The BIG Rhône Tasting at Ely Bar and Brasserie, Dublin (Part one)

November 2014 saw the second Rhône Wine Week extravaganza in Ireland, hugely expanded on the already successful inaugural Week in 2013.  The expansion was both geographical and in terms of the number of events – it would have been physically impossible to get to all of them, even just the Dublin ones.  Kudos to my team mates Morgan, Diarmuid and Suzanne of Team Slapshot, together we came a creditable joint 3rd in the Big Rhône Quiz.

Spearheaded by Tyrrell & Co. Wine Importers and Inter Rhône, this year other importers and venues joined the fray – see rhonewineweekireland.com for the full calendar of events and participants

This post (and the next) will concentrate on the Big Rhône Tasting held at Ely Bar and Brasserie in the IFSC, Dublin.  A former 200 year old tobacco and wine warehouse in Dublin’s Financial district, it has spectacular vaulted cellars.  My smartphone pics below of the tables set up for tasting really don’t do it justice!

Didier Fiat

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So now onto a few of the white wines that really stood out for me:

Château la Canorgue Pays du Vaucluse Viognier 2012 (Le Caveau, €18.45)

Château la Canorgue Pays du Vaucluse Viognier 2012

Château la Canorgue Pays du Vaucluse Viognier 2013

Viognier isn’t a grape I tend to pick off the shelf very often.  Some of the examples I’ve tasted have been too dry and not flavoursome enough to be enjoyed on their own; while I applaud the continental practice of drinking wine mainly at the table, the reality is that I’m far more likely to pop a cork sat in the lounge rather than the dining room.

However THIS is a Viognier that drinks very well on its own, and at a very reasonable price.  It has ripe stone fruit and an oily, rich viscosity that make it a real pleasure.

Domaine Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc “La Fontaine” 2012 (Mitchell & Son, €48.99)

Domaine Grand Veneur Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc "La Fontaine" 2012

Domaine Grand Veneur Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc “La Fontaine” 2012

White Châteaneuf-du-Pape can be made of any or all of the six white grapes in the list of eighteen permitted grapes for the AOC.  It’s pretty rare though, making up only around 5% of total CNDP production – and even rarer is it cheap!

Made from 100% Roussanne grown in the wind-swept northern slopes of Châteauneuf, the grapes are hand picked and gently pressed.  Fermentation and maturation is carried out in oak barriques, 50% new and 50% one year old, for ten months.

Surprisingly, oak doesn’t dominate the palate – Roussanne gives a rich and fat body plus plenty of fruit which can stand up to the oaking.  As a youngster the main fruit flavour is pear – but not the pear drop flavour which is common on many modern cool-fermented whites.  Instead, imagine that you’ve been lost in a desert for a few days with nothing to eat or drink and then you find a few fresh, juicy pears – it’s that intense!

The vineyard’s windy aspect helps maintain acidity and this comes through in the freshness – it’s rich but not at all flabby.  White Châteauneuf needs a good while before it starts to develop tertiary flavours – we tasted a 2006 at the Big Rhône Quiz which was only just approaching middle age!

Eric Texier Opâle 2012 (La Rousse Wines, €21.90)

Opale Viognier

Eric Texier Opâle

And now for something completely different!  This is the first time I had come across anything like this from the Rhône – it’s a sweet Viognier, not made by fortification as with Vins Doux Naturels, but rather by reducing the temperature to stop fermentation once the must has reached 7% alcohol.  The grapes were picked early to maintain acidity so the resulting sweetness has a balance – it’s not at all cloying.

While this wine does reveal some varietal characteristics, stylistically it reminded me of a Mosel Riesling – and thankfully that’s what Monsieur Texier is aiming for.  Being fairly low in alcohol also means you can have a small glass and still drive afterwards!

Part two will be the main course – the Rhône Reds!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s A Family Affair – Antinori of Tuscany

A Brief History Of Chianti

It’s not all straw baskets and fava beans!  Chianti is a delimited area between Siena and Florence in Tuscany.  The name has been in use for over 700 years and on wines for at least 600 years, but has changed a lot over that time.

The Chianti wine producing area was one of the first to be officially demarcated anywhere in the world by the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s 1716 decree.  At that time various different grapes were used, including Canaiolo, Mammolo, Malvasia and Sangiovese.

In 1872 the Florentine statesman Baron Bettino Ricasoli (who later became Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy) decided upon and promoted a blend for Chianti based on 70% Sangovese, 15% Canaiolo, 10% Malvasia and 5% other local red varieties.  As it happens it was a Ricasoli wine that gave me my first taste of quality Chianti!

In 1932 the Italian government significantly expanded the area allowed to use the term Chianti on their labels, and created seven subdivisions within it: Classico (pretty much the original Chianti heartland), Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Colli Senesi, Montalbano and Rùfina.

Gallo Nero - Chianti Classico's Black Rooster emblem

Gallo Nero – Chianti Classico’s Black Rooster emblem

In 1967 the DOC regulations were introduced for Chianti, accompanied by a further expansion of the boundaries and mandating the use of the Ricasoli “recipe” – so all producers were forced to use 10% white Malvasia.  The expansion in vineyard area was done without great attention being paid to clones (Sangiovese mutates easily like Pinot), rootstocks or soil types, and quality fell markedly.

First Amongst Equals

The noble Florentine Antinori family (Marchese means Marquis in Italian) trace their entry into the wine trade back to 1385, though in all likelihood they cultivated grapes on their estates before then.  The current firm was founded in 1895 by the brothers Lodovico and Piero Antinori, and expanded within Tuscany and into Umbria by Piero’s son Niccolò.

Marchese Piero Antinori (front) with his daughters (L-R) Albiera, Alessia & Allegra

Marchese Piero Antinori (front) with his daughters (L-R) Albiera, Alessia & Allegra

It was Niccolò’s son Piero who really lit a fire under the company after taking the reins in 1967.  He increased the land under vine by fifteen times and constantly strove to innovate with the assistance of his oenologist Giacomo Tachis.  Now joined by his three daughters, the company has around 1,800 ha in central Italy and a further 400 ha overseas, particularly Napa.

Antinori is the biggest but also the most important producer in Chianti, and perhaps all of Italy.  They are founding members of the Primum Familiae Vini – the First Families of Wine – an association of family owned and run wineries which are in the top echelon of their respective region.

Chianti Saved by the Super-Tuscans?

Another kind of Super Tuscan

Another kind of Super Tuscan [Photo credit: The Car Spy]

Constricted by the reliance on Sangiovese, ban on foreign grapes and insistence on the inclusion of white grapes in the blend, Piero Antinori and others began experimenting outside the DOC laws.  Tignanello was released in 1971 under the humble Vina de Tavola label.  It was a Sangiovese / Cabernet Sauvignon blend aged in small barrels (quite different from the huge botti which were the norm) and caused the world to look at Tuscany again.

Tignanello label

Tignanello label

Antinori also made Solaia, and helped to launch Sassicaia.  Together these wines improved the image of Tuscan wine and encouraged Chianti producers to up their game.

It also encouraged the wine authorities to rethink their stance on grape varieties (in particular).

Antinori Chianti Classico Tasting with Allegra Antinori

And so to a recent tasting in Dublin in the delightful company of Allegra Antinori.

