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2014 in review: the surprises, the sublime

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Looking back over the year’s highlights is a deeply pleasurable exercise. Not just self-indulgent I hope – rather, a means of sharing with you top drops, influential wines, exciting regions and producers to watch. Take my biggest surprise discovery of the year –  the wines of Pico, the Azores which well and truly blew my socks off!

Looking back I’m also thrilled to see previously tipped regions and wines thrive, notably Great Southern, Western Australia and, in Portugal, Very Old Tawny Port, Vinho Verde, Bairrada and Portalegre in Alentejo from where, hot off the press, Dirk Niepoort will be releasing a wine next year, Sidecar, made with Susana Esteban.  And so it is with wine – always lots to look forward to down the track!

I’m very sure I’ll have missed out lots of wines which gave me great pleasure but, below, you’ll find those wines which, like the cream in the milk, spontaneously rose to the top of my memory bank and truly floated my boat.

I look forward to sharing many more journeys into wine with you next year and, since I shall be taking a short break – next posting 5th January – I take this opportunity to wish you happy holidays and a fantastic New Year.

Portugal

Being somewhat closer to home it’s much easier for me to flit over to Portugal, this year a record 11 times.  Partly owing to my involvement in a new online (free) magazine, Blend, All About Wine which offers extensive coverage about Portugal’s wines (and fine dines) in both Portuguese and English.  I’m proud to be a member of the team and to have another platform from which to shout about this country’s exciting wine scene.

The Douro

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Niepoort Turris 2012

For table wines, the Douro is undoubtedly Portugal’s starriest and most consistent region, right now with a fair wind behind it thanks to a particularly stunning performance from 2011 Port and Douro wines in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the Year.  A vintage which, country-wide, is perhaps the best I’ve tasted since I’ve been focused on Portuguese wine.

This year,one red wine in particular caught my attention – Niepoort Turris 2012, which I re-tasted last month now that it’s ready for release.  For me it highlights a new direction for a region which we all know can produce wonderfully powerful, full-blooded reds.  A direction which really lets the vineyard sing or, more accurately, a truly exceptional site to go solo.  Turris is blessed with a very singular old vine field blend intensity and character – there’s no need to dazzle with exuberant fruit or flashy oak.  Kudos to the winemaker for stepping aside.  Fittingly, each of the 2027 bottles has an individual design by João Noutel; I’m told it will hit these shores next month, UK RRP £120.

Jorge Moreira’s elegant Poeira from a north-facing Pinho vineyard is a perennial favourite and the man makes marvels at Quinta de la Rosa too. A relatively new development for this winemaking wunderkind is the release of his first Real Companhia Velha reds.  Moreira was mustard keen to show me the company’s Quinta das Carvalhas vineyard when I visited with him in 2009. I can see why now he has released Real Companhia Velha Quinta das Carvalhas Vinhas Velhas 2012.  My tasting note to follow next year but I’d also like to flag that this vintage should not be overlooked after the admittedly stellar 2011.  Elegant and charming, it is the perfect vintage to showcase terroir – watch out for my April Expert’s Choice feature in Decanter’s April edition for more on my take.

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Wine & Soul’s winemaking husband and wife dream team Jorge Serodio Borges & Sandra Tavares da Silva

As for white wines, Wine & Soul Guru 2013, one of my December Wines of the Month goes from strength to strength each year.  Who would believe that the Douro could produce such a taut, tightly coiled and racy white? Well, perhaps an Arinto – Lua Cheia em Vinhas Velhas Secretum 2012 demonstrated in no uncertain terms what a powerful performer this grape is in the Douro.   More generally, Lua Cheia em Vinhas Velhas is a name to watch out for both in the Douro and Vinho Verde where the company produces a powerful Alvarinho, as is former Niepoort man, Luis Seabra who similarly straddles these two regions.  His first releases, Luis Seabra Granito 2012 and Luis Seabra Xisto 2012, both whites, are hands off, restrained yet very characterful, textural wines.

