Another month, another Decanter, look…
Decanter (www.decanter.com) is starting to develop an odd look. The oft-busy panel review section – much beloved of readers and Exel customers - has been becoming rather thin. This month, it’s non-existent. It’s obvious enough why: pulling together a tasting panel in Decanter’s tasting rooms has been prohibitively tricky since Lockdown. As we understand it, there’s just one more panel review “in the can” – South American Syrah – due to appear next month (we’re excited about that one).
The wines featured this month in Decanter - and that we list - appear at the foot of this page. The reviews for each wine (where we've been able to show them) appear on each product page.
In the absence of panels, the chief article this month is the opinion of one just wine judge, albeit a good one (Pete Richards MW). His has been the task to work through 300 (three hundred, that’s not a typo) samples to judge, in his view, the best
On the supposed Hottest Day Of The Year, this article may find some traction. For fans of headiness, density, clout, weight and high octane, this category may not appeal. But our sales of late say that, pandemic or not, customers are still very much into ‘lighter wine’ drinking in these last few weeks.
I say ‘lighter wines’ in style terms: that is, more zingy and refreshing. Which means, really: white and rosé.
I’m much less sure about this ABV/% alcohol question and consumers swerving away from higher ABVs. To be clear, that’s no promotion of reckless drinking. We do see a few customers choose their wines on this basis. But my own view is that many (most?) great wines can’t be made with low alcohol. If you want to drink these wine, and alcohol intake is a concern, just drink proportionately less and/or punctuate them with a glass of water.
None of which is to denigrate Richards’ article. It’s a good read and it exposes some great wines. That’s why we're telling you about it. As he writes: “What do we really want in a summer wine? Loveliness certainly. But there’s a lot more to it than that. When it’s warm, you want a wine to seduce you with its bright, vivacious charm. These are wines to seize the day”.
And our clutch of these wines does just that. We’re just getting to those.
How does one produce a low(er)-alcohol wine? The technology now exists to shed a few percentage points of ABV from any wine. But it is not a favoured technique: it feels an industrial intervention in an altogether more artisanal process. Moreover, take that alcohol out of most wines and you run the risk of unbalanced flavours.
Many grape varieties simply do not lend themselves to lower ABV. Some white grapes (eg Viognier, Gewurz, Marsanne) and many reds (eg Grenache, Carignan) rush to high sugar levels – equivalent to 14% of alcohol or more – and afford little chance for low-octane wines.
That said, the winemaker can choose not to ferment all his/her available sugars to alcohol. Broadly speaking, at fermentation, he/she has the choice, of 1% of alcohol or 15g/litre of sugar in his/her final wine. That is, you could, from the same ferment, take a wine of 13% alcohol that’s fully dry (no sugar) or one that’s 10% ABV but sees 45g/litre of residual sugar (RS). These days, of course, dry wines (<5g/litre RS) are all the rage; there’s not a whole lot of off-dry drinking going on out there. Which is a shame, as some grape varieties lend themselves to this style every bit as well as they do full dryness. You see, any grape variety/wine style with very high acidity benefits from leaving sugar behind (excuse the analogy, but it’s why pancakes with sugar and lemon work so very well). This is the very essence of Champagne (where 12g/litre of RS – Brut – normally tastes bone dry) and holds true for still whites such as Riesling and Chenin Blanc. With Riesling, even 30-40g/litre RS (commonplace in good Mosel Rieslings) can result in a wine that tastes almost dry. And off-dry styles, lest you have never tried, are quite fabulous (and markedly better than fully dry wines) with good cheeses, soft and hard.
All of this gets a mention, not because the Richards article is a review of off-dry wines, but because a few of them break the horizon.
Naturally, we offer the article-topper. And what a wine to top it! German Rieslings see little focus in Decanter, and are a personal love of mine. They tend to greatly forgotten by many wine buyers, but those who like them, love them. The Prädikatswein wines of the top winemakers are a thing of great beauty and precision, and it’s great to see one lauded here. Perhaps the bigger surprise is that one this good ducks under £20.
It’s from the Nahe region/valley, some 40-50 km south-west of Mainz and Wiesbaden. The Nahe is one of the greatest Riesling zones of Germany, and Dönnhoff probably its greatest producer. They lay claim to stakes in many of the great Erste Lage (essentially German grand cru) vineyards of the Nahe (heaps more detail on the product page).
