Wine of the Week – a Chilean Star is Born

It is early days for Chilean sparkling wines, there are a few very nice examples, but so far they aren’t exactly filling the shelves. Which is a pity as most of the Chilean sparklers that I have tasted are very enjoyable indeed.

Maule Valley Vineyards.

Maule Valley Vineyards.

Recently I showed a lovely one at a really well received tasting of Chilean wines. I have liked it for a long time, but it met with such approval that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

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

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

esteladoSanta Digna Estelado Rosé Brut
Bodegas Miguel Torres Chile
Secano Interior
Maule
Chile

This wine is made from País, the grape that was for centuries the work horse grape of Chile. It has been ignored somewhat in recent decades, but the south of Chile is home to some impressively old plantings – over 200 years old in many cases – so Miguel Torres Maczassek, the son of famous Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres and nephew of Marimar Torres, set about giving these long neglected vines a whole new lease of life. The local growers who owned these venerable vineyards had for a long time only been able to sell the grapes at low prices to go into cheap everyday wines, but Torres wanted to rescue it from this obscurity and create a wine that would give the growers a good return. This would also save this fantastic resource of old vine material and put them to good use, it really was a virtuous circle.

The ancient bush vines being tended.

The ancient bush vines being tended.

The resulting wine is a traditional method pink sparkling wine called Estelado. The vines are very old and come from a clutch of independent growers in Cauquenes, Rauco and Curepto in Maule which is well to the south of Chile’s famous wine regions. However, Chile’s south is on the up nowadays and it is the large plantings of old País, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Muscat and Cinsault that is attracting interest and helping with this dramatic Renaissance.

The base wine is cold fermented and after the second fermentation it is aged on the lees for 12 months.

It is a lovely delicate, coral, rose colour with aromas of redcurrant, blackcurrant and leafy, wild herbs. The palate is fresh and lively with a sort of blackcurrant cream character, redcurrant, rose petals, biscuits and blood orange as well as a savoury, herbal, earthy character that is typical of País in my limited experience. This is a really enjoyable and drinkable sparkling wine. I liked it very much as did the people at my tasting – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle – for stockists click here – more stockist information is available from the UK distributor, John E Fells.
For US stockists click here.

The Marimar Estate – wines of elegance & beauty

I am so very lucky to do what I do. I get to see fabulous places and to meet many fascinating people. The wine world is full of winemakers and estate owners who are well known, even famous in my world and sometimes I have known their wines for years, so meeting them can often be a great experience.

Marimar Torres tasting with me in London. Thanks to Kate Sweet for taking the photograph, as I was enjoying myself so much that I clean forgot!

Marimar Torres tasting with me in London. Thanks to Kate Sweet for taking the photograph, as I was enjoying myself so much that I clean forgot!

Recently I had the chance to meet someone whose wines that I have admired for quite some time – Marimar Torres. Not only were her wines as good as ever, but she was great fun too. Miramar was as elegant and sophisticated as you would expect – she is part of Spain’s Torres winemaking family after all – but she was also very amusing and great company. She came across as totally honest and seemingly without ego – rare in winemakers. We chatted away for well over two hours and in that time I learned a lot about the winery and wines that bear her name, as well as her life and character. I was astonished by how easy she was to talk to, how ready she was to tell me about episodes in her past that I would expect her to keep quiet, as well as mistakes she has made and aspects of her own character that displeased her. Frankly I could have listened to her all day, she was an utter delight. I found that her focus, attention to detail, perfectionist streak and determination shined through all her wines, as did her sheer optimism and sunny disposition. I approve of anyone who takes satisfaction in a job well done.

It’s a hell of a story, the Marimar Torres story – and would make a marvellous film at that. Born into a patrician, winemaking family in Franco’s ultra Catholic Spain, she was in her own words, not so much a rebel as a nonconformist – something that would make life pretty hard and frustrating for her in that place and from that background.

