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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

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If you are used to drinking Italian Wine, you probably think most Italian Wine is Red. As a straw poll I asked a (pretty knowledgeable) group of 9 wine enthusiasts to guess how much Italian Wine is White. Guesses clustered around the 30% and 40% mark, and only two put the figure over 50% – the most recent (2016) figure is 54%.

This disparity is accounted for by a number of factors. The most planted white grapes in Italy are the workhorse or blending varieties: Trebbiano Toscana  (Ugni Blanc in France) and Catarratto. These are followed (7th and 8th in the list of total areas planted, with grapes of any colour) by Chardonnay and Glera (Prosecco) used significantly for Sparklers. The highest placed “ordinary” white grape in the list of area planted is  – Pinot Grigio!

So if you ignore all these – and you probably do – that easily wipes out the majority that the white grapes attain (the balance would be something like 56:44 :: red:white), and gives a figure more closely conforming to impression.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Italy has some great white wines, and several that are under-rated. So much the better because they usually provide better value.

Here’s a wine map of Italy (produced by Wine Folly) with the important grapes and styles noted for each area. You can pick out white grapes by their yellow bunch icons underneath each Region name.

Wine Folly Exploration Map

After the five white grapes named above the next most important (either through quality or quantity) are the following 15 (in roughly descending order of volume):

Malvasia bianca: A white variety covering  more than 6 sub varieties that occurs throughout Italy.

Moscato: Grown mainly in Piedmont, it is mainly used in Moscato d’Asti.

Garganega: The main grape variety for Soave, a dry white wine from the Veneto wine region of Italy.

Grillo: Another, rather more interesting, workhorse grape from Sicily.

Vermentino: This is widely planted in Sardinia and also found in Tuscany and Liguria.

Grechetto: The quality grape in better Orvieto.

Cortese: A Piedmont grape which is the base for Gavi, and can produce interesting sweet wines.

Falanghina: A Campania grape from quite a hot area which nevertheless accompanies sea-food well along with two other grapes from the same area – Greco di Tufo and Fiano.

Friulano: A variety also known as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse, common in Friuli.

Verdicchio: This is famous in the areas of Castelli di Jesi in the Marche region.

Pecorino: Native to Marche and Abruzzo, producing wines have a rich, aromatic character.

Arneis: A variety from Piedmont, which has been grown there since the 15th Century.

Vernaccia: A quality wine famous from San Gimignano in Tuscany, where it is recorded since the 13th Century.

In addition, other important international white varieties are grown including: Sauvignon Blanc; Pinot Bianco; Gewürztraminer and Müller-Thurgau.

I suppose that a real picture of Italian white wine might be gleaned from sampling most of these 15 grapes, but we have to whittle it down to 6. It’s easy to omit the first two, as respectively too generic and already well known. I also felt Fruilano and Verdicchio merit the same respective comments.

I want to omit Vernaccia and Vermentino too, as we tasted them only one year ago. Finally, although I like all the Campanian grapes, showing all 3 might be too much so I’ll omit at least one.

That whittles the choice down to 8 – you’ll have to wait to the Tasting itself for the final selection.

Notes from the tasting will be with you in 4 or 5 days…

Until then….

We all know the basic wine overview of the Loire… It’s divided into 4 big areas, each with their distinctive grapes and famous names. Going from West to East these are: Nantais (Muscadet from the Melon de Bourgogne grape); Anjou (Chenin Blanc); Touraine (more Chenin and Cabernet Franc); Centre (Sauvignon Blanc and some Pinot Noir). This gives a mental picture that can be represented a bit like this:


All well and good, and in fact a pretty accurate general picture. However, the four areas aren’t really of equal size. Just looking at West-East extension – Nantais is nearly 60 miles, Anjou only 45 miles, Torraine over 70 miles, and then a 20 mile gap to the 50 mile wide Centre. Production is uneven too: Nantais produces a bit over 10%; Anjou nearly 40%; although the geographically largest, Touraine only yields about 20%; and Centre nearly 30%.

Here’s a much more accurate topographically correct map:
All the above notwithstanding, the naive generalisation isn’t too far off. Only the small areas of the Vendée are not covered in the West. In Anjou you will find bits of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grolleau, and Gamay here and there (Gamay actually appears across Touraine too). The East only real exception is the deceptive Pouilly-sur-Loire (not Fumé) area which makes wines from Chasselas!

The real variations to the general picture are within the Touraine area.

