Wine of the Week – delicious Greek treats

P1030596

Looking towards the sea from Rapsani’s vineyards.

I love Greek wine and wish they were more popular and easier to buy in the UK than they are. I really enjoy presenting Greek wines to wine societies and recently I talked a wine group into agreeing to a tasting of Greek wines. Despite being nervous at first the tasters really enjoyed them. All the wines showed really well and impressed the tasters. Of course a handful particularly stood out and proved to be widely popular in the room and I will mention three of those today and tell you about some of the others another time.

The first one was a superb dry white from the Island of Santorini made from the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. I showed a terrific, mineral example made by the Santo Wines cooperative, which you can buy mail order in the UK – click here . If you want to try a more easily available example, Marks & Spencer stock a lovely, affordable version made by the splendid Argyros Estate – click here for details. I have written about Santorini wines in more detail before – click here.

Amongst the reds I showed a couple of wines form the same region as a contrast and I loved them so much that together they are my joint Wine of the Week.

P1030691

The village name in the Greek alphabet as well as ours.

That wine region is called Rapsani and it is a very beautiful place in Thessaly near Mount Olympus. I visited a few years ago and it was wonderfully peaceful up there with stunning views of Mount Olympus to the north west and the Aegean Sea to the east. The vineyards sit at between 250 and 800 metres above sea level allowing for a staggered harvest giving very different characters and complexity to the wines. The soil higher up also put me in mind of Priorat, as there is a lot of schist, red, iron-rich schist in this case which warms up quickly and drains superbly.

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

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

The wine has long enjoyed local fame and respect and historically the Rapsani cooperative was strong, however it fell on hard times and the Tsantali company took it over in 1991 and brought in much needed investment and know-how. For a long time they were the only producers here and remain the most important and widely seen label.

Traditionally Rapsani wines were a blend of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto and Tsantali keeps to that tradition by using one third of each grape in a field blend – so the grapes are fermented together, not blended. The latter two by the way only grow here while Xinomavro is used right across northern Greece. This makes Rapsani quite different as on its own Xinomavro has something of the dry structure of Nebbiolo about it, while the other two grapes add a feeling of more body and alcohol.

Rapsani Vineyards

Rapsani Vineyards

tsantali-rapsani2012 Rapsani
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 6 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 30% new.

The grapes for this wine are harvested from the lower slopes of Rapsani, 250m above sea, and the extra heat shows in a slightly raisiny nose with richer dried cherry, some fresher, sweet raspberry aromas as well as the classic tomato stem of Xinomavro. There is sun dried tomato and tapenade too, which gives it a real savoury tang. The palate is medium bodied and very smooth with little touches of vanilla and caramel and lots of rich fruit. This is a terrific wine with just a an attractive touch of the rustic about it. It will appeal to Rioja drinkers and go perfectly with lamb and Mediterranean style food – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies and Evingtons Wines – for £8.50-£10 per bottle and from Amazon.co.uk for £28.58 per case of 3 bottles.
For US stockists – click here.

tsantali-rapsani-reserve2012 Rapsani Reserve
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 50% new.

The grapes come from further up, 250-500 metres above sea level, and the wine feels cooler and more elegant. It is also deeper, darker and more concentrated, with rich black fruit aromas, blackberry, cassis and plum, together with wafts of black pepper spice, coffee and leather. There is also a touch of that tomato stem and black olive umami / savoury character, even a touch of balsamic. The palate is concentrated, smooth and plush, with lots of fruit and spice and a lovely core of freshness to give balance and vitality. That savoury / umami note follows on to the palate as well, which makes the wine brilliant with food. A classy and elegant wine that wowed the room at my tasting – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies for £16.95 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

It always surprises people that I bang on about the delights of Greek wines so much, but they really can be very good indeed and well worth trying. The wines are classically European in style and structure, but because Greece has such wonderful indigenous grape varieties, they taste different and wonderfully exciting.

Try either of these with slow cooked lamb, or Kleftiko, and you will not be disappointed.

The Good Campanians – stories, grapes and wines from Italy’s deep south

The other week I was a guest at Campania Stories, which is a wonderful event designed to immerse wine writers and wine educators in the exciting world of Campania wine.

The view from my Naples hotel balcony, Mount Vesuvius is pretty dominating and dramatic and could erupt again any time. It last erupted seriously in 1944.

The view from my Naples hotel balcony, Mount Vesuvius is pretty dominating and dramatic and could erupt again any time. It last erupted seriously in 1944.

Campania is a fascinating region, very beautiful, amazingly varied, steeped in history and full of wonderful things to see. Naples is of course at its heart, but there is so much more here too. Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia all offer rewarding experiences for the traveller, as do the ancient wonders of Pompeii and Herculaneum. However the less well known inland areas are also extremely interesting and whilst they are a little off the tourist trail, they do produce some of the region’s – and Italy’s – most exciting wines. At first glance the wines here seem very traditional and almost the antithesis of the soft, overtly fruity new world wines that dominate the wine selections in supermarkets around the world. They are of course labelled by place name as is the custom in Europe, but many Italian wine names include the name of the grape variety too, as is often the case here. Pretty much everything in Campania is made from local indigenous grapes, some of which are very old indeed, with histories that reach back into ancient times. These grape varieties are the driving force of Campania, they define the types of wine the region can make, while the climate and soils reinforce those definitions. Man of course can make choices and adjustments, so there can be some differing styles and emphasis in the wines.

Naples fishing harbour with capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the distance.

Ancient Grapes Any search for new flavours and excitement should take in Campania as it is home to such fabulous grape varieties.

