New Zealand Spreads its Wings – 5 Wines of the Week and something rather special

Don’t only drink Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – there is so much more to enjoy.

I don’t know what it is with me. Perhaps I have a low boredom threshold when it comes to wine, but I love variety. The very thing that makes wine exciting to me is the infinite variety available. Which seems to put me out of kilter with many wine drinkers here in the UK who would appear to only drink the same few wine styles all the time.

If that is you, please, please branch out, experiment, try something new – what’s the worst that can happen?

Which brings me to my theme – New Zealand. Please remember to click all the links.

Marlborough vineyards - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Marlborough vineyards – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

I have long admired New Zealand wines and well remember my first taste of a wine from that far off country and it excited me very much. It was 1984, I had recently joined the trade and the company I worked for introduced three extraordinary sounding new wines to the range, one wine each from Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon.

NZ map QS 2011 watermark

They all seemed exotic beyond belief. You have to realise that the wine revolution had not yet happened and such things were not widely available. The Lebanese wine was Château Musar 1977, the Australian was Berri Estates South Australian Cabernet-Shiraz and the New Zealand wine was a Gewürztraminer made by an estate called Matawhero in the Gisborne region of North Island. I remember it as being really good and wish that I could still buy it over here.

I had recently fallen for the charms of the Gewürztraminer grape and drank a lot of it at the time – I hardly ever do now as the examples from Alsace seem much sweeter nowadays.

So my first taste of New Zealand wine would now be regarded as  a slightly left field offering, but I did not realise that then. Sauvignon Blanc did exist in New Zealand in those days, but it was early days. There wasn’t very much and it was far from being the most popular or dominant grape. Indeed the now ubiquitous Kiwi ‘Sav’ (why do they miss the U out when they pronounce it?) would have been the oddity then. What’s more the Marlborough region barely produced any wine at all. It is the now largest wine region in the country and produces something like 60% of New Zealand wine, while around 60% of production is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the years I have seen New Zealand wines proliferate on this market and sweep all before them. Everyone now drinks New Zealand wine. Or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc anyway. That is the dominant grape and most widely produced and consumed style.

Which has bugged me for quite a long time.

I like many Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs and can see the attraction, but I want other things too and so wish that wine drinkers would experiment with all the other lovely wines that New Zealand produces. Of course it would help if the major outlets got a little more creative and actually stocked some of the other exciting wines coming out of New Zealand. However, things are getting better, it’s slow, but a wider range of New Zealand wines is beginning to be available.

To make my point I recently put on a tasting of the more unusual wines coming out of New Zealand at the moment. It wasn’t exhaustive by any means, but I managed to find some real variety and excellent wines that many people would enjoy. Collectively they are my Wines of the Week.

The White Wines

New Zealand is a cool climate wine producing country and so the production is overwhelmingly white. Although there are some warmer places and Pinot Noir of course performs well in the cool conditions of South Island, it just isn’t hot enough to ripen black grapes to make red wines in most of the country. My line up of white wines was really good, they all showed well and had that classic Kiwi clean brightness to them that  that I can only sum up as a feeling of purity.

Vineyards in Gisborne - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Vineyards in Gisborne – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

image-12015 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Gisborne

Albariño is a Spanish grape from the north western region of Galicia, where it is most famously used to make the often delicious wines of Rias Baixas. They are amongst the best Spanish white wines and are great with seafood. The grape is also grown over the border in Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho. This is the second vintage of this wine that I have tasted and I have loved them both. Te Awa are a wonderful winery, who produce some terrific wines and created the Left Field label specifically for the less widely seen styles of wine. I am thrilled that Albariño might be breaking through as a popular and international grape variety – it certainly deserves to.

The aromas are floral and scented with delicate, but ripe peach and zesty citrus aromas. The palate is bright, fresh and lively with mandarin and nectarine characters and a twist of lime on the finish. This is a light, fresh, crisp style that is really, really good and would be gorgeous with some seared scallops or just on its own. It feels pristine, bright and pure as a mountain stream, surely anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would appreciate this – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle from The Wine Reserve – for more stockists click here.

Yealand's Seaview Vineyard - photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

Yealand’s Seaview Vineyard – photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

yealands-estate-gruner-veltliner-nv2014 Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Grüner Veltliner
Yealands Estate
Awatere Valley, Marlborough

Yealands is an impressive producer and is the brainchild of the engaging Peter Yealand who in his time has farmed mussels and deer as well as wine. Most of their production is from a large single block of vines – the largest single parcel of vines in the county – in the Awatere Valley, the cool south eastern part of Marlborough. It is right by the sea and is called the Seaview Estate as it looks out over Cook Strait.

Grüner Veltliner is the signature white grape of Austria, where it makes some tremendous wines. Much like Albariño, I get the feel that Grüner Veltliner might be on the cusp of breaking through as an international grape and again I think that is an excellent thing. 15% was fermented in second and third use French oak barrels and the wine spent 3 months on the lees with lees stirring to help the complexity and the texture.

Another wine with a lovely aromatic nose that is delightfully floral and gently spicy with a dash of white pepper. Again that purity shines through and the palate is gorgeously silky and lightly textured, being gently creamy like coconut – presumably helped by the oak. There is plenty of discrete apricot like fruit too as well as refreshing citrus acidity giving plenty of zing. Again I cannot imagine anyone that likes Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc not enjoying this, but it is deliciously different – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from Great Western Wine – for more stockists click here.

image-1-22014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Villa Maria
Wairau Valley, Marlborough

Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose, as the skins are pink.
This wine is from Fletcher’s Vineyard which is in the famed Golden Mile, which is a strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the sub-region of Rapaura.

The nose is fresh and enticing with pear, delicately smoky peach and some mineral notes.
The palate is by turns stony and mineral, pear-like and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit and mandarin too. There is a leesy texture here too giving a gentle smokiness and a lightly ‘mealy’ quality that is very attractive.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominant than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from The Pip Stop and The New Zealand House of Wine.

image-12013 Esk Valley Verdelho
Esk Valley Estate
Hawkes Bay

I am very fond of Verdelho as it is a lovely grape and I wonder why we don’t see it more often. Just to be clear, it is not the same as Verdejo or Verdicchio or any of the other similarly named varieties that people often assume are the same. It is actually the Madeira grape, but put to a very different use here. Some authorities think Verdelho might be a long lost clone of Riesling, but they say that about Albariño too.

Esk Valley is a wonderful estate that is much more famous for producing some of New Zealand’s finest red wines, but they also make some marvellous whites, including some excellent Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Selected from two vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and was mainly cold fermented in tank, with some being fermented using the natural yeast in large – 600 litre – French oak casks.

Delightfully aromatic and floral with a real zing of lime and a mineral edge together with a touch of oiliness. On the palate the texture marries beautifully with the freshness and the minerality. The oak just gives a dollop of cream and a bit of complexity, but never dominates, while some tropical fruit and citrus flavours of mandarin and lime make it utterly delicious – 89/100 points.

The 2014 vintage is available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company and The New Zealand House of Wine – for more stockists click here.

