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.






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.





‘Just back from Chablis with a few thoughts. The first is that 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 poor vineyards”. Sadly, this is not surprising as the name does suggest an inferior wine but after two days of tasting, Petit Chablis from a good producer deserves a far ‘bigger’ name. William Fevre, Samuel Billaud, Jean-Marc Brocard, Seguinot- Bordet and Francois Raveneau’s crisp, citrus Petit Chablis’ all belie their title. Ideas for a new name on a postcard please.

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, climate, 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 plateaux above the hillside vineyards and whilst the vines don’t grow on the superior Kimmeridgian limestone slopes, like their wines, their Portland limestone 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 Bernard Defaix. There is a downside of course. Petit Chablis and Chablis rock in at about £12 ($15) and £16 ($20) respectively, Premier Cru will set you back about £25 ($30) and, deep breaths, Grand Cru can carry a £50 ($60) tag. The upside is that there’s a Chablis for all pockets.

Mother Nature has a lot to say in this mean northerly climate. Many producers’ harvests were 50-70% down in 2016 because of frost, hail and mildew and that was on top of a low yielding 2015 vintage which was for some 50% down due to hail just 2 days before picking … ouch! So, expect higher price tags coming to a wine shop near you.

The Chablis vineyards cover about 5500 hectares (ha.) in total, made up of a 100 ha. of Grand Cru, 800 ha. of Premier Cru, 3600 ha. of Chablis and 1000 ha. of Petit Chablis. Organic and biodynamic viticulture is popular across the Chablis vineyards although even the most dedicated devotees were sorely tested during the 2016 vintage. One organically certified winemaker told me that the vintage was so damaging they decided to spray, a decision not taken lightly as it cost them their organic certification, a status that will take three years to recover. That had me thinking, was that why some domaines are totally organic but did not want to be officially certified?

Talking of vintages, the 2014 vintage with its pure line of acidity balancing crisp, arrowed citrus fruit was my star. The fruiter 2015 has less ‘tension’ (good Chablis tasting note!) but, looking on the cellar-side, the vintage does give us all something to enjoy whilst we wait for the 2014’s to hit their peak.

Seeing ‘vielles vignes’ (old vines) on several Chablis labels reminded me to ignore this impressive announcement. The expression has no legal description and so can be used by any winemaker to denote their oldest vines… even though they may only be say 15 years old …. that’s hardly old vines folks! Annoyingly, this use of ‘vielles vignes’ detracts from domaines that take real pride in making complex wines from their old knurled vines; Seguinot- Bordet’s Chablis ‘Vielles Vignes’ is made from 78 year old vines whilst Bernard Defaix’s Cote de Lechet 2014 Reserve is produced from 60 year old vines. The importance of knowing if the wine really is ‘Veilles Vignes’ is highlighted by Julien Brocard, “our vielles vignes wines age as well, if not better than our Grand Crus over a 30 year period”.

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 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 elements, in a chilly northerly region where praying for sunshine and fighting for ripeness is an annual event. “The location of the slope is more important than the angle of the slope” explains Chablis expert Eric Szablowski.

As a general rule, Petit Chablis and A.C. Chablis are fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel vats with little use of oak ageing whilst Premier and Grand Cru wines are often part fermented in old French oak barrels, “we barrel ferment 50% of our Premier and Grand Cru’s in old oak barrels; we only use 2% new oak”, confirms Christian Moreau. Francois Raveneau on the other hand ferment their wines in stainless steel before ageing in old French oak barriques, “we age for about 10 months depending on the vintage; because of its fruitiness our 2015 had less barrel ageing”, explained Isabelle Raveneau.

I was in a restaurant recently when the next table ordered a 2014 Grand Cru Chablis. I checked the wine list. £120! ($150!) Ouch!! My tastings in Chablis brought back memories of that candle-lit night. IMHO., Grand Cru’s needs 5–10 years to reach their full potential so they’d have been better off ordering a bottle of Premier Cru. And, it would have saved them a fortune t’boot!

The best producers from my recent trip? Jean-Marc Brocard, Christian Moreau, Samuel Billaud, Seguinot- Bordet, William Fevre, Bernard Defaix, Philippe Charlopin and Francois  Raveneau. Pull the cork on any of their wines, be it Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier or Grand Cru … you’ll taste the dedication.







