BORDEAUX QUICKIE.

 

TWO DAYS, TOO FANTASTIC.

 

Over the weekend some friends of mine asked if it was possible to ‘do’ the Bordeaux vineyards in a couple of days. Of course you can, although it involves clever planning and an early start! I accompanied twelve CEO’s on a corporate ‘jolly’, sorry ‘educational visit’ recently … that itinerary, and a chat over a good bottle of red set my friends’ trip in motion. Hopefully, it will inspire you too!

The Bordelais have a reputation for not being visitor friendly but that was completely busted as they opened their doors and their bottles with a broad smile.

We were on the early bird 6.45 B.A. flight (oouchh) but it was worth it as we were on the magnificent lawns of Chateau Palmer near the ‘left bank’ village of Margaux by 10.30 (and we lost the hour!) Our private visit of the cellars ended with a super tasting; second label Alter Ego 2011 (£56) was followed by Chateau Palmer 2006 and 2007. The 2006, made from Cabernet Sauvignon (66%) and Merlot (34%) with its dense blackberry, friendly fine grained tannins and lingering finish made me very happy; that’s if you have a spare £175. “Left Bank?”, I hear you say. For once Wine Trade lingo is useful;  guess what, the Left Bank vineyards are on your left hand side as you sail up river towards the Atlantic.

We then drove north to the village of Pauillac through rolling gravel-soil vineyards, before sweeping into the impressive, towered chateau that is Pichon Baron (pictured). We were greeted with a comprehensive, nay privileged, tasting in their ‘Hollywood’ cellars including 2012 and 2011 (cooler years) and 2010 and 2009 (sunny years and two of the best Bordeaux vintages). My best wine? The 2010 with its ripe fruit balanced with a lovely crisp tannic edge would be my choice but again, at £100 plus you need deep pockets.

After a brilliant lunch at Pichon (more wine!) we didn’t really need a slap up dinner but as dusk fell we entered one of Rick Stein’s favourite restaurants, La Tupina, overlooking the River Garonne in the heart of Bordeaux. The wine list was reasonably priced and a few bottles of Chateau La Garde (£35) from the Pessac-Leognan vineyards south of the city were well received with Tupina’s signature meat dishes.

The next morning saw us on Bordeaux’s ‘Right Bank’, an easy 45 minute drive from our city centre hotel. We arrived early to stroll around Petrus, hallowed ground indeed as these blue clay vineyards in the heart of the Pomerol plateau produce bottles with £1000 price tags!

Spot on time (great coach driver!) we walked up the gravel drive of Pomerol’s Vieux Chateau Certan, another highlight for the excited group. The lofty barrel filled cellar was the venue for an exceptional tasting. The first glass, a barrel sample of 2015 brought applause all round, (my notes were ripe, silky, balanced, long), even though it probably had another 12 months to sleep in the barrels. The team had picked up the softer ‘Right Bank’ style, thanks to the higher proportion of Merlot (80%) in the blend. The other grapes in the 2015 were Cabernet Franc (19%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (1%) by the way. Other vintages tasted meant VCC, little known before, is now gracing a few more south of England cellars.

We then drove the short distance to Pomerol’s world famous Le Pin vineyard; at over Euro500 a bottle at the cellar (but not for sale!) the accountants in the team were quickly sharpening their pencils to calculate the annual balance sheets before realising that the production was exceptional but tiny.

Lunch beckoned but first one more private visit and tasting at St. Emilion’s Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Troplong-Mondot. Our lunch at Troplong-Mondot was superb which was no surprise as the restaurant boasts one Michelin Star. As we’d been drinking  Bordeaux for two days we rang the changes with lunch; Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy’s famous white (100% Chardonnay) was followed by Hermitage, the famous Syrah (100%) wine from the northern Rhone.

After such a wonderful lunch it was time to relax and where better than the square in the centre of St. Emilion with the sun on your back and a beer in your hand. Our flight back home was at 10.00 pm. so we had time for an early dinner in a cracking restaurant just off the square. We arrived home at midnight reflecting on an amazing couple of days. The guys are still talking about it. See you in Bordeaux!

WINE LIST HELL.

 

THE INEVITABLE GAME OF PASS THE PARCEL ……

 

We’ve all been there. You’re shown to your table. You’re feeling good. Then the wine waiter appears with the wine list. The table goes quiet as everybody prays that the inevitable game of pass the parcel doesn’t end with the leather bound tome in their lap.

As the wine list circulates, waves of pressure and an air of intimidation sweep across the white linen. But hold on, why should one person in a black suit carrying a book cause so much hassle on what should be a relaxing night out with friends?