The Red Wines

Being a cool climate country, New Zealand is nowhere near as famous for its reds as its whites and only a small proportion of the country’s production is red. Pinot Noir is by far the most dominant grape and is the main one used in South Island – by some margin. However, other grape varieties do get a look in and, just as with the whites, the number of grape varieties used is increasing and becoming more exciting. Hawkes Bay – or Hawke’s Bay – in North Island is home to the greatest concentration of red wine production in New Zealand – apart from Pinot Noir which is mainly from South Island. It is warmer here, with well drained soils, so it can produce some good concentrated red wines. The Gimblett Gravels is the most prestigious sub-zone and home to many of the country’s finest red wines. Traditionally it’s Merlot and Cabernet country, but Syrah is quickly becoming pretty mainstream, while Mediterranean grapes like Tempranillo, Montepulciano and even Grenache are beginning to get noticed.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

lf-btl-malbec-nv-d-jpg2014 Left Field Malbec
Te Awa Collection
Hawkes Bay

Malbec has been used in some of the Cabernet-Merlot blends of Hawkes Bay for quite a number of years, just as it is used in Bordeaux, but often with a higher proportion. I have only once before had a single varietal Malbec from New Zealand though and that was in the 2003 vintage (I think) when Esk Valley made one because their Merlot and Cabernet were not up to the mark and so all they had left was Malbec. This version is completely unoaked.

The colour was an extraordinary vivid, deep purple – you could paint with this. The nose gave off rich plum, blueberry and blackberry, together with rich cocoa and some pungent spice notes. The palate was fresh and juicy, with chunky rich fruit and a deep inky feel. There is liquorice and pepper together with black fruit and a dryness from the – artfully tamed – tannins that gives the wine a sappy, briar-like flavour. I love the upfront and juicy quality of this. It feels fresher and cooler than its Argentinian cousins and would go very nicely with a barbecue or a steak, I would enjoy it chilled too – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

trinity-hill-wine-568d7a79694b32014 Trinity Hill Tempranillo
Trinity Hill Estate
Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

Trinity Hill is a great producer – right up there with Craggy Range – that produces some of the best Syrah in the country, as well as many other great wines. One of the best ways to taste their wines in the UK is by visiting the excellent Bleeding Heart restaurant, which is part owned by John Hancock who owns Trinity Hill. The Tempranillo was fermented in stainless steel and then aged in a mixture of tank and French and American oak barrels for a short time.

Again this youthful wine had a bright and vivid purple colour. The nose was earthy and a bit spicy with juicy plum aromas and the sweeter note of dried currants. The palate was sumptuously fruity with lots of black fruit, a touch of red fruit and a sort of sweet and sour thing going on with a touch of drying tannins. This is totally unlike the Rioja style of Tempranillo, being more fruity and less savoury in style. It might not reach the same heights of excellence as Trinity Hill’s Syrah, but is is a lovely wine with vivid, ripe, chunky fruit – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £18 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

1staete_landt_arie_syrah_20112010 Staete Landt Estate Arie Syrah
Staete Landt Estate
Rapaura, Marlborough

Staete Landt was the brainchild of a charming Dutch couple called Ruud and Dorien Maasdam. In Marlborough’s early wine days they bought an old apple orchard and turned it into one of the most respected wine estates in the country. The estate name is a reference to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered what we now call New Zealand in 1642 and named it ‘Staete Landt’, land for the Dutch state. I like them and I love their wines. They and their wines always have something to interesting to say. In the early days, late 1970s and early 1980s, plenty of people planted Cabernet and Merlot in Marlborough and then discovered that they just cannot ripen properly, so apart from Pinot Noir and the odd maverick, you come across very few black grapes in Marlborough. So, finding someone brave enough to make premium Syrah in the cool conditions of Marlborough is a real thrill.

Just as with the Sauvignon Gris above, the estate is in the ‘Golden Mile’ strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the Marlborough sub-region of Rapaura. Ruud has conducted in-depth soil analysis on his vineyard and identified 24 different blocks which are treated as individual vineyards in effect. Since 2005 Syrah has been planted on two of them, but the 2010 comes just from the Arie block. The grapes were hand-picked and de-stemmed. They had a pre-ferment cold soak for seven days and a long post fermentation maceration as well. These techniques help colour and flavour extraction while not extracting tannin. The wine spent 20 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.

The maturity and class of this wine really showed. The nose was smoky, spicy and earthy with rich cherry, blackberry (some dried, some fresh fruit) and some dark chocolate. The palate was svelte with fine, sweet tannins, some leather and herbs as well as black fruit and some mushroom and truffle from age. It had lovely freshness running all the way through it and was very stylish and fine with a long finish – 92/100 points.

The 2011 is available in the UK for around £22 per bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Which could have been a great end to the tasting, but I had dug deep into my cellar and unearthed a wonderful treasure for the finale:

Vidal Estate in the 1920s - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate in the 1920s – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Soler bottle1998 Vidal Estate Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon
Vidal Estate
Hawke’s Bay

I have always been fascinated by the Vidal Esate for as long as I have known about it. Founded in 1905 it is the oldest NZ winery that was just a winery and not a mixed farm as well. Spaniard José Sole, had been making wine in New Zealand since 1865 and had anglicised his name to Joseph Soler. His nephew, Anthony Vidal, arrived in New Zealand from Spain in 1888 to help his uncle at his winery in Wanganui on the West coast of North island. Eventually Vidal wanted to set up his own winery and he bought an old stables and half a hectare of land near Hastings in the southern part of Hawke’s Bay, which was warmer and drier that Wanganui and boasted well drained stony soils. Today Vidal is part of the Villa Maria group and one of their best vineyards in Hawke’s Bay is named in honour of Joseph Soler.

I am always in awe of them when I think what drive and what determination the pair of them must have had to go all that way around the world in sailing ships to an isolated place with a tiny population and an uncertain future. 

This wine was a rigorous selection from a single block of the Soler vineyard, which had only been planted in 1993, so was very young. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented in open vats with hand plunging four times a day to extract colour and flavour. It was pressed after two weeks post ferment maceration and then aged for 21 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. 1998 was a great vintage in Hawke’s Bay and perhaps the first to serve notice that this is a great red wine region.

The colour was quite gamey and brown, like Brown Windsor Soup, and a great deal of tannin had adhered to the inside of the bottle. The nose was vivacious and alive with currants, leather, cocoa, gamey / meaty, espresso and mint notes. The palate was very smooth with those currants again, dried blackcurrants, a savoury, meaty character, rich coffee, figs, fine milk chocolate and the merest touch of ripe, fine grain tannins. It had great complexity and concentration and was still vibrant and delicious with a wonderful decayed sweetness like rich dried fruit. I loved the wine and would like to try it with an old fashioned saddle of mutton or steak and kidney pudding, luckily I still have another bottle – 94/100 points.

This is no longer available anywhere that I am aware of, unless you want to offer me a lot of money for my last remaining bottle!

It was an excellent tasting, even though I say so myself, and gave a little snapshot of some of the new styles and interesting things coming out of this dynamic wine producing country – and not a Sauvignon Blanc in sight.

So the next time you drink something from New Zealand, try a different grape variety or style. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Wine of the Week 53 – a celebration of Albariño

Once again I was spoilt for choice, so have decided to have a pair of Wines of the Week.

