Wine column

Roussillon’s graceful reds (6/25/2017)

France’s most southern region, Roussillon, produces reds that age gracefully plus stylish naturally sweet wines. For publication in week starting 26 June 2017.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the awarding of AOP status to four Cotes du Roussillon regions, all located near France’s border with Spain. AOP, or Appellation d’Origine Protegee, is a term the European Commission coined in 1992 to define agricultural products with a distinct regional character.

It is equivalent to an AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Controlee, which refers to regulations established in France to define quality standards for products like wine and cheese. It ties the name of the product to specific geographic regions.

The four AOPs celebrating their anniversary are AOP Cotes du Roussillon Villages, AOP Cotes du Roussillon Villages Caramany, AOP Cotes du Roussillon Villages Latour de France and AOP Cotes du Roussillon.

Roussillon is in the deep south-west of France, in a sea-facing amphitheatre surrounded by three groups of mountains that form the borders of a rectangle, with the sea the fourth side. Wine has been made there for about 2,800 years, starting with the Greeks who arrived seeking salt and iron near the town of Banyuls.

The tallest peak, at 2,800 metres, is the Massif du Conigou in the Pyrenees. It constitutes the western border of Roussillon. Agriculture is the region’s main economic activity, and local market gardens produce high-quality fruit and vegetables.

About a third of Roussillon’s 23,000 hectares of vines are devoted to AOP wines, with another 5,000 used to make IGP wines, and another 7,000 devoted to sweet fortified wines known as VDN. This refers to “vins doux naturels,” or naturally sweet wines. They are fortified using a process called “mutage” which involves addition of grape spirit during fermentation.

IGP, or Indication Geographique Protegee, describes French wines that fall between ordinary wine (vin de table) and AOC/AOP. It has been adopted by winemakers who wish to have autonomy and freedom outside the strict AOC/AOP laws

Roussillon has an ideal climate for wine-making with dry and hot summers and mild autumns and winters. The region gets a lot of sunshine – about 316 days a year is one of the highest in Europe. Last year the nine AOP, three IGP and five VDN in the region produced about 605,000 hectolitres of wine, or about 75.5 million bottles. The region’s natural amphitheatre provides an ideal location for grape growing, and a range of winds that blow at different times of the year help to eradicate disease.

Yet the average yield per hectare in Roussillon is one of lowest in France because the countryside is arid and the soils dry, mostly schiste and gneiss. It’s really only suited for grapes and olives. About 30 co-operatives produce three quarters of all the wine, among them 2,200 family-owned estates. The average size of a family vineyard is 10 hectares.

The main white grapes are White and Grey Grenache, Maccabeo, Muscat a petits-grains, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Marsanne, Roussanne and Vermentino (known locally as Rolle). The main red grapes are the same as in the Rhone: Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault. Syrah tends to suffer during very hot summers.

Almost all wines are blends. Carignan and Grenache are the most widely planted varieties, and Grenache accounts for about 8,500 hectares of the 23,000 hectares in the region. Many of the red varieties were imported from the Rhone about 45-50 years ago.

Domaine Cazes is one of the biggest organic estates in the region, and some of the estate is bio-dynamic. The number of organic winemakers in Roussillon is rising each year, though exact figures are not available. A tasting of Domaine Cazes reds from 2004, 1996, 1990, 1989 and 1988 showed the longevity of these wines.

The blend tends to be 40 to 50 per cent Syrah with the balance Grenache and Mourvèdre. Wines start fresh and young with lively acidity combined with flavours of fruit compote and soft tannins. The 1989 was especially good, with the Syrah contributing pepper and spices, and lots of cherry aromas coming from a touch of Mourvèdre.

In neighbouring Languedoc, Gerard Bertrand is a former French rugby player who used his reputation and contacts to develop a major wine business, Gerard Bertrand Wines. The company currently controls eight estates, including the beautiful Castle l’Hospitalet in La Clape Massif, a limestone range overlooking the Mediterranean Sea amongst hundreds of kilometres of pine forests and garrique shrubs.

