Wine of the Week – Nebbiolo with a twist

Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

In recent months I have become seriously obsessed by the wines of Italy and I think with good reason. There is such variety, such diversity and such pleasure to be had. So much so in fact that I have been giving some tastings called Hidden Corners of Italy that shines a little light on the areas of Italy that people might not encounter all that much.

The wines really seem to have captured people’s imaginations and opened their eyes as to the huge variety that Italy offers. I have shown some stunning sparkling wines, wonderful whites and fine complex reds and will write about them all very soon. However one red in particular showed extremely well recently and I noticed that it is once again available in the UK, so thought that I would make it my Wine of the Week.

It comes from Piemonte, which would normally be regarded as a far from hidden corner of Italy, but it actually comes from the north of the region up towards the Alps from a little known PDO / DOC called Lessona. In fact Lessona is a commune in the Province of Biella some 70 kilometres north of Turin and although it was created a Denominazione di Origine Controllata / DOC as long ago as 1976, there are only 14 hectares of vineyards there.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas in the Alto Piemonte were once very important and like Lesona have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant here on mountainous terrain than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land over many decades. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades. The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they found it hard to pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north. As a result, by the time I joined the wine trade 30 odd years ago, the wines of this part of Piemonte were almost never mentioned.

Which is a great shame as the DOCs and DOCGs of this part of Italy produce some seriously impressive wines, especially the reds of Carema, Gattinara, Ghemme, Bramaterra and Lessona. There are many great producers here that deserve to be much more widely known – you can read a bit about them here.

While I was there many producers captured my imagination, but I developed a particular affection for the wines of Tenute Sella. Based in Lessona, although it has vineyards in Bramaterra too, this estate has been owned by the Sella family since 1671 when silk merchant Comino Sella founded it. Today the estate is run by the engaging and charming Marco Rizzetti, who is CEO of the winery and part of the Sella family on his mother’s side.

Tenute Sella vineyards in Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

Today Tenuta Sella farms 7 hectares in Lessona – 50% of the PDO – plus 10 hectares in Bramaterra. The Lessona vineyards are pretty fragmented and on Pliocene marine deposits, so comprise well drained sandy soils.

2011 Lessona
DOC Lessona

The principal wine from the estate and the wine they have produced ever since 1671. This is a blend of 85% Nebbiolo (traditionally called Spanna up here) with 15% Vespolina, a close relative of Nebbiolo. The vines are on average 55 years old and the vineyard is at 300 metres above sea level with a south facing slope. The grapes were destemmed and crushed before being fermented in stainless steel vats and the wine was matured for 24 months in large (2500 litre) Slavonian oak barrels, where it also went through the malolactic fermentation. Viticulture is all low impact, near organic with no pesticides.

2011 was a difficult year with periods of heavy rainfall and drought while hail in July severely depleted the crop making yields lower than normal. They are very pleased with what the vintage finally produced, as was I.

The colour was a little bricky like Burgundy, while the nose delivered lovely complex red fruits, spice, pepper, espresso and light smoke with an enticing mix of sweet fruit and savoury characters.

The palate was quite haunting with lovely refreshing acidity, tannins that certainly made themselves known but were not aggressive, making the texture quite supple. The flavours were deep red fruit, plums especially, with dried fruit, earthy, coffee bean, tomato stem, savoury spicy characters and a lovely gamey, leathery development. It really is a lovely wine, more perfumed, more supple than we normally think of Nebbiolo. I could not help feeling that this would be great with Christmas dinner – 93/100 points.

The cellar at Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

A beguiling and complex food wine, if you like Barolo, Northern Rhône wines or Burgundy then you will love this. As well as turkey and goose, this would be wonderful with beef dishes and an array of cheeses.

Available in the UK for between £17 and  £23 per bottle from Vinissimus and Tannico.co.uk.

If you want even more of a bit of a treat for Christmas, then Vintage Wine & Port have a few bottles of the 2000 vintage Tenute Sella Lessona for £39.00 per bottle.

 

Wine of the Week – a stylish Italian sparker

I have recently returned from a fascinating trip to the Soave region of Italy. It is a very beautiful and tranquil area centred on the wonderful city of Verona. There were many wines that impressed me and many experiences that stood out and I will write in more detail soon.

The beautiful landscape of Colli Berici just to the south of Lessini Durello.

However one group of wines did surprise me. The sparklers. This is because I simply had no experience of them. In the UK only one Italian sparkling wine seems to be important – Prosecco – and while it is dominant even in Italy, there is so much more.

Everywhere I have been in Italy recently there have been excellent quality sparkling wines. Sparkling Falanghina in Campania, sparkling Carricante on Sicily, Verdicchio in the Marche, sparkling Lugana in the Veneto and Lombardy, Franciacorta in Lombardy, Nebbiolo – both white and rosé – in Piemonte, Chardonnay in Trento DOC and many other I am sure. So I was excited to find yet one more – I find that life is always better with a bit of fizz.

Prosecco of course can be made over a very wide area, principally in the Veneto region, but also outside in Friuli, while most of these other sparkling wines are produced in much smaller regions and mainly using the traditional method.

Whilst touring around Soave though I was made much more aware of another sparkling wine from Veneto that has a great deal to offer.

Wine map of northern Italy. Lessini Durello is immediately to the north of Soave and Colli Berici – click for a larger view.

DOC Lessini Durello is a smallish PDO just to the north of Soave in the Monti Lessini, which is a lovely area that forms part of the prealps. Somewhat confusingly the grape they grow here is actually called Durella – the wine must contain at least 15% of this and can also include Chardonnay, Garganega, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero.

Riserva wines must be made sparkling by the traditional method followed by 36 months ageing on the lees, while standard – non Reserve – examples is only made by the tank – or Charmat – method, so the second fermentation, which produces the CO2 that makes the wine sparkling, takes place in a tank before the wine is bottled.

I tasted quite a few of these wines and was impressed. The only problem being that thy do not generally seem to make it to export markets. So I was very excited to taste one that does and have made it my Wine of the Week.

