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Richard Mark James' wine and travel blog

04 November 2018

Germany: Saale-Unstrut region (and more).

The Saale-Unstrut wine area lies in eastern Germany roughly between Leipzig and Erfurt along the banks of those two eponymous rivers: most of the vineyards are actually in the state of Saxony. Production here is small compared to Germany's other wine regions with less than 800 hectares of vines, often on steep terraced hillsides around the towns of Naumburg, Freyburg (see photos left and below) and Laucha for example. About a quarter of the various grape varieties planted are red, alongside a fair amount of Riesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauburgunder (Pinot Grigio), Silvaner, Muller-Thurgau et al. Here's half-a-dozen recommended bottles enjoyed on a recent stay in Naumburg (nice old town) and Berlin (awesome city).
Winzerhof Gussek 2017 Rosé trocken Gutswein (12.5% abv) - Blend of Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Portugieser and Blauer Zweigelt. By the way, "Germany is the world's third largest producer of Pinot Noir..." according to www.germanwines.de. Attractive crisp 'French style' rosé with light berry fruits and fresh finish. €8
2017 Blanc de Noirs (12% abv) from the same family winery in Naumburg - Dry white made from 100% Spätburgunder, giving a fairly complex nutty and yeast-lees edged wine underlined by crisp length. €9.50
Winzervereinigung Freyburg-Unstrut 2016 Dornfelder trocken (winemaker Kathleen Romberg, 12% abv) - Despite its very deep colour, this red made from the Dornfelder variety has supple mouth-feel with lots of enticing peppery wild fruit flavours. €5.99
Weingut Dr. Hage Traminer trocken Gutswein (12.5% abv) - Lovely aromatic off-dry white with floral lychee notes, quite rounded palate with subtle exotic fruit then fresher finish. €4.99
Rotkäppchen Sekt Rosé trocken (11% abv) - This sparkling winery is located in Freyburg in the Saale-Unstrut region, but the wine used as a base to the recipe comes from a much wider area (they produce big volumes I think, to keep up with the Germans' insatiable appetite for bubbly no doubt). Medium-dry really but nice crisp and refreshing acidity underlines this fruity and lightly yeasty rosé fizz. €3.99
Jochen Uebel 2016 Chardonnay trocken, Pfalz (13% abv) - This wine estate in the Pfalz region appears to make some good Chardonnay, this one is their unoaked version offering plenty of ripe citrus fruit enhanced by attractive buttery flavours and fresh bite. €8


There's a slideshow of more wine trail photos from this trip on my Wine Education Service Facebook page HERE.

14 October 2018

Belfast wine tastings and courses autumn 2018 to spring 2019

UPDATED October 2018:
The Wine Education Service NI (that's me) program of wine tasting courses starting this autumn is (drum roll)...
Saturday 10 November 2018 - France wine workshop.
Saturday 2 February 2019 - Italy and Spain workshop.
Saturday 30 March 2019 - Grape to Glass workshop.
Thursday evenings 25 April to 23 May 2019 inclusive - Essential Wine Tasting five-week course.
Prices: £90 for a Saturday wine workshop including lunch, course manual, tasting samples (of at least a dozen diverse high-quality wines) and glass of wine with lunch and tuition. Runs 10.45 to 16.45 approx with breaks and lunch served in the room.
EWT 5-week course: £125 including tasting samples (six or so wines per session), course manual and tuition. Timing: 18.45 to 20.30 approx.
Wine tasting glasses supplied free for each event, although you're welcome to buy your own set (usually six in a box) and bring along. Unfortunately, WES NI does not keep a supply of tasting glasses for sale.
Venue: Lord Lucan Room, McHugh's bar & restaurant, 29-31 Queen's Square, Belfast BT1 3FG.
For further information and online booking, please visit the Wine Education Service website, send an email via the contact form on this blog or check out the WES NI Facebook page Facebook.com/WineEducationServiceNI.

