Wednesday, 1 November 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Cune Barrel-Fermented Rioja Blanco 2016

To the occasional wine drinker, finding out that white Rioja exists can come as something of a shock. It's an entirely forgivable reaction: of the 250 million litres of wine produced in the region each year, around 85% of it is red - and much of this finds its way into the UK market. Given our affinity, then, for the mellow, oak-influenced reds of this famed Northern Spanish wine region, why don't its whites get more of a look in?

One possible reason is the bad reputation that dogs Rioja's white wines: while the reds and their constituent grape varieties (predominately Tempranillo and Garnacha) marry well with extended periods of aging in barrel, the whites have not always been as comfortable bedfellows. In a recent Decanter article on the region's whites, Sarah Jane Evans MW quoted a 2007 piece in The Guardian, where wine expert Victoria Moore commented: "Most styles of white Rioja are certainly an acquired taste. To some, a mouthful of white Rioja is about as welcome as a bite of balsa wood impregnated with castor oil".

Fortunately, due to advances in vinification technology and consumer demand for fresher, leaner wines, such balsa and engine oil-flavoured bottles are largely a thing of the past. One worthy midweek example is the Cune Barrel-Fermented Rioja Blanco 2016, from one of the region's highest profile bodegas. The barrel fermentation of the wine allows for better oak integration that mere aging alone, and the relatively short 4 months' subsequent resting allows for a better balance between fruit and wood. A pale golden colour in glass, on the nose the wine is reminiscent of boiled toffees and vanilla, which intermingle well with banana and melon flavours. The palate is pleasingly rounded yet with enough acidity to prevent cloying, although I struggled to perceive the same interplay of fruit and oak as I did on the nose. For me, the fruit felt a little muddled and obscured by the wood-derived notes. Nevertheless, subtlety rather than expressiveness is arguably the wine's forte, and it certainly proved a very good companion to a hearty wild mushroom risotto.

Tom's Rating: A well-made gastronomic white Rioja from a powerhouse producer. Perhaps playing it too safe stylistically, though?

Available at: Co-op, £9

Monday, 17 July 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2015

Seeing the name 'Guigal' on a bottle of wine is a reassuring sight for consumers. It's akin to a guarantee of authenticity; a mark of high standards. Much the same as if you'd bought your foodstuffs from Waitrose, or your car from a Mercedes dealership: the consumer is buying an expectation of quality as much as they are the product itself. Comparisons can be drawn in the wine world too: Latour and Jadot perform exactly the same function in Burgundy, as does Dourthe in Bordeaux, Santa Rita in Chile and Bodegas Fabre in Argentina. 

The question might reasonably posed: why, then, bother to assess such wines at all? Well, for starters, half the fun of reviewing wine is enjoyment, and these producers are certain to provide that. But secondly, and more importantly, these producers provide the benchmark for many others in their regions. If the crème de la crème of the Rhône valley is underperforming, a void is left at the top of the pyramid, and the overall quality of the region's wines will suffer as a result.

Fortunately, this is not the case for this particular crème, Guigal, as evidenced by their 2015 Côtes du Rhône Blanc. At almost two-thirds Viognier, the quality of this Southern Rhône white blend is immediately apparent, with its supporting cast of Roussanne, Marsanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc. A beautiful golden lemon colour in glass, the nose is classic white Rhône: white peach, acacia and pear immediately come to the fore, supported by a slightly cereal/leesy character in the background. The palate, too, is typical: medium to full-bodied and lowish acidity, with similar stone fruits and floral flavours coming through. Everything is balanced and well-defined, with an impressive finish for a basic CDR Blanc. My only mild criticism is that it's not as opulent or textural as some of my favourite whites from the Rhône Valley. Having said that, if you want excitement, you buy an Alfa Romeo. If you want assured efficiency and competence, you buy a Merc. The Guigal CDR Blanc is most certainly the latter.

Tom's Rating: A well-made and typical - if not exhilarating - Côtes du Rhône Blanc. A must-have fridge standby for an array of dishes.

Available at: various, £10

Sunday, 2 July 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Château Phélan Ségur 2010

The market for the red wines of Bordeaux is fascinating. Rather unlike its stuffy, conservative image, the modern trade in Claret is marked by a fast-paced dynamism. The classification of 1855 is slowly being eroded: what was once a reliable guide of quality and price is being royally trampled on by upwardly-mobile châteaux, eager to produce the best wines possible in the various communes and terroirs. The upside is that Claret lovers have never had it so good. The downside? Aside from there no longer being a reliable 'league table' of quality, pricing - to the casual observer - now seems something of a mystery.

