wines of the week archive index | oct - dec 2002

30 Sep 2002 by JR
Winemaker's Lot 32 Malbec 2001 Concha y Toro

If last week's wine was of rather theoretical interest to British wine drinkers, they and only they can get their hands on this week's jewel, a brand new bottling from Chile. At £5.99 this is a marvel which should be cleared off the shelves immediately by those discerning enough to visit this site. (I have not seen it mentioned elsewhere - yet.)

This unusual red is the product of one of those ideal combinations of buyer and producer, Steve Daniel of Oddbins and Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro respectively. In my experience there's a slight tendency for Britain's professional wine buyers to exaggerate their own importance. They have been known to travel the globe giving winemaking advice to winemakers, based admittedly on their knowledge of 'the British wine drinker', that has not always been entirely beneficial or even knowledgeable. But this case is different. The Chilean wine business, already equipped with some very talented winemakers, has benefited enormously from the enthusiasm and expertise of two of Britain's professional wine buyers, Toby Morrhall of The Wine Society and Steve Daniel of Oddbins, who - despite his own relatively tender years - has followed Chile's fortunes since it hardly exported a drinkable drop.

Both of these buyers were warmly acknowledged by giant wine company Concha y Toro during my visit there earlier this year. It is my impression that Steve knows practically as much as C y T's own team of extremely competent winemakers about exactly what is in which barrel. This wine is the result of his admiration of a particular lot of Malbec fruit produced by vines planted in 1976 (Chilean pre-history) in C y T's Peumo plantings in the Cachapoal Valley, effectively one east-west valley north of Apalta/Colchagua. The vineyard is cooled by breezes off the Pacific and Lake Rapel so that the grapes weren't picked until mid-April, so there's a lovely delicacy and roundness about this wine.

It is far from retiring however, with its 13.4 (sic) alcohol, deep colour and obvious fine oak influence. The back label suggests that 'morello cherries are set off with sweet yet powerful tannins'. I'd say the flavours were more like the juiciest loganberries you could imagine (or not, if you've never tasted these dark, sultry cousins of the raspberry). Either way, it's a sumptuous wine for drinking any time over the next three years and Marcelo Papa is to be congratulated on yet another stunning bargain. Far more sophistication than one is used to at this price, and from an unusual grape for Chile. (See also the exceptional Terrunyo range selling at rather higher prices.)

£5.99 at all branches (theoretically any way) of Oddbins in Britain. Next week's wine will be available internationally, I promise.

01/10/02



Château Pesquié 2000 Les Terrasses, Côtes du Ventoux

I spent a year in Ventoux country in the 1970s. The wines, pale reds and pinks, were still pretty rustic and bracing, and it was still difficult then to encounter the name without thinking of the British cyclist Tommy Simpson who met his match there during the Tour de France.

This is modern Côtes du Ventoux, from an extensive and thoroughly renovated 72-hectare family property on which the Chaudières obviously have the confidence to invest in all the right things: large, modern winery, good landscaping, lutte raisonnée (verging-on-organic viticulture), good-quality oak, own bottling line, etc, etc.

Sheltered from the cold north wind, the vineyards slope southwards at a reasonably high altitude (around 500m) on gravels and pebbly soils. Les Terrasses is their basic bottling, but even this blend of 60 per cent Grenache and 40 per cent Syrah is made from vines which have been dug into the local Provençal landscape for between four and six decades. Only eight per cent of this 'simple' cuvée was matured in barrel but the fruit is so intense (and, I suspect, yields so relatively low) that the wine strikes me as being ideally drunk between 2003 and 2005.

It's a much deeper crimson than the Ventoux average (though not as exaggeratedly so as their two superior cuvées, Prestige and Quintessence) and has all the broad, concentrated, spicy appeal of a southern Rhône wine with a slightly subalpine lift. Rich, flattering and racy - not bad for a wine that can be bought for a song in Germany (see WineSearcher).

In the UK it is imported by O W Loeb of London SE1 and sold for £6.66 a bottle including VAT while WineSearcher lists many a stockist in the US (where the importer is Eric Solomon of European Cellars) at retail prices between $7.99 to $13.99. I'd recommend the former.

The Chaudières also export to Holland, Belgium, Canada and Japan. More details from chateaupesquie@yahoo.fr.

08/10/02



Johann Donabaum's Wachau whites

In Austria in July, on the banks of a Danube yet to insinuate itself into cellars and lower-lying vineyards of the Wachau, I was lucky enough to spend a sunny Sunday tasting the wines of a wide range of energetic, talented and ambitious young winemakers from all over Austria. Practically every one of them had experience of working in another country, sometimes several other countries, but were mostly dead set on refining the peculiarly Austrian nature of their wines.

One of the most impressive for quality - and without a doubt for value - was Johann Donabaum of the eponymous family winery of Spitz at the coolest, western end of the Wachau, Austria's great dry white wine region. Just turned 24, he has not actually worked abroad, but trained with the hugely respected F X Pichler before returning to the family enterprise.

It's relatively tiny, just four hectares at the moment, but young Johann is clearly planning to take it to even greater heights. The winery was being run as a Heurige, somewhere where locals could come and drink the young wine as in a tavern, so he wants to acquire more land in order to improve the proportion of serious, terroir-driven wine produced. At the moment the majority of their grapes are Grüner Veltliner with 35 per cent Riesling and a little of the Austrian speciality Neuburger.

I tasted his Spitzer Point GV Federspiel 2001 which struck me as fantastic value (6 euros at the cellar door!) featherlight but racy and elegant, very likely from limestone soils. The Loibner Berg GV Smaragd 2001 was of course much richer, it was picked between 6 November and 23 November from this classically styled vintage and again is very true to its vineyard. Long, rich, and a snip at 11 euros, for long-term drinking. The Spitz Offenberg Riesling Smaragd 2001 was even better, even if it should be cellared for at least two years. The schist here produces a thoroughly exotic wine, very very dense and tense with great length. Yours for 15 euros. The 2000 vintage of this was of course a bit hotter and more forward but finer and firmer than the vintage average.

He used to blend in any nobly rotten grapes with the 'dry' wines but intends to make a special sweet wine, preferably a great Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, in the future and to step up the proportion of Smaragd wines from the ripest grapes from 50 to 70 per cent of production.

This is a name to watch.

Donabaum (weingut.johann.donabaum@netway.at) sells wine to the following importers:

Germany

Vino Grande
Thomas Kierdorf
Von Schmüller Str 8
D - 45128 Essen
(tel +49 201 796698)

Weinladen
G Ostermaier
Bahnhofstrasse 1
D - 85354 Freising
(tel +49 816 150421)

Wein & Getränke Zelinski
Einsteinstrasse 153
D - 81675 München
(tel +49 894 704352)

Netherlands

R M de Geus
Ruud de Geus
Overslagweg 1
NL - 2645 EK Delfgauw
(tel +31 153805043)



Johann Donabaum's report on what the floods did to his enterprise (and he was very far from the worst hit).

Our winery and the vineyards were not affected by the floods. In front of our house is a small river. The water level was alarming. But it was possible to protect the entry of our cellar with barriers and bags filled with sand. The only damage is that many walls in our terraces are broken now. It was too much rain and the earth was too heavy, so a lot of stone walls were sliding down. Maybe it takes one year to rebuild the walls. But we're looking forward, there are good grapes on our vines this year!

15/10/02



New World Semillon/Chardonnay 2002 South Africa

Now here's a wine name I never thought to find myself recommending wholeheartedly. New World SemChard seems so appallingly formulaic, doesn't it? And the SemChards of old were usually just a way of getting the C-word on the label without having to pay top dollar for Chardonnay in times back when there was a worldwide shortage of it. (How rapidly the wine market can change - even when vineyards supposedly take three years before they can produce a crop.)

And you might be forgiven for suspecting me of pro-South Africa bias, having made two other Cape wines my wine of the week since June. In fact I have grave reservations about many South African red wines. Many of them are still marked by an excess of acidity and sometimes tannin. But the poor old South African Rand is in a terrible state. South African winemakers are extremely keen to export, which makes many of the country's better wines an exciting proposition from the point of view of value. South African Chenin Blanc, when it is made well, preferably from low-yielding old vines, can be one of the world's best white wine values.

This offering is from Alex Dale and Ben Radford, also producers of such labels as Vinum and Radford Dale. Alex Dale worked in Burgundy for Drouhin and Jacques Prieur. Ben Radford is the quiet one, from a Barossa Valley wine family with all that that entails. Also on board are various others including Edouard Labeye who makes soft, gentle reds in the south of France.

