Friuli Delights

It’s been quite a year for extending my understanding of Italian wines. Recently I visited parts of the Prosecco production area in the Veneto region, but earlier in the year I was part of a study tour of a fascinating wine region called Friuli Isonzo.

This wine region is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata, or DOC – or a PDO in overarching EU parlance – and can be found in the extreme north east of Italy. It stretches from near Monfalcone – where you find Trieste Airport – to Goriza on the border with Slovenia. It is all flat land, the neighbouring DOC of Carso has the mountains and Collio the hills – it even means hills in Italian. So basically the whole DOC of Friuli Isonzo is 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 sea breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (the Soča in Slovenia).

I was seriously impressed by what I found and enjoyed the experience very much. This is a culturally rich and varied part of Italy because the outside influences are very strong. Nearby is the amazing ancient Roman city of Aquileia which was the ancient capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The cohesion of the area was destroyed by the collapse of the Roman Empire with the Franks and the Lombards settling in the western part of the region while Alpine Slavs made their homes in the eastern part of Friuli near Trieste. This difference was reinforced by Friuli becoming part of the Venetian Republic in 1420 while the former free city states of Trieste and Goriza became part of the Hapsburg Empire at roughly the same time.

This border of course remained until 1797 with Napoleon’s destruction of the Venetian Empire and the whole of Friuli-Venezia Giulia was ceded to Austria. Eventually the wars for Italian unification led to the great majority of the region, the Italian parts, joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. The new border however left the more Slovene parts in the Austrian Empire. After the First World War the whole place was taken by Italy and the previously Austrian port of Trieste became an Italian city.

The Second World War shook things up yet again and Tito’s Partisans not only liberated Yugoslavia, but also Trieste. Tito had hopes of absorbing the city and it’s surrounding region into Yugoslavia, however it was not to be and the area was awarded to Italy again in 1954. In turn of course Slovenia declared itself independent of Yugoslavia in 1991 and so the region now borders Slovenia, now a democracy and member of the EU.

Wine map of northern Italy. Friuli is in the north east, between Veneto and Slovenia.

Sketch wine map of Friuli-Venezia-Guilia, click for a larger view.

This history shows in the wines with a wide range of grape varieties and blends that sometimes echoes the styles produced over the border – and vice versa of course.

The principal white grape varieties are Chardonnay, Friulano, Gewürztraminer, Malvasia, Moscato, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Verduzzo and Welschriesling (Riesling Italico).

Varietally labelled wines – those with a grape variety as the most important piece of information on the label – must contain 100% of that grape, while blends – labelled as “blanco” can contain any blend of the grapes listed above.

The red grapes are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Franconia (Blaufränkisch), Merlot, Moscato Rosa, Pignolo, Pinot Nero, Refosco and Schioppettino and again the varietals must contain 100% of that grape and red blends – “rosso” can contain any proportions of the above grape varieties.

There are also rosé wines, which can be made from any permitted grape other than Gewürztraminer, and a separate DOC for rosés made from the Moscato Rosa grape.

The region also makes some excellent sparkling wines (Spumante in Italian) – as most Italian regions do – including Chardonnay Spumante with a minimum of 85% Chardonnay and a maximum of 15% Pinot Nero / Pinot Noir blended in.
There is also Moscato Giallo Spumante, Moscato Rosa Spumante, Pinot Spumante made from any proportions of Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Nero / Pinot Noir, Verduzzo Spumante from 100% Verduzzo and Rosso Spumante which follows the same rules as still Rosso.

Fundamentally the soils are a mixture of ponka (a sandstone-marl mixture) along with more alluvial gravel and clay with some limestone and the land is flat with good sun exposure and good cooling from the air draining down the mountains. This results in wines that can be anything from quite austere and mineral to moderately rich and fruity.

Here are a few of the wines and wineries that really impressed me on the trip:

Borgo San Daniele

This thrilling winery is run by brother and sister Alessandra and Mauro Mauri. Their father had converted their mixed farm to a vineyard and bought some more vineyards and they both trained as winemakers in nearby Cividale – meaning they are steeped in the local traditions – and their first vintage was in 1991.

