Discovery Tasting: Umani Ronchi

The eastern coast of Italy is less well-known than regions on the other side of the country. So this tasting with a star producer represented a fantastic voyage of discovery for Collective members.

Umani Ronchi’s CEO Michele Bernetti admits that the Marche and Abruzzo are somewhat ‘mysterious’ to most people. But fortunately his winery are excellent guides. Not only are they a member of the respected Grandi Marchi di Vini – essentially, Italy’s finest family run wine companies, including the likes of Sassicaia, Antinori and Tasca d’Almerita – they make wine in three different appellations east of the Appennines. No-one knows this area better.

The family started in the wine business in Verdicchio in 1957, later opening a cellar near the coast, in the Conero DO, before branching out into the Abruzzo, 130km further south, in 2001. The vast majority of what they do involves the native grapes Verdicchio and Montepulciano, though in this tasting they also showed us a Pecorino and a ‘super Marche’ red blend.

Michele Bernetti with his father in the family’s organic vineyards Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Over their (almost) 70 years of production, they’ve developed a very environmentally friendly approach.

‘It’s very fashionable to mention sustainability now,’ says Michele. ‘But we’ve been committed to that for a long time.’ All of their 200 hectares of vineyards are farmed organically and certified as such.

Their philosophy (besides sustainability) is simple: ‘grandi vini ma non grossi vini’ – great wines but not big wines.

Our members got to look at wines from all three areas to see just what this meant.

Abruzzo

The Abruzzo is a large area – Italy’s fourth biggest wine region –  most of it is concentrated on Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. But white wine is coming back, particularly driven by a resurgence of local varieties. In the past this would probably have meant the high-yielding Trebbiano, but when the team at Umani Ronchi replanted they decided to concentrate on Pecorino which they thought was more interesting.

‘It’s a very ancient variety and very typical of this part of Italy,’ says Michele. ‘It’s been cultivated here for centuries. It’s authentic, indigenous and really gives some quality with a great personality.’

Umani Ronchi’s Abruzzo vineyards, looking towards the Appennines. Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Centovie Pecorino 2019, IGT Colli Aprunti

In terms of blind tasting, Michele says Pecorino can be hard to pick on the nose. There’s some pear and white flowers, but like many Italian white varieties it’s not a particularly aromatic variety compared to, say Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Bianco.

‘You find the character on the palate,’ says Michele. ‘I don’t like to say minerality, but there’s a definite saltiness and acidity. There’s good body and freshness and it’s capable of ageing.’

£15.40 ex-VAT, Berkmann

The Centovie sees no oak, but is settled for 12 months in concrete tanks and 5 months in bottle before release. A wine with a certain chalkiness it’s pretty versatile and needn’t be limited to fish and seafood but, says Michele, can work well with white meats too – and food with more character generally.

Centovie Organic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015

Montepulciano is the variety that the Abruzzo is best known for. Typically, they are quite deep in colour and polyphenols and fairly rich in style.

But Umani Ronchi have introduced a variety of winemaking techniques – from not over-ripening the grapes and reducing pump-overs to introducing a little whole-bunch into the ferment – to dial this style down a bit and make something more elegant. Generally sandy soils help in this regard too.

Centovie is a 100% organic estate and though the wine is aged 14 months in French oak only 25% of it is new, with the remainder second and third use.

£18.87 ex-VAT, Berkmann

‘It needs some time to soften the wine, but we don’t want too much oak character,’ says Michele, pointing out that the wine still has enough concentration to age for 10-15 years.

Collective Member Daniel Cordero Reis found it ‘intense, warm and fruity with spicy aromas.’

Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi

This is where Umani Ronchi started and is home to over half of their vineyards – 110 hectares – all organically cultivated. Their vineyards are split between the ‘left bank’ (north of the Misa river) and the right bank opposite, with our members today tasting an example of each.

Verdicchio has changed significantly from the 1970s when it was making big volumes of largely uninspiring wine, to now producing some of Italy’s best whites. It’s a movement that this winery has been at the forefront of driving.

The beautiful sloping vineyards of Verdicchio Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Vecchie Vigne Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2019 

£17.84 ex-VAT, Berkmann

Umani Ronchi were engaged in renewing old, less productive vineyards, when they noticed that the vines in the upper part of this 1960s vineyard gave consistently better quality fruit. So rather than replant them, they renovated them. And this wine is the result.

It’s a very pure expression of Verdicchio – fermented in stainless steel and aged in concrete tanks for a year, with no malo and no oak. It’s not unlike unoaked Chablis and, with the latter in short supply for the next two years, could provide a useful alternative.

‘Growers now realise they have a variety that can provide very classy wines,’ says Michele, suggesting that consumers are now often looking for wines such as this, with less obvious aromatic intensity and more character on the palate.

Plenio Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva 2019

£17.07 ex-VAT, Berkmann

First made in 1995 this oaked expression is a deliberately richer, more full-bodied style of Verdicchio (Plenio means ‘full’) which was very much the fashion of the mid-90s. However, over the last 25 years, Umani Ronchi has dialled down the oak use to just 30-40%, with no new oak – just two or three-year-old barrels.

‘Because Verdicchio is not very aromatic, you have to be careful in the oak you use,’ explains Michele. ‘You can’t use a sweet oak that adds those vanilla characters. You need a more grilled character, which works better with the freshness and minerality of Verdicchio. That way the oak brings complexity but it doesn’t make it heavy and you don’t lose the indigenous character.’

The wine comes from a vineyard that’s 400m above sea level, with gives bigger day/night differences. This allows them to leave the grapes on the vine longer without losing acidity, giving a style that’s richer, but still balanced.

All of which means you can push the food matching a bit, from fish and white meats right up to spaghetti Bolognese.

Verdicchio – could it be Italy’s answer to Chablis? Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Conero

This wine region is named after the mountain (and national park) on the promontory south of Ancona. At 600m high, it shields the vineyards from the cool northerly and easterly breezes and is the reason that it’s possible to grow Montepulciano here. Even so, it’s the most northerly region for the grape in Italy.

