A cursory search through my blog reveals that Blanc de Blancs is one of the wine styles I write about very frequently – mainly because I really like it as a style, and if there’s a bottle shown at a trade tasting I will make a beeline for it.
So when Mike over at Please Bring Me My Wine asked for suggestions beginning with B for New Wine This Week #53, I naturally piped up with Blanc de Blancs – and would you believe it, other voters on the poll (narrowly) agreed with me.
So a few important questions to be answered – what exactly is it? why do I like it? and what should a neophyte try?
What The Heck Is a Blanc de Blancs?
In my mind a true Blanc de Blancs is a white wine made with white grapes where there is a possibility that black grapes could also have been used. The vast majority are traditional method sparklers such as Champagne:
But before we dive into sparkling, there is a much less well known version; if you’re a real Alsace geek like me then you might think of different Pinots being used in white wine, and as long as the juice is taken off the skins quickly, even black grapes can be part of the blend. If it’s just from white Pinot grapes – i.e. Pinot Blanc – then it can be labelled as a Blanc de Blancs:
So after that small detour, let’s get back onto the main road.
Champagne was the region that popularised the term, and there it usually means a white fizz made from just Chardonnay without any juice from the black grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There are some very small plantings of other grapes in Champagne that could go into a Blanc de Blancs, but they are rare indeed.
In other parts of France where traditional method Crémant is made, popular local grapes can be used to make a Blanc de Blancs, especially if they are high in acidity – Chenin Blanc in the Loire, Sauvignon in Bordeaux, Pinot Blanc in Alsace.
A fact often overlooked is that Chardonnay is sometimes permitted in the AOP rules for a fizz when it’s not allowed in the local still wine – sometimes even a 100% varietal Chardonnay such as this Crémant d’Alsace:
Other traditional method sparkling wine is often made with the main three Champagne grapes, whether Tasmania, Marlborough, California or southern England.
Why Do I Like It?
When it’s young, it’s fresh, floral and citrusy, and can be on the simple side. But there’s nothing wrong with that – the perfect aperitif.
The best examples, particularly from the Côte des Blancs’ Grand Cru villages, have a haunting purity about them.
With extended lees ageing it takes on biscuit and brioche characters; while this is obviously true for other sparklers, Blanc de Blancs seem to be more coherent and integrated.
And of course many of the long-lived prestige cuvées are Blanc de Blancs – think of Charles Heidsieck’s Cuvée des Millénaires, Salon Le Mesnil, Krug Clos du Mesnil, and so on.
Do Try This At Home
If you see any of the wines above in the shop, then snap them up!
I also heartily endorse the Sainsbury’s Non Vintage Champagne Blanc de Blancs that Mike recommended on his site. If you’re lucky you might see it on promotion when it can be ridiculously good value for money.
Some other Blankety Blanks that I’ve really enjoyed:
Clover Hill Sparkling 2003 (O’Briens, €31.99)
Leon Launois Grand Cru Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006 (Aldi, €26.99, also covered here)
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (£44.98, Majestic)
Wiston Estate, Blanc de Blancs NV (Le Caveau, €47.70, also covered here)
Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009 (James Nicholson Wine, £31.95 / €46.99, also covered here)
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2007 (Berry Bros, £35.95, also covered here)
Now get supping!
Also check out Confessions of a Wine Geek’s post here
At end of November I was invited to attend a French fine food and wine evening at Belleek castle near Ballina in County Mayo. As this is a considerable trip from Dublin (by Irish standards) I was lucky that my wife Jess was able to come with me and we quickly made childcare arrangements.
Disclosure: the cost of food, wine and accommodation was covered by our friends at nightoutireland.com. Opinions are all our own!
Located within its own wood near the town of Ballina (pronounced Bally-nah if you weren’t sure), Belleek castle is a magnificent stately home-cum-castle. Since being restored it has been run as a boutique hotel – and by boutique I really mean that – it only has 11 rooms of which one is taken by the owner and his better half.
Every effort has been made to modernise without affecting the old world romantic style of the original castle. On our arrival in cool weather we were greeted with a roaring fire in the front hall, bedecked with beautiful tapestries, suits of armour and stunning wooden antiques.
