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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 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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The Tasting Group

Enthusiasm breeds clubs. People who love scuba-diving want to spend time in the company of others who like being submerged. Whether it is bike-riding, reading comics, listening to music or tasting wine, we all like the freedom that being a ‘member’ brings. We are allowed space to talk about our favourite subject without apology and we are able to benefit from fellow members’ passion and predilections.

And so it is with Sniff’s tasting group. We have a core of six with the occasional special guest. Meeting every two weeks, the tastings are often theme based but sometimes the greatest pleasure is derived from the decision to simply bring something we feel like sharing.

Our last tasting fell into this category and highlighted in the space of six wines the complexity of style that the vinous world has to offer. None of these wines were inexpensive but none were outlandishly priced and when the cost is shared the pleasure greatly outweighs the pain. We had representation from six different countries, one red, two whites, a rosé, one fortified and a passito wine from Italy. Fundamentally they were all delicious, whilst providing plenty of material for conversation and conjecture about how and why the winemaker had chosen to influence the wine in a particular way.

So join a club. Your knowledge and tasting ability will grow exponentially and you’ll be with people you like. What more can you ask?

Below are the six wines from our most recent tasting with brief notes and details on where to buy:

Amon-Ra, Barossa Valley, Unfiltered Shiraz, 2005, 14.5%
Wine-making: 100 year old vines, 100% new, of which 80% is French and 20% American. Both barriques, and hogsheads (225 and 300 litre capacity respectively) used.
Note: Smoky, tar-like, spicy and with a lick of licorice this is an extremely dense, concentrated, full-bodied wine that retains a certain finesse. Nearly ten years old but will continue to develop for another ten years. Sense assaulting.
Price: 3,950NTD (for the 2012)
Score: 17.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): Chateau Wine & Spirits

Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Ruby Port, NV, 20%
Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca
Wine-making: Fortified, and only a year or two in old wood to preserve the intense fruit style
Note: Excellent quality and value Reserve Ruby. Spicy, peppery dark fruit with some of the thrust and muscularity of Vintage Port without the price tag. Pair with something salty.
Price: 1,550NTD
Score: 16.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): Finesse

Château Simone, Rosé, Palette A.O.C., Provence, 2011, 14%
Primarily Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault
Wine-making: Old oak casks
Note: Pale ruby colour alerts one immediately to the fact this is no ordinary Provencal rosé. Not very aromatic with just a little red cherry on the nose but this gives way to an engaging full-bodied wine with a rich, cherry and herb fruit core. Not just for Summer and structured enough for food. I would like this with shrimp dumplings.
Price: 1690NTD
Score: 16.5/20
Available from (Taiwan): New Century Wine & Spirits

Vina Tondonia, Reserva Rioja Blanco, 1998, 12.5%
90% Viura, 10% Malvasia
Wine-making: 6 years in barrel affording the wine significant complexity.
Note: I love traditional white Riojas and this has plenty of deliciousness wrapped within its mildly oxidative body. Peach, green pineapple, flowers and a stave or two of oak make this an alluring glass. If you never usually drink white wine you might want to practice on easier, more overtly fruity examples before graduating onto this more ‘challenging’ style. Perfect with an oyster omelette.
Price: 1800NTD
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan): Vinaria Wine Cellar

Markus Molitor, Wehlener Klosterberg, Pinot Blanc, Mosel, 2012, 13%
Pinot Blanc
Wine-making: Aged in an Islay single malt cask
Note: Remarkable nose with a dominant seaweed, iodine tang that is briny and very Scottish in origin. Yet this is not just a vinous oddity. There is lovely palate weight, bright acid and fruit purity that is as expected from the region. If you like a tot of Ardbeg then buy a bottle of this.
Price: 1600NTD
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan): WineTeen

Montalpruno Vin Santo del Chianti D.O.C., 2006, 15.5%
Trebbiano & Malvasia
Wine-making: Made using semi-dried grapes
Note: Very fresh tasting Vin Santo that is dominated by the aroma of roasting pistachios. Sweet but with balancing acidity and persistent. Delicious with cheese, nuts or cake.
Price: 2,400NTD for 500ml
Score: 17/20
Available from (Taiwan):

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A Beginning and an End

Date: 28th August 2014
Place: Sherwood Hotel
, Minsheng East Rd, Section 3, Taipei.
Event: Finesse Wines: Taittinger & Graham’s Port

The drinking of Champagne and Port is usually separated by a few hours, one served as an aperitif and one as a post prandial accompaniment to a fat Cohiba. Yet the drinking of Port and particularly aged Tawny Ports and Colheitas (vintage tawnies), is arguably most suitably consumed when served lightly chilled before dinner.

On working my way through Graham’s 10, 20, 30, 40 year old tawnies and the 1982 Colheita, the dominant features were not those of richness, spice and power (although they had these qualities in abundance) but elegance and freshness. These elements were most obvious in the 20 and 30 year old. The difference between the 10 and the 20 year old in their respective complexity and style is considerable. During the slow, oxidative ageing process in barrel, the red berry and cherry fruit that haunt the 10 year old, fade to be replaced by orange and citrus peel, burnt sugar and a pleasant woodiness. Crucially the spirit that is used to fortify Port is completely integrated in the 20 year old providing the drinker with a palate bereft of the fieriness that flickers in the heart of younger bottlings.

