Wine of the Week – another stunning English Sparkler

I seem to have tasted a lot of good English sparkling wines lately – read about them here and here – well the other day I tasted yet another one that excited me enormously. So much so in fact that I made it my Wine of the Week.

house-and-vineyard

Hambledon Vineyard on a south facing slope overlooked by Mill Down House. This was the birthplace of modern English wine in 1952 – photo courtesy of the estate.

hambledon-ccHambledon Classic Cuvée Brut
Hambledon Vineyard
Hambledon
Hampshire
England

The Hambledon Vineyard is historically very important to the English wine industry, because it was the first one to make a reputation for itself and can claim to be where the English wine revival started – bizarre as it sounds, Hambledon can also claim to be where cricket as we know it today began. The estate was originally planted in 1952 and although the wines did create a stir and even won some awards, the vineyard remained tiny, between 1 and 4 acres at various times, and so was essentially a hobby rather than a business, as is borne out by this amazing bit of film – click here to watch it. In fact by the 1990s the few grapes they grew there were being sold to other vineyards.

The estate was bought by Ian Kellet in 1999 and he decided to restore Hambledon and to make wine again. First he studied oenology at Plumpton College and then researched what would suit his land. As it is a south facing chalky slope, sparkling wine seemed a great idea and so in 2005 he planted a 10 acre test plot of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Having proved that the grapes were successful there, he planted more and created the winery. Today they farm 50 acres and make the wine in a state of the art, gravity fed winery – this is much gentler on the grapes than pumping. Since 2011 they have also employed Hervé Jestin as Chef de Caves, a position he had previously held at Champagne Duval-Leroy.

Looking down the slope - photo courtesy of the estate.

Looking down the slope – photo courtesy of the estate.

This is the standard wine of the estate and is a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. 90% comes from the excellent, ripe 2013 vintage, while 10% is reserve wines from previous vintages, some of which were barrel-aged to add extra riches and complexity. In addition 6% of the wine was barrel fermented and barrel aged and after the second fermentation in bottle, the wine was aged for 22 months on the lees.

The nose offers enticing freshly baked bread notes as well as plums, rich apple and a little note of smoky spice too. The palate is beautifully creamy, with a rich mousse, ripe peach and apple fruit and a lovely pure core of acidity and freshness. This sense of purity gives the wine wonderful verve and energy and balances the richness of the vintage. By any definition this is a fine sparkling wine that shows how seriously good English fizz can be – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK from Hambledon Vineyard at £28.50 per bottle, Waitrose at £30 per bottle, Marks & Spencer at £29.00 per bottle  for other stockists click here and here.

If you have never tasted a great English wine, or not understood all the fuss being made about English sparkling wine, then give this ago, it really is quite superb.

 

Wine of the Week – a perfect Summer wine

Quinta de Azevedo - photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

Quinta de Azevedo – photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

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

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

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

Map of Vinho Verde - click for a larger view

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

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

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

Quinta de Azevedo - photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

Quinta de Azevedo – photo courtesy of Sogrape Vinhos.

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

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

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

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

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

Wine of the Week – a Proustian moment in the Languedoc

Vines on a hill side in Minervois-La Livinière.

Vines on a hillside in Minervois-La Livinière.

Recently I enjoyed a spectacular visit to the Languedoc region in France’s deep south and it was a great, immersive trip with many new and exciting experiences. I was able to try all sorts of fascinating wine styles that I will be sharing with over the coming weeks and months, but one wine in particular made me very happy.

For me it was a Proustian moment, or Prussian as my predictive text would like it to be, because I used to sell the wine that I was tasting. It was my best selling wine and I used to really love it and the memories came flooding back. In fact I enjoyed it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

domaine_la_borie_blanche_minervois_la_liviniere2011 Domaine la Borie Blanche Terroirs d’Altitude
Domaine la Borie Blanche
Maison et Vignobles Lorgeril
AC / AOP Minervois-la Livivinière
Languedoc
France

Nicolas and Miren de Lorgeril own the amazing Château de Pennautier in Cabardès, in the Montagne Noire just to the north of Carcassonne. The spectacular Château dominates the village of Pennautier and has belonged to the Lorgeril family since 1620. I will write more about that estate another day, but in 1999 the Lorgerils bought another property in the neighbouring appellation of Minervois. This was perfect timing as the new ‘Cru’ appellation of Minervois-la Livivinière had just been created. This is a district within Minervois and is a counted as a Cru and considered to be a finer sub-district of Minervois. Indeed it was the first Cru in the Languedoc, or as they cheekily say ‘Le Premier Cru du Languedoc’.

