Rhône Valley: a tale of two wine regions The wines of the southern Rhône and its smaller northern neighbour are like chalk and cheese

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 17th June. 2017

It has always seemed strange that the northern and southern parts of the Rhône Valley are lumped together into the one large area. It’s a bit like putting Burgundy and Bordeaux under the same banner. Separated by a 40km gap, the two regions could not be more different. It is the aesthete versus the gourmand, little and large (literally), chalk and cheese. The south is big, boasting some 30,000 hectares of vines. It is sunny and hot (Provence begins at the southern tip) with rolling hills dotted with the heady herbs of the garrigue, olive groves and ancient Roman ruins. The north is much smaller, about one-twentieth the size of the south. Here, the vineyards cling to impossibly steep terraced slopes. It is too cold to cultivate olives – in the past peaches and nectarines were grown on the valley floor.

The red wines of the north are made from a single variety, Syrah, sometimes with a little of the white Viognier included. Northern whites are made from Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Those of the south are typically blends, and can be made from up to 10 red grapes and nine white. A blend of Grenache with a dollop of Mourvèdre and/or Syrah or Cinsault is more usual for the reds.

Stiff backbone

The northern reds are savoury, elegant and often light in alcohol. The great wines of Hermitage and Cornas have a very stiff backbone of tannin, and keep for decades, but even they share a lifted fragrance and delicacy of the other Northern wines. Do not expect refinement and delicacy (although there are a few very elegant wines) from the south. Instead, you should find warmth, rounded, sweet, ripe fruits, scented with herbs and spice. At least that is what I thought. When I went looking for inexpensive full-bodied Côtes du Rhône in my local supermarkets, all seemed a fairly wimpy 13-13.5 per cent. Hence the hard-to-find Côtes du Rhône below (although it is delicious). I think growers are picking earlier to suit our tastes for lighter wines. Once prices moved over €15, there were plenty of more powerful, rich wines.

Comparative tasting

This week you can conduct your own comparative tasting at two price levels. The Ardèche and the Monteillet are both from the north and pure Syrah; the others are blends from the south. I am cheating a little on the Ardèche, which is a vin de pays, but it is made in the northern Rhône. If you cannot find any of those featured, you should seek out anything with from St Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage or Côte Rôtie. For southern wines, a good domaine-bottled Côtes du Rhône (€15-€20) or a Gigondas, Vacqueyras or Rasteau (or even a Châteauneuf-du-Pape) should give you the true power and flavours of the south, as will both the wines below.

Bargain Wine
Syrah 2015, Vin de pays de l’Ardèche, Caves Saint Desirat

Light, cool, peppery dark cherry fruits with good acidity and a dry finish. With pork dishes.

Stockists: O’Briens

Côtes du Rhône Les Galets, Les Vigneron des Estezargues
14.5%, €14.50

Fragrant, with excellent sweet, ripe, warming, elegant strawberry fruits.
Stockists: Quintessential, Drogheda; Brown’s, Portlaoise; Wicklow Wine; O’Learys, Cootehill; Hole in the Wall; Clontarf Wines; The Grapevine, Glasnevin.

Les Hauts du Monteillet 2014 Stéphane Montez

Tantalising violet aromas, succulent dark cherry and blackcurrant fruits with a reviving freshness.

Stockists: 64 Wine; Green Man Wines; Searsons, Monkstown.

Vacqueyras 2011, Domaine Montvac Cuvée Vincila

Big, powerful wine offering intense ripe fruits sprinkled with spice. With robust red meat and game dishes.
Stockists: Wines Direct, Mullingar; Arnott’s, Dublin.


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The best wine bargains from Lidl’s summer sale

Published in The Irish Times, Saturday 10th June, 2017

Lidl launches its Italian wine sale next Monday. It is more modest in scale than their annual autumn French wine sale, which usually includes plenty of  top Bordeaux at very attractive prices. There are 28 wines included in the offer, some of which are already in stock. Almost all are very inexpensive, the vast majority less than €10, with only two pitching in at more than €15. The white wines are all refreshing, lightly textured and unoaked, and will make decent budget summer drinking, although some seemed to be rounded off by a few grams of residual sugar. I am not a fan of this, but I know many of you are. As well as the white wine below, look out for the fresh tropical Falanghina Sassi del Mare (€7.99), and the Vernaccia di San Gimignano (€9.99) with its layered pineapple and red apple fruits, balanced by a reviving acidity. If you are planning a refreshing summer cocktail, you could add some pomegranate juice (and maybe a few seeds) to the Pinot Grigio Rosé Spumante (€10.99).

