On Thursday 15th February the WING group met at the ICC for a Tasting of wines from Rioja. This theme came out top in the Group’s voting for what to cover this season. I wonder if this is – at least partly – down to the knowledge I was holidaying there last summer, and would personally source the wines. This of course renders a set of wines averaging over £20 at UK prices much more affordable. The prices, and value for money scores, are for the UK (if possible).

Here are my notes:

VIÑA GRAVONIA CRIANZA BLANCO 2006 (R López de Heredia)    –   12½%   –   UK £21 Oldbridge wines
This is from the height of the Alta near Haro, and is 100% Viura aged for 4 years in oak and 6 in bottle. A very sherry like nose, showing stewed apple, nutty and some pungent vegetal elements, a slight honeyed tinge… Palate has all this with sherry salty dryness and an undertow of passion fruit (aged Chenin?) honeyed richness. This has a sharp acidity contracting the palate at the end, a little more than the 2004 tasted in March 2015 (see below). A small sample remained which I tried as an aperitif the next day, before a good Soave. The acidity had slackened a little and the palate more rounded – so it may be a little young? The more interesting observation is that ignoring the sherry overlay, how similar the structure was to the Soave – with acidity and peachy fruit common to both! A very unusual style which radically divided opinions. But for me a great example of a nearly-lost style.
Ratings:        Quality:  17/20   Value:  15.5/20

OLARRA CERRO AÑON MAZUELO 2105        –    14%   –   n/a UK, about £16
This is from Mazuelo (Carignan) grapes from near the Alta/Baja border, and I suspect the fruit comes from both. It has 6 months in American oak, it has the redcurrant aroma common to low-cropped Carignan, with some oak in an identifiable Rioja weight. The palate has some acidity and is round, pliant but a bit simple.
Ratings:        Quality:  14.5/20   Value:  14.5/20

OLARRA CERRO AÑON GRACIANO 2014   –   13½%   –   n/a UK, about £16
This fruit for this is from Alta and Alava and has 14 months in French and American oak. This has a more complex nose – floral elements, some woody acidity and a spice hint. Powerful palate, with warm tannin but with lighter cherry fruit and a long line of flavour. The wine suggest a little of Mourvedre to me, power but subtlety and light aromatics… good!
Ratings:        Quality:  15/20   Value:  15/20

MAYOR DE ONDARRE RESERVA 2013   –   13½%    –    £24 Hallgarten
This (92 point rated) Reserva is 80% Tempranillo and 20% Mazuelo. It has 20 months in American and French oak and then 18 months in bottle before release. Bright sharp fruit nose – cherry? – with a woody but not vanilla hint, Palate has sweet and sour plum fruit with a mocha grainy creaminess, a lifting acid frame leading to long slightly spicy finish– quite lip-smacking and food friendly.
Ratings:        Quality:  16/20   Value:  15/20

CAMPO VIEJO DOMINIO 2015   –   13½%   –    £23 Ricard
This is 90% Tempranillo with 5% each of Graciano and Mazuelo. It comes from 5 or 6 Alta plots – vinified separately with 11 months in all French (Troncais and Bertranges) oak. This is a lovely wine, with a subtle but complex nose – suggestions of  non-fruit and savoury notes – leather came to my mind but others thought of liquorice. There is dark fruit, maybe blackberry and well-contolled oak. The palate echoes the nose but with great refreshment, structure and length. A lovely wine with a Bordeaux-ish inflection to Rioja flavours. Very good – but is it a bit International?
Ratings:        Quality:  17/20   Value:  15.5/20

COTO DE IMAZ GRAN RESERVA 2011   –   14%   –    £22 Liberty
This is 90% Tempranillo (mostly from Alta with 10% from Alava) and 10% Alava Graciano from near the winery in Oyon, on Agrilo-Calcaire soil. Voluptuous open nose with herbs, floral notes and blackberries. The palate is very recognisable GR Rioja showing everything from the nose with warmth and a chocolate-grainy body, very sensual – in contrast to the more cerebral Dominio. Lovely!
Ratings:        Quality:  17/20   Value:  15.5/20

A tasting showing good range of styles, grapes and oak use in Rioja. The Gravonia is very much an acquired taste I think, but I had it pretty close for top wine with the Dominio and the Coto de Imaz. If I had to pick one – I would find it difficult. I am tempted by the white for its sheer unorthodoxy, but in the end that counted against it – it is a great wine but only useful in a narrow set of  situations. The Dominio was the most popular for the group, is beautifully crafted and will be better in 2 or 3 years I think – but does it express Rioja specifically? So in the end my wine-of-the-night is the Gran Reserva.

