The Gold of Naples (and Puglia)

Sometimes, you come across an article so energetically and passionately written it completely consumes you and you instantly want to eat that food, drink that drink or travel to that place in order to share in the experience that the author so emphatically puts across.

I had bookmarked – and only now re-discovered – an article from the website of US food magazine Saveur called The Gold of Naples in which Keith Pandolfi revisits the home of his “beloved but long gone great-grandfather” to discover the true origins of pizza.

Ostensibly it’s not a terrifically exciting subject, I agree, but you can’t but be carried along by the enthusiasm and zeal with which it is written; the hallmark of excellent writing, in other words. I dare you to read it and not crave a pizza afterwards.

In fact, over the weekend I did indeed cobble together my own attempt at Naple’s most famous export, using Pizza da Piero‘s guiltily excellent pizza bases. To match I had a bottle of Tormaresca Torcicoda 2010, a Primitivo from Salento in Puglia, the ‘heel’ of the Italian ‘boot’, so to speak.

Primitivo is Puglia’s native grape, and in my (admittedly limited) experience tends to be overly hot, spicy, and uninteresting (often due to the aforementioned hot spiciness). Fans of Californian Zinfandel will, without realising it, be very familiar with this grape since they are one and the same: clippings brought to America by a Puglian emigrant were unwittingly believed to be a new variety, and so christened Zinfandel, though no-one knows where that name originated.

Back to  South Italian Primitivo though. Tormaresca is the Puglian sub-brand of the Antinori Family’s Tuscan-based empire, and I was confident in approaching this bottle since you can be sure that anything produced by this famous dynasty isn’t done half-heartedly.

Bright ruby in the glass, it was surprisingly more rounded in the mouth than I expected, compared to the number of harsh and angular Primitivos I’ve had in the past. The palate is quite New World Cabernet-like: deep dark fruit with blackberry dominant, with some anise after it opened out and some slight tannic bitterness at the end which called out for food. Ideal for my pizza, then.

In all a plush, glossy wine and highly recommended, though at 14% meant that I had to be careful of just how much I imbibed. But this, alas, was a sample bottle from the winery that I had hanging around and isn’t currently available in Ireland (as far as I’m aware). You can get it in the UK, though. Sorry about that.

Tormaresca Torcicoda 2010
Approx €12-€15, from these outlets in the UK, Italy and Germany
100% Primitivo

Rioja Romantic View

Rioja, Indifference, Exploration

I really like Rioja. But to admit as much can prove problematic.

What I’m about to say may sound elitist and hipster, but Rioja is unfortunate in that it’s so popular. It’s on a par with Chablis, Chianti, ‘Bordeaux’ and others in that it’s made in a readily identifiable, appealing style with a name that is easily remembered but exotic-sounding enough to be said out loud with conviction.

So those who “don’t know much about wine but know what they like” order it repeatedly, as it gives them a sense of control over what is inarguably a complex area. This in itself is absolutely no problem, but when Rioja et al are mindlessly chosen simply because it’s a name that can be remembered easily or, worse, because it makes you sound like you’re knowledgeable about wine, then the situation becomes very worrisome.

Many people, it seems, choose these clichéd regions without really knowing why they’re drinking them. But before I am hung, drawn and quartered for being a wine snob, let me take some examples from other areas of our daily gastronomic lives where we have no fear of expressing our opinions.

Ask anyone where the best burger is to be found and instantly a debate is sparked with everyone offering steadfast opinions. Ask why one place is better over another and there won’t be much by way of hesitation there either. I don’t know any burger experts, or those trained in burger production or involved in the burger trade, but what I do know is that everyone I know can put at least one word on why their outlet of choice surpasses the rest in this area. Maybe their favourite place makes them bigger than others, maybe it’s juicier, or the toppings, or perhaps even the chips or the service that edges it for them.

Whatever it is – be it burgers, steaks, chicken wings, films, music – the reality is that though most people won’t be experts in the area they can at least vocalise their subjective opinions on the matter. They’ve tried a few versions of the same thing and from this experience they can compare and contrast.

