Tag Archives: Merlot

GLEESONS-GILBEYS PORTFOLIO TASTING Feb 2011

"Stuck in an appellation" Saint Emilion

A day in a wine writer’s life. I get up, dress, eat my porridge then phone the Guinness Storehouse to see if they have a wheelchair. Oh dear, apparently they don’t. I should maybe make it clear that my request stems not from the previous night’s over indulgence but from a knee operation. The Storehouse is The Land That God Forgot for us D4, southside wine scribes – can’t get there by public transport, there’s no parking and a cab costs a fortune. Ah, well, needs must…

I grab my crutches and limp up the road towards the taxi rank. Three traffic jams later I arrive at the Gleesons Incorporating Gilbey’s Portfoilio Tasting, bit of a mouthful? No, it’s a lot of mouthfuls, 41 tables, groaning with wines from all over the world as well as ports, sherries, brandies and beers. Here’s a flavour.

Before I kick off I’ll issue the usual caveat. This is a personal view of a tasting on a particular day. Other folk may love wines I hated or hate wines I loved. Make of it what you will.

Scanning the catalogue I find lots of old familiars, known quantities. This saves me time. For instance, while I know that, say, Les Charmes de Magnol Medoc 2008 is going to be of merchantable quality it won’t excite or surprise so I pass. The Cheval Noir Grand Vin de St.Emilion 2005 (€18.50, selected independents) on did surprise and pleasantly so, good budget claret.

Louis Latour, as usual, have quite a presence but, as ever, I find you have to get into the upper echelons of their list before thye start to charm. Louis Latour Montagny (Super Valu €19.99) is much more inviting than their Chablis. Simmonet-Febre’s Chablis (€18.99, O’Brien’s) was nicer, less steely.

On the Chateau de Sours stand I re-encounter owner Martin Krajewski, nice man. His Petit Cantenac St.Emilion 2008 (€22.50) has plenty of potential. The Bordeaux Rosé,  as always, was well up to the mark (€14.99, independents).

I’m a massive fan of the wines of JCP Malthus as people who read my Herald and the old Sunday Independent columns may have noticed! Bordeaux, Barossa, wherever there’s a roundness, a loveliness, a warmth about them and something that just shouts “Hey, this is bloody good winemaking”.  Area Manager Myriam Carrere tempts me to a vertical – 2006/7/8 – of Ch.Teyssier St.Emilion – I seem stuck in this appellation at the minute – the 2008 promises much but if you can find it, buy the ’06, it’s simply stunning. Entry level Pezat was good as ever. Seems to be some confusion as to whether this and Ch.Lacroix are the same thing. I came away none the wiser.

Can’t help thinking that Jaboulet Ainé have lost their way.Though Caroline Frey has expunged the bad winemaking of Jabs from ‘90s days the newer wines still seem to be struggling to find a house style. Maybe I just liked the big ruggery-buggery wines I remember from the 1980s? Anyhopw, I think they’ve lost something in power, shape and robustness while recovering the finesse that  went missing for so many years.

The delightful Anne Trimbach is in Dublin to present the wines of this brilliant house. Unlike some of their Alsace rivals I can’t think of one wine in their portfolio that doesn’t hack it. Everything is ‘sorted’. Trimbach Alsace Riesling 2009 (€15.99, SuperValu, O’Brien’s, independents) is a classic of the genre.  As for the Cuvée Frederick Emile 2004 (€34.99) every wine lover should have at least one bottle squirreled away for a joyous occasion.

Next table, Gruner Veltiner, Austria’s signature from ex-hippy Laurenz Moser. Named ‘Singing’, ‘Sunny’ and ‘Charming’ (€15.99-€24.99, Donnybrook Fair and independents) the wines are as beguiling as the titles. German wines, happily, are back up and bouncing, after a rocky couple of decades.

Lingenfelder’s German riesling and gewürztraminer (€13.99, independents) with their engaging bird and hare labels should be sought out and bought.

Black Tower roll on, now with added varietal choice. Stick with the Riesling, honest wine for the €9.35 ask. The sylvaner is a bit grim.

Moving up the price scale, if you can still find Lo Zoccolaio’s Barolo 2001 for the stated €37.49 (McHugh’s had some) grab the merchant’s hand off, this is classic kit.

The Dalmau Reserva Rioja 1985 at €85 is daft money, considering you could have, as alternative, 4 bottles of the very quaffable Marques de Murieta Reserva 2005 (O’Briens, Dunnes, Molloys) and a taxi home. This wine, for me, wiped the floor with the popular Faustino equivalent.

The Bodegas Portia Prima Ribero del Duero 2007 (€25, selected independents) is currently dead sexy. Baby brother Ebeia Roble 2009, almost half the price, is good too.

Simonassi Malbec 2006 was decent for the money (€9.99).

Vergelegen Cabernet 2004 was good kit but at €29.45 I can think of a couple of dozen reds I’d rather drink or lay down. The better South African wines still impress, rather than charm.As a ‘how to’ they should look at the complexity St.Hallet are cramming into St.Hallet Old Block Shiraz 2005 (€34.95) , the 2004 of which I remember from a big Aussie seminar last year where it kicked sand in the eyes of a good few more expensive shirazes. The ’05 has all the poke of  a traditional Barossa red with lots of other nice things revolving round the glass.

