In praise of sparkling wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

brut_hd1Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
Donnafugata, Sicily, Italy
This fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of my trip last year and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees, a beautiful label too – 89/100 points.

WC_SparklingWine_PD5_ePhilippe Michel Crémant de Jura Brut
Jura, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardscrabble & Feasts in the Douro

The Americans have a genius for words that describe exactly what they mean, so that you can understand it even if you have never heard it before.

Hardscrabble is just such a word and means that the land is so difficult to farm and so poor in nutrients that all you can do is to scratch a subsistence living. I first came across the expression at Linden Vineyards, where Jim Law had bought an abandoned “hardscrabble” farm and turned it into one of Virginia’s most exciting wineries. The place was so steep and stoney that Jim even named the vineyard and the wines produced from it “hardscrabble”.

Rugged, unforgiving vineyards are very often the best place for wine grape growing though, as they force the vine to work hard at surviving and so produce a small crop of tiny grapes with concentrated flavours and depth. In fact land like that, steep, stoney, inhospitable, inaccessible and harsh is perfect for wine grapes, but almost useless for any other marketable crop, which is why so many of these places have become famous as vineyard regions. These hard landscapes tend to be a feature of European wine making more than anywhere else and seem to be most frequently found in the Mediterranean world. RoussillonCinque Terre, Santorini, Pantelleria, Rapsani and Priorat could all be regarded as “hardscrabble” wine regions.

Portugal and Galicia do not actually have Mediterranean coasts, but surely they are culturally part of that world too, so I would add the astonishing Ribera Sacra to that list and perhaps the most wild and romantic wine landscape of them all – Portugal’s Douro Valley.

P1070099

The Douro – vineyards and cruise ship.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

P1070110

The terraces soften the landscape and look very appealing.

The Douro is the 3rd longest river in Iberia, after the Tagus and the Ebro. In Spain – where it is called the Duero – it flows through Castilla y León, home to Ribera del Duero and Toro. The countryside here is beautiful, but not rugged or particularly harsh, that comes later once we are within sight of Portugal.  Arribes (del Duero) – where the river marks the frontier – is where the dramatic landscapes start, from here to Vila Nova de Gaia, near Porto, major centres of population are scarce and the wild, rugged, steep, hardscrabble hillsides dominate. In Portugal’s Douro Valley these slopes are home to the vineyards that create Port wines and the still / table wines of  D.O.C. Douro.

The Douro is one of the world’s great wine regions, but I had never managed to visit the place for myself until just the other week as a guest of the Discover the Origin campaign. What I saw fascinated me and educated me about the wines from this beautiful place.

P1070101

New terraces side by side with rubbed out vineyards.

The region is renowned today for the rich, sweet, fortified Ports, but of course it wasn’t always like that. In the middle ages – and before – this valley made normal wine, probably quite ordinary stuff as far as we can make out from the sparse records. It is even possible that the first wines known as Ports to the outside world were more akin to red Vinho Verde – light-bodied, low in alcohol and very acidic. We certainly know that even though Cromwell favoured them these wines did not catch on with English consumers until the early eighteenth century.

In those days the spirit was only added as the wine was being shipped, this was to protect it from turning bad on the voyage, so that ‘Port’ would most certainly have been dry – as long as the alcoholic fermentation was complete. It seems that until well into the 1820s there was no set time to add the spirit and no set amount of spirit either, so wines labelled Port could have varied enormously from dry red wines to something like the Port we know today. From what I have read it would appear that adding the spirit before the fermentation was complete – and creating a sweet wine – was not universal practice until the 1850s.

Even then not everyone approved, the influential Joseph James Forrester – created Baron Forrester in 1855 in recognition of his important work in mapping the Douro wine region – was campaigning against fortification and trying to persuade Port makers to return to making normal, but high quality, red wines.

Looking at the vineyards it really struck me just how much Port some people must drink! I like Port, very much but just cannot drink very much of it and yet, looking at the vast expanse of vineyards, someone must drink it all. Looking at those intensively planted slopes it is astonishing that is took so long for table wine production to catch on here. It was not until 1952 that a serious attempt was made to produce a fine red table wine from the region, the legendary Barca Velha made by Ferreira. It was slow to catch on at first, but gained in reputation until eventually the tide turned and more and more growers started making table wines in the Douro region. Finally in 1979 the Douro Denominacão de Origem Controlada / D.O.C. was created for the dry, still / table wines of the region – Port had already had its production zone defined by charter in 1756, making it probably the earliest such official wine region in the world.

