Category Archives: Tasting

The purest juice

So artisanal is the inaptly named Château Grand Pré that we cannot find it! Twenty minutes ago Bev and I left Fleurie’s Place de l’Église on the D68, driving past the Auberge du Cep, heading for the border with Chiroubles. But in spite of Bev jumping out and knocking on various houses, we cannot find it. Eventually she phones our host, Romain Zordan, who laughs and tells us he will pick us up. About thirty seconds later he arrives, we turn the car round and minutes later arrive at an old farmhouse that we have already driven past twice. Duh!

 

Natural wines are the subject of some debate. For some they represent winemaking at its most pure; for some critics the wines are simply undrinkable, some of them, they swear, tasting like cider and smelling of old socks. The choice of not adding sulphur (or to add it only in minute quantities) is what causes a lot of the fuss. Sulphur acts as an oxidant and without it, the critics say, the wine simply turns yellow. Certainly you get a lot of curious flavours in natural wine.

But equally, they can be some of the most exciting wines you will taste, with a purity of fruit that is unrecognisable in more commercial offerings.

There is no question which side Romain is on. He shows us vines which are 80, 90, 100 years old. He prunes by hand. No herbicides are used. He ploughs round the vines throughout the year to limit weed growth, encouraging the vines to dig deep, to reach down to the granite. Yields are low: about 25 hl to 35 hl depending on the vintage. Wild yeasts.

He explains all this with the loud and slightly manic passion of a visionary while the two of us shiver. In twenty years of visiting Burgundy I have never known it so cold, and much as I love the Beaujolais countryside, I am dead glad when he takes us into a renovated cellar where he has laid on a lunch of bread, Munster cheese and saucisson. I normally eschew food during tasting, but I am famished and this just looks so French that I tuck in. As does the Master of Wine.

The Fleurie 2017 has a huge, ripe, sweet fruit nose, with really intense flavours in the mouth. Liquid jelly. They didn’t do carbonic maceration because hail destroyed half the vineyard and they weren’t able to fill the tanks. Half full bunch and half destemmed (although Romain pronounces it “steamed” and for a second I think he’s invented some amazing winemaking technique.) Soft, flowing tannins. A magical bottle of wine.

The Morgan 2017 has a much funkier nose. Lots happening in here, the merest hint of reductiveness on the nose. But in the mouth all traces disappear and you have a rich chocolatey mouthful. Simply gorgeous.

The Cotes de Brouilly 2017 underwent full carbonic maceration and is the chunkier of the three wines, imbued with the flavours of the famous blue granite, which gives it a vibrant violet character. But, unbelievably, it has a “lifted” quality, as if the wine is floating above the ground. I cannot do the quality of this wine justice.

Better still, the vibrant acidity of the wine cuts through the salami and cheese perfectly. We are in picnic heaven.

We then brave the cold again as Romain takes out round the back of his cellar to an old warehouse where he keeps his canary-coloured tanks. And then it is back outside where he opens up an old shipping container in which he keeps a few barrels of white. The sample shows this wine to be good but not in the same class as his reds.

Incongruously, this container is parked on the edge of a house in which Franck Duboeuf and his family live. No-one has done more to promote the wines of this glorious region than Franck’s father, Georges Duboeuf. I know: I used to work for him. And while the differences between Duboeuf’s and Grand Pré’s wines couldn’t be greater, both offer excellence in their own way.

But I have never felt such excitement in Beaujolais as that which feel now, sitting munching my cheese and salami in Romain’s little cellar. These wines are brilliant. They are uncompromisingly brilliant. The purest juice I have tasted on the entire trip.

Shabby Chic

We first came across this producer when we tasted the Domaine Gouffier Aligoté a couple of years ago. It knocked us for six. It was about as far removed from your customary tart and bitter aligoté as was possible.

So how good to finally visit Frédéric (Fred) Gueugneau and Benoît Pagot at their farmhouse on Fontaine’s Grand Rue, southwest of Rully. Set behind a gravel courtyard, their 19th century farmhouse is filled with a beguiling collection of peeling French farmhouse furnishings, quirky wallpaper, crumbling pargetting, and odd-looking objets d’art, its faded glory complemented by modern low-slung couches, a widescreen TV and a monstrous sound system complete with mixer. You’d pay some fancy interior designer a fortune to come up with such shabby chic. The farmhouse acts as a base for the pickers during harvest, and you get the impression that for the joyeux vendangeurs, it must be one long acid house.

