Tasting Events

DNS taste North America

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)

pine ridge chenin viognier

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 Wines Oregon “Big Salt” 2017 (12.9%, @RRP €33.95 at Baggot Street Wines, Le Caveau and other good independents)

ovum big salt

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 Gewurz doesn’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)

au bon climat wild boy chardonnay

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)

the four graces pinot noir

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)

inniskillen sparkling ice wine

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.

 

Tasting Events

DNS Wine Club *FUN* Tasting

After a show of hands at the previous meet, the theme of the most recent DNS Wine Club tasting was FUN! Wine can be a very technical and complicated subject, and as something of a geek that often appeals to me, but at the end of the day the main point of wine is pleasure.

So how do you make a tasting more fun? Play games! But which games? I divided the DNS gang into two teams, opened some fizz and gave them their first task.

{All the wines tasted over the evening are reviewed in the articles Le Tour de France and Around The World in Eighty Sips on TheTaste.ie}

ROUND 1 – Match the Critic

John Wilson
John Wilson, scholar and gentleman

I reviewed John Wilson’s book “Wilson On Wine 2015 – The Wines To Drink This Year” here and refer to it frequently. For each wine reviewed there are lots of details, especially on the background of the wine, along with a fairly short tasting note. As tasting is such a subjective thing (and taste too, but that’s for another day) I wondered how easy it would be to identify wines from their tasting note alone…

Example of a wine featured
Example of a wine featured in the book

Each team was given a sheet with two columns; the first had ten wine names and the second had ten tasting notes taken from John’s book. Two wines were sparkling, four white and four red. Each column was in alphabetical order and the objective was to match the tasting notes to the correct wine.

Wine Name   Tasting Note
1 Bernhard Ott Fass4 Grüner Veltliner 2013 A A superb, light, elegant wine, with piquant dark cherry and blueberry fruits.
2 Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Latitude Extra Brut NV B Almond blossoms on the nose; light, elegant, sophisticated crisp green fruits with excellent Minerality. A perennial favourite.
3 Coca y Fito DO Terra Alta Jaspi Blanc 2012 C An exuberant, fresh wine bursting with pineapples and tropical fruits.
4 Jeio Prosecco DOCG Valdobiadenne Spumante Brut NV D Bracing and herby with an inviting texture and a snappy dry finish.
5 Kasarí Zorah Areni Noir 2012 E Delectably light and tangy but with rosehips and fresh, piquant red fruits. Great with food.
6 Moric Burgenland Blaufränkish 2012 F Fresh pear and peach fruits with a good lively citrus edge
7 Pieropan Soave Classico 2013 G Intriguing, lifted fragrant black cherries with good acidity and a light earthiness, finishing on a smooth note. Different and delicious wine.
8 Quinta Milú Ribera del Duero 2013 H Pure piquant damson fruits, good acidity and a lightly tannic finish. Delicious.
9 Santa Rita Medalla Real Leyda Valley Chardonnay 2011 I Restrained peach and apple fruits with subtle toasted nuts and a core of citrus acidity.
10 Thymiopolous Naoussa Xinomavro 2013 J Succulent ripe fruits cut through with a delicious minerality and great length.

You might want to try this at home.  Bear the following hints in mind that were given on the night:

  • As both columns are in alphabetical order it is possible that a wine may still be lined up opposite its true tasting note, though most aren’t.
  • The longest tasting note belongs to (probably) the most expensive white wine.
  • The Prosecco note should be very easy to identify as it nearly always tastes of one particular fruit.
  • One of the wines includes a colour in its name (though not in English) which is included in the corresponding tasting note (in English).

Yes, most of these hints are fairly esoteric / tenuous / difficult – but that’s how I roll!

ROUND 2 – Call My (Wine) Bluff

For those know aren’t familiar with it, Call My Bluff is a long-running UK game show where celebrity contestants on a team take it in turn to give three definitions of an obscure word, only one of which is correct. The other team then tries to choose the correct definition and discard the bluffs.

The wine version has a similar structure, but instead of word definitions the guessing team has to divine which of three tasting notes they are given match the wine in their glass and their mouth!

For five white wines and three red wines, these are the choices which were proffered:

White 1
(A) Famille Bougrier Les Hautes Lieux Vin de France Sauvignon Blanc 2013
(B) José Pareinte Rueda Verdejo 2014
(C) Marqués de Riscal Rueda Sauvignon Blanc 2013

White 2
(A) Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorées Beaujolais Blanc Chardonnay 2012
(B) Les Auzines Fleur Blanches Vin de Pays d’Oc 2014
(C) Tahbilk Victoria Marsanne 2014

White 3
(A) Frantz Saumon Minérale+ Montlouis 2012
(B) Tahbilk Victoria Marsanne 2014
(C) Trimbach Cuvé Frédéric Emile Alsace Riesling 2004

White 4
(A) Dog Point Section 94 2008
(B) Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013
(C) Greywacke Marlborough Wild Sauvignon 2012

