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The reign of Spain: How to find top-notch, great-value wine

 

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 6th April, 2019

Spanish Wine Week begins next Monday – spanishwineweek.ie has details of tastings, dinners and other events – but I am not sure that Spain needs any further help from us: its wines appear to be doing very well in Ireland.

I went to a portfolio tasting of the leading Spanish wine importer recently, and as happens every year, I was introduced to a host of new grape varieties, mostly unique to Spain. Not all were brilliant, although most were, but there was an array of unique flavours.

Spain covers all climates and styles of wine, from cool to baking hot, from the lightest, crisp, Muscadet-like freshness of a Txacolí from the Basque Country to the full-bodied Monastrells of Murcia and Valencia. Generally speaking, wines from the cooler Atlantic north tend to be white and light, and those from southern and central Spain red and warming. But vines grown at higher altitudes, or closer to the Mediterranean Sea, can produce very elegant wines, even in the deep south; the Los Aguilares Pinot Noir from Malaga (Celtic Whiskey Shop, €38) is a perfect example.

Spain has plenty of other great indigenous grape varieties: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Monastrell and Mencia for the red wines, Albariño, Godello and Xarello for whites. Even Palomino Fino, once reserved for sherry, is now responsible for some excellent table wines. As well as new regions, more established names such as Rioja, Priorat and, best of all, Sherry continue to reinvent and improve themselves.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Spanish Tempranillo is one of the best value wines in the world, and inexpensive Garnacha is not far behind, But I would suggest increasing your budget a little and go for something from €15 to €25 (or even the €31 wine below). At this price, Spain offers a host of brilliant, unique wines that offer fantastic value for money.

Spanish food has also been on something of a roll in recent years, largely thanks to a group of superstar chefs. Done simply, using the finest raw ingredients, it is one of the great cuisines of the world.

My own dream Spanish feast would start with a glass of chilled fino sherry accompanied by a plate of the finest Iberico ham, some olives, and a few toasted almonds, followed by an Albariño or Godello from Galicia alongside a plate of simply dressed seafood; then a bowl of rice with chicken and vegetables, and a glass of red wine from Valencia. Then on to the main course, grilled lamb cutlets with a glass of the finest Rioja or a lighter red from Ribeira Sacra, either of which would also go nicely with the cheese course.

Finca La Solana Monastrell 2017, Jumilla
14.5%, €9 (down from €13.45 for April) 

A substantial wine with sleek, muscular, powerful dark fruits overlaid with a touch of new oak, and a savoury dry finish. Perfect with grilled steaks or a cocido – Spanish stew with beans, vegetables and various meats, that varies by region.
From O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Cucú 2017, Barco del Corneta, Rueda
13.5%, €18

A Verdejo like no other; rich exuberant exotic tropical fruits with a lovely citrus streak. Perfect with all sorts of spring salads.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, Ely64.com; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown, Co Dublin, whelehanswines.ie; La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow, latouchewines4u.ie; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3, clontarfwines.ie; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin, jusdevine.ie.

Ube Miraflores 2017, Bodegas Cota 45
11%, €23.50

A magnificent delicate wine with clean peach and apple fruits, subtle toasted nuts and a tangy saline dry finish. Choirs of angels sang. By itself or with toasted almonds and/or the best Iberico ham you can afford.
From Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin, jusdevine.ie; Martin’s Off Licence, Clontarf, Dublin 3,martinsofflicence.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, Ely64.com; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Loose Canon, Drury Street, Dublin 2, loosecanon.ie.

Lomba des Ares 2016, Ribeira Sacra, Fedellos do Couto
12.5%, €31

Made from a host of local grapes, mainly Mencia, this is wonderful wine. Fragrant and floral with refined refreshing cool dark cherry fruits, a nice grip and a lovely smooth finish. With charcuterie of any kind or belly of pork.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, Ely64.com; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Loose Canon, Drury Street, Dublin 2, loosecanon.ie.

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I Love Mosel Riesling

I Love Mosel Riesling

I Love Mosel Riesling 2017

Mosel Riesling Kabinett, Andreas Bender

€18.95 from Wines Direct, Mullingar & Arnott’s Dublin, or online from winesdirect.ie.