I’ve been travelling the world’s vineyards recently, from Milan to Madrid, from Brisbane to Bordeaux and, guess what, this fear of the wine waiter is universal. These guys in black create sweaty palms the world over. Just how crazy is that?  ‘Been thinking, readers of my blog could lead an international campaign to put the pleasure back into eating out.

Standing up to wine waiters, helping to change wine lists and simply asking simple questions would take the ‘rant’ out and put the ‘rest’ back into your restaurant experience.

Wine waiters. There are some super, customer-friendly wine waiters who put you at your ease – I was chatting to one in London’s Hawksmoor Air Street restaurant yesterday. Thumbs Up! But why are others so snooty? I’ll let you into a secret. Once you remove the cellophane wrap many snooty wine waiters aren’t as knowledgeable as they’d have you believe. So, don’t be afraid to challenge and engage them. Ask them questions, put the pressure back on them! If you have a price limit don’t be embarrassed to tell them; don’t forget that if they were in your seat they’d also know how much they could afford. It probably wouldn’t be as much as you!

Restaurant wine lists also need an overhaul. How can they do that? For a start, make them shorter and simpler. You don’t need an inch thick, leather bound list bulging with Chateaux This, Domaine That, bodegas, cantinas, fincas and quintas. We’re out for a memorable meal with friends not to spend half an hour ploughing through a wine novel in a foreign language.

Just one page expertly written can put customers at ease, help them to make their choice with confidence and increase their enjoyment whilst boosting the restaurant’s bank account at the same time. It’s win-win situation for both diner and restaurant.

Let’s be honest, when we open a wine list our eyes flash straight to the price. With this in mind, one of the cleverest London lists is at Little House in Mayfair. It’s a one pager and has three whites and three reds in each of the £25, £30, £35, £40 and £50 categories. That’s 50 wines folks so there’s lots of choice. It also includes wines by the carafe and glass and, if you want to push the boat out, you can ask for their £50+ list. As you’ll realise, these reasonable price tags reflect a very fair mark up in all three categories. Brilliant!

I was staying at a Hotel du Vin, part of the UK boutique hotel chain recently and was pleased to see a selection of their wines also offered in very handy 500 ml. carafes. The easy-to-read, reasonably priced, one page card lead you effortlessly off the well worn Chablis-Sancerre-Chateauneuf du Pape track and into the challenging realms of Spain’s white Albarino grape from Rias Baixas, to California’s Santa Barbara vineyards for a very quaffable Pinot Noir. Excellent!

Another welcome move away from the traditional but so often confusing ‘wine by country’ are ‘wines by style’ lists. Categories such as ‘zingy whites’, ‘rich, powerful reds’ and ‘creamy whites’ ring a bell with customers and help them choose a wine to match their food.  This ‘stylish’ approach linked to grape varieties also gets my vote.

We can also do without lists that spout long, flowery, repetitive, Wine Trade lingo. A few meaningful words, carefully chosen can work miracles and educate the customer at the same time.

I accompanied a small group of CEO’s to Champagne this year. We dined at the 2 star Michelin Le Parc restaurant within the celebrated Relais & Chateaux ‘Les Crayeres’. To eliminate the wine list wobbles, chef Phillipe Mille has created three differently priced menus that include a different wine with each course so, no hassle and no pass the parcel. It’s good to see that this set menu format so well established in small hostelries is gaining popularity in top restaurants too.

I was recently with a City client in a ‘posh’ London restaurant adding a little ‘between course wine entertainment’ to his stylish networking table when one his overseas guests handed me the bulky wine list, “come on, where do I start”, he asked. It was a confusing, gobbledegook ‘wine by region’ heavyweight so I suggested he turned the pages to countries that represented value for money. Spain, (regions like Valdepenas, Somontano, Catalonia, Andalucía, Rueda), Portugal, (Douro, Alentejo, Dao, Bairrada), Italy, (Marche, Abruzzo, Puglia, Sicily), South Africa, Argentina and Chile are good starting points. The advice hit the spot as the guests really enjoyed the wines and the stories they held whilst my happy client saved a packet on the bill.

One far sighted restaurateur asked me to put my money where my mouth is by creating a ‘John Downes MW, Master of Wine, Personal Selection’ wine list. The ‘keep it simple’ one page folding card comprises eight white, eight red, eight New World, eight Old World wines covering all price points and giving a helpful snapshot of the wine. It’s the first point of call for diners, has no fear factor and offers great wines at a glance. His accountant’s very happy too I’m told!