The Black Grapes:

Aglianico is the region’s mainstay black grape and its name is either a corruption of ellenico or Helleni that betray Ancient Greek origins, or Apulianicum, the Latin term for southern Italy. Either way we know it is very old and was used to make Falernian which was the most highly rated wine of Ancient Rome, the modern Falerno del Massico is made in the same area. Aglianico is traditionally full-bodied, with high acidity – perfect with food – and high tannin that can seem a little rustic in the wrong hands. Luckily many winemakers increasingly seem to know how to tame those hard tannins.

Piedirosso, was apparently mentioned by Pliny the Elder and its name translates as ‘red foot’ because the stems are red in colour. In fact, in the local dialect it is called Palombina or Per’e Palummo which means ‘little dove’ and ‘dove’s foot’ because the stems are made up of 3 stalks that make it resemble a bird’s foot. This grape also has high acid, but is lighter in tannin, so produces quite soft wines. It is often blended with Aglianico to make the wine fresher, especially in Fallerno del Massico and Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio.

The White Grapes:

Fiano is also an ancient variety that is believed to have been used to make the famous Apianum wine in Roman times. Back then the grape was known as Vitis Apiana beacuse it apparently attracted bees (apis). Of all Campania’s whites I find the best Fiano to be the most balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.

Greco is a fascinating grape, capable of making some great dry whites, the best are traditionally made in the area around the town of Tufo and are very mineral and fine. The jury is out about the origins of the name though. Most books say it was brought to Italy by the Ancient Greeks, but Ferrante di Somma di Circello, whose Cantine di Marzo produces fine Greco di Tufo, told me that it was called Greco because it was the best grape to make Greek style wine, by which people used to mean sweet wine from dried grapes. These were the most sought after wines in the middle ages and were known as Romneys by the English wine trade.

Falanghina, much as I love Fiano and Greco, I reckon Falanghina is Campania’s calling card for white wines. It is capable of being much softer and fruitier than the others and can easily be enjoyed without food. Again this was used by the ancient Romans to produce the famous Falernian.

Coda di Volpe was apparently even named by Pliny the Elder, because the bunches are thought to resemble a fox’s tail. The wines seem to have less acidity and to be more textured than the other Campanian whites. The Caprettone, which is used to make white Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, was long thought to be Coda di Volpe, but recent research has shown it to be a variety on its own.

Ancient Wines I have never been anywhere where so much of the ancient world is still visible and all round you. The Campanians are very proud of their past, both as part of the Roman world and as the separate Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and some producers are keen to keep the links with the ancients alive and I came across two fascinating projects that do just that.

A restaurant in Pompeii, busy, but a little understaffed.

A restaurant in Pompeii, busy, but a little understaffed.

True Amphora Wine
Villa Matilde is a terrific producer which specialises in Falerno del Massico – every time I tasted their wines I marked them very highly indeed – and farms some of the original vineyard slopes that made the Roman Falernian wine. This was the first cult wine of Rome and  records show that it was served to Julius Caesar and even shipped to England. Salvatore Avallone owns Villa Matilde and wanted to create a wine that harked back to how the Romans made it, but was also recognisably wine – the Romans made wines that as far as we can tell were like a sweet syrup to which they added water and spices.

Villa Matilde's Amphora wine, the seal has just been broken and you can see the grape matter in the wine.

Villa Matilde’s Amphora wine, the seal has just been broken and you can see the grape matter in the wine.

So he created a wine that is a blend of Aglianico di Falernia with 3% Piedirosso that was fermented and aged in 25 litre amphora that are lined with bee’s wax. The resulting wine is rich and delicious with concentrated fruit and lots of character.

Up From the Ashes
Every region needs a large scale pioneer and guiding hand, and Campania is lucky enough to have at least two, but the original is Mastroberardino which for a century, between 1878 and about 1980, was the only important commercial winery in the region – everyone else made wine for local consumption. Mastroberardino intially led the way to produce quality wines, to breathe new life into this region and to rescue its indigenous grape varieties. That task has now been taken up by others including Feudo di San Gregorio, but Mastroberardino are still important and make some very fine wines indeed.

One of the Mastroberardino vineyards in Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background. Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 destroying the city and killing everyone within it.

One of the Mastroberardino vineyards in Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background. Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 destroying the city and killing everyone within it.

In 1996 they helped the archeological superintendent of Pompeii to investigate five vineyard sites within the boundaries of Pompeii town itself. They carefully made casts of the vine roots from the holes that had left behind – just as they famously did with the human victims at Pompeii – and identified the vines. They were Piedirosso and Sciascinoso and both are still grown here. Then using all the sources they could they replanted the vineyards using the same viticultural techniques they think the Romans used, which I have to say look very modern to my eye. The resulting wine is called Villa die Misteri and is named after the large villa just outside the city walls that has the most spectacular wall paintings. Sadly I have not tried it as it is very expensive, but the whole project is very exciting and thought provoking.

Stories of Wines & Wineries
Frankly I was spoiled for choice on this trip, so many producers went out of their way to show me wonderful wines and to give me great experiences. Here are the ones that stay with me and for me sort of encapsulate the region. As there is so much ground to cover, I will restrict myself to the highest grade of Italian wines, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita / DOCGs – I will tell you about some of the other wines another day.

Campania watermarked

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

Campania’s most well known and leading wines all come from the Irpinia region, which covers the same territory as Avellino province around 30 miles inland from Naples. The three most important DOCG, one red and two white, nestle together. This dominance of white wine shows just how cool the region can be. The winters are long and harsh judging by the conditions in March and while the summers are hot and dry there is always a tempering influence from the mountains that dominate the landscape.

Vines in Taurasi.