Wine Enthusiast magazine named Gerard Bertrand Wines its European winery of the year in both 2012 and 2014. The company has grown from three staff in 1987, including Bertrand himself, to more than 300 today, with exports to 160 countries. “We’re looking at exports to Pakistan and Afghanistan next,” Bertrand said with a smile, “but I’m having difficulties convincing the sales directors to go to those countries.”

L’Hospitalet adopted bio-dynamic wine-making practices in 2013, based on a philosophy that this is the best practice for the planet and people. Bertrand said he has noticed changes since then. “The people who work in the vineyards are happier.” Most of his other vineyards are embracing bio-dynamics.

Aromas and flavours offer two key dimensions of a wine, and reveal the terroir or “sense of some-where-ness” that bio-dynamics guru Monty Waldin described in his book on the subject. A third dimension was a wine’s power to evoke emotions. “Only the greatest wines travel directly to the heart,” Bertrand said.

He acknowledged that time he spent with Aubert de Villaine, owner of the great Domaine de la Romanee-Conti in Burgundy, who taught the “vital fourth dimension of winemaking – spirituality”.

Bertrand concluded that the essence of an exceptional wine was a “combination of time, space, energy, spirit and soul”. A great wine is connected to its terroir, grape variety, and the plot of land of its birth, but also the universe that surrounds it. “With this realisation, I dared to experiment with a new path that links bio-dynamics with quantum theory,” he wrote in his autobiography Wine, Moon and Stars. It was named best wine book in Europe last year.

Bertrand is a fan of old fortified wines. He prefers to drink them alone at home by the pool, under the stars after 10pm, looking at the sky. “You need to be alone to be connected,” he said with a smile, “it’s a chance to find the spirit of the wine.”

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Serbia’s finest wine regions (6/17/2017)

Zupa and Sumadija are Serbia’s most historic wine regions, with many cultural connections related to the vine. For publication in week starting 19 June 2017.

Grapes have been grown in the Župa region in central Serbia for at least 3,000 years, even prior to the Roman invasion. The region is centred on the biggest town, Aleksandrovac, though “biggest” is a relative term because the town only has about 7,000 souls.

The region’s biggest annual event is a wine festival held in late September, and the town has a cute wine museum built in 1991. The museum’s most valuable exhibits are four statues made by the first farmers in the region. They are said to be about 7,000 years old.

Župa currently has about 2,000 hectares of vines, though a century ago the area under cultivation was probably treble the current size.

The Ivanović family has been growing grapes in Aleksandrovac since 1814. On his return from World War One in 1919, Dragoslav Ivanović established a wine cellar. The company grew quickly and by 1940 it was producing 500,000 litres a year. Production stalled after World War Two as family estates became collectivised under the Communist regime. The renaissance of Serbian winemaking has only really occurred in the past 15 years, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In 1996 Dragoslav’s grandson, who has the same name, returned to Župa after his studies and used his grandfather’s notes, which had been hidden in dusty cellars for many years, to renew the family tradition. At the same time he has been unafraid to innovate and produces some remarkable wines.

Dragoslav’s 2015 No 3/4 Tamjanika is 85 per cent Tamjanika with 10 per cent of Sauvignon Blanc and 5 per cent Riesling, plus a touch of new oak. This is a sensational wine that smells and tastes of marmalade laced with ginger, with a dry textural finish. It is significantly more sophisticated than a range of wines made from the same grape tasted in Aleksandrovac last month.

Last week’s column noted that Tamjanika and Prokupac are the main indigenous grapes. Locals sometimes cultivate Prokupac in a traditional style: Vines are grown like bushes, with cordons bound together at the top. This guarantees a smaller crop, but with higher quality fruit; harvesting must be done by hand.

Tamjanika’s origins are uncertain. Some say it originated in France while others maintain it came from the island of Samos in Greece. The grape has been grown in Župa for several centuries and has adapted well to the terroir. The grape is probably a relative of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. In Serbia it has been named after the local word for francincense, tamjan, because of its intense aromas.

