Category: Long

Lower Alcohol Wines That Taste Good!

For those brave souls that clicked on this to read more, stick with me – this won’t be full or moralising on the evils of alcohol or telling you to drink less.  I’ll leave that to puritans and the government, respectively.  Neither will I be looking at Weightwatchers or Slimming World branded wines which reportedly taste of goat’s piss.  Having tasted neither the diet wines nor hircine urine this is hearsay, but I will leave that trial to others.

Instead I’d like to cover a few wines that I like which happen to be lower in alcohol than the 14%+ blockbusters which populate wine shelves nowadays.  If you fancy a couple of glasses on a school night that won’t leave you with a heavy head in the morning, this is the way to go.

As a general rule, these wines are grown in relatively cool climates.  The moderate sunshine means that grapes aren’t as high in sugar at harvest, but they should still have plenty of flavour.  Lower alcohol is a finished wine is the result of lower sugar at harvest and / or fermentation being stopped by the winemaker before all the sugar has turned to alcohol, which obviously leaves some residual sweetness.

There are lots of other viticultural and vinification techniques which can be used to moderate alcohol levels, including:

  • Picking early
  • Canopy management
  • Clonal selection
  • Yeast selection
  • Reverse osmosis
  • Spinning cone
  • Watering down (!)

So what should you try?

Mosel Riesling

Many consider the Model to be the spiritual home of the Riesling grape.  The cool climate imparts a fierce acidity to the wine, so fermentation is often stopped before all the sugar has turned to alcohol, leaving some to soften the affect of the acidity.  Alcohol levels of 8% are not uncommon here – that’s half the abv of some blockbusters from Australia and California!

German (and Austrian) wines have a fairly complex quality hierarchy based on the sugar at the time of harvest, though the RS in the finished wine is more of a stylistic choice.  If you see Trocken then the wine should taste pretty dry.

Hunter Valley Semillon

I have already established myself as a fan of this style, delicious as a fresh blast of lemon or as a mature, honey and toast loaded beauty.  Alcohol levels here are usually between 10.0% and 11.5% – but they don’t feel to be lacking it when you drink them, the sign of a good, balanced wine.

McWilliams Mount Pleasant Elizabeth is a good entry level, though of course Tyrrell’s Vat 1 is the famous star of the area.

Vinho Verde

North and East of the Port producing region Douro, Vinho Verde produces light white, rosé and red wines.  They exhibit fresh acidity and sometimes a light spritz and may not exceed 11.5% apart from one exception*.  Vinho Verde doesn’t have the best reputation, but this is undeserved – the wines won’t be the most complex but they can be delightful in summer.  Modern wine-making techniques have dramatically improved the average quality level.

*The exception is for Alvarinho (the same grape as Albariño just over the border into Galicia) from the areas around the town of Monção

Moscato d’Asti

Erm are we getting into Asti Spumante territory here?  Yes we are!  But don’t worry, like many bad memories of the ’70s, the modern truth is actually far more palatable than the shuddering recollections of the past.

This is a fizzy dessert wine made soley from the grapey grape, Moscato (often known as Muscat).  It often clocks in as low as 5% so it’s the same as many beers, but please use a wine glass, not a pint glass!

North East Italian Reds

The twins of Valpolicella and the even lighter Bardolino are made from Corvina (great), Rondinella and Molinara (neither that great) in the Veneto area between Venice and Lake Garda.  Nowadays the turbocharged Amarone della Valpolicella takes the column inches in wine reviews – and I happen to be a big fan – but at ~15% it doesn’t meet what we’re after here.  The regular table wines can be very pleasant drinking but weighing in at 11.5% or so.  There are unsubstantiated rumours that the beefier Valpolicella wines have been pumped up with stronger southern Italian reds, but surely the wine industry is free from adulteration nowadays??

Forrest Estate ‘The Doctors’

Forrest Estate in Marlborough was set up by the husband and wife team Dr John and Dr Brigid Forrest in 1988.  As well as the usual grapes Marlborough fare they make wine with a few more unusual grapes.  One of these is the Austrian black grape St Laurent which makes a light to medium bodied wine somewhere in between Pinot Noir and cool climate Syrah, though its parentage is still unproven. This comes under their sub brand The Doctors’ and has a lunchtime-friendly 11.0% on the label.

They also make a Riesling under this label which has a Mosel-like 8.5% – give it a try!

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I Know What I Like – Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – Part 3

So, Marlborough lovers, we did a tour of New Zealand in part one and then cast the Sauvignon Blanc net further in part two.  Now we can begin to look at the broader horizon of other grapes in a similar(ish) style.  This could run to 20,000 words so I will highlight the main wines that a savvy Savvy lover should try (see what I did there?) and ones which are fairly widely available.