One more tip. It saves a lot of stress if you check the restaurant wine list online before you leave home; you’ll choose better wines, relax, have longer to chat and, dare I say it, impress you friends at the same time. The wine waiter will also be impressed but probably won’t show it – sadly some are reluctant to let their masks slip!

As you’ve probably guessed, I find many wine lists pretty useless. But it doesn’t have to be like that. My new campaign, is to promote simple, short, exciting lists around the world which include the expected and the unexpected, engage the diner and tell enough about the wine to titillate but not frighten.

Come to think of it, some restaurants must be the only businesses that strive to do just that – frighten off the customer! It’s crazy but nothing surprises me in the Wine Trade … wine list hell is simply part of the global “I’d like to know more but I’m too afraid to ask” wine culture. Come on all my blog readers, we can change all that! Spread the word!

RIOJA ROCKS.

QUICK TIP; PAY THE EXTRA QUID!

 

My mates in the pub always give me stick when I recommend a wine over a fiver in my regular newspaper and magazine columns. They still can’t get their heads around the fact that as there’s only about 35 pence of wine in a five quid bottle it offers poor value. The remaining £4.65? That includes government duty, VAT, packaging, logistics and of course retailers’ profit. So, I had no problem recently, recommending a top bottle of Rioja with a £13 tag … that’s the price of a cinema ticket folks.

The most important thing to remember is that the quality of the grapes is the key to the quality of the wine; you can’t make top wine out of bad grapes, no matter how expensive the winery! I’m hoping that when my mates see how much effort goes into producing a bottle of Rioja they’ll see the light.

Rioja’s long been Spain’s most famous wine which is not surprising as these soft, red fruit favourites are mouthfeel friendly and offer good value, yes, even at £13!

Rioja comes from northern Spain where the region is divided into three districts, namely La Rioja Alta (high), La Rioja Alavesa and La Rioja Baja (low). The wine I recommended in my column was CVNE’s Rioja Reserva 2012. It hails from La Rioja Alta where Tempranillo (85%), Garnacha (Grenache, 5%), Mazuelo (5%) and Graciano (5%) combine to produce a lovely red with warm bramble spiced aromas and flavours, soft tannins (stuff from the skins that dries and puckers your mouth), and a lingering red fruit ‘finish’ (that’s how long the flavours stay in your mouth once you’ve swallowed). Don’t forget that the finish is a really good pointer to quality; the longer the finish, the better the quality. By the way, CVNE stands for Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, a company that, founded in 1879 is still family owned. Keeping with tradition, their wines are still made in the company’s original Haro winery.

If you’re wondering what ‘Reserva’ means the best way to crack the code is to look at the red Rioja quality levels from the very top, namely Gran Reserva, the wines that by law have to spend a minimum of two years in the barrel and at least 3 years in the bottle before they can grace our shelves. ‘Reserva’ is next in the pecking order, being wines that have to spend a minimum of one year in the barrel and at least 2 years in the bottle before you’ll meet them on the wine aisle. For the record, winemaker Basilio Izquierdo aged CVNE’s Rioja Reserva 2012 in both American and French oak barriques, (barrels that hold about 225 litres, 300 bottles) for about 24 months before letting the wine rest in the bottle in CVNE’s cool cellars for a further 2 years before release.

“Talking oak”, French oak (oak from forests in France) imparts toasty flavours whilst American oak (oak from forests in America) will give the wine its characteristic vanilla overtones. As CVNE’s Reserva 2012 has been aged in both ‘French and American’ you’ll pick up both toasty and vanilla aromas and flavours in pleasing harmony with the ample fruit.

Completing the Rioja family tree, after ‘ Reserva’ comes ‘Crianza’, reds that have to spend a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels and a minimum of 12 months in the bottle before release. Don’t forget that although Crianza comes in at number three on the status ladder, it’s a quality wine that lines up proudly with its fellow Reserva and Gran Reserva Riojans. If you’re a bit skint this week, CVNE’s Crianza 2014, at about £9 will also make you smile.

So, pull a classic Rioja off the shelf this weekend; I’ll be happy to take the flak in the pub in the knowledge that you’re enjoying a cracking wine and getting really good value.

DUSTY DESERT TOWN?

NAVARRA.

 

Navarra may sound like a dusty desert town in an old Western movie but in reality it’s a little known wine region that’s been overshadowed by Rioja, its illustrious neighbour in northern Spain, for years. The region is renowned for its roses (Rosado) but in recent times Navarra’s reds and whites are fast gaining reputation.

The vineyards are located around the attractive city of Pamplona and lie on the slopes of the Pyrenees as they descend towards the river Ebro; the region’s high altitude mountainous sites inject a nice crack of acidity into these black fruit beauties.