Vines in Taurasi.

Taurasi DOCG is arguably the most well known wine from the region and was made famous by Mastroberardino, which was the only serious, export led winemaker here until the late 1980s, there are now nearly 300 producers. The dominant grape is Aglianico, but it can be blended with up to 15% of Barbera, Piedirosso and Sangiovese, all of which have softer tannins than Aglianico, so make the wines fresher. To give you an idea of what it is like, Taurasi is rather lazily called ‘the Barolo of the south’ and I can see why. The wines have similar tannins and acidity to Barolo, but in truth are more properly full-bodied and are normally much more mineral – I always think you can taste the slate and the salt in Taurasi. The soil is actually sand and sandstone and so the area is Phyloxerra free and the vines are on their own roots. This can be a hard edged and unrelenting wine and so not to everyone’s taste. The best examples though manage to tame the grape’s wilder instincts and make the wines approachable, if still very savoury and dry. I struggled to see the charms in some, but my favourites were simply superb.

Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro.

Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro.

Cantine Guastaferro This small estate made the most impressive Taurasi wines that I tried all trip, indeed they were some of the best red wines that I have tasted over the last 12 months. Raffaele Guastaferro farms 7 hectares at around 300 metres above sea level on south east facing slopes. The great secret is that the vines are – are you sitting down? – between 150 and 200 years old! This means they produce tiny amounts of very concentrated juice and that shows in the finished wines. Raffaele modestly told me that he has a magic vineyard and so he does not have to do much work in the cellar!

017

Ancient vines at Cantine Guastaferro. The Pergola system is a traditional way to train vines in Campania. It allows the farmer to use the land below for growing food crops and keeps the grapes away from the humid conditions on the ground.

All Cantine Guastaferro’s wines are superb, although I didn’t taste his white, but his Primum Taurasi  and Primum Riserva was magnificent with great concentration, ripe fruit, beautifully managed tannins, lots of minerality and even a twist of blood orange. My favourite was the 2006, but they all wowed me and deserve a place in any serious cellar.

Primum2006 Guastaferro Primum Riserva Taurasi DOCG 1-2 years in Botti (large barrels) From 150-200 year old vines. Opaque, almost black and treacley colour, some slight tawny on the rim. Smoky nose, cinders, meat, ash, caramel, dried red fruit, blood orange and some leather too, as well as that tight minerality. Gorgeous palate, really oily rich and mouth coating, totally dry wine with a fine balance between the fruit and austerity, makes it taut, that slate taste creeps in here too. Glorious, with fine grain tannins, tasty, smoky wood, cooked fruit, gamey and absolutely superb. Some refreshing blood orange acidity lends purity. Lovely spicy tingle on the finish. Simply stunning, the tannins are firm but not too much, they are enjoyable and the finish is epic – 94/100 points.

Feudo di San Gregorio
Produced on an entirely different scale and readily available all around the world, I also found the Taurasi from Feudo di San Gregorio to be very impressive – as well as everything else they made in fact. This is a big winery, but their passion and attention to detail cannot be denied. They have only been in existence since the mid 1980s, but in many ways are the engine – the Mondavi, the Torres – of Campania and put it on the map at least as much as Mastroberardino. For many of us our first taste of this region was a wine from Feudo di San Gregorio. When I visited it was a bitterly cold day, so sadly I saw nothing of the vineyards, I was just grateful to get into the warm of the winery, which also boasts a Michelin starred restaurant.

Antonio Capaldo the energetic and knowledgable chapman of Feudo di San Gregorio.

Antonio Capaldo the energetic and charismatic Chairman of Feudo di San Gregorio.

feudi-di-san-gregorio-taurasi-aglianico-vino-02010 Feudo di San Gregorio Taurasi Taurasi DOCG Deep opaque colour, deep ruby with just a garnet tinge. Gamey, basalt nose, smoky, iron, roses, plums, red cherry, it still offers primary fruit despite being 5 years old. Beautiful palate, very tight and drying fine grain tannins, loads of black fruit, it’s earthy and beginning to be leathery, with coffee and mocha oak and running through it all is some refreshing, balancing acidity. Really good wine, gamey, meaty, rich and fine with liquorice spice and that touch of slate. The fruit carries the tannins and drying character well, without being aggressive – 91/100 points.

There is plenty of Aglianico grown outside the Taurasi zone of course, and many of them are very good wines indeed, have a look at this one which is a very drinkable IGT from Benevento. Tenuta Cavalier Pepe too make a very wide range of quite excellent wines. This blend of 70% Aglianico with 30% Sangiovese was quite delicious and would be my Wine of the Week if it was available in the UK.  In fact Tenuta Cavalier Pepe is an excellent winery and everything I have tasted from them has been very well made, including their Taurasi and Aglianico rosé.

The White DOCGs

The view from my hotel in Avellino - it was bitterly cold.

The view from my hotel in Avellino – it was bitterly cold.

Fiano di Avellino DOCG is probably the most impressive of the three white wine styles produced in Irpinia, although they are all good. Avellino is ringed by mountains and apart from grapes the big crop here is hazelnuts as it has been since Roman times. Although the Italian for hazelnut is nocciola, the Latin is abellana and the Spanish is a still recognisable avellana. I really fell for the Fiano grape, it seems to me that it makes very fine wine indeed, mineral and acidic to be sure – the area has volcanic soils which often make for mineral wines, think of Etna and Santorini – but the best have lovely deep flavours, often of hazelnuts and almonds. The best examples often had orange peel characters too that I like very much, as well as apricot, which put me in mind of Viognier or Gewürztraminer, but with much more acidity, in fact by having texture and acidity, they remind me of the best examples of  Godello from Galicia.