But when it comes to wine people go numb. Why is that? The perception that it’s a rarefied and impenetrable area? Amble into your local Tesco, Supervalu or even petrol forecourt and you’ll dozens if not hundreds of accessible and cheap offerings.

Is it the fear of wine snobs looming over your shoulder, sniggering at your lack of knowledge? There has been a seismic shift in wine writing and education over the last decade where everyone involved in the trade are bending over backwards to educate and include as much as possible, so this is a wholly unfounded and apparently self-inflicted inferiority complex.

Is it inertia? Maybe indifference? Either way, wine producers spotted this miles off and the more unscrupulous ones now produce tanker loads of cheap, shite wine that only barely scrape into the legal definition of the regions their from. Worse is that they damage the perception of that area, undoing decades if not centuries of hard, honest work.

So what most of the world gets is, well, really shite Rioja – over-oaked, flabby, jammy crap that bares no resemblance to what half-decent Rioja can be like. Don’t get me started on Campo Viejo, and the piss-poor offerings in restaurants struggling to balance margins and the budgets of their clientele is even worse, bad enough to make a grown man cry.

So. What to do? Well, if you like Rioja – or Chablis, Chianti, Fleurie – start there and find out what differentiates one brand from another. You’ll likely already know why you prefer Lindt over Cadbury’s, so why not apply that methodology to wine? Buy one Rioja this week, and another one the next. Compare and contrast. Ask your local, independent off-licence for tips. Start exploring and educating yourself to the differences within your comfort zone and work out from there. You’ll never regret it.

Anyway. I love Muga’s Riojas. Over the weekend I had the Muja Rioja Reserva 2007 – intelligent use of oak means that they avoid the confected vanillin characteristics of lesser wines from the region. Still, it’s rich, full and silky with leathery blackberry notes. A little lighter on the palate too, which again stands it apart from the usual clunky offerings that we’re subjected to. A bit of heat and spice on the back palate, while given time in the glass it becomes more leathery, savoury and saline, crying out for some Jamón ibérico. Delicious.

Muga Rioja Reserva 2007
€21.99 from The CorkscrewO’Brien’s, Superquinn, WineOnline, The Vineyard Wine Co., and many others
70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, 7% Mazuelo and 3% Graciano

La Foresteria Ariel View

A Visit to Masi: Part 3 of 3

This is the third post of three - click here for the first post, and here for the second.

A Stay at La Foresteria

Perhaps not entirely wine-related, but our stay at Serego Alghieri’s La Foresteria during our visit to Masi couldn’t go without mention.

For all my years dealing with Masi I didn’t realise that there wasn’t really a central focal point for the company per se, beyond their functional offices and the areas seen on our tour which, even then, isn’t available to the general public.

Instead Masi use the Alighieri family’s magnificent estate next door, only about 100 metres away; that is, if you go to Verona looking for the Masi experience then you’ll be deferred to La Foresteria, as its proper name will have it, in order to experience, taste, and enjoy.

But this isn’t a bad thing, In fact it’s a bloody amazing thing – La Foresteria is an idyllic, rambling estate accessed via a pretty cypress tree-lined avenue and consisting of a number of buildings of varying ages, with eight unique apartments that hold a varying number of people and contain kitchenettes and living rooms, all named after native local grape varieties of course. Ours was Corvina.

Our Basic but Cosy Accommodation
Our Basic but Cosy Accommodation

The estate was renovated in what they call “the aristocratic country house style,” which means, baldly, that the décor of the accommodation on first sight looks quite meagre and basic, but very quickly becomes very homely and comfortable. Precisely the style they were going for I’m sure.

As well as guest accommodation La Foresteria also has conference and banqueting facilities, regularly holding weddings and product launches, as well as a cookery school. I even stumbled across the traditional drying lofts, more exposed to the air in the old-school style rather than the more controlled environment of the nearby Masi winery, and what’s better is that they were actually fully-functioning drying lofts and not something superficial for the benefit of guests.

