Bairrada

Cellar Chat: Bairrada

In our smaller, more intimate new tasting format, six Collective members taste and discuss a range of wines from Portugal’s Bairrada DO

Drawing together sommeliers from great venues across the UK, our first ever Cellar Chat was a chance for members to taste and swap opinions (via Zoom) about a range of wines from the Bairrada region.

We began with a short introduction from Portuguese winemaker, Tiago Macena, who gave our members a swift A-Z of the DO.

Like most regions in Portugal (the tenth biggest producing country in the world), Bairrada has a long history, with winemaking documented by Cistercian monks back in the 9th Century. The country has many climatic influences – continental in the east, Mediterranean in the south and Atlantic in the west.

Bairrada is very much about the latter. Cooler, fresher Atlantic weather dominates.

Our guide for the day, Tiago Macena

Bairrada is not a big DO – only 6,500 hectares – but it has a wide range of styles. Red accounts for 70% of the production, but it also makes white, rosé and sparkling, too – the result, no doubt, of those cooling maritime influences.

As important as the climate, however, are the shifts in soil.

‘Luis Pato says that this is one of the richest parts of Portugal in terms of soil influence,’ explained Tiago. ‘Even small plots can vary from sand to clay to limestone.’

Key whites are Bical and Sercial, while reds are dominated by Baga – a structured, earthy variety that can veer towards Nebbiolo in style. Touriga Nacional, Aragonez (Tempranillo) and Merlot are also significant, often used to add softness and sweetness to Baga’s inherent savouriness and tannin.

‘We’re used to blending – whether that’s varieties, techniques or soils,’ said Tiago. ‘Though that’s not just unique to Bairrada. It’s common for Portugal as a whole. It’s not that common to see a single varietal wine.’

With the basics covered off, our members moved on to the tasting of what promised to be an intriguing region.

Big skies, gentle slopes, mixed terroir and Atlantic weather – the key to Bairrada

White/sparkling wines

Vadio Bairrada Branco 2020

Bibendum, £13.13 ex-VAT

From a young winemaker, who’s native to Bairrada, this is a blend of the two classic white grapes, Bical and Sercial. Bical is an early ripener, and here it’s been given a little time in old oak to add weight. Sercial is a zesty variety that keeps its acidity well.

‘It will keep citrus fruit and even a saltiness for several years,’ explained Tiago. ‘Even a few years old it has a laser like acidity.’

This was true. The wine was sharp and bright – like winter sunlight off steel. But our tasters generally found it to be a bit hard still.

‘That creaminess of the oak, followed by the acidity on the finish is a bit overwhelming,’ said Emanuel Pesqueira from Gordon Ramsay. ‘There’s a lot of acidity here.’

The Royal Cavalry and Guards Club’s Andre Luis Martins felt it was ‘a bit like grabbing a young Chablis en primeur – you struggle to get through the acidity. Though with time the barrels [will] give it an added roundness.’

Tiago, who had a 2018 to try, said that with two years in bottle the wine was perfect, so it’s worth looking for slightly older bottles if you can.

‘I agree that it’s too young, but I really like that salty note on the finish. It would be really interesting to pair with food.’

Isobel Salamon, Eden Locke

Luis Pato Vinhas Velhas 2020

Raymond Reynolds, £13.30 ex-VAT

‘Luis Pato is probably better known than the region itself,’ said Tiago of this wine’s creator. ‘He’s an idol of mine, a true gentleman.’

Senhor Pato’s expertise was evident here, in what was an elegant, structured wine. It was based on the same two grapes as the first wine – Bical and Sercial – but with 25% of Sercealinho – a cross of Sercial and Alvarinho.

The Bical was grown on limestone (which brings acidity according to Tiago) while the Sercial and Sercialinho were planted on sand, for fruit influence.

Whether it was the addition of Sercealinho or the influence of the soils our tasters found this a more integrated wine, that was ready to drink now. More than one described it as ‘Riesling like’.

Our Portuguese panelists, Andre Luis Martins and Emanuel Pesqueira both felt it was softer, rounder and more approachable than the Vadio, while Number One at the Balmoral’s Damien Trinckquel declared it ‘very gastronomic – a great introduction to guests who’ve never had this type of wine.’

‘It’s so versatile. You could have it with everything from grilled salmon to poached cod. Fantastic.’

Daniel Jonberger, Headlam Hall

Aplauso DOC Bruto 2016, Regateiro Lusovini

Amathus, £9.05 ex-VAT

There is a long history of méthode traditionelle sparkling wine in Bairrada. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are both permitted, ‘though people can use them all over the world – only this region can make sparkling with Baga,’ said Tiago.

This wine majored on Baga, but had unusual partners in Touriga Nacional and Pinot Noir, all grown on limestone/clay soils.

‘Though we’re in a cool part of Portugal, we’re still significantly warmer than Champagne,’ said Tiago. ‘So we can expect more of a fruit profile.’

Our tasters were not madly in love with this wine. Andre Luis Martins felt it was a ‘commercial expression of bairrada – I’d have looked for more freshness and minerality.’

Baga, he pointed out, has a similar acidity to Pinot Meunier in Champagne.

