Category Archives: France

Four Days, Four Locations, Four Tastings

At the start of June we went on a tour of the UK with the unique flavours of many indigenous varietals from countries on the shores of the Med – the South of France, the Maremma, Southern Italy and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily including wines from the more marginal Mount Etna. From the more exotic and adventurous Eastern Mediterranean, we will showcase wines from Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon, countries which have emerged on to the UK wine scene over the last decade.

The Roadshow stopped off in Bristol, London, Birmingham and finally Edinburgh.

Justin Keay, writing for The Buyer visited us in London to taste through the range of wines and below is what he thought…

Under the direction of its head of buying, Steve Daniel, has been steadily building up its Mediterranean wine portfolio collecting together wineries from the Lebanon, Occitanie, Italy, Turkey, Cyprus and Croatia. But it was the wines from Greece that Justin Keay was particularly enamoured with.

UK wine supplier, Hallgarten, thinks small is beautiful, and they’re right. When it comes to the  Mediterranean, the smaller wineries in its portfolio are producing world class wines that also deliver outstanding value for money.

Last September, Hallgarten took its South African wines and winemakers out on the road, hosting a series of tastings that showed how far the Rainbow Nation’s wine industry has come in recent years. Recently it’s been the turn of Hallgarten’s impressive Mediterranean portfolio – four tastings, four days, but made worthwhile by the sheer quality of what was on show.

Less can be more, I said to myself, noting that in just 95 wines and 11 tables Hallgarten had wrapped up much of what is currently interesting in winemaking in the Mediterranean.

So what were the stand-out wines?

Starting with the eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon’s Château Ksara – located in the Bekaa Valley, adjacent to Syria – was showing 10 wines, all pretty good by any standard. The reds, for those who like their Bordeaux blends, are well made and quite serious although it was the Cuvée 3eme Millenaire 2013, (a blend of 40% Petit Verdot, 30% Syrah and 30% Cabernet Franc) that really impressed. This was full-on cassis fruit intensity, good balanced oak (14 months in barrel), and still very much in its youth.

The stars here, though, were the whites, specifically the Chardonnay 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.

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Daniel O’Donnell in London November 2016 for a Masterclass
on the wines of Kayra

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% MediterraneanABV, 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.

Mediterranean

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 Mediterraneanhere 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.

Mediterranean

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.

 

The Wine Writer’s Easter Wines

Easter is the time of year to enjoy good food and good wine with your nearest and dearest. Below is a range of wines for all occasions over the weekend as chosen by some of the nation’s wine writers.

 

Jane Macquitty, The Times, selects her best buys in the run up to Easter weekend:

2015 Gérard Bertrand, Cigalus

“Sensational, biodynamic, oak-aged Midi white, Chardonnay with Viognier and Sauvignon, bursting with exotic, spice-box and grapefruit-styled pizzazz.”

 

John Mobbs, owner of Great British Wine, has chosen his English bubbles to kick off Easter celebrations:

Sugrue Pierre, The Trouble With Dreams 2013

“On the nose, this is clearly the most complex wine on the nose of the five (though at £39, the most expensive too). The nose is nuanced and expansive, with apple and citrus freshness matched with equal amounts of nutty biscuit complexity.

Acidity is youthful, almost eye watering in its vibrance; the most mouth-watering of green apple crispness! And then those bubbles – the mousse is absolutely luxurious and leads the way for an eclectic blend of baked stone fruit and pastry flavours. Citrus freshness interweaves constantly, as do waves of toasted nut and hints of caramelised sugar.

The words bracing, unctuous and exuberant are all descriptors I love in a sparkling wine – but few wines combine all of these qualities and then some. Sugrue Pierre 2013 does just that.

As a relatively new release, this 2013 is just a baby and has at least a decade of development ahead of it. Order a case and enjoy a bottle or two now, then lay the rest down in a cool, dark place and reap the rewards of patience when the time comes!”

 

Terry Kirby, The Independent, has selected his wine for the fish course over Easter Weekend:

2014 Saint Clair, Pioneer Block 3 ’43 Degrees’

“A Marlborough sauvignon blanc from a single vineyard showing fabulous intensity of flavour, with incredibly full flavours of tropical fruits and green herbs and a long finish, achieved, say the winemakers, by planting rows of vines at an angle to give the right blend of sun and shade. This is wonderful with seared scallops, peppered tuna, any Asian-tinged fish dishes and, if you can find it, early season English asparagus.”

