Category Archives: Tasting around the world

Luxembourg Surprises

Who would have thought that good wines were being made in the tiny country of Luxembourg? To be sure, I was aware, from my student days, of the presence of some wine industry there – but stuck between the famed wine regions of northern France and west Germany, Luxembourg has received little of the limelight, even though wine production there is as old as in neighbouring Mosel.

Moselle L

The wine industry in Luxembourg is centred around three groups of producers: co-operatives, grower-merchants, who have their own federation, and independent winemakers, of whom there are at present 52. After England, Luxembourg is the smallest wine producer in the EU; but not being sizeist, I went along to a tasting of its wines and was very pleasantly surprised. The tasting focused on the wines of independent grower Abi Duhr (Château Pauqué), and I came away a fan.

Duhr created Château Pauqué exactly 30 years ago, with the aim of producing high-quality wines that would raise the profile of the wines of the Moselle. Quantities are small – with a production of 30,000 bottles we’re talking about a boutique winery. The two main styles are classic Luxembourg whites produced in the traditional manner (e.g. Riesling and Pinot Gris) and Burgundy-style wines fermented and aged in oak.

The grape varieties in Luxembourg are more or less the same as in Germany and Alsace: lots of white – including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Elbling and Pinot Blanc – and a little red, Pinot Noir. Typically we find single varietal wines, which means wines are produced from a single grape variety and are labelled as such, but there are some blends around, including some of Duhr’s wines I’ve tasted. The wine region (and appellation) is called Moselle Luxembourgeoise, and Grevenmacher, where Duhr’s winery is based, is referred to as the ‘metropolis’ of the region. The townlet lies on the bank of the river Moselle, right on the German border.

The wines listed below all bear the Moselle Luxembourgeoise appellation.

abi-duhr-bromelt-2015Rivaner and Elbling are the most common local varieties, used for mass-produced, mediocre wines. But both in his Jungle 2015 (Rivaner) and in his Bromelt 2015 (Elbling), Duhr has done well above mediocre, producing delightful, fresh, pure, fragrant wines. The Jungle has a sweeter, toffee and caramel character and a flinty finish, while the Bromelt is austere, bone dry, and slightly vegetal, reminding me of a spring shower and wet grass. Both are excellent choices for an apéritif wine.

Pinot Gris is, again, not one of those grapes that get wine connoisseurs really excited – and yet Duhr’s Pinot Gris Paradais 2016 has character and charm: sweet candy and caramel on the nose, lovely and fragrant, and a bit of CO2. His Riesling Paradais Vielles Vignes 2015 is also full of youth and floral perfume, but combined with oily texture, the rubbery character of Riesling, a darker gold hue, and a quite spicy, vegetal palate.

fossiles 2005 abi duhr

We were shown two vintages of Duhr’s blend, Fossiles – one from 2015 and one from 2005. Made from Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Chardonnay, Fossiles is an interesting wine to age, though I’m not sure for how long. The 2005 vintage showed a lot of quirky character, which I enjoyed; its pungent nose and cooked cabbage palate mix with lees flavours and a smokey toasty finish. The one shortcoming seemed to be a lack of acidity, which won’t help increase life expectancy.

A fantastic contrast was seen between the young and the aged Chardonnay. We tasted the 2014 Chateau Pauqué against the 2004 vintage, and it was a wow moment. While the young wine is reserved and discreet, despite its youthful fruity charm, the 2004 vintage seduced already with the nose: such depth, as if smells could have dimensions – and it seems they can! I found an intense, honeyed sweetness on the nose, which was totally contradicted by an utterly dry palate full of mature, vegetal flavours, combined in an unusual harmony with lees and oak characteristics.

Duhr’s Clos du Paradis Auxerrois is also one to recommend. We tasted the 2014 against the 2004 vintage, and the wine goes from zesty, citrusy and slightly fizzy refreshment to a toasty, savoury, rich wine, with oily texture and to me very enjoyable flavours from butterscotch to cooked cabbage. The acidity here is still great, and the finish long and flinty.

Chateau Pauqué wines are produced in small quantities so they won’t be that easy to find, and they won’t be that cheap either – around £ 20-25 a bottle – but if you’re keen to try something new and different, they are definitely recommended!