‘There’s a lot of flavour and complexity,’ agreed Emanuel, ‘but it needed more structure. I was expecting more acidity – especially from a Blanc de Noirs.’

‘It’s not a bad wine, but I’m not sure it represents the region.’

Damien Trinckquel, No. One at The Balmoral
With centuries of winemaking, there are plenty of ‘vinhas velhas’ (old vines) in Bairrada

Red wines

Niepoort  Drink Me NatCool 2020

Raymond Reynolds, £15.50 / 1-litre bottle ex-VAT

NatCool is part of a project initiated by Dirk Niepoort, to create light, easy-drinking wines (what the Australians might call ‘smashable’). From the packaging (funky label, one-litre bottle) to the low- alcohol, low-extraction, pale-coloured wine, this is all about being different.

And across the board our tasters loved it, for its freshness, its elegance and its versatility. Indeed, much of the discussion centred on how to use it, with panellists seeing a use for it with everything from partridge and red cabbage to fish.

It could, they felt, work by the glass or by the bottle, chilled in summer or at room temperature. Emanuel Pesqueira described it as a ‘GP-making machine!’ and our tasters felt that once customers had been introduced to it, they were sure to get through at least one bottle.

‘I’d put this on by the bottle provided it was the right restaurant,’ said Isobel Salamon. ‘If you’re a small plate kind of place, it could go with so many different things.’

‘It could be a really great wine for the younger generation who like lighter styles of wine. And once it’s open they will really all want to drink it. It’s very sellable. A profit machine.’

Natasha Sernina, Chewton Glen

Marques de Marialva 2018, Colheita Seleccionada 

Not yet imported. Approx RRP £10.99

From the local co-operative in Bairrada, which deals with 700 growers, this wine was a great example of how good co-ops can be when they’re well run.

A blend of Baga (50%), Aragonez (30%) and Touriga Nacional from a warm vintage it spends six months in second-use oak. The result is a wine that is rich, ripe, and sweetly straightforward but that went down well with our tasters.

Andre Luis Martins found a freshness underneath the sweet fruit, which he attributed to the proximity of the vineyards to the coast.

Damien, meanwhile, found a ‘coffee liqueur note’ which he felt added a ‘slight bitterness and helps balance the sweetness of the fruit. It’s not entirely what I expect from Bairrada but I really like it. There’s a perfect balance between ripeness and acidity.’

‘I loved the balsamic and cassis notes. For people who like Cabernet, you can put that on by the glass and they’ll love it.’

Emanuel Pesqueira, Gordon Ramsay

Alianca Reserva 2018 

Boutinot,  £6.35 ex-VAT

There was a higher proportion of Baga in this wine (70%), backed up by 20% of Tinta Roriz and 10% of Touriga Nacional. The result is a rather more savoury wine – even from the sun-filled 2018 vintage – with Touriga adding a slight floral edge on the finish.

Damien made the observation that in this wine the Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional seemed to be doing a similar job to Merlot in Bordeaux or Tuscany – of adding softness and flesh to the muscle of the base variety – in this case Baga.

The somms enjoyed it very much – particularly at the price – and there was much debate about how best to use it.

‘It’s a lot more savoury,’ said Isobel. ‘I’d have this with lamb, rather than cheese, for instance. It’s got those nice savoury almost Italian characters, which would be perfect for a gastropub.’

Damien went down similar lines. ‘You want food with some fat,’ he said. ‘It’s a little sharper through the palate, but a little fat in the meat or the sauce will bring everything together. It’s like if you have a Nebbiolo.’

Emmanuel, meanwhile, appreciated the fact that it was vegan, which gave it an extra reason for sale.

 ‘It’s more Baga-dominated on the palate – more tannic, rustic and more earthy. The previous wine shows more Aragonez and Touriga.’

Andre Luis Martins, Royal Cavalry and Guards Club

Arco d’Aguieira 2016 

Portugalia, £13.23 ex-VAT

From the northern part of Bairrada, this was both our oldest and most expensive red wine. But its atypical varietal makeup was controversial: 95% Touriga Nacional, with 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and a splash of Tinta Roriz.

With lots of rich dark fruit and ripe tannins it was a concentrated, complex and rich wine which, of itself, was extremely good.

‘Outstanding,’ said Emanuel. ‘There’s earth, oak, and full deep blackberry and dark plum. I love it. And it would be great with a tomahawk steak.’

Isobel agreed, saying she was going to buy in some venison for the evening just to partner it.

Andre Luis, however, was less keen. ‘This for me isn’t Bairrada,’ he said. ‘I can get wines like this from Douro or Alentejo. For me, this is missing typicity.’

Damien agreed that this could be an issue – ‘If I order a Barrada I’d probably expect some Baga in the glass’ he admitted. Having said that, he also pointed out that ‘most people in the UK won’t know anything about Bairrada – and this is a beautiful wine.

‘I get wet stone, girolle mushrooms, powerful acidity and silky tannins; licorice and anis. If a sommelier poured this for a guest at £60-70 they will be very happy.’

All in all, a great – and thought provoking – conclusion to a stimulating and well-priced selection of wines.

‘Whatever you’re looking for – your menu, your style of food, your customer – there’s something here. It’s been a very versatile range of wines we’ve tasted today.’

