Archive for the ‘Wine Buying Trips’ Category

Alain Geoffroy Chablis: A quality report.

Posted on: October 13th, 2016 by Andrew No Comments

A quick trip to Mâçon offerred the opportunity for a stop-off in Beins to visit Chablis producer Alain Geoffroy, with whom we have worked for 5 years. Met in a sunny courtyard of the now sprawling Geoffroy estate by Pascal Sailley, the export manager, we were whisked off on a little tour of the winery. Geoffroy is not a big estate but houses in its chais the modern panoply of winemaking equipment, facilititating the reliability and drinkability of this Northern Burgundian wine, which is often, like this year, very much at the mercy of the weather. After a petit tour, where we saw the equipment being washed down after the completion of the rather meagre harvest, we were shown their piece de resistence – the largest collection of corscrews and wine paraphenalia in France , the Musee de Tire Bouchon. This was extraodinary; rooms and rooms of cabinets stuffed with corkscrews of every size, shape and vintage. This was quite a surprise and not what one normally gets on a winebuyers winery tour. Some pictures below to give a bit of an idea

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Once the tour was over, the serious business began. Discussing the state of the Chablis 2016 harvest and tasting the previous two or three vintages.

As you may be aware, Chablis was hit badly by hail in June, with most producers losing most of their 2016 crop. Geoffroy is down by 2/3rds, but some have lost nearly everything. This means that there will be very little, if any, wine for sale next year. Geoffroy has customers in 30 countries as well as France, so the little they have will be spread very thin. For us in the UK, the so far tangible result of the referendum in june is the collapsing value of the pound, so what little we get will also be much more expensive. As to the quality, the rest of the season was good so the wine should also be of good quality, but we wont know for sure until next spring. If Pascal mentioned it, I missed it.

But what about the wines, you say; well as usual they were stunning. We tasted a range from the 15 vintage going back to 2012 as follows:-

Petit Chablis 15 – tight, crisp, very fresh, medium bodied with lively fruit. V good

Chablis 15 (in UK stock now) Rich and very ripe, almost opulent and rounded. Dry full and long. Not quite classic Chablis but v drinkable.

Chablis 15 Vieille Vignes (50/50 barrel and Stainless Steel) – Lively and rich with the ripeness of the straight chablis with a layer of young oak under. Still unbalanced but should develop complexity with bottle age. Lovely wine

Chablis Premier Cru Vau Ligneau 15 – This is more classic Chablis. Long, clean, racy flinty and dry. Elegant and sinewy, this is superb.

Chablis Premier Cru Beauroy 15 – Powerful much broader wine, rich long and still a little closed.

Chablis Premier Cru Beauroy 14 – fantastic, complex, dry, long superbly balanced wine. Still tight and flinty on the finish. Delicious

Chablis Premier Cru Vau Ligneau 12 – Ripe, layered, dry , full, long with tight minerally fruit. Again elegant and stylish

Chablis Grand Crus Les Clos 13 – This is very ripe and extracted with loads of oak and fruit. A little too Burgundian for me – I prefer stainless steel!

The discreet charm of Henri Bourgeois

Posted on: February 10th, 2015 by Andrew No Comments

A buying trip to Sancerre

I had never been to Sancerre, so Paul, with whom I was travelling, suggested that on our trip to Mâçon, we make a small detour to Chavignol and pay a visit to Henri Bourgeois (more…)

Chateau Lestevenie – a personal visit.

Posted on: August 8th, 2013 by Andrew No Comments

On our family perambulations around South Western France I realized that we would be passing near Bergerac and thought it would be a good idea to have a look at Humphrey Temperley’s operation in person,  especially as we are his chosen representative in the UK (more…)

Salon des Vins de Loire at Angers – 2012 vintage as good as expected.

Posted on: February 8th, 2013 by Andrew No Comments

On the overnight ferry from Portsmouth with Paul Scaife of Beach-life wines to the Salon in Angers. I was looking forward to it – not the ferry trip- I am not good at sleeping on boats, though as this was LD lines -the ex Truckline route, the ship was heavy and stable and reasonably comfortable. No, the Loire-fest was one wine show I have missed over the years but this year it coincided with my need to refresh our Loire offer and it was a good opportunity to meet suppliers in the flesh. (more…)

Catalonia in Autumn

Posted on: November 19th, 2009 by Andrew 1 Comment

Trip to Spain 22nd -24th Sept 09

Two days in Catalonia in autumn, what could be nicer. Apart from the fact that our weather has been pretty good these last few weeks, an opportunity to head for the sun to visit a couple of suppliers was not to be missed.

So off we went via Bournemouth International and Ryan Air ( The flights are cheap but the beer..)

On arrival at Reus (Barcelona International to the merry folks at Ryanair) we were met by Steve and Emily from Wine Merchant EWGA who had organised the trip. A half hour drive took us to our hotel, a small converted farm down a long track amongst the vines near Montblanc in the Conca de Barbera Appellation.

Montblanc is a classic Spanish fortified town with a high castellated wall looking west and narrow cobbled streets. Picturesque. The barren hills behind are themselves crenellated with windmills which turn lazily in the warm breeze.

The hotel was almost impossible to find – even the satnav only got us to the dirt track and there were no signs. Subsequently we learned the council had forbidden the owners to put one up. Once there however it turned out to be a pretty B&B in the manner of a ferme auberge. We had a delicious meal and far too much wine, turning in around midnight for a nine AM start the next morning.

