Following my reblog of Quentin Sadler’s review of SPAR wines, felt it was only fitting to repost this from Confessions of a Wine Geek about Aldi. Looks like some great wines for even better prices!

Confessions of a Wine Geek

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The article I wrote on Aldi wine back in January 2013 is by far the most read piece on the blog and “Aldi wine” is the source of an extremely high percentage of my search traffic. I have been back a few times in the 18 months that have passed and have bought (and enjoyed) a few bottles of wine… but I thought it was time to give the wines some proper attention once again.

I’m sure there are many of you who have read all of the hype around Aldi’s wine selection, but here’s a few things you should know:

  • The wine is bought by one guy, Dr Mike James (PhD on the world’s smallest butterfly apparently!)
  • Mike has claimed in the past that his mission is to find the very best value wines to sell in the UK
  • The entire range numbers 74 (according to their website)
  • The…

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Friends, and fellow expats, are setting up their own, frankly brilliant, business venture in food. Can’t wait for a Sticky Beaks/Family Nose collaboration in the future!

What an eye-opening post from Quentin Sadler – how many enjoyable wines do we overlook due to being overtly snobby/judgemental about where they come from? I know where I’ll be buying a few bottles next time I’m back in the UK…..

Quentin Sadler's Wine Page

Time was when your local corner shop was the last place you would turn to buy a bottle of wine. I well remember how they used to be, a jumbled assortment of wines with no apparent selection process, vaguely arranged on the shelves with price tags guaranteed to make you wince.

Well it seems that that might all be in the past, at least at Spar stores. We all take Spar stores for granted, there they are on most shopping parades all over the country supplying us with emergency bread and milk and a few other bits and pieces. Well recently I have tasted quite a few of their wines and I have to say that I have been impressed.

The range that I tried consisted of smart, well sourced and sensibly priced wines that hit the spot time and time again. It seems to me that the quality of…

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I thought I would throw my hat into the ring for March’s Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC), created by The Drunken Cyclist with arguably what should have been the very first post on my blog. Thanks also to The Sweet Sommelier for setting this month’s theme: Luck.

 

 

Where did it start? When I put myself through the pain of taking WSET exams, long after my days of university and sweaty-palmed last-minute cramming? Or was it before that; the London years attending wine fairs and tastings, and being ‘the wine girl’ amongst friends? Or even before then? The time spent living in the Loire Valley; days of Châteaux, sun and Sancerre?

It’s hard to tell where my love affair with wine began, but it’s been with me for as long as I can remember. But turning a love, a passion and a hobby into a career is something else entirely. Is it possible? Does it really offer the same rewards? Is it financially viable? Does the ‘love’ go away and be overshadowed by the daily grind?

I always had a plan. Academic, independent, and focussed. It was clear – study hard, get a good degree, get ‘a good job’, get on the career ladder, earn good money, buy a house, get married…..you know the drill. It started well – First Class Honours in French & Italian from a red-brick institution, a few years spent abroad teaching and honing my skills, then a move to London to work in the City. So far so good. As the years went on a few more boxes ticked – salary increases, bonuses, increased responsibility, longer hours, a personal trainer, pilates, even longer hours, a never-silent Blackberry, friends getting married and moving to the suburbs to start new lives and families, travelling with work – the US, Singapore, Europe, a constantly-ringing Blackberry…….on the face of it, living the life. But, approaching 30 and finding myself with nothing more tangible to show for my efforts than I had when I was 22, I needed something else. I needed to use my brain in different ways. So, by chance, I signed up for a WSET course. At the time, something to look forward to on a Monday night, the chance to meet different people and try some new wines, get the old grey matter working a bit more.

It was all-consuming. Passing the first exam, I signed up for the next level, and the next. I did mini-tasting sessions with friends, which turned into sessions for friends-of-friends, which turned into Hen Dos, which turned into being paid to conduct tastings for corporate events and team-building sessions.

Meanwhile, a chance encounter with a career coach got some cogs whirring. Did I want to continue on the route I was on in the City? After 8 years, was it even possible to do something else? And if so, what? I felt conditioned to be a certain person, work a certain way…and yet.

A friend from out of town called me and invited me to dinner. A wine buyer for a well-known quality retailer in the UK. We talked about wine, obviously, and my career crossroads. Your skills are transferable she says. Why not do it she says? Why not go into the wine trade? Why not take a chance?

Why not?

So I did it. I took a chance, an admittedly crazy, off-piste, in-no-way-related-to-my-lifeplan chance, and came to an agreement with my City employer. Three months later I was unemployed. Unemployed but with possibilities – taking the time to finish my wine studies, attend tastings, conduct my own tastings, travel to Mexico, go to the Garonne to study French cuisine, and write many, many letters of application to London-based wine suppliers, distributors, and retailers.

These letters of application resulted in responses, which led to a few interviews, including one with Dinesh Changela, MD of Berkmann Wine Cellars. Lucky that you came to us when you did, he says. By chance, I can see something for you with us. We’re setting up an operation in the Maldives. Would you, by chance, be interested in a position with us there?

By chance, he says.

