A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

Wine of the Week – another stunning English Sparkler

I seem to have tasted a lot of good English sparkling wines lately – read about them here and here – well the other day I tasted yet another one that excited me enormously. So much so in fact that I made it my Wine of the Week.

house-and-vineyard

Hambledon Vineyard on a south facing slope overlooked by Mill Down House. This was the birthplace of modern English wine in 1952 – photo courtesy of the estate.

hambledon-ccHambledon Classic Cuvée Brut
Hambledon Vineyard
Hambledon
Hampshire
England

The Hambledon Vineyard is historically very important to the English wine industry, because it was the first one to make a reputation for itself and can claim to be where the English wine revival started – bizarre as it sounds, Hambledon can also claim to be where cricket as we know it today began. The estate was originally planted in 1952 and although the wines did create a stir and even won some awards, the vineyard remained tiny, between 1 and 4 acres at various times, and so was essentially a hobby rather than a business, as is borne out by this amazing bit of film – click here to watch it. In fact by the 1990s the few grapes they grew there were being sold to other vineyards.

The estate was bought by Ian Kellet in 1999 and he decided to restore Hambledon and to make wine again. First he studied oenology at Plumpton College and then researched what would suit his land. As it is a south facing chalky slope, sparkling wine seemed a great idea and so in 2005 he planted a 10 acre test plot of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Having proved that the grapes were successful there, he planted more and created the winery. Today they farm 50 acres and make the wine in a state of the art, gravity fed winery – this is much gentler on the grapes than pumping. Since 2011 they have also employed Hervé Jestin as Chef de Caves, a position he had previously held at Champagne Duval-Leroy.

Looking down the slope - photo courtesy of the estate.

Looking down the slope – photo courtesy of the estate.

This is the standard wine of the estate and is a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. 90% comes from the excellent, ripe 2013 vintage, while 10% is reserve wines from previous vintages, some of which were barrel-aged to add extra riches and complexity. In addition 6% of the wine was barrel fermented and barrel aged and after the second fermentation in bottle, the wine was aged for 22 months on the lees.

The nose offers enticing freshly baked bread notes as well as plums, rich apple and a little note of smoky spice too. The palate is beautifully creamy, with a rich mousse, ripe peach and apple fruit and a lovely pure core of acidity and freshness. This sense of purity gives the wine wonderful verve and energy and balances the richness of the vintage. By any definition this is a fine sparkling wine that shows how seriously good English fizz can be – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Hambledon Vineyard at £28.50 per bottle, Waitrose at £30 per bottle, Marks & Spencer at £29.00 per bottle  for other stockists click here and here.

If you have never tasted a great English wine, or not understood all the fuss being made about English sparkling wine, then give this ago, it really is quite superb.

 

The Marimar Estate – wines of elegance & beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2-CMT-MMT on Winery Patio (horiz)

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

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

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

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

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

 Preparation 500

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine of the Week – a Chardonnay to win everyone round

Robert Oatley's beautiful Margaret River vineyards - photo courtesy of the winery.

Robert Oatley’s beautiful Margaret River vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

It pains me that so many UK consumers go around thinking that they shouldn’t drink Chardonnay. I meet scores of wine drinkers who tell me that they don’t like Chardonnay and that fashion has moved on, so we shouldn’t drink it. Which just astonishes me.

Chardonnay is one of the great grape varieties of the world, certainly, together with Riesling, one of the best white grapes of all. What makes Chardonnay great is that it is capable of producing wines of incredible depth, finesse and variety. You can make every style of wine from Chardonnay, through fresh and lively Blanc de Blancs Champagne, to crisp Chablis, soft Mâcon, complex Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet to elegantly rich Sonoma Valley, New Zealand and Australian Chardonnays. It’s a hell of a grape and should not be underestimated or poo-pooed.

Recently I have tasted a Chardonnay that might well change the mind of many a passionate ABCer – Anything But Chardonnay – in fact I liked it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

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

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

Robert Oatley's beautiful Margaret River vineyards - photo courtesy of the winery.

