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The Sherry Bars of Madrid

There is something about the drinking of Sherry in the midst of a Madrilenian spring that just works. Late March sees the watery sunshine of winter give way to the beginnings of a more persistent warmth but if any chill remains, the extra shot of alcohol in Spain’s most famous fortified assists in its removal from those whose mercury is yet to rise.

At the airy, glass-fronted, Mercado de San Miguel, a breakfast of umami rich iberico ham, octopus spiked with hot smoked paprika, and half a dozen oysters seasoned with a squeeze of lemon, was perfectly accompanied by the still yeasty tang of an aged and old-gold tinged fino. For some, a breakfast of such substance more than satisfies, pushing any thoughts about what might be for lunch to the back of one’s mind. For me the opposite is true. With a thirst for more, I left the Mercado in search of Madrid’s gastronomic heart. A slow traverse across the restrained grandeur of Plaza Major led to the gentle incline of the much smaller Plaza Santa Ana. It is here, in the narrow streets to the north, that the tiled, dark-lit bars and restaurants, peculiar to Madrid, are concentrated.

I made my way to the most famous, La Venecia. Serving only Sherry (and tap water) with a sign at the door forbidding the taking of photographs, it possesses an anachronistic air that is both cosseting and calming. The sherry taken from dark bottles filled from small butts that line one wall, provides the entertainment. I had a glass of fino followed by one of Palo Cortado, the latter nutty and savoury and consumed with translucent slices of rose-hued mojama and a bowl of salted almonds. The temptation to stay, in this paean to Spain’s greatest wine, for the rest of the afternoon was hugely tempting but instead I settled my tab that was scribbled in chalk on the bar top, left, and began to think about the one remaining significant event of the day: dinner.


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A Postcard from Roses

The Costa Brava may not have the glitz of the Cote d’Azur in France but neither does it suffer from the bleak architectural choices that scar too much of the Spanish coastline further south. Indeed this ‘wild coast’ has much more to offer than simply sun, sea and Cava. For serious eaters, Girona the main city, is once again home to the world’s best restaurant; El Celler de Can Roca. Half an hour further north, those appreciative of the great Spanish surrealist, Dali, will find much to enjoy in both his place of birth Figueres and the secluded and wistfully beautiful Cadaques. I, however, am in Roses, a working fishing port that combines the prosaic with enough easy beauty to attract a throng of tourists, principally from neighbouring France.

Until relatively recently Roses was most famous for being the home of El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s legendary location for his very particular take on modern gastronomy. Even with Ferran’s retreat to his laboratory, one does not have to look far to find great cooking amongst the paella palaces and chipirones and chips restaurants that prevail in the streets nearest the beach. Rafa’s restaurant on Carrer de San Sebastia is as unassuming as any of its neighbours and it is only when the food arrives that you realise that you may never eat food this good again. I have had the good fortune to eat here on three occasions and on each there has been at least one dish that would be in my top ten plates of all time…I can pay it no greater compliment than that.

Yet Roses for me is about the chance to cook rather than be cooked for. The fish shops that extend along the dock are stocked with a catch so fresh that most are still rigid with rigor mortis. I bought five fat, coral coloured Red Mullet and baked them anointed with nothing more than some lemon, good oil and accompanied by a delicious Sauvignon/Moscato blend from Cava specialist Gramona. Tomorrow we leave continental Europe, fatter, browner and happier than when we arrived (well I am) but looking forward to some English summeriness in our next destination…Sudbury.


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Dry White Wines for Keeping

The vast majority of the world’s wines are made to be drunk within a couple of years of bottling and this is particularly the case for whites. Without the preservative effect of the tannins found in red wines, the fruitiness and virility of white wines fades all too quickly, yet as with most things there are a raft of honourable exceptions.

Burgundy from the great villages of Puligny, Chassagne and Mersault as well as the hill of Corton, are capable of producing wines that can last a generation. In the last month I have had bottles from these areas (one is listed below) that were more than a decade old and full of vibrancy. But what else is there? I wrote earlier in January about Von Buhl in Pfalz and there is no doubt that the best of these dense, steely and profound Rieslings will continue to develop and shine over the coming twenty years. With the imminent arrival (in Taiwan) of the wines of Von Winning, also of Pfalz, Riesling’s significant age-ability will again be highlighted.

For those who like the idea of aged Sauvignon Blanc, the best examples are to be found in Pessac Leognan, Bordeaux. These wines usually feature some Semillon and are matured in oak making them less overt but more complex than is usual and the finest go on to give years of custard scented pleasure. Outside of Germany and France it is less common to find white wines that are built for the long haul. Spain has the tradition of aged white Riojas but this oxidative style that smells of hay and mushrooms rather than fruit and flowers is dying. Only Tondonia still produces this grossly underappreciated and magnificent anachronism. (Below I have reviewed Murrietta’s new(ish) white that replaced their wonderful traditional Rioja).