As for the red wines, I can see the ripe, rounded Cannonau di Sardegna (€7.99) being popular when the barbecue comes out, or you could go for the grippier Rosso di Montalcino (€8.99) with its dark cherry fruits. I won’t claim that the Barbaresco below will compete with any of the top Nebbiolo from the region or neighbouring Barolo. However, it is a very drinkable bottle of wine. My favourite wine, however, is the Chianti Colli Senesi Medici Riccardi. From one of the best subregions of Chianti, the 2015 vintage (2014 was on sale until recently) is a wonderfully light, elegant wine with plenty of succulent fruit. It will go very nicely with pork, chicken and lighter red meats in the coming summer months.

While on the subject of Chianti, I recently tasted an excellent range of wines from Castellare, one of the top estates in Chianti Classico, the subregion that is home to almost all of the great Chianti. Castellare has never gone for the rich and powerful style of wine, preferring lighter, more refreshing, food-friendly wines. Quality has always remained high, and prices reasonable compared with many of their rivals. Their Chianti Classico 2014 is excellent, and the importer is waiting for stocks of the equally good 2015. I would also look out for their superb I Sodi di San Niccolo 2012 (Wines on the Green), the very best wine from the same producer; at €66 it may seem expensive, but it is far cheaper and superior to many of its ‘Super-Tuscan’ rivals. In recent weeks I have also enjoyed the Rocca delle Macie Vernaiolo Chianti  2014 (JNwine, €14.99) with its supple light savoury dark cherry fruits.

Müller Thurgau 2016, Südtirol Alto Adige 13%, €9.99

Rounded ripe apple and pear fruits, with good cleansing acidity. Lovely summer drinking.
Stockist: Lidl

Chianti Colli Senesi 2015 Medici Riccardi 13%, €9.95

Clean refreshing red cherry fruits, good acidity and pretty good length for a wine at this price.
Stockist: Lidl

Lightly fragrant nose, smooth elegant summer fruits with a pleasant savoury finish.
Stockist: Lidl

Chianti Classico 2014, Castellare di Castellina 13.5%, €22.99

An excellent sophisticated harmonious wine with elegant ripe dark cherry fruits, a refreshing seam of acidity and a lingering finish.
Stockists: Wines on the Green; 64 Wines; Fresh; Kelly’s, Clontarf; McCabe’s; McHugh’s.

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Best of the taste tests: the top wines from three Irish importers

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 3rd June, 2017

Four very different importers held press tastings over the last few weeks. O’Briens will be well-known to all; they now have 32 shops around the country, mainly concentrated in the Leinster region, and form a very useful bridge between the multiples and the independent retailer, borrowing a little from each. Certainly they make quality wines accessible to many parts of the country and always have a good range of inexpensive wines available. The staff are invariably well-trained with good wine knowledge. I have featured the Domaine Begude wines before: the 2015 Etoile, a Chardonnay fermented in large oak barrels, would cost twice as much if came from Burgundy. I love it.

Marks & Spencer can claim to lead the multiples when to comes to quality. In general, you will pay a little more compared to the other supermarkets, but usually the wine will be that bit better. I like the way it is not afraid to offer quirky wines that you won’t see on the shelves of its rivals. At times, the M&S range approaches that of a good independent wine shop. In recent years, it has championed wines from all around the Mediterranean and eastern Europe. Among many interesting wines, including some great inexpensive summer whites that I will feature shortly, the Lirac below stood out as a very attractive medium- to full-bodied red wine.