So I took another chance. The chance to entirely dismantle my life and start again on the other side of the world, in a new company, and a new career. And I’ve been incredibly lucky. Lucky to have been given this opportunity, lucky to spend time in some of the most beautiful hotels and resorts in the world, lucky to be working with such an incredible wine portfolio, and therefore some incredible wine people. Certainly lucky to have visited Antinori Estates in Italy, and lucky to have hosted Alessia Antinori here for a week, along with many, many other reputable winemakers.

What happens next? I’m not quite sure. But I’d like to think we make our own luck. Take a risk, take the right chances, make the most of opportunities that present themselves, and you might just find that it’s not luck after all. It’s fate.

All winesOne of the biggest challenges about being a wine supplier in a dry country is that you don’t actually get to drink much wine. Ironic, no? Wines are kept in a special bond at the airport, the mainland capital is alcohol free, and the only opportunities to drink are at the airport hotel (HIH or the ‘local’) or when on a resort. This means that I only really get the chance to try wines in my own portfolio when doing a tasting with clients in resorts, and outside of that I NEVER get to try new wines.

Which is a bit of a worry, and certainly not very conducive to keeping the palate and brain working or expanding my wine knowledge in any way.

So, after a bit of a moan about this with some other expats and suppliers, we decided to form a monthly Wine Club for all Male-based wine suppliers and their plus-ones/people who fancy a night drinking wine.

Logistically this involves: One supplier taking responsibility for the session, selecting 8 wines to try, getting permission from a friendly local resort to hold the session on their island, supplying the wines to the resort in advance, arranging transport to and from the resort for the group on the day itself, and taking cash etc from all parties involved. Not as easy as just getting together for a few drinks in a bar in London eh?

I have to say I was a little bit dubious about getting together with competitors for such an event; while we get on well enough socially, the market here is very small and competitive and it’s often best to steer clear of any work-related conversation. But given it was my idea in the first place and everything was organised to the final detail, I thought it would be a bit churlish not to go!

So we all piled onto a speedboat provided by one of the competitors to a local resort willing to host the night for us. After a quick welcome drink in the bar while waiting for everyone to arrive, we went to our private tasting room and got together in teams of 3 for the tasting.

It had been set up so that we did a ‘guided’ blind tasting of each wine, with the organiser asking 7 questions on each to help us as we went. I have to say I was more than a little rusty when it came to blind tasting, and certainly wished I’d spent a bit of time studying their portfolio earlier to give me a few hints! My team consisted of me, a competitor, and a sommelier from one of our client resorts, so we felt like we were in with a good chance!

Petaluma Riesling 2011Wine 1: Petaluma Hanlin Hill Riesling, Clare Valley, Australia, 2011

The first question – Old or New World? Well we fell at the first hurdle on this one, primarily because due to the high acidity levels we were convinced this was European. We veered from Sauvignon, to Riesling, to cheap Petit Chablis. Eventually going with a ‘cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc’ we also got the next question wrong – nominating South America for the region rather than Australasia. Once we knew it was Australian we were able to hone in a little – single varietal, south Australia, Riesling – the slight oily texture gave this one away. Is this the best example of Ozzie Riesling I’ve ever tasted? Probably not – I found the acidity a little too high to be pleasant and well balanced, and some of the typical stone fruit aromas and flavours outweighed by the citrus. However, definitely drinkable, and a cracking match for some light asian/seafood dishes.

Cave de Lugny Pouilly Fuisse 2009Wine 2: Cave de Lugny Pouilly-Fuisse’ AC, France, 2009

About as far removed from the first wine as you can get. From the colour and the nose we were stumped. Deep gold, and a fairly flat, oxidised aroma. Still some good acidity, but little fruit. Was it meant to smell and taste like that? Given the supplier had served it we figured yes! An almost sherry finish on the palate had us leaning towards an aged white Rioja, so we went Old World for question 1. It was France. So it had to be an aged Burgundy. Once we got to narrowing down the region we went with Maconnais (correct) as we didn’t feel it was going to be one of the more renowned and expensive regions. Had it seen any oak? Tricky, but without the creaminess you would expect we went no, and were correct. Hard to believe this is a Chardonnay bottled so recently, with no oak. My gut was that this bottle was a little more oxidised than intended, and had perhaps had some storage issues – we guessed this was at least 10 years old. I have to say that for my personal tastes, I’m not a sucker for this style of wine so could be a little unfairly biased against it, but the Sommelier in my team who trained in Burgundy wasn’t a massive fan either and I am happy to defer to his knowledge!

Cloudy Bay SB 2010Wine 3: Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand, 2010

I am happy to say we sailed through this one – New World, New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay. We just missed out on the vintage as we put 2011 after MUCH discussion. Given this is such a popular wine here in the Maldives it was a bit of a shoe-in. Exactly what you would expect – elderflower and gooseberry aromas along with citrus and stone fruit flavours and good acidity which is slightly on the wane as it ages a little, if anything, making it a little more harmonious. This is a benchmark, crowd-pleaser NZ Sauvignon Blanc for good reason.