English Sparkling Wine is taking our shelves, newspaper columns and wine enthusiasts by storm. So much so that this summer I’ve accompanied two of my corporate clients into our beautiful Surrey and Hampshire vineyards; in previous years they’d insisted on a visit to Champagne. It’s not difficult to see why ‘ESW’ is so popular, for a start it’s regularly beating Champagne at international tasting competitions, much to the annoyance of the Champenois!

Champagne may still be the bubble to beat but England is similar to the king of sparklers in so many ways. England’s chilly, northerly climate is similar to the Champagne region in north-east France and, what’s more, Champagne’s famous chalk soils slide under Paris, dip under the Channel and emerge in the south of England …… the white cliffs of Dover and all that?

It doesn’t stop there. The grape varieties are the same. The ‘Champagne’ grapes of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier now account for over fifty per cent (and growing) of all English vineyard plantings and, as English bubbly is made in exactly the same way as Champagne, you can see why for me, English Sparkling Wine is the ultimate Champagne lookalike.

To get the best out of a day’s event in the English vineyards you need to get an early start. We started with a hearty breakfast at the Anchor Inn in Lower Froyle after which my “Become a Wine Expert in 30 minutes” chat prepared  the group for all the ‘wine lingo’ the day would present. It always amazes me how we wine types spout on about acidity, balance, tannins, finish, oak etc. without any explanation. ‘Just crazy.

We then popped around the corner to Jenkyn Place vineyard; a few sparklers under a blue sky in their tasting gazebo (Rose NV, £35) was a great start to the day. Back on the luxury coach, we set off for Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire; the countryside through the Meon Valley en route was stunning. Hambledon’s owner, an ex. City man, has invested millions into the vineyard and the shiny new winery; the tasting went down a storm. Their Classic Cuvee (£30, www.waitrosecellar) is one of my favourites.

The group were by now very excited about ESW and were about to bubble over at the impressive 55 acre Exton Park Estate where we were greeted by winemaker Corinne Seely and vineyard manager Fred Langdale. The weather was hot and sunny so they organised the tasting amongst the vines. What a success, the guy’s are still talking about it! My favourite? Blanc de Blancs 2011 (£37.50 at www.butlers-winecellar.co.uk); the clue’s in the name – it’s made with 100% Chardonnay.

Corinne explained that Champagne and English Sparkling are made in the same way with a second fermentation in the bottle. Here a pinch of sugar and a touch of yeast is added to a dry, still white wine before the bottle is sealed. The yeast reacts with the sugar to give a little more alcohol and carbon dioxide gas – the fizz.  This gas builds up in the sealed bottle and as it can’t escape becomes an integral part of the wine. Hey presto – we have English Sparkling!

After an exhilarating, sun and wine-filled morning (and early afternoon) we were now ready for a late lunch. A short drive into the ancient town of Winchester saw us in the private ‘Ruinart’ dining room at Hotel du Vin. A Champagne reception, followed by a selection of wines from around the world with each delicious course made for a brilliant, relaxing afternoon with client and guests as one by 4.30.

Many in the Wine Trade are convinced that English Sparkling will overtake Champagne in the future. With Champagne Taittinger buying a large slice of Kent and Pommery collaborating with Hattingley vineyard (near Alresford) there’s definitely something in the air. Where do I stand? I’m the world’s no. 1 fan.








A friend of mine’s wife gets really annoyed if I recommend wines over £10 in any of my wine columns, not to mention my mates in the pub, so I’m expecting a lot of flack this week. The wine in question? It’s Champagne Dom Perignon P2. 1996. ‘Case you’re wondering, no, I’m not having a laugh, it really is £300. Oh, that’s £300 a bottle, not £300 a case folks!

There’s Champagne and there’s Champagne. The bottle you and I pick off the shelf from time to time as we part with our 25 quid or so will probably be ‘Non Vintage’; that means that it’s a blend of several years’ grape harvests. If we push the boat out and splash £50 it’ll probably be Vintage Champagne, a wine made from grapes from a single, exceptional year’s harvest. As you’ll see, the message is the better the fruit, the better the wine, the higher the price. So, for 300 quid you’ll be expecting amazing fruit and a phenomenal wine! The wine is very special but £300? Mmmmmmmmm.