 

Delicious fresh light Riesling;  peaches and tropical fruits with a touch of honey, this is a lively, zingy crisp wine was the perfect aperitif last night. And at 8% you can have a decent glass (or two) without keeling over before dinner.

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Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur

This very smart-looking bottle was delivered to my home yesterday afternoon. Five Farms Cream Liqueur is obviously hoping to garner a small segment of the massive cream liqueur market, created originally by Bailey’s Irish Cream. At €35 a bottle it is clearly alimed at the luxury end of the market.

Five Farms is made from a single batch of full cream milk from five family-owned farms in County Cork. It is blended with Irish Whiskey, distilled in Cork too. The back label says it was created for Holloway Distillery in Missouri, but it is apparently made in Ireland.

I am not genrally a fan of cream liqueuers, but the Five Farms was not sickly sweet, and combined a lovely creamy richness with some subtle toffee/butterscotch notes, and a warming kick (it is 17% abv) from the whiskey. It went down well. I could see myself adding it to a cup of hot chocolate, although the producer also suggests an Irish coffee or an Espresso Martini.

Five Farms is available exclusively in SuperValu stores nationwide and online now for €34.95.

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Mighty Malbecs with a softer side

 

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 30th March, 2019.

Malbec from Argentina is usually portrayed as the archetypal macho wine: big, powerful and masculine, and a little lacking in subtlety. It has certainly proved a hit with male wine drinkers in this country. Producers from other countries, Chile in particular, have noted jealously that many consumers are willing to pay a premium for such a bottle of Malbec.

However, not every Malbec is the stereotypical oaky alcoholic monster. There were always exceptions, but in recent years there has been a definite move among producers to make more elegant Malbec wines. By picking earlier and planting vineyards at higher altitudes, they can offer wines that are less tannic, less extracted and less oaky, as well as keeping the notoriously high levels of alcohol in check.

The wines are still not exactly shrinking violets, but the change has brought forth a new style, with a seductive fragrance, and wonderful pure dark fruits. While the older style was essentially limited to partnering robust food such as grilled steak, the more modern Malbec is far more adaptable, while still providing a great match to barbequed beef.

Argentina has always been famous for its high-altitude vineyards. It can no longer boast it has the highest vines in the world – according to the Guinness Book of Records, that honour now belongs to Nepal, which has a vineyard at 3,500m above sea level. However, it does have the highest concentration of commercial high-altitude vineyards.

Grapes grown at high altitudes benefit from greater radiation and increased photosynthesis. Combined with cold nighttime temperatures that ensure good acidity, this produces wines with a wonderful depth of fresh pure fruit.

Bodegas Colomé in Salta owns some of the highest vineyards, at more than 3,000m above sea level. They also have vines dating back to 1831 in their remote estate, a three-hour bumpy drive along dirt tracks.

The Amalaya listed below is produced from grapes grown at 1,800m. Meanwhile, the team behind Altos Las Hormigas are planting vines in new high-altitude sites with unique soil profiles. They are now also producing wine in Cahors in southwest France.This is the original home of Malbec, where it was once part of the Bordeaux blend of grapes.

In the past produce from Cahors, where Malbec is known as Cot, could be very earthy and tannic, but these days there are some excellent wines. From independents, look out for wines from excellent biodynamic producer Fabien Jouves, or from the more traditional, but equally good, Clos des Gamots.

As well as the Le Croizillon below, O’Briens have the Osmin Malbec (€13.95) and a very moreish organic Silice (€18.95). There is no shortage of inexpensive Malbec from Argentina, including the Exquisite Argentinian Malbec from Aldi (€7.99), the Alamos Malbec (€15) and the ever reliable Pascual Toso Malbec.

Le Croizillon 2017, Chateau Les Croisille, Cahors

12.5%, €15.95
Delicious, gluggable, bouncy dark cherry fruits with a refreshing acidity. Enjoy lightly chilled with pork, chicken and all kinds of nibbles before dinner. Stockists: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Amalaya Calchaquí Valley Malbec 2017

14%, €20.99
Soft and supple with delicious, refreshing loganberry and raspberry fruits, rounded off with a touch of spice. To go with empanadas, kebabs or grilled lamb chops. Stockists: Baggot Street Wines, baggotstreetwines.com; wineonline.ie; The Cinnamon Cottage, Cork, cinnamoncottage.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie.