Craggy Range SB 2011Wine 4: Craggy Range Te Muna Road Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Martinborough, New Zealand, 2011

Our gut/common sense told us that he wouldn’t put two NZ Sauvignons in a row, now would he?! So we were convinced this was a Sancerre. Actually not a terrible shout – compared to the Cloudy Bay this wine has an elegance and minerality more common in the Old World, and a slight bitterness (not unpleasant) that you would sometimes associate with Sancerre due to maceration common in the winemaking process. Restrained and elegant on the nose – still the typical notes of elderflower, gooseberry and citrus, but not punching you in the face as a NZ SB so often does. Crisp, refreshing acidity, a fine, almost chalky mineral texture, and well balanced with a lengthy finish – this was exactly my style of wine and I’m actually not ashamed to have gotten this wrong. A really lovely single vineyard example rather than the ubiquitous floral/tropical efforts so often coming out of New Zealand now. As a Sancerre lover, this is a new find for me, and one I will hopefully be tasting again in the not too distant future. So why not give the Cloudy Bay a miss for once and try this instead?

Domaine des Nouelles Rose dAnjou 2011Wine 5: Domaine des Nouelles Rose’ d’Anjou AC, France, 2011 (10%)

In an attempt to mitigate what was a massive failure in a blind tasting session, I would like to draw your attention to the alcohol content of this rose’ – 10%. This should give you some indication as to the sweetness of this wine and the fact that we would NEVER have pinned it as French. Needless to say, we were convinced it was a California White Zinfandel – nemesis of many dry rose’ lovers worldwide – everything from the colour (deep pink), to the sweetness, to the red fruit flavours, and the flabby texture screamed White Zin. To then be told it was in fact Old World – where do you go from there? Not France or Italy, possibly Germany, I mean they make plenty of off-dry wines but usually not Rose’, so how about Spain? Was this a cheap and cheerful bag-in-box offering from Spain, the kind you would buy by the litre for quaffing on holiday? No, France. So from where? Our options were: Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon, Rhone, Provence. By this point we were even more thrown and went with Languedoc, purely down to the cheap and cheerfuls that are produced. Wrong again. Loire. So it had to be a Rose’ d’Anjou! I must admit I thought the days of this wine was over – a classic in the 80s apparently going through a resurgence! Although not that surprising it is selling well here in this market – with a lot of Russian and Chinese guests here in the Maldives who prefer a sweeter wine, I can imagine this one selling like hot cakes, despite my own personal taste screaming “No, just No!”. Bonus points for the 6 grape varieties permitted to make Rose’ d’Anjou? We got 3.*

Ch Ste Michell Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

Wine 6: Chateau Ste Michelle Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State, USA, 2005

I popped to the loo at this point so missed the discussions of my colleagues when initially tasting this wine, pinning it as New World, USA, and probably California, all of which I was happy to go along with. We toyed with the blend for a bit – Cab Sav? Syrah? before the question asking about whether it was single grape varietal or a blend meant we opted for Syrah. Wrong. Why did we think all of the above? First, massively high alcohol on the nose and palate, not as integrated as it could be. This also gave it a spiciness which we mistook for Syrah. Red and black fruit on the palate, but a slightly flabby texture rather than the fine, slightly grippy tannins one would expect. Finally, I would usually associate Washington State with more restrained wines and varietals – Riesling and Pinot Noir – so wouldn’t necessarily have pinpointed the location either. An interesting one; I would say food friendly rather than for lone drinking, and from a pretty reputable winery too (now their Riesling, that’s a wine to try!)

Ch Tour Pibran 2000

Wine 7: Chateau Tour Pibran, Pauillac AC, France, 2000

Old World? Check. France? Check. (Albeit after some discussion about Italy). Bordeaux? Okaaaaaay. Left Bank? Yes. Pauillac? No. St Julien surely – this didn’t seem to be quite in the heady levels of quality you would expect from Pauillac. As for the blend? My gut said more Merlot than Cab Franc, mainly because of the softer fruit and tannins, although our wine heads said 70-30 Cab Sav- Merlot. Turned out I was right! (Why oh why don’t I go with my gut more often?!). A value for money red from Pauillac, much more approachable than some of the more austere wines you would expect from the region, mainly due to the domination of Merlot in the blend. Certainly a good one to try as a ‘starter’ Bordeaux if you’re not sure what you might like and don’t want to make an expensive mistake!

So it turned out we came second, which wasn’t too bad considering! I have to say doing the blind tasting was a great exercise, and always better to do in groups in order to bounce ideas off one another (read: argue).

We then retired to the restaurant for dinner where we enjoyed a cracking Clare Valley Riesling, Moulin-a-Vent Gamay, and the particularly lovely Forrest Estate Pinot Noir. All in all, a great evening – looking forward to the next one!

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*Grolleau, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Malbec, Pineau d’Aunis

Lately I seem to have been coming across a lot of  ‘Celebrity’ wines. This all started thanks to fellow blogger Jeff at The Drunken Cyclist who likes to throw in a picture question or two on this in his weekly Wine Trivia Wednesday quiz. As I usually get most of his questions wrong (the shame…), I tend to take to Google afterwards to find the correct answers and also explore a little bit. So what did I find out this week?

Firstly, what are ‘Celebrity’ wines – what does it mean?

Usually, this is one of three things:

1) A celeb owns a vineyard/estate and has little to no involvement in the actual winemaking process, simply enjoying the fruits of the labour for their own consumption ( e.g. the Beckhams);

2) As above, but the celeb also leverages their own name as a selling tool. This actually works – a 2007 study by Nielsen showed that sales of these wines were up 19% compared to previous, non-affiliated years. It also means you get quite a lot of corny pictures of celebs in vineyards, laughing uproariously while quaffing, and holding bottles. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Drew Barrymore.

