There are few words that bring joy to a winelover’s ears as much as “fine wine sale”. Below are some of the Kiwi and Aussie wines included in Irish chain O’Briens’ fine wine sale that I have tried and enjoyed this year. I will leave the discussion on what constitutes “fine wine” for another day!
Note: links now added as O’Briens have also taken the fine wine sale online.
Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (13.1%, €33.95 down to €26.95 at O’Briens)
The one Savvy to rule them all – Cloudy Bay brought Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to international attention and acclaim, for a while it sat alone at the top of the tree. Nowadays it has company – not least Greywacke, made by Cloudy Bay’s founding winemaker Kevin Judd, and Dog Point, also made by former CB winemakers.
But it’s in difficult vintages such as 2017 where the premium labels really earned their stripes; lots of grey rot was present in the grapes of bulk producers – a byproduct of being paid for quantity over quality – so the careful selection and sorting of upmarket producers like Cloudy Bay made a huge difference to the finished wine. This is so much smoother and less aggressive than everyday Marlborough Sauvignon that it’s almost like a different wine!
Man O’War Dreadnought Waiheke Island Syrah 2014 (14.6%, €35.45 down to €26.95 at O’Briens)
Man O’War’s nautically named Flagship range always go down a treat chez moi – and they are indeed a treat, especially the Valhalla Chardonnay. Here we have their Dreadnought Syrah, perhaps a little riper and fuller-bodied than the Syrahs of Hawke’s Bay, but still recognisably Kiwi. Black fruit and blueberries are framed by oak (though now integrating well) and tannins (present but ripe). A fantastic wine!
St Hallett Old Block Barossa Shiraz 2014 (13.7%, €60.00 down to €48.00 at O’Briens)
Whereas the Dreadnought above is unmistakably Kiwi, this is unmistakably Barossa. In fact the fruit is sourced from two sub-regions of the Barossa Zone, the Barossa Valley proper (62%) and the slightly cooler Eden Valley (38%) just to the east (note the ABV is a fairly moderate 13.7%.) And “Old Block”? That means OLD, with a minimum vine age for the 2014 of 80 years. The result is a fabulous, concentrated wine with vibrant red and black berry fruit and fine tannins.
d’Arenberg Dead Arm McLaren Vale Shiraz 2015 (14.5%, €54.95 down to €43.95 at O’Briens)
Another iconic Aussie Shiraz, this time from McLaren Vale which is a short way south of Adelaide and a few clicks inland from the sea. Cheeky chappie Chester Osbourne is still the head winemaker of this family firm, but despite the loud shirts and outgoing personality he really knows his stuff (the 2002 Coppermine Road Cabernet Sauvignon was my top red of 2017.) Intense red, purple and black fruit dominate the palate – this will be at its best in the years to come, but drinkable now, especially if decanted.
Ranging from €14 to €49, here are some of my favourite reds from the recent O’Briens Wine Fair:
Viña Chocálan Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (14.5%, €13.95 at O’Briens)
Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is usually pretty good, even when inexpensive, as Chile has enough sunshine to fully ripen the fruit but the temperatures aren’t so high that it becomes jammy and unbalanced. This is full of juicy blackcurrant but also has a little bit of cedar wood and graphite which adds interest.
Sierra Cantabria Rioja Crianza 2013 (14.0%, €17.95 down to €15.95 for May at O’Briens)
Particularly at Crianza level, Rioja is known for red fruit flavours (strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant, red cherry) with a good helping of vanilla from American oak. Sierra Cantabria doesn’t follow this plan at all – it’s all about black fruit and intensity of flavour, much more akin to a good Ribera del Duero than most Riojas. Why not try it back to back with the Reserva?
Urlar Gladstone Pinot Noir 2014 (14.5%, €23.95 at O’Briens)
At the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island is the Wairarapawine region (not to be confused with Waipara near Christchurch). The oldest part is probably Martinborough(not to be confused with Marlborough at the top of the South Island) but there are other notable areas within the Wairarapa such as Gladstone. Urlar(from the Gaelic for “Earth”) is an organic and practicing biodynamic producer which makes fantastic Pinot Noir. While full of fruit it has a savoury, umami edge, and will undoubtedly continue to develop complexity over the coming years.
Viña Chocálan Vitrum Blend 2013 (14.5%, €24.95 down to €22.95 for May at O’Briens)
Sitting just below their icon wine Alexia, Vitrum is Chocalan’s premium range, so named as the owners Toro family have been in the glass bottle making business for over 80 years. As stated it this wine is a blend, and the grapes aren’t named on the front label as there are so many of them! (for reference the 2013 is: 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Syrah, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec, 4% Carmenère, 2% Petit Verdot). All these different varieties make for an interesting wine – quite full bodied and with considerable structure, but balanced and drinkable.