Artisan wines

Le Caveau is a leading independent wine importer that concentrates on organic, biodynamic and “natural” wines. Set up by Burgundian and former sommelier Pascal Rossignol 18 years ago, they list a huge range of really interesting artisan wines, including a very fine selection of Burgundy. They have a small retail/mail-order shop (see tucked away a car park in Kilkenny, and also distribute their wines widely through independent wine shops around the country. Proprietor Pascal Verhaeghe of Ch. du Cèdre was at the Le Caveau tasting, despite having lost his entire crop of grapes to frost the previous week. (“Everything!” he told me. “One hundred per cent.”) His Héritage below is a classic mix of traditional and modern. It is also very reasonably priced.

Quintessential Wines is run by Seamus Daly. Seamus worked in the restaurant business and for another wine importer before setting up his own business in 2006. He has a small retail shop in Drogheda and offers a nationwide online service, although most of his business is to hotels and restaurants. The range is full of interesting wines, of the kind that would not be of interest to many bigger importers. There are plenty of good well-made Albariño available between €10-15; the Zarate below is a real step up in quality, although if you have the money, the creamy rich single-vineyard Zarate Tras da Vina (€29.95) is even more delicious.

Lirac Les Closiers 2015, Ogier

14%, €15
Gently warming, with oodles of ripe dark fruits, and an attractive grippy quality.
Stockists: Marks & Spencer

Cahors 2014 Héritage du Cèdre

13%, €15.50
Light savoury blackcurrants and dark fruits with a clean, lightly tannic finish.
Stockists: Listons; Donnybrook Fair; McGuinness Wines; Green Man; Redmonds; 64 Wine; Avoca; Blackrock Cellar; Corkscrew; Fallon & Byrne; Le Caveau.

Domaine Begude Etoile Chardonnay 2015, Limoux

13.5%, €19.95
Impeccably balanced wine with lightly textured green apples and pears,

a hint of toasted brioche, all held together by a seam of refreshing acidity.
Stockists: O’Briens

Zarate Albariño 2015, Val do Salnes, Rías Baixas, Spain

12.5%, €21.15
A fine complex wine, with concentrated pure pear fruits and a wonderful mineral streak.
Stockists: Quintessential Wines, Drogheda; Clontarf Wines; Wicklow Wine; Hole in the Wall.


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The serious white wines of Rhône Valley offer good value

“White wines from the Rhône just don’t sell,” lamented one retailer. He may be right, but I hope that will change in the near future. The Rhône Valley is divided into two parts, north and south (or septentrional and méridional if you are French). The northern part is much smaller and the wines, red and white, are lighter and more elegant. The south is hot; not the sort of place where you would expect to find quality white wines. In the past, the rare examples were a little clumsy and alcoholic, yet quality has shot up in recent years. Even now alcohol levels are never feeble, but with food, the wines can really shine. The northern Rhône always had Condrieu and white Hermitage, now joined by some excellent wines from Saint Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Péray.


White Châteauneuf-du-Pape is possibly the best-known southern wine, but some of the more enterprising producers in other nearby villages such as Vacqueyras, Cairanne, as well as Côtes du Rhône Villages and the Ventoux now make small quantities of interesting wines.

They are invariably made from a blend of grape varieties that include Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette and increasingly, Viognier. Typically they have a sumptuous broad richness that goes really well with food, as well as the all-important acidity that retains interest and balance. They make a great partner for barbequed fish, chicken and pork as well as grilled butternut squash and sweet potato. They can take robust spicing, even a little chilli, and certainly herbs. As wine lovers travel the world looking for alternatives to white Burgundy, the serious white wines of both parts of the Rhône are starting to look like good value. True, there isn’t a huge amount under €15, but if you prepared to pay €15-€20 for a white wine, there are some excellent wines that offer great value. And once you venture over €20, there are some stunning wines.


Three white wines from the south are amongst the finest I have tasted so far this year. They include the Montirius below, the stunning Clos du Cailloux Vacqueyras Blanc – 64 Wines in Glasthule tell me they still have a few bottles for €38, and the single vineyard Echalas from Clos Bellane (€28.99 from Cabot & Co), one of my all-time favourite whites. I have featured the Paradou Viognier here before (€14.99, Searsons & The Drink Store). It is a delicious southern white at an amazingly cheap price given the quality. I have also enjoyed the very tasty Viognier-rich Guigal Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2014 (€16; Londis, Wexford, and Joyce, Galway). But do ask your local retailer; I would love to discover a few more!

