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: Alternatives to Burgundy

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

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

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

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 Neuman gave some top tips on how to introduce alternatives to Burgundy by including the use of anecdotes and historical references to engage the person looking to enjoy the wine.

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

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

Stefan Neumann MS

THE WINES

Jean Leon 2019 Chardonnay

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

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

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

Torricella 2019 Ricasoli
Wente 2020 Chardonnay

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

Angelo Margheriti “Lovely creamy texture.”

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

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

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

George Doyle “Favourite wine so far.”

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

Nautilus 2019 Chardonnay
Gran Moraine Chardonnay 2019

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

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

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

Hartford Court 2019 Pinot Noir
Dalrymple 2020 Pinot Noir

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

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

Te Mata 2018 Alma
Torres, Marimar Estate 2013
Mas Cavallas

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

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

Two Paddocks 2018 Pinot Noir

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

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

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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

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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

Italian white region

Discovery Tasting: Native Italian Whites

Italian whites are among the most food-friendly wines. And this dip into the portfolio of a family-run importer showed exactly why.

Carson & Carnevale is both a relatively new name on the wine scene and one which has been around for a long time. The company was founded five years ago when the Carnevale family (specialising in Italian food) and the Carson family (specialising in Italian wine) came together in a spectacular gastronomic union. You can only imagine the catering at the Christmas party!

The company imports wines from all over the world – in fact, it’s Californian, Spanish and, particularly, it’s Australian ranges are really interesting. But the heart of its business is Italy.

Their ethos is to find wines that are authentic and full of character, but still offer value for money – and we saw that in this tasting, with a range of wines which (with one exception) were all priced to be highly sellable.

Running from Sicily to the Alps, stopping off at most points in between, this was a fascinating snapshot of the country’s wines – and of Carson & Carnevale’s range.

Steep slopes of the Alto Adige round Nino Negri

The Wines

Tenuta Scuotto Fiano 2019, Campania

£16.01 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Campania, in the south of mainland Italy, is 50% hills, 35% mountains and only 15% plains, and the vines for Fiano di Avellino are planted on slopes ranging from 400-600m above sea level, on a mix of rocks, ash, sands and clay.

Fiano di Avellino can range in style from light to full bodied, easy-going to age-worthy, happily lasting up to 10 years in the bottle, where it moves from grassy characters to smoky iodine-like notes. A late-ripening variety, its thick skins help it to resist autumnal weather.

From an excellent vintage and one of the best areas for Fiano di Avellino it’s had, 12 months ageing on fine lees.

Our tasters found hay notes and floral aromas of blossom. Honey and ripe yellow apples, lemon and pink grapefruits, also a ‘peach and lemon rind’ character. The extended lees ageing made it quite food friendly, combining weight but also freshness.

Food matches included linguine alle vongole.

The perfect wine match. Are you hungry yet?

Nino Negri Ca’Brione Bianco Alpi Retiche IGT 2019

£11.37 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

This part of Lombardy near the Valtellina DOC is a place where winemaker are happy to play around with a bit more freedom, and  locals claim this is where Nebbiolo (known as Chiavennasca) came from originally.

Both elements are visible in this wine which is a blend of international varieties – mostly (70%) Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – plus other indigenous varieties, including Nebbiolo fermented as a white.

Rocky terraced slopes give minerality and elegance to wine, while 12 months in oak adds extra weight and texture.

Our tasters found elderflower and peaches and loved its crunchy saline freshness.

Matches suggested were pork or veal tonnato, Jerusalem artichoke, hazelnuts, iberico and black truffle.

Nino Negri’s winemaker, Danilo Drocco

Sartarelli Tralivio, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOCI, Classico Superiore 2019

£11.38 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

In the Marche, on the eastern side of the Appennines, Verdicchio was described by Peter McCombie MW, who was presenting the wines, as being ‘one of Italy’s greatest white grapes’. It ripens slowly and reliably and retains high levels of tartaric acid, while the best examples can improve in bottle for as long as the average white Burgundy.

