Posts Tagged ‘Pinot Noir’

Eyrie Vineyards: more than Pinot Noir

IMG_4731The 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 Eyrie line upthat 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. 

Abacela TempranilloAlongside 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.   

Pinot Noir – home and away

Saturday’s Andover Wine Friends’ fine wine supper was based on a six-bottle case sold by the Wine Society as ‘World Class Pinot Noir’.  The marketing worked perfectly – I duly bought the case and we enjoyed the wines. It was very good value at just under £140.  But ‘world class’?  I don’t think so.  In the New World wines at this price second halflevel are very good indeed, but not the very best.  In Burgundy, bottles at this price can be good, they occasionally can even be very good. Supply and demand make it impossible for them to be world class.  The Côte d’Or is a small area and individual vineyard holdings are tiny.  Our three modern representatives tasted below hold 5.35, 7.09 and, for Burgundy, a decent size 12 hectares respectively. The very fact that hectares are stated to two decimal places tells its own story. There is strong demand for these wines and so prices are high.  World class probably now starts at £50 a bottle and rises to steeply thereafter. You are not going to get that in a £140 half case. 

What the tasting did provide was a splendid introduction to the joys and mysteries of Pinot Noir.  Fortunately, at least for most of our tasters, it skipped the all too common disappointment of the red Burgundy – not just pale in colour as it should be, but lacking in quality fruit, excitement or intensity.

The evening’s wines can be best be divided into home and away, Burgundy and the rest of the world.  Thanks to a generous supply of bonus bottles from participants, we had 13 bottles in all to taste, two sparkling, five still red wines from Burgundy and six from around the world.  We will deal with them in these groups. 

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Fortunately our local supply of Pinot Noir rosé which was destined to be the aperitif for the evening was out of stock so we stepped up to a top quality pink Cava and a ‘Blanc de Noir’ Champagne.  They could not be more different in style – one is pink and the other is not, the former is all about ripe red fruit, the latter about yeasty sophistication.  Elyssia Pinot Noir Brut, Freixenet NV has the attractive mid salmon pink colour you can see in the picture, medium intensity cherry and strawberry fruit, with medium acidity and body.  It is clean, very well made and fruity but that is about it.  By contrast, Waitrose Blanc de Noir, Champagne, Brut NV made by Alexander Bonnet, is about the interaction of fruit and yeast:  brioche. savoury notes and sage on the nose over red fruit. The palate reverses the priorities so that the red fruit leads and the savoury notes play the supporting role. Very good length. At £20 a bottle this is a bargain for its complexity, finesse and balance. 

first trioThe’ rest of the world’ category was a bit thin on the ground, especially as the German example I am going to group with Burgundy.  In particular it missed a really big, extracted Californian example and anything from Australia or Oregon – but I plan to make up the last omission before too long.  But what was there was good: Marlborough, Nelson and Central Otago from New Zealand, one choice from South Africa and one from Santa Barbera, California.  The two Wine Society selections in this section showed well.  Neudorf, Tom’s Block, Pinot Noir, Nelson, New Zealand 2009 is characteristically mid ruby, several shades deeper than Burgundy at this level; fine notes of red plum and red berried. It made a good bench mark for the new world examples.  Picnic, Two Paddocks, Central Otago, New Zealand 2010 was a good contrast which was deeper yet in colour, quite powerful and rich on the nose, with medium palate weight, quite tannic and impressively long for the second wine of the estate.  (Disappointingly the top wine is not called ‘Banquet’ or even S Africa & California‘Dinner Party’ but just Two Paddocks Pinot Noir.) Our third Kiwi has a bit of bottle age: Spy Valley, Marlborough, Pinot Noir 2008 and showed it with its moderately intense ruby colour with a touch of orange on the rim; bright red berries and plum now joined by some compost notes, and a rich palate; impressive.  Across the Pacific Ocean, Au Bon Climat, Los Alamos, Pinot Noir, 2007 is an excellent example of relatively cool climate California.  Pale ruby (and thus looks like Pinot, unlike some of Californian examples), this has a very fine approach – fragrant red fruit, subtle oak and smoke effects followed by sweet, ripe fruit (cherry and strawberry) on the palate.  Fine noticeable tannins will give it an ageing ability; overall, very classy.  Across the Atlantic and back in the southern hemisphere we travel to inland but elevated Franschhoek, with vines at 550m making Pinot a possibility: Chamonix Reserve, Pinot Noir, Franschhoek, South Africa, 2010.  Here we have an earthlier, dustier profile, with liquorice, chocolate and tobacco on the nose with the red berries and smoke.  The ageing is 15 months in barrels, 80% new, but the wine has the weight of fruit to go with this.  A good level of complexity but the wine was still a bit rough and ready – those chewy tannins need more time. 

