Chardonnayis grown in most wine-producing countries, to a greater or lesser extent, but the wines are still compared to the grape’s original home of Burgundy. Even within Burgundy there are huge differences, from the lean wines of Chablis in the north to the more tropical styles of the Maconnais.
Here we have a classic Chablis and a new world Chardonnay from Chile, both from single vineyard plots:
Brocard Chablis Domaine Sainte Claire 2014 (12.5%, €24.95 at O’Briens)
Jean-Marc Brocard is an admired, well-established producer in Chablis. Founded by Jean-Marc and now run by his son Julien, the firm produces over a dozen cuvées from Petit Chablis up to Chablis Grand Cru Le Clos. The grapes come from a plot of 35 – 40 year old vines called Sainte Claire which surround the winery. Although it is a good representative of the company’s philosophy “strength, precision and freshness” it also has a little more body and texture than is common in AOC Chablis. Racy lemon is joined by orange peel on the palate and a tangy yeastiness from ten months on the lees. A superior Chablis!
Leyda Single Vineyard Falaris Hill Chardonnay 2013 (14.0%, €17.95 at O’Briens)
From northern France we now travel to the Pacific coast of Chile. Leyda is both the name of the winery and the area in which it is based, benefiting from cool coastal breezes which are chilled by the Humboldt Current. It is possibly the best part of Chile in which to grow Sauvignon Blanc as the long, cool growing season allows the aromatics to develop fully before sugar ripeness is achieved.
But it’s also great for Chardonnay!
Tasted immediately after the Chablis the oak was very apparent – quite old school in a way – but this wine actually has far more acidity and cool climate character than the old Aussie oak-bomb Chardonnays. There’s lemonand satsumafrom the grapes, creaminessfrom the lees and toastinessfrom the oak – an excellent effort which shows (again) that Chile has far more to offer than entry level wines.
Another installment in the Frankly Wines ABC = Always Buy Chardonnay odyssey! These two wines from different countries and made in different styles show what a versatile grape Chardonnay is.
Tesco Finest Bourgogne Blanc Chardonnay 2014 (12.5%, €12.00 from Tesco)
The small print and the back label reveal that this wine is made by the Vignerons de Buxy co-operative in the Côte Chalonnaise. This is an under-appreciated area – Chablis is world famous, as are the majestic vineyards of the Côtes de Nuits and Beaune. The southernmost area of the Maconnais is now receiving lots of attention but the Chalonnaise remains off the radar.
At a fairly light 12.5% this is made in a fresher style. The main notes are ripe (but not over-ripe) honeydew melon and apple, with just a kiss of vanilla hinting at a small proportion matured in oak. A far more accessible wine than I expected, and great value for money.
Marques de Casa Concha DO Limari Chardonnay 2010 (14.0%, €17.00* from Sweeney’s)
Marques de Casa Concha is one of the upmarket labels of Concha Y Toro, the Chilean giant. This Chardonnay is made from grapes in the Quebrada Seca Vineyard, 190 m above sea level and just 19km from the Pacific Ocean, giving it a relatively cool microclimate. That said, at 14.0% this is no Chablis (nor Côte Chalonnaise!) More recent vintages are noted as spending eleven months in French oak and the flavour profile of this 2010 suggests it probably did too – though not a large proportion of it new.
Flavour wise this is all about apple pie, with cream! Perhaps a touch of pineapple candy and vanilla on the side. It has quite a bit of body so would stand up to creamy chicken, pork or veal dishes. At six years after vintage the 2010 is holding up well, but I’d probably look to drink it in the next few years rather than leave it for another six.
*This bottle has been tucked away in one of my wine fridges for a fair while – possibly several years – so the price is likely to have been before some of the disproportionate increases in taxes on wine in Ireland. I’d imagine €20 is a more realistic price now.
I love sweet wines, whether with dessert, instead of dessert, or at any time I fancy them. They can actually pair well with savoury dishes of many types, depending on their prominent flavours, richness, acidity and sugar levels. For example, late harvest Gewurztraminer from Alsace is amazing with foie gras, and off dry to medium wines often work well with exotic Asian fare.
There are several methods of making sweet wines, the simplest being to leave the grapes on the vine while they continue to produce sugars, and harvest them later. A further step is to allow noble rot (botrytis cinerea) to attack the grapes and dry them out, thereby concentrating the sugars. Other traditions involve sun or air drying to reduce water levels.
Whichever way is used, balance is the key, particularly the balance between sugar and acidity. This means that even lusciously sweet wines can avoid being cloying, which is usually a turn off.
Here are ten of the sweet wines which really impressed me in 2015:
I first tried a Berton wine from Coonawarra, my favourite red wine region of the world. It was perhaps a little less fruit forward than some from the area but had the most pronounced spearmint aromas that I’ve ever encountered in a wine (for the avoidance of doubt this is a positive for me!)