There’s been a shift to modern viticulture and lower yields over the last 15 years, which is seen in the fact that in 2006 60% of the region’s wines were produced by co-operatives, but that figure had dropped to 34% by 2017.

‘For us Verdicchio is a staple textured alternative to people who have been priced out of quality white Burgundy,’ said Allegra restaurant’s Max Manning.

This winery has picked up a couple of trophies in the International Wine Challenge down the years, and this wine, from 350m high vineyards in the rolling hills of Castello di Jesi was popular.

Our tasters found hawthorn, fern, elderberry, pear, almond and citrus; textural without lots of weight. A gentle austerity rather than fruitiness made it a real food wine.

Matches included baby spinach salad with goats cheese and walnuts, and rosemary and black olive focaccia. Plus, of course, the classic fritta mista di mare.

The rolling hills and shoreline of the Marche, home to Sartarelli

Le Morette Benedictus Lugana DOC 2018

£14.68 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Officially, Turbiana is the same variety as Verdicchio, though, this being Italy, some feel there might be differences. At the southern end of Lake Garda, it’s quite a small appellation with calcareous clay soils, with the lake creating a mild microclimate.

Le Morette was founded 60 years ago and it’s still family owned and operated. This wine is mostly made in stainless steel, though a small proportion is fermented in small oak, though the latter is sensitively handled.

A Tre Bicchiere winner from Gambero Rosso, it was nuttier and rounder than the previous wine with a little textural grip from the skins.

Our tasters found almonds, jasmine flowers and a hint of peach compote, with Gordon Ramsay’s Emanuel Pesqueira suggesting it was not unlike Pinot Gris in the richness of its mouthfeel.

‘I love that textural peach note,’ said Eden Locke Hotel’s Isobel Salamon. ‘This would be lovely with curried flavours.’ Other tasters agreed, suggesting a coconut shrimp curry.

Lake Garda. Not a bad spot, all things considered. And the wine isn’t bad either.

Assuli Donna Angelica Lucido DOC Sicilia 2017

£11.51 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

From the western end of Sicily, this wine is made from Lucido, which used to be known as Catarrato and is related to Garganega, Soave’s variety. Grown all over Sicily, it’s the most widely planted variety on the island.

This variety is usually citrus and herbal, with a mineral aftertaste and some tasters have noted a resemblance to Viognier. This wine was deep yellow and very rich and stone-fruity.

Our tasters could see where the Viognier parallel might come from but felt it had lost more freshness than it ought to have given it was four years old – possibly a bottling issue.

Jon Carson of Carson & Carnivale said that recent examples have been popular with Michelin-starred restaurants, so it might be worth calling in a different sample bottle.

Plenty of sun in Sicily, tempered by sea breezes and a bit of altitude

Tenuta Sant’Antonio Vecchie Vigne Soave DOC 2017

£12.19 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Back up in the north-east of the country, this came from a small vineyard to the west of the town of Soave from vineyards that are mostly loam over limestone, a terroir which typically gives honey and yellow fruit plus an acidic kick from the limestone.

Founded by four brothers in 1989 the business is still family run today.

‘Soave has a bit of a bad rep with the older guests,’ said Max Manning. ‘It was so mass-produced for so long it’s taking a while to get people willing to try the newer styles.’

The younger generation, though, seem more open to it. ‘If you list any Italian whites, you should have Soave,’ said Wiltons’ Monica Bachiocchi.

From 30 year-old vines, this was still remarkably fresh with tasters finding nuts citrus, mature white stone fruit and refreshing green almond.

Matches included squid ink linguini and onion tart.

The four brothers, who founded the winery over 30 years ago

Kellerei St Pauls Sanctissimus Pinot Bianco Riserva 2016

£47.97 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

Surprisingly, the most expensive wine of the tasting a) came from a co-operative – albeit one which was founded in 1907, and b) was a Pinot Blanc.