These new world wines are easy to appreciate, recognisable and mostly about fruit.  By contrast the Burgundian pyramid is about subtle differences and nuances of delicacy and texture.  Our five are all either village level wines or premier crus, so we don’t have either generic Burgundy or grand cru, but there is still quite a quality and price range.  The first is from a little known village at the top end of Côte de Nuits, Marsannay, Domaine Sylvain Pataille, 2010. This is from the domaine of a trained enologist who reduces yields for even this modestly three Burgundianspriced wine:   dark cherry in colour with the blue edge of a young wine, pleasant red fruit and a fine textured palate. A few found this pale and unexciting, others liked the light, fresh fruit and refreshing acidity.  And even at the basic level, there was something  of the Burgundian silky texture.  There was a clear step up to the three premier cru wines (two official premier crus and one village wine of the same quality).  Beaune PC Montée Rouge, Domaine Potel, 2007 was pale ruby in colour, with a reticent nose but a taut, clean fruit palate and very good length.  It combined a delicacy of red berried fruit with the structure on the palate.  Gevrey-Chambertin, Mes Favourites, Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Alain Burguet, 2006 is technically a village wine but was completely at home among the premier crus.  While Gevrey has a reputation for being sturdy and full, this was notable for its delicate but concentrated fruit, and for its subtlety and length.  Good but expensive at £39.  The pre-penultimate wine, a bonus bottle from our own cellar, got the closest to the ‘world class’ of the title:  Domaine Louis Boillot, Nuits-St-Georges PC Les Pruliers, 2001.  In its twelfth year, there is the first signs of garnet at the edge of the rim and with the years in the bottle the nose is really beginning to express itself with the seamless combination of refined fruit and a touch of oak.  The palate however was still full of sweet, red fruit and completely belied its age; it could be a five year old.  Marked minerality on the palate completed the picture for a wine that has probably got at least another decade in it. 

four TomlinsonsThe final pair showed Burgundy’s ability to age and how differently Pinot Noir can turn out 500 km north in Germany.  The oldest bonus bottle was from a great vintage and from the year after our youngest taster was born.  It wore its 30 years remarkably well for a minor village:  Savigny-les-Beaune, Simon Bize, 1983.  Vintages are important in Burgundy and so are growers and this wine combines the best of both.  Pale garnet, almost pale orange in colour, it was a fine combination of forest floor notes and remaining red fruit, light on the tongue but still with fine strawberry fruit at the core.  The most unusual wine, and most distinctive expression of Pinot, has however to go to Hommage Sanct Peter, Spätburgunder (ie Pinot Noir), Walporzheimer Alte Lay, Brogsitter, Ahr, Germany, 2006, just north of the 50th parallel and so at the absolute limit of where grape vines – especially with red grapes – will ripen.  A distinctive, almost brown, pale garnet in colour and a nose and palate dominated by oxidative, yeasty notes.  This wine had clearly been aged for a long time in porous barrels with the result that for a relatively young wine, the meaty, savoury notes are more prominent than anything else.  A local style with good complexity, rather than a representative example of Germany’s Pinot Noir renaissance. 

With thanks to all those who brought bonus bottles and made this a tour de force of some of Pinot Noir’s potential …

Rheingau Riesling rapture

The Great Rheingau Riesling Review was primarily about launching the excellent 2011 dry wines. These are the ‘Erstes Gewächs’, the premier or grand cru wines from the top estates in the Rheingau, in the modern dry style.  But if you want to catch the attention of journalists and writers you need give them something of a treat – and what a treat it was! 

On the right are four of the wines, the last four of a line up of six – two 2011s (not in the picture), a 2002, a 1971 and two sweet venerable oldies – 1962 and 1959.  the four colours of Riesling

2011 is a great vintage even if it was difficult to handle because it was so early. Dr Franz Michel of Domdechant Werner explained that this was the only time he remembers when the grapes were picked in September.  His perspective is from 65 vintages.  The grapes achieved full, early  maturation, and were picked to stop the acidity dropping. The botrytis was rampant and spread through effected areas to 100% – so watch out for the sweet wines too in due course.  The dry 2011s show great fruit concentration – tight knit palates that will unfold with green apple through to candied pineapple notes, classic high acidity. They will drink well at this top level from, say, five years time until … well how long have you got?  One producer stated that the wines are still wine-like back into the 1840s and then it gets a bit hit and miss!  Riesling has no peers among white grape varieties for ageing. 

The treat – four older wines

Hattenheim Wisselbrunnen Riesling, Weingut Hans Lang 2002 – a baby at 10 years old, mineral notes to the fore as we leave the intense fruit-freshness of the 2011s behind, but then the fruit notes are still pronounced on the mid-palate, rich and very long.  The colour has just a hint of gold about it in comparison with the young wines. 

