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New Zealand Pinot Noir

First published in The Irish Times 31st October, 2015

New Zealand is one of the very few countries that can claim to have conquered that difficult and quarrelsome grape, Pinot Noir. Two of the finest producers from that country visited Ireland in recent weeks.

The Ata Rangi vineyards were planted in 1980 by Clive Paton, his wife, Phyl, and sister Alison. At the age of 28, he sold his dairy herd and set about growing grapes. He had attended a meeting at which soil scientist Dr Derek Milne suggested that Martinborough, just down the road from his farm, had the potential for viticulture. He jokes that he knew the land was stony as he used to graze his knees every time he played rugby there (Paton scored a try against the touring 1977 Lions, and his grandfather was an All Black).

Martinborough is a small town, laid out in the shape of a Union Jack by its founder, Irishman John Martin, in the 19th century, on the North Island, an hour’s drive from the capital, Wellington. The deep gravel soils provide excellent drainage. Spring is cool, with an ever-present danger of frost, but the region benefits from strong winds (good for keeping disease away) dry autumn weather and very high diurnal fluctuation. The wider region, known as Wairarapa, now has more than 50 wineries.

Ata Rangi was the first to use the famous “gumboot” clone of Pinot Noir. The story goes that an anonymous New Zealand winemaker was travelling through Burgundy in the 1970s and took a cutting from the greatest Pinot Noir vineyard in the world, La Romanée Conti. He tried to smuggle it back into New Zealand in a gumboot. However it was confiscated by an alert customs official, Malcolm Abel, in Wellington airport. As Abel was interested in viticulture, he put it into quarantine and then planted it a few years later. He passed on some of its progeny to his friend Clive Paton; this clone now makes up most of the oldest vines in Ata Rangi, where it is said to produce wines with a fine silky tannins and dark brooding savoury fruits. Certainly this describes Ata Rangi Pinot to a tee. The wines, which can age brilliantly, are elegant and velvety.

Englishman Nigel Greening worked in the advertising business before falling in love with Pinot Noir. A self-confessed Pinot addict, he is one of the most articulate producers, thoughtful, knowledgeable about Pinot the world over, and Burgundy in particular. In 2000, he bought Felton Road in the far south of the South Island, and, with winemaker Blair Walter, has brought Felton Road to the very top of the Pinot tree. “It is probably one of the easiest places in the world to grow Pinot,” says Greening. They have aimed for a less muscular style in recent years. “We have moved to an earlier picking, just when the greenness goes; our wines are fresher and lighter.”

They now cultivate biodynamically, and are almost “closed gate”, producing enough food for 25 people and rarely going to the supermarket. “I have never been a fan of the Harry Potter end of biodynamics, burying cow horns and all that. Old-fashioned farming is my aim. I like the idea that our soil gets better every year and not worse,” he says.

Felton Road Pinots are completely different in style to Ata Rangi. They are vibrant and exuberant with good acidity and pure dark fruits whereas Ata Rangi is elegant and soft with subtle savoury flavours. Both rank amongst the best, not just in New Zealand, but in the world. Sadly these wines are not cheap, but then good Pinot Noir rarely is. I include one less expensive wine.

I would also recommend seeking out Dry River in Martinborough, Rippon in Central Otago, Bell Hill, Pyramid and Pegasus in Waipara, sadly unavailable here for the moment. You can find Two Paddocks, owned by actor Sam Neil, and Escarpment, made by “Mr Pinot”, Larry McKenna, both of which are excellent. Pinot Noir, by the way, goes very well with game, turkey and goose if you are looking for seasonal pairings.

Brancott-Estate-Marlborough-Pinot-Noir2Brancott Estate Pinot Noir 2012, Marlborough

Light red cherry fruits with green herbs and a pleasant meatiness.

Stockists: Widely available including Tesco and other multiples.

ImageFelton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago

Violet aromas, fresh black cherries and damsons with lovely acidity. Supple, soft and ready to go.

Stockists:; The Vineyard Ormeau Rd; The Lighthouse, Whiteabbey; Grange, Co Down; Emersons Armagh.

DSCF6150Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2013, Martinborough
13.5% €63.99

A stunning wine with structure and power, combined with perfectly ripe dark cherry fruits. A keeper.

Stockists: The Corkscrew, Dublin 2; O’Briens; On the Grapevine, Dalkey;; Green Man Wines, Terenure.

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Viva the New España

First published in The irish Times 24th October, 2015

How times have changed. In the not too distant past, many consumers saw European wines as outdated, unreliable and impossible to understand. They voted with their wallets, heading straight for the New World section of their wine shop or supermarket.

Now our tastes appear to be changing. For the past five years or more, much of the excitement in the wine world has been centred on Europe. The classic regions in France, Spain and Italy still feature strongly, but in each of these countries, it is the lesser-known or completely unheard of areas that have swung into fashion. Add in other smaller producer countries such as Portugal, Germany, Greece and the former Yugoslavia, and it makes for a heady mix of fascinating wines.

Each September, the Spanish Commercial Office holds a trade tasting in Dublin. It is one of the best-attended events all year, and with good reason, generally featuring a huge range of wines.

My only complaint would be that there were far too many for anyone to cover in a day, but there is certainly never any shortage of interest.