Chileans Terra Andina gave us a well-priced Reserva Pinot Noir from Leyda (€10.99, Donnybrook Fair, Centra) and an electrifying, invigorating Sauvignon Blanc (€9.99) that carried more than a hint of old-style Marlborough before the Kiwis started shining it up.

More? Luscious the Lane ‘The Gathering’ Semillon-Sauvignon from Adelaide Hills (€22, independents); Hunter Estates Chardonnay from NZ, always class; and St.Hallett Old Block Shiraz 2005 (€35, O’Briens, Tesco) up there with the Barossa’s biggies.

Best of the budgets? No question. I give you False Bay Chardonnay, from South Africa’s Western Cape – classy stuff at ridiculous (€9.80, Londis, independents) money from Paul Boutinot, the Manchester maverick behind, among others, Chat en Oeuf (€9.10, Superquinn, Centra), one I’m always plugging for value. The 2010 False Bay Chardonnay is clean, non-cloying, more European than New World and altogther a worthy example of the sort of Chardy that should put noisy chavs like Pinot Grigio back in their box.

Can’t quit without mentioning the wonderful Julia Kennedy, whose organisation, as usual, was pluperfect. Great ideas of hers to get Fingal Ferguson there with mum Giana’s cheeses and his own salami, a huge quantum leap from when he started a few years back. The new mortadella, in particular, was a wondrous product.

Julia is off now to pastures new, Gleeson’s loss is Dillon’s gain.

So it goes… Chilean press tasting, Dublin

I’d be failing in my duty if I failed to say that the recent ‘Good Value Wines from Chile’ tasting at the Radisson Golden Lane was a smidge short of whelming.

I tasted the guts of a hundred wines, culled from all the major regions and found fewer than a dozen to excite me. I should have maybe prefaced this by saying, to the public, that most of the wines on show were very competently made, with simple, primary fruit characteristics that might well appeal. None of these wines will do you harm and the over-sulphiting that used to be a feature of many Chilean wines is now a thing of the past.  Neverthess, aficionados – and I don’t mean wine snobs – may well find that the ‘Wow!’ factor may be easier bought from some other region of the globe.

The Sauvignon Blancs were almost universally lamentable. The principal virtue of this largely ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ grape is its capacity to refresh, to wake up the senses with minerality and green fruit sensations. Amazingly, some unnamed Chilean winemaker found a way to make Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like unoaked Chardonnay and everyone seems to have followed suit. Of those meriting a mention Secreto 2009 (€13.99 Redmonds, Mitchells, Drink Store, The Goose, Next Door, On the Grapevine) was decent kit; Casa Lapostelle 2008 (€12.99 O’Briens, Nolans, D6, Jus de Vine, Wine Well, Sweeneys) gave me a little more than ‘nice’. Torres Santa Digna 2009 (€11.99 Donnybrook Fair, Kingdom Hall (Tralee), Oscars, Gourmet Shop, Mitchells, Redmonds) stood out like a shining beacon with the fruit/acid ‘balanceometer’ quivering properly towards the right – best of the bunch by some way.

The Chardonnays were, in the main, tinned fruit, albeit quality tinned fruit. An unusual blending with Carmenere put much-appreciated vivacity into Oveja Negra 2009 (10.99, Stacks, Fresh, Nolans of Kilcullen, Cahills of Cork). When I tasted the familiar Montes Classic 2008 Chardonnay (pretty widely available, €11.49) I was jolted out of my comfort zone. This wine used to be ‘mainstream’. Now it stood out as a rock in a calm sea. Hey, I thought, this is actually pretty well-made wine. Old fashioned, yes, but solid and substantial in a style that winemakers, in their quest for modernity, marketability and ‘easy-peasy drinking’ have largely rejected.

I thought there would be more fizzers. The one that was there, the Cono Sur Sparkling, a NV from Bio Bio was brilliant value for the money, capable of taking on some decent Aussies and wiping out 90% of Prosecco. (14.99, Bunch of Grapes, Egans, Savages, Brooks, Joyces, Wine Well, Redmonds, Next Door, SuperValu, Dunnes).

The reds, by and large, were in like vein. Big, upfront, rounded, with nothing the wine newbie could take exception to. But the majority were boring as hell. As with the whites, there were some shining exceptions. Morande had a bloody good shot at making budget Pinot Noir which said all the right things. A tad one-dimensional but at €12.99 (World Wide Wines, Bin No 9, 1601 Kinsale) what the hell. There are quite a few one-dimensional NZ Pinots at nearly 3 times the money come to think of it. Cono Sur’s 2008 Pinot, too, represents remarkable value for the niggardly €9.49 ask.

I’m not a big fan of Carmenere singles but I did like the 2008 Carmen Reserva (Redmonds, SupeValu). A hard sell at €15.99, though.

Most of the Merlots were baked like jam tarts. I do believe the French should have made the taking of cuttings beyond the boundaries of Bordeaux a guillotining offence. The Torres Santa Digna 2008 (€11.99 Ardkeen, Micthells, Redmonds, Jus de Vine, Cork’s Terenure) just about passed muster.

Estampa, with their 2006, made a pretty creditable stab at making a pleasing blend of Carmenere, Cabernet (Sauvignon and Franc) and Petit Verdot (€12.99, independents). Many of the producers preferred to vinify their varietals separately, a policy I’d question, though maybe, as a marketing proposition that’s ‘way to go’.