White 5
(A) Frantz Saumon Minérale+ Montlouis 2012
(B) Les Auzines Fleur Blanches Vin de Pays d’Oc 2014
(C) Marqués de Riscal Rueda Sauvignon Blanc 2013

Red 1
(A) Atlantico Sur Reserve Tannat 2011
(B) Château Bouscassé Madiran 2007
(C) El Castro de Valtuille Bierzo 2013

Red 2
(A) Aldi Lot 01 Uco Valley Malbec-Cabernet 2013
(B) Château Sainte-Marie Bordeaux Supérieur 2012
(C) Domaine La Sarabande Faugères 2011

Red 3
(A) Château Milhau-Lacugue “Les Truffières” Saint Chinian 2010
(B) Domaine La Sarabande Faugères 2011
(C) Taltarni Heathcote Shiraz 2008

For the guessing team, some of the choices were more difficult if there was a similarity between the choices, e.g. for White 1 there were 2 regions and 2 grapes over 3 wines.

It was actually easiest to bluff when the reader didn’t know if they were giving the note for the correct wine or not! I suppose it is good to know that most people aren’t good liars, even if it’s just for fun.

ROUND 3 – Match the Critic (Encore)

A Book, A Bottle, A Glass
A Book, A Bottle, A Glass

Now the kicker to see if everyone had been paying attention! A double list – similar to that handed out in Round 1 – was given to each team, this time with eight wine names and tasting notes. But these weren’t just any wines taken from John’s book – they were the eight that everyone had tasted in Round 2! So of course, this final round had double points awarded.

Wine Name   Tasting Note
1 Atlantico Sur Reserve Tannat 2011 A A delicious modern style of Bordeaux with light creamy cassis fruits and a smooth easy finish.
2 Château Sainte-Marie Bordeaux Supérieur 2012 B A subtle and delectable blend of citrus and green fruits with a touch of honey
3 Domaine La Sarabande Faugères 2011 C Exhilarating precise acidity with pristine green fruits.  Inspiring, thrilling wine.
4 Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013 D Fresh, tangy, lemon and grapefruit, balanced out by clean green fruits, and a dry finish.
5 Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorées Beaujolais Blanc Chardonnay 2014 E Good, deeply satisfying wine with firm, dark ripe fruits and a dry finish.
6 José Pareinte Rueda Verdejo 2013 F Light toasted nut aromas, fresh textured pineapples fruits and excellent length. Great wine at a very reasonable price.
7 Les Auzines Fleurs Blanches G Lightly toasted notes combined with peaches, almonds and honey.  Unusual and perfectly formed.
8 Tahbilk Victoria Marsanne 2014 H Succulent and ripe, filled with dark cherry fruits dusted with spices

Conclusions

Blind tasting, even single blind, is difficult. Tasting notes are subjective, and, unsurprisingly, it’s much easier to understand someone else’s when you’re tasting the same wine they had. Context is very important so knowing the background to a wine can give you a lot of clues about why it tastes a certain way and where it’s headed.

Above all, it’s a fun journey!

Opinion

My Top 10 Fizz of 2014

Despite not making a personal trip to Champagne in 2014, it was an excellent year for fizz, rounded off by a big fizz tasting on New Year’s Eve.

During the year I observed that nearly all retailers in Ireland have very good Champagne and sparkling wine on their shelves, whether from a recognised big producer or not.

More and more countries are now making top rate sparklers to satisfy the increased international demand for bubbles: old favourite Cloudy Bay Pelorus from New Zealand was joined by Roederer Estate Quartet from the USA and Quinta Soalheiro Alvarinho Espumante from Portugal.

Despite my intentions at the beginning of the year, I didn’t taste any excellent Cava during 2014 and Franciacorta remains an enigma – more tasting needed on both fronts!  I also hear of sparkling Arneis from north west Italy which I will endeavour to seek out.

So what were the hits in 2014?  As you will see, I tried some outstanding new (and established) English sparkling wine plus some excellent Champagnes.

10. Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011

Just like that crappy advert for Shake n’ Vac from the 80s, this English fizz really puts the freshness back!  As hinted at by the term “Classic Cuvée, this is made with the three main Champagne grapes.  As the blend is 71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 9% Pinot Meunier it has a fresh and lively aspect to it – a great start to a party!

I would be interested to taste the same bottle with a bit of age to see how it develops.

9. Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano 2012

Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano
Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano

Or to give it its full name Nino Franco Vigneto Della Riva di San Floriano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superior DOCG.  If that sounds a mouthful, it is – but in a good way.  I was keen to try it at the James Nicholson tasting after hearing it had been recognised by Mr Fizz himself, Tom Stevenson.

As I often say, when trying most Prosecco one glass is enough for me, a second means a really good wine – well this is “give me the bottle and I’ll finish it on my own” good.  In case that wasn’t quite obvious enough – I really like it!

This single vineyard bubbly is made by the Charmat method like all other Prosecco, but has four months on the lees while in tank, and therefore picks up a little autolytic character. It’s also dry and savoury, so it tastes like a serious wine – you could easily drink this with a meal as well as the usual aperitif.

8. Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV

Wiston Blanc de Blancs NV
Wiston Blanc de Blancs NV

Several people who like Champagne but aren’t that well-acquainted with English sparkling wine have been surprised by the proportion of English fizz that has a vintage, i.e. made from grapes harvested in a single year.  Given the vagaries of the English climate – even more unreliable than that of northern France – you might expect many more non vintage wines where reserve wines have been used to smooth out less than perfect years.

I’m not sure why this is the case – it could be that so many English wineries are new and haven’t had the time or spare cash to lay down lots of reserve wines – but here’s an exception to the norm.

Irishman Dermot Sugrue has done a wonderful job with the Wiston Rosé, but the combination of creamy bubbles, refreshing lemon sherbet and hints of tropical fruit blew me away.  If you like your fizz and you haven’t tried this yet, sort it out!

7. Leon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006

Léon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
Léon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006

As I mentioned in the introduction, the big retailers in Ireland have put a lot of effort into their house Champagnes as there were some very creditable bottles tasted this year.

Among the best were Jean Comyn “Harmonie” Brut NV (from Molloys), Bissinger Premium Cuvée Brut NV (from Lidl) and Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve NV (from O’Briens).

However, my favourite – and one that exceeded my expectations of a house Champagne – is Aldi’s Léon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006.  From the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs, this 100% Chardonnay has spent half a decade on the lees giving it lovely brioche character supporting refreshing lemon.

6. Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009

Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009
Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009

First, an admission: on meeting a well-presented chap at the James Nicholson tasting with the hand-written name badge “Charlie Holland-Gusbourne” I leapt to the conclusion that this was an English toff with a double barrelled-name showing the fruits of his ancestral estate.  Prior research or even just paying attention would have revealed that Charlie Holland is the award-winning winemaker from Gusbourne.  I’m still blushing.

Anyway, trying Gusbourne’s wines for the first time impressed me, and the Blanc de Blancs was my overall favourite.  Fairly young still but with three years minimum on the lees behind it, this will continue to improve and add layers of complexity over the coming years.  2009 was an excellent vintage in England!

5. Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV

Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Gru Blanc de Blancs NV
Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Gru Blanc de Blancs NV

This is a non-vintage, but as a “prestige cuvée” it deserves the more fitting moniker “multi-vintage” as used by Krug for their Grande Cuvée, for example.  I took this as an interloper to Morgan Vanderkamer’s Grower Champagne tasting and it was tricky to guess (almost) blind

It had much more body and texture than usual for a Blanc de Blancs.  But rather than maturing base wines in oak, it’s the extended ageing on the lees (five years minimum) and the excellent fruit that give the oomph.  Denis Varnier eschews oak and blocks MLF to keep the wines as fresh and pure as possible.

The grapes for this bottling are grown in a walled vineyard in Avize called Clos du Grand-Père, named after Denis’s maternal Grandfather Jean Fannière who moved on from “just” growing grapes to being a fully-fledged Champagne producer when already in his 50s.

4. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

I had three opportunities to taste Nyetimber’s “best vintage yet” over the course of 2014.

Firstly with the nice people of Liberty where it showed well.

In the middle of the year I took my wife to Ely Wine Bar for her birthday.  After a few bubbles at home she wasn’t in the mood for any more when we arrived at Ely, but she changed her mind when she saw Nyetimber on the list.

Then finally I popped a bottle on New Year’s Eve – and it was better than ever!  Perhaps the bottle on my wife’s birthday hadn’t really shone as much as it should have done after a heavyweight rosé Champagne (so heavyweight that I put it in my Top 10 Reds of the year!)  But in a more sympathetic context it was magnificent, and the Pinot really shone through.

3. Dom Pérignon 1995

Belle Epoque & Dom Perignon
Dom Pérignon 1995 (with a friend)

You know how when you’re having a ball of a time at a party, and you open a bottle that, in a more sober frame of mind, you might have saved for a special or at least contemplative occasion?  If you’ve been there, did it feel like a waste?

Sometimes, it’s not a waste!  Thus it was when I popped my oldest bottle of Dom Pérignon, from the excellent vintage of 1995 – it was just sumptuous!

As part of the drinks group Moët-Hennessey (itself part of luxury goods group LVMH), Moët et Chandon NV is much more about marketing than wine quality.  Unfortunately, the Moët vintage was also a disappointment this year.  But the prestige cuvée is still the real deal, in my opinion, despite the large quantities produced.

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is that even Champagne has to be kept until the right age and the right moment – whenever that comes – and then it can be a transcendental experience.

2. Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 1999 (Magnum)

Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999
Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999

This modest co-operative-produced Champagne was a delight over Christmas (I think I had a magnum to myself on Christmas morning) and the star of the night at the NYE Glasnevin Fizz Fest.

As you might gather from the name, it’s another excellent aged Blanc de Blancs from Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, one of the top few villages for Chardonnay in Champagne.  It has the trademark yeasty, bready characters on the nose., followed by a sumptuous palate of citrus and soft stone fruit.  Just delicious.

1. Charles Heidsieck Cuvée des Millénaires 1995

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995

Even in the context of all the excellent sparkling wine I tried in 2014, there was only ever going to be one winner for me.