Settecento33 Brut
Cantina di Soave 
DOC Lessini Durello
Veneto
Italy

I loved visiting the Cantina di Soave, they are the big cooperative producer in the area, but make some superb wines. 

There is nothing too fancy about how this wine is made, it’s just very technical, clean and precise and that is pretty much how the wine tastes. It is made from 100% Durella.

One of the beautiful buildings belonging to the Cantina di Soave.

Everything about it is clean and fresh. The nose is floral and citrussy while the palate is pure and lively with a bracing acidity that makes the wine lively and refreshing. It feels more taut and classic than most Prosecco which gives it a feel of elegance and finesse. This is a very attractive easy drinking and versatile sparkling wine. It makes a great aperitif, goes well with light dishes, pesto and tortellini with sage and butter – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10.00 per bottle from:
Oddbins.

So you see, Italian fizz does not have to be Prosecco!

Serious Rosé can still be fun

I enjoy drinking a good rosé and enjoy its versatility – a nice rosé is fun on its own and can often be an inspired choice with food, especially the sort of things that I eat in the Summer.

What’s more I get a little tired of people claiming not to like rosé – what’s not to like exactly? I also find it a trifle annoying that quite a few people are somewhat disparaging about rosés, ‘they’re neither one thing, or the other’ is a refrain that I often hear. That is right, they are not white wines, they are not red wines, but something different – that is the point!

However, much as I enjoy them, I hardly ever think of them as being complex or great wines. Every month in London I present tastings to a group of tasters who are really interested in wines and I love showing them different things that I find on my travels. Well recently, just to see what people thought, I put on a tasting of rosés that were a bit more serious, and potentially more complex than the normal examples that people buy.

I had put the tasting together over several months, based on wines that I found in all sorts of different places. They were all made using the skin contact method – meaning the colour comes from the skins of black grapes as with a red wine. I wondered about putting in something like a Sauvignon Blanc Rosé from South Africa or New Zealand as those are made from blending a little red wine into white to give the colour, but I couldn’t show everything.

The tasting went well and surprised a lot of the tasters, so I decided to share the best wines with you.

The wines

txomin-etxaniz-rosado.jpg2014 Txakolin Gorria
Txomín Etxaníz
PDO / DO Getariako Txakolina
País Vasco
Spain

Oh I do like Txakoli (or Txakolin they are not consistent with the naming). It is pronounced Chakoli and hails from the far north of Spain – you can read all about it in an article I wrote for Catavino. There are actually three Txakoli DOs and this wine comes from DO Getariako Txakolina, which is around the lovely fishing village of Getaria just 30km west of San Sebastian – which currently is my favourite place on earth! Txomín Etxaníz is widely considered to be the best producer of this beguiling wine. Formally established as a company in 1930, the family have been farming these hillsides and making wine since at least 1649.

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

Wine map of Spain showing DO Getariako Txakolina to the East of Bilbao – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

The beautiful bustling fishing village of Getaria, Txomín a just a couple of kilometres away on a hillside overlooking the village.

The beautiful bustling fishing village of Getaria. The streets are full of bars and fish restaurants, while Txomín are just a couple of kilometres away on a hillside overlooking the village.

This rosé – the Gorria on the label strangely means red in Basque – is a blend of the two most important grapes, 60% Hondarrabi Beltza – a black grape – and 40% Hondarrabi Zuri – a white grape.

This was the lightest of the rosés, but a firm favourite with some tasters. The colour was pale, with a light cherry, strawberry, rose petal hue. The nose was delicate and restrained with that pure, seashore, salty and mineral Txakoli thing. It is bright, fresh and thrilling with lots of ripe cherry acidity, the merest sprinkle of pepper and some softer riper strawberry fruit too. It is light as sea air, but the flavour is deep and wonderful, so the wine feels elegant and satisfying. Perfect sun drenched terrace drinking, with the merest hint of something not quite bone dry – 91/100 points.

Also remember the Txomín white Txakoli is just about the best example of the type that you can try, it is available from The Oxford Wine Company for £15 a bottle.

For UK stockist information contact Moreno wines.
For US stockist information click here.

IMG_6386s_-_2013_Bastardo_Rose_-_cropped_1024x10242013 Mazza Bastardo Rosé
Mazza Wine
GI Geographe
Western Australia

Bastardo is a little used and somewhat unloved grape variety from Portugal, but David Mazza has found a way to make a lovely wine from it, by making a rosé. David is one of my most exciting discoveries of the last year or so. He is a lovely guy who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, only grows Iberian grape varieties and makes superb wines – you can read more about him here.

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

Wine map of Western Australia, Mazza are to the south and east of Bunbury, roughly where the G, in Geographe, is – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

David Mazza showing me his wines at Berry Bros. & Rudd, London.

David Mazza showing me his wines at Berry Bros. & Rudd, London.

The nose offers rose petal aromas, some strawberries and cream notes, mineral earthy notes, some herbs and some pomegranate too.

The palate has lovely weight and a creamily ripe texture that caresses the palate with soft red fruit with an underlying orange acidity with red fruit highlights. There are some light spices and Mediterranean herbs too. The acidity is perfectly judged, making the wine fresh, lively and clean without being in the least bit tart.

There is a fair bite of tannin for a rosé, just enough to give some elegance and structure, and a long finish that delights with redcurrant and cranberry fruit. This is a really satisfying and fine rosé of exceptional quality, it is not exactly light weight, but neither it is it heavy, but it is refreshing and lively. A fine and complex rosé – 92/100.

Available in the UK from Berry Bros and Rudd for £17.50 per bottle.

majoli_coste_sesia_rosato_20132015 Majioli Rosato
Tenute Sella
PDO / DOC Coste della Sesia
Piemonte
Italy

Tenute Sella from northern Piemonte – Alpine Piemonte if you will – is still run by the family who founded it in 1671. They farm in the DOCs of Lessona, Bramaterra and Coste della Sesia and their buildings, cellars and vineyards are spectacular as you might imagine. They have a beautiful palazzo style building, while the Alps provide a stunning backdrop to the vines. Their main grape is Nebbiolo, but they have Vespolina, Croatina and Erbaluce too and make brilliant wines, including the best Nebbiolo rosé I have ever tried, so I put it in the tasting.