Wine tutor RMJ tasting at Domaine Madeloc (Banyuls-sur-mer, France), pretending to be serious (slightly).

WES terms and conditions apply, which will be emailed with your invoice or can be viewed on this blog HERE. Over 18s only. Wine Education Service NI does not sell wine - our wine tastings and classes are designed to be purely educational and informal while focusing on getting more enjoyment out of tasting wine; we source high quality representative samples from a variety of different retailers.

31 July 2018

Madeira: Henriques & Henriques and D'Oliveiras


Henriques & Henriques wine cellar is found just up the hill in the touristy fishing village of Câmara de Lobos a few kilometres to the west of Funchal, which is one of the main grape-growing areas on the island. These mostly small blocks of vineyard are strung along dangerous terraces lying above miniature banana plantations and steep market gardens, and offer a spectacularly dramatic backdrop to the town whether approaching from the coastal path to the east or staggeringly winding and elevated cliff-edged roads to the west as you descend into its vast awesome natural amphitheatre.
The Henriques family were already longstanding landowners in this area supplying grapes to Madeira houses in Funchal before setting up their own cellar in 1850, Maria Aguiar informed me on a trip there last month. By 1925, the company was known as Henriques & Henriques named after the two brothers, Francisco Eduardo and João Joaquim, who expanded the business focusing on their own production and especially for export. Traditionally, the main markets were the UK and US, although Japan for example among others has now become very important. Germany continues to take the largest volume of Madeira wines, but this is mostly entry-level quality: H&H's three year old sweet wine is still the biggest seller in Europe. The last of the Henriques family involved in the business passed away without heirs in 1969 when it was bought out by the remaining partners.
In 1994, H&H moved location from Funchal to the new ageing cellar, offices and shop in Câmara de Lobos; and a modern winemaking facility was also built nearby at their Quinta Grande property which was replanted to become their principal vineyard covering ten hectares. This lies at 600-700 metres altitude where the micro-climate can be cool and misty, so the vines were trellised using contemporary techniques to create better canopy exposure. The minimum potential alcohol content of grapes only has to be nine percent (by volume) by law though (remembering that the final wines are fortified anyway), with picking taking place as early as mid August but sometimes lasting into October progressing from vineyards by the sea and working upwards to the high ground.
H&H doesn't grow the island's predominant (red) grape variety, Tinta Negra, at Quinta Grande, as it can easily be purchased from other growers; the focus here is on the so-called noble white varieties as well as the very rare Terrantez grape (maybe from northern Portugal originally). "We are the largest producer (relatively speaking), but there's very little left," Maria told me. "Some growers are replanting Terrantez because of its premium price." Hence why the winery only makes limited-edition gracefully matured wines from it.
Coming back to H&H's barrel cellar and tasting room in Câmara, the facility houses three storeys for cask ageing. Maria explained that, by removing the bottling plant and other winemaking equipment (now at Quinta Grande), they made room to be able to reassemble those traditional big tuns. They also have their own cooper and workshop there, which you don't see much nowadays, as "barrels are reused for decades so are cleaned and repaired here." At ground level, there are some standard stainless steel vats used for storing base wine and aged wines drawn from cask waiting to be bottled. I spotted three rows of new barrels as well belonging to whisk(e)y distillers sent here for "seasoning." For example, Jameson and Bushmills keep barrels here used for ageing Madeira which are then returned to Ireland (empty obviously).
Speaking in general taste and style terms, although some of the cheaper, less-aged Madeira wines can be perfectly okay, it's definitely worth paying more money for wines aged for ten (or more) years as this is when Madeira gets really interesting and of high quality. Tasting through the Henriques range exemplifies this well (see tasting notes below). By the way, high acidity levels are common in Madeira wines due to a unique combination of climate (never usually that hot, varying cloud cover etc.), volcanic terrain, traditionally-trellised vines (latada or pergola method) planted at altitude on terraces (there is very little 'flat' land on the island) and early picking.
This acid structure partly explains why the so-called dry wines do actually taste quite dry despite containing a relatively large amount of residual sugar (RS), shown here in more readily understandable grams per litre (g/l) rather than degrees Baumé used by Madeira winemakers. And inversely why very sweet wines often don't end up too sickly because of that acidic balance; oxidative ageing characters (the casks are heated in fact and not topped up while some of the contents evaporates) also influence your perception of sweetness and the taste of these wines - those tangy nutty notes in particular - as well as alcohol levels of 19 to 20% abv typical of them being fortified.
More @ www.henriquesehenriques.pt.
There's also some useful facts and figures on this site: www.madeirawine.nl.

