Happy New Year & 3 Wines of the Week…

Well, here we are at the start of 2015 and still not a jet pack, hover mobile, silver jump suit or meal consisting solely of pills in sight. How wrong all the soothsayers were!

I hope your Christmas and New Years were relaxing, fun and memorable and that you enjoyed plenty of good food and wine. I’m sure you noticed that I took a bit of a break from writing these pages, I hope that you didn’t mind or begrudge me the time off.

Like you I drank a fair amount, mainly good sparkling wines and half decent Champagne if truth be told, but I did indulge with a few select bottles including the 3 that I am about to mention to you. Indeed if I had not taken a break from writing they would have been my Wines of the Week numbers 31, 32 and 33 – so here they are, better late than never eh?

Wine of the Week 31

Christmas seems to be a time for indulgence, when we consume the sorts of things – and the sorts of quantities – that we deny ourselves the rest of the year. Certainly as soon as the grind is over – about halfway through Christmas Eve I find – I do relax more and start drinking at all sorts of odd times of day that I just would not normally. Nothing gets me into a Christmas mood as much as a Panettone and a bottle of a light Moscato for an early Christmas tea – fine Prosecco is also superb with Panettone and I did indeed drink a superb Prosecco just the other day, but you will have to wait a while to hear all about that magnificent wine.

 

Moscato vines growing on Piemonte's rolling hills.

Moscato vines growing on Piemonte’s rolling hills.

image_2711702_full2013 Elio Perrone Sourgal Moscato d’Asti
Casa Vinicola Elio Perrone
Castiglione Tinella, Piemonte, Italy
D.O.C.G. Moscato d’Asti

Moscato d’Asti is less fizzy than Asti itself, but tastes very similar and is similarly light light in alcohol – 5% in this instance. This very lightness makes it a gentle way into the indulgences of the Festive season as it doesn’t make you too tipsy and you can drink rather a lot of it too. That all misses the point somewhat though, I like this style os wine because when they are well made – as this example is – they are utterly delicious. Sourgal by the way is the name of the vineyard, as this is a single vineyard wine.

The wine is very pale, with just a little lemony, sherbet colour and the CO2 gives a lovely lacy look to the surface of the wine – gently frothy is another way of putting it. It is the aromas of these wines that get me every time, they smell of delicate candied fruit, especially lemon peel, with the merest touch of brioche too – yes they really do smell of panettone, which is why they go so well together. There are other gorgeous aromas too, touches of orange, flourishes of acacia and white peach, all of which makes it scintillating and joyous to sniff. The palate is soft and very light, lightly effervescent and very fruity with flavours of grapes, peach and lemon peel. The sweetness is there, but it is beautifully balanced and just comes along for the ride rather than dominating. All in all this is delicious and so, so drinkable, enjoy it on its own or with something lightly sweet like fruit or that panettone – 88/100 points.

If you are labouring under the impression that Moscato d’Asti is an old fashioned wine, or that you won’t like it, just try it with an open mind. These wines deliver pure, uncomplicated pleasure and joy to the drinker, go on, you know you want to try it.

Available in the UK for £7.50 a bottle from The Wine Society.
Stockist details in the US are available here.

Red Bordeaux

Bordeaux map QS 2011 watermark

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

Funny thing Christmas. Lots of us are quite happy drinking wines from across the globe throughout the year, but come Christmas we come over all traditional and start thinking thoughts of Claret. I love Claret, red Bordeaux was my second wine love – after Spain – and the wines continue to excite me, or perhaps I should say are exciting me again as I have made a conscious decision to reengage with Bordeaux wines in recent years.

Well over the festive period two rather splendid Clarets came my way, both were from the superb 2009 vintage, so they were probably too young, but that did not stop them from being hugely enjoyable and impressive, so I have made them both Wines of the Week. What’s more I have only ever stayed in 2 Bordeaux Châteaux and it was these two (but with nearly 30 years between each stay) – coincidence?

Wine of the Week 32 – right bank revelry

Saint-Émilion is a delightful town.

Saint-Émilion is a delightful town.