Robert Oatley’s beautiful Margaret River vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

image-12014 Robert Oatley Signature Series Chardonnay
Margaret River
Western Australia

Robert Oatley was an amazing man who had many business interests and passions. He famously owned the racing yacht Wild Oats XI and created Hunter Valley’s Rosemount Estate in 1968, making him a true Australian wine pioneer. After he sold Rosemount, Robert and his family set up Robert Oatley Vineyards in 2009 by purchasing the old Craigmoor Estate, which was founded in 1858 and was the first winery in Mudgee. They are based there, but also farm and make wine from grapes grown in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia, the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley in Victoria and Pemberton, the Great Southern and Margaret River regions of Western Australia. They aim to show the diversity of Australian winemaking and all the wines that I have tried show that their quality is very high. Sadly Robert died earlier this year, but the winery that bears his name lives on and produces wines that convey a real sense of place and so encapsulate what fine Australian wine is all about.

Margaret River is one of Australia’s great regions, cooler than South Australia, but with a very reliable climate that produces very high quality premium wine. As a consequence the wines are often amongst the most expensive Australian wines around, but this one shows that good value can be found there.

This elegant Chardonnay is made from grapes grown across the region, aged for a few months in French oak barrels, 20% of which were new – which helps with a creamy texture. I assume there is some lees ageing and stirring too as there is a lovely, delicate creamy quality. The wine undergoes no malolactic fermentation, which helps to keep it fresh and lively.

A text book example of a lovely, well made and very drinkable Chardonnay – and drink it I did! It has some delicate, white peach richness and a lightly creamy texture and touch of nuttiness from the oak, but the light citric freshness from the acidity and a little tingle of minerality keep it clean and pure and light enough to relish. Delicious and seductive on its own or with fish, white meat dishes, creamy sauces and softish cheeses – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12-£14 per bottle from the Co-opCambridge Wine MerchantsLaithwaite’s Wine (2013 vintage), The Halifax Wine Company, OddbinsWine Direct, Bon Coeur Fine Wines, The Oxford Wine Company and Islington Wine.
For US stockists, click here.

Trentino – Italy’s Alpine North

 

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Recently I enjoyed a fascinating trip to Trentino in northern Italy. Trento, the capital of Trentino, is a beautiful, compact city and wandering around it makes you very aware what a mix of cultures this part of the world really is. On a modern map Trentino is most definitely in Italy, but until 1919 it was part of Austria and it shows.

More Alpine Austrian architecture.

More Alpine Austrian architecture.

The wonderful Forst Beer Bar in Trento, Forst has been brewed since Austrian times.

The wonderful Forst Beer Bar in Trento, Forst beers have been brewed since Austrian times. Photo by my friend Panos Kakaviatos of Wine Chronicles.

The other side of the Piazza Duomo.

The other side of the Piazza Duomo.

Some of the stunning painted buildings in Trento.

Some of the stunning painted buildings in Trento.

Every where you turn in Trento you come up against this mix, frothy Italian buildings that seem to embody the Renaissance side by side with foursquare Austrian-Germanic constructions. Food-wise, pasta and polenta abound, but then so do dumplings, sausages and Weiner Schnitzel. Even for an aperitif smart bars serving local wines and Aperol rub shoulders with Germanic looking beer cellars. Fashion is mixed too, as amongst the elegantly dressed inhabitants, whose clothes scream Milan couture, you will also find some wearing the traditional grey green Tyrolean loden jacket.

IMG_3532

Fascist mosaic together with quote from Mussolini created in 1936 by Gino Pancheri. The Fascist symbol and Mussolini’s name were removed in 1943, but strangely the rest remains.

Nestled amongst the grand buildings, there are even some architectural reminders of Italy’s more recent Fascist past, most noticeably the striking mosaic on the entrance of the Galleria dei Legionari on via San Pietro. Entitled ‘Victory of the Empire’ it shows a woman (Victory) who was originally carrying a Fascist Lictor, but this was chipped off in 1943. Underneath it is a typically bombastic quote from Il Duce, about defending the Empire with blood. Strangely this anachronistic quotation survives, although Mussolini’s name was removed at the same time as the fasces. I wonder what young Italians make of this inscription from another time?

