Tasting Events

Liberty Portfolio Tasting 2019 (part 4 – New World Reds)

“New World” is not a great term as it basically means “outside Europe”, so it includes many different countries which are different in style.  Just for convenience, it allows us to look at a selection wines from California, Central Otago, Southern Australia and Ningxia, all available from Liberty Wines.

Pine Ridge Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (15.0%, RRP €72.99 at Blackrock Cellar; The Corkscrew; La Touche Wines, Greystones; McHugh’s; Redmonds of Ranelagh; Terroirs)

Pine Ridge Vineyards CabSauv NapaValley

I’ve been a fan of the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc / Viognier blend for some time (see review here) but as this is Napa then the Cabernet is the real deal.  Pine Ridge Vineyards was first established in Stags Leap District in the late 70s with a single vineyard next to a – you guessed it – pine ridge.  Their vineyards now number 12 and total 80 hectares over five Napa sub-zones: Stags Leap District, Rutherford, Carneros, Howell Mountain and Oakville.  Pine Ridge produce a number of different wines, including several from individual sub-zones, but this is a blend across the five.

This bottle is labelled as a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon but that is 91% of the blend, with the balance made up by 6% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc.  35% of the 2016 was aged in new American oak for 18 months, giving creamy vanilla to go with the blackcurrant, cherry and blackberry notes.  This is a big, lush, heady wine that is not light and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  It’s not for those who like racy reds but it’s imposing and delicious.

New Kanaan Pretty Pony 2013 (14.0%, €52.99 at Cinnamon Cottage, Cork; The Corkscrew; The Malt House; Mitchell & Son; Terroirs)

Kanaan Winery, `Pretty Pony` FS

Ningxia is of course the most important Chinese region for wine.  Some years ago I reviewed Château Changyu Moser XV 2008 which had an abv of 12.5% and was reminiscent of old school Bordeaux (think mid ’90s).  The Pretty Pony is a very good wine, regardless of origin. It has oak, lovely black fruit and is already showing a nice bit of development.  This is not like old school Bordeaux – this is like modern Bordeaux!

Akarua “Rua” Central Otago Pinot Noir 2017 (14.0%, RRP €29.99 at Avoca; Baggot Street Wines; Blackrock Cellar; Clontarf Wines; The Corkscrew; Mitchell & Son; Red Nose Wine; 1601, Kinsale; www.wineonline.ie)

Akarua Rua Pinot Noir

When Central Otago Pinot Noir began to enter into the consciousness of wine drinkers it was almost the opposite of Marlborough Pinot – big, bold and powerful – with alcohol to match.  It was almost a Pinot Noir for Cabernet drinkers – no bad thing in my eyes as Cab is my favourite black grape – but times, and the wines, have changed.  Now elegance and balance are to the fore, without losing the intensity that made them such a hit in the first place.  This is a great example of Central Pinot – especially for the relatively modest price.  It has a core of ripe red fruit and a slight smoky, savoury edge that gives it some seriousness.

Burn Cottage Central Otago Pinot Noir 2016 (13.5%, RRP €69.99 at The Corkscrew; www.wineonline.ie and good independents nationwide)

Burn Cottage Central Otago Pinot Noir

Another Central Pinot, but totally different in style.  Burn Cottage has been practising biodynamic since the first vines were planted in 2003, and there is a low intervention approach to winemaking.  Whole bunch fermentation allows the wine’s aromas to develop fully – it smells…special, for want of a better term.  This is a fine, fine wine which delights all the senses but the mind too.

Mitolo “G.A.M.” McLaren Vale Shiraz 2015 (14.5%, RRP €39.99 at Blackrock Cellar; www.wineonline.ie and good independents nationwide)

Mitolo GAM Shiraz

Like many McLaren Vale vineyards, Mitolo has Italian roots through its founder Frank Mitolo.  It also has an influx of German genes through winemaker and business partner Ben Glaetzer, scion of the Barossa producer Glaetzer wines.  The Mitolo portfolio is split into three ranges: Jester, Small Batch and Single Vineyard.

The G.A.M. Shiraz was the first wine produced by Mitolo; it’s not an alternative to GSM which is prevalent in the Vale, but actually stands for the initials of Frank’s three children, Gemma, Alex and Marco.  The fruit is sourced from a vineyard belonging to family friends and fellow Italian immigrants the Lopresti vineyards, in particular their “Chinese Block”.  As it’s located at the bottom end of McLaren Vale, the block benefits from cooling sea breezes.  The vines are over 40 years old and are planted on a type of clay.  Fermentation is kept on the cool side to preserve fruit flavours and then fermentation is in French oak (30% new, 70% used) for 15 months.  Only at that point are barrels given final selection for inclusion in the G.A.M. Shiraz.

Aussie Shiraz is a great crowd-pleaser but this is way above that – it has phenomenal structure and intense, opulent-but-not-jammy black fruit.  The Jester Shiraz is a great introduction to the style at a little over half the price of the G.A.M., but I’d argue that the latter is more than twice as good and represents great value at this price point.

