Our resident wine guru Nick Fildes returns with more lovely tipples for you to try while you're out and about in Manchester's bars. This time we explore wines of Lombardy and Lebanon, as well as a crazy little French Chardonnay that even the 'anything but Chardonnay' haters will love.
Merlot dal Pic, Eugenio Collavini, Lombardy, Italy 2006
Where served: Neighbourhood
How much: £62 a bottle
I have to be honest, I have never (knowingly) tasted a wine from the Lombardy region of Italy before. Usually I can't find my way past the Barolo, Amarone or Chianti Classico. Until now. Upon visiting a friend of mine; Steven Hyare, who is the AGM of Neighbourhood, he introduced me to the sommelier Jon Clarke who in turn introduced me to this Merlot and the golden rule of never wearing a white shirt when working with vino rosso. Steven raised a point which after a debate, didn't seem as cavalier as I first thought. Italian wineries would appear to be making better wine with French grape varieties, than their French counterparts. Bold statement. But there is truth in this. As I wrote about in my last article, the SuperTuscans are making a real claim at the moment, growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah etc. And these wines are superb.
So onto this Merlot. The vineyard, founded in 1896 by Eugenio Collavini, benefits from one of the best micro-climates in Europe. Apparently, the grapes are left to dry on racks to enhance their aroma and weight a la Amarone from Veneto. It appears to do the trick. Jon decanted the bottle for us and there was a rich black fruit aroma pouring out of the vessel. I'd attempt to give you a good description of the colour, however the mood lighting was rather, well, moody. So let's just say that it was dark. A nose of ripe black fruit, plums and a hint of coffee painted a picture of a juicy, well-rounded tipple. The palate did not disappoint. As we had discussed, the key to this Merlot is the acidity. The problem with a lot of Merlots I have tasted is that they tend to be flabby, chewy and jammy, so much so that they should be served on toast. No finesse. Here, it balances lovely behind the fruit tying everything together. This wine isn't overly complex but what it does prove is that there are still people producing Merlots who care (I'm talking outside of Bordeaux). It is still a grape to take pride in. After some time in the decanter it opened up and there were aromas and tastes of dark chocolate, maybe even a hint of coffee behind the blackcurrants and plums. But once again, the acidity still shone through keeping the wine away from your breakfast spread. Even though it's getting on for seven years old, it is still fresh yet with the warm oak flavours.
Now to the business end of story. Yes it is £62.00 a bottle, which is quite expensive. However Jon made a valid point that if this wine was French, you would be looking at doubling the price such is the quality of the Merlot dal Pic. If the price is a little steep for you I can recommend that you still pop by for a glass or bottle as the wine list is really good, covering all tastes and preferences. They even have a Chablis on the 'by the glass' list, which always gets my thumbs up.
Chateau Musar, Gaston Hochar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Where served: Various venues
How much: Varies
If you've never heard of Chateau Musar, fair enough. You wouldn't immediately put wine production and Lebanon together. If you HAVE heard of Chateau Musar, I think we will get along just fine. There are three wines that made me fall in love with this trade. Without naming names, one was an Amarone, one was a white Burdundy and the other was a Musar. Different wine ticks different boxes for different people. These three ticked my boxes and rang my bells.
Now I'm not going to review, as such, individual vintages but I am going to give you a brief insight into this winery. For me, 50% of the job description of wine should be that it is a talking point; a story; it has history. There are a lot of wines out there, in particular European wine, that have history. That is what instantly hooks me. The Bekaa Valley has been cultivating vines for over 6,000 years. That's older than Father Christmas. Think what those vines have seen, everything from Templar Crusades to Civil War, The Phoenicians to Chuck Norris. Upon hosting a dinner with Ralph Hochar of Chateau Musar, he explained how the Civil War during the 1970s lead to a few of their vintages being lost due to road blocks and the like. This might seem a tad dramatic but I imagine a bottle having to fight its way from vine to bottle to table all for the honour of Lebanon.
