Brawn For The Brain

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A wine that gave my brain a workout at Brawn: a glass of Cristiano Guttarolo's Bianco Amphora 2013

A wine that gave my brain a workout at Brawn: a glass of Cristiano Guttarolo’s Bianco Amphora 2013

I was fortunate enough to dine at Brawn recently and I enjoyed some of the best food that I have eaten in quite some time. An exceptional dish of grilled duck hearts on fresh broad bean purée was followed by an equally delicious confit rabbit leg served with wet polenta and a delicate gremolata. As enticing as everything on the menu was to me, I found the wine list to be an entirely different story. My issue was not with the quality or with the variety of the wines offered, my issue was with the format of the list.

With the increasing influence of sommeliers has come a trend for ever more exclusive and unfamiliar wine listings. This is great news for wine lovers, wine producers and wine merchants alike, but selling such wines requires a substantial investment of effort to interact with and to entice the customer into spending money on an unknown quantity. The wine trade in general is often accused of failing to engage with the average wine drinker and it falls to independent wine merchants, wine writers and sommeliers to bridge the gap and to generate interest in and excitement about regions, grape varieties and styles of wine. Selling any product requires effective communication with customers; this is particularly true in a restaurant where the food and the wine are such important contributors to the overall experience and to the memories it creates.

Brawn’s wine list ran to six pages and was divided into sections with titles such as “Vins de Soif”, “Volcano”, and ”Sunbaked, cicada-loud, ageless country of scrub and terraced hills”. Evocative? Certainly. Helpful? Only to the reasonably well-informed wine lover, I suspect. I like to believe that I have just about enough knowledge to navigate a wine list, but there is a minimum amount of information that has to be given to enable me to make a decision. When only the scantest details are provided for the wines listed – the name of a very small, artisanal producer and the highly personally relevant moniker of his or her wine – and when the wine comes from an appellation or region that is home to a wide variety of wine types and styles, then a request for an additional line of information does not seem to be excessively demanding. Even just the grape varieties would suffice, especially when most of the wines sold are made in a natural/minimal intervention style.

Brawn is happy to allow you to taste any of the seventeen wines that it sells by the glass and the lady who served us was able to give me a general impression of the wines I was considering. However, the contrast between the menu, that read so appealingly I could happily have ordered every dish from it, and the wine list, that I wanted to take full advantage of but couldn’t, left me somewhat disappointed. I’m certain that there were many interesting wines on the list and that they all deserved to be tried, but what I can only describe as the perverse insouciance that pervaded the layout of the wine list did Brawn far more of a disservice than a favour.

Being something of a wine nerd, and already knowing about the ethos of the wine list, I managed to do a little research before my visit. I was definitely keen to try a natural/minimal intervention wine, and particularly a Georgian qvevri wine if possible, but the closest options were various wines made in amphorae in other parts of the world. I had written a shortlist of possible wines to choose from, depending upon everyone’s choice of dishes, and I actually ended up ordering my first candidate of whites. This was the Cristiano Guttarolo Bianco Amphora 2013 (12% ABV), of which more below.

About 40km south of Bari, Puglia lie Cristiano Guttarolo’s vineyards on the surprisingly cool Murge Plateau. This raised plateau of fossilised limestone sits at an altitude of 430m and it is constantly cooled by stiff breezes that blow in off the sea. The combination of elevation and ventilation creates substantial diurnal temperature fluctuations and provides a freshness not usually found in the wines of so hot and arid a region.

As well as practising organic and partially biodynamic viticulture, Cristiano ferments the best parcels of his grapes in terracotta amphorae for several months allowing both the reds and the whites an unusual amount of skin contact before they are racked and bottled without being filtered and without the use of sulphur dioxide. Cristiano believes that whichever type of fermentation vessel is used, it is simply a vehicle that moves the wine closer to the ideal point in its evolution. As much as he relishes the points of difference bestowed by amphorae, to his mind it is always the terroir, rather than the winemaking techniques, that shines brightest in the end.

Cristiano Guttarolo, Bianco Amphora 2013

Cristiano Guttarolo, Bianco Amphora 2013

Only just off transparent when first poured (it must have settled), by the final glass it was as opaque as cloudy apple juice and similarly coloured. The nose was high toned, noticeably volatile and faintly cidery at first but it had bright, ripe pear fruit underneath mingled with wild meadow herbs and a faint savoury/toasty element. The palate was dry and initially somewhat tart and cidery, but as with the nose this evolved into rich pear fruit with a fragrance of woody stemmed herbs – thyme, rosemary – and a minerally, softly salty tang. Rich fruit balanced by tart acidity continued through the long finish. Perplexing, challenging and unlike much else, yet beguiling and really rather moreish to drink.

I found out subsequently that this wine was 100% Chardonnay, although I recognised none of what I have come to regard as the typical aromas or flavours of that grape on either the nose or on the palate. One of the arguments in favour of natural/minimal intervention and amphora/qvevri wines is that they truly represent the unadulterated characters of the vineyard and the grape variety, unlike “conventional” wines with their micro managed vineyards, cultured yeasts, fining, filtering, oak influence and sulphur dioxide controlled winemaking. There is undoubtedly an element of truth to this in its most literal context, but with conventional wines the characteristics of a specific grape variety, and a specific vineyard in certain cases, can be recognised consistently irrespective of the producer or vintage. This might well be simple indoctrination that could soon be reversed through increased exposure to natural/minimal intervention wines, but in my limited experience it seems that, despite the intentions to the contrary, ironically it is the winemaking style that actually overwhelms the varietal, geographical and geological input. It would be genuinely fascinating to taste natural/minimal intervention versions of a collection of well documented wines such as the seven Chablis Grands Crus to ascertain the nature and the extent of their differences, both from each other and from their conventional equivalents. I also wonder if red amphora wines would be more immediately acceptable to my as yet untrained palate? RAW here I come…

Despite my apparent negativity about the presentation of Brawn’s wine list and my lack of experience with natural/minimal intervention wines, I thoroughly enjoyed everything about my evening and it is because of this I have felt compelled to raise these points. I’m very keen to try Cristiano’s “rusty” hued rosé and his amphora-aged Primitivo, so I will soon be in touch with Alex at Tutto Wines to purchase a selection.

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Riojan Roll

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Quite why the province of La Rioja and its most famous wine take their names from the River – Rio in Spanish – Oja is something of a mystery. This so-called river is actually little more than a stream, rising in the Sierra De La Demanda and flowing north until it joins the River Tirón, in turn meeting the River Ebro near Haro.

Native tribes were making wine here long before the Romans invaded in the first century and winemaking has continued unabated to this day. It even survived the Moorish conquest thanks to its importance to the local economy. However, ancient winemaking techniques also persisted and it was not until the mid nineteenth century that this began to change. Two landowners, the then untitled Marqués De Murrieta and the Marqués De Riscal, independently visited Bordeaux and studied how wine was made there before returning to Rioja with their newly acquired Bordelaise equipment and expertise. Possibly the greatest advance made as a result was the use of well-coopered casks to transport the wine; not only were they infinitely more practical than the animal skins used at that time, but it was also found that the wine was much improved after its sojourn in wood. Despite local resistance to what were considered to be unnecessarily expensive methods, the export market for Rioja blossomed and there was to be no going back.

When phylloxera struck French vineyards in the latter half of the nineteenth century, this serendipitously timed transformation of Riojan winemaking meant that the region was producing wines very similar to those of Bordeaux at very appealing prices. Exports to France boomed and the classic “burnished oak” style of Rioja evolved as a consequence of French tastes.

As far back as 1560, Rioja had established rules and regulations to govern the treatment of grapes, musts and wines. In 1635, the mayor of Logroño, La Rioja’s capital city, banned traffic from using streets alongside bodegas to prevent vibrations from disturbing the maturing wines. By 1787, many of the region’s leading growers had come together to establish the Real Sociedad Económica De Cosecheros De La Rioja Castellana (the Royal Economic Society of Castilian Rioja Producers) and their interests were further protected in 1902, when a national law was passed to guarantee the name of Rioja wine, its origin and its labelling. Rioja established Spain’s first Consejo Regulador (control board) in 1926, paving the way for it to become the first Spanish wine to obtain Denominación de Origen (DO) status when the system was introduced in 1932. In 1991, Rioja was the first region to be promoted to the prestigious Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) status, thanks to its long record of consistently high quality wine production.

Situated in the centre of northern Spain, approximately 100km south of Bilbao, the Rioja wine region is nestled between Sierra De Cantabria and Sierra De La Demanda, sheltered from the coolest influences of the Atlantic to the north and from the heat of the Mediterranean summers to the south. Rioja is unusual in that it straddles three different autonomous provinces: Álava in the Basque Country to the north and west of the River Ebro, Navarra to the north and east of the river and La Rioja itself to the south of the river.

Denominacion De Origen Calificada Rioja Regions Map

Denominacion De Origen Calificada Rioja Regions Map

In winemaking terms, Rioja is divided into three distinct sub regions, each of which has its own characteristics. Rioja Alavesa, in Álava, is the smallest of the three and is bounded by the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains to the north and by the River Ebro to the south. The mountains shelter the area from the worst of the Atlantic weather and, along with the warm Mediterranean influence from the south, help to create a temperate microclimate. However, the average annual rainfall is still double that of Rioja Baja. The soils of Alavesa are mostly calcerous clay and many of the vineyards are planted on terraces in small plots. Around 80% of plantings is Tempranillo, but all of the main indigenous red and white grape varieties are grown. Tempranillo ripens with a thinner skin here and although its wines are well suited to barrel ageing, carbonic maceration is also used to make a fruitier style of wine ideal for earlier drinking.

Sitting mainly on the south bank of the Ebro opposite Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta stretches from the westernmost edge of the appellation to Logroño. The climate is predominantly Atlantic influenced and the soils are patches of calcerous (chalk-rich) clay, ferruginous (iron-rich) clay and pebbly alluvial sediment. The temperature is marginally warmer than in Alavesa, resulting in thicker-skinned Tempranillo and rather more structured wines. Mazuelo and Graciano are also grown and they are important constituents of top quality, ageworthy Riojas.

Rioja Baja is the largest of the sub regions and it accounts for 40% of Rioja’s wine production. It extends south-eastwards from Logroño to Alfaro, with most of its vineyards lying south of the Ebro. Unlike Alavesa and Alta, the climate of Rioja Baja is Mediterranean influenced and it experiences warm, dry summers. The landscape is flatter here and the vineyards are planted at lower altitudes on alluvial and ferruginous clay soils; there is very little chalk. Garnacha is the most widely planted variety as it is better suited to Baja’s longer, hotter ripening season. Young vines give fruity, aromatic, early maturing wines, whereas older vines produce more complex wines that age extremely well.

Denominacion De Origen Calificada Rioja Soil Types Map

Denominacion De Origen Calificada Rioja Soil Types Map

Although primarily known as a red wine-producing region, Rioja also crafts excellent white and rosé wines across all of its ageing designations. Approximately 90% of Rioja produced is red, 5% is white and 5% is rosé. The permitted red grapes of Rioja are:

– Tempranillo: the “little early one” is considered native to Rioja and it is the region’s premier red grape, making up the majority of the blend for most red wines and accounting for over 75% of total vineyard plantings. Depending upon where it is grown and how it is vinified, it produces soft, supple wines with aromas of soft, red summer fruits ideal for early drinking or complex, balanced, ageworthy wines that become velvety textured with time.
– Garnacha: another native Spanish variety, known as Grenache elsewhere. Hardy and drought resistant, it offers good levels of extract and alcohol and its richness and spice neatly complement Tempranillo in a blend. From cooler sites, it makes excellent rosé.
– Graciano: indigenous to Rioja, this small, tough skinned and difficult to grow variety has made something of a comeback lately thanks to its elegant freshness, aroma and longevity. Monovarietal versions are also becoming popular.
– Mazuelo: also known as Cariñena or Carignan, this originated in Aragón but has been used in Rioja for centuries. Now only accounting for about 3% of plantings, it is still valued for the colour, acidity and tannins it contributes to a blend.
– Maturana Tinta: an ancient variety, unique to Rioja, which was almost extinct until recently. Its resurrection was thanks to its deep colour, elegant acidity and spicy, balsamic character.

These five varieties must make up a minimum of 85% of the blend (95% if the grapes are destemmed) and the balance can be made up with experimental varieties such as the dismayingly ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon. Rosé wines must be made from a minimum of 25% of red grapes.

The region’s white grapes are:

– Viura: better known as Macabéo across Spain, this is Rioja’s principal white grape. It offers fruity wines with floral aromas and remarkable acidity, making it ideal for both earlier drinking and aged styles of wine. Clean, fresh, zesty and lightly herbaceous when young it also responds well to oak ageing, developing complex, smokey nuances.
– Malvasía de Rioja: an entirely different variety from the Malvasia grown elsewhere in the world. Its savoury character blends perfectly with the crispness of Viura and the vanilla richness of oak.
– Garnacha Blanca: probably a natural mutation of red Garnacha, this shares many of the same qualities. Used in small amounts to add weight and body to Viura, some monovarietal wines are made. Grapes from very old vines produce exceptionally concentrated wines.
– Tempranillo Blanco: another natural mutation of a red variety and another variety unique to Rioja. Becoming increasingly popular as a blending component, it provides citrus, tropical fruit and banana flavours.
– Maturana Blanca: apparently Rioja’s oldest known variety, it provides high acidity and herbal, apple and citrus notes to a blend.
– Turruntés De Rioja: not be confused with the Galician variety Torrontés or with the variety of the same name grown in Argentina. It is low in alcohol and high in acidity, its light palate displays fruity aromas with dominating notes of apples, plus a vegetal, grassy nature.

