Tag Archives: pinot noir

Summer in a bottle – gorgeous golden pinks from Provence and surprises from further afield

5 Jul

In a midsummer made for pink wine drinking, the Wine Wanderers have challenged themselves to reconsider roses made outside the South of France.   It was a wrench; it’s hard to turn away from the beautiful golden-pink wines which characterise Cotes de Provence and have a quality mostly absent from pinks made elsewhere.  It’s what Jean-Michel Deluc, former head sommelier of the Paris Ritz, speaking of the Clos de l’Ours CdP he sells through Le Petit Ballon, so aptly describes as “a stony minerality”.

Our prejudice against deeper-pink wines which often lack any hint of minerality has been fed over the years by some horrid Rose d’Anjou and even nastier “blush” zinfandel first encountered when the Wanderers lived in California.   It was a shock to return to these shores and find that white zinfandel had followed us – but we were close enough to France to pick up endless five-euro bottles of Cotes de Provence in French supermarkets which never disappointed, despite the bargain basement price.

CdP has now made it on to UK supermarket shelves, riding the crest of a wave of Brits’ preference for pale pink roses, but costs twice as much here as it does in France, thanks to the duty.   The Wanderers enjoyed Laithwaite’s gorgeous golden-pink Domaine Les Gres(£10.99 or £9.89 if buying 12) but felt it was a bit pricey.    At least both Sainsburys and Waitrose, whose own label CdP’s are decent value on promotion if also pricey otherwise at £8-9, have ramped up their range of pinks in light of sales of tens of million bottles every year and made some good finds elsewhere.

It’s not only in Provence where a preponderance of grenache makes for a great drop. Having established on a visit to Langedoc-Roussillon how good winemakers there are at blending this grape with syrah(viz. the excellent value L’Or du Sud by Foncalieu, £5.49 at Lidl), we ventured further north, enjoying a £6 Winemaker’s Selection Cotes de Rhone from Sainsburys, which also blends grenache with Syrah.  Ditto an £8  Barrihuela Rioja Rosado – here the grenache is spelled garnacha – perhaps a little finer than the excellent value £4.99 Rioja rosado from Lidl.

Laithwaites’ Pillastro Rosato from Puglia presented the first challenge to our prejudiced palates, not only because it was a slightly suspect strawberry pink, but because the grape was primitivo, the progenitor of zinfandel.   While not as sweet and nasty as the “blush” zinfandel we used to drink in California, the Pillastro was still too jammy for our taste, and a reminder that primitivo/zinfandel does have an inherent sweetness which is subsumed by the alcohol when it appears as a joyous red.    Similarly, we love red pinot noir, but not the New World pink pinot noirs tasted from various sources – a bit sweet and a bit fizzy for our tastebuds.

Specially worth mentioning is a great rose from Greece we approached with anticipation, remembering a wonderful cheap as chips rose enjoyed with barbecued pork in a remote corner of Mykonos.   Twin Sails, a Waitrose exclusive, is made from the xinomavro grape, another variety usually reserved for reds but this one performing perfectly as a fragrant pink with not a hint of unwanted sweetness.   Fabulous value at an everyday price of £5.99, all you should really have to pay for a wine that looks and tastes like summer in a bottle.

Picking pinot noir in Sussex – England rocks the world’s most elegant red grape

18 Oct

 Last week the Wine Wanderers helped harvest some prime examples of their favourite grape – happily grown down the road  from where we live in deepest Sussex.   Amazing England now has enough sun to grow decent pinot noir; the Bolney Estate, where we did our own bit of picking and sorting, and Chapel Down just across the border in Kent both make fine examples.

“Experts are predicting pinot noir will become the nation’s go-to bottle,” says Sam Linter, MD and head winemaker at Bolney, who says research shows our nation of white wine drinkers is now buying more red than white for the first time.   Certainly pinot noir, so light and elegant compared to sledgehammer grapes like shiraz and malbec, would be the varietal most likely to convert a white-wine drinker.