And yet there is always a place for Champagne.

The house style of Taittinger which promotes delicacy and finesse over overt yeasty/autolytic/winey styles (i.e. Bollinger, Vilmart et Cie, Charles Heidsieck) is perfect for sub-tropical sipping. It all really depends on the occasion. At home, before a meal (I don’t mean breakfast), tawny port is perfect. It can be kept in the fridge, almost indefinitely, without fading in flavour or aroma and is thus very convenient as well as being delicious. With a few extra guests you may want the added drama of bubbles. Whatever you choose these wines are for the beginning not the end of an evening’s entertainment.

Brut Reserve NV
Chardonnay 40%, Pinot’s Noir 35% & Meunier 25%
Wine-making: Full malolactic conversion (MLC), 3 years plus on lees, 9g/l dosage
Note: Delicate, autolytic nose, touch of tarte tatin, vanilla, floral, precise. Bright acidity, persistent mousse. Very good and great value.
Price: 2700NTD
Score: 16.5/20

Brut Prestige Rose NV
Chardonnay 30%, Pinot Noir 45%, Pinot Meunier 25%
Wine-making: Made by ‘L’Addition’ method whereby still red wine is added to still white wine at the beginning of the winemaking process. Full MLC, 10g/l dosage, 3 years on lees.
Note: Beautiful salmon colour, spicy almost peppery red currant fruit, raspberry, blackcurrant leaf, less obvious autolysis than the regular brut.
Price: 3200NTD
Score: 16/20

Nocturne Sec NV
Chardonnay 40%, Pinot’s Noir 35% & Meunier 25%
Wine-making: Full MLC, 3 years plus on lees, 18g/l dosage
Note: Very fine mousse. Lovely lemon sherbert nose, touch of green apple, licorice and delicate autolytic character. Extremely (dangerously) easy to drink. The extra dosage leads to a less subtle character but mutes/balances the acidity well. Retains the signature Taittinger elegance.
Price: 3000NTD
Score: 15.5/20

Prelude Grand Crus Brut NV
Chardonnay 50%, Pinot Noir 50%,
Wine-making: Full MLC, more than 5 years on lees, 10g/l dosage.
Note: More restrained than the brut reserve on the nose, more structured on the palate, with a seam of minerality, citrus and physalis (very Chardonnay), fine mousse, persistent
Price: 3300NTD

Comtes de Champagne Rose Brut 2003
Chardonnay & Pinot Noir, 18000NTD
Wine-making: Full MLC, 6 years plus on lees. Made by ‘L’Addition’ method.
Note: Salmon orange colour. Smells mature, touch of mushroom and meat glaze, some umami character that you either like or don’t like. Retains some red berry fruit and persistence of flavour alongside inevitably a more delicate mousse (due to the age) than the other wines here.
Price: 18000NTD

Graham’s Tawny Ports:

General winemaking notes: Port is a fortified wine meaning that it has had neutral grape spirit added early in the wine’s fermentation, after approximately 36 hours. This stops the fermentation thus preserving a large proportion of the grape’s naturally occurring sugars. All of the Ports listed have a residual sugar content between 100 and 110g/l. All the wines below are wood (cask) aged. Therefore they have been matured oxidatively resulting in lighter coloured Ports with a vastly different flavour and aroma spectrum to Ruby examples such as LBV or Vintage Ports. Apart from the Colheita, the age indication is an average age of the wines used in the blend.

10 yr old Tawny
Pale ruby/tawny, touch of penicillin character indicating age. Still a little spirity. Raisined, spiced cherry fruit coupled with tobacco, toasted walnuts, caramel, moderate acidity and soft tannins. Persistent.
Price: 2200NTD

20 yr old Tawny
Full tawny, much more orange in colour than the ten year old. More penicillin, no red cherry fruit here. Instead fresh wood, burnt sugar, dried orange peel, spicy and more unctuous mouthfeel. Once again the acidity provides a freshness and poise. Very persistent and seamless integration of wine and spirit. Excellent and good value.
Price: 4000NTD

30 yr old Tawny
Completely tawny/orange colour. Very concentrated and dense making the wine feel less sweet than the twenty year old. Woody, peppery, nutty, chocolaty, with citrus peel and some umami-like character. Full bodied, complex and with great persistence. Again Excellent.
Price: 6500NTD

40 yr old Tawny
Full tawny/orange colour. Nutty, burnt, woody, dense, rich and spicy. Lovely integration of the spirit and fine acidity that lends poise. This reminds me of some very old oloroso sherries i.e. massively concentrated and complex but perhaps less easily enjoyable than some of the younger examples.
Price: 10,000NTD
Score: 16.5/20

1982 Colheita
Full tawny/amber. Smells, unsurprisingly, like a cross between the 20 and 30 year old tawnies. Delicious, dense, rich, penicillin, nutty, woody, spicy and with an alluring Chinese smoked plum character. A wine for sipping.
Price: 16800NTD
Score: 17/20

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