This is a much longer version of an article published by the Financial Times. See wine-searcher.com for more stockists where you live. See last week's reds.
Going through my notes on the thousands of wines I have tasted in the last few months, I became obsessed by price. I have been lucky enough to taste some great white burgundy (see, for example, our recent Burgundy, Beaujolais – a compilation), the classic dry white, but by the time it reaches its apogee it is either impossible to find retail or tends to cost a bomb.
At this point I should remind value-conscious wine lovers of my account last May of a comparative blind tasting of Kumeu River Chardonnays with some of Burgundy’s finest white wines in which the New Zealand wines triumphed. Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay can be found in many an independent UK retailer (and from The Wine Society and Waitrose online) from £17.50 a bottle. The rest of my recommendations below are listed in approximately ascending price order.
Tahbilk Marsanne 2011 Nagambie Lakes (from £11 Hic Wines and many other independents) is ridiculously underpriced and light in alcohol for such a lime-zest-stuffed, fruity, fully mature wine from a great northern Rhône grape.
The Mâconnais is the most obvious place to look for keenly priced alternatives to classic Côte d’Or white burgundy, but far too many examples are either dilute or, if they have aspirations to grandeur, no bargains. The wines of Heritiers Lafon (from about £12.50), a Mâconnais branch of one of Meursault’s grandest producers, are always reliably superior. And I was recently taken by the unpromisingly labelled Corney & Barrow White Burgundy 2014 Mâcon Chaintré (£11.50 Corney & Barrow, not plentiful enough to be featured on their website, tel 020 7265 2340). It was sourced by a series of coincidences, via wine TV star, ex Bay Area fine-wine importer Martine Saunier, from Dominique Cornin and has great introvert smokiness and concentration for the money.
If you look carefully, you can find white wines that have benefited from considerable bottle age at bargain prices. I would have ignored La Tour des Vents 2011 Bergerac (£10 or six for £50 Borough Wines) and assumed it was over the hill if I had come across it on a shelf rather than at the most recent Wine Car Boot get-together of independent wine merchants in London’s King’s Cross. I would guess it was the substantial portion of Sémillon grapes that has added longevity, ballast and interest to this Sauvignon Blanc. This is one of those wines that is rich and intense but dry rather than sweet and should continue to drink well for another two years.
Chile’s finest can also challenge white burgundy nowadays. Pandolfi Price, Larkün Chardonnay 2013 Itata (£12.95 Stone, Vine & Sun, Berry Bros & Rudd too) is a marvel of Chablis-like finesse made by someone with considerable experience of making burgundy – although he is rightly adamant that he is not aiming to make an exact copy from this unusual vineyard. Stone, Vine & Sun also offer, for just £2 more, Errázuriz Chardonnay 2014 Aconcagua Costa, another crystalline example, this time cooled by proximity to the Pacific rather than by its high latitude.
One sign of gentrification is surely a good-quality independent wine merchant. Step forward, Walthamstow, now proud home to Forest Wines, who list M&A Arndorfer, Strassertal Grüner Veltliner 2014 Kamptal at £12.99 and just 12% alcohol. This hugely characterful example of Austria’s signature grape is stuffed full of racy grapefruit flavour after a wonderfully pungent perfume.
You know Pinot Grigio? Verus Pinot Gris 2013 Slovenia (about £13 Butlers Wine Cellar, Corks of Cotham, Field & Fawcett, Woodwinters) is quite unlike most of them. Unlike basic Pinot Grigio, it is chock full of flavour with the perfumed breadth of an Alsace Pinot Gris but has the crisp freshness of the best Pinot Grigio of Friuli in north-east Italy and is bone dry. The Verus range of varietal white wines is edging up in price but is still terrific value.
Made across the border in Friuli, Castello di Buttrio, Mon Blanc 2013 Colli Orientali del Friuli (£15 The Real Wine Co) is a charming unoaked blend of three local grapes – Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Istrian Malvasija. Like the Verus Pinot Gris, it is hugely refreshing and crystalline but has a lovely honeyed middle kept lively with a vibrant green streak. Truly middle European.
An even more distinctive unoaked Italian white at the same price is Ca’Lojera 2014 Lugana (£15 Passione Vino) that delivers orange peel on the nose and truly appetising, juicy fruit on the palate from the Verdicchio grape grown in this small wine zone on the southern shore of Lake Garda.
One of the most exciting wines to have come my way this year was at the London Greek Wine Festival, the latest vintage of Sigalas Assyrtiko 2014 Santorini (£16.80 Maltby & Greek) from vines over 50 years old on this extraordinary volcanic island in the middle of the Aegean. This is a dry, lemon-scented, finely chiselled wine that can age beautifully, as a wonderfully persistent 2008 tasted recently proved eloquently. Assyrtiko is so obviously a great Greek grape variety that Peter Barry of Jim Barry Wines has dragged it through the arduous Australian quarantine system to grow it in the Clare Valley.
