The Eastern Mediterranean is a gold mine for wine, which is finally beginning to see its well-deserved place on the UK wine shelf. The region is home to some of the oldest wine producing countries and it really shows as the wines are so pure. Many of the wines are often produced from one of the hundreds of indigenous grape varieties grown in the area. The below are top picks from the UK Eastern Mediterranean wine pioneer, Steve Daniel.
“Amazing, fresh, intense and mineral Cretan grape. Like standing on a hillside overlooking the Aegean, you can almost smell the salty sea air and the mountain herbs and it’s great value. Crank up the BBQ stick on the seabream or seabass, and away you go.”
“The island of Brač is one of the most popular of the Croatian islands and a short hop from Split. Wonderful white wine from precipitous white stone slopes overlooking the town of Bol and the Adriatic Sea. A unique blend of Pošip (intense and mineral) and Vugava (exotic like
Viognier) with a splash of Chardonnay. The famous white stone from the island has been quarried for centuries and the white stone even built the White House.”
“An amazing rare wine from a grape now only found in the Canaries, which was discovered and brought back from the brink by Doctor Grape: Juan Jesus Mendez.
“This is an enormously rich, intense and aromatic white wine
fermented in a blend of stainless steel and concrete egg fermenter. Tiny amounts are produced every year, and most of it is guzzled by the locals and discerning tourists. We manage to get an allocation every year.”
“A rich and intense spicy red made from the local Manto Negro red grape with the addition of Syrah and Cabernet. A great substitute for wherever you would use the best Malbec you can get your hands on. The perfect alfresco BBQ wine.”
“A great value Assyrtiko, and Lebanon’s first and only one! Assyrtiko may well have been taken to Santorini by the Phoenicians, so this might be a case of the grape going back to its original home. A brilliant partner to grilled seafood and all sorts of other Lebanese delights.”
There seems to be little knowledge about Lebanese wines within the UK even though the Bekaa Valley has been producing wines for over 6,000 years, making Lebanon one of the oldest wine producing countries! However, Lebanon Law under the Caliphate meant that wine production had to stop other than amongst Christians for religious reasons. This meant that modern day winemaking didn’t take place until 1847. So what is there to know about Lebanon wine production and Lebanese Wine?
1 – The Temple of Bacchus
Bekaa Valley, Lebanon is home to The Temple of Bacchus, the god of wine, winemaking and grape harvest – surely this means that Lebanon is also the home of wine and wine production.
2 – Lebanese wine is exported to over 30 countries
Lebanon produce around 8 million bottles a year (less than 1% of French wine!), however the wines are still exported to over 30 countries! Of these, the UK is the top country for exporting, yet the UK wine consumers are still often unaware of Lebanon as a wine producing country.
3 – The Only Assyrtiko in Lebanon
The Greek grape variety Assyrtiko pairs perfectly with Eastern Mediterranean foods including Greek, Turkish and you guessed it, Lebanese. Chateau Oumsiyat was the first producer to vinify the crisp and citrusy grape variety in Lebanon, ‘Cuvee Membliarus’. The wine is best paired with Lebanese small plates and Mezze.
4 – The Lebanese Bordeaux Blend
Lebanon produces many wines of similar style and grape varieties to Bordeaux and the South of France. Lebanon was occupied by the French until 1943, could the French occupation be the reasoning for the plantings of French grape varieties resulting in French blends? Chateau Oumsiyat Jaspe (the French word for variegation) and Grande Reserve are two examples of Lebanese wines using French varietals and produced in a ‘French’ style. As well as producing Bordeaux red styles, Chateau Oumsiyat (and other Lebanese producers) also cultivate and produce white Southern French styles, such as the mouth watering Chateau Oumsiyat Blanc de Blanc.
5 – Two Indigenous Grape Varieties
Within the 2,000 hectares of Lebanon under vine, there are over 25 different international and local varieties grown. The two most widely planted indigenous varietals are Obeidy and Merwah, both white grape varieties. Obeidy is an aromatic variety which has characteristics of exotic and tropical fruits, Chateau Oumisyat ‘Obeidy’ has exotic flavours with hints of peach and a touch of minerality which travels through to a clean salty finish.