In a side-room, we were treated to a master class on the wines of the Canaries, which included some truly fascinating wines – see La Solana, below. Holidaymakers in these islands should certainly try some of the local produce before moving on to any other wines.

Spain has the largest vineyard in the world, with almost a million hectares of vines. Because of lower yields, they are not the world’s largest producer – that honour falls to either Italy or France, depending on the vintage. Arguably the biggest change in Spain over the past 25 years has been the introduction of irrigation (once banned), which has allowed production to increase despite a 30 per cent reduction in vineyard surface. It has also given hitherto moribund uneconomic regions a new lease of life.

In very broad brushstrokes, you can divide Spanish wine into three sectors, each a strip running east-west across the country. The north has a cooler, more humid climate and produces the best white wines and the lightest, most elegant reds. Across the centre, the baking hot summers tend to produce richer, more full-bodied red wines. The far south is best-known for producing great fortified wines.

These are only very rough guides: areas such as Ribera del Duero in the north can produce fairly full-blooded reds and the Mediterranean regions in the centre offer some elegant reds, including the Mustiguillo below.

Proximity to cooling coastal winds or increased altitude make for a diverse and fascinating mix of climates. Modern viticultural and winemaking practices may tend to blur what once were distinctive styles, but Spain seems to offer a wonderful diversity of styles. Not all is perfect; there are still plenty of over-oaked and over-extracted wines, but even the more full-bodied wines, perfect for winter drinking, are more balanced than was the case previously.

The most exciting move over the last few years has been the re-emergence of indigenous varieties. Where once Spanish winemakers revered Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, alongside their native Tempranillo, Garnacha, Carineña and Monastrell, now the talk is all about Bobal, Listán Negro, Menciá, Graciano, Godello, Xarel-lo and many, many more.

So this week, no Rioja and no foreign grape varieties. Instead three wines from very different regions. The Mustiguillo, made primarily from the Bobal grape, comes from the mountains above Valencia. The La Solana is made from 100 per cent Listán Negro, a variety widely grown on the island of Tenerife, but not found anywhere else.

Emporda is a small but much talked-about region in the far north-east of Catalonia. The wines share the same rich, full-bodied character of the wines of Roussillon just over the border in France. The Verdera Negre, made from Carineña and Garnacha, offers amazing value.

Wilson on Wine 2016: The wines to drink this year by John Wilson is now available to buy for €12.99 from and in bookshops

DSCF6146Verdera Negre 2013, Viña Empordália, Empordá

Medium to full-bodied with rich blackcurrants and plums, and a rounded finish.

Stockists: Sheridan’s Cheesemongers; Ashe’s, Lettercollum Kitchen Project.

Image 1La Solana 2012, Suertes del Marqués, Valle de la Orotava,

Cool dark fruits, dark chocolate with a refreshing acidity. Gorgeous wine.

Stockists: 64wine, Glasthule; Clontarf Wines; Baggot Street Wines; Blackrock Cellars; Michael’s, Deerpark; Redmonds, Ranelagh; Black Pig, Donnybrook.

Image 9Mestizaje Tinto 2014, Bodega Mustiguillo, Pago El Terrerazo

Refreshing supple raspberry and red cherry fruits with a well-integrated spiciness.

Stockists: Deveney’s, Dundrum; Sweeney’s, Glasnevin; D-Six, Harold’s Cross;
Wicklow Wine Company.

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Take two Malbecs: France v Argentina

From the Irish Times, Saturday 17th October, 2015

The two wineries are some 11,000km apart, and the wines could not be more different, but they have one thing in common; Malbec, currently one of the most fashionable grapes.

Cahors in France has just over 4,000 hectares of Malbec; Argentina has 31,000. By coincidence, winemakers from both places recently visited Ireland in the same week.

Cahors is a very pleasant city, an hour’s drive north of Toulouse, famous for the magnificent Valentré bridge. It is surrounded on three sides by the river Lot. The river meanders westwards to the wine region, where the steep serpentine slopes offer a myriad of soils and meso-climates. The lower sandier slopes are said to produce softer, fruitier wines, the limestone plateau at the top makes wine with a firmer more tannic structure.

Martine Jouffreau and Yves Hermann of Clos de Gamot have been together for 38 years and look the typical contented rural French couple with a keen interest in food and rugby. Their daughter, a nurse, lives in Dublin. The estate belonged to Martine’s grandfather who planted vines a 100 years ago that go into a special wine, Cuvée Centenaires, produced only in the best years.

I am very fond of the Clos de Gamot, a wine that represents everything that is great about Cahors. There are other wines too.

Hermann works with 100 per cent Malbec (although he did admit to growing a tiny amount of Sauvignon and Chardonnay). “Our wines are very different to Argentina,” says Hermann. “We don’t like marketing and we make Cahors, not Malbec. In fact, we call it Côt or Auxerrois. For a good wine you need acidity. Our terroir always gives a freshness. It stays with the wine, even at 50-years-old.”

People often talk of the black wine of Cahors; this actually refers to an old method of concentrating the wine before blending it with those of other regions, notably Bordeaux.

