Drinks International magazine has published a list of the most admired wine brands as judged by a panel of 60 drinks industry leaders. Judges were asked to list their top five brands, based on five criteria: consistent and improving wines; expression of region of origin; ability to meet needs of target markets; good marketing and packaging and a strong appeal to a wider demographic. According to the magazine’s supplement editor, Graham Holter, the judgings were designed as a way of highlighting producers who have done most to put wine regions on the map, spread best wine making practices and popularise wine drinking.
Trade interest has largely focused on the top 10 choices. Number one was Concho y Toro (Chile), followed by Torres (Spain and Chile), Jacobs Creek (Australia), Antinori (Italy), Penfolds (Australia), Cloudy Bay (New Zealand), Chateau Lafite (France), Vega Sicila (Spain), Marques de Riscal (Spain), and Chateau Latour (France). Certainly, these are all excellent brands but it seems fair to say that the judges were playing pretty safe in their top choices. And although among the finest wines in the world, it’s difficult to see what exactly Vega Sicila, Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafite have done to popularise wine drinking or “appeal to a wider demographic” other than the noticeably wealthy!
But these are, perhaps, quibbles and the Irish distributors of the top brands will no doubt be hoping that the new accolade boosts sales. They include Findlaters, Irish Distillers, Cassidys, Searsons and Dillons.
When I first became seriously into wine, one of the hottest new regions was tipped to be Priorato, in Spain’s Catalonia. Old fashioned co-ops still held sway, Rioja wine maker, Rene Barbier, had bought land there in 1979 and he and a handful of innovating producers were releasing some top class stuff which was creating considerable buzz among wine journalists. The dominant grape was garnacha, with support from carinena, and the new winemakers were using low crop yields to create rich, fruity wines of considerable power and structure. These pioneering improvers planted small estates which they called clos, in the manner of Burgundy, and in the early years they actually pooled grapes to create top selections.
Since those days, the Priorato labelling has generally been replaced by the Catalan version of the name – Priorat. There has also been a significant increase in vineyard plantings. From around 1,500 acres in 1980 there are now 4,500 acres under vine and, since the year 2000, the annual grape crop has risen from around 2.5m tonnes to 4.86m tonnes. Garnacha still dominates, with carinena used to add tannin and colour and inhibit the oxidation to which garnacha is prone. Nevertheless, there has been an increase in the proportion of international varieties planted and there are now significant amounts of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and, more recently, syrah.
From the beginning, new wave Priorat commanded high prices, as low yields ensured both quality and the kind of scarcity which often carries cachet in the wine world. With the recent increase in producer numbers, however, quality has become more variable and there are those who believe that prices are sometimes too high for what is on offer. That said, most of those early makers have kept a firm hand on both quality and quantity and readily sell what they produce. Amongst them is Alvaro Palacios, who joined Rene Barbier when he was just 25 years old and now produces wines under his own name. Palacios’ top wine is L’Ermita which commands around $500 per bottle and is generally made of 100% garnacha, but he also produces a few mid priced wines which might be of interest to Irish consumers looking for something special as the festive season approaches.
Palacios also produces wines in Bierzo and the Rioja Baja region and Irish importers, Classic Wines, were eager to show the food matching mettle of the range. The menu leaned rather more to Italian than Spanish but was none the worse from that, and revealed what a lot of us knew already: that it’s hard to go wrong when serving Spanish reds with food. Unless alcohol has been allowed to get totally out of hand, the soft fruits and supple tannins rarely overpower even light dishes, while the savouriness of older wines makes them perfect for beef, game and hearty casseroles.
Here, La Vendimia Rioja Baja 2009 (RRP €12) was honest, good value stuff with gentle berry and plum fruits and a touch of savoury. Both this and La Montessa Rioja Baja 2007 (€15.99) showed well with chicken tortellini and a beef dish with truffle flavours. Lamb was served with Villa de Corullon Bierzo 2007 (€40). Here the grape was the Spanish native mencia, showing lots of dark, ripe fruit with a hint of meatiness; it went well with the lamb but I think would be even better with beef. Then it was on to the Priorats, beginning with Gratallops de Vila 2008 (€43). Although alcohol was high there were some greenish notes, with hints of cranberry under softer plum fruits; despite that, it felt well balanced on the palate and would be perfect with lamb and other fattier meats. The iconic Finca Dofi (€59) had floral aromas but was bigger, fruitier and portier on the palate than I would have expected from the nose. Definitely a statement wine, it would make a perfect seasonal gift. For the ordinary punter, the straightforward Riojas might lack the bells and whistles of the more glamorous Priorats but where value was concerned they were on the money.