Small but perfectly formed

Canadian wine continues to impress, with new styles and ideas from innovative people. For publication in week of 22 May 2017.

Canada has been known around the world for making Icewine since the early 1990s. But Canada produces more than this sweet, delicious drop, and is focusing on still wines from international grapes like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir, and also making some sensational fizz.

As of May this year Canada had about 12,150 hectares of vines – a slight rise on the figure from a year earlier. The total  remains small by world standards – Germany has about the same number of hectares devoted to one grape, Pinot Noir – but quality continues to rise.

The Niagara region of southern Ontario and the Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia are the heavyweights, producing about 90 per cent of the country’s premium wine. New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Quebec and Nova Scotia also make wine, though production is small. The last two provinces are emerging most rapidly.

Icewine could best be described as an extreme: It can only be harvested from grapes that freeze naturally on the vine when the air temperature is minus 8C (though typically picking happens at minus 10 to minus 12, which must be a tough job). This partly explains the high cost, along with the fact yields are much lower than for table wine – about 10 to 15 per cent of an average table wine harvest.

Land is more expensive than in much of California and labour costs can be five times higher than in Napa, which explains the relatively high cost of Canadian wines.

Sue-Ann Staff, winemaker at Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery in Jordan, Ontario, is known as the “Ice Queen” because of her reputation for crafting excellent Icewine. She was named the province’s winemaker of the year in 2002, soon after graduating from the University of Adelaide in Australia. Her magical 2012 Icewine is made from the Vidal grape and has 240 grams of residual sugar. This high level of sugar produces a luscious mouthfeel, balanced by keen acidity. The result is a wine that is simply delicious, and would pair with a range of foods from foie gras as a starter through to strong blue cheeses to conclude a meal.

She joked that the last drops in the bottle could be mixed with vodka and ice to make an excellent martini. Canadians are innovative people.

Diamond Estates, also in Ontario, similarly makes a fine Icewine from Vidal grapes grown in the Niagara Peninsula. Sales director Peter Toms said his estate exports to China, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Icewine would pair with a range of Chinese foods, and could be sensational with Peking duck, depending on the sauce.

Norman Hardie at Norman Hardie Winery in Ontario received glowing attention in this column a year ago, and he continues to make delicious wines, focusing on cool climate grapes. His three Pinots and two Chardonnays tasted this week were excellent wines. The whites are full of character and flavours of zesty citrus and nuts, while the pinots are delicate and elegant, echoing raspberry notes and a light oak touch.

Hardie said he chooses quality oak with the aim of letting the terroir sing. “We spend a lot of money on good oak to make sure our wines don’t taste of oak,” he said. “We focus on fruit.” He uses the best oak barrels made by Burgundy coopers, with a light toast, to impart his signature delicacy of touch.

Hardie manages to entice mouth-watering flavours from his wines with alcohol levels under 12 per cent. This comes from using indigenous yeasts – those found on grape skins and in the cellar – rather than introducing commercial yeasts. “Indigenous yeasts are lazy buggers and eat less sugar [during fermentation], which reduces alcohol levels [because sugars are not converted to alcohol].” Hardie has been making a few wines with zero sulphur because he believes a market exists for these kinds of wines. All his bottles since he started in 2004 have been sealed with screwcaps.

Ontario shares the same latitude as France’s Burgundy region and has attracted favourable attention from Wine Spectator and Decanter magazines. Indeed, the Ontario wine marketing board’s brochure features a comment from leading Decanter columnist, Steven Spurrier, on its first page: “I was amazed”. The Wines of British Columbia brochure also features a Spurrier quote: “Your wines are sensational.”

Three major lakes in Ontario act as hot water bottles in winter, and the region sits on a bed of limestone (the same as in Champagne and also England), which perhaps explains the distinct chalky notes in many of the red wines, and a sense of “minerality” in the whites.

Canada’s best sparkling wines are made via the traditional methods employed in Champagne and spend many years on the lees before being disgorged. They tend to have more flavour and feel less austere than champagne.

The climate of Nova Scotia on the east coast is very similar to that of Champagne, but the region has a longer growing season. Cools nights and hot summer days permit perfect ripening of grapes. One of the region’s major successes has been the Benjamin Bridge Winery. The majority of its wines are pre-sold.

Winemaker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers has featured in previous columns and continues to make marvellous sparkling and still wines. His 2008 classic method sparkling from fruit grown in the Gaspereau Valley, where Benjamin Bridge is located, spends six years on the lees and is delicious. It could easily be confused for a high-end champagne, and includes the classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Canada is one of the few wine-producing countries where domestic wines do not dominate the market. Local wines represent less than half of what is consumed.

