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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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Who says Ireland can’t have a wine industry of its own?

Irish wine: harvesting grapes at the Lusca vineyard, in north Co Dublin. Photograph: @davidsorchard/Twitter

Irish wine: David Llewellyn harvesting grapes at the Lusca vineyard, in north Co Dublin. Photograph: @davidsorchard/Twitter

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 26th January, 2019

By my reckoning the Pant Du vineyard, just south of Anglesey, in north Wales, is about 120km from the coast of Co Wicklow. The principality now has more than 15 vineyards. I have tasted some very good sparkling wines from one, Ancre Hill, in Monmouth. Will it be long before we have our own wine industry in Ireland?

David Llewellyn (who also grows apples) was the pioneer over here, planting vines, under cover and outside, in the early 2000s. He released the Lusca 2016 Cabernet Merlot recently. He may soon have competition from Waterford, where David Dennison is working on his Irish wine, and Tipperary, where rumour has it that there are plantings of Frühburgunder.

I was always taught that wine is the produce of fresh grapes, so the following three drinks probably cannot technically be called wine. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t very nice.

Killahora Orchards, in Co Cork, has 108 varieties of apple and 36 of perry pear on the site of an ancient orchard. Barry Walsh and Tim and Dave Watson produce several ciders, a pommeau (a mix of apple juice and apple brandy) and an ice wine. Killahora deserves a whole article to itself, and I promise to address that later this year.

Ice wine is made by picking frozen grapes and gently pressing them to extract sugars and other dissolved solids without the frozen water. Most is produced in Canada and Germany. It is possible to cheat a little and put fresh grapes in a freezer. More recently apple producers have been doing the same with frozen apples, making ice cider. The Killahora apple ice wine gently ferments for up to a year, making a wine with 11 per cent alcohol, lots of sugar and plenty of refreshing acidity.

Kate and Denis Dempsey set up the Kinsale Mead Company two years ago. The idea came about after work trips to Portland, in the United States, where he got to know people making wine, cider, perry and mead. “It was always at the back of my mind: how come no one in Ireland is making mead?” Denis says.

Their meads are neither sweet nor cloying. “We wanted to make serious, proper drinks that would work with food. The reaction has been really good; people love the fact that they are rediscovering an ancient Irish drink.”

The Dempseys hope one day to be able to make all of their mead from Irish honey. At the moment they import honey from Spain.

I have written about the Mónéir strawberry wine, from Wicklow Way Wines, before. Today I include its blackberry and elderflower wine, described to me by one member of the wine trade as tasting like a light Bardolino.

Móinéir Blackberry Wine, Wicklow Way Wines
11%, €22
Fragrant aromas of red cherries and black fruits; concentrated cassis and blackberries with good acidity and excellent length. Very moreish, attractive wine. Ours went well with pork. From Mitchell & Son, Dublin, Co Wicklow and Co Meath; La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow; Wines on the Green, Dublin 2; Bubble Brothers, English Market, Cork; Avoca, Dublin, Co Meath, Co Kerry, Co Wicklow and Belfast; Wicklow Wine Co, Wicklow; Quintessential Wines, Drogheda, Co Louth.

Atlantic Dry Mead, Kinsale Mead Company
12% €22 (70cl)
Very seductive subtle flavours of honey and citrus, with a lovely clean finish. I enjoyed this with two firm cheeses, Comté and Caís na Tiré. From selected SuperValu; O’Briens; Dunnes Stores, Cork; Mitchell & Son; McCambridges, Galway; Ardkeen Quality Foodstore, Waterford; Wine Centre, Kilkenny; 1601 off-licence, Kinsale, Co Cork; Wines on the Green; Dollard & Co, Dublin 2; Martin’s, Clontarf, Dublin 3; Bubble Brothers, Cork.

Killahora Orchards, Rare Apple Ice Wine 2017
11%, €27 (375ml)
An explosion of flavours: toffee apples, baked spiced apples, honey and apricot. Crisp and acidic; sweet but not in the least bit cloying. Try it with tarte Tatin or apple pie. From Terroirs, Dublin 4; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4; Bradleys, Cork; McCambridges, Galway.

Lusca Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2016
13%, €49 (€30 per half-bottle)
Attractive, clean, light blackcurrant and redcurrant fruits, good acidity and a decent finish. Try with white meats and charcuterie. From David Llewellyn (087-2843879); Wines on the Green, Dublin 2; Mitchell & Son; Lilac Wines, Dublin 3; Le Caveau, Kilkenny; Little Green Grocer, Kilkenny; Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6W.

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Heartwarming wines for a cold winter’s evening

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 19th January, 2019

The idea for this week’s article came about by chance; on a cold wet miserable January evening, I found myself yearning for something rich and warming to accompany a spicy stew I had cooked. I have been quietly suffering from a serious (aren’t they all?) bout of man-flu, and with my sinuses blocked, I couldn’t taste very much. This was not the time to sip at delicate light wines. I came across four wines, each from a different part of Catalonia in Spain. All shared two common traits. They were rich, full-bodied and powerful, perfect for cold weather drinking. All were 15 per cent or 14.5 cent (which could mean 15 per cent). It was a case of fighting fire with fire. I tried them out with various robust dishes, and not only did they actually taste of something, they also improved the food (and my mood) immeasurably. Back to lighter wines when the weather improves.

 All of these Spanish wines come from different mountainous sub-regions of Catalonia, back from the coast. They seem remote when you visit, yet most are only an hour or so from bustling, busy Barcelona. The second common trait in all four wines was a streak of refreshing acidity, not often found in full-bodied red wines. This is down to the varied soils and climate of these mountainous regions. The acidity provides a unique balance to the power and richness of the wines.

If you do intend heading to Barcelona this year, avoid the crowds for a few hours and head up into some of the most spectacular vineyards of all. Whether it is the soaring, rugged mountains of Priorat, with their steep slate slopes, or the wild coastal hills of Empordà, these are areas well worth visiting. A trip last year with Catalan producer Torres to their new winery in Costers del Segre (with the wonderful name of Purgatorí) reminded me of the unique beauty of this part of the world – and how good the food can be.

If you are visiting, Torres has estates in many of the sub-regions of Catalonia, including Priorat, Conca de Barberà, Penedès, and Costers del Segre, most of which offer tours and tastings.

