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The perfect wines to go with your Easter roast lamb

Easter parade: as lamb is one of the most wine-friendly meats of all, this is the time to show off your finest reds

First published in The Irish Times on Saturday 13th April, 2019

Easter is my favourite annual festival. The longer, brighter days have arrived, the spring bulbs are in full bloom, and we have the promise of summer and sun ahead – even if they later fail to appear.

Easter is all about hope. It also allows me to indulge in some of my favourite wines. As lamb is one of the most wine-friendly meats of all, this is the time to show off your finest red wines. Tradition would dictate a Bordeaux or Rioja Reserva, but just about any red wine will taste better alongside roast lamb of some kind. However, it is worth trying to match your wine to the kind of lamb you will be serving.

There are few nicer ways to celebrate the arrival of spring than a roast of delicate, pink new season lamb with lots of herbs, served with new potatoes and fresh seasonal vegetables. Easter is late this year, so we may be able to find some asparagus and early salads. Here I would go for a Rioja, but a Crianza or an unoaked Joven in preference to a Reserva or Gran Reserva, or possibly a Cru Beaujolais.

I suspect many of us will be tucking in to a leg of lamb, medium rare, studded with garlic and rosemary. With this, a good Bordeaux, such as the two below, would be ideal, or a Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva. A good Cabernet from California or Australia would also fit the bill nicely.

Lovers of Italian wine should had straight to Chianti Classico – the Isole e Olena, Fontodi or Monteraponi (€30 to €33 from independents), all tasted recently, would make the meal special. I am not a fan of cheap Chianti, though; I would much prefer the Sangiovese below, a much better bet if you’re looking for something less expensive.

You could go for any of the above options, but a lighter, fruitier wine, such a New World Pinot Noir, possibly from New Zealand, or Mencía from northern Spain, would be excellent.

Careful with the mint sauce, though: the combination of sweetness and acidity, especially vinegar, doesn’t do wine any favours. At least make sure you take a mouthful of meat between sauce and wine.

These days we are all familiar with spicier, Mediterranean-style lamb. If you have a vegetarian or vegan to please, serve your lamb with a Lebanese fattoush salad or go Moroccan, with spicy lamb served with roast peppers, aubergines and harissa-spiked hummus. This calls for bigger, spicier reds; think of a Languedoc, a southern Rhône or an Aussie Shiraz.

Château Janoy Bellevue 2017, Bordeaux
13.5%, €10.95 (down from €15.95)
A very enjoyable light, elegant Bordeaux with refined, cool plum fruits and well-integrated light tannins on the finish. Great value for money. Whelehans Wines, in Loughlinstown in Dublin, has the superior 2015 vintage of the same wine for €14.50.
From O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Sangiovese 2017, IGT Marche, Cantina dei Colli Ripani (organic, vegan)
12.5%, €14.95 to 15.99
A very happy wine brimming with delicious juicy dark cherry fruits, and a little bit of grip on the finish to make it a perfect food wine. With lighter lamb dishes.
From La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow, latouchewines4u.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6,greenmanwines.ie; the Little Green Grocer, Kilkenny,thelittlegreengrocer.ie; Kellys, Clontarf, Dublin, kellysofflicence.ie; Ardkeen Quality Foodstore, Waterford, Ardkeen.com.

Eggo Tinto de Tiza Malbec 2016, Zorzal
14%, €25
Your Easter egg? Concrete eggs are all the rage in wineries these days; this superb unoaked wine, with its fresh, deep, dark loganberry fruits, would go well with all sorts of roast lamb.
From La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow, latouchewines4u.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Clontarf Wines, Dublin, clontarfwines.ie.

Château Tour Sieujean 2012, Cru Bourgeois, Paulliac
13%, €35
Classic Bordeaux with developing notes of tobacco leaf and black pepper, cool blackcurrant fruits, and a long dry finish. Perfect for that posh Easter celebration.
From Whelehans Wines, Loughlinstown, Co Dublin whelehanswines.ie

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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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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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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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The best lesser known Italian wines

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

A quick quiz to temporarily silence the wine bore in your life; ask him (and it invariably is a him) what are Cirò, Sangue di Giuda, Sfursat, Rossese di Dolceacqua  and Nero di Troia? The answer is they are all wines from Italy.

