Barcelona Wine Tasting: International Blind Tasting

Every month or two we try to organise a blind tasting in Barcelona, typically focusing on wines from around the world. Last night was our first after the summer break and we tasted our way around 6 different, mono-varietal wines from around the world of wine with two whites and 4 reds. It’s not a completely 100% blind experience so for each wine there was a choice of 3, each with tasting notes, with only one being correct. As always, it was a lot of fun and a great way to not only try different wines, but learn a bit about how they’re structured, how they taste and what really defines them in comparison with other wines from around the world. Below is the descriptions that were handed out, as well as the revealing of which wine was which!

Wine 1 is a:

Albariño from Rias Baixas, Spain: The quintessential Galician white wine, particularly where Paella is involved! Albariño tends to be pale to medium lemon in colour and very aromatic, with notes of ripe citrus fruits, peach, white flowers and often sweet herbs or even a touch of honey. Acidity is high, especially in the leaner expressions to the north, and the flavour on the palate leans more towards citrus zest and sweet herbs.

Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace, France: Renowned for their dry Rieslings, Alsace has a continental climate and long ripening season that allows for intense versions of this grape to be grown. Typically pale to medium coloured, these wines are typically aromatic with notes of ripe citrus fruits, green fruits and often a touch of smoke or wet stone sensation, although not usually from oak contact. High acidity is a given and alcohol levels can also reach 14% quite often. Grand Cru Riesling will be tight and unyielding in youth, yet full of energy and will still be aromatic,

Chardonnay from Chablis (1er cru), France: Chablis is a distinctive style of Chardonnay, coming from the cool climates of northern France. Pale to medium in colour, these wines can differ slightly, mostly depending on whether they’re oaked or unoaked. Regardless, the notes will often resemble lemon and lime zest, green fruits and a flinty, smoky note when young which will soften with age. Acidity is extremely high and there’ll be a sharp, steely sensation on the palate which may be softened by malolactic fermentation.

Conclusion: It was indeed a Chablis from France that kicked off our evening, correctly chosen by 5/10 of the attendees. All the options were high acid varieties, so the trick was to define the texture on the palate and see if wine-making or a tell-tale aroma would give the game away. The real defining factor was the presence of tightly-grained, smoky French oak which this Chablis had aged in for 12 months. Highly unlikely in both the case of Albariño and Riesling, but very common for good quality Chablis from the Premier Cru level and upwards. Delicious wine as it happens, as is so often the case with Drouhin, and as I always say; everything in life is better with a glass of Chablis!

Wine 2 is a:

Verdejo from Rueda, Spain: One of the most famous white wines from Spain, hailing from Rueda, and made in a few different styles. Most Verdejo tends to be unoaked, with a pale colour and aromas of citrus fruits, green fruits and something herbaceous, almost laurel-like. Acidity ranges from medium to high but alcohol is usually kept in check, and the wines can be soft and very appealing.

Semillon from Hunter Valley, Australia: One of Bordeaux’s great white grapes has a very different expression in Australia. When it’s young, Semillon has a lean, mean structure and flavour with noticeable lime zest, smoke and masses of acidity, accurately described by the top wine-maker in the region as ‘Battery acid’. With age, these flavours broaden into honey, toast and roasted nuts.

Pinot Gris from Marlborough, New Zealand: Pinot Gris is still best known for its simple, homogenous expressions from the north of Italy. In New Zealand, however, a riper style is aimed for. Notes of citrus, green fruits and riper notes of melon and peach are usually expressed here, somethings with some soft herbal notes and an almost ‘beery’ character to the wine. Alcohol levels are typically over 13% and there is often a bitter sensation on the finish.

Conclusion: Not one of the best known wines in the world, but 8/10 correctly guessed this to be a Pinot Gris from New Zealand! Loveblock is the same organic producer whose Pinot Noir I recently presented at our New World Wine Tasting and their Pinot Gris is on an equal footing; soft, slightly spicy and utterly delicious. Everyone ruled out Semillon due to the lower acidity and lack of a smoky, nutty aroma, whilst two detected the soft herbal notes of the wine and confused it with a well made Verdejo. However, the round, glycerol-heavy nature of the wine, the stone-fruit dominated flavours and slight, cleansing bitterness on the finish led most people to the right path. Nicely done!

Wine 3 is a:

Gamay from Cru Beaujolais, France: Another pale coloured wine, Gamay wines tend to be restrained on the nose with aromas of fresh red fruits, violets and sometimes very light hints of oak. Alcohol tends to be no higher than 13.5% and tannins are noticeably low, although the fresh acidity makes for a refreshing beverage.