This Cru appellation, or finer appellation, is only for red wines – Minervois itself can also be white – and covers the village of La Livinière, as well as five others nearby, Cesseras, Siran, Felines-Minervois, Azille and Azillanet. The rules are stricter than for ordinary Minervois, with lower yields, 45 hectoliters per hectare as compared to the 50 allowed for standard Minervois. The wines have to be aged for eight months longer than more basic Minervois and then every November, one year after harvest, there are tasting panels to select the wines that are allowed the coveted Minervois-la Livivinière appellation. There is a very high failure rate, with around 40% failing to make the grade. The upshot is that most producers here actually carry on making the more traditional Minervois with only a handful making the more ambitious and finer Minervois-la Livivinière wines. 

I tasted a good number of Minervois-la Livivinière wines and it seems to me that as a bunch they have more intensity than the straight Minervois, more focus and precision and have less jammy fruit, in fact they are less about the fruit. In short they have more finesse, more minerality and more complexity.

P1150809

Looking south over the rugged terrain of Minervois-la Livivinière.

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Little pockets of vines colonise parts of the hillsides.

The landscape here is remarkable, with the vineyards planted on the Petit Causse foothills of the south-facing Montagne Noire on the northern fringes of Minervois. It is a wild and ruggedly beautiful place with altitudes of around 120 to 400 metres above sea level. As you look around the place you find little pockets of vines growing wherever they can be accessed and worked, rather than a landscape covered in viticulture. The soils are limestone and schist in the main with those wild garrigues herbs growing where nothing else will. A borie, as in Domaine la Borie Blanche, is a stone shelter and you can find these all over the region and in Provence. 

The fermentation vats at Domaine la Borie Blanche - photo courtesy of the winery.

The fermentation vats at Domaine la Borie Blanche – photo courtesy of the winery.

The wine is a blend of 50% Syrah grown on schist – which gives the mineral backbone, 10% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre and another 20% Syrah which is fermented by carbonic maceration, which tames the bitterness and harshness that wines grown on schist can sometimes have. The fermentation is in big oak vats with regular pump overs and half the wine is then aged in barrel with half being aged in wooden vats.

The wine is a deep garnet colour with a nose of rich dried fruit, wild herbs, liquorice, truffle, pepper and ripe cherries. On the palate it is mouth filling, delicately smoky from the oak, with a dash of espresso and cocoa, with velvety tannins, fragrant herbs, rich black fruit and dried fruit too,  all making it wonderfully savoury and long. This is a seriously good and great value bottle of wine – 91/100 points.

This would be superb with almost any rich meaty fare, especially roast lamb I would think.

Available in the UK at around £11 per bottle from Majestic and Le Bon Vin.
For US stockists, click here.

If you cannot find this wine, then other superb Minervois-la Livivinière can be found if you shop around, for instance Waitrose stock an excellent one from Château Maris.

 

 

Wine of the Week – a fine Tawny Port

Vineyards on the banks of the Douro in Port country.

Vineyards on the banks of the Douro in Port country.

I am in a real Port mood at the moment. I cannot imagine why as it is spectacularly unseasonal, but I just seem to have tasted a few Ports recently that have fired up my imagination for this wonderful wine style.

I like Port, I have always liked Port and enjoy it very much, but I don’t actually drink very much of it as it can be pretty heady stuff – especially the rich Ruby types – including LBV – and Vintage.

However, there are lighter styles – Tawnies – and it is some these that I have tasted and enjoyed of late. I say enjoyed, I mean loved!

It is always fascinating to taste a range of Ports and recently I was fortunate enough to taste my way through several that really pleased and impressed me. I will write more about some of those soon, but today I have chosen one of my favourites as my Wine of the Week.

Ruby ports ageing in wooden vats at Quinta do Noval.

