Reviewed: Aglianico del Vulture and GSM two ways

It came as a shock, but someone recently told me I should review more wine and spend less time writing about the usual nonsense that blackens these pages. Under normal circumstances I would scoff at a suggestion like this, but then a clutch of sample bottles turned up at my doorstep and I realised I might have to do some actual work for a change.

In entirely unrelated news,  this past weekend I found myself entangled in one of those weird exchanges on a friend’s Facebook status update where a preference for wine was being determined through nationalism. I expect this with sports and even the way words are spelled (aluminum vs aluminium being a typical example), but wine?

The only thing I am truly nationalistic about is maple syrup and hockey. And even then, maybe only the maple syrup (if it’s made in Vermont, it isn’t allowed in my house). This is for good reason. Only recently has Canadian wine become something to be proud about, so it will take us some time to develop deep-seated nationalistic feelings towards it.

So, anyway, the main thing that I learned from this experience was that, for some people, there is only one wine worth drinking. The mere thought of this frightened me. What do we do if phylloxera were to decimate all of France’s vines again? If global warming renders California too hot for grapes? If invasive species overtake Australia? Better to have a taste for all of the world’s wines, I should think.

With that in mind, the following is a themeless and unstructured round-up of several wines that I’ve been tasting – and actually enjoying – lately.

More from the Berry Bros case
As I discussed in the spring, Berry Bros offered me a short trial of their new wine club and since then I have been putting their selection to the test. One such test was to including one that faced the most challenging crowd of all at the regular 7WordWineReview dinner. That wine, a St Hubert’s Pinot Noir Yarra Valley 2011, earned high praise. So far, so good.

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Yarra Valley pinot is a bit too easy though. So here we have something from a region of Italy that most wine drinkers probably don’t know very well: Basilicata. This region borders Puglia and is in the centre of the instep of the boot of Italy. The wine, made from the aglianico grape and known as Aglianico del Vulture, is deep in colour and backed up by tannins, acidity and ample dark cherry fruit to match.

This Musto Carmelitano Serra del Prete Aglianico del Vulture 2011 doesn’t come cheaply, but you would be hard pressed to find this kind of quality at a lower price. This isn’t just some over-baked red wine from broiling hot southern Italy. It is deep and savoury, balanced with tannin and acidity, and surprisingly fresh with that dose of minerality that people talk about so much these days.

Out of the Penfolds bin
And now, to Australia. There is something about Australian wines that I always find distinctive. To call it ‘sterile’ would be insulting. What I mean to say is that there is a preciseness about them that makes them razor-sharp, fresh and clean. There is often a touch of eucalyptus or mint in there that adds to this effect.

20140715-071004-25804582.jpgThis wine, a Penfolds Bin 138 Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2012, is a long way removed from those lesser Penfolds wines you find in the supermarket. It is approachable now, but it gives clues of its ageworthiness. It is precise, finely balanced in acidity, tannin and fruit, but is also deep and bold without having any flabby characteristics.

This is one of those GSM wines (grenache, shiraz/syrah, mourvedre/mataro) that have become popular not only in Australia but other realms that offer ideal growing conditions for Rhone-style wines. I am not entirely sure of all the major retailers of this wine, but you can buy this one from Frazier’s Wine Merchants for £22.50.

This is a good wine that is worth seeking out if you want something Australian that aspires to deliver more than those Aussie shirazes and Rhone blends on supermarket shelves.

GSM the old world way
Let’s say you just want to drink an old world version of this wine. Surely the whole point of jumping on the GSM bandwagon is to select something genuine, right? Something cheap, something rustic, something from, say, the Rhone itself? Grenache, syrah and mourverdre are just three of 19 grapes found in the southern Rhone, so there is the potential for a lot of variety here, but the reality is that they tend to most commonly appear in wines from this region.

I could rattle of dozens of Rhone wines worth trying. Coudoulet de Beaucastel, while still not cheap at about £17, is one of the best. Then there are the old standby volume-made wines: Guigal Cotes du Rhone Villages and M. Chapoutier Cotes due Rhone Belleruche, each for around £11-£12.

As always, I recommend asking your local wine merchant to suggest a bottle. They probably have a great one on the shelf that was made in limited quantities by small producers.