Her parents had her life all planned out, stay at home until she met a rich man to look after her, but Marimar did not see her own future like that at all. She persuaded her parents to let her join the family firm and travelled the world selling Torres wines. Their biggest market was the United States and as a consequence she found herself in San Francisco in the early 1970s and fell in love with the place. In fact she fell in love with more than the city as she soon married an American wine and restaurant critic which allowed her to experience the blossoming food and wine culture of California, a lifestyle that was not available to her in Spain. Miramar told me that she found the whole experience exciting and liberating.

The winery at the Marimar Estate - photo courtesy of the winery.

The winery at the Marimar Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

Eventually being involved with wine wasn’t enough, Marimar wanted to make it too and in the mid 1980s she looked around for somewhere to plant a vineyard. Eventually finding a spot that excited her, she told me that ‘it was love at first sight’, she managed to persuade the family to loan her the money to plant her first vines – she has since bought the rest of the family out and owns the estate together with her daughter Cristina. This vineyard was in the cool Russian River Valley AVA of Sonoma, some 10 miles from the ocean and amazing as it seems, there were no others around at that time. Miramar planted her first Chardonnay vines in 1986-7 and named the vineyard Don Miguel in honour of her father.

The wine regions of Sonoma, showing the location of the Marimar Estate - click map for a larger view.

The wine regions of Sonoma, showing the location of the Marimar Estate – click map for a larger view.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Marimar was pregnant with her daughter at this stage and also decided to go and study winemaking at UC Davis – she is nothing if not determined.

2-CMT-MMT on Winery Patio (horiz)

Marimar, her daughter Cristina and their dogs on the terrace of the winery – photo courtesy of the winery.

Her first wine was the 1989 Chardonnay and her father was able to taste it shortly before he died, pronouncing it to be the best white wine he had ever tasted, which must have been quite a moment. For all that Marimar is a nonconformist and removed herself to a new and liberating setting, she strikes me as being very family conscious, with vineyards named after both her parents and a wine after her daughter.

In 1992 she built on this success by building a winery – in the style of a Masía, or traditional Catalan farmhouse. Today the Don Miguel vineyard contains 12 hectares each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, together with tiny amounts of Syrah, Tempranillo, Albariño and now even a little Godello.

Nothing seems to stand still here though, in 2002 Marimar planted 8 hectares of Pinot Noir in a new vineyard in the cooler Sonoma Coast AVA and named it Doña Margarita, after her mother.

Around the turn of the century Marimar visited Burgundy and noticed that many of the finest wines and best sites were farmed organically. This chimed with her belief in doing everything as naturally as possible and so from 2000 until 2006 the estate was in conversion, finally becoming certified organic in 2006. Nowadays the estate is totally biodynamic and generates all its own power using solar panels as well. As Marimar said to me, it makes perfect sense to go biodynamic as organics is merely a halfway house on the way to being biodynamic, and the theories of biodynamics predate those of organics. The estate even encourages a population of owls which control the gophers that are the major pest as they burrow through the roots and destroy the vines.

 Preparation 500

Biodynamic Preparation 500 at the Marimar Estate – photo courtesy of the winery.

The Marimar Estate has come a long way in a very short time, so it was with real excitement that I tasted the wines, and they did not disappoint.

ALB_02014 Marimar Estate Albariño
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

I believe this is the fifth vintage of Albariño from the Marimar estate and it is a beauty. There is no oak, but 100% goes through malolactic, which helps with the texture.

The wine is fragrant, floral and aromatic with crisp green apple notes and something richer like pithy grapefruit giving a citrus twist. The palate has succulence and texture, with apricot fruit, the merest hint of pineapple and some citrus again. All of this makes it a little weighty and round in the mouth, but there is then a core of refreshing, enlivening acidity, a touch of minerality and it’s even a little saline, all of which makes it very refreshing. A fine Albariño that is wonderful with a bit of sea bass, but works equally well as an aperitif or partner to tapas – 93/100 points.

AC---twist-top2014 Marimar Estate Acero Chardonnay
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

An unoaked (as Marimar says, this is not a word in the dictionary, but everyone understands it) Chardonnay – Acero is the Spanish word for steel, as it is cold fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. Only indigenous yeast is used and the wine goes through 100% malolactic.