Wow! At last a wine with real chutzpah. Pizzaz even! The 2006 Vina Maipo Limited Edition Syrah 2006 ticked every box,vibrant, complex, savoury. Then I saw the price – €29.99 in Dunnes Stores. If this came down to under €20, I’d buy it.

The Montes Limited Edition Cabernet/Carmenere (€13.99 Next Door, Unwined (Swords)) gets my vote for Best Value on the day. Cracking, complex proper wine and affordable to boot.

Best of the ‘around a tenner’ reds was the 2008 Santa Rita 120, honouring the patriots who helped win the revolution. Maybe Guinness should knock out a ‘Devalera Limited Edition’?

And so it goes… maybe I’ve painted a bleaker picture than it warrants. My feelings are tinged with disappointment that this nation, with its army of keen young winemakers and variety of terroir, doesn’t seem to do ‘complex’ reds, at least not until you fork out twenty euro, sometimes not then. Contrast ‘the new’ Spain, for instance, where there are so many exciting wines here in Ireland  for around €15. As for the whites, how much nicer are, say, the Rueda Verdejos than the Chilean Sauv B’s for around the same wedge.

One last thing. How on earth could the Decanter people give the 2007 Indomita Reserva a trophy? They must surely have had a different bottling for ours (cork not screwcap, by the way) was evincing what you could only call ‘reduction ad absurdum’.

So it Goes…

john41This Week’s Decent Drinking

I make no apologies for making this week’s WOTW a wine you are unlikely to be unable to buy. The 2000 John Wade Cabernet Sauvigon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc I opened tonight I picked up at the vineyard on a visit to Denmark and Albany, at the bottom end of Western Australia in 2002.

In 1982, John Wade created the award winning Wynns – Coonawarra “John Riddoch” , a wine that was named Best Red Wine in Australia on two separate occasions..

John, a graduate from Wagga, if memory serves me right, began his winemaking career in the Hunter Valley. At Wynns, he quickly achieved promotion from assistant winemaker to winery manager, a position he held for six years. Afterwards, he worked in Western Australia, as consultant winemaker with leading Great Southern producers Alkoomi and Goundrey and was then appointed senior winemaker with Plantagenet Wines, a position he held for six years.

His work is not limited to Australia. John has undertaken vintage work in France – at Chateau Senejac in Margaux and Chateau Pontet-Canet in Pauillac. In 1995 he worked as winemaker at the new Tenuta di Trinoro estate in Southern Tuscany.

In 1986 John founded the Howard Park Winery and in 1992 established the Madfish Bay label, currently popular in any number of Irish restaurants thanks to importers, Nicholson’s. After leaving Howard Park he has worked as a wine industry consultant. When I met him in Denmark, WA in May 2002 he was making wine for a number of vineyards in the Great Southern region and was also tending his own vines. All the grapes in the wine we drank last night were grown on the estate.

vines at Denmark, WA
vines at Denmark, WA

I opened John’s 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon/ Merlot/ Cabernet Franc last night and pretty impressive it was too. The stellar, fragrant and uber powerful nose struck a chord with everyone at the table. Denmark’s cool climate enabled the wine to tip the scales at a mere 12.5% ABV giving the wine a definite Left Bank Bordeaux feel and allowing the herbal notes of the Cab Franc to escape from the fruit and shine. Lovely!

To return to something you CAN buy, the Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc 2008, less minerally aggressive than many Marlborough NZ examples, is well worth the asking price, especially at the ‘on special’ €10.99. I’m always looking for decent whites around a tenner since The Dark Lady of My Sonnets gave up drinking red, and this one sure fits the bill. From O’Briens.

SQ – New Italian Wines

Okay, I know, I'm drinking Campari. But I do like Italian wines.
Okay, I know, I'm drinking Campari. But I do like Italian wines.

Superquinn continues to update its wine range, with the relaunch of its Italian offering this month. Sixteen new wines have been selected by Superquinn wine buyerRichard Moriarty, taking the range of Italian wines to 56. Most of the new wines are exclusive to Superquinn and come from regions the length and breadth of Italy – from Alto Adige in the Alps, down to Sicily.

Some of the new wines include:

Costacielo – the Lunarossa winery stands in the hills on the Salerno peninsula, mid-way between the Amalfi and Cilento coasts. The company is regarded as one of the new gems of the Campania region; its forward-looking approach is underlined by the strikingly modern presentation of the wines. Lunarossa has a strong belief in the potential of the area’s traditional grapes, often combining these with international varieties to create interesting new blends of aroma and flavour. Costacielo Fiano Falanghina is priced at €17.99.

Cusumano – Sicily with its rugged terrain, sunny climate and high quality indigenous grapes is at last starting to show the world its potential for quality. Third generation family winemakers Alberto and Diego Cusumano are typical of the new wave of Sicilian producers. Cusumano Inzolia and Cusumano Nero D’Avola are priced at €10.99 each.

Tolloy – Alto Adige is one of the most picturesque landscapes in Europe. The presence of the Alps, which protects the region from the cold winds originating in the north, and the influence of the Mediterranean climate grant the ideal conditions for an extraordinary viticultural variety. Tolloy Gewurtztraminer Alto Adige, Tolloy Merlot Alto Adige and Tolloy Pinot Bianco Alto Adige are priced at €10.99 each.