As Bolney is predicting a bumper crop, thanks to the Wimbledon heat assisting flowering this year, we were glad to help Sam with a morning’s labour and see the beautiful estate while some of the pinot noir – astonishingly, considering how much gorgeous floral, fragrant white wine we produce in the UK, is our second most prolific grape – were still on the vine.

It was Sam’s parents who planted the first three acres in 1972, creating what was then only the sixth commercial vineyard in England.   Now Bolney’s vines have expanded more than tenfold across 39 acres, with a state of the art winery leading to a UK Wine Producer of the Year title in the 2012 IWSC(International Wine and Spirit Competition).

It was strange to learn that the soil through which we trudged is known as Upper Tunbridge Wells Sand, and interesting that Bolney’s  pinot noir grapes flower two weeks earlier than the norm, so we clipped bunches off the vines in pouring rain feeling relieved professional pickers had already got in most of the crop.   Then we helped on the sorting tables; Bolney is almost unique in sorting grapes before they’re pressed, apparently.

We warmed up from the cold and wet with a glass of Bolney’s pink bubbly, which is also made from 100 per cent pinot noir; pale and delicious, no wonder it’s accumulated a slew of awards.  As for the still wine, which we enjoyed with some Burwash Rose from our excellent local Stonegate Dairy, the 2013 vintage took silver in this year’s International Wine Challenge.

English wine remains pricey, thanks to small production, but it deserves to reach a wider home audience.  Forward-looking Sussex hotels like Ockenden Manor, where we stayed the night before and enjoyed a superb dinner by Michelin-starred chef Stephen Crane, supports Bolney and other local wineries.   Those not close enough to drink it on the doorstep can find the pinot noir at Waitrose, which is leading supermarkets in championing English wines, for £15.99 a bottle.   Just the thing for a special Sunday lunch or, down the line, to accompany the Christmas turkey.

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

The Beautiful South – rebuilding the rep for fine wine in undervalued Languedoc

26 May

The WineWanderers were invited to Languedoc-Roussillon to see what’s new in the land of syrah, grenache and carignan, not to mention a fascinating selection of white grapes rarely seen outside the region.


It’s a massive area, stretching west along the coast and hilly hinterland from Nimes to the Spanish border, and for years it’s been fighting to live down a bad rep which was the legacy of a load of cheap, badly-made wine grown on the flats.   These days, however, it is home to thousands of more mindful growers who realise the future lies in quality rather than quantity, and several inspired wine-makers making some of the most exciting and under-valued French wine on the market.


More accessible than Bordeaux and Burgundy, whose reds require more time – and cost – to achieve decent drinking potential, the wines of the beautiful south are surprising for the fresh, zingy whites they produce as well as the rich reds and gorgeous golden roses for which the South of France is famous.
Cotes de Provence rose remains one of the most joyous and consistently great-value drops on the planet – it’s annoying that Brits have to pay £7.99 for a bottle which costs around €5 on its home turf.     But for quite a bit less – £6 a bottle on promotion – we found that same joy in Sainsburys Winemaker’s Selection Languedoc Rose – also a blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah, albeit in different proportions.   Their Taste The Difference  Languedoc White was every bit as fresh and fragrant, thanks to a high proportion of grenache blanc.


A truly revelationary Languedoc white which came at us even before we left London was Mas Coutelou’s Pm, an astonishingly rich blend of grenache gris, muscat and sauvignon gris grown so close to the sands around Montpellier, you can almost taste and smell the Med before it gets to your lips.   It’s one of the increasing number of natural wines grown in the Languedoc with practically no added sulphur.   While this can affect consistency from one vintage to another, that’s never a problem with Pm, whose tiny production of just 1500 bottles inevitably sells out, in spite of the hefty £17+ per bottle price tag.  Roberson Wines has what’s left of the 2012.


