Archive for the ‘Wine travel’ Category

Albert Bichot’s white Burgundy

Thanks to the generosity of Maison Albert Bichot, Beaune, a group of wine students have the chance to taste several flights of white Burgundy. What is special about the range of wine is that the producer is the same and within the two main flights the wines are from the same vintages. So we have removed two factors which can easily throw any blind wine tasting.  The chief viticulturist who supervises the work of the vine growers on the various estates is also the same.

Quality levels

The first question is  can we tell our generic Burgundy from a village level wine or a Premier Cru.  There are no obvious visual clues – they are are all basically medium intensity pale lemon in colour.  Of the five wines, we all pretty much got the simplest correctly. Wine 1, Macon Villages, has medium intensity fruit on the nose with no overt oak with ripe simple fruit and is only middling in terms of its persistence on the palate.  Similarly wine 4 is a lovely if simple example, what you might call ‘Bourgogne Blanc plus’: it is marketed as La Secret de la famille, and the ‘secret’ is that the fruit comes from just outside the delimited area for Meursault.  Perfect fruit-acidity balance, just the hint of oak, lovely early drinking for £12-£14.

The top wines are more difficult to place other than that they have more about them.  Saint-Romain Premier Cru you could easily over-estimate as the oak is prominent.  You might think it is grander than it is because a lot of expensive oak has been lavished on it or –   more correctly – that the fruit is not quite up the oak.  By contrast Meursault (ie the ‘simple’ village wine) hides its oak well and has fine, resilient acidity. The top wine, Meursault PC Charmes has ripe fruit expression and both intensity and precision. It is too young to show any complexity from bottle age. It just needs time to unfurl.   These wines were all from the small, concentrated, fresh 2012 vintage

Classic wines

If that first task was challenging, far more difficult was placing a flight of 2011s all from Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites.  You might think that Moutonne Grand Cru from northerly Chablis might stand out but in fact it is one of the warmest sites (95% Vaudesir, 5% Preuses).  My note did say ‘lean intensity, very muted nose’ which was a reasonable description.  At the opposite end of the spectrum Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru Les Languettes was ripe and peachy with a citrus undertow. In time it should have breadth and precision, but at this early age, the 2011 is only showing the later.  In the middle ground,  Beaune PC Clos de Mouches was leading with its nutty oak, the fruit coming from young vines; a flashy style which should tone down as the wines mature.  Puligny PC La Garennes has lifted mineral and ripe, just about tropical fruit notes, bordering as it does on Meursault, while Chassagne Vide Bourse has a slight coolness about it with some honeyed, layered notes. These were all remarkable wines of real elegance and length.It is perhaps a bit of a cop out but these wines all need five years to show their whether or not they are typical of their village/cru characteristics.


whites in the glassMoutonne
Finally, surely we will have more joy trying to detect older wines from younger ones. We were presented with three wines all from the same Premier Cru vineyard. The first showed marked mushroom and citrus rind tertiary notes on the nose but incredible freshness on the palate. The modest age of the wine shows through on umami, even ‘marmite’ yeastiness on the palate. This turned out to be Meursault Charmes 2007, which won a Decanter White Wine of the Year award. Wine two is less developed – still relatively simple but with good follow through (2009). Wine three is the oldest with some ripe, opulent, developed fruit, honey and hint of sweetness. Some picked up a vegetal character from the cool 2004 vintage. With many thanks to Richard Bampfield MW and to Maison Bichot.

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Lighting tour of Northern Spain

This year’s European Wine Bloggers Conference was held in Logroño, Rioja, in late October. The most exciting part of it for me was the chance to visit some great regions which are all new to me. In the course of three days, and thanks largely to the sponsorship of Araex, a group of independent Spanish wineries, there were trips to various parts of Rioja and a winery each in Ribera del Deuro, Reuda and Navarra. On the middle day of the trip, we did cover 600km!

This was a great experience but hardly constitutes an in-depth exposure to the vibrant, quality wine scene in Spain. The landscape was fantastic and I have posted some photos already here. As the travel was sponsored this is another limitation in breadth, however generous the hospitality to which we were treated and for which I am very grateful. Here are my reflections.

Trying too hard?

It is great to see how much new investment is being poured into prestige Spanish wineries and vineyards. The down side of this is that the predominant style appears to be modern and bold – big, extracted wines with lashings of new oak. These wines are well made and fairly obviously being made to appeal to the American market and, perhaps, to the assumed tastes of certain famous American critics. Tempranillo is not an overly fruity grape variety but it does respond well to oak. In some ways it reminds me of a mild-mannered Sangiovese, all leather and earth, less the sharp tannins and acidity. But here it is being turned into a deep coloured, opulent wine, with vanilla, clove and smoke overlay. In this regard there was a marked similarity of style between these new red Riojas and the supposedly more muscular Ribera del Deuro.

