Wine Reviews

The self-styled first families of Australian wine have come together with the aim of promoting the country’s ‘truly outstanding wines’. Together, the twelve families have over 1200 years of winemaking experience and represent sixteen regions across four states.

As their promotional literature states, although many people around the globe enjoy Australian wines, less is known about the premium wines, and this is partly why we attended one of their tastings in London the other week. Although we got some sense of change in Australian wines during our travels in the country last year, too many years of cheap, big brands, have made me cautious about buying anything Australian here in the UK.

Australia's First Families

On the night, 72 wines were on offer – 12 from each of the families. Although we didn’t sample the full range, we tried enough to have some of our reservations reinforced but, more importantly, make some great discoveries. I include notes on a handful of wines I will particularly be searching out.

Despite my love of whites, overall I preferred the reds I tried, which was something of a surprise as I’ve traditionally shied away from what I’d perceived as big headachey Aussie reds. Frankly, I suspect a lot of the whites were served just too cold on the night, which left many strangely devoid of much flavour. One exception was a vertical of Tahbilk’s Marsanne. Of the 2007, 2002 and 1992, the 2002 drank best with a lovely, rich floral nose, but a surprising freshness.

Throughout the evening, the winemakers we spoke to repeatedly emphasised the shift from a focus on work in the cellar, for example indiscriminate use of new oak, to more focus on processes in the vineyard, such as hand picking grapes, which can only be a good thing.

The wines I’ll be seeking out include:

d’Arenberg The Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2007
The addition of 10% Viognier really lifted this wine, adding a delicate perfume to the hefty dark fruit of the Shiraz.

De Bortoli Gulf Station Pinot Noir 2008
A lovely, elegant pinot. Plenty of red fruit with savoury notes and just about the right amount of tannic grip.

Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
Dark, intense wine. Lots of black fruit, particularly blackberry, on the palate, with a touch of mint and leather. Rich, mouthfilling tannins. Prefered this to the ‘Reserve’ Cabernet.

Tyrell’s Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay 2006
The real surprise of the night. A lovely fresh Chardonnay, with a crisp acidity and notes of stone fruit. The wine is not allowed to undergo a malolactic fermentation and spends just six months in oak, only one third of which is new. Lovely.


Things have been fairly quiet on here recently as preparations for a work-related interview have cut down not only my spare time, but also our sampling. However, the results of my recent WSET exam (I did much better than I’d expected) gave us cause to open a bottle of bubbles.

I’ve followed the rise of English sparkling wines with some interest, partly because we know the predominant growing area in Sussex quite well. My aunt lives in West Chiltington, where Nyetimber is produced, and it’s been served on family occasions, including our engagement lunch.

I was therefore really chuffed when the Nyetimber 2003 Classic Cuvée was crowned ‘Champion of Worldwide Sparkling Wines’ back in January in the 2nd annual ‘Bollicine Del Mondo’ competition in Italy. Champagnes and sparkling wines competed against each other on a level playing field, and the Nyetimber was up against Champagnes including Louis Roederer (Millesimè 2000), the Bollinger-owned Champagne Ayala, (Dosage Zero), and Pommery (Blancs de Blanc and Brut Apanage).

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s now almost impossible to get hold of the wine, but I managed to secure a few bottles via

Nyetimber 2003 Classic Cuvee

The Classic Cuvée is made using the Traditional Method, and the richness of the 2003 vintage is probably due at least in part to the incredibly hot summer we experienced in the South of England that year. The wine is a pale lemon colour, and Chardonnay predominates. On the nose, there were strong notes of green apple, with just a hint of toast. The palate was lovely and fruity with, again, green apple and apricot, plus citrus and a touch of minerality on the finish. A lovely, refreshing aperitif. (16/20)

In her second selection of wines for under five pounds, Times wine writer Jane MacQuitty’s focussed on reds. Her choices included eight French wines, but also a good range from across the rest of the world, both old and new. Disappointingly, however, only three of the selection were normally priced at less than £5, the remainder being on special offer at the time the article was published. However, once again, she suggested wines to suit a variety of palates, from across the supermarkets.

I’m currently enjoying exploring southern Rhône reds, so picked up a bottle of 2008 Coteaux du Tricastin, Cuvée Traditionnelle, Cellier des Dauphins (Waitrose, down £1.50 to £4.49). MacQuitty describes this as a ‘ ripe, racy, Grenache based, unoaked Rhône, dominated by a seductive, spicy, peppery dollop of Syrah.’ Coteaux du Tricastin is one of the northernmost appellations in the southern Rhône.