All of the top Champagne Houses have a flagship vintage brand; Veuve Clicquot has La Grande Dame, Louis Roederer has Cristal, Taittinger has Comtes de Champagne and Moet et Chandon has Dom Perignon. These carry price tags between £100-150 …. so how come this Dom Perignon P2 1996 is £300 I hear you say. Good question! The answer stirs heated argument but Moet et Chandon winemaker Richard Geoffroy was confident about his wines and his prices as he presented the first ever ‘vertical P2 Tasting’ in London …. I felt honoured to be amongst a small band of the good and the glorious of the British Wine Trade invited on that sunny spring London SW1 morning. I wouldn’t pay £300 for any bottle of wine but that said, such wines are the Rolls Royces and Bentleys of the Wine World and it’s no surprise that people who enjoy cruising in expensive motor cars may also revel in popping the cork of these vintage sparklers with a few chums.

The ‘P’ stands for Plenitude, “the state of being full or complete” and when Moet apply it to their ‘DP’ it’s linked to the age of the wine and how long it’s been lying on it’s ‘lees’, that is, on the dead yeast cells that lie on the bottom of the cellared bottle after the completion of the second fermentation. Richard Geoffroy explained that in Moet-speak, P1 covers the younger DP vintages of say 2004, 2005 or 2006 whereas P2 is Dom Perignon that’s been ‘on the lees’ for between 15 and 20 years; we tasted 1998, 1996, 1995 and 1993. The 1996 was my favourite; toasty citrus flavours with a tight line of mouthwatering acidity and a long, complex, creamy yet edgey finish. P3 wines by the way will be between 30 and 40 years old; that’s a lot of long term cash tied up in the cellars which of course, pushes up the price.

The P Plan is new to me but although the price tags scare me, I can understand the concept of letting a top Champagne develop to its full capacity; a P1 will have the depth, balance and harmony to be Dom Perignon but if kept on its lees will have the platform to produce P2’s and hopefully P3’s. Geoffroy explained that the lees are an excellent anti-oxidant for the wine, hence the freshness of all the P2’s on show. That said, 20 years is about the maximum lees contact period, “after 20 years there’s nothing more to gain”, Geoffroy explained.

Interestingly, the wines were poured in normal wine glasses and not flutes; a growing trend in Champagne and one that gets my vote, and has done for years. I was also pleased to see that Richard wasn’t decanting the Champagnes, “too harsh and more to loose than gain”, he thought.

‘Just off to buy a tin hat!





Marsala. Garibaldi Dolce. Pelligrino. (£10.00, Sainsbury’s).

Delia Smith boosted sales of Marsala years ago when she poured the amber liquid into one of her famous dessert recipes. Sadly, since then you rarely hear of this under-rated sweetie. That is, until now; you’ll be pleased you’ve caught a glimpse of this Sicilian Beauty.

Marsala is a fortified wine that, like Port, was strengthened with alcohol to help it survive the long sea journey to England way back in the eighteenth century. Marsala, named after the picturesque Sicilian coastal town, was a star on the shelves back then.

Like many Italian grapes, the varieties for Marsala are difficult to pronounce but if you follow the Italians and use your hands, Grillo, Cataratto and Inzolia just slide off the tongue! The DOC Wine Laws (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) for Marsala were revised in 1984 to control yields and allow additional grape varieties, namely Pignatello, Nerello Mascalese, Damaschino and Nero D’Avola. Now you see how important it is to use your hands!

Making Marsala is a complex business. The grapes are left on the vines in the near-African sun past the normal harvest date to produce higher sugar levels. The fermentation is stopped by the addition of high strength grape spirit which stops the fermentation stone dead, thus retaining the natural sugars and boosting the alcohol to a heavyweight 17–19% by volume. The fortification procedure depends on the desired level of residual sugar in the finished wine.

Then comes the unusual bit as two sweetening agents can be curiously added.

The first is called ‘mistella’ which is a blend of semi dried shrivelled grapes and wine alcohol. The second is called ‘cotto’ which is a strange concoction of cooked grapes … the smell of these grapes cooking in copper caldrons on the island is fantastic. How much of these sweetening agents is added again depends on the degree of sweetness of the final wine style. There are three sweet and two dry styles. ‘Told you that is was a complex business.