Villa Sparina – Located in Monterotondo, the heart of Gavi DOC, Villa Sparina was founded by Mario Moccagatta. Head enologist Beppe Caviola, one of the foremost winemakers in Piemonte, has brought Gavi to new heights exploring the full potential of the Cortese grape. All of the Villa Sparina wines are produced from estate grown fruit and are estate bottled. The vineyards are overseen by agronomist Federico Curtaz, formerly of Gaja. They are increasingly oriented towards reducing yields, in an effort to achieve the highest possible quality. Harvest is delayed until the last possible moment, giving the wines great concentration and a wonderful balance of acidity and fruit. Villa Sparina Gavi Di Gavi is priced at €17.99.

The relaunch of Italian wine at Superquinn coincides with a special promotion in Superquinn stores, which will run for four weeks from 15th April to 12th May 2009 inclusive, when consumers can save up to 50% off selected Italian wines.

The above information comes from the Superquinn press release. I don’t know much about Tolloy but Cusumano, Costacielo and Villa Sparina, I really rate as producers. I drank a lot of the Cusumano Inzolia as my regular lunchtime tipple on my holiday in Sicily last year. Goes great with triglie (red mullet). The Villa Sparina Gavi is very fine too. And I’ve just looked at my notes to see I gave a heads-up to a Costacielo wine at the Gilbey’s tasting earlier this year.

This is a bold move by SQ, great to see a supermarket veering away from the ‘usual suspects’.  I wish them success with it.

 

Gilbey's Portfolio Tasting Feb 2009 – 10 that impressed

Trekking to the Guinness Storehouse, with sleet whacking down like stair rods wouldn’t be my favourite occupation but Gilbey’s Terry Pennington and Lynne Coyle  have assembled one hell of a portfolio, with smart niche producers alongside mainstream brands like Blossom Hill, Yellow Tail, Bargton & Guestier etc and venerable favourites of the ilk of Louis Latour, Trimbach and Jaboulet. And so, along with the rest of the ‘vinerati’ I had to be there. Anyhow, here are a few of my own highly idiosyncratic choices to give you a flavour of the day.

WHITES

Borie de Maurel Nature Blanc 2007

Even discounting the romance, this is a very smart little French white, for not too much money. Organic it is, biodynamic it may be – though not officially certified as such. What the hell, the wine is good enough to stand on its own merits without the feelgood factor. Did I say romance? Okay, try this: Michel Escande works the land with horses, not tractors. And as if that isn’t enough, the wine is shipped to Ireland by sailboat. Ain’t that nice.

12,99 Jus de Vine, selected independents

Hunter’s Estate Chardonnay Marlborough 2007

As the old adage goes, “many are called, but few are chosen”. From the Cape to Casablanca (Chile) wineries are trying to take the rampant tropical fruit out of their Chardonnay and construct something more laid back and stylish. Not many succeed. Hunter’s Sauvignon Blanc is a regular award winner; there is a deal of noise being made about their Pinot Noir; for me, the engaging Chardonnay is the best wine they make.

19.49, selected independents

Knappstein ‘Three’ Gewurztraminer-Riesling-Pinot Gris, Clare Valley 2008

Me, Tomas, Raymond, Martin, JW, we’ve been banging on at readers for longer than I care to think, trying to persuade them to drink Riesling. I’m coming to think we’re flogging a dead horse, sad, but it’s just too austere, too difficult for the average punter. I’m backing off a bit but I’d still like you to try this – a fantastically full-bodied bundle of joy and an absolute steal for the dosh.

14.79, selected independents


Laurenz V ‘Charming’ Gruner Veltliner 2007

So sexy, innit? Gruner Veltliner, gru-vee, groovy, current darling of the posh restaurants. Almost single-handedly this ‘sauvignon-without-tears’ grape has rehabilitated the Austrian wine industry.The blurb in the catalogue tell us that the ‘Singing’ and the ‘Sunny’ are ‘more accessible’ than the flagship ‘Charming’. They are also considerably cheaper -by about €8, but there’s a massive quantum leap when you get to the top product and there can’t be many more enjoyable wines for the dosh involved. No stockists yet. I expect this one will end up in restaurants.

24.49

Trimbach Alsace Pinot Gris Réserve 2005

‘Way to go’ for what is currently the world’s most abused grape varietal! The Italians, the Aussies, the Chileans should drink this until they start to ‘get it’. Just superb, beautifully-crafted, elegant, food-friendly wine borne out of 12 empathetic generations. It sings! And, if you can’t afford it, do the Pinot Blanc at a value €13.99

19.59, Tesco, Superquinn, Dunnes, selected independents

REDS

Pézat Bordeaux Superieur 2007

Jonathan Maltus, Ch Tessier & Colonial Estates
Jonathan Maltus, Ch Tessier & Colonial Estates

My enthusiasm for the wines of Jonathan Maltus in general and this wine in particular have not gone unnoticed for I found an attributable quote in the catalogue. Whenever I encounter a Bordeaux Superior, the occasion begs the question “superior to what?” in this case, the answer is “ superior to almost any red wine you can find for under €25.” Pézat really is a beauty; rich, rounded, mellow, satisfying. Though the RRP has escalated since my first sip it’s still fine value for money. It’s also a plea in mitigation as to why the Merlot grape should be allowed to exist; don’t buy New World Merlot soup at a tenner a throw, save up and buy this.