I slept badly – it was hot -and felt ropey by 7 am. However a hot shower and several cups of coffee later and we were ready to hit the road to San Sadurni D’Anoia, the epicentre of Cava production in Penedes.

The journey took longer than we thought, not helped by not having the full address of Covides, our destination, so we had to ring for help which arrived in the form of a small yellow car which guided us through the town.

Covides is a large co-operative and one of the biggest producers in the area. EWGA take a small amount of their cava under the Casteller label

The two ladies from Export took us on a tour of the winery. It was quite impressive with 8 million bottles in their expansive cellar and a complex state of the art bottling line that can cope with 5000 bottles an hour – all computer controlled of course. It was the largest sparkling wine production facility I had seen.

Tour completed we headed back to the office for a tasting and snack lunch. The wines they showed us were good to very good. First up the Casteller range of dry white and Rose. The white has about 10 gms of sugar dosage and is pleasant but not very exciting. The rose was fine.

Next was a finer selection under their Duc de Foix label. These were a whole lot better. A brut zero at 1 gm of sugar was steely dry but fine and classy and was followed by their classic brut at 4.5 gms. This was the star for me. It had finesse and complexity with fruit and acidity in perfect balance. Finally their reserve with some Chardonnay added to the traditional blend. This was richer and rounder and was heading off into champagne territory, but to my my mind lacked the tipicity of the Brut. Sadly though these wines are not available in the UK although our friend in Export hinted at a future distribution deal. Not with EWGA though.

Various discussions followed about the difficulties posed in the UK market by cheapo cava dumped in the supermarkets. I don’t think its a giant problem for us independents as we can always get our clients to sample before they buy, but it is a problem nevertheless for quality producers in Penedes. My view is that the problem could be solved if the Cava name was tied to an appellation or a quality standard rather than being a catch all name for Spanish sparkling wine. Hard to see it getting past the bulk producers though.

To round off the tasting a trio of still wines that are produced alongside the fizz were wheeled out. Nicely packaged they were rather good. The rosé was a particular hit. A 100% Cabernet wine with depth and some weight but with ripe complex red fruit flavours and good length. This was as good a rose I had tasted from Spain. The white was clean and fresh, from the Xarello grape but was unexceptional whilst the Reserve red had some complexity and Bordelais character from its mainly Cabernet blend. A bit pricey though.

After lunch we had to leg it back to Montblanc as we had an appointment with Antonio at Clos Montblancat 3.00. The scenic route was abandoned for the Péage and we were only a little late.

Clos Montblanc is the largest producer in the DO Conca de Barbera, having once been a co-operative. It was taken into private hands some years ago by one of its members, a farmer turned construction magnate who liked the company so much he had to buy it. The company still buys in the bulk of its grapes but also owns some vineyards from whence cometh its top Cuvees

A quick tour of the winery introduced us to the obligatory stainless steel fermentation cuves with the even more obligatory Oak maturation hall down below. Everything seemed up to date and state of the art, an impression bolstered by some tank sampling of fresh juice from the recently picked Maccabeo and Chardonnay and a recently started Rosé These were already showing some vinous character, especially the Maccabeo which was fresh and already well balanced. Antonio assured us that the white grapes are all night harvested by machine to ensure optimum freshness. Whilst we were slurping, a trailer of Merlot appeared and tipped into the stainless collecting hopper. The grapes were immediately dispatched through the destalker and up into a tank to begin fermenting while we watched.

In the cellar we tried a barrel-fermented Monastrell from cask and a late harvest wine from the same grape. This was extraordinary, like a Madeira in style; despite its extreme youth it already had a pale brown caste and was very sweet.

After this we made our way to the tasting room In the recently completed office suite to watch the sudden rainstorm sweep in and taste through the range.

The company makes four white wines from a range of varieties which whilst not unknown in this part of Spain is relatively uncommon, Spain is not really known for its white wines ( Albarino being a possible exception). We started with the base white, a zesty, surprisingly full flavoured blend of Chardonnay and Maccabeo. This we have sold on and off over the years although recent price increases has moved it out of our House Wine territory. It is however very good and in 2008 was exactly as you would wish – the crisp and quite floral maccabeo lifting the palate with the Chardonnay adding depth and roundness. A great quaffer . Next was a more serious blend of local varieties called Xipella ( everything begins with an X in Catalonia) This had Maccabeo and Perelada in it and had good weight and structure. Less overtly fruity than the first wine, but with subtlety and some style. More of a food wine.

The last two were more familiar. Their Sauvignon Blanc comes in a frosted glass bottle but don’t let that put you off. This is as serious a Sauvignon as you could hope to meet. Like a bridge between Old and New World this had zip and aromaticity but also the clean flinty depths of a classy Loire. This 08 is seriously good – a point rammed home at lunch the following day where it exactly partnered a range of hot and cold seafood dishes. Finally a barrel fermented Chardonnay which could have come from a cellar in Meursault and at half that price must be extremely good value. Sadly our market for that style of wine is miniscule so we wont be listing it. Good though it was.