The Riverina area in the middle of New South Wales is an irrigated bulk wine producing region, and is where many of Australia’s inexpensive bottles (and boxes!) are produced. Due to humidity close to the major rivers it is also a source for excellent botrytis style stickies (as the locals call them), including the fabulous De Bortoli Noble One.
Semillon’s thin skins make it particularly susceptible to noble rot – which is why it is so successful in Sauternes and Barsac – and so it proves in Berton’s version. I’m not going to claim that this has the intensity of Noble One but it does a damned good impression – and at a far lower price. Amazing value for money!
9. Miguel Torres Vendimia Tardia “Nectaria” Botrytis Riesling 2009 (€19.99 (375ml) Sweeney’s of Glasnevin and Carry Out Off-Licence in Ongar, Dublin 15)
Familiarity with Spanish or another romance language reveals that this is a Late Harvest style, with the addition of Botrytis characters. It was one of the stand out wines of the Chilean Wine Fair – though being different in a sea of Sauvignon, Carmenère and Cabernet probably helped.
As you may or may not know, Miguel Torres wines are the Chilean outpost of the Spanish Torres family’s operations, with quality and value both prominent. The key to this wine is the streak of acidity cutting through the sweetness – the hallmark of a great Riesling dessert wine.
8. San Felice Vin Santo 2007 (€19.49 (375ml) O’Briens)
As someone who generally likes Italian wine and has a soft spot for sweet wines, I’ve nearly always been disappointed by Vin Santos I’ve tried. I don’t think my expectations were too high, it’s just that the oxidative (Sherry-like) notes dominated the other aspects of the wines.
This is different – perfectly balanced with lovely caramel and nut characters. It’s made from widely grown grapes Trebbiano Toscano (75%) and Malvasia del Chianti (25%) which aren’t generally known for their character, but it’s the wine-making process that makes the difference. Bunches of grapes are dried on mats to reduce water content then pressed as normal. After fermentation the wine is aged five years in French barriques then a further year in bottle. A real treat!
7. Le Must de Landiras Graves Supérieurs 2004 (Direct from Château)
White Graves – particularly those from the subregion of Pessac-Léognan – are in my opinion the most underappreciated of all Bordeaux wines. Even less commonly known are the sweeter wines from the area – and to be honest the average wine drinker would be hard pressed to know when there’s often no mention of sweetness on the bottle, they are just “expected to know” that “Graves Supérieures” indicated higher sugar rather than higher quality.
Being close to Sauternes shouldn’t make the production of sweet wines a surprise, but then few people carry a map around in their head when tasting!
Simply put, this is probably the best sweet Graves I’ve ever had. See this article for more details.
6. Longview Epitome Late Harvest Riesling 2013 (€16.99, O’Briens)
Riesling in Australia is nearly always bone dry and dessert wines usually use Semillon for late harvest styles or Rhône varieties for fortifieds, but when done well they can be sensational.
This was such a hit at the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting that two other of my fellow wine writers picked it out for recommendation, namely Richie Magnier writing as The Motley Cru and Suzi Redmond writing for The Taste. Imagine the softness of honey with the fresh zip of lime at the same time – something of a riddle in your mouth, but so moreish!
In its home region of the Loire, Chenin Blanc comes in all different types of sweetness, with and without botrytis. Its natural acidity makes it a fine grape for producing balanced sweet wines.
David Trafford picks the Chenin grapes for his straw wine at the same time as those for his dry white, but then has the bunches dried outside for three weeks before pressing. After a very long fermentation (the yeast takes a long time to get going in such a high sugar environment) the wine is matured in barriques for two years.
I had the good fortune to try this delicious wine with David Trafford himself over dinner at Stanley’s Restaurant & Wine Bar – for a full report see here. Apricot and especially honey notes give away the Chenin origins, and layers of sweetness remain framed by fresh acidity.
4. Pegasus Bay Waipara “Encore” Noble Riesling 2008 (~£25 (375ml) The Wine Society
This is the gift that keeps on giving…I bought my wife a six pack of this wine a few years ago, as it was one we really enjoyed on our honeymoon tour of New Zealand, and she is so parsimonious that we haven’t finished them yet!
This is in a similar vein to the Epitome Riesling but has more botrytis character – giving a mushroom edge, which is much nicer than in sounds – and additional bottle age which has allowed more tangy, tropical fruit flavours to develop and resolve. A truly wonderful wine.
3. José Maria da Fonseca “Alambre” ® DO Moscatel de Setúbal 2008 (€6.45, Portugal)
I had been meaning to try a Moscatel de Setúbal since a former colleague from the area told me about it. A holiday to the Algarve provided the perfect opportunity, and I found this beauty in the small supermarket attached to the holiday complex we stayed in – at the ridiculous price of €6.45!
Moscatel / Muscat / Moscato is one of the chief grapes used for dessert wine around the Mediterranean – and can make very dull wines. This is by some margin the best I’ve tasted to date! I’m sure most people would swear that toffee had been mixed in, the toffee flavours are so demonstrative.