From the south side of Alps this is a region that gets lots of sun, but also a chilly downdraft from the mountains, giving big diurnal temperature shifts, which help with acidity. This vineyard, planted in 1899, is one of the oldest in the Alto Adige.

The wine is fermented with skins in large amphorae, then matured in large wooden barrels. There’s no evident oak expression at all.

With flavours of toffee apple, herbs and spice, our tasters adored this wine, commenting on its balance, complexity, juicy, creamy texture and persistence.

‘It’s complex with real minerality,’ said Emanuel Pesqueira, while Spry Wines’ Arthur Ng felt it ‘drinks like a Pessac with a few years’.

‘So much texture,’ said Elly Owen from The Old Garage. ‘The finish is so good!’

Matches suggested included turbot Veronique and champagne caviar velouté, cheese, and a high quality burger in a brioche bun.

‘It’s not an everyday drink,’ said Monica Bachiocchi. ‘But I love it!’

Be honest, would you have guessed this was Italy if we hadn’t told you?

Marchese Raggio, “Old Année” Gavi del Commune di Gavi DOCG 2015

£13.50 ex VAT, Carson & Carnevale

A staple of Italian restaurant lists for years Gavi maybe has a reputation like a more upmarket Pinot Grigio. But this wine, from a 500-year-old estate has more ambition than that.

From their best grapes, hand-harvested and softly pressed the wine has no malo (to preserve acidity), and a little batonnage to build in weight. It’s aged for three years in old oak barrels.

‘Gavi is the kind of wine where people tend to think they should have the latest vintage, but if you’ve got a bit of ambition that extra age is interesting,’ said Peter McCombie MW. ‘With time it does pick up a hint of liquorice or fennel – a bit of herbal spice.’

Our tasters found it crisp and clean with good primary flavours backed up by a singing acidity, and a slight austerity that made it perfect for food. The suggested match was crab linguini with a notch of chilli.


Drinking slightly older Italian whites made for a really interesting and unusual range of wines. As Emanuel pointed out, guests might be hesitant about this, but would be OK with it once the sommelier had ‘connected the wine to the vineyard’.

However, Valeriya Toteva from the Conrad Hilton was excited by the possibilities.  ‘As a sommelier, I’m looking for something new and unusual,’ she said. ‘It’s a plus to tell a story to our guests.’

The Marchese’s original document of ownership from 500 years ago

Download the tasting sheets

Watch the video

Discovery Tasting: Opus One

A tasting of one of California’s most famous wineries, presented by winemaker Michael Silacci was a special treat for the Collective’s members

Last week saw 30 lucky Sommelier Collective members log on for a one-hour masterclass with Opus One winemaker and head of viticulture, Michael Silacci.

As one of California’s most-established A-List wines, it was no surprise that we were heavily oversubscribed for  the event – and a further 20 members were keen enough to watch even without having access to the tasting samples.

Opus One was created by the coming together in 1978 of Baron Philippe de Rothschild (of Mouton Rothschild fame) and Robert Mondavi, probably the most important figure in modern Californian winemaking.

At a meeting at the Baron’s chateau in Bordeaux, it took these two wine world titans just one hour to outline the principles of Opus One.

  1. It should be a red wine made from Bordeaux varieties
  2. It should be a wine that people want to share with their friends and family
  3. It should be a place that people leave in better shape than they found it

The latter point is key. ‘Sustainability,’ as Michael Silacci put it, ‘is really ingrained into our system.’

The winemaker has even held off planting a six hectare plot near the winery because he wants to get every single element of the planting perfect: the trellising, the rootstocks, the row orientation – because he wants to be absolutely certain that the vines will still be around in 100 years’ time.

It’s a winery, in other words, where the long-term future is important, but that is still underpinned by an unshakeable ethos founded 40 years ago.

‘A journalist once asked me “who do you make wine for – Robert Parker? James Laube?”’ said Michael. ‘I said “I make wine for two people who aren’t alive anymore: Baron Philippe and Robert Mondavi.” My whole goal is to make a wine that gives you a sense of where it comes from.’