Spanish Whites

Some of you might be perplexed at seeing Spanish whites mentioned as an alternative to Marlborough Sauvignon, especially given some of the oxidised muck that got produced there in the past.  But Spain is probably the most exciting European country for wine at the moment, reinventing itself and applying modern viticultural and wine-making techniques to traditional grapes and areas.

Many of these grapes are indigenous to Spain, and whereas some such as Garnacha and Cariñena were adopted elsewhere in the southern Mediterranean, lots of them remain rooted in España.

Rueda

So, to begin at the beginning; Rueda is a small principally white wine region between the rugged red regions of Toro and Ribero del Duero.  For much of its history it was planted with Jerez’s Palomino Fino grape and a rustic sherry style was made there.  A few dry whites were made here and there from the Verdejo grape, but this practice was substantially boosted by the Rioja house Marqués de Riscal and now this is the main output of the region.

I mention Rueda first as a Marlborough alternative for a couple of reasons: firstly, it can be made with Sauvignon Blanc, even as a single varietal (and is usually labelled thus).  Secondly, even if made with no SB it can often show plenty of Sauvignon characteristics.  Macebeo (aka Viura) is also permitted in the blend.

Which to try?  Rueda is one of the most reliable wines around, but some stand out more than others.  Telmo Rodroguez’s Basa was the first quality Rueda that turned my head and remains a firm favourite to this day.  Marqués de Riscal produce both Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo based wines here, so try both to compare and contrast.  A more recent discovery for me in both restaurants and wine merchants was Protos Verdejo – a fine example at a very reasonable price.

Protos Rueda Verdejo 2012

Albariño

Some wines are more known by their appellation, but others (even in the Old World) are better known by their principal grape.  Of course in Albariño’s case it could just be that the grape’s name is easier to pronounce for furriners than Rías Baixas, the main appellation in North West Spain where it is grown.  For the record it’s pronounced something like ree-ash bye-shass.

And it’s still fairly trendy, which means it can be overpriced, but the good ones are worth it.  And like Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes more complex examples are made with lees stirring and time in barrel.  For the latter, try something like Pazo Señorans Selección de Añada, or for a more straightforward, younger, example try something by Brandal.

Godello

The homeland of this grape is also North West Spain, both in Valdeorras (in Galicia, above Portugal) and Bierzo (just slightly further east, into Castilla Y Leon).  Again we have some pioneers to be thankful for.

Valdesil are the biggest vineyard owners and producers.  They make four different quality levels, starting with the fresh and simple Montenovo from vines around the Valdeorras area, then the Valdesil Sobre Lias which is more concentrated and has creamy lees characteristics.  Next up is  Pezas da Portela which (as linguists may guess) is made from individually vinified selected plots of the slate-soiled Portela vineyard.  Subtle oak tones add to the complexity.  Finally, the Valdesil range topper is Pedrouzos which has their oldest vines (claimed to be three generations old).

Telmo Rodriguez turns up here again (what’s the opposite of a bad penny?) with his Gabo do Xil Godellos.  This is and unoaked and refreshing example grown on granite and slate soils.

The King of Godello, if there were such a person, would probably be the quality fanatical Rafael Palacios.  His entry level Bolo is made in stainless steel whereas the Louro de Bolo spends four months in tight grained Norman oak foudres – the size means there is little obvious oak flavour imparted to the wine, but subtle oxygenation makes for a smoother wine.  Rafa’s top wine, reckoned by many to be the best white wine in Spain, is his As Sortes.  Still 100% Godello, but with more concentration and a lick of oak, it will develop over several years.

This is my personal favourite Godello – it isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it!

What this space for more Marlborough Sauvignon alternatives!

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I Know What I Like – Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – Part 2

To recap from part one, a phrase often declared by novice wine drinkers is “I know what I like”, with the follow on (usually unspoken) being “I know what wine is best for me and I won’t try anything else”.  Now, I’m not going to tell those people they are wrong (as such!) – I just want to give those that are hesitant to try something other than their favourite type a path which they could explore.

Here’s a reminder of the four steps I covered in the New Zealand-centric part one:
Step 1 – Buy A Better Brand
Step 2 – Pay More! (Trade Up)
Step 3 – Same Again, But With A Twist!
Step 4 – Head Down The Road

Now we can explore alternative sources of Sauvignon Blanc from outside New Zealand.

Step 5 – Going Back To My Roots

Before the Marlborough revolution, Sauvignon Blanc was most closely associated with the Loire Valley in France – Touraine, Pouilly Fumé and especially Sancerre.  Indeed for some, the latter is still the best place to get SB, particularly for short to medium term ageing and a mineral subtlety that Marlborough often lacks.  Like many European appellations, the quality does vary significantly as some producers prioritise quantity over quality and trade off the good name of others.  Probably the best producer is Henri Bourgeois – see here for a great blog post from Confessions Of A Wine Geek.