Pirorat (or Priorato in Castilian) is the best-known region, and certainly produces the most expensive wines, some of which sell for hundreds of euro, although the Mosaic below is an exception at an offer price of €15. The regions surrounding Priorat mentioned above produce wines that are usually far less expensive and can offer far greater value for money.

As you will have gathered, these are not wines for sipping before dinner. But with substantial dishes such as curries, barbecued meats and winter braises, they deserve a place at your table.

Oriol dels Aspres Negre 2014, Empordà, Catalonia
14.5% €14
Powerful and earthy with maturing ripe red cherry fruits, and a rounded soft finish. With a rich hearty beef stew. Stockists: Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; JJ O’Driscoll, Ballinlough, jjodriscoll.ie; Deveneys, Dundrum; The Hole in the Wall, Dublin 7.

 Mosaic 2016, Priorat, Catalonia
14.5% €23.99 (€15, February 14th-March 4th)
Powerful, muscular with savoury licorice and spicy dark fruits. It went well with my spicy Mexican beef and bean casserole. Stockists: SuperValu, supervalu.ie; Centra, Centra.ie.

 Petit Saó 2015, Mas Blanch i Jové, Costers del Segre, Organic
14.5% €15.95
Inviting and fragrant with blackcurrant fruits, a seam of refreshing acidity and a good dry tannic finish. Swarthy, full-bodied and warming. Great with lasagne. Stockists: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Braó 2015, Montsant, Acústic Celler, Catalonia
15% €30
Full-bodied but deliciously smooth and opulent, with rich dark fruits, plenty of spice, and well-integrated tannins on the finish. The Acústic red (€22) is also well worth trying. With barbecued beef. Stockists: Bubbles Brothers, the English Market, Ballintemple, Cork, bubblebrothers.ie; Urru, Bandon, Urru.ie;  J.J. O’Driscoll, Ballinlough, jjodriscoll.ie.

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Doing dry January? Here are some great alternatives to wine

 

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 12th January, 2019

How are you getting on with your dry January? Alcohol is something of an occupational hazard for a drinks writer; it is my job to drink, or at least taste, the stuff on a very regular basis. Mine is one of the few jobs that permits you to pour a glass of wine, whiskey or beer at 9.30am. While most of us dutifully spit out everything we taste, I know that a little alcohol passes into my bloodstream with every mouthful. Hence I never drive to tastings, and keep a close eye on my consumption.

I have no problem with the concept of a dry January, but it is not really practical for a wine writer. Instead I try to avoid alcohol, when possible, for the first three days of each week throughout the year. Padraig O’Morain’s thought-provoking article in the Irish Times health supplement on dry January rang a few bells for me. My own trigger is to pour a glass of wine at about 6.30pm, when I start preparing dinner. When I first cut out drink, I avoided this impulse by making dinner earlier, by having much simpler, easy-to-prepare meals or by having a soft drink instead.

One of the biggest problems with going dry is what to drink instead. Leaving aside the effect it has on your senses, alcohol does actually make a drink much more complex and interesting. I have never enjoyed sweet fizzy drinks, and while I like water, it can become a little boring after a while. Non-alcoholic wine, led by Torres Natureo, has become so much better, as have alcohol-free beers. Seedlip leads the way as a gin alternative. The range of soft drinks has expanded hugely in recent years so there are plenty of options, many of them made here in Ireland. For me kombucha and water kefir are probably the most interesting. You can make them at home, providing you can get hold of a scoby, but there are plenty available in our shops and supermarkets.

However, making your own drinks is so much more fun and not at all difficult.

It may seem strange but vinegar makes a great base for homemade cocktails; a few teaspoons of the exquisite Irish-made Wildwood balsamic vinegars, or any of the great Irish cider vinegars (I love The Apple Farm or Llewellyn) add a savoury tang to any drink. My current favourite is made simply by leaving a few sprigs of rosemary to macerate in water (still or sparkling) for a few hours in the fridge, sometimes with a few slices of lemon or lime and a teaspoon of vinegar. If I am feeling summery, slices of cucumber and fruit, fresh mint and other herbs make for a fantastic, interesting refreshing drink.

SynerChi Ginger & Lemongrass Live Kombucha
€2.79 (330ml)
Organic, vegan kombucha from Donegal. A delicious, lightly sparkling drink with a lovely spicy kick and a lip-smacking dry finish. From SuperValu; Circle KBoots; Spar; Londis; AvocaDonnybrook Fair; Morton’s, Ranelagh, Dublin; the Good Food Store, South Great George’s Street and Ballsbridge, Dublin;  Fresh; McCambridges, Galway; plus health stores

King of Kefir Cucumber, Mint & Thyme
€2.90 (330ml)
Made in the Chocolate Factory in Dublin, this is a fascinating complex drink; you certainly get the cucumber and herbs, with a funky touch and an off-dry finish. See kingofkefir.ie for stockists

The Happy Pear Wild Berry Kombucha
€2.50 (200ml)
Intense fresh crunchy redcurrant fruits with a lightly funky spicy dry finish. Very refreshing. Not cheap but delicious.
From The Happy Pear, Greystones, Co Wicklow, and Clondalkin, Dublin 22

Mariko Sparkling Sencha Green Tea
€2 (750ml)
With no calories or sweeteners, this is the least expensive of the drinks featured. Brewed in Co Mayo, this is very pleasant; an effervescent, fragrant drink with light tannins on the finish.
From SuperValu

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Ampohora: wine from ancient clay containers

Josko Gravner and his amphorae.

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 5th January, 2019

Did our forefathers know best? The last few decades have seen huge changes in the way wine is made – large, modern wineries that look more like chemical plants, with massive columns of stainless steel joined together by a bewildering number of large pipes. A huge amount of science and technology has gone into making large quantities of consistently drinkable wines. And yet a growing band of winemakers are shunning all of this knowledge and retreating back to the very beginning of wine for their inspiration.

There have always been a few wineries around Europe still using clay amphorae containers – I have a picture somewhere of me sitting in a large one cut in half in a cellar in Portugal. But the recent trend started with Josko Gravner, an Italian/Slovene producer, who wanted to make more natural wines, and to improve the quality of his local grape, Ribolla Gialla. He began by fermenting wine on the skins, producing what is now known as orange wine (although Gravner prefers the term amber, “it is more bright, more alive, more concentrated”). He visited Georgia, the cradle of winemaking, where not only did they ferment wine on the skins, but they fermented and aged the wines for lengthy periods in very large (1,200-2,500-litre) clay amphorae, usually lined with beeswax. This is the oldest method of winemaking known to man, first used in Georgia and neighbouring Armenia somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago. Remarkably, they were still doing so, despite Soviet disapproval. According to Alice Feiring in her book on Georgian winemaking, For the Love of Wine, there were once hundreds of qvevri (amphora) potters, but that number had recently dwindled to three. As demand worldwide has rocketed, I feel sure others are in training. Qvevri and qvevri winemaking now has Unesco World Heritage status.