Basic Cahors can be a little thin and rustic, but there have been huge improvements in recent years. These days Cahors is more likely to be nicely aromatic, peppery and dry, with savoury plum fruits. It is not a big gutsy wine, but very satisfying. It needs to be drunk with food.

If Cahors has an aesthetic austerity, Argentinian Malbec is perfumed and vibrant, with rich succulent softly-textured dark fruits, backed up with plenty of power. It is hardly surprising this style of Malbec has become popular the world over, and in the US in particular. It is a great partner for another Argentine speciality, barbecued steak.

The Chakana estate was founded in 2002 by the Pelizzatti family, who originally came from Valtelina in Italy. I met up with the very affable Gabriel Bloise, head of operations at Chakana.

“Our style of wine is changing; we are using less new oak, and less oak overall. We trying to produce more elegant wines,” he says.

Chakana is based in Luján de Cuyo just south of Mendoza where it has 150 hectares of vines. A few years ago, it expanded into the Uco Valley further south. The Uco is one of the most talked-about regions of Argentina, partly as a tourist destination, but also for producing wines with intense colour and aroma, higher acidity and more succulent fruits.

Chakana is putting together an origin–based series of wines that will reflect the different regions where it owns vines. It has also made decisive moves towards organic viticulture. “There is no other way to produce wine,” says Bloise. “Within a year, we saw a huge change in the quality of our grapes. We were very scared at first – weeds and oidium were supposed to be a problem, but they weren’t. Now we don’t have a plan or solution for every disease; we have a super master plan!”

DSCF6128Clos des Gamots 2008, Cahors

Lifted aromas, soft maturing ripe plums with good acidity and a solid savoury tannic core. Lovely wine.

Stockists: The Wicklow Wine Company, Wicklow

Dona Paul EstateDoña Paula Estate Malbec 2014, Uco Valley, Mendoza

Very nicely balanced Malbec with perfumed floral aromas and plump ripe dark fruits.

Stockists: widely available including Tesco, SuperValu and O’Briens.

DSCF6135Chakana Estate Selection 2013, Mendoza

Rich meaty dark fruits with a nice fresh character and good length. With beef.

Stockists: Donnybrook Fair; Gibneys; Hole in the Wall; The Corkscrew; No 21, Cork; Thomas Woodberry.

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The Call of Duty; the forthcoming budget

Over the last few months, the Irish Wine Association and other groups have made a persuasive argument for a decrease in the excise duty on wine. We pay an extortionate €3.19 excise duty on every bottle of wine we buy. Add 23 per cent VAT to the price and the Government takes more than half the money you spend on a €10 bottle of wine.

Sparkling wine, for some reason, is double that. Aldi and Lidl currently both have one for sale at €10.49; the duty and VAT make up an incredible €8.34 of that. Can they be making a profit?

Sadly, there is one thing I am fairly sure about; there will be no decrease in excise duty on wine in the forthcoming budget. The Minister for Finance has made it perfectly clear in the past that he sees wine drinkers as middle class and wine a foreign luxury and therefore not worthy of his attention. I don’t believe wine should be penalised over other alcoholic drinks but at the moment it certainly is. The best we can hope for is that things stay as they are.

I do hope he has listened to the blossoming craft cider industry and harmonised the excise duty on cider with that of beer. Of all the nascent artisan drinks this must have the greatest potential to bring employment to parts of rural Ireland.

But other than that I expect that there will be no further changes. The Minister will be assisted by the growing calls for action on alcohol abuse. The entire drinks business needs to take our problems with alcohol consumption seriously. While the trade is very keen to point out that countries such as Spain, France and Italy have virtually no tax on wine and other drinks, the drinking culture in those countries is very different.

It seems that Northern European countries, genetically, culturally or simply because of the cold weather, have a propensity to drink more and to excess. Teenagers prinking before heading out for an evening has been well-documented, but our youth is not the only group who abuse alcohol. It permeates every sector of our society and we need to find ways to control it.

It breaks my heart to accept it, but if part of the solution means high taxes, that is something we should be prepared to accept. It seems strange though that one arm of the Government is proposing measures to limit alcohol consumption while others are applauding the opening of new distilleries and breweries around the country.

High rates of duty are certainly not the sole answer. The proposed minimum pricing seems to be the most sensible way forward as it targets those who buy large quantities of cheap alcohol. It would still hit hard-pressed couples who enjoy a bottle of wine once or twice a week over dinner.

A ban on below-cost selling would help too, whatever the European Union has to say. The larger retailers are well aware that drink is a major pull for shoppers and are quite happy to sell at cost or below (and claim back the difference in VAT) to increase footfall. It will be interesting to see how the multiples react to minimum pricing. Theoretically, it should allow them to improve the quality of their wines. If they simply increase the price of existing lines, the public will not be impressed.

There is still a large group of people who abuse alcohol in the pubs, clubs and restaurants around the country, and the high cost does not seem to affect them. Although the new wine shops and off-licences have been a boon for the wine lover, perhaps we need to limit the number of outlets that can sell alcohol for consumption both on and off the premises. For instance, I find it incongruous that a garage can sell wine at the same time as petrol.

This week: three quality wines to enjoy in moderation.