With 5.5-hectares spread across eight appellations, the domaine was in need of a fresh start following the passing of Jerome Gouffier in 2012, and, as we set up the tasting in the kitchen, Fred, who worked at La Chablisienne for eight years, explains what they are looking for. “To reinvigorate the vines, to bring organic practice, to have the wines less in barrel, more in tank.”

The Aligoté En Rateaux which excited us has now moved on to the 2017. While not having the knockout punch of its older brother, it has a vivacious flower and citrus feel to it and simply fills the mouth with flavours and piercing acidity.

The Bouzeron Les Corcelles 2017 reminded me of some our Greek wines, with its volcanic feel and saline quality. A huge mouthful.

The Rully Premier Cru Rabource 2017 has an inviting and open nose of elderflower and apricot. An amazing wine.

We finish with the red Mercurey La Charmée 2017 which lives up to its name with real purity of fruit – blackcurrants, this time – and beautifully integrated oak.

The tasting has been one stunner after another.

Fred and Benoit, now in hoodies and trainers, take us outside to the rustic winery and proudly show off a barrel room housed in a stone-domed cellar which served as a bunker for Napoleon’s army.

Once more, as with so many of our new producers, what we have here is a mixture of reverence for what they have inherited along with a determination to make their own mark on Burgundy’s history. This place is in good hands.

The Power of Quiet

You can spot it from half a mile away, rising eerily out of the mist. Château de Chamilly is the painter, photographer and filmmaker’s dream. It looks as if it belongs on top of a ginormous chocolate cake.

It is just off the D109 between Chassey-le-Camp and Aluze and the hamlet of Chamilly is 200 metres away, but, really, you could be on a different plant. The silence is deafening as you stand back and gawp. It is a wonder, but also slightly spooky.

The other-worldliness is broken by an extravagant welcome from a beaming Arnaud Desfontaine, jogging towards us in modish anorak and trainers. His family has been making wine here for twelve generations. Arnaud’s mother lives in an apartment on the ground floor, but the other two floors are still to be renovated. God, it must be lonely in winter.

We listen to the silence, before pony-tailed Arnaud kicks into action, leading us a merry dance through the winery which lies scattered higgledy-piggledy around the château in various stables and barns. “We bought this from our neighbour last year and we will put in tanks here. This we have already converted. Next we will make a reception area over here…”

With his soft and broken English, and looking forever like he should be wielding a Fender Strat in some sybaritic band, he is a compelling host, blending an antiquarian’s love of tradition with a geek’s desire to experiment. “Here, we could be certified organic if we want to, but I choose not to. I prefer not to be put in – what do you call it? – a straitjacket. The rules of this winery? There are none.”

But for sure, less is more – less stems, less lees stirring, less interventions in the winery (natural yeast, no filtration). “All we give the wines we get them here is quiet.”

In the tasting room we start with the whites, the highlight of which is a stunning Montagny les Reculerons 2017. This is a delicious mouthful of flint and fruit. “People sometimes say, “what barrel do you age this in?” But it is aged in tank. What they are tasting is terroir.” He is right: this is so minerally you can taste the rocks.

But good as the whites are, Arnaud’s heart’s quest is to capture the purity of Pinot Noir. He dismisses richly-coloured Pinot. “That was what we had in the 1970s, the 1980s. I am not looking to make a Syrah. This is not the Rhone.”

And when you come to the Mercurey Premier Cru les Puillets you know exactly what he means. This has a piercing pristine pellucid coolness like it was born on the edge of an iceberg. It is packed full of juicy raspberry and cherry fruit. We all nod approvingly. “You see,” says Arnaud. “If you have ripe grapes, you have balance.”

This is a composer at heart, and we leave him dancing through the vats and tanks to his beautiful melodies.

To Morot!

And so to Domaine Albert Morot, on Beaune’s ring road, and a tasting challenge between two of the Beaune Premier Crus heavyweights that Hallgarten ships. It’s Les Bressandes v Les Teurons from vintages 2014 – 2017, Winner Takes All.

2014 vintage…

Domaine Morot, Beaune 1er Cru Les Bressandes


The Bressandes has a lovely soft mushroom feel to it, but with a succulent freshness. This is a Farmers’ Market wine; lovely and soft and clean.  Meanwhile, the Teurons is oxtail soup gamier and bigger, more assertive, with very firm, though not harsh, tannins. This is the masculine to the Bressandes’ feminine.

