Monday, 31 October 2011

Wines that look good at fifty

How many wines will happily last for over 50 years? You might think of the best Bordeaux classed growths, possibly the very top of Sauternes and really top class dessert wines.

If I add a qualifier – how many wines that you can buy for under £30 will happily last for over 50 years – and out go Bordeaux and Sauternes for sure. Now you need to turn to those great stalwarts of longevity: Sherry, Madeira – and Port.

Before you get too excited, that bottle of Cockburn's Special Reserve or Warre's Warrior that you snapped up for under a tenner last Christmas but never got round to drinking, is not going to last that long. Those ruby ports are designed for early drinking and are not going to improve in the bottle. It is the great vintage Ports from the major shippers like Taylor's, Dow's or Graham's which are renowned for their ageing ability, measured in decades rather than years.

It was the English aristocracy's habit to lay down a “pipe” (a port barrel, containing 55 dozen bottles) of vintage port from the birth year of their sons, so that their offspring would have sufficient to pass round after dinner from their 21st birthday on for most, if not all, of their adult life. With drinking habits like that, it comes as a surprise that the English aristocracy haven't pickled themselves into extinction.

If you fancy taking up where they left off, albeit on a more modest scale, a bottle of top quality vintage port will set you back upwards of around £60. So what happened to the £30 I drew you in with at the beginning? I'm getting to that.

The port houses decide whether a particular year will be “declared” a vintage, based on the quality of the wines made. In theory each producer makes their decision individually, but in practice there are certain years which most agree that the quality is high and there will be a “general declaration”.

Weather conditions in the Douro Valley, where Port is made, are notoriously harsh, with cold winters and blistering hot summers. The risk of drought is ever present and rain at harvest can be disastrous for quality. It is certainly not a foregone conclusion that great wine can be made each year.

Additionally, from a commercial perspective it would devalue the vintage Port brand if a house were to declare a vintage every single year. In the past decade the years 2000, 2003 and 2007 have all been declared. This means that there is no Taylor's 2004 vintage Port, for example, it does not exist.

Which is where bargain-hunting vintage Port lovers come in. In those non declared years, port houses will still make a style of vintage Port known as single quinta. A quinta is simply the Portuguese word for farm and refers to a particular vineyard. To those in the know, names such as Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas, Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos and Warre's Quinta do Bomfim are bywords for high quality vintage Port, without, perhaps the huge staying power of the very top vintages.

In a declared year, these quintas will be responsible for providing key components of a house's vintage Port. In non declared years, they are bottled under the name of the Quinta and can be yours for somewhere under £30.

One hell of a tea trolley
The generally accepted wisdom on single quintas is that they are ready to drink earlier than their straight vintage counterparts, and will not age much beyond 10-15 years. Based on a tasting of Symington family single quinta Ports going back to 1950, however, this might not necessarily be the case.

The Symingtons are one of those Anglo-Portuguese port families who remain staunchly English, despite spending all their working lives in the Douro Valley. The family has been producing port for five generations and is responsible for some of the biggest names in the port business: Graham's, Cockburn's, Dow's and Warre's.

The Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1950 might be more of an interesting experience than a classically enjoyable glass of Port, with its hauntingly ethereal floral perfume and hint of balsamic vinegar and even stout (as in Guinness) flavours.

The Malvedos 1958, however, would make an elegent ending to any meal. It is still sweet and richly flavoured with caramel and nuts, the structure has endured and the finish is incredibly long. How many of us would like to aspire to be in such fine form at 54 years of age!

Unless you have some of these wines already stashed away, I'm afraid you won't get the chance to try them, as literally just a few bottles remain. The currently available vintage for most single quintas is 1999, though you'll find a peppering of other years too. Here are my recommended ones to search out:

Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 - £30.56 (case price) from Imbibros near Godalming
This is beautifully perfumed, incredibly rich and sweet. There are flavours and aromas of pipe tobacco and sweet spiced cherry. Malvedos is famous for producing opulent, sweet ports and this certainly fits that profile. The sweetness would make it a great match for desserts – sticky toffee pudding or crème brûlée could be naughty but nice.

Dow's Quinta do Bomfim 1999 - £26.50 from Tesco, £26.96 (case price) Imbibros
Barely five miles from Malvedos, but a world away from it in style, Bomfim is renowned for its drier, more tannic and austere style. This one is rather more “winey” and with a less spirity nose than the Malvedos with lovely leafy notes. It is lighter bodied with more lifted aromas. Great on its own, but this would make a wonderful to finish a meal along with some nuts – and maybe a cigar, if that's your thing.

Cavadinha 1996 - £30 from Waitrose, £29.66 (case price) from Imbibros
Cavadinha produces wines that have a distinctive and attractive floral character on the nose. The palate has plenty of sweet, figgy fruit, with a savoury undertow and a nicely elegant finish.

"You'd have to be an idiot not to make great wine in 2011."
Finally, a word to the wise. Paul Symington is seriously excited about the quality of the just completed harvest and says that “You'd have to be an idiot not to make great wine in 2011.” Will this be the first vintage declaration of the new decade? You heard it here first.
Cavadinha 2011 - vintage in the making?

