Monthly Archives: February 2015

Discovering the wines of La Rioja Alta

La Rioja Alta is one of the best known wineries in Rioja and this year it is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Founded by five families, it is still family owned and managed and now owns 450 hectares of vineyard in Rioja Alta – considered the best sub region of Rioja.

The wine of La Rioja Alta

The wines of La Rioja Alta

They are considered to be one of the few remaining wineries producing ‘traditional-style’ Rioja – meaning the wines are aged for long periods of time in American oak barrels. Interestingly, to make the barrels, they import their own wooden staves from various states in the US and then craft barrels to their specifications in their own cooperage – not something you come across very often.

Last week I was invited along to a dinner, hosted by Adam Wander and Kiran Curtis of WanderCurtis wines, to taste a range of wines from La Rioja Alta – all presented by the export manager, Francisco Corpas.

But before the Rioja started flowing and to get us in the mood before dinner, we were treated to a duet of Champagne, brought along by the importer Tim Hall from Scala Wine. Both were from small growers and they made a fascinating comparison.

Vazart Coquart

First up was Vazart Coquart & Fils Extra Brut – a Blanc de Blancs NV from the Grand Cru of Chouilly on the Cotes des Blanc. The high proportion of reserve wines, coupled with low dosage of 3g/l, made this a really vinous style of Champagne. Rich yet delicate with a lovely creamy texture and soft mousse. Really quite impressive. The second Champagne, Lacourte-Godbillon Premier Cru NV was a Pinot-dominant blend with more standard 9g/l dosage and showed bags of red apple and red fruit character. A more classic aperitif style, but I have to admit to preferring the creamier Vazart Coquart.

Then onto dinner. With our first course of tuna carpaccio we were served not Rioja, but a Albariño from Rias Baixas. La Rioja Alta first bought vineyards in Galicia in the 1980s and they are now the largest single vineyard farmer in the region. We tasted their Lagar de Cervera 2013 – a fresh and zesty style with lots of green melon and red apple fruit. The wine usually undergoes malolactic fermentation to reduce the total acidity – but 2013 was such a great vintage that they didn’t need to.

And then finally we were onto the Riojas, what we had all been waiting for, accompanying a delicious dish of Welsh lamb loin, slow cooked lamb croquettes and cavolo nero. We tasted through the range of different labels and it was really interesting to see the contrasting styles produced.

First up was Vina Alberdi Reserva 2008. 100% Tempranillo with 2 years ageing in American oak – the first year being in 100% new oak. This wine split opinion around the table. Some people really enjoyed the soft, oaky style with lots of sweet coconut and toasted vanilla notes. Personally I found the soft oak slightly out of sync with the spiky red fruit character. A simple enough wine and certainly inoffensive – but when compared to its bigger brothers it didn’t quite stand up.

Vina Arana Reserva 2006 was up next. This has 5% Mazuelo (Mourvèdre) and 95% Tempranillo and has had 3 years ageing in 3 year old American oak, plus a further 2 years in bottle before release. For me, this was much more classically Rioja than the Alberdi. Mid bodied and refreshing to drink with more savoury tobacco notes along with the red fruit character and lovely, silky tannins.

The Vina Ardanza Reserva 2005 proved an interesting comparison. 80% Tempranillo and 20% Garnacha with similar ageing time, this showed more juicy red fruit as you might expect from the Garnacha with a real spicy edge too. Again, mid bodied with notes of sweet oak adding complexity. A lot of people preferred this slightly more opulent style, but the savoury notes and delicacy on the Arana made that the pick for me.

Finally, we moved onto the two stars of the portfolio: the La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2004 and La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 2001.

The 904 is 90% Tempranillo with 10% of the lesser known Rioja grape, Graciano and is aged for 4 years in 3 year old American oak and a further 4 in bottle. In contrast, the 890 is 94% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano and 3% Mazuelo and is aged for 6 years in 4 year old American oak plus 6 in bottle. According to Francisco, the 2001 is the best vintage they have ever produced of 890, and so they have given it the extra epithet of Seleccion Especial.

Whilst Francisco professed that La Rioja Alta only release wines when they are ready to drink, in reality these two wines are still babies – and whilst you can drink them now, you’d do better to hang into them for a while as they will age superbly.

