Wine of the Week – a Happy, Happy Syrah

Tain-l’Hermitage – photo courtesy of Maison Les Alexandrins.

Personally I think a lot of talk and writing about wine – and I am guilty of this myself – focuses on how fine, interesting or different a wine is rather than how much pleasure it delivers.

Which is really very strange as wine is all about pleasure isn’t it? If a wine does not give you pleasure, then what is the point? I certainly think about the pleasure a wine offers while I am tasting it but do my descriptions and writing about a wine always convey that? I am not sure.

All of this flashed through my mind recently when I tasted a wine that in more normal circumstances I might well have ignored.

For a start it is made from Syrah, or that is what it says on the label anyway. Be prepared to gap in astonishment, but I am not especially drawn to Syrah, or don’t generally think I am anyway, so rarely seek it out – although that seems to be changing.

Secondly the wine is not from an appellation contrôlée / AC / appellation d’origine protégéeor / AOP / PDO or not even a Vin de Pays / PGI, but is a humble Vin de France. This most basic quality level of French wine replaced Vin de Table a few years ago, with similar changes right across the EU.

Fundamentally what changed was that they were given the right to state the grape variety, or the blend on the label. They are also allowed to show the vintage, which means that we can be more selective, choosing the better vintages and perhaps also the fresher years – especially useful with white wines, but a good idea with most modern red wines too.

The vast majority of Vin de France are, as you might imagine, pretty basic, everyday wines – which is why I would normally pass on by. However, as with the Syrah that I tasted some producers use this level to make something altogether more interesting and worthwhile. Certainly this Syrah is a lovely wine – so good in fact that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The stunning Northern Rhône Valley – photo courtesy of Maison Les Alexandrins.

2016 Syrah
Vin de France 
France

Maison Les Alexandrins is a very interesting project that produces some rather good wines. It is another example of a thoroughly modern phenomenon – a micro-négociant that focuses on high quality wines. It grew out of the Domaine Les Alexandrins and is a joint venture between Nicolas Jaboulet, formerly of the eponymous winery in Tain and now the head of Maison Nicolas Perrin, winemaker Guillaume Sorrel and viticulturalist Alexandre Caso. The aim is to give Nicolas Perrin a presence in the Northern Rhône and they aim to buy really good parcels of fruit from top growers across the area and to craft expressive wines from them. Eventually they will have a permanent base as they are building a new winery in Tain-l’Hermitage.

Wine Map of France, the Northern Rhône is just south of Lyon – click for a larger view.

This is the bottom rung of the wines they make, but don’t let that bother you. It comes from a great vintage and the quality shows, but so does the skill of the winemaker.

The fruit comes from younger vines across the Northern Rhône and although the label calls it a Syrah, there is actually 8% Viognier in there too, co-fermented with the Syrah. There was a cold soak to extract flavour before the fermentation which was in stainless steel. Half was then aged in tank for 6 months and the other half was aged in barrel, but from the taste of it I would say very little new wood at all.

Everything about this wine is bright and fresh. The colour is a vivid cerise – like a sorbet. The nose gives bright cherry and blackberry with lightly creamy notes, some spice and a little touch of freshly turned earth.

The palate just delivers pure pleasure. It is fresh, fleshy and juicy and cram packed with bright cherry, cranberry and plum fruit together with bright, refreshing acidity and just enough soft tannins for interest. It is beautifully balanced, perfectly judged, delicious and dangerously hedonistic. All in all it is a fine bottle of really well crafted happy juice.

This is a lithe, fresh and punchy red that will go with almost anything and is a very attractive wine to drink on its own too. Personally I think its charms are mainly upfront in the fruit, but it might be interesting to see what it’s like in five years or so as underneath all that pleasure I am sure there is a more serious wine trying to get. This is so delicious, so drinkable and made me so happy that I will award it 90/100 points – it earned extra points for severing extreme pleasure.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from South Downs Cellars. More stockist information is available from Liberty Wines the UK importers.

Frankly the only mystery about this wine is why it does not have more stockists. Sealed with a screw cap it would make a perfect restaurant wine too.

Wine of the Week 60 – a lovely and great value aromatic white wine

Recently I presented a tasting of wines made from unusual grapes and our first wine was a lovely dry and aromatic white wine. I enjoy aromatic wines, but find that many of them can be a little too rich and low in freshness and acidity – think Viognier and Gewürztraminer. Of course in the case of Gewürztraminer the wines can often be sweeter than you want as well. They were a skilled and enthusiastic bunch of tasters and they all loved this first wine.