They are both from different countries and different winemakers, but they are both made from the same grape – Albariño, although neither of them hail from that superb grape’s native country – Spain. The grape originates in Gallicia north western Spain, where it is famously used to make Rias Baixas wines – this is one of the very best you will find. This region is just above Portugal, which also grows the grape and produces superb wines from it, but the Portuguese call it Alvarinho – this is a superb Portuguese example, as is this.

Loving Albariño can be an irritating pastime as, like Pinot Noir, it can be so inconsistent and not always show its true beauty, but when it does it truly deserves to be included in a list of the world’s finest white grapes. Lower quality examples can be a bit dilute and lack minerality in favour of peachy fruit, so are always at least nice to drink, but at their best Albariños – like this one here – have poise, balance, purity and a thrilling quality.

By the way, if is is consistency that you are looking for with Spanish white wines, then I would recommend that you try a Verdejo from Rueda, this grape never fails to deliver and I wrote about a superb example here.

Good Albariño excites me and I have long thought it a shame that it has not managed to break out from the ghetto and become a true international grape variety. However, it seems that this might be about to change as I have recently tasted two really exciting and fine Albariños, one from New Zealand and another from California, neither of them are oaked.

The wine regions of Sonoma - click map for a larger view

The wine regions of Sonoma – click map for a larger view

Marimar Albarino2012 Marimar Estate Albariño
Marimar Estate, Don Miguel Vineyard
Russian River Valley AVA, Sonoma, California

Marimar Torres is an amazing lady. Born into the winemaking Torres family of Spain, she is Miguel’s sister, Marimar carved out her own niche by relocating to California and establishing a boutique winery in Sonoma. The estate specialises in Chardonnay and Noir and the viticulture is entirely organic and moving towards biodynamic. Because of Marimar’s Spanish roots they also grow a little Tempranillo, which she blends with Syrah, and recently have planted a small parcel of Albariño. Originally Marimar planted the grape on the cool Sonoma Coast, but amazingly it was too cold for it to ripen properly – it was cooler than Galicia. After 4 years of trying there they gave up and grafted the same vines onto rootstock in their slightly warmer Don Miguel Vineyard in their Russian River Valley Estate. It is a true boutique wine with only 287 cases produced.
Albariño is an aromatic grape and the nose is richly exotic and fragrant with floral notes, pineapple, mango and some peach and nectarine too. It isn’t all fruit though, there is even a touch of something saline and mineral there.
The palate is quite round, but also delivers lovely acidity to offset the succulent fruit. Lovely concentration of fruit, peach and apricot, even peach stone at times. Touch of white pepper too. Lovely balance and tension between the freshness and the juicy fruit. A glorious wine, subtle and hedonistic at the same time. The finish is dominated by lovely tangy stone fruit and is very long – 93/100 points.
Try it with simply cooked fish and a salad, but the sheer weight of this Albariño will suit garlicky chicken well too.
Available in the UK for around £28 a bottle from Vintage Marque and Edgmond Wines. Further stockist information is available from Fells.
US stockist information is available here.
The second exciting Albariño that I have tasted recently is from an equally unlikely place, New Zealand.
NZ map QS 2011 watermark

New Zealand wine map – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Richard Painter, Te Awa's talented winemaker.

Richard Painter, Te Awa’s talented winemaker.

Left Field Albarino2014 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Hawke’s Bay, New ZealandTe Awa is another enterprising winery, this time based in the Gimblett Gravels zone of North Island’s Hawkes Bay region. They produce an exciting range of wines, but also like to show their whimsical side in their Left Field range of less usual grape varieties that are not always grown on their own vineyards. They augment these wines with a wonderfully irreverent set of labels, which you must read. The Albariño fruit was sourced from a small vineyard in Gisborne, which again shows that you do not want too cold a place for Albariño to thrive – Gisborne is pretty warm and is regarded as great Chardonnay country. Again it is an experimental lot with just 250 cases produced.
There is a startling purity to this with like juice and pumice notes together with some honeysuckle and orange blossom on the nose.
The palate is lean and clean, like a lunge with a foil, with acidity rather than weight to the fore, but the fruit is delicious too, sort of dancing on your senses with delicate flavours of melon, peach and nectarine. Another gorgeous wine and clean as a whistle, grab some while you can – 92/100 points.
This lighter, zestier style would suit shell fish and tapas very well as well as all manner of lighter dishes.
Available in the UK for around £13 a bottle from Stone Vine & SunTaurus Wines and The Halifax Wine Company. Further stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield.
Both these wines are really fine examples of Albariño and show that this terrifically exciting grape is finally on the march.

Wine of the Week 12 – a lovely white for Summer

Legaris vineyards in Ribera del Duero.

Legaris vineyards in Ribera del Duero.

During Summer – and actually the rest of the year too – I love drinking white wine.

I never understand people who only drink red wine as white can be so deliciously refreshing, cleansing and lively. What’s more it is easier to drink on its own than red and goes with a wide array of foods too, from nibbles and alfresco delights to a lovely piece of fish.

In Summer I seem to be especially drawn to a fresh and lively style of dry white wine that is going through something of a golden age right now – if you want good white wine it has never been better or more varied than it is today.

What’s more modern know how has made it possible for superb whites to be made in areas that were once exclusively famous for their red wines. Spain is the best illustration of this and it makes a wide array of superb white wines, from the aromatic delights of Galicia, the creamy barrel fermented Viuras of Rioja, the fine Chardonnays of Navarra, the zesty lively joys of TxakoliChacolí , the richer, creamier white Grenache / Garnachas of Terra Alta and Catalonia, the emerging Picapoll / Picpouls of northern Catalonia to the delicious Malvasias from the Canary Islands.

If the delights of Spanish white wines have passed you by, then perhaps the best place to start is with the superb region of Rueda in Castilla y León. Red wines are now permitted to be made in this Denominacion de Origen – D.O. -, but it was solely for white wines until recently. The focus is still white wines though and it makes some of Spain’s very best using Sauvignon Blanc and Viura, but the real speciality grape is the local Verdejo.

Rueda’s blends can be very good wines, but the very best wines from the region – in my opinion – are made from pure Verdejo. All the examples that I have ever tried are enjoyable, but some are outstanding and are amongst Spain’s very best white wines. I would include Analivia, Palacio de los Bornos and Protos amongst these, as well as my Wine of the Week: Legaris Rueda Verdejo. Like Protos, Legaris is really a red wine producer based in the stunning region of Ribera del Duero – this D.O. can only make reds and rosés -, but it doesn’t stop them turning out a superb dry white from grapes grown in nearby Rueda.

Legaris Verdejo2013 Legaris Verdejo
Bodegas Legaris
D.O. Rueda, Castilla y León

Verdejo is a grape that oxidises easily – which is why historically they made Sherry-like wines out of it – but modern knowhow has meant that the grapes natural freshness can be retained. They grow the vines on trellises to maximise ripeness and harvest the grapes at night to retain the freshness and acidity. Cold fermentation at low temperatures in stainless steel tanks ensures the wine is fresh, lively and zesty, while a short maceration on the skins before fermentation adds flavour and texture to the wine, as does 2 months lees ageing after fermentation is complete.

