Deliciously different & exciting white wines

There is so much wine available from so many different places that it must be hard for most casual wine drinkers to decide what to drink. Which is presumably why so many people I know stick to a very narrow range of favourites.

There is no need to get stuck in a rut though, even with tried and tested wine producing countries or companies. Here are details of four delicious and exciting, for different reasons, white wines that have come my way of late. At first glance on the shelf they might not seem all that different, the first two are from the famous and always excellent Villa Maria in New Zealand while the second pair are from Chile, one made by Álvaro Espinoza in the Casablanca Valley and the other by Errazuriz.

What sets these wines apart and makes them a little different and exciting is that they are made from slightly more unusual grape varieties, or in the Chilean case blends. I love championing less famous grapes as there is a great deal of pleasure to be found in many of them and so I think it is a great shame that so many drinkers limit themselves to such a tiny palate of grapes. There are hundreds of grape varieties out there and many of them can make very good wine indeed.

All it needs is to be slightly adventurous and try something new. I always tell my students that at least once a month they should buy a bottle of wine that they have never heard of or thought of drinking before, that way they experience lots of new things. In addition I tell them to buy at least some of their wine from a proper independent wine merchant, which can give advice and usually stock the more interesting things too.

It is so good that wine producers are still trying to offer consumers wines that are a little bit unusual and more interesting than the normal run of the mill wines that fill the shelves. Especially so as both New Zealand and Chile have long focussed on a narrow range of commercially successful grapes, so it is good to see such exciting experimentation. In recent months I have also seen Grüner Veltliner from New Zealand too, all we need is an Albariñoa Godello, a Fiano and a Falanghina and I will be a very happy bunny indeed!

Remember to click on all the links – and leave a comment too.

New Zealand

Sir George Fistonich founded Villa Maria Estate in Auckland in 1961 and runs it to this day. Photo courtesy of Set Michelle Wines.

Sir George Fistonich at harvest time. George founded Villa Maria 1961 and runs it to this day. Photo courtesy of Ste Michelle Wines.

image-12013 Villa Maria Private Bin Arneis
East Coast G.I., New Zealand
If you have never heard of the Arneis grape variety before, well you can be forgiven as it is only a speciality of Piemonte in north west Italy. It makes the wines of the Roero Arneis D.O.C.g, and D.O.C. wines in Langhe too. In its native country it seems to make wines that are quite floral and aromatic, but is usually too low in acidity for me, so I am generally more keen on Nascetta or Gavi’s Cortese grape. Somehow it seems that the New Zealanders are able to compensate for this lack of acidity and produce fresher, more lively versions than the the original – just as they do with Viognier. Historically Arneis was considered very hard to grow as it is so delicate, hence the name which means ‘little rascal’ in Piemontese and so the grape almost died out in the 1970s with only two producers left by 1980. Luckily – as with so many white grapes – modern know-how has swept to the rescue and limited plantings are now found in Liguria and Sardinia, as well as California, Oregon, cooler parts of Australia and New Zealand’s North Island.
This wine has the East Coast Geographical Indicator, because the vineyards are in more than one region. In fact the grapes are grown at 3 vineyards sites between Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne.
Villa Maria’s Private Bin wines are their fruit forward more easy drinking range.
This offers a gently aromatic and slightly floral nose with touches of pear and very delicate peach.
The palate is juicy, delicately succulent and textured with soft acidity and lots of fresh and lively orchard fruit – pear –  and is nicely flowery too. There is also a fresh seam of acidity keeping the whole thing together and lively, without dominating.
All in all a really good approachable take on this grape making it a sassy and enjoyable easy drinking wine that goes well with almost anything, what’s more it only has 12.5% alcohol making it an ideal quaffer too – 87/100 points.

Map of New Zealand's wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

image-1-22013 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Marlborough G.I., New Zealand
Sauvignon Gris is a grape close to my heart. I became very fond of it in Chile over ten years ago and am very pleased that it is now being grown in New Zealand too. Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose.
Villa Maria’s Cellar Selection wines are more concentrated, complex and so perfect with food. This particular wine is actually from a single vineyard in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley – Fletcher’s Vineyard.
The wine has a pale pear juice colour that hints at succulence, while the nose offers pear and delicately smoky peach.
The palate is by turns stony and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit too.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominat than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

UK stockist information for Villa Maria wines is available from the distributer – Hatch Mansfield.
US stockist information for Villa Maria wines is available from the distributer – Ste Michelle Wine Estates.

Chile

Emiliana's beautiful organic vineyards. Photo courtesy of Ste Michelle Wines.

Emiliana’s beautiful organic vineyards. Photo courtesy of Banfi Wines.

CCC06-02012 Signos de Origen Chardonnay-Roussanne-Marsanne-Viognier
Emiliano Organic Vineyards
D.O. Valle de Casablanca, Chile
Casablanca is a beautiful place, one of the best bits of Chile to visit the wineries. this is because it is near both the main cities of santiago and Valparaiso and so is home to some excellent winery restaurants as well as some very good wine producers too. For a long time Casablanca was the undisputed premium white wine region of Chile, this is because the lack of mountains between it and the ocean ensure it is cooler than the wine regions to the south – like the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys. Nowadays Casablanca has competition from the equally cool San Antonio and Leyda Valleys as well as Acocagua Costa and Limari to the north, but is still a great region.
I love interesting blends and this is a wonderful combination of classic Rhône Valley white grapes – Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier – with the more lush style of Chardonnay and it works perfectly. The grapes are organically grown and the grapes were partly fermented in stainless steel tanks at low temperatures before being moved to French oak barrels to complete the fermentation – this technique gives subtle richness and texture to the wine. 90% of the wine then aged in those barrels for 6 months, while 10% was aged in egg shaped concrete tanks, which are very trendy right now and do good things – you can read about them here.
This is a serious white wine with complexity, structure, texture and finesse.
The fruit drives it with rich apricot and peach characters giving succulence and texture as well as the fresh herb characters of the Rhône grapes. Ripeness and oak give honey and nut tones too and an overarching richness, even a touch of oatmeal at times. There is freshness and stony minerality too though giving some tension and balance.
A glorious wine, dense, concentrated and fine, perfect with cheese, rich poultry or pork – 91/100 points.

UK stockist information is available from the distributer – Boutinot.
US stockist information is available from the distributer – Banfi Wines.

