With the barbers shops shut in his region, wine expert Justin Keay has stuck to what is truly essential – discovering exciting new wines and wine regions without leaving the comfort of his own home. He has travelled to Georgia, the Lebanon, Lombardy, Chianti, Greece (all through Zoom), and discovered a range of fascinating and somm-friendly wines along the way. As is Keay’s love of the ‘grape unknown’ he raves about wines using Negroamaro, Susumaniello, Nero di Troia, Timorasso, Marawi and Begleri amongst others.
“The 2018 Marawi, like previous ones, uses grapes grown by Palestinians that are vinified in Recanati’s Judean Hills winery before being put into a bottle labelled in Hebrew and Arabic,” writes Keay.
2020 has been quite the year.
In late March, I tasted my way around the Greek Islands, enjoying the diversity of the native varieties that make Greece one of the world’s most exciting wine regions. In April, after a brief visit to Lombardy to discuss the challenges faced by Franciacorta producers in the midst of Covid 19, I discussed the pros and cons of screw caps versus cork with Isole e Oliena’s Paolo de Marchi, tasting the 2016 Ceparello under both closures with Liberty Wines’s MD, David Gleave.
Later in the year I visited Georgia on a press trip with the charming Sarah Abbott MW of Swirl Group, following this with an equally enjoyable tour of Conegliano Valdobiadine with the very same, gaining an appreciation for Prosecco I had hitherto lacked. Oh, and I got to understand at first hand the daunting challenges faced by Lebanon’s wine industry amidst the most devastating economic downturn this damaged country has ever faced.
And all without leaving my house.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is to appreciate the blessings we have – and as the mood in the world darkened, the pleasures offered by a glass of good wine seemed to intensify. So what were my stand outs from this strange year?
I tasted Matias Riccitelli’s wines at Hallgarten & Novum’s pre-lockdown tasting earlier and was really impressed but it was only until his Zoom tasting that I really got to appreciate the triumph of his Old Vines from Patagonia project. The Semillon 2019 might look like a 1970s vermouth bottle but the sheer brilliance of the wine, grown on un-grafted vines near the Rio Negro fair took my breath away; bold, rich, balanced but wonderfully saline, and just 12.5%, this really is a wine for the ages. (HN Wines).
I’m so pleased the UK wine trade is trying to boost Lebanese wine in its time of need (click here for my feature about the state of Lebanese wine). Producers there need all the help they can get, so I’m including two Lebanese wines, both from Domaine des Tourelles – the Old Vines Carignan 2018 and the Old Vines Cinsault 2018, fantastic expressions of these two often under-appreciated varieties. The former is a beefier, heftier more fruit-driven counterpart to the latter, which is smoother, lighter – OK, I’ll say it, more feminine. A fascinating pair to taste together, confirming winemaker Faouzi Issa is really on a roll. (Boutinot)
Liberty Wines’ Italian range remains one of the best in the UK, and a taste through some less obvious offerings had me impressed both by Italy’s neverending ability to surprise, and Liberty’s enduring ability to select fantastic wines from there. Two of these make my list.
For too many, Puglian red wine = Primitivo, with Negroamaro, Susumaniello and Nero (or Uva) di Troia unfairly ignored. Canace, produced from the last of these varieties by Cantina Diomede, demonstrates this injustice in spades. The 2016 is a big wine in every way, from the hefty bottle (2 kilos when full) to the wine itself, full on, made in partial appassimento style, with spice, truffle, black cherry, cocoa and liquorice on the palate. Delicious.
At the other end of the country, Piedmont is associated with Nebbiolo (particularly Barolo and Barberesco), Barbera and Dolcetto. Few get to taste the ancient, delicious, aromatic variety Timorasso and Liberty have got a fabulous one from Vigne Marina Coppi. The Fausto 2016 is a rounded, spicy and aromatic wonder, driven by sage and wild herbs, and very satisfying indeed.
In a year during which global cooperation seemed in short supply – with the UK’s shameful Brexit pushing it into a dismal class of its own – a wine that celebrates Hope and working together was most welcome. Marawi (aka Hamdani) is an ancient grape from the Holy Land which has been revived by the Israeli-Italian producer Recanati. The 2018 Marawi, like previous ones, uses grapes grown by Palestinians that are vinified in Recanati’s Judean Hills winery before being put into a bottle labelled in Hebrew and Arabic. Wonderfully light, with suggestions of linden, fresh herb and apricot on the palate, this has a surprisingly long finish for a 12% wine. (BBR).
OK, I’ll admit the white Begleri grape – which might or might not have originated in Syria – is hardly familiar but in my extensive tasting of Greek wines this year, it’s the one that stayed with me the longest. The Litani 2018 from the Afianes Winery in Ikaria was so floral – with peach and lime blossom flavours in profusion – it seemed positively ethereal. Organic, small volume and quite delicious (Southern Wine Roads)
I’m such a fan of Thymiopolous Xinomavro that I thought it would win any face off when tasted against another producers’ Xinomavro. But I was wrong. The Dalamara Naoussa 2016 was so well made – dark fruits, forest floor, well integrated, meaty tannins – that it trounced a still delicious Thymiopolous Earth and Sky 2016. Not by much, it is true, but really Dalamara deserves to be much better known here.
Traditionalists argue that you should always round things off with a glass of fine port, and particularly with Britain all set to return to the early 1970s this year, who am I to argue? My choice of Quinta do Noval Vintage 2018 – bottled this year – is personal because my feet were amongst those that crushed the harvest two years ago, during a visit to this wonderful property, which has since glamorously assumed the starring role in Amazon TV’s Wine Show.
I’m glad to report that not only were none of my toenails evident but – although its best years clearly lie ahead – the 2018 (of which just 1600 cases were made, around 7% of Noval’s production) is already drinking very well, majestically spicy, chocolate-tinged red and black fruit supporting the well balanced palate. 26.3963 fluid ounces of pure joy.
With more time than normal spent on the sofa, it’s been a great time to catch up on reading. I really enjoyed Lisa Granik’s Wines of Georgia, which successfully shed light on this country’s fascinating but often chaotic wine industry, whilst Anne Krebiehl’s illuminating, well written Wines of Germany brought clarity to an often much misunderstood wine-producing country which, like Georgia (but very differently), is currently undergoing an exciting renaissance. (Both books published by Infinite Ideas). Never one to miss an emerging wine trend, Oz Clarke showed his golden touch once again in English Wines: from still to sparkling (Pavilion Books), suggesting: “England (is) the newest New World wine nation… everything is wonderfully experimental…we don’t know yet what will excel, where and how. But there is an impressive bunch of wine entrepreneurs determined to find out.”
And special mention must be made of Wines From Another Galaxy, by Noble Rot’s Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew (Quadrille Books). This big, coffee table book – drawn from Noble Rot magazine – defies easy description, but is all the better for that, highlighting individuals, wine regions, varieties, movements and trends, faults, travel and food in a book you will want to return to again and again.
With a glass in your hand, of course, as you thank God for the incoming Biden/Harris presidency – and pray for a better 2021.