Andover Wine Friends’ May tasting was led by Torquil Jack of Carte du Vin … on the basis of his explorations on two wheels of the byways of France and Spain. Torquil and Marion have turned a hobby into an early retirement business, importing wines from small family wineries, mostly unavailable elsewhere in the UK. Their cycling and hard work has undoubtedly been to our benefit.
We tasted a good range of wines from northern Spain but I would like to concentrate here on the wines of David Moreno in Rioja Alta – plus a couple of contrasting wines from Ribeira del Duero. Unusually, Moreno produces not just whites and reds but also a pink and in an unusual local style. Although the wine is called Rosado (2010, 12.5%) it is in fact a Clarete, that is, a rosé made of 50% Garnacha (ie a red grape, entirely normally) and 50% Viura, a white grape most commonly found in Cava. The resulting wine is a really attractive colour: onion skin heading in the direction of peach, as you can see in the picture. That soft peachy theme continues on the nose with a hint of creaminess too. Interestingly, as this vintage is now approaching the end of its drinking window, there was a slight touch of carbon dioxide still, just right for a refreshing wine seeking more sunshine than the English spring has provided so far. The palate is entirely in keeping with this start, with soft red berried fruit and a good sour touch on the finish, likely to be due to the somewhat tart Viura grape variety. Altogether, a really creditable effort and outstanding value at £7.95. Bring on the sunshine!
We are on somewhat more conventional grounds with Blanco 2011, made from 100% Viura. Again, a key point here is good value at the same price: typical light floral nose, unobtrusive lemon fruit and a intriguing saline note all makes for a highly competent glass of wine to drink on its own or with lighter foods. Rather more exciting is Rioja, Tinto Reserva, 2004 at £11:50. This is made from 90% Tempranillo and 10% Garnacha and has spent an impressive 24 months in oak, 18 months in American oak and the rest in French. However, in the glass, what you notice is how well the oak is integrated with the strawberry and red plum fruit. The overt oak flavours have worn off meaning that this is now perfectly ready to drink, with evolved fruit to the fore and a fine tannic and acidic structure.
By way of contrast, we also tasted two red wines from Ribera del Deuro, also Tempranillo based but from a much warmer, fully continental, climate. If red Rioja typically shows red fruit and oak ageing effects from the Tempranillo variety, in hotter Ribera the same grape variety, here called Tinto Fino, shows black fruit. The young and fruity Linje Garsea, Roble Selected Harvest, Ribera del Duero 2011 (£12:25) makes the point perfectly: it is harvested in two batches so as to pick only ripe fruit and then it displays intense ripe fruit which you could call ‘strawberry’ except that is not quite dark enough – black plum, fully ripe blackberry perhaps. Just six months oak ageing (hence ‘Roble’) means that this is really mostly about primary flavours. By contrast there was Prios Maximus Crianza, Ribera del Deuro, Tinto Fino, 2009 (£13:95) which has spent a year at least in oak barrels and another year in bottles. Evident French and American oak on the coconut and vanilla nose along with that sweet, concentrated Tempranillo fruit but now with fine velvety tannins and very good length.
Other wines tasted
Rias Biaxas, Abamar, 2011 – fashionable Albariño from Galicia
Bodegas Urbina, Tinto Special Reserva 2001 – the treat of a fully mature Rioja with a decade of bottle ageing
All in all this was a gentle and pleasurable cycle through some key northern Spanish wine regions.
The Overton BBC followed up its recent north and south Rhône tasting with a white Rhône evening. But we started with a very welcome interloper brought by one member who generously contributed a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée Brut to start the evening off. Some rules are made to be broken! It’s not from the vineyards which are named after the great southern French river; it is white; we didn’t struggle with its identity, we just enjoyed this magnificent Champagne. Reportedly made from 10 different vintages, this showed fine persistent bubbles, beautifully refined toasty notes on the nose and then a remarkably complex palate – herbal, fruit and saline themes finely knit together, an amazing texture, a long refreshing finish, brilliant. The backstory includes fermenting much of the wine in oak and the use of Pinot Meunier as well as the usual Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a special cuvée. But this was an occasion for doing what apparently most people do all the time: just drink and enjoy!
Our Rhône whites fell neatly into three groups:
AC Condrieu and therefore Viognier
The light in the pub we meet gives an unpleasant yellow cast to photos. Even so you can see the difference between the medium minus lemon of the young wine on the left and the darker tone of the 13-year old Viognier. Condrieu, Domaine Christophe Pichon 2009 is classic youthful Condrieu on the point of leaving that phase: peach, apricot, blossom and something herby (mint?) with a texture which manages to combine true Viognier fatness with a metallic touch. By contrast, Condrieu, Domaine du Chene, 2000 follows its orange amber colour with marmalade and concentrated apricot cordial notes, the same rich mouth feel and a dry, clean finish. Condrieu has a mixed reputation when it comes to ageing but this was a success.
Variations on Roussanne and Marsanne
If Viognier is the Johnny-come-lately of white Rhône which has gone on to conquer the world, Roussanne and Marsanne are the characterful varieties which are less in the spot light but which produce some of the finest, age worthy whites of the region – and have gone in for a bit of globe-trotting too. It certainly produces fine wines in both the northern and the southern parts of the valley. From the south, and from a famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer comes Ch. de Beaucastel, Vielles Vignes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape AC, 2005. The ‘old vines’ of the label are properly vielles at 70 years and produce a wine of great concentration made from 100% Roussanne: pale peach in colour but sadly rather oxidised – a hint of varnish and rather too much orange rind for a youngish wine though the quality can still be sensed under the oxidation and on the long finish. Croze-Hermitage AC, Marc Sorrel, 2004 was in much better condition and was our 50/50 Marsanne/Roussanne blend: this really opened up in the glass with rounded melon fruit, initially quite austere but then revealed a fine floral and fruit palate and excellent acidity. The third of this trio was the (Rhône) wine of the evening: mostly Marsanne from the great E. Guigal: ‘Lieu Dit’, Saint-Joseph AC, E. Guigal, 2009: floral and surprisingly delicate to start with it then revealed a fresh taut palate of stone fruit with excellent concentration and length. For those who like old wines, there is a still a great debate to be had about intense freshness v. complexity in very good and great wines.