Grosset Gaia Clare Valley 2014 (14.0%, RRP €66.99 at good independents nationwide)

Grosset Gaia

Grosset are best known for their Rieslings, especially the Polish Hill and Springvale bottlings, but they also make some great reds too, including a Pinot Noir and this “Gaia” Bordeaux blend.  I say Bordeaux blend though its precise proportions of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc would rarely be found in the Gironde.  At five years old this 2014 still has bright berry, blackcurrant and plum fruit.  It does have a dry leathery side, with grippy tannins and good acidity.  As this is Clare there is of course a screwcap closure; a challenge to the Bordelais to catch up?  This will be drinking well for years and years.

 

Liberty Portfolio Tasting 2019

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Tasting Events

DNS taste North America

One of the recent themes we explored at DNS WineClub was North American wines.  Barefoot and Blossom Hill represent the very commercial face of North American wine, manufactured in huge facilities in accordance with simple, fruity, easy-drinking recipes.  At the top end, Cult Cabernets can be spectacular.  However, there is fairly thin coverage in Europe of the wines in between these two extremes – and they’re the ones which offer most interest to winelovers.

California is the powerhouse of the USA and therefore the whole of North America; even though wines are made in the other 49 states, together they make up just 10% of the USA total.  In these parts the most available outside of the Golden State are probably the wines of Oregon and Washington State – we see very little from elsewhere, not even the hip wines of New York State’s Finger Lakes region.

Here are the five wines which shone the most at our tasting:

Pine Ridge Napa Valley Chenin Viognier 2014 (12.5%, RRP €24.95 at Baggot Street Wines and other good independents)

pine ridge chenin viognier

If you ask a fairly knowledgeable wine drinker what grapes they associate with the Napa Valley, Cabernet would undoubtedly come first, followed by Merlot and Zinfandel, with possibly Chardonnay thrown in as a token white.  So here we have something quite unexpected in Napa – a blend of the Loire’s Chenin Blanc and the Rhône’s Viognier.  The blend is consistent from year to year at 80% Chenin and 20% Viognier, and a little residual sugar is left in to round off the acidity.  Most importantly, it really works as a wine – fresh green apple with a little rich apricot as a counterpoint.

Ovum Wines Oregon “Big Salt” 2017 (12.9%, @RRP €33.95 at Baggot Street Wines, Le Caveau and other good independents)

ovum big salt

Ovum are named after the concrete egg fermenters they use, reflected in the shape of the label of this Alsace-style blend from Oregon.  The grapes used are Riesling, Muscat & Gewurztraminer; the relative proportions are not stated, but the fact that spicy Gewurz doesn’t dominate the nose makes me think that it is probably 10% or less of the blend, with fresh Riesling taking the lead at around 55% and the aromatic Muscat being the balance of around 35% (all my own guesswork, happy to be proved wrong!) 

Again referring to my beloved Alsace, a blend of this quality would be from a Grand Cru vineyard, with the fascinating interplay of three fantastic varieties.  The name of the wine also rings true, with lovely saline elements.  This is an unusual wine which is in fairly short supply in Ireland, but it is worth seeking out.

Au Bon Climat “Wild Boy” Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2017 (13.5%, RRP €39.95 at Baggot Street Wines and other good independents)

au bon climat wild boy chardonnay

Jim Clendenen is the star winemaker and owner of Au Bon Climat, one of the best producers in Santa Barbara County.  ABC is famous for its Pinot Noirs And Chardonnays – Jim is a Burgundy devotee – which come from a variety of different vineyards in the area.  The “Wild Boy” is less subtle than the regular wines, with lots of funk and noticeable oak, spicy pears and citrus.  Whatever magic he uses, this is a highly impressive wine!

The Four Graces Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2014 (13.1%, RRP €40.00 at Sweeney’s and other good independents)

the four graces pinot noir

Perhaps because I’d only tried a couple of lesser quality examples, my preconception of Oregon Pinot Noir was that it could be a bit thin and weedy, rarely living up to its price tag.  While this is no Central Otago clone, it nevertheless has plenty of body and an amazing velvety smoothness to it.  Dundee Hills are one of the best subregions of the Willamette Valley – on this evidence I will be looking out for it again.

Inniskillin Niagara Estate Sparkling Ice Wine 2015 (9.5%, RRP €56 (375 ml) at Sweeney’s of Glasnevin and other good independents)

inniskillen sparkling ice wine

And now for something completely different – something I didn’t even know existed before I put together the wines for this tasting.  Yes, Niagara is famous for its Icewine, often made with the hybrid grape Vidal (which has a very complicated heritage that I’m going to skip over), but a sparkling version?  I didn’t know there was such a thing!  Once pressed, with the ice removed from the juice, specific yeast is added to the juice in a charmat tank so that the CO2 produced from fermentation is dissolved into the wine.  This is such a treat of a wine, with amazing tropical mango, guava and peach notes.  For many tasters, this was the wine of the night.  I really liked it but would probably prefer the still version for myself.