Our “superior room” was furnished with a huge four poster bed and overlooked the beautiful gardens to the front of the castle. It was large, warm and comfortable with original window shutters and heavy damask curtains to help you sleep in the morning. The en-suite bathroom had twin sinks which certainly helps domestic harmony. Fancier toiletries and big fluffy towels would be more in keeping with the high standard on the rooms, but those are minor concerns.
The Armada Bar
We went to the bar before dinner and had a wonderful conversation with the barman who was both knowledgeable and entertaining. The “Armada Bar” is a recreation of the Captain’s Ward Room from a galleon of the “Spanish Armada”. It was constructed from salvaged timber from the galleons of the ill fated “Castile Squadron” wrecked on the Atlantic Coast of Co. Mayo four centuries ago.
We even managed to snap a picture of the Belleek ghost!
Oh yes, the drinks were pretty good too!
Dinner was served in the “Tween-Decks”, a split level dining room also constructed with salvaged Spanish timber. It really made the meal an occasion.
Head Chef Stephen Lenahan is supported by committed and skilled staff. The team have received praise from critic Georgina Campbell, we have won the “Just Ask” Restaurant of the Year 2014 Award, and the prestigious 2 AA Rosettes award from the AA (given to the top 4% of hotel restaurants in Ireland and England). Also, our Restaurant have been awarded “Best Hotel Restaurant Connaugh 2014” and Daniel Mayr has been awarded “Best Restaurant Manager Connaught 2014” by the Restaurant Association Ireland (R.A.I.) at the “Food Oscars” in Dublin.
The Tasting Menu
The main event was of course the six course tasting menu with matching wines. The kitchen accommodated my wife’s fish allergy and my hatred of cheese with absolutely no fuss.
A quick overview: Starters: on a black slate place: cooked oyster in the shell, cured wild sea bass, milkshot flavoured with oyster infusion
Steamed lamb served on a savoury dumpling and a grated pear salad
Fish Course: Surf on turf – a clever play on this dish. Black pudding wrapping an oyster truffle and a Beef truffle wrapped in lobster – beautifully presented and very balanced seasoning. amazing flavours showing excellent technique without sacrificing the food.
Soup Course: Beetroot soup with horseradish ice cream – I’m not a fan of horseradish and my wife isn’t a fan of beetroot but we both wanted to lick the dish clean!
Main course: 2 dishes:
Quail crinette and seared breast served with a minature poached egg in a nest. The combination of the 2 different cuts of quail added another level to the dish the nest melted in your mouth it also had fresh brushsprout leaves for colour.
Connacht Venison, confit of shank. This was served in a high sided bowl and was surrounded by an intense broth with loin tartare. Our one quibble about this was the high sided dish made it harder to eat. You were presented with a knife but a spoon was more useful in reality.
Cheese Course: Cream of goats chees with caramalised nuts, cranberries and a cheese crisp – wonderful mixture of tastes and textures (thankfully I was given a delicious alternative)
Dessert:vanilla foam and pannacotta tea soaked prunes and pear and crumble. lovely balanced pudding and not too heavy after the prior dishes. A perfect final note to an food opera.
For aperitif in the bar we were treated to a few glasses of Prosecco. Everyday Prosecco isn’t a big favourite of mine, but this was bottle fermented, so closer to Champagne and Cava than regular tank-method Prosecco.
The main event was a series of mature Southern Rhône wines from Blakes’ own cellars.
The only thing that fell short of perfection was that some of the courses weren’t an absolute perfect match with the wine – and focusing on a single producer makes this incredibly difficult.
Château Pesquié Quintessence Blanc 2005
Still amazingly fresh, though maturing…so much texture! Brilliant match for the plumped up oyster and scallop.
Château Pesquié Prestige Rouge 2005
Soft and supple, fruity and spicy, with a dash of cracked pepper. Shows a little oak influence on the finish. I’d enjoy this now rather than laying down for any longer.
Château Pesquié Les Terraces Rouge 2005
I wonder if the name means that this comes from more southerly facing terraces – because it shows more intensity and power than the Prestige. There’s still fruit there, it’s just a bigger wine overall – without being overbearing.
Château Pesquié Artemia 2004
Absolutely fabulous! Served from magnum, this was still young. It’s a big wine, but not shouty or overblown. Something as well-flavoured as venison needed a wine like this to stand up to it. One of the best wines I tasted in 2014.
