Celebration of Wine at Château La Clarière

One of the quiet, unsung heroes of the Wine Trade, Tony Laithwaite was recently awarded a CBE for services to wine both in the UK and globally. The timing was perfect to celebrate this well -deserved “gong” as he so self -deprecatingly calls it, as this year is the 50th Anniversary of his eponymous company. Originally this began with forays back & forth to France in a rather ramshackle old van filled with cases of wine direct from the producer, followed by an open letter to the Sunday Times tackling the problem of fraudulent wine which resulted in the creation of the Sunday Times Wine Club now celebrating its 46th anniversary, and today Laithwaites lists wines from Uruguayan Tannat to Moldovan Pinot Noir, through to Fine Wines from the leading estates in the more classic regions – and most other regions in between.

Tony Laithwaite, Laithwaite Wines
Tony Laithwaite

Back in 1985, Tony created the Confrères, a group of loyal clients who believed in his “Direct from the Vineyard to the Consumer” philosophy and backed the investment at a Château on the Right Bank. The success of the Confrère project has been outstanding, and some 34 years later, Love Wine Food had the pleasure of organising a private wine tour for members to inaugurate the renovated Château La Clarière, joined Tony and his son Tom Laithwaite.

chateau la clariere

Landing in Bordeaux, our first stop was for lunch at La Terrace Rouge, with its beautiful views over the vines of St Emilion, enjoyed with a glass of Chateau Thieuley in hand. One of my personal bête noires is the modern style of Bordeaux Blanc that only use Sauvignon Blanc, which are so mono dimensional. How delightful to drink this wonderful blend with a hefty percentage of Semillion and the aromatic Sauvignon Gris as well as SB giving the wine a complexity of ripe fruits but with good balance of citrus and white flowers. It paired very well with seasonal asparagus & smoked sturgeon from the region. The Chef is a friend of the Laithwaites having worked close to their HQ in the UK, and the slow roasted rump of veal was the perfect foil for the Merlot Cabernet Franc blend of Clos Magne Figeac. But star wine of lunch (ably assisted by a dried fruit caramel tartlet) was the Lions de Suduiraut from Sauternes, a hedonistic balance of acidity & sweetness, loaded with enough notes of Marmalade to make even Paddington Bear blush!

Our base for this celebration tour, was the lovely Château Grand Barrail, close to St Emilion. As the sun shone through the art deco style stained glass windows, throwing pink, green & blue reflections which danced across a battalion of wine glasses, it seemed the ideal time for a glass of Laithwaites Champagne. A perfectly executed Spelt Risotto of summer truffles made the wine pairing of Le Coin Blanc made by 100% Sauvignon Gris, sing with spiciness and a just a hint of oak to balance out to a rich mouthfeel. Chocolate is always such a hard call to pair with wines, but our choice of the Maury La Font del Bosc, from Grenache complimented the dessert of Valhrona Chocolate Entremet as if had been made for each other! Wonderful end to the first evening with Tony explaining about the wines, despite the very noisy frogs on the terrace after dinner!

Castillon La Bataille is home to Laithwaites Le Chai au Quai, which sits on the banks of the tranquil Dordogne River. A gentle meander through the narrow alleyways lined with bougainvillea, led us to the honey coloured stone Chai, originally built in 1856 and today is HQ to Laithwaites wine production, sourcing grapes from all across France. Winemaker Mark Hoddy weaves his magic on a range of wines, not just from Bordeaux but from the Languedoc, Minervois and beyond. The philosophy is to make the best wine from a particular parcel of grapes, unfettered on many occasions by sometimes outdated appellation rules – such as La Chimère, a surprising and attractive blend of Rhône Syrah & Bordeaux Merlot.

Mark had arranged a blending session to put the palates of the Confrères to the test. Once the initial terror of being asked to create a new blend had worn off, the noise levels and laughter rose along with some healthy competitiveness creeping in amongst the barrels.

After so much hilarity, palates needed enlivening after so much tannin, so a welcome glass of Harrow & Hope NV, made by Tony’s son Henry at his estate near Marlow. Made from the three classic varieties of Pinots Noir & Meunier with Chardonnay, but with the Pinot Noir shining through in the glass, this is an excellent example of why it’s an exciting time for English Sparkling wines.

The predicted heatwave had landed and so lunch was inside the barrel hall, where even the gleaming stainless steel vats were bedecked in festive bunting! A host of wines waited to be discovered over lunch: La Voûte - a Chardonnay with good oak management to let the ripe exotic fruits come through: SCG - a voluptuous blend of Syrah, Carignan and Grenache from the Languedoc, the delicate Le Champe des Etoiles Pinot Noir and the rather unusual Le C du Chai.

A few hardy Confrères braved the sun for a meander around the medieval village of St Emilion – leaving the others to retire to the cool air conditioned Chateau hotel for a post prandial siesta whilst muttering about “Mad Dogs and Englishmen….”. The exquisite small town of St Emilion was gearing itself up for the celebrations of 20th anniversary of being listed as a UNESCO World heritage Site. The heat rising from the polished, well -worn cobbled streets meant that a stroll around actually meant darting into the best Macaroon shop in town (deliciously delicate and irresistible) followed by a swift retreat into a cool courtyard for a chilled glass of Bordeaux Blanc!

On the crossroads in one of the small villages of the Right Bank was our evening appointment at le Comptoir de Genes. The musical notes of a very French Trio drifted across the air to greet us with songs by Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and a healthy helping of Django Reinhardt. The Comptoir is a wonderfully relaxing, welcoming bistro and second home for meals to Tony and his team when visiting La Clarière. The wine list is no mere tome of bland pages, but islands of wooden cases dotted around the restaurant, so you can simply wander from case to case, read the back labels & tasting notes before deciding!

We kicked off with an unusual white, Cabernet Blanc, which was a first for everyone on this grape variety, followed by JMS Sauvignon Blanc, named after Laithwaites Head wine maker, Jean Marc Sauboua, who has created an excellent example of complexity thank to the barrel fermentation as well as crisp freshness – delicious with the sea bass carpaccio starter. The South West of France is renowned for its duck and so the Magret de Canard called for a punchy red, the Belle Roche Cabernet Sauvignon, which was all blackcurrant & spice with a velvety finish – a heavenly match.

On our last day, driving through the picturesque narrow lanes, Tony pointed out the places that launched his love of wine, including the site of the archaeological dig which was his original reason for being in the region – until he quite rightly was diverted into a new passion for the world of wine.

Château La Clarière, the spiritual home of the Confreres was the highlight visit and it nestles in the Bois Jolie with views across the Dordogne Valley and across to St Emilion. Thankfully the heatwave had a bit of a lie in, so that we could have a stroll through the meticulously tended vineyards in the company of Jean-Marc Sauboua, their talented head wine maker, with a glass of Wyfold, the English fizz made by Tony’s Wife & Business partner, Barbara at her vineyard in Oxfordshire.

A spectacular tasting awaited in the new barrel hall, with JMS, Tony and Tom working well as a trio of presenters, gently (ish…) joshing each other. JMS had dug deep into the library stock to show Château La Clarière in four vintages – 2018 -2009 – 1999 – 1989, and a fascinating comparison of vintages. But the great surprise (though possibly only to me!) was La Clarière Blanc 2018, a blend of Semillion & Sauvignon Blanc, with 60% barrel Fermented and 40% in stainless steel – an explosion of white flowers in the glass, multi layered palate including peaches, a real delight! Next up was JMS’s own venture in Rioja, Altos R Pigeage, which shown in magnum , was simply stunning. All the dark fruits of Tempranillo, with sexy chocolate, cedar and smooth fine tannins.

A quick saunter through the barrel hall, breathing in that unmistakable (and expensive!) smell of new French oak barrels (they really should bottle it as a perfume!) , led to the Château’s terrace where a refreshing apéro awaited before the final lunch in the very newly completed Grand Salon of Château La Clarière. Truly impressive how the Château has been restored with sympathy and vision, and the beautiful fireplace which the name of the property etched into the pale stone was just beautiful. A smoked trout and celeriac starter was ideal with the refreshing Rosé de La Clarière and the sixth vintage of the tour of Clarière competed the Confrères true full immersion and understanding of the wines from this exquisite wine estate, and the result of the passion & belief of one man. But there is a solid team spirit that exists at Laithwaites, and this was easily shown by the “mystery” Sauternes that JMS produced like a magician at the end of lunch – not even Tony knew about that project – but from the smiles, it looks like being a future success!

What better way to end up three days of enjoying the company of Tony & Tom Laithwaite plus the home team of winemakers, discovering a great range of wines – and understanding why 54 years ago, Tony thought that this small area on the Right Bank was paradise – the Confrères all agreed!

For more information on how to become a Confrere, contact : confreres@laithwaiteswine.com

Grand Salon of Château La Clarière

 


English Vineyards

Sipping Syrah in the vines overlooking the Apalta Valley in Chile. Tasting Pinot Noir in Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. Dining in a medieval Tuscan Castle with vertical vintages of Chianti. Just three of the many memories over my 22 years of escorting wine tours around the world.

So it was wonderfully different to simply walk out of my front door, and after a five minute stroll to meet the train from London and welcome my clients on our first Love Wine Food private tour in Southern England. From the LWF HQ, which nestles in the heart of the South Downs National Park and surrounded by nearby vineyards, I’d designed a two day exploration of English Vineyards for the members of a London Livery Company.

Hambledon Vineyards are located in the eponymous village in Hampshire and is the oldest commercial vineyard in England. Vines were originally planted in 1952 on the property by Major General Sir Guy Salisbury Jones, with valuable help & insight from the De Billy family who own the famous Champagne House of Pol Roger. At a time when English wines were virtually unheard of, Hambledon enjoyed prestigious clients, such as being served by the Queen at official functions as well as Embassies. The modern story of Hambledon was reborn in 1999 when it was bought by Ian Kellett, who had absolute belief that Sparkling Wines were the future of the estate, thanks to the chalk on which the vines are planted. The Classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinots Noir & Meunier were planted and the relationship between Pol Roger and Hambledon was rekindled.

Last year, they undertook a huge new planting of 230,000 vines bringing the total of land under vine to a substantial total of 85 hectares. Their expansion investment also includes an impressive vast new cellar, mostly underground so it will have a permanent natural cool temperature with no need for air conditioning. The obvious slight problem was the solid chalk which although so beneficial for the vines, is less than amusing to dig out in such large quantities, hence the chalk “mountains” dotted around waiting to be backfilled in around the cellar hiding it almost from view.

Chalk "mountain" hiding

Hambledon have just launched their fourth wine, the Première Cuvée Rosé and we were privileged to be the first guests to the estate to taste it. In an eye catching bottle shape, it’s rather unusual to be made with 100% Pinot Meunier, which normally only makes up a smaller percentage of the sparkling blend, so it was fascinating to taste a pure expression of the variety. Made with Zero Dosage, it was bone dry with attractive raspberry notes. Only 4000 bottles were made in its first outing, so somewhat of a rarity. It compliments their Première Cuvée made from 73% Chardonnay and 24% Pinot Noir (the rest a splash of Meunier), it was beautifully rich and lots of toasted brioche notes thanks to an extended 42 months lees contact. The Classic Cuvée was reminiscent of sherbet with its lively freshness and the Classic Cuvée Rosé version made from 90% Chardonnay with 10% PN red wine was all strawberries & cream in the glass.

Although many people go to wine tastings, it’s not very often that consumers have the opportunity to do a comparative dosage tasting. Dosage is the addition of wine & sugar back into the wine after the yeast sediment has been disgorged in Champagne and Sparkling Wines. The numbers of grams of sugar per litre governs the taste and texture of the final wine. Taking four glasses of Classic Cuvée, one with Zero Dosage, 4 gms, 6 gms and 10 gms. It is truly incredible how much difference such an infinitesimal variance has on the wine, creating more roundness or less for a racier acidity and vital to get this spot on to truly establish the House Style.

Staying on the chalk soils of Hampshire, our lunchtime appointment was at Danebury Vineyards, close to the picturesque village of Stockbridge. Originally the property was part of a famous racehorse yard, patronised by Royalty during the 19th Century. Danebury is owned by an Austrian family, who cherish this pocketsize estate. Often the term boutique vineyard is bandied about, but is most apt for Danebury’s small 2.8 hectares of vines.

Being suitably British in our studious ignorance of threatening rain clouds, we started with a vineyard visit in the company of Patrick, who tends this immaculate grassy vineyard to hear about the challenges and benefits of making wine in England following organic principles. Kicking off with a welcome glass of their Sparkling Cossack, named after the winner of the Epsom Derby in 1847, which was trained at Danebury. Made from Auxerrois Blanc and Pinot Gris rather than the classic Champenoise varieties, it has a gentle mousse and hints of citrus fruits.

A canter through their white wines, starting with their Madeleine Angevine, a variety that hails from the Loire valley, which has a delightful nose of elderflowers leading into crisp hints of lime. An extremely attractive and dangerously drinkable wine which is perfect for Spring. Their Schönburger (the variety is a cross of Pinot Noir & Muscat), was more full bodied and aromatic. The Danebury Reserve, a blend of their four white varieties displays a savoury aspect on first taste, which when combined with food comes into its own with riper stone fruit notes coming through and went well with the delicious luncheon of chicken poached in white wine with braised lettuce. Danebury is a wonderful small hidden gem of an estate set in the beautiful Hampshire countryside.

A reviving break to give palates time to recuperate with some free time in beautiful Winchester, the first Capital of England, with its impressive Gothic Cathedral and 12th Century illuminated bible.

Our evening visit was to Coates & Seely, a small scale artisan producer of Sparkling Wines located not far from Winchester. One aspect of wine tours is that after two decades of vising wineries around the world, LWF understands well that it is vital to avoid endless repetition at wine cellars. Nothing is more depressing for a vintner than seeing visitors eyes glaze over when faced by yet more barrels or another gleaming avenue of stainless steel tanks. So all praise goes to the wonderful Nicholas Coates, co-owner of Coates & Seely, who nixed the idea of a cellar visit (though looking forward to going back another time to see the concrete eggs!), and instead invited us to relax in a delightful setting with a glass or three of their gorgeous sparkling wine – a much more enjoyable way to listen to their history and philosophy. Charming, with a slight maverick streak, Nicholas is the epitome of an English Gentleman, who along with his business partner and old friend, Christian Seely, have a passionate belief in making great sparkling wines in England and labelling them as Britagne wines.