Another memorable Ivanović wine is the 2015 No 1/2 which consists of 50 per cent of the local grape Prokupac with a quarter each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wine had only been bottled for a month before Dragoslav offered it for judging and it will get even better with time in the cellar.

Župa is about 230 km south-east of the capital, Belgrade, and consists mostly of softly-rolling hills surrounded by three mountain ranges. Vines are grown at between 250 and 700 metres. The climate is continental, similar to that of Bordeaux. Dragoslav Ivanović noted that accurate data about the current number of hectares of wine in Župa were not available.

During the Middle Ages Serbia’s three biggest monasteries had their vineyards in the Župa region. Winegrowing continued in the region under Turkish occupation during the Ottoman Empire. More recently, the national nursery for producing vine cuttings was established in Župa, which helped the region recover quickly from the phylloxera epidemic in the late nineteenth century.

Župa has a wine and agricultural school named after St Trifun (also spelled Tryphon), the patron saint of winemakers, built in 1926. It has 92 hectares planted to vines and a range of fruit trees. Zupa is a noted fruit region; indeed the strong connection between fruit regions that become wine regions can be noted around the world.

Zdravkovic Budimir, known locally as “Deda Buda” or grandfather Buda, is said to be Serbia’s oldest active winemaker and claims to have worked 77 vintages, though locals were uncertain as to his age. Milicia Smoljanic is the manager of the excellent Budimir Wines in Župa, which specialises in ageing Prokupac in old barrels of 3,000, 5000 and 7,000 litres. The results can be spectacular.

Deda Buda.jpg

Zdravkovic Budimir, known as “Deda Buda”

Alexander Raskovic, winemaker at Budimir Wines, created a delicious dessert wine from Tamjanika called Slatka Mala, which translates as “a little sweet”. Grapes were left to freeze on the vines a full three months after harvest, to concentrate flavours. The concentration was such that 2,700kg of grapes made only 1,000 bottles, about a third of what this quantity of grapes usually produces. Raskovic told me half the crop was stolen during those three months.

Some other exciting wines were encountered in the Sumadija region, about 100 km south-west of the capital, Belgrade. Excellent sparkling wines came the Aleksandrovic Estate: The 2015 Trijumf Rose, made from Pinot Noir, and the 2009 Trijumf Chardonnay, were easily some of the best sparkling wines tasted in Serbia. The latter was a veritable triumph of vinous delights with its profound expression of time, like musty books in a library, yet still fresh with lemon zest and brioche. Winery Aleksandrovic also makes excellent reds, with the Rodoslov Grande Reserve a highlight. The company’s drive for perfection is so strong that in 2014 the estate threw away 40 hectares of grapes because the quality was not good enough.

Special mention must also be made of Winery Radovanovic, also in the Sumadija region, who make reds from Cabernet Sauvignon and whites from Chardonnay. Owner Miodrag Mija Radovanovic presides over one of the most beautiful and precise estates I visited, and provided a vertical tasting of his wines at a memorable lunch under a huge walnut tree on a cloudless blue-sky day. His wines are a combination of tradition and innovation and should be sought out for their quality.

Last year more than 1.2 million tourists visited Belgrade — 13 per cent higher than during the previous year — suggesting the capital could evolve into a significant tourism destination, and later the rest of the country. The biggest groups came from China, Canada, Russia and the United States. Americans represented one of the biggest groups, at more than 16 per cent of the total. Locals regard 2016 as the starting point for a major evolution over the next five years that will culminate in 2021 when Novi Sad becomes the European Capital of Culture.

Disclosure: In May-June 2017 Stephen Quinn was a member of the first wine press tour to Serbia. It was organised by Wine Jam with journalist Paul Balke, and visitors were guests of the National Tourist Organisation of Serbia, Radisson Blue hotel and the Terra Travel agency.

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Revival of Serbian wine (6/10/2017)

Wine has been made in Serbia for centuries, though quality has been variable. Data on wine production is scarce. For publication in week starting 12 June 2017.

Like neighbour Bulgaria, Serbia took a long time to adjust to the post-1989 era in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In recent years the Bulgarian wine industry has experienced a renaissance, driven by improved quality at boutique vineyards.

