Frankly Wines Top 10 Reds of 2016

The turn of the year means a chance to look forward to some excellent tastings coming up, but also a chance to look back at some great wines tasted over the previous twelve months.  Here are ten of the many reds which caught my attention in 2016:

10. Cicero Alto Reben AOC Graubünden Pinot Noir 2012


In Europe the country most well known for Pinot Noir is of course France, with examples from Burgundy still being among the most expensive wines in the world.  After that it’s probably Germany for Spätburgunder and then perhaps Italy for Pinot Nero, but don’t forget Switzerland – hillside vineyards can be perfect for Pinot, and although Swiss wines are never cheap they can offer good value for money.  See here for the full review.

9. Mas St Louis Châteauneuf du Pape 2012


CNDP can often be a blockbuster wine with loads of mouthfeel and 15.0% or more alcohol. Wines which don’t measure up to this are often inferior lightweight versions not worthy of the appellation or the price tag – better to go for a Gigondas or Vacqueras instead.  But just occasionally you might come across a wine which is not typical of the area but transcends it – and this is the one.  A high proportion of Grenache and sandy soil are apparently the reason for its lightness – but you will have to try it yourself.

8. Paul Osicka Heathcote Shiraz 2004


My favourite hotel in Ireland is The Twelve in Barna near Galway City, and luckily it’s also my wife’s favourite.  The rooms, the service and the food are all excellent – and so is the wine!  When last there some months ago for a weekend (kid-free) break I spied this mature Heathcote Shiraz on the wine list and had to give it a try with the côte de boeuf for two (and although I was tempted to have both to myself I did of course share them with my wife).  I will definitely look out for this wine again!

7. Atalon Napa Merlot 2004


Quality Californian Merlot isn’t an oxymoron, though there is plenty mediocre Merlot made in the Central Valley.  When it’s good, it can be great, and this nicely mature 2004 is probably the best Merlot I’ve ever tasted from California, and definitely the best I’ve tasted from any region this year.  See here for the full review.

6. Niepoort Clos de Crappe Douro 2013


“A wine that asks more questions than it answers” is a fair summary of this unusual Douro red – and perhaps that’s why it’s so interesting.  It’s not a wine for everyone, with higher than average acidity and body more akin to Burgundy than the Douro, but it brings the funk!  See here for the full review.

5. Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir 2014


Time and time again, the 20 Barrels Pinot has impressed me with its silky smooth berrytastic goodness.  It’s possibly the closest thing to a red wine for all men (and women) – without being a lowest common denominator compromise.  Most notably it shone in an all-star Pinot Noir tasting arranged by importers Findlaters, beating off competition from Burgundy, California, Marlborough and elsewhere – in fact the only real competition was the big brother Cono Sur Ocio, though that is around twice the price.

4. Wolf Blass Black Label 1998


Wolfgang Blass is something of a legend in Australian wine, and while his eponymous wines range down to everyday drinking level, his multi-award winning Black Label has been one of the top Aussie wines since its creation in 1973 – it won the prestigious Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy for an amazing three consecutive years with the 73 – 74 – 75 vintages, and then an unprecedented fourth time with this 1998 release.  Tasting the 1998 was a real privilege!

3. Vajra Barolo Ravera 2011

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I’ve had some nice Barolos over the years but, to be honest, the tannin and acidity have often put me off – not to mention the price.  Many need a good decade to even start being drinkable, and, while I’m not advocating fruit bombs, Barolo can be somewhat lacking on the primary flavour side.   But, as Erasure said, it doesn’t have to be like that – this is a wonderful, complex, accessible Barolo.  See here for the full review.

2. Penfolds Grange 2010


If Spinal Tap’s amps went up to 11, then wine critics should surely have awarded this wine 102 points, as it betters even the excellent 100-pointer from 2008.  It’s still tightly wound compared to the lighter 2011 and more easy-going 2009, but it will be a legendary vintage when it reaches its peak in another decade or two.

