Australia’s wine dark sea

Go into any supermarket or wine shop and browse the shelves of New World wines and you could be forgiven for thinking that there are only about 6 different grape varieties in existence.

The French role model for wine is so embedded that it is the classic grapes from that country that are most widely used and the styles of France that are emulated around the world.

It therefore comes as quite a shock to learn that most of the wine regions in countries outside Europe have climates very different from those in the classic regions of France, be it Bordeaux or Burgundy.

The harvest at d’Arenberg in the McLaren Vale, perhaps the most Mediterranean-like region of Australia.

Time after time the climates of the wine making zones in Chile, South Africa, California and Australia are described as Mediterranean, and yet most producers in these places grow Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot. Traditionally only the mavericks and the odd obsessive seem to have actually grown grape varieties that originate in the Mediterranean.

Actually I am nor sure that is entirely true. Very often viticulture in these places began with a wide range of grape varieties, but in modern times the focus has been on the famous ones – which usually turns out to be the French grapes – rather than grape varieties that are associated with less well known and less admired wine types from Europe. Very often all sorts of grapes are grown, often in the most unlikely places, but they do not catch on for all sorts of reasons, be they fashion or snobbery.

Well, I detect a change.

I have experienced that change in Chile  – see here and here – as well as South Africa – see hereCalifornia and even New Zealand, but I found the change most marked in my recent trip to Australia.

I took this photograph at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley. All the wines were superb here and I was thrilled to take this photo, but had to wait ages for her to look up so that I could see the joey in the pouch.

Time after time in wine shops, restaurants and wineries I found Australian wines made from an exciting array of grape varieties, quite unlike the relatively narrow range that fills the shelves of the Australian section in wine shops and supermarkets in the UK. There was a huge variety just presented as normal over there and most of the more intriguing grape varieties originated in Mediterranean countries.

As a consequence of the exciting wines that I found in Australia I have recently put on a few very well received tastings of these wines – in the main you have to seek them out, but the work is worth it.

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

White Wines

I am always saddened that so few consumers – even in the countries make them –  have caught on to the delights of the white wines from Mediterranean countries. To my mind some of the most exciting white wines around come  from Italy, Spain, Portugal and even Greece – or are made from the grapes that hail from those places. It shouldn’t surprise us really as the cuisine of the Mediterranean tends to go much better with white wine than red. However historically it was much more difficult to make good white wines in hot places until well into the twentieth century, so the white wines of that part of the world were pretty much written off as no good and that reputation has become embedded in our memory.

The Eden Valley, the cool part of Barossa.

2014 Peter Lehman H&V Verdejo
Peter Lehman
Barossa Valley
South Australia

I have long been a fan of Verdejo (Ver-deh-ho) it is a lovely grape that is native to Castilla y León and to my mind makes Spain’s most reliable white wines in the little wine region of Rueda. The grape has travelled a little bit, I have had good Verdejo from Virginia – click here –  for instance, but I was thrilled to find it producing excellent whites in Australia too. Normally Verdejo makes wines that are very much in the mould of a Sauvignon Blanc, but the vine can cope with much hotter conditions that Sauvignon, so it could be a big part of the future of white wine in Australia.

Sadly I rather get the impression that this is the only vintage ever made of this wine. If that is so, they really should rethink as I have shown this at 2 tastings now and people have absolutely loved it.

Interestingly it is quite different from a Spanish Verdejo. It is much lighter, fresher – even at 3 years old – and more zingy. The colour is very pale, while the nose gives lime and tangerine with just a touch of something salty.

The beautiful southern end of the Eden and Barossa Valleys.

The palate is pure, mineral and and light – it is 11.5% abv – with a tiny touch of petillance, clean citrus and light stone fruit. It is very refreshing and quite delicious. The style leans more towards a fine Vinho Verde or Txakoli than Rueda and while it is not like nothing else produced in Australia – except some of the fabulously taut and lean Eden Valley Rieslings – it is a real triumph in my opinion. If you can find any, try it with some garlic prawns, grilled fish or barbecued sardines – 89/100 points.

I can no longer find any stockists for this lovely wine, so contact Peter Lehman wines for information.

Many times on the trip I enjoyed some simply cooked prawns, Moreton Bay Bugs or clams with garlic and oil and lemon together with a glass of white wine made from a suitably Mediterranean grape variety – my favourite place for such delights was Sydney Fish Market or Claypots Evening Star in South Melbourne Market and my favourite grape to accompany them was Fiano which seems to be becoming very popular down under.

The busy but tiny kitchen at Clay Pots Evening Star, a great place for seafood and wine.

2016 Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard Fiano
Hancock & Hancock
McLaren Vale
South Australia

I like Fiano. It is a fabulous white grape from Campania in southern Italy. Campania is a great region, centred on Naples it produces some of Italy’s most exciting wines, using a palate of high quality indigenous grapes including Fiano. The best examples are widely considered to be those from vineyards on the volcanic slopes around the town of Avellino. Fiano di Avellino is a DOCg and is a prestigious, fine and mineral dry white, while other examples from Campania, grown on non-volcanic soils, tend to be softer and easier to drink.

