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Wines of the year 2004   

Everyone does it, and I’m no exception here – on this last day of 2004 I’m going to be listing some of my wines of the year. But rather than boastfully detail the vinous highlights of the past 12 months, I’m going to select wines on the basis of interest and what they’ve taught me. When it comes to my list, I’m sure that mine won’t be longer than yours, but I can claim to being an eager learner, and these are some of the wines that have taught me lessons in 2004. I’m aware that this list has some major omissions: only with treble the time and four times the space could I have included all the wines that merit a mention.

First, two Chenin Blancs. Chenin is an unusual grape variety, and one that I have begun to appreciate a lot more for its potential to make interesting, long-lived and often quirky white wines. Chenin is the ideal white grape for anoraks.

Huet Le Haut Lieu Vouvray Sec 2002 Loire, France
Dry Chenin Blanc at its very best, from biodynamic producer Huet. Deep yellow gold. Lovely savoury, intense nose of straw, melon and honey with a slightly lifted acid edge. Brilliant. The palate is dense and savoury with great concentration and good acidity, together with challenging herbal flavours with a nutty, almost cheesy edge. A brilliant, extreme wine. Very good/excellent 93/100 (£11.99 Waitrose) 

Domaine Jo Pithon Les Bergères 2001 Anjou Blanc Sec, Loire
Jo Pithon (a bloke btw) has 14 hectares of vines south of Angers. He takes a natural approach, using indigenous yeasts and old oak vats. This wine is unusual and brilliant. A deep yellow colour, it has a distinctive nose that is deep, herby and full; rounded with a hint of sweetness. If you were a purist, you might say it was verging on faulty. The palate is concentrated, dense and complex with notes of straw and cheese, hints of vanilla and high acidity on the finish. Fantastic. Very good/excellent 93/100 (£12.55 Berry Bros & Rudd) 

In 2004 I continued to track some of the Barossa newcomers, who I visited in September. I tasted a lot of fantastic wines from the likes of Spinifex, Teusner, Massena, Schwarz and Tin Shed, but perhaps the most intriguing and educational was an unusual wine from Domenic Torzi, high up in the Eden Valley. I drunk this a couple of times, the second sitting in Domenic's kitchen with some home-baked bread, olive oil (Domenic specialises in producing this) and a chunk of Grana Padano cheese.

Torzi Matthews Frost Dodger Shiraz 2002 Eden Valley, South Australia
This is the first vintage of this exciting new wine, which was made in a rather unusual Italian-inspired way. Prior to crush the handpicked fruit was dried on racks, before fermentation and then ageing 18 months in a mix of new and old French and American barriques. The first thing that you notice about this wine is its colour: it is a dark red/black without some of the vibrancy seen in young wines. The nose is very striking, dominated by clearly defined black fruit aromas, together with some earthy spiciness. Great fruit purity. The palate is very concentrated, sweet, lush and smooth, with a spicy black cherry edge. Great length here, with a seamless elegance to the intense fruit. A drinkable yet serious wine with a distinctive personality, it will be interesting to see how this evolves. Tried twice, with consistent notes: it kept its shape very well after opening and was still superb three days later. Excellent 95/100 (£25, Cellar Door in Hampshire, www.thecellardoor.co.uk)

Next stop is the Southwest of France, which has really won a place in my vinous affections for its fantastic reds, bursting with iron-like, bloody intensity, savouriness and minerality. These are wines for real wine lovers. They lack any sense of pretension, but thrill with their honesty and character.