Ferment and age

Gravner bought some amphorae back to Italy, buried them in the ground below his cellar, and began using them to ferment and age his wines. Other winemakers in the northeast of Italy and Slovenia started doing the same, soon followed, it seems, by half the world’s winemakers. The traditional method in Georgia was to lightly crush the grapes (sometimes by foot) and put juice and grapes into the qvevri, where it will start fermentation and the second malolactic fermentation. The amphora provides a natural and consistent temperature control; the shape is said to aid gentle circulation and clarification, and the wine is given a gentle oxygenation.

Amphorae have been used to make, age and transport wine for thousands of years. Today some winemakers ferment in clay, other simply age the wine for a few months in amphorae. I am not sure I could pick out a wine that has received a little clay treatment, but it is fun to drink a little living history.

Fresquito 2017, Montilla-Moriles, Spain: made in clay amphorae in Montilla-Moriles, it is an utterly delicious.

 

Fresquito 2017, Montilla-Moriles, Spain, 14%, €13.30

On of my all-time favourite M&S wines, made in clay amphorae in Montilla-Moriles, it is an utterly delicious, vaguely sherry like (but unfortified) wine with delicate toasted nuts, green olives and plump apricot fruits, finishing dry. Amazing value for money.

Stockists: Marks & Spencer

Vermell 2017, Celler del Roure, Valencia: great with roast chicken. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Vermell 2017, Celler del Roure, Valencia: great with roast chicken. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Vermell 2017, Celler del Roure, Valencia (Organic), €16.50

Aged in century-old Spanish clay amphora, this is another favourite of mine. The latest vintage is the best yet, brimming with delicious ripe savoury damsons, some dried herbs and a refreshing acidity. Great with roast chicken.

Stockists: Ely 64, Glasthule, Ely64.com; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, jusdevine.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; Searsons, Monkstown, searsons.com; Clontarf Wines, clontarfwines.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie; Kellys, Clontarf, kellysofflicence.ie; and The Wicklow Wine Co., Wicklow, wicklowwineco.ie.

Iago Bitarishvili Chinuri 2017, Chardakhi, Central Georgia: lemon peel and marmalade.
Iago Bitarishvili Chinuri 2017, Chardakhi, Central Georgia: lemon peel and marmalade.

Iago Bitarishvili Chinuri 2017, Chardakhi, Central Georgia, 12%, €24.80

Pithy textured tannic lemon peel and marmalade, with lovely slightly funky earthy fruit, very good acidity and a long dry finish.

Stockists: Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; and The Corkscrew, Chatham St., thecorkscrew.ie.

Gravner Bianco Breg 2009, IGT Venezia-Giulia: ripe, rich and spicy.
Gravner Bianco Breg 2009, IGT Venezia-Giulia: ripe, rich and spicy.

Gravner Bianco Breg 2009, IGT Venezia-Giulia, 15%, €75

Ripe, rich and spicy, with orange peel, dried apricots and figs. Long and quite luscious, although there is still plenty of acidity. Fascinating wine.

Stockists: Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, South Anne Street, Kells, Co Meath, Galway, sheridanscheesemongers.com; SIYPS.com; Ely 64, Glasthule, Ely64.com; and Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie.

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Sherry good: Tis the season to give fortified wines a try

First published in The Irish Times, 22nd December, 2018.

It may be the cold weather or simply we associate them with the festive season, but retailers tell me that sales of fortified wines increase exponentially as Christmas nears. Fortified simply means the wine has been beefed up with a little more alcohol, although the Montilla-Moriles below achieved 17 per cent simply through evaporation over the years. This was originally done to stabilise the wines before they were shipped around the world.

Some fortified wines are sweet, but many are bone dry, and are better drunk alongside savoury foods, notably cheese, cold meats and nuts, but lots of other dishes too. They include some of the greatest wines of all.

Over the past few months, I have tasted some of the finest fortified wines that I have come across in years. The intensity, the range and depth of flavours of some have been quite amazing. I covered Port earlier this year, so today, sherry, its neighbour Montilla-Moriles, and Marsala.

Two supermarkets seem to be taking sherry seriously. Marks & Spencer has a very good range, including its excellent Very Rare Palo Cortado (€12 per half bottle), while Aldi has the very tasty Aldi Exquisite Collection Dry Amontillado Sherry for a bargain €7.99 for a 50cl bottle.

Elsewhere, Mitchell & Son has a mouth-watering display of half bottles of Lustau sherries, as well as a grown-up size bottle of la Ina Fino, one of the best-value wines in the country. Hats off to O’Briens which recently took delivery of a range of fortified wines from Montilla-Moriles, an area beside Jerez. The wines are spectacularly good. My favourite was probably the stunning Marqués de Poley Amontillado Viejísimo 1922 at €43.95 for a 50cl bottle but I have also sipped very happily away at the Oloroso below.

Winemaker Ramiro Ibáñez gave one of the most fascinating talks and tastings of the year. Under the Cota 45 label, he produces a series of unfortified aged wine, as well as some very excellent sherries. The Fino Balbaina Alta below may seem expensive at €40, but it is one of the most delicious wines I have tasted all year. Anyone looking for the perfect Christmas gift for the sherry lover in your life should look no further.

I also tasted four excellent sherries from Barbadillo, including its fresh dry Manzanilla Pasada en Rama (€14 per half bottle) and three superb older wines – the Principe Amontillado, Cuco Oloroso, and Palo Cortado Obsipo Gascon (all €60 per half). All are available from Jus de Vine, Deveney’s, and O’Driscoll’s, Ballinlough.

Lastly New Zealand Wine will be holding its annual tasting on January 14th at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Dublin, 6:30pm-8:30pm. Tickets (€15) from iti.ms/2zSkTWI or contact Jean Smullen on jean@jeansmullen.com; tel (086) 816 8468.