Two things made it very exciting, firstly it is extremely good value for money, but more importantly it is really delicious and well balanced. It is from Hungary, it’s made from a very unusual grape variety and is made by someone that I admire very much. In fact it is so good and so pleasurable to drink that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Hungary Map

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

The view from Hilltop towards the Danube and Slovakia.

The view from Hilltop towards the Danube and Slovakia. Photo courtesy of Hilltop Neszmély.

Premium Cserszegi FuszeresHilltop Premium Cserszegi Fűszeres (there does not appear to be a vintage on this wine)
Hilltop Neszmély
Hungary

I have visited a good many of Hungary’s wine regions, including a memorable trip the the lovely Hilltop Neszmély winery. It is in the far north of the country with just the Danube River between it and Slovakia. The local climate is continental and very similar to nearby Austria and the wines have much in common with Austrian wines too, both in weight and style.

The estate was the brainchild of the charming Éva Keresztury who has run Hilltop since the early 1990s and her success has been amazing. Her wines are available in many places and are always an incredible balance of quality and value, as far as I can see she has never put a foot wrong and makes some of the best good value wines available in the UK today. They also have a lovely hotel on the estate and excellent restaurant that specialises in local game.

Cserszegi Fűszeres is certainly an unusual grape, but please don’t let that put you off. It is also very difficult, if not almost impossible to pronounce – but then I also showed Dr Frank’s Rkatsiteli from New York’s Finger Lakes at the same tasting. That is also quite superb and very hard to pronounce, but well worth trying – but don’t let that put you off. I am sure that you will enjoy it. The grape is actually a cross between the Irsai Olivér (itself an aromatic cross of 2 other grapes) and Roter Traminer ( a near relative of Gewürztraminer) and has only been in existence since 1960. The grape is named for where it’s from, Cserszegtomaj near Keszthely on the north shore of the south west end of Lake Balaton – Hungary’s inland freshwater sea. Fűszeres means spicy.

The nose is delightfully aromatic with wafts of orange blossom, fresh grapes and some sweet spice notes, but it smells fresh and not cloying at all. The palate is soft with lovely weight of fruit sweetness, but is is a dry wine – just very fruity – with some nectarine-like succulence, zingy orange, richer peach and some apricot characters too. The orange dominates the finish, which is pretty and long. The wine is kept balanced by the lovely seam of refreshing acidity that runs through it making it lively, fresh and clean – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Asda for £7.00 per bottle. What’s more it is only £5 a bottle during July 2015!

This wine is a perfect summer drink, light, fresh, flavoursome and very, very drinkable. It would make an excellent aperitif, garden sipper or go with pretty much any food at all. It is especially good with lightly spicy food. Do try it if you get the chance – I am sure that you will like it.

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

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

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

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

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

Naples fishing harbour with capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the distance.

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

The Black Grapes:

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

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

The White Grapes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campania watermarked

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

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

Vines in Taurasi.

Vines in Taurasi.

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

Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro.

Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro.

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

017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White DOCGs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vineyards in Lapio.

Vineyards in Lapio.

The fortress in Lapio.

The fortress in Lapio.

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

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

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

P1120363

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

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

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

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

Vincenzo Mercurio the winemaker at Fattoria La Rivolta.

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

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

Fattoria La Rivolta vineyards.

Fattoria La Rivolta vineyards.

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

The Good Campanians

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

Wine of the Week 18 – a white wine with a difference

Vineyards near Béziers.

Vineyards near Béziers.

I have recently been touring the beautiful Saint-Chianian area of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region. I learnt a lot about the place and tasted a wide range of the wines produced there. It seemed to me that the general quality was very high, but much to my surprise it was the white wines that particularly excited me. I will write about Saint-Chinian soon, as the area produces lots of really exciting wines that you should try. I flew in to Montpellier airport and on the way to Saint-Chinian, while on the outskirts of Béziers, I passed the turning for an estate that I have kept meaning to mention in theses pages.

Domaine Sainte Rose is one of those estates that I keep finding nowadays, an exemplary producer of exciting French wines, but the people who run it are not only not from the region, they are not even French – Domaine Jones is another stunning example. Charles and Ruth Simpson bought this beautiful estate in 2002 and set out to produce the sort of wines that they liked to drink, world class wines that reflected modern international wine making rather than focussing on the traditions of their region. To achieve this they decided to not make any Appellation Contrôlée wines at all, but to stick to Vin de Pays / Indication Géographique Protégé / IGP.