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

Fiano is also found in other parts of Campania, including the Sorrento peninsula, and Puglia – the heel of Italy. I was vaguely aware that a few people grew the grape else where. Jenny Dobson makes one at Bush Hawk Vineyards in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, but it seems that Australia has really taken this, slightly exotic grape, to its heart and around 70 producers have now started making examples of Fiano – which is hardly surprising as Italian food and Mediterranean style is big down under, so Fiano would be a perfect accompaniment.

Chris Hancock.

Chris and his brother John Hancock have owned their Home Vineyard in McLaren Vale for over 10 years now. They farm some 80 year old Grenache and Shiraz, together with Cabernet and Touriga, as well as having a 2 hectare plot of Fiano that was head grafted, in situ, onto Chardonnay in 2012. Chris Hancock, who is an honourary Master of Wine, worked with Robert Oatley for many years and Chris is still involved with the Robert Oatley company which distributes his Hancock & Hancock wines.

Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

A part of this was fermented in neutral, old, oak barrels to give roundness and volume rather than flavour, but most was fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures.

To look at the wine has a crystalline purity about it, then on the nose it has nectarine and white peach together with some lemon zest, dry honey and herbs. On the palate there lots of fruit giving a juiciness which is then balanced by freshness and a little taut minerality in the background. The texture is succulent, ever so slightly creamy even which together with the lemon, stone fruit and touch of herbs makes it delicious and very drinkable.

It is light and crisp enough to be refreshing, yet juicy enough and succulent enough to feel interesting and more complex. In a kind of way it shows the ripeness of the place it is from and some the beguiling minerality of the grape, which gives it an inbuilt tension. Lovely with fish, chicken, Mediterranean food, or just to drink on its own – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, Farnham Wine Cellar, Flagship Wines, The Wine Reserve, Drinkfinder, Amazon.co.uk, Eynsham Cellars, Luvians Bottleshop, Ann et Vin, Warren Wines & Amp Fine Wines. More stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield, the distributor.

2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko
Jim Barry Wines
Clare Valley
South Australia

The wonderful Assyrtiko grape is the main grape variety used on the island of Santorini in Greece. This amazing grape is responsible for producing some of the very finest dry white wines – and great dessert wines too – of the entire Mediterranean world. At their best these wines are bright, mineral and refreshing and there is nothing better with a bit of fish or some calamares. If you like crisp, dry, taut white wines, along the lines of Sancerre or Chablis, then you would certainly like a dry white Santorini.

Sue and Peter Barry in the Lodge Hill Vineyard August 2012.

Peter Barry certainly does. He is the third generation winemaker at his family’s Jim Barry winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. In 2006 he and his wife Sue were on holiday on Santorini and they were astonished by the quality of the local wines. Their bracing acidity reminded them of the Rieslings that they made back home, but they had something extra too. That something extra was probably minerality, which is what the combination of the Assytiko grape and the volcanic soils delivers.

Peter had got the bug and returned to the island in 2008 in order to collect some cuttings of Assyrtiko from the always excellent Ktima Aryros, Argyros Estate. After a period of quarantine the vines were eventually planted at their beautiful Lodge Hill Vineyard. Peter was convinced that although the soils were very different, the other conditions would really suit Assyrtiko.

Lodge Hill Vineyard.

There is nothing fancy about the winemaking here, just perfectly ripe grapes cold fermented at low temperatures in order to retain all the freshness and delicate flavours of the grape.

The nose is lovely, floral, citric and lifted with some richer notes of apricot and pear and even a hint of sage. The palate is gorgeous, bright, fresh, pure and pristine with a lovely little touch of silky succulence balancing the high acidity. There are lime, orange, pear, apricot and nectarine flavours together with a little chalky minerality. It balances purity and freshness with fruit and texture beautifully. It’s quite a beguiling wine, but in the end delivers a wonderfully vibrant wine with crisp acidity, pure minerality and delicious fruit. It is a tad richer and softer than a Santorini, but that just adds to the sensation of trying something totally new. This is a fine white wine – 93/100 points.

This is a perfect wine to serve with some clams in white wine and garlic, seared scallops, grilled prawns, moreton bay bugs, some sea bass, sea bream, swordfish or tuna, or try it with spaghetti all vongole

By the way, they only made around 3,000 bottles, so grab it while you can!

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Corking Wines, Noel Young Wines, The Solent Cellar, D Vine Cellars, Eagle’s Wines,Vagabond and House of Townend.

Red Wines

The reds are just as exciting and more prolific too. Everywhere I went there were delicious Mediterranean grapes on offer, even places that didn’t release one often had them to taste. The wonderful restaurant at Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley offered litres of Sangiovese straight from the barrel, but did not sell it to take away. It went superbly with their fabulous pizzas and local meats.

2015 La La Land Tempranillo
Wingara Wines
Murray Darling
Victoria

Tempranillo is of course famous as the main grape of Rioja. In Rioja the style of wine is as much about the ageing in wooden barrels as anything else, so the fruit is not always the most important character of the wine. Elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula you get Rioja look alikes as well as wines with brighter fruit and less obvious oak ageing. Very often in Iberia Tempranillo goes by other local names such as; Ull de Llebre (Catalunya), Cencibel (La Mancha), Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto del Toro (Castilla y León), Aragonez (southern Portugal) and Tinta Roriz (northern Portugal, especially the Douro).