 

2015 vintage…
The Bressandes nose here is quite closed, but there is a herbal feel to it, with cherry Tunes furtively hanging around in the background. The tannins are languid and seductive. Easy to fall in love with this Mistress. The Teurons has an unusual nose. Where are we here? In the Rhône? This has a touch of the liquorice and anise flavour of the south. This is a real fruit bomb.

Beaune 1er Cru Les Teurons

 

2016 vintage…
But just when you feel everything is going to plan, the 2016 kicks in. Because, while we have a heavenly soft sweet mouthful of Bressandes, with touches of oak, touches of vanilla and touches of crunchy forest fruits, the Teurons decides to go all shy on us. For sure, it is a silky little number, but its parents would be shocked at how it has conceded bragging rights to the usually feminine Bressandes. A real eye-opener, this vintage.

 

2017 vintage…
Intrigued, we move on to the 2017 – a real vintage! The Bressandes cavorts forward and teases us. It has beautiful soft forest fruits lying under the forest floor, a touch of smoke from the covering of soft branches. But – Ta Da! – the Terurons reverts to type, coating itself with a swirling Black Forest Gateaux cape. But, liked any caped magician, it has finesse, a softness. It has learned its lesson. It pays respect to Bresssandes before strutting its funky stuff. Move over, darling!

But hold on – what’s this?

 

They’ve just brought in another wine. Ah, this is the Les Marconnets, another Premier Cru situated on the far right of the commune. An interloper – how exciting. I taste the wine. I pause. I think. Remember when Cameron Diaz walked into the room and Jim Carrey’s jaw hit the floor? Well…

It has got the femininity of the Bressandes, the structure of the Teurons. But it also has something else: a wonderful minerality running through the centre, a saline feel to complement its roundness and structure. Jasper Morris describes it as “probably the best of the northern vineyards” – and recommends Morot as a producer.

Events like this are so good for a buyer. The smack between the eyes. I cannot remember why we have not listed this before. Lack of availability. But that will soon change and we leave the tasting with the thought enticing us: We must list this.

THE first Gevrey-Chambertin winemaker to not use sulphur…

“I will be the first winemaker in Gevrey-Chambertin to make wine without sulphur. I am going to make crazy wines.”

 

We have been working with Pierre Naigeon for a dozen years, but you still feel you’re with a ‘Duracell Bunny’ as he whizzes round the winery with frantic, chopping steps, his arms pumping away like pistons. During the harvest he walks fifteen kilometres every day but you get the impressions his battery never seems to wear out. Bev and I are struggling to keep up.

 

He chatters to you over his shoulder as he jumps from one barrel to the next, flourishing his pipette like an épée. “I aim to be organic by 2019, and then we will look at being biodynamic in the longer term. Meanwhile, we will look to make sixty or seventy percent of our wine sans sulfur. Here, try this, it is from Maladières,” he says, pouring us a ravishing Pinot Noir – all raspberry and red berries – from the vineyard at the base of Chambolle-Musigny.

 

“I don’t like all the concepts behind biodynamics but I do agree with the basic stuff in terms of fertiliser and the movements of the moon, you know. Here, what about this…” as he pours another Pinot, this time from En Champs in Gevrey-Chambertin. This one is a touch heavier, more serious.

 

“Being organic in Burgundy is tricky; don’t forget we are at the extremes of winemaking. Come, come. Where did I put that Fixin? Must be here somewhere.”

 

He dashes from one warehouse to another like an Olympic Racewalker. The last time I visited he was still in his tight, cramped – though romantic – cellar in Gevrey-Chambertin. Now he has moved to a utilitarian complex on the edge of town. He needed to; he had outgrown his former premises. You cannot keep a man like this in a confined space. He needs to grow, to experiment, to be wild.

“Listen to me. What we are doing with sulphur wines is amazing. The wines are so so fresh, very savoury. I am not looking to make wines that smell of shit and look brown. They are disgusting wines. No, we will make amazing wines. This means changing all of our habits. Bottling will be earlier, much less racking, less time in bottle before release, no fining, no filtration” (though his wines have been unfiltered and unfined for years.) His is the passion of a zealot.

 

We pass by one of the numerous tanks on which is written: “Don’t forget, beer is made by men, wine is made by Gods.” Glancing at it, Pierre looks triumphant!

 

He shows Bev and I his new bottling line, unwrapping it like a kid on Christmas morning. But before we can pause to admire it, he rushes us across to his three ceramic – not concrete – vats which are not trendily egg-shaped but round and squat. “Cost seven times the cost of a barrel – but they will last forever!”

