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

 


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!

 

 

 

 


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

 

 


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.


South America Wine Tour - Part One - Chile

Wide cerulean blue skies against a backdrop of snow-capped Andes, rolling vineyards of Sauvignon and Cabernet combined with a carnivores heaven of endless BBQ’s – what is the first thought that springs to mind when people think of visiting the wine lands of South America? Well, all of these are true but there is so much more – and more diversity to discover than most people associate with the wines of Chile & Argentina. Fancy Riesling with a racy elegance or a wonderful smoky Pinot Noir, maybe a cool climate Syrah or even a glass of little known Sauvignon Gris? All to be found – and more – from some of the most exciting vineyards of the New World.

My first Wine Tour to South America was in 1998, and have been returning annually, with the tour I organised for a London Livery Company this year being my 20th time exploring the vineyards of Chile & Argentina . It has been fascinating to see the developments in both countries over two decades – not only the wine focus  but also from the social and economics point of view.

The wine consultant to these clients is the fabulous Derek Smedley MW. One of the most respected members of the wine trade, with a wealth of experience, Derek first visit to the vineyards of South America was in the 1980’s and he has continually been revisiting over the last 20 years. As a Master of Wine, of whom there are only 356 in the world, Derek’s in depth knowledge of wines from all over the world was valuable in putting the wines tasted on tour into context, and he was always there to clarify any wine questions throughout the tour!

Several of the group met up the night before in Santiago and were swiftly introduced to that heavenly (if what somewhat dangerous!) South American aperitif – Pisco Sour. Discussion rages if Chilean or Peruvian Pisco’s are the best – but I will be diplomatic and say that they are simply delicious and possibly best to stop at the second one!  If you fancy trying them at home this summer, lots of recipes on line and the Whisky Exchange has a great selection of different types of Pisco.

Surrounded by an alarmingly large number of suitcases, we set forth on our first day, a Sunday so the streets of Santiago thankfully quiet, for our first visit to Vina Aquitania, which was started by three friends in the 1990’s. Bruno Prats (then of Cos D’Estournel), along with the late Paul Pontallier (of Chateau Margaux) joined with their Chilean friend Felipe de Solminihac to start a Chilean wine project together. Later, they became the “Four Musketeers” when they were joined by Ghislaine de Montgolfier (of Champagne Bollinger).  The cellar is surrounded by their vines, which in turn are edged by the ever encroaching suburbs of Santiago, giving the cellars a slightly surreal setting.  Hosted by Felipe's son, Eduardo de Solminihac, it was the perfect visit to set the scene for our Chilean wine adventure.  Many of the group are self confessed serious Champagne lovers, so it was interesting to see the positive reaction to their Sparkling wine, with Zero Dosage, just what was needed to put a zing into a Sunday mid morning.

Truly a boutique estate, where even the labelling is still done by hand, a full tasting had been set out invitingly on the lawn.  The estate also owns vineyards in the very south of Chile in Malleco and the SOLdeSOL Chardonnay and SOLdeSOL Pinot Noir displays lovely cool climate characteristics. The Chardonnay with its twice weekly battonage was rich & buttery with hint of hazelnuts  whilst the Pinot Noir had a great nose of black fruit and raspberry leaves balanced with fresh acidity and black cherries.  For a group of wine lovers, many of whom lean towards the Bordeaux end of the wine spectrum, the Lazuli Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 was the real star of the tasting, showing classical Maipo Valley Cab of cassis & mint with discreet tannins and a delicious elegant finish or as described by a certain MW, “moresome” – which became a new tour word! Wines available in the UK via Stone, Vine & Sun

Tearing ourselves away for our lunchtime appointment, we headed further down into the Maipo valley, to meet up with leading Chilean wine maker, Alvaro Espinoza. Alvaro has been instrumental in spreading the word about the advantages of following organic and biodynamics principles in the vineyards. Although he consults for a larger estate, we caught up with him on his own personal estate, Antiyal. A fascinating walk through the vineyards, lined with almond trees, whilst Alvaro explained the main points of biodynamics, including the herbal preparations needed and the various animals that also “work” in the vineyards!