Wine map of Piemonte - click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

Wine map of Piemonte in my new cleaner style – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

P1160908

Tenute Sella.

This rosé is pure Nebbiolo and from 45 year old vines, old vines helps give depth and concentration to the wine. The vineyards are in the two ‘Cru’ appellations, Lessona (95%) and Bramaterra (5%), which is why the wine is labelled Coste della Sesia, as that is the wider area. The Bramaterra component is made by bleeding some juice off their red wine while it is fermenting. The Lessona component gets 36 hours cold soak pre fermentation to help extract flavours and complexity. The wine has malolactic fermentation and has a 6 month ageing on the lees in tank.

This has real Nebbiolo character on the nose, with earthy and rose petal notes, blood orange, cranberry and spice too. The palate is quite full, with some weight and intensity and texture – those lees? It is also very tasty with lots of rich red fruit, that twist of bitter orange, some spice and a good fresh acidity and minerality making it lively. This is a fine rosé – possibly my favourite on the night – and it would go with all manner of dishes from salads and fish to veal and pasta dishes – 92/100 points.

I would also point out that everything I have tasted from Tenute Sella is of very high quality.

Sadly right now there is no UK representation for Tenute Sella – come on wine trade, snap them up!
They are represented in the US by Rosenthal Wine Merchant / Mad Rose Group in New York.

chene-bleu-rose-1000x10002014 Chêne Bleu Rosé
Chêne Bleu, Domaine de la Verrière
PGI / Vin de Pays de Vaucluse
Rhône
France

I love showing wines from Chêne Bleu, because they are always so very good. It’s a beautiful estate in the rugged and isolated Mont Ventoux area just a few kilometres north of Gigondas and east of Séguret on the borders between the Côtes du Rhône and Ventoux. The whole project has been a labour of love for the owners Nicole and Xavier Rolet and I would recommend that you read the story in my post here. The estate is farmed organically and in conversion to biodynamic. The secret is the height, the vineyards – there are only 30 hectares of them, sit at between 550 and 630 metres above seal level – very high for Europe – where the hot Mediterranean air is cooler and the nights are distinctly cool, which makes the wines fresher than you would expect – so finer. On top of all that they hand harvest and sort the grapes meticulously – their attention to detail shows.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône - click for a larger view.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône – click for a larger view.

004

Nicole Rolet.

Their rosé is a classic southern Rhône blend of 65% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 5% Cinsault and it spent a very short time in oak barrels to add complexity.

The colour is lovely, not deep, not place, but bright and appealing. The nose offers some delicate spice, rich citrus and pungent red fruit, while the palate is pretty full, with rich soft red fruit, refreshing acidity, concentrated fruit, a light spicy oak character and a silky, textured mouthfeel. Again perfect as n aperitif or with any Mediterranean style meal – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £19 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar (online)
For US stockist information click here.

CB2013 Château Brown Rosé
Château Brown
Graves / Pessac-Léognan 
PDO / AOC Bordeaux
France

I visited Château Brown once, it is a star estate in the Graves region and always delivers great wines and value for money. It has a checkered history though and was going through a bad patch in the 1950s – in fact there were no vines then – which is why it is not a Grand Cru Classé de Graves. Since 2004 the estate has been run by Jean-Christophe Mau and the quality of the wines has improved dramatically. There are 29 hectares of vines on the famous gravel – Graves – soils and nowadays they use sustainable viticulture to ensure balance and biodiversity in the vineyard – so much so they even keep a colony of bees.

Bordeaux map QS 2011 watermark

Wine map of Bordeaux – Pessac-Léognan is just south of the city itself – click for a larger view.

P1050484

Jean-Christophe Mau at Château Brown.

They make lovely reds and a lot of their reputation has been built on their fine, rich, barrel aged white wines – both of these are AOC Pessac-Léognan. The rules of the appellation do not allow for rosés though, so this has to be labelled simply as AOC Bordeaux, but the quality is far higher than this relatively humble provenance would lead you to expect.

This rosé is a 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, hand harvested, de-stemmed and macerated on the skins for 4 hours, which gives the subtle and pale colour. After a cold fermentation the wine was aged for 4 months in second use oak barrels with some lees stirring for extra texture and complexity.

The colour is more peach than pink with redcurrant fruit notes and something nutty and mineral too. The palate is seductively textured and promises a great deal, but the wine has to be treated more seriously than rosé normal are, serve it lightly chilled rather than cold and open it in advance – perhaps even decant it, all things I found out by mistake as the wine really only started to show its form after everyone had gone home!

Available in the UK for around £33 a bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Chivite Colección 125 Rosado-sv-gl2011 Chivite Colección 125 Rosado
J. Chivite Family Estates
PDO / DO Navarra
Spain

All  my working life I have been fond of the wines of Navarra, there is great quality there and great value too. I never really understand why they are not more widely available in the UK. It is a beautiful place, full of passionate wine producers. Production is nothing like the scale of neighbouring Rioja, so it remains attractively rural and the producers are essentially farmers – read my piece here for an overview and here, here, here, here and here about specific producers.

Map of Navarra – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Map of Navarra – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

D. Julián Chivite López, the 11 th generation of his family to produce wine in Navarra.

D. Julián Chivite López, the 11 th generation of his family to produce wine in Navarra.

The Chivite family have been growing grapes and producing wine in Navarra since 1647 – which as I often joke to my students, is just before lunch in Spain! They are without doubt the most famous and leading estate in the region and are still owned by the founding family – indeed the current Julian Chivite is the 11th generation of the family to run it. They produce several ranges of wines, all good, even their more entry level Gran Fuedo wines from the warm deep south of Navarra. In recent years though they moved production of their top wines to their Finca Granja de Legardeta in the cooler Navarra Tierra Estella sub-zone – just a little bit south of Estella on the map. This area is influenced by the Atlantic and is pretty high too, so is cooler than further south, which gives a nice long ripening season to allow the grapes to develop complexity, while maintaining freshness.