So to the reds. Their partner to the Maccabeo Chard is a Tempranillo. We had tasted the 07 at home and after the fleshy, well balanced 06 it was a bit of a disappointment. Unbalanced and tart on the finish it seemed rather unripe and thin. So the 08 was a pleasant return to form, clean ripe fruit was well balanced with soft tannins and a medium weight. Good on its own or with the local cuisine. The 07 meanwhile having sat about in the glass opened up and I revised my opinion a little- I think it will be fine with food but is not as immediately appealing as the vintages either side of it. Next up , a Merlot 05 in their Clos range. This was immediately popular. The wine had the brambly fruit of a St Emilion or Pomerol ( of a minor chateau) and had some grip and length. It had none of the overt fruitiness of many New World Merlots and it was obvious that a more restrained style had been aimed at. A fine example of the variety was the consensus. The Xipella red had local grapes as well as Cabernet and Merlot in the mix. Matured in oak for 14 months it was rather closed up with a slightly unripe finish – It didn’t interest me as much as the white. A Pinot Noir followed from the 05 vintage. This wasn’t as good as I was expecting with the curious coffee grounds taste that I have previously experienced with some Chilean PN. It was lean and tannic and rather ungenerous although with Pinot Noir you never know quite how it will develop.

Their Syrah 06 was back on form. This spends just 9 months in oak and has dry quite steely fruit, not at all like some of the fleshy southern French versions. It was well balanced and rather elegant with layers of soft tannin and spice. A good example I thought, not too compromising and showing the true local expression of the variety.

Finally their Special Reserve Masia Las Comes. From a small vineyard up in the hills ( we visited it the following day – see below) comes their flagship red wine. We had drunk the 2003 on our arrival at the hotel and I had been so impressed that I had rather overindulged. This time we were tasting the 05 and I was determined to be more forensic. The wine didn’t let me down. From a 50/50 blend of 35 year old merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vines this has depth, class and great vinosity. The ripe fruit is well balanced by mid palate tannins and a dry sinewy finish. It wears its oak ageing quite lightly like a good claret and has a long lingering finish. This is very good and at its projected 12 pound price tag (or thereabouts) is great value

So ended an interesting afternoon at Clos Montblanc and we made our way back to the hotel were we were allowed a rest before the next gastronomic onslaught.

Once again we were joined at dinner by Antonio who this time brought his English wife Louise. Another good time was had by all with a choice of wines including more of the Masia Las Comes and some of the Xipella Blanco and the Sauvignon, all of which showed well with the food.

A quick trip to the airport the following morning to drop off Emily and Steve who were returning to Liverpool meant we were a little late getting to the winery for the next part of our tour. This included a quick detour on the Cistercian trail to the monastery at Poblet in the heart of Torres country . Indeed there is a Torres shop right by the main entrance selling all the wines in their portfolio. The Monastery also boasts a small working winery in which Mammon in the shape of giant Cava concern Cordoniu is a partner. My guess is that it is chiefly a means of extracting the tourist dollar and not a serious commercial enterprise.

Tourist trail abandoned we headed north and east up into the hills to Masia Las Comes. The land belongs to the owner of the winery whose family had supplied the then co-operative for many years. It was very rugged and quite wild, being well off the metalled road and up into the pine forests. On arrival we were treated to a sneak preview of the new guest lodge which had been extended out of an original farmhouse of miniscule proportions. It was striking in an alpine kind of way but bore little resemblance to the original dwelling. As it wasn’t finished and time was short we didn’t linger but headed back to the main road as fast as the Scenic could manage the dirt roads. Stopping only to admire the vineyards ascending the hillside we headed off at high speed towards the coast and lunch.

The above description makes our tour sound rushed. It wasn’t leisurely but we had sufficient time to get an idea of what gives Masia Las Comes the quality factor. The vineyards are on a variety of sloping terraced sites with soil varying from clay with flints through to shale and schist. This allows the winery to select parcels of the grapes from different parts of the vineyard that show the best potential to make the reserve wine. It certainly seems to work. I rather wish I had made more copious notes so that I could pin it down more firmly. Maybe another visit would help!

Lunch when we arrived was at a restaurant in Cambrils, a small village west of Tarragona. This was a personal recommendation of Antonio who accompanied us there as they sold his wine. It turned out to be on the seafront overlooking the small harbour and it was warm and sunny on the terrace. The food was excellent (apparently the owner had rejected his Michelin stars – why?) and was perfectly accompanied by the 2008 Montblanc Sauvignon -still in its frosted glass bottle – which was tasting better than ever – or perhaps it was the near perfect location.

Suffice it to say that lunch lasted until it was time to return to Reus to catch our bucket shop flight back to the UK

Many thanks to Antonio, Paul and all at EWGA for an eventful and interesting couple of days in Catalonia. I will go back.

A Trip to Chile and Argentina

Posted on: December 15th, 2008 by Andrew No Comments

After a fairly enervating 11 hours in tourist class on a BA jumbo enlivened by a long period of turbulence over the Atlantic, we arrived in Sao Paolo for the next leg to Chile. There we were bumped off our onward flight by a tardy group of 40-odd Poles who insisted on taking preference over our intrepid band. Argy bargy ensued and LAN (BA’s local “partner”) was finally persuaded to book us on to a Swiss flight (not Swissair but very similar) which was also flying to Santiago. We arrived safely only an hour later than planned and luckily all the baggage also turned up (a miracle I presume) We were met at the airport by our obliging driver who took us into town to the Sheraton which had been booked by Corpora, our hosts for the trip.

After a couple of hours rest we were taken in the minibus for a tour of the City with an English Speaking guide. Of interest to us winos was the large part of the City that had been owned by the Cousino family. Now the O’Higgins park, it was once their earliest vineyards. Cousino Macoul is still one of the better Chilean wines.

