The wines of Saint George, Jordan

Jordan might not be your first port of call when it comes to Middle Eastern wine, however during a trip to this amazing country – home to some of the most incredible places in the world such as Petra, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum and one of the warmest welcomes in The Middle East (the list goes on…) – I got to try some surprisingly awesome wines.

Fittingly, for a country with such a rich history, Jordanian wine was allegedly served to Jesus at the feast of the Last Supper.  However, although it was one of the first out of the blocks, until recently there has been a 1000 year pause in production – happily this has been rectified although production remains small.  To put it into context, Jordan produces about 500,000 bottles annually (that’s less than Cloudy Bay produce in a year), its neighbours Lebanon and Israel produce approximately 8.5 million and 36 million respectively.

Wine Production

Over 90% of Jordan’s fruit/vegetable exports are tomatoes, cucumbers and aubergines – exports of dates and olives are creeping up, but grapes remain off the main agenda.  Jordan’s climate is scorchio, or ‘subtropical arid’ if you like (the same temperature as Mendoza or Magalouf) and over 97% of its farming land relies on irrigation.  A controversial issue in itself.

arid landscape jordan

Jordan’s wine industry is dominated by two major players; Jordan River and Saint George.  For my money the wines of Saint George were more interesting, so the focus is on them.  Omar Zumot, the owner of Saint George is quite the visionary and is widely regarded as The Daddy of modern Jordanian Wine.  He cut his teeth in the Rhone (Ardeche specifically) and Bordeaux and a few years later planted his first vineyard in Madaba – the winery was named after the Byzantine Church of Saint George, home to one of the most beautiful mosaic’s in the world.  A couple of years passed and unable to resist the fertile lures of the sandstone-limestone rich soils of Samas Al-Sarhan (in the north by the Syrian border) the vineyard area was swiftly added to his portfolio.  This is now their main plot.

Zumot brought over 31 different ‘Noble Varieties’ to plant in the fertile Jordanian soils to see what worked and what didn’t, and every year they experiment with different varietals – last year they added Gamay, Touriga Nacional, Malbec and Nero D’Avola to the portfolio.  It’s exactly this brave, non-compromising, innovative attitude that places Saint George at the top of their game.

Organic Viticulture is very much the centre of their wines, shunning pesticides/chemicals and instead opting for Awassi Sheep who graze on the vine leaves (see picture below). The head viticulturist, Youseff, makes all of his own fertilisers from natural ingredients such as garlic and a fantastically talented Bulgarian, Iva, does the wine making.  It’s a team effort and very much a labour of love with the emphasis firmly on quality not quantity – average yields hover below 3 tonnes per hectare.

Awassi Sheep
Photo credit – Michael Trotter

The Wines – My Top 4

Gewürztraminer 2016 – Turkish delight, rose petals. buttery, long pretty finish with a whiff of petrol.  Akin to an Alsace heavyweight, full bodied, decadent but well balanced.

gewurtzraminer and muscat st george

Sauvignon Blanc 2016 – Round and creamy with a whack of typical Sauvignon acidity. Primary tropical fruit aromas with an innate smokiness.

sauvignon blanc st george

Merlot Rose 2016 – If tasted this blind, I’d easily confuse for a red Anjou.  Fleshy ripe red berries, violets and a tad of residual sugar.  Carbonic maceration gives it a classic Beaujolais-esque candied twist which precedes a long fruity finish.  Give me this on a hot day, anytime.

rose merlot st george

Pinot Noir Winemakers Selection 2009 – The clear winner.  If you’d told me that I’d find a such a cracking Pinot a stones throw from the Jordanian border with Syria – I wouldn’t have believed you.  Precise structure, good acidity, well integrated oak and dusty tannins.  At around £22 a bottle, it’s a steal.

pinot noir st george

Massive thank you to the gorgeous Alizee at Saint George, who was so generous and knowledgeable – an absolute gem!