Conero’s vineyards are protected from the wind by 600m high mountains. Pic: © Francesco Vignali Photography

Cùmaro Rosso Conero Riserva 2017   

The proximity to the sea has a big influence on the character of this wine. Firstly, the intensity of the light helps the polyphenols to ripen, and secondly it moderates the climate. The coast is famous for windsurfing – and the constant wind explains why the ripening is slower and more gentle.

It’s a hilly area of limestone and clay soils and stylistically the Montepulcianos are different as a result: more fruity and elegant in structure, and less powerful and spicy than those from the Abruzzo. A more refined expression.

£19.69 ex-VAT, Berkmann

Pelago 2017, Marche Rosso IGT

Our final wine of the day was first created for Umani Ronchi in the 1990s by Giacomo Tachis – the Italian wine guru famous for inventing Sassicaia, Tignanello et al. Having planted Cabernet and Merlot, with the intention of making a Bordeaux blend, Tachis convinced the family to blend it with Montepulciano to make a kind of ‘Super Marche’.

Typically the latter makes up around half of the blend, with 40-45% Cabernet and a splash of Merlot.

2017 was a warm year, but the maritime climate helped mitigate against that and (along with 2013 and 2015) is one of Michele’s favourite recent vintages.

£25.88 ex-VAT, Berkmann

‘It’s always been about elegance and finesse,’ says Michele. ‘It’s never been a wine looking for a big structure.’

Umani Ronchi’s new barrel cellar. Ageability is a key feature of the Conero wines, particularly Pelago.
St Mont

Discovery Tasting: Plaimont Producteurs

From wooden labels to monks and 150 year old vineyards to revived varieties, this was a tasting that was full of stories and individuality.

There’s been winemaking in South-west France since monks arrived in the region in the 11th century, and it’s a place that still has a strong regional identity – right down to the Gascon beret that our host from Plaimont, Olivier Bourdet-Pees proudly wears as he talks to the Collective.

Olivier was born and brought up in the foothills of the Pyrenees, so he knows the region intimately. In fact, he tells us that this is one of the wettest parts of France – over 1000mm of rain a year, about the same as Manchester. Perhaps that explains the hat.

Gascony is best known for Armagnac. And it was to counter this that a group of growers got together in 1978 to concentrate on wine instead. ‘We started by believing that it was possible to have a big ambition for the region by making wines a bit off the beaten track, and to see wines differently,’ says Olivier.

Their heartland is the Saint Mont appellation, 1200ha of vineyard spread among 40 small villages, and focusing almost entirely on indigenous varieties: the reds Tannat and Pinenc, the whites Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu.

Olivier – with trademark headgear

These are very specific grapes and a very specific climate that’s much cooler and wetter than you’d expect for the South of France.

‘It can be hard to get a perfect maturity,’ explains Oliver, ‘and maybe 100 years ago it was hard to do that. But with climate change and improvements in the vineyard, perhaps these kind of zones could be the places giving the top wines in France and round the world; places that give a natural freshness.’

The amphitheatre of the Cirque Nord vineyard (steeper than it looks here) is one of the best in the region

The Wines

 L’Empreinte de Saint Mont Blanc 2017 

L’Empreinte is 70% Gros Manseng, which brings a freshness and strength to the wines. Olivier expects grapefruit and citrus when the wine is young, though with time this citrus fruit develops into white truffle.

Petit Courbu adds a roundness to balance the freshness of the blend, while Arroufiac is added in small quantities. ‘On it’s own it’s not a good grape,’ says Olivier, ‘but you can use a little bit like salt or pepper. It lengthens the finish – adds a slight bitterness. It’s especially good in hot years.’

£10.90, Corney & Barrow

Le Faîte Blanc 2016                                                         

One of the features of Plaimont’s whites is their age. The group are very keen for the customer to understand the complexity that is given by time in bottle.

‘We don’t want to present very young wine [in St Mont],’ says Olivier. ‘There are wines from Gascony that are easy to discover when they are really young. But when you enter St Mont or Ireluguy they are much better after three, four, five years. It’s hard for people to do that [ageing] themselves, so we do that for them.’

From north and west-facing slopes, Olivier believes this is from some of the best white wine terroir in St Mont, and you usually need to wait a while to see the wine’s full potential. High acidity allows it to age.

£15.28, Corney & Barrow

Arguably the most astonishing thing about Le Faîte is its wooden (yes wooden) label. Apparently, centuries ago, the locals used to buy wines for a big event, such as the birth of a child, and would then bury some of the wines underground to keep them for the next grand happening – such as a marriage. Paper labels would rot in the earth, so they used wooden or iron ones instead. It’s quite a story.

Cirque Nord 2016                                                            

£28.81, Corney & Barrow

There is no cru system in the vineyards of St Mont. But if there were, the Cirque Nord vineyard would be in it. ‘It’s the top selection of this region,’ says Olivier.

A north facing amphitheatre with only 8-10 hours of sun a day, it’s a cool site. But the steep slopes catch all the sun’s rays, and big pebbles in the soil warm up and add further heat. Throughout the wine there is an inherent tension between warmth and coolness.

‘We do almost nothing with this plot,’ says Olivier. ‘It’s very traditional winemaking.’ A long vinification with natural yeasts in very old (8-10 year old) barrels is followed by at least 24 months on the lees, before the wine is aged in tank a further 2.5-3 years before bottling.’

Olivier suggests using it for top-class fish dishes and desserts that aren’t too sweet.

Le Manseng Noir 2019                                                   

£10.25, Les Caves de Pyrene

In some ways, this wine is the symbol of the Plaimont project – a symbol of what people can achieve when they come together.

The growers found a vine in a 200 year old vineyard that they weren’t able to identify. They assumed it was a clone of Tannat, but DNA research revealed it to be Manseng Noir – a variety thought to have been extinct for centuries.

From just one plant, they now have 37 hectares of the variety.