Altos Las Hormigas Mendoza Malbec Clásico 2018/2017

13.5%, €21.99
Lifted floral aromas and bright, elegant red cherry and raspberry fruits, with soft well-integrated tannins on the finish. To go with grilled foods: beef, pork, chicken or Mediterranean vegetables. Stockists: Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; The Cinnamon Cottage, Cork, cinnamoncottage.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; wineonline.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie

Bodega Colomé ‘Auténtico’ Salta Malbec 2017

14.5%, €41.99
Enchanting aromas of violets and dark fruits. This explodes in the mouth with intense, perfectly ripe dark fruits, balanced by excellent acidity and structured tannins. Keep a few years or serve now with grilled beef or lamb. Stockists: wineonline.ie;  The Cinnamon Cottage, Cork, cinnamoncottage.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; Donnybrook Fair, donnybrookfair.ie.

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Graham Norton: earthy, floral, spicy … and that’s just his new gin

Irish gins: Boyle’s Irish Botanical Gin, Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin, Graham Norton’s Own Irish Gin and Method & Madness Irish Gin

 

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday March 23rd, 2019.

This week, a look at four Irish gins, two very new and two more established.

Graham Norton’s Own wines, from Italy, New Zealand and Australia, have been hugely successful in Ireland. Now the team have come together to produce a gin distilled in west Cork. Flavoured with 12 botanicals, including fuchsia, rosehip and gooseberries, Graham Norton’s Own Irish Gin seems destined for the same commercial success.

The shop assistant at Dublin Airport told me that Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin outsold all of its rivals put together. It may be the distinctive blue bottle or the unique flavours, which include gunpowder tea, but it seems to be one of the success stories of the Irish spirit revival.

Founded by the veteran drinks entrepreneur Pat Rigney, Drumshanbo last year sold more than 100,000 cases, with a turnover of €7 million. In November Rigney will launch two pot-still whiskies; next year he plans to open a visitor centre at the distillery in Co Leitrim.

Rigney says the reason for his gin’s success is simple: “It has a real story and a real distillery, it tastes fantastic and it has great packing. I have been travelling for 30 years and picked up all sorts of ideas from far-flung places. What I set out to do is work very hard to create a gin that will compete with the best in the world. It really is capturing the imagination; Irish people buy it in the airport to bring to friends all over the world.”

As well as making Cork Dry Gin, Irish Distillers was a pioneer of small-batch gin, releasing Crimson in 2005; it was very good but ahead of its time. Now it has returned with Method & Madness, the first gin to use gorse flowers, alongside black lemon and a range of spices. It was distilled in Ireland’s oldest gin still, Mickey’s Belly (named after a man who worked in the distillery), which now resides in the microdistillery at Midleton, in Co Cork.

Regular readers will know that Blackwater No 5 is one of my favourite gins. The distillery that makes it also makes Boyle’s Irish Botanical Gin for Aldi. The company was set up by Peter Mulryan, a veteran drinks journalist, writer and TV and radio producer. Its new, truly artisan distillery, in a converted hardware store in the picturesque village of Ballyduff, Co Waterford, will open to the public from April onwards, with luck to coincide with Waterford Festival of Food, at the end of the month. The first trial whiskeys have been distilled (and look fascinating) but need a few years’ ageing before being bottled.

Boyle’s Irish Botanical Gin

40%, €24.99
Made by Blackwater for Aldi, this is a delicious gin, with subtle fruits and refreshing citrus on a firm base of spice and juniper. Amazing value for money.
From Aldi

Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin

43%, €45-50
A very nicely balanced smooth gin with plenty of juniper, backed up with musky spicy coriander and a unique fresh herbal note.
From Off-licences and supermarkets nationwide, as well as travel-retail stores

Graham Norton’s Own Irish Gin

40%, €39
Aromas of juniper and light spices, with classic flavours of pine resin and earthy spice on the palate, finishing with bright floral notes.
From SuperValu

Method & Madness Irish Gin

43%, €50
Lemon zest and subtle floral notes on the nose, lightly spicy with clean refreshing orange and lemon citrus on the palate.
Stockists: Widely available from off-licences, as well as travel-retail stores