Bottles of the week

Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2015, Chapoutier

13.5%, €14.99

Lightly floral aromas, very moreish soft peaches fruits and a refreshing seam of citrus.

Stockists: Molloy’s; Nolan’s; O’Driscoll’s, Caherciveen and Ballinlough; Cass & Co.

Clos Bellane, Valréas Blanc, Côtes du Rhône Villages 2014 Biodynamic

13.5%, €19.99

Dried flower aromas, rich exotic fruits, citrus zest and a lingering satisfying finish.

Stockists: Cabot and Co, Westport –; Grapevine, Dalkey, Dublin – ; McCambridges, Galway.

Domaine de Fondrèche Ventoux Blanc 2015

13%, €19.95

Rich peaches, lemon zest and toasted nuts, all in one lovely mouthful.

Stockists: 1601 Off Licence; Green Man Wines; Drink Store, D7; 64 Wines; Searsons.

Montirius, Le Domaine, Minéral 2015, Vacqueyras

14%, €25.60

Floral and lightly honeyed, with wonderful voluptuous rich textured yellow fruits, underpinned by a reviving mineral acidity. Brilliant food wine.

 Stockists: Clontarf Wines; 64 Wines.

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Wines from €8.50 to €22: Can you tell the difference?

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 20th May, 2017

Do expensive wines taste any better? It is a question I am often asked. My answer is: yes and no. Obviously, a pricier wine should offer more; more complexity, more elegance, more fruit and more intensity than a cheaper model. But quite often it doesn’t.  A wine producer is no different to any other business and will try to maximise profits. Simply by being based in a well-known region, some can charge a premium over their neighbours. Others dress their wines up in heavy bottles and fancy labels in an effort to persuade us to part with a little more money. Then there is the importer and retailer margin; some take more than others.

So price is certainly not a guarantee of quality. Against this, if a producer receives a better price, they can afford to make a much better wine. I find that generally, if you pay more, you get more – to a certain price ceiling, when the law of diminishing returns set in. Given our very high excise duties, most of the cost of any wine under €10 goes straight to the government, so cheap wine is never really good value.

Sweet spot

For me, the sweet spot in wine is between €12-25, where you should notice a big step up in quality. If you don’t then you should stick to the cheap stuff. For a treat, I am happy to pay up to €50 and sometimes more for a really great wine, having convinced myself that the same price would get me an average bottle in most restaurants.

Not everybody likes expensive wine however; studies have shown that many consumers prefer cheaper wines that tend to have more residual sugar, adding richness and texture, as well as lighter tannins or acidity (in white wines).

I sometimes find myself preferring the less expensive wines because they have not been given lavish oak treatment, and I don’t generally like the taste of oak. It is all a matter of personal taste, and as with anything else in life, you should never let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t like.

This week, you can conduct your own experiment. I have chosen four Malbecs from Argentina, all widely available. The complete set will cost you about €55, but you could share the burden with a few friends and do a tasting together – blind if you feel like really testing yourself.

For me, the Barrel Select was the winner, clearly superior to the two less expensive wines and great value for money at €12.95. For a posh dinner with beef or lamb, I would certainly be happy to pay an extra €10 for the Clos de la Siete, made (and part owned) by renowned French wine consultant Michel Rolland.

Wines to try

Aldi Exquisite Collection Malbec, Uco Valley Argentina 2015, 13.5%, €8.49.

Decent, well-made wine with slightly astringent dark fruits. Stockists: Aldi.

Norton Colección Malbec 2016, Mendoza, Argentina, 13%, €11.95.

Easy ripe red fruits, with a rounded finish. Stockists: O’Briens.

Norton Barrel Select  Malbec 2015, Mendoza, Argentina, 13%, €14.95 (€12.95 for May).

A perennial favourite with medium-bodied warm savoury dark fruits and a soft harmonious finish. Stockists: O’Briens.