Their wines, always with a French winemaker at the helm, are created with reserve wines for the NV, which gives an attractive depth. Their vintage wines – amusingly called La Perfide – are treated to extended lees contact, anything up to five years which gives wines of great complexity and are only released in the best years. Refreshingly honest, Nicholas was a veritable font of anecdotes of how he and Christian have developed the estate, since in 2008 (over a few bottle of Champagne) they decided to start this new project of English sparkling wines to rival the best in the world. Since they are the only English Wine to have been stocked at the George V in Paris – they are definitely on the right path! Virginia, Nicholas’s wife had prepared a tempting array of local food, starting with Canapés of Blinis with Smoked trout from the River Test and melt in the mouth shortbread made with Tunworth Hampshire cheese. Her beautiful menu continued with venison fillet showing that Sparkling wines can be enjoyed throughout a meal rather than simply as an aperitif.

Such a glorious range of wines, and convivial company meant that my tasting notes of all seven wines rather went by the wayside. The Brut Rosé NV, made by the saignée method was an elegant pale shade with alpine strawberries on the palate and had great balance of acidity. The 2009 Brut Rosé La Perfide was full of complexity and toasty notes thanks to 6.5 years on the lees and a further 3 years bottle aging – this is a wine to be savoured, choose your company well or treat yourself to enjoy alone with a good book overlooking the watercress beds of Hampshire! Brut Reserve 2011 La Perfide in Magnum of 65% Pinot Noir with the rest Pinot Meunier was an absolute delight and still incredibly vibrant in the glass. To finish, in honour of absent friends, we enjoyed Château Suduiraut, the Sauternes estate that C&S's other owning partner, Christian Seely looks after in his role of head of Axa Millésimes Wine Portfolio (who own Pichon Baron in Pauillac, Quinta do Noval in Portugal et alia). Truly a memorable evening – and looking ahead to my next day at the Races, secure in the knowledge that C&S wines are now listed at 14 of the Jockey Club’s Race courses in England and served from Albion, their 1952 British Charabanc with her British Racing Green Livery.

Our second day of this private wine tour saw a quick hop over the county border into West Sussex to Stopham Vineyard. Welcomed by their head winemaker Simon Woodhead, a blustery walk through the vines was the perfect start to understand the philosophy of the estate. The vineyards are sandy loam, which is free draining (vines hate wet feet!) and made for an interesting comparison to all the talk about chalk soils the day before. Sustainability and responsible agriculture are at the heart of their vineyard practise from careful soil management through to increasing their biodiversity, including planting 400 metres of natural hedgerow. They only use grapes from their own six hectares of vines for complete control over their fruit quality.

Their Pinot Blanc is one of my favourite English still wines, indeed is the one that I tend to take as a gift when visiting wine makers abroad to show them what English wine can achieve. A fascinating visit, with Simon explaining lots of viniculture & vinicultural practises. A very appealing zesty white with slight hints of ripe melon & greengage, the Pinot Blanc works happily as an apèro or with fish and is remarkably rounded considering that it does not undergo malolactic fermentation. But it has competition in the shape of the recent award winning Pinot Gris. We tasted the 2017 vintage which has 15% of Bacchus in the blend. Off dry thanks to a perfect pitch of residual sugar, just enough to give it body & character, with stunning nose of white peaches and spice – truly delicious and would work well with aromatic Asian food. From next vintage, it will be pure Pinot Gris as the Bacchus will be bottled as its own variety – so lots of exciting things to look forward to at Stopham. Their Sparkling is the house Fizz at the V&A in London - is there a better excuse to visit a Museum? The tag line on their bottles is “Made with passion and precision in West Sussex” which sums it up perfectly!

Nutbourne Vineyardshwas our lunchtime appointment, almost walkable across the fields as also close to the village of Pulborough. Owned by Bridget and Peter Gladwin, who took it over in 1991 (although vines had been planted on the estate since 1980), Nutbourne has a wonderful range of wines produced from seven different grape varieties on their 26 hectares of vineyard. Welcomed by their adorable collie Buddy, and a glass of their Nutty Brut Sparkling, produced from Pinot Noir & Chardonnay, Bridget led us up into their windmill, from where it’s a lovely view across their vines. It was interesting to be visiting the vineyards at time of bud burst and fingers crossed that there are no more frosts.

It’s very much a family affair at Nutbourne, as Bridget is an artist, whose ethereal paintings are the labels on all of their wines. Her husband Peter, is an excellent chef (indeed owns a prestigious London Catering Company as well as being a key member of Wine GB), two of their sons run three London restaurants which they supply with Sussex produce foraged on the Nutbourne family estate (as well naturally as Nutbourne wines on the list). As we explored the vineyards, there was a deliciously distracting scent wafting across of Sussex lamb roasting in the clay oven with old vine cuttings. A smoked trout & horseradish mousseline was a great foil for their unoaked Chardonnay. But truly exciting to taste was their Pinot Noir 2018 – still unfinished, so a barrel sample, but it was so vibrant in the glass with cherries, red fruits and an underlying touch of smokiness. To watch out for when it’s released! Dessert was a lemon posset with delicious homemade Florentines which was paired with their Hedgerow Wine. Made from Bacchus and Huxelrebe grape varieties in an off dry style with delightful aromatics, thanks to some daring late harvesting. Nutbourne are hosting a Pop Up Restaurant in the Vines for English Wine Week at the end of May – so do book yourself a ticket for a great day of delicious food & wine.

Our last visit to round up these couple of days exploring English Vineyards was to the Surrey Hills to the small estate of High Clandon Owned by Bruce & Sibylla Tindale, this pocketsize vineyard on Chalky Limestone is situated in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), with spectacular views across to the City – on a clear day, it almost seems as if one could reach out and touch the Shard! Walking through their wild flower meadow that edges the vineyard (followed by a small coterie of inquisitive ducklings), it’s clear that the vineyard is their absolute passion – and they are very much hands on doing all the vineyard work throughout the year themselves – with one being very much in charge of the Chardonnay vines and the other tending the Pinot Noir vines! On the far side of the vineyard is their wood planted with oak & hazels, which is their truffière – gradually becoming home to Burgundian truffles.

Their focus is all about the vineyard and growing the best fruit possible, whilst the wine making is entrusted to the brilliant Emma Rice at Hattingley Valley, who have a much larger wine making facility. In the High Clandon Wine Lodge, which is filled with artwork and sculptures from local artists, a relaxing tasting was prepared around the log burner, a welcome sight on this English Spring day. The Elysium Cuvée 2013 of 54% Pinot Noir & 46% Chardonnay was very approachable, with lovely notes of apricots and was complimented by the homemade Gougeres (an English twist on the classic French cheese puff). To finish in style, we’d decided to open a couple of Library Wines – the Aurora Cuvée Rose 2011 was the palest of salmon pink shades with not only strawberries but a delicious butterscotch finish. The Queens Jubilee Cuvée 2008 of which only 1100 bottles were produced, from 56% Chardonnay was the perfect finale. Still lovely freshness with a good mousse, on the palate it was all stone fruit and some lime to end. Before we disappeared, there was one last wine – the Essence of High Clandon, an Eau de Vin du Vin. Double distilled from their Chardonnay & Pinot Noir grapes, and infused with 14 local botanicals plus a small additional of their own honey, whose bees enjoy the wild flower meadows next to their vines. A great expression of this little magical corner of quintessential England in the Surrey Hills to end our tour.

English Wine is going through a very exciting time, no longer the joke of hobbyist wine makers with more enthusiasm than knowledge, it is now a serious industry and growing very quickly. Last year’s vintage of 2018 was for most producers a blessing as the large yields have given them opportunity to build up reserve wines, even though at the time of harvest, the challenge of what to do with so many grapes was a very real worry! Sparkling leads the way with 72% of English production, with Chardonnay & Pinot Noir making up the Lions share at 58% of vineyards as opposed to other varieties. Vineyard plantings are rapidly increasing, which I see first hand here around LWF HQ in Hampshire, and since 2015, the amount of land under vine has increased by 47%. But with over 520 vineyards that are producing grapes for commercial use and only 164 wineries, there is a concern for over production without sufficient infrastructure. English Sparkling only makes up 2% of all Sparkling wines on the home market so there is room for sales expansion and export markets will only increase but it is a time for long term planning in English Vineyards. But what an era to be experiencing as a wine lover in England. There are some great Sparkling wines being produced to rival Champagne, as has been proved repeatedly in recent blind tastings. There are a handful of winemakers already making delicious still wines, like the Pinot Gris at Stopham, I drink it because it’s delicious wine and not simply to be patriotic. Finally your low “wine miles” count can easily persuade you into enjoying a second glass or so without worry!

For more information please visit: www.winegb.co.uk


Mornington Peninsula Tasting

Once the beautiful Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, was simply a costal weekend bolthole for the good folk of Melbourne, but over the last thirty years, it has developed into Australia’s leading cool climate wine producing region. Pinot Noir & Chardonnay are key varieties but the diversity of terroir in such a small region is fascinating.

Since I joined the wine trade, many tastings have become behemoths, where the sheer number of wines overwhelms even the most hardy & dedicated of tasters. True, one can focus, be it on a certain grape variety/ region / vintage / price point, but all too often means one misses out on the unexpected vinous surprise!

So, it was sheer heaven to attend the Mornington Peninsula tasting in Australia House yesterday.  “Small but perfectly formed” as Kylie Minogue has been described many a time, the Mornington Peninsula Tasting (or the only MP I’m ever likely to invite for dinner), featured nine of their leading wine estates, allowing us, the interested of the wine trade to focus and contrast the variety in the region.

Kicking off with the brilliant and welcoming Rollo Crittenden (on the family’s website as “all round good bloke”), from his family’s Crittenden Estate, as the Wine Maker, he is the second generation taking this great property forward. One of the early wine estates to believe in MP, starting there in 1982, their style of making wine is small scale production and reflects their sustainable respect for the land, which gives their wines a purity of fruit in the glass.

The Zumma Chardonnay ’16 was beautiful, bright and good backbone of minerality, the Zumma Pinot Noir ’16 from their home vineyards, using 20% of whole bunch retention, was deeper in colour and flavour profile than the (albeit lovely!) Estate PN ‘16 , but the Zumma has an inviting savoury depth and a wine crying out for food! Guinea Fowl roasted with porcini mushrooms maybe?

Fascinating to taste their two wines made from the Savignan grape variety. Not a spello of Sauvignon, this white variety is found almost exclusively in the Jura and made to make Vin Jaune. Decidedly quirky as a variety, it was planted in Australia erroneously in the belief that it was the Spanish white variety Albarino. Crittenden only have half an acre planted but the wine gives an individual aroma of toasted hazelnuts, very reminiscent of sherry, even more so when it leads through to almost salinity on the finish. The Estate Version was lovely but the Cris de Coeur Sous Voile Savignan, aged with a “veil” of yeast was a revelation. A Salome of a wine that just unveils its layers little by little, but to be enjoyed with a plate of aged Comté cheese – bliss!

The next estate of Ocean 8 (no presence of the all- female cast of the new version of the famous film trilogy) but welcomed instead by their friendly & enthusiastic Winemaker Mike Aylward, they showed only three wines as those are available in the UK (though am plotting to lay my hands on a bottle of their Late Harvest Pinot Gris when I’m in Oz later this year). The Pinot Gris ’17 was very approachable with a good rounded mouth feel. The Verve Chardonnay ’15 was early picked, a touch of malo but still retaining notes of pink grapefruit, with a lovely balanced acidity. Tasting the 2012 vintage (unlisted & under the counter wines are always so much fun at tastings!), which shares similar characters to the '15 as were similar vintages, but obviously with more depth thanks to the three extra years of age. Their philosophy of having only used barrels rather than new, lets the fruit shine through, which is sadly not something to be said for all Chardonnays. 

Paringa Estate under the aegis of Lindsay McCall, has its vines planted on an old apple orchard (there must be a soil synergy between vines and apples trees as have found this in South Africa, Chile through to the UK). Disappointed not to be able to try their Riesling, but the Estate Pinot Noir ’15 was very appealing, slightly smoky, with enticing black cherries – a textbook tempting example of this precocious variety. The Paringa Pinot Noir '15 was suitably spicy, perhaps from the red volcanic soil that the vineyard is planted on, but certainly showing why it has won a considerable bunch of awards!

Stonier Wines were on my “must taste” list before arriving and with good reason. One of the first pioneers of the region starting in 1978, in this maritime climate, when the elegance of Pinot Noir & cool climate Chardonnay were – how to put this politely – mostly less understood in Oz then they are today! The Stonier Chardy ’17 was bright, with attractive ripe melon notes. The Reserve Chardy ’16 merited the startling tasting note of “weird note of buddleia on the nose” – only a few minutes later did I notice this was due to the slightly overpowering & ill thought out perfume of the lady behind me. The Trio of Pinot Noirs were simply delicious – The Stonier PN ’17 was remarkable quality for their “basic” (sorry!) PN, bright fresh ripe raspberries. Their Reserve PN ’16, fermented in open vats was a hint of mint on the nose, leading into a balsamic savoury character with a longer finish, a leap in quality (reflected quite rightly for that amount of work in the price!). But the outstanding Windmill Vineyards PN 2015 was pure delight. A small harvest for this selection in ’15 nonetheless has given a charming wine full of nuance and will only improve with time in bottle. An outstanding range of wines from Stonier.