 

But before we can admire those, he has dashed back in amongst his tanks, impatient to show off his wares. We start by tasting all of the 2017s in tank, then move on the 2018s in barrel. The 17s are more typical of Burgundy; the 18s are atypical and he is still not sure how they will turn out.

 

The 2017s culminate is a stunning tasting of two specific-site Gevrey-Chambertins. First up: Creux Brouillard. This has dark, tannic notes, sweet violets, forest fruits, great structure, smooth tannins. Pierre thinks this is a perfect example of Gevrey-Chambertin. We contrast this with a Les Crais, which has a riper style, with more minerality cutting through a sweet confiture. It has a lightness of touch. He thinks this is an example of a more mineral style against the more traditional style of the Braillarol. “Comes from the alluvial soil.”

My wine-splashed notes contain superlative after superlative. We go on to Les Corvees (from very high up the slope, so it needs to be kept), Les Marchais (an iconic Gevrey-Chambertin, according to Pierre), Sylvie, from just under the castle of Gevrey-Chambertin (one of the biggest, with spicy oak, liquorice and game), and Meix-Bas, from right at the top of the slope, so not a Premier Cru (and which is almost Rhone-type in its boldness.)

 

We move on to the Mazis-Chambertin (the most mineral of the great Chambertin vineyards), with an incredible herbal nose.

 

The Charmes-Chambertin is powerful and complex, with a hint of vanilla matching the dark intense fruits. The Master of Wine standing to my left does not spit this. It is long long long.

 

His 2018 barrels are mostly marked No Sulphur or Low Sulphur. Any use of sulphur is limited to a very small dose between vineyard and winery. Once in the winery they see no sulphur. Even those wines which see a small amount of sulphur will have this explained on the back label.

 

Tasting the 2018s, I am struggling to describe an amazing Gevrey-Chambertin Creux Brouillard (no sulphur). It has incredible fruit juice but also a wonderful saline flavour. “Iodine,” says Pierre, watching the look of puzzlement on my face. “Ah,” I reply. “This is the Laphroaig of this wine tasting.”

We try a Sylvie from two year old barrel, and then from ceramic. The barrel sample has masses of black fruit and a roundness. The ceramic is completely different, being more forward, with more purity of fruit, more one dimensional – but what a dimension: an arrow straight to the heart.

 

By now – with eighteen pages of tasting notes in the bag, Bev and I are groaning. Pierre senses this and takes pity on us and we trudge wearily back to his small office where he cracks open a bottle of 2017 Creux Brouillard (no sulphur). Again, it has this wonderful lifted, elevated, feel to it.

 

“In Burgundy you have six or seven consultant oenologists who dominate,” says Pierre. “What style they suggest is the one that gets recognised. But you have to find your own style. Who need a consultant? If you are in good health you don’t need a doctor.”

 

We sink back in our chairs and nurse our bodies. It is not the vines who need medical help – it is us!

“I adhere to organic rules, but I don’t want to be certified”

Driving along the A6, my mind is filled with last night’s pictures from Paris showing the burning and rioting in the capital as France’s gilets jaunes try their best to reinvent 1968. Paris is on fire, Macron is on the run. But as we exit the motorway and swing into Beaune, the only evidence of unrest is a bunch of apologetic-looking yellow vests who half-heartedly ask us to stop and then, as I open the window and shout: “Anglais,” wave us through with a shrug.

 

Over by their encampment a heap of broken pallets is now burning fiercely and heating up the freezing air. A queue forms behind us, klaxons blaring, as the yellow vests wave down the traffic and, among the artics and four wheels, I see a fire engine and wonder if that has come to put out the bonfire.

 

It seems the “movement” is not so violent in genteel Burgundy; Beaune is not for burning. But you have to admire the French. When they protest, they seriously protest. In the UK we’d probably last half a day before heading down the pub.

Bev and I had stopped off in Chablis for a good tasting at Domaine Grand Roche, which included an excellent 2018 Sauvignon St Bris (an under-rated wine), followed by another with the affable Philippe Goulley (pictured above) at Domaine Jean Goulley. His Montmains and Fourchaume are looking as good as ever, but the surprise was a quite brilliant Mont de Milieu, which has a beautiful salinity running through its limey richness, and which definitely deserves to be considered for a listing. “A good year, but not an easy year,” is Philippe’s verdict on the 2018.