Clos de los Siete 2013, Uco Valley, Argentina, 14.5%, €21.95.

Full-bodied and smooth with elegant sultry dark fruits, plenty of spice and a dry finish. Stockists: O’Briens.

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Time for a drink of ‘liquid summer’ : Beaujolais

Most wine lovers have a lightbulb moment, when they suddenly realise that wine is not simply a very pleasant sociable alcoholic beverage that goes brilliantly with food (although it certainly is all that), but the most complex and wonderful drink known to man. One of my several “wine moments” (I am a slow learner) was a glass of Beaujolais. It was one of the best names, a Moulin-à-Vent, and despite being served in one of those horrible Paris goblets, which are completely unsuitable for wine, it was fragrant and gorgeous, brimming with seductive bright fruits. As a pretentious student I was hooked and ever since that encounter, I return to my first love as often as I can.

 Beaujolais has been through a rough period but with the increasing demand for light, lower alcohol wines, it is enjoying a welcome revival. This is one of the most appetising and reviving wines of all. As soon as spring arrives, I regularly spoil myself with a glass of Beaujolais or Beaujolais Villages from a good producer. Frivolous and full of juicy bouncy fruit, it is liquid summer. Serve cool with salady things, pork, or simply on its own.

Established hierarchy

As with many French regions, there is an established hierarchy. Beaujolais Villages is superior to basic Beaujolais, but at the very top of the tree are 10 “crus” or villages, each entitled to use its own name. All are in the north of the region, and taste tantalisingly different depending on the soil, usually varying forms of granite. The most serious of these wines are worthy of genuine respect. I have stashed away a number of wines from the most structured of the crus including Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent and Fleurie; after a few years, they reveal a new and wonderful depth. I tasted eight vintages of Jadot Ch des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon going back to 1996 at a trade tasting late last year. All were in very good condition. I also drank a perfectly-formed 2008 Moulin-à-Vent from Domaine du Vissoux more recently. Now that so many of the well-known fine wines are moving steadily out of our price-range, these are well-worth bearing in mind. The best certainly qualify as fine wines.

More immediately, a glass of youthful Côte de Brouilly, Chénas or any other of the crus will both slake the thirst and revive the vital functions. Most of the mass-produced versions are not great, although even here I note an improvement in quality. But Beaujolais is full of fantastic small producers; a bottle from Domaine du Vissoux (Terroirs), Jean-Paul Brun (Wines Direct), La Madone (Mitchell & Son) or Foillard (Independents) is one of life’s most welcome treats.

Fleurie Tradition 2015, Côte de Brouilly 2015, Moulin-à-Vent 2013 and Fleurie 2014 Terre de Granit Rose 2014

Fleurie Tradition 2015, Côte de Brouilly 2015, Moulin-à-Vent 2013 and Fleurie 2014 Terre de Granit Rose 2014


Fleurie Tradition 2015, Domaine de la Madone
13%, €17
A delightfully fresh and fruity wine from one of the top estates in Fleurie.
Stockists: Mitchell & Son, IFSC, Sandycove, Avoca, Kilmacanogue.

Côte de Brouilly 2015, Jean-Paul Brun
12.5%, €21.85
An exquisite wine, with refined cherry fruits, hints of strawberry and a refreshing moreish character.
Stockists: Wines Direct

 Moulin-à-Vent 2013, Ch des Jacques, Louis Jadot
13%, €24.99
Solid medium-bodied blackberries with a good tannic structure. Drink or keep a decade or more.
Stockists: Ballyvaughan Stores; Jus de Vine; Mitchell & Son; Redmonds; Sweeney’s.