Domaine Olivier Santenay Temps des C(e)rises 2014 (13.0%, €28.95 down to €23.16 for May at O’Briens)
If you don’t speak French then you’d be forgiven for missing the jeu de mot in the name of this wine: temps des crises is the time of crises and temps des cerises is the time of cherries – and also the name of a famous French revolutionary song. Anyway, on to the wine itself: this is a mid weight Pinot Noir from Santenay in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune. It has delightful red currant and red cherry with a touch of smokinessfrom barrel ageing. It’s a food friendly wine which could also be drunk on its own. While ready to drink now I would (try to!) keep this for a few more years before drinking. Great Burgundy for the €€!
Château Fourcas Hosten Listrac-Médoc 2009 (13.0%, €29.95 down to €23.95 for May at O’Briens)
Listracis one of the two villages (with Moulis) in Bordeaux’s Médoc peninsula outside of the famous four that have their name on an appellation, but is rarely seen in Ireland. Château Fourcas Hosten was bought by the family behind the Hermès luxury goods group around a decade ago and they have invested significantly in quality since then. As 2009 was an excellent vintage in Bordeaux this is a fairly ripe and accessible wine.
Unusually for a warm vintage it has quite a bias towards Merlot (65%) versus Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), even though they make up 45% each of the vineyard area (and Cabernet Franc being the final 10%). This wine shows fresh and dried black fruit with some pencil shavings and tobacco – classy, accessible Bordeaux!
Cambria “Julia’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2012 (13.5%, €29.95 at O’Briens)
The spotlight on US Pinot Noir mainly falls on Oregon and its Willamette Valley, but California shouldn’t be ignored – especially Santa Barbara County, which was of course the setting for Sideways. The cool climate here, especially in Santa Mary Valley, helps Pinot Noir develop fully, keeping acidityand light to medium tannins to frame the fresh red fruit. One of my favourite American Pinots!
Man O’War Waiheke Island Ironclad 2012 (14.5%, €34.45 at O’Briens)
I’m a big fan of Man O’War’s premium range, all nautically namedand great examples of their type (I’m just gutted that demand for their Juliasparkling wine at their winery restaurant means that it won’t be exported anymore). Ironclad is the Bordeaux blend; the blend changes from year to year depending on how each variety fared, with any fruit that doesn’t make the grade being declassified into the next tier down.
The current release is the 2012which is 45% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot, 13% Malbec and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon – only Carménèremisses out from Bordeaux’s black grapes, and hardly anyone grows that in Bordeaux nowadays anyway. It’s full of ripe blackberry, blackcurrant and blueberry fruit with some graphite. It would pair well with red meat, but being a bit riper in style than most Bordeaux means it drinks well on its own.
Frank Phélan 2012 (13.0%, €34.95 down to €27.95 for May at O’Briens)
Back to Bordeaux proper again with the second wine of Château Phélan Ségur, named after the son of the original Irish founder Bernard Phelan. As a second wine it mainly uses younger fruit than the Grand Vin, a shorter time in barrel and a higher proportion of Merlot (this is 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon). All these lead to it being a more supple wine, and more approachable in its youth. For me this was quite similar to the Fourcas Hosten – dark black fruit in particular – but younger and with a little more tannin and graphite notes. Steak anyone?
Torbreck The Struie 2014 (14.5%, €49.00 down to €42 for May at O’Briens)
It’s fair to say that Barossa Shiraz is one of Australia’s most well-recognised wine styles, but there are actually significant differences within the Barossa. The most notable difference is that there are actually two distinct valleys – the Barossa Valley itself and the Eden Valley which is at a higher altitude and hence has a cooler climate (there’s some great Riesling grown in the latter but very little in the former!)
The Struie is a blend of fruit from both valleys: 77% Barossa (for power and richness) and 23% Eden (for acidity and elegance), all aged in a mix of old and new French oak barrels. There’s intense blackberry and plum fruit with a twist of spice.
This is a fairly monumental wine which actually deserves a bit more time before drinking, so buy a few and lay them down…but if you can’t wait, decant!
Valentine’s Day is associated with romance, and hence the colour pink. This often means that rosé wines are promoted at this time of year, but as they aren’t generally my thing I thought I would recommend a dozen wines of differing hues from O’Briens, who are offering 10% back on their loyalty card (or wine savings account as I call it).