The Serego Alighieri Drying Lofts
The Serego Alighieri Drying Lofts

The estate wraps itself around a couple of picturesque courtyards, the more beautiful of the two containing a fountain and leading onto a small manicured garden. The whole complex opened out onto a gentle slope overlooking the vineyards of Valpolicella, with cypress trees punctuating the distant haze. To say that La Foresteria is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in the world sounds like hyperbole, but it really is.

It’s here that Masi also have their ‘cellar door’ – that is wine shop and tasting room, where pretty much all of Masi’s wines can be tasted and bought, as well as olive oil, balsamic vinegar, grappa di Amarone (a spirit that really wasn’t to my taste), the Veronese speciality Vialone Nano rice, acacia honey, chestnut spread (another local speciality) and cherry jam – all served up by genial staff.

We bought ourselves a chilled bottle of their Conte Federico Brut 2009 sparkling wine, made of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and had an impromptu alfresco picnic of bread, cheese and meats sourced from a nearby supermarket, settling ourselves out the back of the estate which, typically, looked out onto a fallow field overshadowed by a old Italian hilltop village. I’m really struggling to find synonyms for ‘picturesque here,’ but I’m sure you get the idea.

A View Out the Front, and the Back
The View Out the Front, and the Back

So without labouring the point I couldn’t recommend La Foresteria more highly. Located only 20kms or so north of Verona it’s a must if you’re in that part of the country. Believe me: you won’t be disappointed.

Richie at Masi

A Visit to Masi: Part 2 of 3

This is the second post of three - click here for the first post, and here for the third.

The Cellars

From there we descended to a couple of unassuming rooms that contained some of Masi’s experimental endeavours. Scores of bottles, both in racks and boxes, were tagged at their necks with hand-written labels and containing ancient grapes resurrected and unusual varieties vinified in various ways.

Oseleta is one such grape that Masi has ‘resurrected’ after having being forgotten or ignored for decades. In typically Masi fashion they have raised this baton and carried it proudly. This is a grape historically disregarded for its difficulty, producing tannic and harsh wines, but Masi have been unafraid to take the bull by the horns and have been experimenting in a multitude of ways in order to coax the best out of what they have come to see as something of a prodigal son returned.

These experimental bottlings sat beside square barrels, another Masi trial but one abandoned given the difficulty of keeping the multiple corners watertight, as well as other regular barrels made of weird and wonderful woods, and cross-sections of a number of soil samples taken at various points in the Veneto in Masi’s effort to identify the perfect sites for their plantings.

Masi Experimental Barrels and Bottlings
Masi’s Experimental Barrels and Bottlings

From there we descended again to their cellars proper, where hundreds of barrels in various sizes, shapes and woods were spread across a maze of irregularly-sized rooms. These also included walls of bottled Amarone that lay ageing, tightly packed in dark hulking masses, as well as some mosaics, sculptures and some ornate barrels – one of which, filled with Amarone, was to be signed by the winners of the upcoming Masi Prize ceremony only a few weeks after our visit.

The barrels ranged in size from the regular barriques you see in winery photographs and which hold 225 litres of wine, right up to fusto Veronese which hold 600 litres. I think there were some old-school botte that held 1,000L+, but by now my head was swimming so excuse me if I’ve forgotten a few details!

Needless to say it was a fantastic endeavour, but the best was yet to come.

The Tasting

We emerged, blinking, into the bright reception hall of a modest Masi’s villa which sits next to their workaday offices, from where we were led to the left to a dining room where a full tasting session was laid out for us.

I was aware of a tasting of wines at the end of the tour, but not to this extent: a beautifully delicate room complete with walls adorned with frescos of orange trees and windows framing the beautifully hazy Venetian countryside outside held a long mahogany dining table with each place complete with official tasting mats, booklets, pens, pre-poured glasses of wine and packets of grissini to nibble on. Now this is how you do a wine tasting!