The 904 was very expressive with bags of dark fruit and a lifted, floral note from the Graciano. Lots of spicy oak giving complexity, but needs time for this to integrate more fully into the wine. A classy wine.

In contrast, the 890 showed a touch more evolution but also needs time for the oak to settle in. It deftly accomplishes that oxymoronic feat of showing both incredible concentration and intensity of flavour, but also great balance and elegance. Fascinating to taste now, but I would love to try this again in another 20 years – when it will probably barely be reaching middle age: this wine has a very long life ahead.

All in all this was a great insight into the wines of La Rioja Alta. It really highlighted the styles of the different labels and also underlined just how surprisingly refreshing Rioja is to drink. And whilst lamb is the classic match for Rioja, as Francisco said, “we drink Rioja with anything”.

Now, it’s probably time for me to get my hands on some bottles of that 890 to lay down for a couple of decades.


The complexities of wine

After 10 years of working in wine, studying through the WSET levels and now making my way through the MW, I would be the first to admit that wine is a complex subject and can be very confusing to many people. But, I do believe that no matter how complicated the subject is we the wine trade have a duty of care when talking to consumers and that bullshitting them is just wrong.

Take this example from a restaurant I was in just the other night:

Customer: “I’d like a glass of white wine, but I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc”

Waitress: “Well, we don’t serve New World wines here.”

The customer here clearly likes wine, knows what they do and do not like and wants some help from the person serving the wine. Great, this should be an easy request to deal with. But the response from the waitress is both confused and confusing. Does she assume the customer specifically doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc from the New World? Perhaps she doesn’t know that France, about as Old World as it gets, is the home of Sauvignon Blanc? Perhaps that is just a line she trots out on the assumption that her customers would rather drink Old World wine anyway.

Regardless of the reason, I can’t but help think she has failed the customer. Even if she didn’t know that Sauvignon is grown in the Old World (which would surprise me, given her position in the restaurant and clear knowledge of Old vs New world) she is still not giving the customer any real help or guidance on what to order. In fact, her response can’t have done anything other than confuse the customer – it certainly confused me. The restaurant had a short wine list, but everything was listed by the glass and the customer just wanted to be recommended something to enjoy.

When I’ve mentioned this incident since then there have been two types of response. The first berated me for ‘publicly bashing’ customers and service staff who didn’t know much about wine. I hope this makes it clear that wasn’t my intention. This really isn’t about how much wine knowledge you have, but rather how you use what knowledge you have – and more importantly, how you help the customer with what they want.

The second type of response illustrates that sometimes we in the trade do like to have a joke at consumers’ expense, making it perhaps unsurprising the first response came up. These comments asked if perhaps the customer would have liked a glass of Sancerre. For anyone confused at this point, Sancerre is a region in France where white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc. Whilst I freely admit to making this exact ‘joke’ myself in the past (using the ‘I don’t like Chardonnay but I love Chablis’ example) – with this type of response it is quite clear why the general public like to label us in the wine trade as snobs.

So, please if you’re in the industry – be careful with how you use your wine knowledge with customers. Don’t fob them off with a half-truth or bullshit them because it’s easier. But equally, know that wine is confusing and if you can shine even the smallest light on one aspect you will be doing both your customer and yourself a favour. And let’s stop mocking consumers because they don’t know as much as we do. That’s ok. Maybe they just want a nice glass of wine.


Have a Little Faith

Recently I took on a challenge that was to give me a number of sleepless nights.  It was a seemingly simple task; to recreate a wine list for a high quality seafood restaurant in Dorset.  Now, when I arrived the list was pretty much par for the course with every other restaurant and pub in Dorset, if not the majority of England.

It boasted a cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc with a more expensive option from Marlborough (along with a whopping 7 other Sauvignon options!), a cheap Veneto Pinot Grigio with a more expensive Italian option in the form of Gavi di Gavi.  It had a confusing array of reds considering it is a seafood restaurant with a hot and ballsy Cabernet from Napa and an equally rich Chateauneuf du Pape.  It was a wine list by numbers, showcasing very little of the amazing wine talent that we have available at all price points.  However, I was assured, as I am at each restaurant boasting a similar selection that ‘this is what the customers want’.  Really?!! They want it? Or it is the only thing they are being offered?   I was warned that there would be some very irate customers if I were to try and change things too drastically.  Bring it on!

