Castello di Brolio – the resurgence of a great Chianti estate

I seem to have become a bit obsessed by Italian wine of late and there is nothing wrong with that. The country has a great deal to offer, hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, dozens of wine producing areas, every imaginable style – some uniquely Italian – and everything from  honest, everyday wine to some of the grandest fine wine producers in the world.

In the last couple of years I have enjoyed many trips to Italy and tasted many good – and great – wines. However recently I was invited to a wonderful wine dinner and tasting in London as a guest of Baron Francesco Ricasoli, one of the grandest Italian producers of them all.

Brolio Castle and some of its vines.

The Ricasoli family are very old and emerged as feudal lords from Lombardy in the times of Charlemagne. They settled in Tuscany in the area now known as Chianti – perhaps it was then too as the name is thought to be that of an Etruscan family – more specifically what is now the Chianti Classico. The family took ownership of Brolio Castle in 1141 and have been there ever since, which makes them officially the oldest winery in Italy  – quite an achievement when you consider that the castle marked the border between Florence and Siena. I found it extraordinary to be having dinner and chatting away with a man whose direct ancestors would have had dealings with the Medici family and be involved in the intrigue and violent politics of Florence in the Renaissance.

From a wine point of view though his most important ancestor, in modern times anyway, was Bettino Ricasoli, 2nd Baron Ricasoli. Born in 1809, Bettino eventually became the Tuscan Minister of the Interior and was instrumental in pushing for the union of Tuscany with the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piemonte) that took place in 1860 and established the Kingdom of Italy. He went on to serve two terms as Prime Minister of the newly unified Italy.

As if that was not enough for one lifetime, Bettino also made an enormous contribution to the history of Chianti.

Wine map of Tuscany showing the location of Brolio Castle – click for a larger view.

The wine had been around for centuries, indeed Henry VIII was known to drink it, but originally it was only made in the area called the Chianti Hills just to the north of Siena. Indeed the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’Medici, issued an edict creating the boundaries of the region which today broadly correspond with those of modern Chianti Classico. Brolio is at the heart of this region, in Gaiole in Chianti some 10 km north east of Siena.

The idea of what constituted a Chianti wine seemed to be somewhat fluid in those days. Indeed there is some evidence, as with Rioja, that it was a white wine in the past. It was not until Bettino had finished his stint as Prime Minister that he was able to bring some clarity to what Chianti actually was. He had worked very hard at restoring the Brolio estate, replanting and experimenting with what grape varieties really suited the land and making the best expression of Chianti that he thought possible. In the end he settled on a blend of three grapes, Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia, or Sangioveto, Canajuolo and Malvagia as they were known back then and sometimes still are locally.

Just as an aside, in those days it was normal to grow lots of grapes together, to pick them together and to vinify them together too as a field blend. Such wines that included white grapes were much paler and lighter than most red wines of today. I was fortunate enough to taste a wine made in this fashion at Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Monticello, Virginia and it was a real eye opener to wines of the past.

So after decades of research and winemaking Bettino finally wrote down what he had learned and sent it in a letter to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa in 1872:

‘…I verified the results of the early experiments, that is, that the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption…’

I find it fascinating that even then he knew the Malvasia diluted the wine – softening it to make it drinkable – and could be left out if you wanted to age the wine instead. Malvasia is no longer a permitted grape for Chianti – although it is still grown in the region for other wines – all the grapes used in Chianti must now be black.

Today the estate is the largest in Chianti Classico – 12000 hectares in total with 236 hectares of vines and olive trees and it might all seem rosy, but that is only because of a great deal of hard work and foresight.

The charming Baron Francesco Ricasoli.

In the 1960s the Ricasoli family sold their name, their brand, to Seagrams. They managed the vineyards and sold the wine to Seagram who marketed it around the world. It may seem strange today, but at the time it made total sense. Many fine wine regions were struggling, astonishingly both Chablis and Côte Rôtie almost disappeared at that time, and Chianti was going through a hard time too. The wines had lost their reputation for quality and many producers had lost confidence in their grapes and their land – this was the time when some Chianti makers saw their future in Cabernet and Merlot and the ‘Super-Tuscans’ were born.

The Seagrams deal saved them at the time, but undermined their history and reputation. Baron Francesco Ricasoli took over the family business in 1990 and decided to put that right. The first thing he did was extensive replanting to ensure the quality came right in the vineyard. Then when Seagrams sold out to Hardy’s in 1993 he was able to buy the family brand back. From then on the focus has been on quality and re-establishing the prestige of their brand.

Brolio Castle.