Chateau Musar wines are classy. They're elegant. They're big, deep, long lasting on the palate and whilst not fruit lead as such, complex, with all manner of dark fruits, cedar and toasty flavours and aromas. There's alcohol, there's acidity, there's spice, dark chocolate, figs, prunes. You name it. Now of course, each vintage of the red differs. Each year you'll see a slightly different blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault. But what I love about these wines is that they all taste distinctly Musar year after year. There's quite a few people I know who view this wine as being a cult. A band of trusty followers who want to see it succeed. Non more in Manchester than Margaret Hope and George Bergier of The Mark Addy who I believe stock a variety of different vintages. It is possible to find a whole array of vintages in different establishments around Manchester, who remain fiercely loyal. I love one more thing about these wines. Their accessibility. Vintage Bordeaux, Barolo, Burgundy etc are just not accessible to people who don't have the pocket. Like myself for instance. Musar even does half bottles of certain vintages. Brilliant. Every angle covered.
The red is the flagship wine. But they do others. The white is one of the most interesting wines I have ever tasted. Made from the indigenous varieties Obaideh and Merwah (reputedly the ancestors of Chardonnay and Semillon). The 2003 showed wonderful signs of aging with a rich yellowy gold appearance followed up with honeyed apricots, marzipan, peaches, pears, citrus fruit and almonds. Superb. They also have the Chateau Musar Rose, Hochar Pere et Fils and the Musar Jeune which again, can be sniffed out by the intrepid around town. So take a leap of faith, a trip through history that will benefit both brain and palate. Let me know if I can join you!
Les Sarres, Domaine Rijckaert, Jura, France 2007
Chardonnay is a much misunderstood grape. There are a host of reasons that I believe people steer clear of it, the 'Anything But Chardonnay' gang. One reason could be due to the TV programme Footballer's Wives, with the seemingly unglamourous use of the name Chardonnay for a character (say it in a Del Boy / East London manner and you'll get where I'm coming from). Another could be the influx of overly oaked paint stripper that was coming over from Australia and Chile, for example, a few years back (that isn't true of every winery I might add) and the usual 'by the glass' lists that used these as an alternative to quality French Burgundy. I happen to agree with both, and genuinely wouldn't blame anyone if it was the latter. However, if you are willing to spend just a few extra pounds at the bar or in the restaurant, there are a whole host of amazing wines available to you.
Yes, quality French Burgundy can be expensive. That's just the way it is. But look a little further afield and you will find some fantastic Chardonnays just waiting for their moment to shine. Introducing Les Sarres, brought to us by the lovely Jean Rijckaert from the often overlooked region of Jura, situated half way between Burgundy and Switzerland. First tasted at a portfolio gig in London whilst mulling over the the new Chop House list (Yes, Sam's got a mention in my previous column, but this list is seriously fantastic), we fell in love with Les Sarres and realised we had Cote de Beaune quality for half the price.
So, tasting notes. Beautiful golden straw in colour, showing some age, easy on the eye though I believe younger vintages are a tad paler. A nose of intense aromatics with sweet tropical fruits, brioche, baked bread, butter and citrus. On the palate its the same again but mix in some butterscotch and smokey, minerally flavours, really nice acidity (a good thing because this wine could be accused of being rather rich), full-bodied, rich, elegant and the juice almost melts on your tongue. This all adds up to an interesting wine that will keep you guessing, capable of throwing a curve-ball. If I had to describe Les Sarres in one word, I think I'd have to use 'bonkers'.
Now, if you do order this wine, first things first, brownie points to you. Second, I'd ask for it to be decanted. It just takes the edge off the initial attack of flavour and helps the wine to warm up just a smidge. Food wise, maybe something duck related, it could even be smoked. How about some grilled fish or chicken? Or maybe some potent cheese. This is a serious food wine and to be honest I'd even drink it with my corn flakes.