Argentina: Guitars, golf and the future of Tupungato

Snow arrives early in Mendoza this year – on the day I arrive. The picturesque old road over the los Cerrojos hills to San Jose has been closed, so the trip to Zorzal takes much longer, as we’ve got to leg it down the extremely straight and very boring Route 40. That’s the bad news; the good news is that I am sharing the car with Juan Pablo Michelini; never has a car journey been better spent.

Juan Pablo (Juam-Pi, to his friends) is always keen to talk about the Argentine wine industry. “It’s incredible the amount of change we have seen in the last ten years. We’ve moved away from all producing one particular style of wine which was the old fashioned big Malbec. Now we have huge diversity even just with that grape. Everyone is looking for terroir, all searching for individual plots. We are growing in finesse and elegance. It’s all good news.”

The Michelini brothers have been at the forefront of excitement in Argentina for a few years now; they were the original rock stars. All three have now made their home in Tupungato, where Juan Pablo makes the wine at Zorzal, a joint Michelini venture with Canadian investors. “We all want to be close to the wines we make. We all want to maximise the grapes.”

As we enter the Uco Valley, Juan Pablo makes a prediction (other winemakers I subsequently meet echo this): “Cabernet Franc is going to be hugely popular in Tupungato. Pinot Noir is good at the higher elevated points in the Uco Valley, but it is Cabernet Franc which excites us.”

We drive through the picturesque town of Tupungato and then, instead of taking Route 89, the Wine Route, we head off into the hills towards Gualtallary, climbing steadily to 1,300 metres. What with the recent snow, it is like driving through some weird moonscape and we see very few cars and you think: how do you grow grapes here?

We get on to the topic of hobbies and Juan Pablo tells me he used to be a pretty serious guitarist and played in a semi-famous Mendoza band. Why I am not surprised one little bit at this? With his hipster bushy beard he would be at home in Mumford & Sons. Then he tells me rather sheepishly that he is a keen golfer, which takes me completely by surprise. At that moment we breast a hill and he points down to my right. “That’s where I play.” Incongruously, in among the vines there is a quaint golf course threading its way between the hills in a way not dissimilar to a British links course hiding between the dunes.

Even more incongruous is a polo field. In the middle of nowhere!

There are five micro-climates in Gualtallary, he tells me. At the bottom where it is hotter and where the soil is clay-based, Cabernet Sauvignon performs reasonably well. Right at the top the soil is largely stony granite and limestone. In between there are mixtures. Zorzal is bang in the middle where the soil is largely calcium carbonate.

In the small but beautifully formed winery Juan Pablo runs around like a little kid with his toys. He compares his amphorae with his eggs. “The amphora gives elegance, softness, quiet. The eggs give nerve, length and electricity. It’s all about the shape; in the egg the juice is constantly moving.”

He poses in front of the first egg ever built in South America, constructed in 2012. “The guy who designed this went on to build them for virtually every winery in Argentina; he’s now a millionaire.”

Accompanied by his assistant winemaker, the beautifully-named Noelia Juri, Juan Pablo dashes excitedly from one wine to another, firstly comparing Chardonnays from 500-litre and 225-litre barrels (not surprisingly, the larger barrel produces a nervier liquid); then a stunning Chardonnay from foudre (“not sure where this will go”) which tastes like wine which has been dragged over an oyster bed and which leaves a staggeringly gorgeous flavour in my mouth for minutes after; then a Malbec which may go into El Barba (“this has some tension”) and which leaves a curious candy floss taste in my mouth; then a solera-based Pinot Noir containing wines from eight different vintages which is intriguingly steely and salty; then a Cabernet Franc which will go into his Piantao wine and which is just pure rhubarb fruit juice; finally, his extraordinary flor-based Altar Uco (“flor power”) which allows him to demonstrate his prowess with a venencia.

As we begin to taste from bottle in the tasting room, Juan Pablo tells me how keen he is to make some of his whites in an oxidative style. “We rack the barrels and don’t add sulphur. Natural yeast, naturally. We oxidate the wines to give brown juice, which we then clarify and hold in stainless steel. Wines like this can age forever.” The 2018 Chardonnay we taste has a pure salinity and a touch of saltiness. It is like tasting wine washed over pebbles and with a tiny amount of lime juice added. A 2018 Sauvignon Blanc is more commercial. A 2018 red blend from Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec has an extraordinary nose of earth, mushrooms, beetroot and truffles., while a Malbec from 2017 is rhubarb and carrot juice at first, then liquorice. “You can taste the chalk,” says Juan Pablo.

We are interrupted by the kitchen staff bearing an amazing looking asado with chimichurri sauce. Pablo asks if I am okay to continue the tasting. Of course, I say, trying to concentrate in the wine with one eye of the pile of beef.

The Eggo wines, from single vineyards, are all looking great. The 2018 Sauvignon Blanc has an anise flavour which I cannot ever remember seeing in the varietal. The 2017 Cabernet Franc has an unusual nose, a touch saline and a bit of stalkiness. “Understated,” says Juan Pablo. The Malbec has another showstopper nose: it reminds of liquorice root that I used to chew when I was a kid. The Pinot Noir is steely, poised and edgy.

By now I am wolfing down the hunks of beef; the wines make amazing companions. I keep going back to check on them. All of them are intriguing, as is the whole operation.

The kitchen staff come to join us and we get into a discussion about football. It is here that the big debate about Messi needs to be brought to a climax, so I ask them: is it Lee-O or Lie-O. Every one of them tells me Lee-O, even against my protestations of the pronunciation of his father’s inspiration, Lionel Richie. The only who doesn’t join in is the cook. “She prefers Maradona,” says Juan Pablo.

 

For more information on any wines from Zorzal, please speak to your account manager.

Argentina: One producer, two regions, one tasting

I had forgotten just how much I love Mendoza. Like Stellenbosch and Adelaide, this is a wine town. At eleven o’clock on a cold Sunday night the Plaza Independencia is heaving with promenading families. and there looks to be a restaurant/wine bar for every human being.

 

Meanwhile, on Avenida Arístides Villanueva, in a very short space I stroll past an orgy of craft beer pubs, restobars and beautiful looking restaurants: El Mercadito, El Club de la Milanesa, Johnny B.Good, Chachingo Craft Beer, Taqueria de Fabriza, Buffalo Steak Bar, Al Toque, Zitto, La Lucia, Bar Latina, Gingger, Don Aldo, Bar de Montana, Antares Mendoza and, finally, at the end of the street, Hangar 52, from which comes the riotous sound of a heavy blues band.