Chile Map watermarked

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

If you want to try Rousanne, Marsanne and Viognier without Chardonnay, try another great Chilean blend:

image-1-32011 Errazuriz The Blend Marsanne-Roussanne-Viognier
Viña Errazuriz
D.O. Valle de Aconcagua, Chile
Another thrilling blend from grapes that originate in France’s southern Rhône. This comes from a little further north than Casablanca in the Aconcagua proper – Casablanca is politically a sub-division of the Aconcagua Valley – about halfway between the cool Aconcaua Costa and the warmer eastern end of the valley where Errazuriz traditional produce their red wines.
25% was fermented in third use French oak to give delicate richness while the rest was fermented in stainless shell to give freshness. 25% was also aged for 6 months in French oak.
This wonderful wine has a rich, earthy nose with wild herbs, honey, rosemary, spicy toasty oak and nuts too, it is savoury but with rich underlying fruit.
The palate is succulent with rich juicy fruit and a touch of minerality and acidity keeping it fresh not cloying. Herbs, apricots, peach, stones, a touch of oily texture and even cream together with a bite of tannins and nuts on the finish. Another glorious and exciting wine that is perfect with roast pork or rich poultry dishes – 91/100 points.

UK stockist information is available from the distributer – Hatch Mansfield.
US stockist information is available from the distributer – Vintus.

So you see, there is plenty of excitement and lots of different, but still delicious, wine out there if you are prepared to be a little adventurous. There really is no need to get stuck in a rut or keep drinking the usual suspects.

In the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that I do some work for both Villa Maria and Viña Errazuriz from time to time. However, the views that I have expressed about their wines are completely honest and unsolicited.

Champagne Taittinger – variety & style

The beautiful vineyards of Champagne.

The beautiful vineyards of Champagne.

A lot of time we talk about Champagne as though it is all the same. The truth is though that the only thing most Champagnes have in common is the fact that they are fizzy.

Each house has a different approach which makes for a wide array of Champagne styles. Some are rich, Pinot Noir dominated and barrel fermented, whereas others are citric and light as air – with lots of variety in between.

No, in reality Champagne is as varied as any other wine, but because the fundamental nature of the different wines is similar the differences are often nuanced. However, because the palate of grapes is very small – really just 3, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, although there are some old plantings of other grapes still in production – the variety is quite astonishing. Much like music, which is all written with 7 notes, Champagne is all created with a tiny repertoire of raw material, which just makes the differences all the more remarkable.

Not many of us get to taste a huge variety of Champagnes – sadly. So I cherish the moments that I can and recently I have been doing some tastings of the Taittinger range and I thought it might interest some of you to know about their different cuvées.

When people say they have had a bottle of Taittinger – or indeed Moët et Chandon, Laurent-Perrier or Bollinger et al – they usually mean that they drank the standard offering – the standard bearer of the house. This is normally the Non Vintage Brut, but almost all houses produce a much wider range than that, making rosés, vintages, a cuvée de prestige and even sweeter or drier Champagnes and these are all often worthy of much more attention as they can provide fabulous wine drinking experiences and give a fuller picture of this amazing wine region.

So, it is always a pleasure to lead tasters through the complete Taittinger range as the wines are all so different and take them by surprise. I really like them too, which is always good.

The harvest in full swing at Taittinger - photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

The harvest in full swing at Taittinger – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

I like the whole feel and ethos of Taittinger, the name is quite hard for a Brit to say, but luckily there are 3 acceptable versions – as far as I can see:

Thai-Ton-Jay would appear to be the proper French pronunciation of Taittinger, but to achieve that I have to concentrate hard and get my tongue in the right place first!

Luckily it seems that we Anglo-Saxons are perfectly ok saying Tatt-inger – phew!

However as the family originally hailed from Austria, way back in history, then a Germanic Thai-ting-er could also be considered quite proper.

Take your pick, but whichever you choose to say, do try the whole range.

Taittinger is a rare beast for a Champagne house, in being owned and managed by the family whose name is on the label. This is no mean feat in the modern world when Champagne is often seen as a luxury rand product rather than a wine as such, as far as I am aware  Bollinger is the only other world famous Champagne house to remain a family company. It must focus the mind somewhat having your name on every bottle and being ultimately responsible for the quality and style of wine that your family produces and under the management of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger I think the wines have evolved and the quality has really shone.

Everyone knows that Champagne is fundamentally dry and that Brut means a dry Champagne, but what many people do not seem to know is that Brut Champagne is a relatively new concept. It first appeared in the late nineteenth century and was aimed at the British market which had always favoured a drier Champagne style. It caught on slowly and the idea of producing more pure styles of Champagne that were more like wines than the sweeter cuvées of the past – many nineteenth century Champagnes had sugar levels akin to dessert wines – was one of the ideas that caught Pierre-Charles Taittinger’s imagination in 1931 when he bought and completely overhauled the venerable Champagne house of Jacques Fourneaux which had been founded in 1734.

So, right from the beginning the idea was to make elegant and pure Champagnes that were dry and in order to do that the Taittingers decided to concentrate on using Chardonnay, as they felt that gave them the lightness, but complexity that they wanted.

They don’t stand still though, in recent years they have made their wines drier still – their Brut wines are now just 9 grams per litre of residual sugar, which I think really shows their purity and finesse – and introduced 2 new exciting cuvées to the range. What’s more I am convinced that the quality has got even better in recent years, with more depth, complexity and elegance, so let’s take a look:

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

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

ImageHandler.ashxTaittinger Brut Réserve Non-Vintage
40% Chardonnay dominates the wine together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier blended from vineyards across the region and then aged 3 years on the lees.
I really enjoy this wine because it light, fresh and vibrant, but has depth of flavour too. There is a creaminess running all the way through it, as well as citrus, green apple and a touch of peach. There is crisp, but not startling acidity and the mousse is soft and creamy without being frothy. There is also a touch of caramel and digestive biscuit to the palate that gives a nice smack of complexity, but the finish is dry and clean.
It is a wine that you can focus attention on and savour its subtle charms, or just enjoy it and let those charms wash over you.  90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £38.99 per bottle.
ImageHandler.ashx-2Taittinger Prestige Rosé Brut Non-Vintage
35% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Meunier with 15% of the Pinot Noir being red to give the colour – the Pinot comes from Ambonnay, Bouzy & Les Riceys. The finished wine is aged 3 years on the lees.
This is a real charmer of a wine, the colour is a deep wild salmon meets strawberry and the richness of red fruit makes the wine seem much less dry and acidic than it actually is. So if you like a softer style of Champagne then this could be for you, certainly the palate gives lots of red fruit, raspberry and even blood orange. If you age it for a few years the fruit mellows somewhat to a more rose petal quality making the wine quite different, but just as lovely. 90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle.

The wonderfully named Champagne village of Dizy, Bouzy is not far away either!

The wonderfully named Champagne village of Dizy, Bouzy is not far away either!

ImageHandler.ashx-3Taittinger Nocturne Sec Non-Vintage
40% Chardonnay together with 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, aged 4 years on the lees. Much of the fruit comes from Taittinger’s own estates including some from their Château de la Marquetterie.
The idea here is to make a soft Champagne that is drinkable after dinner and long into the night – or indeed any other time, I find it’s good at breakfast! People often assume that this will be sweet, but it isn’t at all. There is 17.5 grams per litre of residual sugar, but remember how high the acidity is in Champagne, well here the acidity and the sugar balance each other perfectly, so the wine finishes clean and balanced. It is soft, not sweet at all, the palate is creamy and there is a gentle nectarine quality to it and and an eating apple crunch. This might be perfect if acidity is not your thing, or if you want a Champagne that can withstand traces of something sweet on your palate. 90/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £47.00 per bottle.