Bargain bin: Fleurie 2014 Terre de Granit Rose 2014, Thorin
13%, €14.99
Pleasantly plump dark fruits with a smooth rounded finish.
Stockists: Selected Spar, Eurospar, Mace, Londis

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Georgia on my mind: wine from the world’s oldest vineyards

From The Irish Times, May 6th, 2017

Every wine-producing country likes to boast about their long history but none can compare with that of Georgia, with the possible exception of its Caucasian neighbours. Claims vary, some suggesting 8,000 years, but certainly this is the genuine cradle of viticulture, with a culture going back millennia. The word wine may even be derived from the Georgian word “gvino”. It is argued that merchants travelling along the trade routes carried vine cuttings in their saddlebags to the eastern Mediterranean in order to have something to barter. The more romantic version has the vine being carried beneath the armour of every Georgian soldier, so that if he fell in battle, the vine would take root and grow. It was here that we humans discovered that grapes (from wild vines), stored in containers throughout the winter turned into wine. The Georgians began using qvevri (or kvevri), large clay vessels of various sizes, to ferment the grapes and then age the resulting wine. Uniquely, this form of winemaking remains a strong part of Georgian culture, despite the influence of the communist state. (Georgian wines were always the most highly prized in the Soviet Union, leading to rumours of counterfeit wines in recent years). Red wines made this way tend to be vaguely similar to our idea of wine, but white wines, made by fermenting and ageing juice, skins and pips together can be shockingly different, with a unique texture and tannic structure.

Conventional winemaking

There is conventional winemaking as well, usually still using Georgian grape varieties – the country has over 500 unique varieties. The vine and wine was and is a central part of Georgian religion and culture. and history. Apparently a lengthy multi-course meal, called a supra, is a traditional feast lasting many hours, led by a Tamada (a sort of toastmaster) who introduces topics, toasts and possibly even songs to accompany the food. Look out for Mixed Melodies, the Irish Georgian Youth Choir, for an introduction to the musical side.

Georgian wines have become hugely fashionable in London, New York and elsewhere, particularly those made in qvevri, largely thanks to the alternative “natural” wine movement. It is worth noting that some argue that the Georgians, with a couple of thousand years’ extra experience, tend to produce the finest orange (or as they say amber) wines. Our own choice so far is limited, although that may change following a large tasting held by the Georgian embassy in Dublin late last year. Anyone fortunate enough to travel to Georgia for a holiday should take a look at for information on wine tourism. If you want to remember two Georgian varieties, Rkatsiteli is one of the most common white grapes, and Saperavi a favourite red grape. Or simply enjoy a piece of history drinking any of the wines below.

Best buy: Tbilvino Rkatsiteli Qvevris JSC Tibilvino 2014, €15 from M&S

Best buy: Tbilvino Rkatsiteli Qvevris JSC Tibilvino 2014, €15 from M&S

Bargain wine: Tbilvino Rkatsiteli Qvevris JSC Tibilvino 2014, Kakheti Region, 12%, €15

 An intriguing and very attractive wine: lightly nutty and spicy with orange peel and yellow fruits, medium-colour and racy acidity.

 Stockists: Marks & Spencer.

Tbilvino Saperavi 2014, Khaketi Region, 13%, €19.50

 A mainstream wine with smooth elegant, slightly earthy ripe red fruits. Enjoy with lamb.

 Stockists: Terroirs, Donnybrook.

Shavkapito 2014, Pheasant’s Tears, Karteli, 13%, €25

 Earthy tobacco and leather mingle with fresh damsons, ending with substantial tannins. Decant and enjoy with red meats.

 Stockists: Baggot Street Wines, Green Man Wines, Le Caveau.

Tsitska 2014, Nikoladzeebis Marani, Nakhshirgele, 11%, €28.95

 Lip-smacking savoury ginger spice and green apples. For the thrill seeker.

 Stockists: Le Caveau, Green Man Wines.

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The best white wines to welcome in spring and summer

The minute I began writing this piece, the weather turned.  The morning was bright, sunny and almost balmy but by lunchtime the rain had arrived, and once the sun disappeared, it was bitterly cold too. I should not have tempted fate. Yet the last few days of sun and light had lifted my spirits; I started thinking about white wines in a serious way for the first time in about well six months actually. Cold weather of any kind seems to draw me inexorably to red wine. I hope that by the time you read this article, temperatures will have risen a little. Just in case, I include an inexpensive warming red.