À Bientôt


Rioja is perhaps the most famous wine region of Spain. It produces over 400 million bottles every year – but that’s only (!) about 8% of all Spanish wine. It is mostly red (88% in 2016, usually 1 or 2 % lower) with some Rosé (5%) and White (7%).

The Red is made in four quality levels, from the highest: Gran Reserva; Reserva; Crianza; Generic. This [Wine Folly] graphic shows the rules, with the % of Red wine made at each level:



Gran Res’va 3

Reserva 19

Crianza 42

Generic 36


The Signature red grape is Tempranillo which accounts for about 80% of red plantings – followed by Garnacha (7%) and Graciano and Mazuelo (Carignan) about 2% each. White is almost as focused on one grape: Viura (which is 73%) with only one other white grape Tempranillo Blanco (10%) taking up more than 5%.

Rioja exports a lot of its wine – around 37%, a little more of the red and only 27% of the white. By far the biggest destination for that wine is the UK which takes in almost precisely a third of those exports – so nearly an eighth of all Rioja, twice as much as the next biggest importing country, Germany! So the British Rioja market should be a good sample of the styles, quality levels and innovations in Rioja.

The Rioja DO Wine region of Spain straddles the Ebro River for some 100 kms as it flows South East towards the Mediterranean. It is – mostly – in the central, Northern province of similar name: La Rioja. Not entirely though – roughly half – the Southern half – of La Rioja is mountainous and makes no wine at all, and some of the North bank areas are in Álava (which is Basque and accounts for about a quarter of all Rioja) or Navarra (about 5%).

Here’s a map:

You will see that Rioja is split into 3 sub-regions: Alta; Baja and Álavesa. The Álavesa sub region conforms to the administrative boundary  of Álava, and North of the river the Baja boundary conforms to Navarra’s. South of the River the Baja /Alta border follows the same general line just East of Logroño, with a few deviations to allow influential wineries (Marqués de Murrieta…) to be in Alta!

In general Baja is warmer, lower and better suited to Garnacha and maybe Mazuelo, as the Mediterranean influence moves up the Ebro. The Alta (and Álavesa) are higher (400-500m is typical), cooler and better suited to Tempranillo, Viura and Graciano. However the distinction seems pretty arbitrary near the actual borders and soil types and wine-making are much more important – here’s a soil map:

In the past the categories of red Rioja stood for clear stylistic divisions. Generic was plonk – Crianza was lightly oak-affected and showed strong tannin and acidity – Reserva was rounded, still woody but with a voluptuous fruit and Gran Reserva was getting towards an oxidative and secondary-, or tertiary-, flavoured style. Although Reservas had to have at least 1 year in oak, 2 or more was common – and GRs typically had 3 -5 years, and often the same again in bottle.

Now there is a trend to less oak, and fresher (modern!?) styles… The Wine Society categorises the wine styles thus:

Traditional: fragrant, silky and delicate wines from long ageing in cask (usually American oak) and bottle. These are mostly ready to drink on release.  Bodegas La Rioja Alta are an example of traditional style .
Modern-classical: younger, rounder wines that retain the delicious character of Rioja through cask ageing (often a mix of American and French oak) with the structure to develop in bottle. Bodegas Muga and CVNE,  fall into this category.
Modern: richer, velvety wines aged for less time in newer (usually) French oak, which are released earlier and mostly need keeping.


In fact I think the wine forms a wide spectrum and these three headings are but reference points. But it is true that there is a trend to more site-specific wines. Some growers are vinifying their better grapes from better sites in special Cuvées and using exclusively French (Tronçais or Allier…) oak for the time thought appropriate for the wine rather than the time set by the Gran Reserva (or even the Reserva) rules. The result is more elegant and more structured (and more Bordeaux-profiled) wine – a sort of super-Reserva!

Part of this is indeed soil (and more generally terroir), particularly the Agrilo-Calcaire found also in Bordeaux, Loire etc. This seems to be the soil in the most highly prized sites: for Tempranillo and Graciano; for carefully maintained older vines; vines used for single vineyard or restricted source wines (still a minority– though becoming more common in Rioja); and for more serious white plantings of Viura.