Notes on a selection of Henriques & Henriques wines (unless specified, as in the varietal 'classics', the main grape variety is Tinta Negra):
Monte Seco - The story goes that this wine was created during the Second World War because of a shortage of dry Martini. Manzanilla-esque styling (such as toasted almond aromas) but weightier with a dry and refreshing palate. Tastes much drier than you'd expect with 25 g/l RS, as it's nice and tangy. Good value at €6.50 cellar door.
Rainwater (73 RS) - This 'medium-dry' wine apparently gets its name from someone famously describing Madeira 'as soft as rainwater.' Nuttier walnut tones, again tastes tangy vs sweet, attractive enough easy-going style.
Finest Dry 5 Year Old (51.5 RS) - Richer and more oxidised but definitely drier with roasted almond flavours, more complex and lingering finish. Attractive good-value wine.
Full Rich 3 Year Old (108 RS) - Much browner and sweeter with brown sugar and aged nutty characters, surprisingly well-balanced though.
Full Rich 5 Year Old (111 RS) - More 'madeirised' with caramel and molasses notes, fruitier though with big mouthful and length, more complicated flavours too.
1997 Single Harvest (aged in Bourbon barrels and bottled in 2004/5, 108 RS) - More vanilla and caramel on the nose, rounded and fairly punchy palate, rich although balanced finish despite the power and sweetness with a touch of grip and texture too. A warming Christmas pudding of a wine!
Sercial 10 Year Old Dry (55 RS) - Much fresher nose with citrus and apricot then concentrated tangy almonds on the palate, nice power vs cut, complex long finish. Lovely. €15.50 50cl.
Verdelho 15 Year Old (72 RS) - Candied orange, smoky too, very intense mouth-feel making it taste relatively dry actually, concentrated and rich vs tangy nutty smoky and elegant finish. Delicious too.
2000 Boal Colheita Single Harvest medium-sweet (96 RS) - Coffee and caramelised brown sugar aromas, very lush mouthful vs 'kick' and 'cut', tangy pecan nut flavours linger with warmth; very concentrated big wine, wow. Try with chocolate or coffee and walnut cake, proper vanilla ice cream.
Malvasia 20 Year Old (114 RS) - Very powerful nose with toasted cocoa bean tones, vanilla and treacle, very intense flavours, lingering roasted walnuts, powerful long finish, textured even with rich coating. Wow.
Terrantez 20 Year Old medium-dry (75 RS) - Made from this now rare variety, this is the youngest wine H&H makes from it. Orangey brown colour, very complex aromatic nose, spicy too with roasted almond and hazelnut, again very intense palate with salty tang almost, unusual and long finish with peppery and tangy vs sweetish yet almost bitter dry combo; delicious lingering finish. €53
1898 Solera Verdelho medium-dry (77 RS, bottled in 2008) - A solera (similar to the protracted cask ageing process used for sherry, where wines of different ages are slowly blended together from one level of barrels to another etc.) is normally stopped after ten years and the final wines bottled; this one is kept in cask. It doesn't really look any older than the other wines! Tangy and intense, oaky notes on a rich backdrop cut by unbelievably fresh acidity, very long complex and lingering flavours with an almost dry-tasting flourish. Tastes lively still.
1900 Solera Century Malmsey sweet (123 RS, bottled in 1999) - Deep brown with orangey edges, raisins molasses and candied citrus on the nose, super concentrated and rich but again with fresh cut and power running underneath; lasts forever. What can I say: daft to try and 'score' it or anything as futile!