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Graham’s Paul Symington cradles the new old baby, Ne Oublie

In the world of Port Very Old Tawny Ports continued to grab the headlines this year.  If your pocket is deep enough, it’s hard to think of wines which can tickle the taste buds, imagination and grey cells all at the same time.  Quite aside from being utterly delectable, these are wines of uncommon history  and romance, none more so that Graham’s Ne Oublie Very Old Tawny Port which has an unbeatable ‘backstory’ – I’m talking best seller – read all about it here!!!!!   Other leading examples?  Look no further than Taylor’s 1863 Very Old Tawny and this relative youngster Sandeman Cask 33 Very Old Tawny Port.

Vinho Verde

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This once deeply unfashionable region has really turned itself around.  To the extent that the President of the Vinho Verde Commission has urged producers to plant more vineyards to meet demand.  I’m really thrilled to see that single varietal, single vineyard, sub-regional Vinho Verdes continue to thrive.  They certainly caught the imagination of some of the UK’s leading sommeliers at this year’s Wines of Portugal’s Sommelier Quest – Quinta de Soalheiro, Quinta do Ameal and Anselmo Mendes were on everyone’s lips – talking and tasting!  Food matching too – check out these lip-smacking matches.  Plus it’s good to see that new kid on the single varietal block Avesso is gaining ground alongside established high fliers Alvarinho and Loureiro.  Here’s a nice example for under a tenner – Casa Novas Avesso 2013.

Bairrada

If you’ve read my Baga feature in The World of Fine Wine (WFW40 Bairrada The Baga Beyond) you’ll know just how much I love the wines from this region – not just the Baga either – whites and estate grown fizz are also dazzling.  I’ve been especially taken with a couple of Baga wines this year, both of which underline how very elegant, sublime even, these wines can be when the variety is treated with the lightest touch.

First, Filipa Pato & William Wouters Post Quercus Baga 2013 , a June Wine of the Month with remarkable purity and delicacy of fruit, especially for a wine aged in amphora.  Wowee, impressed!  Similarly, Niepoort Poeirinho 2012 where, as with Turris, the respect for old vine fruit and terroir shines through.  Wonderful.  Pinot Noir lovers eat your heart out!!!

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As for white wines, I’m excited to hear that Luis Pato is planning to introduce a 100% Cerceal under the Vinha Formal label (the existing blend will continue but be re-named Vinha Formal Classico).  If it channels an earlier example – Luis Pato David Lopes Ramos 2011 – it’ll be magnificent.

Dão

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Niepoort have also made incursions into the Dão, in Serra d’Estrela where another of my “finds of the year,” Antonio Madeira, is similarly focused on old vines/restrained, terroir-translucent wines.  I hope Madeira is able to realise his dream to make wine full-time – he is a talented self-taught winemaker and engineer like Alvaro Castro, in whose cellars he makes his wine and who himself has a very exciting new old vine small parcel (1 barrel!) project.  (Incidentally, I came across Madeira and Castro’s old vine wines at Simplesmente Vinho, an Oporto wine fair for small, artisanal producers open to the public.  Well worth a visit).  Another new exciting Dão discovery is Druida, a partnership of two winemakers – Nuno do Ó & João Corrêa.  The white wine is terrific.

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An old-comer should not be forgot just because they are based in Bairrada. Caves São João Porta dos Cavaleiros Reserva Touriga Nacional 2012 is as pretty a Touriga Nacional as I’ve encountered.  And it’s not the only reason it’s well worth a trek to Caves São João’s million bottle cellar – museum releases of Caves São João Porta dos Cavaleiros white like the 1985 are also well worth seeking out; the ’85 also helped Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester sommelier Dorian Guillon to win Wines of Portugal’s Sommelier Wine Quest.

Alentejo

I’ve been raving about field blend wines from Portalegre for a few years now and I’m delighted to see this sub-region’s old vineyards receiving the tender loving care which they deserve.  Last year Susana Esteban’s maiden eponymous reds, Procura and Aventura (both blends of old vine Portalegre fruit and Estremoz Alicante Bouschet) caught my eye – Procura 2011 made the cut for my best wines of the year.   This year Esteban released her follow up red vintages and her first whites – Susana Esteban Procura White 2013 and Susana Esteban Aventura 2013, both highly characterful, limpid wines.  Right up my street.