Tokaji is one of the great sweet wines of the world – in fact it’s one of the great wines of the world full stop. It’s usually a blend of a normal grapes and botrytised grapes in differing proportions, the actual blend being the main indicator of sweetness.
Apricot and marmalade are the first things which spring to mind on tasting this, though time has added toffee and caramel notes. This is the sort of wine that I would happily take instead of dessert pretty much any time!
1. Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria 2013 (Liberty, from good wine merchants)
I first came across this wine at Ely Wine Bar on my wife’s birthday a few years ago. After a filling starter and main course neither of us had room for dessert, but fancied something sweet; Ely is a treat for winelovers as it has an unrivaled selection of wines by the glass, so like a kid in a sweetshop I ordered a flight of different sweeties for us to try:
All four were lovely but it was the Ben Ryé which stood out.
At a later trade event put on by Liberty Wines, I noticed that this was one of their wines open for tasting. With a room full of hardened trade pros (and myself) it was amusing to notice how many people just dropped by the sweet and fortified for a drop of this!
Did you know that Cono Sur is the largest single Pinot Noir producer in the world? I wasn’t aware either, until I attended a fantastic tasting of their top Ocio and 20 Barrels Pinots last year.
I also learned what Cono Sur itself means – Southern Cone. It shouldn’t have been a surprise – especially as it is hinted at graphically on some of their bottles – as it’s the nickname for the southern part of South America which is quite cone-shaped.
And finally, did you know that the Pinot family get its name because the grape bunches on the vine resemble pine cones? Thankfully they taste better than pine cones…
Pinot Noir is the perfect grape for autumn – it’s usually light and refreshing, easy to drink, but very much a food wine that can pair well with both lighter dishes and the heavier fare that we tuck into on colder days.
Here are a couple of Pinots that you should try this autumn
Disclosure: both bottles were provided as samples, but opinions remain totally mine
Louis Jadot Bourgogne “Couvent des Jacobins” 2012 (€17.99, Molloy’s Liquor Stores, O’Brien’s Wines, Redmond’s of Ranelagh and other good independents)
Maison Louis Jadot was formed in 1859 and is well regarded in France and further afield. The Négotiant has holdings of 210ha spread throughout Burgundy, and from the most basic AOC to the stratospheric Grands Crus, all feature the same distinctive yellow featuring the head of Bacchus.
This is a blend of different parcels from throughout Burgundy, from Irancy towards Chablis in the north to the Côte Chalonnaise in the south. The latter gives juicy fruity flavours and the more northerly plots give more acidity, tannin and structure; the blend is more than the sum of its parts (the whole point of blending!)
Light, fresh strawberry and raspberry, with the acidity to back up the fruit flavours. Surprisingly it has a reasonable amount of tannin on the finish, not in the realm of left bank Bordeaux or Madiran, but something with a savoury edge.
This is distinctively old world in sensibility – although it’s fruity it’s nothing like a fruit bomb. Very nice to drink by itself, I suspect this would come into its own with food.
Cono Sur Single Vineyard Block 21 “Viento Mar” Pinot Noir 2012 (€19.99 from O’Brien’s Wines, Mitchell & Sons, Dublin; Redmonds of Ranelagh, Sweeney’s of Glasnevin, Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Bradley’s of Cork, O’Driscoll’s of Cork, and other independents)
Most people are familiar with Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir as it is widely distributed. It has a cheerful label and a handy screwtop, all of which make it very accessible. However, there are several layers in the Cono Sur quality pyramid (or should that be quality cone?) which also deserve attention.
Constantly striving for improvements in quality led them to create a separate premium Pinot from a selected batch of their best grapes, handled in the most gentle and fastidious manner. As the volume made was only 20 barrels, that’s the name they used, and even though production has increased considerably, the name stuck. Ocio is their flagship Pinot which they created in conjunction with esteemed Burgundy winemaker Martin Prieur.
Now here is a Single Vineyard expression, from the San Antonio Valley, with two Antipodean-style names: “Block 21” indicated the particular plot it comes from, and “Viente Mar” (meaning Ocean Wind) gives you a clue as to its situation – close enough to the coast to be strongly influenced by cool coastal breezes, perfect to prevent the grapes from becoming jammy.
According to Cono Sur this spent 11 months in 100% French oak barrels, and there is a lick of vanilla on the palate, but the oak is already well integrated. Although it has plenty of acidity to balance the concentrated fruit, this would never be mistaken for Burgundy – but that’s no bad thing in my view, it’s just so damn drinkable! There are dense red and black fruits in play – it’s like fruits of the forest battling it out on your tongue.
The big brother Ocio is even more complex and concentrated, but this is one of the best €20 and under red wines I have tried this year.
I’ll cut to the chase: this is the best Chilean white wine I have ever tasted
A friend recently opened a random bottle of white wine which happened to be a Chilean Gewürz*, not the most common combination. On closer inspection of the label it was a ten year old Chilean Gewurz*! Fearing something old, possibly oxidised or just out of condition, a few sips revealed something wonderful: a well made, maturing, but far-from-over-the-hill, delicious white wine.
