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Soave and sophisticated: the Italian white wine that’s bouncing back

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

 

The imposing Castello di Scaligeri towers over the medieval walled town of Soave, whose narrow streets run down the mountainside on to the plain below. It is a beautiful and vibrant place, well worth a visit if you are in the area. The vineyards surrounding the town and stretching into the distance are used to make Soave, one of Italy’s best-known white wines.

There are two very different kinds of Soave, however. The grapes used to produce Soave Classico grow on the slopes beside the castle and high on the opposing hillsides. On the plains below you will find the vines used to produce simple Soave. There is a world of difference between the two. The top wines of Soave Classico stand comparison with the finest white wines of Italy and elsewhere. With a few exceptions, most basic Soave is at best a pleasant, simple, lightly fruity white wine.

Soave lies east of Verona, an hour or so from the shores of Lake Garda. In the late 20th century the area expanded to include many inferior vineyards. The primary grape here is Garganega, although others are permitted, including Trebbiano di Soave and Chardonnay. If allowed, Garganega can produce very large yields, which in turn lead to some very dilute, flavourless wines. During this period many producers also planted the high-volume but inferior Trebbiano Toscano.

For several decades one or two large companies and the enormous local co-operative exported large quantities of these insipid wines to the United States and northern Europe with great success. It didn’t do much for the image of Soave. Consumers moved on to more exciting, better-made wines from the New World. Happily, things are changing. There always was a small coterie of producers who remained focused on making high-quality wine; they have been joined by a group of younger, more ambitious growers.

Even though inexpensive Soave can be a little watery and lacking in flavour, frequently I find them inoffensive compared with other cheap wines. Tesco, Lidl and Aldi all have decent examples for between €5.99 and €10.

Good Soave Classico can be divided into two rough camps: crisp and zesty, or a richer and broader style. Either way, they should have an energy, a vibrant character that makes them very attractive. They are low in alcohol, and usually unoaked, and so make an ideal alternative to Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. Cantine Pra (jnwine.com, €20.50), Inama and Gini are also worth seeking out. Soave is a great sipping wine, as well as being the perfect partner for all sorts of shellfish, seafood, salads and lighter creamy pasta dishes.

Soave Classico “Costeggiola” 2017, Guerrieri-Rizzardi
13%, €15.45
A very attractive, slightly richer style of Soave, with broad honey and apple fruits, brought to life by a fine vein of crisp mineral acidity. Try it with seared salmon or with scallops.
From O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Soave Il Selese 2017, I Stefani
13%, €18.50
A vibrant crisp, dry Soave, with clean citrus and apricot fruits. Perfect on its own or with grilled white fish or lighter pasta dishes.
From Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, Dublin 2, Kells, Co Meath, and Galway, sheridanscheesemongers.com; siyps.com; First Draft Coffee & Wine, Dublin 8, firstdraftcoffeeandwine.com

Soave Classico 2017, Suavia, Organic
12%, €22
Light and refreshing, with enticing floral aromas, and fresh, lightly textured pears, finishing bone dry. The perfect aperitif, or with all kinds of antipasti.
From Sweeneys, Dublin 3, sweeneysd3.ie; D-Six Wines, Dublin 6; peggykellys.ie; Kellys, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.com; Drinkstore, Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie; McHughs, Dublin 5, mchughs.ie

Pieropan Soave Classico 2018
12%, €22.99
The Pieropan single-vineyard Calvarino is amazing, but this “basic” Soave Classico is a glorious, elegant wine with a lightly floral nose, intense lemon zest, pears, and almonds, finishing long and dry. Solo, with melon and prosciutto, or any plain shellfish dishes.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3, clontarfwines.ie; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, Co Kildare, elywinebar.ie; Fallon & Byrne, Dublin 2, fallonandbyrne.com; Grapevine, Dalkey, Co Dublin, onthegrapevine.ie; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin, jusdevine.ie; Kellys, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.com; La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow, latouchewines4u.ie; Martin’s Off Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; McHughs, Dublin 5, mchughs.ie; Red Island Wine Co, Skerries, Co Dublin; stationtostationwine.ie; wineonline.ie

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Four big, elegant (and organic) Sicilian Nero d’Avola for less than €20

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 22nd, 2019

Powerful Italians: Ciello Rosso, Fabrizio Vella, Tenuta la Favola and Baglio Rosso organic Nero d’Avolas

 

Grape varieties are to winemakers as raw ingredients are to chefs: they may not be able to change the basic nature of the grapes, but depending on where they grow them, and what they do in the cellar, they will end up with very different wines. Nero d’Avola is an example.

It is the most widely planted red grape in Sicily. Grown on the island’s enormous hot, arid plains, it produces powerful, full-bodied wines, with plenty of alcohol and tannin. Nobody is quite sure where it came from. Some believe it is simply the Nero, or Black One, from Avola, a town on the southeastern coast; others argue that its other name, Calabrese, suggests it comes from Calabria, across the Strait of Messina, on the Italian mainland.