Domaine de PellehautDomaine de Pellehaut Harmonie de Gascogne 2014
Vibrant herby rich peach fruits and a touch of honey. For sipping before dinner with friends or at a party.
Mitchell & Son; Deveney’s; Thyme Out, Dalkey; Myles Doyle, Gorey.

Image 10Vitiano Rosso 2013, Falesco IGP Umbria

Fragrant, elegant wine with supple rounded dark fruits and an easy finish.
Stockists: Vanilla Grape, Kenmare; On The Grapevine, Dalkey;
Number 21, Cork; Callans, Dundalk;

DSCF6125Wagner Stempel Spatburgunder 2013, Rheinhessen

Utterly seductive wine with silky light red cherry fruits.

Martin’s; Blackrock Cellar; Green Man Wines; Morton’s Galway;
Mitchell & Son; Redmonds; Sweeney’s; 64 Wine; Searsons.

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Caught in a web: the changing world of the wine critic

Caught in a web: the changing world of the wine critic

First published in The Irish Times, Sat, Oct 3, 2015, 03:00

Wine writer Jancis Robinson had a thought- provoking article in the Financial Times a few weeks ago on the changing fortunes of the wine journalist. Her points could probably be applied to critics in all genres, but she was fairly blunt about the rise and fall of the wine critic. As wine grew in popularity around the world throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, new consumers sought out information and advice on what wines to drink. Prior to the internet a handful of top wine writers from a few countries were omnipotent, with the power to make or break a producer, a region or a vintage. These would have included Robinson herself. Their pronouncements were awaited with hope and trepidation by sections of the wine trade, who knew a positive review would make their jobs lot easier. Robert Parker, the high priest of wine critics, went a step further, giving each wine marks out of 100. Not only was this far easier to understand, it also allowed consumers to make direct comparisons between wines.

We now live in a much more democratic age in which everyone can voice their opinions. I can remember a time when most consumers were unwilling to give a view on any wine for fear of being ridiculed. These days the internet is coming down with multiple tasting notes on every wine as well as accounts of visits to various wine regions. Wine Searcher and Cellartracker give you access to thousands of professional and amateur tasting notes, scores and prices. Sitting in a restaurant with an intimidating wine list, you can look up apps such as Vivino on your smartphone and get multiple ratings written by consumers. In this era of social media, everybody has the opportunity to be heard.

Is the opinion of someone who has been tasting and drinking wine for the best part of 30 years any more valid than that of someone who is just discovering wine for the very first time? We all taste wine differently, and we all have personal preferences, even if professional writers try to hide these. As a reader, it is useful to know the foibles of the critic. I usually avoid wines Parker acclaims. It is not that he doesn’t have a phenomenal palate – he does – but he tends to prefer big, rich, powerful wines with lots of new oak, and I don’t.

Some online reviews are obviously well written by genuine wine lovers, many of whom have a very high level of knowledge. Others, you suspect, are being manipulated by outside interests. Apparently restaurateurs are approached by bloggers offering a positive review in return for free meals and drinks. I have been offered a reward for writing a positive review only once; the producer said he regularly paid a number of UK bloggers sums of money, or free trips for a positive write-up. I turned it down, naturally, but I am the recipient of free sample bottles of wine, as well as trips abroad. I suspect many online writers would be delighted to accept these in lieu of payment.

Although I don’t always agree with her I know I would pay a lot more attention to what an expert such as Robinson has to say about a wine than someone who enjoyed a glass in a crowded restaurant. It is the difference between reading TripAdvisor and Paul Theroux. That said, if thousands of consumers give a wine a positive evaluation, obviously it has something going for it. And who am I to say they are wrong?

The fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Robinson, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

This week: three outstanding wines that this wine critic enjoyed recently.

Five of Ireland’s leading specialist wine importers will come together to hold a consumers’ wine tasting featuring more than 150 wines. Spit Festival will take place on 29th October in Smock Alley Theatre from 6.30pm. Tickets are €25.

DSCF6122Dao Rótulo 2012, Niepoort, Portugal

Delicious cool piquant blueberry and damson fruits with a lovely sour streak.

Stockists: Leading specialist wine shops.

Padras RupestrisCeller Pardas Rupestris 2013, Penedes

Fascinating organic wine with baked gooseberries, peaches and honeycomb, finishing bone dry.

Stockists: 64Wine; Clontarf Wines; Green Man Wines; Baggot Street Wines; Michaels, Deerpark; La Touche, Greystones.

DSCF6030La Petite Ourse 2013, Côtes du Rhône, Pascal Chalon

No ordinary Côtes du Rhône but a superb rich wine with warming concentrated dark fruits sprinkled spice.

Stockists: Jus de Vine, Portmarnock

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Oz Clarke: Britain’s talented wine writer’s new books

Oz Clarke: Britain’s talented wine writer’s new books
The former actor believes in telling the story behind the wine
Grapes & Wines offers an in-depth view of the major varieties, including where and how each is grown, its history and very usefully, the best producers.

