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Neil Sowerby’s October Wine Odyssey

From Greece to the New World via his favourite Champagne

Written by . Published on October 8th 2014.

Neil Sowerby’s October Wine Odyssey

SOME wonderful and varied wines to recommed this month... 

Beware Greeks bearing wines?

Not these days – on the evidence of a recent tasting by importers Hallgarten Druitt at Manchester House. Their allied company, Novum, is guided by Steve Daniel, who first brought Greek wines to our attention as buyer for Oddbins in its salad days, and his influence is obvious. They are worth paying serious attention to.

One of the pioneers of the modern Greek wine revolution Gaia Estate was established in 1994 by Leon Karatsalos and Yiannis Paraskevopoulos. Operating two different wineries, they make cutting edge wines in both Santorini and Nemea (one of its ancient sites is main pictured).

Wild Ferment AssyrtikoWild Ferment AssyrtikoTheir most acclaimed white is the widely available Wild Ferment Assyrtiko (RRP £16.99), a regional winner at the recent Decanter Awards, using this indigenous grape from the upland vineyard of Pyrgos is more aromatic than the Assyrtiko from the other parts of Santorini. Think, just for starters, flint, juniper, grapefruit, ginger, white pepper, then add more, much more to the seductive mix. Quite different but equally distinctive is another take on this grape, Thalassitis Assyrtiko PDO Santorini (RRP £11.74), which is bone dry with an assertively saline character. The Ancient Greeks used to blend wine with sea (Thalassa in Greek) water. No the case here, but the proximity of the wine-dark sea to the vineyards’ 80-year-old vines seems to influence the end product. Fermented in stainless steel honeysuckle on the nose is followed by minerality and a piercing acidity on the palate.

SantoriniAway from the tourist centres Santorini is a serious wine terroir

Gaia Agiorgitiko by Gaia Nemea 2012 (RRP £11.74) is equally assertive. Made 100 per cent from a local red grape in the northeastern part of the Peloponnes, it offers sturdy, damson and plum fruit with attractive spice from 12 months ageing in French oak. Put the souvlaki on the grill.

A different Greek white style comes from Domaine Gerovassiliou Epanomi PGI Malagousia (RRP £12.92). The Malagousia grape was on the brink of extinction until rescued by Bordeaux-trained Vangelis Gerovassiliou. Now nearly 30 years after his first vintage, it is established as a quite unclassifiable treat, quite exotic from the peachy, piney nose to a viscous, rich feel in the mouth, acidity and oak complementing each other beautifully.

Spirited Wines stock both Gaia and Gerovassiliou wines. Gaia can be found, too, at Hanging Ditch and The Bakerie. Another Greek wine fan is Justin Parkinson owner of the new West Didsbury wine bar, Wine and Wallop, so look out there.

Billecart-Salmon – Champagne at its most elegant

Manchester House was also the venue for a fabulous six-course dinner matching six different Champagnes from the family-run house of Billecart-Salmon with Aiden Byrne’s award-winning cuisine. Our host for the evening was Nicolas Roland-Billecart, the seventh generation in the business set up in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in 1818.

Billecartsalmon Brut Rose

Manchester’s newly-crowned Restaurant of the Year did him proud. Their wine list boasts three of the range– the Reserve Brut, Demi-Sec and Rosé, the latter paired exquisitely with a Byrne signature dish of beetroot cured salmon. The Billecart-Salmon Rosé is a perfect salmon match, pale pink with fine delicate bubbles, leading to a persistent mousse. On the nose it gives berries and fresh bread; on the palate it is delicate and refreshing with a long, fresh finish.

It costs £90, compared with £62.99 retail at Corks Out, a not unfair make-up for such an aspirational establishment. To maintain the luxury brand the family refuse to supply supermarkets. Harvey Nichols and Hanging Ditch are other local merchants that offer some of their wines but it is Cheshire-based Corks Out who are blessed with the full range, including the rare single vineyard Le Clos Saint Hilaire 1998 (£299), which wasn’t among the wines we tasted on the night. Even the family have run out.

Vigne-Clos-Saint-HilaireThe one hectare Clos Saint Hilaire vineyard

These are some of the most elegant, refined wines in Champagne, but for something atypical and fascinating try Billecart-Salmon Cuvee Brut Sous Bois (£65.99). This unique cuvee is made from the usual Champagne grape triumvirate of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, but then it is entirely vinified in oak. Very much a food wine, the oak characteristics underpin the buttery, citrussy bouquet, while toast and toffee powers through on the palate.

Down Under comes up North

September was a glorious month for tastings, none more seductive than the Negociants UK roadshow and dinner at Harvey Nichols, which brought six Antipodean winemakers to demonstrate that at the top, terroir-driven end Australia and New Zealand are a match for any wine-growing nation.

Wine Champion Virginia WillcockWine champion Virginia WillcockThe whites were particularly arresting – the Rieslings from Jim Barry, the Semillons from Brokenwood, all the aromatics (and a terrific Kiwi sparkler) from Nautilus and the debutant Marsanne from Yalumba, but the day was stolen for me by Vasse Felix winemaker Virginia Willcock, much travelled but a passionate champion of Western Australia’s Margaret River. Twice a winner of Best Winemaker in Australia awards, she has recently featured on Wine Enthusiast magazine’s five-strong shortlist for World’s Best. It shows in the wines – determinedly concentrating on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Always, front-runners in their region (I was buying them back in the 1980s), they have stepped up a level.

The Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is remarkable Oz Cab, with the structure to last ten, maybe twenty years, but already an enticing melange of blackberry, mint, bayleaf and judicious oak.