 

Opinion

Wines at Xmas #3 – Carol Smaul [Guest post]

For winelovers, Christmas is a time when we look forward to drinking – and even sharing – a special bottle or two.  This might be a classic wine with traditional fare or just something different we’ve wanted to try for a while.  I asked some wine loving friends what they were looking forward to and they have kindly agreed to write a blog post for me.

Carol Smaul is the talented lady behind Gin & Griddle, a food and drink blog which won Food Review Blog of the Year 2017 in the Irish Blog Awards. 


This Christmas we will be in California – LA, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs – before finishing in Seattle.  So there’s no doubt the wines we will be drinking and enjoying over Christmas and New Year will be from the US.  We both love Californian wines, the big Cabernet Sauvignons, bold and smoky Zinfandels, lighter Pinot Noirs and buttery Chardonnays, all typical of the region.

Cali Wines SB at CaliWineFair
Californian wines at the California Wine Fair in Dublin

As we’ll be in Southern California we hope to try homegrown wines from Santa Barbara wine country as much as possible. In Santa Barbara, we plan to do the Urban Wine Trail, sampling wines from local wineries in the town.  We’re excited to discover new wines from this region and will certainly be buying a few bottles to enjoy over the rest of our holiday.

Au Bon Climate Pinot NoirCalifornian wine can be a little more challenging to locate in Ireland than its European counterparts, but it is definitely possible, once you’re willing to pay a little more (excise and tax have not been kind to US wine in Ireland).  Places such as Searsons, Baggot Street Wines, Blackrock Cellars and O’Briens have reasonable selections and always ask in your local off licence or wine shop, particularly if they import their wine.

One of our favourite wines from the Southern California region is from Au Bon Climat, Pinot Noir. It would be a great choice for Christmas, an intense yet light red, with lots of character, earthy and fruity; an ideal accompaniment to the Turkey & Ham.  The Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Pinot Noir is currently in stock in Baggot Street Wines, priced at €37 (abv 13.5%).

 

 

 


The full series of Wines at Xmas:

 

Tasting Events

10 Top Reds from O’Briens

Ranging from €14 to €49, here are some of my favourite reds from the recent O’Briens Wine Fair:

Viña Chocálan Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (14.5%, €13.95 at O’Briens)

Cab Sauv

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is usually pretty good, even when inexpensive, as Chile has enough sunshine to fully ripen the fruit but the temperatures aren’t so high that it becomes jammy and unbalanced.  This is full of juicy blackcurrant but also has a little bit of cedar wood and graphite which adds interest.

Sierra Cantabria Rioja Crianza 2013 (14.0%, €17.95 down to €15.95 for May at O’Briens)

Sierra-Cantabria-Rioja-Crianza

Particularly at Crianza level, Rioja is known for red fruit flavours (strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant, red cherry) with a good helping of vanilla from American oak.  Sierra Cantabria doesn’t follow this plan at all – it’s all about black fruit and intensity of flavour, much more akin to a good Ribera del Duero than most Riojas.  Why not try it back to back with the Reserva?

Urlar Gladstone Pinot Noir 2014 (14.5%, €23.95 at O’Briens)

Urlar-Pinot-Noir_1

At the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island is the Wairarapa wine region (not to be confused with Waipara near Christchurch).  The oldest part is probably Martinborough (not to be confused with Marlborough at the top of the South Island) but there are other notable areas within the Wairarapa such as Gladstone.  Urlar (from the Gaelic for “Earth”) is an organic and practicing biodynamic producer which makes fantastic Pinot Noir.  While full of fruit it has a savoury, umami edge, and will undoubtedly continue to develop complexity over the coming years.

Viña Chocálan Vitrum Blend 2013 (14.5%, €24.95 down to €22.95 for May at O’Briens)

Vitrium Blend

Sitting just below their icon wine Alexia, Vitrum is Chocalan’s premium range, so named as the owners Toro family have been in the glass bottle making business for over 80 years.  As stated it this wine is a blend, and the grapes aren’t named on the front label as there are so many of them! (for reference the 2013 is: 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Syrah, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec, 4% Carmenère, 2% Petit Verdot).  All these different varieties make for an interesting wine – quite full bodied and with considerable structure, but balanced and drinkable.

Domaine Olivier Santenay Temps des C(e)rises 2014 (13.0%, €28.95 down to €23.16 for May at O’Briens)

Domaine-Olivier-Sant-Temps-des-Crises_1

If you don’t speak French then you’d be forgiven for missing the jeu de mot in the name of this wine: temps des crises is the time of crises and temps des cerises is the time of cherries – and also the name of a famous French revolutionary song.  Anyway, on to the wine itself: this is a mid weight Pinot Noir from Santenay in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune.  It has delightful red currant and red cherry with a touch of smokiness from barrel ageing.  It’s a food friendly wine which could also be drunk on its own.  While ready to drink now I would (try to!) keep this for a few more years before drinking.  Great Burgundy for the €€!

