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2020 in 24 vinous highlights

The peak of success – Henschke Mount Edelstone vineyard, Eden Valley; photo credit Henschke

Much as I’m keen to see the back of last year, there were plenty of vinous highlights.  I tasted some truly exceptional wines last year, of which twenty-four particularly etched themselves on my memory.  Their number includes all three wines (classic, offbeat & value) that I proposed for Decanter’s 2020 Wines of the Year, whose selection fell to Andy Howard MW, Beth Willard and Ronan Sayburn MS.

Unusually, one wine floats to the top of the pack every time I reflect on 2020.  In fact, I rather float away at the memory of it and gather I am not alone.  Decanter adjudged it the top Australian red wine of 2020.  It is:

Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2015 (Eden Valley, Barossa)

A zoom (heart goes boom) tasting with Prue and Stephen Henschke; Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

I tasted this wine with Prue and Stephen Henschke alongside Henschke Hill of Grace 2015, savouring both wines over three days (my detailed review here).  Mount Edelstone will age, of course, but it was strikingly expressive and digestible now!  Signature dried sage and complex herb and scrub (bush) notes – strands of eucalyptus and minty pepper tree – leap out of the glass.  A spicy hum of black pepper and lifted, floral pink peppercorn emerges with time in glass. Evocative scents, which transport me directly to Australia.  A vineyard visit on a sunny day, the bush tinder-dry, the earth warm.  Suffusing the spice and herb-riven palate, intense, yet delicate, dancing from tip to toe, they bring piquant complexity, warmth and a (gently menthol) coolness going through and on the ethereal, exceptionally lingering finish.    The interplay – the dance, or tension – between the tannin and acid is similarly insistent, but gentle, allowing the fruit to steal over the palate pure and untroubled, without a hair out of place. Juicy bramble, blackberry, earthy raspberry and, on day three, sweet strawberry and plum, is buoyed by fresh mineral acidity, with an ironstone tang.  The tannins are fine-grained and mineral (rather than oaky, though I pick up cinnamon on day 2 and subtle milk chocolate).  Very much in tune with our times, this is a Shiraz of fine filigree.  Wonderfully expressive already, I must admit I would find this truly outstanding Shiraz hard to resist, but the Henschkes expect it to age for 30 years plus.  The fruit was harvested between 10th – 19th March.  Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2015 was matured in 78% French and 22% American (22% new, 78% seasoned) hogsheads for 18 months, prior to blending and bottling. 14.5% £118.25/bottle at Vinum, £124.95 at AG Wines, £132/bottle at Oz Wines, £147.00 at Hedonism

Generally speaking, it was a good year for Australian Shiraz.  Dan Standish, another Barossa producer, had my jaw on the floor with tales of his ultra-selective bottling, which I wrote about for Decanter.  Unsurprisingly, I found it hard to choose between his single site cuvees.  And I guess that’s the point.  They’re not better, they’re different.  I singled out The Standish Wine Company Lamella 2018 as one of my June Wines of the Month.  Funnily enough, it comes from a vineyard planted at Hutton Vale Farm by the Angas family, who also planted (and originally owned) Mount Edelstone.  Lamella Shiraz is from the vineyard the family planted in 1962 with Mount Edelstone cuttings.  As Dame Edna would say, spooky!  Still, I could just as well have chosen its polar opposite (in my head at least).  With its savoury undertones, I was also smitten by The Standish Wine Co, The Schubert Theorem 2017, from the Marananga sub-region in the Barossa Valley.  I wrote up all eight high-scoring samples for Decanter here.

The Standish Wine Company Lamella Shiraz 2018 (Eden Valley, Barossa)

The Standish Wine Company Lamella 2018

One of five single vineyard Barossa Shirazes produced by Dan Standish in 2018.  This, the sole Eden Valley example, comes from Hutton Vale Farm’s old block, at just under 400m.  It has floral peony lift and a medium-bodied frame, with a lovely saturation of juicy blackberry and bramble fruit, with smoky espresso undertones, which steal across the palate, expanding like ink on blotting paper.  Opening up, dried mint, peppertree and lavender herbal hints unfurl, with strawberry and black pepper. Powdery tannins going through lend fluidity though, firming up, it finishes on a spicy, sinewy note.  This, together with its intensity and length, suggests Lamella 2018 is a fine each way bet.  Though highly broachable now (but do decant), it will reward cellaring and keep for a good decade or two – until 2050+, reckons importer Stuart McCloskey! 14.9%   £74.50 at The Vinorium.