First impressions. Chile appears to be on the cusp between first world opulence and third world poverty. Most people appeared at least well fed despite as our guide Christina said – looking grey. The semi-feral dogs also lend an air of Indian-ness to what is otherwise a European city. Santiago looked a bit down at heel but has a splendid new business district as well as some nice old quarters. We were taken out to dinner to a Peruvian restaurant where the wine and Pisco Sours flowed before collapsing exhausted in the comfort of the Sheraton. (more…)

My Italian Trip September 2007

Posted on: October 7th, 2008 by Andrew No Comments

A Wine Buying Trip to Italy

September 17th to 19th

Arrival

This trip had been organised by Michael Palij and Sophie Rudge of Winetraders, the Italian Specialists, as an exercise in acquainting some of their customers with some of their suppliers in the Piedmont and Veneto regions. Six of us assembled that evening at the Hotel Tra Arte e Querce in Monchiero in the heart of Barolo, where we were joined by 2 other merchants from a manic day touring the Barolo and Max from Boroli, one of the producers we were to visit the following day. We were pleasantly wined and dined with some older vintages from Boroli and their stunning Chardonnay about which more later.

Day One

“Giuseppe’s exploding Golf”

After a pleasant but warm night and a fab breakfast at the hotel we descended on Mascarello in the tour bus, a quite comfortable Fiat MPV. We were met at their unassuming winery in Castiglione by Giuseppe Mascarello, the son, whose first act was to leap into an elderly diesel golf parked by the cellar door, rev the engine until black smoke poured out and then drive it into the door! He climbed out and ushered our rather startled party into the cellar without a word. Giuseppe proved to have a much more impressive knowledge of the winery and vineyard than of the workings of the golf. He expounded at some length on the need for total control in the vineyard to allow perfect balance within the grapes of polyphenolic ripeness and sugar levels. He explained some of the history of the family estate with Michael interjecting further details as we walked round the old cellar, which Giuseppe informed us had been built as an Ice House many centuries before. It had the dusty old-fashioned air of yesteryear, with very little evidence of modernity, though they had installed some stainless fermenters to complement their old concrete cuves, although Giuseppe was insistent that their actual methods hadn’t changed at all. Finally we were shown their latest Oak barrels, all two of them. Michael pointed out that these were the first new barrels the family had purchased in years.

If any one is getting the impression that these guys weren’t really on top of things, they’d be wrong. They have some of the best vineyard sites in Barolo at Monprivato and their vineyard management is exemplary with everything done by hand and no chemicals. Grapes are sorted on tables once picked before moving further into the cellar to prevent any bad fruit getting in. This is borne out when we get to the tasting room and go through the wines which at no level disappoint.

The Wines

Dolcetto D’Alba Bricco 05

From the Bricco vineyard, this classic Dolcetto was ripe and rich yet very soft and long on the finish. Classy but approachable.

Barbero D’Alba Scudetto 03

This had a deep elderberry note leading to a powerful long finish with complexity and weight, one of the best I tasted.

Freisa Toetto 04

From a lesser variety, the Freisa, this was quite tannic and a bit agricultural but nicely perfumed on the nose and with a dry Madiran style finish. A good food wine that would partner the local salami well.

Langhe Nebbiolo 05

Mini Barolo style with classy nebbiolo nose but lacking the complexity of the Barolos

Barollo Villero 03

This was the most feminine of the three Single Vineyard Barolos that they do; still powerful and rich but a little softer and more elegant

Barolo San Stefano 03

Blockier and a little foursquare after the Villero and perhaps the least successful of the trio for me

Barolo Monprivato 03

This had me peppering the description with superlatives! A fantastic, complex and very probably ageless glass of pure nectar! This is why these wines justify such a high price and yet when compared with many other very expensive wines from around the world they look rather good value!

Finally Monprivato 00 which was a more mature version of the 03 and equally good.

For me, Mascarello,s wines were probably the highlight of the trip and proved what I have long suspected! No amount of modern technology will make you a top class wine if you haven’t got the right conditions in the vineyard; those that do could probably knock out a masterpiece in their garage (and some do)

“The best vineyard site in Dogliani”

We left Mascarello and headed towords our next appointment, Dolcetto producer, Pechenino in Dogliano.

I was already totally confused about Piedmont. The area is very infolded with hilltop towns and steep sided valleys all covered in vines. It looks huge. As we drove Michael attempted to make sense of it all. Within Barolo only a small proportion of the vineyards are DOC Barolo, the rest might be Langhe Nebbiolo, Barbera D’Alba etc. Some producers have vineyards that can produce more than one style, eg barbera D’Alba and Barolo. Then there is Dogliano which is its own DOC only for Dolcetto. Within DOC Barolo there are two distinct styles, depending on which soil type the vineyards fall on! I wasn’t much clearer! I hoped our trip would make it all come together but I fear it will need much more research!

Any way, Dogliani. Attilio Pechenino has a wonderful hilltop winery in this new DOC with the aforementioned vineyard. Michael explained that Pechenino was unusual in that his best vineyard sites were reserved for his Dolcetto unlike the usual practice of planting Nebbiolo at the top and Dolcetto at the bottom. All looks very new and neat although we were assured that the main building had merely been restored. Attilio was quiet and very polite and calm. He showed us around his winery which bristled with technology as is usual these days. He was the first Italian winery I had seen with Microoxegenation technology, which has been widely installed in France and Spain and probably Italy too for all I know! I,m not normally a fan, but Michael explained that it can help prevent too much reduction at the start of the fermentation process and so prevent those nasty bad egg odours that sometimes occur. I’ll take his word for it.