First published in the Irish Times
Sat, Sep 26, 2015, 17:00

Most of us are familiar with that broad smiling face on television, making some wisecrack to James May as the two travel around Britain, France or California in a very expensive car. More mature readers will remember his partnership with Jilly Goolden on the BBC’s Food and Drink programme, where they vied with each other to come up with the most outrageous wine descriptions. Either way, Oz Clarke has been a familiar face on our TV screens for the best part of 30 years.Behind the cheery demeanour, he is incredibly hard-working, knowledgeable and a prodigious writer. I have copies of his books on Bordeaux, Australia, and new classic wine regions, as well as his excellent Encyclopedia of Wine. There are plenty more. I spent several days in his company earlier this year travelling around Austria and Romania. He was always the last one tasting wines and making notes, full of questions for every producer and a font of information. This autumn, Clarke publishes three books, one in conjunction with Margaret Rand, the other two his own work.

Clarke is very proud of his Irish roots. His mother was an O’Leary from Graiguenamanagh (he is a cousin of writer and broadcaster Olivia O’Leary) and growing up, he spent many happy times there. “It gave a rich emotional quality to my childhood,” says Clarke. “All of the best summers of my life were spent there. The Barrow is one of the most beautiful rivers to have in your childhood memories.” He even thought seriously about going to TCD. “I knew I would have a wonderful time; and it was four years instead of three. I think it would have been a huge struggle to ever leave Dublin actually.” Instead he studied psychology and theology at Oxford. It was there that he first came across wine, captaining the wine-tasting team. Having started a career in acting and singing (he appeared in the 1978 film Superman, and played Gen Juan Perón in the musical Evita in the West End) he moved into writing about wine when the BBC was looking for an actor who knew about wine.The History of Wine in 100 Bottles is not really a history book, rather 100 chronological mini-histories of bottles, people, events and other milestones that have helped to shape the wine we drink today. “Wine writers aren’t telling the stories any more,” says Clarke, “and they need to – this is what people want to read. I worked very hard to cut each entry down to 500 words.” One entry takes a look at the use of resin as an anti-oxidant in wine in ancient Greece and Rome, a practice that continues today with retsina. Apparently Pliny was a connoisseur, preferring Calabrian resin, and enjoyed the way it stuck to his teeth with its tart taste. There is a separate entry for retsina in the 1970s along with Gallo’s hearty Burgundy (1964), the first bag-in-box (1965 would you believe?) and Marlborough sauvignon (1983). The final entry brings us up to 2014 and the story of fine wine fraudster Rudi Kurniawan.

It is tempting to see the second book, Grapes & Wines, written with Rand, another formidable writer, as Jancis Lite, a lesser version of Jancis Robinson’s magnus opus Wine Grapes. That is to do it a disservice. Grapes & Wines offers an in-depth view of the major varieties, including where and how each is grown, its history and very usefully, the best producers. The major varieties, such as cabernet and chardonnay get a dozen pages and lesser grapes a short paragraph. This is an incredibly handy, easy-to-use reference book.I am sure my copy will become dog-eared as the months go by. “The challenge with this book,” says Clarke, “was to make it interesting for people who don’t know that much about wine but at the same time useful to those who work in the business.” The final book is the Pocket Wine A-Z, a handy annual guide to producers, grapes and wines.

LDSCF6107e Grand Blanc 2012, Côtes de Thongue, Comte de Bertier

Peaches in custard with a smooth mellow texture. Delicious. With creamy chicken dishes.

Stockists: Molloy’s Liquor Stores

DSCF6109Cusumano Shamaris Grillo 2014, IGT Terre Siciliane

Lifted floral aromas followed by captivating refreshing nectarine and cantaloupe melon fruits on the palate. A very appealing wine.

Stockists: O’Briens

DSCF5917Ottomarzo 2012, Tenute Dettori, Sardinia

Stunning wine. Warm ripe soft dark fruits with hints of liquorice, warm earth and herbs; full, voluptuous and rounded with real complexity.

Stockists: 64wine, Glasthule

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Romanian Wines

Discovering the wines of Romania
A tour of vineyards revealed some interesting wines
First published in the Irish Times
Sat, Sep 19, 2015, 00:00

The last thing Englishman Philip Cox wanted on leaving college was a boring desk job, so he headed to Romania, where he ended up, at the tender age of 23, as managing director of the local branch of the massive German wine company, Reh Kendermann.You may not know the name, but this is the company behind German wines Black Tower and Bend in the River, as well as a large number of own-label brands.His job was sourcing wine for various Reh Kendermann brands. Cox persuaded the company to make the wine themselves. The next step was buying their own vineyards, but the Germans baulked at this. Cox departed, and with several partners, including his wife, set up Carmela Recas. The original aim was to buy 50 hectares in Banat (in western Romania), but the government insisted they buy the entire 500 hectare estate and the winery too. Fortunately, they were given five years to pay, effectively bankrolling the fledgling business.The company has been hugely successful and now has 200 employees, and will sell 12 million bottles of wine next year. It farms 1,000 hectares of vines, and owns a franchise chain of 150 wine shops around Romania.

The vineyards and winery are run on very modern New World lines, with harvesting at night where possible (daytime temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius on a regular basis), and a large state-of-art winery.The company’s Australian winemaker Hartley Smithers spends part of the year working at Cassella – otherwise known as Yellow Tail. The aim is to produce juicy, fruit-filled wines that are sold and drunk within a year.“Our strategy is to offer a huge range to our customers,” says Cox. “We have over 250 labels and 65 different wines. We listen to our clients and innovate all the time. For 20 years they all wanted international varieties. People don’t buy our wines because they are Romanian. They buy them because they are nice wines with good labels that offer good value.” In the past two to three years, interest has grown in native Romanian varieties. The international grape varieties include Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, the latter two proving to have real potential.

