Why wines from Santorini are hot right now

Stefan Neumann attended The Sommelier Collective tasting of P.D.O. Santorini* wines at City Social. Here he gives us his top tips on the island, its wines and the best matches.

Sommelier Collective x Santorini wines

I could start this article by naming all the great producers of this wind-swept, sun-scorched, and utterly beautiful Greek island, but firstly we would need double the word count and secondly it doesn’t seem to be that fair.

Take the group of Marvel’s Avengers, they all have super-natural powers, and one isn’t better than the other, so regardless of whether you have Thor, Ironman or the Black Widow on your team, by simply buying and tasting wines from Santorini you are, like them, on the winning team.

The island of Santorini

The island & its influences

There are several factors influencing the island, so perhaps it is best to go back in time a little. Santorini currently has 1200ha of vines planted, which is down from 1500ha in 1997 and 4500ha at the beginning of the 20th century.

Wine on the island has been produced for thousands of years and historians still argue to this day about when vines were first planted. Over the centuries major volcanic eruptions, the latest in February 1950, have undeniably shaped the island’s topography. The combination of basalt, volcanic ash, sand and pumice stone is known as ‘Aspa’. The white, black and red beaches are just minutes apart by boat and offer a glimpse into the diversity of soils found on Santorini.

The strong winds are one man’s treasure another man’s burden. Yes, on the one hand it reduces risk of disease but on the other hand its destructive nature (especially in 2019) can cause more than just a headache.

The incredible number of hours spent in the vineyards alone is mind-boggling and the resulting yield even more. As low as 5hl/ha (2002) to an average of 25hl/ha results in wines with marvellous intensity and concentration. Unmatched not only in Greece but the world.

In a nutshell, all wines from Santorini are born by the earth’s giving and constructive nature, and an unbroken human will create something of unparalleled beauty.

Stefan Neumann

The perfect variety for the perfect place: Assyrtiko

Of 1900ha nationwide, a solid 1098ha are planted in Santorini, which means that every sixth bottle of Greek Assyrtiko is from Santorini which represents 90% of the total plantings on the island.

Known for its natural high acidity and sugar content, which can be rare in the world of grapes, its uniqueness really lies in the variety’s capacity to balance these two elements so perfectly.

It is precisely this balance and the grape’s ability to produce an array of different styles that makes it an absolute dream to partner with different cuisines. From unoaked to lees-aged and some oak-aged styles, it is nothing if not versatile and today you can even find amphora-aged wines. Regardless of the style Assyrtiko always carries its trademark freshness with an accompanying salinity and precision.

The native Nykteri varietal (meaning ‘product of the night’) makes big, bold and concentrated wines, often with a minimum of 13.5% abv and a minimum of three months oak ageing.

What other varieties are worth seeking out?

Mandilaria and Mavrotragano are some of the few red grape varieties found on the island. They are quite hard to find as they are only made by a handful of producers.

Aidani and Athiri are also minor players in terms of total plantings but have a vital role on the island. Aidani shines when vinified as a single varietal; Athiri is often used for the most precious and time-consuming style of all wine – Vinsanto.

God’s (Zeus) gift – Vinsanto

Vinsanto is made from sun-dried grapes (dried for 8 to 15 days) to concentrate sugars and total acidity (even more). This process, and the following oxidative ageing, yields wines so robust in nature yet so charming and luscious that time becomes secondary.

Often decades in the making, these liquid treasures are bound to no-one except good taste-buds and wine professionals seeking to explore perfect food and wine pairings.

Depending on the sweetness level and aromatic profile Vinsanto can comfortably be paired with honey and white chocolate desserts to nutty, coffee-infused or very chocolatey sweet treats. Personally, I find them so delicious on their own that all I need is a fireplace and a good book.

Just seafood, or more?

You assume correctly that Assyrtiko is delicious with seafood, of any kind, although I like to encourage looking a little bit beyond the horizon. Maybe it’s BBQ pork or slowly roasted chicken thighs, Assyrtiko is often a delightful accompanying partner.

Regardless of whether you are a global food trotter and like your ceviche from Peru, classic British fish & chips or an authentic Cantonese dim sum, this variety is a chameleon like no other.

What do I need to do to get the best out of my Assyrtiko?

Patience is a virtue, and by this I am not only referring to opening these wines when they are too young, but by giving them some tender loving care when serving them you will achieve great results.

Decanting is recommended as often the wines can have a reductive nature and larger glassware only helps to fully reveal their unadorned beauty.

My favourite expert comment!

Jancis Robinson was once asked what she would choose if she could drink wine from only one grape variety. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said: ‘Assyrtiko’.

Last, but not least, there is only one thing left to say: “Avengers assemble”… sorry “Assyrtiko assemble”.

*P.D.O. Santorini wines are required to be vinified from at least 85% Assyrtiko, with the remaining 15% from the white grapes, Athiri and Aidani.

The PDO requires that yields must not exceed 6.5 tons per hectare, however they rarely get above 3 tons.

The PDO also includes the naturally sweet wine, Vinsanto, which originated in Santorini, and is made from sundried grapes, a tradition followed since antiquity.

In addition, for naturally sweet wines only, small amounts of the white “xenologous” grapes Gaidouria, Katsano, White Muscat, Monemvasia, Platani, Potamisi and the pink skinned Roditis are also allowed.

Champagne Fine & Rare

It’s not often do you get the chance to taste top Champagne in large formats, from older vintages and different varietal blends – The Sommelier Collective x Champagne Henriot tasting had it all. Members that attended had a real education in how smart Champagne ages and the effect of terroir and bottle size has on its potential to last.

Champagne Henriot’s trelissed vines on the Montagne de Reims

Few Champagne houses can boast being run by the same family for eight generations but The Sommelier Collective was lucky enough to tempt Champagne Henriot to give its members an exclusive tasting of fine and rare Champagnes dating back to 1989.

Cyrille Harmel, european director, from Champagne Henriot, flew in specially for the tasting and members were enlightened by his engaging style and vast knowledge about what is happening in Champagne right now. “Terroir and site-specificity”, he explained, “are becoming more and more important in the Champagne region and the wines in the line up are testament to that fact.”

From the different villages, slopes and crus guests got a chance to delve into the complexities of site selection and the effect that has on the resulting wine. “It’s not just about blending vintages in each village, be it Ay, Verzenay, Avenay Val d’Or in Montagne de Reims and Avize, Chouilly on the Côtes de Blancs, each plot adds its own particular component to the wine,” Harmel said, explaining that “this is perhaps one of the most interesting developments in Champagne right now and an aspect that everyone is concentrating on.”

“Terroir and site-specificity are becoming more and more important in the Champagne region, each plot adds its own particular component to the wine. this is perhaps one of the most interesting developments in Champagne right now”

Cyrille Harmel, Champagne Henriot

Another current buzz topic, and an outstanding feature of Henriot champagnes, is the use each house makes of their Reserve Perpetuelle. “We believe that we were one of the very first houses to start placing such importance on the use of Reserve Perpetuelle back in the 1970s,” Harmel went on. “We want to give definition, depth and a distinct style to our wines. For Henriot it is very important to consider the structure of our blends. Our Brut Souverain and Blanc de Blancs for example is made up of 20% of Vin de Reserve (minimum 5 years old), a further 20% is Reserve Perpetuelle and the remaining 60% of the blend is wine from the particular year. As all of our wines are made in stainless steel the Vin de Reserve and Reserve Perpetuelle are crucial to the house style.”

“Time is an ally for Maison Henriot, at each stage of the elaboration of Henriot Champagnes. Indeed, we give time to the observation of the vineyard for the sake of precision, to the development of the wines for their expressions, to the blending for their creation, and to the ageing of the cuvées for their construction.”

Alice Tétienne, Cellar Master of Maison Henriot

It’s not often that sommeliers have a chance to taste such a wide range of champagne styles from different vintages and in smaller and larger formats, especially in pairs, from one house. This tasting was a spectacular example that demonstrated the many facets of Champagne and its diversity, tasting aged wines out of 75cl, magnum and jeroboam. Such a treat!

The champagnes we tasted:

  • Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain (base wine 2016)
  • Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain (base wine 2002 in Jeroboam)
  • Champagne Henriot Blanc de Blancs (base wine 2014)
  • Champagne Henriot Blanc de Blancs (base wine 2008 in Jeroboam)
  • Champagne Henriot Rosé NV in magnum
  • Champagne Henriot Rosé Millésimé 2012
  • Champagne Henriot Millésime 2012
  • Champagne Henriot Cuvée Hemera 2006
  • Champagne Henriot Millésime 1989 in Jeroboam
Brut Souverain NV & Jeroboam

Henriot Brut Souverain (base wine 2016) & Henriot Brut Souverain (base wine 2002 jeroboam)
About 45% Pinot Noir – 40% Chardonnay – 15% Meunier
Sourced from 29 crus
60% of wines of the year (base vintage)
40% of reserve wines (including our blend reserve)
At least 3 years of ageing

“You can clearly see that the Reserve Perpetuelle gives a “patin” to the wine, softens it and brings depth. None of our wines are oak aged and they are kept on lees for longer than the minimum amount of time permitted by the CIVC.” Cyrille Harmel

Henriot Blanc de Blancs (base 2014) & Henriot Blanc de Blancs (base wine 2008 jeroboam)
100% Chardonnay
Sourced from 12 crus
60% of wines of the year (base vintage)
40% of reserve wines (including our perpetual reserve)
At least 4 years of ageing