1. Cascina Garitina Nizza 900


A wine to show that Barbera can make excellent wines, not just something to sup waiting for Barolos and Barbarescos to mature.  Made around the town of Nizza Montferrato in Piedmont, Nizza wine was a subregion of Barbera d’Asti until gaining full DOCG status in 2014.  Gianluca Morino of Cascina Garitina is an innovative producer who makes some very good Barbera d’Asti but an amazing Nizza – a truly excellent wine with more depth and poise than I’ve witnessed in any other Barbera.



Tasting Events

I like Swiss Wines – Cos That’s How I Roll (part 2 – familiar grapes)


I hope you enjoyed reading about the rarities in part 1; of course there is far more to Swiss wine than just those – Petite Arvine and Chasselas are must-tries from the country as well. For those who would like a more familiar introduction to Swiss wines, here is a trio made from international grapes:

Gialdi Vini Terre Alte Bianco 2015 (12.5%, £19.68 at Alpine Wines)


Nearly every wine drinker has heard of Merlot, even if they are like my mate Jim who has an acute aversion to it (the unconfirmed rumour is that he can taste Merlot in a wine even if it’s at homoeopathically minute proportions). Perhaps only wine scholars will know Merlot Blanc, a cross of Merlot (Noir) and Folle Blanche, the Cognac grape also known as Gros Plant in the western reaches of the Loire.

However, this is a white Merlot wine but it is not Merlot Blanc – it’s a white wine made from black grapes, a Blanc de Noirs. Of course Blancs de Noirs are common in Champagne and other sparkling wines, but they are rarely seen as still wines.

It’s dry yet fruity, with so much texture – it’s very quaffable but would stand up to some sturdy food if required.  Don’t serve ice cold – allow the flavours to express themselves.

PS Jim really liked this as well!

Cicero Alto Reben AOC Graubünden Pinot Noir 2012 (13.5%, £26.40 at Alpine Wines)


At last, a well-known grape in a well-known format!  Not having tasted Swiss Pinot Noir for a long time, I would most liken this to a good German Spätburgunder – a little more power than a lot of Burgundy equivalents, but still fresh and savoury.  It shows lots of red (strawberry & raspberry) and black (blackberry & blackcurrant) fruit – it’s in no way austere, but neither is it shouty.

I recently attended a Pinot Noir masterclass in Dublin and I would rate this as better than both the French and New Zealand representatives – it definitely stands up against Burgundy of the same or higher price.

Syrah de Sion, Maître de Chais, Réserve Spéciale 2009 (14.5%, 2011 is £29.88 at Alpine Wines)


Now I knew that Syrah can perform well in a diverse range of climates, but for some reason I still didn’t expect to find it grown in Switzerland.  This is one of the more full-bodied and opulent Syrahs produced in the country – at 14.5% it’s not going to be a shrinking violet!  – to show how far Swiss Syrah can go.

Only 900 bottles of this 2009 were made (we were tasting bottle 0645).  It’s full of spice and berries, but smooth.  There’s still some oak apparent but it’s well integrated.  The tannins are soft and supple.  Some might find it a touch over-extracted but I thought it downright delicious!  

For comparison, to me it brings to mind Saint-Joseph (northern Rhône) or Hawke’s Bay (North Island of NZ) – two excellent Syrah producing areas.

Tasting Events

I like Swiss Wines – Cos That’s How I Roll (part 1 – rarities)


Please forgive the article title, it’s so cheesy and full of holes….OK, I’ll stop now, I promise!

Swiss wines aren’t well known outside their country – and sometimes even outside their own cantons – for a simple reason: production quantities are quite small (both in terms of overall volumes and the average amount made by each producer) and most is drunk by the Swiss themselves, leaving little available for export.

With vineyards that are mainly steep (and hence hard to work) and high labour costs, Swiss wines are never going to be cheap, but in the hands of a good producer the quality can be excellent. As you might imagine given the Alpine setting, the wines tend to be light and perfumed rather than big and bruising.  Oak – especially new oak – seldom features as delicate flavours are better left to shine by themselves.

Another interesting feature of Swiss wines is the abundance of unusual grape varieties. Some – such as Chasselas – are made elsewhere, but in small quantities. Some – such as Gamaret and Garanoir – are locally conceived crosses which are suitable for the climate and terroir, and haven’t been commercially planted elsewhere.

