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 Vranec, the Heart-healthy Grape

 

 

 

One of the joys of visiting Yugoslavia was the opportunity of tasting the delicious native wine Vranec (or Vranac, depending where you were). At least two of the federation’s successor states – Montenegro and Macedonia - continue to invest in the variety, improving existing plantings and establishing new vines to meet growing demand.

A few years ago, on a visit to Montenegro, I used every opportunity to taste Vranac. The name means dark black stallion, and one glance at the wine in a glass confirms why: aside from maybe Madiran you won’t find a darker, silkier looking and tasting wine.  Or a healthier one: amidst the endless debate about whether red wine is good for you, specialists agree that the high phenolic content of Vranac/Vranec makes it one of the healthiest. In Montenegro, one of the main producers Plantaze make a wine called Pro Corde, or For the Heart, emphasising the tannins and other compounds that make this so healthy. It's also delicious, and different. The only mystery has been why Vranec hasn’t been widely available in the UK.  Until now.

Vranec-lovers – I’m sure there must be lots out there – will be delighted to know that Stobi, the Republic of Macedonia’s most dynamic and modern winery following years of large-scale investment, is this month launching its wines onto UK shelves. The good news is that Stobi pays great attention to terroir. The winery, located in the Tikves Wine Region,  is named after Macedonia’s most famous sight, an archaeological site dating back to 200 BC, and although it does great things with international varietals, the most interesting wines are from indigenous grape types. 

Aside from Vranec (Stobi makes two, a very full entry level Vranec and a delicious premium Vranec Veritas), Stobi’s growing range includes a very big and toasty Syrah and an interesting off-dry rose made fully from Pinot Noir grapes.  Amongst the whites, a blend comprising Muscat and other varieties didn’t quite work for me: the end result was a bit soupy and ill-defined. Much better, and interesting for those with a penchant for indigenous varieties, is the Muscat Ottonel 2012. Pale green in colour, this has light mango and peach notes and although dry tastes as if it isn’t, which makes this wine all the more unusual.

So which out of the Stobi range do we chose as our wines of the month?

 

The Stobi Chardonnay 2012 is a delicious take on the well-known grape, with lots of richness and fruit on the nose and palate. This is a very well made wine that will continue to evolve in the bottle., and knocks many similarly priced new world Chardonnays for a six.

 

Stobi Vranec 2011 is a really great expression of this Balkan grape, dark, almost black in colour, full on the nose with lots of berry-and cherry-charged fruit on the palate. Superb, as you’d expect, with grilled meats but also fascinating on its own, as a hearty pre-dinner drink. The fact it “helps reduce fat, triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood” – as the label claims – is another very good reason to try it.

 

Stobi wines should be available at independents over the next few months. Expected retail price will be between £12-14 a bottle. For more details seewww.stobi.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Virgin Redefines Itself

 

 

It's a been a while since this column looked at the wines offered by Virgin Wines, so here we go again. Changes have taken place: over 500 boutique wines are now offered, many from some unusual places with some unusual blends  It is something of a relief to see such a mainstream retailer foregoing the well-known producers of the New World, in particular.

Searching through their website, Virgin boasts some interesting wines. They have some great New Zealand Pinots, with various styles at various price points. There's also some great Barossa and McLaren Vale wines - look out for anything under the Beneficio label - whiich seems unique to Virgin - although these are not particularly cheap at around £16 a bottle, this is full throttle stuff and the Beneficio GSM 2010 in particular is thoroughly recommended.

Virgin are also good at sourcing wines that pique the interest of the more knowledgable consumer. A Shiraz-Zinfandel blend, for example - the Zinification 2001 from Califrnia - is an intruging idea although the result doesn't quite work (and the label is dreadful). And they sell wines made from relatively non-mainstream grape varieties - the Secretary Bird Old Vine Cinsault 2001 and the Desert' s Edge Colombard 2011 (both from South Africa) being typical examples. Inevitably there is also a lot of fluff here but also some very good wines as well..

So what do we recommend for our two wines of the month?

Red Ocean Chardonnay Winemaker's Reserve 2011 (South Africa, white, 13%) is well worth a try and good value. This cuvee was kept on the lees after barrel fermentatiion and has lots of toffee and marmalade flavours supporting the solid fruit backbone. This reminds me most of some of the better oaky Australian wines that were so characterful until that country's Chardonnay producers largely abandoned oak min favour of steel fermentation. Will work very well on its own as an aperitif or with a wide range of foods. £10.99

Palliser Estate Pinot Noir 2009 (New Zealand, red, 14.5%). Imported by Justerini and Brooks of St James's, this is a classic Kiwi Pinot, with lots of smooth, smoky flavours supporting the dark berry fruit. Although Virgin describe this as a lunchtime red the alcohol level is high, whilst being from Martinborough, the style is medium to full-bodied (for a Pinot Noir). But this is a great wine and ideal to offer to snobs who say New Zealand cannot make Burgundy-style wine as well as the French. Worth every penny of £15.99. 

May 2013

 

Wines are available from www.virginwines.co.uk

 

 

Loving the Lothian

 




It isn't often that you find yourself in a French-heavy tasting and find that you really like a wine that is embarrassingly - not really the focus of the tasting. This happened to me late last year at the Goedhuis Rhone tasting where most of the wines on display were excellent (especially the Condrieu). What caught my tastebuds though were two wines made by a South African producer of whom I had never heard, and who doesn't even feature in my Platter's 2012 Guide to SA Wines.

Based in Elgin, close to Hermanus where whale-watching is the big tourist activity in winter, the family-owned vineyard specialises in Burgundian wines. The wines are made in a unique bio-sphere, the Kogelberg Sanctuary, which contains plant and other species that exist nowhere else. The soils are gravelly with overlying clay which makes for some wonderful flavours in the wines.