The Coleccion 125 range – which are all superb – was originally created to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the original Chivite winery in Cintruénigo in the south of Navarra, but is now a separate range from their own family vineyards. This rosé is made from 100% Tempranillo grapes, aged for 12 months in French oak barrels with occasional lees stirring.

The colour is amazing, like wild salmon, while the nose is quite lifted with red fruit, smoke and spice. The palate is quite textured and rich with lots of ripe cherry, strawberry and spice and light tobacco, together with some rich orange character. The acidity keeps it all fresh and juicy, while there is a touch of tannin. A fine, rich, dry rosé that needs food – I would love to try it with suckling pig, but can assure you that it’s marvellous with paella – 92/100 points.

So you see, rosé wines can be fine, they can be complex and they can be serious and when they are they can be delightful and great fun to drink too. All of these were dry, although the Txakoli had a tiny touch of fruit sweetness which made it rather gorgeous actually, and on the whole would be better with food than without. The next time you cook Mediterranean style food, be it paella, tapas, meze, slow cooked lamb or some grilled fish – try one of these wines, or something similar, with it. I think you will enjoy the combination.

Alto Piemonte – Italy’s Hidden Treasure from Alpine Piemonte

The beautiful vineyards of Gattinara.

The dramatic vineyards of Gattinara.

When a wine lover thinks of Piemonte, or Piedmont, then the chances are that their very next thought is of Barolo. This small area of wine production south of Turin is capable of producing sublime red wines from the local Nebbiolo grape. They come at a price though. Barolo can be very expensive indeed and even the everyday examples are approaching £20 a bottle nowadays. That being said, those basic examples of Barolo are now generally much better than they used to be some ten or fifteen years ago.

Nearby the wines of Barbaresco, also made from Nebbiolo, can also be wonderful, and often much more charming than Barolo, but are often also very highly priced – and prized.

Wine map of Piemonte - click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

A glance at my map will show you the geography of Piemonte. Turin sits in an ampitheatre surrounded by the Alps that mark the frontiers to the south, west and north and so the flatter south eastern part of Piemonte is historically the most productive. Together the Langhe, where you will find Barolo and Barbaresco among other wines, and Monferrato, where many wines including Asti are produced, account for over 90% of Piemonte’s wine production.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas on Piemonte’s northern fringes, Alto Piemonte, were once very imporatnt. Many have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries, and could possibly be famous again.

I have recently returned from a fascinating trip to Piemonte, one that focussed solely on these more northerly and less well known wine areas. Not for us the well worn path to Barolo and Barbaresco and the rolling Langhe Hills. No, our little group of wine writers was whisked north of Turin to the very foot of the Alps. Here, over the course of several days, we visited vineyards and sampled the wines from twelve wine producing areas, only two of which were known to me beforehand. I even tasted a grape variety that I had never, ever heard of before – which is always an exciting experience.

Many different grape varieties are grown in Piemonte, but for the really famous reds, it is Nebbiolo that is considered to be the true aristocrat. Indeed together with Sangiovese it is traditionally regarded as one of the noble black grapes of Italy. The grape gets its name from the thick fogs – called Nebbia – that descend from the mountains in the late Autumn, just before harvest, and so causing ripening problems for this famously late ripening grape variety.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

Spanna – Nebbiolo in the North
Further north Nebbiolo is also widely grown, but in the past they often called the grape Spanna up there. Although it is Nebbiolo, it is a different clone of the grape and so gives subtly different results, a bit like Tempranillo and Tinto Fino. I remember seeing Spanna on wine labels in my very early days, but as far as I can see true Nebbiolo has either taken over in the areas where Spanna once ruled supreme, or is just treated as though it and Nebbiolo are completely the same. Certainly – again much as with Tinto Fino and Tempranillo – some growers told me that Spanna and Nebbiolo are identical, just different names for the same thing, while others were certain they were different. Whatever the case, I am sure that Nebbiolo is easier to sell than Spanna, just as Malbec is easier to sell than Cot and Tempranillo than Tino Fino.

Centuries ago this area was much more important than it is now, with the wines enjoying more fame than those of southern Piemonte, but all sorts of things changed that. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant high up than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades . The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they couldn’t pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north.

This was all new territory to me and it was tremendously exciting. We visited three districts, with Piemonte being the region. These districts had PDOs and also contained village level appellations – Crus in the same sense that Fleurie is a Cru of Beaujolais and Pouilly-Fuissé a Cru of Mâcon. The Italians producers themselves seem to only use the word Cru in the specific vineyard sense, as in the Grand Crus of Alsace.

Your author amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Your author making notes amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Coste delle Sesia
Our first visits were to the Coste delle Sesia. This DOC – or PDO – covers vineyards near the River Sesia in the Provinces of Vercelli and Biella. One white can be made from Erbaluce, a new grape for me, but from what I saw it was the reds that rule supreme here and these must contain at least 50% of Nebbiolo, Bonarda (Uva Rara), Vespolina, Croatina or Barbera.

I tasted a few excellent wines from this appellation, but the real excitement came from the examples that had a grape variety on the label too. I was very impressed by some of the Coste della Sesia Nebbiolo as well as the few examples of the deliciously spicy Coste della Sesia Vespolina that we got to try. As far as I can see, Vespolina is a very appealing grape that only grows arpound here and a little over the border in Lombardy.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, especially their Orbello red and Majoli rosé.
Pietro Cassina, especially his delicious Coste della Sesia Vespolina.
Travaglini, who really produce Gattinara, but who use their younger vines in an excellent Nebbiolo Coste della Sesia

The Communes of the Coste delle Sesia
Wholly contained within the Costa delle Sesia are three commune – or village – appellations, Cru if you like. Many of these had a very hard twentieth century and are desperately trying to come back from that near death experience. A mixture of Phyloxerra, follwed by mass migration to America and Argentina, wars, depressions and then the rise of the local textile industry – it was relief for the locals to earn a steady wage working in the textle factories after so much instability, so they lefy the land in droves – all took a toll and nearly killed off wine producing in these parts.

Climate wise the area benefits from being south facing, so good sun exposure and having a long growing season, just what Nebbiolo needs. There are also big night time temperature drops which helps retain acidity and finesse in the grapes, as does the cool air that descends from the Alps, tempering the summer heat.