They farm 18 hectares spread over a wide area, giving them lots of different sites and conditions as well as grape varieties. They are certified organic and farm biodynamically, so do not use use any pesticides or herbicides and plant their vines at high density and seek low yields and are quite happy to wait for full ripeness – for weeks in necessary. Winemaking is totally traditional and yet new wave too, with long maceration on the skins for the whites, spontaneous fermentations and long lees ageing in wood.

I loved their Friulano and Malvasia, but what excited me the most were their blends.

2015 Arbis Blanc
IGT Venezia Giulia

This is a single vineyard wine from a site called San Leonardo and is a blend of 40% Sauvignon, 20% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Bianco and 20% Friulano. The different varieties are picked separately when fully ripe, then the musts are blended together and fermented together – it is a variation on a traditional field blend. The wine is then aged on the lees in large, 2000 litre, Slavonian oak casks. Confusingly Slavonia is not in Slovenia, but is a region in neighbouring Croatia.

In effect this is a solera aged blend as 30% is from the 2014 vintage which also contains some older components, and so on. That is why it has to be labelled as a humble IGT rather than DOC. Arbis means herb in the local dialect and is called that because of the cover crops that grow between the rows and temper the vigour of the vines.

The nose is wild, enticing and exotic with peachy and apricot fruit, dense citrus, waxy hibiscus, shortbread, accacia and light honey. There is jasmin, blossom and a mineral note of wet stones.
The palate has lovely weight and integration and a texture that flows wonderfully across the palate with a succulent feel, a deep flavour of rich lemon, cooked apple, melted butter, sage and something. It is very long, delicious and really interesting – 94/100 points.

2013 Arbis Ròs
DOC Friuli Isonzo

This is also a single vineyard wine from a site called Ziris and is 100% Pignolo. The grape has hardly been cultivated at all since WWII as it produces such tiny crops, but of course that suits the new wave of boutique wine growers who have supplanted the large production wineries of the 1960s to 1990s. Pignolo is a very rare grape now with just 60 hectares in Friuli and so the world.

The wine spends 3 years in oak of various sizes before being blended in tonneau – which are 550 litre in Italy – and then aged for another year in Slavonian oak barrels.

The lovely deep ruby colour is enticing.
The nose delivers bright cherry notes together with freshly turned earth, red dust, Lapsang souchong and five spice.
The palate has a sensual, silky, velvety feel, mid weight, nice freshness with cherry fruit and acidity, rich plums, chocolate and violets on the finish. The finish is long with this intense cherry with a bit of blood orange too – 94/100 points.

Castello di Spessa

This amazing winery is a beautiful castle and country house set in a beautiful landscape. The house is a luxury hotel and golf resort, while the winery is based around the medieval cellars. They farm 55 hectares in both DOC Friuli Isonzo and DOC Collio.

The amazing cellars at Castello di Spessa – photo courtesy of the winery.

Again I really liked a lot of their wines, the Pinot Grigio was very good, as was the unoaked Chardonnay and somewhat austere Sauvignon. However the standout for me was the Friulano:

2016 Castello di Spessa Friulano
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Friulani used to be called Tocai – that is no longer allowed to save confusion with actual Tokaji from Hungary and Slovakia – and has been part of the viticultural landscape in Friuli for centuries.

This is a single vineyard wine, called Capriva del Friuli, and is made from 25 year old vines in a totally normal manner. The grapes are crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged on the lees for a further 6 months in 5000 litre stainless steel tanks.

In the past I have really struggled to see the joy in Friulano, but this wine helped open my eyes to what it can do. It delivered very attractive aromas of fresh peach and apricots together with orange blossom and toasted almonds. There is something a little salty and mineral here too.
The palate is bone dry, round and fresh and fleshy with good richness, cooked apple, some pastry and bread flavours and high acid on the finish. I love the generosity, the bitter almonds and the touch of sea air about it and think it would be perfect with all sorts of nibbles and ham and cheese – 93/100 points.

I Feudi di Romans

I like this winery and am always impressed by the wines. They make a large range of very stylishly crafted wines that tend to be very seductive and charming. The winery itself sits on the flat land of the region just near the banks of the Isonzo river.

Looking across the Isonzo to the mountains.

