Super Tuscan, Brilliant Rhône

Lay & Wheeler, now a part of Majestic, recently held a rather unusual tasting in Manchester. Showcasing a selection of wines from its own stocks, supplemented with older vintages from its broking list, I wasn't going to miss the chance to taste the wines of Tenuta dell'Ornellaia and of Château de Beaucastel - despite them not being the most obvious of bedfellows.

 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia

Tenuta dell'Ornellaia

Founded in 1981 by Marchesi Ludovico Antinori (brother of Piero), Tenuta dell'Ornellaia sits in the foothills around Bolgheri facing the Mediterranean coast. Maritime breezes cool the estate during the summer months, and over the winter the hills offer protection from the cold northern winds. Under the prompting of the Russian oenologist André Tchelitscheff a wider range of grapes were planted than at rival and neighbour estate Sassicaia; the first vineyards were planted in 1982, and the inaugural vintage (1985) was released in 1988. After André retired, Michel Rolland began his association as consulting oenologist for the estate in 1991.

Ludovico spent the 1990s travelling around the world to promote his wines but, by 2000, rumours had begun to circulate about his personal life and he sold a minority share of Ornellaia to Robert Mondavi. In 2002, Robert Mondavi acquired full control of the estate and transferred a 50% share to the Frescobaldi family. That year also saw Axel Heinz appointed chief winemaker. When Constellation bought Mondavi in 2004, Marchesi de' Frescobaldi took on the other 50% of Ornellaia and became the sole proprietors. Due to their other commitments in Tuscany, the Frescobaldis have been happy to leave Axel and his team to their own devices - as long as they remain successful!

 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Poggio alle Gazze dell'Ornellaia 2011

Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Poggio alle Gazze dell'Ornellaia 2011

1. Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Poggio alle Gazze dell'Ornellaia 2011 (13.5% ABV, £159 per 6 bottles in bond / £34.26 per bottle duty paid)
93% Sauvignon Blanc, 7% Viognier

2011 was the first vintage of Poggio alle Gazze dell'Ornellaia that saw Viognier blended with the Sauvignon Blanc. 55% of the must was fermented in used oak barriques, 30% in new barriques and 15% in stainless steel. The wine did not go through malolactic fermentation, it rested on its lees for six months with regular bâtonnage, and it spent twelve months in the bottle before release.

Gently smokey and toasty on the nose, honeyed and ripe passionfruit-tinged Sauvignon nose, not hugely pungent or obvious. Dry and with a whiff of smokiness on the palate, minerally and fresh with a streak of ripe gooseberry fruit and a grassy/nettley herbaceousness. The Viognier supplied a ripeness to the fruit that balanced the Sauvignon's freshness and prevented it from being austere or lean, as did a subtle savouriness from the oak.

 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Le Volte dell'Ornellaia 2012

Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Le Volte dell'Ornellaia 2012

2. Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Le Volte dell'Ornellaia 2012 (13.5% ABV, £69 per 12 bottles in bond / £16.26 per bottle duty paid)
50% Merlot, 30% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon

The different grape varieties were fermented separately in small steel tanks to preserve their individual characteristics. The wine then spent 10 months in barriques ranging from 2-4 years old previously used for the ageing of Ornellaia.

Earthy, bramble fruit nose - maybe a touch burnt? - with a note of vanilla oak. The medium bodied palate showed rather perfumed forest fruit, but a touch of greenness and a burnt astringency gave it a rather jarring edge. Reasonable firm tannins and acidity balanced the fruit in an elegant and food friendly fashion. Black and red berry fruit and oak carried through the length of the finish but were overtaken by an unwanted bitterness. I hope this was simply a symptom of the awkwardness of youth and will resolve itself over time, but I wouldn't swear to it.

 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Le Serre Nuove dell'Ornellaia 2011

Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Le Serre Nuove dell'Ornellaia 2011

3. Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Le Serre Nuove dell'Ornellaia 2011 (14.5% ABV, £156 per 6 bottles in bond / £33.66 per bottle duty paid)
57% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Petit Verdot, 12% Cabernet Franc

Coming primarily from the estate’s younger vineyards and made with the same passion and attention to detail as Ornellaia, Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia is a true second wine. Each grape variety and single vineyard block were vinified separately. Fermentation took place in stainless steel tanks and the malolactic fermentation, which began in the steel tanks, was completed after the wine was racked into barriques (25% new and 75% a year old). The wine remained in barriques in Ornellaia’s cellars for about 15 months. After 12 months the assemblage took place and the wine was returned to barriques for an additional 3 months to harmonise. The wine spent 6 months in bottle prior to release.

Darker, black fruit on the nose, more savoury than the Le Volte. Even the oak element was toasty rather than vanilla in aroma. Brambly, earthy, with plenty of fine grained tannins and balancing acidity. I can't believe it was an unripeness of the tannins, but again there was a green/bitter edge that overtook the finish and I'm at a loss to explain it. Creditable complexity and length; well made, but not outstanding.