3) Finally, celebs who are actually involved in the selection of grapes, the winemaking process, and do it for enjoyment or even because they come from a line of winemakers in the family. Probably the best example of this would be Francis Ford Coppola and his Rubicon Estate Winery.

Haute Living did a pretty nice feature on this you can check out here: Explore vineyards owned by celebrities and you can also get a pretty comprehensive list from Wikipedia (although don’t trust everything they tell you….)

I have to say I don’t blame them – I can’t think of many better things to invest some hard-earned cash in than wine, and a winery. It’s a smart business choice and also gives great pleasure – providing of course, the wine is any good.

Which brings me on to the next question: Are these wines actually any good?

I can imagine being attracted to a product because of a name, or celebrity endorsement – just look at sales of sportswear, perfumes, and even food (see Duchy Originals by Prince Charles – yes I KNOW they are ridiculously overpriced but who doesn’t like to imagine themselves as royalty when dunking a biscuit into a cuppa?)

But wine? And does the celebrity actually match with the wine they are selling? For example – I would hope that Antonio Banderas’ range of reds from Ribera del Duero are a lot like him – rich, smoky, sultry, with lots of character and a smooth finish. Likewise good old Drew Barrymore’s Pinot Grigio I would expect to be lightweight, insipid and forgettable, much like many of her recent romcom efforts. (Too harsh? Sorry to any hardcore Barrymore fans out there….)

Well, Buzzfeed has the answer! You may know Buzzfeed as being one of the best list/quiz websites – you know, Top 10 Autocorrect fails, 20 best moments from the Sochi Oympics opening ceremony, 12 everyday problems of being blonde, and my current top favourite “Which classic diva are you?” (Janet Jackson, apparently).

So, outside of the endless lists and general frippery serving as a distraction while you should be at your desk working, I found a genuinely good article on Buzzfeed about Celebrity Wines. They took 15 of the wines, and asked a Sommelier to do a blind tasting and rate them. The results? You can read for yourself here, but needless to say, some fared surprisingly better than others.

The moral of this story? If you want to taste a wine backed by a true celebrity, make sure it’s a celebrity of the wine world. Spend your cash on a reputed, well known and awarded producer/estate/winemaker, rather than a footballer/actress/porn star. At least that way you won’t be disappointed.

The next morning after a breakfast including some excellent homemade jam (which I may or may not have squirrelled away with me as a later gift for Mum!), trusty Simone came to collect us in the minibus.

It was time to leave Guado al Tasso and the Bolgheri DOC and head inland towards Siena and Montepulciano and the Umbrian/Tuscan border. It was another absolutely gorgeous day for a drive through the Tuscan countryside and we arrived at La Braccesca in no time.

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Antinori first started investing in this area in the 1990s but the Braccesca estate has been going for many years, named for the Bracci Counts who once owned large parts of the region. The logo and wine labels feature an armoured arm brandishing a sword, the original coat of arms of the Bracci. Bracci also = arms in English. Arms, arms, arms. See what they did there?

The interesting thing about this estate is that it straddles two neighbouring wine regions – Montepulciano and Cortona, and produces wines under both appellations. The vineyards are very cleverly (and simply) divided by a road marking the territory borders.

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Montepulciano is probably best known for its wonderful Vino Nobile, traditionally made from the local Sangiovese varietal of Prugnolo Gentile. 103 hectares of La Braccesca fall into this DOC, and they have 3 single site vineyards producing the best grapes for their top wines: Cervognano, Gracciano and Santa Pia. Soils are made from clay and are quite rocky. Next door in Cortona, the vines cover 162 hectares, principally planted with Syrah and Merlot, in mixed clay and loam soils.

Of all the estates visited so far, La Braccesca appealed to me the most in terms of aesthetics – the vineyards were so neatly planted and maintained, and you could literally see the different soil types next to one another. They alternate rows when it comes to weeding, turning over the soil, and the care and attention to detail was a thing of beauty.

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As with the rest of Antinori’s estates, the winery itself was state of the art – full of stainless steel and modern machinery for pressing, pumping over, and temperature controlled fermentation. The cellars however, were again sunk below ground and divided into areas for barrels and casks of all types of oak, and equipped to manage air circulation and humidity levels to ensure the maturation process takes place under controlled conditions.

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We emerged from the cellar to the front of the winery, past a kitchen full of bustling ladies, to enjoy an aperitif and platter of local cheeses and meats on the terrace with a beautiful view of my new favourite vineyard.

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We then headed inside to a table beautifully prepared for lunch and another breathtaking view….

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Now, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t mention some of the food – a new discovery for me at La Braccesca was ‘Picci’ pasta – a local variety made by very simply rolling the pasta dough by hand into worm-like shapes, and cooked so al dente it was practically raw. Smothered in a fresh, peppery, courgette and green vegetable sauce, it was simple but absolutely delicious. Followed by Bistecca Fiorentina – steak from Florence – with a simple salad, once again, it was all homemade, fresh, and very, very tasty.