You can find all sorts of grapes here but there are three main departures, which form the basis of this month’s tasting:

  • In the North: the often neglected areas of Coteaux du Loir and (less significantly) Coteaux du Vendômois
  • In the North-East: the odd areas of Cour-Cheverny and Cheverny and the Solonge area in general
  • The increasing presence of Malbec – under its original name Côt – especially as you go East along the Cher River. Côt actually arrived here from its original home in Quercy at the time of the renaissance, before going to Cahors and thence to Argentina…

Firstly the relatively little known area lying along Le Loir river about 25 miles due North of Tours. [Le Loir actually flows West, pretty well parallel to La Loire, for another 50 miles from here before joining the Sarthe just North of Angers.]
This area (sometimes referred to as North Touraine) is actually composed of three wine areas: Coteaux du Loir (CdL), Jasnières and Coteaux du Vendômois. You can read more by scrolling down to the post of January 24 2017…
Jasnières is an enclave within the general CdL area, capable of rather good Chenin Blanc – fierce acidity with a rich counterpoint. However the area’s oddity is the Pineau d’Aunis grape, a spicy, herby grape which must form 60% of the reds. Sometimes it’s 100% – and we’ll see what that’s like…

The area in the extreme NE of Touraine is the second source of strange wines. The story goes back to the renaissance ascent of the Château at Chambord – as a hunting home for Francois I in the early 16th Century. Many grapes, from Bourgogne and elsewhere, were planted there, nearby in the Solonge area and at Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny. The unusual white grape Romarantin is the main grape in the appellation of Cour-Cheverny… While Cheverny white is mainly Sauvignon Blanc, and red is a Pinot Noir / Gamay blend (recalling Bourgogne Passetoutgrains). Many grapes find their way into the Rosé from here and the surrounding area including Pineau d’Aunis again.
However other varieties also made their way to Chambord and despite being lost to phylloxera in their home some have survived. A couple moved from there to be in the Solonge winery of Henri Marionnet, Domaine de la Charmoise (you can read more about this winery by scrolling down to the September 20 2016 post).
As well as un-grafted Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin, Gamay and Côt, they have direct line descendants of the Chambord plantings of Romarantin and the otherwise extinct, Teinturier (red flesh), grape: Gamay de Bouze.

Finally – the eastern Touraine has an increasing preponderance of Côt. We’ll try an example from the Cher area, together with a Pineau d’Aunis Rosé sourced from the same grower..

Until soon…

This month, the ICC Tasting will be of wines from Collioure, in the very capable hands of Richard.

Collioure AC (AOP) is a small wine area in the very South-Eastern corner of Roussillon – and indeed France.  Centred upon the old fishing village of the same name, the area also produces  produces Vin Doux  within the identical geographical boundaries, which is always labelled Banyuls.  Collioure is the name reserved for normal strength, dry wines.

Collioure/Banyuls is a small area, producing about 4% of all wine in the Roussillon area. Similar amounts of each are made, depending on the harvest. Collioure is untypical in that 20% of the planting is white (the average over all Roussillon is 3%!) – so about a third of white Roussillon AOC (now AOP) is from Collioure. Which is interesting now since AOC white was only permitted in Collioure from 2003.


Collioure AOC red is always a blend which must contain at least a 60% of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre with no individual grape permitted to exceed 90% of the total blend. Cinsault and Carignan and allowed to up to a maximum of 30%. Today the AOC white blend must contain a minimum of 70% blend of Grenache blanc and Grenache gris with Macabeo, Malvoisie, Marsanne, Roussanne and Vermentino (Rolle) permitted to round out the remaining portion of the blend – though each of those grape varieties can not individually exceed 15%.


Richard has chosen to show wines based on one of the top 5 producers – if not the best – Domaine La Tour Vieille. They produce 70,00 bottles a year of Banyuls and Collioure, by manual harvesting 10 ha of red and 2.5 ha of white. They practice Lutte Raisonnée viticulture. The grapes are all grown on schist soils and are composed of – Reds: (5%), (15%), (65%), (15%); Whites:  (10%), (10%), (50%), (20%), (10%). So a very typical mix from the area. The grapes range in age from 20 years old (some of the whites) to 70!

All grapes are harvested by hand and nothing is mechanized at all (no tractors) and all wines are fermented traditionally with wild yeasts. They make a white, a Rosé and several Banyuls and late harvest wines, as well as several prestigous Reds….