Manseng Noir’s big advantage is that it rarely gets riper than 11.5%. Two hundred years ago, this would have been a big disadvantage – it would probably struggle to get past 8 or 9% abv with 19th century viticulture. But that could be a big bonus with climate change making some varieties almost impossible to work with.

It’s often added to more alcoholic grapes (such as Merlot) to bring the abv down.

The famous vineyard where the Manseng Noir was discovered is now a ‘monument historique’

Château de Sabazan 2017 

The co-op bought this 16 hectare vineyard in 1987, and the wine is entirely grown, bottled and aged on the estate. It was the start of their ambition for making serious red wines and currently there are four vintages available, with 2017 the latest.

It’s almost entirely Tannat, with a bit of Cabernet Franc and some Pinenc to add a little easy-drinking red-fruit.

This is the traditional sandy soil of Bas Armagnac – iron rich and very poor – and it gives a wine that Olivier describes as ‘round and fresh, but not too strong.’

£16.37, Bibendum

‘A lot of people are afraid of Tannat, but in sandy soil it’s easier. The acidity is the skeleton of the wine, not the tannins.’

Olivier Bourdet-Pees
Chateau Sabazan – owned by Plaimont for 35 years and a great place for top-class Tannat

La Madeleine 2015                                                                         

Olivier cites the next two wines as being the reason why he joined Plaimont 12 years ago; because of the willingness of the growers to keep really old vineyards, even though it was difficult for them.

The one behind La Madeleine was destroyed by phylloxera then replanted in 1890. Its 0.8ha make only 3000 bottles a year.

‘It’s an experience,’ says Olivier. ‘Something really different, to meet a plot with a history like that. It’s the result of the decisions taken by growers over a century ago. They didn’t sell the grapes at a premium. But they kept it because they felt an attachment to it.’

£33.00, Gusto

Vignes Préphylloxériques 2013                                  

£47.40, Corney & Barrow

Many growers around the world use the term ‘old vines’ – sometimes rather cynically. But this plot is proper vieilles vignes. It was planted in 1871, ungrafted, but its sandy soil kept phylloxera away.

Strictly speaking, this is not an A-list terroir, but the sheer age of the Tannat vines gives something very special, even from this ‘off’ vintage. But the ancient vines with their 7m-deep roots came through the cool, damp weather so well that Olivier prefers the 2013 to the supposedly better 2015 and 2017.

‘The freshness of the vintage is there,’ he says, ‘but it’s well-balanced – the strength of each plant is behind the cuvée. It’s always a privilege to have a glass of this wine.’

Plaimont’s growers have access to some seriously old vines

Saint Albert Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2016                 

£9.60, Corney & Barrow

This classic late harvest wine – 100% Petit Manseng is picked in at least two runs, from the end of October, and middle of November to (occasionally) the end of December.

This is the closest zone to Pyrenees and it is really cold. There’s no botrytis. Grapes are left to dry on plant, concentrating sugar, aromas and acidity. Olivier said he always has a bottle of this in his fridge for when friends drop in, but also that it’s a great match with roast chicken.

‘The incredible thing with Pacherenc,’ he says, ‘is that you can convince people who don’t even really like sweet wines.’

At this price it can be a useful addition to any wine list or tasting menu.

Pacherenc vineyards in autumn – as golden as the late harvest wine itself

Discovery Tasting: Alternatives to Burgundy

Stefan Neumann MS hosted a fascinating Discovery Tasting looking at wines from around the world that provide interesting alternatives for Burgundy, especially when some of the best might not be readily available.

To launch a series of virtual and live tastings, with Sommelier Collective Merchant Partner Fells, Stefan Neumann MS selected a range of 10 wines – chardonnays and pinot noirs – that offer valid and engaging alternatives to good burgundies. Picked from top Spanish, Italian, New Zealand, Tasmanian, Californian, Orgeon vineyards, the tasting provided a fascinating chance for our members to take a close look at quality wines from the Fells portfolio.

“Why are we doing this tasting?”, asked Neumann at the beginning fo the session, “we saw prices going up and volumes going down in Burgundy and you have two option: you can either complain or you can look for alternatives. Whilst I was on the floor I started to do this: to look for wines that would give the burgundians a run for their money. We have wines in the tasting that start at 11 pounds up to 30 – so really showing excellent value.”

Having a Master Sommelier on hand with such experience leading the tasting meant that members were able to share their impressions and anecdotes about alternative wines and how to build them into a wine list, whilst discussing customer experiences when suggesting and selling wines during service. Neuman gave some top tips on how to introduce alternatives to Burgundy by including the use of anecdotes and historical references to engage the person looking to enjoy the wine.

Stefan Neumann MS -. giving Burgundy a run for its money with the wines from the Alternatives to Burgundy Discovery Tasting

Whilst I was on the floor I started to look for wines that would give the burgundians a run for their money. This selection showcases wines that will do that, starting at 11 pounds up to 30 – so really showing excellent value.

Stefan Neumann MS

THE WINES

Jean Leon 2019 Chardonnay

“Founded in 1963 by an Italian imigrant but owned by the Torres family in 1984. They have a unique approach to making Chardonnay – a cool climate, Spanish Chardonnay. The fruit for this wine come from a vineyard in the early 60s. They use large vessels for fermentation and spend 6 months on the fine lees. No denying it is froma warmer region but the height of the vineyard give it great acidity which comes through. Historically Chardonnay was brought to this region by Cistercian monks in the 13th/14th century who came from the Burgundy region.” Stefan Neumann MS

“South of Siena, Ricasoli has been in the region in the 12th century and have been exporting this wine to the UK anf Holland for 500 years. Alot of Chardonnay is planted in the area but the site for this wine is very specific. They are very passionate about the terroir and broken down all of the soil types Planted on the R3 clone and aged for 9 months in tonneaux, the older vintages have more oak than the more recent wines are much more balanced they increased the barrel size. They have 15 years of making this wine so they know what they are doing.” Stefan Neumann MS

Harry Cooper “great blast of acidity and lovely oak balance.”