Cabernet Franc from Chinon, France: Cabernet Franc is a red variety that ripens in cooler conditions, making it a favourite in the Loire Valley of France where it produces incredibly characteristic wines. Pale ruby colours and fresh, tangy red fruit flavours are common, as are herbaceous, stalky aromas of leaves and undergrowth. Tannins are usually quite firm but not overpowering and acidity is high, making for a light, refreshing style of wine that rarely exceeds 13% alcohol.

Dolcetto from Piedmont, Italy: Quite literally ‘little sweet one’ due to the its low acidity and bright fruit flavours, Dolcetto is usually a simple, very quaffable style of wine grown in several appellations in northern Italy. Despite the medium levels of alcohol and acidity, tannins can occasionally be quite prominent and compete with the fruit. At its best, these wines are best drank young and tend to be simple and uncomplicated.

Conclusion: For our first red of the evening, I wanted to choose something aromatically distinctive and 7/10 correctly noted that this was a Cabernet Franc from Chinon. Whilst the structure could be of help, this was more related to flavour profile and the cool climate of the Loire and its effect on Cabernet Franc. Fresh red fruits, a touch of graphite, violets and a strong, herbaceous character led the majority here, to a delicious bottle of Les Petites Roches 2011 by Charles Joguet, an iconic producer of Chinon.

 

Wine 4 is a Pinot Noir. Where’s it from?

Pinot Noir from Baden, Germany: Germany is now the third largest producer of Pinot Noir in the world, known locally as Spätburgunder. Baden is the warmest region in the country and so accounts for the majority of plantings of red grapes. Stylistically, German Pinot Noir is traditionally very pale, yet sometimes over-oaked. Ripe red fruits married to touches of vanilla and toast whilst maintaining low alcohol is common, with earthy, undergrowth aromas coming through with age.

Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand: Not quite as pale as traditional Burgundy or German Pinot Noir but still lightly coloured. Pinot Noir from Central Otago is often very aromatic, with notes of candied fruits, light oak and often hints of leather and undergrowth. Look out for bright, persistent flavours on the palate and occasionally hints of reduction, which can smell a little rubbery. The bright fruit flavours are a good sign of New World Pinot Noir and these wines from New Zealand are often very perfumed.

Pinot Noir from Oregon, USA: Pinot Noir in Oregon is still establishing itself as a style, with top producers like Drouhin and Bergstrom now producing wines of class and style. Slightly darker and riper in colour than the majority of traditional cool-climate European Pinot Noir, Bright, ripe cherry fruit dominates, with noticeable oak influences and often noticeably high alcohol levels. Likely to be more structured and firm in comparison to a Pinot Noir from New Zealand.

Conclusion: As soon as I read out the name of the winery, heads dropped. Only 1/10 correctly identified the origins of the wine, which I think is partly due to no-one having tried a good quality Pinot Noir from Germany before. The clue was in both the structure and the profile; Baden produces much lighter, classic Pinot Noir than the two, New-World options. At 12.5% alcohol and full of just-ripe red fruit and undergrowth with a touch (20%) of new oak, this is classic Spätburgunder. Ziereisen are one of the better producers in a region dominated by the grape variety, and manage to walk the line between over-extraction and oaking  with remarkable ease.

Wine 5 is a:

Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina: The ambassador grape of Argentina, Malbec is noted for its soft fruit flavours, soft tannins and an easy-drinking style. Sometimes criticised for being a little simple, it often tastes of plums, damsons, and dark chocolate with hints of violets. Whilst top quality examples do exist with a more complex array of flavours, they are sadly rarely seen outside Argentina itself. The classic Argentinian Malbec is often incredibly dark, with purple hints but younger examples can be lighter in profile.

Pinotage from Stellenbosch, South Africa: Pinotage is a love it or hate it kind of grape, as it really smells and tastes unlike any other grapes in the world. Almost exclusively grown in South Africa, the wines tend to be deeply coloured with aromas of blackberries, mulberry and often a smoky, dark aroma, with hints of coffee often strongly related to the oak regime used in wineries within South Africa. Occasionally volatile aromas can taint the wine and the tannins can often be quite aggressive.

Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, Spain: Ordinarily a medium-bodied grape, the continental climate of Ribera del Duero and consumer demand leads to darkly coloured, rich wines that are often alcoholic, powerful and heavily structured. Often blended together with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and/or Malbec, these are often heavily oaked wines designed for early drinking pleasure, although the very best can age for decades. Aromas of dark fruit, noticeable oak (French and/or American), leather and tobacco are common.

