances the high acidity and makes the wine very attractive and pleasurable to drink. It is dry with a long finish and I can imagine it goes with a wide array of foods – 89/100 points.

£14.75 a bottle in the UK from H2Vin.

Grenache Gris
The other gris that has been exciting me recently is Grenache Gris. Grenache is originally a Spanish grape, so perfectly suits the Mediterranean climate and should really be called Garnacha. It spread throughout the Mediterranean world during the time of Aragon and Catalan strength in the middle ages and because Roussillon was a part of Catalonia until 1659 – and who knows it might be again soon – Grenache remains a dominant grape in the region.

Grenache comes in all colours and I understand that Grenache Gris is a natural mutation of Grenche Noir, the one that makes the red wines. Like all the other gris grapes, you can make a pale rosé from them – like Pinot Grigio Ramato (coppered) – but it seems more normal to use them to make rich-ish white wines that often have a deep colour.

I have tasted a couple of examples recently that stand out and show that Grenache Gris really should be a more widely appreciated grape:

photo blanc2011 Domaine Jones Blanc
Grenache Gris
Katie Jones, I.G.P. (Vin de Pays) Côtes Catalanes
Katie is from Ashby-de-la Zouch in Leicestershire and perhaps the French name got to her because she finally ended up in Paziols near Tautavel in Roussillon. Joining the local cooperative and eventually becoming their Export Sales and Marketing Director Katie worked with the local wine and loved it so much that eventually she bought her own parcel of vines near Maury and settled down to craft some stunning wines in this beautiful, rugged landscape.
This wine betrays a slightly coppery hue, just the merest tinge mind, while the nose is gloriously scented and lifted with grapefruit, softer mandarin notes and exotic wild herbs and even a touch of honey. The palate has richness with a slightly creamy and oily texture making it fat and mouth filling. The citrus fruit and richer stone fruit – nectarine – balance this beautifully and there is an enticing gently smoky character that together with touches of herb makes the wine nice and savoury. It finishes long and is balanced, fresh, flavoursome, mouth-filling and juicy – 91/100 points.

£14.95 a bottle in the UK from The Wine Society and direct from Domaine Jones.

Katie Jones (second from left)

Katie Jones (second from left)

Reading about Katie Jones I kept getting this feeling that I had met her or heard of her before. Then I realised, her story has much in common with Charlotte Allen‘s. They are equally determined, dedicated and passionate about their wines, they ended up in different parts of Europe – but similarly rugged and beautiful ones and they use many similar grapes. It is so wonderful that there are people like Katie out there as the wine world needs them and their wines.

This example was one of the first Grenache Gris wines that captured my imagination and it is made quite close to Domaine Jones:

coume_blanc2009 Domaine Préceptorie de Centernach Coume Marie
Domaine La Préceptorie
A.C. Cotes du Roussillon Blanc
Mainly Grenache Gris, this also has some Grenache Blanc, Macabeu (Viura) and Carignan Banc and is fermented in 400 litre oak vats and aged in them for some 8 months.

This exciting wine is elegant, richly textured and quite delicious, but sadly the Wine Society no longer stock it, so I do not know how to get hold of any right now.

Grenache Gris is so versatile and gets so ripe that it can, like Grenache Noir, be used to make some stunning fortified wines and one of the great bargains of the moment is this amazing Vin Doux Naturel from Rivesaltes in Roussillon, which makes it just the thing for Christmas:

catalogue_age-85_4f2fe5355383a_V1985 Rivesaltes Ambré Hors d’Age Arnaud de Villeneuve
A.C. Rivesaltes Ambré

Grenache Gris with some Macabeu and Grenache Blanc – whatever Waitrose say on their website!
An Ambré must be aged for 30 months before release, which changes the colour to that oxidised caramel hue and  Hors d’Age Rivesaltes wines have to be aged for a minimum of 6 years in barrel.
The nose was slightly caramelised with coffee notes and hints of orange.
The palate offered figs and prunes and honeysuckle and more coffee and the sort of caramel on the top of a creme brulée – but it was not overtly sweet at all. The richness was balanced by a seam of clean acidity too.
A stunning wine full of complexity, richness and finesse, the grapes are different, but it is not so very far removed from a great Oloroso sherry – 93/100 points.

£13.99 per 50cl bottle in the UK from Waitrose – and it is not made from Muscat, whatever they say!

Thoughts on varietal labels
Thinking about how lovely these wines are convinces me all the more that selling wines by grape variety, choosing wines by grape variety and labelling wines by grape variety is all very well, but it actually restricts consumer choice and makes everyone drink the same small number of wine types. We have been told to think grape variety for 20-30 years and country’s like France are criticised by many drinkers nowadays for not putting the grape variety on the label, but surely that only helps if the wine is made from the six or so grapes people seem to know about and are prepared to buy. It seems to me that if anything other than one of those is on a label, people resist buying it because they haven’t heard of it. I increasingly believe that although varietal labelling has simplified wine enough to get people to drink it, having the grape variety on the label has then stopped them becoming truly adventurous and curious about the subject. I wrote a piece about it here.