What makes the differences?
Firstly the climate of the Champagne region is not very generous, look where it is on the map, the conditions are very like England actually, but with more extreme winters from the Continental climate, so not every year produces a great harvest – this was especially true in the past before modern viticulture and winemaking gave greater control. As a consequence the tradition developed of holding back stocks of the good years to blend with the more ordinary ones and to create a house style rather than the normal way of making a wine every year. That is why most Champagnes are sold without a year on their label and this method has done wonders for the region and allowed them to create more complex and fascinating wines than would otherwise be the case – in my opinion.

Champagne is about as far north as France can comfortably make wine, so growing grapes there is quite marginal and it isn’t easy to always coax good ripeness out of them, but every now and again – 2, 3 or 4 times a decade and seemingly becoming more frequent – they have a great year and declare a Vintage and sell some of that year as Vintage Champagne which is all the product of that single harvest. As you might imagine these Champagnes are richer and more concentrated and the winemakers let the style of the year shine, rather than their house style.

Other differences can come from the choice of grapes, with 3 to choose from, on the whole anyway, it might seem pretty limited, but a pure Chardonnay – a Blanc de Blancs – Champagne will be very different from a pure Pinot Noir or Pinot Meaner – a Blanc de Noir – Champagne which will tend to be darker in colour and richer on the palate with more red fruit notes.

The use of oak can make a big difference, barrel fermented Champagnes are very different from the fresher, lighter styles, try KrugBollinger or Alfred Gratien if you have never tasted one made that way.

Different Cuvées can be very different from each other too. Really cuvée means blend and different blends of grapes will indeed give very different Champagnes, but the word is also used to designate one wine from another, so just as a producer’s non vintage will taste different from their vintage Champagne, then their other cuvées will be different again. Most famously of course the majority of houses create a top end Cuvée de Prestige made from the finest fruit and usually from a single harvest – although Laurent-Perrier’s Cuvée Grand Siècle is a non vintage cuvee de prestige. These wines are normally from the finest grapes – often from Grand Cru vineyards – or from the best vineyards avaialabe to the house. They are normally made from the first pressings only, which are the most gentle and thought to produce the purest Champagnes. Then to top it off they are bottled and riddled by hand and to prove it – as well as look enticing – these wines are usually bottled in a replica old style bottle that does not fit the machines.

Sweetness of course can make a big difference in how a Champagne tastes and just before the bottles are sealed with a cork a little cane sugar is added – dosage- to each bottle to determine how dry the wine is. Brut is the normal which can vary between 5 and 12 grams per litre – although Taittinger are now 9. This is done mainly to balance the high acidity in the wines rather than to make them sweet and Brut Champagnes seem totally dry, although Exra Brut is drier and Non Dosage has no sugar added at all.

Ageing can also make a big difference to the style and taste of a Champagne. In Champagne this means ageing in the bottle on the lees, which are the dead year cells left over from fermentation. The legal minimum for non vintage is 15 months – 36 for vintage – and the longer you age it the more flavour, complexity and richness you get. Ageing on the lees develops that yeast autolysis character that gives, yeast, bread, brioche and, flaky pastry and digestive biscuit characters.

So as you can see there are many more variables than most occasional drinkers of Champagne realise – back to Taittinger’s wines:

ImageHandler.ashx-4Taittinger Brut Vintage 2005
50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from mainly Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs for the Chardonnay and the Montagne de Reims for the Pinot and then aged 5 years on the lees.
If you are ever feeling jaded and tired of life then this wine has a wonderfully restorative quality. The sensations here are of concentrated fruit as the vintage is only made in occasional exceptional years, however not only is the fruit more powerful, but the acidity is fresher and the weight is greater too, so this is a very intense wine. Red fruit notes and ripe peach vie with each other on your senses, while the savoury, nutty, brioche lees characters add more depth and the rich seam of acidity keeps it all fresh and elegant too – a glorious Champagne with a firm and steady mousse and a wonderful feeling of tension running through it giving it poise and elegance.  92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £53.00 per bottle.

Taittinger's beautiful Château de la Maruetterie near Pierry.

Taittinger’s beautiful Château de la Maruetterie near Pierry – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

ImageHandler.ashx-5Taittinger Folies de la Marquetterie Brut Non-Vintage
A single vineyard Champagne – a very rare beast indeed – from the vineyards around Taittinger’s own Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry near Epernay, which quite apart from being a beautiful place has a south and southwest exposure and so creates beautifully ripe fruit.
The blend is 55% Pinot Noir to 45% Chardonnay a small portion of the latter is fermented in oak vats which lends a subtle toasty spice to the finish as well as weight to the palate. It is aged for 5 years on the lees.
This is an exciting Champagne with more richness and savoury qualities than the others. Again it is concentrated, but has bigger bolder characters and in some ways feels like a mature vintage Champagne. Personally I do not regard this as a Champagne to drink while standing and nibbling twiglets, for me this needs a meal  – although feel free to serve it to me with nibbles – and would be perfect with a lovely piece of good quality fish. 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £55.00 per bottle.

ImageHandler.ashx-6Taittinger Prélude Grands Cru  Brut Non-Vintage
What to do? You want vintage Champagne with all that richness and savoury brioche character, but cannot be doing with ageing some and anyway you want a slightly softer fruit character to give a touch of the frivolous, yet still keep it elegant and refined. You probably guessed it, you drink this.
50% Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs – including Avize and Le Mesnil sur Oger – blended with  50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims – including Mailly & Ambonnay. The finished wine is aged 5 years on the lees.
Another glorious cuvée that manages to be intense and soft all at the same time. This makes it very appealing with rich fruit and similarly rich leesy characters and complexity. The mousse is markedly softer than on the vintage, yet firmer and more precise than on the Brut Réserve Non-Vintage. 92/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £49.00 per bottle.

Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ageing on the lees.

Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs ageing on the lees in the Saint Nicaise chalk cellars below the site of the Reims palace of Thibauld 1V King of Navarre and Comte de Champagne – photo by kind permission Champagne Taittinger & Hatch Mansfield.

ImageHandler.ashx-7Taittinger Comtes De Champagne Blanc De Blancs Brut 2005
One of the greats of Champagne this cuvée de prestige is 100% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. 5% is aged in new oak barrels for 4 months to add complexity and richness and the finished wine is aged for at least 7 years on the lees before release.

