by Paul Howard
on Jul 6, 2010
I have recently returned from an inspirational trip to Valpolicella, where the Amarone wines – those dry and complex, alcoholic yet sumptuous Vini di Meditazione made from dried grapes – are revelling in their newly upgraded and long overdue DOCG status. That amarone has gone a long way to re-establishing the reputation of the Valpolicella region is not in doubt and production continues to increase.
But what of Valpolicella itself, the lighter bodied red wine, the so-called normale? It’s made from the same grapes as amarone – blending corvina, corvinone and rondinella alongside small quantities of other indigenous grapes. However, fresh rather than dried grapes are usually employed, so that a refreshing medium-bodied red wine of modest alcohol and sour cherry fruit is made. Yet so much of Valpolicella disappoints, traduced by over cropping and bulk industrial production, reinforcing a perception that it is cheap and cheerful.
Another reason for dull examples of Valpolicella is, ironically, the demand for Amarone. The grapes used for Amarone are usually the best selection from those same vineyards used for Valpolicella – up to 70% of the harvest is allowed to be used for amarone. Where a producer selects a high proportion then only a rump of lesser quality grapes is left over for the Valpolicella – not a recipe for great wine.
As may be expected, the best producers are devoted to making excellent wines throughout their ranges, meaning that Valpolicella is capable of being a fine and delicious red wine in its own right. The best are made without the need to be beefed up by clever techniques such as Ripasso, where the spent Amarone grapes are added to the new wine and an ensuing second fermentation adds colour, alcohol and body. Of those, one of the most remarkable is from Ca’ La Bionda, run by the Castellani family, located in the heart of the Classico region near Negrar. They have 29 hectares of vines based around the spectacular fossiliferous limestone hillside of Ravazzol. Alessandro Castellani showed me around; he spent the year after graduation from wine-school working at the splendid Tuscan estate of Isole e Olena. They (and no doubt their splendid Supertuscan wine called Cepparello) have clearly inspired him.
Ca’ La Bionda stopped using chemicals in 1998. Ca’ La Bionda uses organics to make the best wine they can while also creating the legacy of a healthy environment for the family and their descendants. Alessandro said that that organic conversion was hard; in the first three years, insect pests ravaged the crop. But then the vineyards found their natural equilibrium. Now this winegrowing philosophy extends to the new purpose built winery – for example, using wild yeasts for fermentation, using minimal levels of sulphur, letting gravity to move the wine from vat to cask and paying attention to lunar phases when racking and bottling. Alessandro himself is a very thoughtful highly skilled winegrower who tastes widely, to learn from comparing the wines with others from Valpolicella and around the world. There’s no Italian campanilismo here, and this openness and questing approach is surely the key to the excellence of the wines.
Allesandro told me that the Valpolicella “is not trying to be a great wine”, meaning that it is the entry-level wine, made in stainless steel and seeing no oak maturation, designed to be enjoyed young. But that does not mean that it isn’t made with skill and care. The grapes used have not had an amarone selection taken from them, meaning that this Valpolicella includes the best of the harvest, predominantly corvina and corvinone, with 20% rondinella and 5% other indigenous grapes such as molinara and oseleta. They are handpicked and the main varieties are fermented separately. 60% are fermented as whole bunches, the rest being de-stemmed. After fermentation the wine remains in stainless steel until it is blended and bottled unfiltered some three months later. No oak, whether traditional large cask or modern French barrique, is ever used.
The result is a fresh, aromatic and fruity wine without high levels of tannin designed for young drinking. It’s a medium-ruby colour, with a nose showing floral, violet-tinged notes and crushed red berries (red cherry, raspberry and cranberry). The palate, while being relatively light and with moderate alcohol, is deliciously refreshing, thanks to lovely silken-textured acidity. The sour cherry fruit is delightfully pure and clean, very precise before a gentle and spicy fade. This is not a red wine made for power and complexity or indeed deep reflection. But then again it isn’t remotely weedy; rather it achieves balance and a surprising elegance with a sigh of pleasure. Drink now- don’t keep it, enjoy it while at maximum freshness and by then the next vintage will be out.
It also makes a wonderful companion to antipasti – serve with salami, rocket and parmesan shavings with a little olive oil as a dressing.