Take today's wine: Château Phélan Ségur from the fabled 2010 vintage. Phélan Ségur in 1855 missed out on its chance for 'cru classé' status: the honours instead going to its St-Estèphe neighbours, Calon Ségur (3rd growth) and Montrose (2nd growth). Whilst Phélan doesn't quite attain the prices of its counterparts, it nevertheless far outstrips the market price of many classed growths, and is a prime example of the mildly ludicrous situation of having a 162 year old classification still in operation.

Politics aside, the 2010 Phélan Ségur is an absolute belter. A deep ruby in glass, the nose is at once generous yet tightly coiled: I scribbled down blackcurrant, plum, pudding spice and hints of pencil lead. After decanting, something resembling five spice made it onto my jotter pad too. In the mouth, the wine is incredibly full and powerful, with the rich, unctuous fruit perfectly framed by the acidity and tannic structure. Truly, this is a wine that either requires many more years in bottle, or a cut of rare sirloin. I'm impatient; I opted for the latter.

Tom's Rating: Legendary US wine critic Robert Parker called the 2010 Phélan "a major sleeper of the vintage". For my money, it needs a bit more of a lie-in before truly coming to life. Still delicious though.

Available at: various, £50

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: La Réserve de Léoville Barton 2010

Although still a relatively recent phenomenon, the concept of a 'second wine' in Bordeaux is nevertheless now firmly established. With the astronomical sums being demanded for the region's top classed growths, the second wine really does make sense: invariably, these are wines with an earlier drinking window, perhaps crafted from younger vines or using a higher percentage of Merlot, and which spend less time in oak and are consequently lighter in style. In short, the second wine should offer the consumer a taste of the estate's showpiece offering, without burning too much of a hole in the pocket.

The real sweet spot is to be found in the top vintages, as displayed so majestically here with La Réserve de Léoville Barton 2010. The wine is a composition from Bartons Léoville and Langoa (2nd and 3rd growths respectively) which occupy prime locations in Bordeaux's St Julien sub-region. For context, you'd be hard pushed to find either of the estates' top offerings from 2010 at less than £100 a bottle. On the nose, the complexity of La Réserve is immediately appreciable: blackcurrant, smoke, cedar, cream and currant arise from the glorious deep liquid. The palate, as with St Julien wines in general, is framed by prominent tannins, which effortlessly balance out with the wine's body, alcohol and acidity. The finish is something to behold too - incredible length laced with savoury spices; the sure sign of a great, great wine.

Tom's Rating: Wow. It's really quite hard to express the sheer quality of this wine in words. Will continue to reward patient owners over the next decade and more.

Available at: various, £30

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Taste The Difference Priorat 2013

The Catalan wine region of Priorat has a lofty reputation to uphold. Famed for its unique llicorella (slate and quartz-based) soils, its old, low-yielding vines and impossible natural beauty, the area's wines, from the Garnacha and Mazuelo grapes, can be intensely flavoured, impressively structured and eye-wateringly expensive. 

Enter Sainsbury's, with this well-priced 2013 example from their reliable 'Taste the Difference' range. Made for the UK retailer by one of Priorat's major co-operatives, the wine ticks all the initial boxes you'd want from the style: powerful blackcurrant and oak flavours are awash on the palate, backed up with shedloads of body, tannin and alcohol. In something of a contrast, the nose is fairly muted, and welcome nuances of cocoa mingle with the oak-tinged fruit. After this onslaught, the wine becomes a little flat - the finish is shorter than expected and the wine's power starts to become a little cumbersome. The phrase 'food wine' is much overused, but this Priorat is certainly a bottle which needs a good slab of red meat to carry it along to the finish line.

Tom's Rating: A good, if not great, introduction to the style which won't break the bank. Other Spanish regions offer better value, though

Available at: Sainsbury's, £10


Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Château d'Aussières 2010

Previous readers of my blog will know I have a slight soft spot for the wines of Languedoc & Roussillon. It was due to these wines - particularly the reds - discovered during family holidays to the South of France in my teenage years that I first fell in love with wine, and began my ongoing journey of vinous voyage and discovery. It's always comforting to know you're in good company - and the lure of France's Deep South has also proved irresistible for many great winemakers and château owners over the years. This certainly holds true for perhaps the most famous name in French wine - Baron Eric de Rothschild - who purchased Château d'Aussières just before the turn of the millennium. So attracted to the region was he, the Baron commented that Aussières was "a place of wild, natural beauty, that emanates tremendous power, and whose terroir has exceptional potential". Thus, the modern day Château d'Aussières was born, with its first vintage released in 2003.

Compared to other estates, Château d'Aussières is a relative behemoth. At 550ha in size, Aussières is certainly one of the larger estates you'll come across in the Corbières appellation, although the rugged and wild nature of the estate means that only (!) 170ha is suitable for viticulture. In the vineyards, the varieties planted include the traditional Languedoc varieties of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre, alongside the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Roughly two-thirds of the vineyard is utilised in the production of AC wine, whilst the remaining third is given over for the estate's 'Pays d'Oc' wines - Aussières Rouge and Blanc (from Chardonnay).

The eponymous wine of the estate represents the grand vin, of which 10,000 cases are produced each vintage. It is classified as AC Corbières, meaning the Bordeaux varieties don't play a part in the blend. Around 40% of the wine is aged for 12-16 months in 50% new oak, allowing for a lengthy and balanced aging process before release. The defining viticultural factor of Aussières is its majority north-facing vineyards, meaning that the estate produces wines slightly atypical to the generally warm climate Corbières region. Due to the cooler site, the winemaking team are conscious that acid retention in the grapes is never an issue, yet the grapes require additional time on the vines to reach full sugar and physiological ripeness.

I'd long been eager to sample Château d'Aussières since I came across the estate in reading, and I managed to snap up a couple of bottles of the 2010 vintage through fine wine merchants Lay & Wheeler. 2010 was a standout vintage across much of France and this was no different in Languedoc & Roussillon: Robert Parker gave the region an impressive 94 points. On the 2010 Aussières itself, Andrew Jefford in Decanter magazine was highly complementary. In a vertical tasting across the estate's vintages, he reserved his highest score of 93 for the 2010 vintage, remarking: "The nose is packed-out with ripe, warm black fruits which are promisingly understated at this stage and will continue to develop and build; the palate has real weight, drive and grandeur, with soft, ample tannins and resonant, liquorice-root depths."

On sampling the wine myself, I was immediately struck by its quality and craftsmanship. A deep ruby in glass, the wine's aromas reminded me of everything I love about Corbières: rich, jammy blackcurrant; heady, liquorous notes of cassis and nuances of wild herbs. These flavours were mirrored on the palate, with hints of black pepper perhaps reflecting the wine's high Syrah content (65%). Looking back through my tasting notes, one word I kept repeating was 'balance' - a quality which can sometimes be overlooked in the region's rustic, hearty wines. In this sense, the Aussières was atypical: yes, the flavours were intense, the body full and the alcohol present, but all these elements were in perfect harmony with the acidity, which brought a marked freshness to the wine and which brings such promise of longevity in the future. Tasted seven years from vintage, the 2010 Aussières is silky, luscious and hedonistic. Seven years hence, it may well be even more spectacular.

On reflection, the 2010 Château d'Aussières serves to reinforce a commonly-held theory that a combination of great terroir, great winemaking and a great vintage will only ever result in great wine. The fact that this particular wine displays the assets and attributes of the viticultural paradise of Languedoc & Roussillon only serves to make it more special for me. As Baron Eric said after purchasing the Château, Aussières is an estate that emanates "exceptional potential". On the basis of tasting the 2010, it seems as if the Baron's predictions have been realised.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

60 Second Wine Reviews: Grati Rosso di Toscana 1997

Located in Central Italy on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Tuscany is a region like no other. Famed for its culture, its gastronomy and - of course - its wine, Tuscany is a stunningly beautiful area which should be of great interest to any oenophile worth their salt. It is also a region of contradictions: where regionality lives yet where one grape variety reigns; where heritage and tradition are prized but where subverting the orthodoxy is hugely rewarded.

Perhaps the clearest example of the last point is the birth of the 'Super Tuscan': a wine movement of the 1970s and 80s where rebellious winemakers vinified wines from French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, alongside the local Sangiovese grape. These wines quickly gained international acclaim (which still holds today), leading to the ludicrous scenario where Tuscany's most revered and expensive wines could only be labelled as mere Vino da Tavola, the lowest designation for Italian 'table wines'.

Fortunately this farcical loophole has since been resolved, and now a myriad of labelling terms exist for producers of Tuscan wine, be they traditionalist or pioneering. In the former camp are the Grati family, who own vineyards across the region. Their Rosso di Toscana from 1997 is a blend dominated by Sangiovese, with a couple of local varieties playing the supporting role. Pale ruby-coloured in glass, the wine possesses enchanting, creeping aromas of glacé cherry, cider apples, leather and forest leaves. Despite entering its third decade of existence, the wine is remarkably fresh: its raspy acidity and lively tannins a testament to the longevity of Sangiovese. Well-balanced and with a slight iodine saltiness on the palate, Grati's 1997 represents a dignified and refined style of Tuscan red, with plenty more to give in the coming years.

Tom's Rating: A lovely, mature, gastronomic Sangiovese which sticks two fingers up to modernist rivals.

Available at: Majestic Wine, £20-£25