Since the early 2000s Serbia has undergone a similar revival to Bulgaria with a focus on small vineyards and quality production. According to the most recent official figures, based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Serbia had about 17,500 hectares of vineyards. Another 5,300 hectares appear to lie fallow because of disputes over land ownership.

Of those 17,500 hectares, about 2,600 are classified as producing wine with geographical indication based on European Union regulations. The other 14,900 hectares fall outside EU regulations but some of this wine is very good, and excellent value for money.

About 80,341 households produce grapes, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, yet 92 per cent of those households own vineyards of less than 0.5 ha. Small is beautiful.

Serbia has always had a wine culture and consumption is one of the highest in the world, at 42.5 litres per capita last year. Only Croatians (46.9 litres), the Portuguese (43.7) and the French (43.1) consumed more per head (though consumption in the Vatican City was an astronomical 56 litres a head that year).

A generation ago two in three bottles produced were white, but red has become more popular and production is currently about 50:50. Last year Serbia produced about 53 million bottles. That is not enough for local consumption and the country imports twice as much wine as is made domestically.

The country has four print wine magazines and a range of web sites devoted to wine, which is high relative to the population of about 8.7 million. The UK, with 65 million people, has only two print wine magazines, and Portugal with 10 million also has two.

Much of the history of Serbian wine under the Communist regime between the end of WW2 and the fall of the wall related to production of bulk wine, sold cheaply and consumed domestically. In an article headlined “Competitiveness of Wine Export from the Republic of Serbia”, Branislav Vlahović and academic colleagues from the Faculty of Agriculture at Novi Sad University described wine exports as “very modest”. About 5 per cent of total production was exported between 2004 and 2007 at an average price of 1.11 USD a litre. About 90 per cent of the exports were bulk wine, the academics said.

St Trifun

St Trifun, patron saint of winemakers

Serbia has 22 official wine-growing regions and 77 sub-regions. The capital is by far the most important city. Almost a quarter of Serbia’s population lives there, so everything tends to be measured in relation to Belgrade. The most important are in Negotinska krajina, 250 km east of Belgrade; on the slopes of Fruška Gora Mountain 80 km north-west of the capital; Sumadija, about 100 km south-west of Belgrade, and Župa, 230 km south-east of the capital.

Prokupac and Vranac are the main indigenous red grapes. Prokupac is popular because it can cope with low temperatures and produces good yields with high sugar content even on poor soils. Vranac originated in neighbouring Macedonia and produces a unique taste and character said to be “synonymous with the Balkans”. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are relatively common.

The main indigenous white grapes are Smederevka – whose name comes from the Serbian city Smederevo – and Tamjanika, a relative of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains named after the local word for francincense, tamjan, because of its intense aromas. The main international white grapes include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

The Kovacevic Estate in the Fruška Gora region is the biggest privately owned winery in Serbia and makes a range of formidable wines. Fruška Gora translates as “holy mountain” and the area has 16 beautiful Serbian Orthodox monasteries, many located in the Fruška Gora national park. The estate is in the village of Irig, probably the best-known wine town in the country. Kovacevic produces about 800,000 bottles a year.

The estate is superbly placed to take advantage of the potential for wine tourism because of the region’s closeness to the capital, the clean green nature of the region and the excellent range of local foods. Owner Miroslav Kovacevic has been passionate about wine for decades and opened his cellar to a group of visiting journalists to show how his estate’s wines can age. A 2008 Kovacevic Riesling was a thing of joy, showing steely grace and charm despite 2008 being an ordinary year.

A highlight was the 2004 Kovacevic Chardonnay, made in a poor vintage, that glowed gold in the glass and exuded aromas of honey, nuts and brioche. This wine received no oak and was made in stainless steel tanks yet showed elegance and structure and could have been cellared for another decade. In recent years Kovacevic has experimented with using traditional clay amphorae for storing wine, as well as introducing oak from Hungary, Croatia, Austria and the Czech Republic as well as traditional suppliers France and the United States.

