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Once upon a time, Alsace wines were relatively simple to understand. Alsace is virtually the only French appellation that allows the mention of a grape variety on the label, and with a couple of easily identifiable exceptions, the wines tended to be dry. But things seem to have changed in recent years. Am I alone in feeling disappointed that a wine I thought would be dry from the label turns out to be rich with a sweet, even cloying, finish? And then matters are complicated further with all the grands crus names. There are 50 altogether, but I can only ever remember a handful. Happily, a recent visit to Maison Trimbach in Ribeauvillé has served to restore my faith in the region.
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Trimbach makes the full range of Alsace grape varieties, with elegantly leafy Pinot Blanc, some rounded Pinot Gris and some deliciously understated Gewürztraminer — we joked about whether a restrained Gewürztraminer really exists. But it is really with Riesling that the Trimbach style comes into its own, emphasizing the slatey minerality of the grape variety.
A full range of Riesling
Trimbach makes seven qualities of Riesling, beginning with the simple Riesling based on grapes purchased from some 30 growers, picked and pressed by hand. The vinification is very simple, usually entailing a malolactic fermentation and certainly no oak. Freshness and minerality are the key characteristics. The wine has a fresh slatey note, with very good acidity, and a firm dry finish — just as Alsace Riesling should be.
Next up the scale is the Riesling Réserve, a selection of grapes, mainly from Trimbach’s own vineyards around Ribeauvillé. The vinification is the same, but the grapes come from vineyards with a higher limestone content. The result is a wine that has citrus notes and is very mineral, with wonderful freshness and great length. There is a certain austerity on the palate, making for a very pure example of Riesling.
The cuvée of Vieilles Vignes comes from vines that are 35 to 40 years old. They first made this cuvée in 2009, from two foudres of particularly good wine. The flavors are rich and intense, but not sweet. The wine may be a little more gourmand than the Réserve, but the fruit is always balanced with steely acidity, making a wine that is dry and honeyed, with an elegant finish.
The Cuvée Frédéric Emile is one of the flagship wines of Trimbach, whose grapes are grown in marl and limestone soil. We tasted the 2007, which Anne described as a miraculous year — full of scares about the next climatic hazard, but everything turned out well in the end. The nose was rich and honeyed, very intense with an underlying austerity. On the palate, the wine was firm and slatey with very good acidity and razor-sharp clarity. I could almost describe it as the Chablis of Alsace.
The other flagship Riesling is the Clos Ste Hune, from a vineyard the Trimbachs have owned for 200 years. The soil is pure limestone, and the vines are an average of 80 years old. The wine is made the same way as Frédéric Emile, but here you taste the effect of terroir: They are quite different. The Clos Ste Hune is very slatey, very mineral, very powerful, with very good acidity and still very youthful, with wonderful length.
And then we were given a treat: 1985 Clos Ste Hune. The colour was golden, with an elegant nose that was dry and slatey, but with an underlying richness. On the palate, there were lots of nuances, with some very intriguing dry honey and some lovely notes of maturity. It was rich and elegant, but not heavy or sweet, with a lingering finish. A fabulous glass of wine that demonstrated just how beautifully Alsace Riesling ages.
The Vendanges Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles, traditionally sweeter and richer, are only made in the very best years. The 2002 Vendange Tardive Riesling was light golden in color, and on the nose, rich with a maturing nutty nose. On the palate it was very elegant, with very good acidity — there was a little noble rot in 2002, but that is not essential. The palate was beautifully balanced with rich honeyed fruit, combining fresh acidity with some sweetness. It was subtle and nuanced.
Our tasting finished with 2001 Sélection de Grains Nobles Frédéric Emile. The grapes were picked in mid-November, with some noble rot. The color was golden and the nose maturing beautifully, as only fine Riesling can. On the palate there were nuances of dry but honeyed, nutty fruit, with some slatey characteristics and a touch of minerality, with a smooth rich finish. It was a powerful example of the heights that Riesling can achieve.