On the basis of my tasting, Lothian Vineyards deserve to be as well known as Hamilton Russell Vineyards, just down the coast in the Hemel en Aarde region, who also famously and very successfully make Burgundian-style wines. Best news of all though is that unlike Hamilton Russell wines - which are now amongst South Africa's more expensive, at well over £20 a bottle - Lothian wines remain excellent value because although volumes are still very small, the wines remain relatively unknown. For now.

Lothian Vineyards Chardonnay 2011( white, South Africa, 14%)
This is a full-on Chardonnay - thanks to ten months of barrel maturation in French barrique - with lots of fruit on the nose and palate. Pineapple, honey, lemon-lime and passionfruit are all present and the wine has a dry finish, reflecting the fact the wine has just 2.8 grams of residual sugar. This will go well with just about any food though especially seafood and fish. It's also pretty impressive on its own, on a bleak winter's night in late February. Price: £15.00

Lothian Vineyards Pinot Nior 2011 (red, South Africa, 13.5%)
Lothian's Pinot Noir won a silver at last year's Decanter awards and it's hard to disagree. The wine has a long smoky nose with berries and a whiff of white pepper; on the palate there's a lot going on, with tobacco, dark cocoa and leather flavors mingling with cherry and dark berry. Very well-balanced, the tannins work well with the oak. This is a wine to savour, richer and deeper than many Burgundies - definitely medium-bodied which is a plus for those who find Pinot Noir can be too light - but with the same level of complexity and mystery. Recommended pretty much with anything. Price: £17.85

March 2013

Lothian Wines are available from 
www.goedhuis.com 

 

 

Tasting Turkey

 

 

Turkish wine. It's all the rage: you only have to speak to some of this country's leading wine specialists to realise that the industry over here has gone crazy for the likes of Kalecik Karasi, Narince and Okuzgozu. The problem though has always been laying your hands on the stuff: unless you happen to live in north London, with its plethora of Turkish delis and Turkish Cypriot grocery stores, or like dining at the excellent Turkish restaurant Ozr in Regent Street, the odds are against you. Which is a shame because in recent years in particular the Turks have been turning out some very good stuff indeed. As MW Angela Muir recently summed up in Decanter: "The story is Turkey. Last year was a revelavtion but this year was spectacular..."

So where to start? In terms of getting hold of the stuff, go to www.tees.co.uk, the specialist UK importer of Turkish wine (as well as Efes beer) which will show you whether you can get Turkish wine in your region. All the leading Turkish brands are there, notably Doluca (try their Kav range and also their Antik wines, interesting blends of indigenous and international grapes) and Kavaklidere (their Selection wines are high end and quite pricey but well worth trying,whilst the classics - Lal rose, Yakut red and Cankaya white - will be familiar to visitors to Turkey and passengers on Turkish Airlines).

So what did we like amongst the samples sent by Tees?

Amongst the whites, Narince, a floral, fruity native Anatolian grape variety not unlike Semillon (the word means "delicate" in Turkish)  is a good a place as any to start. I tried Doluca's DLC Narince 2010 which was a lovely crisp and fruity expression of the grape but probably best left for summer. Much better, in the depths of a gloomy British midwinter, is Kavaklidere's Prestige Narince 2011 from Capadochia which is a delicious lightly oaked expression of the grape, different enough to have people wondering just what it is.

Amongst red, the choice seems that much greater. Unfortunately I didn't get any Kalecik Karasi, which really should be the starting point for anyone keen to start learning about Turkish wine (this tastes like a cross between Pinot Noir and Beaujolais, if you can imagine, combining the light, slightly floral characteristics of the former and the tannic fruitiness of the last). I tried what would I'm sure have been a delicious wine, the Pendore Bogazkere but sadly it was badly corked. The Ancyra Okuzgozu (around £8.49 a bottle) almost jumped out of bottle: packed with fruit and tannin, this is a wine that certainly makes its presence felt, but a little too tough-tannic for my liking. Better was the Prestige Okuzgozu which seemed a good and powerful expression of this Merlot-type grape. Contact www.tees.co.uk for more information. 

March 2013

 

 

The diversity of d'Arenberg

 

 

d'Arenberg is one of those Australian producers who seem to have always been around. The distinctive, detailed labels - with a red stripe falling diagonally downwards from left to right and enough information on the back label to fill a small book - and exotic names (Noble Mudpie, Hermit Crab, Feral Fox, and my favorite, Stephanie The Gnome with rose tinted glasses - a blend of Pinot Noir, Cinsault and Mouvedre, in case you were wondering) make them stand out from the competition.

One of the original winemaking families of Australia, the Osborns have run this McLaren Vale winery for one hundred years, and (there's no getting away from it) the wines just seem to get better and better. Although they are best known for their sturdy Shiraz (notably the impressively dense but wonderful The Dead Arm) and comlex, structured Cabernet Sauvignons, recent years have seen a shift towards blends without abandoning the traditional focus on single varietals. Rhone grape varieties flourish here with Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne and Grenache all appearing in blends or single varietals, although Chardonnay also makes many appearances.

The real challenge is getting your head around the sheer number of wines: by my reckoning, d'Arenberg produces well-over 50 wines on a regular basis, with a full range of price points, from entry-level, mainly on-trade The Stump Jump range to single vineyard wines (with names such as The Vociferate Dipsomaniac Shiraz and the Swinging Malaysian Shiraz). All, in their own special way, are good; The Dead Arm, which is probably this winery's flagship, is reliably excellent in any vintage and really reminds you of what Auusie Shiraz can do, at its best. So which to chose as my wines of the month?