The Incredible Tasting Room at Masi
The Incredible Tasting Room at Masi

After a short video introduction we began with the Serego Alighieri Posessioni Rosso 2011, a blend of Veneto’s Corvina and Molinara with Tuscany’s Sangiovese. Serego Alighieri was a descendent of the poet Dante Alighieri, he of The Divine Comedy fame, and Masi now produce wines on behalf of the current head of the family, Count Pieralvise di Serego Alighieri. Their property in the Veneto was bought as far back as 1353 by Pietro Alighieri, Dante’s son, who had followed his father into exile in Verona from Tuscany and had stayed in the area after the poet’s death. They don’t do history by halves here in Italy.

Anyway, this wine is their entry-level one, and accordingly is a light, fruit-forward, spiced cherry quaffer for every day drinking. A nice simple start to the tasting.

Next was Masi’s own Brolo Campofiorin Oro 2009, the next step up from Masi’s ‘sort-of-Ripasso,’ Campofiorin. This differs from the regular Campofiorin in that instead of the standard Venetian blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, the latter in this case is swapped out for 10% of Oseleta, the resurrected grape mentioned in my last post.

But I found this to be somewhat ‘hot’ and overpowering, which with a little time in glass gave up some clove and pepper characteristics along with some savoury notes. However this ‘big brother’ of an already powerful wine I think needed some extra time in the bottle to mellow out.

The regular Campofiorin for its part, though not tasted that day, is soft and supple and more easily approachable than the Brolo Campofiorin Oro and is widely available here.

We then moved on again to another Serego Alighieri wine, this time their Valpolicella dell’Anniversario 2009. I had this before and loved it, and this tasting was no different. It’s a really premium Valpolicella, leagues away from the everyday Valpolicellas enjoyed on more casual occasions. Rich, deep and surprisingly aromatic, it had notes of dried fruit due to some of the blend containing apassimento grapes and had fantastic length with a nice bit of subtle grip at the end. On return I got come violet and dried tea. A delight.

Then it was on to the first of two Amarones, beginning with Masi’s flagship Costasera 2008. It has in intensely concentrated nose that with some time reveals tobacco, leather and again some clove and tea leaves. These repeat themselves on the palate which carries an illusion of sweetness due to it glycerine content, which is increased in the apassimento process. A huge, bear-hug of a wine, but one to be approached with caution, both due to its intensity and its alcohol, the latter of which comes in at a whopping 15%.

The next Amarone was the Vaio Armaron 2006 from the Serego Alighieri estate which, though containing the same grapes and undergoing the same apassimento process, spends extra time in wood and bottle, hence the two year difference between this and the Costasera. The result is, if possible, an even more concentrated wine, though more perfumed than the Costasera. However it was slightly rougher, I felt, than the supple Masi Amarone, with more spice and raisin/date notes evident too.

Claudia suggested that while the Costasera is best served with food, the Vaio Armaron is better on its own, but I found myself disagreeing. The Vaio Armaron was that bit more tannic and acidic than the Masi Amarone, which I felt would suit food more, while the smoothness of the latter better befitted sipping on its own.

Finally, we ended the incredible tasting with Casal dei Ronchi 2009, Serego Alighieri’s Recioto, basically a sweet version of Amarone. This was very fruity and generous on the nose with cherry and redcurrant, but it lacked enough supporting acidity to make it that bit moreish. That said it wasn’t cloying, but the end impression was pleasant yet fleeting. Though not available in Ireland, the Italian price of €28 per 500ml bottle meant that the resulting price-quality ratio left a lot to be desired.

In all it was a revealing and worthy tasting, one thoroughly enjoyed, though I didn’t expect half of the six bottle selection to consist of Serego Aligheri wines. Which was no hardship, of course, especially given that we were staying on the incredible Serego Alighieri estate itself, of which more in the next post…

Masi bamboo rack

A Visit to Masi: Part 1 of 3

This is the first post of three - click here for the second post, and here for the third.

In September I finally made it to the home of Masi, just north of Verona in Italy’s Vento region. I say ‘finally’ as Masi have consistently been one of my favourite wine brands since I started in the wine trade, having worked and developed a close relationship with them over the last five years or so.

Apart from their truly lovely wines at multiple price points, their efforts within and beyond the realm of winemaking in Veneto are wonders to behold.