The nose is bright, fresh and appetising, as well as restrained and elegant with taught white peach, apple and pear, together with something creamy and rich lurking in the background. The palate offers beautifully ripe and gently opulent fruit with apricot and nectarine notes, a little dash of something tropical and a twist of white pepper too. There is lovely freshness here, but a softness to the texture as well, which makes for a delicious wine – 92/100 points.

marimar_la_masia_chardonnay_generic2013 Marimar Estate La Masía Chardonnay
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

The original wine of the Marimar Estate, La Masía means farmhouse. The grapes were barrel fermented in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new, new oak gives greater oak character than older oak, after 5 years the oak is neutral. The wine then undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation and is then aged for 7 months on the less in the barrels.

The colour here is a tad more golden than the Acero, while the nose is more pungent, richer and creamier with peach skin, ripe peach and nuts. The palate is gorgeous, restrained, elegant and silky with a creamy vanilla character, rich citrus, green fig and stone fruit. This is a very accomplished wine, very restrained and refined with subtle, but delicious creamy oak in the background and textured, supple fruit. A wonderful wine, I wish I’d had it with a grilled dover sole – 93/100 points.

PN_32012 Marimar Estate La Masía Pinot Noir
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

The Pinot on the Don Miguel Vineyard is grown in Green Valley, which is the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley. The grapes were hand sorted, destemmed and then fermented in small stainless steel tanks. It was then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels with 36% of the barrels being new.

The nose is fragrant with ripe cherry and plum fruit with a backbone of fragrant, spicy oak too. Pinot’s classic savoury, earthy quality is subservient to the wonderfully ripe, concentrated and seductive fruit. That delicious, ripe red fruit gives the wine a lovely succulence and a fleshy texture that makes it feel sensual. The finish is very long with that rich fruit and a feeling of delicate power too – 92/100 points.

DMR2013 Marimar Estate Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir
Doña Margarita Vineyard
Sonoma Coast AVA
Sonoma, California

Sonoma Coast is even cooler than Green Valley, being just 6 miles from the Pacific the cool ocean breezes and sea mists roll in making the place cooler, which gives slower, gentler ripening. Mas Cavalls means horse farm, as Marimar’s equestrian centre is just below the vineyard. The grapes were hand sorted, destemmed and then fermented in small stainless steel tanks. It was then aged for 10 months in French oak barrels with 36% of the barrels being new and it was unfined and unfiltered before bottling.

Wow, this was very different. The nose is more earthy and savoury – those cool conditions really show by making it feel more Burgundian. There is plenty of fruit too, but the savoury notes dominate, there are rich cherries, pungent raspberry and a waft of almost sweet spice. The palate is very savoury too, with forest floor and mushroom characters with some polished, red fruit shining through the gaps. Again this is a very seductive wine, with a rich truffle and spicy finish, perhaps a more purist or Burgundian style, but quite wonderful – 94/100 points.

2013 Marimar Estate Cristina Pinot Noir
Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA
Sonoma, California

Named for Marimar’s daughter Cristina, this is a reserve selection of the best lots of Pinot Noir from the estate, the richest, most expressive and age worthy. After a cold fermentation the wine was aged for 4 months in new French oak barrels. The components were then blended and the finished wine was aged for a further year in 40% new and 60% 1 year old French oak barrels.

The nose is wonderfully fragrant with rich cherry and raspberry fruit, even some subtle richer black fruit notes. There is spicy oak too, something toasty, vanilla and attractively charred together with sweeter spice and a citric twist of blood orange. The palate is richly fruity, richly savoury and refined, with silky, ripe tannins, some lovely minerality and a salty note too. This is a bolder, more lush wine, but it is still beautifully balanced – 94/100 points.

Marimar Estate wines are distributed in the UK by John E Fells. For US distribution, contact the winery here.

Miramar's dogs driving a tractor, but it's ok as they don't drink.

Bonita and Chico, Miramar’s dogs driving a tractor, but don’t worry, they don’t drink, although they both have a reserve bottling wine named after them.