Between them they are managing to turn out some of South Africa's most competently made wines with real appeal to palates outside South Africa and at far from ridiculous prices. The Vinum Chenin and Cabernet Sauvignon (£5.99 and £7.99 respectively at Oddbins, their exclusive retailer in the UK) both taste and look exceptional - and New World is their new, even cheaper line. The Shiraz from Breede River fruit is bigger and bolder but harmonious - all in all better than you might expect for £5.99.

This 60:40 blend of Semillon:Chardonnay makes perfect sense with the emphasis on the full-bodied, characterful, citrus oil Semillon fruit (of which I am sure we are going to see more and more over the next few years from all over the world). Chardonnay just gives it a bit of a lift and creaminess.

These New World wines are being launched with Oddbins in the UK but should be reasonably available in North America. They are are about to launch with Liberty in British Columbia and have fingers tightly crossed for Ontario's all-powerful LCBO, but the chief market is expected to be the US where the Vinum wines are already well established - not least at Disney's African operation at Epcot, Florida, a renowned showcase for South African wines. The New World Shiraz is expected to retail at $9.95 and the SemChard at $7. There should be other European markets too as they are already selling Vinum et al to, for example, Sweden.

22/10/02



Nero d'Avola

As I wrote in my recent article on Sicily, Nero d'Avola is the hot new red wine grape there and is extremely winning. A speciality of south-east Sicily but now planted by ambitious producers all over this Mediterranean island, it seems to combine attractively welcoming fruitiness - black cherries perhaps - with good structure.

It was interesting to discuss this variety with Riccardo Cotarella, the Michel Rolland of Italy, earlier this year. He admitted that at first he was not convinced by the grape, despite the enthusiasm of his Sicilian clients Abbazia Santa Anastasia and Morgante. He found it too like Mourvèdre or even Bobal in its obvious fruitiness and was worried about its ability to withstand drought and the fact that it is naturally high in acidity, however sweet it tastes. But now he admits that if yields are restricted the vine can produce some extremely good wine - as Morgante's Don Antonio 1999 proves.

Perhaps the finest Nero d'Avola is Santa Cecilia 1999 Planeta which sells for about £19 in Britain from Valvona & Crolla of Edinburgh, arguably Britain's finest Italian wine merchants (and certainly the country's best Italian wine merchant/deli/cafe) and Swig of London on 0207 903 8311. It is thoroughly sophisticated yet loses nothing of Nero d'Avola's velvety appeal.

Yet there is an increasing number of interesting Nero d'Avola bottlings for a fraction of this price, particularly under the Inycon and Mandrarossa labels from Settesoli and from Firriato, another innovative Sicilian producer. British wine enthusiasts may like to try La Nature Nero d'Avola 2001 which is currently in nearly 160 Safeway stores at £4.49.

I suggest you key Nero d'Avola in to WineSearcher and see what it throws up near you - although of the dozens of suggestions, by no means all of which I have tasted, I have to say I wasn't too impressed by the Canaletto label's version which I have tasted.

29/10/02



Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1998 Domaine Bois de Boursan/Domaine Versino

Those of you who live in Britain will feel that any wine chosen on this date should deliver some sort of fireworks. (5 November is Guy Fawkes Day, the day that we Brits traditionally light bonfires and fireworks to commemorate Mr Fawkes' 1605 plot to blow up our Houses of Parliament - although the firework season nowadays seems to run for about a week either side of this date.)

Which wine lobs more fireworks on to the palate than a well-made Châteauneuf-du-Pape? And such a rich cocktail of flavours and warmth is just what's needed for cooler nights. Trouble is that even in the southern Rhône - where fortunately there are hundreds of interesting producers to choose from so prices are reasonable relative to comparable wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy - it is easy to pay quite a lot of money for a decent Châteauneuf nowadays. Reputations have been built up rapidly over the past few years in this ultra-fashionable region. The trick is to find an up-and-coming producer with real ambition.

Step forward Jean-Paul Versino who has only recently taken over the family domaine known variously, according to the whim of the importer, as Domaine Bois de Boursan or Domaine Versino. He is fortunate to have some particularly old (50- to 100-year-old) Grenache vines to play with grown without agrochemicals on more than a dozen parcels on various different terrains including a mix of orientations and soil types. He makes a jazzy barrique cuvée from 90-year-old vines called Cuvée de Félix but this regular bottling, made from a blend of grape varieties and from vines with an average age of 60 years, is matured more gently in older, larger casks.

It is a deep vibrant crimson, has a slight coffee-bean note to its rich, gamey appeal with really attractive spice and well managed tannins. Many importers have already moved on to the 1999 at slightly higher prices but smart London (and Edinburgh) wine merchants Justerini & Brooks still have stocks from the famous, and nicely broachable, 1998 vintage for just £13 a bottle including all taxes and duty. This may be more than a supermarket Châteauneuf, but boy does it taste it. It does not, on the other hand, taste only half as good as Château de Beaucastel.

This wine, made mainly from Grenache:Syrah:Mourvèdre in a 70:15:15 ratio but with little grace notes of other Châteauneuf varieties, is one to look out for for drinking now or any time over the next eight years. Other British importers, apart from Justerini & Brooks, include John Armit Wines and Laytons. The principal US importers are Joe Dressner of New York at www.louisdressner.com (an interesting site in itself exhibiting a strong correlation with many of my own favourite producers). Versino also sends reasonable quantities to R&R in Ghent, Belgium; Norma Imports in Denmark; Caves SA in Gléon, Switzerland; and Caves Taillevent in Japan.

A comment from Joe Dressner of Louis Dressner, New York:
For the sake of accuracy, JR Imports of Michigan also works with Jean-Paul Versino and our firms divide up the country. JR Imports was there before we were. Our site [www.louisdressner.com] is hopelessly outdated, many of our growers are not even present there, and we hope to redo the material over the next few months.

Purple pagers, see wine news for more on wine websites.

05/11/02



Two Hands Angel's Share Shiraz 2001 McLaren Vale, Australia

Having been travelling and tasting out of the house far too much recently, I had allowed a shocking number of unsolicited wine samples to build up untasted chez moi. Yesterday I finally got round to dismantling the wine box mountain and started to wade through the bottles. This is generally a fairly dispiriting experience. There are rarely any badly made wines but equally rarely are there wines that really stoke my enthusiasm. Yesterday I tasted a range of wines from a producer new to me that I found exceptional - and in a category that I am generally underwhelmed by, Australian Shiraz.

My palate may well be atypical, for Australian Shiraz sells in huge quantities, but I find all too many of even the quite expensive examples are marked by extremely obvious, disjointed acidity and/or tannins. There is usually alcohol in abundance and some sweet, sometimes too sweet, fruit on the front of the palate but rarely are all these elements knit together - in fact they seem so disparate that I find it hard to believe they will ever combine to make a harmonious whole.

The Two Hands range is quite different, and quite distinctive in its densely charming, gently oaked style. The head of an Australian cooperage is involved, and the wines do taste as though Two Hands get the pick of the barrels, but it's the brainchild of Michael Twelftree who has been working like a very busy bee to build up a network of good grapes and suitable winemakers to go with them. Consistency may not be a strong point for this label for there has been quite a turnover in winemakers, but I would strongly recommend the 2001s I had the pleasure of tasting yesterday. Releases from this warm vintage include no fewer than seven different Shiraz-based reds from different parts of South Australia - all of them made with a gentle hand, some with an eye further into the future than others. (The Padthaway bottling, for example, needs quite a time. See more notes on what I hope to build up as a bank of tasting notes on Australian Shiraz on purple pages.)

The Angel's Share bottling is the least expensive - it even has a screwcap - but is the best value and is already just bursting with drinking pleasure. Very fragrant, it has surprisingly supple fruit that is so ripe it tastes almost more like old-vine Grenache than Shiraz. Maybe this is the McLaren Vale gloss working its usual magic. The wine is immensely flattering with its velvet texture, spreads itself to all corners of the palate and could be much enjoyed immediately or in a year or two. I thought it unbelievably good for what is cited on the label as a 2000 case production, and am rather worried by the news that in 2002 they have apparently increased production to 10,000 cases. It's difficult to imagine how they will keep up the quality - but then 2002 is a great vintage in South Australia so presumably that will help.