Weissbaudomäne Schloss Johanisberg, Grünlack Riesling Spätlese 1971 – much more evident gold in the glass; slightly mushroomy on the nose, with that textbook minerality and fresh acidity but lacked fruit by these standards. This wine split opinion – some wondered if it was in the best condition, while another expert pointing out that Schloss Johanisberg’s wine making was not that great in this period. 

Hochheimer Domdechaney Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, Domdechant Wernershes Weingut, 1962 – striking amber colour, this remarkable quinquagenarian (try that in Scrabble!) leads with a luscious toffee and honey nose reminiscent of great Oloroso, ie oxidatively aged wines.  The sweetness is perfectly matched by rapier like acidity which has kept it fresh through its half century.  This was our presenter’s wine and his estate can be very proud of it. 

Steinberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, Hessischeweingüter Kloster Erbach 1959 – again stunning colour, remarkable richness on the nose and palate, candied fruit, toffee, very long, sweeter than the 1962. 

In the main tasting I also enjoyed the wines of Baron Knyphausen and the two fine Pinot Noirs of Georg Muller, Spätburgunder Trocken Edition PW 2009 is the simpler wine and Hattenheim Hassel Spätburgunder Erstes Gewächs 2009, a marked step up:  fragrant and structured wines.  Today’s top quality German wines have a real wow factor. 

A study in new world ageing

Unfortunately I could not attend the Bring a bottle club this month due, on this occasion, to a work commitment.  But every cloud has a silver lining: here is a guest blog from Rob: 

IMG_1016For the second notable birthday of the month, attention was focussed on a region known by reputation by all of us and especially by our birthday boy. Through the BBC’s association with Caviste we have a fondness for Australian wines, but more so perhaps for the Barossa. Nonetheless we all felt confident of spotting a cooler climate Margaret River chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon: so how would we fair with all of Western Australia to go at?

Two themes emerged. Firstly, in an interesting twist on the excellent Two Ronnies’ “Mastermind” sketch, an ability to identify the next wine and how wines age differently in Western Australia (and classically the whole of the New World) than the old.

First up, four whites of excellent calibre and unanimity of order of preference from the group.

We started with a lively fresh, limey, just-the-right-amount-of-petrol, well, riesling surely? “Chardonnay” declared one member of the group. The 2009 Plantagenet, Great Southern, Riesling was a good example of cooler climate new world riesling.

The second wine was as predicted by our Ronnie Barker, a chardonnay. The Umamu Estate, Margaret River, Chardonnay, was everything we had hoped it would be: creamy, rich, lovely buttery oak well integrated with tropical fruits and, suggested one of us, Greek yoghurt. Everything a well aged Margaret River Chardonnay should be. However, does a 2006 count as “well aged”? The old world would need 10+ years to be as rich; this was lovely at half that age.

The third wine was just as easy to spot: waxy, good palate-weight, lovely balance, tell-tale lanolin. Mid aged semillon surely? “I know what this is!”, one member confidently declared, “McHenry Hohnen’s 3 Amigos”. The Moss Wood Vineyard, Margaret River, Semillon, 2010 was neither a Rhone blend nor mid aged.

Bottle 2Bottle 5The final white was indeed the McHenry Hohnen, Margaret River, 3 Amigos, marsanne, chardonnay and rousanne blend. Creamy, rich, lovely buttery oak, well integrated (I refer to the previous description!): chardonnay surely, but with even more of that richness of which the old world would be proud. 2000 maybe? No, too old; learning how the whites age, a tad younger, 2004? No, 2008!

The four reds offered a different perspective: do Western Australian reds have a closed phase at the same age as the whites are beautifully showing tertiary characteristics?

The first red was unanimously declared as wonderful. “One of the best wines I have had in quite some time”, thought one. Dense, but feminine: burnt pepper and floral notes of a Coti Rotie; silky but rich; pale cherries and roses. The richness and the density of colour showed the Wignalls, Albany, Pinot Noir, to be some distance from an old world cousin, but unlike the whites, from 2007, it was still an energetic teenager.

Bramble jam! Rich, succulent, sweet, brooding, blackberry, damsons, blackcurrant, tell-tale mint and green leaf. Classic Margaret River cabernet sauvignon. One member spotted the blended merlot in the Cape Mentelle, Margaret River, Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot. We were even not too far away from 2004.

If the 2004 was showing its fruit wonderfully well, the Cullen, Mangan, Margaret River, 2006, a blend of merlot, petit verdot and malbec, was still relatively closed. The nose was not giving much away, although the palate opened up nicely showing violets again (is this a Western Australia theme?) and pepper against a dark, brooding background of dense red fruit. Lovely, but still young.

Bottle 9The final red was even more impenetrable, but then a 2007, Plantagenet, Great Southern, Cabernet Sauvignon would be expected to be more closed than a pinot noir of the same age. Lovely tannins and suggestions of fruit hinted at more to come with time.