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I also tasted verticals from Chef Vitor Claro (Domino red and white) and wine writer Joao Afonso (Equinocio white and Solsticio red) which affirmed Portalegre’s high potential.  I’ll write these up next year when I hope to make it back to Portalegre.  Should you wish to check it out for yourself, perhaps you’ll beat me to Afonso’s agriturismo project/farm/wine estate, Cabeças do Reguengo, which got a great write up in TAP’s Up! inflight magazine.  Afonso tells me he is planning to run tastings of the country’s top wines. What’s not to like?

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Of course old vines do not have a monopoly on great wine.  They (old Portalegre vines) make Explicit white tick, but Explicit red hails from a new family project  on the Serra d’Ossa, Estremoz,whose steep schistous slopes inform these powerful, mineral wines.  I’ll be writing up a vertical for Blend, All About Wine next month.

Lisboa

The quality of wines from large, traditionally quantity-focused Lisboa is as up and down as the famously hilly region itself.  But a week-long visit with team Blend, All About Wine gave me the chance to visit a few producers who had caught my eye – Manz (the Jampal, fantastic) and organic producers Vale da Capuche and Quinta da Serradinha.  As I’d identified from tastings earlier in the year, with perhaps the exception of Alenquer, Serradinha’s Baga and Ramsico from Colares, generally the whites from this region are the better bet.  

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Long established but tiny Colares and Carcavelos – past beacons of quality –  got me really excited .  In Colares, fresh blood is – as you’d expect – injecting new life into the region, even if one such fix comes from 103 year old Baron von Bruemmer.

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Baron von Bruemmer and winemaker Jorge Rosa Santos

In addition to very accomplished Colares (white & red), his Chardonnay really excited even this fervent champion of native grape varieties!  Helder Cunha of Monte Cascais is doing great work too, while Vuiva Gomes’ 1969 Colares Branco entranced – a stunning buy from Lisbon’s Estado D’Alma Wine Shop – a wine lovers’ paradise.

Winemaker Tiago Correia with project manager Alexandre Lisboa

Villa d’Oeiras: Winemaker Tiago Correia with project manager Alexandre Lisboa

A stone’s throw away in Carcavelos I visited a new project which is aiming to revive this region’s once famous fortifieds. Villa d’Oeiras (as the brand is now known) is a name to watch and I understand that the wine cellar is open to visitors who will be fascinated by its history – it and the vineyards are located in the grounds of Marquis of Pombal’s 18th century palace.

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I am a sucker for old vine wines.  Earlier this month I discovered Horácio Simões Vinho Val dos Alhos Branco Boal 2013 from 100+ year old vines and, tellingly, preferred the “second” less oaked wine.  Bigger picture it’s exciting to see such individual 300% Portuguese wines pop up all over the country. Go Portugal!  But steady on the oak please.

Azores

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The Azores probably counts as my biggest surprise of the year.  A few years ago when I was consulting on The World Atlas of Wine I requested samples of the table wines and found nothing to excite.  However my visit to this beautiful archipelago this year revealed a huge leap forward, in no small part due to young gun Antonio Macanita of Fita Preta and a cracking vintage in 2013.

When they don't find their way into Pico's currais which, if deconstructed could encircle the world twice

When they don’t find their way into Pico’s currais which, if deconstructed could encircle the world twice

Dominated by a volcano, the island of Pico and its chequer-board walled vineyards are quite mind-blowing to behold, as is Fita Preta  Antonio Macanita Signature Series Arinto do Acores 2013, one of my Wines of the Month.  But it’s not the only wine that made me query is Pico the Santorini of Portugal?

Madeira 

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Similarly, table wines from the island of Madeira seems to be on the up.  But goodness, it’s the famously long-lived Madeira fortified wines which blow your socks off.  I tasted a dozen or so 19th century examples on my recent visit with team Blend, All About Wine, of which Pereira d’Oliveira Moscatel 1875 was an unexpected pleasure to the factor of 1000 – a brilliant wine!

Nineteenth century or no, I found Terrantez (medium dry) particularly scintillating – watch this space for my notes, but favourite examples included Borges 1877 Terrantez, Justinos Terrantez Old Reserva, Justinos Terrantez 1978, Pereira d’Oliveira Terrantez 1971, Pereira d’Oliveira Terrantez 1880.

