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.

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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.

 

Mencia, Bierzo

The last few years has seen the tapas revolution sweep London off its feet.  I LOVE tapas – Perhaps because it makes it perfectly acceptable for my inner glutton to run wild or maybe since it’s considered rude not to try absolutely everything on the table. A welcome goodbye to the plague of food envy.

Taking on the tapas scene is thirsty work, luckily the Spanish make more wine than even the most greedy guzzler can handle, which begs the question of where to start?

El Bierzo AKA ‘Spain’s answer to France’ in the North West is a marvellous place to begin.   The region has been busily seducing oenologist and producers over the last decade. El Bierzo is largely dominated by the intriguing Mencia grape, a close relative of Cabenet Franc.  It is an early ripening varietal famed for delivering upfront juicy fruits, snappy acidity and structured minerality siphoned from the special soils of the region.

bierzo

So, testing the metal of El Bierzo happened over tapas in the form of a 2013 and a 2006 Mencia.   The 2013 burst into the glass with fresh juicy red fruits, relentless acidity gives a pleasantly racy finish.  Its uncompromising acidity makes it the perfect partner in crime for something very naughty and fatty (hmmm Morcilla).

meryano

By comparison the 2006 Tilenus Crianza (which has spent a yea in French oak) saunters into the glass, it is big and unapologetically oaky without overshadowing its delicate complexity.  Mellow red fruits and gentle aromas of vanilla are wrapped in a cloak of tannins and sweet spices leaving a finish which goes on and on.

 tilenus
Bodegas Estefania Tilenus Crianza, Mencia, DO Bierzo, Spain, 2006

 

Its noteworthy because both wines are beautiful, but in utterly different ways – the Mencia grape is splendid.  Either; young, boney and unoaked or mature and generously soused in the toasty French stuff.

A worthy Christmas experiment and fun for all the family, except the under 18s… Strictly Ribena for them, obviously.

Matt, Millers and The Muscadet

I was lucky enough to go to a close friend’s wedding earlier this Summer; taking in the happy scene through gaps in the forest of fascinators, it suddenly dawned on me how superbly delicious the wine was.  Unsurprising really, what else should I have expected from the newly wed Millington/King dream team?

Muscadet is another victim of the ghost of vintages past.  For a long time producers were seen to be churning out cheap plonk using the native grape Melon de Bourgogne.  Happily, recent years have witnessed something of resurgence in popularity and quality.  The turning point was in 1994, when the French authorities made the definition of ‘sur lie’ more stringent.  Sur Lie fermentation is a technique which allows the wine to lie on its dead yeast cells for an extended period post-fermentation.  That may not sound terribly sexy, but it’s exactly this that creates a noticeably more interesting and complex sipper.  Imagine a poached egg pre-dolloping of hollandaise – it’s the hollandaise that turns breakfast into a brilliant brunch.  The bees knees, the dogs bollocks, whatever you want to call it, there’s no denying that sur lie fermentation is the hollandaise of Melon de Bourgogne.

It’s a lovely dry duo of fresh lemony zest and salinity, the perfect pairing.  A slight spritz is a welcome accompaniment to the rigorous minerality and bone dry finish (a great example of soil finding its way into a grape).  The screeching acidity gives the wine a goosepimply flesh that seals the humdrum  grape.  It also makes the wines suitable for hiding away for a rainy day as it will evolve gracefully with age.  Delightfully polite yet armed with ample lemony clout, this fancyable libation has the body and personality to be dangerously irresistible.

muscadet bottle

“One of the bargains of the wine world” (Jancis Robinson), it represents great value for money and holds its own against some of the great wines of the Loire…and so, join me in a toast:
 To the delicious Matt and Millers – may their relationship be as beautifully evolving, grounded, and as zesty as this little number.

matt and millers