Oh Sherry

The word that would best describe my initial relationship with Sherry is probably incomprehension. It was no love at first sight. On the few occasions that I tasted it, it always struck me as a weird drink. Here I’m talking about dry Sherry, as sweet ones held little interest for me. Sherry has hardly any acidity but is nevertheless super-dry; and it baffles you with strange flavours unfamiliar to drinkers of regular light wines – flavours that I might even say would be considered faults in a light wine. But when I had to taste one Sherry after another in preparation for my fortified wines exam, it started to grow on me. I started to enjoy its nuttiness, its quirky characteristics, its oily texture. And what constantly kept astonishing me was how cheap Sherries were compared to other drinks of a similar calibre.

Sherry comes in so many colours

So I was extremely pleased when I heard about the Sherry masterclass that was taking place under the auspices of the Wines from Spain annual tasting in London. It seems I was not the only one who had a soft spot for Sherry: even though I turned up 15 minutes early, the hall was already full, with standing room only. Not exactly what I’d expected, but I stayed anyway, and I’m glad I did.

I don’t want to go into much detail about how Sherry is made, as that was not the focus of this masterclass. But I will mention some aspects because I learnt some interesting facts from Sherry specialist Beltrán Domecq, who presented us with a fascinating overview of the development of Sherry from a young, neutral base wine into a highly complex, mature drink. So, one of the interesting facts I learned was that the tradition of increasing the alcoholic strength of wines by the addition of spirits (the key act in the production of fortified wines such as Sherry, Madeira and Port) goes back as far as a thousand years. The purpose was not to get you drunk more quickly, but to stabilize the drink. The higher the alcohol content, the less likely the wine was to go off. But it was really only in the 16th-17th centuries that fortified wines enjoyed a boom: witsolera illustrh the discovery and colonization of distant lands and the massive increase in long-haul sea voyages, wines started travelling and when they were fortified they travelled much better. Sherry, it turns out, was the first wine to circumnavigate the world, in the famed voyage of Magellan and his crew that started in 1519. It was apparently 300 years ago that the solera system was introduced, to create uniformity in quality and style.

I also learnt how the word Sherry came about. The place name changed from Xera to Ceret under the Romans, then to Sherish under Muslim rule in the 8th century. It then became Xeres de la Frontera under Alfonso X, who reconquered the land from the Muslims. From Xeres it was only a small step to Xerez in the 16th century, which today is written as Jerez. As many wine merchants, including a lot of Brits, established themselves in the region, the name of the wine became known in its anglicized form as Sherry.

The production of dry Sherry consists, very briefly, in the following basic steps:

  1. produce a dry and neutral base wine relatively low in alcohol
  2. leave this wine uncovered so that a film of natural yeast can develop. This is called flor. flor
  3. classify wine, depending on character and the development of flor, in two main categories: fino (well-developed flor, light-bodied wine), oloroso (fuller body, little or no flor)
  4. fortification: finos to 15% alcohol, olorosos to 17%
  5. maturation in the solera system


What we did in this tasting, though, concerned only the part that came in and after step 5. With ageing, not only did the wines take on darker and darker shades of gold and then amber; they also developed new characteristics and lost old ones. So the fruity-neutral, pale lemon base wine (Barbadillo 2016) gradually turned into a golden, very dry drink -in our tasting, it was an Ynocente Fino – with flavours of toasted nuts and seeds. The American oak (a rather unconventional solution for Sherry, I would have thought) lent the wine a noticeable woody character. The dryness of Sherry, I learnt, is caused by the disappearance of glycerol from the wine (it gets eaten by the yeasts). The next step up: a darker golden wine in which the nuttiness becomes more prominent and the wood less so (Fino Tradicion by Bodegas Tradicion). Our next wine, an amber-coloured 12-year-old Amontillado of Willams & Humbert was a special treat: the acetaldehyde aromas and flavours so typical of fino Sherry begin to go down at such a mature age. Other flavours are becoming more and more evolved and concentrated: candied, toasty notes on the nose and palate, rich, mouth-filling texture.