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On a humbler (but not so humble note) I found Barbeito’s two new 20 Year Old Boal and Verdelho to be very compelling wines thanks to a sublime dash of 1950’s Ribeiro Real fruit, also Henriques & Henriques Sercial Single Harvest Madeira 2001

Australia

Lots of highlights below which I know that the late Yvonne May would want me to put first and foremost, however I wanted to take this opportunity to remember one of the UK wine trade’s great champions of Australian wine who died in August.  I shall much miss her energy and warmth.  But I have no doubt that her tireless work during the time in which she so capably took the helm of Wine Australia UK, Ireland, EU from 2011 has and will help to lift the thrilling breadth and depth of Australia’s wine scene off the page. She leaves behind a highly mentored and motivated team who have done and will continue to do her great credit.

Great Southern

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Since my first visit in 2007, I’ve now visited Great Southern four times.  It has consistently produced stunning Rieslings and, like other parts of Australia, has a few off-beat varietal riffs too.  Take the aptly named La Violetta das sakrileg 2013 from winemaker Andrew Hoadley whose wines invariably bring smiles and sighs in equal measure, especially La Violetta Up! Syrah 2013.  It was great to catch up with the guy whose first Syrah really made me sit up and pay attention to Western Australian Syrah.

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And, in general, to witness how a new breed of boutique and garagiste producers are really shaking up the region – shaking out the best grapes/sites (my article in next year’s April edition of Decanter will explore some of this phenomenon).  Larry Cherubino has been at the vanguard of this development, both for his own eponymous label and as a much sought after consultant.  His Porongurup Rieslings have always thrilled but I was very glad to get acquainted with Larry Cherubino Riversdale Vineyard Frankland Cabernet Sauvignon 2012.  Also ace-ing Cabernet (very elegant) (also powerful Chardonnay) I discovered the wines of Michael Staniford.  On the Pinot Noir front, a focus on more savoury styles is paying off and I was particularly impressed with the progress of Harewood Estate’s Pinots.

Margaret River

As you can see from this fleet of fermentation vessels of every size, shape and build, there’s always lots going on at Cullen who have just released their first ‘natural’ wine, Amber.  It’s due to arrive in the UK next year and, once I’ve tasted it, I’ll write up my visit including my notes on the highly acclaimed Diana Madeline Cabernet  Sauvignon 2012; as ever, the latest Chardonnay release Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2012 made it to the top of my charts – with La Violetta Up! Syrah 2013 it was a September Wine of the Month. The 2009 vintage will grace my table tomorrow.

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Another potent Chardonnay which caught my eye came from new label Flowstone behind which is old hand Stuart Pym.  Gorgeous, textural, shapely wines with bottle age.  All three were excellent but Flowstone Queen of the Earth Chardonnay 2009 perhaps pips the others at the post.

Coonawarra

A few years ago I recall a palpably new sensation in Australian wines – texture (by which I guess I mean phenolics and wild ferment induced mouthfeel).  Since then another ‘T’ word has gained ground (no pun intended), namely terroir.  Generic regional soil descriptions – all too commonly loam – are falling away as winemakers drill down and get to grips with great sites.

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Wynns vine whisperer Allen Jenkins outlines operation Root & Branch

Not just soils, but also subtle differentiations in elevation. And there can be no better illustration than Wynns, Coonawarra – strapline  “It’s not all terra rossa mate and yes, there are slopes in Coonawarra!”  With notes on a decade of Wynns single vineyard wines my extensive report of my visit explores the impact of terroir from vine to wine.  Favourite?  Wynns Alex 88 Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Yarra Valley

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On the T words, my last official tasting ended on the very high note of Caroline Mooney’s Bird on a Wire label.  The Yarra is buzzing with new garagiste/boutique labels from the talented Mr & Ms Ripleys of Australia.  Through a scalpel-like approach to grape-sourcing Mooney has found single sites brilliantly suited to Chardonnay, Marsanne and Syrah.