My other June Wine of the Month was another Australian red – one which has regularly graced these pages.  And ‘grace’ perfectly captures perhaps the best vintage of Cullen Diana Madeline I can recall tasting on release….And I have tasted a good many, having initially encountered the 2000 vintage, when I was a Fine Wine Manager at Oddbins.   It also made the cut for Decanter’s Red Wines of the Year, 2020.  Incidentally, Cullen celebrates the 50th anniversary of the vineyard next year.  I cannot believe how quickly the time has gone since attending Cullen’s 40th anniversary tasting in 2011, when Vanya Cullen presented a stupendous vertical of the flagship red (my report here), starting with the 1981.  You can find my updated Cullen producer profile of July 2020 with more recent vertical tasting notes on Decanter Premium here.

Cullen Diana Madeline 2018 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)

Cullen Diana Madeline 2018; Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Vanya Cullen, Chief Winemaker for 31 years, reckons 2018 may go down as one of the all-time great vintages and will age for up to 50 years.  I can see why.  Everything one admires about Cabernet Sauvignon shines brightly in this exceptionally refined new release, from the original 1971 plantings of 8 Houghton clones (certified biodynamic since 2004).  With terrific gravitas and grace, it is quite simply the finest release of Diana Madeline I’ve tasted at this stage.  So what is it about Margaret River in 2018?  Up almost 20% on the 15-year average, winter rains replenished soil moisture reserves.  In contrast to this year, flowering and fruit set were very healthy, thanks to a warm, dry spring.  Average temperatures in December and above average rainfall produced healthy canopies and, with below average temperatures in January and February, ripening was steady and even, with no heat or moisture stress.  Cullen regards it as an excellent vintage for concentration, balance and perfume.  I humbly concur!  Harvested between 12 March and 12 April, this blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec is effortlessly poised, with great intensity, definition and freshness to its classic blackcurrant and mulberry fruit, inter-laced with signature notes of perfumed tobacco, dried roses and bitter chocolate.  Delicate cedar (oak) spice and currant leaf (fruit, Cabernet Franc?) spice complement the subtle but resonating, back-of-the-throat tobacco aromatics.  Graphite tannins – distinctly ‘H,’ not ‘B’ in pencil-speak – bring great definition, line and length. Wonderful sense of place, with not a hair out of place.  Outstanding.  For the first time, partly fermented in amphorae (like Vanya Cabernet Sauvignon), Diana Madeline 2018 was aged for 15 months in French oak barriques, 50% new.  13%  £71.00 at Swig

First released in 2017 (my review here), I’ve enjoyed tracking the progress of Thistledown Sands of Time Grenache (and Thistledown’s growing like Topsy Grenache range generally).  Like cream rising to the top, the 2018 vintage won James Halliday’s Grenache Challenge at which I judged in 2019, bagged the highest score in my McLaren Vale Top 20 Grenache feature for Decanter and, in 2020, topped the voting poll at Wine Australia’s McLaren Vale Grenache webinar too.

Thistledown Sands of Time Old Vine Grenache 2018 (McLaren Vale)

Thistledown co-founder Giles Cooke MW & Sue Trott, photo credit Thistledown Wines

Re-tasted in September 2020, this single vineyard Grenache from Sue Trott’s Blewitt Springs’ vineyard (pictured) stood out for its complexity, tension and lift, with perfumed rose water and spicy star anise to its animated red cherry, raspberry water melon and lick of blueberry fruit.  With a dynamic interplay between juice and sandy, pithy tannins, the finish is long, fine, focused and thoroughly engaging.  £229.82/6 bottles at The Drinks Shop.

As for white wines, two Chardonnays stand out, including another Wine Australia poll pinnacle – Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2018 – a brilliant follow on from the 2017, which I reviewed here.  More amenable too.

Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2018 (Margaret River)

Finely drawn, long and beautifully composed, with insinuating mineral acidity and a savouriness which is not in the least overblown.  It reveals waxy, nutty pink fir potato and nougat nuances to its jangly grapefruit, with lightly spun subtle lees influence and crystalline, mica minerality to the finish.  Seamless, very classy.  13%  £45.50 at Fareham Wine Cellars 

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2018 (Tasmania, Tumbarumba, Adelaide Hills)