With the Autumn almost upon us, Director of Regional Sales, Robin Knapp, has been looking back at the wines perfectly suited for late summer.
From the more esoteric side of the portfolio in Greece, to the Michelini brother’s concrete eggs in Tupungato, to some Old World Italian classics, below are a few of Robin’s top picks to help your customers cling on to the last of the summer wine.
Chateau Ksara, Le Prieure 2014 What a little cracker this is! 13% alcohol with good acidity, which makes it certainly cool European in style, rather that baking hot. The blend is made up of primarily the on trend Cinsault and Carignan with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah thrown in to add complexity.
Juicy, fruity and a good level of chunky, with plenty of flavour but not an overpowering wine. Just perfect for meats or some garlic inspired casserole!
On the fourth and final leg of Hallgarten’s Mediterranean Roadshow we welcomed guests to the 29 Glasgow , where they were treated to a range of 95 wines to taste.
The tasting featured the unique flavours of many indigenous varietals from countries on the Med’s shores – the South of France, the Maremma, Southern Italy and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily including wines from the more marginal Mount Etna.
From the more exotic and adventurous Eastern Mediterranean, we will showcase wines from Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon, countries which have emerged on to the UK wine scene over the last decade.
At the start of June we went on a tour of the UK with the unique flavours of many indigenous varietals from countries on the shores of the Med – the South of France, the Maremma, Southern Italy and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily including wines from the more marginal Mount Etna. From the more exotic and adventurous Eastern Mediterranean, we will showcase wines from Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon, countries which have emerged on to the UK wine scene over the last decade.
The Roadshow stopped off in Bristol, London, Birmingham and finally Edinburgh.
Justin Keay, writing for The Buyer visited us in London to taste through the range of wines and below is what he thought…
Under the direction of its head of buying, Steve Daniel, has been steadily building up its Mediterranean wine portfolio collecting together wineries from the Lebanon, Occitanie, Italy, Turkey, Cyprus and Croatia. But it was the wines from Greece that Justin Keay was particularly enamoured with.
UK wine supplier, Hallgarten, thinks small is beautiful, and they’re right. When it comes to the Mediterranean, the smaller wineries in its portfolio are producing world class wines that also deliver outstanding value for money.
Last September, Hallgarten took its South African wines and winemakers out on the road, hosting a series of tastings that showed how far the Rainbow Nation’s wine industry has come in recent years. Recently it’s been the turn of Hallgarten’s impressive Mediterranean portfolio – four tastings, four days, but made worthwhile by the sheer quality of what was on show.
Less can be more, I said to myself, noting that in just 95 wines and 11 tables Hallgarten had wrapped up much of what is currently interesting in winemaking in the Mediterranean.
So what were the stand-out wines?
Starting with the eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon’s Château Ksara – located in the Bekaa Valley, adjacent to Syria – was showing 10 wines, all pretty good by any standard. The reds, for those who like their Bordeaux blends, are well made and quite serious although it was the Cuvée 3eme Millenaire 2013, (a blend of 40% Petit Verdot, 30% Syrah and 30% Cabernet Franc) that really impressed. This was full-on cassis fruit intensity, good balanced oak (14 months in barrel), and still very much in its youth.
The stars here, though, were the whites, specifically the Chardonnay 2014and the fresh, fruity Blanc de Blanc 2016, a blend of 55% Sauvignon, Semillon and Chardonnay. This last wine, which spends several months in French barrique has a wonderful, light oak mouth feel. Very moreish.
At the next table, Turkey’s Kayra Wines showed its continuing renaissance under chief winemaker, Californian Daniel O’Donnell. His high end reds Buzbag Reserve 2013 and Versus Okuzgozu 2014, are both excellent, with the latter a full-bodied, rich wine that could still do with a few more years until it reaches its best.
The entry level white, however, Buzbag Emir-Narince 2015proved that O’Donnell’s work has truly permeated through even the lower end of the Kayra range. Refreshing, just 12% ABV, but lovely fruit on the palate.
Hallgarten had also pulled out its excellent Gerard Bertrand range, some wonderful Italian wines, two wines from Croatia’s Kozlović winery (including a distinctive, quite bitter Teran from the variety that makes the ultimate ‘Marmite wine’), and from Cyprus Kyperounda‘sPetritis 2016 a wonderful 100% Xynesteri that has understandably become a bestseller on that eastern Mediterranean island.