Italy is a treasure trove of exciting wines from lesser-known regions and indigenous grape varieties made in unique styles. It has a range of soils and climates that allow it to produce a bewildering number of wines, and local traditions going back centuries.

There are more than 400 different classifications and in excess of 350 indigenous authorised grape varieties (and 500 others in use), found in 20 different regions. It is no surprise that even the nerdiest wine nerd will have problems remembering them all.

Italy is big in the wine world. Producing some 50 million hectolitres of wine each year, it vies with France as the world’s largest producer, responsible for almost a quarter of global production. When you remember that it runs from the wine-producing island of Pantelleria, a mere 60km from Tunisia, to the frozen Alps in the north, you can see why there is such amazing diversity.

Sometimes it can be a disadvantage, as the rest of the world struggles to understand and appreciate all of these wines. Many wine drinkers simply stick to a handful of well-known names and ignore the rest. This really is their loss, as the standard of winemaking in lesser-known Italy has shot up in recent years.

These four glorious “unknowns” will get your taste buds working in overdrive. Please don’t be afraid to try these, none cost more than €20.

Italians love wines with good acidity and sometimes a slight bitterness – which makes them brilliant food wines.

Rosso Piceno comes from the Marche region on the Adriatic coast, just north of the better-known Abruzzo region. Along with neighbours Rosso Conero and Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, the wines here offer excellent value for money. O’Briens Rosso Piceno must be made from a minimum of 60 per cent Sangiovese, the remainder Montepulciano.

Marzemino is rarely found outside of Italy where it is primarily grown in the cooler alpine Trentino-Alto Adige region. The wines are light and perfumed with juicy sour cherry fruits.

Neighbouring Friuli in the north-east corner of Italy, is responsible for many of Italy’s greatest white wines, as well as some light, elegant reds, this time from the local Refosco grape.

Puglia or Apulia, produces massive quantities of wine, much of it of very average quality. Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) and Negroamaro are the two most popular varieties, but our featured wine is a little more recherche, featuring a blend of Nero di Troia and Aglianico, grapes unique to the south of Italy.

Saladini Pilastri Rosso Piceno 2017, Organic
13% €15.95
Seductive, smooth, elegant red with toothsome red cherry fruits, a touch of spice and a dry finish. Great value for money. With roast pork or chicken.
From Drinkstore, Manor Street, D7; Avoca Rathcoole; Mortons of Galway, 148 Salthill Road Lower, Galway; Red Island Wine Company, 64 Church Street, Townparks, Skerries, Co Dublin.

Ponte del Diavolo Refosco 2016, Friuli
12.5% €15.99
Light refreshing red berries and strawberries with a lovely kick on the finish. Perfect by itself or with chicken or pork based salads.
From Blackrock Cellar, 23 Rock Hill, Blackrock, Co Dublin; Clontarf Wines, 48 Clontarf Road, Dublin 3 ; Red Island Wine Co. Skerriesmpany, 64 Church Street, Townparks, Skerries, Co Dublin.

Roberta Fugatti Marzemino 2017
13% €16
Delicate aromas of violets, light juicy dark fruits, good acidity and a tannin-free finish. A delicious, inviting wine to serve cool with charcuterie and cheese.
From SIYPS.com; Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, various locations

Caiaffa Puglia Rosso
13% €17.95
Bubbly, light, juicy dark cherry fruits with a supple rounded finish. A world away from the standard bruisers from this region. With tomato-based pasta dishes.
From Lilac Wines, 117 Phibsborough Avenue, Dublin 3; Baggot Street
Wines
, 17 Baggot Street Upper, Dublin 2; D-Six Wines, 159/163 Harold’s Cross Road, Dublin 6; Nectar Wines, Sandyford Village, Ballawley House, Sandyford Dublin 18

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What are the best red wines for less than €15?

 

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

Still feeling the pinch after Christmas spending? The search for bargain wines reaches an even greater intensity in the months of January and February.

Wines that sell for less than €10 rarely offer genuine value for money, as more than 50 per cent of what you pay will go straight to the Government. Once you pay more than €10, you stand a chance of getting something decent.

