I have just written up a Marques de Murrieta Rioja tasting, where we got to drink, among other lovely older wines, a bottle of Castillo Ygay 1925. It was remarkable.
Tasting old wines like this can be a bit random. By the time a wine is more than 20 years old, there’s no such thing as ‘that wine’ – each bottle takes on a personality of its own. You can’t talk about the 1961 Palmer, for example, as being a great wine. It’s not a single wine: each bottle will be different because of issues such as storage conditions (key), cork quality (key), and even bottling procedures (variation creeps in at this early stage; if just takes a while to show in most cases). A bad data point proves nothing, because of these factors. But a good data point is significant: you only need to try one fantastic example of an old wine to know that there’s a chance that you’ll find other great bottles of that wine. For some wines, though, all bottles will show signs of decay, and it’s such a shame that they haven’t been drunk when they’d have offered a lot more pleasure. There comes a time where you have to acknowledge that a certain wine is no longer drinkable, even from well stored bottles with good corks.
Often, you have to make excuses for very old wines. You can see some greatness behind some weird funkiness, or some oxidative characters – or the wine may even have got to the stage where it tastes of old wine and nothing more. A great old wine should still be recognizable as an expression of place, to my mind, but this isn’t always the case. I suppose you can have a wine in mellow maturity without too many old off-notes that can’t be placed precisely but which still offers a lot of drinking pleasure.
Back to this Rioja. It was memorable, and for all the right reasons. Fortunately, no excuses needed to be made. It had survived, and survived well, and this is really rare in a wine of this age. Generally speaking, fortified wines often live longer than table wines, and Madeira lives longest of all, but here we have an 89 year old table wine that is astonishing.
Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 1925 Rioja, Spain
49% Tempranillo, 19% Garnacha, 17% Mazuelo, 15% Graciano. This was aged for 8 months in 18500 litre tank, 5 years in fairly new American oak barrels, and then 33 years in old, large American oak barrels, bottled in 1964. It’s slightly cloudy and a deep brown/red colour. Savoury earthy nose. Fresh, lemony edge to the palate with warm, savoury, slightly balsamic characters and bit of fruit, still. Lovely balance despite the age with complex, concentrated flavours. Still very much alive and quite delicious. It’s nice not to have to make excuses for such an old wine. 97/100
See also: Do you like old wine?
Back to one of my favourite places yesterday, for a lovely lunch. The Glasshouse, Kew, is worth a detour. The wine list is really creative and diverse, the service is impeccable (and there are always lots of bodies on the floor), and the food is seriously good. The Glasshouse has a Michelin star, but if it were closer into Central London, you could imagine it having two (I always suspect there’s a slight bias against neighbourhood restaurants). It’s that good. There’s a lightness of touch to the cooking and also a lovely creativity. The dishes are always detailed, but not gimmicky, and they just look so good, too.
It was a lovely warm afternoon and Kew was at its gorgeous best. It would be a nice place to live – it always feels so calm and villagey. I popped into The Good Wine Shop first for a nose around, and was really impressed by the selection of wines. Lots of great stuff, and a good beer list too. With a top wine shop, and a top restaurant, the residents of Kew are well supplied.
Starter 1: Ceps with pearl barley risotto, roasted hazelnuts, black garlic, parmesan and autumn truffle (very rich, and quite delicious, maybe more autumnal than the weather was yesterday)
Starter 2: Thinly sliced octopus with mussels, squid ink aioli, grilled red peppers and pickled shallots (perfect balance here, perhaps my favourite dish)
Main 1: Loin of cornish cod with squid, brandade, cauliflower purée, meat juices and gremolata.
Main 2: Brill with black rice, brown shrimps and sea urchin butter sauce.
To drink? We investigated the by-the-glass menu, and did quite well, sticking to whites on account of the weather and the food we’d chosen.
- Weinbach Capuchins Pinot Blanc 2011 – nice and appley with lovely fruit
- Louro do Bolo, Godello, Rafael Palacios 2013 Valdeorras, Spain – fresh, lovely pear and melon notes
- Riesling Kanta Balhannah Vineyard, Egon Müller 2009 Adelaide Hills, Australia – this was very good – more textured and elegant than many dry Aussie Rieslings
- Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin blanc/Clairette Blanche 2012 Swartland, South Africa – this was really impressive, with a rounded texture and fine pear and white peach fruit, balancing richness and freshness with great success
This is a brilliant bargain! It’s a grown-up, proper Douro red for less than a tenner. The Symingtons are the largest organic farmer in the Douro with 126 hectares of organic vines (clearly, there is some way to go in a region with around 36 000 hectares – the chief problem is weed control on terraces, which is really hard to do mechanically, and sometimes impossible). Their advantage is that in the Vilarica Valley in the Douro Superior, their vines aren’t terraced – it’s quite a bit flatter here. So working organically is feasible. This wine comes from 30 year old vines and it is stupidly cheap for the quality.
Altano Quinta do Ataide Organic 2012 Douro, Portugal
13.5% alcohol. Sweet, ripe blackberry and black cherry aromatics. Quite lush but with good definition, and notes of liqourice and violet. The palate is supple and ripe with a hint of chocolatey oak, as well as sweet black fruits and a bit of damson. Grippy, stony finish. Very Douro, with some hints of meat and olive. 91/100 (£9.99 Waitrose, but on offer until 28/10/14 at £7.99)
On Thursday I had lunch at one of London’s most exciting new wine destinations: Mission E2, the second venue from Sager & Wilde. It’s a beautiful space in a nicely converted railway arch near Bethnal Green tube station. Lots of dark wood, good natural light and a palm tree! The food was really good. I had a grouse terrine that was superb, followed by lamb shoulder, chickpeas and raita. We also had a new dish, not on the menu, with razor clam and pearl barley – this was also excellent.
As for wine? The list is superb, brave, eclectic, and the margins used are among the most generous for punters in the UK on-trade. Michael buys from 45 different suppliers, and is able to snap up parcels as small as a 12 bottle case. He’s got some rare stuff, too – how often do you see Arnot Roberts Chardonnay on a list in London? (Answer: never.) Lots of wines are on by the glass; an enormous number are available by the bottle. There’s a strong emphasis on wines from California, which is the theme here, but there’s other stuff too.
Château Beaux Hauts En Tirage RD 1992 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
17 years on the lees! Toasty, rich and dense with pear and peach fruit, as well as notes of pear and spice. Rich, but with lovely density and focus. Nuts, honey and spice with a hint of fruit sweetness. Brilliant stuff. 93/100
Skylark Pinot Blanc 2012 Mendocino, California
Very fresh and lively with crisp citrus fruit and a bit of pithiness. Lively and pure. 89/100
Copain Trousseau 2013 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Lovely lighter red with fine cherries, spice and herbs. Some plummy notes, too, plus a hint of sappiness. So expressive – a lovely wine. 93/100
Arnot Roberts Watson Ranch Chardonnay 2012 Napa Valley, California
Fresh, fine an focused with citrus and spice nuts with some spice and subtle nut notes. Fresh and focused with lovely delicacy and crispness. Needs time to show its best. 94/100
Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Lovely chalky blackcurrant fruit with some spice and earth notes. Nice grip and some sweetness. This is beautifully evolved: it’s quite ripe, but has definition. 93/100
Ojai Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard 2005 Santa Maria Valley, California
This is from when Adam made his wines in a slightly bigger style, but it’s still lovely. Dense, powerful and structured with meat, olives, blackberry and black cherry notes, and nice grippy structure. Hints of chalk and mint. Ripe (14.5% alcohol) but delicious. 93/100
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I am quite amazed by how good the 2014 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc is. You’ll probably be amazed by how amazed I was, so from the outset, I’ll answer some questions that some of you may be thinking.
This was a bottle bought off the shelf last week in Tesco (it was just £6.99, so I thought it would be good to have a first look at the new vintage, after having reviewed the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2014 so favourably recently).
- I drank it over three nights, so this is a carefully considered verdict.
- I’m not a complete idiot, and I have tasted quite a lot of Sauvignon in my lifetime – it’s one of my specialities.
- I don’t have any commercial ties to Brancott (or parent company Pernod Ricard). I don’t do gigs for them, I don’t get paid to present their wines at masterclasses, I don’t have them sponsor my roadshows events via pay to play, and so on. [Although I did travel to New Zealand with Pernod Ricard back in October 2011.] It’s a mighty convenient narrative to be plugging the small companies with no marketing budgets, but when the big guys do well, that’s good for everyone, and should be recognized.
- So now, the wine. It’s just beautifully balanced with the loveliest aromatics, and at £6 is one of the wine world’s great bargains. This is New Zealand Sauvignon come of age: no heaviness, no clumsiness, no jarring sweetness to offset out of control acidity. You should probably try some, if you like New Zealand Sauvignon at all. And I do.
But if it’s this lovely aromatic profile that you like (as I do), then this is a wine to buy now and consume young. There’s a group of aromatic molecules called polyfunctional thiols, that are responsible for part of the Sauvignon aroma, and research has shown that on average, Marlborough Sauvignon has very high levels. Two of these molecules are closely related, 3MH and 3MHA. It’s the 3MHA in particular that gives the lovely passionfruit and grapefruit aromatic lift, but over time this hydrolyses into 3MH. The rate of this chemical change is determined by temperature, so it’s important that the wine is stored and shipped at as low a temperature as possible if this character is to be retained.
Brancott have a detailed understanding of the role of these polyfunctional thiols in Sauvignon through research they have taken part in. And they seem to be putting this knowledge to good use, making lovely wines like these at good prices and in large quantities.
Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
13% alcohol. Really crisp, pure and bright with lovely grapefruit and passionfruit characters. There’s a real crispness and freshness here with lovely focus and brightness. It just shows enticing aromatics and brilliant balance, and is benchmark Marlborough Sauvignon. 92/100
Regulars here will probably know that the northern Rhône is one of my favourite regions, and that I am crazy about cool-climate Syrah. It would be fair to say that negociant Vidal Fleury is not one of the northern Rhône’s elite producers, but they seem to be getting better, and this is a very smart wine indeed. It delivers richness without sacrificing the fresh peppery, floral essence of Syrah.
Vidal-Fleury Crozes-Hermitage 2012 Northern Rhône, France
13% alcohol. Lovely sweet pure black cherry and blackberry nose with nice peppery spicy framing. Supple, fresh, direct palate with nicely weighted sweet black fruits and a hint of olive and black pepper. Typical, stylish and delicious, showing great balance. 93/100 (£16.95 Square Wine Co, Hailsham Cellars, Wholefoods
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I admit it: I hadn’t really heard the Charles Smith story until I read about him on the blog of a Canadian friend, Nicole, even though I’d run into a couple of the wines (one stocked by Virgin Wines, and one by Wholefoods). How could I have missed him? What a back story! He seems like the essence of dudeness, and so I was delighted when I bumped into this wine of his, a deliciously focused and utterly drinkable Riesling. I like the balance: it’s a wine that you can just drink, but if you give it some attention, it will reward you with another dimension.
Charles Smith The Honourable Riesling 2013 Washington State, USA
13.5% alcohol. Lively and fresh with lovely grapefruit and lemon notes, as well as a hint of grapey richness. Very pure, friendly and full of interest with nice balance, and a hint of white pepper on the finish. Stylish Riesling that’s utterly delicious. 91/100 (£11.99 Marks & Spencer)
This is a super wine. It’s a new launch from Bordeaux superstar Pichon Baron. Christian Seely describes it thus: ‘It is a second wine, made from grapes from the intermediate parcels that might sometimes make it into the Grand Vin, sometimes into Tourelles [previously regarded as Pichon's second wine]. Les Tourelles itself comes mostly from a specific terroir called St Anne.’ If I’d been tasting this blind, I wouldn’t have thought of it as a second wine at all.
Les Griffons de Pichon Baron 2012 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
13% alcohol. Lovely focused sweet blackcurrant fruit nose with freshness and a subtle sappy, gravelly edge. Very pure and alluring but not in the slightest bit over-ripe. Pure, clean, refined palate with blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. Real focus and harmony. A brilliant expression of Pauillac that’s not trying too hard, and has lovely freshness and the sort of structure that makes you think this could be a good bet for mid- to long-term cellaring. I really like the freshness here. 94/100
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My South African wine journalist friends have been raving about Elgin Chardonnay for ages. Do you know what? They may just be right. I’ve some good ones of late, including impressive examples from new boy Richard Kershaw, and this stunner from Iona.
Iona Chardonnay 2013 Elgin, South Africa
13% alcohol. A lovely Elgin Chardonnay that blends freshness with a bit of richness. Just beautifully balanced. Grapefruit, pear, white peach and subtle bready notes combine to create an expressive Chardonnay with real citrus precision. Real class. 94/100 (£14.99 Marks & Spencer)
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I had a remarkable tasting a few weeks ago with Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro. He did an experiment: picking some of the grapes for Marques de Casa Concha a month earlier than they are currently picked. He says that he had to close his eyes when he looked at the seeds: they were still green. The wine was brilliant. So much so that he’s now picking everything a month earlier than normal. I tried the results: normally I find Marques de Casa Concha to be a bit boring and Chilean. The early picked version? I’m going to buy some when it’s released. It’s proper wine. He says he has to use far fewer oenological products in the winery, because the yeasts are much happier. I’ll be writing this interview up in full, but I wanted to mention it here, because I am going to make a plea to winemakers around the world:
Please, just pick earlier.
This fad for picking by taste, waiting for ‘phenolic ripeness’, and waiting for brown seeds is just nuts. Look at the fabulous wines coming from the In Pursuit of Balance wineries in California. Some of these are at 12% alcohol. From California. And they are brilliant.
I recently went to a US Cabernet tasting put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine. It was an incredible line-up of 88 wines, including most of the big names. But it was quite depressing in that so few of these wines showed freshness and definition. Most were picked too late. Alcohol levels were frequently far too high. And these wines are almost all REALLY expensive.
It is so depressing to see red wines routinely at 14.5% or 15% alcohol – or even higher – because they are rarely any good. Pick too late, and you end up with a wine that doesn’t express its site very well. You end up with struggling ferments, and an increased risk of Brettanomyces. Your wine becomes a more powerful solvent for extracting flavour from the oak. You lose structure and acidity, and you end up having to add acid and use oak to provide structure.
Why not just pick earlier?