(If you think I am mad to be recommending a bottom-of-the-range screwcapped wine, take heed that I poured the remains last night for several extremely keen palates that had been successively doused in Lafon Meursault and four Leroy grands crus from vintages 1990 to 1992 and they were also impressed.)

The 2001 was sourced from a single vineyard in McLaren Vale and aged for 10 months in a mixture of new, old and shaved American oak barrels. It has certainly come right. Angel's Share 2001 (not 2002) was made by the busy Rolf Binder, an experienced Barossa hand with more than 20 vintages under his belt and such a wide array of responsibilities that one wonders whether he ever sleeps. His own winery is Veritas which also produces Christa-Rolf wines, but he also makes J J Hahn wines, Magpie Estate (with British wine merchant Noel Young), Viking and Whistler wines.

You can find this wine at several merchants in Australia for about $25 (Australian) and in the United States on WineSearcher, most notably at www.garagistewine.com of Seattle (which has a particularly interesting selection) at $16.99 a bottle. www.twohandswines.com has a useful list with full details of all importers, including many in Asia. Noel Young of Trumpington was the agent for this label and still has some stock of various 2000s. For any interested potential European importer, here is the relevant information:

Michael Twelftree
Director of Marketing
Two Hands Wines
PO Box 94
Walkerville
South Australia, 5081
tel +61 0412824453, fax +61 883426375, web www.twohandswines.com, email michael@twohandswines.com

25 November 2002 - Michael Twelftree adds:

Just one thing about your piece on Two Hands, our total production in 2002 will be 10,000 cases with 5,000 being Angels Share, not 10,000 cases of Angels Share.

12/11/02



Grüner Veltliner

Those who have read about the extraordinary blind tasting of Austria's native variety and top Chardonnays (see wine news) may wonder where they can get their hands on this wonder-grape.

Knoll, Bründlmayer and Prager are obviously great and extremely well-regarded producers (with the Knoll and FWW cooperative wines which performed so well in this tasting being rather exceptional), as are Loimer, Schloss Gobelsburg and Jurtschitsch - all in Kamptal like Bründlmayer, rather than the Wachau. Other top-drawer Wachau producers include the two Pichlers (Rudi and F X), Jamek, Högl, Schmelz, Jäger, Hirtzberger and the organic Nikolaihof. To check on other reliable sources of fine Grüner Veltliner, I can thoroughly recommend Peter Moser's The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide 2002 published in English by Falstaff Publications. You can order it by clicking on the red guide at www.falstaff.at for 19.90 euros in Europe and 22.90 euros worldwide including shipping costs.

One good retail source of top-quality Grüner Veltliner is www.rare-wine.com which routinely ships single bottles around the world and is run by a complete Grüner Veltliner fanatic. According to WineSearcher best prices for Grüner Veltliner are to be found in Germany, although Nickolls & Perks (www.nickollsandperks.co.uk) of Stourbridge in England have some keen prices by the case.

If you're looking for a single-bottle introduction to this peppery, crackling, full-bodied white, whose combination of fruit and acidity wavers somewhere between grapefruit and dill pickle, I would strongly counsel you to choose an example from a vintage of a recent odd numbered year. Many of the wines made in 2000 and 1998 are unusually ripe and can be just a bit too fat - especially for those unfamiliar with Grüner Veltliner's somewhat uncompromising flavours. The 2001s, 1999s and 1997s are in general much finer, racier and more appetising.

Prager's 2001s, for example, are stunning and you can get your hands on a single bottle of winemaker Toni Bodenstein's Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd (the ripest form of Wachau white wine; Federspiel being lighter) 2001 from Morris & Verdin of London SE1 (tel 020 7921 5300) for £19 a bottle including duty and all taxes (it's 27 euros from rare-wine.com). Achleiten is one of the most distinctive vineyards in the world, each example being marked by the vineyard's characteristic mineral (gneiss) hallmark and this wine is particularly finely etched. It should deepen and soften over the next five years and more.

Morris & Verdin's relative bargain Grüner Veltliner at £9.90 a bottle is quite a different wine, the much more opulent Dr Unger's Alte Reben Oberfeld 2000 from east of the Wachau in Kremstal (also available from La Réserve of London and Wine Raks of Aberdeen). This is very forward and open, with massive fruit. It would be almost shocking to newcomers to the grape but would be a good match for Thai green curry.

American wine lovers can take advantage of the excellent Austrian prices and range respectively at merchants such as Sam's of Chicago and K & L of San Francisco. See WineSearcher.

20/11/02



Chassagne Montrachet 2000/01 Marquis de Laguiche, Joseph Drouhin

It can be difficult to find reliability in white burgundy. I've spent quite a bit of time recently tasting white burgundy blind and it has been on the whole a rather dispiriting experience (see Grüner Veltliner - distinctly groovy grape, and my tasting notes on 2000 grands crus white burgundy).

But in two different blind tastings this wine and its successor from the 2001 vintage have triumphed over scores of others in the same category which I find nothing short of remarkable. The 2000 is a much bigger wine than the 2001 and has a smoky whiff of liquorice about it. On the palate it is rich and silky-textured and would probably benefit from another two or three years in bottle. The 2001 is already expressive (Drouhin wines tend not to be the most reticent, nor the longest-lived) with some floral notes on the nose. On the palate it manages to be both delicate and lively. This vintage is not yet widely available but it should ideally be drunk before the 2000.

Yes, there are funkier, more idiosyncratic and - let's face it - more exciting white burgundies around, but this is a name that's easy to remember (Marquis de Laguiche is one of the relatively few landowners in the Montrachet vineyard - see tasting notes on Montrachet 1999s) and is reasonably well distributed. And Drouhin, both in Burgundy and Oregon, manages to fashion particularly satin-textured reds and whites which manage to have an admirably consistent track record.

Morgan Classic Wines which is London-based but exports all over the world are offering this wine at £260/$406 a case as I write this. Otherwise, WineSearcher can find many a retailer of a single bottle, though at more than £30/$50 apiece. O W Loeb of London SE1 are currently asking £325 a dozen for it.

26/11/02



High Altitude Malbec Shiraz 2001 Mendoza

Since reporting on the initial findings of this year's Geoffrey Roberts Award (see 2003 Award for details on how to apply for next year's award), Professor Roger Corder, who used his travel bursary to research a possible link between vineyard altitude and the longevity of those who drink its produce in Sardinia, I have been bombarded by requests from readers seeking an elixir of life.

I should make the following absolutely clear:



no one can guarantee that you will live to 100+
Professor Corder's are very preliminary indications
his findings don't suggest that any old Sardinian red is likely to stave off heart disease
nor do they necessarily suggest that the higher the vineyard the more 'healthy' the wine; there may be an optimum altitude
it looks likely that the most effective wines are red, grown at relatively high altitudes and made in a fairly rustic fashion with lots of polyphenols (tannins, pigments, etc) left in.

    Here's a wine that has been devised, quite by chance, to sell itself on its altitude. Its marketing manager had no idea of any possible health benefits associated with vineyard altitude until I told her. It's available exclusively in Britain, I'm afraid (sorry, sorry, sorry), and even there only at Somerfield supermarkets, but is certainly a fair buy at £4.99.

    It comes in an extremely smart bottle with a tall, thin silvery label depicting a llama. I saw so much wildlife when touring Argentina's high-altitude vineyards earlier this year that I'm sure llamas came into frame somewhere. I am reliably informed that the vineyards for this wine, made by Bodegas Escorhuela for British importers Private Liquor Brands (not my favourite name), are around 1000 metres above sea level - about twice as high as the conventional limit for viticulture in Europe. But of course Mendoza's vineyards are at a much lower latitude than most of Europe. According to the back label, it has been aged 'with' French and American oak, so this presumably means oak chips, or at the very best the odd plank/stave at this price, but it's a fair rendition of an attractive modern Malbec with a little Syrah added to give it spice. There is some suggestion of ripe black cherries and certainly a fair hit of those valuable polyphenols which are even more marked, as is the ripeness of the fruit, in the next, 2002, vintage which should be on the shelves of both Somerfield and Tesco by the beginning of February next year.

    Those of you who drink nothing but classed growths are not advised to rush out and buy this by the caseload, but for anyone else this wine would make a very creditable, and certainly conversation-provoking, red to serve to large numbers.

    Something grander and more widely available internationally will follow next week.