The Charles NV is pretty good, but this is on another level entirely.  Almost two decades maturing in the cellar has brought aromas and flavours of brioche, nuts and candied fruit in addition to refreshing citrus. It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel.  It’s time to sell a kidney and buy a case.

If you didn’t catch them before, check out my Top 10 Whites and Top 10 Reds of 2014.

 

Tasting Events

Glasnevin Fizz Fest 2014

After a second trip to Champagne and Alsace in 2013 I decided that my birthday party would be a sparkling wine tasting affair.  My review of the wines was posted under the grand name of Glasnevin Fizz Fest: the good the bad and the ugly.

Due to personal circumstances I didn’t have a big birthday bash this year, so instead our New Year’s Eve party became the opportunity to try lots of fizz!

Roederer Estate Quartet Anderson Valley Brut NV

Roederer Estate Quartet Anderson Valley Brut NV
Roederer Estate Quartet Anderson Valley Brut NV

The kick-off wine at the Wine Society’s 2014 Dublin tasting proved to be a worthy opener again.  Made by the Californian offshoot of Louis Roederer from four of their top vineyards, it is definitely made to the high standards of its Champenois maison mère.

Full bodied like the Brut Premier at home, it does, however, reverse the house blend of around two thirds Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, instead being 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir.

As well as bready characters from time on the lees this also has depth from reserve wines which have been aged in oak.  This is probably the finest Californian fizz I have tasted to date.

Donini Prosecco Frizzante NV

Donini Prosecco Frizzante NV
Donini Prosecco Frizzante NV

A fairly simple Prosecco brought by a guest, it was pleasant enough not to be passed over, and considering I didn’t have any Prosecco open myself (damn, not again!) it was a nice contrast to some of the bigger names.

Lightly sparkling (a Frizzante with a screw top, no less) with gentle apple and grape flavours, it’s a wine to enjoy rather than contemplate.  For some reason it does really well in the Netherlands!

Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs NV

Sainsbury's Blanc de Blancs NV
Sainsbury’s Blanc de Blancs NV

I bought this own label 100% Chardonnay from UK supermarket Sainsbury’s a couple of years ago when there was a double-bubble promotion on.  It’s actually good enough at full price but I couldn’t resist stocking up.

Two years later on and the citrus freshness is still there, but additional bottle age has brought a bit more body and complexity.  It could still serve well as an aperitif but with more richness it could accompany roast chicken.

I wonder how many bottles bought at the same time made it this long – not many I’d wager!

Graham Beck Méthode Cap Classique Brut NV

Graham Beck Méthode Cap Classique Brut NV
Graham Beck Méthode Cap Classique Brut NV

Méthode Cap Classique is the South African term for traditional or Champagne method, and Mr Beck helpfully puts “Chardonnay . Pinot Noir” on the front label for those who aren’t sure.  Graham Beck is renowned as one of the best producers of fizz in the country

On the nose this had a slightly spirit quality, as though there was a trace of stronger alcohol in there.  It wasn’t apparent on the palate which was sophisticated and dry – one of the driest New World sparklers I’ve tried – with creaminess and richness from the lees.  A very good effort, especially considering the relatively modest pricetag.

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2007

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2007
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2007

The first significant quality producer of English sparkling wine goes from strength to strength.  2007 was one of the first vintages seen from start to finish by head winemaker Cherie Spriggs and husband Brad Greatrix, elevating the already serious quality to a higher plane.

So how does this bottle taste?  Apple pie!  No, seriously – amazingly intense apple flavours backed up by pastry notes from the lees and then bottle ageing.  Seriously delicious!

Moët et Chandon Grand Vintage 2004

Moët et Chandon Grand Vintage 2004
Moët et Chandon Grand Vintage 2004

Non vintage Möet didn’t fare very well when tasted double blind in the previous Glasnevin Fizz Fest, but as I’ve enjoyed the house’s prestige cuvée every time I’ve tried I’d, I thought I’d give the middle ground of Möet Grand Vintage a go.

Being a vintage Champagne it was guaranteed to have a longer minimum period on the lees (36 months v 15 for NV) and this came through on the palate.  However, the fruit behind it wasn’t good enough to support the yeastiness – it tasted as though there was a hole in it, if a drink can said to have a hole in it!

Most people preferred the Sainsbury’s own label fizz, which tells you all you need to know!

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

Widely acknowledged as their best vintage yet, Nyetimber’s Champagne Blend from 2009 had showed well previously.  Perhaps context is more important than we think, because tasted straight after the Möet Grand Vintage this was fantastic, even better than I expected.

The 2009 Classic Cuvée blend is 55% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 19% Pinot Meunier.  The Pinots are more obvious with soft red fruit on the attack, but then the Chardonnay’s citrus and soft stone fruits follow closely behind.  It’s very elegant and polished, and should continue to develop over the next decade and more.

Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999

Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999
Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999

The Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on Champagne’s Côte des Blancs is the source of Krug’s famed single vineyard Clos du Mesnil.  Whereas that tends to retail at £600 or more per bottle, the village’s co-operative makes an excellent Blanc de Blanc that retails closer to £30 – a twentieth of the Krug price!

I had snapped up some magnums of the 1999 vintage a few years ago in a bin-end sale – and what a bargain they turned out to be!!  Champagne (and wine in general) matures more slowly in a magnum than in a regular 75cl botle, but authors such as Tom Stevenson also content that sparkling wine matures better in the larger format.  Without a comparative tasting for myself I will take Tom’s word for it, but the evidence provided by these magnums is definitely in favour of the argument.

Somewhat yellow in the glass from ageing, the wine is full of yeasty, bready characters on the nose.  This follows through onto the sumptuous palate, with citrus and soft stone fruit playing a supporting role.  A very long finish makes this an excellent fizz – what a shame I’ve only got one bottle left!

Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve Rosé 1999

Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve Rosé 1999
Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve Rosé 1999

Context rears its head again – and not in a good way this time.  Tasted among the other sparklers this appeared somewhat flat.  It wasn’t unpleasant, just a different type of drink.

I hope to try it again in 2015 to see how it shows then.

Cloudy Bay Pelorus Marlborough 2009

Cloudy Bay Pelorus 2009
Cloudy Bay Pelorus 2009

Cloudy Bay’s NV and Vintage sparklers are probably the best value wines in their range, especially considering the extra work that goes into making fizz.  Unlike its compatriot Lindauer or Australia’s Jacob’s Creek Sparkling, they are serious wines make with great attention to detail.  We served Pelorus NV for the toast at our wedding in 2009!

As you’d expect in a serious offering from Marlborough, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the grapes used, and like vintage Champagne it gets at least three years maturing on the lees.  There’s apple, citrus and bready notes on the nose, followed by a creamy palate with more apple and then roasted almonds.  It’s only a youngster so there’ more to come!

Cave de Turckheim Confidence Crémant d’Alsace NV

Cave de Turckheim Crémant d'Alsace Confidence NV
Cave de Turckheim Confidence Crémant d’Alsace NV

The last bottle opened before we moved onto some reds was this Blanc de Blancs Crémant d’Alsace from one of the region’s best co-operatives.  They produce a wide range of still wines and several sparklers – this was my favourite when we visited in 2013. Not widely known outside France, Crémant d’Alsace is actually the second most popular source of sparkling wine in France.

The blend is supposedly a secret but I remember 100% Chardonnay being whispered at the tasting counter.  Perhaps because it’s not seen as an Alsatian grape?  It’s not permitted in still Alsace wines, but is allowed in Crémant, sometimes with Pinot Blanc and other varieties.

As is the norm in Alsace, this displayed more primary fruit than flavours from lees ageing. We’re talking citrus, apple and quince here, so more of an aperitif style, but very enjoyable nevertheless.

The Overall Verdict

This was no professional trade tasting – all samples were drunk and enjoyed – so there’s somewhat less than 100% objectivity here, but my rankings would be:

  1. Le Mesnil Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999
  2. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
  3. Roederer Estate Quartet Anderson Valley Brut NV

Here’s to next year’s Fizz Fest!

Tasting Events

My Favourites from the James Nicholson Christmas Portfolio Tasting (Part one)

James Nicholson is an award-winning wine merchant based in Northern Ireland.  For over 35 years he has been supplying wines wholesale, to restaurants and to the public, all over the island of Ireland.

James Nicholson, Crossgar
James Nicholson, Crossgar

I was recently invited to their “Meet The Winemakers” tasting event in Dublin – a great opportunity to speak to the people who produce the wine, and of course to taste it!

Although it was difficult to narrow it down, here are a few of the sparkling and white wines that I really liked:

Quinta Soalheiro Alvarinho Espumante 2012 (€28.50)

Quinta Soalheiro Alvarinho Espumante 2012
Quinta Soalheiro Alvarinho Espumante 2012

Heading south from Rías Baixas in Galicia takes you over the border into Portugal and Albariño becomes Alvarinho.  All good so far – and I often prefer the Portuguese stuff.  But what’s this – a fizzy version?

Made by the traditional method, i.e. there’s a second alcoholic fermentation in bottle, this is fresh and fruity – and it’s real rather than artificial fruit.  This might sound a bit silly – but it tastes just like you’d expect a fizzy version of Alvarinho to taste!

This is an excellent aperitif – and a refreshing different taste. 

Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano 2012 (€30.50)

Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano 2012
Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano 2012

Nino Franco’s Primo Franco recently won the trophy for best Prosecco in Tom Stephenson’s “Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships”.  The fact that there is a Prosecco category at all is not a sop to the producers of off-dry fruity pop, but rather it’s recognition that Prosecco can be a serious sparkling if the producer wishes.

Produced from a single vineyard after which it is named, San Floriano is made by the Charmat (or tank) method like all other Prosecco, but has four months on the lees while in tank, and therefore picks up a little autolytic character.  It’s also dry and savoury, so it tastes like a serious wine – you could easily drink this with a meal as well as the usual aperitif.

Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009 (€46.99)

Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009
Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009

My favourite wine of the whole tasting!

The Gusbourne Estate in south east England dates back to 1410, though sparkling wine production has a much more recent history – the first vintage was in 2006!  The main vineyard is on a south facing ancient escarpment in Appledore, Kent.  The soil are clay and sandy loam slopes – you might expect chalk given the proximity to the White Cliffs of Dover, but it does mean that Gusbourne copes better with wet weather and drought.

Blankety-blanks (as I childishly call them) are sometimes on the simple side but this spent a full three years on the lees which gives it lots of lovely bready characters, in addition to lemon sherbet from the Chardonnay.  Being an English sparkler it has lots of zippy acidity with a dosage of 10.5 g/L for balance (I guessed 10 – 11, can’t get much closer than that!)  This style of wine makes a great aperitif or goes wonderfully with seafood.

Villa Wolf Gewürztraminer 2013 (Loosen Estate) (€14.99)

Villa Wolf Gewürztraminer 2013
Villa Wolf Gewürztraminer 2013

Although I’m a huge fan of Alsace wines, sometimes I find the Gewurztraminers made there a little dry for my tastes.  Just like Pinot Gris, I prefer my Gewurz to have a little sweetness on the finish to match the richness of the mid palate.  This off dry German Gewürztraminer (note the umlaut over the u) ticks all the boxes for me!  The most aromatic of varieties, the nose is instantly recognisable, with rose petals and lychees jumping out of the glass.  Added to these on the palate is Turkish Delight.

Gewürz is something of a marmite variety, but this is an excellent introduction.

Château Beauregard Pouilly Fuissé Vers Cras 2011 (€37.00)

Château Beauregard Pouilly Fuissé Vers Cras 2011
Château Beauregard Pouilly Fuissé Vers Cras 2011

One of the first things aspiring wine geeks learn is the difference between Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-Fuissé; although they’re both French and white they are stylistically very different.  The former is one of France’s top two Sauvignon Blanc areas, just over the river from the more celebrated Sancerre.  Pouilly-Fuissé is the most important appellation within the Mâconnais, the most southerly region of Burgundy proper.

Compared to the much more prestigious Côte d’Or, The Mâconnais has gentler slopes and mixed agriculture – and being a bit further south it gets more sun, so its grapes tend to be riper.  Accompanying that is a tendency to use oak barrels quite liberally, especially in the better appellations, so the wines become more New World in style.  Although the producer is still very important, Pouilly-Fuissé and St-Véran are white Burgundies that I would happily order from a restaurant wine menu without recognising the maker.

Château Beauregard is one of the top producers of Pouilly Fuissé.  Its standard 2012 bottling (€28.75) is showing very nicely now, but I would be a little more patient and pick up the single vineyard Vers Cras.  Although a year younger it had a lot more time in oak and so is not yet quite fully integrated.  There’s lots of tropical fruit and toasty vanilla from the barrel ageing.

It’s not the currently fashionable cool climate style but it’s a wine I’d happily drink all evening from big fishbowl glasses.

Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (€30.00)

Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Dog Point Section 94 Sauvignon Blanc 2010

This is Marlborough Sauvignon Jim, but not as we know it.

For those who don’t know Dog Point, the founders James Healy and Ivan Sutherland are both ex-Cloudy Bay.  As well as producing their own wine they sell grapes to other winemakers, including former colleague Kevin Judd who makes his Greywacke wines in their facility.

NZ Sauvignon can be sometimes be summed up as “the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long” – it has riotous explosions of fruit in its youth but fades quickly.  This elegant example from Dog Point is designed to age and evolve positively.  It spent 18 months in older French oak barrels so has plenty of texture and refinement.  It has the tropical fruit of regular Savvy plus peach and other stone fruit – it’s just such a pleasure to drink.  There’s a funky edge from the wild yeast, and as malolactic fermentation was blocked there’s plenty of fresh acidity.

 

Part two looks at a few of my favourite reds from the tasting!

Tasting Events

Some Highlights from the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting – Whites and Fizz

O’Briens Wine is the largest family-owned off licence group in Ireland with 32 stores, 20 of which are in greater Dublin.  They have 55 exclusive wineries in their portfolio and a wide selection in terms of country, grape and price level.  One of the distinguishing factors about O’Briens is the wine knowledge of their staff – it’s always nice to meet a wine enthusiast behind the counter.

Here are the sparklers and still whites which stood out for me at their Autumn Press Tasting last month:

Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve Champagne NV (€36.99, €29.99 in Nov/Dec)

Beaumont des Crayères Grand Reserve Champagne NV
Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve Champagne NV

This is proper Champagne, with slightly aggressive bubbles which could serve it well as an aperitif.  At first it is rich on the tongue from its Pinots Meunier (60%) and Noir (15%) followed by fresh lemon from Chardonnay (25%).

Made by a cooperative, this doesn’t reach the heights of something like Bollinger, but it’s much more quaffable than big brand duds such as Moët – and at a lower price.