I tasted many fine Fianos, but the stand out wines came from Rocca del Principe. This delightful winery is in Lapio, right on the border between the Taurasi and Fiano di Avellino zones, which means they can make both wines here. The name means fortress of the Prince, because a local royal house were based in Lapio in the early middle ages. Rocca del Principe Fiano vines are grown high at 500-600 metres above sea level, on south east facing slopes. They age the wines for 6 months on the fine lees, which imparts complexity and a delicately creamy richness.

Ercole Zarrella and his wife Aurelia Fabrizio who own Rocca del Principe.

Aurelia Fabrizio and her husband Ercole Zarrella who own Rocca del Principe.

I tasted 9 vintages of the Fiano here, from 2014 tank samples, which were delicious, lovely and fresh, to the 2006 which was showing some age, but was still a great wine. The young wines had a more linear style, while the older bottles had more rounded richness, which suits the wines, I think. They were all superb dry white wines, but my absolute favourite was the 2009. roccadelprincipe_fianodiavellino_bianco09__74317__27016.1407758626.1280.12802009 Rocca del Principe Fiano di Avellino Fiano di Avellino DOCG Musky notes, butterscotch, cinder toffee, apricot and orange peel on the nose, together with some hazelnuts. The palate offers lovely sweet fruit, making it round and rich, but balanced by the minerality and cleansing acidity. I found it very like a dry Gewürztraminer, or perhaps a Godello. The texture is big and mouth coating, oily even, while the fruit and complexity gives it elegance , which together with the acidity and minerality give superb balance. A great dry white wine – 92/100 points.

I also tasted a range of vintages at Ciro Picariello, which is another superb little, 7 hectares again, estate that produces excellent Fiano di Avellino, as well as Fiano Irpinia from outside the boundaries of the DOCG, and once again the wines are well worth trying.

I also found the 2013 Fiano di Avellino from Feudo di San Gregorio was very good indeed, while their single vineyard version, the 2013 Pietracalda Fiano di Avellino had a little more fat on its bones, so was richer and finer, yet still very mineral and had great finesse.

Vineyards in Lapio.

Vineyards in Lapio.

The fortress in Lapio.

The fortress in Lapio.

Fiano is also grown outside the boundaries of Avellino too and especially good examples are available from the Sannio DOC just to the north, take a look at this one here.

Greco di Tufo is quite different. The wines made from this grape, in the area around Tufo anyway, tend to be leaner and more overtly mineral. In fact some of them reminded me of bone dry Rieslings, although a better comparison might be to Assyrtico from Santorini. Greco of course is more widely grown in southern Italy, but can be pretty inconsequential from elsewhere. It seems to need the  tuff soils of Tufo, after which the town is named, which is compressed volcanic ash, which allows the minerality to really shine through.

Once again Feudo di San Gregorio’s wines were a very good introduction to the grape, both their normal Greco di Tufo and their single vineyard Cutizzi Greco di Tufo are very good quality indeed. I loved the taut mineral style, but with concentrated fruit and just a touch of richer cream adding weight.

P1120363

The flamboyant and charming Ferrante di Somma di Circello of Cantine di Marzo, whose ancestor brought the Greco grape to Tufo.

I was also very impressed with the Greco di Tufo made by the venerable Cantine di Marzo, I really approved of the lithe, taut, mineral style, which also suits their excellent traditional method sparkling Greco called Anni Venti.

Equally good were the Greco di Tufo from the wonderful Tenuta Cavalier Pepe, all of whose wines seem to be first rate, and the excellent low sulphur example from the Azienda Vitivinicola Le Ormere, but I will tell you about those producers another day.

One last DOCG Aglianico is widely grown and the increasing quality caused the authorities to create a new DOCG in 2011. This is Aglianico del Taburno which covers the Benevento area, where much more easy drinking Aglianico is produced as well, much of it IGT. The vineyards are often very high, up to 650 metres above sea level and the wines that I have tasted certainly have a fresher style than the intensely mineral Taurasi wines. I especially enjoyed the two example that I tried at Fattoria La Rivolta. This is an excellent winery that is one of the leading lights of  Benevento and farms in a near organic way. Their wines pleased me greatly, but then I was eating a rather lovely rustic lunch at the same time, so I might be biased!

Vincenzo Mercurio the winemaker at Fattoria La Rivolta.

Vincenzo Mercurio the winemaker at Fattoria La Rivolta, which is a rising star in Benevento.

AGLIANICO TABURNO  ROSATO2013 Le Mongolfiere a San Bruno rosé DOCG Aglianico del Taburno Fattoria La Rivolta 100% Aglianico The colour was most attractive, a sort of cross between copper and coral with ripe strawberry and cherry. The palate was very pure and fresh with high acidity and ripe cherry all the way through to the end. I enjoyed this very dry rosé, which was perfect with the local salami – 88/100 points.

Fattoria La Rivolta vineyards.

Fattoria La Rivolta vineyards.

Rivolta AGLIANICO DEL2011 Terra di Rivolta Aglianico del Taburno DOCG Aglianico del Taburno Fattoria La Rivolta 100% Aglianico aged 18 months in barriques The nose was rich and offered ripe black cherry and plums, some coffee spice, earthiness, liquorice and dark chocolate too. The palate had lovely supple tannins, sugar plums and black cherry flavours and some refreshing high acidity. There was a savoury bitterness that built up from the mid palate, but it was delicious, like the inherent astringency in Nebbiolo. I thought this wine was very good indeed – 91/100 points.