    03/12/02



    Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1995

    This wine soared out of the glass to triumph in a recent blind tasting of luxury and regular vintage-dated cuvées, including all the best-known (although Dom Pérignon of the same vintage ran it pretty close). It's still quite youthful and its all-Chardonnay ingredients give it a vivaciousness that is rarely a feature of Moët's rather more intellectual de luxe cuvée. The Taittinger wine already has a most alluring nose that sets it apart from more than 90 per cent of all champagne produced but on the palate you realise that this is a wine that will also be worth keeping - so buy now for future celebrations. (One of the most impressive wines we drank to celebrate the birth of our youngest, now 11, was a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1964. The rosé Comtes de Champagne is, as Australians say, not shabby, either.)

    If you're looking for one truly celebratory bottle to lay in over the holidays, this is it. I can't see how anyone would fail to recognise its class and distinction.

    In Britain, Majestic Wine Warehouses (which currently have the best champagne deals of all) has a special offer whereby you can pick up two bottles of this beautiful specimen from top vineyards on the Côte des Blancs together with two bottles of regular Taittinger non-vintage for £119.98 when the usual price would be £209.96 which strikes me as a good deal.

    Good old WineSearcher can offer no fewer than 43 stockists, all over the world, with best prices from London wine brokers uvine.com at $65.84 (though you will have to pay commission, etc), useful French wine brokers 1855.com at $77.40 and best retail price in the US from WineExchange.com in Orange County at $99.99.

    These are best prices among some that may seem relatively high for a bottle of champagne but in this case at least, the premium really is justified.

    10/12/02



    Château Lezongars 1999 Premières Côtes de Bordeaux

    Treat this wine as a supplement to my recent piece on reds for the holidays. There are few wines more useful than affordable claret and this is one of the best buys of all - though alas I tasted it too late to include in Saturday's survey.

    Lezongars is certainly a name to watch. For many years Philip and Sarah Iles ran two very successful dining clubs in London's financial district but Pontac's was bombed out by the IRA in the 1993 Bishopsgate blast and Mr Garraway's was encountering problems so they decided to move to Bordeaux to realise a long-held ambition to make rather than sell wine.

    They bought Château Lezongars (I still don't know what a zongars is) and its 40 hectares of vineyard just in time for the 1998 harvest. Since then the property has been converted to one designed to sell fruity, quite modern wine in bottle rather than in bulk, using Château de Roques as a second label for the wines they produce in all three colours. L'Enclos du Château Lezongars is a special bottling, while their top cuvée, Cuvée Spéciale, has done well in various tastings. All of these wines, described by the Iles family as New Wave Bordeaux, are still quite reasonably priced.

    The regular 1999 red Château Lezongars is just the ticket for current drinking and is available retail at Jeroboams wine and cheese shops in London and Cirencester (who do not undercharge) for just £6.95. Unlike so many red bordeaux at this price level, this one really does have plump, ripe, charming fruit on the mid palate, lifted by a note that is almost reminiscent of chestnut and is extremely easy to drink at the moment. In fact I would guess it is already in its prime and would not personally keep it for more than another year or two - but I could always be proved wrong. The wine is mainly Merlot, like the great majority of reds made north of the river Garonne, but contains 38 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and two per cent Cabernet Franc apparently. The promising strip of vineyards that is the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux always produces wines more like poor man's Médoc than poor man's St Emilion. Nine months' barrel ageing in first, second and third American oak has resulted in quite a bargain in my humble opinion.

    Various Lezongars wines are available retail in the UK from Jeroboams/Laytons in London, Handfords of Holland Park, The Good Wine Shop of Twickenham, The Grape Shop, and Philglas & Swiggot of London SW11, Pallants Wines of Arundel, Classic Wines of Beaulieu in Hampshire, Playford Ros in northern England and Andrew Wilson Wines of Stafford.

    The Dutch importer Residence Wijnen imports the whole range and sells them through Gouden Ton shops. In Belgium the wines will be distributed by Velu Vins from January. Within France the wines are distributed by Hawkins Distribution.

    The US importer is Vineyard Road of Boston. The wines are also imported by William Brewer of the Bahamas, Indelva of Honduras, Enoteca of Japan and The Case of Wine of New Zealand.

    17/12/02



    Château Belá Riesling 2001 Slovakia

    This wine could hardly be more Christmassy. It's always exciting to come across a completely new wine, but to come across one from a completely new (to me) wine-producing country that was for long hidden by the Iron Curtain is absolutely thrilling. Sorry, the one rather important bit that I have so far missed out is that the wine itself is quite superlatively delicious, and it is not too fanciful to say that with its sparkling fruit and intricately etched flavours it really does taste like a winter in Central Europe. You can almost lick the icicles off the bottle. (And I should point out that I wrote all this before I discovered just how inexpensive this wine is.)

    The wine from Kastiel Belá, whose name translates into Castle or Château Belá, is a joint venture between Egon Müller of the Saar in Germany and the old Slovakian family of Baron Ullmann whose seat was once the Castle Belá but which is now distinctly rundown. Only the extensive cellars have so far been restored. [Pause while I pick up The World Atlas of Wine and try to establish where the heck this wine comes from.] Ah yes, it's almost on the Hungarian border just north of the Danube, with the Carpathians sheltering the vineyards to the north, so by no means unlike the Wachau downriver of here where Belá's obviously talented local winemaker Miro Petrech once worked.

    For the moment, the enterprise does not own its own vineyards. Complicated post-Soviet negotiations with the state Land Office continue. But if they can produce a wine as good as this from bought-in grapes, we can only look forward to 2005 when the team reckons it should have secured ownership of the original Ullmann vineyard.

    Egon Müller first visited the region two years ago and became convinced that its cold winters, hot summers and dry autumns could produce some top quality dry Riesling to compete with the best from Alsace and Austria. Then along came the 2001 vintage, as extraordinary in Slovakia as in Germany, which turned out to be the first botrytised vintage in 20 years. The grapes were picked at 130 deg Oechsle, quite ripe enough to produce a Beerenauslese on the Egon Müller estate in the Saar. The fermentation was not nearly complete by the time the freezing temperatures of a Slovakian December brought it to a grinding halt, leaving a distinctly sweet wine but with crystal-clear acidity. The team decided, surely with infinite wisdom, that rather than fighting Nature by heating the cellar and adding cultured yeasts to re-start the conversion of sugar to alcohol, they should not look this gift horse in the mouth.

    The result is a beautifully crystalline, refreshing sweet Riesling that would make the most perfect, revivifying post-prandial conversation piece. Not unlike a Saar Beerenauslese but with more weight (12 per cent alcohol). And at a tiny fraction of the price.

    This is what Egon Müller has to say about the 2002 vintage of this new wine: 'the 2002 was harvested at around 105 deg Oechsle, or about 13 per cent potential alcohol, and two out of the three vats have already finished their fermentation while the third one is still at it. We have reason to hope that with the 2002 vintage we will be able to make a very nice dry Riesling - at a relatively friendly price.'

    The 2001 is also priced in what seems to me a very friendly fashion and is currently retailing at around 10 euros in Germany, 7.50 euros in France and 25 Swiss francs in Switzerland, though I have a nasty feeling that American wine lovers may find it hard to find it at such modest prices. UK importers Dreyfus Ashby are still working on finding retailers in the UK but expect it to retail at about £9 per single bottle in Britain. These are the current importers in other countries:

    Belgium: SWAFFOU
    France: Vivavin
    Germany: Wein & Glas Compagnie, and Les Amis du Vin
    Luxembourg: Monsieur Xavier Molitor
    Russia: DP Trade
    Singapore: Tasting Room Ltd
    USA: Frederick Wildman & sons Ltd

      It should also be available from about March 2003 through the following:

      Australia: Negociants Australia
      Switzerland: Fluppe

        24/12/02



        Rozaleme Bobal/Tempranillo 2001 Utiel Requena

        A New Year demands a entirely new sort of wine and here's a fascinating one. It's largely dependent on the deep-coloured Bobal, a grape that is so commonly planted on Spain's Mediterranean coast that when I compiled the figures for the listing of the world's 20 most planted grape varieties for my little pocket book Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes in 1996 it came in at number nine, a notch above Tempranillo (which must surely have overtaken Bobal decisively since then).

        It's officially a lowly table wine, a Vino de Mesa, made from vineyards in Utiel Requena well inland from Valencia which are saved from turning out flabby, porty wine by their altitude, an average of 850 metres. They are run by Toni Sarrión, son of the creator of a successful construction business who invested some of his pesetas in building up the family wine estate Mustiguillo while Toni studied economics at university.