The intriguing moniker of the estate Ten Minutes by Tractor was given for the very prosaic (& Aussie!) reason that when it was formed of three family vineyards, which were only 600 seconds away from each other by Tractor! The 10x Chardy ’16 was in football pundit speak – a wine of two halves! The nose was rather unusual but the palate was an explosion of that I can only describe as lemons along with crystallised pineapple (apologies for that being an OTT description but I was using crystallised pineapple in cooking the day before the tasting!). The Estate Chardonnay ’16 was quite broad whilst the Judd Chardonnay from the same vintage was more elegant with white peaches with nice acidity.  Their Pinot Noirs ranged from the very quaffable 10x ’16, through the Estate with a nice hint of spice and finishing on the Coolart Road ’16 which differs dramatically to its two other siblings, being more dark and vegetal. 

Yabby Lake (established 1998), owned by the Kirby family, make some serious Pinot Noirs & Chardonnay. Block 1 Chardonnay from ’12 vintage has a pure linear profile, despite its 5 years of age, it was still vibrant, youthful and a while happily to develop more. Their Red Claw PN is often my “go to” wine on a Tuesday evening after a hard day as it’s easily available in M&S (and good value at about £12 for a wine with this much personality!). Their super experienced winemaker Tom Carson did not seem to mind as I skipped the Red Claw, along to their Block 2 Pinot Noir ’15 which was a true delight to taste, and showed the complexity this wine has achieved since they started the Block programme in 2008 – wonderful layers of spice and fruit, with complexity and potential. It had me dreaming of a plate of lamb chops grilled on a BBQ of vine cuttings!

The very first Mornington Peninsular Wine I ever tasted (quite a while ago now!) was from the Moorooduc Estate and they did not disappoint on revisiting! Hosted by their charming Wine Maker, Kate McIntyre (not only WM aka Wine Maker but also MW – Master of Wine - only 380 of them in the world). Each wine on show displayed great purity & finesse reflecting their incredible attention to detail in the vineyards. The Pinot Gris ’15 was supple, delicately aromatic and rather refreshing. The McIntyre Chardonnay ’15 from their oldest vines was quite impressive in its lean elegance, but it was when the flight of Pinot Noir began that Unicorns started dancing around the room (metaphorically speaking – I was spitting out of course!). The Estate Pinot Noir ’15 led to my rather simplistic but ultimately unfussy Aussie tasting note of “YES!”.  Lovely ripe red cherries and a touch of liquorice.  The McIntyre PN ’15 ticked every box, supple but present tannin, rich balsamic notes and just needed a roast goose topped with Chinese Five Spice! But it was the Robinson PN ’15 (which had been my first MP experience all those years ago!) which stole the whole tasting. When a wine sings as well as this in the glass and all the elements are so well married, I find it hard (or even pointless?) to say it has notes of this or that. Just let it be said that if you are a Pinot Lover, you need to get some of this in your cellar now, by whatever means necessary!

Before tasting their Syrah (an excellent cool climate example of this variety similar to those coming out of San Antonio in Chile from Casa Marin), I was distracted by their ongoing Pinot Noir project. Five wines to taste from different vineyards – same clone, same vintage (2016), same vinification, the only difference is vineyard location. Fascinating to taste side by side – ranging from smooth & velvety, through to raspberry jam (without the stickiness of negative connotations), some Lapsang Suchong notes – each vineyard had something different to say. But if you were in a blind tasting, you’d want to encounter the McIntyre PN ’16 – instantly recognisable by an explosion of Eucalyptus. Apparently the vineyards are harvested in three tranches, and the section closest to the tree line, always given that dominant mint aroma, which was followed up with deep blueberry notes – heaven! A truly awesome range of wines from a world class producer. By the way - If you struggle to remember this Aboriginal name of the estate, you could always try Kate’s rather tongue in cheek helpful tip – just imagine a Cow, a Kangaroo and a Duck in a line!

I’m off to New Zealand in a few weeks, taking clients on tour around 16 wineries on North & South Island, and my return flight touches down in Melbourne. After this tasting, I am seriously plotting as to how can change my flight to fit in a few days in Mornington Peninsula! Not least because Aussie friends keep raving about the food there as well!

If like me, Pinot Noir seduces and excites you, do check out the Pinot Celebration Australia in February 2019 – a real festival of Pinot Noirs not only from Oz but around the world paired with some great foods. www.pinotcelebration.com.au

 

For more information do visit - https://www.wineaustralia.com/  https://www.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org/  https://mpva.com.au/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Restaurant Review: The Three Buoys

Waking this weekend to sunshine that makes resistance futile, my desire to be on an Island was overwhelming. Yes, I know that Britain is an Island, but I confess to having a “thing” about Islands off Islands – it’s something about the double feeling of escapism which gives that frisson as you step off the ferry onto the Aeolian Islands (off North Coast of Sicily) or onto Bruny Island (off Tasmania). But somewhere closer for the day was needed and so the Isle of Wight beckoned.  Sixty one minutes later, one excellent train connection with the ferry and a charming transfer along the pier in a vintage London Underground Carriage and our feet were in the sand on Ryde beach!  Ryde, although the largest town on the island, often is overlooked in favour of more stylish yachtie Cowes or beautiful Bembridge, but Ryde has an eclectic mix of shops dotted along Union Street (including the wonderful Aladdin's Cave of  Elizabeth Smith!)and of course the excellent museum of Donald McGill, designer of the saucy postcard which caused Police Raids in the1950’s for being offensive!

After a blustery stroll along the long sandy beach alongside Appley Tower, although slightly eerie with a 21 Gun salute booming out of the mist somewhere on the mainland (as a Happy Birthday Your Majesty!), lunch beckoned. So what a heavenly surprise it was to discover The Three Buoys Restaurant. On the top floor of an unassuming building, the bright & airy New Englandesque décor is a pleasing surprise.  Beautiful paintings by Penelope Walford, (a local artist who lives on a houseboat in Bembridge) adorn the walls. The tables on the terrace were deemed a tad chilly, but the tables inside still look out over the beach.  Hard to choose a pre-prandial G&T from their Gin menu, but with the restaurant focusing on local produce, it had to be the Mermaid Gin distilled just a stone’s throw away! Lovely Citrus notes, backed up with slight salty tang which was echoed in the samphire & lemon floating amongst the ice. To stave off hunger pangs, the bread board came with two flavoured butters – smoked cardamom and the other with fennel seeds – quite delicious!

Unlike a recent visit to a “Celebrity” Chef’s restaurant, the Three Buoys menu was balanced and well thought out, so for starters I plumped for Scallops served with wild garlic, black caraway seeds & fermented grains, whilst PJ was struggling to choose between the Beetroot Salmon Gravlax served with Kohlrabi or the Pig Cheek with sweet potato, mango glaze & miso. Whilst the descriptions might sound slightly like a Chef who is trying too hard to prove seasonality alongside trendy ingredients, the actual delivery of the dishes was spot on – scallops cooked to perfection, the pig cheek melt in the mouth.

Mains on the principle menu included temptations such of Isle of Wight Lamb, with aubergine & harissa chickpeas as well as a mountain of Mussels cooked in a Thai Coconut broth, but the Daily specials were impossible to resist. PJ’s choice of Plaice, a fish which inexplicably seems to have fallen out of fashion, delicately cooked and served with black olive crumb & poached radishes. For me, the Sea Bass - a thick fillet with perfectly crispy skin, topped with samphire, excellently cooked flakes falling apart alongside charred asparagus & fennel seeds. The only thing awry on the plate was an small odd polenta cake but apart from that it was pretty close to perfection – especially the seasoning which can make or break a dish – this is a Chef who understands balance!

The Wine List is well chosen and fairly priced – something of a surprise in restaurants these days.  A Clare Valley Riesling matched well with the scallops and the Sea Bass. Made by two MW’s (Masters of Wine – of whom there are only 370 in the world!) , the Courtesan Riesling from Wild & Wilder had lovely lime & pink grapefruit notes, wonderfully fresh with no oak, but thanks to a couple of months lees contact, was rounded and rich enough to compliment  the mains. Good to see wine by the glass were not just the run of the mill, but included a Feteasca from Romania – the best way to get people to sample something different!

Sadly despite the delicious sounding desserts – Textures of Rhubarb or Spice Pineapple with Coconut Ice cream will have to wait for our next visit.

A great meal is never just about the food, but whole experience – The Three Buoys ticked lots of boxes – seasonal food cooked brilliantly with precision & flair, fairly priced wine list, great panoramic view of the beach and best of all -  friendly, knowledgeable staff. Very pleased to have discovered this small gem of a restaurant, and on an Island! The Isle of Wight produces some great food from garlic through to tomatoes – so a longer gourmet weekend away exploring the Island is needed - but a lunch booking at the Three Buoys will certainly be included again!

 

 www.thethreebuoys.co.uk

 

 


Wine Evening at Hambledon Vineyard with Joe Wadsack

Salvador Dali, the calorific value of Guinness and  Georgian Architecture. It may seem find to find a link between these subjects, but they all featured in the fascinating presentation by Joe Wadsack at the “How to be a Winemaker evening” at Hambledon vineyard, which I’d bought for a birthday present for my fizz loving other half!

Arriving to a backdrop of beautiful winter skies, nestled on the side of a valley on the chalky hills of the South Down National Park in Hampshire (England), Hambledon Vineyards hosts a creative calendar of events from the perhaps expected ones such as wine tastings, WSET qualifications  through to the more eclectic Yoga in the vineyards. Hambledon is the oldest commercial vineyard in the UK, started in1952 by Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, with lots of advice from the Pol Roger Cellar Master, their vines are planted with the classic Champenoise grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Meunier.

But the evening’s event with Joe, was not arrogantly designed to promote their own (superb!) sparkling wines – but an opportunity to directly compare a variety of fizz in the company of one of the most knowledgeable & entertaining communicators in the Wine Trade. A real tour de force, with endless energy, whose enthusiastic presence is quite compelling, Jo’s mind works like a Classic American Pin Ball machine - bouncing everywhere, landing on subjects at a tangent, scattering fascinating nuggets of knowledge as he enthuses around the central theme. I  wish it were possible to have Joe on a rewind function,  you are so overwhelmed with the depth  of knowledge,  it would be fabulous  to have him on catch up to listen again later!

Tasting events can often be too formal and rather off putting for the consumer, but this was a remarkable privilege whilst being great fun! There were only 6 wine lovers at the event (due to the bad weather) listening to Joe’s years of experience of the wine world for almost four hours! With such a select number, there was a great opportunity for interaction & discussion – the lady who was there as part of her Year Long celebrations of her 50-th birthday, who was emphatic about her love of Bolly through to the lady from the New Forest decided dislike of Cava – for all, it was fascinating opportunity to taste a range of sparklers side by side.

A glass of Hambledon on arrival was served with some delicious patés, including vension and  smoked salmon to stave the hunger pangs!

The tasting kicked off with a glass of Prosecco – Conegliano Valdobbiadene La Marca to be precise – which qualifies as  DOCG, Italy’s’ highest wine classification. Prosecco has really taken off in the UK, since 2008, sales have increased by 6000%!!! Joined now by the Scandi counties and the US in their love of this classic Italian sparkling wine, this marketing phenomenon shows no sign of abating.  A shaft of brilliance from Joe described Prosecco as the Lager equivalent of the Sparkling wine club (not in a bad way!) . Uncomplicated, reliable, low acidity, quite mono dimensional, this is easy drinking fizz ideal for BBQ’s or rainy Tuesday evenings after a bad day at work.

Personally I am not a fan of Prosecco (except for some Colfondo styles, which are bottle fermented but this is a tiny production compared to the big companies), but the La Marca poured as first wine was fresh crisp green apples, simple clean  and unchallenging – and would find great success in many wine bars.  Moving up the production method scale, using oak barrels and bottle fermentation, next up was Cordoníu Cava from the vineyards of Penedès, just an hour outside Barcelona, Spain. Although Cava has lost out recently to Prosecco in the UK at the entry level price, it still is huge consumption in Spain. Our small group were not that enthusiastic, it was more yeasty which was more layered in flavour, but slightly flat on the fruit, and as Joe pointed out, suspect it was a bottle fault (it happens) as certainly usually a much more enticing wine. Top end Cava is a heavenly delight such as the Grand Reserva 457 but at a price over £100 a bottle, I should expect so! But despite the poor showing of the Cordoníu this evening, generally speaking for a party wine, you get more complexity from your Cava than Prosecco at same price point. Interesting also to hear about how one of Cava’s main grape variety, the weirdly named Xarel- lo which gives acidity to the wine, is now increasingly being planted for still wines in the region.

Amongst the critiques of the wines, the aim of the evening was to show how a winemaker would approach making the final sparkling wine blend. Joe shared the brilliant BLIC theory (I am not going to explain here as would spoil for anyone yet to attend the evening)  - but it shows consumers an insight into how the professionals in the wine trade approach a wine.

Our third glass was back to the classic Home of sparkling, with the omnipotent Champagne Laurent Perrier on show. The bubbles were much finer than previous two, making it a more appealing texture and sensorial perception. Joe’s refreshing honesty about the marketing aspect of the big Champagne brands and how that has helped them to dominate this market for so long – working out to an average of £10 a bottle of your Champagne bottle price goes on marketing alone! The LP (whose strong market presence is down to the trade off as wine bars still clamber to get their hands on the delicious LP Rosé) was discreet but with  lovely pink  grapefruit note on the nose, notably more complex but to my taste just too technically perfect – everything was there but no passion.

Last in the flight of finished wines was the Hambledon Classic Cuvée, which although is a NV was based on the 2014 vintage, when the quality of the Meunier (previously known as Pinot Meunier) grapes was outstanding. Keeping an objective view, despite tasting it in its spiritual home, of the four the Hambledon won for pure individuality, complexity and interest in the glass. Blend of 40% Chardy, 31% Meunier & 29% Pinot Noir made with 7.6 gms residual sugar per litre, it charmed the group.

This stage of the evening is where it became fascinating technical for those who have never blended wines before. Hambledon’s brilliant Events Manger, Katrina Smith along with their Wine Maker Felix  Gabillet (yup – French!) had lined up four versions of Hambledon to taste – in which the only varying factor was the amount of dosage added at the end of fermentation. This decides the mouthfeel, texture, taste and aging potential of the wines, and for famous names of Champagne is usually about 10 gms per litre added, but Hambledon have done extensive research on varying dosage levels.

