Tag Archives: chardonnay

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.

Advertisements

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

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

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

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.

The Beautiful South Part Deux – Languedoc rocks!

8 Jun

Having quashed our misconceptions that there’s little quality wine  being made in Languedoc, the WineWanderers were invited by the Foncalieu cooperative to get down to southwestern France and see for themselves some great drops which are being produced in the area.

First, we had to get over some more preconceptions – that every label has its own winemaker, and that every grower of top-quality grapes makes their own wine.   Foncalieu is a giant cooperative, bringing 1200 growers together over 5000 diverse hectares stretching from Languedoc east to the Rhone Valley and north into Gascony.    The business grew out of Languedoc’s very first co-op, established by 128 winegrowers in 1901.

There seems to be a single winemaker – and she had not yet arrived during our stay in Corbieres to replace another female winemaker whose effots have   won accolades for the group.   It’s a fairly astonishing achievement that all four of the co-op’s Grands Vins celebrating the area’s winegrowing heritage were awarded more than 90 points by the redoubtable – and influential – US wine critic Robert Parker when vintages were submitted for the first time in 2012.

Much of the credit must go to the resident oenologist Gabriel Ruetsch, who brings much expertise from his native stomping-ground, the Mendoza wine country of Argentina.  He has been responsible for establishing strict wine management specifications and vinification plans requiring  an understanding of the very different terroirs within the region.

We focussed on the Languedoc lines, starting with entry-level Le Versant, most of which goes to restaurants, but luckily for us is also stocked by our local Secret Cellar.

We were less impressed by the pinot noir and viognier which are UK best-sellers  than the rose – what a stylish drop for the price, full of South of France joie de vivre – and the merlot, which Ruetsch is particularly proud of, as it’s a grape hard to make a good wine from in this territory.   In the similarly-priced Enseduna range, we enjoyed the 100 per cent petit verdot, a grape reduced to blending status in Bordeaux; well-made, it can certainly stand on its own.

We stayed at one of Foncalieu’s latest acquisitions, the Chateau Haut-Gleon in the Corbieres countryside.   But its gites, swimming pool and stony vineyards were less of a thrill than its elegant wines, which command top-end prices.   Overcoming one more misconception – that a rose has to be pale to be elegant – we really enjoyed Chateau Haut-Gleon, a  strawberry-coloured pink made of 80% syran and just 20% of that south of France rose staple, grenache.  It was dry, full-bodied and joyous, and we also enjoyed the 2008 red, comprising 45% syrah, 30% grenache and 25% carignan from old vines.

Of the four Grands Vins we particularly enjoyed Le Lien, a Minervois whose 2011 vintage is rich and ready to drink, unlike the higher-scoring La Lumiere, a Corbieres which will need another couple of years to come into its prime.  Both are 100 per cent syrah, but quite different in style.

Back home, we were keen to see what the high street had to offer in quality Languedoc, being mostly supermarket wine shoppers ourselves.  We found elegance from Waitrose in both the Chateau de Caraguilhes Corbieres 2012 and the 2011 Maris Minervois, both around £10 per bottle.  But Marks and Spencer have really bagged themselves a star in Domaine de Fontseque, a heady blend of 40% carignan, 30% grenache noir, 20& syrah and 10% mourvedre, worth every penny of £10.99 to complement a weekend dinner.

Once again, as the sun made a reappearance and fish got on to the menu, we were reminded that  the south also produces phenomenal whites.  We loved both M&S’s Chateau de Flaugergues and Waitroses’ Domaine Begude, a rich but fresh chardonnay from the Limoux near Carcassonne.    The Flaugergues is 80% Rolle, otherwise known as vermentino, a grape which does so well in Languedoc, especially when combined as here with grenache blanc. In fact grenache in all its colours – watch out for more grenache gris appearing in blends – is the great glory of the Beautiful South and reason alone to try a drop or three of Languedoc now summer is finally here.

A Weekend in England’s Wine Country

28 Jan

It’s become a source of pride for The Wine Wandeerers to say we live in England’s wine country, now that our beautiful floral whites are being taken seriously and our bubbly winning international blind tasting awards against the grandes marques of Champagne. So we were quick to accept an invitation to visit Chapel Down, now the country’s biggest wine producer and, given its stash of medals, many would say the best.

Chapel Down sits just outside the lovely mediaeval village of Tenterden, but we preceded our visit with a night across the Sussex border at the seaside.    Here, The Gallivant Hotel at Camber Snds  fields a restaurant serving the kind of simple but inventive food which showcases good wine better than any tasting cellar, and we tasted a few bottles of Chapel Down which really came into their own with chef Ben Fisher’s culinary inspirations.

Our sommelier chose Kit’s Cody 2011, a 100 per cent chardonnay to accompany Ben’s pigeon breast and confit leg with cauliflower couscous. That’s significant in itself, as it’s only in the past few years that climate change has made production of English chardonnay, which requires a longer growing season than other grapes grown here, even possible.

The chardonnay was very good, but it was the Bacchus Reserve 2012 which followed it which produced the first gasps of surprised appreciation. The intense floral notes and absolute delicacy are what make still English whites so special, and this was a gorgeous bottle, which did not overwhelm Ben’s crab ravioli, flavoured with enough tarragon and fennel to stand up to the wine.

What really knocked our socks off, though, was the Pinot Noir 2011 which came with a sublime dish of Romney Marsh lamb, the local meat which really deserves a PDO of its own. Making reds in a country with a limited amount of sunshine is always going to be a challenge, and the hard to make pinot noir is the greatest challenge of all. This one had the fabulous, seductive nose and crystal-clear clarity you expect from a good pinot noir, and followed through absolutely on flavour. We found out later at the vineyard that there are only a few bottles left, and the 2012 is not of the same ilk, so this is a bottle to bag quickly, in person at the vineyard or online.

Apparently reds are not what people go to Chapel Down for – they come for the famous award-winning bubbly, and often leave with a bottle of Nectar, the limited quantity dessert wine. The 2013 will not be released for more than a year now, but we had a preview with Ben’s utterly sensational chocolate and peanut butter slice. This time the wine took a back seat, not surprisingly given the robust flavours of the dessert.
Next morning we diverted to Winchelsea, another great little town the other side of Rye with a great deli-cafe, Winchelsea Farm Foods, which showcases fine local produce including the organic meat of Elm’s Farm. We picked up great lamb, beef and pork before stopping at the vineyard for lunch at the elegant Swan Bistro, which serves what might be the best home-made white bread in Britain, and a taste of some vintages we hadn’t yet sampled. The Flint Dry white which was a good partner to ham hock terrine and picallili was a revelation- 60 per cent chardonnay blended with three other grapes – pinot blanc plus the unpronounceable Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner, it packed more of a punch than the 11.5% ABV suggests. The Union Red was not so impressive – it’s worth forking out the extra few quid for the sensational pinot noir to see what Chapel Down can do with a red.

The bubblies are always going to be the stars of the show at Chapel Down, and we feel the pinks are still the best. Decanter agreed, awarding the Rose Brut NV a Gold last year, and it also bagged a bronze in the International Wine and Spirit Competition. Strawberry notes are its most famous characteristic, and interestingly actual strawberry juice features in a much less well-known Chapel Down product, their curiously-named Curious Apple No. 1 cider. The Wine Wanderer who is a cider connoisseur actually felt he preferred it to any of the bubblies we tasted this year!