Gin Experience Dublin, a gin-tasting event, takes place at the Printworks at Dublin Castle on April 12th and 13th; tickets from ginexperiencedublin.com and the Celtic Whiskey Shop

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DOMAINE DES LISES, CROZES-HERMITAGE

Thomas Schmittel of Domaine des Lises (pictured above with Olivier Meisonnave of Dax restaurant) was being shown around town today with his importer Charles Derain of Nomad Wines. The two were armed with four bottles of wine, all of them enchanting. Domaine des Lises is owned by Maxime Graillot, who also owns the famous eponymous estate in Crozes Hermitage. Lises has been run organically for fifteen years, and is now in conversion for full certification.

The wines here are generally bottled with 50 gl total sulphur, 25gl free SO2. Thomas has been experimenting with sulphur-free wine – which tastes very different he says. He also has a small parcel of ungrafted vines which he has made into a separate cuvée.

 

Cuvée Equinox 2017, Crozes-Hermitage

“Our picnic wine”, says Thomas, of this wine, made from bought-in grapes from a single vineyard. A light refreshing supple wine with exuberant savoury dark cherry fruits and a tannin-free finish.

I would serve this cool, with all sorts of charcuterie and salads.

100% de-stemmed, a six day maceration followed by pressing and fermentation in concrete and then months in four thousand litre oak casks.

€24 from SIYPS.com, Ely 64wine, Glasthule and Green Man Wines, Terenure.

 

 

 

 

Domaine des Lises 2015, Crozes-Hermitage

From a warm vintage, this is a structured rich wine, with meaty dark fruits, and plenty of tannic grip. It still has a certain elegance, but ideally you would keep this a few years.

 

Thomas said this wine is always made the same way, allowing the vintage to shine through. 30% whole-bunch, a twenty day maceration in concrete with punching down during fermentation. Aged for ten months in barrel and demi-muid, including malolactic fermentation.

 

€34 from SIYPS.com, Ely 64wine, Glasthule and Green Man Wines, Terenure.

 

 

Domaine des Lises 2016, Crozes-Hermitage

 

From a more classic vintage, this is a superb wine, classic Syrah, with pure violet aromas and elegant silky fresh dark fruits and liquorice on the palate. There is a touch of new oak, but it is very subtle.

 

€34 from SIYPS.com, Ely 64wine, Glasthule and Green Man Wines, Terenure.

 

 

 

 

Domaine des Lises 2017 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc

From some unique clay soils in Crozes, this is a delicious rich textured wine with mouth-watering peaches and nectarines and the slightest hint of spice. A very impressive moreish wine. 70% Marsanne 30% Roussanne.

Available in restaurants.

 

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Ireland’s favourite foods and the wines to go with them

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 16th March, 2019

It’s St Patrick’s weekend, a time of year when many of us will be sitting down to one of Ireland’s most traditional dishes, bacon and cabbage – or, failing that, to one of the nation’s other favourite meals, whether it’s a slap-up roast or just a family-friendly spaghetti bolognese. So what should you drink with them?

Many people would drink stout with bacon and cabbage, but here I would open a bottle of Beaujolais or maybe a Côtes du Rhône. A good Languedoc, such as Corbières, is another good choice. I would also be happy to drink a New World Pinot Noir, from Chile or New Zealand.

If you’re not opting for bacon and cabbage, you could well be going for a traditional roast – the country’s most popular meal, according to a survey a couple of years ago.

Roast meat of any kind generally provides the perfect backdrop for good wine – and as this weekend is also something of a celebration, it could be the moment to bring out that special bottle you have tucked away. Reds are usually best, although roast chicken is also great with richer white wines; in fact, chicken is one of my favourite partners for most wines.

With roast beef and lamb, something red and substantial is best: Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Australian Shiraz, Malbec or Chianti Classico will all work well.

If spaghetti bolognese or lasagne is more your thing, remember that red meat generally suggests red wine. When it’s accompanied by tomato sauce, I generally look for a red with good acidity. With spag bol I usually go for an Italian red – Chianti, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Nero d’Avola are all good – but anything medium-bodied with a bit of ripeness and warmth (plus some acidity too) will do nicely.