If you like Sauvignon Blanc, then there is no doubt in my mind that you will like this too. The nose is floral and intensely citric – lime, lemon and grapefruit – and also offers an array of fresh herbs. The clever winemaking gives some texture, weight and succulence to the palate, which makes it juicy and deliciously easy to drink, while the acidity keeps it clean, fresh and vibrant. The finish is zesty and bright with a touch of attractive bitterness like almonds and olives at the end. This is a delicious and drinkable wine that goes superbly with a few garlic prawns and a salad, as well as some simply cooked fish or chicken. What’s more it is great value – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK at £8.49 per bottle from Ocado, Noble Green Wines and Wine Rack. Additional stockist information is available here.

Legaris wines are distributed in the US by Aveníu Brands. Additional stockist information is available here.

If Rueda and Verdejo have passed you by, then this is one of the best and it is a perfect wine to enjoy with Summer food. Give it a go, I am certain that you will enjoy this lovely wine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Navarra – diversity, delights & surprises

 

Navarra's landscape - count the windmills - Don Quixote would have had his work cut out today!

Navarra’s landscape – count the windmills – Don Quixote would have had his work cut out today!

I have recently returned from my first wine trip to Navarra and I am excited, as well as mystified, by what I found.

History long ago robbed Navarra of its coastline, although the northern tip is very near the sea, while modern economics has so far deprived the region of an international airport, so the easiest way to visit is either via nearby Bilbao or Biarritz and it is well worth the effort.

The thronging streets of Pamplona.

The thronging streets of Pamplona.

Pamplona's beautiful town hall.

Pamplona’s beautiful city hall.

One of Pamplona's many excellent bars.

One of Pamplona’s many excellent bars.

Dinner, Spanish ham is the very best thing with any wine.

Dinner, Spanish ham is the very best thing with any wine.

Pamplona, the region’s capital, is a compact, handsome Spanish city with a lovely mediaeval centre whose main square, the delightful Plaza del Castillo, is surrounded by enticing little streets lined with superb tapas bars and teeming with life – except on a Sunday night. The square itself is home to the famous Café Iruña which is well worth a visit as it is a great bar serving just about anything you could imagine from chocolate y churros to full meals. It is also a tourist attraction itself though, as it is an incredibly beautiful building whose sumptuous interior dates from 1888 and was once Ernest Hemingway’s watering hole of choice – indeed their restaurant on the mezzanine floor is named in his honour and there is a bronze statue of him at the bar.

Hemingway at the Café Iruña.

Hemingway at the Café Iruña.

There is much for a hedonist to enjoy in Pamplona and I would highly recommend that you spend a few days there. I was also very glad to renew my acquaintance with Olite which is a small Navarran town that is home to the 14th century Palacio Real de Olite and whose Parador is in a 15th century palace and castle. I spent my 4th birthday there and well remember the mixture of excitement and trepidation I felt when passing the suits of armour on the stairs leading up to our turret room – perhaps I had watched too much Scooby-Doo, as I was certain they would come to life and attack me!

The heart of Olite.

The heart of Olite.

Lovely though all that was, I was here for the wine. I really wanted to get to grips with what made Navarra tick, how its wine industry sees itself and what it does well. I had some ideas, but what I experienced was a real surprise.

I found a very mixed picture indeed. I know the region produces a great deal of Garnacha (Grenache) rosé / rosado, but I went there expecting to find a confident wine region that produced good quality Tempranillo based red blends. In the main I anticipated tasting lots of good wines a bit like Rioja, but offering better value for money and which had some Cabernet and Merlot in them. In my mind Navarra was right up there with Rioja and Ribera del Duero as a quality wine region, but was somehow ignored by the consumer.

Well, broadly speaking I was right about the value for money and the general quality, but not much else. What I found instead was a wine region with incredible variety. In fact if there was any single message I could take away it was that Navarra has great diversity and produces an extraordinary array of wines.

Which we are all used to from the new world, but not so much from European regions and it makes it very difficult to sum up what Navarra is all about. Which must be at least one reason why it is so hard to find Navarra wines for sale in the UK – diversity of styles is not an easy sell. Try as I might I just cannot sum Navarra up in a simple phrase or single style, which might make the wines difficult to sell, but it also makes them pretty interesting.

However this lack of a single identity seems to echo that of the region itself. The place is cool, green and mountainous in the north where it borders France’s Basque regions and at one point is just 12 km from the Atlantic. To the south Navarra is a hot, arid plain and more like the Spain of our imaginations – in fact every time we ventured south of Tafalla the rain stopped and the landscape was noticeably drier.

Historically too the region has a very mixed heritage. It was once home to the Vascones, a tribe who managed to negotiate a respected place for themselves within the Roman Empire and the whole Ebro Valley became Romanised, rich and known as Ager Vasconum. In later history these people became both the Basques and the Gascons and the wider area became the Kingdom of Navarre. This country straddled the Pyrenees and from 1224 was ruled by French dynasties including that of Thibault 1 the Comte de Champagne – which partly explains why Taittinger Champagne is so widely available in Pamplona. It was not until 1512 that Navarra was incorporated into Spain, making it the last piece of mainland Spain to be absorbed. Even then it retained its own systems and some autonomy, while the people still kept many of their traditional freedoms that made Navarra less feudal than much of Spain.

A glance at my map will show you that the Navarra wine region only covers a part of the southern half of the region. They shy away from growing grapes in the cooler north or the mountains – even though Navarra has land very close to Getariako Txakolina and borders France’s Irouléguy regions – and plant solely where there is more sun to ripen the grapes.

Many of the wine areas are very close to Rioja and indeed some parts of Navarra’s southern fringes that hug the Ebro River are included in the Rioja Denominación de Origen Calificada / DOCa rather than Navarra’s Denominación de Origen / DO.

In all honesty I find it very hard to get to grips with Navarra’s wine history. It would appear to have all the same things going for it that made Rioja such a force to be reckoned with – in fact it is even closer to Bordeaux and has more French connections if anything. So why phyloxerra was the making of nearby Rioja, but almost destroyed Navarra seems to be something of a mystery. Of the 50.000 hectares of vines in production before Phyloxerra struck, 48,500 were wiped out and it took a long, long time to recover and even now they only have some 12,000 hectares.

Having studied the history of Rioja to some degree and toured Navarra, it strikes me that even today Navarra is a land of grape growers and estates, whereas Rioja is only just returning to being a land of wine estates after a century and a half of being dominated by producers who mainly made wine brands with bought in fruit. The difference might be as simple as that, Rioja was in great part controlled by big producers with the money and knowhow to turn bought grapes into good wine and Navarra’s growers would have struggled to keep up with nothing like the clout or economies of scale.

So, Navarra missed its moment and had to watch as Rioja became the dominant Spanish wine region and for a long time the only one with true international demand and world renown. The consequences of that are still apparent today and I was really very surprised how there is no clear identity for Navarra even now. They use a broad palette of grapes and produce many different styles of wine. Which makes it slightly harder for the consumer to navigate their way around, but much of what I tasted proved that Navarra is well worth the effort.

Navarra with watermark QS

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

Navarra’s Sub-zones & Climate
Navarra, like Rioja, is made up of sub-zones – 5 of them in fact, however they do not seem to be mentioned on the labels or wine details. So although they are different, have varied soils and differing climatic conditions, the consumer does not really notice whether the wine is from one or the other or is a blend from across the region.

Senorio de Saría in .

Senorio de Saría in Valdizarbe.

Valdizarbe is the most northerly and cool, often with chalky soils.