Either way it has been important to the Sicilian economy for centuries, producing huge quantities of uninspiring but deeply coloured wines that were often blended with lighter wines. You will rarely find it outside Sicily, which seems strange, as it is ideally suited to warm, dry climates.

Until recently all of the more ambitious wines made from Nero d’Avola belonged to the big-is-beautiful school. Beefy, dense and often aged in new oak, these were huge wines with huge structure. Done well, these go perfectly with robust red-meat dishes many of us will be eating over the winter, or with barbecued beef during the summer. My absolute favourite is Gulfi Neromaccarj (€42.95 from jnwine.com).

Yet there are other styles of Nero d’Avola. Some use it to make very ripe, rounded appassimento-style wines with semi-dried grapes. (Try Nero Oro Appassimento, which costs €15.95 from O’Briens.) Alternatively, grown at higher altitudes, or close to the cooling effects of the sea, the same grape can produce much lighter wines with delicious pure, juicy fruits. These offer a far more digestible alternative to the bigger style, and can make for a great party wine. They also go really well with a wide variety of foods, including lighter pizza and pasta dishes, as well as medium-bodied cheeses.

Forty per cent of Italian vineyards are organic, a higher proportion than anywhere else, so all of the wines I feature today are organic. They also come in at less than €20 a bottle, and offer great value for money.

Cantine Rallo, Ciello Rosso ‘Nero d’Avola’ Terre Siciliane IGP (organic)
12.5%, €12.85-€14
Light, juicy, ripe plum, red cherry and strawberry fruits, with a subtle earthy touch. On its own or with pizza, focaccia or arancini.
From Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3, clontarfwines.ie; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, Co Kildare, elywinebar.ie; Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie; Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com

Rosso Organico 218, Fabrizio Vella, Terre Siciliane (Organic)
12.5%, €14.99
A very quaffable, soft, light, easy-drinking wine with mouth-watering plum fruits. Perfect on its own or with white meats – grilled chicken with spices, perhaps.
From Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Kellys, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.ie; Deveney’s, Dundrum, Dublin 16; Crafted, Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny

Nero d’Avola 2017, Tenuta la Favola Sicilia (organic and vegan)
13.5%, €19
Supple, refreshing and full of juicy, dark, ripe fruits, sprinkled with herbs. Drink solo or with tomato-based dishes, including pasta.
From Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, Dublin 2, Kells, Co Meath, and Galway, sheridanscheesemongers.com; siyps.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Eleven Deli, Greystones, Co Wicklow, elevendeli.ie

Cantine Rallo, Baglio Rosso ‘Nero d’Avola’ Terre Siciliane IGP Organic
13.5%, €19.55
Intense, pure damson fruits on nose and palate, with a slight spritz, and a fresh, juicy quality throughout. With cold meats or a crusty margherita pizza.
From Drinkstore, Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie; Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie

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Wine importers explore beyond the beaten track

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 21st September, 2019

Over the next few months you can expect to see many new and interesting wines arrive on the shelves of your local wine shop.

Around this time of year, many importers refresh their portfolio, dropping non-performers and introducing new wines. Their enthusiasm and ability to ferret out new gems deserves recognition.

Over the next four months you can expect to see many new and interesting wines arrive on the shelves of your local wine shop. I would urge you to move off the beaten track a little and experiment. This week this space is dedicated to four very different wines; the only uniting theme is that they are made from lesser-known grapes.

Friulano has an interesting recent history; it was known as tocai friulano until the 2006 vintage. Then the Hungarian government won a legal battle in the European Court of Justice, which accepted that consumers might confuse the name with their legendary but unrelated dessert wine called tokaji. The Hungarians also managed to prevent Alsace wines being labelled tokay d’Alsace instead of pinot gris, and Australians from using the term tokay for their magnificent stickies.

A relative of sauvignon blanc, friulano is an underrated grape known as sauvignon vert or sauvignonasse elsewhere; the wines are generally less aromatic than sauvignon blanc but with more textured fruit. Chile has quite large plantings, but most are found in northeast Italy, including Friulli, from where it gets its name.

Ken Forrester is regarded by many as the king of chenin blanc in South Africa. He was one of one of the first to recognise the potential of this grape, the most widely planted variety in South Africa, to make high-quality wine. Since then, many have followed. South African chenin blanc is a completely different beast to those from the Loire, typically with richer-textured opulent fruits, and well worth trying out. They are great food wines with richer fish and chicken dishes.

Freisa is another lesser-known Italian variety, this time red and exclusively Piemontese. It is often described as “challenging”, a polite term for weird and sometimes undrinkable. It can be dry or sweet, still or fizzy. Traditional versions were often sweet to mask the tart acidity and swingeing tannins. Good modern versions such as the very enjoyable one below have light tannins and good acidity, balanced nicely by delicate sweet-sour fruit. I certainly enjoyed my bottle.