Viura must be a minimum of 51% of the final blend of a white Rioja. Since 2007, in an effort to improve the competitiveness of Rioja’s white wines in the global marketplace, the use of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Verdejo has also been permitted but they can only account for a combined 49% of the blend.

One of the factors that make Rioja such a world-class wine is its ability to age. Not only that, but the higher quality wines often are not released for sale until after they have experienced a prolonged period of cask and bottle maturation. Spanish wines are often labelled according to the length of ageing they have received, a concept pioneered in Rioja and still used today. The same categories are used for red, white and rosé wines, although the minimum ageing requirements for reds are longer than for the other colours. Cosecha (“vintage”) wines are released at less than 15 months old, typically with little or no oak ageing to retain their youthful fruitiness. They are simply labelled as Rioja and carry no age statement other than their vintage. This is the same for all three colours of Rioja. The other categories are as follows.

For red wines:

Crianza: a minimum of 1 year in oak and 1 year in bottle prior to release
Reserva: a minimum of 1 year in oak and 2 years in bottle prior to release
Gran Reserva: a minimum of 2 years in oak and 3 years in bottle prior to release

For white and rosé wines:

Crianza: a minimum of 6 months in cask and 6 months in bottle prior to release
Reserva: a minimum of 6 months in oak and 18 months in bottle prior to release
Gran Reserva: a minimum of 12 months in oak and 36 months in bottle prior to release

White and rosé crianza wines can be aged in non-oxidative environments, such as stainless steel, to preserve their fruit character, but all other designations must be matured in 225 litre oak barricas before bottling. Sadly, very few producers still offer white and rosé Rioja in the reserva and gran reserva categories.

Although this is not a qualitative categorisation, it makes sense that only the best grapes are used for the wines that will be aged for the longest periods. Gran reserva wines will only be made in the very best vintages and can often be ten or more years old when released for sale.

Subject to the DOCa rules for the specific colour of wine being made, red or white grape varieties from any of the three sub regions can be blended as desired for any of the age designations, and this flexibility allows bodegas to develop their own distinctive house style. Basques like their wines to be light fruity and made purely from Tempranillo; Riojanos prefer the structure and maturity of the traditional mix of grapes, and Navarros enjoy rich, ripe Garnacha. All are classic Rioja.

The style of winemaking in Rioja has remained virtually unchanged from the model created by Murrieta and Riscal in the 1850s and 60s, and these traditional wines are distinguished by their long periods of ageing in American oak barricas. Marques De Caceres pioneered a modern style of Rioja in 1970, a style that showcases the fruit and the freshness of Rioja by keeping oak ageing periods to their legal minimum and by using the rather more restrained French oak for barricas to lighten the influence of the wood upon the wine. To confuse matters yet further, a so-called post-modern school of winemaking emerged in the 1990s, spearheaded by producers such as Finca Allende, concentrating upon making wines from old vines or from specific vineyards to accentuate the expression of the terroir and upon using larger proportions of the historic, less common grape varieties in their blends to increase the harmony and complexity of their wines. They also combine the best aspects of both traditional and modern winemaking practices to produce wines that they feel perfectly encapsulate Rioja.

The guys at Hanging Ditch asked to me present a selection of wines to illustrate the various styles of Rioja, and it made sense to focus upon their long-standing favourite producer: Bodegas Navajas. Because the Navajas family produces a wide spectrum of wines, we could easily highlight the differences between the various ageing categories within the framework of a consistent house style and quality. A cheeky little apéritif and a category-bending reserva were added for good measure.

These are the wines we tasted:

Bodegas Leza Garcia, La Cuna De La Poesia Rioja Rosado Cosecha

Bodegas Leza Garcia, La Cuna De La Poesia Rioja Rosado Cosecha

1. Bodegas Leza Garcia, La Cuna De La Poesia Rioja Rosado Cosecha 2013 (12.5% ABV, £12.50)
100% Garnacha

The grandsons of founder Juan Leza Arenzana run this estate today, upholding his legacy of taking great care and pride in every stage of making their wines. They cultivate their own vineyards in the Najerilla valley in the heart of Rioja Alta.

Delicately pale sunset pink, with a light yet perfumed floral, raspberry and wild strawberry nose. Dry and refreshingly crisp, surprisingly aromatic, with bright floral and raspberry flavours that lingered on the long finish. Summer in a glass. Lovely.

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Cosecha

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Cosecha

2. Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Cosecha 2013 (13.5% ABV, £10.00)
95% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo

Bodegas Navajas is a family owned winery based in the village of Navarette, some five miles west of the regional capital of Logroño. It was founded in 1918 as Bodegas Arjona, with the Navajas family only becoming involved in 1978. Five years later they purchased the estate and renamed it eponymously. What sets Navajas apart from many of the industrially scaled wine producers in Rioja is its attention to detail at every stage of the process, from monitoring conditions in the 150 hectares of their growers’ vineyards in Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja to hand-harvesting grapes and vinifying them in a new state-of-the-art winery. Wines are fermented in temperature controlled, stainless steel tanks before being transferred into French and American oak barrels.

An unusually high quality cosecha, this is actually halfway towards being a crianza as the wine spends four months in oak. As a result, it displayed none of the rusticity that can sometimes afflict this youthful style of Rioja. A bright, cherry and red berry nose had a whiff of smokiness to it. Similarly vibrant cherry and berry fruit on the palate with a touch of gently smokey and coffee scented oak richness countered by lively acidity.

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Crianza

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Crianza

3. Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Crianza 2010 (14% ABV, £12.50)
95% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo

A slightly darker fruit character on the nose and the palate than the cosecha, as one might have expected of a wine that was three years older and that had spent at least eight more months in oak. Rounder and a little more tannic, but the acidity was rather less prevalent. A pleasingly long finish and really very good, especially for the price.

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Reserva

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Reserva

4. Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Reserva 2009 (14% ABV, £17.50)
95% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo

The combination of an element of the bright, fruity character of a crianza with a degree of the savoury maturity of a gran reserva makes the reserva category of red Rioja a perennial favourite of many people. This category of Rioja also highlights the variety of winemaking styles used in the region, with traditional producers ageing their wines well beyond the minimum requirements and more innovative producers using this category for their flagship wines. They forgo the additional maturation and mellow oakiness of a gran reserva in favour of darker fruit and firmer tannic structure. This Navajas reserva is a more modern style, whereas the La Rioja Alta reserva below is a traditional as it comes.

Soft, ripe, alluring nose of blackberry fruit and oak spiciness, with a darker blackcurrant thread running through it. The supple and velvety textured palate showed the same deep, dark berry fruit with well-integrated vanilla and gently toasted oak flavours. Mouthfilling and very long, this was ready to drink but would certainly keep for several years. Its richness and complexity, its balance of fruit and oak and the approachability it had gained from five years of ageing made this the wine that a lot of people voted as being their favourite of the flight of Navajas reds and I have to admit that I also preferred it to the gran reserva on the day.

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Gran Reserva

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Gran Reserva

5. Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Tinto Gran Reserva 2005 (13.5% ABV, £25.00)
85% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano, 5% Mazuelo

This was obviously a different kettle of fish from the outset. Much more savoury and coffee scented on the nose, with aromas of tobacco and oak spice wrapped around ripe black and red fruit. Although certainly showing a degree of evolution, this was well structured and actually still rather young. The roasted coffee and smokey notes of the oak had integrated nicely with the rich blackberry fruit and there was a slightly herbal aspect to the long finish. A little tighter than the reserva, another two or three years would have seen this wine open out and reveal its full potential.

La Rioja Alta, Vina Ardanza Rioja Tinto Reserva

La Rioja Alta, Vina Ardanza Rioja Tinto Reserva

6. La Rioja Alta, Viña Ardanza Rioja Tinto Reserva 2005 (13.7% ABV, £27.50)
80% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha

On 10th July, 1890, five Riojan and Basque families who shared a dream to make and age top quality Rioja founded the Sociedad Vinícola De La Rioja Alta in Haro’s Station Quarter. In 1904, Don Alfredo Ardanza, one of the founders of La Rioja Alta and owner of the Ardanza winery, proposed a merger of the two companies. The name Viña Ardanza, now the estate’s most famous wine, was registered in 1942.

One of the best known and highest quality producers of traditional style Rioja, no corners are cut in the pursuit of excellence at La Rioja Alta. The estate owns over 400 hectares of vineyards to ensure the finest quality grapes, it has its own cooperage to make all of its American oak barrels on site and every six months every barrel is manually racked by candlelight to remove sediment and to enhance the wine’s development.

Viña Ardanza is a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha. The Tempranillo grapes come from 30-year-old plots located in Fuenmayor and Cenicero. The Garnacha grapes come from ancient vines planted at an altitude of 600m in Tudelilla, Rioja Baja. The grapes were selected in the vineyard and taken to the winery in refrigerated trucks. Once fermented, the wines were transferred to traditional American oak barrels in May 2006. The Tempranillo was barrel-aged for 36 months in four and a half year-old casks. The Garnacha was aged for 30 months in two and three year-old casks. The wines were manually racked six times before being blended and bottled in July 2009.

Although this was a reserva, its long ageing period meant that we thought it would be more interesting and more appropriate to compare it with the newer style Navajas gran reserva as they were both from the same vintage. Infinitely more funky/leathery/meaty/farmyardy on the nose than any of the other wines we tasted, I loved this from the outset. It had a brighter, almost Burgundian, red fruit character than the gran reserva above, with juicy acidity and a suggestion of dried orange peel on the velvety palate. Whereas the Navajas had a reasonable percentage of firmly structured, dark fruited Graciano and Mazuelo blended with its Tempranillo, this had a similar amount of fuller, softer, red fruited Garnacha instead, which might well count for some of the stylistic difference. In true Rioja fashion this was as much about oak as it was about grapes. I was quite surprised that so many people enjoyed this as much as I did given its distinctive characteristics, but it ended up edging out the Navajas reserva from the top spot of the evening. Even a lady who disliked this intensely upon her first sip had a Damascene moment when she re-tasted it whilst eating a piece of Manchego.

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Blanco Crianza

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Blanco Crianza

7. Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Blanco Crianza 2011 (13% ABV, £12.50)
100% Viura

After the Viña Ardanza, we paused the proceedings for some Spanish-inspired nibbles to demonstrate just how food friendly red Rioja is. Although it might seem rather counter-intuitive to pour a white and a rosé after a series of red wines, these were both crianzas and had spent more time in oak than the cosecha red poured after the initial rosé. If we had served these before the first red wine, their oakiness would have affected everyone’s perception of the lighter style cosecha.

A smokey vanilla oak, pithy citrus and wild herb nose carried through onto the palate. Lemon and grapefruit fruit, elegant use of new French and American oak and a long, lightly herb infused finish. Very good indeed.

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Rosado Crianza

Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Rosado Crianza

8. Bodegas Navajas, Rioja Rosado Crianza 2011 (13.5% ABV, £12.50)
50% Tempranillo, 50% Viura

Aside from Rioja, the only other region I could think of that offers oaked and aged rosés was Champagne – even though the method of production differs. Many estates have completely eschewed cask and bottle aged styles of rosé, especially the reserva and gran reserva categories, but Navajas still offers this crianza and I was keen to give people the chance to try something quite so idiosyncratic.

More salmon hued than the previous rosé, with delicate red berry fruit and spiced vanilla oak on the nose. The palate displayed similar flavours that moved into a long, oaky finish with a gently tart redcurrant fruit character. The half and half red and white grape blend was more than sturdy enough to hold its own against the American oak and, although this was a wine that shouldn’t work in theory, it over delivered in practice. A wine that celebrated all of the joy that traditional styles of Rioja evoke.

As with rosé Champagne, this was an incredibly versatile and food friendly wine that could be paired with a wide range of dishes from Spanish to Middle Eastern to Asian, and it would work equally well with fish, shellfish, poultry game and white meats. It was also universally enjoyed. Given the unstoppable rise in popularity of rosé over the last five or six years, it seems a real shame that Rioja has all but abandoned its unique and delicious styles of these wines.

I began the tasting by asking everyone what the word “Rioja” meant to them and most answered with variations upon the phrase “A Spanish red wine”. Hopefully they all went away with an appreciation that not only does the Rioja region offer four different red wines in a wide range of styles, it produces a correspondingly diverse range of white and rosé wines, too. If that wasn’t enough, Rioja is also one of the last bastions of aged wines that are widely available at prices that don’t only appeal to extravagant oligarchs. These are wines to treasure and they are wines that will continue to provide pleasure over many years.

A Star To Follow

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Recently, thanks to my very kind brother, I became an extremely grateful recipient of a bottle of Eglantine Vineyard’s North Star 2011 (10.5% ABV, £32.00/375ml) by way of The Wine Pantry at London’s Borough Market.

Founded in South Nottinghamshire in 1979 by Tony and Veronica Skuriat, Eglantine Vineyard sits on four acres of what is fundamentally their back garden. It is named after the small, sweet briar rose that grows in its hedgerows. Despite its modest size they grow a collection of over two hundred varieties of vine, although wine is produced from only six: Madeleine Angevine, Seyval, Regent, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Their annual production is approximately 6000 bottles and can include red, white and rosé still wines, two traditional method sparkling wines – one made from Madeleine Angevine and Seyval and one made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – and about 1000 half bottles of North Star. Not every wine is made every year; the line-up is entirely dependent upon the quality of the grapes that their 4000 vines yield. Alongside the wines, their apiary provides honey that can be purchased either in its natural state or transformed into a traditional, delicate style of mead and they also produce a rich, sweet cherry wine.

