All posts by Jim Wilson

Shakespeare nut, blues fan, horse racing fanatic (Frankel, Sea The Stars, Denman and the late, great Moscow Flyer), falling off large Scottish hills etc. Oh, and eating chocolate: lots of it. Not good...

The Debris of a Blending Session

Lined up like village colleens, all waiting for the dance
A nervous last audition, their ballroom of romance
All dressed in scarlet dresses, wearing their Sunday best
Their generation’s finest, the blender’s final test

Grenache, Merlot and Syrah, Cabernets one to four
Waiting on the tasting bench, resplendent in Self-Pour
The winemaker is ready, the arbiter supreme
Nervous giggles, chatter, perhaps perchance to dream

He swirls, he spits, he noses, the PH not quite there
Acidity is lacking, but the perfume fills the air
Lavender, thyme and pepper, the Languedoc garrigue
Bound for the assemblage, will they sadden or intrigue?

Some samples he pulls forward, some he treats with disdain
Some will make the final marriage, others will remain
The wine-stained tasting notebook, the splashes on the tiles
The debris of the tasting room; chin up, maintain your smiles

The Cabernet’s cool and distant, Mourvedre’s in a bit of a mood
The Merlot will pull, it’s certain, the Cinsault will sing and be rude
I lack their front, their bravura, mine’s a subtle sense of style
I need a change of fashion, quiet drinking for a while

Drought and stress I overcame, frost and hail and rain
Treat my soul with gentleness, rejection feeds the pain
Eager, smile and puppy eyes, a dance? why, yes, of course
But after one turn round the floor, a thank-you, no remorse

If the vintage will allow me, I will return once more
An ordinary heartbreak, walk back across the floor
Pick up my coat from the kitchen, stoic, show no pain
Make my way to the chip shop, and a long walk home in the rain

The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon in the Troodos Mountains

The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon, also known as the Frequency Illusion, is a cognitive bias which describes a tendency to keep seeing things, names or ideas, very soon after we have first met them. It was coined in 1994 by a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ online discussion board.

Having just heard about the Baader-Meinhoff German terrorist group, he started to see Baader-Meinhoff everywhere. The experience is caused by two psychological processes. The first, selective attention, kicks in when you’re struck by something new; after that, you subconsciously keep an eye out for it, and as a result find it surprisingly often. The second process, confirmation bias, reassures you that each sighting is further proof that the thing has gained omnipresence.

And right now, standing in the vineyards of the Kyperounda winery in the heart of Cyprus, I am experiencing it.

It’s not so much a name or an idea. Rather, it is a year.

1969.

My only connection to Cyprus goes back to that year. I had a photograph. It was of my newly-married aunty Eileen and her husband, Dougie. He was in the RAF and had been posted to Cyprus. They had left home for the island only a few weeks before. The photograph shows them at dinner at a restaurant. On the back my aunty had scribbled a few sentences about how much she was loving Cyprus, but how much she was missing home. I think it made me cry a little. But what beguiled me was that they were eating outdoors. To an eight year-old growing up in Jarrow this was as exotic and as continental as it could possibly be. My aunty had joined the jet set and turned into Brigitte Bardot overnight. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the remains of the meal on their plates. What was this? It didn’t look like the kind of meat and potato dinners we ate at home. No, it looked … glamorous. (I now think it was langoustines). When the height of sophistication was two weeks in a concrete outrage on the Costa Brava, and when something weird called a croissant was making its first appearance in the relatively new phenomena of supermarkets, here was my aunty eating exotic food on a sun-kissed island in something called The Med. I took the photograph into school to impress. Left it lying around. “My aunty,” I would say to any kid who asked. No other comment was necessary, my eight-year-old mind felt.

The memory of that 1969 photograph is triggered by our host, Kyperounda winemaker Minas Mina, pointing to the top of Mount Troodos. “Over there is where the British barracks are,” he said. We pause only briefly (and I have my flashback), before Minas leads the charge back into the vineyards.

The thing about Kyperounda is that it has the highest vineyards in Europe at 1,400 metres; only Argentina has higher-sited vineyards in our portfolio, and I am so grateful for the cool of the altitude, as the sun is blazing. We are scrambling up and down hillsides thick with thorny vegetation, in which vines appear to be randomly mixed in with other green plants. “We use cover crops in the vineyard to encourage biomass and to keep things as natural as possible,” says Minas. We come across a vine so big it is almost a tree. I’ve never seen anything even resembling this before, and I christen it Hemingway’s Vine.

This is wild and earthy agriculture. There is little delineation between vineyard properties. Crops seem to merge into each other. I look through the binoculars to what look like peculiar lemon dots a few hundred yards away. Through the glasses I realise these are the bright yellow baskets into which Vietnamese grape-pickers, barely visible amidst the vegetation, are gathering the vintage. Definitely no machine harvesting in this vineyard.

Minas points to a slightly more uniform vineyard. The EPOS Chardonnay we had at dinner last night came from this vineyard, but sadly they lost the entire production this year because of hailstones. I marvel at the expense of working in such conditions. We climb back into the four wheel drive and as Minas drives back to the winery, he points to various plots of land and explains that he spends most of his winters scouring the land for vineyards he can purchase, but getting local farmers to sell is a very difficult job, even when they are not getting much money for their cops.

Sitting in the back seat, I hang on as Minas throws the vehicle around steep bends. My rucksack falls open and a paperback, which I bought to read on the plane, falls out. First Man is the biography of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on to the moon.

In 1969.

It is one of my first television memories. Shadowy, grainy, black and white pictures, radio static, repetitive bleeping of the transmitter; hypnotic. And even the eight year old could recognise the import of the eternally famous words: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was only much later that I realised that, famously, that is not what Armstrong said. He forgot to use the indefinite article; “a man…” became “man…” which is grammatically incoherent. At least that’s what I’d always thought. But the book is not clear on this. In it, Armstrong seems to be saying he might have said it: “Perhaps it was a suppressed sound that didn’t get picked up by the voice mike.”

