Well, look at that. It might still be 2018, but the <choose own indicative term of suprise> February 2019 edition of Decanter (www.decanter.com) is on doormats across the UK and beyond.
It's a busy issue for us. We've some 35 wines listed through its pages, much driven by one particular red wine article (see below) and the big Italy supplement that accompanies each year's February edition.
The wines featured this month - and that we list - appear at the foot of this page.
The two, blind-tasted panel reviews this month are Californian Cabernet Sauvignon (2010 vintage) and Western Australian Chardonnay.
We have the utmost respect for the former, but we'd be the first to admit to this not being 'our' category. Many of the bottles in the review comfortably clear three figures and few leave much change from £50. Whilst we have a few NapaCabs and Cabs from across California (Paso Robles, Sonoma Carneros), we tend not to hold or take older vintages. It's just not our price-point, put frankly.
New World (and here, we're almost exclusively talking Margaret River) Chardonnay, on the other hand, has been a strong and popular category. Even here, we must start with an apology: we were scheduled to have one of the three Exceptionals (the Deep Woods), only for the producer and importer to change their allocations after the magazine had gone to press. Honestly, we really do try to keep those super-high-fliers coming to you...
Let this not deter you. Rated at 93 points - and inside the top dozen wines - we offer the excellent Hamelin Bay Five Ashes Vineyard 2014 made doubly attractive by a £18.75 price tag, some way below the average price of the top wines in this review (being from a region which tends to see some quite boutique price tags). On 90 points, we offer the sumptuous 2016 from Marchand & Burch, plus also Recommended wines from Larry Cherubino and Howard Park.
For the second consecutive month, it's one of the magazines major articles - again by Andy Howard MW and featuring some big scores - that most excites us. We probably feel that an article on Claret Alternatives might most gainfully have been targeted at Christmas, but it is welcome nonetheless. Here, it's more a question of which of the top-rated wines (93-96 points) we don't feature than those we do... after all, we offer 11 of the top 18 (it was higher still until a last-minute, post-Xmas, out-of-stock-at-the-importer situation materialised)!
Here, we see:
- some of our favourite wines and producers, many of which we've raved about for a while (it's a great relief when Decanter rave about them, too; you, Dear Customer, take them so much more seriously than you take us...);
- including (the links are to the featured wines themselves) Gabriëlskloof, Giant Steps, Chateau Musar, Kilikanoon, Klein Constantia (the Anwilka), Capezzana, Chateau Ksara, Chateau Ste Michelle and El Esteco;
- wines from every corner of the New World, interspersed by a few from the Old (Italy, Lebanon);
- wines that are – mainly (and obviously) - some variation on the theme of on the Bordeaux blend, mainly focusing on Cab Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc. There are 100% versions of these varieties, plus wines that are pure Sangiovese and Carmenère for full diversity; and
- aside from the priciest two (and, it must be said, the highest scorers) - from Craggy Range (Sophia 2015) and Cullen (Diana Madeline 2013) - the wines vary from ~£14 to ~£29 and average £21, all very reasonable (when you consider these are alternatives to Bordeaux).
In summary, and assuming you’re a red drinker and (within that) not a Pinot Noir die-hard (we see a few), we defy you not to find something pretty special in amongst these.
In the main magazine, another Craggy Range wine, plus one from Trinity Hill – both are Gimblett Gravels Syrahs - land 93 points apiece in a(n unusual) feature on 'Pepper In Wine'. And one of our biggest-sellers of 2018 – the chunky Tikves Barovo 2015 – repeats its 97-point score from its Platinum Award in the 2018 DWWAs.
In the Italy supplement, we’re loaded with big scorers from Sicily (especially from Planeta (both the Santa Cecilia and Etna Bianco) and Donnafugata, but from across all regions, including such stellar (and hard-to-obtain) names as GD Vajra, Vietti and Isole e Olena.
Awarded 95 points and Outstanding status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their February 2019 Claret Alternatives article; (see blue link below).
This wine was also awarded 96 points and Outstanding status by Decanter in an online article "Part of Australia's finest: Langton's top 40 (www.decanter.com) (see blue link below).
Cullen Wines is a certified biodynamic, carbon neutral and naturally powered estate, with their philosophy summed up in three simple words; ‘Quality, Integrity and Sustainability’. It is one of the oldest and most awarded family wineries in Wilyabrup, in Western Australia’s famous Margaret River region. First established in 1971 by Dr Kevin and Diana Cullen and now run by their daughter Vanya, the winery has built an outstanding reputation for fine certified biodynamic wines that receive critical national and international acclaim. All wines produced are sourced from grapes grown on the Cullen and adjoining Mangan Estates. Both are certified biodynamic, to allow the soil to be nurtured and the wines to reflect their sense of place.