Allegra took us through four of Antinori’s Chianti Classicos, from everyday quality to seriously premium:

Allegra Antinori

Allegra Antinori

 

Antinori Pèppoli Chianti Classico 2011 (RSP €19.99)

Antinori Pèppoli Chianti Classico 2011

Antinori Pèppoli Chianti Classico 2011

Stockists: O’Brien’s Off-Licences; Next Door Off-Licences; Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Dublin; Carpenters of Castleknock, Dublin; Savages of Swords, Dublin; Bradley’s of North Main Street, Cork; O’Driscolls, Cork; Mortons of Galway; Le Caveau, Kilkenny; Terroirs, Donnybrook; Mitchell & Sons

 

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This is a fruity, accessible style of Chianti Classico designed to be drunk withing a year or so of purchase.  The grapes are grown on the Pèppoli estate between Sienna and Florence;  90% Sangiovese is complemented by Merlot and Syrah.  A light touch of oak adds a bit of chocolate and vanilla to give a little complexity and approachability, but this is unmistakably Sangiovese – plenty of ripe red cherry fruit with acidity and marked, but silky soft tannins.  The finish is dry but long, and far from austere.

A great introduction to Chianti Classico!

Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2011 (due in Ireland Q2 2015)

Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2011

Villa Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2011

This bottling was specifically designed for the US market (Italian wine does very well in the States) but has become so popular that it is being released in Europe as well.  After opening their new Chianti Classico cellars Antinori wanted to pay tribute to their classic Villa Rosso Chianti Classico Riserva.

Again Sangiovese dominates the blend at 90%, but this time it’s an all-Bordelais Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot top up.  As you’d expect with a Riserva, it’s a definite step up in intensity, both on the nose and on the palate.  There’s more fruit, with raspberries being supported by darker berries, but also more tannin to give a savoury balance.

Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2011 (RSP €27.99)

Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2011

Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2011

Stockists: O’Brien’s Off-Licences; McHughs of Kilbarrack & Howth; Higgins Off-Licence Clonskeagh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One of the jewels in the Antinori portfolio is the 160 ha Tignanello estate, known for the Super-Tuscans Solaia (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and Cabernet Franc) and Tignanello (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) itself.  These two icons are selected from vines covering 60 ha, but half of the estate is dedicated to the production of the “Marchese”.

In the glass the wine is deep ruby with a youthful purple rim.  Red and black fruit jump out of the glass before you’ve even managed to take a sip.  The first thing which strikes you in the mouth is how smooth and rich the Marchese is – just so voluptuous to drink.

The flavours encompass red and black cherries, raspberries and blackberries, liquorice, smoke and vanilla.  There are grippy tannins which frame the fruit but give it context rather than detract.

Definitely a serious wine, but a fine one at that.

Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008 (RSP €42-€44)

Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008

Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008

Stockists: Fallon & Byrne, Dublin; Greenacres, Wexford

 (once the 2008 vintage is sold through, the next vintage – 2011 – will fall under the new Gran Selezione classification)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Antinori bought the Badia a Passignano estate (a few kilometres from the Tignanello monastery) in 1987 and set out to create the ultimate expression of Tuscan Sangiovese.  Clones were specially selected to give velvet and acidity and planted with a vine density of 5000-7000 plants per hectare.  Maturation is in French barriques and “double-barrels” of 500 litres for 14 to 15 months in the cellars under the Abbey

At the tasting, it was easy to see who had picked up their glass of Badia for a sniff – the astounded and awestruck looks on their faces.  It has an amazing nose of red and black fruit, but these are joined on the palate by rich dark chocolate.  It has an international sensibility but is unmistakably Chianti Classico.

This wine is special, and in my opinion, despite having the highest price tag, it’s the best value of the four we tasted.

Some Highlights from the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting – Reds and Sweet

Following on from my review of the sparkling and white wines in part one, here are the red and sweet wines which impressed me at the O’Briens Wines Autumn Press Tasting:

Señorio de Aldaz Tinto DO Navarra 2012 (€10.99)

Señorio de Aldaz Tinto DO Navarra 2012

Señorio de Aldaz Tinto DO Navarra 2012

Navarra (or Navarre in English) is a wine region in the north of Spain close to the more famous Rioja.  It used to be well-known for its rosados but now produces plenty of quality reds and whites, from both indigenous and international grape varieties.  In fact, the old Garnacha vineyards previously used for simple rosés are now being put to a more noble use in reds such as this one.  The other grapes in the blend are the local Tempranillo and the international Merlot.

It’s unmistakably Spanish, with bold red and black fruit cossetted in a basket of vanilla. This is smooth and very easy to drink on it’s own, but would stand up to beef or lamb with aplomb.  Great value for money.

Luzon Crianza DO Jumilla 2011 (€15.99)

Luzon Crianza DO Jumilla 2011

Luzon Crianza DO Jumilla 2011

The Spanish speakers among you may have spotted from the label that this was matured in oak for 12 months, and thereby qualifies for the Crianza designation.  The oak used was mainly French (80%) with the balance American.

Jumilla is a region on the rise, as modern viticultural and vinification techniques are applied to some old bush vine vineyards.  Monastrell (the Rhône’s Mourvèdre) dominates the blend here with beefiness and spice, augmented by Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and a little Merlot.  The fruit is black rather than red – and it almost explodes out of the bottle.

Longview The Piece Shiraz 2009 (€42.00)

ongview The Piece Shiraz 2009

Longview The Piece Shiraz 2009

Longview are based in the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia, just into the hills above….err…Adelaide!  Known as a cool(er) climate region, it can produce sublime Chardonnays and is now getting a serious reputation for Shiraz: Shaw + Smith excel at both.  “The Piece” is their top wine with all grapes handpicked, sorted and fermented in four separate one tonne open fermenters. It was aged for 24 months in new and old 300 litre French oak hogsheads.

At five years of age the wine has now settled down and is beginning to unfurl its petals.  It has sweet black fruit with soft integrated oak.  Medium acidity and silky tannins provide the structure for balance and additional ageing if you can resist drinking it now.

Château La Tour Blanche AOC Sauternes 2007 (€75.00, €67.00 in Nov/Dec)

Château La Tour Blanche AOC Sauternes 2007

Château La Tour Blanche AOC Sauternes 2007

How much? you might ask.  Yes, it’s an expensive bottle, but it’s a high end wine, and if you feel like splashing out for Christmas this would be perfect.  2007 was a good year for Bordeaux’s southerly Sauternes subregion so it should last for at least a decade from now.

On opening the wine has a divine, honey and apricot nose that you just want to inhale all day.  This follows through onto the palate, and while it’s definitely a dessert wine, there’s enough acidity to provide balance and stop it being cloying.

If you are a fan of foie gras then a glass of this would be a sublime match.

Gérard Bertrand AOC Rivesaltes 1989 (€27.99)

Gerard Bertrand AOC Muscat de Rivesaltes 1989

Gérard Bertrand AOC Rivesaltes 1989

For me this was the standout wine of the tasting.  For those not familiar with the term, a Vin Doux Naturel is a fortified sweet wine where grape spirit is added early in the fermentation process to kill off the yeast, stopping fermentation and leaving some of the natural sugars from the grapes.  The Muscat grape is a staple for this job, especially around the Mediterranean, but Grenache offers an alternative style in several appellations.