I put the book back into my rucksack as we arrive back at the winery. Minas gives us a quick tour. Stylish and modern, the winery is built on three levels in order to take advantage of gravity to move the grape juice in the gentlest possible way. Kyperounda grows the usual western varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, but Steve and I are more interested in the native grapes. We are here to have a vertical tasting of the wonderful white wine we import, Petritis, made from Xynisteri, and to put together two single varietal wines using Maratheftiko and Lefkada, two red grapes which are almost always blended.

In the tank room we taste a few Xynesteris. One is absolutely fabulous and its zinging acidity leaps out of the glass. Minas tells us it will obtain its complexity only after sitting for six months on the lees. With a glint in his eye, he then gives us some light coloured juice and are asked what it is. Steve and I both wonder about fermenting Chardonnay, and are put out when we realise it is Lefkada which is being made into rose.

Upstairs, we get started on the Petritis, a wine which works really well for us. A 2018 is a little closed, but with attractive stone fruit, a touch of beeswax, lovely mouthfeel; a 2017 is quite exotic – honey and banana, a touch of oxidation – but quite attractive, adding to the character; a 2015 is sadly oxidised; a 2014 is very good: again, a touch of semi oxidative character, reminding me of some Adriatic whites; a 2010 is well developed and showing a bit of age, but has masses of character – again I get a beeswax and honey aroma and quite sweet finish. It reminds me of an aged Grüner Veltliner; finally, a 2007 is the colour of Sauternes: toffee, rich and honeyed in the mouth, marzipan and fruitcake. Amazing!

As Minas sets up the red blending sessions, I wander out to the terrace and take in the spectacular view. You can see all the way down to the fleshpots of Limassol, some 25 miles away.

The other book I read on the plane on the way over to Larnaka was Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. On 26th September 1969 the Beatles released Abbey Road. Reading Penman’s wonderful book, I came across his thoughts on Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight. I had to put the book down and run the song through my mind. It is the delicious climax of the epic second side, and what always gets me is the change from A-minor to D-minor on Sleep pretty darling, do not cry… McCartney pitches it perfectly and whenever I hear it, wherever I hear it, I have to stop and pause. Imagine being able to create something so beautiful.

Minas signals for me to come back inside. Steve is rubbing his hands as we begin our tasting.

First up, a selection of Maratheftiko vintages:

A 2018 is fresh, vibrant, fruit pastille, lightish; a 2017 is oaky and just a touch volatile; a second 2017 is a little bretty and definitely not as stylish as the first two; another 2007 is a completely different animal – a big brute, quite tannic, huge finish. We think for a while. What does this need? Then we try a 2018 Syrah. Yes, this might do the trick, with its immediate white pepper appeal.

The first blend Steve puts together comprises 90% of the first and fourth Maratheftiko samples and 10% of the Syrah. Doesn’t work: the Syrah is too dominant. For the second blend he removes 5% of the Syrah. It tastes like a good wine but after a while we conclude that it is losing its character. Steve tries a third blend, this time with 80% Maratheftiko and 20% of Syrah. Mistake. It has lost all of its character. We scratch our heads for a while, and then Steve remembers that he has tried a Cabernet Sauvignon on previous visits. Luckily, Minas has quite a lot of back vintages, so we happily work our way through a vertical tasting. A 2004 has a slightly “sour” nose and is too aggressive; a 2005 is fresher and fruitier, well balanced with a lovely fruity finish; a 2007 is very different to the others – very fresh and very herby with a high phenolic content. So we take 85% of the Maratheftiko blend, 10% of the Syrah and add 5% of the 2005 Cabernet. Bingo! This retains the vivacity and character of the Maratheftiko on the nose, but has also got structure and a touch of tannin on the finish. A lovely, lovely wine. High fives all round.

Minas clears up the debris of the tasting and now Steve and I both I go out to the terrace to take an espresso.

It was a few years after its release before I got round to Abbey Road. No, the cultural event of 1969 for me was Where Eagles Dare (although it had been released on 4th December of the previous year.) I must have seen this about eight times. For many years I was one of those saddos who would use “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” as a faux greeting, before Geoff Dyer used the phrase as the title of his quirky book about the film. The memory came to me when I was standing on Mount Troodos earlier. Kyperounda ticks all the boxes, I thought: minerality, indigenous grapes, island locale, altitude – and it was the latter which jolted me back to 1969. Our forthcoming Q3 promotional theme is to be called Altitude! (“…and we must keep the exclamation mark…” I told our Head of Marketing). Standing on Mount Troodos, shivering, I thought that a still from the film’s opening sequence, showing the British commandoes flying over the Alps, would make a great background picture, and I gleefully texted head office. (But such are the lies that memory plays on you. Later at my hotel, when I downloaded the introduction from YouTube, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I’d remembered, and the photography was compromised by those odd Hammer House of Horror titles. Now I would have to go back to the Head of Marketing with my tail between my legs.)

I am jolted out of my memories by Steve. “Back to work,” he says.

Lefkada, then. We has less to play with here. A 2018 is fresh, minty, herby, with good acidity. A 2007, by contrast, is an absolute monster, very dark and oaky and blackcurranty. Steve asks Minas to blend 85% of the 2017 with 15% of the 2018. This is far too heavily balanced towards the heavy 2017, and I much prefer the 2018 wine. Steve agrees, so we then take 80% of the 2017, add 10% of the 2018, and then 10% of our favourite 2005 Cabernet. Nailed it! Really good balance.