P1160908

The beautiful vineyards at Tenute Sella.

Lessona DOC is a tiny PDO which only makes red wines and as far as I can see deserves to be better known. Fundamentally they are made from Nebbiolo – 85% minimum, but a little Vespolina and the wonderfully named Uva Rara is permitted. The wines must be aged before release for a minimum of 22 months, 12 in wood, usually big old 3000 litre wooden foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riserva wines are aged for at least  46 months, 30 of which are in wood.

Once upon a time the area had hundreds of hectares under vine. Now most of those have returned to forest and by the mid 1990s there were only 6.5 hectares of grapes left, but a modest rennaisence is underway and there are now somewhere around 23 hectares with a few new producers just getting started as well, which bodes well for the future.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, this producer’s top wines are all from this PDO. With a history going back to 1671, Sella has long been the commune’s beating heart and the wines are very impressive.
Pietro Cassina is a new producer, but his previous profession as an architect seems to have given him an eye for detail that ensures his wines are very good indeed.
La Badina, especially their Lessona Riserva 2010.

Massimo Clerico, my new favourite drinking buddy makes very good wines that age pretty well – his 2005 is perfectly mature.
Proprietà Sperino, an exciting producer created by Paolo De Marchi whose father founded the Isole & Olena estate in Chianti Classico.

Bramatera DOC is another miniscule PDO that makes good Nebbiolo – or Spanna – wines. Again they are oftem blends with a maximum of 30% Croatina, 20% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina.

The wines must be aged for a minimum of 22 months, 18 in wood, again normally foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riservas are aged for at least 34 months, 24 of which are in wood.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, I know it’s repetitive, but they make very good wines and have vineyards in three different PDO areas.

Looking down on gattinara from

Looking down on gattinara from the vineyards.

Gattinara DOCG is perhaps the most famous of all the PDOs in the northern part of Piemonte. Once upon a time it was more highly praised than Barolo. Indeed it was famous before Barolo had even decided to make the wines as we know them today. I saw old photographs which showed the hills to the north of Gattinara town to be completely covered in vineyards. This was only in 1906 – just four years before my aunt was born – but today just 60 hectares remain.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi - my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn't open one.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi – my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn’t open one.

In Gattinara it’s normal, and traditional, to soften the potentially hard edged Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 10% Uva Rara and 4% Vespolina. The wines have to be aged for at least 35 months, 24 of which are in wood. Riserva wines receive at least 47 months, of which 35 are in wood and sometimes a proprtion are aged in barrique – 225 litre barrels. Like a good few of the PDOs around here, Gattinara has some volcanic soils in the mix which can often boost acidity and produce elegant wines.

Our little group hard at work.

Our little group hard at work.

From what I experienced, the quality here is very high. I was hugely impressed by the wines that I tasted, they had real class, elegance, finesse, whatever you want to call it, but they were very good wines indeed.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi's vineyards.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi’s vineyards.

Recommended producers: Nervi, the oldest producer in the area is now under new ownership and appears to be in fine fettle. I loved their wines, which seemed to have the merest touch of modernity to them. The whole range was first rate including their standard Gattinara, but the Valferana and Molsino Cru wines from specific vineyard sites were maginificent – only a tiny proportion of the very best parcels of the Crus are bottled seperately, the rest is blended in to their Gattinara. I also greatly enjoyed their traditional method pink sparkling Nebbiolo called Jefferson 1787 and really regret not buying a bottle now.

It was particularly fascinating to taste the 2013 Molsino Cru from 4 different wooden vats, Austrian oak, Slavonian (Croatian) oak, Swiss oak and Vosges oak from Alsace. The same wine went into the 3000 litre wooden vats, but 4 entirely different wines came out, which got me seriously wondering about terroir! For me the Slavonian oak was the clear winner, as it really tamed Nebbiolo’s firm tannins.

Finally a decent sized bottle - being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder's great grand-daughter.

Finally a decent sized bottle – being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder’s great grand-daughter.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Travaglini is not quite as old as Nervi, it was founded in the 1920s, but is still run by the original family and appears to be more traditional and, I thought, sees itself as the keeper of the flame of Gattinara. Whether that is true or not, I loved their wines which are all produced from their own fruit grown on the slopes of Gattinara. Real passion came through into the glass and the whole range shone. The standard Gattinaras are very fine, while the Riserva really thrilled me. Travaglini chose not to bottle the Crus seperately, but to blend them all together as they believe that gives the best expression of the region.

I also fell for their white sparkling Nebbiolo. Named Nebolé Brut, they have only made one vintage so far, but it was voted best sparkling in Italy last year by a Sommelier’s association – not a bad start. The wine was pure and mineral and fine and sadly we drank the last bottle. I would also recommend the salami they make that is flavoured with their Gattinara, it is delicious.

Colline Novaresi
East of the Sesia River is the Colline Novaresi – Hills of Novara – which does a similar job to the Coste delle Sesia in the west. Again the white wines must be 100% Erbaluce with the reds made from a minimum of 50% Nebbiolo, Barbera, Vespolina, Croatina or Bonarda.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Villa Horta Vespolina and Abate di Cluny.

There are four commune PDOs here; Boca DOC, Sizzano DOC, Fara DOC and Ghemme DOCG. Sadly I only have experience of Ghemme, but the others are so tiny in terms of production that it would be very unusual to find them in the outside world, indeed, I didn’t even get to try them there!

Our little group in Ghemme.

Our little group in Ghemme.

Ghemme DOCG is yet another miniscule PDO of just 60-65 hectares. The wines must be at least 85% Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 15% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina. The standard wine must be aged for at least 34 months, 18 in wood, while the Riservas must be aged for at least 46 months, with 24 in wood.