        Taking over the reins of the family's various vineyard holdings as recently as the 1999 vintage, Toni Sarrión became a passionate advocate, one of the very few, of the local grape Bobal (which was for long dismissed as being suitable only for adding colour to blending vats in northern Europe and which some authorities think may be related to the Bovale of Sardinia). He has been playing with underground irrigation and strict clonal selection while continuing to grow bushvines in the traditional fashion.

        Purple pages subscribers will be familiar with Spanish wine authority Victor de la Serna, a regular contributor to our forum. Victor has planted vines (whose full-throttle produce I had the pleasure of tasting last July in Vienna) just 35 miles inland of Carrión in Manchuela. He freely admits 'I didn't believe in Bobal, so I planted Syrah... he has made the best Bobal wines ever... a very interesting new producer, one of the leaders in the rebirth of south-eastern Spain wines.'

        Rozaleme is the brainchild of British importers Liberty Wines whose flying winemaker is Alberto Antonini of Italy. It is, I'm afraid, available only in Britain for the moment (to make up for last week's wine that is available practically everywhere but). While Rozaleme has been made at another winery in Requena, Carrión is even more ambitious for the wines made at his own Mustiguillo bodega with the help of Priorat-based flying winemaker Sara Pérez. For the moment his Finca Terrerazo 2000 blend of Bobal, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon seems too ambitious and expensive to me at around £20, fortified by rather monstrous tannins, but I'm told his Quincha Corral is more promising.

        Rozaleme on the other hand is only very lightly oaked, having spent the summer in large foudres, a 70:30 blend of Bobal:Tempranillo vines at 22 to 40 years with some fruit from 70-year-old Bobal to add intensity. This velvety, highly distinctive wine is broad, ripe and sweet but not fat - quintessentially Mediterranean, in fact, with a distinctly Tempranillo-like topnote of leather and tobacco leaves. (Bobal is much more famous for its colour and acidity than its alcohol - unlike the Monastrell that it is so often planted in the Levante.) Sarrión must be doing something right for he is already ruffling feathers with the Utiel Requena DO authorities who have chastised him for putting a vintage on what are technically table wines.

        There is quite enough structure and acidity to warrant the price of this interesting and deeply satisfying new wine, between £6 and £8 a bottle. UK Stockists:

        Andrew Chapman Fine Wines, Drayton, Abingdon
        A R G Vintners, Godalming
        Bacchus Fine Wines, Warrington, Milton Keynes
        Chippendale Fine Wines, Baildon, Shipley
        The Cellar D'Or, Norwich
        Cooden Cellars, Eastbourne
        The Cooler, London N16
        Davy & Co, Nr Northwich, Cheshire
        deFine Food & Wine, Sandiway
        The Flying Corkscrew, Near Hemel Hempstead
        Hedley Wright Wine Merchants, Bishop's Stortford
        Inspired Wines, Cleobury Mortimer
        Moriarty Vintners, Cardiff
        Noel Young Wines, Trumpington
        Richards & Richards Fine Wines, Bury
        The Ribblesdale Wine Co, Clitheroe
        Sommelier Wine Co, St Peter Port
        Thirst for Beer, Gwynedd
        Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh
        The Worcester Wine Company, Bromwich

Germany

Vino Grande
Thomas Kierdorf
Von Schmüller Str 8
D - 45128 Essen
(tel +49 201 796698)

Weinladen
G Ostermaier
Bahnhofstrasse 1
D - 85354 Freising
(tel +49 816 150421)

Wein & Getränke Zelinski
Einsteinstrasse 153
D - 81675 München
(tel +49 894 704352)

Netherlands

R M de Geus
Ruud de Geus
Overslagweg 1
NL - 2645 EK Delfgauw
(tel +31 153805043)



Johann Donabaum's report on what the floods did to his enterprise (and he was very far from the worst hit).

Our winery and the vineyards were not affected by the floods. In front of our house is a small river. The water level was alarming. But it was possible to protect the entry of our cellar with barriers and bags filled with sand. The only damage is that many walls in our terraces are broken now. It was too much rain and the earth was too heavy, so a lot of stone walls were sliding down. Maybe it takes one year to rebuild the walls. But we're looking forward, there are good grapes on our vines this year!

15/10/02



New World Semillon/Chardonnay 2002 South Africa

Now here's a wine name I never thought to find myself recommending wholeheartedly. New World SemChard seems so appallingly formulaic, doesn't it? And the SemChards of old were usually just a way of getting the C-word on the label without having to pay top dollar for Chardonnay in times back when there was a worldwide shortage of it. (How rapidly the wine market can change - even when vineyards supposedly take three years before they can produce a crop.)

And you might be forgiven for suspecting me of pro-South Africa bias, having made two other Cape wines my wine of the week since June. In fact I have grave reservations about many South African red wines. Many of them are still marked by an excess of acidity and sometimes tannin. But the poor old South African Rand is in a terrible state. South African winemakers are extremely keen to export, which makes many of the country's better wines an exciting proposition from the point of view of value. South African Chenin Blanc, when it is made well, preferably from low-yielding old vines, can be one of the world's best white wine values.

This offering is from Alex Dale and Ben Radford, also producers of such labels as Vinum and Radford Dale. Alex Dale worked in Burgundy for Drouhin and Jacques Prieur. Ben Radford is the quiet one, from a Barossa Valley wine family with all that that entails. Also on board are various others including Edouard Labeye who makes soft, gentle reds in the south of France.

Between them they are managing to turn out some of South Africa's most competently made wines with real appeal to palates outside South Africa and at far from ridiculous prices. The Vinum Chenin and Cabernet Sauvignon (£5.99 and £7.99 respectively at Oddbins, their exclusive retailer in the UK) both taste and look exceptional - and New World is their new, even cheaper line. The Shiraz from Breede River fruit is bigger and bolder but harmonious - all in all better than you might expect for £5.99.

This 60:40 blend of Semillon:Chardonnay makes perfect sense with the emphasis on the full-bodied, characterful, citrus oil Semillon fruit (of which I am sure we are going to see more and more over the next few years from all over the world). Chardonnay just gives it a bit of a lift and creaminess.

These New World wines are being launched with Oddbins in the UK but should be reasonably available in North America. They are are about to launch with Liberty in British Columbia and have fingers tightly crossed for Ontario's all-powerful LCBO, but the chief market is expected to be the US where the Vinum wines are already well established - not least at Disney's African operation at Epcot, Florida, a renowned showcase for South African wines. The New World Shiraz is expected to retail at $9.95 and the SemChard at $7. There should be other European markets too as they are already selling Vinum et al to, for example, Sweden.

22/10/02



Nero d'Avola

As I wrote in my recent article on Sicily, Nero d'Avola is the hot new red wine grape there and is extremely winning. A speciality of south-east Sicily but now planted by ambitious producers all over this Mediterranean island, it seems to combine attractively welcoming fruitiness - black cherries perhaps - with good structure.

It was interesting to discuss this variety with Riccardo Cotarella, the Michel Rolland of Italy, earlier this year. He admitted that at first he was not convinced by the grape, despite the enthusiasm of his Sicilian clients Abbazia Santa Anastasia and Morgante. He found it too like Mourvèdre or even Bobal in its obvious fruitiness and was worried about its ability to withstand drought and the fact that it is naturally high in acidity, however sweet it tastes. But now he admits that if yields are restricted the vine can produce some extremely good wine - as Morgante's Don Antonio 1999 proves.

Perhaps the finest Nero d'Avola is Santa Cecilia 1999 Planeta which sells for about £19 in Britain from Valvona & Crolla of Edinburgh, arguably Britain's finest Italian wine merchants (and certainly the country's best Italian wine merchant/deli/cafe) and Swig of London on 0207 903 8311. It is thoroughly sophisticated yet loses nothing of Nero d'Avola's velvety appeal.

Yet there is an increasing number of interesting Nero d'Avola bottlings for a fraction of this price, particularly under the Inycon and Mandrarossa labels from Settesoli and from Firriato, another innovative Sicilian producer. British wine enthusiasts may like to try La Nature Nero d'Avola 2001 which is currently in nearly 160 Safeway stores at £4.49.

I suggest you key Nero d'Avola in to WineSearcher and see what it throws up near you - although of the dozens of suggestions, by no means all of which I have tasted, I have to say I wasn't too impressed by the Canaletto label's version which I have tasted.

