In The Vineyards With: Isabelle & Jean-Yves Vantey (Les Rouges Queues, Maranges, Burgundy)

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It was on one distinctly grey and damp afternoon in late January that our car wound its way through the vineyards of Burgundy, up towards the small area of Maranges, just south of Beaune.

I was with two of the Maule brothers (producers of natural wine in the Veneto) accompanying them as a translator and willing drinking companion on a short road trip through France.

Maranges is one of the lesser known appellations in Burgundy. Strictly speaking, it’s a Village Appellation in the southernmost point of the Côte de Beaune, and within it are 7 Premier Crus. (These 7 climats are: Clos de la Boutière, Clos de la Fussière, La Fussière, Le Clos des Loyères, Le Clos des Rois, Le Croix Moines, Les Clos Roussots.) Continue reading

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The Exceptional English Wine Company and a Whole Host of English Still Wines

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The rise of English wine in recent years is something that I’ve been following with interest. As you would have seen if you’ve been following this blog for a while, I’ve loved my visits to two very small wineries in the South Downs: Upperton and Jenkyn Place.

The South Downs are a stretch of chalky hills running along the south coast of England, from Hampshire and Surrey in the west to Kent in the east, and they have been touted as the new “Champagne” because of the similarity of the terroir and the savoir-faire of those making the wines.

Yet, for me, the most exciting recent development is the increase of still wine production in the UK. Previously, English wine producers concentrated on sparkling wine – understandable given that it is far more forgiving than still wine. Instead of being woo-ed by bubbles (which, let’s face it, do have instant appeal), the consumer looks for things such as tannins, acidity, minerality etc and these things can’t be masked by an extra dose of sugar.

The best place to go in order to get to grips with the English wine movement is, without a doubt, the Exceptional English Wine Comany just outside Midhurst, in West Sussex. It is run by two very passionate English wine converts: Iain and James.

They have a fabulous selection of wines from all over the country but what is fantastic is that they always have a few bottles open on the “Tasting Bar.” I popped by last week and was delighted to make the following discoveries:


STANLAKE PARK (Berkshire) “King’s Fumé” 2011 blend of Ortega, Regner, Scheurebe and Bacchus (11.5%)

Given to me blind, I would have guessed white Burgundy. With its buttery, oak-aged Chardonnay characters and a rich, fresh acidity on the finish, this wine screams of France. Learning, however, that there was not as much as even one bunch of Chardonnay grapes in this bottle came as a huge surprise to me! The wine is very classic in style; clean and crisp with a marked wood presence. Almost certainly aged on the lees. It’s strange because it is a wine which ticks all the right boxes… but which smacks me rather as a cheat who has copied someone else’s answers. I’m almost upset that those indigenous grapes couldn’t make something more original.

SMITH & EVANS (Somerset) “Higher Plot” 2014 Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Bacchus

It is composed of the classic Champagne trio and 10% Bacchus but this wine was way more exciting than I was expecting. I had been lulled in with the familiar pale salmon colour of a rosé from Provence, yet this had startlingly more body. Incredibly Pinot heavy, the word I want to use to sum up this word is vineux: meaning it had great grip, tension and acidity. A long, strong finish too; I would love to be drinking this wine while on a summery picnic.

ALBOURNE ESTATE (West Sussex) Bacchus 2014 Bacchus (12%)

The Albourne Estate has burst onto the scene in the past year with a flurry of IWSC and UKVA trophies for their single varietal wines. It was with much anticipation therefore that we tried the 2014 Bacchus. As it was poured, it is impossible not to notice the very clear colour of this wine – in fact, it’s practically colourless. Bacchus is a low acid, high fruit variety and is popular in the UK because of its ressemblance (in flavour, at least ) to Sauvignon Blanc. This wine was no different. Stylistically, it had all the aromas of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc: elderflower, stone fruit, citrus… and the estate harvested relatively early in 2014 to conserve the freshness. Very hard to believe that 2014 was only their second vintage. I’m sure this winery will go places!

STOPHAM ESTATE (West Sussex) Pinot Blanc 2013 Pinot Blanc and 3% Auxerrois (11.5%)

This was a new discovery for me and my favourite of the afternoon. Apparently the owner was once a Formula 1 engineer who now has just 10 acres near Pulborough. Pinot Blanc can often be such a disappointment (especially when compared to its over-achieving siblings Noir and Gris) but I very much liked this expression. I picked up on aromas of savoury musk, salinity and umami, as well as the traditional Pinot Blanc fruit notes. The mouthfeel was smooth, rich and generous. Undoubtedly, it is a very much more conventional wine than what I choose to drink when I’m in Paris (Stefano Bellotti’s cortese, for example, is a staple in my flat) but this is a winery that I would like to watch.

By this point in the afternoon, it had become obvious that we were in for the long-haul!

Suddenly, a new bottle of something that was not 750ml appeared in front of us.

It was “Atilla’s Bite” –  an eau-de-vie made from Seyval Blanc grapes at the Albury Organic Vineyard in Surrey.

ALBURY ORGANIC VINEYARD (Surrey) “Attila’s Bite” (50cl, 40%) 

Quite a few wineries seem to be diversifying their offering to other products. Chapel Down, for example, make a couple of beers called Curious Brew. Albury also experimented in 2014 with a sparkling wine now known as “Monty’s Pet Nat.”
The liquid has a smooth, clean, floral nose. It is really very attractive. On the mouth, there’s lots of burnt toffee and chocolate characters. Unfortunately, right at the end upon swallowing, there’s a whack of hot alcohol making this much better suited to a wintery evening digestif than a mid-afternoon tipple.