The first sweet style which goes under the confusing title of ‘fine’ is the ‘basic’ Marsala which has to have a minimum alcohol content of 17% and a minimum ageing period in wooden barrels of one year. The next is Marsala Superiore, (18% and 2 years ageing), whilst the next level up is Superiore Reserva that requires 4 years barrel ageing.

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If you want to be different you could serve one of the dry Marsalas as an aperitif; look out for Vergine Soleras and Soleras Reserva. They’re ‘dry’ as none of the ‘gloopy goodies’ are added, only high strength spirit – the former requires 5 years ageing whilst the Soleras Reserva requires 10 years in the barrel to carry the prestigious label.

You have to be careful when choosing your preferred Marsala style. For example, Secco or dry, can carry up 40 grams per litre of residual sugar so is not actually ‘dry’, Semisecco, (semi-sweet) has 40 – 100 grams per litre, whilst Dolce has a tooth rattling 100 plus grams per litre of sugar. In these difficult times I can’t help but think that a simplification of Marsala styles would boost sales enormously but hey, nobody listens to me.

Matured in large oak casks for two years, Pellegrino’s Garibaldi Dolce (sweet) is rich, dark, and smooth and boasts 18% alcohol by volume. Marsala is not the flavour of the month so you may get some odd looks as you sneak the bottle off the shelf but it’ll all be worth it as you sit back, relax, sip and enjoy a glass of this luscious Sicilian beauty.


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Chateau Petit-Villages 2012. Pomerol. (£40, Fine & Rare).

I’m just back from another trip hosting wine events in Australia ….. ‘can’t get enough of Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide and tasted some fab. Aussie wines …… Mount Mary Quintet 1996, Penfold’s 1999 Bin 407, Tahbilk’s Marsanne 2010 to name a few ….. so I thought that I’d push the boat out and crack open an Old World red to celebrate being back in Blighty. From the wonderful Pomerol vineyards on Bordeaux’s ‘right bank’, Chateau Petit-Villages 2012 hit the spot.

“Right Bank?”, I hear you say. It’s Wine Trade lingo that, surprise surprise, is quite useful. It means  that if you’re sailing up the Dordogne River towards the Atlantic through the Bordeaux vineyards, guess what, the “right bank” is on your right hand side! Even after a few glasses of Claret (that’s just an old name for Bordeaux red wine by the way) we can work out that the so-called “left bank” vineyards, (such as Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe), are on the left hand side as the Dordogne flows into the Gironde River on its way to the ocean.

The famous ‘right bank’ vineyards of Pomerol, a neighbour to St. Emilion, boast some of the world’s most expensive wines. Le Pin (next to Petit-Villages) and Chateau Petrus are probably the most famous (and expensive) but look out for Chateaux Vieux Chateau CertanConseillanteL’EvangileLafleurTrotanoy, NeninBeauregard, Feytit-Clinet and Le Gay. It’s useful to know the names of the chateaux as Pomerol is the only Bordeaux appellation that is not formally classified. That said, the heady price tags on Petrus and Le Pin do elevate these illustrious vineyards.

Pomerol is the smallest of Bordeaux’s major appellations with about 150 producers working approximately 800 hectares of vineyards where Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are king. The Petit-Villages 2012 is a blend of  80% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly, unlike most of Bordeaux’s regions, Pomerol has many small producers some of which produce only about 1000 cases a year.

Pomerol’s vineyards may not be the most photogenic but the uneventful, gently elevated plateau does hold the key to the quality of these amazing wines. The best vineyards lie on the famous blue clay in the centre of the plateau; on the sides of the plateau the soil becomes sandier and the wines lighter. Chateau Petrus is unique as the vineyards lie wholly on the circle of blue clay that sits in the north east corner of the plateau. Petit-Village’s vineyards comprise gravel with sand, chalk and clay, which is said to give the wine ‘truffle’ flavours. My scribblings notes didn’t mention truffle but simply juicy black cherry, velvety tannins, a touch of liquorice and a pleasing spicy blackcurrant finish.

