Opinion

Frankly Wines Top 10 Sweet Wines of 2015

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:

 

10. Berton Riverina Botrytis Semillon 2013 (€9.99 (375ml), Aldi)

Berton_Botrytis_Semillon-500x500

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)

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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)

Vin Santo

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)

Le Must de Landiras

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)

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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!

5. De Trafford Straw Wine 2006 (€29.50 (375ml), Kinnegar Wines)

de trafford strawwinelabel00-1_m

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

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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.

See this article for more details.

3. José Maria da Fonseca “Alambre” ® DO Moscatel de Setúbal 2008 (€6.45, Portugal)

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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.

See this article for more details.

2. Chateau Dereszla Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 2006 (€38.95 (500ml) The Corkscrew)

Château Dereszla Tokaji

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!

See this article for more details.

 

1. Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria 2013 (Liberty, from good wine merchants)

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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:

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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!

My mate Paddy Murphy of The Vine Inspiration also covered this wine.

 

Don’t forget to also check out Frankly Wines Top 10 Fizz of 2015 and Top 10 Whites of 2015!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Make Mine A Double

Make Mine a Double #04 – White Graves (of the Bordeaux Kind)

This series of articles each covers two wines that have something in common, and most likely some point of difference. Compare and contrast is the order of the day – so make mine a double!

The South-Western district of Bordeaux is known as the Graves after the gravelly soil which predominates and produces a wide range of classic red and white Bordeaux. Although much less well known than the famous communes of the Médoc on the left bank and St-Emilion and Pomerol on the right bank, Graves was actually producing quality wines even before Dutch engineers drained the marshy Médoc peninsula. In fact, Samuel Pepys even made mention of the well-established “Ho Bryan” in his eponymous diary written in the 1660s.

There are producers of top quality white wine in the rest of Bordeaux but the Graves is easily the leader for whites. Apart from Haut Brion, which was one of the original four First Growths, the remainder of the Graves was omitted from the 1855 Bordeaux Classification; the Classification of Graves was first published in 1953 for reds and whites were added in the 1959 update.

Grave Vineyards
Grave Vineyards (Credit: vingnobledebordeaux.com)

The best part of the northern Graves surrounding the villages of Pessac and Léognan has had its own appellation since 1987, though the wines still show (usually Grand Vin de) Graves or Bordeaux on the label.

A word of caution for the uninitiated: whereas Bordeaux Supérieur AOC is a red wine made with slightly stricter regulations on yields and minimum alcohol (which is nowadays exceeded in most years anyway) than standard Bordeaux AOC, Graves Supérieures AOC is actually a sweet wine! It is similar in style to the more famous sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac, though usually less intense and complex. Both sweet and dry whites are generally a blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes with a dash of the third ranked white grape Muscadelle.

Having done a tour of the Graves Wine Route many years ago I can personally attest to their quality! Sadly availability in Ireland is very limited indeed. Here are a couple I have tasted and enjoyed recently.

Château Simon Graves 2013 (€15.95, Cases Wine Warehouse) 12.5%

Château Simon Graves 2013
Château Simon Graves 2013

Although based in Barsac and specialising in sweeter wines, Château Simon also produces 12,000 bottles a year of white Graves from three hectares.  Fermentation (to dryness) is in oak; batonnage is carried out for several months to add creamy lees character.

Château Simon
Château Simon

Tangy! Honey and soft white fruit from the Sémillon (50%), citrus freshness from the Sauvignon Blanc (50%). Definitely more than the sum of its parts, the two grapes work perfectly together. Lively enough to work as an aperitif or with seafood, but enough body to accompany chicken and stronger poultry, or even pork. Great value for money.

