Best Schmest

So it seemed like an idea to do a best of 2008 list. But I inspected my notebooks, and discovered that there are actually two lists - the best wines, and those which gave me the most pleasure. Which leaves me wondering what best really means.

Leaving that tricky problem aside, I here present, in no particular order, my top six, extracted from the 1008 listed in my notebooks.

Murdoch James 'Saleyards' Syrah '06. I haven't tasted any other syrah which combines the lightness and intense sweet spiciness of this wine. And at twenty quid, it's not utterly out the window.

i Clivi 'Brazan' Tokai Friuliano / Malvasia '03. Brazan makes the cut for reasons of eccentricity, I suppose. And me being partial to a fair degree of oxygen. Tallasavan would not approve, but Puddleglum probably has a six pack of this under his bed.

Château Cantenac-Brown Margaux '01. This particular bottle was truly singing - second-growth quality, really - with a remarkable freshness and a lovely light floral character.

David Duband Gevry-Chambertin 'En Reniard' '05. A truly Burgundian wine, ethereal and difficult to pin down - the more so in that my notes, although they rave, don't bring it even faintly back to mind.

Carmes de Rieussec Sauternes '05. The second wine of Château Rieussec rather falls into both my 'best of' lists, because we had it with some Roquefort. Sweet-salty perfection, but somehow the honey, wet leaf, and marmalade notes are in harmony too.

Hegarty Chamans No 2 '04. This one gets on my list because it has Carignan in the blend, and because the winemaker, Sam Berger, seems happy to let the Carignan run naked and unfettered through the herb meadows of funky wildness.

All but one of the wines on this list are five-pointers. I leave it as an annoying exercise for the reader to figure out which one ain't - but there is a vinous prize for the first correct guess posted as a comment.


Random Grapeage, but it works...

... Carignan / Syrah / Grenache / Cabernet / Merlot.

Oh yes, and semi-carbonic maceration.

But it definitely works: the wine is a very dark purple, very fresh looking. On the nose is a hint of coffee or chocolate, but sadly none of the herbaceousness I enjoy in Carignan.

The palate, on the other hand, is herby. It's a relaxed, rounded, mellow, gentle, balanced wine with a warm finish.

On the second day the nose is now smoky cheese and a hint of flintiness, whereas the palate has become soft rich spicy, smoky and full bodied, with dark cherry flavours. Upscore to -4.

Château Les Ollieux Vin du Pays de l'Aude 'Capucine' 07, very good indeed, 3++ (or -4 if you let it breathe). Oddbins, £6.99, 13%abv (but you'll need to be quick, or ask nicely - this is a brilliant and hugely popular wine which never lingers on the shelves).


Well I Never

Mendel Malbec ('06, under a rather decent cork), was a revelation. My mental shorthand for Malbec says “beefy bruiser”, but these guys have taken it to places entirely new to me. Light in body (all things are relative, of course: for an Argentinian Malbec it seems light to me, but on an absolute scale of Moscato d'Asti to freshly fermented Madiran, it is up there with the garagiste Bordelais), it still has the tannins one would want to accompany roast beast, and is a-swirl with all sorts of interesting flavours – green peppercorn, dried fruit, chocolate, savoury stews – that kept me sniffing for ages. Decidedly excellent, 4.


Sweet Wine Wednesday #2

Old Wines are rare beasts. As Sillynote has it, "drink now through teatime". Something like 95% of wine bought in this country is drunk the same day. Most wine, of course, is made for now & won't benefit from bottle age (although I find that some new world wines are better if given time to get over their initial tartaric-induced tartness). So there's a special gloss on an old bottle.

Tonight's shiny bauble was a Viña Tondonia Blanco 1987 (excellent). It was the colour of brass, but with beautiful glints of gold through it. The nose was strong - acrid - and very earthy, loads of mushroomy notes, as well as a novel scent for me, of caraway seeds.

It tasted very mellow, gentle, but still with a strong core of citrus acidity. It was lovely.

Interestingly, we had another white Rioja, Finca Allende 2005 (excellent), to compare with the Tondonia. The Allende was only three years old rather than twenty-one, and matured in French oak for rather less than the four years the Tondonia underwent. Yet the similarities were there to see.


An Old Friend

By chance I happened across a small stash of Hegarty Chamans No3 2003. 2003 was their first vintage, made in an unfinished winery, which had to be sold as Vin de Table, presumably because they didn't manage to deal with the bureaucracy in time.

At the time I was very excited about Hegarty, because they use a fair whack of Carignan, making the sort of funky, herbaceous wine that really gets my goat floating, and I said I would try some at a later stage to see how it was evolving. Of course, being such good wine, it rapidly sold out, before I tucked some away. So unexpectedly finding three bottles was a treat. And it has evolved rather handsomely.

The jumping acidity and powerful herb stink have calmed down rather. The wine seems much darker, and the fruit flavours – bitter cherries, plums, that kind of thing – stand out more. Also, there is a mineral, stony flavour which wasn't evident three years ago. Very rich, with medium grained tannins, at five years old this Minervois is in fine fettle and truly excellent.

