Opinion

Wines at Xmas #6 – Jean Smullen [Guest Post]

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.

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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.

Alma Gran Cuveé Brut

 

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!

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Tasting Events

Five Fab Whites from the Ely Big Tasting

I’ve already picked my five favourite reds, now here are five of the whites which stood out for me at the Ely Big Tasting:

 

Bride Valley Brut Reserve 2014 (12.0%, RRP ~ €54, Liberty Wines)

Bride Valley

Bride Valley is a producer named after a place of the same name in Dorset on the south coast of England (it’s between Hampshire and Devon (I had to check as I’m a Northerner myself).  The estate is owned by Steven Spurrier and his wife Arabella; Steven is a former wine merchant, a wine educator and a wine writer, and is perhaps most famous for hosting the “Judgement of Paris” in 1976 (though he wasn’t too happy to be portrayed by a 60+ year old Alan Rickman in Bottle Shock!).  The soil is said to be similar to Champagne, though I think it’s probably more technically accurate to say that Champagne has similar soil to this part of Dorset as the village of Kimmeridge (whence Kimmeridgian) is close by!

The blend is “typically” 50% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, the three main Champagne grapes, though not seen in these proportions that often.  It’s not the most complex English sparkler I’ve tried, though that’s understandable as it’s a very young estate – but it’s simply a delicious wine, and dangerously quaffable!

 

O Luar do Sil Valdeorras Godello Sobre Lias 2015 (13.5%, RRP ~ €30, Mitchell & Son)

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The Rodero Villa family had been making fine Ribero del Duero wines at Pago de los Capellanes for two decades before they set up an outpost in Galicia, north west Spain.  Valdeorras is Godello country with a cool climate that encourages a long growing season and lots of aromatic compounds in the wines.  “O Luar do Sil” apparently means “The Reflection of the Moon on the river Sil” – though I presume this only applies at night…

Anyway, the wine itself is delicious – fresh, green fruit with creamy richness from six months on fine lees.  Wines like this reinforce my view that Godello can make wines equally as good as – if not better than – Galicia’s other prominent white grape Albariño.

 

Mahi Estate Boundary Farm Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (14.0%, RRP ~ €26 Quintessential Wines)

Mahi Boundary Road

I’ve already written about this wine in 2017 but I make no excuses for repeating myself – it’s an excellent wine.  Don’t think that this is “just another Marlborough Sauvignon”, it’s far more than that: smoky, funky and citrusy all at the same time.  If anything I think this is tasting better than it did earlier in the year, but should keep on developing for several years.

 

Maison Ambroise Côtes de Nuits Villages Blanc 2013 (13.0%, RRP ~ €28, Le Caveau)

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Maison Ambroise are better known for their red wines (as is the Côtes de Nuits in general), with a history going back to the 18th century.  The vineyards were reinvigorated by Bertrand Ambroise in 1987 and the amount of land under vine increased to 21 hectares.  Organic certification came in 2013.

Oak is used sparingly to add complexity and mouthfeel – details weren’t immediately available but I suspect that any new oak was only a fraction of the total.  This is a superlative white – for a relatively modest outlay – so beware, it might just be the wine that gets you hooked on white Burgundy!

 

Jean Thévenet Domaine de la Bongran Viré-Clessé 2010 (14.0%, RRP ~ €33, Wines Direct)

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Viré-Clessé is in the Maconnais, the southernmost sub-region of Burgundy proper before Beaujolais, so the fruit is nearly always riper than Chablis at the other (northern) end of Burgundy.  Jean and Gautier Thevenet go even further with their Domaine de la Bongran grapes – they leave them on the vine for several weeks longer than all their neighbours, resulting in powerful wines.  The high sugar levels at harvest time combined with natural yeast means that fermentation can take months and months.  Such is the richness of the wine that you might think there’s oak used along the way, but not a bit of it.  This is an unusual style of Chardonnay that really needs to be tried!

Tasting Events

Six Top Whites from the Ely Big Tasting

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The Ely Big Tasting is now something of an institution on the Dublin wine scene, giving interested wine drinkers a chance to try a wide variety of wines from Ely’s suppliers.  Some of them are already established favourites and some are shown to gauge interest from punters.  Over the several events that I’ve attended (Spring and Autumn each year) it has been interesting to see the camaraderie and some good natured competition between the importers.

Here are six of my favourite whites from the Autumn 16 event:

D’Arenberg “The Money Spider” South Australia Roussanne 2010 (13.2%, Febvre)

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Roussanne is one of the most important grapes in France’s Rhône Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon.  Innovative McLaren Vale producers d’Arenberg decided to plant white Rhône varieties given how successful the Rhône varieties Shiraz/Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre are in the Vale.  And the theory paid off!  Nutty and peachy, it’s full of interesting flavours that you just don’t find in the usual supermarket suspects of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay.  Seek it out!

