Almost a year ago to the day I published a producer profile of Pegasus Bay, arguably the top producer in New Zealand’s Waipara, which included tasting notes on their stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir plus an aged sweet Riesling from my cellar. I recently spotted another of their wines for sale so snapped it up, their Sauvignon Semillon blend:
Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Semillon 2018
The pairing of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon is a staple of Bordeaux white wines – infact you could easily call it a White Bordeaux Blend as the counterpart to Cabernet / Merlot red blends. In the Graves, these white blends often have as much prestige as the reds, if not more, and of course Sauvignon and Semillon are the basis of Sauternes and other Bordelais sweeties. As temperatures have risen in Bordeaux, the higher acidity – and hence freshness – of Sauvignon has been at a premium, so the blend has moved decisively in favour of that variety.
Outside the Gironde, the Sauvignon/ Semillon blend has proved most successful in Western Australia’s Margaret River, a wine region founded on the premise that its climate was similar to that of Bordeaux. It has become such a mainstay of the region that few producers omit if from their portfolio.
Waipara’s temperate climate is suited for what I might call “cool+” climate varieties; those such as Riesling and Pinot Noir which really need a cap on temperatures, and those such as Chardonnay which are flexible and can be grown in a range of climates, albeit with differing styles.
Pegasus Bay’s Sauvignon and Semillon vines are over 30 years old and planted on poor fertility, free-draining soil and so have low yields. The old equation that low yields = high quality doesn’t always hold, but it does in this case. Concurrent freshness and ripeness are achieved thanks to the long Waipara growing season with warm days but cool nights.
The Pegasus Bay website’s tasting notes for this wine mention “a hint of struck match complexity” but to me this is a real understatement – I found it quite pronounced on opening the bottle, initially overwhelming the fruit. It also dominates the palate at this young age – and yes, it’s still a young wine as there is only one younger vintage released (2019) which probably hasn’t yet made its way up north from New Zealand. I found it far better integrated on the second day of tasting, where the reductive notes become a foil for the fruit rather than a blunt instrument that is constantly beating it up. If1 I were to buy another bottle I would either just lay it down for a few years or be better prepared and decant it for several hours before tasting.
This is not a cheap wine, but it compares favourably with Pessac-Léognan examples at twice the price – and it has a screwcap to seal2 the deal on longer ageing.
Stockists: O’Briens; The Corkscrew, Chatham St; wineonline.ie; Barnhill Stores; Pinto Wines, Drumcondra; Deveneys Dundrum, On The Grape Vine, Dalkey
The history of Bodegas Protos is inherently entwined with that of Ribero del Duero. While the world famous Vega Sicila estate was founded before Protos (1864 versus 1929), Protos allowed its brand name “Ribera Duero” to be used for the Denominación de Origen when it was established in 1982.
Protos had already built a monumental ageing cellar in the previous decade. Over 2km of tunnels were bored into the side of a mountain to give them the perfect place for long ageing of wine in barrel and bottle. Four years after the creation of the DO, the Bodega built a new wine making facility closer to their Ribero del Duero vineyards in Anguix. Not resting on their laurels, they also built their own winery in the (principally) white wine DO of Rueda in 2006. Although white Ribera del Duero does exist – made in very small quantitiies from Albillo – it is the nearby Rueda which is the natural place Ribera del Duero producers look to for white wines.
Here are two of the Protos range which impressed me recently.
Protos Rueda 2020
Protos’s Rueda vineyards have free draining gravel soils at an altitude of 800 to 900 metres above sea level, so cool night time temperatures help to preserve acidity in the grapes. The Verdejo grapes are machine harvested at night from vines over 15 years old. (Possibly coincidently, the grape which Verdejo is often compared to is Sauvignon Blanc, and night harvesting by machine is very much in vogue in Marlbourgh.)
Fermentation is carried out at cool temperature to preserve fresh flavours and then the must is aged on fine lees for around three months (“Criado sobre lias finas” as it says on the front label.)
In the glass this Rueda is a bright lemon with green flecks. The nose is expressive with lemon, lime, quince and a touch of gooseberry. These notes continue through onto the palate, but also leesy and tangy characters. In the mouth there’s also some decent texture from its time on the lees. The finish is crisp and pleasantly bittersweet. This is a superior Rueda!
RRP: €15 – €17
Stockists:Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Mortons Food Stores; Fine Wines; La Touche Wines, Greystones; On the Grapevine, Dalkey; wineonline.ie; theallotment.ie
Protos Ribera del Duero Crianza 2017
Protos make several different bottlings in their home of Ribero del Duero. The youngest is the Roble which is aged for six months in a combination of French and American oak (hence the name: Roble is Spanish for oak) and six months in bottle. The Crianza spends 12 months in barrel then 12 in bottle, for the Reserva it’s 18 and 24 months respectively, and for the Gran Reserva the periods are 24 and 36 months.