A star white

After the substantial reds, it was a joy to visit and taste the wine of Val de Vid, Reuda.  This is classic, high plateau, inland Spain with bakingly hot summer days, chilly nights and cold winters. The winery is functional, rather than a grand statement, and the star of the show is the white variety, Verdejo.  The wine making is meticulous, coaxing as much complexity as possible from the raw material. This extends to a rapid transfer from vineyard to vat, cold maceration of part of the production, differential fermentation temperatures of various portions of must and the final wine being kept on the fine lees for four months.

There is a basic white which blends Vedejo with Viura (Rueda DO 2012), a new line intended as a more commercial line (Condeca Eylo, Reuda 2012) and then the two top wines, both 100% Vedejo but respectively unoaked and oaked. Val de Vid, Verdejo 2012 has excellent freshness, with volume in the mouth and a fine combination of ripe apple and melon fruit with floral and aniseed notes.  It is marked by great length.   The final wine is a small production, 2,500 bottles only, of a version which spends six months in French oak barrels, which produces vanilla and creamy overtones to this wine: Vedejo Crianza 2011.

Old Rioja

Onomastia The highlight of the entire event was an informal dinner in a local restaurant in Logroño, El Rincon del Vino. The establishment opened specially for a group of 28 of us (and one baby) on a Sunday evening and produced a great meal. But the real draw was the wine list which offers old Riojas for what to us seem like great prices – Reservas and Gran Reservas from the 1970s on at €30 or so.   The sadness is that very few people want to drink these great old, brick coloured wines, redolent of strawberry fruit and soft with age.  It was such a good evening that I did not write down the vintage of the bottle I bought (left) but it was perhaps 1984.

Wineries visited

a) Araex group


Labastida – lovely old cooperative in Rioja Alavesa

Valtravieso, Ribera del Deuro

Pago de Circus, Navarra

Val de Vid, Reuda

b) Others – all Rioja

Marqués de Riscal

Bodegas LAN

Rioja Vega


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Mysterious Bugarach

Mystery and suspense currently surround the village of Bugarach.  Situated 75 kilometres from the Mediterranean and 110 from the Spanish border, it lies at 460m above sea level but is completely overshadowed by the Pic de Bugarach, a mountain in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which rises to 1230m. The first mystery is the weather and its vagaries.  Roussillon is the hottest and driest region of France but in the week we were there in early June, there was some sun but in general it was cool and overcast, and it rained heavily on some days. We even lit the fire on the one day we stayed at home … which was cosy and comforting, but not really what one expects.  But it is the human beings who really complicate things. One set of mysteries is the latest gossip in the village among the expats and the locals. Further, completely inexplicable ones are put about by those who believe that 2012 will see the aliens landing on the mountain or being released from their home within it.  And some of us thought next year was going to be dominated by the Olympics! 


As you can see, this is a spectacular landscape, by turns majestic, rural or domestic.  The villages are inhabited by a mixture of local people, French second-home owners and a positive pot-pourri of expatriates attracted by the life style, the inexpensive and decent quality wine, the arts and the mystic fringe.  Others will relate immediately to the wild life, especially the raptors, or the remnants of former times – whether the Cathar castles or, as in the picture below, the Roman aqueduct below Antignan, which still carries water from one side of the valley to the other.

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Needless to say, Janet’s and my reason to be here was at least in part wine-related.  We had a long-standing invitation to stay with a member of Andover Wine Friends who has a house in Bugarach.  This was a great offer and enabled us to get a really good insight into the wine scene in Roussillon and the most southerly parts of Languedoc.  Wine has been made here since at least Roman times and the climate is excellent for robust and characterful reds, decent whites, some sparkling wine from one area, as well as IMG_8808the style which is said to be have been invented here, the vin doux naturels, These are alcoholic wines, mostly drunk before or after a meal, sweet but not overly so, capable of developing over many, many years.  The last twenty five years of so has seen a new direction for the region, away from its role solely as the provider of inexpensive wines of colour and substance.  In the past these provided blending material to improve wines from cooler, more northerly areas or just cheap quaffing wines.  Roussillon can still provide inexpensive everyday wines but now, with the advent of private wineries and inward investment, also wines at medium to high quality levels.  It is a fantastic zone to visit – even without the prospect of alien invasions.  The main articles from our visit will appear in the next few weeks on the French regions pages of this website.  

Return to Roussillon home page

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Arriving in Puglia

At the beginning of a trip there is always the travel day – the early start, the wait at the airport, the anxiety of the unknown.  But then there is the arriving in which Puglia did us proud.  We touched down at 12.30pm and by the time we had got through the simple passport check at Bari airport, the luggage was ready to be collected. We will skip the minor accident which caused delays on Bari’s ring road.  An hour later, we left the main road going south and took potluck and had lunch by the sea at San Vito.  We were richly rewarded with bright sunshine, a cool wind, searingly fresh sea food including ricci (sea urchins) and the wild flowers of spring.  No wine for lunch – it was difficult enough keeping awake to drive on in the afternoon.