These wines are mainly higher priced for which I make no excuse – these are treats for yourself and / or your significant other! Of course, they would make a nice treat for Mother’s Day or at any time of year…
Chateau Kirwan Margaux Troisième Cru 2010 (€95.00)
The last of Bordeaux’s fantastic four vintages within eleven years (2000, 2005 2009, 2010) allows this Margaux to show its class but be more approachable than in leaner years. You could keep this for another decade or two if you didn’t want to drink it yet. Decant for several hours after opening if you can, and serve with beef.
One of Penfolds’ top Cabernet Sauvignons which combines power, fruit and elegance. 2010 happened to be a great vintage in South Australia as well, so if you’re climbing the quality tree it’s a good time to do it. Being a Cab means it’s all about cassis, intense blackcurrant aromas and flavours, with some vanilla to go with it.
This is a very interesting wine for the geeks out there as it is a custom blend of parcels from well known appellations from around Bordeaux including Paulliac, Graves and Canon-Fronsac. It was created by JM Cazes group winemaker Daniel Llose and O’Briens Head of Wine Buying Lynne Coyle MW. Oh, and it tastes wonderful as well!
Ata Rangi is one of stars of Martinbrough, an hour or so drive from Wellington in the south of New Zealand’s North Island. Crimson is their second wine intended to be drunk while young rather than laid down, but it is first rate in quality. Beats any Pinot from France at this price point.
This isn’t a token rosé, it’s a proper Champagne which happens to be pink. Lanson’s house style is based on preventing / not encouraging malolactic fermentation in the base wines, meaning they remain fresh and zippy even after the secondary alcoholic fermentation which produces the fizz. Texture is key here as well, and the lovely red fruits have a savoury edge. You could even drink this with pork or veal. Great value when on offer.
Another Champagne which is even less expensive, but still a few steps above most Prosecco and Cava on the market. The regulations for non vintage Champagne stipulate a minimum of 15 months ageing on the lees, but the lovely toasty notes from this show it has significantly more than that. Punches well above its price.
The Loire Valley is home to a multitude of wine styles, including Crémant (traditional method sparkling) such as this. Made from internationally famous Chardonnay and local speciality Chenin, it doesn’t taste the same as Champagne – but then why should it? The quality makes it a valid alternative, not surprising when you learn that it’s owned by Bollinger!
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) is a great way to get into serious quality Port without paying the full price for Vintage Port. Whereas the latter is bottled quickly after fermentation and laid down for many years, LBV spends time maturing in casks. There it slowly loses colour and tannin but gains complexity. Graham’s is one of the most celebrated Port Houses and their LBV is one of the benchmarks for the category.
Grand Cru Chablis is a very different beast from ordinary Chablis. It’s often oaked, though sympathetically rather than overpoweringly, and can develop astounding complexity. Among the seven (or eight, depending on who you ask) Grand Crus, Les Clos is often regarded as the best of the best. At just over five years from vintage this is still a baby – it would be even better in another five years but it might be impossible to resist!
Pouilly-Fuissé is probably the best appellation of the Maconnais, Burgundy proper’s most southerly subregion which borders the north of Beaujolais. The white wines here are still Chardonnay, of course, but the southerly latitude gives it more weight and power than elsewhere in Burgundy. Oak is often used in generous proportions as the wine has the fruit to stand up to it. This Château-Fuissé is one of my favourites from the area!
It’s a Sauvignon Blanc, but then it’s not just a Sauvignon Blanc. Kevin Judd was the long time winemaker of Cloudy Bay, finally branching out on his own a few years ago. The wild yeast and partially oaking give this a very different sensibility from ordinary Sauvignons. It’s not for everybody, but those that like it, love it!
One of my favourite New Zealand wines, full stop. I have mentioned this wine several times over the past few years…mainly as I just can’t get enough of it! It’s made in Waiheke Island in Auckland Bay so has more weight than, say, a Marlborough Chardonnay, but still enough acidity to keep it from being flabby. Tropical fruit abounds here – just make sure you don’t drink it too cold!
Many of the producer tastings I’ve been at in the past year have been solely focused on red wines, but as I tend to drink much more white at home that hasn’t been such a hardship. Many of the retailer tastings have been very broad and included a few standout whites, so a few of those are included below.
I haven’t thought too deeply about the order of wines 10 down to 4, but the top 3 are definitely in order!
10. Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2013
All wines were wild ferment until a few decades ago, but cultured yeast is now the norm for mass produced wines – it’s more reliable and predictable in terms of fermentation performance, flavours and alcohol levels. Wild yeast can often give wilder, but more interesting flavours.
