It’s fair to say that I am not the biggest Sangiovese fan out there. But when I come across great wines, I don’t mind what they are made from or where they come from. This pair from Riecine are really lovely.
Riecine Chianti Classico 2012 Tuscany, Italy
13.5% alcohol. Complex and aromatic with elegant red cherries, plums, spice and subtle earth, with hints of pepper. The palate is fresh with some spiciness and just a hint of balsamic character, as well as bright, supple, spicy cherry and berry fruit. Nicely poised and quite classic. 92/100 (£22 Winemakers Club, Tanners)
Riecine Toscana IGT 2011 Italy
This is 100% Sangiovese, and its the second vintage of this wine: no new oak, foot trodden, old vines. Lovely sweet nose of cherries plums and spices. Powerful and structured but with elegance too. Very spicy and savoury but with a sweetness to the cherry and plum fruit, finishing grippy and structured. Classic Sangiovese: structured, lively, with real presence and power. This drank well over three successive evenings. 94/100 (£40 Winemakers Club)
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Seeing that I am off to Germany for a few days I thought I’d write up two German Pinot Noirs that I opened last night. I really like German Pinot Noir, mainly because I love Pinot Noir generally, and Germany makes some very good ones. But they vary a lot. In my experience, most are drinkable but average, and just a few are really thrilling – it’s a hard grape to get right. And because German wine lovers like German Pinot Noir, the best ones can be very expensive. I’m yet to be fully convinced that Germany can make really superb Pinot at affordable-ish prices in the way that New Zealand can, but I’m going to keep on researching this. I had such a lot of fun in the Ahr valley in January and tasted some stunning wines, so this has given me hope. These two bottles give me a bit more hope. If Germany gets it right, that’s really good news, because they have a lot of Pinot Noir.
Bercher Jechtinger Spatburgunder 2012 Baden, Germany
13.5% alcohol. Leafy green undergrowth edge to the floral black cherry fruit nose. Fresh, sweetly fruited cherry and berry fruit palate is ripe and quite sweet, but with silky texture, a hint of greenness and a drinkable personality. 89/100 (£18 Oddbins)
Karl H Johner Pinot Noir Enselberg 2011 Baden, Germany
14% alcohol. Sweet, smooth and silky with supple cherry fruit. Very attractive smooth textured wine with a sweet fruit profile and subtle greenness in the background. Sweet red cherry and black cherry fruit forms the core of this wine, and it’s really attractive. 93/100 (£19.99 Waitrose)
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Mark Driver’s Rathfinny Estate has become one of the most talked about English wineries, even though they haven’t released any wine. I caught up with him (he’s pictured above) to hear a bit of his story, and discuss the move towards a PDO (protected designation of origin) for Sussex wine, which has been in the news in the last week.
Building a wine estate like Rathfinny requires a combination of commercial sense but also passion. ‘There’s a 10 year investment before you start making decent returns,’ Mark explains. ‘When I started investing [in Rathfinny] I started working backwards: what do I need to make this economically stable in the long term?’ So he worked out how much wine he’d need to make in order to cover the costs of the capital – and also the significant costs of hiring and retaining good people, something that he feels is key to the success of a venture like this. His calculations told him he’d need 250 acres. In the UK, land prices might be cheaper than Champagne, but yields are lower and wages are relatively high, and you need to invest in skills as well as bring in all the equipment from elsewhere.
Initially he planted 160 of those 250 acres, and another 20 acres are being planted this April. The oldest vines are just about to enter their fourth season. Last year there was a small crop and some wine was made (it will be bottled in April), and there should be a bigger crop this year.
So, why has a winery with no wine to sell been making such a noise? ‘Our production is going to be like a hockey stick,’ says Mark. ‘We have to create a market for our product ahead of time.’
With this in mind he’s just been to Hong Kong, looking to find people he can work with there, and Australia, where he’s been seeing how they do hospitality and wine tourism. ‘People fly to Perth just to go to Margaret River,’ he says. ‘In the future people will fly to Gatwick just to go tasting in Sussex vineyards.’
