Crafty Little Tasting was the rather nice name Alliance Wine gave to a tasting of their more artisan winemakers, which took place at Carousel, on Blandford Street (London) on Tuesday. More than 170 wines were on show, and I managed to taste more than seventy. Very few warranted ignoring here, so I’m going to skip through without too many notes. I apologise if this article is even longer than usual. I really wanted to get everything down in one go. I hope you can make it to the end. There are some particularly nice Greek wines towards the bottom, and also a nice pair from New Zealand to finish up with. In between there are also delights from Italy and Spain, a rather surprising wine from Poland, and two excellent producers from Alsace and Jura.
Overall, this is an exceptionally well chosen range. The wines don’t tend to run to the artisan extremes that some of the smaller importers manage. There might be slightly less risk taking here, fewer wines at the periphery of the world of wine. But that is in no way a criticism. What Alliance do very well is supply a host of really interesting wines to independent retailers and restaurants.
From Italy, we begin in Piedmont. Tenuta Olim Bauda is set in the beautiful rolling Monferato Hills, north of Nizza. This is prime territory for Moscato and Barbera, and there is a textbook Moscato d’Asti (frothy, with grapey Muscat fruit and 5.5% alcohol), and a fairly concentrated Barbera d’Asti, with nice colour, bright fruit and some tannins on the 2016.
Staying with the froth, Venturi Baldini is a new Lambrusco producer to me. With lovely bitter cherry and just 11.5% abv, this Montelocco Lambrusco is perfect to introduce this style for summer drinking, with charcuterie at lunch in the garden…preferably.
Val D’Aosta is one of my favourite wine regions to visit, for its innate beauty as much as anything. It’s just luck that the wines are generally of a very high standard, although production is so tiny that the wines are rarely seen outside of the region. That’s been changing, insofar as the UK is concerned. La Crotta di Vegneron, based in Chambave, is one of the larger producers, a co-operative, but a welcome addition to the Alliance list.
On show were Crotta’s Petite Arvine and Fumin, two signature grapes of the region. Petite Arvine is the grape of Switzerland’s Valais, just over the Saint-Bernard Pass. This is bright and peachy, with grapefruit acidity and lots of extract. Fumin is a massively under rated variety, especially by some anglophone wine writers. This version has a high tone of sweet cherry fruit, with a bitter finish. Like Barbera, such wines come into their own with fattier foods. It is not at all heavy.
La Crotta makes two highly acclaimed dessert wines, often the best in the region. If you ever come across their Moscato Passito or Malvasia Flètri, give them a try, as well as the wines above. I know Alliance import the first of these.
Another rare alpine variety is Lagrein. Alliance have one from the Cantina Merano co-operative (in the Adige Valley, northwest of Bolzano). Another blend of florality on the nose and cherries (this time slightly darker) on the palate, the 2015 is a bigger wine than some versions I’ve tried, but wins on a little greater concentration than many. The co-ops up here all make very good wine.
Gulfi is a name that is fairly well known to lovers of Sicilian wines. Based north of Ragusa on the island’s southeastern side, they specialise in the wines of Vittoria. Two varietal wines (white Carricante and red Nero d’Avola) and a Cerasuolo di Vittoria blend were an interesting contrast to COS (who I wrote about in Part 3 of my Real Wine Fair roundup the other day). These wines are bigger than COS wines, with generally higher alcohols. But the white is nice, bright but with a fascinating sour finish. The reds both have sweet fruit.
The other Sicilian I tried was a Grillo from Cantine Rallo. I like my Grillo to be fresh, and this was, although with 13% abv it didn’t quite have the acidity and lightness of some. It’s a style thing. If you want a bigger, rounder, Grillo, here you have it.
Another island wine was the Cannonau di Sardegna from Mora & Memo. This has red fruits and a bitter twist, remarkably fresh for a wine with 14% alcohol…be careful, it is quite moreish.