This Greek Assyrtiko from O’Briens is included because it’s just so different from anything else I tasted in the year – it really brings the funk!
9. Bruno Sorg Alsace Grand Cru Pfersigberg Pinot Gris 2010
One of my favourite Alsace producers, Bruno Sorg have a broad range of varietals at different quality levels, and all are excellent for the price tag. From near their home in Eguisheim this Grand Cru Pinot Gris is silky and rich, off-dry without being sweet, textured without being stuffy. I did try some other countries’ Pinot Gris offerings, but Alsace is still where it’s at in my book.
8. Eric Texier Opâle 2012
This ethereal Mosel-style Rhône white stood out for me at The Big Rhône Tasting at Ely– partly because it was so different from the (delicious) Rhône reds, but mainly because of its sheer audacity and brilliance.
This should be drunk in small sips from a small glass, perhaps with company, but once you taste it you won’t want to share!
7. Schloss Gobelsburg “Lamm” Grüner Veltiner Reserve, Kamptal, 2010
The only white varietal tasting I went to all year was Austria’s signature grape Grüner Veltiner. The biggest surprise for me was not the excellent quality, it was the versatility of the grape – it’s such a chameleon, depending on where and how it’s made.
The Lamm Reserve was my overall favourite from the tasting at Wine Workshop – and perhaps it’s no coincidence given my proclivity for Pinot Gris that I preferred an example of Grüner which somewhat resembles Pinot Gris.
6. Dog Point Section 94 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is so ubiquitous on our shelves that it’s often taken for granted, ignored for being old hat or dismissed after tasting the poorer examples churned out at a discount in supermarkets. Even if you are a little bored of regular Savvy, there are alternatives, as I posted back in 2013.
A big differentiator of the alternative Marlborough Sauvignons is that they can age gracefully for several years, becoming more complex and interesting; many regular SBs shine very brightly in the year they are harvested then fade quickly.
And so I was lucky enough to taste the 2010 vintage of Dog Point’s Section 94 at the James Nicholson Xmas Tasting. Dog Point don’t make a duff wine, they range from very good to amazing – and this was now firmly in the latter class.
5. Rolly Gassmann Alsace Planzerreben de Rorschwihr Riesling 2008
A bin-end special from The Wine Society that turned out to be sublime, if difficult to pronounce. Rolly Gassmann is a renowned producer of Alsace and I had hoped to visit on my last trip there, but it wasn’t to be (too many great wineries, too little time!)
Thankfully this Riesling magically transported me to the hills of Rorschwihr. It’s just off-dry, balancing the racy acidity and lifting the fruit. At six years from vintage it had started to develop some really interesting tertiary notes – but it must have the best part of a decade still to go. I doubt my other bottle will last that long!
4. Man O’War Valhalla Waiheke Island Chardonnay 2010
This is one of the wines that was open at several different tastings during the year, but despite having a few bottles in at home I always had a taste, it’s just that good. Not exactly a shy and retiring type, this Chardonnay has loads of tropical fruit, with a little bit of candied pineapple among the fresh.
It’s well oaked, both in the sense of quantity and quality. Chablis lovers might look elsewhere, but Meursault lovers might change allegiance. A perennial favourite.
3. Grosset Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling 2008
Jeffrey Grosset is the King of Australian Riesling. I bought a case of the Polish Hill Riesling with the same vintage as my son, with the intention of drinking a bottle on (or around) his birthday for the next decade or so. This bottle is a few years older, and a few years wiser – the difference in development is noticeable.
Petrol, Diesel, Kerosene – whatever your petroleum spirit of choice, the 2008 has it nicely developing, though the steel backbone of acidity will keep it going for many a year.
2. Shaw + Smith M3 Vineyard Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2012
I was lucky enough to taste Shaw + Smith’s seminal Chardonnay several times during 2014 – with the good folks of Liberty Wines at their portfolio tasting, a bottle with a stunning meal at Ely Bar & Brasserie, and a glass in a small flight of Chardonnays at Ely Wine Bar.
The King Is Dead, Long Live The King! Another wine I tried for the first time as part of the flight of Chardonnays at Ely Wine Bar, this is perhaps the Californian Chardonnay. After all, in beating some of Burgundy’s best Chardonnays in the Judgement of Paris it really put California on the maps as a producer of top level whites.
And as much as I wanted my beloved M3 to be the best, Montelena eclipsed it for 2014. Even as a young wine it is very approachable but with so much depth. It’s the sort of wine you could happily taste the same vintage of over several decades.
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)
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)
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!
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.