At the start of June we went on a tour of the UK with the unique flavours of many indigenous varietals from countries on the shores of the Med – the South of France, the Maremma, Southern Italy and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily including wines from the more marginal Mount Etna. From the more exotic and adventurous Eastern Mediterranean, we will showcase wines from Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon, countries which have emerged on to the UK wine scene over the last decade.
The Roadshow stopped off in Bristol, London, Birmingham and finally Edinburgh.
Under the direction of its head of buying, Steve Daniel, has been steadily building up its Mediterranean wine portfolio collecting together wineries from the Lebanon, Occitanie, Italy, Turkey, Cyprus and Croatia. But it was the wines from Greece that Justin Keay was particularly enamoured with.
UK wine supplier, Hallgarten, thinks small is beautiful, and they’re right. When it comes to the Mediterranean, the smaller wineries in its portfolio are producing world class wines that also deliver outstanding value for money.
Last September, Hallgarten took its South African wines and winemakers out on the road, hosting a series of tastings that showed how far the Rainbow Nation’s wine industry has come in recent years. Recently it’s been the turn of Hallgarten’s impressive Mediterranean portfolio – four tastings, four days, but made worthwhile by the sheer quality of what was on show.
Less can be more, I said to myself, noting that in just 95 wines and 11 tables Hallgarten had wrapped up much of what is currently interesting in winemaking in the Mediterranean.
So what were the stand-out wines?
Starting with the eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon’s Château Ksara – located in the Bekaa Valley, adjacent to Syria – was showing 10 wines, all pretty good by any standard. The reds, for those who like their Bordeaux blends, are well made and quite serious although it was the Cuvée 3eme Millenaire 2013, (a blend of 40% Petit Verdot, 30% Syrah and 30% Cabernet Franc) that really impressed. This was full-on cassis fruit intensity, good balanced oak (14 months in barrel), and still very much in its youth.
The stars here, though, were the whites, specifically the Chardonnay 2014 and the fresh, fruity Blanc de Blanc 2016, a blend of 55% Sauvignon, Semillon and Chardonnay. This last wine, which spends several months in French barrique has a wonderful, light oak mouth feel. Very moreish.
At the next table, Turkey’s Kayra Wines showed its continuing renaissance under chief winemaker, Californian Daniel O’Donnell. His high end reds Buzbag Reserve 2013 and Versus Okuzgozu 2014, are both excellent, with the latter a full-bodied, rich wine that could still do with a few more years until it reaches its best.
The entry level white, however, Buzbag Emir-Narince 2015 proved that O’Donnell’s work has truly permeated through even the lower end of the Kayra range. Refreshing, just 12% ABV, but lovely fruit on the palate.
Hallgarten had also pulled out its excellent Gerard Bertrand range, some wonderful Italian wines, two wines from Croatia’s Kozlović winery (including a distinctive, quite bitter Teran from the variety that makes the ultimate ‘Marmite wine’), and from Cyprus Kyperounda‘s Petritis 2016 a wonderful 100% Xynesteri that has understandably become a bestseller on that eastern Mediterranean island.
The Greek wines were the centrepiece
However, for me it was the three tables featuring the crop of Hallgarten’s Greek range that were the centrepiece of this tasting, and especially the whites, which were almost uniformally highly accessible, despite most being made from indigenous varieties of which I’d never heard. Most were also lowish in alcohol, being typically around 12.5%.
“These wines have been really well received even in parts of the country you wouldn’t necessarily expect, because they are approachable and work well with and without food. We had one restaurateur who put a Gaia white as one of his house wines and he’s amazed how well its selling, even better than his Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc,” says Steve Daniel, Hallgarten’s head of buying, who says the growing interest in a healthy Mediterranean diet has also boosted interest.
First off were three whites from the Idaia Winery in Crete, which produces some 240,000 bottles a year mostly from local varieties. On offer here was the Idaia Gi Vilana 2016 (£10.75); the Vidiano 2016 (£11.57) and the Ocean Thrapshathiri (£11.24), all made 100% from their respective grapes. All interesting, for me the clear winner here was the Thrapshathiri, a delicate, fresh wine with lovely herbal aromas, and a clear crisp finish.
From the Peloponnese, a winery that is a virtual shrine to near extinct grapes, the wines of the beautiful Monemvasia Estate – which produces less than 200,000 bottles a year – were at the other end of the scale taste-wise, and no less interesting for that.
The 100% Kidonitsa White PGI Laconia 2015 is made from one of the grapes used in making Greek Malmsey, which originally hailed from Monemvasia and was first made here by monks back in the Middle Ages. This had a wonderful quince taste on the middle palate but a fresh finish, and was quite unlike the more full-bodied Asproudi White PGI Peloponnese 2015, which has benefited from barrel ageing and time on the lees. My favourite of this batch.
Moving swiftly on, to northern Greece and Macedonia, the wines from Ktima Gerovassiliou were quite exceptional. All of them. This winery – founded by Vangelis Gerovassiliou – is best known as having almost single handedly revived the Malagousia variety which almost disappeared in the 1970s – which generally produces well-rounded and aromatic wines that age well but are also very fresh and accessible when drunk young.
The best example here was the Malagousia PGI Epanomi 2016 (£13.55) a full and generous wine that has benefited from being part (20%) fermented in oak. Yet Ktima Gerovassiliou – which now produces 400,000 bottles with plans to increase up to 500,000 – is no one trick pony; its award-winning single varietal range were all pretty good (including a Sauvignon Blanc that spent six months in oak, and a Chardonnay, seven months) but the award-winning Viognier PGI Epanomi 2016 (£14.45) was quite exceptional – lightly oaked, with lots of peach and apricot on the palate, and of generous body. The reds are also good but needed more time, especially the still overly acidic Avaton PGI Epanomi 2013, an interesting blend of Limnio, Mavrotragano and Mavrudi.
And of course, Gaia, whose wines have long been favourites of mine. Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, chief winemaker of this pioneering producer (which makes wines on Santorini and in Nemea in the Peloponnese) was modest when I asked what makes them so special.
“When you have such fantastic raw materials – old vines, rich soil, wonderful weather – it is not so difficult to make such distinctive wines,” says Yiannis.
He’s being far too modest, of course, as one sip of his Thalassitis Assyrtiko PDO Santorini 2016 (£17.26) confirms. Made from very old vines, this is an amazingly full and saline wine, unsurprising because the vines are apparently regularly sprayed with sea salt, but also zesty and fruit forward. This is a superb wine with a remarkable sense of place, as is the Wild Ferment Assyrtiko 2016 (£19.36) made from grapes grown at higher elevation and partly fermented in oak casks.
Of the reds, the Gaia S. Agiorgitko Syrah PDO Nemea 2015 (£17.15) was the most memorable, fermented and aged in oak for 14 months, and checking in at 15%, though this is already so well-balanced that you really don’t notice it.
To finish? Gaia’s remarkable Vin Santo 2005 was the most moreish wine of the tasting, a deliciously irresistible blend of Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri from Santorini. Nectar of the Gods indeed.