In the tasting room Attillio produced some scrumptious salami and cheese to accompany the wines which were as follows

San Luigi Dolcetto Dogliani 06

The nose has the ripe soft fruit of a young wine whilst the palate showed vibrant clean expressive fruit with a long dry finish. Soft tannins don’t predominate and the wine was really well balanced

San Luigi Dolcetto Dogliani 05

Lighter and more elegant than the 06 but none the worst for that – my favourite actually. Goes perfectly with the Salami!

Siri D’Jermu Dolcetto 05

This was from a single vineyard block and had more complexity and richness than the San Luigi. Still no use of oak which is reserved for his Barbera and Nebbiolo Very nice but I still preferred the 05 San Luigi

Bricco Botti 04 Oaked Dolcetto

This had the potential to be really good but for me the use of oak shoved it into the realm of many an oaked red therby losing its unique Dolcetto charm But for those who like oak it wont disappoint.

Quass 03 Barbera

This tightly constructed example showed off the barbera variety well with plenty of black fruit and savoury flavours.

Quass 04

Similar to 03 but a bit more closed

Langhe Nebbiolo 05

Classy rich Nebbiolo with ripe fruit and some tannin. Even this lowly appellation shows the power and concentration of this extraordinary variety.

“A tasting room with a view”

From Pechenini we headed back into the middle of Barolo and Castiglion Falletto making our way (at some speed) down a long dirt track to Boroli where we met up with Max from the night before. Boroli is the antithesis of Mascarello; a modern state of the art winery with vines in some of the best sites in Villero and Cerequio vineyards. Max showed us the view from the terrace across the steep valley to the vineyards of Cerequio on the far side. He also explained that the estate has another winery near Alba to the north so the whole operation was quite extensive. Round Castiglion they have 10 ha under vine. I was still very confused about the different appellations and vineyard sites within Barolo. Michael had tried to explain it thus: The DOC Barolo is like an upside down heart with each ventricle having different soil types. Castiglion Falleto is on the dividing ridge and thus has vineyard sites in both types. Unfortunately I failed to write down the two differing soil types but one was definitely chalky loam. Each produces a different style of wine, most noticeable at Mascarello.

Boroli have the two blocks described above and as you will see make a very different wine from each.

Max showed us around their new winery, with its oak stave west wall which looked funky and was supposed to be more environmentally friendly. I thought it was a bit of a gesture really.

Inside the new Cellar all was new oak and shiny stainless steel. It looked a big investment and very impressive. Similar to some of the shiny concrete palaces we visited in La Mancha in march. Very quickly we were ushered into the tasting room with a panoramic view from its glass curtain wall. More oak staves had been used to make the parquet floor, and the tables were of carbon fibre and could have withstood a crash at 200 miles per hour. If I hadn’t already had some of Max’s wines the night before I would have been suspicious! Besides, Michael is rarely wrong in his selection of producers. (he would probably say never).

So onto the wines which didn’t disappoint

We started with their Chardonnay – unusual for these parts:

Bel Ami 2005 Chardonnay Langhe

This was a revelation. Trophy chardonnay’s normally leave me cold, but this wine was complex, classy and powerful but not overstated. Peach aromas on the nose were nicely complimented by judicious oak and the wines was elegant and long on the finish. If it wasn’t chardonnay I would bite Max’s arm off for it, nevertheless it may be worth considering.

Barolo 03

This was the star wine for me and most of the others. Classic well structured Barolo with great complexity and length and real Barolo tipicity. A great wine which fully justifies its price (somewhere around half that of Mascarello’s). Great with food but can be savoured on its own.

Barolo 03 Villera

The first of the single vineyard wines was initially more intriguing. Blocky, cedary and with hints of leather this turned out to be a bit closed and dumb on the finish. It wasn’t as immediately appealing as Mascarello’s Villero but will probably come round in year or two. By contrast:

Barolo Cerequio 03 was much more feminine and approachable although still demonstrating the fine workmanship involved.

I wasn’t convinced though and reckoned that overall the straight 03 Barolo was the best bet. Unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to properly taste their Riserva which we had had the night before at the Hotel. From memory it was very good.

Finally

Moscato D’Asti Aureum 05

This is a 5.5% fizzy pop of a wine, but utterly delicious and moreish. Sadly its £10 price tag would probably alienate most of our customers, but lovely to taste all the same.

After the wine – food. Max took us off to a nearby restaurant for lunch. We had been expecting to sit outside as the clouds had parted and the sun was warm. Bizarrely though the terrace on which we sat had plastic marquee siding which remained resolutely drawn allowing an indistinct view of Castiglion Falletto and encouraging the place to fill up with flies. Despite that the food was delicious, local dishes beautifully prepared and served with a variety of wines, including a magnum of 95 Barolo from a producer who was supposed to be excellent but I’d never heard of! The wine was tiring which allowed Michael a rant about the complacency and ineptitude of many so called “top” Barolo producers when we were back in the car.

I was beginning to flag by now – my legendary post lunch torpor setting in, but there was no time for that – it was on to the next destination, Marco Porello in Roero.