29/10/02



Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1998 Domaine Bois de Boursan/Domaine Versino

Those of you who live in Britain will feel that any wine chosen on this date should deliver some sort of fireworks. (5 November is Guy Fawkes Day, the day that we Brits traditionally light bonfires and fireworks to commemorate Mr Fawkes' 1605 plot to blow up our Houses of Parliament - although the firework season nowadays seems to run for about a week either side of this date.)

Which wine lobs more fireworks on to the palate than a well-made Châteauneuf-du-Pape? And such a rich cocktail of flavours and warmth is just what's needed for cooler nights. Trouble is that even in the southern Rhône - where fortunately there are hundreds of interesting producers to choose from so prices are reasonable relative to comparable wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy - it is easy to pay quite a lot of money for a decent Châteauneuf nowadays. Reputations have been built up rapidly over the past few years in this ultra-fashionable region. The trick is to find an up-and-coming producer with real ambition.

Step forward Jean-Paul Versino who has only recently taken over the family domaine known variously, according to the whim of the importer, as Domaine Bois de Boursan or Domaine Versino. He is fortunate to have some particularly old (50- to 100-year-old) Grenache vines to play with grown without agrochemicals on more than a dozen parcels on various different terrains including a mix of orientations and soil types. He makes a jazzy barrique cuvée from 90-year-old vines called Cuvée de Félix but this regular bottling, made from a blend of grape varieties and from vines with an average age of 60 years, is matured more gently in older, larger casks.

It is a deep vibrant crimson, has a slight coffee-bean note to its rich, gamey appeal with really attractive spice and well managed tannins. Many importers have already moved on to the 1999 at slightly higher prices but smart London (and Edinburgh) wine merchants Justerini & Brooks still have stocks from the famous, and nicely broachable, 1998 vintage for just £13 a bottle including all taxes and duty. This may be more than a supermarket Châteauneuf, but boy does it taste it. It does not, on the other hand, taste only half as good as Château de Beaucastel.

This wine, made mainly from Grenache:Syrah:Mourvèdre in a 70:15:15 ratio but with little grace notes of other Châteauneuf varieties, is one to look out for for drinking now or any time over the next eight years. Other British importers, apart from Justerini & Brooks, include John Armit Wines and Laytons. The principal US importers are Joe Dressner of New York at www.louisdressner.com (an interesting site in itself exhibiting a strong correlation with many of my own favourite producers). Versino also sends reasonable quantities to R&R in Ghent, Belgium; Norma Imports in Denmark; Caves SA in Gléon, Switzerland; and Caves Taillevent in Japan.

A comment from Joe Dressner of Louis Dressner, New York:
For the sake of accuracy, JR Imports of Michigan also works with Jean-Paul Versino and our firms divide up the country. JR Imports was there before we were. Our site [www.louisdressner.com] is hopelessly outdated, many of our growers are not even present there, and we hope to redo the material over the next few months.

Purple pagers, see wine news for more on wine websites.

05/11/02



Two Hands Angel's Share Shiraz 2001 McLaren Vale, Australia

Having been travelling and tasting out of the house far too much recently, I had allowed a shocking number of unsolicited wine samples to build up untasted chez moi. Yesterday I finally got round to dismantling the wine box mountain and started to wade through the bottles. This is generally a fairly dispiriting experience. There are rarely any badly made wines but equally rarely are there wines that really stoke my enthusiasm. Yesterday I tasted a range of wines from a producer new to me that I found exceptional - and in a category that I am generally underwhelmed by, Australian Shiraz.

My palate may well be atypical, for Australian Shiraz sells in huge quantities, but I find all too many of even the quite expensive examples are marked by extremely obvious, disjointed acidity and/or tannins. There is usually alcohol in abundance and some sweet, sometimes too sweet, fruit on the front of the palate but rarely are all these elements knit together - in fact they seem so disparate that I find it hard to believe they will ever combine to make a harmonious whole.

The Two Hands range is quite different, and quite distinctive in its densely charming, gently oaked style. The head of an Australian cooperage is involved, and the wines do taste as though Two Hands get the pick of the barrels, but it's the brainchild of Michael Twelftree who has been working like a very busy bee to build up a network of good grapes and suitable winemakers to go with them. Consistency may not be a strong point for this label for there has been quite a turnover in winemakers, but I would strongly recommend the 2001s I had the pleasure of tasting yesterday. Releases from this warm vintage include no fewer than seven different Shiraz-based reds from different parts of South Australia - all of them made with a gentle hand, some with an eye further into the future than others. (The Padthaway bottling, for example, needs quite a time. See more notes on what I hope to build up as a bank of tasting notes on Australian Shiraz on purple pages.)

The Angel's Share bottling is the least expensive - it even has a screwcap - but is the best value and is already just bursting with drinking pleasure. Very fragrant, it has surprisingly supple fruit that is so ripe it tastes almost more like old-vine Grenache than Shiraz. Maybe this is the McLaren Vale gloss working its usual magic. The wine is immensely flattering with its velvet texture, spreads itself to all corners of the palate and could be much enjoyed immediately or in a year or two. I thought it unbelievably good for what is cited on the label as a 2000 case production, and am rather worried by the news that in 2002 they have apparently increased production to 10,000 cases. It's difficult to imagine how they will keep up the quality - but then 2002 is a great vintage in South Australia so presumably that will help.

(If you think I am mad to be recommending a bottom-of-the-range screwcapped wine, take heed that I poured the remains last night for several extremely keen palates that had been successively doused in Lafon Meursault and four Leroy grands crus from vintages 1990 to 1992 and they were also impressed.)

The 2001 was sourced from a single vineyard in McLaren Vale and aged for 10 months in a mixture of new, old and shaved American oak barrels. It has certainly come right. Angel's Share 2001 (not 2002) was made by the busy Rolf Binder, an experienced Barossa hand with more than 20 vintages under his belt and such a wide array of responsibilities that one wonders whether he ever sleeps. His own winery is Veritas which also produces Christa-Rolf wines, but he also makes J J Hahn wines, Magpie Estate (with British wine merchant Noel Young), Viking and Whistler wines.

You can find this wine at several merchants in Australia for about $25 (Australian) and in the United States on WineSearcher, most notably at www.garagistewine.com of Seattle (which has a particularly interesting selection) at $16.99 a bottle. www.twohandswines.com has a useful list with full details of all importers, including many in Asia. Noel Young of Trumpington was the agent for this label and still has some stock of various 2000s. For any interested potential European importer, here is the relevant information:

Michael Twelftree
Director of Marketing
Two Hands Wines
PO Box 94
Walkerville
South Australia, 5081
tel +61 0412824453, fax +61 883426375, web www.twohandswines.com, email michael@twohandswines.com

25 November 2002 - Michael Twelftree adds:

Just one thing about your piece on Two Hands, our total production in 2002 will be 10,000 cases with 5,000 being Angels Share, not 10,000 cases of Angels Share.

12/11/02



Grüner Veltliner

Those who have read about the extraordinary blind tasting of Austria's native variety and top Chardonnays (see wine news) may wonder where they can get their hands on this wonder-grape.

Knoll, Bründlmayer and Prager are obviously great and extremely well-regarded producers (with the Knoll and FWW cooperative wines which performed so well in this tasting being rather exceptional), as are Loimer, Schloss Gobelsburg and Jurtschitsch - all in Kamptal like Bründlmayer, rather than the Wachau. Other top-drawer Wachau producers include the two Pichlers (Rudi and F X), Jamek, Högl, Schmelz, Jäger, Hirtzberger and the organic Nikolaihof. To check on other reliable sources of fine Grüner Veltliner, I can thoroughly recommend Peter Moser's The Ultimate Austrian Wine Guide 2002 published in English by Falstaff Publications. You can order it by clicking on the red guide at www.falstaff.at for 19.90 euros in Europe and 22.90 euros worldwide including shipping costs.

One good retail source of top-quality Grüner Veltliner is www.rare-wine.com which routinely ships single bottles around the world and is run by a complete Grüner Veltliner fanatic. According to WineSearcher best prices for Grüner Veltliner are to be found in Germany, although Nickolls & Perks (www.nickollsandperks.co.uk) of Stourbridge in England have some keen prices by the case.

If you're looking for a single-bottle introduction to this peppery, crackling, full-bodied white, whose combination of fruit and acidity wavers somewhere between grapefruit and dill pickle, I would strongly counsel you to choose an example from a vintage of a recent odd numbered year. Many of the wines made in 2000 and 1998 are unusually ripe and can be just a bit too fat - especially for those unfamiliar with Grüner Veltliner's somewhat uncompromising flavours. The 2001s, 1999s and 1997s are in general much finer, racier and more appetising.

