Cork Dork – fast track to sommelier

In Cork Dork (Penguin, 2017) Bianca Bosker writes engagingly about her 18-month journey from normal social wine drinker to Certified Sommelier, a first step towards the prestigious Master Sommelier (MS) title. A year and a half may not seem a very long time for this. However, on this account she packed in far more experience, learning, high quality research and drive into one year than most of us would manage in five. Her core skill set is that of the journalist: relentlessly pursuing her story, showing Olympic gold medal levels of skill at networking and persuading top professionals of all sorts to let her into their worlds, and summarising all this experience and knowledge in a highly readable way.  Having recently read and struggled with the science of how we humans process smell and taste – see Neuroenology – she not only summarizes this in an accessible way but persuades a neuroscientist to scan her brain when she is blind tasting to see how it functions – having travelled to South Korea for this opportunity.  The competitive drive shown is remarkable. It is not an accident that she gave up her job as the tech editor for the Huffington Post because she heard that there was such a thing as a competition for the world’s best sommelier.  

I read this book for two reasons. First, as a Master of Wine (MW) student I knew very little about the world of the trainee sommelier in New York, one of the world’s fine wine hotspots.  There is a certain rivalry between the two clans of wine super-geeks who have similar short post-nominals beginning with the same letter: MS and MW.  This book fills that gap very neatly, as is summed up in the sub-title: ‘a wine-fueled adventure among the obsessive sommeliers, big bottle hunters and rogue scientists who taught me to live for taste’.  

Second, I thought I might well be faced with another year as an MW Practical Only student, anticipating, correctly, that I had not been successful in the tasting exams I took last June. I needed someone to fire up my interest in tasting again, for what will be a fifth year.  Again, Cork Dork admirably does that.  (By the way ‘cork dork’ is a term used by somms of themselves.) MS students are if anything more obsessed with tasting and elaborate tasting descriptors than the cooly clinical and logical world of MW tasting. The more descriptors the better; ‘oyster shell kelp yoghurt’ may not be a thing at all but it is a more flamboyant description of Chablis than would ever be encouraged in the MW world.  But we do share a lot – an absurd level of concentration on the aromas, flavours and textures of the better bottles of wine made around the world; the fear and compulsion of trying to pass ridiculously demanding exams; thinking nothing of flying hundreds of miles to visit a wine region or even a tasting group; and spending all our discretionary income and more on wine when others are happy with a bottle of something affordable.  In normal life being able to tell by blind tasting that a Chardonnay is from a cooler rather than a warmer part of Sonoma is not a genuine life skill but in MW/MS world it certainly is.  I needed to be re-energised and Cork Dork certainly did the trick.

What else did I take away from this book, apart from the pleasure of reading it?  First, an enormous respect for the service element of the work of the sommelier.  The somm is there to help other people, to meet their wine needs and, if possible to recommend the wine which will really make their visit to the restaurant memorable, even, occasionally, life-changing.  But to do that they must lay tables, lug wine boxes around, get service temperatures right, polish glasses, move elegantly around a restaurant while balancing 11 glasses and a bottle of something expensive on a tray, and of course be a team player with everyone else in the restaurant.  It combines a huge and detailed knowledge, physical skill, social grace … and a humility to act as though the customer is always in the right and to serve him or her, however little they may know or care. Respect!

Second, the depth of a somm’s wine knowledge must be equalled by their ability to read people and their motivations in a few seconds. A really good somm has to be able to intuit what sort of interaction the customer needs so that any recommendation or suggestion comes as a welcome tip from someone who is on their side – while of course wanting to upsell, to increase the restaurant’s and ultimately his or her own income.  Humble service, consummate performer and intuitive sales person all rolled into one … and all in a matter of a minute or two.  Yet more respect! MW students don’t have to worry about this at all – we can be as curmudgeonly and/or as arrogant as we like, at least until we get into the real world.  

Cork Dork is a terrific read.  It is packed full of human interest, the participative anthropologist’s ‘let’s live with this tribe, to learn about them’, it informs and amuses in equal measure.  

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Sangiovese in 5 Tuscan regions and … Corsica

I recently had the opportunity to taste six Sangiovese wines in very good circumstances. They were mostly high quality examples, bought from reputable merchants and stored in good conditions.  They all came from the excellent 2010 vintage, so vintage variation was taken out of the equation.  The aim was to see whether I and a group of experienced tasters could tell which were 100% varietal wines and which were blends and, for a bit of fun, whether we could spot the regions they came from.  They were not an entirely ideal selection – one was from Corsica (not really on people’s radar) and there was no example from cooler Chianti Rufina – but still pretty good. 