Although there are some plantings of Tempranillo in Argentina, Chile, California, New Zealand and South Africa I have always been surprised that the grape has not yet really broken through to be a proper mainstream international grape variety. Well, there was a lot of it in the wine shops in Australia, so perhaps its time has come?

Wingara are a big company who make huge volumes of wine, they also own the Deakin Estate and the Katnook Estate in Coonawarra, and this wine comes from their vineyards in the Murray Darling Sunraysia region, which straddles the border between New South Wales and Victoria near the border with South Australia. The vineyards are in Mildura, right on the border with New South Wales. This is a huge region that is irrigated and geared up for volume. However Australia often shows that volume and quality often go hand in hand and this is a terrific wine that is aged for some 8 months in used American oak.

You have to put Rioja out of your mind with this wine. It gives aromas of plums, rich, jammy strawberries, vanilla and sweet spice. The palate soft, juicy and fleshy with sweet red fruit and sweet, ripe tannins, a twist of something darker, vanilla and a light dusting of spice.

This is unashamedly a crowd pleaser of a wine and it certainly pleased my crowds and I know from experience that it goes with almost anything, even chilled at a barbecue – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 per bottle from:
Majestic Wine Warehouse.

2016 The Bullet Dodger Montepulciano
Delinquente Wine Company
Riverland
South Australia

Not a grape you often see in Australia, but the the guys at Delinquente – pronounced ‘dellin-qwentay’, it’s Italian for delinquent – seem to like being different. The driving force is the wonderfully named Con-Greg Grigoriou. They use Italian grapes and one of their team, Jason Ankles, draws their striking, if somewhat disturbing labels.

Riverland is not a glamorous wine region. It is one of the big irrigated regions of Australia that traditionally produces work horse wines rather than boutique wines, Berri Estates, Banrock Station and Angove’s are all nearby. However, Con-Greg loves the place. He grew up here by the Murray River and is utterly convinced that it can makes wines as good as anywhere else in the country – on this showing I would have to agree.

Con-Greg Grigoriou amongst his Riverland vines.

Montepulciano is widely grown in Italy, in fact it can be used in over 40 different DOCs or DOCgs. The most famous wine it makes though is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast of Italy. These are usually attractively fruity, inexpensive, easy drinking wines with soft tannins, but there are more ambitious versions produced as well as some impressive examples from the Conero DOCg in the Marche region near Ancona.

The fruit is all from a single vineyard, owned by Bassham Wines in Barmera. It was originally planted with Chardonnay, but was top grafted- i.e. in situ – in 2009 with more adventurous grape varieties and it is farmed organically. It is fermented in stainless steel and sees no wood at all. The aim appears to be to capture the pure, vivid, ripe fruit and he succeeds in that. The palate is succulent, juicy, creamy and generous like a smoothie of rich plum, black cherry and blackberry together with a little spice. The tannins are very soft, so the wine has no astringency and I defy anyone not to enjoy it. This is utterly delicious and comforting in a richly hedonistic way – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from £14 per bottle from:
The Good Wine Shop, Forest Wines, Kwoff, Unwined in Tooting. More Information is available from Indigo Wines, the UK distributor.

I’m not very good at drinking red wine without food, but this could do the trick. It would also be perfect with a barbecue, or almost any meaty or rich food actually, but I enjoyed my bottle with a curry, it was a great match.

2014 Robert Oatley Signature GSM
Robert Oatley Wines
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Perhaps this is not as unusual or surprising as the other wines in the line up, but it’s really good and fits the theme perfectly. Australian GSM blends – Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre have been with us for quite a while and are gaining popularity. Who knows they may well have kick started the whole Mediterranean grape wave in Australia.  Mourvèdre by the way is the same grape as  Mataro and Monastrell. Of course the blend is a nod towards the style of Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The late Robert Oatley.

Bob Oatley was one of the great characters of Australian wine who founded the famous Rosemount Estate nearly 50 years ago. Rosemount was immensely successful and it grew from a tiny boutique estate into a giant winery and Robert eventually sold it in 2001. However by this time he had also bought the venerable Craigmoor Winery in Mudgee in New South Wales and set up Oatley Vineyards there. This slowly became the hub of an enterprise that makes wine right across the premium vineyard sites of Australia and has cellar doors and restaurants in the Mudgee and Margaret River regions. In the 1990’s Robert Oatley was the first person to make a wine as a ‘GSM’.

This wine is a blend of 50% Grenache, 45% Shiraz and 5% Mourvèdre from southern McLaren Vale, which has a distinctly Mediterranean climate and a gentle maritime influence. The blend is matured in French oak barrels for 9 months.

It’s a wine that always goes down well, with warm aromas of mixed red fruit, rich strawberry and cherry, spices and a touch of leather. The palate is juicy, mouth-coating and sumptuous with concentrated red fruit, liquorice, sweet spice and savoury, gamey, earthy notes and all the while it has that hallmark South Australian softness. All in all a delicious and very, very drinkable wine – 90/100 points.

Serve it with slow cooked lamb, venison, kangaroo, lamb kebabs cooked on rosemary twigs, shepherd’s pie or just about anything hearty.

Available in the UK for around £15.00 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, The Halifax Wine Company, Just in Cases, Fareham Wine Cellar, Winedrop & the Clifton Cellars. More stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield, the distributor.