Dão is a region and not a grape. Once the source of inexpensive and fairly average wines, it now makes some of the best wines of Portugal, both red and white. The climate is temperate and the soils sandy over granite. Whatever the reason, I find the wines an ideal mix of ripe fruits, good acidity and light tannins; great to serve with all kinds of food, and usually very reasonably priced. Quinta de Saes is made from a blend of equal quantities of tinta roriz, touriga nacional, alfrocheiro and jaen, all indigenous Portuguese grapes.

Friulano 2018, Volpe Pasini, Friuli Colli Orientale

12.5 per cent, €15.50

Fresh and fruity, with textured rounded pears, bitter almonds and good clean acidity. A great aperitif, or with cold meats.

From: Wines on the Green, Dublin 2, celticwhiskeyshop.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Sweeneys, Dublin 3, sweeneysd3.ie

Freisa d’Asti Secco 2015, Tenuta Olim Bauda

13.5 per cent, €24.95

Lifted raspberry aromas and elegant raspberry and rosehip fruits, with light drying tannin and a pleasant tartness. Different and very delicious. Try it with a mushroom risotto.

From: Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, and Sandycove, Co Dublin, and at Avoca, Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and Dunboyne, Co Meath; mitchellandson.com

Old Vine Reserve chenin blanc 2018, Ken Forrester Vineyards, Stellenbosch

13.5 per cent, €17.95

Medium- to full-bodied with textured peaches and apricots, a touch of spice and good cleansing acidity. Great with mild creamy curries, chicken korma or Cape Malay chicken curry.

From: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Quinta de Saes Tinto 2016, Dão

13 per cent, €18.99

Classic Dão flavours of sweet-sour dark cherries, blackberries and damsons. A very moreish refreshing red wine with the acidity to cut through fatty foods. Try this one with porchetta or a roast of pork.

From: Kellys, Dublin 3, kellysofflicence.com; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3, clontarfwines.ie; Deveneys, Dublin 14; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Crafted, Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny

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Chinese, Swiss and Brazilian wine all hit the right notes

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 14th September, 2019

Magazine wine September 2019. Brazilian Soul Premium Selection Tannat, Garzón Tannat Reserva, Petite Arvine 2017 from Domaine René Favre and Pretty Pony from Kanaan Winery

The world of wine has been changing and enlarging to include countries and regions that heretofore have never appeared in any wine guide. In recent months I have tasted wines from China, India, Syria, Brazil, Uruguay, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Majorca, Tenerife and Wales. Most of them were drinkable; some were outstanding.

In world terms, few of the above register in terms of volume, with one exception – China. China has the second largest vineyard surface in the world after Spain, and was, at one stage, the fifth largest producer of wine. However, production has been declining annually since 2013, with The Drinks Business magazine reporting a massive drop of almost 40 per cent in 2018.

This could be due to falling consumer demand in hard times, despite the fact that quality has been improving in recent years. Increased competition from abroad is cited as another reason, although imports from France, Australia, Italy and Spain also fell in 2018.

The wine featured here comes from Ningxia, known for cold winters where temperatures fall to -20 degrees. Each vine has to be buried manually in November before being dug up the following April.

None of the others mentioned above feature in the top 12 wine-producing countries.

Brazil is the third largest producer in South America, after Argentina and Chile. In more tropical parts of the country, farmers can enjoy two harvests each year. Most of it is consumed in Brazil. Brazilian Soul comes from the country’s largest producer, a large co-op based in the southern, cooler and drier Serra Gaúcha region.

Neighbouring Uruguay produces less than Brazil, but does have a strong winemaking tradition going back over a century. Basque immigrants from southwest France introduced Tannat, now the country’s main grape variety, in the late 19th century. In its home territory of Madiran, Tannat can be fairly tannic, but in Uruguay it tends to be riper, softer and rounder.

Very little of the wine is exported, although here in Ireland, O’Briens have been importing them for a decade or more, and more recently some more adventurous independent wines shops have started stocking the excellent Garzon wines, from one of the most ambitious wineries in the country.

Switzerland will never dominate the world wine market, but the country has been producing very good wine – red, white and sweet – for generations. Most of it is consumed by the Swiss, so we rarely see it here in Ireland. The most popular grape is Chasselas, hardly found outside the country, and there are other Swiss varieties such as the intriguing Petite Arvine.

China aside, it is unlikely any of the above countries will compete with France, Italy or Spain in terms of volume. However, they are certainly worth investigating as alternatives to these countries.

Brazilian Soul Premium Selection Tannat 2017, Brazil
12.5%, €10-€11

Light jammy dark fruits, with a touch of cocoa and a smooth finish. Perhaps try it with feijoada, the traditional stew of beans with beef and pork.

From Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Martin’s Off Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; No 21, Cork and Midleton, Co Cork; Lord Mayors, Swords, Co Dublin; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie; O’Neills Off Licence, Monaghan

Garzón Tannat Reserva 2017, Uruguay
13.5%, €20

Rich, powerful wine with layers of brooding dark fruits, dark chocolate and spice. Structured and long. Perfect with roast lamb.

From Higgins, Dublin 14, higginsofflicence.ie; Drinkstore, Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie; MacGuinness Wines, Dundalk, Co Louth, dundalkwines.com; The Wine House, Trim, Co Meath; Deveneys, Dublin 14; Whelehan’s Wines, Dublin 18, whelehanswines.ie

Petite Arvine 2017, Domaine René Favre, Valais, Switzerland
14%, €28.95

A subtle, enchanting wine with a palate rich in fruit, yet racy and elegant with a strong mineral, almost saline backbone. With grilled sea bass or hake.

From Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin, searsons.com; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Gibney’s, Malahide, Co Dublin, gibneys.com

Pretty Pony 2013, Kanaan Winery, Helan Mountain, Ningxia, China 
14%, €52.99

Made from 90 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, this has damsons, forest fruits and dark chocolate on nose and palate, with fine dry tannins and good acidity. Good with roast beef or lamb.

From the Corkscrew, Dublin 2,thecorkscrew.ie; wineonline.ie; Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1 and Sandycove, Co Dublin, and via Avoca, Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and Dunboyne, Co Meath, mitchellandson.com

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Get a taste of California without breaking the bank

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 7th September, 2019

Viano ‘Hillside’ Red NV, Napa Valley; Folk Machine ‘Parts & Labor’ Red 2016, California; Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Sta. Rita Hills; and Anthill Farms Syrah 2016, Campbell Ranch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast

 

For many wine drinkers here in Ireland, California starts and ends with two valleys, Napa and Central. The former is the Rolls-Royce, producing plush, expensive Cabernet Sauvignons that rival the best of Bordeaux in both quality and price; the latter is the engine room that provides much of the juice used to make the blush Zinfandels and other inexpensive jug wines that line our supermarket shelves.

Until recently there was very little in the middle ground between the two, where price and quality meet. O’Briens deserves credit for introducing a range of medium-priced California wines, and Marks & Spencer has the very quaffable Craft 3 Zinfandel (€15). Some of the larger producers, such as Gallo and Jackson Family Wines, have attempted to plug the gap too.

But somehow the excitement was missing – none of those smaller maverick producers making wines that make you sit up and take notice, and very few elegant, delicate wines that charm and seduce. Yet I knew they were there; on a visit with Wines of California a few years ago, I tasted some world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from cooler coastal regions, and I was bowled over by a new wave of exciting small-production wines made from every conceivable grape.

Demand for these wines in California is high, so until recently the producers were content to sell everything locally. But now, thanks to a few intrepid importers, all has changed. Some of the wines are really offbeat, such as the Parts & Labor below, made by Kenny Likitprakong, which includes an eclectic mix of Syrah from Potter Valley, 100-year-old Carignane from Redwood Valley, Grenache from Arroyo Seco and Barbera from Mendocino.

In the hills around the Sonoma Valley, along the Sonoma Coast, north into Mendocino, and south along the Central Coast, the climate is cooler, and has proven ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. The climate and soils are different, and therefore so too are the wines, but some of the wines are exquisite. Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman make some of the most exciting and talked-about wines at Sandhi and several other wineries. Wines from Anthill Farms, another favourite producer of mine, are now available in Ireland for the first time.

In addition to the wines below, look out for names such as Pax Cellars, Steve Matthiasson, Domaine de la Côte, Broc Cellars, Hirsch, Schug Carneros, Orin Swift, Kosta Browne and Calera. If you do fancy trying a top Napa Cabernet, then there is no better than the Corison Cabernet 2014 (€119 from Green Man Wines), although others would prefer Louis Martini, Duckhorn, Dominus and Opus One.

Viano ‘Hillside’ Red NV, Napa Valley
Viano ‘Hillside’ Red NV, Napa Valley

Viano ‘Hillside’ Red NV, Napa Valley
13%, €18
An organic field blend of Zinfandel and Gamay; peppery, grippy, light-to-medium red fruits, with a touch of spice. Pair with grilled beef or pork, or roast Mediterranean vegetables.
From: Deveneys, Dublin 14; stationtostationwine.ie

Folk Machine ‘Parts & Labor’ Red 2016, California
Folk Machine ‘Parts & Labor’ Red 2016, California

Folk Machine ‘Parts & Labor’ Red 2016, California
13%, €26
Fresh juicy ripe damson and blackberry fruits with a lovely sweet/sour edge. Try this with grilled ribs, or maybe macaroni cheese.
From: The Coach House, Dublin 16, thecoachofflicence.ie; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; First Draft Coffee & Wine, Dublin 8, firstdraftcoffeeandwine.com; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie; stationtostationwine.ie

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Rita Hills
Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Rita Hills

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, Santa Rita Hills
14%, €55
A soft sweet fragrance; succulent seductive ripe dark cherries and plums, with hints of spice; a wine of real depth and substance that opens out as you work your way through the glass. Try it with roast duck.
From Deveneys, Dublin 14; stationtostationwine.ie.