One of my mantras on wine is that most of us drink wine too young – particularly white wine – and this wine only serves to reinforce it.
Miguel Torres Chile is an offshoot from the Spanish Torres family who have been producing wine since the 19th Century. From the website:
Miguel A. Torres decided to begin the Chilean project on the advice of Alejandro Parot, a Chilean friend and classmate from his studies in Dijon (France).
Winemaking is ultra-clean and intended to have minimal impact on the finished wine:
No skin contact
No oak ageing
Bottled five months after picking
Notes on the latest vintage state that it is “an ideal match for shellfish (particularly oysters) and most fish dishes”. Without doing extensive vertical tastings I can’t argue against that, but I actually think the 2005 is far more versatile than the above suggests – quite possibly as a result of bottle ageing.
There’s texture and much more body than expected for a white. Acidity is still present but perfectly counterbalanced by the modest residual sugar (7.5g/L). The exotic tropical fruits of youth are now a little more subtle but still present and correct.
For Alsace fans such as myself, this wine was a revelation. Tasted blind, I wouldn’t have been shocked to hear it was from a big name Grand Cru producer such as Zind-Humbrecht.
I now need to work out how to collect more vintages of it…
*Note:in Germany Gewürztraminer has an umlaut, in Alsace they leave it off. I’ve tried to randomly represent both parties in this article. I’d like to think of myself as an equal opportunities speller.
So part one focused on Peter Lehmann’s Barossa gems and included a joke about hand gestures. Part two covered the wines of Lapostolle from Chile and Ochoa from Navarre, with a reference to Björk “It’s All So Quiet” (you all got that, right? right??)
Now part three will showcase a flight of Sauvignons, amongst others, and the disclosure of why this tasting wasn’t as silent as it should have been.
The Sauvignon Blancs
The first flight looks at some of the more memorable Sauvignon Blancs brought in by Comans.
McKenna Sauvignon Blanc 2013
This is an exclusive to Comans as it’s bottled especially for them by Undurraga. The name celebrates the historical connections between Ireland and Chile in the person of Irish-born Captain John Juan McKenna who played an important role in the rebellion of 1810. Take a few minutes to read the details in Tomas Clancy’s post here.
It’s unusual for me to recommend an inexpensive Chilean Sauvignon, but this is well made. You’d never mistake it for Marlborough, but if you find some of those too much then this is a little more restrained. The key word here is grapefruit – fruit sweetness but also acidity, making it tangy and refreshing.
Sablenay Touraine AOC Sauvignon Blanc 2012
In terms of bang for your buck, reliability and availability, it’s pretty hard to beat a Touraine Sauvignon. If I were drawing up a hypothetical restaurant wine list it’s the first thing I’d put on there.
This one has the typical grassy notes of a French Sauvignon, but also sweet tropical fruit and grapefruit. It’s much more expressive that your average Touraine, a better bet than a lower quality no-name Sancerre. Perfect for summer on the patio!
La Rochetais AOC Pouilly Fumé 2012
This is a lovely, pure, almost “Riesling-like” linear wine. It’s also an accessory to an embarrassing incident. Now as you know at pro tastings there’s no swallowing, everything is spat – if you want to taste several dozen wines and remain upright, never mind drive home afterwards, it’s the only way forward. Plus, not having so much alcohol in your bloodstream means your senses aren’t dulled and you can focus more on the tasting.
At the time of the tasting I was still recovering from a nasty chest infection – a colleague semi-seriously asked me if I had tuberculosis. Now imagine a sudden coughing fit when you’ve got a mouthful of Loire Sauvignon that you’re swilling round and trying to interpret. Instinct says spit now…but I wasn’t close to a spittoon, and so almost choked.
Thankfully the assembled members of the press were very kind and didn’t mock me which they would have been entitled to do. Though one kind gentleman did suggest I describe this wine as “one which took me breath away”.
My friends, even wine-tasting can be an extreme sport at times!
Château de Sancerre AOC Sancerre 2012
Forget own label Sancerres in the French supermarkets, this is the real deal.
The Château is owned by the Marnier-Lapostolle family who Chilean operation featured in Part Two. Both properties show the advantages of cooperation between winemakers from different areas; while the French influence can be seen in Lapostolle’s Sauvignon Blancs, for me there is a definite new world aspect to Château Sancerre – a roundness and suppleness to the fruit which make it caress the inside of your mouth.
The vineyards span four different soil types which, when blended intelligently, results in a complex yet focused wine.
Wither Hills Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012
At the NZ Sauvignon Masterclass before the annual trade tasting this year, Kevin Judd et al. took us through how the marked differences in weather between 2012 and 2013 translated into markedly different flavour profiles. Since then I’ve found it remarkably easy to identify 2012s blind – much greener, especially asparagus, and less tropical notes.
This Wither Hills 2012 wasn’t tasted blind but the asparagus character came straight through (I like it, some don’t), but with a tangy grapefruit finish. Dare I suggest this would be amazing with an asparagus starter?