Tasting The Penfolds Collection 2020 – its most iconic wines – I would go a step further than Penfolds’ Chief Winemaker.  For Peter Gago, among the whites, “this year Yattarna steals the show” thanks, he added, to its “subtlety, balance, poise and a lovely not trying too hard sort of demeanour.”  For me, it stole the show full stop! As is usually the case, Yattarna Chardonnay 2018 is a multi-regional blend from Tasmania, Tumbarumba and Adelaide Hills.  I’m a big fan of Yattarna’s precision and line, which I’ve always attributed to the Tasmanian component.  The 2018 is no exception, but it seems to have an extra layer of complexity in this release – a touch of subtle Chablis-like funk (as opposed to Reserve Bin A’s showier struck match).  Like the oak (Yattarna 2018 spent 8 months in French oak barriques, 60% new), the funk is beautifully integrated – a stealthy and seamless layer of texture and complexity.  As always, the fruit is bright’n tight, with scintillating, steely grapefruit drive and fresh cut apple to the core.  A hint of bruised apple and cloudy apple juice too – gentle ‘give,’ if you like – which doesn’t detract one iota from the structure.  Rather, hitched to racy, mineral acidity, the palate has tremendous intensity, line and length and a palpable sense of dry extract.  Tensile, there is no shortage of backbone here, yet Yattarna 2018 is eminently broachable too.  Gago compares it to the 2008 and 2011 vintages which, he observed, are drinking beautifully, so expect it to keep for at least a decade.  Super-classy, this exceptionally refined Chardonnay thoroughly entranced me, lingering tantalisingly in the memory. Sensational in the truest sense of the word.  13% £504/6 bottles in bond at Honest GrapesFine & Rare and Justerini & Brooks

From Portugal, my travels last February seem light years away.  Fortunately, it was a very productive visit, encompassing two wine fairs and a week in the Dão.  Taken together with particularly intensive sampling over the year – especially for Decanter’s Regional Profiles on the Dão, Vinho Verde, Bairrada and Alentejo (themselves chocful of recommendations) – there was no shortage of candidates for this page.  Or, for that matter, my new venture, curating Bar Douro Wine Club’s quarterly mixed cases of six.

Vale da Capucha Castelinho 2017 (Lisboa)

Pedro Marques at the old Castelao vineyard – exciting new wines in the pipeline…Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Pedro Marques’ striking new Castelão makes the cut with panache.   It’s always enjoyable to see something take root then flourish.  In 2019, I had visited Marques in Torres Vedras, Lisboa – the location of his family estate – Vale da Capucha.  We swung by a new vineyard he has planted from scratch and an old Castelão vineyard, pictured above, which he had just taken on.  Vale da Capucha Castelinho 2017 was whole bunch (naturally) fermented in concrete tanks, neither filtered nor fined and bottled with minimal added sulphur.  Tasted in February 2020, the whole bunch character leapt out the glass – delicious orange bitters, with bright crunchy cranberry and redcurrant, its plum and strawberry admitting of a little flesh.  Lithe, athletic and appetising.  Lovely. Everything I hoped for in a pretty style of Castelão.  €22.99 at Crush Wine & Spirit (New York)

Campolargo in Bairrada introduced me to the delights of Alvarelhão (reviewed in this post), which is similarly very well suited to vin de soif styles.  Aphros have always made red Vinho Verde with fervour, initially focusing on Vinhão (and making probably the best examples you can find).  With its wilder, more assertive acid and tannin profile, Vinhão is arguably better suited to vin de garde styles, although less extracted examples can charm too.  But if being charmed is the objective, Aphros’ new Alvarelhão fits the bill perfectly and, with an element of whole bunch (25%) and ageing in chestnut barrels, the charm goes beyond skin-deep.

Aphros Ouranus 2018 (Wine of Portugal)

Named after name is a reference to the Greek god of the sky, Uranus, this is an uplifting Vinho Verde red – photo credit, Aphros

Beguiling white pepper lift to the nose and round but delicate palate, with its red plum fruit and a sweet, nutty, jammy quality almost, but for the fresh, pulsing acidity.  Perfumed orange peel and spicy clove and anise accented tannins lightly steal over the palate, bringing interest and depth to the finish.  Amazingly, given its intensity, Ouranus weighs in at just 11%  Another skilfully executed addition to this leading biodynamic Vinho Verde producer’s burgeoning range with, according to Vasco Croft, another red from another “long-forgotten” variety in the wings….  Watch this space.  £24.35 at Portugal Vineyards

Whole bunch fermentation was also brilliantly deployed by Paulo Nunes at Casa da Passarella to produce this age-worthy, structured but highly expressive, rather old school Dão red.