Le Must de Landiras du Château Terrefortes des Chons Graves Supérieures 2004 (direct from the Château)

Le Must de Landiras du Château Terrefortes des Chons Graves Supérieures 2004
Le Must de Landiras du Château Terrefortes des Chons Graves Supérieures 2004

A different beast entirely. If my warning above wasn’t enough, the deep golden colour should let you know that this is pretty sweet. Brought to a DNS Wine Club barbecue by my mate Paul W, it is apparently just about ready to drink according to the producer – at over ten years old.

Les Chons is smack bang halfway between the villages of Sauternes and Barsac, and the Grand Vin is indeed a Sauternes.  However, they also own other vineyards in the Graves and this is the resulting wine.

Many of the Graves Supérieures I’ve tried in the past have been disappointing – some sweetness, but not enough to qualify as a dessert wine, and not concentrated enough to be interesting as a medium / off-dry wine. This blows all of them out of the water – easily the best I’ve tasted from the region and on a par with a very good Sauternes. Honey and baked apples show on the nose and palate, with an unctuously sweet mouthfeel, but balanced by acidity. Outstanding.

Restaurant Review, Tasting Events

Stanley, Andrew and Yves

Stanley's of St. Andrew's Street (Photo credit: Ruth Maria Murphy)
Stanley’s of St. Andrew’s Street (Photo credit: Ruth Maria Murphy)

In February I was delighted to accept an invitation to an exciting wine and food event at Stanley’s Restaurant & Wine Bar on St Andrew’s Street in Dublin.  The wines were from Northern Rhône star Yves Cuilleron, which gives us a full house of names.

The wines were selected by Wine Director Morgan Vanderkamer and introduced by Yves himself.  As one of the few other French speakers I was given the honour of occasional interpreter.  The amazing menu was put together by proprietor & Head Chef Stephen McArdle (nickname Stanley!) who takes inspiration from French cuisine in particular.

Cave Yves Cuilleron

Yves Cuilleron
Yves Cuilleron at home

Yves elucidates the history behind his family vineyards on his website but, en bref, he took over the family vineyards when his uncle retired in 1987 – he surprised his relatives by throwing himself into the family business.  He has constantly innovated and invested since then, building a new cellar then later a new winery, and expanding his vineyards across most of the northern Rhône’s appellations.

Stone and earthworks
Stone and earthwork terrace to help stop soil erosion

For around ten years, Cuilleron wines have been brought into Ireland by Le Caveau.

Stanley’s Restaurant & Wine Bar

Stanley’s has a wine bar on the ground floor, with a well-curated and interesting list by the bottle and by the glass.  Where else could you try a mini-flight of skin contact orange wines?

Stanley's Wine Bar
Stanley’s Wine Bar with super-quick barman

Upstairs is the main dining room – light and airy during the day but feeling more sophisticated in the evening.  The top floor has also been made available as a private dining room (no photos yet, it’s that new!)

Light feature
Light feature

The faux-military portraits are great talking points.

Portraits
Portraits – isn’t that….

So now we’ve set the scene and done a bit of a guided tour, down to business with the food and wine!

Canapés

Yves Cuilleron Marsanne IGP Collines Rhodaniennes 2012

Yves Cuilleron Marsanne
Yves Cuilleron Marsanne

This is a simple wine made to be drunk young, but is very approachable.  I was lucky enough (by virtue of my linguistics) to be able to taste the single bottle of 2012 available. There’s fresh peach and a hint of honey with a touch of breadiness from time on the lees.

Amuse Bouche
Yves Cuilleron Marsanne IGP Collines Rhodaniennes 2013

For his IGP wines, Yves tries to bring out the characteristics of the grape, which of course can be stated on the label for IGP wines but not for AOP wines.  Marsanne is often partnered with Roussanne in the northern Rhône but here it shines on its own.

Wild Irish rabbit, foie gras parfait, carrot, pistachio, pain d’epices
Yves Cuilleron AOP Cornas “Le Village” 2012

Yves Cuilleron Cornas “Le Village” 2012
Yves Cuilleron Cornas “Le Village” 2012

Cornas is a mono-cépage wine, i.e. it’s a 100% varietal under AOP regulations – and that variety is Syrah. Until relatively recently, Cornas wines were often rough round the edges, euphemistically termed “rustic”.  They needed time in the bottle to soften up, and you just had to hope that there was enough fruit left by then.