White Rhône blends
Presage, Doamine de la Graveirette, Julien Mas, 2011 – currently this is classified as a lowly Vin de France but once the vines have reached the age of consent it will be Châteauneuf-du-Pape, blend unknown: the most aromatic of this group of four with simple fully ripe fruit. The predominantly Grenache Blanc blend (50%) showed restrained citrus fruit and a fatness with good acidity: Domaine de Janasse, Côtes-du-Rhône, 2011. Wine three showed similar restrained lemon fruit and a leafiness and very good length: Vacqueyras, Domaine Le Clos des Cazaux, 2005 with 60% Clairette, 20% Grenache Blanc and 20% Roussanne. Finally there was the tease: Shelleys Block, Rutherglen, 2009, a Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. There was little agreement on which was the outsider.
This was an excellent evening which showed the potential of the Rhône to produce very good white wines.
It is a great moment when a book is published which genuinely marks a substantive change in our knowledge. For decades, wine people have been dependent on Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The world atlas of wine and the same team’s Oxford companion to wine as their basic reference books. Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand on grape varieties, Grapes and wines, has not had quite the same stature though it is invaluable; in fact in terms of what varieties taste like it is will continue to be essential reading. But it is no exaggeration to say that we have a new standard work in J Robinson (her again), Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes: a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours (Penguin 2012). This article is not a full review of this family-bible sized tome but in passing we note its comprehensiveness (all varieties in commercial production) and above all, for the first time ever, the combination of established wine knowledge (volumes, places, flavours) with the results of a decade and a half of new work on DNA testing of varieties. The latter has revolutionised our understanding of the relationships between varieties. The book also is a fantastic resource on wine names in written sources, less revolutionary than the science but also very interesting.
The man behind the science is the Swiss plant geneticist José Vouillamoz. At a seminar at Vinitaly 2013, he recounts the moment which changed his life. Jancis Robinson had asked Carole Meredith of Davis to collaborate on the project which became Wine grapes. Meredith is the mother figure of the new science having demonstrated as recently as 1997 to an amazed world that Cabernet Sauvignon was not an indigenous variety grown since time began in Bordeaux but a relatively modern cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. But Professor Meredith was about to retire from her academic post to go and grow vines … there is soul for you. Instead she recommended a young Swiss scientist who had worked with her and in Italy who might just do the job. He had already surprised the world of Italian wine by demonstrating in 2004, á la Meredith, that Sangiovese was not an historical Tuscan (or Etruscan) variety but the offspring of the little regarded if at its best, high quality Ciliegiolo and a variety, probably from Calabria, which nobody had heard of, Calabrese Montenuovo. José remembers thinking that the new project, summarizing the results of the new DNA-based science, might be six months’ work. Four years of painstaking labour later he has contributed the DNA profiles of the varieties we do now know about and mapped the relationships in his contribution to this remarkable book. Combined with the formidable wine knowledge of Julia Harding and the collaborator-in-chief Jancis, they have collectively put a whole generation of wine students in their permanent debt.
But the great thing about the wine world is the way that it combines hard work (in the field, the winery, university or at the blogger’s laptop) with a celebration of life, with fun. Thus, to launch the book at Vinitaly, José put together a tasting of ‘unusual Italian varieties’. This is entirely appropriate as it turns out that there are no fewer than 377 varieties in commercial production in Italy, the largest number for any country. France for example has 204. Of the six varieties chosen here I had heard of, indeed tasted, two before: Prié from Aosta and Raboso Piave from the north east. But Dorona di Venezia, Cordenosa, Uvalino or Nieddera?
Blanc de Morgex et la Salle, Maison Albert Vevey, Valle d’Aosta, 2012 – made from the Prié variety, the vines are grown at between 900 and 1200m of altitude, on the border between Italy and France. They are trained on a low pergola system to reflect the heat off the ground to enhance ripening. José informs us that one of Prié’s parents is Lughienga Bianca and, rather surprisingly, one of its offspring is Airen, which dominates thousands of hectares of the Spanish Meseta. It is difficult to imagine two more different wine locations than the central Spanish plateau with its near desert conditions and the Valle d’Aosta! The wine is near water white, with light, floral and hay notes on the nose. Surprisingly full flavoured (stone fruit, salt note, slight final bitterness) it has high acidity (8-8.5g TA) and medium length.
Venissa, Tenuta Venissa, 2011 - the planting of the Dorona di Venezia variety stretches to the limit the concept of ‘in commercial production’. This is a one-vineyard variety grown only on one hectare. But it is a very special hectare the Isola Mazzorbo, an island in the Venetian lagoon next to the better known Burano. The settlement is a predecessor of the current city of Venice, long abandoned. (There is a fine picture of the vineyard and island the Dobianchi website. The variety has long been confused with the common Garganega; indeed it is a cross between Bermestia Bianca and Garganega. The reason it is in production is due to the historical interest and the backing of the important Prosecco family, Bisol, who own the vineyard. To add to the interest it is produced in a bottle which recalls the glass making of Venice and enhances mid-gold colour of the wine with its rich palate of mango and honey with just a hint of varnish or shoe polish on the nose. The wine is made in a very traditional manner with 30 days of skin contact and there are perceptible tannins as a result.
