For winelovers, Christmas is a time when we look forward to drinking – and even sharing – a special bottle or two. This might be a classic wine with traditional fare or just something different we’ve wanted to try for a while. I asked some wine loving friends what they were looking forward to and they have kindly agreed to write a blog post for me.
Jean Smullen has been involved in the Irish wine trade for 26 years, including education, organising generic tastings for multitude of bodies, and communications through newspapers, TV and her radio spot on “Movies and Booze”.
This Christmas I will be drinking something fizzy from Italy that isn’t Prosecco! Franciacorta is a DOCG in Lombardy where they use French grapes to make sparkling wine using the traditional method (second fermentation in bottle The region’s reputation has been built on their outstanding bottle fermented sparkling wines. Franciacorta is Italy’s largest producer of metodo classico sparkling wines.
The different types of Franciacorta are distinguished by different dosages of liqueur de tirage added after disgorging. For example, Franciacorta Satèn is a style unique to the region. This blanc de blanc is made from (mostly) Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco. A Brut dosage of sugar less than 12 g/l is added and the resultant wine has less atmospheric pressure (4.5 vs the standard 6.0 atm); this means that this unique sparking style has less mousse and a softer finish.
Bellavista Alma Cuvée Brut RRP €45.99 at: 64 Wine; Donnybrook Fair, Green Man Wines, Jus de Vine, Terroirs, The Corkscrew, Mitchell & Son, The Wine Centre (Kilkenny), Baggot Street Wines, Clontarf Wines, and Searsons Wine Merchants.
This is made from 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Nero, and is a world class sparkling wine, on a par with Champagne, it simply says quality. The blending process is the key to this wine and hinges on the quality of the Reserve wines they use. One of the characteristics I found in sparkling wine from Franciacorta is a lovely floral aroma of white flowers, this has that but on the palate it has a soft subtle finish and a lovely gentle mousse. Bella Vista means “beautiful view” in this case it also means beautiful wine!
Like its close rival Lidl, German discount chain Aldi has established a foothold in the wine market and is looking to broaden its range up the market. Known for low cost wines which are technically well made but somewhat lacking in verve, they are trying to bring their customers up market by offering fancier wines, though still with an eye on the ticket. Of course given Ireland’s ridiculous level of tax on wine it nearly always makes sense to trade up, whether it’s a few nice bottles from your local wine merchant or a bottle in the trolley with your cornflakes.
Here are a few of my favourites from the recent Aldi Ireland press tasting:
Leon Launois Grand Cru Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006 (€26.99)
Aldi’s main Champagnes carry the label Veuve Monsigny and have won awards in the past few years. While they are pleasant to drink and definitely good value as Champagne goes in Ireland, the latest addition above is a different beast entirely.
Leon Launois now makes a variety of different cuvées, but prior to their purchase by the producers of Champagne Charles Mignon in 2003 their only wine was a Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru from Mesnil-sur-Oger. This wine maintains that tradition – it has a beautiful brioche nose (from the time spent ageing on the lees) and that follows through on the palate, with lifted lemon through the middle (from the Chardonnay). The mousse is lovely and creamy and it has a very long finish. Very classy.
Emozione Franciacorta DOCG Brut 2009 (€22.99)
Franciacorta DOCG is a traditional method sparkling wine made in the eponymous area located in Lombardy, central-northern Italy. It’s a relatively new name as sparkling wine has only been made there in any significant quantity since the early 60s, but is a world away from Prosecco in terms of production process. One of the main differences from Champagne in practice is that the grapes are often picked when fully (but not over) ripe, so they have more intensity of flavour and can reach higher alcohol as base wines.
At first I wasn’t sure whether to include this as I think it will be quite polarising – some people will love it and some will loathe it. But if you don’t take a risk in life you can get stuck in a rut! The blend is 85% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Nero (Noir) and 5% Pinot Bianco (Blanc), which is actually the same proportion that those grapes are planted in the Franciacorta DOCG area.
This might sound weird but I thought this had a slightly savoury finish. I think grilled tuna steak would be a great match.
Exquisite Collection Gavi 2013 (€7.49)
Are you surprised by this recommendation? I certainly was! Gavi is a light Italian white wine made from the Cortese grape, and due to fashion is often priced far higher than its intensity of flavour would suggest. Among my friends in Dublin it has become something of a joke, so I thought I would just try this for shits and giggles.