You can follow the progress of the 2011 ports in the making and get lots of in-depth information about the Symingtons via their blog,

Friday, 14 October 2011

Stop the (wine) world, I want to get off

Sometimes I wish the wine world would just stop for a bit, so that I can catch up. It seems every time I look, there's a new wine region in Spain, a handful of grape varieties from Italy that I've never heard of, and a whole new grape-growing valley in Chile. Is there a never-ending supply of these things?

This latest yearning for a pause button on the wine world was prompted by a Chilean wine which hails from the Choapa Valley. Choapa? Choapa???

It's enough to make you hanker after the simplicity and stability of classic regions like...Burgundy. On the surface, it's all so straightforward: white wines are all Chardonnay, reds are Pinot Noir; the vineyard area has been minutely graded and differentiated over centuries and new bits do not spring up overnight like so many mushrooms; there is a strict hierarchy of quality, with generic Bourgogne at the bottom, going through village level, then Premier Cru and finally the pinnacle of Grand Cru.

Except it's not quite as simple as that....

Here's an illustration: Clos de Vougeot is a single walled vineyard in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits that is all classed as Grand Cru, hence it commands pretty astronomical prices. But it's big: 50 hectares (125 acres) of vineyard is enclosed within the walls, sub-divided between many growers (the average plot size is around 0.2 of a hectare).

The far-sighted Cistercian monks who decided to rip out the French beans, tomatoes and apple trees in favour of grape vines, would have made wine blended from the entire plot. Nowadays those monks are long-gone and each grower must try to wring the best quality possible from their few rows of vines.

The slopes at the middle and top of the Clos are generally agreed to make better wines than the plots on the flatter, damper ground at the bottom. And, let's be realistic, not all winemakers are created equal. Hence two equally eyewateringly expensive bottles of Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot may contain wine that varies considerably in terms of drinking pleasure. Caveat emptor!

So, to return to Chile, there they are at the other end of the wine adventure to Burgundy and most of the Old World. They are constantly exploring new territories within their long, thin string-bean of a country to see where grapes will flourish and which varieties best express the terroir. In vinous terms, Chile is a gigantic wine laboratory and, it must be said, the results are deliciously drinkable.

Chile, unlike any other major wine producing nation, does not have a long tradition of wine drinking. Up until recent years, grapes were grown primarily for distillation to make pisco – basis for the pisco sour cocktail. There were small winemaking concerns, based primarily in the Maipo Valley, close to the consumers and transport links of capital city, Santiago.

Over the years, Chile's winemakers have spread their wings and wineries to further flung and ever cooler regions, which would have initially been dismissed as too cold to ripen grapes – especially for such heat-loving varieties as Syrah (aka Shiraz).

This week's recommendations – Chile rather than Burgundy.

De Martino Legado Syrah 2010 - £10.49 from Caves de Pyrene (Artington, near Guildford)
The wine that prompted this column: from the Choapa Valley, which, I now know, is north of Santiago, roughly half-way between the Aconcagua and Limari Valleys. Chile is a long, narrow strip of land that flanks the Andes, but it is especially thin at this point, where the vines here are exposed to the cooling air of both the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Having initially made their name with well-crafted, reliably gluggable Merlots, then taking up Carmenère as their signature red grape, Chileans are now showing the wine world that they are also pretty nifty when it comes to Syrah. Really, do they have to be so good at everything they do? The answer seems to be yes.

The fact that they choose to label the wine Syrah, rather than its New World synonym, Shiraz, tells you that in terms of style this is much closer to the peppery, herbal, cooler-climate Northern Rhone versions than the exuberantly fruity Australian ones. This has a definite tannic structure and an almost Old World restraint to the black-pepper tinged berry fruit.

Matetic Vineyards Corralillo Syrah 2009, San Antonio - £85.80 for a case of 6 from Armit, £15.95 from Sipp London
Matetic have had a real cachet about them and their wines since they burst onto the Chilean wine scene in 1999. The other Syrah made by Matetic, labelled simply Syrah, is undoubtedly a fine wine, but the price has gone up to a frankly ridiculous £37 a bottle. This little brother, Corallilo, however, still offers class in a glass at a much more reasonable price and has got better with each vintage I've tasted. Satisfyingly savoury, but with bumptious juicy fruit and great balance, this is also organic and biodynamic.

Maycas del Limari Quebrada Seca Chardonnay 2008, Limari - £18.95 from, £24.95 from Berry Bros (
Limari is yet another recently exploited wine region where you'll find deliciously fresh, juicy red wines – and this altogether very sophisticated Chardonnay.

If you know someone who has an expensive white Burgundy habit, but who struggles to afford to keep it going, then do them a favour and point them in the direction of this wine.

I was lucky enough to taste this wine with the man who makes it, Marcelo Papa, the man responsible for the phenomenally popular Casillero del Diablo wines. It combines the ripeness of fruit and mealy nuttiness of Meursault with the poise and linearity of Chablis. It's a truly lovely wine and incredibly moreish.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

I say Argentina, you say....?