With cottage or shepherd’s pie – a big favourite in our house – I would generally go for a medium to full-bodied red; on a chilly evening a nice Côtes du Rhône; or Gigondas or Vacqueyras if I am feeling flush. Otherwise I’d open a good Languedoc, such as Corbières, Minervois or Coteaux du Languedoc, or a Merlot from Chile, which are great inexpensive midweek wines. (These all work well with bacon and cabbage, too.)

What if you’re eating fish this weekend? Champagne is great with fish and chips but hardly an everyday choice; an unoaked Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc would be more affordable. With a creamy, rich fish pie, go for a lightly oaked Chardonnay or an Albariño. If the fish is in a Thai green curry, aromatic and fruity wines are best: a Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Gris, a Grüner Veltliner from Austria, or a German Riesling will all provide the necessary zest and rich fruit.

Corbières, Hautes Terres Rouges, Les Auzines
13.5%, €12.95 until April 7th
Lightly tannic with warming, rounded red fruits. Perfect with bacon and cabbage, shepherd’s pie or cottage pie.
From O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2016, Le Murate, Fattoria Nicodemi

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2016, Le Murate, Fattoria Nicodemi
13%, €15.60
A medium-bodied smooth red wine with good ripe blackcurrant and dark cherry fruits, and a lovely freshness. Try it with spaghetti bolognese or other tomato-based pasta dishes.
From Arnotts, Dublin, and Wines Direct, Mullingar, winesdirect.ie

Domaine à Deux Sauvignon de Touraine 2017
13%, €16.95
A delicious fruit-filled aromatic Sauvignon with good crisp acidity; try it with fish and chips or with a Thai green fish curry.
From Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin, searsons.com

Milton Park Chardonnay, South Australia
12.5%, €13.50-€14.50
Succulent rounded unoaked tropical fruits – nectarines and pineapple with a welcome dash of acidity. Drink alongside fish and chips or a creamy fish pie.
From No 21 Off-Licences Charleville, Listowel and Waterford; McCambridges, Galway, mccambridges.com; Ivan’s Bakery Deli Café, Limerick; Cappagh Stores, Galway; Salthill Liquor Store, Galway; Donnybrook Fair, Dublin 4, donnybrookfair.ie; La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow, latouchewines4u.ie; Gibney’s, Malahide, Co Dublin, gibneys.com; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; the Hole in the Wall, Dublin 7, holeinthewallpub.com

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Tired of sauvignon? Bored with Pinot Grigio? Try the Northern Rhone

Rhône star: one of Yann Chave’s Crozes-Hermitage vineyards

 

 

This article was first published in The Irish Times, Saturday 9th March, 2019

Tiring of Sauvignon? Bored with Pinot Grigio? Today a few alternatives from one of the less celebrated regions of France. It took a seminar from importers Tindal & Co with Stephane Montez of Domaine de Monteillet to remind me how much I liked these wines. I am a big fan of both red and white wines of the northern Rhône. They rarely have the power or richness of their southern counterparts, but they make up for this with a delicious freshness, purity of fruit and elegance.

Two relatively unknown grapes, Marsanne and Roussanne, are responsible for some very good white wines that should be right up our street. They are typically crisp and dry, low in alcohol and free of oak influence. Yet, talking to importers and retailers, these wines are not an easy sell; several of the larger producers in the region offer these wines, often at very attractive prices, but they are not available in this country, O’Briens being an honourable exception.

Marsanne is said to be the more neutral of the two, with good acidity and clean melon fruits. It is usually blended with Roussanne, which is richer and more aromatic. I appreciate that €30-€40 for a bottle is hardly bargain basement, but compared with top-quality Chardonnay from either Burgundy or the New World, or the great Rieslings from Germany, they represent very good value for money. What’s more, not only do they drink well from the start, but they have an uncanny ability to age for five or more years. I have been buying and stashing away the odd bottle or two over the past few years and now have a modest collection that is providing me with a lots of pleasure.

Searsons has a treasure-trove of northern whites, including the excellent Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage (€27.95), the Jolivet St. Joseph (€42) and Les Hautes de Monteillet (€24.95). JN Wine has the Coursodon St Joseph Les Silices (€35.95), and various independents stock the Yves Cuilleron Marsanne (€19.95).