Pamplona may be better known for its annual festival when crazy death-wish youths run rampaging bulls through the narrow streets, but this busy attractive city is Navarra’s vinous heart. The city and Navarra’s vineyards are also a popular sector of the famous ‘Santiago de Compostela’ pilgrimage walk across the breadth of northern Spain and are therefore steeped in history having sustained weary travellers for centuries.

The vineyards are planted with the typical Spanish red varieties of Tempranillo (about 37 per cent of the total), Garnacha (26%) and Graciano whilst the Bordeaux grape duo of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot add their classic blackcurrant and damson flavours to the juicy reds. The red varieties have a bumper 95% share of the vines to produce reds and roses but, that said, don’t write off the whites (Chardonnay is making its mark) even though they’re scarce and can require a second mortgage.  About a quarter of Navarra’s production is Garnacha based rose so you’ll easily find a bottle to share with friends.

The region has a continental climate (long hot summers and cold winters) and is divided into 5 sub zones namely Valdizarbe, Tierra Estella (the picturesque, mountainous, limestone zone to the west of Valdizarbe), Ribera Alta (centred around the important wine town of Olite), Baja Montana (to the north-east) and Ribera Baja (in the south adjacent to the River Ebro; sandy alluvial soils). Ribera Baja is the largest sub zone in terms of area and number of wineries.

The Navarrans are very proud of their gnarled ‘old Garnacha vines’ as some are over 60 years old. By the way, Garnacha is the same as France’s Grenache grape loved by all southern Rhone quaffers. The ‘old vines’ don’t yield as much as young vines but the good news is that as the vines concentrate all their goodies into fewer grapes the flavours in the glass are more concentrated.  It’s therefore worth looking out for ‘old vines’ on the label and paying the extra dollar or two.

I’m a fan of the 2010 reds. The 2012’s are crisp and juicy whilst the cooler 2013 vintage produced a fresher style so, ring the changes this weekend and pull a Navarra red off the shelf instead of your usual Rioja. Or, better still buy a bottle of each and compare these Spanish neighbours with your neighbours.

 

 

NOT SO PETIT!

PETIT CHABLIS IS SO MUCH BIGGER.

 

Puzzling to find a wine partner for a cracking salmon rillettes recipe with a top chef recently the winner of my matching taste-off was a Petit Chablis 2014 from William Fevre. The choice confirmed my thoughts gathered on a recent trip to Chablis, “the Chablisienne should try and find another name for Petit Chablis”.

I often hear wine enthusiasts say it’s “Chablis that didn’t make the grade”, “from young vines” or “from poor vineyards”. Sadly, it’s not surprising as the name does suggest an inferior wine but after tasting in Chablis for 2 days, believe me, from a good producer Petit Chablis deserves a far better name. William Fevres’ crisp, citrus ‘PC’  belies its handle and took the salmon rillettes to another level.

The Chablis vineyards surround the quiet stone walled town of Chablis in central France and are part of Burgundy, even though they’re over an hour’s drive north of Beaune, the region’s spiritual capital. But, in true Burgundian style, the vineyards are the key to Chablis quality. The French have a name for all the stuff that makes a vineyard good, bad or amazing be it soil, aspect, drainage, microclimate, protection, slope etc, etc. That word’s ‘terroir’. It’s a strange ‘mot’ but it comes in handy sometimes.

The Petit Chablis vineyards are generally located on the exposed plateaux above the hillside vineyards and whilst the vines don’t grow on the superior Kimmeridgian limestone slopes, like their wines, their Portland stone soils are under-rated.

Nonetheless, Petit Chablis is the entry category of the four Chablis appellations, the others being Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. Because of their superior ‘terroir’, Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards produce better grapes which in turn, produce better wines, “you get a bit more of everything with a Grand Cru”, smiles Elaine Defaix of Domaine Benard Defaix. There is a downside of course. Petit Chablis and Chablis rock in at about £12 and £16 respectively, Premier Cru will set you back about £25 and, deep breaths, Grand Cru can carry a £50 tag. The upside is that there’s a Chablis for all pockets.

Being Burgundy, the Chardonnay grape is king and the very best vineyard plots, the seven Grand Cru’s of Blanchots, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudesir, lie on the steep, protected, south-west facing Kimmeridgian slopes that overlook the River Serein and the town. There are 40 Premier Cru vineyard plots and two, Montee de Tonnerre and Fourchaume, flank the Grand Crus on these treasured ‘Right Bank’ slopes.

More Premier Cru vineyards, including Cote de Lechet, Vaillons and Montmains, lie behind the town on south-east facing ‘Left Bank’ slopes but, that said, it’s difficult to define exact slope directions within Chablis’ complex contours, as the ever rolling indulations create critical protection and sun exposure in ever changing measure.

