Long

My Favourite Wines of 2013 – Fizz

Following on from my favourite reds and favourite whites of 2013, here are a few of the sparklers which grabbed my attention last year.  There are a few patterns you might discern:

  1. They are all traditional method sparkling wines – I’ve had a few drinkable Proseccos, but nothing that has ever made me want to go and buy another bottle.  Although it appears on the face of it to be an inefficient production method, second fermentation in bottle seems to be the best way of making quality fizz.
  2. They are heavily weighted towards Champagne – this reflects that region’s preeminent standing in the world of sparkling wine and the fruits of several visits in person.  Franciacorta and decent Cava are on my 2014 Wine Resolutions.

Dom Pérignon 1999

Dom Pérignon 1999
Dom Pérignon 1999

Possibly the most famous Champagne in the world, and definitely the biggest production of any prestige cuvée Champagne, Dom Pérignon is a byword for luxury.  However, behind all the razzmatazz, it’s still a wine (though not a…erm…still wine, obviously).

1999 was only the second time in the history of DP that three consecutive vintages were declared (I’m looking forward to a mini-vertical of 02/03/04 someday!)  It’s relatively full bodied in the mouth, almost a meal in itself (well it did replace bacon butties on Christmas morning!) but still with a citrus spine to the exotic fruit body.

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003

I finally supped my last bottle (for now) of this tropical wonder.  If you cast your mind back a decade or so, 2003 was the summer of heatwaves across Europe.  In some parts of France, the heat was such that vines just shut down.  In Champagne, the extra ripe grapes made for a very different vintage – if indeed a vintage was declared at all.  Bollinger called their release “2003 by Bollinger” instead of the usual “Grande Année” and Krug only decided to release a vintage at all last month.

So how did the 2003 heatwave affect the sprinkling of vines in southern England?  In pretty much the same way, but because the climate is slightly cooler, the resultant wines still held on to some acidity.  The Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2003 is of course 100% Chardonnay, which tends to be on the lemon and lime side of the fruit continuum™, but here it also gives delicious tropical notes of pineapple, grapefruit and mango – almost like Lilt Champagne! (and yes that’s a good thing in my eyes.)

Louis Roederer Cristal 2005

Just a glass of this was enough to confirm why the luxury cuvée created for Tsar Alexander II is still so highly regarded.  The name comes from the flat-bottomed, transparent lead-crystal bottle – it has been suggested that this design made regicide by poison more difficult, though the lack of a punt underneath means that the bottle has to be made of thicker glass to withstand the pressure, and when on display Cristal is often wrapped in a decorative cellophane wrapper which blocks harmful ultraviolet light.

The 2005 vintage is still a baby – after all it has spent over five years maturing on the lees and a further eight months resting in bottle post disgorgement before release – so expect it to evolve for another five to ten years.  When tasted at the Dublin Wine & Fizz Fest hosted by Deveney’s of Dundrum, it showed lots of chewy brioche character with fresh lemon through the middle – a consequence of time on the lees and a little more Chardonnay (45%) than usual in the blend.

Varnier-Fannière Brut Zero NV*, Grand Vintage 2006* & Cuvée St Denis NV

Varnier-Fannière Grand Cru Brut Zero NV
Varnier-Fannière Grand Cru Brut Zero NV

Three wines from my favourite grower in Champagne, Denis Varnier, based in Avize on the Côte des Blancs.

The staple of any Champagne producer is their non-vintage (NV) Brut, which should be fairly dry.  The Brut Zero is made in exactly the same way as the regular Brut NV but without any sugar dosage in the liqueur d’expédition, the top up of wine after the dead yeast sediment has been expelled from the bottle.  This is a very fashionable style at the moment, dubbed “skinny Champagne” by some because of the lack of residual sugar, but it doesn’t always work; there has to be enough flavour from the underlying fruit and / or some autolytic character from the yeast to make it interesting, otherwise a Brut Zero can be table-grippingly acidic without anything to balance it.

Thankfully Denis has got it right!  This was served as an aperitif with olives, and was a perfect match; it didn’t feel it was lacking anything without added sugar.  It is pure and linear, with delightfully fresh citrus from the 100% Chardonnay grapes.