Torricella 2019 Ricasoli
Wente 2020 Chardonnay

“Important name in California, established in 1883, in the Livermoore Valley. This wine has a cool strike – even in summer it is cold because of the wind and the fog – giving it great citrus acidity. This is Wente clone, named in 1912, and this the most widely used clone in California right now. Five months sur lie with a little battonage going on and it has 2% of Gerwuztraminer in the blend to give weight and oiliness to the wine. Aged in larger formal, nuetral American oak.” Stefan Neumann MS

Angelo Margheriti “Lovely creamy texture.”

Harry Cooper “Like a vanilla bomb. Great with nutty cheeses.”

“When you pour this you will find a very positive note of reduction which I personally love. Clone-wise we are at 95 and 16, classic Burgundy clones and this example comes from the Renwick vineyard, close to Blenheim. Pressed directly into the barrel with some battonage. 2020 was a good solid vintage to buy, naturally the yeild was quite low. Reminds me a lot of Burgundy – turbot would match wonderfully with this wine.” Stefan Neumann MS

Konstantinos Katridis “Delicious – lovely taste of toasted almonds.”

George Doyle “Favourite wine so far.”

Valerya Toteyva “This wine would match perfectly with Pad Thai.”

Nautilus 2019 Chardonnay
Gran Moraine Chardonnay 2019

“Work more with whole clusters making this wine, you get a sense of it in the structure. 16.5 months in barrel, very specific, then they transfer to stainless steel to give grip and freshness from the cool climate there in Oregon. 8% new oak – so really more of a vessel that carries the wines than adds to it. If you look its on the same latitude as Burgundy which is why so many producers from there are investing in Oregon.” Stefan Neumann MS

“Hartford Court is owned by the Jackson Family, close to Santa Rosa and about 15 minutes from the Pacific Ocean. The Petaluma Gap really is a major factor in the production of great wines – very important for regulating the climate and making Pinot Noir work in the region. At Hartford, just on Pinot Noir they do 16 separate, different bottlings of their wines this example is from several differnet plots and the make up is not the same each year. 9.5 months in oak and 22% new oak, very precise and so open about what they do. Important to not ethat 92% of the fruit was picked before the wild fires so no worry about taint on the wines.” Stefan Neumann MS

Harry Cooper “Rich and juicy with great poise. Good with barbequed Lamb or pork.”

Hartford Court 2019 Pinot Noir
Dalrymple 2020 Pinot Noir

“Extreme wine producing region, established in 1987, looking straight over the Bass Straight. Tasmania has traditionally has been totally underated in terms of Pinot and Chardonnay production, where the wines were destined for sparkling wines, but now coming into its own. Dalrymple has been owned by Robert Hill Smithsince 2007. 11 months in oak and 24 months in oak. 2020 was a challenging vintage due to the rain. 28% less in terms of yeild because it was such a tough vintage. Great potential to age.” Stefan Neumann MS

“The winery was established in 1896, but the first vintage of this wine was 2018. 100% de-stemmed and handpicked, aged in a mixture of new and old oak for 11 months. Te Mata is famous for its top reds, especially wines like Bullnose. They are very specific about their sites and varietals. The inspiration for the name of this wne come from Dr. James Thompson at the Battle of Alma during the Crimean war. There are always very intriguing story behind the wines at Te Mata.” Stefan Neumann MS

Te Mata 2018 Alma
Torres, Marimar Estate 2013
Mas Cavallas

“Established by Marimar Torres, fourth generation of the family Spanish winemaking family, who was very brave to leave the family home in Cataluña to look for something different. A brave lady who have forged her own path in Sonoma, a cool climate area tyhat is strongly affected by fog and winds at the beginning of day. This estate is 2006 powered by solar panels, organically certified since 2006 and produce wines bio-dynamically and at the forefront of sustainability – from bees to bats to bobcats they are all about being close to nature. They believe the wines need to be aged and the wines are highly oaked in comparison to the other wines in this tasting.” Stefan Neumann MS

“Fresh, vibrant Pinot Noir made by Sam Neil one of the main protagonists in Jurassic Park, established in 1993 on the proceeds of the film – first vintage 1997. Two Paddocks own vineyards in the three major Otago Valley – Gisbton, Alexandra and Cromwell. This is the first wine where you will see the influence of 46% whole bunch press in the wine, perhaps in comparison to the other Pinots in this tasting.” Stefan Neumann MS

Two Paddocks 2018 Pinot Noir

This tasting was developed by The Sommelier Collective with Merchant Partner Fells.

Fells was established in 1858 and is one of the UK’s best-known suppliers to the quality on-trade. The company is best known as a fortified wine specialist since leading port producer, Symington Family Estates, acquired the importer in the 1970’s. However, the company has undergone many changes over the years with Torres, top Spanish producer, joining the portfolio in the early 90’s, followed by the Hill Smith family, owners of respected Australian wineries Yalumba, Pewsey Vale and Dalrymple, joining the company in 2018. These developments gave the company greater scale and an unrivalled position in the premium sector of the UK wine market.

Watch the video

Discovery Tasting: Tasca d’Almerita

A riot of lagoons, mountains, islands and volcanoes, this tasting with Tasca showed off Sicily’s incredible geography to the max

Let’s face it, most of the wine trade don’t know anywhere near enough about Sicily. There’s a temptation to assume that because it’s an island it’s not very big, and because until 30 years ago much of what it produced went into bulk wine that it’s devoid of interesting terroir.

In fact, neither of these things is remotely true. Sicily is bigger than Wales. It’s 100,000 hectares of vineyard (just less than Bordeaux) makes it one of the biggest wine regions in Italy, and its scenery is extraordinary – as we discovered in this tasting.

Collective members tried wines from tiny windswept islands, salty lagoons, rocky mountains and Europe’s largest active volcano.

‘Everyone imagines Sicily is a flat island,’ says Alberto Tasca, of our hosts for the day, Tasca d’Almerita. ‘But it isn’t at all.