An hour and a bit later, following a snooze in a layby, we arrived at Cellino San Marco, a convenient centre for a cluster of important wineries which serve the Salento peninsula, with a beautiful hotel, the Kelina.  We really enjoyed our stay here in the beautifully restored, traditional stone building, with very pleasant staff, a good restaurant and wi-fi. Here are some pictures of the intererior.
The town itself is small and was brought to a complete halt by a funeral for which everyone turned out and the band played.  By early evening, it was just the older men who stood around and passed the time of day until suddenly the evening meal called and they vanished on their bicycles.  Something don’t change over the decades!
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On this first evening we ate very well at Bolognini, situated in an old and beautifully restored traditional working cellar.  Here the walls are kitted out with wine racks to a very high ceiling and with barrels in their holders.  The food was excellent – full marks to mushrooms stuffed with a finely chopped funghi porcini to die for – and we drank the owner’s own Negroamaro:  Don Gianni, Negroamaro Rosso Salento IGT, 2006, €16.  A deep ruby colour, an intense nose of red and some black fruit with the liquorice and cloves of old oak, more of the same on the palate but with very good refreshing acidity, salty, fair intensity, good length.  Welcome to Puglia!
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Top glasses

Sancerre, Chablis and Champagne – the top glasses

At the end of a wine tour it’s good to stand back, review the experience as a whole and pick a few favourite glasses. There were 89 to choose from by my count.

Of course one wouldn’t want to give the impression it was all tasting and drinking. There was lots of eating and talking too. Away from the gastronomic for the moment, the most memorable parts were the land and the townscapes:

  • the sharp slope on which Sancerre sits surrounded by its vineyards
  • the mixture of cultivation and abandoned vines around Auxerre
  • the beautiful town and grand cru vineyard at Chablis
  • and, finally, on the way home, the prominent hills of the Côtes des Blancs in the Champagne region
  • the channel tunnel immigration point perhaps does not make the grade, nor the worn streets of south London on the way to Victoria.

Some of the top glasses on this wine tour have already been commented on. Chateau de Tracy’s Haut-Densité with a bit of bottle age would certainly be one of them, as would the Jean-Marc Brocard’s Grand Cru Chablis Bougros 1998 with its rich apple and honey palate and dairy aromas. Then there were some wines we were able to taste in restaurants, opening up a much wider choice than just the wineries we visited.

Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre


Sancerre Blanc 2008, Domaine Vacheron – this domaine has one of the best reputations in Sancerre and tasting these wines you could see why. However, the wine may have been improved by being tasted during a supper which had begun in a state of high tension:

Were we as a group of 16 slightly weary wine travellers expected at the restaurant? Yes

Here are our choices from the short menu we had been told to have in advance. No, we are not doing that menu. But you did ask us to have it. OK let’s see … long negotiations, OK, yes.

But there was one portion short of the prescribed dishes. So can we have something else off the full menu? No, you have to choose from the short menu. Why?

Even longer negotiation in the sanctity of the bar area … finally agreed.

Then like a flash, after all the delays, the first courses appeared and this first wine, and was met with major relief all around. This is the ‘ordinary’ wine of the domaine, the product of biodynamic agriculture. It has fine citrus fruit, no oak but something perfumed or close to balsam. Some yeasty complexity. Very good indeed.

Sancerre Rouge 2008, Domaine Vacheron – good spirits restored by food and a good white, we also tried the stable-mate Pinot Noir. Not many of the reds here are that special. There is a large demand for them both locally (the only thing better than a splendid glass of white wine is the glass of white followed by an equally good red one) and in the Paris bistrot trade. But this one shows good Pinot Noir fruit, red berries and some farmyardy complexity, better extraction than many examples without over doing it, very good. It just shows that, as so often, it’s the quality of the producer that matters, not the appellation on the label.

La Chablisienne, Chablis

The co-operative movement in France and elsewhere has on the whole been a real contribution to quality and fair prices to smaller growers and drinkers alike. And certainly the Chablis co-operative, now with a smart new glass-panelled HQ, is exemplary. At our final dinner we were able to taste a properly aged Grand Cru – no doubt chosen for its reasonable price even in a Michelin starred restaurant. I don’t normally go in for ‘creative’ manipulation of my photographs, but this I hope a fair exception. My excuse is that again I was using the trusty iPhone.

Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots 1998, La Chablisienne – a nice pale gold in colour (OK, not quite as startling as in the picture), honey notes, some richness on the palate, some characteristic stoniness, perhaps a bit lean on the finish. The wine was very good but not a perfect match for the spectacular ‘foie gras three ways’ dish accompanying – but that’s not the wine’s fault and the Chablis region is not famous for botrytised sweet wines which would have been perfect.