2012 Alpha Box & Dice Xola Aglianico
Alpha Box & Dice / Viottolo Vineyards
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Aglianico (Ali-ani-coe) is yet another great Italian grape variety. Like Fiano it comes from Campania in the south where it makes all sorts of red wines, and the odd rosé, but is most famous for producing Taurasi GOCg in central Campania and Aglianico del Vulture in the wild landscape of Basilicata.

I love Taurasi. At its best it can be one of the very best red wines of Italy, but the grape is very tannic and very acidic – it’s often called the Barolo of the south, although it is much more full-bodied – so it is best to drink it from a producer who really knows what they are doing. Some of the best examples that I have ever tasted are made by the wonderful Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro – he uses 200 year old vines! – the wonderful Feudo di San Gregorio and the lovely Milena Pepe who makes a huge range of fabulous wines at Tenuta Cavalier Pepe.

Because it can be such a hard grape, I was very excited to find Aglianico in Australia and hoped that the longer growing season and more sun would tame the grape’s wild nature. I was not disappointed.

Alpha Box & Dice cellar door.

Alpha Box & Dice is a little like Delinquente in that they present themselves to the world in a very modern way rather like craft beer producers do. Indeed much like craft beer you will struggle to find any actual information on their labels, just striking artwork and strange mottos for life. The place is quite extraordinary with a very relaxed feel and lots of mismatched furniture at the cellar door, but the wines are breathtaking.

The farming here is all biodynamic and while the labels seem cool and amusing you get the feel that the winemaking is taken very seriously indeed – I think you have to with a grape like Aglianico.

The grape is a very late ripener and even in Australia it is not picked until the very end of the season in late April. Once the grapes have been de-stemmed, to help reduce tannin, and the fermentation has taken place the wine is aged in used oak barrels for 36 months. This allows the air to trickle in and soften the tannins in the wine.

Oh my I loved this, it looks quite earthy and garnet with an amazing nose of flowers, balsamic, umami, liquorice, dried fruit and spice with some coffee thrown in. The palate is a shock, even here in Australia it is very acidic – in a good way – with rich cherry, some blackberry, plum, dry, peppery spice, leather, coffee, meat and lovely supple, ripe tannins that just nibble at your gums. A heady wine indeed that needs chargrilled meat or some really good beef – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
All About Wine, Vincognito, Drinkmonger and WoodWinters. More stockist information is available from Boutinot, the distributor.

2010 D’Arenberg The Cenosilicaphobic Cat Sagrantino-Cinsault
D’Arenberg
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Sagrantino is an amazing grape variety that is nowhere near as well known as it ought to be. It comes from Umbria in Italy where it is used to make the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCg wines and the Montefalco DOC wines that blend it with at least 70% Sangiovese to soften the tannins.

I love D’Arenberg, they are quirky and inventive and never afraid to put themselves out there. The Osborn family have owned it since 1912 and d’Arenberg Osborn – d’Arry – and his son Chester have achieved great things over the last 50 years or so. They actually released the first successful table wine in South Australia as recently as 1955. This was d’Arry’s Original, then called a Red Burgundy, now labelled as Shiraz-Grenache! Their range is large and idiosyncratic, but never disappoints.

Chester & d’Arry Osborn.

This particular wine was new to me this year and I am thrilled by it. 85% Sagrantino is tamed by 15% of light, spicy Cinsault and the South Australian sun. Some of the wine is trodden by foot, it is basket pressed and aged for 2 years in old French and American oak barrels, just to let the air soften those hard ‘gritty’ tannins. Cenosilicaphobic by the way means the fear of an empty glass!

Foot treading the Sagrantino at d’Arenberg.

This is another full on wine with aromas of dried cherry, chocolate, plums, earth, mocha and something wild and floral about it – possibly from the Cinsault. The palate is full and rich with a nice combination of soft, voluptuous richness and hard edged richness. There’re rich fruit, liquorice, balsamic, spices, coffee, chocolate and while there are plenty of tannins they are not aggressive and they have been tamed. A wonderful wine to enjoy with stews and pies – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Quality Wines, ND John, Auswinesonline.co.uk, Drink Finder. More stockist information is available from Enotria & Coe, the distributor.

I would also add that the Wine Society has a wonderful range of own label Australian wines called Blind Spot and that too includes some wines made from some less well known grape varieties. As you can probably guess some of these excellent wines are made from grapes from the Mediterranean world. These include Garganega – a white Italian grape variety famously used to make Soave – and a Barbera – a black grape more normally associated with Piemonte, both from King Valley in north east Victoria near the border with New South Wales. Then there is a delicious Old Vine Mataro – also known as Mourvèdre and Monastrell – from McLaren Vale in South Australia. In my opinion everyone in the UK who is interested in wine should be a member of the Wine Society, as their range is superb and beautifully put together.

So you see there is a great deal of variety available from Australia, even though they might not be in every supermarket. Australia can do so much more than Cabernet, Shiraz and Chardonnay and can bring its own style to a whole raft of grape varieties more normally associated with the Mediterranean world. What’s more all these wines are absolutely delicious and really food friendly too.

Wine of the Week – a perfect Summer wine

Quinta de Azevedo - photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

Quinta de Azevedo – photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

If my itchy eyes and sneezing are anything to go by, then Summer is finally here – in the UK anyway. It has taken a long time, but finally we can feel warm and dry for more than one day at a time.