Some way down the list, after maybe tango and Maradona's hand of God I'm guessing, as you're reading a wine blog, Malbec might make an appearance.

Despite hailing from France originally, Argentina has single-mindedly focused on making Malbec its vinous calling card. It successfully combines a modern, fruity and food-friendly style of red wine that chimes with Argentina's rugged image as a land of steak-eating, horse-riding gauchos.

But man (and woman) cannot live on red wine alone. There are times when a glass of something cold and white is what's required and in those situations, Argentina's wine industry would like us to embrace the charms of the Torrontes grape.

Torrontes is a unique grape to Argentina. In style it's light and fresh, with a distinct floral, grapey aroma – though the palate is always dry. If you like Gewurztraminer from either Alsace or, increasingly, Chile, you'll probably like Torrontes – especially if you find the French versions sometimes a little too sweet.

Also, dare I say it, all you Sauvignon Blanc lovers out there – think about giving Torrontes a try. It has the same full-on aromatic kick on the nose, leading onto a palate with good acidity, so stylistically it is in the same territory.

When I first came across Torrontes a few years back, too many of the wines I tried had rather over-floral aromatics, making them redolent of Old Spice aftershave, then a slightly bitter, sometimes sweaty flavour on the palate. Whatever the winemaking issues were then, they seem to have been resolved and most Torrontes nowadays is a pure pleasure to drink.

That combination of flowery aromas and a refreshingly crisp and dry palate makes Torrontes a shoo-in when choosing a glass to have as a palate-cleansing aperitif. But can it cut the mustard when you move onto the main course?

Dear readers, I have undertaken some food and Torrontes matching research on your behalf, guided by Master of Wine and ex-Good Food Magazine Associate Editor, Sarah Jane Evans. The results were perhaps a surprise – at least they were to me.

Argentina is renowned for its love for steaks, the bigger the better. And I wouldn't suggest you try glugging Torrontes with that. However, their other great love is seafood, especially when made as a ceviche, where the fish is “cooked” in a combination of lemon or lime juice, herbs, spices and olive oil. As you can imagine, this is a pretty intense flavour combination and Torrontes stands up to the citrus sharpness impeccably.

However, I'm guessing that prawn ceviche isn't a regular on the Autumn weekday menu in these here parts. But what about that great midweek standard, an English-as-a-middle-order-batting-collapse fish pie?

I was intrigued to find that a couple of the 100% Torrontes wines recommended below coped admirably. I had worried that the quite rich creaminess of the potato and fish would make the wine taste skinny and smell like cheap perfume – but not at all. Somehow the weight of fruit in the wine, combined with a slightly salty-mineral tang, served to enhance both the food and the wine.

Personally I've never been much of a fish pie fan – too much like anaemic nursery food pap. However, with a glass of chilled Torrontes on the side, perhaps I'll learn to love it.

Recommended Torrontes wines

La Riojana Tilimuqui Single Vineyard Fairtrade Torrontes 2011 - £6.99 at Waitrose
It's also organic. Too often, the Fairtrade label (or indeed the word organic) on a wine is no guarantee of quality in the bottle. Generally such wines languish at the cheaper end of the market (why? Don't we all think it worth paying more, not less, for ethically produced food and drink?) and offer neither enough concentration nor varietal character.

This one, however, is knockout value for money. The nose is reminiscent of Muscat – grapey, with a hint of tangerine peel. The palate, though, has more toned-down aromatics, with that lovely tangy minerality which helps to give weight and presence in the mouth, leading onto a long finish. Great with fish pie and pretty good with chorizo, so it's a good choice to have with some pre-dinner nibbles.

La Riojana Fairtrade Torrontes Chardonnay 2011 – currently £4.99 at The Co-operative
From the same producer, La Riojana, so named as they make their wines in the Argentine region of La Rioja – as you can imagine, this name gets the European Appellation Contrôlée authorities a little exercised.

If you don't want to scare the horses and would like a gentle introduction to Torrontes, then spending a fiver on this 60/40 Torrontes Chardonnay blend should be relatively painless. It still has aromas reminiscent of peaches and flowers, but the more assertive aromatics are toned down and softened by the more anonymous Chardonnay. The palate is smooth, fresh and ripe, with a slight spiciness – and it coped really well with the prawn ceviche. It would make a great party white.

Susana Balbo Zohar Torrontes 2010/11 - £11.99 single bottle price at The Vineking (branches in Reigate and Weybridge), down to £10.79 as part of a mixed case of 6; £10.99 a bottle from Hennings Wine Merchants (branches in Petworth, Pulborough and Goring-on-Sea)

Susana Balbo is one of the best winemakers in Argentina and all her wines are worth a try. This wine, though, struck me as the most food-friendly from the selection. It breezed through the prawn ceviche, stood up to the fish pie and got along swimmingly with smoked duck.

It had more weight and presence than the other two wines, with a sense of richness, despite being completely dry. The trademark floral aromatics combine with a lick of salty tang and a kick of spice on the palate. Altogether it's a class act.