Before we leave, we taste some examples of Commandaria, possibly the oldest type of wine still in production. During the Third Crusade, Commandaria was served at the wedding of Richard the Lionheart to Berengaria of Navarre. Traditionally, this has been made as a fortified wine, but Kyperounda’s is an exceptional example of an unfortified Commandaria, made from 85% Xynisteri and 15% Mavro. Grapes are dried in the sun for twelve days (Minas had earlier shown us the ageing tables downstairs in the winery.) This shrivels them and concentrates sugars, flavour compounds and acids. A slow, cool fermentation follows in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then matured in used 225 litre French oak barrels for six years. The wines we taste, from 2005 and  2006, are unctuous and sweet, with lovely toffee apple character and masses of raisiny fruit.

I finger my rucksack as we drive to our hotel and I can’t help rifling through the Armstrong book again. Maybe it’s because it is the 50th anniversary, but I find myself fascinated by the issue of the missing “a.” I had read somewhere that despite his initial claim that the mike may simply not have picked up the word, Armstrong had acknowledged since that he couldn’t hear himself utter the word in the audio recording of the transmission.

In my room, waiting to go to dinner, I do a quick trawl of the internet. Almost immediately I have the answer. In 2006, I read on one of the many Armstrong/Moonwalk sites, a computer programmer called Peter Shann Ford downloaded the audio recording and analysed the statement with software that allows disabled people to communicate via computers using their nerve impulses. In a graphical representation of sound waves of the famous sentence, Ford said he found evidence that the missing “a” had been spoken after all: It was a 35-millisecond-long bump of sound between “for” and “man” that would have been too brief for human ears to hear.

So Armstrong did get the phrase right!

This somehow seems to energize me and I gush out this information to Steve in the bar over a beer. He obviously thinks I’ve lost the plot and suggests I drink something stronger. I scan the shelves and see a bottle of Commandaria. How time changes over a 50-year period. Commandaria may be facing a difficult future, as it is a style of wine which has gone out of fashion and Minas told us that not many new winemakers wish to take up the good fight. The future of the island – the future of Kyperounda – may lie in the beautiful crisp white wines they make, such as our Petritis or indeed the red blends of grapes which a curious world is waiting to discover. Commandaria is of a different era. It reminds me a bit (and unfairly) of Emva Cream and Bristol Cream, those staples of British Christmas households in the sixties which seemed to me then to define exoticism – until I saw that picture of my auntie Eileen.

But unbelievably this 1969 thing will not go away. In the restaurant they’re playing Riders on the Storm, which seems a bit incongruous. This is Steve’s and my era and we chat about those old rock stars. “Remember him… remember her… wow, he was good…” But their hedonistic lifestyles, while we wouldn’t have minded some of it, also came with occasional tragic consequences. We reminisce on how many of the died before their time. Surfeit of excess. Brian Jones, he was the starting point wasn’t he? In 1969. And then there was Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in 1970, and Jim Morrison himself in 1971.

Amazing. A different era. Doesn’t happen these days.

And yet.

Amy.

Who died within the last decade and joined Jones, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison as a member of the 27 Club: the age at which they passed away.

We raise a glass.

It brings a tear to the eye.

A different era.

Sleep pretty darling, do not cry…

Heroic Viticulture!

God, this is an untamed landscape. I’ve never stood in a vineyard like this before. It feels more like a small jungle, a mass of unkempt and wild shrubbery, misshapen and twisted, like Triffids. And, dotted everywhere, huge lava outcrops. A Jurassic park of a vineyard.

If you look closely in the undergrowth you will see vines. But they look wild.

Which is the entire point.

Steve Daniel and I are on the impossibly steep slopes of Mount Ilice, an extinguished crater on the south-eastern flank of Mount Etna. From this vineyard of extraordinary beauty comes an extraordinary wine: Calmarossa.

We are visiting Santa Maria La Nave. And we are in awe.

In the hands of the lovely Sonia Spadaro Mulone, Santa Maria is not just a wine producer, but one devoted to the preservation of ancient vine varieties and centuries-old traditions, a kind of Etna natural history preservation society. “I live for and dedicate every day of my life to my indigenous vine varieties and my wines, taking care of them and sharing their beauty with the world,” Sonia has said. “Many of them are taller than me – they are ancient, fierce, and have been there for centuries. My duty is to protect and safeguard this invaluable heritage.”

The vineyard in which we are standing, situated at 800 metres, was finally purchased in 2016 by Sonia and her husband Riccardo following years of negotiations with numerous owners. They had begun managing it many years before, following in the footsteps of a devoted farmer, Don Alfio, who had biodyanamically cultivated the main part of the vineyard for more than fifty years. It had a pre-phylloxera heart (Sonia’s word) and included some varieties that were almost extinct.

But right now there is a fog which is not so much rolling in as sprinting in from the sea and within minutes visibility is down to fifty yards and you get an eerie Lost World feeling. And then we are sprinting for the car as a downpour of tropical proportions thrashes us.

To say that Sonia and her team are passionate about their work would be an understatement of volcanic proportions. Not only are they acting as wine archaeologists, but they are doing so in some of the highest vineyards in Europe. CERVIM, the Centre for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture, which was set up to promote vineyards at altitudes over 500 metres, vines planted on slopes greater than 30% vines on terraces of embankments, and planted on small islands in difficult growing conditions: refers to this kind of winemaking as ‘heroic viticulture.’ Santa Maria La Nave was admitted to CERVIM a few years back.

The history of Santa Maria La Nave goes back to 1954, when farmer Giuseppe “Peppino” Mulone moved to Catania with his family, and became fascinated by the fertility of the volcanic soil, the lushness of the vine varieties and the magnificence of the grapes. Peppino’s passion for Mount Etna’s vines was handed down to his son, Angelo, and then his grandson Riccardo, his wife Sonia, and their workers, winemaker Enzo Calì, viticulturist Vincenzo Avellina and agronomist Andrea Marletta

And now we are heading to Santa Maria’s tiny underground maturation cellar where we make our way down the spiral staircase, wearing disposable polythene footwear to ensure there is no spread of germs. Attention to detail!

