Marques de Riscal Hotel

Marqués de Riscal: 156 Years in 156 Minutes (Part 1)

The title is roughly true – give or take an hour – but never let the truth get in the way of a catchy headline.

This is the next in my series of blog posts titled “Clearing Accumulated Crap Off My Mac Desktop” (click here for the previous cathartic ramble) comes this one on iconic Rioja producer Marqués de Riscal.

In all seriousness my delay in posting this has nothing to do with lack of enthusiasm or respect. In fact it’s quite the opposite: I originally found Marqués de Riscal to be a quite unexciting, another one of those big old Riojas favoured by boorish cigar-chomping bankers that choose it simply because it’s one of the only wine names they know beyond “Chablis” and “Claret”.

However I’m glad to say that my perception changed for the better when a few months ago Señor José Luis Muguiro – officially titled Global Sales Manager but in reality a sort of catch-all ambassador, figurehead, historian, consultant, family member and much more – visited Ireland. Regular readers will have read (I hope) my interview with him in a previous post.

And so I ended up writing this a somewhat longer and heavier post than expected, partly due to a newfound respect and admiration but also due the number of wines on tasting, requiring this to be split into two parts (I’ll really have to start becoming more concise). Oh, and I was too busy and lazy until now to edit it. Whoops!

Old-school Riscal winemaking (Image: marquesderiscal.com)
Old-school Riscal winemaking (Image: marquesderiscal.com)
The Company

Having been established in 1858 or 1860 by either Camilo Hurtado de Amézaga or Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga – depending on what source you trust – Marqués de Riscal is one of Rioja’s oldest wineries and very widely known to many, but I didn’t realise the history of how instrumental they were in revolutionising the wine industry in Spain.

Hurtado de Amézaga (as we’ll call him for simplicity), founder of Riscal (as we’ll call it for simplicity), produced wines in the typically local way for a few years before reverting to the practices of the region from which he emigrated to Rioja: Bordeaux. Out went the big old wooden barrels and in came smaller, new oak barriques, along with a new-fangled grape variety called Cabernet Sauvignon and the practice of bottling only grapes that were estate-grown, amongst other things.

Not only that, but Hurtado de Amézaga invented the gold wire mesh that is seen on many a bottle of Rioja nowadays, an anti-fraud measure designed, depending again on who you ask, to prevent empty bottled being re-filled with lesser juice (where the net needed to be cut to open the cork) or to stop expensive labels being stuck onto bottles of inferior wine. Either way our Hurtado was proving himself to be quite the polymath.

That famous Riscal gold wire netting
That famous Riscal gold wire netting

But it wasn’t just 19th Century Rioja that Riscal set about shaking up. Dissatisfied with the greasy, overly-oaked whites produced in Rioja at the time, Riscal pre-empted the fashion for crisp, clean whites by a good 40 years and discovered a style they best preferred in a little-known region northwest of Madrid called Rueda, planting their first vines there in 1972 and pushing for the establishment of the area as a recognised Denominación de Origen in 1980. Rueda, needless to say, is now one of the most popular white wines you’ll find on restaurant lists worldwide.

Finally, their release in 1986 of a top-end, Cabernet-heavy wine they called Barón de Chirel prompted the entire Rioja region to explore making fuller, more internationally styled wines, again predicting a trend that was to take off around 10 years later.

Throw in an outlandish, futuristic, award-winning hotel and winery complex and you’ll probably more clearly understand that “nothing stands still for long at this traditional, but consistently innovative bodega”, as Tim Atkin remarks in this immensely helpful and concise article.

This unusual mix of history mixed with revolutionary impulses was acknowledged by US magazine Wine Enthusiast when they named them European Winery of the Year last year, highlighting that it was their “willingness to take risks, and the successes that have resulted” that sealed the deal for them.

 

The Whites

We started off with two white wines from Rueda: one made from Sauvignon Blanc and the other from the local Verdejo variety. Given that Riscal were pretty much the first commercial winery in the area this meant that the vines for the first two whites are largely from 1974-1976.

Marques de Riscal Sauvignon Blanc copyMarqués de Riscal Sauvignon Blanc

Interestingly, the company initially started out planting Chardonnay alongside Verdejo in Rueda, but a few years of capricious frosts pointed the company towards Sauvignon Blanc, which took to the colder weather better.

Unfortunately, overall I found it underwhelming, with a herbaceous and yellow fruit character that stood it apart from the overt New Zealand style but nothing exciting. Some zinging acidity initially softened out mid-palate but gave the impression of imbalance than anything else. I wouldn’t turn it down but I wouldn’t be quick to order it out of choice either.

Marques de Riscal Rueda copyMarqués de Riscal Rueda

This was much more to my style and had a really lovely, intensely aromatic nose and was lively all through the palate. It was simple and refreshing, and cried out for seafood. It was summer in a glass, but unfortunately I was distracted half way through tasting and didn’t take any more notes. Not to worry, just take it that this is definitely recommended.

Marques de Riscal Rosado copyMarqués de Riscal Rosado

Before moving on to the reds we crossed the bridge of Rosado. Like with the Sauvignon Blanc, I was distinctly unimpressed by this. A fresh but muted nose of nothing in particular, perhaps a little cranberry juice, lead to a bitter, one-dimensional palate which was unbalanced and aggressive.