Vincent Dauvissat, Chablis

Again, an opportunity to try one of the great names of a region, this time in the town in Chablis.

Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2002 – barrel fermented in new barrels and using very low yields, this excellent wine had a mild vanilla outer layer over refined fruit with a fine palate to follow.

AC Irancy Rouge, Dauvissat 2005 – living proof that not all Irancy Pinot Noir comes in a rustic style. Superb nose of cloves and mid to dark cherry fruit, lively acidity, excellent.


Champagne André Jacquart, Vertus

As already touched on, the vineyards of central and northern France are very well arranged for the UK traveller, with Champagne a brilliant stopping off point for the otherwise lack lustre drive back home. Mind you, on a clear day, the sheer space and emptiness of the French countryside is a treat in its own right. André Jacquart, a family owned and run firm, not to be confused with the large Jacquart brand, offers fine examples of producers’ Champagne. They may only produce three sparkling wines but the two white Champagnes we tasted here were among the most exciting wines we tasted on this whole trip.

IMG_0519Marie Doyard, grand daughter of André Jacquart, also makes a superbly clear presentation. In 2004 she and her brother joined up the two companies from the two sides of the family and developed their plan. With a good sized 24 hectares of top quality vineyard, they sell half the produce as juice to other wine makers while developing their own owner-producer wines, 100,000 bottles a year. There are no long term contracts for the juice they currently sell. As a result, they can decide from year to year how much to sell after harvest and how much to make into wine to their own standard. It’s a great plan – they want to create a niche product from their greatest asset, the top quality Chardonnay vineyards in the villages of Mesnil and Vertus.

The new generation have taken three key wine making decisions.

  1. Long ageing The minimum ageing for non-vintage Champagne is 15 months, here they keep the wines for four years. Three years’ minimum ageing for the Grand Cru similarly becomes five and a half years. But as she says, this means they are sleeping on euros. However, the wine will be that much better, the drinker will benefit and in time the name of the house will benefit.
  2. Make a proportion of the wine in old oak barrels. This is a decision to show the quality of the fruit, not to smother it in new oak flavour, to gain some complexity in the basic wine, rather than just ferment in stainless steel. You have to have absolute confidence in the quality of your fruit.
  3. Low dosage. One of the many decisions the Champagne maker is faced with is the amount of sweetness to add at the last minute before bottling. This is northern France after all and the base wines are high in acidity and, if they are going to be refreshing, ageable wines, they need all that acidity. So virtually all producers add some sugar at the last moment and the question is, how much. André Jacquart have gone for low amounts, between 4 and 5 grams per litre. Again, you have to have superb fruit to carry this off; otherwise you will end up with a mouthful of fizzy lemon juice. The other benefit of low dosage is fine, tiny, bubbles.

And what are the resulting wines like?

bubblesBrut Experience, Blancs de Blancs Premier Cru, non-vintage but in fact 2005, mainly from the Premier Cru village of Vertus but with some Grand Cru grapes from Mesnil. 30% fermented in 2-4 year old ex-Burgundy barrels. The picture shows rather well the lively, fine mousse. It leads on the nose with appetising yeasty, oak and sharp apple and citrus notes, in the mouth these are accompanied by some fatness and by an excellent acidity. Fine long finish. Tasted at 9° C, that is, not too cold, this does everything you could hope for in a vivacious glass of Champagne.

Brut Grand Cru Mesnil Experience 2004 – from 20 year old vines, 70% fermented in barrel, five years of ageing, four grams of dosage. IMG_0520Richer both on the nose and the palate, a subtler yeastiness offset by more powerful fruit, subtle in the mouth, white flowers and citrus. Can stand up well to quite rich food – which we tested more than adequately.

The company also produces a decent Rosé Experience (80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay), all fermented in oak but I didn’t think it shone in the same way – pronounced strawberry/raspberry fruit, good palate, fair. They also sell wine from Bordeaux where they have another winery altogether, extremely good value Merlot based wines from Château Cantegrive . But the real excitement here is the two Blanc de Blanc, great examples of producer Champagnes and just the thing to take the edge of our heading back to the Channel tunnel.

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Arriving at Sancerre

Coach travel is all very well. Within northern France from the UK it is tolerable – quite fast, better ecologically than flying short distances, secure, uneventful.  But it still takes quite  a while to get from London (7.45am) to Sancerre (6pm French time), central France.  The specialist wine travel company, Arblaster and Clarke, handle it well – they leave you alone for the early hours, punctuate the middle hours with food stops and then entertain you with a New World Sauvignon Blanc tasting while you prepare to arrive in Sancerre.  The village is very picturesque and the view from the hotel of the vineyards is superb.


After a bath and a good meal, it’s amazing how much of the journey you have already forgotten.