All in all I think there is a lot to enjoy on a trip to Trento, I only scratched the surface of what you can see and do in the city, but it pleased me greatly. The narrow shop lined streets are a delight, the Piazza Duomo is stunningly beautiful with its ornate fountain in the centre, cathedral on one side and cafés and restaurants on the others. The Dolomite Mountains are all around you giving an Alpine feel and offering glimpses of a totally different landscape nearby, while the mountain air is wonderfully fresh, pure and invigorating.

Trentino is almost always mentioned alongside Alto Adige – or the Südtirol in German – because together they form the Trentino-Alto Adigo region. They had both had been in Austria-Hungary and the Italian authorities did not want an almost totally ethnic German province and so amalgamated the German speaking Alto Adige with the ethnically Italian Trentino.

Map showing the wine regions of Northern Italy. Luana is just West of Verona on the shore of Lake Garda.

Map showing the wine regions of Northern Italy.

From a wine point of view the two places are quite different, the Alto Adige was once Austria’s Südtirol region and still looks, feels and sounds very Germanic in character and at its best produces wines that have an Alpine purity about them. Trentino, the more southern part is mainly Italian in feel – with the odd onion domed church exception – and produces wines that tend to be softer and a little less racy.

So far I have only visited Trentino, it is an Alpine region and everywhere you look there are mountains together with over 300 lakes, which just add to the beauty  of the place. The lowest point of the region is the Plain of Rotaliano at 200-220 metres above sea level, which is still higher than the hills of Lombardy’s Franciacorta sparkling wine region, while the mountains reach over 4000 metres, which makes a mere 15% of the land workable. The place is astonishingly warm for such an Alpine location, with vines either being grown on the hot valley floor or on south facing slopes, so ripening is not a problem and they do not have to limit themselves to early ripening grape varieties. In fact there is huge range of styles produced from a dazzling array of grapes.

The typical Pergola Trentina growing system protects the grapes from the strongest sun while allowing the morning sun to penetrate the vine. It also helps combat humid conditions by being more open than a normal pergola.

The typical Pergola Trentina growing system protects the grapes from the strongest sun while allowing the morning sun to penetrate the vine. It also helps combat humid conditions by being more open than a normal pergola. Panos Kakaviatos is providing the human scale.

Trentino DOC
Trentino DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which is the Italian equivalent of the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) covers almost the entire region and usually a grape variety is also mentioned on the label.

Chardonnay is the most important white variety, but Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau are also widely grown as well as the indigenous Manzoni Bianco, Nosiola – often used to make sweet Vin Santo wines – and Moscato Giallo.

Beautiful Trentino vineyards.

Beautiful Trentino vineyards.

Pinot Grigio & Müller-Thurgau
This region is also the original home of Italian Pinot Grigio and while I freely admit that I am not a fan – why such an inherently boring wine style is so popular beats me – the examples from Trentino seem to have far more character and interest than those from the flat lowlands of Veneto and elsewhere.

One of the surprising specialities of this part of the world is the whites made from the widely unloved Müller-Thurgau which in Germany is the workhorse grape for the cheap wines like Liebfraumilch. However, in the right hands it can make very nice dry wines, try examples from Villa Corniole or the much more German sounding Gaierhof.

More beautiful Trentino vineyards.

More beautiful Trentino vineyards.

As for red wines, the most important grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot together with Teroldego, Schiava (known as Trollinger in Germany and Vernatsch in the Alto Adige), Moscato Rosa, Marzemino, Enantio, Casetta, Lambrusco and Lagrein. I understand that as in Friuli there is even some Carmenère, but am not aware of having tasted any.

Try Trentino DOC wines from Agraria Riva del Garda, La Vis, Fondazione Edmund Mach, Cantina Roverè della Luna amongst others. One of my favourite producers was Moser who make Trento DOC sparkling, but whose still wines are simply labelled as IGT, sometimes IGT delle Venezie and sometimes IGT Vigneti delle Dolomit depending on the location of the vineyard. Their Riesling is superb and one of the best white wines I tasted on the trip.