Top photo: Trimbach vineyards in Alsace. Credit: Courtesy of Maison Trimbach
Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that New Zealand would be producing Pinot Noir with an international reputation? It has all happened in an incredibly short time, so that several of the original pioneering winemakers are still involved in the industry. And a recent tasting in London and New York demonstrated just how successful Pinot Noir is in New Zealand.
This was a tasting that I could not possible miss: three decades of Rippon Vineyards Pinot Noir, beginning with the 1990 vintage, which I tasted as a vat sample the very first time that I went to New Zealand. Rippon Vineyards in Central Otago was one of the first New Zealand vineyards that I visited. It is the most fabulously beautiful spot, with breathtaking views over Lake Wanaka toward the Southern Alps. Central Otago lies on the 45th parallel, which makes its vineyards some of the southernmost in the world — there is not much land between Otago and Antarctica. Whereas most New Zealand vineyards are on the country’s east coast, Central Otago enjoys a continental climate, with harsh winters and warm summers. Schist is the dominant soil at Rippon.
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These days, Nick Mills makes the wine at Rippon, but it was his father, Rolfe, who was the true pioneer. Rolfe’s grandfather bought the land in 1912, and Rolfe began planting vines in 1975.
“It was all very much a learning curve, experimenting with many different grape varieties,” Nick said. “Pinot Noir was just one of several. And nothing was known about different clones. You got cuttings from other growers, and there was a strong element of self-sufficiency and indeed isolation.”
The first commercial wines of Rippon were made in 1989, and in 1990 a talented Austrian winemaker, Rudi Bauer, took over for a few years. (He now has his own estate, Quartz Reef.) Back in 1990 there were just six wineries in Central Otago; nowadays there are 120 wine growers, though not all with their own winemaking facilities.
New Zealand Pinot Noir has regional variations blossom
At the time that Rippon was getting started, Chard Farm and Gibbston Valley were also experimenting with Pinot Noir, among other grape varieties, in Central Otago. And at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, Larry McKenna, who had arrived in Martinborough in 1986, was busy putting Martinborough Vineyards on the map for Pinot Noir, alongside his neighbours at Ata Rangi and Dry River.
Elsewhere on the South Island, there were pockets of Pinot Noir in Nelson, Waipara and Marlborough. Today, Pinot Noir is the most widely planted red variety in the country, and the regional variations are becoming more apparent. I generally find that wines from Central Otago are riper and richer, from enjoying long hours of summer daylight, while those from Martinborough are more savory and maybe more structured.
But back to Rippon. Carrying on the family tradition, Nick studied winemaking, including a course on biodynamics, in Beaune and worked with winegrowers in the Côte d’Or. Sadly, Rolfe died in 2000, and in 2003, Nick’s mother suggested that it was time for Nick to come back to Rippon and take over responsibility for the winemaking.
He talked of how his winemaking has developed. “There are so many things to consider. Whole bunches? Do you add the stems? Are they ripe? You need to understand your fruit.” He certainly shows that he does with this range of wines, which tell the story of the family land.
Top photo: Rippon Vineyards. Credit: Briar Hardy-Hesson
These are notes from a tasting that spanned three decades of Rippon Vineyards Pinot Noir.
1990 — This was the second commercial vintage of Pinot Noir, made from vines planted in 1982. A very warm vintage, with an early harvest. Medium colour, with an evolved rim. Quite a soft vegetal red fruit nose. A silky palate, with ripe red fruit, depth and texture with a good balance. A touch of fruitcake on the finish and a dry finish. Extraordinarily lively for a wine that is 30 years old, proving that New Zealand Pinot Noir can age.
1991 — A slightly cooler vintage. Medium colour. Some velvety vegetal notes on the nose. A very perfumed palate, ripe and rounded; mature and silky. A lovely glass of wine.
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1992 — Again, a slightly cooler vintage. Quite a deep young colour. Intense ripe red fruit on both nose and palate. A firm streak of fine tannin to balance the fruit, and still quite youthful.
1993 — Another cooler year. Quite a deep colour, ageing slightly on the rim. Quite a firm dry nose with red fruit, and on the palate some depth, with a vegetal note balancing some red fruit. Quite a dry finish.