Prager's 2001s, for example, are stunning and you can get your hands on a single bottle of winemaker Toni Bodenstein's Grüner Veltliner Achleiten Smaragd (the ripest form of Wachau white wine; Federspiel being lighter) 2001 from Morris & Verdin of London SE1 (tel 020 7921 5300) for £19 a bottle including duty and all taxes (it's 27 euros from rare-wine.com). Achleiten is one of the most distinctive vineyards in the world, each example being marked by the vineyard's characteristic mineral (gneiss) hallmark and this wine is particularly finely etched. It should deepen and soften over the next five years and more.

Morris & Verdin's relative bargain Grüner Veltliner at £9.90 a bottle is quite a different wine, the much more opulent Dr Unger's Alte Reben Oberfeld 2000 from east of the Wachau in Kremstal (also available from La Réserve of London and Wine Raks of Aberdeen). This is very forward and open, with massive fruit. It would be almost shocking to newcomers to the grape but would be a good match for Thai green curry.

American wine lovers can take advantage of the excellent Austrian prices and range respectively at merchants such as Sam's of Chicago and K & L of San Francisco. See WineSearcher.

20/11/02



Chassagne Montrachet 2000/01 Marquis de Laguiche, Joseph Drouhin

It can be difficult to find reliability in white burgundy. I've spent quite a bit of time recently tasting white burgundy blind and it has been on the whole a rather dispiriting experience (see Grüner Veltliner - distinctly groovy grape, and my tasting notes on 2000 grands crus white burgundy).

But in two different blind tastings this wine and its successor from the 2001 vintage have triumphed over scores of others in the same category which I find nothing short of remarkable. The 2000 is a much bigger wine than the 2001 and has a smoky whiff of liquorice about it. On the palate it is rich and silky-textured and would probably benefit from another two or three years in bottle. The 2001 is already expressive (Drouhin wines tend not to be the most reticent, nor the longest-lived) with some floral notes on the nose. On the palate it manages to be both delicate and lively. This vintage is not yet widely available but it should ideally be drunk before the 2000.

Yes, there are funkier, more idiosyncratic and - let's face it - more exciting white burgundies around, but this is a name that's easy to remember (Marquis de Laguiche is one of the relatively few landowners in the Montrachet vineyard - see tasting notes on Montrachet 1999s) and is reasonably well distributed. And Drouhin, both in Burgundy and Oregon, manages to fashion particularly satin-textured reds and whites which manage to have an admirably consistent track record.

Morgan Classic Wines which is London-based but exports all over the world are offering this wine at £260/$406 a case as I write this. Otherwise, WineSearcher can find many a retailer of a single bottle, though at more than £30/$50 apiece. O W Loeb of London SE1 are currently asking £325 a dozen for it.

26/11/02



High Altitude Malbec Shiraz 2001 Mendoza

Since reporting on the initial findings of this year's Geoffrey Roberts Award (see 2003 Award for details on how to apply for next year's award), Professor Roger Corder, who used his travel bursary to research a possible link between vineyard altitude and the longevity of those who drink its produce in Sardinia, I have been bombarded by requests from readers seeking an elixir of life.

I should make the following absolutely clear:



no one can guarantee that you will live to 100+
Professor Corder's are very preliminary indications
his findings don't suggest that any old Sardinian red is likely to stave off heart disease
nor do they necessarily suggest that the higher the vineyard the more 'healthy' the wine; there may be an optimum altitude
it looks likely that the most effective wines are red, grown at relatively high altitudes and made in a fairly rustic fashion with lots of polyphenols (tannins, pigments, etc) left in.

    Here's a wine that has been devised, quite by chance, to sell itself on its altitude. Its marketing manager had no idea of any possible health benefits associated with vineyard altitude until I told her. It's available exclusively in Britain, I'm afraid (sorry, sorry, sorry), and even there only at Somerfield supermarkets, but is certainly a fair buy at £4.99.

    It comes in an extremely smart bottle with a tall, thin silvery label depicting a llama. I saw so much wildlife when touring Argentina's high-altitude vineyards earlier this year that I'm sure llamas came into frame somewhere. I am reliably informed that the vineyards for this wine, made by Bodegas Escorhuela for British importers Private Liquor Brands (not my favourite name), are around 1000 metres above sea level - about twice as high as the conventional limit for viticulture in Europe. But of course Mendoza's vineyards are at a much lower latitude than most of Europe. According to the back label, it has been aged 'with' French and American oak, so this presumably means oak chips, or at the very best the odd plank/stave at this price, but it's a fair rendition of an attractive modern Malbec with a little Syrah added to give it spice. There is some suggestion of ripe black cherries and certainly a fair hit of those valuable polyphenols which are even more marked, as is the ripeness of the fruit, in the next, 2002, vintage which should be on the shelves of both Somerfield and Tesco by the beginning of February next year.

    Those of you who drink nothing but classed growths are not advised to rush out and buy this by the caseload, but for anyone else this wine would make a very creditable, and certainly conversation-provoking, red to serve to large numbers.

    Something grander and more widely available internationally will follow next week.

    03/12/02



    Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1995

    This wine soared out of the glass to triumph in a recent blind tasting of luxury and regular vintage-dated cuvées, including all the best-known (although Dom Pérignon of the same vintage ran it pretty close). It's still quite youthful and its all-Chardonnay ingredients give it a vivaciousness that is rarely a feature of Moët's rather more intellectual de luxe cuvée. The Taittinger wine already has a most alluring nose that sets it apart from more than 90 per cent of all champagne produced but on the palate you realise that this is a wine that will also be worth keeping - so buy now for future celebrations. (One of the most impressive wines we drank to celebrate the birth of our youngest, now 11, was a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1964. The rosé Comtes de Champagne is, as Australians say, not shabby, either.)

    If you're looking for one truly celebratory bottle to lay in over the holidays, this is it. I can't see how anyone would fail to recognise its class and distinction.

    In Britain, Majestic Wine Warehouses (which currently have the best champagne deals of all) has a special offer whereby you can pick up two bottles of this beautiful specimen from top vineyards on the Côte des Blancs together with two bottles of regular Taittinger non-vintage for £119.98 when the usual price would be £209.96 which strikes me as a good deal.

    Good old WineSearcher can offer no fewer than 43 stockists, all over the world, with best prices from London wine brokers uvine.com at $65.84 (though you will have to pay commission, etc), useful French wine brokers 1855.com at $77.40 and best retail price in the US from WineExchange.com in Orange County at $99.99.

    These are best prices among some that may seem relatively high for a bottle of champagne but in this case at least, the premium really is justified.

    10/12/02



    Château Lezongars 1999 Premières Côtes de Bordeaux

    Treat this wine as a supplement to my recent piece on reds for the holidays. There are few wines more useful than affordable claret and this is one of the best buys of all - though alas I tasted it too late to include in Saturday's survey.

    Lezongars is certainly a name to watch. For many years Philip and Sarah Iles ran two very successful dining clubs in London's financial district but Pontac's was bombed out by the IRA in the 1993 Bishopsgate blast and Mr Garraway's was encountering problems so they decided to move to Bordeaux to realise a long-held ambition to make rather than sell wine.

    They bought Château Lezongars (I still don't know what a zongars is) and its 40 hectares of vineyard just in time for the 1998 harvest. Since then the property has been converted to one designed to sell fruity, quite modern wine in bottle rather than in bulk, using Château de Roques as a second label for the wines they produce in all three colours. L'Enclos du Château Lezongars is a special bottling, while their top cuvée, Cuvée Spéciale, has done well in various tastings. All of these wines, described by the Iles family as New Wave Bordeaux, are still quite reasonably priced.

    The regular 1999 red Château Lezongars is just the ticket for current drinking and is available retail at Jeroboams wine and cheese shops in London and Cirencester (who do not undercharge) for just £6.95. Unlike so many red bordeaux at this price level, this one really does have plump, ripe, charming fruit on the mid palate, lifted by a note that is almost reminiscent of chestnut and is extremely easy to drink at the moment. In fact I would guess it is already in its prime and would not personally keep it for more than another year or two - but I could always be proved wrong. The wine is mainly Merlot, like the great majority of reds made north of the river Garonne, but contains 38 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and two per cent Cabernet Franc apparently. The promising strip of vineyards that is the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux always produces wines more like poor man's Médoc than poor man's St Emilion. Nine months' barrel ageing in first, second and third American oak has resulted in quite a bargain in my humble opinion.