The Good Campanians

There is much to enjoy from Campania. There are good wines, exciting grapes and fascinating stories everywhere you look. There is so much passion there, so much dedication and so much determination to make great wines. I have only scratched the surface in this piece with a peep at the DOCGs, and a few other delights, but I hope that something took your interest. Anyone who loves good wine would enjoy most of the wines that I have mentioned. The variety of wine in Campania is enormous, but so too is the potential. We shall return to Campania soon, so keep dropping back.

Wine of the Week 17 – a delicious & great value Cabernet

My Wine of the Week is a favourite value wine of mine. It is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Greece, which is not exactly a place that is famous for Cabernet, but this wine really is delicious and worth trying. I love Greek wines and think they are sadly neglected and underrated by the UK consumer. I greatly enjoyed touring the country’s wine regions in 2012 as Greece has a lot of excellent wines to offer and this wine might well be a good place to start your own personal Greek wine odyssey – remember to click all the links.

Some of Tsantali's beautiful vineyards.

Some of Tsantali’s beautiful vineyards

Greece is culturally a white wine drinking nation – certainly their whites are superb with their cuisine – but, Santorini aside, most of their most famous wines are red and made from indigenous grapes at that. So, this is a relatively rare chance to see what an international grape can be like from Greece and I think it is an extremely good wine.

Vineyards in northern Greece with Mount Olympus in the background across the water.

Vineyards in northern Greece.

Tsantali CabIt is made by the excellent Tsantali company, which is one of Greece’s most important and dynamic wine producers and makes wine in many different regions in the country. Tsantali products are highly visible in Greece as they distil ouzo and act as a negociant marketing wines from all over the country. The real focus of this family company though is as grape growers, vineyard owners and winemakers. This particular wine comes from grapes grown on the beautiful, sun-drenched Halkidiki Peninsula near Thessalonika in northern Greece. The dry conditions there lend themselves especially well to organic farming as fungal diseases are very rare.

2011 Tsanatli Organic Cabernet Sauvignon
Halkidiki P.G.I.
Tsantali Vineyards
The wine is aged for 8 months in new French oak.
This really is a terrific Cabernet, the nose is dominated by loads of sweet ripe fruit, soft spice and some mint with even a touch of dried fruit showing it comes from somewhere hot. There is a lovely rich texture to the palate of ripe cassis and blackberry, but also slightly stewed fruit giving a big mouthfeel with smooth tannins that are still a little bit tight, which gives the wine an elegant and fine feel. This terrific wine just gets better and better in the glass, it is a rich powerful wine, medium-bodied wine, but very well balanced with a lovely feel of elegance about it. What’s more it is made from organically grown grapes.

Perfect with roast lamb, as well as any other joints, rich dishes and meats, a terrific steak frîtes wine too – 90/100 points.

A great bargain at £9.49 a bottle in the UK from Waitrose & Ocado.

Wine of the Week 8 – return of a favourite

Episkopi, Santorini - photo from Athenee Importers.

Episkopi, Santorini – photo from Athenee Importers.

With summer sporadically here, I was very excited to see that one of my favourite dry white wines had returned to Marks and Spencer, it’s great value too.

Regular readers will know that I love wines that are just slightly unusual and a little off the beaten track. There are so many great wines out there made from places and grape varieties that most people just do not think of trying and I see it as my mission to tell the world about them.

For many, many years I have loved exciting Greek wines. Greece is not high on many wine drinkers lists of places to explore, but it really should be, the country makes a dazzling array of styles of indigenous and international grapes and I would urge you to try a few Greek wines.

Some of Greece’s very best wines come from the beautiful island of Santorini. Santorini in my opinion is truly a great wine region and it makes some of the best white wines in the entire Mediterranean area, the reds aren’t too shabby either by the way.

Harvest at Argyros - photo from the Argyros Estate.

Harvest at Argyros, back breaking work, but worth the effort.

MS_FD_F23A_00885010_NC_X_EC_0-22013 Atlantis White
Argyros Estate
Santorini
P.G.I. Cyclades (like a Vin de Pays, but actually could be labelled as a P.D.O. Santorini)

This estate has been family owned since 1903, but most of the success has been since 1974 when the founder’s grandson, Yiannis Argyros, took over. Yiannis managed to dramatically expand the vineyard holding to 65 acres, which is massive for Santorini. The vineyards are all in Episkopi Gonia Thiras, not far from the airport, and the vines are trained into a basket to protect them from the extreme winds. What’s more they the vines hug the ground to keep them out of the wind and to maximise the effects of the morning dew in this hot, dry climate.

The secret weapon for white wine on Santorini is the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. It is high in acid, so makes clean refreshing wines even in the heat and like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, as well as Sicily’s Carricante, usually has something mineral about it.

Atlantis white is 90% Assyrtiko grapes  with 5% each of the richer Aidani & Athiri.

White Santorini wines vary quite a bit in style from rich and heady to taut, mineral and crisp. The blend here makes this wine somewhere between crisp and soft as it is slightly fleshy and textured, so it feels less mineral than some pure Assyrtiko wines. However it is still utterly delicious, bone dry and very drinkable – indeed my bottle emptied in minutes. The palate gives a touch of pear that softens the citrus, while the nose has a touch of the sea. This makes a stunning aperitif as well as being perfect with a bit of fish, a salad and some grilled prawns or squid – 89/100 points.

I have tried three vintages of this wine now and always been impressed, the estate actually produces ten different wines, including dessert wines and I hope to taste some of the others before too long.

If you have never tried a Greek wine, or a Santorini, or just want a lovely dry white wine, do give it a go, I promise you won’t regret it.

Available in the UK from Marks & Spencer at £10.49 per bottle.
Distributed in the US by Athenee Importers.