This is a marvellous range of wines. There was real beauty in them and they made sense, the same assuredness and lack of showiness – or ego – somehow informed them all and they were as elegant and engaging as the lady herself. Miramar is very proud of the fact that these are not winemaker wines, they are vineyard wines that express the terroir of where they are grown. Do try them if you can, they are hugely enjoyable as well as being elegant and fine wines that deserve a place in any cellar.

Torres Viña Sol – 50 Years Old & Still Fresh

I don’t often learn about wine from the postman, but a knock on my door this morning made me  realise that the Viña Sol wine brand, made by Miguel Torres in Spain, is now over 50 years old having been produced in every vintage since 1962.

Viña Sol cannot be underestimated, it certainly put Miguel Torres squarely on the world wine map, showed that Catalunya was an up and coming wine region and proved to sceptic drinkers everywhere that Spain could make bright, crisp dry white wines.

At dinner with Miguel Torres in Vilafranca del Penedés in 20011.

At dinner with Miguel Torres in Vilafranca del Penedés in 2011.

The wine is still good and at the very least provides a well made and reliable wine to cling to when all else fails. Nowadays the grapes are sourced from  Denominación de Origen Catalunya which covers the whole region, but the quality remains high. Made from the local Parellada – also one of the key Cava grapes – Viña Sol is bright, crisp, fresh and lively and at only 11.5% alcohol is light and very drinkable indeed. Above all I always think of Viña Sol as a fresh wine, so I was amused to read the slogan in the leaflet that was also in the box: “Fifty years of freshness“.

It is no mean feat for someone to have created a wine that is still popular and respected after 50 years of production, but of course that is just one of the things that Miguel Torres has achieved. During that half century he was also one of the people most responsible for modernising Spanish wine with the introduction of modern wine making techniques including the use of stainless steel and cold fermentation. He also brought French grape varieties to Spain to help produce a more internationalised range of wines in the 1960s, before championing Spain’s native grape varieties in more recent times.

All that of course would be more than enough for most of us, but from 1979 he did all this all over again in Chile and was at the forefront of modernising the Chilean wine industry and it’s outlook too. Not many people can claim to have anything like the level of influence on the world of wine that Miguel Torres has and continues to have with his strong brands and wide range of very good quality wines.

The box containing 2 bottles of Viña Sol & decorated with replicas of Viña Sol labels through the ages.

The box containing 2 bottles of Viña Sol & decorated with reproductions of Viña Sol labels through the ages.

I know that Viña Sol is 50 years old because this morning my postman thrust a parcel into my hand – always an exciting event. When I opened it I found it contained a wonderful gift box decorated with photographs of Torres wine being made and loaded onto trucks. These pictures have no date on them, but do have that unmistakable feel of the 1960s, that look of a world very alien to our own and yet not totally different either.

The 2 bottles, snug in their box. The current label is on the left, “Spanish Chablis" on the right.

The 2 bottles, snug in their box. The current label is on the left, “Spanish Chablis” on the right.

Nestling inside the box are 2 bottles of 2012 Torres Viña Sol, one with the current label and screw cap, while the other is dressed in the traditional style  that I remember from my childhood. It is complete with a real cork and rather bravely the label even proclaims itself to be “Spanish Chablis” just as Viña Sol used to be labelled back in the ’60s when wine was still considered to be a “French” thing, by British drinkers anyway.

I am thrilled by this gift box, happy memories spent drinking Torres wine came flooding back, but it has given me a real problem. Do I keep the lovely special edition bottle with the old style label, or simply drink it and enjoy it as wine should be?

Whatever I decide I will wish Viña Sol a very happy birthday.

Torres Viña Sol is widely available in the UK from Waitrose, Majestic, Tesco, Ocado and Wine Rack among many others.

Greece – Part 1: Tsantali and Rapsani

Rapsani Vineyards

One of the best things about wine for me is the excitement of new experiences. Too many wine drinkers seem to restrict themselves to a very narrow range of possibilities, so I love to show them just what an amazing variety of good wine there is. Just because a wine seems unusual to us does not make it necessarily an oddity or a niche wine, just one we have not yet tried.