 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Ornellaia 2011

Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Ornellaia 2011

4. Tenuta dell'Ornellaia, Ornellaia 2011 (14.5% ABV, £45 per half bottle in bond / £55.23 per half bottle duty paid)
51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot

2011 was marked by very hot, dry weather, which brought on an earlier than average harvest. Fermentation took place in stainless steel before the wine was transferred into oak barriques for maturation, 70% new and 30% once used. The wine then remained in oak for about 18 months. After the first 12 months of maturation, the blend was assembled and then returned to the barriques for a further 6 months.

Deep and opaque in colour, somewhat atypical and unexpected for an elegant Italian wine. The nose offered bright, ripe, mixed red and black fruits, spicy oak, and hints of exotic spice - clove, liquorice. Brooding on the palate, very tannic and austere, and rather heavily extracted. The oak was plentiful but held in check by the black fruited palate - more blackcurrant than cassis. Ripe but savoury, due to the oak spice and (again) slightly bitter tannins. The finish was pleasant and long, but dominated by the tannins at present. Again, a bitterness rounded things off. A tour de force of winemaking (if you like this style), but unfortunately I couldn't regard it as a great wine.

 Fattoria Petrolo

Fattoria Petrolo

 Fattoria Petrolo Galatrona Merlot 2011

Fattoria Petrolo Galatrona Merlot 2011

5. Fattoria Petrolo, Galatrona Merlot 2011 (14% ABV, £297 per 6 bottles in bond / £61.86 per bottle duty paid)
100% Merlot

Galatrona is named after the medieval tower situated at the top of a high hill on the estate, and most likely derives from an ancient Etruscan word. It is made from the eponymous single vineyard, planted in 1990 with a low vigour Bordeaux clone of Merlot. Initially destined to be blended in the estate's Sangiovese-based wine, Torrione, it was Denis Durantou (owner of Château L’Eglise-Clinet in Pomerol, amongst other properties) who suggested to owner Luca Sanjust that Merlot was likely to shine in Galatrona's soils and this monovarietal cuvée was the result.

Located south-east of Firenze at 300 metres above sea level, Petrolo's Galatrona vineyard has loamy soil, rich in clay, with shale, marl and sandstone. The clay retains moisture which protects the Merlot against the hot, dry Tuscan summers. Fermented with native yeasts in cement vats, Galatrona is matured in (one third new) French oak barriques for about 18 months with regular bâtonnage for the first six months.

A dark-fruited nose for a Merlot with a whiff of bright new oak, but overall rather inexpressive. Oaky, rich, and ripe on the palate with plenty of very fine grained tannins and a moderate acidity. A substantial yet lively Merlot; pleasant, youthful and not massively complex. The finish displayed mixed berry fruit, savoury oak, a touch of liquorice, and earthy spice along its length. It needed another 5-7 years to show at its best, but it suffered from my regular observation about pure Merlot wines: it was just a little simple and two dimensional for my taste. Dare I say far more American than Italian in style?

Somewhat disappointingly, I have to say that the four reds above left me cold. And I'm not the world's biggest fan of Sauvignon Blanc. Not a great start to a tasting, but my hopes were high for the final five wines of the evening.

 Chateau de Beaucastel

Chateau de Beaucastel

Château de Beaucastel traces its existence back to 1549, when Pierre de Beaucastel bought a barn with a plot of land. The phylloxera outbreak at the end of the nineteenth century devistated the vineyards and the then owner decided not to replant the vineyards, instead selling the propriety to Pierre Traminer in 1909. He replanted the vines and passed them on to his son-in-law, Pierre Perrin, and in-turn to Pierre’s son, Jacques Perrin. The fourth generation of Perrins, François and Jean-Pierre, have been at the helm since 1978 and the fifth generation of Marc, Pierre, Thomas, Cécile, Charles, Mathieu and Thomas, are also very much involved.

Covering a full 175 acres in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with significant holdings throughout the Southern Rhône, Château de Beaucastel is a benchmark estate. The terroir is archetypal of the best in Châteauneuf-du-Pape: rolled pebbles (galets) on the surface, with sand, clay, and limestone deeper down. The old vines have been organically grown since 1950 and biodynamically since 1974, which has persuaded the roots to dig exceptionally deeply in search of moisture and nutrients.

 Beaucastel's  vieilles vignes  and  galets

Beaucastel's vieilles vignes and galets

Beaucastel is one of the few Châteauneuf estates to grow all thirteen permitted grape varieties. Typically, Grenache accounts for around 30% of the blend and gives the richness, the ripe fruit and the alcohol. Mourvèdre, also usually 30% of the final wine, provides the tannic backbone. Syrah represents 10% of the blend and adds colour and violet characters. Cinsault, at 5%, brings freshness and elegance. The others, Cournoise, Vaccarese, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Clairette, Picpoul, Picardin, Bourboulenc and Roussanne, contribute to the complexity and spiciness of the final blend.

