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.
Here are some of my favourite and most memorable red wines I tasted (or mainly) drunk in 2013
For me, 2013 was the year I finally dug in to my stash of premium Penfolds wines. Penfolds make a wide, seemingly ever-increasing, range of wines in different styles and at different price points; but there are a few that wine lovers will instantly recognise the name of. Wine geeks should seek out The Rewards Of Patience which gives the full history of Penfolds.
I bought a six bottle case of 1995 Grange back in 2000 when I popped to the local Tesco near work for a sandwich. Pretty expensive sandwich! I’d just signed a contract for a new job and was over the moon when I noticed that Tesco had 25% of Australian wine when buying six or more. I was friendly with the wine section manager Gavin as he was actually in to wine as opposed to being a glorified shelf-stacker, so he gave me the nod that the store’s annual allocation of two half cases of Grange had just arrived in. As Grange is released 5 years after vintage it was the 1995 being offered; unsurprisingly, it wasn’t out on the shelves with the Hardy’s Stamp and Nottage Hill. Being a qualified bean counter I worked out that the 25% saving on a bottle would pretty much cover five more modest bottles – they would effectively be free! But then it occured to me that 25% discount on six bottles would save me even more money! I’m sure that logic works for some other people as well…. The shocked look on the lass at the till as the price came up for a bottle was hilarious.
I added to my collection when the same offer was on the following year for the 1996 vintage and then in 2002 buying the 1997 vintage, all with a 25% discount, but I gave up when the 1998 vintage was released at a much higher price. I found out why when visiting a neighbour of Penfolds in the Barossa in late 2003 – it was just a great vintage that cases were selling for double the release price in the car park just outside the cellar door!
I did, however, get a sixer of Penfolds Bin 707 (their top Cabernet Sauvignon) from the 1998 vintage. It generally retailed at 40% of the price of Grange, and this seems to hold true today.
So from 2000 to 2009 these cases of wine moved house with me a few times but remained unopened. Finally, when I got married in 2009 I gave a bottle of 1995 Grange to each of my four groomsmen (and the brother-in-law who stepped in to do the video at the last minute) as a thank-you, leaving me with the last for myself.
Just before Christmas 2013 we hosted two of my wine drinking mates and their wives; partially to give my wife a chance to make beef wellington for the first time in advance of Christmas day, but also a chance to catch up in a more relaxed atmosphere than some of the bigger tasting events. And it also gave me an excuse to open a few nice bottles! We had two bottles of Champagne (see forthcoming post on best Fizz of 2013), two bottles of white (ditto best White of 2013), four half bottles of dessert wine at the end and the following bottles of red:
Penfolds Bin 707 1998
Penfolds Grange 1997
Penfolds Grange 1996
They were all maturing, with light red to orange rims, but still a dense dark core. There was lots of black fruit to the fore and the tannins were quite mellow, though unmistakably present. The 97 Grange was marginally preferred to the the 96, but the Bin 707 was astounding. Far from being a poor relation, its shone out, still bursting with cassis and blackberry. Definitely my red wine of the year, and a bargain to boot. Was it a better wine or just an excellent vintage? Who knows, but I need to taste some more to find out.
The beef wellington went down a storm at the meal, and also on Christmas day itself. And what did I open to go with it the second time? My last remaining bottle of Grange 1995!
So was the Aussie Icon Grange worth it? In my opinion, the bottles I had weren’t worth their current price of £200 – £250 retail – but definitely worth the £75 I originally paid! The reward for patience…
Domaine de la Janasse Chateauneuf du Pape 2009
I had a spot of luck at the end of October (well two, actually, but I won’t mention the other one here!) as I was given a bottle of Rhône wine as part of the Rhône Wine Week promotions with the proviso that I write a short review. Expecting a generic Côtes du Rhône I was happily surprised to receive a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape, probably the most prestigious AC in the southern Rhône.
Due to the widespread renown of the appelation (which was the first ever AC), and despite the fairly high standards demanded by the INAO (French wine regulators), some of the wines produced in the area are not worthy of the name. These are generally easy to spot as they are the cheapest on offer – especially if they are “50% off”. Other villages in the Rhône offer much better value, particularly Rasteau and Lirac.
So I opened the bottle with moderate expectations. And boy, was I wrong! My faith in Chateauneuf was restored anew. It showed deep black fruits and spice from the Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre (GSM) dominated blend, and a luxurious round mouthfeel with a velvety long finish. It had such power (I was gobsmacked by the 15.5% abv, not obvious at all) but also finesse.
My wife asked for a sip and immediately demanded a glass, it was that good.
A profound wine which I will be looking out for again.
Errázuriz Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve 2003
I managed to swing an invite to a 4-decade vertical tasting of Errázuriz’s premium Cabernet blend Don Maximiano. Cabernet Sauvignon usually makes up around 85% of the blend with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot making up the rest, though the precise proportions vary depending on the vintage. “Don Max” is a definite contender for Chile’s best red wine.
The 1989 and 1994 were more like mature Haut-Medoc than something from the new world. The 2001 and 2003 were blockbusters, not a style everyone likes, but the 2003 was absolutely fabulous in my eyes (and those of most others I spoke to). Lots of deep cassis and plum with fine tannins and acidity still hanging in there. The 2008 was also very good though perhaps not yet of age. The 2010 was a more modern Cabernet, not picked quite as late and not quite as long in oak so the wine remained fresher. All four wines from this millenium were drinking beautifully.
Gaec François et Fils Côte-Rôtie 2011
This beauty was party of a Côte du Rhône tasting hosted by Jean Smullen, and was the finest Northern Rhône wine I have tasted for years. As is the norm in the North the wine is based on Syrah (95%), but with 5% of Viognier added for suppleness and fragrance. After tasting lots of Grenache blends with 14%+ alcohol this was more elegant and refined, medium in weight and only 12.5% abv – it didn’t drink like it was missing any oomph.
So how do they make it so elegant? Firstly, the Viognier is cofermented with the Syrah (i.e. the black and white grapes are fermented in the same vessel at the same time) which is a long standing practice in the area. Secondly, 400 litre oak barrels are used rather than the smaller Bordeaux barrique of 225 litres, and only 30% of them were new. Interestingly the soil in the Côte Brune is said to be similar to that of Coonawarra in South Australia, another high quality red wine area.
I will also be posting up my favourite whites, fizzand stickies of 2013, watch this space!
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