The 94-pointer – from the esteemed Oberhäuser Leistenberg vineyard - is a Kabinett Riesling – ie made, effectively with super-high quality grapes but with the highest acidity and lowest sugar level of the Prädikatswein categories. Drawing on the concept mentioned above, the wine is made to just 9% alcohol, but leaves behind 47g/litre of residual sugar (by way of comparison, Coca-Cola comes in at ~115g/litre). So, it’s clearly not a bone-dry wine, but I’ll say it again… it’s certainly not sweet. As Richards’ review clearly states, it’s in perfect acid-sugar balance, and quite some wine for its ABV and price.
Wine Advocate also said of it, in 2018, “The 2016 Nahe Riesling Oberhäuser Leistenberg Kabinett offers a coolish, flinty and very precise bouquet with yellow paprika and crushed stone aromas. On the palate, this is a gorgeously lush, round and elegant Riesling with generous fruit and aromatic intensity”. This is a wine for the purist, the aesthete and the technician.
Although there are a few bottles of the reviewed 2016 vintage dotted around merchants here and there, we made sure to take all that were at the UK importer. Even now, we have just ~120 bottles to offer – with us now and ready to despatch - and this wine will vanish fast. Skates on, Riesling fans.
A point lower, and Richards’ number 3, is a NZSB. It’s Kim Crawford’s Small Parcels Spitfire Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough; this wine is a perennially high-scorer in Decanter. The 2019 comes under review, and our MW says of it, “Fresh, crunchy, unashamedly summery Sauvignon Blanc was always going to feature prominently here. This is precise yet energetic, tangy but with complex lime, nettle, curry leaf, gooseberry and anis notes. It’s dry, linear and long - a food-friendly style… “. I often classify NZSBs into two categories: the tropical fruit ones (passion fruit, mango etc) and the citric ones (grapefruit in particular). This is the latter. There is also an irony with this one: the 2019 has yet to arrive into the UK, so we (and other merchants) offer the 2018. Which is 13% ABV…
And then we’re into two more Rieslings, well below £20.
A long-standing Exel favourite is that from Framingham on 91 points, also of Marlborough, NZ. This is 12% ABV, ~15g/litre RS and, says Richards, “Pure, balanced, perfectly summery Riesling made by masters of this particular craft” and “understated but winning”.
We’re also big fans of the wines of Mount Difficulty of Bannockburn in NZ’s Central Otago region. Neither producer may thank me for saying it, but they offer a chance to buy wines as good as those of neighbouring Felton Road, but at half the price. Their Target Riesling 2017 is, one might argue, a New World take on the Dönnhoff. It’s 10.4% alcohol, 37g/litre RS and quite delicious. “Bright and engaging”, “generous fruit succulence and sweetness” said our MW reviewer.
Elsewhere in the magazine, it’s a quiet month for us. We feature one Montagny from the article on this white-only Burgundy (Cote Challonaise) appellation. The ever-consistent Joseph Drouhin’s 2017 Montagny scores 90 points at an excellent £16.40.
Awarded 94 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their September 2020 edition article, Lighter Wines for Summer Drinking (see blue link below).
The Dönnhoff family first came to the Nahe region over 200 years ago, and after establishing a modest farm slowly evolved into a full-fledged wine estate. Helmut Dönnhoff has been making the wine since 1966, and now his son Cornelius is the fourth generation to run this historic winery and their ~25 hectares of Erste Lage, the German grand cru vineyards.
Their holdings represent some of the best in the Nahe and all of Germany. Oberhäuser Leistenberg, the oldest vineyard held by the family, has slate soils and produces fruity wines with elegant acidity. The Schlossböckelheimer Felsenberg is a very old site with porphyry soil. Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle, perhaps the most famous of all the Nahe vineyards, is a slate vineyard with many conglomerates of volcanic rocks, mostly porphyry and melaphyr. The Oberhäuser Brücke, the smallest vineyard in the Nahe, is a tiny parcel saddled on the Nahe River that Dönnhoff owns in entirety. The Brücke has grey slate covered by loess-clay and the vines ripen even later here than in the Hermannshöhle due to large diurnal temperature swings along the river. The Norheimer Dellchen is a steep terraced vineyard in a rocky hollow with porphyry and slate soil. Norheimer Kirscheck sits on a steep south slope of slate soil and produces delicately fruity wines with spice and race. The Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl vineyard has perfect drainage due to its topsoil of pebbles over loam soil; characteristics are wines with a mineral elegance. Due to the water table that flows beneath the vineyard’s soil, the Krötenpfhul has always been farmed organically, even before it was held by Dönnhoff.
