Tuesday 24 May 2011

The Wines of Lebanon

What next for Lebanon? The ten or so members of the Union Vinicole du Liban, under the gnomic chairmanship of Serge Hochar, long ago conquered the London press. That they’re the most hospitable bunch (second only to the Portuguese) helps of course, and then there are the wines, which I tasted my way through  at a raucous dinner at the Dock Kitchen restaurant in west London.

Lebanese winemaking is at an interesting stage of development, with a handful of veteran producers (led as ever by Hochar’s Chateau Musar) setting the benchmark for quality. After them come a clutch of dynamic properties making fascinating wines – all of them intent on finding a unique personality for the region.

The best of the wines are bright, acidic and fresh, fruit of high altitudes (many of the vineyards are planted at over 1000m), long sunny days and cool nights.

The fact that French varieties - Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache and Mourvedre - are planted so widely is historical accident, but a happy one. Cinsault thrives here, producing wines that are laden with bright fruit on the strawberry/raspberry scale, fresh acids and really attractive length.

Apart from Musar’s extraordinary white wines (he claims they are not ready for 20 years or more from bottling) I didn’t taste many whites. As in so many hot and arid regions (Roussillon comes to mind), white wines often come out flaccid and hollow. So I’m not going to bother with them here.

But the reds can be sublime. Lebanon is on the verge of something. Stable government (albeit surrounded by countries in turmoil), some serious investors taking interest (IXSIR is a new $10m project owned by multimillionaire car-industry executive Carlos Ghosn), consultants like Stefan Derenoncourt and Chateau Angelus owner Hubert de Bouard making wine, and a burgeoning number of wineries (there are now over 40, from a handful 20 years ago).

It’s the country to invest in, and the wines that come naturally to Lebanon are fashionable: light, lowish in alcohol (hardly any come in at above 13.5%) and fresh.

All this implies that there will be a bandwagon to jump on, and we are going to see many more Lebanese wines. I only hope they retain their style and don’t start chasing the international market. I don’t want to see any over-made, starry but characterless $100 Lebanese wines.

The wines

Chateau Musar Jeune 2009
Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah
Very fresh, bright nose. Palate mouthwatering and bright. Not complex but attractive with red berry fruit
£8.00 - £9.99

Bright floral nose with fresh, delicious and very light palate. Falls down a little on acid – the mid palate doesn’t keep up the early promise, but it compensates with nice length. Overwhelmed by the Shankleesh, the delicious cream cheese and tomato salad

Domaine des Tourelles Marquis des Beys 2004
Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah
Really delicate powerful dense palate with cigar box perfume, exotic grippy tannins, notes of graphite, black olives and dark soft fruits. Superlative wine selling for about £20 a bottle

Chateau Musar 2004
Launched May 2011. Earth on the nose and some leathery, smoky notes. Dense, and like all the Musar reds with lovely refreshing acids alongside the red and black fruit. Mouthwatering, drinking well now – perfect with fatty lamb chops – but look at the Musar back-catalogue and keep it for 40 years.

Chateau Musar 2003
Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan
Earthy nose, sweet earth and straw aromas. Deep sweet dense palate with lots of chalky tannins, pencil, graphite, blackberry and black olive, very ripe red plums and some pruney notes. Lovely with great length, drying at the end but still with this incredibly fresh acid which keeps it juicy and fresh

Chateau Musar 1998
Lovely bright colour. A wine that has power and finesse.  Wonderful fresh tannins and sweet delicate red (overwhelmingly red now it’s got some age) fruit, with exotic cedar and perfumes that you don’t see in the younger wines. A delicious wine, full of character, perfectly balanced – looks like a wine made by a winemaker at the height of his powers but Musar’s Tarek Sabre had been in the job about 5 years when he made this. Serge Hochar is convinced it’s ‘almost ready’, but then he says that about all his wines. I would say it’s a point

Chateau Musar 1974
How can the taste of a wine made 1000m high in the Arabian hills remind you of the floor of an English wood just after spring rain? Superb earthy, bright, truffle palate with wonderful young and fresh tannins, still bold and precise, with old Burgundian elegance and power. It’s still got years to go. 1974 was a difficult year and according to Stephen Williams at the Antique Wine Company Hochar was unsure about its quality for 20 years. ‘But something miraculous happened’, Williams says. Magnificent. Ten years later Hochar became Decanter’s first-ever Man of the Year. Salut!