Even today though the wines of this valley remain less famous than Port, which is a shame because many of the wines that I tasted were really good, but then so were the Ports themselves.

I have often wondered why the ‘Port’ region is so far away from the city whose name it takes. Well the reason is simple, near the coast the weather is wetter and more humid, so the grapes are grown further East and inland where they are sheltered from the Atlantic rains and winds by the Marão and Montemuro mountains. This gives the Douro a more continental climate with extremely hot summers and harsh winters – there are some pockets of a Mediterranean climate too the closer you get to the Spanish border.

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

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

Baixo Corgo – the original area where it all began. This westernmost subregion is wetter than the others and is widely regarded as most suitable for the production of the simpler Ruby and Tawny Ports. However, some of the wines that I tried from this area were superb.

Cima Corgo – the heartland of Port production, this is where the majority of the famous Quintas, or grape farms, are located.

Douro Superior / Upper Douro – this is the hottest and driest zone and extends all the way to the Spanish border. Because it is so cut off it is the most recent zone to be cultivated and so is not intensively planted. Much of this zone is used for table wines rather than Ports.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Classically the vineyards for Port production are on the well drained schist soils – decayed slate – and are terraced to make them easier to farm and to counter soil erosion. The traditional terraces look lovely, either the socalcos – the original type that look like dry stone wall steps, or the bigger nineteenth century type terrace that is a gentle slope contained by a dry stone wall that allows use of horses and mules.

Patamares at front right.

Patamares at front right, terraces behind.

The more modern patamares, with their big earth banks and very low density planting are not nearly so attractive or in keeping with the landscape and I understand they are now out of favour again.

Everywhere you look in the Douro there is a feast for your eyes, it truly is beautiful and you can clearly see why the wines are like they are. It is a place that draws in the heat and almost abuses the vines that grow here by denying them water and nutrients – all so they can produce tiny amounts of deeply flavoured juice that always has a deep mineral character to it. When drinking the wines you can almost imagine that you are tasting these hillsides.

I will write more about some of the wineries I visited and some of the wines I tasted, but here are some of the highlights of my trip, the first of which had nothing to do with wine:

Trainspotting in the Douro
It has long been a dream of mine to travel on the Douro railway, the wonderful meandering train track that opened up this inaccessible valley in the mid to late nineteenth century. Sadly this was a short visit, so that ambition is still to be fulfilled. However, I was able to se the famous railway station in the delightful town of Pinhão. It’s a famous tourist attraction in its own right because of the beautiful tile decorations, which really are worth seeing.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

And now for some wine highlights:

Alves de Sousa, Quinta da Gaviosa
The first stop on my visit was at Alves de Sousa, this turned into a real highlight because they made us feel so at home – oh and the wines were really very good indeed.

P1060900

Tiago Alves de Sousa telling us about his 80 year old Abandonado vineyard.

This is a true family concern run by Domingos Alves de Sousa and his son Tiago. The impression I got was of a really good balance between Domingos, who seemed traditional and old fashioned in all the good ways and Tiago, who clearly loves his land, but would have been equally at home in a New York bar or an architects practice. The family have long owned some superb vineyards, but have only been producing and bottling their own Ports and table wines since 1987.

They own several Quintas, but we were at the beautiful Quinta da Gaviosa near Régua in the Baixo Corgo, which is the hub of their operation and the family home. The slopes are steep and the deep schist soils clearly visible through the thin ground cover.

The 80-100 year old vines in their Ambonada vineyard. It was abandoned and has been brought back to productive life.

The 80-100 year old vines in their Abandonado vineyard. It was abandoned and has been nurtured back to productive life.

The Alves de Sousa were among the pioneers of table wine production in the Douro and I thought all their wines were fascinating. Good though their reds and Ports are – and they  are very good – it was a couple of whites that really fired my imagination here.

For their white wines they use traditional white Douro grapes – a mixture of Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Viosinho and Arinto – from a mixture of very old vines – 60 years old or so – and newer carefully planted vineyards very high up on north facing slopes where the air is cooler and so the grape’s acids are better preserved.

The 2009 Alves de Sousa Branco de Gaivosa Reserva is a beautifully complex, textured, richly fruity, herbal and flavoursome wine, full of flavour and all balanced by a wonderfully crisp acidity – 88/100 points.

Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal BrancoThe 2007 Alves de Sousa Reserva Pessoal Branco  is an altogether more individualistic sort of wine, full of character and depth. For this dry white they decided to make a wine with some of the personality and intensity of a white Port. To achieve this it was fermented (on the skins for the first 48 hours) in new French oak with hyper-oxidation and hard pumping over and a further 6 months in new French oak. The result is extraordinary, full flavoured, concentrated and quirky with barley sugar, caramelised orange, rich apricot, spices and honey, in fact it sort of tastes like a very rich Sauternes, but is bone dry. It put me in mind of those new wave amphora aged wines and orange wines, but unlike most of those it is utterly delicious  – 93/100 points.

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval
A wonderful highlight was staying at the beautiful Quinta do Noval, whose Ports and table wines are justifiably famous. It was tremendously exciting to spend a night at this wonderful place surrounded by the neatly ordered terraced vineyards. A comprehensive tasting of their range followed by a stroll around these terraces gave spectacular views – mind you the one from my bedroom took a lot of beating too – and helped get an overview of this amazing place.

The view from my bedroom, the building centre right is Noval's winery.

The view from my bedroom, the building bottom right is Noval’s winery.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

Later a civilised aperitif of Noval Extra Dry White Port and tonic prepared our palates for a fabulously traditional dinner of roast goat that paired perfectly with the superb Quinta do Noval red table wines. My favourites were:

Touriga Nacional2009 Quinta do Noval Touriga Nacional
D.O.C. Douro

 

This had a deep and beautiful colour, while the nose was scented, aromatic and herbal with heather, oregano and rosemary, spices and an earthy, rocky, granite minerality.
The palate was savoury and rich with deep sugar plum fruit, earthy and granitic savoury characters, round tannins with just a touch of bite and great length – 89/100 points.
quinta_do_noval_2007_douro_doc_3__39102_big2009 Quinta do Noval
D.O.C. Douro

 

If anything this blend of 80% Touriga Nacional; 20% Touriga Franca was even more exciting, more intense and vibrant.
The colour was a lovely opaque and intense cassis, while the very rich nose offered liquorice, earthy mineral notes, wild herbs, mocha and a hint of spice.
The palate was very smooth and supple with fine grain tannins, fleshy black fruit to the fore, a supple texture and touches of warm granite, clean earth, leather and eucalyptus. I really loved this wine, it was rich, concentrated and pretty full-bodied, but still had plenty of freshness and elegance – 93/100 points

As I say it was only a short trip of a few days, but I was able to visit some wonderful places and try some superb Ports and wines that really made me aware of the great quality and wonderful things that are produced in this astonishingly beautiful valley. It may be a hard place to grow grapes, but the results do seem to make all the hard work worthwhile.

Other delights
I will tell you about some of my other experiences another time, but I will leave you this time with one of the great simple pleasures of Portugal – the coffee.

Coffee is everywhere in Portugal and the bars all announce who their coffee supplier is on their signs, much as pubs here used to indicate their brewery. The coffee in Portugal always seems very high quality to me and much hotter than the strangely cold coffee they serve in Italy. My favoured style is the Café Pingo or sometimes Pingado, the local term for a cortado, noisette or macchiato. I have been told that the same coffee in Lisbon and southern Portugal is a Café Garoto, but some people describe that as a weaker version as well, so order with care.

As well as coffee the Portuguese like their cakes too, and what cakes they have too. My favourite and the signature cake of Portugal is the scrummy pastel de nata – or if you are greedy (yes, yes, like me) the plural is pastéis de nata. Some people translate these as custard tarts, but that is to do them an injustice. Made properly the pastry has a crisp and flaky texture that makes these tarts irresistible when partnered with the rich creamy, eggy custard-like filling.

Pasteis de nata really are delicious...

Pasteis de nata really are delicious…

The lovely city of Porto / Oporto – I can never work out whether it starts with an O or a P! –  has a vibrant café culture and boasts a handful of wonderful cafés from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, all are worth a visit. So far my favourite is the beautiful fin de siècle Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

A café Pingu.

A café Pingu.

So, you see the Douro is an amazing place, beautiful, a joy to visit and full of delights. I will tell you a bit more about my trip there and to Porto very soon.