2016 Sontium
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Friulani used to be called Tocai – that is no longer allowed to save confusion with actual Tokaji from Hungary and Slovakia – and has been part of the viticultural landscape in Friuli for centuries.

Sontium by the way is the Latin name for the Isonzo River.

This is a single vineyard wine, called Capriva del Friuli, and is made from 25 year old vines in a totally normal manner. The grapes are crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then aged on the lees for a further 6 months in 5000 litre stainless steel tanks.

In the past I have really struggled to see the joy in Friulano, but this wine helped open my eyes to what it can do. It delivered very attractive aromas of fresh peach and apricots together with orange blossom and toasted almonds. There is something a little salty and mineral here too.
The palate is bone dry, round and fresh and fleshy with good richness, cooked apple, some pastry and bread flavours and high acid on the finish. I love the generosity, the bitter almonds and the touch of sea air about it and think it would be perfect with all sorts of nibbles and ham and cheese – 93/100 points.

Drius

Mauro Drius creates a big range of varietal wines, and the odd blend, on his family estates near Cormòns. He farms about 15 hectares on the flatlands as well as the slopes of Mount Quarin.

2016 Pinot Bianco
DOC Friuli Isonzo

Pinot Blanc is the unsung hero of the Pinot family for me and I think it deserves to be more widely appreciated – I would almost always rather drink Pinot Blanc than Pinot Gris!

The wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and 80% was then aged in stainless steel tanks. 20% of it though was aged in large two year old Slavonian oak vats. Both components had regular bâtonnage.

The nose delivers lovely, clean and pure aromas of butter, toast, nuts, light peach, orange and something floral.

The palate is very soft, round, gentle and attractive with a almost a little caramel and some nuts and ripe orange and peach. Medium acidity gives some nice freshness and makes the wine feel very drinkable indeed – 91/100 points.

 

Tenuta di Blasig

This was my second visit to this estate and it is a beautiful spot. It is very near Trieste Airport, in Ronchi dei Legionari. The name of the town was originally Ronchi Monfalcone and was only changed in 1925 to commemorate the fact that nationalist, war hero, poet and proto fascist, Gabriele D’Annunzio‘s legionnaires set off from here in 1919 to seize the port of Fiume / Rijeka (now in Croatia) from the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, soon to be called Yugoslavia. D’Annunzio wanted Fiume to be part of Italy, as was the rest of Istria at the time. His occupation of the city lasted for 16 months and made him a national hero. D’Annunzio was a friend of the Blasig family and actually stayed in the house before sailing to Fiume and a whole wall near the kitchen is covered in amazing photographs of D’Annunzio and his men.

Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli talking about her beloved Malvasia.

Tenuta di Blasig was founded by Domenico Blasig in 1788 with the aim of making fine Malvasia wine and Malvasia remains the focus. The charming Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli is the eighth generation of the family to manage the estate and she seems to do a vey good job, producing wines of elegance and depth. They farm 18 hectares, but the vineyards are spread out and often found surrounded by suburban buildings – Trieste Airport is very close indeed and the winery is right next to the town hall.

I really like the wines here. The Friulano with a light touch of oak is a wonderful example of the type, while the Merlot, that has no oak at all, and the Rosso Affreschi Merlot and Refosco blend were both lovely wines. However the standouts for me were:

2016 Malvasia
DOC Friuli Isonzo

This Malvasia is a single vineyard wine from the nearby village of Vermegliano. It is cold fermented in stainless steel and aged on the lees for 6 months.

The nose is fresh, but not that aromatic with melon and floral blossom notes.

There are also little glimpses of orange nuts and a saline note.The palate is medium-bodied and slightly fleshy with a little succulence and almond and toffee and a little salty minerality too, like a fine Chablis.

That orange comes back, giving a soft, citric twist, while the weight and the salty minerality dominate the finish, which is pretty long.

This is a very complex wine that shows just how good Malvasia can be – 91/100 points.

 

2014 Elisabetta Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso
DOC Friuli Isonzo

I am a big fan of Refosco and think it is brilliant with almost all Italian dishes. There are at least two Refoscos, this is the one with red stems and is quite prevalent in Friuli. This wine is only fermented in stainless steel and has no oak at all.