Tierra Estella.

Tierra Estella.

Tierra Estella is a beautiful and lush place with limestone soils and gently warm with noticeably moist ( sub-humid) conditions – it was certainly damp while I was there.

Old vines in Baja Montaña.

Old vines in Baja Montaña.

Baja Montaña is unlike all the other sub-zones. It produces very little wine and is high and cool, however these sunny, but cool hilly vineyards have well drained gravel and limestone soils that together with cool nights seem to be able to produce some astonishing wines – this struck me as a place to watch.

Bodegas Inurieta in Ribera Alta.

Bodegas Inurieta in Ribera Alta.

Ribera Alta is a large area that accounts for around a third of all Navarra production. The soils are sand and limestone in the main with a gentle Mediterranean climate that makes it warmer than the 3 northern sub-zones.

Vines in Ribera Baja.

Vines in Ribera Baja.

Ribera Baja is actually south of Rioja and is the warmest and driest part of Navarra with an arid Mediterranean climate that produces piquillo peppers as well as being home to the largest number of bodegas in Navarra. This arid plain is a sun trap with sandy soils. Moscatel / Muscat performs well here as well as the red varieties.

Piquillo peppers hung out to dy.

Piquillo peppers hung out to dy.

Right now these sub-zones seem to me to be largely an irrelevance which reduces the impact of a simple message about Navarra DO. Remember that Rioja on the whole ignores its sub-zones, but perhaps they will become more important and relevant as Navarra builds its following.

Rosado – Navarra’s standard-bearer
I suspect that most wine drinkers will have tried a Rosé Garnacha from Navarra – even if they unaware of what it was. These wines are hard to avoid in Spain and are perfect with tapas – our little group of wine writers tasted quite a few examples while in Navarra and many were very good indeed. I have not always been excited by Garnacha rosado, usually being more tempted by Tempranillo or Bobal versions, but the sheer pleasure that some of them delivered has turned me – all of these were deliciously drinkable if undemanding and I would happily drink them with anything or nothing:

botella_vino_inurrieta_mediodia2012 Garnacha Rosado Mediodia
Bodegas Inurietta
This is also sold by Adnams as their Adnams Selection Rosado ‘Monte Arlas’

2012 Nekeas Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Nekeas – they also produce Morrisons Signature Navarra Garnacha Rosé

gran-feudo-rosado-12012 Gran Feudo Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Chivite
We actually had this a few times as it is omnipresent in Pamplona’s tapas bars – indeed it is the best selling Rosé in Spain.

It is delightful and goes with anything at all – a vibrant, happy, juicy wine bursting with fruit.

2G2012 Señorio de Sarria Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Señorio de Sarria

A lovely, vibrant and bright wine with rich red fruit, almost, but not quite sweetly ripe and a nice dash of tangy acidity. This would perhaps be my choice as representative of good Garnacha rosado.

rosado_de_lagrima2012 Ochoa Rosado de Lagrima
Bodegas Ochoa
This is made by the delightful Adriana Ochoa who has worked around the world, especially in Australia with Yalumba and the influences show – both ways actually as she persuaded Yalumba to make Tempranillo. This was the palest rosé that I tried on the trip and it was made from a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha. It was perhaps the most delicate that we tasted, which gave it a little more class with some minerality, fresh acidity, red fruit and even a touch of tannin making it balanced as well as delicious – it was perfect with our delicious alfresco lunch.

However, some producers make more complex and demanding rosés as well and these are really very special:

8G2012 Señorio de Sarria Viñedo N° 5 Garnacha Rosado
Bodegas Señorio de Sarria
Made from 56 year old vines, this is quite superb with real wine aromas of earth, mushroom and savoury herbs as well as bright red fruit notes. The palate is rich, full and textured with ripe red fruit and brambley fruit balanced by a bite of acidity and excellent balance. I really liked this very much indeed, it is intense and full of flavour, a great rosé – 89/100 points.

imagen_escala_ancho.php2011 Chivite Collecion 125 Rosado
J. Chivite Family Estates
Now quite seperate from Gran Fuedo, the Chivite Family Estates are at Aberin in the Tierra Estella Sub-zone. This is an ambitious wine that aims to be a fine rosé wine. Made from a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha it is aged on its lees for 6 months in French oak barrels with weekly lees stirring to add texture and complexity – an astonishingly good rosé, one of the very best I have ever tasted – 91/100 points.

The Whites – focus on Chardonnay
I really like white wine and have taken to it more and more the older I get. I particularly like Spain’s white wines nowadays. Navarra’s whites puzzled me a bit though, with few exceptions the favoured white grape of the region seems to be Chardonnay and while I have nothing against Chardonnay, many consumers do – in the UK anyway. What’s more, if I want Chardonnay then my thoughts would not really turn to Spain, unless I was in Spain, but then I would want an Albariño, Godello, Verdejo, barrel fermented Rioja or even Txakoli – all classic Spanish styles. I can see that a Spaniard might want a Chardonnay from time to time, but I really think Navarra producers are holding themselves back by over relying on this grape.

That being said there were some very nice examples and  some that excited me. The lively and fresh unoaked 2012 Chardonnay from Bodegas Señorio de Sarria – think slightly tropical Chablis with a hint of lactic creaminess, while the 2012 Gran Feudo Chardonnay from Bodegas Gran Feudo / Chivite was a little more textured and creamy – but still with good acidity and freshness – was also a lovely wine, both score 87/100 points.

I was also excited by the 2011 Nekeas Barrel Fermented Chardonnay made by the charming Concha Vecino at Bodegas Nekeas. It was textured and beautifully integrated with peach, cinnamon, poached pear, gentle oak spice and creaminess all balanced by fresh acidity that kept it delicate and elegant. I would certainly order that if I saw it on a wine list in Spain, it would be wonderful with a sole or a creamy fish pie. This lovely wine is so well balanced it would win many people back to Chardonnay, Concha believes it to be one of the very best in Spain and considering it sells in Spain for around €8, then I think she is right – 91/100 points for quality and value.

The one Chardonnay that I have tasted from Navarra which is on a completely different level of complexity is the 2009 Chivite Collecion 125 Blanco from J. Chivite Family Estates. This superb wine spends nine months on the lees in Allier oak and is beautifully rich, creamy, textured and opulent, but well balanced with lovely acidity and good integration of the gently spicy and nutty oak. It isn’t cheap, but is very fine and complex. This is a wonderful wine, wherever it comes from and some claim it to be Spain’s finest white – 93/100 points.

Sauvignon Blanc et al
As for whites made from anything other than Chardonnay, I only tried a few. Bodegas Inurietta make something of a speciality of Sauvignon Blanc and produce 2 versions. Their unoaked version is called Orchidea and is a nice, direct, limey and attractive Sauvignon. Their oaked version, Orchidea Cuvée is more complex, textured with a leesy lime curd character and a cut of grapefruit-like acidity, it’s a lovely and interesting wine but sadly they only make 5000 bottles.

Much as I liked all of these – and I really did – I kept wanting some whites that were just a bit more – well Spanish, or different at least. They planted the French varietals in Navarra because of their historic links north of the border, so what about Basque grapes to give some difference – Gros Manseng makes stunning whites in Gascony and the Basque lands, so what about some more diverse white grapes guys, something you could make your own?

