The Marche – a region awakes: Part 1 – the whites

A few weeks ago I was on a wonderful trip to the Marche region of Italy. This lovely region is in central Italy on the Adriatic coast and the capital is the bustling port city of Ancona. The name of the place, Le Marche, has always intrigued me. It’s pronounced Mar-Kay – and comes from the plural of the word March, which is an archaic term for a borderland. Orginally there was the March of Ancona, the March of Camerino and the March of Fermo, together they were described as Marca or Marche. So when they were put together to form a single region that is the name it was given – Marche or the marches.

The beautiful countryside of Marche.

The region has interested me for quite a long time, but life has prevented me from actually getting there before, so I was quite excited to see the place for myself. Of course I was primarily there for the wine and I was very pleased to be there too, because I had the feeling it was going to be an exciting place.

I wasn’t wrong. The Marche is an exciting wine region. In fact it seemed to me that the whole place is a bit of a sleeping giant that is only just beginning to get really ambitious and to realise just what a good wine region it can be. The wines might not be as well known as those from Tuscany, but I rather think they should be.

For quite a while now I had been convinced that the wines were worth reappraising. That is because all the books still describe the most famous wine from here – Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi – as it was 30 years or so ago, light acidic and bland, but in truth they aren’t actually like that – not anymore.

Staffolo, a hilltop town near Cantina Cológnola.

The countryside is very beautiful and very varied too and well worth a visit if you would like a more unusual corner of Italy to explore. Inland the landscape is very attractive and gentle – not unlike Tuscany – with appealing hilltop towns and villages standing guard over the valleys.

The coast at Sirolo some 10km south of Ancona.

Sirolo.

The coastline too is attractive, with a rugged and wild quality as the beaches are usually at the bottom of coastal cliffs, while the seaside towns are delightful places to stroll around – I was there in May, but I was warned that they are very busy in the summer.

Of course I was there for the wine and there is a lot of wine going on in the Marche. It is a region where a lot of PDOs / appellations / DOCs – call them what you want – overlap each other and cover much of the same territory. I know this as I have just drawn a wine map of the region and it took some working out as it is very complicated.

Wine map of the Marche – click for a larger view.

From an export point of view the 2 most visible wines are both white and made from the Verdicchio (pronounced Ver-dick-ee-oh) grape variety. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is the most famous and enjoys the biggest production, so is the wine that you will come across more than any other. The other leading white wine is Verdicchio di Matelica, which only produces a tenth of the amount of the other Verdichio, so tends to be more artisan production.

Verdicchio is a grape that has really captured my imagination in recent years. It is somewhat written off by most wine books, certainly the ones that I have, but deserves to be taken much more seriously. From my experience, even cheap versions of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi have more about them than most books and wine courses let on. I am sure this is because the wines, like so many, have improved out of all recognition over the last 15 years or so. They are no longer pale, lemony and thin, but have some texture and weight to them and the cheaper versions can often be very inexpensive and pretty good quality too – click here for an example.

Beautiful vineyards in Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.

The finer bottles of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdiccio di Matelica are very different though. I found them to be quite beguiling with taut, crisp acidity and minerality, with mouthfeel and texture showing good weight of fruit, although they are fresh rather than fruity, and complexity. They were seriously exciting wines and the best ones that I tasted are as good as a good Chablis and very much in that style. What’s more, again like a good Chablis, fine examples of Verdicchio are not just fresh, crisp wines, they can be aged to develop more complexity and character. Ian D’Agata, in his book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, states his belief that ‘Verdicchio is arguably Italy’s greatest native white grape variety’ – which is high praise indeed as there is some serious competition from the likes of Fiano and Greco. Verdicchio is also used to make Lugana near Lake Garda, another excellent Italian white wine.

Beautiful vineyards in Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata / DOC for white wines only. They have to be made from at least 85% Verdicchio grapes with the rest being most likely Malvasia or Trebbiano, although most that I have tasted are 100% Verdicchio.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, shown in deep yellow on my map, comes from the historic area of production and has to be made with lower yields than the wines labelled purely as Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Superiore wines are also made using lower yields and can be made anywhere in the region, while Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore are made from lower yields in the Classico zone.