In my mind I have always really been more of a left bank, Médoc kind of guy than a lover of right bank wines. Something about the firm tannic structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Médoc style appeals to me. Or so I used to think, but don’t people always say that we move to the right as we get older? Well I was most agreeably surprised on 2 recent trips to Bordeaux to find myself falling for the fruity charms of the Saint-Émilion style, as well as the place. Saint-Émilion is an utterly gorgeous town to visit, as long as there are not too many tourists and I was with a group that were put up in a charming and very old Château called Cantin. Most of the properties in Bordeaux are nineteenth century confections rather than genuinely fortified residences, so – much as I like the Second Empire architectural style – the seventeenth century Château Cantin was a bit of a delight. Sadly I did not take many photographs of the Château itself, but if you look at the bottle below, see the label? In the picture the Château has a single turret with a window. Well that was my bedroom and I did take some pictures of the view from it.

Château Cantin - the view from the window in the turret that you can see on the label. That was my bedroom.

Château Cantin – the view from the window in the turret that you can see on the label – that was my bedroom.

Chateau Cantin2009 Château Cantin 
Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
St. Christophe des Bardes, Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux

Although the building is old, Cantin was in the doldrums for a long time and did not really start making any reputation for itself until the Group Les Grands Chais de France took over the management of it and started investing heavily in the vineyard and winery. 2007 was the first vintage of this new regime and the results have been extraordinary. I watched the harvest come in in 2013 and they seem to take the utmost care with everything. It’s all done by hand with 3 selections to make sure only the good grapes get in. The fermentation takes place in a mix of stainless steel and concrete vats and the wine is aged for 12 months in barrel. The blend is something like 80% Merlot with 10% each of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The property was originally built by Benedictine monks as a summer residence for the Canon of Saint-Émilion and the name comes from the Latin word cantio, which means song, perhaps after all the evensong that was sung here?

It strikes me that this is a very modern Claret, the colour is an intense, opaque purply, plum black.
The nose is scented with spice, cinnamon and coffee, with rich plum, blackberry and cooked strawberry notes together with dried cranberry and blueberry too.
The palate is medium to full bodied, dense and velvety with loads of ripe, sweet red to black fruit and supple tannins. It really is wonderfully rich and concentrated while being deliciously drinkable, it’s let down just a tad by the alcoholic heat on the finish – it is 14.5%, but the fruit is so lovely you can forgive it. A terrific wine though with rich savoury development characters just beginning to emerge through the puppy fat of its ripe fruit, more complexity will emerge if you age it for another 4 years or so – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK for £24.99 per bottle from Waitrose & Waitrose Cellar.

Wine of the Week 33 – left bank lusciousness

My other Christmas Claret came from Bordeaux’s left bank and more specifically the famous commune / village of Saint-Julien.

The Haut-Médoc's gravel soils and the Gironde estuary in the distance.

The Haut-Médoc’s gravel soils and the Gironde estuary in the far distance.

Ch lagrange 20092009 Château Lagrange
Troisièmes Grand Cru Classé
Saint-Julien, Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux

I stayed at this beautiful, and more classic Second Empire style Château on my first ever trip to Bordeaux back in 1986. In those days I stayed in the grape pickers dorms, whereas nowadays I get a proper bedroom, so some things are looking up! The winery was extensively modernised from the 1980s onwards – when the Japanese Suntory Group purchased it – and this has resulted in the wines becoming brighter, bolder and better in my opinion – I have been fortunate to taste vintages back to 1970.

The blend is 73% Cabernet Sauvignon with 27% Merlot, fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged for 20 months in oak barrels, 60% of which are new.

I was very impressed by this wine, the colour was deep, crimson-black and opaque. The nose had lifted sweetly ripe cassis, blackberry, black cherry and blueberry as well as smoke, cedar and espresso notes. There was even a fresh floral quality to it which lightened the load somewhat and gave balance. The palate is concentrated sure, but medium-bodied. The fruit however is very concentrated and would easily satisfy those seeking full on full-bodied wines. Clearly there is plenty of oak – the oaky / espresso quality follows through on to the palate – but there is so much ripe fruit – blackcurrant, blackberry, black cherry – that they balance each other beautifully, neither dominates the other. The tannins too are very ripe and seductive, so they do not seem astringent, but they are there, so the wine will age. There is a little of acidity and minerality too, which also show that it will age if you want to keep it and which freshen up the palate and stop it cloying. Right now though it that richness and softness and sweetly ripe rich fruit that the wine is all about and it delivers almost sensual pleasure and delight. A terrific Bordeaux that is joyous now or will repay cellaring for a good number of years – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for £39.99 from Lidl.
US stockist information is available here.