A final sweet concluded the evening and returned to the white aging theme. A lovely rich amber colour, suggesting the wine making processes involved, underlined by the rich orange marmalade balanced by lighter apricot. Mid aged, botrytis semillon? Botrytis semillon sure, but the 2009, Vinelane, Noble Botrytis Semillon followed the theme that at three years it showed a depth which a good Sauternes would envy at six years.

Success in Alsace

Outside of the New World with its focus on the characteristic qualities of single grape varieties, Alsace has got to be the easiest wine to taste blind.  Aromatic Gewurz, steely Riesling, more neutral but classy Pinot Gris and the odd glass of Pinot Noir (which has the decency to be red), this is going to be a doddle isn’t it?  Let’s see how we got on at the late February Bring a Bottle Club. 

IMG_1483 We started with a little flight of three whites. First up was something quite floral and then there were two wines with marked similarities. A great debate followed on whether this was one or two grape varieties or different wine makers’ approaches or vintage difference.  Light began to dawn when we were challenged to re-taste glass number one and just concentrate on the aromas and taste of this one wine.
In a rare triumph …  I got the muted tones of orange blossom and grapey notes of … Muscat! A young Muscat is normally an easy spot but rounded out, with some subtle ageing notes and less obvious primary fruit after five years in the bottle it is not so easy. But this was indeed Muscat 2006, Julien Rieffel. On then being told that wines 2 and 3 were in fact two varieties, we IMG_1484
IMG_1488 agreed that one was Pinot Blanc and one Pinot Gris and even got them the right way around with Pinot Blanc’s honeyed tone and quality Pinot Gris’s spiciness and exotic fruit: Pinot Blanc 2006, Josmeyer and Pinot Gris 2005 Trimbach.   All three were excellent wines, subtle, complex and harmonious – and mannered partners for food. 
An unintended pair of wines followed. I was supposed to be bringing a Grand Cru Gewurztraminer … but it turned out to be a GC Riesling, obviously a late night pick out of the cellar.  But Grand Cru or not, the wine was in any case badly oxidised with a poor, crumbly cork.  You can see something is wrong from the colour alone (right): Brand GC, Riesling 2001, Zind Humbrecht – we missed you!  IMG_1497
IMG_1494 By contrast, the more basic wine was everything it should be: a classic nose of green apples, mineral and petrol notes well to the fore, and sharp acidity.  A huge contrast to the baked apples and caramel notes which just about survived under the oxidised version of big brother.  Riesling, Tradition, 2005, Hugel.  And of course this did live up to the promise of being easily to spot tasted blind.
On to the final dry or dryish white wine:  pronounced honey notes on the nose, barley sugar and a touch of tangerine.  This wine had a lot of quality about it but there was no consensus on what it was: more practice needed: Herrenweg de Turckheim, Pinot Gris, 2002, Zind Humbrecht. Given the fate of the other two wines from this company, it was good that this was in top condition.
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IMG_1502 Sadly the label was the best thing about this corked bottle of Zind Humbrecht’s  excellent Pinot Noir 2005.  I tasted this in October 2009: ‘a brilliant example of Pinot, fragrant, a clarity of fruit and balanced acidity presumably reflecting its northern latitude. Not cheap but a fine accompaniment to pork and prunes.’
On to the sweeties:  marked aged notes, not either very sweet or luscious, this showed good balance, some chiselled fruit, and was excellent with cheese:  Riesling, Furstentum Grand Cru, Vendanges Tardives, 1989, Paul Blanck.  Easy to identify but not as easy as the final wine:  IMG_1506
IMG_1510 A dull label but a classic wine: pronounced aromas of lychee and rose water … do I need to go on: obviously Gewurztraminer … rich on the palate and again the sweetness modified by age, very good indeed: Gewurztraminer, Sélection de Grains Nobles, 2000, Henri Ehrhardt.  A fitting climax to the evening – and once we were past the first three white wines tasted together a relatively straightforward evening as promised … it won’t last! 

Pale, red and elegant

With the whole world of wine to choose from, which three grape varieties would you group together for a focused red wine tasting where there is noticeable relationship between the varieties? The two Cabs and Merlot would be one obvious choice – but the range of styles around the world might lead to a loss of focus and what would you do about blends?  Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre typically make a better blend than a comparison based on single varietal wines.  Lea & Sandeman made an excellent choice with Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese.  This worked really well for two reasons. First, all three varieties make relatively pale wines which rely more on perfume, elegance and balance than just sheer power.  Second, they are (probably!) my three favourite varieties of all – think sublime red Burgundy, evolving, long-lived, tannic Barolo and Barbaresco and finally, complex, herby, acidic Chianti and Brunello.  How could it go wrong?  With this quality of wines, it couldn’t.