Another factor is grape variety. Red Rioja can contain Tempranillo, Graciano, Mazuelo (Carignan) and Garnacha. We tend to think of Rioja as a Tempranillo wine with some minority blending partners – a bit like Chianti and Sangiovese… But that’s not accurate at all. There are no rules about how much of each grape can be in a Rioja. So it’s possible to have 100% Graciano, 100% Mazuelo or 100% Garnacha! Indeed these seem not too difficult to find as growers move more to site-based wines, and single vineyard Graciano is a style to watch for…

I confess I am interested to see the outcome of these stylistic changes, and hope they don’t end up entirely “Internationalising” a lovely distinctive wine style. There is room for development of course, but there are still many beautiful examples of  Reservas and Gran Reservas, and I for one still enjoy the depth and voluptuousness of well-made classic Rioja, retaining a warmth, richness and sense of place.

Meanwhile the picture is very varied and flexible, for a while yet it will be a bit like Burgundy: it’s quite hard to know what you’re going to get! – so find a producer (or 3 or 4…) you like and follow them…

Very old Álavesa Viura Vines

For this month’s tasting we’ll start with a very old fashioned white (a very rare style nowadays!) – aged for 4 years in barrel and 6 in bottle.

Then we’ll try a couple of varietals – Mazuelo and Graciano; and a more classic Reserva and Gran Reserva, sandwiching a “modern-classic” “super-Reserva” highly rated wine.

Graciano Vines at Coto de Imaz, Oyon, Álava

I hope the tasting illuminates some of the issues discussed here. Anyway, notes on the tasting will be posted in 6 or 7 days, a little later than usual.

À Bientôt

The idea of this tasting came to me when I realised I could use it to kill two birds with one stone! With my theory and tasting exams on fortified wines for the WSET Diploma fast approaching, who better to help me prepare than the Tutored Tasting group?

I wanted to select an interesting and varied range of fortified wines for the group to taste, including some that I was yet to taste examples of myself.


Here are my notes:

Pedro’s Almacenista Selection Palo Cortado Sherry – Majestic – £17.99

After an initial discussion of what exactly constitutes a Palo Cortado Sherry and the mystery which surrounds it, we tasted this example from Majestic’s own range of sherries. It’s produced by Cayetano del Pino, an Almacenista that specialises in Palo Cortado. To look at, it’s a bright, clear golden colour, and more similar in appearance to an Amontillado than an Oloroso. It’s more similar to an Amontillado on the nose too. It has a complex range of aromas from citrus peel to resin to dried fruits and nuts. On the palate, although it’s dry, you do get a suggestion of sweetness, along with some smokiness and salinity. The flavours are those of fresh, zesty orange peel, hazlenuts and a touch of burnt caramel along with that hint of saltiness. Very enjoyable!

Barbeito Rainwater Madeira – Weaver’s – £15.99 (50ml)

This particular style of Madeira is a blend of 80% Tinta Negra and 20% Verdelho. Tinta Negra is the most widely planted grape on the island of Madeira, but generally considered to be of inferior quality to the island’s four noble white grape varieties: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia (Malmsey). This wine didn’t have the same complexity on the nose or palate as the Palo Cortado. The nose was quite simple with aromas of honey and some dried fruit. It was sweeter than expected on the palate (it is labelled ‘Medium Dry’) with flavours of honey, caramel and a slight nuttiness. Very drinkable as an aperitif, but probably didn’t benefit from coming immediately after the Palo Cortado.

Krohn Lagrima White Port – ND John – £12.95

Lagrima is the sweetest style of White Port and this wine is certainly sweet. Having been aged in wood for eight years, this wine is amber in colour and quite dark for a White Port. Some citrus and honey and a hint of nuttiness, but lacking the flavour intensity or complexity to balance the high levels of alcohol and sweetness.

Krohn Colheita 2001 – ND John – £18.95

Colheita is a Portuguese word meaning ‘crop’ or ‘harvest’. Colheita Port therefore, is effectively a vintage dated Tawny Port. By law, Colheitas should be matured in wooden casks for at least seven years, although they are often aged for much longer. Wiese and Krohn are apparently ‘famous for their elegant tawny Colheitas’. This one is from 2001 and was bottled in 2013. In appearance, it looks quite red – more ruby than tawny. On the nose and the palate it has quite a lot of red fruit, complementing the more typical tawny flavours of dried fig, walnut and chocolate. A well balanced and very enjoyable wine.