19.59, selected independents

Lunarossa

Costacielo Cabernet-Aglianico, Campania 2007

On the outskirts of Sorrento there’s a rather good wine merchants. The owner, a man I respect, was raving about a local winemaker called Genarro di Maggio. And, guess what, now he’s here. With a food-friendly white and this classy, sassy red which employs the stiff backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon to balance up the big, smirky-smile bestowed by Aglianico (rough translation: the alien). As Paul Simon nearly wrote – “Here’s to you G.diMaggio…”

18.89, selected independents.

Paul Jaboulet Ainé, Crozes-Hermitages ‘Les Jalets’ 2006

Caroline Frey, Ch La Lagune & Paul Jaboulet Ainé
Caroline Frey, Ch La Lagune & Paul Jaboulet Ainé

First vintage from Jaboulet that Caroline Frey laid her hands on and the wine is all the better for it. Standards that had been dipping since the late 1990’s have been reversed and while it’s still dark-fruited, dense and meaty it’s much less ‘agricultural’ than of yore. The more expensive ‘Domaine-de Thalabert’ 2006 still needs a bit of work, imo.

17.99 O’Briens, SuperValu, selected independents

Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2007

Smart, keenly priced red from a Sicilian producer who’s been getting a lot of plaudits of late. Soft, joyful, no-nonsense everyday drinking.

11.99, selected independents

Bylines Shiraz – Cabernet Sauvignon , South Australia, 2003

A collaboration between ex-City gent the affable Martin Krajewski of Chateau de Sours and Australia’s David Fatches. They’ve managed to persuade John Duval, formerly winemaker of Penfold’s Grange to stir the cauldron. The result is a big, sexy red capable of ageing for aeons. Loads of competition at this price point of course but it’s well up to scratch. One thought – how come Shiraz-Cab blends work, whereas Cab-Shiraz ones almost invariably don’t? Strange.

€45.29, selected independents

In The Shadow Of The Andes

“Welcome to Santiago” said Christian, the driver assigned to me by Wines of Chile. For the next six days he and I were to tour vineyards at the rate of three a day, clocking up a sniff/slurp/spit of nigh on 400 individual bottles in a mission to assess the progress made by the country’s winemakers.

Chile, a slender stick of a country, is dominated by the Andes, the South American backbone that separates it from its neighbours. It reminded me a little of South Africa’s Cape where from almost every vineyard you have a view of Table Mountain but I was unprepared for grandeur on this scale. The Cordilleras de los Andes, to bestow their proper name, are the highest mountain range outside the Himalayas.

Vinis vinifera, the wine grape was brought to Chile by the conquistadors at the behest of the army of priests who came in their wake. Initially a lacklustre red grape, the Pais, was the favoured communion variety but this has thankfully been supplanted by Cabernet and Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc, Carmenère and, latterly Syrah as Chilean producers began to emulate what their Californian and Australian counterparts had done so successfully, i.e. give the world a wealth of clean, fruity, easy-to-drink wines.

The majority of Chile’s vineyards are located in the Central Valley, a depression lying between two mountain ranges, stretching out like a three-fingered hand. Here the hot sun and the rich, fertile soil makes grape growing a picnic. The adjacent slopes give some necessary respite, ensuring the grapes don’t turn to raisins before they can be gathered. Rivers criss-crossing the valley provide water for irrigation. The high grape yields do inhibit quality however and it took some time for Chilean producers to realise this. Fortunately, a new and well qualified generation of wine makers has emerged; many have worked overseas, in France, Australia or New Zealand and all are passionate about what they do. Everywhere the talk is now of ‘green harvesting’ – thinning the crop in summer – and of ‘stressing the vines’ – making them work harder to produce less but better fruit.

Our initial destination was Errazuriz, long established as the dominant winery in the Aconcagua Valley where we were introduced to Chile’s own signature version of the Cornish pasty, the empanada, a favourite food for high days and holidays, albeit that this was a more sophisticated version than the norm, filled with corn and ricotta. We ate under a shady arbour adjacent to the impressive visitor centre. Wine tourism in Chile is, compared to, say, California or Australia is in its infancy but Errazuriz seems to have embraced the concept earlier than many of their peers.

In the afternoon we journeyed to the San Esteban winery which possesses what is almost certainly Chile’s highest vineyard. From the summit above we gazed down on new plantings of Syrah and ancient Indian rock paintings which feature on the labels of San Esteban’s top red wines, cuddled in new French oak and designated In Situ.

We drove back to Santiago as the sun was setting. Tired as I was, I succumbed to the temptation to wander abroad and was delighted to find a thriving restaurant and bar quarter a mere stone’s throw from the hotel. Enjoying a local beer I dithered over whether to patronise what looked like a stolidly traditional Chilean restaurant or content myself with a tapas or three. I decided on the latter and was soon seated in a stylish establishment owned by Torres. This enterprising Catalan winemaking family were early to spot Chile’s potential, acquiring their first property in Curico in 1979. An Torres innovation was to replace the traditional rauli (beech wood vats) with stainless steel. By the mid-nineties everyone else had followed suit, a significant factor in Chile’s progression to making clean, modern wines. Torres’ tapas proved delightful and, by Dublin standards, inexpensive, three dishes including some excellent foie gras, two glasses of wine (a red and a ‘sticky’) and an espresso for around e27 including a tip, symptomatic of the value for money I found everywhere when dining out in Chile.