So what is this? It’s a premium, single vineyard Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. Given how many Chilean Sauvignons are around £6 / €10 it’s quite surprising to see a producer move upmarket. The first tasting note I wrote was “who’s just mowed their lawn” – it’s that distinctively grassy!
The grapes are sourced from a vineyard in Leyda Valley, which is only 9 miles / 14 km from the cooling Pacific Ocean. There are some great Pinot Noirs coming from that area, but that’s a story for another day. This 2013 vintage wine also belies its age – it has a smoother mouthfeel than one might expect from such a young wine.
So the key questions – is it a success? Is it worth the extra money? Right now I’d be happy to drink it, but I probably wouldn’t spend €24 of my own money in a wine merchants. However, I reckon this will actually evolve over the next few years, so I’d be very interested to taste an example with some more bottle age to see where it goes.
The Best Of The Rest
If you’re all Sauvignoned out, here are some of the other whites which stood out for me:
Dr L Riesling 2010
For those scared or wary of Riesling, Dr Ernst Loosen’s entry level bottling is a great place to start. It’s fairly simple, though it has enough acidity to evolve more complexity over a decade. It’s fresh and fruity with a touch of residual sugar, but it’s pleasant and balanced – so moreish!
Of course Dr L makes more profound and expensive Rieslings, but the true nature of the bargain is that you won’t feel like you’re missing out even if you’re a Rieslingphile.
I like Albariños on the whole, but my main beef with them is that they often don’t offer enough bang for the buck. Meet Salterio’s offering which is a great value example from Rias Baixas. It won’t be the best you’ve ever tasted but it’s remarkable at the price.
Protos Verdejo DO Rueda 2012
Not much to add here as I’ve recommended this Rueda several times before – it’s a cracker!
Muga Barrel Fermented White Rioja 2013
Rioja’s Viura (also Catalonia’s Macabeo) is a fairly neutral grape. By neutral, I mean thin and often lacking in flavour. This makes it a good base component for Cava, but can make for an uninspiring dry still white. The winemakers of Rioja have long used two main techniques to add interest to their whites – oxidisation and barrel ageing. As a personal preference I’m not yet a convert to oxidised styles, so such examples from Rioja leave me cold.
Happily for me, this Muga example is clean as a whistle and definitely worth a try. It has 10% Malvasia in the blend and was fermented in new French barriques. Maturation on the lees adds to the creamy texture, but it is tangy and fresh – a great example at a fairly modest price.
Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royal Brut NV
Good Cava and other traditional method sparklers are better than poor Champagne (the type you often see in the supermarkets at 50% off). But good Champagne holds its own, in my opinion.
This is an almost-equal-parts blend of the main Champagne grapes – Chardonnay for lemon and freshness, Pinot Noir for red fruit and body, plus the often unfairly maligned Pinot Meunier for white fruit and floral notes.
The Cuvée Royale has three years on the lees prior to disgorgement – far beyond the minimum for not vintage – and this is where the extra body and creaminess come from. It’s far better value than a special offer Champagne.
Not really. Continuing from part one’s look at Peter Lehmann’s Barossa offerings, we now turn to a major producer from Chile whose flagship white I am a big fan of, plus a Spanish Bodega I hadn’t heard of before making top quality traditional-style reds.
Going under the tagline “French in essence, Chilean by birth” the house (“casa” of course) of Lapostolle is a Chilean outfit owned by the French Lapostolle-Marnier family, famous for the Grand Marnier liqueur. Even before founding their Chilean outpost twenty years ago, the family was heavily involved in wine, particularly in the eastern Loire.
Regular readers will know that I really rate their Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay (in fact I made it one of my favourite whites of 2013), how does the rest of the portfolio stand up?
Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc 2012
This is not your bog-standard Chilean Sauvignon, which can sometimes even be made with the inferior Sauvignonasse (or as I like to call it, Sauvignonarse) grapes. For me this is where the French influence really shines though, it’s a great everyday-drinking bottle but would be fine to serve to guests at the weekend too.
Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay 2012
The baby brother of my favourite below, how does it compare? Well it tastes exactly like a junior version – gently toasted oak in the background and luscious tropical fruit in the mid-palate. Grapes are sourced from the Casablanca Valley, fermented in stainless steel and then matured for seven months in a mix of old and new French oak barrels. Bravo!
Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay 2011
Nectar of the gods! Melon and pineapple sing but grapefruit keeps it from getting out of hand. Plenty of acidity to keep it from getting flabby and low residual sugar giving a dry finish. The 2011 had 75% of whole cluster pressing and 25% of maceration into the press before fermenting. 50% was fermented in French barrels and 56% was aged in French barrels for 8 month (part news and part used) and 44% in stainless steel tanks. The wine didn’t go through malolactic fermentation which accounts for the strong streak of acidity.
Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
As any wine student will tell you, wines sold in the EU have to have a minimum of 85% of the stated varieties, and therefore don’t have to tell you about the other 15%. This Ribena-special Cabernet actually has 7% Carmenère, 3% Merlot, 3% Shiraz and 1% Cabernet Franc in the blend – and is probably all the better for it. Cabernet can have a great attack and great finish but be a bit hollow in the middle – it sometimes gets called the “doughnut grape”.
All the grapes are harvested by hand and fermented with the native yeasts of the area (the subject of a future geeky blog post). Maturation included six month in oak, 55% of the wine was aged in new barrels and the balance in second and third fill barrels. If you like this style of wine (which I do), this is a steal! Mint and chocolate really come through on the palate; tasted blind I might have guessed at my favourite red wine region of Coonawarra.
Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Whereas the baby brother Cabernet above was made from grapes grown in the Rapel Valley, the Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet was grown in Lapostolle’s Apalta Vineyard in the Colchagua Valley. Cabernet vines were planted here from imported French clippings in 1920 – makes a mockery of the term “New World”
The assemblage for 2011 was 88% Cabernet Sauvignon; 7% Cabernet Franc and 5% Syrah. It changes from year to year depending on how different parcels perform and hwo they work when blended together. The vineyard is certified Organic by CERES, if you pay attention to that sort of thing.
100% of harvesting is by hand, then triage is done partially (77%) by optical sorting machines and the remainder (23% for those who can’t count) is hand de-stemmed. Only wild yeasts are used for fermentation; this, and the relatively shaded nature of the vineyard mean that alcohol is a relatively sensible (for such a warm climate) 14%.
So how does it taste? It’s definitely a Cabernet, tannins are present and correct, but they are fine. It’s approachable now but needs several more years to blossom.
Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta 2008
This is Lapostolle’s flagship wine, one might even use the unloved term “icon wine”, with a price tag to match. Why is it so expensive, and is it worth the money?
The idea behind the wine is to use the best quality grapes available, give them the most painstaking manual treatment, and intervene with the winemaking process as little as possible. For example, the fruit is harvested by hand very early in the morning (so that temperatures are still fairly cool) and then stacked in small 14 kilos cases (so there’s less chance of grapes bursting and either spontaneously fermenting or spoiling. On arrival at the winery the grapes are 100% destemmed and sorted by hand.
After pressing, French oak fermentation vessels are filled by gravity which is the gentlest way to handle the must. The native yeast strains that arrived with the grapes are left to their own devices, apart from temperature control keeping a ceiling of 26C. Manual punch downs (as opposed to pumping over, for example) are used to extract colour, tannin and flavour from the macerating grapes over four to five weeks.
The juice is then racked into 100% new medium toast French oak barrels and left to go through malolactic fermentation. After 22 months maturation the wine is bottled by gravity “without any treatment or filtration” – I don’t know if this precludes a dose of sulphur at bottling or not, but it does mean no cold stabilisation.
You might have noticed that the grape variety is absent from the front of the bottle. The blend for 2008 was 73% Carmenère (Chile’s signature grape), 17% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. This is significantly different from year to year (another good reason not to put it on the front) – for example 2011 has only 57% Carmenère, 2009 has a dash of Petit Verdot (another minor Bordeaux grape).
And what is the result from all this care and expense? It’s a monumental wine, huge, powerful and packed with flavour. Keen tasters will notice the results of the heavy extraction process. Although we are now over six years from the 2008 harvest, this still needs a long time to unfurl and even out. If you want to try it now then I’d suggest several hours in a big decanter ahead of serving. Personally, I’d buy a case and forget about it for five years!
Still in the Spanish speaking world, we now head to Navarre in northern Spain. At one time considered part of the Basque Country, Navarre is now a separate autonomous community from an administrative point of view, sandwiched between the Basque country and La Rioja.
From a vinous point of view, it’s slightly more complicated as DOCa Rioja wine can include grapes from some parts of Navarre and the Basque province of Álava. DO Navarra is for wines made in the southern part of the autonomous community, principally in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Navarre used to be well known for its rosado wines, but now whites and especially reds are more common. With slightly more relaxed regulations than Rioja next door, international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are fairly common.
Ochoa are a crowd I hadn’t heard of before, but when looking at their website I learned that they are a family business who have been making wine for over six centuries – not newcomers then! They make three distinct ranges:
Javier Ochoa – traditional range created by the current head of the family 25 years ago
The following three wines are from the latter range.
Ochoa Tempranillo Crianza DO Navarra 2010
Made from 100% of the early-ripening Tempranillo, this has spent twelve months in 225 litre American oak barrels (the same size as Bordeaux’s barrique) – double the minimum of 6 months for a Crianza. The grapes come from the Santa Cruz estate in Traibuenas.
It’s full of voluptuous red fruit – cherry, strawberry, redcurrant, plus delicious vanilla from the oak. Ochoa give food matching suggestions of grilled meat, stews and cured cheeses, but to be honest it’s might fine drinking on its own.