1995 — The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1994 had a serious impact on subsequent vintages. A very cool year, but the wine does not taste unripe. Quite a light colour. Very vegetal nose, with some silky red fruit. Elegant fruit on the palate, silky and ripe, with a balancing streak of tannin.
1998 — Quite a light colour. A firm dry note on the nose, with a streak of hay. Ripe fruit on the palate, quite rounded and ripe, with more depth and texture that the nose would indicate.
A new decade at Rippon vineyards
2000 — From now on vine age starts to have an impact. Quite a deep colour. A smooth silky nose. A touch raisiny on the palate, but with some soft tannins. A warm finish.
2003 — Nick’s first vintage. He compared it to 2001 in Burgundy, neither a warm nor a cool vintage. Medium colour, beginning to evolve. Quite an elegant dry raspberry nose. And on the palate, some fresh vegetal and raspberry fruit, with some texture. Medium weight, with a fresh finish.
2005 — A small yield thanks to a cool, windy December during flowering. Medium colour, evolving a little. Quite a firm dry nose, and also on the palate. Firm raspberry fruit, with a note of acidity as well as tannin. Quite tight knit, with a fresh finish.
2006 — This was a warm year. Medium colour, with a dry vegetal note on the nose. The palate was quite rounded, with some texture and dry raspberry notes. Quite fleshy, and still very youthful, with good length and depth.
2007 — The smallest yield in the last decade thanks to spring frosts and a windy December, but an excellent ripening season. Quite a deep colour. A firm nose, with fresh dry raspberry fruit. Good acidity. Some elegant texture and a refreshing finish. Very classic. One of my favourite wines in the tasting.
2008 Mature Vines — A hot summer giving a good yield and healthy grapes. The first vintage of this cuvée, from the original vines. Medium colour. Quite a firm dry raspberry fruit on the nose. The palate is still very youthful, with fresh tannins, and dry raspberry fruit. Firm and textured, with ageing potential.
2009 Mature Vine — Medium colour. Quite fresh and ripe, and again on the palate fresh, ripe fruit with some balancing acidity and tannin. A warm note on the finish. Good depth.
2009 Emma’s Block — Medium colour. Elegantly perfumed nose. Medium weight, with rounded ripe fruit. Elegant and fragrant.
2009 Tinker’s Field — Quite fresh intense fruit on the nose and palate. Rounded raspberries; elegant with depth. Lovely texture and concentration, with a long firm finish.
2010 Mature Vine — A warm summer. Good colour. Rounded concentrated nose, and on the palate, lovely texture with concentration, ripe fruit and structure. Smooth tannins and great length. A broader wine than either Emma’s Block or Tinker’s Field.
2010 Emma’s Block — Quite deep colour. Rounded nose, and on the palate great texture with ripe fruit and balancing tannins. Ripe, concentrated and youthful with a tight knit finish.
2010 Tinker’s Field — Deep colour. Ripe perfumed fruit and on the palate, more structured, with firm tight knit red fruit. A youthful concentrated finish. And a great finale to a historic tasting, which amply demonstrates how suitable Central Otago is for the production of that most temperamental of grape varieties, Pinot Noir. Rolfe Mills had the vision to realise the potential of grape growing in countryside that had been dedicated to sheep farming, and his son Nick has the passion to continue to stretch the boundaries of Pinot Noir.
Top photo: Rippon Vineyards. Credit: Briar Hardy-Hesson
The Greek island of Santorini is one of the world’s mysteries. Maybe it was the Atlantis of ancient civilizations; maybe it had an impact on the demise of the Minoan civilization. But there is no doubt about its breathtaking beauty. A dramatic volcanic eruption in about 1530 B.C. blew a great big hole in the middle of the island, forming a sea-filled crater, or caldera. On our first evening, we dined at the Santorini cooperative, Santo, and looked out on the sun setting over the caldera. Words could not do justice to the view.