Amongst the many excellent whites, The Money Spider Rousanne 2010 (13.2%, around £13 a bottle) really takes some beating. This is a very well made wine - named after the tiny spiders which plauged the first vintage in 2000 and thus delayed the first release of this wine by a year- with lots of delicate floral and light lemon flavours but also lots of structure, making it an ideal aperitif to savour and enjoy on its own. Needless to say it is also a fine accompaniment to food. There's a lot going on here - so I'm not surprised it has won many medals - making this a distinctive, wonderful alternative to more mainstream single variety wines. Really must be tried.

Amongst the reds, there is so much to chose from that you could spend hours chopping and changing between the wines before settling on a favourite to recommend.  However on a price/value basis I would recommend The Twentyeight Road Mouvedre 2009 (14.3%, around £19 a bottle), a deep, seductive and well-balanced wine with lots of flavour on the nose and palate. I picked out liquorice, fresh herbs and cherry - but much else besides. This full-bodied but complex wine is drinking well now but will develop well with ageing. Try with roasts, cheese and pasta.
 

December 2013


All wines are available from Bibendum Wines. www.bibendum-wine.co.uk

 

 

Three Cheers for Wine Society 

 

 

Why join the Wine Society? It's actually a good question, given that there is a (small) charge to join and there are many other good places to buy wine. And surely an organisation that has been running since 1874 and seems designed to appeal to Daily Telegraph readers in middle England must be a bit, well, passe? Fuddy duddy?
Over the past few weeks I have been trying a few of their wines and you know what? The Wine Society is actually very good at what it does not least because it has an incredible range, with wines from many places you probably have never heard of, using grape varieties that are off the beaten track of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot, and at fair prices too, with around 200 wines available for under £7.50.
As well as providing a fine range of wines imported by themselves or others, they put their names to wines to wines from classic producing regions in the styles that one would expect: the reasonably priced The Society's Argentine Malbec at £6.95 is a good example of this famous grape variety grown in the country and region (Mendoza) that has so popularised it. The famous Exhibition range does the same thing for just about every wine well-known, popular wine making region, albeit at a higher price (and quality). 
It is also not afraid to offer wines that would have most importers running fast in the opposite direction: earlier this year they had a fine Kalecik Karasi from Turkey, in style and taste like a slightly perfumed, soft new word Pinot Noir. Sadly unavailable now though.
A glance though their excellently compiled online list provides assurance that these guys know what they are doing. Under Australia, that country's first families of wine - Yalumba, d'Arenberg etc - are all well-represented with the latter even having the One Hundred for Four Shiraz 2010, as well as the One Hundred for Four SGM, both made to commemorate the winery's 100 centenary. Lebanon has the wines you would expect - think Hochar's Chateau Musar and his cheaper Hochar - but also newer wines, including the 15% Massaya Classic 2009, a powerful Levantine blend of 60% Cinsault, and 20% each of Syrah and Cab Sav.
So what can I recommend? The society has so many good wines that one could spend hours extolling them, but of what I have tasted recently, the following stand out:

The Foundry Rousanne 2010 (South Africa, £10.95) and Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2009 (South Africa, £17), both whites. I love these wines because they are so emblamatic of the many exciting things Cape producers are doing, even with white wines where boring old SB once predominated but where wine growers are now unafraid to experiment with lesser known varieties. The first of these is actually a blend (a bit of Viognier and Grenache Blanc is added to the mix to bring about a delicious mineral-focused wine but with plenty of fruit. The Semillion is barrel-fermented and very approachable, made by Mark Kent who is deemed one of the Cape's most dynamic wine-makers (and famous for the Porcupine Ridge and the excellent Wolftrap range). Simply delicious.

Semeli Mountain Sun Red 2010 (Greece, red, 13.5%, £9.95) is made from 100% barrel-aged Agiorgitiko (try saying that when you are tired and emotional) and suggests immediately barbecued lamb, feta cheese Greek salads and warmth. The only surprise is that this is a described as a medium bodied wine: I find it quite weighty. My only complaint is that the winery uses plastic corks - an impractical, environmental and aesthetic abomination I thought we'd seen the back of.
Another excellent find - and thankfully, still available - is the 2010 Kaiserstuhl Pinot Noir (Germany, £13.50), a silky, suprisingly full bodied offering from Germany. This wine really surprised me not because it was soo good - like many Pinot fans I have long known Germany is capable of making good ones - but because of the style. Winemaker Karl Johner has somehow managed to fashion what the website says is a Burgundy type wine but which I think is more like Central Otago Pinot, in the heart of Baden, normally known for a much leaner and more acidic style. This is pretty full bodied, quite strong - 13.5% - and as the use of a stelvin rather than cork, modern in approach and style. Like the Semeli, well worth trying. 

 

October 2013 

 

From a Fairview to a Rickety Bridge

 

 

At a recent presentauon at the trade show Imbibe in early July, a well-known MW desribed South African wines as "muddy" and admitted he tended to avoid them. Having been around quite a few South African wineries earlier this year and got a sense of the huge degree of innovation taking place in the industry, I strongly disagree. OK, there are some offenders but generally South African wines have significantly improved in recent years - which is just as well, as some have increased prices quite dramatically, even allowing for exchange rate movements. Here are four wines - two white, two red - that prove me right and that MW at Imbibe quite wrong.