Lastly, in future years it may be that South Africa starts to produce age-worthy Chenin Blancs (think Alheit, Sadie, Mullineux) that can match the longevity of Savennieres in the Loire. This variety has the requisite acid and extract to age beautifully and when allied to the will of the new generation of South-African winemakers, this should be a new source of fine dry white wines for keeping.

Hospices de Beaune, Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Cuvee Francois de Salins, 2004
Wine-making: Oak fermented and matured
Note: Not cheap but this is still as fresh a daisy with excellent concentration and drive. Rich and ripe with oodles of fruit and saliva inducing acidity, this should last another ten years.
Price: 6,250NT
Available from: Winebay 02 2733 3303

Marques de Murrietta, Capellania (single vineyard), 2009, 13.5%
Grape: Viura
Wine-making: Matured for 20 months in in new French oak.
Note: As disappointed as I am at the departure of the old, more overtly oxidative style, it is hard not to be impressed by this much more modern wine. Fantastic mouth-feel that is both creamy and rich coupled with baked apple and citrus fruit aromas, this promises improvement over the medium term. Whether it will have the longevity of its predecessor will become clear in the years to come. Price: Not currently available in Taiwan but approx. $30USD globally
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: N/A

Von Winning, Forster Ungeheur Grosses Gewachs, 2013, 12%
Wine-making: Fermented in old wood.
Note: More forgiving than the Von Buhl Rieslings of a similar quality with a slightly softer and less dense/firm character. Perfumed with sweet apple a subtle minerality and good persistence. This will continue to reveal itself more fully over the next decade.
Price: Approx 2,500NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Soon to be available in Taiwan from Vinoza


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Spain: Producer of the world's best value wine?

It is normal, on returning from an enjoyable and fruitful trip abroad, to feel overly enamoured with what was discovered. As a wine merchant I used to guard against such emotional extravagance by subjecting any bottles I thought excellent in the field to a trial by blind tasting at home. My most recent trip to Spain (Ribera del Duero and Rioja) has again left me pining for the best of Iberia. There is no doubt that the food was good and the people I met were, without fail, both gracious and hugely accommodating, but it was the quality of the wine that really grabbed me.

We all know that Spain produces some iconic wine styles from Gran Reserva Rioja to the great fortified wines of Sherry and Montilla but it is easy to forget just how damn inexpensive some of these wines can be. The most persuasive argument supporting the title of this piece came on my visit to Juan Carlos Sancha’s home on the edge of the small town of Banos de Rio Tobia that lies within the Rioja Alta. This professor of enology and all round viticultural colossus, has dedicated much time to preserving the rare grape varieties of the region (he will receive the space he deserves in a fully illustrated post later this winter/spring). Juan Carlos’s wines should be much more expensive as he makes so little (often just a barrel or three), but he prefers to share his passion making them affordable to everyone. On tasting, the Garnacha from the barrel was a lesson in purity and profundity – surely the concientious winemaker’s ultimate goal. These wines, called Pena El Gato, can be had for a little over ten quid in the UK or approximately 15 euros on the continent…this might just be the best value wine in the world.

Below are three Spanish wines that demonstrate remarkable value for money.

Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha, ‘Pena El Gato’, Garnacha, Rioja, 2013, 14.5%
Wine-making: Matured in oak but with no malolactic conversion, which helps protect both the purity of the fruit and retains a little more acidity.
Note: Floral, mineral, earthy and strawberry like. Dense yet lively, refreshing acidity and with great intensity. Truly stunning value (and only about 1200 bottles made each year).
Price: Cheap as chips
Score: 18/20
Available from: Wherever you can find it

La Rioja Alta, Vina Alberdi Reserva, 2008, 14%
Wine-making: Two years in American oak
Note: Vastly different style from the Pena El Gato with a more relaxed persona that has the perfumed, sweet vanilla and strawberry nose that pervades the wines of this great stalwart of Rioja.
Score: 17/20
Price: Globally between 20 and 25 USD
Available from: Everywhere

Alvear, CB Fino, Montilla, NV, 15%
Pedro Ximinez (PX)
Wine-making: Produced like fino sherry under a veil of flor (yeast) for five years that both protects the wine and imbues it with that ‘sherry’ like nose.
Note: This bone dry Fino is delicate and salty making it the perfect pre-prandial quaffer. I could drink this everyday.
Score: 17/20
Price: In Spain about  4.5. A little more in Taiwan
Available from:

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Bottles & Gifts Part 2

Dry Reds

Joseph Phelps, Insignia (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Napa Valley, USA, 2010. (I really like this vintage of Insignia) 19/20
Rich, fine and engaging. Insignia at its majestic best.