For those of you who are a bit skint I’ve found a red Bordeaux that’ll surprise you; Chateau Pey la Tour Reserve 2011 (£11.50, from The Wine Society) fights well above its ‘Bordeaux Superieur’ label. The property lies between St. Emilion and Bordeaux city where the clay-limestone soils support a cepage (blend) of Merlot (90%), Cabernet Sauvignon (5%), Cabernet Franc (3%) and Petit Verdot (2%). The result is a blackcurrant pleaser with friendly tannins and a spicey plum finish that’ll bring a smile to your face.

It’s a pity I didn’t have these two Bordeaux reds with me in Sydney to compare to the top Australians. Tasting notes are fine but there’s no substitute for tasting wines side by side, preferably with a couple of mates; one Aussie, one English would guarantee a noisy but really enjoyable taste-off!

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I was hosting wine dinners and events in Australia during October and Wakefield’s Jaraman Shiraz was a firm favourite with my Melbourne, Geelong and Sydney audiences; we tasted it against Guigal’s St. Joseph, a Syrah from France’s Northern Rhone Valley. Don’t forget Shiraz and Syrah are the same grape. For all my Aussie readers, your ‘Taylor’s’ label goes under the ‘Wakefield’ banner in the UK.

Wakefield’s Jaraman is everything a good Aussie Shiraz should be; rich, crisp yet concentrated, with supple tannins, (the stuff from the skins that puckers and dries your mouth), a good depth of colour and packed with dense blackberry fruit.

The wine is called ‘Jaraman’ after the Australian Aboriginal word for ‘seahorse’, a classy logo that features on all the Wakefield (and Taylor’s) labels. Founder Bill Taylor and his sons discovered the fossilised remains of tiny seahorses in the soil during the excavations of the first vineyard on their Clare Valley estate back in 1969, “the area was once an ancient inland sea and confirmed that the ‘terra rossa’ soils were uniquely fertile”, he recalled.

The fruit in the Jaraman 2013 comes from two famous vineyard regions of South Australia, namely McLaren Vale and Clare Valley, “to create a single varietal yet multidimensional wine which reflects the individual qualities of both terroirs”, is Wakefield’s official line.  Outside this flowery wine talk though, this wine really does have layers of black fruit flavours on it’s lingering “finish”, (that’s how long the flavours stay in your mouth after swallowing by the way).  Just check it out, and remember, the length of the ‘finish’ is a really good indicator of wine quality.

McLaren Vale is located inland from Adelaide where its shallow red sandy soil (overlying beneficial limestone) vineyards enjoy moderate temperatures thanks to its proximity to the sea and the cooling winds from the adjacent Gulf of St. Vincent, (well named as Vincent is the patron saint of wine!). It wasn’t so long ago that McLaren Vale was looked upon as ‘generally warm’ but a new generation of winemakers has realised that this complex valley has aspects, altitudes and slopes that create myriad microclimates. These individual plots, expertly matched to different grape varieties and soils are now highlighting McLaren Vale’s true potential.

On the other hand, Clare Valley, north of Adelaide, (red loam over limestone for the trainspotters), is cooler, which adds a crisp, mouthwatering acidity to the blend, the result of vineyard altitudes and afternoon breezes that herald an evening chill,  just perfect after a day of wonderful sunshine. OK, it’s not the cheapest Aussie Shiraz on your local shelf but if you’re feeling flush it’s well worth a pull.

If you’re feeling very rich after the festive season, or hit lucky on the lottery, search out a bottle of Taylor’s ‘The Pioneer’ Clare Valley Shiraz 2012. It’s named in honour of Bill Taylor, the family patriache and Clare Valley pioneer and is one super wine, mind you, it should be at AUS$200 a pop! With its crisp, rich blackberry, mulberry and plum fruit, grippy yet ripe tannins, overtones of chocolate spice and long, long finish it will set you back about £80 in the UK. so it’s not for the fainted hearted wine lover.

Here’s a question for you. There’s one thing with Taylor’s top wine that won’t worry the Aussie wine enthusiast one iota but will send shock waves through most UK. consumers. What is it? Even with an £80 tag, it’s not the price. The answer? This exceptional wine comes with a screwcap! I’m a big fan but I know that many UK consumers can’t quite get their head around top wines coming under screwcap. Will we ever see Cru Classe imagesBordeaux in screwcap I wonder? Will pigs fly? Anyway, if you get the chance to ‘click’ the screwcap on ‘The Pioneer’ you’ll be a very happy drinker.