Clos du Portrail, Graves Supérieures 2005
A little sweeter than I would have expected from a Graves Supérieures (which is no bad thing!) and nicely developed. It’s definitely more of a late harvest style than botrytis character.
The important question is, would we go and stay again? With the caveat that we’d probably stay for more than one night, the answer is a resounding YES!
Despite not making a personal trip to Champagne in 2014, it was an excellent year for fizz, rounded off by a big fizz tasting on New Year’s Eve.
During the year I observed that nearly all retailers in Ireland have very good Champagne and sparkling wine on their shelves, whether from a recognised big producer or not.
More and more countries are now making top rate sparklers to satisfy the increased international demand for bubbles: old favourite Cloudy Bay Pelorus from New Zealand was joined by Roederer Estate Quartet from the USA and Quinta Soalheiro Alvarinho Espumante from Portugal.
Despite my intentions at the beginning of the year, I didn’t taste any excellent Cava during 2014 and Franciacorta remains an enigma – more tasting needed on both fronts! I also hear of sparkling Arneis from north west Italy which I will endeavour to seek out.
So what were the hits in 2014? As you will see, I tried some outstanding new (and established) English sparkling wine plus some excellent Champagnes.
10. Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
Just like that crappy advert for Shake n’ Vac from the 80s, this English fizz really puts the freshness back! As hinted at by the term “Classic Cuvée, this is made with the three main Champagne grapes. As the blend is 71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 9% Pinot Meunier it has a fresh and lively aspect to it – a great start to a party!
I would be interested to taste the same bottle with a bit of age to see how it develops.
9. Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano 2012
Or to give it its full name Nino Franco Vigneto Della Riva di San Floriano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superior DOCG. If that sounds a mouthful, it is – but in a good way. I was keen to try it at the James Nicholson tasting after hearing it had been recognised by Mr Fizz himself, Tom Stevenson.
As I often say, when trying most Prosecco one glass is enough for me, a second means a really good wine – well this is “give me the bottle and I’ll finish it on my own” good. In case that wasn’t quite obvious enough – I really like it!
This single vineyard bubbly is made by the Charmat method like all other Prosecco, but has four months on the lees while in tank, and therefore picks up a little autolytic character. It’s also dry and savoury, so it tastes like a serious wine – you could easily drink this with a meal as well as the usual aperitif.
8. Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV
Several people who like Champagne but aren’t that well-acquainted with English sparkling wine have been surprised by the proportion of English fizz that has a vintage, i.e. made from grapes harvested in a single year. Given the vagaries of the English climate – even more unreliable than that of northern France – you might expect many more non vintage wines where reserve wines have been used to smooth out less than perfect years.
I’m not sure why this is the case – it could be that so many English wineries are new and haven’t had the time or spare cash to lay down lots of reserve wines – but here’s an exception to the norm.
Irishman Dermot Sugrue has done a wonderful job with the Wiston Rosé, but the combination of creamy bubbles, refreshing lemon sherbet and hints of tropical fruit blew me away. If you like your fizz and you haven’t tried this yet, sort it out!
7. Leon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
As I mentioned in the introduction, the big retailers in Ireland have put a lot of effort into their house Champagnes as there were some very creditable bottles tasted this year.
Among the best were Jean Comyn “Harmonie” Brut NV (from Molloys), Bissinger Premium Cuvée Brut NV (from Lidl) and Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve NV (from O’Briens).
However, my favourite – and one that exceeded my expectations of a house Champagne – is Aldi’s Léon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006. From the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs, this 100% Chardonnay has spent half a decade on the lees giving it lovely brioche character supporting refreshing lemon.
6. Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009
First, an admission: on meeting a well-presented chap at the James Nicholson tasting with the hand-written name badge “Charlie Holland-Gusbourne” I leapt to the conclusion that this was an English toff with a double barrelled-name showing the fruits of his ancestral estate. Prior research or even just paying attention would have revealed that Charlie Holland is the award-winning winemaker fromGusbourne. I’m still blushing.
Anyway, trying Gusbourne’s wines for the first time impressed me, and the Blanc de Blancs was my overall favourite. Fairly young still but with three years minimum on the lees behind it, this will continue to improve and add layers of complexity over the coming years. 2009 was an excellent vintage in England!
5. Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV
This is a non-vintage, but as a “prestige cuvée” it deserves the more fitting moniker “multi-vintage” as used by Krug for their Grande Cuvée, for example. I took this as an interloper to Morgan Vanderkamer’s Grower Champagne tasting and it was tricky to guess (almost) blind
It had much more body and texture than usual for a Blanc de Blancs. But rather than maturing base wines in oak, it’s the extended ageing on the lees (five years minimum) and the excellent fruit that give the oomph. Denis Varnier eschews oak and blocks MLF to keep the wines as fresh and pure as possible.
The grapes for this bottling are grown in a walled vineyard in Avize called Clos du Grand-Père, named after Denis’s maternal Grandfather Jean Fannière who moved on from “just” growing grapes to being a fully-fledged Champagne producer when already in his 50s.
4. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
I had three opportunities to taste Nyetimber’s “best vintage yet” over the course of 2014.
Firstly with the nice people of Liberty where it showed well.
In the middle of the year I took my wife to Ely Wine Bar for her birthday. After a few bubbles at home she wasn’t in the mood for any more when we arrived at Ely, but she changed her mind when she saw Nyetimber on the list.
Then finally I popped a bottle on New Year’s Eve – and it was better than ever! Perhaps the bottle on my wife’s birthday hadn’t really shone as much as it should have done after a heavyweight rosé Champagne (so heavyweight that I put it in my Top 10 Reds of the year!) But in a more sympathetic context it was magnificent, and the Pinot really shone through.
3. Dom Pérignon 1995
You know how when you’re having a ball of a time at a party, and you open a bottle that, in a more sober frame of mind, you might have saved for a special or at least contemplative occasion? If you’ve been there, did it feel like a waste?
Sometimes, it’s not a waste! Thus it was when I popped my oldest bottle of Dom Pérignon, from the excellent vintage of 1995 – it was just sumptuous!
As part of the drinks group Moët-Hennessey (itself part of luxury goods group LVMH), Moët et Chandon NV is much more about marketing than wine quality. Unfortunately, the Moët vintage was also a disappointment this year. But the prestige cuvée is still the real deal, in my opinion, despite the large quantities produced.
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is that even Champagne has to be kept until the right age and the right moment – whenever that comes – and then it can be a transcendental experience.
2. Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 1999 (Magnum)
This modest co-operative-produced Champagne was a delight over Christmas (I think I had a magnum to myself on Christmas morning) and the star of the night at the NYE Glasnevin Fizz Fest.
As you might gather from the name, it’s another excellent aged Blanc de Blancs from Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, one of the top few villages for Chardonnay in Champagne. It has the trademark yeasty, bready characters on the nose., followed by a sumptuous palate of citrus and soft stone fruit. Just delicious.
1. Charles Heidsieck Cuvée des Millénaires 1995
Even in the context of all the excellent sparkling wine I tried in 2014, there was only ever going to be one winner for me.
The Charles NV is pretty good, but this is on another level entirely. Almost two decades maturing in the cellar has brought aromas and flavours of brioche, nuts and candied fruit in addition to refreshing citrus. It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel. It’s time to sell a kidney and buy a case.
It was nearly impossible to reduce this list down to 10 reds so there are lots of magnificent wines that didn’t make the cut – some fine Chilean Pinots in particular. Pinot is well represented from numbers 10 to 8…
Very few quality American wines make it to Irish shores, and so discovering Cline Cellars Pinot Noir at the Big Ely Tasting was a revelation. After tasting it again with Fred and Nancy Cline at the James Nicholson Tasting (and some of their other wines) I was definitely a firm fan.
You’d never mistake it for Burgundy, but to be honest it knocks spots off most red Burgundy under €30. It’s on the big side for Pinot but it has poise and balance so that all its components remain in harmony.
9. Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir 2011
This stood out as my favourite Pinot of the whole Annual New Zealand Trade Tasting in Dublin. While Marlborough wineries are still working out how to get the best out of Pinot Noir, their Wairarapa counterparts across the Cook Strait can already be considered masters of the grape.
One of the top few producers in New Zealand, Ata Rangi is one of the well established Martinborough vineyards making outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot Gris in addition to Pinot Noir. This has fruit and power, but is soooo smooth that a bottle can disappear in a frighteningly short time!
8. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2002
Yes, I’ve included a Champagne among my reds of the year! But I have my reasons…
Like many rosé Champagnes, particularly those with some age on them, this was actually closer to a still Pinot Noir than a young white Champagne. And for good reason when you look how it’s made. 70% of the blend is Pinot Noir from Grand Cru villages, of which around 13% from Bouzy is added as red wine. This is then topped off with 30% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly.
I opened this on the day we celebrated my wife’s birthday – something to enjoy while we got ready to go out. My wife wasn’t that impressed by it, but that just meant more for me! The texture is the key for me – it wasn’t that fizzy or zippy, but it had an amazing Pinot nose and soft red fruit on the palate. I don’t tend to drink much rosé but this shows what it can do.
7. Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz 2009
The so-called Baron Of The Barossa, who sadly passed away in 2013, Peter Lehmann was the maker of several ranges of Barossa gems. They started above the level of everyday wines but went right up to this flagship – more expensive than most people would spend on a regular basis but nowhere near the price of other Aussie icons such as Hill Of Grace or Grange.
At the Comans silent tasting, the 2009 showed that it’s still young and would reward patient cellaring, but it’s so drinkable now that it’s hard to resist. It’s made in a rich, concentrated old-vine style which is defiantly and definitively Barossa, but there are layers and layers of complexity. It packs a punch but also makes you think.
6. Château Pesquié Ventoux Artemia
I was lucky enough to taste three different vintages of this southern Rhône superstar during the year – the 2012 from bottle and the 2006 from magnum at the Big Rhône Tasting at Ely, and then the 2005 from magnum at a jaw-droppingly excellent food and wine dinner at Belleek Castle (more to come on that!)
Although its home of Ventoux is situated in the southerly reaches of the Rhône, the cool winds coming off the Mont de Ventoux and Valcluse mountains help maintain acidity and freshness. Artemia is Château Pesquié’s premium bottling made of equal parts of Grenache and Syrah, both from low-yielding sites
The wines are rich and unctuous, with dark black fruit and spice competing for your attention. But it’s not all about big fruit, there’s also acidity and minerality there. I’m trying to see if I can get my hands on a few magnums for myself!
5. Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008
Forget Galaxy Chocolate, this is possibly the smoothest thing known to man – pretty unusual for a Chianti!
The biggest producer in Italy, family owned and run Antinoribought the estate in 1987 and set out to create the ultimate expression of Tuscan Sangiovese. Clones were specially selected to give velvet and acidity – hence the smoothness.
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. By some distance it’s the best Chianti I have tasted to date!
4. Torres Mas La Plana 2005
When wines are this good, choosing between different vintages much be like choosing between different children, but if a choice has to be made of all the different vintages tasted of Torres’ Cabernet flagship Mas La Plana then 2005 was the chosen one.
Although regarded as an interloper by many in Spain, Cabernet Sauvignon can actually thrive in the right settings. As it’s my favourite black grape I say boo to tradition and enjoy this blackcurrant beauty! Compared to an excellent Rioja there are quite noticeable differences – primarily black fruit rather than Tempranillo’s red strawberries and smokey French oak rather than big vanilla from American oak.
The 2005 still has loads of primary fruit, but has already developed some interesting cedar and tobacco notes. It’s in full bloom but has the structure to last until the end of this decade at least.
3. Gérard Bertrand AOC Rivesaltes 1989
I didn’t taste enough sweet wines this year for them to deserve their own category, but this fortified Grenache muscled its way into the Reds list. A Vin Doux Naturel from the Roussillon in South West France, this is similar-ish to Rasteau from the Rhône and Maury close by in Roussillon – and not a million miles away from Port.
Unexpectedly this was my favourite wine from the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting – Age has taken away with one hand – colour has faded significantly – and given back with the other – complexity writ large. It’s definitely a wine for the winter season but it’s something to look forward to. Class in a glass.
This was technically drunk in 2015 as it was popped after midnight on New Year’s Eve, but I love it so much I have to include it. A long time favourite producer since my visit to Coonawarra in 2000, and undoubtedly one of the standout in terms of consistent quality, Katnook Estate makes big cabs that are to die for.