The ageing regime is not the only thing that distinguishes the wines from each other; the age of the vines and the proportion of new oak also increases as we rise up the quality ladder. The Crianza therefore comes from Tinta del país (aka Tempranillo!) vines of 30 to 35 years. The year it spends in barrel is split into three parts: a third new French oak, a third one year old American and French and a third two year old American and French, with the thirds being blended back together before bottling.
So what are the results of this complex process? The wine is ruby red in the glass as one would expect for its age. The nose has rich dark fruits and a little vanilla. These are reflected on the palate which is smooth and velvety. It’s a powerful yet approachable wine, tasty yet elegant.
For me this wine is the sweetspot of the Protos range; a delicious wine that won’t break the bank, complex yet not too arcane.
RRP: €24 – €26
Stockists:Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Mortons Food Stores; Fine Wines; La Touche Wines, Greystones; On the Grapevine, Dalkey; wineonline.ie, theallotment.ie
White Rioja gets far less attention and plaudits compared to red Rioja, mainly due to the fact that white varieties only account for 10% of the total vines in the region. However, when one particular white Rioja recently received a glowing review from Tim Atkin I thought it would be interesting to try. I subsequently saw that Tim had given an early vintage of the same wine his “Wine of the Year” tag in 2017. Before we look at the wine itself, we start with a refresher on the Rioja wine region and a brief background on the producer, Conde Valdemar.
The Rioja Wine Region
Administrative divisions and sub-regions
Although Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine region, there are differences between the area of the DOCa and the administrative divisions of the area. There have also been a few name changes over time, confusing things further. To sum up, the wine region extends into four administrative areas:
La Rioja (formerly Lagroño)¹
Álava/Araba: a province in the Basque country
Navarra: historically part of the Basque region, but not currently included in the Basque Autonomous Community²
Burgos:just a tiny part of Burgos for a single vineyard: Hacienda El Ternero³
As can be seen from the map above, the bulk of the Rioja wine region is within the Autonomous Community of La Rioja. The sub-regions are partly based on politics, partly on geography:
Rioja Alavesa: 17 municipalities, entirely within Álava from whence it takes its name
Rioja Alta: literally “Upper Rioja” consisting of 80 municipalities of La Rioja and 1 in Burgos
Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja): literally “Eastern Rioja”, nowadays preferred to “Lower Rioja” which has intimations of low quality, consisting of 42 municipalities in La Rioja and 8 in Navarra.
Structure of Rioja wine trade and 21st century innovations
Although there was a lot of influence and interest from Bordeaux producers in the later part of the nineteenth century, at a high level the Rioja wine trade is more like that of Champagne than Bordeaux; there has long been a distinction – or even divide – between small grape growers and large wine producers.
Wines often consist of several different grapes from across different sub-regions; Rioja Alta tends to be somewhat reserved due to its altitude, Rioja Alavesa is a bit more generous while higher in acidity and Rioja Oriental can be very high in alcohol though a little less elegant. A blend of the three is often the best compromise, though the wine can lack a sense of place and exceptional plots may ended up being blended away.
Two innovations in Rioja this century have had a small affect so far but will be increasingly important in the region. The first has been the addition of new permitted grape varieties in 2007: Maturata Tinta (Jura’s Trousseau), Maturana blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Turruntés, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo. Of course it will take time for these varieties to be planted in the places most suitable for them, but in my opinion this is a good initiative – particularly for the white grapes – as Viura can be too neutral and some of the new grapes have more recognition among customers.
The second initiative is much more recent; in 2017 the Rioja wine authorities announced new label indications including Single Vineyard (Viñedo Singular), Zone and Village names. The hope is that the cream will rise to the top and more top quality wines will emerge.
Family and History
The story begins with Joaquín Martínez Bujanda who began making wine in 1889. His son Marcelino then grandson Jesús both followed into the family business. It was the third and fourth generations – both called Jesús – who set up Conde Valdemar itself in 1985. Today the winery is in the hands of fourth generation Jesús plus his son and daughter Jesús and Ana; the fifth generation are spearheading the family’s fortunes in Valdemar Estates in the USA.
The family has gradually expanded their holdings over the years, and bottles wines from their own estates separately. A notable addition was the 1982 purchase of Finca del Marquesado which is now planted with over 180 hectares of vines.
White Rioja has consistently been championed by Conde Valdemar; they were the first to plant Viura in Alto Cantabria in 1975 and the first winery to make a 100% Tempranillo Blanco wine in 2005. In between these vineyard firsts they were also the first winery to make a 100% barrel-fermented and -matured Spanish white wine in 1988.