Progrigio Vs Prosecco

Oh, do you see what they’ve done there? Very clever. Making fizzy wine in Prosecco style by blending Prosecco and Pinot Grigio, smashing the names together and selling for a fiver. Wait, what… £5!? The duty on a bottle of sparkling wine alone is £2.77 – you do the maths…

progrigio asda

Commercially though, it makes sense.  The Prosecco movement is unprecedented. The UK market alone has grown 34% in the last two years, and it’s the same story all over the world.  Up until 2009, the grape was called Prosecco – but the Italians got (rightly) huffy about vineyards across the world planting Prosecco grape and jumping on the bandwagon – therefore they changed the name to Glera and protected the region. Glera is originally from Slovenia – it’s fairly bland with decent acidity, which makes it perfect for Prosecco. So, it’s easy to see how Pinot Grigio, which can be equally vanilla, would function well as a fizz buffer.

Though undeniably popular, Prosecco’s name has been dragged through the mud recently.  UK Dentists have even diagnosed people with ‘Prosecco Teeth’ – when tooth enamel is badly worn away from excessive consumption… I’m not the world’s biggest guzzler of Prosecco, but can very much appreciate a good one. Cold, fizzy and uncomplicated, it goes with just about anything and is certainly a crowd pleaser. However, there are plenty of cornershop cheapies which taste like a Year 6 science experiment. Unfortunately, we’ve all been there.

progrigio and prosecco
Prosecco Vs Progrigio

So, I gave a Progrigio a try against a supermarket’s Finest Prosecco.  The Prosecco had an attractive mousse, pleasant white peach nose and long fruity finish, it was a little on the dry side (which I like) a very good example of what Prosecco should be. I’d read about Progrigio being described as a ‘bland, innocuous concoction’, mores the pity that it wasn’t. Instead we faced an assault of tinned fruit salad mixed with Kopparberg cider on the nose and Lambriniesque flavours on the palate with a bitter twang. The finish was short (phew!) and acrid with a chemical note. Perhaps ‘Gross-secco’ would have been a more appropriate name, my friend accurately observed. Very little wine gets thrown out in our household, we pride ourselves on our thriftiness, but were left with no other option.

Asda often hits the spot for great value, entry level wines – but not in this case. I’d prefer to save my pennies. My perfectly nice Tesco Finest Prosecco cost £9 – if looking for a change, here’s three alternatives to try:

Madeira

“I was told once that Madeira is like a Ferrari – everyone has heard of it but few have ever tried one.” Chris Blandy, Madeira Wine Company

My initial expectations of Madeira – from a small sub-tropical island, stranded in the Atlantic – were not high.  Like most, I’d not ‘driven the Ferrari’ and had always suspected it to be one of those wines doomed to an over-enthusiastically made gravy, or very odd cake. What a fool I’d been – now I can’t get enough of its sexy sweetness generously laced with fresh acidity. I’ve found myself having a secret quaff as an aperitif or more classically with dessert. Most important, with Easter looming, is Madeira’s cracking compatibility with chocolate!

madiera

Over the years I’ve dabbled with various brands and varietals but I keep returning to Barbeito’s ‘10 year old Verdelho’. A heady mix of Christmas pudding-esque dried fruits, candied orange peel and a lovely coffee/toffee edge with a comforting warm finish. Madeira (and Verdelho specifically) is quite unlike its distant fortified and sometimes fusty cousin Port, it has miles more acidity, which keeps it clean and light whilst retaining that sweet moreishness (and being cheap enough to be a fridge staple!). For a real treat splash out and try an older vintage, it ages incredibly well and costs a snip of the cost of a comparable aged Port or similar. Or as a chilled snifter, in place of a sherry and perhaps with game terrine or a creamy savoury mushroom dish. The perfect partner in crime.

There’s four main grape varieties used in Madeira – in ascending sweetness: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malmsey. Verdelho, for me is number one because I like the dryer style with just a hint of sweetness.

madeira_campos_154106724352724004714fb

While Madeira offers great options for all wine lovers, and for most fortified occasions, one tip for thrifty shoppers: look if it’s made by the ‘Canteiro’ method. This mimics the original effect of transporting the wine to the Indies/America – strapped to the sun sizzled top deck of ships, on the rolling seas. This method is used for the best quality Madeiras and has more complexity then those made in the modern ‘estufagem’ – a machine closely resembling a large kettle; the mass-produced Bristol Cream of the Madeira world. A final mega plus point – even Canteiro Madeiras can be great value for money, when considering  the years, love and affection its production takes.