Of the Chardonnays ‘Filius’ 2013 is generous and approachable, but it is the special selection Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2010 that beguiles, an antidote to all your preconceptions that Oz Chardonnay is all blousy and overblown. This one, 100 per cent wild yeast fermented and matured in French oak for only nine months, is sheer class. Subtle nutty oak combines with citrus and peach flavours that linger long. My wine of the month.

Majestic sell the entry-level Cabernet Merlot and Chardonnay, while Reserve Wines of West Didsbury have both Chardonnays, including the Heytesbury Chardonnay 2011 at £33.99.

Reserve's Kate Goodman %26#8211%3B Up For A Top AwardReserve is run, of course, by recognisable telly face Kate Goodman. I was disappointed to learn that the BBC Food And Drink Show is dispensing with her services as their resident wine guru, to be replaced by one Joe Wadsack when Tom Kerridge takes over from Michel Roux Jr in the New Year. Still, Kate has some consolation. She has just been shortlisted for the International Wine and Spirit Competition’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Wine Industry 2014. 


Hanging Ditch's Signed Wine Labels

Wish they all could be California swirls


Hangingditch head honcho, Ben Stephenson, was so impressed by the Negociants UK wine event that he persuaded the winemakers to sign labels on the bottles he bought. This was the same week he co-hosted his own enlightening masterclass on California’s wines, following his recent road-trip to the Golden State.

I was disappointed no samples of Pinot Noir were on offer, but even the impressive seven wines tasted were merely scraping at the surface of California’s vibrant wine culture, which increasingly refuses to be pigeonholed.

Jim Clendenen %26#8211%3B Winemaker At Au Bon ClimatJim Clendenen – veteran winemaker at Au Bon Climat

Star white was the indomitable Au Bon Climat Hildegard, Jim Clendenen’s romatic white homage to neglected Burgundian grapes. It’s a mixture of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Aligoté. Together they give you swirling aromas of pears, toast, lemon curd, roasted nuts, cloves and oaky, vanilla whisps. The texture is rich and refreshing in the mouth. It costs £35 but for a comparable Chardonnay from the Cote d’Or that might be double. Majestic also stock it.

Wild HogCarignan and Montepulciano are associated respectively with the South of France, but these red varietals prosper, too, in California’s hot regions. Joseph Swan Cotes du Rosa Carignane 2012 (£25) is gentle, slightly gamey and food-friendly, very un-Californian. This is almost certainly the last vintage since the low-yielding century-old vines are reckoned uneconomical. I hope the intense Wild Hog Montepulciano from Sonoma County’s Dunnigan Hills will be around for many years to come. The 2010 vintage (£30) is a sensory delight. Smokey and earthy, pungent fruit on the nose, the palate is full of dark fruits, black pepper and some mint. Terrific value stuff.

Finally, a Birichino Vin Gris Rosé 2013 (£18.50), two thirds Grenache, is a pale rosé that puts to shame many of the medium-range Provencal rosés we’ve seen around this summer.

Tickets are still available, at £25, for the annual Hangingditch Wine Fair in Manchester Cathedral from 6.30pm on Friday, November 14. Tickets cost £25.


Some everyday wines for October

Indomita Gran ReservaIndomita Gran ReservaOn a less heady level, Indomita is a new Chilean name to me. Their Indomita Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is down from £7.49 to £5.49 until October 7. Selected from the Bio Bio Valley with 97 per cent fermented in stainless steel and the other smidgeon in French barrels and left on the lees for two months. It’s tropical on the nose, grapefruit predominating; on the plate, it’s herby and creamy with a welcome slash of acidity. Its red stablemate, Indomita Gran Reserva Carmenere 2012, remains at £7.49. From the Maipo Valley, it is dark red, almost violet-hued, and, maybe fancifully, there are violets as well as blueberries on the nose. Soft tannins make it immediately delicious, but maybe lacking in personality.

Last year Picpoul de Pinet was finally granted appellation controlee status, making it immediately the largest white wine AOC in the South of France. Its popularity is shown by its ubiquity at the affordable, unchallenging end of restaurant wine lists – where Muscadet used to reign.

There’s a crisp introduction to the style in a new addition to Co-operative’s (hostage to fortune name) Truly Irresistible range. Truly Irresistible Picpoul de Pinet 2013 (£6.99) has a palate of green apple and grapefruit that finishes surprisingly long. A smart example of a richer style is Picpoul de Pinet, Domaine Félines Jourdan 2013 (www.thewinesociety.com,  £7.50, special offer until October 19). Both are perfect with seafood.

Beaujolais, like Muscadet, sometimes gets consigned to ‘generic wines to avoid’ with critics urging us to trade up to the 10 Crus – Fleurie, Brouilly, Julienas and the rest. Step forward Boutinot Beaujolais Villages Les Pivoines 2012 (widely available, from £7.50), which offers benchmark Beaujolais appeal of a soft palate laced with vibrant acidity and a refreshing bitter cherry finish.

Manchester Wine School has a new owner. Lisa Moreton has bought it off Chris Green, who will still contribute occasional classes. Lisa herself has been working for the school for three years, presenting a terrific Introduction To Wine for novices. There’s one later this month at Jury’s Inn. We wish her well.

Smallest If you are given to attending masterclasses you are bound to have bumped into Simon Woods, one of the best wine communicators around. From his Saddleworth base he runs www.simonwoods.com, supplying a wealth of commonsensical advice on what bottles to choose. Short, sharp, pithy. The same approach carries over into print with his self-published The World’s Shortest Wine Book, which it probably is. It costs £5 and the easiest way to acquire it is through the website. I like wry chapters entitled ‘Not Everyone Likes The Same Wines’ or sub chapters such as ‘The wine that shows your palate has changed’ (where he compares it to his own changing tastes in pop music). Recommended as a Christmas stocking filler.

Follow Neil Sowerby on twitter @AntonEgoManc

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