Masi’s motto is ‘Veneti Valori,’ meaning ‘Venetian Values,’ which refreshingly is not some empty marketing slogan but instead is something of an maxim of the company that permeates every decision they make, from winemaking to cultural initiatives and beyond.

This almost parochial zeal and their efforts to maintain and develop traditional winemaking methods is truly admirable, especially when pursued in that intensely passionate yet jolly way that is seemingly only possible in family-run wineries such as this.

The Boscaini Family
The Boscaini Family

But Masi takes these ‘Venetian Values’ further, extending their influence into the arts and culture scene of the Veneto. One example is their annual “Masi Prize,” which for the last thirty years has celebrated and highlighted the successes of those with Venetian roots in their respective professional fields.

From this they developed the offshoot “Fondazione Masi” which itself aims to cultivate and develop those very characteristics that are lauded in the Masi Prize, thus completing a cycle of patronage that, again, is not for the marketing ‘optics’ but instead, from what I’ve seen, is a sincere and earnest effort to develop and promote the arts and culture of their locale.

But not everything is in sepia for Masi, with cutting-edge initiatives nestling comfortably aside old-school techniques. For example, instead of a single winemaker they have a “Technical Group” that makes informed, scientific decisions in place of the caprice or ego of a single winemaker; they experiment with ancient grape varieties long forgotten but resurrected via modern cloning methods; they use barrels of different woods and shapes; ancient techniques are developed for use in new countries and new varieties; and much more besides.

The Masi Technical Group
The Masi Technical Group

So between the tangible quality of their wines, the less tangible efforts in the cultural sphere, the admirable mix of tradition with progress, not to mention the terrific warmth and good humour I’ve encountered in every level of their organisation, it’s been easy to fall in love with this staunchly proud northern Italian wine company.

So come September a trip to the Veneto – the choice of which, ahem, may or may not have been influenced by all of this in the first place – meant that I could finally visit a place that has for too long been number one on my list of wineries to visit.

The Drying Lofts

Our tour was serenely conducted by the affable and charming Claudia and involved an incredible wine tasting at the end. But more of the latter later.

Claudia led us first to Masi’s famous drying lofts, where freshly-picked grapes are laid out to dry on bamboo racks. This method, which is native to the Vento region and traces it roots back to Roman times, results in grapes that will have lost 30-40% of their water content in a process called apassimento.

The result of this is that with less water the flavours of the grapes are concentrated, and from here one of two traditionally Venetian styles of wines are produced.

Firstly, a wine can be made using only these semi-dried grapes – which, for record, are Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara – with the result being the famous Amarone, a big, beefy wine full of concentrated flavour and coming in normally at a whopping 15-16% alcohol. They recommend it be drank at the end of a meal – slowly – hence Amarone often being called a ‘contemplative wine’.

Otherwise a Ripasso can be made. Traditionally the grape musts (the used skins, seeds, etc.) used in the production of Amarone were added into regular Valpolicella wine, the high sugar content of the musts kicking off a second fermentation, increasing the alcohol and adding more complex flavour. In other words the usually light, bright and cheery Valpolicella is ‘beefed up’ into something that some call a ‘baby Amarone.’

Masi were the first to commercialise the Ripasso method as it happens, but over the years have diverged away from using leftover Amarone musts and instead use the fresh semi-dried grapes. The reason for this, I was told by president of Masi Sandro Boscaini during his last visit here a couple of years back, was first and foremost quality and freshness. Though the traditional method has its place, it was felt that the result was often similar to making tea from a used teabag. A strong analogy, and one that perfectly encapsulates Masi’s way of doing things: tradition, yes, but not at the expense of quality.

So an alternative was found: instead of using leftover Amarone musts why not use fresh apassimento grapes? Tradition is maintained, and the end product is improved. Again, pure Masi.

But, back to the tour.

We were incredibly lucky to have timed the tour as we had – during the harvest – so that when we arrived at the drying lofts the grapes were being laid out to start their slow apassimento process.