The wines were much appreciated in general for their savoury breadth and herb-scented red fruit.  I knew what the wines were but others found them difficult to place, which was rather surprising.  However, many of the wines really did not perform to the quality standard that you would expect from the label. I have tasted much better examples of Poggio Valente, Morellino di Scansano Riserva DOCG from Fattoria Le Pupille. The single vineyard, Vigna d’Alfiero, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Valdipiatta with rather baked fruit did not stand out from the crowd. Even Villa di Capezzana, Carmignano DOCG, 14%, usually a striking wine in which the 20% Cabernet Sauvignon adds a certain weight to Sangiovese, did not show its aristocratic bones.  Acino d’Oro, Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG, Casa Bottega from the outstanding village of Radda was distinctly average. If anything the cheapest wine in the tasting,  Clos Alivu, Patrimonio AC, 100% Niellucio (i.e. Sangiovese), from Corsica seemed as good quality as many of these Tuscan stars.  So in many ways this was a disappointing tasting. 

But there was one exception: take a bow, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Il Colle.  This wine soared above all the competition.  Elegant and powerful at the same time, it showed wonderful Sangiovese purity in its sour cherry to red plum fruit, lifted perfume, refined if weighty tannic structure and thrilling acidity.  This one bottle was enough to restore faith in the potential greatness of central Italy’s most esteemed variety.

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Josmeyer – star of Alsace

The Josmeyer name is well loved and enjoys huge respect among wine lovers – for good reasons.  Founded in 1854 by Aloyse Meyer  as an extension of the family restaurant business, the company became a very important négociant. It was renamed Josemeyer to honour the second generation Joseph Meyer in 1963, by which time the name was associated with quality and with building up a considerable export business.  However, it was perhaps Jean Meyer, who took charge in 1966 and died in 2016, who made the most telling steps. First the domaine’s own vineyards became entirely, even evangelically, organic and biodynamic. Then, in an equally radical move the production of the company was halved by disposing of the négociant business and concentrating on the domaine’s own vineyards.  The result was 27 hectares near Wintzenheim, close to Colmar, under the complete control of the family and a determined focus on quality production.  From 1987 he also introduced the artistic labels with a new artist each year, an example of which you can see below.  The fifth generation of the family now runs the estate, headed up for the first time by two women: Celine Meyer (administration, CEO 2004), Isabelle Meyer, enologist.  

The winemaking here is very, deceptively, simple: gentle crush of rigorously selected grapes, no added yeasts, sugar or enzymes; fermentation is allowed to start in temperature-controlled fermentations tanks, then completed in 100-year old casks. Malolactic fermentation is blocked. The wine is aged on its fine lees and allowed to stabilise naturally.  There is no comment on the website on the use of sulfur dioxide but presumably some is added just before bottling, as is normal practice.  

Artist Series
1. Pinot Blanc, Mise du Printemps, 2016 12%, £12.95
– parcels in vineyard in Herrenweg de Turckheim, 35 year-old vines, yield 60 hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare), bottled in early spring for freshness; 2g/l residual sugar (RS), 5g/l total acidity (TA). All the Josmeyer wines here were bought from the Wine Society. 

Lightly fragrant nose with honey and white peach, then a surprisingly flavourful palate with additional savoury touches, delicious, versatile, the antithesis of the modern fruit bomb.

2. Gewurztraminer, Les Folastries, 2013 13%, £18
– parcels in vineyard in Herrenweg de Turckheim, 40 year-old vines on stony/rocky soil, 40 hl/ha, RS 8.5 g/l, TA 4.1 g/l

Classic aromatic lift but with elegance, full bodied, subtle range of well-articulated peach, lychee and rosewater notes. Just enough acidity to hold it all together, fairly long spicy finish. Exemplary.

For the Wine Society
3. The Society’s Exhibition Alsace Riesling (made by Josmeyer) 2015, 12.5%, £13.50
– some earlier-picked and some more mature fruit from a combination of older and younger vines, including the grand cru Brand vineyard. 

This wine divided people. Some found it underwhelming and a disappointing wine for the Wine Society’s Exhibition range. Some, including me, liked the delicate, precise green apple and white flower nose and the range of admittedly medium intensity of ripe green to apple and stone fruit palate. Medium length.