The final category contains ancestral grapes which have virtually died out everywhere else. When diseases and pests wiped out a large proportion of European vines during different epidemics, remote locations on Swiss hillsides saved some of the grapes from extinction. Even when a few vines had survived elsewhere, the silver lining of the disasters was that vignerons got to start again with new varieties, so everything old was ripped up and vineyards replanted.

This summer I had the pleasure of tasting some fantastic Swiss wines courtesy of Alpine Wines who have an office in Yorkshire.  As well as Switzerland they also specialise in Alpine wines from Austria, France, Germany and Italy.

Below are my notes on three rare varieties and one Swiss speciality with an Italian twist!

Chanton Weine AOC Wallis Gw࣭äss 2010 (11.5%, 2006 & 2011 are £31.20 at Alpine Wines)


Better known by its French name Gouais Blanc, Gwäss used to be widely cultivated across Europe as it was relatively easy to grow and produced bumper harvests.  Due to its ubiquity it ended up being the father of many of the quality grapes which are still cultivated today: Chardonnay, Riesling, Blaufrankisch, Gamay Noir, Aligoté, Petit Meslier, Colombard, Auxerrois, Melon de Bourgogne plus many lesser known varieties.

The nose is predominantly citrus with a touch of stone fruit, and just the slightest hint of oxidation (to me anyway).  On tasting, this Gouais proves to be a very lean, linear wine – it’s unoaked, dry with high acidity, and again citrus notes, perhaps with hints of honey. The closest approximation I can make is a dry, cool climate Chenin Blanc, or perhaps a Muscadet.  The acidity means it would be a fantastic match for oysters, or salty nibbles, but I would be very interested to see how this develops further over the coming years.

Chanton Weine AOC Wallis Lafnetscha 2011 (12.3%, 2010 is £35.62 at Alpine Wines)


Lafnetscha is probably the rarest variety I have ever tasted.  In the Valais there is a grand total of 1.29 hectares planted and Chanton have just 0.17 of that, or a tenth the size of Romanée Conti!  Apparently the name comes from the local dialect for “don’t drink too young”, which gives you a hint that it can be fierce in its youth.

At five years this was still fairly acidic, but with plenty of fruit to go with it – zesty orange and lemon.  Compared to the Gwäss it’s a little rounder in the mouth and has more texture, so could pair well with shellfish or a light salad.

Chanton Weine AOC Wallis Eyholzer Roter 2010 (11.5%, £32.54 at Alpine Wines)

Eyholzer Roter

Another rarity from Chanton, but this time a red wine, and one with synonyms in other mountainous territories – Hibou Noir in Savoie and Avanà in Piedmont (in the Susa Valley where it is slightly more widely planted).  The spread across three countries makes more sense when you wind the clock back several centuries: from 1418 to 1713 Piedmont, Savoie and Valais were all part of the Duchy of Savoy.

It’s a lighter type of red, in the general style of Beaujolais Villages or Burgundy Pinot Noir. Chanton’s is unoaked – which I’d imagine is generally the case – so the fruit can shine through unabated.  It’s mainly red fruit – cherry, strawberry and raspberry – and very fresh thanks to the crisp acidity.  There’s a little bit of tannin but it’s in no way austere – such a moreish wine!

Cave de la Côte Gamar’One 2012 (14.0%, 2011 / 2013 is £32.64 / £32.45 at Alpine Wines)


Gamaret is a cross created specifically for the French speaking part of Switzerland, with its full sibling Garanoir used in the German-speaking part.  They are both a cross between Gamay and Reichensteiner (a white variety found in cool climate countries such as Germany and England).

The Italian twist I alluded to before is the use of dried grapes to concentrate flavours and alcohol – the Amarone method – hence Gamaret becomes Gamar’One.  It’s a powerful wine, but not like being beaten over the head as with some Amarones.  Soft plum and black fruit burst out of the bottle, with a touch of residual sugar helping round out the palate.  You owe it to yourself to give this a try!

Look out for part 2 which will feature some Swiss interpretations of better known grapes.