Château Fourcas Hosten Listrac-Médoc 2009 (13.0%, €29.95 down to €23.95 for May at O’Briens)

Ch_teau-Fourcas-Hosten-2009_1

Listrac is one of the two villages (with Moulis) in Bordeaux’s Médoc peninsula outside of the famous four that have their name on an appellation, but is rarely seen in Ireland. Château Fourcas Hosten was bought by the family behind the Hermès luxury goods group around a decade ago and they have invested significantly in quality since then.  As 2009 was an excellent vintage in Bordeaux this is a fairly ripe and accessible wine.

Unusually for a warm vintage it has quite a bias towards Merlot (65%) versus Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), even though they make up 45% each of the vineyard area (and Cabernet Franc being the final 10%).  This wine shows fresh and dried black fruit with some pencil shavings and tobacco – classy, accessible Bordeaux!

Cambria “Julia’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2012 (13.5%, €29.95 at O’Briens)

Cambria-Julias-Vineyard-P-Noir

The spotlight on US Pinot Noir mainly falls on Oregon and its Willamette Valley, but California shouldn’t be ignored – especially Santa Barbara County, which was of course the setting for Sideways.  The cool climate here, especially in Santa Mary Valley, helps Pinot Noir develop fully, keeping acidity and light to medium tannins to frame the fresh red fruit.   One of my favourite American Pinots!

Man O’War Waiheke Island Ironclad 2012 (14.5%, €34.45 at O’Briens)

Man-O_War-Ironclad-Bordeaux

I’m a big fan of Man O’War’s premium range, all nautically named and great examples of their type (I’m just gutted that demand for their Julia sparkling wine at their winery restaurant means that it won’t be exported anymore).  Ironclad is the Bordeaux blend; the blend changes from year to year depending on how each variety fared, with any fruit that doesn’t make the grade being declassified into the next tier down.

The current release is the 2012 which is 45% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot, 13% Malbec and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon – only Carménère misses out from Bordeaux’s black grapes, and hardly anyone grows that in Bordeaux nowadays anyway. It’s full of ripe blackberry, blackcurrant and blueberry fruit with some graphite.  It would pair well with red meat, but being a bit riper in style than most Bordeaux means it drinks well on its own.

Frank Phélan 2012 (13.0%, €34.95 down to €27.95 for May at O’Briens)

Frank-Phelan

Back to Bordeaux proper again with the second wine of Château Phélan Ségur, named after the son of the original Irish founder Bernard Phelan.  As a second wine it mainly uses younger fruit than the Grand Vin, a shorter time in barrel and a higher proportion of Merlot (this is 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon).  All these lead to it being a more supple wine, and more approachable in its youth.  For me this was quite similar to the Fourcas Hosten – dark black fruit in particular – but younger and with a little more tannin and graphite notes.  Steak anyone?

Torbreck The Struie 2014 (14.5%, €49.00 down to €42 for May at O’Briens)

Torbreck-Struie

It’s fair to say that Barossa Shiraz is one of Australia’s most well-recognised wine styles, but there are actually significant differences within the Barossa.  The most notable difference is that there are actually two distinct valleys – the Barossa Valley itself and the Eden Valley which is at a higher altitude and hence has a cooler climate (there’s some great Riesling grown in the latter but very little in the former!)

The Struie is a blend of fruit from both valleys: 77% Barossa (for power and richness) and 23% Eden (for acidity and elegance), all aged in a mix of old and new French oak barrels.  There’s intense blackberry and plum fruit with a twist of spice.

This is a fairly monumental wine which actually deserves a bit more time before drinking, so buy a few and lay them down…but if you can’t wait, decant!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opinion, Tasting Events

Top M&S Whites

Last month I picked out six super sparklers from Marks and Spencer.  Now it’s time for some of my favourite M&S whites:

Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Chardonnay 2014 (12.5%, €23.50)

arbois

The region of eastern France is gradually gaining significant recognition for its wide variety of grapes and styles, many of which are particular to the area.  This is something more conventional, being a Chardonnay made in the “ouillé” style whereby evaporation losses are topped up to prevent too much oxygen in the barrel.  This has far more texture and flavour than you’d expect from a “Chardonnay” – it’s different but well worth a try.

Chapel Down Lamberhurst Estate Bacchus Reserve 2015 (11.5%, €19.50)

bacchus

I have been a keen supporter of English sparkling wine for over a decade, but I haven’t shared the same enthusiasm about English still wines.  However, there are a growing number of very good still wines that deserve your attention.  Bacchus was created in 1930s Germany – and is still grown there – but has found a second home in the cool English climate.  Chapel Down’s Reserve bottling is full of stone, tropical and citrus fruit. It’s well balanced and has a touch of residual sugar to counterpoint the mouth watering acidity.

