Happy Christmas to you all

2019 draws to a close and a new future for the United kingdom beckons, one that I feel no optimism for at all. We are promised ‘sunny uplands’ and a ‘new golden age’ outside of the EU. I do not believe these promises as they have no basis in logic and ignore the reasons why we joined in the first place, but desperately hope that I am wrong. It all makes me terribly sad for my country and fearful for the future.

In the meantime I will take solace in wine. In some ways 2019 has been a good year, Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page was voted Wine Blog of the Year and I managed to visit some fascinating places, meet many wonderful people and try some really good wines. There is a lot of good wine on the market, but sadly it isn’t always easy to buy the good stuff. You often have to wade through a sea of mediocrity to find it, which I suppose is my job!

Here are a few ideas for wines to enjoy over the holiday period and beyond, I hope that you like them:

Sparkling wines:

Arthur Metz’s vineyards in Alsace – photo courtesy of the winery.

2017 Crémant d’Alsace
Alsace
France

Non Champagne sparkling wine is so underrated in the UK – unless it’s Prosecco – which is very sad as there are some terrific fizzes made using the traditional method, the same process used to make Champagne sparkling. Some of them are really good value too, so they can be enjoyed everyday and not just saved for celebrations. Most wine regions in France produce good quality sparkling and call it Crémant. If you see that word on the label you know that it is made using the traditional method and, more importantly, aged on the lees, for at least 9 months, to develop complexity. We call this ageing ‘yeast autolysis’ and the biscuit, brioche, flaky pastry characters that it produces ‘autolytic’.

Wine Map of France – click for a larger view.

This wine, made by Arthur Metz (part of Grand Chais de France) is a blend of 63% Auxerrois (grown in Alsace and Luxembourg this is a similar grape to Pinot Blanc but has lower acid – they are often blended together and marketed as Pinot Blanc), 25% Pinot Gris, 8% Pinot Blanc and 4% Riesling. It is bright, fresh and fruity with some peach, apricot, apple and citrus notes and flavours as well as some almonds, spice and toasty characters. A softness, ripeness and creamy richness balances the freshness and makes it hugely enjoyable  – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK at £8.29 per bottle from Aldi.

Kleine Zalze Méthode Cap Classique Chardonnay-Pinot Noir Brut
Stellenbosch
South Africa

South Africa, specifically the Western cape, has a long tradition of making high quality sparkling wine. So much so that they have their own term for the traditional method, they call it the Méthode Cap Classique – or MCC for short. It is a blend of 60% Chardonnay grown in cool areas of Robertson and 40% Pinot Noir grown near the False Bay coast in Stellenbosch and aged for ten months on the lees.

Wine map South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view.

There is a real sense of tension and elegance in this wine. There is lovely fruit, stone fruit, baked apple, crisp apple and even a little strawberry and raspberry peaking through. All this is enhanced by some biscuit and pastry notes a dollop of cream and balanced by refreshing, zingy acidity and a brisk mousse  – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £16.00 per bottle from Cheers Wine Merchants, Amps Wine Merchants and Ministry of Drinks.

White wines:

Wine map of Slovenia – click for a larger view.

2018 Tilia Estate Pinot Gris
Vipava Valley
Slovenia

Almost anyone who knows me would say that I really do not like Pinot Gris. I find most Pinot Grigio to be on the bland side and the great majority of Alsace Pinot Gris to be lacking in freshness, so by and large avoid the grape. This version though is made by my good friend Matjaž Lemut in the beautiful Vipava Valley in western Slovenia and I love it.

Matjaž Lemut in his vineyards in the Vipava Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler © Quentin Sadler 2019

 

Matjaž is a great winemaker, a great character and a real force of nature and this wine could be considered his calling card. Lees ageing and stirring for four months gives the wine a creamy richness and complexity that can be surprising. The wine has lovely brightness and freshness too and so the overall effect is to be really well balanced and very, very drinkable indeed  –  91/100 points.

A delicious, mid weight, versatile wine that is lovely on its own and very good with a wide array of food, even creamy dishes.

Available in the UK at £10.50 per bottle from Solaris Wines.

Matjaž is really a Pinot Noir specialist, one of the very best in Slovenia, and Solaris Wines carry the whole range. They are quite a muscular style with rich fruit, but really good wines.

2018 La Penombre Blanc
IGP/Vin de Pays d’Oc
France

I love the whites from the Languedoc-Roussillon-Roussillon region, but they often get overlooked in favour of the reds. Good as the reds from here are, I think the whites deserve far more attention and respect – after all they are often made from some very exciting grape varieties. This blend is no exception and consists of 40% Grenache Blanc with some Terret, Bourett, Vermintino, Rousanne and Marsanne. It is picked in the early evening, hence the name La Penombre, which means twilight, and is unoaked.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

The wine is very fresh, with a sense of purity about it – it is actually made in Pinet, just not from Picpoul – there are pine, herb and lemon scents with a dry, savoury, herbal (rosemary) salty and gently apricot flavours on the palate together with a silky texture and a touch of salinity and minerality as well as a slight bitter nutty quality on the finish  – 90/100 points.

A perfect aperitif and equally good with seafood and lighter fish dishes – I enjoyed it with smoked salmon and potted .

Available in the UK at £11.99 per bottle from Virgin Wines.

Vineyards in Valais showing the amazing dry stone walls, some of the highest in the world.