 Lustau Dry Amontillado Los Arcos Sherry
18.5%, €13.50
Complex, tangy, bone dry wine with hazelnuts, toasted almonds, orange and old woody notes. Delicious served lightly chilled with mixed cheeses or the perfect adult stocking filler.
Stockists: Mitchell & Son, chq, Sandycove, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue and Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; The Vintry, Dublin 6, vintry.ie; D-Six Wines, Dublin 6; peggykellys.ie; Bradley’s Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; La Touche, Greystones, Latouchewines4u.ie.

Marqués de Poley Oloroso
17%, €19.95 for a 50cl bottle
Toffee and butterscotch mixed with toasted hazelnuts, walnuts and bitter orange. Fresh and lively with a dry finish. Wonderful wine. With cheese and walnuts.
Stockists: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Marsala Dolce, Vito Curatolo Arini, Italy
18%, €22.95
Light toffee and caramel, with dried fruits, figs, sultanas and raisins. Sweet but not sickly. A small glass, served chilled, with mince pies, Christmas cake, plum pudding or hard cheeses such as Parmesan or a nice sharp Pecorino.
Stockists: Redmonds, Ranelagh; Redmonds.ie; Searsons, Monkstown, searsons.com; Wineonline.ie; World Wide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie; 1601 Off-licence, Kinsale; The Corkscrew, Chatham St, thecorkscrew.ie.

Bodegas de la Riva, Fino Balbaina Alta
15%, €38.95
An utterly astonishing wine, deep in colour with fresh clean grilled almonds, intense savoury saline flavours that last for minutes after you have swallowed. Enjoy lightly chilled by itself or with some of the highest quality Iberico ham.
Stockists: Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie.

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12 great Christmas reds from your local wine shop

First published in The Irish Times online, 19th December 2018

I taste a lot of wine, and not all of the good ones make it into The Irish Times, as there simply isn’t enough space. Here are a dozen great reds to try out over Christmas. Some come from my Saturday column in the magazine, some from my wine guide and some are recent finds that I’m mentioning for the first time. All of these are available from independent wine shops and off-licences.

Sá de Baixo, Douro, Portugal, 2015
€13.95-€14.35, 14%
Medium-bodied and smooth with ripe dark fruits, a touch of spice and a rounded finish. Fail-safe wine at a great price, to serve with all kinds of red and white meats. From Drinkstore, Dublin 7; Red Island Wine, Skerries, Co Dublin; The Winehouse, Trim, Co Meath; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3; Bradleys, Cork; Lilac Wines, Dublin 3; Sweeneys Wine Merchants, Dublin 11; Listons, Dublin 2; Morton’s, Dublin 6; Mortons of Galway; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Gibney’s of Malahide; 1601 Off Licence, Kinsale, Co Cork; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4; Wicklow Wine Company, Wicklow town; Redmonds of Ranelagh, Dublin 6; Browns Vineyard, Portlaoise, Co Laois; Martin’s Off-Licence, Dublin 3; McHugh’s, Dublin 3; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin

Bodegas Paco García Seis, Rioja, 2017
€15.99, 13.5%
Aged six months in oak (seis being Spanish for six) this is a joyous floral, fruit-filled wine with a touch of spice; vibrant, light, fresh blackcurrant fruits with a lovely sweetness. Perfect with white meat. From jnwine.com

Élian Da Ros, Le Vin Est une Fête 2016, Côtes du Marmandais
€17.95, 12.5%
This domaine’s Abouriou (€29.50) is a great wine, but I have always had a real liking for this delicious (and biodynamic) light, summery red with smooth, delicate dark fruits that grow on you with every sip. Great value for money, too. From Terroirs, Dublin 4.

Bodegas Ponce Clos Lojen, Manchuela, Spain, 2016
€17, 13%
Made from 60 year-old Bobal vines, this is a gorgeous, supple wine brimming with clean dark-cherry fruits, and brought to life by a lovely fresh acidity. Brilliant value for money. By itself or with white meat. Biodynamic. From Bradleys, Cork; Worldwide Wines, Waterford; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Drinkstore, Dublin 7; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3; Bradleys, Cork; Lilac Wines, Dublin 3; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4; Wicklow Wine Company, Wicklow town; Redmonds of Ranelagh, Dublin 6; Browns Vineyard, Portlaoise, Co Laois; Martin’s Off-Licence, Dublin 3; McHugh’s, Dublin 3; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6W; Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin

Bender Pinot Noir, Pfalz, Germany, 2016
€18.25, 13%
A touch of spicy oak that works really well with the supple, elegant dark-cherry fruits. Rounded and soft, this slips down all too easily. With roast duck or charcuterie. From Wines Direct, Mullingar, Co Westmeath, and Dublin 1

Amo-Roujo 2016, Luberon, Domaine le Novi
€20, 14%
A big, juicy ripe wine, with smooth, concentrated red fruits, hints of fresh herbs, and a nicely rounded finish. A stylish and individual wine to pair with red meats and firm cheeses. From Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1; Sandycove, Co Dublin; Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow; and Dunboyne, Co Meath

Carnuntum, Muhr-Van der Niepoort, Austria, 2011
€25, 13%
Silky-smooth, fully mature, soft, elegant dark fruits and good length. Pinot Noir meets northern Rhône? A joy to drink. Probably good with turkey; certainly good with duck. From Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1; Sandycove, Co Dublin; Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow; and Dunboyne, Co Meath; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; Redmonds of Ranelagh, Dublin 6; the Corkscrew; Dublin 2

Fleurie 2015, Domaine des Nugues
€25.50, 13%
Domaine des Nugues is among my favourite producers in Beaujolais. Its Fleurie has a lovely fresh elegance, full of silky-smooth ripe dark fruits.From siyps.com; Rua Deli & Cafe, Castlebar, Co Mayo

Cortezada 2016, Fedellos do Couto, Vino Tinto
€27, 13%
Light, elegant and aromatic, with delicate, sweet, silky strawberry and raspberry fruits, this red has a wonderful liveliness. Goes down a treat with boiled ham and roasted root vegetables. Great wine. From Green Man Wines, Dublin 6W; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Loose Canon, Dublin 2

Le Clos des Quarterons Vieilles Vignes 2015, St Nicolas de Bourgeuil
€27.95, 12.5%
Another of my favourite reds of 2018, a Loire Cabernet Franc with an irresistible combination of delicate, silky, yet concentrated red fruits and gently refreshing acidity. Beautifully textured, with well-integrated tannins. Biodynamic. Have with pork, herby roast chicken or baked ham. From Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin

Plexus 2015, John Duval Wines, Barossa Valley, SGM
€38.99, 13.5%
Rich and rounded, with ripe red fruits, plenty of spice and a smooth, long finish. Perfect with turkey, ham or both. From Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1; Sandycove, Co Dublin; Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow; and Dunboyne, Co Meath; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2; Red Island Wine, Skerries, Co Dublin; the Parting Glass, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin; wineonline.ie

Barolo Albe 2014, GD Vajra
€44.99, 13.5%
Lightly floral, with cool, pure raspberry, redcurrant and damson fruits; and well-integrated tannins on a dryish finish. Perfect with duck or goose. From Grapevine, Dalkey, Co Dublin; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2; Terroirs, Dublin 4; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Drinkstore, Dublin 7; Next Door at Myles Creek, Kilkee, Co Clare; Vanilla Grape, Kenmare, Co Kerry; wineonline.ie; Worldwide Wines, Waterford; Power & Co Fine Wines, Lucan, Co Dublin

 

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White wines: my top ten picks for Christmas from independent merchants

First published online in the Irish Times, Tuesday 18th December, 2018

Below are ten of my favourite white wines of 2018 (actually I’ve cheated; there are twelve), and all are available from your independent wine retailer. I have indulged myself and included a few more expensive wines. This is the time of year to splash out a little; believe me you will notice the difference when you pay a few euro more.

Domaine du Tariquet Classic, Côtes de Gascogne, France, 2017
10.5% €13.99
This is an old favourite of mine, a clean, bright, breezy wine, all crunchy green apples and lemon zest, finishing bone dry. With a mere 10.5% alcohol, this would make a great aperitif or party wine; alternatively with light salads and shellfish.
From Vanilla Grape, Kenmare; Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown, Co Dublin; Nolan’s Supermarket, 49 Vernon Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin 3.

Château de Valcombe Blanc, Costières de Nimes, France, 2017
13.5% €16.99
Wonderful, subtle, elegant dry white with succulent peaches and pears, balanced perfectly by a mineral acidity. Great value for money.
From Red Nose Wines, The Regal Centre, Davis Road, Clonmel Co Tipperary.

Soave Colli Scaligeri Castelcerino Filippi (Organic), Italy, 2015
12.5% €19.95
I enjoyed this wine on several occasions in 2018. Delicious light Soave with a waxy touch, some peach and yellow apple fruits mixing in with marzipan and a lively streak of mineral acidity. Made from biodynamically grown grapes with minimal sulphur, it has a pleasant leesy touch too.
From Le Caveau, Market Yard, Kilkenny; Bradley’s Off-licence, 81 Main Street, Centre, Cork; Green Man Wines, 3 Terenure North, Terenure, Dublin 6W;64 Wine, 64 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, Dublin 2.

Aphros Loureiro, Vinho Verde, Portugal, 2016
11.5% €21.95
A delicious vibrant, crisp dry white with a beautifully textured palate of orange peel and juicy pears. This would go down a treat with shellfish starters or as an aperitif.
From 64 Wine, 64 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, Dublin 2; Bradley’s Off-licence, 81 Main Street, Centre, Cork; Deveney’s, 31 Main Street, Dundrum, Dublin 16; Green Man Wines, 3 Terenure North, Terenure, Dublin 6W; Lilac Wines, 117 Philipsburgh Avenue, Fairview, Dublin 3; Redmonds, 25 Ranelagh Village, Dublin 6.

10/10/2017 - Whites & Co - . Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Bodegas Cota 45 ‘Ube’ Miraflores, Andalucia, Spain, 2017
12% €23.00
From one of the best tastings of 2018, a wonderful light subtle unfortified wine from Sherry country. This is fermented in old Manzanilla casks with two months under flor. Lightly floral with subtle toasted nuts, very seductive peach and apple fruits, finishing long and dry. Fascinating wine.
From 64 Wine, 64 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Jus de Vine, 10 Strand Road, Portmarnock, Co Dublin; Green Man Wines, 3 Terenure North, Terenure, Dublin 6W; Martin’s Off Licence, 11 Marino Mart, Clontarf, Dublin 3; Loose Canon, 29 Drury St, Dublin 2.

Xisto iLimitado Branco, Luis Seabra Vinhos, Douro, Portugal, 2017
12.5% €22
Utterly delicious, delicate wine with a fine saline vein running through the mouth-watering pear and green apple fruits. Light but full of flavour, this lingers beautifully. Made by Luis Seabra, formerly winemaker at Niepoort, this is one of my favourite wines of 2018. A must-try wine.
From 64 Wine, 64 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Green Man Wines, 3 Terenure North, Terenure, Dublin 6W; Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, Dublin 2; Clontarf Wines, 48 Clontarf Road, Clontarf, Dublin 3; Redmonds, 25 Ranelagh village, Dublin 6.

Louro Godello, Rafael Palacios, Valdeorras, Spain, 2017
13.5% €27
One of my all-time favourite wines. Textured and creamy, with plump pears and peaches, a subtle nuttiness, shot through with a lively acidity. If you want to splurge, their As Sortes (€50) is even better with your Christmas starter and turkey. Some shops have it in magnums. This is the wine I will be drinking this Christmas, and not for the first time.

From Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; La Touche Wines, La Touch Place, Greystones, Co Wicklow; Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown, Co Dublin; Martin’s Off Licence, 11 Marino Mart, Clontarf, Dublin 3; 64 Wine, 64 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin; Baggot Street Wines, Baggot Street, Dublin 2; Blackrock Cellar, 23 Rockhill, Blackrock, Co Dublin; Clontarf Wines, 48 Clontarf Road, Clontarf, Dublin 3; Green Man Wines, 3 Terenure North, Terenure, Dublin 6W; Sweeney’s Wines, 6 Finglas Road, Hart’s Corner, Glasnevin, Dublin 11; Lilac Wines, 117 Philipsburgh Avenue, Fairview, Dublin 3; Grapevine, 26 Castle Street, Dalkey, Co Dublin; SIYPS.com.

Wieninger Wiener Gemischter Satz 1er Ulm Nussberg Organic, Austria
13.5% €29.99
A lovely rich dry white, with spicy textured oranges with a subtle note of honey, and very good racy citrus acidity. This would go down a treat wih salmon, smoked or grilled.
From wineonline.ie

Mâcon-Milly-Lamartine, Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon, Biodynamic, France 2015
13.5% €32.95
A delicious, sensual, sophisticated wine with layers of orange peel, peaches and grapefruit; textured and rich with layers of unctuous fruit kept in check by a mineral acidity. Richer seafood dishes or white meats.
From Searsons Wine Merchants, 10 Monkstown Crescent, Monkstown, Co Dublin.