Alliance has now taken on Riecine, the exquisite producer of biodynamic Chianti Classico in the Gaiole hills. The Classico 2015 is no shrinking violet, but it is clean, with medium colour and a little tannin, which needs to rest. Riecine Rosé is always good, often more than. A salmon pink rosato in a clear burgundy bottle, 13% with great fruit and length. In fact, it’s one of the best pinks in Chianti.
“La Gioia” is their “Super Tuscan” – old vines, low yields, vineyards at 500 metres, a year in new and second use barrique. So this 2013 is big, and there’s depth. “Riecine”, or “Riecine de Riecine” as it is sometimes known, is the estate’s top wine. Both are 100% Sangiovese, but this is a small production cuvée, aged for 36 months, first in concrete egg, then in used tonneaux. The 2012 is already gaining depth on the nose, and complexity, but it needs a lot longer before it opens and shines fully.
“Sebastiano” is not a Vin Santo, but a passito. The grape canes are usually cut, so the majority of the Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes dry on the vine. I’ve had a few bottles of this. It’s delicious – mahogany colour, a figgy/toffee nose, smooth and sweet. Hard to spit! But not cheap, of course.
Moving on to France, Alliance do like to buy Beaujolais, and they usually do the region very well. Domaine de Colette had three wines on show. A simple Villages 2014 was fresh and classic, and then we were able to contrast a 2015 Regnié Vielles-Vignes with a 2014 Morgon. The VV from 2015 was dark and concentrated for this Cru, showing the higher alcohol of 2015. But being Regnié, it didn’t go over the top. Still, I much preferred the classic profile of the Morgon myself. Leaner, but fresher too.
Domaine de la Couvette is at Bully, in the Southern Beaujolais, not all that far from Lyon. A 12.5% “Blanc”, from Chardonnay, was light and fresh, very pretty but with an unusual lick of quince on the finish. There are two straight Beaujolais reds, a simple cherry chiller, and an organic version, which did in all honesty have a bit more fruit and depth. But it is a 2015 (the other two are 2016). Nice labels here too, which I shouldn’t really comment on, but it’s useful for retailers to know people will be attracted to the bottles. They will provide simple summer drinking pleasure.
Next, we move to alpine climes again. Jean Perrier is based on the western bit of the Combe de Savoie, as it goes up towards Chambéry. Not a producer I know, but as Savoie is becoming the new Jura, it’s good to see Alliance bringing some in. Jacquère is the workhorse grape of the region, and appears in Perrier’s mouthfillingly fresh (quite bracing) Crémant, and the still white Cru Abymes. Chignin-Bergeron is a specific name for wines made from Roussanne, which is more rounded (peach and pineapple), with a slightly fuller palate. The Pinot Noir, like many from the alps, is pale light ruby and with almost carbonic red and cherry fruits.
Last year I went to the annual Jura Tasting at the Chandos House Hotel in London. I tasted the wines of a producer who, as an annual visitor to the region, I know really well. It was amazing that one of the most highly regarded growers in the village of Château-Chalon, Berthet-Bondet, had no UK importer. Well, now they do.
At the entry level (though entry to a fine domaine doesn’t come cheap), we begin (as we always do in Jura) with a red. “La Queue Au Renard” blends Pinot Noir, Poulsard and Trousseau into a light and sappy single site wine of character. The whites, “Balanoz” (a Chardonnay parcel), and “Savagnier” (Savagnin, of course) are both made in the ouillé style (ie topped up). Both are approachable yet classy.
The oxidatively aged wines here are superb. Château-Chalon 2009 is very elegant (a B-B trait). It is very young, of course, but it has already started to come together nicely. If you want to try the style at half the price, buy “Tradition”. A blend of Chardonnay and Savagnin, it is aged for two years in 228 litre barriques without topping up. A layer of flor protects the wine, as with the Vin Jaune style Château-Chalon. It doesn’t have the depth and complexity which will come with age in the C-C, but it has beautiful line and a nutty finish. But, of course, nothing beats a fine Château-Chalon, which even at over £50, is good value for a world class product.
