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.
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.
Californian 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 Noiris currently in stock in Baggot Street Wines, priced at €37 (abv 13.5%).
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)
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)
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)
At the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island is the Wairarapawine 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)
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)
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 smokinessfrom 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)
Listracis 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)
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 acidityand 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)
I’m a big fan of Man O’War’s premium range, all nautically namedand great examples of their type (I’m just gutted that demand for their Juliasparkling 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 2012which is 45% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot, 13% Malbec and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon – only Carménèremisses 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)
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)
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!
Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Chardonnay 2014 (12.5%, €23.50)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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 freshand rich at the same time, with typical Viognier aromas of flowersand stone fruit such as apricotand peach. It has a little oilinessin 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!
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 fruitand 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)
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 cinnamonand other spices.
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.
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)
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 1503when 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)
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**
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.
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)
This 100% Syrah is the sister wine to the Cambria Estate Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir which I reviewed recently elsewhere.
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)
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 eleganceand 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 Pomerolor 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!
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:
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 aciditywhich 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 fruitierstyle 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)
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.
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
One of the best parts about becoming a blogger has been meeting other bloggers from near and far – from literally round the corner to the other side of the world. Reading their blogs has been interesting in itself, but has also been very helpful in learning how to make my own blog better. Everyone I have met has been polite, pleasant and generous.
For some time now I had been meaning to try collaborating with some of my fellow bloggers – and then I hit on the idea of asking them to contribute a recommendation for a Valentine’s Day wine. A cheesy romantic link to V-Day was optional – it could just be a wine that the writer really liked and so would recommend – and just a couple of lines was requested, though some wrote more.
I was bowled over by the reaction – everyone I asked agreed to join in! Some even gave the background as to why a particular wine was romanic for them.
When I was asked to pick a Valentine’s Day wine, Frankie assured me it didn’t have to be in any way traditional or cheesy. Still, it’s hard to resist suggesting Champagne for this or indeed any celebratory occasion.
I first tasted Dominique Moreau’s Champagnes a couple of years ago and instantly fell in love (see…I can do cheesy!?). Dominique’s estate is in the Côte des Bar and named after her grandmother ‘Marie Courtin’. The vineyards are farmed biodynamically and most of the Champagnes are bottled in an Extra Brut style.
I say most – in reality I thought all her Champagnes were made in this style until I found her Résonance Brut NV (100% Pinot Noir) lurking on the shelves of The Organic Supermarket in Blackrock. If I’m truly honest, it probably does’t thrill me as much as the Extra Brut NV, but even with that caveat it’s worth tracking down this delicious Champagne.
So chatting with friends I usually get asked for any new recommendations for wine, beer or spirits… with valentines up-coming so did the topic of going for pinks or not…
Pinks are always fun and cute for Valentinesbut after thinking about it I asked what they wanted from their evening, as in light breezy, more seductive or maybe a slight blend…
For wine, if you want to go bright breezy then a good pink bubbly followed by either a more reasonably priced bottle of bubbles or a lovely rose from the Loire should fit the bill. If a blend of fun and seduction then bubbles (Celtic Whiskey shop has some half bottles on sale for €9.99) followed by an elegant red.
For me nothing says seduction than a northern Italian red especially a Brunello di Montalcino – pure seduction! It does depend on your menu and budget. If cash is a touch tight go for its second wine Rosso di Montalcino which is quite beautiful.
See Suzi’s full post including beers and spirits recommendations here.
Perfectly situated in the Valentine’s Day wine section, I found this beauty on the bottom shelf. I’m one to plunder the shelves down under so I bought this wine with cupidity. My expectations for this Pinot were as low as the dust bunnies I am accustomed to shooing away in aisle. However, once home Love Noir had some surprises.
What is that saying? Love thy neighbor? In this case, I bumped into a neighbor fleeing from her inlaws. It was opportune as I was a neighbor in search of a drinking buddy. To tip the scales, the in laws were watching the children. My friend’s walk “to get some fresh air” detoured to my kitchen table and we started to discuss today’s tasting.
Very first thing we noted was the lovely labeling. Gold foil on black matte paper was very classé, and you would never believe it was merely $11 and some change. But haven’t we all been fooled before. There was no coincidence that a wine with “LOVE” in the name was launched during the Valentine’s Day holiday season. I also caught a bit of naughtiness in how they positioned this wine. This is what I read on the back:
“Deep & Rich In Style
Silky & Smooth In Taste
Obsession. Desire. Passion.
This is Love Noir.”
Really? I thought I was reading the book jacket of a subgenre of romance novels. My faith with this vintage was waning. But I poured anyways.
Color was a dark, red purple. The nose was pomegranate, plum, cedar. There was good structure and I could identify 3 distinct layers; fruit first, balanced acids and smooth tannins second and thirdly a lingering woodsy, berry, oak finish. Whether aged in barrel or not, there was distinctly oak in the finish and it was pleasant and complimented the bold fruit nicely.
Hey, “every wine has a darker side.” I think I’ve surrendered to the “LOVE NOIR.” The “richness” of this wine was able to “spark intensity and intrigue.” If I can, I am certain you will “succumb to your urges and experience LOVE NOIR. Love. Changes. Everything.”
I’m not slavish to reading labels, but if you buy this wine, it is the gift with purchase. I rate this wine as a buy again – was quite good for the price and a pleasure to both drink and read aloud even in mixed company!
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!!