The white Collioure, “Les Canadells” is vinified in the following way:  the Grenache Gris is pressed immediately after harvest; Grenache Blanc, Macabeo, Vermentino, Roussanne undergo a short skin maceration; then percentage of the wine is fermented in oak barrels with a regular stirring of the lees and bottled 6 months after harvest.

All the Collioure reds undergo pump-overs and all punch-downs are by foot, the wine is bottled 10 to 18 months after fermentation.

A very attractive tasting, I think… I wish I was there but I am actually avoiding the 31°C sun in the Loire….  With Richard’s (and other attendees’) assistance the notes should be with you early next week (although I face a crashingly busy weekend before then)…..

À Bientôt…

Most wine enthusiasts will be familiar with Alsace Wines. We have explored the area often and become familiar with their main grapes: Riesling; Pinot Gris; Gewürztraminer (of course)… but also Pinot Blanc; Sylvaner; Auxxerois; Muscat and Pinot Noir… Many fewer wine lovers will be as acquainted with Alto Adige, however.

Alto Adige is actually only the northern third of the full Italian region: Trentino-Alto Adige. That itself is the northernmost Italian region, comprising two areas with very different personalities: the Germanic Alto Adige (or Südtirol), which borders and once belonged to Austria, and right below it the more Italian but still very Alpine Trentino. The region’s capital and largest city is Trento, followed closely by the Südtirol provincial capital: Bozen (Bolzano). The breathtaking valley of the Adige River is renowned in the wine world for varietal labeled cool-climate wines, mainly white. It has no DOCGs, eight DOCs and four IGPs.

In fact the full region, Trentino–Alto Adige, is a similar size to Alsace in terms of area under vine and volume of wine production. In 2015, Trentino–Alto Adige produced about 2.5% of Italian Wine (13.7 million cases),  but Alto-Adige has less than a third of the Regions vineyards – mostly small growers unlike large co-operatives and producers further South – and it’s contribution is about 0.7% (3.9 million cases).

The Alto-Adige area is Y-shaped: Valle Iscaro is the right arm,  following the Iscaro river from nearer Austria until it meeets the Adige River near Bolzano. The Adige above Bolzano constitutes the left arm from the Valle Venosta, flowing though Terlano. Below Bolzano, going  due South towards Trento and the “tail” of the Y, fuller versions of Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanco Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürtraminer are more common.

Terlano focuses more on international varieties Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the Pinots.  Valle Iscaro majors on the Germanic grapes: Riesling; Müller Thurgau; Sylvaner; Kerner; and Grüner Veltliner.

Overall white grapes varieties occupy about 60% of Alto Adige’s wine-growing area and are vinified into the best wines. There are 20 varieties common: Pinot Grigio; Gewürtraminer; Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay lead the way, but Sauvignon Blanc; Müller Thurgau; Sylvaner; Kerner; Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are also significant in Alto Adige.

So Alto-Adige has many grapes of Germanic origin: Riesling; Gewürztraminer; Sylvaner; Kerner; Müller-Thurgau and Grüner Veltliner. The first three are shared with Alsace too – as are the Pinot Family – so comparison seems attractive.

It may be said that the most obvious comparison: Pinot Gris/Grigio is actually the most complicated. First of all there may be clonal or selectional differences in the grape plantings although they are the same variety. Secondly the “target” style is different: richer complex wines in Alsace and fresher lighter wines in Italy. Finally,  yields are often much higher in Italy resulting in a neutral “quaffing” wine. That’s being generous,  a lot of the Italian version – possibly two thirds – could be called Pinot (e)Gregious, wines that are often thin, inoffensive occupants of the early parts of Restaurant wine lists, where they offer (I would say) characterless wines for people who don’t like wine…

Actually some of the better examples, though of a radically different style, do come from Alto-Adige – and I think the comparison is one we are going to have to try.

So the varieties I have chosen to show in comparison of the two areas end up being the Alsace big three: Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. The Alsace wines will act as a style reference to see what we think of Alto Adige versions. I think the next time I approach a tasting focusing on Alsace I’ll make sure basic versions of those three grapes are entirely omitted and concentrate on all the other styles and varieties .

The wines will be in pairs to aid comparison, although it’ll be immediately obvious which is which – not least because the Alsace example will have more age. So only the most similar pair – the Rieslings – will be tasted blind… We’ll see how these – vaguely Germanic – wine areas deal with those grapes.