Ingrid Groiss Gemischter Setz Weinwiertel 2015 (Wine Mason)

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Lovely field blend of 17 different varieties. These vines are all planted in the same vineyard and are harvested and vinified together. When Ingrid took on the family vineyards she had to rely on her grandmother to identify which variety was which!

The result in the glass is both complexity and drinkability – what more could you want?

In case you were curious, the varieties are:

Chardonnay, Müller Thurgau, Welschriesling, Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Grauburgunder, Pinot Blanc, Frühroter Veltliner, Neuburger, Zierfandler, Rotgipfler, Sämling, Roter Veltliner, Grauer Vöslauer, Hietl Rote, Weiße Vöslauer and Silberweiße.

More info here.

Trimbach Alsace Vieilles Vignes Riesling 2012 (13.0%, C+C Gilbey’s)

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This Vieilles Vignes (“Vee-ay Veen”, Old Vines) Riesling is a step above the standard Riesling (which I like) and slots in below Trimbach’s premium Cuvée Frédéric Emile.  The VV is only made in certain years (2009 was the release previous to this 2012) so my guess is that Trimbach only decide to make it when they have more quality fruit than they need for “Fred”.

Ther fruit is sourced from the lieux-dits (named vineyards) Rosacker, Muehlforst, Vorderer Haguenau and Pflaenzer.  Being old, the vines yield less grapes than in their youth, but the resultant wines have more intense and complex flavours.  This wine is mainly available in bars and restaurants (such as Ely!) rather than wine merchants and is worth calling in for on it own!

Lucien Aviet “Cuvée des Docteurs” Arbois-Jura 2011 (13.0%, La Rousse)

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The Jura region – nestled in the hills between Burgundy and Switzerland – has been making wine for a long time, but has only recently stepped into the limelight.  The area’s Vin Jaune has been regarded as an interesting diversion but now the table wines are receiving lots of attention – due in no small part to Wink Lorch’s excellent book.

Whereas Vin Jaune and some other Jura wines are deliberately exposed to oxygen during their production, this Chardonnay is in the ouillé “wee-ay” style – the barrels are topped up to prevent a flor forming or major oxidative notes.  It’s therefore much more my cup of tea – or glass of wine!  The wild yeasts used are reflected somewhat in the wild flavours, so this isn’t for everyone, but every wine enthusiast should try it at least once.

La Fief du Breil “La Haye Fouassière” Muscadet Cru Communal 2013 (12.5%, Wines Direct)

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Anyone who has holidayed on the Atlantic coast of France and has enjoyed the seafood there is almost certain to have tried Muscadet, from the western reaches of the Loire.  It’s a wine while is often maligned outside of an accompaniment for oysters, and if we take the average quality of all wines produced then that’s probably not too unfair.  However, some producers are very quality conscious and can make some fantastic wines in the region.

This cuvée spends 14 months on the lees, giving a very creamy texture, but remains refreshing thanks to vibrant acidity.  It will partner well with seafood but is just downright delicious on its own.

More info here (downloads).

Brookland Valley “Verse 1” Margaret River Chardonnay 2015 (13.5%, Liberty)

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Compared to most of the producers above, Brookland Valley is a newcomer – they were established in Margaret River in 1983 (compared to 1626 for Trimbach!)  While heritage and history are nice, at the end of the day it’s what’s in the glass that counts.  Verse 1 is their “entry level” range, with Estate above that and Reserve at the top.

This Chardonnay is a cracker, still young perhaps but full of flavour.  Racy grapefruit and lemon are set against brioche, vanilla and nuts.  It’s well balanced with a long finish.  If drinking in the next year or so then decant for half an hour before drinking, if you can.

More info here.

Restaurant Review, Tasting Events

G.D. Vajra Dinner at Ely Wine Bar

G.D. Vajra Dinner at Ely Wine Bar With Giuseppe Vaira

Last month my wife and I were invited to a wine dinner at Ely Wine Bar, my favourite venue in Dublin and one which I often mention on Frankly Wines and on Twitter.  It was jointly hosted with importers Liberty Wines and the wines were presented by third generation family member Giuseppe Vaira.

Magical food was prepared by Ryan Stringer and this team, with Ely Wine Director Ian Brosnan the man with the bottles.

Just to whet your appetite here is the menu:

Menu 2

 

Background to G.D. Vajra

The owner and winemaker is Aldo Vaira who established the firm in 1972, naming it after his father Giuseppe Domenico.  The family had been growing grapes since the 1920s but made the jump to producing wine.  Since then they have gradually expanded their holdings in the area around Barolo to 60 hectares.