Anthill Farms Syrah 2016, Campbell Ranch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
Anthill Farms Syrah 2016, Campbell Ranch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast

Anthill Farms Syrah 2016, Campbell Ranch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
13.8%, €40-€43
Medium to full bodied with violet aromas, ripe dark fruits with subtle spice, and some fine cool tannins on the finish. Lovely with food – perfect with a roast of pork, or lamb.
From: Mitchell & Son, Dublin 1, Sandycove, Co Dublin, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow, and Dunboyne, Co Meath, mitchellandson.com; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, Co Kildare, elywinebar.ie; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie

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White delights: there’s more to southern Rhône than reds

First Published in The Irish Times, Saturday, 31st August, 2019

There is a richness and generosity to the wines that I really enjoy when I want something a little different

 

Earlier this year I spent four days tasting my way through scores of wines from the Rhône Valley. Although I enjoyed the red wines, in many cases it was the whites that stood out as really special. There is a richness and generosity to the wines that I really enjoy when I want something a little different. These are wines that grow and improve with food.

In the past some wines were a little too generous; too high in alcohol and lacking acidity and freshness. This has all changed, partly a result of better viticulture and winemaking, and partly by choosing the right places to plant vines; some parts of the Rhône Valley are at a relatively high altitude and can produce wines with good acidity to match the succulence and texture.

While the vast majority, more than 90 per cent, of the wines produced in the southern Rhône are red, there is growing interest in both white wines and rosé. A mere 4 per cent are rosé, and the remaining 6 per cent white; this may not sound like much, but when you remember the region produces more than half a million cases of wine each year, it means there are plenty of wines to try.

The grape varieties are more varied here than in the northern Rhône. As well as Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, you will find Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Picpoul, Bourbelenc, Clairette and Vermentino, known here as Rolle. These are typically blended together to create individual wines with real character.

I mentioned food earlier, and these are great wines to match with more robust chicken and fish dishes, as well as those with creamy sauces. Barbecued chicken, crab cakes, seared scallops, creamy curries and chowders all work well, as do a lot of cheeses. Some hard cheeses are far better with Rhône whites than red wines.

Some of the best white appellations, such as Vacqueyras, Ventoux, and Valréas are not very well-known for either red or white. The one area I didn’t cover was Châteauneuf-du-Pape, home to some great long-lived white wines, although I tried a Chapoutier Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Bernadine 2017 that was explosively good. If you fancy a real treat, Searsons in Monkstown still has a few bottles of the Vacqueyras Blanc from Sang de Cailloux – €46.95 but worth every cent.

The easiest way to try out the white wines of the southern Rhône is to buy a bottle of basic white Côtes du Rhône the next time you go to the supermarket or wine shop; they can offer great value for money. Most of the big names, such as Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Délas, Ferraton and Guigal offer a range, and most are well worth trying.

La Truffière 2017, Côtes du Rhône, La Ferme du Mont
13.5%, €18.95

Restrained opulence in an enticing fresh wine with lightly textured apricots and nectarines. Perfect with poached or grilled salmon.
From Grapevine, Dalkey, Co Dublin, onthegrapevine.ie

Sablet 2017, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Domaine Les Goubert
13.5%, €19.50

Medium-bodied with attractive pure plump peach fruits. Fish soups, grilled white fish, or a quiche and salad.
From Terroirs, Dublin 4, terroirs.ie

Zephyr 2017, Côtes du Rhône, Les Deux Cols (organic)
13.5%, €22.95

This is quite gorgeous and worth every cent. Honeysuckle aromas; medium-bodied, textured with rich pear fruits, a touch of toasted almonds and marzipan with a glorious finish. Roast Mediterranean vegetables, fish soups, salade Niçoise.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, Co Kildare, elywinebar.ie; La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow, latouchewines4u.ie; Martin’s Off -Licence, Fairview, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; Morton’s, Dublin 6, mortons.ie; Searsons, Monkstown, Co Dublin, searsons.com

Mineral 2017, Vacqueyras Blanc, Domaine Montirius
13%, €35

Lightly and aromatic with very enticing elegant succulent yellow fruits underpinned by a crisp reviving acidity. With grilled or barbecued chicken.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie

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Home-grown talent: Portugal’s finest indigenous wines

First published in The Irish Times,Saturday 24th August, 2019

All of the wines listed below are made from blends, all 100 per cent Portuguese.

Portugal has always done wine differently, placing its trust in a group of indigenous red and white varieties rather than the well-known “international” grapes. For a while it seemed as if the rest of the world was content to ignore the wines, even though some were world class, but that has all changed in the past decade or so.