 

And there appears to be a supermodel wannabee on every corner.

Yup, welcome back to Mendoza.

 

We started working with Piattelli four or five years ago, principally because they offered us wines from Cafayate, from altitudes of 1,700 metres above sea level (these are still the highest-altitude wines on our list). However, at our first meeting we also fell in love with their Mendoza wines, and we took some smaller parcels from there, too. The Finance team raised their eyebrows…

I had wanted to go back to Cafayate, but the logistics were too tight, so instead I am driving down to Agrelo in Luján de Cuyo to meet with winemakers Valeria Antolin and Alejandro Nesman. Valeria looks after the Mendoza operation; Alejandro the Cafayate. It is an interesting contrast to sit between them as I taste. Alejandro is a cuddly bear of a man who cannot keep still while he is talking ninety-to-the-dozen; Valeria has a more subtle feline presence.

 

The contrast here is between the more mineral Cafayate wines and the full, rich, though still gorgeously subtle Mendoza wines.

 

The Mendoza grapes are grown in two vineyards; around the winery in Luján de Cuyo, and in the Uco Valley, 20 miles further south in Tupungato at 4,000 feet above sea level (and from where the grapes which go into the Premium and Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Premium Chardonnay wines come). The vineyards are USDA certified organic as there is no need for pesticides in an area which is pest-free due to the low humidity and high altitudes. The good news for us is that from the 2017 vintage they moved everything into Diam, because Valeria was worried about the different evolutionary rates of the wines. Like virtually every winemaker I meet these days, they are moving away from new oak to old oak for their wines.

 

The highlights from Mendoza:
  • The 2017 Malbec Premium Reserve shows an elegant and restrained nose of redcurrant and raspberry juice, but then grows and grows as it sits in the glass and develops some gorgeous silky plummy notes.
  • But this is overshadowed by the 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Premium Reserve. This has the same oak treatment as the Malbec (eight months in second-year French and American barrels), but has a fleshy and generous curranty nose and an elegant mouthfeel.
  • The 2017 Malbec Grand Reserve is a step up. Fermented in small tanks, this is still reserved on the nose, but then opens up into a beautiful damson perfume with a firm and meaty structure in the mouth.
  • But again, this is overshadows by its Cabernet counterpart of the same year, sourced from Tupungato fruit. This has a more advanced nose than the Malbec, and deep dark and alluring forest fruit scents, with a hint of cedar. In the mouth it has wonderful structure and a long finish.

This is not the first time I have been in an Argentine tasting where the Cabernet has outperformed the Malbec, and I may be odd in that sense!

Now, for Cafayate:

Alejandro takes centre stage and we begin with the two fruit driven value wines, the Alto Molino Torrontes and Malbec. Both are generous and seem to outperform their category with the Torrontes in particular showing an elegance and a subtlety which I often fail to detect in this grape.

 

Alejandro explains that Cafayate receives a lot of sun due to the high altitude, but the nights are very cold. These diurnal extremes mean that they have a very long growing season which allows for a balanced and ripe structure in the grapes by harvest. Highlights:

 

  • The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is a beauty. Dark blackcurranty nose, brooding, but with a lovely minerality running through the finish. Lip-smacking.
  • The 2017 Tannat is rich and savoury, with salami to the fore. This is a good variety for Cafayate because the climate gives the acidity which this grape sorely needs.
  • The 2017 Malbec Grand Reserve is a real beauty – extreme minerality from grapes grown on limestone. Long lasting and very moreish.
  • The 2016 Arlene (named after the owner’s wife and with a beautiful label) is still in the process of opening up. Dense chewy fruit at the beginning, but then opens up in the mouth and leaves you wanting more. Very stylish and beautifully balanced.

 

During the tasting there is constant friendly interplay between the two winemakers. It’s fascinating to sit between them and listen to urbane and super-friendly Alejandro face off with the lovely and softly spoken – but I wouldn’t mess with her – Valeria.

 

The winemakers are then keen to show me their newbies and experiments. Loscano is a new range which aspires to a feminine feel both in looks and taste, and allows Valeria and Alejandro to play around with blends. The highlight is a red blend which has lovely young fruit, and is a beautiful combination of fruit and acidity.

It’s been a great tasting, conducted by two very enthusiastic winemakers and which also included Marcelo Farmache, the General Manager, Santiago Acosta, the Marketing Manager, and Luis Mohammad, who looks after us. They are a very warm and genuine team and over a huge asado lunch (and they keep refreshing my plate!) we drink some of the rarities in the Limited Edition range, including a stunning 2016 Chardonnay which screams Burgundy.

 

Then – unbelievably – they take me to a flash hotel for afternoon tea to make me feel at home! (I can’t remember ever taking afternoon tea at home in Romford). But I’m so full from lunch that I cannot do it justice. As we are waiting for the car to be brought back round, we listen to the hotel’s piped music, which is all British. This takes me back a couple of days to when I was sitting in a burger joint in downtown Santiago, a place which had no obvious connection to the UK, but in which I watched Man City playing Watford in the FA Cup Final on three television screens on mute, while listening to an endless stream of British pop music (British, not American!) A reminder of one of the things at which we are still world class.

 

To walk off the asado I stroll through the Parque General San Martin in the cool autumnal sunshine and make my way up to the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas, where I relive the memory that all of Scotland hold dear: that of Archie Gemmill slaloming his way through the Dutch defence in the 68th minute on June 11th 1978 to score one of the greatest goals in World Cup history “…and Scotland are in dreamland!…”

 

Yup, welcome back to Mendoza!

 

For more information on any wines from Piattelli Vineayrds, please speak to your account manager.

Chile: The ultimate in vineyard selection!

When I was cutting my teeth with Viña Santa Rita, I used to come to Chile quite a bit, and in those days in the early part of this century every winemaker was on the lookout for the next new area. I remember how excited I was on my first visit to Casablanca, when I was told that this was the new nirvana.

 

But now Casablanca – while making excellent wines – has been superseded by cooler climate areas. And here I am – lucky chap – in one such area: Leyda. And while there are lots of plantings at Leyda, there are only two wineries. And one of them is Viña Ventolera.