Kicking off with the Zero dosage, understandable racy acidity, with a nose like a Nashi pear, with waxy white lilies - it simple danced on the tongue, a thrilling wine but not for those of a nervous disposition!  The 4 gms dosage per litre had more roundness – and interestingly 5gms / litre is the magic number to help the wines aging slowly and gracefully.  6gms / litre in comparison felt quite heavy but with attractive biscuit notes and good long finish – very easy to drink! 10 gms had a different bubble formation and to my personal taste was slightly unbalanced as lacked the necessary acidity. But totally fascinating and the group loved having the possibility to taste these wines side by side for a direct comparison. Even more fun, was the choosing of which dosage to go into the bottle we were each given to take home – so all off to the cellar to bottle and label our own Hambledon after a delicious supper cooked by South African Steve, one of the team who makes a mean Coq au Vin, ideal to soak up the tasting and paired superbly with a surprise Alsace Pinot Noir!

Having first focused on getting the vineyards as they wanted, Hambledon  is currently undergoing a huge investment with new gravity fed cellars and tasting room. So do go and visit them at this exciting time in their (and English Wines’) development.  The momentum of English wine is on a roll – no longer a laughing stock to amuse our cousins over the Channel – but there are some outstanding sparkling wines being made in England. Certainly, where I live on the South Downs, there is an explosion of vineyards being planted  all around. Increasingly also the still wines are gaining attention – but the sparklers are the stars, even getting listings on export markets (including France!).

A brilliant evening, and a real privilege to have the company of Joe and his immense knowledge – not to mention pithy quotes – not sure how we got onto the subject of Merlot, but his view on this grape variety was “The Tofu of the wine world, only to be used to numb the pain of attending a child’s party”! Joe’s parents ran a gastropub, he was an RAF pilot for a spell, before heading  to Bordeaux to study wine making and went onto to become wine buyers at several UK companies including Waitrose. His enthusiasm for all things food & drink – along with a healthy dose of refreshing honesty – meant for a brilliant – both fun & informative - evening in his company.

Hambledon are holding another date for this course later this year – for details do contact Katrina Smith on katrina.smith@hambledonvineyard.co.uk

Oh and in case you’re wondering apparently Guinness brewed in the UK is only 210 calories a pint vs 600 for that which is cask conditioned in Ireland!

 


Left Bank & Right Bank Bordeaux

Waking up in London to the snowfall of the “Mini Beast from the East” was not the best weather to kick start Day One of a recent private Bordeaux Wine tour that I had the pleasure to organise for a London Livery Company – especially when the tail of the BA plane has to be de-iced before departure! But soon off to land in Bordeaux bathed in sunshine.

Taking the classic Route des Châteaux (rather more prosaically known as the D2), our wine guide, the esteemed Derek Smedley MW pointing out the Chateaux, the list reading like a desert island wine list as we meandered from the Haut Medoc through Margaux, St Julien and onto Pauillac to our first hotel.  A converted Chartreuse, the glorious Cordeillan Bages  surrounded by vines, it was the ideal place for a reviving glass of Blanc de Lynch 2015. 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% each of Semillon and Moscatel creates an aromatic delight – rounded mouthfeel but lightened with incredible notes of tangerine.

Château Lascombes in the Margaux appellation has had a chequered ownership over its history (including a spell under British Bass Charrington), but today the property is firmly back with quality wines, in great part thanks to their General Manager Dominique Befve, who welcomed us for an evening tasting visit. Against the backdrop of the ivy clad Chateau, listening to Dominique’s charmingly accented English, we heard about their concentration on the viticulture – to the point that 80% of their wage bill is spent in the vineyards and only 20% in the cellar.  In the barrel hall, emptier than usual which was a stark reminder of the frosts that hit in April 2017, when the estate lost 40% of their production. Unusually for the appellation, Lascombes has a higher percentage of Merlot in its vineyards of about 50%, the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. No better way to illustrate this than tasting the 2017’s from barrel – just a fortnight ahead of the annual En Primeur Campaign. Each of the three grape varieties tasted as a separate component. Rich ripe fruit of the Merlot, tighter note on the Cab with more linear acidity and the herbal peppery notes of the Petit Verdot – but they were all united by fine supple tannins. Dominque also made an ad hoc blend of the 2017 in the glass – fascinating to taste at this stage in its life.

Le Chevalier, the second wine of the estate, but  2010 was soft & approachable – perfect with the ravioli (despite the amusing menu translation of “Creaminess of Undergrowth”!). Onto Le Grand Vin 2011 which happily paired with the pigeon, before the 2009 which was heaven with the Comté, still young but with depth of character. Obviously no sweet wine at Lascombes and so with dessert, a Barsac from Dominque’s friends at Chateau Coutet 2005 (magnum) – a delicious, rich wine with great balance.

Apricot and muted cerulean shades of a beautiful sunrise  made an early morning stroll around the vineyards of Pauillac hard to resist, a chance to recharge the energy levels before a big day of wine tasting ahead! Away in front of me, the Gironde estuary was perilously high, hence the flood alerts worryingly in place.  Heading into the warmth of Château Latour was the perfect shelter from the rains. I am not a fan of videos at wine estates – so many are either Disney Like or corporate puffs of pretty pictures, a macho voice over and mean absolutely nothing! However, at Latour they have a brilliant interactive screen which shows the plots of the vineyards with great depth of information. Later this year, the vineyards of Latour will be certified as organic, but within the Clos of their main vineyards, they are already practising biodynamic agriculture. Following the writings of Rudolph Steiner, this is  a brilliant and effective holistic approach of returning life to the soil.  I am a huge supporter of Biodynamic wines and  the attention to detail that goes along with biodynamic processes ,such as Latour’s use of 10 horses working the vineyards for reducing soil compaction.

In the cellars amongst the hundreds of barrels, the team were racking the wine in the traditional way using a candle to check the clarity of the wine. A task carried out 5 times in the first year of the wine’s life, and then gradually less, given the numbers of barrels, this task must seem akin to painting the Forth Bridge.  Latour’s style is powerful, complex and with huge aging potential. The Pauillac de Latour was quite relatively light reflecting the 2013 vintage, the Les Fonts de Latour had good fruit, but of course it was the Grand Vin 2006 which showed the real character of Latour. Lovely dark chocolate, blackcurrants as well as cedar and coffee with good length. Despite being already 12 years old, this is a wine still with a long way to travel.

Staying in the Pauillac appellation, Château Grand Puy Lacoste awaited. One of the oldest estates in the Medoc dating from the 16th century, the Borie family came to own the estate in 1978. Owned & managed since then by Francois – Xavier Borie, this Grand Cru Classé estate produces wines of consistent excellence.  Perhaps the family’s attitude to their wines is best summed up by this quote from Xavier  "I do what I love, what I believe in. We want to build Grand-Puy-Lacoste's renown on consistent quality rather than showy effects. I'm suspicious of wines made for competitions; I prefer that Grand-Puy-Lacoste create a reputation based on the long term, vintage after vintage. Pretentiousness, fleeting fashion and short-term media attention is not what we do.".

Tasting the two wines – Lacoste Borie and the Grand Vin both in 2014 & 2015 was fascinating and showed the estate’s style. In 2015, the older vines in the vineyards had a good resistance to the strong heat and gave sweet ripe fruit, and thanks to the 5% of Cabernet Franc in the Grand Puy Lacoste ’15 was outstanding – and will try my patience to cellar it for another five years at least!

The Medoc has many beautiful Châteaux but very few are actually lived in, so what a privilege to be welcomed into the family home of Grand Puy Lacoste, by Francois Xavier & Marie Helene Borie who live in this gorgeous property. A reviving glass of Champagne, before a delicious lunch, devised by Madame Borie – paired with a selection of GLP vintages. The notes of the black cherry of the 2009 Lacoste Borie worked  well with the earthiness of the mushroom tarts, whilst the GPL 2005 showed extreme elegance & finesse. For the cheese the GPL 2000 with its hint of smoke and liquorice was delicious! Charming company in a beautiful setting and world class wines – what a real honour to be enjoyed!

Château Ormes de Pez, located in the St Estephe classification is owned by the charismatic Jean Michel Cazes. A brief tasting stop to taste two of his properties wines side by side. Ormes (Elms) de Pez (peace) is naturally very different stylistically to his Pauillac estate of Lynch Bages.  Ormes ‘16 showed very sweet fruit, highly untypical of its classification whilst the Lynch Bages ’16 was all bilberries and rather inviting. Compared to the 2011 from both estates, it was interesting to revisit the Lynch Bages 2011, which whilst perfectly nice, did not have the wow factor as when I last tasted it two years ago – but I think that may well be down to the distracting weather outside – for it had started snowing! This was rapidly turning into a wine tour of four seasons in one day to misquote Crowded House!

Unheard of in the Medoc this late in March, the snow made for a magical arrival at Château Pichon Baron, which with its turreted towers is already one of the most fairy tale properties in the region. Welcomed by the ever charming Nicolas Santier, a brief cellar walk through, as the snow fall increased outside, Nicolas lined up a tour de force tasting. A flight of 2016’s, 2015’s and a couple of older vintages of the Grand Vin to complete.  Pichon Baron is owned by Axa Millésimes, who own a host of other well-chosen estates, including Château Pibran, further north in the Pauillac appellation. Pibran ’16 was all ripe blackberries balanced with spice and drinking alarmingly well now.  The Tourelles de Longueville is not precisely the second wine of Pichon Baron in the accepted sense, as the grapes most come from one particular specific plot (Saint Anne).  In the ’16 the Tourelles was appealing thanks to a higher percentage of Merlot. Les Griffons de Pichon Baron (the name arriving from the estate’s coat of arms) is understandably known as “Pichon for the Impatient”  and in ’16 was delicious cassis, whilst the Pichon Baron ’16 was peppery and hints of cherry. In the flights of 2015’s, Les Griffons has lovely notes of chocolate and black fruit, rather too easy to drink now but will repay a little patience – and is incredibly good value for this quality of wine – not something one can say too often on the Left Bank! To end the tasting with a further three vintages Pichon Baron was fascinating. Although still technically infanticide, the '15 was voluptuous, deep cocoa notes and black fruits, with a purity of elegance – sublime. The ’12 was a challenging vintage with lots of rain, and shows a slight restraint but that having said, paired with some lamb chops BBQ’ed over vine cuttings would be rather lovely! The ’10 was starting to open up into its aging plateau and showing the time in bottle.

Battling the snow storm (yes really!) into the illuminated Château, where a welcome glass of Champagne Agrapart was waiting. The hospitality of the Bordeaux Châteaux that kindly open their doors to us is legendary – and no more so than the habit of offering a reviving glass of fizz after all the tannins in the tastings. Pichon’s choice of Champagne was interesting from the Cotes de Blanc, whose winemaker uses Burgundian approach in his vines, whilst remaining very Champenois in his cellars. Almost biodynamic in the vineyards, their wines are exciting with a good minerality.

One of the other Axa properties is Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, and interesting that due to the ever diminishing market for Sauternes, they are increasing production of their dry white wine “S” from that estate. Principally from Semillion grapes, it was the perfect foil for the scallops in sorrel sauce. A hugely indulgent main of Charolaise beef (cooked to perfection by Chef Thibault) needed a wine with attitude, so step up the Pichon Baron 2007 in magnum – muscular, almost masculine (if I dare say that) and depth of complexity. In comparison the Pichon Baron 2006 (magnum) was linear and  great balance between acidity, fruit & tannin. Both equally seductive, just for different foods or moods. Sauternes is such a glorious wine that it is a shame so many people have fallen out of (or never gained!) the habit of indulging in this unctuous, golden, rich honeyed wine with hints of clementine. The Suduiraut 2005 was delicious enough on its own but picked up the tonka beans and fresh fruit in the dessert perfectly.

Château Margaux is always such an honour to visit, with the iconic Neo Palladian Villa at the end of a tree lined avenue. The new cellars by Sir Norman Foster in 2015, have been well designed to integrate alongside the existing buildings which are listed as a national monument. Inside, the James Bond style futuristic cellars are immaculate, allowing the white production to take place in the same property as the red. Margaux is one of only a handful of estates in Bordeaux that has its own in house cooper, making and taking care of their barrels. The Grand Vin 2004 was classic Margaux, lots of blackberries, blackcurrants, slightly herbal notes – very balanced. But for me, the delight of the Pavillon Rouge 2009 with its elegance, fresh redcurrants and slight cloves on the finish – sheer heaven. With the arrival of the estate’s third wine, and greater selection, more plots that were originally destined for the Grand Vin, now find their way into the Pavillon – it far outperforms its second wine status.

An impromptu tasting was slotted in (too cold to visit the vineyards!), so we called into the excellent Cave d’Ulysses in the village of Margaux.  A veritable Aladdin’s Cave for wine lovers, the shelves hold tempting vintage verticals from all the leading Bordeaux Chateaux as well as covering all other French wine regions – and beyond. Quite a rarity in a region that traditionally has been a little insular in admitting that wine might be made elsewhere! The incredibly knowledgeable Dominique decided to show a couple of wines blind to liven up the taste buds. An excellent Vouvray from the Loire was all white flowers and apricots, whilst the Rauzan ’13 was wonderfully smooth for that vintage.

Château Leoville Barton in St Julien is always a highlight of any visit to the Left Bank, and where better to finish our time on this side of the River. The Barton dynasty started in 1722, when Thomas Barton left Ireland for Bordeaux. We were welcomed by the 10th generation, Lilian Barton Sartorius and her daughter wine maker Melanie, for a refreshingly honest and amusing cellar visit. The 2016 Langoa Barton was for me the star of the tasting, amazing length and velvety mouth feel.  Over lunch, their white, La Croix Barton Blanc ’16 worked well with the Oeuf en cocotte, but the Langoa 2006 was the perfect match with the slightly spiced duck (think warm spices such as cumin & star anise rather than hit of chilli)  picking up the spice of this wine. The Leoville Barton 2004 served with the cheese really showed off their Super Second status, and one can understand why Lilian’s Father, the wonderful Anthony Barton has compared it to the excellent 1996 vintage. Hard to follow but a delicious Raspberry Charlotte with the first French strawberries of the season made for a sensational end to a delightful lunch with the Barton family.