In Romania, homemade wine accounts for 50 per cent of consumption. Virtually every household has a row or two of vines out the back, and makes their own wine. “Nearly all of it,” says Cox, “tastes like s**t.”I did visit four other wineries in Romania (I travelled with other Irish and UK journalists, all paid for by Cox), but none are available in Ireland. Halewood is another company founded by an Englishman, and Serve was founded by a Corsican winemaker. Of greater interest were two small wine estates that have been restored to their original owners after the fall of Ceaucesceau. Princess Illeana Kripp-Continescu and her husband Baron Jakob built a replica of the original winery in Dragasani, in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps, where her family have owned vineyards for 300 years. She remembers being smuggled out of Romania in an airplane in the early 1960s. The Prince Stirbey wines, made primarily with indigenous grape varieties, are very good, and available to Irish members of The Wine Society.Avincus was set up by lawyer Dr Cristiana Stoica, her husband (a professor of law and Minister for Justice for several years) and her family. As with Stirbey, this was a restitution – they rebuilt the ruins of the original home.Romania appears to have all it takes; a mix of large commercial producers and small estates, as well as its own local interesting grape varieties; aromatic whites such as Feteasca Regala, Feteasca Alba, Tmaîios and Româneasca. Of the red grapes Feteasca Neagra struck me as having real potential. Hopefully we will see more of them in this country in the near future.

Image 2Frunza Pinot Noir 2014, Romania

Delicate sweet red cherry fruits with no tannins – serve lightly chilled.

Stockists: Independents nationwide including The Vintry; Gibneys; Fresh; Higgins; Brady’s Shankill; O’Donovan’s; Next Door.

DSCF6079Umbrele Merlot 2014, Romania

Smooth ripe juicy dark plum fruits with a rounded finish.

Stockists: Independents nationwide including The Vintry; Gibneys; Fresh; Higgins; Brady’s Shankill; O’Donovan’s; Next Door.

DSCF6072Paparuda Syrah 2013, Romania

Light smooth sweet cassis and dark cherry fruits with some notes of vanilla.

Stockists: Independents nationwide including Listons; Deveneys, Rathmines; Ardkeen; Egans Portlaoise; McEntee, Kells; Carry Out; Londis Malahide.

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Sherry Cocktails

Dust off the sherry bottle – it’s trendy now
The Spanish wine is becoming a fashionable cocktail addition

First published in The Irish Times
Sat, Sep 12, 2015, 02:15

I am always reluctant to add anything to my wine. I have too much respect for both winemaker and grape. If he or she had wanted their wine to taste fizzy and have bits of fruit floating around in it, they would have added fizzy water and bits of fruit; except then it isn’t wine. Besides, good wine tastes far too nice by itself to consider meddling around with it. Even Kir, the Burgundian aperitif of Aligoté and Crème de Cassis, seems merely a way of using up a rather acidic wine.Obviously there is a point to adding things to average wine – it helps mask any deficiencies. In the cold of winter, mulled wine can be warming, and in summer, a spritzer can be refreshing. But this summer a new wine-based cocktail has become very fashionable, and it is made using a very fine wine.

I have great sympathy for the Jerezanos. They produce sherry, one of the greatest drinks known to man, one that requires lengthy ageing and expert blending. The world, sadly, ignores them much of the time. Despite sherry being hip in the wine bars of London and elsewhere, sales of the real stuff are steady rather than brilliant. However, rescue may be at hand. Sherry cocktails are taking off. You may have come across white port and tonic, muddled or garnished with fresh mint. A rebujito is the Spanish equivalent, a fino sherry with tonic and ice. Apparently they have been knocking it back for years at fiestas all around the south of Spain. It does have advantages; the lovely taste of fino sherry but less of the alcohol, so you don’t slide under the table after a few drinks. If you find fino and tonic a little too dry, you can always add lemonade instead. There are even a few pre-mixed versions available. But this is only the start of sherry and cocktails. The internet is coming down with recipes. Sherry company Lustau has its own site, with suggestions for every style of sherry. Talia Baiocchi has published a book, Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-kept Secret, with Cocktails and Recipes.

I thought this was something new, but a little research showed that sherry cocktails go back to the 19th century, which saw the creation of two classics, the Bamboo and the Adonis. And of course there is the sherry cobbler.The Bamboo, invented in the 1890s in the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan, calls for equal parts of fino sherry and dry vermouth with two dashes of Angostura bitters and two of orange bitters. The Adonis, apparently named after a Broadway musical, is made up of two parts fino sherry to one part sweet vermouth with two dashes of orange bitters. The cobbler is of even earlier origin. Recipes vary greatly but all contain sherry (fino or amontillado), sugar and lots of ice. Most contain citrus, usually a slice or two of orange, as well.Moving up in strength, sherry brandy is also now back in fashion, as an ingredient in cocktails. This goes through a unique solera system, producing distinctive, sometimes exquisite brandies. I visited the Lepanto distillery in Gonzalez Byass earlier this year and tasted some amazing brandies. Sadly, they are not available in Ireland. However, if you are travelling back from Spain, look for them in travel retail shops – Lepanto is very cheap given the quality.At a more rarified level, Fernando Castilla and Bodegas Tradicion both make superb sherry brandies. They are not cheap, however. Celtic Whiskey has the Bodegas Tradicion brandy for €75.99 and the amazing Tradicion Platinum brandy for €289.99.I am glad that the sherry houses have found a new audience for their wonderful wines, and I hope it wins new converts to this unique drink. However, I cannot help shuddering slightly at the idea of adding the finest old amontillado to a cocktail.