Throwing caution to the wind I decided a full make over was in order.  If the customer wanted the very recognisable grapes (Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc) then they could have it by the glass, but it would be a stunning example and certainly not the 2 cheapest wines on the list.  I introduced a beautiful, rich Pinot Grigio from Goriska Brda in Slovenia, and for the Sauvignon, one from the cooler Hemel en Aarde Valley in South Africa (sorry Marlborough, if they want a wine from you they can have a delicious Pinot Gris/Riesling/Gewurztraminer blend).  These were to be the two most expensive whites by the glass.

If they wanted a cheaper option I would offer them something stylistically similar but from a grape they were less likely to be familiar with and therefore more likely to offer great value.  In place of the Sauvignon I introduced a lovely crisp Colombard from South West France, and in place of the cheap Pinot Grigio, a Cortese from Piedmont.  The Merlot met a similar fate; it was replaced by a lovely juicy blend of Aragonez and Trincadeira from Alentejo in Portugal at the lower price point, and a lovely red fruited Garnacha from Calatyud in Spain as the more premium option.

Having removed the wine crutches from the list, the next step was to put it into a format that was going to encourage exploration rather than ordering by price point.  Previously it had been listed according to the type of food it would pair with which was a nice idea until you had two people eating from two different food types.  Instead I introduced the categories of:

‘CLASSIC; tried and tested.  Well known grapes from well known areas’,

‘QUIRKY AND FUN – step out of your comfort zone and be rewarded.  Amazing wines from lesser known regions and weird grapes’,

‘RETRO CHIC – they went out of vogue but these hot producers have revolutionised these wines – modern and exciting versions of an 80’s classic’

And finally ‘JUST TRUST ME – can’t pronounce it? Didn’t know they made wine? You are in for a treat!’.

The ‘Just Trust Me section included some fairly challenging wines such as an Assyrtiko from Santorini, Forestera from Ischia, Treixadura from Galicia, Mencia from Bierzo, Cannonau from Sardinia and Agiorgitiko from Nemea…. the restaurant goers of Dorset were not in for an easy ride, and neither were the poor waiters.  The idea of the list was to encourage dialogue between the customers and the staff who would have to be trained up to their eyeballs on the wines.

The night before the list launch proved to be a sleepless one for me.  Each time I closed my eyes I saw myself being chased down the beach by a mob of angry customers demanding bottles of cheap Sauvignon Blanc.


Thankfully that was not a premonition and my faith in the customers open minded approach to wine was well founded.  Some customers will ask for a house Merlot or Sauvignon but they are more than willing to try something obscure that represents great value when it is recommended.  The more adventurous customers have dived into the ‘just trust me’ section with glee and are discovering the delights of some of the worlds more obscure offerings.

In my humble opinion it is simply not acceptable to offer poor quality wine just because the ‘brand’, be it grape or region, will sell.  It is lazy and disrespectful to a clientele who, no matter how much or how little wine knowledge they have, deserve to get a great glass of wine, at any price point.  It is the job of the restaurant, wine shop or supermarket to give the customers the opportunity to indulge in great and exciting wines.

For the restaurant in question visit:

– Alex aka monkey-on-a-mission

Celebrating the 120th birthday of Elderton’s Command vineyard

It’s not every day that you get invited to celebrate the birthday of a vineyard. But then, this wasn’t just any birthday, or indeed, any vineyard.

2014 marked the 120th birthday of Elderton’s Command vineyard in the Barossa Valley. To celebrate I was invited to a masterclass of Command Shiraz led by Elderton’s co-Managing Director, Cameron Ashmead. Leaving aside the fact that this particular party was really a belated birthday (happening a week ago – firmly in 2015), it made a fantastic hook for a tasting of these old vine wines.

Elderton Command Shiraz

Elderton Command Shiraz

When the Command vineyard was planted in 1894 it was in quite a different world. Queen Victoria was still on the throne here in the UK. Aeroplanes, world wars and the civil rights movement were all still yet to happen. And we three monkeys were not even a twinkle in our grandparents’ eyes. So much has changed in the world in those intervening 120 years, and yet that vineyard is still there and still producing wine from its gnarly old vines. Impressive stuff.