The Right Bank called for our last night near the beautiful town of St Emilion. This medieval town with UNESCO World Heritage Site status nestles on the plateau above Roman Limestone caves. Time for a relaxing dinner at the L’Envers du Décor, favourite wine bar of many of the local winemakers thanks to  their extensive wine list.  I love tasting from little known appellations, so Derek’s choice of Hauret du Piada from Cerons (Barsac) was a welcome start – it’s freshly balanced sweet Semillon was an excellent match for the Foie Gras. But the wine of the evening was Château Beauregard 2009 from Pomerol, reminding me why I love wines from that classification – abundant red cherries, hints of chocolate, wonderfully fragrant – superb!

J P Moueix, own two properties in Pomerol, one in St Emilion (as well as two in the Napa Valley). So to contrast the two neighbouring appellations,  starting off with a visit to their St Emilion property, Château Belair-Monange. From their superbly located vineyards, it is an excellent view across the plateau and gives an idea of scale of the limestone quarries, topped by a mere dusting of clay top soil.  When Moueix bought Belair, it took them four years to consolidate the quarries, using concrete the equivalent of twice the cubic volume of the inside of the cathedral of Notre Dame! Just 10 minutes away, is their property of Château la Fleur Petrus in Pomerol. The immaculately tended vineyards on the gravel & clay plateau of Pomerol are sown with oats or mustard plants between the rows. Our host, the knowledgeable Genevieve Sandifer is currently working on a history of the estates, and so it was fascinating to learn that Pomerol was founded by the Knights Templar. In the tasting, having the St Emilion and Pomerol wines side by side in both 2015 and 2010 vintages was a master class in terroir. The Fleur Petrus ’15 with good black fruit, firm but ripe tannin and a lift from a small addition of Petit Verdot. The 2010 Fleur Petrus had a delightful marzipan note on the nose, followed by perfectly balanced red fruit – my tasting note ended simply with the instruction to self “Buy”!

A short hop across the vines was our lunchtime appointment at Château Petit Village, still in the Pomerol classification. Great vineyards visit, explaining their sustainable philosophy in the vines, such as using pheromones to promote an integrated pest management system. Their Wine Maker, Diana Berrouet Garcia,  took us through a few wines before lunch, showing the 2014 of a classic vintage showing good freshness and the 2015 displaying all the power of a rich vintage. One of the most fun parts of planning a tour for me, is the pairing of the food & wine at Châteaux meals. But in all red wine regions, it can be hard sometimes to choose a starter that is not yet more meat, but which will pair happily with rich complex reds, so I was delighted that the smokiness of aubergine and the earthiness of mushrooms worked so well with the Petit Village 07 from magnum.

Heading towards the airport, there was time for one last visit in the Graves appellation to Château Haut Bailly.  Welcomed by the always charming Veronique Sanders, a stroll to the “magical hillock” of the property where six different varieties are planted over 4 hectares and up to 20% of the main blend is still sourced from these 100 year old vines. The vineyards can vary up to 20 metres in altitude which gives a great range of diverse growing patterns and complexity in the end wine. An outstanding tasting in the Château, of five vintages showed the link that to me represents Haut Bailly’s wines – pure elegance. Starting with the 2017 (a sneak preview ahead of the En Primeur campaign) showed great freshness and sweet fruit, the delicious 2014 coffee, cocoa & red fruits, the 2012 with  notes of sage on the nose, 2008 had strength yet balance and drinking rather well now, whilst the 2010 being one of their best vintages ever, is a blockbuster of a wine and will happily sit in the cellar for a long time yet.

A wonderful tasting to end these four days exploring the wines of Bordeaux. I look forward to my next Bordeaux Tour in June!

 

 

 

 


White Wines & Fish for the RNLI

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is such an amazing charity – entirely funded by donations, their crews set sail without a thought for their own safety, often in dreadful weather whilst the rest of us are tucked up on the sofa at home. In order for them to be equipped to cope with the challenges that the seas around the UK throw at them when out on a “shout”, the RNLI is brilliant in raising these essential funds in all manners of ways! To run the RNLI last year cost £177.3 million (yes – please read that figure again!). In 2016 alone, they rescued 8, 643 people at sea, plus RNLI

Lifeguards went to the aid of a further 20, 538 beach goers!  So when they appealed this year for people to host a fund raising Fish Supper – it seemed a great way to invite a few friends over for supper, try out a range of wines to see what paired best with fish and top up the donation box as well.

Planning menus is almost as much fun as the actual cooking, but a bit of a quandary ensued for this evening. Fish supper implies a visit to the local “chippy” so would people be disappointed if the menu went all chi chi and offered a ballotine of poached salmon with yuzu dressing? So some canapés to pacify my need for pretty presentation followed by a Fish Supper involving batter but with a bit of a twist!

Cullen Skink

A trio of fishy Canapés to kick off with -  mini blini’s topped with smoked salmon, sour cream&  faux caviar, followed by Scandi inspired waxy potatoes topped with dill gherkins & smoked anchovy, ending with a shot of Cullen Skink (smoked haddock soup).

Baguette aux goujons de poisson sounds so much more elegant than Fish Fingers sandwiches, but not when made with rustic haddock fingers, lemon mayo and even a handful of rocket to pimp it up inside soft white rolls!

A beautiful platter from Southern Italy was heaped with golden nuggets of scampi, delicate lemon sole goujons and tempura king prawns. All very delicious, but of course no fish supper is complete without chips – so newspaper cones overflowing with steaming hot crinkle cuts completed the scene. Well almost, as individual ramekins of minted mushy peas were there for those of that odd persuasion!

So onto the wines - to avoid being too serious, we opened up a range of wines so people could taste a variety of grapes and countries.

Given the menu, whites obviously dominated, and with one exception all the wines were ordered from the brilliant Wine Society, whose list not only weaves around the wine world throwing up many a lesser known gem, but almost all the wine were just below a tenner!

Gewurztraminer is one of those divisive varieties (the Marmite Love it Hate it of the Wine World!) so it’s always great to see friends get excited about this aromatic variety. Add to the fact this one comes from Slovenia, Traminec from Dveri Pax, is a fun one to add into a blind tasting! Delicate rose notes typical of the variety backed up by lovely spiciness. Worked well with the oiliness of the smoked anchovies. £9.95 (WS)

Some classic wine pairings disappear as the wine sadly goes out of fashion. Muscadet used to be a default choice with shellfish, but sadly not offered as much these days as the ubiquitous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. So how delightful to taste (drink…..) the Muscadet Sevre et Maine from the charming Bougrier family. They’ve been making wine in the Loire for six generations, including this lively, refreshing bone dry Muscadet, the acidity making it the perfect pair for the rich batter of the scampi. Great wine for a party being great value at only £6.50 (WS).

Tabali, a wine estate located in the mystical valley of Limari in Northern Chile, make a smooth Chardonnay Reserve Especial. Offering a more rounded mouth feel than some of the crisper other whites, it’s surprisingly richness (given the young vines and no oak) picked up the smoked salmon quite well. £9.50 (WS)

The volcanic soils of Mount Etna, home to the Carricante & Cataratto white grape varieties give wines with appealing layers of minerality. Tenuta Nicosia Etna Bianco with appealing red apple flavours paired happily with the tempura king prawns and the kick of the chilli dip. £12.50 (WS)

Encruzado is a lesser known white variety from the Dao region of Portugal, which sadly has seen so many vineyards recently destroyed in the forest fires. The Ribeiro Santo Encruzado is a delicious example to discover; citrus yet soft, a light touch of French oak adding complexity. £10.95 (WS)

Chateau Thieuley showed the elegance of a Bordeaux Blanc, when Semillion grapes are used in the blend, rather than the recent trend of doing 100% Sauvignon Blanc. This one also having a touch of Sauvignon Gris in the blend as well. Fabulous citrus notes, not just lemons but also tangerines & pink grapefruit. £9.50 (WS)

Hailing from the Cotes du Rhône, Secret de Famille Blanc from Paul Jaboulet Ainé is a blend of four whites grapes (including Viognier and Marsanne). Put quite simply, it ticked all the boxes for a good mouth feel, peach notes from the Viognier, well balanced and a great all- rounder wine – and I mean that in a positive way! Great value £8.50 (WS)

Matakana Estate Pinot Gris 2014 from New Zealand – the only wine shown not from the Wine Society but from our excellent local (Hampshire) independent Wine Merchant, The General Wine Company. Given this arrived in the hands of a vegetarian friend (no fish therefore), who is also lactose intolerant – it was much appreciated as a sop for the challenge of doing a “fish” supper for a veggie! It was deliciously rich with good acidity, ripe pears, slightly floral and honeyed long finish. £19.59 (General Wine Co.)

But for a couple of friends known for their devotion to reds, they gamely tried some of the whites before moving onto a couple of reds to see how well they worked with the fish.

Bulgaria might not be the first country to spring to mind when looking for a Pinot Noir, but stand up Soli from Edoardo Miroglio. Made by an Italian in Bulgaria, this wine is delightful, relatively uncomplicated but all the more appealing and very food friendly - worked best with the richness of the scampi.  £9.95 (WS)

New Zealand is perhaps better known for that same grape variety, so the Kumeu Village Pinot Noir made by Master of Wine Michael Brajkovich was a great comparison with lovely raspberry and redcurrant notes. His family emigrated from Croatia to New Zealand in 1937, and their estate, Kumeu River is on the North Island, also making truly world class Chardonnay (albeit with a higher price tag than this!). £9.95 (WS)

Back to Mount Etna for the partner in crime of the Nicosia above – this time from the red Nerello Mascalese variety. Trademark minerality showing through the attractive notes of red fruit with herbal notes, almost savoury finish. Would have worked better with a tuna fish steak (or meat!), but was a great option for relaxing with after supper! £9.95 (WS)

Added to the number of bottles rapidly mounting on the table, two beer options for one friend who was designated driver! Sharps Brewery comes from Rock in Cornwall and two beers which matched the fish main course – Doombar Amber Ale, named for the notorious sand bank in the Camel Estuary and Sharps Sea Fury, brewed at the request of local fishermen to have a stronger ale to revive them after facing the storms of the Atlantic coast. Seemed an appropriate choice! My informal Beer Guru of the evening said the Doombar apparently went well with the prawns!

So apart from a fun evening with a group of friends, having shown off a wide range of some lesser known wines and test run them with various sorts of fish dishes, the eight of us managed to raise £151.32 for the Lifeboat – which is good news! Still not sure where the £1.32 came from – but as they say, Every Little Helps!

With the high costs of building and maintaining the boats and Lifeboat stations, the RNLI are outstanding at looking to the future. Their use of sustainable energy last year created at the stations by wind turbines and solar panels saved enough money to run nine inshore lifeboats.

Please do visit RNLI.com for more information. If there is any way you can get involved (last year I did the H2O Challenge giving up all liquids except water for a month – no wine for 31 days? That was a challenge and a half but raised almost £600 – not sure if that says something about my friends doubting my wine resistance levels?) , then there are lots of ways to help support this truly selfless charity.

PS – If you want to see the RNLI in action, available on BBC iPlayer is “Saving Lives at Sea”  following the work of Lifeboat crews as far afield from Tower Bridge on the Thames down to the Atlantic coast in Cornwall.

PPS – Apologies, I meant to take lots of great photos of the fabulous food, but we were having so much fun pairing the wines & fish that was forgotten!! So hence a few images from some of the empty bottles next day!

 

 


Wine Tour of Alto Adige and the Veneto

Spectacular snow-capped mountains as a back drop, long hot sunny days with a glass of Pinot Bianco in hand - Alto Adige in North East Italy has to be one of the most perfect places for  a wine tour. Great wines, superb food, stunning scenery – no wonder that it often features in those “best places to live” listings!

Piazza dell Erbe, Verona

A tour that I organised this year for a group of wine lovers, kicked off in Verona, that beautiful city with its Roman Amphitheatre, Verona is compact enough to get the feel of it within a couple of hours, yet there are enough cobbled side streets to escape the ravening hordes. Away from the bustle of the main square, a host of small shady squares nestle ready to revive your weary feet with an Aperol Sprizt - the quite livid orange but delicious Aperitif that appears in every bar in the Veneto!

Bottega del Vino, Verona

Thanks to the variety of the Veneto’s geography, traditional dishes ranges from simple grilled fish from Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy, through to delicious risotto from the rice fields of the Po Valley. Starting off at one of Verona's most best loved institutions, Antica Bottega del Vino, founded in 1890 and which has one of the most impressive wine lists of the region. Delightfully traditional with its wooden furniture, walls lined with ancient bottles, the Bottega has a vibrant energy that makes it ideal for a quick glass of wine with friends, perhaps with some of their delicious cicchetti (local dialect for nibbles with drinks!) such as fried quails legs or  a more relaxed lunch featuring their traditional Veneto specialities. The classic dish Risotto all’Amarone, a deep purple hue which paired well with the Ripassa Superiore from Zenato (a "halfway" house of a wine between the lightness of Valpolicella and the sheer power of an Amarone, it makes the ideal food wine. Although the weather called more for a salad, wine was the focus of the evening, so a meltingly tender braised beef cheek was paired with the truly delicious Vigneti di Ravazzol Amarone Classico from Ca La Bionda. One of my favourite Italian wine producers for a long time, Ca La Bionda has its vines in the Valpolicella heartland where the Castellani family make superb wines, their Amarone is a perfect balancing act of elegance with tannin and richness. To finish, a seasonal Apricot Frangipane tart picked up all the apricot notes of the unctuous Recioto di Soave Le Colombare from leading Soave producer, Pieropan – a real vino di meditazione!

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Trentino & Alto Adige are often lumped together as wine regions, which is unfortunate as they are very different in grapes, climates and culture. As you move North along the East side of Lake Garda, the countryside changes from the rolling hills of the Valpolicella valleys into mountains. Somewhat unusually, Trentino has lots of vineyards planted on the flat, in this case the Rotaliano plains, where the red grape variety Terodelgo Rotaliano is king! Calling into Trento for a brief visit en route to Alto Adige, to see the impressive Castle Buonconsiglio, where the Council of Trent was held as well as the Duomo with its Rose Window - Trento is still Italian in feel but with the countryside leading towards alpine.