The nose has a lovely heady mix of plums, dark cherry, milk chocolate and prune.

The palate is smooth with medium body, highish acid, nice purity, brightness and drinkability. The flavours are cherry, blueberry, plum, milk chocolate, tea, herbs and light spice as well as that very Italianate bitterness of almonds and cherry stones, that sounds weird but is actually delicious – 92/100 points.

 

 

Borgo Conventi

An aerial view of the Borgo Conventi estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

Another beautiful estate that produces both DOC Collio and DOC Friuli Isonzo wines. Founded in 1975 in an area that contained monasteries – Borgo Conventi means “hamlet monastery” – since 2001 it it has been owned and completely overhauled by the Folonari family’s Ruffino estate in Tuscany.

Again this estate produces a large range. They directly own around 20 hectares in the Collio and Friuli Isonzo regions, but also control and manage lots of other vineyards that they do not own. I enjoyed all the wines, especially the Sauvignon among the whites, but the standouts here were the reds:

2016 Merlot
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Merlot grown in pebbly clay soil, a bit like St Emilion.

The vines are around 30 years old and the wine is fermented and stainless steel vats and aged in stainless steel tanks on the lees for 6 months.

They want this wine to be fresh and fruity, so the maceration is short and there is no oak.

The colour is an enticing, shining, bright plum.
The nose is direct with lifted sweet fruit making it vibrant and lively. There are brambles and plums and blueberries and some herbal and earthy notes.
The palate is vibrantwith fresh plums and cherries, strawberry even. This makes it lively and pure with silky tannins and a little acidity to give nice freshness.

A nice medium bodied, supple red that is easy drinking and interesting – 90/100 points.

The beautiful winery at Borgo Conventi – photo courtesy of the winery.

2012 Schioppettino
IGT Venezia Giulia

This near extinct grape is a speciality of the region and likes the cool areas with coastal influence or cool draining mountain air. The grape is sometimes known as Ribolla Nera and Pocalza in Slovenia. The grape has high acidity and a somewhat peppery character.

The harvest is done by hand with several passes through the vineyard to pick individual ripe grapes. A further selection of the grapes takes place inside the winery. 20% of the grapes are partially dried, like Amarone  to improve the concentration. Fermentation is in wooden vats with refrigeration gear to keep the temperature low. This takes about 15 days with regular pump overs for extraction.The wine is then aged in second fill, new wood would give a more obvious oak character, French oak barriques (225 litre) for 12 months

The colour is a lovely ruby to pale terracotta red.
The nose gives earthy notes, cooked plums, bitter cherry, raspberry and herbs together with black pepper, cloves and cinnamon.
The palate is very smooth with high acid, sweet dried red fruit, medicinal notes, herbal notes.
Silky tannins and high acid make the wine soft and supple but refreshing and intrigueing. It’s not a big wine, in fact it is quite Pinot Noir like (with a bit of peppery Syrah in the mix for good measure) so it is medium bodied, but it is very savoury and tasty with some delicate chocolate and espresso on the finish from the oak. I love this wine, it is  delicate but rich and long – 94/100 points.

Simon di BrazzanI found this winery to be utterly fascinating. Friuli – and neighbouring Slovenia – is pretty much the epicentre of the Orange Wine movement – skin fermented white wines. Now I like these wines, but never because they are Orange, but because the wines that I like are good. Orange wines are very popular with Sommeliers right now and all sorts of people in the wine business and one hears all sorts of claims about them – and their near relations, “Natural Wines” – that they are the only wines worth drinking. Well I do not take that view, when I like them, I like them. When they are undrinkable then I don’t.

Daniele Drius farms a small estate that he inherited from his grandfather and over the last few years has converted it to organic and biodynamic viticulture. To me he seems to produce the best of both worlds, “fresh” tasting Orange wines and serious, complex “fresh” wines – just like my friend Matjaž Lemut at his Tilia Estate and Aleš Kristančič at his Movia Estate. Both of these are in Slovenia and these two dynamic – and talkative! – winemakers were school friends together.

2016 Blanc di Simon Friulano
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Friulano one third fermented in barrel on the skins with the rest fermented in stainless steel and left on the lees for a further 6 months.

It was fermented using the indigenous yeast.