Damien Trinckquel, No. One at The Balmoral
Winter grass in the vineyards is a good indicator of Bairrada’s Atlantic climate

Discovery Course: Loire Cabernet Franc

The second of our two explorations into the wine styles of the Loire gave our tasters a deep dive into the different expressions of its signature red: Cabernet Franc

Climate change means some growers have harvested their Cabernet Franc in August – six weeks earlier than usual. Pic: Philippe Caharel

For many people, Cabernet Franc is the ‘other’ Cabernet after Sauvignon. But in fact, as this course’s presenter in London, Rebecca Gibb MW pointed out, it should be the other way round, since Cabernet Franc (along with Sauvignon Blanc) is the parent of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet Franc’s original heritage is uncertain, with grape historians suggesting that it arrived in the valley from (variously) the Basque country, Bordeaux and Britanny. The latter would, at least, explain why it’s still often called ‘Breton’ in the region.

An earlier-ripener than its progeny, Cabernet Franc is well suited to the Loire’s cooler climate, and it is used for everything from reds and rosés to sparkling wines.

That said, there’s been a rise of 1.3ᵒC in the Loire over the last 50 years during the growing season – most of it since 1980.

Saumur-Champigny grower, Arnaud Lambert, who we heard from via Zoom mentioned that typically he would pick his Cabernet Franc in mid-October, but in 2020 harvested it at the end of August!

The higher temperatures have meant more sugar and ripeness of fruit and tannin, but milder winters have also created problems with vines becoming active too early in the year, at a time when frost can still occur. Spring frost damage has seen a growing number of short harvests since the millennium.

Milder winters put the vines at risk from frost in springtime

As well as naturally higher ripeness levels, the region’s winemakers have gone through some stylistic changes of their own, too, over the last few decades.

Initially, the higher sugar and ripeness levels saw producers working their wines hard in the latter stages of the ferment, extracting more colour and tannin, which they then backed up with relatively high amounts of new French oak. This created bigger, richer wines.

But the last ten years have seen a shift. Producers look to extract the colour and tannins earlier in the fermentation when temperatures are lower, and are using significantly less oak.

Key tasting terms, according to Rebecca, are ‘red fruit, graphite, grass and bell pepper – but we’re seeing more violet perfume in the wines now because of the changes in the way they are making them.

‘One of the beauties of Cabernet Franc,’ she went on, ‘is the perfume – and you don’t get that if you ferment at 32ᵒC.’

A flight of Chinons, ready for our tasters in Edinburgh

Chinon

Slopes in the Loire are gentle, but significant in defining a Cabernet Franc’s style. Pic: InterLoire

Chinon is the largest of the Loire’s red wine appellations, located round the Vienne river – mostly on the north side, to give south-facing vineyards. Typically, it gives fuller-bodied styles that can age 10-20 years.

Near the river, the soils are sand and gravel, which tend to give lighter-bodied, early-drinking wines, often unoaked.

On the slopes (or coteaux) the soil is clay over limestone, giving more refined, long-lived wines that are often oaked.

The plateau – a slightly raised flat dip – gives wines that are stylistically halfway between the two.

This is a stylistic pattern that is repeated across the region’s different Cabernet Franc growing regions.

‘I was really interested by the differences in soils and how that tied in with the winemaking techniques of oak and no-oak.’

Konstantinos Kannellakis, Ekstedt at The Yard

Oak in Loire reds doesn’t often mean small barrels, however. ‘Small barrels and Cabernet Franc don’t really work,’ explained Rebecca.

Anjou

The Anjou reds line-up

Just to the east of Angers, the soils change from the black, schistous sedimentary earth of the coast to the white clay/kimmeridgian limestone of the Paris basin. Anjou straddles both of these – ‘black Anjou’ and ‘white Anjou’ – resulting in a variety of wine styles, depending on where the vines are grown.

‘I was impressed with the quality of the Anjou Cabernets,’ said Damien Trinckquel from Number One at the Balmoral Hotel. ‘I always buy the white Anjous, but I forgot about the noir and blanc soil types.’

Like several other tasters, he was impressed by the Domaine de Bablut Anjou Villages Brissac.

‘I was a big fan of that,’ added Isobel Salamon. ‘The nose made me swoon a bit. Beautiful graphite, mulberry integrations, with a nice, sweet smokiness on the palate. I want this with game – venison or pheasant.’

Saumur-Champigny/Puy Notre Dame

This was probably our most popular flight of reds, in both Edinburgh and London

The Saumur-Champigny appellation consists of vineyards round eight villages near the town of Saumur. The soil is very chalky, giving gentle, light reds that are acid- rather than tannin-based. They’re all about delicacy and purity.

‘You always find that lovely chalky sensation with Saumur-Champigny,’ said Rebecca. ‘They can be serious but the serious ones rely on their fruit purity, not oak or extraction. They aren’t tricked up.’

A good number of attendees picked Saumur-Champigny as their favourite region from the eight Cabernet Franc flights tasted.

‘I found them really balanced, with well-polished flavours and smooth tannins. The 2018 vintage seems to give the wines a lot of ripe fruit.’

Fernando Cubas, The InterContinental

Fernando suggested using these wines in his sommelier selection to help them sell. His favourite example was the Domaine Antoine Sanzay 2018.