Vinho Verde – lovely wines and not always what you’d expect

Vines at Quinta de Aveleda – old and new training systems

Some of the most famous wines and wine styles seem to stay in fashion for ever, others fall in and out of favour with consumers. Sometimes it seems really unfair that certain things have broad approval when others do not – I for one will never understand the Pinot Grigio craze, much as Westlife’s popularity puzzles me.

Along time ago amongst my first ever wine memories German wines, Beaujolais and Vinho Verde from Portugal were all considered excellent choices to serve your guests. Since then, in the late 1960s-early 1970s, they have lost a lot of popularity – indeed mere mention of German wine often produces the same sort of hilarity associated with photographs showing relatives in bell-bottomed trousers and safari suits. And while it is true that a choice few German wines and Beaujolais Crus have rekindled a sort of following, Vinho Verde has remained unloved by the majority of UK wine consumers.

Unfairly in my opinion as I have long thought there are some terrific wines being produced in Portugal’s Minho region where Vinho Verde wines come from, but until recently I had never seen the place for myself. Well I recently returned from the region and my liking for the wines has been reinforced by meeting a wider range of producers and seeing the myriad of styles that are available.

You see that is part of the problem for Vinho Verde, many people think they know what these wines are like and assume they do not like them – anymore. Traditionally and typically a basic Vinho Verde will be very light in alcohol – 10-11 % – very light bodied and fresh with a slight fizz or petillance to accentuate the freshness and very high acidity, which is often balanced by a little sweetness. All of which sounds very 1970s, but actually modern grape growing and winemaking can make this sort of wine much better than many people remember, very pleasurable and refreshing to drink.

There are many very affordable versions available, every supermarket has an own label version which will be perfectly enjoyable as long you buy the youngest vintage. However there are some more ambitious producers who lead the way and show what can be done with this apparently unassuming style.

Map of Vinho Verde – click for a larger view

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Some Portuguese delights…

The beautiful Quinta das Cerejeiras, Bombarral

Having recently returned from Portugal I thought I would share some thoughts about the wines I experienced over there.

This was not a wine trip, I did taste some wines, but most of what I had was straightforward everyday wine from the regions around Sao Martinho do Porto, which is on the coast a little north of Óbidos and Caldos da Reinha.

In many ways it was a very interesting exercise seeing how well served the Portuguese wine consumer is. All the supermarkets – and there were a great many of them within a few minutes – offered very wide ranges from right across the country. However, with a few exceptions I tried to limit myself to local fare – and I was very impressed indeed.

I have for long been a huge fan of wine from Portugal and have watched with disbelief as Portuguese wine ranges in the UK have been reduced to a mere token presence on the multiples’ shelves. Not that many years ago I could put together a range of really interesting Portuguese wines from the supermarkets, but not any more. Go to a British supermarket now and the Portuguese offerings are a shadow of their former self.

Which I find very strange as many of the wines offer stunning value for money and really could appeal to a wide range of British consumers, I assume as they are mainly small producers and cooperatives that the brands from elsewhere have more money and support available to put them on the supermarket shelves. After all, as Neil Diamond said, money talks.

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Wasted Opportunity

Something very strange happened to me recently and I thought I would report on it in the hope that it gets back to the people responsible and that they have a rethink. I am fully aware of my modest position in the world of wine, so none of this is about me thinking – ‘don’t they know who I am!’

Although I would point out that Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page is number 7 in the Top 10 UK Wine Blogs!

I have just returned from holiday in Portugal which is a country whose wines I hold in pretty high regard. The fact that the delights of Portuguese wines passes most UK wine consumers by is a great shame and deprives them of much pleasure and great value for money. I will write about some of the wines I experienced soon.

However I wanted to record a particular incident as I think it says much about attitudes that can be found all over Europe, but it seems to be especially prevalent in Iberia.

I do not often mix wine trips and holiday as for me they are two very different things. However, I was visiting a new bit Portugal and as I have a particular fondness and interest for sparkling wine I was keen to visit the Quinta dos Loridos which was not too far away and produces what some claim to be the country’s best sparkling wines.

To that end I sent them an email explaining who I was and that I would like to visit the winery and taste their wines with a view to reporting about them on my own blog and the highly respected Iberian wine website Catavino.com. – I was therefore rather taken aback by the reply:

Thank you for contacting us.

Our cellars are under renovations so at the moment we are not making any visits there. The only visitable place is Buddha Eden Garden. However we do have wine tastings, below are the information about them.

