A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The other day at the Southwold Literary Festival I shared a stage with Simon Loftus, who used to run Adnams the local wine merchant (and its many other activities) with unparalleled aplomb. He retired far too early.
He pointed out that, while I fell in love with wine over a glass of Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses 1959, he’d done the same, at the tender age of seven, by sipping Ch Mouton-Rothschild 1945. He was concerned that nowadays wines like these are beyond the financial grasp of anyone below oligarch and oil-sheik level. How, he fretted, would young people today manage to afford similar life-changing experiences to ours?
I don’t think this is such a tragedy. The world of wine has changed immeasurably since we two seniors fell in love with wine. Today’s wine drinkers have so much more choice. Great wines are being made all over the world, and for many wine drinkers it is the quirky rather than the classic that lights their fire. Fine bordeaux in particular strikes many as distinctly vieux jeu.
With this in mind, my suggestions for seriously exciting red wines to drink and serve this festive season will be wide ranging. Let me start with acknowledgment of the whirlwind of western investment from which eastern European wine production has been benefiting. Some very fine wines are to be found in unlikely corners. Stobi Vranec 2011 Tikves (£9.99 Wine Rack, Adnams) is superbly mature and would cost twice as much if it came from somewhere more mainstream than the republic of Macedonia. It was blended, obviously skilfully, by my fellow Master of Wine Caroline Gilby, a specialist in matters vinous and eastern European.
Decidedly more conventional, Italian wine is on a roll, and Etna in eastern Sicily is arguably the most fashionable Italian wine district today. Despite the insistence by geologists that this is impossible, many of the best reds seem to me to have a suggestion (auto-suggestion?) of volcanoes or lava about them – a sort of warm earthiness. Some of the wines are pretty expensive. Passopisciaro and Terre Nere are the pioneers, but I much enjoyed Romeo del Castello, Allegracore 2013 Etna (£19.50 Tanners). The 2014 is even better, Sicily being the only Italian wine region to have triumphed last year. This fine wine is made from Etna’s noblest dark-skinned grape, Nerello Mascalese.
But Nebbiolo is the Italian grape that really sets wine lovers’ hearts racing. In its purest form it carries the appellations Barolo or Barbaresco but, such is growing demand for these relative rarities, they are rarely cheap and, inconveniently, need ageing for some years. Giuseppe Mascarello, Santo Stefano di Perno 2008 Barolo (£74.95 Berry Bros & Rudd) is stunning already, although it will surely improve. I tasted it next to a very respectable red burgundy from the same vintage and concluded Barolo 1, Burgundy 0. The fruit is already round and charming but, despite its 14.5% alcohol, the wine oozes finesse – if such a thing is possible – and positively vibrates with life.
To the north of Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo comes with a much less terrifying price tag and appellations such as Gattinara, Ghemme and Lessona. Travaglini, Tre Vigne 2009 Gattinara (£29.99 AG Wines – minimum purchase 12 bottles) comes in one of those silly lop-sided bottles, but the haunting tar and roses aroma of Nebbiolo is there with some seriously winning, mature fruit.
The perfumed, often pale Gaglioppo grape of Calabria is known as ‘the Nebbiolo of the south’ and I love it. Santa Venere Gaglioppo 2013 Cirò (£7.95 The Wine Society) has to be the bargain of all time – provided you like soft, voluptuous light reds with a dry, rather appealingly dusty (luxurious dust) finish.
The southern hemisphere can also offer some fine wine value. Chilean Syrah is a very variable animal with, as in South Africa, many an overdone example, but I was surprised and delighted by the freshness and balance offered by Casas del Bosque, Gran Reserva Syrah 2012 Casablanca (£14.50 The Good Wine Shop and many other independents). Seriously appetising stuff.
Even finer, a refined Syrah-based wine that I’d love every northern Rhône producer to taste, is one of the new wave South Africans, Rall Red 2013 Swartland (about £24 Swig, Roberson, Handford and others). The Syrah grown on schist in the Cape’s most fashionable wine region is supplemented by generous portion of juicy, extremely fruity Grenache 2014 which pumps up the more classical, peppery Syrah 2013.
Of course the southern hemisphere country with the longest-established reputation for Syrah/Shiraz is Australia. One of the most admired producers of this variety in its new form (not too oaky, not too alcoholic, polished tannins and with real interest) is Tim Kirk of Canberra. His Clonakilla Shiraz 2013 Hilltops (about £18 Waitrose, Noel Young and many other independents) is not his top bottling (which demands cellaring) but is already a marvellously subtle drink.
One small wine region that has emerged, blinking, into the spotlight of international fashion is the Jura and I am a sucker for its finest local red wine grape, Trousseau. Far from a blockbuster, B & S Tissot, Singulier Trousseau 2013 Arbois (£27.50 Berry Bros & Rudd, Hedonism) crams an astonishing amount of floral and lead-pencil flavour into its airy 12% alcohol.
For those who are impatient with all this fresh modishness and yearn for traditional classics, I would suggest Bodegas Riojanas, Monte Real 2009 Rioja (£11.99 Adnams). From a particularly opulent vintage, this is a wine aged in sweet, old-fashioned, vanilla-scented American oak that will bring back memories for those who were drinking wine in the 1970s – or perhaps inspire a brand new enthusiasm in their children. This would go particularly well with game.
Fine red burgundy is a pretty irresistible accompaniment for the turkey and gamier birds to be found on so many tables at this time of year. The strike rate is increasing from what was admittedly a fairly low base. One notable current charmer is Frédéric Magnien, Vieilles Vignes 2012 Gevrey-Chambertin (£36.70 The Wine Tasting Shop) that still has a way to go but is admirably composed.
Better value and a little more evolved is Domaine Serrigny, La Dominode Premier Cru 2012 Savigny-lès-Beaune (£26 The Wine Society), the produce of 90-year-old vines and delightfully pure fruited.
The world of wine is just waiting to be explored – and what better time to do so?