Yves’s Cornas is modern, clean and fruity, without being “manufactured”.  There’s power here but it’s from intensity of flavour rather than high alcohol.  Black cherry, blackberry and plum combine with tobacco and spice – the latter particularly hitting it off with the gingerbread.

When it comes to foodstuffs, some people can be funny buggers.  Unfortunately, I’m one of them – and rabbit is never on the menu in my house.  Out of respect for my hosts and fellow dinners I tried the dish – and was astounded!  I’ve been missing out on delicious things like this for years!  Bunny owners better put some good latches on your hutches!

Venison loin, cauliflower, apricot, truffle potato purée
Yves Cuilleron AOP Côte Rôtie “Madinières” 2009

Yves Cuilleron Côte Rôtie “Madinières” 2009
Yves Cuilleron Côte Rôtie “Madinières” 2009

Up to 20% Viognier is permitted in the red wines of this appellation, as long as the grapes are cofermented, though in practice it is rarely that high.  Traditionally Côte Rôtie is split between the Côte Brune in the north with dark, iron-rich schist and the Côte Blonde in the south with pale granite and schist soil.  Yves is more a believer in the importance of each vineyard’s aspect, i.e. which direction it faces.

2009 was a very good, warm vintage across much of France, including the northern Rhône.  This comes through in power, warmth and fruit – venturing more into the red fruit part of the spectrum than the Cornas.  There’s also both floral and savoury notes on the nose – sounds like quite a contradiction, but lovel – and an amazing match with the rich venison!

Extra mature Cashel blue, walnut toast, celery, salted caramel
Yves Cuilleron AOC Condrieu Moelleux “Ayguets” 2007

Yves Cuilleron Condrieu Moelleux “Ayguets” 2007
Yves Cuilleron Condrieu Moelleux “Ayguets” 2007

This is a sweet, Late Harvest style with some botrytis (noble rot).  The semi-dessicated grapes are hand-picked with several sorting stages from mid-October to mid-November, then pressed and left to settle.

It has around 100 g/L of residual sugar, but is soft and soothing without being cloying.  A simple rule of thumb for dessert wines is, does the acidity balance the sugar?  And in this case, undoubtedly yes!

As regular readers will know I’m far from a cheese fan myself, but I was told the Cashel Blue was lovely and went well with the Condrieu.  I can attest, however, that the latter was lovely with the salted caramel.

Mascarpone, white chocolate, pear
Yves Cuilleron Condrieu “La Petite Côte” 2013

Yves Cuilleron Condrieu “la Petite Côte” 2013
Yves Cuilleron Condrieu “la Petite Côte” 2013

This is the sort of wonderfully rich wine that a novice taster might think was sweet – it isn’t, but shows apparent sweetness due to abundant fruit and a slight oiliness in the mouth. It’s dry but not Sahara dry.

It was something of a bold selection – moving back to a dry wine to accompany dessert – but it worked because the dessert wasn’t super sweet, with acidity from the pear, and the honeyed notes from the wine.

Many thanks to Patrick, Stephen, Morgan and Yves for a fantastic evening!

Tasting Events

An Impromptu Quartet

Sometimes it’s nice to plan events well in advance, as the anticipation is part of the enjoyment.  But it’s also nice to be a bit more spontaneous and do something at short notice.  At the suggestion of my better half we invited a few friends round for dinner – and of course some bottles of wine were opened to accompany her amazing dishes.