Cupcake Vineyards Chardonnay 2014 (13.0%, €15.50)

cupcake

The Central Coast on the front label is of course the Central Coast of California, which includes Santa Barbara of Sideways fame and Monterey County, where the majority of the Chardonnay grapes were sourced from.

Part of the fermented juice was matured in (mainly old, I reckon) oak barrels and part underwent softening malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks, followed by lees stirring.  When recombined this wine gives the best of both world – it has some oak, but not too much, and some creamy lees flavours. Great value for money – just don’t drink it too cold.

Atlantis Santorini 2015 (13.0%, €15.50)

atlantis

Santorini is my favourite wine region of Greece for whites, especially those made wholly or predominantly from Assyrtiko as this is.  Due to its latitude the island receives lots of sun but this is somewhat tempered by sea breezes.  It sees no oak nor malolactic fermentation so remains clean and linear.

Earth’s End Central Otago Riesling 2015 (12.5%, €20.50)

earths-end

Central Otago in the deep south of New Zealand is primarily known for its Pinot Noirs – and rightly so – but its long cool growing season is also suitable for Chardonnay and Riesling.  This has lovely lime notes, and an off dry finish perfectly balances the vibrant acidity.  With Haka instructions on the front, surely this would be a great present for a rugby fan?

Terre di Chieti Pecorino 2015 (12.5%, €15.00)

pecorino

Another recent favourite of mine is Pecorino, an everyday Italian white wine with far more character than the lakes of uninteresting Pinot Grigio that clog up most supermarket shelves.  Both oranges and lemons feature on the palate – it’s a great drop at a keen price.

Villiera Traditional Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2016 (14.0%, €18.50)

villiera

Modest packaging belies a sublime wine, one of the most enjoyable South African Chenins I’ve had for a long time.  The complexity is due to the variety of choices made by winemaker Jeff Grier – a small amount of botrytised grapes was used, part of the wine went through malolactic and part did not, both new and second-use French oak barrels were used.  The end result is a marvel of honey and vanilla – amazingly complex for such a young wine.

Stepp Riesling *S* Kallstadter Saumagen 2015 (13.0%, €22.00)

stepp

Germany’s Pfalz region is beloved of the Wine Hunter himself, Jim Dunlop, and of course makes some great Riesling.  The alcohol of 13.0% is much higher than an average Mosel Riesling, for example, which indicates that this is likely to be significantly drier and more full bodied.  Apricot, lemon, lime and orange make an appearance – just such a lovely wine!

Red Claw Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2015 (13.0%, €27.00)

red-claw

From one of Australia’s premium cool climate regions, this is a Chardonnay to make Burgundy lovers weep – or convert!  The fermented wines are matured on their lees in 500L barrels (over double the standard barrique of 225L) with no malolactic fermentation allowed, so freshness is maintained.  This is a grown up wine with lots of lees character and reductive notes.

Tasting Events

O’Briens Fine Wines Sale – My Selection

Leading Irish off licence chain O’Briens have some excellent premium wines and some are on sale (in store only) for a short time.  Here is a selection of my favourites:

Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Viognier 2012 (14.5%, €31.95 down to €25.56)

 

viognier

I had tried this wine previously and, although it was pretty good, I wasn’t overly impressed.  Tasting is such a subjective pastime that I’m always ready to give a wine another try – and I’m so glad I did!  I didn’t find this as oily as some Rhône Viogniers but it was peachy and rich – the abv of 14.5% should be a hint that it’s on the dry side.  More of a food wine than a quaffing wine, but very well crafted.

Henri Bourgeois Sancerre d’Antan 2014 (13.5%, €45.00 down to €36.00)

antan

This upmarket Sancerre is not for the casual drinker; it’s pricey but excellent.  If I bought it I’d stick it away for a few years at least – it’s still fairly tight and closed up, but undoubtedly has fabulous potential.

La Comtesse de Pazo Barrantes Albariño 2013 (13.5%, €42.00 down to €33.60)

comtesse

This is a fine wine to sit and sip, and to reflect upon the world.  It has lees work and some oak, so it’s unlike most Albariños on the market, but it’s no Chardonnay clone either. Probably my favourite Albariño ever tasted!

Chanson Puligny-Montrachet 2013 (13.5%, €55.00 down to €44.00)

puligny

Top class Burgundy isn’t cheap, so why not try it when it’s on offer?  This is another youngster that really needs putting away for a while, or at least decanting for a few hours if drinking now.  Oak is noticeable on the nose (which I like, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea) and adds depth to the palate.  Don’t drink it too cold, and only share with friends who appreciate good wine!