The Reds
For most Spanish wine regions the red wines is what it is really all about and that is certainly true of Navarra. Navarra has long grown the classic Spanish grapes that we normally associate with Rioja, but that are widely grown throughout Spain, Tempranillo, Garnacha and even Graciano and Mazuelo. Over the last 40 years or so though most producers have added classic Bordeaux grapes to their vineyards. They always say this is because of their traditional link with Gascony and Aquitaine north of the Pyrenees and those regions do indeed grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – I even heard of some Malbec in Navarra too. However these traditional grapes were apparently helped to return to Navarra – if indeed they had ever grown there before – by Juan Magaña who had worked in Bordeaux and wanted to create Navarran wines with the finesses and sophistication of top Bordeaux. To that end he famously smuggled cuttings over the border during the early 1970s – when Spain was still a dictatorship and near siege economy. He planted his vineyard and built Bodegas Viña Magaña in Barillas near Cascante in Ribera Baja. If you have not tried his wines they are quite magnificent and I hope to visit next time.

I had been looking forward to the Tempranillo based wines and various blends and I enjoyed a good number of them including the following stand out examples.

Bodegas Inurietta
Falces, Ribera Alta sub-zone

Grapes arriving at Inurietta.

Grapes arriving at Inurietta.

This winery was the first one that I visited and they really impressed me. The winery is very modern and well equipped, even though the the land has belonged to the owning family for well over 100 years. Inurietta is the name of the parcel of land near Falces in the Ribera Alta zone. They grow their grapes at various heights in the valley from 300 to 480 m, which certainly seems to help retain good freshness in the wines. The soils vary from sand and silt to gravels, clay and limestone.
Overall I think their wines seem to be very good quality, well made with ripe fruit and an approachable, modern style.

Bodegas Inurietta wines are distributed in the UK through C & D Wines.

botella_menu_vino_inurrieta_cuatrocientos.p:Users:quentinsadler:Desktop:botella_menu_vino_inurrieta_cuatrocientos2010 Inurietta Quatrocientos Crianza
I greatly enjoyed this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Graciano and Petit Verdot aged for 14 months in French and American oak. It had good rich cassis and black cherry fruit with soft, but firm fine grain tannins and a cut of fresh acidity as the vines are grown at quite high altitudes – 87/100 points.

botella_menu_vino_altos_de_inurriera2008 Altos de Inurietta Reserva
A 50/50 blend of Syrah and Petit Verdot aged for 14 months in new French oak barrels.
This was a hugely impressive and modern style red wine, gloriously smooth and richly fruity with soft, rounded tannins. The oak is nicely balanced with the fruit and supports rather than dominates – 88/100 points.

botella_menu_vino_ladera_inurrieta2010 Laderas de Inurietta
100% Graciano aged for 15 months in new French and American oak barrels.
I’m not always a fan of Graciano on its own and prefer it in blends, but this joins the ranks of the few varietal examples (especially Contino) that I have really enjoyed. The nose offered rich creamy black fruit and freshly turned earth (nicer than it sounds). The palate gives rich, sweet, ripe black fruit and plums together with soft, sweet tannins and a ripe, creamy texture to the fruit and silky tannins. A beautifully made and modern wine with a new world feel – 89/100 points.

Bodegas Señorio de Sarria
Puente de la Reina, Valdizarbe sub-zone

Puente la Reina from Señorio de Saría.

Puente de la Reina from Señorio de Saría.

I have always been fond of this beautiful winery ever since I used to sell the 1978 Gran Reserva in another life and their wines always please the crowds when I show them at tastings.
The estate is very peaceful as it sits in rolling tree covered hills, deep in the Sarria Estate which farms many other things other than grapes. Milk and cheese is a speciality too, in fact of 1500 hectares, only 210 are used for wine production. Most of the vines are on south facing slopes at between 400 – 500m allowing the wines to keep good balance between fruit and freshness.

Señorio de Sarria wines are distributed in the UK through Boutinot.

13G2010 Señorio de Sarria Viñedo Sotés
I have always been fascinated by this single vineyard multi-varietal blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Graciano and Mazuelo. The vines are 53 years old and grown around the Castillo de Sotés just over the hill from Saría itself.  The wine was aged 9 months in French oak barrels.
This has lovely intensity and weight, with a creamy ripeness of fruit, the palate also has a firmness that I like, the acidity is there but masked by everything else, it just supports. Medium-bodied, dry and structured, but a lovely wine for posh everyday drinking – 87/100 points.

32004 Señorio de Sarria Gran Reserva
This wine has always delivered superb value for money and is a great bottle of wine that tastes as Spanish as they come, despite only having French grapes in it! The blend is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon to 30% Merlot aged for 36 months in oak, the Cabernet in French and the Merlot in American.
The colour was an earthy garnet, while the nose offered leather, dried fruit and fragrant smoke. The palate gave prunes, plums, mocha tinged oak and intense sweet ripe fruit together with savoury characters, lovely weight and a silky texture. 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Caviste @ £14.95 per bottle.

Their Reserva Especial was also rather good by the way.

Bodegas Nekeas
Añorbe, Valdizarbe sub-zone

Nekeas Valley.

Nekeas Valley.

Another beautiful spot in Valdizarbe, the sunny Nekeas Valley seems to produce some good wine and I had never stumbled across them before. They claim to have the most northerly olive groves in Spain too and make some superb olive oil.
Historically the place was an important producer, but the vineyards were unused for 100 years before being brought back to life in 1989. The vines form a single block, interspersed with olives, growing between 450 and 650m.

Concha Vecino winemaker at Nekeas.

Concha Vecino winemaker at Nekeas.

Nekeas’s secret weapon is their wonderful winemaker Concha Vecino. She has such passion for the place and what she does and love for “my grapes” and “my wines” that she is hard to resist. Her enthusiasm is catching and what is more she really knows what she is doing. Subtlety seems to be her watchword and she makes very good wines which really try to capture the character of the place. As Concha says “Oak and tanks are for everyone, but my valley is just for me”.

temp_cab_crianza2010 Nekeas Crianza Tempranillo-Cabernet Sauvignon
A 60/40 blend grown at the top of the valley slopes. The wine is aged for 14 months in French oak and is unfined and unfiltered.
This gave a lovely aroma of wild herbs, earth and flowers together with studs of deep red fruit. The palate had great concentration of rich cassis and redcurrant with high, fresh, clean, tangy acidity. Very soft, smooth texture, there is a seam of gently firm tannin leaving a slightly chalky finish. Intense, but delicious, the finish gives herbs and lavender. Over all it has lovely balance and purity – 88/100 points.

cab_merlot_reserva112008 Nekeas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot
A 50/50 blend grown in very high vineyards on poor, thin, stony soils. The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak of around a year old.
The colour is dense, blue black and opaque.
The nose offers rich notes of mocha and sweet tobacco with clean earth together with dried cassis and the beginnings of prune and fig.
The palate is rich, creamily ripe and succulent, with deep sweet black fruit and is pretty full bodied and concentrated with good acidity and running through it. This is very good and attractive wine – 89/100 points.

We will hear a little more about Nekeas very soon….