I was collected at 8am next morning, further evidence, if any is needed, that a wine trip is not all sybaritic junketing. Our first visit was to Cousino Macul at Buin in the Maipo Valley. Their wines were introduced into Ireland by the Ecock brothers in the late 1980s, when their quasi-European styled Cabernet found favour with critics. Alas, standards plummeted in the mid nineties and I was not expecting a great deal but the wines I tasted went well on the way to convincing me that Cousino Macul is set to recover its reputation.

Maipo is home to much of Chile’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon and a whole lot more besides. Carmen and Santa Rita, both well known brands in Ireland, are under the same ownership and share the same valley but with their own delineated plots. Among both feature plantings of Carmenère – from ‘carmine’, red, nothing to do with the winery although it happily espoused the grape – which has come to be regarded as Chile’s ‘signature’. The story of its rise to fame is an interesting one; Carmenère is an old variety of Bordeaux where it is also known as Grand Vidure and now largely extinct in its homeland. The grape was identified in Chile in 1994 by a visiting French viticulturist in the middle of a patch of Merlot. Further investigation brought the conclusion that most of what was thought to be Chilean Merlot was, in fact, Carmenère. It’s hard to see why the confusion occurred. The leaves look nothing like each other and Carmenère is a tardy ripener whereas if Merlot was a spud it would be a ‘first early’. However, confusion there was. It is generally accepted that Carmen’s Alvaro Espinosa, one of Chile’s pioneering modern winemakers was the prime mover in transforming Carmenère from a thin, harsh, aggressively capsicum-scented varietal into the fragrantly aromatic charmer can be today by introducing the concept of drastically thinning the vines to allow full ripening.

In late afternoon, we transferred our presence to Santa Rita on the other side of the valley. The company, owned by a giant conglomerate headed up by Don Ricardo Claro, has a luxurious hotel, set amid 35 acres of landscaped parkland. Alas for the lay tourist, accommodation is restricted to guests of the winery.

I tasted Santa Rita’s wines in the company of export manager Andres Barros. Later, before dinner, I found Andres talking to a distinguished-looking gentleman who turned out to be non other than Don Ricardo himself. After a brief introduction, the Don turned to us and said “I wish to do the tasting. And I wish Ernie to tutor my friends in my wines.” How could I refuse? I had to swallow hard before telling him I didn’t think Chile ought to grow Merlot.

Next morning I was at Cono Sur where I first glimpsed the efforts that Chilean viticulture is making to get to grips with organic and biodynamic methods, particularly when a flock of geese, employed to eat burrito grubs, scurried out from beneath our wheels. The winemaker told me of the war waged on the rapacious red spider by its otherwise benevolent white cousin. Encouraging this ecological conflict obviated the use of a poultice of chemicals on the vine stems. It amused me to see that vineyard workers, many of them elderly, had full-suspension mountain bikes as their preferred mode of transport. The wisdom of this could be seen later that day at Luis Felipe Edwards’ estate as we whizzed up and down precipitous slopes in a 4X4 truck to view vines planted in spots you’d think were impossible to harvest.

Besides Torres, other significant European families play a role in Chile’s wine industry and there is no doubt that much of the quality hike has derived from their involvement, as exemplified by Lafite Rothschild at Los Vascos whose wines are definitely French-styled with a striking degree of ‘backbone’ and Marnier-Lapostolle whose flagship, Clos Apalta now has, at Colchagua, its own ten million dollar’s worth of purpose-built winery-cum-architectural statement, one of the wonders of the wine world.

Ireland is an important market. Mont Gras has its European export manager based here. To my delight, when I visited the winery I found Hans Liebrand newly-arrived from Dublin and we enjoyed catching up on the craic during a memorable hilltop barbecue.

The final part of my trip was spent visiting Leyda, Casablanca and the San Antonio valley. These areas, nearer the coast, enjoy the benefit of being cooled by the winds that blow over the Humboldt current. The white wines, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in particular, have a restraint, elegance and delicacy exceeding that of their inland cousins. At Vina Leyda I found an exuberant experimental blanc de blanc made by the method generally accredited as being the best for sparkling wine (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!).

In San Antonio I enjoyed a reunion with Maria Luz Marin whom I’d last met in Dublin on a damp autumn day. Maria Luz was one of Chile’s first female winemakers, an inspiration to the many talented young women following in her wake. Her Pinot Noir is, for me, one of Chile’s flagship wines. Other masterpieces include her Laurel Vineyard Sauvigon and a new Riesling.

Conclusions? The primary one is that Chilean wines are upwardly mobile. Everywhere I found an intent to pursue the holy grail of quality. Yields are being reduced (though they are still too high); rows are being re-aligned; cooler areas are being explored and planted – watch out for Bio-Bio in the far South. Wine tourism is being initiated – the fine restaurant at Vina Morande to which people take the two hour drive from Santiago for lunch will serve as a role model for others. I can’t wait to go back; though, next time, I will extend my stay. I want to see more of this gloriously diverse country.