I’m often guilty of neglecting Languedoc, but I did want to catch up with Mas Cal Demoura. This well known producer is situated not far from Gignac and Montpeyroux, in the hills north of Clermont L’Hérault. The “Mas des Amours” Côteaux de Languedoc red is simple, but tasty. “L’Infidèle”, a Terrasses du Larzac cru wine, is deeper (garrigue herbs, pepper, dark fruits), smooth but with lingering tannins. It’s a five variety blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault coming in at 13%. Ageing potential abounds.
Another red of a different kind came from Chinon, on the Loire (Touraine). Domaine de la Noblaie makes lovely wines, very vibrant and alive. Their whole range is one to seek out. Their Chinon red in 2015 is a little darker than usual, richer too. If you feel Cabernet Franc can sometimes be under ripe here, this will persuade you otherwise.
Alliance also imports the wines of Domaine des Baumards. Based in Rochefort-sur-Loire, around 20km from Angers, they specialise in Savennières and Chaumes. The Quarts de Chaume 2009, in half bottle, displays the classic warmer vintage characteristics of concentrated sweet Chenin. Candied fruit, honeyed and waxy. This will age but how can one resist such a wine.
Clément Klur from Alsace deserves a slot to himself. He’s based in Katzenthal (north of Turkheim and west of Colmar), and specialises in wines which, for me, reflect terroir more than grape variety.
His Crémant d’Alsace, bottled without added sulphur, has a rounded character. It’s not the most elegant example, and the Crémant style doesn’t aim for autolytic complexity, but it wins on personality. The classic wine from Klur is the “Gentil”, a blend of Pinots Blanc and Gris, with Gewurztraminer. The 2015 is a little fresher, perhaps less soft, than the previous vintage. Gewurztraminer dominates on the nose this time. Alsace blends are coming back, trust me.
Clément’s varietal Pinot Gris is one for those who find many Alsace examples too alcoholic and too sweet. This is just off-dry, and soft, but there’s a great lick of acidity to balance it. Almost a mineral touch…on an Alsace PG! Top of the range is a Grand Cru Riesling (2011), from Wineck Schlossberg. This really is mineral, and structured. 13.5% alcohol, and potential to age, this is impressive. But don’t open too soon.
The next table was showing all sorts of odds and ends from different countries. I was looking forward to the Slovenian wines from Guerila (based in the Vipava Valley). I’ve been drinking too many of the finer wines from Batic and so I found these wines a touch pedestrian. I was very interested in the Polish wine on show (my “oddities” radar was flashing), Domaine Bliskowice. I know almost nothing about this domaine, except that they only planted vines in 2009. If you asked me to name a Polish wine region, I’d be blank-faced. But they were at Raw Wine 2017, so their natural credentials must be good.
“4&14 Canva” appears to be the name of the wine. I’m not saying we’ve discovered a new superstar, but this smooth and simple wine is very tasty. I have no idea of the grape variety/varieties. All credit to Alliance for taking a punt on this. I’ve reproduced the back label, for those who speak Polish (you’ll need to click to enlarge).
There were a lot of very good Spanish wines, an area where Alliance does particularly well. Bodegas El Lagarto “Ruby Luby” from Arribes del Duero was a pretty good start. Six months on lees, darkish yellow, herby, mineral, with taste and texture. 13.5% alcohol. I really liked this and it’s relatively cheap.
Casal de Armán makes wine in the Ribeira region of Northwest Spain, and is based in Ribadavia. “Eira Dos Mouros Blanco” is mainly Treixadura from the Valle del Avia. Fresh, light, but stony mineral character dominates. The red “Eira dos Mouros Tinto” is a fascinating wine. I wondered what the grape varieties could be, and researching the Alliance web site I see it is a blend of the very well known Brencellao, Caiño and Sousón varieties. Bright cherry, a bit smoky, supple tannins…like the white, this is really nice.