 

Here in Santenay, Antoine Olivier agrees. “Very interesting year quality-wise, very good in parts, but not the easiest for reds in particular.” Antoine is in fine form, dashing from one tank to another to provide us with a massive tasting of wines from four vintages, while giving us his view on his approach. “My father is a Christian, my mother is Jewish, so I cannot stand dogma. I adhere to organic rules but I don’t want to be certified. If I have mildew I want the ability to protect my vines.”

Of the whites, Antoine prefers the 2015s (complex) to the 2016s (ready to drink) and says that the 2017 was an “odd” vintage. Standouts are the 2017 Rully St Jacques (intense and citrus-dominated mouthful), the 2017 Santenay Sous La Roche (full, rich, creamy nose) and the 2015 Sous La Roche (classic nose of lime, cream and hazelnuts.)

 

Of the reds, an unlabelled but just bottled 2017 Bourgogne Pinot Noir has us singing, with its young, heady and vibrant fruit. The two Santenay Beaurepaire wines are showing beautifully (the 2016 has a wonderful depth of plummy flavour while the 2017 has a rasping raspberry palate.) The award-winning Les Charmes has beautiful soft plummy tannins.

 

Antoine is now in expansive mood. “I have been accused of being a lazy winemaker because I prefer to do as little as possible with my grapes. I stand guilty!”

 

And at that point a bunch of the local anti-drug squad Gendarmeries stroll in wearing full metal jacket and we watch incredulously as they sample a selection of wines, nodding approvingly, their fingers hooked into their bullet-proof vests, before making their purchases and walking off with a case of red. Maybe off to have a tasting with the gilets jaunes?

What’s Steve been drinking?

Hallgarten Head Buyer, the man with the amazing palate, Steve Daniel, has been sampling the delights of Santorini this month with the Gaia Wines, Santorini, ‘Wild Ferment’ Assyrtiko 2017 particularly catching his eye.

Gaia Wines, Santorini, ‘Wild Ferment’ Assyrtiko 2017

My desert island wine. In my opinion, the best wine produced on the stunning island of Santorini and one of the most exciting wines on the planet.

The wine is made from ancient (the oldest wines on earth), low yielding vines, from the high slopes of Pyrgos, Santorini.

The wine is only fermented using wild yeasts. 50% of the wine is fermented in new barrels a third of which are Acacia, with a small proportion fermented in Ceramic tanks and the balance in stainless steel.

Explosive, with layers of volcanic minerals, white flowers, lemon zest and a touch of roasted pineapple. This is the fruitiest wine Gaia has ever made on Santorini! It has energy and power in abundance, and an almost endless finish.

A truly stunning wine. Due to the diminishing vineyard area, increasing number of wineries on the island and a surge in popularity of these unique wines the price of grapes on the island has sky-rocketed. Five years ago a kilo of grapes cost €1 – an average price for the world. This year the price is €4.50 per kilo. The grapes are now some of the most expensive in the world, with only Champagne and Grand Cru Burgundies coming in more expensive.

So make the most of the Wild Ferment this year, as next vintage will reflect the new costs!

Galicia’s Greatest – Xosé Lois Sebio

The team at Imbibe has cast its vote, with the help of industry-leading sommeliers, on Galicia’s greatest whites. After a rigorous blind tasting of 25 white wines, where the tasters were only aware of each wine’s variety, region and price, the panel came to their decision.

Firstly, Godello; wines that often provide value for money and food-friendliness, and some real points of interest for those who don’t mind a bit of hand-selling!

The panel’s TOP Godello: Xosé Lois Sebio, Máis Alá 2015

What did they say about it?

“This explodes on the palate. It’s an appley number, with lots of lees contact adding weight. Texturally, this is like silk bedsheets for your mouth,” Euan McColm, Beaverbrook.

“A lovely nose of peach and apricot; toasty, nutty flavours too, and more hazelnut and almond notes reflecting on the palate. Easy to sell to a white Burgundy drinker,” Stefano Barbarino, Chez Bruce Restaurant.

Next up, Albariño – wine thats ticks all the boxes; light, aromatic, refreshing and food-friendly, with growing customer recognition.

The panel’s TOP Albariño: Xosé Lois Sebio, O Con Albariño 2015, Rías Baixas

What did they say about it?

“This is rich and textured, with peaches and cream, and warm, woody notes that complement the bright orchard fruit. Leads to lots of salinity and freshness on the finish,” Andres Ituarte, Coq d’Argent.