Ros de Sanzuàn, Emilio Bulfon, Vino Rosso, 2011 – another one hectare speciality, this time from the Cordenosa variety with as yet unknown parentage. It comes from Emilio Buffon who has a collection of unusual local varieties in Italy’s most north easterly region Friuli Venezia Giulia. Very fruity on nose and palate with candied strawberry carried forward by 20 g/l residual sugar, rustic, sweeter than off-dry.
Uceline, Monferrato Rosso DOC, Cascina Castlèt, Piemonte, 2008 – made from Uvalino, the third and final member of the one-hectare club and related to the ‘not in production’ Neretto di Marengo. Unusually harvested as late as end of October / beginning of December. Black cherry fruit, pepper, dry, good acidity, high tannins; needs time. Apparently has high levels of resveratrol (anti-oxidant).
Rosso, Valle del Tirso IGT, Attilio Contini, 2010 - where is the Nieddera I hear you say? Well here it is. Grown on a massive 60 hectares in Sardinia – with that ‘dd’ combination of consonants it has to be Sardo! Perhaps Spanish in origin, like many Sardinian varieties. Juicy black fruit, black cherry, mint, almond; fine medium plus tannins, long finish of sour cherry.
Gelsaia, Piave Malanotte DOCG, Cecchetto, 2009 – Raboso Piave is responsible for this intense wine grown on 11 hectares in the Veneto. Deep ruby in colour in colour, complex prune, chocolate and blackcurrant cordial with some residual sweetness, fine medium plus tannins and remarkably long. the secret here is that 20% of the grapes go through a partial drying out to concentrate flavours and sugar. Raboso might mean ‘sharp’ in the local patois but in fact this variety is made in a whole range of styles from sparkling to passito though the residual sugar does help with the acidity and the tannins.
The noble Riesling grape variety is probably German in origin. According to Wine grapes, the name has many German synonyms and may be mentioned as far back as 1435. Certainly the variety is suited to Germany’s cold winters, hot summers and long dry early autumns. With its hard wood and late budding, it is equipped to survive the winter and it makes the most of the long ripening season to reach both sugar and phenolic ripeness. In a cool climate it needs shelter and the warmest, best drained sites.
It is no surprise then that with 22,400 hectares Germany has by far the biggest plantings in the world, followed by Australia (4,400), Alsace (3,382) and Austria (1874). After that it is small amounts in eastern Europe, South Africa, Italy, Spain and so on. For the wine lover, what makes it such an exciting variety is its ability to express the individuality of the place in which it is grown and, when treated well, its sheer quality. A fine wine supper was the ideal setting to try a selection of mainly very high quality wines as Riesling is a brilliant food wine – expressive but not overwhelming, the acidity constantly refreshes the palate.
Let’s start with our modest New World selection. Wine of the evening for value for money was undoubtedly, Zarcillo, Riesling 2012, 13.5%, £6.25 from the Wine Society. Grown in Chile’s southerly Bío-Bíó Valley it showed some real intensity on the nose, limes and exotic fruit, and then ripe apples with balancing acidity on the palate. If one is going to be critical the palate lacks the sheer excitement of most of the wines in this tasting, but then it is half the price or less than virtually all of them.
The only disappointment of the evening was Klein Constantia, Riesling, South Africa, 2010, 11%, £9.25. The wines in this tasting were so good, in a range of styles, that ‘OK’ was not really good enough. Green and grassy on the nose this was a cool climate style with ocean winds reducing the heat of the Cape. The fruit is predominantly lime with some length on the palate. By contrast, The Contours, Riesling, Eden Valley, Pewsey Vale, 2006, 13%, £14, showed all the qualities of a top new world Riesling with its fine and bold floral and mineral notes on the nose. While the Eden Valley is cool compared to the rest of Barossa, it is still a reliably warm climate and the wines tend to develop those characteristics ‘diesel’ or ‘petrol’ (choose your own fuel) notes relatively early on in their development. According to the winemaker, 2006 was a perfect year and it really showed in the floral and citrus (lime) palate and weighty palate.
From the New World to Riesling’s home in Germany. Our first choice was the classic Mosel expression of Riesling, producing low alcohol, off dry, high acidity, feather light, fruit-filled wine for which the word ‘terroir’ could have been invented. These wines do only come from the steep, blue-grey slate sun traps of the Mosel river and its tributaries. Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, Mosel, J J Prüm, 2011, 9%, £18, is of course named after the famous ‘sun dial’ vineyard. It showed ripe apple and blossom aromas followed by textbook minerality, the fruit being yet more evident on the palate, the residual sugar not only offsetting the rapier acidity but conveying the fruit on a long finish. Outstanding. The wine is not cheap but then each vine has to be staked to an individual pole and worked by hand on a steep slope.
German example number two also comes from a famous, named vineyard: Rudesheimer Rosengarten Riesling Rheingau, Kabinett, Leitz, 10%, £13. This is a classic Rheingau site, again on steep slopes this time of slate and quartzite. With an average vine age of between 35 and 40 years, Leitz have worked hard with green inter-row cropping, low yields and very late harvesting to produce something exceptional even at Kabinett level. Here the fruit notes are more forward on the nose and really shine on the palate where the acidity is again noteable for its freshness, but the palate is more rounded despite the still low alcohol level and apparently drier finish. Finally we had a German example with some bottle age: Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken, Abtei St. Hildegard, Rheingau, 11.5%, 2002. Medium minus intensity green-gold in the glass, powerful nose of pleasant petrol/ mineral but then honey and apple on the palate. Over the years this had developed a fully integrated harmoniousness which is difficult to describe. We could go off into a mystical flight with Hildegard (twelfth century saint whose Abbey this comes from) but we will leave it there …
But it is not just Germany that can do great Riesling in Europe, there is Alsace and even Austria too. Our Austrian example was of the highest quality, with a modest nose at the moment but remarkable concentration on the palate, which is only going to get more complex, with mouth-filling volume. From the Wachau region, this was Riesling Smaragd Loibner Steintal, Pichler, 13%, £33, expensive (Austrians are prepared to pay top prices for their best wines) but very impressive.