Courtyard at Alois Lageder

Alois Lageder has long been an advocate of sustainability in wine production - long before it became the fashionable buzz word and where better to have the first wine tasting of Alto Adige than at their cellars in the village of Magré. With the sun streaming down, bees buzzing in the lavender and the gentle back drop of crickets chirping, one could be forgiven for thinking it was Provence. A trio of their biodynamically produced wines to taste before lunch: their Haberle Pinot Bianco - one of my favourite white varieties of the world, highly under rated but here showing lovely complexity due to the amount of lees contact. It suffers by word association to Pinot Grigio (which whilst there are some very good examples of PG, the majority that arrives in the UK is bland watery nothingness for sale in huge quantities)  but remember that Pinot Bianco was historically the main grape variety of Burgundy, long before the more amenable and easier growing Chardonnay took over. Their reserve Chardonnay Lowengang 2014 was impressive but rather international in style, whilst their Gewurtztraminer Am Sand 2015 was a delight with typical notes of Roses and Lychees with a long finish, convincing more than a few doubters of this aromatic variety.

Tagliata at Alois Lageder

Over lunch, in their aptly named Bistro - Paradeis - the excellent, all organically produced dishes were paired with another four wines. A quirky blend of Viognier, Petit Manseng (and a few others….) the Cason white balanced out the delicate fried zucchini blossoms whilst the main course of Tagliata, showed that when meat is this good - the simpler and quicker the cooking - the better! I'd chosen two reds to see which paired better - but with everyone having different palates, the room as was divided. The Conus Reserve Lagrein is a beautiful brambly example of this local indigenous red grape variety - but it would be hard to visit Alois Lageder and not experience their excellent Lowengang Cabernet (actually a blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot and Carmenere, some from over 100 year old vines).  Not only superb wine & food in a beautiful setting, but the family’s philosophy gives hope in a world of doubt and distrust “ Today’s widespread individualism calls for a new awareness. For us, alliances are more than a form of operative collaboration; they help overcome individual egoisms in the interest of the greater whole. We endeavor to achieve our goals in cooperation with others”.

Alto Adige or Südtirol as it is also known, comes as somewhat of a surprise to the first time visitor. Just over the border from Austria, this autonomous Italian region was only ceded to Italy in 1918 after World War I. Although officially a bi-lingual region, most residents speak German as their first language and Italian second (there is a third local language “Ladin” but only really spoken in mountain villages). So whilst your head tells you that you are in Italy, you are surrounded by Germanic language, architecture and food. It is possibly one of the most appealing places to visit, with a combination of Germanic efficiency & precision, along with Italian passion & flair. Everything is a charming mixture of these two cultures and nowhere more so than the regions capital, Bolzano.

Applecrack Cocktail

The Art Deco Park Hotel Laurin has an impressive history of hosting Austrian Royalty and Archdukes - and after sampling the refreshing Cocktail Applecrack - based on one of the region’s most prolific produce - apples, dinner in the cool leafy garden was the ideal place to relax and sample a few more wines from estates that we could not fit into the programme.

Alto Adige cuisine features a lot of traditional Austrian ingredients such as caraway seeds and horseradish and spices such as cinnamon, as well as a wonderful array of breads including the irresistible Schüttelbrot! The cool clear waters of the mountain rivers are a fisherman’s dream for trout and salmon, and the home smoked salmon with apple horseradish with Nals Magreid Sirmian Pinot Bianco was light and elegant. Pinot Noir - that petulant, difficult yet seductive variety works very well in the region and one of the most impressive is the Manicor Pinot Nero from Mason de Mason 2015 from magnum was still rather young but was truly superb - elegant, full of raspberries & smoke and delicious with the roasted poussin. A more Italian dessert of raspberry Panna Cotta signalled the arrival of one of most alluring dessert wines anywhere - Moscato Rosa from Franz Haas. In the interest of research, I have tried a fair few Moscato Rosas but not one comes close to this explosive piece of sweet heaven in a glass. Back in the UK, I paired this Haas Moscato Rosa with a chocolate cake made with ground almonds  – delicious!

Terlano Cellars

Terlano, a small village just outside Bolzano is home to the eponymous Cantina Terlano (or Kellerei Terlan), where not only do they produce world class white wines but also in season, the prized white asparagus which goes so well with their crisp Sauvignon Blanc Quartz. The dramatic view of the mountain rising directly behind the cellar was equally matched by the attention to detail in the cellars, complete with colour coded lighting on the stainless steel tanks. Unusually for Italy, their philosophy is that white wines can - and should - age well, so we enjoyed fascinating tasting of dual vintages of a few of their wines to show how they develop in bottle. Vorberg Pinot Bianco Riserva tasted side by side in 2014 and 2008 were quite spectacular - with age the wine had developed into rich fruit flavours such as quince. Nova Domus Terlaner Riserva a blend of Pinot Bianco, Chardy and Sauv Blanc tasted in 2014 and 2009 vintages showed how these wines keep their lively acidity and freshness even after a considerable amount of bottle aging, and the ’09 in magnum had developed a rather lovely savoury note of black olives.  The cellars have started releasing small limited quantities of older aged whites onto the market, which is a brave but brilliant decision. Their newest flagship wine is the Terlaner I Grande Cuvee - complete with relevant price tag of £170 - simply a marketing decision to place it in the right section of the market! They also make a couple of reds from Pinot and Lagrein but it is the whites that capture and encapsulate this special sense of terroir.

Merano, known as the Floral City is famous for its Royal Visitor of the Empress of Austria, Sissi who stayed at the Trauttmansdorff Castle. Today the castle’s botanical gardens are set in a 12 hectare amphitheatre of 80 different landscapes from around the world. Combined with spectacular views across the Adige Valley, it is a gardener’s paradise and an oasis of peacefulness to visit and discover its delights including a 700 year old Sardinian oak and waterlily pond with lotus flowers.

Historical Barrel at St Micheal Eppan

 

With all the villages having dual names on the maps, the German and Italian versions are not always easy to reconcile, so Eppan / Appiano is one of the easier to recognise. Home to one of the most influential cellars throughout the history of wine making in the region, St Michael Eppan, whose Art Nouveau cellars dating from 1909 has been complimented by an Uber modern tasting room. Welcomed by the always entertaining President, Anton Zubling, whose passion for leading this Co Operative cellars, made up of 350 contributing wine estates, shines through in every word. The cellars are fascinating from the original carved barrels, to the modern walls made from broken glass wine bottles and the old tile lined concrete vats which now house 225 litre barriques.  One of the most impressive wines of the cellar is their St Valentin Sauvignon – not because it is their Icon wine with a high price tag, but because it has won the prestigious Tre Bicchiere award (Italy’s most important wine award) 15 years in a row! Given the company it keeps with this award, its value price ratio is hard to believe at just 15 euros at cellar door!  Across their range, all the wines are textbook examples of their grape variety – including the delightful Pinot Bianco (a favourite variety of the President so hence my present to him was a bottle of English Pinot Bianco from Stopham Vineyard!) through to the Pinot Grigio Anger, showing that this much maligned variety can have personality!

Dreamcatcher in Franz Haas cellars
Roof Top Photography!

 

 

Wine makers come in all types, but passion, low boredom threshold, down to earthness along with a “can do” attitude, endless attention to detail, love of family and topped with a fair dose of stubbornness is what seems unites the best ones. Franz Haas in the small village of Montagna has earned the respect of wine makers across the world for his simply stunning wines – and like many great wine makers, loves the challenge of the capricious Pinot Noir. Welcomed into their cellars, where the creativity of Franz’s wife, Luisa is everywhere – from armchairs & curtains made from corks through to what every cellar should have - a Dream Catcher! Hosted by the eloquent Andy, their Export Manager, a great tasting of seven wines awaited from their Moscato Giallo, through their Pinot Grigio (“It’s Pinot Grigio but not as we know it Jim”!) Lepus Piano Bianco and the beautiful blend of Manna, named after the maiden name of Franz’s wife. Although slightly changing the blend over the years, Manna combines Riesling, Chardy, some late harvested Gewurzt and a dash of Sauvignon Blanc – resulting in a wine that can age so very well – one of the best food friendly white wines on the market today. Fascinating to taste the two Pinot Noirs side by side – with the Classic showing mulberries with a gentle smoky finish but the PN Schweizer 2014 went up a gear, with more grip yet an impressive elegance along with depth and complexity. Complete with eye catching labels designed by a family friend, Riccardo Schweizer who worked with Picasso and Chagall. One of the most welcoming families in the wine world (even when it was Luisa’s birthday the day of our visit!) – Andy even imitated a mountain goat by climbing onto the roof to take better photos for us!

Bolzano

Bolzano as the regions capital has much to recommend it to the visitor – famous today for being home to Ötzi the Iceman, there are many other museums and lovely porticoed arcades lined with elegant shops ideal for retail therapy. Andres Gotlieb Hempel escorted us around the city for a City Tour with a difference.  As an architect, it was a fascinating insight into the divided history of Bolzano made evident by the contrasting architectures on either side of the river from the Austrian mural decorated townhouses to the austere Arch of Mussolini. Andres has written various books about wine and architecture in the Sud Tyrol, including Wein Bau, with glorious photography. He is also something of an expert on the beers of the region – but that will have to wait till next time!

White Wine Soup

The cuisine of the South Tyrol today is more of a melting pot, but the most traditional dishes hark back to the glory days of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, and where better to taste such tradition than at Wirthaus Vögele. A tavern originally called The Red Eagle dating from 1840, which was a meeting place for strategists during the war (using the name Vögele – “birdy” – as a code word!). Today, the Alber family continue the welcoming hospitality in this traditional “Stube” which is listed as a Tavern of Historical Importance. Starting with the unusual but very local White Wine Soup with Cinnamon Croutons – which paired so well with a Riesling 2015 Kaiton, which was followed by Venison & wild mushroom casserole with the classic Knödel, a bread dumpling. Though it might sound a little heavy, the glossy gravy made it quite irresistible especially alongside a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Riserva Sass Roa from Laimburg, whose notes of blackcurrant and blueberries lifted the venison perfectly. Given that Südtirol produces about 10% of apples grown in Europe (up to an even more impressive third of all organic apples), no surprise that the classic Austrian dessert of Apfelstrudel finished up this traditional dinner at the Vögele, paired with a v moreish Spatlese Gewurtz from J.Hofstatter.

Renon Railway

Dramatic, Brooding, Majestic, Spectacular - one can easily run out of adjectives to describe the simply breath taking Dolomites and this UNESCO World Heritage part of the Alps certainly inspired the climber Reinhold Messner and the architect Le Corbusier. Easily accessible from the centre of Bolzano via a very modern Cable Car, climbing dramatically 950 metres in just 14 minutes, high above the vineyards of Santa Maddalena, the Renon Plateau is something out of the back drop of The Sound of Music! The narrow gauge Renon Railway, celebrating its centenary this year (and we were lucky enough to board one of the original wood panelled carriages) , winds its way through a delightful scenery of rippling meadows dotted with wild flowers, Alpine farm houses surrounded by woods, and views across to the Dolomites. From Collalbo, there are a range of walks to discover the scenery including the quirky 2500 year old Earth Pyramids. Alternatively, simply bliss to sit outside the Belmens Post on the terrace and breath in the pure mountain air (with maybe a glass of Riesling to hand as well!).

Girlan Vernatsch

The Holzner family have run a Hotel in the Dolomites for over 100 years, and with stunning views across the mountains from the terrace, an ideal place to revive with lunch. Their in house Chef wields an excellent understanding of flavour combinations, so even simple sounding dishes leap from the plate in vibrancy. Staying seasonal & local, lunch began with Val Passiria Trout & asparagus, followed by a perfectly pink rack of lamb ending with a delicate Honey Crème Brulee (Südtirol having 6000 Bee colonies taking advantage of the meadow flowers and alpine flowers). A Grüner Veltiner from outstanding winemaker Manni Nossing as an apero to revive the palate before lunch showed just how well this variety works in the region, with fresh grapefruit on the nose backed up by slight spice on the finish – a producer to look out for. The trout & asparagus cried out for a classic Sauvignon, so the Winkl Cantina Terlano fitted the bill well with its crisp nettle notes. Vernatsch is the local name for the variety known in Italy as Schiava, and gives red wines that are often relatively (!) light – ideal for a hot summer’s day in the mountains and the Gschleier 2015 from Girlan did not disappoint as a partner for the lamb (and won best label of the week award!). Indeed the enticing cherries on the nose were backed up with considerably more silky tannin than expected from this variety, perhaps due to it being sourced from old vines. As a comparison, the Blauburgunder Trattmann Mazon, the flagship Pinot Noir Riserva from the same producer Girlan, should have had more complexity than the Vernatsch, and delicious though the PN is and I’d enjoyed quite a few vintages of it during my forays into the region, but on the day, the star was rather surprisingly the Vernatsch!