Rickety Bridge, Paulina's Reserve Semillion 2008, white, 13.5%, around £10
Despite its overblown reputation as South Africa's foodie mecca, Franschoek winemakers actually produce in relatively tough terrain, with many of the vineyards overshadowed by mountains. This fast improving winery shows just what can be done in relatively difficult conditions with grapes that are not always the easiest to handle. This is a wonderfully rich, full-on Semillon with lots of creamy citrus flavours and a pleasing backdrop of nuttiness that will make it a successful partner to seafood and fish dishes, but which will also work wonderfully on its own as an aperitif.

Rickety Bridge, Pinotage 2010, red, 13.5%, around £10
This sturdy well made Pinotage is a rebuff to those who say South Africa's native grape is muddy - quite a frequent accusation made by those who don't appreciate what a wonderfully characteristic grape it can be. Aged for 14 months in oak, this is a complex and layered wine that could probably do with another two years before it is at its best. There are hints of chocolate and cinnamon here but the overwhelming impression is of ripe red fruit, with strawberry predominant.

Fairview Viognier 2010, white, 14%, around £12
Charles Back is one of the Cape's great innovators and his Viognier - launched a few years ago in the belief that Paarl has the soil and climate to make wines in the Condrieu style - is an absolute humdinger. Neither too fat (often a problem with viognier here with some less skillfully made wines clocking in at 15% alcohol) nor too lean, this has lots of complexity and will go well with Asian foods but also on its own.

Fairview JakkalsFontein Shiraz 2007, red, 15%, around £15-18
My only complaint with this wine is that it is still too young to be drunk! Although five years have passed since bottling, I reckon it will be another two or even three before all the rich nuance comes to the fore. Named after the jackels that frequent a freshwater spring close to the vinyard, this is produced on unirrigated bush vines in Swartland. One of the hottest wine producing regions in the country, which goes some way towards explaining the high alcohol - the grapes that go into this wine are small and thick-skinned. The result is a very intense, full-bodied almost black wine with lots of black and red berry fruit and elements of chocolate on the nose and palate. Definitely one for laying down.


Rickety Bridge is imported by Legacy Wines (www.legacywines.co.uk) and is available from  a variety of indepedent stores as well as Amazon; Fairview Wines are imported by Liberty Wines (www.libertywines.co.uk)  and are also available from independents. Contact importers for more information. 

 August 2013

 

 

 

 

M&S look east

 

 

Waitrose - as ever - went first, but now it's Marks & Spencer's turn to launch a new batch of wines from the Eastern Mediterranean. Available only from its online store either individually or in selected red and white cases, the 15 wines are well worth a close look. 

M&S wine-buyers have selected wines from Israel, Turkey, Greece, Lebanon,Slovenia and Croatia and for the most part, they have made an interestingselection although for my liking there hasn't been sufficient focus on
indigenous grapes. My bottle of Anforo Trio 2010, from Turkey, a medium-bodied blend of Shiraz, Kelecik Karasi and Cabernet Sauvignon tasted oxidised but even so, I suspect it would have been a braver and more interesting choice to have selected a wine made purely from Kalecik Karasi, Turkey's premier grape variety: akin to a silky, slighly perfumed Pinot Noir, this can knock socks off comparable light-medium bodied wines.

Similarly, Binyamina's Merlot 2010 (from Galilee, no less) is nice enough - a well structured and decently crafted Merlot with decent body and all the cherry and raisin characteristics you would expect - but again, Israel can
make much more interesting wines and it's a shame M&S couldn't be braver in their selection.

The Lebanese reds raise the same issue. The Cadet de Ka 2008 (14%, £8.49) is an unremarkable, slighly muddy blend of Cab Sav, Merlot and Syrah from the Bekaa Valley, which doesn't have much character at all. 

Much better is the Chateau Ksara Clos de St Alponese 2009 (13%, £9.49) made from Syrah, Cab Sav and Cab Franc - this has lots of structure and good fruit (mainly blackberry and cherry on the palate) and works really well with food but again, one slightly lacks the sense or taste of place.

That said, there are two wines here which merit a place amongst our wines of the month, both from Greece which God Knows, needs us to buy as much of its wine as possible.

Red on Black, Nemea 2010, 13.5% (£8.49) is a wonderfully rich, full on, full-bodied red made exclusively from the Agiorgitko grape, which is indigenous to Greece. This has lots of smoky dark red plum flavours and is fantastically dark in colour, which explains the name and label. Made in the Nemea region of the the Peleponnese, this comes from the Mitravelas Estate which uses only 20 year old vines.
The grape is one of the most ancient in Europe - it apparently dates back to the era of the Ancient Greeks - but here is so well made it seems wonderfully fresh and different. Completely unoaked this will go very well with Greek food (of course): maybe a souvlaki or two, or a nice mousaka? Very good value indeed.

Atlantis Santorini, 2011, 13.5% (£9) is also a wonderfully different wine, made also from an indigenous grape, in this case Assyrtiko (which grows very well in Santorini's volcanic soil) and a little bit of Aidani and Athiri (two local grapes I had never heard of) thrown in for good measure. This is lovely lemony wine, very refreshing - it would be even more so if drunk sitting outside but the British weather currently prevents this - with lots of mineral notes. The vines are over 50 years old, which adds to its character. The screwcap closure is a good idea too; other Assyrtiko wines I have tasted have seemed quite subdued, which in some cases I was inclined to blame on poor cork. This makes an excellent aperitif but will also work well with fishcakes, grilled fish and seafood.

The hope has to be that M&S stay the course with this concept rather longer than Waitrose did. Of the many excellent wines launched as part of its Eastern Med showcase - including an appealing Merlot from Montenegro - only a few made it to the permanent list, including the Tsantali Organic Cab Sav and the Hatzidakis Assyritko, both from Greece. A shame because this is a region wine-lovers should really get to know.