The biggest growth in vineyard numbers has occurred in British Columbia on the west coast. In 1990 when the VQA or Vintner’s Quality Alliance standard was created, the province only had 17 wineries. A quarter century later the number had soared to more than 260.

The Okanagan Valley dominates, producing four in five bottles in the province. VQA guarantees that wines are only made with grapes from British Columbia. Some of the best BC wines tasted at Canada House in London came from Culmina Family Estate Winery and Seven Stones Winery.

A national online wine directory, Wine411 (http://www.wine411.ca), offers information about 700 Canadian wineries and about 5,000 wines.

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English 2017 vintage “challenging”

Yields of English and Welsh wine fell in 2016 because of bad weather but the industry believes its future is bright. For publication in week of 15 May 2017.

Production of English and Welsh wine from the 2016 vintage declined almost 18 per cent compared with the previous year, though marketing body English Wine Producers insisted it was a “high quality vintage”.

About 4.15 million bottles were made against 5.06 million in 2015. Data were released at the annual English Wine Producers trade tasting in London on May 8. The vagaries of the weather will always be a challenge in the United Kingdom. The 2014 vintage broke records, with 6.3 million bottles – 42 per cent higher compared with the 2013 harvest.

The 2017 harvest is expected to be more “challenging” after frost damaged vines in many areas this month and last. The impact was still being assessed. Ironically, vines were more susceptible to frost because they had flourished after a mild winter and early spring.

In a press statement English Wine Producers said: “Frost damage has been on the new growth from the primary buds. Vines carry secondary buds, which can develop to produce some fruit, albeit less in quantity. It is far too soon to assess the effect that this frost will have had until much further in to the growing season, after flowering.”

Brad Greatrix, assistant winemaker at Nyetimber, said temperatures at their Hampshire site fell to minus 6C on the night of April 27 and some of vineyards were badly hit by the frost. Yields could be halved, he said. Nyetimber is the largest vineyard landowner currently producing in England, with 145 hectares of vines across eight sites.

Denbies and Albury Vineyard in southern England were among other estates that suffered damage to their crop despite placing thousands of candles, known as “bougies” in France, among the vines to try to fend off frost. Denbies is the biggest single vineyard site in England, and is believed to have lost 75 per cent of its crop.

This year’s French wine harvest will be the smallest for 30 years because of bad weather, including frost. The Champagne region was especially hard hit. French grape-growers produced 43.2 million hectolitres, according to data released by the French agriculture ministry, about 6 per cent lower than the average of the past five years.

Despite the weather, the area under vine in the UK has doubled in the past eight years and has almost tripled since 2000. The UK had about 2,077 hectares of vines last year and the figure is predicted to rise to 2,330 hectares this year with another 1 million vines being planted.

Two in three bottles made in the UK are sparkling. A quarter are still white with the balance red and rose still wines. The industry has established its reputation based on numerous awards for fizz. In 2010 the 2006 Ridgeview Blanc de Blancs, made entirely from Chardonnay, was named the best sparkling wine in the world. It was the first time an English wine had beaten champagne for the prize.

Hong Kong-based winemaker Tersina Shieh studied oenology at Plumpton College in southern England, and remains familiar with the English wine industry. “There is no doubt about the quality of English sparkling wine,” she said.

Levels of base wine to make sparkling were good and established producers were “well prepared to cope with the increasing demand for English wine at home and abroad,” English Wine Producers said in its press release, noting that volumes would rise in the future as young vineyards were developed.

Simon Robinson, chairman of English Wine Producers and owner of Hattingley Valley Wines in Hampshire, described the bad weather as “disappointing” given the fine start to the year’s growing season. He acknowledged it was inevitable that some years would be less productive than others. “Our producers are accustomed to levels of variation and continue to set their sights on the future – challenging conditions such as these do not invalidate the basic business model either here or anywhere else in Europe,” drinks business magazine quoted him as saying.

Entrepreneur Penny Streeter purchased the Mannings Heath Golf Club and Wine Estate in southern England last year and has arranged for the planting of 38,000 vines within a 200-hectare park near Horsham. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes will be planted on about 18 hectares this year and next to make sparkling wine in 2020, with the first bottles available in 2023.

Streeter, born in Zimbabwe, was awarded the OBE for “services to enterprise” in 2006. She said the aim was to recreate a “South African-style wine tourism experience” where people could enjoy a parkland estate with fine wines and food.

Only 5 per cent of English sparkling wine is exported though English Wine Producers anticipates that overseas sales will rise in coming years.

Christian Seely is managing director of wine giant AXA which owns the famous port house Quinta do Noval, among other estates. He is also a partner in English sparkling wine producer Coates & Seely. He believes Coates & Seely sparkling is the only English fizz sold in France, noting that his wine was “strategically placed” in restaurants. “It can be found at four three-Michelin-star places in France, as well as Gordon Ramsay’s in Bordeaux.”