Domaine Pietri-Geraud Banyuls 2009 – Leon Stolarski – £19.99

This Banyuls is made from 90% Grenache and 10% Carignan and is only 16% abv. I wouldn’t have identified ‘tinned tomatoes’ myself on the nose, but once somebody else did, it’s quite unmistakable. There are also aromas of plum along with dried fruits and toffee. Lots of flavour intensity on the palate, good acidity and a long warm finish. A lovely wine!

Pfeiffer Rutherglen Muscat –  Weaver’s – £16.95 (50ml)

This is a straight Rutherglen Muscat as opposed to the other three categories: Classic, Grand and Rare. The average age of this wine is only about four or five years so it is quite youthful and fresh but still has complexity and some concentrated flavours. This particular example is quite light with a lovely complex nose: floral and grapey with herb and citrus peel notes. The palate is rich but not too thick and the sweetness is in balance with the wine’s light, fresh character.

Wines 1,4,5 and 6 all had votes for favourite wine of the evening. 1, 4 and 6 were popular, amongst other things, for their untypical lightness and subtlety, whereas wine 5 is an excellent example of its type. My personal favourites, for their complexity and balance were 1 and 6.

Thank you to everyone for assisting me in my revision!

See you soon,

Brigitte. x

On Friday 26th January the WING group met for a Sock Party at Ann and John’s. A lovely, and lively evening marked by usually WING bonhomie, great food and (too many?) good wines…

Here are (as usual, decreasingly focused) notes:

RIVA DI FRANCIACORTA BRUT nv          Welcome Wine
Slightly yeasty nose with a citric – quite warm – zing and later some herbal notes. The palate has a very light, but rather persistent mousse with a lemon zest acidity. 90% Chardonnay, in a good aperitif style.

NEW YORK WHITE 2016 (Brotherhood Winery)         Mike
Nutty nose, rather a rich Chardonnay dimension. Palate has a darker – slightly tropical – fruit body with a limey (Riesling?) finish. Very New World blend of Chardonnay, Riesling and Seyval Blanc from – reputedly – the oldest US vineyard (1839)!

BACCHUS / SAUVIGNON 2013 (English Wine Project)          Mark  
A rather confectionery nose of pineapple and gooseberry, very NZ Sauvignon style. I found the palate too sweet, saved somewhat by a grainy texture and an acid lift…

MALAGOUZIA 2013 (Thymiopoulos)           Kim
Nose starts quietly then mounts in pungency – slightly washed-out early palate but has a peachy mid palate with a gingery warmth at the end… A little (a year or 2) past it’s best?

VERNACCIA DE SAN GIMIGNANO “RONDOLINO” 2016 (Teruzzi & Puthod)         Rachel
Slightly pear and soda hints on the nose. Palate has a quite rich, warm peach fruit – slightly oily texture but long in the mouth. A good example.

ALBORIÑO 2016 (Colinas de Uruguay)            Yvonne
Hints of caramel (malo-lactic?) on the nose, underneath some floral and citrus elements. Palate has a dashing acidity a warm rich body, rather heavier than a Galician example…

and so onto the reds….

JONGIEUX MONDEUSE (Barlet) 2011            Laurie 
Nose has a bojo character with a warm cherry fruit. Palate has herby, sour cherry fruit note then a plum-skin centre, a slightly herby acid line. Light but well balanced.

VIÑA FALERNIA, PINOT NOIR RESERVA 2015 (Valle de Elqui, Chile)     Anna  
Burnt nut pungency and an evolved colour, later some herby notes appear. The palate has an oaky first note, then red fruits with a slightly spicy vegetal twist. Vaguely Côte Chalonnaise balance.

AEMILIA  2013                 Ann
This wine is a blend of Shiraz, the local Vranec & Petit Verdot. We tasted this 2½ years ago [see June 2015] and thought “needs time – maybe 3 years and might open like a Right Bank Claret”. Well the nose has integrated and become more aromatic but still shows herbs and plum fruit. The palate has evolved too with and plums and spice – but still a little unresolved.

DOLCETTO D’ALBA 2015 (Sandrone)            Yuan
Slightly sweet red fruit nose: cherry and plum in an Italianate package, slight leather tones too. Palate has a strong acid line freshening the red fruit and herb palate. Quite long, fresh and well-balanced. A good Dolcetto

ROTHERGLEN DURIF 2015 (Cambell)          Kathryn    
Very sweet fruit nose with an orange-peel citric twist. Palate has a sweet, rich body with a grainy character that isn’t quite chocolate (yet).