Bodegas Julian Chivite / Gran Feudo
Cintruénigo, Ribera Baja sub-zone
I am so glad to have finally visited Chivite, even if it was a rush. They are so important to Navarra, having been grape growers since 1647 (which is just before lunch in Spain) and have produced wine since at least 1860 – their superb Colección 125 range was created in 1985 to celebrate the 125th  anniversary of their first wine exports and have always been some of the very best Spanish wines. 
Now the Colección 125 are produced at the Chivite Family Estates at Aberin in the Tierra Estella sub-zone, sadly I did not get there, but did try the range and they are all magnificent wines.

We had a light lunch here and the centrepiece was a stunning Tortilla. We asked the lady who made it what the secret was of that lovely soft texture and it seems it was a litre of olive oil poured into the egg mixture! You live, you learn.

After years of family problems an 11th generation Chivite is once more in charge, Julian, no less and I was so excited to meet him that I forgot to take a photograph!

GF Crianza2008 Gran Feudo Crianza
50% Tempranillo, 30% Garnacha and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 18 months in French and American oak.
A wonderful wine with the punch of young Grenache dominating the pure red fruit and spice laden nose.
Rich, supple palate with the Tempranillo providing the weight and taut, smooth tannins, while the Garnacha gives the fleshy texture and brightness. Lovely supple freshness, medium bodied and elegant with a lovely savoury finish, smooth supple tannins, vanilla and mocha oak notes and fresh acidity all dominated by rich red cherry and blackberry fruit – 88/100 points.

The Gran Feudo Reserva was very good too, but the next wine was a real treat:

GF Res VV2008 Gran Feudo Viñas Viejas Reserva
50% Tempranillo and 50% Garnacha from  vineyards planted between 1954 and 1960. The wine was aged for 12 months in American oak.
A lovely wine, it somehow feels classy with fine grain tannins and burnished coffee character as well as bright black cherry fruit, vanilla and spice. A lovely elegant, easy wine – 89/100 points.

chivite-coleccion-125-reserva-62009 Chivite Collecion 125 Reserva
This vintage was pure Tempranillo aged 14 months in French oak barrels 40% were new and 60% second use.
I had not tried this for a while and it was as good as I remember, rich and concentrated but still elegant, classy and complex with lovely fruit concentration giving a creamy quality, deep black fruit, subtle use of oak giving nice spice nuances and some mineral, earthy characters. A beautiful wine of great finesse – 93/100 points.

Ochoa Vinedos y Bodegas
Olite, Ribera Alta sub-zone
Now all the wineries that I have written about here make lovely wine that I rate highly, but Ochoa was such a wonderful visit. The Ochoa family seem to have been involved in Navarra wine for centuries, but the winery only goes back to 1908, but like so many other producers around the world, the focus on quality wines only began in recent times when the delightful Javier Ochoa took over. In recent years Javier has been joined by his daughter Adriana as enologist and her passion for the vines and the wines she makes from them really shows. What also helps is that Adriana has made wine all around the world and especially has experience of making wine at Yalumba in Australia and her go getting attitude really shows. I thought that all her wines were very good quality indeed.

Javier & Adriana Ochoa.

Javier & Adriana Ochoa.

The Ochoas farm 143 hectares just south of Olite on clay and limestone soils that face south giving excellent sun exposure.
I loved their enthusiasm and exuberance, touring their vineyards was a delight, whilst riding a grape harvester was just a wild experience – oh and the lunch was superb too.

The view from the top of a harvester - I's never been on a harvester before...

The view from the top of a harvester at Ochoa – I’d never been on a harvester before…
The Ochoas, like most Navarra producers I met – and Miguel Torres – are certain that machine harvesting is just as good as picking by hand.

Views from Ochoa's Traibuenas vineyard near Olite.

Views from Ochoa’s Traibuenas vineyard near Olite.

The same view with the harvester.

The same view with the harvester.

reserva2007 Ochoa Reserva
55% Tempranillo, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot aged for 15 months in French and American oak.
Gosh I really liked this wine. We might technically have had finer wines on the trip, but this was so good and so joyful to drink that I rank it pretty high. It still has lovely fruit, giving a soft and succulent character, but there is just the beginning of dried fruit, leather, coffee and mocha too. The tannins are smooth and silky while the flavour lasts and lasts – 90/100 points.

Conclusions so far
So, from everything I had experienced so far, Navarra’s ability to produce good rosé from a range of grapes, but especially Grenache / Garnacha is well deserved and my view of them as good quality rosés is increased.

My opinion of the white wines from Navarra has certainly grown, I tasted many good Chardonnays made in many different styles – and some non-Chardonnays too – most of them I would happily order and drink with pleasure. My only quibble is that here in the UK anyway the word Chardonnay is not considered a good thing to have on a wine label. To me it feels limiting to major on a foreign white grape that cannot ever really be your own, especially when Spain and the Basque lands are full of wonderful white grapes, but that might just be me. All I know is that most UK consumers would not want to buy a Chardonnay and I am unlikely to ever order a Spanish Chardonnay, even if it’s good, because I want more traditional Spanish styles.

As far as the red wines were concerned, I liked what I saw from all the producers that I have written about here and more. I had always seen Navarra as a producer of Tempranillo, Cabernet and Merlot blends and I found many of them to be very good quality indeed and well deserving of being more popular and sought after.

The surprises
However the red wines that I found the most startling and exciting were not made from Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot at all. They were actually made from a grape variety that I am not particularly keen on either. I knew Navarra grew it because they make rosés out of it, Grenache / Garnacha is a classic Spanish grape, but I hardly ever seek it out. It of course produces great results in blends in Rioja and Priorat, but as a varietal it hardly ever moves me. In Spain it is grown in the hot regions of southern Aragón – Calatayud, Cariñena and Campo de Borja – where it makes nice affordable wines that can be fun and great value, but hardly ever amazing.

So you could have knocked me down with a feather when I tasted a Garnacha from Navarra – pretty much against my will – and I loved it, I became hooked and wanted more, so tasted all the Garnacha I could find. I was wondering why I liked them so much when Concha Vecino put her finger on it. She described them as the “Pinot Noir of Garnachas” and the only Atlantic Grenaches in the world.

We are so used to Grenache being seen as hot climate grape that hearing how well it does in a cool area is quite astonishing and changes all the rule. However it must be said that another favourite Grenache of mine this year was the magnificent 2007 Villa Maria Reserve Grenache from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, another place that is pretty cool and with a sort of Atalantic climate. Sadly this wine is so far produced in such small amounts that it is not available in Europe. The good news is though that these cool climate Garnachas from Navarra are available and often deliver great value for money.

Old vines at Nekeas.

Old vines at Nekeas.

Chap Garnacha

2011 El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa Old Vine Garnacha
Bodegas Nekeas, Añorbe, Valdizarbe sub-zone
These vineyards this wine comes from are at the highest point of the valley – the high plain or chaparral – and the vines are between 70 and 100 years old. The wine has a short time in French oak to give it a dusting of spice and touch of complexity. It gives rich aromas of red fruit with caramel, vanilla, red fruit and spice.
The palate is rich, smooth, supple, savoury and nicely tarry, with gently firm tannins and lovely intense rich sweet fruit, while throughout the wine is this lovely freshness, purity and cut of clean acidity. Do try it – 90/100 points.
Old vines with Bodegas Palacio de Sada behind.