It used to be 100% Tempranillo but Garnacha was added to the blend to lighten the colour, bowing to market preference for more pinkish-coloured rosés and giving it a more Provencal look in the process.

 

 

Not a promising starts on the wines, you might think, but the reds were immensely more appealing, as you will read in the follow-up post I hope to publish this weekend. Watch this space! (and Twitter, Google+, etc.)

WineTiles

Wines I’ve Had Recently (September to November 2014)

I’ve had a folder sitting on my desktop named “Wines” which contained an increasing number of hastily-taken iPhone photos of wines I’ve had over the last couple of months, and only now I’ve finally come around to writing up the  notes on them. At last!

Some I took proper notes for – recorded on my CellarTracker account – others I’m only recalling now off the top of my head. Looking back over the below it looks like I haven’t had a lucky time of it as it appears at first that I didn’t like any of them! But apart from one or two duds I did really enjoy all of them, despite some honest reservations or critiques which I had no problem in highlighting of course.

This on-the-fly round-up of wines I’ve tasted at home or out and about will likely be a regular feature, so I hope you enjoy this inaugural edition!

 

Chanson Gevrey-ChambertinChanson Père et Fils Gevrey-Chambertin 2007
€48.50 from O’Brien’s, nationwide; and Millesima
Really very nice, though perhaps lacks the complexity for the price. Nicely balanced with savoury characteristics to the fore. Nice minerality and delicate acidity. Good length, a good all-round package but, as I said, I was found wanting somewhat.

 

Patrick Regnault Champagne Grand CruPatrick Regnault Champagne Grand Cru Vintage 2004
€40.00 from The French Paradox, Dublin
Delicate with baked pear most evident. Lean and a refreshing, but maybe a bit one-dimensional. This is a fantastic price for a vintage Grand Cru, but I was expecting perhaps more complexity for the prestige.

 

Serego Aligheri AnniversarioSerego Alighieri Valpolicella dell’Anniversario 2009
Approx. €20.00
A wine that impressed me immensely when I tasted it first maybe 3-4 years ago, this was very enjoyable but didn’t take my breath away as it did first time around. That said it still is a delicious drop, far richer than your usual light and refreshing Valpolicella – in fact it’s more comparable to Masi’s ripasso-style Campofiorin (Serego Aligheri is produced by Masi which may explain the potential similarity). This had kirsch cherry and bitter chocolate notes over a concentrated, taut palate. Still very good but, as I was drinking it somewhat on the fly, maybe I wasn’t on form to mull over and enjoy it fully.

 

Pol Roger 2000Pol Roger Champagne Vintage 2000
€67.99 from O’Brien’s, nationwide; Terroirs, Dublin; Mitchell & Son, Dublin; Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Dublin
The big one: taut and complex, mineral and steely, this was really impressive. I expected it to simply be a “better version” of the Pol Roger ‘White Foil’ non vintage whereas in fact it was it wasn’t really possible to compare this reserved and austere offering to the richer, more forward non-vintage label.

 

Domaine Guillot-Broux Mâcon-CruzilleDomaine Guillot-Broux Mâcon-Cruzille 2010
€19.99 in On The Grapevine, Dublin and Cabot & Co., Mayo
I tasted this originally a couple of years ago in On The Grapevine in Dalkey when they had a bottle open on tasting. I was really impressed by it: a refreshing and interesting Burgundian Pinot, whereas I was taken aback by the fact that it was in fact 100% Gamay, which I thought was only grown with any seriousness in Beaujolais. In fact Mâcon-Cruzille Rouge AOC can only be produced Gamay. I’ll need to read up on that one.

With some chagrin I bought a bottle to enjoy later. Problem is that I might have left it too late: this was, four years on, overly acidic and lacking in fruit, and a bit of a chore to get through. Either that or the bottle was flawed. Pity, but maybe I’ll try a fresher vintage some other time.

 

Napa Cellars ZinfandelNapa Cellars Zinfandel 2010
€21.99 in Next Door Off-Licences, nationwide; Bradley’s of Cork; Mitchell & Son, Dublin; Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Dublin; 1601 Kinsale, Cork; Sweeney’s of Glasnevin, Dublin
Big, powerful, but a bit sickly sweet and over-extracted in my opinion. Bold and powerful but lacks depth. Lots of chocolate and vanilla but a bruiser with few redeeming qualities.

 

Wolf Blass Chardonnay Silver LabelWolf Blass Chardonnay Silver Label 2009
€21.99 from O’Brien’s, nationwide
Nice chardonnay, but hardly exciting. Good quality, some matchstick notes and nice smooth slightly buttery palate, but not much else. Very drinkable though and a weekday wine, but with a price that doesn’t match.

 

Chateau Dereszla Sparkling TokajiChateau Dereszla Sparkling Tokaji
€14.99 from Mitchell & Son, Dublin
A Hungarian sparkling wine made from a grape more famous for its sweet wines. If that doesn’t turn heads at your next dinner party then I don’t know what will (actually, here are few other fantastic factoids). This proudly proclaims itself as being frizzante, or lightly sparkling, despite being sealed under the traditional ‘mushroom cork’ used for fully-sparkling Champagne and Cava.