Conde Valdemar Wine Range
There are five distinct wine ranges within the Conde Valdemar portfolio; three in Rioja, one in Ribero del Duero and one in Washington State. Unusually for Rioja, Conde Valdemar only produces wine from its own grapes.
Valdemar Lands / Estate Wines
Finca del Marquesado
Fincas Valdemacuco (Ribera del Duero)
Valdemar Estates (USA)
Details of the wines in each range are given at the bottom of this article.
Finca Alto Cantabria
This map (Credit: Conde Valdemar) shows the three grapes planted on the 23.3 hectare site: Viura, Tempranillo Blanco and Tempranillo, with the first accounting for 8.6 hectares. The vineyard is at 489 metres above sea level, 114 metres above the River Ebro. The steep inclines at the edge of the site and strong winds help to avoid frosts and humidity which leads to disease pressure. The soils are a combination of limestone and sandy loam.
Conde Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria 2019
So here we have a wine from a high altitude vineyard which is particularly suited to white grapes and has been classified as a “Viñedo Singular”. As mentioned above this is a 100% Viura wine, but the excellence of the site helps it to exceed the limitations of the variety; a longer growing season means that the grapes can develop fantastic aromas and flavours by the time sugar maturity is reached.
After being hand harvested into shallow boxes the grapes are first temperature stabilised before being pressed. Fermentation of the free run juice begins in stainless steel tanks before being transferred into French oak barrels. The wine matures in barrel for six months with weekly lees stirring.
In the glass this wine is a mid straw yellow. On the nose, oak dominates initially but then gives way to citrus and stone fruits with enticing blossom notes. The palate is complex and smooth, full of ripe fruit and nutty notes, succulent and viscous, rich ripe and vibrant.
This is among the top few white Riojas I have ever tried and represents exceptional value for money.
RRP:€26 – €27
Stockists: wineonline.ie; The Wine House, Trim
Source: media sample
These are the Bodega’s original wines:
Conde Valdemar Tempranillo: 100% Tempranillo, made using a blend of carbonic and traditionally fermented grapes
Conde Valdemar Crianza: 90% Tempranillo, 5% Garnacha & 5% Mazuelo, matured in American oak barrels for 19 months
Conde Valdemar Reserva: 80% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Maturana [aka Trousseau, Bastardo] & 5% Garnacha, matured for 27 months in American (65%) and French oak (35%) barrels
Conde Valdemar Gran Reserva: Old vines; 85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano & 5% Garnacha, matured for 36 months in French (50%) and American (50%) barriques
Conde Valdemar Edición Limitada: a modern style Rioja made from 60% Tempranillo, 25% Maturana & 15% Graciano, matured for 24 months in French (60%) and American (40%)oak barrels
Whites and Rosés:
Conde Valdemar Rosé:75% Garnacha & 25% Mazuelo
Conde Valdemar Blanco: A traditional white Rioja blend of 60% Viura, 25% Tempranillo Blanco & 15% Malvasía.
Conde Valdemar Tempranillo Blanco: 100% Tempranillo Blanco
Conde Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria: 100% Viura from a single vineyard – further details below
Valdemar Lands / Estate Wines
These are very limited edition wines made from specific single vineyards and single varieties
La Recaja Tempranillo: 100% Tempranillo from a two hectare portion of La Recaja vineyard in Rioja Alavesa, matured for 16 months in French oak barrels
Las Seis Alhajas Graciano: Named “The Six Jewels” after six different clones of Graciano planted as a trial in 1991 to bring the grape back from the brink of disappearance. Matured for 29 months in new, fine-grained American oak barrels.
Balcón de Pilatos Maturana: A revival of the Maturana grape which had disappeared in Rioja during the phylloxera crisis, matured for 13 months in new, fine-grained American oak barrels
Finca del Marquesado
An estate in the east of Rioja, yet at a considerable altitude of 600 m.a.s.l., particularly suitable for Garnacha:
Finca del Marquesado Rosado: 75% Garnacha & 25% Mazuelo
Finca del Marquesado Crianza: 75% Tempranillo & 25% Garnacha, matured for 13 months in American oak barrels
Finca del Marquesado Selección: 80% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano & 10% Garnacha, matured for 12 months in French and American oak barrels
La Gargantilla Garnacha Single Estate Wine: 100% Garnacha from La Gargantilla vineyard, matured for 7 months in French Allier barriques
La Gargantilla Tempranillo Single Estate Wine: 100% Tempranillo from La Gargantilla vineyard, matured for 15 months in French (60%) and American (40%) fine-grained oak barrels
Wines from the Valdemar family’s new outpost in Ribero del Duero:
Fincas Valdemacuco Crianza: 100% Tempranillo from selected vineyards in the area of Nava de Roa (Burgos), matured for 4 months in French (70%) and American (30%) oak barrels
Fincas Valdemacuco Roble: 100% Tempranillo from selected vineyards in the area of Nava de Roa (Burgos), matured for 5 months in American oak barrels
Valdemar Estates (USA)
The family’s newest venture in Walla Walla, Washington State. This was driven by Jesús and Ana Martínez Bujanda
Valdemar Estates Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Klipsun Vineyard in the Red Mountain AVA, matured in French oak (60% new, 40% 3 years old) for 18 months
Valdemar Estates Dubrul Vineyard Chardonnay: Barrel-fermented Chardonnay from the Dubrul Vineyard in Yakima Valley, matured for 12 months in French oak (22% new, 78% 3 years old)
Valdemar Estates Blue Mountain Syrah:100% Syrah from the Blue Mountain Vineyard in Walla Walla, matured for 12 months in neutral French oak
¹ The initial letters of Lagroño, Álava and Navarra were the origin of the name of Bodegas LAN, a well known producer.