The soils at Cullen are old granite and gravelly sandy loam, overlaying lateric subsoils. The fruit is all taken from the Cullen Vineyard, The Cabernet Sauvignon comprises 11.33 hectares and was planted in 1971. The Merlot was planted in 1976 and covers 1.76 hectares. Vanya feels that her conversion to biodynamic viticulture has given her better fruit, the character of which she has preserved during the winemaking process. She is determined to ensure that these characters are retained in the bottle, and feels that this is best done by using a Stelvin closure.
Yields were down in 2013 due to hail and storms at flowering. However, although the weather leading up to and including vintage was warm, the fruit produced by all varieties in 2013 was exceptional. Low yields of 4 tons per hectare produced great concentration of flavour. Indeed, the quality of the harvest was even better than 2012, which was widely regarded as exceptional. Harvest took place on 20th February and 7th March, around the new moon and on flower days, rather than the full moon and on fruit days as in previous vintages. The only problem in 2013 was the shortage of the sensational fruit that was produced.
73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc.
The grapes were grown biodynamically and hand harvested. The fruit was carefully sorted before natural primary and malolactic fermentation. The two varieties were vinified separately. Primary fermentation took an average of 35 days, wtih the average skin contact lasting for 49 days. The wine was then aged for 17 months in French oak barriques, 60% of which were new. No acid or yeast were added, producing a wine which has a great sense of place.
Low yields have produced a concentrated wine bright in colour, pure in fruit flavour concentration with the classic Wilyabrup cassis, violets, chocolate and ironstone. Complex aromas of well ripened dark fruits with nuances of blackcurrants, plums and mulberries dominate the nose. A fruit driven palate of blackcurrant and mulberry fruits finishes with fine grained tannins. Subtle layers of complexity arise from fruit that was harvested at the pinnacle of ripeness.
Awarded 95 points and Outstanding status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their February 2019 Claret Alternatives article; (see blue link below).
The Capezzana estate, 24 kilometres north west of Florence, is owned by the Contini Bonacossi family. The younger generation is now firmly in charge of the estate's 100 hectares of vineyard, with daughter Benedetta Contini Bonacossi as winemaker and Francesco Bernabei as consultant winemaker. The wines and the olive oil have an elegance which marks this estate out from the crowd.
Grapes are grown on the estate's 104 hectares of vineyard which have been converted to organic production. Vines are situated at approximately 150-200 metres above sea level, facing south, south-east and south-west. Soils are schistous clay with limestone.
Lower temperatures in April 2015 delayed budding by about 10 days. A warm spring was followed by a hot summer with little rain. Luckily the month of September was perfect with the right amount of rain and the right atmospheric humidity. This largely contributed to an extremely healthy crop with excellent maturation throughout.
75% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Canaiolo, 5% Cabernet Franc.
Fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks for 25 days at temperatures between 18-25°C. At the end of the alcoholic fermentation the wine was put in French oak for the malolactic fermentation and then aged in 3.5 hectolitre tonneaux for 12 months, followed by 12 months in bottle before release.
Ruby red in colour with a restrained, elegant nose. Perfumes of dark cherry and liquorice give way to spice and plums on the palate. Rounded tannins from the Sangiovese are lifted by the cassis concentration of the Cabernet and melt into a long, perfumed finish.
Awarded 94 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their February 2019 Claret Alternatives article; (see blue link below).
The wines of Chateau Musar are unique expressions from a country with an ancient wine-making culture, as vines have been cultivated in Lebanon's high altitude Bekaa Valley for over 6000 years. In 1930, at just 20 years old, Gaston Hochar founded Chateau Musar, inspired by Lebanon’s winemaking tradition and his travels in Bordeaux.
Seven years in the making, Chateau Musar Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault (see fiche technique below for greater detail) from vineyards near the Bekaa Valley villages of Aana and Kefraya on gravelly soils over limestone. Planted from the 1930s onwards, yields are low from these mature bushvines (average age: 40 years).
To see Chateau Musar's excellent tasting note and information on this wine, please click the blue link below.
Awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their February 2019 Claret Alternatives article; (see blue link below).
The Manetti family has owned Fontodi since 1969 but has been in Chianti for centuries. Though they have always made wine, their primary business is still the production of Chianti's finest terracotta at their factory in Ferrone. Giovanni Manetti has run the property since 1980 and ensures the wines are as meticulously made as the vineyards are immaculately tended. Their 90 hectares of vineyard, 90% of which are Sangiovese, are situated in the prime 'Conca d'Oro' (golden shell) of Panzano, and have been converted to organic viticulture. Giovanni is now following biodynamic principles to obtain the best quality fruit.
There are 80 hectares of south-facing vineyards, all of which are farmed organically and are found in the Conca d'Oro (the 'golden shell'), an amphitheatre-shaped valley to the south of Panzano. This shape facilitates the full ripening of the grapes. The stony galestro soils allow for excellent drainage and encourage the vines to grow deep roots. The quality of the Sangiovese grapes from the Fontodi vineyards obviates the need for Merlot or other varieties as a remedial blender.