Casa da Passarella Villa Oliveira Vinha das Pedras Altas 2014 (Dão)

Casa da Passarella Villa Oliveira Vinha das Pedras Altas 2014 (Dão) & Caves São João Porta dos Cavaleiros Reserva Seleccionada 1975 Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

As I was writing up recommendations for my Decanter Dão Regional Profile, I realised how much more thrilling I’m finding the region’s red wines lately.  Conforming much more closely with my hopes and expectations of this classic region, they majored on perfume, freshness, structure and elegance.  For a stellar example, look no further than this, my top scoring red.  I particularly enjoyed its terrific structure, persistence and grape-driven (not oak-driven) spice and tannin.  Like many of my recommendations (red and white), it showcases the complexity of old field blend vineyards – in this case, 85-years-old.  Having tasted it over three days, I contacted Paulo Nunes and mentioned that it reminded me of Caves São João Porta dos Cavaleiros Reserva Seleccionada 1975, which I’d tasted shortly before.  To which the winemaker replied that there might be a link because, “Passarella sold a lot of wine to Caves São João in the past.”  I would not be surprised if it ages as well. The clue to its structure, a certain austerity even, lies partly in the name.  Sourced from Vinha das Pedras Altas, at 700m altitude on classic granite soils, it is the highest of Passarella’s seven vineyards with, said Nunes, the greatest thermal amplitude and marked exposure to northern winds. As for the winemaking, it was fermented with whole bunches and aged for a year in 600l barrels.  Opaque, with a deeper hue than other samples, yet lifted and elegant, with inky florals and spicy fragrance.  In the mouth, it reveals hints of orange peel, lavender and earth to its dark berry, cherry and plum fruit and, most especially strident (thrillingly so) spices – smoky clove and deep-seated white pepper going through, with sweeter incense spices on the finish.  Aromas I associate with traditional Dão wines.  Despite its youthful sense of austerity –  big-boned tannins and juice, rather than flesh – with tremendous depth and length, it is very balanced and complete.  On day two, the earthy, mineral dimension is more evident and I loved the crescendo of pine needle and smoky clove to the deep, resonant finish.  13.5%  €49.90 at Vinha 

Next door, in Bairrada, I wrote up 18 wines for Decanter in a regional review but, as you might expect, top Baga is best enjoyed with a few years under its belt.  During a visit with Luis Pato to celebrate his 40th vintage, I had the opportunity to re-taste Luis Pato Vinha Pan 1996, which beguiled me during a vertical tasting presented by Pato in 2017 (my report here).  No stems here…

Luis Pato Vinha Pan 1996 (Bairrada)

Luis Pato with 40th anniversary tasting bottles; Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Pato showed a magnum in 2017, but from his cellar, this single bottle is still a charm offensive, with Pinot-esque sweet red cherry fruit, perfumed sweet spices – anise, cinnamon and cedar, with a lick of bitter chocolate and pine needle – a classic local signature, as is the chalky, smoky finish.  Lovely freshness, the tannins fine and long.    Delightful.

A striking aspect of the Alentejo reds I sampled for Decanter’s Regional Profile was the relatively high proportion of late release wines.  I think northern Portugal regions could learn a thing or two, especially when you consider that Alentejo’s wines tend to have riper tannins….My top scorer is a fabulous case in point from Alentejo’s varietal hero, Alicante Bouschet.

Dona Maria Wines Júlio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet 2015 (Estremoz, Alentejo)

Júlio Bastos with aged Alicante Bouschet vines; photo credit Dona Maria wines

This charismatic powerhouse exudes class and has oodles of character, with savoury lift and layer and melded minerals to its intense black fruits.  Fresh acidity animates the detail, with lifted tobacco, stewed mint, dark spices, vanillin (oak spice), gravel and a bloody tang (which I often find with gravel).  Exemplary tannins tailor the vigorous, vertiginous fruit, which is well-defined – not a jot of over-ripeness here.  Epic!  13.5%

As for Portuguese white wines, two of my highlights took first and second place (for white wines) at Essência do Vinho’s Top 10 Portuguese Wines Tasting 2020; I included them in my Decanter Vinho Verde Regional Profile and Decanter Atlantic Whites Expert’s Choice.