Laying out the grapes
Laying out the grapes

In this over-marketed and media-saturated age we’ve all become immune to the abuse of terms like ‘hand-crafted’ and the likes, but it was reassuring to see that in Masi at least when they say that the grapes are laid out on the racks by hand, then they are actually laid out by hand, bunch by bunch, carefully and slowly so as not to bruise the grapes.

This was the sight that greeted us when we arrived: a team of Masi employees – unusually older than I expected (isn’t the more laborious vineyard work done by travelling students and the likes?), kitted out in fresh Masi t-shirts and working intently, yet slowly.

Having enjoyed Masi’s apassimento wines immensely for the last five years, seeing this process happen before my eyes was akin to meeting a hero, and I must admit, geekily, of being a little giddy at the time watching it unfold in front of me.

The drying racks are made of bamboo as per tradition – a typical Masi choice. Of course there are more efficient ways of carrying out this process nowadays, for example by using special drying crates to sort the bunches in the vineyard – thereby removing a costly step in the process – and/or then using heaters to accelerate the drying process.

But Masi don’t do traditional for tradition’s sake, as we learned earlier, and the use of bamboo racks isn’t for the benefit of the marketing department. Again, when Sandro Boscaini was here, he made a very interesting parallel: in the days before refrigeration the bet way to preserve salmon was by smoking it; nowadays of course this isn’t necessary, but it’s still done since a beneficial corollary of this technique is its flavour enhancement.

A bamboo rack
A bamboo rack

Likewise it is not entirely necessary to use slow, laborious drying methods on bamboo racks these days but the truth is that this process allows for better quality results. Simple as that.

And in a family-run business, where quality and pride take the place of the profit margin and shareholder demands of more commercial organisations, decisions like this are taken with an eye to future generations, not year-end balance sheets.

But Masi are no luddites, and their drying lofts are nevertheless regulated by complex high-tech atmospheric regulation system that ensures the grapes don’t go mouldy and that conditions are as ideal as they can be to produce the best wine possible. Again, Masi’s trademark blend of the old and the new.

So what was to others a simple drying loft was to me the very essence of Masi: its history, present and future; its philosophy and morals; its tradition and progress; all rolled into one innocuous room.

The Penfolds Ultra-Premium Experience: Part 3 of 3

This is the third post of three – click here for the first post, and here for the second.

As if the preceding flight of Bins wasn’t mind-blowing enough for one day, we still had the heavyweights ahead of us, what Penfolds call their ‘Icon and Luxury Collection.’St Henri Shiraz

First up was the St Henri 2010. Made without any new oak, instead opting for 14 months in old 1,460 litre vats (as opposed to the popular 225 litre barriques, for example), this is a 97% shiraz with barely a spit of 3% Cabernet. It was gorgeous on the nose,  deep and soft with some kirsch, white pepper and raisins, but the palate was a little hot I felt, which outed its gob-smacking 14.5% alcohol. Beyond this it was deep but restrained, with a solid core of tannin. I felt overall that it was still unresolved and needed time to allow the heat and tannin to die down and integrate more fully.

RWTThen on to another 14.5% alcohl behemoth: the RWT 2010. Penfolds are noted for blending wines across regions, but the RWT is their single-region wine, being sourced exclusively from the shiraz heartland of the Barossa Valley. RWT stands for “Red Winemaking Trial”, which was its moniker when it was still an initial concept back in 1995. Being 100% shiraz, I was taken by its surprisingly Cabernet-like characteristics of blackberry initially on the nose, before leading into some more typical blueberry and black pepper territory. It had a gorgeous, silky palate, especially following from the St Henri, though heightened tannin and acidity here suggested that this also needs some time to lie down. With excellent length finishing with some damson and mocha, this was a big, intense wine which will be superb in years to come.10. Magill Estate Shiraz

The fabled Magill Estate 2010 was up next. Proper old-school – or at least as old-school as a relative newbie such as Australia can get – this is a single-vineyard, basket-pressed wine sourced from the famed Magill estate from which the iconic Grange was once made. The dizzying 14.5% alcohol was the only thing it shared with the two wines above as we were treated to another take on Aussie shiraz. A beautiful and much more fragrant nose had some alternating spice and savoury notes, before leading to a delicate palate with a fantastic mineral streak which was a surprise and a delight. Deep and concentrated with the tannin not as aggressive as the other two, this proved to be an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ of a wine, both excellent now and deeply promising.