Of course, as this is France you are expected to know the grapes belong to each appellation.  The upper Loire has a grouping of Sauvignon Blanc based whites – the aforementioned Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé (not be confused with the Maconnais’s Pouilly Fuissé) Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Reuilly (not to be confused with the Chardonnay based Rully of the Côte Chalonnaise).  The best have a distinct purity and racy acidity with subtle smoky gunflint aromas and flavours that can pair amazingly well with food.

Touraine is further towards the west and is a different proposition; it’s generally not as intense as those mentioned above but it is very reliable and very reasonably priced.  As most who holiday in France know, a few bottles of Touraine are always a good bet from the supermarché.

Step 6 – The Inbetweeners

South Africa is usually classified as a “New World” country when it comes to wine, even though Constantia’s dessert wines were imported into Europe as far back as the 18th Century.  In terms of style it lies somewhere between the stereotypical bright fruit of Australia and California and the reserved, subtle minerality of France and Italy.  Of course that’s a sweeping generalisation, but hey, wine has plenty of those!

So which should you try?  La Motte from Franschoek usually offer great value (though their organic version doesn’t taste appreciably better for a lot more money) Klein Constantia make claim to a foundation year of in 1685 (see, I wasn’t making it up) and also have a great QPR.  Jordan of Stellenbosch (known as Jardin in the US to avoid confusion with Jordan of California) make a regular and barrel-fermented SB.  Also look out for Paul Cluver from Elgin,  Springfield Estate and Graham Beck.

Step 7 – Better Than It Ever Was

As I mentioned in my favourite sweet wines of 2013, a lot of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc was actually no such thing.  Instead, it was more likely to be a mutation called Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse – the pronunciation of the latter gives you an idea of its quality – a bunch of arse!

Vary rarely do I ever find a wine so unpalatable that I can’t finish it, and being a Yorkshireman I hate to see wine go to waste, but the last bottle I couldn’t finish was a cheapo Chilean SB I picked up at the corner shop.  I tried chilling it within an inch of its life, then added some crème de cassis to make a bastardised kir, but even that wasn’t enough – down the sink it went!

But such examples are becoming more and more rare nowadays; if you chose a good brand you will rarely be disappointed.  Not only are the vine types improving, but also the Chilean wine industry is continuing to explore new sites around the country.  With its envious geography, the required coolness can come from altitude (into the Andes), latitude (south towards Antarctica) or cool sea breezes near the coast.  The best is definitely yet to come!

A long-time staple for me was Errazuriz; fruity refreshing and reliable – if you find one of their single vineyard bottlings then it’s definitely worth a punt.  Viña Leyda’s single vineyard Garuma Sauvignon Blanc Valdivieso’s Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and Viña Litoral’s Sauvignon Blanc all show the rising star for SB: the Leyda Valley.

Step 8 – Over The Ditch

I’m a big fan of (good) Aussie wine, but there’s an awful lot of very average industrial plonk made in the large irrigated inland areas of NSW, SA and Victoria.  The Australian wine industry is quite jealous at the success of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc.  Much of their land under vine has a climate too warm to make good varietal SB – in particular it doesn’t cool down enough at night in summer.  SB is grown in bulk but is often blended with other grapes, especially Semillon (as the classic white Bordeaux blend), Chardonnay or Colombard.

So where is reasonable Aussie Savvy made?  A couple I would recommend trying are both from (relatively) cool parts of South Australia: Shaw + Smith of Adelaide Hills (who make the M3 Chardonnay that I rave about) and Katnook Estate of Coonawarra (who make fantastic varietal Cabernet, amongst others).

And if you are feeling slightly adventurous, try a Sauvignon/Semillon blend from Margaret River – there are several excellent producers such as Vasse Felix, Cullen, Cape Mentelle and Xanadu.

Step 9 A Tale Of Two Rivers

Bordeaux is world famous for its red wines, and to a large extent the Bordelais template for fine red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon blends aged in barriques) has been copied around the globe.  According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, white wine production has fallen significantly down to around 10% of the total – but as Bordeaux is such a large region this still means there’s a lot of white made here.

Although Sauvignon Blanc is most likely to have originated in the Loire Valley, it has been around in Bordeaux for several centuries.  Nowadays it is one of the main white grapes of the area, either as a single varietal or blended with Sémillon (and sometimes a dash of Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc or even Sauvignon Gris).  The sweet wines of Sauternes, Barsac, Loupiac and other appellations are based on the traditional blend but I will not cover them further here.

The two main rivers of Bordeaux are the Dordogne and the Garonne, and whites made in the large expanse between them can use the appellation Entre Deux Mers (calling a river a sea is somewhat hyperbolic!)  This is the origin of a large proportion of dry Bordeaux white, ranging in quality from very average to very good, though rarely excellent.  Chateau Bonnet is a mid range oaked blend which I covered here.