So, whether they are made from grapes I have never experienced before or produced in regions that are new to me I get very excited by new wines – as long as they are good. You can imagine my excitement therefore when I was invited on a tour of vineyards in northern Greece. I had never been before, but did know something about the wines from my days at The Greek Wine Bureau in London during the early 1990s. I was only a small cog there, but I helped to create a little interest in Greek wines in the UK and have retained a love of them ever since. Updating that knowledge and actually seeing the regions sounded like a wonderful opportunity.

We were a small, all male group of wine writers, bloggers and educators who set off to explore the wine regions of Macedonia, it is unusual for these things to be men only, but that was a stipulation this time. You see the centrepiece of our journey was a visit to Mount Athos and this self governing part of Greece is a monastery-covered peninsula where women are not allowed to set foot.

I have been back from Greece for a few weeks now and have been telling everyone I meet how great it was and how good the wines were. They all seem to expresses amazement that I find Greek wines so interesting and it seems that even those who have enjoyed holidays there have a low opinion of the wines. Well I don’t know what they drank, but we tasted dozens of different wines from different regions, made from many different grapes in a wide variety of styles. A few were merely acceptable quality, but most were very good indeed.

The trip was made possible by the generosity of the Tsantali (pronounced Santar-lee) company and they certainly did us proud by taking us to places that were either physically very hard to get to or, as in the case of Mount Athos, just picky – apparently very few non monks or pilgrims are allowed to visit. Continue reading

Give País a Chance

Grande Descabezado volcano in Maule Valley

Recently I have been lucky enough to try two very different examples of País, it is not exactly the most important grape in the world, but it is crucial to the history of wine in Chile, as well as being interesting in its own right.

It seems that País (pronounced Pie-ees) – along with Argentina’s Criolla and California‘s Mission – is directly descended from the grape that the Spanish Conquistadors took with them when they stumbled across the new world. The original grape has for long been called the ‘common black grape’ and until recently we had no idea what it was, but it seems that research has now shown it to be the Palomino Negro / Listan Prieto which now pretty much only grows in the Canary Islands. For two or three hundred years País was, along with Moscatel, the work horse grape of Chile, but was eventually supplanted by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to an invisible rural existence.

Continue reading

A week with Torres

I recently spent a week on the Miguel Torres Wine Course in Vilafranca del Penedès and Barcelona, so thought I should pull my thoughts together and tell you about the experience.

One of the highlights was meeting Miguel A Torres, he really is a giant figure in the wine business. Perhaps as my early experiences of wine were all in Spain he looms larger to me than my British counterparts, but I well remember my first taste of Viña Esmerelda and being astonished by how very different it was from anything else in Spain – still broadly true.

It is impossible to exaggerate Torres’s influence on Spanish wine. He helped introduce all sorts of modern techniques that we all now take for granted – stainless steel tanks, cold fermentation and the use of international grapes were all either introduced by him or helped on their way by him. It is impossible to be sure as he is genuinely very modest and  seemed to always deny being the first at anything, saying that someone else did it before him. However, I have noticed that the genuinely successful are often not the first to do something, but are usually the first to perfect it – which would be very Torres. Continue reading

Miguel Torres – Catalan wine legend

Many of you will know that I have a deep love of Spain, Spanish culture and Spanish wine. Well no one can possibly have the experience of Spanish wine that I have had without coming across Miguel Torres. Indeed some of the very first quality Spanish wines I ever tried were from Bodegas Torres.

I well remember my first taste of the revolutionary Viña Esmerelda, Gran Viña Sol Green Label (called Fransola now) and Gran Coronas Black Label 1975 (now called Mas La Plana). With wines like this Torres were responsible for a real step change in quality and outlook in the whole Spanish wine industry.

I have long been an admirer of Miguel Torres himself, he is a giant of the wine business and holds a place in Spain akin to that held by Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley.

Well, I have been honored by being invited on the 23rd Miguel Torres Wine Course which will run next week in Vilafranca del Penedès near Barcelona, where Torres are based. I am especially looking forward to the sessions led by Miguel Torres himself.

I will blog about some of my experiences there if I get the time and the connection.