I also strongly urge you to discover the other Ca’ La Bionda wines. Their Valpolicella Classico Superiore Casal Vegri lives up to the superior billing, being a single vineyard wine aged for 20 months in large oak casks. This is a very serious Valpolicella; again beautiful drinking when young, yet it will be better for a couple of years keeping and unusually has the ability to age for a decade. Meanwhile, their Amarone Ravazzol remains one of the best available, a single-vineyard wine with power, caressing richness and complexity. The current 2006 release can be enjoyed young but another decade or so in bottle will reveal awesome complexity, judging by the 1998 vintage, the first year they made it.
by Paul Howard
on May 29, 2010
Le Soula was created in 2001 as a partnership between UK wine importers Richards Walford and local biodynamic superstar Gérard Gauby, who had found a number of old and abandoned vineyards with great potential. It now has 27 hectares of vines situated in the deep south of France in the Agly valley in and around the village of St. Martin de Fenouillet. The winery itself recently moved about 5 miles to refurbished and larger premises at Prugnanes; a visible sign of success.
Historically the reputation of the Agly valley was for vin ordinaire defined by high alcohol and a quaffing rusticity. Now this area has become one of the most exciting wine making regions in France, where a new generation of ambitious producers are using biodynamics and making magnificent wines from indigenous vines – and Le Soula, with Gauby’s guidance, have become one of the top exponents.
Le Soula make a simply stunning white wine but it is the red Soula Rouge that is featured here, an assemblage in 2005 of 25% ancient bush trained Carignan with 10% Syrah, 35% Grenache Noir and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, grapes that are all native to this part of France. The exact blend differs annually, based on the harvest conditions and although it might be similar in make-up to those from the Southern Rhône, it reveals all the terroir and finesse of the Agly valley.
The vineyards are populated with vines of various ages, the majority old, some now approaching their doddery centenary. Precious little else will grow commercially amidst the stone outcrops and scratchy thin granite and schist soils of the garrigue at an altitude of between 350 and 550 metres. Le Soula can be translated from the local Catalan as “sunny” but altitude means that the heat of the day is leavened by cooler nights, so ensuring slow ripening – always good for the creation of complexity and the retention of refreshing acidity in the grapes.
Le Soula’s winegrowing philosophy is to be as natural and “hands-off” as possible in the vineyard and the winery. Biodynamics is employed and they have now started on a journey to organic certification. Hence the fruit is handpicked and whole bunch fermented (stalks on) with wild yeasts. Extraction, the bane of so many modern warm-climate wines, is studiously avoided; the alcohol level of 13% is enough to balance the wine while leaving it easy to drink and a good match with food. As may be expected, there is no chaptalisation (the addition of artificial sugar), acidification or filtration.
After fermentation, a third of the wine is matured in 500 litre oak casks (30% of which are new), the rest aged in tank. There is therefore little overt wood influence. Final blending and bottling of this 2005 vintage took place after 18 months. Yields are usually low and in 2005 were 15 hl/ha, thanks to the exceptionally dry year – there’s no irrigation here! Just 8,400 bottles were made.
At five years old, I think this wine is now showing at the best stage of its development, though it has several years ahead of it. There’s a melding of primary fruit flavours but with the added complexity of some secondary development in bottle. It was decanted for an hour or so before serving as a precaution against the expected sediment.
In colour, a deep garnet core is attractively crimson edged. The nose has good intensity of red berry scents but with secondary notes poking through that will doubtless become more dominant over time. Earth, liquorice and tar show early after pouring, gamey hints appear if the wine is left longer in the glass.
This wine has restrained alcohol and a racy acidity that lends it a rather burgundian elegance and mouthfeel. A depth of red berry and damson fruit were perhaps to be expected, but the additional mulberry flavours were a pleasant surprise. On a long slow fade there is also a meaty and mineral complexity to tempt you back for more. Good concentration, balance and intensity mean that this is a stylish and exciting red wine.
Food wise, rack of lamb with plenty of rosemary works a treat. However, this versatile red wine will match a wide range of dishes, from charcuterie to winter stews.