If a bottle is labelled as simply Trentino Bianco or Trentino Rosso with no mention of a grape variety, then it contains a blend of grapes.

Our little group at dusk in the vineyards above the town of Isera.

Our little group at dusk in the vineyards above the town of Isera.

Trentino DOC Marzemino
Although I enjoyed a wide selection of the Trentino DOC wines, my favourites were consistently the Trentino reds made from the Marzemino grape. This grape isgrown all over Lombardy too, but is the speciality of Isera, a commune down near the north shore of Lake Garda. I found them to be attractive dry reds with medium body, red fruit, smooth tannins and a mineral, savoury, herbal, almost earthy character that goes very well with the delicious local cuisine. Try examples from the excellent Cantina d’Isera.

The northern shore of Lake Garda from the mountains above.

The northern shore of Lake Garda from the mountains above.

Valdadige DOC (Etschtaler in Alto Adige)
This vast DOC covers both Trentino and Alto Adige and as such is only used for basic wine and so is more akin to a PGI / IGT.

More gorgeous vine covered slopes, I cannot get enough of them!

More gorgeous vine covered slopes, I cannot get enough of them!

Trento DOC
This DOC (always spoken as Trento-doc as one word) is only slightly smaller than Trentino, but is for sparkling wines produced by the Traditional (Champagne) Method. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the principal grapes, but Pinot Meunier and Pinot Blanc are also permitted. The wines must be bottle aged on their lees for 15 months for non-vintage and 24 months for vintage.

Cembra-localita-Vadron

Stunning vineyards, photo courtesy of Cembra Cantina di Montagna.

I managed to taste a great many of Trento Doc wines and thought many of them were pretty good quality, indeed the best are very like Champagne and sadly sometimes have price tags to match. Ferrari are of course the pioneers and most famous producer, as well as being the most available in the UK, but if you get the chance do try wines from Maso Martis, Rotari, Càvit, Revì, Moser and Doss24 from Cembra Cantina di Montagna as well.

Cembra-e-Faver-dal-sentiero-dei-castellieri-di-Lona-Lases

Stunning vineyards, photo courtesy of Cembra Cantina di Montagna.

The other DOCs
As well as these over-arching DOCs, there are some other DOCs in Trentino, some of them covering smaller, more specific areas and some straddling the border with Alto Adige:

Casteller DOC for light red wines made from Schiava, Merlot and Lambrusco grapes.
Sorni DOC makes lightish, dry reds from Schiava that is often fleshed out by being blended with Teroldego and Lagrein. The whites are usually based on the lightly aromatic and delicate Nosiola grape  together with Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Pinot Blanc.
Caldaro DOC, sometimes Lago di Caldaro or Kalterersee in German, is a large area straddling the border with Alto Adige and producing red wines from Schiava that is often blended with Ligroin and Pinot Noir. Often simple, easy drinking, the best can be very fine indeed, look out for the superioré and classico versions as well as the sweet Scelto made from late harvested grapes.

Our little group being lectured, for a very long time in the relentless sun, about Teroldego Rotaliano.

Our little group being lectured, for a very long time in the relentless sun, about Teroldego Rotaliano.

Teroldego Rotaliano DOC makes red wines from the indigenous Teroldego grape. Indeed it seems to have originated here and not really to succeed anywhere else. The Campo (Plain) Rotaliano is the flattest and lowest land around here and the wines can be very good indeed with rich fruit and smooth tannins. Superioré and Riserva versions are richer and more concentrated. Try examples from Foradori, Zanini Luigi and the Mezzacorona cooperative.

There are two possible sources for the name Teroldego, either from the tirelle trellis system the vines are grown. Or, and this is my favourite, so I hope it is the real one, from it being a dialect phrase for Gold of the Tyrol.

Looking down on the Campo Rotaliano.

Looking down on the Campo Rotaliano.