5 Territories, 5 Estates, 5 stories to tell – Tasca d’Almerita

‘70% of the production comes from hills, and that makes a big difference.’

Alberto Tasca

Tasca d’Almerita have an almost 200-year history of winemaking on the island, and exploring such diverse terroirs has very much become part of their philosophy, with the family-owned company adding small estates the length and breadth of the island.

‘We use as little ego [in the winemaking] as possible,’ explained Alberto. ‘We just want the wines to talk about where they’re from; the age of the vines and what kind of grape varieties they are.’

The Wines

Tenuta Capofaro, Didyme 2021

This comes from the island of Salina, off Sicily’s north-east coast. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place, with vineyards overlooking the thundering waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

‘It has a little what we call ‘sapidity’ – a kind of saltiness,’ says Alberto. ‘It could be because of the strong winds blowing salty water everywhere.’

The island used to be best known for making sweet wines from Malvasia di Lipari. But in 2013 – a big year – Tasca had no space to dry all the grapes, so made some dry wine as well – a style that’s become increasingly popular and should get its own DOC soon.

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

‘I see this kind of wine working very well with sushi,’ said Raphael Thierry. ‘The oily texture is perfect with the texture of the fatty fish like tuna and the saltiness of the wine combines well with soy sauce.’

Vines with a view out over the Tyrrenhian Sea. Spray could give the wines a gentle salty finish.

Tenuta Regaleali, Buonsenso Catarratto 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

Tenuta Regaleali is the homeland of Tasca d’Almerita. It’s in the high, mountainous interior of the island. With much cooler nights, grapes ripen one month later here, which was particularly important in the days before temperature control, since it meant fermenting in October rather than much warmer September.

Catarratto is Sicily’s most-planted white variety, characterised by good natural acidity and an inherent ability to age, even without oak. ‘Because of its ability to hold acidity, you can get it ripe without worrying about it losing freshness,’ says Alberto.

It’s defined by apricot flavours. ‘But there’s a little sapidity to the finish of this wine which is just what we’re looking for,’ says Alberto. ‘We don’t want it to be all about primary aromas.’

Tenuta Regaleali in the mountains of the interior. The heartland of Tasca d’Almerita’s operation

Tenuta Whitaker, Grillo di Mozia 2021

Mozia is another extraordinary place: an incredibly low island off Sicily’s west coast, Alberto claims (almost certainly accurately) that these vines are the lowest vineyards in the world, just a couple of metres above sea level.

The sea around the island is so shallow that the grapes need to be transported to the mainland in small numbers of boxes at a time (see main picture), otherwise the boat runs aground.

Grillo is a cross between Moscato and Catarrato, and the vines are trained in the ‘Marsala bow’ – which involves intertwined bush vine branches trained on a wire, to protect them from the strong sea breezes. It’s a naturally rich wine, particularly from 2021 which Alberto says was ‘the warmest, driest vintage of my whole life.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars
Mozia: vineyards barely above the water, surrounded by a 50cm-deep sea

Tenuta Sallier de la Tour Madamarose 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This large estate inland from Palermo is at 450m of altitude and a mixture of sand and clay. ‘It’s the perfect place for Syrah,’ says Alberto. Tasca d’Almerita tried planting the grape at Regaleali, but it was too cool, and the soils too poor. It performed far better on this estate.

‘We think this is the best place for Syrah in Sicily,’ he continues, pointing out that the grape has a long tradition in Sicily, though it’s a different biotype to the examples grown in France and Australia.

This deep-coloured example from the hot 2021 vintage is ‘a step up in richness’ compared to a normal year, but Alberto says that it ‘pairs very well with food. That’s very much part of our culture in Sicily now. It’s great with barbecued meat.’

High, but warmer than the Regaleali estate, Sallier de la Tour is perfect for Syrah

Tenuta Tascante Ghiaia Nera 2019, Etna Rosso

Nerello Mascalese has found its spiritual home on Etna, which is just as well because it’s not an easy grape to grow. Tasca d’Almerita tried to grow it in Regaleali but ended up just using it for rosé. ‘It’s like trying to grow Pinot Noir in a place that isn’t suited to it,’ says Alberto. ‘But in Etna the volcanic soil brings a crazy tension to the wine.’

Pale in colour, John Prime commented that it ‘seemed to tread a fine line between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo’ and Alberto backed this up.

‘It makes crisp, gastronomic wines,’ he explained. ‘They don’t work without food. There’s something nervous about it. You need an educated palate.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This was (just) the most popular wine in the tasting, with our members suggesting it with lamb sweetbreads in miso caramel (Patrick Bostock), ‘red pepper cannelloni and lemon ricotta in our vegetarian tasting menu’ (James Payne) and ‘roast chicken or turkey’ (Jordan Sutton).

Etna’s grey volcanic rocks make for distinctive terracing

Tenuta Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2016, Contea di Sclafani DOC

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

The ‘Conte’ was created by Alberto’s grandfather back in the 1960s. At that time, Chateauneuf du Pape was the most sought-after wine style, and after visiting the region for a month, he decided on blending two varieties together. It’s a mix of Nero d’Avola and Pericone.

‘Typically these two varieties were planted together because they ripen at the same time,’ said Alberto. ‘But they are totally different. Nero d’Avola is rich purple with a high acidity, Pericone is redder, with a rounder body.’

It’s easy to see how they might work well together, and they combine brilliantly here. From the excellent 2016 vintage, this wine was also popular with the Collective members.

Alberto refused to be drawn on whether he prefers the Etna wine or the Conte, but does say that in 2016 the ‘Rosso del Conte was amazing – better than the best wine we produced on Etna.’

Terraces tumble down the hillside on Mount Etna

Watch the video

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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Tyrrells vineyards

Discovery Tasting: Tyrrells

A world-famous name and two seminal wine styles made for a stimulating immersion in the mysteries of the Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, is the oldest continuously-planted vineyard in Australia, with the first vines going in the ground almost 200 years ago, in 1828. But the big change happened a few years later, when the Australian government sent Scottish botanist James Busby back to Europe to collect vine cuttings.