Pereira D'Oliveira Vinhos is a well-respected 'century-old Madeira house' formed by the merger of five independent family producers and shippers founded between 1820 and 1949. Their pretty old cellar and tasting room (front of building above) is located in the centre of Funchal old town, just up a side street heading up from the Jesuit Church, where you can taste some of their basic range wines for free (charges apply for the dearer wines depending on what you want to try). At the top end, the cellar holds stocks of bottles of old vintages from about 2005 to 1850 (not every year obviously) as far as I could see when I went there last month. Here are a few quick notes then on three of their entry level qualities sampled in situ (all 19% abv):
D'Oliveiras Medium-dry (aged 3 years in cask) - Nice and nutty and smooth on the palate, neither too sweet nor too dry with attractive weight vs tangy finish.
D'Oliveiras Medium-sweet (aged 3 years in cask) - Richer and sweeter with more pecan nut and caramel flavours, has a little 'cut' although it's a bit cloying on its own. Would be nice with cake or ice cream.
D'Oliveiras 5 Year Old sweet - Sweet brown sugar flavours, seems fierier and punchier with roasted walnut and tangy notes, longer and more interesting finish in the end despite the amount of residual sugar.
I brought back a pack of four miniatures of D'Oliveiras' 15 Year Old Madeiras (€14), one of each style, which were on an altogether higher quality level overall. I preferred the Dry and Medium-Dry 15 Year Olds the best with their nutty tangy toasty complexity; the sweetest of this range is still good although correspondingly rich dark and sweet.

11 July 2018

Portugal: 'wines of the moment' (and restaurant tips in Funchal).