 

Sicily Land of Delights: Etna

Hope fully you enjoyed my piece about Sicilian food and your appetite was suitably whetted to hear some more about the wines from this wonderful island. I wrote about Donnafugata, one of the leading Sicilian estates here, but this article focuses on one of the leading quality wine regions on the island – Etna.

Mount Etna, a wonderful sight and at the heart of an amazing wine region.

Views of Etna dominate the landscape.

The first couple of days of my Sicily trip were spent around Etna and although this wine region is a mere D.O.C. – rather strangely the only D.O.C.g. on Sicily is Cerasuolo di Vittoria. I found Etna to be the most consistently high quality region that I experienced on Sicily. Other areas have some great producers making very good wines, but to me Etna appeared to be Sicily’s most consistently reliable region for making good and interesting wines. The natural conditions seem to lean towards excellence and excitement whereas perhaps the other places need to work that bit harder for really exciting wines? Of course the fact that it is Sicily’s smallest region might help keep the quality up too as it means that by and large Etna is a land of boutique producers and small estates.

Sicily 2013 blog

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

Etna is an amazing area and although wine is produced all over the volcano’s lower slopes and surrounding hillsides, the D.O.C. only covers the northern, eastern and southern slopes – see my map. This can mean that some very good Etna wines only have I.G.P. on the label, as does the fact that the D.O.C. does not cover the very highest slopes – yet.

P1070503

The soil is a fine volcanic dust – see the bird in the sky, look 2 photos down.

A close up of that fine volcanic soil - at Firriato this time.

That volcanic soil again.

The best shot I got of that bird, anyone know what it is? It looks eagle-like to me.

That bird again, as close as I could get it, it looks like an eagle to me. Anyone know what it is?

Altitude varies enormously here from 450m to 1100m above sea level and the eastern slopes enjoy much more rain than the other sides. This tempers the heat and dry conditions, so together with the height making it cooler and the rich mineral, volcanic soils this area is really good for white wine production. Certainly three of my favourite whites from the trip were grown around the village of Milo on the south eastern slopes of Mount Etna – if your Etna Bianco is labelled Superiore then it can only come from Milo.

I really liked a great many wines from around here, but the whites led the pack for me – perhaps because they suited the cuisine so perfectly, but possibly because they were really very good. The secret weapon of the area is their own indigenous white grape called Carricante. It does not seem to be grown anywhere else, but it responds superbly to the local conditions to produce elegant dry white wines with high acidity and wonderful minerality – so can put the drinker in mind of Assyrtiko from Santorini.

My highlights:

Tenuta di Fessina

The beautiful Tenuta di Fessina.

The beautiful Tenuta di Fessina, the site of an ancient lava flow, blocks of volcanic stone are used to build the retaining walls.

Our host at Tenuta di Fessina. Like most Sicilian winemakers she was very difficult to photograph as she never stood still!

Diletta Lavoratorin, our animated and informative host. Like most of our Sicilian hosts she hardly ever stayed still enough for me to get a decent photo! I did wonder about a caption competition for this, so feel free to send ideas in!

This beautiful estate is the brainchild of Tuscan wine producer Silvia Maestrelli and Piemontese Federico Curtaz and is just 10 hectares pieced together by buying up old bush vine vineyards.

a-puddara2011 A’Puddara
D.O.C. Etna Bianco
100% Carricante from 45 year old vines grown in Santa Maria di Licodia at the southern tip of the Etna park and on a southern exposure at around 900 metres and although I loved all the wines here, this was my favourite and the one that I actually bought. Unusually this was seemingly fermented and then aged for 6 months in large French oak barrels, these varied between 1 and 15 years old – leaning towards older and so neutral in taste – but oak does not dominate this wine at all, or detract from the minerality, acidity or tension, or not yet anyway. Perhaps the oak will shine through in a few years time, but I would rather have it now with a pristine, mineral feel to it.
Right now though it is taut, lean, stony and mineral with a thrilling citrus cut of high acidity to the palate and a touch of saltiness too. There is real richness to the palate as well which gives that lovely feeling of tension to the wine. I really really liked this and it went wonderfully with a superb dinner at the winery, the arancini were especially good – 91/100 points.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the UK from Outis.

Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the US through Winebow.

Azienda Vinicola Benanti

Benanti's Vigneto Monteserra.

Benanti’s Sera de la Contessa vineyard.

I was greatly looking forward to visiting Benanti. I had tried a couple of their wines before and knew they were good, so eagerly anticipated trying them in situ and learning about this impressive producer. Technically it was established in 1988 by Giuseppe Benanti, but actually his family had farmed this land for generations and what he did was to really focus it on wine production. Not just any old wine either, right from the start he wanted to produce fine wine. As recently as 1988 no one else was trying to make top quality wine on Etna, so Benanti was the trend setter. He saw the potential in his land and sought outside advice from experts in Burgundy and Piemonte on what to grow and what to do he set off trying to turn Etna into a great wine region.

Antonio Benanti.

Antonio Benanti – the only photo I have of either of them even vaguely in focus as they would not keep still, even when posing for pictures!

Today the place is run by Giuseppe’s twin sons Antonio and Salvino and they really do seem to do a wonderful job. They exude charm and confidence and a real love for their land, although they have both had other careers before joining the family firm.

What fascinated me was their belief that Etna is totally unlike the rest of Sicily, they claimed to never even talk about Sicily, just Etna. They regard their wines as mountain wines, Alpine like Austrian or Friulian wines rather than Sicilian Mediterranean wines. I can see what they mean too, their wines – the whites anyway – have a purity about them that seems very unlike the Mediterranean. Although the history of Benanti wines is not long they have come a long way since 1988 and now exclusively champion the native grapes of Etna over the international varieties they started with.