Grand Cru
4. Gewurztraminer, Grand Cru Hengst, 2002, 13.5%, c. £30

– 40 year old vines, yield 45 hl/ha, RS 40g/l, TA 5,6
It was remarkable to be able to buy this wine in 2017, though needless to say it quickly sold out.  I am usually sceptical about what wine estates say about their own wines but here is an exception: ‘The combined calcareous and marl soils tend to produce rich full bodied wines. In their youth they have an untamed character, reminiscent of the vineyard’s name – “stallion”. They slowly mature to astonishing aromatics and fabulous richness.’

Powerful honey, spice, mushroom and toast aromatics, a satin-rich palate, a seam of acidity is still keeping this going after 15 years, mouth-coatingly full, no longer tastes sweet but rich, magnificent.  

5. Riesling, Grand Cru Brand, Josmeyer, 2011 13%, £35 
part of the vineyard is granite soils, part limestone-based; 40-year old vines, 40hl/ha (Alsace GC allows a rather generous 55hl/ha), RS 6g/l, TA 6.8

From a great vintage, a bold and layered nose, impressive breadth and powerful concentration; combination of fresh and dried peach.  Long, tightly-packed, acidic finish.  

Selection Prestige
5. Alsace Riesling Les Pierrets 2009, 13% £25
alluvial soil and loess, clay and limestone; 35-year old vines, yield 45hl/ha; aged in old oak or stainless steel; RS 4g/l, TA 6.7

Our example was corked but you just tell that under that unappealing wet cardboard smell there had been a wine of power and substance.  

Grand Cru
6. Riesling Grand Cru Hengst Samain 2005 12.5%, £32
dry, late-harvest (October) Riesling, made in very few vintages, and named after a Celtic festival that marked the end of the fruitful harvesting period and the beginning of winter gloom. Samain is the portion of Hengst at the peak of the vineyard, limestone and marl with high percentage active limestone; 40-year old vines, yield 35 hl/ha; RS 15g/l, TA 6.4

Surprisingly muted nose but with floral notes, then a rich almost unctuous palate, ripe apple and stonefruit through to a lactic, cheesy touch.  Impressive length, off-dry (unusual for Josmeyer) but the sweetness merely amplifies the body and the flavour intensity. 

Unfortunately I was not able to get any Josmeyer Pinot Gris, an Alsatian wine I particularly love. But we had two fine examples from other growers: 

Other Alsace producers

7. Pinot Gris Grand Cru Eichberg, Kuentz-Bas 2012, 13.5% £22
340m altitdude, S and SE-facing vineyard, clay, limestone with some quartz, organic and biodynamic estate, fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks; 25-45 year old vines

Lovely apricot, honey and jasmine nose; rounded body, fruit and ginger on the palate, perhaps 15g/l RS and a long finish.  

8. Pinot Gris Sonnenglanz Grand Cru, Domaine Bott-Geyl 2004
organic and biodynamic estate, vineyard at 250m, long slow fermentation with ambient yeasts, bottled after a year

Honeyed and harmonious, big volume, gorgeous spice, honey, fresh and dried apricot. Great length, outstanding. It really is worth keeping these wines to drink at their peak.  

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Neuroenology

In general wine tasters and especially wine drinkers spend little time thinking about how we generate the taste of wine. Normal drinkers just decided whether they like the wine or not, obsessed wine tasters have one hundred and one other questions but rarely this one.  But at least for curious, how human beings can make the fine distinctions that we take for granted in wine tasting, how they get every last drop of interest from their favourite drink, is a rarely discussed. It is this gap which Gordon M. Shepherd’s Neuroenology. How the brain creates the taste of wine, Colombia, 2017 aims to fill.  

I have a bit of a pet hate thing about book and subtitles. In the effort to sell books, titles and subtitles regularly promise more than they can or do deliver.  A good case in point was Lisa Perotti-Brown’s book Taste like a wine critic which should have been called ‘Wine Quality – how wine production affects the wine in your glass’.  But paradoxically Gordon Shepherd’s book actually does rather more than demonstrate ‘how the brain creates the taste of wine’, his main point. In a fascinating chapter, he explains first how the mouth, tongue and nasal passages have been developed to enable human beings to manipulate food and liquids in the mouth so that we can extract the aromas and flavours in all the subtlety and range that we experience.  This is the most approachable and perhaps the most helpful chapter in the book.  

The main chapters of the book are given over to a detailed description of the mechanisms whereby the brain ‘creates’ the taste of wine.  The subject matter makes for a very challenging read for non scientists but the book is basically clear, concise and comprehensive – as confirmed by a neuroscientist reviewer elsewhere (The World of Fine Wine, issue 56, 2017, p. 62) However, most readers of this books are basically going to be wine lovers and the issue is that the implications for wine tasting drawn out here are very limited. In the end the book is therefore informative but frustrating.  