So, as you can see there is a great deal to experience and enjoy in Trentino, and not only the wine,  so I highly recommend a visit, or if you cannot get there, try some of their wines, or beer, in the comfort of your own home.

Lake Garda's northern shore.

Lake Garda’s northern shore.

Wine of the Week 55 – a delicious and great value white Burgundy

If you are after a white wine with weight, succulence or viscosity as well as elegance and freshness, then white Burgundy might well be the style for you. Certainly no where else quite gets that balance between richness and acidity so right. The only problem is that most good white Burgundy nowadays is eye waveringly expensive, so I am always on the look out for great value examples.

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to taste a white Burgundy that I found really exciting and that did not overstretch the budget too much, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Burgundy of course is one of the really great wine regions in the world, right up there with Bordeaux and Champagne. To wine beginners Burgundy – or Bourgogne to give it its proper French name – can appear very complicated and unsettling. There appears to be a lot to learn and I can well understand that many people give up and return to wines whose labels and names seem easier to understand. However, it is worth persevering as the wines of Burgundy can be sublime.

Vineyards around the southern Côte de Nuits.

Vineyards around the southern Côte de Nuits.

The names on the labels are simply the place where the grape is from, some come from anywhere with the region and are labelled as Bourgogne, while others come from a specific district – such as Mâcon – or from a particular village – such as Meursault. If you are interested you could do worse than read my piece all about Burgundy by clicking here.

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

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

CdN-V2011 Côte de Nuits-Villages Blanc
Domaine Désertaux-Ferrand
A.C. Côte de Nuits-Villages, Burgundy, France

This tidy little estate really captures the spirit of French wine to perfection. Family owned and family run since 1899, the Désertaux family tend most of their wines around their winery in the sleepy village of Corgoloin. This is right on the border between the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune and, like nearby Comblanchien, it has no appellation of its own, but instead sells the wines as Côtes de Nuits-Villages. The Côte de Nuits is overwhelmingly red wine territory and white Côte de Nuits-Villages are rare, indeed the Désertaux family were the first people to actually sell one. The estate was founded in 1899, but sold their wines to a negociant until 1965, so the label did not exist before that date. Until recently they just farmed the 12 hectares around the winery, but have added to that in recent years with parcels in Beaune 1er Cru, Pommard, Meursault 1er Cru and Ladoix. The family also have some charming gîtes, so think of them the next time you are looking for somewhere to stay in Burgundy.

We are so often lazily told that all white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay that many people are astonished to discover that actually a fair amount of the wines also contain some Pinot Blanc – and even sometimes some Pinot Gris (or Pinot Beurot as it is known locally). That is exactly the case here though, 20% old vine Pinot Blanc lends a succulence to this wine that it would otherwise lack, while the 80% Chardonnay supplies the backbone of acidity and minerality. One third of the wine was barrel fermented and briefly aged in in new oak barrels, the rest had a cold fermentation in stainless shell tanks.

Everything about this wine works nicely. The aromas are very gently nutty and creamy together with a dash of citrus. The palate has a touch of seductive richness, some light cream, nuts and vanilla, while the texture is succulent and really caresses your palate. There is plenty of fruit too, white peach, nectarine and melon vie with each other, while the acidity has a touch of lemon about it as well as a little apricot zing. The freshness of acidity and minerality (read my piece about minerality here) keeps the wine focussed, pure and refreshing. The finish is long and elegant and the balance between richness and freshness is very good indeed – 88 points.

I think this wine is a terrific white Burgundy and would serve it with some classy fish, grilled sole if I could, or a fish pie perhaps. It would also work well with pork or chicken and would be an excellent partner to softish cheeses.

Available in the UK for around £14 a bottle from 3D Wines.
Available in the US for around $25 a bottle from K&L Wines.

 

Wine of the Week 6 – a great dry white wine & great value too

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, courtesy of Maison Trimbach.

Trimbach vineyards in Ribeauvillé, courtesy of Maison Trimbach.

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

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

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

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

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

trimbach_riesling_bot2011 Trimbach Riesling
Maison Trimbach
Ribeauvillé
A.C. Alsace

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

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

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

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

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

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