The A.C. (Appellation Controllee) Chablis vineyards still lie on the respected Kimmeridgian soils but their sites are less beneficial than the Premier and Grand Cru sites, again showing the vital importance of ‘terroir’, especially aspect, slope and microclimate, in a chilly northerly region where praying for sunshine and fighting for ripeness is an annual event.

I was in a restaurant recently when the next table ordered a 2014 Grand Cru Chablis. I checked the wine list. £120! Ouch! My recent trip confirmed my thoughts as I watched the wine being reverently poured; for me, Grand Cru’s needs 5–10 years to reach their full potential so he’d have been better off ordering a Premier Cru. And, it would have saved him a fortune t’boot!

The producers that produced my widest smile on my recent trip? Jean-Marc Brocard, Christian Moreau, Samuel Billaud, Seguinot- Bordet, William Fevre, Bernard Defaix and Domaine Raveneau. Pull the cork on any of their wines, be it Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier or Grand Cru …. happy days!

DON’T POOH-POOH BEAUJOLAIS.

BEAUJOLAIS’ BACK!

 

Some Burgundy winemakers pull their noses up at Beaujolais but, like it or not, these hilly picturesque vineyards just up the road from Macon, are an integral part of the illustrious Burgundy region of central France. I recently matched a cracking Beaujolais with a delicious truffled brie in brioche recipe … the response was instant and positive  .. wow!

Why do they pooh-pooh their neighbour? It has a lot to do with grape varieties; Burgundy’s red is the classic Pinot Noir whilst Beaujolais’ red grape is Gamay. Many see Gamay as the poor relation but as investment pours into Beaujolais, this lesser known variety is producing some super wines. The clever wine buyer has already realised that good Beaujolais represents good value. After just one sip, the clever food matcher realised that the Chateau des Jacques Moulin-a-Vent 2012 I recommended with its crisp, bright cherry and red berry fruit and friendly tannins took the truffled brie dish to even greater heights.

Beaujolais’ image has taken a hammering in the past thanks to Beaujolais Nouveau. This once heavily marketed but all too often disappointing wine that was picked in September, made soon after, released in November and had the winemaker’s bank accounts bulging by Christmas, has a lot to answer for. Many readers will remember the ‘third Thursday in November’ when the ‘Beaujolais Est Arrive’ signs appeared outside local restaurants. Amazingly, at its peak in 1992, Beaujolais Nouveau accounted for more than half of all Beaujolais wine sold.

The consumer eventually saw through Nouveau’s lack of quality and sales dropped dramatically. Happily, out of the embers, the wines of Beaujolais are now fighting back to gain the respect they deserve. The ‘cru’ Beaujolais wines are leading the charge.

The top ‘cru’ wines come from the granite schist vineyards of Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Julienas, Moulin-a-Vent, Chenas, St. Armour and Regnie, all ten wines being named after their ‘cru’ villages. Although the “Top Ten” are generally drunk young, Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent from a good winemaker, generally have a little more oouumpph and will reward a few years in the cellar. Fleurie and Julienas are probably the best known labels and therefore carry a premium, especially in restaurants. So, be adventurous and try one of the other cru’s and save a few bob at the same time!

If the Beaujolais cru’s are the top wines of Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages are next in the pecking order, these vineyards covering 39 designated schist-granite ‘village’ plots in the northerly Haut Beaujolais. They stand between the 10 crus and straight Beaujolais and account for about 6000 hectares of vineyard amongst the total Beaujolais vineyard area of 22,000 hectares. As most of these villages are little known, (Langtigne and Lancie for example), the wines are generally sold under the ‘Beaujolais-Villages’ label.

Go on, go back to Beaujolais. There’s one for every pocket; the Louis Jadot’s Chateau des Jacques Moulin-a-Vent 2012 carries a £15.99 price tag but if that’s a bit steep, Jadot’s Chapelle aux Loups, Beaujolais-Villages at £8.99 also fights above its weight.

 

WAITING FOR GODELLO.

A chef recently asked, “match for crayfish salad John?”

I’d never heard of Godello until a few years ago but now this Spanish grape variety is on most of our wine shelves. Godello is here to stay; it’s easy to pronounce, the wines taste good and, it makes a cracking partner for crayfish salad.

Godello comes from north-west Spain where the vineyard areas of Bierzo, Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra and Monterrei have taken this ‘new kid on the block’ to heart. Godello thrives in Bierzo amongst the mountains, castles and pine forests of this beautiful vineyard region.