James Bond fans will know this was the favoured Champagne of Ian Fleming’s spy in the early books and I for one can see why – JFK seemed to enjoy it too. This is the most delicate. mineral and fine Chamapagne that I have ever tasted. It oozes finesse and breeding and subtlety, but has many more obvious charms too. I often think this is the most ‘wine-like’ Champagne that I know, it sort of seems like the finest Chablis you can imagine, but with a delicate and taut mousse. 94/100 points.

Widely available in the UK @ £147.00 per bottle.

jfk-menu

JFK was served the 1953 Taittinger Comte de Champagne at Hollywood’s La Scala restaurant in December 1962.

So you see there is enormous variety just from one Champagne house, which is good isn’t it. Something to suit every mood, food or occasion and so much more to enjoy.

Further stockist information for the UK is available from Hatch Mansfield.
Taittinger is represented in the US by Kobrand.

In the spirit of openness, I do sometimes do some presenting work for Taittinger, but this is my genuine and unsolicited opinion. I happen to like their Champagnes very much indeed.

Wine Woman and Song – my visit to Donnafugata

Recently I enjoyed an amazing tour of wine regions and producers in Sicily. I had never been before and was very excited to see this wonderful island. It is a beautiful place that really provides a feast for the senses, the landscape is stunning, the food  a revelation and the wines were generally very impressive indeed. Along with visits to the great estates of  Benanti, Planeta and Tasca d’Almerita, seeing the Donnafugata estate was a real highlight.

P1070759

A view from Donnafugata

Like all good winery visits – and indeed wines – it started in the vineyards. Standing in Donnafugata’s Contessa Entellina estate near Sambuca di Sicilia I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the place. I had never been to Sicily before and every time we de-bussed I was thrilled by the variety and vitality of the landscape. The wild flowers in particular – fields of scarlet poppies intermingled with vibrant yellow, purple, pink and blue flowers were everywhere – made my heart sing.

09_sedara_LRSo, here I was at Donnafugata, a winery I only knew about vaguely and even then mainly because of their lovely labels. I was greeted by the lively and animated José Rallo – I found it really hard to take good photographs of Sicilian winemakers as they never seem to keep their hands still. José is the daughter of Giacomo and Gabriella Rallo whose family have produced Marsala for over 150 years and who created the Donnafugata estate to produce premium still wines in 1983.

P1070729

José Rallo

The wonderful name by the way means ‘fugitive woman’ or ‘woman in flight’ and refers to Maria Carolina, sister of Maria-Antoinette and Queen of Naples and Sicily. In 1799 she fled the invading Republican French troops – under General Napoleon Bonaparte – and found refuge in the country estates of a noble. These same estates are now home to the Rallo’s vineyards and in Di Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard, he christened them Donnafugata and the name was adopted by the Rallos as an evocative name for their new winery.

Donnafugata appears to be one of those wineries – as all the best ones are – that never stands still, but continually evolves. Originally Marsala producers, they then became trailblazers of fine Sicilian wines made from international grape varieties, before becoming champions of indigenous Sicilian grapes and creating an experimental project, with other growers, to pinpoint the perfect site for each grape variety to thrive in Sicily.

P1070752

One of the experimental vineyards.

The cool interior of the winery gave our little group shelter from the searing heat of the sun and we were treated to an informative presentation about the estate and a terrific, comprehensive, but relaxed tasting of their wines. The quality was high, sometimes very high, but certain wines stood out from the crowd:

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6_BT_Vigna_750_HR2002 Donnafugata Vigna di Gabri
This single vineyard wine – Vigna di Gabri in Contessa Entellina – is a blend of Ansonica, the Marsala grape, with some Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Catarratto.
85% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel vats, while 15% was fermented in second use French oak barrels.
The 2002 was wonderfully deep and rich with pithy citrus, wild flowers and pine nut notes, while the dry palate offered dry honey, herbs, a waxy texture, citric acidity and  touch of saltiness on the long sapid finish.
I liked this together with the fresher, more creamy, less waxy 2011 as well.

This wine and vineyard is named in honour of José’s mother Gabriella Rallo who created it  and whose signature graces every bottle. Apparently Gabriellas believe that Ansonica is capable of producing quality table wines as well as Marsala and so she created this vineyard and set out to prove her point with this wine. José seems very proud of her mother, especially that she ‘was the first woman in Sicily to put on boots and supervise her workers in the field’. It is clear that Gabriella has green fingers for things other than vines too, as the gardens she created around the winery and family house are stunningly beautiful and peaceful.

More of the gardens

The gardens

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More of the gardens

BRUT_HDN.V. Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
This Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of the whole trip and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees.

ETICHETTA_BRUT_FOTO_LD

Pantelleria 
For me though the wine highlight of this visit was the sweet Zibibbo wines of Pantelleria. I have long been fascinated by this volcanic island that – though politically a part of Sicily – is nearer to Tunisia than Italy.The main grape here of course is Moscato or Muscat of Alexandria, but they traditionally  call it Zibibbo in these parts as it came here via North Africa and apparently zibibb means dried grapes in Arabic.

Donnafugata make 2 very different styles here:

KabirDonnafugata Kabir D.O.C. Moscato di Pantelleria is an aromatic and attractive Moscato with a light, fresh character – there is even a little touch of frizzante to it – and I enjoyed the 2011 vintage of this wine as well as its lovely label.

BenRye

14_BT_benrye_0.75_NEWAltogether more serious, more complex and hedonistic – but no less pleasurable – is the amazingly concentrated Donnafugata Ben Ryé D.O.C. Passito di Pantelleria.
This extraordinary wine is made from grapes that are harvested in August and dried in the sun for 3-4 weeks. Then in September they pick another load of fresh, but very ripe grapes and start a normal fermentation. At this point they de-stem the dried grapes by hand and add them in batches to the fermenting fresh Moscato so that they impart their deeper flavours, higher sugars and great complexity. The fermentation finally stops around the end of November and the wine is then aged in bottle.

I was instantly seduced by the complexity and stunning figgy and salty caramel richness of the 2004, while the orangey panforte-like 2006 was very nearly as complex – give it time. The 2010 was altogether fresher and more straightforward, but still delicious and I am sure will age to be just as memorable as its older siblings.

Donnafugata vineyard terraces on Pantelleria. © Donnafugata - Credit: Anna Pakula - by kind permission

Donnafugata vineyard terraces on Pantelleria. © Donnafugata – Credit: Anna Pakula – by kind permission

Sadly I have yet to visit Pantelleria, but it seems to be a place of heroic viticulture like Santorini, Cinque Terre, Ribera Sacra and Ischia. It must be back breaking work tending these low lying 100 year old bush vines, harvesting them by hand, drying them in the sun, harvesting another lot and then fermenting them for the best part of 3 months, but it all seems to be worth it.

After a wonderful lunch José sang for us, serenading my friend Keith Grainger with ‘An Older Man is Like an Elegant Wine’ – the day after his birthday too, so I cannot decide if that was apt or just rubbing it in. José is a fine singer who has recorded 2 CDs pairing wines with a mixture of Jazz standards, Brazilian and Sicilian songs and she gave us each a copy of her second CD as a gift.