 

I am driven there (maniacally!) by the well-travelled Stefano Gandolini, whom I have known for many years, especially from his time at Argentina’s Doña Paula. Stefano accepts that he is very lucky with his latest role. Working for a rich industrialist, he can afford not to cut corners. Of their 160 hectares of vines, 80% of are sold. “I only keep the very best.”

 

When we step out of car, you can smell (or at least sense) the sea, a mere seven miles away. The salt is borne on the wind (Ventolera means windy in Spanish.) And this influence of the famous Humboldt current is part of the reason for this area’s success.

Apart from being very cool, the other main advantage of Leyda is its wonderful sub-soil. Stefano takes me to his soil pit which allows us a spectacular look at twenty-five feet of sub-soils: sandy clay, clay, chalk. He points out that you can have different sub-soils even within one vineyard. Later, driving through the vines, he says: “These two rows here I will keep, the rest of the vineyard I will sell.” The ultimate in vineyard selection!

The winery does not look ostentatiously expensive, but every part of its design has been carefully thought out during its design. The winery is set in a recess, so everything is gravity fed from the moment the grapes arrive. The temperature is controlled partly by opening large window panels. A batch of Syrah grapes begin their long walk towards fermentation. It will be a long walk here: Stefano likes a long slow fermentation at low temperatures (the cladding around the tank is almost frozen) and these guys will be in the tank for around two months.

 

He shows me something I have never seen anywhere on my travels: 225-litre stainless steel barrels sitting alongside the more usual oak versions. “Gives you the benefit of lees contact but without the oak influence.”

We sit down to a vertical tasting of Ventolera Sauvignon Blancs, from 2013 through 2018. You hardly ever get the chance to do this.

 

  • Sauvignon Blanc 2013: a hint of sweetness on the nose, but on the palate it is minerally, saline and lean. It has great texture, a wonderfully smooth mouthfeel, still with good acidity. It is subtle, elegant and very European. “You can feel the ocean,” says Stefano.
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2014: Bigger, richer and slightly sweeter than the 2013 on first contact. A hint of anise, maybe also some lime. Although a year younger, the acidity is not so evident here as in the amazing 2013.
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2015: This is completely different and the first to disappoint. Thankfully, Stefano agrees. “Not a great vintage.” There is a touch of rancio, and some asparagus and green pea, but the impression is that it is a little tired.
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2016: Restrained at first, but then begins to flower and show lovely grassy flavours. Good mature Sauvignon Blanc which would be great for food (better than as an aperitif, perhaps.)
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2017: Textbook Sauvignon Blanc. Floral, quite full, oddly the merest hint of petrol. Delicious. “The most important thing in a wine is its balance,” says Stefano.
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2018: Still a touch young, but still has wonderful linear mineral flavours. Just a hint of tropical flavours because of its youth. Fascinating to see this in a year’s time.

 

We move on to Stefano’s top Sauvignon, the Cerro Alegre Limited Edition Sauvignon Blanc 2016, of which 2,700 bottles were produced. These are from the best two blocks. Stefano uses no free-run juice, but uses the middle pressing of the grapes “as you can get more flavour there.” It has an intensity which is almost painful in the mouth, before dissolving into a slightly rounder, satisfying richness.

 

Stefano then conducts an interesting experiment. He shows me the 2013 Private Cuvee Chardonnay and the Reserve Cuvee of the same vintage, which are both essentially from the same grapes but the Private is matured in his stainless steel  barrels, while the Reserve goes into French oak. I am stunned by the intensity of both, but I prefer the slightly more oxidative, funky Private version. It reminds me of a fifteen-year-old Puligny Montrachet. Stefano is delighted. “Exactly what I wanted to be told.” But it is an amazing tasting and we linger for twenty minutes over these two bottles.

 

After tasting the 2016 Ventolera Pinot Noir – lovely young clean expressive Pinot – we move to the Private Cuvee 2016. This has such amazing denseness of nose and expressive fruit. As with the Chardonnay version, this sees no oak. “You are tasting just terroir here,” says Stefano.

Reeling, I turn towards the Claro de Luna Pinot 2015, named after Beethoven’s party piece. This comes from a small four-hectare vineyard and is aged in French oak. “A sommelier came from France and he was looking for the best Pinot in Chile. He found all three here.” We are now in Gevrey territory.

 

But no matter how great these wines are, Stefano tells me he thinks this is THE place for Syrah. “It has a style completely different to any other Syrah in Chile.” The 2017 vintage he pours for me alerts the senses. This is rasping, ravishing raspberry Syrah. Wow! You tend to become less of a buyer and more of a punter in these instances – but we have got to have this wine.

 

Later, sitting in a trendy bar in Santiago’s hipster Bellavista region, listening with some alarm to a bossa nova version of Don’t Look Back in Anger (what would Liam say?), I reflect that I need to come back to Chile more often. I am in danger of not being able to keep up Stefano and the other great winemakers I’ve met on this trip. I must put this right – just as the DJ morphs into a version of the Police’s Every Little Thing she Does is Magic.

 

For more information on any wines from Viña Ventolera, please speak to your account manager.

Chile: The heart of the Maipo

Santiago is a beautiful, tree-lined city, with great museums, concert halls and university buildings. Slightly giddy, I make my way down to the subway. It is late at night, but our carriage is packed and very noisy. I can see through the window into the adjoining carriage and there is a pretty scene going on there.

 

A chap holding a microphone is addressing the commuters, who listen intently. I cannot hear what he is saying, so I edge closer to the window. He has created quite a space around him, despite the carriage being full. I am now intrigued. Perhaps he is reciting something from Neruda. Maybe “She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too/How could one not have loved her great still eyes” from the gorgeous Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines. But hold on, I can see musicians standing just behind him, guitars in hand. Ah, music! What is this, then? Traditional Chilean cueca? Then the train comes into a station, the noise decreases and I can hear better. Oh no, it cannot be. Oh, but it is… Ladies Night! Kool and the Gang! “Oh, yes, it’s Ladies’ Night/And the feeling’s right/Oh, yes, it’s Ladies’ Night/Oh, what a night…” And suddenly my affection for Santiago falls by about a thousand per cent…

Thankfully matters are put right the following day when I make my way down to the Maipo Valley. It is here where I fell in love with Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon twenty years ago during the time I worked for Santa Rita and I tasted lovely Cecilia Torres’s masterpiece Casa Real. Maipo Cabernet is still THE wine of Chile for me, and though I respect the cool climate areas of Leyda and Casablanca, it is still the Maipo which holds my heart. And these days it is Perez Cruz which is the benchmark and affable winemaker German Lyon the alchemist.