Regueiro Jurássico I (Vinho Verde)

Paulo Cerdeira Rodrigues of Quinta do Regueiro

Paulo Cerdeira Rodrigues of Quinta do Regueiro; Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

This novel non-vintage blend of Alvarinho – the first-placed Top 10 white – is made by Paulo Cerdeira Rodrigues of Quinta do Regueiro, pictured from my visit with him in 2014, when I tasted an earlier incarnation of Jurrasico and his very good Douro/Vinho Verde blend.  He told me that he decided to make a non-vintage wine because his Melgaco Alvarinhos developed so well in bottle.  I’m not sure if it’s true for the current release, but back then, he was blending four vintages, with 25% from each year.  It was illuminating to sample it for myself, tasting tank samples from different vintages set aside for a future release.  I awarded the current release 19/20, finding it breathlessly racy and pacey, with a prettiness and intriguing undertow of iodine (which made sense afterwards, knowing it was non-vintage).  I particularly liked its pithy mouthfeel.  Great energy and interest.

Energy – great nervosity – is a hallmark of Colares.  With skin contact, a newly discovered example balanced this with great dry extract.

Ramilo Malvasia de Colares 2017 (Colares)

Ramilo Colares vineyard; photo credit Ramilo

New-to-me, this is Ramilo’s first Colares and, unbelievably (given its intensity), hails from a 2-hectare vineyard (pictured) that the Ramilo family planted in sandy soil in 2015. A golden/straw hue, with tons of dry extract and length, it has green sappy acidity, a salty edge, tang of cheese (attractive) and flint.  Something Jura-like about it.  I gave it 18.5/20 and, having put it forward for Decanter’s Wines of the Year, was delighted to see it feature in the magazine’s top scoring wines of the year.  What a great endorsement for the revival of Colares – no mean feat given the price of real estate in Sintra and the extreme viticulture.  And I’m not just talking about exposure to the Atlantic.   In accordance with tradition, the un-grafted vines were planted in the clay sub-strata 1.5 to 2 metres beneath the sand – a perilous exercise.   The resulting wine was naturally fermented,  50% on skins.  It underwent malolactic fermentation and aged in barrique for 18 months. 13.5% $59.99 at Le Dûc Wines (New York)

Atlantic influence and Cercial’s high natural acidity tempered a new powerhouse from Bairrada’s Quinta das Bágeiras.

Quinta das Bágeiras Cercial Branco 2016 (Bairrada DOC)

I could very easily have selected Quinta das Bágeiras Pai Abel Red 2015 – one of my top scorers for the Decanter Regional Profile (you can read the review here), but as readers know, I love to discover new wines and enjoy fresh taste experiences.  According to Luis Pato, who also makes a single varietal Cercial, Cercial (known as Cerceal in the Dão and Douro) has no connection with Madeira’s Sercial, although this conflicts with other sources.   There is, however, consensus about the grapes’/grape’s high acidity, which probably explains why it is so rare to find single varietal examples.  Production may have been tiny, with just 848 bottles, but this new wine from Quinta das Bágeiras is as statuesque as said sizeable, heavy bottles.   A beam – RSJ – of acidity unleashes a headlong torrent of flavour.  And lets it run and run.  Spiralling chalky, flinty minerality and salt notes surround layers of bruised apple, a touch high-toned (Jura-like), candied lemon and grapefruit and, opening up, rich, creamy white asparagus.  Lovely mouthfeel – terrific palate presence – with focus.  Naturally fermented, this charismatic maiden white was aged in used barrels and bottled without fining or filtration.   It drank beautifully over three days.  13.5% €55.90/bottle at Garrafeira Nacional (Portugal)

Atlantic influence and elevation play a part in Marta Soares’ pioneering Vital from 50-100 year old vines from the limestone strewn soils of the Serra de Montejunto (pictured below from my 2019 visit).  Casal Figueira António 2017 (Lisboa) topped my scores for a Decanter Expert’s Choice on Atlantic Portuguese Whites and it was my ‘value’ (below £25) suggestion for Decanter’s White Wines of the Year, making the final cut (see here).

Casal Figueira António 2017 (Lisboa)

Casal Figueira Serra Montejunto vineyard; Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Weightless intensity sums up this Vital, which remains the best I have tasted (other ambitious producers are now exploring the variety).   It has a mesmerising, zen-like coolness with pebble in a pond ripples emanating from a mineral core – lingering ripples of crushed coriander and fennel seed, with flint and chalk, on a gently lemony palate.   Tasting it, I kept thinking about a sea bass dish that I had enjoyed in Alsace in 2004(!), with orange, fennel, crushed new potatoes and black olive.  Back then, of course, paired with a local Riesling.  £23.49 at Butlers Wine Cellar