Pungent passionfruit, grapefruit and very ripe pear leap from the glass. Palate is equally generous with the sweet white fruit. Unfortunately it lacks the acidity or balance to offset its off-dry style – might be pleasurable for many but not my style. A nice interesting sparkler that’s well priced and goes down easily, but I’m not reaching for the third glass.

 

Allegrini Palazzo della TorreAllegrini Palazzo della Torre 2011
€24.99 from Mitchell & Son, Dublin; Le Caveau, Kilkenny; The Vineyard, Galway; Red Nose Wine, Tipperary; Greenacres, Wexford; The Drink Store, Dublin; WineOnline.ie
Very ripe and fruit forward, thick and mouthfilling palate, blackberry, smoke, some vanilla. Hedonistic, a bit chunky, but appealing if a big gutsy wine is what you’re after. Though in the same league as the Napa Cellars, above, in terms of weight and style, it has the balance and depth to match up to its beefy nature which is what the Napa Cellars lacked. A really nice drop.

 

CXVBodegas La Rosa CXV Cientoquince 2011
€26.95 from No. 21 Off-Licence, Cork
Really lovely, rich wine but with a balance that belies its 14.5% alcohol and New World origins. Not a shy wine by any means, this has plenty of sweet vanilla and coconut but that glycerine sweetness that’s usual from 14.5% alcoholic blockbusters is not much evident (again, see Napa Cellars above), resulting in a smooth and refreshing, full-bodied red. Nicely integrated tannin with a tingle of salinity. Really recommended.

TheTasteLogo

The Motley Cru is on TheTaste.ie!

Great news! It is with pride and honour that I’ve been invited to write a wine feature for the fantastic new online Irish food magazine, TheTaste.ie.

I’ve started out in the November issue with my selection of “Warming Winter Wines“, and each month I hope to bring you some themed recommendations based around the best wines I’ve tasted recently.

For the December issue expect some Christmas wine suggestions as well as food & wine pairing tips to help you handle the minefield that is Christmas dinner, while the January issue will be about low- and non-alcoholic wines that will help you through the dreaded new year detox.

So watch this space!

(Thanks to Keith Mahon for the opportunity)

Craggy Range Mist

“Hanging Out” with Craggy Range and Tindal Wines on Google

Last night I completed Tindal Wine Merchants‘ second ever “Google Hangout” which on this occasion involved New Zealand wine producer Craggy Range.

Tindal must be commended for this very innovative use of Google+, which up to now I’ve seen as a poor attempt to muscle in on the social media scene, though I now see that it offers a really interesting medium for a disparate group of people located around the globe to come together audio-visually but without the need to download separate software, e.g. Skype or similar. The rest of Google+ is still pretty shite though.

As per instructions from Tindal I picked up a couple of bottles of Craggy Range from Searson’s Wine Merchants in Monkstown, which of late have become one and the same. So with that I chilled the white, popped the red (or unscrewed it to be exact), and logged on to Google+ at precisely 8pm on Tuesday  21st to undertake a very 21st Century wine tasting…

 

Craggy Range: The Winery

I didn’t know Craggy Range at all before this tasting, beyond a vague recognition of the label, but a hasty look at their website made me fall in love with the story of how they started. You can read it in full here, but here’s a snippet:

When Terry Peabody arrived home from a four-week business trip in the fall of 1993 his wife Mary, and daughter Mary-Jeanne, cooked him dinner. The meal was long and leisurely, but not without purpose. Terry wasn’t allowed to leave until he had agreed to go into the wine business. The specification was that the business must never be sold. It was to be a family business, an enduring heritage legacy.

So Craggy Range was borne of love, and if I make that sound soppy and limp-wristed then I don’t apologise one jot. The best wines, as far as my experience is concerned, come from those wineries that are family-owned and prioritise pride in their work above profit margins and shareholder returns.

Don’t get me wrong, many commercial wineries can make some really good wine at great prices, but you can’t replicate the almost intangible energy in wine instilled by the weight of having your family name attached to the product, whether that be directly (e.g. AntinoriHugel, etc.) or indirectly (e.g. Masi, Craggy Range, etc.).

Quite simply put, pride and honour trumps finance in every aspect of winemaking, in my view. I’m delighted to add Craggy Range to my list of those producers who go above and beyond making nice-tasting alcoholic grape juice to offer us something special.

But beyond this, what of the practices in the vineyard? I was delighted to hear Steve take a dichotomous approach to his wine philosophy: he regards with great admiration the Old World’s approach to terroir and the texture etc. but feel that they miss out somewhat on the New World ‘fruit forward’ characteristic which makes these types of wines a hedonistic delight.

So by combining these two somewhat disparate approaches – i.e. a food-friendly wine that’s enjoyable by itself – Craggy Range take a “bilingual” approach to winemaking that could be considered too ‘catch-all’ but which I think should be lauded; why not enjoy wines that can be enjoyed literally throughout a meal, from apéritif to digestif?

The Craggy Range family
The Google Hangout

We were joined by Steve Smith MW, founding director and current Director of Wine & Viticulture (or “arch viticulturist and Craggy Range boss” according to Decanter) and also chief winemaker Matt Stafford. Being the bossman, Steve spoke most with Matt chipping in at various points to add a more precise and technical spin to Steve’s garrulousness.