The wines at dinner are a good introduction.  Compared to the New World Sauvignon Blanc we tasted all the whites are understated and elegant with well tamed acidity.  The reds are less successful – there is better Pinot Noir to be had in nearby Burgundy, in Germany or in Alsace, but it’s worth trying the local style.


Joseph Balland-Chapuis, AC Sancerre Le Chatillet 2009

Moderately fragrant nose, some grassy and floral notes, subtle on the palate, well tempered acidity, very good

Laporte, Le Grand Rochoy, AC Sancerre 2005

More mineral on the nose, floral notes again, good fruit still with a lime undertow, medium persistence, relatively little obvious development in the bottle, a glass of wine that needs some patience and some understanding



Lucien Crochet, La Croix du Roy, AC Sancerre 2007 – said to be a good year, not a great year for Pinot Noir.  Lively fresh raspberries on the nose, light fruit on the palate, rather underwhelming finally from this very famous name. It needs a very good year indeed to have the follow through which the nose promises.

Gitton Les Herses AC Sancerre 2005

Slightly darker in colour and in the red fruit with some oak ageing, medium weight, some length, good.

IMG_6603Discussing these wines with English fellow travellers, it is clear that the first thing to get past is the switch from New World fruit-led styles to these austere, even lean, wines.  Some thought they didn’t go well with food, but I would disagree. In any case the wines certainly all disappeared.  But more on this style in the next few days.  So, while Sancerre remains a big name on the restaurant wine list, how many people actually enjoy its slightly intellectual delights?

This was an excellent trip – just the right combination of very good weather, excellent visits, real insight into the wines, very good food (too much, but who’s fault was that?) and congenial company.  Many thanks to Tim Clarke for sharing his knowledge, accumulated on tours here for the last 25 years, and to Yasna on her first trip.

Click here to continue the journey

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From Napa to Massa

When you are in a wine zone it makes sense to concentrate on the wines of the region itself. But of course there are interesting wines to be tasted or drunk from adjacent zones or indeed from completely different parts of the world.  Here are a few from our stay in Massa Marittima, Southern Tuscany. 

Most of Massa’s numerous restaurants are good or very good if in a typically rustic Tuscan style.  The  town is near enough to the sea to have the benefit of both a fish and a meat-based cuisine, though there is more carne than pesce.  In a holiday and festival town, there is no shortage of places to eat.  However, Era Ora has gone for a much more sophisticated take in its kitchen and its wine list is quite unlike anyone else’s with its multiple choices of Champagne and quality Italian sparkling wines from other regions, the best of the local wines of course and even a few still wines from other parts.  It opened last summer and I can well remember the thrill, even shock, of drinking a glass of Champagne here.  The sharply profiled acidity of this quintessentially northern wine was amazing in the Tuscan Maremma, home of warm climate wines. 


The search for great or even very good white wines in Tuscany is a lot more demanding than finding excellent reds.  There are good if expensive Chardonnays (of course), good Vermentino, and light and highly drinkable Ansonica on the coast. Then there are unique experiments with international grape varieties, for example Elisabetta Geppeti’s Poggio Argentato, a blend of Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.  The great discovery of this trip has been Villa Capezzana’s barrique-fermented Trebbiano which I have written up elsewhere.  A well known name in Tuscan whites is the Vernaccia di San Gimignano which can be very ordinary but there are some excellent examples.  A new one to me is Isabella, Vernaccia di San Gimignano riserva 2004, stocked by the restaurant, Era Ora. The San Quirico on the label is going to mislead a few, as there is a famous San Quirico d’Orcia in Tuscany, but of course this wine has to come from the San Gimignano DOCG area. The wine is unusual in that it is fermented and aged for five full years in medium sized botte, in this case 25 hectolitre casks.  That is quite a large container and so the ratio of wood to wine is quite low, resulting in little obvious oak influence.  The wine is a fairly dense mid-yellow in colour (as in the picture), with a dense nose which balances white fleshed fruit, herbs and even olives and a lovely yeastiness. The texture in the mouth is excellent, simultaneously refined and powerful, overall with great intensity.  Definitely one to look out for.

A second, very special bottle indeed was brought to dinner by Fiorella Lenzi, friend, passionate supporter of Fiorentina football club, president of the local wine road and wine producer at Serraiola winery. The bottle was Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon from far away Napa, vintage 1998. This bottle came to Fiorella via the Antinori family who some time ago collaborated with Mondavi at the world famous Ornellaia at Bolgheri.   It was great to have this comparison as we had been to Bolgheri earlier in the day and visited  Angelo Gaja’s fabulous winery, Ca’Marcanda.  His Bolgheri wines are a blend of Merlot and the Cabernets, and while they are impressive on release, the top wine, Ca’Marcanda is certainly also one for the cellar.  The 2006 is very good but a mere baby; it needs time to develop.  After a prolonged struggle with the Mondavi cork, the only solution was to destroy it and then decant.  The 12 year old wine had certainly matured in the intervening years, demonstrating classic cedar box aromas along with lovely mature plummy fruit; altogether a very civilized glass.  Those of us who normally stick to Europe should take note! 