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante are sparkling wines from the region and can be very good indeed, as can the dessert wines made from dried grapes, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Passito.

The pinnacle of production is Castelli di Jesi Verdicchio Riserva. These wines have enjoyed the superior classification of Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita / DOCG since 2010. They are produced in the Classico zone with lower yields and have to be aged for at least 18 months before release – this does not have to be in oak, but some are oak aged.

The soils here seem to be a mix of sandy, chalky, stony and limestone which together with the sea breezes and cold north easterly winds from the Balkans makes for wines with fresh acidity and a note of minerality, which sort of defines the finer wines here.

Inland there is another Verdicchio area. Verdicchio di Matelica DOC is a much smaller zone of production and is away from the coastal influence, so has a continental climate that is cooled by the winds coming down the valley from the north. In order to refresh the grapes further, they are planted high up at 500 metres above sea level. Again sweet, Passito, versions are made, as are sparkling, Spumante. Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva DOCG is made using lower yields and with longer ageing.

Sadly we only tasted a handful of wines from the Matelica zone and they did not stand out. However I would recommend this one, this one and especially this one, which is an especially good wine.

For me the standout producers and wines from Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi were the following:

Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone.

My first visit got off to a very good start at Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone. The estate is a few kilometres south west of Jesi, roughly where the ‘e’ in dei is on my map. It’s owned by the charming Darini family and the winemaker is the very humble, but clearly gifted Gabrielle Villani, who kept saying that he just wanted to make better and better wine.

2016 Via Condotto
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

I really liked this bright, fresh and focussed wine. The colour was bright – it was sealed with a screw cap – honey tinged straw, while the aromas offered rich lemon zest, floral notes and straw. There was no malolactic, so the acidity was vibrant and forthright. It is aged for a few months in tank before release and it has lovely natural balance between nicely textured palate and the freshness. A terrific wine with an incredibly long finish – 88/100 points.

Interestingly when I asked Gabrielle why it was so very different from the bland and dull Verdicchios of my youth he explained that they now do not use Trebbiano – this was 100% Verdicchio, as were most of the others I tried, they use much lower fermentation temperatures in stainless steel tanks, so keep the wine fresh, they age the wine for less time, they site the vineyards more cleverly for freshness, they plant with lower density, use lower yields and harvest later. So that combination of things reduces the yields and increases the concentration of the grapes, so adding flavour, while the fermentation techniques and the site selection adds freshness and balance. The result is a wine that bears no relation to the Verdicchios of the past.

2016 Ghiffa
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

Much as I liked the Via Condotto, and I did, this really made me sit up. It is also 100% Verdicchio, but picked later, to let the sugars build, then a rigorous selection of the fruit makes it more concentrated to start with and then it was aged for 12 months on the less. The lees are the yeast sediment left over from fermentation and give the wine more complexity and can give it a richer texture too.

This had a deeper colour from all that ageing, a lemon curd, creamy and herbal aroma, while the palate was textured and succulent, with peach, apricot, honey and even nougat flavours, while the acidity and saline minerality really gave freshness and balance. This is a serious wine, rich and tangy with a stony mineral finish – 91/100 points.

Gabrielle also makes 2 excellent quality sparkling Verdicchio wines that I enjoyed very much indeed:

Gabrielle Villani.

2014 Musa Brut
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

This is 100% Verdicchio grapes made sparkling by the Traditional Method, as used for Champagne. The wine was aged on the lees for 9 months.

The colour is quite golden while the aromas give a biscuity note as well as ripe each and apples. The palate was surprisingly rich, but balanced with lively, fresh acidity – 89/100 points.

Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone.

2012 Darina Brut
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante
Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone

This is also 100% Verdicchio grapes made sparkling by the Traditional Method, but this richer wine wine was aged on the lees for 24 months.