North Star is what Tony calls a “technical icewine”; it is made in the style of an icewine but it cannot legally be labelled as such. Icewine, or eiswein in German, is made from ultra ripe grapes that are left on the vine until winter temperatures drop below -7°C (-8°C in Canada) before being harvested. The low ambient temperature causes the water within the grapes to freeze and, by pressing them very gently, the ice crystals remain inside the grapes and an extremely sweet, concentrated juice is extracted. Icewines are made countries such as Germany, Austria and Canada where temperatures regularly drop to such low levels; elsewhere icewine-style wines are made by harvesting very ripe grapes and freezing them artificially as the local climate is very unlikely to freeze them unaided. Although the cryoextraction process is the same, only wines made from naturally frozen grapes can be marketed under the name of icewine – hence no mention of the term on the label of Eglantine’s North Star.

Eglantine Vineyard, North Star 2011

Eglantine Vineyard, North Star 2011

Due to the risks involved in leaving grapes on the vine for so long and in gambling on the weather, icewines tend to be both scarce and expensive. Although icewine-style wines can be produced much more reliably and regularly, similarly miniscule yields and highly labour intensive production methods mean they will never be inexpensive. However, there is very little difference in the quality of the wine produced using either of the two methods and the wines made from artificially frozen grapes should in no way be regarded as inferior, just as this particularly fine example proved.

Deep gold in colour, with an oily viscosity. The nose was richly honeyed and suggested bright mango fruit, white pepper spice, red apple skin, marmalade and a whiff of volatile acidity. Lusciously sweet and mouth coating, with very firm, mouthwatering acidity to balance. Similar mango, white pepper and marmalade flavours on the palate, along with tangy dried apricot and burnt sugar notes. What was probably a frighteningly high level of acidity ensured that the finish was as clean as a whistle with no trace of cloying sweetness. Very good indeed and a great example of what can be achieved with England’s cool climate, often highly acidic wine grapes, assuming that the weather plays ball and deigns to ripen them sufficiently.

Two Nations Divided By A Common Language

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I know that language can evolve through common usage and I’m prepared to bite my lip in most instances, but some things are simply wrong and cannot be overlooked. What does this have to do with a wine blog? Well, the grammatical faux pas in question relates to the word “variety”. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety; its blackcurrant flavour and its firm tannins are varietal characteristics. The -al suffix is appended to a noun to form an adjective. It means “of” or “pertaining to”. Cabernet Sauvignon is not, and never will be, a “varietal”.

This all too frequently encountered and all too rarely corrected error has now spread across the Atlantic from America and it’s about time that the use of this nonsensical grammatical construct is stamped out. Writers, bloggers and educators take note: this might well be language snobbery on my part but the use of an adjective as a noun is always wrong, no matter how many times you do it.

Rant over. I’ll let Weird Al have the last word:

Monks’ Magic And Bonkers Brewing

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Beer buff and blogger Matthew Gaughan shared his passion for Belgian and Belgian-inspired beers and offered an illuminating insight into their complex world. Although I don’t drink beer very often I’ve always enjoyed the Belgian beers I’ve tasted, albeit without knowing very much about what was in my glass.

The Full Line-Up Of Beers

The Full Line-Up Of Beers

Before looking at the specific characteristics of Belgian beers, it makes sense to have an appreciation of the beer brewing process and of the influence that each stage and each ingredient has upon the finished product. Beer has been brewed for at least 8000 years and its basic ingredients are water, a source of starch that can be fermented (usually a grain), yeast and a flavouring (such as hops) to offset the sweetness of the starch source.

The majority of beer is water and the differing mineral content of waters from different regions means they are better suited to certain styles of brewing. Dublin’s hard water is ideal for stout whereas the soft water of Pilsen makes excellent pale lager. The gypsum present in the water of Burton-Upon-Trent benefits the production of pale ales as it accentuates the flavour of the hops. For this reason brewers of pale ales elsewhere add gypsum to their water in a process known as Burtonisation.

Germinating Barley

Germinating Barley

Malted grain is the most commonly used source of starch for brewing beer, with malted barley usually making up the major proportion of the grain used. Grain is malted by soaking it in water and by allowing it to begin to germinate. Unlike the grapes used to make wine, grain contains starch rather than easily fermentable sugar and this starch must be converted into sugar before the beer can be made. Germination triggers the production of the enzyme amylase that facilitates this conversion, and much of the popularity of barley is due to its fibrous husk being a particularly rich source of amylase. The malted grain is dried in kiln to halt germination and the extent to which the grain is roasted directly affects the colour and flavour of the beer.

A Hop Flower Cone On The Vine

A Hop Flower Cone On The Vine

Hops, the flower cones of the hop vine, have several characteristics that brewers require: they provide a balancing degree of bitterness; they provide citrus, floral and herbaceous flavours; they have antibiotic effects on micro-organisms that might spoil the fermenting beer and they improve the lifespan of the beer’s foamy head. Before hops were widely cultivated beers were flavoured with plants and herbs, but from the thirteenth century the use of hops gradually took over.

Yeast is the single cell powerhouse responsible for fermentation. It does this by metabolising the sugars released by the malting process and converting them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation used to be performed by wild, airborne yeasts until the role of yeast was properly understood; the pure, cultured strains of yeast used today were pioneered by Carlsberg and were first introduced at its brewery in 1883. Aside from alcohol and carbon dioxide, yeast also supplies a great deal of flavour as it produces numerous flavour compounds during fermentation and maturation that include fruity, spicy and medicinal notes.

Having decided which ingredients to use, these now need to be transformed into beer. Once the barley has been malted and kilned, it is milled to expose the cotyledon at the core of each grain. This is where the majority of the grain’s carbohydrates and sugars are stored and milling makes them more easily accessible during mashing. The milled malt is mixed with hot water to create a cereal “mash” and the enzymes released during germination get to work on converting the grain’s starches into sugars in a process called saccharification. These sugars dissolve in the hot water of the mash forming a rich, sugary liquid known as “wort”.

The wort is strained (“lautering”) and is transferred to a large kettle where it is boiled with hops and any other herbs, spices or sugars the brewer desires. At this stage many important decisions about the colour, aroma and flavour of the beer are made. After the wort is boiled, most of the solid elements are allowed to settle out in a vessel known as a whirlpool before the liquid is rapidly cooled in a heat exchanger. Once the cooled wort reaches a temperature that is not too hot to kill the yeast, it goes into a fermentation tank where the yeast is added to allow the fermentation to begin.

There are three main methods of fermentation: warm, cool and wild or spontaneous. Brewing yeasts were traditionally classified as either top-fermenting or as bottom-fermenting because live yeast was collected from the top or bottom of the respective vessels of fermenting wort to use for the next batch of beer. Modern mycology discovered that these two collection methods actually involve two different species of yeast, each of which prefers a different range of ambient temperatures to work in. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same species of yeast used to make bread and wine, is the yeast species responsible for top-fermented beers and it operates at warmer temperatures (16°C and higher). Top-fermenting yeasts are used for ales, stouts porters, wheat beers and others. Although they are ready to drink within three weeks of the start of their fermentation, often they are conditioned or re-fermented in tank, cask or bottle for quite some time subsequently.

Saccharomyces pastorianus is the yeast used for bottom-fermented beers and it prefers to work in cooler temperatures (5-10°C). The fermentation is slower in this colder environment, producing fewer of the aromatic by-products found in warm ferments and resulting in a cleaner, crisper flavoured beer. Lager, which represents most beer produced today, is fermented before being conditioned or stored (“lagern” means “to store” in German) at a temperature close to freezing point for several weeks or months to mature until it is ready to drink.

It is said that top-fermented beers are flavoured by yeast, whereas bottom-fermented beers are flavoured by their ingredients. The fruity esters and spicy flavours produced by yeast that are apparent in ales are muted by cooler ferments and by the lagering process, highlighting their cereal and hop characters instead.

Wild or spontaneous fermentation is specific to the brewing of lambic beers in the Pajottenland region of Belgium and it progresses without the addition of cultured yeast. The worts are fermented in oak barrels by a wild yeast, Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and by up to eighty other micro-organisms native to the Zenne valley. To prevent spoilage by rampant microbes that flourish in the summer heat, lambics are fermented from October to May when the weather is cooler. In their purest form, lambics are flat as oak fermentation barrels do not retain sufficient pressure to force the carbon dioxide to dissolve into the beer. This unusual fermentation method provides lambic beers with their unique dry, vinous, cidery and sour character. Most lambics are blended and bottle conditioned to produce gueuze, re-fermented with morello cherries to produce kriek or re-fermented with other types of fruit to produce one of Belgium’s famous fruit lambics.

After its initial fermentation, beer is conditioned in various ways over varying periods of time, ranging from weeks to years. This can be either a maturation or ageing process (such as lagering) or it can involve a second or third fermentation in cask or bottle to boost the carbonation and to increase the complexity of the beer. Such cask or bottle conditioned beers can also then be aged to allow an evolution of their aromas and flavours.

The Belgians have retained more of their historic and idiosyncratic brewing traditions than any other country and their beers have inspired large numbers of brewers around the world.

Originally provinces of the southern Netherlands, the territory that was to become Belgium was successively ruled by the Spanish, by the Austrian Habsburgs, by the French and by the Dutch once again before eventually gaining independence in 1831. Post independence, the monasteries that were destroyed during the French revolution reopened and rebuilt their breweries. They produced beers from oats and wheat as well as from malted barley, in styles that ranged from sweet to dry to sour.

In 1919, a law was passed banning the sale of distilled spirits in bars and cafés that wasn’t rescinded until 1984. As a result, Belgian brewers upped the strength of their beers to meet the demand for more robust drinks. Around the same time, the Trappist monks began to brew complex, stronger beers to sell to support their work and these proved to be so popular that they were, and still are, widely imitated.

Most beer sold in Belgium is the same pilsner/lager style found the world over. When we talk of Belgian beers we refer to the stronger, top-fermented concoctions this small nation has made so famous. What, therefore, makes Belgian beers so distinctive? There is not one simple answer to this question as a number of factors are involved. One important factor is yeast. Over the course of centuries, brewers have traded strains of yeast between breweries and certain areas began to express what is best described as a terroir of fermentation. Top-fermenting yeasts produce rich, fruit and spice flavours as they work on the strong worts at the high fermentation temperatures often used in Belgium. Some Belgian beers may have a suggestion of sweetness, but they are generally fermented to leave very little residual sugar and they have relatively low levels of hoppy bitterness as this would overemphasise their dryness.

Malt is another facet of Belgian beer’s character. Many are made with pale, pilsner malt; wheat is used for witbiers and lambics; oats, spelt and other grains are also sometimes added. Spices such as coriander, star anise, black pepper, grains of paradise and orange peel can be used to provide background flavour. Unlike British and other dark beers, Belgian dark beers (dubbels) are not made with darkly roasted malt but with pilsner malt and very dark candi sugar, an inverted sugar in liquid form. Instead of providing the coffee and chocolate flavours of dark malt, the use of dark candi sugar gives dried fruit and crème brûlée notes. Because candi sugar is easily fermentable, beers brewed with it are often high in alcohol yet are deceptively easy to drink. Tripels and strong golden ales are made with paler coloured, less caramelised candi sugar that lightens the flavours of these strong beers whilst allowing them to ferment to dryness.

Bottle conditioning, the secondary fermentation method perfected by the Champenoise, gave bubbles to beer before wine and is used more in Belgium than anywhere else. Some Belgian beers are partially carbonated in tanks prior to bottling and to experiencing a degree of re-fermentation, but the best beers obtain all of their fizz during their period of bottle conditioning. These end up being highly carbonated giving them a copious, foamy head and a creamy, soft mousse. Often, Belgian beers are poured into brand specific, distinctively shaped glasses to preserve their aromatic complexity and their carbonation, but they should be poured carefully so as not to disturb the sediment of dead yeast cells that remains in the bottle after the secondary fermentation.

Within the realm of top-fermented Belgian beers reside a number of different styles and categories. Strong pale ales are the Belgian versions of the British India Pale Ales made at varying strengths and displaying fruitier, yeast-derived flavours rather than the malt and hop characters of their cross-Channel cousins.

Dubbel or double is a very popular and recognisable style of dark, strong Belgian beer invented by the Trappist Westmalle brewery. Made with dark candi sugar, dubbels are dry but can taste slightly sweet due to the restrained use of hops. Top examples are bottle conditioned, they generally have a strength of between 6.5 and 8% alcohol by volume (ABV) and they are very well balanced.

Tripel or triple is a strong, golden coloured ale first commercialised by the De Drie Linden brewery in 1932. The terms “dubbel” and “tripel” refer to the amount of malt with fermentable sugar and to the original gravity (a measure of the solids content) of the wort prior to fermentation. Made with up to 20% candi sugar, tripels have multiple additions of hops to balance their richness. Again, the best are bottle conditioned, range from 8 to 11% ABV and are dry, complex and highly carbonated. Despite their alcoholic content, they are very refreshing and they slip down with alarming ease.

Authentic Trappist Product Logo

Authentic Trappist Product Logo

Named after the La Trappe monastery in Normandy where the reform movement of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance was founded in 1664, the Trappist designation is an appellation – an indication of origin rather than a style of beer. This designation is protected by the International Trappist Association and this issues the authority to use the “Authentic Trappist Product” (ATP) logo. Of all the beers in the world, only eleven can use the name Trappist and only ten of them can carry the hexagonal ATP label; six of which are Belgian. Several strict criteria must be met for a beer to carry the ATP logo:

– the beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their direct supervision.
– the monastic community determines the policies and provides the means of production. The brewery must be of secondary importance to the work of the monastery itself and it must be run with business practices proper to a monastic way of life.
– the brewery cannot be a profit-making venture; income is used to cover the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the monastery grounds and buildings. Any profit must be used charitably to benefit the needs of the community or for social services.