Ruby ports ageing in wooden vats at Quinta do Noval.

sandeman-porto-tawny-20-years-old-2Sandeman 20 Year Old Tawny
Sandeman
Villa Nova de Gaia
Porto
Portugal

We have all heard of Sandman I am sure. Who can have failed to see the iconic caped figure – The Don – on a label or in advertisement at some point, but many of us might not be aware quite what a venerable company it is. It was founded in 1790 by George Sandeman – a direct descendant, also called George Sandeman, is still involved with the company – a young Scot who quickly made his mark. It helped the development of his business that he served on the Duke of Wellington’s staff during The Peninsular War. The Duke, although a great soldier and fine commander, was a notorious snob who looked down on anyone who was not of the nobility, so tended to fill his staff with the scions of wealthy and titled families. Throughout the long campaign these young men were able to enjoy George’s Ports and I am sure that the preference for Sandeman’s Port stayed with them throughout their lives. Certainly business was good for a long time to come, with Sandman being a byword for quality until well into the twentieth century. There was a bit of a dip in its fortunes for 20 years from 1982 when it was taken over by Seagrams, but in 2001 Sandemans became part of the impressive Sogrape group and its future now seems bright.

Although Sandman produce all the important styles of Port, including some superb vintages and single quinta vintages, they appear to be something of a Tawny specialist. A true Tawny Port is one that has been aged for a long time in wood – the best examples are sold with an indication of age on the label, 10 year old etc. All that time in wood makes the wine paler and more orange – or tawny – and less sweet and more nutty and caramel-like than a Ruby Port or an LBV. They can be served lightly chilled too, which makes them more versatile wines.

It is really the maturing that defines a Tawny’s style. It is a blend of different vintages and vineyards aged for different lengths of time in different wooden vessels, none of them new – they don’t want the oak to dominate. This particular Tawny is a blend of wines varying from between 15 and 40 years old.

Tawnies and Colheitas (single vintage Tawnies) ageing in cask at Quinta do Noval.

Tawnies and Colheitas (single vintage Tawnies) ageing in cask at Quinta do Noval.

The nose offers a lively mix of rose hips, orange, apricot and caramel, while the palate is creamy with a buttery caramel quality and a rich nutty feel. There is plenty of fruit too, but it has evolved into a gentle plum, raisins and dried red fruit together with a dash of spice. It doesn’t really feel that sweet, although it is, as the nutty and slight salty feel dominate the palate giving it an umami feel and the illusion of savoury richness. The alcohol is nicely balanced and is part of the whole, while the finish is long and satisfying, helped I think by a nice seam of freshness. A glass or 2 of this before going to bed would make all feel right with the world. Mind you, lightly chilled it would make a lovely late afternoon tipple too, or after lunch, or elevenses, you get the picture. A glorious example of fine Tawny port – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £30-35 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar, Slurp, Hedonism Wines, Corking Wines and Lea & Sandeman.
For US stockists, click here.

 

 

New Wine of the Week – another Lugana

Verona Arena.

Verona Arena, Lugana is not far from Verona.

I have been drinking rather a lot of this little beauty lately and have enjoyed it so much that I thought it deserved to be my Wine of the Week.

It is a Lugana and it is made by the respected firm of Zenato, but that is really all I can tell you about – except how nice it is – because Zenato’s website fails to mention, as does the site of their UK agent and neither of them have seen fit to respond to my emails or telephone calls.

On a recent trip to Verona I was very struck by Lugana and it has quickly become my one of my favourite Italian dry white wines. If you want to read a little about the region, the grape variety and the styles of Lugana, have a look here.

Anyway, here it is:

zenato-villa-flora-lugana2014 Villa Flora Lugana
Zenato
Peschiera del Garda
Italy

I love this style of wine and although it bright, fresh and breezy I can drink this in the depths of winter with a nice bit of fish, some shellfish or even with the odd cheese straw as an aperitif.

The nose is understated, taut and delicately fruity with wafts of light white peach, apricot and blossom. There are herbs and nuts too, as well as straw and a tight, stony quality. The palate is reasonably full with some texture and even a hint of cream. This is not really a flamboyant wine, but neither is it truly crisp – although there is some zing. The herb and nuts follow through onto the palate and there is a lovely squeeze of citrus – a fusion of lemon, lime and mandarin perhaps – while at its core is an equally refreshing stony mineral quality. A delicious wine that goes with all manner of light dishes, fish, chicken or whatever takes your fancy. – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK at £9.99 per bottle from Waitrose Cellar, Waitrose and Ocado.