Cellier des Dauphins, Coteaux du Tricastin

The wine was surprisingly thin and pale for a Rhône and, whilst I’m not sure it was either ‘racy’ or ‘seductive’ when I tasted it, it was full of red fruit, particularly raspberries, with a hint of cedar and pepper on the finish. A straightforward, soft red for midweek drinking.

In summary, Jane MacQuitty may have convinced me to abandon some of my prejudices about sub-£5 wines, but I think both the red and the white that I sampled illustrate nicely that a few more pounds, carefully spent, would probably buy something a bit more complex and interesting flavour-wise.

After enduring too many bottles of cheap, mainly New World, wine as a student, I freely admit that I’m sceptical about buying cheap wine. Given recent hikes in prices, to me this now means anything sub-£7. It’s just false economy, and often a pound or two more, chosen well, buys something in a totally different league.

I was extremely sceptical then when I saw that the Times wine writer, Jane MacQuitty, was doing a series on ‘wines for under a fiver’. Call me a wine snob, but I really would be very wary of picking anything up at less than £5 full-price, so I was intrigued to see what she would come up with.

On Saturday March 6th, MacQuitty covered white wines priced at less than £5, including one fizz and three pudding wines. Well over half are available from the major supermarkets, although there was also a good selection from Majestic.

It was disappointing, but perhaps not suprising to see that of the thirty wines, 21 (including two of her three top choices) were currently on offer at the time, and were all normally priced at more than £5. She does however, perhaps acknowledge this as the supplement mentions ‘amazing deals this month.’

Anyway, I thought I’d abandon my prejudices and give a couple a go, sticking to the handful of wines that normally retail at sub-£5. Although I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy the £3 Marsanne from Asda – even if it was one of MacQuitty’s top three – my first choice, the 2009 Grand Lopez Airén-Sauvignon Blanc (£4.49, Waitrose), had sold out.

However, the 2008 Pujalet (£4.99, Waitrose), a Vin de Pays from South West France, was surprisingly agreeable. I served it in a chiller collar, covering the label to see what comments it elicited blind and my husband, whose palate is even more choosy than mine, was pleasantly surprised.


A blend of Colombard and Ugni blanc, the wine was light with a lovely freshness. It won’t win any awards for flavour and complexity, but the delicate floral nose and zingy citrus notes on the palate made it a refreshing accompaniment to pizza at least!

Whilst I haven’t set aside my concerns about sub-£5 wines completely, on this basis I will look out for the Grand Lopez, and report shortly on MacQuitty’s recommended reds.

There is a pub near us which intermittently has a board outside, advertising the fact that they have Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc in stock. It saddens me firstly that a pub, in a beautiful location alongside the Thames, feels it needs Cloudy Bay to draw people in, but most of all what a draw Cloudy Bay has become.

I’m not necessarily knocking the wines (although I wasn’t bowled over by a recent tasting of the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc), but I will happily stick my head above the parapet and claim that there are a whole host of other New Zealand Sauvignons out there that are not only better, but also much better value. I’m personally don’t think Cloudy Bay delivers enough to justify its £17.99 price tag.

In certain circles, Cloudy Bay seems to have become a benchmark for the Marlborough region. However, it’s debatable how much of its cult status is more the result of clever marketing: the brand was bought in 2003 by ‘luxury goods firm’ LVMH (Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy).

Anyhow, below are notes on a couple of NZ Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region that we first enjoyed on a trip to Auckland last year. Both are available in the UK, and well worth trying as an alternative to Cloudy Bay. Over the coming weeks, I’ll also be adding notes on other New Zealand wines, made from grape varieties other than the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc.

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2007
We first tried this, drinking out of mugs in a wonderfully chintzy motel near the Bay of Islands, to the north of New Zealand. Perhaps an illustration that a great wine will shine through, despite! Clos Henri was established in the Wairau Valley in Marlborough by the family of Henri Bourgeois, the renowned Sancerre producer. The first vintage was produced in 2003.

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Although this bottle was almost three years old, the wine had lost none of its freshness. A powerful nose of mango and papaya, which was also reflected on the palate. A wonderfully complex wine with intense flavours of mango, papaya, gooseberries and green pepper, with a crisp minerality on the finish. Overall, a well balanced wine, with lovely well-rounded fruit and a zippy acidity. (18/20)

The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009
We came across this one in the bar at the top of the Sky Tower in Auckland, where we enjoyed spectacular views across Auckland Harbour to Waiheke Island. The vineyards of the Ned are located on the southern side of the Wairau Valley and the mouth of the Waihopai Valley. The wine is named after one of the tallest peaks to the south east of the vineyard, and 2009 was just the fourth vintage to be produced.