 

Once you get through the entrance gate at Perez Cruz, you drive down a bucolic and very long tree-lined avenue which reminds me of Chantilly, where for centuries the French thoroughbred has been trained. I half expect  trainer Andre Fabre to walk by, leading in the favourite for the Derby.

 

There are three keys to the genius of the Maipo, says German (pronounced her-MAN), as we stand at the very top of the vineyard adjoining the scrub of the Alto Maipo hills; beyond this point it is forbidden to plant vines. “First, is the valley itself,” he says, pointing beyond the estate which lies before us. In the distance you can see the two mountain ranges and, in between, the U of the Maipo valley which is shrouded in fog. “The mist comes in from the sea 100 kilometres away.” He then turns to the hills behind us and points to the 2,400-metre peak. “Then we have the influence of the mountains. So we have the cooling breeze from the west during the day, from the fog. And then the cooling influence from the east from the mountains at night.” He bends down and picks up some rocks. “Finally, you have the very stony soils. This is the alluvial bed river bed, which gives minerality. Further down in the valley there is a greater clay content.”

 

He shows me the chequered stations built into the ground which acts as transmitters for the drones which help calculate the rate of photosynthesis in the vineyards. Nothing is left to chance.

 

In the winery he tells me: “We used to have very long maceration periods and didn’t use pressed grape juice. Now we are looking for shorter skin contact and I am starting to use press wine from two basket presses in the blend. This tends to make softer wines which is what everyone in the world wants. No more big bombs.”

 

We walk through a huge barrel room. “Actually, I am looking for much less oak influence than ten years ago. We are not using less oak, but we are using much less new oak.”

 

He is trialling eggs. “They are noble containers, like oak, in that they are porous and allow ingress of oxygen, whereas stainless steel tanks are neutral containers. They can only ever store fruit, not influence it.”

We try a 2017 Cabernet that has seen one year in oak and one year in egg; it has an amazingly complex flavour but the greatest sensation is one of freshness. Then we try a 2019 that has only seen concrete egg. This has a slightly tarry feel, but it is still going through malo and German describes it as being a touch “rancio.” Finally, we try a 2018 with one year in concrete and no oak. This has a beautifully herbal and minty feel to it. A 2019 Grenache, which I’d first tasted at ProWein, again knocks my socks off with its acidity and sheer strawberry juiciness, like a really great Beaujolais. German agrees on the strawberry taste. “This is a Wimbledon wine,” I say. It will be bottled in July – alas! just too late for Centre Court.

 

During a full-on tasting, I note the highlights. No grape lets me down more than Carmenere, but this 2017 vintage definitely doesn’t disappoint. “This was a floral year,” explains German, and indeed you can smell lavender on the nose. A 2017 Syrah is beautiful, but it is a beautiful Syrah rather than a beautiful example of Maipo terroir. The Chaski Petit Verdot always presents a challenge, according to German. “It can be undrinkable. The thing is to use minimal intervention. Let the grapes get on with it.” It has a beautiful tar and liquorice nose, with that ineffable touch of salinity that defines the greats.

But we are here for Cabernet Sauvignon! The 2016 Reserve is classy and refined, full of massive blackcurrant flavour. The 2016 Limited Edition has blood red serious fruit, with soft silky tannins. A 2013 Pircas Cabernet has inky red depth of colour and breeding dark plummy an currant fruit. Stunning.

 

Good to see the Maipo still doing the business twenty years on!

 

For more information on any wines from Perez Cruz , please speak to your account manager.

Chile: A Call at Midnight

My first trip to Chile for a few years (I used to travel here three or four times a year in the first decade of this century) and this is the first time I’ve managed to get here in one flight, having previously always changed en route: good start!

 

Interesting conversation on the plane before take-off between the cabin crew and a musician sitting in front of me. He had paid for his cello to be on the seat next to him instead of going in the hold, and there was a ten-minute discussion in which the crew told him that they’d “been boning up on the airline health and safety instructions and they state that the cello must be placed with the fat part of the body on top…”

 

The good start is dampened somewhat by one of the longest immigration queues I’ve seen in ages, but the frustration dissipates when you get into the chilly ice clear Santiago morning and are soon careering down Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins (still amuses me).

 

I then spend some time in a bar watching the highlights the final day of the Premiership and chuckle at a tweet which says that the Wolves supporters are celebrating non-existent Brighton goals to mess with the Liverpool supporters’ heads.

 

Then Roberto Echeverria arrives with a bear hug and we begin the three hour journey to the estate at Molina in the Curico region. The Echeverrias are one of our longest-standing partners, and as we walk through the gallery in the beautiful hacienda house, Roberto shows me the ancient wind-up wall-mounted telephone from which his father took the call from Peter Hallgarten late one night in 1993 to tell him that Hallgarten was about to place its first order.

Some of the faces are familiar, but as we enter the winery I meet one who isn’t: Victor Ribera, a Valencia-born winemaker who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul and who has worked at the winery for the last five years. It is Victor who does the jumping around among the barrels to draw samples, while Roberto – who married Julia, one of our sales executives a few years ago and who obviously enjoys her cooking – watches on with a patriarch’s nodding approval.

 

We begin with the tanks and taste a selection of Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays from the home estate – the Chardonnay (clone 76) which will go into the Unwooded Chardonnay Reserva already has a splash of Viognier which gives it a big dollop of richness.

 

We then try another Chardonnay which has a fabulous nose of vanilla chocolate and orange peel, and Roberto sees my eyebrow lift quizzically. “This will be one of our Natural wines,” he tells me. “So fermentation is much slower and it hasn’t yet gone through malo.” “I didn’t know you made Natural wines,” I admit. Roberto grins. “This is what I wanted to show you.” He tells me that he originally made a very small batch for their Canadian importer, Steven Campbell,  and then sold a parcel to New York which sold out in a week. Any orange type wine is snapped up immediately by the Big Apple!