The older the wines the more concentrated they become because thanks to the porous texture of oak barrels, water can evaporate through the walls of the barrel but other, larger molecules remain. The first of our last, seriously grand wines was a Fino Imperial Merito Amontillado, aged for 30 years. VORS on its label stands for Very Old Rare Sherry, and old and rare it was, with lots of depth and a complex, rich, medicinal character. To wrap it all up, we tasted a Harveys 30-year-old VORS Palo Cortado. Medium amber, this wine was the first to exhibit a degree of sweetness. It was creamy and beautifully nutty, had a rich fruitcake palate and pretty high alcohol (19.5%), and a toasty, woody finish.

I also learnt from Mr Domecq that Fino and Manzanilla Sherry should not be kept for more than a year after purchase, and that once opened, they should be consumed within a week. Other, more mature Sherries can be kept for up to 3 years. They like to be stored in a standing, upright position, and they should be served chilled: 5-7 C for Fino and Manzanilla, and 14 C for the more mature wines are optimal temperatures. And please serve your Sherry in a proper wine glass!


If you’re as enthusiastic about Sherry as I am, you’ll be pleased to know that International Sherry Week is coming up in November 2017. To find out more click here.

If you’d like to learn more about Sherry, I recommend the official Jerez website,



White Night

Warm June evening at the Herzliya marina, just north of Tel Aviv. Sunset, clear skies, cool breeze, sea and sailing boats – the perfect setting for a tasting of summer wines.

Herzliya marina

The white and rosé wines featured at the event came mostly but not exclusively from Israel. My main interest, however, lay in Israeli wines, especially producers and labels I had not encountered before. I was not disappointed. Even if not all the wines were amazing, they were all well made and I came across an interesting range both of grapes and of styles.

One new label I discovered was Mare by MAIA, a boutique branch of Tulip winery. MAIA is an acronym for ‘Mediterranean Approach, Israeli Art’. Maia winesWhile I don’t think the name is really accurate, as the wines I tasted were not Mediterranean in their style at all, I enjoyed them precisely for that reason. Mare White was a blend of Marsanne and French Colombard, and Mare Pink was made from Carignan and Mourvèdre. Both had fairly low alcohol levels for a Mediterranean wine, and that is probably due to early harvest – which was also reflected in the lack of fruitiness in the wines. Israeli wines, if carefully made, have a lot of fruit to offer due to the warm climate and the easy ripening. The fruit in the Mare wines was, in contrast, very subdued, the sugar very low, and they were more serious than charming, which I thought made them interesting and unusual. Kosher

Barkan’s 2015 Viognier was a pleasant surprise. For a producer that never impressed me as focusing on quality but rather on quantity, they have come out with a varietal Viognier that explodes with intense apricot and peach flavours but still remains fresh and light. While there’s much – perhaps a bit too much – oak here, it doesn’t take away from the enjoyment. A fun wine. Kosher

While Barkan’s wine was good, Kishor’s 2014 Savant Viognier seemed to me to be in an altogether different league. It was all elegance and sophistication – a beautifully made wine! The intensity of fruit is somewhat lower but all in all it’s a more balanced, more refined wine. Kishor ViognKishor is an interesting winery in Western Galilee. They are based on a kibbutz called Kishorit, a community specifically set up for special needs adults, who run all the businesses of the kibbutz, including the winery. Assisting in the winemaking is expert consultant Itay Lahat. Their other lovely whites include Kerem Kishor, a fresh and fruity blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, and Savant Riesling, an off-dry, delightful varietal wine, which the winemaker promised me is not only very pretty now but also ages beautifully. Kishor’s wines generally are on the spot and made with great care and attention. Kosher, and highly recommended!

2 vats roseCarmel is one of the giant wineries in Israel, but apart from cheap entry-level stuff they also produce some serious high-end wine. Below are some that I have not tasted before.

2 Vats Rosé is a blend of Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. It’s a tasty, stylish wine with good acidity. Its sister the 2 Vats White is made from Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Colombard, and it’s just perfect for the summer, with lots of flavours of grapes, rose petals, and the inevitable lychee. The Kayoumi 2011 single vineyard Riesling blew me away with a fantastic intensity of aromas and flavours and great, refreshing acidity. A tasty, loveable wine. All kosher

My conclusion: it’s worth keeping an eye out not only for new boutique wineries in Israel but also for new brands by large, well-known producers, as some of them will surprise. One grievance is that many wineries don’t update their websites and I searched in vain for information on their latest creations – shame, shame…


Bored with Bordeaux? Try St Chinian

I like Tim Atkin’s attitude. When he said that wine lovers should turn to the seriously underrated wines of St Chinian and forget about the botoxed Bordeaux beauties (well those weren’t the words he used but that was his general message), I’m sure he meant it. I like the fact that the superstars of the wine trade actually appreciate low-budget art movies more than Hollywood blockbusters. To me one of the most important things about a wine is character. A wine ought to have a personality, a story to tell. The wines of St Chinian are like that.