Retfers is a lighter type of beer brewed by Trappist monks for their own consumption as the beers they brew to sell are rather strong and drinking them would interfere with their prayer and work. These are sometimes referred to as enkel or single, following the naming tradition set by dubbel and tripel beers. Dubbel and tripel are the styles of beer for which the Trappists are best known, but beers produced commercially in similar styles and connected to a religious order (even if only by name) are known as “Abbey beers”. Dubbel and tripel are terms that anyone can use for beers of the relevant style.

There are other production methods used for other styles of beer, both in Belgium and elsewhere, but it’s time to look at some fantastic examples of the styles I’ve mentioned.

De Koninck

De Koninck

1. De Koninck (5.2% ABV, £3.00/33cl)

Founded in Antwerp in 1833, De Koninck is now the only remaining brewery within the city and it was incorporated into the Duvel Moortgat group of breweries in 2010. This warm fermented (25-27°C) beer is made with organic Czech Saaz-Saaz hops and should be poured with a creamy head into a distinctive spherical De Koninck “bolleke” glass.

Deep amber with a toasty, malty, caramel and cocoa nose. Soft and creamily textured and not overly fizzy, the caramel and toasted malt characters from the nose carried through to the palate. A hint of spice and hoppy bitterness balanced the touch of sweetness, the finish had moderate length and overall it was a very easy drink, reminiscent of a British ale.

TicketyBrew Blonde

TicketyBrew Blonde

2. TicketyBrew Blonde (5.8% ABV, £2.50/33cl)

Inspired by many trips to Belgium and by a shared love of bottle conditioned beers, Duncan and Keri Barton founded TicketyBrew just over 18 months ago in the east Manchester town of Stalybridge. Their aim was to create interesting beers based upon the best brews from around the world, using Belgian yeasts to develop complex flavours.

A little more golden colour than the De Koninck, with a grassy, grapefruit citrus nose. Summery, floral and faintly smokey, with a touch of sweetness and fruitiness. Refreshing and very pleasant, but for me it just lacked a little bite and it finished a bit short.

Westmalle Trappist Tripel

Westmalle Trappist Tripel

3. Westmalle Trappist Tripel (9.5% ABV, £4.50/33cl)

The monastery in Westmalle (officially called Abdij Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van het Heilig Hart van Jezus) was founded on 6th June, 1794, eventually being elevated to the status of a Trappist abbey on 22nd April, 1836. That same year, abbot Martinus Dom constructed a small brewery to enable the monks to drink the popular beverage of Flanders with their meals. On 10th December, the monks drank their first Trappist beer with their lunch. This first beer was described as being light in alcohol and rather sweet.

Initially the monks consumed the entire production and it wasn’t until 1856 that they occasionally began to sell some beer at the abbey’s gates. By this time they had begun to brew a second beer, a strong, brown beer now considered to be the first dubbel. Demand increased quite quickly and the brewery was expanded, first in 1865 and again in 1897.

In 1921, the monks decided to sell their beers commercially and, in 1933, a completely new brewing hall, yeast room and workshop were constructed. A third style of beer was created in 1934 and, since their second beer was called a dubbel, they called this stronger, pale ale a tripel. The brewing facilities were computerised in 1991 and the latest bottling plant was added in 2000. Because the demands of the operation were taking so much of the monks’ time the majority of its workers are now secular staff, although this has not affected the quality or the ethos of the brewery.

This continues to ferment for three weeks after bottling and it will continue to change and evolve over several years. Gold in colour, the palest so far, and very slightly cloudy probably due to the way it was poured. White grapefruit citrus and coriander spice carry through from the nose into the soft, creamy, palate; a nice prickle of CO2 combined with a hoppy bitterness to keep it fresh and balanced. Complex, rich and with a long, dry finish – an archetypal strong pale ale. Excellent stuff!

Piraat

Piraat

4. Piraat (10.5% ABV, £5.00/33cl)

The history of the Brouwerij Van Steenberge in Ertvelde dates back to 1784, a time when many people brewed beer for their own consumption as it was safer to drink than water. The brewery thrived and, after the First World War in 1919, there was substantial investment in equipment and a number of beers were successfully introduced. In 1962, the decision was taken to refocus on top-fermented beers with secondary fermentation allowed to occur in the bottle. Piraat was added to the line-up in 1982 and it has been winning awards ever since.

This was a classic Belgian strong golden ale, a style pioneered by Duvel. Very foamy when poured, hence the shape of the Piraat glass which maintains the head and preserves the aromas as well as showing off the bright amber colour of the beer. Savoury and slightly tart on the nose; fresher, hoppier and spicier than the Westmalle. On the palate it was fizzier, livelier and more malty with a well judged hoppy bitterness. The sweetness of the alcohol balanced and softened the bitter, spicy and malty notes, giving a long and linear finish. Just as excellent as the Westmalle and I bought bottles of both of them there and then!

Duvel Tripel Hop 2012

Duvel Tripel Hop 2012

5. Duvel Tripel Hop 2012 (9.5% ABV, £15.00/75cl)

Jan-Léonard Moortgat and his wife founded their eponymous brewery in 1871, and their top-fermented beers were soon greatly appreciated both in their native town of Puurs and further afield. Even the Brussels bourgeoisie was won over.

The First World War brought Belgium into contact with England and also with its ales, and these inspired Jan-Léonard’s son Albert to create his own version. Wanting to use only the very best ingredients, Albert visited England to obtain the specific strain of yeast he required. The English brewers he visited were unwilling to provide him with the yeast sample he wanted, although his luck eventually changed when a Scottish brewery shared its yeast with him. Such was the value of this prize that the same strain of yeast is still used to brew Duvel to this day.

It was in 1923 that local shoemaker, Mr. Van Der Wouwer, was so impressed by the aroma of this innovative new beer that he exclaimed, “This is a real devil (duvel)!” The name stuck, despite the devoutly Catholic nature of the Flanders region at that time.

In the late 1960s, the third generation of Moortgats decided that their unique beer deserved a unique glass and the Duvel glass was born. This was the first tulip shaped beer glass, able to hold the contents of an entire 33cl bottle with a rounded base to best present the complex flavours and a narrow top to retain the carbonation and preserve the head. Not only are these glasses still offered for sale by the fourth generation of the Moortgat family who now run the company, but its design has been imitated by brewers of similar styles of beer.

Noticing a trend for more hoppy beers, Duvel originally brewed a limited release triple hop beer in 2007, then again in 2010. These original versions were made with the two varieties of hop usually used for Duvel, Saaz-Saaz and Styrian Golding, before being dry-hopped with a third variety: Amarillo. Dry-hopping involves the adding of hops again after the main fermentation, extracting the intense aromas and flavours of whichever variety is used. From 2012, it was decided that a different type of hop would be used each year for this dry-hopping process. The Citra hop, developed as recently as 2007 and cultivated solely in Washington State, was chosen for this particular vintage and it is renowned for its pronounced grapefruit character.

Strongly perfumed, displaying bright aromas of tropical fruit, pithy grapefruit and coriander seed. Equally distinctive on the dry palate, with all of the hoppy bitterness you might expect. It is possibly because of the dryness resulting from the pronounced use of hops that the alcohol was a little more noticeable than it had been in any of the previous beers tasted. Not at all unpleasant and what I can only describe as a very international style of beer. To use a wine analogy, it most closely resembled a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in that its tropical pungency would make for a brilliant apéritif but I would struggle to pair it with food.

Saison Dupont

Saison Dupont

6. Saison Dupont (6.5% ABV, £3.50/33cl)

Saisons (“seasons”) are hearty farmhouse ales, traditionally brewed over the winter to be drunk by the farm labourers during the hot summer months. As a result, saisons are very dry and refreshing beers with fruity, spicy complexity. The signature spiciness of this saison is believed to be the action of Brasserie Dupont’s unique strain of top-fermenting yeast which operates at temperatures as high as 35°C and which some people believe to be a red wine yeast that has been adapted to beer fermentation.

Golden coloured, with an unusual savoury, spicy and smokey nose that most reminded me of lightly smoked frankfurters. Bready aromas also emerged in the glass. The palate, too, had a bready character with caraway and black pepper very noticeable on the finish. The hoppy, spicy character has led to this beer becoming very popular in America recently, with one publication even hailing it to be the best beer in the world. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it was extremely drinkable.

Trappistes Rochefort 6

Trappistes Rochefort 6

7. Trappistes Rochefort 6 (7.5% ABV, £4.00/33cl)

Located inside the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy, near the town of Rochefort, the Trappist monks have been brewing beer since 1595. The current brewery was founded in 1899 and it is not open to the public – the monks are very secretive about their processes, hence very little information is known. Approximately fifteen monks reside at the abbey and the beer is brewed with water drawn from a well within the monastery itself. It is said that all three of the Rochefort beers are brewed to the same recipe and that it is only the conditioning that differs, thereby altering the flavour profile and increasing the alcoholic content.

Deep gold in colour with a mealy, malty nose. There was a degree of sweetness to the palate with a baking spice complexity – spiced rather than spicy. Smooth and very well balanced with a floral and malt loaf character to the long, semi-dry finish. This would be ideal with mature cheese or a selection of hearty Belgian pâtés.

Cantillon Gueuze

Cantillon Gueuze

8. Cantillon Gueuze (5% ABV, £6.00/75cl)

A gueuze is a traditional Belgian beer, a blend of young and old lambics which are bottled and aged for a further two to three years to produce a drier, fruitier more intense brew. Because the young lambics are not fully fermented, the blended beer contains fermentable sugars that allow a second fermentation to occur, producing CO2 and carbonating the beer.

Brasserie-Brouwerij Cantillon was founded by Paul Cantillon in 1900, and it has long been the sole remaining brewery within the city of Brussels. In its first 114 years of operation, the only major change to production methods was a switch to organic ingredients in 1999. In true traditional style, Cantillon makes lambics from two thirds malted barley and one third unmalted wheat which are spontaneously fermented in open topped, attic-mounted vats, aged in oak barrels, blended, bottled and then refermented in bottle for a year. This combination of blending, carbonation through secondary fermentation in bottle and wine-like complexity of flavour has resulted in the nickname of “Brussels Champagne”. Gueuze makes up half of Cantillon’s production and these beers are remarkably age worthy, apparently improving (or becoming even stranger, depending upon your perspective) for up to twenty years. Fourth generation brewer at Cantillon, Jean-Pierre Van Roy, has owned the company since 2011.

The gold colour was about the only aspect of this beer that wasn’t a surprise. The nose had a sweet, sour and spice character that really reminded me of tomato ketchup, with a fruity, funky, wild and acetic edge thanks to the work of Brettanomyces and all sorts of other yeasts and micro-organisms. The palate was very dry, not hoppy but tart and appley – almost cider-like – with a faint savoury, saline quality. This absolutely needed to be served with food; a ploughman’s lunch would have been ideal. Unexpected, totally bizarre and rather divisive – I have to say that I really quite enjoyed it, although I’m quite happy to admit that this could have been my perverse streak getting the better of me!

Overall, I have to commend Matthew for selecting a very interesting cross section of styles of Belgian (and Belgian-inspired) beers. It is unlikely that I would have tried many of these of my own accord and I greatly enjoyed them all. When I drank them again subsequently the Piraat and the Westmalle were just as good as I remembered them to be, and I even confirmed to myself that I actually did really enjoy the wild, challenging Cantillon when I ordered it recently in a local Belgian beer bar. Not only will I be drinking these beers again in the future, I’ve been inspired to try similar styles of beer from Belgium and from around the world.

Try Hanging Ditch for most of these beers, but I’ve recently purchased the Cantillon Gueze from the excellent The Beer Emporium in Sandbach where you can also sit and enjoy a bottle of anything that takes your fancy. For a great night out, head to the Belgian Bar and/or Pi (Altrincham) – they are within metres of one another – and grab a bite to eat in the excitingly refurbished Market House between the two. My tips are the amazing wood-fired oven pizzas from Honest Crust, baked delights from Wolfhouse Kitchen or a meaty treat from Tender Cow. Keep the beer theme going by washing it all down with a pint of something interesting from Jack In The Box or visit my good friends at Reserve Wines and try a glass or two of whatever they have on offer. No need to recommend any specific wines, they’re all good.

I❤NY

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Given that most non-Americans are unaware that New York is a state as well as a city, imagine how few people know that New York State is producing some really exciting wines.

Sue Chambers, founder of Wine Equals Friends, recently visited Hanging Ditch with a selection of her wares, carefully sourced from some of New York State’s finest vineyards. I had previously tried a few wines from the Finger Lakes area and I had enjoyed them, whereas the wines of Long Island were all new to me and I was keen to learn more.

Initially sourcing high quality, small production wines to sell to friends, Sue’s business grew rapidly. However, it was a close friendship with a native Long Islander and regular visits there that introduced her to the vinous bounty of the region. Sue’s fortuitous meeting with Susan Spence of the New York Wine And Grape Foundation in 2010 highlighted the qualitative leaps forward that region’s winemakers had taken since her first introduction to their wines a decade earlier, and the idea to specialise in importing them to the UK quickly germinated in her mind. She has recently added a selection of top Finger Lakes wines to her Long Island offerings, forming a comprehensive portfolio of New York State’s brightest and best.

From Long Island in the southeast to Lake Erie and Niagara Escarpment in the northwest, New York offers a great diversity of climates, soils, grape varieties and styles of wine. All of the state’s viticultural areas have climates that are moderated by large bodies of water. Because large volumes of water are slow to warm up and to cool down, their temperatures remain relatively constant and they provide a flow of warm air during the harsh winters and cooling breezes over the course of the hot, muggy summers. The Atlantic Ocean and the Long Island Sound protect the vineyards of Long Island and the size of the Finger Lakes iron out the seasonal extremes of temperature in that region.