I wrote earlier this year about Alvarinho, the Portuguese name for Albariño, the variety responsible for Rías Baixas in northern Spain. Most Alvarinho is used to make vinho verde, or green wine, in the north of Portugal. The green refers not to the colour of the wine but to the verdant countryside; you can actually find red vinho verde. The quality of white vinho verde has shot up in recent years, but so too has white wine in every part of Portugal.

I have written about Prova Regia before too. Various versions are widely available from independents and from O’Briens for €14-€16; this is one of the best-value white wines of all. Prova Regia is made from the Arinto grape.

Originally from the coastal regions around Lisbon, Arinto has spread to other regions, particularly Alentejo, where it is prized for its ability to retain much-needed acidity in hot climates. Given a year or so to develop, it can also have richer peachy flavours.

Antaô Vaz is another high-quality indigenous variety that has some Chardonnay-like characteristics. Pick early and you get a crisp, refreshing dry wine. Leave it a while longer on the vine and you get a much richer, more textured wine, with plump ripe fruits.

The third high-quality grape is Encruzado, grown mainly in the Dâo region, where it produces excellent crisp, dry whites with structure and plenty of rich fruit.

Add in Fernão Pires, Loureiro, Bical, Roupeiro, Rabigato, Gouveio, and many more, and you have an array of exciting unusual varieties. The names do not trip off the tongue, and, to make matters even more complicated, each of these varieties will have its own unique local name in each region. All are pretty much exclusive to Portugal, and most are capable of producing good, sometimes great, wine. Once you taste a few wines, you begin to understand why Portugal never really needed to import Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay.

At the entry level, O’Briens pioneered inexpensive Portuguese blends, with the Porta 6 and Júlia Florista wines both available for about €10. SuperValu and Fresh now offer similar wines. But it is worth paying a few euro more to find wines with uniquely Portuguese character and style. All of the wines below are made from blends, all 100 per cent Portuguese.

Fonte do Ouro 2018, Dâo Branco, Portugal
13%, €16.95
Fresh and fruity; greengages and apples with lively lemon zest and a crisp, dry finish. Perfect with grilled hake and dill.
From: O’Briens, obrienswine.ie

Herdade de Grous Branco 2018, Alentejo
13%, €17.95
A wine blessed with succulent plump, peachy fruits balanced perfectly by a streak of citrus. The Reserva (€27) is even better. Drink solo, with nibbles or a Greek salad.
From: Morton’s, Dublin 6, mortons.ie; La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow, latouchewines4u.ie; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Fresh, freshthegoodfoodmarket.ie; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie; Matson’s, Grange and Bandon, Co Cork, twitter.com/matsonswines; MacGuinness Wines, Dundalk, Co Louth, dundalkwines.com; Whelehan’s Wines, Dublin 18, whelehanswines.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Listons, Dublin 2, listonsfoodstore.ie; D-Six Wines, Dublin 6; peggykellys.ie; Donnybrook Fair, Dublin, donnybrookfair.ie; Red Island Wine Co, Skerries, Co Dublin, facebook.com/Red-Island-Wine-Company

Clima 2016, Vale da Capucha IG Lisboa
13.5%, €19-€21
Delicious textured nectarines with a distinctive salty tang. Serve with richer fish dishes; some stewed squid or octopus, perhaps?
From: First Draft Coffee & Wine, Dublin 8, firstdraftcoffeandwine.com; Avoca, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, and Monkstown and Rathcoole, Co Dublin, avoca.com; the Wine House, Trim, Co Meath; Lilac Wines, Dublin 3, sweeneysd3.ie

Redoma Branco 2018, Douro, Niepoort
11.5%, €26 
Light, crisp and mineral with light pear fruits, hints of toasted almonds and a long, dry finish. Drink this with oysters – or go Portuguese, with grilled sardines.
From: Morton’s, Dublin 6, mortons.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Redmonds, Dublin 6, rRedmonds.ie; siyps.com; Wicklow Wine Co, wicklowwineco.ie; Nectar Wines, Dublin 18, nectarwines.com

 

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My sherry amour: Why I can’t resist a glass or two of fino

First published in the Irish Times, Saturday 17th August, 2019

 

There are exceptions to every rule. I have been recommending lower-alcohol wines over the summer. But I have a confession to make: most evenings I have been quietly drinking a glass or two of wine that registers at 15 per cent. The wine that breaks the rules is sherry, or fino and manzanilla to be more precise. This is one of the great summer wines, bringing back fond memories of lunches in Jerez, sitting in the shade, sipping a glass of chilled sherry.

Treat fino as you would any other white wine, and don’t leave it lying around for weeks; once opened, drink it within a few days. Two of today’s bottles come in handy half-bottles. Serve chilled in proper large wine glasses alongside a variety of foods.