The  Rivesaltes appellation takes its name from the town of the same name in the Roussillon area, which means “High Banks” in Catalan.

The Muscat versions are often sweet, simple and grapey, nice but nothing to write home about. This 25 year old Rivesaltes demands you buy a big book of stamps!

Time has caused the colour to fade from the wine – Grenache doesn’t tend to hold on to its colour that well anyway – but in return there are layers upon layers of complexity.  You could lose yourself for an hour just smelling the aromas, before diving into the heavenly Christmas pudding palate.  Spice up your wine selection here!

Bethany Old Quarry Tawny (€23.99)

Bethany Old Quarry Tawny

Bethany Old Quarry Tawny

The obvious word missing from the name of this wine is “Port”, and that’s because it’s from Australia not Porto.  Most people are very familiar with Australian table wine but aren’t aware that fortified wines were the majority of the industry’s output until the 1970s.  Port and Sherry imitations dominated the domestic market but were never able to compete with the real deal overseas.  Nowadays the proportion of production devoted to fortifieds is small with virtually nil exported.

Happily this is one of the bottles in that small rounding error, made from the traditional Barossa fortifieds grapes of Grenache and Shiraz.  Barrel ageing has given it some wonderfully intense raisin and nutty “rancio” characters.

Try this as an alternative to LBV or Tawny Port.

 

 

Some Highlights from the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting – Whites and Fizz

O’Briens Wine is the largest family-owned off licence group in Ireland with 32 stores, 20 of which are in greater Dublin.  They have 55 exclusive wineries in their portfolio and a wide selection in terms of country, grape and price level.  One of the distinguishing factors about O’Briens is the wine knowledge of their staff – it’s always nice to meet a wine enthusiast behind the counter.

Here are the sparklers and still whites which stood out for me at their Autumn Press Tasting last month:

Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve Champagne NV (€36.99, €29.99 in Nov/Dec)

Beaumont des Crayères Grand Reserve Champagne NV

Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve Champagne NV

This is proper Champagne, with slightly aggressive bubbles which could serve it well as an aperitif.  At first it is rich on the tongue from its Pinots Meunier (60%) and Noir (15%) followed by fresh lemon from Chardonnay (25%).

Made by a cooperative, this doesn’t reach the heights of something like Bollinger, but it’s much more quaffable than big brand duds such as Moët – and at a lower price.

Man O’War Tulia 2009 (€37.00, €33.00 in Nov/Dec)

Man O'War Tulia 2009

Man O’War Tulia 2009

Made by the Champagne method, this would never be mistaken for Champagne.  There’s too much primary fruit for that, but it’s a stylistic rather than qualitative difference in my eyes.  Any vintage Champagne has to spend at least 36 months on the lees after the second fermentation, but this only spent 9 months so don’t expect a bakery here.

Malolactic fermentation is blocked for freshness and balance – an essential decision. Interestingly the second fermentation is all handled by Marlborough’s sparkling experts No 1 Family Estate.  The fruit is tropical but stylish, I suspect partially due to the particular Chardonnay clones which were used.  This is no shrinking violet!

Kreydenweiss Kritt AOC Alsace Pinot Blanc 2013 (€16.99, €14.99 in Nov/Dec)

Kreydenweiss Kritt AOC Alsace Pinot Blanc 2013

Kreydenweiss Kritt AOC Alsace Pinot Blanc 2013

Pinot Blanc is one of the most under-rated grapes around, usually overlooked in favour of its flashier siblings Noir and Gris.  It tends to be light and fruity with enough going on to keep things interesting but not so much that it dominates any food it is paired with. Chicken or pork in a creamy sauce would be a great match.

As you might guess from the Germanic producer name but French grape name, this is from Alsace.  It’s soft and supple with ripe apple, pear and peach flavours.  It’s not bone dry, but the tiny bit of residual sugar adds body and roundness rather than sweetness.

Bellows Rock Chenin Blanc 2014 (€15.99, €9.99 in Nov/Dec)

Bellows Rock Chenin Blanc 2014

Bellows Rock Chenin Blanc 2014

Chenin Blanc is another under-rated grape, hailing from the Loire Valley in France, but also at home in South Africa.  It is usually recognisable in its many different variations – bone dry, off-dry, medium right up to lusciously sweet, or even sparkling.  My personal preference is the sweet stuff, especially Coteaux d’Aubance, Coteaux du Layon or Quarts de Chaume.  I rarely like the drier end of the spectrum.

One of my favourite sayings – about life in general, but can equally be applied to wine – is:

It’s never too late to lose a prejudice

This South African Chenin is dry – but I like it!  It has the honey and acidity of all Chenins with a rich, oily mouthfeel and a crisp dry finish.  It’s an absolute bargain on offer at €10!

Château de Fontaine Audon AOC Sancerre 2013 (€21.99, €18.99 in Nov/Dec)

Château de Fontaine Audon AOC Sancerre 2013

Château de Fontaine Audon AOC Sancerre 2013

Before Marlborough had seen a single Sauvignon vine, Sancerre was considered the world standard for the variety – and for some it still is, especially on the subtle mineral and green side compared to the antipodean fruit explosion that is Marlborough.  However, the fame of the appellation means that producers who favour quantity over quality can push yields up and intensity down, diluting the wine and the reputation of the area.

So not all Sancerres are the same, and it is important to pick one worthy of the label.  Pick this one!  Cut grass on the nose leads to gooseberry and grapefruit in the mouth.  It’s tangy but not sharp; the acidity feels slightly fizzy on your tongue.  This is the real deal.

Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013 (€22.99)

Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013

Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013

Sho’ nuff funky!  Assyrtiko is indigenous to the Greek island of Santorini in the South Aegean.  80 year old ungrafted low-yielding vines and natural yeast combine to produce something different, something wild.  Approach with caution, but you won’t find anything like this on the shelves of your local supermarket.

Man O’War Valhalla Chardonnay 2011 (€29.49, €26.99 in Nov/Dec)

I sneaked this in even though I didn’t actually taste the 2011 vintage, but I recently enjoyed the previous year so have no hesitation in recommending this.

Seguin Manuel AOC Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 2011 (€45.00)

Seguin Manuel AOC Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 2011

Seguin Manuel AOC Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 2011

For white Burgundy there are few more renowned villages than Chassagne in the Côte d’Or.  Like its adjoining neighbour Puligny, the name of their shared vineyard Le Montrachet was added into the commune name in the late 19th century.  As this bottle is not from a designated Premier Cru vineyard it is known as a village wine.

2010 was a warm vintage throughout most of France and this shows through in the ripe fruit.  It’s Chardonnay of course – Pinot Blanc is permitted but rarely included – with a good dose of oak that is now nicely integrated.  Smoothness is the theme, and a finish that goes on and on.  It’s by no means cheap, but such a great tasting wine and long finish make it a worthwhile treat.

Reds and dessert wines in my next post.

Some Highlights from the Molloys Press Tasting

Molloys Liquor Stores is a off licence group with 10 outlets around Dublin plus their website www.molloys.com.  Their range is biased towards cost-conscious everyday bottles, but as they import many of them exclusively they can cut out the middle-man and offer good value for money.