2012 Petite Arvine
Domaine Jean Rene Germanier
Valais, Switzerland

A family estate since 1896 and now managed by the third and fourth generation – Jean-René Germanier and his nephew, Gilles Besse. Gilles was originally a jazz saxophonist, but is also a trained wine maker. Germanier farm sustainably and produce a range of beautifully made, elegant wines. Petite Arvine is one of my favourite white grapes and it is only grown in south west Switzerland and a little bit over the border in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta region.

Wine map of Switzerland – click for a larger view. Do not use without permission.

I love the way the brightness and richness mingle on the palate. The way the stone fruit and the citrus fruit balance each other, how the salty minerality keeps the richness in check and the way the silky texture flows across the palate. This wine is superb and totally beguiling in its beauty – 94/100 points.

This is wonderful with poultry, salmon and of course cheese, whether raw or served in a fondue.

Available in the UK at £35.00 per bottle from Alpine Wines.

Red wines:

The wonderful walled city of Carcassonne – rescued form oblivion and restored on orders of Napoleon III – photo by Quentin Sadler © Quentin Sadler 2019.

2018 Carcassonne
IGP/Vin de Pays Cité de Carcassonne
France

I know almost nothing about this wine except that it comes from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region from vineyards just to the south of the glorious medieval walled city of Carcassonne. The wines from this inland part of the Languedoc-Roussillon often get overlooked, Cabardés is near by and is a source of seriously good reds but we hardly ever see the wines in the UK – there is one here, but on this showing they really shouldn’t be. Apparently it is made from Carignan grapes and seems unoaked to me.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

This wine triumphs in two way, firstly it is astonishingly smooth, suave even and the palate is so fruity that it delivers a huge amount of pleasure making it incredibly easy to drink. It’s fresh and fleshy and medium-bodies with lots of red fruit and supple texture with very little tannin.  There’s a touch of spice too and it is far, far finer than its modest price tag would lead you to expect. All in all it makes a splendid every day wine  – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK at £4.49 per bottle from Aldi.

Here’s one that I have written about before, but is is such a beautiful wine that would go so well with all sorts of food at Christmas that it deserves another airing!

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

2017 Casa Silva Romano Viñedo Original 
DO  Valle de Colchagua
Viña Casa Silva
Chile

Casa Silva is one of the great wine estates of the Colchagua Valley. They were originally a French family of grape growers who came to Chile in 1892 and have been growing grapes there ever since. However the family vineyards became divided up with multiple owners and it was not until the 1970s that Mario Silva pieced the estate together again and they have been bottling and labelling their own wines since 1997. They are based in Angostura where their beautiful original homestead is now a hotel and well worth a visit. The land around the house is their initial plantings with vineyards going back to 1912. This is where they have some fabulous speciality grapes including old vine Carmenère, Sauvignon Gris and this Romano. All of these are ungrafted, so grow on their own roots. This helps the vines to live longer and old vines produce smaller crops and smaller berries that have more concentrated flavours. Old vines also ripen with less sugar, so produce wines with lower alcohol, which makes for better balance and more elegance.

This is made from an obscure grape called Romano, more usually called César. There isn’t much César left in the world and most of that grows northwest of Dijon in Burgundy, where it is principally used to make up to 10% of the blend, together with Pinot Noir, in the wines of Irancy.

Vines at Casa Silva.

The harvest was done by hand with a further manual selection of grapes at the sorting table before the grapes were de-stemmed – stalks can give harsh tannins. There is a pre-fermentation cold soak, a cold fermentation in stainless steel followed by a further maceration on the skins. Half the wine was aged in stainless steel and half in second use French oak barrels. This older oak means that the wine is not overly oaky in taste, but has the softening that ageing in barrels gives as the oxygen gets to the wine through the wood, making it rounder and richer.

The wine looks very appealing with a deep and bright ruby colour. The nose is full of rich red fruits like strawberry, cherry, a hint of raspberry, black pepper and a delicate mushroomy/earthy savoury note. The palate is smooth, round and mouth filling with rich ripe red fruit, smooth, supple tannins and some lovely freshness too. There is plenty of beautiful, concentrated fruit, but good structure and that attractive earthy, savoury quality. This will appeal to Pinot Noir drinkers – and Syrah and Grenache drinkers too – in my opinion, as well as anyone who wants a really flavourful, suave and supple red wine that is full-flavoured and medium bodied. It really is a gorgeous wine – 93/100 points

This is a very versatile wine too. It is mellow enough to be enjoyable without food, has enough freshness to go with pizzas and pastas, has enough elegance and structure to partner haute cuisine and enough richness to go with cheese and enough pizzazz to go with burgers, chilli con carne or shepherd’s pie and to keep everyone happy. Great with turkey, either hot or cold, and lovely with a pork or game pie too.

Available in the UK at around £15.00 per bottle from Duncan Murray Fine Wines – Market Harborough, Staintons – Lake District, Guildford Wine CoBottle Shops – Cardiff, Penarth, Field & Fawcett – York, Naked Grape – Alresford, Hants, Palmers Wine Store – Dorset, The Vineking – Reigate, East Molesey, Weybridge and the Oxford Wine Company.