“Like a lemon meringue pie, with zesty, salty butter. Super-creamy too – this really stands out in terms of quality, and I think restaurant guests would be happy to pay extra for it,” Alex Pitt, Typing Room.

 

Pitted against its peers in the UK, the wines from winemaker Xosé Lois Sebio have come out top in both categories! Xosé has produced a stunning eponymous collection of wines as a result of his personal quest: to find wines with unique personality from more risky processing zones and with a very marked identity. This original and quirky range is made from high quality grapes in areas which are often neglected or simply different; vineyards that are difficult to farm due to the high costs of conventional viticulture.

Away from fashions and conventions, the sole intention is to respect and express the soil, variety and area; producing wines with soul and personality. The wines are vinified with minimal intervention and low sulphur. These are collectable wines for lovers of the authentic and different.

For more information on the wines of  Xosé Lois Sebio, please speak to your account manager. To read the full tasting article on Imbibe – click here.

#NewWaveSpain – What stood out

We have recently taken a closer look at our Spanish portfolio, and decided to embrace the regions that may not be at the forefront of people’s minds when they think about buying Spanish wine.

To showcase these we took our refreshed Spanish portfolio to Brindisa in Shoreditch, on a sunny day in June. Below are a selection of the picks from the day’s tasting.

Xosé Lois Sebio, ‘O Con’, Rias Biaxas 2015

An intense and aromatic example of Spain’s iconic variety, Albariño. Aromas of citrus fruits combine with floral notes and mineral nuances. Deliciously refreshing and balanced with deep fruit  flavours enveloped in an enticing mineral character. This is wonderfully sapid with a very long, fine and intense finish.

From quirky wine maker, Xosé Lois Sebio, whose sole intention is to respect and express the soil, variety and area; producing wines with soul and personality.

Bodegas Viñátigo, Marmajuelo, Islas Canarias – Tenerife 2017

Highly aromatic and intense on the nose with pure notes of passion fruit and fig tree leaves leading to an equally intense palate with opulent fruit and a very long, persistent finish.

The philosophy behind Bodegas Viñátigo is to revive and promote the extensive varietal heritage of the Canary Islands.

Pagos del Moncayo, ‘Prados Fusión’ Garnacha Syrah, Campo de Borja 2016

Dark ruby in colour, Prados Fusion offers a rich, fruity nose with  Mediterranean red fruits enhanced by hints of sweet spice. The  palate seduces with layers of juicy red fruits, smooth and silky tannins and a long finish.

Pagos del Moncayo is a family-run producer based at the foot of the Sierra del Moncayo, in the heart of the Iberian Mountain range. The artisanal winery embraces the traditions which have been passed down through the generations, inspired by centuries of cultivating Garnacha in the vineyards of Campo de Borja.

The diversity in Spanish winemaking is incredible, you can go from the relatively small wine producing region of the Canary Islands to Ribera Del Duero and feel like you’re in a different country.

 

Steve Daniel: The Cape Crusader

Hallgarten Head Buyer, Steve Daniel, is somewhat of an expert when it comes to tasting and blending wines. Below is a snapshot from his recent trip to the Swartland region of South Africa.

I will not lie visiting South Africa is not a chore. It is one of the most beautiful wine producing countries.

April has now become the month for my annual visit to the Cape. The primary reason is to blend the wines we and several large wine merchants and retailers take from the Swartland Winery. I also use the five days to visit our other South African producers.

I arrived in Cape Town early on Sunday morning, tired and a little stiff after a 12 hour overnight journey in Economy Class. I picked up my car and drove the 90 minutes to Riebeek Kasteel in the heart of the Swartland. Riebeek was established in 1661 and is full of old world charm.

It is also home to many artists and the epicentre for the super trendy Swartland revolution winemakers.

I caught up on my sleep and was rested the following morning after my 90 second shower – there are very strict water restrictions in the region as it has been experiencing drought conditions for 3 years.  I then drove 30 minutes to Swartland Winery for an extensive tasting.

The Winery was set up as a co-op in 1948 and has been through many transformations to the present day. Today it is no longer a co-op but a winery, production unit and bottling plant . They make their own wines and bottle many of the entry level wines from the trendy small boutique Swartland producers. Swartland has access to over 3,600 hectares of vineyards so I was not surprised that my day’s wines consisted of 87 different samples of Chenin, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Pinotage, as well as the rest of the great and the good of the region’s wine grapes.

When confronted with so many samples you need to be ruthless and quickly taste them all and reject any that do not hit the required standard. You then taste through and pick out the superstar samples.