Arranoa Irouleguy 2001 South West France
Irouleguy is a small appellation in Basque country in the Pyrenees, and this example comes from the Vignerons du Pays Basque. It's a striking inky dark colour. The nose is dark, savoury and intense with spicy black fruits dominating. The palate is spicy and earthy with good acidity and very firm tannins. Extremely intense and tight wound, but with a lovely fruit quality and quite a bit of minerality. Very individual and quite challenging. Very good/excellent 90/100 (£9.50 Nicolas) 

Domaine du Cros Marcillac 2002 Southwest France
Marcillac is a small appellation in Southwest France, and the grape here is Fer Servadou. Deep coloured. Intensely savoury, gravely, minerally nose with a smoky, earthy character to the dark raspberry fruits. The palate is savoury, dense and firm with intense spicy, tarry black fruits and a bloody, earthy character. Sensational stuff, and a perfect food wine. Very good/excellent 90/100 (This was one of the July wines of the month at Café Rouge, where it is £12.95, but you can buy it from Les Caves Pyrene, who have a retail shop in Guildford and do mail order, price around £6. A fantastic bargain.) 

2004 was a year when I rekindled my love of Sauternes. These two from the 1997 vintage were fantastic.

Château Suduiraut 1997
Quite a deep colour. Lovely, complex, rich nose with spicy, apricotty, herby aromas. Explosive. Concentrated, rich palate with good acidity and complex, spicy flavours. Very rich and sweet but with brilliant balance. It’s not so obviously seductive, but it is profound. Excellent 95/100

Château Coutet 1997 Barsac
I don't drink enough Sauternes (or Barsac). This is a brilliant example, with a lovely aromatic nose of apricot, honey and melon. The palate is richly textured with sweet herby fruit and subtle notes of almonds and caramel, with a citrussy marmaladey edge. Lovely balance and richness. Very good/excellent 94/100 (£32 Corney & Barrow)

Moving on, 2004 was the year when the new wines from the Roussillon finally came of age, red and white. Matassa was a revelation for me.

Le Soula Blanc 2001 Vin de Pays des Coteaux du Fenouillèdes, Roussillon, France
It's expensive for a Vin de Pays, but then this is an exceptional white wine that will probably blow you away. A low yielding blend of Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Rolle and Chenin Blanc grown on decomposed granite and slate, this is fermented with natural yeasts and aged in new and used oak barrels. It has a striking knockout nose of taut, intense, smoky fruit. The palate is hugely complex and intense with a minerally streak and savoury, spicy fruit. Very unusual and quite brilliant - an extreme wine. Very good/excellent 93/100 (£22.95 Berry Bros & Rudd)

Matassa 2002 Roussillon
With its chunky bottle and minimalist label design this looks full of promise. It’s a concentrated red/purple colour. The nose is quite intriguing with sweet herbs, liquorice and some butter(!). Tight and savoury, this is quite backwards. The palate is hugely concentrated with remarkable intensity and structure provided by high natural acidity and firm tannins. There’s a tight core of minerally, earthy raspberry and cherry fruit. This is currently massively savoury and almost austere, with stunning intensity. It will be fascinating to see how this develops, and while it is not for everyone, I love it. Very good/excellent 93/100

I couldn’t leave out another of Tom Lubbe’s wines (I’ve already included his Matassa), this time from South Africa. It’s a strikingly individual effort.

The Observatory Syrah 2001 Swartland, South Africa
Tom Lubbe is making some stunning wines, both in South Africa and also the Roussillon (previously at Gauby, now at newcomer Matassa). He works as naturally as possible, and achieves balance by working in the vineyards to achieve phenolic ripeness without excessive potential alcohol levels. This is a fascinating wine. It has a taut, intense savoury spicy nose with smoky complexity to the ripe fruit. There's a concentrated, chewy spicy earthy core to the rich bold fruit. A lovely complex, savoury wine that can't be pigeonholed. Very good/excellent 93/100 (£22.95 Berry Bros & Rudd)

In 2004 I discovered Austrian wines, big time. The highlight for me was the following wine from Michael Moosbrugger at Schloss Gobelsburg.

Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Tradition 2001 Langenlois, Austria
I was very impressed by this GV, made in a traditional style that aims to replicate the way the wine would have been made 100 years ago. Fresh, crisp grassy nose leads to a fascinating palate that is rich textured with amazing rich white pepper character and a rich texture. Striking stuff and quite lovely. Had twice with consistet notes. Very good/excellent 93/100 (£14.49 Noel Young Wines) The other Schloss Gobelsburg wines also come highly recommended.

The next three wines were memorable because they just worked so perfectly, drunk dining at an outside table with a sea view on a lovely sunny day in March in Porto. Despite the fact we were drinking out of beakers, these wines shone. It’s all about the moment.

Poeira 2001 Douro
Wonderful nose is perfumed and spicy with red fruit and cherry notes. The palate is concentrated yet elegant with fine spicy structure and good acidity. Excellent 95/100

Maximin Grünhauser Abstberg Riesling Auslese 1995 Mosel Saar Ruwer, Germany
Lovely intense limey nose which is expressive and complex. The palate is explosive and rich with good acidity. This is brilliantly poised and has wonderfully fine acidity and structure. Excellent 95/100

Niepoort Garrafeira 1977
Dirk Niepoort says that if vintage Port is Bordeaux, then his Garrafeiras are more like Burgundy. This is a lovely, spicy intense wine full of complexity and showing great balance. Excellent 95/100

Let’s not forget the Languedoc, though. A source of some very serious wines at the high end, now, and also some pretty distinguished value for money efforts, too, like the following.

Domaine des Pensées Sauvages 2000 Corbières, France
Made by English couple Nick and Clare Bradford, this is a wild, dangerous wine. It has a lovely perfumed nose of smoky, roasted red fruits with notes of garrigue and a minerally edge. The palate is concentrated and intensely savoury with a lovely, slightly bitter cherry edge to the herby fruit. Good acid and a spicy, earthy finish. Very good/excellent 90/100 (£6.95 Berry Bros & Rudd)

Château de la Negly La Côte 2001 Coteaux du Languedoc, France
Wonderful stuff: natural winemaking at its best. Slightly hazy in appearance. Powerful perfumed nose of roast meat, herbs and ripe spicy fruit. The palate is rich and ripe with a lovely meatiness to the fruit and lots of garrigue and black olive notes. Nice savoury stuff with good acidity. Very good/excellent 92/100 (£7.95 Moriarty Vintners, www.moriarty-vintners.com) 02/04

I’ll finish with a list of 10 fine wines that impressed me for one reason or another, kicking off with one of the stars from possibly my favourite wine region.

Niepoort Batuta 2001 Douro
‘Batuta is not an easy wine’, says Dirk. It is wild and intense, but very refined at the same time, with great length and finesse. Chocolatey, spicy nose. Brilliant intensity of smooth, savoury fruit on the palate with firm tannins and a silkiness to the substantial structure. Good acidity. Excellent 95/100 (Through tasting this wine a number of times, I feel I’m just beginning to understand it. The key element is the structure. Dirk Niepoort also has some interesting things to say about greenness in wines. ‘A bit of greenness is good, because it goes away,’ he says. Batuta 2001 was picked at 12.5 degrees alcohol with 8.5 g of acidity. In the Douro in 2001 he says that people were afraid that the wines weren’t physiologically ripe, with a bit of greenness. But 2001 has arguably turned out to be a better table wine vintage than the widely acclaimed 2000. Time will tell, and I predict a very bright future for Batuta 2001. It’s a 20 year wine.)

Domaine de la Romanée Conti Echezeaux 2000
Initially this was tasted blind and I was blown away by it. At first sniff I was led to the Rhône, but it quickly became clear that it was a serious Burgundy. Lovely perfumed nose is fresh and intense with some spiciness, a hint of animal character and vivid aromas of red fruits. The palate has a lovely spicy structure. Very elegant with a wonderful freshness to the vibrant fruit. Breathtaking effort that’s drinking very well now. Excellent 96/100


Niepoort Vintage Port 1931
Much of my experience with really first rate, old Ports has come through Dirk Niepoort. Although the table wines from Niepoort are relatively new, his family were making great Port 80 years ago. Bottled in 1935. This is remarkable. Very deep coloured, it is intensely spicy with soft, slightly herby fruit. Rounded, rich and spicy on the palate, this doesn’t taste at all tired despite its age. It’s drinking beautifully. Excellent 96/100

JL Chave Hermitage 2001 Northern Rhône, France
Few will be privileged enough to drink this wine, which is probably consistently the best expression of Northern Rhône Syrah made, but I had to include it in my recommendations. Very fine floral aromatic nose with pure raspberry fruit and a spicy minerally depth. There are some animal notes in the background. The palate is perfectly balanced with good acidity and spice. Chewy and structured with brilliant balance and lovely acidity. Excellent 97/100 (UK agent is Yapp, but this will have sold out by now and will only be available from brokers. Look on www.wine-searcher.com, and the price will be around £100 per bottle, alas. Fantastic quality, high demand and relatively low production are to blame.) Tasted twice in 2004.

Barbeito Malvasia 1885 Madeira
Old Madeira is fantastic. I’ve enjoyed a lot of old Madeira in 2004. Lucky me. This 130 year old example is an orange brown colour. It has a lovely complex nose of sweet raisins, tar and spice – very beguiling. The palate is explosively rich with lovely acidity. Deep, complex and incredibly long with some caramel and spice. Breathtaking. Excellent 98/100

Magma Rosso 1 Mount Etna, Sicily
Frank Cornilessen’s Magma is a remarkable wine, made as naturally as possible. Palish red with subtle browning at the rim. The nose is open, displaying pure ripe, sweet fruit. Rounded, clean and ripe with subtle herby influence. The palate is concentrated, tannic, earthy and spicy showing lots of structure. Yet the overriding impression is of pure, sweet intense red fruits. Delicate but powerful at the same time. The tannic structure is smooth and fine-grained. Striking stuff with lots of minerality and earthiness; this will need time to show its best. Serious. Excellent 95/100

Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Shiraz 2002 Heathcote, Victoria, Australia
Australia isn’t just about big, bold, owverblown reds. This is elegant and fine.  Forward nose shows intense, minty berry fruit – sweet and alluring, and precisely delineated. Lovely weight of pure spicy fruit on the palate with a nice, spicy tannic structure. Really lovely and intense. Not overblown despite the impressive concentration. Gorgeous. Very good/excellent 94/100

Château de Beaucastel 1990 Châteauneuf du Pape
A classic that I was lucky enough to enjoy twice in 2004, and which has taught me that characteristics that can be faults in some wines can work in others. Wonderfully perfumed open nose shows exotic spices and some animal notes with medicinal overtones. It’s bretty but it works. There’s a real sweetness to it. The palate shows a lovely sweet character with lively herb and tea notes. Very evolved and probably peaking now, although it will likely remain at peak for several years. Excellent 95/100

Lagier Meredith Mount Veeder Syrah 2000 Napa, California
A California garage wine made by retired UC Davis professor Carole Meredith and Steve Lagier. The first vintage from this tiny 4 acre Mount Veeder vineyard was as recently as 1998, and fewer than 400 cases are currently produced. It’s a deep coloured wine with a seductive but not showy nose of intense ripe black fruits. The concentrated palate is bold and spicy with a good depth of fruit and smooth but firm fine-grained tannins. Good balance. Not cheap, but probably worth it. Very good/excellent 93/100 (£41 American Wine Merchants, www.americanwinemerchants.co.uk)

Tenuta di Trinoro 'La Cupole di Trinoro' 2000 Italy
Andrea Franchetti is fanatical about his wines, and this is quite stunning. A blend dominated by Cabernet Franc, it has a wonderful perfumed nose that is distinctly gravelly and minerally with ripe, tarry fruit and some smoky notes. The palate is structured and open with minerally notes and firm but smooth tannins. Striking stuff. Excellent 95/100 (£34.31 Corney & Barrow)

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