A brief visit to the cool cellar, where Alvaro proudly showed off his concrete eggs, a new cellar discovery for a few people in the group.  Increasingly more popular (despite the hefty price tag), winemakers from Bordeaux to Tuscany, Chile to the Uco Valley in Argentina are choosing concrete eggs for fermentation. The egg shape ensures a continual movement of liquid and the concrete provides a stable environment, which gives the resulting wines more texture and vibrancy.  Joined by Alvaro’s wife Marina, we enjoyed a welcome glass of their Sparkling (Chardonnay & Pinot base) on the roof terrace of the cellars with lovely views across the vines to the mountains.  Moving to Alvaro & Marina’s house, a relaxed lunch in the garden paired with their Antiyal wines showed exactly why Alvaro firmly believes in the holistic approach of biodynamics are right for his wines. They all showed a real sense of terroir, from the Pura Fe Carmenere , through to the Kuyen, a blend of Syrah, Cab Sauv, Carmenere and Petit Verdot showing lovely spiciness. To finish, their flagship original wine Antiyal, made with Carmenere, Cab Sauv & Syrah is always a favourite of mine from the early days when such world class wines from Chile could be counted very quickly.  As always,  a big seductive red with lovely smoky blackcurrants and a surprisingly elegant finish.  There are quite a few sceptics about the Steiner principals of biodynamics, but for me wines made under this style of viticulture are without fail, more vibrant and alive in the glass. Whilst I might not go as far as a sommelier friend who has his hair cut according to which day it is in the lunar biodynamic calendar (leaf, root, fruit etc) to slow regrowth, I do hope that more wine makers convert to this more natural respectful way of viticulture. UK Importer is Vintage Roots

A free evening  at our next base in Santa Cruz, resulted in some rather amusing discussions on orange wine the next day. Several of the clients headed to a local restaurant, where the owner is passionate about natural food. However, amongst the various wines sampled, he suggested an orange wine – which the clients were convinced was a gentle joke to wind up visiting tourists, such was its un-drinkablity. They were suitably horrified the next day to be told that actually Orange wine is style of wine made by quite a few winemakers in countries as varied as Austria to Georgia.  Here is not the place to explain the concept, also as I am most assuredly not a fan of the style if you are interested, there is a lot on the web!

Happily our visit the next day was to the Montes winery in the Apalta valley, a short hop outside of Santa Cruz. Nestled at the foothills and surrounded by vines, the winery was designed with Feng Shui principals. Welcomed by Dennis Murray, son of one of the original founders, and Maria Walker, their export manager and of course the beautiful Montes Angel who stands in the reception, thankfully almost totally uninjured from the 2015 earthquake which saw her thrown out into the vineyards.

The cellar visit was impressive from the roof top selection tables, which were being prepared for the forthcoming harvest (the winery is of course all gravity fed – no pumping)  through to the barrel rooms, where the wine is played classical music as they believe this has a beneficial effect on the wine, following a study carried out on the differences of music and ice & liquid. But as Dennis pointed out with a twinkle – only classical never AC/DC for Montes wines!  A veritable array of glasses awaited in the tasting room (374 glasses in total – glad I was not on polishing duty later!) with  a stunning view over to the steep slopes of their Syrah vineyard.

Joined for the tasting by two of their winemakers, Andrea and Gavin, the tasting ranged from the Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc with its elegant nettle nose through to three Icon Wines. The Outer Limits CGM was a wine with Grenache being the link between the other two varieties of spicy peppery Mouvedre and the brambly Carignan, all planted on 45 degree slopes! It would pair wonderfully with cassoulet. The Montes Alpha Chardonnay simply gets better with every vintage, and it a complete steal at the price of just a smidge over £10 – it is all buttery but with a lovely melon fresh sweetness as well.  Knowing that two of my favourite Chilean wines were hiding in the final flight was great to know – the Montes M from predominantly Cab Sauv with Cab Franc Merlot and PV was cigar box and Bordelais in its leanings, but for me the Purple Angel and Folly show how stunning the top wines from Chile can truly be. The Purple Angel almost all Carmenere with just 8% of PV was rich blackberries and bay leaves, whilst the Syrah dominant Folly was sheer heaven in a glass!

Montes have always, since its creation and thanks to Aurelio Montes, been a winery that queries every pre-conception of wine making in Chile, and have – and continue to – challenge and lead the way, from the planting of vines on the impossibly steep slopes through to Aurelio’s current project of placing dynamite in some of his vineyards to see the effect on the sub soils, and if this helps the roots to achieve greater depth without needing to irrigate. Very hard to follow such a tasting, but next up was a tractor ride to the middle of their steep vineyards for lunch with spectacular views across the valley. The region had been consumed by smoke the week before due to the forest fires further across, and so in view of the surrounding bush,  a planned BBQ was replaced with a delicious three course lunch – after of course the omnipresent Chilean Empanada – delicious with a refreshing  glass of their Cherub Rosé, all strawberries & cream in a glass – with several other wines to relax with over lunch! UK importer is Liberty Wine

One of the great advantages of New World wineries is the freedom they have to experiment and so where better to visit next than Cono Sur, whose advertising strap line is  “No family trees, no dusty bottles, just quality wine”. They source grapes from almost all of Chile’s vineyard regions, from North to the very South and this makes for a fascinating range of wines to taste. But first a visit to their vineyards at their cellar in the Colchagua Valley with one of their winemakers, the brilliant Guillermo Sanchez, to meet their (very noisy!) geese. Guillermo was fascinating about their sustainable philosophy and in detail about their integrated pest management.  Everything in balance in a natural way, so the geese are released into the vines to eat the burrito spider which damages the soil and eat the vine roots. In front of their beautiful renovated country house, our tasting of seven wines required our attention!