The best of all Bordeaux whites tend to come from the Pessac Léognan subregion, part of the Graves area to the south west of the city.  Many Chateaux make both red and white wines, and for some the whites command higher prices than the reds.  Château de France and Château de Fieuzal are personal favourites, expressing their oak maturation distinctly on the nose and palate.

One of the lesser Châteaux I discovered on my travels many years ago is located in the Côtes de Bourg.  In both reds and whites, Château de Rousselet is a great example of small producers who are modernising, and offer both oaked and unoaked versions of their wines – fantastic value.  The Château itself is really just a grand farmhouse, and the owners are more likely to be seen driving a tractor than a flash car.

 

Also check out the Sauvignon Blanc masterclass at the beginning of my post on the New Zealand trade tasting in January.

Part 3 will consider some non-Sauvignon Blanc based wines which might appeal as alternatives to the might of Marlborough.

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My Favourite Wines of 2013 – Fizz

Following on from my favourite reds and favourite whites of 2013, here are a few of the sparklers which grabbed my attention last year.  There are a few patterns you might discern:

  1. They are all traditional method sparkling wines – I’ve had a few drinkable Proseccos, but nothing that has ever made me want to go and buy another bottle.  Although it appears on the face of it to be an inefficient production method, second fermentation in bottle seems to be the best way of making quality fizz.
  2. They are heavily weighted towards Champagne – this reflects that region’s preeminent standing in the world of sparkling wine and the fruits of several visits in person.  Franciacorta and decent Cava are on my 2014 Wine Resolutions.

Dom Pérignon 1999

Dom Pérignon 1999
Dom Pérignon 1999

Possibly the most famous Champagne in the world, and definitely the biggest production of any prestige cuvée Champagne, Dom Pérignon is a byword for luxury.  However, behind all the razzmatazz, it’s still a wine (though not a…erm…still wine, obviously).

1999 was only the second time in the history of DP that three consecutive vintages were declared (I’m looking forward to a mini-vertical of 02/03/04 someday!)  It’s relatively full bodied in the mouth, almost a meal in itself (well it did replace bacon butties on Christmas morning!) but still with a citrus spine to the exotic fruit body.

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003

I finally supped my last bottle (for now) of this tropical wonder.  If you cast your mind back a decade or so, 2003 was the summer of heatwaves across Europe.  In some parts of France, the heat was such that vines just shut down.  In Champagne, the extra ripe grapes made for a very different vintage – if indeed a vintage was declared at all.  Bollinger called their release “2003 by Bollinger” instead of the usual “Grande Année” and Krug only decided to release a vintage at all last month.

So how did the 2003 heatwave affect the sprinkling of vines in southern England?  In pretty much the same way, but because the climate is slightly cooler, the resultant wines still held on to some acidity.  The Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003 is of course 100% Chardonnay, which tends to be on the lemon and lime side of the fruit continuum™, but here it also gives delicious tropical notes of pineapple, grapefruit and mango – almost like Lilt Champagne! (and yes that’s a good thing in my eyes.)

Louis Roederer Cristal 2005

Just a glass of this was enough to confirm why the luxury cuvée created for Tsar Alexander II is still so highly regarded.  The name comes from the flat-bottomed, transparent lead-crystal bottle – it has been suggested that this design made regicide by poison more difficult, though the lack of a punt underneath means that the bottle has to be made of thicker glass to withstand the pressure, and when on display Cristal is often wrapped in a decorative cellophane wrapper which blocks harmful ultraviolet light.

The 2005 vintage is still a baby – after all it has spent over five years maturing on the lees and a further eight months resting in bottle post disgorgement before release – so expect it to evolve for another five to ten years.  When tasted at the Dublin Wine & Fizz Fest hosted by Deveney’s of Dundrum, it showed lots of chewy brioche character with fresh lemon through the middle – a consequence of time on the lees and a little more Chardonnay (45%) than usual in the blend.

Varnier-Fannière Brut Zero NV*, Grand Vintage 2006* & Cuvée St Denis NV

Varnier-Fannière Grand Cru Brut Zero NV
Varnier-Fannière Grand Cru Brut Zero NV

Three wines from my favourite grower in Champagne, Denis Varnier, based in Avize on the Côte des Blancs.

The staple of any Champagne producer is their non-vintage (NV) Brut, which should be fairly dry.  The Brut Zero is made in exactly the same way as the regular Brut NV but without any sugar dosage in the liqueur d’expédition, the top up of wine after the dead yeast sediment has been expelled from the bottle.  This is a very fashionable style at the moment, dubbed “skinny Champagne” by some because of the lack of residual sugar, but it doesn’t always work; there has to be enough flavour from the underlying fruit and / or some autolytic character from the yeast to make it interesting, otherwise a Brut Zero can be table-grippingly acidic without anything to balance it.