“On the eastern side of the Montagne de Reims there is a small village called Trépail, planted with 60% Chardonnay. 40 years ago the temperature was not as it is today and Chardonnay did not ripen here but today we are happy to include this in the blend because it brings freshness.” Cyrille Harmel

Blancs de Blanc NV & Blancs de Blanc Jeroboam
Henriot Rosé magnum

Henriot Rosé in magnum aged minmally for 3 years on the lees with a high proportion of Premier & Gran Cru grapes

“The rosé NV is fresher, lighter – we do not use Reserve Perpetuelle in this wine but we do age longer on the lees and the proportion of Premier and Gran Crus grapes in the blend is high in comparison to other houses.” Cyrille Harmel

Henriot Millésime 2012
54% Chardonnay – 46% Pinot Noir
Sourced from 6 crus: Trépail, Mailly-Champagne, Verzenay, Avenay Val d’Or
in Montagne de Reims and Avize, Chouilly in Côtes des Blancs
100% Premiers and Grands Crus
At least 8 years of ageing

“2012 was a very famous vintage in Champagne, compared with 2008, it has the richness and a linear acidity that will give it the potential to age more than the 2008 – which is saying something when you consider everyone is raving about the 2008 right now.” Cyrille Harmel

Henriot Vintage 2012
Henriot Rosé 2012

Henriot Rosé 2012 in jeroboam
About 60% Pinot Noir – 40% Chardonnay – 100% Premiers & Grands Crus
70% of wines of the year
30% of reserve wines
About 8% of Pinot Noir still red wine
At least 7 years of ageing

“The 2012 vintage is more structured and you can perceive tannins. Of course, the hotter the year the more tannins you get in the wine. But the nose on the vintage is floral – roses, violets. It is aged at least 7 years on the lees.” Cyrille Harmel

Henriot Cuvée Hemera 2006
50% Chardonnay – 50% Pinot Noir
Crus: Verzy, Verzenay, Mailly-Champagne in Montagne de Reims
and Avize, Chouilly, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in Côte des Blancs
100% Grands Crus
At least 12 years of ageing

“Hydric stress was very high in 2006, it was a very hot vintage after a cold, wet start. This wine is only released in top years from these six villages, which are fermented separately and then blended dependent upon the year. Talking about terroir: Verzy brings power, Verzenay gives elegance, softness, texture, Mailly-Champagne brings structure. Avize, Le Mesnil and Chouilly generosity and maturity.” Cyrille Harmel

Cuvée Hemera 2006
Henriot 1989 Jeroboam

Henriot Millésime 1989 Jeroboam
57% Pinot Noir – 43% Chardonnay
6 crus : Verzy, Verzenay, Avenay, Trépail in Montagne de Reims
and Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, Oger in Côte des Blancs
100% Premiers and Grands Crus

“This was a warm year but there is incredible freshness still on this wine. The fruit profile has changed to give this wine a savoury character on the nose but the acidity on the palate is still lemony and zesty. A freshness is a real hallmark of the house style.” Cyrille Harmel

To find out more about www.champagne-henriot.com

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

Cotes du Rhone

Discovery Tasting: Cotes du Rhone

It has a 2000 year heritage and is the second largest producer of appellation wine in France. Rhône expert Matt Walls talks us through the terroirs, trends and drive for sustainability in this benchmark region.

Numbers in the Rhône valley are daunting. With 67,000 hectares under vine, it’s second only to Bordeaux in terms of growing AOC wine. Matt Walls is one of the world’s acknowledged experts on the region, and, with over 5,000 producers of Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages, even he admits that you’ll never get to know them all. ‘There’s new producers popping up all the time,’ he says. ‘It’s what makes it so exciting.’

The sheer number of growers is one of the things that makes the Côtes du Rhône such a region to watch

Not only that, but there are also 23 grape varieties to get your head around. In a region that’s 87% focused on red wines, Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre are the big names, but Carignan, Cinsault and Counoise are increasingly influential too.

It helps to think of the region’s wines in the form of a pyramid. The bedrock is Côtes du Rhône, which is about half of all production, above this are Côtes du Rhône Villages, Côtes du Rhône Villages with a named village (22 of them), and then at the top 17 Crus (such as Gigondas or Côte Rotie).

The Rhône ‘quality pyramid’
The valley from north to south

The further up the pyramid you go, the tighter the regulations, with lower yields and more restrictions on permitted grape varieties. Côtes du Rhône Villages wines, for instance, can’t include the Cabernet/Grenache cross, Marselan.

One of the features of the Rhône is that it regularly delivers impressive value for money – something which we found in this tasting. But Matt points out that the ‘Côtes du Rhône Village wines with named villages’ area is a particularly good place for dynamic sommeliers to go hunting.

They’re places that have demonstrated something special in their terroir, and are striving to get to the hallowed cru status. It’s a fluid system. Cairanne was promoted to Cru status in 2016, Nyons to ‘named village’ status in 2020.

Vinsobres (above) was promoted from Côtes du Rhône Village named village to cru status in 2006

‘These are the kind of wines that somms should know about because you can demonstrate your knowledge,’ says Matt.

‘Your customers won’t probably have heard of these villages but they’re a great way to give them extra quality.’

Like everywhere else in the wine world, the Rhône is having to face up to climate change. Temperatures are 1.4 degrees higher on average now than they were in the late 1970s. Rainfall hasn’t dropped, but now tends to come mostly in the winter, leaving hot, dry summers. Vintages are coming earlier.

To combat this, growers are increasingly adding dashes of white wine to their blends, which is permitted under the legislation. Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Clairette are all popular.

The Rhône’s grape varieties are already highly resistant to drought, but varieties such as Carignan, which retains its acidity, and Counoise which tends to give ripe grapes at lower alcohol levels, are growing in importance.

Grenache – the most-planted red
Carignan – retains its acidity
Counoise – one to watch for the future

With lots of sun and the ‘natural disinfectant’ of the Mistral wind blowing down the valley from the north (sometimes so strongly that it can snap vines) the Rhône is a good place for hands-off grape growing.

Already 11% of Côtes du Rhône vineyards are certified organic. For Côtes du Rhône Villages with named villages this rises to 16%. And across the region, the amount of organic vineyards is increasing. The Haut Valeur Environnementale scheme (HVE) launched in 2011 encourages growers to make decisions that are good for the environment without necessarily having to commit to full-on organic conversion.

Growers limit chemical products, promote biodiversity and practise good water management. It’s all helping to preserve this essential region for future generations.

The Wines

Les Cassagnes de la Nerthe, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2020 White

Our first white came from Chateau de la Nerthe, one of the oldest wine producers in region, which began in 1560, and is based in Chateauneuf du Pape.

Grenache Blanc is the most widely planted white variety, so no surprise it makes up 40% of the blend here, along with equal parts Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.

Grenache Blanc is a relatively plain variety but this makes it a good canvas on which to layer other, more expressive grapes.  

Acidity is not a big factor in Rhône whites – and it wasn’t in this rich, opulent wine. But Matt believes tasters need to reset their approach.

‘When you sink your teeth into a pear you don’t expect it to have acidity – you just appreciate its delicious flavours,’ he said. ‘Things don’t always need acidity to be refreshing. There’s room for other white wine styles out there. White Hermitage is low acidity but can age for 20 – 30 years and it’s brilliant with food.’

RRP £23.99, Bancroft

Domaine Galuval, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages, Le Coq Volant, 2020

From round Cairanne and Rasteau, our second wine made an interesting contrast to the first. Equal parts Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Clairette, with no malolactic, it was paler and crisper.

There was less of a sense of richness, and a little more freshness. At just 12.5% abv (low for the Rhône) it suggested it may have been picked earlier.

Rhône whites can be amazing value. While the first was very definitely a food wine, this well-priced example could work as a by the glass pour, though Steve Kirkham suggested it would also be a good match with sushi.

In a straw poll our tasters were evenly split as to which they preferred.

RRP £8.87, Awin, Barratt, Siegel

Domaine Eyguestre, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret rosé, 2021

RRP £7.47, mrfrenchwine

Our only rosé and our first ‘named village’ wine, this came from Séguret in the Dentelles de Montmirail, round Gigondas. A mountain terroir, it’s a 50/50 Grenache/Cinsault blend from north-facing slopes at 250m altitude.

‘It’s nice to see Cinsault,’ said Matt. ‘It’s a lovely grape and people are just starting to get turned on to its charms. It retains its acidity and does well in dry, drought conditions, so we’re going to see more of that.’

The muscular food-rosés of Tavel are the best known pinks in the region, but many producers of Côtes du Rhône rosé are moving towards paler and drier styles. Somewhat more Provence-like, though with the advantage of being generally well priced.

Domaine St Patrice, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2017

RRP £12.59, Charles Mitchell

Bordering Chateauneuf du Pape, this was a famous property in the 1800s but fell into disrepair and has since been revived, with its first vintage in 2015.  2016 was the star vintage for the region, though 2017 was also pretty good – structured and tannic.

A Grenache, Mourvedre Syrah, it’s quite old for a Côtes du Rhône, with most wines drunk within a couple of years of vintage, though the majority of wines happily last for several years and well-made ones from good vintages can go for decades.

‘These wines often last a lot longer than people think,’ said Matt, and our Collective members had good things to say about the commercial usefulness of wines at this price and in this style.

Domaine de la Mordorée, AOC Côtes du Rhône, 2021

This estate grows across a number of different terroirs. Certified biodynamic, this Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan blend tasted very Grenache-y – red plums and strawberries with a little floral, violet edge. Our tasters liked its fluidity, acidity and energy.