June 2012 


 

March/April 2012

 

Good quality, well-priced Australian and New Zealand wine has just become that much closer with the announcement by Negociants, the UK-based wine importer and distributor 100% owned by Yalumba, that it is to sell direct to restaurants and independents. For those tired of the sub-standard New World wine that still proliferates at supermarkets, this can only be good news.
As well as entry-level Oxford Landing, Negociants represents a large number of mid range and high-end producers. These include names familiar to every fan of New World wine: Riesling specialists mesh and Pewsey Vale, sparkling Tasmanian producer Jansz (great wines but always worth paying the extra for the vintage over the NV cuvee), West Australia's Vasse Felix and Nautilus Estate from New Zealand.  They also import some newer brands like the Tempranillo-focused Running with Bulls, However the main pull is the wide range of Jim Barry and Yalumba wines that Negociants' decision will hopefully make more widely available. For those who love their Barossa or Clare Valley Shiraz, and their Coonawarra Cabernets, this can only be good news.
At the high end, Clare Valley-based Jim Barry make The Armagh (Shiraz) and The Benbournie (Cabernet) but at much more modest prices, there is a range of choice including the wonderfully rich, full bodied The Lodge Hill Shiraz, currently on its 2009 vintage.
The Yalumba range is even more extensive with wines from Barossa, Eden Valley and elsewhere in South Australia. For fans of Shiraz and Cabernet - and of blends containing these - Yalumba is a must as it is for Viognier fans: the producer makes many, culminating at the high end with The Virgilius from Eden Valley, the producer's most prestigious white wine. Yalumba's range now includes a new-to-the-UK mid range wine, the Galway Vintage Barossa Shiraz 2010, which though still very young shows impressive depth, with mulberry, liquorice and cocoa flavours on the nose and palate.
The full range of wines that Negociants offer make it hard to chose two for our wines of the month. Let's have a go though.

Jim Barry's Lodge Hill Dry Riesling 2010 (white, £12) is a steely, characterful wine, quite elegant with lots of fruit (apricot and passion-fruit, amongst others), produced at one of Jim Barry's highest altitude vineyards. With 3.3g of residual sugar it retains some sweetness to give support to the zingy mouth feel.     This works well as an accompaniment to Asian dishes but also on its own, as an aperitif.

Yalumba's spicy, full bodied The Strapper 2010 Barossa Grenache Shiraz Mataro (red, £12) deserves special mention for the sheer intensity of its mouth feel, revealing the warm silkiness of the Grenache blended with the warm intensity of the Shiraz and Mouvedre. This is very much a winemaker's GSM - there's lots going on here, with layers of soft tannins, dark berry fruit and liquorice, that will only evolve over time.

One can only hope that Negociants presence on the UK market will increase as a result of its decision to sell directly. The range and quality of its wines are a firm rebuke to those who say Australian wine has had its day.

 

January/February 2012

With supermarkets dominating UK wine sales, it is more important than ever to find outlets that sell a broad range of interesting wines from a range of countries at good prices. Step forward Virgin Wines. This online company has been through various permutations over the years but now seems to have found its niche by selling approachable and affordable boutique wines: it currently has some 500 on its website, with new world wines probably more numerous than old. It is an interesting list for those who appreciate slightly batty names  - the Black Pig Single Vineyard Clare Valley Shiraz 2010 is well worth trying though I, for one, was disappointed by the absence of a pig on the label - as is the lighter, tangy and quite complex Magnificent Crowing Cockerel GSM 2009. However reliable old favorites are also there, including the delectable, very well made Missionvale Chardonnay (2009) from Bouchard Finlayson in the Western Cape. 
Virgin Wines should also appeal to those who like unusual grape varieties - Lagrein features, and judging by the drop-down list of grape varieties, they often have much more exotic wines. Virgin also offers sometimes peculiar but still effective blends: the PinZin from Wellington in South Africa is one such, comprising Pinotage and Zinfandel. This works quite well although I'm still not sure which of the two are more dominant in this eminently gluggable wine. But the important thing is that most of the wines are pretty good, as well as innovative, so much so that we have chosen a red and white from their list for our wines of the month.

The Coltbridge Reserve High Eden Valley Chardonnay 2010 (from South Australia, white, 14.5%) is everything a good Auusie Chardonnay should be. There is oak - I admit it, I like oak as well as some body in my Chardonnay - but not too much, whilst the plentiful summer fruit flavours (think peach and pear) are supported by light citrus flavours that balance the vanilla coming through from the oak. At £11.99 a bottle this is well worth splashing out for.

From the old world - the Tirol in northern Italy to be precise - comes Castelfeder Lagrein Klassiche 2007 (red, Italy, 13.5%) , a medium to full bodied mature wine that utilises its native grape to great effect.  The wine has a deep berry colour and lots of spicy vegetal as well as liquorice notes to balance out this otherwise often tannic grape variety. For an essentially austere wine this has lots of creaminess on the palate and evolves well in the glass. Well worth trying at £12 a bottle.

 

November/December 2011

Fairleigh Estate Riesling 2010 (white, New Zealand), 12%, £8.49 Majestic

For many consumers, Riesling is a tricky grape to get right: it can be either too sweet - which renders it undrinkable with most foods and unsuitable to most British palates) or too dry, which can often mean an acidity level so through the roof it burns a hole in your stomach. This inexpensive Kiwi wine (currently on promotion at Majestic, making it £6.99 when you buy two or more) is just right; there's enough sweetness to make it an ideal aperitif but also to go with many foods, in particular Asian. For those not in the know, Fairleigh Estate is produced by Wither Hills Vineyards, and the range - which includes an acceptable and well priced Pinot Noir, i getting better all the time. Perfect for those wanting to escape boring Sauvignon Blanc during the festive season! 