Light white wine doesn’t have to mean cheap. There are those who think that any serous white must be rich and full-bodied, a sort of more-bangs-per-buck theory that doesn’t wash with me. With the increased demand for lower alcohol wines, we now have an excellent choice of high-quality light white wines that are packed full of flavour. These are nuanced wines that seek to slowly seduce rather than grab you from the outset, but they certainly don’t lack concentration or complexity. As ever, it means paying a little more, so this week’s wines are all over €20.

The first summer wine that comes to mind is German Riesling. I am also a huge fan of Hunter Valley Semillon, one of the greatest light white wines of the world. But this week we turn to a few other possibilities. The wines of the Loire Valley are tailor-made for drinking in good weather. The reds are light and summery, the rosés thirst-quenching and the white wines low in alcohol, crisp and always refreshing. All go really well with salads and cold meats, as well as white meats and fish.


There is something inherently spring-like about Muscadet. It is one of the lightest wines, and perfect for summer drinking. Decent inexpensive versions abound,  but there are some brilliant single-vineyard wines too. The Pouilly-Fumé, from one of the best producers, is perfect spring/summer drinking. Friuli-Venezia-Giulia is not very well-known over here, but the wines have long been revered in Italy as the country’s greatest white wines, possibly because there wasn’t much competition in the past. There are 17 permitted grape varieties and no fewer than 14 sub-regions. All this in a relatively small piece of land curling around the Adriatic, bordering Slovenia, Austria and the Veneto. In the past, many serious producers offered very rich textured wines often heavily influenced by oak. More recently Gravner and Radikon pioneered the skin contact and orange wine movement.  I generally prefer the delicate, lighter wines made from local grape varieties such as the Ribolla below. The Friuli charmed me completely at a recent tasting.

Pouilly-Fumé 2015, André Dezat


€21.95 /£16.50

Beautifully elegant and refined Sauvignon Blanc,  perfumed and light with crisp green fruits.


imageI Clivi Ribolla 2015, Friuli



Citrus peel, herbs and almonds in a compelling and utterly delicious light dry wine.

Stockists: 64wine; Kellys, Clontarf; Listons; Green Man Wines.

image-1Clisson 2013, Muscadet de Sèvre & Maine, Huchet & Mourat



 Lifted floral aromas, precise rich concentrated pear fruits and a delightful cleansing minerality.

Stockists: 64 Wine; Jus de Vine; Fallon & Byrne; Searsons.


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Very special white wines from ancient Italian vines

This week, some very special white wines. The rugged volcanic mountains of Campania rise up from the spectacular coastline of the Gulf of Naples and Amalfi. Fifty kilometres east of the tourist hotspots, the province of Irpinia is a sparsely populated mixed-farming region that has seen tragedy in recent times: in 1980, an earthquake killed 3,000 people and left 300,000 homeless. Many left the region entirely, but others remained and successfully fought to establish Irpinia as a centre of viticulture.

This part of Campania produces wonderful wines with a unique personality. These are some of the most ancient vineyards of all, responsible for supplying ancient Rome with her finest wines. The 20th century was less kind, but the last 20 years have seen a great revival, and some of the wines are now ranked alongside the greatest white wines of Italy.

Acquired taste

Camapania boasts three unique white grapes: Fiano, Greco, and Falanghina. The wines are not your standard aromatic, fruity numbers; they may even be an acquired taste, but certainly one worth acquiring. Fiano is one of Italy’s best white grapes. Lauded since Roman times but almost forgotten until  the 1970s and 1980s, it produces medium-bodied wines with floral or herbal aromas, and peach, pear and honey on the palate. With age, it develops flavours of toasted nuts and smoke. As with all wines of the region, it has good acidity, often described as mineral, due to the volcanic soils. Twenty or so communes in the province of Avellino produce the finest examples, under the name Fiano di Avellino.

Difficult to grow

Greco is another ancient variety, brought by the Greeks (hence the name) to Italy. It is difficult to grow, low-yielding and sensitive, and the wines are prone to oxidation. In style, it is even less fruity than Fiano, sometimes tannic, high in acidity and alcohol, flinty and mineral, the nearest white wine gets to red. It has peach fruits, sometimes almonds and a subtle, pleasant bitterness on the finish. The most renowned examples, labeled Greco di Tufo, come from the town of the same name, where sulphur was mined in the 19th century.