From To Kalon with love

For Opus One, that means 70 hectares of vineyard in Oakville, Napa Valley. The majority of the vines are in the hallowed To Kalon vineyards – reckoned to be the best site in Napa.

The winery experimented with biodynamism but rowed back on that because they felt it made the vines too vigorous. They still make preparations, however, which they use for compost.

Two of the last four years have been affected by wildfires. 2017, according to Michael, looked worse than it was since they had 90% of the crop picked before the fires arrived.

But 2020 could potentially be more awkward. The fires started in August and ran through the latter end of the growing season, though there was less smoke than in 2017.

‘It was long-time, low-impact,’ said Michael.

To safeguard against smoke taint, the team changed their growing philosophy of co-fermenting different varieties. Instead, they went back to picking, vinifying and (soon) ageing every block separately. Pressing was very gentle.

‘I’ll tell you what we have in 18 months,’ said Michael.

THE TASTING

The Discovery tasting included four vintages of Opus One and the current release of the Second Wine, Overture.

Opus One 2007

This was the year Michael had chosen to make the switch to full-on dry farming. ‘I wanted to encourage the vines to give a stronger expression of place, and I felt they could do that if the roots were down deeper,’ he said.

A warm, dry year made this difficult. And with plenty of Californian heat at play, Michael was keen to get some more Petit Verdot in the blend. The question was, how?

‘When we blended Cabernet and Petit Verdot as wine, it was like a dog meeting a cat in the street – they’d fight. Too aggressive, too harsh, too tannic.’

Then the answer came to him at 3am: co-fermentation.

‘It worked wonders,’ he said. ‘There was such an incredible harmony – and the layers were quite different. It was like kittens with puppies. They grew up loving each other, and this harmony came from there.’

Until 2020 (as explained above) they have co-fermented every year since.

Despite its age, Michael still sees plenty of ripe fruit – ‘baby fat’ as he calls it – in this wine.

Opus One 2011

California might be known for its sun – but not in 2011. It was a very cool, wet year.

‘We had learned so much from 2010 which was cool, but not as wet,’ says Michael. ‘We always tend to pick a bit earlier than others, and we learned from 2010 that we could go in early and capture a lot of the fresh fruit characteristics.’

Opus One is a very Cabernet-focused Bordeaux blend. And though it is never varietally labelled, this is the only vintage that did not have sufficient Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend (just 71%) that it could have been. The remainder is made up with 11% Merlot, 9% Petit verdot and 8% Cabernet Franc.

Stylistically, this wine was a lot more herbal, restrained and – for want of a better word – European. No surprise, perhaps that it came out top in our poll of tasters.

‘In the States, this vintage wasn’t really appreciated for what it is,’ said Michael. ‘I love the elegance of this wine – the silky texture – and it’s different.’

As a crib for blind-tasters, Michael says he can pick out ‘the fresh stems of red roses’ in both the 2007 and the 2011 before he swirls the glass.

Opus One 2015

From a warmer vintage, Michael and his team probably picked a few days later than they wanted to – by which time they were in the middle of a heat spike. As a result, they had to do a lot of ‘cherry-picking’ through the vineyards.

‘When we made the blend in January of 2016 I thought it was too intense,’ says Michael. ‘If it were a painting it would be like a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh – just exploding!’

After 18 months in barrel, that intensity was still there, and the team felt the need to calm the wine down a little, so began adding in small amounts of less exuberant wine originally destined for Overture.

Stylistically Michael still says he finds it closer to the warm-year characteristics of 2007.

Opus One 2016

Michael began a programme of isolating wild yeasts in the vineyard in 2012, on the premise that it increases the sense of place in the wine. It was a long process. They began by finding 50 yeasts from the vineyards, narrowing that down to 35, then 15 and finally six which they liked the most and sent off for analysis.

The lab results were surprising.