Devil's Corner Pinot Noir, 2010 (red, Australia), around £12, leading independents

"You try and find a decent Pinot under £15," I was challenged the other week. Well, here it is: a well made, relatively big Pinot from Tasmania imported by those lovely people at ABS Wine Agencies and made by respected producer Tamar Ridge. This has all the characteristics you look for in a New World Pinot - lots of cherry fruit on the nose and palate, plenty of spice and a nice, toasty flavour that makes it an ideal winter wine for those who veer away from a big Shiraz or Zinfandel. Will go very well with the Christmas Turkey - or goose, if that's your bird. 

 

September/October 2011

Ritu Viognier 2010 (white, India), 12.5%, £6.99 (Waitrose)

I thought long and hard before deciding to include this wine as our white wine of the month. On the negative side, this is not by any means a great or arguably even a good Viognier, even at the price: South Africa, in particular, can produce much better (Brampton is one brand that springs to mind) as can Chile, and without the rather unwelcome bitter taste that comes through on the palate.  However given where it comes from - Sahyadri Valley, near Bombay in the state of Maharastra - this is an impressive achievement, and proof that India is finally getting its winemaking act together. The spicy Syrah produced by this same winery and sold by Waitrose is probably the better wine but this is an acceptable glugger, with a lightly perfumed nose and welcome traces of peach and apricot on the palate. This website's raison d'etre is finding interesting wines for interesting times, from off the beaten track producing regions and countries, and this is a prime example of the many exciting changes sweeping through the wine world.    

Montaria Reserva 2009 (red, Portugal), 14%, £9.99 (www.nakedwines.com)

Started a few years ago to promote up and coming wineries, Naked Wines seems to get better and better and this fine, fruity and bold blend from the Alentejo is a fine example of what the company is doing right. Using Syrah, Aragonez and Trincadeira - and aging in French and American oak for seven months - former consultant and now first time winemaker Antonio Ventura has produced an exceptional wine that will work well with most meats and cheeses, but also on its own. Powerful full-bodied berry flavours, hints of vanilla and chocolate make this a real crowd pleaser but also one likely to appeal to more refined palates. For some reason Naked Wines haven't hitherto concentrated much on Portugal - attention seems instead to be on South Africa, France and Spain - but on this evidence, it really should.    

 

July/August 2011

Avery's Pioneer Range: Tasmania Riesling 2009 (white, Australia), 12.5%, £10.99 and Avery's Project Winemaker: Clare Valley Riesling 2010 (white, Australia), 13.5%, £9.99 (www.averys.com)

Two whites this month, both from Avery's and both in their own different ways, crackers, proof that these approaches to producing and exporting wine works very well, not least because they illustrate so well the characteristics of the respective regions. The Tasmanian wine, from Tamar Ridge, probably has the edge: very mineral but with lots of fruit aromas - passionfruit and green lime - that works well on the attack but holds its own, with some nice residual sugar. The South Australian Wine is bigger and chunkier but also somehow drier although nice floral flavours make this a great but delicate partner to most fish dishes. Try them both if only to see that how differently the same grape variety can behave in different locales and soils.  

 

Satrapezo Saperavi 2007 (red, Georgia), 13%, £24.35 from www.gaumarjos.com

 

This is, quite simply, the most extraordinary wine i have tasted this year - and in a good way.

Those in the know - or those who shop at Waitrose, which stocks another Saperavi, Orovela - will already be familiar with Georgia's signature grape, the Republic's answer to Malbec or Shiraz. What they may not know if that increasingly Georgian winemakers - drawing on Georgia's heritage as the oldest winemaking country in the world - are looking to the past in making their wines, which historically were crushed, fermented and stored in clay amphorae (Qveri) that were buried in the ground and lined with beeswax. Satrapezo is made according to these traditions until primary fermentation before being put into barrique and undergoing malolactic fermentation. The result is this fine, full-bodied and flavour-some wine, with lots of black fruit, tar and liquorice, good supportive tannins and a round, warm finish. This will age for many years but is drinking very, very well now. Great with meats and cheeses - which is how Georgians like their wine - or on its own, ti savour its remarkable flavours.    

 

 

May/June 2011

Avery's Project Winemaker: Vondeling Mourvedre 2010 (red, South Africa), 14%, £8.99 from Avery's (www.averys.com) 

There is something quite heroic about Avery's Project Winemaker collection: so far mostly Australian wines, this range has been developed as a series of joint venture's between the Bristol-based wine importer and winemakers in a particular region to capture the region's essence for wine enthusiasts, at a price that won't break the bank. This first South African wine in the series is from Vondeling, in Voor Paardeberg, and is a cracker despite its youth. Full of cinnamon and wood flavours but with minimal oak this has quite a few years ahead of it but also tastes pretty impressive now. 

Cave de Ribeauville Collection, Andante: Gewurztraminer-Muscat 2009 (white, France), 13%, £9.89 from Bibendum Wine (www.bibendum-wine.co.uk)  

It's summer - at last - and there's the old conundrum: what white to drink. Well, you can put away your Chardies and Sauv Blancs because this interesting and well-made blend from Alsace is a real cracker. Made by the region's - indeed France's - oldest cooperative, this is a fruity, off-dry blend of 80% Gewurzt and 20% Muscat and is an ideal aperitif but also food wine. Lovely aromas, this really puts the A into Aromatic. My only complaint is that although Cave de Ribeauville have a great range of wines, just a small fraction is available over here; I guess we should be thankful that this excellent value wine is amongst them. Deserves to be much better known and appreciated. 