Conclusion: A classically styled Ribera del Duero went down a treat, and was also correctly identified by 6/10 as the wine in their glass. Pinotage is the first to be discounted, owing to the difference in structure and also flavour profile, but differentiating Malbec and Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero isn’t as easy as it sounds. A key difference is that, with age, Tempranillo develops a beautiful array of leather and dried tobacco aromas not often emulated in Malbec, whereas Malbec tends to have a softer, riper tannin profile. Bohorquez are an old-fashioned producer, making wines in the style of Alejandro Pesquera minus the brett! A lovely wine just hitting its stride at 10 years old.

 

Wine Number 6 is a ….Wildcard entry! No clues for this one:

For the final wine of the evening, there were no clues or help, just a glass of wine in front of everyone. It was a pale, garnet colour with a very pronounced nose of dried cherries, rose petals, violets, smoke, toast and wet earth. Highly acidic and with plenty of ripe, firm tannins and a wonderful flavour intensity, this took most people to one place; Northern Italy. I wasn’t expecting anyone to know the exact region, but the fact that most people went for Nebbiolo from Piedmont, or in one case a remarkably astute guess of Lombardy, is fantastic! It is indeed Nebbiolo from the north of Italy, in fact in the extreme reaches of Lombardy, in the Valtellina region. Lacking the weight and gravitas of some of its more famous cousins in Barbaresco and Barolo, the wines here tend to be leaner, more floral and incredibly refreshing. Ar.Pe.Pe are the most famous producer, having built a reputation for their long-lived, regionally defined expressions of Nebbiolo. A great way to finish a wonderful evening of tasting!

 

Barcelona Wine Tasting: Summer Discoveries in the New World

The second part of our introductory tastings after the summer break, and after our hugely successful Old World tasting, is of course wines from the New World! This week we’ll be trying some interesting wines from South Africa, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and Australia, which are some of the best I’ve tried over the summer of 2017.

Alana Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Whilst a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand is hardly the most ground-breaking of discoveries, I was really impressed with this expression from a region I know far better for Pinot Noir. Martinborough is a small region on the southern tip of the northern island of New Zealand, with some of the most acclaimed wine-makers setting up shop there, generally focusing on the production of spicy, earthy Pinot Noir. However, there are significant plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and along with Palliser Estate, Alana Estate is leading the way with some top quality, slightly riper expressions of the grape than Marlborough across the water.

Alana Estate is a relative newcomer to the area, having been founded in 1993; this would make them quite established in many other regions in New Zealand, but pioneers such as Ata Rangi and Dry River have been making top quality wine since the 70’s. A modern project with a no-expense-spared approach to wine-making, including a team of wine-makers from around the world, the focus is, like their neighbours, mainly on Pinot Noir. However, their Sauvignon Blanc is a superb expression that I have confused with Sancerre, not once but twice, in blind tastings before, due to its mineral edge. Their aim is to develop an understanding of the terroir of Martinborough, so each plot is vinified separately using native yeasts and vinified in their state-of-the-art winery.

Another Monvinic Store purchase, whose wines are featuring heavily in my tastings at the moment! The Alana Estate Sauvignon Blanc is one of their better value wines at a little over 20 euros a bottle and a wonderful expression of this riper, yet subtler, style of Sauvignon Blanc. I say subtle but the aromas are still very pronounced, with the characteristic lime and grapefruit aromas, green apples, peach and just a touch of gooseberry. Enormously refreshing on the palate with lots of zesty acidity and very clean, precise flavours. A long, clean finish with a chalky, mineral sensation; certainly a few steps above the generic Sauvignon Blanc that so often comes out of New Zealand.

Mullineux Old Vine White Blend 2013

Considering we’ve showcased Eben Sadie and A.A Badenhorst a few times, it made sense to finally get around the to third pioneer of the Swartland in South Africa; Mullineux. The Swartland is a small but very fashionable wine region just north of Cape Town, and home to some of South Africas oldest vines and now, some of its youngest wine-makers. The gnarly old bush vines, mostly Chenin Blanc and Rhone varietals, have made their home here in the dry, granitic soils and yields are characteristically low. Combined with the more minimal intervention style of wine-making and the results are often quite wild, showcasing the raw material available in this hot, dry part of the country.