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The next morning we saw our first vineyards, which are quite unlike any vineyards I have seen anywhere else in the world. The viticulture is so extreme that it has to be seen to be believed. The vines need protection from fierce wind and harsh sunshine, and so they are pruned in the shape of protective baskets in a small hollow. The soil is volcanic ash, with some pumice and other stones, but there is no organic matter, and it is astonishing that anything grows at all. There is no irrigation — the vines depend on sea mist for moisture and can also tap some water retained by the pumice stones after occasional rains. Inevitably, yields are tiny. The island is immune to the destructive insect phylloxera, for if there is no clay, there can be no phylloxera. Actual replanting is rare. When a vine needs replacing, it is “decapitated” and will regenerate from the existing deep root system. This can be done about every 80 years. When it is finally dying, after about 400 years, growers practice the system of provinage, taking a shoot and placing it in the ground so that it will grow roots.
There are very few conventional vineyards. The key exception is Sigalas, where the winemakers argue the case for more traditional viticulture, giving each vine a pole to help it withstand the wind. More leaves also help shade the grapes from the intense sunlight. In the 1980s, many vines were pulled up in favor of building accommodations for tourists, who provide the island’s main source of revenue. But in recent years, although the vineyard area has not changed, the average age of the winegrowers has decreased significantly, so the future of Santorini wine is more secure.
Assyrtiko elevates on Santorini
The principal white grape variety of Santorini is Assyrtiko, which is also found in northern Greece, but on the island it takes on a fabulously original mineral character.
We tasted the wines of the eight main makers, including the cooperative that accounts for two-thirds of the production. The most typical were the mineral flavors of Assyrtiko, from producers such as Gaia, Hatzidakis and Argyros, with a wonderful depth of flavor. But there are also other grape varieties, white Athiri and Aidani, which can be blended with Assyrtiko and make for riper flavors, and gutsy red Mavrotragano, with some peppery fruit.
Santorini also produces dessert wine, vinsanto, a naturally sweet wine from dried grapes. Drying in the sun would be too brutal, so they are dried under cover and then the juice is put in a barrel and ignored for 10 years or so. Rediscovered, the result is something absolutely delicious, rich and concentrated with the flavors of dates and figs.
Top photo: Island of Santorini. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Gone are the days when Greek wine was synonymous with the pine resin-flavoured retsina. Today, Greece is in the process of developing its true potential. In the course of a whirlwind week in Greece with 19 other Masters of wine, we found an enormous amount to explore and discover.
Greece has over 500 indigenous grape varieties, so a day did not go past without meeting a new one. International varieties such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have a much greater hold in the north of the country, whereas on the islands they only represent 5% of the production.
While most of the indigenous grapes will never gain international recognition, there are a few that are worth remembering, such as Moschofilero, with its lightly muscaty flavours, and Robola from Cephalonia, with delicate sappy flavours.
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We tasted some 390 wines from 92 estates, and Alpha Estate really stood out for its excellence and innovative work. In some ways, Alpha is very typical of something that is happening all over Greece, one man with a broader vision developing his own estate.
Angelos Iatrides bought his first vineyards in 1995. He had studied in Bordeaux and worked in Madiran, and then back in Greece he helped create Ampelooiniki, a highly successful research station and consultancy business.
But Angelos really wanted to do his own thing, and with two other partners, chose a region that he felt was ripe for regeneration. This was the appellation of Amyndeon, not too far from the city of Thessaloniki. The Vitsi and Voros mountains are close by, and Bulgaria is in the near distance. Amyndeon, which has had vineyards since 300 B.C., is quite a small appellation, with seven producers, of whom Boutari and the cooperative are the biggest. Altogether, Angelos has 65 hectares of vineyards, including four hectares of old bush vines, which were planted in 1921. The vineyards lie on a plateau, between 570 and 700 meters (1,870 to 2,296 feet) to in altitude and the soil is sandy with limestone bedrock. The summers are so dry that irrigation is essential in August.
Angelos presented his wines with fluency and perception. As the tasting demonstrated, his methods encapsulate the best of modern Greek wine making, representing a break with the traditional and, it has to be said, the pretty primitive methods of the past. Work in the vineyard is paramount to quality and in the cellar oak aging is vital to the quality of the wines and meticulous attention is paid to detail.
