Chianti: A Classico Tour

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48 SelvapianaLast time in Bristol Wine Blog, I said that we had been on a trip to Tuscany to taste some Chianti. We travelled with Arblaster and Clarke (www.winetours.co.uk) in a small group very ably hosted by Master of Wine, Jane Hunt, and stayed in the heart of the Chianti Classico wine region in the hamlet of Fonterutoli, one of the famous names of Chianti and in the same ownership for over 550 years.

Our schedule of wine visits read like a Who’s Who of Chianti’s best producers: Ricasoli, Badia a Coltibuono, Selvapiana and these, together with a number of lesser known estates (but not for long!) did not disappoint. My particular memories? Almost too many to mention, but the glorious countryside of the Tuscan hills – still green after one of the wettest summers on record – showed, once again why this has been a favourite tourist destination for so long.

The passion of the winemakers, too, not least at Castellare, where we were left in no doubt about the importance of preserving the traditions of Chianti – and of their contempt for the new Gran Selezione designation (see my previous Blog). And, tasting their wines over dinner meant that we were enjoying them as they should be enjoyed; Italian wines are meant to be drunk with food.

A ‘vertical tasting’ (no, that’s not a tasting conducted standing up, but one where several different vintages of the same wine are on offer!) at Terrabianca demonstrated just how much climate variation from year to year affects the wines as well as how bottles from 1997 through to 2008 were developing, but the real proof of the longevity of top quality Chianti was shown at Selvapiana, where a bottle from 1969 (the year I left school!) was still fresh, harmonious and beautifully mellow, despite its 45 years.

Sadly, with the airline security rules these days, there was little chance to buy anything from the vineyards, but wines from most of Chianti’s top estates are exported widely. 2 things to bear in mind if you are buying: every producer we spoke to was complaining about the weather this summer, so, when they eventually get to the shops, wines from 2014 are unlikely to be great. And, as I said last time, Chianti can range from the outstanding to the barely drinkable; the outstanding is definitely not cheap and the cheap, I fear, will, more than likely, disappoint.

Chianti: love it or hate it?

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24 Ricasoli winesFor me, the answer for many years has been ‘both’. Chianti is an enormous area and produces a vast quantity of wine ranging from the outstanding to the barely drinkable. So, how do you distinguish one from the other? There’s no simple method – Italian wine laws are massively complicated – but some knowledge of the best areas and the good producers has usually led me in the right direction. But a recent short break visiting some vineyards there showed that the whole thing is now becoming even more of a nightmare!

The word Riserva on the label of a bottle of Chianti indicates wines from selected grapes that have had longer ageing to produce a more complex and harmonious wine. These wines often come from a single estate and so the term Riserva can be a good guide to the best wines. But now, one part of the Chianti region, the part known as Chianti Classico has, controversially, come up with a sort of super Riserva to be known as Gran Selezione, where the wines have had extra ageing and all the grapes must come from a single estate. Spot the difference? No, nor do some of the producers we spoke to, who are refusing to use the term, while others are busy relabeling their Riservas as Gran Selezione.

And, if that isn’t complicated enough, some producers are adding a small proportion of Cabernet or Merlot grapes to the main Chianti grape, Sangiovese and ageing their wines in small French oak barriques. Others insist that only traditional local grape varieties should be blended with the Sangiovese and the wine aged in very large old oak or chestnut barrels. Both are quite within the rules of Chianti but, having tasted examples of each, I can say that these decisions make a real difference to the taste and character of the wine, yet there is no indication on the label which you’re getting. So, a system that Jancis Robinson MW once described as ‘that glorious confusion’ has been made worse, not better.

But we did taste some lovely wines during our trip and I’ll tell you about them next time.

New Zealand meets Austria

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Yealands Gru VName a wine grape grown in New Zealand. Without looking at the picture above, I guess most of you would have said ‘Sauvignon Blanc’. Not surprising, as it’s by far the most widely planted grape there and accounts for a large proportion of the exports. No doubt some would have thought more widely and suggested Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, even Riesling or Gewurztraminer. All are correct. But how about Grüner Veltliner? Clearly, that’s correct, too! There may be barely 100 acres (40 hectares) of it planted there but, on the evidence of a bottle I opened recently, it’s a variety well suited to New Zealand conditions.