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So – onto the wines…

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We started with the Achelo 2010, a Syrah from the Cortona DOC. It had the usual spiciness characteristic of Syrah but also very fruit forward flavours of raspberries and red fruits. Mineral, with a fresh slight acidity and savoury finish, and soft tannins, I have to say I wouldn’t usually start a meal with a Syrah but this was soft and lush enough to work.

Next up was Sabazio Rosso di Montepulciano DOC 2012, the second wine of the estate, and a traditional blend of Prugnolo Gentile and Merlot. It is earlier drinking than its big brother the Vino Nobile, aged for four months, offering floral aromas, fresh red fruit flavours with hints of blackcurrant, a medium bodied palate and a mineral finish.

The Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 2009 is the flagship of the estate. With a slightly higher percentage of Prugnolo Gentile, and aged 12 months in casks and another 12 in bottle, the result is a stunning mix of ripe cherry and blackberry with vanilla and tobacco. Tannins are balanced and supple, the finish is long and mineral, and the wine has a richness and depth which really marks the difference between Vino Nobile and a regular Chianti.

Onwards (and most definitely upwards) to Vigneto Santa Pia Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG Riserva 2007. This is 100% Prugnolo Gentile from one of the finest vintages known to the estate. Smaller but incredibly high quality yields resulted in a wine deeper in colour and richer in aromas than usual. Great care was taken to handpick and press the grapes, and the must underwent malolactic fermentation in oak before 15 months barrel ageing and another 20 in bottle. This wine has EVERYTHING you could want – fruit, vegetal, spice and tobacco aromas, a balanced and elegant palate with supple tannins, minerality, ripe fruit, spice and a long, juicy finish. To extract this much good stuff from a single set of grapes takes extreme talent, and I take my hat off to the winemaker. I have to say that of all the wines we tried at La Braccesca this was my particular favourite. But try it for yourself – you won’t be disappointed.

We finished with Bramasole Cortona DOC Syrah 2008 – this is a big wine, made from 100% Syrah and again, low volumes of highly concentrated berries were pressed, fermented with cool maceration (skin contact) to maintain fruity and floral notes. Aged for 16 months in new French oak, it was bottled two years after harvest. Deep red in colour with chocolate aromas, you know this is going to be a deep, rich wine before even tasting it. Initially sweet and soft on the palate, ripe and spicy fruit evolves into darker licquorice and tobacco and a long finish. Cheers!

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After a hearty breakfast at Tignanello we piled back into the minibus and set off on the two hour drive across Tuscany to the western coast and the Maremma region to reach Le Mortelle, an estate acquired by Antinori in the late 90s.

Needless to say, the scenery was truly stunning, and the temperature continued to rise as the morning edged towards midday, the minibus winding along some sun-baked coastal roads with the very beautiful town of Castiglione della Pescaia in sight (we didn’t have time for a visit sadly but I can recommend it to anyone as a typical, and rather chic, Tuscan seaside town – I’ll hand you over to the Tuscan tourism board if you need more convincing: Tourism in Tuscany).

We turned rather abruptly up a lane and climbed a hill to reach Le Mortelle, and were greeted by the most beautiful, relatively flat landscape dotted with trees, endless vines, and the Tyrrhenian sea in the distance.

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Like the Chianti Classico cellars at Bargino, Antinori have installed a new winery at Le Mortelle, respecting the landscape and building the construction into the hills and underground to take advantage of the cool bedrock for ageing and storage and the FANTASTIC views across the Maremma.

The structure itself is on three levels, and the winemaking process follows gravity, starting with collection and pressing on the top level, down to fermentation and finally ageing in the cellar. It is on a truly impressive scale but from the outside you would hardly know it was there…no mean architectural feat!

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In the cellar itself you can see (and touch) the natural rock, and it was truly refreshing and calming to be down there after the blazing heat of the midday sun.

We emerged into a viewing room and event space with the most beautiful view of the landscape. Note to self – if I ever get married, I want to do it here please. Thanks.

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Aside from grapes and therefore wine, the estate of over 285 hectares also produces organic fruits and vegetables, and jams, marmalades and other local products. Visitors come from miles around to visit the cellars and vineyards, and the farm shop to pick up some treats.

Also, very importantly, the estate contains two artificial lakes, designed to protect the local flora and fauna and also regulate the naturally dry climate of the area. They also produce their own cork from trees growing on the estate and we came across a few that had been recently stripped.

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The vineyards themselves are mostly planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese typical of the region but they have also recently added the white varietals of Viognier and Ansonica which suit the clay and rocky soil and produce light, fresh whites with good acidity and zesty citrus and stoned fruit flavours.

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So after all this walking around (it’s hard work you know!) it was time for a well-deserved lunch. Stefano came to join us once again and we sat outside the front of the winery and farmshop overlooking the vast vineyards and sea in the distance.

Now I know I keep banging on about the food here but I have to say you cannot beat freshly grown and made Tuscan produce. Everything from the antipasti (bruschetta, cured meats, artichokes and more) – to the pasta (fettucine with a ragu of aubergine and tomato) – to the meat and side dishes (melanzane alla parmigiana) – was all created from fresh produce grown on the estate and could not have been more delicious. Even just their basic tomatoes were some of the most flavourful I have ever eaten.

