Lessons the bottles taught me


Some wines please; others both please and inform. The wines below are some of those which taught me most this year. I’ve quoted vintage and producer’s name, but it’s not always the named wine itself which matters so much as what that wine represents.

1) 2009 OpokaRebula, Simčič, Slovenia

I criss-crossed the Italian/Slovenian border with two Dutch colleagues at fruit-blossom time, savouring the haunting strangeness of the grape the Slovenians call Rebula and the Italians Ribolla Gialla. The lesson: just how diverse the world of white wines in fact is. This is a comprehensively open, rich, softly chewy wine evoking an eerie world of allusions: cheese, meat, straw, mushrooms, yellow fruits, honey, umami. If you could drink the past, this is surely how it should taste. And for something similar from elsewhere, try...

Image: Albillo Real grapes © Andrew Jefford

2) 2013 Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc, Pierre Usseglio

The blend here is Grenache Blanc (60%) with Clairette (35%) and Bourboulenc (5%). I tasted this fine white Chateauneuf shortly after my own little almond tree has blossomed for the first time in my garden – and the scents chimed. It tastes of pounded almonds, too, with vanilla and honey, despite being dry. The 2012 Pies Descalzos from Marañones in Spain’s Gredos (see my column Royal – or magic? ) was another avatar: no less ancient, no less mellow, though the grape is now Albillo Real. There’s nothing wrong with ‘crisp’, whites, of course -- but all of these exotically languid ones chide us for ignoring the grand tradition of the uncrisp white.

3) 2008 Quarry Road Chardonnay, Tawse, Vinemount Ridge, Ontario

It’s been a year packed with great Chardonnay (from South Africa, from Australia, from Burgundy), but I’ve found the undemonstrative, subtly configured Chardonnays from Ontario oddly hard to forget. This one, drunk at table (where it made an admirable food partner), was elegant, balanced, milky, digestible and supremely satisfying: the ‘less is more’ lesson in a glass.

4) 2010 Ch Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Léognan

The prices of 2010 Bordeaux are still falling -- Farr Vintners is listing 26 price reductions as I write this just prior to Christmas, including Ausone, Cos, Palmer and Forts de Latour, sometimes of £300 per case or more. Great news, actually, since 2010 increasingly strikes me as the most exciting vintage in Bordeaux since 1982, on both banks, and among modest as well as grand properties. When, therefore, you cool-headedly judge that the post-bubble market floor has finally been reached -- and it may be in 2015 -- throw caution to the wind. The 2010 Haut-Bailly (to cite one example) is one of the half-dozen most perfectly proportioned red wines I have tasted in 2014: brisk, spruce, its central palate an echo-chamber of dark red fruits, tightened with earthy sinews at the end; complete, pure, dense, wholly satisfying. £900 is a lot of money; I can’t afford it just now, either. But if you can…

5) 2006 Ch Meyney, St Estèphe

And if you can’t… I drank this one evening with a friend on the third of my four trips to Bordeaux this year: sober, satisfying left-bank thinker’s claret from a great gravel-over-clay terroir, and much better than its generally modest score tally suggests. The lesson – at well under £200 a case -- is that the best unclassified Médoc properties offer, without shouting about it (and unfashionable as it may be to say so), some of the greatest red-wine value in the world.

6) 2011 Cornas, Clape

Cornas is a cockpit – where the de-stemmed cockerels lock spurs with their whole-bunch peers (and where half-and-half wines add further complexity and interest). It’s the perfect AOC, in other words, to permit those of us who are interested in these questions to compare the two techniques. I love the whole-bunch wines, including this lush, furry, burry, pippy, stemmy, sinewy wine, luxurious, challenging and masterful. The lesson is that this technique, sometimes derided for its ‘rustic’ results, can in fact bring a kind of grandeur to Northern Rhône Syrah, as it can to Côte de Nuits Pinot Noir (for more, see Hamlet in Cornas).

Image: slopes of Cornas © Andrew Jefford

7) 2012 Vers le Nord, Mas Amiel, Maury Sec

‘Mineral’ is an over-used and misunderstood term (see The party’s over), but this intense, haunting, insistent Grenache-Syrah from the ‘TerresRares’ quartet produced by Mas Amiel amply justifies the word. So too does its ‘Légende’ sibling (Grenache-Carignan); and so too does the astonishing, ultra-concentrated pure-Grenache 2009 Les Trois Marie from Calvet-Thunevin. The lesson? Something in the complex, ever-changing soils and fierce climate pattern of inland Roussillon seems to endow its wines with the dignity and profundity which makes us think of fissured stone and pounded rock. This is less true of fine reds in Languedoc hill country, which tend to be more sweetly herbal and more voluptuously fruity.

8) 2012 Mullineux, Iron, Swartland, South Africa

Where in the southern hemisphere will you find a truly tannic red wine? It’s difficult, for multiple reasons: local drinkers are often tannin-shy; corporate winemakers distrust frankly tannic profiles; fermentation tanks are often expected to host multiple fermentation every vintage. The lesson of this wine, though, is that it can be done, and that there is every reason for doing so. This is not simply tannin for its own sake: the sweet, plump fruit so evident on the nose of this barrel-fermented, whole-bunch Syrah (grown on ferricrete soils near Malmesbury) acquires a gravity, a depth, a seriousness and a gastronomic force it just wouldn’t have without those extracts.

Translated by Sylvia Wu / 吴嘉溦

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