Bierzo is a small, remote ancient region in the north-western corner of the Castilla y León province close to the border with Galicia, (north of the Portuguese border) and is one of Spain’s rising stars. If you want to spend a few days in the vineyards the nearest airport is Vigo on the coast but if fancy walking, the market town of Cacabelos is a well known resting point along the world famous Camino de Santiago. When the pilgrims arrive in Bierzo with blistered feet ‘the end is in sight’ for Santiago de Compostella is just up the road.

Bierzo gained its D.O. (Denominacion de Origin) in 1989 and comprises two zones, Bierzo Alto (high Bierzo), where terraced plots cling to steep slopes and Bierzo Bajo (low Bierzo), the plain below. The vineyards lie between 450 and 1000 metres above sea level their soils varying from the alluvial plain to the prestigious high level slate. The region’s cool climate is a result of the influence of the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Although summer temperatures can be in the mid to high twenty degrees centigrade, winter temperatures as low as four degrees make it no surprise that the clever pilgrim takes to the well trodden path under the springtime sunshine.

The dry, zesty, crisp citrus, apricot and peach flavours of Godella lift the crayfish wonderfully and, somewhat surprisingly, also fight their corner with a citrus dressing.

With more people pooh-poohing many food and wine matches, (I can see where they’re coming from), I think it’s also worth pouring a glass of Bierzo red, made from the little known Mencia grape. I prefer the Godello with the crayfish but let me know what you think. For all my anorak readers; for years it was rumoured that Mencia was related to Cabernet Franc, the red grape of the Loire Valley and Bordeaux but recent DNA tests show that the nearest link is Portugal’s Jaen variety. Don’t worry, I’d never heard of Jaen either!

Bierzo’s reds of old were simple rustic affairs but things have changed as a new generation of winemakers have realised Mencia’s potential to produce bright, black fruit, plum wines.

You may see ‘Crianza’ on the labels of Bierzo reds; this means that the wine must by law be aged for a minimum of 6 months in oak barrels and a minimum of 18 months in bottle before hitting our shelves. ‘Reserva’ means that it must spend at least 12 months in oak and 24 months in the bottle before release.

So, look out for Bierzo, you’ll be well rewarded, especially if you crack open the Godello with the crayfish salad ……. ‘no more waiting for Godello!

 

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WHISTLE STOP TOUR OF SPAIN.

Grandes Pagos de Espana.

 

As the world’s winemakers look to single vineyard wines to mark them out from the crowd, a trip through southern Spain with the Grandes Pagos de Espana took one-up-manship to a different level. Grab your passport and join me on this whistlestop tour.

The Grandes Pagos de Espana are an association of top Spanish single wine estates, “equivalent to the Grand Crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy”, according to President Carlos Falco. There are 30 member estates spread throughout Spain from Rioja in the north to Jerez in the south; you can check them all out at www.grandespagos.com. Look out for the black square logo on the back label. That said, I think the logo’s too small and should include “Single Estates of Spain” below “Grandes Pagos de Espana” to better explain the concept to the global consumer.

We flew into Madrid and then took a smooth 3 hour plus train journey south to Jerez – the train is a great way of seeing Spain by the way. We were welcomed by the Sherry Bodega of Valdespino and under the 30 degree sun walked the legendary white chalk (Albariza) Macharnudo vineyards before exploring their cathedral-like cellars, tasting wines that ranged from Fino (bone dry and nutty) to sweet, honeyed Moscatel. Crack open a bottle of Valdespino Don Gonzalo Dry Olorosso as an aperitif when your guests arrive this weekend.

A short drive from Jerez found us at Finca Moncloa where winemaker Jose Manuel Pinedo is passionate about blending classic varieties with traditional Tempranillo. Finca Moncloa is an attractive blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Tempranillo.

From Jerez we drove east across the mountains to Ronda, the incredible white walled town that straddles its famous deep rock gorge; the wines from the region surprised me bigtime. After a barrel tasting in Los Aguilares’ cool winery we enjoyed their refreshing crushed strawberry (Tempranillo and Petit Verdot) Rosado 2014 in the vineyards under a 300 year old oak. At lunch we opened Aguilares’ acclaimed Tadeo 2012 (100% Petit Verdot) and Pago El Espino (Petit Verdot, Tempranillo and Merlot). Aguilares’ Pinot Noir surprised me – how is it possible to make such a balanced wine from this most flirtatious of grapes in such a hot climate? Crisp and controlled, this red fruit beauty was an eye opener.