Man O’War Tulia 2009 (€37.00, €33.00 in Nov/Dec)

Man O'War Tulia 2009
Man O’War Tulia 2009

Made by the Champagne method, this would never be mistaken for Champagne.  There’s too much primary fruit for that, but it’s a stylistic rather than qualitative difference in my eyes.  Any vintage Champagne has to spend at least 36 months on the lees after the second fermentation, but this only spent 9 months so don’t expect a bakery here.

Malolactic fermentation is blocked for freshness and balance – an essential decision. Interestingly the second fermentation is all handled by Marlborough’s sparkling experts No 1 Family Estate.  The fruit is tropical but stylish, I suspect partially due to the particular Chardonnay clones which were used.  This is no shrinking violet!

Kreydenweiss Kritt AOC Alsace Pinot Blanc 2013 (€16.99, €14.99 in Nov/Dec)

Kreydenweiss Kritt AOC Alsace Pinot Blanc 2013
Kreydenweiss Kritt AOC Alsace Pinot Blanc 2013

Pinot Blanc is one of the most under-rated grapes around, usually overlooked in favour of its flashier siblings Noir and Gris.  It tends to be light and fruity with enough going on to keep things interesting but not so much that it dominates any food it is paired with. Chicken or pork in a creamy sauce would be a great match.

As you might guess from the Germanic producer name but French grape name, this is from Alsace.  It’s soft and supple with ripe apple, pear and peach flavours.  It’s not bone dry, but the tiny bit of residual sugar adds body and roundness rather than sweetness.

Bellows Rock Chenin Blanc 2014 (€15.99, €9.99 in Nov/Dec)

Bellows Rock Chenin Blanc 2014
Bellows Rock Chenin Blanc 2014

Chenin Blanc is another under-rated grape, hailing from the Loire Valley in France, but also at home in South Africa.  It is usually recognisable in its many different variations – bone dry, off-dry, medium right up to lusciously sweet, or even sparkling.  My personal preference is the sweet stuff, especially Coteaux d’Aubance, Coteaux du Layon or Quarts de Chaume.  I rarely like the drier end of the spectrum.

One of my favourite sayings – about life in general, but can equally be applied to wine – is:

It’s never too late to lose a prejudice

This South African Chenin is dry – but I like it!  It has the honey and acidity of all Chenins with a rich, oily mouthfeel and a crisp dry finish.  It’s an absolute bargain on offer at €10!

Château de Fontaine Audon AOC Sancerre 2013 (€21.99, €18.99 in Nov/Dec)

Château de Fontaine Audon AOC Sancerre 2013
Château de Fontaine Audon AOC Sancerre 2013

Before Marlborough had seen a single Sauvignon vine, Sancerre was considered the world standard for the variety – and for some it still is, especially on the subtle mineral and green side compared to the antipodean fruit explosion that is Marlborough.  However, the fame of the appellation means that producers who favour quantity over quality can push yields up and intensity down, diluting the wine and the reputation of the area.

So not all Sancerres are the same, and it is important to pick one worthy of the label.  Pick this one!  Cut grass on the nose leads to gooseberry and grapefruit in the mouth.  It’s tangy but not sharp; the acidity feels slightly fizzy on your tongue.  This is the real deal.

Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013 (€22.99)

Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013
Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013

Sho’ nuff funky!  Assyrtiko is indigenous to the Greek island of Santorini in the South Aegean.  80 year old ungrafted low-yielding vines and natural yeast combine to produce something different, something wild.  Approach with caution, but you won’t find anything like this on the shelves of your local supermarket.

Man O’War Valhalla Chardonnay 2011 (€29.49, €26.99 in Nov/Dec)

I sneaked this in even though I didn’t actually taste the 2011 vintage, but I recently enjoyed the previous year so have no hesitation in recommending this.

Seguin Manuel AOC Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 2011 (€45.00)

Seguin Manuel AOC Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 2011
Seguin Manuel AOC Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 2011

For white Burgundy there are few more renowned villages than Chassagne in the Côte d’Or.  Like its adjoining neighbour Puligny, the name of their shared vineyard Le Montrachet was added into the commune name in the late 19th century.  As this bottle is not from a designated Premier Cru vineyard it is known as a village wine.

2010 was a warm vintage throughout most of France and this shows through in the ripe fruit.  It’s Chardonnay of course – Pinot Blanc is permitted but rarely included – with a good dose of oak that is now nicely integrated.  Smoothness is the theme, and a finish that goes on and on.  It’s by no means cheap, but such a great tasting wine and long finish make it a worthwhile treat.

Reds and dessert wines in my next post.

Tasting Events

The Libertines, Part One – Liberty Fizz

Liberty Wines are a wine importers based in the UK and Ireland with an exciting range of Italian, Australian, New Zealand and other quality wines which are sold to restaurants and independent wine merchants.   As well as the quality of their wines they are renowned for the quality of their service to customers and for the representation they give to the producers.