Chewton Glen’s Natasha Senina picked Les Loges from Domaine de la Guilloterie as her favourite, saying it was ‘beautiful and fresh, slightly tense, but juicy with red fruit and blackberry aromas; tender and delicate – enchanting!’

‘I adored this flight,’ agreed Isobel Salamon, from Eden Locke. ‘The Domaine du Vieux Pressoir from Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame was honestly what I want to have on my Christmas table.’

Scotland’s somms make notes in between flights

Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil

On the north side of the Loire, with south-facing vineyards, and protected from the northerly wind by a forest on top of the plateau, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil can provide the next longest-lived examples of Loire Cabernet Franc after Chinon – up to 10 years as a rule of thumb.

The soils are the same combination of sand/gravel and clay/limestone as Chinon. ‘It’s probably easier to pick the sites within an appellation than to tell one appellation from the other,’ said Rebecca.

As Mathieu Longuere MS, presenting in Edinburgh, put it, ‘You can have Loire Cabernet Francs that taste like Bordeaux, and some that taste like Beaujolais.’

Mathieu believes that these wines benefit from decanting. ‘You can see the initial nose can be savoury, even rustic. But over time they become a lot more aromatic and expressive.’

Mathieu Longuere MS in Edinburgh
Merlin Ramos pours some Chinon for Julio Tauste
Another hard day’s work…

Condita’s Konstantinos Katridis agreed, picking out Frederic Mabileau’s Les Rouillères 2019 as his top red, saying it would be great paired with beef tartare.

James Payne MS, from Douneside House, meanwhile, went for La Chevallerie ‘75cl de Terroir’, which, he felt, stood out because of its lightness and elegance.

‘All of the Cabernet Franc-based reds were enjoyable and the overall quality level impressed me, with really pleasant, bright, fruit-driven styles, fine grained ripe tannins and silky textures.’

James Payne MS, Douneside House

As a means of engaging and intriguing your customers, James suggested serving Loire Cabernet Francs alongside fuller New World versions, say from Salta in Argentina, to highlight the differences in style.

The mighty Loire, cutting through hundreds of kilometres of world-famous vineyards. Pic by Osman Tavares
Loire - Saumur

Discovery Course: Loire Sparkling Wine

Variety is a big part of the Loire story – and the members who attended our sessions in London and Edinburgh discovered big differences in the key sparkling wine styles.

Loire sparkling wines come in a wide variety of styles – as our tasters discovered. Pic: Creative Room

With nearly 500km from its coastal vineyards to those furthest inland, it’s no wonder that the Loire is one of the most varied wine growing regions in France. There are significant amounts of wine in pretty much every style, from light, early-drinking whites like Muscadet through its famous Sauvignon Blancs to richer, long-lived Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays.

And that’s just the still whites. Add in rosé (a quarter of all production), probably the world’s benchmark expression of Cabernet Franc and sweet and sparkling wines, and it’s clear that there’s an awful lot to get to know.

Most sommeliers are pretty familiar with Loire Sauvignon in general, as well as Muscadet. But how about some of the less well-known expressions? Probably not so much.

So in these two masterclasses, in association with the folk at InterLoire, we decided to take our members on a journey through the region’s sparkling wines and Cabernet Francs.

Our tasters in Edinburgh were fortified at lunchtime with a plateful of Scottish venison

The reds and sparkling wines are somewhat less ubiquitous than the still whites, though they’re not exactly niched. Between them, red and sparkling wines are over 1/3 of the region’s production.

Although they are slightly unusual, there’s still really good availability, which means these styles can be a great way to add some real layers of interest to your list.

You name it, the Loire can make it…
From white, rosé and red…
to sparkling, bone dry and sweet…

Loire Valley Wines

Our sparkling masterclass started with a quick introductory flight to prepare palates and show off some of the region’s still, non-red styles, from Muscadet to sweet Vouvray via a Rosé d’Anjou.

‘Many Loire regions can go in any direction, to make still wine, sparkling wine or sweet,’ explained host, Mathieu Longuere MS. ‘What they make on any given year usually depends on the vintage.

A journey along the Loire courtesy of white wine

‘If Chenin Blanc is not ripe enough one year to make still wine, they can make sparkling,’ he explained. ‘They are lucky with the varieties they have.’

A still Chenin Blanc, the Chateau de Villeneuve Saumur Blanc, was popular with Isobel Salomon who found it a ‘particularly elegant expression, and very balanced.’ Her suggested pairing was cod or Scottish halibut with a buttery emulsion.

Saumur Fines Bulles

As an ‘instant sell’ to your customers, it’s hard to beat the chalk cellars of Saumur – the kilometres of passageways and caverns carved out under the cream-coloured town are a UNESCO world heritage site.

Saumur’s limestone buildings (and cellars) are a sign of good terroir for sparkling wine. Pic Martin Falbisoner, Wikimedia Commons

That same thick ridge of limestone works well with white varieties, in particular. Most of the Saumur Fines Bulles are all or mostly Chenin Blanc, with Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, Cabernet Franc commonly used as well. ‘Fines Bulles’ (fine bubbles) is used for sparkling wines from appellations that also make still wine (such as Saumur, Touraine and Vouvray).