The nose is quite developed with bees wax and honey notes as well as dried apricot, white pepper and something mineral.

The palate has lovely concentration with an abundance of ripe peach, peach skin, red apple, orange, something floral, something mineral and nice, balanced acidity just oiling the wheels.

I loved this and bet it goes down a treat with the local Prosciutto di San Daniele – 93/100 points.

 

2012 Blanc di Simon Friulano Tradizion
DOC Friuli Isonzo

100% Friulano fermented in 8 year old 2500 litre wooden vats with skin contact.

The wine is then aged in those vats for 30 months.

The staves are a mixture of French oak and Slavonian oak.

This has a beautiful, rich golden colour and a lovely nose, rich and lifted, with apricots, candied fruit, coffee and chopped nuts – especially almonds.

The palate is rich, viscous and heady with ripe stone fruit, orange, rich lemon, apple compote, honey, maple syrup, malt and caramel.

The finish is very long, silky and refined. This is a very enticing wine, full of flavour and bursting with energy – 94/100 points.

 

I really enjoyed my time in Friuli Isonzo. The place is very lovely and steeped in history. I met some remarkable winemakers and enjoyed some wonderful hospitality. It a place that seems full of wine. What’s more that wine is incredibly varied. There are many different grape varieties and a huge array of possible blends as well as very different styles and approaches to winemaking.

This is a region that will repay some experimentation. Who knows, your new favourite wine might be from Friuli Isonzo.

Wine of the Week – a Scintillating Riesling

Some of Pfaffl’s vineyards at Stetten – photo courtesy of the winery.

I love Riesling and while I know that many of you do not, I am just going to on and on about it until you change your mind – well it worked for Bill Cash and Nigel Farage!

Riesling comes in many different guises, the delicate off-dry Mosel style is possibly my favoured option, but then the mineral and slightly bolder Alsace versions also excite me, as do the lime-drenched Australian ones and the vivacious offerings from New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Washington State and New York. However I also have a new favourite – Austria.

I am always excited by Austrian wines. That feeling of pristine, Alpine purity in the wines speaks to me – indeed I love Swiss, Slovenian, Northern Italian and even Gallician wines for the same reason. Austrian Riesling tends to be more full in style than German examples, dry, yet somehow steelier and more vibrant than those from Alsace – certainly at lower price points anyway.

Well I recently tasted a lovely Austrian Riesling and so with the better weather I thought it would make a great Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Austria – Pfaffl are marked by a red dot a little north of Vienna.

Roman Josef Pfaffl in the Vienna vineyards – see the city in the background – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Riesling Neubern
Qualitätswein Trocken/dry
Pfaffl
Niederösterreich/Lower Austria
Austria

I really like Pfaffl. I visited their winery once and they make good wines that to me feel very Austrian. They are precise, they are pure and exciting too. Pfaffl are based in Stetten some 15 km or so north of Vienna. Their vineyards are spread around the village on 10 sites and they also have vineyards in Vienna.

Vienna is the only capital with proper commercial vineyards in it and it even has its own style, the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC. These are field wines that must contain at least 3 grape varieties grown together, harvested, pressed and fermented together. The permitted grapes Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc and the wines are traditionally served in the Heurigen, seasonal taverns in Vienna that sell that years wine.

Pfaffl also make a more modern style blend from Vienna, their Pfaffl 1 which has 60% Riesling blended after fermentation with 20% each of Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Blanc. I love Pfaffl 1 but have yet to taste their field blend.

Heidi and Roman Josef Pfaffl are a brother and sister with Roman being the winemaker and Heidi the administrator. Roman crafts a largish range of wines, with many single vineyard Grüners and different Rieslings, as well as beautifully drinkable reds made from Pinot Noir and Zweigelt and a stunning sparkling Grüner Veltliner. Altogether they farm around 110 hectares and craft some superb wines from single vineyard sites as well as some bigger production blended across the estate.

My Wine of the Week is one of their bigger production numbers and it is utterly delightful. The nose is fresh and lively with lemon and lime notes, the richer input of apple and pear and some scintillating floral characters too, jasmine and orange blossom. The palate is light, lithe and refreshing with lots of flavour and a clean ethereal presence on your senses. The citrus and apple is there together with a deeper tang of apricot. All in all the wine is poised and elegant with a light touch to it. I liked it a lot, especially with a Thai meal – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Lidl for £8.99 per bottle.