Outside of the Rhône, you will find the odd planting of Marsanne and/or Roussanne. You will find both in the Savoie, including some spectacularly good Roussanne. The most famous outpost outside of the region is on the other side of the globe in Victoria, Australia, where Tahbilk has the largest planting of Marsanne in the world. It is ridiculously cheap, drinks well young and ages for ever, taking on amazing honey and nut flavours. Being light- to medium-bodied, these are food-friendly wines, perfect to eat alongside most fish dishes and chicken too. As they are low in alcohol, you can happily sip them on their own. My favourite matches are probably crab with home-made mayo or a creamy pasta dish.

Côtes du Rhône Blanc Les Abeilles 2016, Jean-Luc Colombo
13%, €15.95
Light refreshing with delicate mellow peach fruits a spicy, herby, edge, good cleansing acidity and a very attractive soft finish. Hake fried in butter with fresh herbs and lemon.
From O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Crozes-Hermitage 2015, Alain Graillot Organic
13%, €29.95
Graillot red and white wines are superb, with an ability to improve with age. This is a delightful wine, with subtle plump peaches and apricots, given verve by some tangy lemon zest. Drink solo or with lighter fish and white meats – crab salad or mild herby Thai chicken?
From siyps.com; Mitchell & Son, CHQ, Sandycove and Avoca, Kilmacanogue and Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com

St Joseph ‘Grand Duc du Montillet’ 2017, Domaine du Monteillet
13%, €38
His Les Hautes du Montillet (€24.95) is very good, but this is superb; fresh and intensely floral with lightly textured plump rounded stone fruits, subtle nuts and a long finish. With prawns, scallops or fried brill.
From Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin, searsons.com; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com

Tahbilk Marsanne 2018, Nagambie Lakes, Central Victoria
12%, €14.25
A wonderful wine and a steal at this price. Zesty lemon, apples, and stone fruits with a touch of honey. Drink now or keep 10 years plus. With a spicy pork and pepper stir fry.
From Wines Direct, Mullingar, and Arnotts, Dublin, winesdirect.ie

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Tempranillo: workhorse wine or thoroughbred tipple?

 

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 2nd March, 2019

Both the cheapest and most expensive wines in Spain are made from the same grape variety: tempranillo. It is now Spain’s most widely planted red grape, yet strangely it is seldom found outside of the country, except in Portugal. Tempranillo means “little early one” as it ripens earlier than garnacha, the other great grape of Spain. In Catalunya they call it “ull de lebre” (or eye of the hare) and in the Douro valley it is known as tinta roriz.

If you buy an inexpensive glugging red from La Mancha, a vast swathe of flat land running south from Madrid, it will more than likely be made from cencibel, the local name for tempranillo. Yields here are high and prices low. The wines are generally scented, light and fruity. Provided they have not been subjected to clumsy oak treatments, they are among my favourite midweek wines.

Pretty much every wine shop and supermarket will have one or more on offer at less than €15, and sometimes below €10. At this price, I prefer to avoid any labelled reserva or gran reserva as this means they will have been aged in oak barrels. Drink them with tortillas/frittatas, chicken dishes, paella with chicken and chorizo, tomato-based pasta dishes and pizza.

In the cooler mountains in the north of Rioja, tempranillo tends towards elegance and poise. Grown in the right place, and with lower yields, it is responsible for some of the most wonderful long-lived (50 years or more) wines of all. Young rioja (known as joven) is usually exuberant and fruity, reservas and gran reservas will have been aged in oak barrels. Done well, it adds structure and complexity. Traditionally rioja was a blend of various grapes, but single-varietal tempranillo seems more and more common.

West of Rioja, in the regions of Ribera del Duero and Toro, different clones of tempranillo are referred to as tinto país, tinto fino or tinto de toro. From very different climate and soils, these are powerful, ripe and muscular wines, a world away from rioja. The best, from producers such as Pingus, Emilio Moro, Pesquera, Hacienda de Monastario, Pago de los Capellanes and Alîon, are a very seductive mix of heady, sweet fruit, good acidity and ripe tannins. Match them with substantial lamb dishes, either barbecued or casseroles.