Then it was back to Madrid for a night on the town before an early start and the high speed train heading south-east to Albacete; we were there by 11.00 to be whisked off to Finca (Estate) Elez near El Bonillo, a small, deserted village in La Mancha. In the heart of Spain and the middle of nowhere at over 1000 metres above sea level, the daytime summer temperatures climb to 40 degrees plus; evidently no worries to the Tempranillo, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay vines. ‘MM’ Escana barrel-aged Syrah 2007 showed well, the Escana Syrah 2013 even better. In case you’re wondering, ‘MM’ is the owner of the estate, the famous Spanish actor Manuel Manzaneque.

A drive across the dry plains of La Mancha saw us in Bobal (grape) territory. At Finca Sandoval, a Bobal, Syrah and Monistrell (aka Mouvedre) blend grown on limestone soils in the cool 2013 vintage produced a crisp, tannin edged blackberry red of note.

An hour’s drive east saw us at Bodega Mustiguillo near Utiel, just 90 kilometres from Valencia where Bobal is still king. Some of their vines date back to 1919; these knurled vines, each yielding just three bunches produce dense, tannic wines. Tannin plays a big part in Bobal wines, so they’re excellent with food … Mustiguillo’s Quincha Corrall 2012 caught the eye – that’s if you can stretch to an £50 price tag. If £18 sounds better, pull the cork on Mustiguillo’s Finca Calvestra.

At Mustiguillo I discovered a new white grape variety called Merseguera. I don’t think Chardonnay will be losing too much sleep but it’s well worth a try.

A 300 kilometre car dash back to Madrid, the ‘plane to London Gatwick and home to 13 degrees; how to lose 20 degrees in just 2 hours! Happily I didn’t lose the memories of an amazing country and some wonderful wines all linked by the Grandes Pagos de Espana label.

BUBBLES ALL THE WAY FOR 2017.

CHEERS! TO A SPARKLING NEW YEAR.

 

With New Year just around the corner, pop the cork on a sparkling wine and it’s jingle bells all the way. The days when Champagne had it all its own way are long gone for our wine shelves are now groaning with bubbles from all over the world. And there’s more good news; as our credit cards take a festive pounding you can now find a sparkler to please most palettes and pockets.

 

Champagne is still the King of Sparklers and Taittinger Brut Reserve N.V. (Non Vintage, £30) is a great sip from the chilly vineyards of north-east France. Champagne is generally a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and is made by a second fermentation in the bottle where a little more sugar and yeast is added to a still dry wine to produce a little more alcohol and a little more carbon dioxide – the fizz. The time the wine spends on ‘the lees’, (the dead yeast cells) in the bottle following the second fermentation is an important quality and taste factor for any sparkler. Taittinger N.V. spends 3 years on the lees in their cool Reims cellars to give the crisp citrus peach flavours attractive nutty yeast overtones. ‘A great partner for your smoked salmon nibbles by the way.

 

Cava will also help your celebrations go with a swing. This Spanish sparkler is made in the same way as Champagne but from different grape varieties; Xarello (gives acidity), Macabeo (soft, floral) and Parallada (richness) give a completely different taste sensation. You can pour a cracking Cava for ten pounds; Anna de Codorniu Brut Nature N.V. Cava really hits the spot. If you’re feeling rich try Cava Brut Nature Gran Reserva “Terrers 2008” from Recaredo (£30). For Cava, the minimum time any wine can spend “on the lees” is 9 months, Anna had 12 months. The Terrers 2008 spent nearly 6 years on the lees! The result is a nutty, crisp, citrus beauty that makes a classy aperitif as your guests arrive.  

 

You could really sparkle and ‘go Italian’ on New Years Eve with a bottle of Franciacorta. From the Lombardia region of northern Italy towards the Swiss-Austrian border, Chardonnay is the major player but Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc can also join the blend. It’s not cheap but it’s a wonderful alternative to Champagne and often has a price tag £10 lower than the King of Sparklers. Ricci Curbastro Brut, for example, tips the scales at £20. The Franciacorta winemakers are proud that 14 million bottles of Franciacorta stay on the lees for 18 months, “that’s 3 million more than Champagne”, they boast.

 

Chile has been producing sparkling wines for decades and they’re improving year on year. Montes have recently released their ‘Sparkling Angel’ (£15), a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from their ocean-cooled Zapallar vineyards in the Aconcagua Valley about 80 kilometres north of Santiago. The back label proudly announces that the ‘bottle fermented wine has been aged ‘on its lees’ for 3 years.

 

The famous Champagne House of Moet et Chandon use all their winemaking expertise in Argentina to make the Chardonnay-Pinot Noir Chandon Rose N.V. (£15). It’s well worth a pour as 18 months on the lees gives the rich vibrant strawberry fruit an attractive yeasty edge.