‘We found we had three wolves, two coyotes and a dog,’ says Michael wryly. ‘The wolves being the wild yeasts, the coyotes being [semi-wild] yeasts that had certain genetic connections to commercial yeasts, and the dog was a [domesticated] commercial yeast from the Rhone.’

This was the first wine to be made with over 50% of wild yeasts. Current vintages are 100% wild yeast fermented. But what does this process bring to the actual wine?

‘The aromas are different,’ explains Michael. ‘They can be a little more earthy. But the mouthfeel is what I like. When we blend, that’s what we’re looking for, and I love the way [wild yeast] adds little nuances and layers of complexity. The aromas will always come around.’

Of the four Opus One wines on show here, this is the one that Michael felt best captured his grape-growing and winemaking philosophy. Perhaps because of the wild yeast element.

Overture 2020 release

Technically, Overture is, indeed, a second wine in that it comes from the same estate as the main wine. But its philosophy is quite different since it’s a multi-vintage blend, typically of three vintages. The current release is made up of 2014, 2015 and 2016.

‘If Opus is an expression of time over place, Overture is an expression of place over time because the seasons get muted out somewhat and you really see the place coming through more,’ says Michael. ‘The theory is that Overture is the wine that you drink while you’re waiting for Opus, but I’ve always found it to be a good candidate for ageing as well.’

Certainly, it was popular with our tasters, with bright fruit, powdery tannins and a few more years of ageing. Several commented on its relative affordability, too, for venues that might struggle to sell the grand vin.

I don’t make wine for Robert Parker or James Laube. I make wine for two people who aren’t alive anymore: Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi

Michael Silacci

Members’ Q&A With Michael Silacci

There were too many members’ questions to include all of them here (sorry!).  But we’ve picked out a few of our favourites.

Do you get frustrated making just two wines? (Alexia Gallouet, Gymkhana)

I was making 17 wines at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars! I’ve always wanted to make a white wine at Opus. I’ve brought that idea up two or three times a year for 20 years and it hasn’t gone anywhere. But there’s so much going on with our five varieties and in the vineyard… there’s plenty of opportunity when you’re just making one wine.

Has your oak use changed? (Paul Robineau, 110 de Taillevent)

It’s been evolving over time. The barrel is a pedestal on which we support the wine. It needs to support the wine not mask it.

How do you think the 2007 and 2011 vintages will age and when does Opus One start to show its full potential? (Louise Gordon, Heckfield Place Hotel)

The general consensus is that the 2011 will not age as well as the 2007. But 1979 and 1980 are still ageing well and they were both picked earlier. I still get a lot of ‘baby fat’ on the 2007 – a lot of ripe fruit, and that has yet to fade away.

Regarding full potential: there’s a really nice window between 12 and 17 years. After 9 or 10 years they start to go into the tertiary stage.

You mentioned you use biochar in the vineyards. What does it achieve? (George Doyle, Fhior)

You put it near the root zone and it facilitates water uptake. [Because we dry farm] my hope is that it will help the vines out a bit.

What are your favourite vintages of Opus One? (Milena de Waele, Birley Club)

2010 without hesitation. It was the most challenging vintage I’ve ever been through. It was like being in a wrestling match with Mother Nature, trying to channel whatever she sent our way and turn it into something positive.

We stumbled on ripeness three weeks before we thought it would be ripe. It’s my all-time favourite. Though 1980, 1987, 1991 and 1995 are wines I like very much that I had nothing to do with.

Star wine: Opus One 2011

As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.

Tasting sheets to download

UK importer

The Opus One wines are available either through Waddesdon Wines or Bibendum. For further detailed information, contact European Export Manager, Charlie Matthews on +33 643 06 45 41; charlie.matthews@opusonewinery.com

Discovery Tasting: Symington

The UK might be back to being shut in its houses and apartments again, and travel might be off the agenda. But our latest Discovery Tasting with Symington Family Estates provided an escape in both place and time.

Fifth generation family member, Anthony Symington, showed off a stunning range of ports and table wines that transported our lucky tasters not just from Lockdown Britain to the unmatchable beauty of the Douro, but back through the decades as well.