Domaine Le Soula, Soula Rouge, Vin de Pays de Côtes Catalans, Roussillon, France, 2005. 13%. Biodynamic
by Paul Howard
on May 3, 2010
Laura di Collabiano welcomed me into the azienda kitchen of Tenuta di Valgiano, a sixteenth century estate some 250 metres above the river Sérchio, 10 km north of the lustrous town of Lucca. On a cold February night, a fire burned brightly within the huge open hearth, illuminating the room with a cheery glow. On the ancient farmhouse table stood a range of uncorked bottles reflecting the flickering light, guarded by Oscar, a large German Shepherd dog. Outside, nothing stirred in an inky darkness punctuated only by the distant lights of Lucca and an onshore breeze from the nearby coast. I had arrived to taste the wines from one of the most exciting properties in Tuscany, far from the dominion of Chianti or the Bolgheri.
The tiny Colline Lucchesi is an almost unknown Tuscan appellation, yet it has a long history stretching back to Roman times. The DOC has no tradition of pure sangiovese, Tuscany’s great indigenous grape. Instead that is just one example in a broad vinous palette that has Franco-Italian origins. This is attributed to the conquering of the independent city-state of Lucca by Napoleon in 1805. His younger sister Élisa Bonaparte governed the region until her fall from grace in 1814. During this time chardonnay, merlot and syrah were introduced and can all be considered native here, with syrah particularly well suited to the local terroir.
Tenuta di Valgiano is run by Laura, Moreno Petrini and winemaker Saverio Petrilli. They took over this once run-down estate in 1993. Their 16 ha of vineyards are predominantly south-facing, occupying a glacial terrace with steep forested slopes above. As well as old-vine sangiovese grown on calcareous soil, sandstone pebbles are ideal for syrah, while merlot thrives as usual on pockets of clay. After restoration they converted to organic methods in 1997 and progressed to biodynamics in 2002. Their objective is to produce wines (and olive oil) with a clear sense of place, handcrafted using only natural methods and a minimum of intervention. Laura told me that she has seen the vineyards return to life and that the resulting wines are far more vivid and pure than previously. In the winery, the handpicked grapes are foot-trodden; fermentation of the reds is in small wooden vats, the whites mainly in stainless steel. Maturation is in small French barriques but without much new wood used.
White grapes are grown to make Giallo dei Muri and Palistorti Bianco. There is a single-vineyard Sangiovese called Scasso dei Cesari, while sangiovese is blended with merlot and syrah to produce two red blends. The estate’s flagship red, Tenuta di Valgiano Rosso, is a very serious work designed for long ageing. Meanwhile, Palistorti Rosso is made in a lighter style for earlier drinking.
I was fortunate to taste all of these wines, including barrel samples and bottles from several vintages. All were stunning, yet it was the 2006 Palistorti Rosso that snagged in the memory, named after the crooked poles found in the old vineyards. In 2006 it was a blend of 70% sangiovese with 15% syrah and 15% merlot – slightly more syrah and less merlot reflecting the vintage conditions.
Back at BD Mansions over a year later, it was time for a road test. 2006 was a terrific vintage in Tuscany but its best wines are still on their long journey to maturity. Palistorti Rosso is no exception, yet it is drinking well now if decanted for an hour or so before serving, to remove a little sediment and to expose it to air. I suggest that it will reach peak in another three or four years and remain there for a similar period.
In the glass it’s a deep ruby-crimson colour with a lighter blue-ish rim, confirming youthful brio. Slightly leggy, this is the last time you will notice the alcoholic potency acquired from this vintage (1% more than in 2005). The nose is more open after spending a further year in bottle; the tea-caddy scent of sangiovese is mixed in with red berry and cherry, while a savoury note fleetingly appears. So far, so exciting.
On the palate, the tannins have softened though they retain a little attractive grip – a useful quality with food. The wine is sensual, without any excess weight or flab thanks to carefully balanced bright acidity and a silken texture. The first impression given is of violets woven into cherry fruit, with perhaps a hint of mint or verbena appearing on a slowly fading finish. There is no overt wood influence or over-extraction to mar the flavour profile. Over a relaxing evening more complexity is revealed; an earthy minerality, darker fruit tones, boxwood and scents of Earl Grey.