The Alsatians in our tasting are better established without the same strong domestic market and so are better value – despite all being Grand Cru. Riesling Grand Cru Pfersigberg, Kuentz-Bas, 2008, 13.5%, £23 showed impressive elderflower and ripe apple and melon, plus some rich lees-related flavours. Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg, Blanck, 2000, 13% was wittily described as a lawnmower wine: petrol fumes, honey, weight in the mouth, and honeysuckle flowers from having run into the flower bed. Finally there was the more prosaically labelled Riesling ‘Hugel’ 2005, which was all honeyed fruit, some fine residual sugar and very good length. Hugel have been a voluble critic of Alsace’s overgenerous distribution of the Grand Cru desigation to less than great vineyards and so they don’ t use the term, even though the fruit here comes from the Schoenenbourg vineyard.
While all these Alsace wines are either dry or off-dry, there are also medium sweet and sweet styles too. The wines above with prices given were bought for this tasting, the ones without prices were brought my fellow tasters including the very generously shared: Hugel, Vendage Tardive 1996, 12%. Harvested on 14th and 17th November seventeen years ago, this comes from tiny yields (22hl/ha) and has nearly 25g of residual sugar – sweet but not overly so. While the classic botrytis notes were not that pronounced, the wine still tastes young with brilliantly sharp fruit. Again, from the Grand Cru Schoenenburg vineyard but not labelled as such.
Our selection was bit old world oriented – no Great Southern from south west Australia, no New Zealand and so on – but nonetheless the potential of this grape variety was there for all to taste.
Overton’s blind tasting group themed tasting this month was quite simply Rhône reds. Between us we managed – without any conferring – to bring 10 different appellations, five from the north and five from the south. Out first challenge was to identify whether the first flight of five wines was northern or southern. Mercifully there was near unanimity that we were in Syrah country, not Grenache/ Syrah/ Mourvèdre blends, north not south, on account of the homogeneity of the wines, their relative austerity (no juicy Grenache) and lightness. Having successfully jumped the modest first hurdle, we could settle down and enjoy the evening.
Tasting five basically Syrah wines from five geographical zones with a spread of age (2000-09) and trying to place them was quite a challenge. One wine was markedly youthful and was easy to spot as such, but then the best wine of all was the oldest but was remarkably youthful. Two had the varnish hints of VA which you could have mistaken for age. The youthful Les Monestiers, Syrah, David Reynaud, Vin de Payes des Colliner Rhodanniennes 2009 had the tell tale purple edge and was relatively simple if with red berry and floral notes. But Clos de Caminailles, Côte Rôtie, Pierre Gaillard 2005 was a bit closed up on the nose if on the palate the ripe fruit covered the tannins successfully. The same maker’s St-Joseph 2008 showed good red fruit, but again was not that fragrant and quite simple. The rather older Cornas, Les Chailles, Alain Chaille, 2003 had the hint of varnish but then showed real class – perhaps the most complex of this group with polished fine red fruit and grippy tannins, surprising given the warmth of the year. But the wine that was most fragrant was Domaine de Thalabert, Crozes Hermitage, Jaboulet, 2000. Despite its twelve plus years, it was remarkably youthful with an excellent complex fruit and raisin palate, soft tannins and sweet fruit on the finish.
Off then to the south. Again we had five appellations to chose from though those were likely to include and indeed did include the two multi-village Côtes-du-Rhône and Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. (Theoretically these wines could be from the north but in practice they are not.) The real test was whether we could spot the grandest appellation, if of course it was present. It was … and we couldn’t! Both the Gigondas and the Vacqueyras were mistaken for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Wine number one had a real yeast or marmite nose and then the sweet juicy fruit of the south. It had a certain French reserve but also meaty, grippy texture, quite intense red fruit and a softer finish: La Griffe, Domaine de Villeneuf, Côtes-du-Rhône, 2010. The tannins were back in force in Château de Saint Cosme, Gigondas, 2005 with its quite powerful nose, herby and fruity palate and demandingly grippy palate. The grippiness continued with an older wine: Vacqueyras, Paul Jaboulet, 2000 with its soft fruit. medium intensity nose and full palate. The wine which really was CNP had smooth developed notes, rich prune fruit and obvious fruit sweetness: Vielles Vignes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Elisabeth Chamberlan, 2003. And finally there was Les Coteaux Schisteux, Séguret, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, Boutinot, 2003, huge, full of developed rounded, sweet fruit but with a bit of a bitter edge. It is fair to say that in general the wines of the north were (at least to my palate) subtler, more complex and more enjoyable.
It is rare these days for marketing hyperbole to begin to live up to its billing. We don’t have ‘tastings’ or ‘good wines’ any more, we have a constant stream of ‘master classes’, ‘iconic wines’ and the world’s greatest this and that. But just occasionally the event or wine lives up to the claim made about it. This was certainly the case with Charles Metcalfe’s Iberian Icons for Stevens Garnier – the best of these wines genuinely were amazingly good and merited the praise heaped upon them. Here are my top three.
Legado Red, DOP Douro, 2009 – a prosaic name for a wine made from a field blend of 100 year old vines from the upper Douro, notionally 40% Touriga Franca, 10% Touriga Nacional and a load of other Tintas, not to mention Donzelinho from the Douro. This has not only great intensity on nose and palate, power and balance but also that difficult to describe wildness, a mixture of herbs, black fruit, spice and a subtle texture from rich tannins. The richness of the fruit easily carries the 15% of alcohol. Outstanding and in a way that really reflects its place: what comes through is the extraordinary power and untamedness of those old, local variety vines in a hot and dry place, making huge but balanced red wine by exploiting north facing slopes and altitude.