Wine of the Week 50 – a fine, delicious and complex Chenin

I cannot really claim to be a fan of Chenin Blanc, there I’ve said it and many of my friends will be shocked that I could make that statement. I have, of course, had some Chenins that I appreciate and a few that I even liked a lot, but by and large it is a grape variety that does not move me, which is strange as I really like acidity, one of Chenins most important attributes. For me the inherent flavours of the grape lack purity, which is something I really like in my white wines.

Well, I like to keep an open mind and so this week when I tasted an absolutely superb Chenin, I made it my Wine of the Week.

Château de Fesles, photo courtesy of Grandes Caves St Roch / Les Grandes Caves de France.

Château de Fesles, photo courtesy of Grandes Caves St Roch / Les Grandes Caves de France.

Chenin2011 Château de Fesles Chenin Sec ‘La Chapelle’ Vielles Vignes
Château de Fesles
A.C. Anjou, Loire Valley, France
Château de Fesles is in Thouarcé near the village of Bonnezeaux in France’s Loire Valley and it is very old, in fact the original bits were built as long ago as 1070. Bonnezeaux is famous for its botrytised dessert wines made from Chenin Blanc. They farm 19 hectares  to make  Anjou Rouge from Cabernet Franc (here is a former Wine of the Week made from Cabernet Franc and another, do try them if you can) and Cabernet Sauvignon and Anjou Blanc from Chenin. Another 14 hectares fall within the Bonnezeaux appellation which is famous for making botrytised dessert wines, again from Chenin. The  Château overlooks the Layon River which often causes fogs  and misty mornings which cause the humidity which allows the noble rot / botrytis to set in.

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

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

These sweet wines have long been hard to sell and so the property was struggling and changed hands several times before the mighty Les Grands Chais de France bought it in 2008, although the previous owner – Bernard Germain – had renovated the winery and vineyards. More importantly M. Germain had also started focussing on producing fine dry white Chenin and the new owners have kept this policy going.

The trick is to use old vines – which give more concentrated flavours – and the parcel here consists of 55 year old vines. They conduct a very careful selection of the fruit to make sure only the best grapes go in, oh and they really work hard to ensure those grapes are perfectly ripe in the first place – something that has traditionally been a problem in the cool northern climate of the Loire Valley. In fact they have focussed on the vineyard just as much as the winery and the new owners have started using organic methods.

The wine is then fermented in big – 400 litre – old oak barrels, between 1 and 4 years old – the use of bigger oak – the standard barrel is 225 litre – and older wood gives more subtle oak characters than newer and smaller barrels would. The wine is then aged in barrel for a further 6 months on the lees.

The colour is a rich straw with touches of gold.
On the nose there is lots of baled apple, honey, leafy herbaceous notes, gentle smoke and vanilla and even a touch of light pineapple and quince.
The palate has high acidity cutting through opulent apricot and pineapple fruit and the rich creamy quality. There is a touch of  spicy oak, that leafy quality from the nose, some minerality and a ripe sweetness of fruit (although the wine is dry) reminiscent of membrillo or quince jelly.

The attention to detail, the ripeness, the concentration and the subtle use of has all lifted this Chenin Blanc to a new level of sophistication, elegance and layered complexity too. I should also add that it is really delicious and nice to drink. Some people say it should be aged in order to develop more complexity, but I personally like a wine like this in its youth with freshness there too – 90/100 points.

Drink it with white meats and fish dishes, even those with a creamy sauce. It is also very good with cheese, very, very good in fact. I loved it with some superbly tangy, nutty and somewhat soft and creamy Godminster Organic Cheddar which was a perfect foil for the creamy texture of the wine and its refreshing acidity. Godminster Organic Cheddar is available here, here and here.

Available in the UK for £14 per bottle from Waitrose, Waitrose Cellar.

If you want to taste an exciting white wine that offers some creamy richness and real complexity, then I really do recommend this, give it a try and let us know what you think.