But there are many good things along the way. Here for example are the tips for tasting based on the different phases of the tasting experience: wine on its own as it enters the mouth; mouth mixed with saliva; getting the most from the retronasal smell; wine as you swallow it: 

Tips for tasting 

  • start with moderate sips to keep wine in front part of mouth to experience with and without saliva
  • agitate vigorously to maximise stimulation of mouthfeel to sense stringency and the release of volatiles
  • keep back of the mouth open to facilitate retronasal smell
  • let wine leak over valleculae (grooves just behind the root of the tongue) in order to get hint of aroma before swallowing/spitting

These procedures make up to some extent for loss of swallowing tasting, p. 47

To pick up this very last point, I am surprised just from personal experience that the claim is made that ‘swallowing exposes the wine to the greatest possible extent to internal smell’ (p. 3). This phenomenon is called the aroma burst (p. 53), that moment at the end of the act of tasting where the aromatic character of wine is most powerful. Perhaps this is the difference between wine consumers and those who have had a lot of experience or indeed training in wine tasting. For me the aroma burst post-spitting is as powerful as post-swallowing.  

If you love knowing how things work – including the extraordinary business of wine tasting – and you have a strongly technical bent, this could be the book for you.  

 

 

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Holidaying in Croatia – the Stina winery

After the excitements of the last year – great work trips, organising a tour to Friuli and Veneto, missing most of this due to me being in hospital in Italy, MW study and exams, and more – Janet and I decided we would look for a summer break organised by someone else. I believe this is called a holiday. And we haven’t really been on one like this for years. After looking at options we went with Sail-Croatia on a week long trip from Dubrovnic to Split, preceded by a few days in Dubrovnik. There is much more detail on this – with my pictures! – on Janet’s Country mouse travel blog: Summer sailing in Croatia and Summer sailing: the Croatian islands

Croatia is of course a fascinating wine country. It has a range of indigenous grape varieties and many, many great vineyard sites. Dalmatia (which we visited) and Istria are highly photogenic too with tiny vineyards on south-facing slopes just above the sea.

Stina winery, Bol

Our holiday was made up a short sail each day from one island to another and doing the tourist thing on each island (except clubbing on Hvar!) By the end of the week it was a pleasant surprise to find that the Stina winery has taken over and renovated a historic building right on the waterfront at Bol on the island of Bra?. After some confusion as to whether or not cellar tours were available, we tagged on to a short tour and tasting organised by another cruising line. We then stayed on and were able to buy glasses of the premium Majstor line. This gave us a pretty good overview of the wines made. In addition to the wines below they also make a sparkling wine, a Vugava (white grape from Vis island), a Tribidrag (in origin Croatian but better known elsewhere as Primitivo or Zinfandel), the top tier ‘Barrique’ line and a sweet wine.

Pošip 2016, 13% – Posip is said to be originally from the island of Kor?ula. It now thrives in many locations on the Dalmatian coast. The unoaked version shows lovely lemon and grassy aromatics, has a fairly full body and enlivening acidity.

Opol, Rosé, 2016, 12.5% – this is made from Plavac Mali, the most important red grape variety in Croatia. The name ‘Opol’ is a local word for rosé.  Quite deep cherry colour, this is really a light red wine in disguise. It has real freshness and attractive red cherry and plum fruit, spiciness and noticeable tannins. Very good – not all rosé has to be pale and light.  

Plavac Mali 2013, 13% – very good quality entry level Plavac with crunchy redcurrant and blackberry fruit, medium body, lively firm tannins, 12 months in used oak barriques.  

Pošip Majstor 2014, 14% – this is the grownup version of the first white above: top quality fruit, 50% fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steels and the rest in barriques and large oak vats. The wine is then aged on its lees with some bâtonnage. Lovely light vanilla and cream notes with melon and the characteristic grassiness.  A good candidate for oak – you could think this was Chardonnay except that at this level of ripeness the fruit would be more dominant.  