Given that they all came from one area, just south of the town, the Saumur Fines Bulles wines showed a surprising variety of styles, from clean, classic ‘aperitif sparklers’ to more ‘vinous’ “Méthode Ancestrale” versions with lower fizz.

All the wines in Saumur are méthode traditionelle, with a second fermentation in the bottle.

‘But in “Méthode Ancestrale” wines they use a semi-dry base wine to start the second fermentation,’ explained Mathieu Longuere MS. ‘The more time the wine spends on lees, the more integrated the bubbles.’

Some of these differences are due to winemaking decisions, others are down to the various slopes, angles and microclimates, that give wines of very different ripenesses even within the same appellation.

‘You could see from the flight of five Saumur Fines Bulles wines that we had that there’s a huge variety of styles within the appellation,’ said Mathieu. ‘There’s a lot of freedom – space for everybody.’

While Condita’s Konstantinos Katridis picked the decidedly gastronomic Domaine du Vieux Pressoir as his favourite wine, he felt that, in general, these would be great as pre-dinner serves.

‘The Chateau de Montgueret Tête de Cuvée was my favourite sparkler. Mature and full-bodied with a creamy texture, intense and small bubbles, full-bodied with a long after-taste.’

Natasha Senina, Chewton Glen

Crémant de Loire

The big swings in style seen in the Fines Bulles appellations of Saumur and (later) Vouvray, is less of a factor for Crémant de Loire. Grapes can be taken from across the region so it’s a lot more consistent. Here, the biggest flavour influencer is the varieties used.

Chenin (naturally high in acidity) is usually the preferred base variety, but Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc can figure prominently, too.

The wines must have at least 12 months bottle ageing, though many producers give them more than this. Yeasty autolytic characters start to appear after 18 months.

The InterContinental’s Fernando Cubas was a fan of the Langlois Crémant de Loire brut for its freshness and acidity, and felt it would be a good (and well-priced) by-the-glass addition.

Certainly, our tasters felt that reliability and value were a big selling point of this flight.

‘It’s not a Marmite wine, love it or hate it,’ mused Mathieu. ‘It’s a style that people will never turn down. And though there are times when you want to surprise a customer there are also times when you don’t.’

The Edinburgh venue, Good Bros wine bar, had a festive air to it for our day’s tasting.

Vouvray Fines Bulles

From rocky hillsides, and with a minimum of 12 months ageing, Vouvray Fines Bulles must be 100% Chenin and, with its taut acidity, has the potential for good mid- to long-term ageing.

Although these wines were all from one single appellation, it’s perhaps no surprise that there were big variations in the wines here. Vouvray runs more or less along the Loire river from just east of Saumur through a further eight municipalities.

The Vouvrays were very popular with our tasters in London and Edinburgh

Not only were winemakers making wines from quite different microclimates, but it was obvious, too, that they were also making the wines in quite different ways. Perhaps because of this, it was the star sparkling flight for several of our attendees.

‘The Vouvray Fines Bulles wines surprised and impressed me in terms of delivering the quality that I look for when encouraging guests to step out of their bubbly comfort zone and trying something new,’ said Douneside House’s James Payne MS. ‘Either by the bottle to accompany food or as part of a tasting menu wine flight.’

Mathieu agreed. ‘They all have a varietal character – you really know you’re in Chenin Blanc territory,’ he said. ‘But within that, they will all be different.’

Several attendees picked out the Domaine Vigneau Chevreau nv as their favourite sparkling overall.

‘It had brilliant flinty notes alongside that hazelnut, quince jam sweetness,’ said Eden Locke’s Isobel Salomon. ‘It’s a great champagne alternative.’

Damien Trinckquel from Number One at the Balmoral also loved its medium body.

‘Elegant mousse and very precise with chalky mineral and a saline finish. It will keep everyone happy around a table.’

Damien Trinckquel, Number One at The Balmoral
The Loire at sunset. Pic: Fotolia Matlanimal
Torres

Discovery Tasting: Torres

The chance to sample almost-extinct Catalan varieties from Torres’ impressive vine recovery programme made for a memorable tasting

Torres are a name that needs little introduction: creators of a wide range of wines that are on sale across the world. This, in itself, is no mean achievement, but still being family-owned and family-run means that they are able to do things differently compared to many other large companies. And today’s tasting was a case in point.

Being family run has allowed Torres to take a very long-term view

It was a chance for our members to look at the extraordinary work that the company have done in attempting to revive forgotten, abandoned and almost-extinct Catalan grape varieties.

This was a project that began in the early 1990s – at a time, don’t forget, when most people were frantically planting Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet. And now, almost 30 years later, it is starting to reach fruition, with a number of ancient varieties starting to appear both in single-varietal form and as part of new and existing blends.

It’s been expensive, time-consuming, rewarding and mind-blowing in more or less equal measure. As Torres’ technical director, Josep Sabarich admits.

‘It’s a bit of a crazy project. Only a family-owned cellar could do this.’

Josep Sabarich
Josep Sabarich, Torres’ Technical Director

The starting point for the recovery project began in the 19th century, when phylloxera destroyed Europe’s vineyards. When people finally replanted, they did it in a hurry and didn’t necessarily put back in what had been there before. It was also a chance for growers to get rid of varieties that were hard to grow or unproductive.

