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!

Sticky Beaks

Meet Steve and Laura

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We are the two fledgling business owners behind Sticky Beaks, a street food start-up, supplying sandwiches to anyone who’ll eat them. The idea for the stall was hatched in Sydney, Australia, where we were living for 18 months before we decided incessant sunshine, stupidly high salaries and being less than 10 minutes from a beach pretty much anywhere you went, clearly wasn’t enough for us.

The concept of the business has changed a number of times, lurching from a bakery, to a coffee shop, a sandwich kiosk, before settling on a street food stall. The major attraction is the relatively low start-up costs, flexibility in menu and trading spots and an opportunity to express ourselves with the food we make in a way that the other brilliant traders at markets and events across London do. It’s a scene that’s been expanding for the past few years in London, and where…

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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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