BOURGUEIL VAUMOREAU 2009 (Druet)     John
A very interesting nose, which shows typical Franc notes of green-ness and raspberry but some floral elements – dried aromatic herbs – and a savoury touch. The palate echoes the nose with grainy but supple tannin, but has a lightness I don’t associate with this cuvée every year… Druet’s Grand Mont 2009 is rather bigger and shows that year’s heat… But this is just lovely – and as John, I and many others have followed Druet for over 20 years and 2010 was his last vintage this must be wine-of-the-night.

PRIMITIVO SALENTO IGT 2010 (Masserie di Ugento)     Paul  
Slightly spirity fruit nose – plums and figs. Palate has a big, sharp acidity circling the sweet fruit. Definitely an Italian food wine – lamb ideally?

VIÑA VALORIA RIOJA 1982 (!)          Rob
This has an even more spirit laden nose, almost a brandy with red fruit… Palate has red fruit again and a freshening, supple, pliant acidity, hints of woody tones and a slightly gamey hint. Very good, even if appreciation was emparied by the lateness of the hour…

Thanks to everyone for such a lovely evening, and to John and Ann for the hospitality and especially Ann for the great food…

À Bientôt

The ICC / WING group met on Thursday 18th January to taste wines on the double theme of Malbec and Argentina. We started the evening with a sparkling rosé made from 100% Malbec before moving on to a single varietal, single vineyard Torrontés from Cafayate in the northern province of Salta. Next, we tasted three varietal Malbecs from the three countries which produce the most Malbec: Chile, Argentina and France. We ended the evening with a red blend from Mendoza containing Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda and Cabernet Franc and produced in the style of Amarone, the grapes having been dried on drying racks following the harvest to concentrate flavours.

rutiniwines_Rose-de-Malbec Laborum_Torrontes-2015MontesAlphaMA10altos-hormigas-terroir-malbecvins-juin-pdt-05I0009028_milamore

Here are my notes:

Rutini Trumpeter Rosé de Malbec Extra Brut 2013 – 12.7% – Honest Grapes – £24
From Tupungato in Mendoza, this 100% Malbec sparkling rosé is made using the traditional method. Orange in colour, reminiscent of onion skin with small, continuous bubbles. Red fruits on the nose with some woody herbal notes. The palate has a frothy mousse and rather sharp red fruit flavours, predominantly strawberry with a hint of cherry. An enjoyable and slightly different celebration wine but a little over-priced perhaps.
Ratings:     Quality: 16/20     Value: 14/20

El Porvenir Laborum Torrontés 2015 – 13.5% – Honest Grapes – £15.70
The grapes for this single vineyard 100% Torrontés were grown at an altitude of 1,650 metres. The resulting wine is fresh and elegant with good acidity and a long finish. Roses on the nose, reminiscent of a gewurtztraminer. The floral character comes through on the palate along with refreshing citrus notes.
Ratings:     Quality: 16/20     Value: 16/20

Montes Alpha Malbec 2013 – 14.5% – Waitrose Cellar – £13.99
This Chilean Malbec is blended with 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep ruby-purple in colour. Lots of ripe blackberry on the nose with hints of vanilla. Very smooth and dense with clear oak influence. On the palate the flavours are blackberry and blueberry with some plum and vanilla and quite a lot of sweet spice.
Ratings:     Quality: 14/20     Value: 14/20

Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Terroir 2014 – 14% – Waitrose Cellar – £15.99
This Argentinian Malbec from Mendoza is lighter than the Chilean with more flavour complexity. Acidity and tannins are well balanced and the finish is long. Flavours include red fruits such as cherry and cranberry along with subtle herbal notes.
Ratings:     Quality: 16/20     Value: 16/20

Clos Triguedina Cahors Malbec 2012 – 13.5% – The Wine Society – £16
This Malbec from the grape’s native Cahors in South-West France, was the group’s favourite wine of the night. Well integrated flavours of intense black fruits with mint and liquorice on the palate. Plenty of acidity along with ripe tannins, flavour intensity and a full body, all made for a well balanced and very enjoyable wine.
Ratings:     Quality: 17/20     Value: 17/20

Bodega Renacer Milamore 2015 – 14% – N.D.John Wine Merchants – £17.95
An interesting wine made in the style of Amarone, with the grapes being dried after harvest until they lose about one third of their weight. The wine is a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon with 10% Bonarda and 5% Cabernet Franc. Deeply coloured with aromas of berries, plum and dried fruit. Ripe plum and dried fruit on the palate, but perhaps lacking the complexity and finesse of a good Amarone.
Ratings:     Quality: 14/20     Value: 13.5/20

All in all, an enjoyable tasting with some interesting wines and interesting comparison between the three varietal Malbecs. The French wine came out on top, with over half the group voting it their favourite wine of the evening.