2016 Caliterra Edición Limitada ‘B’
DO Valle de Colchagua
Caliterra
Chile

Under the leadership of chief winemaker Rodrigo Zamorano, Caliterra has developed into one of the most exciting wineries in Colchagua – if not Chile. They produce excellent, actually downright delicious, and great value examples of all the famous varietals, but Rodrigo loves to play around with the grapes that he grows and is producing an ever evolving range of premium wines that have something new and exciting to say. At the heart of this range is the three Edición Limitada wines – ‘A’ is for Andean and is a blend of Malbec and Carmenère, ‘M’ is for Mediterranean and the wine is a blend of Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Marsanne, while ‘B’ is for Bordeaux, so this wine is a blend of 41% Petit Verdot, 38% Cabernet Franc and 21% Cabernet Sauvignon. 62% was fermented in stainless steel tanks and 38% in third use barrels. The wine was aged for 18 months in French and American oak barrels – 48% new.

Rodrigo Zamorano in the vineyards at Caliterra – photo courtesy of the winery.

This is a beautiful and very different wine from the Casa Silva Romano. This is powerful and weighty with great concentration of vibrant, lifted fruit. It’s very aromatic and very restrained and elegant, despite the richness. There are herbal and tobacco aromas as well as some black pepper and cassis, blueberry and cherry fruit. Headily delicious now this will age very well over the next decade. This will appeal to Claret lovers, but also has more fruit than most wines from Bordeaux – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £16.00 per bottle from Drink Finder, Edencroft Fine Wines and The Dorset Wine Company.

So there you are, a few recommendations to seek out and try, I think you will enjoy them.

Whatever you are drinking this Christmas, try and keep it interesting and celebrate the great diversity of wine.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

Wine Without Borders – travels in Slovenia & Friuli

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

Recently I was invited on a trip called Wines Without Borders. It was organised by my friend Paul Balke and we visited the wine regions of Colli Orientali, Collio and Friuli Isonzo in north eastern Italy and Brda, Vipava Valley and Koper in Slovenia.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

Sketch map of the wine regions of Friuli and Western Slovenia. Border changes are also shown.

The whole focus was that the modern borders of the area bear no relation to reality and are merely lines on a map that ignore the peoples and cultures that straddle them. I was aware that the Slovenian people are to be found on both sides of the frontier, although the ones in Italy are often outwardly Italian and speak Italian, at least to foreigners.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Most of what we now call Slovenia was for centuries part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and much of Slovenia remains very Austro-Germanic. Ljubljana, the delightful capital city – called Laibach in imperial times – was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1895 and was rebuilt in an Austrian style, so resembles parts of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Most menus offer dumplings, schnitzel and cream cakes, while the inns and coffee houses often resemble those of Vienna. What’s more that great Austrian icon, the Lipizzaner Horse – of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School fame – has been bred at the Lipica Stud Farm in western Slovenia for over 400 years.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran looking out to sea.

Piran main Square.

Piran Tartini Square was originally an inner harbour, boat trips leave from Piran for Venice every day.

Some of the western parts of Slovenia also have Italian influence, the coastal towns were all originally Venetian and rather charmingly still look it – Piran is one of the loveliest and most elegant seaside towns that I have ever visited. Even today people in these coastal zones often speak Italian, pasta is on every menu and the ice cream is as splendid as that in Italy itself.

As for Friuli in that north eastern corner of Italy, all of it together with Veneto had been in the old Austrian Empire until 1866. Right up until 1914 the border was a little further west than it is now. Trieste was Austria’s principal port – it still has an Austrian / Mitteleuropean feel – and further to the west Trentino-Atlo Adige (Südtirol) was still Austrian, infact the border cut through Lake Garda.

The First World War changed everything here. The Isonzo Front went right through the frontier zone between Italy and Austria, basically following the line of the river and the mountains, and the brutal fighting in these mountains was as hard as anything seen in Flanders. At the end of the war the Italians had seized Trentino-Alto Adige and the mixed Slovene / Italian city of Trieste. Both are still part of Italy today, while the western regions of what is now Slovenia – including the Istrian Peninsula – only remained Italian from 1919 before being handing over to Yugoslavia in 1947 before being inherited by Slovenia and Croatia in 1991.

After the Second World War Slovenia was a Republic within Tito’s Yugoslavia, and although the country was relatively liberal and outward looking by Eastern European standards – Yugoslavia was never part of the Warsaw Pact – the border was still strongly guarded.

This gave winemakers all sorts of problems as the border was drawn in such a way that it often cuts through vineyards, so many growers found themselves growing grapes in both Italy and Yugoslavia.

Nowadays of course both Italy and Slovenia are members of the EU, so the border is open and there are umpteen unguarded crossing points. Back then there were many fewer frontier posts and it was all more rigorously controlled, with growers having to drive hours out of their way in order to be able to tend grapes that grew only yards from their home. Anti Europeans often forget many of the good things that have come about because of the EU.

The border situation is most dramatic in Brda, which is arguably the most important wine region in Western Slovenia, it is certainly the most famous. Brda means hills in Slovenian and is simply a part of Italy’s Collio region that was detached when the border was fixed in 1947 – Collio means hills in Italian.

As you might expect they grow much the same grapes at the Italians grow in Collio and nearby Colli Orientali, although the names are not always the same:

Italian Name Slovenian name
Ribolla / Ribolla Gialla Rebula
Malvasia Malvazija
Refosco Refošk
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio Sivi Pinot
Friulano (formerly known as Tokaj) Sauvignonasse / Jakot (Tokaj backwards)
Pinot Noir / Pinot Negro Modri Pinot
Pinot Blanc / Pinot Bianco Beli Pinot

Of course they also use the classic international grapes like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and have done for centuries. Interestingly Cabernet Franc often appears on labels here, and indeed it is grown, but the grape actually used is very often Carmenère. Just as in Collio it is very hard to generalise about the wines as such a wide range of grape varieties and blends is used, but this does for make for very exciting variety.