The superstar samples represent around 40 wines. This is an incredibly high number as I usually only select around 10% – it is a good year in the region. Minuscule yields due to the drought. I make our selections and blends for our wines and retire to Riebeek for a well earned dinner.

That night the heavens opened and it rained for the whole week. People in the Cape were very happy and I set off to Stellenbosch and my remaining visits.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Spanish Wine

The diversity in Spanish winemaking is incredible, you can go from the relatively small wine producing region of the Canary Islands to Ribera del Duero and feel like you’re in a different country. The landscape of the Spanish wine scene ticks all the boxes and can provide everything you will ever need; from full-bodied food friendly reds, to elegant crisp whites. Spanish winemakers are discovering new styles that are turning heads in the trade.

We have taken a closer look at some things you might not have known about the Spanish wine scene.

  1. Spanish wine was the Romans’ favourite tipple

    Wine has been produced in Spain since the first century AD. The Roman historian Pliny the elder raved about wines made from the area known today as Alella, which is 20 minutes from Barcelona, Catalonia.

  2. Different classifications

    Spain has 78 sub-regions of wine across 17 provinces of the country, including the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands. They are classified as Denominación de Origen (DO) and Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC). Both denote that wineries meet strict requiremenets to produce winbe, with the DOC designation being the highest quality. Unlike DO or DOC, which is applied to an entire wine region, Vino de Pago is a classification for Spanish wine applied to individual vineyards or estates.

  3. There are over 400 grape varieties

    Over 15% of the world’s vineyards are in Spain, making Spain the number one ranked country in the world in terms of area covered by vineyard. The bulk of the production comes from Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell, Albariño, Palomino, Airen, Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarello. There are also many lesser known  varietals, such as Gual, Marmajuelo and Vijariego from the volcanic island of Tenerife.

  4. Cava isn’t just from Catalonia

    Most people know that Cava is the main Spanish sparkling wine, which utilises the traditional method of production (same as Champagne). Although 95 percent of Cava production comes from Catalonia where it originated in the late 19th century, it can also be produced in Aragon, Castile and Leon, Valencia, Extremadura, Navarra, Basque Country and Rioja.

  5. La Rioja – 1,000 years of history

    The first mention of the name Rioja (pronounced ree-oh-hah) in official documents as a wine producing region dates back to 1092, while during the same time, King Garcia Sanchez I donated lands to the monastery of San Millan de la Cogolla, which included the vineyards. Monks and monasteries played an important role in wine production all across Spain after lands were reconquered from the Moors.

Take a look at our new range, of new-wave, Spanish wines.

Greece’s Tuscan Future

On the road north out of Athens you pass some astounding Homeric monuments, so illusory they could be a series of Hollywood sound stages. These are juxtaposed with a display of graffiti of appropriately Olympian standard, on a par with anything the guerrilla precincts of Amsterdam and Berlin have to offer. Startling.

We are driving to the Gaia winery in Nemea on the Peloponnese, home of the Agiorgitiko. Yiannis Paraskevopoulosis, the co-owner of Gaia, is at the wheel. He is a tall, well built, square-jawed, handsome Athenian of very strong opinions, not afraid to air them, yet often doing so in a surprisingly soft voice. Each statement is phrased almost as a question, a prelude to polite debate, you might think; but he is not to be messed with. When we reach the subject of Natural Wines, he raises his eyebrows: “If you ask me: what is a natural wine, I ask: well, what is an unnatural wine?”

It takes about 90 minutes before the northern suburbs give way to the Gulf of Corinth and you get your first glimpse of the turquoise and latte Aegean out of which seem to grow the distant, spectral hills, oddly familiar somehow, and you think: ah, Greece!

When we reach the Gaia winery, perched at 500 metres above sea level in Koutsi, we gaze down at the valley floor spread alluringly before us like a quilt, then up towards Mount Kyllini, its peak covered in snow, and – my God – the wind is screaming. And it is here that Yiannis discourses on his love of Tuscany, Agiorgitiko’s resemblance to Sangiovese – and why he believes the best – oh yes! – is yet to come for his beloved Nemea.

You politely listen while he states his case.

“We have wasted forty years by planting the wrong clones. Forty years!”

According to Yannis, in ancient times the land was planted with 10,000 vines per hectare, which meant the grapes had to fight to survive. A couple of generations ago the farmers were encouraged to replant, this time at 3,000 vines per hectare. The results were weak grapes, and wines high in acidity and astringency.