Honestly though, part of the fun is experimenting and there really is a style for everyone.

Saúde.

Spioenkop, Elgin

The first rain drops of the week fell as we arrived at Spioenkop vineyard, set in the dramatic and rolling landscape of Elgin in the Overberg district, Western Cape. The vineyard is run by Koen Roose, Belgian by birth, engineer by education and winemaker by passion, he is a rebel who cares little for trends or fads. His obsession is with “bottling Elgin”. This purism means no irrigation, no yeast and a firm guiding vision from the vineyard’s creator-in-chief which captures the most of Elgin’s unique soil and climate. The combination terroir and winemaking has resulted in a series of outstanding and individual wines which have gained plaudits worldwide since his first vintage in 2010.

Traditionally Elgin was known for its Pink Lady apples, but in 2005 Koen spotted the potential. Sheltered by four surrounding hills the area resembles a moon crater, it is 200m+ above sea level and as a result the temperature is 3 degrees cooler than the surrounding vineyards. Additionally, it has a unique microclimate whereby when the temperature reaches 32 degrees the hot air sucks wind through the valley and acts like a natural self-correcting air conditioning system. This keeps the grapes at cooler and more consistent temperature. This coupled with the unique patchwork of laterite (a soil and rock type rich in iron and aluminium) (see picture below) makes Elgin different from anything else in the otherwise dry and arid surrounds and easily spottable thanks to the bright turquoise almost luminous lake in the middle of the estate.

spionk soil

At Spioenkop all of the varietals are judiciously selected to suit the terroir and planted to reach their full potential. For example; Riesling is planted where the draining is exceptional, Pinotage in the coolest area at the bottom where a swamp used to be and hence the highest soil content of clay and fossil. He is also constantly trying innovative methods, willing to buck trends where he feels it doesn’t match his terroir. This includes producing Elgin’s first Chenin Blanc with fewer of the tropical characteristics popular in the South Africa industry, and growing Sauvignon Blanc so the canopies grow low and wild with minimal pruning to give tiny tight bunches of concentrated fruit, he also plants the rows closer together than his neighbours, carefully shaping the vines to create the style of wine he wants, sexy steely Sauvignon.

spion lake

If commercial ‘Coca Cola’ wines are what you are looking for you’ll be sorely disappointed. At the tasting we tried an array of wines which were totally unique to South Africa with delicate structure, precision and unbelievable concentration of fruit. Spioenkop itself is a far cry from an immaculate show vineyard, it’s a working farm producing serious wines. In his own words – ‘pretty vines don’t produce pretty wines’, I think he’s got the right idea and can’t wait to taste the future fruits from the deliciously different revolutionary Spioenkop.

Spion koen

I’m joining the Riesling Revolution!

In my opinion Riesling is an underappreciated grape. This may be because of misconceptions such as it being cheap and sweet, the dated creature of 1970’s fondue parties; or that the bottles look like they should come with a translator in medieval German; or the concern that the whiff of petrol emanating from the cut-price bottle you just bought round the corner is making you wonder if you were miss-sold a Molotov. However, look beyond the slander and the fact of the matter is that German wines are like their cars; there are plenty of them, they are undeniably sassy and well-built – quite simply they should not be ignored.

riesling

So in a selfless attempt to start reparations and de-mystify some of these Teutonic beauties, I’ve gone straight for the jugular – a comparison of three German Rieslings. Comparing the wines simultaneously was a great help in highlighting the surprisingly wide range of difference, a reflection of the flexibility of Riesling and the fact that producers are trying lots of interesting things with the variety, but it did prove a challenge for my inherent clumsiness – six large glasses, a small table and me trying to navigate around it had its moments!

2010 Riesling Trocken ‘Tres Naris’, Axel Pauly (Mosel)

Bright yellow with limey reflections it’s a gem to behold; tiny bubbles give a sense of sparkle as easy on the eye as Bradley Cooper. It was the gentle aromas of papaya and lime making a trickery of the nose which made the refreshing steely acidity of the palate more noticeable as you unpack the layers of this intriguing wine. The teasing bubbles coupled with the coarse body cut through the mouth in a pleasurably abrasive way.  As you might guess, it’s a serious wine for Riesling purists – the delicate fruit and uber-dry finish is the sidecar to the steely minerality and nervy acidity. This particular producer, having learned the ropes from his father, first cut his teeth in New Zealand and California before moving back to Germany, perhaps explaining his emphasis on the pure expression of the grape. An invigorating, no nonsense little number – it would be great on its own on a summer’s day and is quite simply a mighty fine example of how a Mosel Riesling should taste.