Chateau St Thomas Les Emirs 2007
Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache
Juicy bright and fruity, lots of dusty tannins slightly take over the palate and leave it dry at the end

Chateau St Thomas 2005
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah
Clos St Thomas or Chateau St Thomas? I’m still hazy, but then it was a very good dinner. This is a lovely wine – meaty and perfumed sweetish nose with animal skin. Bright and juicy with slightly grassy fruit. Not a massive length but delicious while it lasts

Chateau St Thomas Les Gourmets 2008
Superb grip from the beginning. Lovely ripe dark raspberry, long and ripe sweet tannins, very juicy and mouthwatering acids. Delicious

Chateau Kefraya Comte de M 2006
A nose of aniseed and a luxurious sweet palate with figs, dark fruit, menthol and cedar. Ripe integrated tannins – slightly short on the finish for a relatively expensive wine.

IXSIR Altitudes 2009
Syrah, Caladoc (a Malbec-Grenache cross)
Very fresh with ripe raspberry fruit and strong, tenacious acids. The Syrah comes from vineyards planted at 1,700m. Long, fine finish

Chateau Ksara Reserve du Couvent
Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon
Very sharp acid bite goes beautifully with fatty, beautifully cooked lamb cutlets. Cooked fruits, blackberry and plum, some fresh green pepper flavours, very long and satisfying.

Sunday 8 May 2011

English still wine can match sparkling - just don't mention Pinot Noir

English wine’s at a crossroads. There has never been a better time to be an English wine producer (that is, a producer of English, and Welsh, wines). The industry is riding high, and you could feel it at the tasting on Thursday in the handsome upper room of One Great George St just off Parliament Square.

There was a buzz like a row of Kentish beehives in Spring. English winemakers are full of confidence: their sparkling wines, which take their place alongside the best fizz in the world, are winning prize after prize (including Decanter’s top gong – the International Sparkling Trophy 2010, for the RidgeView Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006, which saw off competition from the likes of Taittinger Prélude NV, Charles Heidsieck Millésime 2000 and Thienot’s Brut Rosé NV).

Vineyard plantings are increasing exponentially (English Wine Producers reckons they have increased by 75% since 2004), production is going up (4m bottles this year, a total which industry guru Mike Paul reckons will quintuple by mid-decade).

And, leaving sparkling aside the quality of the still wines is extraordinary. The jibe that ‘English wine tastes of rain’ is now vieux chapeau.

Tasting notes are below. I was entranced by the aromatic whites, the finest of which were delicious, refreshing, delicately floral, with scents redolent of the hedgerows: cow-parsley, forget-me-not, sweet hawthorn, cowslip, thistle, elder and dog rose.

Some producers seem to have found the winemaker's holy grail: low alcohol with taste. Most of the wines I rated clock in at less than 12% alcohol yet still have body, fruit, acid, and length.

That’s the aromatic whites, but I can’t say the same for the rosés and the reds. The former can be dull, flaccid, unsweet, unacidic, underwhelming, damp. The reds are often unattractively frizzy, hollow and tasting of water-butt.

The big problem of course is price. One consultant told me that still wine just didn’t have a future – the only way to go is with sparkling – witness the Royal project I've just described on Decanter.com, 16,700 Champagne varieties just planted in Windsor Great Park. That will be just for sparkling.

‘The viability of still wine in the UK just isn’t there. To make it work you have to charge prices that can be matched and bettered by superior wines from a dozen other regions around the world.’

Possibly: over thirteen quid for a still English wine that isn’t quite as fresh or quite as fruity or floral as its Kiwi counterpart at £6.49 is pushing it a bit. But £9 for a wine that is so freighted with English terroir you could close your eyes and be there? Compare that with the price of a cinema ticket.

The most succesful of the white varieties seems to be Bacchus, a fickle variety that often fails to set, so gives low yields with corresponding concentration and intensity. Then there is Ortega, another aromatic German varietal, fresh and floral at best.