2009 Axia Red is 50% Syrah and 50% Xinomavro, so a blend of Greece and the international world, with 12 months aging in oak. The bordelais influence is inevitably strong in Angelos’ winemaking. Quite a smoky peppery nose, with rounded ripe fruit, balanced by both tannin and acidity. The Syrah was planted in 1995, an experimental vineyard in conjunction with the university of Suze la Rousse in the Rhone Valley. Angelos considers that it goes well with Xinomavro, and I couldn’t disagree.
2008 Xinomavro, PDO Amyndeon, from a single vineyard called Hedgehog
Medium colour. Hints of aniseed on the nose. Quite firm dry fruit with a touch of sweetness on the finish, demonstrating the suggestion that Xinomavro is a cross of flavours between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. Medium weight. 2008 was a riper vintage than 2009.
2009 Xinomavro, PDO Amynteon single vineyard Hedgehog
Quite a deep young colour. A smoky, chocolaty nose, and again with a hint of aniseed. Some dry fruit, with the elegance of a fine Nebbiolo. Quite smoky with intriguing nuances and textured layers. A lovely glass of wine.
2006 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
From the vineyard planted in 1921. Deep colour, showing very little age. Quite ripe chocolate notes on the nose and a supple rounded, ripe palate, with a balancing tannic streak. Good depth of flavour and finely crafted. Angelos explained that there is no risk of phylloxera as the soil is predominantly sandy. He uses horizontal fermenters which avoid extracting phenolics from the grape pips, and he observed that canopy management is important for ripening the grapes, saying, “You can’t just assume that with a warm climate, the grapes will ripen automatically.”
2007 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
“Reserve” for Angelos usually implies two years aging in wood, but this was only given 12 months. It depends on the vintage. And he uses steamed rather than toasted barrels. The colour was beginning to evolve. Rounded nose with a hint of aniseed. An elegant palate with supple tannins and ripe perfumed fruit. A lovely balance and a long finish.
2008 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines
Medium colour, but not showing any age. Quite a firm dry palate, with some fruit. Still very youthful, with a certain freshness and some acidity on the finish, as well as tannin.
2006 Alpha Estate Red Blend
60% Syrah, 20% Merlot and 20% Xinomavro. Deep young colour, not showing any signs of age. Quite a dense ripe chocolaty nose, and on the palate, ripe and rounded, with some dense fruit, youthful tannin and an edge of acidity. Syrah provides the structure; Xinomavro the power and the aromatic complexity, and Merlot rounds out the palate. Angelos has Syrah, “because I like it” and Merlot is the link between Syrah and Xinomavro.
2007 Alpha Estate Red Blend
Deep colour. Quite a rounded smoky nose, and on the palate rounded, dense and ripe with some firm tannins. Youthful with plenty of potential. Yields are pretty low, with 28-35 hl/ha for red grapes and 42-45 hl/ha for whites.
2008 Alpha Estate Red Blend
The same blend Syrah, Merlot and Xinomavro. Deep colour. A certain earthy smokiness; a slightly sweet palate, with an earthy note and some cassis and a tannic streak. Not as harmonious as the two previous vintages, but probably needs some bottle age. One third was aged in new barrels.
2009 Utopia 95% Tannat, 5% Xinomavro. PGI Florina
It was a surprise to find Tannat in northern Greece, but there is a very simple explanation. After studying in Bordeaux, Angelos spent a vintage with Alain Brumont, at Château Montus, the leading Madiran estate, where Tannat is at its most typical. Deep young colour. The nose and palate were firm and structured, with some black fruit. Very characteristic of the grape variety.
2006 Alpha One, PGI Florina
A pure Tannat. Angelos was evidently very impressed by his stay in Madiran. Very deep young colour. Smokey chocolaty nose. Quite youthful, dense and intense. Firm black fruit on the palate, with a tannic edge. Youthful with plenty of potential to develop.
And we finished our tasting with a couple of white wines:
2012 Sauvignon blanc
Angelos wrote his thesis on the aromatic profile of Sauvignon and has worked with Denis Dubordieu, one of the leading proponents of the grape variety in Bordeaux. This wine had some lovely varietal character, with pithy notes on the nose, and mineral fruit with some texture and weight on the palate.