Despite being a bit blurry and unfortunately back-lit (don’t sit with your backs to a window, guys!), it was an incredible experience to be chatting live to two winemakers in New Zealand with an audience of Irish wine lovers based in kitchens and living rooms across the country.

An unfortunate IT mix-up meant that I was able to spectate but not participate until five minutes from the end, but the whole experience was very enjoyable and worthwhile. Keep an eye out for the next Tindal Google Hangout on their site - you won’t regret it.

Craggy Range Google Hangout
The Google Hangout with Steve Smith MW and Matt Stafford

 


 Craggy Range: The Wines

So, how did they taste on the night?

 

Craggy Range ‘Te Muna Road’ Single Vineyard Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012
€19.99 from Tindals and Wines on the Green

This was a really classy Sauv Blanc which began with all the hallmarks of the Kiwi take on the grape which has made it world famous, namely some pungent pea and asparagus notes that leap out of the glass.

But the Old World mentality kicks in and this brash New World aspect is replaced by a more floral character and herbal, grassy notes underlaid by a subtle, flinty, smokey character that gives it a sort of grilled vegetable nuance when combined with the pea and asparagus mentioned previously.

I loved Steve’s simile of this wine being like a “walk through a meadow,” in other words a plethora of fragrances that come and go:  floral, grassiness, clover, earth, lime tree, nectarine… Definitely the “Old World” care and attention is evident here.

This approach is re-affirmed on the palate, which is uncharacteristically smooth, at least based on the highly acidic experiences with most of the plethora of NZ Sauv Blancs on the Irish market today (and which we seem to go in for in a big way for some unknown reason).

Supple and soft but still with a bit of a kick to keep it refreshing, at two and a half years old (for the Southern Hemisphere harvest is at the start of the year) I found this to be caught somewhere between youthful freshness and mellow maturity. The length, surprisingly, was average, but that’s not to detract from it’s overall quality. Definitely recommended.

 


Craggy Range ‘Te Kahu’ Gimblett Gravels Single Vineyard Hawkes Bay Blend 2010
€24.25 from Tindalls

When we speak nowadays about the “Bordeaux Blend” this usually means some blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the two icons of the region and a combination that has been mimicked the world over, not least by New World producers hoping to replicate this classic iconic pairing in greener pastures.

However Craggy Range have taken this one step further and seem to me to have incorporated every possible viable Bordeaux grape into one bottle, so for Te Kahu 2010 they’ve included 80% Merlot,  8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Malbec, a veritable what’s what of Boredaux grapes. These proportions vary year-on-year, with some vintages even receiving a dollop of Petit Verdot.

The nose offers a typical red and black fruit mélange which I found hard to pull apart, but for me it was the palate where this really shone. Given the presence of some big players here – Cab Sauv and Malbec I’m looking at you – the palate is amazing light, supple, delicate and balanced .. in fact disarmingly so. My notes mention “amazingly light” in some form or another a number of times, so much so it’s almost similar to a ripe, quality Chilean Pinot from the likes of Cono Sur. It has the light acidity and gentle tannin to keep it fresh and interesting too. A beaut.

Italian Wines

Judeka and Sampietrana – Italian Wines, Not Pacific Islands

I really didn’t know what to expect when I saw the names Judeka and Sampietrana for the first time. Were they, as I alluded to in the title, small islands in the Pacific? Or somewhere in the Caribbean near Trinidad and Tobago perhaps?

But no, given that the Tweet in which I first saw the names was from The Wine Workshop then they had to be wine-related. A half a second research revealed them to  be Italian, another half a second showed they were imported by the fantastically-named (and fantastically-talented) Enrico Fantasia of GrapeCircus, and the final half second showed that it was free. Sold!

I’m sure it’s probably looking a bit suspicious now, but I’m not in any way associated with or paid by The Wine Workshop. With that out of the way, let me wax lyrical about how well this tasting was set up. Despite being free to attend, there were generous bowls full of delicious olives and olive oils accompanies by platesful of doughy bread, the glasses used were proper Riedel ones, and there weren’t just a few wines but six of them in total. Though quite simple in execution it was obvious that real care and attention went into the evening, much like the shop itself.

Wine Workshop Glasses
Now that’s how you set up a wine tasting… (Image via @MorganVanderkam)
The Wines

So, on to the wines. First thing that struck me – apart from the odd names (to me at least) – was how young both companies were: Cantina Sampietrana was started in 1952 while Judeka is only a bábóg, having set up only in 2007. Bearing in mind that two Italians I have close associations with, Antinori and Masi, were established in 1180 and the late 18th century respectively, you can see the difficulty I have in getting my head around how youthful these guys are…!

The second thing that struck me is how consistently good the wines were, and as a result what great value they turned out to be when I checked their prices a few days later. Enrico must really be commended for sourcing such interesting wines at such good prices, and I’d really encourage anyone to grab a bottle of any of the below as soon as they spot them.