 

Matthew Nugent, Irish Sun, recommends an immaculate Spanish blend for an Easter Sunday slow roast pork loin:

2013 Tandem Inmacula

“Delicious bend of Viura and Chardonnay make this glorious white from Spain’s Navarra region. Powerful nose of apricots, melons and pears with smoky mineral notes leads to a very expressive, fresh but elegant palate that has exceedingly good depth with heaps of stone fruit and citrus notes and a little minerality on a long and clean finish.”

Hallgarten’s Edinburgh Tasting – Jon Harris Recommendations

Following our Hallgarten Tasting at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Sales Director-Scotland, Jon Harris, has chosen his standout wines of the show…Cuvée Sélection Brut 1er Cru Vieilles Vignes, Champagne Marc Hébrart NV

 

Champagne Marc Hébrart, Cuvée Sélection Brut 1er Cru Vieilles Vignes NV
I
ncredible richness and complexity for a wine at this price – smashes all the Grand Marques at the same price

 

Schloss Johannisberger Riesling QbA Feinherb Yellow Seal, 2015
N
ot the cheapest wine in our portfolio but just benchmark Riesling, dry, mineral, wonderful concentration and perfectly balanced acidity. Verging on too expensive for many of us on an on trade list but the retailers loved it.

 Syrah Frappato 'Vitese' , Colomba Bianca, Terre Siciliane, Sicily IGP 2015

Colomba Bianca, Syrah Frappato ‘Vitese’ 2015
Another wine that over delivers at its price point, perfectly suited to both retail and on-trade.

 

Ventolera Syrah 2013
Probably my wine of the show – beautifully balanced and expressive, incredibly elegant for new world Syrah.

Get in touch and let us know if you agree with Jon’s choices!

Winemaking As An Art Form – Restaurant Magazine, March issue, Jane Parkinson

In Jane Parkinson’s Liquid Assets feature of March’s Restaurant Magazine she takes a look at Winemaking as an art form… 

 

Wine of the Month:

Paringa Estate The Paringa Pinot Noir, 2O12
This is not cheap, but is one of the leading lights of Mornington Peninsula and this release is stunning. It is bold yet retains enough Pinot delicacy and has a fresh acidity with red cherry juiciness. It also has broad tannin shoulders after 10 months in French oak but it matches up perfectly to the generous fruit.


San Marzano Tramari Primitivo Rosé
2016 

A chirpy and well-priced rosé, from a Puglian co-operative. lt is pale salmon in colour, dry and bright with strawberry, cranberry and raspberry.


Lismore The Age of Grace Viognier, 2O16

A barrel fermented Viognier aged for a further 11 months in 2251 Burgundian barrels. It’s rich with peach schnapps.


Sugrue Pierre Brut, 2013
This excellent fizz is from Dermot Sugrue. With 8g/l dosage and some fermented in new oak, this is classy with lemon sherbet fruit and buttered toast richness.


Ancilla Lugana, 2015
Coming off the shores of Lake Garda, this has a plush side, thanks to the 10% fermented in oak. lt has melons with an almond nuttiness for texture.


Ellevin Chablis Brigitte Cerveau, 2015
A zippy, zesty chardonnay with taut lemon that isn’t sour thanks to the salty lick of chalk and biscuit that make this feel medium bodied in weight.

Gérard Bertrand’s Challenge: Uncover new terroir through Biodynamic Winemaking

The landscape changes as you drive south along the A61 from Toulouse, the plains of the Acquitaine giving way to the craggy and jagged Occitainie. The first distant view of Mont Tauch to your right is a thrilling one.

Due east of La Livinière, you leave the road and drive onto a winding dirt track. Enclosed within a small stone wall is a patchwork quilt of vineyards. You park the car and start to walk up a steep hill. Some of the vines are 60 years old, gnarled and majestic.

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It is a small estate – nine hectares – and it doesn’t take long to reach the top of the hill. You stop here, turn around and survey the steep slope behind you. Below are the vineyards of Minervois, then on the other side of the valley, Corbières. Further away are the Pyrenees and, to the left, the Mediterranean. Mourvèdre has to see the sea, as the saying goes. You walk further and crest the hill and here the view is of the Black Mountains and, beyond, the Cévennes, stretching towards the Massif Central. A farm labourer and his donkey – she is called Victoria – are working the vineyard. You feel an almost imperceptible change in the temperature. Nestled in the vines, is the small, stylish but unobtrusive winery.

Nineteen years ago Gérard Bertrand stood on this very spot, facing south towards the sea, just like the Mourvèdre. Was he thinking of his father, who helped found the appellation of Boutenac over the highway in Corbières? This, he decided, was his destiny. This is where he opted to make his masterpiece. And to do so using biodynamic methods.

This is Clos d’Ora.