At around 400 metres above sea level, the vineyards are the highest on this side of the Sesia River, while the soils are very mixed, but are not volcanic, so the wines can feel a little fatter than in Gattinara.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Ghemme and Collis Breclemæ Cru Ghemme.
Torraccia del Piantavigna, make a wide range of wines, but it their standard Ghemme that shone out for me, although their Gattinara was pretty good too.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

Carema DOC
Our last Nebbiolo visit was to Carema, a place I had heard of and I had even tried the wines, but never visited before. It is an astonishing place, right on the border with the Valle d’Aosta, that tiny Italian region sandwiched between France and Switzerland. We are truly Alpine here, indeeed the landscape reminded me of Switzerland’s vineyards to some degree.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

It only makes red wines in the DOC and they are made from pure Nebbiolo. Standard wines have to be aged for a minimum of 24 months before release, 12 of which are in very large oak or chestnut barrels, while Riservas have to be aged for at least 36 months, again 12 in wood. These times have been seriously reduced recently, which I suspect has done the wines no end of good. I found the oak to be well integrated and the tannins very well controlled.

The place is extraordinary however you slice it. The vines grow at between 300 and 600 metres above sea level, making them amongst the highest in Europe. There are only 16 hectares grown – roughly 32 acres – and bear in mind that in my mid 1990s copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson MW states that there were then 60 hectares, then a lot have been lost very recently.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

What’s more, 14 of those 16 hectares are controlled by the excellent local cooperative, Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, which has 78 members, so each holding is miniscule as well as being almost perpendicular. The only other producer – yes only two companies make this wine – is Ferrando Vini.

In the past there were many more vineyards, but such back breaking work doesn’t appeal to younger generations, and hasn’t for decades, so people have left the area for an easier lifestyle. However I am willing to bet that the wines have never been better. I tasted the co-op’s Carema Classico, black label and their Riserva, white label, and I was seriously impressed. The wines were lighter perhaps than the other Nebbiolo wines that I tasted on the trip, but they were at least as complex as the Gattinaras and had great concentration of fruit as well as silky tannins. Like the wonderful wines of from Etna DOC in Sicily, I believe these are worthy of DOCG status.

Alpine Piemonte
All in all it was an excellent trip and really fascinating to discover a part of this hidden corner of Italy. The quality of the wines was very high and the passion and commitment of the producers was very clear. They struggle though, as they don’t have the simple clear message of success that their colleagues in the Langhe enjoy. In many ways, with the possible exception of Gattinara – which has a little fame, they have no clear message to make their wines accessable to the outside world. We had a round table conference about this and I tried to help. I came up with the phrase Alpine Piemonte, which I think does give a clear message, certainly more than Alto Piemonte. As long as you know what Piemonte is and know what Alpine is, then surely it’s clear? I would be willing to let them use the slogan for some fair renumeration, a holiday home in Carema perhaps?

Anyway, I urge you to try the wines, I think you will be surprised and excited by their quality and often by the value they represent as well. We visited a few other wine districts too and tasted some really interesting white and sparkling wines that I will write about another day.

Stockist information for the UK:
Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Ferrando Vini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Travaglini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Nervi are imported into the UK by
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

Stockist information for the US:
For Tenute Sella stockists click here.
For Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema stockists click here.
For Travaglini stockists click here.
For Nervi stockists click here.
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

Wine of the Week 61 – an affordable classic

I am not often one to encourage people buy the cheaper examples of classic wines. As a rule I believe that you need to pay a proper price for the true classics. This is because budget wines are often a pale imitation of what they out to be. Sub £12 Sancerre or Chablis are normally pretty dilute things, all tart acidity and no real character. Cheaper Châteauneuf-du-Pape in no way prepares you for the joys of the real thing. Entry level (under £10) Gewürztraminer lacks true concentration and depth and so on. This is understandable, these wines are really fairly expensive to grow and make and so if there is a cheaper version then it is usually made to a price.

Of course there are exceptions and I am delighted to have found one just the other day. Rather excitingly it is a Barbaresco from Piemonte in north west Italy. These wines, made from the Nebbiolo grape like its near Neighbour Barolo, are often among Italy’s most expensive and sought after, so to find a great value example that is actually rather good is quite something.

The wine is made by the wonderful Araldica cooperative who make a wide range of well made Piemontese wines – I love their La Battistina Gavi for example – and never seem to put a foot wrong. Certainly this Barbaresco is a delicious example that gives a very real idea of what these wines are about, at a good price so I made it my Wine of the Week.

The beautiful Piemontese landscape.

The beautiful Piemontese landscape.

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

Map showing the wines of Piemonte, click on map for a larger view.

Barbaresco2011 Corsini Barbaresco
Barbaresco DOCg
Araldica Vini Piemontesi
Piemonte
Italy

This is 100% Nebbiolo, made from quite old vines – which give greater depth and concentration – grown at between 180 and 400 metres above sea level. The grapes were hand harvested and fermented in stainless steel vats. It was then aged for 18 months in large oak vats.

The colour is typical Nebbiolo in that it is translucent and red with an orange / bricky rim. The nose is lifted and vibrant with smoky spicy notes mingling with rich cherry and plum together with some rose floral notes and light touches of leather and savoury mushroom and truffle.

The palate is smooth and seductive with lots of tannin, but it ripe and smooth rather than astringent. There is plenty of deep red fruit together with spice and rich truffles, smoke, flowers and a dusting of mocha from the oak ageing. The finish is long and satisfying with those tannins giving some nice firm structure, while the high acid – typical of the grape and Italian red wines in general – make it perfect with Italian style food.

A lovely, drinkable introduction to Nebbiolo, this is well made and refined, with a fresh, clean and vibrant feel – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar and Ocado for £11.99 per bottle. Other stockists can be seen here.

Like most wines made from Nebbiolo grapes, this is a deeply savoury wine that really needs to be enjoyed with food. It would be excellent with steak, roast or braised beef, rich risottos and mushroom and truffle dishes. Give it a try if you can, and let us know what you think.

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.

 

A Greek Original – Naoussa & Xinomavro

Naoussa vineyards.

Naoussa vineyards.

As some of you will know I visited Greece last year to tour some of that country’s amazing northern wine regions. I have written about some of the highlights already in my articles about Rapsani and the amazing Mount Athos, but I thought that I should tell you all about some of the wines made from Greece’s star northern black grape – Xinomavro.