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All this amazing fare was of course accompanied by the wines of Le Mortelle. Starting with their sole white wine, Vivia, a blend of Vermentino, Viognier and Ansonica, which was refreshingly acidic balanced by a real softness and flavours of stoned fruit and herbs – almost a direct reflection of the orchards surrounding us. This would be great on its own as an aperitif and was a great wine to start the meal.

We then enjoyed the Bottrosecco, a 60/40 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc, a softer red than perhaps expected given the rather heavy and dark varietals, with fresh ripe red fruits and soft vanilla finish.

Finally, Poggio all Nane, which is 60/40 Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon, much more complex and spicy, with aromas of chocolate, tobacco, leather and dark fruits, and a rich palate with smooth tannins, a savoury note, and ripe plum and dried fruit flavours.

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We sat drinking and talking in the sunshine for far too long, but we really didn’t want to leave! Eventually it was time to bundle back into the minibus for the relatively short hop up the coast to our next stop. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who took advantage of the time for a quick snooze after all the wine and sun!

Our next stop and home for the night was Guado al Tasso – one of Antinori’s largest and best known estates producing their flagship wines in the Bolgheri DOC. It is 300 hectares surrounded and sheltered by the rolling hills known as the ‘Bolgheri amphitheatre’ which create a very unique microclimate and fairly perfect conditions.

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In addition to the vineyards, the Macchia del Bruciato woods on the estate are home to the prized Cinta Senese pigs (‘belted’ as they have a black stripe around the middle) and various other free range wildlife left to roam happily around.

Bolgheri DOC was originally best known for rose’ wines until the 1970s, when Antinori once again worked their magic and changed the face of Tuscan winemaking forever, receiving appellation status for their whites in the early 80s and then the reds in 1994. The ‘Super Tuscans’ of the area include Sassicaia and Ornellaia (sister wines of Tignanello and Solaia), grown in vineyards just behind Guado al Tasso which are now owned by another winemaker after the land was given as a dowry following a historical marriage into another winemaking family.

Something particularly of note is the soil composition which changes swiftly from one vineyard to the next, adding different characteristics to each wine. (The following photos were clearly not taken in the vineyard but prove my point pretty effectively!)

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The vineyards are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Vermentino, all handily split according to which wine they will form part of. Once again, the harvest was late due to the long, cool spring and grapes were not quite ripe and ready. At Guado al Tasso they had even started to remove some grapes from the vine to reduce the yield and quantity and ensure that all the goodness, energy and nutrients from the soil and vines was going into the remaining grapes in order for them to ripen effectively.

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After our cellar visit we made our way back up to the house just as the sun was starting to set and I couldn’t resist a few photos before dinner…

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The house itself was incredibly grand, and very hunting lodge in style – with furs, antlers, and paintings and soft furnishings throughout.

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We gathered in the lounge for the aperitif of Scalabrone Rosato accompanied by delicious antipasti. This signature rose’ is fairly powerful – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, with raspberry and rose petal flavours and good structure.

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We then headed through to the dining room to enjoy some more excellent pasta and tomatoes accompanied of course by Guado al Tasso – this is such an excellent wine! Aromas of dark berry fruit, nuts, herbs and spices, with rich, black cherry jam on the ripe finish with a mineral freshness. Warming, fruity, and luxurious.

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My point and press camera sadly failed to capture the incredible effect produced after dusk, and I’m sure Stefano thought I was trying to take a few too many photos of him….!

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Finally it was off to bed in anticipation of our final, jam packed day before heading to Rome for some sightseeing….

At the beginning of September I spent a fantastic week taking a few select clients on a tour of some of the wineries and vineyards owned by Antinori Estates (see my previous blog post for more information on them here).

Many, many weeks and months of planning in the making, I worked with Antinori’s particularly helpful Marketing team to come up with a tour where we flew in to Rome, spent the first night in a local hotel before being collected by our driver, Simone, who accompanied us around 7 Estates over 3 days. And what a trip! For many of my clients, it was the first time they had been to Italy, and even for some the first time seeing vineyards and where these wines that they sell on a daily basis come from. For me, it was a fantastic opportunity to see the real story behind these amazing wines and the historic family. It was also a brilliant excuse to drink a LOT of wine and eat a LOT of great food!

Day 1

We left Fiumincino and took a 3 hour drive north through Lazio and Umbria into Tuscany, and started at Antinori’s Chianti Classico Cellars at Bargino, where we were met by Stefano Leone who is their Global Export Manager, story teller extraordinaire and all round pretty great guy. This is a new, modern winery built at the end of 2012, situated between Siena and Florence just north of San Gimignano in the heart of the Chianti Classico region. It is used for the vinification and bottling of wines produced in the surrounding estates, including Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva, Peppoli Chianti Classico and a Vin Santo.

We were taken down into the vast underground cellar which is home to some of the original, huge casks traditional in the region designed to allow minimal oak contact with the delicate Sangiovese grapes.

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Natural aeration and light comes from vents which can be seen in front of the winery on the hillside. It is incredibly environmentally friendly, an aim of all of Antinori’s Estates, with minimal impact on the landscape as the whole structure has been built into, and underneath the hillside.

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We exited through the gift shop (quite literally), and the fantastic museum-like rooms full of history from the Estates, proving that the Antinori family is indeed one of the longest practicing winemakers to exist in Italy.