Handpicking in the shadow of the Brokenback Mountains – the best land is mostly in the west

He trailed through Portugal, France and Italy and came back with over 600 vine cuttings for the government. Of these, 450 went into a propagation nursery in the Hunter Valley, and many went on to form the basis of the oldest vineyards in the region today.

‘We have a Shiraz vineyard from 1867, and 13 blocks on their own roots that are over 100 years old,’ says Bruce Tyrrell. ‘When the rest of the world was smitten with phlloxera, we didn’t get it. So that original vine material is still here on its own roots. I’m 99% sure that we own the oldest Chardonnay vineyard on the planet.’

Bruce describes the old vineyards as ‘priceless assets’ – and ones that have been handed down through his family through five generations, since the 1860s.

‘It’s a responsibility to make sure that these old vines remain part of the global wine industry.’

Bruce Tyrrell
Bruce amongst his foudres

The best vineyards are generally in the west, close to the Brokenback Mountains. In fact, Bruce admits that if his great grandfather had arrived in the region 20 years later, he’d probably have gone bust, because he’d have ended up further east, in inferior land. But coming when he did, he got lucky.

‘There’s a saying that the land here is so poor that the rabbits take a packed lunch with them,’ says Bruce. ‘There are beautiful patches of land, and there’s a lot of rubbish. If there’s one job that I’ve done, it’s finding those great spots and taking control of them by buying or leasing them.’

On Australia’s east coast, the Hunter is a harder place to make wine than South East Australia, with thunder and tropical rainstorms a very real possibility during vintage.  And there’s no question that having 160+ years of experience definitely helps.

‘I’m forever thinking of what my grandfather told me,’ muses Bruce. ‘He treated every vine as an individual.’

The Wines

Semillon

Vat 1 Semillon 2021, 2015, 2009

If the Hunter Valley is globally famous for one thing, it’s Semillon, and here our tasters got to try wines from three different decades: 2009, 2015 (the current release) and 2021 – a sneak preview of a wine that won’t hit the market for several years.

Vat 1 Semillon – an Aussie icon

Semillons generally perform best on the lighter, sandier soils of the Hunter, planted around the various creeks that run down out of the mountains. They’re famous for their high acidity, due to early picking.

Fifty years ago, these would be wines with gum-stripping acidity and just 9% alcohol; nowadays they’re typically between 11-11.5% abv, with a pH of 3-3.1. They’re high in tartaric acid, but low in malic.

Wines that see no oak and no malolactic fermentation, they’re fine, pure… and merciless. As Bruce explains, ‘What comes in is what you’ve got. There’s nowhere to hide.

‘If you mess up a Riesling or a Semillon, it’s all over.’

Bruce Tyrrell

He suggests storing them around 9-11 degrees and letting them warm up a little before serving – particularly the older versions.

‘These are not big wines with lots of flavour,’ says Bruce. ‘There’s fineness and delicacy, with plenty of acidity. They leave your palate fresh and ready for the next mouthful.’

Food matching, he says, is ‘all about seafood’, and Collective members’ suggestions were firmly in this area, going from scallop and pea risotto to pan-seared turbot with white asparagus.

Interestingly, these are wines that gain in strength and complexity with age, getting broader and toastier despite tha lack of oak. In fact, Augusto Gherardi of the Bloomsbury Street Kitchen said the 2009 reminded him of ‘the best Burgundian Chardonnay’.

And that combination of breadth and structure – but without too much weight – makes older Hunter Semillons viable for more left-field pairings.

The Weinkeller vineyard
Three generations of Tyrrells
Edward Tyrell’s original hut from 1858

Emanuel Pesqueira from 67 Pall Mall recalled successfully matching an older version of Vat 1 with curried beef tartare, and Bruce admits that its unique profile means that it’s a wine style that sommeliers all around the world love to get creative with.

The benefits of time in bottle were clearly seen when our members came to vote for their favourite wine.

The 2009 was the runaway winner, attracting admiring descriptions from a number of our tasters, with the 2015 also doing well. The 2021 – still exceptionally young – acquired no votes at all. But Bruce says all three wines tasted very similar at that age, suggesting that this is a reflection of youth rather than vintage. It, too, will start to show beautifully by the time it’s on sale over here.

It’s proof of just how fantastic these wines can be with age but also a justification of the Tyrrells’ philosophy of holding onto the bottles for five years before release. Current vintage is the 2015.

Shiraz

Johnno’s Shiraz 2018, Vat 9 2018, Vat 8 2018

A stylistic journey ‘from Burgundy…
… through the Rhone…

… to Bordeaux’ says Bruce

If the Semillons were a vertical tasting – same wine, three different vintages – the Shiraz was the opposite. One vintage – the stellar 2018 – with three different expressions of the region’s signature red.

‘2018 is one of the great vintages,’ said Bruce. ‘It stayed dry and we had a decent crop without it being large. The fruit was all clean and it ripened evenly.’

Joyously happy Shiraz grapes in Tyrrells’ vineyard

The Johnno’s Shiraz is from one of Tyrrell’s ‘Sacred Sites’ – their oldest vineyards. As Bruce puts it, ‘These are all vineyards that are grown on their own roots and over 100 years old – amongst the rarest vineyards on the planet.’

The Johnno’s Shiraz vineyard was planted in 1908 on the kind of sandy soils more usually reserved for Semillon. It makes for a typically lighter-bodied red, a finer, more elegant style. It’s open-fermented, and the skins are turned over by bubbling air into the bottom of the vat –  a technique Tyrrells picked up from a Burgundian winemaker.

The wine is matured in one to four-year old oak, but in large 2,700-litre foudres, so there is minimal flavour influence.

The Vat 9 comes from totally different soils, from the heavier orange/red clay ridge that runs through the heart of the property. It’s richer than the Johnno’s, but still not a powerhouse, with fine-boned tannin and the sweet fruit completed by an elegant acid structure.