Cono Sur have a range of labels including the widely available easy quaffing Bicicleta range (with the bicycle on the label)   - bu we were concentrating on their premium 20 Barrels range. Starting with a Sauv Blanc from Casablanca only 14 kms from the Pacific, which was all grapefruit lime and slightly salty through to their 20 Barrels Chardy 2016, of which 1% goes into concrete eggs giving great structure without the use of oak – ripe and rounded like a Charentais melon. The Bloc 23 Single Vineyard Riesling was a revelation – elegant white flowers with 7 gms of residual sugar giving no sweet sensation just balance. Pinot Noir is something of a passion at Cono Sur, so much so that back in 1999 they created a separate winery at the property solely for thr Pinots. They also employed a Burgundian consultant in the shape of the brilliant Martin Prieur, and this is reflected in the style of Pinot they produce with the 20 Barrels Pinot 2015 which was v sweet fruit backed up by smoky black cherries. In comparison, alongside was their Icon Pinot Noir, Ocio 2014 , which had much more meatiness to it. From their plots in the Limari valley came the 20 Barrels Syrah 2015 with black inky fruit, pink pepper spice, mulberries was suggested as a tasting note – but it ended with a delicious tapenade savoury richness. A glass of their Sparkling Brut was the perfect way to start lunch with a delicious BBQ on the verdant lawn – with several more wines to taste (drink?) over lunch! UK Importer Concho Y Toro UK

 

Heading back to the Maipo, where our next three nights would be on a private wine estate, which is some 2600 hectares bordered by the foothills of the Andes and the River Maipo. Vina Tarapaca has had a varied history since its foundation in 1874 including featuring as alimony in a high profile divorce country in the Catholic dominant Chile.  Today, the estate is an enchanting place to stay,  the Villa with more than a passing resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara – but instead surrounded by vineyards and a tempting cooling swimming pool!

During our stay, over relaxed dinners on the terrace, we tasted a huge range of their wines including their Method Traditionelle Sparkling from the Casablanca Valley through to the delicious Late Harvest , an unusual blend of  Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon and Moscatel which was the perfect pair for the dessert of Lucuma Mousse! UK Importers are Laithwaites

Away to the west of Maipo are the Casablanca, San Antonio & Leyda valleys, where the proximity to the Pacific Ocean means that the vines benefit from the cool climate. First stop was the boutique estate of Leyda, in the eponymous DO Leyda. Originally the site of a blue tiled train station, it was the last station on the route from Santiago to the coast. The young team of their Viticulturist, Winemaker and Export Manager welcomed us to a delightful shady dell under the trees, set up immaculately for a full tasting including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah from each of their three lines – Reserva, Single Vineyard and Lot. Absolutely fascinating to be able to taste all 12 wines which really displayed the terroir of each parcel and the microclimate created by the vines proximity to the ocean with its cooling affect of the Humboldt current. The Reserva SB was all aromatic green nettles, whilst the Single Vineyard from the IC Davis Clone 1 was flinty and minerally, with a long finish. This particular vineyard is named Garuma after  a local bird and the vineyards have three pickings times several days apart to combine zest & acidity with a little more richness on the later picking.    The Lot 4 SB, which is planted with the 317 clone from Sancerre, was attractive gooseberry on the nose and followed up with great mouthfeel thanks to 20% fermented in French Oak.  Of the three Chardonnays, the one that impressed was the Lot 4 Chardy 2014 with a deep golden hue and remarkably elegant. In the Pinot Noirs: –  Reserva PN 2016 was bright fresh red fruit, the Single Vineyard PN 2015 sang with hints of raspberries but nice structure, whilst the Lot 21 PN 2015 – well - it received the “Delicious – Must Buy!” tasting note! – it was black cherries, warmth yet elegant.  Cool Climate Syrahs are getting a fair bit of press attention in the last couple of years – and with good reason. The freshness that the wines attain due to the slow ripening season of this Chilean cool climate region, brings an added complexity to the variety. The Reserva 2015 was blueberries and with an attractive acidity. The Lot 8 Syrah 2013 was an impressive wine to end on but for me the star of their Syrah stable was the Single Vineyard 2014, white pepper combining with blueberries again and even a hint of chocolate on the finish – heavenly! Some of their wines available in the UK from The Wine Society.