Brda
Traditionaly this region is known as Goriška Brda after the local capital of Gorizia, which was awarded to Italy in 1947, so Tito’s regime built the replacement town of Nova Gorica right on the border. Strictly speaking Brda is a sub-region, or district, of the Primorje wine region. This means by the sea and the whole place enjoys a broadly Mediterranean climate. The sheer range of wines produced in Brda is quite bewildering, especially when you realise that the estates are all pretty small, normally between 4 and 20 hectares in size, many with vineyards on both sides of the border.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

The beautiful vineyards of Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

Looking north from Brda.

The general quality is very high indeed, even from the local cooperative which is the largest producer in Slovenia. Most of the producers though are boutique wineries using organic techniques and low sulphur in their wines. I was very impressed by Mavrič (a superb Jacot and Sivi Pinot), Iaquin (whose production is tiny but who own a couple of very attractive looking guest houses), Čarga (whose Rebula is superb, as is their Cabernet Franc which is actually 75% Carmenère) and Ščurek whose blends – both red and white – were great wines.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

The view from the Belica Hotel. The building in the middle distance on the right is Movia. In the middle of the photo is a white building with a small road in front of it. That road marks the frontier.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

Wonderful home made sausage drying at the Belica Hotel, they make superb ham and cheese too.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

The lovely and popular terrace of the Belica Hotel in Brda.

We also visited Movia, which is one of the star wineries of the country. The quality is very high and the wines are very exciting. I have been before, but this was a very different visit, so will write about it separately. We were also treated to a tasting of the wines of Marjan Simčič, who is a great winemaker who made some of the best wines that I tried on the trip. I have met him before and tasted his wines several times and they never cease to thrill me – I will write about him very soon too.

The other sub-regions of Primorje are: Koper, named for the beautiful town of the same name, this covers the coastal area and is the warmest and sunniest part of Slovenia. This coastal region – along with Kras – is where you find most of the Slovenian Refošk or Refosco. Just as with Malvasia, there appear to be several different Refoscos, which may or may not be related to each other – strangely it seems that the grape is also the Mondeuse Noire used in France’s Savoie Region. The low yielding Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso is the variant most commonly used in Friuli and is named for its red stems. Slovenia by and large uses the higher yielding Refosco dal Pedunculo Verde, which has green stems. Either of them might or might not be Teran when grown on Terra Rossa soils, or Teran might be a separate strain, sources disagree and I have not been able to find a definitive answer. Refosco has high acid and high tannins, so can appear somewhat rustic to the unwary palate. Modern winemaking can get around this and I have tasted some delicious examples from both Italy and Slovenia, I would particularly recommend the Refosco from Tenuta di Blasig in Friuli, the Refošk from Santomas in Koper and the Organic Refošk from the Polič Estate between Koper and the Croatian border.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia's tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Looking towards the city of Koper and Slovenia’s tiny 46.6 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline.

Sparkling pink Refosk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

Sparkling pink Refošk aperitif at Viña Koper with Ann Samuelsen.

The Kras, or Karst, is a limestone plateau just inland from Trieste, it is riddled with cave systems and underground rivers and gives its name to this sort of landscape worldwide. A visit to the Postojna Caves is an incredible experience and one not to be missed. Henry Moore described them as ‘the best exhibition of nature’s sculpture I have ever seen’. Lipica Stud Farm is another attraction worth visiting in this area.

The soils here are iron rich red terra rossa and that iron minerality often finds its way in to the wines. The climate here is harsh and variable, storms are frequent and winds powerful, but the wines can be very rewarding. The beloved local speciality is Teran, which is a type of Refosco, as far as I can discover it is probably a local variant of the Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (although it might not be) and as you might expect it is also produced in the neighbouring Italian Carso DOC. We did not visit any wineries in Kras on this trip, but I have been very impressed by the wines from Čotar in the past, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon and their Terra Rossa red blend of Teran, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Vipava Valley is a beautiful place just inland from the Kras and Koper. Strong winds rip through here, tempering the conditions and making a sub-Mediterranean climate and allowing them to make some stunning light and fresh white wines and some very elegant reds, including some made from the Barbera grape more commonly associated with Piemonte in north western Italy.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

The beautiful Vipava Valley.

Vineyards in Vipava.

Vineyards in Vipava.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

More beautiful Vipava scenery.

One of my very best experiences on this trip was a wonderful tasting and lunch in Vipava with a handful of generous and passionate wine makers who showed us some thrilling wines. The quality impressed me enormously, especially the wines from Sutor, Tilia Estate, Posestvo Burja (an organic producer that still makes the field blends that were the traditional style of the area until WW11), Lepa Vida (whose oOo is one of the most enjoyable Orange wines that I have ever tasted) and Guerrila who produce stunning white wines made from the local Zelen and Pinela grapes, as well as very toothsome red blends.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

Looking down on the Isonzo River and across to the north west.

In Italy we visited the Isonzo area, which is basically an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and ocean breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene). I was very impressed by all the wines of Tenuta di Blasig and some of the Pinot Grigios that I tasted. It is very unusual for me to like Pinot Grigio, but they just seem to have so much more character and interest here than the bland examples that most people drink in the UK. I particularly enjoyed the Pinot Grigio from Masùt da Rive.