² The Rioja DOCa extends into the south west part of the Autonomous Community of Navarre, separate from the Navarra DO which is further north.
Vintage Port is the pinnacle of the Port quality tree, only made in the best years and very rarely in two successive years. It’s a wine made for the long haul, able to last for several decades and often entering its peak drinking window after one or two. The drawback is, however, that it is often unapproachable in its youth. A very small proportion of wine drinkers buy bottles to drink a decade hence, leaving Port producers with something of a dilemma.
A few months ago I attended a zoom masterclass with Luís Sottomayor, winemaker at Offley Port and Casa Ferreirinha (I have already written about the latter’s Vinha Grande Branco and Tinto here). Luís gave an overview of the 2018 harvest and the background to the 2018 Vintage Port: Spring 2018 was wet and the Summer not particularly hot. The harvest started earlier than usual in mid September, but was done very slowly as maturity was quite uneven. Overall 2018 was similar to the 2016 vintage apart from a slightly hotter summer in ’16.
The principal varieties used are Touriga Francesa, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cão. To make this Port more approachable the proportion of Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) was increased; it has a high level of tannins but they are soft.
The grapes were foot-trodden in traditional lagars for maximum flavour and colour extraction without bitter phenolics. Normal corks are used as, in Luís’s considered opinion, they are the best closure for ageing. The wines have great body, acidity and structure making 2018 a classic Port vintage, though the crop was small. Luís characterises it as a fairly simple wine, easy to understand, drinkable when young but capable of ageing for decades.
Offley Vintage Port 2018
It might be approachable but this Vintage Port is opaque in the glass, as it should be. The nose has intense, rich black fruits, lifted aromas including spice and balsamic notes. The palate shows both red and black fruits, balsamic notes, chocolate, all kept fresh by good acidity. It’s a very generous but not overwhelming wine; it flows straight down without having to chew. Perhaps this is Goldilocks’ Port? Not too sweet, not too tannic or dry, not a blockbuster, but not too light. In a word, accessible!
Luís recommends drinking with cheese or – as the locals do – with Feijoada, a Portuguese black bean and meat stew.
Stockists: Terroirs, Donnybrook; The Corkscrew, Chatham St; wineonline.ie
Port wine is world famous, known wherever wine is drunk. It’s a powerful, sweet, fortified wine that has become the name of a style – just like Champagne – even though it should only be used for geographically demarcated wines from Portugal. Although the Port Houses are innovating, with a multitude of styles and colours being marketed, demand for their fortified wines isn’t as strong as it could be, considering their quality.
Table wines from the Douro have therefore increased in importance. The style of Douro wines is evolving as well; initially they were often “dry Ports”, made from the same varieties and full of alcohol, flavour and body. Although popular, some of them were a little rustic and lacked elegance. Enter Casa Ferreirinha, taken from the Liberty Wines Ireland website:
Founded in 1952, with the production of the first ever vintage of Barca Velha, Casa Ferreirinha pioneered the quality revolution in Douro still wines and was the first producer in the region dedicated entirely to producing wine, rather than port. Named after the legendary Porto matriarch Dona Antónia Ferreira, Casa Ferreirinha, pays homage to the memory of this visionary woman. Today, the winemaking is headed up by Luís Sottomayor, who restrains the Douro’s natural exuberance to produce wines that have a vibrant freshness allied to a lovely texture and depth.