“a dog in a cage”

Italy is like the rest of Europe for us brits, a country where animals, if you can find them, are well down the pecking order of things. Dogs are nearly always chained up or in cages and at Porello a nice looking Alsatian paced about in a small cage like a tiger. The cage had a blanket over one end to shut out the sun, but he didn’t look happy. It wouldn’t have done to comment though as this is normal and although we did see freer living dogs later on, most farming establishments keep animals in this way.

Marco Porello was a gentle chap with a roman nose and quiet smile. He showed us around his small winery at the side of the house and then into the dining room where the wines were set up for tasting. His winery looked well kept, if a little dusty and suitably up to date.

I had tasted his wines at the Winetraders tasting in January and thought they were excellent value for money. I couldn’t quite get the Arneis, the local white which this region is known for and stuck with his two reds. This time:

Arneis 06 Camestri

This was a different animal, lively crisp and full flavoured with plenty of fat citrussy flavours and the classic dry finish this variety normally shows. Really good and well priced.

Barbera Mommiano 06

This is my Porello Banker, showing all the characteristics of great Barbera, ripe fruit, clean acidity, dry finish and good tannic structure all at a price more normally associated with Consorzio wines

Nebbiolo D’Alba 05

This is classic Nebbiolo writ small. All the characteristics are there but somehow slightly muted. This doesn’t take away from one’s enjoyment of the wine, Its just that after all those Barolo’s, the limitations of the Roero for the variety are shown up.

Michael had said that he had taken some time to find even one decent producer in this area, and though Marco Porello is definitely that, his reputation rests on his white wine rather than his reds. Having said that at the prices he charges they are well worth buying and I do!

We also tasted:

Toretto Nebbiolo 05

This was a more grown up version of the previous one with more weight and intensity from more Oak ageing. Nice but closed was my comment.

Finally

Birbet

This is a fizzy pinky red 5% wine which some of us loved so much that they shipped it. I couldn’t really see the attraction, it was like a soft fruit drink with added herbs, Amè maybe.

“veal shin and little lies”

It was quite a long drive down from Roero onto the Po plain and round to Gavi, which is quite a lot further east than I had previously thought. I was getting quite confused about the geography of the area and where the vineyards lay. This is quite important to understand and Michael was at some pains to make it clear because the geography very much influences the quality. Piedmont itself, contrary to what I as an Italian neophyte thought, was to the South of the Po river in the foothills of the Ligurian Alps. I had always assumed that Piedmont was to the north of the valley in the foothills of the French Alps! To the north and west lie the French and Swiss Alps, so the area benefits from cooling winds off the mountains from all three directions. This helps to keep temperatures down in the summer. Further east, the Po valley widens to a great flat plain bordered by the Dolomites to the north and Appennines, the south. The Veneto vineyards lie on the foothills of the Dolomites where they meet the plain, with a steep southerly aspect.

We reached Gavi an hour or so later, climbing back up into the Ligurian foothills and arrived at La Zerba which is on top of a ridge on iron rich soil and high up allowing plenty of exposure to the sun. Paola and Luigi Lorenzi have ten hectares of Cortese the varity used for Gavi, which they bought along with the house as a holiday cottage before deciding to go into wine production. Their exemplary winery is in an extended double garage on the side of the house where they vinify two wines, Gavi and Gavi Terrarossa

We tasted both and whilst I was a little underwhelmed by the straight Gavi, could see some merit in the Terrarossa. It wasn’t till later, however that the wine’s personality began to appear. Paola Lorenzi had cooked us supper, Michael having expounded at length of her legendary cooking abilities. We were not disappointed. The meal was superb, including the shin of veal slow-cooked and served with crunchy fried potatoes and the “little lies”; sweet pastry crisp-like biscuits that Michael had preordered somehow as being his favourite food! At this point I began to appreciate the wine’s versatility. We drank no red, but continued all evening with the same wine which developed and complemented the food superbly. Luigi produced a bottle of La Zerba Grappa to finish the meal, which rounded it all off nicely.

La Zerba 2006 Gavi Terarossa

Crisp, well-flavoured wine with plenty of zippy acidity and some richness on the palate leading to a dry finish. Closed at first but opening up with the meal.

WE had a further hour or so to drive to our hotel outside Monleale in the Colli Tortonesi district where our next appointment awaited us in the morning.

On arrival at the hotel we were the only vehicle and the place had a deserted air. There was an ominous delay before the door opened in which I had visions of spending the night in the car. These weren’t dispelled by the face of the man who opened the door – You aren’t expected till tomorrow night he said. Aargh!

However, they managed to rustle up enough rooms for us all without too much hastle even though it was after 11.00pm

After a warm mosquito plagued night we arose in good time to a sumptuous breakfast. Michael had suggested the night before that we might get coffee and a bun if we were lucky. Luckily he was wrong and we had the treat of local home made peach juice with plates of ham and cheese and delicious fresh Madeleines. Great.

Day two

“the harvest is too easy”

We arrived late at Monleale Alta a few miles away and parked up next to Walter Massa’s cellar in the village. He wasn’t there, but his diminutive mother who appeared said that he was in the vines – it was harvest after all – so we decided to inspect his vineyard first. This proved to be a few minutes drive from the village across a narrow valley to an amphitheatre of steeply sloping vines looking across to the village. Michael had explained that Massa was one of very few people still growing the temperamental, high acid timorasso variety, where yields were very low but the wines of extraordinary concentration and complexity. He also grows a red of similar obscurity which proved to be interesting and rather good.