 

A Romanian road trip

Like many of us, a huge part of the pleasure I take in wine is discovering new things. New regions and new grape varieties always excite for me. So when the chance came to go on a trip to Romania as a guest of the Romanian Winegrowers, with fellow wine educators and writers, I jumped at it.

From what I saw Romania is a very rural country and it often seemed like stepping back in time 40 years. Most of the places that we passed through seemed to provide little more than subsistence farming for the local people. Of course for an outsider there is a huge charm in that. Within seconds of stepping outside our hotel on the first morning I had seen my first horse and cart and almost every house had a clutch of chickens pecking away outside on the grassy verge. We travelled vast distances and most of the time we were on small country roads whose surface was not always of the best and even disappeared every now and again.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Romanian traffic in the countryside - taken through the windscreen of our coach.

Romanian traffic in the countryside – taken through the windscreen of our coach.

Although we do not see that many Romanian wines  on UK supermarket shelves, although there are more than you realise, the country has great potential and actually has more vineyards than any other Eastern European country. What’s more because of their Latin roots, and unlike the neighbouring Bulgarians and Hungarians, Romanians actually drink a lot of wine as well as make it. In fact it is still normal for Romanians to make their own wine at home either from grapes they grow themselves, or buy from vineyards. Romania is roughly at the same latitude as France and the climate is continental, except for the grape growing area near the Black Sea, where the hot summers and cold winters are tempered by the maritime influence.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Cramele Recaș
The first visit was to the Recaș Cellar near Timișoara in the far west of the country. Recaș is run by Englishman Philip Cox who has lived in Romania since 1992 and he and some partners bought the local state cooperative in 1999. He had actually started out as the Romanian importer of Heineken, which was very successful. However he was unable to change the currency into something more useful, so hit upon a scheme of producing wine in Romania that he could export for hard currency.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Originally they started with 600 hectares and now farm around 1000, which makes them a very big player in Romania, where many of the producers are much smaller estates. Legend has it that Bacchus spent his childhood in this region and there is evidence of grape growing here going back to Roman times and vineyards were thriving here in 1447, so the area’s potential has long been recognised.

Philip aims to make clean, well made, fruit driven wines that sell and as such he provides a perfect introduction to modern Romanian wines. What’s more they are widely available in the UK under a plethora of labels; Bradshaw and Wine Atlas in Asda, Lautarul in Marks and Spencer, Sole in Waitrose and the widely seen Paparuda amongst many, many others.

All the Recaș wines are very drinkable and the visit gave me my first ever taste of some of Romania’s indigenous grapes. I enjoyed the citric Fetească Regală (Royal Maiden) and the first of many cherry and plum rich wines made from Fetească Neagră (Black Maiden).

They also produce some very good premium wines at Recaș and their Solo Quinta, a white blend based on Chardonnay (the 2014 also includes little dollops of Fetească Regală, Muscat Ottonel, Sauvignon Blanc and even Cabernet Franc) is a delicious and attractively aromatic white that well deserves its £12 price tag from Tanners.

Similarly I was impressed by their Cuvée Überland, which is a wine from a single vineyard site – German names are common round here, as long ago the Hapsburgs recruited Saxon settlers to guard this distant border of their empire. They left after the Second World War, but until then the area had been mainly German, or Schwab and the Überland hill was the most prized site for wine production. Made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and Fetească Neagră, the ripe grapes are dried for 2-3 weeks on the vine to concentrate the sugars. The result is a deliciously intense wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well.

Time Warp
That night we stayed in a renovated Communist era hotel by the banks of the Danube in the small city of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. It was like going back in time to the 1970s when the Cold War was at its height. Despite being on the drinks menu, the concept of a gin and tonic seemed alien to them, luckily the local Timisoreana beer was very good indeed. Once we sat down in the restaurant, we were handed menus and were all happily choosing what we wanted to eat when the waiters started bring out our unordered food! The whole evening was so reminiscent of the 1970s that it felt like a live version of Rates of Exchange, Ray Bradbury’s comic masterpiece set in a fictional Eastern European country called Slaka.

Viticola Corcova

Vineyards at Corcova.

Vineyards at Corcova.

The next morning we visited Corcova in the Mehedinți region. This is a boutique winery 30 km or so from the Danube down in a valley, while its 60 hectares of vineyards occupy the nearby slopes. Like everyone else we visited, Corcova had entirely replanted all the vineyards they bought from the government, as the Communist era plantings were not considered to be good quality and they want to plant with higher density than was common in the 1940s.