Yealands Grüner Veltliner (available from both Grape and Grind and Great Western Wine for around £13) is beautifully rich and smooth with delightfully subtle flavours of pineapple, lychee and other tropical fruits. It’s one of those wines that’s difficult to describe as it opens up so well in the glass revealing layers of complexity. Although it’s basically quite a dry wine, the clean fruitiness gave a hint of sweetness that went really well with some pan-fried scallops.

Grüner Veltliner, often abbreviated in the press to Gru V (“Groovy” to its friends!) is a quality variety that, happily, is currently becoming quite fashionable. It’s native to Austria, where it makes some attractive dry white wines with an interesting spicy, peppery twist to them. The New Zealand version is perhaps more fruity and less spicy, but none the worse for that.

Yealands are based in Marlborough’s Awatere and Wairau Valleys and are a relatively new producer, having only released their first wines in 2008. But, they are definitely a name to follow, because, apart from their Grüner Veltliner which so appealed to me, they have already won a Decanter Regional Trophy for their Sauvignon Blanc plus Silver medals for their Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Not bad for only 6 years of trading!

As for Grüner Veltliner, I suspect that Yealands and several other New Zealand producers are going to be planting more in the future and, on the basis of this showing, it will be well worth looking out for.

The Highest Vineyards

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Catena Cab SWhen I saw ‘High Mountain Vines’ on a wine label, my first thought was ‘How High?’ There was nothing to tell me on the bottle, but a quick check of the producer’s website gave me the answer: Catena’s Cabernet Sauvignon (Majestic, £12.99) is made from grapes grown in 4 different vineyards in Argentina’s Mendoza region, the lowest of which is 3100 feet (950 metres) above sea level and the highest 4750 feet (1450 metres). To put that in context, Britain’s highest mountain is Ben Nevis at 4400 feet (1350m) – and you won’t find any vineyards on top of Ben Nevis!

Catena aren’t alone among Argentinian producers in choosing to plant their vines at such an extreme altitude. The whole of the Mendoza vineyard area lies between 2300 and 4600ft (700 – 1400m), heights at which most European growers would say it was impossible to ripen grapes. But Argentina’s vineyards are far closer to the equator than most Northern Hemisphere sites – around latitudes of 32 – 33ᵒ S where conditions at sea level would be far too hot and dry for high quality wines. Their solution: head up into the foothills of the Andes Mountains around Mendoza. And, judging by the wines coming out of there, it has proved to be a great success.

The Catena Cabernet Sauvignon was rather ‘closed’ (not offering much on either nose or palate) when I first drew the cork during a wine course I was running but, at home, a couple of hours later and decanted, it showed lovely black fruits and spice, a really succulent mouthful that went very well with some Spaghetti Bolognese. I suppose, with an Argentinian wine, we should have paired it with some prime steak – oh, well! That would have been a good match, too.

Finally, for any record hunters among you, the highest commercial vineyard in the world is thought to be in Argentina’s Molinos sub-region, and sits at an altitude of 10206ft (3100m). Or does anyone know of a higher planting?

A Value White from the Douro

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Planalto Douro whiteNot long ago, Bristol Wine Blog featured a lovely red from Portugal’s Douro region (see Grapes + Feet = Wine). This time it’s a great value and delicious white from the same beautiful and spectacular area that’s caught my attention (Planalto’s Douro Reserva, £7.99 from Majestic Wine warehouses).

The Douro is most famous historically for its Port and, more recently for some high quality red wines made from the same grape varieties found in port, but there are also some interesting native white varieties grown. Planalto’s Reserva is a most attractive, unoaked blend of 5 of them: Viosinho, Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Códega and Arinto. Congratulations to any readers who recognised a couple of Vinho Verde grapes and one from Madeira among that group!

The wine itself is rather more complex that I would expect at the price, but the aromas and flavours are all quite subtle. The nose is clean and citrusy with lime and even a hint of mandarin, while the palate is crisp, fresh and quite dry with green fruits, some herbiness and a little pleasant bitterness to liven up the finish. All-in-all, a great value wine that’s nicely balanced and harmonious with a bit of distinctive character to it. I’d recommend it for lovers of unoaked Chardonnay, but also for those who might choose Pinot Grigio – Planalto is a wine that isn’t too assertive, yet is in no way bland.