ImageTio Pepe Palamino Fino

One of the best wine brands of all; delicious, light, elegant and refreshing with subtle flavours of almond and green olives.

Stockists: Very widely available including O’Briens, Tesco, Dunnes, SuperValu.

DSCF6033La Iña Fino sherry

A great name in sherry, now revived. Lovely tangy fresh dry wine with nuts, green apples and a bracing salinity.

Stockists: Mitchell & Son, chq, Sandycove & Avoca, Kilmacanogue; McCabes, Foxrock & Blackrock.

Lustau Solera Gran Reserva Finest Selection, Brandy de Jerez

Remarkable brandy and remarkable value too. Coffee, caramel, chocolate, burnished old mahogany furniture and nuts.

Stockists: Mitchell & Son, chq. The Wine Centre, Kilkenny; McCabe’s;
Deveney’s, Dundrum.

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Champagne Bubble: the rise of the small producer

Champagne bubble: the rise of the small producer
What started with a few ambitious growers is now the next big thing in wine trends

From the Irish Times, Sat, Sep 5, 2015, 05:00

Champagne remains the most glamorous drink of all. It may have been taboo to order a bottle in a restaurant during the downturn, but sales, apparently, are on the increase once again. Prosecco has its place, but so too does good Champagne. We know all of the big brands – Bollinger, Veuve Cliquot, Roederer and Moët & Chandon – as well as their luxury cuvées – Cristal, Krug and Dom Perignon. For a long time these big names had it all their own way. Many still cling to the idea that they are superior, and sometimes they are, but they don’t always make the best wines.

The big houses have a wealth of experience (and a wealth of wealth) and are experts in the process of blending. As suggested a couple of weeks back, Champagne is probably the greatest blended wine of all. A typical nonvintage Champagne will be a mix of vintages, grape varieties, subregions, and various wine-making methods. A master blender is more like a parfumier, with several hundred options open to him.

At a recent tasting, chef de cave Michel Parisot of Champagne Devaux pointed out a change of 2-3 per cent in a blend will have a dramatic effect on the outcome. With nonvintage Champagne (or multivintage, as the Champenois now prefer to call it) the idea is to offer the consumer exactly the same wine every time.

The supermarkets make a decent job of their own-label Champagnes, although I would avoid any unknown brand sold at “half-price”. The big trend in the past few years has been towards what are known as grower Champagnes. In the past, the big houses bought grapes from vignerons all over the Champagne region and made the wine themselves (or bought wine and labelled it as their own). The emphasis was on the complicated winemaking and blending process and, of course, the expensive marketing.

Then and now, if you were lucky enough to own a patch of vines in the region, or better still a vineyard with Premier Cru or Grand Cru status, you could make a lot of money simply selling on your grapes every autumn. None of that messy, time-consuming winemaking to worry about, and no expensive machinery to buy. Then a few more ambitious growers started making their own Champagne. Instead of regional blends, their wines are usually from a single commune, or even a single plot of vines.

Does that make them better? It can certainly make them more interesting, although it depends on how good the vineyard is and how good the winemaker is. Either way, these wines are now hip and in huge demand in Paris, New York and London.

As these are small producers, they tend to be of interest to independent wine merchants who can import boutique Champagnes without pressure to achieve huge sales. Terroirs in Donnybrook imports the excellent biodynamic Champagnes of Larmandier Bernier. Wines Direct has the lovely, reasonably priced Charpentier range. This year, I have also tasted the excellent and reasonably priced Bénard-Pitois (€34.95 Whelehans Wines); the gluggable fruity AR Lenoble (€45 Greenacres, Wexford) and Bérèche & Fils (restaurants only but brilliant Champagne). You will find others, but beware of large co-operatives masquerading as small producers.

We tend to drink Champagne before a meal or (disastrously) with dessert or wedding cake. Yet it is one of the most accommodating food wines, great with shellfish (especially oysters and lobster), of course, but also all sorts of fish, rich canapés, Chinese and Thai food, sushi and sashimi. My favourite food with Champagne is gougères, those delicious warm cheesy choux pastries served in Champagne and Burgundy, although I have several friends who swear by fish and chips with their Champagne! It works, so long as you don’t add vinegar into the mix.

DSCF5883Champagne Gaston Chiquet Sélection Brut N.V.

A fine grower Champagne, with expressive ripe raspberry and redcurrant fruits and citrus with a fine dry finish.

Stockists: Green Man Wines, Terenure; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street.

Image 4Vilmart Grand Cellier Brut Premier Cru N.V.