Modern-day Serbia was under Roman rule for 600 years from the first century BC, and the Roman emperor and author Marcus Aurelius was born in the Serbian city of Sirmium. Kovacevic’s flagship red is named Aurelius in honour of the emperor, who is said to have planted grapes there. It is a blend of 60 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance Merlot. The current edition is the 2012, full of bright black fruits. We also tried a 2008, which demonstrated the longevity of this fine wine.

Kovacevic has 15 hectares of estate vines and buys grapes from another 200 hectares of local growers. It exports to Canada as well as Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic.

Some almost-forgotten traditions have been revived around Fruška Gora Mountain, including production of Bermet. This is a dessert wine made by macerating must with about 20 spices and herbs. The result is a digestive-style wine that is said to be good for one’s health. Locals claim Bermet was served on the Titanic. The recipe is allegedly a secret  known only to a handful of families.

Future columns will discuss other wine regions in Serbia.

Disclosure: In May-June 2017 Stephen Quinn was a member of the first wine press tour to Serbia, and a guest of the National Tourist Organisation of Serbia, Radisson Blue hotel and the Terra organisation.

Serbia’s winemaking revival

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Soave sings of quality (6/2/2017)

The wines of Soave in Italy have improved markedly over the past decade, after a change in winemaking approach. For publication in week of 5 June 2017

A couple of decades ago Soave was a thin white with a low price tag that one drank young because it was cheap and fresh. But over the past 10 years or so Soave’s producers have changed the wine’s style and character to the point where it has become one of the best whites in Italy.

Much of the work has centred on improved viticulture practices, a focus on quality rather than quantity, and the identification of special plots that allow for production of single-vineyard wines.

The Consorzio Tutela Vini Soave represents winegrowers in the region. In partnership with UK Master of Wine Sarah Abbott the consortium has worked to confront outdated perceptions of Soave, and to introduce buyers and media to the current versions of quality Soave.

The general manager of the Soave Consorzio, Aldo Lorenzoni, emphasised the hard work that has been happening in Soave over the past decade. “Soave is a historic wine region that has been able to renew itself,” he said, noting the wide range of young winemakers producing wines “with new, exciting interpretations”.

Soave has about 7,000 hectares of vines and produces about 40 million bottles a year. Main export markets include Germany, the UK and the USA. Only about 16 per cent of Soave is consumed in Italy.

The region, which only produces white wine, is in north-east Italy, stretching east of the city of Verona to the foothills of the Lessini Mountains. Soave has DOC and DOCG designations, the latter also known as Soave Superiore. Both are sub-divided into general and “Classico” designations for wines produced in the heartland of the Soave region.

Soave Classico covers the area from the western edge of the town of Soave to Monteforte d’Alpone in the east of the province, and designates the oldest or most classic “zones”. The western part of the region effectively joins the eastern edge of the Valpolicella DOC. Think of Soave Classico as a patchwork of small vineyards. Many are little more than a hectare in size.

Garganega is the main grape of Soave and can comprise anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent in both DOC and DOCG wines. For Soave DOC the other part of the blend can be Trebbiano di Soave, also known locally as Verdicchio and Nestrano, up to 30 per cent. Yields for DOC wines must be no more than 14 tonnes per hectare and wines must have a minimum alcohol of 10.5 per cent.

DOCG Soave also contains mainly Garganega, though the other 30 per cent can include Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Trebbiano di Soave. In France Trebbiano di Soave is known as Ugni Blanc, where it is used to make cognac. It is different from the Trebbiano Toscano variety grown in Tuscany in northern Italy.

Garganega can produce a range of styles from dry and fresh through to a sweet nectar known as Recioto di Soave. Aldo Lorenzoni said an on-going study of sub-zones in the region and cultivation methods had boosted knowledge of “how truly expressive the Garganega grape can be”.

Mists from the Po River valley influence the region’s climate. Humidity can create problems for winemakers because of mould and similar fungal diseases. Garganega’s thick skin helps it resist disease. The Soave Consortio believes that its wines are “a happy combination” of terroir and the Garganega grape.