The company’s sparkling is sold in 14 countries. Leading wine critic Tom Stevenson described the non-vintage rose brut as “simply stunning” and “one of England’s greatest sparkling wines”. Another critic, Ollie Smith, said the 2009 La Perfide sparkling rose was a “new benchmark for English pink bubbles”. The company’s marketing brochure said Coates & Seely aims to combine French craftsmanship with English terroir to produce quality wines, and they have succeeded.

As of late 2015, the most recent figures from the Wine Standards branch of the Food Standards Agency, the UK had 502 commercial vineyards and 133 wineries. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most planted grapes, representing just over half of the total.

By late last year wines were exported to 27 countries, up from 19 a year earlier. Key markets include the United States, Scandinavia and Japan. Production is predicted to reach about 10 million bottles by 2020. Wine tourism is expanding rapidly and about 150 vineyards are open to the public, though accommodation tends to be limited and more restaurants need to open in the vineyards.

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Exploring Crus du Languedoc

Three of the seven Crus du Languedoc in the top level of the region’s new quality pyramid offer special joys. For publication in the week of 8 May 2017.

The notion of “garrique” is a feature of the Languedoc in the deep south of France. The word is defined as the low-growing vegetation in the hills around the Mediterranean. But in the Languedoc it refers almost to a feeling or sentiment: A combination of sunshine and “joie de vivre” mixed with the aromas of the thyme, rosemary, lavender and juniper that grow wild in the area.

It is easy to smell garrique in the wines of Faugeres, Corbieres-Boutenac and Pic Saint-Loup AOCs, three of the seven Crus du Languedoc that make up the top tier of the new quality pyramid.

Faugeres AOC is famous for its schist soils. These help vines retain moisture during the hot summers. The soils span a spectrum from yellow to orange to ochre, and even a soft blue in the less-elevated areas.

A high proportion of organic estates can be found among the 1,900 hectares of vines. The official figure is 45 per cent, though it’s probably higher. Interestingly, only two declared themselves bio-dynamic, though this could be because of what the locals call the tedious amount of documentation required.

The landscape is visually splendid: Rolling hills and estates separated by drystone walls made with schist, a metamorphic rock that splits into long flat pieces. Walls are “dry” because no mortar holds them together, just gravity and the skill of the wall-maker. The walls serve two main purposes – to protect against erosion on the slopes, and to provide a haven for bio-diversity.

Vine roots probe through the cracks in the schist to find moisture. The region produces about 880,000 750ml bottles a year. The mineral flavours the schist imparts are as noticeable as the garrique.

Grapes are classic Rhone. The AOC only makes reds and rose. Grenache tends to be harvested first, in the first week of September in the case of the 2016 vintage. Syrah and Carignan are harvested next. The Mourvedre is the last to be picked, about a month after the Grenache. Syrah in particular seems to like the schist soils.

Mas Olivier is a co-op founded in 1959. They make a delightful rose called Parfum de Schistes, or perfume of the schist soils, which is quite delicious. It is 60 per cent Grenache with 20 per cent each of Cinsault and Syrah. Juice is fermented at low temperature until dry and then blended after fermentation. Rose petal and red fruit flavours linger in the mouth, complemented by zesty citrus acidity.

A highlight were the wines of Damien Guerande, winemaker and viticulturalist at Vignobles Jeanjean. His 2014 Le Pere la Minute is one of the best wines I tasted while in the Languedoc, and after I complimented Damien he told me his wine had just received 93 Parker points.

The name suggests an obsessive father, and reflects the level of attention Damien gave his “baby”. His other red is the 2014 Maso-Schistes, suggesting that making wine in Faugeres is not financially rewarding and one needs to be brave to try. It’s a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre and is delicious in a racy, red-fruit-forward kind of style.

The region also has a distillery that makes fine (grape spirit). Atelier du Bouilleur near Montpellier (https://www.atelier-du-bouilleur.fr) has resurrected a tradition that was a feature of the region more than a century ago. They use traditional “charentais” (copper pot stills) to make five spirits, including La Fine Faugeres, once famous as the third brandy of France after Cognac and Armagnac. This brandy is barrel matured for five years after being made from Faugeres grapes. It sells for about 60 Euro for a half litre bottle and is an ideal companion on a winter night.

Corbieres-Boutenac AOC is noted for its old Carignan vines, many of them more than 100 years old and usually grown without trellising (known as field vines). Carignan can handle harsh conditions when other grapes die or struggle. The motto of the region is “force et douceur” which translates as power and delicacy, and it summarises the wines nicely.