Here are some of the highlights from their recent press tasting:

Champagne Jean Comyn “Harmonie” Brut NV (€34.99)

Champagne Jean Comyn "Harmonie" Brut NV

Champagne Jean Comyn “Harmonie” Brut NV

It’s a bakery in a bottle!  An amazing brioche nose points to extended ageing on the lees – the minimum for a non vintage Champagne is 15 months but I would guess at double that or more.  There’s fresh strawberry on the attack (from Pinots Noir and Meunier) followed by lemon (from Chardonnay), and a crisp finish.

This won a silver medal at last year’s IWC which is impressive for an unknown (to me at least) brand.  Please don’t buy Moët, buy this instead – it’s far nicer.

Botter Prosecco DOC Spumante “Extra Dry” NV (€16.49)

Botter Prosecco DOC Spumante "Extra Dry" NV

Botter Prosecco DOC Spumante “Extra Dry” NV

Decoding the label tells us that this Prosecco  is fully sparkling (Spumante) and north of off-dry – confusingly Extra Dry means no such thing, but consumers like to think that they like dry wines.  This is the most expensive of the five Proseccos that Molloys import – the extra tax on Spumante compared to Frizzante ensures it’s not one of the cheapest – but I think it’s also the best value.

I don’t mind a glass of Prosecco but I rarely fancy a second – this is an exception to that rule.  This has a grapey nose (go figure!) and then pear and red apple on the palate, wrapped in a creamy lemon mousse.  It’s not trying to be Champagne but it is a grown up drink that should please most.

Colombelle l’Original IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2013 (€8.99)

Colombelle l'Original IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2013

Colombelle l’Original IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2013

Gascony is more famous for its brandy – Armagnac – than for its wines.  Thankfully this means that they remain a relative bargain.  Colombard is usually the main grape, supported by Ugni Blanc and / or Sauvignon Blanc for a bit of extra zip.  This example comes from Producteurs Plaimont, a quality and value conscious cooperative from South West France.

And it’s wonderful!  So much fruit – ripe, round apples and peachy stone fruit – but with a crisp finish.  This isn’t amazingly complex but it’s a very enjoyable tipple – and at a modest 11.0% abv a glass or two in the week won’t hurt.  I’d serve this as an aperitif or as a match for roast chicken or a mild curry.

Beauvignac Chardonnay, IGP Pay d’Oc (€10.49)

Beauvignac Chardonnay, IGP Pay d'Oc

Beauvignac Chardonnay, IGP Pay d’Oc

In addition to various Pay d’Oc varietals, this modern producer Cave Pomerols also makes AOP Picpoul de Pinet.

Tropical fruit is the order of the day here – pineapple, passionfruit and grapefruit dance around the nose.  A touch of vanilla also becomes apparent on the palate suggesting some light oak ageing, but it’s well integrated and doesn’t jar at all.  Malolactic fermentation is deliberately blocked which gives it a crisp, fresh finish.

So many inexpensive Chardonnays taste artificial but this is a nice drop.  Would be amazing with scallops!

Heritiers Dubois AOC Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur lie 2012 (€11.49)

Heritiers Dubois AOC Muscadet 2012

Heritiers Dubois AOC Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2012

If you’ve ever shopped in a French supermarket you will no doubt have noticed a half dozen different bottles of Muscadet on sale.  You might even have tried a few – after all, they’re quite inexpensive in France.  But the odds are, you didn’t go back and buy more of the same.  Muscadet’s reputation is not the best at the moment, mainly due to low quality / high yield production which results in austere, acidic and fruitless swill.

But every cloud and all that – those producers who do care about quality are unable to command high prices due to the general reputation of the area – and that means there are bargains to be had!

Sèvre et Maine is a subregion of Muscadet but doesn’t signify that much as it accounts for 80% of all Muscadets.  Sur Lie means the wine was matured on its lees, i.e. the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation.  This gives it a creamy texture and a bit more interest in terms of flavour.

So how does this taste?  Full of lemon zest!  It’s not austere, though it is racy and lean.  It cries out for shellfish or delicate white fish.  I expected not to like this, but it surprised me!

Château Bonnin Pichon AOC Lussac-St-Emilion 2008 (€15.49)

Château Bonnin Pichon AOC Lussac-St-Emilion 2008

Château Bonnin Pichon AOC Lussac-St-Emilion 2008

Lussac is one of the four satellite villages that can suffix the coveted name of St-Emilion to their wines.  These villages don’t reach the heights attained in St-Emilion proper, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t offer some well made, drinkable wine.  2008 was a pretty-good-but-not-excellent vintage in Bordeaux; modern viticulture and winemaking means that the best can be brought out of whatever nature has presented.

As normal for right bank Bordeaux it’s Merlot that takes the lead (81%), with Cabernet Franc (15%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (4%) playing supporting roles.  Oak, fruit and tannin are well balanced now and would evolve slowly over the next five years or so.  I would guess some proportion of American oak given the flavour profile  The fruit is dark – plum , blackberry and blackcurrant.

Drink this on its own or with red meat such as beef or lamb.

Gran Passione IGT Rosse del Veneto 2013 (€14.99)

Gran Passione IGT Rosse del Veneto 2013

Gran Passione IGT Rosso del Veneto 2013

From the hinterland of Venice, this big and velvety red is perfect a perfect winter’s night. Tannin and acidity are present and correct – it is very young – so decant for a few hours if you have chance, or serve with a hearty stew.

Think of this as a baby Amarone – it weighs in at 14.5% – but less complex and certainly cheaper!  The grapes aren’t stated but I would guess at the typical Corvina / Rondinella / Molinara.

 Cellier des Princes AOC Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012 (€24.99)

Cellier des Princes AOC Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012

Cellier des Princes AOC Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012

The world famous southern Rhône appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape perhaps faces the opposite challenge to Muscadet – its reputation is so good that pretty much any bottle carrying its name can be sold for a premium, so some producers churn out very average wine and put it in a fancy bottle.  Thus the cheapest CNDP may not be a bargain at all.

Thankfully Molloys have got it right with this selection!  It’s principally Grenache (90%), with Mourvèdre (5%) and Syrah (5%).  Weighing in at a whopping 15%, this has bags of dark black fresh and dried fruit and Christmas spice.  It’s wonderfully big and robust but velvety and smooth.  It’s really far too young to drink now – it will open up a lot more over the next five to ten years – but it’s so delicious that it would be too tempting!

 

 

An Impromptu Quartet

Sometimes it’s nice to plan events well in advance, as the anticipation is part of the enjoyment.  But it’s also nice to be a bit more spontaneous and do something at short notice.  At the suggestion of my better half we invited a few friends round for dinner – and of course some bottles of wine were opened to accompany her amazing dishes.

Here are a few of the whites that really stood out for me:

Château Carbonnieux Blanc Pessac-Léognan 2008

Château Carbonnieux Pessac-Leognan 2008

Château Carbonnieux Pessac-Léognan 2008

This somewhat aristocratic looking wine is from the heartland of the Graves subregion of Bordeaux.  The Pessac-Léognan AOC was carved out of the middle of the Graves AOC in 1987 to highlight the finest terroir of the area.  Although it is home to many fine reds, including the 1855 1st Growth Haut-Brion, Pessac is where the top echelon of Bordeaux’s dry whites are made.