Mullineux are a very new addition to the region, set up in 2007 by Chris and Andrea Mullineux, backed by wine-lover Keith Prothero. As with many wineries in the area, the wines are made from dry-farmed (unirrigated) old vines with the intention to showcase the rugged nature of the Swartland. Mullineux are particularly famous for their Syrah grown on differing soil types, which have become increasingly acclaimed and expensive as a result.

My favourite wines from Mullineux, however, are undoubtedly the Old Vine blends, where a selection of old vines from different parcels are blended together. Their white blend is mainly Chenin Blanc, with around 20% made up of Clairette and Viognier to add some extra lift and perfume. However, the raw power of the old vine Chenin Blanc defines this wine, with lemon curd, golden apple, peach and melon aromas as well as the typical lanolin, betraying the grape variety. At only 4 years old, the acidity is roaring with the same ripe orchard fruit character, with a little almond nuttiness as well. Powerful, ripe and very typical of the Swartland. A great wine!

Veramonte Ritual Pinot Noir 2015

Chile has a bright future ahead of it in the wine world. Best known for their exportations of consumer friendly, easy to drink wines from large producers, the focus is changing to higher quality expressions from individual regions and smaller projects. The climate for making wine in Chile is just about perfect, with a varied Mediterranean climate moving down the country and different regions naturally leaning towards certain grape varieties and styles. Outside of their typical industry, I’ve also very much enjoyed discovering the Chilean style of Carignan, most famous in the Maule where VIGNO help encourage growers to maintain their old vine plants, as well as some top quality Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and even some aromatic varieties. It’s to these cooler climates that we head this week, to the Casablanca Valley and a project by the name of Ritual.

Veramonte wines is a relatively large company, but instead of centralising in one large winery they have instead ventured out and invested in several smaller estates, each with their own identity and style. Ritual is one of the their largest and sits on 100 hectares of vineyards in the Casablanca Valley, one of the coolest regions in Chile. Consultant wine-makers such as Paul Hobbs have a say in the style of the wines, which tends to be clean, fruity and made for short-to-mid term consumption. Having tried the Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and also some wines from their other estates, it was the Ritual Pinot Noir that stood out the most. I would love to get hold of a bottle of their Chardonnay, if I can find it!

Pinot Noir is my favourite grape so it comes as no surprise to learn that I’m curious to see how it grows around the world. In the Casablanca valley, cool morning fogs caused by the Humboldt Current wash over the region, slowing down the ripening of the grapes and stretching the growing season considerably. As a result, the slow but very intense accumulation of flavour leads to a very likeable, very ‘New World style’ of Pinot Noir. Bright cherry and strawberry flavours are prominent, with a little earthy savouriness in the background and a touch of toast and black pepper from the oak treatment. Lovely and soft on the palate with a refreshing acidity and accessible, delicious fruit flavours; this is affordable Pinot Noir done excellently. By far the humblest wine of the tasting at 15 euros a bottle but I suspect it may be a dark horse for Wine of the Night! (Spoiler: It did indeed wine Wine of the Night with 5/10 votes!)

Loveblock Pinot Noir 2014

We’ll be sticking with Pinot Noir for the moment but this time heading across the ocean to New Zealand, a country that whilst almost synonymous with Sauvignon Blanc is also staking its claim as the New World producer of Pinot Noir. I find myself in agreement, having tasted so many world class Pinot Noirs throughout the country, particularly from Martinborough in the north and Central Otago in the south. However, one of the most famous names in the New Zealand wine industry is rightfully turning heads with his new project in Marlborough, better known for its Sauvignon Blanc, and this was my best discovery from New Zealand during the summer months.

Loveblock is the new project of one of the most famous couples of the wine world; Kim and Erica Crawford. Having been so successful with their own branded wine, they sold the rights to Constellation and built a much smaller project in the higher reaches of Marlborough, in the Awatere Valley. Here they produce top quality Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer but the addition of some land in Central Otago in 2008 allowed a top quality Pinot Noir to be added to the portfolio.

As mentioned previously, I love Pinot Noir and what a Pinot Noir this is! The land in Central Otago they’ve acquired is from the slightly warmer area to the north of the region, and it shows in the robust character of this wine. The ripe, bright red fruits that are so characteristic of New Zealand are showcased first and foremost, with a little brambly character as well. The wine was only partly aged in oak but there are definite characters of toast and black pepper, as well as emerging notes of tomato leaf, earth and a touch of tobacco. Already so complex and yet still so vibrant, this is delicious stuff. I will definitely be squirreling a bottle or two away for a bit of future development.