 

March/April 2011

 

Dowie Doole California Road Shiraz 2008 (red, Australia), 14.5%, £16.99 from John Armit (www.armit.co.uk)

There's nothing like a big Aussie red to cheer you up, even when the weather is getting better. This one from Australias home of Shiraz is a real cracker: lots of spicy fruit (blackcurrant and black cherry predominately), nice vanilla undertones, well used oak and great body.  Dowie Doole's California Road vineyard has been planted for over 125 years making it one of South Australia's oldest vineyards, and one of the lowest yielding. This wine will continue to improve for another 8-10 years but is drinking well now. Try with roasts and hard cheeses. 

Incognicio Viognier Shiraz (white, South Africa), 13%, £8.99 from Virgin Wines (www. virginwines.co.uk)

Here's an odd one. I have to admit I did a double take when I loked at the label but yes, this is a white wine made from mainly Viognier but also Shiraz grapes, which as you, I and just about everyone else knows, are RED. Winemaker Nico Vermeulen's trick is to press them only slightly so no colour comes out, and then cold ferment the wine, mixing it with viognier. The result is very moorish, perfect as an aperitif and with fish, but even more as a conversation stopper. "Shiraz, thought that was a red wine? Yes, it is but..." 

 

January/February 2011

Arco do Esporao 2008 (red, Portugal), 14%, on special offer at £7.11 until January 25. Available exclusively from Waitrose

Here's one to banish the winter blues - a big, beefy Alentejo red made by Australian david baverstock at Esporao, one of the country's oldest wineries. This is a full-on, blackcurrent, liquorice and chocolate red made with Syrah, Aragonez and of course Touriga Nacional. Unlike the higher end wines from Esporao there's not a huge amount of nuance here but this isn't trying to be that sort of wine. Goes very well with most meats and cheeses but also, frankly, does pretty well on its own. Will develop a little over the next 2-3 years but drinking very well now. 

 

Nelson Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2009/2010 (white, South Africa), 12.5%, £8.14. Available from Corney and Barrow.

Almost the polar opposite to our red of the month, this low key, fruity and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc from Paarl is made by Lisha Nelson, daughter of the estate's owner. She has got the tone exactly right - lots of fruit (greengage, a hint of apricot and peach) but also lots of freshness and zest, to make this an ideal aperitif or accompaniment to fish or poultry.  Made from selected, hand-picked grapes, the wine puts most similarly priced South African Sauvignons - and even some Kiwi ones - to shame. Light, zesty and appealiing, this is summer in your glass. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tasting Times….2014

 

 

The tasting season has been in full swing these past few months. With generics focusing their efforts on the early part of the year, this is the time for the more unusual producers and regions to show themselves.

 

First off, in early May at an impressive venue just off Parliament Square, was the English Wine Producers Tasting. Unlike at previous English tastings where loneliness could be a real concern, this was very well attended with most of the focus on the extensive central tables, which featured most of what was available at the tasting. As usual sparkling wine predominated with the industry clearly moving towards traditional champagne varietals and away from grapes once used pretty extensively in English sparking wine, that few outside the industry had frankly ever hear of. That said, there were some wines made with 100% Seyval Blanc, with Auxerrois Blanc, Reichensteiner and Scheurebe also making appearances as part of a blend. The general conclusion I drew? The English are definitely getting better at making sparkling wine and at the mid range in particular can definitely give the French a run for their money – although quality, because of the high price of land in southern England and still small production volumes, hardly comes cheap. The only sparkler here under £20 was barely drinkable whilst the best examples – Nyetimber’s Blanc de Blanc and Nyetimber Rose – are around £40 and £45 respectively. Best buy? Probably the sturdy, well-structured 100% Pinot Noir Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rose Brut 2012 at £26.95.

 

The English climate is why even with the help of French and Australian winemakers, the industry struggles to make decent, drinkable red wines. Those produced out of the north of England (!) barely tasted of wine at all – seriously, why do they bother? That said some good reds can be found – Brightwell’s Oxford Regatta 2011 (an interesting blend of 85% Dornfelder and 15% Dunkelfelder) was surprisingly well balanced with good up front fruit, and inexpensive at £10.80. It was much better than their Pinot Noir, although the wine being shown was from a dismal year (2012) so the comparison isn’t quite fair. Pinots produced by some of England’s best known wineries – Chapel Down 2012 and Three Choirs 2011, both around £15 – were underwhelming at best. Best red? Without doubt the Gusborne Pinot Noir 2011, at around £20: a surprisingly gutsy, quite full bodied expression of the grape.

 

Whites and Pinks? Quality was pretty high although so too was the acidity of some of the wines – rather too much , for my liking. The focus amongst still whites is still on “traditional” English grape varieties – including Bacchus and Madeleine Angevine – but there were some pleasant surprises. Bolney Wine Estate’s Pinot Gris 2013 was fresh and accessible with lots of good fruit though priced at between £16-20, I would probably rather go with an Alsace Pinot Gris. Two decent whites were Biddenden’s Ortega 2013 (around £10.60) and Astley’s Veritas (100% Kerner, £12), whilst Camel Valley’s Pinot Rose was also good value at £12. However the best whites of the event were the Litmus White Element 2012 – a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Bacchus, £20 – and the Litmus White Pinot Noir 2012, £25. Both are lightly oaked, well-made wines with a plethora of fruit flavours that will probably age beautifully; John Worontschak and Mike Florence, who run Litmus with the aim of making the best English wines available, have really done a good job here. What’s even more remarkable is that these wines were made in 2012 a year when the weather was so dismally wet and overcast that many other English winemakers gave up the ghost altogether.

