One of the recent themes we explored at DNS WineClub was North American wines. Barefoot and Blossom Hill represent the very commercial face of North American wine, manufactured in huge facilities in accordance with simple, fruity, easy-drinking recipes. At the top end, Cult Cabernets can be spectacular. However, there is fairly thin coverage in Europe of the wines in between these two extremes – and they’re the ones which offer most interest to winelovers.
California is the powerhouse of the USA and therefore the whole of North America; even though wines are made in the other 49 states, together they make up just 10% of the USA total. In these parts the most available outside of the Golden State are probably the wines of Oregon and Washington State – we see very little from elsewhere, not even the hip wines of New York State’s Finger Lakes region.
Here are the five wines which shone the most at our tasting:
Pine Ridge Napa Valley Chenin Viognier 2014 (12.5%, RRP €24.95 at Baggot Street Wines and other good independents)
If you ask a fairly knowledgeable wine drinker what grapes they associate with the Napa Valley, Cabernet would undoubtedly come first, followed by Merlot and Zinfandel, with possibly Chardonnay thrown in as a token white. So here we have something quite unexpected in Napa – a blend of the Loire’s Chenin Blanc and the Rhône’s Viognier. The blend is consistent from year to year at 80% Chenin and 20% Viognier, and a little residual sugar is left in to round off the acidity. Most importantly, it really works as a wine – fresh green apple with a little rich apricot as a counterpoint.
Ovum are named after the concrete egg fermenters they use, reflected in the shape of the label of this Alsace-style blend from Oregon. The grapes used are Riesling, Muscat & Gewurztraminer; the relative proportions are not stated, but the fact that spicy Gewurzdoesn’t dominate the nose makes me think that it is probably 10% or less of the blend, with fresh Riesling taking the lead at around 55% and the aromatic Muscat being the balance of around 35% (all my own guesswork, happy to be proved wrong!)
Again referring to my beloved Alsace, a blend of this quality would be from a Grand Cru vineyard, with the fascinating interplay of three fantastic varieties. The name of the wine also rings true, with lovely saline elements. This is an unusual wine which is in fairly short supply in Ireland, but it is worth seeking out.
Au Bon Climat “Wild Boy” Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2017 (13.5%, RRP €39.95 at Baggot Street Wines and other good independents)
Jim Clendenen is the star winemaker and owner of Au Bon Climat, one of the best producers in Santa Barbara County. ABC is famous for its Pinot Noirs And Chardonnays – Jim is a Burgundy devotee – which come from a variety of different vineyards in the area. The “Wild Boy” is less subtle than the regular wines, with lots of funk and noticeable oak, spicy pears and citrus. Whatever magic he uses, this is a highly impressive wine!
The Four Graces Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2014 (13.1%, RRP €40.00 at Sweeney’s and other good independents)
Perhaps because I’d only tried a couple of lesser quality examples, my preconception of Oregon Pinot Noir was that it could be a bit thin and weedy, rarely living up to its price tag. While this is no Central Otago clone, it nevertheless has plenty of body and an amazing velvety smoothness to it. Dundee Hills are one of the best subregions of the Willamette Valley – on this evidence I will be looking out for it again.
Inniskillin Niagara Estate Sparkling Ice Wine 2015 (9.5%, RRP €56 (375 ml) at Sweeney’s of Glasnevin and other good independents)
And now for something completely different – something I didn’t even know existed before I put together the wines for this tasting. Yes, Niagara is famous for its Icewine, often made with the hybrid grape Vidal (which has a very complicated heritage that I’m going to skip over), but a sparkling version? I didn’t know there was such a thing! Once pressed, with the ice removed from the juice, specific yeast is added to the juice in a charmat tank so that the CO2 produced from fermentation is dissolved into the wine. This is such a treat of a wine, with amazing tropical mango, guava and peach notes. For many tasters, this was the wine of the night. I really liked it but would probably prefer the still version for myself.
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.