Hard to tear oneself away from this “Winnie the Pooh thinking spot” under the trees for our next tasting, but onto another small estate, this time family run, Casa Marin  owned by the dynamic Maria Luz Marin.  The vineyards are situated less than 4km from the Pacific Ocean and so have a very particular micro climate, which is reflected in the elegant and mineral charged wines. Maria Luz has had a long career in the wine trade, but when she wanted to plant in the then ignored San Antonio Valley, she was considered totally crazy! Thankfully, she remained determined and planted in Lo Abarca with their first harvest in 2003. Today, Chile is unrivalled in the number of its young female winemakers, but their path has been helped by Maria Luz who was the first female Chilean winemaker to really make her mark. She has been joined by her charming son Felipe as wine maker, whose training in California and experience in New Zealand, bring an added dimension to their wines. Their flagship Sauvignon Blanc Cipreses 2016 is one of the most elegant SBs around (it has won Best Sauvignon Blanc in the World from Decanter magazine), floral on the nose, and salty minerality on the palate, but it was the texture that impressed most – and with a PH of just over 3, this wine will age superbly, so do buy a few bottles to stash away for a few years. A serious SB that would work well with food!  I will confess to be a Riesling lover – so imagine the delight of tasting two vintages of their Riesling Miramar! The 2015 had a classic petrol nose but enlivened by lime and sherbet  whilst the 2009 with the extra 6 years of bottle age showed how right Felipe is in saying their Rieslings can age happily for at least 15 years. If you are unsure of Riesling, with memories of cheap over sweet wines, now is the time to give it another go – the residual sugar of 9 gms per litre give a great balance to the natural acidity – and one reason why it works so well with dishes with a classic asian influence but also well with seafood (seabass cerviche with a miso dressing would be heaven!).  If you have trouble finding the Miramar, then do look out for their other Riesling stocked in Marks & Spencers – you cannot miss the hippyesque label!

Sauvignon Gris is an almost forgotten variety that has found its home in Chile, and their Estero 2016 was a good example of this pink tinged grape, with grapefruit & herbs on the nose. The Pinot Noir Abarca Hills 2011 was glorious – green tomato leaves backed up with smokiness on the palate. But time for some lunch in their wine bar, where the great pairing was the seafood risotto along with the Vinedos Lo Abarca Sauvignon Blanc, Felipe’s own project – he only made 2700 bottles of this wine! One of his tasting notes for this wine is celery on the nose – which is a new one on me – but having tasted it, it is spot on! Dotted around the cellar and gardens are various beautiful mosaics designed by Maria Luz’s sister Patricia, everything from  the life size gentleman above through to a woman reclining on a bench – one more sign of the attention to detail at Casa Marin. UK Importer is Alliance Wine

After so much wine tasting, a day of R&R was called for, so a whole day to relax and let one's palate recuperate was planned at Vina Tarapaca. A "do as much or as little" policy was in place – some went off horse riding with their gaucho, whilst others attempted the wicked pitch & putt, cooled off in the pool or took a horse drawn carriage around the estate. For those missing their daily tannin hit, there was an (optional!) wine tasting with a difference. Hosted by the always smiling estate Manager, Claudia Diaz, she had prepared a blending session. Split into three teams, with ten different barrel samples to use, the aim was to create a Cabernet Sauvignon blend - up to 15% of Merlot or Syrah was permitted and there were Cab's sourced from various vineyards on the estate. Armed with pipettes, this could have been a recipe for confusion, but neither Claudia or I had taken into account the competitiveness of the teams! The resulting noise levels from intense discussions could be heard across the estate and were not suitable for those of a nervous disposition - but what a hoot! Both Claudia & I in tears of laughter as the teams surrounded their final blends with more security than Nato, but phrases such as “A smidgen more of that organic syrah will give the right elegance” through to “1% of this will make all the difference on the finish” floated on the air. Derek Smedley MW had the unenviable task of judging the final blends – all I can say, although the wine trade would have missed him madly, he should have been in the diplomatic service!

Lunch under the cork trees beckoned, so a glass of Sauvignon Sour to revive the palate after the blending. An invention of Tarapaca’s excellent in house Chef, Juan, it is a fabulous lighter (less alcoholic!) alternative to Pisco Sour – simply replace Pisco with Sauvignon Blanc in the recipe – delicious! Chile produces some of the best fruit & vegetable in the world, so a relaxed lunch of technicoloured salads was perfect with a full Chilean BBQ.  Sadly our last night at this small piece of Paradise in Chile, as we had to leave Tarapaca early the next morning for our adventure over the Andes to Argentina.

 

To read about the Argentina section of the tour, please do check out my blog. https://lovewinefood.com/south-america-wine-tour-part-2-argentina/

For more information on Chilean Wine do visit the excellent Wines of Chile

For further tasting notes of these wines visit Derek Smedley MW’s excellent website - http://www.dereksmedleymw.co.uk

All photographs taken by Cindy-Marie Harvey


Lea & Sandeman Italian Tasting

The start of the year are busy tasting months in the wine trade – it seems like there is one every day at times and some of them featuring so many wines that it can be quite overwhelming – especially for the palate! How perfect it was to attend the Italian Tasting of Lea & Sandeman in London recently. The location was the Getty Images Gallery, whose walls were filled with quirky photos.