Judeka Logo Judeka

Increased  interest in Sicilian wines has meant many producers there rushed to vinify their wines to appeal to an international (read, American) palate. That is to say, over-extracted and over-oaked. I was surprised to learn that Judeka, however, don’t use any oak at all. Reducing oak ageing significantly is fair enough, and indeed it’s the trend of the last few years, but to completely absolve from any oak at all is quite radical I think, at least in my (limited) experience. Judeka instead stick religiously to stainless steel and are trying out terracotta and some ceramic too. This allows the purity of fruit to show through, though also means that the wines aren’t built for ageing.

I asked if this young firm was established perhaps as a rebellion against the recent trend towards international grape varieties and global tastes, and I was assured it wasn’t. However Judeka’s apparently dogmatic approach to Sicilian wine seems to suggest otherwise. They grow almost exclusively Sicilian varieties such as Insolia, Nero d’Avola, Grillo, Frappato and Zibibbo, with Syrah the only outsider in their stable. They practice organic viticulture and, as mentioned, don’t use oak in their vinification and are experimenting with traditional terracotta and ceramic. Add in some very modern twists – photovoltaic cells, natural irrigation and more – and you have a very exciting young winery. One to watch.

 

Judeka Insolia 'Angelica'Judeka Insolia ‘Angelica’ 2013
€14.99 from Sheridans’ Cheesemongers (in store and online)
I started with this, the only white of the night. After a couple of sips and listening to the spiel, I asked what the grape variety it was. There was a brief pause and some polite hesitation before I was told it was insolia, which was printed in large on the label I was directly looking at. I had never heard of insolia before, but this is one of dozens, if not hundreds, of indigenous Italian grapes that don’t often see the light of day outside the country, so I could take some small solace in that fact. Didn’t make it any less embarrassing though.

This was a lovely, light, fresh, lemon-and-lime wine with some apricot. It was deliciously refreshing, and I couldn’t get over how light, both in colour and texture, it was, but without feeling insipid. Would be amazing on a warm spring or summer day.

 

Judeka Nero d'Avola 'Orlando'Judeka Nero d’Avola ‘Orlando’ 2013
€14.99 from Sheridans’ Cheesemongers (in store and online)
This is the accompanying red to the white above – indeed, this is the Orlando of Orlando Innamorato (Orlando in Love), an epic poem published in 1482 by the Italian Renaissance author Matteo Maria Boiardo. Angelica (above) was a princess and the love interest in the tale. These two characters are beautifully rendered on the labels and it’s always great to have a little story behind them too. Read more about the tale on Wikipedia here.

But, what about the juice? I’m delighted to say it was just as appealing as the labels (phew!). This differed so much from Nero d’Avolas I’ve had before which tended to be big, hot and spicy. This was deliciously fresh and light with bright juicy red fruits. It had nice integrated acidity: enough to be noticed, and to go really well with food, but not too much to be a major factor. A touch of dustiness and salinity underneath the juicy fruits added a distant allure to an otherwise delightfully appealing wine.

Apparently this is how Nero d’Avola used to taste before the oak brigade took over (see intro) and it makes me wonder why they ever diverged from the standard. The Judeka Orlando sees no oak at all which retains its purity of fruit and that delightful fresh characteristic. A pleasure to experience. I’m glad that we have the opportunity now to taste what Nero d’Avola was originally meant to be like.

 

Judeka Cerasuolo di Vittoria

Judeka Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2012
€22.99 from Sheridans’ Cheesemongers (in store and online)Donnybrook Fair

This was another new one for me (a common theme that night). I was told that Cerasuolo di Vittoria is the only D.O.C.G. in Sicily, which struck me as surprising. This is made of 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato, the latter being another unknown before that evening.

And again, the label: apparently the area in which Cerasuolo di Vittoria is produced is famous for its colourful ceramics, the style of which is produced beautifully on this label (and also the company’s website). Caltagirone, one of the major towns in the region, has a pretty epic staircase showcasing this local expertise.

This was a beautiful, fragrant and elegant wine, lovely and light but with depth too. Crunchy red fruits like cherry and raspberry were evident, but it was the intangibles that got me, its clean, fresh, ethereal elegance. A delight.

 


Sampietrana LogoCantina Sampietrana

From Sicily to Puglia, the ‘heel’ in Italy’s ‘boot’, and from young bucks to someone a little more traditional you could say. Cantina Sampietrana doesn’t seem to have as much of a story as Judeka does, as far as I can see, which may be down to the fact that they’re a co-op (unionised grape-growers hardly gives rise to exciting backstories), so we’ll let the wines speak for themselves…

 

Sampietrana Primitivo 'Ambasciatori'Sampietrana Primitivo ‘Ambasciatori’ 2012
€12.99 from The Wine Workshop, Dublin; Sheridans’ Cheesemongers (in store and online); John R’s, Listowel, Co. Kerry
Ambasciatori translates as, er, ‘ambassadors’, an odd name perhaps for an entry-level wine. Still, dress for the job you want and not the job you have, as they say.

Primitivo is known as Zinfandel in the US. Yep, that quintessentially American grape was originally brought over by an Italian emigrant but unidentified until long after its new name was too established to be changed. Mind you, Primitivo itself is said to have descended from either Croatian grapes Crljenak Kaštelanski or Tribidrag, so who’s keeping check?