St Chinian is a wine region / appellation in the Languedoc, in southern France. It produces some white wines but mainly reds. What makes it interesting is its diversity of styles, mainly thanks to soil differences. The geographical area of the appellation is cut into half more or less horizontally by the River Vernazobres. The land south of the river has calcareous (limestone) soil, and the areas north of it have mainly schist. In the tasting masterclass I attended, we started with some lime soil wines and then moved to schist ones to bring home the differences. Why does soil matter? Because different soils behave in different ways and therefore the growing environment they provide for the grapes will also be different. So limestone, for instance, retains water more than schist does. This means limestone soils will be damper and cooler than schist soils. Schist wines, coming from a warmer soil, will tend to have higher alcohol, more flesh and density. Can you close your eyes and tell what soil the wine came from? Probably not, but as we tasted a flight of wines, some character differences did become apparent.

Let’s now look at some funky facts about St Chinian wines. Something I was particularly happy to learn is that this wine region has a surprisingly high number of woman winemakers. Secondly, they are by law required to produce blends. Blends are good because different grape varieties have different strengths and weaknesses and may perform better or worse in different years, so for a winemaker it’s great to be able to play around and combine and create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I also like the fact that the main grape variety used in the St Chinian blends is Syrah (because I have a soft spot for Syrah), and that a lot of the wines are organic. But what I like most are the wines themselves, as they have a lovely, unique flavour profile that really speaks to me. With all their differences, they share a strong herbal, perfumed character, which apparently echoes the herbs and plants growing all around beautiful Languedoc.

The wines come from a warm terroir that sees little rain, and this is reflected in their ripe, even confit-like, fruitiness. Many have a creamy, soft, gentle texture (which often comes from carbonic maceration) and an underlying sweetness from the ripe fruit. But all this is combined with an exciting, fragrant nose and spicy, herbal flavours. Some wines don’t taste that fruity at all but have a predominantly leathery, meaty character. With the wines of Chateau Pech-Ménel (run by two sisters!) I felt, for instance, that they didn’t have a strong fruitiness to them – partly because I tasted older vintages – but just as well because who wants fruit when you can have spice! The older the vintage, the more I had an urge to keep quite literally biting into the wine, it had such savoury, aromatic richness. Other producers that impressed included Chateau Ladournie and Chateau Milhau-Lacugue.

The wines of St Chinian, we all agree, are much underrated, but there’s one good side to this sad fact: they are not pricy. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one over £20, and most cost around £10 a bottle. That’s a lot of spicy value for your money!

Alsace – c’est moi

I’ve never been to Alsace, but when I next go wine-travelling, I promise you it will be at the top of my list. Why? Because its wines are so reliably consistent, or consistently reliable, or, simply delightful. And there’s this interesting duality in the wines which I can relate to: typically they are bone dry with a fierce acidity, but at the same time they display a charming, ripe and sweet fruity loveliness. Sweet and tart, hard and soft – in their bipolar character I can see my own personality reflected, kind of.

In recent years I have become much more interested in white wines. It’s not to say that reds don’t interest me, but there’s something lyrical, gentle, pretty and delicate about whites. It’s a bit like comparing the moon to the sun. I’m a moon person.

And as for Alsace, there are nice and pleasant wines at the cheaper end of the scale. These carry the ordinary ‘Alsace’ designation. They are clean, very refreshing and well made, but won’t leave a lasting impression. But then there are the grand crus, and many of these are just superb, especially at 4 years of age and older. What wines am I talking about? Like many other old European wine regions, Alsace has strict regulations as to what grape varieties may be grown there. It is also one of those old-world regions which have the less common custom of producing single varietal wines. This means no blends, and, unlike in Bordeaux or the Rhone Valley, for instance, you are more likely to find the name of the varietal on the label than names of estates or vineyards. Even though today the proportion of white grapes to reds is about 90 to 10 per cent in Alsace, historically this was not so: in the past it used to be around 50-50. The good news for red wines lovers is that Pinot Noir is making a comeback, and current legislation has made it possible to grow Pinot Noir grapes on grand cru sites.