Caro 2013 (14.5%, €50.00 down to €40.00)

caro

This is a serious Malbec – Cabernet Sauvignon blend which is the result of collaboration between Bordeaux’s Domaines Barons de Rothschild-Lafite and the Catena family.  At this young age it still has lots of oak and tannin and primary plum and blackcurrant fruit characters, but also cedar and sandalwood notes.  Far better value than most posh Bordeaux reds, keep it for as long as you can bare!

Marqués de Murrietta Gran Reserva 2007 (14.0%, €34.95 down to €24.95)

marques

When it comes to Rioja I normally go for a Crianza or Reserva style where the fruit is more prominent than the longer aged Gran Reservas.  They can be too dry and “woody” (for me “oaky” can be good but “woody” rarely is).  Marqués de Murrietta have a beauty on their hands with the 2007 – it’s exactly how Gran Reservas should be: lots of fruit (strawberry, raspberry and blackberry) with vanilla,  all in a soft and cosseting package.  Get in!

Delheim Grand Reserve 2013 (14.0%, €36.95 down to €29.56)

delheim

This is of course a South African wine but – tasted blind – does a great impression of a classy left bank Bordeaux.  The main difference is that it is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape which never ripens sufficiently to be used as a varietal in Bordeaux (though can be a very high percentage of some Pauillacs).  It’s definitely a dry wine, with pencil shavings and cedar notes that you’d associate with a more mature wine – so treat yourself to a bottle and a big steak!  More info here.

Gérard Bertrand Cigalus 2014 (14.5%, €38.95 down to €29.95)

cigalus

Probably the best wine in Gérard Bertrand’s portfolio, this is a biodynamically produced blend using both Bordeaux and Languedoc varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Caladoc (a cross between Grenache and Malbec). Interestingly, the Syrah and Carignan undergo whole berry carbonic maceration (similar to Gamay in Beaujolais) which adds a little approachability – it’s a big wine, but not too intimidating.

Tasting Events

I Wish They All Could Be California

North Coast

Although the French wouldn’t like to hear it, there are some high level similarities between the USA’s AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) and the French Appellations d’Origine Controlées (AOCs), namely that the most prestigious delineated areas are small and sit within larger areas, sometimes with multiple layers – for example, just as Puligny-Montrachet is a part of the Côte de Beaune and then the larger Burgundy area, Russian River Valley is part of Sonoma County, then the North Coast and finally the general California area.

Confusing?  Perhaps, but the relative size of an appellation within a region is one (of several) indicators to a wine’s quality.  Here are three wines from Cline Cellars – a producer I hold in high regard – that illustrate this.

Cline Cellars North Coast Viognier 2013 (14.0%, €17.99 at jnwine.com)

Cline_CATier_Viognier_NV_Stelvin small

The North Coast AVA is illustrated on the map above – it contains the world-renowned Napa and Sonoma plus other great areas such as Los Carneros.  If a producer uses grapes from one of those prestigious areas then s/he will use that on the label, but if the vines lie outside them or the wine is a blend from different regions then North Coast will be used.

This is a 100% Viognier, the aromatic grape that was once almost lost apart from a few plots in Condrieu in the Northern Rhône.  It manages to be fresh and rich at the same time, with typical Viognier aromas of flowers and stone fruit such as apricot and peach.  It has a little oiliness in the mouth and more body than many whites.  Viognier is a grape that I don’t always get on with, but this is the best Californian Viognier I’ve tried to date – and great value too!

Cline Cellars Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013 (14.5%, €22.50 at jnwine.com)

 

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Sonoma Coast is the part of Sonoma County that lies – you guessed it! – on the coast.  This obviously makes it a cooler climate area than inland Sonoma (it also receives more rain than the rest of the county), so it’s more suited to varieties such as Pinot Noir.  That being said, at 14.5% this is no shrinking violet of a Pinot – you’d never wonder if it was actually a rosé rather than a red, like some Pinots!  It has a lot of body and power, but it’s no monster either, as there’s plenty of acidity to keep it in balance, and although it feels silky and voluptuous in the mouth there’s no alcohol burn on the finish.  In line with the experience there’s an abundance of bold black fruit and a twist of exotic spice.  It’s an all-round impressive wine!

Cline Cellars Contra Costa County Big Break Vineyard Zinfandel 2011 (16.0% €29.50 at jnwine.com)

 

cline_singlevineyard_bigbreak_zn_nv_final small

Based on my somewhat basic understanding of California’ geography, Contra Costa County is actually just outside the North Coast wine area, right at the bottom of the map at the top.  This is a single vineyard wine, so perhaps some sort of equivalent of Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières?  Well, that might be a bit fanciful, but the (unirrigated) vines here are a century old and produce impressive concentration.  The sun beats down fiercely during the day but the nearby Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers provide cooling breezes at night which allow the grapes to rest.

Okay, there’s no hiding from the size of the Big Break Zin (named after an old levee in the area which broke decades ago) but you don’t have to – it’s approachable and cuddly rather than intimidating.  It wears its 16.0% well, just like its little brother Pinot, all down to balancing acidity.  In fact the acidity comes through in the type of fruit tasted on the palate – fresh black cherry and blackberry, with hints of cinnamon and other spices.