I sometimes wonder if retailers and restaurants have ever tried placing their fino and manzanilla sherries alongside all their other white Spanish wines instead of corralling them alongside the other fortified drinks – they are wines, after all.

Fino is not to everyone’s taste, but if you like umami-rich foods such as green olives, Roquefort, anchovies, Marmite and soy sauce, then you will probably like fino too.

Manzanilla is a fino sherry produced and aged in and around the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. All other fino is aged in nearby Jerez. Because of the differing climates, manzanilla is generally livelier and fresher, and is said to have a characteristic salty tang.

There has never been a better time to try sherry. Changes are afoot in the region; some producers are now offering “en rama” unfiltered sherries, others single-vineyard sherries, and some are producing limited edition batches of unfortified wines. These fascinating and delicious wines deserve an article all to themselves, but look out for Bodegas Cota 45 Ube de Ubérrima as a brilliant example of an unfortified sherry.

You could ease yourself gently into fino sherry by dropping into a wine bar, most of which serve it by the glass, or try a half-bottle of the Rey Fernando de Castilla fino – this also would go well in a rebujito, made by mixing fino with lots of ice and fizzy lemonade, or soda water. Otherwise, look out for the names Valdespino and Barbadillo in independents and the excellent Lustau sherries, to be found in Mitchell & Son and elsewhere.

Fino sherries are traditionally matched with all manner of tapas, including deep-fried fish and croquetas, tortilla, Ibérico ham and other cold meats, olives, toasted nuts, and cheese. They are also great with sushi, sashimi (and most Japanese food), gazpacho, fried hake, smoked salmon, garlic prawns, asparagus and so much more. In fact, fino goes amazingly well with just about any food, particularly anything deep-fried or salty.

Marks & Spencer manzanilla sherry
15%, €12
Light, fruity, tangy and fresh; the perfect summer sherry – and a steal for €12.
From Marks & Spencer, marksandspencer.com

Gabriela Manzanilla NV, Pago Balbaina, Sanchez Ayala
15%, €12.30 for a half-bottle
This is quite lovely; a fresh intense nose, lightly floral with bready notes; the palate has almonds, lovely subtle fruit, excellent length and real character, finishing dry.
From Worldwide Wines, Waterford, worldwidewines.ie; Le Caveau, Kilkenny, lecaveau.ie

Callejuela Manzanilla Fina
15%, €12 for a half-bottle, €18 for full bottle
Light and refreshing as a manzanilla should be, with lovely crisp biting acidity, and intense bready, toasted almond flavours. Brilliant sherry.
From Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin jusdevine.ie; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie; Whelehan’s Wines, Dublin 18, whelehanswines.ie; Wicklow Wine Co, wicklowwineco.ie; Martin’s Off Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie

El Maestro Sierra Fino
15%, €25.99
Wow! This explodes with flavour; full of character, dry with classic almonds, savoury, and an earthy touch too.
From the Corkscrew, Dublin 2, thecorkscrew.ie; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Alex Findlater, Limerick, alexfindlaterandco.ie

 

 

 

 

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German Riesling, one of the great summer wines

First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 10th August, 2019

Riesling nerds such as myself tend to get very excited about high-quality Riesling. It is one of the world’s great white wines, every bit as good and arguably more reliable than Chardonnay.

This year, I have been drinking my way through a ‘forgotten’ mixed collection of mature German dry Rieslings (as well as some amazing Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2005 from Australia). Virtually all of them have been great, some sublime.

However, I suspect the price tag of top German Riesling (€40-€60) will put most wine drinkers off. Also, for some, the developed flavours of aged Riesling is a step too far. Instead this week I will concentrate on younger, less expensive fruit-filled dry German Riesling, one of the great summer wines.

Officially, German wines are put into precise categories based on the ripeness (or sugar levels) of the grapes when picked. But here is the confusing bit – Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese wines, made from riper grapes in ascending order, can be dry, medium-dry, or in the case of Auslese, sweet, depending on whether the sugar has been fermented fully or not. If the word ‘Kabinett’ is followed by the word ’trocken’, it is dry, or dryish, or ‘halbtrocken’ and it is off-dry.

Confused? Join the rest of the world, including much of the wine trade. Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese wines can all be glorious wines. During the warm weather there are few things nicer than a chilled glass of fragrant Mosel Kabinett or Spätlese, usually around 8 per cent alcohol, filled with delicate ripe fruits.

A generation ago, these medium-dry and sweet German wines were very fashionable. Since then, many growers have changed course radically and now simply produce trocken or dry wines, ignoring the official designations.

Most of the time, I drink Riesling Trocken. It has the body and richness of any dry wine, a wonderful purity of fruit, backed up by a cleansing vibrant acidity. As outlined earlier this year, it is a great match for all kinds of shellfish, raw seafood such as oysters, ceviche and sashimi, as well as pickled, smoked or cured fish. You could also try it with pork dishes. Or you can drink it as an aperitif.