‘This is what I tend to drink the most of at home,’ says Bruce. ‘It’s been the core of our red making all my life, so I’m used to it.’

Our members concurred – it was the most popular red wine in our poll, though only just.

‘What a fantastic contrast!’ said Klearhos Kannellakis from Eksted at The Yard. ‘The Johnno’s is elegant, floral and soft, the Vat 9 is powerful, smoky and peppery.’

The Vat 8 is unusual in that it has 10% of Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the Shiraz. In the old days, this fruit used to come from Coonawarra, but recently it too has been grown in the Hunter, on rich, chocolate-brown soil. ‘It came in and it was sensational,’ says Bruce.

The wine is aged in French oak barriques, one-third of which are new.

‘With these three reds you sort of go Burgundy, Rhone, Bordeaux,’ says Bruce. ‘Johnno’s is fine and light- to medium-bodied; Vat 9 is medium to bigger, a bit more tannin and astringency, but good volumes of fruit; Vat 8 is a big wine to start with then the Cabernet goes in to give it more complexity and character.’

Although we didn’t get to taste any of them, it’s worth mentioning some of the Tyrrells’ single vineyard wines. For the Semillons, Bruce recommends the HVD ‘a wonderful depth and softness about it’ and the Stevens Vineyard – ‘really great perfume with a fine elegance’.

The 4 Acres vineyard, from 1879

For reds, he’s a fan of the 4 Acres Shiraz. Amounts are obviously small, but it’s from their oldest vineyard – planted in 1879. Rumour has it that the vines came from La Chapelle on the hill of Hermitage in the northern Rhone.

‘I don’t know if it’s true,’ grins Bruce. ‘But it’s a good story so I’m inclined to stick to it.’

The Tyrrell’s Wines are available through JE Fells: www.fells.co.uk

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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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Masters of Riesling

Discovery Tasting: Pewsey Vale/Hugel – The Masters Of Riesling

We all know that somms love Riesling the way cats love catnip. So the chance to taste great examples from opposite ends of the world was not to be missed.

For our Masters of Riesling tasting, we had managed to gather Jean-Frédéric Hugel from Hugel in Alsace, and Louisa Rose from Pewsey Vale in the Eden Valley to talk us through some of their key wines. Our members got to taste, compare – and get stuck into some of the hottest issues of the day, in what turned out to be a fascinating deep-dive into a complex variety.

About the wineries

Hugel

Hugel is one of the oldest wineries in France – and probably one of the oldest continuously-run family businesses anywhere in the world. It started in 1639 and, with Jean-Frédéric at the helm, is currently on its 13th generation.

The company is based in the stunning medieval walled town of Riquewihr, in the heart of Alsace, completely surrounded by vines.

‘It’s a viticultural town,’ says Jean-Frédéric. ‘Alsace is like Burgundy, but even more condensed.’

Jean-Frédéric Hugel – 13th generation of the family to run their Alsace winery

A long, narrow region with a complex, mixed-up geology, it has, Jean-Frédéric admits, taken the growers 2000 years to work out how the different soils and orientations affect the character of the grapes.Some 13 varieties are permitted, but Riesling remains the king.

‘It’s a terroir sponge,’ he says. ‘It has a unique ability to express terroir, which explains why there are so many more poor ones on the market – there are many more poor terroirs than there are great ones.’

The walled town of Riquewihr, home to Hugel – as you can see. How does it compare to the view out of your office window?

Pewsey Vale

Pewsey’s history might not be as long as that of Hugel, but it’s impressive nonetheless. First planted in 1847 it is one of the oldest vineyards in Australia.

Joseph Gilbert, an English settler, named it after his home town. Riesling was just one of several varieties he planted – he also tried Cabernet, Gouais Blanc and Verdelho – but it quickly became obvious that it was the variety that worked best in this area.

The Eden Valley is to the East of the Barossa, up on a range of hills. While the Barossa is at around 200m of altitude, with deep soils, the Eden Valley is around 500m up with very poor rocky soil full of mica, quartz and schist.

Pewsey Vale’s Louisa Rose – an acknowledged expert with Riesling – and also Viognier

Temperatures rarely get above the low-30s, though during a heat spike they might climb to 35 degrees C. It’s typically two degrees cooler than the Barossa during the day, but 5-10 degrees cooler than the valley at night. Temperatures can get below 10 degrees C once the sun goes down – a diurnal shift of over 20 degrees C.

‘Cold nights are one of the keys to growing great Riesling,’ says Louisa Rose, who has been making the Pewsey Vale wines for 25 years. ‘You protect the acidity and get those beautiful persistent aromatics.’

Pewsey Vale – with the cooler south-facing slopes planted in the distinctive way that gives the Contours Riesling its name

The Wines

Hugel

Famille Hugel Classic Riesling 2019

The idea of this wine is to show ‘an Alsace archetype of wine,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘To make the best AOC Riesling in Alsace.’ It comes from a variety of soil types, from sandstone and granite to clay and limestone.

Climate change has altered the character of this wine in the space of two generations. ‘My grandfather’s generation thought that 9 degrees potential alcohol was ripe,’ says Jean-Frédéric. ‘They used to have to chaptalize a lot.’ The local sugar refinery, he said, has just closed down because nobody uses it any more.

This is from a tricky vintage of heatwaves and rain storms, and volumes are low. Though taken overall, the growing season was long and cool. Like all the Hugel wines it’s closed with a DIAM cork, of which more later.

‘Archetypal’ Alsace Riesling

Grossi Laüe Riesling 2012

‘More approachable younger…’

Grossi Laüe (pronounced Grossi Loy) translates as ‘great vineyard’ in Alsace dialect. This wine is put together from a series of plots on the Schoenenbourg grand cru. One of the most sought-after locations in Alsace, its 35 degree slopes and southerly aspect have made it a great site for Riesling for hundreds of years.

‘Riesling is a late-ripening grape, and these are mostly cool, marly soils,’ explained Jean-Frédéric, so you need the maximum sun exposure.’