Soils in vineyards are less fertile than the soils in the alluvial plains, where food crops are grown. Some vineyards were ancient sea-beds. The soils contain a high proportion of limestone that produce fuller, more fruit-forward wines.

Other vineyards such as those in the eastern area near Monteforte d’Alpone are on land formed from volcanic eruptions millennia ago. These soils produce what wine expert Jancis Robinson calls “steelier” wines.

John Szabo, a wine writer and Master Sommelier in Canada, recently published a book, Volcanic Wines, about wines around the world grown near volcanoes. He discussed the notion of “minerality” in Soave wines at a conference in Soave township, saying he associated the concept with rain on hot stones but asserted that “minerality is not an aroma”. “It’s a salty taste sensation noticeable in wines grown near the sea.” Acids also provoke salty sensations in wine, he said.

Alessandro Brizi, a noted Italian sommelier, said “minerality” was not mentioned in Emile Peynaud’s classic book The Taste of Wine, published 1983, and it did not appear in The Oxford Companion to Wine in 2006. He suggested the term had been “misused in marketing campaigns”. “Mineral wines have a romantic image that suggests they are handmade by artisans and able to reveal the mystery of the soil, with the winemaker as the magical mediator of this enchantment.”

Minerality probably means wines with high acidity and low terpenes (the floral flavours associated with Muscat), offering distinct saline aromas with hints of iodine or lemon and a zesty sensation in the mouth.

The wines of Coffele, Corte Moschina and Franchetto represent excellent examples of great Soave, with masses of white fruit aromas while young and pleasing roundness and balance in the mouth, yet able to mature into wines capable of greatness. Last month the 2015 Franchetto La Capelina was named the best white wine from the Veneto region at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards.

One of the key debates in Soave concerns the ideal trellis system for growing grapes. About 85 per cent of estates use the Pergola Veronese style. Professor Maurizio Gily said this style protected young fruit from frost and older fruit from sunburn, and was the best approach. “It works very well and can give us great wine,” he said.

The World Biodiversity Association has partnered with the Soave Consorzio to focus on a European Community goal of sustainable development. Soave is the only Italian consortium to use biodiversity as a measurement tool to assess the impact of grape growing on water and air quality. Biodiversity becomes a form of “bridge” that leads growers towards the goal of sustainability of the entire production system, the consortium said. “Sustainable viticulture must ensure acceptable levels of income while at the same time maintaining the environmental quality of the vineyard.”

Footnote: The Summer of Soave is being organised in many parts of the world from June to August, aimed at consumer education through tastings and promotions.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Consortio Soave, who provided meals and accommodation.

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Grand Vins du Languedoc (5/27/2017)

We meet three of the 23 AOCs classified as Grand Vins du Languedoc, the middle level in the three-tier pyramid of the region’s wines. For publication 27 May 2017.

AOC Languedoc Sommieres consists of a ring of vineyards around the market town of Sommieres, northwest of Nimes, in the extreme north-east of the Languedoc. It is small – only 131 hectares of vines – and not well known but the wines have unique qualities. Sommieres has been an AOC since 2011. Prior to then it was part of AOC Coteaux du Languedoc.

The soils are calcerous, argile and silex because millions of years ago the area was a sea. Now it is between 28 and 119 metres above sea level. In many places the soil is red because of the amount of iron, plus lots of flint stone (known as galets) smoothed by the sea. Locals maintain that a special stone from the area, when powdered and put into a washing machine, can remove red wine stains.

Sommieres only makes red wine – from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. All wines are blends, with Syrah and Grenache the main components. AOC rules stipulate minimum percentages for each in the blends.

The chapel of Saint Julian is the emblem of the region, and shepherds’ huts built from limestone are common in the area. Local records show wine being made around Pezenas about seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Chris.

Truffle oaks, pines, olives and “garrique” surround the vines. In the Languedoc garrique refers to a sentiment as much as it describes the low-growing vegetation: A combination of sunshine, “joie de vivre” and the aromas of the thyme, rosemary, lavender and juniper that grow wild in the hills.