Here we taste through the five different barrels of the 2017 vintage which will be blended into Calmarossa. The wine is composed of 85% Nerello Mascalese, the undisputed prince of Etna varietals but one which was abandoned for generations, and 15% Nerello Cappuccio, a grape which produces epic colour, but one which has often not been held in particularly high esteem, something Sonia and her team are slowly changing. “Some brave winemakers have started to enhance the true nature of this vine variety with a bit of innovative craziness,” she states.

The difference in the barrels is amazing. The first has extreme toffee apple flavours, with a hint of saltiness; the second is more restrained with a touch more steeliness; the third is the biggest yet, with huge deep berry flavours and a delicious hint of sweetness on the finish; the fourth is an amazing concoction of baked cherry pie with a blackcurrant lozenge type kick; the fifth is the most reserved, with beautiful firm tannins.

We then go on to try the 2016 vintage from bottle. Masses of herby notes on the nose, silky and moreish on the palate, complex multi-layered and contemplative. Brilliant.

Now we try the Millesulmare Sicilia DOC Bianco, made from Grecanico Dorato, an ancient varietal which was originally thought to be Greek but one which has now been genetically linked to Garganega. It tastes beautifully, redolent of stone fruit, hints of gooseberries and a touch of lanolin. The grapes for this wine are a pie’ franco, grafted onto Richter 110 and Paulsen 1103 rootstock. They are grown in Santa Maria’s other vineyard, Casa Decima, at Contrada Nave, on the other side of Etna, the north-western slope, at an even higher altitude of 1,100 metres, and it is to here that we drive the following morning.

Thankfully, the rain has cleared and we make the ninety minute journey through the higgledy piggledy southern Etna sprawl and emerge at the far more beautiful northern slopes, where Steve and I jump out of the car and take our picture-postcard photographs of the summit.

The Casa Decima vineyard is one of the highest vineyards in Europe (and was once owned by Lord Nelson, no less.) The team began here in 2000, working with an agronomist who was conducting a fifteen-year experiment to find the best vine stock. “We grafted about six thousand plants of Grecanico Dorato and five hundred of the almost extinct Albanello. Many of them were abandoned and covered by brambles,” states Sonia. In 2004 they bought a number of adjoining plots from local farmers: perfect to preserve a precious DNA that was at risk of extinction. “We found a very high number of gaps in our vineyard, mostly caused by wild animals. In spite of the damage they made, we welcomed them, since they are natural inhabitants and they help us to preserve the local ecosystem. We promised ourselves that we would treat this small vineyard as an oasis, whose rhythm should be natural and chosen by the plants, and not by the human obsession to subjugate nature and use it to produce more to make more money.”

Here the views are expansive, the vineyards a little more restrained than those on Mount Ilice, the views breath-taking. “When I saw one of my neighbours spraying his vineyard, I was so distressed that I immediately tried to buy it,” Sonia states.

“We are looking for pure essence of Mount Etna in a glass,” she says. “We only grow local vine varieties. Our wines are the product of an extreme viticulture, performed in demanding and wild areas at high altitude, in precious patches of land which have been safeguarded during the centuries from the devastating volcanic eruptions, or in plots on steep slopes of ancient extinguished craters.”

Heroic indeed!And quite beautiful.

A voyage (in a parachute)

“But where’s the music?” I ask.

 

Rafael Urrejola looks at me quizzically.

 

I put down my glass. “I read in Tim Atkin’s recent report that you have one of the great Spotify accounts and that you always have music in the background.”

 

He laughs out loud. He has an open and friendly face and the grin is infectious. “I will get it.”

 

He leaves the spotless tasting room and returns a few minutes later with a Bluetooth speaker which he hooks up to his mobile. Second later Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger are belting out “(You Gotta Walk) Don’t Look Back” and I am doing a kind of jig while tasting a lovely Chardonnay. When I was a kid in the seventies and this song was on the radio we would all shout “BING BANG BONG” at the end of every “I’m gonna walk an don’t look back…”

(Throughout the tasting, if any wine hits the highest of heights – a ten-pointer – it gets a BBB for Bing Bang Bong in my notebook.)

 

I am in the tasting room of Undurraga, brought here in part by a longing to taste through the Terroir Hunter range with Rafael, named as one of South America’s top ten winemakers in Tim’s Decanter report a couple of weeks previously. Terroir Hunter must be the most accoladed wine range in Chile, I thought, as I drove down to the Talagante winery, before ducking past the tourists to meet with Rafael.

 

Leyda is where he made his mark and Undurraga were early pioneers – “It’s great that we have our own estate in Leyda as grapes there are not cheap” – but he is now keen to talk about other, more recent discoveries in Cauquenes and Itata. He also mentions Limari; only Tabali has more experience here, he thinks.

We go through the Undurraga U range which he oversees. All the wines are sourced from either their own vineyards or from long-term contracted partner growers. They are all pristine and do exactly what they say on the tin. I check the prices; they are also remarkably good value-for-money.

 

Undurraga is undergoing a renaissance after various ownership issues and this is my first in-depth tasting for quite some time. What have I been missing? The Aliwen and Sibaris ranges are full of lovely lovely wines.

 

Aliwen range
  • Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah 2018: this has some guts. The Syrah seems very upfront – “from Cauquenes,” says Rafael.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2018: fabulous nose. Tannins firm but not overpowering.

 

Sibaris range
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Leyda: epic nose, amazing length. Still a bit closed (just bottled). A combination of clones (Clone Davis 1, known for its very minerally flavours and Clone 242 (French clone) which ensures complexity. Grassy. “Leyda is giving the saltiness and minerality and salinity from the Humboldt current,” Raffa explains. This is a Bing Bang Bong wine.
  • Black Edition Cinsault 2018: a heady wine, curranty, liquorice, lime and tar. Very long finish. Red fruit. Pear, very herbal, has lots of acidity. Minty.