Bye for now,

We have a double theme for our January tasting: Malbec and Argentina. These two things are, of course, a suitable pairing as in recent years, Malbec has become almost synonymous with its adopted homeland in South America.

In its original home of France, Malbec has long been a blending grape in Bordeaux and the southwest of the country but is the dominant grape only in its native Cahors. In France, Malbec goes by a number of different names, depending on where it is grown. Its synonyms include Cot, Pressac and Auxerrois. French plantings of the grape had seriously declined following the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s, the severe frost of 1956 and a general falling out of fashion in the twentieth century. However, the success of Argentinian Malbec has led to a new enthusiasm for the grape. France now has just over 4,000 hectares of Malbec plantings, mainly in Cahors, making it the world’s second biggest producer of Malbec behind Argentina which is by far the biggest producer with 40,250 hectares, an increase of almost 90% in the last decade! In third place comes Chile with 2,300 hectares, undoubtedly influenced by its neighbour’s success. On Thursday we will be tasting varietal Malbecs from all three of these top producing countries.

Malbec from Cahors could traditionally be described as ‘rustic’ or ‘gamey’, but some of the region’s producers are now looking to emulate the Argentinian style which is more spicy, rich and velvety. Compared to Argentina, Chilean Malbecs tend to be more tannic and may be blended with other Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

So, we know a bit about Malbec, but what are the important things to know about Argentina and its wine industry?

Viticulture in Argentina dates back to the middle of the sixteenth century but it’s only since the 1990s that Argentinian wine has been exported abroad. This isn’t surprising if you consider the fact that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Argentinian wine consumption was annually 90 litres per capita! With such a strong domestic market, there wasn’t the need to export to the UK, where consumption was 3 litres per capita or the USA where it was even less. But changing political and economic factors, together with a fall in domestic consumption (it’s now about a third of what it was) has seen Argentinian winemakers improving the quality of their wine and targeting an international market with a growing thirst for good quality Argentinian wine, particularly its Malbec.

Argentinian vineyards lie close to the Andes in the west of the country and span over 1,500km from the northern province of Salta at a latitude of 24° down to Patagonia at 40°. A very significant factor in Argentinian viticulture is altitude. With the exception of those in Patagonia, most Argentinian vineyards lie at an altitude of 600m or more above sea level; the average elevation is 900m and some vineyards in Salta reach 3,000m, making them the highest in the world. It’s the effects of altitude that make viticulture possible in Salta, which would otherwise be too close to the equator to grow quality grapes. The elevation of Argentina’s vineyards does bring challenges for viticulture with colder temperatures, slower ripening and increased weather hazards but many of Argentina’s winemakers are keen to face and overcome these challenges in order to produce new and exciting styles of wine.


The climate of Argentinian vineyards is continental and being in the rain shadow of the Andes, rainfall is extremely low at around 150mm to 220mm per year. However, pure water from the Andes is available for irrigation. This, together with the warm dry summers, plenty of sunshine, and poor alluvial soils all means great potential for growing quality grapes. Organic viticulture is also easier in this climate as the lack of humidity means less risk of fungal diseases and reduces the need for spraying.

As mentioned previously however, the terroir does bring its challenges. Spring frosts can be a problem, as can a mountain wind known as the Zonda which is strong, hot and dry and can disrupt flowering. More hazardous than both of these however, is the threat of summer hail which has the potential to wipe out 10% of the crop in an average year. Netting is becoming more widely used to protect against this, but still the most commonly used insurance policy is to own vineyards in several different areas. This is very much the case in Mendoza, where varietal wines containing grapes from different areas of the province are common. These weather hazards still have the potential to severely affect output however, as was seen in 2016 when Argentina fell from its usual spot as the fifth biggest wine producing country in the world, down to the ninth, with a decrease of around 30% on the previous year due to adverse weather.