In fact in all this contributed to a memorable occasion.  Our hosts Costanza Soprana and Gianpaolo shared not only their table but their fabulous skyline flat on the top floor of a historic palazzo right in the centre of Massa. It is so central that we had to persuade the people at the ticket barrier for the opera performance that evening that they should let us go to our meal while others went to the second performance that week of Tosca.  Costanza has created a beautiful home, ancient and contemporary by turns, with Travertine marble in every bathroom.  At the same time she has dedicated part of the building to two separate apartments for friends and paying guests, one to note for the future.  We ate Gianpaolo’s excellent celery risotto (typical of the Veneto from which he comes) and then a really fine piece of Cinta Senese, a rare breed pig.   With this we had various bottles from our travels – tropical and lively Chardonnay from Capua and the seriously dense and energetic Syrah from Casavyc.  And, as is so often the case, it turns out there is  a personal and professional connection.  Casavyc and Capua are both advised by the enologist Fabrizio Moltard, who also consults to Fiorella’s Serraiola winery.  Reflecting on this, the particular speciality of all three is making distinctive wines from international grape varieties here in the Maremma. 

Massa in opera week is a simply a great place – the buzz, the people, three operas in this 25th anniversary year, the food, the wine.  This year even the weather has a pleasantly English touch with some cloud and refreshing breeze, alongside brilliant blue skies.  But that’s a subject for another post – wine moments in Massa Marittima’s 2010 opera season! 


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Giacosa Fratelli – perfume and austerity

Giacosa Fratelli is rather different from most of the wineries we visited in our recent week in IMG_0064 Piemonte.  The winery is much bigger than most of the places we went to, a large, functional building coincidentally right next door to Bruno Giacosa, who, after Gaja, is probably the biggest name in Barbaresco.  The business is based in Neive, one of the three main communes of Barbaresco, though the firm has its best vineyards in the Barolo area. 

This tasting came about because of the success of Giacosa Fratelli’s Barolo Bussia 2005 which won a prestigious 5-star rating in a Decanter tasting late last year.  When I enquired about the wine from Coe Vintners I discovered that they have a number of other Nebbiolo based wines from the same company and a number of vintages, the perfect opportunity for a comparative tasting.  At a subsequent London event with Coe Vintners the wines tasted a little rough and not quite ready to drink but by then I had already bought the wines and all was set. 

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A fine wine supper with a group from Andover Wine Friends was a perfect  opportunity to re-evaluate the wines.  First impressions are important.  Nebbiolo, made for ageing, initially comes over as perfumed, only moderately fruity and tannic.  Janet commented that she could smell the floral and woody notes upstairs as I was decanting the bottles two IMG_5262hours before the tasting.  That pale ruby red with an orange edge even in young wines is also a bit different.  Then there is the surprise when you taste the wines. We are so used to fruit led wines that the austerity of Nebbiolo is an initial hurdle to get over, followed of course by the mouth drying finish of lively tannins.  It was always said that the growers used to drink the (fruity) Dolcetto and the (zippy) Barbera while they waited – for up to ten years – for the Nebbiolo to come around. 

And it is quite a wait.  Traditional Barolo and Barbaresco is made by long maceration of the wine skins in the must, 20-30 days or even more in some cases, followed by some years in large, relatively inert oak barrels.  The wine has to then have a year in bottles before it is released an absolute of minimum of two years (Barbaresco) or three years (Barolo) after the harvest.  So a five year old is still a young wine, perhaps a decade off its initial peak with several decades ahead of it in the best cases.  

IMG_5247 Our five wines were a good sample of styles and ages.  The first two were generic Barbaresco and Barolo, in other words wines made from grapes from anywhere with the two adjacent wine regions of those names which flank the town of Alba.  Both were from the quite tricky but ultimately decent 2005 vintage.  And both these wines were true to to type, the Barbaresco being rather more approachable and ready to drink after five years, the Barolo more structured, denser and still quite demanding.  Both have notes of Turkish delight (rose water) and red fruit on the nose.

Barolo Bussia 2005 is quite a step up and this was the wine that got the 5 star rating.  This is a single vineyard wine from the magnificent Bussia vineyard with its long, undulating, south facing slope.  The biggest difference in the finished wine is riper, fuller fruit.  The wine continues to be high in acidity and tannin but despite being bigger is more approachable because it is better balanced.

Also true to type was the difference between the two Barolo single vineyard wines. The Bussia vineyard (or at least this part of it) is in the IMG_5254 Barolo commune, while the Vigna Mandorlo is from the adjacent commune of Castiglione Falletto. They may be only a few kilometres apart and both are still in the quality wine area of Barolo but the geology has changed.  The wines of Castiglione Falletto are characteristically more structured, more demanding, longer lived. 