José serenading Keith.

José serenading the ever elegant Keith.

Happily José had paired my favourite track on the album – her version of Rita Lee’s Agora Só Falta Você with my favourite dry Donnafugata wine, the Vigna di Gabri – I like them both in isolation and will have to try them together sometime to see if fusion works for me.

The whole visit was a great experience and a privilege to get an insight into this beautiful estate and to witness at first hand the passion and love they have for their land and what they do.

Donnafugata wines are available in the UK through Liberty Wines.

Donnafugata wines are available in the US through Folio Fine Wine Partners.

Donnafugata wines are available in Australia through Arquilla.

Austria part 1: passionate wine makers

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Neusiedlersee from the vineyards.

A little while ago I was lucky enough to have a fabulous trip around most of Austria’s wine regions. I was pretty excited about it as I had long wanted to get a real look at this resurgent wine producing country.

Personally I have always been drawn to the Austrian /  Central European culture and have always enjoyed the food and the beer and liked the look of this part of the world. So, I was looking forward to getting better acquainted with it as well as seeing the wine regions and meeting many of the important winemakers.

For reasons of economy I flew in through Bratislava, which is very close to Vienna and was for hundreds of years the Imperial Austrian city of Pressburg or Preßburg. I didn’t have time for a meal, unusually for me I didn’t have the inclination either as I knew my plans for later that evening in Vienna, so I grabbed a sandwich and a beer at the airport.

I was already somewhere interesting when something as a simple ham and cheese sandwich bore no relation to its counterparts at home. It came on black bread with smoky Black Forest ham, rich cream cheese, loads of pickles and was delicious. The beer too was far better than such a simple thing as a lager would normally be in my life, it had a rich hoppy character and a depth of flavour that would astonish most members of CAMRA.

Arriving in Vienna for the first time in 27 years I strolled around this grand city trying out some of the wonderful coffee houses and cafés for which the place is justly famous. It seemed as though almost every building housed a cake shop – do they really eat that much cake I wondered? Watching the Viennese at play over the course of the evening it seemed that they really did – and later I joined them myself.

Dinner that night was a sort of pilgrimage for me. All my life I have been excited by schnitzels – I know it sounds strange, it even looks odd to me now I have actually typed the words, which is akin to saying them out loud. Hell, it’s cheaper than therapy! I am always drawn to schnitzel on a menu though, even if there is finer fare to be had. I have this theory that schnitzel is the best dish in the world – no not a theory, a belief! So I went to the place where the schnitzel began.

The Wiener Schnitzel is a classic dish, but it seems that no one can actually find much of a history for it. I remember reading that General Joseph Radetzky von Radetz – he of the march / waltz fame – was supposed to have brought it back to Austria after campaigning in Lombardy and Milan. A Milanese Cutlet / Cotoletta alla Milanese is superficially similar and the Austrians were supposed to have refined it by bashing the meat out to tenderise it and make it very thin. Sadly it seems that this is a myth though and no one knows exactly where it came from or when.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller with a €2 piece for comparison.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller alongside a €2 to compare the sizes.

In Vienna there is a restaurant called Figlmüller that not only claims to have invented the schnitzel, but to have done so as recently as 1905. I find that extraordinary as 1905 is only just beyond living memory, my grandfather was 20 and my own parents births were only 22 years away. How can something so famous and so universal be that recent? Anyway I went and had a most excellent Wiener Schnitzel washed down with a rather splendid beer and copious amounts of Grüner Veltliner from the restaurants’ own vineyards.

For desert I visited the Café Sacher inthe world famous Hotel Sacher, which makes probably the most famous chocolate cake in the world. I felt that at least once in my life I should try the original in the actual place that gave the world the sachertorte. The café is rather lovely with genuine old world charm, open till midnight and serves a stunning red Zweigelt Beerenauslese, from Weingut Kracher in Burgenland, which is absolutely perfect with a slice of sachertorte – a better match than coffee actually.

Having immersed myself in the most famous, possibly clichéd, but certainly delicious, aspects of Austria’s gastronomic culture, the next morning I felt ready to explore her wines.

Austria's wine regions - click for a larger view.

Austria’s wine regions – click for a larger view.

Touring the Vineyards
The start of my trip was billed as a vineyard rally through Leithaberg and Neusiedlersee. Of course with my new found instant knowledge I knew that Leithaberg was a Districtus Austriae Controllatus / D.A.C wine region near Eisenstadt that covered the lower reaches of the Leithaberg mountain and faced south east towards the beautiful lake called Neusiedlersee.

Despite sounding mysterious, the vineyard rally turned out to be simplicity itself, no hard hat or special training was required. We were taken to two different spots in the surrounding vineyards to meet some winemakers and taste their wines.

Our first stop was right in the middle of the vines with barely a building insight – other than church towers in the far, far distance. The weather was warm with clear blue skies and the spot stunningly beautiful with that feeling of total peace that I associate more with vineyards than anywhere else. Spying a falcon in flight just added to the feeling of being somewhere special.

Leo Sommer

Leo Sommer

Weingut Sommer
There we were met by the impossibly youthful looking Leo Sommer who was representing Weingut Sommer, the winery his family have run since 1698. Leo had set up a tasting for us right where the slope stopped at the foot of a rocky ridge. Looking one way I saw the vineyards sloping gently down towards the lake that shimmered enticingly in the distance. In the other direction the land became much steeper with fewer vineyards.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

The Sommers farm 30 hectares here and they aim to capture the essence of the place in their wines. The summer here is hot and dry, with ripening helped by the warm winds blowing in from Hungary’s Pannonian plain. The nearby lake though manages to temper and balance that heat in the height of summer, while helping to keep the autumn cold at bay during the later part of the ripening season. This is the important Altweibersommer or Indian Summer that allows them to harvest very late in this area.

Looking away from the lake towards the ridge - the van is where we had our tasting.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

A close up of the same scene.

White Leithaberg D.A.C. wines can be made from Pinot Blanc  / Weißburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Grüner Veltliner or a blend of any of these and we tasted two of the Sommer’s Grüner Veltliners. One had some oak with lees stirring, while the other was all stainless steel, yet they both summed this place up to my mind. To different degrees they both had a richly textured ripeness leading to a taut, stony mineral finish and when looking around this glorious sun drenched landscape with its sandy loam and slate soils, it struck me – this was precisely what these slopes should produce.

In many ways standing here felt as though I was in a little protected pocket by other less forgiving climates – much like Alsace or Central Otago. The more I thought about that when we visited all the different regions the more I realised that is exactly what the Austrian wine regions are – mountains and more extreme weather dominate the rest of the country – we often glimpsed snow-capped ridges , so these places in the far east of Austria are an oasis of temperate growing conditions.