Plavac Mali Majstor 2013, 15% – similarly this is the more senior version of the first red above.  From top vineyards on the classic limestone of the island. The name of the company, Stina, refers to the stone which was the island’s sole income in former times. It is celebrated in the plain and very handsome front labels of these wines. (Picture above)

Some of the fruit is from older vineyards (50 years old).  20% is fermented in stainless steel for freshness, 80% in large neutral oak, maceration on the skins for one month. The wine is then aged in barriques, majority new, for 18 months.  The wine shows an excellent concentration with predominantly black fruit. The fruit, oak and alcohol is well balanced by bright acidity. Layers of interest, with a powerful tannic finish. Drink now with robust meat dishes or cellar for 10-15 years.  

It was great to visit Stina and to experience at first hand the progress that Croatian wine is making. There is more to this country than the beautiful coast and islands. 

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Birthday bash

When do you drink those special bottles?

Once you have built up a bit of a wine collection, the issue becomes when do you drink those special bottles?  You may only have one of each. Or a bottle you have stored may have become become ridiculously expensive in the meantime. Or a bottle represents a treasured memory to a winery and is irreplaceable. But the point is – always should be – to drink bottles when they will give pleasure. And often it is great to drink them with others who will appreciate them. So one answer is to have a birthday bash and choose whatever you want to taste or to drink and shared it with a group of fellow enthusiasts. 

If you have a sizeable collection of wines to choose from this process is really helped by a database of some sort.  The market leader is the excellent Cellar Tracker (free app, contribution requested) which takes so much of the work out of recording what you have. If you are adding a new vintage of Salicutti’s Brunello di Montalcino to your collection, just type in the first few letters of each word … ‘Sali Bru Mon’ … and up will pop the wine. All you then do is choose the right vintage and click on ‘enter’. Once you have entered your wines,  you can then search your entire collection by vintage, by appellation, by producer, by variety and much more.  

Three flights by vintage

With my trusty laptop to hand I began to search for wines on a theme for the birthday bash. If I search for ‘white wines’ and then order them by vintage I can see in a flash that I have two top quality Chardonnays and a wine made as though it were a Chardonnay all from the same vintage. From the reds I was able to find wines in a similar style which share a vintage. Having some common feature makes tasting – and especially blind tasting – so much more rewarding. Without this, there can be just too many variables and it easy to get lost. With it you discover fascinating variations of style and expression which you would not easily detect when you taste single wines on their own.

Having done the research, I hit on three flights of wines:

  • three Chardonnays or lookalikes from 2006 from three different countries
  • two lighter reds from 2002 from different countries
  • three medium-plus weight reds from 1998 from three different countries, one kindly donated by a fellow taster. 

Top and tail with Champagne and vintage Port (on the latter see below) and you have a vinous feast for royalty and one which teases the mind as well as the palate.  

Three oak-fermented whites

At 11 years old, the wines in flight 1 were markedly different colours. Wine 1 had a golden tint with a hint of amber, wine 2 was a good ringer for an orange wine, while wine 3 looked youthful if golden. My experienced fellow tasters stated, correctly, that wine 3 was a top quality Chardonnay straightaway. Interestingly no one thought it was Burgundy, which perhaps shows how ripe white Burgundy can be even in an average year like 2006. Wine 2 was difficult to assess through all the oxidation and wine 1 was something of a curiosity.  

Trebbiano, Villa di Capezzana, IGT Toscana, 2006, being perhaps the only example of oak-fermented and aged Trebbiano in Tuscany. Resin and nutty aromatics, savoury citrus fruit, zippy acidity (Trebbiano characteristic), well-integrated clove oak and cream from battonage. A great match for creamy courgette soup. Only perhaps let down by medium length. Congratulations to Capezzana for taking Trebbiano this seriously.  

Chardonnay, Hamilton Russell, Elgin, South Africa 2006. We all think premature oxidation is a Burgundian thing but it crops up elsewhere if corks are not perfect or for other reasons. Sadly this was a bad case. But below the mushroom and fusty notes, there were floral, tarte tatin and seville marmalade themes. Excellent acidity to offset the richness, this could have been spectacular. 

Puligny-Montrachet, 1er cru La Truffière, Domaine Bruno Colin 2006 – was indeed spectacular with no hint of premox. A nose and palate that combines elements of peach, lemon, a hint of dried fruit, butter and a yeasty creaminess with fresh and lively acidity. White wine of the evening.  

Two lighter reds – a tale of contrasts

Nuits-Saint-Georges, 1er cru Les Roncières, Robert Chevillon, 2002 – kept the flag flying high for Burgundy. A tawny edge just beginning to appear in this 15-year old and a beguiling combination of perfumed raspberry and redcurrant fruit with savoury, forest-floor notes. A satiny beginning in terms of mouth feel gave way to surprisingly firm  tannins. But the wine has length, complexity and made a handsome partner for duck in an orange and lavender sauce. Perhaps red wine of the evening … it depends what you want: see wine 3 in the final flight.