The famous Mistral wind, which blows from the north, and the nearby Mediterranean, create a special meso-climate between the foothills of the Cevennes ranges and the sea.

AOC laws limit yields and last year the 18 private cellars and three co-operatives in the AOC only made about 120,000 bottles. Not everyone is part of the AOC and some people make white wine that is labelled IGP. All wines tasted seemed very fresh and the garrique was very noticeable.

Sommieres has always been a major market town. Local people have a reputation for being self sufficient — “headstrong” is often used to describe them — and they are keen to preserve the environment. More than half the vineyards are organic, and locals have agreed not to sell wines for less than 10 Euros a bottle.

The town of Pezenas, an economic centre of the Languedoc, is strongly associated with the great writer Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière. Though born in Paris in 1622, he spent a lot of time in the region. A square and statue in the centre of Pezenas honour a writer considered one of the masters of comic drama in Western literature.

Wines in the region are classified as Languedoc AOC – Pezenas. As with Sommieres, AOC regulations only permit red wines made from the specified grapes (the same as Sommieres AOC). But the different soils produce very different flavours. Locals say the originality of Pezenas reds comes from the basalt lava that formed at least a million years ago, and which has broken down into a range of schist or calcerous soils.

Three cooperatives and 33 independent producers make an average of about 673,000 bottles a year. As with Sommieres, AOC rules limit yields to 45 Hectolitres a hectare, or about 5,600 750ml bottles a hectare. The region celebrated its tenth anniversary of becoming an AOC in April 2017.

Picpoul de Pinet is listed as an Appellation d’Origine Protegee (AOP). The European Commission coined the term in 1992 to define agricultural products with a distinct regional character. It is equivalent to an AOC and is included in the Grand Vins du Langudoc. Wines are made with only one grape variety, Piquepoul.

The locals describe Piquepoul as a party grape, a white ideal for pairing with the majestic local oysters and mussels or for drinking as an aperitif with friends. The region is noted for its wine fair held every May, a jazz festival (held every July since 1992), and its bullfights (Feria de Beziers) held each August.

About three in five of the approximately 10 to 12 million bottles made each year are exported, mostly to the UK, the US and Belgium and a range of Asian countries. The region has 25 independent estates and four co-operatives.

This is another visually splendid part of the world, with the Mediterranean Sea forming its western edge and Pezenas the southern border. Oysters grow in profusion in a huge lagoon known as Bassin de Thau just inland from the Mediterranean, and about a dozen chateaux dominate the landscape.

Picpoul de Pinet is a broad expanse of pretty countryside filled with pine and olive trees and the ever-present garrique. These combine to make the air sweet with the perfumes of the land, plus the music of birdsong and sunshine.

Guy Bascon is president of the local growers’ group, the Syndicate for the Defence of AOP Picpoul de Pinet, and the owner and winemaker at Domaine la Condamine l’Eveque. He said the region received its current AOC in 2013, but locals had been making wine since 1902 when production was at least a third more than currently recorded. He said dinosaur eggs were recently excavated in the area.

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Guy Bascon

Jerome Villaret, director general of CIVL, noted what he called 11 “promising regions” that had the potential to move to the top tier, to become Crus du Languedoc. He included the Sommieres and Pezanas AOCs in that group.

Some winemakers were using grapes outside the AOC regulations, and their wines fall into the “liberté d’expression” sector of the chart the CIVL uses to describe the entire region. Wines are labeled IGP and Villaret said about 20 vineyards fell into this category. Some IGP wines use a single grape variety and some sell for more than 100 Euros a bottle, an indication that IGP areas can produce excellence.

Other IGP wines from the Languedoc compete with low-cost Italian wines and are grouped into a category known as “IGP de Terres du Midi”. The aim here was to supply good value for money wines, Villaret said.

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Small but perfectly formed (5/20/2017)

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” (5/13/2017)

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 (5/7/2017)

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” (4/28/2017)

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 (4/23/2017)

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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Categories: Home page, Uncategorized

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