Not only was it the excellent quality across the board of the wines, but the well-chosen small selection of producers that had been invited, gave them chance to really discuss their wines with visitors.

If you have not yet discovered Lea & Sandeman, they are one of London’s leading Independent Wine Merchants with four Branches in Chelsea, Kensington, Barnes and Chiswick – then you have a treat in store! Their advertising motto is “Most Original Wine Merchants” and that is certainly apt.

Lots of people getting into wine feel unsure about buying wine in an independent rather than simply picking it up anonymously from a supermarket. Reasons range from “Feeling embarrassed about not knowing enough” (if you know at least one wine you like – that will give their friendly staff somewhere to start suggesting other interesting wines in that style)  Or “It will be much more expensive” ( Not True. Lea & Sandeman had Five Wow Factor Wines Under £10 in Victoria Moore’s article in the Daily Telegraph in February 2017).

So if you want to explore excellent value wines, unusual grape varieties or treat yourself to one of their selection of Fine Wines – get yourself along to one of their branches to find a wealth of interesting wines!

The Italian Tasting kicked off with some sparkling from Corteaura, a producer in Franciacorta in Northern Italy, (think Milan and along the map a bit towards Lake Iseo!), whose Pas Dosé Brut (with no dosage) was exactly the thing to invigorate the palate. Their Saten Vintage 2010 with extra time in bottle gave a full smoothness combined with a lovely apply finish.

Skipping to the other side of Italy, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, the wines of biodynamically certified Az Ag Visintini were a delight. The Ribolla Gialla 2015 with its slight spritz, good freshness and green apples would be an ideal apero. The Friulano (local variety used to be called Tocai until the Hungarians got defensive and had that banned) was a good example of the variety with its slight bitter almond nose. It needs time in bottle to really express itself, drink too young and will seem a little flat – so good to taste the 2014 vintage which showed also the complexity due to lees contact.  The star of their wines was the Pinot Grigio 2015 – do not fall over in shock – I am not talking about the anodyne examples that flood the UK market, but real proper Pinot Grigio! It is “Ramato” so a gorgeous coppery pink tone that comes from the skins of the grape – and was bright and minerally in the mouth.

Continuing my geographical flit around Italy, the next wines were Luigi Maffini from Campania in the South. He hails from the beautiful unspoilt area of Cilento, and his cellars are not far from the ruins of the ancient Greek City of Paestum. I’ve followed his wines almost since their first vintage, and it has been great to see them develop into really exciting wines from local varieties of Fiano for the whites and Aglianico for the reds. The two Fiano’s appear almost to be different grape varieties, they were so different in the glass – the 2016 Kratos still so young was delicate pear drops and flowers, whereas the 2014 Pietracatenata was creamy, honeyed, rich, slightly spicy – a wonderfully balanced wine and would pair excellently with tuna tartare that I enjoyed last time I stayed in the Cilento (which incidentally is where Ancel Keys, who “discovered” the Mediterranean Diet based his research).

In the South of Tuscany is the region of the Maremma, and home to the relatively young estate of Fattoria di Magliano.  Their Vermentino 2016 was all fresh, salty minerality and calling out for a plate of linguine with clams, the Illario Rosé made from 100% Sangiovese grapes was attractive strawberries & cream – showing well despite only having just been bottled.  Their Morellino di Scansano called Heba (the ancient name for Scansano) almost 100% Sangiovese except for a pinch of 2% Syrah. Sangiovese in the Maremma tends to be more brambly and black than Sangiovese found further North in Tuscany, and this was no exception but had lovely easy drinking fruit possibly reflecting its winemaking in cement vats.

One Italian wine that still sadly divides a room when mentioned, is Lambrusco so I was very pleased to taste the wines of Monte delle Vigne. Their vineyards are near the beautiful city of Parma and their Lambrusco Classico was fabulous deep purple in colour and alive with blackberry fruit. Their Cru Lambrusco I Calanchi was a step up in seriousness and with lower residual sugar, is a wine to match perfectly with the many pork dishes and products of Emilia Romagna – The Classico would be heaven with a platter of Culatello and Salami whilst the Calanchi would match perfectly with pork belly slow roasted with fennel. Time for real Lambrusco to really have its overdue renaissance in the UK! Their Rosso 2015 of 70% Barbera and 30% Bonarda grapes won Italy’s revered top wine award, Tre Bicchiere and compared well with the Nabucco 2011 70% Barbera and 30% Merlot, lovely dark fruit, ripe slightly raisin-ness that would hook up quite happily with a spicy Lebanese lamb flatbread! To finish, their Callas 2012 from 100% Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, a lovely fragrant white only made in best years. The grapes are harvested later than usual (but not “Late Harvest”) giving a floral richness and depth which would go wonderfully with a plate of sweet yet salty Parma ham!