Barca Velha, Casa Ferreirinha, DOP Douro, 2004 – common known as Portugal’s icon wine, Barca Velha does start with the attribute of rarity. The first vintage was 1952 and was the result of the then winemaking, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, visiting Bordeaux and thinking ‘we could do that’ – and how! Since then there have only been 17 vintages which shows a real commitment to genuine excellence. And at the tasting we consumed 3% of the UK’s entire allocation of 60 bottles … Unlike Legado, this is from a modern vineyard planted in blocks, with 40% Touriga Nacional, 30% Tinta Franca, 20% Tinto Roriz (ie Tempranillo) and 10% Tinta Câo. Charles tells the story of how when this wine was first made in the 1950s ice had to be shipped up the Douro to control fermentation temperatures as electricity did not arrive here until the 1980s. Nowadays the fermentation temperatures are controlled in boring but reliable modern ways, though the young wines are still transported to the much cooler Vila Nova Gaia to be matured for 18 months in French barriques, 75% new and then given extended bottle age before release. Classy, elegant, deep plum nose, rich and fabulous texture of fine silky tannins, remarkably restrained and balanced at just 13.5%. Outstanding again but in a more classic, international style, but with that intense local fruit character.
Porto, Ferreira Vintage 1920 – ports of this period, nearly a hundred years ago, were made with a mixture of red and white grapes. (This however did not have any Muscat character about it which apparently many wines of this period did.) Thus, even in the very best years they would not have had the purple-red intensity that the just declared – and also truly remarkable – 2011s show. A century on, the wine has turned into the glorious mid amber you can see on the right. This is not the best picture I have of this wine but it is the truest in turns of the colour. The label is of course modern – the bottle will have spent the intervening decades as part of those glorious and mysterious stacks of old unlabelled bottles which you see in the cellars of historic wineries. The wine had been poured for an hour and a half by the time we tasted it but was still in perfect condition, with a whiff of nail varnish over powerful walnut and dried fig notes. These carry over into the palate with additional date, smokiness, syrup of figs, continuing sweetness and 20.5% alcohol. Unlike old table wines which can be intellectually fascinating, fortified wine of this age can be and this was genuinely enjoyable drinking.
Three icons (a triptych perhaps?) in one tasting … truly remarkable.
The still wines of Piemonte region have a something of a double reputation. On the one hand bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco are among Italy’s greatest and most sought after wines. Some of them have a price tag to match. Then on the other hand there are inexpensive reds from less prestigious areas, made from higher yielding varieties, and, let’s be honest, often rather dull Gavi. It tells us how far wine culture has come in the UK when we remember that Gavi used to be a staple of the UK restaurant trade, a beacon of sophistication in a country without wine!
Nowadays, with the wines of the world to chose from, more discerning UK customers will be looking for distinctive wines that reflect their origins and reasonable value for money. On the first point, Piemonte can be a star. It has a clutch of varieties of real distinction, some famous, some not, with particular climate and soil types. On value for money it is more of a struggle. The Wine Society has the remarkably characterful Nebbiolo/Dolcetto blend, Bricco Rosso Suagnà, at £6.75 a bottle – but it is the exception which breaks the rule. Otherwise the best buys are from cooperatives such as Araldica, but you have to pick and choose for wines of some real interest.
Into this field now comes Piemonte-wines.com the brain child of Noel and Tricia Desnos who source wines in the region from small, hitherto unimported, wineries at very good prices. Andover Wine Friends’ tasting of April 2013 put these wines to the ‘distinctiveness’ and value for money test. Let’s start with the two stars of the evening.
Barbera is a very versatile grape variety which has at least three main styles – inexpensive jug wine, sometimes fizzy, which can be good or very ordinary; quality fruit-led varietal wine; and quality varietal wine which has been oaked. The first is not available in the UK, the second I comment on below, and third was well represented by Minola, Barbera del Monferrato, Azienda Agricola Nuova Cappelletta, 2008. This wine comes from the area most associated with Barbera and one where it – and not Nebbiolo – gets the best vineyard sites. The grower states that this wine always makes 15%, whatever the year, and that it has the highest recorded level of colour components in tests in the local lab – clearly something to brag about in the bar! It comes from certified biodynamically farmed grapes with a substantial two weeks of maceration time, which produces all those anthocyanins. It is then aged for a year in barriques and bottled with a low level of sulphur dioxide. It showed dense black plum colour and a really good balance between plummy fruit and the smoke and leather notes derived from its time in barrels. The fruit covers the alcohol all too convincingly and is offset by Barbera’s trademark acidity. The tannins are quite chunky but this would be excellent with food. The wine certainly more than passes the distinctiveness test and is remarkable value at just over £12.
The evening’s other prima donna was competing in a rather stiffer context: Barolo. Here we are not looking just for competence and some complexity but for real vinous excitement. Barolo, SA.PE.RI 2004 certainly provided that. If you wanted a textbook example of what fine, structured, ageable, Nebbiolo is about – at a reasonable price – you need to look no further. A true pale-brick colour, as you lift the glass to your nose you are met with a waft of complex fragrance – red fruit, smoke, floral notes, a hint of something earthy. In the mouth this has the volume and structure which would make it work well with big meat dishes, with ripe red fruit and tar, and then the tannic wall which characterises this variety. The fruit, high acidity and tannins should mean it will develop well over the next ten years. Highly drinkable now with rich food, good value at £20.
At this point I will sneak in one more star wine: mildly fizzy, a nose and palate of rose blossom, orange citrus notes and grapiness, attractive sweetness in the mouth, it can only be the minor classic that is Moscato d’Asti, again from SA.PE.RI. Just 5.5% of alcohol and £9.50 a bottle. Partially fermented grape must of a high quality, the sweetness comes not from later additions of sugar but from the original grapes themselves.