Drink this on a warm Spring day, a Summer picnic, on its own as an aperitif, with a cold collation or with spicy and oriental cuisine.

Wine of the Week – a fine affordable Chablis

Vineyards in Chablis showing the light, stony soils.

Chablis, one of the most famous wines in the world, is widely known and highly prized. I also think that, like many very famous wines it is deeply misunderstood.

My parent’s generation venerated Chablis and both my father and my father-in-law waxed lyrical about any dry white wine as being like Chablis. I know that all the books and courses bang on about Chablis being crisp and dry and high acid indeed, but I think that misses the point as to what Chablis really is.

The trouble is that with these really famous wines we all tend to drink the better value – cheaper – examples down the bottom of the range – most of the time anyway. These wines are made to a price and not as concentrated as the genuine article. So most of us drink dilute Châteauneuf-du-pape, St Émilion, Sancerre and, yes Chablis, much of he time. Which is a great shame as it does classic french wines no favours and might well be one reason why so many people that I meet at wine events claim not to like French wine.

Basic Chablis is often just crisp, green and acidic and bears only a paling resemblance to the complex wines that you can have further up the food chain.

Well the other day a ‘basic’ Chablis came my way and it pleased me greatly. It was a real Chablis at a great price and I liked it so much that it is my Wine of the Week.

Wine Map of France – click for a larger view.

Chablis of course comes from Northern France and is one of the most northerly fine still wines that there is. It is a complete fluke of a place really. Nowhere else around there has the south facing hills that allows the Chablis producers to coax full ripeness out of the grudging Northern European sun. Actually that is a bit mean of me as it can get pretty hot there, but not for long and the winters can be pretty extreme, but that’s continental climates for you. As a consequence you will never get big, rich, bold wines this far North. Instead you get something just as exciting, when everything goes right anyway, but very different. In fact it is a fascinating lesson in terroir as the rest of Burgundy is only just over 100 km away but makes very different wines because the climate is that little bit more generous.

The vineyards of Chablis.

Just as with Champagne, Chablis is only about the fruit in passing. Instead the whole point is the freshness, the minerality and the nervy quality of it. It is those subtleties that sadly often get lost in the cheaper versions, leaving just the green tart fruit and acidity – not in my Wine of the Week though.

Chablis has fossil rich Kimmeridge Clay soils and this ammonite fossil is typical of what they find in the vineyards.

I always think it is such a shame that so many people have a view on Chardonnay that simply does not do the great grape justice. Chardonnay is not always oaky, sweetish and gloopy, indeed almost always is not nowadays, but many consumers retain a view of it of old. Perhaps trying this classic very unoaky and fresh style of Chardonnay might change their mind?

2016 The Co-op Chablis
AC Chablis 
Chablis
Burgundy
France
The Co-op actually produce a good range of exemplary own label wines and this is an excellent example. What’s more if you read the back label of the wine is states that it is bottled in Péhy, which is just 5 km outside the village of Chablis and is home to one of the area’s great producers, Jean-Marc Brocard and this wine is indeed made by him. 
Brocard makes beautiful Chablis and this gives a good introduction to this style of zesty, unoaked Chardonnay. In the glass it glistens with a sort of limey gold – so richer than you might expect. While the aromas offer floral notes, hints of honey, a few chopped nuts, some wet stone, green plum, apple, earth and even a little twist of tangerine and lime.

Julien Brocard, Jean-Marc’s son who now heads up the company.

The palate is fresh and lively with that driving acidity and a nervy, hesitant style. However, there are richer characters here too. There is a dollop of creaminess that rounds the wine out, there is some green plum, green fig and apple, but most of all there is that stony, mineral quality that is often lacking in Chablis at the cheaper end and makes the wine seem thrilling and taut.
A glorious wine for the price that shows how exciting this region can be, perfect as an aperitif, or with shellfish and light fish dishes. I had it with smoked trout paté and it was delicious – 88/100 points.
Available in the UK for £11.99  per bottle from The Co-op.

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.