Map of the Finger Lakes AVA

Map of the Finger Lakes AVA

Established in 1982, Finger Lakes is the most diverse of New York’s viticultural areas with over thirty grape varieties planted. There are eleven Finger Lakes, each extending south from region’s “palm” north of Geneva. These long, narrow fingers were gouged out by ancient glaciers that moved south from Hudson Bay, leaving behind limestone and other mineral deposits conducive to growing high acidity grape varieties such as Riesling.

Four of the lakes play key roles in grape growing – Seneca, Cayuga, Keuka and Canandaigua – with vines planted in shale soils on the hillsides that slope down to the waters. The gradients of these slopes and the proximity of the lakes prevent cold air from settling on the vineyards thereby greatly reducing the incidence of frost, but rains during the growing season can be problematic. Riesling rules in the Finger Lakes, although other hardy, cold-resistant white varieties also thrive. Thanks to the cool, damp climate, success with red grape varieties is much more hit and miss. Whilst native Vitis labrusca vines and hybrid grape varieties were the foundation of the area’s wine production, Vitis vinifera varieties, particularly Riesling, are very much the future. Although the Seneca Lake A.V.A. was only created in 2003, Riesling has been grown there since being planted by Hermann J. Wiemer after he arrived from Germany in the 1960s. The first five wines tasted were all from Seneca Lake.

Map of the Long Island AVA

Map of the Long Island AVA

Often referred to as New York’s Bordeaux thanks to the quality of Cabernet Franc and Merlot grown there, Long Island extends eastwards from New York City 120 miles into the Atlantic. The general Long Island A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area) contains within it two sub-A.V.A.s: the exclusive Hamptons on the island’s South Fork and the more rural North Fork which historically supplied Manhattan with much of its fresh produce. Most of the vineyards are found on the North Fork, primarily due to the significantly more profitable use of land in the Hamptons for building houses and holiday homes upon.

As is also the case with Washington State on America’s west coast, the style of Long Island’s wines falls pleasingly between the fruitiness of those from California and the structure and elegance of those from Europe. The final wines of the evening were produced by two of Long Island’s top estates.

Tierce, Dry Riesling 2011

Tierce, Dry Riesling 2011

1. Tierce, Dry Riesling 2011 (12.2% ABV, £35)
200 cases made

Tierce Dry Riesling is a unique collaboration between three of New York State’s top winemakers: Peter Bell of Fox Run Vineyards, Johannes Reinhardt of Anthony Road Winery and David Whiting of Red Newt Cellars. All three of these wineries are situated on the shores of Seneca Lake but each has its own distinct terroir. Born in 2004 from a curiosity as to whether or not they could make a better wine together than they could individually, each winemaker makes his own wines before the three of them sit down to determine the best possible blend of their efforts. They’ve been quoted as saying that they look to create an austere style of Riesling, talking about difficult to quantify characteristics such as minerality, electricity and tension. One third (“tierce” in Latin) of the final blend comes from each of the producers.

Even by New York State’s standards production is tiny, barely amounting to 300 cases per year, despite which it is regularly regarded as one of North America’s best dry Rieslings. Indeed, the 2010 vintage was served by Senator Charles E. Schumer at the Presidential Inaugural Luncheon in January, 2103.

Lime juice and kerosene nose with a hint of honeyed, toasty maturity. Dry, lean and linear, with an elegant richness (12g/l of residual sugar). Fresh, precise, chalky lime fruit, a very slight vegetal note and an excellent length. Very good indeed and not too far off the complexity of a German Grosses Gewächs.

Red Newt Cellars, Dry Riesling 2011

Red Newt Cellars, Dry Riesling 2011

2. Red Newt Cellars, Dry Riesling 2011 (10.2% ABV, £22.50)
1150 cases made

This Seneca Lake winery was founded in 1998 by David Whiting and his wife Debra, a nationally acclaimed and award winning chef who tragically died in a car accident in 2011. Such is his passion for their shared dream that David continues to run Red Newt and he has just donned his chef’s whites to take charge of the estate’s culinary programme. He is more than capably assisted by his Harvard graduate winemaker, Kelby Russell.

Slightly riper on the nose than the above wine, with a hint of green apple mingling with the lime character. A touch of residual sugar (13g/l) gave the palate a rounder feel, but it was balanced by plenty of fresh acidity and it finished dry. Lighter bodied than the Tierce, displaying more of the apple fruit that the nose suggested. Not quite the length and precision of the greatest Rieslings, but a very enjoyable drink nonetheless.

Fox Run Vineyards, Doyle Family Vineyard Chardonnay 2012

Fox Run Vineyards, Doyle Family Vineyard Chardonnay 2012

3. Fox Run Vineyards, Doyle Family Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 (12% ABV, £17.50)
91% Chardonnay, 9% Traminette
2000 cases made

Although Fox Run and its fifty acres of vineyards sit on Torrey Ridge on the western shore of Seneca Lake, it also produces wines from other exceptional sites around the lake. On the eastern side of the lake, the Doyle Family Vineyard is one such plot and it boasts some of the oldest plantings of Chardonnay in New York State.

Sweet white stone fruit notes, pithy lemon fruit and a lactic, faintly cheesy edge to the nose. Dry yet soft and ripe thanks to the Traminette and to a hint of residual sugar; with a subtle creaminess from six months of lees contact. Gently smokey, lemon and grapefruit pith citrus fruit, notes of pear and sweet baking spices and a refreshing acidity. A very pretty and appealing wine, in a highly approachable style.

Red Tail Ridge, Good Karma 2009

Red Tail Ridge, Good Karma 2009

4. Red Tail Ridge, Good Karma 2009 (12% ABV, £20)
82% Riesling, 18% Chardonnay
946 cases made

This 35 acre vineyard on the western shore of Seneca Lake specialises in limited production wines from Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and is experimenting with the viability of less well known, cooler climate, European red grape varieties such as Teroldego, Lagrein, Dornfelder and Blaufränkisch. These could well have the potential to produce high quality red wines in the cool Finger Lakes region where ripeness can often be an issue.

Sustainability and environmental awareness are at the heart of Red Tail Ridge’s operations, from the green design of the winery that minimises its carbon footprint to carefully thought out viticultural practices that reduce the need for chemical treatments and increase the vineyards’ health. These include the use of biopesticides, biological control agents and integrated pest management systems to control pests and diseases; allelopathic cover crops to inhibit weed growth and to replenish the soil’s nutrients; and, thanks to vines being planted in laser-plotted straight lines, mechanised weed cutters can be employed to eliminate herbicide use and minimise soil compaction.

Economic sustainability is also important to Red Tail Ridge as the health and wellbeing of the local community can only help their business to thrive. The estate’s main community outreach project is the donation of ten percent of the gross profit from sales of Good Karma to Foodlink in Rochester, New York. Foodlink uses the funds to supply food to food banks and is also involved with teaching children about nutrition in local schools. In 2012, this became a national project with funds being distributed within the state that the bottles are sold.

Made by owners Mike Schnelle and his wife Nancy Irelan, the former Vice President of Viticulture and Oenology Research and Development for Gallo, it’s no surprise that this wine was a real crowd pleaser. An unusual blend of Riesling and Chardonnay with 28g/l of residual sugar, this ticked a lot of boxes for many people.

Smokey and toasty, with ripe bruised apple fruit on the nose. The palate boasted a very firm acidity to balance its medium sweetness. The lime, apple and peach fruit had a smokey and pithy edge to it. Rather than adding too much of its own character, the Chardonnay served to soften the intensity of the Riesling’s lime fruit. Lovely and far too easy to drink, this would be ideal with all manner of spicy foods.

Lamoreaux Landing, Cabernet Franc 2010

Lamoreaux Landing, Cabernet Franc 2010

5. Lamoreaux Landing, Cabernet Franc 2010 (13.4% ABV, £31.50)
419 cases made

Situated on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake and named after a local steamboat landing, this estate has been growing grapes since the fifties although it was not until the 1990s that it began to make wine. Lamoreaux Landing now controls over 100 acres of vineyards separated into over twenty different vineyard blocks.

Earthy, leafy blackcurrant aromas with white pepper spice and a stoney minerality. Dry and perfumed on the palate, with nicely judged sweet American oak notes balanced by firm acidity and dark blackcurrant fruit. The long finish was a little oaky at this stage, but that should mellow in time. Attractive now, but will keep.

Paumanok Vineyards, Assemblage 2007

Paumanok Vineyards, Assemblage 2007

6. Paumanok Vineyards, Assemblage 2007 (13.5% ABV, £40)
69% Merlot, 22% Petit Verdot, 9% Cabernet Franc
560 cases made (10% under screwcaps)

Paumanok, the native American name for Long Island, was founded at the western end of the island’s north fork in 1983 by Ursula and Charles Massoud. Their eldest son, Kareem, is now the winemaker on this 103 acre estate and he is a hardline exponent of screwcaps, arguing passionately in favour of the winery’s decision to invest in a Stelvin bottling line back in 2008. Almost all of Paumanok’s wines are now sealed with screwcaps; only a small percentage of its top tier of wines is sealed with cork to give customers a choice.

So good was the 2007 vintage on Long Island and Paumanok’s often difficult to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon was of such high quality that it was bottled as separate cuvée. As a result, the 2007 Assemblage ended up being a right bank Bordeaux style blend instead of its usual left bank style which would have seen Cabernet Sauvignon sharing star billing with Merlot. The blend was matured for 14 months in French oak, half of which was new.

Gently leafy, earthy and tobacco scented, with sweet oak spice and ripe Merlot fruit on the nose. The dry, rather full bodied palate displayed dark bramble fruit and creamy, rich oak and reasonably high balancing acidity. Complex, long and very competently made but for my taste it just lacked a little excitement, although I’m probably being hypercritical. Certainly not a disappointing wine for the money.

Wolffer Estate, Diosa Late Harvest 2011

Wolffer Estate, Diosa Late Harvest 2011

7. Wölffer Estate, Diosa Late Harvest 2011 (9.5% ABV, £40/37.5cl)
69% Chardonnay, 14% Gewurztraminer, 10% Vignoles, 7% Trebbiano
554 cases made

Hamburg-born entrepreneur Christian Wölffer was most at home at his Eastern Long Island estate in the Hamptons. In 1978, he purchased a 14-acre parcel consisting of an old farmhouse surrounded by potato fields and, by 1987, he had founded his vineyard on adjacent land. Today, what was originally a weekend getaway spans 175 acres and includes the acclaimed 55 acre Wölffer Estate Vineyard and the very highly regarded 100 acre Wölffer Estate Stables.

Experiencing conditions very similar to those found in Bordeaux, Wölffer Estate’s loam soil and the maritime breezes from the nearby Atlantic are perfect for providing a balance of ripeness and acidity and result in an elegant, European influenced style of wine. Many passes through the vineyards were required to hand pick individual grapes over a six week period from September to November in order to catch them at the point of optimum ripeness and before botrytis or mould set in. The grapes were stored at 11°F (approximately -12°C) until the harvest was completed before being pressed whilst frozen to obtain a concentrated and very sweet juice. Mimicking the process of making a natural eiswein or icewine where the grapes are left on the vine until wintertime and are only harvested when ambient temperatures drop below -7°C, this method of cryoextraction removes a substantial element of risk from the equation. It also allows winemakers to produce a style of wine that their local climates would not otherwise permit them to make.

Rich, honeyed, dried pineapple fruit on the nose with a touch of volatility from the huge acidity. Equally rich and intense on the palate; concentrated, luscious and sweet (211g/l of residual sugar) honey and pure, bright tropical fruit flavours were balanced by very substantial acidity. Long and very fresh for such a weighty, sweet wine, and not at all cloying. Lively and youthful, this has a long life ahead of it.

These are all handcrafted wines from what are essentially boutique wineries. As a result, quantities are tiny and prices are on the high side, but don’t let either of these factors dissuade you from seeking out these wines and trying them. They are well worth it.

All maps courtesy of the The World Atlas Of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson.

 

All White On The Night

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Another enjoyable evening of tasting and talking with Ben and the gang brought these little gems to my attention. It’s always nice to share good news, so toddle off to Hanging Ditch and treat yourself to these tempting whites.

Champagne Collard-Picard, Cuvée Prestige NV

Champagne Collard-Picard, Cuvée Prestige NV

1. Champagne Collard-Picard, Cuvée Prestige NV (12.5% ABV, 50% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier, £90 en magnum)

A find of Ben’s and one of which he is justifiably proud. Founded as recently as 1996, albeit by scions of existing Champagne houses, the estate boasts 15 hectares of vineyards in the Vallée de la Marne (planted with Pinots Noir and Meunier) and the Côte des Blancs (planted with Chardonnay). Collard-Picard is notable not only for being such a young house but also for its use of oak to mature its wines.

A savoury nose of toast and lemon citrus, with a gently honeyed element from a degree of maturity. The fine bead matched the agreeable mousse, and the toasty autolytic and bright lemon characters from the nose carried through into the relatively full bodied palate. Firm acidity balanced the weight of fruit, and again a honey and nutty richness suggested a portion of library wines in the blend. The long finish had an intriguing dusting of nutmeg spice. Distinguished, lively and very competently made.

Château Civrac, Wild White 2012

Château Civrac, Wild White 2012

2. Château Civrac, Wild White 2012 (12.5% ABV, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, £12.50)

Château Civrac isn’t a typical Bordeaux estate: it was founded by Cornishman Mark Hellyar with the aim of giving the wines of the region something of a modern makeover. Although the château is actually situated in the Côtes De Bourg, the grapes for this wine come from the Côtes De Duras a little further to the southeast.