Extensive as this listing is, quality categorically trumps quantity. The overall Dönnhoff vineyard area is just 28 hectares (that's just one-quarter of a square kilometer!) and overall production is just 17,000 cases per annum.
Although the Nahe is a dry region, Dönnhoff does not water their vineyards as to encourage deep rooted vines. The soil is covered with organic material like straw and compost to preserve water and to avoid evaporation and erosion in heavy rains. The vines are all grown on wireframes, low to the ground to benefit from the warmth of the stoney topsoil, and at a density of approx. 6000 vines per hectare. The Riesling vines are old clones sourced from the sites in Niederhausen and Schloßböckelheim.
Grapes are always picked by hand at Dönnhoff over 2-3 passes through each vineyard. To preserve laser-like focus and clarity in the wines, the grapes are pressed as soon as possible – within 3 hours of picking. Wines are fermented in traditional German casks (1200-litre stuck and 2400-litre doppelstuck) as well as stainless steel with spontaneous fermentations. Donnhoff’s cellar is unique in its capacity to hold all of its production entirely in stainless steel or in cask, allowing for the ideal élevage for any wine at any point during a vintage.
For this wine, a classic Nahe Kabinett from one of Germany's most renowned vineyards, see the technical sheet (blue link) below from Dönnhoff themselves. The Leistenberg vineyard lies in a small side valley of the Nahe just outside Oberhausen. The name is a double play on words. Leisten means “to achieve” in German, and the Leistenberg perpetually lives up to its name. Lei is also a regional word for slate, and these warm, decomposed clay slate soils and steep terraced hillsides provide ideal conditions for Riesling to thrive. The southeast-facing slope basks in the morning sun, which dries out any excess moisture and promotes healthy fruit. Th e afternoon sun is less powerful, nurturing a long ripening period and moderate alcohol levels. This is n ideal vineyard for Kabinett wines of high minerality and sophisticated elegance. The Leistenberg vineyard lies in a small side valley of the Nahe just outside Oberhausen. The name is a double play on words. Leisten means “to achieve” in German, and the Leistenberg perpetually lives up to its name. Lei is also a regional word for slate, and these warm, decomposed clay slate soils and steep terraced hillsides provide ideal conditions for Riesling to thrive. The southeast-facing slope basks in the morning sun, which dries out any excess moisture and promotes healthy fruit. Th e afternoon sun is less powerful, nurturing a long ripening period and moderate alcohol levels. This is n ideal vineyard for Kabinett wines of high minerality and sophisticated elegance.
Residual sugar is 47g/litre: this is not a bone-dry Riesling. However, given the very high acidity of this wine, the sweetness feels markedly lower than this figure would suggest.
Traditional, precise Kabinett with delicate slate aromatics. Nuanced finesse and spicy acidity.
"The 2016 Nahe Riesling Oberhäuser Leistenberg Kabinett offers a coolish, flinty and very precise bouquet with yellow paprika and crushed stone aromas. On the palate, this is a gorgeously lush, round and elegant Riesling with generous fruit and aromatic intensity". (Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, Feb 2018)
ABV = 9.0%.
** IN STOCK WEDS 5th AUGUST **
The not-yet-in-the-UK 2019 vintage was awarded 93 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their September 2020 edition article, Lighter Wines for Summer Drinking (see blue link below).
Kim Crawford Wines was established in late 1996, when Kim launched a range made from fruit grown in the South Island. Kim sold the company to Constellation in 2005 and has since handed the winemaking reins over to the Constellation winemaking team. Despite Kim no longer being involved with these wines, the current winemakers continue the classic Kim Crawford philosophy and style. Control over grape supply has always been essential for Kim Crawford Wines and they now have the largest vineyard resource in Marlborough of any wine company, across the greatest breadth of sub-regions, ensuring consistent quality and style. For that consistency, and success over the past 20 years, Wine Enthusiast magazine USA recognised Kim Crawford as their “New World Winery of the Year 2016”.