Or Portuguese 'holiday wines of the moment' since these recommendable bottles were sampled and enjoyed recently on the wonderful island of Madeira (separate piece on one or two Madeira cellars to follow...), enhanced by a few eating-out tips where some of them were discovered. These are all convincing examples of just how happening Portugal now is on several different levels: well-made flavoursome wines, across the red white and rosé spectrum, fantastic diversity including many excellent (although sometimes difficult to get your tongue around pronunciation-wise) indigenous grape varieties and, to crown off the clichés, often good value too! Even if some of the more sought-after or celebrity wine names have become surprisingly expensive in fact. Euro prices quoted are supermarket, cellar door or restaurant prices in and around Funchal.
The fairly famous Alentejo winery Esporão produces a very enjoyable, easy-going 'house wine' range called Monte Velho. This includes a chunky fruity 2017 red made from the Aragonez (the local name for Tempranillo), Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional and Syrah varieties (14% abv), offering soft texture and dark fruit with spicy liquorice flavours. The tasty 2017 white is a blend of Fernão Pires, Arinto and Perrum (= Palomino, the sherry grape), with its weighty 14.5% abv lending it nicely to fried fish or pork dishes say, but also has plenty of aromatic fruit, rich ripe-textured mouth-feel and zesty finish making it difficult to resist. (€4.99 / €2.90 half).
From the Alentejo region as well (where the winemaking scene has exploded over the last twenty years) comes Chaminé 2015 from Danish/American-owned wine estate Cortes de Cima, which is one of their good-value entry label reds shaped from 30% Aragonez, 30% Syrah, 20% Touriga Nacional, 10% Alicante Bouschet and 10% Trincadeira (I think they were among the first to plant Syrah here by the way). It costs about €5 in supermarkets in Portugal (€6.95 Madeira airport). Cortes de Cima's top wines are pretty dear nowadays too, although they do make a much broader range since planting more vineyards than when I went there about twenty years ago!
This pair from the Douro Valley (Port country although these wines aren't) is a well-distributed (worldwide) red and white from vineyards owned by the mighty Sogrape group: Casa Ferreirinha 2016 Esteva red (40% Tinta Roriz (another local name for Tempranillo), 35% Tinta Barroca, 15% Touriga Franca and 10% Touriga Nacional), which has light tannin countered by peppery fruit; and Casa Ferreirinha 2016 Planalto Reserva white (30% Viosinho, 15% Malvasia Fina, 15% Gouveio, 15% Arinto, 15% Códega, 5% Rabigato, 5% Moscatel), which has yeast-lees tones, is rounded with white peach flavours and a bit of zing. €6 or €7 for a half-bottle of each in a decent Brazilian-themed restaurant in São Martinho (a towards-trendy western suburb of Funchal) called Espettus.
Good, inexpensive, dry Vinho Verde isn't hard to find in Portugal and its islands: the 2017 Torre de Menagem (Alvarinho / Trajadura) made by Monção e Melgaço (12% abv) is a refreshing and aromatic example with zesty citrus and soft juicy finish (€3.79). Like other traditionally red-focused wine areas, the Dão region is now producing some lovely white wines as well, such as the zesty and concentrated 2017 Grão Vasco Branco from Quinta dos Carvalhais (39% Encruzado, 38% Malvasia Fina, 15% Bical, 8% Gouveio). €6 or €7 for a half-bottle in the highly recommended Five restaurant (also located on the very long Estrada Monumental main road on the way into Funchal): perfect with the Madeira speciality grilled black scabbard fish.
Also made in Dão region, and far from being 'traditional' although that is the 'official' method of producing this superb sparkling wine, is Raposeira 2010 Super Reserva Bruto (12.5% abv): classy fizz indeed with the toasty yeasty richness you'd expect from vintage Champagne or top Cava, a tad rounder on the palate perhaps with underlying freshness. Follows the Champagne 'tradition' too of using white and red grapes: Malvasia Fina and Tinta Roriz. Lovely mouthful for only €8.99 a bottle.
Finally (almost), here's a couple of unusual dry whites from the Lisbon area to look out for (one to the south and the other to the north): Vinhas de Pegóes 2017 Verdelho (the 'Madeira grape' if you like) from the Setúbal peninsula (13% abv), which is aromatic and oily textured with apricot tones and a bargain for under €5. And Bucellas Arinto 2017 from the Bucelas DOC region, made by Caves Velhas (12.5% abv), offering elderflower aromas and white peach, lees-y zesty and 'chalky' mouth-feel with crisp dry finish.


Inevitably, I should include a couple of Madeira wines here too (separate feature on two quite different wine cellars, H&H and D'Oliveiras, coming soon...): Henriques & Henriques' delicious 10 Year Old Sercial, which is one of the drier styles, has great balance of citrus and apricot hints layered with lots of tangy roasted almond flavours, powerful with refreshing cut, long and complex finish. €15.50 for 50cl.
As part of the Restaurante do Forte's very good 'special concept' menu (three dishes chosen from their a la carte plus amuse-bouche, sorbet, coffee and petits fours all served with different wines for €42.50 per head), you get a glass of rich 5 Year Old Malmsey with your dessert, which is pretty sweet but its toffeed toasted pecan flavours go nicely with their varied cheese selection (and probably the chocolate pudding as well). I forgot to note down the names of the other wines served with this menu, but it included a lively dry rose-scented Touriga Nacional rosé and a firm-ish peppery red from the Beiras region (Bairrada country), made mostly from the Baga variety (with some Cabernet I think?), that went down well with my confit of duck. Photo above: me outside the old São Tiago fort thinking of taking a ride in their Austin 12 (can be booked for a taxi ride to or from the restaurant, which is literally poised on the seafront on the eastern side of Funchal old town). More info: en.forte.restaurant.
Back in the São Martinho district near the Forum Madeira shopping centre, Ego's Café is also worth checking out for good simple Portuguese food served outside if you wish, best served with a refreshing Coral beer (brewed in Madeira)!