Vineyards of Collio.

Vineyards of Collio.

Our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Some of our little group in a vineyard in Collio.

Collio, or Collio Goriziano, is historically the same region as neighbouring Brda before the 1947 border split them up and the words mean the same things – hills. As you might expect both sides of the frontier are very hilly, but in a very attractive, gently rolling kind of way – it really is a delightful landscape. Just as in Brda the range of grape varieties and wines made from them is enormous, from both single varietals and blends, but production favours whites more than reds. Ribolla Gialla and Friulano might well be the signature grapes here, but both Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco are produced, as are Malvasia, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Cooking the polenta in Collio.

Cooking the polenta at the Osteria de la Subida near Cormons in Collio.

The polenta is ready.

The polenta is ready.

I have never really warmed to Friulano, I have always considered it a very odd grape, it is certainly hard to pin down. Long known in Italy as Tocai or Tocai Friulano, it was likewise called Tokaj in Slovenia, but it has nothing to do with the Hungarian Tokaj at all. It is actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, which was widely planted in Chile where it was believed to be Sauvignon Blanc – it isn’t. Well you will be pleased to know that on this trip I did warm to the Friulano grape and had some splendid examples in every region that we visited, but perhaps my favourite was a single vineyard wine made by Raccaro, their Friulano Vigna del Rolat. I also greatly enjoyd the wines of Carlo di Pradis and Borgo del Tiglio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

Amphora like this are increasingly being used as fermentation vessels for orange wines in Collio.

We returned to Collio a few days later to stay in a place called San Floriano del Collio, which though in Italy had a view of our first hotel just 3 or 4 kilometres away in Slovenia. Whilst here we visited Oslavia a village a kilometre or 2 further south and it was a fascinating day. Firstly it was a very beautiful place, secondly all the ‘Italians’ that I met spoke Slovenian and thirdly the wines were fascinating. I must admit that I even found the name Oslavia interesting, surely that means place of the west Slavs? If so how amazing that it is about as west as Slavs can be found even today. The focus for this part of the trip was the local speciality of Ribolla Gialla, although we tasted other wines too. Ribolla is said to get its name from the fact that historically the wines were not very stable and would re-ferment, so bubble away and look as though they were reboiling. The grape is not very aromatic and can seem a bit strange when you first taste it, but there are some superb wines made from it.

Most of the wines that we tasted here were Orange wines, white wines made with long skin contact – hence the orange colour – they were also organic and often biodynamic and low sulphur too. I have to be honest, wines like that are not often for me, I usually find them more interesting than drinkable, but I did try a few here that were both. Fiegl’s wines impressed me, but these are the only ones here that were not Orange at all and instead had freshness and purity. The others were about the complexity of long skin contact and barrel ageing on the lees, sometimes for years. I was very impressed by Primosic, whose 2010 Klin was my wine of the day. Radikon also made an excellent Ribolla, which is officially a wine with no sulphur, as the amounts are so low they cannot be measured – I have never seen that before. I also liked their Slatnik blend of Chardonnay and Friulano. Dario Prinčič also makes a fascinatingly complex Orange style Ribolla.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Vineyards in Colli Orientali.

Colli Orientali was an interesting place to visit too, if hard to get a handle on. It is a big place with lots going on. Lots of grape varieties and lots of blends are produced here too. Historically it has been seen as more prestigious than Collio and the wines were certainly more visible in the UK than those of Collio. One reason might be that this is often said to be the birthplace of varietal labelling, soon after World War 11, so the labels were easier to understand, who knows? Again this is mainly a white wine region, or at least the wines that have made it famous and prosperous tend to be white, but plenty of red is made too. Dry white wine production is dominated by Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and the local Verduzzo, the best of which now has its own DOCg Ramandolo. Picolit, another local grape variety, is used to make light sweetish wines.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Looking north from Colli Orientali.

Although plenty of famous black grapes are grown and red wine is made, the speciality red is Schioppettino. This grape variety was rescued from near extinction only in the 1980s and is enjoying something of a modest renaissance, which is good as the wines seem to be very good, with a lovely rich fruity quality, smooth texture and delicate spice characters.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

Looking west from Colli Orientali.

We visited the rather lovely Azienda Agricola Moschioni where we were able to taste a wide range of local wines produced by them and other local wineries. I was very taken with the wines of Bastianich, particularly their Friulanos, white blend and incredibly concentrated Calabrone red blend. Rodaro‘s Schiopottino Romain made from dried, overripe grapes and aged 18 month in barrel was a delight, as was their intense Refosco dal Peduncolo Rossa Romain. I was also really impressed by the concentrated and spicy Moschioni Shioppettino.

P1120788

Looking down on the Isonzo from Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino. Some of the fiercest fighting of WW1 took place in this terrain.

A Wonderful Corner of Europe
I loved this trip to this wonderful part of the world that is somewhat neglected by tourists, certainly ones from the UK. I loved the countryside, I loved the people, their food, their wines and their spirit of hospitality. I even got the chance to clamber about in some of the First World War trenches high on Mount Sabotin / Monte Sabotino where some of the fiercest fighting took place between the Austro-Hungarians and the Italians. Ethnic Italians and ethnic Slovenes fought on both sides and today share this landscape in a peaceful, productive and creative way. So many things are better today, I just cross my fingers and hope that Europe does not revert back to the destructive ways of nationalism and formal borders. We all suffer if we do that. People suffer, our culture suffers, our pleasures diminish and wine will be the poorer.