Château Carbonnieux is in the commune of Léognan and is a classed growth under the 1959 Graves classification.  As you’d expect from a Bordeaux white it is a Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blend, but with a lovely vanilla envelope from some gentle oak ageing.

This type of wine can age gracefully for a decade or more, though for me it is à point right now.  There are still the grapefruit and hints of honey from its youth but now its pleasantly round.

Jean-Philippe Fichet Le Meix Sous Le Château Meursault 2010

Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault 2010

Jean-Philippe Fichet Le Meix Sous Le Château Meursault 2010

Meursault is the archetypal oaked Chardonnay, though of course it doesn’t say so on the label.  Being a self-confessed oak lover – when it’s done right, of course – it’s one of the labels I gravitate towards in Burgundy.

Jean-Philippe Fichet has lots of small parcels dotted in and around Meursault – see the map on his excellent website.  This wine is from a 1/2 hectare Lieu-dit (a named area which doesn’t have Premier Cru or Grand Cru status) near the centre of Meursault itself. The vines are 50 to 60 years old which comes through in the concentration of flavour.  As 2010 was a warm vintage there are plenty of tropical notes in addition to the brioche from the oak, neither dominating.  This was a “bin-end” from The Wine Society – a definite winner for me!

Also see Jamie Goode’s report of his visit here.

Man O’War Valhalla Chardonnay 2010 (Waiheke Island)

Man O'War Valhalla Chardonnay 2010

Man O’War Valhalla Chardonnay 2010

Man O’War are a fantastic producer based in Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland in New Zealand.  Their Bordeaux blend “Ironclad” and Syrah “Dreadnaught” are big and bold reds – not for those who prefer shy and retiring types – and the whites are similarly forthright.

The 2011 vintage of this was a highlight for me of the NZ Trade Tasting at the beginning of the year.  It’s a really tropical wine which might be too much for some – but not for me!

The key to balance in this wine is that malolactic fermention is blocked, meaning it retains some zesty acidity and isn’t flabby.  Can you imagine candied pineapple that isn’t teeth-achingly sugary?  There you go!

Château Princé Côteaux de l’Aubance 2007

Château Princé Côteaux de l'Aubance 2007

Château Princé Côteaux de l’Aubance 2007

The Loire Valley wine region is actually a collection of quite different subregions which specialise in different grapes and types of wine.  Just for reds, for example, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Malbec and Pinot Noir are all used.  There are some great sparkling wines and classy rosés plus world famous dry whites such as Sancerre and Muscadet.

But for me the real gems of the Loire are the often overlooked sweet whites.  Most are based on the Chenin Blanc grape which means they have acidity to balance the sugar and stop the wines being cloying.

The best sites are the slopes leading down to the Loire and its many tributaries, including the Layon, Aubance and Louet.

Simple map of the Coteaux de l'Aubance [Source: Wikipedia]

Simple map of the Coteaux de l’Aubance [Source: Wikipedia]

Being so close to water creates the humid conditions that encourage noble rot, which reduces the water content of grapes and concentrates the sugar, acidity and flavour.

This 2007 was among a stash I picked up several years ago from the excellent Maison du Vin de Saumur – worth a four hour round trip to Saumur on its own.  At seven years old it’s still a baby, but has fantastic concentration.  There’s honey on the nose but a whiff of funk from the botrytis – it is a fungus after all.  On the palate there are noticeable Chenin characteristics of apple and greengage with luscious tropical fruit notes.  It’s a fully sweet wine but the zing of acidity keeps it fresh and interesting.

 

Bring Da Funk – De Bortoli Yarra Valley Wines

If you think you know Australian Wine, think again!

The Yarra Valley is an Australian wine region located east of Melbourne, Victoria, and close to the Mornington Peninsula wine region.  Its cool climate – especially in Australian terms – makes it perfect for Burgundy’s main grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Proximity to Melbourne has encourage lots of visitors and investors in the Yarra.

De Bortoli Wines was established in 1928 by Vittorio & Giuseppina De Bortoli and rapidly expanded under the direction of their son, the late Deen De Bortoli. Today the company is run by the third generation including MD Darren De Bertoli and his sister Leanne, plus Leanne’s winemaker husband Steve Webber.  The main operation is based in the Riverina, central New South Wales, which is where their world famous botrytised Semillon Noble One comes from.

Leanne and Steve Webber moved state in 1989 to set up a winery for De Bortoli’s Yarra Valley vineyards that the company had purchased in 1987.  I was lucky enough to visit in 2003 including a delicious lunch at their Italian influenced restaurant “Locale”.  The Yarra is now an excellent source of mid-tier and premium wines for De Bortoli.

Steve recently gave a masterclass in Dublin.  Not only were the wines excellent and the information interesting, Mr Webber is also a highly entertaining speaker!  PendulumA few of the key themes included the evolution of wine styles over the past decade or so and choosing to make “edgy” wines.

La Bohème Act 3 Pinot Gris & friends 2013

De Bortoli La Bohème Act Three

De Bortoli La Bohème Act Three

This is a blend of approximately 87% Pinot Gris (vines from the Upper Yarra which sit in a misty hollow where a lot of the cool air from the peaks flows down to) then Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Blanc from the slightly warmer Dixon’s Creek in roughly equal proportions.  2013 was the 3rd release and 2014 the 4th.

It is taut, mineral, racy and lean – it only has 3g/L of Residual Sugar but tastes like there’s a bit more from fruit sweetness, until the finish which is almost bone dry. aromaticsThis wine has plenty of texture so is a versatile option for the table – apparently Melbourne sommeliers are going mad for it at the moment.

Steve also makes a single vineyard Pinot Blanc in Dixon’s Creek

Windy Peak Chardonnay 2012

De Bortoli Windy Peak Chardonnay

De Bortoli Windy Peak Chardonnay

This is De Bortoli’s equivalent of a Macon, a mid level Chardonnay.  They want something to partner well with John Dory so strive to keep some sort of neutrality in the wine.too far

Some new oak used here (conditioning the barrels so they can be used again for the estate Chardonnay) but also older casks of different sizes and stainless steel.

Natural yeast is used rather than commercial, and no acid is added (very uncommon is Australia where Chaptalisation is seldom performed but acid is added to large commercial blends for balance.

In the Yarra, above 12.5% all the green characteristics are lost from Chardonnay, so De Bortoli like to pick while the grapes are still on the cusp.

The oak stuck out a bit for me – another year would see it nicely integrated.

Estate Grown Chardonnay 2012

De Bortoli Estate Grown Chardonnay

De Bortoli Estate Grown Chardonnay

Although Steve wasn’t setting out to compare the two Chardies, the (sensible) tasting order meant that we did just that. So what’s the difference?  As you might guess if you don’t have the memory of a goldfish, there’s no new oak in the Estate Chardonnay – yet it tastes less overtly oaky – it’s just more smooth and integrated. Again the casks are of different sizes giving slightly different results, from 225L barriques through 500L right up to 5700L foudres.  60,000 L is made of this v 400,000 L made of the Windy Peak.

