Family-owned Marlborough winery Astrolabe make some excellent Sauvignon Blancs including their Province Sauvignon Blanc and Awatere Valley Sauvignon Blanc. The full range made at the winery is significantly more extensive than is available to us here in Ireland, but one relatively new release here is their Chenin Blanc Sec from Marlborough’s Southern Valleys:
Astrolabe Southern Valleys Sec Chenin Blanc 2020
Chenin Blanc is up there with Riesling as one of the most versatile grape varieties around – it makes great sparkling wine, and still wines that can range from bone dry to intensely sweet. Outside of South Africa it hasn’t had the same press as Riesling, however – how many winemakers outside Europe dream of making a great Chenin compared to dreams of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?
Marlborough’s long, cool growing season is perfect for aromatic varieties, and while Sauvignon Blanc is the runaway favourite there it has also been a successful home to Riesling, Grüner Veltiner and others. So why not Chenin?
In the glass this Southern Valleys Chenin Blanc pours a bright straw yellow, something that sets it apart from Marlborough Sauvignon. The nose is fruit driven with notes of apple blossom, orange peel, pink grapefruit and some pip fruit. The palate is all Tarte Normande1, minerals, honey and fresh citrus.
So yes, this wine definitely has some sweetness. It’s labelled as a “Sec” i.e. a dry wine, but dry doesn’t always mean dry. In Champagne, for example, a Sec has between 17 and 32 g/L of residual sugar, with demi-sec above that at 32 to 50. Tellingly, the Astrolabe product page for this wine did have demi-sec in its description before being corrected.
In the end it’s not the amount of residual sugar on its own that determines how sweet a wine tastes, the flavours and acidity profile have a significant effect. I would classify this wine as off-dry, but more importantly as delicious!
As a wise man once said to me, don’t call them “dessert wines” as that implies they are only fit to drink with a dessert! Categorising wines isn’t always an easy task, as even simple descriptors such as colour are open to interpretation (see this article). Where do sweet wines fit in? In the end, the label isn’t important, what’s in the glass is.
10. Tarin Pineau des Charentes Blanc Vieilli 3 Ans
Pronounced the same as “Pinot”, this is the secret fortified drink of France’s west country. Made by adding eau de vie to grape must that has barely begun fermenting, it can only be produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments – also the home of Cognac. That’s no coincidence as the grape spirit used for Pineau is the same that is aged to eventually become Cognac.
This example has received 3 years of ageing which gives it a slight “rancio” character – enough to add interest but not so much that it dominates. The only downside is that it is so moreish!
9. Sipp Mack Gewurztraminer Vieilles Vignes 2012
This Gewurz isn’t intended to be a sweet wine as such, but given the grape’s natural flavour profile, low acidity and a bit of residual sugar it tastes far sweeter than other many wines of Alsace. As a general rule I do like some sweetness in my Gewurz, and this Sipp Mack does deliver that, but with an incredible intensity of flavour thanks to its old vines. See herefor the full review.
8. GD Vajra Moscato d’Asti 2015
Moscato from Australia and elsewhere gained a lot of ground in recent years – fresh and fruity, sweet and easy to drink yet with very moderate alcohol, it became something of a party drink. Hopefully this will shine a light back on Piedmont, the pioneering region of this style (though obviously not of the Muscat grape!)
Moscato d’Asti might also qualify as a party drink for some, but its true value is at the table, mainly with fruit based desserts where it excels. The best – such as GD Vajra’s – have a mouthwatering balance of acidity and sweetness. See here for the full review
7. Max Ferd. Richter Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese
For many wine aficionados, Germany is the ultimate country for Riesling. The sheer variety of styles is one of its key strengths, from bone-dry to intensely sweet, and just about every spot in between. This Mosel Spätlese (late harvest) is just wonderful and was my narrow favourite of an all-Riesling tasting at DNS Wineclub. See here for the full review
6. Zantho Scheurebe Trockenbeerenauslese 2012
Zantho is a joint venture between two famous names of Austrian wine, viticulturist Josef Umathum and winemaker Wolfgang Peck of Winzerkeller Andau. As well as dry whites and reds they also make three dessert wines (pictured above) which are all glorious, with the TBA (for short) being my favourite. Germanic grape Scheurebe works best as a sweet wine and excels in Zantho’s TBA from close to the border with Hungary.
5. Nyetimber Demi-Sec NV
I’m a long standing fan of Nyetimber and I’ve been pleased to see them popping up here and there in Ireland. When back in England in the summer I picked up a bottle of their Demi-Sec – which I haven’t yet seen here in Ireland – and took it to a DNS Wineclub tasting. It was absolutely magnificent and reinforced my admiration for Brad Greatrix and Cherie Spriggs.