Pm was the white surprise served up by Bastien, the young Languedoc-born sommelier at Hibiscus, a Michelin-starred London restaurant with an excellent list, including many natural wines.   The red was Le Pigeonnier from Terrasse d’Elise, a surprisingly smooth 100 per cent carignan.   Usually saved for blends, quaffable wines made entirely of carignan are a big ask, but not if they are made with low-yielding grapes from old vines, which mellow and become less tough as they approach their half-century.  Winemaker Xavier Braujou comes at his vines in the mountains behind Montpellier from the perspective of his early days as a woodcutter, spending years observing their behaviour in different soils and climates.   This is a stonking wine available in the UK from Lea&Sandeman at £16.50 per bottle, case price.


Final surprises before we got as far as Foncalieu Wines, the largest cooperative in Languedoc, came on the doorstep itself, in Carcassonne, where the cooperative has its HQ.    Baptiste, the young sommelier at the Barbacane restaurant in the Hotel de la Cite, served up In Fine, a rich, fragrant mixture of grenache blanc and grenache gris, to partner jellied veal’s head with little cubes of goose liver pate, peas and carrots.   This wonderful white from Cave de l’Abbe Rous is a Collioure, made on the doorstep of the Spanish border.
From the Haute Vallee de l’Aude, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Baptiste served up a  surprisingly good  Domaine de Mouscaillo pinot noir to go with the Bresse chicken with the morels.   Who knew they could make wonderful pinot noir in an area perceived to be too warm and too flat(get up into the hills and it’s neither(?    As we were to find out at Foncalieu,  an even greater challenge for the region is to make a decent Merlot.   More to come about our adventures on the ground – but meanwhile, take a closer look at Languedoc when combing the wine shelves for an interesting drop at a fair price.

From Slovenia with love – zelen, sauvignonasse and pinot noir to die for

14 May

The Wine Wanderers have tracked some great bottles to the cellar door on their travels, most often from some restaurant in France to a vineyard down the road.   But this time a glass of pinot noir in a London gastro-pub drove one of us 1000 miles to Slovenia to find the genius who made it.

That restaurant was The Jugged Hare, which inspiredly featured Marjan Simcic as winemaker of the month.  They were in good company; Simcic’s award-winning wines are listed by The Fat Duck, China Tang and good restaurants across the globe.   The wine was a pinot noir so staggeringly good, it was no surprise it commanded £16 per glass in the City.

Turns out Simcic is a fifth-generation wine-maker in Slovenia’s Goriska Brda region skirting the Italian border who has won countless international awards – and his pinot noir is just the start.   Marjan’s wife, Valerija, presented a sumptuous sauvignon blanc 2009 matured in oak, a gorgeous 2007 merlot from their Opoka range, named for the stone which peppers the soil, and the 2010 vintage of that heart-stopping pinot noir.  We also recommend Simcic’s pinot grigio, which knocked our socks off at the earthily delightful Jugged Hare.

Simcic was one of several top-class winemakers visited in this region and the nearby Vipava valley whose bottles deserve to be better-known.  They include Sutor, whose pinot noir 2008 is divine and whose malvasia won a Decanter silver medal in 2009.   The 2011 vintage was sumptuous, ditto Sutor’s 2010 sauvignon blanc.

Scurek, another five-generation winemaking dynasty on the border, has won gold for their Stara Braida white, a blend of the indigenous(but difficult as a single varietal) rebula with sauvignonasse, malvasia and a touch of  piccolit.  This last is usually a sweet wine in Slovenia, but Scurek makes a dry version which is to die for; sumptuous enough to partner foie gras, great with cheese and amazing even without food.  Scurek’s Stara Braida red  was as close as I came to any of the country’s seductive refosk; 25% of it joins merlot, cabernet franc and a little cab sauv in a heady blend.   But I wish I’d been close enough to the Adriatic coast to visit Santomas, whose own 2005 refosk, tasted at Valvas’or in Ljubljana, was sublime.