This is my first visit since the huge earthquake in 2010. I remember at the time Roberto sending me videos and photos of the massive damage to the winery, with tanks split and massive structural damage. Now he shows me a tank with what looks like a huge scar along one side. “After we’d sorted out all the insurance, we had these broken tanks sitting here, so we pulled them apart and put them together.”

 

I love wineries. I love tasting the raw fruit. I often want to say: “But don’t bother with ageing for a year; just bottle now.” In the past that has usually been met with the winemaker rolling his eyes at my enthusiasm or stupidity. But now Roberto tells me this is what they are doing. “We are removing the juice from the skins much faster and we are toning down the amount we put in barrel. We are trying to get the wines out fresher than we used to.”

We taste ravishingly young Cabernet Franc, piercing Merlot, and then heart-stopping Cabernet Sauvignon. Victor laughs at my spitting, some of which misses the spittoon and some of which dribbles down my chin. A confession: after 30 years in the trade (which I’ll celebrate in August), I have still not mastered the art of spitting. I have a colleague who can hit a target from fifteen feet and make a spittoon sing at impact, but I’m more of a gobber than a spitter.

 

One of the Cabernets has so far been treated as a Natural wine – no sulphur, wild yeast fermentation – but Roberto tells me that not all will be bottled as Natural and some will go into the conventional blends. But this Cabernet has such steeliness and verve. “Previously we would have used barrels to soften the tannins; now we’re looking to soften the fruit tannins during fermentation to remove that need,” explains Roberto.

 

We go to a dark corner of the winery where Victor carries out his experiments. “We hide them here so no-one can shift them accidentally!” Some of these barrels contain the wines which have been part of a project which Roberto has made with Steven Campbell and winemaker Thomas Bachelder, using fruit from Litueche on the Colchagua coast. The wines are destined to be bottled under the RST label.

We taste a Cabernet Sauvignon inoculated with a Tuscan yeast – “My baby,” says Victor. I am shown the Cabernet Sauvignon destined for the Family Reserve being pumped off the skins “earlier than in the past” and I then taste two separate juices from the pressed grapes, one of which has an incredible primitive stalkiness. We taste a Carignan and a Garnacha, so-named in honour of Victor. The Garnacha has a fabulous smokiness. “Only 300 dozen produced,” Roberto tells me. I tell him to let me know when he is going to release it. Then, an amazing Garnacha-Mourvedre blend.

I am excited about this visit and, later, as we walk through the 80-hectare vineyard, and Roberto shows me where they are replanting with better clones, I find myself thinking back to that midnight phone call in 1993, and reflecting on how good it is that one of our longest-standing, and probably more traditional producers, is meeting today’s wine challenges. I must make sure Roberto sends me those experimental wines!

 

For more information on any wines from Viña Echeverria, please speak to your account manager.

Who made wine first – Armenia or Georgia?

Until very recently, if you’d asked me about Armenia, I’d have had to have thought fairly long and hard. Religion? High priests, pointy hats, long beards? Maybe I would recall some vague memory from the history classroom of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Oh, and the Kardashians, of course. After that…

 

But step forward Victoria Aslanian, owner of the ArmAs winery. “These are only some of the things Armenians have invented,” she states indignantly. “Colour TV; single pour faucets; MRI machines; the MIG jet; bendy straws; ice cream cones; car transmissions. And did you know, Armenians make up thirty per cent of all Moscow-Los Angles Aeroflot flights.”

 

You learn very quickly not to mess with Victoria. Choosing the main course for dinner, she senses our hesitancy. “Ah, decisions, decisions,” she says. “Like when you first use your tongue. Should you go right or left?” She had greeted us on our arrival at our Yerevan hotel with: “I’ve had a bottle of wine sent up to your rooms. And some dried fruit. Later I will send up the girls.”

This is one sassy lady.

 

And don’t even try arguing with her about whether Georgia or Armenia came first in the winemaking stakes. “We were first. Six thousand years ago. Actually, probably a bit longer.”

 

We had driven from Tbilisi to Yerevan. It takes six hours but seems to last forever. The scenery in southern Georgia is drab, but when you pass into Armenia, via a very dreary Eastern European border crossing that brings to mind John le Carré – and with a Major Toilet Blockage Issue – you are suddenly in the land of snow-capped mountains, switchback roads and grip-the-armrests drama. And round every corner the potential to glimpse Ararat.

 

It is hard not to be enchanted by Yerevan, apparently one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, but now with a vibrant pavement cafe culture, full of youth and heady promise. At eight in the evening the streets swarm with promenading families, and, later (this city stays open very late), students chat noisily in the endless wine bars on Teryan Street.

 

The following day we take the 40 minute journey to the ArmAs winery. It was founded in 2007 by Victoria’s father, Armenak Aslanian. There are 180 hectares lying 1880 meters above sea level, 30 layers of soils, and over 300 days of sunshine per year. “Look, it’s volcanic soil,” she says, running it through her fingers. “It has limestone and calcium carbonate.”

“It will produce mineral wine,” says Steve.

 

Winemaker Emilio Del Medico is not present, so Victoria conducts the tasting. Of the two whites we try (Kangun and Voskehat), it is the Voskehat that is looking much the better, with a 2016 showing huge perfume and elderflowers on the nose, and a rich, lyrical intensity on the mouth. There’s a touch of the Gruner Veltliner about it.

 

But it is the reds which are the real stars. Areni is Armenia’s best known variety and may be, according to Wine Grapes, a cross between a Sangiovese and a Pinot Noir. The 2012 vintage has a lovely nose, lots of dark fruits and mulberries, and a beautiful silky mouthfeel. The Reserve version has extra oomph, is raisiny and more alcoholic. I prefer the basic. However, for me it is the Karmrahyut which is the best grape we taste. The 2014 has incredible perfume, rose petals and violets, and is soft and easy drinking, like a really great Beaujolais. Meanwhile, the 2013 Reserve is another beast altogether, with voluptuous and dark plummy fruits, and hints of pomegranates. The Karmrahyut is an unusual grape in that the juice is red, rather than clear. Victoria has used this uniqueness to make a rose wine, by having only one hour of skin contact. The result is a beautifully light red wine with masses of soft berry fruit.