IMG_0067The tasting offered a superb example to compare the styles of the three varieties, mostly in their classic regions.  The Pinot from Burgundy, which travels the best of the three, was joined by a few choice examples from New Zealand and Argentina (yes).  The Nebbiolo came from the Langhe in Piemonte, that is from its unsurpassed home territory.  The Sangiovese came in its Brunello form only from Montalcino, one of its classic Tuscan expressions.  The bulk of the tasting – in fact the two sides of the table you can see – was Pinot and Nebbiolo, with the Brunello an interesting side show with the producers present. 

While these varieties all show marked, if subtle, variation from one vineyard to the next (thereby keeping wine writers in business), there are generalisations to be made. The Pinot at these levels (from generic red Burgundy up to some premier cru) were pale in colour, with fresh and attractive raspberry  and strawberry fruit, moderate oak notes, relatively light in the mouth, around 13% of alcohol, present if unobtrusive tannins; in short, elegant and refreshing.  They compliment food with their moderate flavours, refreshing acidity and poise.   Of the many excellent examples, I would pick Domaine Theulot Juillot, Mercurey Premier Cru Les Combins 2009 for its perfume and elegance, the combination of lightness in the mouth and depth of fruit, and its length (£15.60 plus VAT).  Great quality and value from a less exalted area. 

IMG_0064Having worked up the rue de Pinot Noir, you take a 180 degree turn and head down the strada di Nebbiolo.  It would be far to simple to state that you head down ‘tannin street’, but obviously this is the most marked change.  These wines made from Nebbiolo have an noticeable structure which comes from a combination of higher alcohol levels, typically 14% though right up to 15%, and that wonderful tannic rasp which, if the fruit is ripe and it is well handled, makes for great, long lived wines. To be fair to these examples, the alcohol was not at all obtrusive but was balanced by fruit and acidity.  The flavour and textural profile is rather different too:  the red fruit is there (sour cherry) but is held together with the effects of ageing in, mainly, older and larger barrels. The wine has a steely tautness.  This time two choices: an entry level wine of great quality: Nebbiolo, Langhe, Andrea Oberto, 2010 (£11.50 plus VAT) and a fine expression, Barbaresco from the Fausoni vineyard, Andrea Sottimano, 2008 (£29 plus VAT). 

And finally ‘the brown one’, ie the type of Sangiovese grown on the Montalcino plateau, at 450m above sea level which increases the day/night temperature difference and gives a longer growing season, concentrating flavours.  Most Sangiovese is not as pale as either of the other grape varieties in this line up and Brunello, with its long ageing in large oak barrels, is certainly the darkest of these three wines.  Unfortunately there was no Rosso di Montalcino on show as that would have made a better comparison with the basic Pinot and Nebbiolo; but fortunately there were seven Brunello to be tasted!  These wines (apart from the very best) do not jump out of the glass at you like some of those above – but they have a solidity, a lasting structure in the mouth which makes up for that.  Interestingly, they were refined, not bold and rustic, with subtle sour cherry and sharp black plum fruit, restrained old oak, a full palate, with weight in the mouth with refined tannins and real length.  The one that showed most promise for the future was Collemattoni, Brunello di Montalcino, 2007 (£22.25 plus VAT) with splendid refreshing sharpness; the current star, Fuligni, 2004 riserva with fabulous depth of fruit and complexity, the aromas now coming out of the glass … simultaneously rounded and demanding (£46.75 plus VAT). 

 

Congratulations to Lea & Sandeman for this study in pale (mostly), red and elegant. 

Burgundy v Piedmont

IMG_0942That there is a competitive streak among many men is hardly an earth-shattering observation.  Wine tasting can be social, relaxed, erudite and many other things but it also can be competitive.  Ben Llewellyn, MD of Caviste set up Thursday evening’s tasting as a competition – between two of Europe’s best established and prestigious regions.  Burgundy and Piedmont just happen to be among my favourite regions. The tasting focused helpfully on the two most important grape varieties (with apologies to Chardonnay of course): Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, from Burgundy and Piedmont, respectively.  Ben has been talking for months about having secured some exceptional bottles of Nebbiolo without a thought for the cost, while Mark was assigned Burgundy within a budget … Not that there was any suggestion that this was a fix. 

The idea was to taste six Pinot’s and six Nebbiolo side by side, by category – best wine by a cooperative, from a single vineyard, etc.  This was an excellent approach, made better by the fact that the two varieties share some similarities: pale colour, red fruit (if raspberry v. cherry), medium to high acidity, producing full bodied wines in cool climates and, perhaps above all, ability to develop in very subtle ways with age.  And there are only 225 miles between Beaune and Alba – plus the Alps! – so the climate is not that different. There is one huge difference of course: Pinot is only moderately astringent while Nebbiolo is the king of (pale) tannic wines! 