20140715-071004-25804421.jpgWe aren’t limited to just the Rhone, here. There are plenty corners of the south of France that get ignored because Rhone shouts the loudest. When thinking of GSM, we probably don’t drink enough wine from Saint-Chinian. This bottle, a Terrasses de Balaussan Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2010 that I bought for £12.49, was one of those wines I brought along to a 7WordWineReview dinner hoping for the best.

Unusually for my recent contributions to these dinners, this one wasn’t rubbish. Sometimes, the wines you buy are duds. but this one earned praise. It expresses the warmth of the south of France, the garrigue, the stones, the sun and the dark fruits.

This is just an honestly good wine that offers genuinely enjoyable drinking for the price.

Where is this Saint-Chinian place then? Well, it’s between Minervois and Faugeres. Has that confused you yet? Look on a map of France, find the border with Spain on the Mediterranean and look for a city called Beziers. It’s about 40 km inland from there.

The Rhone isn’t the only part of southern France that does wine well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Domaine Marie Faugeres vs The Real Thing

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Back in the 1990s, one of Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans was to declare that it was ‘the real thing’. This was, of course, intended as a way for Coke to differentiate itself from the imitators out there, something that it has been doing since the late 19th century.

The words never really had much meaning for me. It could have been because I was only 11 at the time. It could also have been because I paid more attention to Cindy Crawford, who adorned their television commercials and billboards at the time. The phrase ‘the real thing‘ was packed full of as much meaning as Fox News’s claim to being ‘fair and balanced’.

What exactly is ‘the real thing’ anyway? Apart from being a tautology, it is also a pointless declaration. Not long ago I discussed the concept of real and natural wine, so I won’t drone on about that again. But what I will do is discuss those times you get the real thing and those times when you get an imposter.

We have all had those moment of success, when that bottle you bought for its striking label it delivered everything you wanted and more.

Perfection.

And then…well then there are the times you found disappointment at the bottom of a rough-and-ready jug wine: something with the consistency of diluted Ribena with a vague flavouring of alcohol.

For instance, Faugeres. This is a small appellation within the Languedoc,  inland of Beziers on the French Mediterranean coast. The production here is mostly red wine from the carignan, cinsault, grenache, mourvedre and syrah grapes, although white wines make up about a fifth of the annual output.

This is a young appellation, having been created in 1982, but like much of the South of France, quality levels are high and consistent these days. Two of my favourite Languedoc wines, Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010 and Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011, both come from Faugeres, selling at £19.50 and £14.50 respectively.

Together they meet all of those expectations that form when opening a bottle of wine: fragrant, rich, earthy, complex and hedonistic.

So to be fair to Domaine Marie Faugeres 2012, it was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. A mere supermarket wine selling for £8.49 at Waitrose could not be expected to be the real thing.

It is lighter in body than the others, big on fruit with a scattering of spices and an easy-drinking style. So what’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t quite tick all of the boxes. That it is another affordable wine that falls short of expectations. That I am sure siphoning the essence from the tank of a clapped out Citroen would yield a similar result.

This is one of those wines that reminds you why you should have spent more. It is why people buy a Tag Heuer watch rather than a Timex. One is weighty and expresses quality; the other is light, flimsy and made for mass market consumption.

If you goal is to achieve that slight buzz that only three glasses of wine can produce, Domaine Marie does it just as well as the others. But a fine wine experience it is not.

It appears that in Faugeres, if you want the real thing, you need to spend real money.

 

 

 

Church & State Wines: The tasting that never was

Nothing satisfies a former journalist like me more than checking back over my notes and discovering that I did, indeed, write down that nugget of information that forms the crux of my argument.

That nugget happens to be about a bottle of syrah and the price tag that was attached to it. Or, rather, the price tag that, to me, seemed just a little bit high.

Continuing with my theme of documenting my trip to the wineries of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, today I am discussing Church & State Wines. I have wanted to try this producer’s wines for quite some time but for years I was put off because of a run of mediocre reviews.

This is a winery that was founded in 2003 just minutes from where I grew up in Victoria, B.C. Originally known as Victoria Estates, it was given the usual assessment that people from Vancouver Island attach to such venture: ambitious, but in the wrong location. It was sold in 2005, the name was changed and the operation became much more serious. For starters, they started making wine in the Okanagan. That was a good decision. However, by that time I have moved to the UK and had access to their wines only when I returned to Canada for a visit.

When I planned my visit to the Okanagan, I did a little research and discovered that, according to the now-defunct Wine Access magazine, Church & State makes the ‘best red wine’ in Canada. That wine, the Coyote Bowl Syrah 2009, was what I was after.