The Dão’s whites always impress and my Decanter Regional Profile includes a good many recommendations.  But the one that stands out in my mind from 2020 is a new cuvée from Quinta das Marias, where Alvaro Castro’s former right-hand man, Luis Lopes, is now based.  It was in barrel – more accurately two barrels – when I tasted it during my February visit, so obviously I couldn’t include it in Decanter.  However, it blew me away and the well known New York-based importers whom I visited with. I extracted a promise from Lopes to send me a finished sample!  Having re-tasted it during the autumn (when my fellow taster, a sommelier, swooned over it too), I’m thrilled to include it in Bar Douro Wine Club’s third wine box, which is due for release next month (disclosure, Bar Douro pay me a quarterly fixed fee to select Bar Douro Wine Club wines and write them up in the members’ [maga]zine; I receive no payment whatsoever from producers or sales commission from Bar Douro).

Quinta das Marias Crudus 2018 (Dão)

Double barrel – a tour de force Encruzado!  Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

This 100% Encruzado hails from Quinta das Marias’ oldest vines, planted in 1990.  A blend of two French and Austrian (Stockinger) 400l barriques, only 960 bottles were made; unfiltered and unfined, it was naturally fermented, then aged in barrel on light lees for 20 months. Scintillating from the off, with a tightly wound, flinty (reductive) nose and palate and spicy oak (still integrating), it puts me in mind of Burgundy.  With rapier-like acidity, this ultra-long Encruzado is fine and persistent, with ripe lemon, steely grapefruit, al dente white peach and salty minerality – a touch crushed of oyster shell – which I picked up in the regular Encruzado cuvée from 2019 too.  It really cleaves to the palate, remaining precise, with ‘pingy’ tension on day two, the salty minerality pronounced.  12.6%  It will be available as part of a mixed case of 6 priced at £120 (for the 6 bottles) at Bar Douro Wine Club in February 2021

Going uphill – to Portalegre’s cooler climes – an 85 year-old vineyard at 700 meters produced an uncommonly elegant white from Susana Esteban.  De-stemmed, fermented and aged in amphora with temperature control, it was the top scoring white in my Alentejo Regional Profile 

Susana Esteban Procura Na Ânfora 2018 (VR Alentejano)

Shining fresh light on Portalegre’s old vines – Susana Esteban, pictured 2017; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Slaked with minerals and with subtle herbal and spice nuances to its sappy, gently citrus and stone fruit inflected nose and palate, this elegant white – my top white in my Decanter Alentejo Regional Profile – has a lightness of being, yet has intensity and mouthfeel.  Rolling acidity teases out a long finish.  With lovely purity of expression, detail and freshness, it put me in mind of Alsace. 12.5% £24.00 at The Solent Cellar

Turning to fortified wines, let’s start with a pitch perfect Madeira.

Barbeito Malvasia 50 Years Old O Japones (Madeira)

Barbeito Malvasia 50 Years Old O Japones (Madeira)

Barbeito Malvasia 50 Years Old O Japones (Madeira)

Ricardo Diogo Freitas always pulls it out the bag and this 50-year-old Malvasia was no exception.  Indeed, exceptional, it warranted a perfect 20 points from me at Essência do Vinho Top 10 Portuguese Wines Tasting 2020, going on to emerge as the top fortified wine.  What more could you want, such was its intensity, phenomenal length and complexity.  Bright amber in hue, with a nam pla, biscuity tufa edge to the nose and palate, which reveals fresh cut, zingy pink grapefruit, smoky guava, peach tea, iodine, smelling salts and a lively, mineral character – a volcanic ‘bounce’ – I find hard to express in words – think sonic boom muffled but deep, dark basalt, mineral, sulphur-edged resonance?!?!  Anyway, boooooooooom! £473.93 (approx) at Drinks & Co

Fellow producer, Blandy’s, released some tip top vintage Madeiras this year.  I expected the 1920 Bual (my pick of Blandy’s 200th anniversary vertical some years earlier) to be my stand out, but that distinction went to a rather younger Verdelho.