Grapes are selected from 4 different plots on the “Winery Vineyard” at Dixon’s Creek with an average age into the mid 20s. The soils are a mix of sandstone, siltstone and limestone.  There is a little bit of “struck-match” reductive quality – this is especially common with screwcaps.  Steve is looking for a dry, bitter finish.  He always uses a screwcap for Chardonnay, the results are far better for consistency when ageing.  After 5 years the development would be linear, with a touch more roundness and nuttiness.

Due to the ridiculously high taxes on wine in Ireland, this premium wine is something like €28 on the shelf compared to €20 for the junior sibling – it really makes sense to trade up! 

Windy Peak Pinot Noir 2013

De Bortoli Windy Peak Pinot Noir

De Bortoli Windy Peak Pinot Noir

60% of the grapes were hand picked, the remainder machine harvested.  Hand picking is better for the fruit and still the best way to collect whole bunches.  bullshit

The Windy Peak Pinot Noir has the new oak barrels to condition them for the Estate Syrah
It shows lots of fruit on the nose and palate, particularly cherry and strawberry, but maintains savoury, with a dry finish.

Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2012

De Bortoli Estate Grown Pinot Noir

De Bortoli Estate Grown Pinot Noir

This is from older vineyards averaging around 25 years of age.  Steve calls it “a bit grubby”.  20% was whole bunch fermented so there’s some extra tannin and greenness from the stalks.  Not too much pigeage was performed  – probably only 4 punch downs during maceration and fermentation, and perhaps pumping over a couple of times.

This is very savoury with funky and wild flavours – no jam here!  It’s a grown up, interesting wine.  If you have an autumnal dish in mind then this would be an amazing partner for it.

La Bohème Act Four Syrah Gamay 2012

De Bortoli La Bohème  Act Four Yarra Valley Syrah Gamay

De Bortoli La Bohème Act Four Yarra Valley Syrah Gamay

This is a rarely seen (on front labels at least) blend consisting of 70% Syrah and 30% Gamay – 50% of each went through carbonic maceration, similar to the process used in Beaujolais for extracting fruit flavours without too much tannin from the skin. Steve compared it to wines from the Ardèche in southern France.pussy wine

So much acidity, this really makes your mouth water – it’s the Opal Fruits of wine.  Along with red and black fruit there’s a real dark chocolate sensibility and a bit of an edge. Definitely a food wine – many may find it a bit full-on by itself, but Steve doesn’t mind that!

Estate Grown Syrah 2010

De Bortoli Estate Grown Syrah

De Bortoli Estate Grown Syrah

The flavours I got from this included dark berries and graphite – what could be more mineral than that??

This is definitely a Syrah and not a Shiraz, in antipodean nomenclature – it wouldn’t look totally out of place in Hawkes Bay but it’s more Northern Rhône than Barossa. With a tasting sample in the glass it’s possible to read text through it – even at 4 years old that wouldn’t be possible with an inky black Barossa brute.brett

Plunging is done only when necessary – when it seems like it needs a little more tannin, otherwise they leave it alone and drink beer.  It has some whole bunch character – green stalkiness – though bizarrely this was less apparent in a year when 100% of the grapes were whole bunch.

Future Developments

Given the family’s ancestry it’s not surprising that Italian varieties are being put through their paces at the moment, though the team are refining their winemaking approach when dealing with them.

neglect

Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc are also believed to have potential in the Yarra – watch this space for more funky wines!

Some Highlights from the Aldi Ireland Press Tasting

Like its close rival Lidl, German discount chain Aldi has established a foothold in the wine market and is looking to broaden its range up the market.  Known for low cost wines which are technically well made but somewhat lacking in verve, they are trying to bring their customers up market by offering fancier wines, though still with an eye on the ticket.  Of course given Ireland’s ridiculous level of tax on wine it nearly always makes sense to trade up, whether it’s a few nice bottles from your local wine merchant or a bottle in the trolley with your cornflakes.

Here are a few of my favourites from the recent Aldi Ireland press tasting:

Leon Launois Grand Cru Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006 (€26.99)

Leon Launois Grand Cru Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006

Leon Launois Grand Cru Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006

Aldi’s main Champagnes carry the label Veuve Monsigny and have won awards in the past few years.  While they are pleasant to drink and definitely good value as Champagne goes in Ireland, the latest addition above is a different beast entirely.

Leon Launois now makes a variety of different cuvées, but prior to their purchase by the producers of Champagne Charles Mignon in 2003 their only wine was a Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru from Mesnil-sur-Oger.  This wine maintains that tradition – it has a beautiful brioche nose (from the time spent ageing on the lees) and that follows through on the palate, with lifted lemon through the middle (from the Chardonnay).  The mousse is lovely and creamy and it has a very long finish.  Very classy.

Emozione Franciacorta DOCG Brut 2009 (€22.99)

Emozione Franciacorta DOCG Brut 2009

Emozione Franciacorta DOCG Brut 2009

Franciacorta DOCG is a traditional method sparkling wine made in the eponymous area located in Lombardy, central-northern Italy.  It’s a relatively new name as sparkling wine has only been made there in any significant quantity since the early 60s, but is a world away from Prosecco in terms of production process.  One of the main differences from Champagne in practice is that the grapes are often picked when fully (but not over) ripe, so they have more intensity of flavour and can reach higher alcohol as base wines.

At first I wasn’t sure whether to include this as I think it will be quite polarising – some people will love it and some will loathe it.  But if you don’t take a risk in life you can get stuck in a rut!  The blend is 85% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero (Noir) and 5% Pinot Bianco (Blanc), which is actually the same proportion that those grapes are planted in the Franciacorta DOCG area.

This might sound weird but I thought this had a slightly savoury finish.  I think grilled tuna steak would be a great match.

Exquisite Collection Gavi 2013 (€7.49)

Exquisite Collection Gavi 2013

Exquisite Collection Gavi 2013

Are you surprised by this recommendation?  I certainly was!  Gavi is a light Italian white wine made from the Cortese grape, and due to fashion is often priced far higher than its intensity of flavour would suggest.  Among my friends in Dublin it has become something of a joke, so I thought I would just try this for shits and giggles.

But to my amazement it has flavour!  Lots of stone and soft white fruit – we’re talking peach, pear and apricot.  There’s fruit sweetness here but a dry finish.  Like many Italian whites it has plenty of acidity but it’s not austere or boring.  Would be great with seafood or a light salad starter.

And if you have a friend or relative who loves Italian Pinto Grigio, give them this to try as an alternative.

Edouard Delaunay Chassagne Montrachet 2000 (€24.99, available from 2nd Nov)

Edouard Delaunay Chassagne Montrachet 2000

Edouard Delaunay Chassagne Montrachet 2000

Yes you read that correctly – a 14 year old white wine from for 25 yoyos from Aldi.  This obviously goes waaay past the everyday drinking category.  Without trying to be snobby I doubt the vast majority of regular shoppers would recognise it, but bravo to Aldi for broadening their range.

On the nose there is lots of buttered toast, due to maturation in oak and subsequent bottle age.  The buttered toast continues on the palate but with some tropical fruit notes and lemon freshness.  A complex wine that deserves a big glass for contemplation.