The Small Parcels ‘Spitfire’ Sauvignon Blanc takes its name from a famous site in Marlborough that was used as an air force base during WWII. In 2018, in a first for Spitfire, 50% of the wine came from a grower vineyard in the Upper Wairau – almost the westernmost Marlborough vineyard before the mountains. In a year that defied ‘normal’ this micro area had the most balanced conditions. The rest of the blend was from two favourite Rapaura vineyards which delivered Spitfire’s trademark power and citrus.
Spring was wet and mild with no frost in any of the vineyards. Summer temperatures stepped up; December was the second warmest on record, while January saw the highest temperatures since records began. By February it was looking like an early harvest, with superb flowering conditions and a sizeable crop necessitating thinning in almost all vineyards. However, two extropical cyclones brought considerable rainfall in February. Harvest started mid-March with grapes at a good level of physiological ripeness but needing careful hand-sorting to eliminate botrytis.
Upon arrival at the winery, the fruit was crushed and the juice was drained for about three hours before the skins were pressed. Fermentation was long, slow and cool, with a yeast selected to express the grapes' grapefruit and passion fruit characteristics. Only the best blocks from the vineyard were eventually selected for the Small Parcels bottling, following a rigorous tasting selection. The wine was bottled early to retain freshness and purity of fruit.
Sauvignon Blanc 100%.
A hugely aromatic wine with aromas of passionfruit, nettles, citrus. The complex palate launches a concentrated burst of juicy tropical fruits and grapefruit backed with minerality and a long lingering finish.
ABV = 13.0%.
** MORE STOCK WITH US ON WEDS 5th AUGUST! **
Awarded 91 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their September 2020 edition article, Lighter Wines for Summer Drinking (see blue link below).
The Framingham label was launched in 1994 with one Riesling, and has since expanded to include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. Framingham produces wines from their 19.5 hectare estate vineyard (certified organic since 2014) and other selected sites. Their Riesling vines, planted in 1981, are among the oldest in Marlborough. Andrew Brown joined Framingham as head winemaker in January 2020, replacing Dr Andrew Hedley, who resigned from his role after 18 years at the helm. A highly regarded winemaker, Brown previously spent seven years at Framingham as assistant winemaker and understudy to Andrew Hedley before working as consultant in regions including Oregon, Central Otago and Alsace. Last year, one of Brown's Rieslings won the Champion Riesling Trophy at the New Zealand International Wine Show; a fitting accolade from someone taking the reins at Framingham, who have always been renowned for their Rieslings.
Fruit for the Framingham Classic Riesling was sourced from their estate vineyard in the Wairau Valley. The alluvial, well-drained soils of the Wairau were formed by the sedimentation of the Wairau River. In the warm centre of the valley – where there is low rainfall and relatively low frost risk – Framingham are able to harvest controlled yields at desired ripeness. Extensive crop thinning and a degree of leaf plucking are practised when necessary, giving low yields of grapes that have had managed exposure to sunlight. Fruit comes from three different sections of the estate with each parcel hand-picked and whole bunch pressed.
The 2019 growing season saw a wet and cold spring which continued to the start of summer. However, the last significant rain for the summer months fell on Christmas day, with the remainder of the season turning out to be one of the warmest and driest summers on record. This led to naturally lower yields and very low disease incidence.
The majority of the juice was fermented in stainless steel tanks with approximately 7% fermented on skins over two weeks, followed by ageing in oak. All copmponents were aged on full ferment lees for three months.
Residual sugar = ~15g/litre. That said, this wine is not noticeably off-dry given its high acidity.
This wine has a fragrant, complex nose showing mandarin and cream aromas with stonefruit and hints of smoke and minerality. The palate is vibrant and intense with orange, nectarine and cream flavours with zesty acidity.
ABV = 12.0%.
** IN STOCK 5th AUGUST **
Awarded 90 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their September 2020 edition article, Lighter Wines for Summer Drinking (see blue link below).