Mark’s focus is solely on making top quality wines, and he thinks one of the keys to this is getting the small details right. When he was buying vines he visited half a dozen nurseries in France and Germany. Even finding the right vineyard posts was a major project, which at one stage involved designing a post and then trying to find someone in the UK to manufacture it (this didn’t work out, unfortunately). Getting the right people in is vital. ‘We hired a really good vineyard manager,’ he says. ‘He’s got green fingers and really understands vines, and he’s worked in hostile and easy environments. We hired a really good winemaker, who grew up in Epernay, went to the US and when he came back he wanted to work in England because it’s a more creative market for making sparkling wine than Champagne.’
So we turn to the issue of the PDO for Sussex wines. This has become quite a controversial issue.
Driver says that the existing English PDO is not a quality benchmark. He found himself discussing the issue with friends: what does English Sparkling Wine mean? Can’t we have a more interesting term? ‘It doesn’t give you any sense of place or quality,’ he says. ‘The whole thing was set up as a catch-all to allow wines from England to be within a PDO scheme.’
His view was that a new PDO was needed with tighter rules. ‘We need something that matches the quality with which the UK producers are making their wine.’ Mark saw that Sussex had a critical mass of good producers, and about two years ago started speaking to Mike Roberts of Ridgeview. A group of like-minded producers was gathered and they started working on a PDO scheme for Sussex.
‘That’s when we took out the trademark, to stop people naming wines “Sussex Sparkling” that didn’t match the quality we are aiming for,’ says Mark (responding to the question on my blog a few days ago about why Rathfinny trademarked the name ahead of the PDO application). ‘Sussex is such a great name. People have a vision for what Sussex is all about. The idea is that we have something easily identifiable: the South Downs, wonderful vistas, a top quality wine-producing region within England.’ They had the first Sussex wine producers’ meeting in September 2014, which was a big meeting to which lots of people were invited. The aim was to work towards a Sussex Sparkling PDO with high standards. ‘The actual PDO cannot be Sussex Sparkling because sparkling is a generic name,’ Mark explains. So they are having to look at a joint PDO protecting the quality of Sussex still wines as well as sparkling.
‘I think there will be other PDOs,’ says Mark. ‘DEFRA are very keen to encourage them.’ He points out that all PDOs throughout Europe are based on regional names: it’s not about similarities in soil type, because a PDO has to have a regional name involved, or in exceptional cases can have the name of a country. The ‘origin’ bit is at the heart of the system.
The next meeting of the Sussex wine producers working on this proposal is at the end of this month, and someone leaked the email concerning this to Decanter. This led to last week’s media interest in the topic. ‘It’s just a bit unfortunate,’ says Mark. ‘All the rumour mills have started.’ He says that people involved in sparkling wine production outside Sussex are feeling a bit sore and threatened, which he finds understandable. But he doesn’t see why other places can’t follow his lead, now that he has established a template of how establishing a PDO should be carried out in the UK wine industry. Could there be a Kent PDO? A Meon Valley PDO? Or a Jurassic Coast PDO? ‘A PDO is all about the region, the sense of place, for a consumer to identify a product with a place,’ he says.
Not everyone is convinced that the time is right for a Sussex PDO, or even that it is justified. By coincidence, on the same day that I interviewed Mark Driver, I bumped into another key player in the English sparkling wine scence – Ian Kellett of Hambledon, whose vineyards are on a very similar soil type to Rathfinny’s, but in the neighbouring county of Hampshire. ‘I think it’s a bit silly,’ says Kellet, when I ask him about the Sussex PDO. His view that if there were to be a meaningful PDO for top quality sparkling wine in the UK, then it would stipulate that the estate concerned should grow all its own grapes, and be located on chalk soils. ‘There will only be two in the UK, us and Rathfinny,’ he says. ‘It requires a tremendous amount of capital to stick to these [criteria], so others can’t play.’ Regarding the Sussex PDO, he questions why you’d do it for a county that only has 10% chalk soils. ‘Not one of these [Sussex producers in the proposed PDO] is on chalk apart from Mark. It’s pointless; utterly pointless.’
It will be interesting to watch this one unfold. Who is right? Mark or Ian? Or are they both a bit right? Do we need PDOs? Does a PDO for wine from a single county make sense?
I really liked this Greek white, which is a varietal Moschofilero, from grapes grown at 650 m altitude, made by Semeli winery in the Mantinia region. It has personality and character, but it’s also really well made.
Semeli Nassiakos 2013 Mantinia, Greece
12.5% alcohol. Really stylish, exotic dry white with fresh melon and pear fruit nose. Lovely texture on the palate, showing grapes, lychee, rose petals and a slight saltiness. So fresh and pure, and yet with an exotic side, too. 91/100 (£9.50 The Wine Society)
This is interesting. And we like ‘interesting’ here. [And I'm not using 'interesting' in the typical British sense, which is when a grower shows you a bad wine you politely say 'interesting' when really you mean it's a bit crap but you are too polite to say it.] It’s a Friulian red made from a variety that goes under the extended name of Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, which as the name suggests is distinctive in that it has red stems. This suggests that anthocyanins are expressed in the stems, which would be highly unusual. A google image search doesn’t suggest this is the case: maybe they are just a red/brown colour. This aside, it’s a very nice wine.
Eugenio Collavini Refosco ‘Pucino’ 2013 Friuli Colli Orientali, Italy
12.5% alcohol. Fresh and vivid with black cherry fruit and a supple, silky texture as well as some floral interest. There’s some gravelly grip on the finish. A really nicely balanced, fresh, pure red that’s a half way house between an elegant Bordeaux and a ripe Burgundy. 90/100 (£13.95 Noel Young, Wine Direct)
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Marc Pénavaye’s Château Plaisance consists of 30 hectares of vines in the Fronton appellation, near Toulouse in southwest France. This is a varietal Negrette, which is such an interesting red grape variety, unique to the region and with records indicating it has been grown here since the sixth century. Marc started farming organically in 2006 and was fully certified in 2011.
Château Plaisance ‘Alabets’ 2010 Fronton, France
13% alcohol. Sweet and ripe with nice black cherries, some raspberries and a hint of meatiness. There’s some warm herb character here, too, lying under the supple, expressive black fruits. Complex and balanced, and just a bit edgy with a fresh almost lemony finish. A distinctive, delicious wine. 92/100 (UK agent Les Caves de Pyrene)
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I love it when I find a really nice wine at an everyday sort of price. This fits the bill: a Catalan white wine from Coca i Fitó in Terra Alta, and it’s mainly Grenache Blanc. I really like Grenache Blanc and Gris – these varieties just seem to do so well in warm-ish climates. Old vines (50-70 years) and limestone/sandy soils have produced a really delicious white, which has spent three months on its lees.
The wine is made by Toni and Miquel Coca i Fitó, who grew up on the family vineyard in Alt Penedès. They started their own project in 2006. Toni’s background is consultant winemaker; Miquel was trained as a professional chef and looks after the commercial side of things.
Coca i Fitó Jaspi Blanc 2013 Terra Alta, Spain
13.5% alcohol. 70% Grenache Blanc and 30% Macabeo. This is a lovely rich unoaked white wine with white peach, ripe pear and spice notes as well as some floral honeysuckle notes. Fresh but with some richness, this shows lovely balance. It has a nicely mineral texture and more complexity than you’ve any right to expect at this price. 91/100 (£8.95 The Wine Society)
An interesting story is brewing in the world of English sparkling wine. Victoria Moore reports on it here in The Telegraph, and pretty much nails it.
So a coalition of Sussex wineries – Rathfinny, Ridgeview, Bolney – are applying for a PDO (protected designation of origin). This is an official EU designation for quality products that are linked to a certain place. Think Melton Mowbray pork pies, Cheddar cheese, Jersey Royal potatoes. They want ‘Sussex Sparkling’ to be recognized in a similar way.
For those who like rules, these are the existing protected names. There’s PDO status for ‘English’ wine (see the rules here) and ‘Welsh’ wine; and there’s also the PGI (protected geographic origin) for ‘English Regional’ and ‘Welsh Regional’ wine (see rules here). In addition, there’s an English/Welsh quality sparkling wine PDO (rules here). The idea is that wines with these status marks will have passed basic quality tests and be authentic products.
The idea for the Sussex Sparkling PDO? Stricter rules on production than currently exist, and a nice marketable term because tighter geographic origin implies higher quality.
As Victoria points out, there’s a big problem here. Sussex is an administrative/political area with boundaries that aren’t determined by soil type. And for sparkling wine production, soil type is all important. Climate is too: but those climates where you can successfully ripen grapes in the south of England tend to be relatively similar, with the big difference being the soil. So sparkling wines from Sussex won’t all share similar characteristics. A sparkling wine from Sussex grown on chalky soils will likely taste more similar to a sparkling wine grown in Hampshire on chalky soils than to a Sussex wine grown on Greensand.
Also, Rathfinny, one of the producers pressing for this PDO, haven’t yet released a wine. It seems a little premature.
Also, Nyetimber, Sussex’ most famous winery, have some significant vineyards outside the county, so they couldn’t be included, even though (many people think) they make the UK’s best sparkling wines.
But there’s also another factor that no one has yet reported on. A quick search of trademarks for ‘Sussex Sparkling’ reveal that Rathfinny trademarked the term in April 2012 (application was filed in November 2011). A PDO that’s also the trademark of a single producer? This is concerning from a legal standpoint: effectively, Rathfinny could then decide who gets to use the PDO.
Ever since 1984, UK wine magazine Decanter have bestowed an accolade on a figure from the the world of wine, crowning them man of the year. The first recipient was Serge Hochar. The most recent, and a very popular choice, was Alvaro Palacios, who at the age of 50 (he’s 51 on Monday) is still very much in his prime. Indeed, it is remarkable how much he has achieved at such a relatively young age.
Peter Sisseck, Alvaro Palacios, Rafael Palacios
To celebrate, Alvaro threw a dinner at the Beaumont. It was a relaxed, enjoyable affair, with some brilliant wines, as you might expect.
Alvaro came from a wine family, and is the seventh of nine children. He was working with Christian Moieux in Bordeaux when at the age of 25 he got a call from Rene Barbier to come and join him in Priorat. So he sold his motorbike, borrowed a car and moved there. Over the next few years he created Priorat’s village system and helped revive this remarkable region from obscurity. I’ve reviewed his wines before here.
Then, in 1999 with his nephew Ricardo Perez, he headed to Bierzo to form Descendientes de J. Palacios.
In 2000, his father died and Alvaro returned to the family business, Palacios Remondo in Rioja, which he has rejuvenated.
He has been a leader in the new Spanish wine revolution. ‘The image and reality of Spanish wines has changed forever,’ said Decanter’s publisher Sarah Kemp, in her speech. She pointed out Alvaro’s dynamism and courage in pioneering, his respect for the past, and his work ethic as factors in his success. ‘He has let the great terroirs of Spain express themselves.’
‘All the [Decanter] men of the year have been my heroes,’ Alvaro responded. ‘I still cannot believe that I have been awarded, among the hundreds of great producers around the world. I am just a link in the chain with all those producers who have had faith in Spain.’
Alvaro’s younger brother Rafael, who makes wines in Valdeorras, was also present at the dinner, as was celebrated Ribera del Duero producer Peter Sisseck.
Palacios Remondo Plácet Valtomelloso 2012 Rioja
This is very attractive with white peach, subtle fennel notes and fine herbal notes in the background, but the core of the wine is sweet, rich fruit. It’s kept stylish and taut, though, with some nuttiness, too. A lovely white balancing richness and freshness very well. 93/100
Descendientes de J Palacios La Faraona 2010 Bierzo, Spain
This comes from a half-hectare plot at 750 m altitude, in a vineyard on a geological fault. Some of the vineyard has soft slate and clay, but this portion has very hard slate oriented horizontally, without the usual vertical fissures that allow the roots to penetrate. The result is very small clusters of grapes, and because it’s south east facing it gets the white light of the morning. The result is incredible. It’s pure, floral and youthful with dense yet fresh primary blackberry and black cherry fruit showing some lushness and ripeness, but also grippy structure. There’s a silkiness surrounding this structure, and although its approachable now, it really needs time. 95/100
Alvaro Palacios L’Hermita 2010 Priorat, Spain
Alvaro describes this vineyard as a ‘whim of nature’. It’s from 1.5 hectares planted in 1939, and is mostly Garnacha with a bit of Carinena. The vineyard faces north East. ‘This is such a luminous, hot place, the best wines are made from the shade areas,’ explains Alvaro. This is a brooding wine: taut, grippy and yet fine, with a hint of mint and lovely black cherry fruit. Attractive and supple with tar, spice,hints of liquorice and nice grippy structure. Give this plenty of time: it’s almost a sin drinking it now. 95/100
Valdespino Moscatel Toneles, NV, Jerez
This was a real treat. From a very old solera, this is an antique Moscatel. Brown/black in colour this has a hugely aromatic nose of raisins, spice and tar. The palate is immensely concentrated with sweet viscous flavours of raisins, treacle, spice, old casks and citrus peel. It has an eternal finish and a little goes a long way. Very sweet but with nice acidity and a savoury twist. 97/100
Dear (insert name)
I have heard that you don’t like natural wines.
I can understand that this must be quite distressing for you. But do not worry: I am a doctor (a plant PhD, not a medic, but who cares? This is the internet) and I am here to help.
You have spent a lot of time and money on your wine education. You have learned a great many objective facts about wine: its production, its history, its global spread and how it is supposed to taste. You have a finely honed palate and can differentiate among poor, ordinary, good and great wines. So I can understand how upsetting it is when some of your colleagues (who should know better) begin championing wines that fall outside this frame of reference. It just won’t do.
The first thing I need to tell you is that you matter. You are one of the top wine authorities/emerging stars of the wine world/top restaurant critics (select as appropriate), and people are intensely interested in what you have to say. They want to know what you had for breakfast, your favourite sports teams, your taste in music, your preferred tailor and recent novels that you approve of. And of course which wine styles you consider to be legitimate or illegitimate.
Because you are truly important, people are especially interested in hearing about things that you don’t like. It’s different for me. There are quite a lot of things that I don’t like. They include butter in my sandwiches, The Archers, The Rolling Stones, greed, Manchester United, Dermot O’Leary, UKIP, The Daily Mail, queuing, most Chilean Pinot Noir and cheapness. But I’m not like you, and I don’t think my readers really care terribly much about my dislikes.
Now that I have reassured you about your significance, the next step is that I need to encourage you to tell as many people as possible about your dislike of natural wine. It is important that someone of your stature should do everything they can to help stop the spread of this terrible movement.
The idea that people should be free to make up their own mind about which wines they prefer to drink is a dangerous delusion, and could lead to lots of people drinking bad wine and thinking that they enjoy it. You know all about wine faults, and from what I hear from others, pretty much every natural wine you have had has been faulty (by your definition). Unfortunately, most consumers haven’t had the sort of wine education that you have, and there’s a very real threat that they might not realise that as they drink these wines, they are enjoying wines that are flawed.
The nightmare scenario? That people should bypass gatekeepers like you altogether, and begin to explore and enjoy wines without the sort of essential guidance that you offer. They will begin making their own minds up, and that could be disastrous. You have heard about the RAW and Real Wine Fairs that have been held in London over the last few years. The rumour is that these fairs have been rammed with normal consumers who have had a great time drinking natural wines. I suspect (and hope) that this is just propaganda from the organizers, and that the few people who made it to them couldn’t find anything even half drinkable.
So you need to keep telling your readers how bad natural wines are. Really scare them. Tell them that they are cloudy, feral, stinky concoctions, packed full of wine faults. Suggest that the people who make them are deluded hippies with long beards and no clue about wine. Liken them to rough farmhouse ciders.
I realise that this is a distressing time for you. There are people – smart people even – who like things that you don’t. Please surround yourself with like-minded colleagues who share your insecurities about the rise of natural wine. Poke fun at the natural wine movement and its supporters at every opportunity. And remember: confirmation bias is your friend. You are smart, and some of your smart friends agree with you, so you must be right.
I have a tactic for you. If people complain about your negativity towards natural wine, then act as if you are the one being persecuted. Complain that others are insisting you should like these wines. How dare they suggest that your palate isn’t sophisticated enough to enjoy them! Stop forcing these faulty wines on me! It is extremely unreasonable for others to suggest that if you don’t like natural wine, then you should just leave others to enjoy it without pointing out how wrong they are. You can’t stay silent!
Natural wine is just a fad. Give it a year and it will all have gone away, and things will be just as they were before – the nice cosy, compartmentalized, tidy wine world that you learned about in your studies.