Charles de Monteney Condrieu 2012 (€23.99, available from 2nd Nov)

Condrieu 2012

Charles de Monteney Condrieu 2012

Condrieu is in the heart of the northern Rhône and for a long time was the last bastion of the difficult to grow Viognier grape.   Viognier is now grown more widely in the Rhône and further afield in places such as California, Australia and New Zealand.  It often has more body and certainly more texture than average for a white wine – you might call it a red drinker’s white.  Some examples can have an oily viscosity to them, not dissimilar to Alsace Pinot Gris (which is a firm favourite of mine).

And so it proves in this example.  It has an amazing nose with orange blossom and orange liqueur combined – more Cointreau than Fanta.  On tasting, there’s a touch of honey, apricot (typical for Viognier) and that orange again.  Unlike many examples of Condrieu this is enjoyable on its own without food.

I think this is another polarising wine, so approach with caution, but I believe it’s worth taking a punt.

Thomas Schmidt Private Collection Riesling Auslese 2013 (€14.99, available from 2nd Nov)

Thomas Schmidt Private Collection Riesling Auslese 2013

Thomas Schmidt Private Collection Riesling Auslese 2013

From the land of the long wine name comes a sweet and fruity number from the Mosel.  At only 8.5% alcohol this is one which won’t rush to your head – in fact it’s around the strength where a small (125ml) glass is equivalent to the British or Irish official units of alcohol.

Despite encouragement from a host of wine commentators, Riesling remains unloved by the majority of casual wine drinkers, principally due to associations with sweet and flabby sugar water concoctions from the 1970s such as Liebfraumilch.  Aside from the fact that many of those contained little or no Riesling, they were cheap blends with no relation to quality wine.

Not all Riesling is sweet, but this one is – very sweet in fact, but not flabby at all.  There is a pronounced ZING of acidity balancing out the residual sugar.  This is a young wine but will develop beautifully over the next decade or more.  Who says white wines don’t keep?

Edouard Delaunay Maranges Premier Cru “Les Roussots” 2008 (€29.99, available from 2nd Nov)

Edouard Delaunay Maranges Premier Cru "Les Roussots" 2008

Edouard Delaunay Maranges Premier Cru “Les Roussots” 2008

This is real, grown-up Pinot Noir from its heartland of the Côte d’Or in Burgundy.  Whereas entry level Pinots from the new world can be jammy and confected, and cheaper French Pinots are sometimes too dry and lacking in fruit, this Premier Cru example has lots of fresh fruit but a dry, savoury edge.  Typically you’d expect red fruit from Pinot Noir – strawberry and raspberry – but this adds some black fruit as well.

At six years of age this has opened up and is starting to develop additional layers of complexity.  If that’s what you like then put a few bottles down, but it’s drinking well now.  The acidity is enough to cut through fatty meat, so if you have duck or goose planned for a fancy meal later in the year (not going to say the word) then this would partner well.

Trius Showcase Canadian Icewine 2013 (€29.99, available from 2nd Nov)

Trius Showcase Canadian Icewine 2013

Trius Showcase Canadian Icewine 2013

Vidal is a hybrid grape partly descended from Ugni Blanc which is the main grape in the Cognac area.  It was bred for high acidity (useful in brandy) and hardiness in cold weather, but has actually come into its own as the main grape in Canadian ice wine.

As with the original Eiswein in Germany, ice wine is made by pressing very ripe grapes which have been left on the vine and been frozen.  Ice crystals are separated from the remainder of the juice which is therefore more concentrated in terms of sugar, flavour and acidity.  This makes for a very sweet, concentrated wine.  As so much of the juice is subtracted as water, yields are very low and prices tend to be high.

This example from the Niagra Peninsula is not cheap but I think is worth splashing out on as a treat.  It’s sweet enough to hold its own against pretty much any dessert and has luscious tropical fruit flavours.

Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008 (€24.99, available from 2nd Nov)

Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008

Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008

Tokaji has been a famous wine for several centuries.  Made in a delimited area in Hungary, it uses sweet botrytised grape paste to sweeten regular wine must.  The measure of sweetness is how many buckets (Puttonyos) of paste were added in to a 136L barrel – the traditional proportions.  2 putts gives something that would go with a fruit cocktail but not something sweeter, and 5 putts is probably the best overall balance (you might even want to say “the sweet spot”, ahem).

This 6 putts example is even sweeter, but I reckon if you’re going to be having lots of fancy desserts then another putt isn’t going to hurt.  What did surprise me was the toasted coconut on the nose, implying American oak barrels.   On the palate there is typical apricot and honey notes with a touch of mushroom (not as unpleasant as it sounds!)  Make sure this is well chilled before serving so the acidity isn’t lost in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

The Libertines, Part One – Liberty Fizz

Liberty Wines are a wine importers based in the UK and Ireland with an exciting range of Italian, Australian, New Zealand and other quality wines which are sold to restaurants and independent wine merchants.   As well as the quality of their wines they are renowned for the quality of their service to customers and for the representation they give to the producers.

Although it is difficult to select only a few of their wines – as the average quality level is so high – below are my favourite sparkling wines shown at their February and October tastings.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

If you’ve read much of my blog before you might have gathered that I’m quite a fan of Nyetimber – not (just) for patriotic reasons but because I really rate it as a sparkling wine.  And thankfully, I’m not in a minority, as the increasing quality level has been recognised in several competitions – and the 2009 is the best yet.

55% Chardonnay then 25% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier gives it a balanced assemblage of the classic (!) Champagne grapes.  It really is fresh and creamy with a bit of soft flesh behind it.  I can’t wait to try the Tillington Single Vineyard bottling from the same year!

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011

A relative newcomer to the English sparkling wine scene.  71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, 9% Pinot Meunier.  Spent time in old Burgundy barrels – though fairly young so obviously not that long!

Very fresh and zesty lemon flavours from the Chardonnay, with a creamy finish.  Would be great as an aperitif but could partner well with white fish and seafood.

Champagne Devaux Range

Champagne Devaux Range

Champagne Devaux Range

Champagne Devaux is a new producer for me, hailing from the Côte des Bar.

Champagne Devaux Grande Réserve NV

70% Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bar and 30% Chardonnay from the Côte des Bar, Côte des Blancs and Vitry.  Only the first pressing juice is used and 20% of the reserve wines were kept in large oak casks.  Malolactic fermentation (MLF) was blocked for a third of the base wine to preserve freshness.  It spends three years minimum on the lees, more than double the stipulated period.  The key tasting note for me was apples – all manner of apples – stewed apple compote, baked apple pie, fresh apples off the tree. Just delicious!

Champagne Devaux “D de Devaux” La Cuvée NV

60% Pinot Noir from Côte des Bar and 40% Chardonnay from Côte des Blancs and Montgueux.  This is a more prestige cuvée but still not from a single vintage; at least 35% of the reserve wines was aged in large oak casks.  Spends a minimum of five years on the lees then a further six to nine months post disgorgement.

Although a fairly similar assemblage to the Grande Réserve NV this is a step up in quality and is a different style – altogether more sumptuous and rich, decadent almost. Hell, if you can’t be decadent drinking Champagne now and again, what has life come to?