Francesco was not a winemaker by trade, but a professional photographer, so since 1990 has been operating outside his comfort zone in many ways – although frankly it doesn’t show. He is assured, charming, deeply knowledgeable about his land and I could have listened to him forever. He introduced his wines with modesty and was keen to emphasise that he had built a team to make this project work, but you could hear the pride in his voice when he told us that in 20 years Ricasoli went from being almost forgotten to being regarded once more as a great estate.

Key to the progress they have made with their wines is their zoning project. This is a study in collaboration with the Experimental Institute for the Study and Protection of the Soil in Florence, which is mapping each parcel of vineyards by soil and climate to ensure that the correct grapes varieties are planted where they should be and on the most suitable rootstock.

The tasting was held at Pied à Terre in Charlotte Street in London and the food was an exquisite backdrop to these wonderful wines.

The aperitif:

2015 Torricella
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was our aperitif and it was a  blend of 75% Chardonnay blended with 25% Sauvignon Blanc. The Chardonnay was aged for 9 months in used barriques and tonneaux on the lees. the sauvignon was aged on the lees in stainless steel for 9 months.

This was a terrific wine with a lovely, beguiling, balance of richness and texture with freshness, acidity and minerality. I have had a few wines over the years that blend these two grape varieties together and they always seem good to me, so I often wonder why more people don’t don’t do it. This example is very fine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from:
Fareham Wine Cellar and Slurp.

Served with Roasted quail, baby beetroots and wild mushrooms:

2013 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

A single vineyard Super-Tuscan wine that has been produced since 1993. It was originally pure Sangiovese, but is now 100% Merlot. The vineyard is south facing and the soil is chalky clay. The different blocks were aged for between 18 and 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux before blending.

I am not always a fan of Merlot, but this was delicious stuff. The colour was deep, vibrant and plummy, while the lifted nose offered mocha, chocolate, plums and coffee with a touch of earth and even a whiff of the Mediterranean. The palate was smooth, creamy almost with light grainy tannins, vanilla, rose hips, plums and a dusting of cocoa. The flavours really build in the mouth and it is very long. It was a great match – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Tannico and Just in Cases.

2006 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was the last vintage that blended 30% Merlot and 70% Sangiovese together, from 2007 Casalferro has been pure Merlot. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques.

Beginning to show its age with a tawny rim and a briny, balsamic dominated aroma together with leather, earth, dried fruits and strong coffee. The palate was very soft, yet savoury and earthy with something almost medicinal about it. The tannins and the fruit were smooth and velvety and the acidity, presumably from the Sangiovese, kept it youthful and bright. This was magnificent with the quail meat, especially the crispy roast quail legs – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Hedonism Wines.

Served with venison, celeriac, watercress, sprouts and chestnuts:

2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine, now labelled as Gran Selezione – the first eligible vintage was 2010, is the Grand Vin of the estate. Gran Selezione is an attempt to firm up the quality credentials of top Chianti Classico. Historically the Riserva wines were the pinnacle of production, but normal Chianti Classico could be aged longer in wood and be labelled as a Reserve, so nothing really set the wines apart as being great quality.

Gran Selezione wines must be made from estate grown fruit, not bought in. The minimum alcohol must be 13% compared to 12.5% for Riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 months for Riserva. There is some controversy around the adoption of this new system, but I can see the point of it.

This 90% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

The nose offered bright plums and pomegranates together with rich earth and mocha notes. The palate was supple, youthful, joyous and delicious with fine grain tannins, sweet red fruit and a harmonious feel. I could drink it now, but it really needs time – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Waitrose Cellar, Tannico and Millésima.

2008 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 28 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

2008 is not considered a great vintage, but Francesco is very fond of it and wanted to share it with us. I am glad he did, I thought it was terrific.

The age is beginning to show here with more toffee, caramel and balsamic, soy sauce and general umami note The palate was very supple, very smooth with nice freshness, dried fig fruit, mushrooms, smoky coffee and caramel flavours. The finish was long, savoury and saline with a touch of mocha and cedar too. A beautiful wine ageing gracefully – 93/100 points.

2003 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

One of the hottest vintages to date, this was a blend of  Sangiovese with a little cabernet sauvignon. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques – 65% new.

The age shows here, but it is very good. the nose is earthy, mushroomy, truffles, meaty, dried figs and rich coffee, even a touch of stout on the nose. The palate is again very supple with sweet dried figs, almost no tannins and a meaty, savoury richness that makes it great with food – 93/100 points.

Served with the cheese course:

2013 Colledilà Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine is a site specific, pure Sangiovese Chianti Classico that is now labelled as a Gran Selezione. In effect it is a Cru from a vineyard on the estate that sits at 380 metres above sea level and faces south west. 

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 40% new.