Cellar del Roure also makes very attractive wines. From Moixent, near Valencia, their whole range is attractively labelled, too. Showing two wines, the first, called “Cuillerot”, is a blend of six white grapes, is dry and fresh, but with deep flavours too. “Safrà” is a bright-fruited red wine, just 12.5%. Tannic now, but it will soften. 85% Mando and 15% Garnacha Tintorera. Look out for “Vermell” from this producer too (bigger and richer).
I particularly like the wines of Rioja producer, Abel Mendoza, especially the white wines. Their barrique aged Malvasia white Rioja is pale and fresh, even at five years of age (as with this 2012). A 2010 Viura further proves how well their white wines age. Real depth, with grapefruit and lime to nuts and creaminess. Aged in barrique as well.
Mendoza’s “Jarrarte” is quite unusual. A red Rioja, vinification (of 100% Tempranillo) is by carbonic maceration in cement, and the fruit gives that away (dense cherry bursts out). But we also have 14.5% alcohol in the new 2016 vintage. I swear you’d not realise it’s this high, so nicely is it balanced. It’s remarkable value, and I’ve not, myself, tasted anything quite like it. The 2015 was my first vintage of this wine, and this 2016 is just as good.
I also couldn’t turn down a sip of Pazo de Señorans Albariño 2016, from Rias Baixas. Some of you will have read about the full range of Señorans wines I drank at a dinner at the end of March (at Lymington’s Shipyard Restaurant). That included some wonderful, aged, bottles. Out of that context, the 2016 tasted every bit as good as you could want, cementing this producer’s place at the top of the Galician pyramid. With a nose a touch like Sauvignon Blanc, you get grass and asparagus, but even more, that mineral structure, and a surprising touch of underlying richness beneath the acids.
My last Spanish red was an afterthought. Phoebe, from Alliance, pointed me towards this amazing gem of a wine. Always pays to ask for a tip or two. Oller del Mas only produced 1,056 bottles of Picapoll Negre Especial from their Pla de Bages DO vineyards not far from Montserrat. It’s the same grape as Picpoul Noir, which is as rare in Languedoc-Roussillon as it is in Catalonia. A pale, bright, red, it is smoky with a brambly undertone. The 2014 is about £50 a bottle, but it’s very good and I felt privileged to taste such a low production rarity. As such a rarity, it probably has a limited audience. Just as well with only a thousand bottles to play with.
Spain ended for me with Equipo Navazos. They need no introduction, I’m sure. I’m a fully paid up friend of EN, who bottle some of the most glorious wines in the world in my book.
“Florpower” Bota 44 MMX is their table wine, both clean and sour in a lovely, soft, way. This is Palomino Fino, with just a hint of the chalky white soils which give the best of Jerez its character. This is a nice and fresh, even though it is an aged version from 2010, with 32 months under flor, 8 months in butts, and 24 months in tank. Each bottling of Florpower is quite different, but do try any you see. It’s such good value. The current bota is No 67, from 2014.
“I Think” Manzanilla En Rama comes in a screw-capped half bottle. A saca of February 2017, it is both light and textured, and has real en rama yeasty character and the texture of a more or less unfiltered wine. More expensive than most half bottles of Sherry, but the wow! factor is there.
Manzanilla Pasada Bota 59 “Capataz Rivas” is from Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín. From a 15-butt solera of very old Manzanilla, this has the depth of age (average age of around 15 years), but also the fresh salinity of Sanlucár. I’ve had this several times and it’s a stunner. La Bota de Manzanilla 71 is a more recent release and shows the vibrancy of a straight, relatively youthful in comparison (around seven years old) Manzanilla. This is a wine for a seafood lunch.
If you are flagging a bit, try to stay awake. There are a few wines to go, but we have reached Alliance’s Greek wines. Greece appears to be back on the agenda in the UK, with quite a few hitting the shelves. These guys have a good range.
Especially good were the two wines from Vassaltis on Santorini. Of two 2015 Assyrtikos, the “Barrel Aged” cuvée showed depth and keeping potential, though my own preference was for the zippy unoaked wine, with six months on lees. Great texture and grassy grapefruit freshness.