Our next port of call reinforced this view. This time we were nearer the lake, right at the bottom of the gentle slope before the flat land that surrounds the Neusiedlersee and our hosts were Martin Palser and Birgit Braunstein, a married couple who just happen to both be winemakers and each runs their own winery.

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Birgit Braunstein & Martin Palser

Martin Palser 
Down here it seems there is much more limestone and Martin grows Chardonnay on this soil, which makes his take on the Leithaberg D.A.C. very different from Leo Sommer’s wines. His 2011 Chardonnay Reserve impressed me very much with its lovely balance, very Burgundian character and pronounced minerality – I know, I know – and Martin told us that this minerality was the character of the place and was more important than grape variety in his opinion.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

Birgit Braunstein
Then Martin handed over to his wife who presented two red wines made from the region’s signature black grape – Blaufränkisch. Red Leithaberg D.A.C. wines must contain at least 85% of this with up to 15% of St. Laurent, Zweigelt or Pinot Noir. I have enjoyed Blaufränkisch before – even as Lemberger in New York’s Finger Lakes, but none have impressed me quite as much as these two made by Brigit Braunstein. Her 2009 Blaufränkisch Reserve Leithaberg D.A.C. was beautifully fruity and balanced with gorgeously ripe fruit together with elegant spice, the delicious cherry-like acidity that I associate with the grape – and a streak of pure minerality. Somehow the wine managed to keep quiet about the 18 months it had spent in new oak and was superbly integrated.

Standing on their terrace looking across the vineyards to the lake I was struck by the place, conditions and landscape and how they seemed to echo the wines that I had just tasted. The breezes blew the otherwise searing heat away – “air conditioning for the vines” as Martin put it – and these are ripe, cool climate wines. They are keen on biodiversity here and the fields were a colourful riot of cherry trees, wildflowers, grasses and herbs as covercrop between and around the vines, while the sandy loam soil, slate and limestone that it all grows in is key here. The defining characteristic of Leithaberg D.A.C. seems to be the minerality and I felt that it was all around me as well as being in the glass.

All in all it was an excellent beginning to the day, I felt peaceful, invigorated, more experienced and better informed and it wasn’t yet 11 o’clock.

Weingut Birgit Eichinger
Funny things wine trips. You live in close proximity to people you barely see the rest of your life, you lose all track of time and get dragged from one place to the next at breakneck speed with barely a backward glance – until you start writing anyway. You get given far more meals in a day than is strictly required – and sadly get to like them. What does stand out though, what makes all the suffering (really?) worthwhile is when we visit somewhere that touches the heart and a good few of the visits on this Austrian trip did just that, but one of the most memorable was to Weingut Birgit Eichinger.

Brigit Eichinger

Brigit Eichinger

There aren’t many women winemakers in Austria, so Brigit Eichinger is pretty unnusual – strangely the only other one we met was also called Birgit, Birgit Braunstein – what’s more Birgit Eichinger and her builder husband Christian have only been running their estate since 1992 when they started with 3.5 hectares. The winery was built in 1994 and they have been adding vineyards when they can and today they farm some 15 hectares in Strass.

Strass is in Kamptal which in turn is part of Niederösterreich, which is in many ways the heartland of Austrian wine as it includes the famous regions of Wachau, Kremstal and Wagram amongst many others and so certainly defines my view of Austrian wine – the whites anyway.

Site matters here as there is no one single terroir. Many of the vineyards have loess over gravel and loam, but others have sandstone, slate and schist, so as in Alsace matching the grape variety to the site makes real differences to the wine. There is even volcanic rock on the Heiligenstein slope from where Birgit produces a stunning, spicy, pure and intensely mineral Riesling.

To qualify as Kamptal D.A.C. a wine must be made from Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, so Birgit’s deliciously floral and exotic Roter Veltliner – also known as the Roter Muskateller and no relation to Grüner at all – and her Chardonnay are simply labelled as coming from the wider area of Niederösterreich.

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The landscape here is spectacularly beautiful – actually everywhere we went was – with the terraced vineyards cascading down the slopes towards the small town of Strass where Birgit’s winery sits at the foot of the Gaisberg slope.

All the wines were superb and I know that many of us would have purchased a few bottles if we had had the space in our luggage. The Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners in particular showed their class with a concentration and yet lightness of touch that gave them a feeling of tension and sophistication that certainly brought a smile to my face.

Birgit’s beautiful wines are available in the UK from John Armit Wines and in the US through Weygandt-Metzler Importing for other teritories check here.

The whole trip was a delight – apart from being locked out of my hotel room and two of my colleagues missing their flights – and my enthusiasm for the country and its wines has been totally rekindled. I will write about some of the other places I visited and wines I tasted in Austria soon.

If Austrian wines have passed you by then you really do owe it to yourself to give them a go. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had by exploring the wines of Austria.

A Champagne House to Thrill & Excite

I cannot help myself, I really do like Champagne. There is nothing more enjoyable than good sparkling wine in my opinion and there is no potentially finer sparkling wine than Champagne. What is more there is so much variety in Champagne, some houses produce a rich style, some a soft one, others a mellow one – surely there is something for everyone.

Rather excitingly I have recently stumbled across a small Champagne house that I am convinced deserves far greater fame.

Champagne Legras & Haas is a Champagne domaine founded as recently as 1991, but if the name rings any bells then you might well be thinking of Champagne R & L Legras which is a famous old Champagne house in the village of Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. I have never tried their wines, but they have a very high reputation. Before he created his own estate in 1991, together with his wife Brigitte – whose maiden name was Haas, François Legras was the winemaker here as his forebears had been since the sixteenth century.

François Legras
Amongst other things it was his desire to be a true vigneron, a grower with a domaine that made him strike out on his own and today the house has 31 hectares mainly in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly, although the conditions of the region mean that they do still buy grapes in from trusted local growers – mainly for their standard Tradition Non Vintage (N.V.) Brut. Their Pinot Noir is grown mainly in the slightly warmer Aube area to the south.

Today the house is run by François’s sons Rémi and Olivier Legras and I think the wines they produce are remarkably fine.

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

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

Terroir
As they are based in Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs, with its chalky fossil rich soils, they concentrate on Blanc de Blancs style wines – that is Champagnes made solely from white grapes which by and large means Chardonnay in Champagne. Contrary to popular belief Pinot Blanc – Pinot Vrai locally – can be used in the region too, but it is very rare.

Much of the soil in Chouilly is Kimmeridgian clay as in Chablis and this together with the cold climate and short growing season really does dominate the style of wines.

The wines

bouteille_brut_blanc_de_blanc_0Legras & Haas Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut N.V.

The nose was lovely, fresh is the main word I would use, but there were little touches of apricot, lemon zest, pastry crumbs and stone – this really did entice and hint rather than deliver fully formed characters. It is a tease of a wine, smelling this is like watching a burlesque act.