100% Sangiovese (Chianti Classico must be at least 80%).
The very wet winter of 2015 enabled vines to access considerable deep-seated water reserves during the spring, facilitating budding and flowering which lasted until the beginning of June. The particularly favourable climate during the summer ensured that all subsequent phenological stages, from fruit set to maturity, developed evenly. Hot temperatures in July were mitigated by some timely thunderstorms, while a sunny and quite breezy August allowed the grapes to reach a perfect phenolic ripeness. Harvest throughout September and the first week of October was facilitated by numerous sunny days, interspersed with sporadic rainfall. The 2015 wines exhibit balance, great structure and intense aromas.
Fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks for two weeks, during which the cap was punched down twice a day. The wine was then racked into 225-litre French oak barriques, both Tronçais and Allier, where it remained for 24 months before bottling. The wine was matured in bottle for six months before release.
The wine is deep ruby red in colour, with perfumes of sour cherry and plums leading to notes of leather and tobacco. It has great depth of flavour, with juicy fruit and supple tannins, giving way to a silky-smooth texture. It has a great structure and finishes with a fine mineral note.
Awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their Italy 2019 supplement as part of an article on Sicily (see blue link below).
The south-eastern province of Ragusa, around the town of Vittoria, is home to the revived Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a red wine made from 60 percent Nero d’Avola and 40 percent Frappato. The Italian government has granted it DOCG status (the strictest appellation in Italy), which makes Cerasuolo di Vittoria the first Sicilian wine to enjoy this prestigious designation. It was Giusto Occhipinti, who started the COS winery with two classmates back in the early 1980s. On a shoestring budget, the three friends vinified the grapes from their parents’ vineyards. They even bought Angelo Gaja’s used French barrels back in 1983 to age the wine.
Since then the journey has taken them away from oak to cement and finally into amphora in order to obtain the most aromatic expression of the wines. They are also keen to note that COS does not use selected yeasts and has never used chemicals in the vineyards. “Our goal isn’t to make wines that impress wine critics, but to make wine that expresses our great terroir. Here, Nero d’Avola is more elegant than in other regions, and has these great mineral notes from the soil. This is what gives the Cerasuolo di Vittoria its rich fruit, while the Frappato gives the wine its floral components and freshness,” Occhipinti says.
The Cerasuolo shows a brilliant ruby red colour and nuances of ruby red. The nose denotes intense, clean, pleasing and refined aromas which start with hints of black cherry, blackberry and plum followed by aromas of raspberry, blueberry, carob, violet, tobacco and vanilla. The flavours have good balance with the aromas, this wine is slightly tannic with a pleasing crispness, however the alcohol, body and intense flavours remain balanced. The finish is persistent with flavours of black cherry, plum and blackberry.
Awarded 97 points and Outstanding status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their Italy 2019 supplement as part of an article on Sicily (see blue link below).
Vecchio Samperi was Marco De Bartoli’s first wine, his homage to the oldest form of Marsala wine as was encountered by Brit John Woodhouse when he landed in Marsala in 1773. This old, original style was made by a method called il perpetuum - essentially a form of solera aging, in which younger wine was used to replace older wine that had evaporated or been drawn off for drinking - and was the starting point for what become known worldwide as traditional Marsala wine (fortification came later as the techniques of Port, Madeira and Sherry found their way across the ocean to Sicily).
While the modern Marsala industry got away from this time-and-labor-intensive method as it was industrialized, De Bartoli's priority was to restore this method, along with the reputation of Marsala wine. Marco named his for the Contrada Samperi,the winegrowing area on the on the outskirts of Marsala where his estate vines are planted and whose hot, dry, sandy-loam soils, rich in limestone and minerals, are well suited to Grillo-growing; as the family puts it, the Vecchio Samperi "was the starting point to develop and communicate Marco's concept of 'terroir' ". Hewing to the original il perpetuum style, the De Bartoli Vecchio Samperi is not fortified, which is unusual for modern Marsala; and in fact, as pure and elemental a Marsala as this wine is, it is not recognized by the local authorities as DOC Marsala.
As with all of De Bartoli's Marsala-style wines, the only grape used is Grillo, grown organically and harvested by hand on the De Bartoli estate. The wine is fermented with natural yeasts and aged in oak and chestnut vats; about 5% of the total volume of wine is replaced with wine from the new vintage each year. The average age of wine in this solera is 20 years minimum. As noted above, the Vecchio Samperi is emphatically not fortified at any point. Vecchio Samperi's fine acidity balances the bit of RS beautifully, rendering it basically dry. It is relatively light in body, with floral and candied-orange aromas and flavours, with a gently nutty, seaspray-tinged finish.