Blandy’s 1976 Verdelho (Madeira)

Blandy’s & Cossart Gordon 2020 Vintage releases; Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

For Blandy, it generally takes 28-30 years in cask for Vintage Madeira to hit the perfect drinking window (and, he added, keep ageing, hence different bottlings, now easily identified because, lately, producers have been legally obliged to put the bottling date on labels). Blandy’s 1976 Verdelho makes for a terrific contrast with the Cossart Gordon, both by reason of its age and, to coin the CEO’s description of Blandy’s house style, its “explosive” palate.  As Blandy went on to point out, the volatile acidity is “pushing the limit,” but I loved the energy and edge to this wine.  A deep, complex nose reveals hints of lavender and beeswax (a touch high-toned furniture polish), with smoky guava.  Rapier-like, an energetic ‘whoosh’ of acidity, lays bare and extends the flavours – guava, tamarind, concentrated black treacle, like a ‘reduced’ sauce – very concentrated, pungent even.  The finish is spicy, with a tang of burned sugar.  The acidity holds firm. With time in glass (and finishing off the bottle that evening), the ‘reduced’ character blows off and you feel closer to the core of the wine, with its ozone/pungent saltiness, guava and grapefruit oil, lick of barley sugar and richer, spicier Madeira Honey Cake lingering dried fruit, clove and nutmeg intensity; the woody, lavender and beeswax now undertones.  It has terrific back-palate resonance.  Blandy reckons it is still settling down and recommends broaching it after another month or two in bottle, when it has adapted from cask to bottle and rounded out.  But expect it to remain gloriously punchy – for Albuquerque, it is rare to have such freshness in a wine with 86g/l residual sugar. 21% alcohol by volume, Total Acidity 10.25 g/l, pH 3.56, Residual Sugar 86g/l, Volatile Acidity 1.26 g/l, Volumetric mass 1014.24 g/l.  £850.71 at Vinquinn.

Turning to Port, Tawny Ports rather dominated my sampling last year.  I tasted splendid fine and rare examples from Kopke amongst the ‘new’ releases and over 80 examples from across the price and stylistic spectrum for Decanter Expert’s Choice (my notes here, together with my follow up blog post covering the best of the rest of the samples submitted for the Decanter feature).

Kopke Colheita Tawny 1960

Kopke Colheita 1960

I could easily have chosen Kopke’s 1940 Tawny or White Colheitas or Kopke 1941 Tawny Colheita, but the 1960 was so very complete and utterly moreish that it sticks in my mind for the very best of reasons – especially in 2020 – sheer unadulterated pleasure!  This dangerously moreish Colheita made the cut for my July Wines of the Month.  Having tasted a full bottle over a few days, Port expert Richard Mayson remarked about its initially high-toned, lifted nose giving way to a wonderfully approachable port.  And so it was with my test tube sample, with its edgy chutney/pickled walnuts and a touch of polished wood.  Notes swiftly subsumed by the 1960’s marked spiciness, powerful dried fruit and sweet nutty, caramel torrefaction – qualities which deliciously define the mellifluous, velvety palate.  It is a feast of dried fig and apricot, with rich, moreish chocolate orange (think Lindt’s Orange Intense bar), orange peel and praline intensity and layer.  Lashings of savoury spice, with sweet tobacco (café crème) lift bring harmonious balance and terrific black cardamom, clove, nutmeg, cedar and cinnamon resonance to the most exquisite, lingering finish.  Absolutely on song, this mellow, generous fellow exudes bonhomie!  I thoroughly recommend you seek out its company.  Alcohol 20%, pH 3,58, 5,26 g/dm3, Total Acidity, Reducing Sugars 167,00 g/dm3  £235 at The Vintage Port Shop

Taylor’s Very Old Tawny Port Kingsman Edition

Taylor's Very Old Tawny Port - Kingsman Edition

Sampling Taylor’s Very Old Tawny Port – Kingsman Edition; Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

A deep, shiny conker hue  with a golden halo. Its glorious scent snakes out the glass, ensnaring from the off, with throaty black cardamom spice, soothing dried honey and lifted, nutty amaretto.  Notes which follow through in the mouth, which has terrific depth and persistence – super freshness, with an ozone/salty edge to its dried apricot.  Walnut tuile notes bring a sense of delicacy and tension.  Long, precise, with an ultra-fine, tapering finish, the residual sugar (206g/l) is teased out.  With superlative poise, graduation and resonance, this Very Old Tawny Port is remarkably fleet of foot and harmonious.  20%  £2,950 at Edencroft

It was another year of Vintage Port declarations, albeit not a general declaration.  I collated my reviews of 20 examples here, but if I was to single out two tippety top drops, it would be Quinta do Noval from the classic corner and Wine & Soul Pintas from the contemporary corner.

Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2018

A tight, sooty, mineral nose and attack, with a plume of powdery tannins.  Sturdy, tightly coiled, with bitter chocolate and fleeting glimpses of blackberry and violets, making for an emphatically mineral-tasting palate. An hour later, opening up a touch, blackcurrant, mulberry, blackberry, violets peek through, with citrus hints – orange blossom/peel and grapefruit oil – to the back palate. On day two, it has moved into a different gear.  Parrying tannin and acidity animate the palate – a vigorous swirl of chocolate and liquorice-edged plum and red and black berry and currant fruits, with violets, orange blossom and grapefruit peel lift.   It finishes long, spicy, very deep, with lashings of fine, fine cocoa tannins, minerals and spice – great sense of tip-to-toe dry extract. Residual sugar 100 g/l, TA 4.8G/l, pH 3.58, 19.5%  Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2018 is a release of 1,600 cases, representing 7% of production.  £540.00/12 bottles in bond at Farr Vintners & BI Fine Wines, £270/6 bottles at DBM Wines, Lea & Sandeman & L’Assemblage.   See my original post with Quinta Noval’s vintage report and winemaker insights on the Port here.

Wine & Soul Pintas Vintage Port 2018

Wine & Soul Pintas Vintage Port 2018; Photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Purple and lustrous – the hue of shiny blackcurrants – with great depth (opacity) of colour and a very narrow bright pink rim.  Tight knit to the nose on day one though, on days two and three, it reveals pronounced violets.  In the mouth, the freshness, biting almost, fair takes your breath away.  With a long, precise javelin throw to the attack, its sweet scented blackcurrant and blackberry fruit barely lands.  Rather, the fruit is buoyed along – kept in suspense – by grapefruity, mineral acidity.  Hints of Earl Grey tea, smoke and crystallised stem ginger flash by.  Spicy liquorice and the fine, sooty underlay of mineral tannins build on the finish.  Terrific purity and intensity fruit, energy (freshness) and structure – surely the springboard for a long life ahead.  Deeply impressive, Pintas Vintage Port hails from the Pintas vineyard’s 88-year-old field blend vines in the Vale de Mendiz, Pinhão Valley.  It has 96g/l residual and 20% alcohol by volume.  In this low-yielding vintage, I understand that only 2,000 bottles were produced – half the production of 2017.  Wine & Soul Ports & Douro DOC wines are imported into the UK by Corney & Barrow.  See my original post with Wine & Soul’s vintage report here.

Last but by no means least, from Australia, Rutherglen’s uber-concentrated, viscous and sticky Rare fortifieds leave a lasting impression.  None more so than this rich but balanced example from Morris – one of five Rutherglen Muscats shown at Wine Australia’s last webinar of 2020 (all five are reviewed here):

Morris Wines Rare Rutherglen Muscat (Rutherglen)

David Morris, Morris vineyard, Rutherglen, 2013; photo credit Sarah Ahmed

Scaling the heights of the Rutherglen Classification and ‘Rare’ by name and nature, this outstanding fortified Muscat sustained the high of last month’s Rutherglen Muscat tasting in great style.  The classification stipulates an average age in excess of 15 years’ old; Morris Rare averages over 20 years old.  Located in Rutherglen’s east, beyond the reach of Lake Moodemere’s irrigation pipe, Morris vineyards are dry-farmed.  Being easternmost, the cooling Alps’ night-time influence is pronounced and Morris typically picks later than their peers, attaining great richness and flavour intensity.  The soils are a bit different too, with quartz.  Morris Wines Rare Rutherglen Muscat’s deep mahogany hue and sheer intensity and viscosity point to significantly older blend components.  On the swirl, a single halo ‘tear’ forms around the glass, only slowly releasing a flow of closely spaced tears.  Glass-coating as well as mouth-coating, it leaves a cloak of saffron on the sides of the glass and the deepest of impressions on the senses.   Rich, unctuous and moath-coating, with throaty spice box (straight to the back of the net), especially black cardamom, which resonates throughout and long after the sip (no swallow with these wines).  A feast in the mouth, it has a dark, dense, deep rich procession of flavours –  molasses, date syrup, a fistful of raisins, dried figs, olive oil and baking spices steal over the palate in a smooth, unbroken wave (no distracting dustiness, spirit or volatile acidity here).  Cocoa nibs, bitter chocolate, mocha and smoky espresso notes, together with the spice, provide savoury balance.  Motile, this muscular powerhouse remains poised, with great clarity and flow.  Unrelenting, it holds your taste buds captive.  Outstanding.  What an experience.  312g/l residual sugar; 17.3%  £82.50/50cl discounted case price The Fine Wine Company 

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