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Wine notes July 2006 Pinot Noir

When I started this column I cautioned against over-emotive language. Well, now for a grape that’s inspired more exuberant metaphors than you’d find in the complete works of James Joyce. Wine writers laud it to the skies. In Burgundy, where it first gained fame, vignerons also lavish choice epithets on pinot noir. Among other things, they call it “the black bitch”.
Thin-skinned, sulky, liable to catch any epidemic that’s going, endlessly picky about sun, scenery and soil, you have to wonder “Why do they persevere?” When you pay e25 and get a mediocre bottle you wonder twice.
The answer, of course, is that when pinot noir is on form there’s simply nothing to touch it. Seductive aromas, complex flavours, silky texture; it’s also the perfect accompaniment to feathered game and soft smelly cheese, of both of which I’m inordinately fond.
I used to lay down burgundy to tease out those hazelnut and truffle nuances, as was the fashion when I was finding my feet in wine. Older I get, the more I adore primary fruit, particularly the exuberant cherry flavours that good pinot yields. I’m happy, now, to quaff the night I buy.
Sending someone out to buy a bottle of e15 pinot noir is wine’s equivalent of rugby’s ‘hospital pass’. After a few bruisings I scored with “Les Maisons Dieu” 2001 (Fallon & Byrne, e14.95), from a reliable producer, Moissenet-Bonnard. I wouldn’t mind betting that some of you who followed my dictat ended up thinking “Bloody hell, I could get a nicer Shiraz (or Cabernet or Merlot) for the same money.”
But that’s pinot; never cheap, seldom a bargain. Things are better than they used to be. Market forces have made Burgundians less complacent and it’s now hard to find a real bummer. Nevertheless, given the investment level, it’s wisest to squirrel out the names of the smart lads and stick with them. Or go New World. New Zealand (Ata Rangi, Felton Road, Craggy Ranges etc), Tasmania, South Africa, Oregon and California (Marimar Torres) are also making reliable, occasionally fantastic pinots.
Recently I encountered a Chilean stunner. It costs e40-odd a throw so I won’t be drinking it that often. Perhaps this is the best way to think of pinot noir – as a treat, a wine lover’s alternative to taking in a match, a play or a concert. Two hours of passionless Eagles or 6 glasses of coruscating 2003 Casa Marin “Lo Abarca Hills” (Wines Direct, Mullingar)? No contest.

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Wine Notes June 2006 – Merlot

Kipper ties, two-tone shirts, baggy trousers, cowboy boots, where are they now?
Amazing how fast fashion changes. Here’s UK wine writer Suzy Atkins in 2003 – “I can’t think of anything more fashionable in the world of wine than merlot.” She goes on to chirrup about the grape being “hip and happening”. A year later, merlot withered on the vine. What killed it? A film called ‘Sideways’. More particularly the scene where wine snob Miles tells his pal before a double-date dinner, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving.” Subsequently sales dipped. Not ‘plummeted’ as the tabloids claimed, but there was a measurable downturn.

Shame on filmgoers for picking on this smiley, bounteous grape. Merlot, an early ripener, is a welcome hedge for winemakers against pre-harvest downpours. For its drinking qualities it’s been called “cabernet without tears”, not a bad description. The tannins resolve nicely, giving the wine a velvety texture; the flavour is a pleasing melange of plums and dark cherries. And it makes a first rate running mate for cabernet sauvignon.

Merlot made in a hot climate can be sweaty and out of sorts. Pale-skinned freckly Celts will empathise. In Riverland, the boiler room of Australia’s wine industry winemakers are beginning to believe that Merlot is, as one of them put it, “a bloody weed” and are replacing it with varieties like sangiovese and barbera, swarthy Latins who can handle any amount of sun.

To appreciate merlot’s potential you have to go to Bordeaux where it’s the most-planted grape. Wineries there don’t usually list varieties on their labels but it’s odds-on that a wine from Pomerol or St.Emlion on what’s confusingly called ‘the right bank’ (many of the best vineyards are nowhere near the river) will have a majority of merlot in its make-up. Pomerol is ‘posh’ , hence absurdly expensive, but decently drinkable St.Emilion kicks in at around e12 for which Dunnes Stores have Chapelle de la Trinité 2004, a good value intro to this easy-to-assimilate style.

The 2001’s are drinking beautifully at the minute. I was pleased to find Mitchells still have some of the Chateau la Nauve (e.15.99) – a fine wine commissioned to mark UCD’s 50th anniversary. Upping the ante somewhat – to e24 – gets you what I think is a remarkable wine. The stark label of Berry Brother’s St.Emilion screams ‘plain Jane’ but don’t be kidded, this is Audrey Hepburn out of the Givenchy dress, creamy skin, come-to-bed eyes, bags of character, the works. A lot of loot for an ‘own brand’? Maybe. Until you realise it’s made by Alain Vauthier, co-owner of uber-sexy Chateau Ausonne.