 

Jura-ssic Jeaune

 

Of you aren't familiar with wines from the Jura – a small, semi-mountainous region of France bordering Switzerland (slightly to the southeast of Burgundy) – you are in good company. Accounting for just 0.2% of French wine production, of which at least 25% is accounted for by sparking Cremant, usually made from Chardonnay and sometimes also the local Savagnin grapes, Jura wines have long been obscure.

No longer it would seem: popular amongst wine trendies in New York, Paris and LA, wines from this region are becoming better known amongst wine affectionados in the UK. And what's not to like? As well as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the Jura has obscure grape varieties: the aforementioned Savagnin (Traminer), which can be made in a traditional oxidative style or in a more normal, ouile, style or turned into a Sherry-like wine Vin Jeaune, after yeast (flor) is allowed to sit atop the wine for several months at least before bottling. Amongst red varieties there are Plousard and Trousseau, the latter of which is also commonly known as Bastardo in Portugal and is used in Dao, amongst other regions. The last two make unusual, characterful wines that can look almost like roses, but which are at the same time incredibly aromatic and earthy. And being a traditional region, nothing is straightforward: Winch Lorch, author of a recently published book on Jura wines, says this is “arguably the most complicated wine region in the world” with huge differences in terroir, soil and climate impacting on the wines, although unusually, the whole region is AOC. The result is wines that are different, not just from wines produced in other regions but from one another. Jura wines can be highly variable with some excellent examples often to be found along very average or reductive ones.

So what would I recommend? A very well attended tasting in London in May showed a pretty expansive range and I came away with a few (quite subjective and unscientific) impressions.

Vin Jaune, the region's celebrated yellow wine and made of Savagnin, is an acquired taste---and one I must admit, I haven't yet acquired. These wines – which by law can only be sold in 62 cl bottles – taste like an extreme version of sherry, very dry with big up front flor flavours. Some can be very good like the Chateau-Chalon AOC 2005 from Domaine Baud (around £30 in the UK) or the Chateau Chalon 2007 from Domaine Berthet-Bondet (similarly priced). Others can cloy pretty fast. 

Although Savagnin is a fascinating grape (late ripening and very hard to work with) in its oxidised form, as a table wine, it can also be hard going: stick with the open or ouille style, which taste “more normal”.

If you are tasting a number of Jura wines, start with the reds – most are light and soft enough not to overwhelm the palate – and then go onto the whites, before ending with Vin Jaune.

Reds – the production of which predominate in the Arbois area – are generally more interesting than whites: even if you can't really tell your Ploussards from your Trousseaux both local varietals can produce decent and quite unusual wines. Try the Arbois AOC Trousseau les Corvees 2012, a deep, surprsingly fruit-filled example of this variety. Amongst the Ploussard, Cote de Feule 2012 by Domaine Hughes-Beguet is worth seeking out, available from Hughes-Beguet Wines in Kent at around £11.40 a bottle.

 

Flying Rhinos from South Africa Impress

 

The location of the first large-scale tasting of the Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (PIWOSA) couldn't have been better: Kensington Roof Gardens, now owned apparently by Richard Branson, is a remarkable venue, with Spanish Gardens, water features and some resident flamingos – not to mention some colourful Rhino statues bought in especially. These all impressed, but not as much as the wines, which reminded just how great wines from this country can be, when tasted away from the increasingly dead hand of Wines of South Africa, which seems increasingly to be promoting the quantity rather than quality end of the market.

Piwosa takes things back to basics, with 15 of the country's better wineries showing together what South Africa is good at. There are so many wines that impress that it seems best just to list them:

 

Atraxia Wines: This outfit, overseen by resident winemaker Kevin Grant, has special focus on whites: try the 2013 Chardonnay, not cheap at jyst under £20, but with lean and focused, with a lovely minerality enhanced by the subtle use of oak.

 

Beaumont Hope: This Overberg winery focuses on RSA's traditional varieties, Pinotage and Chenin Blanc (although it also makes a very nice, well priced Mourvedre). The stand-out for me was the Marguerite Chenin Blanc 2009, a highly expressive, French barrel fermented expression of the grape, with almond notes detectable amongst the fruit. Good value at £16.

 

The Drift: One of Bruce Jack's more unusual projects – because it really is a farm, growing wines in the Overberg Highlands, miles from any other vineyard – produced two of the stand out wines of this tasting. Priciest was There are Still Mysteries Pinot Noir 2012 (£70, single vineyard) a wine of remarkable depth, complexity and character, whilst the Mary Le Bow Farm Blend 2011 (Cab Sav, Shiraz and Petit Verdot) was equally delicious, worth every penny of £33, and full of dark forest fruits.

 

Ken Forrester Vineyards: If there is one winemaker who has kept the idea of Chenin Blanc, once South Africa's predominate wine variety, alive it is Ken. His wines never disappoint: opening a 2000 Chenin Blanc, which sold of peanuts in Oddbins on realise, he revealed a glorious deep yellow wine full of character and comparable to a Hunter Valley Semillon. His Old Vine Reserve Chenin is a good deal at £12 but hunt out the FMC 2012 at around £26: full of character, vitality and flavour, with wonderful structure and depth, this should put paid to the lie hat Chenin is somehow an inferior grape variety.

 

Raats Family Wines: According to Bruwer Raats, whatever tastes of grass should be consumed only by cows – and for this reason the amusing ebullient winemaker refuses to make Sauvignon Blanc. More power to him because his Chenin Blanc is excellent, especially the Raats Family Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2012 a bargain at £15 especially as its made from 40 year old vines. Bruwer's Cab Franc dominated reds are generally excellent too; try the Family Cabernet Franc 2011, at just under £20 for an excellent, medium to full-bodied expression of the grape.