A firmly herbaceous, tomato leaf nose with a sweetly floral note. Dry with fresh acidity, yet softly textured thanks to a touch of residual sugar. Savoury green fruits, minerally and with a bitter pithy/nettley edge; for early and very enjoyable drinking. The contemporary styling of this mono-varietal white Bordeaux also extended to its packaging: a Burgundian shape of bottle so commonly used by Kiwi winemakers for their hugely popular Sauvignon Blanc wines.

Birichino, Malvasia Bianca 2012

Birichino, Malvasia Bianca 2012

3. Birichino, Malvasia Bianca 2012 (13% ABV, 100% Malvasia Bianca, £20.00)

Sharing over forty years of winemaking experience in both the old and the new worlds, Alex Krause and John Locke founded Birichino in Santa Cruz in 2008. With their stated and righteous aim of wanting “to impart the wonderment and excitement we have about wine to our public, and eat some good cheese”, they are not averse to also adding a little joy to the world. Seeking a name which highlighted a degree of playfulness for things about which they were deadly serious, and inspired by the surprising, slighty racy character of their first wine, the Malvasia Bianca that coquettishly lets you think it is sweet before delivering something else entirely, they eventually hit upon Birichino, meaning naughty in Italian.

Sourcing their grapes from vineyards with moderate, marine influenced climates, predominantly planted with ungrafted vines dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Alex and John are passionate about preserving the quality and integrity of their raw ingredients. This philosophy carries through to their minimal intervention style of winemaking: often favouring natural yeasts, avoiding the use of new oak and manhandling their wines as little as possible.

A ripe, exotic, almost Gewürztraminer-like nose of Turkish delight, roses and sweet baking spices lead into a palate that retained the richness hinted at by the nose whilst remaining dry. Floral and spiced with a green leafiness to it – Matthew adroitly suggested mint – and a viscosity again similar to Gewürztraminer. Pleasing acidity kept things lively, the alcohol was not at all intrusive and the finish was long and spicy. A distinctive, well balanced and very good value white wine, a particularly impressive feat for California.

Love Is All You Need

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The always affable and amusing Robert Steel visited Reserve in Didsbury recently with an interesting and enjoyable assortment of Italian wines from his portfolio. For The Love Of Wine was founded by his father, Ian, after an enlightening trip to Italy. Specialising originally in Italian wines from artisan family producers, they also offer a comprehensive selection of Swiss wines. Indeed, I will always be grateful to them for allowing me the opportunity to taste a rare, white Merlot from Ticino whilst researching an essay on the variety that I had to write as part of my WSET Diploma studies.

Italy was the focus of this tasting and Robert had chosen to compare a selection of white wines from the cooler north of the country with a selection of red wines from the hotter south. This is the list of wines we tasted:

Vincenzo Toffoli, Prosecco Superiore Rive Di Refrontolo Spumante Brut Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Millesimato

Vincenzo Toffoli, Prosecco Superiore Rive Di Refrontolo Spumante Brut Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Millesimato

1. Vincenzo Toffoli, Prosecco Superiore Rive Di Refrontolo Spumante Brut Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Millesimato (12.5% ABV, 100% Glera, £16.50)

What better way to start a tasting of cooler climate northern Italian white wines than with northern Italy’s coolest white of the moment, Prosecco?

To escape the economic hardships of post-war Italy, newly married Vincenzo Toffoli emigrated to England in the early 1950s where he worked for twelve years and where his son Santi was born. Upon his return to Italy he purchased a small farm in Refrontolo, his wife’s hometown, 45km north of Venice and 10km from Conegliano. In 1964 he founded the estate that bears his name, and which today is run by his three sons.

A light and bright pear, stone fruit and white blossom nose; off dry with a soft mousse, balanced by a hint of pithy bitterness with a savoury, mineral edge. Elegant and refined, with a pleasingly long finish.

Castelfeder, Lahn Kerner Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT 2012

Castelfeder, Lahn Kerner Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT 2012

2. Castelfeder, Lahn Kerner Vigneti Delle Dolomiti IGT 2012 (13% ABV, 100% Kerner, £13.99)

Castelfeder was founded as recently as 1970 by Alfons Giovanett. Alfons’ son, Günther, took over upon his retirement in 1989 and today runs the winery alongside his own children, Ines and Ivan.

Alto-Adige is the northernmost region of Italy. Lying in the Alps, it is famed for its steep vineyards some of which sit at altitudes of up to 3600 metres. This positioning is also responsible for the region’s climate: its cold winters and hot summers, along with its substantial diurnal temperature variation, are conducive to the cultivation of a wide variety of different grape varieties and to the production of some very high quality wines.

Once a part of Germany, this history is still reflected in much of Alto-Adige’s culture. Many of the grape varieties grown here are Germanic in origin and the wines often display a focus and purity that is more typically Teutonic than Italian. Indeed, Kerner is a crossing of the German grape varieties Trollinger and Reisling. Although it displays flavours similar to those of Riesling, it is fuller bodied, more aromatic and has lower acidity. It is a more tolerant, easier to grow variety than Riesling and it can give much higher yields.

Savoury, nutty and citrussy on the nose with a white blossom note. Dry with a saline minerality and fresh acidity, lovely lemon zest and pith citrus fruit, slightly extracted and with a streak of tropical fruit richness. A beautiful, long, rich and drying finish. Complex and distinctive.

Marziano Abbona, Tistin Roero Arneis DOCG 2012

Marziano Abbona, Tistin Roero Arneis DOCG 2012

3. Marziano Abbona, Tistin Roero Arneis DOCG 2012 (13% ABV, 100% Arneis, £15.99)

Coincidentally also established in 1970, Azienda Agricola Abbona’s first vineyard was planted over sixty years ago by Celso Abbona, although it was his son, Marziano, who established the winery and built upon the founding work of his father. Although only a relatively small producer, Abbona has an excellent reuptation for the quality of its roster of big name Piemontese wines.

Despite being different in character, Arneis shares many similarities with the northern Rhône variety Viognier. In Piemonte, white wines had always taken a back seat to reds and were usually relegated to less desireable vineyard sites. Arneis was sometimes planted amongst Nebbiolo vines as its sweetly scented grapes distracted hungry pests away from its more valuable red neighbours. This “field blend” also benefitted the finished wines as a small percentage of Arneis helped to soften Nebbiolo’s firm tannins, mirroring the Syrah-Viognier relationship found in Côte Rotie.

By the late 1960s, in the face of increasing focus upon Nebbiolo, plantings of this historic variety had dwindled to just a few hectares owned by two producers. The tireless work of Alfredo Currado of the Vietti family, one of these two producers, is primarily responsible for the reversal of Arneis’ fortunes. Although low yielding and not always easy to grow, plantings of Arneis have increased substantially in Roero and Langhe and a little is now being grown further afield in California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand.

A delicate floral, white fruit and slightly chalky nose with a hint of toasted hazelnut that was almost cocoa-like. The palate, too, was dry, fresh, floral and white fruited, again with that faint hint of hazelnut/cocoa bitterness and a lovely minerality. The rich yet drying finish had a fine length and there was a touch of peppery spritz to the ending.

Celli, I Croppi Albana Di Romagna Secco DOCG 2011

Celli, I Croppi Albana Di Romagna Secco DOCG 2011

4. Celli, I Croppi Albana Di Romagna Secco DOCG 2011 (14% ABV, 100% Albana, £11.99)

Albana Di Romagna Secco was the first white wine in Italy to be granted the prestigious D.O.C.G. status back in 1987 and, although many other wines were arguably more deserving of this honour, there can be no question that this is a wine worthy of your attention. Introduced by the Romans, Albana is grown in Romagna primarily around the town of Bertinoro. Folklore has it that in 435 A.D. Galla Placidia, the beautiful daughter of Emperor Theodosius, rode into town on her white mare and the hospitable villagers offered her the local, sweet Alabana wine in a humble terracotta cup. Her response, “Non di così rozzo calice sei degno, o vino, ma di berti in oro” (Not from so rough a chalice should you be drunk, o wine, but drunk from gold) gave rise to the name of the village.

Much more likely, but far less romantic, is the suggestion that the name of the town is derived from an ancient brotherhood of Briton monks (the Britannorum) who were permitted to settle in the area by Otto III in around 1000 A.D.. However, the people of Bertinoro hold dear the exclamation of Galla Placidia and to this day they pride themselves on their reputation for offering hospitality to visitors passing through the town.

Deep golden in colour; honeyed, nutty and gently smokey on the nose, complex and unusual. The palate was dry but rich and full bodied, displaying honey sweetness rather than any type of fruit character. Extracted, with talc-fine, drying tannins and a long, long ripe finish that had just a hint of warmth from the alcohol. Intriguing and enjoyable.

Cantina Sampietrana, Tacco Barocco Primitivo Salento IGT 2011

Cantina Sampietrana, Tacco Barocco Primitivo Salento IGT 2011

5. Cantina Sampietrana, Tacco Barocco Primitivo Salento IGT 2011 (13.5% ABV, 100% Primitivo, £10.99)

After the Second World War, the mechanisation of Italian agriculture and governmental land reforms that redistributed vacant land enabled the formation of farming co-operatives such as Cantina Sociale Sampietrana. Based in San Pietro Vernotico, between the provinces of Brindisi and Lecce in Puglia, Cantina Sampietrana was founded in 1952 with just 8000 square metres of land located right next to Italy’s main north-south railway line.

In the proceeding sixty years, Cantina Sampietrana has preserved and promoted its regional traditions whilst allowing smaller growers to pool their resources to take advantage of the opportunities offered by an international marketplace. Today, the vineyard holdings of its members is spread over 190 hectares. Although perfectly maintained since its construction, the original winery saw a €2 million upgrade in 2002 and the new hi-tech, eco-friendly facilities boosted its ability to produce high quality wines.

Rich and ripe, with dried fruits (raisins, figs and prunes) and peppery spice on the nose; soft, sweet and inviting. Spicy, with blue fruits and dried fig flavours on the palate, balanced by soft tannins, moderate acidity and a lick of oak. More Zinfandel-esque than many a Primitivo I’ve tried previously, but much of my experience of this variety dates back to a time before the genetic link to California’s adopted grape was played upon quite so heavily. A touch earthy, but easy and enjoyable to drink.

Villa Schinosa, Aglianico Rosso Puglia IGT 2008

Villa Schinosa, Aglianico Rosso Puglia IGT 2008

6. Villa Schinosa, Aglianico Rosso Puglia IGT 2008 (13.5% ABV, 100% Aglianico, £13.99)

Corrado Capece Minutolo, the last surviving heir of an aristocratic Napolitano family, followed his heart and left the city to return to his historic seat near Trani to continue the work of his forebears. He oversaw a complete replanting of the vineyards, renovated the nineteenth century cellars and introduced the latest equipment into the winery with the aim of producing and bottling top quality wines rather than selling off the estate’s produce in bulk as had happened until then.

Although not averse to international varieties, Corrado decided to focus upon the potential and the peculiarities of indigenous southern Italian grapes to win fans both at home and abroad. Aglianico is an ancient and noble grape variety, long cultivated in Puglia and across the south, and was a logical choice for Villa Schinosa to concentrate on.

A dry, dark berry fruit and cedar scented nose with elegant earthy notes. Dry, too, on the palate with firm acidity and moderate tannins. Delightful sweet, ripe berry fruit with a smokey, toasty element, a touch of savoury earthiness and a dusting of black pepper and clove spice to round things off. Developed and elegant; long and fresh.

Cantine Carpentiere, Pietra Dei Lupi Castel Del Monte Rosso DOC 2005

Cantine Carpentiere, Pietra Dei Lupi Castel Del Monte Rosso DOC 2005

7. Cantine Carpentiere, Pietra Dei Lupi Castel Del Monte Rosso DOC 2005 (13% ABV, 100% Nero Di Troia, £16.99)

Situated in Corato on the Murge Plateau, Cantine Carpentiere sits in a spectacular and historic area of Puglia. Less than 2km from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Castel Del Monte and surrounded by an impressive array of flora and fauna, it is these oak forests and their foxes and wolves that lead to the development of the region’s unique jazzi. Built as a temporary shelter for transhumant livestock and their herders, a jazzo is a dry stone enclosure that is notable for its pietre dei lupi or paralupi, a crowning frieze of horizontally mounted stone slabs that denied access to predators. The name Pietra Dei Lupi (“Stone Of Wolves”) and the label’s illustration of several of them in situ along the wall of a jazzo that still overlooks the vineyard are links to an unbroken history of habitation in the region that dates back to the Stone Age.

Initially quite funky/farmyardy on the nose, but this receded to display black fruits with cocoa/dark chocolate aromas and a hint of coffee underneath. The nose was actually quite Bordeaux-like in the end. Dry, with tannins to the fore, moderate to firm acidity and rich dark fruit. Long and drying out a little, but lovely nonetheless.

Cantina Sampietrana, Iussum Negroamaro Salento IGT 2008

Cantina Sampietrana, Iussum Negroamaro Salento IGT 2008

8. Cantina Sampietrana, Iussum Negroamaro Salento IGT 2008 (14.5% ABV, 100% Negroamaro, £11.99)

Another wine from the impressive Cantina Sociale Sampietrana but this time from its Le Selezioni range, a step up from the already very good Tacco Barocco wine tasted a little earlier. It didn’t disappoint.

A fresh, lean and darkly fruited nose with a hint of blueberry; just a whiff of volatility. Dry, rich and full bodied, firmly acidic and reasonably tannic, all balanced by beautifully elegant blue and black fruits, peppery spice and the complexity that only fifty year old vines can bring to a wine. The long, fragrant and fruity finish had a beguiling leanness perfectly suited to a fine meal. An excellent, and excellent value, bottle of wine.

I had expected and I encountered a refreshing raciness from the evening’s white wines, but the pleasant surprise was quite how fresh and lively the reds were – even those from the warmest, most southerly regions. In true Italian style, these southern sun worshippers were just as cool as their paler northern cousins.