IMG_0939So how did the competition work out?  Each wine was scored out of twenty and all the scores were totalled.  This ensured a high level of participation on the evening, not to mention the occasional outbreak of barracking.  Janet refused to score on ideological grounds, while I did the same for another reason which will become clear shortly.  But the outcome was interesting. Despite the Burgundies being on the whole much cheaper, they only lost by the smallest margin – less than 2%.   Why was this? Two guesses: people are much more familiar with Pinot Noir than with Nebbiolo and, further, the latter is seriously tannic, even in good examples. One could say that Ben needed much better, more expensive, wines than Mark to make it a contest! 

My aversion to scoring has nothing to do with disapproval of competitive sports.  Scoring has its uses – but only in my view if the wines are in flights of similar wines.  It makes no sense at all to try to score an off-dry ethereally light German Riesling on the same scale as a massive Californian Cabernet.  It is difficult to score Pinot against Nebbiolo – even if we disregard the point that the samples of the former cost 50% less on average than those of the latter.

Let’s ask a completely different question: how good were the wines? There were many good wines in the line up and some really outstanding ones.  G D Vajra’s village level Barolo 2005, £32, from an ordinary year, now has fine balsam, fruit, IMG_0940the smell of cloves from old wood on the nose and fine complexity. Domaine Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey-Chambertin, Vielles Vignes, 2007, £35,  is already singing – again great complexity in the the red and black fruit, superb.  And, I am pleased to say, the great Barolo examples were just that: the 2003 from Monprivato Mascarello and the special treat – though sadly one bottle was corked –  from Giorgio Rivetti.  The name of this wine is so complicated it needs a sentence of its own: Giorgio Rivetti, La Spinetta Campè Vürsù, Barolo Campè, 2000, now just under £100.  The family name is Rivetti (expert makers of Moscato), the company is called La Spinetta Campè and the wine is Barolo from the Campè vineyard near Grinzane Cavour, with the added name Vürsù – which I am guessing is going to be a bit of Piedmontese dialect as 30 minutes of research has not revealed anything!   To all the usual  Barolo qualities this adds rich, developed fruit, probably due to its very modern wine making process – in rotofermenters, which extract a great deal of fruit quickly, and then French barriques. Superb.   

If this is the standard of wines we can expect at Caviste’s future tastings, we will look forward to more – with or without the competitiveness! 

ABC

IMG_0636Saturday evening saw an opportunity to taste the wines of one of California’s most famous names: Jim Clenenden of Au Bon Climat, Santa Barbara. ‘Wild boy Jim’ – this is California after all – has been making wine for nearly 25 years, concentrating on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These two grape varieties tell you that this wine maker is in love with Burgundy, but of course has a very different climate to work with. So what are the wines like? 

We tasted seven from a large range of bottlings.  The whites split our tasting group. There was no doubt about the quality – substantial, aromatic wines, lots of oak, intense citrus notes, quite a high level of acidity.  Our Italian visitors were deeply puzzled by the style – ‘it’s not like a wine’! That of course is understandable if you mainly drink wines from the Veneto or Tuscany. White wines in Europe on the whole are not this big, oaked or substantial.  Others liked the style, noting that by Californian standards it is quite restrained.  The Sandford and Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 gave off waves of caramel and toffee and then those lemon and grapefruit notes. The Los Alamos Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 was less oaked, rather sharper and full of edgy fruit.  Finally, we had the chance to compare these young wines with the Sandford and Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay 2006 – after a further too years in the bottle, there was much better integration of the oak effects and fruit, a long creamy after taste, mushroom and toast throughout. The wine was slightly puzzling as while the oak had settled down the fruit also seemed not just more rounded but less prominent, giving a rather long-aged effect for a wine that was only five year old wine.  I was pleased to try these wines but I’m not sure I will be buying them – too big, chunky and oaky for my taste.

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By contrast the Pinot Noir was met with universal acclaim.  These wines had a better balance between clove-laden wood and red fruits. Of the four we tasted, the two stars were the instantly attractive Los Alamos Pinot Noir 2007 with its excellent raspberry fruit, savoury notes and complexity and the more structured and profound Isabelle Pinot Noir 2007.  Also very good were Sandford and Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006 and La Bauge Pinot Noir 2007

This was a splendid evening of transatlantic exploration and Anglo-Italian friendship. To celebrate we ate Ribollita, the classic Tuscan soup of white beans and Cavolo Nero, a nearly black cabbage.