Barolo Vigna Mandorlo 2004 is from the excellent 2004 vintage now just starting to get into its stride.  The perfumed nose is wonderfully pronounced but the wine is much tougher, all set IMG_5275 for the long haul to vinous perfection.   The vineyard name itself, Mandorlo, is the historic name of the best, top, part of the Rivera vineyard, on the steep slope just below the picturesque town of Castiglione Falleto.  There is a perfect picture of it on the introductory page for the whole Italian section of the latest edition of the world wine atlas (Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson).  Life’s not fair is it – it’s both beautiful to look at and a great wine!

Our final wine is a 1996 vintage of the same wine, coming up to the mid-point of its second decade.  In the last ten plus years, the wine has knit together into a seamless velvety texture and IMG_5261a richer, deeper unity in terms of flavours. You could try to describe this (balsam and liquorish from the wood ageing, fruit more in the blackberry, mulberry range), but the point is that they are no longer individual components.  The tannins and acidity are still with us but now provide structure for this remarkable wine.  This really makes the point – if it’s a well made wine to start with and from a good year, these bottles do develop into something far more than the sum of their parts.  The perfume develops, the austerity remains butIMG_5271 now as a component of something which is much more than a glass of wine – a glass with a history, a range of sensations for nose and palate, a place of course, a stimulus to the brain as much as to the senses. 

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Multi-faceted Vajra

Planning a week’s tasting in a region is a mixture of thorough preparation, chance meetings and recommendations, and sheer persistence.  And there is the question of whether to visit wineries which you already know and whose wines are available in the UK as opposed to those you can only taste in situ.  Our final day in the Langhe region of Piemonte had  a large gap in the final afternoon but after a few phone calls, we arranged a visit to G.D.Vajra (pronounced VAI-ra), a very well established name, located above the village of Barolo since 1972.  All the planning had paid dividends as this was also the only time in the week that we had to drive from our morning tastings in Barbaresco, wellIMG_4882 to the east of our base in Alba, to a visit at the opposite end of the region, via a very good if hurried lunch and a near disaster at a self service petrol station.

Vajra’s substantial winery has a workmanlike feel about it, with the exception of the charming stained glass windows which throw a slightly surreal glow over proceedings.  But this is clearly a place of work, of focus on the goal of a quality across a largish range of wines.   For whites they have a Chardonnay from the Luigi Baudana company which they are now directing and a surprise package in Pétracine, the Riesling which they have been making since 1986.  They also have quite a serious Dolcetto from the two vineyards, Coste and Fossati, which can be aged for up to 10 years, a denser more structured wine with nice cherry and almond notes.

The use of barriques is interesting here.  Usually expensive new  wood is dedicated to the most important wines but here the new wood is matched up IMG_4901-1 with the forceful Barbera grape and it is only when the wood has mellowed that it is used on the prized Nebbiolo.  This means that you get the mild oxidising effect of small barrels for Nebbiolo but without the vanilla and toast aromas of new barriques.  Very clever.

Barbera comes in two shapes, normale 2007 and riserva.  The former comes from the younger IMG_4887-1vineyards and a part of it is matured in new oak for six to eight months.  It has a gorgeous, fruity nose which covers the new wood – it needs to express itself, like an  adolescent, says our host Sabrina. The Barbera riserva (or superiore) 2007 comes from 50 year old vines from the famous Bricco delle viole vineyard, the source also of one of the cru Barolo.  However, the law being what it is, you can only put the vineyard name on the back label of Barbera, whereas of course it is allowed to be on the main label of the Barolo!  This wine is aged in large traditional barrels and tonneaux for 18 months. It has a super concentrated nose of dark fruit and some oak ageing, wonderfully ripe, sweet fruit on the palate and is extremely long.  An outstanding wine which makes the case for great Barbera.

After Barbera comes Nebbiolo of course, though in this case we could have gone next to that other native, Freisa, of which more anon.  With the addition of Luigi Baudana wines, Vajra now has four Nebbiolo wines, the simpler Langhe Nebbiolo 2008 (quite a complex perfumed nose, no wood, quite tannic) and three Barolo.  Grapes from three vineyards, La volta, Fossati and Coste di Vergne go into Barolo Albe 2005.  IMG_4905-1 These are relatively young vines, 20-25 year olds, though the wine making is very traditional – maceration of the skins in the young wine for 30 days followed by three years in traditional large botti.  The label reflects the youthfulness of the vines rather than the traditional winemaking and seems a very loud statement next to the traditional main label. You can see the density of the ‘legs’ in this glass – 14.5? of alcohol and lots of extract.  This is a good Barolo – structured, perfumed, with spicy notes, beautiful.