The classic white wine grape of Clare Valley is, rather unexpectedly in view of the heat there, the Riesling of Germany and Jeffrey Grosset is the uncrowned king of Clare Riesling. Polish Hill is his most famous bottling but usefully earlier-maturing is Grosset, Springvale Riesling 2013 Clare Valley (about £20 Altus, Invinity, Secret Cellar, Wine Bear). I have never had a disappointing vintage and even the Springvale bottling can improve for up to 10 years in bottle – truly classic.
The Côte Chalonnaise is the halfway house between the Mâconnais and the grand Côte d’Or. Too often Chalonnaise wines taste a little rustic but Jean-Baptiste Ponsot, Montpalais Premier Cru 2013 Rully (£20 Domaine Direct 020 7404 9933) is finer than many a grander white burgundy and will improve further.
Now, a nod to the new. Vanya Cullen, one of Australia’s most admired wine producers, was as curious as I am about the new vogue for orange wines, whites tinted orange by being made like red wines in contact with the grape skins. Cullen, Amber 2014 Margaret River (from £23 Corking Wines, Noel Young, Oz Wines, Wine Bear and a part wine of the week) is the delicious result. Lightly chewy with peach and apricot flavours – this is a fascinating Sémillon/Sauvignon blend. The birds got these late-picked grapes this year so take advantage now.
I’m not the biggest fan of common or garden Marlborough Sauvignon but I was hugely impressed by the seriousness of Sam Weaver’s Churton, Best End Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Marlborough (£24.90 Tanners) from a high-elevation vineyard. The flavours are more in the mineral than fruit spectrum and I’d happily drink it any time over the next three years.
The 2011 vintage of the stunning blend Alheit, Cartology 2014 Western Cape (from £24.95 Edgmond, Harvey Nichols, Hedonism, Old Bridge, Swig, Woodwinters) was Julia’s wine of the week three years ago. Chris and Suzaan Alheit are not getting any worse at making wine from these old Chenin and Sémillon vines. It is, as they say on their website, very ‘taught’ but has mellifluous green herbs and fruit too. A real delight and their best vintage so far.
Now that he is on his own, and gradually repossessing the old Billaud-Simon vineyards, Samuel Billaud is making some of the most precise Chablis around. Samuel Billaud, Mont de Milieu Premier Cru 2012 Chablis (£25.50 Haslemere Cellar) is already more expressive than many 2012 Premiers Crus with hints of both honey and smokiness. Very long and satisfying, this is the arch thirst-quencher.
One of the great mysteries of the world is why some of the finest German Rieslings are not more expensive. Sebastian Payne MW at the Wine Society is good at winkling out mature bargains. Von Kesselstatt, Piesporter Goldtröpfchen lange Goldkapsel Riesling Auslese 2006 Mosel 7.5% (£26 The Wine Society) is stunningly good value for those seeking a complex, mature, fruity, delicate wine with only 7.5% alcohol. This would be a real treat to sip with a book or a screen. I was also very impressed by the 2011 vintage of an 8% Hain Riesling (£16.70 Tanners) but I see they have already moved on to the 2013.
Quite different in build and alcohol level, 14%, is Ch Maris, Brama Grenache Gris 2012 Vin de France (£27 Hic Wines, £27.50 Armit). This stunningly tense-but-dense wine shows just how great dry whites from the pink-skinned mutation of Grenache can be. It’s made by Bertie Eden from grapes interplanted with old Carignan in a vineyard in the rocky terrain above Félines-Minervois.
Only slightly more expensive is Crystallum, Clay Shales Chardonnay 2014 Overberg (from £28 Handford, Slurp.co.uk, Wine Bear and others) made by Peter Finlayson. This has really developed intensity and complexity since I first tasted it in January and is one of South Africa’s most sophisticated examples of a style at which it excels.
And finally, an Australian classic, classic in terms of variety/location combination, age and producer. The Tyrrells and the McWilliams are the wine families of the Hunter and Vat 1 has been going strong for decades before anyone had ever heard of a grape called Chardonnay. Unfortunately, I would guess this wine was imported into the UK when the Australian dollar was sky high. For this price, you would struggle to find this sort of quality in a 2009 white from Burgundy or Bordeaux: Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon 2009 Hunter Valley (about £35 Berry Bros & Rudd, Harrods, Mill Hill Wines, The drinkshop.com, vintagemarque.com, VinQuinn, Roberts & Speight). Made from their oldest (ungrafted, unirrigated) vines and bottled very early, this is a style meant to mature in bottle – which it does for many years, even though it’s only 11.5% alcohol. Tangy lime blossom and a sort of bone-dry, burnished finish.
See also this collection of recommended Australian Chardonnays, and virtually all our recent compilations; just put the word compilation in our search box, choosing the ‘Everything else’ option.