Now we come to the Terroir Hunter range. I’ve been waiting for this!

 

“With TH I am not looking for the mainstream market. I want this to be a “proposal” wine,” says Rafael. “Edgy but not radical, a discussion wine.”

 

All these wines are made in small 300- to 500-case lots from diverse grapes and areas. Tim Atkin calls TH “a range of brilliant, site-specific wines. Nor is this entirely down to the quality of the grapes; Urrejola’s winemaking touch is gentle and unobtrusive, yet still apparent.”

 

“TH is all about drinkability and minerality,” says Rafael. “I call this the “One-More-Glass” range.”

 

  • Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Leyda: the first Leyda wine they produced. From granite, not chalk. Of the 140 hectares they have in Leyda, around 5½ are on limestone. “We always search for this soil in the vineyard.”
  • Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Limari: bigger and a touch sweeter than Leyda.
  • Chardonnay 2016, West Limari: alluvial soil in the Quebrada Seca, sometimes referred to as the Chilean Montrachet. Concrete eggs. Native yeast. Open and serious nose. Flinty and fruity, a great combination from the lees, but bold in its acidity. Rafael thinks Limari is THE place for Chardonnay in Chile.
  • Pinot Noir 2016, Leyda: alluvial soil. Three blocks of granite. French clones, southerly exposure. Windy, so cooler. Whole bunch fermentation. Has wonderful tension on the palate and crunchy berries on the palate.
  • Syrah 2015, Leyda: WHA!!!!!!!!!! Dry farmed. Black olives, huge mouthful of fruit. Staggering complexity, masses of ripe fruit, acidity, tannins. Bing Bang Bong.
  • Carmenere 2016, Peumo: the best Carmenere vineyard in Chile, according to Rafael. Deep red soils, long ripening season which is exactly what Carmenere needs. Rafael thinks that everyone will change their mind about Carmenere. “Eventually they will see that it is a grape with huge minerality and fruitiness, rather than the old- fashioned coffee/mocha flavours.” Bing Bang Bong.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Alto Maipo: typical. This is the coolest vineyard in Maipo. 30 year-old Cabernet, alluvial soil, 800m altitude. Red fruit and graphite. The tension and grip keeps the wine in check and stops it from becoming overpowering.
  • Cabernet Franc 2015, Maipo: much cleaner and more elegant than most Cab Francs. I might not recognise it as Cab Franc! Rafael: “This is more Maipo than Cabernet Franc. You get great structure but you don’t necessarily get that Loire acidity. But do you need it?”
  • Rarities Garnacha Carinena Monastrell 2015, Cauquenes: 500 dozen made. Grafted on to 100-year-old Pais to get the benefits of really deep roots. Fabulous salinity and saltiness.

I am reeling, but there’s no time to stop because we move on to the Founders Collection, for decades the more traditional range in Undurraga. The Carmenere 2016 from 40 year-old vines in Colchagua has amazing sweet fruit, with a touch more richness and body and less minerality. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 from 35 year-old vines is about as typical a Maipo as you can get. Big fruit. Rafael explains that this is the most traditional of all their wines.

 

The Trama Pinot Noir 2015 shows big and old fashioned Leyda fruit. Two hectares on limestone. Very herbal and salty notes. Neutral oak. Eggs. Has the sweetness of the New World. In a previous tasting at Prowein Steve Daniel had raved about this. The Vigno 2015, a blend of Carignan and Cinsault, has an amazing nose. Minerality and fruit. Black olives. Almost painful to hold. From dry farmed Cauquenes wines. Whole cluster fermentation.

 

We finish with the Altazor, for which the great Alvaro Espinoza still consults. Sourced from the best part of Pirque, this Cabernet Sauvignon has lovely soft fruit. Very soft. Earthy, but not bloodthirsty. The name was inspired by Vicente Huidobro, the only Chilean poet other than Pablo Neruda that I’ve heard of, whose most famous poem translated means Voyage in a Parachute.

 

I’ve not been in a parachute but I’ve been on quite a voyage!

Argentina: Who cares if I miss the plane?

When you get to the last day of a two-week buying trip on the other side of the world, you just want to get home. You’re thinking of getting this last appointment out of the way and getting to the airport.

 

Well, banish the thought – we are here to visit Riccitelli!

 

I always knew that working with Matias would be an interesting gig; during my time representing Bodega Norton I worked with his slightly bonkers dad, Jorge, one of the funniest men in the wine trade. Today, as Matias is slumming it in Brazil, I have an appointment with a third member of the family, the vivacious Veronica.

 

“Jeem!” she shouts and rushes towards me with eyes that could melt an igloo. She gives me a conspiratorial smile and lugs me into a winery which is compact and modern and clean. But you don’t really notice any of this. Instead, your senses are caressed by the sounds of laughter – real belly laughter – and loud Latino jazz-funk which dances through the open plan space that is at once a staff room and a tasting room. There is a lovely chaos here. They are having a staff meeting to the sound of Cumbia Colombia in a room adorned with pop art by the local artist Federico Calandria. You think to yourself: This is exactly where I would like to work. This is a place of hugs and kisses rather than handshakes. Day-glow Mendoza-style. And very loud shirts.

The winery is located in Las Compuertas, the highest part of Lujan de Cuyo at about 1100 meters above sea level. To the south is the Rio Mendoza, to the east is Vistalba and to the north is Chacras de Coria. They also work with partners in the Uco Valley who have plots of land in Gualtallary, Chacayes (very trendy right now), Altamira and La Carrera.