2010 Riesling QBA ‘R3’, Stefan Breuer (Rheingau)

Our star performer – it gives a sense of place so strong it’s almost tangible… wunderlust. I’d barely had time to look at the lovely bright yellow colour of the wine before an array of mango and melon flavours leapt out of the glass and whisked me away to a Caribbean beach. The nose tells a different story to the palate, where the fruitiness is balanced by a sassy acidity and a surprising spicy finish. It’s a fabulous example of a Riesling from Rheingau, showcasing the subtle spices a-typical of those Rieslings in the area which are dallying with an approach better suited to contemporary palates. The transition from fruit to acidity followed by spice is an adventure for the mouth; it’s amazing how this wine pulls off being so elegant and precise without losing its edgy quirky feel – this is reflected in the funky label. It makes for an interesting, easy drinking tipple which is very versatile with food. We had it with cuttlefish which seemed to work perfectly as the sweetness of the wine cut through the oily saline qualities of the dish, but I really think you could have it with anything.

2009 Urziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese, Weingut Merkelbach (Mosel)

While more ‘traditional’, the final wine is delicate grapefruit on the nose but playful and juicy on the palate, with delicious tropical notes providing a luscious integrated sweetness which is tightly combined with a smoky spicy finish, giving it a surprising, slightly quirky edge and leaving it free from the ‘another Blue Nun’ jibes. These unique tropical/spicy flavours come from the red volcanic soil of the “Spice Garden” where the grapes are grown, making the wine one-of-a-kind. It still is quite a mouthful and needs to be carefully paired with something sweet or rich such as duck– a delicate fish dish would be completely dominated by this.  This means it isn’t quite to my tastes, but in my mind it deserves to be adored if only because of Rolf and Alfred (below), the brothers who have lovingly produced it for us.

Alfred and Rolf Merkelbach

So, have I convinced you? Go on, abandon the Sauvy B, Chardonnay and Chenin – join the Riesling Revolution!!

The wild wines of Colares, Portugal

Recently I visited Portugal for a friends wedding. It was one that sticks in the memory for all the right reasons; great hosts, great food, enormous amounts of sun and great wine. I was already a big fan of Portugese vinho and had tasted wines from the Douro, Alentejo, Vinho Verde, Lisboa, Dão and of course Madiera. Although, keen to try something new, I asked around and a friend recommended visiting Colares (pronounced ko-larsh). Have you heard of it? I certainly hadn’t.

Colares is Portugal’s smallest DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada). It sits just outside picturesque Sintra and a stone’s throw from buzzy Lisbon – irresistibly close to overlook. So, amidst the flurry of celebrations, Custard Tarts and Caipirinhas’s my partner and I hot-footed it over. On local recommendation we headed to the Adega Regional de Colares (the co-operative which represents several dozen growers). It’s in no way set up for wine tourism, but was all the more charming for it and proved a good starting point to get to grips with the 23 acre region.

The vineyards are sandy and vines grow wild and snake-like between bamboo shields protecting the fruits from the wind. This unique soil proved inhospitable to the unrepentant vine pest, Phyloxera. Making them among the oldest ungrafted vines in Europe, with some over 100 years old. The result; feisty and virtually undrinkable when young but with potential to become beautifully complex and interesting with age, most need at least 10 years. Ramisco (the native red varietal) is known for its staggering acidity, colossal tannins and low alcohol. It looks like Pinot Noir, with little berries growing on ungenerous vines – but unlike Pinot, has abnormally big seeds and thick skins – hence the tannins.

We tasted the co-operative’s Arenæ Ramisco 2006 which, although still in its infancy, was already developing aromas of leather and ripe cherries folded between comforting layers of sweet spice. The acidity was still stonkingly high and tannins young and harsh which made the wine unbalanced, but the complexity of the nose hinted at something which will be utterly astonishing in time. Ramisco is not, nor will it ever be, a mid-week-night easy sipper. It is challenging, an ‘oddity’ as one critic remarked – but for those intrepid (and patient) enough it carries a lavish bounty.