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It is exposed to two different climates, the maritime and the mountain which produces a wide diurnal difference, and straddles a geographical fault, a meeting of two plates. The ground is clay and marl on the maritime side, favouring Carignan and Mourvèdre – wild concentrators of fruit – and sandstone and limestone on the other side of the hill, where Syrah and Grenache flourish.

Olivier, one of Bertrand’s winemakers, shows us around the small winery. There are nine tanks (one for each hectare) all spotlessly clean, all gravity fed. They use only indigenous yeasts.

“The problem is that people “get” organic winemaking,” we say, “but they struggle with biodynamic winemaking. How do you explain it?” And we – the importers – launch into a discussion amongst ourselves about the definitions of biodynamism, with the shifting of the moon’s moods, the tides, the burying of the bull’s horn and the astronomic calendar with its root days and fruit days. But what does it do to the wine? And we begin to tie each other in knots.  Olivier is so patient with us. He gives a small cough. “Well, what it comes down to, is that it adds freshness and acidity.”

Which stops us in our tracks. Freshness and acidity.

“In our estate at Cigalus, when we converted to biodynamic winemaking, we did it slowly, with five hectares, then ten hectares and so on. And each year we could tell the difference between those batches and the rest. So then we converted everything.”

But, we say, we need a new name for “biodynamic”. “Natural” has already been taken by one set of winemakers. “Pure” is good, that might do it. But again, Olivier trumps us. “You should just say… because it tastes better.”

Because it tastes better.

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Two weeks ago during another buying trip to the Languedoc, one of the winemakers in Argeliers lamented: “This region needs new leaders. It is going nowhere. We need an ambassador for the paysan.”

But the answer is there. They already have their ambassador. Gérard Bertrand, whose challenge is to find new terroir, reveawp_20161205_20_38_00_proling it through the development of biodynamic winemaking (his words), is already changing the way the Languedoc is perceived. He would be a demanding man to work for, you’d think, as you stand on the same spot he did. But as one of his workers told us: “Where would I move from here? Any move would be a downwards one.” Such are the demands of excellence. But, thinking of a different sport to Bertrand’s, are Conte, Mourinho, Klopp any different? Do players choose to work with them, or choose to leave? And what about us as importers? What do we choose to do?

We have chosen excellence.wp_20161205_14_17_33_pro

There will be some who crib Clos d’Ora, some who knock it, others who say it’s too young to release (the 2012 and 2013 are already on sale), others who compare its price to those of the Grand Crus (which is exactly the point!) But there are certainly others who wish to be at the birth of something new, something special, something that will be talked about in a hundred years. There are those who look to the past and those who look to the future

Me, I’m for the future

The Blending Room

Cresting a hill on the D610 as it winds its way north east from Puichéric, we are greeted by a blanket of vines, straddling the hills in regimented rows like a military cemetery, majestic in their orderly fashion, but uplifting, the jasmine, russet and golden leaves swaying gently in the morning breeze.

The sacrament of morning, said Elizabeth Barrett Browning: it draws you higher.

We’re heading towards Argeliers, where Steve will put together the blends for our French country wines. The Minervois is truly inspiring; passing La Redorte, stretching out on either side of the road, there are vines to the right of us and vines to the left of us as far as the eye can see, shimmering in the soft southern light.

But alas, things are not quite as sunny as they seem down here in the Languedoc.

As we are gee-ing ourselves up in the tasting room, Sébastien Tomasoni, the Co-Op cellar master, tells us that the Languedoc has lost half its production in recent years.

“Ten years ago we produced twenty million hectolitres, now it is closer to eleven million hectolitres. The future is bleak,” he says. “Spanish producers are very aggressive.” This morphs into a discussion on Marine Le Pen’s chances in next year’s General Election. Support for her in this part of the world is very strong. Sébastien shakes his head glumly.

He should be more positive: after a €5 million investment, the winery, originally built in 1931, is one of the market leaders in the region. As we limber up, Steve and I are both intrigued at the news that the Co-Op employs a mobile bottling line, capable of bottling 5,000 bottles per hour.

To business: lined up against the wall are twenty or thirty sample bottles. They look like shy schoolgirls at the village dance, standing on the edge of the floor, nervous, waiting to be asked, hopeful of making the cut.

At 9.15 we begin; the chips are down.

Sauvignon Blanc is first up. Sébastien explains that it was a difficult year for Sauvignon Blanc, and indeed the wine seems overly restrained.

We move onto the Chardonnay – again, a difficult year, according to Sébastien (“I am sad about the Chardonnay.”)

There are three different samples. The first is voluptuous but lacking in acidity. The second is aromatic, but lacking in intensity. The third has a touch of a bitter finish. Steve calls for a blend of the first two – much better, nice finish.