 

But for all the modernity you have to remember that they have some history here. The Malbec vines surrounding the vineyard were planted in 1927. Because of their success (the winery has a capacity of 250,000 litres but they are producing 400,000 bottles per year), they have to first harvest and ferment the whites and rosés, then move them out and use the tanks for the reds. Veronica shows me the stainless steel square-shaped open top fermenters that Matias himself designed (to save space, as round tanks take up more room – but also to allow the workers to jump in and tread the grapes.) But they really need to increase capacity. Whatever they do, you know they will do it with a sense of elan and fun.

 

I won’t repeat all of my tasting notes, because they would seem a bit toadying. But here are some highlights:

 

Hey Rosé! Malbec 2019 is looking fresh and lively, with a smidgeon of lavender shimmying through the soft strawberries.

 

Take a look at the De La Casa labels: you’d think there’s a bit of Quentin Tarantino in there, but they were designed by local artists. The Blanco de la Casa 2018 is a blend of 40% Sauvignon Blanc (Gualtallary, calcareous soils at 1400 metres), 40% Semillon (La Consulta, sandy soil) and 20% Chardonnay (La Carrera at 1700 metres). It is a rapacious mouthful, a touch, nay, a hint of pineapple, but with lively bounce-of-the-wall acidity. And they call this their house wine, for Heaven’s sake.

 

They have renamed the Riccitelli Vineyard Selection range as the Riccitelli Viñedos de Montaña range which makes sense. The Chardonnay 2018, from 50% used oak and 50% concrete tank, is so fragrant and elevated that you might be in Puligny territory. There is a touch of (very expensive) ice cream sundae, but the overall impression is one of raciness and verve (and it reminds me of another of our wines, Ocean Eight’s Verve Chardonnay from the Mornington Peninsular.)

 

I am already in danger of deliberately missing my plane home. That would be a terrible shame. Yup, a terrible shame.

 

The Patagonia Old Vines Semillon 2018, from 75-year-old vines in the Rio Negro, is utterly compelling, full and rich, but in no way overpowering; it leaves you pleading for more.

 

I taste a Sauvignon Blanc 2018, their first harvest of this wine, destined for an amazingly-designed range called Vinos de Finca. Goodness me – you what? From Mendoza vineyards, this leaps out if the glass with a stunning intensity that is almost painful but at the same time heavenly to taste. Blimey, how many more ranges is he going to invent?

 

Veronica keeps giggling at my reaction, like she’s saying: Yeah, I know, ridiculous isn’t it!”

 

But surely she is going to bring something up which doesn’t hit the mark, falls a bit short, promises more than it delivers. Could this be the one that breaks the sequence? But, no, this one is brilliant, too. What about that one? Nope, that’s brilliant as well. Crikey, surely something’s going to disappoint…

 

On to the reds. We start with a couple of the new Riccitelli Viñedos de Montaña (ex-Vineyard Selection) wines.

 

The Viñedos de Montaña Malbec 2017, from Gualtallary fruit, is classic Malbec, dark and brooding, a hint of the earth, dark plums.

 

Then we come to a mind-bender: the Viñedos de Montaña Cabernet Franc 2015 which we have stocked for some years but which I haven’t tasted for a few months. This pulls out all the stops, with a heavenly, subtle nose of brioche, oak and currants. It lasts forever, a lingering flavour of herbs. Now I know what they mean when they tell me Cabernet Franc is the grape of region, with this being sourced 50% from Chacayes and 50% from Campo de Los Andes.

 

This is a Thursday afternoon in a winery by the foothills of the Andes and the sun is shining. The wine is flowing and the music is contagious. I will ask for their Spotify Playlist – but will it sound the same in Romford?

 

Now comes a new wine, a Vinos de Finca Malbec 2016. This is a more lighter(ish) style of Malbec, in contest to the Viñedos de Montaña version. This needs food, but its beautiful acidity would go really well with any kind of meat. We want more more more of this. “That’s the idea,” says Veronica. With a certain insouciance.

 

We now have an interesting contract between the Apple Doesn’t Fall… Bonarda 2017 and a more pricey Vinos de Finca Bonarda 2017, from Vistalba fruit. We stock the Apple and this shows lovely red and black cherries and good acidity. It is an easy drink to understand. The Vistalba, however, is a different animal altogether. From 114-year old vines, this has lovely anise wrapping itself around cherry red. There is a hint of mint, too. This is hugely complex with a touch of garrigue. But would we sell more of this at a higher price than we would the Apple?

I ask for Veronica to pose with the bottles and rather sheepishly she does so. The labels scream come-and-get-me and are so brilliantly gorgeous you want to drink all of their contents.

 

The Republica Malbec 2016 is the star of the show. From fruit drawn entirely from around the winery at Las Compuertas, this is like walking across a carpet of violets; so incredibly floral with soft sweet tannins. “Soft, soft, very soft,” says the admiring Veronica. “People say the Uco Valley is the future for Malbec. And we agree that parts of the valley do make very good wine. But we have to stand up for our own vineyards. We are Mendozinians and we must shout about it.” The multi flagged label is a tribute to the town’s forefathers: French, Spanish and, particularly for the Riccitelli’s, Italian. “This is our homage to our heritage.”

 

I am almost sated but there is one more to go; the Riccitelli & Father 2015, which consists of 80% Malbec from 1927 ungrafted vines in Las Compuertas and 20% Cabernet Franc from Chacayes in the Uco Valley. This is redcurrants mostly, a big gushing waterfall of them, and with a lovely soft coating of anise on the finish.

 

And, sadly, now I really do have to dash to the airport and leave behind this fabulous and exuberant city. Veronica has proved a wonderfully vibrant host. Now imagine if Matias had also been here with her: I’d never have left!