The region has 184 hectares of vines and makes about 825,000 bottles a year. Older vines tend to be used for Corbieres-Boutenac AOC though the definition of “vignes veilles” is a moveable feast. One local winemaker said 50 years was his definition but there appears to be no agreement in the region.

The appellation covers 10 villages around the Pinada, a small mountain at the heart of the Corbieres area. Soft and full-bodied reds are a feature. Many winemakers use carbonic maceration, a technique that originated in the Beaujolais region. Carbon dioxide gas is pumped into a sealed container filled with whole bunches. The gas stimulates fermentation in individual grapes. The method ferments most of the juice while it is still inside each grape, though grapes at the bottom of the vessel are crushed by the weight of those on top and undergo conventional fermentation. The main benefit of this method is soft tannins and wines that are easy to drink when young.

Pic Saint-Loup AOC is the youngest of the Languedoc Crus, having been decreed at the end of January this year. It is north of the city of Montpelier in the foothills of the Cevenne ranges. These mountains dominate the landscape.

The region consists of about 1,000 hectares of vines. It has a special meso-climate because of its elevation (about 500 metres) and proximity to the sea, the latter offering cool sea breezes in the heat of the summer. The wide diurnal range in summer, when temperatures drop from 35C during the day to 15C at night, imparts intense flavours to the grapes.

Locals harvest about two weeks after everyone else in the Languedoc, and the clay-limestone soils have an affinity for Syrah grapes, which generally dominate the red blends and rose. The region makes about 5 million bottles a year, and seven out of eight are red. About two in five of the estates are organic.

Regis Valentin is the winemaker at Chateau de Lancyre. He ferments his reds in concrete tanks, though they do not receive any oak. The wines reflect the garrique that grows in abundance in the hills. Another attractive wine was the 2015 Bergerie du Capucin with its masses of violets and musk aromas, fresh acidity, soft tannins and delicate elegance. It’s a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre.

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World’s “largest vineyard”

The world’s biggest wine-growing region has been celebrating Terroirs et Millesimes en Languedoc. For publication in the week of 1 May 2017.

Xavier de Volontat, president of the group that represents the highest-quality wines in Languedoc-Roussillon, describes his region in southern France as the “world’s largest vineyard”. He is not exaggerating. The region produces more than a third of all France’s wine and about 40 per cent of all French exports.

Volontat’s Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc (CIVL) represents AOC wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which produces about 1,800 million bottles a year, or about 5 per cent of all the world’s wine. That is more than the output of entire countries like Chile or Australia.

One in three bottles from the region is sold overseas. Wines are exported to 135 countries and AOC sales have doubled in the past six years, to be worth 185 million Euros last year. The biggest customers by volume are China, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and the United States. A third of all French vineyards that have embraced organic practices can be found in the Languedoc. Last year sales of organic wines surged 13 per cent.

The region has 36 AOCs, or designated wine-growing areas. Because of the huge size – about 224,000 hectares of vines – and the high number of AOCs people sometimes struggle to understand the wines. To make it easier for consumers, the CIVL has organised wines into a three-tier pyramid.

At the top are the seven Crus du Languedoc — what Jerome Villaret, director general of CIVL, called “the most complex and iconic wines of the region”. These are aimed at connoisseurs or wine buffs and represent about 11.5 per cent of the AOCs. The middle tier consists of 23 Grand Vins du Languedoc, which is 69 per cent of the AOCs. “These are premium wines that reflect the diversity of the region,” Villaret said via a translator. He described the bottom tier of AOC Languedoc as the “flag bearers” of the region.

Some vineyards have wines at all levels. Villaret admitted the most difficult issue was how to define the top level “because everyone wanted to be there”. “This question is a work in progress,” he said. “Things are evolving, so expect more changes in coming months.” Over time the region should be able to sell wines at higher prices “once reputations have been established”.

Languedoc AOC wines sell for about 4-5 Euros a bottle in France, with an export price of USD 10-12. Grand Vins du Languedoc retail for between 5 and 10 Euros domestically, with an export price somewhere between USD 15 and 75. Crus du Languedoc wines sell for more than 10 Euros in France and at least USD 25 when exported, though prices can reach several hundred Euros depending on reputation.

In places like Burgundy the ranking system took 500 years to be resolved, so we should not expect clarity overnight. “The quality of the wines will convince the consumer,” Villaret said. The INAO, the national body that regulates and approves wine specifications, must approve future changes. Villaret said the key questions to answer were: Where was the highest potential in the region and how could the Languedoc align itself to what the INAO sought.