The upshot was that hundreds of varieties fell out of use – and decades later, Torres decided to bring some of them back. Partly it was to recover some of Catalonia’s grape-growing heritage, but also, as Josep puts it, ‘because we felt that these varieties could bring us something that we don’t have in our vineyard at the moment.’

The family put adverts in the Catalan press, encouraging people to inform them if they had old vines growing wild on their land. They checked over the submissions with ampelographers, and then, finally, with DNA analysis.

A wild vine climbing up a cliff-face, pic: G et M André

If the vines were unique they propagated them (to get rid of viruses) and then, if all went well, started experiments in the vineyard. It was a huge amount of work, but educational – for many reasons.

‘We learned that we are not smarter than our ancestors,’ says Josep. ‘The majority of these varieties were stopped being used for a good reason – either they weren’t interesting, or there were quality problems.

‘But some stopped being used just because they were low-yielding, even though they are actually interesting in oenological terms.’

A key benefit seems to be that many of these native varieties are extremely well adapted to the local climate. For instance, they all have a longer growing season than varieties like Chardonnay or Merlot, ripening later but also preserving more acidity.

‘This could be a way to fight against global warming. To readapt our vineyards to the current situation.’

Josep Sabarich

Down the line, Torres will not be the only beneficiaries. They are sharing their discoveries with other growers who want to make wine with them. In 30, 40, 50 years’ time, the likes of Moneu, Pirene and Querol could be as familiar to sommeliers as Cabernet, Xarel.lo and Tempranillo.

It’s a project that is not just good for Torres, but for all Mediterranean viticulture.

New vines from ancient varieties, being propagated before planting in a greenhouse

The Wines

Forcada 2016

Our only white of the tasting was notable for two reasons: its low pH and a long growing cycle that often sees it ripen in mid-October – highly atypical for a white grape in Catalonia.

‘The first thing everyone does is to compare a new grape to another one,’ says Josep. ‘To look for a reference. Here we’re thinking more in terms of Atlantic varieties than Mediterranean.’

Forcada – rare but worth looking for!

The wine is made with a combination of new oak, old oak and concrete tanks.

‘It’s too raw after fermentation – very electric and acidic,’ explained Josep. ‘We wanted to give it more creaminess and complexity in the mouth. Oak and concrete can do this.’

Despite being five years old, there was still plenty of acidity in the 2016, and Collective members likened it to Hunter Semillon, Pinot Auxerrois and Chenin Blanc.

Current production stands at just 2000 bottles with a RRP of around £45. The new vintage should arrive in the spring.

‘It’s for sommeliers who understand this wine, because it’s not something commercial,’ explained Torres’ fine wine ambassador and former London sommelier, Joelle Marti. ‘It’s a wine for special wine lovers.

‘It’s important that people who drink these understand everything that is behind the bottle.’

Joelle Marti

Our members certainly did – the wine came out top in our members’ poll.

Moneu 2020

Moneu – now back and in the bottle. Pic:_Jordi Elias

Planted next to Mas La Plana, in fertile soil with limestone, Moneu is a fairly low-yielding red, with good acidity, thick skins and plenty of colour. ‘It’s a very pure vinification with a short maceration to show just the fruit soul of the wine,’ said Josep.

This variety currently makes up 20% of the blend in Clos Ancestrale (the fourth wine here), where it is made in a more extracted and concentrated way that needs to be carefully watched.

Planted next to Mas La Plana, in fertile soil with limestone, Moneu is a fairly low-yielding red, with good acidity, thick skins and plenty of colour. ‘It’s a very pure vinification with a short maceration to show just the fruit soul of the wine,’ said Josep.

This variety currently makes up 20% of the blend in Clos Ancestrale (the fourth wine here), where it is made in a more extracted and concentrated way that needs to be carefully watched.

‘It’s very easy to extract colour and tannins,’ said Josep. ‘If you’re not careful you can go too far and get a rustic wine.’

The Moneu is not currently available as a single varietal – this was a sample bottle only. But perhaps that might change, because it was popular with our tasters.

Some Moneu is fermented in ‘tinajas’

Michal Dumny likened it to Dolcetto, while Harry Cooper felt it was ‘A little earthy, no tannin, spice and dark berries, with a little menthol on the finish. Very polished – my style.’

Remarkably, the oldest vines here are just seven years old…

Pirene

When they are first rescued the ancestral varieties obviously have no name, since nobody knows what they are. When naming them, the Torres team often try to link the new arrivals with people or places where they were discovered. This variety was found in several sites near the Pyrenees.

‘It’s my favourite of the three experimental varieties [today],’ said Josep. It is a little more serious as a wine, but still with good freshness and more complexity.’

Pirene: named after where it was discovered

With a very long growing season – it’s one of the first to bud-burst but picked the end of October – it gives a lot of colour. This vibrant wine was macerated for just four days.

Plans are to keep this as a single-varietal wine, though volumes are very limited. The new vintage (RRP £45) should be out in the spring. Members will need to register their interest early. And pray.

The rather beautiful ‘Pre-Pyrenees’ where ‘Pirene’ was found

Clos Ancestral 2019

A blend of 50% Tempranillo, 30% Garnacha and 20% Moneu, with an RRP of £16.99, Clos Ancestral was the most affordable of the day’s wines.