While delicious now, everything points to an even more complex and rewarding future, so my advice is to buy a few bottles, some to enjoy now and some to keep for later.
Palistorti shows the potential of the Colline Lucchesi and is a genuine taste of Lucca. Food pairing? It’s difficult not to suggest a simple pasta dish; a mound of fresh Spaghetti dressed only with olive oil, tomatoes and basil will do nicely. Laura suggested salsiccia, Italian pork sausage seasoned with fennel. Grander banquets will also be admirably served.
by Paul Howard
on Mar 16, 2010
Four years have passed since my last lengthy Chateau Musar encounter in 2006: Musarathon – a 10 year vertical 1988-1998. Another seemed long overdue. Chateau Musar remains Lebanon’s most well known and venerated winery; the wines are unique, every vintage is different and each matures on its own path. Many are long lived – owner Serge Hochar made his first vintage in 1959 and this vintage is apparently still going strong a half century later. Furthermore, the wines are idiosyncratic – to paraphrase a saying of Serge Hochar, they possess all the charms of imperfection.
Some liken the reds to Bordeaux (given the influence of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend and Serge’s oenology studies there), while others are reminded of the Rhône. The whites bear a passing resemblance to traditional white Rioja. Frankly, they are completely themselves, memorably Musar.
All this makes any Musarathon a fascinating and always rewarding pastime – no wonder that such events are so popular.
Sixteen wines were presented in four flights of four wines. Four whites led off the tasting before a dozen reds were shown, predominantly from the 1980’s, but stretching back to 1966. All were double-decanted as some had thrown considerable sediment. Afterwards they were matched to Lebanese cuisine. Here they are, from left to right.
White: ’03, ’01, ’95, ’90. Red: ’02, ’99, ’94, ’88, ’87, ’86, ’85, ’83, ’82, ’81, ’80, ’66
Chateau Musar White
Chateau Musar White is made from the indigenous Obidah and Merweh grapes. The vines are ungrafted and the youngest vines were planted back in 1947. Obaideh is said to be an ancestor of Chardonnay, the Merwah of Sémillon. The grapes are certified organic, fermented separately in oak and then matured in French (Nevers) oak for between 6 and 9 months without fining or filtering. They are then blended and bottled and kept for another six years before release.
Flight 1: ’03, ’01, ’95, ’90
2003 – 12%
The latest release, the lightest colour of the four whites on show, being pale brass. Only lightly aromatic at this youthful stage – vanilla notes underpin the fruit – citrus, dried apple and almond. Just enough acidity, a slippery almost waxy texture. The smallest of the four in stature, reflecting relative youth, expect more complexity with bottle age. Good but not ready yet.
2001 – 12.5%
Mid-brass colour, amber flecked. Much bigger and fuller pastry and marzipan nose. Palate is open, giving and rich, with a savoury tannin undercurrent. All kinds of fruit and nut complexity – quince, apricot, dried apple and lemon. More acidity means zippy freshness, a mere touch of oxidation. Barley sugar, butterscotch and (fleetingly) bacon fat appear before a long marzipan fade. Just hints of the honey expected to develop with time. Wine Alchemy’s Wine of the Month December 2009. Superb.
1995 – 12.5%
Pale yellow. Very restrained nose, some volatile acidity (VA) apparent on the palate plus oxidative notes, but overall it was closed up and austere. An amylic, pear-drop and sour-milk flavour dominated, giving way after a couple of hours. Suspected faulty if still drinkable, possibly poor storage – easily the least impressive of the four whites. Disappointing, but is this one bottle really indicative of the vintage? Would like to try another.
Green bottle. Dark gold with an amber rim. Big opulent nose that has developed farmyard and animal fur notes alongside marzipan and quince. Well worth lingering over before tasting, pine nuts and smoke appear in 10 minutes. Real development and interest here. Rich palate, slightly waxy, lemon groves peep from out of the mix after 30 minutes to go with quince, caramel/butterscotch and that bacon fat note. Strikingly honeyed lengthy finish. Feels like this still has decades ahead. Excellent – has it peaked yet?