    Various Lezongars wines are available retail in the UK from Jeroboams/Laytons in London, Handfords of Holland Park, The Good Wine Shop of Twickenham, The Grape Shop, and Philglas & Swiggot of London SW11, Pallants Wines of Arundel, Classic Wines of Beaulieu in Hampshire, Playford Ros in northern England and Andrew Wilson Wines of Stafford.

    The Dutch importer Residence Wijnen imports the whole range and sells them through Gouden Ton shops. In Belgium the wines will be distributed by Velu Vins from January. Within France the wines are distributed by Hawkins Distribution.

    The US importer is Vineyard Road of Boston. The wines are also imported by William Brewer of the Bahamas, Indelva of Honduras, Enoteca of Japan and The Case of Wine of New Zealand.

    17/12/02



    Château Belá Riesling 2001 Slovakia

    This wine could hardly be more Christmassy. It's always exciting to come across a completely new wine, but to come across one from a completely new (to me) wine-producing country that was for long hidden by the Iron Curtain is absolutely thrilling. Sorry, the one rather important bit that I have so far missed out is that the wine itself is quite superlatively delicious, and it is not too fanciful to say that with its sparkling fruit and intricately etched flavours it really does taste like a winter in Central Europe. You can almost lick the icicles off the bottle. (And I should point out that I wrote all this before I discovered just how inexpensive this wine is.)

    The wine from Kastiel Belá, whose name translates into Castle or Château Belá, is a joint venture between Egon Müller of the Saar in Germany and the old Slovakian family of Baron Ullmann whose seat was once the Castle Belá but which is now distinctly rundown. Only the extensive cellars have so far been restored. [Pause while I pick up The World Atlas of Wine and try to establish where the heck this wine comes from.] Ah yes, it's almost on the Hungarian border just north of the Danube, with the Carpathians sheltering the vineyards to the north, so by no means unlike the Wachau downriver of here where Belá's obviously talented local winemaker Miro Petrech once worked.

    For the moment, the enterprise does not own its own vineyards. Complicated post-Soviet negotiations with the state Land Office continue. But if they can produce a wine as good as this from bought-in grapes, we can only look forward to 2005 when the team reckons it should have secured ownership of the original Ullmann vineyard.

    Egon Müller first visited the region two years ago and became convinced that its cold winters, hot summers and dry autumns could produce some top quality dry Riesling to compete with the best from Alsace and Austria. Then along came the 2001 vintage, as extraordinary in Slovakia as in Germany, which turned out to be the first botrytised vintage in 20 years. The grapes were picked at 130 deg Oechsle, quite ripe enough to produce a Beerenauslese on the Egon Müller estate in the Saar. The fermentation was not nearly complete by the time the freezing temperatures of a Slovakian December brought it to a grinding halt, leaving a distinctly sweet wine but with crystal-clear acidity. The team decided, surely with infinite wisdom, that rather than fighting Nature by heating the cellar and adding cultured yeasts to re-start the conversion of sugar to alcohol, they should not look this gift horse in the mouth.

    The result is a beautifully crystalline, refreshing sweet Riesling that would make the most perfect, revivifying post-prandial conversation piece. Not unlike a Saar Beerenauslese but with more weight (12 per cent alcohol). And at a tiny fraction of the price.

    This is what Egon Müller has to say about the 2002 vintage of this new wine: 'the 2002 was harvested at around 105 deg Oechsle, or about 13 per cent potential alcohol, and two out of the three vats have already finished their fermentation while the third one is still at it. We have reason to hope that with the 2002 vintage we will be able to make a very nice dry Riesling - at a relatively friendly price.'

    The 2001 is also priced in what seems to me a very friendly fashion and is currently retailing at around 10 euros in Germany, 7.50 euros in France and 25 Swiss francs in Switzerland, though I have a nasty feeling that American wine lovers may find it hard to find it at such modest prices. UK importers Dreyfus Ashby are still working on finding retailers in the UK but expect it to retail at about £9 per single bottle in Britain. These are the current importers in other countries:

    Belgium: SWAFFOU
    France: Vivavin
    Germany: Wein & Glas Compagnie, and Les Amis du Vin
    Luxembourg: Monsieur Xavier Molitor
    Russia: DP Trade
    Singapore: Tasting Room Ltd
    USA: Frederick Wildman & sons Ltd

      It should also be available from about March 2003 through the following:

      Australia: Negociants Australia
      Switzerland: Fluppe

        24/12/02



        Rozaleme Bobal/Tempranillo 2001 Utiel Requena

        A New Year demands a entirely new sort of wine and here's a fascinating one. It's largely dependent on the deep-coloured Bobal, a grape that is so commonly planted on Spain's Mediterranean coast that when I compiled the figures for the listing of the world's 20 most planted grape varieties for my little pocket book Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes in 1996 it came in at number nine, a notch above Tempranillo (which must surely have overtaken Bobal decisively since then).

        It's officially a lowly table wine, a Vino de Mesa, made from vineyards in Utiel Requena well inland from Valencia which are saved from turning out flabby, porty wine by their altitude, an average of 850 metres. They are run by Toni Sarrión, son of the creator of a successful construction business who invested some of his pesetas in building up the family wine estate Mustiguillo while Toni studied economics at university.

        Taking over the reins of the family's various vineyard holdings as recently as the 1999 vintage, Toni Sarrión became a passionate advocate, one of the very few, of the local grape Bobal (which was for long dismissed as being suitable only for adding colour to blending vats in northern Europe and which some authorities think may be related to the Bovale of Sardinia). He has been playing with underground irrigation and strict clonal selection while continuing to grow bushvines in the traditional fashion.

        Purple pages subscribers will be familiar with Spanish wine authority Victor de la Serna, a regular contributor to our forum. Victor has planted vines (whose full-throttle produce I had the pleasure of tasting last July in Vienna) just 35 miles inland of Carrión in Manchuela. He freely admits 'I didn't believe in Bobal, so I planted Syrah... he has made the best Bobal wines ever... a very interesting new producer, one of the leaders in the rebirth of south-eastern Spain wines.'

        Rozaleme is the brainchild of British importers Liberty Wines whose flying winemaker is Alberto Antonini of Italy. It is, I'm afraid, available only in Britain for the moment (to make up for last week's wine that is available practically everywhere but). While Rozaleme has been made at another winery in Requena, Carrión is even more ambitious for the wines made at his own Mustiguillo bodega with the help of Priorat-based flying winemaker Sara Pérez. For the moment his Finca Terrerazo 2000 blend of Bobal, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon seems too ambitious and expensive to me at around £20, fortified by rather monstrous tannins, but I'm told his Quincha Corral is more promising.

        Rozaleme on the other hand is only very lightly oaked, having spent the summer in large foudres, a 70:30 blend of Bobal:Tempranillo vines at 22 to 40 years with some fruit from 70-year-old Bobal to add intensity. This velvety, highly distinctive wine is broad, ripe and sweet but not fat - quintessentially Mediterranean, in fact, with a distinctly Tempranillo-like topnote of leather and tobacco leaves. (Bobal is much more famous for its colour and acidity than its alcohol - unlike the Monastrell that it is so often planted in the Levante.) Sarrión must be doing something right for he is already ruffling feathers with the Utiel Requena DO authorities who have chastised him for putting a vintage on what are technically table wines.

        There is quite enough structure and acidity to warrant the price of this interesting and deeply satisfying new wine, between £6 and £8 a bottle. UK Stockists:

        Andrew Chapman Fine Wines, Drayton, Abingdon
        A R G Vintners, Godalming
        Bacchus Fine Wines, Warrington, Milton Keynes
        Chippendale Fine Wines, Baildon, Shipley
        The Cellar D'Or, Norwich
        Cooden Cellars, Eastbourne
        The Cooler, London N16
        Davy & Co, Nr Northwich, Cheshire
        deFine Food & Wine, Sandiway
        The Flying Corkscrew, Near Hemel Hempstead
        Hedley Wright Wine Merchants, Bishop's Stortford
        Inspired Wines, Cleobury Mortimer
        Moriarty Vintners, Cardiff
        Noel Young Wines, Trumpington
        Richards & Richards Fine Wines, Bury
        The Ribblesdale Wine Co, Clitheroe
        Sommelier Wine Co, St Peter Port
        Thirst for Beer, Gwynedd
        Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh
        The Worcester Wine Company, Bromwich

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