‘We wanted to have more democratic wines, to give access to ancestral varietals with wines that are more accessible,’ explained Joelle Marti.

Currently, the Moneu vines are only six years old, but Torres now have 16 hectares planted, and there are definite plans to grow the percentage of it in this wine, probably all the way up to 100% as the new vines come on stream.

Clos Ancestral: ‘More accessible’

‘These are easy-drinking wines, but also gastronomic, that pair with food and don’t disrupt it’

Joelle Marti

The plan is to create a full range of Clos Ancestral wines, using different varieties, including a white. It provides an exciting glimpse of the next generation of Torres wines; of ranges made with percentages of once forgotten varieties, in a low-intervention style.

‘Low intervention is not easy if you want to have regular quality,’ admits Josep. ‘You can lose some batches. But it’s an interesting way.’

The new Clos Ancestral vintage is due in spring.

Grans Muralles 2004 and 2017

The two Grans Muralles wines were, in one sense, very different from what has gone before. After all, this is an established luxury Spanish wine, with an RRP of around £100 that’s on top restaurant lists all round the world.

From Conca de Barbera in the hills of Catalonia, it has a slight air of Priorat about it: a Garnacha/Cinsaut dominant blend, from a continental climate, with alluvial, slatey soils.

But since 1996 Grans Muralles has also used some of the findings from the vine recovery programme. The 2004 included some Garró, while the 2017 had both Garró and Querol. Samso (used in the 2004) is not a rescued variety, but the Catalan word for Cinsault.

Garró is a tannic presence, designed to add just a little extra heft to the wine’s mouthfeel, but never more than 5% of the total. Querol’s presence can go as high as 20%, but is more typically 10-15%. It brings freshness and lift.

The slatey soils of Conca de Barbera are a key element in the style of Grans Muralles

Garnacha is, as Josep puts it, ‘the nose and the soul of this wine’, so the impact of the recovered varieties is not intended to be dominant, but to act as ‘seasoning’.

Of the two wines tasted here, 2004 was a cooler year with above average rainfall. 2017 was drier, warmer and has a lower proportion of Garnacha than 04. Josep calls decisions like this ‘the human inputs of wine’.

‘I love the complexity of 2004,’ he says, ‘but I also like the boldness of 2017. Though it could be a little raw just at the moment. Probably for today’s dinner I would prefer the 2004.’

‘It ages beautifully well,’ chips in Joelle. ‘We started this in 1996, so we know where we’re going with it.’

In 20 years’ time, they’ll be able to say the same for their exciting new Catalan grape varieties, too!

Late afternoon sun in Finca Grans Muralles – a wine on Michelin-starred lists across the world

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Planeta

Discovery Tasting: Planeta and Etna

Volcanic wines are – no pun intended – hot at the moment. So the chance to taste Planeta’s range from Etna with winemaker Patricia Toth was a treat not to be missed.

Advertorial DISCOVERY TASTING: PLANETA AND ETNA – rif ocm

Old terraces and new vineyards high up on Etna. The ‘clouds’ in the background are from the volcano

Grapes have been grown, and wine made on Etna for hundreds of years – until recently, most of it of no great distinction. But there has been a big quality shift over the last 20 years, and it’s arguably one of the most talked-about regions in Europe now.

Commentators have described it, variously, as ‘Italy’s Burgundy’ and ‘the Barolo of the South’.

Planeta planted its first vineyard on Etna in 2009, buying a dozen ancient terraces in Sciaranuova. At over 800 metres, it’s one of the highest vineyards on the mountain, which might explain the winery’s decision to major mostly on white wines, made largely from the native Carricante grape.

There has been much talk in Etna about the ‘contradas’ – the various sub-regions the area is divided into. But Patricia Toth warns against viewing them as an equivalent to Burgundy crus or village appellations.

The Contradas are more administrative than terroir driven – and some, such as Feudo di Mezzo are BIG!

‘Contradas are bigger units – more bureaucratic, defined in the last century,’ she tells the Sommelier Collective. But, unlike Burgundy, they aren’t driven by the nature of the terroir.

‘One contrada can contain five or six different lava flows, and it is this that gives a character to the soil.’

Patricia Toth
Winemaker, Patricia Toth

Etna, of course, is still very much active – making it a truly unique place to make wine. But even once you get past the volcano throwing out plumes of smoke and grumbling to itself just 15km away (albeit 2,500m higher) this is a highly unusual terroir.

Patricia describes it as ‘mountain viticulture’. Not only are the vineyards from 500-900m above sea level, but there are three mountain ranges nearby of around 2000m. Weather patterns here are distinct and vary significantly from one place to the next.

‘We have vineyards in Montelaguardia and Sciaranuova,’ says Patricia. ‘They’re only five minutes drive apart, but they’re 200m different in altitude and, crucially, are based on two different eruptions.’

The soil, too, is extraordinary. ‘It’s really a collection of different volcanic ash,’ says Patricia. ‘It has twice the average of organic material you’ll find in Europe, but there’s no clay at all.’

Although Etna is quite a high rainfall area, the vineyards drain like sand.