Valvas’or also introduced me to a drop-dead-gorgeous sauvignonasse from natural winemaker Borut Blazic, whose vineyards fell into Italy when the border was redrawn.  He makes only 3000 bottles from this grape (known as tokai friulano before the EU forced a name change);  the 2006 is spectacular.   Blazic has a US agent but no UK distribution, and my mission is to spread the word; this white deserves publicity!

Ljubljana’s best restaurant, the excellent and innovative JB, makes a point of showcasing Slovenia’s best wines, and I have them to thank for an introduction to a super zelen.  This grape, exclusive to the Vipava valley, is a revelation and makes the best possible aperitif in a country full of great wine; the best I tasted was by Pasji Rep and came in a distinctive woman-shaped bottle.

Italian wines – so much more than a profusion of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio

22 Apr

You probably have to go to Italy to appreciate the fantastic variety of wines of high quality that never make it to mainstream quaffers on this side of the Channel.   Brits have picked up the Prosecco habit, but when it comes to still wine are too easily sidelined by poor Pinot Grigio, cheap Chianti and mediocre Montepulciano which undersell the considerable skill of Italy’s great wine-makers.

A trip to Florence and Venice last week brought this into sharp focus, as this particular Wine Wanderer was soon disabused of the knee-jerk response: “If this is Tuscany, it’s got to be a Brunello.”  In the cellars of the majestically monastic Villa San Michele, high above Florence, the lady sommelier explained that these days Brunello doesn’t exclusively refer to the fine, rich Sangiovese of Montalcino.    We were sipping a Merlot di Brunello, and what a very voluptous drop it was; merlot is currently the grape du jour among Tuscan’s more innovative wine-makers, I was told.

Merlot di Brunello was not the only great red wine I drank in Florence last week.   Lunch in the fabulous Loggia restaurant of the Villa San Michele, which sits five miles above the town in Fiesole, looking down on the Duomo, started with a fresh cabernet franc blend from the Tuscan coast, and dinner with a sumptuous pinot nero from Coldaia.   Who knew the Italians had grasped the difficult art of making not just stonkers like Barolo and super-Tuscans, but  elegant pinot noir?    Eventually we got to a Brunello di Montalcino from Frescobaldi, but great as it was, the merlot and pinot noir-sorry, nero – were equally sumptous.   But nobody should leave Tuscany without trying one good Brunello di Montalcino, because wine of this quality costs an arm and a leg in Britain.

A word here about whites, which understandably get overlooked in Tuscany, with so much bistecca and red to drink with it.  The Tuscans also make Vernaccia, a grape which has travelled as far as M&S without managing to impress me.   But the Loggia serves a fabulous Vernaccia Panizzi Riserva 2008 made in San Gimignano – the secret, I suspect, is in that bottle age; utterly fabulous.

Moving on to Venice brought more surprises from another lady sommelier, this time at the Cipriani; the sommelier’s art is one an increasing number of women are endowing with a special empathy.   Loved the Schiopetto from neighbouring Friuli served at Cip’s restaurant on the banks of la Giudecca, full of personality and a lot richer than many of the vapid whites of the Veneto proper.   Even better discoveries followed at Orto dei Mori next day, a great little osteria on a backwater in Cannaregio where the proprietor really knows his wines.   We had two great whites with a long seafood lunch – Ribolla Gialla from Casella, another rich Friuli, and a Gramine 2009 from Longariva in the Dolomites,  aromatic and almost pink in intensity of gold, “with a touch of frivolity” according to our host, Giulio Gentile of Orient Express Hotels, who makes wine himself on his estate in Tuscany.

So glad I managed to avoid Prosecco and Pinot Grigio for four days – not my bag, however good.  And having gone on to taste some top drops in Croatia, I’m thinking it must be the Adriatic influencing such great wines from the north of Italy and neighbouring Istria.   Watch this space…