As a consequence my thoughts turn to lighter, fresher styles of wine to accompany the salads and fish that I start to cook in the warmer weather.

Recently I have been giving some very well received seminars on Portuguese wines – come along to one at Cheltenham Food & Drink Festival 10 June – where I show a wine that I have really enjoyed over many years and the recent vintages have become even better. It is a style of wine that people might not think of trying, but once they do, they seem to love it. It is always very popular at the seminars. I love it so much and it is so perfect on a Summer’s day, either on its own or with some fish, shellfish or a salad, that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Vinho Verde - click for a larger view

Map of Vinho Verde, Quinta de Azevedo is roughly midway between Barcelos and Braga – click for a larger view

2015 Quinta de Azevedo
Sogrape Vinhos
DOC / PDO Vinho Verde
Portugal

Vinho Verde is a terrific and underrated wine style and this is one of the best available. It is made by Sogrape who really made their reputation by taking this local style of wine, and introducing modern grape growing and squeaky clean wine making to it. At first the results must have been startling as before that Vinho Verde was traditionally made by farmers for their own consumption and that of their friends. Even now the landscape is very rural and beautiful with lots of old fashioned grape growing on pergola systems, some are even still trained higher up still in the trees. Sogrape were among the first to introduce modern training techniques which help achieve much better ripeness and so tames the high, often tart, acidity that this cold wet region used to achieve and was only tamed by keeping some sweetness in the wines. If your mental view of Vinho Verde is that they are old fashioned and a little sweet, then this wine will be a wonderful revelation to you.

Quinta de Azevedo - photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

Quinta de Azevedo – photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

Sogrape bought this beautiful historic manor house in 1982 and completely renovated the 40 hectare estate and winery. Today they farm in a sustainable manner, actually being organic in this wet landscape is really hard. One of the most exciting things about Portugal is the wonderful array of indigenous grapes and this wine is a blend of 5% Loureiro and 5% Pedernã / Arinto grapes – Loureiro is the most important and widely planted Vinho Verde grapes, while Arinto is another great Portuguese white grape that has wonderful acidity. By the way Sogrape also make the excellent Morgadio da Torre Alvarinho, which could also be a Wine of the Week.

The wine is pale and silvery lemon with an enticing orange blossom, floral aroma, together with ripe citrus notes, especially lemon. On the palate the wine is very light in body, but has lots of flavour. The overwhelming sensation is of freshness – if you like Sauvignon Blanc you will enjoy this – and there is merest hint of fizz, or petulance, that emphasises that freshness. There is plenty of refreshing acidity, but it is not tart and there is minerality as well, which adds to that feeling of purity and freshness – I swear there is even a touch of the sea, which adds to that bracing quality. There is plenty of ripe lemon, crisp green apple skin, light peach and melon on the palate, together with an attractive herbal quality and a long finish. A lovely, drinkable, refreshing and versatile wine with lots of flavour, but only 11% alcohol – 89/100 points.

Perfect as an aperitif in the garden, or try it with shellfish, fish, salads, soft cheeses, or even with Chinese and Thai cuisine.

Available in the UK at around £8-£10 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, Oddbins and Majestic.
For US stockists, click here.

There are many other Vinho Verdes available, but this example is really very well made and quite delicious.

Hardscrabble & Feasts in the Douro

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

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

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

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

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The Douro – vineyards and cruise ship.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Terraced vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

Untended vineyards are a common sight in the Douro.

P1070110

The terraces soften the landscape and look very appealing.

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

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

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New terraces side by side with rubbed out vineyards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

Large terraces at Quinta do Noval.

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

Patamares at front right.

Patamares at front right, terraces behind.

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

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

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

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

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

Pinhão Railway Station.

And now for some wine highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

The entrance to Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

Quinta do Noval.

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

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

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

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

The beautiful terrace at Quinta do Noval.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Pasteis de nata really are delicious...

Pasteis de nata really are delicious…

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

The beautiful Café Majestic.

The beautiful Café Majestic.

A café Pingu.

A café Pingu.

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

2012 – a look back at the best bits

Me with my favourite vintage of Tsantalis Rapsani

Me with my favourite vintage of Tsantalis Rapsani, Greece – Photo by kind permission – ©Brett Jones http://www.thewinemaestro.co.uk

2012 was an amazing year for Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page. I tasted some wonderful wines, visited some amazing places, was shortlisted for an award and my readership doubled – all trends that I hope continue in 2013.

61601  Wine Tasting, Mount Athos, Tsantali, Greece 20 Jun 12 copy

Me & fellow traveller Patrick Maclart hard at work on Mount Athos, Greece – Photo by kind permission – ©Brett Jones http://www.thewinemaestro.co.uk

To celebrate all this I thought that I would start the new year with a backward glance at some of my highlights of 2012 – so you can click on the links to read the pieces if you missed them first time around, or just enjoy them all over again.

Those of you who know me well know how much I relish new wine experiences and 2012 got off to a cracking start for me with a tasting of wines from the Ukraine. It was a fascinating glimpse at a fledgling wine industry just setting out on the path to producing quality wines and there was much promise there.