Magma, Vino da tavola, Frank Cornellisen, 2002 – a cult natural wine, with price to match, from one of the pioneers and wild men of Etna. On the back label Cornellisen tells us proudly that this wine was made solely with Nerello Mascalese grapes with no other additions. This means no selected yeasts, no added tannins, no fining agent and critically no added sulphur dioxide. The last named is added in tiny doses to almost all the world’s wines and has a powerful anti-oxidative effect, keeping red wine red and smelling of its fruit. For this evening tasting I had opened and tasted all the wines an hour beforehand and, if I had had time, I would have decanted them too. But I knew that was a dangerous tactic with Magma – it might erupt, or at least implode. And how right I was. In the picture below you can see the two pale reds having just been poured. The wine on the right is Magma, an amber-tinted ruby and a bit cloudy. The picture of the single wine is Magma after 20 minutes: done, murky brown. It needs to get some credit for lasting for 15 years in the bottle and on first sip showed iron filings, smoky sour cherry fruit and a medicinal touch, lots of funkiness (acceptable within the style though many won’t like it) and grippy on the finish. 

Flight 3: Fuller bodied reds

Les Forts de Latour, Pauillac AC, 1998. Easily the most expensive wine of the evening, being the second wine of first growth Ch. Latour. Or rather I should say a wine that has become very expensive in the intervening years since I bought it. But this was only very good, not outstanding: austere, herbal and tertiary nose, very classic; then developed cassis fruit and rather uncouth tannins. Sleek and suave until you get to that finale. Not a great year, and it showed it, even from this elevated company. My recall was that the group thought this was left bank Bordeaux and it was indeed. Saint-Éstephe preferred to Pauillac for the rather rustic character. 

Salicutti, Brunello di Montalcino, 1998 – much as I love this tiny estate this was not one of the great bottles: full on farmyardy nose, a touch acetic, very ripe fruit, finishing with grippy tannins but just lacked freshness. As a group we eventually got to Sangiovese.  

Reva, Syrah, Alban Vineyard, Santa Edna Valley, 1998 – clearly new world in character with, after 19 years let’s not forget, lots of blueberry and blackberry fruit, something a bit vegetal from ageing and balsamic notes. Absolutely lovely to taste … but we all agreed not so rewarding to drink, especially with food where the grip and the savouriness of European style wines has something special to offer. 

Pièce de resistance: Fonseca 1963

The evening finished with three sweet wine. Undoubtedly the star of this flight was Fonseca vintage Port 1963 from what is deemed to be great year. Broad garnet rim, alcoholic lift on the nose appropriate to a wine that is 20% abv, then kirsch and blackberry to raspberry fruit with a great seamless, rich  mouthfeel – this was a massively tannic wine 54 years ago! This was a superb climax to a great evening. 

We also enjoyed the pale gold, not overly sweet, but honeycomb with a touch of cooked citrus of Bouvet-Ladubay, Coteaux du Layon, 2006, 12.5% and the dried apricot, honey and white blossom of SolAlto, Maremma Toscana IGT, Fattoria Le Pupille, 2007, being a delicious blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer, somewhat improbably originating from southern Tuscany. 

It might just be worth it getting older if one is going to have birthdays like this! Drink some of your treasures with friends on special occasions – that is what they are for.

 

 

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Viticcio in Chianti Classico and Maremma

It is often said that wine is best shared with friends. In the light of this when I was sent sample bottles of wines from Viticcio I decided to hold a tasting with a small group of wine lovers, experienced tasters, to exchange views on the wines.  Here is what we thought.

By way of background, Viticcio appears to be a Greve-based company with its heart in Chianti Classico where it has made wine for a long time.  It has clearly also set up operations in the Morellino di Scansano DOCG in the Maremma and it also has wines from Bolgheri but we did not have those to taste.  What its history is, who owns it (legally it is a trading company with a single proprietor) and how it operates across the three zones remains something of a mystery despite it having a smart, contemporary website.  In general the wine is very competently made, clean and modern in concept and there is a tendency to use quite a lot of French oak on the reds.  

Maremma

The website states that the rosé comes from Poggio La Mozza near Magliano and probably the the other two wines here do as well.  