Thankfully Denis has got it right!  This was served as an aperitif with olives, and was a perfect match; it didn’t feel it was lacking anything without added sugar.  It is pure and linear, with delightfully fresh citrus from the 100% Chardonnay grapes.

Varnier-Fannière Grand Vintage 2006
Varnier-Fannière Grand Vintage 2006

So what’s the difference here?  The most aromatic grapes from old vines are selected when the overall quality is good enough to make a single vintage wine.  After the second fermentation the minimum ageing is 36 months, though this is exceeded.  Production is much smaller than the NV and so allocations are limited to a dozen bottles per customer each year.

And finally, the Cuvée St Denis which is a non-vintage, though Monsieur Varnier probably regards it as a “multi-vintage”.  It is made exclusively from the first (and best) pressing of 65+ year old vines in a single vineyard in Avize called “Clos du Grand Père”.  However, the Clos is apparently is being ripped up and replanted (possibly because yields have fallen so low) so there won’t be any more Cuvée St Denis produced for the next decade or so – get it while you can!

Cave de Turckheim Confidence Crémant d’Alsace NV

The precise blend of grapes in this Champagne method sparkler is a secret, but it most probably has a majority of Chardonnay (allowed in AC Crémant d’Alsace but not AC Alsace) plus a splash of Pinot Blanc.  It is thus a blanc de blancs, but a very different BdB from the Pierre Gimonnet below – it is fresh, floral and citrus-driven, and so could be a perfect aperitif.  At €39.75 for three bottles direct from the winery it is also something of a bargain!

Those of you familiar with French wine may notice the “Cave de” at the beginning of a winery name, meaning cellar but nearly always signifying a cooperative.  The wine from some coops can be dreadful, just made with volume in mind and very little attention paid to quality.  The Cave de Turckheim (and several others throughout Alsace) have much more rigorous standards, with several quality levels ranging from basic everyday drinking (just one or two glasses, of course!) to Grand Cru stunners.  Furthermore, they produce different cuvées based on the type of soil in the vineyards that contribute grapes, whether it’s granite, clay and calcium or sand and pebbles.  You can test the effect of terroir for yourself!

Pierre Gimonnet Premier Cru Cuis Blanc de Blancs NV

Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs
Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs

I bought a case of six from The Wine Society as a relatively inexpensive fizz as it was on a case discount.  However, despite its modest price it turned out to be excellent fizz – it showed very well at a Sweeney’s-On-Tour summer barbecue and was one of the stars of the 2013 Glasnevin Fizz Fest.  The winery is in the premier cru village of Cuis where Didier Gimonnet’s family has been growing grapes since 1750, though they also own vines in other grand and premier cru villages.  As always with France, if there’s a blend of different quality levels then the lower level is what goes on the label.

This is unmistakably a 100% Chardonnay such is the streak of lemon and lime through it, though it has obviously spent more than the minimum of fifteen months ageing on the lees as there are lovely bready characters as well.  A typical Non-Vintage cuvée can contain as many as five different years’ wines; reserve wines are stored ready-blended in bottle to make future assemblage easier.

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State Of The Nation (Part 1): The Annual New Zealand Trade Tasting in Dublin

The New Zealand wine industry is in rude health.  It is still a minnow compared to many other countries, even its close neighbour Australia, but the commitment to quality is unmatched.  A few years ago there was a small dip as large amounts of dilute Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from excess production were offloaded cheaply though UK supermarkets.  That imbalance seems to have been corrected and hopefully we have seen the last of that swill.

Last month I attended the Annual New Zealand Trade Tasting in Dublin (with thanks to Jean Smullen for the invitation!) including the Sauvignon Blanc masterclass.  I got to taste virtually all the wines there, though of course there were lots of wineries not represented.  This post (and part 2, to come) reflect my views on the wines I particularly liked, or at least found interesting.

A brief recap as to the wine regions of New Zealand (with the major ones in bold):

  • Wairapa & Canterbury
  • Martinborough & Wairarapa
  • Central Otago
  • Marlborough
  • Nelson
  • Hawke’s Bay
  • Waitaki
  • Auckland, Matakana, Waiheke & Kumeu
  • Gisborne
  • Northland
  • Waikato & Bay Of Plenty

Sauvignon Blanc Masterclass

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L-R: Matt Thomson, Kevin Judd, Jamie Marfell

I got a spot on the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Masterclass, given by Matt Thomson (Saint Clair), Jamie Marfell (Brancott Estate) and the “godfather of Marlborough Sauvignon”, Kevin Judd (with Cloudy Bay for maaany years and now running his own label Greywacke). Not only did we get a tutored tasting of eight different wines, but there was also lots of interesting information: SB accounts for ~66% of wine production in NZ but ~84% of exports; therefore the the High Commissioner of New Zealand to the UK was probably right that the UK doesn’t get the best NZ Chardonnays see article.