Bin 707The room was then introduced to Penfold’s flagship Cabernet, the Bin 707 2010. Up to now it was all about the shirazes, except for a brief fling with the Bins 407 and 389, so judging by the silence, punctuated only by gasps of delight and murmurs of approval, it was clear that before a sip was taken that this was something to sit up and take notice of. For me, it was somewhat reserved for now, with a pure core of blackcurrant and cedar typical of Cab which I found was overpowering and blocked the way to detecting anything more subtle in there, though some other scents such as sandalwood did do a burlesque show-and-tell whenever I returned to the glass before quickly subsuming under the Cab.

Again though the acidity and tannin a little heightened which will hopefully resolve itself after some time in the bottle. In all this was a tasting of a still too young wine which was volatile and aggressive though showing huge promise. Still, I’ve tasted a few good Cabs recently and wouldn’t rate this above them I’m afraid to say.

GrangeFinally, it was on to the most iconic of them all: the Grange 2008. The word ‘iconic is often thrown about with abandon, but in this case it’s very much relevant: this vintage of Australia’s most commended wine has recently achieved a “double century” of two perfect 100 scores in both Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, the eleventh wine ever to do so and the only New World wine to gain the accolade.

Massive, intense, complex yet balanced and surely only to get better with time, the Grange was an incredible and electric wine that had the audience enthralled. It was really intense. Did I mention that it was massive too? Oh, and also very intense. A punch in the gob by Tyson would only just about match it. It was beyond words.

I bet you expected a better tasting note for a €700 wine, and so did I. But ask anyone who has bungee-jumped for example to describe their experience and they likely can’t, resorting instead to a smile, a sigh, and the declaration that to know one must experience it. Unfortunately not everyone will get to experience a wine like Grange due to its stratospheric pricing: assuming the liquid in my glass amounted to, say, 100ml, then my sip of this icon cost a mere €93. So not many would have the money for a glass, let alone the €700 for a bottle, and I count myself extremely lucky that my line of work leads me to these situations.

So my overall impressions? Penfolds have just recently been awarded Best Winery in Australia and I don’t think anyone can refute that. Their wines are immense but, more crucially, really quite varied given they’re mostly made from the same two or three grape varieties. If only you didn’t have to re-mortgage the house to experience them – even their “mid range” – then many more would be able to experience their beauty.

St Henri Shiraz 2010
€100 approx. from good specialist off-licences
97% Shiraz, 3% Cabernet

RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2010
€155 approx. from good specialist off-licences
100% Shiraz

Magill Estate Shiraz
€140 approx. from good specialist off-licences
100% Shiraz

Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon
€325 approx. from good specialist off-licences
100% Cabernet Sauvignon

€700 approx. from good specialist off-licences
98% Shiraz, 2% Cabernet


The Penfolds Ultra-Premium Experience: Part 2 of 3

For part one of this three-part Penfolds Ultra-Premium Experience, click here.

Next up was Penfolds’s own take on the Rhône signature blend commonly referred to amongst wine folk as “GSM”, or Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre.

Nothing in wine is ever simple however, with one pertinent example being wine grape names which can vary quite differently depending on the country in which it is being produced; bear in mind that wine growing far, far precedes transnational uniform agreements on naming and standards, so differences in grape naming can cary widely. Not good news for newcomers trying to get their heads around the wine game, unfortunately.

So when it comes to GSM, the French name Grenache may be translated into the Spanish Garnacha, but not usually in this case; Syrah may cast off its French yoke and take on the blasphemous Aussie ‘Shiraz’ moniker, which is quite common nowadays; and Mourvèdre may, rarely, become turncoat and turn its back on its (again) French heartland to rechristen itself as Spanish Mataró, though this is less widespread.