In recent months, I have urged readers to try their local independent wine shop or off-licence. Many were badly stung by below-cost selling by the multiples in the weeks before Christmas. This is their leanest time of year, so why not pop into your local indie and ask them to recommend a bottle of wine that offers real value for money? Most parts of Dublin are fortunate enough to have a decent local independent. Further afield it can be hit and miss. Although most retailers now offer an online service, specialists such as Wines Direct and Curious Wines, apparently we still prefer to buy our wine in a shop or supermarket.

This week, I asked four independent retailers from outside the Pale to nominate their best value red wine for less than €15. The four wines chosen all come from regions well known as happy hunting grounds for bargain hunters: Spain, the Languedoc and Puglia.

Declan Brady of Worldwide Wines in Waterford went straight for a Spanish wine from Jumilla. Made from the Monastrell grape (aka Mourvèdre) at 15 per cent alcohol, this is one to blast away those winter cobwebs in the nicest possible way. “It is big, rich and smooth,” says Brady. “We could easily sell it for over €20 and nobody would complain.”

Séamus Daly of Quintessential Wines in Drogheda plumped for an organic Tempranillo from Spain. “Our customers love it,” he says, “it’s a super juicy, well-balanced, floral style of Tempranillo. From family farmed high altitude vineyards, the wine has a lovely freshness not always found in wines from this area.”

Patricia Roberts of hotel, spa, restaurant and wine shop One Pery Square in Limerick says her guests are enthused by the lighter Languedoc red. “Guests see it as an all-rounder, a good match for a variety of foods. Elegant, silky and fruity, it is a step up from many of the high production wines/ labels in the local supermarket. The low alcohol content of 12.5 per cent has brought a few back to the shop for more.”

Lastly Michael Creedon of Bradley’s in Cork went with I Muri, Negroamaro at €14.95, as it consistently gets a positive reaction from our customers. “I think it’s because it offers many of those classic attributes we associate with Italian wines at a very approachable price.” Note some retailers will charge you €15.99.

Les Vignes d’Oc Rouge Grenache / Merlot 2017, Languedoc, France
12.5%, €12.99
Elegant smooth harmonious red fruits, with a soft, easy finish. Chicken pork or tomato-based pasta dishes.
Stockists: Grapevine, Dalkey onthegrapevine.ie; Cabot and Co., Westport, cabotandco.com; No1. Pery Square, Limerick, Oneperysquare.com; The PoppySeed, Clarinbridge, poppyseed.ie.

Lobetia Tempranillo 2017, Dominio de Punctum, VdT de Castilla, Organic
14%, €13.95
A very seductive medium-bodied wine with floral aromas, soft ripe red cherry fruits and an easy finish. A great all rounder with most white or red meats, as well as firm cheeses.
Stockists: Quintessential Wines, Drogheda, quintessentialwines.ie, Salt & Stove, D8, saltandstove.ie, The Hole in the Wall, Blackhorse Ave, Dublin 7: O’Leary’s, Cootehill.

Juan Gil Monastrell 2017, Jumilla
15%, €14.99
Full-bodied, with swarthy dark fruits – plums and blackcurrants, with spicy oak and a supple finish. With substantial meat and bean stews and red meats.
Stockists: Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie: Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; The Vintry, Dublin 6, vintry.ie; Fresh Stores, freshthegoodfoodmarket.ie; The Leopardstown Inn, leopardstowninn.ie; The Salthill Liquor Store, Galway; Mortons of Galway, Mortonsofgalway.ie; Clarkes SuperValu, Clarkes SuperValu, supervalu.ie.

 I Muri Negroamaro 20 , IGP Puglia, Vigneti del Salento
13.5%, €14.95-€15.99
A richly flavoured medium-bodied wine with cherries, black fruits, liquorice and coffee with an underlying earthiness and a rounded finish. With spicy lamb dishes.
Stockists: Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; The Vintry, Dublin 6, vintry.ie; Morton’s, Ranelagh, mortons.ie; The Wine Centre, Kilkenny, Thewinecentre.ie; Drinkstore, Manor St., Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie; McHughs, Kilbarrack Road and Malahide Rd., mchughs.ie; Redmonds, Ranelagh; Redmonds.ie; Power & Co. Fine Wines, Lucan; Power-wine.com; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com.

 

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