T-Oinos is a producer on the island of Tinos (in the Cyclades, not far from Mykonos). “Malagouzia” is a simple but effective white, its citrus and mineral flavours reflecting perfectly this boulder strewn island. “Clos Stegasta Assyrtiko” is bigger all round, and even more mineral. Real personality. “Mavro” 2011 blends Mavrotragano and Avgoustiatis varieties grown at 450 metres on granite. Impressive dark wine but still tannic. “Clos Stegasta Mavrotragano” 2013 is also tannic, but has a lifted nose and crisp acidity to balance a big wine.
Bizios makes Nemea. West of Athens, this hilly region of the peloponnese produces a long time favourite Greek red from Agiorgitiko. At 14% abv, this is at the powerful end of the Nemea spectrum, but I liked its smoky, slightly bitter, fruit.
La Tour Melas makes wine in Achinos, in Northern Greece (facing the top of the Island of Evia). These are fairly traditional wines with a nod to Bordeaux. “Cyrus One” 2015 blends international varieties Merlot and Cabernet Franc with Agiorgitiko, getting 15 months in oak. Imagine blueberries and raspberry on the nose with a floral bouquet. It has grip, and would suit smoky BBQ food.
The wine eponymously named “La Tour Melas” (2014) has a very traditional gravure label of an 1806 print of Echinos (sic) by Irish painter and travel writer, Edward Dodwell. This is pretty much like a Saint-Emilion. Merlot and Cabernet Franc, 14.5% abv, dark fruit, graphite and vanilla oak notes. Actually pretty impressive, if not the kind of style I buy much of these days.
Moving out of Europe we reach the final five wines. I wanted to try Raats Family Wines “MR de Compostella”. It’s a Stellenbosch blend of all five Bordeaux varieties. As the 2008 got the highest ever Wine Advocate score for a South African wine, you may not be surprised that the 2014 weighs in at 14.5%, nor that it comes in a very heavy bottle, heaviest of the year so far. Not my cup of tea, but this big, tannic, wine has such sweet fruit. Impressive, but hard to do anything but sip it.
The Drift Farm “Year of the Rooster” is altogether different. A single vineyard Touriga Franca rosé, it’s light, fruity and fun (and pink, of course). It comes from a single mountain vineyard in the Overberg Range (east of Cape Town), weighs in at just 11.5%, and sadly comes from a production run of just four barrels.
“There are Still Mysteries” Pinot Noir is pale, with a vibrant nose and strawberry and raspberry fruit. You don’t expect 14% alcohol. It’s appealing, nevertheless, and pretty serious stuff. Which you would expect for £50-a-pop. The rosé is quite serious too, but a more manageable £15. But both are impressive in different ways.
Last, well almost, were the pair of wines from New Zealand’s Central Otago District, made by Mount Edward. This leading producer is based in Gibbston. Alliance showed a 2016 Riesling from the Lowburn sub-region, in the typical off-dry style which New Zealand seems to do so well now in Otago. More weight and richness than a German Kabinett, but real concentration of flavours and varietal character.
The Pinot Noir from 2014 was, if anything, even better. Excellent fruit, very concentrated and lifted. It’s elegant but, yes, it is all about the fruit. Duncan Forsyth and his partners have fashioned a lovely Pinot Noir here.
This would have been a nice way to end, but the final wine on the table was Stella Bella‘s Pink Muscat, from Australia’s Margaret River Region. Moscato Rosa is often quite expensive from its heartland in Northeastern Italy. The Aussies fashion somewhat more inexpensive versions. As a pink alternative to Moscato d’Asti, and for around £12.99 in the UK, this is a delicious, low alcohol, palate cleanser. Frothy, grapey, and that’s about it, but sometimes you don’t need any more…especially after tasting 70+ wines. I took a cheeky slug. It’s the colour of mouthwash at the dentist, but oh so much better to swish away all those tannins.