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Supermarket v. Independent

The relative merits of buying everyday wines from the supermarket or from an independent wine merchant in the UK are worth rehearsing. As I see it, they are:

Supermarket

Strengths

Weaknesses

Huge buying power Little or  no knowledgeable service at point of sale
Can offer good good value but obsessed by 2-for-1 offers, many of which only offer average value for money: cheap wine at a low price.  This has distorted more positive notions of value for money in the whole UK market – but that’s a subject in its own right.
Continuity of lines – if you like it you can go back for more For the the shelf-space, increasingly narrow offer
Quality and value-for-money to be found in their premium own brand ranges, eg Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Most of the wines are sound but dull

 

Independent

Strengths

Weaknesses

Good to excellent selection of wines reflecting buyer’s knowledge and interests Can be seen as (or indeed can be) intimidating. Despite all the improvements over the years, wine merchants are still seen as places where your ignorance may be exposed! 
Can buy wines in small quantities from small growers and niche markets The presence of expensive wines can give the impression that they don’t have everyday ones at reasonable prices
Knowledgeable service Doesn’t stock everything else you need for the week’s shopping!
Must be consumer oriented in order to survive/succeed  
Can get to know individual customers and their preferences  

 

IMG_9541Andover Wine Friends’ summer party put this comparison to the test with a blind tasting of pairs of similar wines from Asda’s ‘Extra Special’ range and Andover’s very own Grape Expectations.  Billed as Philippa v. Tim (ie Philippa Carr MW, Asda’s chief wine buyer, v. Tim Pearce of Grape Expectations) the tasting showed interesting issues about price and that most people can spot the difference between supermarket and independent’s wines.  Of the six pairs a majority called it right on four out of six times, with one dead heat (for a very good reason!)  The underlying assumption was voiced by one member: ‘I assumed that the better wine was from the independent and voted accordingly’. 

The wines

Cava: Codorníu Teresa non-vintage, £9, v. Mas Miralda 2009 Asda Extra Special £10  – people voted correctly for the more aged, yeasty style of the Codorníu over the refined fruit palate of the latter. 

Viognier: Aristocrate 2009, £6.50 v. J C Mas 2010 Asda Extra Special £7 – people overwhelmingly preferred the subtle palate of the former, though they like both wines, and the independent’s wines was cheaper too!

Riesling: Foxes Island, 2008, Marlborough, New Zealand, £12.50 v. Clare Valley 2008, Asda Extra Special £8.70.  People got this right by a two to one majority – but they also noted the substantial extra cost of the independent’s wine. 

Rosé: Trasquanello Rosato Toscano 2010 £10 v. Portuguese Rose Wine, Bebidas Portugal, non vintage, £3.28. A bit of a curve ball!  Asda doesn’t appear to have a rosé in their Extra Special range so I chose the latter of these two as it had won a silver medal in a big competition, while the unusual Sangiovese rosé is trading on its name, ie its relation to Chianti.  A large majority guessed right – the inexpensive rosé had a slight fizz and came in a traditional squat bottle.  But the quality difference was not that great – and one was three times the price of the other!

Barbera d’Asti: ‘Ceppi Storici’ (‘historic stems [of vines’]’), Araldica 2007, Piemonte, £7.45 v. Asda Extra Special, 2009, £5. The second curve ball of the evening. Both these wines are made by the very good Araldica cooperative and admirably there was a tie in the vote for independent v. supermarket. The vintage difference was not that marked.  So they both showed attractive brambly fruit, some mild smoky oak notes, decent acidity, good colour, easily drinkable because of the low tannins, but one was £2 less than the other. 

Pinot Noir: Chilensis Reserva 2009, Maule, Chile £6.95 v. Marlborough, New Zealand, Asda Extra Special 2008, £10.18.  A big majority got this right, guessing that the second wine was from the supermarket. But everyone was amazed at the price difference and the excellent quality of the £7 Chilean Pinot from Chilensis.  Wine in an independent wine merchant can be a great bargain!

 

This was a very instructive tasting … and lots of fun. It shows, I think, that the quality/price ratio is a not one way street between supermarkets and independents, especially if you keep away from the big, overly promoted, supermarket wines and look out for the ones they have put some personal investment into.  Conversely, independent wine shops are not necessarily expensive – though in fairness Grape Expectations really specializes in quality at a reasonable price.  And it was a great evening, as the pictures show – including the very fine new wood floor in the extension which we were also celebrating.

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Rediscovering German wines

If you are of a certain age you will have a very clear memory of German wines – inexpensive, sweet brands (Blue Nun, Black Tower). And then suddenly these wines became deeply unfashionable – our tastes moved South to the sunshine of Spain, Italy and the New World.   Liebfraumilch became the least cool drink on the planet and with it was lost a whole tranche of highly individual wines which are genuinely different and which can be of the highest quality.  And because they are not widely appreciated these wines can be very good value. So, at one level, selfishly, we don’t want too much of a revival! 