Earlier this year I joined a zoom masterclass presented by Luís Sottomayor himself and got to taste some of the wines (disclosure: which were samples, obvs):
Casa Ferreirinha “Vinha Grande” Douro Branco 2019
Although there are white Port grapes grown in the Douro (white Port and tonic is the “in” summer drink these days) we don’t tend to think of dry white Douro wines. The Vinha Grande Branco has been made since 2005 since the acquisition of 25 hectares of suitable vineyards at high altitude. The precise blend changes from year to year, but for 2019 it is:
40% Viosinho – a well balanced and highly aromatic local variety
35% Arinto (aka Pedernã) – a high acidity grape, better known in Bucelas
15% Rabigato – a high acidity grape almost solely grown in the Douro
10% Gouveio (aka Godello) – which gives roundness and complexity
Vinification took place in stainless steel tank and then the wine was split into two; 50% was aged in 500 litre barrels and 50% in steel tanks. Both halves received regular lees stirring and then were recombined after six months. Per Luis, the aim of using oak is to add complexity and capacity for ageing, but only 50% as they don’t want oak to dominate the fruit.
Initially it shows white fruits and flowers on the nose, then citrus and passionfruit, rounding off with some oak notes. The high altitude of the vineyard shows up on the palate which is very fresh and has good acidity. There’s some body to this wine and beautiful ripe fruit notes in the mid palate. Overall this is an excellent wine, and one that I suspect will continue to improve for several years.
This is the daddy, one of the first Douro reds, and originally was made with grapes sourced from a specific vineyard called Vinha Grande; nowadays the wine includes grapes from Cima Corgo and Douro Superior subregions. I don’t have the exact varietal composition for 2017 but for 2018 the blend was:
40% Touriga Franca – the most widely planted black grape in the Douro
30% Touriga Nacional – perfumed and powerful king of the Douro
25% Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) – for suppleness, the second most important black grape
5% Tinta Barroca – early ripening Douro grape which adds colour and alcohol
Alcoholic fermentation is carried out – separately in each subregion – in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, with some maceration to extract colour, flavours and tannins. The two are then blended together and matured in used (two to four year old) French barrels. Luis stated that French oak is regarded as more neutral, less aromatic than American oak. Portuguese oak was used until 2001 when supplies dried up – it gave more tannins and was more aromatically neutral still, but was a little rustic.
The nose of the Vinha Grande Tinto exudes rich black and red fruits, spice, freshly made coffee and hints of cedar. The palate is lovely and supple, with blueberry, blackberry and plum plus smoky notes. The body is generous but not too thick; with its soft tannins this is a refined and elegant wine.
Stockists: Avoca Handweavers, Ballsbridge; Baggot Street Wines; Blackrock Cellar; Martins Off Licence, Fairview; McHughs, Kilbarrack Road; Terroirs, Donnybrook; The Corkscrew, Chatham St.; The Parting Glass, Enniskerry; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny; wineonline.ie
Our first born child arrived in September 2011, and rather than just buy a case of wine for him (or us) to enjoy when he reached his majority I decided to buy a wine I could enjoy around his birthday every year as a toast to another year on earth. In the end I settled (!) for one of Australia’s iconic white wines, generally regarded as Australia’s best Riesling: Jeffrey Grosset’s Polish Hill Riesling. Normally I enjoy the wine so much that I completely forget to make notes, but this year at least I did write a brief tasting note.
Grosset established his eponymous winery in the small town of Auburn in 1981. Auburn lies at the northern end of the Mount Lofty Ranges, a Nelson (111) km north of Adelaide and 25km south of the town of Clare. The Polish Hill vineyard lies at 460 metres, covers eight hectares and is certified organic. The soil is rocky and low in fertility making the vines work hard. Winemaking is straight forward, trying to retain as much of the fruit’s character as it becomes wine.
Famously tight when young, the wine is made from small berries, a stark contrast to the larger grapes which grow in the Watervale sub-region of Clare Valley for Grosset’s other key Riesling, Springvale. Acidity is high and in its youth there are pronounced chalky characteristics. Indeed, you might say that (in most vintages) this is a wine for purists, but given time (and good care) it can blossom into something truly magnificent.
Grosset Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling 2011
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first: how dry or sweet is this Riesling? Well, Clare Valley Rieslings are nearly always dry – Grosset’s Alea Riesling is an exception to that rule – and by dry I mean technically dry, i.e. the yeast could not ferment any more sugar into alcohol, leaving just 0.9 g/L.
It pours a bright lemon in the glass; I expect that it was paler on release, though I didn’t have a young equivalent to compare it to. The nose is amazing – I could happily sniff it for hours. There are chalky mineral notes, of course, plus lifted lime, quince and grapefruit. There are no real kerosene notes yet, with the TDN¹ compound not present.
The palate is surprisingly soft and juicy, full of citrus with a soft chalky texture. The softness doesn’t mean it’s gone flabby – far from it, with literally mouth-watering acidity – but any austerity it had in its youth is firmly discarded. This is a classy, long and serene wine, nicely into the swing of things at nine years old, but with plenty to go yet. Yes it’s far from cheap, but for this quality and ageability it’s a very fair price to pay.