The rugged landscape of the Languedoc.

The rugged and beautiful landscape of the Languedoc.

In fact they label their wines as  IGP / Vin de Pays Côtes de Thongue rather than the wider, more famous Vin de Pays d’Oc which is interesting and gives them a nice slightly romantic local focus as the River Thongue passes right by the estate.

So far I have only tried one of their wines, but it is a fabulous wine that is made from Roussanne, one of the wonderful white grapes used in the South of France. It is often blended with Marsanne and Viognier or Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris.

502562013 Domaine Sainte Rose ‘La Nuit Blanche’ Roussanne
IGP Côtes de Thongue
100% Roussanne which is harvested at night, hence the name ‘the sleepless night’. Night harvesting retains the grape’s acidity and freshness and protects the grapes from enduring the heat of the day. The wine was fernmented and aged in barrel to make it rich and complex.
I really enjoy this wine and so does everyone else when I show it at tastings, even those who think they don’t like oak. It has a seductive charm and lovely herbal, creamy, oily aromatics – it smells like garlic, rosemary and olive oil cooking on your roast potatoes. There are fresher notes too, lemon, lemon pith and grapefruit too. The palate is full-bodied, full-flavoured and utterly delicious with a soft, nutty, creamy texture – from the lees stirring – there is rich apricot and lemon fruit too together with herbs and some gentle spice. Try this wonderful wine with richer poultry dishes, cream sauces or a rich fish pie, it would even work with roast pork or slow cooked shoulder of lamb as long as there was plenty of garlic, herbs, lemon and olive oil rubbed into the meat – 90/100 points.

 Available in the UK at  £12.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouses.

This is a lovely wine, very drinkable and very food friendly too, so do try it, even if Roussanne is a new grape variety for you – you never know, it might become your new favourite.

Deliciously different & exciting white wines

There is so much wine available from so many different places that it must be hard for most casual wine drinkers to decide what to drink. Which is presumably why so many people I know stick to a very narrow range of favourites.

There is no need to get stuck in a rut though, even with tried and tested wine producing countries or companies. Here are details of four delicious and exciting, for different reasons, white wines that have come my way of late. At first glance on the shelf they might not seem all that different, the first two are from the famous and always excellent Villa Maria in New Zealand while the second pair are from Chile, one made by Álvaro Espinoza in the Casablanca Valley and the other by Errazuriz.

What sets these wines apart and makes them a little different and exciting is that they are made from slightly more unusual grape varieties, or in the Chilean case blends. I love championing less famous grapes as there is a great deal of pleasure to be found in many of them and so I think it is a great shame that so many drinkers limit themselves to such a tiny palate of grapes. There are hundreds of grape varieties out there and many of them can make very good wine indeed.

All it needs is to be slightly adventurous and try something new. I always tell my students that at least once a month they should buy a bottle of wine that they have never heard of or thought of drinking before, that way they experience lots of new things. In addition I tell them to buy at least some of their wine from a proper independent wine merchant, which can give advice and usually stock the more interesting things too.

It is so good that wine producers are still trying to offer consumers wines that are a little bit unusual and more interesting than the normal run of the mill wines that fill the shelves. Especially so as both New Zealand and Chile have long focussed on a narrow range of commercially successful grapes, so it is good to see such exciting experimentation. In recent months I have also seen Grüner Veltliner from New Zealand too, all we need is an Albariñoa Godello, a Fiano and a Falanghina and I will be a very happy bunny indeed!

Remember to click on all the links – and leave a comment too.

New Zealand

Sir George Fistonich founded Villa Maria Estate in Auckland in 1961 and runs it to this day. Photo courtesy of Set Michelle Wines.

Sir George Fistonich at harvest time. George founded Villa Maria 1961 and runs it to this day. Photo courtesy of Ste Michelle Wines.