I’d like to thank Robert and all at Reserve for another great evening of entertainment, education and most enjoyable wine.

Little Consolations From Giant Consolidations

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To bastardise the words of Aeschylus, Hiram Johnson or Oliver Stone, the first casualty of wine is integrity. An almost inevitable result of the spate of mergers and acquisitions that seemed to characterise and redefine the Australian wine industry around the turn of the century was the loss of many of the things that had resulted in the companies involved being worth so much money. It’s almost as if there is a strange collector’s mentality at work: an ongoing competition to see who can build the largest and most prestigious wine division yet with no real concern about what happens after the cheque has been signed. Many of Australia’s historic wineries have become trophies to be taken home, shown off and then locked away out of sight and mind for evermore until they tarnish and crumble. Such was the case with Seppelt and its Dorrien vineyard.

As can be seen in the potted history of Seppelt below, the complexity of the wine industry today illustrates just how easily even the most highly esteemed labels can be lost in the mêlée of high finance consolidation.

In 1851, Joseph Seppelt purchased 158 hectares of land in the Barossa Valley and founded the Seppeltsfield estate with the aim of growing tobacco. When it was discovered that the land was unsuitable for producing quality tobacco, the estate’s focus switched to growing wheat. Thanks to the gold rush of the 1850s, this was a very lucrative endeavour. Shortly thereafter, thanks to a knowledge of liqueurs gained from his merchant days in his native Silesia, Seppelt recognised the potential for producing wine on his estate and began to plant vines. These flourished and, by 1867, he had begun the construction of a full-scale winery.

Unfortunately, Joseph did not live to see its completion as he died in early 1868. Joseph’s eldest son, Oscar Benno Seppelt, inherited 55% of the winery with his younger siblings, Victor and Ottilie, inheriting 30% and 15% respectively. Benno soon bought them out, paying them 5% interest per annum, and worked hard to bring his father’s dream to fruition. Like much of the Australian wine industry, and Australian consumer preference, at that time, Seppelt’s production focussed upon fortified wines. By 1878, a magnificent stone port store had been built on the estate and, to celebrate its completion, Benno selected a puncheon (a 500 litre barrel) of his finest port and declared that it would be allowed to mature on that spot for 100 years. This tradition continued every year and the idea of Seppelt’s Para 100 Year Old Tawny Port was born, with the first bottles being released in 1978, with subsequent vintages being released every year since.

Around the same time as Joseph Seppelt founded Seppeltsfield in the Barossa Valley, a young Frenchman named Jean Pierre Trouette followed the gold rush to Victoria and formed a partnership with Anne Marie Blampied and her brother, Emile. In 1863, they planted the first vines in the Grampians region in the historic St. Peters vineyard at Great Western. Bought by Joseph Best in 1865, he founded the Great Western winery and, in 1868, he commissioned local gold miners to excavate the famous underground cellars that became known as the Drives and which are still in use today. After the tragic death of Joseph Best in 1888, Ballarat businessman Hans Irvine purchased Great Western and he produced Australia’s first sparkling Shiraz on the estate.

By 1900, Seppelt was the largest winery in Australia with an annual production of two million litres. Hans Irvine and Benno Seppelt met in 1902, and soon formed a partnership. Seppelt continued the expansion of his company, purchasing Château Tanunda in Barossa from the Adelaide Wine Company in 1916 and building a new winery at Dorrien in 1918. That same year, he also expanded his operation into Victoria when he purchased Great Western from Hans Irvine, quickly gaining a reputation for exceptional quality sparkling and still wines. After Benno’s death in 1930, the legendary winemaker Colin Preece was the first in a series of exemplary winemakers who ensured that B. Seppelt & Sons went from strength to strength over the ensuing decades. By 1982, Seppelt was Australia’s largest wine brand.

S.A. Brewing Holdings Limited acquired B. Seppelt & Sons in 1984, and when the Adelaide Steamship Company hit financial difficulties in 1990, it spent a further AU$400 million purchasing the stricken company’s wineries. These included Lindemans and the Penfolds Group, hence the renaming of the wine division as the Penfolds Wine Group. Lion Nathan purchased S.A. Brewing in 1993, changing its name to Southcorp Holdings in 1994 to better reflect its South Australian heritage.

In 1997, Southcorp earmarked AU$405 million over five years to double its red wine production and it also began to sell off its industrial operations. However, this substantial investment program coupled with the low value of the Australian dollar depressed the company’s share price. Instead of accepting its fate, Southcorp went on the offensive and bought the young but fast growing Rosemount Estates from the Oatley family for AU$1.5 billion in 2001.

In what is often seen to be a reverse takeover, Rosemount’s CEO Keith Lambert took over as CEO of Southcorp and a great deal of internal disharmony followed. Many of Southcorp’s top people were either replaced by Rosemount staff or left in protest, including the likes of Grange winemaker John Duval. With the sheer number of wine brands in its portfolio – some reports suggest over 1000 different labels – it was impossible for Southcorp to attend to all of their individual requirements and many simply faded into history. Great names such as Seppelt, Wynns and Lindemans ended up as vacuous brands managed by people who lacked any appreciation of the history or quality of their charges.

Such was the extent of its overspending and of its mishandling of its wine portfolio that by January, 2003, Southcorp’s profits had dropped by 97% over those of the previous year. Foster’s Group was the next major brewer to take the plunge into the wine industry, purchasing Southcorp for AU$3.3 billion in 2005, but unfortunately proved to be no kinder an owner to its wine brands than its predecessor.

In 2007, the Seppeltsfield Estate in the Barossa Valley and its stock of 9 million litres of fortified wine were purchased from Foster’s in a management buyout and its reputation is gradually being restored to its former glory.

The underperforming wine division was always a drain on the Foster’s Group’s highly profitable brewing business, and by 2011 the company was forced to write down the value of its wine business by half since acquiring at the peak of the market six years earlier. In May of that same year, 99% of the shareholders voted in favour of demerging the Foster’s wine business from the group and Treasury Wine Estates was born.

Little seems to have changed for the brands under the Treasury umbrella, except for the jewel in its crown, that is. Instead of attempting to restore the fortunes of the roll call of great brands in its portfolio, Treasury has opted to milk Penfolds for all that it’s worth (and more) with a cynical policy of vicious price hikes for Grange, for the top Bin wines and for a frankly ludicrous series of limited releases. Some analysts even estimate that the top Penfolds’ wines now account for over 50% of Treasury’s profits.

Aside from alienating loyal Penfolds customers the world over, Treasury currently finds itself facing bigger problems. After being forced to write off some AU$160 million of out of date stock in the USA in 2013, 2014 has seen its CEO admit that Treasury owns too many brands and that it will likely target 20 of the 80 for growth in its high-end portfolio. Milking more of its cash cows, by the sounds of it. Treasury’s US arm has been linked to takeover bids from rivals Pernod Ricard and Constellation Brands, and a AU$3 billion complete takeover offer by a private equity company was also recently rejected. To stave off takeover bids and falling profits, Treasury has announced its latest cost cutting exercise which takes the form of shedding up to 5% of its workforce, potentially saving AU$35 million over the next year.

The Great Western winery in Victoria remains a part of the Treasury Wine Estates portfolio and, should the parent company survive long enough, it would be a great shame if Seppelt didn’t make it onto the list of twenty estates earmarked for success.

Seppelt, Dorrien Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1993

Seppelt, Dorrien Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1993

From a seven hectare vineyard of fifty year old vines in the Barossa Valley that really shouldn’t produce Cabernet Sauvignon of any note, Dorrien was one of Seppelt’s icon wines made only in years when the quality of the grapes was regarded as exceptional. Handcrafted by chief winemaker Ian McKenzie, the 1993 Seppelt Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon (13% ABV) spent 18 months in American and Nevers oak before being bottled. As I have mentioned previously (see my blog post An Old Flame), I was not the only person to appreciate its charms as this prodigious medal winner was once counted amongst Australia’s finest wines.

Still deeply coloured, but now definitely in the garnet region of the spectrum. Slightly volatile on the nose and possibly drying out a little after twenty years, although the earthy, ripe blackcurrant fruit, gentle woody cedar/cigar box aromas and a soft herbaceous character formed a sweet, harmonious and inviting whole.

Dry, and unfortunately drying out, on the palate; the firm acidity promptly sprang to the fore. However, ripe cassis and black cherry fruit soon fought back and harmony was restored. Moderately firm tannins completed the structure. Well-judged creamy and spicy oak flavours on the mid palate led into a long and black-fruited finish, tempered once again by the acidity as well as by oak spice and by the gentle herbaceousness first encountered on the nose.

Well balanced and lovely to drink, this bottled piece of Barossa history was not at all overblown or overly alcoholic. Although elegantly crafted, this was unmistakably a new world wine and it possibly lacked some of the complexity gained by blending Cabernet Sauvignon in the Bordelaise fashion, but it was as enjoyable as it is now rare. For many years this vintage of Dorrien was my favourite Australian wine, and I still have a very soft spot for it even as its glory starts to fade.

The final vintage of Dorrien to be released was 1999, although it is rumoured to have been made in 2000, also. Subsequently, there have been reports that the Dorrien vineyard’s grapes were used in Penfolds Bin 389 and in a couple of vintages of Saltram Winemaker’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. There is even talk that Treasury Wine Estates is contemplating a revival of the Dorrien label, although the vineyard is believed to have been replanted with a higher yielding clone of Cabernet Sauvignon back in 2004. I’d certainly be very interested to hear from anyone that might have any further information that they would like to share.

If you wish to read more about the turbulent recent history of Seppelt, Lindemans, Rosemount, Penfolds etc., whilst picking up some great tips on bottles to look out for, you could do far worse than read the highly informative Australian wine blog Best Wines Under $20.

A Blanc Canvas

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I was recently asked if I would present a tasting event at Hanging Ditch. “Certainly”, I replied, “I would be delighted to.” As I’m not in the trade and thus have no wines of my own to promote, the next question I was asked left me somewhat stumped. What would I like to have as the theme for my tasting?

“Well,” I replied, “my preferences tend to be for old world wines rather than new and I’m not really a huge fan of Sauvignon Blanc, but that should still leave plenty to choose from.”

“Sauvignon Blanc?” came the response. “That’s a good idea. We can have a Sauvignon Blanc tasting; everyone loves Sauvignon Blanc.”

Er… OK.

Not entirely unexpectedly, I don’t try a huge amount of Sauvignon Blanc therefore a comparative tasting would certainly be of interest to me and also, hopefully, to people who drink it far more often. Much to the amusement of all at Hanging Ditch, so appealing was the idea and so quickly did the tickets sell out that a second night was swiftly added to the calendar in response to popular demand.

To make this mono-varietal comparison a little more challenging, we decided to use a blind tasting format. This would allow people to discover precisely which aspects of Sauvignon Blanc appealed to them and which didn’t, unhindered by the powerful propaganda of producer, geography and price. We wanted to present a selection of the most popular dry styles of Sauvignon Blanc from around the world, with a couple of ringers thrown in for good measure. Examples from France, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile sat alongside a Sauvignon-esque Bacchus from England and a Bordeaux-inspired Sauvignon Sémillon blend from Australia.

Before we began to taste the wines, I thought it would be interesting to provide a little information about the origins and the characteristics of the grape under the spotlight.

Although it is usually believed to have come from Bordeaux, the first recorded mention of Sauvignon Blanc in the region was not until sometime around 1710 – 1720 in Margaux. It is much more likely to have originated in the Loire Valley where the earliest mention of its old synonym Fié or Fier dates back to 1534. In Sancerre and Pouilly its first mention was only in 1783 or 1784, but the let’s just say that the last two hundred years have been more than kind to the reputation of the area’s suitability for Sauvignon Blanc.

Recent DNA testing has shown Sauvignon Blanc to be an offspring of the slightly obscure Jura variety Savagnin and to be a grandchild of Pinot. There is also a suggestion that it is a sibling of another very significant Loire variety: Chenin Blanc. The theory of its Loire origin is further supported by the etymology of the name “Sauvignon”. It derives from the the French sauvage or wild, a reference to the shape of its leaves being very similar to those of the wild grapevine, backed up by the etymology of its Loire synonyms Fié or Fier which derive from the Latin for wild: ferus. Wild Vitis vinifera has not been found in Bordeaux.

The importance of Bordeaux in the Sauvignon Blanc story should not be underestimated, however. Aside from its significance to wines ranging in style from crisp and easy drinking through to dry, oak aged and age worthy blends to sweet, botrytis-enriched treasures of unparalleled complexity, it was in Bordeaux that Sauvignon Blanc spontaneously crossed with Cabernet Franc to produce Cabernet Sauvignon.

Viticulturally, Sauvignon Blanc is an earlier ripening variety which makes it particularly well suited to cooler regions. It actually begins to lose its distinctive pungent aromas and flavours if it is picked too late and it is difficult to make a lively wine from Sauvignon Blanc grown in warmer climates. Conversely, if it is grown somewhere too cool, or if its yield is too high, the concentration of methoxypyrazines (responsible for the grape’s characteristic green and leafy flavours) can become excessive.

The Sauvignon Blanc vine is naturally very vigorous and it needs to be planted in poorer soils help to control its verdurous tendencies. In New Zealand, where many of the vineyards are planted in fertile, alluvial soil, an entire science of canopy management has evolved to curb its desire to leaf whilst offering the grapes the optimum degree of shade, air flow and nutrients. This also becomes important when capitalising upon Sauvignon Blanc’s susceptibility to botrytis: without ideal conditions it is all too easy to end up with disastrous grey rot instead of delightful noble rot.