Basaricó, Sauvignon, Langhe DOC, Adriano Vini, 2010 – very pleasant peach and herbal notes on the nose joined by some well-tamed green fruit on the mouth-filling palate with a bit of welcome steeliness. Very commendable if an unusual variety to find in the Langhe.
Cortese, Piemonte DOC, Nuova Capelletta, 2010 – made with the Gavi grape, this is sold as unsulphited wine and sadly it showed. Some burnt toffee and celery notes on the nose, then an oxidised palate. It didn’t have the fruit or the intensity to carry off the oxidation. Maybe a faulty bottle, maybe just too old, maybe inadequately protected. PS we tried another bottle of this a couple of weeks later and it was much better – rich, peachy nose and palate, some attractive citrus rind, medium plus length, slightest oxidative touch which was an enhancement not a distraction.
Roero Arneis, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2010 – made from the currently and rightly, fashionable white grape of Piemonte, Arneis, I was anxious about this as Arneis has to be really good if it is not really young. But it carried its few years lightly. Not a huge nose but then floral, quite exotic fruit and commendable continuing freshness.
Barbera d’Alba, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2008 – our example of quality unoaked Barbera if at a modest price level (£9.65) grown in the sandy soils of the Roero. This wine real split opinion. I and some others liked the dry, sharp cherry palate with decent persistence, a good light summer red, others did not.
Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2008 – often sold as a ‘junior Barolo’ this is really not the case as it does not have the complexity. But this example did have attractive smoky red berried fruit, freshness and a taut palate. Good value at £9.65.
Basarin, Barbaresco DOCG Riserva, Adriano Vini, 2005 – classic Nebbiolo perfume on the nose, bright strawberry fruit, high chewy, somewhat unresolved tannins, medium plus persistence, very good value at under £15.
Ravera, Barolo DOCG, Azienda Agricola Cagliero 2005 – a rather more traditional style Barolo than the SA.PE.RI above with clove and red and a hint of black fruit on nose and palate, those dense chewy tannins again, very good but still needs time to soften and develop more complexity. But again a steal at £21.50.
Review of Benjamin Lewin MW, In search of Pinot Noir, Vendange Press, Dover, 2011
I picked up this book with real excitement on two counts. First, as a self confessed Pinotfile (both Noir and Gris, happy with Blanc too) I was thrilled to find a full length, substantial treatment of this great grape variety. Second, I am just beginning a ‘Sangiovese in its various expressions’ project. While Sangiovese is a much poorer traveller than Pinot Noir, this book does offer a model for my project.
Benjamin Lewin brings a great deal to the party. He has the significant advantage of being a scientist and so can handle both the technical aspects of wine and the statistical material with aplomb. The nearly 400 pages of text are well illustrated with tables, charts, maps and what I take to be the author’s own photos. In addition there are good endnotes which point to the author’s sources. So this is a big book and reflects a huge amount of work. He is also an MW and so has done the hard yards in terms of wine study and tasting. He sensibly includes a lot of tasting notes for regions other than Burgundy on the grounds that the wine press is awash with Burgundy notes but is a little short of records of Pinot Noir in the Ahr, in northern Italy, in Chile, New Zealand and so on. The tasting notes are helpfully congregated at the end of chapters so as not to clutter the main text. So there is a major resource here if you want to know what individual bottles taste like in Graubunden (no, me neither), Russian River or Martinborough. While no doubt Pinot is grown somewhere that is not commented on here – I could offer one, somewhat ambitious, southern Tuscan location – the coverage is excellent. While Burgundy of course does get detailed treatment, what is unusual about this book is that so does all the other important Pinot growing areas.
The author starts with the questions to which wine lovers wants answers. To what extent are wine styles affected by terroir and to what extent by wine making decisions? How do the ‘other’ regions compare to the heights of Burgundy itself? ‘Is there only one true path for Pinot Noir or have plantings in new places revealed alternative truths for this fascinating grape?’ (flap jacket) If the holy grail for wine makers around the world is to emulate Burgundy, have they succeeded?
In the end, the answers given here are, like the holy grail, somewhat elusive. After the richness of the grand tour of major Pinot producing areas, the concluding chapter first wrestles (somewhat surprisingly for a conclusion) with the question of ‘what are we looking for?’ and then produces Domaine de Romanée Conti as the ultimate example of Pinot. While the latter might provoke the thought that we did not need to read 400 pages to come to that view, the former question does need answering. Benjamin Lewin’s view is that we are looking for aromatic and palate complexity and wines which can develop with age. As he says, that applies to any fine wine. So the further wish list is sheer sensuality, silky elegance or delicacy (pp. 369-70). Again, Pinot lovers are unlikely to argue for long over that while you maintain what could be called a Burgundian paradigm. And the author does point out that price in the market would back this judgement.
There is another case to be made however. The thing about long term relationships is that you internalise one another’s preferences . Give me a menu and I will be able to tell you what dishes my wife is likely to choose – and I am sure she could do the same for me. When we taste wines together she will nearly always prefer the young, fresh, refreshingly youthful wines and I will go for the supposedly more serious, longer aged ones. Apply this to Pinot and you could argue that the reliably fruit-led but not overly extracted wines of Marlborough and Central Otago are better than the lottery that is red Burgundy. While arguing that no other Pinots come close to the complexity and subtlety of good Grand Cru Burgundy in successful years, Benjamin Lewin also points out that a lot of Grand Cru Burgundy fails to live up to this billing. As we all know to our cost, this is also the case for Premier Cru and village wines, while too much Bourgogne rouge is simply pale and uninteresting. So perhaps we should factor ‘reliable performance’ into any estimation of quality?