“When I arrived here in 1997 the wines were a pinkish red.” He shrugs his shoulders expansively. “The other issue is that Agiorgitiko is a very flexible grape. If you increase the yield dramatically you will still get a palatable wine, and if you are paid by the kilo – which is how the growers were paid then – then that is what you will produce – a palatable wine.”

He gazes round the vineyard. “Now, we have replanted. We have seven hectares, six of which are planted with Agiorgitiko, one of which with Syrah. We also work with a very small number of growers, about fifteen, with whom we have long-term agreements. The key thing here is that we pay by the hectare, not by the kilo, so it makes no sense for any growers to simply produce a ton of low-class grapes.

“But the biggest problem for the area – and this is what separates us from Tuscany – is clonal selection. We were planting the wrong clones. Or, rather, an unidentified blend of clones, good & bad! They were always virus infected. And these viruses will mean that you lose polyphenols and therefore grape sugars. What we need is to create a Nemea that is virus-free which is largely what they have in Tuscany. We have a unique plant – there is no other Agiorgitiko in Greece apart from some experimental plantings in Drama in the north.”

But things are looking up – and Yannis explains the reason for his optimism. “We have worked with a scientist called Kostas Bakasietas, who has collaborated with the Entav Inra nursery in France. Only he was capable of doing it. Our research institutions proved incapable. He has identified five different Agiorgitiko clones which are the Olympic champions of the variety. Just five. And only one of those clones is currently in operation. And there is only one hectare planted with this clone. And guess where that is. Here! In the whole of the 3,000 hectares of Nemea, the largest appellation in Greece, there is one hectare. Right out there!”

He pauses. “But. It took me this long to work that out! What was I doing for all that time, you might ask. Well, I spent all of that time trying to make the current vines better. I looked after the water stress management; I raised the canopy by two feet; I started early leaf removing to expose the flowers. So I made lots of adjustments. But the key will be the new clones. Kostas is the engine and we are the first on to the train.”

As we make our way down to the winery, Yiannis continues. “You know, what has also held us back is the cost of land, and the difficulty of getting permission to plant vines. The Government thinks us wine producers are rich and so they prefer to give the farming rights to “poor” farmers.”

Yiannis lets out a meaty laugh. “I have enemies. Nothing but enemies!”

As we begin tasting in a stylishly-designed barrel room, Yannis talks of his love affair with Sangiovese and Tuscany. “I have always been inspired by Tuscany,” he said. “And Agiorgitiko is stylistically very similar to Sangiovese. Neither of them are blockbuster wines. Both are supple and have very round tannins. If you were to blend a Merlot into a Sangiovese you would have an Agiorgitiko. I look to Tuscany for inspiration. For instance, I decided to plant Syrah. Why? Well, partly because I love Syrah, but also because I wanted to do what they did with Super Tuscans. To step outside the legal boundaries, do something different. And Syrah performs brilliantly down here.”

And it does! After a beautifully balanced 2017 Assyrtiko – fresh, lemony and lively – and a lovely 2017 Moschofilero – rose petals, amazingly fresh – we crack on with the reds, investigating first the 2017 Notios, an 85% Agiorgitiko/15% Syrah blend, showing rasping fruit and lovely soft tannins. The 2016 Gaia S, a 70/30 blend of the same grapes, has masses of sweet, dark unctuous fruit. Finally, the 2015 Gaia Estate, 100% Agiorgitiko from 40 year old vines, is a stunner, sweet vivacious fruit, raspberry coulis, grippy tannins, amazing length.

Over a lunch of grouper at a beachside taverna that looks like something out of Mamma Mia! Yiannis’ passion is infectious. “We need to move fast. We need different classifications to show the higher quality of hilly Nemea to valley Nemea. I want a different PDO for anything grown above five hundred metres but “they” won’t let me. We need to go higher to find the cooler nights. I am looking for longer ripening periods. Even at 15% alcohol you can end up with wines which are too jammy. But…” he leaves the sentence unfinished, a testament to his “enemies.”

Yiannis concedes that Greece’s reputation is built on whites. “But you can make great whites without taking great risks. With reds, you need to work harder. And even with our new good clones it is still a risk. We can learn from other peoples’ experience to get the learning period down from forty years to twenty years. But there is still a risk.”

He laughs. “But if we can get it right, then we can take on Tuscany. Yes, we have lost forty years. But I am positive. If you think that the wines of Gaia Estate are good today, then the Gaia wines of the future will blow your mind!”