My favourite road sign photographed in Macedonia in 2012.

My favourite road sign – photographed in Macedonia in 2012.

Do, please remember to click on all the links…starting with this one about my Greek wine tasting in London perhaps?

This part of Greece is where some of their truly classic wines originate and I was fortunate enough to experience a wide range of them last year and to visit many of the really exciting producers in this beautiful part of the world.

Xinomavro (pronounced K-see-NOH-mah-vroh) is the signature grape of Macedonia and makes some of Greece’s finest red wines. Agiorgitiko (pronounced Ay-yor-yitiko) from Nemea region in the Peloponnese is arguably Greece’s other really important black grape and I think they should both be a more widely grown. Indeed in my opinion both could well have a future as international grape varieties – as should Spain’s Tempranillo and Italy’s Aglianico.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

Xinomavro is grown across the north of Greece and is the only grape permitted in the mono-grape wine region appellations / PDOs of Goumenissa, Amynteo and most importantly Naoussa. It is Naoussa (pronounced Now-sir) that is considered to be the finest of all the regions up here and to have the greatest potential for even more future greatness. The others must not be ignored, but it is easy to see why this particular place has earned such a high reputation.

How it used to be done -

How it used to be done – the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa in the mid 1950s.

How it's done now - the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa in 2012.

How it’s done now – the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa in 2012.

Kostis Dalamaras - the 5th generation of his family to farm here.

Kostis Dalamaras – the 5th generation of his family to farm at the Dalamára Winery. He now makes beautifully supple and elegant modern wines from organically grown grapes.

As you might suspect the area has a long history of wine production, so much so that the artist Cousinery wrote in 1831: “The wine of Naousa is to Macedonia what Burgundy wine is to France. I am in a position to say that the wine of Naousa is the best in the Ottoman Empire .” In truth though I would be willing to bet that with a few exceptions we would barely recognise the wines made around here before the Second World War. Phylloxera hit this part of the world very late, so when it did arrive in the 1930s it was just one of the many problems to be coped with – world wide recession and world war followed closely by civil war must have seemed like more urgent horrors. So it was not until the tourist boom of the 1960s that the region began to be properly replanted and new wineries built – interestingly the timing is identical to the blossoming of California and Spanish wines, which just goes to show that all wine needs to develop is a long period of peace and relative prosperity.

What makes Xinomavro stand out from the crowd is its potential for elegance. The wines it makes, especially in Naoussa, can be very fine indeed. The whole place is basically a south facing slope, sheltered so the extremes of climate that other parts of Macedonia are subject to are somewhat tempered here – and it shows. What’s more the sun exposure balances the grapes variety’s natural high acidity very well indeed.

Some people like to compare Xinomavro to Pinot Noir and in terms of colour and tannin that contrast gives you a pretty good idea of what it is like. If I have to compare it to anything though, and it does make things easier if you have never tried one, then I think Nebbiolo might be a better bet. True it is less tannic, but everything else is bang on, body (not that full, whatever the books may say) and acidity, more improtantly it has red fruit characters and a similar deeply savoury, umami nature.

Delicious traditional nibbles at the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa.

Delicious traditional nibbles at the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa.

While Pinot always makes think of red cherry and raspberries, I see from my notes that Xinomavro for me is often very tomato-like in flavour and aroma. Sometimes the tomato feels fresh, other times more sun-dried or cooked and even occasionally just tomato stalk, but it is always there and makes the wines go superbly with the wonderful local cuisine.

My favourite Naoussa wines so far:

Tsantali's Naoussa vineyards.

Tsantali’s Naoussa vineyards.

tsantali naousa reserve1997 Tsantali Naousa Reserve
Tsantali
PDO Naousa
Originally from Thrace, the Tsantali company created their Naoussa estate and winery in 1970. is one of Greece’s major producers of wines – and spirits. In my opinion their quality is pretty high, whether you are just drinking one of their straightforward everyday wines or indulging in something a little more special.
40% fermented in small open fermentors and hand plunged four times daily and 60% in stainless steal tanks. 12 months in French oak, just 10% of which is new.
A little tawny and earthy red, but the colour is still quite vibrant.
The nose was smoky with prunes and concentrated cooked tomato notes.
Loads of sweet deep dried fruit and ready vanilla and caramel, some spice and raisins and prunes. Very elegant, and joyous the tannins dry the finish and the acidity just sits in the background. Superbly balanced and stunning. The finish is fresh and lively still with studs of rich sweet, smoky bacon, tomato and savoury meaty characters.
Amazingly long and intense and the finish is really smooth. A great wine that is ageing very slowly – 92/100 points.

As far as I am aware the Tsantali Naousa Reserve is not available in the UK at the present, but their tasty and excellent value non-reserve Naousa is available from Wine Rack at £7.49 a bottle.
Tsantali wines are available in the US via Fantis Foods Inc.

Yiannis Boutaris, charismatic owner of KIR-YIANNI evangelist for Greek wine and the 5th generation of his family to make wine, but the first to adopt a true estate method of production.

Stelios Boutaris, charismatic winemaker and owner of KIR-YIANNI evangelist for Greek wine and the 5th generation of his family to make wine, but the first to embrace a true ‘estate’ concept.

The beautiful

The beautiful Ktima (Domaine) Kir-Yianni.

VdP_red_RAMNISTA1997 Kir-Yianni Ramnista Estate Naoussa
Ktima (Domaine) Kir-Yianni
PDO Naousa
The Boutari family have been a key part of the development of Greek wine. In many ways it was their negociant company that put Naoussa and Santorini on the wine map as quality regions and that family firm continues to this day, but Yianni Boutari, Stelios’s father branched out on his own to create this estate in 1997. When he was a negociant all the grape growers had respectfully referred to him as “Mister Yianni” or Kir-Yianni in Greek. The grapes are from selected vineyard blocks on their Yianakohori vineyard and the wine spends 12 months in a mix of 225 and 500 litre oak barrels.
Deep earthy savoury aromas mingle with black treacle and leather notes together with an underlying mix of cherry and sun-dried tomatoes.
Lovely integrated palate of wild raspberry and leather, tomato and earthy minerality. High in acid, but very soft, with smooth fine smoky tannins and tomato stem flavours. Lovely texture and tension between the freshness and richness. The finish is slightly drying, but has great balance and real finesse – 93/100 points.