The palate was clean and crisp with high acidity and lots of flavour of citrus fruit, green apples and minerality as well as some biscuit-like characters. The mousses was persistent and fine – and I am not one to comment on the fizz normally as it depends on too many other factors.

At only 7 grams dosage this is a very dry Brut Champagne which allows the purity and minerality to dominate. All in all this wine really excited me – 91/100 points.

FT-SW-0012-NVpLegras & Haas Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Extra Brut N.V.

Good as that was though it was this wine that really caught my imagination. Extra Brut has a dosage of less than 5 grams per litre, so the wine is allowed to dominate the style. There is no softness here, no fat, just precision and austerity. This means that the Champagne has to be perfect first time – like a water colour.

They got it right, the wine has concentration, but is about minerality and tension. If you like Chablis you will enjoy this. It has that same nervy character and stony depth to it. The bubbles really are tiny and persistent and add some structure to the wine. Four years ageing on the lees has also added little flourishes of flakey pastry, but for me this is all about the minerality, finesse and elegant austerity – 93/100 points.

Do try these Champagnes if you can, they really are superb. I would enjoy the Brut on its own, but I think they would be particularly good with food – some fruits de mer perhaps, especially the Extra Brut.

Legras & Haas Champagnes are available in the UK from the Alaistair Nugent, Handford Wines and Private Cellar.

Legras & Haas Champagnes are available in the US from United Estates Imports and Exclusive Wine Imports

Burgundy – it just seems complicated

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Santenay Clos des Cornières

Recently I was invited over to Burgundy as the guest of a campaign called Discover the Origin whose job is to promote traditional European products that have a clearly defined place of origin – Burgundy is a classic example. It was a wonderful trip and gave me a realinsight into this incredible wine region.

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Beaune, Burgundy’s main town, is a delightful place to explore.

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here.

Many of my students find the sheer variety of Burgundy wines intimidating and the array of labels bewildering, which is presumably why some of the easier to understand examples are the best sellers.

I agree that at first glance Burgundy can look complicated, but actually it isn’t hard once you strip it down to basics and learn to trust Burgundy rather than fight it.

Of course that does depend on how much you really want to get to grips with the place and its wines. Becoming a world authority on Burgundy will be fiendishly difficult, but the good thing is that no one really needs to understand everything about it. Most of us just need enough information to enable us to enjoy the stuff without worrying too much about the potential pitfalls.

Here is my best advice to those of you who would like to get to grips with Burgundy, but find the complications off-putting – oh and if you do know about Burgundy, look away now, this is for the many interested, but nervous wannabe-Burgundy drinkers I meet.

Please remember to click on all the links.

The basic thing to get to grips with, perhaps more than any other wine region, is the geography. The wines are not big, rich and fruity, but dry and savoury because they come from somewhere cold with short summers. The fundamental dimensions and weight of most of the wines are similar as you would expect given that almost all the white wines are made from Chardonnay and the reds from Pinot Noir – both these grapes originate here. The winemaking is pretty similar too and the grapes are grown over a relatively small area, so the climate does not change much and variations are subtle. Every time I taste a lot of Burgundy I find myself writing many of the same words. I know the wines are different, but those differences are so subtle that they are very hard to sum up in a simple way.

Tradition

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather.

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather. The visit here was delightful and the wines had all the elegance you would expect.

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En garde – the delightful Alain Hasard with his pigeage plunger. Note the small scale of the vats at his wonderful little domaine Les Champs de l’Abbaye. All his viticulture is organic and indeed biodynamic inspired – I liked him and his wines.

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay – his wines are superb too.

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could afford them too -

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could (almost) afford them too – 2010 Bourgogne Blanc Cuveé Oligocène and their wonderfully silky 2010 Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru Les Serpentières.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot, note the Tastevin. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white Marsannay from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Remember that Burgundy is a deeply traditional wine region where most of the producers are really just small family owned farms. This is not a place of big brands and industrial sized wineries and this traditional outlook shows in the wines, probably more than any other place in the world today. These wines are made by people who passionately believe this is the best place on earth to make wines and that the wines of their region are the best in the world.

As a consequence the idea of a wine being bright, bold and very fruity is almost an impossible concept for a traditional Burgundian to understand. Therefore expect elegance not weight, delicacy not power and the wines to be fundamentally savoury rather than sweetly fruity. As a consequence Burgundy wines really are best suited to being drunk with food. Most Burgundians would never think to drink a glass of wine on its own, that is what a Kir or Kir Royale is for. Wine, Burgundy wine anyway, accompanies food.

Vineyards

Santenay again

Santenay again

Marsannay

Marsannay

Something else that is a little different here. Very few vineyards in Burgundy have just one owner. Usually a single vineyard site is owned by several different growers and producers all making their own version of the wine. That is why a wine that appears to come from a specific vineyard often has many different labels. That is why wines that perhaps ought to be the same can sometimes taste more varied. If there is a single owner of a specific vineyard it will usually say ‘monopole‘ on the label to show it is that grower’s monopoly.

Geography
To enjoy and appreciate Burgundy you need to either be vaguely aware of the geography or at least choose to accept it or find it interesting rather than intimidating. All the important information on the labels is geographical, it’s all just place names, the region, district names, village names or vineyard names. Personally I find it useful to embrace the unknown on a wine label – if you have never heard of the place or grape on a label, try it. What is the worst that can happen?

Understanding the Labels

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A good quality Bourgogne from a famous producer – this one informs us that it made from Chardonnay, most Burgundy labels do not mention grape variety.

The more basic wines from Burgundy are labelled as Bourgogne, which is French for Burgundy and is the catch all appellation for the whole region. Bourgogne is an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC or AC), which is a system of guaranteeing provenance to the consumer. Similar controls are found throughout the EU – and beyond – to regulate traditional products like ham, cheese and spirits, but wine is the most famous.

Some seemingly humble Bourgogne wines are very good and will give you an idea of the fundamental style of the region. These wines tend to be the more affordable ones – but that is not always the case and knowing the exceptions is where your hard won experience will eventually count.

Districts

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The district names of Burgundy appear on many labels as a more specific place of origin than Bourgogne. These show that the wines comes from a distinct part of the region, rather than  the region as a whole. Chablis and Mâcon are districts, as are Bourgogne followed by the name of an area, such as Bourgogne Côte ChalonnaiseBourgogne Côtes-du-CouchoisBourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre or Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes-de-Beaune. No one knows them all, well I don’t anyway, but once you understand the principle this sort of labelling is quite straightforward.

After a while you will start to notice the subtle differences in how these various wines taste. For instance the wines of Mâcon are clearly softer, fruitier and taste as though they come from somewhere warmer than the cold northerly slopes of Chablis. While Chablis wines are more mineral, taut and crisp than a Mâcon – the cool climate shows in the wine.