My best wishes for a Vintage New Year!

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Blanc de Blancs N.V. Champagne Henriot. (£38.70 at Oddbins).   

I’ll put my cards on the table; I’m a big fan of Henriot Champagne. I was at lunch with clients at Henriot’s winery in Reims recently and tasted their Blanc de Blancs as an aperitif. It’s not surprising that many see this as Henriot’s flagship wine; ‘think you’ll agree as you sip this 100% Chardonnay Champagne.

The history of Champagne is fascinating and every House has a tale to tell; we all know the story of the widow (veuve) Cliquot and the different ‘versions’ of who actually discovered the Champagne Method of ‘bubble production’. Henriot’s history is no less gripping.

Champagne Henriot started way back in 1794 when Nicolas Henriot, a wine merchant in Reims married Apolline Godinot, a local beauty and vineyard owner. Sadly, after 14 years of marriage, Nicolas died leaving Apolline to become one of the regions’ famous widows founding ‘Veuve Henriot Aine’ in 1808. The House has been in the family ever since.

Over the years the family built up an impressive portfolio of vineyard plots but in 1985 Joseph Henriot sold much of the estate; it’s reported that 125 hectares went to Veuve Clicquot in return for a reasonable chunk of Clicquot shares. He ended up running Veuve Cliquot within the L.V.M.H. (Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy) Group establishing himself as a Champagne  visionary along the way but, in 1994 he returned to the fold and appointed his eldest son Stanilas to run the family business. In 2010 his younger son Thomas took the steering wheel as success followed success. Henriot’s present prowess owes much to the inspirational winemaking and vineyard management of Chef de Caves Laurent Fresnet who joined in 2006. He deservedly won the International Sparkling Winemaker of the Year Award this year.

My regular readers know my oft-quoted adage that ‘you can’t make good wine from bad grapes’ and Champagne is no exception. All the Champagne vineyard villages carry a quality tag, be it cru, premier cru or grand cru status within the three main vineyard areas of  Montagne de Reims, the Vallee de la Marne and the Cotes de Blanc.

Henriot have about 35 hectares of top vineyard plots dotted around these three main areas, including Ay, a grand cru in the Vallee de la Marne, Avenay, a premier cru in the Montagne de Reims and Chouilly, a grand cru in the Cotes de Blancs.

These vineyards supply about 15-20 per cent of Henriot’s needs (they produce about 1.5 million bottles a year), the rest of the grapes come from trusted growers who own top premier and grand cru vineyards. The vineyards of the Cotes de Blancs, which include the Top Johnny villages of Avize, Oger, Cramant and Vertus are particularly cherished as the Cotes de Blanc is the home of Chardonnay, the Champagne grape that emphasises the creamy yet crisp Henriot style.

As well as being made from top grapes, Blanc de Blancs is aged for 4 – 5 years; ‘pretty impressive when you consider that most non vintage wines are lucky to get 18 months ‘on the lees’ (the dead yeast sediment) in the bottle, following the second fermentation.

In keeping with their insistence on quality, Henriot’s entry level non vintage Brut Sovereign (£34.00, www.thedrinkshop.com) is aged for a slow, cool 3 years on the lees.

By the way, our lunch at Henriot was prepared by Olivier Mezzarobba, a top Reims’ chef. If you ever get the chance to eat with him …. ‘just do it! One of our party, a seasoned gourmet t’boot, announced, “the best lunch I’ve ever had”. Praise indeed!





“Lion de Suduiraut” 2011. (£22, slurp.co.uk & Fine & Rare).

There are hundreds of sweet wines but if we had a survey to name just one, bet your bottom dollar that Sauternes would be top of the list. This famous French sweetie is served at posh dinner parties and top restaurants around the world, usually in those silly little ‘thimble’ glasses but hey, let’s talk about the wine itself for a minute.

The Sauternes region is about an hour’s drive south of Bordeaux city, very close to the river Garonne at the southern tip of the Graves region. In these unique vineyards, Bordeaux’s main white grapes Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, (sometimes with a touch of Muscadelle), produce reputably the best sweet wine in the world.

Believe it or not, the key to Sauternes’ quality is rotten grapes. To the uninitiated, they would go straight in the skip but to the winemaker they’re liquid gold. Getting technical, the rot is caused by botrytis cinerea – that’s ‘noble rot’ to you and me – it attacks and shrivels the grapes and in driving out the moisture produces intense sweetness, heady lemon apricot flavours and attractive honey overtones.

The grapes are left on the vines into the autumn when mists, caused by the cool spring-fed waters of the Ciron River meeting the warmer tidal Garonne, envelope the vineyards to promote the growth of noble rot. The thin skinned Semillon grapes are easily attacked by the rot and give a waxy lemon character to the wines whilst Sauvignon Blanc chips in with its citrus flavours and typical crisp acidity, (that’s the stuff that makes your mouth water), so important to balance the wine’s natural, high sugar levels. Because the botrytis attacks individual bunches willy-nilly throughout the vineyard the pickers have to pass through the vineyard several times (tries) to pick the fully rotten grapes; an expensive, delicate and messy process.

For my anorak readers, the Sauternes appellation consists of 5 communes; Barsac, Preignac, Bommes, Fargues and Sauternes itself. Barsac is also an appellation in its own right which can be confusing. As a mate in my local wine bar queried, “if it’s from Barsac how come it’s called Sauternes?” The answer is ‘very French’. The rules say Barsac can be called Sauternes but Barsac can only come from Barsac. Don’t ask. I told you that it was ‘very French’!

Sauternes was so important in the 19th century that when Bordeaux Medoc reds were famously classified in 1855, Sauternes and Barsac merited their own classification. Unlike the Medoc, which had five levels of classified status, there was only two levels in Sauternes; First Growth and Second Growth. Eleven chateaux were awarded First Growth (1er Cru) status whilst fifteen were classed as Second Growths. That said, when it comes to Sauternes, Chateau d’Yquem is considered to be in a class of its own. Mind you, at about £100 a bottle, class does not come cheap!

The other Sauternes chateaux to look out for are Climens (Barsac), Suduiraut, Rieussec, Sigalas- RabaudCoutet (Barsac)de FarguesCh. Lafaurie-PeyragueyCh. Doisy-Védrines (Barsac)Chateau Partarrieu and La Tour Blanche. For the record, other regions in Bordeaux, like Cadillac and Loupiac, also produce sweet wines but none achieve the complexity, purity or balance of Sauternes.

As you can guess, First Growth Sauternes carries a pretty hefty price tag. “How much!”, my friend screamed when I told him that a bottle 1er Cru Rieussec could set him back about £50. Luckily I had a ‘sweet’ answer to hand. Rieussec, like several other chateaux produce a ‘Second Label’ wine; Carmes de Rieussec (Rieussec) carries a friendlier £25 price tag.

The other second labels to look out for are Cypres de Climes (Chateau Climens), Castelnau de Suduiraut (Suduiraut), Le Cadet de Sigalas (Sigalas- Rabaud), Chartreuse de Coutet (Coutet) Chateau Partarrieu and Les Charmilles de la Tour Blanche (La Tour Blanche).

With Sauternes losing favour in the global marketplace over recent years, to their credit, some of the region’s winemakers are looking to innovation to boost sales. Suduiraut for example, has created “Lion de Suduiraut”, a ‘new style wine for the younger drinker’. Technical Director Pierre Montégut gets the very best out of his varied granite, sand and clay soil vineyards to create his ‘Lion’ assemblage, (‘blend’ to you and me) that’s in the order of 90% Semillon and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. At about £20 this latest addition to their portfolio is less sweet, fresher and fruitier than the chateau’s traditional fare which, slightly chilled, makes for a cracking aperitif…. no matter how old you are!

So, with a Sauternes to match every pocket and taste there’s never been a better time to look again at Bordeaux’s sweet heart. Going back to the wine glasses, serve these wonderful sweeties in normal fine wine glasses not those silly little thimbles. You can then clock the incredible colour, swirl and sniff the amazing aromas ….. before quietly sipping a little bit of honeyed heaven.

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