As for food matches, it would be pretty flexible: nothing too heavy of course, but fish – especially sardines as it’s from Portugal – and sea-food would be ideal, or salads, and it would make a great picnic wine. Or how about drinking it on its own as an aperitif?

Planalto is one of brand names of the Sogrape family of companies, one of Portugal’s largest wine producers, who are also famous – or you might think infamous! – for producing (I’ll whisper it) Mateus rosé. But please don’t let that put you off the Planalto – this is a most enjoyable wine!

Bordeaux: The Bourgeois Choice

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Bordeaux Cru BourgeoisHow much would you pay for a bottle of wine? If you fancy some Château Lafite 2000, then the answer is £900! That’s the price it fetched at auction recently. And that’s not a one-off. Another Bordeaux from the same highly regarded vintage, a Mouton-Rothschild this time, went for almost as much. Lafite and Mouton are 2 of Bordeaux’s famous 5 ‘First Growths’, the top category of an elite list of around 60 estates identified more than 150 years ago and which have, in the main, retained their status ever since.

These wines, inevitably, have always been expensive but, thanks to today’s investment market with its narrowly focussed interest in the very top names, the increase in their prices has outstripped the rise in wine prices as a whole to a ridiculous extent. I remember when I was studying for my Wine Diploma exams about 15 years ago, you could buy a bottle of one of these prestigious names for, perhaps, 20 times the price of an ordinary wine, whereas today, the gap is more than 100 times. We even got to taste a couple during the course.

No longer! With prices like that, it seems that few of us will ever taste any of these wines in the future. But all is not completely lost. There are hundreds of wine estates in Bordeaux and it’s not just these very top ones that are producing good wines. Even for around £20 a bottle, you can find quality. OK, it won’t be a Lafite or a Mouton, but, if you choose well, it will give you the essence of the Bordeaux style, should make really enjoyable drinking and it won’t break the bank either.

The key is to look for wines with the words ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on the label. These come from estates that are outside of that elite – and largely ring-fenced – list of ‘classed growths’ I mentioned earlier. By contrast, the Cru Bourgeois now have to submit their wines to a tasting panel every year to qualify for the right to use the classification and so take a real interest in making high quality wines. It hardly seems right to pick out just one to mention when there are so many good Cru Bourgeois around, but the Château Sénéjac 2010 (Majestic, £23) I bought recently was delicious and typical of all that’s best in good Bordeaux – and you could buy 3 cases of it and still have change from one bottle of the Lafite!

A Strange Blend

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Dandelion Shiraz RieslingShiraz (also known as Syrah) and Riesling: 2 of the best-known wine grapes. Each is capable of making great varietal* wines and Shiraz also blends happily with Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache or many other varieties if the winemaker doesn’t want to follow the varietal route. But a Shiraz-Riesling blend? Now that’s something I’d never seen – well, not until my wife picked up the bottle (pictured above) from Dandelion Vineyards in Grape and Grind, one of our local wine merchants, recently. I was intrigued so we bought a bottle (£12.45).

A venison casserole on a cool, damp day last week (this is summer in England, after all!) seemed the ideal opportunity to try it. The wonderfully named ‘Lion’s Tooth of McLaren Vale’ had all the characteristics I would expect from a good quality Australian Shiraz: lovely ripe berry fruit, a hint of eucalyptus (especially on the nose), attractive spicy oak and just enough soft tannins to suggested a wine that, while delicious now, could also reward keeping awhile. But what of the Riesling? Although the label said there was only 5% in the blend, I struggled to detect any influence at all. I checked Dandelion Vineyards website to see what I was missing. The winemaker’s own tasting note was similar to my thoughts on the Shiraz flavours but then added ‘and hints of lime marmalade from the Riesling’. I tasted the wine again. Clearly Australian lime marmalade is very different from the English version!

I doubt whether we’re going to see many blends of these two varieties on our wine shelves in the future, especially as heat-loving Shiraz vines and cool climate preferring Riesling rarely grow close together. But it was an interesting blend to try and this example was well-made, delicious, food-friendly and good value.

I’m just not sure how much the Riesling added to the overall experience, but, if you see a bottle, why not try it for yourself?

*a varietal wine is one where the wine is made from a single grape variety rather than a blend of 2, 3 or more different varieties.