I am not always wowed by the top wines of an estate, but this really seduced me. What’s more it was from a difficult vintage with lots of hail. It was fragrant, floral, perfumed with sweet red fruit, mocha and a touch f tobacco. The palate was smooth, supple, smoky with fine grain tannins, ripe red fruit and a beautifully fresh, lightly flesh and succulent mid weight to it. This was stunning wine and I would add that the label is utterly beautiful too – 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £50 per bottle from:
Hedonism and Millésima.

2010 Colledilà Chianti Classico
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 18 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux.

Showing some lovely bottle age, this is much more savoury and meaty with dried fruit, walnuts and coffee aromas, even some toffee. The palate is wonderfully cohesive with an underlying freshness balancing the richness and binding it all together. The tannins are supple and there is a dried fruit and savoury, earthy flavours and a sense of purity about it that makes it sing. It was magnificent with the Comté – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £32 per bottle from:
Vintage Wine & Port.

Served with the petit fours:

2007 Vin Santo
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This blend of Malvasia and  Sangiovese is made from late harvested grapes that are then dried over the winter to concentrate the sugars further.  The juice is then fermented and the wine then aged for 4-5 years in French oak barriques.

This was the colour of Malt Whiskey and had a nose of cinder toffee, caramel, oranges, dried apricots together with a whiff of old books, leather, pipe tobacco and coffee. The palate is a wonderfully sumptuous blend of sweet and sour with chestnut, coffee, dried fig, maple syrup and concentrated apricot fruit. The finish is firm and surprisingly unsweet with great acidity and balance. The end is almost savoury and salty with reminders of Sherry, Sauternes and Madeira on the nose and plate – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £33 per half litre from:
Hennings Wine.

The whole evening was a memorable experience of good company, excellent food and magnificent wines. If you want to see what Chianti can be, do try one of the wines from Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli, they are quite a revelation.

The wines that I have written about here are the pinnacle of Barone Ricasoli’s production. If you want to dip a toe in the water and try their wines without quite such a large price tag, then they make many other wines including their superb Barone Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico Riserva, their excellent Brolio Chianti Classico  – also here – and the Waitrose in Partnership Chianti Classico, which is very good and great value for money.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the UK by John E Fells.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the US by Domaine Select & Liber Selections,

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.

A tasting of Virginia wines in Kent

Last week I was invited to give a presentation on Virginian wines to Hextable Wine Society in north Kent.

Apparently none of the members had ever tried one before and it was a surprise to a few that there was any wine produced in the state at all.

So, I really enjoyed opening people minds to the delights of Virginian wine – I love introducing people to new things, it really is the best part of what I do.

It also gave me the chance to reacquaint myself with some of the wines that I had tried on my recent trip to Virginia.

I managed to get hold of a good range – using the good offices of Chris Parker, whose New Horizon Wines is really leading the Virginian assault on the UK.

 

Chris Parker in a Virginian Vineyard

The line gave a good snap shot of Virginia, and what is more all the wines are available in the UK. Of course some of the wines really shone, but all of them were good and the reds came in for some special praise as their tannin management met with great approval from this discerning audience:

Map of Virginia showing where the wineries are - click for a larger view

 

2008 White Hall Vineyards Viognier
Monticello AVA

This was widely liked with 80% Viognier, 10% Petit Manseng, 7% Muscat and 3% Gewurztraminer in the blend giving it that touch of the exotic and a real freshness in the mouth – 89/100 points.

2008 Breaux Vineyards Viognier
Virginia

A tad sweeter, but still dry, and more serious too – this is an unoaked example, but the richness of the variety and that delicate spice is balanced superbly by quite high acidity for a Viognier.

By a whisker this was the preferred style of Viognier – 90/100 points.

2008 The Williamsburg Winery Acte 12 of 1619 Chardonnay
Virginia

Act 12 of The Virginia House of Burgesses, which was the first representative assembly in the New World, was a law requiring all colonists to plant at at least 10 vines. It was an attempt to make vines important to the new economy, sadly it failed despite French viticultural experts being brought in. Not enough was known about growing vitis vinifera in North America in those days and it is possible that this was vitis viniferas the first tangle with phyloxerra.

The delicate use of French oak was approved of here, together with the very lean French style – nothing gloopy here – 87/100 points.

2008 Veramar Vineyard Cabernet Franc
Virginia

This cool vintage produced a medium-bodied, fresh, very cherry infused style of Cabernet Franc that was well received – 88/100 points.

I have also tasted the 2008 which was a hotter vintage and the extra ripeness really showed.

2007 Barboursville Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Franc
Virginia

Barboursville make good wines, they have been growing vitis vinifera grapes in Virginia longer than anyone else and their winemaker has been there for 20 odd years – the experience and consistency shows.

This is a terrific example of the grape, ripe fruit, good use of oak and supple, seamless tannins make this a lovely dry red wine of real quality – 91/100 points.