Spicy damson, prune and a touch of leather. Lighter than expected and a little bit short on the finish, but for the price it’s forgivable. A decent mid-week quaffer that comes in a disappointingly cheap, Lidl-like bottle.

 

Sampietrana Negroamaro 'Principe Moro'Sampietrana Negroamaro ‘Principe Moro’ 2009
€15.99 from The Wine Workshop, Dublin; Sheridans’ Cheesemongers (in store and online); Mitchell & Sons, Dublin; The Blackrock Wine Cellar, Dublin; Listons Delicatessen, Dublin; Ardkeen Quality Food Store, Waterford
Principe Moro = Dark Prince. That’s more like it. Negroamaro itself means something like “black bitter”, so it’s all dark and gloomy here, which showed in the wine too. Dark and brooding aromas of smoke, coffee, clove, cinnamon and black tea. Deep and intriguing.

The palate was grippy and mouthwatering, savoury and moreish. Delicious, “like Christmas cake in a glass” as someone said out loud, but the length could have been a little longer. Still, for this price it’s excellent value, and you could make up for the medium length by just buying another bottle.

 

Sampietrana  Vigna delle MonacheSampietrana Salice Salentino, Vigna delle Monache 
€18.99 from The Wine Workshop, Dublin; Sheridans’ Cheesemongers (in store and online); Mitchell & Sons, Dublin; Ardkeen Quality Food Store, Waterford
This is another Negroamaro, but from the Salice Salentino D.O.C. and also a riserva, meaning it spent 12 months in barrel versus the 6-9 months of the IGT Negroamaro above (exact details are hard to find). To be honest it doesn’t warrant the €3 premium in my opinion, and I’d much rather the Principe Moro if both were offered to me. The nose on this was concentrated and a little overpowering, with a little violet giving some respite.

On the palate it’s more intensity but without focus, just all toast and vanilla from all that oak ageing, which itself is very evident in the flavour profile. Though it finishes a little lighter and crisper, this is precisely the sort of over-worked, big-boned wine that Judeka is judiciously avoiding. It will undoubtedly suit many tastes, but after the exercise in lightness and beauty beforehand this came across as very clunky.

 

Wine Workshop
The tasting in full flight. (Image via @MorganVanderkam)
Wine Workshop

Cabernet Franc: The DWC September Tasting

A couple of weeks ago I was honoured with an invite to the mid-September meeting of the Dublin Wine Collective, a fantastic new shining light on the Dublin wine scene. A rotating and changeable collection of wine industry figures – be they involved in the trade directly or not – the Dublin Wine Collective meets once a month to contribute and partake in a themed tasting, with each participant bringing a bottle to the party.

Apart from a basic theme (usually variety-based, such as this Cabernet Franc one) there is no other restriction or requirement on what to bring, so the potential for two people to bring an identical bottle is quite high. Thankfully, though, this has not yet happened, and adds an exciting feeling of pot luck to the whole proceeding.

The tastings take place at The Wine Workshop, another new shining light on the Dublin wine scene; in this case though the hand of the quite established Il Vicoletto Italian restaurant  is very evident – indeed it’s splayed handsomely across the large plate glass window of the shop.

I can’t begin to tell how excited I am about this venture, which reminds me in no small part of the Tasting Room of The Vines of Mendoza, a wine bar in, you guessed it, Mendoza in Argentina. There education is very much at the fore, whether via self-guided themed flights or formal, structured classes – they even have their own vineyards and winery where you can produce your own wines to your own specification.

When I was there in April this year I wondered why there wasn’t something similar in Ireland, but thankfully The Wine Workshop has answered that call (though without their own vineyard for obvious reasons), injecting some new life into the Dublin wine scene in the process.

DWC Logo

As you might have guessed from the title, this tasting focused on Cabernet Franc, that oft-forgotten grape found most commonly in Bordeaux and the Loire. However it was brought to my attention – with some surprise I have to say – that 13% of the world’s Cabernet Franc can be found in Italy, mostly the Veneto and the Tuscan coast. You learn something new every day.

Over the years I’ve been able to build up a decent enough cellar that I would consider to be somewhat well varied, but I couldn’t but curse my luck when the invite came through specifying Cabernet Franc as the theme for my inaugural visit. Not one bottle do I have that contains any bit of that grape, so I hurriedly popped down to my local, Deveney’s of Dundrum. Thankfully Tom Deveney managed to source a bottle that he particularly likes – after a tense 5 minutes trying to remember where he put it, where I was sure that he had actually sold out of it – and blushes were spared on the night.

Five of us turned up that evening, and armed with plentiful water and grissini graciously supplied by Morgan of The Wine Workshop, we began…

 

Langlois Saumur ChampignyLanglois Saumur Champigny 2012
O’Brien’s nationwide, €14.99

This was a really easy-drinking, typically quaffable French red with sweet red berry fruit and nice tart acidity. An initial, surprising touch of alcoholic heat belied its mere 12% alcohol, but that died off after a time.  Simple, uncomplex but appealing, we agreed that it would best be served a little chilled and drank carelessly, as much enjoyable wine should be.

Then there is was: the stalkiness. Much discussion that evening was around this characteristic which in other wines would be quite undesirable and indicate unripe grapes when vinifying, but much ink has been spilled marking it as a defining characteristic of Cabernet Franc. And this had it in spades, but I had to admit that it wasn’t all that unpleasant, once you know to expect it.