The winery here is rather lovely as it was built in 1915 with amazing concrete tanks that are integral in the design and so cannot be removed, they have therefore renovated them and brought them back in to use. Rather astonishingly the tanks were installed and the winery was built by an Austrian firm, which just goes to show that commerce continued even when people were fighting ‘the war to end all wars’. These tanks are very thick, which controls the temperature perfectly without the need for refrigeration.

Robert Marshall (left) and Şerban Dâmboviceanu (right) of Corcova.

Robert Marshall (left) and Şerban Dâmboviceanu (right) of Corcova.

Around here, in the south west of the country, there is a slight Mediterranean influence, which helps with ripeness and enables them to have success with Syrah. Everything is very modern and impressive, with a commitment to work in the vineyard that echoed the property’s past. Back in 1907 the original owner had employed a winemaker from Alsace and today they have Laurent Pfeffer, a French wine maker with a somewhat Germanic name.

Everything is done here to produce subtle, but concentrated wines. Viticulture is very carefully done, but stops short of being organic and they only use the indigenous yeast for their fermentations.

The focus is on international grape varieties, although they also produce Fetească Neagră. I was completely bowled over by the wines, they are of a very high standard, especially their excellent, very elegant and restrained Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet-Merlot, while their late harvest Sauvignon was the best sweet wine we had in Romania. These are fine wines, so I cannot understand why UK agents are not beating a path to their door – they are missing a trick.

Domeniile Ştirbey

Vines at Ştirbey.

Vines overlooking the River Olt at Ştirbey.

30 km or so further east found us in the Dragasani region climbing a narrow ridge overlooking the River Olt. Here we were visiting the Ştirbey estate whose story goes back over 300 years and whose wines were considered to be some of the country’s finest in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries – they still have some fascinating advertising material from the 1910s and 1920s.

Baron Jakob Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

Baron Jakob Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

From 1873 to 1946 it enjoyed particular success under the control of Prince Barbu Ştirbey. His daughter, Princess Maria Stirbey, inherited the estate shortly before the new Communistic regime nationalised it and the family fled to Austria. Then in 1999 her granddaughter, Baroness Ileana Kripp, rediscovered the property and together with her Austrian lawyer husband, Baron Jakob Kripp, set about reclaiming her family’s long lost property. They were successful and by 2001 were producing wine, with the help of Oliver Bauer a modest and jovial winemaker from Germany. They are a charming couple who entertained us wonderfully and accompanied us to dinner in Bucharest the following evening.

Baroness Ileana Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

Baroness Ileana Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

The vineyards are immaculate and the views down the slopes to the river are breathtaking. It all comes together in excellent quality wines, mostly made from local grapes and some of which are stocked by The Wine Society and Oddbins. I enjoyed their aromatic, dry Tămâioasă Românească (a local Muscat) and their richly fruity red Negru de Dragasani Rezerva. Excitingly they are the only producer in the world to offer a single varietal Novak, and very good it is too. They also produce a field blend of Novak and Negru de Dragasani called Cuvée Genius Loci.

The real excitement though came from the Crâmpoşie grape which only grows in this part of Romania. Ştirbey put it to good use, making a delicately creamy still white called Crâmpoşie Selecționată and a very fine traditional method sparkling version called Prince Ştirbey Vin Spumant Extrabrut. It spends about two years on the lees, is riddled by hand and has no dosage at all – try it if you can, it is world class.

A big range of Prince Ştirbey wines is available through their German importer, Wein-Bastion.

Vinarte
On the way to Bucharest the next morning we stopped at the Vinarte winery. They were established in 1998 by buying vineyards and former cooperative facilities from the government. They farm 350 hectares or so spread over three estates in different parts of the country, but we were visiting the one at Samburești some 100 km north west of Bucharest.

The vineyard is 60 hectares and forms a sort of lieu-dit called Castel Bolovanu. It enjoys a south east facing slope at about 260-300 metres above sea level and whilst we stood there we could certainly feel the cool breezes.

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Justin Uruco handing out cask samples.