El Enemigo Cabernet Franc 2012

Still in the southern hemisphere, but now over to Mendoza in Argentina, one of the first regions to capture my imagination and palate when I first started to appreciate wine. Malbec is King in Argentina, with Bonarda and Cabernet Sauvignon distant 2nd and 3rd plantings, whilst Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc make up the majority of white grapes planted. However, as the wine industry starts to mature here, wine-makers are starting to see the potential in other grape varieties not commonly associated with Argentinian productions, including Tempranillo, Carignan and most importantly, Cabernet Franc.

El Enemigo is one of my favourite wineries in Mendoza, led by the head wine-maker of Catena, Alejandro Vigil. The investment came from Adrianna Catena, one of the daughters of Nicolas Catena, who fell in love with French varieties from an early age, and who shares a love for Cabernet Franc in particular, along with Alejandro. The variety ripens fully in the warm, continental climate of Mendoza yet the high altitidues of the vineyards in Gualtarry allow for the rich red fruits, herbal flavours and finely grained tannins to stay intact, unlike many warmer climate expressions of the grape.

The wine itself is a blend of 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Malbec, with the structure and herbal flavours coming from the Cabernet Franc, whilst the darker fruits and rich, chocolatey sensation on the mid-palate is undoubtedly the impact of the Malbec. Rich, ripe cherries and plums, green bell pepper, dark chocolate and coffee dominate the nose, whilst the old, Alsatian oak used to age the wine for 16 months contributes a little vanilla and cinnamon sweetness, without obscuring the delicate violet aromas. Juicy and herbal on the palate, this is a beautifully soft and enjoyable wine; very Argentinian yet with a little bit of Old World restraint. At 5 years of age this is really showing well and is about in its perfect drinking window.

Jasper Hill Nebbiolo 2012

After Pinot Noir, I’ve probably drank more Nebbiolo this summer than any other grape variety, all from its spiritual home in Piedmont, northern Italy. I was aware that Nebbiolo was grown in small quantities in both America and Australia, with the latter gaining most of the plaudits. This is surprising, as all reports coming out of Australia suggest that, despite the requisite heat to ripen Nebbiolo, it’s a notoriously difficult grape to cultivate, owing to the exact balance of sunlight and warmth needed before the resulting wines edge stewed fruit and excessive alcohol levels. This quote from James Halliday, famous Australian wine critic, more or less sums it up; “Nebbiolo has been grown in the King Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Mornington Peninsula, Heathcote, Mudgee and Murray Darling, and in none of these regions has it yet produced wines of unambiguous class. It may be that the combination of better clonal selection and greater vine age will produce worthwhile results in 10 or 20 years’ time, but it will take a brave and financially secure vigneron to prove the point.”

If there’s a winery equal to the task, it would be Jasper Hill. Based in the cooler region of Heathcote, in Victoria, Jasper Hill have become a leading light for the area, with international investment recently flooding in, particularly from vignerons in the Northern Rhone of France. Founded in 1975, Ron Laughton and his wife were some of the first wine-makers in the country to realise that Australia was capable of making serious wine, and focusing on understanding their land, the soil and which grapes suit each plot. This has led to not only excellent Shiraz and dry Riesling, but some acclaimed Grenache as well as this delicious Nebbiolo. Their wines are produced in small quantities and are sought after, both within Australia and abroad.

Even within Piedmont, Nebbiolo comes in a few different styles, roughly split between traditional and modern. Traditional wines tend to undergo longer macerations and fermentations, as well as being aged for several years in large oak vessels, sometimes needing more than a decade before they’re approachable. By comparison the modern style is fermented more quickly and aged in newer, smaller barriques allowing for the tannins to soften more quickly and become approachable at a younger age. This wine is not really in either camp. A lovely garnet, Nebbiolo colour and hugely aromatic, with ripe dark cherries, damsons and blackberries dominating, as well as the tell-tale, beautiful aroma of crushed rose petals. Tar, earth, wet leaves and a touch of black pepper add a savoury aspect, all of which is communicated through to the palate. Still a very young wine, the acidity is understandably full-on, and the tannins still very grippy. Having said that, I think this wine has the potential to be absolutely outstanding after another 5 years and still offers a great deal of pleasure now. As these vines age, they’re barely 20 years old at present, I would expect to see the wine come into its own and become a benchmark example of Australian Nebbiolo.

That’s it for our New World tasting, and what a lovely evening it was! 6 excellent wines with the underdog proving to be the most popular of the evening, and a trip around some of the most famous New World producing regions. Keep an eye out on Sunday 1st October for the newsletter and information about our next upcoming Maestrazgo Wine Club events. Until then; salud!

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