After some time in the glass some additional characteristics revealed themselves, like graphite, violets and a dustiness to accompany the stalkiness. Some nice light tannin was the rubber seal on the opinion that this was very much a stereotypical French weekday lunch wine.

 Verdict: It doesn’t set the world alight, but if you know what you’re in for it can be very enjoyable.

 

Stocco Cabernet FrancStocco Cabernet Franc 2011, IGT Venezia Giulia
Deveney’s Off-Licence Dundrum, €14.99

This was my bottle, and at first I thought I was “the noob with the dud” – the first smell of it was as though a hand jumped out of the glass and punched me in the face; I was sure it was faulty in some way. But after some serious sloshing into and out of glasses in an attempt to air it out a bit, we managed to tackle it eventually.

The nose was a bit more floral than the Langlois, with some violets, brambly fruit and fresh herbs. On return later I got a charred meat note, some smoky spice and some cracked black pepper; this was developing into a nice little  surprise.

The palate was nice and smooth and fuller than it predecessor, again with a little spicy heat at the end and some savoury undertones – “teriyaki chicken” was mentioned, which was impressively accurate –  I never tire of these outlandish tasting notes, especially when they’re spot on.

But I thought there was a little residual sugar on the palate too, which is a trick often used whereby winemakers mask poor fruit by leaving a little sugar to hide the defects. After a few sips it tired easily and I didn’t fancy drinking much more of it. A pity after the multitude of promises on the nose.

Verdict: The nose was the best part of it, elusive and changeable, but the palate didn’t match up.

 

Domaine Jo PithonDomaine Jo Pithon  2010, Anjou AOP
Approx. €10.99 from somewhere in France

For want of a better word, this was the curveball of the evening. Brought in straight from a supermarket in France, this is produced biodynamically in a ‘devil-may-care’ approach, we were told, with the ethos being minimal intervention.

This was very interesting. It had a dusty mocha nose with some dried fruits, and eventually that tell-tale stalkiness at the end. On return there was a hint of clay too. The palate had sweet spicy fruit, with some cherry, plums and dried cranberry; silky with lovely fresh acidity and a nice little hint of grip at the end.

Despite the very French approach to its vinification (i.e. stubborn and dogmatic) it was surprisingly un-French in style, in that it was quite opulent, forward and rewarding. A relly classy drop.

Verdict: Perhaps the most cerebral one of the evening with a little bit of everything to keep you interested.

 

Le Macchiole 'Paleo'Le Macchiole ‘Paleo’ 2001, Bolgheri, Toscana IGT
Cabot & Co., €62.00

Wow wow wow, this is a hedonistic treat. A rich, complex, heady, brooding, concentrated nose of, well, everything … sweet tobacco, violets, cinnamon/nutmeg … stunned silence greeted the initial approach. The palate was luxurious, silky, incredible … chocolate, prune … length that goes on and on…

For wine reviewers, when there is a dearth of tasting notes it often means one of two things: that the wine is too crap to even bother with, or it’s majestic enough to render you speechless. This was the latter.

The Le Macchiole Paleo was rated as one of ‘the most underrated Super Tuscans’ in this Wine Searcher article, and comes from an estate that grows just three varieties: Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot, none of which are exactly typical of their region. But fortune favours the brave (and the bold) and this is an example of what comes of that.

Verdict: …

 

Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon Le Clos GuillotDomaine Bernard Baudry ‘Le Clos Guillot’ 2005, Chinon AOP
Cabot & Co., €25.00

There was slight trepidation of this wine following the behemoth of the Paleo, but we need not have worried as this wine had enough of its own character to shine through.

This Chinon brought us back down to earth – literally. It had a very distinctive, earthy, stony nose, “like sticking your nose in the ground” as one member quipped. Still, there was something perfumed above all this – violets again?

The palate was really lovely, smooth initially then a spicy grip at the end. Graphite and more violets popped up, and it had a very noticeable – but not unpleasant – dirtiness to it. It was slightly cloudy so had obviously seen minimal filtration, and given all the talk of ‘earthiness’ up to now (I wish I had another word for it!) then it all seemed very fitting. However the length was perhaps a little short.

Verdict: A nicely intriguing and honest wine, but one that wouldn’t do well beyond a club of wine geeks I think…

 

Overall Verdict

Despite an initial rolling of eyes when I say that Cabernet Franc was the theme of the evening, I was grateful for the opportunity to attend this meeting as there would otherwise be no way that I would sit down to thoughtfully taste through five Cabernet Francs. The location was fantastic, the company was brilliant, and I ended up experiencing five very different takes on the same grape, a variety I had written off long ago. so I was fortunate for the experience, to say the least.

And as for the wines? I’d gladly have each one again, but more specifically I’d enjoy the Domaine Jo Pithon over dinner and the Le Macchiole ‘Paleo’ by the fire afterwards; both very different styles for different occasions.

Chapoutier Banner

Fac et Spera: M. Chapoutier

I love Maison M. Chapoutier, to give the company its full and proper title, though I’ll admit that it was the aura around the company itself and not its wines that attracted me first, in particular its colourful figurehead Michel Chapoutier; you may remember him from my first Wine Wisdom posts in fact.