‘In Tavel you can only make rosé,’ explained Matt. ‘Reds or whites need to be bottled as Côtes du Rhône. But the sandy terroir is amazing – and you’re seeing a lot of experimentation there and in Lirac.’

Gonzalo Rodriguez found it ‘playful and perfumed but robust enough for food matching’. Sara Bachiorri described it as ‘elegant, beautiful, and fragrant. Very pretty’.

RRP £16.22, Lea & Sandeman

Domaine de la Montine, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages, Caprices Village, 2020

Based in the northern reaches of the Southern Rhône, this wine is mostly Grenache (70%) on galets roulés (pudding stones) and tasted markedly different to the previous (sand-grown) wine: darker, richer and more structured.

Despite being only 30% Syrah, its brambly character meant it tasted a lot more Syrah-y, and we wondered whether there might be some whole-bunch in the ferment.

‘It’s something we’re seeing more and more,’ said Matt. ‘It helps to counter the hot vintages that we’re seeing. It adds freshness and a bit of herbal detail and reduces the alcohol level.

‘Syrah structure is quite particular,’ he continued. ‘You often feel tannin on the middle of your tongue rather than the lips, which is where you’d see Grenache tannins’. A useful tip for blind tastings!

RRP £10.49, Wine Society

Domaine de l’Amandine, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret, 2020

RRP £12.70, Ellis of Richmond

From the mountain terroir of Séguret, this village goes right up into the mountains with lots of different expositions. Soils are mostly clay limestone, sometimes with a bit of sand.

The wine is made by a South African, Alex Suter, who was working in France on a year out and fell in love with the daughter of the estate owner.

There’s an unusually high proportion of Syrah in this wine (60%) – the variety responds well to the higher, cooler vineyards in this appellation.

Michael Stewart said the fruit ‘pops out – blackcurrant, black pepper and herbs.’

Domaine des Pasquiers, AOC Côtes du Rhône Villages Plan de Dieu, 2020

RRP £14.99, Hayward Bros

The ‘named village’ of Plan de Dieu is a very dependable appellation, with this estate one of the best producers.

It’s a high quality wine with lots of damson and plum compote flavours backed up by a herbal note. Generous and full-bodied it nonetheless has freshness and balance. Aemelia Nehab said it would be good with lamb and mint.

Certainly, it’s the kind of wine to back up Matt’s earlier assertion that the ‘named village’ part of the pyramid is the sweet spot in terms of quality and value.

Wisdom has it that Laudun could be the next to be promoted to Cru level, but Plan de Dieu, Séguret, Massif d’Ucheaux, Signargues and Sablet all have excellent – and very different wine styles too.

‘There are named villages that give wines with zing and electricity and ones that are bigger and more powerful,’ said Matt. ‘It all depends what you like.’


WINES OF THE RHONE by Matt Walls

If you’d like chapter and verse on the Rhône and its producers, check out Matt’s seminal Wines of the Rhône book, which was recently short-listed for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book awards.

Download the slide presentation

Watch the video

Rheingau

Meeting Weil’s new ultra-premium from the slopes of the Gräfenberg

The Rheingau is close to my heart. Frankfurt is where I was allowed to manage my very first wine list as a sommelier, and from there I was able to visit the prestige vineyards and producers based around the famous villages along the Rhine River.

Once you cross the Schiersteiner Brücke from the south and turn left, a route packed with history and tradition opens up in front of you.

From Eltville in the east to Rüdesheim in the west, this is one of the most famous 20km stretches in the German wine world: the home to such A-list vineyards as Schlossberg, Nussbrunnen, Gräfenberg, Berg Schlossberg and Höllenberg.

The ‘elbow bend’ in the Rhine – site of some of Germany’s most prestigious vineyards

The reason for this is simple. Most of the time, the Rhein flows from south to north. But here it briefly turns through 90 degrees to run east to west.  This means that the Rheingau’s vineyards have a full southern exposure and are protected by the hills of the Taunus mountain range to the north.

The Rhine River has a warming effect during the night but also maintains a constant temperature during the ripening phase.

Don’t forget, we are at 50 degrees north here. This is still a cool wine region and grapes sometimes struggle to ripen fully.

All About Riesling

The Rheingau is Riesling. Fact. There is some Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and good Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) on the west-facing, slate soils of Assmanshausen when the river makes a turn back to the north.

But 80% of the Rheingau is planted to the White Queen.

Though some of the country’s best Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenausles come from here, the wines generally tend towards the dry style.  

Soils change constantly, from slate in Assmannshausen, to quartzite in Rüdesheim, and löss/clay soil in the centre of the region and on the top of the hills. The slopes are steep and can quickly climb to almost 350m above the river.

The Gräfenberg

Located above the village of Kiedrich the Gräfenberg is owned almost exclusively by Weingut Robert Weil, which has 9.7ha of its 10.5ha. Only two other producers take grapes from here.

The hallowed slopes of the Grafenberg – owned almost exclusively by Robert Weil

It is famous for wine of higher, sweeter qualities such as Beerenauslese, Trockenberenauslese and Eiswein. But what people don’t know is that it also produces some of the best dry Rieslings, from fresh crisp Gutswein, through the delicious Kiedricher up to Grand Cru (Großes Gewächs – usually known as GG) quality.

For GG, low yield, 40hl/ha is a standard, the use of large Stück (1200l) or Doppelstück (2400l), mostly old casks, is a given.

As the vines became older, the Riesling in some smaller parcels of the Grafenberg vineyard stood out, for giving wines with more complexity, flavour intensity and the character.

Home of Monte Vacano

One such ‘special’ parcel was the Gräfenberg-Lay in the north-west, very close to the Turmberg. The soil here is predominantly slate, called Phylliteschiefer, which is spread throughout the Gräfenberg but has a higher content in this parcel. The vines on this 0.5ha parcel are now 40-60 years old.

And this is the home of a special new launch from the Robert Weil winery: Monte Vacano.

Named after the founder’s wife (she was a descendant of the Vacano family in Lombardy) 100 years ago, it used to be made just for the family. After the 1922 vintage it was incorporated into the regular GG Gräfenberg.

But Wilhelm Weil decided to revisit his family’s traditions and bottle the 2018.

Wild-fermented, and matured for 24 months on its lees in large traditional Stück, the Monte Vacano comes 100% from the Lay parcel of the Gräfenberg. Production is tiny – there are only 1200 bottles (plus a few magnums and one double-magnum) – and prices are around the €130 mark.

On the 6th of March at the VDP Rheingau Reserve Auction, one 12l bottle 2018 was under the hammer for an incredible €18,000. The Magnum got auctioned off at 520€.

Wine Available in the UK from Bibendum. Price on request, tiny quantities available.

This new arrival is not cheap. But it is a genuinely exciting arrival on Germany’s fine wine scene – innovative and experimental. And I really hope that this will inspire other Rheingau producers to follow Wilhelm Weil and his team – to respect the region’s traditions while still trying to do something different.

Stars of Santa Rita

You might have seen Romain Bourger’s excellent earlier article on California’s Santa Rita Hills AVA. Here he picks out five wines that he thinks show why it’s so special.

MELVILLE, CHARDONNAY, CLONE 76-INOX, STA. RITA HILLS, 2018,

The Vineyard Cellars, £30-£35*

This wine comes from a cold and sandy spot on one of the western vineyards of the estate and is entirely made of Clone 76, one of the most planted clones, originating from Burgundy. It is only vinified on its lees in stainless steel tank without undergoing malolactic fermentation.

The result is a bright, pale green-yellow wine with delicate nose of fresh lemon, green apple and honeysuckle as well as a touch of fresh pineapple. It has a vibrant acidity and a slight, mouth-watering, iodine tone and a round palate. The wine shows great balance and purity.

I would suggest this wine with simply grilled plaice with lemon zest, all reminiscent of the saltiness and freshness found in this wine.

SANDHI, CHARDONNAY, SANDFORD & BENEDICT VINEYARD, STA. RITA HILLS, 2017

Roberson Wine, £45+*

An iconic vineyard indeed as it is the one that pioneered Sta. Rita Hills back in 1971. This is the ninth vintage for this highly acclaimed winery and shows an explosive minerality followed by fresh stone fruit and floral notes. It is an incredibly complex, textured and balanced wine, one that truly shows the level of Chardonnay in California.

I think that due to its complexity and texture, this wine would match with richer dishes such as lobster or poultry in a creamy sauce.

MELVILLE, PINOT NOIR, BLOCK M, STA. RITA HILLS, 2014

The Vineyard Cellars, £45+*

This vineyard is planted on clay soil on the top of a sun-exposed mesa. There is no new oak used in this wine (only neutral barrel from 5-20 years of age) and 70% is whole cluster.

The wine has a dark fruit component and more generous palate but keeps a great freshness and tannic structure. With great depth and complexity it is showing very well now but still has plenty of time to develop.

The ripeness of this wine would pair well with a pork belly served with roasted butternut squash (to which I’d suggest to add some rosemary) and balsamic roasted onions.

The Ojai Vineyard, Grenache, John Sebastiano Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills, 2017

Tiger Vines, £25-£30*

Grenache often can be found at a high degree of alcohol and be ripe and almost a bit flabby. This example is none of those things. Planted on a loamy-clay soil with limestone it makes an extremely juicy and seductive Grenache.