2012 Axia, PGI Florina Malagouzia
Light colour; quite delicate nose, with rounded fruit, acidity and balance. Elegant with some texture, and some intriguing nuances. It was a lovely glass of wine to finish a tasting that really illustrated the enormous potential of Greece for both indigenous and international grape varieties and showed just what can be achieved with a combination of energy and talent.
Top photo: A small fortress on an islet in the city of Nafplio. Credit: Rosemary George
The landscape of the south of England is changing, very gently and almost imperceptibly, for hillsides that were once fields of grass or wheat are now being planted with grapevines. Only the other day, I turned a corner on a road I once knew well in West Sussex, close to the South Downs, and where there had once been sheep grazing, there is now a vast expanse of vines.
The last few years have seen a soaring interest in the potential for English wine, and in particular for sparkling wine. Quite simply, the vineyard area has doubled since 2004, when there were 761 hectares (1,880 acres). Official figures for 2010 give 1,324 hectares (3,271 acres), but some sources believe it to be nearer 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres). And almost without exception, the new plantings are of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three classic grapes of Champagne.
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How things have changed. Suddenly “England” on a wine label is to be taken seriously, and English sparkling wine is something to be proud of, with a flavor and quality not dissimilar to Champagne. You find some elegant creaminess and subtle nuances and depth of flavor.
The pioneers of what you might call the new wave of English wine, and of sparkling wine, were an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, who planted a vineyard at Nyetimber in West Sussex. Their first vintage was 1992, made with the help of a champenois consultant, Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, from the eponymous Champagne house. I asked the Mosses why they had chosen England, rather than California. After all, they came from Chicago, where they had just sold a pharmaceutical business. Stuart’s answer was quite simple: California would be too easy. England was more of a challenge!
Following close behind Nyetimber was Mike Roberts at Ridgeview. He sold an IT business and then looked for something else to do. Planting vines was the answer, on a site outside the village of Ditchling at the foot of the South Downs. Mike has given Ridgeview a sense of direction and commitment to quality, with a range of wines that are named after districts of London, such as Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Grosvenor and Fitzrovia. He is also a firm advocate of the name of Merrett for English sparkling wine. Dr. Christopher Merrett presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1662, a few years before Dom Pérignon began his work at the abbey of Hautvilliers, in which he explained the process for the deliberate second fermentation. Wine arrived in London from Champagne in barrel, and the “wine coopers” added sugar and molasses to make their wine “brisk and sparkling.” It all hinged on the fact that in England they used coal, which burns hotter than charcoal, to fire glass. As a result, English glass was stronger, able to withstand the presence of carbon dioxide in the bottle.
Numerous others have followed in the footsteps of Nyetimber and Ridgeview. You will now find names such as Gusborne, Coates & Seely, Balfour Brut, Wiston, Jenkyn Place, Camel Valley and Breaky Bottom, not to mention a vineyard in Windsor Great Park, planted with royal blessing. Most, but not all, are in the southeast of England, where the climate is warmer and drier than the rest of the country. And there are soil similarities with Champagne. The South Downs and the vineyards of Champagne and also Chablis and Sancerre are all part of the Parisian basin, with the geological term Kimmeridgian, taking its name from a Dorset village.
The longer ripening time is a key difference between English sparkling wine and Champagne. Bud break usually comes a week earlier than in Champagne, and the harvest in England usually begins in early October, in sharp contrast to Champagne, where it usually takes place in early September. This means that the vegetal cycle in England is three to four weeks longer, and the grapes are riper and fruitier, and the wines are possibly richer and less acidic.
The future for English wines looks sparkling, and with time and experience, they will develop greater complexity. After all, the Champagne of Dom Pérignon is more than 300 years old, whereas the modern era of English sparkling wine, if you take it from Nyetimber’s very first vintage in 1992, only totals two decades.
Top photo: Nyetimber’s vineyard in West Sussex. Courtesy of Nyetimber.