The main white grapes of Alsace are Riesling and Pinot Gris. They are also called noble varieties. Two other noble varieties are Gewurztraminer and Muscat, and there are a further two or three that are permitted. At the particular tasting I attended the other week, we only had Riesling and Pinot Gris. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t get very excited about the latter. I found those wines too fatty and bland, without much character. Riesling on the other hand… Riesling can also be pretty neutral but never bland. Even if there isn’t much going on in terms of flavours or aromas, there will always be plenty of acidity, freshness, liveliness to admire. And the reason I have suggested skipping plain Alsace wines and moving straight to the grand crus (the top classification) is that once you’ve tasted a grand cru, in hindsight anything else seems a bit of a waste of time.

At this recent CIVA (Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d’Alsace) tasting I also had the good fortune to attend a Riesling masterclass with Eric Zwiebel MS, from whom I learnt, among other things, that grand cru Rieslings from low-yielding vineyards are wines to be laid down; they age well and are worth investing in. Alsace Rieslings vary greatly because their terroirs do. There are a large number of soil types, and they will produce wines of differing character, but at wine school we’ve of course learnt that the soil cannot be tasted in the wine so I’m still in two minds about this subject and would rather not speculate.

As for the vintages: the wines that struck me as particularly interesting and exciting were those from 2011 and 2010. Although the two vintages have a very different character (2011 was a late, warm vintage resulting in higher-alcohol, sweeter wines, whereas 2010 was cooler and its wines will apparently easily keep for thirty years or more), they have both produced some spectacular wines, I think. I found that the 2011 wines tended to come with beautiful, delicious, ripe fruit character and an oily texture. They were rich, complex, intense, with an invigorating mixture of firm acidity and mellow sweet fruitiness. The 2010s seemed to have a more serious, more savoury and less fruity profile. Less charm but lots of content, and future potential.

To name but a few:

Domaine Paul Blanck Alsace Grand Cru Schlossberg Riesling 2011

Not overly exuberant but still lots of ripe fruitiness and that combination of sweet and tart that Alsace does best.

Wunsch et Mann Alsace Grand Cru Hengst Riesling 2010

In this wine the more conventional honey and apricot notes combine with some quite original flavours. It has good depth, and a mineral, rubbery character.

Domaine Rieflé, Alsace Grand Cru Steinert, Riesling 2011

This wine has quite a bit of alcohol but it is complemented by zesty, upright acidity. The palate offers lots from citrus fruit to caramel, and great pebbly minerality.

Jean-Baptiste Adam, Alsace Grand Cru Wineck-Schlossberg, Riesling 2011

A sharper wine with an individual nose, and rubbery, savoury rather than fruity character on the palate.

MASI – kings of Amarone

MASI is a large wine producer in the Veneto region of northern Italy, near lovely Verona. They specialize in the region’s top appellations Valpolicella and Amarone della Valpolicella. This is the boring factual info. The interesting part is that to get there you will drive around areas like the northern lakes, for instance Lago di Garda, or you can pop into Milan for a Campari, or maybe go a bit further east to check Veneto’s sparkling Proseccos. L1030022

For years Amarone della Valpolicella was the most impressive red wine I could think of. It had everything I found irresistible: rich, big, intense, heavy-going, quite alcoholic, and displaying that adorable cherry-chocolate flavour combination which … which I now think is actually quite hard to get right without making the wine too obvious, too loud. My teacher at wine school told us that Amarone was ‘meditation wine’, made to accompany long and deep conversations. This has stuck with me and so has the memory of the first, romantic encounter with this most romantic of wines. But if I want to be honest, no Amarone has seemed all that amazing since that tasting class back in school. But to come back to the present. I am standing outside the gates of MASI, one of the biggest producers in the region, and understandably I’m full of anticipation. They apparently produce five different Amarones!

A young woman shows me around the winery. Her name is Micaela and she tells me all about the MASI story. The winery has been going for six generations now as a family-owned business. They started in 1772 and were named after their first vineyard called Vaio dei masi meaning ‘little valley’. Today they collaborate with another family, the Alighieri, who are direct descendants of Dante. I guess that’s kind of normal in Italy.

The part that interests me the most is the drying room. Amarone is a dried-grape wine, which means that after harvest the grape bunches are laid out to dry in single layers on bamboo trays stacked on top of each other.L1030024 They look a bit like very low, multi-tiered bunk beds. The drying rooms are fairly dark and temperature-controlled. The drying goes on for nearly five months, from harvest to 1 February. Amarone, like many other old-world wines, is a blend of different grape varieties: Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara, and today a fourth, recently rediscovered old variety, Oseleta is added by MASI’s winemakers. Each variety contributes something else: colour, tannins, unique flavours or acidity. L1030025The drying at the MASI headquarters is computer-controlled but the company also have drying facilities in the hills, where it’s still the traditional combination of people and nature carrying out the work.

When the drying period is over, the grapes, which are now semi-dry, are pressed. You can imagine how little juice they will produce compared to fresh grapes, which explains why Amarone, which is made from 100% semi-dried grapes, is relatively expensive. But blends of regular and semi-dried grape wines are also made here.

StL1030029ylishly, this cherry-chocolate wine is first aged in locally produced cherry barrels. These barrels are very porous, which makes a quick oxygenation, i.e. quick ageing, possible. In one year, Micaela tells me, these wines age two years. Then they are moved to 600-litre barrels called fusto Veronese for further maturation. Amarone has a long life: 30-40 years easily. It’s a dry but very rich and intense red wine with high alcohol levels.

To my great disappointment, there is no chance to taste on this occasion, so comparing their five different Amarones remains a fantasy for now… but here’s hoping I can return before my tastes change and I become a fan of subtle Burgundies.  L1030052

What the bleep do we know… about the wines of Lebanon?

The average wine drinker, probably nothing. The connoisseur will have heard about, and possibly tasted, Chateau Musar. But thanks to Lebanese-born wine expert Michael Karam, who gave a presentation on the subject at the Emerging Regions tasting in September 2014, now we know there’s more to Lebanon than the oxidized Musar bottles that turn up at tastings as exotic examples of wines of the 70s.

Lebanon today produces around 7 million bottles of wine per year. This is very little indeed – any commercial producer will put out more than this. For example, to take a neighbouring country, Israel’s Carmel winery (and Israel is also a small producer) alone makes 15 million bottles annually. So we could call Lebanon a boutique, or even garage, wine country.

The majority of Lebanese wines come from the Bekaa Valley, mainly from its western parts and to some extent the eastern areas. The Bekaa Valley, Karam told us, is part of the historic triangle where wine originated thousands of years ago. The Phoenicians here may have been the first wine merchants. But the modern history of wine in Lebanon starts with the Jesuits, in the 19th century. Some monks were making their own wine from grapes brought from Algeria – mainly Cinsaut and Carignan. Then Domaine des Tourelles was established in 1868 by a Frenchman, and the French influence continued after the First World War, when Lebanon became French territory. Winemaking then got another push, and Chateau Musar was established in 1930, 50 miles north of Beirut, to supply the French with wine.

Lebanon gained independence in 1943 but the French wine culture was continued. It was only from the 1990s on that international varieties were beginning to be planted, and more and more new wineries established. Today there are 42 producers in the country, including such new names as Chateau Florentine, Chateau Ka, and Chateau Ksara. According to Karam, it is the Mediterranean red varieties, such as Cinsaut, Carignan, Mourvedre and Grenache, that best express Lebanese terroir and identity.

What future for the wines of Lebanon? With such a small number of producers and bottles, the aim clearly won’t be to conquer the international market, but Lebanese wines can be an exotic, interesting addition to the palette. The whites I have tasted were a bit too obviously oaky and the reds sometimes very tannic but the wines have a lot of spice, which I like. Some are now readily available in the UK (Ixsir, Ksara, Tourelles, and of course Musar) at a reasonable (though not inexpensive) price if you fancy serving local wines with your Lebanese-inspired dishes.