I'm not planning to save either of the two remaining bottles. They are the ideal winter warmer for this weekend's family gathering in Moffat. The only problem is, what else can I take that's going to be even half as tasty?


Novel Organoleptic Joy

You would suppose that the frequency of finding a completely new taste in wine must lessen as one tastes more of the stuff. This ought to make me glum, but the wine which sent me off along this thoughtway is so very excellent that I'm not glum, in fact I'm verr verr happy.

Rijckaert Chassagne-Montrachet Premiere Cru "Saint Jean" 2006 is a huge wine. Ultra-concentrated, with a fair oxidative whiff about it, a little bit of white pepper, and some honied notes, the main, powerful scent for me was white chocolate, a completely new experience. I don't even like white chocolate, but this smelt just fab (I know, I know; what on earth was I thinking of, drinking Chassagne 1er when it's not even two years old. Look, it was there, it's Rijckaert, what can I say. It's just another fine wine débacle. Get over it).

The oxidative note is very interesting. Rijckaert, these days, is based in Jura, to the East of Burgundy where the most prestigious wine is Vin Jaune, which sits in barrels for 75 months without topping up. Crazy stuff, like sherry, but bracing, since the Savagnin grape is naturally very acidic. I suppose his Burgundian wines are feeling the Jura influence. The other comparison in my notes is to Bollinger Grand Année, it being rather oxidative in style too. If you like Bolly I guarantee you will love this wine.

So anyway, pay attention here folks. Actual factual "Outstanding" wines don't come along very often. In the 1300 or so tasting notes I have made and indexed over the last year-and-a-half, I have found a scant half-dozen worthy of the name, so I heartily advise you to track down this nectar and just splash the cash (a mere forty squid for a brand new organoleptic experience).


Great Wine Defined

The greatest bottles of wine are a kind of intersection or coming together of a good year, on a good vineyard site, in the hands of a skilled winemaker. And of course the best of the best are made from one of the handful of noble grape varieties.

Nebbiolo is one of these noble grapes, because it shares with Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon the knack of being simultaneously powerful and graceful. In remembering some of the greatest wines I have tasted, their delicacy or textural subtlety is just as important as intensity of flavour.

Tonight's wine will be added to this mental list of mine. Luciano Sandrone's Nebbiolo d'Alba 03 isn't even his top wine (he makes Barolo in various spots, including Cannubi Boschis, if I remember right). It certainly has intense, and interesting, and surprising flavours - fresh cut flowers, solvents, shit, anchovies, leather, nivea hand cream - but just as important is the near perfect balance on the palate, a kind of tension between softness and tannin, where, in the end, the tannin wins by a nose, which is why the wine is only (only! Ha.) delicious, rather than, say, superb.


TN: Maycas del Limari Chardonnay '07

Maycas del Limari is a modishly styled offshoot of Concha y Toro, a venture aimed at premium (how I hate that word. It reeks of marketroids doing their well-oiled duty) - a venture aimed at making posh wine in the far North of Chile. The Limari valley is hard by the Atacama desert, which means fewer pests or diseases to attack the grapes, and vast quantities of sunshine for ripening.

This particular bottle is the strongly oaked version of Limari Chardonnay, and the oak has been nicely done; clean and fresh, giving the wine a mealy or nutty scent, with notes of mandarin oranges or tangerines. It tastes dry, full and lovely, with an excellent mineral or salty endnote. And for once I am persuaded by the rear label, with its mention of 'green apple flavours', although I'd say it is rather riper than that. Concha are too polite to say so themselves, but I do think this wine is aimed squarely at Meursault, and it's pretty much on target. Excellent.


Château Branon 2000

One night expect a garagiste wine made by both Jean-Luc Thunevin and Michel Rolland to be be fairly approachable after eight years, but the Château Branon '00 was decidedly not for playing. There were hints of the possibilities - a whiff of fresh cut flowers, plenty of shiny oak - but my abiding impression of the wine was of dark, dark fruitiness and endless tannins. Immensely enjoyable, but undoubtedly it will be much better ten years down the line. So I rate it as merely excellent.

(Hah, "merely")


TN: Rubino Vermentino 07

Tenute Rubino Vermentino 07 is that somewhat rare beast, an Italian white wine with character. Rather than the neutral-foil-to-great-tasting-food style, there's tons going on here. A biscuity nose, but not sweet biscuits, the savoury sort, and probably with paté spread in them, seafood paté to be precise, and then the palate is sour and refreshing, with just the tiniest hint of dirtiness about it; a peck of dirt, which as any fule kno, is good for you. Interesting dirtiness, such as you would never find in a supermarket wine. All in all, mighty tasty.

Certainly there is a place for neutral wines, spear carriers. But it's good to find an Italian white which can happily take the leading role.


Style, and a little substance

From the Estremadura, the region which includes Lisboa, here's a neatly packaged table wine made from the principal Port grape.

Point West Touriga Nacional '05 has a Giacometti-like figure pointing off into the distance, which I suppose is a reference to Lisboa being a setting-off point for many of the great voyages of exploration of the fourteen hundreds.

