It feels a bit odd writing tasting notes to my own wine choices but hey-ho, we must get someone else to volunteer to do these!
The title and theme were an unashamed steal from the opening lines of “A Tale of Two Cities” where I have chosen two grapes that have experienced, over the years, the extremes of praise and vilification. Chenin Blanc is an ancient and extremely versatile Loire grape which, when properly ripened produces sublime dry, off-dry and especially sweet wines in the middle Loire. It has been used as a workhorse blending grape across the world but has, for many years, found a second home in South Africa where it is the most planted white grape. In this “New” World setting it can produce splendid dry and off-dry wines, both subtle and rich, when properly vinified. I tried to show some of the range of this grape in my choice. Zinfandel, on the other hand, is something of a “marmite” grape. Considered to be “The American Grape” it actually originated in Croatia and is identical to Primitivo of Southern Italy. Looked down on as a difficult workhorse, even a culinary grape until it gained huge popularity as the “easy drinking” white Zinfandel, the USA and some others now recognise the potential of this big boisterous grape, as I hope you saw in some of the delicious reds that I chose.
2012 Domaine Huet Vouvray Pėtillant Brut (Wine Society £23.50)
This is a typical example of a Loire speciality with about half the fizz of a typical champagne, hence the name. This fresh near-dry example is from the most prestigious maker in Vouvray and although not especially cheap, having spent 3 years maturing on the lees, it is a lovely refreshing alternative to more conventional fizz.
2014 Domaine Damien Laureau “Les Genêts” Savennieres (Wine Society £26.00)
This is classy dry Chenin at its best, from an Appellation that few know in the UK. Grown mainly on sand over schist from 50-year old vines, there is strong minerality on the palate, rich but elegant and with a long finish, balanced by that lovely ripe citrus note so typical of Chenin- shows how good this grape can be when done well; sadly though, not inexpensive.
2015 Domaine Vincent Carême (Wine Society £19.00)
This wine is on the dry side of a classic Vouvray demi-sec style and has that characteristic balance between the residual sugar and fine acidity that Chenin is known for. Vincent also makes wine in South Africa but this offering is in the more restrained Loire style, good with food or as an aperitif.
2015 Alheit Vineyards “Cartology” (Handford, Lay and Wheeler ca. £40.00)
Chris and Suzaan Alheit have gone from strength to strength after their first Cartology vintage in 2011 which was released to much acclaim. The grapes are selected from old bush vines growing in vineyards which Chris searches out and brings back into production, and then blended with a little Semillon. Clean and rich on the palate, he uses no oak so the lovely fruit comes through on nose and palate. This structured and balanced wine shows how good Chenin can be in the “New” world style
2010 Ken Forrester Wines “The FMC” (n/a UK; 2016 from Exel Wines £27.00)
I chose this wine to contrast with the previous one; Ken Forrester is an extrovert character and, like him, this quality wine is larger than life. Using oak quite liberally, this wine is very rich and honeyed on nose and palate, well-structured and held together by the acidity that Chenin offers, unlike many an oaked chardonnay. I find this style fun but the palate gets bored rather too quickly; for me, the Cartology is the winner.
NV Barefoot White Zinfandel (Waitrose £6.69)
OK, I had to do it. Believe it or not, this is the style that put Zinfandel back on the map and it still outsells all other Zins by miles. Sickly-sweet and with no discernible structure or character, this is more akin to alcoholic lemonade. This really shows what happens when you treat a grape as a workhorse!
2016 Gregory Perucci ”The Society’s” Primitivo di Manduria (Wine Society £10.50).
Primitivo and Zinfandel are genetically identical and Perucci has been making his wines in Puglia on the best terroir of its heartland around Manduria. Mellow but deep fruit on the palate from gentle oak ageing and with a characteristic slightly sweet finish. A good example of the more restrained Old World style of this boisterous grape.
2016 Millaman Limited Reserve Zinfandel, Curicó Valley, Chile (Sandhams £19.00)
Zinfandel has started to take root in other warmer areas and Chile is one of the more unusual places to find it. Despite decanting, some of us noted some reductive aromas (“bottle-stink”) and the wine is big with ripe red fruit and even orange/tangerine notes on the nose. Aged in new French oak, the tannins are ripe and velvet smooth, balanced by enough acidity to give some structure. Not up to the best of California but an interesting alternative nevertheless.
2014 Sobon Estate “Rocky Top” Zinfandel, Amador County CA (Wine Society £16.00)
Now in the heartland of Zin USA-style country, Amador County, on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, is packed with wineries making a lot of Zinfandel, all of it being big on black fruits, alcohol and smooth tannins, and that characteristic flick of sweetness on the finish. Sobon’s Rocky Top is aged 18 months in American oak (40% new) so the vanilla notes are there along with the rich spicy fruit and, of course, those silky tannins. With enough acidity to give beautiful balance to this big wine, I think it is a steal at £16 when you think of the crazy prices asked for Californian Cabernet Sauvignon these days. A great, somewhat extrovert example of the grape.
2015 Ridge Vineyards “East Bench” Zinfandel (Averys £30.00)
This one is in a different, more restrained style; Ridge is one of the best-known exponents of quality Zinfandel although this wine is one of only two that they produce unblended. Harvested early after a very dry season and with minimum intervention (they call it “pre-industrial”), the wine has a lovely red fruit nose, even hints of violets, and a beautifully light palate, long and rich underneath. A complex and structured wine with a lot of development potential, unlike many Zins that do not last so long, we were probably baby-snatching in tasting this so early. The tannins, whilst smooth as ever, were clearly more evident and less developed that in the Sobon. A gorgeous wine in the making and, once more, wonderful value – one to lay down a few bottles, to show what this grape can really do.
Notes by John Harris