image-12013 Villa Maria Private Bin Arneis
East Coast G.I., New Zealand
If you have never heard of the Arneis grape variety before, well you can be forgiven as it is only a speciality of Piemonte in north west Italy. It makes the wines of the Roero Arneis D.O.C.g, and D.O.C. wines in Langhe too. In its native country it seems to make wines that are quite floral and aromatic, but is usually too low in acidity for me, so I am generally more keen on Nascetta or Gavi’s Cortese grape. Somehow it seems that the New Zealanders are able to compensate for this lack of acidity and produce fresher, more lively versions than the the original – just as they do with Viognier. Historically Arneis was considered very hard to grow as it is so delicate, hence the name which means ‘little rascal’ in Piemontese and so the grape almost died out in the 1970s with only two producers left by 1980. Luckily – as with so many white grapes – modern know-how has swept to the rescue and limited plantings are now found in Liguria and Sardinia, as well as California, Oregon, cooler parts of Australia and New Zealand’s North Island.
This wine has the East Coast Geographical Indicator, because the vineyards are in more than one region. In fact the grapes are grown at 3 vineyards sites between Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne.
Villa Maria’s Private Bin wines are their fruit forward more easy drinking range.
This offers a gently aromatic and slightly floral nose with touches of pear and very delicate peach.
The palate is juicy, delicately succulent and textured with soft acidity and lots of fresh and lively orchard fruit – pear –  and is nicely flowery too. There is also a fresh seam of acidity keeping the whole thing together and lively, without dominating.
All in all a really good approachable take on this grape making it a sassy and enjoyable easy drinking wine that goes well with almost anything, what’s more it only has 12.5% alcohol making it an ideal quaffer too – 87/100 points.

Map of New Zealand's wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

image-1-22013 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Marlborough G.I., New Zealand
Sauvignon Gris is a grape close to my heart. I became very fond of it in Chile over ten years ago and am very pleased that it is now being grown in New Zealand too. 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.
Villa Maria’s Cellar Selection wines are more concentrated, complex and so perfect with food. This particular wine is actually from a single vineyard in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley – Fletcher’s Vineyard.
The wine has a pale pear juice colour that hints at succulence, while the nose offers pear and delicately smoky peach.
The palate is by turns stony and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit too.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominat 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.

UK stockist information for Villa Maria wines is available from the distributer – Hatch Mansfield.
US stockist information for Villa Maria wines is available from the distributer – Ste Michelle Wine Estates.

Chile

Emiliana's beautiful organic vineyards. Photo courtesy of Ste Michelle Wines.

Emiliana’s beautiful organic vineyards. Photo courtesy of Banfi Wines.

CCC06-02012 Signos de Origen Chardonnay-Roussanne-Marsanne-Viognier
Emiliano Organic Vineyards
D.O. Valle de Casablanca, Chile
Casablanca is a beautiful place, one of the best bits of Chile to visit the wineries. this is because it is near both the main cities of santiago and Valparaiso and so is home to some excellent winery restaurants as well as some very good wine producers too. For a long time Casablanca was the undisputed premium white wine region of Chile, this is because the lack of mountains between it and the ocean ensure it is cooler than the wine regions to the south – like the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys. Nowadays Casablanca has competition from the equally cool San Antonio and Leyda Valleys as well as Acocagua Costa and Limari to the north, but is still a great region.
I love interesting blends and this is a wonderful combination of classic Rhône Valley white grapes – Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier – with the more lush style of Chardonnay and it works perfectly. The grapes are organically grown and the grapes were partly fermented in stainless steel tanks at low temperatures before being moved to French oak barrels to complete the fermentation – this technique gives subtle richness and texture to the wine. 90% of the wine then aged in those barrels for 6 months, while 10% was aged in egg shaped concrete tanks, which are very trendy right now and do good things – you can read about them here.
This is a serious white wine with complexity, structure, texture and finesse.
The fruit drives it with rich apricot and peach characters giving succulence and texture as well as the fresh herb characters of the Rhône grapes. Ripeness and oak give honey and nut tones too and an overarching richness, even a touch of oatmeal at times. There is freshness and stony minerality too though giving some tension and balance.
A glorious wine, dense, concentrated and fine, perfect with cheese, rich poultry or pork – 91/100 points.

UK stockist information is available from the distributer – Boutinot.
US stockist information is available from the distributer – Banfi Wines.

Chile Map watermarked

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

If you want to try Rousanne, Marsanne and Viognier without Chardonnay, try another great Chilean blend:

image-1-32011 Errazuriz The Blend Marsanne-Roussanne-Viognier
Viña Errazuriz
D.O. Valle de Aconcagua, Chile
Another thrilling blend from grapes that originate in France’s southern Rhône. This comes from a little further north than Casablanca in the Aconcagua proper – Casablanca is politically a sub-division of the Aconcagua Valley – about halfway between the cool Aconcaua Costa and the warmer eastern end of the valley where Errazuriz traditional produce their red wines.
25% was fermented in third use French oak to give delicate richness while the rest was fermented in stainless shell to give freshness. 25% was also aged for 6 months in French oak.
This wonderful wine has a rich, earthy nose with wild herbs, honey, rosemary, spicy toasty oak and nuts too, it is savoury but with rich underlying fruit.
The palate is succulent with rich juicy fruit and a touch of minerality and acidity keeping it fresh not cloying. Herbs, apricots, peach, stones, a touch of oily texture and even cream together with a bite of tannins and nuts on the finish. Another glorious and exciting wine that is perfect with roast pork or rich poultry dishes – 91/100 points.