Vermentino is next up. This has a lovely spicy nose, and with huge intensity – a lovely wine. Steve blends some Vermentino into the Sauvignon Blanc and that wine immediately improves.

In between blending, Sébastien tells us that they had mildew for the first time in thirty years. “Bizarre, as the summer was quite dry on the whole.”

It is 10.15 by the time we turn to the Grenache Blanc – and this brings forth nods of appreciation. This is a gorgeous, expressive wine. This means our Tournee du Sud Grenache/Sauvignon will be really good. We go 70/30, then switch into 80/20. Wow – this is going to be a gorgeous wine! Steve rubs his hands in glee. “Never mind blending the Grenache,” I say. “We should bottle all of it as single varietal. Make a statement. It’s beautiful.”

Viognier is next. Two sample bottles. Both good, but both needing work. So we add in some of that Grenache Blanc in a combination of 60/30/10. Almost there. So we try 50/40/10 and – hey presto – this wine is a stunner!

Now it is 10.45. We take a deep breath, then crack on. The three house wines are next: Heraldique, Chevanceau and Les Boules. For this, Steve goes through around twenty four combinations of grapes using Marsanne, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Vermentino, before settling on the three different blends.

Now it is 11.45.

Time for the rose. This is where it gets tricky. It takes seven different blending combinations before we come up with a lovely Syrah/Cinsault/Grenache/Grenache Blanc/Vermentino number which does the trick. “There we go,” says Steve, handing me the glass. “Smells like a rose.” But I mishear the second part of the sentence because a lorry arrives to make a delivery and I think he has said: Smells like Teen Spirit. “Oh,” I say, “Nirvana.” “Not quite,” says Steve, “but getting there.”

And the tasting goes on. Through the Pinot Noir samples and then the Merlot samples, with the blending room now looking like a bomb site, purple-stained glasses, clumps of soggy kitchen paper, slippery and reddened worktops. Well after midday we continue, the pangs of hunger now beginning to kick in.

Three Syrah’s are evaluated, discussed, blended. Then three Cabernet Sauvignons, followed by three Grenache reds (which, like their white equivalents) look wonderful (or is this just psychology?) Then, we turn to our innovative Pinot/Grenache blend. The Pinot comes from young vines, and the combination of the two wines is really lovely.

1.30 pm and we’re still going strong. Some pizza has been delivered next door for a working lunch – but we must crack on!

Marselan, Mourvedre and Carignan are next in line for the treatment. We go through the blending for the house wines. The Marselan is a great sturdy blending wine. But it’s difficult to find the three combinations we want. And the smell of that pizza is beginning to waft into the tasting room.

Eventually, at 2.30, we bring the session to a close. It’s been a five and a quarter hour stint.

The pizza lasts 30 seconds.

Later in the day we will repeat the exercise in Florensac, before heading back across the Minervois the following day to Rieux, for another four-hour session. The visit will end with Steve and I slumped over merguez, calamari and frites in a café down the by Canal du Midi. As we sink a beer in the dusk, we reflect on some potentially very good wines. It’s been a good visit. But I cannot help thinking of Sébastien’s fears about the Languedoc, and some of his phrases keeps repeating themselves. “We need people to turn the Languedoc around. We need leaders. We need someone like Gerard Bertrand.”

Which, funnily enough, is exactly where we are heading…

 

WOTW: Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, Domaine de la Solitude, Rhône Valley 2012

In a nutshell:

An opulent wine which retains the estate’s characteristic elegance and shows a modern style of winemaking.

The producer:

Wines have been made on this estate for several hundred years, dating back to 1264 when the family arrived from Italy to serve the pope in Avignon. The three hats depicted on the label, refer to two bishops and a pope, who were among the fore fathers of the Lançon family. Today, the Domaine with 38 hectares in the Châteauneuf du Pape appellation is managed by brothers Jean and Michel Lançon, together with Florent, Michel’s son. Florent, who is passionate about innovative winemaking, whilst honouring traditional values, has recently started working with new tulip-shaped concrete vats which were initially designed for Cheval Blanc and are at the cutting edge of winemaking technology. Domaine de la Solitutude’s wines are renowned for their characteristic elegance whilst expressing the true origins of their terroir.

The Wine:

The grapes were meticulously sorted, destemmed and gently crushed before entering concrete fermentation tanks via gravity. The juice underwent a 25 to 30 maceration, with lees stirring to give complexity to the resulting wine.. A proportion of the wine was aged in new and one year old oak barrels for a period of 12 months.

Tasting Note:

Ripe Morello cherries are complemented by vanilla and spice. Elegant and smooth. A wonderful accompaniment to a slow cooked beef and wild mushroom stew, or rich, game dishes.