Chateau Musar Red
The organic Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan grapes are harvested at low yields (30-35 hl/ha), then fermented separately in cement vats before aging for 12 months (sometimes longer) in French (Nevers) oak barriques. No fining or filtering, the wine is blended and bottled at the end of the third year with Cabernet Sauvignon being dominant at 50-80%. Chateau Musar then age the wine in bottle and finally release it in the seventh year. The exact blend differs with the bounty of each harvest and the wine is made and blended on instinct, with a non-interventionist approach, so every year is unique and each wine will make its own journey over many decades.
Flight 2: 2002/1999/1994/1988
2002 – 14%
Deep crimson, slight brickiness to the rim. Immediate thwack of volatile acidity on the nose, then herbs and bold red fruits. The palate is intense, powerful and with a touch of horse (Brett) – enough to add character without spoiling the show. Fresh acidity, cake spices. Fig, damson and redcurrant stew. An initial petillance too – still some gas, though this swirls off. Youthful, still a firm tannic grip. Enjoyable now but with much more to come and clearly has the potential for greatness over the next couple of decades. Impressive.
1999 – 14%
A classic year. Crimson colour a shade lighter showing a little more development with a wider bricky rim. Really harmonious nose, red fruit being VA influenced and with a clear tobacco note while a touch of gaminess knits it all together. With more extract and a polished high sheen texture, is there more Cabernet here? Red and black fruit, spices, herbs – and very long. Morphs in the glass into an ever more expressive wine with an ashtray heart, eventually showing mandarin and clove. Joyous. Drink or keep (preferably do both).
1994 – 14%
Bricky colour, brown tinged rim. VA in extremis on the nose, then spices and redcurrant. Palate is sweet and raisiny – suggests over-ripe grapes (was this a heat-wave year?), the dark gamey undertones help out. More viscosity and spirity warmth than other vintages and it doesn’t have the classic Musar depth or complexity either. Returned to this wine several times, always drawing this same conclusion. On its own this is still a good and enjoyable wine to drink now. In this company it’s a bit of an ugly duckling without the hallmarks of great Musar. Much less successful and can’t visualise much improvement to come, so drink up.
1988 – 14%
A broad bricky rim surrounding a small crimson core. Initially there was a huge amount of sulphur on the nose (unattractive rotten eggs) and on the palate (dumb show) which did not augur well. However, once the sulphur had swirled off there was revealed a masterful and harmonious wine with a medicinal and tobacco edge. Multi-dimensional; balsam, game and leather in the mix with plum fruit. Cinnamon and nutmeg spices. Went on improving all evening. On the cusp where primary fruit seems perfectly balanced with secondary evolution – is this the peak? Marvellous – and wine of the night.
Flight 3: 1987/1986/1985/1983.
1987 – 14%
Light, almost pinot-like colour. Red berries and smoke on the nose, hint of tea-caddy. Plenty of bright acidity, harmonious red fruits, soft and supple, earthy undertow. Excellent length.
1986 – 14%
Similar colour to the ’87. More cedar-ish nose. Fresh and lifted red berry fruit, hint of milk chocolate. Pine and plum. Strongly resembles the ’87. Long fade-out.
1985 – 14%
Again a similar colour. Violets as a floral note, more garrigue-like. A little more vanilla, of polished dark fruit. Family similarity to the ‘87 and ’86 – the differences between this trio are down to subtle nuances that tend only to become obvious in a vertical tasting.
Nothing like the previous three- earthy sous-bois nose, big body and more alcoholic power, sweeter fruit. Spicier – the return of nutmeg. Bold and inviting, though feels more rustic and less complex.
Flight 4: 1982/1981/1980/1966
1982 – 14%
Crimson colour with a broader amber-ish rim. Some milk chocolate on the nose which is reprised on the finish. Noticeably dry, with drying tannins that remain unresolved. Leather and tea with the damsons. A different expression that is less distinguished and less fine.
1981 – 14%
Fading. Hint of astringency, makes it a little chewy. Some volatility, fading strawberry flavours. Doesn’t suggest this will have much more time ahead. Hole in the middle where the fruit was, still enjoyable but past its prime, surely.