The seven Crus du Langedoc in the new structure are Corbieres-Boutenac AOC, Faugeres AOC, La Clape AOC, Minervois-La Liviniere AOC, Pic Saint Loup AOC, Saint-Chinian Berlou AOC and Saint Chinian Roquebrun AOC.

The Greeks are believed to have planted the first vineyards along the coast near Narbonne about 2,500 years ago. These are said to be the oldest vineyards in France, along with parts of Provence. The region of Languedoc has belonged to France since the thirteenth century. France acquired Roussillon from Spain in the mid seventeenth century. The two regions became one administrative region in the late 1980s.

UK Wine Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams describes Languedoc-Roussillon as France’s “answer to the New World”. He was alluding to a combination of designated regions and IGP wines – the latter are outside government AOC regulations – combined with the distinctive character of the region. “In the duality of Appellation Contrôlée and Vin de Pays [an earlier term for IGP], the conformism of Parisian bureaucracy goes hand in hand with the creative spirit of pure liberalism. So in terms of grape variety, almost anything goes.”

Carignan is the main red grape, and typically represents between 30 and 50 per cent of blends. It tends towards high yields that give low quality grapes. When yields are controlled and the vines planted on appropriate sites the wines can be “much more interesting,” Orford-Williams said.

Some Carignan vines more than 100 years old managed to avoid a mass eradication program a few decades ago. This grape can deal with hot conditions when others die or struggle.

Grenache is another of the main red grapes. Grenache and Carignan are often vinified at the same time because Carignan softens the herbaceous notes of Grenache. As Sabine Bertrand of Domaine Bertrand-Berge explained, if wines are meant to be blends “the earlier you can get them together the better”. Cinsault is also widely grown and adds fragrance and lightness of touch to blends. Syrah from the Rhone was introduced to boost quality. In some areas such as Pic Saint Loup AOC, Syrah is a major component of the blend, upwards of 80 per cent in some cases.

Some Languedoc winemakers employ a technique called “carbonic maceration” that originated in the Beaujolais region. Carbon dioxide gas is pumped into a sealed container filled with whole bunches. The gas stimulates fermentation in individual grapes. The method ferments most of the juice while it is still inside each grape, though grapes at the bottom of the vessel are crushed by gravity and undergo conventional fermentation. The main benefit of this technique is soft tannins and wines that are easy to drink when young.

Three in four bottles produced in the Languedoc are red, but the region also makes some fine rose and white wines, 14 and 10 per cent of the total respectively.

The main white grapes are Roussanne, Marsanne and Bourbelenc, the first two having been imported from the Rhône to add flavours and finesse to Mediterranean blends. Bourbelenc is the main grape in Coteaux du Languedoc AOC whites, where it must be at least 40 per cent of the blend. Some white blends also use Vermentino, which originated in Corsica, and Viognier. The Languedoc makes some splendid whites that pair majestically with the local seafood. Future columns will elaborate on specific AOCs in the region.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of CIVL, who provided accommodation and transport. The 9th Terroirs et Millesimes en Languedoc celebration ran from April 23-28.

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Spain’s innovative whites

Spanish wines from white grape varieties are gaining popularity in the global market. For publication in the week of 24 April 2017.

Spain is the world’s largest exporter of wine and has traditionally been known for robust reds, especially from the Rioja region. The country’s winemakers are constantly producing new wine styles while maintaining a rich tradition of oenological practices. One key trend appears to be the evolution of new or unusual whites.

Wines from the white grape Albarino, known as Alvarinho in neighbouring Portugal, have proven a major success story. Albarino is being made in a wide variety of styles, including sparkling. These have always attracted a devoted following but in recent years we have seen excellent wines from other white grapes such as Godello, Verdejo, Xarel.lo and Macabeo (also known as Viura), either blended or made into single-variety wines.

At the same time Spain has moved its focus from domestic sales to an emphasis on exports. Spain has been the world’s biggest exporter of wine since 2014, selling about 2.28 billion litres abroad compared with about 2 billion from France, though it should be noted that France earns considerably more from its exports (8 billion Euros against Spain’s 2.6 billion Euros).

Spanish wine is popular in the United States because of the large Hispanic population and the country’s reputation for value for money. The United Kingdom is another huge market, though this is mostly because of sales of Rioja and Cava.

These two wine styles represent Spain’s largest sales: Cava is the leader with 23.9 per cent of exports, followed by Rioja with 22.4 per cent. The numbers are reversed for domestic sales, with Rioja selling 25.5 per cent and Cava 9.9 per cent of the total.

The 2016 harvest in Rioja was reported to be “exceptional” or “classic” in terms of both quality and quantity. Grapes harvested in the Penedes region near Barcelona, the main region for Cava, were generally healthy despite the worst drought in the region since the 1940s. Yields in some areas were half of the 2015 harvest. In the Ribera del Deuro in the north of the country the harvest was said to be as good as the excellent 2015 vintage. The region’s limestone soils helped retain water during the late summer.