IMG_6491-1Andrea Bulcock has a lifelong love of these wines and has worked in wineries in Germany.  Her presentation for Andover Wine Friends concentrated on a handful of top producers – Wolf, Loosen, Leitz, Donnholf – but gave a Cook’s tour both of key areas and styles.  She brought out the diversity of the contemporary German wine scene.  The traditional styles of various weights and sweetness of Riesling have been joined by the new style dry Riesling and by Pinot Noir reds and even Rosé.  And that’s before you get to local grape varieties such as Lemberger or Dornfelder,

Of the ten wines shown, the range of styles was best exemplified by:

Villa Wolf Pinot Noir Rosé 2009 Rheinpfalz – J L Wolf is the second estate of Loosen but in the Rheinpfalz, not the Mosel, and so warmer and allowing a different range of wines to IMG_6488be produced.  Although still pretty far North in terms of growing vines (similar to Alsace), it is protected by the Haardt mountains and like many vine growing areas benefits from the warmer micro climate produced by the river Rhine.  This wine, with its pretty salmon pink colour is a very creditable rosé from Pinot Noir: quite a modest nose but a lovely, surprisingly assertive palate. The trick is that it is off-dry, the small amount of residual sugar adding a lot of impact to the flavour.  At less than £8 it’s very good value.   

 

Villa Noir Gewürztraminer 2009 Rheinpfalz – same winery, same area, completely different grape variety.  Nice and very typical nose of lychees and rose water, this Gewurz is distinctive from the versions you find in nearby Alsace by virtue of being leaner and less alcoholic, only 11.5°.  I like the big Alsace style but this is different and perhaps more food-friendly. And of course it shows that not all whites in Germany are Riesling or medium sweet.  Again, good value at under £8. 

 

Johannes Leitz, Rudesheimer Bischofsberg Dry Riesling Spätlese Trocken, Rheingau, 2009.   Ok, it’s a long name in the old German manner: Rudesheim is the village name of the wine region, Rheingau, while Bischofsberg is the vineyard name, like a Premier Cru if we were in Burgundy.  And Spätlese just means late picked for richness, trocken = dry.   From a top site in one of the  most picturesque parts of the Rhine, this is the new face of Riesling in Germany – dry in style, in response to the numerous good dry Rieslings being made now in the New World and the trend towards uniformly dry wines. At the moment the nose is subtle rather than powerful or exotic, but this probably needs time in the bottle, while the palate is good, fruit balanced with characteristic acidity.  At around the £15 mark it’s going to have a lot of competition.

Loosen Estate Riesling 2008 Mosel

Loosen Urzinger Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett 2009 Mosel

Donnholf Riesling Leistenberg Kabinett 2009 Nahe

Although it is slightly heretical, in a way you can take your pick from these three, all of which represent versions of the classic German style, two from the Mosel and one from the Nahe: pale in colour, refreshingly low in alcohol (8°), off dry to medium sweet but with excellent acidity, long lasting and will develop in the bottle for years or even decades.   (Kabinett is the first rung of the German quality wine ladder, Prädikat, the lightest and sometimes driest in style.) These wines have been consistently praised by wine lovers and professionals and ignored by consumers.  The first is the ideal summer drink (£8); the second two more substantial and serious, the Urzinger comes out of the glass at you, the Leistenberg is more mineral in style.  Leitz Riesling Magdalenenkreuz Spatlese Rheingau 2009 is another top quality single vineyard variation on this theme, if from the Rheingau.  These really need to be tasted side by side to appreciate properly the subtle differences of depth of flavour, mineral v. fruit, length.  What this post does really not do justice to is the range of terroir – the spectacular Mosel valley, the majestic Rhine and the flatter territories of the Pfalz – which largely determine the variations. 

Leitz Riesling Klosterlay Auslese Rheingau 2006

Loosen Riesling Beerenauslese Mosel 2006

IMG_6502 If the ‘crisp and off-dry’ is quintessentially German, so is wine made in a medium to sweet style with correspondingly high acidity, from late picked Riesling.  Auslese just means ‘picked out’, ie wine made from bunches of late picked grapes, some or all some of which have been affected by botrytis. Similarly, Beerenauslese is the next category up the quality ladder, ie picked out individual grapes often affected by botrytis.  These are fantastic wines, even the Auslese showing honey, orange, apricot and herbaceous notes.  The Beerenauslese has a whacking 150g/litre of residual sugar  and comes in quarter bottles, which is perfect for this style. 

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Villa Wolf Pinot Noir 2008 Rheinpfalz.  It was a surprise to me but Germany is the third biggest grower of Pinot Noir in the world.  This grape, which is what creates red Burgundy, has a devoted band of followers, including me, who trace it down to every corner of the earth in search of its elusive qualities – an earthy, farmyardy nose, sweet raspberry fruit, eventually a savoury perfume.  This was quite fragrant, in quite a light style, some savoury notes, good and, if you have got the bug for Pinot, excellent value at £8.75. 

 

Many thanks to Andrea for  an excellent tasting which broaden our horizons and to Tim of Grape Expectations where you can buy the wines – and currently a special offer of a magnum of Villa Wolf’s Pinot Gris for under a tenner!  We will now look at German wines in a new way.

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