Zárate Tras da Viña Rías Baixas, Spain, 2015
13%, €32.75
“As good a Rías Baixas as I have tasted”, read my notes from earlier this year. Gorgeous fresh lively wine with concentrated rich creamy peach fruits, and a strong mineral backbone. Lingers very nicely too.
From 64 Wine, 64 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin; The Hole in the Wall, Blackhorse Avenue, Dublin 7; Jus de Vine, Strand Road, Portmarnock, Co Dublin; Green Man Wines, 3 Terenure North, Terenure, Dublin 6W.

Chablis premier cru Vauloront, Domaine du Colombier, France, 2015
13%, €35
A deliciously refreshing crisp Chablis with plenty of ripe fruits to balance out the acidity. Long and concentrated, this would go down perfectly with a fishy starter on Christmas day.
From Whelehans, Loughlinstown, Co Dublin.

Matés Vineyard Chardonnay, Kumeu River, New Zealand, 2016
13.5%, €55-€60
Why would you pay €60 for a New Zealand Chardonnay? Well, because it is a dead ringer for top-notch white Burgundy that will set you back €30 more. Superb, refined, sophisticated Chardonnay that sings class. Fresh and crisp, with a lovely, rich, concentrated centre-palate of precise apple fruits and subtle toasted nuts.
From Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown, Co Dublin;64 Wine, 64 Glasthule Road, Glasthule, Co Dublin.

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The best red wines for Christmas

This article was first published in the Irish Times, Saturday 15th December, 2018.

If Chablis and Mâcon are the traditional Irish Christmas white wines, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and St Émilion Grand Cru or Rioja Reserva are the red equivalents. Turkey is an accommodating bird and will go nicely with most wines, red or white, although I try to avoid tannic wines such as young Bordeaux or Barolo. However, you do need to watch out for the accompaniments – spicy, fruity stuffings and cranberry sauce can kill a wine in seconds. While you won’t go wrong with the above wines (although I would avoid cheap Châteauneuf-du-Pape) this year, why not expand your horizons a little to other countries and regions?

Grenache, or Garnacha, is the main component in the aforementioned Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and most southern red Rhône wines. In its original homeland of Spain, or in the McLaren Vale and the Barossa in Australia, it can be very good indeed. Australian Grenache tends to be light on tannins, with soft generous ripe spicy strawberry fruits; great for turkey. You could go with the excellent John Duval Plexus GSM 2015 (€39, independents), a Rhône-like blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. Spain is producing some really exciting Garnacha at the moment. As a general rule, look to Navarra for lighter, juicier wines, and Madrid or Méntrida for wonderful, perfumed, full-bodied wines. See below for just two suggestions.

I am a big Pinot Noir fan, as are a number of my Christmas guests, so I suspect we will head in this direction, although I have served northern Rhône on previous occasions, most memorably an elegant, silky bottle of Côte Rôtie from Stephane Ogier (€52, searsons.com, Eldon’s, Clonmel). I have also been eyeing up some maturing Crozes Hermitage Yann Chave (€27.95, searsons.com, plus independents). You can find very good Pinot Noir from various countries, most notably Germany, Oregon, California, New Zealand, Germany and Australia, although it is hard to beat red Burgundy at its best, as in the Volnay below.

Unlike turkey, goose welcomes tannins and eats them up, so a Barolo, Barbaresco or Bordeaux would be ideal. However, steer clear of red cabbage if it has lots of sugar, vinegar and spice. The same goes for duck, although here a Pinot Noir would also work nicely. Vegetarian dishes with mushrooms, or stuffed peppers, courgettes and aubergines are all very red-wine friendly, including wines with some tannin.

If you live near Loughlinstown, a quick fix Christmas pairing from Whelehan’s would be the fruit-filled Rula Albariño (€14.95) and smooth, full-bodied Domaine de l’Amauve Côtes du Rhône (€16.50). For a German Pinot, try the rich fruit-filled Bender Pinot Noir (€18.25, winesdirect.ie) or the spicy Stepp Pinot Noir (€22.50, Marks & Spencer), or the Becker Family Pinot Noir (€22, independents).

Tandem Inmune Garnacha 2016, Navarra

14%, €15.95

Fresh, smooth, crunchy, savoury dark fruits with a lovely herbal touch. A very good match for the Christmas turkey and stuffing.

Stockists: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

La Bruja de Rozas 2015, Viños de Madrid, Commando G

14.5%, €26

A wonderful full-bodied wine with fresh, fragrant red cherry fruits and fine dry tannins on the finish. With turkey or duck.

Stockists: Kelly’s, Clontarf, kellysofflicence.ie; Clontarf Wines, clontarfwines.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; Green Man Wines, Terenure, greenmanwines.ie; 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie.

Giant Steps Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2017, Australia

13.5%, €29.99

A richer style of Pinot, with succulent red cherry fruits and a very attractive earthiness. Perfect with duck, goose or turkey.

Stockists: Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Grapevine, Dalkey, onthegrapevine.ie; 64 Wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, thecorkscrew.ie; wineonline.ie

Volnay 1er cru Cuvée Blondeau, Hospices de Beaune

14%, €52.50

Youthful ripe dark cherry, with a touch of smoky new oak, underpinned by good acidity. If you are having it for Christmas, decant half an hour before dinner. Perfect with turkey, goose or duck.

Stockists: Marks & Spencer

 

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A visit to Josko Gravner

Josko Gravner lives in a modest house in Oslavia, in the north-eastern corner of Italy, just a few metres from the border with Slovenia. His mother tongue is Slovene and the family speak it all the time, as do many in the area. A casual visitor would struggle to understand that this modest unassuming man (proudly sporting a flat cap presented to him by his Irish importer) has been to the forefront of no less than two revolutions in modern winemaking over the last three decades.

The Gravner house & winery

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Gravner was a winemaking superstar, one of the leading modernists in Italy, particularly in the Collio region. Taking over the winery at the age of 25, following his father’s death, he pioneered the fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in barriques, sometimes 100% new. The wines were given very high scores by American critics and the influential Italian magazine, Gambero Rosso. Then two separate events forced his life and his wines to change course radically. These changes lead to a rapid fall from grace, followed by a rise in fame for a completely different kind of wine. Gravner now has almost god-like status with the natural wine movement and fans of orange wine.