Sarah Jane Evans MW believes Spain is the most exciting wine region in the European Union. “Most consumers assume Spain is about red wine but the whites are really good quality.” She noted a trend towards single vineyard, high-end Cavas and also noted that more women winemakers were becoming recognised for their talents.

An example of the new type of Cava is the 2013 Vilarnau Els Capricis made solely from the Xarel.lo grape. Cava is usually a blend of Xarel.lo with Macabeo and Parellada. An unusual aspect of this sparkling was the fact that about a quarter of it was fermented and aged in chestnut barrels, the barrels coming from a nearby forest in Montseny. The wine has intense citrus flavours that linger in the memory and mouth, combined with a fresh and zingy mouthfeel. The fruit comes from an organic vineyard.

Another exciting wine made only with Xarel.lo is the 2014 Amphoras Loxarel, made as the name suggests in clay amphorae. Loxarel is the name of the estate. The clay vessels are not lined with resin, which is usually the case with amphorae, and the grapes are from a bio-dynamic estate. The clay promotes a high level of complexity and creaminess. Along with zingy acidity, the wine has a pleasant chalky texture and taste, presumably because of the vessels.

The 2014 Monopole Clasico is a dry white from the Rioja region blended from the Viura and Palomino grapes and made in concrete vats. Viura is the name of the Macabeo grape in Rioja. The wine offers intense floral sensations, like walking through a field of wildflowers, with masses of spicy notes and loads of character. The wine receives a smidgen of Manzanilla sherry as part of the blend, which gives the wine an edginess that is most appealing.

The 2014 El Lagarto Luby is made from another unusual white grape, Albarín Blanco, which is unrelated to the Albarino grape despite the similar spelling. The grape is generally only grow in the Leon region of north-western Spain. Winemaker Jörg Zielske is from the Ruhr in Germany but has been a winemaker in Spain since 2008. The wine has a chalky textural feel and good acidity.

The non-vintage El Cerro Oloroso La Callejuela sherry from the Jerez / Xérès region is made from a white grape, Palomino. Previous columns have described how sherry is made. This is a superb example of a dry sherry, filled with aromas and flavours of nuts and sunshine, and a slight saline note. It would be a lovely aperitif.

Our focus has been white grapes but we need to meet a red grape that is notable if only because it has at least 40 aliases. The 2014 Valteiro Valdesil comes from a grape known locally as Maria Ardoña in the Valdeorras region in the centre of the country, but it has a wide variety of names such as Bastardo, Merenzano, Bolonio and Trousseau. Made by the Valteiro estate, the wine has a lovely zingy presence in the mouth. It is delicious on its own but would pair well with a range of stewed game dishes.

A little-known fact about the Spanish wine industry is the huge amount of bulk wine the country produces. The vast La Mancha region in the centre of the country grows about half of all Spain’s wine, much of it Airen, the world’s most widely-planted white variety. The region sells about 2,000 million litres of bulk wine each year to a range of countries, including France. This wine costs about 35 Euro cents a litre. Talk about cheap and cheerful.

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The joys of Portugal

Portugal perfectly straddles the value-versus-price equation that many consumers seek. For publication in the week of 17 April 2017

When people think about Portugal and wine, the first thing that comes to mind is port wine. Indeed, our word for that wonderful fortified drink originates from the city of Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city. Yet such has been the evolution of the industry in recent decades that three in four bottles from Portugal are still wine.

Despite its relatively small size compared with Spain and France, Portugal has a huge range of wine styles from a diversity of meso-climates. Wine has been produced in Portugal for more than 4,000 years and the country has at least 250 grape varieties.

The names of those grapes vary depending on the region. For example the white Arinto grape, which has spread throughout the country because of its acidity and ability to blend with other whites, is also known as Pederna, Cercial, Azal Galego and Branco Espanhol. The Aragonez grape is known as Tinta Roriz in the north of the country, while across the border in Spain its name is Tempranillo.

In recent years Portuguese wines have been very successful in global competition, a tribute to improved winemaking techniques and vineyard management. For every five wines submitted to international competitions this past decade, four received an award.

Mainland Portugal has 24 designated wine regions, or DoCs, plus DoCs on the island of Madeira (one DoC) and in the Azores (three DoCs). The Douro DoC in the north-west is the world’s oldest designated wine region. The diversity of wine styles is profound, and the wines match beautifully with the country’s cuisine, from fresh seafood in the south to rich and hearty meats in the north.