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We then had a fantastic lunch at the adjoining restaurant Rinuccio 1180, named after one of the founding fathers of the family and the earliest-dated documented history, accompanied by some of their flagship wines amid the amazing backdrop of the Tuscan countryside and sunshine! We ate traditional Tuscan fare including ‘Baccalà’ (salt baked cod), ‘Chitarra’ spaghetti in garlic sauce, and ‘Tagliere’ (the cutting boards) with mixed selections of cheeses, meats and ‘donzelle’ – mini doughnut/fried breads with currant sauce.

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We drank Montenisa Franciacorta Brut NV, a sparkling wine from the Franciacorta region near the Veneto, made using the Champagne method so very different and much richer and more elegant than the traditional Prosecco you would expect from Italy, the wonderful Sauvignon Blanc blend from Castello della Sala, Conte della Vipera 2011; and Badia a Passignano’s signature Chianti Classico Riserva 2008. We finished with the Marchese Antinori Vin Santo del Chianti Classico 2008, a sherry-style fortified dessert wine accompanied by the traditional local ‘Cantuccine’ biscuits – probably best known as a type of ‘biscotti’, which you dunk into the Vin Santo to soften before eating…..

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Unbelievably, I later discovered that our waiter was in fact a Michelin-starred Chef who usually worked at Badia a Passignano (which we would later visit), who had just come along to help out for the day…as you do!

Back on the road, we went from the very modern to the very old, and headed to the Badia a Passignano vineyard, named after the village abbey owned and inhabited by the Vallombrosian order, dating back to 395AD and established by the archbishop of Florence.

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The vineyards around the abbey back on to the Tignanello Estate, and grow the grapes for this wine which is vinified at Tignanello.

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The cellar is used to age the Chianti Classico wines of the same name, and is a beautiful natural space perfect for wine ageing and storage.

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The adjoining Osteria (restaurant) was founded in 2000 by Allegra Antinori and Marcello Crini, who is today in charge of the wine list and restaurant. Specialities include pork from the ‘Cinta Senese’ pigs raised in the Bruciato woods at Guado al Tasso estate. They have a really cute little shop and a stunning wine list including lots of back vintages.

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We finished the day at Tenuta Tignanello, where Antinori’s most famous ‘Super Tuscans’ are grown and made – Tignanello and Solaia. The estate itself is probably one of the most typical of Tuscany you would expect – an old and very beautiful farmhouse surrounded by vineyards and Cypress trees, with a backdrop of rolling hills and vines stretching all the way to the horizon. The house itself actually features on the Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva label so may be recognizable to those of you already familiar with the wines…

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Right in front of the house the Sangiovese grapes are grown, and we were lucky enough to be able to taste a few! They were much sweeter than I expected, with fantastic acidity so typical of Italian varietals. I’m very proud to say that I have tasted the grapes for the 2013 vintage and look forward to drinking the wine upon release in 2016!

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The vineyards also contain some large white stones known as Albarese, which are very rare and assist with drainage and maintaining consistent temperatures, allowing for steady and reliable ripening.

On the hill in the distance we could clearly see two contrasting triangles of vines which are the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, blended with the Sangiovese in both Super Tuscans.

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The winery itself is split into sections, with different vinification methods and tanks for each varietal and intended wine. Natural gravity drainage is used throughout so you can see different tanks on different levels, ending with the barrels down in the cellar.

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We headed back to the house to enjoy drinks in the courtyard, and a simple yet wonderful meal accompanied by the one and only Tignanello. I was quite disappointed there was no 1982 vintage available for us to taste…..!

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The rooms were traditional and very beautiful (no time to try out the freestanding rolltop bath unfortunately) and I awoke early to throw open my windows and take in some of the fresh air and breathtaking views of the countryside. I wonder if they need any extra workers here? It certainly wouldn’t be a hardship to wake up to this every morning!

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So sadly it was time to say goodbye to Tignanello, but there was plenty more to come…to be continued!

You can find out more about the Estates and the wines by visiting the Antinori website here, including the history of the vineyards, the wines, and tasting notes. You can also see a map and track our progress here

So, in my continued quest to do some fun stuff on my day off, last week I went on my second safari boat trip with the other expats. After a horrendously early start (7am is far too early to be up and about on my one day off of the week), we got settled into a much larger boat than before and enjoyed the early morning sun before it got too hideously hot. One of the guys had brought some amazing Bluetooth speakers with him, so equipped with music, the local coffee YeYe and our snorkels, we were off…

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First stop was a local sandbank, which despite the early hour was incredibly busy, with lots of locals spearfishing for lobster (unsuccessfully I may add), and some very aggressive local birds trying to protect their nests and eggs laid deep into the sand.

We spent a good hour or so snorkeling around the reef, seeing the usual array of Angelfish, Nemo fish (I can never remember their real names) and the slightly dangerous Stonefish, amongst others.

It was then time to get back on the boat and cruise around for a further few hours, by which point it was clearly beer o’clock and the drinking and dancing started in earnest…..

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I had to abandon the top deck after a few hours as I could literally feel my skin burning off – sadly my skin still doesn’t seem to be acclimatizing – and ended up having some great discussions about the upcoming local Presidential elections and the latest developments in Coronation Street and how I can access it for free online. Both equally important I’m sure you’ll agree.

All in, a great day for the bargain price of about $30, and looking forward to the next one.