Established in 1992, the Dicey family owns some of the oldest vineyards in the Bannockburn region of Central Otago on the famous Felton Road and have acquired land over the last ten years to build up to over 40 hectares, including six single vineyard sites. Their portfolio vineyards spans Central Otago from Gibbston to Lowburn Valley and on to Bendigo home still under Mount Difficulty at Bannockburn.
Central Otago provides New Zealand’s only continental climate, combined with unique soils ideally suited for growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. The Bannockburn area, in particular, is one of the few sites outside of Burgundy that lends itself to the growing of the pernickety Pinot Noir grape; Mt Difficulty craft wines in the Burgundian style whilst stamping the uniqueness of the terroir to produce structured and serious wines. Not content with growing superb Pinot Noir, they are also known for their aromatic whites and grape varieties such as their grower series Lowburn Chardonnay and Estate Chenin Blanc.
Winemaker-in-chief Matt Dicey has a lifelong association with the wine industry and is a fourth-generation vigneron. After achieving a Masters Degree in Oenology and Viticulture, Matt spent four years gaining experience overseas.
As with all New Zealand wines, Mt Difficulty adhere to strict sustainability practices and constantly strive towards organic production.
Mount Difficulty is the name on the leading wines. The ‘second label’ is named Roaring Meg; these wines are produced in a more fruit-driven, early-drinking style and have become a mainstay of the Mt Difficulty stable since their introduction in 2003.
This wine is 100% Riesling.
Residual sugar = 37g/litre (ideal with pates and cheeses!).
See the blue link below for the excellent fiche technique/technical note from the team at Mt Difficulty.
Awarded Best in Class and Trophy at the Royal Easter Show, Auckland, this fantastic wine shows why Central Otago excels with lower alcohol, moderately sweet examples, fashioned after the German style. With startling purity, a fine lime acidity and sense of alpine flowers, this medium dry wine delivers harmonious balance and fruit intensity right through the palate. Leading the way to the long-awaited Riesling revival.
ABV = 10.4%.
** IN STOCK ON WEDS 5th AUGUST! **
Founded in 1880 by the then 22-year-old Joseph Drouhin, this famous Burgundy negociant is still family-owned. Of the current (fourth) generation, Veronique Drouhin is the winemaker, Laurent is the brand ambassador in the USA, Philippe is in charge of the vineyards, whilst Frederic “conducts the orchestra”. Maison Joseph Drouhin owns extensive parcels throughout the region and in Chablis extending to 73 hectares, including the world-renowned Clos des Mouches, one of the earliest purchases made by Joseph. From Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche through to Meursault and to Corton Charlemagne in the Côte de Beaune, Echezaux to Clos de Vougeot in the Côte de Nuits, the domaines produce a wide spectrum from Laforêt Bourgogne Blanc and Rouge to Grands Crus in Musigny and Chambertin.
Drouhin’s foremost concern is to express the exact character of each terroir. Since 1993 they have worked their vineyards to organic and biodynamic principles, “bringing natural answers to natural problems”. Vine stocks are grown in their own nursery to preserve their genetic heritage and control quality, and vineyards are ploughed by horse with treatments based on herb infusions and the use of natural predators instead of synthetic products. Planting is dense and yields deliberately kept low.
Vinification is traditional using indigenous yeasts and as little technical interference as possible, varied according to the needs of each terroir. Ageing takes account of the origin of each wine: stainless steel vats to enhance fruit and freshness in Chablis and Mâconnais, oak barrels to develop complexity and finesse in Côte d’Or. New oak barrels are made from oak trees individually selected by Drouhin which are then weathered for three years so that all coarse tannins can be eliminated. Their use, and the time the wine spends in them, are determined by the appellation and the vintage.
The progress of every wine is meticulously monitored and recorded at every stage; Drouhin were one of the first houses in Burgundy to apply bar codes to the barrels to ensure total traceability and every cork is stamped with Joseph Drouhin, the appellation and the vintage, in order to guarantee the authenticity of the wine.
For more detail on this wine, see the blue link below for the fiche technique/technical note from Drouhin themselves.
Montagny is a very interesting wine, not just a simple "terroir wine". Its colour is pale. On the nose, aromas of golden apple, almond and fern, with a faint lemony note. There is a clear-cut and lively impression when first tasting the wine, followed by a feeling of roundness. Long aftertaste, with appetizing flavors of compote (stewed fruit).
ABV = 13.0%.