One of the finest grower Champagnes; a beautifully textured elegant Champagne with subtle brioche and rounded fruits, with a refined acidity throughout.

Stockists: Quintessential Wines, Drogheda, Hole in Wall, D7.

DSCF5658Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin Vintage Rosé 2004

Superb mature refined raspberry fruits, balancing the fine acidity, with a long elegant finish. From one of the large Champagne houses.

Celtic Whiskey Store, Redmond’s, O’Briens and Jus de Vine.

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Last of the summer wine
Before the nights close in, try some light, fresh and fruity reds
The Irish Times, Sat, Aug 29, 2015, 01:00

It is not quite yet time to stow away the garden furniture for another year, but summer is drawing inexorably to a close. Whether you are heading down to Electric Picnic (see you there at the chocolate and wine matching session in the Theatre of Food?) or (hopefully) just taking in the last few rays, this might be the final opportunity to enjoy summer wines before the dark nights close in. Or is it? If truth be told, I enjoy fresh and fruity wines the whole year round. I love red wine with tuna and salmon, and also with cold meats, charcuterie, chicken and pork. The best red wines for this kind of food are lower in alcohol and lighter in style.

Beaujolais is the first wine that comes to mind, but a glass of cool Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, chilled if the weather is really hot, is thirst-quenching and satisfying. A few months ago, a wine importer called me up in a state of excitement, boasting that he had sourced a Loire Cabernet with 14.5 per cent alcohol and really ripe fruit. I wondered why he had bothered; the whole raison d’être of these wines are those distinctive just-ripe crunchy redcurrant fruits and that tangy fresh acidity.

A decade ago, many were a little too herbaceous with stalky green flavours, and lacked any fruit on the centre-palate. But the overall quality has improved greatly, while prices have remained amazingly cheap. The very best wines can have austere drying tannins and will evolve wonderfully for a decade or more. But most are primed for drinking the summer following harvest. Fresh and fruity, they would be my ideal bistro wines, thirst-quenching and moreish. Either way, they will be naturally low in alcohol.

Cabernet Franc does not have the sweet succulence of a Pinot Noir; it is more austere and reserved, with higher acidity. Chinon is the best-known region for Cabernet Franc, but Bourgeuil, Saint Nicolas de Bourgeuil, Saumur and Saumur-Champigny, as well as the catch-all region of Touraine all produce very good versions. Saumur-Champigny tends to be the lightest and freshest, Chinon the smoothest and silkiest, while Bourgeuil tends to be earthier and more structured.

Moving across Europe, an alternative source for light red wines is Blaufrankisch. Light in alcohol and tannin, with crunchy blue fruits, they make for brilliant summery drinking. Austria is the best-known producer, but Blaufrankisch is grown all across eastern and central Europe under various names, usually with the word ‘french’ incorporated; Franconia in Italy, Frankovka in Slovakia, Modra Frankinja in Slovenia and Limberger in Germany.

One enterprising Irish couple, Sinéad and Liam Cabot play tag-team winemaking, flitting between Slovenia and Westport. Their 2013 Roka is delicious, and their Reserve (€ 20.99) even more so. I have also tasted some very good Austrian Blaufrankisch from Claus Preisinger (€ 16.50, 64wine) and J Heinrich (€ 18.99, Wines on the Green). I also tried two very good light fruity wines made from Zweigelt, a step-child of Blaurfankisch, from Waltner (€ 16, On the Grapevine) and Preisinger again.

Lidl’s annual French wine sale starts on Monday September 7th. The emphasis is on Bordeaux. My picks would include the following: the light, balanced Ch Vieux Ligat 2010 (€ 9.99), the impressive Ch Maugresin de Clotte 2010 (€ 11.99), and the delightfully spicy Ch Grand Abord 2010 (€ 12.99). Moving up in price, I enjoyed the Ch La Cardonne 2010 (€ 19.99) a classic firm Médoc, the lush spicy Fugue de Nenin 2006 (€ 30) the mature, soft leafy Ch Phélan Ségur 2007 (€ 24.99), and the sweet ripe Virginie de Valandraud 2012 (€ 30). At the top end, the delicious elegant Reserve de la Comtesse 2010 (€ 35) and the nicely mature Ch Poujeaux 2005 (€ 40) were all very tempting as was the luscious marmalade-scented Sauternes, Ch Muras at € 14.99 per bottle.

DSCF5696Chinon Les Graviers, Domaine des Clos Godeaux 2014

A subtle herbiness that goes perfectly with the juicy light red cherry fruits and a tannin-free finish.

Stockists: Searsons, Monkstown.

DSCF5740Bernard Baudry Chinon Les Granges 2014

From one of the best producers in Chinon, a delicious light wine with crunchy redcurrant fruits and a piquant edge.

Stockists: On the Grapevine, Dalkey (; Red Island Wines, Skerries; Cabot and Co, Westport (; No.1 Pery Square, Limerick; McCambridges, Galway.

DSCF5790Roka Blaufränkisch 2013, Slovenia

Light and fragrant with free-flowing refreshing dark cherry fruits.

Stockists: On the Grapevine, Dalkey (; Cabot and Co, Westport (; No.1 Pery Square, Limerick; McCambridges, Galway.

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