I like my Wines Without Borders.

Wine of the Week 63 – marvellous Malvasia

P1120634

Friuli Isonzo with the mountains to the north.

Earlier this year I was invited on a fascinating wine trip. It was entitled Wines Without Borders and was a study tour of vineyards around the Italian-Slovenian border areas. The premise was that the frontier is entirely artificial and manmade and that many of the same traditions of winemaking straddle that post World War Two border.

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

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

Both sides of the border tend to use the same grape varieties, Ribolla, Refosco, Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio and Friulano (formerly known as Tokaj) as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, it was the Malvasia that especially drew my attention on the Italian side of the frontier.

I am often drawn to white wines made from the Malvasia grape. However you spell it Malvasia, Malvazia, Malvazija or even Malmsey the wines can often be very exciting indeed. Spain produces some lovely examples, especially whites from Toro and Arribes in Castilla y León as well as from the Canary Islands. Malvasia can often ad more complexity and depth to Rioja’s Viura grape to make a finer style of white Rioja  try this stunning example made from 100% Malvasia.

Vineyards in Collio, north of Isonzo.

Vineyards in Collio, north of Isonzo.

Actually there are many different types of Malvasia and not all grape varieties that are called Malvasia are actually related – indeed Malvoisie in France’s Loire Valley is actually Pinot Gris. In many ways Malvasia can be seen as a sort of portmanteau word allowing early merchants to lump together good quality white grapes of the Mediterranean world – a bit like Pineau (which then possibly became Pinot) was for good quality grapes in Mediaeval France.

On this trip the particular strain that we encountered was Malvasia Istriana or Istrska Malvazija in Slovenian – the same grape is used in Istrian Croatia as well, where it is called Malvazija Istarska.

Several examples were excellent, but the one that really stuck in my mind was the Malvasia from the beautiful Tenuta di Blasig, so I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Contessa

Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli talking about her beloved Malvasia.

Malvasia bottle2013 Malvasia Vermegliano
Tenuta di Blasig
DOC Friuli Isonzo
Ronchi dei Legionari, Fruili-Venezia-Giulia, Italy

Tenuta di Blasig was founded by Domenico Blasig in 1788 with the aim of making fine Malvasia wine. Although they grow other grapes and make one of my favourite Refocus, Malvasia remains the focus. The charming Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli is the eighth generation of the family to manage the estate and she seems to do a vey good job, producing wines of elegance and depth. They farm 18 hectares, but the vineyards are spread out and often found surrounded by suburban buildings – Trieste Airport is very close indeed and the winery is right next to the town hall. The region is basically an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and ocean breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene).

I was always drawn to the town name, Ronchi dei Legionari, assuming that it harked back to Roman times. Sadly this is not the case. In fact the name was originally Ronchi Monfalcone and was only changed in 1925 to commemorate the fact that nationalist, war hero, poet and proto fascist, Gabriele D’Annunzio‘s legionnaires set off from here in 1919 to seize the port of Fiume / Rijeka (now in Croatia) from the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, soon to be called Yugoslavia. D’Annunzio wanted Fiume to be part of Italy, as was the rest of Istria at the time. His occupation of the city lasted for 16 months and made him a national hero. D’Annunzio was a friend of the Blasig family and actually stayed in the house before sailing to Fiume and a whole wall near the kitchen is covered in amazing photographs of D’Annunzio and his men.

The house is utterly beautiful and I can quite see why D’Annunzio stayed there. It is an old Palazzo with wonderful wall paintings, decorative tiles and stunning gardens. We tasted and dined in the newer part attached to the winery, but saw some of the old house after dinner.

All the wines were excellent, including a deliciously rich and savoury Refosco and their Elisabetta Brut, a lithe, refreshing tank method sparkling wine made from Malvasia and Pinot Bianco, but the standout was this dry, still Malvasia which is a single vineyard wine from the nearby village of Vermegliano. It is cold fermented in stainless steel and aged on the lees for 6 months.

The nose is fresh, but not that aromatic with melon and floral blossom notes. There are also little glimpses of orange nuts and a saline note.
The palate is medium-bodied and slightly fleshy with a little succulence and almond and toffee and a little salty minerality too, like a fine Chablis.

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

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

If Malvasia was more available and tasted like this more often, then I think it would be a much more popular grape variety. Try this, if you can find it, or similar Malvasias with some grilled fish and salad. For some reason Tenuta di Blasig wines are very hard to find, although the Refosco at least is available in the US, click here.

 

Wine of the Week 55 – a delicious and great value white Burgundy

If you are after a white wine with weight, succulence or viscosity as well as elegance and freshness, then white Burgundy might well be the style for you. Certainly no where else quite gets that balance between richness and acidity so right. The only problem is that most good white Burgundy nowadays is eye waveringly expensive, so I am always on the look out for great value examples.

Not long ago I was fortunate enough to taste a white Burgundy that I found really exciting and that did not overstretch the budget too much, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Burgundy of course is one of the really great wine regions in the world, right up there with Bordeaux and Champagne. To wine beginners Burgundy – or Bourgogne to give it its proper French name – can appear very complicated and unsettling. There appears to be a lot to learn and I can well understand that many people give up and return to wines whose labels and names seem easier to understand. However, it is worth persevering as the wines of Burgundy can be sublime.