The Symington Family have been making ports in this part of northern Portugal for over 150 years, and with 26 quintas (estates) in the valley, are the biggest producer of premium port in the region. Every sommelier will be familiar with the great names of their portfolio: Dows, Warres and Grahams, plus the Douro’s ‘first first growth’ Quinta do Vesuvio.

But the tasting began with a couple of table wines, with Symington showing off their top wine, Chryseia, and its second wine, Post Scriptum, made in association with Bruno Prats, former director of Cos d’Estournel.

In fact, the latter is the reason why the wines were ever created. Visiting the family as a fellow member of the Primum Familiae Vini, he took a look at the Douro and asked bluntly, ‘why don’t you make red wine here? You’re crazy! You have this incredible unique terroir and varieties that aren’t used anywhere else.’

The two families teamed up to make Prats + Symington in 1999 and have been making Chryseia in the best years ever since, and Post Scriptum in the others.

The wines come from the Quinta de Roriz vineyard, which is the site of an old tin mine, and has an incredibly high mineral content.

‘You can taste this in these two wines,’ said Anthony. ‘Obviously they are Douro in style, but they have a fresh, graphite minerality running through them. From 5-10 years old it still has youthful fruit, but from 10-14 years it gets more secondary characteristics.’

Our tasters sampled the 2015, which is now starting to show really well and clearly has many decades ahead of it.

From here it was on to Port. All of the wines were from Grahams which celebrated its 200th anniversary this year. Though Covid scuppered any actual celebrations.

First up our tasters had a real treat with two single-vintage tawnies (aka colheitas), from two of the best port vintages of the last century: 1963 and 1994.

‘A colheita is a snapshot in time,’ said Anthony. ‘We don’t release the wines to coincide with an anniversary – just where we feel they are showing incredibly well.’

The ‘snapshot in time’ was particularly poignant for the older of the two. Not only were none of our tasters or panellists born in 1963 but the Douro was still incredibly isolated – a rural backwater six hours from Porto, with sporadic electricity. It was a wine with a finish that was measured in hours.

Yet the star for most tasters was the 1994. At 26 years old, it was at what many observers consider the peak age for tawny port. Food matches flooded in for these wines, from myriad desserts and cigar styles to beer-battered oysters.

They’re clearly a really useful style for restaurants, since once opened they can last happily for a month, so there’s little pressure on teams to sell them fast.

Speed of sell-through is more of an issue for bottle-aged ports, such as our final two vintages. But Anthony suggested three really great tips.

Three sell-through tips

  1. Decant the bottle on a Friday and sell it as a ‘special’ throughout the weekend – vintage port is fine for three days.
  2. Take advantage of their ‘half bottle’ presentation set, which features 37.5cl of vintage port, a decanter and a wooden presentation board. ‘It can sit on a list around £35 or £15 a glass.’
  3. Employ a Coravin using the same process as for ordinary table wine. ‘There’s no need to decant in advance. When you start getting near the bottom of the bottle sediment can sometimes partially block the needle but simply moving the bottle slightly dislodges this. When you near the end of the bottle you can decant the remaining few glasses out.’

Interestingly, Anthony also suggested that the traditional ‘Stilton’ match might need a rethink.

‘The older ports are more delicate wines,’he  said. ‘I don’t think you’d want a blue cheese with them, even though that’s the tradition in the UK. We often have it with a creamy sheep’s cheese.’

While the magnificence of the 1983 Grahams was not a surprise – it’s a top port from a great year – the quality of the Quinta do Malvedos raised eyebrows – particularly for the price. Though this wine is made to be drunk slightly younger (and really starts to drink well from ten years old) some tasters had examples from the millennium which they said were still fantastic.

All in all, it was a spectacular tasting of myriad wine styles, united only by their age and excellence. After all, how often do you get to taste six wines with a combined age of 150 years?

Star wine

As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.

Tasting sheets to download