Also noteworthy was the co-operative’s Arenæ Malvasia 2011, both beautiful and surprising in equal measure. Somehow it delivered upfront ripe peaches, honeyed limes and honeysuckle with a Fino- esque salty twang at the finish akin to the land which it came from. Excellently balanced, it treads the line between unusual and delicious with aplomb.

Advanced warning: Colares comes in 500ml bottles. Don’t despair – I promise, its ample bang for the buck and all the best things come in small packages (my mother tells me). In short. Deliciously different, rewarding of patience, rarer than hens teeth and (most importantly) absolutely bloody scrumptious.

 

Txakoli, Spain

Don’t be intimidated by the silent X, this tasty little number is a simple delight.  I first encountered it at Donostia – an absolute gem of a Basque restaurant in Marylebone – the promise of something a bit different and the challenge of an “overhead pour” proved too intriguing to resist.

Txakoli Pour

Txakoli (pronounced Cha-co-li), which translates into ‘Village Wine’, is from the Spanish Basque region nestled in the armpit between Spain and France, perched on the cliff top overlooking the Atlantic.  The sea breeze and maritime climate ensures that the area stays damp and mild having roughly double the rainfall in London, hard to believe given that my umbrella seems to be more or less a permanent fixture in my handbag this summer!

txakoli vineyards

The novelty pour comes from the way Asturian Sidra (cider) is traditionally dispensed – it basically involves pouring the wine from a height of up to two meters (or as high as you dare) into a delicate tumbler.  It’s a wine which wants, and needs, air and it is the ‘pour’ which aerates the wine giving the lovely gentle fizz.  In restaurants they use a special pourer which looks a little like a mini cake stand sitting on top of the bottle.  Having witnessed our waiter executing a seemingly easy, splashless example of this we attempted to replicate at home without the pouring spout, assuming the slightly amateur technique of “stand on a chair, aim for the glass and hope for the best!”  My advice as a nascent pouring pundit would be; stock up on floor cleaner and add a healthy sprinkling of gusto… that should help.

The wine is pale yellow with a small froth (from the pour). The nose is reminiscent of English orchards or rosy apple hard boiled sweets, lemon fresh with a  knitted minerality – it reminded me of the zestyness of a Picpoul.  This is a low alcohol wine (9.5-11.5%) which should be served chilled.  Not terribly complex on the palate, searing acidity and a saline aftertaste are the take away flavours leaving a persistent but refreshing tingly finish.  Be warned, it is quite a mouthful and almost needs food to lessen the punchy acidity – a Spanish pocket rocket.

It seems only fitting that this racy little number should complement the fun and cheeky tone of the ‘Pinxos’ (bar snacks) and other styles of experimental tapas native to the Basque region. Trying the wine at Donostia with some Boquerones (salted anchovies with sweet marinated piquillo peppers) felt a bit like finding money down the sofa, or a missing puzzle piece.  The acidity in the wine and salty sweetness of the Boquerones were a perfect match.  In fact, I think another portion may have been ordered, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, strictly scientific purposes – obviously.  Amazingly only 15% of this wine is drunk outside of the production region, no surprise really – I wouldn’t want to share if it was me.

The grape variety is Hondarrabi Zuri, it grows in vigorous small to medium sized compact bunches on high trellises to lessen potential damage from mildew. The grapes are handpicked before a controlled cool fermentation.  In the specific region of this bottle (Getariako Txakolina) the wine is then left on its lees to rest (residual yeast) which gives it a slightly carbonated texture.

So, if you are not intimidated by pronunciation or potential collateral floor damage this is a wine I would highly recommend.  Try it with some yummy Boquerones, fresh fish, cured meats, cheeses or even calamari.  Not one for the wine rack or stashing away for a rainy day, drink it young and drink it now. Or even better, book some flights out to San Sebastian and drink as intended. Spanish health & safety might have put a dampener (sorry couldn’t resist) on the high pours and wood chipping covered floors, but it’s definitely still the real deal.