Vineyards around the southern Côte de Nuits.

Vineyards around the southern Côte de Nuits.

The names on the labels are simply the place where the grape is from, some come from anywhere with the region and are labelled as Bourgogne, while others come from a specific district – such as Mâcon – or from a particular village – such as Meursault. If you are interested you could do worse than read my piece all about Burgundy by clicking here.

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

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

CdN-V2011 Côte de Nuits-Villages Blanc
Domaine Désertaux-Ferrand
A.C. Côte de Nuits-Villages, Burgundy, France

This tidy little estate really captures the spirit of French wine to perfection. Family owned and family run since 1899, the Désertaux family tend most of their wines around their winery in the sleepy village of Corgoloin. This is right on the border between the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune and, like nearby Comblanchien, it has no appellation of its own, but instead sells the wines as Côtes de Nuits-Villages. The Côte de Nuits is overwhelmingly red wine territory and white Côte de Nuits-Villages are rare, indeed the Désertaux family were the first people to actually sell one. The estate was founded in 1899, but sold their wines to a negociant until 1965, so the label did not exist before that date. Until recently they just farmed the 12 hectares around the winery, but have added to that in recent years with parcels in Beaune 1er Cru, Pommard, Meursault 1er Cru and Ladoix. The family also have some charming gîtes, so think of them the next time you are looking for somewhere to stay in Burgundy.

We are so often lazily told that all white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay that many people are astonished to discover that actually a fair amount of the wines also contain some Pinot Blanc – and even sometimes some Pinot Gris (or Pinot Beurot as it is known locally). That is exactly the case here though, 20% old vine Pinot Blanc lends a succulence to this wine that it would otherwise lack, while the 80% Chardonnay supplies the backbone of acidity and minerality. One third of the wine was barrel fermented and briefly aged in in new oak barrels, the rest had a cold fermentation in stainless shell tanks.

Everything about this wine works nicely. The aromas are very gently nutty and creamy together with a dash of citrus. The palate has a touch of seductive richness, some light cream, nuts and vanilla, while the texture is succulent and really caresses your palate. There is plenty of fruit too, white peach, nectarine and melon vie with each other, while the acidity has a touch of lemon about it as well as a little apricot zing. The freshness of acidity and minerality (read my piece about minerality here) keeps the wine focussed, pure and refreshing. The finish is long and elegant and the balance between richness and freshness is very good indeed – 88 points.

I think this wine is a terrific white Burgundy and would serve it with some classy fish, grilled sole if I could, or a fish pie perhaps. It would also work well with pork or chicken and would be an excellent partner to softish cheeses.

Available in the UK for around £14 a bottle from 3D Wines.
Available in the US for around $25 a bottle from K&L Wines.

 

Wine of the Week 24 – tasting País without Prejudice

The world is full of delicious wines and fascinating wines. They aren’t always the same ones mind you, but when they are that is when the real fun starts. Chile is quite rightly seen as a source of lovely everyday drinking wines as well as increasingly a finer wine producing country too. Chile’s producers are also starting to fashion good wines from a wider and wider range of interesting grapes. The days of Chilean wine only being made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are well and truly over.

It is now possible to get world class Chilean Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Roussanne amongst many other interesting grape varieties.

However, wine had already been made in Chile for hundreds of years before the use of international grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, made Chilean wines more visible on the world market. Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, Chilean farmers were growing grapes and making wines for local consumption. Mostly this was from a grape that has long been called the ‘common black grape’ and until recently we had no idea what it was, but research has now shown it to be the Palomino Negro / Listan Prieto which now pretty much only grows in the Canary Islands.

Eventually this mutated into the País grape and for two or three hundred years País was, along with Moscatel, the work horse grape of Chile. Eventually it was supplanted, for quality wines, by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to an invisible rural existence. In the main País has soldiered on in the more remote areas where the vineyards are smaller in scale and owned by peasant farmers who do not have the resources to follow modern trends.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torres originally arrived in Chile like a whirlwind, breathing new life into the wine industry there in the late 1970s. He brought modern winemaking techniques with him and for 35 years Chilean wine has been mainly modern and cutting edge. In recent years though I have been fascinated to see some producers beginning to hark back to older techniques and times past.

The wonderful De Martino for instance are fermenting some of their wines in huge earthenware vats called tinajas, much as rural Spanish producers did in the past.

Chile Map watermarked

Torres Chile is based in Curicó, rather closer to this rural idyll than some of the other big names of Chilean wine, so they seem to have paid attention to the growers there as well as those further south in Maule. For these farmers it is very hard to make a decent living as they cannot afford to replant their vineyards with the new grapes the market demands. Instead they are left with old vine, dry farmed País like their ancestors used to make the local wine. Miguel Torres Chile saw it as a challenge to turn this into an opportunity rather than a problem. They helped to make sure the grapes were well grown and the vines healthy, they ensured the viticulture was all organic – relatively straightforward in Chile’s dry climate – then they needed to turn those grapes into a great product that would ensure the growers made a decent living. Although the project is run by a large and successful company, it is a fair trade project, so there is something cooperative-like about it and what’s more they use sustainable viticulture – so what’s not to like.

It really is a wonderful and virtuous concept and much in keeping with the ethos I heard whilst spending a week with Miguel Torres a couple of years ago. The first wine they made from these País grapes was a pink sparkler called Santa Digna Estelado Rosé and it really is a great product – try it if you get a chance.