Although it is difficult to select only a few of their wines – as the average quality level is so high – below are my favourite sparkling wines shown at their February and October tastings.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009

If you’ve read much of my blog before you might have gathered that I’m quite a fan of Nyetimber – not (just) for patriotic reasons but because I really rate it as a sparkling wine.  And thankfully, I’m not in a minority, as the increasing quality level has been recognised in several competitions – and the 2009 is the best yet.

55% Chardonnay then 25% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier gives it a balanced assemblage of the classic (!) Champagne grapes.  It really is fresh and creamy with a bit of soft flesh behind it.  I can’t wait to try the Tillington Single Vineyard bottling from the same year!

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011

Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011

A relative newcomer to the English sparkling wine scene.  71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, 9% Pinot Meunier.  Spent time in old Burgundy barrels – though fairly young so obviously not that long!

Very fresh and zesty lemon flavours from the Chardonnay, with a creamy finish.  Would be great as an aperitif but could partner well with white fish and seafood.

Champagne Devaux Range

Champagne Devaux Range
Champagne Devaux Range

Champagne Devaux is a new producer for me, hailing from the Côte des Bar.

Champagne Devaux Grande Réserve NV

70% Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bar and 30% Chardonnay from the Côte des Bar, Côte des Blancs and Vitry.  Only the first pressing juice is used and 20% of the reserve wines were kept in large oak casks.  Malolactic fermentation (MLF) was blocked for a third of the base wine to preserve freshness.  It spends three years minimum on the lees, more than double the stipulated period.  The key tasting note for me was apples – all manner of apples – stewed apple compote, baked apple pie, fresh apples off the tree. Just delicious!

Champagne Devaux “D de Devaux” La Cuvée NV

60% Pinot Noir from Côte des Bar and 40% Chardonnay from Côte des Blancs and Montgueux.  This is a more prestige cuvée but still not from a single vintage; at least 35% of the reserve wines was aged in large oak casks.  Spends a minimum of five years on the lees then a further six to nine months post disgorgement.

Although a fairly similar assemblage to the Grande Réserve NV this is a step up in quality and is a different style – altogether more sumptuous and rich, decadent almost. Hell, if you can’t be decadent drinking Champagne now and again, what has life come to?

Champagne Devaux Vintage 2004

97% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs and 3% Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bar – so this is almost a blanc de blancs.  It spent 7 to 8 years on the lees (gives it a lovely creamy character) and then a further year post disgorgement before release (which helps it settle down and integrate properly).  Fantastic lemon citrus flavours come through from the Chardonnay.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV

Founded by the original “Champagne Charlie”, this house is now one of the most respected in the whole of Champagne – Tom Stevenson gives them rapturous praise. The Brut NV is one of the strongest on the market this side of luxury cuvées such as Krug.  Since coming into common ownership with Piper-Heidsieck (originally founded by an uncle of Charles) a few years ago, quality continues to rise.

40% of the blend is made up of reserve wines (the maximum permitted amount) of up to ten years old.  The precise assemblage isn’t disclosed but is undoubtedly Pinot heavy given the richness.  Three years maturation on the lees gives some lovely brioche notes.

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995

As much as I love the quality sparklers above, mature Champagne is in a different category entirely.  This  is 100% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs – 4 Grands Crus and 1 Premier Cru village.  The nervy acidity it had at bottling served to preserve it as it took on new aromas and flavours over the years.  Simple lemon has been replaced with brioche, nuts and candied fruit.  It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel.

This is a complete Champagne which doesn’t need anything else with it, and in fact is so satisfying that it doesn’t need anybody else with it – I’d want to drink it all by myself!

White and red selections to come in future posts!

Tasting Events

Gazing wistfully at a glass of fizz…

Wiston Estate RoséAn Englishman, an Irishman and a Frenchman walk into a bar….

…sounds like the beginning of a corny joke, but I recently tasted a producer’s wines for the first time that marry England, Ireland and France.  “How did that happen?” you may ask.

Wiston Estate in West Sussex, southern England is a relative newcomer to the nascent English wine scene, and like the majority of the quality wines made there it owes its choice of grapes and production techniques to Champagne.  The Irish connection is the winemaker Dermot Sugrue, formerly of Nyetimber and with experience of vintages in Bordeaux and Champagne.

Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Camel Valley and now Hattingley Valley are among the top producers of English Sparkling, and as Le Caveau recently added Wiston Estate to their portfolio I jumped at the chance to see how it measured up.

Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV

Very fresh, like lemon sherbet, with tropical fruit notes and creamy bubbles – enough autolysis character to keep it from being lean in any way. This is top drawer fizz; it would be great served as an aperitif or with seafood, but it’s actually very enjoyable just on it’s own.  Do I sound like a dipso when I say I could happily polish off a bottle by myself?

Wiston Estate Rosé Vintage 2011

Much rounder in the mouth as you’d expect from a majority of Pinot Noir. Fresh but seductive, strawberry is to the fore with citrus from the Chardonnay in a supporting role.  The mousse is terrifically persistent – it just goes on for ages.  This is a fantastic effort and another nail in the coffin for those who don’t like sparkling rosé.  It won a Gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards, if you’re interested in such things, but if it’s available where you live then you owe it to yourself to try it.