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La Rioja

It is difficult nowadays to imagine the impact that Rioja had on the wine drinker when it burst into our consciousness some forty years ago. Let me set the scene. For starters, Bordeaux and Burgundy, our favourite tipple, had started to escalate in price. Whereas in the 1960s the difference in cost between a merely respectable and a good bottle was only a pound or two, the gap had started to widen, putting the better wines beyond the reach of the average drinker. Then there were the great scandals – the revelation that, in a poor year, some of our hallowed names had souped up their wines by a judicious admixture of grapes from The Midi impacted on our confidence. The humorous magazine Punch summed it up rather well with a satirical guide to wine labelling that included ‘Mis en bouteille au chateau – there is a picture of a castle on the label’.
Rioja was undoubtedly given a boost by the well-propagated myth that its wine industry had been started by the French – ‘myth’ because wine had been made in the upper Ebro valley by the Romans. The French connection came about because of an outbreak of mildew in Bordeaux vineyards in the 1840s. Bordeaux wine brokers went south in search of reliable supplies and hit upon La Rioja. Wine makers and French technology followed in their wake although, remarkably, and with one exception, they did not bring with them their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines, being content to work with the local variety, Tempranillo. With the devastation caused by phylloxera in the 1860s, the procession South intensified. Rioja gained an unprecedented boom which lasted until the turn of the century when the dreaded louse arrived in the region to cause the same havoc it had earlier caused in France. This and the loss of a lucrative market as Spain’s colonial interests dwindled sent the industry into decline.Then, in the late 1960s, Rioja was rediscovered, re-born as “affordable claret-style wine.” Boom time once again.
Though Rioja was the first and is still the most highly regulated area in Spanish winemaking, the regulations haven’t always worked in the region’s favour. The emphasis on barrel maturation has led to some faded, heavily oxidised wines – if you are subjecting a wine to extended barrel ageing then the base product has to be pretty good and that hasn’t always been the case. Nevertheless, the best reds are sublime and you have a choice between the old-style, matured in American oak, silky, aromatic and medium bodied and the new upfront ‘fruit bombs’ made in that international style that the market seems to demand. Names to try include my favourite, Muga; Monte Real; Olarra; the two Marqueses, Murrieta and Riscal; also that runaway commercial success and Ireland’s choice, Faustino.

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Terroirism… a scary scenario

Talking to young sommeliers is very character-building, I’ve decided. These shining early twenty-somethings, armed with the questing mind and capacity for absorbing complex information I used to pride myself on, are a constant reminder to me not to take anything as set in stone. Having clocked up 40-odd years drinking wine (from the sublime to the diabolical ) there’s a tendency to think “been there; done that; worn out, never mind worn the t-shirt” and lapse into a kind of elder statesman cynicism. Which is a shame.

So when something or someone comes along and jogs you out of your complacency that’s A Good Thing. When Michel Chapoutier breezed into town like the mistral earlier this year saying “Don’t worry overly about the nose. Wines with huge upfront noses often don’t give you much at the other end” it caused me to revise my tasting technique. Subsequently, I’ve got much more laid back. In the past, if a wine’s given me little on the nose I’ve noted it as ‘muted’ or ‘dumb’ or, worse, ‘anonymous’ or ‘boring’. It’s consequently been harder for that wine, no matter how complex the favours, impactful the mouthfeel or extended the length, to climb back into my esteem. These days I adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy that’s altogether fairer on the wine.

But altogether the most debate-provoking stuff I’d heard since a certain Spaniard told me, back in the eighties, that in his opinion he made better wine than Latour or Lafite came in the shape of a 90-minute lecture on terroir given by Ed Flaherty of Errazuriz. Ed’s talk and visual presentation was punctuated by a tasting of 24 wines, in flights of 2 or 3, all, save one, Cabernet Sauvignon. The first pair we were presented with were identical, other than that one had been made from grapes picked from a vine that had been trimmed back to 8 leaves per shoot, whereas the other was made from grapes picked where the shoot had been pruned to 16 leaves. The wines were totally different, exhibiting aromas and flavours from opposite ends of the spectrum. Next, a flight of three, from grapes harvested at different times, all else being equal. Again, the wines were spectacularly diverse. And so it went on. We were presented with another flight of three, made from grapes harvested in different plots of the same vineyard – one yielded a blockbuster, originally clocked at 15.4% ABV before dilution to 14.8, the other two fairly ‘normal’, if that’s the word, but diametrically opposed in style. Fascinating thought provoking stuff.

One conclusion, the obvious one, was that terroir works – the time-honoured combination of soil, aspect and climate, especially when juxtaposed with the new sciences like canopy management and modern maturation techniques does dramatically influence the aroma/taste/quality/character of the finished wine, QED.

Reflecting after the event, I became aware of a slightly sinister sub-text. I imagined a scenario where, given the appropriate grape variety (“Please no Merlot” screams Ed Flaherty “It’s wholly unsuited to Chile”), these techno-savvy Chileans could make whatever style of wine they please – easy drinking or big hitting; light and user-friendly or dark and mysterious; for instant gratification or long keeping; right or left bank-style; the technology is in place. All it needs is a Machiavellian mastermind to bend terroir, Svengali-like, to his will. So if tastes change and the mass market begins to tire of huge fruit bombs… Got it? Look out, Bordeaux and Burgundy. And don’t say I didn’t warn you!

News just in on a bilateral agreement between Canada and the EC. The agreement marks the culmination of four years of negotiation and a happy, backslapping time was had by all. EC Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fishler highlighted the decision by Canadian winemakers to adopt
the “VQA” system of quality standards applied to winemaking as crucial. “This reflects the European approach and enabled substantial progress on the sensitive issue of winemaking standards.” Apparently the decision by Canadian winemakers to turn their backs on use of European names was the key breakthrough needed for an agreement. “No more ‘Chablis’, ‘Port’, ‘Sherry’ ‘Sauternes’, ‘Claret’ or ‘Champagne’ we promise.” Or ‘Grappa’ or ‘Ouzo’ two years hence.

So what do the Canucks get out of it? Well, Rye Whisky will be protected in Europe as a distinctive product of Canada. Doesn’t seem much of a trade off, does it, one concession for so many? Apparently the two sets of negotiators are still locking horns over ‘Highland Whisky’.

Nearer home, in a Dublin wine merchants, we saw a range of what could once legitimately be sold as South African Ports listed as ‘Orts’!

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