It was a beautiful clear morning and we wandered about looking at vines and sampling the sweet grapes before driving back to Massa’s cellar. He showed up after a minute and suggested we look at the cellar. He was an odd seeming chap – Michael had said he was barmy- and his cellar was quite the scruffiest I had seen in years – old cement cuves, piles of rubbish lying around and an air of neglect hung about the place. Someone backed a trailer full of Barbera and half tipped them into the collecting bin. We looked at the grapes which were very clean and sweet – it was obvious that all Walter’s efforts were concentrated on the vineyard.

Back in the dining room Walter had put out some smeary but clean glasses and Tuc biscuits. This was apparently a first, previously they had had to wash the glasses themselves, Michael said, as well as typing up the invoices.

Walter produced the wines, a white and two reds. They were all delicious and very individual and fully justify Michael’s faith in them. They completely prove the axiom that if you get it right in the vineyard, everything else just follows on.

“The best Soave in the world”

Whoever had drawn up the itinerary, Sophie probably, had obviously thought that we being ferried around in a helicopter. We were late leaving Massa and had a three hour journey east across the Po valley to Verona to complete in an hour and a half. Frantic phone calls ensued between Michael and Stefano, our next producer, and time slipped, not helped by numerous road works and very heavy traffic. Michael managed to put his foot down though and we made up enough time to make lunch at the Enoteca … by 1.30. Sadly this meant we weren’t able to look round Inama‘s winery, but Stefano met us at the restaurant with a range of his wines to taste with the meal.

I had met Stefano at the Winetraders January tasting in London and been very taken by his wines. He is an ebullient almost larger than life character with greying hair and grey-blue eyes. He turned out to be in his late forties and was obviously impassioned by his vocation.

The food at the Enoteca was very good, complementing his range well. This includes two reds, a Bordeaux blend, Bradissimo, and a Carmenere. I wanted to know how carmenere had got to the Veneto; it seemed an odd variety to grow. Stefano told me that until recently it had been assumed that it was Cabernet Franc, as the leaves are apparently similar. I asked where it came from and he said that returning emigrants from Bordeaux had brought it back many years ago. Anyway, he rather liked it and was able to make an extremely good red with it.(see below). After lunch and an impassioned digression onto Italian politics we piled back into the car and drove up into the hills to see his vineyards.

Inama‘s vineyards are all on the slopes of Monte Foscarino, a dramatic ancient volcano that rises up above the Po valley steeply behind the fortified town of Soave. The southerly slopes are all vineyard and the sea of vines stretches down and well onto the flat plain below. Michael had previously explained that the DOC Soave had been created after the war when large areas of alluvial plain had been planted with vines to fill an ever growing demand for cheap white wine. This should never have been allowed as the resultant product, now often rebadged as Pinot Grigio, bore no relation to the Classico Soave that came from the hillside. Now that much of the demand has been soaked up by the New World this overproduced stuff is an embarrassment (hence the Pinot Grigio!). The rich soil of the plain was better suited to cereal production and can produce grapes at cropping levels 4 times greater than can be achieved on the Monte Foscarino.

Stefano, however, like most good producers, isn’t interested in quantity. His grapes, the Garganega variety

are grown on mineral rich but otherwise poor volcanic Tufa. This makes the vines struggle and gives complexity and minerality to the wine. The vineyards looked good in the bright sunshine, but Stefano explained that a hailstorm two weeks before had cost him 20% of his crop. Hail is a real problem in the Veneto. All the vines on the volcano are of the white Garganega variety; his reds come from a range of hills about 10km across the plain, another outcrop of the Dolomites, where the soils are morainic rather than volcanic.

Tasting wines at a meal is less than optimal so I only have an impression, however the 06 Soave Classico stood out as usual, complex, fine and expressive. A world away from cheap grocers’ Soave.

“Cherry jam and cow dung”

Valpolicella has always ranked alongside Don Cortez and Hirondelle in my mind – a seventies drink of little merit that was wheeled out at bring a bottle parties or cheap Italian restaurants, along with the chianti in a basket. Thin, sour and utterly devoid of flavour. Part of the reason for this is that the Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella varieties are high in acid and if overcropped lack fruit. The other part is that for reasons explained above, the majority of Valpolicella was and still is grown on the flat alluvial plain, rather than the hillside from where it originated.

Marinella Camerani was a name that I had come across a year so ago in an article in Decanter Magazine on the renaissance of fine Valpolicella production. She sounded intriguing, so it was with interest that I approached her wines at the Winetraders January tasting. There, I selected the Ca’Fiui, her basic unoaked Valpol to put on the list. I also very much liked her Ripasso but as put off by the high price.

I was, therefore, looking forward to visiting Corte Sant Alda, her hillside winery high up on the steep slopes of the DOC. On arrival, I was not disappointed; a precipitous dirt track led up from the village below to a house with stunning views over the vineyards and out onto the plain. The soil all around looked poor and stony, a good sign – and we were met by Marinella herself, a small middle aged women with smiling dark eyes. Immediately we were taken to the drying shed where grapes from this years harvest were being sorted by her husband, Cesar, and a young lad. Michael had explained that the air drying process that shrivels the grapes for the Amarone production was normally done using dehumidifiers in large closed sheds. Marinella merely stacked the grapes in plastic trays and attached screens over the large entrances of the room. Large fans waft the air through and the grapes dry naturally. Unfortunately, this process requires that each bunch is completely devoid of any rot, which would spread very rapidly if not detected. Hence the hand sorting.