The wine has a bright garnet colour and a light intensity that could be reminiscent of Pinot Noir. It is an explosion of ripe red berries and red cherry underlined by a delicate flavor of licorice and violet. The palate is soft, crunchy and juicy with a refreshing savoury finish.

This wine is so delicate that I would definitely pair it with a meaty fish such as some roasted monkfish wrapped in pancetta (somehow now of a classic combination) with a Mediterranean twist; I’d add Provence herbs to it and serve it with a traditional tian of vegetable (aubergines, tomatoes and courgettes, with extra thyme).

STORM WINES, PINOT NOIR, DUVARITA VINEYARD, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, 2015

Tiger Vines, £35-£40*

Although a relatively young vineyard (planted in 2000), this bio-dynamically grown Pinot Noir is made of three different Dijon clones (667, 115 and 113) and planted on sandy loam. The wine has a touch of whole clusters and only a kiss of new oak. The result is a robust Pinot Noir with an amazing forest floor complexity completed by ripe dark fruits, a light violet component and a long, savoury palate. It is not an extracted example of Pinot Noir and, to me, shows exactly what Pinot Noir is capable of.

Due to its great aromatics, I would suggest this wine with a gamey dish such as roasted pheasant with wild mushroom and a red wine reduction.

For more information about the wines of Santa Rita Hills region visit the website.

*All prices are quoted trade, ex VAT.

Santa Rita, Sideways and Sea Breezes

The Santa Rita Hills is one of the best cool-climate areas in the world. Located in the southern part of California, 148 miles north of Los Angeles it stretches for about 10 miles inland between the towns of Lompoc to the west and Buellton to the east.

What make this region so unique for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially are the transverse hills. Most of the hills in California run north/south parallel to the Pacific. But here they run east to west. So instead of acting as a barrier to the cool sea air, they channel it inland. As a result the vineyards have a great oceanic influence.

There are two east-west valleys between Lompoc and Buellton. The most northerly one runs along Highway 246 between Purisima Hills to the North and the Sta. Rita Hills. It has a loamy, shale-rich soil (part of the Monterey Formation) and generally makes more generous wines.

The other valley runs along Santa Rosa Road, between the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south. Its terroir is mainly made of clay, shale, alluvial soil (by the riverbed) and diatomaceous earth. The latter is an agglomeration of fossilised algae that resembles limestone and is where the Sandford & Benedict vineyard was first planted. (You’ve all seen Sideways, right?)

Map courtesy of Santa Rita Hills AVA/Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance

Diatomaceous earth is composed of diatomite – sedimentary formation of fossilised diatoms (algae) – silica and clay and can be compared to limestone as it forms soft white rocks.

Limestone soils are famous worldwide for producing great wines for a number of reasons. Diatomaceous earth (such as limestone) has an alkaline pH due to their high calcium content; this helps the vines to absorb nutrients as well as promoting water retention.

It is particularly important in clay soils as it offers better soil structure and, in periods of dry weather, makes it easier for the roots to go deeper in search of the water and nutrients needed. Soils rich in calcium also lead to higher grape acidity late in the growing season (which is particularly crucial in the Santa Rita Hills as the latter is very long in the region) and lower wine pH.

Modern history

The region’s modern history started in 1970 when Richard Sandford searched the region to find somewhere to farm. He analysed weather records from the area and found that the further inland you go, the hotter it gets, with one mile roughly equal to one degree more of temperature.

With this information, he located a two to four miles wide micro-climate on which to establish his vineyard and in 1971 he planted the Sandford & Benedict vineyard, eight miles east of Lompoc, with his business partner Michael Benedict. It was a watershed moment for the history of winemaking in the Santa Rita Hills.

The 1980’s saw a growing interest in this vineyard with vintners such as Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) buying grapes from there as well as the Santa Maria Valley.

However, the rise of the region took time and, by the 1990’s, the northern part of Santa Barbara County had become Chardonnay territory. The warmer Santa Ynez Valley had also become known for growing Rhône varietals.

It was only in 2001 that the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley became the Santa Rita Hills AVA.

The climate in the Santa Rita Hills is relatively warm and consistent all year long but rarely exceeds 27 degrees Celsius as it is cooled down during the growing season by the strong oceanic wind and fog from off the Pacific. The wind blows during the early afternoon sending the vine into a sort of “ripening dormancy” and allowing them to slowly mature and achieve the best phenolic ripeness without sugar spiking. Alcohol levels are, therefore, lower.

It never gets very cold. Even in January the average temperature in Lompoc is 19 degrees Celsius.

The climatic conditions (warm, not hot, cooling breezes and fogs) and soils make the region particularly suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But though they do, indeed, thrive here other varietals are also grown, such as Syrah and Grenache.  

Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non planted his Eleven Confessions Vineyard just a few miles east of the Pinot Noir holy grail of the Sandford & Benedict Vineyard, for instance. The vineyard is planted to Syrah and Grenache primarily with the addition of Roussanne, Viognier and Petite Syrah as well as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Muscat. The cool climate allows for harvest around the end of October and sometimes even in November. It is densely planted and produces on average less than 600 grams of fruit per vine.

During the early 2000’s, the trend was towards bigger and plusher expressions of Pinot Noir. This was partly due to the long growing season that the region enjoys allowing a longer hang time on the vines and pushing the maturity of the grapes.

But since the mid-2000s, the region has seen a resurgence in term of style that seem to go back to its 1970’s roots as regards ripeness levels. Lots of wines nowadays have a true sense of place and terroirs with bright minerality, tension and lean fruit with this hint of ripeness as a backbone.

6 Names to look out for

1. Sandhi

(Roberson Wine)

2. Domaine de la Côte

(Roberson Wine)

3. Melville Winery

(The Vineyard Cellars)

4. Ojai Vineyard

(Tiger Vines)

5. Sine Qua Non

(Berry Bros & Rudd)

6. Au Bon Climat

(Fields, Morris & Verdin)

You can read and learn more about California in the LEARN section.

Canadian ice wines are a classic style – we should treasure them

Without a doubt the question that I get asked the most in life is “what is your favourite wine?”. I’m sure it’s the same for many of you. Of course, we all know that there is no “one best” wine, and that our answer will depend on occasions, moods and food.

That being said, I do have one constant – an affinity for the wines of the country I grew up in: Canada.  I like the Syrahs and Merlots from British Columbia; the steely Rieslings and meaty Cabernet Francs from Ontario.

When I came to London as a sommelier 10 years ago, people were only talking about icewine. Nobody had even tasted a still Canadian wine. Now it’s quite the opposite, people don’t want to drink sweet wines and particularly not icewine because it is so extraordinarily sweet.

Because of this many sommeliers do not get the opportunity to taste very much icewine. And when they do its rarely against other icewines. Ironically, Canada has worked hard to shake its “icewine only” image but is now in danger of losing it all together.

This would be a tragedy. The icewines of the Niagara peninsula in Ontario are very special. They are among the great sweet wines of the world and as a profession we need to give this category of wine a better look.

These are beautifully crafted wines that are made with a sense of terroir. Maybe not a terroir in the traditional sense where you can taste the slate and limestone but they showcase richness and concentration that is quintessentially Canadian.

The heat of the Canadian summer gives sugar levels that could never be achieved in Germany or Austria, while the moderating effect of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie gives freshness to these massive stickies that is natural and unparalleled even within the other regions of Canada. 

What really separates the Niagara peninsula from other sweet wine regions of the world is the diversity, both varietally and stylistically. There’s everything from Roussane to Tempranillo, and any vitis vinifera variety is allowed to be used in icewine production. Hybrids are not allowed apart from Vidal.

The fact that Canada is a new world region that doesn’t have tradition to adhere to is one of its most charming and, ironically, defining characters. Each variety keeps its character and makes such individually interesting wines, many of which you will never see elsewhere.

Key Varieties

The main three varieties used are Riesling, Vidal and Cabernet Franc. Most wineries will make at least two of these but again the stylistic differences are huge.

Riesling is still king as far as I am concerned. These are the only icewines that benefit from aging and actually develop more complex notes and aromas while retaining their balance of sugar and acids. Riesling also has the ability to showcase minerality in icewine and that is just not the case with any other varietal.

Vidal is by far the most planted varietal for icewine, and there is good reason for this. Apart from being hardy to the harshness of the Canadian climate Vidal has very thick skins that help it keep rot at bay. This makes for higher yields in a notoriously low yielding category – a real incentive for growers. And in Niagara there are a lot of growers.

Most wineries do not use 100% estate grown fruit. So when the farmers are the ones choosing what gets planted… of course the safe bet will win out much of the time.

We often think of sweet wines as being very-long lived, but actually this is not the case for most icewines. Vidal, especially, needs to be drunk in its youth as the freshness and vitality that we love it for dissipates and is not replaced with the most interesting secondary or tertiary characteristics.

Cabernet Franc is a relatively new variety to the icewine party. This grape is a bit polarizing in the winemaking community. Often the acidity is not as bright as it could be and the delicate red berry notes border on or above cloying. This needs a very skilled hand to give it personality and a delicacy.

The first red graped icewines were more of an afterthought. Unsold grapes were left on the vines to freeze with a view to hopefully turning a profit in the winter. Malbec, Shiraz and Pinot Noir are all popular.  

Apart from the different varieties, there are many styles of icewine that will have a producer’s touch. The most obvious is the addition of barrel aging. Weight is so important and the use of older barrels to add a touch more complexity and richness to a fruit forward style works really well. Rarely will you have an icewine where the woody notes are actually apparent in the wine.