Conclusions

Of course the comparison between AVAs and AOCs can only go so far – the latter can be incredibly prescriptive in terms of varieties, yields, vine training, irrigation, alcohol levels and many other things, whereas AVAs are primarily just based on vineyard location.  But I think that the wines above do show that there are different quality levels and that smaller is generally better.  It could just be down to the nature of the grapes for each wine, but above all paying more definitely brings the rewards of higher concentration in the glass.

Are you inclined to agree?

 

And of course, those lyrics…

 

 

 

Make Mine A Double

Chardonnays from California and Kent [Make Mine a Double #19]

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I have long being a fully paid-up member of the alternative ABC club – Always Buy Chardonnay (rather than Anything But Chardonnay) – whether it’s in or out of fashion makes no difference to me.  As long as it’s well made, I like all the different styles it comes in – oaked, unoaked, tropically rich or mineral and lean (and that’s without going into fizz).

Here are two which are very different in style – one from a well-known Chardonnay producing area, and another where (still) Chardonnay is almost unheard of!

Hush Heath Estate Skye’s English Chardonnay 2015 (11.0%, £16.50 from Hush Heath Estate)

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English sparkling wine is riding high at the moment – more and more producers are being set up and quality is constantly improving.  English still wines are still very variable, in my opinion. Many of them are based on less well known varieties which were created to survive and thrive in cool German vineyards, but are less than celebrated elsewhere.  Some Alsatian style wines have proved to be very good (e.g. Stopham Estate), but here is the first (still) English Chardonnay I have ever tasted.

Hush Heath Estate can’t claim anywhere near the same continuous history as a working winery compared to Beringer below – the current winery was only set up in 2010 – but the estate was created as far back as 1503 when Columbus* was still making his transAtlantic jaunts.   Hush Heath make quite a broad range of drinks, including the cider I reviewed here and award winning Balfour Brut Sparkling.

And it’s an absolutely delightful wine!  Not at all shouty, it’s gently delicious – in fact with both Golden Delicious and Granny Smith’s apple characters, plus a touch of citrus.  I detected a little bit of residual sugar on the finish (a few g/L, though I’m happy to be corrected) which adds to the juicy round fruit character and doesn’t make it taste “sweet”.

As my opening suggested, some people just don’t like Chardonnay, but I asked a friend who is among them to try this and she was pleasantly surprised – “If only all Chardonnay was like this”.  Truly a wine for both ABC clubs!

Beringer Founders’ Estate California Chardonnay 2013 (14.0%, €19.99 from stockists listed below)

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The Beringer Brothers were pioneers of winemaking in the Napa Valley, now the most prestigious wine region in the United States.  Their original winery is claimed to be the oldest continually operating winery in the Napa Valley (since 1876), which is rather notable if the prohibition era is taken into account.  In fact, Beringer was the first California winery to offer tours after the repeal of prohibition – inviting A list stars such as Clark Gable might have helped!

From 1971 to 2000 ownership changed hands a few times, until it finally became part of the Australian Fosters Group, twinned with Wolf Blass to become Beringer Blass, and is now the stablemate of other famous Treasury Estates brands such as Penfolds and Wynns Coonawarra.

The Founders’ Estate series is a step up from Beringer’s Classic range and “offer[s] concentrated expressions of the most popular varietals, steeped in quality that comes from Beringer’s history of crafting great wines from all over California for over 130 vintages“.  So how does the Chardonnay taste?  Like a well-made Californian wine!  Which should be no surprise, really.  The fruit is ripe and tropical, with a little bit of juicy red apple and pear.  There’s some oak here, but it’s not overbearing at all.  This isn’t Chablis but neither is it an oak monster.  Would be great with creamy chicken dishes.

Stockists: Clontarf Wines, Dublin; O’Driscoll’s, Caherciveen, Co. Kerry; Salthill Off-Licence, Galway; Hole In The Wall, Blackhorse Avenue, Dublin; Kellys Wine Vault, Clontarf, Dublin; La Touche Wines, Greystones, Co. Wicklow; Sweeneys, Glasnevin, Dublin; McHugh’s of Kilbarrack & Artane, Dublin; Amber of Fermoy, Co. Cork

 

Apple or pineapple?  The choice is yours!

 

* The Explorer, not the Harry Potter Director / Producer

Disclosure:  both wines kindly provided for review

 

**Click here to see more posts in the Make Mine a Double Series**

Make Mine A Double, Opinion

Make Mine a Double #16 – California Dreaming

Wine is produced in all 50 of the USA’s states, and many of them are now seeping into the wine drinker’s consciousness – New York State (Finger Lakes), Oregon (Willamette Valley) and Shenandoah Valley (Virginia).  Despite this, California still accounts for around 90% of the USA’s total production, and is almost synonymous with American wine from a European point of view.