This is a very serious sparkling wine with a rich colour and has a powerfull, leesy, biscuity, flaky pastry sort of aroma with nuts, caramel, cooked apples and cooked peach. The palate is soft and rich with a rounded mouthfeel balanced by refreshing acidity. The wine is rich and complex and tasting it blind I would never have imagined it was from a region so unknown for sparkling wines  – 91/100 points.

Some of the Cantina Cológnola – Tenuta Musone wines are available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk.

Società Agricola La Staffa di Baldi Riccardo

The entrance to La Staffa.

This beautiful little estate is near Staffolo, so not far from Cantina Cológnola and is universally known as La Staffa. The Baldi family started it in 1994, because of the rising reputation of the local wines, but it is now run by the charming, energetic and remarkably assured Riccardo Baldi. Riccardo is only in his twenties but clearly understands this piece of land and how to make wines from it. The estate is now 7 hectares with some vines going back to the 1970s and Riccardo farms biodynamically with no use of chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. It is a wonderful place, very peaceful and utterly lovely. Standing there it felt very much like being in Chablis, but a Chablis vineyard that had somehow been plonked down in the Mediterranean – which is very much how the wines feel too.

Interestingly the wines all have a salty, mineral quality. All the water used in the vineyard comes from a well on the site and I got to taste that water and it was salty.

La Staffa.

If you have never tried a Verdicchio, or have not had one for a while, Riccardo’s wines may well be the best place to start as they are exemplary.

2016 La Staffa
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Società Agricola La Staffa

100% Verdichio from 12 year old vines fermented in a mixture of stainless steel and cement tanks with a spontaneous fermentation using the wild yeast, 12.5% abv.
The colour is very pale and pure, slightly silver.
The nose gives salty peach skin aromas and the palate is juicy, there is a lovely sweetness of ripe fruit there making it surprisingly surprisingly succulent.
However it feels very fresh with a long salty, pretzel like finish with lively citrus acidity and a mineral quality. The acidity is on the high side, but not too dominating. This is a beautiful wine, pure and lively, but with some weight too. I loved this wine – 89/100 points.

The wonderful Riccardo Baldi.

2011 Rincrocca
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Società Agricola La Staffa

Rincrocca is the name of a hill next to the winery. This wine is 100% Verdichio from 45 year old vines fermented in cement tanks with a spontaneous fermentation using the wild yeast. It was aged in concrete tanks on the lees for 12 months –  14% abv.
Very rich amber honey colour shows the development.
The nose is salty and mineral with apple compote and some mushrooms that again show the development.
The palate is full, rich, honeyed and creamy with mealy texture – but bone dry. The salty purity of the young wine returns on the long, long finish and there is plenty of fruit, peach, peach skin, apple and even some rich citrus like tangerine. Oh I loved this wine, it is quite magnificent like a really good Premier Cru Chablis – 93/100 points.

Some of the stainless steel tanks at La Staffa.

I was also fortunate enough to taste this:

Some of the cement tanks at La Staffa, they are quite old and came from another winery.

2013 Rincrocca (from magnum)
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Società Agricola La Staffa

As you might expect this was not quite so developed, but it was superb. The colour was honeyed, the nose gave complex herbal, camomile, sage, sea salt, sweet dried apricots, toffee and orange zest notes.
The palate was fabulous, round and succulent with ripe peach, peach skin, dessert apples, herbs, honey, caramel and then smoke and salt. The finish was incredible, it just went on and on like a prog rock drum solo – 94/100 points.

These were magnificent white wines that can hold their heads up in any company.

Some of the La Staffa wines are available from Berry Bros & Rudd and Amazon.

Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa

Frankly I feel a bit mean putting Garafoli here as they make wonderful red wines too, but it was the whites and sparkling that especially captured my heart. They are a big producer for the region as they farm 50 hectares and they make many of the different wine styles found in Marche.

Daria Garofoli showing me some of their wines.

They were founded in 1901 and are still owned and managed by the Garofoli family. My tasting here was led by the charming Daria Garofoli who is charge of exports and she claims that they were the first commercial producers of Marche wines. I can well believe that as for most of Italy – apart from Tuscany and some Piemonte wines – selling bottled wine is almost entirely a post WWII enterprise in most of Europe.

