Category Archives: View From The Vineyard

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!

The Beauty of San Marzano Wines

Driving home from Gatwick airport I’m feeling an element of what some might refer to as the “holiday blues”. Yet I’m returning from an important, three day work trip to our Puglian wine supplier, San Marzano, where we hosted some of our Brighton-based customers; The Coal Shed, The Salt Room, 64 Degrees, Murmur and Chilli Pickle.

 

The tiredness, grey skies and torrential rain certainly doesn’t help matters when you land and I remember a comment made by San Marzano’s Export Manager, Angelo Cotugno the night before; “I’m not sure how you can live in the UK, I will never leave Puglia”. Having now visited this sun drenched part of the world I can understand what he means.

 

Day one

On arrival in Bari, Puglia’s capital city, its importance as an economic hub is very apparent. We drive past large, colourful warehouses one after the other, after the other.  The vast land stretches out; there are none of the rolling hills which I’ve become accustomed to seeing in other winemaking areas of Italy. Olive trees and grape vines are in abundance (as are the crazy drivers).

 

The sun is shining fiercely and we’re already talking about what wine we fancy drinking with lunch – the crisp and aromatic ‘Talo’ Verdeca or the fruity ‘Tramari’ Primitivo Rosé are both popular contenders but for Chilli Pickle owner, Alun Sperring, who prefers a red, a glass of ‘Il Pumo’ Negroamaro is high on his agenda. The beauty of Negroamaro, one of Italy’s oldest grape varieties, is that its acidity keeps it elegant and refreshing, even on the hottest days.

 

We are all surprised at just how flat the land is and we discover that only three out of our group of 12 have visited this region. Despite several of us holding some level of wine certification, our knowledge of Puglia and its sub-regions seem limited. 10 years ago Puglia took up just a few lines within the diploma syllabus – being the largest wine producing region of Italy it was famed for bulk, blending wine, as opposed to the quality DOC/DOP wines that the likes of our supplier, San Marzano are leading the way with.

After a few hours experiencing the incredible Puglian culture at Canneto beach club where we could enjoy all of San Marzano’s wines , we make our way to dinner at the 4 Seasons restaurant in a beautiful town called Martina Franca – one of the highest towns in Puglia where the native grape variety Verdeca is grown. The flat roofed houses, each have Pumos decorating their balconies – these urn like ceramic ornaments from which San Marzano’s ‘Il Pumo’ range of wines are named after, are a sign of prosperity and luck.

 

We are treated to array of local dishes; plenty of Burrata, orecchiette pasta and sweet, local tomatoes for which the area is so famed for. The cellar here is full of aging Negroamaro – a reminder that this area can produce amazing, age-worthy wine at usually half the price of some more traditional Italian fine wines.

 

To end the night we receive a heartfelt speech from our Business Development Director, Joe Wadhams, thanking our customers and San Marzano for a spectacular first day – their Puglian hospitality certainly exceeds our expectations.

 

Day two

After a night’s sleep in the beautiful Relais Histò hotel in Taranto we set off early to experience some more Puglian culture. This time we board a private catamaran bound for the Salento Peninsula to discover the beautiful coastline around the heel of the Italian boot. The proximity to the sea is a constant reminder of how San Marzano can successfully produce wines of such elegance in this hot, flat setting. The constant cool sea breeze helps to retain the acidity in the grapes while the sunny conditions ensure plenty of fruit and ripe tannin – a perfect combination for age worthy wines.

As we board the boat, we are handed a glass of San Marzano’s ‘Tramari’ Rose – made from 100% Primitivo grown in the premium Salento sub-region of Puglia, this is the perfect early afternoon aperitif and pairs well with the octopus salad and seafood paella for lunch.

 

As we sail out further, we pass several ancient watch towers; Puglia’s strategic position and fertile soils made it an appealing target for colonization with numerous invasions from different parts of the world.

 

In the evening we travel to the small town of Grotagllie where we have dinner on the rooftop terrace of the Monun Hotel. This time the dishes are a modern take of the traditional fare – tomatoes stuffed with ricotta, raw sea bass with peach, seared Tuna steak and chilli infused ice cream. This fusion of new and old reminds me of San Marzano’s philosophy: “every day tradition and modernity”.

 

San Marzano was formed in 1962 by 19 local growers from the village San Marzano di San Giuseppe who had been growing vines for generations. The winery now deals with over 1,300 growers whose vineyards often cover no more than one hectare. The winegrowing here goes back centuries, yet the winemaking and approach is modern and forward-thinking.

 

Day three

On our final day we went to San Marzano‘s winery in the heart of the region. In many ways, we questioned if we needed to go, as we tasted virtually the whole range over the previous two days and once you’ve visited one winery you’ve seen them all, right? Well, we were wrong! The winery was an extremely interesting place to visit – first of all 70% of it is built underground; this is to maintain a constant cool temperature of 18C year round. In the cool cellar, 300 year old amphoras can be seen tucked away at the end of each row, alongside a couple of modern, concrete versions.

The rest of the cellar is full of oak barriques, a mixture of French, American and Russian oak depending on the wine inside. Back on ground-level, we walk amongst various sized stainless steel tanks and horizontal rotating fermenters – the majority of wineries use vertical  versions of these but the horizontal fermenters ensure a more even skin maceration during fermentation which is important for colour and complexity in red wines.

 

Before moving into the tasting room we’re introduced to San Marzano‘s Presidente, Francesco Cavallo, who has been at the forefront of the company’s success, continuing the passion and spirit of its founders since he was appointed in 1982. San Marzano‘s flagship wine, Sessantanni, which we taste shortly after is made in honour of these founders. The grapes for this 100% Primitivo are picked from 60 year old vines growing in the renowned Primitivo di Manduria DOP region. It’s full of lush black forest fruit, with underlying notes of fennel and herbs, and an extremely long finish.

 

Before we leave, Angelo mentions the new project that San Marzano are working on – Masseria Samia, a sustainable vineyard where they have lovingly restored its 16th century farmhouse which will eventually be open to friends and guests visiting the winery.

 

The atmosphere at San Marzano isn’t that of a large scale 15 million bottle operation. Their ethos and approach has an inclusive family feel, and their wines, just something special to share.

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.

Who made wine first – Armenia or Georgia?

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

 

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

 

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

This is one sassy lady.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

“It will produce mineral wine,” says Steve.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Plucky is the word I am looking for.

Georgia On My Mind

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

“Tottingham. London, yes?”

“Ah, yes,” we said.

“Chel-SEA.”

“Yes. Chelsea.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Yes. Oh no, hold on. Not West Brom.”

“West Brom-WICH Alvion!”

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

“London!”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I’ve rather fallen in love with Georgia.

 

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

Poise, elegance, balance – a Nureyev wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then comes the T-bone!

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

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

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

Michele Chiarlo is the Picasso of the wine world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

This only tells half the story.

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

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

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

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