View from dinner over Lake Caldaro

Erste & Neue, which translates as “The First & the New” was created in 1986 but has older origins with the Erste founded in 1900 and the Neue founded a whole 25 years later! Their cellars are located in the small town of Caldaro, not far from the eponymous lake, and hosted by the knowledgeable communicator, Judith Unterholzner, a great selection of their wines awaited our attention. The varietals were from their classic range and their Puntay reserve line. Two wines stood out – the Puntay Sauvignon 2016 from 60 year old vines which had a depth that would work well with dishes such as braised fennel. Puntay Kalterersee Classico Superiore, grown with low yields on Porphyry based soil, was an inviting red, all black cherries as well as redcurrants and would go well with roasted tomatoes or even a light red option for baked whole bream. The unusually hot weather was beginning to sap our tasting concentration, and so we repaired to the cooler shores for dinner in an idyllic setting overlooking Lake Caldaro as the sun set behind the mountains. The owner of Seehof Keller is apparently a keen windsurfer, and he chose his restaurant well, as the Ora breezes in from Lake Garda every afternoon to Caldaro, making it the ideal spot for windsurf lovers! One of the issues of eating with in such beautiful settings is that the views often distract from what is on the plate. The Chef at Seehof Keller has made sure this is not the case with imaginative, beautifully presented food. A simple plate of San Daniele prosciutto was complimented by a parmesan mousse, whilst gnocchi with watercress and pheasant ragu was light and irresistible but it was the dessert, a variation on mocha which had many a pudding lover smiling in the gloaming! For the white wine, I’d chosen Stoan from Cantina Tramin, who as one of only 30 wine estates in Italy to hold the two star rating in the Gambero Rosso Guide, are a winery to follow. Recently, the winemaker requested, and despite no doubt horror on the part of the company accountants, that the whites were not released on the usual dates, but given an extra year aging in the cellar before release. The Stoan 2014 is a blend of 65% Chardy, 20% Sauv Blanc, 10% Pinot Bianco and 5% Gewurzt – superbly balanced- white flowers and apricot to start ending with a delightful multi layered complexity that drew one back for yet another sip! For the red, Amistar from Peter Solva, a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Lagrein, Cab Franc & Petit Verdot, but the unusual aspect that 3 % of the grapes are dried on the vine giving a raisin like finish to the wine. To end back with an Erste & Neue wine, it was the turn of Anthos 2012, a white passito blend of Moscato Giallo, Gewuzrt and Sauv Blanc. Rich tropical fruit led into slight spice of nutmeg – truly delicious dessert wine.

Molinara Vine at Serego Alighieri
Serego Alighieri Crest

Sadly, day dawned with the realisation that we had to leave Alto Adige.  Passing along the valley floor, following the Adige River, flanked by orchards, vines and hill top Castles, the Valpolicella region awaited. Leaving all notions of Austrian influenced Italy behind, the gently rolling hills a patchwork of vines, cypresses and cherry tree orchards lined with dry stone walls, Valpolicella quietly but proudly carries its beautiful countryside well. The most historical estate of the area, Serego Alighieri is today run by the descendants of its famous owner, the son of Dante Alighieri, when Dante was exiled from Florence in the 1300’s.  A shady cypress lined avenue leads down to the Foresteria, today converted into very comfortable apartments (I previously organised a wine & cooking school tour here for Leiths staying on the estate and realised then that it is a small jewel of peaceful heaven away from the bustle of Verona). The central courtyard, once the threshing yard, is lined with a pergola of vines, including one pre-phylloxera vine of the Molinara variety. Today, Serego Alighieri works in partnership with Masi, but the wines of the estate retain their own distinctive style. Time for a welcoming cooling glass of their Possessioni Bianco, their only white wine, made of Garganega (the white variety used in nearby Soave) and Sauvignon Blanc. A rickety stair case leads up to the drying rooms, where after harvest in late October, the best bunches are laid out on bamboo racks and allowed to dry naturally throughout the Winter, reducing their liquid content by 30% plus and intensifying the sugars – these will be used for the flagship Amarone and Recioto wines. Wandering through the garden of the Villa, past immaculately sculpted hedges, a lawn with wild mint giving off a delicious scent and even thanks to the micro climate, a banana tree, next was a visit to their ancient cellars which gives a clue to a distinctive aroma of some of their wines – they still use a small percentage of Cherry Wood casks for aging the red wines.  In the elegant dining room of the Foresteria, we were joined for lunch by Contessa Massimilla di Serego Alighieri, the current generation of Dante’s descendants to run the estate. A vegetable tartlet with local Monte Veronese cheese was matched with a Masi wine, the famous Campofiorin made by appassimento method, and it was interesting to compare with the Brolo di Campofiorin Oro with the pasta course – both of which lived up to the Latin on the label  nectar angelorum hominibus (nectar of the angels!) But the iconic wines of Serego Alighieri are surely their Amarone and their Recioto – up first with veal cooked in hay was Vaio Armaron 2011, made from the classic three Valpolicella grapes of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, this seductive Amarone combines cherries backed up with subtle spice making a wine that was greeted with a reverential silence on the first sip! Followed by its sweet sister, Recioto Casal dei Ronchi 2013, hard to describe as wonderfully balanced between rich sweetness that does not cloy, cherries, chocolate, coffee and spice – Recioto is truly a unique style of wine!

Arena di Verona

To complete the tour, a return to Verona for those who decided some Opera was needed to balance out all the wine & food – but first a last evening at SignorVino, just below the Archway leading to Piazza Bra and the Roman Arena, where Nabucco was due to begin as night fell. Although a rapidly expanding chain of wine shops, SignorVino was begun with the simple premise of showcasing 100%  Italian Wine! The staff (at least in the Verona branch!) are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic to suggest more unusual wines to the less discerning tourist who wanders in looking for a gift to take home. In a private room stacked with wine bottles from all of Italy’s 20 wine producing regions, I’d chosen a final few wines to sum up our time in Trentino- Alto Adige & the Veneto (with a delicious buffet just to avoid hunger pangs later in the middle of the Va Pensiero Aria later!) – a palate livening Brut Perlé, a Trentino sparkling from Ferrari ( no – not the ones with those red cars, but an excellent fizz producer!), followed by a white from one of my favourite Soave Producers – Graziano Pra. He has been one of the key people for revitalising the reputation of Soave, by proving what the Garganega grape is truly capable of in the right hands. Their Soave Classico Montegrande was opulent, with good structure, thanks to its time in barrel and a certain drying on the vines of some of the grapes before harvest.  Staying in the region, there was time for a last Amarone, but also to sneak in a ringer from out of zone – Rancia by Felsina, hailing from Tuscany – for no other reason that I simply adore this Chianti Classic Riserva with its enticing black fruit, coffee and spice and also as a reminder of the first tour I escorted these clients on, which was to Tuscany some 18 years ago! But back to the Veneto for our final wine, this time from the area around Breganze – a gleaming golden glass of Torcolato from Maculan. A dessert wine made from 100% Vespaiola grape variety, it is honeyed, rich yet with a great balance of acidity. The perfect wine to finish off a week of exploring these beautiful regions of North East Italy, whose wines I simply cannot praise enough. Alto Adige is split 60% / 40% of white & red wine production, with a wide range of different varieties including some lovely indigenous ones, everything from sparkling through to intense dessert wines, unlike some other wine regions which are limited to only one or two varieties, which makes it quite irresistible for the curious wine lover - which paired with some great local food -  I strongly recommend a visit!

All Photos taken by Cindy-Marie Harvey

To read more of the wines of Alto Adige  -

 

http://www.altoadigewines.com

 

For more information about visiting Alto Adige -

 

https://www.suedtirol.info

 

 


Hambledon Wine Festival

Take one Sunny, Summer's Sunday morning. Add in a beautiful setting, the Hampshire Countryside at its best, butterflies fluttering through the vines, bees buzzing on the lavender plants and a sparkling white marquee. Stir in a judicious selection of wines and delicious local foods and you have Hambledon Wine Festival which took place this weekend! The oldest commercial vineyard in England, making wine since 1952, the estate has undergone a complete renaissance since Ian Kellett took over in 1999. On the chalky soils of the South Downs (like those of the Champagne region), Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier & Pinot Noir have been planted with great success. The vineyards lined with hay bales, with the notes of jazz floating on the air, invited you to share in this fabulous festival. The resident canine welcoming Committee, Beka (a beautiful Ridgeback), led visitors through into the marquee where an array of wines & foods awaiting to while away the Sunday in relaxing style in the Culture of Wine!

With around 80 wines to taste, where to start? Kicking off in style with the home team, Hambledon hosted by the welcoming polyglot, Phillip Kellett, their Classic Cuvée Rosé was all strawberries & cream in a glass and truly hit the spot as the opening wine! But their Premier Cuvée, a blend of the three main grape varieties that go into that other sparkling wine, Champagne aka Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier & Pinot Noir was delightful, slightly toasty and hazelnut notes with a long finish. Showcasing these superb sparkling wines showed just how quality has become the focus for English Sparkling Wines.

The oldest Wine Merchant in Britain, and holder of Two Royal warrants, Berry Bros & Rudd chose seven wines from their extensive listings. The delicate pale Provencal Rosé Chateau la Mascaronne suited the sunshine perfectly and would be delicious with a hot smoked salmon steak. Their Pouilly Fuissé from Olivier Merlin showed how well Chardonnay can give an elegant balance of richness & fresh minerality - perfect for a classic Sunday Roast Chicken! Amongst their excellent selection was their own label Bordeaux, sourced from Chateau du Tetre, which was textbook Margaux and a lovely Rioja from Amezola de la Mora, full of vanilla, red fruits and a spicy finish. But when the main Wine Man of the day, acting MC - Joe Wadsack - decides that he is willing to part with his own cash for a wine, you know it's something notable. In this case, BBR's own label Good Ordinary Claret. For a very good reason, as the advert used to say "it does what it says on the tin" and at a special show price of just £8.50 (and even at the regular price of £9.95) it is undoubtedly a bargain! Despite the main shop in London, BBR also have a warehouse shop near Basingstoke, which carries a wide range of discounted lines with up to 30% off, worth a visit!

The General Wine Company have two shops in Hampshire, Petersfield (ideally placed next to the station so perfect to drop in & pick up a bottle of something to revive you after the current hideous train delays!) and Liphook. Known for choosing smaller wine estates rather than large brands, the festival selection was wide ranging including the wonderful Bellingham Bernard Series Viognier from South Africa which would have been perfect with a Chinese Spicy Ginger Sea Bream through to an elegant Reserve Malbec by Bodegas Fin del Mundo, which translates as the Cellars at the End of the World - appropriate as it's from the cooler climes of Patagonia in the South of Argentina!

Vin Wine Merchants, the new shop started by local Wine Educators, the Solent Wine Experience were showing a classic Entre Deux Mers from Bordeaux, an eminently quaffable summer white as well as for those after something a little more esoteric, a Marsanne Reserve from Uruguay! Their small courtyard in the heart of the attractive coastal town of Emsworth is a great place to relax and enjoy their wines with charcuterie & cheese platters. But it was the beautiful artwork on display that first enticed you to their stand. Striking drawings in Indian Ink of gnarled vines created by local Emsworth artist, Steven Massey, the pictures would make a beautiful present for any wine lover!

If someone offers you a Chardonnay from Canterbury, you'd probably think first of the South island of New Zealand, where the Canterbury region hugs the Pacific Ocean.  So at the Simpsons Wine Estate stand, a bit of a surprise to find out this wine hailed from a bit closer, from Kent. A new estate whose vines are still establishing themselves in that sunny corner of South East England, they also own Domaine Sainte Rose in Southern France and were showing a delightful Barrel Selection Rousanne, displaying how well this Southern Rhône variety has found a home in their Languedoc estate.

All this wonderful wine was superbly backed up by a tempting range of food stands as tempting smells wafted across the vines, of South African sausages on the Braai courtesy of the award winning Simply African Food. If you think you know Pork Pies, you'll think again after tasting the truly fabulous Pork Pie from Jake's Artisan Foods. Not filled with artificial pink mushy meat, these heavenly pies are delicious chunks of hand cut pork encased in a classic hot water pastry case and great tasting jelly. A perfect pairing for a glass of the spicy Crozes-Hermitage on the General Wine stand!

To keep the younger visitors smiling, refreshing local ice creams made from Jersey milk by Meadow Cottage Farmhouse were being served from an old fashioned tricycle. Two of the flavours Apricot & Mango and Vanilla & Stem Ginger would actually go quite well with a chilled glass of the Late Harvest Rousanne on the Simpsons stall. The image of a summer English fete was enhanced even more by the bunting on Crepe Britain, whose scrumptious crepes had some unusual fillings such as Chorizo & Jalapenos but what could be a more traditionally English flavour than Cheese & Pickle!

One of the most classic food & wine pairings is fizz and oysters, so as a happy match for the Hambledon sparkling, there was the Oyster Meister wandering around with a barrel of oysters on ice!

Cork & Cheese, a Hampshire deli that stocks a wide array of English Cheeses were there tempting all turophiles (that's Cheese lovers to most of us!) So a little retail therapy was called for (and cheese is SO much more fun to shop for than shoes!) Hard to choose but plumped for some Tunworth, a glorious squidgy Camembert cheese from Hampshire and even more local from the Goodwood Estate, Molecomb Blue, award winning soft blue cheese. 

Cupcakes seem to have taken over the world, so good to see Cupcakes with a twist from Boozy Bakers, staying with the day's drinks theme, make strictly for adults flavours with their Gin & Tonic, Prosecco or Limoncello flavour Cup Cakes.

Throughout the day, were a series of Masterclasses from their brilliant in-house Wine Educator, Katrina Smith,  superbly explaining all about Pinot Noir, through to Ian Kellett, (MD at Hambledon) who studied wine making at Plumpton College, waxing lyrical about the terroir of their vineyards and even a Masterclass with the energetic, enthusiastic whirlwind that is Joe Wadsack. A great personality of the wine trade, his depth of knowledge is so brilliantly communicated to all levels of wine lovers and combined with a true love of putting the right wine with the right food! Recently seen on This Morning tasting the new premium range of Bag in Box wines that are undergoing a revival, there seems no end to Joe's fount of knowledge all things food and wine! Hambledon have a gravity fed winery, so Felix, their French wine maker was also hosting visits to their cellars in between all the tastings.

Hambledon run a great event calendar, so if you'd like to learn a bit more about wine, why not sign up for one of their WSET courses!

A glorious day, which seemed so very typically English, held in Hambledon, the Cradle of Cricket, set against a bucolic backdrop, with the vines flourishing as a reminder that vines have been grown in England since the Doomsday book. Combined with the welcoming team at Hambledon, this is an wonderful wine event that is already in next year's diary!

