Delights of the year

As the year closes, it has become almost a tradition to consider the highlights of this year of wine. For publication in the week of 26 December 2016

Late December is a time for festivities and families, but activity in the world of wine tasting tends to stall. So this week we consider the best things about this year, because we all need to be grateful for this wonderful world of wine.

From the thousands experienced during the year, what was the best red wine tasted? This becomes an almost impossible question to answer if pondered intellectually. But memory suggests the most memorable was the beautiful wine of Antonio Sarrion Martinez at Bodega Mustiguillo in the Utiel-Requena region of eastern Spain.

His 2014 La Garnacha de Mustiguillo was one of the best wines tasted this year. This 100 per cent Garnache has a perfumed nose and delicate body plus a dream-like intensity in the mouth. An ethereal delight.

And the best white? Winemaker Martta Reis Simoes at the Alorna estate in the Tejo region of Portugal was named the country’s best young winemaker last year. Her 2013 Marquesa de Alorna grande reserva is quite magnificent. The cepage varies each year and includes the fruit of the four best grapes grown on the estate. It is designed to age in the cellar for about a decade, and offers a marvellous combination of restrained oak and ripe fruit encased in intense aromas of peaches and loquats. The wine is named in honour of Leonor de Almeida (1750-1839), who set up the country’s first school for underprivileged girls.

Alorna also makes a tangy liqueur known as Abafado from Fernao Pires grapes. The fermenting wine is “muffled” with grape spirit, which stops the fermentation process and retains sugar sweetness. Abafado spends five years in old barrels where it gains flavours of figs and almonds, and an aroma of slightly burned honey. The wine glows golden brown in the glass. It is a delicious wine that pairs well with local tarts made with sugar and eggs, or creme brulee.

Best wine experience was a vertical tasting of Pinot Noir from the Hamilton Russell estate in South Africa. Hamilton Russell is one of the most southerly wine estates in Africa. They focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay after pioneering viticulture in a beautiful maritime region known as the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley on the southern coast near the former fishing village of Hermanus, a trendy holiday location in the summer. Hemel-en-Aarde is Afrikaans for “heaven and earth” and the region is certainly a beautiful and serene place.

The wines that come from the vineyard also need heavenly descriptors. A tasting of six Pinot Noirs from 2010 to 2015 demonstrated the quality Pinots from this estate. These were wines that required contemplation over their ethereal aromas. Their flavours lingered in my mind long after their flavours had flowed over my palate.

Best value wine in terms of the price:quality ratio? This probably is Portugal, especially from the Tejo and the Alentejo regions. The latter produces about 45 per cent of all wines consumed in the domestic market yet only six per cent of the population lives on this vast, mostly flat plain.

The climate is typically Mediterranean, with very hot summers and temperate winters. Dry breezes and low humidity mean the region does not need to use pesticides and the region has subsequently embraced sustainable vineyard practices.

Alentejo has almost 21,000 hectares of vines. The region consists of eight sub-regions but all wines have much in common: They are full-bodied, aromatic and smooth meaning they can be enjoyed young as well as cellared. About four in five bottles produced are red.

Portugal has the second highest number of grape varieties in the world, after Italy. Many of the country’s great wines are blends, and winemakers are known for their blending skills.

The Douro region in the north of the country produces some sensational wines – ports and table wines. Both often present best after a decade in the cellar.

My first experience of Douro table wines almost a decade ago was a revelation, after I received samples of Quinta da Romaneira reds. It is one of the great historic vineyards (quinta is Portuguese for vineyard) and overlooks the majestic Douro river in the north east of the country. Schistous rock is the basis of the unique terroir of the property and it imparts noticeable flavours to the wine.

Romaneira has experienced a renaissance since 2004 via a partnership between Christian Seely and António Agrellos. Seely has been managing director since 2004, having been also managing director of Quinta do Noval since 1993. Noval is a neighbouring vineyard that also produces excellent wine.

Agrellos is the consultant winemaker at Romaneira. He has twice been named Portugal’s winemaker of the year and has been based at Noval since 1994, where he has produced several wines that received the maximum 100 points out of 100 in awards.

Romaneira’s introductory red is the Sino da Romaneira. It is a blend of touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz and tinta cao. Sino is Portuguese for bell, and the wine is named after the bell that overlooks the entrance of the property. The flagship Quinta da Romaneira red is a major leap in quality from the Sino, and it has become highly sought after. One of the world’s great reds.

Finally, what were the most unusual wine experiences for the year? One was a visit to Lerkekåsa Vineyard near Gvarv in Norway, the most northerly commercial vineyard in the world. In recent years winter temperatures at Lerkekåsa have reached as low as minus 29 Celsius. It sits at 59 degrees north, similar to Alaska in the United States.

Wenche Hvattum and Dr Joar Saettem make wine from grapes and fruit and also offer unusual accommodation. People can sleep in three barrels formerly used to import bulk wines for the national wine monopoly, Vinmonopol. These sit among the vines and bookings for this unique accommodation extend well into 2018.

Elsewhere in Normandy in northern France, that lushly-grassed region noted for Camembert, Livarot and Pont-l’Évêque cheeses along with apple juice, cider and calvados, Gerard Samson is crafting beautiful wines near the pretty village of St Pierre sur Dives. His memorable wines come from the Arpents du Soleil estate, a special site that housed an abbey vineyard more than 300 years ago, .

This wine column has been published every week since 2008. Time for a holiday. It will resume in mid January. Happy holidays everyone.

Words: 1,088

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