Bags of colour and a good deal finer. At nearly 30 years old it could be mistaken for a pinot in colour, but there the resemblance ends. Very full nose, warm garrigue herbs and plum fruit. Overwhelming impression of elegance in the mouth; weightless balance, plums and cinnamon spices, silken texture gives way to a long and slightly drying finish with milk chocolate. With all the edges chamfered off, this is one of the best wines here and seems timeless.
1966 – 14%
Only 43 years old and with a crumbling cork! But no worries; a light colour, really a dark rosé with crimson flecks in the core. A huge sediment left in the bottle. Lifted ethereal aromas are the best feature displayed – brown spices, smoke and leather. No real primary fruit left, still that bright acidity and a silken texture. Fleeting complexities and increasing fragility as it evolved in the glass, eventually revealing a citrus (mandarin?) spine. Still plenty of life and a very rare treat.
Red stand-outs were the ‘66, ‘80, ‘88, ‘99 and ‘02. Least successful: ’94. If I had to pick just one then the 1988 shades it for being not too young, not too old, but just right. In white, the 2001 and the 1990 share the honours – both are terrific yet illustrate either end of the development scale.
The current releases are not expensive for the quality on offer plus it’s relatively easy to get older vintages – so why not hold your very own Musarathon – just don’t forget to ask me along if you do!
Lebanese and North African cuisine were a perfect foil for these wines after the tasting – the perfect way to finish any Musarathon.
Mezze: various hummus, anchovies, olives, chickpeas and buckwheat, pita bread
Fish: sea bream dressed in charmoula (a North African pesto of lemon juice, parsley, coriander, cumin and fennel)
Meat: Slow-roasted lamb with rosemary
Meat: Barbequed chicken in a spicy marinade
Salad: tabbouleh and fattoush
by Paul Howard
on Jan 4, 2010
Some moons ago I was looking forward to meeting James and Annie Millton at their winery in Gisborne but was thwarted by storms and then a huge landslide that blocked all access. On returning to the UK I exchanged emails with James about organics and biodynamics. With apologies in advance for any misrepresentation, here is my edited version.
In what way is organic wine important to your customers?
Many customers are becoming aware of the “sameness of taste”, the globalised nature of produce, the lack of seasonality. Some of our customers drink our wine because they enjoy it and also because they do not react (badly) to it. Remember, it is not only the lack of pesticides in the vineyard that makes a difference but, for me anyway, the over-use of nitrogen yeast supplements, enzymes and stabilisers that have a profound effect on the taste of wine.
How is organic wine perceived by your customers in price and quality terms? Do you think organic wine has been a sales success?
Our prices are very competitive compared to conventional wines therefore customers who know what we do find them very agreeable. Sales of organic wines might only be <4% in the world and this says a lot about who controls the shelves. Every environmental disaster creates another round of consumer questioning. Sales have been very successful for us and we know that there is a brand loyalty with our wine.
Why do you believe that biodynamic methods are important?
I’ve been doing it for 25 years. Nothing else motivated me to do this, it was my choice. I know it works and I have gone now beyond believing. It is innate and habitual. For all the right reasons BD production is important. It cares and repairs. BD respects that people are involved with the operation. We work with diversity and cooperation. If you take the logic of BD you can’t deny its existence – you become convinced. If you want to enter into the spirit of BD it is very big and very enlightening. Nature has a fond forgiveness if you respect her and give back more than you take.
What image does biodynamic wine have?
It appears that now it has a very high image, especially when you see who is now changing in this direction. Yet when we think of sheep (one following another) I thought that New Zealand was well endowed in this field yet I am still a too rare voice in this South Pacific island!
Should biodynamic wine be the leader of the organic wine category?
It is the high ground, it is the logical progression and those who say “no” have a problem with what they don’t know or are suspicious of. Biodynamic wine production answers the questions left remaining from organic production. This has so much to do with soil health and the ongoing flow on benefits going right through the chain.
How important is Certification, both to you and to your customers?
The big markets want third party endorsement and assurance. The certification requirements are huge but it makes you stop, reflect and look ahead and plan. Being certified should not really be the point but Demeter certification assures buyers that our produce is biodynamically grown. Before a wine can be great it must first be true.
by Paul Howard
on Jan 3, 2010
James and Annie Millton’s established their vineyards in 1984 and make a delicious range of hand-crafted fine wines. Pioneers, they’ve been biodynamic from the outset, long before many more famous estates around the world converted to the creed. Their estate is at Manutuke, just outside Gisborne in New Zealand, in North Island’s Poverty Bay, the first city to see the rising sun each day.