Icewine is a wine that is made in the vineyard and in the winery equally. So much of the production needs to be closely monitored in the vineyards. The grapes are netted and propane cannons are used to keep the birds at bay as the winter slowly creeps in. On top of that, freezing winds can take much of a crop leaving growers with as little as 10% of the grapes they could have harvested in October.

Freeze-thaw-freeze

December to January is when the grapes are usually picked and the largest stylistic choice to the wine is made. When the grapes freeze for the first time, the cell wall of the skin starts to break down. This will slowly allow the grape juice to start to oxidize. It is important to remember that the lakes that border the Niagara peninsula moderate the area and keep it quite warm in comparison to the rest of Canada. Large parts of winter may be above freezing temperatures and definitely above the -8 degrees needed for legal harvesting of the grapes . 

Berries picked early in the season after the first freeze will usually be a bit one-dimensional with an emphasis on honey and bright tropical fruits. Farmers will sometimes pick early to avoid any further loss of crop.

But leaving the grapes on the vine for subsequent freezes, allows the grapes to go through a ‘freeze-thaw-freeze’ cycle that adds a lot of complexity to the grapes and gives toffee, caramel, cotton candy notes.

It’s a tricky balancing act though. The more freezes and thaws that a grape goes through the riskier it is, since it increases the risk of rot. And many of the wines made in January after subsequent freezes are absolutely massive wines with huge sugar levels and confected sugar notes. Choosing when to harvest and after how many freezes and thaws really is the defining factor when it comes to making your style of icewine.

It’s expensive. Here’s why

What most people don’t realize is that icewine cannot be made on a yearly basis from the same vines. When the vines hold on to their berries late into the winter they do not go dormant as they are supposed to. They still continue to give energy to the berries and this will stress the vines out as it disrupts their normal lifecycle. It can take years for a vine to recover from this and vineyards planted for icewine have to be used once every three or four years only for ice wine production.

This has given rise to a large amount of blending in Ontario. Vidal is highly sought after for icewine but not for table wine production where it’s decidedly average. So do the maths. Making icewine only every four years from your vineyard can be tough when you sell your crop the other three years for a pittance, especially if you have something that isn’t desirable as a table wine at all, like Vidal.  

This is something that needs to be taken into account when we talk about the price of these great wines. We think of icewine as expensive and it is, but when you start to account for all the variables it is actually a very well-priced product and gives a lot of value.

The wines of Canada have come a very far way (literally and figuratively) in a very short period of time. It seems hard to find a wine list without a token Canadian wine on it these days. I hope that as Canadian wines continue their climb out of obscurity and into the mainstream we do not lose sight of what a treasure icewines are. Let us not lose sight of these great wines that put Canada on the wine map of the world.

Four producers to LOOK OUT FOR

Cave Spring Cellars

Currently seeking importer

Their Riesling Icewine is consistently one of my favourites. Much lighter and leaner in every way from a lot of the larger producers, these wines are elegant and feminine without having to show off. They age well over a 20 to 30 year period as well.

Inniskillin

Importer: Liberty

These guys made the first Vidal icewine in 1984 and it is still the benchmark for the variety today. This wine is structured and luscious with tropical fruit salad acacia honey notes that last for days.

Lakeview Cellars

Currently seeking importer

Their Cabernet Franc Icewine is a fantastic example of this sometimes overlooked variety. Delicate and spicy with seductive garden berries and bright acids that balance it all out.

Peller Estates

Importer: Enotria&Coe

Along with Inniskillin these guys have very good examples of barrel-aged ice wines, the old casks giving added butterscotch and caramel notes.

If you just list one saké style, make it this one

At a time when restaurant lists are getting smaller, not longer and customers are hesitant about most things, it might seem strange to be talking about why you should be considering adding a sake to your list. It is, after all, not something that many UK diners are that comfortable with.

But bear with me. There’s logic here. For starters, sake is cool with the cognoscenti. It has heritage, history, tradition and an air of mystery. If you have drinks-literate early-adopters, sake is a great way for them to stretch their boundaries and look good while doing so.

Secondly, because sake isn’t made like wine (see box out below) it offers interesting food-pairing offerings, too. As a hand-sell or a pairing for myriad foods (the umami makes it incredibly across-the-board versatile) it really brings something to the table, in a non-threatening way.

In happier times, I might be suggesting creating a mini sake section for your list, complete with lots of beautiful, elegant sake-ware. Those days, sadly, are probably gone – at least for the moment.

So I’m going to suggest adding just one sake to your list. And if you’re going to do that, I think it makes sense to go for the best-seller: Sparkling Sake.

images courtesy of Japan Sake & Shochu Makers Association

There are six reasons why

  1. It’s available in small bottles (e.g. 300ml).
  2. Styles vary widely, but the most popular type is low in alcohol (typically 5%).
  3. It has quite a bit of sugar, offset by a zesty sourness.
  4. It’s as easy to drink as Prosecco, but, being sake, it’s umami flavour profile means that it works with food too.
  5. It’s the style that newbies will try – and like.
  6. You can serve it in a sparkling or white wine glass – no need for dedicated sake-ware.

There are, as I said, lots of styles of sparkling sake, but here are two – at opposing ends of the spectrum – that are worth a look if you’re thinking of dipping your toe in the water.

Mio Sparkling Sake

£4.50 (150ml) from Tazaki Foods

Light, frothy, medium sweet with ricey, earthy notes and a core of yellow plum and ripe apple flavours. Very easy drinking, and guests always love it. 

Keigetsu ‘John’ Sparkling Sake

£19.90/37.5cl from Liberty Wines

This one comes in a 375ml bottle, like a half bottle of wine. A little more austere but still full of stone fruit, pineapple and citrus character. Very elegant. Full bottles are £32.04 ex VAT.

I’ll be returning to sake in more detail over the coming months, but until then, here are five take-away facts to help you make a start on the category.

5 Saké Facts

  1. Sake is made from rice, water, koji mould and yeast. Sometimes a little distilled spirit is added too, just to give a more crisp and aromatic style.
  2. The alcohol level of sake is usually around 15-16%abv.
  3. Sake should be stored upright, in a cool, dark place.
  4. Most sake is meant to be drunk within a year. The vintage is not really important.
  5. Sparkling sake should be served chilled. Most other styles of sake can be served cold, room temperature, or even warm.

A somm’s guide to bordeaux’s ‘place’

If you’ve ever wanted to know how Bordeaux’s wine trading marketplace – La Place – works, then the best way is obviously to have it explained to you by a top German-born sommelier. Jan Konetzki shuffles us onto the history bus for a tour of a wine world institution.

Explain La Place to me in two sentences

La Place de Bordeaux is a Medieval distribution network used to distribute the wines of Bordeaux globally. Wines are sold from the châteaux to Bordeaux negociants (via a courtier) before being sold on to individual wine merchants around the world and then on to the consumer.

Chateaux I understand – but tell me more about negociants and courtiers

The negociant system has been around in Bordeaux since the early 1600’s and is one of the major reasons Bordeaux became the world’s most important and collectible wine region. And mostly we’ve got the Dutch to thank for it.

As well as draining the swamps (Haut-Medoc, was a swamp in case you did not know), they were some of the first negociants – merchants who may have grown some wine of their own, but mostly bought it, labelled it, shipped it and promoted it inside France and abroad. They were also responsible for producing custom blends ordered by clients.

The modern-day negociant system can be compared to a pre-arranged group of wholesalers who get rewarded by being able to buy (and sell on) a percentage of a château’s harvest every year. Interestingly, the negociants all pay the same price on the same day at close to the same time. They are supposed to sell the wines for the same price, with the same mark-up, though in practice the laws of the market exert a strong influence and this doesn’t always happen.

So if château owners grow the grapes and make the wine, and negotiants sell it, what do courtiers do?

This is a historic trading system that originated in the Middle Ages, and it was set up to prevent France’s elite from having to do anything so uncouth as having to work for a living. These aristocratic owners of wine châteaux did not want to deal directly with the merchant classes. They thought it was common to engage in such commercial activity themselves.

And that’s where the courtiers came in.  They acted as go-betweens for the châteaux and the negotiants. Think of them as Personal Assistants or Messengers – though a very well paid one.

Courtiers typically charge 2% on any deal that they broker and it is one of the most difficult jobs to get into in Bordeaux. You need to pass a series of exams and blind tasting tests, coupled with a minimum of five years of training before you can become a licensed courtier. Kind of like learning to train to be a black cab driver. 

Fun fact: courtiers are by law allowed to own châteaux and vineyards, but are forbidden by law to own, or act as a negociant.

I get that it made sense hundreds of years ago. But why is it still the established route to market today?

This is a good question.  After all, the world of communications and selling has changed out of sight, while the aristocratic owners are now often replaced by banks, insurance companies or wealthy individuals. Yet the system is still going strong. 

Most questionable, for Place-sceptics, is the continued existence of the courtier, since business and communication are now immediate and there is no more royal-class.

Yet fans of the system say they still have a role. The courtier, after all, is a useful buffer between buyer and seller (a bit like an estate agent) and can keep the sometimes heated conversation cool. It’s a big advantage if you are trying to make a deal.

Negociants, meanwhile, have literally created the demand for Bordeaux, its châteaux and appellations since as early as the 1620’s, and they still have great connections and power in the world of wine.

It’s the reason why even wineries from outside Bordeaux (like Super-Tuscans, and estates from Napa Valley and Argentina) are now signing up to the system, in order to find distribution.