Again I thought all the wines were good, but the stand out wines for me were:

NoblesseBrut Noblesse
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.

Pietramarina2009 Pietramarina
D.O.C. Etna Bianco Superiore
For me this is the standard bearer wine for Sicily – or Etna anyway. Pure Carricante grown in Milo at over 950 metres above sea level, most of the vines are over 80 years old and many are ungrafted. The wine is unoaked, but released after ageing in bottle, 2009 is the new release. This age means that we still get the taut, nervy minerality and high acidity, but it is balanced by some creamy waxy richness that makes the whole wine more complex and interesting and introduces richer orange notes and nuts in to the flavour profile. This is a wonderful wine – 93/100 points.

Yet again it was the whites that really thrilled me and again they were just perfect with the food, but everything Benanti made seemed very good including 2 of the very best Etna reds that I tasted on the trip:

Castiglione di Sicilia.

Castiglione di Sicilia where Rovittello’s grapes are grown.

Castiglione di Sicilia from afar with vineyards in the foreground.

Castiglione di Sicilia from afar with vineyards in the foreground.

The hillsides around Castiglione di Sicilia.

The hillsides around Castiglione di Sicilia.

P1070354

Elders of Castiglione di Sicilia.

Rovittello2005 Rovittello
D.O.C. Etna Rosso
80% Nerello Mascalese – the dominant black grape in these parts – and 20% Nerello Capuccio. Masacali is a village on Etna which lends its name to the Nerello Mascalese. This wine is made from a 80 year old vines on a single vineyard site in Castiglione di Sicilia at 750 metres above sea level and aged in cask for 12 months.
This is a delicious red wine, rich with black cherry characters and iron-like minerality, silky tannins and earthy, mushroomy, leathery, tobacco together with dried fruit and gently rustic and baked Medierranean flavours. The finish is very long and with a wonderful savoury character – 90/100 points.

Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio2006 Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio
I.G.T. Scilia
100% Nerello Capuccio, also from Castiglione di Sicilia, grown at 700 metres above sea level and aged in cask for 8-10 months. This is simply an I.G.T. as the  D.O.C. rules only allow up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio in Etna reds. This is because it is not so widely grown and is very much the junior partner historically.
I did like the Rovittello very much, but this really stood out, everything about this wine is a delight. The colour is intense, the nose is lifted and aromatic with rich red fruit and savoury leather and herbs. On the palate there’s a supple, mouthfilling and velvety texture with soft tannins and intense sweet red fruit, ever so slightly cooked and reminiscent of rich Pinot Noir, especially as there is some freshness of acidity. There are herbs, iron, earth, rich cherry, salami, tobacco and mocha, some of which implies a sort of rustic memory somewhere in this wine’s DNA, but it isn’t rustic at all. A glorious wine – 93/100 points.

I should also point out that the 2006 Il Monovitigno Nerello Mascalese is rather lovely too, but the Cappuccio totally thrilled me that bit more.

Benanti wines are available in the UK from Les Caves De Pyrene.
Tenuta di Fessina wines are available in the US through Wine Warehouse in California.
The road to Cottanera.

The road to Cottanera.

Another family winery that is seeking to make great Etna wines in the Castiglione di Sicilia area, Cottanera was created in the 1990s by brothers Guglielmo and Enzo Cambria when they converted a hazelnut grove into a vineyard. Since Guglielmo untimely death the estate has been run by his daughter Mariangela and Enzo.

cottanera_etnabianco2012 Cottanera Etnabianco
D.O.C. Etna Bianco
The fresher, zestier side of Etna Bianco This is basically a cold fermented Carricante – with a little dollop of Catarratto – that was aged on the lees.
The nose was restrained, tight and mineral with just a touch of lemon, lemon rind and smoky lees. The palate is deceptively rich with zesty lemon rind acidity and some weight of smoky creamy lees in the mouth. It is almost crisp and has pretty high acidity too and is very clean with a feeling of purity and lively with pear and grapefruit on the long finish. A lovely dry wine – 89/100 points.
I also highly rated (90 points) their seductive 2005 Etnarosso which is 90% Nerello Mascalese with 10% Nerello Cappuccio aged for 9 months in a mixture of large wooden vats, new and older barrels.

As I say Etna seemed to me to be the finest and most cohesive of Sicily’s wine regions. I had lovely wines elsewhere, but they seemed more dependent on being made by a good producer, whereas all the Etna wines I have tried have been very good indeed – especially the whites.

In fact after I arrived back in the UK I tried the Wine Society’s bargain 2012 Etna Bianco from a producer called Nicosia and while it was not in the same league as the other whites mentioned in this piece, it was a lovely, fresh, crisp, mineral and tasty dry white wine of real quality at just £8.50.

I also tasted one more Etna white on the trip when I visited Planeta a few days later. This impressive producer started making wine much further West in Sambuca di Sicilia and Menfi, but now has vineyards dotted throughout the island. They created an estate on Etna in 2008 and their first vintage is the 2012. So far they only make a white that it is mainly Carricante blended with something quite surprising – and wow is it good. More of that another time.

In the meantime, do try some wines from Etna – you will enjoy them, I promise.

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.

Santorini – A Great Wine Region

Ia_Santorini-2009-1

The stunning, rugged beauty of Santorini

I had thought that I wouldn’t write anymore about Greece and Greek wines for a while, but the sheer excitement of some wines that I have tasted from Santorini recently mean that I really have to share them with you.

Over the last month I have been giving some Greek wine tastings and as I had expected the quality of the wines won lots of sceptics over and made people look at Greek wines in a new light.