Champagne

Richard Goffrey at the Dom Pérignon launch

Richard Goffrey at the Dom Pérignon launch

Champagne
One of the most sophisticated and stylish experiences of 2012 for me was the launch of the 2003 Dom Pérignon. In many ways the whole piece of theatre of the launch was bonkers, but the wine was sublime and there is no doubt that my sparkling wine of the year was the 2003 Dom Pérignon, it was possibly my wine of the year too – I just wish I could afford it.

dp2003 Dom Pérignon
The aromas were astonishingly lifted and perfumed with fresh floral notes, lemon zest and lemon peel as well as richer tones of lemon curd and the flaky pastry that shows yeast autolysis as well as pine nuts hinting at a creamy ripeness to come. Running through the whole bouquet were strands of minerality, iodine, saline and wet stones that promise well for the acidity on the palate.

The palate was a revelation, this was not simply fresh and lively, indeed it was subtly the opposite, being textured and intense. The mouthfeel was silky with the merest hint of creamy ripeness, while the acidity was in a supporting role and never dominated. Rather wonderfully there was a twist of deep green olive bitterness to the wine’s finish, even a touch of tannin which accentuated the mouthfeel – those phenolics perhaps? This makes it a real wine to appreciate and enjoy rather than a straight-forward Champagne to frivolously guzzle. It offers soft richness and poised balancing acidity. It has ripe fruit in abundance, but nothing that overpowers or dominates as a single flavour and it has taut minerality – in short it has tension. The competing sensations vie with each other for your attention, which makes it fascinating to drink.

The finish was of epic proportions, I was still tasting it more than 2 minutes after I had drunk it. I would without doubt give it a gold medal in any wine competition I was judging, so cannot help but award it a very high mark – 94/100 points.

English Wine

Vines at Plumpton, Sussex

Vines at Plumpton, Sussex

Even less likely inhabitants of the Sussex countryside!

Even less likely inhabitants of the Sussex countryside!

One of the things I really enjoy about writing my wine page is the scope it gives to stray far and wide. Well in 2012 I used a few chances to taste some wines made nearby, but that in many ways seem off the beaten track – English wine. I have enjoyed English wine on and off for 20 years or more, but I have never been more thrilled by the quality or more confident in the future than I am now. You can read the beginnings of my optimism about English wine here.

Pruning at Stopham - photo by kind permission

Pruning at Stopham – photo by kind permission

This delight in English wine continued with a pair of exciting wines from the Stopham Estate, in Sussex, that seem to be a possible pointer to the future. Their 2010 Stopham Pinot Blanc and 2010 Stopham Pinot Gris struck me as being excellent quality and sensibly priced, so were able to hold their own against wine from anywhere – and indeed they did sell out pretty quick as production is small.

My English experiences contiuned later in the year when I was able to taste this amazing wine:

2006 Eglantine Vineyard North Star

which is a stunning dessert wine made in Leicestershire of all places.

And while Welsh wine is clearly not from England I thought this the right place to mention that I tried some excellent Welsh wines in 2012, read about them here.

Hungarian Wine
My ongoing quest for different styles of wine and unusual grape varieties caused me to try a couple of fascinating wines from the tiny region of Somlo in Hungary and I would highly recommend them as something a little different, but very high in quality.

My Italian Trip

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The charming Eva & Leonardo Beconcini

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Pinzimonio – one of Eva’s many lovely cats

My first trip of 2012 was a personal pilgrimage to Tuscany to visit an estate that not only makes Chianti, but grows some Tempranillo as well. What’s more it isn’t just a marketing ploy, they have always grown it here. I got excited by this and wanted to see the place for myself and try the wines. In the end I had a fabulous time walking the vineyard and tasting the terrific wines that Leonardo Beconcini makes at Pietro Beconcini Agricola. This was followed by the most glorious lunch made by his charming wife Eva before finally being introduced to their many cats.

Cinque Terre

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Manarola one of the Cinque Terre

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Cesare Scorza’s shop in Manarola

I was loathe to leave Italy, so took the chance to visit a nearby area that was completely new to me. The Cinque Terre is a short train ride away from Pisa and is an amazing place to visit. I highly recommend it for its wildly beautiful landscape with an air of mystery as well as the incredibly attractive towns that give the region its name, of course it also produces some lovely wines and I was fortunate enough to meet two passionate local wine makers.

My Vinho Verde Trip

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

Me dressed for the weather in Vinho Verde

In all my years in the wine trade I had never visited Vinho Verde, buts as the sheer quality of the wines had impressed themselves on me of late, I was determined to put that right and in May I was able to do just that. I learnt a lot, not least why that region of Portugal is so green. Boy does it rain there, I was quite relieved that my hotel room was on the twelfth floor as I expected all the lower ones to flood at any moment. However, in the brief moments when it wasn’t raining the scenery was lovely and I visited some terrific winemakers and tasted much more variety in the different Vinho Verdes than most people expect – the place makes all colours and styles.

My Spanish Trip

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The Riojan landscape

No sooner had I returned from Portugal than I returned to Iberia with some colleagues for a trip to northern Spain that took in Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero. We were guests of Bodegas Faustino and it was a delightful experience and one of the many highlights was the tapas bar crawl of Logroño, it was a memory to cherish and I enjoy reading about it every now and again.