Geographically heading to Tuscany to one of my favourite small Tuscan producers, Il Poggerino which was hosted by the ever smiling and dapper winemaker Piero Lanza. Having tasted their wines which come from just outside Radda in Chianti in the heart of Chianti Classico, for several years it was great meet up with Piero in London. Poggerino was one of the first places that I encountered concrete eggs in Europe and Piero was fascinating on why he is focusing more on cement for his wines, as well as no small barriques but only large oak barrels. Il Labirinto 2015 was everything a Chianti Classico should be (in all but name!) – bright lively fruit and great purity. The Chianti Classico 2014 with its aging in large barrels still had a nice streak of acidity balancing the ripe plums and cherries.  Piero has chosen a play on words for the “Nuovo” Chianti Classico 2014 – (uovo means egg and nuovo means new) – and this wine is aged 100% in the concrete egg vats, which keeps the wine in continual natural movement. It gives the wine a clarity and real sense of terroir unencumbered by oak. Although they follow biodynamic practises in the vineyard, they are not certified (simply down to all the paperwork involved!). His Riserva Chianti Classico Bugialla 2013 was excellent, drinking well now but with about another 4 years to reach its peak and then 15 years on its drinking plateau after that – still cherries and plums but backed up by leather and cedar smoky notes.

Tuscany is such a large region speaking from a wine point of view – so after Chianti Classico something very different from Bolgheri, the coastal strip of Tuscany so famed for its Super Tuscans such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia. But what heaven to taste again the wines of Le Macchiole, to show that the region is not all about Bordeaux style blends. Their Rosso 2014 was a powerful blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah, but the wine that really impressed was their Paleo Rosso. A 100% Cabernet Franc  with beautiful ripe fruit on the nose and a totally integrated, well balanced wine in the mouth – really outstanding, and as I found out  last year in Tuscany,  it goes very well with a simply grilled Florentine T bone steak! Comes with an not inconsiderable price tag, but I think well worth it – if you have a Bordeaux lover in your social circle and want to impress them with something different, this should tick all the boxes.  The Messorio 2009 which is 100% Merlot showed how well this grape variety can perform with no hint of flabbiness, but the other wine that really made me smile was Scrio 2009. A micro production of Syrah it showed great elegance, slight hint of eucalyptus and dark chocolate.

 

Staying in Tuscany, for the distinctly different third wine region in a row, Montalcino, from where there were two producers. Fuligni whose Rosso di Montalcino 2014 had bright red fruit and would be the perfect wine with meat based pasta al forno.  Whilst their Riserva Brunello from the much admired 2007 vintage was a great example of the classification, for me their star wine was the 2012 Brunello di Montalcino, which has bags of ripe fruit yet elegant and superbly balanced tannins. One to look out for. The second Montalcino producer Collemattoni showed a delightful 2011 Brunello with great balance, quite ethereal for a Brunello and ready for drinking now. I will be interested to taste the 2012 which should have more richness and sweeter fruit, with greater aging potential. Their Riserva Brunello Vigna Fontelontano 2010 was a bit of a beast in comparison but will be lovely with time in bottle. There is still a tannic dominance and it really needs food such as Peposa, a Tuscan Beef & pepper stew.

To finish, I was very pleased to return to my spiritual Italian Home, Piemonte – where I lived for five years. Sottimano are a producer that I have revisted several times and always been impressed with the quality across the board. After a delicious Dolcetto D’Alba with enough acidity to brighten the taste buds after all the previous tannins, the Langhe Nebbiolo 2013 was spectacular – a Barbaresco in all but name, it has enticing floral notes, a touch of garrigue and fine long finish – an absolute steal at the price under £20!  If only there had been a plate of tajarin pasta and white truffles to hand, my perfect day would have been complete!  What followed next was a mini Masterclass in the Barbaresco Cru’s of Sottimano – all of the 2011 vintage. Fausoni from 40 – 45 year old vines had good minerality with good red fruit and a hint of coffee, from its slightly sandy soils whilst Pajoré was the most intriguing Cru, slightly spicy tobacco and leather. Cotta managed to combine full bodied with elegance, slight hint of violets and a velvety finish. Curra had dense but ripe tannins, showing lovely salty almost liquorice flavours combine with spice and black fruits but still needs time, more so than the other Cru’s.

It makes such a difference having the actual producers there to chat to in depth about their wines – but obviously not all their Italian suppliers could be involved and so there was also a Self pour tasting table, where there was one complete gem hiding away amongst the whites - Lugana Felugan Feliciana. Sadly I’ve been more disappointed than impressed with many bland Luganas, but this one sang from the glass – it was creamy, white flowers on the nose and full bodied in the mouth – just the thing for a relaxed lunch of simply grilled fish on the shores of Lake Garda!