Typically high in acidity, Sauvignon Blanc displays a wealth of pungent aromas commonly associated with with things green: grass, nettles, elderflower, tomato leaves (or tomcat, if you prefer a less vegetal association), blackcurrant leaves, nettles, asparagus and also gooseberries if a little unripe. If grown in warmer climates, tropical fruits enter the picture and aromas of grapefruit, guava and passionfruit are encountered, as are flinty or smokey notes from certain other regions. It is generally a wine for enjoying in its youth and, outside Bordeaux, it is usually unoaked although more winemakers are experimenting with barrel maturation to differing degrees. Its refreshing vibrancy makes it perfect to serve as an apéritif, but Sauvignon Blanc’s piercing and pungent character makes it a great partner for a number of foods often regarded as being difficult to match with wine. It works well with goats’ cheese, salads, asparagus, a variety of egg dishes, smoked foods, seafood, poultry and white meats, oily fish and tomato dishes; fuller bodied styles can even cope with spicier southern Mediterranean, Indian and Asian fare.

Sauvignon Blanc is grown across France, producing simpler and somewhat unconvincing Pays D’Oc wines in the warmer south of the country, slightly zestier Vins De Pays as you move up through Armagnac country and then into Cognac territory and far more serious wines in the Aquitaine region which houses Bergerac and Bordeaux. Aside from the Entre-Deux-Mers where pure Sauvignon Blanc wines are common, the Gironde (the Bordeaux département) usually sees it blended with the fatter, richer Sémillon in both dry, oak aged grand vins as well as in lighter Bordeaux Blanc, and also with a little Muscadelle for the opulent, sweet, botrytised wines of Sauternes and Barsac.

Surprisingly, Sauvignon Blanc also has a foothold in the one region of France that you would least expect to find it: Burgundy. St. Bris, to the south west of Chablis, is a vinous anomaly; home solely to Sauvignon Blanc, it produces light, dry wines of a similarly racy character to those of its famous neighbour.

The finest French expressions of Sauvignon Blanc come from the Loire Valley. Very acceptable wines are produced under wider, generic appellations but the most famous, some would say definitive, examples of the region’s Sauvignon Blanc come from the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly. When the grape is over cropped to cash in on their respective names these wines can be as thin and tart as any, but in the hands of careful and conscientious winemakers the results are often sublime. Albeit at a price. Menetou-Salon, Reuilly, Quincy and Coteaux De Giennois can offer more reasonably priced alternatives without too much of a drop in complexity and quality, and even the simpler Touraine wines can be very good value.

In the new world, California is an important producer of Sauvignon Blanc although its high temperatures result in richer, softer wines that display melon-like aromas and that are often lightly oaked. The wines are usually labelled as Fumé Blanc, in homage to the grape’s Loire origins, thanks originally to a marketing initiative of Robert Mondavi. He wanted to promote and differentiate his distinctive style of Sauvignon Blanc without disappointing customers who purchased it expecting it to be the leaner, racier wine that they recognised from France.

Although Chile is well known for its Sauvignon Blanc, until quite recently over half of the vines thought to be this variety turned out to be the unrelated and lower quality Sauvignon Vert. Many are now being grafted or replanted as true Sauvignon Blanc because, unlike the country’s similar confusion over vines believed to be Merlot but which were actually the now lauded Carmenère, the resulting wines are simply not very good.

Possibly driven by the success of neighbour New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs and by the popularity of it in their domestic market, Australian winemakers have also turned their hands to growing it. The Adelaide Hills and cooler parts of New South Wales produce some very successful examples, as does Western Australia where it is often blended with Sémillon in the Bordeaux fashion.

It is impossible to talk of Sauvignon Blanc without mentioning New Zealand, although it was first planted there only as recently as 1973. Singlehandedly responsible for putting New Zealand on the wine map, the bulk of its Sauvignon Blanc plantings centre around Marlborough at the northern end of the South Island. The style of wine has always been pungent, overtly fruity and razor sharp, but there has been a noticeable trend towards subtler styles and there are even some oaked examples emerging. Depending upon one’s perspective, the combination of a dependable climate and the most modern of winemaking techniques results in wines that are either impressively consistent or just a touch boring.

One final country to note for its Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa, which falls somewhere between France and New Zealand both geographically and stylistically. The wines show slightly more muted, demure fruit than their kiwi counterparts and they retain a refreshing element thanks to the cooling influence of the Antarctic. Again, there are some very successful oaked versions of Sauvignon Blanc being produced, both as single variety wines and as blends.

The ringer in the line up was a Bacchus, included as much for its similarity to Sauvignon Blanc as for the chance to compare a highly competent domestic wine to some pretty stiff international competition. Bacchus is a cross of (Silvaner x Riesling) x Müller-Thurgau, bred in Pfalz in 1933 for growing in cooler regions. It is productive, early ripening and the grapes have good sugar levels, although they can lack acidity if not fully ripe. When fully ripe, however, Bacchus can produce highly aromatic wines with a grassy similarity to Sauvignon Blanc whilst tending to be more floral and exuberant, sometimes with strong notes of elderflower.

In Germany it is mainly grown in Rheinhessen and Franken, with smaller areas in Nahe, Pfalz and Baden and it is often blended with the grapey Müller-Thurgau in basic, off-dry wines. It was first planted in England in 1973, and it is valued for producing good yields of fully ripe grapes and for making aromatic, fresh wines: our aromatic alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.

Sauvignon Blanc is not the most complex of grape varieties, but a selection of different expressions was chosen to highlight the range of styles available. Of the seven, two warrant a little further investigation. The Shawsgate Bacchus was included simply as a spot-the-difference test: would its similarity to Sauvignon Blanc’s flavour profile and its cool climate origins allow it to slip through the tasting undetected? At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Cloudy Bay was included purely because it was Cloudy Bay. Marlborough’s iconic Sauvignon Blanc, we wanted to determine whether the stature of its reputation and its price were warranted or whether the Makutu would usurp its crown when both were tasted blind.

The wines we tasted were:

Domaine De Maltaverne, Pouilly Fume L'Ammonite

Domaine De Maltaverne, Pouilly Fume L’Ammonite

1. Domaine De Maltaverne, Pouilly Fumé L’Ammonite 2012 (12.5% ABV, £16.50)
Loire Valley, France

Domaine de Maltaverne is one of the few estates in the Loire that allows a full malolactic fermentation to run its natural course. Owner Gilles Maudry believes that as long as his vineyards produce healthy grapes, picked at optimum maturity and vinified with care, the wine can be left to decide its own evolution. The beautiful label of this estate represents the ammonite fossil shells found in the vineyard, sketched by an artistic wine lover following a tasting to represent what he visualised on savouring this wonderful wine.

The vineyards are planted on Kimmeridgian soil, a fossilised clay and chalk mix, in south-southwest facing vineyards that are fertilised organically. Vinification is a very hands off affair and fermentation is done by indigenous yeasts. The naturally occurring malolactic fermentation helps to soften the wines by converting the tarter malic acid found in grapes into the softer, more palatable lactic acid.

Lemon citrus and lightly smokey aromas carried through to the palate, joined by grapefruit pith and hints of gooseberry and leafiness. There was a richness from the malolactic fermentation that was a little atypical but far from unpleasant and the finish was long, elegant and very refined. One of my favourite wines of the evening.

Shawsgate Vineyard, Bacchus

Shawsgate Vineyard, Bacchus

2. Shawsgate Vineyard, Bacchus 2011 (10.5% ABV, £17.50)
Framlingham, Woodbridge, Surrey, England

One of East Anglia’s oldest commercial vineyards, Shawsgate produces a range of white, red, rosé and quality sparkling wines. They are passionate about their wines and go to great lengths to ensure very high standards in their on-site winery, illustrated by the many regional, national and international awards they have won.

More pungent, tomato leaf herbaceousness on the nose than the L’Ammonite, and the citrus character was white grapefruit rather than lemon. The palate was broad and expansive with bright gooseberry fruit, not hugely long or complex but a very pleasant and enjoyable wine.

Tabali, Reserva Especial Caliza Sauvignon Blanc

Tabali, Reserva Especial Caliza Sauvignon Blanc

3. Tabalí Reserva Especial Caliza Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (13.5% ABV, £13.50)
Limarí Valley, Northern Chile

Planted on the oldest alluvial terrace of the Limarí River, the unique soil profile of this vineyard is a mix of various sizes of gravel, clay and sand with plenty of limestone and different type of salts due to the tiny quantity (just 70-100mm) of rainfall per year in the area. 400km north of Santiago and on the edge of the Atacama Desert, the vineyards lie only 29km from the Pacific Ocean and its strong cool breezes that greatly influence the climate. In fact, the Caliza vineyard is one of the coolest in Chile and the absence of rain during the harvest season makes the area ideal for growing high quality grapes.

A savoury, somewhat earthy and minerally nose with a touch of tomato leaf but no overt fruit character. The palate, too, had a savoury and pronounced saline character with slightly tart white grapefruit flavour and a definite green leafiness. Fresh and elegant, if rather austere, but with a weight of fruit behind it to balance the structure. The long finish was gently floral and citrussy. This was something of a Marmite wine: some liked it but many didn’t. I really took to it, although I’d like to try it with food next time.

Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc

Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc

4. Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc 2103 (13.5% ABV, £26.50)
Wairau Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand

The quintessential expression of the acclaimed Marlborough wine region, an international benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc noted for its vibrant aromatics, its layers of pure fruit flavours and its fine structure thanks to the Wairau Valley’s cool maritime climate and the longest hours of sunshine in New Zealand.

The four vineyards of Cloudy Bay are located throughout the Marlborough region to capitalise upon the diversity of microclimates and soil types. The different sites provide distinct nuances of aroma and flavour, each bringing complexity to the wine. The estate’s original vineyard was planted as recently as 1986, but in addition to its own vineyards Cloudy Bay sources fruit from a small group of loyal growers, some of whom have been growing grapes for them for over 20 years.

Far more pungent nose than any of the previous wines, with blackcurrant leaf and elderflower aromas alongside tropical passionfruit, guava and lime. Ripe yet crisp on the palate and very well balanced. Herbaceous, floral notes complement tropical fruit flavours, all of which carry through from the nose. Fresh, long and very complex, this was very good indeed and worthy of its reputation. Whether or not it was worth its price was an altogether more subjective matter, but I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed if I bought a bottle or had one bought for me.

Lighthouse, Makutu Sauvignon Blanc

Lighthouse, Makutu Sauvignon Blanc

5. Lighthouse, Makutu Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (13% ABV, £15.00)
Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand

This is a privately owned vineyard in the very windy Awatere Valley. The vines that tolerate the harsh conditions of low rainfall, plentiful sunshine, cool nights and strong winds give low yields of small, thick skinned grapes with a high skin to pulp ratio, hence the concentration of flavours and aromas.

Similarly pungent, but greener and more tomato leaf in character than the blackcurrant leaf, lime and tropical fruit of the Cloudy Bay. Ripe and herbaceous on the palate with a firm acidity balanced by a little residual sugar that gave richness to the blackcurrant tinged fruit. Modest length and lacking some of the complexity of its illustrious neighbour, many people felt that simple economics more than made up for this. Certainly an appealing wine, it only suffered when directly compared to one of its region’s star players.

Mon Vieux, Hell's Heights Sauvignon Blanc

Mon Vieux, Hell’s Heights Sauvignon Blanc

6. Mon Vieux, Hell’s Heights Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (14% ABV, £13.50)
Banghoek, Western Cape, South Africa

Banghoek is in a corner of the Simonsberg and means “fear corner”, very appropriate given its location on the steep, winding Helshoogte (“Hell’s Heights”) Pass between Stellenbosch and Franschoek. Here, 535 metres up the sheer slopes of the Simonsberg, clings a triangular block of old vine Sauvignon Blanc with fantastic exposure to the elements that gives low yields of tight bunches of fruit that are ripe but intensely mineral in flavour. The grapes are hand-picked at night, when the cooler temperature aids the retention of their acidity. The wine is fermented in stainless steel then 100% barrel-aged for 6 months in new French demi-muids (600 litre barrels).

Soft, rich, toasty and vanilla oak aromas dominated the nose. The palate was also oak driven, with a softer pink grapefruit citrus note than had been seen in the any of the other wines. Not hugely tropical or herbaceous, despite a reasonable balance and fresh acidity I couldn’t help but feel that this was more about oak than Sauvignon Blanc. An easy and immediately attractive drink, but not especially typical.

Cullen, Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Semillon

Cullen, Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Semillon

7. Cullen, Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2011 (12% ABV, £25.00)
Margaret River, Western Australia

Founded in 1971 by Di and Kevin Cullen, the winemaking at Cullen is now managed by their daughter, Vanya. Passion and a strong sense of responsibility to the land define Vanya’s biodynamic approach to viticulture, while pioneering environmental initiatives led to Cullen becoming Australia’s first carbon neutral winery in 2007. The Mangan vineyard, which is owned and managed by Rick Cullen, is dry farmed and maintained using a biodynamic approach to viticulture.

For the 2011 vintage, 20% of the Sauvignon Blanc was aged for five months in French oak, of which 28% was new. The Sémillon was fermented entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve its freshness.

Closed, youthful and almost rubbery on the nose; savoury gun smoke, toast and Elastoplast aromas filtered through. Dry, rich and toasty on the palate, with the Elastoplast character carrying through from the nose. The oak added structure without being overwhelming, although the Sauvignon Blanc element was rather subdued as the fruit was more fresh lemon and grassy than pungent. Elegant, long and Bordeaux inspired, this was still very young and would have easily benefitted from another three to five years in the bottle. Unfortunately not to many people’s taste, this was a complex, savoury and distinctive mouthful that I think would have won more fans had it been served with a meal. Very good indeed.

I have to say that although there are still many other wines I prefer, I might just be warming to Sauvignon Blanc and I will certainly end up drinking several of the wines above in the not too distant future.