Michel Chapoutier

Though I’ve never had the chance to meet him, Chapoutier seems to me to be a fantastically idiosyncratic and colourful character: opinionated, deliberately and consciously contrarian, proud, stubborn, revolutionary, arrogant, bombastic, narcissistic, and so much more. He seems to be a person that some love to hate, and others hate to love. He’s ruthless and cold on one hand then generous and emotive on the other, noted for his hyperbole and grand pronouncements, and talking effusively at length about minutiae others often overlook, whether for better or worse. Love him or hate him, you can’t but be captivated by this man and, by extension for me at least, his wines too.

I originally began this post as a review of one of his excellent wines, but ended up spending a couple of happy hours picking over the details of this fascinating man and his company. Here’s a little review of it all – enjoy!

Chapoutier: The Company and the Man

The story of how the M. Chapoutier business as we know it today came about is like something out of House of Cards.

Michel Chapoutier’s grandfather, Marc, handed over the reins to the family winery to Michel’s father and brother in 1977, though only nominally. In what may be seen as a foreshadowing of his grandson’s own ambitions, Marc still maintained control over vinification – i.e. growing the grapes and making the wine itself – leaving his son and grandson the relatively demoted tasks of bottling, ageing and distribution.

In 1987 a 23-year-old Michel returned from a few years working in other wine regions to join his grandfather in the vineyard,  and immediately set about impressing his own stamp on the Chapoutier brand. But as his brother and father were responsible for the finishing of the wines then they were never going to be “his” wines in their entirety, a troubling situation for the obsessive Michel.

Taking his grievances directly to his grandfather, he was offered the chance of assuming the head role of the family business ahead of his own father, an opportunity that itself should have been conceited enough to keep him happy. But still this wasn’t enough for the driven young Michel, who didn’t fancy sharing the spoils of his hard work with what he saw as his lazy and therefore undeserving family members.

So, in 1990, at only 26 years old, Michel Chapoutier bought the company outright from his grandfather, firing all family members involved in the firm soon after. In my mind this plays out like the final scene of The Godfather, where the heads of all the rival families are toppled in one fell swoop. Ruthless doesn’t quite cover it.

The Wines

Unusually, unlike Burgundy and Bordeaux, the Rhône doesn’t have an official cru (vineyard) classification system, despite the region’s wine being some of the most renowned and diverse in the world.

There are, however, lieux-dits, “named places” or place names that denote vineyard sites and plots within each appellation which have been recognised – either historically or via more recent investigation – as producing wines of a distinct quality or character.  Chapoutier has been voracious in his appetite for snapping up these lieux-dits and now is one of the largest holders of some of the most rare and exclusive plots of land in the Rhône, including most notably a large swathe of the fabled Hermitage hill.

Chapoutier is also famous for his production methods. Most of his wines are certified organic, with the top wines going one step further by being produced biodynamically. Biodynamic winemaking is like organic farming on speed: not only are synthetic sprays banned in their entirety, but soil treatments such as natural sprays and manure are treated with certain ‘preparations’ such as “flower heads of yarrow fermented in a stag’s bladder” and “oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal.”

Not only that but certain key vineyard jobs such as pruning, picking and the aforementioned spraying are performed according to the phases of the moon. I kid you not. There are more winemakers than you’d think around the world practicing biodynamics at the moment, with many transitioning to the practice. I won’t try and cover this weird and wonderful way of making wine in this blog, but Jamie Goode (again) has an excellent and comprehensive explainer here should you wish to know more.

M. Chapoutier Crozes-Ermitage ‘Les Varonniers’ 2003

So, on to the wine. This one comes from Crozes-Hermitage in the northern Rhône, which is the largest appellation in the region and can produce some nice if ordinary wines.

But this is a Chapoutier wine, and not only that but Les Varonniers is from his ‘Sélections Parcellaires‘ top tier of wines, so you can fully expect it be anything but ‘ordinary.’

The wine is sourced from a lieux-dit known as Varognes; originally it was blended with wine produced from another Crozes-Hermitage lieux-dit called Les Meysonniers, with the resulting contraction of the two names giving “Varonniers.” Now, however, it is completely sourced from the Varognes plot alone, which boasts vines with an average age of 65 years and an esteemed placement at the fringe of Hermitage hill.

Chapoutier Les Varonniers 2003The wine was very reductive and funky on initial opening and needed a bit of air to blow this off before some gamey, barnyard aromas revealed themselves before moving on to very savoury, meaty notes. Eventually some dried fruits such as redcurrants and raisins were evident, overlaid with some typical spice. And I may be crazy, but I thought I detected some lavendar – but that’s sure a more South of France thing?

Anyway, that gamey characteristic appeared again on the palate again, with layers of leather and a little liquorice too. It had lovely acidity and tannin – enough to warrant good food, but not so much not to be able to enjoy on its own. A gentle long finish completed this delightful wine.

M. Chapoutier Crozes-Ermitage ‘Les Varonniers’ 2003
www.chapoutier.fr
Approximately €40 from Millesima and specialist off-licences
100% Syrah

(Thanks to Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak site for providing much of the detail for this post)