Although the first Sauvignon vines were planted in 1973, the vast majority of current vines were planted in the last decade or so; not only is this due to expansion in the area under vine, Phylloxera hit Marlborough in 1990 so existing vines had to be pulled up and new vines plants (presumably on American rootstocks). Vintage does matter in New Zealand due to the marginal climate – even for whites. It was so cold in 2012 that the grapes were nowhere near ready around the normal harvest time, so winegrowers just had to wait and wait. As Marlborough is dry and windy there is little risk of botrytis.  2012 wines often have green gooseberry flavours rather than the more common tropical and passionfruit characteristics.

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So much Sauvignon, so little time…

In Hawke’s Bay (and to a less extent Wairarapa and Nelson), SB is picked earlier to maintain acidity; hence, flavour is usually less intense than in Marlborough. In particular the cool nights in Marlborough mean the growing season is a long one, and thus more flavour and sugar develops while the acidity slowly drops. As the wines are fermented until technically dry (< 3g RS) they tend to have slightly higher alcohol than other regions. The vast majority of SB is machine harvested so that it can be picked very quickly and at night when temperatures are low (sometimes as cool as 5C). Winemakers are continuously experimenting with the techniques used for the standard, well-recognised style of Sauvignon and are also making alternative styles (see below).

Selected Wine Highlights

I’ve grouped some of the wines I liked best (or found most interesting) by grape rather than producer or importer.

Sauvignon Blanc (An asterix * indicates the wine was part of the Masterclass)

Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2013*

The majority of the fruit comes from the Southern Valleys, a different microclimate from the Wairau “Plains”.  Kevin likes to have a fairly open canopy so that sunlight gets to the grapes.  90% fermented in stainless steel with cultured yeast, 10% fermented in old oak barrels with wild yeast.  Smooth and balanced.

Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2012

Partially hand picked, and fermented in (mainly) old French oak barrels with naturally occurring yeast.  Occasional batonnage and two thirds go through MLF for softness (this is usually avoided for regular Sauvignons) and additional maturation on the lees for creaminess and complexity.  Note the current release is usually a year later than the standard Sauvignon.

Saint Clair Pioneer Block 18 Snap Block Sauvignon Blanc, Wairau Valley, Marlborough 2012*

This was one of the most successful 2012s shown at the tasting.  Sourced from a single vineyard, it was pressed quickly in small presses and 100% fermented and matured in stainless steel.  Just lovely.

Hunter’s Kaho Roa Wairau Valley, Marlborough 2012*

OK, this is where it gets complicated: 25% was fermented in new French oak barrels, 75% fermented in stainless steel.  Of the latter, half (37.5%) was transferred into barrel for maturation and the remainder was left in stainless steel.  Nice and round in the mouth with subtle oak/vanilla notes. Tohu Mugwi Reserve Awatere Valley, Marlborough 2012* The most subtle of the alternative style Sauvignons.  Being from the cooler Awatere Valley it has pronounced minerality.  80% goes through MLF to soften it out, but it remains so zesty that if I was told there was 10% Riesling in the blend I would have believed it.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2013

The original premium Sauvignon that created such a buzz about Marlborough is still a fine drop, though it has plenty of competition nowadays.  The 2013 is smooth in the mouth and has mouth-watering acidity without being sharp.

Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Possibly the most alternative of all the alternative Sauvignon offerings.  The grape variety isn’t even mentioned on the front label so that consumers don’t pick it up thinking it’s a regular style.  Another winemaker mentioned that their oaked Sauvignon “doesn’t think it’s a Chardonnay” – which could reasonably be levelled at Te Koko – but I love it!

Villa Maria Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Clifford Bay 2012

This is one of my personal favourites (it was the white wine served at my wedding), it really punches above its price point.  The 2012 is turning slightly vegetal with asparagus notes but remains delicious.  I’d be very interested to try the latest vintage as a comparison.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is really coming on in New Zealand, especially as vines attain ten years of age or more.  For a detailed review check out Jamie Goode’s New Zealand Pinot Noir e-book.  Martinborough has been the pioneer of excellent Pinot in New Zealand, and some of the older vineyards are producing lovely wines.  Central Otago makes a very different style of Pinot – although the temperature can be very low at night, the region gets lots of sunshine so the grapes get thicker skins and high potential alcohol, adding to the colour and body.  Marlborough Pinot is also on the up as vines are now planted on more appropriate sites, rather than just where convenient or next to Sauvignon vines.

Matua Lands & Legends Pinot Noir Central Otago 2012

This is real Central Pinot, darker in colour and bigger in the mouth than Marlborough Pinot Noir; not as subtle but a very enjoyable wine – a Pinot Noir for winter.