But to my amazement it has flavour! Lots of stone and soft white fruit – we’re talking peach, pear and apricot. There’s fruit sweetness here but a dry finish. Like many Italian whites it has plenty of acidity but it’s not austere or boring. Would be great with seafood or a light salad starter.
And if you have a friend or relative who loves Italian Pinto Grigio, give them this to try as an alternative.
Edouard Delaunay Chassagne Montrachet 2000 (€24.99, available from 2nd Nov)
Yes you read that correctly – a 14 year old white wine from for 25 yoyos from Aldi. This obviously goes waaay past the everyday drinking category. Without trying to be snobby I doubt the vast majority of regular shoppers would recognise it, but bravo to Aldi for broadening their range.
On the nose there is lots of buttered toast, due to maturation in oak and subsequent bottle age. The buttered toast continues on the palate but with some tropical fruit notes and lemon freshness. A complex wine that deserves a big glass for contemplation.
Charles de Monteney Condrieu 2012 (€23.99, available from 2nd Nov)
Condrieu is in the heart of the northern Rhône and for a long time was the last bastion of the difficult to grow Viognier grape. Viognier is now grown more widely in the Rhône and further afield in places such as California, Australia and New Zealand. It often has more body and certainly more texture than average for a white wine – you might call it a red drinker’s white. Some examples can have an oily viscosity to them, not dissimilar to Alsace Pinot Gris (which is a firm favourite of mine).
And so it proves in this example. It has an amazing nose with orange blossom and orange liqueur combined – more Cointreau than Fanta. On tasting, there’s a touch of honey, apricot (typical for Viognier) and that orange again. Unlike many examples of Condrieu this is enjoyable on its own without food.
I think this is another polarising wine, so approach with caution, but I believe it’s worth taking a punt.
Thomas Schmidt Private Collection Riesling Auslese 2013 (€14.99, available from 2nd Nov)
From the land of the long wine name comes a sweet and fruity number from the Mosel. At only 8.5% alcohol this is one which won’t rush to your head – in fact it’s around the strength where a small (125ml) glass is equivalent to the British or Irish official units of alcohol.
Despite encouragement from a host of wine commentators, Riesling remains unloved by the majority of casual wine drinkers, principally due to associations with sweet and flabby sugar water concoctions from the 1970s such as Liebfraumilch. Aside from the fact that many of those contained little or no Riesling, they were cheap blends with no relation to quality wine.
Not all Riesling is sweet, but this one is – very sweet in fact, but not flabby at all. There is a pronounced ZING of acidity balancing out the residual sugar. This is a young wine but will develop beautifully over the next decade or more. Who says white wines don’t keep?
Edouard Delaunay Maranges Premier Cru “Les Roussots” 2008 (€29.99, available from 2nd Nov)
This is real, grown-up Pinot Noir from its heartland of the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. Whereas entry level Pinots from the new world can be jammy and confected, and cheaper French Pinots are sometimes too dry and lacking in fruit, this Premier Cru example has lots of fresh fruit but a dry, savoury edge. Typically you’d expect red fruit from Pinot Noir – strawberry and raspberry – but this adds some black fruit as well.
At six years of age this has opened up and is starting to develop additional layers of complexity. If that’s what you like then put a few bottles down, but it’s drinking well now. The acidity is enough to cut through fatty meat, so if you have duck or goose planned for a fancy meal later in the year (not going to say the word) then this would partner well.
Trius Showcase Canadian Icewine 2013 (€29.99, available from 2nd Nov)
Vidal is a hybrid grape partly descended from Ugni Blanc which is the main grape in the Cognac area. It was bred for high acidity (useful in brandy) and hardiness in cold weather, but has actually come into its own as the main grape in Canadian ice wine.
As with the original Eiswein in Germany, ice wine is made by pressing very ripe grapes which have been left on the vine and been frozen. Ice crystals are separated from the remainder of the juice which is therefore more concentrated in terms of sugar, flavour and acidity. This makes for a very sweet, concentrated wine. As so much of the juice is subtracted as water, yields are very low and prices tend to be high.
This example from the Niagra Peninsula is not cheap but I think is worth splashing out on as a treat. It’s sweet enough to hold its own against pretty much any dessert and has luscious tropical fruit flavours.
Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008 (€24.99, available from 2nd Nov)
Tokaji has been a famous wine for several centuries. Made in a delimited area in Hungary, it uses sweet botrytised grape paste to sweeten regular wine must. The measure of sweetness is how many buckets (Puttonyos) of paste were added in to a 136L barrel – the traditional proportions. 2 putts gives something that would go with a fruit cocktail but not something sweeter, and 5 putts is probably the best overall balance (you might even want to say “the sweet spot”, ahem).
This 6 putts example is even sweeter, but I reckon if you’re going to be having lots of fancy desserts then another putt isn’t going to hurt. What did surprise me was the toasted coconut on the nose, implying American oak barrels. On the palate there is typical apricot and honey notes with a touch of mushroom (not as unpleasant as it sounds!) Make sure this is well chilled before serving so the acidity isn’t lost in the background.
It might seems strange, but I’m posting my 2014 Wine Resolutions before my 2013 Best Wines, mainly because it will be shorter.
So, here are a few of the wines I’m hoping to drink (more of) this year:
Yes, that’s right, Muscadet – the classic example of a bone-dry white wine. It’s supposed to be perfect with white fish and sea food, but as I don’t eat that much sea food at home I’ve nearly always tried it on its own. The Melon de Bourgogne grape doesn’t have that much flavour, so some of the better growers let it mature on its lees (dead yeast cells and other solid matter) to give it a bit more oomph. And that helps (a bit).
And how does it taste? Well, frankly, many of the bottles I’ve had over the years have been somewhere between vinegar and paintstripper. It’s usually very high in acidity with no residual sugar (RS) and the lack of flavour can make it taste thin and just, well, unpleasant.
However, as one of my favourite sayings goes: “It’s never too late to lose a prejudice”, so perhaps a few better bottles might change my mind. Muscadet is often cited as underpriced for its quality, and as a Yorkshireman getting VFM is a good thing. I’m thinking I might have to include a few different Muscadets in a mixed case from The Wine Society…
Most people with a bit of wine knowledge realise that Cava’s image is quite poor in the UK (where I’m from) and Ireland (where I live). It’s made in the traditional method like Champagne, but although the Chamapgne grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are permitted nowadays, Cava is often made from the indigenous grapes Macebeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo. Perhaps I’m being a snob here, but these grapes don’t sound that promising as base material for great sparkling wine. Whenever I’ve put a Cava into a flight of sparklers in a blind tasting it has been spotted by most of the tasters, usually because of its relative lack of refinement and a certain earthiness.
Cava is often one of the cheapest sparkling wines in the supermarket which sounds a bit crazy when you consider the production method, more costly than Prosecco’s tank method, for example. So how do they make it so cheaply? Firstly, grape yields are higher than Champagne (which are already high for a quality wine), so the same vineyard area produces more grapes. Secondly, many producers buy in grapes from growers, and the market price for grapes in Catalonia (where ~95% of Cava is made) is much lower than in Champagne. Thirdly, the miniumum length of the second fermentation in bottle is only nine months for non-vintage compared to fifteen in Champagne. Use of Gyropalettes (machines which enable riddling to be done in bulk in a much shorter period) is another significant cost saving and is now standard for Cava. Of course, some Champagne houses do use them as well. Finally, due to its place in the market there is far far less spent on marketing and publicity for Cava compared to Champagne.
So why am I going to try more Cava in 2014? After some interesting twitter discussions with Alex Hunt MW (@alexhuntmw), Lenka Sedlackova (@lenkster) and others last year I decided to ignore the dross and look for the best that Cava has. I took down some recommendations:
Raventos I Blanc
I will also be scouring the Cava section of the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & sparkling wine which I was lucky enough to be bought for Christmas. If you like fizz, buy this book!
Another target for 2014 for which I will be gleaning info from that book is:
This is Italy’s quality traditional method sparkling wine made in Lombardy. I must confess I haven’t tasted a single sip to date! Franciacorta gets some good press, but as the volume of production is relatively low (about a tenth of Champagne) and domestic demand is high, very little is exported.
Some of the top producers I will try to find:
Ca’ Del Bosco
Prestige Cuvée Champagnes
This resolution is very much wallet dependant! I’ve had many different vintages of Dom Perignon (it was the fizz on tap in Emirates First Class to and from our honeymoon in New Zealand) and tried Krug’s Grand Cuvée, Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame and Louis Roederer’s Cristal, but there are still several top Champagnes I would like to try – even if that’s a taste rather than buying a bottle: