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A Balanced Merlot Blend Image

An attractively priced, screw-topped proprietary red from one of New Zealand’s top producers, the 2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu hits all the right notes. Bright and balanced, with mouthfilling black fruit flavors, yet lively acidity, it’s an extremely versatile food wine. As you might expect from a merlot-dominant bordeaux-style blend, ripe plumpness comes wrapped in soft, textured tannins that check the fattiness of meat dishes, but its tartness complements those with a tomato base too. Additional spicy nuances — cedar and smoke — emerged when I sipped the final glass with a plate of hard cheeses: gruyere, Canadian cheddar, Wensleydale.

Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week


2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu

Price: $22
Region:
 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Grape:
 80 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent malbec
Alcohol: 14 percent
Serve with: grilled steak, pork loin, tomato-based pastas, hard cheeses

Too often, producers of high-end, pricey wines adopt a heavy hand with their modest wines. The results can be crude, overweight cousins to their better bottles. Craggy Range specializes in expensive single vineyard vino, but this wine shows they know how to make a solid-value example too. The beauty of the Te Kahu is that it’s not overdone — just done right.

To most wine lovers, New Zealand is best known for its fresh, zingy sauvignon blancs. But the country also produces a range of stylish reds. Craggy Range, founded in 1997, sources grapes from a variety of key regions, including the Gimblett Gravels area in Hawkes Bay. This grape-growing valley, with its distinctive soil types and warm, sunny conditions tempered by cloudy mists, is known for plantings of bordeaux varieties and syrah. Craggy Range has 100 hectares (247 acres) in the region, much of it merlot.

Te Kahu means ‘the cloak’ in Te Reo Maori, a reference to the mist used to protect a mythical Maori maiden from the sun as she visited her lover. It’s hard to know what the actual mists in the valley do for the grapes. The winery thinks this wine could age for 10 years, but I’d enjoy it in its lusty prime.


Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

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5 Tuscan Vineyards Just Waiting To Be Discovered Image

If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.

I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.

Fattoria del Colle

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Fattoria del Colle, near the village of Trequanda, produces three red wines and Vin Santo. Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.

Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.

Podere Forte

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Podere Forte’s cellar is state-of-the-art, with vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).

Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.

A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.

They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.

Olivi-Le Buche

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Olivi-Le Buche produces a wide range of wines from an eclectic selection of grapes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.

Podere Albiano

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

The wines from Podere Albiano make a convincing range of wines that illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.

Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.

Marco Capitoni

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio vino orcia

Two large amphorae in Marco Capitoni’s cellar are used for experimenting with Sangiovese. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.

The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.

Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia

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Idaho Wines Are No Small Potatoes Image

Idaho is famous for potatoes. Now the state’s swelling ranks of winemakers want to put Idaho’s wines on the culinary map. So far, they appear to be making headway.

Just ask Andy Perdue, wine writer for the Seattle Times and editor and publisher of the website Great Northwest Wine. He compares Idaho’s wine making with that of its more famous neighbor, Washington.

“They’re kind of at a place where Washington was in the early to mid-’90s as far as size and quality. That was the turning point for Washington. It’s an interesting time to keep an eye on that industry, because the wines coming out of Idaho are on the rise and getting better and better.”

The rising quality

Idaho is said to be at a turning point, as far as size and quality of wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

Idaho is said to be at a turning point, as far as size and quality of wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

Perdue links the rising quality of Idaho wine to people such as Leslie Preston. The Idaho native found Idaho’s grapes “so exciting” she decided years ago to make wine using them. Small problem, however: She was living in California’s Napa Valley. “I just wanted to focus on Idaho grapes,” Preston recalls.

The University of California, Davis-trained enologist concocted a plan: Truck Idaho grapes to Napa, where she’d make the wine. That raised eyebrows among Napa winemakers. Their reaction, when her truck of Idaho grapes rumbled into Napa: “OK, here comes the spud wine.”

Preston remained a “road warrior” for four years, before she and her family relocated to Boise in 2012. Today, Preston owns Coiled Wines, in the Snake River Valley grape region in southwest Idaho (hence the name “Coiled,” as in snake). And Preston – who trained in California at Clos du Bois, Saintsbury and Stag’s Leap Winery – is among several Idaho winemakers winning awards.

A jump in wineries

Idaho now has 51 wineries, versus 11 in 2003. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

Idaho now has 51 wineries, versus 11 in 2003. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

“Idaho is more than just potatoes,” Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, says. (Full disclosure: The commission was among the Idaho-based sponsors funding my trip.)

Idaho counted 51 wineries at year-end 2015 — versus 11 in 2002. More than 1,300 acres of grapes are planted. The principal whites are Chardonnay, Riesling and Viognier. The chief reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec and Tempranillo. Idaho’s wine production in 2014 ranked 19th nationwide, according to federal data.

“We know we can make world-class wines here,” winemaker Melanie Krause, owner of Cinder Wines, says. “The desert climate grows wonderful grapes.”

Approved in 2007, the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area was Idaho’s first federally designated wine grape growing region. It’s also Idaho’s main grape region. The Eagle Foothills, within the Snake River Valley AVA, became Idaho’s second AVA in November. The Lewis-Clark Valley, 270 miles north of Boise, near Washington, is expected to win federal designation soon.

Perfect for growing grapes

Idaho's Snake River Valley, with well-draining soil and good temperatures, is perfect for vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

The Snake River Valley, with well-draining soil and good temperatures, is perfect for vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

The Snake River Valley was formed more than 4 million years ago, a product of volcanic activity and floods that left well-draining volcanic soil, industry officials say. The elevation ranges from 1,500 to 3,000 feet.

Summer temperatures hit the 90s during the day and plunge to the 50s at night. That cold-hot combination helps balance the grape sugars and acids, industry officials say. They liken the Snake River Valley AVA to Washington’s famed Columbia Valley.

“You’re going to find wines here that are incredibly balanced and very drinkable,” Krause, an Idaho native, says.

Idaho’s wine industry dates to the 1860s, when grapes were planted in north central Idaho. They were among the first planted in the Pacific Northwest. Idaho’s pioneer winemakers were two Frenchmen and a German. Their wines garnered awards around the country.

But Prohibition halted wine making. While states such as California and Washington resumed production after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, Idaho’s wine business was morbid. Religious conservatives put a damper on alcohol consumption.

An ‘influx of talent’

Ste. Chapelle, Idaho's oldest and largest winery, was founded in 1975. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s oldest and largest winery, was founded in 1975. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

Wine making didn’t revive until the 1970s, when growers planted grapes in the Snake River Valley. Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s oldest and largest winery, was founded in 1975 and produced wines from there.

An influx of winemakers who learned their trade elsewhere — like Preston of Coiled and Krause of Cinder, a former assistant winemaker at Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle — helped the industry. “That’s really what the industry needed – an influx of talent,” Perdue, the wine writer, says.

But for now you must visit Idaho to sample its wines, or order them online. A limited number are at restaurants and on store shelves outside Idaho. Most wineries are small. Growers are planting grapes.

Perdue recommends several wineries:

  • Coiled Wines in Garden City, outside Boise/Dry and sparkling Riesling
  • Cinder Wines, in Garden City/Tempranillo and Syrah
  • Sawtooth, in Nampa, about 20 miles west of Boise/Petit Syrah and Rosé
  • Koenig Distillery & Winery, in Caldwell, about 25 miles west of Boise/Ice wine
  • Fujishin Family Cellars, in Caldwell/Mouvedre
  • Clearwater Canyon Cellars, in Lewiston, in northern Idaho/Merlot

He’s bullish on the future: “I could see the industry doubling again in the next five to 10 years.” That could mean more wine for oenophiles who don’t live in Idaho.

Main photo: A wine lover snaps a photo of a Cinder wine, from one of Idaho’s well regarded wineries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

 

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Elusive Swiss Alpine Wines Perfect To Drink Now Image

Whenever I mention Swiss wine — which I do at every possible opportunity — most people get a glazed look in their eyes. Some folks are unaware that wine is even grown in this tiny, mountainous, landlocked country. Those lucky few who have had the chance to taste a delicate Chasselas from Lake Geneva, say, or a smooth, plummy Merlot from Lake Lugano tend to get distracted by their high price and lament the fact that the wines are hard to find outside the country.

Besides, they may add, there are so many interesting — and more accessible — bottles out there waiting to be sampled, and the time and effort required to track down these expensive, elusive Swiss drops is just too much of a stretch.

Bear with me: There are treasures in them there hills (make that mountains), and now is the moment to start discovering them. Why now, all of a sudden? Wine has been made in Switzerland — as in the rest of Europe — for at least 2,000 years, but it’s in the past 20 that there have been huge changes. Swiss winemakers have access to all the same kinds of recent technical advances that have benefited wine making all over the world. But a hugely significant — and specifically Swiss — development came in the 1990s, when restrictions on the import of foreign wines were lifted. At a stroke, that oh-so-comforting protectionist cushion was removed and winemakers were faced with serious international competition and forced to raise their game.

An introduction to Swiss wines

Steep vineyards above Fully, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Steep vineyards above Fully, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

For Paolo Basso, Best Sommelier of the World in 2013 and a Swiss national, the key players in this story are the new generation of wine growers. “They are much more dynamic (than earlier generations),” he explained in a recent email. “They have studied viticulture and enology not just in Switzerland but also abroad, they travel widely and they enjoy discovering wines from other countries.” While they remain hugely proud of their deeply rooted wine making traditions and culture, this does not stop them from constantly striving for innovation and improvement.

Swiss vineyards are a magnificent patchwork of different climates and terroirs, which means there are always exciting discoveries to be made. At a time when more and more of us are interested in sampling curiosities and hunting down original wines that stand out from the crowd, these Alpine beauties press plenty of buttons. Basso concludes, with complete impartiality: “If the Best Sommelier of the World is Swiss, it’s because Switzerland has some of the best wines in the world!”

Here’s a selection of Swiss wines to put on your bucket list. The country’s calling cards, which together account for the majority of plantings, are Chasselas and Pinot Noir, but some of the most exciting finds come from grapes that are indigenous to Switzerland and seldom (if ever) found outside.

Chasselas (aka Fendant)

Ripening Chasselas grapes in the vineyards of Cave Alain Emery, Aigle, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Ripening Chasselas grapes in the vineyards of Cave Alain Emery, Aigle, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Switzerland’s signature white grape, known in the Valais as Fendant and in all other Swiss regions as Chasselas, gives delicately fragrant, low-acid, low-alcohol wines with a slight prickle. When made from the best genetic variants, planted in prime sites (such as Lavaux, recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose impossibly beautiful vineyards climb steeply up from the shores of Lake Geneva), and its vigorous growth carefully controlled, Chasselas can give wines of distinction and subtle depth. Most examples are floral, fresh and highly quaffable, making them the perfect aperitif wine.

Petite Arvine

Petite Arvine from Les Fils Maye, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Petite Arvine from Les Fils Maye, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Petite Arvine is one of Switzerland’s most thrilling white varieties, indigenous to the Valais region and to neighboring Valle d’Aosta (Italy), which has recently shot to stardom. It makes wines that vary from lip-smackingly dry with gorgeous grapefruit tones and a characteristic salty finish to luscious, highly concentrated, sweet wines from late-harvested grapes. Some of the most expressive come from the village of Fully near Martigny, whose biennial event, Arvines en Capitale, celebrates this unique variety. This distinctive white wine is perfect with raclette, preferably made using an aged alp cheese from the Valais.

Heida (aka Païen)

Heida from the Provins cooperative, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Heida from the Provins cooperative, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

This is none other than the Savagnin grape of the Jura region (where it gives the famous Vin Jaune), which is now firmly anchored in the Valais region. When the wine is made in the upper part of the Valais region, where German is spoken, its name is Heida; further down the valley toward Lake Geneva, where French is spoken, its name is Païen. Grown in tiny — but steadily increasing — quantities, it gives full-bodied, spicy white wines of enormous distinction. The excellent Provins cooperative, which makes this bottle, recommends Heida with assertively spiced and seasoned dishes such as scallop carpaccio or fish tartare with coconut milk.

Amigne

Amigne by André Fontannaz, Vétroz, Valais, partially aged in an amphora. Note the bee on the left of the label, indicating the sweetness level of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Amigne by André Fontannaz, Vétroz, Valais, partially aged in an amphora. Note the bee on the left of the label, indicating the sweetness level of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Another grape indigenous to the Valais, this ancient white variety is extremely rare: worldwide there are only 40 hectares (98 acres) grown, of which 35 hectares (86 acres) are found in the village of Vétroz, its spiritual home. The small-berried, late-ripening grapes give luscious, deep golden, honeyed wines of varying sweetness. In Amignes from Vétroz, the degree of sweetness is helpfully indicated on the label by a bee motif: one bee indicates an off-dry wine, two is sweeter and three bees is fully sweet. In August 2015 the winegrowers of Vétroz introduced a festival dedicated to “their” grape titled Amigne on the Road, with food and wine trucks serving local specialties and wines from 15 of the village’s wineries. Amigne is a delight served with a buttery, caramelized tarte tatin or enjoyed on its own, just for the pleasure of it.

Pinot Noir

The Weingut zum Sternen's award-winning Pinot Noir from Würenlingen, Aargau, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

The Weingut zum Sternen’s award-winning Pinot Noir from Würenlingen, Aargau, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

The famous red grape of Burgundy, this is Switzerland’s most widely planted vine. In the French-speaking cantons it goes by its French name, while in the German-speaking regions it may be labelled Pinot Noir or Blauburgunder (“blue Burgundy”). It is grown in almost all regions, with cantons Graubünden in the east and Neuchâtel in the west both acknowledged centers of excellence. Today, thanks to the effects of climate change, ever finer, fully ripe examples are emerging from the more northerly cantons of Zurich and neighboring Aargau. At the Gasthaus Zum Sternen in Würenlingen, where this one comes from, they pair it with Suure Mocke, a fine dish of beef braised in red wine.

Humagne Rouge

An elegant Humagne Rouge from Simon Maye & Fils, St-Pierre-de-Clages, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

An elegant Humagne Rouge from Simon Maye & Fils, St-Pierre-de-Clages, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

This is another characterful variety that came from the Valle d’Aosta region of northern Italy (where it is known as Cornalin). Arriving in the Valais via the Grand Saint Bernard pass during the 19th century, it made a niche for itself, while always remaining a bit of a rarity. In the past 20 years it has enjoyed a renaissance, joining the Valais’ other highly sought-after specialty grapes. It can be a bit of a country cousin, with a rustic character and pronounced tannins, but in the right hands and with careful vinification (including some barrel-ageing) it gives scented, cherry-red wines that can age with elegance. Try it with richly sauced game dishes (venison or wild boar) or roast lamb, or with a soft, washed-rind cheese such as Vacherin Mont d’Or.

Merlot

Merlot from one of Agriloro's prime vineyard sites, La Prella (pictured on the label). Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Merlot from one of Agriloro’s prime vineyard sites, La Prella (pictured on the label).
Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

The world-famous red grape arrived in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, from Bordeaux, France, in 1906 and now occupies almost 90 percent of the region’s vineyard surface area. You can find it both as a single varietal and in a blend with other red grapes. Wine maker Ivo Monti of Cantina Monti (whose wines regularly sweep the board in the annual Grand Prix du Vin Suisse) comments that “Merlot is a great soloist, but if you add other varieties, you get the whole orchestra.” Tiny quantities are also vinified as white wine (the Merlot grape has red skins but white juice), labeled Merlot Bianco. Merlot pairs well with richly sauced meats, porcini mushrooms or — for a typically Ticinese match — a bowl of roasted chestnuts.

Gamaret

Gamaret, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross that excels in the Geneva vineyards, from Dupraz et fils, Lully, Geneva. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Gamaret, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross that excels in the Geneva vineyards, from Dupraz et fils, Lully, Geneva. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

This relatively new variety, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross, was developed in the 1970s by Switzerland’s viticultural research station. It has been particularly successful in the Geneva vineyards where it is made as a single varietal, as here, or blended with its sibling grape Garanoir. Its early ripening, bluish-black grapes give deeply colored, supple, spicy wines, which would match well with pinkly roasted duck breast or beef in a red wine butter sauce.

Sourcing Swiss wines

In the United States (Madison, Wisconsin): Swiss Cellars.

In the United Kingdom: Alpine Wines.

In Canada: Swiss Wine Imports.

Alternatively, consult www.winesearcher.com for your nearest local supplier. Better still, visit Switzerland and explore the vineyards yourself, using the free app supplied by Swiss Wine Promotion body, Vinea.

Main photo: A patchwork of Swiss vineyards in the Valais, near Chamoson. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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Grenache Returns To Bask In The California Sun Image

Grenache is in the midst of a renaissance in California, proving that decades of abuse can’t keep a great wine grape down. Two decades ago, it was being pulled out of California vineyards at an alarming rate. An increasingly sophisticated American wine-drinking public was giving up the simple, fruity jug wines into which most California Grenache had gone in favor of darker, more robust red grapes. Between 1994 and 2004, Grenache acreage declined from 12,107 to 7,762, and to 5,909 in 2014.

A tale of two Grenaches

Once in decline, Grenache is back in production and receiving much buzz. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey

Once in decline, Grenache is back in production and receiving much buzz. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey

At the same time, Grenache has never received so much buzz. Writers with such diverse tastes as Wine Spectator’s James Laube (“Grenache … is proving to be one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom”) and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné (“The hopes for Grenache ascendent have come to pass”) have championed the grape in recent years. And wineries are betting on Grenache’s future. A search in Wine Spectator’s California ratings database for Grenache from the 1994 vintage returns 11 matches, just two of which were red wines labeled Grenache (an additional three were Grenache rosés, and the other six blends that included the grape). By 2004, the same search returns 30 matches, 13 of which were labeled Grenache. From 2012 (the most recent vintage for which most reds have been submitted for review), the search returns 130 matches, 45 of which were labeled Grenache.

Both the decline and the renaissance can be understood by looking at where Grenache was and is being planted. In 1994, just 256 acres, less than 2 percent of the total, was found in the coastal or mountain counties that make California’s best wines. The rest was found in the deep, fertile soils of the Central Valley, where it was a key component of the field blends that went unacknowledged into jug wines (think “Hearty Burgundy” and the like). As those wines lost popularity in the American market, so too did the demand for the simple, fruity juice that Grenache produced in its Central Valley home.

But all locations are not the same for California Grenache. Over the same two decades that overall acreage has declined by more than half, the acreage in the high-quality coastal and mountain areas increased 437 percent, to 1,376 acres. Even so, in premium areas, Grenache has become downright scarce, even though it is productive and easy to grow. In the Central Coast, Grenache is now one of the most in-demand grapes and commands a premium price, averaging $1,797 per ton in 2014, higher than Merlot ($1,056 a ton), Syrah ($1,357 a ton), Zinfandel ($1,407 a ton) and even Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,464 a ton).

The world’s grape

Chateau de Beaucastel, in the south of France, is known for its grenaches. Credit: Copyright 2010 Chateau de Beaucastel

Grenache is grown at Chateau de Beaucastel, in France’s Rhone Valley, known for the wine. Credit: Copyright 2010 Chateau de Beaucastel

Grenache is long overdue for its California renaissance. Widely planted in France, Spain and Australia, Grenache is the world’s second-most-planted grape by acreage. It makes up some 60 percent of the acreage in the Rhone Valley and 70 percent of the acreage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Add in significant plantings in Spain and Australia, as well as the thousands of acres in California, and Grenache accounts for the second-greatest worldwide acreage of any wine grape.

It is little surprise why. Grenache is a vigorous grape, relatively easy to grow and productive. It produces fruit with both good sugars (producing full body) and good acids (maintaining freshness). It makes wines that are nearly always cheerful, full of fruit and refreshing. There’s a useful white-skinned variant (Grenache Blanc) and even a pink-skinned one (Grenache Gris).

Whether in a Cotes-du-Rhone or a Rioja, an Australian GSM or a Provence rosé, wines based on Grenache provide enormous pleasure for a typically reasonable price.

So what happened in California?

The bad old days

Tablas Creek is once again nurturing vines for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard

Tablas Creek is once again nurturing vines for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard

 Grenache in California has had a checkered history. Largely planted in the Central Valley and irrigated extensively because of its ability to produce enormous crops when given enough water, Grenache formed the (unacknowledged) core of many of the jug wines in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve heard tales of Grenache producing as much as 20 tons per acre in parts of the Central Valley. Even as recently as 2012, California’s Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties, which contains most of the Central Valley Grenache acreage) produced 50,029 tons of fruit from 3,640 acres of Grenache: an average of 13.7 tons per acre. For comparison, our highest-ever yield per acre from our vineyard was 3.6 tons per acre, in 2006.

As you might expect, grapes produced at those massive yields are rarely distinguished. And in the rare cases where it was bottled on its own in the 1960s and 1970s, “California Grenache” was simple, light in color, and often sweet. The grape had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980s, when a new generation of producers, mostly in Napa, focused their attention, and the attention of the American market, on the classic grapes of Bordeaux. Acreage in California declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres in the 1980s to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 5,909 acres today.

And yet, in the reasons for Grenache’s decline lie the seeds of its rebirth.

Why now, for Grenache?

The American wine market's openness to new varieties has helped bring grenache back. Credit: Copyright Cheryl Quist

The American wine market’s openness to new varieties has helped bring Grenache back. Credit: Copyright Cheryl Quist

Several factors are driving a new interest in Grenache. First, the whole category of Rhone varieties has a new generation of devotees, both among consumers and among producers. American producers, inspired by the growing availability of high-quality examples from the Rhone Valley and convinced that California’s Mediterranean climate should be a congenial one for the Rhone’s Mediterranean grapes, started making wine in increasing numbers through the 1990s. With critical mass came organizations like Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and the Grenache Association, all dedicated to providing Rhone lovers a community in which to discover new favorites.

The American wine market’s increasing openness to new varieties, and the growth of the tasting room culture, allowed many of these maverick producers to connect with enthusiastic customers in a way that would have been inconceivable two decades ago. Blends, too, have become a hot category in recent years, and it’s hard to think of a grape that has benefited more than Grenache, whose combination of full body, generous fruit, moderate tannins and refreshing acidity make it an exemplary blending partner.

Grenache can be made in many styles, from robust and high-octane to ethereal and highly spiced, which allows it to appeal to both winemakers looking to make wines to impress with their hedonistic appeal, and those looking to make wines that are more ethereal and intellectual.

And yet, it’s likely that none of this would have happened without new clones.

Clones to the rescue

At Tablas Creek, clones from France were brought in as the vineyard started growing grapes for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard

At Tablas Creek, clones from France were brought in as the vineyard started growing grapes for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard

At Tablas Creek, we brought in clones of all our grapes from our partners at Beaucastel, and Grenache was a major reason why we decided to go through the considerable time and expense of doing so. When we started to research the available clones of Grenache in California, we were not excited by what we found: enormous clusters with massive berries, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, with flavors that were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting. Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated, overcropped and planted in the wrong places, but we thought there was something inherently different about the raw material. It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.

We weren’t the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache, but the net effect of the arrival of new clones in the mid-1990s was dramatic. A new generation of producers started planting Grenache in the high-quality coastal and mountain appellations where its previous footprint had been negligible. Acreage statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that in coastal and foothills counties its acreage has grown at about 10 percent per year since 1995. The 1,000-plus acres of new plantings in high-quality areas has driven a critical resurgence for Grenache.

Celebrating Grenache’s present

Organizations such as Rhone Rangers are championing Grenache. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey

Organizations such as Rhone Rangers are championing Grenache. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey

How about the Rhone Rangers? This organization of some 120 wineries, mostly from California but also including producers of Grenache and other Rhone-style grapes from Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Arizona and Michigan, holds two big events each year, in San Francisco (late spring) and in Los Angeles (Nov. 6-7). It also oversees local chapters in Paso Robles, El Dorado, California North Coast, Santa Barbara, and Virginia, and has organized a traveling show that has taken Grenache and its brethren in recent years to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York and Seattle. For information, visit Rhone Rangers.

Hospice du Rhone has celebrated producers working with Rhone varieties with a four-day blowout of seminars, tastings, lunches, dinners, an auction and a legendary collection of after-hours parties most years since 1991. The 2016 celebration will be held in Paso Robles on April 14-16. For more, visit Hospice du Rhone. 

The wines of France’s Rhone Valley are predominantly Grenache, from humble Cotes du Rhones to the greatest Chateauneuf du Papes. This is also true of most southern French rosés. These are all promoted by Inter-Rhone. For a complete listing of their events and activities, visit Inter-Rhone’s website. 

Grenache even has an international day, organized by the Grenache Association each year on the third Friday in September (this year, it was Sept. 18) with tastings organized in Rhone-producing regions from France to Australia to South Africa to California.

A bright future for Grenache

A tasting in California of Rhone varieties had a heavy focus on Grenache wines. Credit: Copyright 2014 Jason Haas

A tasting in California of Rhone varieties had a heavy focus on Grenache wines. Credit: Copyright 2014 Jason Haas

What’s next for Grenache here in America? It seems like it’s poised for a surge, for many reasons. Quality has never been better. In California, the grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as important being pulled out of the wrong places. The clones that are available are better than they’ve ever been before. In general, the producers who are working with Grenache now are Rhone specialists, which suggests it’s in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California’s next big grape would be. (Syrah is only now recovering after years in the wilderness.)

In the vineyard, Grenache is particularly well suited to dry-farming, ever more important in a future where droughts are likely to become more frequent and more severe. And it has shown around the world it can thrive in many different soils, in a range of moderate to warm climates, and be made, according to a winemaker’s taste, in a variety of styles, from bright and spicy to deeply fruity and luscious.

The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I’ve spoken with in the last few years has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America. And the market seems increasingly comfortable with blends, where Grenache shines.

Will Grenache be the next big thing in California? I’m not sure I would wish that on it. But will it see success over the coming decades? I think that’s an easy prediction.

Main photo: Suddenly, Grenache grown in California is coming back into favor. Credit: Copyright 2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard

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New Generation Lifts Up-And-Coming Chinese Winery Image

Winemaker Judy Chan can still recall the initial challenges when her father, C.K. Chan, handed her the reins of Grace Vineyard.

A former human-resources analyst, Judy Chan faced not only tough competition from imported wines and the three giant Chinese labels — Dynasty, Great Wall and Changyu — but being new to the business, she didn’t know how to price, market or package the wine produced from the vineyard.

“The first bottle label looked like a soy sauce bottle,” she said of her early days in the business.

I was introduced to Grace Vineyard wines and Judy Chan three years ago in Hong Kong, where the young vintner is based. I returned home from a recent trip to Hong Kong with two bottles of Grace Vineyard’s wines with the intention of conducting an informal tasting of made-in-China Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay with California wines.

Putting Grace Vineyard wines to the test

The wine tasting included the 2010 Babcock Cabernet Sauvignon, left, and the 2011 Grace Vineyard Deep Blue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Mira Honeycutt

The wine tasting included the 2010 Babcock Cabernet Sauvignon, left, and the 2011 Grace Vineyard Deep Blue. Credit: Copyright 2015 Mira Honeycutt

I gathered together a few winemaker friends for a casual wine tasting, using brown bags to wrap the selected bottles: the 2011 Grace Vineyard Deep Blue (a Cabernet Sauvignon-driven wine with some Merlot) and the 2010 Babcock Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Barbara County’s Happy Canyon, both in the $45 price range, as well as two Chardonnays in the $25 price range, Grace Vineyard’s 2011 Tasya’s Reserve and 2011 Saintsbury from Napa Valley’s Carneros district.

In evaluating appearance, aroma, texture, aftertaste and overall impression, Grace’s Deep Blue rated higher than the Babcock. In the white category, Saintsbury topped Grace’s Tasya’s Reserve.

For the group, it was an interesting introduction to the Chinese wine industry, which, although relatively new on the international wine map, is producing noteworthy wines.

Taking over the helm

Judy Chan. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard

Judy Chan. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard

Judy Chan departed from Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong in 2002, when her father asked her to take over a 296-acre vineyard in Shanxi, China, about 370 miles west of Beijing, and an additional 163-acre property in Ningxia, China, 865 miles west of Beijing.

At the time, she knew nothing about wine making, but her father was introduced to the fine wines as an international dealer, trading raw materials such as coal from Shanxi to France. “People associate Shanxi with coal and pollution, so he wanted to contribute environmentally,” Judy Chan said of her father’s decision to plant vineyards in 1997.

The senior Chan selected Shanxi’s Taigu County, known for deep, sandy loam soil. During summers, the warm days (about 95 F) are followed by cool nights when temperature drops to about 60. White grape varietals are harvested at the end of August, with the red grapes following in the middle of October. Winters in the region are harsh and challenging, so vines have to be buried in the ground, Judy Chan said.

A focus on quality over quantity

The vineyard in Shanxi, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard

The vineyard in Shanxi, China. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard

With Gerard Colin on board as the winemaker, initial plantings included Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay, vines imported from a nursery in Bordeaux, France. The first vintage in 2001 of 1 million bottles has grown to 1.5 million bottles annually. “It’s a decision we made,” Judy Chan said of the annual production figures. “I want to grow in quality not quantity.”

She said the current portfolio for Grace Vineyard includes 16 wines crafted by winemaker Ken Murchison. Varieties planted in Shanxi include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and the new additions of Marselan and Aglianico. In Ningxia, vineyards include the three Bordeaux varieties as well as Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir.

How are the flavor profiles different between the two regions?

The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are dramatically different, Judy Chan said. The Shanxi wines show black fruit character with hints of spice and pepper producing softer wines than those from Ningxia, which are bolder in character with red fruit flavors and higher in alcohol levels.

Identifying a market

The cellar at Grace Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard

The cellar at Grace Vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard

Retail prices for Grace Vineyard’s wines range from $9 for the entry-level Vineyard series, a fruit-forward everyday wine, to $76 for the high-end Chairman’s Reserve, a complex Bordeaux-style blend aged in French oak. The cellar-worthy wine garnered an 85-point rating from wine guru Robert Parker. A newer label, the People’s series, serves as a mid-range wine targeted to the young crowd and marketed in Shanghai and Hong Kong’s hip restaurants and hotels.

This year, Grace is set to release some new wines — Shiraz, Aglianico and Marsalen — as well as a sparkling wine.

Grace has come a long way over the past decade, branding itself as a boutique family-run winery with success in local markets as well as export markets including Singapore, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Judy Chan said building a winery from scratch has been an invaluable experience.

“My dream is to build small wineries in different parts of China, each with its own identity,” she said.

Main photo: Grace Vineyard’s Chairman’s Reserve. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard

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Eat, Learn And Mingle With The Stars In Venice Image

As the 72nd Venice Film Festival opens in September, a platoon of celebrities are gracing the city. Would you fancy a drink with stars such as Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Robert Pattinson, famous actresses such as Bérénice Bejo, Jennifer Jason Leigh or the legendary director Brian De Palma? How about a glass of Krug Grand Cuvée with Johnny Depp? That could happen after the premiere of “Black Mass,” the true story of the infamous murderer and mob boss Whitey Bulger.

Where? At the exclusive PG’s Restaurant, the culinary sanctuary belonging to the Design Hotel Palazzina G. It’s Philip Stark’s celebrity-filled — and nearly impossible to find — hotel in Venice.

To get there, reach San Samuele Piazza, then head out on an adventure to a small calle. Your destination is Ramo Grassi 3248, but you won’t find a name or a sign — just look for the bull. He’s fiercely looking at you from above an anonymous door. That’s the entrance.

The hotel is such a Depp favorite that he rented an entire floor while shooting “The Tourist” five years ago. This time, the stars will be here not on location, but for the Venice Film Festival.

The aim of the festival is to raise awareness and promote the various aspects of international cinema as art, entertainment and industry. In the past edition of the festival, 7,300 journalists and critics were accredited. This year more than 100 new films are expected to be screened. There will also be retrospectives and tributes to major figures to pay tribute to and help further an understanding of the history of cinema.

But you don’t have to be a celebrity or critic to experience the creativity of PG’s 28-year-old chef Matteo Panfilio, who was born in the province of Alessandria, where he studied, was nurtured and inspired by his family’s great love for cooking. In 2006, upon completing his studies, he left for London, where he had the opportunity to work with starred chefs such as Alberico Penati, Tristan Mason and Tristan Welch. Back to Alessandria, he opened his own restaurant La Locanda dei Narcisi. Matteo arrived at the PG’s in October 2014.

His style is inspired and guided by great Italian, French and Japanese cuisines, with meticulously prepared dishes and low-temperature, slow cooking methods.

Fish and sweets

Scallops with beetroot jelly, cream of licorice and coffee powder. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laure Jacquemin

Scallops with beetroot jelly, cream of licorice and coffee powder. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laure Jacquemin

Fish reigns here. There is capesante (scallops with beetroot jelly, cream of licorice and coffee powder) baccalà (creamed salt cod, caramelized red onions and polenta chips) Champagne risotto (with sea urchins and prawns tartare) tuna fillet (with pistachio crust, goat cheese and a merlot reduction).

These are just some of the offerings on the young chef’s menu, and that doesn’t even include what Matteo is really passionate about: sweet delights like babà (wild berries, Champagne sabayon) or sorbetto all’albicocca  (creamy saffron, anisette and white peach sorbet).

Two ways to learn

Learning from Matteo Panfilio with the "Eat & Learn" experience. Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

Learning from Matteo Panfilio with the “Eat & Learn” experience. Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

Panfilio loves to share his passion by offering two unforgettable cooking lessons: “Eat & Learn” and “Culinary Experience.”

During “Eat & Learn,” Matteo will reveal secrets and provide explanations, putting on a real show of creativity in which you will plunge into the art of Italian cooking by learning and preparing outstanding dishes.

The cooking demonstration and dinner last approximately 2 hours. It costs €100 (approximately $113) and includes a gift: a special book from the chef. (The classes must be paid in euros.)

To market with the chef

The "Culinary Experience" includes a trip to a Venetian fish market Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

The “Culinary Experience” includes a trip to a Venetian fish market Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

If you choose the “Culinary Experience,” you will venture with Matteo in a three-hour morning tour through the aromas of the Mercato di Rialto, the market that has always been the commercial heart of Venice. In its two buildings overlooking the Grand Canal, the Campo de la Pescaria (fish) and the Erberia (fruits and vegetables), you can find the best bargains in action seeing the skilled tradesmen.

Before returning, you will stop at one (or two…) traditional osteria (wine bars) for a typically Venetian ritual: a glass (or two … ) of wine and some traditional small appetizers called cecchetti. In the evening, you are expected at the beautiful 7-meter long kitchen counter for a 3-hour cooking lesson. There you will prepare, under Matteo’s guidance, a four-course tasting dinner using the ingredients bought at the market. The cost is €480 (approximately $546) for two people, €200 (approximately $227) for each additional person.

PG’s Restaurant is definitely a straordinaria life experience.

A culinary sanctuary

PG’s Restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2012 Cesare Zucca

PG’s Restaurant. Credit: Copyright 2012 Cesare Zucca

 Main photo: The “Eat & Learn” experience with Chef Matteo Panfilio. Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino

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How Priorat Raised The Bar For Spanish Wines Image

It is extraordinary to consider that about 20 years ago Priorat was an unknown name in the roll call of Spanish wine regions. Today, much has changed. Priorat is now one of just two regions with a designated DOCa classification, a step up from plain DO, the other being Rioja.

A band of friends

René Barbier was the first of a group of winemakers to buy  land outside the village of Gratallops, the estate that was to become world famous as Clos Mogador. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

René Barbier was the first of a group of winemakers to buy land outside the village of Gratallops, the estate that was to become world famous as Clos Mogador. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

It began in the late 1970s, when René Barbier bought land outside the village of Gratallops, the estate that was to become world famous as Clos Mogador. The first wine was made in 1989 and Barbier was joined by what he calls a band of copains, friends who had worked or studied together and went on to develop their own estates, such as Alvaro Palacios from Rioja. However, Priorat has always been a wine area, with vineyards run by the priory of Scala Dei, the ruins of which nestle at the foot of the dramatic cliffs of Montsant. In 1835, the Spanish government confiscated all church property, and then the region suffered badly from the phylloxera (the aphid that was imported into Europe on American vines and ultimately destroyed most of the vineyards of Europe, until the remedy of grafting European vines onto American rootstock was discovered). The aphid blight resulted in a drop in the vineyard land from 10,000 hectares (nearly 25,000 acres) of vines to barely 2,000 hectares (almost 5,000 acres) today.

Dramatic landscape

The landscape is dramatic and viticulture is tough in the Priorat region. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

The landscape is dramatic and viticulture is tough in the Priorat region. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

The landscape is dramatic and viticulture is tough. You look at steep slopes and narrow terraces and realize how the lure of urban life in nearby Barcelona or Tarragona was irresistible for many of the farmers who had been scraping a living from their vines. But today there is a new appreciation of the quality of Priorat, based on wonderful old vines, Grenache Noir and Carignan, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. For white wine, there is Grenache Blanc, Macabeo and Pedro Ximenez, and more recent introductions, such as Chenin Blanc and Viognier.

A special soil among the slopes

In the region, the intensity of the flavors conjures up the steep hillsides, with alarming gradients. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

In the region, the intensity of the flavors conjures up the steep hillsides, with alarming gradients. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

So what accounts for the typicity of Priorat? There is no doubt the wines convey a strong sense of place. The intensity of the flavors conjures up the steep hillsides, with alarming gradients — a vineyard tour is an exhilarating experience, and certainly not for the faint-hearted without a head for heights. The vineyards follow the contours of the land, so the aspect changes and the altitude varies considerably. Then there is the soil, the characteristic llicorella, which is a type of schist, some 300 million years old. It is this schist that separates Priorat from adjoining DOs such as Montsant and Terra Alta and gives freshness to the wines, balancing the sometime heady alcohol levels that result from the warm summers.

Barbier set the pace at Clos Mogador and others have followed. At the end of the 1980s there were six wineries; today, there are 104, such has been the breathtaking rate of growth. However, the vineyard area has not grown significantly. Vineyards have changed hands and where once grapes were delivered to the village cooperative they are now vinified by new owners, or by people taking a new look at their land.

From experiment to winery

David Marco and his family began making wine as an experiment in 2004. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

David Marco and his family began making wine as an experiment in 2004. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

David Marco from Marco Abella in the village of Porrera is one such example. His family have had vineyards in the area for centuries. He had worked as an engineer in telecommunications and his wife was a lawyer, and they had increased the family vineyard holdings with the idea of simply selling the grapes. However, in 2004 they decided to make some wine as an experiment, and they were so pleased with it that they took the dramatic decision to give up their jobs and build a winery. I was lucky enough to taste that first wine and delicious it was too, fully justifying the career change.

Marco now makes three at least reds, Loidana from younger vines, from equal parts of Grenache and Carignan with 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, with elegant red fruit, well-integrated oak and a fresh finish. He explained that the influence of the Mediterranean is important, giving a good difference between day and nighttime temperatures. Mas Mallola comes from old Grenache Noir and Carignan, as well as a little Cabernet Sauvignon, from a particularly dramatic vineyard with a 200-meter difference in altitude between the top and the bottom. In the best years, he also makes separate cuvées of Grenache Noir and Carignan from the same vineyard. And then there is Clos Abella, which is predominantly Carignan, with sturdy fresh fruit. Carignan has often been decried, but tasting Priorat certainly prompts a drastic reconsideration of the quality and potential of this grape variety. White Olbia is a blend of Viognier and Grenache Blanc, with a little Pedro Ximenez and Macabeo, with some rounded textured fruit on the palate and well integrated oak.

A $4 taste led to a vineyard

Christopher Cannan is an Englishman who discovered Priorat in the early 1980s in San Francisco. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Christopher Cannan is an Englishman who discovered Priorat in the early 1980s in San Francisco. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Christopher Cannan is an Englishman who discovered Priorat in the early 1980s in San Francisco, where he happened to drink a bottle from Scala Dei that cost just $4, and it was delicious. He has long been a friend of René Barbier, and when Barbier told him in 1997 that there was a vineyard going for a song, 10 hectares (about 25 acres) for £30,000 (about $46,500), Cannan succumbed to the temptation. He made his first wine at Clos Figueras in 2000. He now owns 18 hectares of land, 12 of vines, with olive trees as well, and rents an additional four or five hectares, to make a range of finely crafted wines.

The white wine, Font de la Figuera was an accident. They had ordered Cabernet Sauvignon vines and did not realize that they had been sent Viognier until the vines were well established. It seemed a pity to pull them up. Blended with some Chenin and Grenache Blanc, the wine has delicate peachy fruit. Serras del Priorat, from 60% Grenache, 20% Carignan, with some Syrah and a little Cabernet Sauvignon, has ripe fresh fruit, with a little oak. Font de la Figuera also comes from the same four grape varieties. The Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for less than 5% of the blend, but it gives backbone and structure, and the wine is dense and rich, but always with a fresh finish, even if the alcohol level is nudging 14.5%, even 15%.

The flagship wine Clos Figueras comes from 60-year-old Grenache Noir and even older Carignan — records were lost in the Civil War — with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented and aged in barriques. It was ripe but elegant. And our tasting finished with Cannan’s first wine, 2000 Font de le Figuera, enjoyed over lunch in the welcoming winery restaurant on the edge of the village of Gratallops. It was deliciously mature, and as Cannan put it, “still at cruising altitude,” with some leathery maturity, a touch of minerality and a fresh finish, illustrating convincingly that Priorat amply deserves its newfound reputation.

Main photo: Once unknown among Spanish wines, Priorat is enjoying a newfound appreciation today. Credit: Courtesy of Clos Figueras SA

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