Villages

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This white wine comes from the village of Puligny-Montrachet

Quality in Burgundy is supposed to be all about the vineyard site – remember those subtle variations – so in the quest for quality it is always good to know where your grapes were grown. Therefore the benchmark for Burgundy is the wines that have the name of a village on their label. The grapes that the wine is made from were grown in vineyards that surround that particular village, so we know where the wine originates. Meursault, Beaune, Nuits-St-Georges, Puligny-Montrachet, Mercurey and Givry are examples of these village wines.

Premier Cru & Grand Cru
You have to remember that grapes have been grown and wine has been made in Burgundy for hundreds and hundreds of years. Over that time certain places have come to be regarded as having the inherent ability to produce better wine than others. This accounts for why some villages are so famous.

Some specific vineyard sites within the villages can also be thought of as producing better wines than others, or at least to be capable of producing better wines. To celebrate and affirm the potential quality of these vineyard sites many have been awarded Premier Cru /1er Cru status and if the fruit all comes from a single 1er Cru vineyard the name of that site will appear on the label together with the village name.

1er

This white also comes from Puligny-Montrachet, but more specifically the 1er Cru site called Les Folatières.

The very pinnacle of Burgundy production though is the Grand Cru vineyard sites. These are places that are thought to be capable of producing the very finest and most concentrated Burgundy wines of all – there are not many of them and they do not produce much wine at all, so are often eye-wateringly expensive.

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The Montrachet vineyard is shared between the villages of Puligny and Chassagne and has been added to the name of both villages.

So many UK wine drinkers brought up on wines labelled by grape variety seem to want to rant, rail and kick against the traditional French way of doing things. It makes life much easier to just accept it, pay attention to the information on the label that is useful to you and ignore the rest. I always warn my students to never go looking for consistency or logic in French wine regulations as they often mean subtly different things from region to region even when they use the same words.

On my trip I visited a wide range of producers, from big names with grand cellars and lots of employees to tiny, hands on vigneron who scratch a living from a tiny patch of vines. All were passionate about Burgundy though. They all loved their land and thought the site mattered. None of them in their hearts believed they were producing Pinot Noir or Chardonnay wines. They were merely using those grapes to express the character of the land they farmed – they were bottling Meursault, Volnay, Savigny-les-Beaune, Mercurey or Montagny. Their wines were capturing and celebrating the subtle differences and variations that make each of these wines unique.

It is precisely these differences that make Burgundy so interesting and worthwhile to the wine enthusiast and over time the very real, but subtle variations between wines from the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and the Côte Chalonnaise become apparent.

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn in Gevrey-Chambertin

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn who make lovely wines in Gevrey-Chambertin.

What makes the differences is best shown by using the Côte d’Or as my illustration. This part of Burgundy is the most celebrated and contains most of the really famous wine villages of the region. Of the truly renowned Burgundy areas and villages, only Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis are not found in the Côte d’Or.

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

At first glance the Côte d’Or, made up of the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, would appear to be so small that the wines it makes must surely all be pretty similar – after all it is sometimes less than half a kilometre wide. However, this is the place that really demonstrates the French concept of ‘terroir‘. The soils and conditions really matter here and make for the differences between the wines, although nuances might be a better word than differences as they are slight. The limestone ridge or escarpment that is the Côte d’Or consists of layers of different limestones, some more porous than others, as well as marls made up of clay, sand and gravel.

That makes sit sound as though it is all uniform, but it really isn’t. The limestones have weathered and decomposed at different speeds and are pierced by small rivers and dry valleys making for great variation as to which limestones dominate different parts. The topsoil also varies, as some are flinty and some a more chalky scree and the collapsing of the limestone ridge leaves different types and depths of topsoil.

Another variable is aspect, there are fissures, gaps, ravines and valleys in the limestone which change the direction a little, so some vineyards face more directly south than others – these will generally produce bigger wines as the grapes get more sun and so have more sugar which produces more alcohol and extract in the finished wine.

Luckily for us we don’t have to learn what the soil composition is of each and every village, let alone vineyard site, which is good because there is a great deal of overlap and variation making it very difficult to generalise to any useful degree. No, we only have to try the wines and see which ones we particularly enjoy.

So the next time you fancy some good charcuterie, try a red Burgundy with it, or it would be perfect with Boeuf Bourguignon or Coq au Vin too, those wonderful classic dishes of the region. White Burgundy really comes into its own with soft, squidgy cheeses or a simply cooked piece of fish.

If you really want to open your eyes to Burgundy though I would really recommend visiting the place for yourself, there is so much to see and enjoy.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

Chile – experimenting and perfecting

As readers of these pages will know, I have long been a fan of Chilean wine and although it has been too long since I visited Chile I love the country too. It is a very beautiful place with wonderful sights to see and the people are a delight.

At Luis Felipe Edwards in the Colchagua Valley 2003

If I have had any problems at all with Chilean wine it was that they have for too long relied upon a narrow a range of grape varieties. I am sure that is not a commercial problem for them as consumers usually drink from a very, very narrow range of grape varieties. However for someone like me it can get dull if everyone only makes their own versions of the same old thing. There is only so much Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay I want to drink – however good they are.

Which is why I am really delighted to find that of late Chile seems to be pushing the boundaries further than ever before, finding new grapes, new styles, new blends and new grape growing areas. As a consequence I have recently been able to taste some wonderful new wine styles from Chile, so if you are getting bored with the same old, same old and want to drink something exciting you should give Chile a go. Continue reading

Hungarian Rhapsody

Everywhere I go at the moment I keep stumbling across excitingly different white wines. Many of them are made from grapes and in regions that I am aware of, but have only very limited experience of tasting until now – I suspect that is a good thing as wines are so much better now than in my youth. I am sure that if I had tried wines from these places 28 years ago then I might have not been anything like as impressed as I am now.
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How I love You Chardonnay*

Frequent visitors and the observant amongst you will notice that recently I have been writing less frequently than normal. This is simply because of the hectic pace of my work during the build up to Christmas – bah, humbug!

However I have had a good many wine experiences of late and will be writing about some of them as soon as I can.

In the meantime I thought that I would share a thought and a few wines with you.

Reappraising Chardonnay:

It saddens me that so many UK wine consumers limit what they drink to such a narrow range and what I mean is illustrated by a common reaction to Chardonnay. If I had £1 for every time someone told me that they used to enjoy Chardonnay, but now drink Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, then I could easily afford a new car! Some people start shaking their head at the mere mention of Chardonnay, as though to even consider it will make them liable to arrest by the taste-police.

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Franciaorta – sparkling wine with a future

The lovely Azienda Agricola Villa

I have long wanted to try the sparkling wines of Lombardy’s Franciaorta region, so I leapt at a chance to attend a tasting and dinner hosted by the Azienda Agricola Villa.

It was quite an event and it took place in the wonderfully stylish Dego just off Great Portland Street near Oxford Circus in London. This is an Italian restaurant and wine bar that is incredibly chic and nothing like your normal stereotypical Italian eatery. Continue reading