Today they have a winery in the Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi zone that makes those white wines and a winery in Cònero that makes everything else.

Daria explained that until well into the 1970 yields remained high and the wines were quite ordinary from here, often with other very bland grapes blended in with the Verdicchio. In those days, and to some degree it continues formally of the more everyday wines, the wines were bottled in a special amphora shaped bottle. Garafoli were one of the very first to bottle wines here and to export their wines. They were also among the first to realise the great potential for quality here, by more carefully siting vineyards, lowering yields and focussing on the mineral quality that Verdicchio can bring.

An old amphora shape bottle of Garofoli’s Verdicchio, it’s from 1964, so even older than me.

2010 Podium
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa

This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly overripe. The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks for 15 months on the lees.

As you might imagine, the colour is a little deep with a peach skin hue. The aroma is wonderfully lifted with creamy, leesy notes competing with fresh citrus, salty sea shore notes, a stony tang and some peach and peach skin. The palate has a lovely succulence and a creamy, mealy feel. There is a salty, mineral quality, rich citrus and a wonderful intensity that balances the lithe freshness and vice versa. A great white wine – 93/100 points.

Beautiful Verdicchio vineyards.

2008 Podium
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore
Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa

This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly overripe. The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks for 15 months on the lees.

Another stunning white wine with an amazing balance between the fresh and the linear and the richer and weightier. There is more salinity here and creamer, curdy texture with rich lemon and almost a touch of beeswax – 93/100 points.

That beautiful rainswept beach.

2012 Garofoli Brut Riserva
DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Spumante
Casa Vinicola Gioacchino Garofoli Spa

This is a premium selection of 100% Verdicchio grapes that are picked slightly underripe. The wine is made fizzy by the traditional method and is aged on the lees for 48 months.

This was either really, really good, or I really really wanted some fizz at the end of a long day. We were tasting this at a beautiful, if rainswept beach and it was a great experience. The wine had a lovely peachy, apricot, citrus and biscuity aroma, while the palate was silky and refined – 90/100 points.

Some of the Garofoli wines are available in the UK from Tannico.

So, there you are, a little snap shot of some of the white wines and sparkling wines that stood out for me on the trip. There were a few more producers of Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, but I think that is quite enough for now, so I will return to the subject.

You never really hear anyone extolling the virtues of Verdicchio, but I think they should, because as you can see the wines can be very high quality indeed. So, the next time you want a sappy, saline, mineral, dry white wine with real complexity and character, try a Verdeicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. I think you’ll like it.

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 67 – lovely Lugana

I was in Italy last week, visiting the beautiful region of Trentino. I loved the place and found much that was exciting – not least the wonderfully vibrant beer culture in the area. However I flew in via Verona and treated myself to an extra day to explore this delightful city.

Apparently it has been a splendid Summer there, but decided to rain for the day and a half that I was there. And when I say rain, I mean rain, real rain, stair rods even.

However, nothing can take away from the beauty and charm of this famous little city, it remains a wonderful place in any weather. My only quibble is that the locals seem to be completely unaware that Romeo and Juliet are fictional. They mention them all the time and they claim that you can visit Juliet’s house and even her tomb. When I was there most of the tourist groups seemed to be going to the Disney Shop, which seemed just as strange.

Finding myself sitting in a lovely little Osteria just near Verona’s Piazza Brà – which is where you will find the amazing Roman arena, an incredible amphitheatre that is still in use for operas and concerts – I was excited to find a wine that I had long wanted to try on their list, so I ordered a glass.

Verona Arena.

Verona Arena.

The inside of Verona Arena.

The inside of Verona Arena.

The region around Verona is famous for the white wines of Soave and the reds of Valpolicella, but there are three other less famous wine made nearby. The reds of Bardolino are very similar to Valpoicella, the whites of Bianco di Custoza are very similar to Soave, but nearby Lugana produces white wines that are a little bit different and it was a specific Lugana that I had wanted to try.