The Church & State tasting room sits off the beaten path among the winery’s vineyards in Oliver, a small town between Osoyoos and Penticton. There isn’t much there other than a small modern winery and tasting room with few frills. The main entrance isn’t even signposted. I give them credit for keeping things simple and without too much pomp and circumstance.

IMG_0208This is pretty much the only photo I have from the winery, so brief was my visit…

When I visited, I had the benefit of being the only person there. Excellent, I thought, because this meant I could have a proper chat with the staff. But when I said I wanted to do a tasting my heart sank. Before my lay a laminated sheet upon which circular place markers had been printed for each of the wines they were going to let me try (for a purported $10, although this might not be correct).

Missing from this tasting was the Coyote Bowl syrah I wanted to try. So I made a point of saying that I really only came for the syrah and could I please try it?

To which the reply was: No.

My notes tell me that this was because the wine was in high demand and they could not possibly open a bottle for tasting when quantities are so small. This isn’t entirely abnormal, but I recall the wines that they were offering to open for me were their more mundane offerings. This was not enough to entice me to stay.

And so I walked out without tasting anything and, crucially, without buying anything.

I appreciate that it can be difficult to open bottles for tastings when commercial pressures require them to be sold. However, I was even more aghast when I discovered how much the price had risen after the award was given.

When Wine Access magazine said the Church & State Coyote Bowl Syrah 2009 was the best wine in B.C., they reported that the retail price was $26. That’s a reasonable price for such a highly acclaimed wine.

When I asked the woman at the tasting room for a price on the 2009, I was told it was $50 per bottle (although the website currently says it was $35). If I wanted the 2010, it was $35. That’s a hefty jump on the original price of $26. I guess this is the effect of being an award-winning wine and being high in demand. Although I note that other wineries with great wines, such as Sandhill, tend not to raise their prices as demand increases.

Even better, if I wanted the 2009 and the 2010 together in a special edition wooden box, the price would have been $90 for the pair.

Bargain.

To this day I still have not knowingly tasted a wine from Church & State.

Critter label love: Burrowing Owl Estate Winery

Sometimes rules are meant to be broken, mantras cast to the wayside.

For the most part, I am a staunch enemy of so-called critter label wines, the sort that use a cute, cuddly critter as part of their branding. The number of sub-standard wines with an enigmatic animal on the label far outnumber those that are genuinely worth drinking, so I have made it a rule of life not to give them much attention.

But this is one of those times when that rule was not only broken, it wasn’t even acknowledged.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery is regarded as one of British Columbia’s best, based in the semi-arid southern reaches of the Okanagan Valley, a region unlike the lush rainforests I came to know growing up on Vancouver Island.

The landscape here is as close as you can get to desert-like in this part of the world and, in fact, is a northern extension of the Sonoran Desert. There aren’t many trees in these parts; instead, there are grasslands, small shrubs and brush, plenty of rocks and an abundance of loose soil. The bright green orchards and vineyards are all a creation of human intervention.

So, without further ado, let’s get to the critter love. This is what you see when you turn off the main road and onto Burrowing Owl’s long driveway. The road is much steeper than this photo suggests. And those tress on the hills are a lot smaller than they seem. Like I said, trees are not abundant in these parts. But grapevines are, which is good for us.

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In case there was any doubt, this is indeed Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, as the sign on the wall says. Complete with faux adobe winery-cum-cellar-door-cum-restaurant-cum-hotel.

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It looks pretty good in the sun. But it also reminds me of wineries in California’s Santa Barbara County. And perhaps Sonoma. And maybe some estates in Napa…

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It has a dazzling pool, though. And those vineyards you see in the background? Yup, those are Burrowing Owl’s. Well, except for the vines that Sandhill Estate bought from Burrowing Owl a while back. After several years of leasing the plots, Sandhill decided buying them outright might be a good idea. The result? Two wineries that share a terroir; perfect for us wine drinkers. Of course, Sandhill is easier to acquire, more of which later.

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Obligatory wine barrel shot…

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More vineyards belonging to Burrowing Owl. As you can see, they own a large piece of land, which is pretty ideal if you want to make a lot of money by making wine.

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Not to be outdone, they had a pretty big tasting room with plenty of wines on show. See, this is one of their better wines, the 2020 Athene, which is a field blend of syrah and, um, something else:

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More wine on show:

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For a brief moment while I was writing this entry, I thought I was going to have to cut things short and not say much about how the wines tasted. This is because, in my infinite wisdom and due to my stunning organisational skills, I wrote my notes for Burrowing Owl’s wines on the tasting sheet they supply at the winery rather than write them in my notebook.

And then I threw said sheet into my recycling pile.

However, because I’m slow when it comes to taking out my recycling, I managed to repatriate my notes from the bin so I can present them to you here.

And here they are….oh…

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Okay, so there aren’t going to be many notes on this occasion. But what I can say is that Burrowing Owl is probably most famous for its merlot, which unlike California does not illicit quite the same caustic response as Miles from Sideways.

But beyond merlot, Burrowing Owl does a good trade in syrah and cabernet franc. The 2010 Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc nearly ripped the skin off my upper palate thanks to its 14.5 per cent alcohol level, but this is not to say I didn’t like it. It had some excellent acidity, red berry aromas and flavours, and just enough oak treatment to round things off. It has more body than a Loire/Saumur example, likely because the climate in Osoyoos is just that much warmer.

The other wine for which I have reasonable notes is the 2010 Burrowing Owl Athene, which my notes claim contains syrah and cabernet sauvignon in something of a field blend. It is peppery, rich with black fruits and has this warm, baked aroma and flavour that makes you think of warm climates like the Rhone Valley. It has a spicy, oaky nose, but nothing too overpowering. It also has plenty of acidity and rounded tannins that will allow it to age.

Sadly that is where my notes end.

So, in closing, not all critter labels are a bad thing. In this case, we have a superb producer dedicated to making quality wines. They aren’t the easiest to find because their distribution to retail stores is limited (most is sold direct from the vineyard or through restaurants and hotels), so if you can get your hands on some, don’t hesitate. But don’t be surprised if you almost never see this wine outside a restaurant wine list.

Then again, many of Sandhill’s wines are made from what was once the other half of Burrowing Owl’s vineyard land, but are much easier to find in retail shops. So you might consider just buying that instead.

Hard lessons: Tesco Express wine shelf letdown

ID-10044110I should have known better. There I was on Tuesday evening last week, standing in what could have been the world’s most depressing wine aisle, searching for a bottle of red wine match a pizza and a Bradley Cooper film.

What had originally been (loosely) planned as a small celebration of achieving my permanent residence in the UK fell to the wayside when we went to the pub directly after work and then straight to a house in a neighbourhood where the best wine merchant has “Tesco” written above its door.

Having been despatched to find us a ‘good bottle of red’ I walked into the Tesco Express [Note: I previously incorrectly identified it as a Tesco Metro – for shame!] full of ambition and determination. “This is Tesco,” I told myself. “They have an enormous wine range. Not all of it is  that 2-for-1 swill they so often peddle to the masses. What could possibly go wrong?”

Everything. This was a Tesco Express like no other. When I rounded the corner of the drinks aisle, I walked past the red wine shelf without even noticing it. I walked two laps around the shop before realising I had walked past it the first time. Turning back to the drinks aisle for the second time, I spotted the display – about three feet wide at most and tucked in at the end – then asked the shop assistant, who was stocking its shelves, if this was all they had.

“That’s it,” he said nodding in its direction. His demeanour suggested few people ever ask about the wine section in this shop. The sheer volume of beer and alcopops in the chiller suggested wine is an afterthought in these parts.

With my instincts in the right place, I scanned the top shelf for the finest wines. Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Cabernet. £9.99.

My heart sank. That was as good as it was going to get.

The selection was a motley crew of the usual suspects in the old 2-for-1 swindle. There was Jacob’s Creek, masquerading at twice its actual price for all £9.99 of my British pounds. Then I spotted the Chilean Isla Negra Merlot Reserva. £9.99 again. But wait, on the shelf below was another Isla Negra, this time the Isla Negra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon. For £4.99.

Stepping back a few feet, I took in the entire display and discovered that every bottle before me was part of the 2-for-1 marketing scheme, a perpetual pawn in the 50-per-cent-off game, a ploy to get you to buy not just one bottle of wine you didn’t want, but two.

Pile it high, sell it cheap.

I looked back at the shop assistant, who was unloading clinking wine bottles from their cardboard boxes with the care and attention of a longshoreman, and asked, pointing at the Isla Negra cabernet sauvignon, “So are these always on some sort of 50 per cent off deal?”

Unsurprised, he nonchalantly replied, “Always. Last week it was the merlot. This week it’s the cabernet sauvignon. It will probably be the merlot again next week.”

Knowing I couldn’t win here, I grabbed a bottle of the Castillo San Lorenzo Rioja, itself at 50 per cent off at £5.99 and, full of rational thought at that point, decided I should also buy a bottle of Tesco Cava for a fiver.

Because if I’m going to get ripped off, I might as well make it feel like a celebration.

I met my heroes: Tasting Bordeaux’s 1998 vintage with European Fine Wines

You know how people say you should never meet your heroes because they might be all show but no personality?

Well, they were wrong.

Nothing of the sort happened at a tasting of wines from Bordeaux’s 1998 vintage organised by European Fine Wines last week, where I once and for all found myself face-to-bottle with some of the wines I revere the most: Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc and Yquem. (Full disclosure: all of the wine at the tasting, for journalists and clients of EF Wines, was paid for by EF Wines.)

When Vim from the 12×75 blog (where I’m a contributing editor) arranged for me to attend, I wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of this opportunity (I even skipped a WSET class for the experience).

You see, I’ve been stalking these wines for years but have fallen short in my efforts to try them. Other priorities in life seem always to demand my money: rent, clothing, food, trips back to Canada to see my long-suffering family.

Until now.

So there we all were on the night, squeezing into dining rooms in London’s Nozomi restaurant, hugging glasses of Bollinger’s La Grande Année 2002 to start (the loan non-Bordelais wine) and clumsily scooping up sushi with chopsticks.

Note to self: Used chopsticks should not be stashed in the inside pocket of a suit jacket.

I must have been one of the most awkward-looking people there. In one hand I held a glass; in another, a notebook, pen and chopsticks, all of which required juggling every few moments depending on what I was doing. Sniffing and swirling one moment, scribbling in my pad another, then capturing a piece of sashimi when possible.

The wines on offer, covering the appellations of Pomerol, St Emilion, Graves and Sauternes, were a who’s who of some of the best chateaux in all of Bordeaux – without venturing into obscene price ranges.

The vintage in question – 1998 – was one that favoured merlot, so the outcome here is the St Emilions and Pomerols should perform better than their left bank counterparts. That said, vineyards in Graves (one of my favourite appellations), specifically Pessac-Leognan, fared better than those in the Médoc.

We started off with La Petite Eglise, the second wine of Clos l’Eglise in Pomerol. It was wonderful in its own right but lacking somehow. Once we moved up to Chateau l’Eglise Clinet’s grand vin, the thing lacking in the second wine became apparent – the flagship’s opulence. It just oozed ripe black fruits, integrated oak and great minerality.

And so the night went on and I winged my way blissfully through the wines, scribbling woeful notes and trying to post #7wordwinereviews to Twitter. Vim’s efforts were much more efficient than mine, to say the least.

Next up was the Haut-Brion and, I must confess, I went back for two more tries of this: the first poured from bottle and the second from decanter.

Many thought this wine, along with the Chateau Pape Clement, was hard, reserved, unready to be loved.

But out of the decanter it was much more alive, having shrugged off its tannic robe and revealed more fruit and personality. It expressed a hint of oak and cedar, boiled sweets and something medicinal.

The final four wines gained a great deal of praise and were the favourites for many. Chateau L’Evangile had aromas of a burnt match with fragrant fruit that was reminiscent of perfume.

But the one everybody raved about was the Cheateau Cheval Blanc. It was showing well, being expressive and fragrant, and judging by the number of people lining up for seconds, couldn’t have put a foot wrong.

It was the Chateau d’Yquem I was perhaps most excited to drink and, even though 1998 wasn’t necessarily its greatest vintage, it was still divine. Viscous and expressing aromas of honey, peaches and pears, I could have sipped this all night.

Afterward we tumbled into a Lebanese restaurant across the street for some food, which was wonderful, and we paired it with a wine from the Bekaa Valley, famous for its reds.

This was a blend of Bordeaux grapes and a splash of syrah. This was lively and fruity plus a little tannic; definitely a well-made wine we all enjoyed. At £40 per bottle it wasn’t cheap, but before you accuse the restaurant of applying a heavy markup to something that would normally cost about £9, I should say I spotted the 2008 vintage at Highbury Vinters recently for £27.50.