If you feel German Riesling might be a step too far, you could start off with a fruitier, richer Riesling such as the Austrian Brandl below or an Aussie Riesling – the Alkoomi (€15.15, Wines Direct), the Penfolds Koonunga Hills Autumn (€20.95, O’Briens) or the Aldi Exquisite Clare Valley Riesling (€9.99). Alternatively pop into your local independent, and ask for a Riesling Trocken; you might be pleasantly surprised.

Geil Riesling Trocken 2018, Rheinhessen
12%, €17.50-€18

Vibrant, light, luscious pineapples and pears; made for summer drinking either solo or with fish dishes – Asian prawn recipes sound perfect.

From Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3, clontarfwines.ie; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin, jusdevine.ie; Morton’s, Dublin 6, mortons.ie; 1601 Off-licence, Kinsale, Co Cork; Ely 64, Glasthule, Co Dublin, ely64.com; Drinkstore, Dublin 7, drinkstore.ie; Green Man Wines, Dublin 6, greenmanwines.ie; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4, baggotstreetwines.com; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com; Red Island Wine Co, Skerries, Co Dublin; Lilac Wines, Dublin 3, lilacwines.ie; Martin’s Off-Licence, Dublin 3, martinsofflicence.ie; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie; D-Six Wines, Dublin 6; peggykellys.ie; Higgins, Dublin 14, higginsofflicence.ie; McHughs, Dublin 5, mchughs.ie; Mortons of Galway, mortonsofgalway.ie; La Touche, Greystones, Co Wicklow; latouchewines4u.ie; Listons, Dublin 2,listonsfoodstore.ie; Nectar Wines, Dublin 18, nectarwines.com.

Maximin Riesling 2017, Maximin Grünhaus, Mosel
11%, €21.99

Ethereal wine with crisp green apples and white peach, with a lovely floral note. Drink it by itself, with oysters or maybe salmon tartare.

From Ely Wine Store, Maynooth, Co Kildare, elywinebar.ie; Red Island Wine Co, Skerries, Co Dublin; Red Nose Wines, Clonmel, Co Tipperary, rednosewine.com; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, Co Dublin,jusdevine.ie; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin, blackrockcellar.com;wineonline.ie

Brandl Zöbing Riesling Terrassen 2018, Kamptal, Austria
12.5%, €19.25

Very seductive clean concentrated stewed apples with a hint of spice. Try it with pork chops with caramelised apples.

From Wines Direct, Mullingar, Co Westmeath, and Arnotts, Dublin 1, winesdirect.ie

Win Win Riesling Trocken 2017, von Winning
12%, €21.95

Packed with succulent ripe white fruits – all peaches and nectarines – with a mouth-watering citrus acidity. Drink it with a herby crab salad.

From Avoca, Rathcoole, Co Dublin; Clontarf Wines, Dublin 3, clontarfwines.ie; Grapevine, Dalkey, Co Dublin,onthegrapevine.ie; Morton’s, Dublin 6, mortons.ie; Redmonds, Dublin 6, redmonds.ie; Worldwide Wines,

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Floral, fruity and pink: Three Irish gins to try

Loch Measc Gin, Listoke 1777 cacao and raspberry gin and Grace O’Malley heather-infused gin

 

Three very nice bottles of gin arrived on my doorstep recently. Grace O’Malley recently launched several whiskies, including a range of three very good 18-year-old single malts finished in a variety of casks. The Mayo-based company is owned by Stephen Cope, lately managing director of Lir Chocolates and two German investors, Stefan Hansen and Hendrick Melle. They brought in French maturation expert Paul Caris to handle the ageing and finishing of their whiskies. The refreshing floral lightly fruity Heather Infused Grace O’Malley Gin (€44) has no less than 14 different botanicals, most from the west of Ireland.

Also from Co Mayo is Loch Measc Gin (€47), made from wild juniper berries and botanicals that grow on the shores of Lough Mask. Made in a true micro-distillery by Eoin Holmes, this also has some lovely floral notes alongside the true juniper forward style of a London Dry Gin. Holmes also produces a vodka, or Vodca (as Gaeilge).The first whiskey will be ready in 2021. The distillery is in a renovated building in Kilateeaun, near Tourmakeady, with views of Maamtrasna, the Dirk Mountains and of course, Lough Mask. Tours are available see Loughmaskdistillery.com for details.

Pink gin is hugely popular; the original drink consisted of gin with a few drops of angostura bitters, but now it can mean a whole range of flavourings from rosehips, rose petals, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries to pink grapefruit. Some are very sweet and mawkish, others floral, dry and elegant. The 1777 Cacao & Raspberry Gin from Listoke Distillery and Gin School in  Co Louth (€35) is definitely in the latter school, perfumed and smooth with subtle notes of raspberry and juniper. If you fancy making your own gin, why not visit the Listoke Gin School – see listokedistillery.ie for details.

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