Although Vinarte is a large producer, at this site they only craft two premium wines, the Soare Cabernet Sauvignon and the second wine of the estate, Castel Bolocanu Cabernet Sauvignon. We tasted cask samples of the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon that had been aged in Romanian oak and in French oak barrels. It was marked how the Romanian oak delivered intense mocha and cherry chocolate characters, whilst the French was more delicate and restrained with subtle vanilla. The finished wines are a blend of the two. The chief winemaker here is a very nice Italian called Justin Uruco, who clearly knows his stuff as these are well crafted wines with excellent concentration.

Romanian Wine Laws
I had been peering at the labels all trip trying to understand the appellation system and Justin was able to explain it perfectly. Most of the wines we had seen had DOC / Denumire de Origine Controlată staus which specifies the geography of where a wine originates. So you might have a wine labelled as being a DOC Recaș or DOC Dealu Mare. There were other letters after the DOC as well though, as in Romania they not only control the geography, like an appellation, but the sugar in the grapes at harvest, similar to Germany’s Prädikatswein system and that is what these additional letters refer to.

DOC – CMD is made from fully ripe grapes, DOC – CT is from late harvest grapes and DOC – CIB is from late harvest grapes with noble rot.

Bucharest

The Palace of Parliament.

The Palace of Parliament.

That afternoon we briefly stopped on our way into Bucaharest to see the enormous Palace of Parliament. This is the second largest building on earth after The Pentagon and was originally named the People’s House (Casa Poporului) by Nicolae Ceaușescu. I know it is what most people have heard of in Bucharest, but I could see nothing impressive about it apart from its size and wish Bucharest was known instead for all the other, much nicer things that I saw later. When you realise that a whole section of the old city was demolished to make way for this eyesore it is especially sad that the Romanians have been lumbered with a hideous building on such a scale.

Downtown Bucharest, it wasn’t known as the Paris of the east for nothing.

Downtown Bucharest, it wasn’t known as the Paris of the east for nothing.

Later we strolled through Bucharest on our way to a restaurant for dinner and so were able to take in some of the sites of the old city. Parcul Cișmigiu (Cișmigiu Gardens) is a delightful city centre park complete with boating lake and a rather attractive looking café. There are run down areas too, but the old city centre is a delight of winding lanes and restaurant lined cobbled streets. A real highlight is the Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn) which is a beautiful Ottoman inn that was built in 1808 – Romania was a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878.

The amazing Manuc's Inn (Romanian: Hanul lui Manuc, an Ottoman inn and market complex dating from 1808.

The amazing Manuc’s Inn (Romanian: Hanul lui Manuc, an Ottoman inn and market complex dating from 1808.

The dinner at the Lacrimi si Sfinti restaurant was very good, traditional Romainan food, with starters of Telemea cheese, salată de icre (taramasalata made of carp roe – carp is rather wonderfully called crap in Romanian!), alată de vinete (smoked and roast aubergine dip), pârjoale (meatballs) and all manner of sausage, followed by lots of meat, potatoes and polenta, all washed down with local black beer and wine. We rounded off the evening with steins of rather good beer in the Caru’ cu Bere. This is a vast, beautiful, Germanic beer hall that was founded in 1879, so is as old as Romania itself. Touristy it might be, but it was great fun.

Some of the starters.

Some of the starters.

The meaty mains.

The meaty mains.

One thing that makes Romania a good country to visit is that because the people are not Slavs, Romanian – as its name implies – is a Romance language and it has much in common with Spanish, French, Italian and Catalan. In truth I found it much easier to make sense of it when written down rather than spoken, but that means that most of us wine types can read the shop signs and the wine labels without too much effort. Take a look at the map, I don’t think I could do that in any of the neighbouring countries!

S.E.R.V.E.
The next morning we headed off to the Dealu Mare region some 40 km north of Bucharest. S.E.R.V.E. (which stands for The European-Romanian Society for Exquisite Wines) was founded in 1994 by Frenchman Guy Tyrel de Poix. Sadly he died in 2011, but Mihaela Tyrel de Poix, his charming Romanian wife, has kept the winery going from strength to strength.

Mihaela Tyrel de Poix CEO of SERVE.

Mihaela Tyrel de Poix CEO of SERVE.