Later we sit on the veranda before dinner, hoping for a glimpse of Mount Ararat, but, alas, it is cloudy. Victoria is still in full flow. She tells us that Armenia has an incredibly patriotic diaspora. “It’s amazing the amount of Armenians who have been displaced and who come back at every opportunity. I am biased, but I think we are one of the proudest countries in the world.”

 

It’s hard not to disagree. Over the years this country has suffered at the hands of Turkey and Azerbaijan, and remains (along with Georgia) an island of Christianity surrounded by Muslim countries. You have to feel a natural affinity for it – even before you taste the amazing array of grapes they produce.

 

Plucky is the word I am looking for.

Georgia On My Mind

I had wanted to come to Georgia for a few years now, but after spending four agonising hours en route in a half-finished and desperately grey Kiev airport, I was beginning to have second thoughts. Thankfully, one flight later that all began to change and, as we drove in darkness from Tbilisi Airport, the neon lights of a city never appeared more welcoming. A slightly bonkers taxi driver added to the fun. Hearing we were from the UK, he decided to demonstrate his knowledge of London football teams.

“Tottingham. London, yes?”

“Ah, yes,” we said.

“Chel-SEA.”

“Yes. Chelsea.”

“London. Very good. Arsen-AL, Ful-HAM, Vumbledon!”

“Yes.”

“West Ham UNITVED, West Brom-WICH Alvion!”

“Yes. Oh no, hold on. Not West Brom.”

“West Brom-WICH Alvion!”

“No, Not London. Birmingham. Sort of.”

“London!”

We kept quiet and let him get on with it, and thankfully a few minutes later this nutter pulled up outside one of the old town’s evocative hotels, the kind you look at longingly as you drive down the street before realising with glee that this is the one you’re staying in.

 

It was midnight, but, thankfully, Tbilisi appears to be a city that rarely sleeps and we were able to grab a bite to eat. Next morning we were met nice and early by Vladimer Kublashvili, who sounds like a racing driver but who is the chief winemaker at Khareba. It takes around three hours to drive to one of Khareba’s wineries at Terjola in Imeriti in western Georgia (their other main winery is in the east in Kakheti.) We zoom past Josef Stalin’s birthplace of Gori (“most people keep quiet about it, but you do get some worshippers,” says Vladimer.)

 

It’s a slightly odd landscape. On the one hand you might be driving through Surrey; other times the view reminds me of the flat plains of northern Italy as you drive towards Verona from Brescia; turn a corner and you have an Alpine scene in front of you; the snow-capped mountains bring to mind Mendoza; and once you get north of Tbilisi, that dusty straight road could be the famed Dead Dog Highway of Chile’s past. And – making us feel at home – the flag of Saint George seems to be flying everywhere.

 

We visit three of their vineyards to look at Tsitska, Krakhuna, Tsolikouri and Otskhanuri Sapere. Khareba has too many white grapes so they are planning on distilling some into brandy, explains Vladimer. On the other hand, there is so much demand for Saperavi that they are planting another 200 hectares.

The winery, renovated in 2011, is so clean you could eat your lunch off the floor. Here, they produce more than 40 premium still and sparkling wines, working with 20 indigenous grape varieties. Vladimer then shows us round the 900 square-metre ageing cellar equipped with French oak barrels.

 

And then we go to the hallowed Qvevri room. I get an odd sensation, a sense of wonderment. It is as if the values and traditions of the trade in which I have practiced for the last thirty years are being re-evaluated and reinvented before my very eyes.

Gazing once more out at the vineyards, Vladimer says that they are investigating converting part of their production onto biodynamic wine. “We called in and expert and we asked how much he thought we should convert,” says Vladimer. “He replied: “Well, how much are you prepared to risk?””

 

We begin the tasting. As with a lot of Georgian wineries, they split their production between the traditional Qvevri wines and more modern, European style wines.

 

Of the European style wines, a 2018 Rkatsiteli (“Rick Astley” back in our tasting room) has a beautiful saline feel to it. You get a hint of the superb minerality of this grape without the extreme Qvevri overtones. This is Pinot Grigio with Attitude. The 2018 Krakhuna has a touch of the Campania about it to me, though Steve thinks Malagoussia, with a hint of grassiness complementing a richness on the palate. The real star of the modern whites, however, is a 2018 Mtsvane, a nuclear grape with a powerful nose of ginger and coriander, yet stunningly light on the palate. Of the Qvevri whites, a 2017 Tsitska has an amazing mouthfeel, “like sucking water through a bed of silt,” says Vladimer, an challenging description which somehow does the wine justice. But the best Qvevri wine is a 2014 Rkatsiteli, with masses of quince – funky doesn’t even come close.

Of the reds, we’re talking Saperavi, Sapervi, Saperavi! The first (2018) is a gorgeous, rasping mouthful of cheery cherry fruit, exactly what a Beaujolais should be. Higher up, the grape becomes more complex and more savoury. A mid-range version from the Mukuzani region is an epic wine and reminds me of Malbec in its silkiness, and also of a Lancelotta, that dark coloured Emilia Romagna grape which goes into Lambrusco and which used to be sent up to Burgundy to add colour.

 

The Qvevri reds are equally as shocking as the whites. A rare 2013 Otskhanuri Sapere (there are only 20 hectares in the whole of Georgia) has an amazing nose, with salami and orange peel, and lasts forever in the mouth. An Aladusturi has wet, earthy tones with loads of green vegetables. A 2018 vintage, the tannins are still young and rasping, but it will develop superbly. We end with another fabulous 2015 Saperavi, with liquorice, eucalyptus and bay leaves. It has a very “grapey” feel and has soft tannins.

 

What a tasting! I reflect later, as we eat dinner at the g. vino wine bar in the old town’s vibrant Erekle Street, listening to an old hippie murder a series of early 70s British rock classics, throwing in some Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. With its stunning mix of Byzantine, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Beaux-Arts and Middle Eastern architecture, Tbilisi is a beautiful city. And with an amazing nightlife, it may be the next go-to stag destination – but it deserves better than that.

 

This could be just the end of another buying trip. But, oddly, it feels much more than that. This is a centuries–old country which feels incredibly young (at least the capital does). They unashamedly celebrate their traditions but are incredibly inquisitive about western culture. They have put up with repeated Russian incursions and come out of the other end smiling.