While Gisborne remains an unfashionable Kiwi wine address there can be no doubt that this estate ranks as one of New Zealand’s very best and James is one of the leading lights in antipodean biodynamics.
The Naboth’s vineyard is arguably Millton’s best site, a single steep vineyard devoted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, now incorporated within the larger Clos de Ste. Anne estate named after Annie Millton. As such, their Pinot Noir is one of their flagship wines and sits at the top table of Kiwi Pinot alongside those from the better known Central Otago, Martinborough and Marlborough regions.
A light faded crimson colour, the quality of this wine is apparent from the very first sniff, offering up a complex perfume of raspberry, cranberry and cherry fruit with Parma violets, smoke and a note best described as newly turned earth. The character of the palate is, to resort to a burgundian description, feminine. There’s elegance, grace and balance rather than naked power, with moderate alcohol and a refreshing level of acidity. It presents a silky texture but with enough grippy tannin to make it excellent with food (roast duck hit the spot for me). Undoubtedly this is fine Kiwi Pinot – high intensity red berry and cherry fruit overlays earth and forest floor before a long spice finish rounds things off.
Drinking perfectly now, it will remain at peak for around the next 2-3 years. This is exciting Pinot Noir – and at a very sharp price for the quality and personality on offer.
Availabilty in the USA: 67 Wine, New York, $44.99
by Paul Howard
on Nov 30, 2009
Up in the Lebanese Bekaa valley at around 1,000 metres is an extraordinary property whose wines have become virtually synonymous with Lebanon. Serge Hochar has continued to make French-influenced wines here in spite of the various conflicts that have raged and blighted this beautiful but unstable region. He seeks to make only what nature will allow.
“The harmony of nature is better than anything we could ever create. I believe it should be a priority to seek to drink what is ‘true’ rather than what is ‘good’. I once produced a wine that was technically perfect but it lacked the charms of imperfection.”
These statements are the key to appreciating the wines, the best known being the unique Chateau Musar Red – a still modestly-priced wine that commands a strong cult following and that shows a distinctly different personality in every vintage. As it is made to develop and change, opening a bottle always has an anticipatory thrill.
So much for the red. It’s no great surprise to find that if the Chateau Musar White is less familiar it is just as individualistic; in fact it is a white wine that shares many similarities with red wine as well as one that has been criticised for faults by wine writers.
The White is an organic blend based on two grapes indigenous to Lebanon that date back thousands of years: Obaideh and Merwah. It is believed that Obaideh may be an ancient ancestor of Chardonnay, with Merwah playing a similar role for Sémillon, both vines journeying overland to Europe with the Crusaders. It is clear that this part of the middle-east is a cradle of viticulture and both grapes could be imagined to share some flavour characteristics with their modern siblings. However, to my knowledge, no DNA profiling has yet been undertaken and so the relationship remains mysterious.
These white grapes are grown higher up in the mountains at around 1,200 metres, where they are less affected by the intense heat of summer than the red grapes broiling on the Bekaa Valley plain. They are harvested in mid October when very ripe, so have good fruit concentration yet fairly low acidity, sugar and tannins. And yes, I did say tannins – more usually associated with red wines. The grapes then need to be transported from the Bekaa vineyards to the winery – and this perhaps contributes to the oxidised character shown by this wine. At the winery the grapes are partly fermented in French oak barrels for nine months, after which they are blended and bottled at the end of the first year. However, the bottles are not released to the market for another six years! Hence this 2001 was not released until late 2008, explaining why this older vintage is currently available –Chateau Musar does some of the ageing for you.
Rule one when serving Musar White is that it needs only the lightest of chills to show it at its nuanced best – 14/15 degrees is ideal. Give it an hour in the fridge door, after rule two has been observed: always decant it for an hour or so before serving – the additional aeration really does bring out the spectrum of flavours. Rule three is always drink this wine with food. This is a wine to dine for. There’s a whole range of Lebanese mezze that fit the bill, or try Tabbouleh or Fatoush.