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Incidentally exciting Yarra producer Mac Forbes is behind The Wine Society’s brilliant value Blind Spot range – you won’t find better value Australian wines of regional expression (from across Australia) and interest.

Tasmania

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I kicked off the festivities with this ultra-fine Tassie fizz, Arras Grand Vintage 2005 (the blurry pic tells you all you need to know about how very delicious it is!).  Seven years on lies and it’s fresh as a daisy, with Edd Carr’s trademark creamy texture (fruit, malo, oak).  Ab fab and so glad these wines are now coming into the UK – I’ve only been waiting since Carr’s Landmark Sparkling Tutorial in 2010!

Mornington Peninsula

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Casting my mind right back to the beginning of the year the first Pinot to win the coveted Jimmy Watson Trophy did not disappoint.  Far from it Tom Carson’s Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir 2012 is a triumph, as is this high performing block’s Chardonnay from this year, Yabby Lake Block 1 Chardonnay 2012.  

Clare Valley

Grenache doesn’t exactly spring to mind when one thinks of Clare Valley but, my goodness, Kilikanoon The Duke Grenache 2009 blew me away – sublime old vine magic at work once more.  Australia is producing some marvellous Grenache.

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Clever cordon cut winemaking comes into play for my other stand out Clare Valley wine this year, Steph Toole’s Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2013 – knife edge acid-sugar balance.  A different kind of sublime or, to quote Queen, it’s a kind of magic!

Barossa Valley

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Another Grenache, this one with a dash of old vine Carignan, got me excited in another valley. Elderton Western Ridge 2012 made the cut for my May Wines of the Month.  As for lead variety Shiraz, Wolf Blass’ new Sapphire label is home to four sub-regionally differentiated  Shiraz,  of which my heart belongs to Wolf Blass Estates of the Barossa Moculta 5353 Barossa Shiraz Sapphire Label 2012. Great to see such a big player embrace small batch sizzle!

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Last year I had the great good fortune to attend Yalumba’s 24th Museum Tasting; apart from a 1938 Riesling my stand out was a vertical of Yalumba The Signature Cabernet Shiraz, the oldest from 1966.  This year I caught up with the latest release.  Yalumba The Signature 2010 absolutely lives up to the pedigree of its predecessors.  And, by the way, I adore 2010 South Australian reds including the much heralded Penfolds Grange 2010, with Penfolds Bin 707 2012, my pick of Penfolds latest luxury and icon releases.

Adelaide Hills

Woolf Blass White Winemaker Matt O'Leary with company viticulturist Roger Schmidt at the Rogers vineyard, Eden Valley

Woolf Blass White Winemaker Matt O’Leary with company viticulturist Roger Schmidt at the Rogers vineyard, Eden Valley

Wolf Blass’ small batch sizzle extends to the hills too.  I am very sorry that tightly wound, flinty Wolf Blass White Label Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2012 doesn’t make it over here.  Great bang for buck.  Its same stable White Label Eden Valley Riesling (also pictured) was no slouch either!

McLaren Vale

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No-one has elevated purple prose on wine labels to the level of d’Arenberg, not least for its Amazing Sites’ range.  How else to encapsulate the subtle, sometimes not so subtle, points of difference thrown up by McLaren Vale’s complex geology?  Like this quartet of stand out 2010 d’Arenberg Shiraz: The Garden of Extraordinary Delights, J.R.O Afflatus, The Vociferate Dipsomaniac and The Amaranthine Shiraz. 

Hunter Valley

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I’ve tasted some fabulous Hunter Valley Semillon this year including this “purple patch” all new release – Mount Pleasant 1946 Vines Lovedale Semillon 2014.  But, most of all, I’ve been impressed by Hunter Shiraz.  Specifically, the silky, pretty, red-fruited Tyrrell’s Four Acres Shiraz 2009 from a vineyard planted in 1879 and Mount Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Shiraz 2011 (which had very stiff competition from its predecessors at a very fine vertical tasting).  Both wines have an uncommon delicacy which reminds you why the Hunter’s Shiraz was once labelled Burgundy.

Beechworth

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Last but by no means least Giaconda Chardonnay 2011 served as a salutary reminder of great terroir.  How consistent – consistently great that is – is this wine?

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