Catena Alta, Historic Rows Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, 2009. 18.5/20
This was just about perfect when opened a couple of months ago. Vibrant, pure yet profound.

Ridge, Lytton Springs (predominantly Zinfandel), Sonoma County, USA, 2009. 18/20
Zinfandel that is more than a one trick pony.

Pontet Canet, Pauillac (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Bordeaux, France, 2011. 18/20
I would happily drink this now. Forget the 2009s and 10’s and focus on the more ‘classic’ vintages of the last ten years (04, 06, 08, 11) to accompany the big bird.

Poderi Aldo Conterno, Barolo (Nebbiolo), Piedmont, Italy, 2004 (drinking very well now). 18/20

Jamet, Cote Rotie (Syrah), Northern Rhone, France, 2008. 17/20
I wish I could drink this kind of wine everyday, fresh, delicate and so very elegant.

La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904 (predominantly Tempranillo), Rioja, Spain, 1998. 18/20
This or the 2001 make for perfect drinking now.

Yarra Yering, Dry Red Number 1 (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Yarra Valley, Australia. 18.5/20
The only Australian on the list this year, speaks more of the choice available in Taiwan than the quality coming from Oz.

Duemani, CiFRA (Cabernet Franc), Tuscany, Italy, 2011. 17/20
Like the Jamet, this is very much my kind of wine. Juicy, grippy but charming.

Groot Constantia, Gouverneur’s Reserve (predominantly Cabernet Franc), Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2011. 18/20
South Africa gives you some fruit that has clearly benefited from some warmth but also tannins that remind you of Europe, a winning combination.

Logodaj, Melnik 55 (100% Melnik). Struma Valley, Bulgaria, 2012. 17/20
This really opened my eyes to Bulgaria, I would be more than happy to drink this with my goose.

Chateau de la Font du Loup, Chateauneuf du Pape (predominantly Grenache), Southern Rhone, France, 2012. 18/20
This provides what I want from CNdP, pretty fruit, perfume but with some underlying grunt. Lovely.

Mas Amiel, A Alt 433M (predominantly Grenache), Maury Sec, Roussillon, France. 17/20
Wild, untamed and very good.

Marquis d’Angerville, 1er Cru les Champans, Volnay (Pinot Noir), Burgundy, France, 2008. 18/20
A lesson in what Volnay is meant to be about, delicacy, elegance and that ethereal Pinot charm.

Pieve Santa Restituta, Renina, Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese),
Tuscany, Italy, 2007 (delicious vintage from here). 18.5/20
Powerful but beautifully balanced, I loved this.

Clos Mogador (predominantly Garnacha and Carinena), Priorat, Spain, 2008. 18.5/20
Great wine from great people often tastes…well, great.

Chateau Pichon Baron, Pauillac (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon), Bordeaux, France, 2008. 17.5/20
I really like the 2008 vintage, sleek and ripe enough and with grainy tannins that help this wine persist on the palate.

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Bottles for your Boy & Gifts for your Girl

If someone asks me what I want for Christmas I hesitate to say wine because I know that people fear getting it ‘wrong’. The problem is that the amateur cannot look at a label and derive much needed information about the quality in the bottle. If, on the other hand, I want to buy my beloved a handbag, whether I know the relative merits of Fendi vs. Fiorelli is immaterial, my judgement on the suitability of the aesthetic is alone, the deciding factor (not that I am pretending that this purchasing decision is free of danger).

What follows therefore is a brief list of some of the wines that I have particularly enjoyed over the last year. I have not listed the wines by price (as typing the name of each into Google will give you a more accurate idea of their cost in your local market) and if you would like more detailed information, many have been reviewed on Sniff in the last few months. It is far from exhaustive and the criteria for appearing on this list was less about the score (I have left out many with similar ratings) and more about those wines that have forced me to engage with them, either as a result of their sheer gustatory pleasure or because of some beguiling complexity. These are, therefore, wines that should make any wine-lover happy (be it your Mum, manager or man-friend) and if you are lucky they may even share their gift with you, ensuring a happy Christmas for all concerned.

One last point – don’t fret too much about the vintage, I state if the vintage is hugely influential to the choice.

Dry Whites

Ken Forrester, The FMC (100% Chenin Blanc) Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2010. 17.5/20
Rich and intense but with a seam of supporting acidity. Chenin at its South African best.

Hans Herzog, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ‘Sur lie’, New Zealand, 2009. 17/20
Quince, pineapple, marzipan and nettle form just part of this complex, very un-Marlborough like, Sauvignon.

Millton, Riverpoint Viognier, Gisborne, New Zealand, 2011. 17.5/20
Warm peach, lemon oil and honey. Vibrant for Viognier and with great length.

Henri Bourgeois, La Bourgeoise, Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc), Loire France, 2010. 18.5/20
My favourite Sauvignon of the year, as elegant as it gets.