Exports of still wines have boomed, jumping in value from 318 million Euros in 2010 to 401 million Euros in 2015. Fortified wine exports grew more slowly but were worth more per bottle, from 295 million Euros in 2010 to 336 million Euros in 2015.

Casa Ermelinda Freitas in the Setubal peninsula south of the capital Lisbon currently exports to 30 countries and is the country’s fastest-growing family-owned estate. It has the distinction of being run solely by women in recent years, with a woman winemaker (these are in a distinct minority in Portugal). Deonilde Freitas founded the company in 1920. When his son Manuel João de Freitas died, Manuel’s wife Ermelinda Freitas took over running the company, helped by their only child, Leonor.

Leonor Freitas inherited 60 hectares of vineyard with only two grape varieties, Castelão and Fernão Pires. She decided to introduce a wider range of grapes, including Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, Aragonês, Syrah, and Alicante Bouschet. The company makes a superb red blend, the Dona Ermelinda Reserva, a beautiful wine that pairs beautifully with game. In recent years the company has focused on single variety reds, an unusual approach in the country probably most skilled in making blended wines.

The Niepoort estate in the Douro region has been a family business since 1842. Dirk and Verena Niepoort are the fifth generation and are known for innovation. Their Redoma Branco and Redoma Reserva Branco are consistently two of the finest whites from the region. A recent innovation is their Aqua Viva sparkling, a blend of mostly Bical and Cercial with a touch of Chardonnay and Alvarinho. It has wondrous length with flavours of zesty lemons and grapefruit.

One of Portugal’s best sparkling winemakers is Luis Pato, from the Barraida region in the north-east. He is known for his ability to tame the difficult indigenous red Baga grape. Pato is a founding member of Baga Friends, formed to promote the grape. He now only works with Portuguese grapes: Baga, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão for reds, and Bical, Cercial, Fernão Pires (known locally by the alias Maria Gomes) plus a grape that Pato believes nobody else has, Sercialinho.

His 2011 Espumante Quinta do Moinho made from Baga is a delicious mouthful of zingy strawberries. “Bairrada is very good [region] for white wine and sparkling,” he said. “With reds, you really need to take a lot of care.” Pato’s 2016 Vinhas Velhas Branco, a blend of Bical and Cercial with a smidgen of Sercialinho, has superb length. Also splendid is his 2011 Pato Rebel, which has the same cepage and a quirky label that reflects the winemaker’s personality.

Pato’s daughter Filipa also makes wines using the Baga grape. She started the Baga Friends group after returning from her global travels and saw the sad state of some of the vineyards in the region. With her father she made Bairrada’s first dessert wine. She got the idea after working in Australia and seeing how they used cryo-extraction (freezing grapes to concentrate the sugars).

Jorge Moreira was named Portugal’s winemaker of the year in 2011. He is the winemaker at Quinta de la Rosa in the Douro, producing silky and sublime still and fortified wines. In 2001 he purchased his own quinta nearby and has made his own wine, Poeira, since 2002. Moreira’s vines grow in a beautiful landscape on the banks of the Pinhao River.

Poeira has further cemented his reputation for excellence. The word means “dust” in Portuguese and one only needs to be in the Douro for a short time in the summer on the winding dirt roads to appreciate the taste that the dry land leaves in one’s mouth. The Poeira Red has become something of a cult wine in recent years and needs to be cellared for a decade to be fully appreciated.

The 2015 Poeira White is made entirely from the Alvarinho grape and is delicate and delicious. This is a wine to savour now or, with sufficient willpower, cellar for half a decade when the flavours will be even more intense. The 2016 Po de Poeira, made with the same grape, comes from younger vines, has a lighter, more fresh feel and is designed for early drinking.

Matthew Bonner is the director of the Portuguese Fine Wine Company in England, which specialises in artisanal wines from Portugal. Bonner believes Portugal represents the best value for money equation of any European wine region.

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Delights of English fizz

England’s Rathfinny estate plans to become the country’s biggest vineyard over the next few years. For publication in week starting 10 April 2017.

Rathfinny Wine Estate in southern England will have 162 hectares of vines — the biggest area of vineyards in England –and produce about 1.2 million bottles a year by the time they finish developing the project over the next few years. They will release their first sparkling wine near the end of this year at £35 (USD 44) a bottle.

Owner Mark Driver gave up managing a USD 6,000 million hedge fund to learn to become a winemaker at Plumpton College. Plumpton is the only wine course in Europe that teaches in English. He remains the only student to arrive at school in a Lamborghini, and has sponsored the building of the Rathfinny Research Winery at Plumpton.

Rathfinny’s first 20 hectares of vines – mostly the classic champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with small portions of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc – were planted in April 2012.