The final two Barolo are from the respective houses of Vajra and Baudana.  Barolo Bricco delle viole 2005, that vineyard IMG_4911again, is the flagship wine getting the full 40 days of maceration and 40 months in large traditional barrels.  It is rich and delicate simultaneously, already beautifully knit together, with layers of fruit, spice, balsam and further spice on the nose.   By contrast the Baudana offering, Barolo Serralunga d’Alba 2005 has a much more obvious use of oak ageing (balsam, cloves), quite velvety in the mouth but still tough and tannic, typical of the Serralunga area.

Having tasted the heights of Barolo we are definitely on the descent from the tasting mountain, but there are various points of interest as we return.  First off is Kyè 2006 (a play on words on chi è, who’s this?), made from the local grape, Freisa.  Vajra are one of ten producers of this wine, though there is still, not the more conventional light, sparkling red wine.  Sabrina says its a wine for the autumn, perfumed and tannic (it must be something in Piemontese soil that produces this combination), good acidity, could last 10 years.  Then there is a version of Pinot Noir, called PN Q497, 2006, though our bottle had been open a while and IMG_4915 IMG_4916 perhaps wasn’t a fair test (slightly odd caramelly notes).  Of course there is also Moscato d’Asti, all 5.5? of it, but delicious none the less. And finally – thirteenth in line – our first taste of Barolo Chinato, a digestivo, which is Barolo infused with herbs and beefed up with added alcohol.  This had lovely bitter notes, a complex cocktail of herbs and counterbalancing sweetness.

This comprehensive tasting was a fitting climax to our week.  As we drove back to Alba we enjoyed for a final time the great views across the ridges of the Langhe, this time around La Morra bathed in spring sunshine.

Many thanks to Sabrina and all at Vajra.  The wines are available in the UK via Liberty Wines, eg Caviste.

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Ca’ del Baio – rapporto qualità prezzo buonissimo!

This winery is appropriately enough near ‘three stars’ (Trestelle), itself a sort of mid point between IMG_4860 the three Barbaresco communes – Treiso, Neive and, of course, Barbaresco itself.  But the three stars could also refer to the three daughters of the family or indeed to the excellent quality of the wine in relation to price. 

The winery covers all the bases – four Barbaresco, one other Nebbiolo wine, a Dolcetto, two Barbera and then, somewhat surprisingly, three white wines.  Paola, who showed us around, gives the simple explanation that this is because of her father’s love of white wine, in an area basically given over to reds.   We are in the last gasp of the Moscato d’Asti zone so one of them is of course Moscato.  The other two are different takes on Chardonnay. 

The family story runs like a thread through the IMG_4865 IMG_4864

wines.  ‘Moscato Trefie’ is a reference to the three daughters.  Paola and Valentina work here and Federika makes patisserie – for which of course the delicious, slightly sparkling wine, sweetish but with a herby tinge, is a perfect accompaniment.  The two Chardonnays are unoaked (Luna d’agosto 2009, with a bit of native Cortese in it) and oaked, Sermine 2009, extremely good value at €5 and €8.50 respectively. 

For the Barbaresco a range of oak is used.   The simpler Langhe Nebbiolo is matured in the traditional large oak barrels, Barbaresco IMG_4876Marcarini and Asili see a divide between large barrel and barrique treatment, while Barbaresco Pora is raised in tonneaux – a sort of half-way house in terms of size.  Is there a profound wine making reason for this?  No, it’s because there isn’t much of it. 

In many ways, Ca’ del Baio is a near perfect winery to follow for the wine lover.  It’s got that real family feel, they seem relaxed about their success; there are no airs and graces, just a great range of wines at good prices.  The Langhe Nebbiolo 2008, Bric del Baio, spends 12 months in large barrels, has a lovely perfumed nose and good fruit. Elegant every day drinking at €8 – if you live in Italy of course.  Equally good and good value are the prize winning Barbaresco:

  • Valgrande 2006, which gets the traditional treatment of two years in the large botti.  Still very young and slightly rustic but full of fruit.
  • Asili 2006: from a hillside which gets the sun all day, 10% matured in barriques for a little added richness, great nose of fragrant red fruit, a little bit of spice, typical high tannins and acidity which will carry it into a glorious maturity (here’s hoping for the rest of us).  Tre bicchieri in the Gambero Rosso 2010.  All this for €20 at the winery. 
  • Pora 2005: quite restrained on the nose, does not have the opulence of the 2006s but still good. 

Thank you to Paola and Valentina for a great visit. Sadly the wine is not available in the UK.  Thanks also for the recommendation for the fabulous La Ciau del tornamentoIMG_4878, super sophisticated restaurant in  Treiso with food and a view da morire!    And I learn from the web site, a 30, 000 bottle cellar … fortunately we only had time for one excellent course and left refreshed and with wallets intact. 

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