Delta Hatters Hill Pinot Noir Marlborough 2009

A step up from the regular Pinot, this is grown on the slope of a hill (hence the name!) rather than in the valley.

Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir Marlborough 2012

On top form with this vintage, fabulously perfumed red fruit on the nose.

Ata Rangi Pinot Noir Martinborough 2011

The Daddy!  One of New Zealand’s top Pinot Noirs, powerful but silky smooth.  My favourite Pinot of the tasting.  For a less expensive taste try Ata Rangi’s Crimson, made from younger vines and so not quite as intense.

Te Pā Pinot Noir Marlborough 2011

A relative newcomer, made in a minimal-intervention way, and sulphur only added just before bottling.  Grapes are sourced from the Wairau and Awatere Valleys.  Matured for 10 months in large new French barrels.  Pinot Noir can often taste of tinned strawberries and raspberries, but this tasted of fresh fruit – just so alive.

Te Pā Rosé Marlborough 2013

After seven days of soaking the crushed grapes, 20% is bled off as a rosé.  This is just delicious – who needs insipid, off-dry rosés when they can drink a real wine?  A secondary effect of making this is of course to concentrate the colour and flavour of the juice that’s left – the full-blown 2013 Pinot Noir will be something to look forward to!

Chardonnay

Although it will never be loved by some, I believe Chardonnay is New Zealand’s best variety; some fine examples are grown in every wine region of significance, from Kumeu and Waiheke near Auckland down to Central Otago.  Kiwi Chardie is often oaked, with a medium to high toast on the barrel, but even the more tropical versions possess a mineral streak and plenty of acidity which make them interesting and fresh.

Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay Martinborough 2011

Recently compared by Anthony Rose in the UK Independent to a Meursault, this is made from 28 year old Mendoza clones (look out for a forthcoming post on clones) which gives a forward, ripe and buttery flavour.  This could be kept for up to two decades – who says New World whites don’t age?

Cloudy Bay Chardonnay Marlborough 2012

For me this has long been the best wine produced by Cloudy Bay, especially in the periods when the quality of the Sauvignon has wavered slightly.  For a Euro or two more it offers far more complexity and will develop nicely over several years.

Man O’War Valhalla Chardonnay Waiheke 2011

Being so far north, and therefore closer to the equator, gives added intensity to the tropical fruit; being on an island helps produce refreshing acidity at harvest.  Alcoholic fermentation is with wild yeast and malolactic fermentation is blocked.

Greywacke Chardonnay Marlborough 2011

My tasting note for this wine was unprintable – it’s that good!

Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay 2011

Relatively restrained compared to some of the other Chardies mentioned here; poured by the son of winemaker John Hancock.

Tohu Chardonnay Rapaura Marlborough 2013

If I had tasted this blind then New Zealand would have been way down the list of countries I’d have guessed at. Fermentation and maturation in neutral stainless steel means there is no oak influence. It goes through full malolactic fermentation and then batonnage (lees stiring) twice weekly for six weeks, adding complexity and body. If you like really good 1er Cru Chablis, give this a go!

Riesling, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Cabernet and others will be covered in Part 2

My Favourite Wines of 2013 – The Reds

Here are some of my favourite and most memorable red wines I tasted (or mainly) drunk in 2013

Penfolds

For me, 2013 was the year I finally dug in to my stash of premium Penfolds wines.  Penfolds make a wide, seemingly ever-increasing, range of wines in different styles and at different price points; but there are a few that wine lovers will instantly recognise the name of.  Wine geeks should seek out The Rewards Of Patience which gives the full history of Penfolds.

I bought a six bottle case of 1995 Grange back in 2000 when I popped to the local Tesco near work for a sandwich. Pretty expensive sandwich! I’d just signed a contract for a new job and was over the moon when I noticed that Tesco had 25% of Australian wine when buying six or more. I was friendly with the wine section manager Gavin as he was actually in to wine as opposed to being a glorified shelf-stacker, so he gave me the nod that the store’s annual allocation of two half cases of Grange had just arrived in. As Grange is released 5 years after vintage it was the 1995 being offered; unsurprisingly, it wasn’t out on the shelves with the Hardy’s Stamp and Nottage Hill. Being a qualified bean counter I worked out that the 25% saving on a bottle would pretty much cover five more modest bottles – they would effectively be free! But then it occured to me that 25% discount on six bottles would save me even more money! I’m sure that logic works for some other people as well…. The shocked look on the lass at the till as the price came up for a bottle was hilarious.

I added to my collection when the same offer was on the following year for the 1996 vintage and then in 2002 buying the 1997 vintage, all with a 25% discount, but I gave up when the 1998 vintage was released at a much higher price. I found out why when visiting a neighbour of Penfolds in the Barossa in late 2003 – it was just a great vintage that cases were selling for double the release price in the car park just outside the cellar door!