All wine tastings have to be schedule one or two days before. Wine tastings are made from Monday to Friday between 10a.m. and 4.30p.m. (except between 1p.m. and 2p.m.). They have a cost of 3€ per person and wine. If you chose to taste 2 wines we offer the taste of the Moscatel 99 for 6€ a person. We can add cashew and almonds for 1€ extra or cheese and crackers for 3€ extra.

Best Regards

Now, obviously the renovations were unfortunate and nothing could be done about that, but here I am a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and FIGEV, the European equivalent, and I was just fobbed off with an unwelcoming standard reply. I wrote back, explaining again, but received no answer at all.

Being somewhat stubborn I hoped it was all a misunderstanding and once in Portugal I went there anyway and it was an interesting, if frustrating, experience. The winery and estate is clearly marked with roadsigns and is very beautiful. They have made a great deal of effort to make the estate a destination for tourists with their beautifully done Buddha Eden Garden resembling some of the things you find in American theme parks – there was even a little train to take the visitors around and an attractive café.

However I am a wine writer, not a garden man – even if they are really well done – and this is a wine estate. As entry to the Buddha Garden is free I assume it is a way to get people in to the winery and more importantly the winery shop. The shop was good, it was very big and offered a large range and had the feel of a winery shop in the new world. However there were no wines on tasting – either for free or in return for money. As a consequence the whole place felt dull and sleepy.

When I presented my card and explained who I was and that I wanted to taste their sparkling wines I was informed in a very offhand manner that all tastings should be booked in advance and they could not help me. Now what struck me about that was that surely their wines should be the focus, they should be proud of what they produce and want visitors to taste them and buy them. If they had been giving tastings, whether free or for a small charge, then the place could have been buzzing. As it was the place was deadly quiet and the few customers I saw left empty handed. Handled in the right way every visitor would have bought something.

I am absolutely certain too that most visitors to the region would be unable or unwilling to arrange a tasting in advance – who wants to be tied down like that when on holiday? Obviously the professional visit that I had been asking for needed to be arranged in advance, although actually many of my best winery visits have been organised on the spur of the moment.

The beautiful Quinta dos Loridos

It seems such a shame when I think about all the winery shops in South Africa, New York State, Virginia or California that I have seen, all eager for you to try and to buy, all proud of their products and wanting to spread the word about their wines to as wide an audience as possible. Quinta dos Loridos was so promising, they had a lovely building and a car park full of people, but completely wasted their efforts as far as I could see. The whole thing, emails and visit was very irritating and although I wanted a proper trade visit and to be treated with a little respect as a bona fide wine professional, I would have been equally irritated if I was a normal tourist turning up at a well signposted winery only to be told that I could not taste any wines, but was welcome to buy them.

The bustling and award winning tasting room and shop at Heron Hill Winey in New York's Finger Lakes region - photo courtesy of Heron Hill

It seems to me that they have wasted all their efforts to make it a place that people visit if visitors are leaving empty handed, as they were. I understand that very small family wineries might find visits hard to cope with, but this place is part of a big company. I urge them and other wineries in Iberia that I have come across to visit some of the bustling, lively and attractive winery shops around the world  – like the award winning tasting room at Heron Hill Winery in New York’s Finger Lakes in the photo above – and to see that they are wasting a terrific showcase for their wines.

Hell, they could even employ me as a consultant to help turn that shop into a lively and inviting place…

Bottled Sunshine – the fun side of Vinho Verde

I don’t know whether I had my mind closed to it for the last 26 years, but suddenly I cannot get enough Vinho Verde, or wines from the Minho region of Portugal anyway.

The area has long been famous for producing light-bodied and light-hearted wines that are refreshing and lively. This traditional style can be very enjoyable even at the commercial end of the market, but in recent years I have tried some really serious wines from the Minho as well – rich, concentrated and complex, like the wonderful Quinta de Covela or the great Quinta do Feital.

Well, recently I tasted something completely new to me – a rosé Vinho Verde. Which sounds an odd concept until you realise that the verde or green in the name does not refer to the colour, but rather the youthful character of the wine. Continue reading

Quinta do Feital – A Minho Marvel

The beautiful Quinta do Feital

I attended the annual Portuguese tasting in London the other day where I was fully expecting to find some lovely wines. Portugal makes terrific wine and I find it inexplicable that there is so little demand for it in the UK.

However, I was not expecting to be so totally bowled over by a brace of white wines – and by the guy who makes them as well. Continue reading