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Stylish pintxos – Basque Tapas – in Bilbao

My Greek Trip

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Looking from the Rapsani vineyards east towards the sea

The border between Mount Athos & Greece

The border between Mount Athos & Greece

In a fabulous year for trips one stood out from all the others. In June I visited the vineyards of northern Greece with some fellow bloggers as the guest of Tsantalis and it was an incredible experience. We visited quite a few regions and beautiful places and had experiences that will stick in my memory for ever. The wines were fabulous, as was the food and the hospitality of the people. The one downside was that it was an all male trip as we went to the closed monastic settlement of Mount Athos and you can read about that here..

New Experiences

George Sandeman - complete with halo

George Sandeman – complete with halo

In June I was invited to an amazing dinner that paired Sandeman Tawny Ports with Japanese food. I only went because the idea seemed completely mad and it was hosted by George Sandeman, but it was a delightful experience and really opened my eyes as to what is possible and enjoyable with food and wine pairing. I hope to repeat it with American barbecue food as it seems to me that could be a brilliant match with Tawny Port.

Southern Italian Delights
I have never been to Sicily, but hope to put that right soon, as I have become utterly captivated by the exciting wines of southern Italy, including Sicily. So far I have more experience of the whites and they are so good they deserve to be more widely appreciated. I wrote about some fantastic white wines here.

Shades of Grey
In November I was moved to write about some more unusual grape varieties that have ‘gris’ in their name. It seems that most people know Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, but I have become very excited by Sauvignon Gris and Grenache Gris and decided it was time to speak out about some of the lovely wines made from these grapes – you can read the piece here.

Chile Branches Out

The wild side of Chile at Luis Felipe Edwards 2003

The wild side of Chile at Luis Felipe Edwards 2003

This year I was delighted to be able to taste some really excellent Chilean wines made from blends and slightly more unusual grapes, so Chile remains a wine producing country to watch – read about some of the wines here.

Classic French Regions

My Loire Valley Trip

Angers from the Castle ramparts

Angers from the Castle ramparts

The Loire valley personified

The Loire valley personified

It was quite a year for trips and one of my unexpected highlights was a visit to the Loire Valley. I visited the area around Angers with a group of fellow bloggers and we tasted some fabulous wines and enjoyed some superb meals, but for me the centrepiece was a visit to Savennières whose wines had never really impressed me in the past, so I wanted top see what I was missing.

Burgundy

The delights of Beaune

The delights of Beaune

Aloxe-Corton

Aloxe-Corton

In my rush to experience the new, I didn’t leave the classics behind though and in October I presented a sumptuous tasting of red Burgundies from the house of Louis Jadot. It was aterrific experience and a wonderful insight into how these great wines develop. Read about it here. I also enjoyed a wonderful visit to Burgundy as a guest of the Discover the Origin campaign and I shall be writing about that soon, however I did taste my white wine of the year on this trip:

Item-ITEM_600--040713812010 Bourgogne Blanc Cuvée Oligocène
A.c. Bourgogne Blanc
Patrick Javiller
Do not be misled by the humble appellation, this is a great wine. The vineyard –  les Pellans – is only not Meursault by a technicality, in fact half of it is within the appellation as this piece of land is in the village of Meursault, but not all of it has the A.C., which is why this wine comes in at a fair price. This really shows what white burgundy is about. It illustrates terroir and offers plenty of richness as well as elegance and tension. What’s more it is absolutely delicious and great with almost and elegant fish dish or white meat. 91/100 points – it gains points though for being stunning value for money.

Available in the UK from James Nicholson and Goedhuis & Co at around £20 a bottle.

Bordeaux

As French as tarte aux pommes

As French as tarte aux pommes

As if that wasn’t enough, I was then invited to Bordeaux as the guest of Yvon Mau and was able to visit a great swathe of impressive Châteaux and try some superb wines that made me finally realise that there is some wonderful wine from Bordeaux available at non stratospheric prices. I will write more about some of these soon, but this piece gives you some of the flavour and tells you about a stunning wine from Montagne-St Émilion that has my vote as my red wine of the year, if for no other reason than it so exceeded my expectations of what a wine from this appellation can offer:

bouteille_chc3a2teau_guadet_plaisance_2009_esprit_de_bordeaux12009 Chateau Guadet Plaisance
Montagne Saint-Emilion
The colour was an intense opaque purpley black that managed to be vivid and bright as well as dark.
The nose was dominated by cedar, spice & singed meat aromas, together with brooding deep plum and fresher redcurrant and a touch of a ripe sweet, almost creamy note.
The palate was luscious, round and concentrated with a smoky sweet ripe fruit quality together with sweet ripe tannins and firm oak structure, all balanced by a taut freshness. All this gives a gloriously succulent texture and a spicy bite to the palate. Even the oak tasted nice, like mocha mixed with toasted coconut. There is an attractive and elegant opulence to it and I suspect it will age superbly, but it really is delicious now too. I consider it deserving of a gold medal if I was judging it in a competition, so award it 91/100 points – it gains points for being great value and seductive.

All in all 2012 was a great year for Quentin Sadler’s Wine Pages. I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and that you found it useful and some of you tried the wines that I wrote about. Please keep coming back in 2013 and do leave comments – it is always nice to hear from you.

 

Albariño & Mencía – Spanish Delights

Many of you know of my deep fascination and love of Spanish wines. Of late I have become especially excited by the wines of Galicia, which is a place that appeals to me immensely. Sadly I have yet to visit but I intend to put that right soon, as it looks so beautiful and very different from the rest of Spain.