An excellent tasting from Lea & Sandeman showing the great diversity of Italian Wines.

 

https://www.leaandsandeman.co.uk

 

 


chile wine tasting notes

Wines Of Chile

If someone mentions Chile – what image does this evoke for you? Rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean, icy glaciers in deepest Patagonia, Lakes & Volcanoes, the Atacama Desert or the enigmatic statues of Easter Island? Whichever, it’s a safe bet that the picture that leaps to mind was not a swelteringly hot room in achingly trendy and hipster Shoreditch in London! But this week saw the brilliant Wines of Chile tasting with over 400 wines available to try in that very spot!

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited the vineyards of Chile every year for almost the past twenty years, and more than any other wine region of the world, it has been fascinating to follow its startlingly quick changes. Not only from North with vineyards in the Atacama Desert to the cool climate South of Malleco, but also the re- evaluation of already planted areas from the coastal regions to the Andes foothills.  Each time that I visit, there seems to be a new region that has been added to the Chilean Wine Map and that makes the Chilean wine scene very exciting.

The hottest day of September for 50 years is not the ideal atmosphere for wine tasting – the refreshing Pisco Sours (a typical Chilean aperitive) were beckoning – but whilst great for the soul and relaxation, they not ideal for the palate – so onwards to the 52 winery stands.

There was no way that each stand could be visited before I melted, so I skipped (with regret)  several of the wine estates that I know  well such as Carmen, Santa Rita, Luis Felipe Edwards.  Below is just a selection of the wines I tasted.

Errazuriz, one of the oldest of Chile’s wine estates founded in 1870, were showing an excellent range showing how their wines have developed with the sub division of Aconcagua and Aconcagua Costal. These are always textbook wines – and a great producer for those who want to start to learn more about Chilean wines – especially as they are widely available in the UK.  As always the Costal Sauvignon Blanc showed well,   but no surprise that the Don Max Founders Reserve with its Cab, Malbec, Carmenere, Petit Verdot remains one of their signature wines. But more interesting, was to taste the wines of Vina Arboleda, the personal estate of Eduardo Chadwick (owner of Errazuriz). Started in 1999, the estate concentrates not only on their wines but also on maintaining the bio diversity of the Aconcagua Valley, protecting flora & fauna.  Their coastal Chardonnay was a good balance of acidity as well as good oak management giving just enough vanilla to marry the minerality.  Their Syrah also showed well with good freshness and lovely dark fruits.

The Limari Valley is to the north of Santiago, and Vina Tabali is located in the delightfully named Enchanted  Valley, and their labels taken from the images of the original indigenous Molle & Diaguita people. Under the eye of Head Winemaker Felipe Muller, they produce a great range of very mineral, elegant style of wine including their delightful Talinay Pinot Noir, with good savoury character balanced with red fruits, which benefits from the limestone soils and morning mists coming in from the Pacific.

Montes Wines is a personal favourite of mine – having seen the company develop from the early days of Discover Wine based in Curico, to one of the most dynamic and innovative wine producers in the world. Their Montes Alpha range is quite outstanding value for each of the six different varietals – although the great wine making is always there at every level, with the small pinch of a 2nd variety – 10% Merlot in the Alpha Cab, 5% Cab in the Alpha Malbec – which is added to round out the main variety found on the label – which makes for very appealing wines.  The spicy Alpha Malbec is a great blend of fruit from their vineyards in Marchigüe and Apalta, both sub areas of the Colchagua Valley. Another project is Outer Limits, where the wines are made from extreme vineyards – either very close to the sea, planted at 45 degrees slope (mountain goats required for picking!) or from old vines such as their old vine Cinsault planted in the Southern Itata region on unirrigated land. Their Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc from the Zapalla vineyards just 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean, a is a revelation on the nose, recalling the first explosive Kiwi SB’s of 20 years ago, before so much mediocre Kiwi SB flooded the market (Don’t shout in dismay, there  are  of course  some stellar NZ Sauv Blancs out there but just many forgettable ones as well). But my last wine of the tasting was a treat to myself – no spitting allowed for one of  their Icon wines - Montes Purple Angel  - mainly Carmenere with a pinch of Petit Verdot – at 2013 it is tasting stunningly now with black fruit, spice and lushness but will happily develop for years still to come.  Pure heaven in a glass.