UK stockist information is available from the distributer – Hatch Mansfield.
US stockist information is available from the distributer – Vintus.

So you see, there is plenty of excitement and lots of different, but still delicious, wine out there if you are prepared to be a little adventurous. There really is no need to get stuck in a rut or keep drinking the usual suspects.

In the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that I do some work for both Villa Maria and Viña Errazuriz from time to time. However, the views that I have expressed about their wines are completely honest and unsolicited.

Wine Woman and Song – my visit to Donnafugata

Recently I enjoyed an amazing tour of wine regions and producers in Sicily. I had never been before and was very excited to see this wonderful island. It is a beautiful place that really provides a feast for the senses, the landscape is stunning, the food  a revelation and the wines were generally very impressive indeed. Along with visits to the great estates of  Benanti, Planeta and Tasca d’Almerita, seeing the Donnafugata estate was a real highlight.

P1070759

A view from Donnafugata

Like all good winery visits – and indeed wines – it started in the vineyards. Standing in Donnafugata’s Contessa Entellina estate near Sambuca di Sicilia I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the place. I had never been to Sicily before and every time we de-bussed I was thrilled by the variety and vitality of the landscape. The wild flowers in particular – fields of scarlet poppies intermingled with vibrant yellow, purple, pink and blue flowers were everywhere – made my heart sing.

09_sedara_LRSo, here I was at Donnafugata, a winery I only knew about vaguely and even then mainly because of their lovely labels. I was greeted by the lively and animated José Rallo – I found it really hard to take good photographs of Sicilian winemakers as they never seem to keep their hands still. José is the daughter of Giacomo and Gabriella Rallo whose family have produced Marsala for over 150 years and who created the Donnafugata estate to produce premium still wines in 1983.

P1070729

José Rallo

The wonderful name by the way means ‘fugitive woman’ or ‘woman in flight’ and refers to Maria Carolina, sister of Maria-Antoinette and Queen of Naples and Sicily. In 1799 she fled the invading Republican French troops – under General Napoleon Bonaparte – and found refuge in the country estates of a noble. These same estates are now home to the Rallo’s vineyards and in Di Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard, he christened them Donnafugata and the name was adopted by the Rallos as an evocative name for their new winery.

Donnafugata appears to be one of those wineries – as all the best ones are – that never stands still, but continually evolves. Originally Marsala producers, they then became trailblazers of fine Sicilian wines made from international grape varieties, before becoming champions of indigenous Sicilian grapes and creating an experimental project, with other growers, to pinpoint the perfect site for each grape variety to thrive in Sicily.

P1070752

One of the experimental vineyards.

The cool interior of the winery gave our little group shelter from the searing heat of the sun and we were treated to an informative presentation about the estate and a terrific, comprehensive, but relaxed tasting of their wines. The quality was high, sometimes very high, but certain wines stood out from the crowd:

06_Et_Vigna_dal2012_HR

6_BT_Vigna_750_HR2002 Donnafugata Vigna di Gabri
This single vineyard wine – Vigna di Gabri in Contessa Entellina – is a blend of Ansonica, the Marsala grape, with some Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Catarratto.
85% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel vats, while 15% was fermented in second use French oak barrels.
The 2002 was wonderfully deep and rich with pithy citrus, wild flowers and pine nut notes, while the dry palate offered dry honey, herbs, a waxy texture, citric acidity and  touch of saltiness on the long sapid finish.
I liked this together with the fresher, more creamy, less waxy 2011 as well.

This wine and vineyard is named in honour of José’s mother Gabriella Rallo who created it  and whose signature graces every bottle. Apparently Gabriellas believe that Ansonica is capable of producing quality table wines as well as Marsala and so she created this vineyard and set out to prove her point with this wine. José seems very proud of her mother, especially that she ‘was the first woman in Sicily to put on boots and supervise her workers in the field’. It is clear that Gabriella has green fingers for things other than vines too, as the gardens she created around the winery and family house are stunningly beautiful and peaceful.