The story of the Command Vineyard begins rather unusually in a country not known for its love of alcohol: Saudi Arabia. There Cameron’s father Neil made a living selling tractors, whilst also making his own ‘wine’ for home consumption from grape concentrate. The family returned to the Barossa in the late 1970s and started looking for a home to buy. Eventually Neil found a suitable house he liked in Nuriootpa and was told by the agent “If you buy the house I will give you the surrounding 72 acres of old vines for nothing”. Of course, he bought the house – and that vineyard is now known as the Command Vineyard and has gone from being worthless to being considered as one of the top single vineyards in the Barossa. I wonder if it was really the house that attracted Neil – or, after time making ‘wine’ in Saudi Arabia, it was the vineyard that did it.

After a few years of selling the grapes to local wineries, Neil decided to try his hand at making his own wine in the early 80’s – and in 1984 produced the very first vintage of Command Shiraz from those old vines: then labelled as Command Hermitage. Since then there have only been three vintages where Command Shiraz has not been made: in 1989 and 2011 due to very wet years, and in 1991 due to the recession. In typical Aussie tell-it-like-it-is style, Cameron explained that his parents needed cashflow that year and so downgraded the Command fruit into the standard Estate Shiraz blend. With less time ageing in oak and bottle, it could be released for sale much earlier than the Command Shiraz could have been.

To celebrate the 120th birthday of the vineayrd, Cameron presented us with seven vintages of Command, spanning 2010 to 1992. As well as allowing us some insight into the wine’s capacity for bottle ageing, this also highlighted the difference closures can make. Both the 1998 and 1992 were under cork and Cameron had brought along three bottles of each. Of these, 1 bottle of 1992 and 2 bottles of 1998 were corked. As Cameron put it: “soul-destroying”. He also told us that last year he had overseen the recorking of all of the wines from the 1980s and up to 50% of each vintage was either corked or oxidised. No surprise then that the wine has been 100% under screwcap since 2006.

Onto the wines:

2010 – This was my favourite of all of the vintages, showing a lovely freshness and real elegance. Vanilla and coconut aromas from the American oak were obvious on the nose, but on the palate these softened into more savoury brown spice notes. Driven by juicy, red fruit with fine, taut tannin and bright acidity – clearly made for the long haul.

Cameron said this new, fresher style was something they were aiming for and a slight departure from the more intense styles of previous vintages. He thinks it is the best they’ve ever made.

Winemaking – the grapes were handpicked in four different picks, each at a different level of ripeness in order to give more complexity as well as retaining acidity. Fermented in open tanks at 20-24C: a surprisingly low temperature for reds. This was explained by Cameron as a method of stopping too much overextraction and preventing any baked character in the wine. After ferment the wine was aged in new oak for 18 months – 65% American and 35% French – and then a further 12 months in old oak. It was then stored in bottle for one year before release.

2008 – Softer fruit, plums and blackberries. Concentrated and layered with hints of herbaceousness. Not quite as fine as the ’10, somehow a little blurry around the edges.

2007 – A hot year with only 20% of their normal yield, showing in the slightly paler colour and more baked nose. This showed more herbal, minty notes than the 2008 did and lacked the fruit concentration both the 2008 and 2010 had. One to drink sooner rather than later.

2006 – Served in magnum. Incredibly deep, inky colour: indicating the intensity of the wine to come. Despite being nearly 9 years old this was still full of primary dark fruit flavours with notes of mocha, pepper and spice giving complexity and depth. Dense and concentrated with lots of fine tannins: this has a very long life ahead and I’d love to try it again in another 5-10 years.

2004 – At 10 years old this was just beginning to show some evolution with a core of lingering juicy fruit surrounded by more savoury, complex aromas. Still that concentration of flavour, but here the tannins were softening and allowing the layers of complexity to shine through. Very long and at a lovely stage in its development – unlike the 2006 I could happily drink this now.

1998 – Just a hint of oxidative character around the edges. Much more delicate texture than the younger wines, although that core of dark fruit was still there along with a real exotic spice mix: caraway and fenugreek.

1992 – Somehow fresher than the 1998. Delicate with brown spice notes along with that savoury mocha character that was present in many of the other vintages. Tannins have softened and integrated, with just a whisper of grip on the finish to keep everything together. Complex and really quite pretty.

All in all this was a fascinating tasting. Happy birthday Command vineyard.