Each grape variety is harvested separately by hand. Vinification takes place in oak fermenters for the reductive varieties (Mourvèdre and Syrah) and in traditional enamelled concrete tanks for the oxidative grapes (all of the others). Once the malolactic fermentation is finished, the Perrin family blends the different varieties. The wine is then aged in oak foudres for a year before being bottled.

Pierre Perrin, who has been responsible for the vineyards and winemaking at Château de Beaucastel since 1996, was prompted to investigate his cellar's general efficiency and hygiene by accusations that some past vintages of Beaucastel had a high level of Brettanomyces, a yeast often prevalent at a low threshold in certain wines which produces an animal-like flavour and aroma that is acceptable to some, but not all, wine lovers. A period of collaboration with consultant oenologist Dr. Pascal Chatonnet of Bordeaux (1997–2002) concluded that ‘Brett’ was perceivable at a high level in some older vintages, but that it was also often confused with the characteristics of Mourvèdre. Practically speaking, the exchange of ideas resulted in a move to steam clean the large oak foudres and a policy of renewing on a yearly basis three of the cellar complement of 60 of these big oak barrels.

 Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2011

Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2011

6. Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2011 (14.5% ABV, £222 per 6 bottles in bond / £46.86 per bottle duty paid)

Medium garnet in colour - far less imposing than the Italian Americans above! A perfumed nose of lavender and Herbes de Provence over dark cherry and berry fruit. Elegant and inviting. Similarly fragrant on the palate, with lavender, liquorice and a touch of graphite/pencil lead. Refined and ripe tannins, fresh acidity, and a long, mouth-watering finish. Maybe a slightly lighter vintage for Beaucastel, but beautifully textured, lively and graceful nonetheless.

 Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2006

Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2006

7. Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2006 (14.5% ABV)

Sandwiched between the excellent 2005 and 2007 vintages, the very good 2006 wine has been a little overlooked. The Perrins did not make their prestige cuvée Hommage à Jacques Perrin this year, and it's safe to assume to assume that some of these top parcels of grapes made their way into this, its junior sibling. Less vivacious and perfumed than the 2011, more blackcurrant fruit with a note of graphite and a very faint hint of volatility to the nose. Dry and medium to full bodied, with firmer acidity and a slightly less well rounded palate than the previous wine. I actually noted it as being a little lean, although it could just be that the tannins were still a rather youthful. Plenty of bramble, cherry and blackcurrant fruit, but perhaps lacking a degree of aromatic complexity and length.

 Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2003

Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2003

8. Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2003 (13.5% ABV, £65 per magnum in bond / £82.92 per magnum duty paid)

The heatwave of 2003 has given a more forward, faster maturing wine than is usual for this estate, and which is already showing a hint of tawniness. A noticeable volatility and Brett-y element to the nose that was a little odd and which came across as slightly medicinal. The palate showed relatively modest tannins, the fruit was more red than black in character, and there were notes of fresh mushroom and wild herbs balanced by surprisingly fresh acidity for the vintage. Probably as good as it will get; not earth shattering, but not at all unpleasant.

 Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2000

Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2000

9. Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2000 (13.5% ABV, £242 per 6 bottles in bond / £50.86 per bottle duty paid)

Similar in colour to the 2003 above, again showing a definite brickish hue. Bright, predominantly red fruit on the nose, with a definite funky note. Elegant and balanced structure, evolved, harmonious and very appealing. Complex, with gentle herbal/medicinal and liquorice flavours under the red fruit, leading into a long and somewhat savoury finish. Very good indeed, with several years in hand.

 Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1998

Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1998

10. Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1998 (13.5% ABV, £275 per 6 bottles in bond / £57.46 per bottle duty paid)

A totally different kettle of fish, possibly due to the higher than normal percentage of Grenache in the blend. A touch more rust coloured, the beguiling nose offered perfumed red and black berry fruit, a whiff of the infamous Brett-y funkiness, and a ripe (Grenache) fruit sweetness/toffee note. The dry palate displayed tobacco, mixed berries, exotic spices and garrigue herbs - a riot of flavours! Congruous and long, although the finish was a touch tannic and acidic at the end. Just beginning to dry out a little? Evolved and at its peak, but there's no desperate hurry to drink it. It struck me as a wine that highlighted both the benefits of blending compatible grape varieties and the skill of a talented blender.

I can find lowland Grenache to be rather two dimensional, even from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but the higher proportion of Mourvèdre as well as all of the other grape varieties used in Beaucastel give it a structure and a character that makes it very much my cup of tea.