 

I’ve rather fallen in love with Georgia.

 

Mind you, I cannot get out of my head the thought that there is some demented taxi driver raging at the night: “Chel-SEA! Arsen-AL! Ful-HAM! Vumbledon! West Ham UNITVED! West Brom-WICH Alvion!”

WOTM: Zorzal ‘Eggo Blanc de Cal’, Tupungato, Sauvignon Blanc 2015

From a high altitude, drip irrigated vineyard in Gualtallary, Zorzal ‘Eggo Blanc de Cal’ 2015 is everything you might not have ever tasted in a Sauvignon Blanc – egg fermenters, volcanic soil and Argentinian – the perfect bottle to open on International Sauvignon Blanc Day 2019.

In a nutshell:

A characterful Sauvignon Blanc showcasing a strongmineral and  gunflint intensity, combined with grassy andherbaceous notes.

The producer:

Zorzal is an Argentinian boutique winery which has been dedicated  to the production of high quality wines since 2008 and is located at the highest point of the Uco Valley. Hailed as one of the most exclusive and well-regarded areas for viticulture in Argentina, the terroir is revealed in the Zorzal wines through a respectful, non-invasive winemaking process that puts austerity before exuberance and fruit before wood.

The wines have rapidly gained international recognition. Founded by the Michelini brothers, who are outstanding in their passionate leadership in the vineyards and winery, this highly regarded winemaking duo have become renowned as the trendsetters of the Argentinian winemaking scene.

The wine:

The grapes were gently pressed and combined in the cement eggs. Fermentation started naturally with native yeasts at temperatures of between 18 to 21°C. When fermentation was complete, a partial malolactic fermentation took place. The wine was then left in the same cement eggs for five months, without separating it from the lees, which generated volume on the palate. It was bottled directly from the cement egg without any intervention to stabilise or filter the wine. The cement egg significantly helps with the structuring and stabilisation of the wine, through the natural movements that are created by this shape.

For further information on the ‘Eggo Blanc de Cal’, Sauvignon Blanc 2015 or any other Zorzal wines, please contact your account manager. 

Malbec World Day

Malbec World Day seeks to position Argentine Malbec as one of the most prominent in the world. Every April 17th, and throughout the whole month, different activities are carried out in major cities around the globe to celebrate the success of Argentina’s flagship grape. This is the perfect opportunity to shout about the inky, rich wine that is Malbec, tell your customers and open some bottles!

 

Doña Paula, Estate Malbec | 2017
Mendoza, Argentina

Winemaker Marcos Fernandez creates wines that reflect their sense of place from 100% estate owned fruit, which has been sustainably farmed and  handpicked from two of their finest, high altitude vineyard sites in Uco Valley,  Mendoza.

The cool climate allows the grapes to develop rich varietal characteristics, while retaining balanced acidity, producing an elegant and complex expression of Malbec.

 

Matias Riccitelli, Malbec ‘The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree’ | 2017
Mendoza, Argentina

Young, dynamic winemaker Matias Riccitelli deftly handcrafts wines to express the full potential of Argentine high-altitude terroir. The fusion of two vineyard sites at elevations of up to 1,400 metres brings complexity to this exceptional Malbec.

Made from carefully selected and hand-picked grapes, the cool evenings and warm days produce rich, concentrated flavours, while retaining a balancing freshness.

It’s no wonder this received 92 points from Tim Atkin.

 

Piattelli Vineyards, Malbec Premium | 2017
Salta, Argentina

The century-old vines are grown at an altitude of 1,700 metres surrounded by the stunning Andes Mountains. At this elevation the vines are exposed to intense sunlight, resulting in the grapes forming thicker and darker skins to protect themselves, and ultimately produce deeper colour and flavour concentration.

Valeria produces this exquisite Malbec, which is smooth and refined, full of rich black fruits and a touch of graphite from this cooler region.

Poise, elegance, balance – a Nureyev wine

You forget just how steep the vineyards can be in Tuscany. Rolling hills, lone cypress trees, hilltop villages and medieval fortresses, yes, they all spring to mind when you think of Chiantishire. But, crikey, this is a steep slope.

We are at the top of the hill and the vines on both sides are majestic, the patterned seersucker rows stretching hypnotically into the distance. This is EM Forster country, but all I can think of is: I hope this driver knows what he is doing. There are four Land Rovers in single file formation, and our driver waits until the one in front has negotiated the slope before engaging the gears. And away we slither.

But, of course, we need not have worried. Riccardo Giorgi and his team are not only excellent winemakers, but they are expert at manoeuvring four wheel drives around the vineyard. And what a vineyard!

Tenuta Perano lies in the heart of the Chianti Classico region in Gaiole. And the reason for the procession of four wheel drives is because Frescobaldi have invited 50 or so of their distributors from around the world to enjoy their first sight of the new estate. Later on there will be hot air balloons, a presentation from Lamberto Frescobaldi and a steak cooked by rock star Panzano chef Dario Cecchini.

Two things strike you immediately: the altitude (“it is 500 metres above sea level compared to 250 metres for Nipozzano,” Lamberto Frescobaldi tells me later, over dinner). And the estate lies in a beautiful amphitheatre which catches every last drop of the sun. This is balanced by the tramontana wind, which sweeps through at night to lower the temperature. It is this combination of altitude, vineyard siting and the free draining galestro soil that gives the Perano wines such character.

The estate now produces three wines, a Classico, a Classico Riserva and a Gran Selezione “Rialzi”. “There will be no IGTs from here,” says Lamberto. I can’t wait to taste them over dinner.

But first, I almost come a cropper in the hotel air balloon. It all looks a bit precarious and the wind isn’t helping, but I manfully haul myself into the small basket with three other distributors, all of us wearing looks of trepidation. The weather is playing up, and it takes a long time before lift-off, and when it does the hot flame which our pilot blows into the balloon seems to come perilously close to my head. These days I haven’t got much up top and for a moment I worry about getting my bonce singed. Meanwhile, one of the spectating distributors shouts up to the pilot: “Don’t lose that salesman – he’s my best man and sells thousands of cases!”

When we eventually make it back down – thank God – we are then taken on a tour of the winery – probably the most pristine I’ve ever seen.

And then comes the T-bone!