Falanghina is the third white variety, again ancient and possibly Roman. Some argue that it was responsible for Falernum, the greatest of Roman wines. More recently, it was considered inferior to the other two varieties, producing wines full of acidity but lacking in fruit. However, over the last decade better producers have been creating very attractive wines full of rich, tropical fruit.

Most of the above wines sell for €15-€25, reasonable value for unique wines generally made by very small producers. They are not really wines to sip on their own, but shine alongside shellfish and other seafood.

Three to try

Greco di Tufo 2015, Loggia della Serra, Terredora di Paolo



 Very appealing rich peach fruits on nose and palate, with a gently refreshing saline finish.

 Stockists: O’Briens

 Paóne Fiano 2014, Cantina del Barone, Campania



 Quite full-bodied with toasted almonds, pears and a lightly smoky touch.

 Stockists: Quintessential Wines, Drogheda; Wicklow Wines; Grapevine, Dalkey.

Greco di Tufo 2014, Cantina dell’Angelo



 Grilled nuts and red apples with a bracing acidity. Serve with a crab salad.

 Stockists: Quintessential Wines, Drogheda; Wicklow Wines; Grapevine, Dalkey.

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Is it time for a new way to classify wine?

At one time all wine literature was laid out by country and region; then came wine by style. In recent months it occurred to me that we should categorise our wines slightly differently – by producer type. I reckon they can be roughly divided into four groups, with some overflow. The problem is knowing where to put your favourite wine, when everyone is pretending to be small and artisan.

Big Wine

Like big beer, these are the large-scale industrial producers, although they don’t always like being called that. Modern technology allows them to churn out huge quantities of soft fruity, often off-dry wines that are drinkable if rarely exciting. They will usually have several ranges of wine, including some very expensive ones. We should probably be thankful for these producers; they keep us supplied with plenty of drinkable everyday wines and some of the more expensive wines can be very good.

Small and medium farmers

Most often found in Europe, many small and medium-size farmers simply sell their grapes to the local co-operative, which then falls into the “Big Wine” category. But some do produce their own wine. Generally it will be okay, occasionally very good. They often struggle to market their wines and earn a living unless they come from a fairly well-known area such as Sancerre, Soave or Rioja, and can therefore charge higher prices. The best producers within this group are responsible for the most interesting and best-value wines. It is here that you will find the truest expressions of a grape variety, climate or region.

The wild bunch

The nearest wine gets to hipster. Often young, experimental and dismissive of all other producers, they seek out new grape varieties, unheard of ancient regions, and love to make organic, biodynamic or even natural wines using as little modern technology (or sulphur) as possible. If the winemaker is good, the wines can be excellent – if not, they smell and taste of vinegar or poo, or both together.

Luxury goods

These will probably come from a very well-known posh region such as Bordeaux, Champagne, Rioja, the Napa Valley or Margaret River. The owner, often a wealthy businessman or multinational, will hire a very expensive consultant who will produce plush, lush, rich, smooth, ultra-ripe red wines with plenty of new oak. You won’t always be able to tell the grape variety or wine region, but you can tell it costs a lot; it has been teased and manicured like the greens at Augusta. These wines are made to be drunk by other very wealthy people who don’t always know a huge amount about wine, but want to have the best of everything.

This week, three small to medium producers, plus a good value wine from a co-operative.

La Bicicleta Voladora 2015, Rioja



A delicious unoaked Rioja packed with succulent dark cherry and bramble fruits.

Stockists: 64wine, Glasthule.

Les Demoiselles de Ch Falfas 2015, Côtes de Bourg (biodynamic)



Forward bright juicy ripe dark fruits with a lovely balancing acidity. Perfect with the Sunday roast.

Stockists: Terroirs, Donnybrook

Domaine des Nugues 2015, Beaujolais Blanc



Delicious unoaked wine with gentle fruits, a lovely texture, a fine minerality and an excellent finish.

Stockists: Martin’s, Fairview; 64wine, Glasthule.

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