In praise of sparkling wine

I have been musing quite a bit about Sparkling wine over the festive period which seems so long ago now – where does time go?

I love Champagne, it is one of the greatest wine styles and wine regions in the world, but sadly I cannot often afford to drink it. Nor do I always want it as many other sparkling wines are wonderful wines that give a great deal of pleasure in their own right.

Which brings me on to my theme here – sparkling wine in restaurants. Very few eateries seem to want to sell me a bottle of sparkling wine, while they all want to sell me a bottle of Champagne, but of course never from the affordable end of the spectrum. It’s always big names and famous brands, which is all very nice, but a bit beyond most of us except for a special occasion. But here’s the thing – restauranteurs take note – my finances will not stretch to Champagne at restaurant prices very often, so on the very few occasions that I order Champagne I almost never order another bottle as well. If the restaurant listed a good quality sparkling wine at a fair price though I would almost certainly start with a bottle of that AND have a bottle of wine afterwards – surely I cannot be alone in that?

Few other sparkling wines quite reach that level of finesse or complexity that Champagne can reach. Few have that sensation of tension and utter purity that the chalky soils and cold climate of Champagne can achieve – even some very good value Champagnes, but there are many very good sparkling wines around that deliver all sorts of other pleasures and they deserve a fair hearing and not just to be dismissed as something ‘lesser’. In truth a good sparkling wine is different, not inferior and can make a lovely aperitif or partner the starter, fish dishes or Chinese and Thai food beautifully as well as many other dishes.

In recent months I have tried many excellent sparkling wines and I often wonder why so few of them are available on restaurant wine lists. I have tasted lovely examples from France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, New York, Chile, California, South Africa and Spain amongst many others, here are a few that really stand out, whether for sheer quality, drinkability or value for money, they are all are non vintage unless specified and all made by the traditional – or Champagne – method, so Prosecco will be covered another day:

prod_370121Perle Noire Crémant d’Alsace
Arthur MetzLes Grands Chais de France, Alsace, France

I am always drawn to Crémant d’Alsace, it seems to me that the region makes very good fizz, albeit very different from Champagne. Mostly I favour the ones made from Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but Chardonnay is allowed too, this super example is made from 100% Auxerrois, which being a cross between Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir shares the same parents as Chardonnay, but originates in Lorraine and is widely used in Alsace where it is normally blended into wine labelled as Pinot Blanc.
This wine has a lovely apricotty nose with the merest touch of richer raspberry and some brioche notes too. The palate is soft and the mousse slightly creamy and has nice orchard fruit characters. The wine is delicate and delicious and soft, rather than being elegant and poised, but is a very enjoyable bottle of fizz. I wish I could find this in the UK, I would love to buy it and order it in restaurants too – 87/100 points

B052241Benanti Brut Noblesse
Azienda Vinicola Benanti, Etna, Sicily, Italy
This is a delightful sparkling wine made from Carricante grapes, grown at between 950 and 1200 metres above sea level, plus some other local grapes to add a little richness to the acidic, taut and mineral citrus notes of Carricante. It was quite delicious and hit the spot rather well before climbing up into the vineyards. A small portion of the wine is barrel fermented and it is aged on the lees over the winter before the second fermentation takes place the following Spring. After bottling it was aged for 18 months on the lees before disgorging. An attractive and enjoyable sparkling wine of excellent quality and finesse, if not great complexity – 87/100 points.

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year 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, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

This pure Chardonnay sparkler is an easy and affordable way to try something from the tiny Jura region of eastern France and it is very good, much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. It is pure Chardonnay and crisp with a lean apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat – 85/100 points
An amazing bargain from Aldi @ £6.99

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Arestel Cava Brut
Cavas Arestel, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain

I know nothing about this producer at all except that they appear to be a proper Cava House, not just a label and they supply Lidl with their Cava and it seems really very good for anything like the asking price, certainly a cut above most cheap Cava and perfect when you just want to keep drinking fizz in quantity! It is soft, dry and apply  in flavour with a touch of pear too, but has a nice mouthfeel with none of that soapy quality cheap fizz can have – 84/100 points, this scores especially well for value, but really it is very well made.
Another amazing bargain this time from Lidl @ £4.79

brutMiguel Torres Pinot Noir Brut
Curicó Valley, Chile
I am always amazed by how little sparkling wine there is in Chile, most of the fizz drunk down there comes from Argentina, but there are a couple of stars, Cono Sur‘s delightful tank method sparkler and this beauty from Miguel Torres. This is a lovely traditional method wine with good depth of peachy orchard and raspberry red fruit, a lovely golden hue and fragrant brioche notes and flavours. Works very well and is the best Chilean fizz I have ever tasted – 88/100 points.