Diver said he was committed to supporting the “wider ambitions” of the English wine industry, and that meant “nurturing the skills required to fulfil its potential”. Operations manager Richard James said Rathfinny was developing a skilled local workforce to support the expansion plans. The company has established a cellar door in the nearby village of Alfriston at The Gun Room, said to be the weapons store for the Duke of Wellington in the late eighteenth century.

James was unwilling to discuss how much money was spent on Rathfinny, apart from admitting it was “a lot”. Industry estimates vary between GBP 30 million up to GBP 100 million by the time the estate is fully operational. Rathfinny aims to sell up to half of its wine to prestige restaurants in Europe, Asia and New York. James pointed out that all new buildings were made from locally-sourced materials using sustainable technologies such as solar power and wastewater recycling. “We’ve planted more than 15,000 trees in the past few years.” Residues from the winemaking process will be used to make a “sipping gin” called Seven Sisters, in acknowledgement of a local coastal tourist attraction.

By contrast, the Bolney Estate is one of the oldest vineyards in southern England. It was established in 1972 when owners Janet and Rodney Pratt planted 1.2 hectares of vines on a former chicken farm. Bolney has grown to almost 16 hectares of vines on five plots, making about 120,000 bottles a year of still and sparkling wines.

Rodney and Janet’s daughter Samantha Linter took over in the mid 1990s, helped by assistant winemaker Liz Garrett. Both are graduates of Plumpton College.

Local wine expert Alan Jenkins said Bolney aimed to promote and maintain biological diversity in the vineyard. “It’s not uncommon to see deer wandering across the estate,” he said. Vines are trained using the vertical shoot positioning and the Sylvos trellis systems. Both are designed to maximise airflow and sunlight penetration to the vines to produce high-quality fruit. Their 150cm distance from the ground helps reduce the dangers of frost killing the new buds that appear in April.

Bolney is the largest producer of red wine in England and offers a fascinating sparkling red in the 2011 Cuvee Noir, made from the Dornfelder grape from Germany. It has a tight mousse with a savoury finish and a slightly smoky and gamey feel that would pair well with BBQ or game.

The 2014 Lychgate Red is made from the Rondo grape and is named after the Lychgate church in the nearby village of Bolney. Also attractive was the 2014 rosé made from Pinot Noir, with its delicate strawberry aromas and a zesty zing of acidity. It would make a good aperitif.

One of the most impressive wines was the non-vintage Bolney Bubbly, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with searing acidity and a cascade of citrus flavours. Bolney was named UK wine producer of the year in the International Wine and Spirit Competition In 2012.

Mike and Chris Roberts first planted vines at the Ridgeview estate in the nearby village of Ditchling in 1994. The name is appropriate given the tall ridges of the South Downs on the horizon that form a natural protection around the 6.8 hectares of vines planted to the classic champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Dr Christopher Merret, one of the founders of the Royal Society, presented a paper in 1662 describing how to make sparkling wine by adding of sugar to the base wine. His paper appeared about 30 years before Dom Perignon, said to be the creator of champagne, started his work in France at the end of the 17th century. Ridgeview has patented the name “Merret” and has argued that English sparkling should be called by that name.

Most of Ridgeview’s sparkling wines are named after squares in London, in acknowledgement of Merret’s connection with the city. Ridgeview’s sales and marketing manager, Mardi Roberts, said the non-vintage Bloomsbury also evoked the Bloomsbury set of painters and writers who lived in the Sussex area. It has a lovely nose of brioche and nuts and has been made every year since 1995.

The cepage or blend of grapes is roughly the same each year, with about 60 per cent Chardonnay which explains the bread and nut aromas. The estate has also had the same winemaker since it started – Simon Roberts is the son of the founders – a factor which explains the consistency of their fizz.

The non-vintage Cavendish is less well known as the Bloomsbury. Pinot dominates the palate and red fruit notes are more obvious. Mardi Roberts acknowledged the estate’s connection with Plumpton College, noting that many students worked at the estate and later moved around the world. Ridgeview exports about 20 per cent of its wine – it only makes sparkling – and the main markets are the USA, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Japan. The wine is also served at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant in Bordeaux.

Ridgeview’s Blanc de Blancs, made entirely from Chardonnay, is their flagship product and is only made from fruit grown in the vineyard next to the winery. The 2006 vintage was named the best sparkling wine in the world in 2010, the first time an English wine has beaten champagne for the prize. The current vintage is 2013 and it is clean and zingy with delicate purity of fruit. The 2013 Rose de Noirs is another beautiful wine, made of 86 per cent Pinot Noir with the balance Pinot Meunier. It has a slight saline note and lashings of delicate red fruit.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of the Best of England company which organises tours of English vineyards.

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