The region has a cool, rainy, Atlantic influenced climate and as a consequence is known as Green Spain. It produces every style of wine, but is renowned for its dry whites and,  although the region uses many different varieties, Albariño is their most famous and is the grape that has really brought this region to the attention of discerning wine drinkers.

To the South Galicia borders Portugal’s Minho / Vinho Verde region and the two places are not dissimilar in that they are wet and cool, so wine producers have to be very clever indeed to beat nature. Historically that has been a problem in both places, but over the last thirty years or so viticulture has improved almost beyond recognition – as has wine making – and it really shows in the wines.

No longer a land of subsistence farmers making a little wine for themselves and their friends, where quality barely mattered and wasn’t questioned – Galicia has become a region of confident, ambitious, thoughtful grape growers and wine makers whose wines are highly sought after and can command a very high price. This is especially true in Spain itself where Galician whites are considered to be amongst the country’s finest. They certainly tend to be the Spanish white wines that have the most purity and minerality and as such are quite superb with a bit of fish.

Map of the Wine Regions of North West Spain including Galica – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Continue reading

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

Vines at Quinta de Aveleda – old and new training systems

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

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

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

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

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

Map of Vinho Verde – click for a larger view

Continue reading

England – brave new world of wine

Stopham Estate, West Sussex

Recently I have been getting keen on English wine and wrote about a couple of super examples here.

The sheer quality got me thinking and led to me being lucky enough to try some more. I was thrilled to discover Stopham Estate who are based in Pulborough in Sussex. It is a new operation created by Simon Woodhead between Pulborough and Petworth in West Sussex – a part of the country I thought I knew well.

Simon Woodhead

It seems that the estate enjoys a sheltered and warm micrioclimate and this allows Simon to do something pretty unusual in England – he grows classic grape varities rather than the normal hardy crosses like Ortega and Huxelrebe, although he does have a little Bacchus. Now those can produce lovely wines in the right hands, but they hardly trip off the tongue and have very little commercial following, so specialising in Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc might well be a stroke of genius. It is early days, they only have 21,000 vines and the 8,400 Pinot Gris vines represents the bulk of their production, but only produced 4,000 bottles in 2010.

2010 Stopham Pinot Blanc
A very pale, almost silvery looking colour with a fresh, lively nose offering touches of pear with floral notes, Asian pear and apricot – leaning towards delicate peach notes at the lighter less creamy end of the Pinot Blanc spectrum.
It is lively and fresh on the palate with a little zing of acidity. Softer fruit on the mid palate – apricot and peach – then some green fruit characters on the back palate too.
A light bodied and dry wine with lots of flavour and a decent length finish. Lime and apricot acidity really refresh and balance the finish.

This is a terrific, dry – it has 4.4 g/Litre of residual sugar which balances the high natural acidity very well, and vice versa – light and delicate wine that should win many friends for the stylish pleasure it delivers. At 10.5% vol it is perfect with a light salad or DIY tapas lunch – 89/100 points.

2010 Stopham Pinot Gris
The merest hint of coppery peach skin gives a depth to the colour.
The nose is fresh and hints towards the exotic with peach and pear and a touch of sweet spice, all balanced by a citric freshness. The aroma is less heady and more delicate than examples from Alsace, but this is no bland Pinot Grigio.
The palate is slightly off dry – it has 8.8 g/Litre of residual sugar – which gives a succulence and mouth-feel, but there is a lovely cut of balancing mandarin acidity keeping it fresh, clean and lively. Apricot and spiced pear fruit dominate the flavours on the mid palate and finish.

It is very rare for me to rave about a Pinot Gris, but this is a very exciting wine with lovely aromas, balanced weight and acidity and is delicious to drink, it is 11% vol and the extra alcohol shows in the weight. I liked it very much precisely because it is a delicate take on Pinot Gris without being bland in any way. It goes splendidly with a wide range of food including spicy Asian dishes – 90/100 points. I have marked it high because it is so exciting and delivers a great deal of pleasure.

These were both lovely wines with a freshness and a purity that is not altogether unfamiliar to New Zealand wine enthusiasts, but you can taste the cooler and shorter growing season here which gives a lightness that put me more in mind of really good Vinho Verde or Galician wines. It might be the microclimate or the weather, knowhow, or the choice of grape varieties, but these are much fleshier wines than the more normal stony and mineral English offerings

If you enjoy light, fresh and thrillingly lively white wines with good fruit, then these really can hold their own against all comers and rather wonderfully at around £10 a bottle are no more expensive than their New Zealand, Spanish or Portuguese competitors.

I only have one quibble with the good people at Stopham Estate, their labels state that the wines are ‘made with precision and passion in Sussex’. Tasting them I would swear that precision and passion should be the other way round. In fact everything smacks of passion and precision, not just the taste of the wines, but the look of them too. The labels have no hint of the hobbyist Olde English about them and even more excitingly they have sealed the bottles with the top end Stelvin LUX+ screwcap which looks great and seals in all that delicate freshness.

Whichever way it is, the wines are excellent and Simon reckons the 2011s are even better – I cannot wait to try them

On this showing I am getting very excited about the future of English wine – let’s all drink a lot more of it!