Pinot Noir can be tricky to make well. It is very particular about the climate it’s grown in – not too hot, not too cold. Here are a pair of antipodean cool climate Pinots that are worth your hard-earned:
Innocent Bystander Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2018
The Yarra Valley is part of the Port Philip zone which surrounds Melbourne in Australia. Its proximity to Melbourne makes it a popular wine tourism destination; indeed, my first trip there was on a day trip wine tour from Melbourne. That should not detract from its status as one of the best cool climate regions of Australia, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir starring – both still and sparkling.
Innocent Bystander was founded in 1996 by Phil Sexton after selling his previous Margaret River venture Devil’s Lair. Innocent Bystander (IB) wines are often blends from multiple sites to achieve complexity and balance at a reasonable price point. Alongside IB, in 1998 Sexton also began creating single vineyard wines under the Giant Steps label.
The Pink Moscato explosion in Aussie wine led to a large increase in volumes being made and sold by IB, so Sexton sold it to another family owned Victorian wine producer – Brown Brothers of Milawa – in order to concentrate on Giant Steps. Once picked IB’s grapes now make a three hour journey in refrigerated trucks to be crushed at Brown Bros’ winery. Sexton’s Yarra Valley tasting room wasn’t part of the transaction so Brown Bros bought and converted a brewery – formerly run by Phil Sexton!
The wines in the Innocent Bystander portfolio include the following:
Gamay / Pinot Noir blend
It’s the last two which are the most unusual for Australia, and therefore piqued my interest, though sadly they haven’t yet made their way to Ireland.
In the main this Pinot Noir is fruit-driven: raspberry, blackberry and tart red cherries dominate the nose and palate, though there are also herb and spice notes in the background. It is not, however, a “fruit-bomb”; acidity and gentle tannins provide a framework against which the fruit can sing, and boy do they sing!
Marlborough’s Framingham is probably the most respected producer of Riesling in New Zealand, but has added additional varieties across its three ranges:
Their wines are all very well crafted and offer a substantial step up from everyday Marlborough wines, but prices are sensible. The firm’s winemaker for 18 years was Dr Andrew Hedley, who was then succeeded by the returning Andrew Brown at the beginning of this year (what a year to join!) In between his stints at Framingham, “Brownie” had worked in several cool climate regions including Alsace, so he has great experience with Riesling.
Framingham’s own vineyards and those of partner winegrowers are all in the Wairau Valley, the central open plain of Marlborough which is on a mixture of alluvial and clay soil. Each parcel is harvested and vinified separately, with grapes from clay soils in particular receiving more time on the skins. MLF and maturation takes place in new (20%) and used French oak barrels, before final blending and bottling. No fining or filtering is carried out to preserve flavour and mouthfeel.
When speaking to Jared Murtha (Framingham’s Global Sales Manager) earlier this year I remarked that the Pinot Noir seemed more like a Martinborough Pinot than a typical Marlborough one to me. This was meant as a compliment and taken as one, as I find many Marlborough Pinot Noirs to be light, simple and less than interesting. Jared replied diplomatically that Framingham aren’t aiming to make a “smashable” wine, but rather one which is a little more serious and gastronomic.
And hell have they succeeded! It has typical Pinot red fruit notes – cherry and wild strawberry – but also layer upon layer of smoky, spicy and savoury characters. There are lovely round tannins giving the wine additional structure. Umami fans will love this wine!
These two wines are made from the same grape variety in neighbouring countries (yeah, still quite a journey) and are close in price, so a like for like comparison is perfectly fair. The most obvious difference, though, is their style. The Innocent Bystander is a great, fruit-forward all-rounder and would really appeal to the casual wine drinker. The Framingham is a different proposition, more savoury and serious, and would shine the brightest in a setting with food – though it’s not a “this needs food” wine. My preference would be to spend the extra €4 on the Framingham … but if someone offers me a glass of Innocent Bystander I would be delighted.
For those of us living in the UK or Ireland it is rare to think of international borders moving. Yes, there’s the Northern Ireland border between the two sovereign states, but that hasn’t moved since its inception a century ago and is hopefully fading away. Because we live on islands even the concept of driving to another country seems a little strange for many, never mind that border moving over time.
The movement of borders has created some unusual situations for wine folk, such as the Becker family in Germany’s Pfalz – whose vineyards run into Alsace – and also the Gravner family – whose lands were in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at one point but now lie (just) in Italy.
This all came to mind as I was thinking about a pair of wines I tasted earlier in the year. They are based on the same geological set of hills (Gorizia Hills in English, Collio Goriziano in Italian or Goriška Brda in Slovene) but in different countries. The drive between them is less than an hour an a half:
So now for that pair of wines:
Gašper Rebula 2016
First things first: Gašperis the name of the producer (literally, as Gašper Čarman is the gentleman who own and runs the place) and Rebulais the grape variety. The latter is better known to most of us as Ribolla Gialla in Friuli but it is a major variety in Brda.