The legendary showman Cecchini (strapline: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter) enters to a blaze of klaxon horns. “To the table!” he exhorts, kissing everyone, and dishing out huge wedges of beef. It is complete chaos but no-one seems to care. The steak is sublime – and doesn’t he know it! Later on I queue to get my photograph taken with him like some fawning teenager. But, then, everyone else does.

Meanwhile, I listen to Lamberto talk about the wines. “We are looking for poise and elegance, and balance here,” he explains. He tastes the Classico. “This is a Nureyev wine,” he says.  The Riserva has more weight, but the tannins are sweet and soft. “This is a feminine wine,” he says. And then we move on to the Gran Selezione, the Rialzi, which means rise in the land. “This one is masculine,” he says.

Talking of masculinity, here comes the marching Cecchini again, now singing. Best to keep my head down, eat his steak and drink the wonderful wines.

On the road with the training team…

This week we have been on the road with Garry Samuels, the newest member of Hallgarten’s training team. Garry has experienced many jobs in hospitality, from kitchen porter, to deputy manager, and through this experience he discovered his love of wine and educating those in the trade.

 

A week way out west with Garry… if you live in the east
  • Travel days: 4✔️
  • Towns/Cities: 4
  • Miles covered: 566
  • Venues Visited: 6
  • Team Trained: 68

Okay, so not an average week in the life of an educator and wine product trainer, but not far off. With customers to teach, spread from Torquay to Nottingham, sometimes you just have to pack your bag and spend some time on the road.

One of the main challenges I am often faced with, and was apparent on this trip, is the ability to quickly bounce between the educational needs of one group to those of another, for instance:

Venue one
Question: What’s your most popular wine?
Answer: Marlborough Sauvignon.

Venue two
Question: What’s your most popular wine?
Answer: Vodka, Red Bull

This really demonstrates the importance of training reflecting both the team members needs and the customer demands – just delivering the same two hour session every time simply does not cut it.  My project of late has been to centre training around wines sold by the bottle. Many front of house team members simply never have a chance to try these, so how do we expect them to sell them, more so if they are long, complex, unpronounceable foreign words… like Mâcon!

Other questions I always ask but are rarely answered correctly:

  • What does dry mean?
  • How many different types of Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc do you have on your wine list?
  • What wines work best with your spicy dishes? (Answer: IPA, obviously!)

So there is a large element of repetition to the job, addressing the foundation knowledge all the team should have, and yes, there is great opportunity to vary the delivery to make sure the training has the most impact on those it is aimed at, new or experienced.  And how do we know we have made a positive difference?  Responses like; “I NEVER KNEW THAT!!!”, “I don’t like wine but that’s really nice” and “When are you visiting next?”.

But don’t take my word for the importance of training, here’s what one of the students thought:

“Garry’s wine training gave my team the confidence to really sell our wines to customers, learning in-depth descriptions of the wines palates and the perfect food pairings for each wine. He engages well with the team and his clear passion for wine helps to motivate the team and make them want to be passionate about wine too, his friendly personality makes you feel at ease to ask questions about anything in the world of wine! The training has certainly helped improve my wine selling skills and I now feel more confident to upsell our higher quality wines to guests.”

 

As an Approved Programme Provider, our four WSET-Certified Educators have guided more than 300 students through WSET courses and our own Wine Sure programme. Contact your account manager for more information.

Michele Chiarlo is the Picasso of the wine world

“We are – and always will be – only Piemonte,” says Michele Chiarlo.

We are standing in the cellars at Chiarlo’s Calamandrana winery and the still sprightly 83 year-old is telling his audience of worldwide distributors where his priorities lie. We are the lucky ones who have been invited to his annual symposium, and Michele, who still visits the winery every day, is proudly showing us around the barrel room. The Alliers oak tonneaux are gleaming, but as Michele explains; “I want to capture exactly the terroir and not the oak. These here are merely to prepare the wine for release.”

This terroir-driven focus has always been at the heart of the Chiarlo philosophy, further proof of which is Michele’s insistence on producing single-varietals rather than blends and only using indigenous grape varieties. This philosophy has been infused into his sons, winemaker Stefano and Alberto, who takes care of sales and marketing. The focus is rooted in an exceptional collection of vineyards in the Barolo and Barbera appellations.

But it wasn’t always like this. Michele chuckles; “fifty years ago, when I started making Barbera, people thought I was crazy.” But the proud owner of La Court has had the last laugh. “We have made our reputation with Barbera.” It continues to this day: the first vintage of Cipressi Nizza was immediately hailed as Wine of the Year by Wine Enthusiast.

And while the Cerequio and Cannubi Barolos are world class, the Barberas are world WORLD class, and you have to think this is where his heart ultimately lies. We decide immediately to christen him the Father of Barbera. Michele laughs sheepishly. A lifetime of accolades has not changed an essential humility.

But when Stefano takes us into the vineyards, he is keen to emphasise the family’s Barolo heritage. “Every Barolo producer wants to have a piece of Cannubi,” he says, scrambling over the unique terraces which characterise the vineyard. And from where he is standing he can point upwards a couple of hundred metres to where the ultimate Barolo vineyard, Cerequio, lies – the extra altitude the defining nature.

So, this then, is Michele Chiarlo. Exceptional vineyards; exceptional wines. A sixth generation wine family rooted in Piemonte’s terroir which has built up a worldwide reputation, underlined by a stunning collection of 90-plus points from Parker, Suckling and the Wine Enthusiast.

And yet.

This only tells half the story.

So far, we could be talking about any number of winemakers. There is something else, and it is difficult to put a finger on it. But then you walk around the amazing Chiarlo Art Park at the La Court vineyard. This diverse selection of world-class modern art dotted incongruously around the vineyard may help explain the attraction of Chiarlo. This modernity also finds reference in the stunning series of labels which adorn the great wines. Has there ever been a more eclectic, stylish and individual set of labels? And maybe it also finds reference in the style of the wines, which, in the Classico selection, allow the consumer to enjoy at a relatively early age – key for the restaurant trade, but in the individual Cru, also remain true to the ageing tradition.

It is this fascinating juxtaposition between tradition and modernity which lies at the heart of the Chiarlo appeal.

Looking at the art selections, I pipe up: “Michele is the Picasso of the wine world.”

“Yes,” says another distributor. “He even looks a little bit little Picasso!”