The Place might be an old system, but there still seems to be plenty of life left in it.

Jan Konetzki is Director of wine at Ten Trinity Square – Four Seasons and Private Club; Ambassador (UK and Germany) for Château Latour and Artemis Domaines Ambassador UK/Germany; Social Media manager and UK strategic advisor, Niepoort.

White Port: what it is, and why and how to serve it

Usually as kids when we went on holiday back to Portugal my dad would order a sparkling Portuguese white as an aperitif before dinner. But once, visiting a friend’s restaurant in the Algarve, they didn’t have any chilled so they suggested a drink with some ice while we were waiting for the espumante to chill down.

It was 7pm and 40 degrees so we were all thirsty and hot. The drink that our friend recommended arrived and I dived in. ‘God that’s good,’ I said. ‘What is it? ‘It’s a white port – Nicolau Antonio de Almeida,’ he said. I was 15 and I was hooked.

Back then, when I was starting to learn about wine, books and magazines were all Bordeaux or Burgundy and I remember thinking that my new friend white port seemed to be something of an outcast – rather unloved and unappreciated.

Sadly, it still is today. Porto branco makes up less than 10% of total port production and there are only around 30 brands to look out for.

The beauty of being a somm is that you have the power – the same as any great chef – to put a huge amount of joy into your customers’ lives by what experience you give them, and white port can bring something seriously different.

The amazing thing about white port is that it has a great breadth of styles to choose from, from very dry with single figure residual sugar to lagrima which can have around 50g of RS. This means that it can genuinely be used for the entire meal.

The drier styles pair really well with charcuterie, salads, shellfish and hard cheeses. Sweeter and older versions can match with duck with blackberry and red wine sauce, goat curry, rack of lamb, spicy chicken, octopus and then foie gras. Dessert wise, you’re looking at creme caramel, chocolate and blueberry trifle, chocolate and orange cheesecake and sachertorte.

Interestingly, there is no critical point of temperature when serving. You can serve it anywhere from 6-14 degrees Celsius depending on the environment and food choice. So try experimenting with it at different temperatures and see what you like.

Graham’s No 5 is designed to be mixed with tonic

White Port is a great bottle to have in the bar, too. Personally I still have a dry white with a few cubes of ice pre dinner but I like to offer customers white port and Mediterranean tonic with a sprig of mint leaf.

For aperitif purposes, I tend to use Churchills dry white 10 year old, Dows dry white which I serve with ice or, for tonic, Grahams blend no 5, which was specially created for that purpose.

Dalva golden white, Andresen Porto Branco and Kopke are all worth a look too. You have a gamut of styles from very dry and 10, 20, 30 or 40-year-old versions to colheita which comes from a single vintage. The oldest I have tried was 1895 and if your list can take something special I’d suggest looking out for 1935, 1952, 1963, 1971 and 1989.

Kopke are masters of aged white port. I’ve tried their Very Old Dry White which was a blend of rare wines from the last century, cask aged for at least 50 years in 300-litre casks. It was, quite simply, mindblowing. They still have some small batches of white port going back over 380 years.

White port is a wonderful, flexible and fascinating wine style that totally deserves to be more widely appreciated, listed and used. It might not be the next big thing, but maybe you could make it your next new thing. Saude!

SEVEN FACTS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WHITE PORT

Esgana Cao: Canines beware

1 Grape varieties – there are 46 (!) approved varieties for white port, but the most common are Malvasia, Rabigato, Codega, Viosinho, Arinto, and Folgosao (Terrantez in Madeira). Esgana Cao (aka Sercial in Madeira) isn’t used much, but since its name means “dog strangler” we thought you’d want to know about it.

2 Ageing – all white port is aged for a minimum of three years; colheita for at least seven years – though many houses age for a lot longer than this.

3 Barrels – are crucial to white port, since these are barrel-aged, not bottle-aged wines. Containers vary from 225-litre casks to 7,500-litre vats.House style, on all ageing matters, is crucial.

4 Age statements are 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old, plus Very Old White Port. The age statement is an AVERAGE age of the wines in the bottle. Colheita wines are barrel aged from a single vintage.

5 Preservation – because these are an oxidised style they don’t depreciate once opened. Young white ports can last for a couple of weeks; colheitas (under 15 years) for a couple of months. Older colheitas and aged whites can last 2-4 months. Obviously, this is great news for restaurants.

6 Sugar levels – Extra dry – 17,5 to  40 gr/l; Dry – 40 to 65 gr/l; Semi-dry  – 65 to 90 gr/l; Sweet  – 90 to 130 gr/l; Very Sweet or Lágrima – >130 gr/l

7 Flavours – younger ports are quite forward, with flavours of citrus, tea, white flowers, honey and preserved fruit. Older ones move into dried fruits, figs, walnuts, almonds, orange peel and spice.

Australia’s king of Nebbiolo

Luke Lambert is a big believer in the potential of Italian and Spanish varieties in Australia, particularly Nebbiolo. The Sommelier Collective caught up with him to find out where he’s growing it, how he’s making it and why.

You’re a huge Nebbiolo fan. Why’s that?

I think Nebbiolo makes the best wines in the world. It’s unmatched for perfume and rustic savouriness and beauty. We spent a lot of time researching the micro-climates and soil types locally to figure on finally buying a block in Glenburn [north of the Yarra Valley] and finding the right site.

This is your new farm, right? Tell us what makes it special.

It’s slightly warmer day time temps and cooler nights means we’ll get plenty of muscle and skin tannin but still hold and show the prettiness of Nebbiolo. The soil is slightly more ferric – good rock and topsoil ratio. We’re at 350m and have a really nice steep slope in an amphitheatre that mostly faces east and shies away from our strong summer sun. Rainfall is on the low end but with the right farming and soil care I’m confident it’ll work out. We’ve now got three acres of a mix of Nebbiolo clones in and the vines are happy and healthy.

Luke Lambert with his dog Smudge, at Denton Wines in the Yarra Valley

And all low intervention, presumably?

It’s an unirrigated block, managed with organics and very gentle farming. We’re hand weeding and avoiding all chemicals other than a gentle sulphur/copper spray program. The vineyard is already full of worms and good soil biology and it feels right. It’ll be quite a few years before we make wine from the site but I’m confident we’ll get the farming right and the wine will speak of the variety and the site and we’ll have something in the glass with the right amount of bass and treble.

You’ve only just planted it, correct?

Yes. It’s still very early days. Realistically we’re ten years away from finding out what we’ve got but between now and then we’ll take no shortcuts and throw everything at it. Soil health is paramount.

Broadly, which other areas of Oz are looking promising for Nebbiolo?

I think there’s a lot of Australia that’s well suited to Italian varieties, especially in Victoria. There’s still a focus on French varieties in all regions here but climatically we’re much better suited to Italian varieties and rustic, durable Italian varieties. Nothing happens or changes quickly in the world of wine but I think the next generation of grape growers and winemakers will shift focus away from French towards Italian and maybe Spanish.

Stylistically, where do you think Australia should be aiming with the grape?

I think there’s only one way to handle Italian varieties, especially Nebbiolo, and that’s to make them “traditionally’ and let the savoury/rustic thing sing. So, wild ferment wild malo, no inert gas or sulphur early, then into old large oak. No filtration, no fining.

What does that do to the wine?

It lets the perfume lift and all you see in the glass is the soil, variety and perfume. I can’t say I’ve ever had an Italian or New World wine matured in small oak or small new oak that I liked. But that’s my personal view I guess.

I think when we met you mentioned Nerello Mascalese as something you’d like to work with. Any signs of that on the horizon?

Unfortunately there’s no vine material of Nerello available in Australia at the minute. I think it’s being worked on but a bit like Nebbiolo the right clones and material took years to come into the country. It’ll happen but may be a way off yet.

Luke Lambert Nebbiolo

Luke Lambert Chardonnay
Luke Lambert Syrah

Links

Luke Lambert’s wines are imported by Indigo Wine

See Clement Robert MW’s article on why he loves Nebbiolo here

Rosé shouldn’t just be about Provence

In a wine market that’s generally flat to falling, rosé has been the exception.  From not much more than a niche ten years ago, it’s grown in the UK to the extent that, according to figures I saw in the press earlier this year, we are now the fourth largest consumer of rosé in the world, buying over 100 million bottles a year.

Provence, of course, is the darling and has spawned many imitators of its pale and dry style across the globe. Some of these provide serious alternatives whilst others are just a serious disappointment.  

Certainly it can’t do any harm to look elsewhere. Partly because it’s always good to champion diversity, and partly because of the prices of  Provence pinks, which have risen significantly of late.  Many of them are positioned at ‘serious wine’ level on a list now, rather than something inexpensive, pale and zesty to glug in the sun. 

“Annoyingly quality doesn’t always keep pace with the price.”

I have been disappointed with several popular, larger volume Provence rosés. Too often they fail in fruit ripeness yet excel in tartness and dilution. Frustratingly, a higher priced rosé from these regions does not necessarily indicate better quality either. 

Head elsewhere in France, however, and there are some excellent pale, dry rosés available that mimic Provence styles without the hefty price tag.  Consider other regions near Provence around the Languedoc such as the smaller IGP Cotes de Thau. This benefits from the twin influences of the Mediterranean and Etang du Thau.  The IGP Mediterranée (formerly Vins de Pays) surrounds Provence, and it too is finding success with rosé being made in the Provence style. 