Kir-Yianni wines are available in the UK through London General Trading.
Kir-Yianni wines are available in the US through different companies listed here.

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Ktima Chrisohoou.

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The delightfully hospitable Keimis & Betty Chrisohoou.

xinomavro_big2001 Chrisohoou Naoussa
Ktima Chrisohoou
PDO Naousa
The Chrisohoous are delightful people and their beautiful winery includes a fabulous museum of local culture and wine together with an amazing restaurant. Our little group were the only guests the night I was there and we were treated to course after course of stunning food – do go if you are anywhere near. The family have made wine since the 1940s, but they were basically negociants until 1978 when they started specialising in estate bottled Naoussas. They still make an enormous array of different wines, but the Naoussas are where the quality is. They are aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.
Earthy red with a kiss of orange pink in the rim too.
Delightfully vibrant nose, with red cherry and leaf mulch forest floor sort of aromas.
Plenty of soft fruit, red raspberry and deep cherry on the palate. Lovely almost creamy texture with some spice and oak characters like toffee and coffee and the acidity provides a balancing touch of freshness.
The most Pinot Noir like Xinomavro I tasted on the trip, beautifully balanced and ageing very very slowly – 92/100 points.

in his vineyard.

Kostis Dalamaras in his vineyard.

Kostis Dalamaras amongst his vines.

Kostis Dalamaras amongst his vines.

Feeding time at Dalamara - they are inseparable pals!

Feeding time at Dalamara – they really are inseparable pals!

11592008 Paliokalias Naoussa
Dalamara Winery
PDO Naousa
Kostis Dalamaras farms his vineyards organically and seems to really love this land that his family have tended since 1840. The place is small, homely and teeming with cats. It reeks of tradition, but there is nothing old-fashioned about Kostis’s wines, they really are exquisite and very Burgundian in feel. His Paliokalias is a lieu-dit and is a remarkable wine made from 80 years old vines and is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.
The nose was very Burgundy-like here, earthy and savoury, while the palate was a beautifully poised and elegant wine with gorgeous balance between the fruit and gently spicy oak. Lots of red berries and plums gave way to sun-dried tomatoes and then a twist of tapenade for good measure – 91/100 points.

Naoussa vineyards.

Naoussa vineyards.

Young Vines2011 Thymiopoulos Young Vine Naoussa
Domaine Thymiopoulos
PDO Naousa
31 year old Apostolos Thymiopoulos is great winemaker and like Kostis Dalamaras is a rising star of Naoussa. He doesn’t make much, so his top wines are hard to track down – in the UK anyway. Luckily the same problem does not exist for this wine made from the younger vines on the estate and vinified using only the wild yeast and 30% is aged for 3 months in a mixture of 225 litre, 300 litre & 500 litre oak barrels – both of these give more complexity.
This could well be the best wine to try first, if you have never tasted a Naoussa. It is gloriously bright and seductive, bursting with cherry and raspberry fruit with fresh acidity and attractively chalky light tannins. Fresh tomato and tomato stalk characters provide the savoury notes to balance the sweetness of the red fruit. A lovely user-friendly wine that goes with all manner of lighter dishes and tastes good lightly chilled too, if you like good Gamay, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo or Barbera this is the wine for you – 89/100 points, it scores especially high marks for value.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.50 a bottle.
Available in the US from K&L Wines for $14 a bottle.

But wait, there’s more: Alpha Estate – Amynteo
So, if wines in the Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir mould are your thing then you have a wonderful new region to explore in Naoussa. Excitingly though there is even more for you to discover. It isn’t in Naoussa, but no article about Xinomavro would be complete without a mention of the Alpha Estate.

Angelos Latridis the charismatic and winemaker and owner of the Alpha Estate.

Angelos Latridis the evangelistic winemaker and owner of the Alpha Estate.

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The Alpha Estate.

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Alpha Estate vineyards, note the sandy soil.

The Alpha Estate was the brainchild of Angelos Latrides and Makis Mavridis who saw great potential in the underused Amynteo region. It is higher and cooler than Naoussa with more rain in the winter, but enjoys hot summers, which are tempered by the nearby lakes and excellent sun exposure. In addition the sandy soil is protection against phylloxera and because of that there are pockets of very old vines in the region.

Old Xinomavro vine in sandy soil - more than 80 years old.

Old Xinomavro vine – more than 80 years old – in sandy soil at the Alpha Estate.

Alpha Estate is an exciting wine producer, it has the feeling of being cutting edge and experimental and as a consequence they grow lots of different grape varieties, including Syrah, Merlot, Negro Amaro and Barbera, but the signature grape for them is ungrafted Xinomavro and they make several different examples, all of which are very, very good, even the more affordable Hedgehog label. It seemed to me that the hallmark was freshness and terrific integration in their wines and it was interesting that they use oak with almost no toast at all.

59113-xynomavro-reserve-old-vines-400x7002006 Alpha Estate Old Vine Xinomavro
Alpha Estate
PDO Amynteo
Medium to deep black cherry colour with deep black cherry aromas together with freshly cooked tomato aromas, dried cherry, cherry stone, herbs and molasses. The palate has a lovely succulent texture with fantastic freshness and gentle opulence. The fruit is the thing right now with bright tomato and cherry and cooked tomato dominating the underlying dryness and austerity. Real freshness, elegance and finesse, but very very drinkable too and no sign of leather or ageing yet – 92/100 points.

Alpha Estate wines are available in the UK through Novum Wines.
Alpha Estate wines are available in the US through Diamond Importers Inc.

I do hope all this has whetted your appetite to go and try some Xinomavro from Naoussa or Amynteo. There is a wonderful array of quality Greek wines just waiting for intrepid wine drinkers to discover. What appeals to me is that they are classic European wines, but with new and different flavour profiles, so both familiar in many ways, but also exciting and different.

Go on, try some and let let us all know what you made of them.