This young example had fresh blackcurrants – so fresh and intense that you would swear you were actually chewing on them – with Coonawarra’s trademark eucalyptus providing additional interest. It’s my go-to red for good reason!
1. Penfolds Grange 2008
I am an unbashed fan of Australia’s first world class wine, and included some older vintages of Grange in my best wines of 2013. Without the 2008 for reference I’m pretty sure I would have picked the 2009 for the top spot this year – the 2009 was very nice indeed – but the 2008 was on another level altogether. Apparently it was awarded the full monty 100 points by both the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator
Only a couple of years after release, it is still an absolute baby of course, but is actually drinkable now. It has tremendous concentration, and although you can find the American oak if you search for it, fruit dominates the nose and palate. Blackberry, blackcurrant and damson are tinged with choca-mocha and liquorice.
It’s an immense wine without being intimidating – At 14.5% the alcohol is fairly middling for an Aussie Shiraz, perhaps tempered by 9% fruit from the cooler Clare Valley. It’s made to last for decades, but unlike some flagship wines I tasted this year its elements are already harmonious.
As a “collectible” wine that has become bought more and more by investors, Grange has now moved firmly out of my price range. I am still tempted nevertheless!!
Many of the producer tastings I’ve been at in the past year have been solely focused on red wines, but as I tend to drink much more white at home that hasn’t been such a hardship. Many of the retailer tastings have been very broad and included a few standout whites, so a few of those are included below.
I haven’t thought too deeply about the order of wines 10 down to 4, but the top 3 are definitely in order!
10. Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013
All wines were wild ferment until a few decades ago, but cultured yeast is now the norm for mass produced wines – it’s more reliable and predictable in terms of fermentation performance, flavours and alcohol levels. Wild yeast can often give wilder, but more interesting flavours.
This Greek Assyrtiko from O’Briens is included because it’s just so different from anything else I tasted in the year – it really brings the funk!
9. Bruno Sorg Alsace Grand Cru Pfersigberg Pinot Gris 2010
One of my favourite Alsace producers, Bruno Sorg have a broad range of varietals at different quality levels, and all are excellent for the price tag. From near their home in Eguisheim this Grand Cru Pinot Gris is silky and rich, off-dry without being sweet, textured without being stuffy. I did try some other countries’ Pinot Gris offerings, but Alsace is still where it’s at in my book.
8. Eric Texier Opâle 2012
This ethereal Mosel-style Rhône white stood out for me at The Big Rhône Tasting at Ely– partly because it was so different from the (delicious) Rhône reds, but mainly because of its sheer audacity and brilliance.
This should be drunk in small sips from a small glass, perhaps with company, but once you taste it you won’t want to share!
7. Schloss Gobelsburg “Lamm” Grüner Veltiner Reserve, Kamptal, 2010
The only white varietal tasting I went to all year was Austria’s signature grape Grüner Veltiner. The biggest surprise for me was not the excellent quality, it was the versatility of the grape – it’s such a chameleon, depending on where and how it’s made.
The Lamm Reserve was my overall favourite from the tasting at Wine Workshop – and perhaps it’s no coincidence given my proclivity for Pinot Gris that I preferred an example of Grüner which somewhat resembles Pinot Gris.
6. Dog Point Section 94 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is so ubiquitous on our shelves that it’s often taken for granted, ignored for being old hat or dismissed after tasting the poorer examples churned out at a discount in supermarkets. Even if you are a little bored of regular Savvy, there are alternatives, as I posted back in 2013.
A big differentiator of the alternative Marlborough Sauvignons is that they can age gracefully for several years, becoming more complex and interesting; many regular SBs shine very brightly in the year they are harvested then fade quickly.
And so I was lucky enough to taste the 2010 vintage of Dog Point’s Section 94 at the James Nicholson Xmas Tasting. Dog Point don’t make a duff wine, they range from very good to amazing – and this was now firmly in the latter class.
5. Rolly Gassmann Alsace Planzerreben de Rorschwihr Riesling 2008
A bin-end special from The Wine Society that turned out to be sublime, if difficult to pronounce. Rolly Gassmann is a renowned producer of Alsace and I had hoped to visit on my last trip there, but it wasn’t to be (too many great wineries, too little time!)