 

Sitting in the departure lounge, it’s easy to remember the warmth of the visit and the slightly giddy atmosphere and the sheer jollity of Riccitelli. But actually that would miss the point. Because underneath the bonhomie is an acute mind at work. Matias Riccitelli lives and dreams his work. And in case you want to evidence about how much he immerses himself in every aspect of his wines, take a look at the video about the making of the labels for the De La Casa range: that’s him in the red and black checked shirt. The winemaker.

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

Argentina: Bittersweet Symphony

Doña Paula is at the forefront of wine and soil research in Argentina.

 

Over the years they have conducted trials in 700 soil pits in various fields.

  • What does each type of soil give to each grape, to each wine?
  • Is soil the biggest factor in a wine’s tannic structure?
  • Do the most restrictive soils, whether they are less deep or have a higher stone content or have a layer of calcium carbonate limiting the root’s growth, produce a bigger concentration in the wine?

 

I am standing beside one of the soil pits with Marcos Fernandez, Chief Winemaker at Doña Paula. We are in the middle of their famous Alluvia vineyard in Gualtallary. “Alluvia is rocky and with a high chalk content. This gives excellent acidity and very good tannin structure.” He crumbles the soil while I snap away with the Nikon.

Climbing out of the pit, Marcos picks up a stick and draws a very rough map in the soil. “Gualtallary is shaped like a cone, see. And this vineyard is right in the middle.” On my previous travels through Tupungato other winemakers had sometimes pointed out the vineyard to me as we passed. “That’s Doña Paula’s Alluvia Vineyard,” they would say in hushed tones.

 

But even within the vineyards there are differences. We jump in the four wheel drive and we career around the vineyard. In the southernmost part Marcos shows me Malbec bush vines in stony calcium carbonate soil. Then, after a few minutes of bumpy riding, we get to the northern extremity. Here the vines are Guyot-trained. “Here we have less stony soil and a touch more clay and sand.”

Back to the four-wheel. “We pick by spots and not by rows, using GPS. We are trying to identify every little spot. Here, this is Block 10. We only realised in 2015 how good this was, so we started vinifying it on its own. Previously it had gone into the Estate wines.”

 

We look at some of the vines. “We are removing some Chardonnay and replacing with Cabernet Franc.” (More testimony of how well-regarded that grape is in these parts!)

 

On the drive up to their home vineyard at Ugarteche, Marcos explains: “We are picking earlier, getting less extraction, toning down the oak.” He pauses, strokes his chin. “At some point in Argentina we lost the ability to do different things. But we are now arriving at the first point in the history of fine winemaking in Argentina. Right now.”

When we arrive at Finca El Alto in Ugarteche it is already dark. In the tasting room, set up in the middle of the vineyards, we are joined by Eduardo Alemparte, the group’s Viticulture Director.

 

It is a huge tasting. We start with the Paula range, going through a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. All are tasting spot-on, especially the Chardonnay. Marcos explains that many of their export countries prefer some oak, especially China and some mid-European countries, but he keeps this to a minimum for our market and the USA. The Malbec is also looking very good. This undergoes a low temperature fermentation at 22 degrees, compared to the 28 degrees for the Estate Malbec. It has masses of yellow plums and what Marcos refers to as “high intensity” aromas.

 

Of the estate wines, a 2017 Estate Chardonnay has a lovely rich flavour; this has more than a nod towards the Napa.

 

Marcos tells me he is very happy with a 2018 Estate Riesling, which has lovely primary fruit characteristics and none of the off-putting aromas I occasionally get with this grape. There is a lovely touch of honey on the finish.

 

The 2018 Estate Malbec from Gualtallary sees 12 months in French oak and is memorably described by Marcos as tasting “like those juices you get at the end of a really good asado.”

 

The 2017 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Luyan du Cuyo, as Gualtallary is too cold. It has voluptuous fruit and a touch of tar.

 

We now come to an interesting tasting of two wines, the Blue Edition and the Black, both from 2017. Both have over 50% of Malbec, but the blue is then blended with Pinot Noir and Bonarda, whereas the Black has Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot added in. I prefer the Blue Edition, as I did when I first tasted these in London 18 months ago. It has more elegance and panache than the slightly chunkier Black.

 

We pause for a few minutes to clean the glasses. I look out at the night. It looks eerie and our little haven would feel quite romantic were it not for the fact that I am spitting and slurping with two blokes.

Marcos sets up the stylish Altitude wines, all named after the altitude of the vineyards: 969, 1100 and 1300. This is a fascinating tasting. The 2018 969 (55% Petit Verdot, 40% Bonarda, 5% Tannat) is sourced from the vineyard in which we sit. It has a beautiful mulberry nose, wonderful texture with a certain grippiness, and mouth-watering acidity. The 2017 1100 (60% Malbec, 30% Syrah, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) is sourced from three blocks of the Los Indios Estate, in Altamira in the southern part of the Uco Valley. This has gorgeous mocha and chocolate flavours, with a hint of vanilla. It is more rounded than the 969. The 2017 1350 (50% Cabernet Franc, 45% Malbec, 5% Casavecchia – a native of Campania) is a more tannic and bigger beast. Dark flavours of tar and liquorice abound. We all think this needs a bit more time.

 

I keep going back to the 969, which is my favourite wine of the tasting. (Later I decide it is my favourite wine of the entire trip.) Goodness, the acidity running through this gives it a wonderful saline quality. Time and again I keep going back. How apt that on the day that Jagger and Richards end their lawsuit with the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft over Bittersweet Symphony, I get the same bittersweet tastes from this amazing wine. The bitter comes via the acidity of the grapes from their altitude and soil, and the sweetness comes from grapes which were picked at exactly the right minute of the right hour of the right day, and then handed over to a master craftsman. This is Fernandez’s masterpiece.