Varnier-Fannière Grand Vintage 2006
Varnier-Fannière Grand Vintage 2006

So what’s the difference here?  The most aromatic grapes from old vines are selected when the overall quality is good enough to make a single vintage wine.  After the second fermentation the minimum ageing is 36 months, though this is exceeded.  Production is much smaller than the NV and so allocations are limited to a dozen bottles per customer each year.

And finally, the Cuvée St Denis which is a non-vintage, though Monsieur Varnier probably regards it as a “multi-vintage”.  It is made exclusively from the first (and best) pressing of 65+ year old vines in a single vineyard in Avize called “Clos du Grand Père”.  However, the Clos is apparently is being ripped up and replanted (possibly because yields have fallen so low) so there won’t be any more Cuvée St Denis produced for the next decade or so – get it while you can!

Cave de Turckheim Confidence Crémant d’Alsace NV

The precise blend of grapes in this Champagne method sparkler is a secret, but it most probably has a majority of Chardonnay (allowed in AC Crémant d’Alsace but not AC Alsace) plus a splash of Pinot Blanc.  It is thus a blanc de blancs, but a very different BdB from the Pierre Gimonnet below – it is fresh, floral and citrus-driven, and so could be a perfect aperitif.  At €39.75 for three bottles direct from the winery it is also something of a bargain!

Those of you familiar with French wine may notice the “Cave de” at the beginning of a winery name, meaning cellar but nearly always signifying a cooperative.  The wine from some coops can be dreadful, just made with volume in mind and very little attention paid to quality.  The Cave de Turckheim (and several others throughout Alsace) have much more rigorous standards, with several quality levels ranging from basic everyday drinking (just one or two glasses, of course!) to Grand Cru stunners.  Furthermore, they produce different cuvées based on the type of soil in the vineyards that contribute grapes, whether it’s granite, clay and calcium or sand and pebbles.  You can test the effect of terroir for yourself!

Pierre Gimonnet Premier Cru Cuis Blanc de Blancs NV

Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs
Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs

I bought a case of six from The Wine Society as a relatively inexpensive fizz as it was on a case discount.  However, despite its modest price it turned out to be excellent fizz – it showed very well at a Sweeney’s-On-Tour summer barbecue and was one of the stars of the 2013 Glasnevin Fizz Fest.  The winery is in the premier cru village of Cuis where Didier Gimonnet’s family has been growing grapes since 1750, though they also own vines in other grand and premier cru villages.  As always with France, if there’s a blend of different quality levels then the lower level is what goes on the label.

This is unmistakably a 100% Chardonnay such is the streak of lemon and lime through it, though it has obviously spent more than the minimum of fifteen months ageing on the lees as there are lovely bready characters as well.  A typical Non-Vintage cuvée can contain as many as five different years’ wines; reserve wines are stored ready-blended in bottle to make future assemblage easier.

I hope you liked this post, please leave a comment and/or follow my blog  if you haven't done so already.
Advertisements
Short

The American Dream – Highlights of The Wine Society Tasting in Dublin

The Wine Society is a mutually-owned wine buying club based in Stevenage in England.  Since its inception in 1874 as The International Exhibition Co-operative Wine Society Limited its aim has been to buy wines direct from growers to ensure their authenticity and quality and to offer them to members at fair prices.

The Society has over 120,000 active members in the UK and Ireland which gives it great purchasing power and a licence to list more unusual bottles.  They run various tasting events throughout the UK and one in Dublin most years.  The most recent one focused on wines from the Americas, and below are my personal highlights.  Our hosts were the charming Simon Mason and the lovely Isobel Cooper.

Image

Viña Litoral Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda Valley, Chile 2013

Image
Leyda Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Leyda is situated close to the Pacific coast (as you might guess from “Litoral”) with its cooling sea breezes and thus is well suited to Sauvignon Blanc.  This example has ripe grapefruit and gooseberry balanced by refreshing acidity.  The 13.5% abv gives it a generous roundness in the mouth.

Concha y Toro Corte Ignacio Casablanca Riesling (Chile) 2013

From a very cool, top vineyard in western Casablanca, this is a
medium-dry riesling with about a third of the harvest affected by
noble rot, overlaying a lovely light honeyed aroma and flavour
over a bright, fresh palate. Drink now to 2018. 12%

Primus Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon (Chile) 2011

Image
Primus Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon

A textbook example of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, not terribly complex but bursting with fruit and the beginnings of cedar and tabacco notes.  Drinkable on its own mid week or with a medium rare steak.