Champagne Devaux Vintage 2004

97% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs and 3% Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bar – so this is almost a blanc de blancs.  It spent 7 to 8 years on the lees (gives it a lovely creamy character) and then a further year post disgorgement before release (which helps it settle down and integrate properly).  Fantastic lemon citrus flavours come through from the Chardonnay.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV

Founded by the original “Champagne Charlie”, this house is now one of the most respected in the whole of Champagne – Tom Stevenson gives them rapturous praise. The Brut NV is one of the strongest on the market this side of luxury cuvées such as Krug.  Since coming into common ownership with Piper-Heidsieck (originally founded by an uncle of Charles) a few years ago, quality continues to rise.

40% of the blend is made up of reserve wines (the maximum permitted amount) of up to ten years old.  The precise assemblage isn’t disclosed but is undoubtedly Pinot heavy given the richness.  Three years maturation on the lees gives some lovely brioche notes.

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995

As much as I love the quality sparklers above, mature Champagne is in a different category entirely.  This  is 100% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs – 4 Grands Crus and 1 Premier Cru village.  The nervy acidity it had at bottling served to preserve it as it took on new aromas and flavours over the years.  Simple lemon has been replaced with brioche, nuts and candied fruit.  It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel.

This is a complete Champagne which doesn’t need anything else with it, and in fact is so satisfying that it doesn’t need anybody else with it – I’d want to drink it all by myself!

White and red selections to come in future posts!

The Oak Yoke – the Top 10 Facts about Oak in Wine

Do you like oaked wine?  Do you just slip it into your trolley at the supermarket, and hope that no-one sees it?  Or do you buy it from your local wine merchant and ask them to wrap it in a brown paper bag to hide your shame?

Oaked wines are still pretty unfashionable in the main, though perhaps judicious use of oak is becoming acceptable again as the race for clean, ever-cooler climate wines comes back from the edge.

Fashion aside, what are the different variables in play when it comes to oak in wine? There are lot of them as it turns out, so let’s have a look:

1. Format

Oak flavours in wine come from different levels of “naturalness”.  Oak was first used because of its suitability as a storage vessel – we’re talking barrels here.  Barrels come in lots of different sizes (see below) and are quite expensive.

The next level down, and significantly cheaper, is to use a few oak staves – just chuck them into the wine as it ferments or matures.  Apparently, this is what gives Diemersfontein’s “Coffee & Chocolate” Pinotage it’s funky flavours.

Diemersfontein Pinotage

Diemersfontein Pinotage

Cheaper still is the use of oak chips, sometimes in a permeable bag. This teabagging (steady at the back there!) can often result in bitter flavours leaching out of the wood into the wine.

The final, least natural and authentic method is to use oak powder.  This really is scrapping the barrel (erm sorry) in terms of quality, but if you’re buying the cheapest bottle on the shelf this is probably all that the producer could afford.

So now we know the importance of the format, we can assume that it’s barrels we’re talking about…

2. Age

In general as barrels get older they impart less flavour to the wine they hold.   Some winemakers like the impact of new oak, particularly if there is a lot of fruit and tannin (for whites) to match. Others prefer the micro-oxygenation that oak barrels can bring, but don’t want the flavour to dominate, so they use older barrels.  For example, Steve Webber of De Bortoli Yarra Valley uses new oak barrels on his standard wines so they are “seasoned” to be reused on his premium wines.

White wine producers in cool climates have another factor in play.  When the temperature of their wines drops during winter translucent tartrate crystals precipitate out of the wine.  Over several years of use these harmless crystals build up as a lining on the vessel and prevent any contact between the wine and the actual wood.

For the most expensive “Icon” wines, it is not unknown for 200% new oak to be used – that is, the wine spends a year in new oak and then it is racked off into an entirely new set of barrels for another year.  Doesn’t make for easy drinking on release, but does make for a long life.

3. Size

A rule of thumb is that smaller barrels have a more marked impact as the ratio of volume to surface area is lower.  The standard barrel of Bordeaux is the 225L (300 bottle) barrique, and this has become the default.  Burgundy’s tradition encourages the use of the slightly larger 228L pièce or 300L Hogsheads; these are more common where a producer is trying to create something akin to Burgundian Chardonnay.

Barriques in the barrel hall of Château Mouton Rothschild

Barriques in the barrel hall of Château Mouton Rothschild

Port was traditionally shipped in a pipe - a pipe of Port was a traditional gift bought for a (presumably well-to-do) child around the time of their birth so that it would be ready for drinking upon their majority.

In some parts of Europe, much larger formats are used, particularly for aromatic whites where oak flavours are considered undesirable.  In Alsace the term foudre is used (usually with an oval end) whereas the Italians are proud of their botti.

Alsace Foudre

Alsace Foudre

4. Timing

There are two distinct stages in the wine-making process where oak can be used, fermentation and maturation.  Makers can use oak during either, neither or both, all down to their preferences.

5. Time

This is a biggie – the longer wine stays in oak, the more of its flavour it will take on.   In Rioja, for example, the length of time in oak is enshrined in the quality classification, though of course the age of the wood is not specified.

6. Proportion

Another way that producers temper the use of oak is by only putting a certain proportion of their wine into oak for maturation – the remainder usually being in stainless steel or concrete vats.  All the vessels’ contents are blended at the end so that the resulting wine is moderately oaky.

7. Geographic Origin

Oak from different places gives different flavours and allows different levels of oxygen to get to the wine.  The main sources are below.

French oak is generally regarded as the gold standard, and is often the most expensive – mainly down to the fact that staves have to be split out manually with the grain rather than sawn into shape.  Within France there are several areas with oak forests used for wine barrels, with Limousin, Tronçais and Nevers the most renowned.  French oak often gives subtle, smoky flavours.

American oak can be sawn across the grain and still remain watertight, and hence is cheaper to use in barrels.  It is a different species from European oak (there are actually hundreds of different species, of which only a few are suitable for barrels.  American oak is traditionally used in Rioja and other regions of Spain as well as in the USA.  It gives smooth vanilla tones.

Slavonian oak is confusingly from Croatia rather than Slovenia which it sounds so much like.  It has long been the oak of choice in Italy, and tends to be hand sawn which allows lots of tannin to leech out into the wine; Sangiovese and Nebbiolo can handle the tannin but larger formats help.

Portuguese cork trees are a species of oak, but obviously have a different role to play.  The oak more suitable for barrel making is grown in the greener north and is cheaper than the more prestigious French sources.

8. Toast

Once the staves have been seasoned by drying in the open air or a kiln, they are ready to be assembled into a barrel.  Part of that process is the toasting, or charring of the inside over an open fire.  The amount of toasting has a significant impact on the wine which is then put into it – both on the aromas and flavours.

9. Cooper

Now this is the really geeky bit – some wine producers are so particular that they will even specify a particular cooper (barrel maker) as well as the source of the wood and the toasting it receives.

10. Other woods

So after all that, are there any other woods which get used instead of oak?  Yes: chestnut, cherrywood, pine, acacia and even redwood have been used.  The vintners of the Veneto sometimes use cherry to accentuate the cherry flavours in their wine.  Some of the other woods are used for cost reasons, and because they impart undesirable flavours they are coated inside before use.