Greppico Vermentino di Toscana IGT 2016 13.5%          

Technical details: 100% Vermentino, cold soak, fermented at low 13ºC, aged on lees for 4 months in stainless steel

We all agreed that this was ‘approachable, fresh’ with ‘nice lemon fruit’.  There was some disagreement over the acidity which was bright and refreshing, some finding it too much so. For me the acidity balanced the medium body weight well. Moderate complexity and length but all in all a well made, refreshing wine. In a nutshell: ‘Italian seaside summer wine’ 

Massaia, Toscana Rosato IGT 2016 14%

Technical details: 85% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot grown at Poggio La Mozza, Magliano; direct press, fermented at a low 13ºC, no malo, aged on lees in stainless steel for 6 months, pH 3.2

A fashionably pale salmon-coloured rosé with good palate weight.  Opinions were quite divided on this depending on whether you picked up on the ripe fruit core (very good depth of strawberry and peach fruit for a rosé) or the lively acidity.  It also shows the signs of low fermentation temperatures with ‘marshmellow’ and ‘confected’ notes which tended to linger.  But as we stayed with it opinions moved in a positive direction: ‘fruity rosé with some weight and bright acidity’; ‘bikini-babe booze’ (sic), ‘would retail well’.  

Morellino di Scansano DOCG 2015 14.5% 

Technical details: 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 10 days maceration on the skins, aged in barriques for 10-12 months

There was pretty much universal acclaim for this lovely, easy drinking, ripe red wine.  ‘A nose that begs you to dive in’. ‘Integrated vanilla nose. Ripe fruit but earthy tannins keep it balanced’.  Fabulous high quality everyday drinking; ripe but with balancing savoury touches and structure which could give it some ageability.  Bravo! In sum: ‘punches above its weight’, ‘crowd pleaser … but why not?’ 

Three tiers of Chianti Classico

Chianti Classico DOCG 2014 13.6%  
Technical details: 98% Sangiovese Grosso, 2% Merlot, 15 days maceration, aged in 225 and large format oak for 12 months

After the warmth of the Maremma, the cooler classicism of Chianti Classico was immediately evident here: ‘lean morello cherry’ fruit, ‘scented’, a touch of chocolate and vanilla from oak.  Bearing in mind this is from the most difficult vintage since 2002, this was something of a triumph. In sum: ‘very good example of entry level Chianti Classico’, ‘perfect for the on-trade’, ‘Chianti to drink now’.  

Chianti Classico DOCG Riserva 2013 13.8% 
Technical details: 90% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot, 5% Syrah, 20 days maceration, aged in barriques for 12 months (this 12 months is missed out by the English translation on the website) and large format oak for 8 months

A big step up in weight and seriousness here and a great vintage to boot.  The Riserva split opinion with a minority finding it a bit rustic and earthy but most loved the ‘complex “expensive” [ie French oak] nose’ with its ‘sandlewood’ note, and the ‘well integrated fine tannins’. Weight rather than fruit at the moment.  We had a debate as to whether the Sangiovese will emerge from the oak as this wine ages. In sum: ‘one for the cellar’, ‘more like Claret’, ‘Bring on the Fiorentina steak!’  

Prunaio Gran Selezione Chianti Classico DOCG 2013 14% 
Technical details: 100% Sangiovese Grosso (Montalcino clone), maceration 25 days, 18 months in 225 and 500 litre barrels, 6 months in large format oak

The new top tier of Chianti Classico, the Gran Selezione, was launched with considerable controversy in 2014.  In brief it is now the top of the quality pyramid, above Riserva, and has modest additional requirements: no bought-in fruit, a few more months of ageing (30), minimum 13% abv, slightly higher dry extract (don’t ask!) and it has to pass a tasting panel (thereby introducing questions about style and objectivity).  It can be either a single vineyard or a multi-vineyard blend.  

Viticcio’s offering is the wine they used to label as IGT as it dates back to the period when 100% Sangiovese was not allowed for Chianti Classico.   For me what stands out here is the silky/satiny texture and a real elegance. Sleek, powerful, blackfruited, ‘lovely perfumed nose’, ‘sandal and cedar wood’ oak, ‘dusty fine tannins’. In a nutshell: ‘perfect with Norwegian Elk’ (no, me neither), ‘great wine … needs five years of time’, ‘drink as much as you can’.  

It would be great to add the other wines in the range to this note (Bolgheri, Vin Santo) but it is abundantly clear that Viticcio has become the creator of well judged wines of distinction. There are very clear quality distinctions between the various tiers that they offer.  Stylistically, as a personal preference, I would prefer less new French oak (and details of how much they use on their tech sheets). However, these are wines that any wine lover should get to know.