As well as the Albali featured, SuperValu (which has a Spanish wine sale running until March 6th) has the San Jorge Ribera del Duero (€12) and if you want to try a mature tempranillo, try the Cune gran reserva 2012 (€15). Tesco has the oaky Campaneo OV Tempranillo for €8. Good independent retailers should have Canfo (€12), Albizu (€13) or a selection of riojas to try.

Vina Albali tempranillo, Valdepeñas
12.5%, €8 until March 6th
Faintly floral aromas with light refreshing easy-drinking red fruits, and a tannin-free finish. By itself or with chicken dishes.
From SuperValu

Rayos Uva Rioja 2016, Rioja, biodynamic
14%, €19
Unoaked rioja full of mouth-watering, pure fresh black cherry fruits, with an earthy core and strong mineral element. A wine that will fill you with happiness and goodwill. Drink it with pork chops or lamb cutlets.
From La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin; Bradley’s, Cork; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, Co Dublin; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6W; Lilliput Stores, Arbour Hill, Dublin 7; The Corkscrew, Dublin 2; Liston’s, Dublin 2; Nectar Wines, Sandymount, Dublin 4

Lindes de Remelluri 2014, Viñedos de Labastida, Remelluri, Rioja
14%, €23
Wonderful, impeccably balanced wine, with restrained, concentrated dark cherry and damson fruits, subtle spice, a lovely freshness and a long, clean, dry finish. Requires food: roast lamb or beef would be perfect.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin; The Corkscrew, Dublin 2; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6W

Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero, Cosecha 2016, biodynamic
14%, €26.99
Sleek, smooth, powerful ripe dark fruits overlaid with spice. Very moreish. Try it with a roast of lamb or a well-aged steak.
From 1601, Kinsale, Co Cork; Fresh, Dublin; Joyce’s supermarkets, Co Galway; Donnybrook Fair, Dublin; branches of O’Briens; Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Dublin 6

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‘Organic’ wine: is it worth the label it’s printed on?

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in The Irish Times, Saturday 23rd February, 2019

More organic wines are being produced than ever, but who decides what is organic and how strict are the rules? European wines are governed by legislation introduced in 2012. Until then, a producer could only mention “wine made from organic grapes” on the label. The legislation includes, for the first time, practices in both vineyard and cellar. This sounds great, but many argue that the bar was set far too low.

While maximum amounts of sulphur were lowered compared to ‘normal’ wine, levels up to 100mg/l for red wines and 150mg/l for white and rosé wines are still permitted. Copper spray is just about the only weapon an organic grower can use against disease. Until recently they could spray up to 30kg per hectare over six years, technically 5kg per year, but often more in wet years and less in dry vintages. This has now been lowered to 4kg per hectare every year, which may cause problems in wetter areas in the future.

Most of us, I suspect, automatically think that organic wine is more natural, and in some ways it is. But it is worth taking a quick look at the regulations (see ecocert.com). Organic producers can still add yeasts, Diammonium Phosphate, tannins and oak chips (they don’t have to be organic) as well as being allowed to acidify, de-acidify, and add sugar. If you clarify with egg whites, isinglass or gelatin, these should be organic – when available it says – although if you add sugar or grape must, this must be organic. Does this really tally with our view of what organic wine should be?

As one rather frustrated Irish importer said to me, “The sad thing is that everyone wants a quick and handy label, and that’s what they tried to achieve with the legislation. I understand that the “greater good” is to try and bring big companies around to the idea of organics as they are the biggest users of chemicals, so even a watered down version might have some merit . But does anybody really think that a cheap organic supermarket chicken is as good as the neighbour down the road who has them running around the field but yet has no certification?” On the other hand, some importers in the U.S. and elsewhere will only buy wines that are certified organic, leaving some producers with little choice.

Many small artisan producers will tell you that they are organic but not certified. Either it is too expensive or the paperwork too laborious. The only guarantee is their name on the bottle. Should we believe them? Generally I do, as mostly they seem genuine and exhibit a real respect for their land. Another importer told me “I’d rather have wines certified organic for my house wines, as I know they must be using less chemicals, but for the others it is all down to trusting my producers”.