Now they have also made a red wine from these amazing vines and the second vintage of it is my Wine of the Week:

Pais2013 Reserva Del Pueblo País
Miguel Torres Chile
Curicó, Chile
Named for the old village wines, or everyday wines of the pueblos of Chile’s past this is a rare – but not unique – pure País wine and as such gives us a glimpse into Chile’s vinous past. Only a glimpse though as this is beautifully made. 40% of the wine is fermented by carbonic maceration, which tames País’s rustic drying tannins without tipping it over into bubblegum characters.
The colour is verging on deep purple, while the nose is an enticing mix of cooked blackberry, plums, cassis and fragrant herbs.
The palate is immediate and juicy with fresh acidity, deep, sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit that feels fresh and lively, together with a little firmness from the tannins. I had no idea what to expect from this wine at all, but it really is delicious and slips down rather easily. This has something of Beaujolais and rustic Pinot Noir about it, but is more richly fruity and I found it best slightly chilled. It goes with pretty much anything and nothing – 89/100 points. Marked high for the sheer pleasure it gives.

Available in the UK at £7.50 from The Wine Society.
Miguel Torres Chile wines are distributed in the US by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

País is not often a grape that springs to mind when you are trying to decide what to drink, but trust me, this is a deliciously drinkable wine and a real bargain too.

A Terrific Visit Close to Home

Stopham Vineyard - this lovely tree graces their label.

Stopham Vineyard – this lovely tree graces their label.

A Terrific Visit

What a day I had last week. In the evening I led a wine tasting of some of the really interesting, surprising and downright fabulous wines that I had discovered on my travels over the last 12 months – or so.

2012 was an incredible year for travel for me and 2013 is looking pretty good too, so I am constantly having wonderful new experiences – sometimes visiting regions or countries that are completely new to me or seeing new producers and winemakers in areas that I have visited in the past.

Such trips push my knowledge and understanding forward and keep my passion for wine – and telling you all about it – alive.

So, it might astonish you to know that my most recent trip was to – Sussex.

One of the wines that I wanted to show was from Stopham Vineyards near Pulborough in West Sussex and as the wine is hard to find in the shops I dropped in to see Simon at the winery. It is a lovely part of the world on a nice day and the sun made the whole trip feel like being somewhere exotic and exciting. And of course I was somewhere exciting.

I have mentioned Stopham Vineyards before when I tasted the 2010 vintage of the Pinot Gris and the Pinot Blanc, but this time I had the 2011 Pinot Gris – I have yet to taste the 2011 Pinot Blanc. If you want to try it, hunt the wine down quickly as it has almost sold out everywhere and there they made nothing at all in 2012, so you will have to cross your fingers and wait for the 2013 – if there is any.

The vineyard sloping down towards the South Downs.

The vineyard sloping down towards the South Downs.

I must say if you are feeling stressed and oppressed it is a good idea to visit an English vineyard. It must be so hard growing grapes in England, even if you have a lovely south facing, sandy and well drained slope as they do at Stopham. Nature does not mean grapes to ripen easily here – it is a matter of coaxing and hoping and lots of hard work in the vineyard and even then you can lose an entire crop. I am pretty sure that I would be under serious medication by now if that had happened to me, but Simon Woodhead – the chief winemaker and viticulturist – is one of the most upbeat jolly people I have ever met. He is also one of the most interesting and dedicated winemakers I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Despite everything our climate has thrown at him, he told me that there is nothing else he would rather do.

Simon Woodhead - a great winemaker and seemingly happy man.

Simon Woodhead – a great winemaker and seemingly happy man.

Strolling around his vineyard with him was a delight. Seeing it through his eyes was really a wonderful experience. To see where all the hard work goes on and to hear how he does it was a privilege. Because I know that his wines are amongst the very best produced in this country. I haven’t tasted them all so will not put it any higher than that, but I have not tasted a still white wine from England that was better.

Simon in front of one of his large tanks with one of his carbon dioxide sensors that allows him to ferment his delicate white wines at 6-8˚C - he did explain it to me, but I don't seem to have really understood it!

Simon in front of one of his large tanks with one of his carbon dioxide sensors that allows him to ferment his delicate white wines at 6-8˚C – he did explain it to me, but I don’t seem to have really understood it!

I showed the Pinot Gris at Hextable Wine Society that evening and was thrilled that pretty much the whole room agreed with me that this was a terrific wine, delicious, aromatic, dry and a joy to drink:

StrophamPG2011 Stopham Pinot Gris
This is a delicate Pinot Gris, not like Alsace – and not like Pinot Grigio either, there is nothing bland about this. The aromatics are wonderfully fragrant and exotic with a touch of herbs about it too – there is a little Bacchus in this wine as well as Pinot Gris. The palate is light and fresh with a lively acidity that dances across your tongue leaving mandarin and apricot flavours – indeed the whole thing is bursting with flavour – 91/100 points.

I am utterly thrilled by this wine as it shows that we can make wines as good as anyone. What’s more they do not have to be hybrid grapes and we can bring our own unique take to a grape variety that is widely grown elsewhere. Do try and find a bottle if you can, it is well worth the effort.

Another way to try it of course is to have a tour of the vineyard. You will get to meet Simon, listen to how he selected the site, how they planted the vineyard and how they make their wines. He kept some bottles back so that you will be able to try his wines without hunting down a stockist or waiting for the 2013 crop – go on and tell him I sent you.