Old vines with Bodegas Palacio de Sada behind.

Sada2012 Palacio de Sada Garnacha
Bodegas Palacio de Sada, Sada, Baja Montaña sub-zone 
Palacio de Sada are very near Sangüesa in cool high land with stony soils. It has been left behind by time a little, so they still have 200 hectares of old vine Garnache, much of it over 100 years old. Even with the newer 400 hectares the average age of their vines is still over 30 years old!
This was my first Garnacha from cool climate Navarra and I was very taken by it. It is simple, unoaked and juicy, but wow it’s delicious. If I had a wine bar or wine company I would order it straight away. It smells of freshly crushed raspberries and tastes of a whole melange of fresh red fruit and spice – my note says “Sangria for grown ups”! The cool, high altitude conditions give this wine a lovely seam of freshness which I think makes it such a joy – 90/100 points, mainly for the pleasure it delivers.
Palacio de Sada wines are distributed in the UK by Amathus.

La Dama

2009 Domaines Lupier La Dama Garnacha
Bodegas Domaines Lupier, San Martín de Unx, Baja Montaña sub-zone
75 year old Garnacha bush vines organically grown on dispersed plots on cool rocky soils at 600 – 750m. It the brainchild of  mavericks, or fanatics (in the best sense) Enrique Basarte and Elisa Úcar who say of their wines that “Atlantic Grenache, mountain viticulture, spectacular soils make it possible to obtain this ‘savage’ expression of the Grenache Grape”. The finished wine was aged 14 months in French oak.
I saw the road signs to the wonderfully named San Martín de Unx and it stuck in my mind. I wish we had gone, because this was the most exciting wine of the trip, only just and even then because it was so unexpected as much as anything else, but it really is a great wine.
The nose is fragrant and elegant with a purity about it. The palate is balanced and fine with poise and elegance and it carries the 14.5% alcohol perfectly. It is quite rich and concentrated, but also fresh and lively and feels much more Burgundian than Rhône-like. A great, great Grenache that I would love to try in a couple of years – 93/100 points.
Domaines Lupier wines are distributed in the UK by Fields, Morris & Verdin.

_0004_sta-cruz-artazu-2010

2010 Santa Cruz de Artazu Garnacha
Bodegas y Vinédos Artazu, Puente de la Reina, Valdizarbe sub-zone 
Juan Carlos Lopez of Bodegas Artadi fame has spread his wings since 1996, making superb wines in Alicante and also Navarra as well. Their Navarra estate is situated in Artazu just over the river Arga from Señorio de Saría and not far from the Camino de Santiago. Their vineyards grow at 500m and the primary focus is red Garnacha, especially in the flagship wine Santa Cruz de Artazu. Which in itself is interesting as at nearby Saría they were adamant that the best use of their old Garnacha vines was in their  Viñedo N° 5 Rosado, rather than in a red wine.

Certainly it is warmer and more humid here than in Baja Montaña and it shows with a heavier, richer and more brooding and spicy style that has intense smoky sweet black fruit and smoky fine tannins. This is a very different take, but still very fine. It needs a lot of time and a lot of food – 92/100 points.
Artadi and Artazu wines are distributed in the UK by Fields, Morris & Verdin.

However much I liked many of the other reds – and I did – it seemed to me that with red Grenache Navarra has found its star grape. I have never tasted Garnacha as fine, complex or interesting as these – do try some if you can.

At risk of out staying my welcome though I have one more surprise:

Something sweet to finish

I have tasted many Muscats – Moscatel in Spanish – from Navarra and have enjoyed them all in their different ways. Some were light, fresh and clean, while most were lightly fortified like a Vin Doux Naturel. I would highly recommend the following Navarra Moscatels:

moscatel_dulce2011 Ochoa Moscatel Vendimia Tardía
The freshest example I have tried, it is not fortified and the grapes are only a little bit over-ripe. It’s so light and clean and pure that it seems to sing. It feels very simple in many ways, but is so, so deliciously full of fresh, lively peaches, honey, flowers and almonds that it is almost impossible to resist – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from Winedrop.co.uk @ £11.75 per half litre / 500cl.

5G

Señorío de Sarría Moscatel
This is a richer , but still fresh, and honeyed, sweet and a delicious take on the style. The aromas are quite lifted and vibrant with honey, blossom and aniseed as well as lemon shortbread notes. Interestingly the partially fermented grape juice is fortified with local Orujo – a Spanish grappa.

Quite a classic style in Spain – 87/100 points.

chivite-coleccion-125-vendimia-tardia-22008 Chivite Collecion 125 Vendimia Tardía
A more complex style, this is late harvested and partly botrytised Moscatel / Muscat with he grapes being picked in 12 successive tris through the vineyard to get the ripest grapes. The wine is fermented and aged for 5 months in French oak and it really is stunning, honeyed, concentrated and rich as the Sultan of Brunei – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from Waitrose @ £19.99 per half bottle.

So, just when I thought I knew what Navarra Moscatel was all about, I was given this:

caprichoMoscatel Capricho de Goya
Bodegas Camilo Castilla, Corella, Ribera Baja sub-zone
This wine is bonkers! It is amazingly concentrated and ripe with deep prune, fig and raisin characters, rum, caramel and nutty toffee too. It is made a bit like a Madeira with ageing in a mixture of wooden barrels and glass demijohns on the roof for 7 years. It is so, so lovely, like sticky toffee pudding in a glass – who needs the dessert? In style it is like a joyous cross between PX and Rutherglen Muscat with more freshness and salinity. It is intensely sweet, but also has an intense savoury richness, truly great wine – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Templar Wines @ £19.25 per half litre / 500cl.

So, the whole trip was quite an experience and Navarra delivered up more variety and more unexpected gems than I could imagine. I loved the wines and the place and if you drink a few of these wines that I have mentioned, then so will you.

A dramatic Navarra sunset.

A dramatic Navarra sunset.

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.

Catalan élan

The wines of Codorníu

Recently I presented a tasting of some wonderful wines from Spain. I know that I bang on about Spain and Spanish wines, but really I do believe that country makes wonderful, wonderful wines and can boast one of the most vibrant and exciting European cultures as well.

Regular readers will be aware that earlier in the year I spent a week with Miguel Torres, a giant of Spanish and Catalan wine whose importance to the development of wine in Spain cannot be underestimated. However he is not alone in being a leading producer of good wine in Catalunya. All my adult life I have been a fan of Codorníu which is famous as the leading brand of Cava – Spanish quality sparkling wine made by the Champagne method/Traditional method. However Codorníu is much more than a Cava producer, they have been growing grapes since 1551 and making Cava since 1872 – indeed they created it – but over the last 100 years they have expanded their portfolio and production to include most of the important wine regions of Spain – and beyond. Unlike Torres though they leave each winery as a stand alone brand and you will look in vain for the name of Codorníu on the labels.

Instead they have either created new estates from scratch or bought leading producers and the results are startlingly good. I presented some of these wines in a tasting recently and everyone was hugely impressed by the quality, variety and value for money that the wines represented. Catalans see themselves as the dynamic Spaniards, the busy creative Spaniards with modern ideas, a sense of chic and no manaña mentality, so perhaps Codorníu have brought that drive and sense of élan to their outposts in other regions?

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