 

Now we come to the parcels of Malbec from individual plots:

 

The 2014 El Alto comes from this, their home vineyard, and is made from 42 year-old vines. Like the other two parcel wines, this is in French oak for 22 months. Curiously, it reminds me of a very good Chianti, with that odd boot polish smell I sometimes find in the Tuscan classics.  The 2014 Los Indios comes from Altamira in the Uco Valley and seems a touch more elegant, with redcurrants to the fore. Finally, the 2014 Alluvia comes from the last vineyard we visited, in Gualtallary. Wow, this has a gorgeous nose. Strawberries and a touch of umami. Lovely.

What a tasting this has been! Now, almost exhausted, we turn to the flagship Selección de Bodega Malbec from the 2016 vintage. 100% of the grapes are sourced from the Alluvia vineyard; 60% guyot-trained block 10 and 40 % bush vines. Lovely aromas of damson, violets and crushed strawberries tempts me to keep nosing. On the palate it is beautifully smooth and rounded. It’s easy to see why Tim Atkin gave this 95 points a month earlier. Marcos and Eduardo purr longingly. I nod in agreement. But I keep going back to that 969.

 

And then I go back again.

 

PS. If anyone is interested in reading about Doña Paula extensive vineyard research they can find more information at http://donapaula.com/terroir-in-focus/.

 

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

Argentina: A poetic Pasionado

I have often thought that winemakers have a touch of the poet about them: working late into the night, fashioning lyrical liquid from the heart of the land, depicting their wines with expressive passion and a touch of romance. But the Andeluna winemaker, Manuel González, really is a poet. His words adorn the labels on the great Pasionado range, and he has had books published. I am in awe!

 

Andeluna was conceived in 2003 and was the brainchild of Ward Lay, the heir to Frito-Lay business. With an expert team on hand, including Michel Rolland, Lay decided to invest in the best winelands in Argentina: the Uco-Gualtallary Valley.

The project is now in the hands of the Barale family, the Brazilian-based energy giants. They run the winery on the principles of its founder: with a respect for people, ideas and the environment. Hans Vinding-Diers is the consultant who works with Manuel.

 

The day is bright and the view towards the Andes from the winery is breathtaking.

 

As the softly spoken Manuel guides me round the impeccably clean and stylish winery, you get the impression the project is in safe hands. A thoughtful, quiet man, he deliberates before each sentence and clearly gives a lot of thought to any major decision. He is doing experiments with egg, but is concerned about the cleaning process; some wineries are now using epoxy which may or may not negate some of the advantages of using concrete.

 

In the barrel room I take a photo of the humidity fans kicking in which makes for a quietly dramatic scene, and then we get down to taste. A Malbec which is the result of micro-oxygenation and which now sits in a ceramic tank has a lovely fresh and vibrant nose and has beautiful fruit, with violets to the fore. Manuel says he has been searching for five years for the perfect plot of land in which to fashion THE Andeluna wine. “I search and I search. I find the soil and, ahhh, then I find the climate and, ahhh…”

The poet has kicked in. “I’ll write this down, Manuel,” I say, and he blushes.

 

As we move into the tasting room and we are joined by Alicia Casale, the beautiful lady who takes care of Hallgarten & Novum Wines, Manuel tell me: “I want to show you just how good Cabernet Franc is in Tupungato.”

 

We work our way through the 1300 and Altitud ranges; these are all showing as good as ever and confirm what a great winery this is. But then I begin to be intrigued as we turn to some wines which are new to me.

A new Semillon, only 300 dozen produced, a blend of one third each fermented in stainless steel, ceramic and French second-year oak and which will be bottled in one month, has a lovely purity of fruit and a touch of that citrusy flavour that you get from this grape. It is still closed but has lots of vibrancy. We don’t have many Semillons from Argentina, so this could be just the job.

 

A new blend of 65% Chardonnay, 25% Torrontes and 10% Sauvignon Blanc is a lovely mouthful, crisp and refreshing. We mess around with different blends and come up with a 55% Chardonnay, 30% Torrontes and 15% Sauvignon Blanc; this is more vibrant but perhaps lacks the class of the first. We shall look at the two blends again back at Hallgarten HQ.

 

Then Manual brings out a little masterpiece: a Blanc de Franc 2019. I’d spotted this earlier in the tank room and had been puzzled then. This is an absolute peach of a wine, with a pale colour but a full and startlingly rich mouthful with hints of rhubarb. Manuel says it was inspired by a visit he made to the Loire, but for me this knocks most Loire rosés into a cocked hat. I tell him to reserve as much as he can for us.

We finish with the great wines from Andeluna – the Pasionado range. The 2015 Malbec is big and alcoholic, warm and inviting. An uncompromising food wine, but on the finish there is an acidity which keeps everything in check. The 2015 Cuatro Cepas, a blend dominated by Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a chunk of Cabernet Franc and a dollop of Merlot, is sturdy, with delicious integration of fruit and spritzy spicy raisins. The Cabernet Franc, this time from 2016, is beautiful and smooth, well balanced with luscious firm tannins balancing the rhubarb palate.

 

It has been a great tasting and is followed by a sumptuous lunch in the bodega’s stylish restaurant prepared by chef Pablo Marigliano. He seeks to match the food to the wine and we eat from the Autumn menu: Caramelized Onion Soup, Sourdough Crouton, Olive Oil Ice-Cream (accompanied by 1300 Merlot); Creamy Cauliflower, Dehydrated Quinoa, Corn Spheres with Blue Cheese Notes (accompanied by Altitud Chardonnay); Smoked Boar, Sweet Potatoes, Raisin and Blueberry “Tropezones” (accompanied by Altitud Malbec); Sirloin Strip Steak and Leek Textures (accompanied by Cuatro Cepas.)

 

And then dessert. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!

 

Finally, the ultimate: As I am leaving, Manuel presents me with a copy of one of his book of poems, Alma de Jarilla. I feel a bit humbled. I rashly promise to translate one of his poems in English.

 

I hope he doesn’t have to wait too long.

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

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.