All Pinot lovers and students will want to and need to refer to Benjamin Lewin’s book. Like too many bottles of red Burgundy, it does have its frustrations. It feels that it really needed an experienced editor to shape the material so that he had to summarise his chapter by chapter conclusions. What does Pinot from the Ahr typically taste like? – the answer is there but is touched on in passing in mid chapter: it has no common style. Similarly the conclusion of the book as a whole introduces new material rather than synthesizing, reflecting on and taking further the valuable ground that has already been covered. Note to self: stand back from the fascinating detail and get the big picture stuff right. Now let’s open another bottle of Pinot and see if its producer has found that holy grail.
The Overton-based blind tasting group took a new step into the dark last Tuesday. I encouraged it to break the remaining link which can give you some clue as to the identity of the wine – the person who brought it. In the past this has led to some useful clues and some wrong deductions: it’s X’s wine so it is Bordeaux, it’s Y’s so it is 20 years older than you might think. I can confess now that with my interest in Italy, I have taken many non-Italian wines knowing they are going to shoehorned into an Italian style – the Rhône or Chile works equally well! But now we all bring our wines and one of us puts them in the bags which conceals their identities and off we go.
And how did we get on? Well, on a personal front, I did spot the Rioja reserva of real quality. Most got the St Julien as a left bank claret, and one person called the Albariño correctly. So far not too bad. But then, nobody spotted the two Sauvignon Blancs (which to be fair were not very typical or shining examples), the Pinotage which exceeded our lowly expectations or the oak-on-steroids South African white blend. The Taurasi was in a bad shape as was the English white. The result then was roughly a third correctly called, third not (with some good excuses), and one third unrecognisable. Could do better?
Harbourne Dry Unfiltered, Kent, 2000 – made from the Ortega and Regner grape varieties but really much too old to assess its quality. Pale gold, some oxidation over honey and green apple notes, the biggest feature was the remaining high acidity.
Sauvignon Blanc, Huia, Marlborough, 2004 – perhaps the most surprising candidate for anonymity: medium minus gold, off-dry on the palate, lifted honey and vanilla, dried apricot, some stoniness, medium length. The current version of this wine is part fermented in oak but here the oak seems to have hung around after the fruit, normally so powerful, had faded. While some Sauvignon Blanc wines can age, there is a reason for drinking most of them young!
Goliardo a Telleira, Albariño Barrica, Rias Biaxas DO, 2010 – again not an easy wine to spot (though one person got it right) as typically this variety is not oaked, but this is. Pale lemon in colour (despite the oak!), a complex bouquet of sherbet, elderflower cordial and vanilla, dry and quite full bodied with medium plus acidity and an austere, stony (at this young age slightly harsh) finish. A genuinely classy wine in (so far) an underwhelming line up.
Experimental Production, Boekenhoutskloof, Western Cape, 2004 – the unglamorous name tells the person with a sight of the label that something is up here! And the experiment is with 200% new oak, ie the must is fermented in new barrels and then the new wine is transferred to another set of new barrels. So quite a few innocent oak trees were harmed in the making of this wine which is definitely one to taste but not to drink! Pale gold in colour, a great waft of toffee and vanilla on a pronounced and rich nose; oaky palate over ripe apple and melon fruit. The high quality fruit struggling to express itself is 35% Grenache Blanc, 33% Semillon and 22% Viognier.
Rioja Reserva, Contino, 1995 – a Spanish challenger to the Albariño for the wine of the evening accolade which would get my vote. Garnet edge, lovely mushroom and undergrowth tertiary bouquet with a touch of tar and coconut (which was the clue to its identity), sweet, ripe, red fruit on the palate, medium and more acidity, some grip in the tannins still … complex and satisfying.
Ch. Hortevie, St-Julien AC, 2000 – integrated rounded out blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with a smoky touch, medium weight in the mouth, medium, fine tannins, good length and classy: ergo left bank Bordeaux with some bottle age.
Tormentoso, Bush Vine Pinotage, Paarl, 2010 – powerful nose of mint and eucalyptus followed by assertive red berried fruit received general approbation for this wine. This is why it is important to taste wines without knowing what they are as most in this circle would start with a negative view if they had known it was Pinotage. No burnt rubber notes at all, a well crafted, attractive red. Eye catching label design too.
We moved on to two reds with something in common even if it was only warm climate viticulture, dense fruit and high alcohol levels (14.5%). Durif, Brown Brothers, Heathcote, Victoria, 2005 was inky in its depth and spilled out of the glass with its ripe fruit, a touch of something acetic with age, and rustic sweet blackcurrant cordial fruit. Low tannin levels and medium acidity completed the picture. Powerful and simple. Its pair was Gnarly Head, Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi, 2010. Garnet edge on a young smelling wine might point you to Zinfandel. Ripe, concentrated, brambly fruit plus a surprisingly lean palate (a plus point for reserve?) and a mouth-refreshing finish. Sadly the final wine of the evening, which could have been a real treat, was in poor condition, the celebration of 130 years of the Mastroberadino company, Taurasi Riserva, Cento Trenta, Mastroberardino, 1999. On the other hand, the cooking at the Red Lion in Overton is absolutely reliable, a great steak dish which went well with all these big reds. The next few months will show how the ‘no name’ blind tasting is going.
The Eyrie Vineyards are widely credited with the creation of Oregon as the Pinot Noir state of the USA. The state has just celebrated 50 years of growing grapes for one of the world’s most elusive wine styles, celebrated by Stephen Brook in his up-to-date tribute in the February 2012 edition of Decanter magazine. But as a recent tasting for Andover Wine Friends showed, there is much more to Eyrie Vineyards and Oregon than just attempting an American version of red Burgundy. In fact two of the three wines that really impressed the tasting group were not Noir at all.