Ochoa Reserva DO Navarra 2007
Now we have the Reserva level which means wines have to be aged for at least three years before release, of which at least one has to be in barrel. Ochoa go a little further and have a minimum of fifteen months in oak. As there’s a step up in quality and price, they also use more expensive French oak along with the American oak.
Rather than being a single varietal, the Reserva is a blend of Tempranillo (55%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) and Merlot (15%). The palate moves on from just red fruit to a blend of red and black – this makes perfect sense when it contains Cabernet. There’s also a touch of mocha which I reckon comes from the toasted French oak.
Ochoa Gran Reserva DO Navarra 2005
I tend to steer clear of Gran Reservas. I often find them far too woody and far too dry – a result of being aged for far too long in oak. Don’t get me wrong, I like oak if it’s done well – but if there isn’t the fruit to support it in the first place I will happily leave it to others.
The general rules for Spanish Gran Reservas require a total ageing of five years before release, of which at least eighteen months has to be in barrel, and thirty six years in bottle. Ochoa mature theirs in French and American oak for two years, and don’t filter, fine or cold stablilise to preserve as much of the flavour as possible.
The Gran Reserva is a Tempranillo – Cabernet – Merlot blend just as the Reserva was. It’s a step-up in intensity of flavour and body. Black fruit has almost totally replaced red fruit, and the mocha tones are right up front. It’s a gorgeous drop, and I don’t find it in the slightest bit “woody” – hurrah!
In Ireland, Lapostolle wines are stocked by (amongst others)
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. Jordanof 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 Cluverfrom 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!
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.
When you have your first taste of wine, and it’s good, you might nod appreciatively or even exclaim “mmm, that’s nice” (which my Mum says to everything from JP Chenet to Grange). But when we tasted this fine, fine example of Alsace Pinot Gris the reaction was an astonished “oh…” around the room as everyone stared at their glass and wondered how much depth of flavour could possibly come from a glass of wine. It was almost like being told an age old secret about life, it was a moment I will never forget. Like many Alsace Pinot Gris this was off-dry, very rich and almost oily in viscosity. It wasn’t a perfect match for the starter it was paired with, but that didn’t matter – it was happy by itself. Zind-Humbrecht is one of the most quality-conscious houses in the region, run on biodynamic practices by the brilliant Olivier Humbrecht MW. It has plots within several of the best Grand Cru vineyards, though this is a simple “lieu-dit”.
Ata Rangi Craighall Chardonnay Martinborough 2011
One of the top few Chardonnays from New Zealand and a personal favourite; I try to taste one bottle of every vintage, but sometimes I don’t succeed – it’s several! This wine featured in my post on the New Zealand Trade Tasting – I make no apologies for repeating myself, it deserves the plaudits. Open a bottle from the fridge and see how it evolves over the next hour or so, if you are able to resist drinking it quicker than that.
Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Valley Semillon 2000
When Neil McGuigan, 2012 International Winemaker of the Year in the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC), gave a tutored tasting at the pop-up vineyard in Temple Bar, he stated that Hunter Semillon is one of the two wine styles original to Australia and not reproduced elsewhere in the world. The other is the less well known liqueur Muscat from Rutherglen (perfect with Xmas pudding!)
I agree with him there, though he also provocatively called Sauvignon Blanc a “second rate grape” (I think there’s a lot of jealousy of Marlborough’s success with savvy). The beauty of Hunter Semillon is that it can be drunk young as light, fresh and citrus, but it also ages and develops magnificently over time. Often light in alcohol but not the worse for it, it develops toasty notes with time in bottle. For me, it’s a waste to drink it young.
The originator of the style is Tyrrell’s, one of the big names of the Hunter. Almost causing a family feud, the head winemaker of the time kept back a batch of the company’s best Semillon and released it at six years of age. Thankfully (for us all) it was a success, and now Vat 1 has a claim to best varietal Semillon in the world.
I opened this bottle at the end of last year, so it was over thirteen years from harvest – and it still tasted young and fresh, though with plenty of toast and honey coming through on the nose and palate. I think this would continue improving for another five to ten years.
Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay Adelaide Hills 2010
Despite all the ABC (“Anything But Chardonnay”) naysayers, Aussie Chardonnay goes from strength to strength. It has moved with the times, so more (relatively!) cool regions are used, picking is earlier, malolactic fermentation can be partially blocked and the use of oak is more judicious. Margaret River has the Leeuwin Estate Art Series and Cullen Kevin John superstars, Penfolds maintains a multi-regional blend for its “white Grange” Yattarna and Victoria’s Giaconda produces fabulous Chardonnay near Beechworth. This is the star of the Adelaide Hills and comes from a family firm
Trimbach are one of the oldest houses in Alsace, and also one of the biggest. Like many of the larger producers they offer different quality levels at different price points. The undisputed heavyweight champion is Clos Ste Hune Riesling, from a single walled vineyard within the Rosacker Grand Cru, up on the hills overlooking Ribeauvillé (probably my favourite town in Alsace). This is a contender for best dry Riesling in the world and is “indestructible” according to Finian Sweeney of Sweeney’s wine merchants in Dublin. This is a wine for the long haul, and has a pretty eye-watering price compared to most Alsace Riesling, though looks somewhat reasonable next to any Grand Cru Burgundy. Much more accessible and better value is the Riesling from the next tier down, the gold labelled Reserve Personnelle range’s Cuvée Frédéric Emile. This is made from ripe low-yielding 45+ year old vines in the Geisberg and Osterberg climats, fermented to full dryness. It has a mineral edge and an acidic backbone, but much more body and citrus flavour than the standard yellow label range. This 2004 example was bought with birthday wine vouchers (you see mes amis, I am not that difficult to buy for!) and was showing plenty of development – the colour had deepened, the nose had started showing diesel notes on top of the citrus, and the palate opened out. Friends who tasted this with me called it “the best Riesling they had ever tasted” – and I’d have to agree (so far). Great value for money!
Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Casablanca Valley Chardonnay 2011
This is an old-fashioned premium Chilean Chardonnay. I’m a sucker for the style in general, as long as it’s well executed. The 2011 is still very young, and it would benefit from a couple of years so the oak and fruit integrate more. This is a polarising wine.
Interestingly on Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages it receives two very differing reviews:
Oaked like its going out of fashion. Which it is. Old fashioned new world Chardonnay – all tropical fruit and sweaty oak. (15/20) [Richard Hemming]
Sweet and spicy. Quite substantial but very satisfying. Finishes slightly suddenly after a great start. (16.5/20) [Jancis Robinson]
So, like a lot of issues in wine, it comes down to taste (sorry!) and personal preference.
The Wine Society is a mutually-owned wine buying club based in Stevenage in England. Since its inception in 1874 as The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limitedits aim has been to buy wines direct from growers to ensure their authenticity and quality and to offer them to members at fair prices.
The Society has over 120,000 active members in the UK and Ireland which gives it great purchasing power and a licence to list more unusual bottles. They run various tasting events throughout the UK and one in Dublin most years. The most recent one focused on wines from the Americas, and below are my personal highlights. Our hosts were the charming Simon Mason and the lovely Isobel Cooper.
Viña Litoral Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda Valley, Chile 2013
Leyda is situated close to the Pacific coast (as you might guess from “Litoral”) with its cooling sea breezes and thus is well suited to Sauvignon Blanc. This example has ripe grapefruit and gooseberry balanced by refreshing acidity. The 13.5% abv gives it a generous roundness in the mouth.
Concha y Toro Corte Ignacio Casablanca Riesling (Chile) 2013
From a very cool, top vineyard in western Casablanca, this is a
medium-dry riesling with about a third of the harvest affected by
noble rot, overlaying a lovely light honeyed aroma and flavour
over a bright, fresh palate. Drink now to 2018. 12%
Primus Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon (Chile) 2011
A textbook example of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, not terribly complex but bursting with fruit and the beginnings of cedar and tabacco notes. Drinkable on its own mid week or with a medium rare steak.
Faldeos Nevados Torrontés (Argentina) 2013
Torrontés is Argentina’s signature white grape, with aromas and flavours somewhere between Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Viognier. At 14% abv it has plenty of body to match the bold grape and stone fruit flavours.
Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered, Ontario (Canada) 2011
The first Canadian wine I have tasted that wasn’t an Ice Wine. The aim here is more Burgundy than California – it has a modest 12.5% abv and a streak of minerality through the middle. It reminded me most of Premier Cru Chablis. In my view a little less oak would let the fruit shine more.
Weinert Carrascal (Argentina) 2008
This is a blend of 40% Malbec, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, all Bordeaux varieties, although of course Malbec is mainly reduced to a minor supporting role in Bordeaux nowadays. No shrinking violet, this is a big, rich, in-your-face wine with a velvety finish. Great for cold nights or with red meat.
Ravenswood Lodi Old-Vine Zinfandel (USA) 2011
Ravenswood make some fantastic Zin; big, bold and very gluggable. Their Lodi Old-Vine is slightly more expensive but more concentrated, higher in alcohol and will live for longer. It’s a world away from “blush” white Zinfandel.
Ridge Geyserville (USA) 2011
Ridge is almost legendary among Californian producers. This is a Zinfandel-Carignan(e) blend based on some of California’s oldest vines; the youngest are 10 years old, the oldest over 120 years, with 60% 40 years old or more. It is very dense at first – takes a while to open up in the glass – then the powerful dark black fruit comes through, wrapped in vanilla. This will surely continue to develop over the next 10 years.
Quartet Anderson Valley Brut Roederer Estates (USA) NV
For me this was the star of the whole event. It is a traditional method sparkling wine from Mendocino County in California. The grapes are sourced from four separate vineyards (hence the name) in the northern Anderson Valley, cooled by the proximity of the Pacific Ocean. On the palette the 30% Pinot Noir initially gives lots of soft strawberry flavours and then the 70% Chardonnay comes through as bright citrus. The finish has classic brioche richness from ageing on the lees. Wonderfully balanced and put together.