The Greek wines were the centrepiece
However, for me it was the three tables featuring the crop of Hallgarten’s Greek range that were the centrepiece of this tasting, and especially the whites, which were almost uniformally highly accessible, despite most being made from indigenous varieties of which I’d never heard. Most were also lowish in alcohol, being typically around 12.5%.
“These wines have been really well received even in parts of the country you wouldn’t necessarily expect, because they are approachable and work well with and without food. We had one restaurateur who put a Gaia white as one of his house wines and he’s amazed how well its selling, even better than his Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc,” says Steve Daniel, Hallgarten’s head of buying, who says the growing interest in a healthy Mediterranean diet has also boosted interest.
First off were three whites from the Idaia Winery in Crete, which produces some 240,000 bottles a year mostly from local varieties. On offer here was the Idaia Gi Vilana 2016 (£10.75); the Vidiano 2016 (£11.57) and the Ocean Thrapshathiri(£11.24), all made 100% from their respective grapes. All interesting, for me the clear winner here was the Thrapshathiri, a delicate, fresh wine with lovely herbal aromas, and a clear crisp finish.
From the Peloponnese, a winery that is a virtual shrine to near extinct grapes, the wines of the beautiful Monemvasia Estate – which produces less than 200,000 bottles a year – were at the other end of the scale taste-wise, and no less interesting for that.
The 100% Kidonitsa White PGI Laconia 2015 is made from one of the grapes used in making Greek Malmsey, which originally hailed from Monemvasia and was first made here by monks back in the Middle Ages. This had a wonderful quince taste on the middle palate but a fresh finish, and was quite unlike the more full-bodied Asproudi White PGI Peloponnese 2015, which has benefited from barrel ageing and time on the lees. My favourite of this batch.
Moving swiftly on, to northern Greece and Macedonia, the wines from Ktima Gerovassiliou were quite exceptional. All of them. This winery – founded by Vangelis Gerovassiliou – is best known as having almost single handedly revived the Malagousia variety which almost disappeared in the 1970s – which generally produces well-rounded and aromatic wines that age well but are also very fresh and accessible when drunk young.
The best example here was the Malagousia PGI Epanomi 2016 (£13.55) a full and generous wine that has benefited from being part (20%) fermented in oak. Yet Ktima Gerovassiliou – which now produces 400,000 bottles with plans to increase up to 500,000 – is no one trick pony; its award-winning single varietal range were all pretty good (including a Sauvignon Blanc that spent six months in oak, and a Chardonnay, seven months) but the award-winning Viognier PGI Epanomi 2016 (£14.45) was quite exceptional – lightly oaked, with lots of peach and apricot on the palate, and of generous body. The reds are also good but needed more time, especially the still overly acidic Avaton PGI Epanomi 2013, an interesting blend of Limnio, Mavrotragano and Mavrudi.
And of course, Gaia, whose wines have long been favourites of mine. Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, chief winemaker of this pioneering producer (which makes wines on Santorini and in Nemea in the Peloponnese) was modest when I asked what makes them so special.
“When you have such fantastic raw materials – old vines, rich soil, wonderful weather – it is not so difficult to make such distinctive wines,” says Yiannis.
He’s being far too modest, of course, as one sip of his Thalassitis Assyrtiko PDO Santorini 2016 (£17.26) confirms. Made from very old vines, this is an amazingly full and saline wine, unsurprising because the vines are apparently regularly sprayed with sea salt, but also zesty and fruit forward. This is a superb wine with a remarkable sense of place, as is the Wild Ferment Assyrtiko 2016(£19.36) made from grapes grown at higher elevation and partly fermented in oak casks.
Of the reds, the Gaia S. Agiorgitko Syrah PDO Nemea 2015 (£17.15) was the most memorable, fermented and aged in oak for 14 months, and checking in at 15%, though this is already so well-balanced that you really don’t notice it.
To finish? Gaia’s remarkable Vin Santo 2005 was the most moreish wine of the tasting, a deliciously irresistible blend of Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri from Santorini. Nectar of the Gods indeed.
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