Soil types on Etna. Mostly ash, and with no clay at all, drainage is like sand

The Whites

Planeta’s Etna whites are based on the local grape Carricante. Its profile is not yet that well known – perhaps because in the past it used to be blended in with red grapes – a once common practice across Europe.

Until recently, older growers used to pick it religiously on October 6th, which might explain the lack of interest in making it as a single varietal.

Etna terraces, made of lava – looking down into the bottom of the valley

‘People thought Carricante was a simple grape,’ says Patricia. ‘But it’s a bit like Furmint or Riesling. It gets aromatic maturity in the last few weeks of the vegetative cycle, so to get real flavour you have to risk it a bit.

‘It’s not a light aromatic compound – more like Riesling. It has a low pH and can age well.’

Patricia describes it as a ‘linear variety’.

The Etna Bianco 2019 comes from the lower vineyards in Montelaguardia, which are slightly warmer and more sheltered. The result is a rounder, softer, more ready-to-drink wine.

Patricia – who likes to taste in colours – sees it as a ‘yellow’ wine – peachy and approachable.

She has added to this character by putting 15% of the wines into tonneaux, though there is no evident wood character.

Map showing the altitudes of the Planeta vineyards. And yes, that’s an active volcano at the bottom.

The Eruzione 2016 and 2018 are a step up in quality and ambition. When Planeta took over these vineyards they had been abandoned for 50 years. Somewhat counter-intuitively, they cannot be labelled Etna DOC because the Sciaranuova vineyard is too high to be included in the boundaries of an appellation that was drawn up a long time ago, when people thought it was too hard to get grapes ripe at this altitude.

Naming the wine after one of the volcano’s most famous eruptions, however, is a neat way of making it obvious where it comes from, without breaking any rules!

You can see the location of Sciaranuova on the ‘contrada’ map above – it’s a green block on the bottom edge.

The wine is 90% Carricante, with 10% Riesling. That’s because while Carricante can be complex on the nose, it is still often slimline on the palate; adding Riesling – ‘more like Claire Valley than German style,’ says Patricia – helps to add weight to the mid-palate. Still, though, she says this is a ‘white, linear wine.’

‘2018 is wilder and more open,’ explained Patricia. ‘The 2016 is more organised. It was one of the most relaxed years I’ve had since I worked here.’

Members of the Sommelier Collective had some interesting food matches for these, including ‘anything with squid ink’, swordfish and a Brazilian fish stew, moqueca.

‘These wines are quite salty and mineral, so umami-driven fish dishes can be great,’ said Patricia.

The wine, the vineyards – and a chunk of lava. Etna in a nutshell

The Reds

Nerello Mascalese is the reason that some have likened Etna to Burgundy or Barolo – but making premium wines here is, as alluded to earlier, quite a recent phenomenon.

‘We have to remember that premium wines from here have only existed for 20 years,’ says Patricia. ‘It’s exciting to see all the different styles of Nerello Mascalese that exist now.’

The variety’s name means ‘little black from the village of Mascale’. So called because it isn’t as dark as, say, Nero d’Avola. But what’s it typically like?

‘Stylistically, it has some distance between the nose and the mouth,’ explains Patricia. ‘The nose is floral, gentle, flexible – then in the mouth there’s quite an intense tannic compound which is a lot less delicate than the nose.’

Note the ‘less black’ nature of the bunches that give Nerello its name

For this reason, while it can have similar colour to Pinot Noir, Patricia thinks the Barolo parallel is more appropriate.

Etna Rosso 2019

From the lower vineyards at 5-600m above sea level, the soils are richer and deeper. And this combination gives a wine that is softer and slightly fruitier. ‘It’s a great match with local cold cuts, like salami,’ says Patricia.

Planeta have developed a shorter skin maceration for Nerello Mascalese – 14-18 days. ‘There’s a kind of greenness in the seeds, so we don’t like to move the solids much,’ explains Patricia. ‘It’s more like a static extraction.’

This gentler, softer expression is becoming more popular on the island.

‘A lot of southern varieties need to have the courage to have less structure and colour – to enjoy their softness and elegance,’ she says.

Eruzione 2016 and 2018

As with the Eruzione Carricante, these wines were from the higher Sciaranuova vineyard, outside the appellation, so are classed as a DOC Sicilia. Yet they are evidently more ambitious: blacker and ‘inkier’ on the nose, with more elegant tannins.

‘I always find finer tannins here,’ says Patricia. ‘And I can keep the wine on the skins way longer.’

The team use a ‘Piemontese method’ which involves leaving the wine for a spontaneous fermentation, then sinking the caps, and filling the tanks up with wine without working the skins.

‘I close it and we don’t touch it for the net 25-30 days,’ says Patricia. ‘That gives a very fine extraction.’

Top vintages from Etna are 2011, 2014 and 2016. The Sommelier Collective’s members concurred, rating the latter Eruziones (both red and white) their favourite wines.

If you’re looking for a blind-tasting pointer for Nerello, Patricia suggests ‘modelling clay – it has a very linear and mineral note’. And in terms of matching, the higher-altitude Eruzione, she says, requires major protein.

Maria Boumpa agreed, suggesting it would work well with duck ravioli.

Spectacular night sky and a building made of lava. Etna has a genuinely unique terroir

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