Archive for October, 2008

Camelot Wine Circle Tasting

Posted on: October 20th, 2008 by Andrew No Comments

Friday night I was at the Camelot Inn in South Cadbury for the first tasting of the eponymous wine circle reconvened by publican Dave Catton who has reinvented this Inn as a comfortable drinking pub with good food. About ten of us settled into the function room come skittle alley to taste a selection of wines from South Africa. Dave had an idea to add a wine or two to his main list and this was a good way to start the selection. Other merchants will bring their wares over the next few months and in this way a good “specials” selection will be built up.

We kicked off with a range of white wines, starting with a simple Sauvignon from Stellenbosch producer Lyngrove and finishing with a barrel fermented Chenin Blanc from Beaumont Estate in the Bot River region of Walker Bay. These proved controversial with a diversity of opinion that only came together on the Sauvignon, which we all liked. Others found the wines were unbalanced or too oaky or too young. After a break for cheese – a mistake as it turned out in my case because the strong local chedder (Montgomery’s) killed my palate for the reds. However we all waded through five red wines dutifully with I think rather more success. Highlight of the evening was Kumkani‘s Triple J Shiraz which was as good as I remembered; long complex and full flavoured. Simonsig‘s Pinotage was also quite well received despite the general view that pinotage was an overrated variety. Value for money award went for Lyngrove’s excellent 03 merlot which managed to be appealing yet dry and quite complex at the same time. A little clarety in style I thought and a good food wine.

The last wine having been despatched the food was brought out. Expertly prepared by Dave’s wife Alex, this was the best bit of the evening for me. I could shut up and sit down and begin to relax and enjoy the food and company.

A full list of the wines tasted and a brief tasting note follows.

White Wines

Lyngrove 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch

Wholly owned by Dutch importer Baasma, Lyngrove is a holiday destination that happens to have a vineyard. Their wines are good value for Stellenbosch. This has crisp crunchy grassy fruit and a bit of weight. Very SA in style slightly let down by 14% alcohol manifesting on the finish. Otherwise good.

Millberg Cellars 2008 Chenin Blanc Franschhoek

A one time cooperative in this distinct corner of Paarl making simple and inexpensive wines from mainly white varieties. This is clean and slighly off dry but a little underwhelming. Probably too young and needs a little time to come together.

Paul Cluver 2005 Gewurztraminer, Elgin, Overberg

This was an interesting take on this aromatic variety; Gewurz is rarely taken on its own merit but like chardonnay and white burgundy is always compared with its Alsatian cousins. This is in a different style, fresh and quite dry albeit with the aromatic signature for which this grape is famous. Very nice but perhaps lacking a bit of punch; it was nevertheles an intriguing aperitivo style.

Rustenberg 2007 Chardonnay

A heavyweight wine from one of the heavyweight Stellenbosch producers. Rustenberg has enormous cachet and its wines rarely disapoint, indeed this wine is often unobtainable as it sells out most years. However I thought it was far too young and despite its screwcap closure will need a few years for the oak and fruit flavours to properly integrate. We all thought it would probably improve but at the moment it is a little unbalanced. I expect that is how it should be but this is definitely a vin de Garde.

Beaumont Estate 2007 Hope Margueritte Chenin Blanc, Bot River.

Another barrel fermented wine, this time from the less usual chenin blanc. A wine that promises more than it delivers in this vintage. The 06 had been better integrated and more complex and fulfilling. There was nothing wrong with it but at this stage it lacked punch. It did start to develop some secondary fruit character in the glass but I suspect that it could do with a few more years in bottle. A nice experiment for someone.

Red Wines

The first was a simple Cinsaut Pinotage blend from the house of Niel Joubert in Paarl. A good medium priced producer making a range of wines from his own and bought in grapes, this is his base level red. Easy drinking and quite full bodied with the rather clove like Pinotage to the fore. OK and good value

Next up was a bit of a revelation, the above mentioned merlot. Tasting as described a little like a claret, this was mature and smooth with quite a lot of body and character. Showing once again what good value Lyngrove is as a producer, this was well under £6 for a bottle at the case rate.

Quality producer award goes to Simonsig, an original Cape Dutch estate owned and run since 1680 by the Malan family and still Making Top notch wines. Their Cabernet Shiraz 05 is everything that similar priced examples from Oz are not. Great vinosity, spicy, long, complex and not overly fruity. Very good and perfect with the lamb that followed.

Simonsig,s second offering of the night was their 04 Pinotage. Here the consensus was that they had made the best of a bad job. Smooth and full bodied they had almost eradicated the overtly bitter flavours associated with this variety and had made a better than good wine. In my view a pity to waste their time but then I dont like pinotage.

Finally, a revelation from Kumkani, the trading name of a group called the company of wine people They are slightly obscure in origin but really know how to make wine at this level. This 04 Shiraz- called “Triple J” because the vineyard is hand harvested bunch by bunch three times to get the best grapes – is made from fruit grown in the Stellenbosch area and is simply delicious – long, ripe, complex and spicy it went down a storm. This is what they need to grow there, not Pinotage!

If you want more info on these wines either click here to go to our sister site and navigate to the wine in question or follow the link (where available) on this blog.

Rioja Urbina tasting at The Pigrims Rest

Posted on: October 16th, 2008 by Andrew 5 Comments

Every now and again we get a UK agent ringing us up and offering to bring along a winemaker or grower who just happens to be touring the country visiting the people who sell his wares. One such an offer was from Edward Burridge whose business handles the wines of Pedro Urbina in Rioja. He was offering the man himself to do a presentation for us and anyone else we cared to invite along. This seemed like a good idea and to cut a long story short we found ourselves on Monday evening ensconced at the Pilgrims Rest Inn in the company of Jools and Sally, proprietors of said Inn and a group of enthusiasts to listen to what Pedro had to say and to taste through his wines.

Pedro turned out to be an inspirational speaker and he captivated us in his soft Spanish accent with details about the Urbina vineyard and winery, much of which was news to me even though I had been to the vineyard a few years ago.

The key to Urbina’s success is the vineyard. They own 75 hectares of vines at Cuzcurrita in the Rioja Alta and don’t buy in any grapes. They farm organically, so inputs are kept to a minimum and they use the environment to their advantage, selecting the areas to harvest when they are ready rather than just mechanically harvesting the whole plot at once. They use bush vines and trained vines, with the older vines reserved for production of their Reserva level wines and the younger (less than 20 years) fruit going into their Crianza and Tinto.. In the winery, oak ageing occurs in a 70/30 American to French oak ratio. This gives structure and balance to the wine; Amercan oak on its own can generate too much of a fleshy vanilla style which Urbina are keen to move away from. They like fruit in their wines and don’t keep them long (maximum 2 years ) in barrel, preferring to age them in bottle.

We started the evening with their 100% Viura Blanco, a simple white explained Pedro in a neutral style which can be drunk with crudités or a plate of nuts or olives. It had more weight than I remembered and was well received.

Next up a Tempranillo 2007. This showed well with soft fruit and some length which went well with the selection of Tapas that Jools had started to hand round. Despite its lack of oak the wine was distinctively Rioja in style, reflecting the purity of the fruit with which they work.

Alongside the Tinto, we also tasted the Crianza 2004. I had always thought this was pronounced Criantha but Pedro emphasized the Z. Maybe that’s how he thought it sounded in English. I didn’t ask. The wine is one we already sell so I know it well. It was tasting superbly with fleshy soft cherry fruit and great length. The oak isn’t intrusive and the wine has structure. Unsurprisingly given its sub 10 pound price its their best seller in the UK.

We then had a break for more Tapas which came round exhaustively. Jools had excelled himself given that we had only charged ten pounds for each ticket. And then on to the next pairing, the Reserva Especial and Gran Reserva, 1997 and 1996 respectively. The Reserva was a wow. Long, complex, ripe and very full with masses of fruit. Almost youthful, but as Pedro observed, right at its peak. This turned out to be the wine of the night. Everyone loved it and at just over 13 pounds was a real steal. The Gran Reserva was more restrained, reflecting its more traditional production method. It had the length and complexity but was strangely rather dumb. Pedro thought that it was probably not ready yet and I had to agree. Nevertheless it was still a great wine with classic vanilla flavours and great length. It was just unfortunate that on the night the Reserva Especial was more approachable.

More food came round including delicious bites of wild boar sausage which went well with the wines and we moved onto the last wine of the evening. This is a strange creation called Plot from the 2006 vintage. Pedro explained that this was not Rioja in the normal sense, indeed it is only a table wine in classification, and that it differs from those wines in a number of ways. Firstly harvesting is done on a bunch by bunch basis – only the very ripest are selected from across the whole vineyard- and the wine is fermented and then aged for six months in Allier oak more in the Bordelais style. The wine also undergoes malolactic fermentation in barrel, again not normal for Rioja apparently. Finally the finished bottle has no mention of Urbina or Rioja on the label in any meaningful sense so it can’t be confused with those wines. The taste is different too. It has an appealing nose of red cherry but the palate is rather unformed with plenty of structure and finish and lifted fruit flavours but I think little finesse. However on reflection this could be that it need lots more bottle age. It would be fun to revisit it regularly over the next ten years and see how it develops. The rest of the party was equally unsure as I think was Pedro who muttered something about losing the plot. Good wine but hard to find a niche for would be my view.

A good time was had by all and the party went on late into the night according to Sally the next day so many thanks to Pedro and Edward for coming down to the Wilds of Somerset.

Blackmore Vale Club July 08 “Sauvignons for Summer”

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

Blackmore Vale Wine Club

Last month when we had some warm weather I talked about the resurgence of Rose. Now that the rain has returned I am focusing on white wine from the Sauvignon variety. This versatile grape has become a firm favourite for lovers of crisp dry white wines, a wine that goes perfectly with seafood yet can be glugged as an aperitif; appreciated on a balmy evening in the garden or drunk with a hearty meal whilst the rain streams down the windows. In some cases it is aromatic enough to be drunk with that killer of white wine – curry.

Whilst it is the pungent, aromatic examples from New Zealand that have redefined the variety in the UK in recent years, it is not New Zealand but Chile that has really pushed sauvignon into the mainstream, with its well-priced, clean and zesty wines; so much so that Chilean Sauvignon is now a must have on most people’s shopping list; cheap and drinkable – a rare combination.

Much as I like wines from Chile it would be rather dull if all we sold were the most popular and so this month my selection includes wines from Europe, with a Vin de Pays from the Loire, the cradle of Sauvignon and a delicious but underrated blend from southern Spain as well as some fine New World offerings that show off this grape’s appealing qualities.

The wines:
Firstly as mentioned above, a Vin de Pays de Val de Loire called TYDY. The name evokes those natty gadgets that you find in Betterware catalogues or in the classifieds at the back of women’s magazines but is actually a contraction of the name of the winemaker Thierry Delauney. Despite its lowly appellation this wine from Loire specialist Joel Delauney has great finesse with crisp fruit and clean balancing acidity on the finish. Classy and typical of sauvignon from this region at half the price of more exalted names. Perfect with shellfish or grilled salmon.

Next up we have a crowd pleaser from the Americas, a wine from Southern Chile made by Bodegas Canata in the Bio Bio valley. Anyone who knows us knows how enthusiastic we are about the wines from that region, especially the sauvignons. This is because the Bio Bio is so far south that its climate is more like Northern France than the lush semi-tropical valleys around Santiago where the bulk of Chile’s wines are grown, giving finesse and aromatic character to the wines. This example, the Camino del Sur, uses fruit from both regions to make an easy drinking wine that can be drunk on its own yet has a little more style and complexity than its simpler northern cousins.

I first tasted the next wine at a wine fair in London last year that showcased a variety of producers from South Africa. This was a delightful, expressive and well priced wine from Stellenbosch producer Lyngrove. I promptly ordered some but was a little disappointed on receipt of the wine to find that they had sent 2006 instead of the 2007 I had tasted. It wasn’t until we started to get complaints that I tasted the wine again: it was awful, thin, acidic and frankly undrinkable. Happily however the 07 is now here and is tasting as well as it did last October. What a difference a year makes! This fruitier style can be appreciated as an aperitif but will partner seafood or even white meat and salad dishes.

Finally, as promised, a delightful wine from our favourite Spanish producer, Bodegas Piqueras – those of you who were paying attention will recognise the name from my last column on Rosés where Juan Pablo and his brother Angel make exemplary wines at their solar powered winery in this dusty southern corner of La Mancha. Their version is blended with a little verdejo, giving some fatness to the grassy sauvignon and making the wine a little broader and more tolerant of differing food types. Nevertheless the classic gooseberry/asparagus characters that denote this variety are well to the fore giving complexity and lifting it well above the average white wine from this region. Very underrated I think and well worth a second or even third look.

Blackmore Vale Wine Club May 08 “Perfect Pinks”

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

Blackmore Vale Club

Not so long ago, I’m talking maybe 10 years, wine that wasn’t red or white was viewed with some suspicion by the trade in this country, if not by the public at large.I never really understood this anti rosé bias as I spent many years holidaying in France where when the sun came out, so did the rosé, especially the further south one travelled. However, mindful that this business isn’t about merely indulging ones personal whims I had been reluctant to stock much of the wine in case I was landed with loads of it when winter came around.

Things are different now. People have wised up to the delights of all things pink and sales remain strong throughout the year. We now stock nearly a dozen rosés from all over the place and this month I am offering four of them at the BVM club discount.

Also this month I am introducing an occasional series of matching recipes by Mark Hammick of the European Inn and we kick off with a mouthwatering suggestion to partner the Plaisirs de Gris featured below.

So to the wines:

The first is a simple off-dry blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Vistamar in the Central Valley region of Chile. Vistamar make very drinkable, correct wines from the major varieties in an uncomplicated style. This has had some residual sugar left after the fermentation to give it a hint of sweetness but its pleasant fruitiness gives the wine structure which a lot of off-dry wines at this level lack. Chile is rapidly becoming the place to go for reliability and low prices and Vistamar are right up there for quality and value.

Next off, a very different wine: A Syrah Rosado from southern Spain made by the ever resourceful Bonete brothers at Bodegas Piqueras in Almansa. Almansa is a dusty corner of the vast plateau of La Mancha south of Madrid. It is very dry and at 800 m above sea level relatively cool. When I was there last march it was positively bracing even in full sun. As a result the vineyards are free of pests and weeds and the grapes rarely suffer from disease, so good wine can be made without too much resorting to post production technology. That’s not to say that Piqueras isn’t up to date – their new winery is state of the art and Pablo’s winemaking skills are second to none. This version of Syrah is full flavoured and quite dark for a rosé, but nonetheless presenting ripe raspberry and red fruit flavours with a crunchy slightly spicy finish. With its extra heft it will go with meat and fish dishes and of course, Paella.

The Plaisirs de Gris for which Mark has created the delicious recipe below hails from the D’Oc region of France. This appellation covers the whole of Southern France from west of Provence to just east of Toulouse, but this Perlé style using pink grapes to make pink wine (Gris in French for some reason means pink – why?) is a feature of the coastal region around Narbonne. This little gem is made by burgundy specialists Aujoux in a light very fresh dry style, yet with a subtle hint of soft fruit flavours giving it a lift and belying its pale salmon pink colour. It’s also snazzily presented in clear glass and a metallic grey label round the bottom of the bottle – very Parisian café in style! Delicious on its own as well as with feta salad!

Finally and from much further south we have a wine that fits nicely in between all the others in terms of style. This, a Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé from Millberg Cellars, Franschhoek, South Africa, has a little more weight than either the Plaisirs or the Vistamar, but is a little more delicate than the Spanish wine. Despite its rather hefty 14%, the wine has elegance and charm, with delicate fruit flavours, the alcohol only betraying its presence right at the end in a hint of sweetness. However the balance is good and this wine slips down a treat. Made by the co-operative at the aforementioned Franschhoek a small area in Paarl north east of CapeTown, this is not expensive and is the kind of wine that you can keep in the fridge for when you get thirsty, rather than for putting away for a special occasion.

Mark’s Recipe

First take a glass of plaisir de gris into the garden whilst you pick four sprigs of fresh oregano per person.
Under a hot grill toast one side of a piece of nice granary bread, then rub the uncooked side with a slice of garlic.
On to the uncooked side of toast put a one centimetre thick slice of Woolsery Fiesta Cheese (Greek Feta will do but local is best).
Drizzle this with Fussels rapeseed oil (Olive oil will do as a substitute) and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper.
Next take three thin slices of fresh tomato on top of the cheese and drizzle with oil, salt and pepper.
Put this under the grill until the cheese starts to brown and the tomatoes look cooked.
Put this on your plate and scatter the oregano on and around it.
Pour yourself another glass of cold pink and serve with a fresh mixed leaf salad. You could add some more oregano to the salad to enhance the flavours.

Enjoy!

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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