If you'd like to know more about English Wines,  do visit http://www.englishwineproducers.co.uk

 

 


South America Wine Tour - Part 2 - Argentina

The early morning sky striped with soft greys and apricot, almost a mackerel sky, as the sun rose, saw a sleepy and subdued  group board our luxury coach for the day across the Andes. Leaving Chile for Argentina, we left the Maipo valley and headed towards the Acconcagua Valley. As the city sprawl of Santiago faded behind, the scenery became scrub land with the odd cactus dotted around. Climbing slowly, the valley ever narrowed, with ice cold streams rushing along beneath abandoned rail tracks. Our final destination was Mendoza, but first a farewell to the wines of Chile en route. So we stopped high in the Andes at “The Soldiers Leap”, where legend has it that General San Martin (liberator of Chile, Argentina & Peru – bit of a local hero!), jumped this wide gorge on horseback and thus escaped the invading Spaniards.  There was a selection of wines from estates we had no time to visit, giving a good overview. The Pais Reserva del Pueblo from Miguel Torres showing the renaissance of this ancient grape variety, through to Cinsault made in clay amphora by the innovative De Martino team. One of Chilean first Icon wines, Don Maximiano Founders Reserve from Errazuriz showed  power and complexity and to finish the Cab / Syrah/ Merlot/ Carmenere / Petit Verdot blend from Encierra was a great full stop to our Chilean wine experience – Now Argentina beckoned.

But first, the dramatic backdrop of scree covered looming mountains led to a series of 33 “caracoles” or hair pin bends – wonderful views but glad that Ski Portillo was at just beyond switchback 33 for our lunch stop. During the winter, Portillo is Chile’s oldest & leading Ski Resort, but in February in their summer, the ghost like ski lifts, endless signed photos of skiing legends from Europe and the cosy Chalet like décor,  are mere reminders of another season. A reviving aperitif (farewell to Pisco Sours!) was taken on the terrace overlooking the azul blue lake, apparently formed by the tears of an Inca Princess crossed in love.

Aconcagua is the highest peak in the Andes, and as our new Argentine driver was keen to underline, is 100% Argentinean not Chilean! At some 6962 metres high, altitude can be an issue for climbers, so thankfully our viewpoint of its snow capped peak, albeit slightly covered with cloud, at just over 3000 metres was less energetic. The dreaded customs border crossing awaited – delays of up to 8-10 hours are not unusual – and so our speedy 2 hours and 3 minutes processing was a great start to our Argentine experience.

The landscape and geology of the Andes changes dramatically on the Argentine side as we dropped down towards Mendoza – technically a desert but the unseasonal heavy rain that marked our journey made this difficult to judge – so Derek hosted a tasting to dispel the rain and introduce our palates to Argentina – albeit with a Chilean twist, by tasting  from Montes Argentina outpost Kaiken wines.

No one has been more influential on the modern Argentine wine trade than Nicolas Catena, hence him being awarded Decanter magazine’s prestigious Man of the Year in 2009 - so where better to start our tastings on this side of the Andes, than at their impressive Catena Zapata cellars in Agrelo. Built  in the shape of a Mayan pyramid temple, it is a quirky cellar to visit. Joined by their winemaker Ernesto, it was a great lesson in understanding their approach to high altitude vineyards. From the rooftop terrace, the volcano Tupungato gleams in the distance, and which is where Catena source their high altitude grapes from in the Uco Valley.  The Catena Alta Chardy 2014 was a revelation – having tasted this wine for many vintages, the oak management improves each year and the 2014 was an elegant example with balanced freshness and acidity as well as the oak structure – bit of a bargain at only £15 from the Wine Society.  2013 Catena Alta Malbec had beautiful ripe tannins and sweet black fruit – at the first sip, I started dreaming of a garlicky roast cannon of lamb, perhaps with minted flageolet beans! Staying in the Alta range, the Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was very different to many  New World Cabernets, being fresh, sweet black cherries, a hint of chocolate and with no green aromas at all. Moving onto three of their Icon wines – the Catena Zapata Nicasia ‘12 had lovely rich fruit, the Malbec Argentino 2011 blending fruit 50% each from their historical Malbec vineyards,  Nicasia and Adrianna giving a rich complexity to the wine. Ending on their Nicolas Catena 2011,  a world class blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Malbec from four of their best vineyard sites. There were 210 separate microvinifications (picking different lots and rows at different times) which all added to the myriad of layers in this wine. Although the 2011 vintage, this wine still has a long aging life in it, the beautiful bramble fruit backed up with hints of cassis and chocolate made it the perfect finish to the tasting. Wines available from their UK importer Bibendum.

It would seem hard to follow the Catena wines – but I had chosen next to visit my old friends at Bodegas Cassone. A real family run boutique estate not far outside Mendoza, the charming wine maker Federico Cassone with his lovely wife Connie, welcomed us under the shade of an olive tree in their 100 year plus old Malbec vines. Against a stunning backdrop of the Andes, Federico explained their philosophy at the estate, along with the family’s history having originally arrived in Argentina from Piemonte in North West Italy (home to Barolo & Barbaresco). First wine of the tasting had anyone whose palate may have been flagging sit upright like a meerkat on look out! Their Obra Prima Rosado from Cabernet Sauvignon is simply one of the most delightful wines of South America – even persuading the non Rosé lovers of the group. Pale salmon in colour, it has a wonderful freshness combined with creaminess – think strawberries & cream. Heaven on it’s own in a hammock , but would also pair wonderfully well with a trout and watercress tart. La Florencia blend of 60% Malbec with 40% Syrah, named for Federico’s mother and the labels showing her favourite flowers,  was plums, blueberries and a touch of white pepper – great balance of spice & freshness, it would pair well with red pesto or even the classic cacio & pepe pasta.  The Obra Prima Malbec ’12 had  a great purity to it, none of the jammy gloop that one sadly encounters in some Malbecs on the UK market – fragrant, brambles, with fine tannins, although it will last well, I am not sure if patience will permit!

Staying in their Reserve line, the Obra Prima Cabernet ‘14 (70% Cab Sauv / 30% Cab Franc) was stunning, mint & liquorice on the nose, tapenade and lovely herbal coming from the Cab Franc on the palate – where was a plate of tagliata or lamb with black olive crust when needed?  Ending on the Obra Prima Maximus ’11, which seems well named being as muscular and powerful as Russell Crowe in a gladiators outfit! 40% Malbec, blended with 20% each of Cab’s Sauv & Franc, this was a very serious wine with ripe plum fruit and nice touch of minerality.  The Italian attitude to hospitality lives on today in the Cassone family, so we decamped to their front lawn along with Federicos' parents for a “light snack” that would have kept most delis’ going for a month. A wonderful array of salamis, hams, cheese and of course empanadas (the competition for best empanada still continuing on this side of the Andes!) awaited – as did the gorgeous family dog, who though v nervous as a rescue dog, soon became my new best friend& happy to share my empanada…!  Yet more wines appeared including their fragrant Torrontes, a great variety as an aperitif with notes of tropical fruit and elderflower.  The wonderfully friendly Cassones make wonderful wines and all unbelievably good value! – there were already several orders placed before we left the cellar!  A simple perfect visit and very hard to leave! UK importer is Justerini & Brooks

Mendoza is a bustling university city, with lots of parks to explore but the heat of the day lured most of the group to the air conditioned bar or relaxing by the pool before our evening visit.  Familia Zuccardi have two estates, the original cellars just outside Mendoza and a new one in the Uco valley, and they have a wide range of wines – producing large volume of easy drinking wine through to small production, quality focused, terroir centered wines. The company’s owner, Jose Alberto Zuccardi has been joined by his son Sebastian as wine maker and his daughter Julia in the family company. The short pre-dinner tasting including their Ancellotta, to show off this unusual red grape variety from their experimental range, their Z and two of their Uco wines – the Vistaflores Aluvional reflecting the soils created by glacial movements over many years. But there is only so much tasting to be done in one day, so the remaining five wines were served over an inventive tasting menu devised by their in house Chef – Matias Aldasoro. Their Fiano (a white more normally found in Campania in Southern Italy) paired well with the tomato starter, the veal capaccio with oregano ice cream stood up well to the rustic notes of the Zuccardi Emma made from Bonarda, a red grape hailing from North West Italy. The main of baby goat with raspberry ketchup and consommé of goat bought out all the brambly black fruit of the Zuccardi Q Malbec. For desert, apple cake, pear granite & Catalan peach cream echoed the ripe apricot elements of the Malamado Viognier. So if anyone still thought that Argentina was only about huge hunks of BBQ steak – this tasting menu left them in no doubt that inventive modern Argentinian cooking is very much alive – and such flavour experimentation reflects the open minded wine making approach of the Zuccardis. UK importer is Alliance Wine.

The Uco Valley lies to the South East of Mendoza City, although technically still falls under Mendoza, it is very different to the more traditional Mendocino vineyard regions. With the Tupungato volcano dominating the skyline, and the many off shoots of the Tunuyan River spreading like tentacles, the region is (for now) gloriously unspoilt against wide open skies with incredible luminosity, although vineyard plantings have doubled since 2001. Not only key Argentine names but also from France, including famous Consultant Michel Rolland and several Bordeaux Chateaux and the Lurton Brothers amongst others. The vineyards are planted at a higher altitude then their city cousins, which gives a cooler micro climate. Heading through police road blocks(protection of the biosecurity of the Uco for its fruit & veg industry), the Uco Valley with its poplar lined roads is the place that has the Argentinean winemakers excited. As Sebastian Zuccardi points out, there should be more recognition of the different wine sub regions rather than all being clumped under one classification. The investment in the region over the last 15 years has been considerable and there a host of fascinating estates to visit, from an architectural point of view as well as vinous!

But sadly our time in Argentina was limited, so we headed to one of the most impressive estates, Bodegas Salentein.  Owned by a Dutch family who named the estate after their Castle in Holland, no expense was spared in the design of the winery, which blends in well against the mountains. Having tried to work out how many barrels I have seen over the last 20 years of visiting wine estates (the computer ran out of zeros), it is hard for me to be truly impressed by a cellar but the design of the barrel room 8 metres below ground level is rather good – complete with piano for concerts (limited length of time only to avoid disturbing the wine too much)! But it is the table in the tasting room that is truly breath taking, hewn from a single piece of rock from San Juan – a hand deep in depth and long enough to comfortably seat 30 people! Hosted by the very knowledgeable Marcelo Gil, the tasting started with the Reserve Chardy ’15 from the Las Pampas Vineyard at 1250 metres asl, it was all greengages and clotted cream with 60% of the wine having undergone malolactic fermentation. The Primus Chardy ‘14 was different in style, a blend of several parcels, it was a very textural wine with a long finish. The Primus Pinot Noir ’11, with fruit coming only from their higher altitude vineyards, had a nice nose of violets, hint of tobacco with good structure. Their Numinia Gran Corte ’14, a blend of 62% Malbec, 21% Cab Sauv, 8% Petit Verdot, 5% Can Franc, 4% Merlot but tweaked every vintage. A huge red wine that needs time. The Primus Malbec ’13 showed how fine the tannins can be with the Uco cooler, longer ripening time.

The cellars are also home to the family Art Collection of modern Argentine and Dutch artists, so a quick visit for some culture to feed the soul but before long, lunch called, so a short hop along a tree lined avenue to their Posada. With their in-house sommelier, we had chosen another four wines with lunch, to show how food friendly are the Salentein wines. Red Tuna Sashimi  paired happily with the Single Vineyard Chardonnay, whilst for the main course of pork marinated in dark beer and honey, I’d chosen to show two wines, to see which people thought matched best – the Single Vineyard Pinot Noir and also the Primus Merlot. Despite the threatening rain clouds arriving in style ,causing an impromptu table rearrangement, this caused much discussion with the group divided as to which worked best with the pork. Their Primus Merlot was one of the first merlots to ever impress me in Argentina, with its elegance, and whilst I’d have been happy with either with the main course, the acidity of the Pinot Noir worked superbly with the richness of the pork.  To finish, the Single Vineyard Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc was all clementines & apricots – simply delicious end to a relaxed lunch in the vines. UK Importer is GP Brands

Nights off on wine tour are essential to allow people to explore on their own according to their hunger levels – those who fancy no more than a lettuce leaf & a glass of mineral water after a full days tasting to those made of sturdier stuff, who see a free evening as a good reason to discover even more wines whilst on the other side of the world. Both Derek and I love the restaurant Azafran in Mendoza, for featuring great local produce with traditional recipes reinvented. But it is their wine list that keeps us going back – superb selection and fair prices, it also has a glorious wine room, with walls lined with bottles where we ensconced a select few of our group at the circular table  – having checked them for corkscrews first!

The last day of the tour, was a flight to Buenos Aires with time to explore this cosmopolitan capital before our final dinner together at a local steak house, Fevor in the heart of the Recoleta district. Having checked it out previously for its fabulous steak, I chose it for its wonderful wine list (not to mention impeccable service). Derek had fun deliberating which wines to end this South American Wine Tour, so chose Colomé Torrontes from the Salta region, the highest vineyards in Argentina for our last white. With the steak, there HAD to be a Malbec, so cue Padrillos Malbec 2015, made by Nicolas Catena’s son on his own estate. But also a blend, courtesy of one of Argentina’s most respected winemakers, Susanna Balbo, the first Argentinean female to graduate as a Wine Maker back in 1981! The Brioso ’13 with a fairly Bordelais blend of Cabs Sauv & Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot – which ticked a lot of boxes with the steak – showing good wine, good food, good company equals the perfect evening!

This was my 20th Wine Tour to South America, and there continues to be an on-going excitement in the wine trade in both Chile and Argentina, both countries now with a greater understanding of the land they have already planted through to the newer regions being explored and cultivated. So much has changed in the last twenty years and continues to do so with every vintage. Combined with the welcoming hospitality of the South Americans on both sides of the Andes, this tour was a fascinating way to give an insight not only into the wines but also the people and their history.

Sadly on this occasion, we did not have time to visit the vineyards of Uruguay as I have done on many previous South American Wine Tours, but that will be for next time!

To read my blog on the Chilean part of this tour - https://lovewinefood.com/south-america-wine-tour-part-one-chile/

To see full tasting notes written by the ever brilliant Derek Smedley MW – do visit his website www.dereksmedleymw.co.uk

For more information about Argentinean Wine, do visit Wines of Argentina

All photos taken by Cindy-Marie Harvey.