Sinéad and Liam Cabot work on both sides of the fence, importing producing and importing wine. Liam comments “We cultivate grapes as naturally as possible (we sprayed with locally sourced whey last year against oidium), we dislike copper, we add nothing in the cellar (so none of that stuff allowed with organics/biodynamics) other than small doses of SO2 (which we consider essential). But even these are well below the levels generally allowed for natural wines – e.g. total 20mg/l (free 10mg/l) for our Blaufränkisch, total 35 mg/l (free 12mg/l) for Furmint. It is not about the numbers, it is about working intelligently to understand when you make the additions; for instance, our 2018 whites are still without any SO2 at all – yet they are completely stable.”

At a tasting given by Marcos Fernandez, chief winemaker for Argentine producer Doña Paula, part of Santa Rita, said “We are now fully certified sustainable, which to me is more than organic.” His argument was that Certified Sustainable programmes encompass far more than simply what takes place in vineyard and winery, and follows the process from start to finish, and including energy use, recycling, environmental impact and long term sustainability. All Santa Rita Estates are now certified. In New Zealand 94% of vineyards operate under independently audited sustainability programmes – and over 10% of wineries are certified organic. Biodynamic viticulture is more of a philosophy or way of living, and many of its practitioners are the kind of people who resist regulation. The two biggest certifying organisations are Demeter and Biodyvin, but some growers disagree with their criteria. Perhaps the answer is to shop with people you trust?

Growers are certainly using far less herbicides and fungicides – in the past the wine industry was on of the worst offenders. Even if the criteria for organic certification is weak, at least producers have to start the process. The use of sulphur and other chemicals must be at an all-time low and most producers are increasingly seeking to reduce unnecessary interventions. Yet if we keep demanding cheap wine, it seems inevitable that producers will have to resort to higher levels of (perfectly legal) manipulation.

Jarrarte 2017 Rioja Joven, Abel Mendoza,14%, €17

Jarrarte 2017 Rioja Joven, Abel Mendoza,14%, €17

Jarrarte 2017 Rioja Joven, Abel Mendoza

14%, €17

Organic but not certified. A full-on full-bodied wine bursting with rounded sweet dark plum fruits and a tannin-free finish. With a rack of lamb.

Stockists: Cabot and Co, Westport, cabotandco.com; Grapevine, Dalkey, onthegrapevine.ie; PoppySeed, Clarinbridge, poppyseed.ie.

 

Doña Paula Estate Black Edition 2016, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina, 13.6%, €16.99
Doña Paula Estate Black Edition 2016, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina, 13.6%, €16.99

Doña Paula Estate Black Edition 2016, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

13.6%, €16.99

Certified Sustainable. Medium-bodied with nicely balanced dark fruits and spice with well-judged tannins on the finish. With a gourmet burger.

Stockists: Tesco, tesco.ie; Dunnes Stores, dunnesstores.com; SuperValu, supervalu.ie.

Di Gino 2016, Rosso Piceno San Lorenzo, 13%, €19.50-€21
Di Gino 2016, Rosso Piceno San Lorenzo, 13%, €19.50-€21

Di Gino 2016, Rosso Piceno San Lorenzo

13%, €19.50-€21

Uncertified biodynamic/organic. A charming, elegant, fragrant wine, with delicious juicy dark cherry fruits and very mild tannins. Lighter pasta dishes – cacio e pepe?

Stockists: Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, sheridanscheesemongers.com; Morton’s, Ranelagh, mortons.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; siyps.com.

Reto 2016, Manchuela, Bodegas Ponce, 13.5%, €21.50
Reto 2016, Manchuela, Bodegas Ponce, 13.5%, €21.50

Reto 2016, Manchuela, Bodegas Ponce

13.5%, €21.50

Uncertified biodynamic/organic. Delightful floral aromas leading on to a rich but refreshing palate with clean mineral lines and subtle peach fruits. By itself or with fish; a mussel risotto?

Stockists: La Touche, Greystones, latouchewines4u.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, ely64.com; Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Clontarf Wines, clontarfwines.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; Martin’s Off Licence, Fairview, martinsofflicence.ie; Redmonds, Ranelagh; redmonds.ie; siyps.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; the Wicklow Wine Co, wicklowwineco.ie.

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