Finally, we finished with an English Pinot Noir. It was something rather special given that only 6-7% of the total English wine production is for still, red wine.

HUSH HEATH ESTATE (Kent) Pinot Noir 2013. 100% Pinot Noir (12%)

I love the Hush Heath winery – especially for their Balfour Brut Rosé – but this Pinot Noir was more Beaujolais than Burgundy. The nose was surprisingly floral (violet and rose, as well as red cherry) but the wine had a soft tannic structure. The mouthfeel was very light, thin, reminiscent of a Gamay and also to be drunk slightly chilled.

Iain’s final recommendation was to seek out and try Bolney Estate‘s Pinot Noir for a more classic (aka, French) expression of the varietial. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out!

Six Surprising Red Wines from the VinNatur Villa Favorita Tasting 2015

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I’ve done it countless times in France. In the UK too, but it’s not quite the same. This was my first time at a natural wine tasting in Italy.

There is a queue for the navetta which shuttles back and forth between the field where I left my car and the place where the tasting is being held. Eventually, I am able to squeeze myself into a seat, which happens to be slap bang in the middle of a group of wildly gesticulating sommeliers from Puglia. The accent from this region is very distinctive; they speak as if they have a large stone in their mouth, but with none of the gravitas of Demosthenes. Needless to say, I don’t understand a word. The minibus climbs up the steep driveway to the majestic Villa Favorita.

I step off the bus and am unexpectedly gripped by a moment of self-doubt. What the hell am I doing here? Why? Do I actually know anybody inside? This sudden isolation halts me as if I’ve just turned to walk head on into an icy gale.

However, my feet keep going and as I approach the steps leading to the Villa’s colonnaded entrance, I run into a winemaker I know. Giusto Occhipinti. “Ciao!” 

I smile and, reassured, I step inside.


Here are my six top discoveries (of red wines) from “The Tasting Room” at Villa Favorita 2015.

IL CANCELLIERE (Campania) “Gioviano” Irpinia DOC 2010 Aglianico (13.5%)

Aglianico is a hugely underrated grape variety. Bursting with aromas and acidity, this wine does not disappoint. A deep plum red colour, the bouquet explodes out of the glass as I swirl. Plenty of cooked, stewed fruit and berries. Oak aging has helped soften the tannins. The palate continues rich, balanced and finishes with a tangy acidity.

MARTILDE (Lombardy) “Il Gigante” IGT 2011 Croatina

This is an extravagant wine. Nothing like anything I’ve tasted before. It’s far more fleshy than some Lambruscos which might otherwise come to mind. It’s sweet, aromatic, tannic, acidic and bubbly, all at the same time. I don’t know where to start describing such complexity. Because of the residual sugar, most people would probably consider this a dessert wine. It doesn’t have to be though. There’s such incredible concentration of fruit. It drinks like a cabaret dancer: colourful and full of energy. You could fall in love with this wine. I think I just might have done.

CASTELLO DI STEFANAGO (Lombardy) “Campo Castagna” Oltrepo Pavese DOC 2011 Pinot Noir (13%)

Antonio and Giacomo Baruffaldi make a racy wine. At first, the subdued fruit notes on the nose don’t capture your imagination but in the mouth, the wine comes into its own. It’s all perfectly harmonious. The tannins give a pleasant, soft, delicate finish.

RICCARDI REALE (Lazio) “Calitro” Cesanese di Olevano Romano DOC 2013 Cesanese (15%)

This tiny winery of 3 hectares, not too far from Rome, makes stylish, classic wines. I had the pleasure of sitting across from Piero and Lorella at the winemakers’ dinner on Saturday night. This, the most aromatic, is my favourite of their range. With notes of spice, meat, game, the wine falls perfectly on the right side of being “animal.” It’s a full-bodied wine and perfectly ripe for a whole range of food pairings.

NATALINO DEL PRETE (Puglia) “Nataly” Salento IGT 2014 Primitivo (14%)

A totally unpretentious wine – it’s straight-up, lip-smackingly good Primitivo. Heavily pigmented. Juicy. Cherry and very ripe blackberries on the nose; black pepper and cloves come secondary. Lovely length. A suave wine. I wrote in my increasingly indecipherable – and therefore utterly superfluous – tasting notes, “I do really quite like this one.”

CASA RAIA (Tuscany) “Bevilo” Toscana IGT 2013 Sangiovese Grosso, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (14.5%)

Sangiovese Grosso is the noble strain of this most Tuscan of varietals that is most commonly used for Brunello. However, I was assured that the Bevilo is positionned at a more affordable price point than your average Brunello. Pierre-Jean is a native Frenchman (from Nice, if my memory is correct) who moved to Italy with his wife Kalyna. They took over and renovated the farm and its two hectares, which are situated one kilometre away from Montalcino’s mediaeval fortress. On the nose, this wine reminded me of Bonne Maman’s raspberry jam. The texture of this wine is particularly notable. It may be a super-tuscan blend, but it’s totally approachable. “Bevi lo” in Italian means “drink it” and, according to the old Tuscan tradition, the next line of this expression is “wine makes you sing!”