Faldeos Nevados Torrontés (Argentina) 2013

Image
Valdeos Nevados Torrontes

Torrontés is Argentina’s signature white grape, with aromas and flavours somewhere between Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Viognier.  At 14% abv it has plenty of body to match the bold grape and stone fruit flavours.

Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered, Ontario (Canada) 2011

Image
Norman Hardie Chardonnay

The first Canadian wine I have tasted that wasn’t an Ice Wine.  The aim here is more Burgundy than California – it has a modest 12.5% abv and a streak of minerality through the middle.  It reminded me most of Premier Cru Chablis.  In my view a little less oak would let the fruit shine more.

Weinert Carrascal (Argentina) 2008

Image

This is a blend of 40% Malbec, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, all Bordeaux varieties, although of course Malbec is mainly reduced to a minor supporting role in Bordeaux nowadays.  No shrinking violet, this is a big, rich, in-your-face wine with a velvety finish.  Great for cold nights or with red meat.

Ravenswood Lodi Old-Vine Zinfandel (USA) 2011

Image
Ravenswood Lodi Old-Vine Zinfandel

Ravenswood make some fantastic Zin; big, bold and very gluggable. Their Lodi Old-Vine is slightly more expensive but more concentrated, higher in alcohol and will live for longer.  It’s a world away from “blush” white Zinfandel.

Ridge Geyserville (USA) 2011

Ridge is almost legendary among Californian producers.  This is a Zinfandel-Carignan(e) blend based on some of California’s oldest vines; the youngest are 10 years old, the oldest over 120 years, with 60% 40 years old or more.  It is very dense at first – takes a while to open up in the glass – then the powerful dark black fruit comes through, wrapped in vanilla.  This will surely continue to develop over the next 10 years.

Quartet Anderson Valley Brut Roederer Estates (USA) NV

Image
Quartet Anderson Valley Brut, Roederer Estate

For me this was the star of the whole event.  It is a traditional method sparkling wine from Mendocino County in California. The grapes are sourced from four separate vineyards (hence the name) in the northern Anderson Valley, cooled by the proximity of the Pacific Ocean.  On the palette the 30% Pinot Noir initially gives lots of soft strawberry flavours and then the 70% Chardonnay comes through as bright citrus.  The finish has classic brioche richness from ageing on the lees.  Wonderfully balanced and put together.

Short

My 2014 Wine Resolutions

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:

Muscadet

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…

Cava

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:

  • Gramona
  • Raventos I Blanc
  • Recaredo
  • Villarnau
  • René Barbier

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:

Franciacorta

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
  • Bellavista
  • Guido Berlucchi
  • Barone Pizzini

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:

So there are my 2014 Wine Resolutions – what are yours?

Please feel free to leave a comment.

Short

Glasnevin Fizz Fest – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

image

Veuve Ambal Cremant de Bourgogne 2011 was the surprise standout from last night’s fizz tasting…crisp acidity and racy citrus fruit against a background of yeast and toast.  The balance and development were a happy surprise in such a young and inexpensive wine.

image

This wasn’t as much of a surprise: Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Cuis Blanc de Blancs NV (from The Wine Society) did all of the above and more.  Being a Non Vintage it isn’t apparent which years’ harvest the grapes are from, but the developped bready (autolytic for you real wine geeks) nose and flavours were appreciated by all the tasters.  I’m hoping I have another bottle or two left!

image

The two sparklers above were both “Good”, so now for the bad.  Jean Louis Ballarin Cremant de Bordeaux is a blend of Semillon and Muscadelle, two of the three standard white grapes of Bordeaux (the third being Sauvignon Blanc).  Unfortunately this example was faulty as the main flavour coming through was wet cardboard – yuck!  The sibling Cabernet Franc-based Black Pearl was much nicer.

image

The biggest selling Champagne world wide is The Ugly – or more precisely the Short and Boring.  This was served blind and tasters’ guesses as to its origins were all wide of the mark – no one thought it worthy of the badge Champagne. 

Offering very little on the nose, muted flavours on the palate a short finish, Moet et Chandon is a triumph of marketing over winemaking.  Give it as a present to someone who likes labels, but look elsewhere for good fizz.