Not stated on the front label is that this is 100% Chardonnay, and therefore a Blanc-de-Blancs. Dosage is 45g/L giving it perfect balance – typical English acidity is the counter to the sugar. This was the first English Demi-Sec to be released but I would go further and state that it’s one of the top few Demi-Secs made anywhere in the world.
4. Domaine de Bois Mozé Coteaux de l’Aubance 2008
The Loire Valley is probably France’s most underrated wine region and its Chenin based dessert wines probably the least well known – which is a total shame as they can be world class without a world class price. Coteaux de l’Aubance is even less well known than Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume, but the best sites can yield beauties such as this. In my opinion these wines are the ultimate expression of Chenin Blanc – and this is still a youngster at nine years of age.
3. Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria 2014
The grape variety for this wine is known locally as Zibibbo, but further afield as Muscat of Alexandria – a very ancient grape. “Local” here is the tiny island of Pantelleria which is between Sicily and Tunisia. The grapes are dried after picking to concentrate the flavours and sugars, similar to “straw wines” elsewhere. This is a wine of staggering complexity for such a young vintage, the biggest threat to ageing being its utter deliciousness!
2. Cascina Garitina Niades
Many readers will be drawing a blank at the name of this wine which could have been in any (or all!) of my red, sparkling and sweet Top 10 lists. Formerly carrying the DOCG of Brachetto d’Acqui, it could be thought of as the red equivalent of Moscato d’Asti – though even better, in this case.
When I tried it and tweeted about it, one wag did reply “can’t see the point” – and admittedly, before I tried it I can’t say it was missing from my life – but once tried this wine is never forgotten. Fresh red fruit, acidity and sweetness combine to make wine heaven – it’s Eton Mess in a glass!
This was the unexpected runaway winner of the DNS Wineclub Alsace tasting, against some pretty stiff competition (including #2 in this Top 10). Léon Beyer is based in the achingly beautiful village of Eguisheim and has Domaines Zinck and Bruno Sorg as neighbours. “The house style is dry” said the lady at the counter, “apart from the sweet wines” – such as this rare Late Harvest Gewurz. The Léon Beyer website give a drinking window of 10 to 20 years from vintage, but this tasted like it had another decade left at least. If I had another bottle it would probably make my Top 10 sweet wines of 2026!
As I wrote several articles for Glass Of Bubbly Magazine in 2015 I had an understandable focus on fizz during the year, and I was fortunate to be invited to a number of excellent sparkling wine tastings.
Here are ten bottles of bubbles which impressed me during the year:
10. Cordorníu Anna Blanc de Noirs (€10, Madrid airport)
There is so much ordinary Cava around, especially in supermarkets, that’s it’s easy to look past the category completely. The market is dominated by two large players, Freixenet and Cordorníu, whose everyday bottles are…everyday quality, at best. Part of this is due to the indigenous grapes usually used, which are rarely seen in a bottle of fizz outside their homeland.
Cordorníu’s Anna range is a significant step up in quality, using Chardonnay for a Blanc de Blancs and Pinot Noir for a Blanc de Noirs. In my Francophile eyes, using the two most renowned Champagne grapes for superior bottlings is no coincidence. Pinot gives it some lovely red fruit flavours, and time on the lees adds beautiful brioche notes. I was lucky to receive this as a present and shared it with wine blogger friends in early 2015.
9. Man O’War Tulia Blanc de Blancs 2009 (€37, O’Briens)
Because of the importance attached to time spent on the lees in Champagne and other quality sparkling wine regions it is easy to forget that there is an alternative – time maturing in bottle after disgorgement. It doesn’t give the same results, but here is an example of a delicious fizz which has had only nine months on the lees but a further five or more years in bottle.
Chardonnay is often lean and clean when used in fizz but Man O’War’s Waiheke Island grapes give Tulia sumptuous, ripe exotic fruit flavours. This often sells out soon after a consignment arrives, so grab it while you can.
8. Champagne Oudinot Brut NV (€39, M&S)
One of the plus points of 2015 was getting much better acquainted with Marks and Spencer’s wine range, as I’ve only had the odd bottle from them previously. This is their house Champagne (though not a private or own label) but deserves to be taken seriously as a wine.
The info from M&S states that it is 100% Chardonnay, though to me it tastes quite a bit richer than I’d expect if that were the case. It does have crisp acidity and bright citrus notes which make it versatile and very drinkable.
7. Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Sublime Demi-sec NV (N/A in Ireland)
One of the surprises for me at the Grandes Marques Champagne tasting held in Dublin was the number and quality of the sweeter styles of Champagne. So much so, in fact, that it inspired me to write a Glass Of Bubbly article titled “Sugar, Sugar – The Divergence of Sweetness in Champagne” (you know how I like a cheesy title).
Piper-Heidsieck’s offering in the sweeter category is dubbed “Sublime” – and it’s an apt moniker as it’s probably the best sweet sparkling I’ve ever tried. Cuvée Sublime is assembled from over a hundred different base wines, aged and blended over four years. There’s something of a Danish pastry about it – candied fruit, pastry and sweet vanilla, just sumptuous!
6. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 (Liberty)
The 2009 vintage was hailed as the best yet for Nyetimber, especially since the wife and husband team Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix took charge of winemaking. Hearing that 2010 was even better still made me a touch wary of hype, but on tasting it I had to agree!
This is delicious now but I’m looking forward to tasting it with a little more age behind it.
5. Drappier Brut Nature Sans Soufre (POA, The Corkscrew)
The Côtes des Bar is sometimes looked down upon by the Champenois of the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs, but in the hands of a great producer the vines down here can create magic. Champagne Drappier is one such producer, and although they have a majority of Pinot Noir vines, they also specialise in making Champagne from some of the almost forgotten – but still permitted – grapes of the region, including Arbane and Petit Meslier.
Furthermore, they have much lower sulphite levels than most other producers, requiring extremely fastidious handling and hygiene. This bottle goes even further – it has no dosage, so is bone dry, but also no sulphur added at all. Wonderfully aromatic on the nose, it is fresh and dry – though not austere – on the palate. Brut zero Champagnes are often slightly out of kilter, but this doesn’t miss the sugar at all – the true sign of a great Champagne that lives up to the motto of “Vinosity and Freshness”!
4. R&L Legras Cuvée Exceptionelle St Vincent 1996 (€147, BBR)
As Champagne vintages go, the debate over whether 1995 or 1996 was the better still continues. This wine makes a strong case for the latter! Old Chardonnay vines help produce intensely concentrated citrus flavours and aromas – and although it is now 20 years old it still tastes youthful – it should see out another 10 years without a problem.
R&L Legras is a small Grower based in the north of the Côte des Blancs, probably my favourite subregion of Champagne. The quality of the wines is reflected in the number of Parisian Michelin starred restaurants which list them – the purity of the fruit is incredible.
3. Gusbourne Estate Late Disgorged Blanc de Blancs 2007 (Gusbourne Library)
Although its first vintage (2006) was only released in 2010, Gusbourne Estate of Kent is already part of the top echelon of English sparkling producers, and is gradually expanding the range of wines it produces. In addition to the regular Blanc de Blancs, Rosé and traditional blend, they also put aside a few bottles of their 2007 Blanc de Blancs for later disgorgement, i.e. it spent an additional three years in bottle on the lees on top of the normal three year ageing period.
Tasting it alongside the regular 2008 BdB showed the additional time made a huge difference to the wine – softer in acidity and sparkle, yet more textured, and oodles (technical term that!) of brioche character. It was obviously still a sparkling wine yet had transcended that, just like mature Champagne does in its own way.
I feel privileged to have tried this and I look forward to more “experiments”!
2. Bollinger La Grande Année Rosé 2005 (€150, O’Briens, Mitchell & Sons)
Even fans of Blankety Blank fizz like myself can’t help but love Bollinger with its richness and red fruit. It has a fantastic reputation and image, yet unlike some Grandes Marques it delivers on those promises. The non vintage Special Cuvée is probably the best big name NV you can get without spending silly money, and the prestige vintage La Grande Année (LGA) measures up well to the likes of Dom Pérignon at less than two thirds the price.
The Irish launch of LGA 2005 was held at the trendy Marker Hotel in Dublin. To my surprise the LGA was actually outshone by another wine – its rosé counterpart! I don’t normally choose rosé Champagne but this was outstanding – gingerbread, spice, strawberry and lemon plus toasted brioche. Just a fabulous wine!
1. Krug Grande Cuvée NV
Krug is possibly the most prestigious sparkling wine in the world. No ordinary NV this – Krug prefers the term “multi-vintage”. In fact, this wasn’t even an ordinary bottle of Krug – it was one that I had been keeping in my wine fridge for several years and decided to crack open to celebrate my second blogaversary – I had been writing for two years to the day – just before the opening of new wine bar The Cavern.
Sipping it in the sun, watching people go by, was one of the most relaxing experiences I could imagine. I managed to interpret the serial numbers on the bottle to find that it was bottled at least four years previously, which was reflected in the more mature notes coming through.
I love mature Champagne, and now I can say that I love mature Krug!