I have tasted a number of wines from these areas – with their Grenache or Grenache-dominant blends rounded with Rolle and Cinsault; their flavour profile is similar to Provence, yet you’ll find them on a merchants list around £6-9 ex VAT as opposed to the £15+ of many Provence pinks.

This is the reason why the rosé we blend for St JOHN’s Beausoleil comes from the Cotes de Thau. It is fresh and linear, can be enjoyed on its own or with many types of food, and is significantly cheaper than an alternative from Provence.

Changing mindset

If these are well-priced Provence lookalikes, could there be a case for going a step further? Perhaps now, while Brits are asking for pink, perhaps this could be the time to expose them to some genuinely different styles of rosé. Wines that might have a similar dryness, structure and palate weight, but are flavoursome and different.  Wines that will set your list apart.  Wines, too, that deliver a bit more for the money.

I’m thinking here of Cabernet Franc from Saumur – I have been impressed with Chateau de Chaintres, and Pinot Noir from Sancerre  or its counterpart from cooler climates of Tasmania and Yarra Valley in Australia. 

Rosé from the Yarra is worth consideration. De Bortoli is always consistent, Dominique Portet, and Giant Steps also offer characterful Pinot-dominant rosé.   

Closer to home Italy provides a wealth of styles with often drier and ‘more serious’ versions coming from the middle of the country down towards Sicily. Keep an eye out for Ramato styles too such as Specogna’s Pinot Grigio Ramato. 

And, there are an increasing number of rosés that are dry and interesting from Spain and Portugal.  No doubt now seen as a classic since it was first made just over 20 years ago and serves as a benchmark is Niepoort’s Redoma Rose. This is often darker, and has been in oak yet offers a dry, thirst quenching rose that also is a joy with food.  

From the point of view of both your wine list and value for money, the case for broadening horizons is pretty strong. But there is a caveat. Bear in mind that there is no small amount of ignorance surrounding pink wine on the part of your average consumer.

Most consumers, I’d say, don’t consider the region, only the colour and the price. And the paler a rosé, they assume that the better (and drier) it is. 

This perhaps isn’t surprising.  Even to the trained eye, trying to establish what that ‘branded’ pale ‘chateau vino pinko’ rosé tastes like is no mean feat.  In most pinks there are no indicators of sweetness, and rarely any grape varietals, just a region or newly unearthed IGP. So we shouldn’t be too critical if customers have latched onto colour as a guarantee of a style or quality.

The fact that there is interest in rosé is a significant step, and to capitalize on this interest, especially with the warm weather, post lockdown, think about tapping into this market and offering several rosés.  If you only have one (or two) by the glass, open another and offer it by the glass.  It is a talking point!  Or use it as a focus for the week.  

If you have a darker rose that is fuller bodied, try pairing it with food, something that will allow the wine to ‘freshen up’ and know the story behind the wine, the varietals and the flavour those grapes give to the wine.  Once people are engaged with the wine it flows from there.

Four Rosés That Are Well Worth A Look

1. Chateau de Chaintres, Saumur

£9.65 from St John Wines

2. Specogna Pinot Grigio Ramato, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

£13.20 from Liberty Wines

3. Avani Amrit Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula (ramato style)

£17.75 from Woodwinters

4. Niepoort Redoma, Douro Valley

£18.99 (RRP) from Raymond Reynolds – contact for nearest trade supplier

Do you have any go-to rosés of your own from outside Provence? Of course you do! So why not tell the other members of the Sommelier Collective which are your favourites and why.

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Island jewel PANTELLERIA is no longer just about sweet wines

In the sea between Sicily and Tunisia, at the southernmost point of Italy, lies the island of Pantelleria.

Geographically, it’s closer to north Africa (Tunisia is 60km to the west) than it is to the rest of Italy, so it’s perhaps no surprise to discover that it has extremely long, hot and dry summers. Rainfall is about 300mm a year, with just 0.2mm of it falling in July.

In such arid conditions, vine growing is only possible at all thanks to morning dew and decent winter rains. Most of the production is focused on sweet wines, but there is more to it than this, as you will see.

Pantelleria is not large – just 80 square kilometres – and the vast majority of its vineyards are planted to Zibibbo, also known locally as Moscato D’Alessandria. Similar to Moscato Bianco (Muscat Blanc a Petite Grains) it is highly aromatic and with a medium acidity, which makes it well suited to the production of sweet wines. Closely related to table grapes it’s quite ‘grapey’ – with flavours of elderflowers, stone fruits, and sweet spices.

Although it is found dotted around other Italian Regions it probably shows its best in the Colli Euganei in the Veneto where it is used for another sweet appassito wine called Fior D’Arancio.

Two styles of sweet wines are produced on the island – Moscato di Pantelleria and Passito di Pantelleria.

For both the styles grapes have to be laid outside either in serre (glasshouses) which have to be ventilated, or without any covers, with is the traditional way of making the wines. This drying process concentrates the flavours and increases sugar levels.

For Moscato Di Pantelleria, grapes are dried for one or two weeks. For Passito di Pantelleria it can be upwards of a month.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to vinification for Passito di Pantelleria. The traditional method involves pressing of the dried grapes only, with gives wines with more syrupy prune-like aromas.

But some producers use a similar technique to Tokaji, where a base wine is made using non-dried grapes harvest and this is then macerated with the dried grapes. Introduced by Donnafugata in the 1980s, this technique adds both aroma and body, and gives fresher wine with more primary aromas.

Both techniques give wines that are opulent and very sweet, which makes them ideal for pairing with high-sugar desserts that would overpower most sweet wines.

I also find that Pantelleria wines have some sparse tannins, as the grapes are almost raisin-like and need quite hard pressing to extract the juice. This gives an extra dimension to the wines, adding a little astringency to balance the sweetness.

The Arrival of Dry and Natural

When it comes to allowing experimentation, Sicily is one of the most creative regions in Italy, so it’s no surprise that Pantelleria is no longer all about sweet wines.

Spurred on, no doubt, by the fact that the market for the latter is declining, for ten years or so, growers have started to produce more dry wines.

A range of Sicilian grapes are used for these, but Zibibbo is the most common and also, in my opinion, the best. Grapes are harvested when just ripe, at the end of August. 

The ‘natural’ movement is very active on the small island, with a growing number of amphora and ‘orange’ wines cropping up every year.

Zibibbo is really well suited to the latter, with a contrast between the sweet, exotic aromas on the nose and the very dry, lean palate.

The only downside is that they’re not cheap. Pantelleria is very small, so there are no economies of scale, and the climatic conditions mean that yields are naturally very low. Price-wise these are likely to appear in the upper middle section of the wine list.

On the plus side, this style works really well in pairing menus and by the glass. It’s different, surprising, and has a great story behind it.

Cellar suggestions: three to try for your list

Marco de Bartoli, Bukkuram Sole d’Agosto, Passito di Pantelleria, 2015

Les Caves de Pyrene £45+

Marco De Bartoli’s history is entwined with the history of modern Sicilian wines. From two wine producing families in Marsala, he returned to the region when he called time on his rally-driving career in the early 1980s. He, focused on low yielding Grillo, and high quality Marsala unheard of at the time and became the president of Sicilian wines for a couple of years before being mysteriously removed from his position. Nobody knows exactly why, but we can assume that his ideas where quite different to the rest of Sicilian producers at the time.

What he couldn’t achieve for Marsala, He did in Pantelleria, where he bought his second estate in 1989. He pushed to produce the highest possible quality sweet wines. Changing the way Pantelleria was going.

This is a prime example of the Passito di Pantelleria. Aged in very old barriques it is made in a sweet style with complex, chocolate, peach and mint aromas. It is best served alongside a chocolate mousse or a fondant.

Marco De Bartoli, Integer Zibibbo 2016

Les Caves de Pyrene £20-25+

Another offering from Marco De Bartoli. This time it’s a dry, skin-contact amphora-aged Zibibbo. The wines is  grapey, with aromas of nectarines and pear. A more mellow style than some skin-contact wines, it also has an unusually low alcohol level, thanks to the very early harvesting.

This works well as an aperitif or with starters of crudo.

Gabrio Bini,  Serragghia Bianco Zibibbo 2017

Tutto Wines £35-40

Serragghia is probably the most famous, natural style wine of Pantelleria. The vineyard is situated in close proximity to the sea enjoying almost constant sea breezes and temperatures are surprisingly moderate, even in the height of summer.

The eccentric, Gabrio Bini, moved from Milan to Pantelleria to be a winemaker, leaving behind his former architect career in the early 1990s. In 2000 he established his cellar, where no chemicals have ever entered. He does the least intervention possible in the vineyards.

A great example of the contrasting style between the aromatic intensity of Zibibbo and the drying influence of the amphoras that Gabrio buries in the depth of the cellar, this is a wine that has aromas of stone fruits and sage, with some saline notes.

The palate is bone dry with surprisingly strong tannins, which means that this can be served with monkfish or pork – just make sure that that the dish has plenty of flavour.

Learn more

Find out more about the traditional agricultural practice of cultivating head-trained bush vines on the island of Pantelleria.

Piedmont, not Burgundy, is my wine true love

Burgundy makes the best white wine on the planet, Bordeaux makes the most incredibly age-worthy wines and the Loire will always have a special place in my heart since it was here where I first discovered my love for wine.

However despite my appreciation and affection for all these places my true love lies elsewhere: Piedmont.

Not that it was love at first sight – it took me years to understand and to enjoy Nebbiolo. But to me it’s now the most exciting grape variety in the world.