Winemaking is traditional, in that the grapes are not left on the vine until very ripe and oak is used judiciously, but there is no overt woodiness and no faults, just fruit that speaks for itself and its birthplace.

Aperitif: 

G.D. Vajra “Pétracine” Langhe Riesling 2012 (12.5%, 3.8 g/L RS)

Vajra Riesling

Italian Riesling?  Unexpected or downright unusual, but the proof of the pudding is on the palate. Lemon and lime with perhaps a touch of stone fruit on the nose.  Very zesty, with lemon and apple flavours.  It does fall off a little after the amazing attack, but then mellows out for a very long finish.  There’s a tiny touch of sweetness in there, but it definitely falls into the “dry” category.  Would compare well to many Alsace Rieslings (which is high praise from me!)

Crispy pig tail, black pudding, caramelised onion, carrot & pine shoot oil

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The pig tail was tasty but it was the combination of the black pudding, the caramelised onion and carrot which ruled the dish.  Beautifully presented  it was appealing to both the eye and the palate. It also worked well with the crisp wines accompanying it.

G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d’Alba DOCG 2015 (13.0% – available by the glass at Ely Place)

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Dolcetto is often looked down upon, especially by outsiders, but it’s what the locals often choose to drink themselves.  Although the name alludes to sweetness, it’s nearly always a dry red wine with some tannin and moderate acidity as a frame for red cherry and red berry fruit.  Fabulous aromas of violets mean you will be nosing the glass for an age before tasting – though once you have tasted you will want more!

G.D. Vajra Barbera d’Alba DOC 2013 (13.5%)

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Unlike wines made under the Barbera d’Asti DOC regulations (which allow up to 15% of other local grapes, this Barbera d’Alba is a 100% varietal.  (Also see the new Nizza DOCG within Asti which is always 100% Barbera.)  This is a more powerful wine than the Dolcetto, blended from the fruit of six different vineyards.  The key notes for me were chocolate, berries and earthiness – a great match with the starter!

Organic Burren lamb belly, potato, samphire & lamb jus

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Occasionally ordering lamb belly can lead to a disappointingly greasy result. This dish offered anything but, with tender rolled pink lamb belly. The samphire (a first for us) added saltiness to both the potatoes and the lamb and really brought balance to the plate. The jus was sweeter than expected and would have been enjoyed more if there was a little more on the plate, because it was that good.

G.D. Vajra “Albe” Barolo DOCG 2011 (14.5% – available at Ely Place)

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The Albe is Vajra’s entry level Barolo with grapes sourced from several vineyards.  The nose is predominantly red fruit and floral, with pine resin / eucalyptus in the background – definitely fruits of the forest!  Although it spent several years in barrel before release, it’s not at all woody;  tannins are present but not overbearing.  For such a relatively young wine, this is a minor miracle (from my limited experience of quality Barolo!)

G.D. Vajra “Ravera” Barolo DOCG 2011 (14.5% – available at Ely CHQ)

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Ravera is a “Cru” or designated vineyard in the south west of Barolo, with a free-draining mix of clay and loose sand.  Although vines were first planted in 2001, the wines were labelled as Langhe Nebbiolo until 2008.  After 3 weeks of fermentation, the wine spent 42 months in Slavonian (Croatian) oak barrels.

The star of the show!  A full on black fruit experience on both the nose and palate – lovely juicy blueberries and blackberries, with a mineral edginess.  So well put together – rich yet delicate; poised…once the wine touches your lips you can’t wait for it to sate your taste buds.

Considering the young age of the wine and time spent in barrel this is a remarkably approachable wine already.  It seems Vajra have mastered the art of complex wines that don’t need a decade and a half to be ready!

Custard & rhubarb tart, poached rhubarb, lemon meringue
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The rhubarb and custard tart was smooth in texture and had plenty of zing.  The delicious, slightly chewy meringue added texture and the coulis of rhubarb cut through any over-sweetness.  Dessert offered texture and tang and was a winner.

G.D. Vajra Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2015 (5.5%, 143 g/L RS)

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Sometimes the icing on the cake can be a little bit too much – but not in this case!  Moscato d’Asti is naturally sparkling from the CO2 produced by the fermentation process.  This is stopped early – by bringing the temperature down to stop the yeast from functioning – so that only some of the sugar has turned to alcohol.  Sort of like the opposite to Holsten Pils, if you remember those Griff Rhys-Jones adverts.  The result is an avalanche of fruit – apricot, peach, mango, pear, passionfruit… it just goes on and on.  The dessert it accompanied was an inspired choice, as the acidity in the rhubarb and the Moscato were a match then the sweetness of the meringue was equalled by the residual sugar in the wine.

 

Thanks to my wife Jess who wrote the food sections above!

Great food, great wine, great company – this was an evening to remember!