Notes will follow in 3 or 4 days…

Until then….

This month’s ICC Wine Tasting will show wines form Uruguay.

Uruguay is a small Wine Country, producing less than a third on one percent of the world’s wine. That still makes it’s production about 30 times that of the UK, about the same as Slovakia & Czech Republic combined, and a bit less than Switzerland.

Main Uruguayan Wine Areas

The country itself is small, the second smallest in South America, and has a mostly maritime climate. It’s soils are clay, loam and limestone – though there is considerable variety as you move away from the coast and up in altitude.

Mostly the wines we see in the UK are Tannat or Tannat blends from Canelones and Maldonado, but that is slowly changing. I even remember sampling a Gewurztraminer some – probably over 10 – years ago.

Wine making has been going on in Uruguay for well over 250 years, but it was the French-Basque immigrant, Don Pascual Harriague who brought Tannat vines to Uruguay in the late 1800’s from France. Tannat proved to be a perfect match for the primarily clay-loam soils and temperate maritime climate of Uruguay, and has been the country’s signature wine ever since.

Tannat is still the most widely grown grape (36%). Other common varieties are Merlot (10%), Chardonnay (7%), Cabernet Sauvignon (6%), Sauvignon Blanc (6%), and Cabernet Franc (4%), but Syrah and Alboriño are new promising developments…

Other than these basic facts I no little of Uruguay wine, and I suspect most readers will be in the same boat. So it’s a pity that I cannot attend the tasting this week – it will be led by the very capable Janine. I look forward to reading – and posting – the notes in a few days.

Until then….

South Australia produces about half of all Australian wine, in addition it typifies the increasing divergence of mass-production and individually crafted wines in the country.

First, though, the basics:

There are 18 Wine Areas in South Australia, although perhaps only 10 are important, for one reason or another. About 60% of S. Australian wine is red and 40% white.

The 18 Wine Areas are grouped into 7 zones, and you will sometimes see generic wine from a zone rather than an individual area. This is only really of significance in the most South-Eastern zone – Limestone Coast, nearly 2% of S. Australian wine bears that generic name.

The larger zones are: Far North; Mt Lofty (N of Adelaide inc Clare); Barossa (inc Eden V); Lower Murray (East around Riverland) ; Fleurieu (S of Adelaide); Limestone Coast  (S-E near the Victoria border, inc 6 specific areas); and (not shown) Peninsulas (either side of Spencer Gulf).

By far the largest area is Riverland, in volume terms, which produces 56% of South Australian wine, although by value it’s below a quarter! And it is Riverland that exemplifies the other distinction in South Australian wine: mass produced wine from high-volume grape growing versus grower crafted wine. In the European Wine World we often have the model of a Grower / Winemaker producing wines from their own grapes, grown for that purpose. This is far from being the only model, but it is a vague indication of the division between artisan and mass-produced offerings. However is South Australia only about 30% of wines are produced by the growers, the rest from grapes-bought-in (often, though not always) for mass produced plonk. This is even more severely the case in Riverland where the grower-made wine proportion falls below 20%.

The obverse of this statistic is that about 44% of wine outside Riverland is grower-made, and it is these wines that attract interest from the serious wine enthusiast. They amount to only about a fifth of all South Australian Wines, and these are even more heavily weighted to red – red wines are about 75%.

The other main producing areas are: Langhorne Creek (7.3%); Barossa Valley (6.6%); Padthaway (5.5%); McLaren Vale (5.0%); Coonawarra (4.3%); Adelaide Hills (3.4%); Wrattonbully (2.9%); Clare Valley (2.5%); Limestone Coast – generic (1.8%); Currency Creek (1.2%) and Eden Valley (1.2%). No other area produces more than half of one percent.

As to grapes – on the red side Shiraz (nearly half of all reds) and Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) dominate all other grapes; well over half of the whites are Chardonnay, and these three grapes make up 68% of all those grown in the state.

However all though every area grows several grapes there are several Area/Variety combinations (usually representing 20%-40% of that area’s production) that are well known, high quality and reaching premium prices.  The most famous of these are Barossa Shiraz;     McLaren Vale Shiraz;      Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon;      Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc;     Clare Valley Riesling and Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. These represent the easily viewed peaks of South Australian wine, but there many hidden gems… We shall see what the fuss is about in a tasting led by Kathryn on 16th March.

I’ll post notes in about a week.

Until then…

 

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