Mendoza is by far the biggest and most important wine producing region in Argentina, accounting for over 70% of production. Red grapes now account for over half of all plantings, with Malbec predominating and Bonarda, Argentina’s other speciality red grape, in second place. In total, 150 different grape varieties are grown in Mendoza.

San Juan is the second biggest wine producing region. It’s north of Mendoza and with lower altitudes, it’s hotter. Since the 1990s wine production here has started moving from quantity to more quality, with Bonarda and Syrah leading the way.

La Rioja is the third most important wine producing province and is also the oldest but its wines are mostly destined for the domestic market. The country’s signature white wine, Torrontés is produced here in a number of different styles.

The varietal Torrontés we will be tasting on Thursday however, comes from Salta which is the country’s fourth most important wine-producing province and its highest. At this altitude, vines need to protect themselves from extreme weather. The resulting low yields and thick-skinned grapes can result in wines that are concentrated, full-bodied and fragrant.

One final thing worth mentioning about Argentina is its sparkling wine. Moet et Chandon set up its first overseas venture here in Mendoza in the late 1950s, recognising the province’s optimum conditions for sparkling wine production. The arrival of Chandon Argentina started a culture of Argentinian sparkling wines made in the traditional method which have brought much acclaim. We will be starting the evening with one such wine on Thursday.

See you then!

The idea of this Tasting, as so many good ideas, came to me while re-arranging the wines in my cellar! Specifically, the red Bordeaux section, which – after years of removal of bottles to drink and replacement with later vintages – had descended to uncategorised chaos. I reorganised into vintages – mainly 2000, 01, 04, 05, 06, 09 & 2010… However I had 15 bottles – all 1s or 2s – of 11 different wines remaining from the 1990s. So I thought a Tutored Tasting was in order.

While deciding what to show I spent some time looking at the ratings – at release and after 20 years – of the different vintages.

I ended up choosing to show 3 pairs: 1990, 1996 and 1998. But the variation in vintage ratings was note-worthy. Both Left bank and Right Bank ratings ranged from 1/10 to 9/10, and averaged 6.0 for the Left and 5.5 for the Right Bank. If one compares the 2000s: the range is from 6/10 to 10/10 on both banks (although individual vintages do differ, only by 1 point, between banks), and with an average of 7.6 for both!

I looked further into this, and spent some time thinking about the reasons. In fact the stellar, 9/10 or 10/10 , vintages are not much more common – about once every 5 years. What is different is that good vintages (7/10 or 8/10) are much more common (5 years out of 10 in the 2000s as opposed to only  3 LB and 1 RB in the 1990s) and “bad” vintages get 6 at worst not 1s or 3s or 5s as in the 1990s.

So it looks like there is more consistency now, and much greater ability to make good wines in challenging years. This was once considered the unique ability of only the very top wines – but now seems to have filtered down to quite small and unremarked Châteaux – even below Cru Bourgeois status and to less prestegous appellations…

The reasons for this are complex, partly due to real weather changes although that has posed new questions for winemakers, partly due to technological and scientific advances, but – IMO – mainly down to money.

1982 is often thought of as the start of the latest – globalised, free market fundamentalist – phase of capitalism. The removal of capital controls is the landmark, but there are lots of indicators*. This has led to a steep price rises in that most globalised wine commodity: Bordeaux; and with it an influx of investment; foreign and corporate acquisition and more money spent on production. Initially this made differences in viniculture and later in viticulture: Stephen Brook says “If the 1980s was the decade of innovative viniculture, then 1990s and 2000s were the decades of viticultural improvements” (The Complete Bordeaux – 3rd Edition 2017). The wines of the 1990s only caught the beginning of these changes, they were in full swing right down the wine-chain by the 2000s.

So 1990s marks – to varying extents – the diminishing of the importance of vintage; the chances of finding a quirky family Château making wines above its level; the chances of bargains…

So what of the wines? I chose 1990, 96 and 98. The best all round vintage, the second best LB and the equal best RB.

1990 was originally a 10/10 vintage on both banks, later downgraded to 9/10. The second hottest and second sunniest of the Century to that point, it followed a warm winter and was also the driest year since 1961. There was some fear that vines on well-drained soils would shut down, and this was partially relieved by a little rain in August and a slightly cooler September. Cooler soils, more often with Merlot: Northern Medoc, St. Estephe, Right Bank; had less likelihood of this but low acidity affected some wines. A big vintage too, 30% up from the previous year. Although quite approachable, small berries helped acidity and tannin level and hence long-life. Most wines though have been at “drink up” status since 2010-2012… was this pushing too far???