With thanks to our band of happy tasters and to Viticcio for supplying the wines.    

 

 

 

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Barolo Vigna La Rosa

Barolo Vigna La Rosa – beautiful name apart – is a single vineyard on the Fontanafredda estate in Serralunga d’Alba within the Barolo DOCG.  Since 1998 the estate has been owned by the Farinetti family of Eataly fame, purveyors of Italian gastronomic products around the world.    The estate became fully organic in 2007 and biodynamic from 2012.  The wines are made in a traditional manner and aged in large oak casks for two years.  

I was fortunate enough to catch a vertical of the wines introduced by the very engaging Luca Martini, best sommelier in the world (2013), based in Arezzo, Tuscany. The service of the wine deserves a special mention as the tasting took place on one of the hottest days for years in London, mid-30ºs.  The wines were held at 8ºC before they were poured with the result that they were at a perfect 17-18ºC by the time we tasted them.  Bravo! 

2013 – youthful orange peel and violet notes, nail polish (presumably from those two years in mildly oxidative oak) and red fruit, sweet cherry on the palate. Very inviting now, should gain in complexity over years or decades in the bottle.  

2012 – one of the very top wines of this all very good line up. The wine has all the complexity of the 2013 but with added freshness and acidity. The latter should guarantee a long life.  Truly outstanding.  

2000 – a warm year was reflected in the glass with baked plum fruit, suppleness and a maturity beyond its 17 years (touch of browning on the rim).  Some bitterness on the finish but still a very creditable result.  

1999 – a famous vintage now showing a fascinating range of aromatics – a bit volatile, a range of citrus, dill and mint, a touch dirty but in a good way.  The famous Barolo tannins shine through, the ‘fist in a white glove’ says Luca Martini.  

1997 – the twenty-year old in this line up: a warm year, tobacco and tar, smooth in the mouth then a touch of warm alcohol on the finish; firm, dry tannins, perhaps lacks a bit of acidity.  

1996 – fully tawny in colour, precise and complex with violet, rhubarb, tobacco and chocolate aromas, a dry and supple palate and a nice grippiness. A fabulous vintage to finish this line up.  

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Champagne Castelnau relaunch

Champagne Castelnau, the substantial Rheims-based cooperative which produces 9m bottles a year, has just had a  brand-refresh. The new, clean, attractive labels  have been updated. The refresh is intended to the take the brand forward in the competitive market of the second decade of this century. Here is the old and the new: 

The new design is very attractive but the best thing of all is that the quality of the wines remains unchanged.  The company has high standards and will take this forward:  a high proportion of Chardonnay in the blend (40%, sourced in the Montagne de Reims and so a bitter riper and fuller), 20% of reserve wines and a remarkable six years on the lees for the Brut Reserve and even longer for the vintage wines.  

For the London launch we were treated a full tasting of the range including some old vintages.  The stars of this show for me were the Brut Reserve which balances freshness with the aforementioned toasty six years on the lees very well and, at the other end of the scale, the great 1990 served in magnum.  Some of the intervening vintages – 2003, 2000, to a lesser extent the 1999 – I found a bit tough with an emphasis on development, rather than fruit. But I loved the fresh and candied lemon of the 1990, long and savoury, while retaining Chardonnay’s leanness.  Also very good was the new prestige cuvée: Hors Categorie, a multi-vintage blend with a fine, focused, intensity and green apple and toasty notes.  While the labels may have been updated, the wines continue to perform splendidly.  

 

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Class at the Harrow, Little Bedwyn

Andover Wine Friends made a pilgrimage to The Harrow, Little Bedwyn last night.  We were treated to outstanding food and a great range of wines, mostly in magnums, which we brought with us.  Here is the menu, the wine list … and a few random jottings on the wines from me.  

Harrow menu

A few personal favourites.  My favourite course was the sublime Northumberland Roe Venison with parsnip purée.  Such a tender and flavourful meat.  And the lobster ravioli was pretty special too.  You can see my comments on the wines above. Clearly the La Lagune 1982 was truly outstanding – so youthful, such tannic finesse 35 years on. But the Muscadet was beautiful and absolutely textbook, the unfashionable Val d’Orcia, 100% Sangiovese from our friend Marco Capitoni was excellent and, hardly surprisingly, the Bollinger was brilliant too.  Thanks to Sue, Roger and all the staff – in the kitchen and the efficient and courteous front-of-house – for a great evening.  

I took a few photos which now follow.  

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