More of the gardens

The gardens

P1070801

More of the gardens

BRUT_HDN.V. Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
This Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of the whole trip and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees.

ETICHETTA_BRUT_FOTO_LD

Pantelleria 
For me though the wine highlight of this visit was the sweet Zibibbo wines of Pantelleria. I have long been fascinated by this volcanic island that – though politically a part of Sicily – is nearer to Tunisia than Italy.The main grape here of course is Moscato or Muscat of Alexandria, but they traditionally  call it Zibibbo in these parts as it came here via North Africa and apparently zibibb means dried grapes in Arabic.

Donnafugata make 2 very different styles here:

KabirDonnafugata Kabir D.O.C. Moscato di Pantelleria is an aromatic and attractive Moscato with a light, fresh character – there is even a little touch of frizzante to it – and I enjoyed the 2011 vintage of this wine as well as its lovely label.

BenRye

14_BT_benrye_0.75_NEWAltogether more serious, more complex and hedonistic – but no less pleasurable – is the amazingly concentrated Donnafugata Ben Ryé D.O.C. Passito di Pantelleria.
This extraordinary wine is made from grapes that are harvested in August and dried in the sun for 3-4 weeks. Then in September they pick another load of fresh, but very ripe grapes and start a normal fermentation. At this point they de-stem the dried grapes by hand and add them in batches to the fermenting fresh Moscato so that they impart their deeper flavours, higher sugars and great complexity. The fermentation finally stops around the end of November and the wine is then aged in bottle.

I was instantly seduced by the complexity and stunning figgy and salty caramel richness of the 2004, while the orangey panforte-like 2006 was very nearly as complex – give it time. The 2010 was altogether fresher and more straightforward, but still delicious and I am sure will age to be just as memorable as its older siblings.

Donnafugata vineyard terraces on Pantelleria. © Donnafugata - Credit: Anna Pakula - by kind permission

Donnafugata vineyard terraces on Pantelleria. © Donnafugata – Credit: Anna Pakula – by kind permission

Sadly I have yet to visit Pantelleria, but it seems to be a place of heroic viticulture like Santorini, Cinque Terre, Ribera Sacra and Ischia. It must be back breaking work tending these low lying 100 year old bush vines, harvesting them by hand, drying them in the sun, harvesting another lot and then fermenting them for the best part of 3 months, but it all seems to be worth it.

After a wonderful lunch José sang for us, serenading my friend Keith Grainger with ‘An Older Man is Like an Elegant Wine’ – the day after his birthday too, so I cannot decide if that was apt or just rubbing it in. José is a fine singer who has recorded 2 CDs pairing wines with a mixture of Jazz standards, Brazilian and Sicilian songs and she gave us each a copy of her second CD as a gift.

José serenading Keith.

José serenading the ever elegant Keith.

Happily José had paired my favourite track on the album – her version of Rita Lee’s Agora Só Falta Você with my favourite dry Donnafugata wine, the Vigna di Gabri – I like them both in isolation and will have to try them together sometime to see if fusion works for me.

The whole visit was a great experience and a privilege to get an insight into this beautiful estate and to witness at first hand the passion and love they have for their land and what they do.

Donnafugata wines are available in the UK through Liberty Wines.

Donnafugata wines are available in the US through Folio Fine Wine Partners.

Donnafugata wines are available in Australia through Arquilla.

V is for Viognier…and a lot more besides

Viognier vines at Veritas Vineyards in Virginia with the Blue Ridge in the background

Whilst contemplating wine I often think how remarkable it is that quite so many white grapes have names that begin with a ‘V’. Some of them may seem a tad obscure, but here is a list of all the ones that sprang to mind – with a few that I looked up:

Viura
Verdicchio
Vernaccia
Verdelho
Verdejo
Verdejo Tinto
Vaccarèse
Valais
Valdiguie
Valentin
Vilana
Verdea
Verdello – not the same as Verdelho, in case you were wondering.
Verdiso
Verdeca
Verduzzo (Friulano)
Vermentino
Vernaccia – in fact there are a few of these, all unrelated.
Vertzami
Vespaiolo
Vespolina
Vidal
Vien de Nus
Villard Blanc
Villard Noir
Vinhão
Viosinho – sometimes called Veosinho Verdeal for good measure.
Vital
Vignoles
Vranac
Vugava
and finally the most famous of all – Viognier. Continue reading