Map showing the wine regions of Northern Italy. Luana is just West of Verona on the shore of Lake Garda.

Map showing the wine regions of Northern Italy. Lugana is just West of Verona on the shore of Lake Garda.

Lake Garda.

Lake Garda.

Lugana is right on the southern shore of Lake Garda and because of this location it enjoys a Mediterranean climate – everything else around has a continental climate. The vineyards are mainly in Lombardy with a small part in Veneto. I was always taught that Lugana is made from Trebbiano di Lugana, locally known as Turbiana and so had it down as a Trebbiano wine. Recently, however, it has been discovered that this grape is not the same as the nearby Trebbiano di Soave or any of the other Trebbianos that are found all over the country, but strangely is actually the same grape as Verdicchio. Verdicchio is most usually associated with the Marche region where it is most famously used to make Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica, but it is grown in Umbria and Latium as well.

Of these white wines, Soave remains widely available, at all quality levels from acceptable to very fine indeed – try an example from Inama or Prà – and while Bianco di Custoza suddenly seems to be available everywhere in the UK, Lugana remains something that needs to be sought out. Well, I now know why. It is because so much of it is drunk locally as it is highly prized in the region.

There are several quality levels and different types of Lugana, the more straightforward wines are called Lugana DOC, but these can be very fine indeed as is my Wine of the Week. Lugana Superiore requires 1 year maturation (not necessarily in oak, although some are) and lower yields.
Lugana Reserva is aged for a minimum of 24 months, with 6 months in bottle – not necessarily oak maturation.
Lugana Vendemmia Tardiva is a rarely produced late harvested, lightly sweet style and I have yet to try one.
Lugana Spumante is the sparkling version, but again I have yet to try one.

My spaghetti with clams.

My spaghetti with clams – the red powder is Botargo, which is cured fish roe, tuna in this instance.

I ordered a glass of  Lugana from Cá Lojera to go with my spaghetti and clams. The waiter brought over the bottle and  poured me my glass. I tasted it and that was enough for me to know it was very good, so I asked him to leave the bottle on the table – and I liked it so much I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Lugana2014 Lugana Cá Lojera
DOC Lugana
Azienda Agricola Cá Lojera
Sirmione, Lombardia, Italy

Ambra and Franco Tiraboschi bought this estate in 1992 and by 2008 and they were crafting some of the finest wines in the region and were instrumental – together with others such as Cà dei Frati – in making Lugana a sought after wine rather than just a local drink. They farm 14 hectares and only use their own estate grown fruit and make their whites from 100% Trebbiano di Lugana / Turbiana. There is no oak used on this wine, which is the entry level of the range and is the freshest, simplest wine they make.

The wine is bright and lustrous to look at with a pale straw colour. The aromas excited me straight away with fresh apples, a touch of ripe melon, floral notes and a little cream. The palate has just a kiss of weight and texture and there is a lot going on with ripe fruit, apples and melon and a hint of something tropical, together with a salty mineral thing and a seam of fresh, citrus acidity. This is a beautiful wine that cheers the soul and is is very, very drinkable – 91/100 points.

If you like wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, Albariño or Godello then you will certainly enjoy this wine. It was a perfect aperitif and great with my Spaghetti alle Vongole and it would work with all manner of fish and poultry dishes too, even veal and pork and would be a good foil to lightly creamy sauces.

Available in the UK for around £17.00 per bottle, from Vinoteca, Buon Vino and Bottle Apostle.
Available in the US for around $17.00 per bottle – for stockist information, click here.

Verdicchio Victorious

Yesterday I attended a tasting that I had been keenly anticipating. It was a tutored tasting of prestigious Italian wines and I was absolutely certain that I would be bowled over.

I am sure that you can see where this is heading, can’t you? In the event I was rather underwhelmed by the whole experience – there were some good wines, but there were some that were quite ghastly too.

Strangely enough though, out of the 19 wines only 3 were NOT red and amongst the most interesting and characterful wines were the 2 white Verdicchios. Continue reading