Bacchus – one of the UK’s most-planted grapes – and Ortega between them strike me as the ones to watch. English Wine Producers lists the different varieties here.

Mike Paul, former head of Western Wines and general marketing guru, says the still wine industry is feeling its way. ‘We need to go on experimenting,’ he told a group of producers and journalists yesterday. ‘Should we be concentrating on Bacchus, or Ortega, or Pinot Noir? We don’t have the answers yet.’

The mention of Pinot Noir made me gape. Paul backed off a bit: ‘Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that is where the future of English wine lies,’ he said hastily.

As well he might. There is a tendency for blinkeredness amongst the English wine crowd. They’re the nicest people in the world, and all in a permanently good mood (especially when they’re showing their wines on a gorgeous spring day), but they do say some odd things.

One salesman yesterday was telling me how superb his red wine was. I demurred, and mumbled something about sunshine and night-time temperatures (the former too scant to ripen red grapes, and latter too cold).

He said, ‘I don’t think sunshine is what we need to be looking for all the time. We’re eight miles from Brighton. Our terroir combines the best aspects of New Zealand, with our fresh spring water, and then we have the fresh salt breezes over the dales, which reflects cool-climate California.’

That’s what I mean by English wine being at a crossroads. When marketers are telling you that sunshine isn’t really that important (admittedly, as any Alsace producer will tell you, it's luminescence that's the important thing, but we don't have enough of that either), you should worry. But that’s not the point: I easily found a still Top Ten that I would happily take around the world as examples of superb winemaking.

English winemakers have cracked sparkling; now the dozen or so producers who are making superlative still wine need to focus, research and identify exactly what they should be planting and where. The rest will follow.

For the record, if I was planting tomorrow, for still wines, I’d back the Bacchus.

Tasting notes – still whites only

All the wines are available through the producers’ websites or at selected outlets – Waitrose, Artisan & Vine etc

Denbies Ranmore Hill 2009
Bright, floral with cut apples, hay and lovely sweet nettley fruit. Good acid  balance, long.

Denbies Bacchus 2009
A revelation. A wine full of the scent of hedgerow, succulent, reminiscent of cow parsley and bluebell and the sweet earthiness of summer fields. Long with very sweet but grippy acids. Excellent wine.

Denbies Ortega 2009
Fresh and bright with juicy acids. Complex and floral – Ortega is related to Gewurztraminer and has the bright perfume you find in that variety, but in the best English wines the perfume is sharper, acidic, with spice and apples. Very good.

Biddenden Ortega  2009
Lovely fruity nose. Sweet, creamy, lush palate with tropical fruit flavours: some pineapple, kiwi, tinged with the distinctive floral English note of elderflower. Delicious, much decorated wine.

Biddenden Bacchus 2009 (pictured)
This was one of the stars of the show. All that is striking about good English wine is encapsulated here: the lovely fresh nettle and wildflower flavours, the spice and gentle earthiness. This is terroir: the wine transports you instantly to a place, the edge of a wood in spring, perhaps, carpets of bluebells giving way to undergrowth and the shade of trees. Delicious
£9.70 Harvey Nichols

Three Choirs Cellar Door Bacchus 2009
Spicy, aromatic, very elegant with gentle though present acids. This is an expensive wine but very well-made, long and full of flavour.

Three Choirs Midsummer Hill 2009
A blend of Seyval Blanc, Madeleine Angevine, Muller Thurgau and Phoenix. Very attractive early palate, sweet and aromatic, with slightly disappointing hollowness at the core – the acids don’t persist and become a bit flabby.

Three Choirs The English House Dry 2009
A blend of Seyval Blanc, Madeleine Angevine, Muller Thurgau and Phoenix. Bone dry on the palate with mineral notes and a hint of spice, but towards the end the dryness leads to tartness.

Three Choirs Madeleine Angevine 2009
Lovely floral, nettley character with aromatic spice, great acid balance and good length. Delicious.