It's very modern in style, with lots of fruit, and the tannins are well reined in. I liked the suggestion of leather on the nose, and I found it to be a very good match to smoked cheese. All in all, a very respectable effort.


That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

If you are going to pick a wine to drink regularly, it ought to offer the promise of continuing interest. Variability is more desirable than unvarying high quality (that's my clumsy rewording of Trollope - I do apologise).

So it a definite bonus to find that Salomon Groovey Grüner Veltliner 07 is both changeable and tasty. This time around it smells mealy, like cooked rice or barley, and then perhaps a little metallic, but on other occasions it has smelt of lime jelly, as if it were Riesling, or green and grassy like a Sauvignon. Today it tastes very clean, and the white pepper note is very clear. On other occasions the green-ness is to the fore, and on yet others it is off-dry.

I'm sure these particular differences are down to me, since Salomon Undhof are skillful winemakers, and it is bottled under stelvin, but I know I'm not alone in finding interesting variations in the Groovey. It is never quite intense enough to be an out and out great wine, but still, it is an excellent and complex 4.


Condrieu it ain't....

... is pretty much my observation on every Viognier I taste. Fashion dictates that everybody wants to make a Viognier, and some of them are really rather tasty, but none of them has the astonishing silky mouth-filling lightness of good Condrieu. Quite a lot of them achieve a decent peachiness, and one or two have a decadent, almost cloying perfume - I'm thinking now of the Doña Paula Naked Pulp - but that magical texture never quite materialises...

So, opportunities for grumbling aside, what does the Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Viognier 2006 have to offer? Well, there's an interesting mélange of browned apples and oak smoke on the nose, without an excess of fruit. The palate is tangy, zingy, zesty, dry and full-bodied, very enjoyable to drink, excellent in fact...



Oops! I seem to have opened next year's bottle…

The theme for tonight's World of Wine tasting was balance, so of course we had to have some wines which are out of wack somehow or other. An easy call is a young wine from tannic grapes, especially one which is super-extracted: the kind of bottle which still needs a few months or a couple of years to let the tannins calm down. The Sur de los Andes Winemaker's Selection Malbec ('05, cork) is just the thing, with the added advantage of having loads of interesting flavours to it.

When I opened it I wondered if it was faulty, since it seemed to smell of fish food, but then two of my fellow tasters found similar aromas (seaweed, fish). My note also says, "inky", and "octopus", but then it also says "spice", "gingerbread", and "Yeehaw!".

It scores 4+, excellent. If I have the willpower, I expect it might turn into a five-pointer by 02009.


World Wide Wine - Sauvignon Blanc

By good luck, I am hosting a series of six tastings with the aim of whizzing round the main grapes / countries / regions / styles of wine. So it seemed to me that a good start would be with Sauvignon Blanc from France, New Zealand, and South Africa: strongly contrasting styles, a very distinctive flavour, and all sure to be good wines.

First up was the dry, zingy, lovely, lively Christian Salmon Sancerre ('06, cork). The nose was quietly green, perhaps peppery, and the palate was full of fantastic lemon, lime and sorbet flavours. Excellent, well worth a 4.

De Grendel Sauvignon Blanc ('06, stelvin) seemed to be a little smoky to me, along with lovely green notes (green beans, definitely). The palate was light - lighter than the Sancerre - with a long sour finish, but without the hint of root ginger I sometimes find in South African Sauvignon. Nevertheless, another excellent, 4+.

The Kiwi candidate was Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc ('07, stelvin). I loved the strong passionfruit nose, and the tropical fruit flavours on the palate. It seemed to me to be softer - less acidic - than either the French or South African wines. Another excellent, 4.

Three very different styles of Sauvignon, and all worth drinking. The Sancerre came out favourite with the World of Wine tasters, but only by a nose, so to speak.


Fruit. What is it good for?

Over Christmas I tried several rather posh bottles from my stash. The one from which I was expecting the best was Chapoutier Hermitage "La Sizeranne" ('99, cork). Fairly mellow, and very savoury, with lots of mineral and salty notes as well as a strong whiff of white pepper, perhaps even meaty or gravy-ish, there was nothing fruity about it at all. I absolutely love drinking this kind of wine. It was certainly excellent, 4, but I suppose I had been hoping for greatness (ie 5, on a scale of 0-5).

What was really interesting about it, however, was the discussion the wine set off. My Aged Pater, having been alerted to the poshness of the bottle, took pains to try it carefully, but then asked - very politely, mind - "so what is it that's so good about this?"

I didn't want to get defensive about the wine, so I tried to describe it, much as I have done in the first paragraph above. I believe I also said something about the magic of such savoury flavours coming from fruit juice, which prompted the AP to observe that the lack of fruitiness had surprised him. He did remark that the wine was growing on him.

I suppose my conclusion is that there are too many straightforward fruity quaffers, and not enough wine-y wines. What do you think?


New Year's Blow Out

We drank rather a lot of very decent wine over the last couple of days. No tasting notes, just a picture to make me grin (and you, I hope).

It was purely coincidence that all six bottles came from just two years.