Here are a few of the whites that really stood out for me:

Château Carbonnieux Blanc Pessac-Léognan 2008

Château Carbonnieux Pessac-Leognan 2008
Château Carbonnieux Pessac-Léognan 2008

This somewhat aristocratic looking wine is from the heartland of the Graves subregion of Bordeaux.  The Pessac-Léognan AOC was carved out of the middle of the Graves AOC in 1987 to highlight the finest terroir of the area.  Although it is home to many fine reds, including the 1855 1st Growth Haut-Brion, Pessac is where the top echelon of Bordeaux’s dry whites are made.

Château Carbonnieux is in the commune of Léognan and is a classed growth under the 1959 Graves classification.  As you’d expect from a Bordeaux white it is a Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blend, but with a lovely vanilla envelope from some gentle oak ageing.

This type of wine can age gracefully for a decade or more, though for me it is à point right now.  There are still the grapefruit and hints of honey from its youth but now its pleasantly round.

Jean-Philippe Fichet Le Meix Sous Le Château Meursault 2010

Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault 2010
Jean-Philippe Fichet Le Meix Sous Le Château Meursault 2010

Meursault is the archetypal oaked Chardonnay, though of course it doesn’t say so on the label.  Being a self-confessed oak lover – when it’s done right, of course – it’s one of the labels I gravitate towards in Burgundy.

Jean-Philippe Fichet has lots of small parcels dotted in and around Meursault – see the map on his excellent website.  This wine is from a 1/2 hectare Lieu-dit (a named area which doesn’t have Premier Cru or Grand Cru status) near the centre of Meursault itself. The vines are 50 to 60 years old which comes through in the concentration of flavour.  As 2010 was a warm vintage there are plenty of tropical notes in addition to the brioche from the oak, neither dominating.  This was a “bin-end” from The Wine Society – a definite winner for me!

Also see Jamie Goode’s report of his visit here.

Man O’War Valhalla Chardonnay 2010 (Waiheke Island)

Man O'War Valhalla Chardonnay 2010
Man O’War Valhalla Chardonnay 2010

Man O’War are a fantastic producer based in Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland in New Zealand.  Their Bordeaux blend “Ironclad” and Syrah “Dreadnaught” are big and bold reds – not for those who prefer shy and retiring types – and the whites are similarly forthright.

The 2011 vintage of this was a highlight for me of the NZ Trade Tasting at the beginning of the year.  It’s a really tropical wine which might be too much for some – but not for me!

The key to balance in this wine is that malolactic fermention is blocked, meaning it retains some zesty acidity and isn’t flabby.  Can you imagine candied pineapple that isn’t teeth-achingly sugary?  There you go!

Château Princé Côteaux de l’Aubance 2007

Château Princé Côteaux de l'Aubance 2007
Château Princé Côteaux de l’Aubance 2007

The Loire Valley wine region is actually a collection of quite different subregions which specialise in different grapes and types of wine.  Just for reds, for example, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Malbec and Pinot Noir are all used.  There are some great sparkling wines and classy rosés plus world famous dry whites such as Sancerre and Muscadet.

But for me the real gems of the Loire are the often overlooked sweet whites.  Most are based on the Chenin Blanc grape which means they have acidity to balance the sugar and stop the wines being cloying.

The best sites are the slopes leading down to the Loire and its many tributaries, including the Layon, Aubance and Louet.

Simple map of the Coteaux de l'Aubance [Source: Wikipedia]
Simple map of the Coteaux de l’Aubance [Source: Wikipedia]

Being so close to water creates the humid conditions that encourage noble rot, which reduces the water content of grapes and concentrates the sugar, acidity and flavour.

This 2007 was among a stash I picked up several years ago from the excellent Maison du Vin de Saumur – worth a four hour round trip to Saumur on its own.  At seven years old it’s still a baby, but has fantastic concentration.  There’s honey on the nose but a whiff of funk from the botrytis – it is a fungus after all.  On the palate there are noticeable Chenin characteristics of apple and greengage with luscious tropical fruit notes.  It’s a fully sweet wine but the zing of acidity keeps it fresh and interesting.