Central and Northern California
Credit: http://www.discovercaliforniawines.com

Of all the regions within California, the most well known are Napa and Sonoma in the North Coast (at the top of the map above).  The Central Coast also has a lot to offer, including Santa Barbara (the setting for Sideways).  Below are a couple of fantastic reds hailing from Santa Maria (area 71 in the map above) and Napa.

 

Cambria Estate Santa Maria Valley Tepusquet Syrah 2010 (14.5%, €24.95, O’Briens)

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This 100% Syrah is the sister wine to the Cambria Estate Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir which I reviewed recently elsewhere.

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Credit: Cambria Estate

Well, not quite the sister, as Julia’s sister Katherine has her own namesake vineyard next door.  The Tepusquet Vineyard is in the far south of Cambria Estate as it is the most protected from the elements, and is therefore a little warmer.

Internationally, the choice of synonym normally denotes the style – spicy and savoury Northern Rhône Syrah or big and bold Aussie Shiraz. In common with many US versions of the grape, this wine is labelled Syrah no matter what the style, but as it happens this is somewhere in between the two – as though Saint Joseph had a very warm year.  This spicy, savoury edge to the dark juicy fruit gives it versatility – lovely to drink on its own but would pair well with red meat dishes without overpowering them.

If you like South African Shiraz or Hawke’s Bay Syrah then this is definitely worth putting on your list.

 

Atalon Napa Valley Merlot 2004 (14.0%, €27.45, O’Briens)

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And so to the wine that dare not speak its name.  Merlot often gets a bad press, with the influence of Miles from Sideways still felt…

Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we’re drinking Merlot.
Miles Raymond: No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!

Napa is rightly famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Chardonnay, but Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc are also planted there.  Atalon aim to produce Bordeaux-style wines from the different parts of Napa which exhibit elegance and complexity – words not always associated with Californian wine.

This is almost a varietal Merlot, with just a 3% dash of Cabernet Sauvignon, so this is right-bank in style – think Pomerol or Grand Cru Classé Saint-Emilion.  At 12 years of age it is still in its prime, with lots of black fruit, and still a little tannin.  I’d imagine it spent well over a year in American oak while maturing, but that oak is well integrated now, leaving just a little vanilla and spice.

This is a Merlot for people who don’t think much of Merlot – it is indeed elegant and complex, with far more going on than any other new world example I’ve tasted.

This is the finest varietal Merlot I’ve tasted in many years!

More from Make Mine a Double

 

 

 

 

Opinion

This Summer’s BBQ Wines #5

In the summer months, such as they are on the Emerald Isle, drinkers tend to leave their bigger red wines to one side apart from when firing up the barbie and devouring half a cow.

If you’re a determined red wine drinker, what should you be looking for on the warmer days?  I put it to you that Pinot Noir might well be the answer.  I will make my case:

Byron Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir 2012
Byron Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir 2012
  • It’s lower in tannin so can pair with poultry and meaty fish (such as tuna steaks) as well as red meat.
  • Among black grapes it’s relatively high in acidity which makes it refreshing.
  • It’s lighter in body and can take a light chill – 30 minutes in a domestic fridge before bringing out to the patio will add some zip!
  • You can choose a savoury edge from the old world (esp Burgundy or Germany) or a fruitier style from the New World depending on your fancy.
  • Miles drank Pinot Noir in the cult wine film Sideways.

You know it makes sense!

Here’s a Pinot Noir that I recently test drove at a barbecue and really enjoyed:

Byron Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2012 (€25.49, O’Briens)

Byron Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2012
Byron Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2012

Santa Barbara County is the original home of quality cool climate Pinot in the States, and  is indeed where Miles and Jack from Sideways went to try some delicious wine.

Santa Barbara County
Santa Barbara County

If you’re not familiar with the area you might not place it as an American wine at first; there’s minerality on the palate and a lightness of touch that can be missing from some US wines.  The winemaker’s notes state that it spent 8 months ageing in 100% small French oak barrels, but the oak is already well integrated and does not jarr.

Redcurrant, red and black cherry, strawberry and raspberry fruit compete for your attention.  Although very smooth and approachable, there’s a serious side to this wine – the acidity and savoury notes give it some gravitas.

Although this delicious Pinot Noir would be great for a drink outdoors at a BBQ, to be honest it would be a treat in any season and setting!

Disclosure: Sample was provided, but opinions are entirely my own

This Summer’s BBQ Wines:

#1 – Bellow’s Rock Coastal Region Shiraz 2013

#2 – Château Michel Cazevieille Origine 1922 AC Saint Chinian 2012

#3 – and #4! Domaine de Maubet IGP Côtes de Gascogne 2014 & Venturer Côtes de Gascogne 2014

#5 – Byron Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir 2012

#6 – Lot #01 Mendoza Malbec Cabernet 2013