Gašper’s vines are planted in “opaka” soil (silica-calcite sedimentary rock) on terraces between 80 and 200 metres above sea level. Both altitude and proximity to the sea help to retain aromas and freshness in the wine.
This Rebula is made with 16 hours skin contact – far more than more white wines but nowhere near as long as orange / amber wines. Fermentation is in huge (4,000 litre) casks, temperature controlled to preserve fruit characters and freshness. Maturation takes place first in old French barriques (1 year) then in old, large big format Slavonian oak casks.
The time spent on skins adds a real depth of colour to the wine – it deserves the “Gialla” (yellow) descriptor in its Italian name. The nose shows bright citrus – lemon, grapefruit, orange – and mixed citrus peel. The palate is soft, not too shouty with great texture. The fresh and dried fruits are joined by a certain creaminess and they resolve in a clean, fresh finish.
Gašper himself told me that the wine has great ageing potential – and I have every reason to believe him.
After two World Wars Friuli’s agriculture and viticulture was significantly diminished and almost abandoned by the flight from countryside to city. Livio Felluga was one who had a great vision of restoring Fruili’s proud tradition of winemaking. He bought up old vineyards planted new ones and over the course of decades reinvigorated the region. He has long been acknowledged as the driving force behind the restoration of Friuli and as an ambassador for its wines.
Illivio was created as by Livio’s children to celebrate his 85th birthday. It’s a blend of Pinot Bianco (60%), Chardonnay (30%) and indigenous variety Picolit (10%). Picolit was traditionally used for sweet wines as it has a good balance between sugar and acidity, with a flavour profile not too far form Viognier, and had a cult following in the 1960s and ’70s.
The wine is fermented in small oak casks then left on the lees in those barrels for 10 months. While oaked Chardonnay is of course very common internationally, oaked Pinot Blanc is mainly an Italian thing – but it can make for excellent wines.
Illivio pours yellow in the glass, though not from skin contact as the Gašper Rebula above, but rather from the influence of oak. The nose is intense, as floral and fruit notes compete with rich smoky notes from the oak. The palate is rich yet tangy, with buttered brioche and juicy fruit exquisitely mixed. This is a serious wine, but seriously nice!
“New World” is not a great term as it basically means “outside Europe”, so it includes many different countries which are different in style. Just for convenience, it allows us to look at a selection wines from California, Central Otago, Southern Australia and Ningxia, all available from Liberty Wines.
I’ve been a fan of the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc / Viognier blend for some time (see review here) but as this is Napa then the Cabernet is the real deal. Pine Ridge Vineyards was first established in Stags Leap District in the late 70s with a single vineyard next to a – you guessed it – pine ridge. Their vineyards now number 12 and total 80 hectares over five Napa sub-zones: Stags Leap District, Rutherford, Carneros, Howell Mountain and Oakville. Pine Ridge produce a number of different wines, including several from individual sub-zones, but this is a blend across the five.
This bottle is labelled as a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon but that is 91% of the blend, with the balance made up by 6% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. 35% of the 2016 was aged in new American oak for 18 months, giving creamy vanilla to go with the blackcurrant, cherry and blackberry notes. This is a big, lush, heady wine that is not light and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s not for those who like racy reds but it’s imposing and delicious.
Ningxia is of course the most important Chinese region for wine. Some years ago I reviewed Château Changyu Moser XV 2008 which had an abv of 12.5% and was reminiscent of old school Bordeaux (think mid ’90s). The Pretty Pony is a very good wine, regardless of origin. It has oak, lovely black fruit and is already showing a nice bit of development. This is not like old school Bordeaux – this is like modern Bordeaux!
When Central Otago Pinot Noir began to enter into the consciousness of wine drinkers it was almost the opposite of Marlborough Pinot – big, bold and powerful – with alcohol to match. It was almost a Pinot Noir for Cabernet drinkers – no bad thing in my eyes as Cab is my favourite black grape – but times, and the wines, have changed. Now elegance and balance are to the fore, without losing the intensity that made them such a hit in the first place. This is a great example of Central Pinot – especially for the relatively modest price. It has a core of ripe red fruit and a slight smoky, savoury edge that gives it some seriousness.
Another Central Pinot, but totally different in style. Burn Cottage has been practising biodynamic since the first vines were planted in 2003, and there is a low intervention approach to winemaking. Whole bunch fermentation allows the wine’s aromas to develop fully – it smells…special, for want of a better term. This is a fine, fine wine which delights all the senses but the mind too.
Like many McLaren Vale vineyards, Mitolo has Italian roots through its founder Frank Mitolo. It also has an influx of German genes through winemaker and business partner Ben Glaetzer, scion of the Barossa producer Glaetzer wines. The Mitolo portfolio is split into three ranges: Jester, Small Batch and Single Vineyard.