Following the publication of Grape Vines, Jancis, Julia and José’s tome of late 2012, we have to learn not to speak about Pinot Noir, Gris and Blanc as three different varieties. They are merely colour variations of the genetically identical Pinot variety. Skin colour is not a big deal in the grape geneticist’s world. If Pinot Noir flourishes in the relatively cool Pacific-influenced climate of the Willamette Valley, Oregon, it is, therefore, hardly a surprise that Pinot Blanc and Gris also do well. But we just don’t hear about them in the same way. Pinot Blanc 2010 is a limited bottling from Alsatian clones grown in the Three Sisters Vineyards which was planted in the 1980s and so now has some vine age. The ‘three sisters’ are the three colours of the Pinot variety! This is not the wine for you if you want something that is going to jump out of the glass at you. But if you want something which will complement a wide range of food, with mineral, ripe and green apple notes with a touch of peach, very fine acidity and good length you will enjoy this. It is good value at £14-75. (When the opened bottle was tasted two days later the nose had really developed with quite marked stone fruit notes.)
The real stars among the whites were the Pinot Gris and the Chardonnay, though there is a sting in the tail of the latter. I love Pinot Gris and this was a really outstanding example. The grapes come from all four Eyrie-owned vineyards, are fermented in stainless steel and, crucially, the young wine is kept on the lees until bottled. After five years, Pinot Gris 2007 was at a peak – but may yet be able to fly higher, like the red-tailed hawks which give the winery its name. Medium minus gold in colour from age, and evolved honey-scented, refined apple and melon fruit on the nose. In short, beautifully fragrant and integrated. In the mouth the lees effect was more evident with the richness and fatness which lees contact and the passing of time can bring. A great savoury edge to a wine with real palate weight but perfectly balanced. And all this for £12.80 …. The question we were left with was how much was this quality due to the Pinot Gris itself, and how much to the bottle age.
We loved the Chardonnay Reserve 2008 too. It is a vineyard and barrel selection, choosing the barrels which show deeper, richer and more complex flavours, as winery website says. The wine making details there are not detailed but it does state that the wine is aged for nine months on unstirred lees in a combination of neutral (ie older) and new French and Oregon oak barrels and then lightly filtered. This results in an extremely impressive, weighty and subtle Chardonnay: pale lemon in colour, a rich nose with layers of interest, good intensity of ripe fruit and a fine savoury yeastiness. (That yeastiness is subtle because of the decision not to stir up the lees.) A very fine wine – but one that does cost £29 and so it up against some pretty stiff competition from the great, mineral, white wines of Burgundy. Sadly for us, affluent American consumers like their Chardonnay too much.
We then turned our attention to the red wines, starting with a real rarity. Pinot Meunier is normally only experienced as a part of the Champagne blend. In other words although it is a dusky red grape, its juice is used in a white wine. Pinot Meunier 2009 had a very pale ruby colour, a bright cherry and tinned strawberry nose, light palate with savoury flavours to the fore, medium grippy tannins and some length. Interesting rather than outstanding. The property’s two Pinot Noirs followed and there was a really marked contrast between them. Both are pale ruby, in other words made in a Burgundian mould rather than the much deeper coloured versions of some Californian Pinot. Pinot Noir 2008 comes from the fruit of younger vineyards and is matured for 11 months in neutral oak barrels. It had a slightly musty nose, with a touch of volatile acidity and refined red berry fruit. The fruit showed well in the mouth but just lacked a bit of concentration. By contrast, Pinot Noir Reserve 2009 comes from forty year old vines on their own roots (phylloxera struck Oregon in the 1990s but this vineyard has clearly escaped it thus far). The fruit is completely destemmed and then fermented as whole berries in small bins with punching down four hours – real, small scale hands-on wine making. Gently pressed the wines are fermented out and then aged in oak casks for two years in which they clarify naturally and the wines are bottled without fining or filtering. The result is a wine of great quality, a rich and beautiful nose of red berries married to attractive smoky and savoury qualities, a rich and supple palate with the fruit sweetness coming out on the long finish. The pronounced quality difference is due partly to vine age and partly to vintage, 2009 being a warmer, better year than 2008. Due to the same market factors, neither of these wines are inexpensive but we agreed that we would rather pay £38 for the latter than £24 for the former.
In general the wines of the Eyries Vineyards are marked by low intervention winemaking and resulting elegance, balance and subtle nuance. They are a classic example of how elegant, light to medium weight but balanced wines can be thrilling.
Alongside these Eyrie wines we also tasted a couple of others from the North West. Apart from ticking off ‘Idaho’ as a wine making state, we didn’t particularly warm to Chardonnay, Vickers Vineyard, Idaho, 2008. The fruit is grown at an impressive 850m above sea level and showed some real tropical intensity balanced by acidity, but the oak was just so dominant making the wine that was medium minus gold in colour with butterscotch and vanilla the predominant impression. Perhaps after few more years the fruit/oak competition may become a more even contest. By contrast Tempranillo, Abacela, Umqua Valley, Oregon 2005 was a wine of real depth, some finesse and character. Although we are back in Oregon, the climate in Umpqua, 170 miles south of the Willamette Valley is more like Ribera del Duero than Beaune. Indeed that is precisely why Earl and Hilda Jones moved the thousands of miles from Florida to plant the Spanish variety they loved, the first planting of this variety in the Pacific North West. Oregon clearly continues to attract wine pioneers. Mid ruby in colour with first signs of garnet on the rim, this had fine quite powerful, fragrant fruit (from strawberry through to ripe blackcurrant) on the nose suggesting a warm climate. In something of a contrast the palate was lean and subtle, with high acidity and medium, chalky tannins. An impressive wine at a very good value £14.50. The oak regime here is very restrained: 94% French oak, 6% American of which just 14% is new and 26% second year, meaning that the time in oak changes the texture of the wine rather than adding flavours.
Overall this was a fascinating tasting of some splendid wines of real character. They have been chosen by and are available from Savage Selection, run by Mark Savage MW who roams the earth looking for growers and wine makers who aim for finesse and balance in the glass.