A golden/amber colour, this wine is a joy to look at, with gleaming depths. The nose shows a wide range of aromas; brioche or pastry perhaps, more definitely marzipan, quince, apricot, apples and pears. Leave it to open up in the glass and vanilla and honey notes also peep through.
The honeyed palate is full bodied, despite being only 12.5% alcohol. Nuts, caramel/butterscotch, apples and quince all vie for your attention. Then comes the deliberately oxidised note, faulty perhaps yet best described as, “so wrong it’s right”. The firmness of a little savoury tannin (yes, some tannin in a white wine) creeps in before a slippery, polished texture leads to a fading marzipan finish. To paraphrase Serge Hochar, it’s these charms of imperfection that keep you returning for more.
In style then, it reminds me of a highly traditional white Rioja, as was common in Spain twenty years ago but now seldom seen, superseded by fresh, linear, modern wines.
For me, this 2001 vintage is exciting drinking now and is also a far more pleasurable wine than that of the previous 2000 vintage. But, aged eight, it is still youthful and is likely to have extraordinary development potential over the next 20 years – so best buy some to drink now and some to put away.
With no Lebanese food to hand, I enjoyed my bottle with a Wild Mushroom Jalousie, the puff pastry and chanterelles offered an excellent combination.
In the USA, priced at $29.00 at Flickinger Wines, Chicago
by Paul Howard
on Oct 13, 2009
Dominique and Patrick Belluard own this biodynamic estate of just 13 ha at Ayze, in the heart of the Haut Savoie valley of l’Arve. They are the third generation of the family to run it since it was created in 1947. They took charge in 1988 and converted to biodynamics in 2001.
The domaine is located high up in the Alps at 450 metres; with Mont Blanc forming the dramatic backdrop to ancient south facing vineyards that date back at least to the 13th Century. The conditions here are remarkably good for quality grape growing – heat generated under clear skies by day ensures ripeness, yet the cold nights also help retain fresh acidity. Belluard make excellent wines from the local Savoie grapes; Altesse white and Mondeuse red. However, they also grow something unique – 12 ha of the ultra- rare Gringet grape which is found nowhere else but around Ayze and is sometimes referred to locally as Petite Rousette.
Indeed, Belluard grows the vast majority of Gringet as there is only another 1 ha allocated between 15 other local producers. So you probably won’t find anyone else in the world but Belluard making pure expressions of Gringet. While some Gringet is used to make traditional method sparkling wine, their premium still white wine is called Le Feu. It is so named because the Gringet grows on red-streaked glacial deposits that are rich in iron called Terre Feu.
Gringet was once thought to be related to the Savagnin grape of the nearby Jura and so be part of the Traminer family. However, this has recently been disproved by DNA testing, so its origins remain a mystery. Some claim it has been grown here since before the arrival of the Romans, while others suggest it came all the way from Cyprus with itinerant Monks in medieval times.
On the evidence of Le Feu, Gringet is a grape that fully deserves to be discovered. A mid-yellow colour, the nose has a light rose perfume and a hint of aniseed, turning more towards jasmine as it warms in the glass. No wonder then that comparisons with the Traminer family are made, yet the nose seems more finely delineated and ethereal than most.
The palate invites all those clichés about inhaling crisp mountain air and skinny-dipping in glacial meltwaters. What it has is precision and focus from plenty of acidity, helped by blocking the secondary malolactic fermentation in the winery and so preventing it from turning broader and creamier. Flavour-wise, there are gentle hints of peach and pear, with an underlay of quince, possibly picked up from the wine spending time on its lees. The wine has an unusual sarsaparilla note before a fleeting glimpse of honey rounds things off. There’s good balance too, between the fruit, acidity and a relatively light 12% alcohol – that makes it easy to drink and good with food. This is subtle stuff that will have you refilling your glass in almost indecent haste.
Le Feu is drinking perfectly now, yet Dominique Belluard suggests that it will develop a more honeyed tone over the next 3-5 years. Food wise, this would be a versatile white wine to match with goat’s cheese, scallops and fresh water fish such as Trout or the wonderful local Omble Chevalier.
In US available at around $25.00