Most of their 142 hectares grow in the Dealu Mare region, but they also farm 42 hectares in Babadag near the Black Sea. Standing in the vineyards was quite an experience, they are on south facing slopes and although they don’t look high we had wound up and up from the valley floor and the cool wind was blowing directly onto us and the vines.

Vineyards at SERVE.

Vineyards at SERVE.

It was interesting standing up there looking around at the vines. Just as we had seen elsewhere, there were as many rubbed out and derelict vineyards as tended ones. This is for two reasons, firstly the rules for accession to the EU mean that all the hardy, productive hybrids have to be grubbed up by 2014 and secondly with the former mass market of the Soviet Union just a distant memory, quality not quantity is the way forward. So fewer vineyards, but on better sites and using better clones is the way Romania is going – and it shows.

S.E.R.V.E. produce two ranges, the entry level Vinul Cavalerului wines which sell chiefly on the Romanian market and the premium Terra Romana. Both were good, in fact I think the Vinul Cavalerului Pinot Noir, Riesling and Fetească Neagră were the best everyday wines I tasted on the trip.

The premium wines were good too. I especially enjoyed the the lees aged Terra Romana Fetească Albă (White Maiden) with a delicately creamy palate and citric acidity and the Terre Romana Cuvée Guy de Poix, which is a very fine Fetească Neagră that feels a little like Grenache, but more tannic. Some of their wines are available in Calais.

Halewood
Our final winery visit was to Halewood, whose importance cannot be underestimated. John Halewood was a well known wine trade figure in my youth, he created his company in 1978 and in 1987 started importing Romanian wines into the UK. It was a very successful venture and Halewood was for a long time the major name in Romanian wine. So much so that within ten years of that start they had created a Romanian subsidiary and were making their own wines for export. Today they have vineyards in Dealul Mare, Transylvania and near the Black Sea in Murfatlar.

Lorena Deaconu (left) Senior Winemaker at Halewood and Diana Niculescu (right) Export Manager at Halewood.

Lorena Deaconu (left) Senior Winemaker at Halewood and Diana Niculescu (right) Export Manager at Halewood.

In Dealul Mare they have a lovely manor house where we tasted a huge part of their massive range together with Lorena Deaconu, their bubbly and modest senior winemaker. All the wines were clean and sound and are widely available at very good prices, for instance these from Waitrose and this single vineyard Pinot Noir from The Wine Society. Lorena was very keen to show us her premium wines though and this is where the excitement was to be found. Their Neptunus Shiraz and Hyperion Cabernet were particularly impressive, but are sadly not yet available in the UK.

Rhein and Cie
A few years ago Halewood also bought Rhein and Cie, which is a specialist sparkling wine producer based in the small ski resort of Azuga in the the Carpathian Mountains. This is where we went next and it was a fitting finale to our trip. Rhein and Cie were founded in 1892 by a German called Rhein and have always focussed on making traditional method fizz, indeed the wonderful old posters they have in their museum call it Şampania Rhein!

Remuage still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co, part of Halewood.

Remuage still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co, part of Halewood.

Disgorging still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co.

Disgorging still carried out the old fashioned way at Rhein & Co.

The base wine is produced by Lorena at Halewood and then brought up to Azuga for the second fermentation, remuage and disgorging, all of which is done by hand. It is a beautiful winery, nestling in the snow covered mountains, so the whole experience was quite magical. The wines were impressive too, especially the Rhein & Cie Brut Rosé which is made from Pinot Noir grown in the Sebeș Alba / Alba Iulia region of Transylvania.

Azuga, Prahova a ski reswort where Rhein & Co are based and we spent out last night in Romania.

Azuga, Prahova a ski reswort where Rhein & Co are based and we spent out last night in Romania.

The magnificent Peleș Castle near Azuga in the Carpathian Mountains.

The magnificent Peleș Castle near Azuga in the Carpathian Mountains.

Conclusions
I loved this trip. Everything was excellent and I experienced many new things and saw some wonderful sights. The wines exceeded all my hopes, let alone my expectations. I didn’t taste anything that was bad and only a few wines that were not to my taste. In truth I have still not tasted enough or travelled widely enough in Romania to really get to grips with the differences between the regions and I realise that I only scratched the surface of what is available, but on this showing Romanian wine has a very bright future.