Eric Morgat, Cuvee l’Enclos, Savennieres (Chenin Blanc), Loire, France, 2009. 18/20
Weighty but with that special mineral and salty line running through it which separates the great from the good.

Von Buhl, Forster Ungeheuer GG (‘Grosses Gewachs’ meaning a dry wine produced from the best vineyards), Riesling trocken, Pfalz, Germany, 2011. 18/20
Full of tension and vitality.

Cantina Terlan, Winkl, Sauvignon Blanc, Alto Adige/Sudtirol, Italy, 2013. 17.5/20
The best producers of Italian Sauvignon?

Nik Weis, St. Urbans Hof, Laurentiuslay GG, Riesling trocken, Mosel, Germany, 2012 (I love this vintage here). 19/20
Stunning, the most arresting white I tried this year.

Domaine Labet, Fleur de Savagnin ‘en Chalasse’, (100% Savagnin), Jura, France, 2012. 17.5/20
No need to chill this as the driving acidity and persistence make this feel like it is already chilled. Brilliant.

Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon, Clos du Four, (100% Chardonnay) Macon-Milly-Lamartine, Burgundy, France, 2011. (I love this vintage here) 18/20
Delicious, approachable and most importantly, highly affordable Burgundy.

Domaine Ramonet, 1er cru ‘les Caillerets’, Chassagne Montrachet, Burgundy, France, 2008. 18/20
Delicious and approachable but you’ll pay a bit more for this classic than for the Macon.

Jean Bourdy, Chateau Chalon, (100% Savagnin), Jura, France, 2005. 19/20
Flor influenced brilliance. Gob-smackingly fine with an intensity, complexity and persistence rarely found in any other white wine. Outstanding.


Sweet & Sparkling

Rolly Gassmann, Rotleibel de Rorschwihr, Pinot Gris, Alsace, France, 2008. 18/20
A little chubby but only in the most alluring way, I could drink a glass of this every day.

Grahams, The Stone Terraces, Vintage Port, Douro, Portugal, 2011, (special vintage). 19/20
From the spectacular 2011 vintage, this is Graham’s newest addition to their line-up.

Dow’s, Vintage Port, Douro, Portugal, 1994. 18/20
Perfect drinking now.

Chateau Pajzos, Tokaji Essencia, Hungary, 1999. 19.5/20
I had tears in my eyes on tasting this. The most mesmeric wine I tasted this year.

Bruno Paillard, NPU 1999, Champagne, France. 18.5/20
Very complex sparkler that deserves your full attention. Don’t waste this on a celebration, drink with your nearest and dearest.

Camel Valley, Pinot Noir Rose Brut, Cornwall, England, 2012. 17/20
Panettone anyone?

Charles Heidsieck, Brut Reserve NV, Champagne, France. 18/20
Surely the best value Champagne on the market.

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Carignan: A little bit Savage

As an ex-importer that specialised in wines from the south of France I was particularly pleased to see the hugely knowledgeable, tasting guru that is the humble Matthew Stubbs MW here in Taiwan. Matthew, an eleven-year resident of the Languedoc is keenly aware of the need to promote the best from this large and somewhat dis-jointed region and is often to be found trotting round the globe proselytising about the wines of the sud-de-France.

Visiting the Hong Kong wine-fair this week it was a pleasure to become re-acquainted with one of the stalwarts of this region Carignan. For a long time this was prized by many producers for its ability to produce grapes (and therefore wine) on an industrial scale. In the era when a Frenchman used to have a glass of wine with his cornflakes this was fine. Wine was more about providing a certain level of alcoholic sustenance, than a delicious experience. As wine consumption has fallen in France so has the market for this basic ‘plonk’ resulting in Carignan being deemed (by many) to be surplus to requirements. This was due to the belief that the production of anything above that of the prosaic was beyond Carignan’s abilities. Now, as with so many things that fall out of favour, Carignan is experiencing something of a renaissance. This is not to suggest that it is fashionable or being replanted in earnest but many have realised that older vines (that naturally help limit production) coupled with cooler sites, often at higher elevations, can result in something rather special.

If Pinot Noir was a face it would be all high cheek-bones, translucent skin and clean-shaven. Carignan on the other hand is a little pock-marked, stubbly and wild-eyed. Give the two wines below a taste and I challenge you not to be impressed by their grizzled character.

Dits Del Terra, Terroir Al Limit, 2010, 13.5%, Biodynamic.
Old Carinena (Spanish for Carignan)
Wine-making: 24 months in old oak
Note: Mid purple, relatively restrained nose of bread, faded flowers, spiced plum and Chinese medicine. Stony textured and firm tannins support an elegant yet wild wine (a vinous version of Cathy in Wuthering Heights). Carinena at its windswept best.
Price: Expensive. Don’t worry, it’s worth it.
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Prowine in Hong Kong

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