Most of my peers, mentors and wine connoisseur friends tease me for not loving Pinot Noir that much and for not being a red Burgundy fanatic.

In fact, I get annoyed when Pinot Noir from Burgundy is compared with Nebbiolo from Piedmont.

Clement Robert MS

Despite having a similar genetic origin, I find the wines very different and the comparison is often to the detriment of Nebbiolo. ‘This Barbaresco is so elegant and complex it reminds of a great Burgundy’ is a comment I have heard too many times.

I think that it is time for Nebbiolo to be considered one of the best grapes in the world. No ifs, no buts – and no more being compared with other supposedly greater examples.

Not love at first sight

When I was first exposed to Nebbiolo, 14 years ago, it was a Barolo and I found it sour, over alcoholic, too tannic and lacking fruit. I do not recall the producer or the vintage, but I have to admit that the years that followed, and the Barolos and Barbarescos I was tasting, did nothing to change my opinion about the grape or the region.

Gaja was the producer I was exposed the most often, and whilst I loved the wines I often found them quite Bordeaux-like in style and very different from other Nebbiolos.

Over the years, though, I have been tasting more great Nebbiolos and I was fortunate enough to taste the likes Monfortino by Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Rinaldi’s Cannubi San Lorenzo and the legendary Bruno Giacosa’s Rocche del Falletto. And it was when tasting wines like these that I realized the amazing power of concentration combined with finesse and precision that great Nebbiolo can demonstrate.

That said, inconsistency remained a big problem. Much as I loved the top wines and best producers, I was often disappointed when tasting many of the others, and shocked by the number of faults I could spot in even quite well-known producers from the Langhe.

2010 the game-changer

My perception of Barolo and Barbaresco really changed a few months after the release of the 2010 vintage. I remember tasting Luciano Sandrone, Luca Roagna, Bruno Rocca and the delicious and very approachable Vajra.

Those wines, whilst different in style and appellation, were all showing an incredible floral bouquet, sweet spices, sour cherries and leather aromas. They were ripe on the palate yet showed great acidity and grippy tannins. The more producers I tried from the 2010 vintage the more I grew to love Nebbiolo.

My burgeoning affection for and appreciation of the region coincided with a 2014 trip to Piedmont organised by the UK Sommelier of the Year Competition. It was my first visit to the region. Again, many delicious 2010 wines were tasted and it’s no exaggeration to say that it was around now that I fell in love with the Langhe.

It’s an incredible, hilly landscape with fantastic gastronomic culture and warm, welcoming, down to earth inhabitants. It’s also home to some world class wine makers.

The same year I was introduced to one of Piedmont’s greatest advocates: Ian d’Agata. It’s no exaggeration to describe him as a regional guru, and I was delighted when he invited me the following year to join him at the Collisioni Wine Festival in Alba which celebrates wines from all over Italy but with a focus on Piedmont.

It was five days of meeting and visiting producers from the regions, and the hundreds of Nebbiolos that I tasted during that week helped me to really start to get a handle on this fascinating grape variety.

2010 is one of the stand-out vintage of the past 30 years, demonstrating amazing complexity, great acidity and superb aromatics.

But through visiting the region regularly in quick succession and talking with producers and local experts, it also became clear to me that the Langhe area was in transition, having finally come to terms with the Barolo/Barbaresco wars of the 1980’s.

The at times bitter conflict between traditionalists and modernists (captured in the film Barolo Boys) had faded: hygiene had improved, viticultural techniques had become modernised, and large old Slavonian oak vats and French oak barriques mingled happily in most wineries.

These changes, led by a new generation of producers who integrated tradition and the philosophy of previous generations with a more modern approach to wine making were producing the best results ever.

It also highlighted the fact that modern techniques used to improve quality had been implemented only very recently in lot of Langhe’s wineries and that 2010 was becoming a defining year for the region: a celebration of dramatic improvement in quality led by innovation from previous years highlighted by perfect weather conditions.

Since then I have become addicted to the region, visiting it at least twice a year.

Langhe Today

Beautiful as well as inspirational

The buzz in the region is absolutely incredible nowadays and the hunger and modesty from most producers is inspirational.

At times visiting Piedmont feels a bit like travelling to a New World producing country, because the producers are so open and so keen to get feedback on the various innovations they are playing around with.

A week before Italy went into lock-down, I was fortunate enough to visit Luca Roagna. He recently developed a nursery using vines grown from pips and we were tasting his white wine blend made of Chardonnay and Nebbiolo called Soleo.

Luca is the fifth generation of the Roagna Family and the wines he makes are simply spectacular. But perhaps the most eloquent support for my love of the rise and rise in quality of these wonderful wines comes from another fifth-generation winemaker.

Gaia Gaja is a pioneer of the modern style of Nebbiolo. And after her father, Angelo, declassified their wines in 1996, she has just decided to re-enter the appellation.

For me, it’s the ultimate proof that Barolo and Barbaresco are back where they should be: some of the best wines in the world.

My ten favourite Barolo/Barbaresco estates

1. Guiseppe Rinaldi

UK importer: Raeburn Fine Wines

2. Luca Roagna

UK importer: Armit

3. Bruno Giacosa

UK importer: Armit

4. Bruno Rocca

UK importer: Liberty Wines

7. Renato Ratti

UK importer: JE Fells

9. G.D. Vajra

UK importer: Liberty

10. Luciano Sandrone

UK importer: FMV

Lambrusco – great value gems that are perfect for food

The plains of Emilia Romagna and Lombardy are home to some of the biggest foods in Italian gastronomy: prosciutto, Grana Padano, and tortellini to name but a few. And here they are paired with the local Lambrusco.

It’s a wine like no other – sparkling, bright purple in colour… and tannic – which makes is ideal to go with those high fat, opulent, local products.

Lambrusco in the area’s bars is served by the glass, alongside a platter of warm, oil-dripping focaccia and all the mouth-watering products that the region has to offer. In the local’s houses, Lambrusco often goes through the whole meal, where it’s sparkle and richness helps refresh the palate.

Emilia-Romagna – the gastronomic heart of Italy

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. It’s true that Lambrusco’s name declined in the 1980s when co-operatives produced most of the wines and their ethos was definitely one of quantity over quality.

But there have always been independent producers that have made high-quality Lambrusco and there is now an upwards quality trend. Admittedly there are fewer of these good producers than there used to be, and the number of hectares planted has declined. But they’re still there and they are still worth looking out for.

Lambrusco is great value for you and your guests

Vibrant, varied, good with food and by the glass, Lambrusco can really add something different to your list – and your customers’ experience. And since it is generally very cheap, it can be an affordable surprise for your guests.

clones and styles

Lambrusco is produced from the grape of the same name, though there are several different clones named after the villages where they originated:

  • Lambrusco Salamino is the most widely planted and the most aromatic; normally medium sweet, balanced by high tannins.
  • Lambrusco Sorbara is the most deeply coloured with lower tannins. It’s typically dry or off-dry.
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa is considered the finest clone, producing the deepest wines, with lower tannins. It’s usually found as a dry wine.

Other clones exist, and they can be planted virtually anywhere within the appellations, though each of the five DOCs has a minimum percentage required of each clone for the wines to be classified.

Frothy, yes – but there are multiple styles of Lambrusco

Modena’s province, is where most of Lambrusco is produced, and it has four DOCS.

  1. Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC is the most floral, and direct, with soft tannins. Produced on sandy soils, it is usually medium sweet and is well suited for a pasta dishes and/or grilled vegetables.
  2. Lambrusco Salmino di Santacroce is 90% made up of the Salamino clone and is produced on both flat and hilly sides. It is meant to be drunk young and tends to be sweet, with high acidity. Ideal served chilled by the glass as an aperitif.
  3. Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro comes from vineyards situated on the hillside, with longer ripening season, higher concentration, and more complexity. It usually the driest in style and most age-worthy.
  4. Modena DOC is the largest and the quality and style of wines here varies a lot

Most noteworthy Lambruscos are produced using the classic method, or Ancestrale (pet-nat), which involves bottling an almost fully-fermented wine and sealing it in order to trap the CO2 produced, rendering the wine sparkling.

These are definitely the styles that quality producers are championing, and can be a great companion to food, as they tend to be dry and complex with a savoury palate. They can also age for a few years, developing dry fruit and forest floor flavours with time.

Lambrusco offers great quality for the price, starting at £5 and rarely above £20; it has a unique style that offers something different for food-matching, but it can be easily served by the glass too. I have previously stocked Lambrusco by the glass in the summer season and it went down very well with my customers.

Of course, its reputation might mean that it needs to be ‘pushed’ to them. But in hot months served alongside charcuterie and fritters, it really comes into its own.

cellar suggestions: Three to try for your list

Lambrusco Reggiano DOC Concerto, Medici Ermete

Vinum Terra, £10-12

A classic method, Lambrusco, Dry with aromas of roses, cassis, plums and an undertone of sage and bread. Served with a rich steak or lamb it works really well.

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC Secco I Quercioli, Medici Ermete

Vinum Terra, £8.00-10

Brut style, this has more direct aromas of maraschino cherries, plums and strawberries. I would suggest it goes best if you serve it with deep-fried vegetables or cheese.

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro ‘Ribello’ Roberto Balugani

Fields, Morris and Verdin, £8-10

Ancestral Method, off dry, with savoury aromas, herbs, and plums. This has a delicate mousse and goes well as an aperitif with salami or with a cheese platter and tomato relish.