1996 was an uneven weather year, hot initially then a cool and damp early July, a little rain in August and a cool, but on the left bank – dry, September. A better year for Medoc, especially in the North.

1998 was dull in July and hot in August with some vine stress. Rain in early September refreshed the vines and Merlot and Cab Franc ripened well, with small thick skinned berries. Cabernet Sauvignon struggled to ripen and this is undoubtedly a very good right bank year.

I had planned to show two Medoc (so quite Northerly) Cru Bourgeois for 1990, but the second example: Château Roquegrave was corked.

So – to to better illustrate the quality across the whole area I substituted A St. Émilion Grand Cru Classé, Château Grand Pontet (more than a substitute really!).

For 1996 I showed two Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois, and for 1998 two St. Émilion: A Grand Cru and a Grand Cru Classé.

Here are my notes:

Château Carcanieux 1990 Medoc Cru Bourgeois
This is 45% CS; 44% M; 11% CF.
Quite pale with a definite brown rim. Nose is quite typical with cedar, herbs, a mushroom hint and some plum fruit. The palate is similar with slight over-baked fruit note, still enjoyable but a little tell-tale tightening into astringency at the finish. It goes over after a while in the glass so perhaps a little past its best.

Château Grand Pontet 1990 Émilion Grand Cru Classé
This is 15% CS; 70% M; 15% CF.
This is deeper colour with a brick coloured rim. Nose has powdery perfume notes, almost floral darker fruit and a medicinal, something slightly minty, note. This is bigger and the fruit is longer in the palate, richer tannic frame and more to this but a slightly leafy (Cabernet Franc) tinge to the later tannins.

Château Coufran 1996 Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois
This is 15% CS; 85% M.
Medium colour with a transparent rim. This has a black fruit and herby nose, quite forward but simple. The tannins are a bit salty and there’s spice showing, so the palate too is simple and pleasing, but although quite succulent this fades quickly, so at the end of its drinking window, but more an instant pleasure wine anyway.

Château Cissac 1996 Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois
This is 70% CS; 22% M; 8% Petit Verdot.
This has a perfumed nose with black fruit and an almost text-book array of minor notes: cedar, forest floor. The palate of this notoriously slow-to-mature Château shows tannins still and some lifting acidity, fresh plums, forest floor again and a classic mid palate… Very enjoyable, still fresh, still asking for food – almost a reference Cru Bourgeois?!

Château La Grace Dieu, Les Minuts 1998 St Émilion Grand Cru
This is 5% CS; 65% M; 30% CF.
This had quite a quiet nose, some damson later and a chocolate grainy, going to liquorice, note. The palate shows the same with a heavier emphasis and some tannins which turn harder towards the finish, an unyielding firmness that’s been there since I first tasted it 15 years ago. It fades a little with time but otherwise isn’t looking its age, and certainly would work better with food.

Château Laniote 1998 St-Émilion Grand Cru Classé
This is 5% CS; 80% M; 15% CF.
This seems a little lighter and the nose has subtle hints of plummy fruit, perfume herby and creamy notes. The palate seems fresh and well balanced with plum fruit, some cranberry and integrated tannins and acidity. A pleasure that would sing with the right dish… My favourite!

All in all are these 20, 22, 28 year old wines holding up? The 1990 wines seemed to be just hanging on; the Cofran 96 too, the Cissac 96 now in-the-groove. The 1998 were very enjoyable and I feel the Grace Dieu’s hardness less to do with age than the wine’s (relative) austerity – the Laniote … I just enjoyed. If you have any wines from these times, I’m assuming they’re well cellared – they’ll be worth sampling now!

À Bientôt

*  [My favourite indicator is the graph of % real income growth for the poorest, middle and richest deciles. Until 1982 the 3 lines had been very close, with generally steady growth, for 40 years (after favouring the poorest for the preceding 40 years). Then they began to diverge, climbing quickly for the richest, still growing but more slowly for the middle – and actually becoming negative for the poorest. This is true with minor variations right across all Western Capitalist Economies, but so far it’s only the UK that thinks (?) the correct response to this real social problem is to vote for a project led by free market extremists whose only criticism of globalisation is there’s not enough of it!]
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