Both of these Clarets were a real treat and put a smile on the face of everyone who tasted them, so if you need something a little special, Bordeaux can deliver the goods at prices that are not too outrageous – leave a little space for the Moscato though…

Happy New Year to you all and let’s hope that 2015 is a good one with peace breaking out everywhere and a modicum of sanity returning to the world.

 

 

 

 

Piemonte Part 1 – first taste of Monferrato

Vignale in Monferrato.

Vignale in Monferrato.

I experienced my first wine trip to Piemonte the other week and I really enjoyed it. The countryside is beautiful, the variety of landscapes in a small area is quite extraordinary – totally flat around the Po Valley, but with the towering Alps just to the north, while the rolling hills in the south morph into a coastal range of mountains towards Liguria and the sea. The towns and villages are delightful too, the food is memorable and the people are very welcoming. There is a great deal to enjoy in Piemonte and I recommend a visit, oh and the wines are wonderful too and come in an amazing array of different styles from a plethora of grape varieties, some well known, but some quite obscure.

As soon I told people that I was going to Piemonte they jumped to the conclusion that I would be visiting Barolo, but actually my destination was the much less well known Monferrato region. Monferrato covers the provinces of Alessandria and Asti, I was visiting the bit in Alessandria. For most of the time was I based in the lovely provincial town of Acqui Terme, which was originally a Roman Spa town and the bollente, or hot spring, still bubbles up in the town centre.

Il bollente, the water comes out at 75˚C.

Il bollente, the water comes out at 75˚C.

Monferrato
The Monferrato D.O.C. is pretty hard to pin down. It covers great swathes of territory that look and feel very different. The D.O.C. itself can use all sorts of different grapes and incorporates the territories of other wines within its boundaries, Gavi D.O.C.G. being the most famous. It also includes much of the Asti territory, so allowing many producers to make Asti, Mosacto d’Asti as well as Barbera d’Asti. The overall effect is a quite beguiling hotch potch of wine names that straddle and overlap each other.

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, I will draw a more detailed map soon.

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, I will draw a more detailed map soon.

The region is divided in to two by the Tanaro River. In the north the Basso Monferrato – or Monferrato Casalese – is an open land of rolling hills that give way to the plains of the Po Valley. To the south there is the Alto Monferrato, which is a hilly and mountainous land that forms part of the Apennines. Culturally the whole region is diverse with Piemontese, Genoese and Ligurian influences in the food. Asti and neighbouring Alba are also centres of truffle production and they are also important in the cuisine.

The most widely grown grape, the signature grape for the region is the generally under appreciated Barbera. Many others are used though, including Gavi’s Cortese, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Freisa  and Grignolino and I will write more about those another day.

Looking towards the Alps from Marenco's vineyards in Strevi.

Looking towards the Alps from Marenco’s vineyards in Strevi.

Marenco
There were many highlights on this trip and I will write about some of them soon, but one of my favourite winery visits was to the Casa Vinicola Marenco. This family winery is run by three sisters, Michela, Patrizia and Doretta, who are the third generation of the Marenco family to run the family business, interestingly the next generation is entirely male.

The Marenco winery.

The Marenco winery.

Michela Marenco picking cherries for us to eat.

Michela Marenco picking cherries for us to eat.

Our little group enjoying the cherries - photo courtesy of Paul Balke.

Our little group enjoying the cherries, that’s me front left looking serious – photo courtesy of Paul Balke.

Marenco are based in the lovely quiet town of Strevi midway between Gavi and Asti – which is an important area for Moscato (Muscat) production and Moscato Passito di Strevi is the tiny local speciality D.O.C. for a dessert wine made from dried Moscato grpes. All their wines were excellent, but the ones that thrilled me the most were:

2scrapona2013 Marenco Scarpona Moscato d’Asti 
Casa Vinicola Marenco
Strevi
D.O.C.G. Moscato d’Asti

Moscato d’Asti is less fizzy than Asti itself, but tastes very similar and is similarly light light in alcohol – 5.5% in this instance. This single vineyard wine from the Scarpona slope is an exceptionally fine example with a purity, elegance and finesse to it, so much so that it tastes drier than it is, even though it has 130 grams of sugar per litre.