The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009

A very pale wine, with a classic NZ Sauvignon nose of grapefruit and tropical fruit. Crisp minerality on the palate, with hints of passion fruit, lime and gooseberry. Lovely clean finish. Excellent value. (15/20, Waitrose £9.99)

All these wines can be sourced via

Our local Adnam’s Cellar & Kitchen store has the double bonus of being just round the corner, but at the same time a great source of interesting wines. Last week I attended an in store-tasting of Lebanese wines from the Massaya Estate.

The vineyard is situated in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world. Sami Ghosn and his brother were forced to flee the area in the 1970s with their parents due the war, but returned in the 1990s and reclaimed the estate from squatters.

Massaya Vineyards with Mt Lebanon in the background

In 1998, they sought sponsorship from Dominique Hebrard, previously of Cheval Blanc and Daniel Brunier of Vieux Telegraphe in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with the aim of producing world-class wines. They released their first vintage the following year, in 1999.

Massaya means ‘twilight’ in Arabic and refers to the time of day when the sky turns purple as the sun sets behind Mount Lebanon. According to Ghosn, at 1000 metres above sea level, the altitude of the vineyard compensates for its latitude, with cool nights, sunny days and average temperatures of 25 degrees making for near perfect growing conditions.

Sami Ghosn presented five wines from the Massaya range, a white and a rose, plus three reds, as well as the aniseed-flavoured spirit Arak. The white, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay is vinified in new oak, and the oak flavours were just too strong for my palate. The French influence was particularly evident in the reds, which stood out on the night. My tastings notes on these are below.

Massaya Reds

Massaya Classic Red 2007
A blend of 60% Cinsault, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. A pale, easy drinking wine, with aromas of cherries, summer fruits and black pepper. (12/20 – tasted 04/03/10)

Massaya Silver Selection Red 2005
The top wine of the tasting. 40% Cinsault, 30% Grenache, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Mourvedre. Vinified in French oak. A much deeper colour, with a lovely herby nose – perhaps a hint of mint. Very smooth on the palate with complex flavours of black fruits, green pepper and spice, with terrific length. (16/20 – tasted 04/03/10)

Massaya Gold Reserve Red 2005
The premium wine of the range. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah. Vinified in stainless steel tanks, then aged in French oak. Intense aromas of blackcurrants and sandalwood on the nose. Powerful, full-bodied wine with lots of fruit on the palate and the characteristic spice. (14.5/20 – tasted 04/03/10)

These wines can be sourced via
Pictures taken from Massaya website

Our local branch of Oddbins has always struck me as a dusty, uninspiring sort of place, but I was lured in at the end of last week by their Champagne sale. Unlike the crazy ‘slash and burn’ Champagne sales in the supermarkets just before Christmas last year, there was around 25% off most of the Oddbins sparkling wine range. This included a few big names – Pol Roger, Hiedseck Monopole, Moet etc – but also a couple of smaller brands, so I took the opportunity to try something a bit different, with mixed results.

De Carnot Carte Noir NV Brut
A Blanc de Noirs Champagne from grapes grown in Verzy, one of the Grand Cru villages in the Montagne de Reims region – the heartland of Pinot Noir production. A very lively wine initially, although the effervescence quickly dimmed. Pale golden colour with a fairly light nose – floral notes and lime, with a hint of toast. Surprisingly little fruit on the palate for a BdN, and barely a hint of toast, although I picked up some red fruit, particularly redcurrants. However, the wine had a quite overwhelming and unpleasant acidity and a distinct lack of length. (7/20 sadly)

De Carnot Carte Noire NV Brut

H Blin NV Brut
Champagne from a co-operative of producers in the Marne Valley. I chose this out of curiosity really as it’s a blend of Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier is often regarded as the lesser cousin of the three Champagne grapes, and it’s fairly unusual to see it predominate in a blend. Pale lemon colour with a good mousse, and a persistent stream of fine bubbles. Lovely, fresh nose with hints of apple juice and elderflower. Very dry on the palate with flavours again of apple, with citrus and a touch of toast – quite a complex wine. Reasonable finish. (11.5/20)

H Blin & Co NV Brut

These wines are available from Oddbins, or alternatively can be sourced via