Thankfully this Riesling magically transported me to the hills of Rorschwihr. It’s just off-dry, balancing the racy acidity and lifting the fruit. At six years from vintage it had started to develop some really interesting tertiary notes – but it must have the best part of a decade still to go. I doubt my other bottle will last that long!
4. Man O’War Valhalla Waiheke Island Chardonnay 2010
This is one of the wines that was open at several different tastings during the year, but despite having a few bottles in at home I always had a taste, it’s just that good. Not exactly a shy and retiring type, this Chardonnay has loads of tropical fruit, with a little bit of candied pineapple among the fresh.
It’s well oaked, both in the sense of quantity and quality. Chablis lovers might look elsewhere, but Meursault lovers might change allegiance. A perennial favourite.
3. Grosset Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling 2008
Jeffrey Grosset is the King of Australian Riesling. I bought a case of the Polish Hill Riesling with the same vintage as my son, with the intention of drinking a bottle on (or around) his birthday for the next decade or so. This bottle is a few years older, and a few years wiser – the difference in development is noticeable.
Petrol, Diesel, Kerosene – whatever your petroleum spirit of choice, the 2008 has it nicely developing, though the steel backbone of acidity will keep it going for many a year.
2. Shaw + Smith M3 Vineyard Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2012
I was lucky enough to taste Shaw + Smith’s seminal Chardonnay several times during 2014 – with the good folks of Liberty Wines at their portfolio tasting, a bottle with a stunning meal at Ely Bar & Brasserie, and a glass in a small flight of Chardonnays at Ely Wine Bar.
The King Is Dead, Long Live The King! Another wine I tried for the first time as part of the flight of Chardonnays at Ely Wine Bar, this is perhaps the Californian Chardonnay. After all, in beating some of Burgundy’s best Chardonnays in the Judgement of Paris it really put California on the maps as a producer of top level whites.
And as much as I wanted my beloved M3 to be the best, Montelena eclipsed it for 2014. Even as a young wine it is very approachable but with so much depth. It’s the sort of wine you could happily taste the same vintage of over several decades.
Due to personal circumstances I didn’t have a big birthday bash this year, so instead our New Year’s Eve party became the opportunity to try lots of fizz!
Roederer Estate Quartet Anderson Valley Brut NV
The kick-off wine at the Wine Society’s 2014 Dublin tasting proved to be a worthy opener again. Made by the Californian offshoot of Louis Roederer from four of their top vineyards, it is definitely made to the high standards of its Champenois maison mère.
Full bodied like the Brut Premier at home, it does, however, reverse the house blend of around two thirds Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, instead being 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir.
As well as bready characters from time on the lees this also has depth from reserve wines which have been aged in oak. This is probably the finest Californian fizz I have tasted to date.
Donini Prosecco Frizzante NV
A fairly simple Prosecco brought by a guest, it was pleasant enough not to be passed over, and considering I didn’t have any Prosecco open myself (damn, not again!) it was a nice contrast to some of the bigger names.
Lightly sparkling (a Frizzante with a screw top, no less) with gentle apple and grape flavours, it’s a wine to enjoy rather than contemplate. For some reason it does really well in the Netherlands!
Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs NV
I bought this own label 100% Chardonnay from UK supermarket Sainsbury’s a couple of years ago when there was a double-bubble promotion on. It’s actually good enough at full price but I couldn’t resist stocking up.
Two years later on and the citrus freshness is still there, but additional bottle age has brought a bit more body and complexity. It could still serve well as an aperitif but with more richness it could accompany roast chicken.
I wonder how many bottles bought at the same time made it this long – not many I’d wager!
Graham Beck Méthode Cap Classique Brut NV
Méthode Cap Classique is the South African term for traditional or Champagne method, and Mr Beck helpfully puts “Chardonnay . Pinot Noir” on the front label for those who aren’t sure. Graham Beck is renowned as one of the best producers of fizz in the country
On the nose this had a slightly spirit quality, as though there was a trace of stronger alcohol in there. It wasn’t apparent on the palate which was sophisticated and dry – one of the driest New World sparklers I’ve tried – with creaminess and richness from the lees. A very good effort, especially considering the relatively modest pricetag.