Gravner comes with a reputation for being difficult with the press, possibly the result of fallout back in the 1990s, when the Gambero Rosso famously said he had ‘gone mad’. But on my visit, Josko Gravner was pleasant, open and very good company, despite a language barrier. I spent the weekend in his house, with his daughter Mateja (a qualified winemaker) and grandson Gregor both of whom work alongside Gravner, as do Pepe and Bruno, his two inseparable dogs. Jana, another daughter, also works in the family business. It was a fascinating few days, an in-depth immersion in how natural, skin-contact wines are made, from the man who invented (or reinvented) it all. As a bonus, the region is very attractive, with an absorbing mix of cultures and history.

Josko Gravner

 

Gravner’s grandparents had an osteria where the winery now stands. It was a way of selling their wine, along with snacks such as salami, prosciutto, cheese and, apparently, hardboiled eggs. They closed it down in 1932, Mateja tells me, when the fascists made it law that everyone speak Italian; they wanted to be able to speak Slovene in their own home. The grandparents were known for having a ‘clean winery’, something that the fastidious Josko Gravner has obviously inherited. Later the family had an osteria in the nearby town of Gorizia until the 1970s. His wife was born over the border in in Slovenia. Mateja told me many stories about life beside the Iron Curtain. Although there was no barbed wire, the area had many border guards, usually from other parts of Yugoslavia, to avoid fraternisation. Many of the winemakers had vineyards on both sides of the border, and had to be careful where and when they crossed. At one stage Josko had to transfer ownership of his grandmother’s house to his wife, as he stood to lose it as the Yugoslav government labeled all Italians as fascists; she held a Yugoslav passport and was therefore obviously a good communist!

The first change in Gravner’s winemaking came about as result of a trip to California in the late 1980s. He was disgusted by some of the chemically enhanced wines he tasted, and returned home determined to make his winemaking and wines healthier, cleaner and more local. Suffering from ill-health, he and his wife began eating a diet of raw food, which gradually softened to semi-vegetarian. Now they eat meat twice a week at most. As Gravner rears a few woolly Mangalica pigs, from which he makes excellent salami and sausages, this must prove difficult. He does believe that you should buy locally as much as possible. “You pay for what you eat and drink”, he says, “with your health”.

Mangalica pigs

The Amphorae (guarded by Bruno)

At the same time, Gravner wanted to improve the quality of his Ribolla Ghialla. Ribolla grows on both side of the border, more in Brda in Slovenia than Collio. It is, he argues, the only indigenous white grape of Friulli. Other local indigenous varietals, such as Pignolo, Schioppetino, and Tatsalenga, are red. “The problem with Ribolla is if you press gently you get a very neutral wine; if you press more, it becomes hard and very bitter.” He decided that the true taste of Ribolla came only with fermentation on the skins. In 1994, he made his first skin-contact wine. His research led him to Georgia, the home of skin-contact wines but also winemaking in amphorae. Gravner was smitten. “I tried to find the oldest way to work with wine; the only thing you need is great grapes. Everything a wine needs you will find in an amphora,” he says.

Used for making and storing wine for thousands of years, amphorae are clay vessels of differing sizes, from 250 to several thousand litres. Most are around 400 litres and are often lined with beeswax. Most winemakers use them buried or half-buried in the ground. You can find them in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Chile and other countries, but they have been widely used in Armenia and Georgia for thousands of years, up to the present day. Thanks to Gravner, they are ultra-fashionable today with natural winemakers, who believe they make for a steady slow fermentation, give the wines freshness, and help reflect the terroir. Gravner uses amphorae from 1,200 – 2,500 litres in size.

 

Fermenting Ribolla 2018

In 1997, he made his first amphora wine – in his grandmother’s old house just over the border in Slovenia, as he was afraid the Italian wine authorities would not allow it. The grapes, however, came from Italy. In 2000, he travelled to Georgia for the first time and bought some qvevri (amphorae). He uses only these and says they must be buried to be effective. All of the amphorae he uses are brought in from Georgia. He currently has 45 in the cellar and is in the process of burying a further 21 outside. All are lined with beeswax. By 2001 he had enough amphorae to make 50% of his wine in them, the other half in barrel.

The original amphorae, in the Gravner farmhouse in Slovenia.

His first skin-contact wines (he prefers the term Amber to Orange: “Amber is more bright, alive, concentrated”) were met with derision by some. “It was very difficult at the start; people didn’t understand what I was trying to do,” says Gravner. Other producers thought the wines were faulty. He lost many customers in the period 2009-2012, and was partly saved by Italian sommeliers who liked the wines. Over the last five years, he says, nearly all his customers have returned to the fold.

Gravner wines are fermented on the skins in amphorae; the whites spend one year on skins, the red wines a few months. This is followed by six to seven years in large Slavonian oak casks and then a few months in bottle before release. Gravner has an almost biblical belief in the number seven; he keeps his wine seven years before release, and he believes good and bad vintages come in sevens. As 2011 was the last great vintage he was hopeful that 2018 would follow suit. However, it was a difficult vintage, he says, requiring a lot of attention. 2019 however, will be very good.

Amphorae awaiting burial.

Intervention is kept to an absolute minimum; the only addition is a small amount of sulphur. ‘The most difficult thing in winemaking is to use the least amount of sulphur”, he says. A small amount is added at the start sometimes, and a little before bottling. They aim for 15-18ppm at bottling. There is no chilling, no stainless steel. “I never analyse anything”, he says, “sugar, acidity or anything else. Once you realise that you cannot add or change the wine, you know there is no point! No wine is without defects. You have to make them as good as is possible and each year you try to do better.”

The Gravner estate is just over thirty hectares, straddling Italy and Slovenia, with seventeen of those under vine. Both figures change constantly as he buys new vineyards and sells plots he doesn’t consider good enough. Originally planted with Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon, they are slowly being replanted with Ribolla and Pignolo. He has planted trees and installed small ponds amongst the vines to encourage biodiversity.