Vina Ventisquero is a name that has been on my radar but never had opportunity to visit – so this was a great opportunity to taste their wines. One of the key features was the knowledge and passion of the stand’s host, Janina Doyle – whose energy in explaining their wines seemed endless. Just what was needed as my palate was fading by the time I reached their stand. Two wines revived me quite quickly – one decidedly unique (with no hint at hyperbole at use of that word) white wine is Tara –a Chardonnay from the Atacama Desert. Grown on rootstock chosen to combat the high level of salinity of the vineyards, this is a very particular wine and not to everyone’s taste starting with its cloudiness along with a saltiness on the palate that I can see would marry well with Chilean Sea Bass Ceviche – quite individual. In the red corner was Pangea, Syrah from the Colchagua Valley but with a twist in that their winemaker, Felipe Tosso has been joined by John Duval to work together on this project. Sound familiar? He should as John Duval was winemaker at Penfolds for almost 30 years – and has bought all his Syrah experience from working on that Iconic wine, Grange to Chile. Pangea was wonderful with notes of garrigue and lavender followed up with wonderful spice.

Marchigüe is a sub region of the Colchagua region off to the West and is a great source of premium fruit – so I was interested to taste at the Vinedos Marchigüe stand. Owned by the Errazuriz Ovalle family, they have substantial vineyard holdings (some in Curico as well).  They have traditionally sold a lot of wine for the own label market, so their name is not that well known (yet). So it was good to taste their Reserve wine – retailing between £10 - £15, their Sauvignon Blanc was zingy and refreshing, the Carmenere was well balanced – an un-showy and restrained example of this key Chilean grape variety. But like so many other stands at the tasting, it was their Syrah that really shone – lovely minty almost eucalyptus notes, with good acidity and spicy finish. Good value for that price point.

Valdivieso have vineyards in all almost all the key locations  and this is reflected in the range of wines that they produce under the aegis of their head winemaker Brett Jackson, originally from New Zealand, he is almost native now having worked in Chile since 1994. Whilst they are very well known for their sparkling wines - well they have been making them since 1879! – their single vineyard range are textbook varietals. Interesting to taste the Eclat Vigno from Maule – old vines Carignan & Mouvedre and made in a style that brings to mind old world rather than new.   They also produce one of the most enigmatic wines of Chile – Caballo Loco. Although there is now a Caballo Loco range which selects the best of their grapes from each region – their Syrah from Limari was particularly impressive – but the original Caballo Loco (“Crazy Horse” named after the original winemaker) is rare for red wine in that it has no vintage, grape variety or region declared on the label. This is because very unusually the wine is produced in a system similar to the solera used for sherry – they cross blend about 50% of each harvest,  so that there is a continuation  from edition to edition. Currently on the Number 16 version, its complexity and generosity in the mouth shows how well Chile does world class wines.

Vina Chocalán are based in the Maipo valley, a family owned cellar whose wines were  quite seductive. Their Pinot Noirs from San Antonio showed freshness and good fruit but with concentration as well. The Cabernet Franc was delightful and surprisingly rich and floral with no unripe greenness that sometimes crops up with this variety but the Carmenere Gran Reserva was  sublime. With 85% of Carmenere is blended 8% Cab Sauv, 5% Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, all of which resulted in a very classy wine, with great texture, spice and plums but with an underlying smoothness almost chocolatey –ness  (not sure that  is even a word …..)

Garces Silva Family Vineyards are based in Leyda  and were showing both their simpler range of wines under the Boya label as well as Amayna.  The Boya Pinot Noir was simple with good fruit – uncomplicated and perfect for the weather – one could see why it deservedly won the Decanter award for best Chilean Pinot Noir under £15 earlier this year! But their superior label, Amayna were more interesting – the barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc would be a wine to divide the crowd with the amount of oak showing on the nose but had a much more appealing palate – needs food.  Their Amayna Pinot Noir 2013 was elegantly attractive with a good minerality, slight hint of mint alongside cherries and good length.

Sadly I missed tasting Vina Tamaya whose wines from the Limari valley are stunning (as well as the location which is so beautiful)  -   also Odfjell from Maipo – but thankfully only a few months until my next foray to Chile in the New Year – so I look forward to tasting them in situ.

As well as the trade tasting, the event also is open to consumers and general  wine lovers in the evening – when the party really starts – with Chilean dancers, Pisco Bar and Chilean food on hand as well as those 400 wines to explore – it’s a great way to experience a little bit of Chile here in London! Keep an eye out for next year’s dates on http://www.mercadochileno.co.uk

A great overview of how much Chilean wines has to offer from easy quaffing Sauvignon Blanc perfect for a Tuesday evening, through some impressive and very good value Syrah and of course their Icon wines which would benefit with time in the bottle – so  buy some of these wines such as Purple Angel,  Folly or Caballo Loco, stash a few bottles away in your cellar and be prepared to reap the rewards of treating these top wines with the same respect as more traditional Old World wines. Chile has something at every retail price so get exploring!

For more information on the wines of Chile – do visit - http://www.winesofchile.org