From the drying sheds we were led down under the house into the cellar. This was the most picturesque we had yet seen. Apparently Valpolicella means “the valley of little cellars”. Marinella had wooden foudres for fermentation, mostly oval shaped – she didn’t like the round ones, they were too “fat” – and ordinary barriques for maturation as well as some stainless steel where she makes the Ca Fiui. In the middle of the cellar she led us to a large wooden coffer. On opening this proved to have a copper bucket set into which contained the mature cow dung which was diluted and spread on the land according to her Biodynamic principles – “like homeothapy” she said – I wasn’t convinced.

From the cellar we repaired to the tasting room and her wines as listed below. Generally I was slightly less impressed than I had been in London but still rate the Ca’fiui especially in this her latest bottled vintage.

Marinella also has a substantial cherry orchard from which she makes cherry jam of a high quality. She gave us each a pot to take home. Perhaps that’s why good valpolicella has the taste of cherry amongst its many flavours. My pot had to be put in Sophie’s luggage in the hold of the plane – apparently it constitutes a deadly weapon – which could have resulted in much delay back at Gatwick. Fortunately the delay at immigration was such that all the baggage had been unloaded so I got my pot back and am looking forward to it with anticipation.

The wines:

Corte Sant Alda 2006 Ca’Fiui

Lovely ripe cherry fruit on the nose leading to a ripe soft juicy wine with the typical dry finish. A great improvement on the still good 05

Valpolicella Superiore 2004 Ripasso

This has far more weight and length than the Ca Fiui. It spends time in oak and develops complexity on top of the cherry fruit flavours. This is my favourite.

Amarone 2003

Dense fruit on the nose. Rich off dry style with masses of fruit with dry tannins and a hint of caramel on the finish. A great Amarone, although I’m not convinced by the style – I expect it works better with rich food.

Recioto Amarone 04

This was an absolute star of a wine. Sweet yet not cloying, full and complex with marzipan notes underlayed by coffee and herbal hints. Rich and very very good. A classy alternative to port that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

A bit about these unfamiliar terms.

Ripasso is made by a second pressing of the dried grapes from which the first press has already been taken for Amarone. This juice is added to the free run juice of undried grapes to make a fuller style.

Amarone is made entirely from dried grapes and is fermented out to dryness.

Recioto is made from the very driest grapes and therefore retains some sweetness after the fermentation process is finished.

These are authentic practices almost unique to Valpolicella and are worth seeking out.

I came away still unsure about Corte Sant Alda. Certainly a great place to visit and some interesting wines. But worth all the money she charges? I’m not sure yet.

“Red wine and Pregnancy”

I think its the French medical profession that used to say that pregnant women should drink lots of red wine for their blood. I have a friend who was assured by her (french) doctor that a bottle a day whilst pregnant would be most efficacious. Most English doctors would disagree. Our next and last grower would appear to have little choice in the matter.

Giovanna Tantini runs a small, not to say bijoux, vineyard in the heart of Bardolino a little further to the west and downhill from Valpolicella. Michael explained on the way over that she had originally trained as a lawyer before deciding to take on her family’s run down estate. After a lot of hard work and a program of replantation she now has about 4 hectares of grapes that go into her own Cuvees. The rest of the grapes produced there go to the local Cantina. Mostly Corvina, she also has some Merlot, Cab Sauv and chardonnay.

On arrival it was clear that Giovanna was heavily pregnant, but this evident handicap didnt stop her marching off into the vineyard to see her corvina, commanding us to follow. The Corvina had all been retrained from the high yielding trellis to the guyot system. This has allowed her to reduce yields from over 180 hectolitres per hectare to a respectable 45. Green harvesting and hand picking only the cleanest bunches allows her complete control with only clean fully ripe fruit coming into the winery. This, when we got there, turned out to be little larger than La Zerba’s double garage. Nearly all steel, she fermented all her varieties separately with the juice for her rosé allowed a short 8 hour skin contact before fermentation. We tasted some fermenting must to see the astonishing natural sugar levels for ourselves. Finally we were led into a tiny cellar like tasting room where we tasted the wines. Giovanna had rustled up a snack supper which would have done a gourmet proud with which we could try the wines afterwards.

Chiaretto 2006 Rosé

This was Michael’s favourite and it had been well reviewed elsewhere. Very nice, it had a perfumed nose with light very fresh flavours with a dry long finish. It was elegant and charming but for me, whilst personally liking it, it lacked weight and I think it would struggle at its potentially high price.

Bardolino2006 Tantini

This wine swung it for me: A lovely floral and red fruit nose leads onto a delicious medium bodied wine with exuberant ripe fruit leading to a dry finish. There aren’t enough wines like this around – the nearest approximation would be a good Gamay, but this was streets better. Really good.

Ettore 2005 Tantini

This oak aged wine had more merlot and was well made with spicy fruit and some complexity. Very good but it was a bit like lots of other Oak matured reds and therefore lacked the immediacy of the Bardolino. It was also quite closed and needed more time to develop.

For me, Giovanna’s winery was a revelation. bardolino had always been a very third rate wine in my eyes, but this was up there, not only in quality, but in its unique charm. So good, reader, I listed it.

After supper, Giovanna’s husband kindly offered to guide us the back way to the airport as time was running short, only to find when we got there that dear old BA was delayed. Still – a worthy end to two action packed days, for which many thanks to Michael and Sophie of Winetraders.

Anybody planning to holiday in that part of Italy would do worse than fit in the odd vineyard visit; you will be well received.


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