The G.A.M. Shiraz was the first wine produced by Mitolo; it’s not an alternative to GSM which is prevalent in the Vale, but actually stands for the initials of Frank’s three children, Gemma, Alex and Marco. The fruit is sourced from a vineyard belonging to family friends and fellow Italian immigrants the Lopresti vineyards, in particular their “Chinese Block”. As it’s located at the bottom end of McLaren Vale, the block benefits from cooling sea breezes. The vines are over 40 years old and are planted on a type of clay. Fermentation is kept on the cool side to preserve fruit flavours and then fermentation is in French oak (30% new, 70% used) for 15 months. Only at that point are barrels given final selection for inclusion in the G.A.M. Shiraz.
Aussie Shiraz is a great crowd-pleaser but this is way above that – it has phenomenal structure and intense, opulent-but-not-jammy black fruit. The Jester Shiraz is a great introduction to the style at a little over half the price of the G.A.M., but I’d argue that the latter is more than twice as good and represents great value at this price point.
Grosset Gaia Clare Valley 2014 (14.0%, RRP €66.99 at good independents nationwide)
Grosset are best known for their Rieslings, especially the Polish Hill and Springvale bottlings, but they also make some great reds too, including a Pinot Noir and this “Gaia” Bordeaux blend. I say Bordeaux blend though its precise proportions of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc would rarely be found in the Gironde. At five years old this 2014 still has bright berry, blackcurrant and plum fruit. It does have a dry leathery side, with grippy tannins and good acidity. As this is Clare there is of course a screwcap closure; a challenge to the Bordelais to catch up? This will be drinking well for years and years.
A few firsts for me with this wine. Firstly, it’s from the Croatian province of Istria, and although I’ve had Croatian wines before, never (knowingly) one from Istria. Secondly, 30% of the blend is contributed by a grape I’ve never heard of – Teran – though I have heard of the Refosco family of which it is a member. The remaining components are much more familiar – Merlot (60%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) – as are the French barrels in which the wine is matured for 15 months. The vineyard is located in Brdo (surely a place name with too few vowels) in Central Istria. The winemaker is pioneer and living legend Ivica Matošević.
The French and local varieties complement each other well – the Merlot gives plum and dark chocolate notes, filling the mid palate, while the Teran gives fresh, ripe-but-tart forest fruits. Overall, it’s velvety smooth goodness all the way.
Though I’m far from an expert in Piedmontese wines, it’s easily understandable that there are differences even within DOC and DOCG areas. Franco Massolino sources his Nebbiolo grapes from several plots in the Commune of Serralunga d’Alba at an altitude of 320m – 360m. The soils are mainly limestone and the vines age from 10 up to 60 years old. Serralunga d’Alba is regarded as one of the best parts of Barolo and produces well-structured wines that can age for decades, so it’s a little surprising that this 2014 is already so accessible – softer and more approachable, in fact, than Massolino’s 2016 Langhe Nebbiolo. The nose is floral with forest fruits and the palate has rich, smooth black and red fruits, kept fresh by a streak of acidity.
One of the unique things about this producer is that they have reduced their output over the last twenty years, more than halving production from 180,000 bottles to 80,000 bottles from the same 25 hectares of vines, all with an eye to improving quality. It seems to have worked! Established by Aldo Conterno himself in 1969, nowadays his son Stefano is the winemaker, with his other sons running the business. The Cicala name comes from the single vineyard where the grapes are sourced from. This 2014 is half a percent lighter in alcohol than other recent vintages, but it’s no lightweight – it’s an immense wine, though not impenetrable. The nose is enticing and rewarding; it’s worth just enjoying the rose and tar aromas for a while before even taking a sip. On the palate there’s still plenty of oak evident, but balanced by ripe fruits. This is an “Oh wow” wine.
The Petra estate is large compared to the Barolos above at 300 hectares. It was created close to the Tuscan coast by the Moretti family of Bellavista fame (particularly known for their Franciacorta). This is Super-Tuscan territory, borne out by the blend: 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Sangiovese. However, this is not a Bordeaux copy; it has some similarities with Médoc wines but tastes Italian – whether due to terroir or the 10% Sangiovese is up for debate. With ripe red and black fruits framed by tannin and acidity, this is a well put-together wine that offers better value than most Bordeaux at this price.
This is the Petra estate’s top wine, a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. The must is fermented in open top 100 hl vessels, then matured in barriques, of which 30% are new. It has a highly perfumed nose, full of violets and a whiff of vanilla. There’s lots of structure here, but also juicy cherry, blackberry and blueberry fruit. At five years old this is still in the flushes of youth, so I’d expect it to keep evolving and improving over the next decade or so. A Super-Tuscan which is expensive, but doesn’t cost the earth.