rmc_255x4542011 Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs Brut
Bodegas Codorníu, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalunya, Spain
I have long been a fan of Codorníu, small bottles of their Cava – their Benjamin – were my first drink as a teenager in the discos of Spain. They invented Cava in 1872 and continue to make a wide range of delicious and high quality Cavas, but this is in a different league from most caves available in the UK. Recent vintages of this impressive wine have been pure Pinot Noir and it is that which gives the red fruit richness and depth to the palate, while floral freshness dominates the aromas. 15 months on the lees lend a touch of brioche and creaminess to the wine. If you have only tried cheap Cava in the past you owe it to yourself to give this a go – 91/100 points.
Great value for money from Majestic @ £14.99 – sometimes £9.99 when you buy 2

Sparkling-Pinot-Noir-Chardonnay-nv-150x464Grant Burge Pinot-Noir Chardonnay
Barossa Valley, Australia
I love showing this wine at tastings as it is really very good indeed, full of character and fruit, but also elegant. The fruit comes from vineyards in the cool Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, so there is plenty of fresh acidity, while the ripeness and the 70% of Pinot Noir – there is even a dash of Pinot Meunier – gives it a lovely deep colour with hints of red fruit. Then 30 months or so on the lees gives a richness and biscuity character that is quite delicious. Not a cheap fizz by any means, but fine, tasty, elegant and drinkable too  – 90/100 points.

26548-250x600-bouteille-domaine-vincent-careme-ancestrale-blanc--vouvray2011 Vouvray L’Ancestrale
Domaine Vincent Carême, Vouvray, Loire Valley
In truth I am not often an admirer of Vouvray’s charms and Chenin is far from a favourite of mine, but this is stunning, which is quite a feat given that Vincent created his domaine from nothing in 1999. He now farms 14 hectares of organically grown Chenin and his wines are always interesting and often delicious, and this might well be my favourite. It is from older vines and the second fermentation takes place without the addition of any sugar or yeast, so takes a long time – 18-24 months apparently, so the flavours build slowly. The palate is rich and appley, even apple pie at times and the finish has a touch of sweetness that blanches the acidity beautifully and adds to the feeling of richness. A real hedonists wine – 91/100 points.

domaine-saint-just-domaine-saint-just-cremant-de-loire-blanc-blanc-2056-994Crémant de Loire Brut
Domaine Saint Just, Saumur, Loire Valley
Wouldn’t you know it, in one breath I tell you how little I like Chenin Blanc and here I am telling you about another superb wine made from it – hey ho that is the beauty of wine I suppose – although in this case 40% Chardonnay adds more elegance I think. This wine is beautiful too, poised, elegant and refined with rich fruit, zesty citrus acidity and some delicately honeyed, biscuity, richness on the long classy finish. If we could prise some of this away from the French and Chinese I think it would prove very popular in the UK – 92/100 points.

IDShot_150x300Tesco Finest Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée 1531
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon
It isn’t always easy to try this wine in the UK, which is a shame as it can be very good indeed. Limoux is in cathar country near Carcassonne and claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne has. This Chardonnay, Chenin and Mauzac – aka Blanquette – blend is pretty classy and elegant with a herbaceous character, from the Mauzac and lovely citrus acidity, apply fruit and yes a bit of toast too. This example is just off-dry – 87/100 points.

0003BB761E64012008 Loridos Bruto
Bacalhoa Vinhos, Portugal
Portugal isn’t often seen as a good fizz producer, but really should be, the few I have tried have been very good indeed. Bacalhoa produce some very good examples at the beautiful Quinta de Loridos near the fabulous town of Obidos near Lisbon. The Chardonnay  Brut is very good too, but my favourite is this Castelão and Arinto blend. Castelao is a red grape, while Arinto is a superb high acid white grape and together they give a lovely taut red apple character and real depth. A very good wine – 90/100 points.

ImageWine.aspx2010 Villiera Brut Natural Chardonnay
Villiera, Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is a wine very dear to my heart, my good friends Dave and Lorna Hughes live right next to the vineyard these Chardonnay grapes come from and I have often enjoyed a few glasses with them while in Stellenbosch. It is very good, very elegant, very refined, delicate, mineral and crisp apple fruit. Again the second fermentation takes place without the addition of yeast or sugar and the wine is aged for  3 years on the lees – 91/100 points.
Superb value for money from Marks & Spencer @ £10.99

In Conclusion
Of course I could carry on, but you get the picture, there are lovely sparkling wines produced everywhere, so don’t get stuck in a rut, it does not have to be Champagne every time – restauranteurs take note, sommeliers please listen – nor does every alternative have to be Prosecco. Be adventurous, find something new and exciting.

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.