Because of the marly soils and southerly exposure, typically, the Schoenenbourg gives wines that are quite rich and velvety compared to, say, a Schlossberg or Mosel Riesling.

Typically, the Grossi Laüe is more ‘forward’ than the Schoelhammer, and perhaps because of this Adrian Fornal saw it as a good partner with ‘grilled lobster with garlic parsley butter.’

Schoelhammer Riesling 2010

The Schoelhammer (pronounced ‘shell hammer’) comes from a single organically-farmed vineyard in the heart of the Schoenenbourg. Always a favourite site of the family, they first decided to make it as a single-vineyard wine in 2007.

‘It’s in the sweet spot for the Schoenenbourg where there’s a bit more clay,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘It’s very late ripening, and naturally low yielding. The vines look like they are working.’

Though the Schoelhammer and the Grossi Laüe were not from the same vintage, Jean-Frédéric said that the stylistic variations that our tasters noted between them were more driven by their different terroirs than their ages.

‘In the sweet spot…’

‘The Schoelhammer is a longer-lived wine that evolves at a slower pace,’ he explained. Artyom Celegato agreed, saying it was less expressive on the nose but an ‘absolute winner’ on the palate with a ‘great mouthfeel and a velvety finish.’

Konstantinos Nestoridis kept his food match local, saying he felt it would be great with cod, Alsace bacon and cream.

View from the slopes of the Schoenenbourg down into Riquewihr. Viticulture is the only viable business on the slopes of Alsace

Pewsey Vale

Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2020

If you think vintage variation isn’t important in Australia, then think again. This wine came from a dry winter, windy spring (which affected flowering) and a cooler than average summer. The result was a concentrated, elegant expression of Riesling.

‘Total acidity is only in the low- to mid-6s. But the pH is really quite low – 2.8 or 2.9 is common,’ said Louisa Rose. ‘So you get that lovely soft acidity, but then the minerality coming across the palate.’ She cited flavours of limes, white flowers and dried rosemary.

Low pH gives great minerality

Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2015, Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2010

Product of a cooler aspect

The Contours wine comes from a specific site within the Pewsey Vale vineyard. The rows of vines here are planted in undulating waves that follow the contours of the land (hence the name). The soil is no different to any of the rest of the Pewsey Vale vineyard, but its south facing exposure is unique.

‘Most of our vineyards face north, towards the sun,’ says Louisa Rose. ‘But this one faces away from it.’ The result, she says, is a wine that is ‘more refined – lemons rather than limes, and slightly more acidity.’

The plan behind the Contours Rieslings was always to cellar them and release them as aged wines. 2015 is the current release – but the 2010 shows just how wonderfully, and gently, they age. In this they may be helped by their screwcap closure (again, more on this later).

The vineyard is biodynamically farmed and certified.

‘The Contours taste like they are wines of the place,’ said Louisa. ‘The winemaking decision that I make is when to pick the grapes, but before and after that the vineyard really does everything on its own. Even the yeasts come from the vineyard.’

‘Most of the time people say a wine is too young, so I have no issues in selling a mature Riesling,’ said Davide Renna, while Harry Cooper pointed out that, since his venue was moving on to veal next month, aged Riesling could be a good match.

Emanuel Pesqueira went down the seafood route. ‘Ten year old Riesling is perfect with grilled limpets served with lemon butter,’ he said.

Petrol, decanting and screwcaps – Riesling’s big issues answered!

The tasting also generated some discussion on other key Riesling topics, which should help us all better understand the grape’s particuliarities.

The petrol question

‘Should aged Riesling taste of petrol or is it a winemaking fault,’ asked Davide Renna. ‘And if so is there anything you can do to stop it?

‘We don’t even ask ourselves the question,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘Trying to create it or mitigate against it would be using a winemaking trick, so it would not be what we’d consider a terroir wine. Whether it appears or not is up to the vineyard. But it’s going to come at some stage in an older Riesling. If you don’t like it, I’d recommend drinking it young. In a Schoenenbourg, for example, it might appear after five years, but be gone by the time it’s 20.’

Louisa, meanwhile, disliked the term ‘petrol’. We’re all about clean, green viticulture, so to use a term from the petrochemical industry seems wrong!’ she said. ‘We talk about toast and sage-oil, lemon grass… flavours like that.’

She said that there is, however, a character you can see in Riesling that does smell like what you’d put in your car, and that was a winemaking fault. ‘It comes from underripe grapes with very green flavours in the skins that have been damaged – perhaps by sunburn. Those flavours in a wine become quite oily and unattractive.’

Get your Riesling here. Or not. Pic: Jaggery, Geographe

Decanting – should you or shouldn’t you..?

‘It’s the same as for any wine,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘If it’s already at an advanced age it would destroy it. If it still has some ageing ahead of it decanting is going to magnify it.’

‘I decant just about everything,’ said Louisa. ‘I love the theatre of it, but decanting also gives Riesling an opportunity to wake up and come to life. I haven’t met too many that aren’t immediately better following decanting.’

So, where do you stand on decanting Riesling? Pic from PXHere

Screwcap v Cork

‘This will be a fight between the northern and southern hemisphere,’ joked Jean-Frédéric. He could see the reliability advantages of screwcap compared to natural cork, and admitted that they had had problems with the latter in the past. ‘We’d taste ten bottles and they’d be ten different wines!’ he said. As a result, they ‘walked away from a natural cork and towards Diam [reconstituted cork]. We got no bottle variation and no cork taint.’

The Pewsey Vale Rieslings were all screwcapped from the 1970s onwards, which was very unusual at the time. And clearly too unusual for the world’s sommeliers who struggled to accept it! The first Contours wine (1995) was screwcapped, and by the time it was released five years later, other regions – and countries had adopted the closure, making it easier to sell. ‘It’s the perfect seal for Rieslings whether as young wines or aged,’ said Louisa.

Part of the solution, or part of the problem? Probably the latter on the evidence of our Riesling experts. Pic by Clubvino, Flickr