The wine is very pale and delicately frothy rather than fizzy and the CO2 settles on the surface like lace. It is wonderfully aromatic with floral and delicately peachy notes and candied lemon peel making it smell like a freshly opened panettone. The palate is light and fresh with that frothy feel, a slight creamy intensity, and although it is sweet it also tastes very clean, fresh and lively. Candied citrus, light peach and zesty orange flavours dominate. A joyous hedonistic delight of a wine, try it with some fruit, a panettone or a simple sponge cake – 90/100 points.

Click here for UK stockist information for Contero Moscato d’Asti as Scarpone is not available in the UK.
Click here for US stockist information.

Marenco's Scarpona vineyard.

Marenco’s Scarpona vineyard.

pineto2013 Pineto Marenco Brachetto d’Acqui
Casa Vinicola Marenco
Strevi
D.O.C.G. Brachetto d’Acqui

The rarer red equivalent to Moscato d’Asti, this is made from the Brachetto grape, which is a local speciality. The grape is thin skinned, so makes pale wine, but is tannic, like Nebbiolo and is made sweet to balance the tannins in the wines, as many Nebbiolos were until the late nineteenth century. Marenco farm their Brachetto grapes in the Pineto Valley, hence the wine’s name.

In many ways this is like a red partner to the Moscato, with a similar character, lightly sparkling and low alcohol of 5.5%. It has 125 grams of sugar per litre, but tastes drier.

The colour is red cherry or cherry-ade even with that lacy, frothy top. It smells of tangy red fruit, cherry and strawberry, with a touch of cherrystone bitterness too. Frankly the palate tastes like a really good Black Forest Gateau and it would be the perfect partner to it too. This is so, so delicious that I could not stop drinking it – 91/100 points.

I cannot, for the life of me imagine why these two wine styles are not more popular in the UK, they just deliver pure pleasure to your senses – go on, please, I beg you, give them a try. Sadly you won’t find these two particular wines in the UK as Marenco’s distributer, Liberty Wines, sell the Moscato d”Asti and Brachetto d’Acqui from the Contero estate. Luckily Contero is also owned by Marenco and the wines are equally fine.

Click here for UK stockist information for Contero Brachetto d’Acqui.
Click here for US stockist information.

I was also delighted with this red wine produced in a more normal dry style:

MA4012010 Marenco Red Sunrise Albarossa
Casa Vinicola Marenco
Strevi
D.O.C. Piemonte

Albarossa is an unusual grape that is just beginning to catch on in this part of Piemonte and I tasted quite a few, but this was definitely my favourite example. In case you have never heard of it, and I hadn’t, it is a cross of Chatus (Chat-ooo) with Barbera. The position is confused somewhat by the widespread belief that Chatus is a form of Nebbiolo, so some people tell you that Albarossa is a cross of Nebbiolo and Barbera, both native to Piemonte, but that is not the case. This confusion probably arose because Chatus is known as Nebbiolo di Dronero in the Alba region of Piemonte.

The wine is cold fermented in stainless steel tanks and 50% was aged for a year in large oak casks.

As you might expect from this area the wine is red, quite a vivid crimson in fact.
The nose offers a mix of floral and earthy notes, stones, black fruit and red too, especially plums and stewed cherries, with a dash of tobacco.
The palate is soft and marked by rich smoky fruit, red and black, the texture is supple, deep and velvety, with slightly gamey, savoury flavours. All the while there is excellent balance between the lovely acidity, concentrated fruit and soft gamey, ripe tannins. I enjoyed this wine very much and was very excited to try something so completely unexpected. There is a Nebbiolo like feel to it at times, it is overwhelmingly savoury, but the fruit is richer and the tannins softer. I think this is a very fine wine and my favourite Albarossa so far – 90/100 points.

Click here & here for UK stockist information. Also contact Liberty Wines.
Click here for US stockist information.

I think you can probably tell that I was completely bowled over by Marenco and loved visiting them. The vineyards were very beautiful, their wines were superb, the people were lovely and they have real passion for their land and their wines, and it shows. Do try them if you can, you won’t regret it. I will be writing much more about my trip to Piemonte, but Marenco was a real highlight.