Most people assume Gravner has been biodynamic for years, but this is not the case. His son, who tragically died in a motorbike accident, was the driving force behind the conversion to biodynamic viticulture. At the time of the accident Josko was practising organic but not biodynamic viticulture. Now he has been fully biodynamic for three years, (although he says he ‘followed the moon for the last twenty’), but will never use the certification. “Biodynamics is not like homeopathic medicine”, says Mateja, who took me around the vineyards, “it is more holistic, like a doctor keeping you healthy, so you don’t need treatment unless you are really sick. You don’t always improve the quality of the wine; it is all about improving the soil. Copper has less impact on the soil; here we have problems with peronospora and oidium. But as we have 8-10 people working in the vineyards all spring and summer, we can spot any problems very early and spray very selectively. It made a huge difference to go back to biodynamic. In less than a year there was an incredible increase in the life of the soil. It can now overcome extremes, droughts and floods much better.”

Mateja Gravner

Talking to Josko Gravner later, he argues that “It is the only way to be sure the land is safe. I didn’t understand this when I first started out. Now I understand that the key to everything is to look after the land. It is difficult to say it makes the wine better, but it certainly the soil is better in difficult vintages and that makes things easier. There is no use in improving vines; you improve the soil and the vines will be more resistant. If you fertilise, you will have to use more fertiliser every year. Biodynamics is the most evolved style of agriculture, but it is like a religion, You have to believe in it. When you work with nature, you have to accept the good and the bad that nature gives you”. A friend of his argues that you have to accept that you will lose an entire harvest every seven years.

Gravner plants ungrafted American rootstocks directly into the soil, and field grafts on his own massale selection a year later. Mateja tells me that he noticed that a number of his 12 year-old plants suddenly withered and died, within a week, at 10-15 years of age. He believes this was caused by the nursery grafting. His method means the vines need five years before you can harvest, but he argues it is worth the wait.

American rootstocks awaiting grafting

Today, Gravner is revered many natural wine lovers. As the first person outside of Georgia to discover (he would say rediscover) skin fermentation and amphorae, he has obviously had a massive influence on winemaking over the last decade. Winemakers the world over now routinely use a little or a lot of skin fermentation or maceration, and amphorae have become a highly fashionable vessel to use in winemaking. Yet he dislikes travel and finds addressing large crowds a very stressful process. He produces very little wine, although they are now exported to forty five markets, the two biggest being Japan and the U.S. He is very modest man, if quietly persistent, and something of a perfectionist in everything that he does. I ask grandson Gregor, who recently started working with him in the cellar if that makes life difficult. “Not really,’ he says, “I enjoy the work very much, and when he says you have done a good job, you know that you really have”. He obviously questions everything; for instance he argues that bottles of wine should be stored standing up, as opposed to laid down. The cork has to be kept humid, not wet, he argues, so you just need the correct cellar.

I am intrigued by the Gravner wines; they have a unique personality, and flavours that you will rarely find in conventional wines. They have none of the V.A., Brett, or mousiness found in some natural wines, and after seven years in the cask, they are unlikely to start refermenting. Some are marked by noble rot, some may have small levels of residual sugar, but most are very dry. They are complex, with layers of flavours – orchard fruits, lots of orange peel, lemon zest, minerals, grilled nuts, mushrooms, earthy, and sometimes with a waxy quality. Some simply explode with a rainbow of flavours. I found it difficult to write tasting notes or to judge the wines; they taste so different that the usual descriptors – lemon zest, peaches and balance etc., are irrelevant. He would argue that his wines reflect the terroir; several critics I have talked to say they all taste the same – of Gravner.

I enjoyed every minute of my visit, and really enjoyed the wines. I am not entirely convinced I would drink them with food though. I would prefer to sit down with a glass (Gravner has designed his own glasses, made by Massimo Lunardon) and slowly sip it over the evening. He argues that his white (or amber) wines should served at room temperature. Much is made of his white wines, but his red wines are equally enjoyable. An oak cask 2003 Merlot with a touch of Cabernet, fermented on the skins still had plenty of pure smooth plum fruits, as well as a great tannic finish. Because he has now ripped up all of his Cabernet and Merlot replacing them with Pignolo, it has not been made again. Gravner wines do not come cheap, but they are quite unique, and the result of a long complex process. One retailer said to me that every wine-lover should try a Gravner wine at least once in their life. I would agree.

 

Bianco Breg 2010

Made from a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Floral, herbal aromas; rich tangy and full of soft complex fruits. Vibrant, mineral with a lovely taut freshness.

 

Bianco Breg 2009

Some noble rot; riper, richer and spicy, with orange peel, dried apricots and figs. Long and quite luscious, although there is still plenty of acidity.

 

Ribolla Gialla 2010

Cleaner and fresh with a strong mineral streak; smooth with subtle grilled nuts and a citrus element.

 

Ribolla 2009

Lifted aromas of dried fruit and orange peel; an explosion of fruit and flavour; marzipan, caramel, nectarines, underpinned by a fine refreshing acidity.

 

Ribolla 2008

A win with great power and complexity; rich with intense flavours of toasted nuts; waxy with layers of dried stone fruits, and a very long finish.

 

Ribolla 2007

Abundant dried apricots, candid fruit and spice – ginger and fennel, with subtle nuts and a lovely mineral streak.

 

Rosso Ruijno 2003

Mainly Merlot, a little Cabernet Sauvignon. Still a very youthful colour, broad slightly earthy nose with dark forest fruits; smooth, ripe mature damson fruits with a nice tannic kick on the finish.

 

Pignolo 2005

Not made in amphorae. Wild pithy damsons and dark cherries; smooth, concentrated with some dry tannins and a lovely kick on the finish. Excellent wine

 

Ribolla 2003

Legally, this cannot be called Riserva, but it is a Gravner Riserva, having spent seven years in cask and seven in bottle. This was bottled only in magnums, left standing up (Gravner insists this is the way to age wine, provided you have the correct humidity) A very delicate nose of rose petals and lemon peel; it has good acidity, subtle grilled nuts, and an amazing freshness for a fifteen year-old wine.

Chardonnay 1992

We finished one of our tastings with a taste of one of his barrel-fermented ‘old style’ wines that showed remarkably well; it still had aromas and flavours of new French oak, but was very much alive with good apple fruits and a long dry finish. How many Burgundies would taste as good at 25 years?

Bianco Breg 2001

Pinot Grigio; Mild earthy – damp earth, with light fruits. Not my favourite but an interesting piece of history.

 

Pinot Grigio 2007

15.5% alcohol, five months on skins. Deep in colour, rich in red fruits, with a pithy texture and quite tannic on the finish. As near as white wine gets to red? Fascinating wine.

 

Gravner wines are imported into Ireland by Grape Circus – ringmaster@grapcircus.ie

 

 

 

 

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