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2007
The first significant quality producer of English sparkling wine goes from strength to strength. 2007 was one of the first vintages seen from start to finish by head winemaker Cherie Spriggs and husband Brad Greatrix, elevating the already serious quality to a higher plane.
So how does this bottle taste? Apple pie! No, seriously – amazingly intense apple flavours backed up by pastry notes from the lees and then bottle ageing. Seriously delicious!
Moët et Chandon Grand Vintage 2004
Non vintage Möet didn’t fare very well when tasted double blind in the previous Glasnevin Fizz Fest, but as I’ve enjoyed the house’s prestige cuvée every time I’ve tried I’d, I thought I’d give the middle ground of Möet Grand Vintage a go.
Being a vintage Champagne it was guaranteed to have a longer minimum period on the lees (36 months v 15 for NV) and this came through on the palate. However, the fruit behind it wasn’t good enough to support the yeastiness – it tasted as though there was a hole in it, if a drink can said to have a hole in it!
Most people preferred the Sainsbury’s own label fizz, which tells you all you need to know!
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
Widely acknowledged as their best vintage yet, Nyetimber’s Champagne Blend from 2009 had showed well previously. Perhaps context is more important than we think, because tasted straight after the Möet Grand Vintage this was fantastic, even better than I expected.
The 2009 Classic Cuvée blend is 55% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 19% Pinot Meunier. The Pinots are more obvious with soft red fruit on the attack, but then the Chardonnay’s citrus and soft stone fruits follow closely behind. It’s very elegant and polished, and should continue to develop over the next decade and more.
Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999
The Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on Champagne’s Côte des Blancs is the source of Krug’s famed single vineyard Clos du Mesnil. Whereas that tends to retail at £600 or more per bottle, the village’s co-operative makes an excellent Blanc de Blanc that retails closer to £30 – a twentieth of the Krug price!
I had snapped up some magnums of the 1999 vintage a few years ago in a bin-end sale – and what a bargain they turned out to be!! Champagne (and wine in general) matures more slowly in a magnum than in a regular 75cl botle, but authors such as Tom Stevenson also content that sparkling wine matures better in the larger format. Without a comparative tasting for myself I will take Tom’s word for it, but the evidence provided by these magnums is definitely in favour of the argument.
Somewhat yellow in the glass from ageing, the wine is full of yeasty, bready characters on the nose. This follows through onto the sumptuous palate, with citrus and soft stone fruit playing a supporting role. A very long finish makes this an excellent fizz – what a shame I’ve only got one bottle left!
Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve Rosé 1999
Context rears its head again – and not in a good way this time. Tasted among the other sparklers this appeared somewhat flat. It wasn’t unpleasant, just a different type of drink.
I hope to try it again in 2015 to see how it shows then.
Cloudy Bay Pelorus Marlborough 2009
Cloudy Bay’s NV and Vintage sparklers are probably the best value wines in their range, especially considering the extra work that goes into making fizz. Unlike its compatriot Lindauer or Australia’s Jacob’s Creek Sparkling, they are serious wines make with great attention to detail. We served Pelorus NV for the toast at our wedding in 2009!
As you’d expect in a serious offering from Marlborough, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the grapes used, and like vintage Champagne it gets at least three years maturing on the lees. There’s apple, citrus and bready notes on the nose, followed by a creamy palate with more apple and then roasted almonds. It’s only a youngster so there’ more to come!
Cave de Turckheim Confidence Crémant d’Alsace NV
The last bottle opened before we moved onto some reds was this Blanc de Blancs Crémant d’Alsace from one of the region’s best co-operatives. They produce a wide range of still wines and several sparklers – this was my favourite when we visited in 2013. Not widely known outside France, Crémant d’Alsace is actually the second most popular source of sparkling wine in France.
The blend is supposedly a secret but I remember 100% Chardonnay being whispered at the tasting counter. Perhaps because it’s not seen as an Alsatian grape? It’s not permitted in still Alsace wines, but is allowed in Crémant, sometimes with Pinot Blanc and other varieties.
As is the norm in Alsace, this displayed more primary fruit than flavours from lees ageing. We’re talking citrus, apple and quince here, so more of an aperitif style, but very enjoyable nevertheless.
The Overall Verdict
This was no professional trade tasting – all samples were drunk and enjoyed – so there’s somewhat less than 100% objectivity here, but my rankings would be: