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Clean organic wine from the beautiful south of France and beyond

18 Feb

via Clean organic wine from the beautiful south of France and beyond

Amalfi – surprisingly great wines as well as super lemons

6 May

The Wine Wanderers were recently on the Amalfi coast in search of the world’s finest lemons.  We found them, in droves(or should that be groves?), but what we also stumbled across, quite unexpectedly, were some of Italy’s best and least-celebrated wines.

Campania was not known for its winemaking skills as recently as a decade ago, but boy, have they come a long way in this land of fine mozzarella, fabulous seafood and, indeed, superlative lemons.   They are making excellent fiano, falanghina, Greco di tufo and aglianico in Campania, as well as some excellent white blends – and the Wanderers were lucky enough to be staying at two of the best hotels in the region, where some serious thought has been given to showcasing Campania on the wine list.

First stop was the Santa Caterina in Amalfi, where we tasted that superb aglianico.  The Wanderers first tasted this sumptuous, inky red in neighbouring Basilicata, where it has an AOC, and did not realise production was more widespread.   A Donnaluna 2011, actually 90 per cent aglianico tempered with 10 per cent primitivo,  was a voluptuous drop to accompany an inventive dish of burrata, poached egg and asparagus; the Greco di tufo “Devon” from Cantine Antonio Caggiano Taurasi which preceded it was crisp, dry and refreshing.

Sitting over the sea next day with an excellent seafood risotto, it was fitting to be served a splendid falanghina from Feudi di San Gregorio.     But even better was a Furore blend of 60 per cent falanghina and 40 per cent indigenous biancolella.  Furore is named for a wine village just up the coast from Amalfi; this very excellent example came from from Cantine Marisa Cuomo.

On to Sorrento and one of the world’s oldest and grandest grand hotels, the exemplary Excelsior Vittoria, where they actually have a live pianist serenading guests in the breakfast room every morning.   Dinner is served in the Michelin-starred Terrazza Bosquet, where maitre d‘ Luciano gave us more Campania whites which knocked our socks off.   With scampi from the Messina Straits in Sicily we had the smokiest and most minerally fiano de avellino Colli di Lapio from Cleria Romano.   And a Per Eva Costa d’Amalfi falanghina blend from  Tenuta San Francesco stood up beautifully to a dish of orzo risotto perfumed with black garlic and candied zest of Sorrento lemons from the hotel garden beneath a bed of delicate white cuttlefish.

Although the blue lobster with bisque reduction sauce and caulifower foam must be the finest dish cooked anywhere on the Amalfi coast, we couldn’t blame Luciano for serving us a chardonnay from hundreds of miles north in Cortefranca,Lombardy.   Ca‘ del Bosco is one of the best chardonnays in all Italy and possibly the world; it can stand side by side with Montrachet, big, buttery with a lemony nose and altogether gorgeous.

The Wine Wanderers rarely choose Italian wines outside Italy, yet they never fail to surprise and delight us in their country of origin.   You have to be more careful with what you pick up in the British supermarkets, but Sainsburys does a pretty decent Aglianico del Vulture from Basiiicata at £8.   They also have a drinkable Greco di Tufo on offer till May 17 at £8(normally £10), but the Wanderers preferred a somewhat more elegant version of this varietal from Tre Fiori, £10.99 at Waitrose.   Wine Direct has that fine Feudi falanghina for £13, and Mad About Wines has the Furore for £21.85, the kind of price Campanian winemakers could not have dreamt their wines would fetch a decade or so ago.

Bandol arrives in SW10 – heaven in a glass for lovers of elegant roses and stonking reds

26 Oct

The news of Bandol establishing a new home in the UK was joy to the ears of the Wanderers, who have happy memories of drinking some of the most sublime drops of red and rose in this very particular part of Provence.
This is the home of Domaines Ott, who make rich pale pinks to die for, and Domaine Tempier, from whom we first learnt that the South of France can produced great, stonking reds of enormous elegance.
Both wineries, and some innovative successors, are represented at Bandol, a new casual Fulham restaurant.  It aims to showcase the food as well as the wine of le tout Provence, but while while the tapenade and the fragrant bouillabaisse broth were spot-on during the first month of opening, we felt the chef, who is not from the area, needed to taste and replicate more authentic versions of his anchoiade and rouille.

But first to the wine; while Tempier is available by the glass – a huge treat for Londoners – the only choice of pink Provence was between Chateau Minuty, surprisingly austere for the joyous roses of this region, and the richer, more satisfying Miraval from the vineyard owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.   Why no Bandol roses, though?  Tempier makes one of many delicious bottles which belong on the by-the-glass list, and there are many more affordable bottles around.

You could be tempted to stick with the luscious Miraval all night to complement this garlic and herb-scented food which sings of summer, but that would be to overlook the fact that Bandol produces some amazing whites.  The superb, organic Terrebrune, a mix of clairette and the ugni blanc and bourboulenc barely known outside the area, is also available by the glass while it lasts.

What we did get before the bottle ran out was rich, robust and packed with exotic minerality, a perfect partner for the bouillabaisse, while the Wanderer among us addicted to Tempier absolutely savoured a glass or two with his perfect, Provencale-style lamb chops on a base of black olives and sauce soubise.   At £20.50 for a large glass it cost nearly as much as the lamb, but another Bandol red from Domaine Maubernard is available for just over half that price.

It’s puzzling that only seven wines from Bandol are available by the bottle – a tiny proportion of the list – but there’s a much larger selection from the wider south of France.  All complement this style of lustily-seasoned food, of which the petite friture – a generous heap of perfectly battered and deep-fried whitebait, calamari and prawns with aioli – was the standout starter.   The Wanderers would be tempted to return for that alone with a carafe of the Terrebrune – heaven on a plate, and in a glass, for the £60 for two you can easily pay for a totally unmemorable taste and drop elsewhere in London.Dining Booths at Bandol

Paul Mas – another name flying the flag for Languedoc’s new sumptuous quality wines

7 Jun

This time last year The Wine Wanderers were in the Languedoc discovering the wines of astounding quality which are rebuilding the region’s reputation.   It’s largely down to a handful of visionaries who have persuaded growers to concentrate on quality rather than the quantity for which the region used to be known.  These pioneers are taking risks, producing wines which command more than £20 a bottle in the UK and have to stand competition with the much better-known names from Bordeaux and Burgundy, many of which don’t justify their hefty price tag.

Today’s Languedoc vintners are producing some amazing syrahs in particular and doing gorgeous things with grenache – reds, whites and roses, on their own or in blends – and also with lesser-known varietals including grenache gris, roussanne and vermentino.   They are making good carignan from grapes grown on old vines, giving more prominence to mourvedre and also, surprisingly to the Wanderers, producing good chardonnay and pinot noir more associated with northern climes. We were reminded of our 2014 adventures  when tasting one spectacular wine after another from Domaines Paul Mas, a family wine estate spanning four generations, which deserve more recognition in the UK.

Jean-Claude Mas has been blazing a quality trail since taking the helm of the family firm in 2000, growing the estate from 85 to 550 acres and contracting with 80 outside growers counted on for a superior crop.   It’s a similar pattern to Foncalieu, which we visited last year – not a family firm but a large cooperative in which a couple of great winemakers work their magic on grapes from many growers who concentrate all their efforts on careful cultivation.

We’ve tasted astounding special occasion drops recently from the flagship Chateau Paul Mas range of grand cru appellations, of which the gorgeous Belluguette, a blend of  vermentino, grenache, roussanne and viognier is particularly sumptuous.  It has enough body to stand up to strong tastes like asparagus, whose delicate mineral taste is killed by red wine, and is available at Majestic.   Of the reds, we savoured the Clos de Savignac,  a s50% mourvedre with 30% syrah and 20% grenache, and Clos de Mures, which is almost pure syrah.

Drinkers will not be disappointed by the Paul Mas Estate range, described as “everyday luxury” wines, some of which are available at Waitrose Cellar for around £8.99 a bottle.   Particularly nice was the GSM – a typically southern blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre in almost equal quantities.   And coming back to premium labels, the GSM by Astelia, a vineyard acquired by Mas in 2014, is out of this world, while their chardonnay is another perfect partner for asparagus and perhaps some indulgent lobster mac cheese.

We also remebered the Languedoc while revisiting Terroirs, a London restaurant known for promoting natural wines, the phenomenon which first brought us to the region, where this style of growing is becoming prevalent.   This time at Terroirs, however, we were turned on to a superb Beaujolais Villages blanc made from unfiltered chardonnay by Remi and Laurence Dufaitre, new kids on that particular block.   A lovely partner to white asparagus with clams and the delicate pork and pistachio pate de campagne the restaurant has made for the delectation of charcuterie loverss every day since it opened.

Lisa McGuigan puts a new spin on a famous winemaking name with sumptuous Aussie reds and whites

28 May

The WIne Wanderers summoned up all their energy for an evening of rich wines and serious steak at the Gaucho in London last week.   We always feel you need as much stamina to survive an evening at the loud, dark, intensely macho Argentinian steakhouse as a whole weekend in Buenos Aires.

But this was the Gaucho with a difference – a rare private enclave  in a ground-floor glass box at the Charlotte Street branch where daylight was allowed to seep into the proceedings and, for once in a lifetime, the wines were not from Argentina.
Lisa McGuigan, daughter of the legendary Australian winemaker, chose the Gaucho as the venue to launch her own range of wines to fashionistas mainly because she sees the place as a reflection of her personal style.   As in lots of black, silver and Gothic-style glamour – McGuigan herself is a grown-up Goth who has never reneged on the style of her youth, and who believes wine can, even should, be a fashion accessory.

“If I’m going to take a bottle of wine to a friend’s house for dinner, I want it to look as good as it tastes,” she explains, brandishing a bottle of her Silver Collection.   This mid-priced range was handsome, but less pleasing to our palate than the entry-level Wilde Thing  blends or the sublime Platinum Collection top-end range, but it was certainly the most elegantly-packaged.

Earthy McGuigan seems like the kind of lady who would only ever drink red wine, a perfect partner for the Gaucho’s sumptuous steaks, but she is actually an advocate of chardonnay.  She audaciously blends the grape with pinot grigio to make an entry-level Wilde Thing blend coming to  your local NISA soon, while in her more upmarket collections she fields both an unoaked Chardonnay – not so much to the Wine Wanderers’ taste, as we are Meursault-loving dinosaurs, as her delicious lightly oaked take on this noble white grape for the Platinum Collection.  It was a perfect complement to starters of shrimp ceviche and creamy brandade – who says the Gaucho can’t do fish?

We could have stopped as soon as we tasted the quite heavenly pinot gris also from the Platinum Collection, not at all what the evening was supposed to be about but a show-stopper, nonetheless .   When we started with the reds – and the meaty courses in a divine tasting menu – a very drinkable cabernet shiraz blend came out with a proper Argentinian empanada – a mini beef pasty – but the pure shiraz was an even greater treat, particularly the Platinum from Australia’s Limestone Coast, which a few inspired speciality wine-sellers will stock at north of £20 a bottle, according to distributors Copestick Murray.
Just as the fillet steak the Wanderers bathed in a perfect chimichurri of olive oil infused with coarsely chopped coriander and chile, was better than the Gaucho’s much-vaunted top rib, Lisa McGuigan’s understated pinot noir was a quiet treat after the in-your-face voluptuousness of all that shiraz.

Thanks to Lisa and her dad, whose McGuigan wines are now publicly owned, we can all enjoy very palatable Australian wine at a fair price.  The Wine Wanderers always snap up a bottle of McGuigan’s grey label when it comes on £5 half-price promotion at Tesco or Sainsbury’s, and Lisa McGuigan’s Wilde Thing red and white blends will soon be offering great value at your local corner shop for £7.    The Silver Collection will come in at about £11 a bottle, but for a real treat splurge on the Platinum if you can find it.

Picture 229

Picture 229

Lisa McGuigan Silver Collection

No longer a joke – Italy’s sublime, lesser-known northern white wines

22 May

“An Italian wine-tasting would have been considered a joke 30 years ago, particularly of all whites”, confessed the illustrious wine critic Tim Atkin at Enoteca Turi the other night.   This excellent Italian restaurant in Putney, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, was paying tribute to the wines of Italy’s most northerly wine regions, Alto Adige and Friuli, and The Wine Wanderers were drawn by the fabulous regional food as well as the sublime and delicate wines.

Alto Adige, also known as South Tirol, the hilly far north of Italy where road signs are also in German and some winemakers still wear lederhosen, is home to the country’s best pinot grigio.  This is, however, a grape which has been single-handedly responsible for Italy’s poor reputation for white wines.   The cheap supermarket variety grown on the flats is so popular simply because it’s inoffensive, with no distinct taste profile, Atkins rightly pointed out, but give the grape some altitude and a decent winemaker and you have a completely different animal.   We loved the 2013 from Hotstatter which was served as an aperitif to complement lovely nibbles like fried potato and cheese cakes and mackerel in sweet-sour sauce.

But it was a pinot bianco from Alto Adige served with a sublime starter of meltingly soft smoked duck breast with horseradish sauce  – that Germanic influence again – which really gripped our tastebuds.   It was a Vorberg Riserva 2010 from Cantina Terlano, one of the most acclaimed growers in the region.  We also enjoyed their Quartz sauvignon bianco 2012 which accompanied a plateful of black cannelloni filled with skrei, the new cod sensation from Norway, and served with cuttlefish ragout – to die for.    The Gewurtztraminer Kolbenhof from Hofstatter also served with this course was a reminder that Alto Adige is where this most perfumed of grapes made its name, even though its reputation was perfected in Alsace.

It was to the north-east for the main course; Friuli Venezia Giulia adjoins Slovenia in Italy’s easternmost corner, and makes the same style of delicate, fragrant white wine.   We enjoyed the Studio di Bianco 2008 from Borgo del Tiglio with our turbot, scallops and risotto of barley, crab, safron and courgette flower, more even than the very posh Ribollo Gialla Pettarin Colli Orientali del Friuli 2011, which is so rare the restaurant had an allocation of just a handful of bottles.

Finally, also from Friuli, a beautiful dessert wine redolent with dried fruit – Le Vigne di Zamo Vola Vola, which made the most beautiful partner for a berry tart with ginger cream and rhubarb jelly which was like late spring on a plate.     If the food at Enoteca Turi threatened to eclipse even these finest of wines, it’s no surprise – their new head chef, Michaele Blasi, helped his last restaurant, Sadler’s in Milan, win two Michelin stars.  Lucky Putney-dwellers, having Enoteca as their local – their Italian food is some of the best we’ve eaten in London, and they have a great list showcasing fine wines from every region of Italy.

Tuscan Delights and White Surprises in the Heart of Chiantishire

4 May

Tuscan Delights and White Surprises in the Heart of Chiantishire.

Tuscan Delights and White Surprises in the Heart of Chiantishire

4 May

The Wine Wanderers were looking forward to drinking  decent sangiovese, which too rarely makes it to UK supermarket shelves, when they visited Tuscany last week,   At its most joyous, a fine Chianti Classico, at its grandest an austere Brunello from Montalcino, in the south of the region.

We were served both at Castello del Nero, an elegant wine-producting hotel whose list has been voted one of the world’s best by The Wine Spectator.   The estate is in the heart of the Tuscan Hills overlooking Antinori, known for its Super-Tuscans.  These are the fine wines which better producers fielded in the 70s to improve the rep of a region tarnished by a wealth of indifferent chianti in the preceding decades.

Antinori’s Tignanello was among the first of these – 80 per cent sangiovese tempered with 20 per cent cabernet sauvignon.  The 2011 vintage was the first wine served at the tasting the Castello lays on for guests – and the only one we actively disliked in three days of sublime tasting.  Tough and tannic, it was a relief to move on to Antinori’s Badia a Passignano 2009, one of the most delicious Chianti Classicos we have ever tasted, no doubt reflecting its age and 14 months in oak.   Even more toothsome than the Brunello of the same age from La Gerla which completed the tasting.

So much for the reds – it was the whites served during our stay which were the biggest surprises of the trip.  Who knew vermentino, more closely associated with Sardinia and LIguria, was also produced in Tuscany?   Not us, but now we’ll be on the lookout for La Pettegola vermentino from Banfi, a perfect accompaniment to spinach and ricotta-stuffed tortellini and tiramisu made that morning in  a cooking class with the hotel’s Michelin-starred chef, Giovanni Luca di Pirro.

Even more delicious – memorable, in fact – was a white which had nothing to do with Tuscany except pairing beautifully with chef Giovanni’s slow-cooked egg with asparagus and broad been salad served in the Castello’s fine dining La Torre restaurant.   The Confini 2012 from Lis Niris in Friuli Venizia Giulia  was an incredibly flocal blend of gewurtztraminer, pinot grigio and riseling grapes, a reminder of what elegant and fragrant wines are produced in that sometimes overlooked north-eastern corner of Italy.

Back to the reds – of the Castello’s own production,  the use of merlot in their blends gives them a certain seductiveness, and we particularly enjoyed the Levriero, which is 80 per cent merlot, with sangiovese and cab sauv added for a bit of structure.  But it’s also worth mentioning that the Castello’s own olive oil is good enough to drink, and supplies are dwindling fast, thanks to  the 2014 harvest having failed completely.

Sauvignon gris from New Zealand and some other spectacular but affordable whites

16 Feb

The Wine Wanderers have felt silenced these past few months by a visit to Lyon, where we drank just too much wonderful wine and found ourselves divided between the joys of Burgundy and Rhone, a question which also regularly taxes the Lyonnais.   But it did remind us of how much we adore a fine, white Burgundy  and how nothing quite substitutes for that classy, buttery hit mitigated with a hint of flint which is a simply sumptuous partner for a great piece of fish or a top-class chicken.

Meursault and Montrachet are beyond us at British prices, but our Christmas came early this year courtesy of a Waitrose promotion which included their own-label White Burgundy.   Even at the regular price of £8.99, this chardonnay from 40-year-old vines is a steal at any time of year; it tastes as if it should cost at least 50% more, and when regularly promoted at 25% off, like a bottle twice the price.

This is one of the wines we feel moved to buy by the case when on special, and it’s about to be joined by another supermarket find.   Sauvignon gris is much less well-known to British imbibers than the sauvignon gris which can be superb at its best but quite indifferent at its worst.

The sauvignon gris just tasted from Brancott, New Zealand winemakers who pioneered the original Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, have come up with a spectacular new wine which has all that “cat’s pee under a gooseberry bush” quality you associate with a great Loire white.   Green, mineral and utterly seductive.    This IWSC gold medal winner seems a better buy at £10.49 than Brancott’s not so special sauv blanc, and just a shame Sainsburys aren’t listing it yet, though Tesco, ASDA and Ocado, active promoters all, have added it.    Will make it in bulk to our own trolleys once we spot it at £8 or less, though worth every penny of the full price.

If sauvignon gris deserves to be better known, so does roussanne, a white grape which usually only makes it into blends yet  can be spectacular on its own.   I enjoyed my first 100 per cent roussanne in a restaurant in Jaffa two years ago – it was a revelation – and my second a few weeks ago in Tucson’s great western restaurant, Cowboy Ciao.   That one was made in Washington state and unlikely to make it over here, but happily the Tabor Adama roussanne from Israel has started shipping here now.   Not quite so affordable at £15.99, but it has been available on promotion through Amazon for £14 a bottle, and is worth keeping a lookout for – classy and delicious.

More white wine grapes are being planted in Israel all the time, and producing bottles which are a knockout in the hands of experienced winemakers.   Small production has kept prices high, but as wineries get bigger – Tabor had a huge cash injection from Coca-Cola, who have had the sense to give their talented agronomist and winemaker full autonomy, and Dalton, founded by Brits, is one of the largest in Israel making quality wine – affordable bottles really worth drinking are coming on-stream.    Watch this space for comment about Dalton’s Fume Blanc, another grape flourishing far from its original home.

Let’s hear it for the wines of the Loire – elegant summer drinking

3 Aug

When the Wine Wanderers were invited to a dinner matching wines of the Loire to Indian dishes at London’s Cinnamon Club, we had a couple of preconceptions to get our heads around.   First, that dry wines make good partners for spicy food – our natural choice would be a gewurtztraminer – and secondly that there was sufficient variety in Loire wines to get excited about.

 
Laurent Chaniac, the restaurant’s wine buyer,  changed our minds, at least to some extent, serving unexpected partners to the delectable dishes at this clubby Westminster restaurant which strives more towards haute cuisine than its rivals in the capital whose Indian food has earned a Michelin star.   But we didn’t love all the wines we tasted,  certainly not the Savennieres which came with our king prawns with cardamom and green mango-coconut chutney.  Chenin blanc is a difficult grape to get right, and we haven’t been able to embrace it since being put off by some horrible domestic vintages when we lived in California.

What the Loire is rightly most famous for is Sancerre, about as perfect a sauvignon blanc as you’ll find to accompany fish and seafood, so no complaints about the 2008 Sancerre Moularde by CC.   But when we followed the Cinnamon Club dinner with our own tasting of Loires on the high street, we realised there IS a better Loire white out there than Sancerre, our old favourite Pouilly-Fume, which Chaniac chose not to showcase at the dinner.   The “fume” is said to refer either to the flint in the limestone where it grows, or the early morning fog which often blankets the Loire, but either way, it’s just that much more rich and sumptuous than the more austere Sancerre.

We took bottles of both these queens of the Loire to a cottage in Cornwall, where the voluptuous Pouilly-Fume Les Charmelles from Waitrose made a super partner for home-cooked lobster with lemony butter, and we were also impressed by the Signature Poullly-Fume from Morrisons.     But a nice Sancerre from M&S wasn’t bad either – we tasted a couple from their selection, of which Le Mont is currently a great buy on a 25 per cent off promotion, bringing the price below £10, a rare opportunity.   Also on this promotion is Les Ruettes, which won Gold in this year’s International Wine Challenge.

Before leaving whites, it’s worth noting that cheaper than either Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume, Muscadet is another barely talked-about Loire which makes a great partner for seafood. although it inexpllicably fell out of fashion a couple of decades ago and has never really hit the radar since.   It’s invariably better bottled “sur lie”, which means straight from the tankm without filtering.  We  enjoyed a great bottle of Sainsburys Taste the Difference in this category, outstanding value at £7.

We had been excited about the prospect of tasting a pinot noir, one of our favourite grapes, at the Loire dinner, but were warned those made in this region could be deeply disappointing, and tasting a red Sancerre from M&S, we could see why.   Much more successfully cultivated in this region is the cabernet franc grape, the mainstay of both Chinon and Saumur appellations.

The Saumur-Champigny Cuvee Bruyn 2010 by CC was a great partner for Romney Marsh lamb with sesame-tamarind sauce,  but at home it’s a whole raft of Chinons from the high street we’ve really enjoyed with light meats like veal and chicken.   Notably Les Complices de Loire Les Graviers, though it’s only available in 17 branches of Waitrose, and the more widely available Domaine du Colombier from Sainsburys, a particularly nice drop at £7, two-thirds the price of Les Graviers.

Overall, we feel you can’t go wrong with Muscadet when summer shellfish is on the menu, but if you’re going to push the boat out, a Pouilly-Fume for around the same price as a Sancerre delivers extra richness.  And that Chinon can be a perfect summer red, so long as you appreciate that it’s meant to be light, elegant and slightly chalky and totally different from the rich, ripe fruity reds of the south.