All the wines were well received and all showed very well indeed, but one region consistently proved to be the crowd pleaser. This was the white wines from the beautiful volcanic island of Santorini.

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

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view – see Santorini north of Crete & south of Paros

Sadly I have yet to visit the vineyards of Santorini – I hope to put that right this year though – but I have known and loved the white wines from this island for a long, long time and have almost always enjoyed them. I have found that as long as the alcohol level is not above 13.5% then these wines always deliver pleasure. Above that, and a handful are, the alcohol burn ruins the balance for me – so check the alcohol level when you first buy one.

Satellite photograph of Santorini clearly showing that it is the lip of a volcano.

Satellite photograph of Santorini clearly showing that it is the lip of a volcano.

Many of you will know Santorini I am sure, it is basically the lip of a volcano, so a settlement perched at the very top of a mountain as the rest just happens to be underwater. The place is tiny and basically solid volcanic rock which has very little organic matter and a complete absence of clay which means that Phylloxera never took hold. As a result Santorini can boast some of the most ancient vine roots in the world – up to 300 years old it seems.

Santorini's wild rocky terrain showing the low trained vines in the terraced vineyards or 'pezoules'.

Santorini’s wild rocky terrain showing the low trained vines in the terraced vineyards or ‘pezoules’.

The problems here are wind and lack of water and they solve both of these in the same way. In order to protect the vines from the extreme winds that blow across the island, they basically train the vines close to the ground and weave the stems into a basket to contain and protect the grapes as they ripen. Growing this low to the ground also maximises the effect of the morning dew on the vines.

Santorini vines woven into baskets.

Santorini vines woven into baskets on the ground – note the rocky soils.

Backbreaking work.

Backbreaking work.

Unfortunately it also means that tending these vines is backbreaking work, but like so may other extreme vineyards around the world – Mosel, Côte-Rôtie, Cinque-Terre, Etna, Ribera Sacra etc. – the results do seem to make the effort worthwhile.

Everything about grape growing on Santorini makes for naturally low yields and good concentration, so it is hardly surprising that the island has enjoyed a high reputation for its wines for thousands of years. Whatever the wines were like in antiquity though the modern wines are of excellent quality and that is thanks to these extreme natural conditions and the high quality local grapes.

Santorini is home to a handful of grape varieties and all of them are of interest, but one stands out as being especially fine, capable of being the standard-bearer for Greek wine much as Sauvignon Blanc is for New Zealand wine. That grape is the wonderful AssyrtikoAss-err-tick-OH – and frankly if you like Sauvignon Blanc (or Verdejo and Grüner Veltliner for that matter) you will like it. Who knows you might even prefer it, some of the people at my recent tastings did.

The wonderful thing about Assyrtiko is that it retains its freshness and acidity even when grown in desert conditions like those on Santorini.

The harvest

The harvest

The wines:

ASSYRTIKO2012 Santorini Assyrtiko
Santo Wines – the Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin / P.D.O (like an A.O.C.)
100% Assyrtiko
I had tried the 2011 while in Greece last year and it was excellent, a real standout wine, but if anything this had the edge. The nose was stony and mineral, citrus and fresh, while the palate was crisp, bone dry and nervy. There seemed to be a purity and concentration to it that I found thrilling, the fruit was there in a lemon/lime kind of way with hints of apricots too, but it was the acidity and mineral quality that gave this its finesse and elegance and the finish was wonderously long. A great wine, how I wish I had had a bit of fish with me – 92/100 points.

As far as I am aware this is not yet available in the UK, but it really should be – check with Venus Wines.

Argyros Atlantis White bottle2011 Atlantis White
Argyros Estate, Santorini
P.G.I. Cyclades (like a Vin de Pays, but actually could be labelled as a P.D.O.Santorini)
90% Assyrtiko with 5% each of Aidani & Athiri
The other grapes make this slightly less crisp, it is softer and even slightly fleshy and textured, so it feels less pure and less mineral, but is still a gorgeous dry white wine and what it lacks in minerality and complexity compared to the pure Assyrtiko it more than makes up for in sheer drinkability. The palate gives a touch of pear that softens the citrus, while the nose has a touch of the sea – 89/100 points.

Around £10 a bottle in the UK from Marks & Spencer online.
Distributed in the US by Athenee Importers.

Santorini grapes drying in the sun

Santorini grapes drying in the sun

VINSANTO2004 Vinsanto
Santo Wines – the Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin / P.D.O (like an A.O.C.)
85% Assyrtiko with 15% Aidani
Vinsanto desert wines are an old tradition on Santorini and if they are all as good as this one I can see why it caught on. Very ripe grapes are harvested and then dried in the sun for 10 days or so to further concentrate the sugars. As with all really top notch desert wine the sugar here, although high, was balanced by the sheer class of the wine and the cleansing high acidity. The flavours were astonishing with great depth, concentration and complexity. Toffee, caramel, honey nuts, nougat, apricots, orange, coffee, fig, clove show what long ageing in old oak will do, but the dominating character was freshness and liquor orange. A great, great desert wine that was superb on its own and with the baklava, but would be equally good with apple pie or strudel, and blue cheese – 93/100 points.

As far as I am aware this is not yet available in the UK, but it really should be – check with Venus Wines.

Oia on Santorini

Oia on Santorini

On this showing – and past experience – I really believe that Santorini is one of the great wine regions and Assyrtiko one of the world’s finest white wine grapes. Do try some when you can, you will not regret it, there might be nothing better with simply cooked fresh fish and seafood.

Thanks to my friends at Tsantali for most of the photographs.