I did, however, get a sixer of Penfolds Bin 707 (their top Cabernet Sauvignon) from the 1998 vintage. It generally retailed at 40% of the price of Grange, and this seems to hold true today.

So from 2000 to 2009 these cases of wine moved house with me a few times but remained unopened. Finally, when I got married in 2009 I gave a bottle of 1995 Grange to each of my four groomsmen (and the brother-in-law who stepped in to do the video at the last minute) as a thank-you, leaving me with the last for myself.

Just before Christmas 2013 we hosted two of my wine drinking mates and their wives; partially to give my wife a chance to make beef wellington for the first time in advance of Christmas day, but also a chance to catch up in a more relaxed atmosphere than some of the bigger tasting events. And it also gave me an excuse to open a few nice bottles! We had two bottles of Champagne (see forthcoming post on best Fizz of 2013), two bottles of white (ditto best White of 2013), four half bottles of dessert wine at the end and the following bottles of red:

Penfolds Bin 707 1998

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Penfolds Grange 1997

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Penfolds Grange 1996

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They were all maturing, with light red to orange rims, but still a dense dark core. There was lots of black fruit to the fore and the tannins were quite mellow, though unmistakably present. The 97 Grange was marginally preferred to the the 96, but the Bin 707 was astounding. Far from being a poor relation, its shone out, still bursting with cassis and blackberry. Definitely my red wine of the year, and a bargain to boot. Was it a better wine or just an excellent vintage? Who knows, but I need to taste some more to find out.

The beef wellington went down a storm at the meal, and also on Christmas day itself.  And what did I open to go with it the second time?  My last remaining bottle of Grange 1995!

So was the Aussie Icon Grange worth it? In my opinion, the bottles I had weren’t worth their current price of £200 – £250 retail – but definitely worth the £75 I originally paid!  The reward for patience…

Domaine de la Janasse Chateauneuf du Pape 2009

I had a spot of luck at the end of October (well two, actually, but I won’t mention the other one here!) as I was given a bottle of Rhône wine as part of the Rhône Wine Week promotions with the proviso that I write a short review. Expecting a generic Côtes du Rhône I was happily surprised to receive a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, probably the most prestigious AC in the southern Rhône.

Due to the widespread renown of the appelation (which was the first ever AC), and despite the fairly high standards demanded by the INAO (French wine regulators), some of the wines produced in the area are not worthy of the name. These are generally easy to spot as they are the cheapest on offer – especially if they are “50% off”. Other villages in the Rhône offer much better value, particularly Rasteau and Lirac.

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So I opened the bottle with moderate expectations. And boy, was I wrong! My faith in Chateauneuf was restored anew. It showed deep black fruits and spice from the Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre (GSM) dominated blend, and a luxurious round mouthfeel with a velvety long finish. It had such power (I was gobsmacked by the 15.5% abv, not obvious at all) but also finesse.

My wife asked for a sip and immediately demanded a glass, it was that good.

A profound wine which I will be looking out for again.

Errázuriz Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve 2003

I managed to swing an invite to a 4-decade vertical tasting of Errázuriz’s premium Cabernet blend Don Maximiano. Cabernet Sauvignon usually makes up around 85% of the blend with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot making up the rest, though the precise proportions vary depending on the vintage. “Don Max” is a definite contender for Chile’s best red wine.

The 1989 and 1994 were more like mature Haut-Medoc than something from the new world. The 2001 and 2003 were blockbusters, not a style everyone likes, but the 2003 was absolutely fabulous in my eyes (and those of most others I spoke to). Lots of deep cassis and plum with fine tannins and acidity still hanging in there. The 2008 was also very good though perhaps not yet of age. The 2010 was a more modern Cabernet, not picked quite as late and not quite as long in oak so the wine remained fresher. All four wines from this millenium were drinking beautifully.

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Gaec François et Fils Côte-Rôtie 2011

This beauty was party of a Côte du Rhône tasting hosted by Jean Smullen, and was the finest Northern Rhône wine I have tasted for years.  As is the norm in the North the wine is based on Syrah (95%), but with 5% of Viognier added for suppleness and fragrance.  After tasting lots of Grenache blends with 14%+ alcohol this was more elegant and refined, medium in weight and only 12.5% abv – it didn’t drink like it was missing any oomph.

So how do they make it so elegant?  Firstly, the Viognier is cofermented with the Syrah (i.e. the black and white grapes are fermented in the same vessel at the same time) which is a long standing practice in the area.  Secondly, 400 litre oak barrels are used rather than the smaller Bordeaux barrique of 225 litres, and only 30% of them were new.  Interestingly the soil in the Côte Brune is said to be similar to that of Coonawarra in South Australia, another high quality red wine area.

I will also be posting up my favourite whites, fizz and stickies of 2013, watch this space!

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