This week, I managed to brave both the hairdressers AND the dentist in Male’. I’ve finally found a hairdresser that knows how to deal with Caucasian hair, and in particular, giving proper highlights as opposed to the weirdly yellow/orange dye everyone here seems to use. He was duly horrified at how long it had been since I’d had it cut, how dry and horrible it was (the hazards of sun and particularly hard, chemical rich water here) and flatly refused to do anything to it until I’d had it cut and endured three conditioning treatments. Well, at least he was honest, and at a fraction of the price I’d pay in the UK I can hardly expect Toni & Guy standards.

The dentist was a slightly more challenging experience. ADK Hospital is a private, relatively modern facility in Male’ which offers an array of services from Cardiology through to Dentistry and A&E. It’s not too bad as medical facilities go, and way better equipped and cleaner than the original place I went to for my blood tests et al when applying for my work permit when I first arrived. Getting an appointment is a little more tricky however. Everything is split by department, so it is impossible just to go for a check up with a GP for example, you need to have a particular ailment and find the specialist doctor that can deal with it. My quest to see if I needed any treatment began with finding the relevant department and waiting for over two hours in the waiting room only to be told to come back the following day at 9am. So far, so Maldives. So the next day I was back at 8.55am, given a ticket, and told to head on through to the treatment room. Success! But no, I then had to take a form, fill it in, take it back to Reception, and ask for a ‘Memo’. Still no idea what a memo is or what it is for. I then paid in advance the princely sum of MRF200 (about $12) and was sent back to wait for a much shorter time before seeing the Dentist. Most medical professionals here are Indian or Sri Lankan, and know their stuff so I felt in pretty safe hands. And in terms of equipment, everything looked as it should. After a truly cursory glance in my mouth, I was informed that everything was absolutely fine. Needless to say, I was very relieved. Compared to the UK, it turns out going to the Dentist here is a breeze. No-one questioning you about how much red wine or coffee you drink, or berating you for not flossing. I guess the mentality here is that unless something is drastically wrong i.e. decay, cracked teeth, infections, then no action needed. No trying to sell you any preventative measures/treatment unnecessarily, and I wasn’t even forced into a scale and polish with the hygienist. Reassuringly, most Maldivians have pretty good, straight white teeth as a rule, but then I guess they only really eat fish and rice so that’s not really a surprise.

Finally, onto this weekend. My friend Catherine organized an overnight at a local All Inclusive resort so we could escape Male on Thursday night, have some food and drink, and benefit from the majority of Friday spent in the resort before heading back late Friday afternoon.

Now at this point I have to confess I have been truly spoilt through my job and the amazing 5 Star resorts I have visited thus far. Of the c. 112 (and counting) hotels here, I have visited roughly 40, the majority of which are very high end. Because we don’t deal with ‘supermarket’ wines or bag in box or the like, we don’t really do much business with the 3 Star or All Inclusive resorts, so I didn’t have much experience of them. However, when it comes to being able to afford to go somewhere overnight when I’M paying, a downgrade is certainly required!

The resort itself was fairly large, with a mix of beach villas and overwater bungalows, and the usual sandy pathways, lush vegetation, lizards, birds and sea. The small differences soon became very apparent though – buffet food very reminiscent of school dinners, very abrupt, almost to the point of rude service, fairly basic rooms, and laminated drinks menus. We enjoyed our first night in the bar being entertained by the Boduberu traditional music and dancing add drinking some incredibly strong G&Ts (there are definite bonuses to All Inclusive free flowing booze!), followed by a decamp to the beach where we were so busy chatting we totally missed the wind picking up, the drop in temperature and the other signs that a storm is about to hit. Inevitably, the heavens opened to the most fierce rain and we endured a (luckily rather tipsy) trudge back to the villa, wading barefoot through the floods and soaked to the skin.

The next morning we woke pretty early (what is it with getting up so early on my day off!) to blazing sun and the aftermath of the storm, and I got my first proper look at the resort in daylight.

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After a breakfast of champions (oh bacon, how I miss you!) we had a wander around the resort and reached the surf break on one side of the island. This is the true attraction for this resort – there is a pretty amazing break which attracts surfers from all over the world. Instead of the usual lovey-dovey couples and gaggles of Chinese that tend to make up the majority of the clientele in the Maldives, this hotel was full of groups of surfers of all ages and nationalities, giving it much more atmosphere and also some well appreciated eye candy! Having never surfed in my life despite growing up in Devon, I wasn’t tempted to give it a try, but I did make a mental note for those friends of mine who may want to visit somewhere reasonably priced for a week of surfing and all the booze you can drink….

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Luckily, the weather brightened up a bit, and the sea cleared itself of various debris and seaweed, and we managed a few hours relaxing on the beach working on the tans and drinking some questionable cocktails. DSC00370 DSC00371 DSC00372 DSC00375

 

By about 4pm the weather turned again and it was time to brave probably the worst speedboat journey I have ever experienced, with lashing rain, being thrown about the sea by a captain who was clearly putting on a show for the tourists. Obviously after all that we had to go to the pub so hit ‘the local’, bumped into a few other expats and finished off the weekend with a beer or two. Very civilized.

Next up, I am off to Italy and the UK in early September, and I’m sure my posts will once again return to being wine-related…

 

Until then…..x