 

New Year would not be the same without a bottle of English Sparkling, the wine that’s taking the world by storm and giving Champagne a run for its money in international competition. I couldn’t think of a better festive afternoon than one spent with a bottle of ‘ESW’, a group of friends and a slice or two of Christmas cake. Some of my favourites? Hambledon Classic Cuve, Exton Park Rose, Nyetimber and Ridgeview, all of which carry a price tag of about £30. As the World’s  no. 1 fan, I raise a glass of English Sparkling Wine with my best wishes for a Vintage New Year.

 

CORPORATE BORDEAUX!

‘BORDEAUX’D ON THE FANTASTIC.

 

I’m on a mission; to make wine work for you.

In this case, a construction company and their clients.

 

I’ve just returned from accompanying twelve CEO’s on a corporate ‘jolly’, sorry ‘educational visit’ to the vineyards of Bordeaux. It was fantastic. The Bordelais have a reputation for not being visitor friendly but that was completely busted as they opened their doors and their bottles with a broad smile.

We were on the early bird 6.45 B.A. flight (oouchh) but it was worth it as we were on the magnificent lawns of Chateau Palmer near the ‘left bank’ village of Margaux by 10.30 (and we lost the hour!) Our private visit of the cellars ended with a super tasting; second label Alter Ego 2011 (£56) was followed by Chateau Palmer 2006 and 2007. The 2006, made from Cabernet Sauvignon (66%) and Merlot (34%) with its dense blackberry, friendly fine grained tannins and lingering finish was my favourite; that’s if you have a spare £175 in your back pocket.

“Left Bank?”, I hear you say. For once Wine Trade lingo is useful;  guess what, the Left Bank vineyards are on your left hand side as you sail up river towards the Atlantic.

We then drove north to the village of Pauillac through rolling gravel-soil vineyards, before sweeping into the impressive, towered chateau that is Pichon Baron, (pictured above). We were greeted by Christian Seely, Managing Director of AXA Millésimes (the chateau owners) who lead us into the ‘Hollywood’ cellars for a comprehensive, nay privileged, tasting which included 2012 and 2011 (cooler years) and 2010 and 2009 (sunny years and two of the best Bordeaux vintages). My best wine? The 2010 with its ripe fruit balanced with a lovely crisp tannic edge but again, at £100 plus you need deep pockets.

After a brilliant private lunch at Pichon (more amazing wine!) we didn’t really need a slap up dinner but as dusk fell we entered one of Rick Stein’s favourite restaurants, La Tupina, overlooking the River Garonne in the heart of Bordeaux. The wine list was reasonably priced and a few bottles of Chateau La Garde (£30) from the Pessac-Leognan vineyards south of the city were well received with Tupina’s signature meat dishes.

The next morning saw us on Bordeaux’s ‘Right Bank’, an easy 45 minute drive from our luxurious city centre hotel. We arrived early to stroll around Petrus, hallowed ground indeed as these blue clay vineyards in the heart of the Pomerol plateau produce bottles with £1000 price tags!

Spot on time (great coach driver, luxury coach!) we walked up the gravel drive of Pomerol’s Vieux Chateau Certan, another highlight for the excited group. The lofty barrel filled cellar was the venue for an exceptional tasting with the winemaker. The first glass, a barrel sample of 2015 brought applause all round, (my notes were ripe, silky, balanced, long), even though it probably had another 12 months to sleep in the barrels. The team had picked up the softer ‘Right Bank’ style, thanks to the higher proportion of Merlot (80%) in the blend. The other grapes in the 2015 were Cabernet Franc (19%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (1%) by the way. Other vintages tasted meant VCC, little known before, is now gracing a few more south of England cellars.

We then drove the short distance to Pomerol’s world famous Le Pin vineyard; at over Euro500 a bottle at the cellar (but not for sale!) the accountants in the team were quickly sharpening their pencils to calculate the annual balance sheets before realising that the production was exceptional but tiny.

Lunch beckoned but first one more private visit and tasting at St. Emilion’s Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Troplong-Mondot. Our lunch at Troplong-Mondot was superb which was no surprise as the restaurant boasts one Michelin Star. As we’d been drinking  Bordeaux for two days we rang the changes with lunch; Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy’s famous white (100% Chardonnay) was followed by Hermitage, the famous Syrah (100%) wine from the northern Rhone.

A relaxing beer in the afternoon sunshine that bathed St. Emilion’s famous square went down a treat before we left for the airport and our flight home. You guessed it, before we boarded we did share a top bottle of Bordeaux as our final toast to two, wonderfully vinous days spent amongst friends.

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