Kenton Vineyard Bacchus 2010
Powerful Sauvignon flavours (but in a good way – not sweaty or tinny asparagus but delicate gooseberry and cut apple). The nettle palate almost stings the tongue. Long and sweetly aromatic, bursting with English flavour. Very good, and an excellent price

Thursday 5 May 2011

The launch of Grange 2006 - where are all the hacks?

Wonderful release of the Penfolds Grange 2006 last night in a club in one of those gated roads off Knightsbridge.

It was an odd event. I recognised about three people out of 100. Who were they all? ‘Clients and clients of clients’, Hugh Jackson of Treasury Wine Estates, the slightly snooty new Foster’s division that covers all their wines. They’re a bit grand, Foster’s, now that they’re a bona fide wine company.

But where were all the journalists? This was Grange, for heaven’s sake – does TWE think the wine sells itself?

I got an invitation after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and Decanter’s editor Guy Woodward was there, but not a single other hack, just lots of bull-necked men in pressed jeans and expensive slip-ons, and sinister-looking Europeans.

Grange events always attract oddities. I remember the first re-corking clinic in London a few years ago, in the Lanesborough Hotel at the bottom of Piccadilly.

Grange aficionadoes – twitchy millionaires and pink-faced hedge-fund managers - turned up with hold-alls and cardboard boxes full of thousands of pounds of verticals dating back to the very beginning. It was agony to see the looks on their faces as John Duval (the winemaker then, before Peter Gago) pronounced a bottle from the 60s dead. Most took it pretty well…

Anyway, here are my notes on the wines last night. I should say James Halliday has already tasted them and pronounced them superb.

Penfolds Reserve Bin 09A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2009
Delicate spicy attack with very forceful acids present from the beginning. Lovely long wine with dense fruit flavours – cut apple, citrus, lime, sugared lemon – and a really delicious minerality. Halliday said he detected the hand of the winemaker in the wine but loved its ‘superb finesse and focus’.

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2008
Incredible colour – very pale straw, as far away from classic Australian golden Chardonnay as possible. Very delicate sweet palate with apple, pear, and some nutty notes, minerality and light acid overlaid with elegant creaminess on palate. Yattarna annoys a lot of people for its price - £58 – and generally superior attitude, but this seems to me wonderfully powerful and elegant – just look at the colour alone and wonder how something so light can have such heft. Produced with percentage of cool-climate Tasmanian fruit.

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2008
Very tight dense black fruit nose, very polished and velvety, brooding. Spicy, chalky tannins with sweet sharp dark red fruit – plums, cranberries, ripe loganberries, ripe blackberries. Delicious, refreshing, with the creaminess of the St Henri but a lighter, more elegant version.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2007
Very attractive sweet creamy, rather old-fashioned nose. Dense sweet and spicy raspberry/ blackberry palate with early attack of lovely chalky tannins which persist throughout. Amazingly powerful and young. ‘To drink this under five years would be a travesty’, the Penfolds ‘ambassador’ Tom Portet said. But the tannins are so finely balanced it’s a pleasure to taste. Old-fashioned in that it’s still got its roundness, but with wonderful precise linearity cutting through the middle.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2008
The Red Winemaking Trial – this is the only Barossa wine Penfolds makes. Inky, deep purple colour, sweet nose with spice, licorice and cedar and some burnt toast. There’s great concentration here – the tannins are ripe and densely knit, the fruit is dark with strong chocolate and some black pepper flavours - but because of the acidity which gives it juice and freshness I’ve written ‘delicate’ a couple of times in my notes: ‘Overall impression of delicacy compared with the brooding pair before’.

Penfolds Grange 2006
Sweet nose with that intense meaty aroma along with blackberry, coffee and pruney/figgy notes. Overwhelming impression on palate is juiciness – it is literally mouthwatering – and all that dark black fruit. The wine is so concentrated that to describe the fruit in terms of its skin seems best: the soft grainy texture and bright acidity of ripe plum, the sharpness and bite of blackcurrant. Very approachable even this young. No problem to ignore the spittoon. Halliday mentions the ‘steadily building impact on the very long palate’ and says it will be drinking until 2050. Quite so. If this were Bordeaux, they would be comparing it to a gothic cathedral… Delicious.