2008 Veritas Paul Shaffer 2nd Edition Petit Verdot
Monticello AVA

English owned Veritas was one of my favourite visits while in Virginia, I think their passion really showed in every wine they produced and this was a gem.

Even in this cooler year, or did that help this late ripening grape?, the fruit was beautifully ripe with lovely depth, judicious use of oak to underscore the wine and not dominate, together with very fine tannins. This wine is a joy – 92/100 points.

2007 Boxwood Topiary, The Boxwood Winery
Virginia

This was the most obviously new world wine of the tasting, which mirrors the amazing winery that is clearly modeled on the Napa Valley. The estate used to be home to General Billy Mitchell and is today run by Rachel Martin whose father used to own the Washington Redskins.

This 50/50 blend of Cabernet Franc is intended to be in a Libournnais style, but I think it is a bigger wine than that implies. This hot vintage has delivered intense fruit with the oak giving some lovely spice notes. This is very good, but needs time – 91/100 points.

2005 Breaux Vineyards Nebbiolo
Virginia

This was a fine, mature and savoury take on Piemonte’s grape, like Petit Verdot it is a real mystery as to why this grape does so well in Virginia. Nebbiolo is a very late ripening grape that was pretty tricky to get right in Italy until well into the twentieth century. That being said I have only encountered it on 2 sites in Virginia, so perhaps it enjoys localised conditions.

Pale, transparent and slightly brickyard red.
Lovely rose petal nose with spice and tea.
Creamy smoothness to the palate soft with delicate spice and rounded red fruit studded with spice and dried redcurrants too.
Lovely wine medium bodied, but very tasty indeed. Great balance with finesse and delicacy – 90/100 points.

Many of these wines are available in the UK from the Oxford Wine Company, Hercules Wine Warehouses in Kent and The Good Wine Shops in south west London as well as Wholefoods in South Kensington.

For details about Hextable Wine Society please contact the chairman,  John Mesnard on 01322 862340 or email: john@mesnard.co.uk

It was a terrific evening and really rewarding to introduce lots of new people to these excellent wines – bear them in mind, their quality far outstrips their novelty value.

My Last Hurrah in Virginia

 


The King's Arms Tavern

My very last visit in Virginia was nothing to do with wine, but was fascinating and important none the less, what is more even on a wine trip you need to get away from the stuff every now and again and see how people actually live. I was taken into Williamsburg which served as the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1698 until 1780 when Governor Thomas Jefferson moved it to Richmond to avoid the state government falling into the hands of advancing British troops.

One reason for it becoming the seat of government was that it was on high, well drained ground which was readily defensible against the natives and seems to have enjoyed a less humid and swampy climate than nearby low lying Jamestown, which was the first capital of Virginia.

In addition, in 1693 Reverend James Blair founded The College of William & Mary on this attractive and healthy site, then called Middle Plantation. So, when the government needed to find a temporary home when the Jamestown House of Burgesses burnt down, for the second time, they moved into the fine buildings of the college. They seemed to like it there and soon built a new capital just to the east of the college, and named it Williamsburg in honour of King William 111. Continue reading

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

Virginia – a land of history & wine

Sometimes when I visit a wine region it all makes instant sense, the topography, the climate, the soils and the traditions. Virginia was not like that and I found it hard to get a real grip on the place. As it is so large and the conditions vary, there appears to be no single statewide solution to any grape growing problem and no one perfect grape variety. What is more we are so used to being able to dismiss vintage variation on anything but the finest wines nowadays, that it is a shock to find a region where no two years are the same and where there is no such thing as an average year – vintage is crucial to Virginia.

In so many ways Virginia is the heart of the United States of America. It contains the original English Colony of Jamestown which was founded in 1607 – as well as the Lost Colony of Roanoke which was there from 1585-1587.

Virginia was the site of America’s first experiment with representative democracy when the House of Burgesses was established in Jamestown in 1619. Many of the greatest characters and thinkers of the American Revolution were from here; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, James Madison. Seven signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Virginian, as was Robert E. Lee. Unsurprisingly the area around Washington and Richmond is littered with Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. Continue reading

Fried Green Tomatoes

I have read, and loved, Annie Flagg’s book and seen the film, but I had never eaten a fried green tomato until the other day. In truth I didn’t quite believe they were real – after all, they sound a bit like something Dr. Seuss would create.

So, when I saw them on a menu I simply had to try the fried green tomatoes. What a dish it is, these were in crisp breadcrumbs and really delicious. The crunch of the coating contrasting superbly with the succulent, but firm flesh of the tomatoes inside – and yes, they really were green.

If anyone can tell me if they are a green variety of tomato or simply picked while unripe, then I would be grateful.

The food in these parts is quite exciting, I am told that I might get peanut butter soup sometime…
Green ham and eggs anyone?