S KPenfolds have placed a foot in each camp with a French-Spanish-Australian triumvirate it calls its Shiraz/Grenache/Mataró blend:  Bin 138 2011. But that’s SGM and not GSM you’ll note, and to make matters more confusing they refer to Mourvèdre and not Mataró in their supporting material in direct contrast to what it says on the wine’s label on the facing page, but there you have it. Best not force the issue.

Anyway, this was the joker in the pack as far as this event’s lineup was concerned: all the other reds consisted of either Shiraz, Cabernet or both, yet here was a mongrel of a wine seldom referred to in the usual Penfolds schtick. With a cherried, pomegranite and rhubarb nose and a candied cranberry palate, I found it to be a bit two-dimensional and not terribly exciting, though it did retain just enough tannin to keep the structure sound. Best move on then in other words.

4. Bin 28 Kalimna ShirazThe intense and concentrated Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2010 came next,  a multi-region blend with the Barossa featuring strongly, a single plot in which the Bin 28 was originally sourced and from which it takes its name. I have to admit that this was already a favourite of mine coming into the tasting so I have to say I’m prejudiced. It didn’t disappoint though: deep, concentrated and intense, it’s perhaps a little too tightly wound and maybe needs to loosen up a little, though for al the better. Some coffee and black pepper on the nose with a touch of liquorice leads a tautly mineral palate. There was a flash of unwanted heat from the alcohol, which confirmed the need to leave it be for a few years, but then there was coffee, mocha, blackberry… it was powerful and full-bodied but elegant, tight tannin and fantastic length. Incredible in other words, one of my favourites of the day, and given the royalty on show this is very good value at €30.

S KInterestingly it was then straight on to another Shiraz, the Bin 150 Marananaga Shiraz 2010, which provided an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast styles. The Bin 150 is Penfolds’ experimentation in sub-regional expression, sourcing its fruit entirely from the Marananga vineyard in the Barossa valley. I thought it was strange to place the Bin 150 straight after the Bin 28 however, since the former was more lifted and forthcoming than the dark and brooding Bin 28. That’s not a bad thing though, of course, it’s just different. Again some black pepper on the nose, though this time with some dried cranberries and juniper I thought, and a livelier, lighter palate that unfortunately didn’t have the length of the Bin 28 but was nevertheless noteworthy. Still, I may have appreciated it more had it been served before the Kalimna, and given it’s exactly twice the price I know which one I’d choose.

6. Bin 407 Cabernet SauvignonThen it was on to the first Cabernet of the day, the Bin 407, which ticked all the boxes of good Cab with blackcurrant and cedar dominating,  but as I’ve never had it before: fresher, more floral, softer, but still maintaining the touches of cassis, green pepper and pencil shavings typical of the style. This wine has class. A fantastic palate, smooth and silky, a tingle of tannin, excellent length, a real quality drop. A beautiful wine.

7. Bin 389 Cabernet ShirazFinally (for now) it was on to the distinctly Australian blend of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon in the form of Bin 389. I find Shiraz/Cab blends to be somewhat hedonistic, offering up lots of ripe, lush, varied fruit in an easily-approachable style. In this case it was no different: an absolutely beautiful nose in which, surprisingly, the Cab was dominant with its cassis and pencil shavings with some Shiraz pepper underneath. The palate was tight and tingling and surprisingly unforthcoming with the fruit – in fact it was a little closed and may need a couple of years, and some time in the glass suggested this as it opened up to a silky, classy, yet still restrained drop. Another winner for Penfolds.

Phew! And if you though that was a rush of exhilarating fine wine, we’re not even on to the top flight yet…

Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Marató 2011
€32 approx. from good specialist off-licences
65% Shiraz, 20% Grenache, 15% Marató

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2010
€30 approx. from good specialist off-licences
100% Shiraz

Penfolds Bin 150 Maranaga Shiraz 2010
€60 approx. from good specialist off-licences
100% Shiraz

Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
€58 approx. from good specialist off-licences
100% Cabernet Sauvignon

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2010
€61 approx. from good specialist off-licences
51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 49% Shiraz