Wine: Forget return to sender...

Phil Ryan, now retired from Mount Pleasant, but his wines are just entering their prime
Phil Ryan, now retired from Mount Pleasant, but his wines are just entering their prime
  • Christine Austin wades through some special deliveries that have dropped on her doormat over the summer.
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There is always something exciting about receiving a box in the post, especially the boxes that often cross my threshold. During the long summer months, in the absence of major tastings, various companies think that the best way to attract my attention is to send me a bottle to taste and hope that I will write favourable comments. This causes much merriment among the various posties and delivery companies who knock on my door expecting to find me glass in hand and slurring my words at all hours of the day. The trouble is that I am away a lot in the summer and so these boxes pile up in the hallway. The result is that I sometimes have to step over boxes to get back inside the house.

Tackling the boxes requires a certain system and quite a bit of time. I can’t just rip open the cardboard, twist off the screw cap and glug the contents. Every bottle has been sent by a hard-working PR who will probably ring me a week after posting the said item and demand to know what I thought of it. For that reason, and so I can keep track of them, I have a system.

The boxes are opened and I make quite a substantial pile of cardboard for recycling. Every bottle is photographed, and logged in my master file that ensures that none get lost in the process. Then some are parked in a corner waiting to be tasted, while others are grouped together so they can form the basis of an upcoming article. Then there are the waifs and strays – bottles which cannot be grouped together, ones that arrived too late for a particular article and wines that I have already tasted at one of the major tastings but which are sent again in the hope of catching my eye and taste buds a second time around.

Only some of the boxes reveal wines worth writing about, while others should be positively avoided, so in no particular order, here is my selection of the best of this summer’s boxes. By the way, just in case you are wondering what happens to all the leftovers, I have several well-supplied neighbours but the most appreciative audience is the old folks in the home nearby who are developing quite sophisticated palates as the pot luck selection of already-opened and tasted wines are poured with their lunch.

My top choice of the boxes was the one that contained a pair of Australian wines. Not a big-hearted Shiraz, nor a smooth, rounded Chardonnay but a pair of Semillons from the Hunter Valley. This was the region I visited a couple of years ago with Yorkshire Post Fiendish Quiz winners Hilary and Ian Coutts. During a break in the programme provided by McGuigan, who make excellent wine in the Hunter, I had decided to visit Yorkshire-born Phil Ryan, the newly retired chief winemaker and general manager of McWilliams Mount Pleasant Estate. Phil is probably the only Leeds United supporter living in the Hunter Valley, and he seemed delighted to welcome someone from Yorkshire. Although Mount Pleasant make a wide range of wines, it is their Semillon that consistently wins prizes and accolades around the world. Hunter Valley Semillon is unlike any other Semillon in the world. Here it is picked early to make a fresh-tasting wine, packed with crisp green apple notes and it ages delightfully, going through lemon and lime notes while developing texture and allowing some tropical fruit notes to emerge which can almost give the impression of sweetness, despite being bone dry. It is the unmistakeable clear acidity which gives old Semillon its long life and vitality.

Although Phil retired three years ago, some of his wines are still coming on to the market and one of them was in the box. Chilled down, but only slightly so I didn’t crush those vibrant flavours, Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2007 had already become nutty, with notes of lemon curd on toast and a rounded, elegant texture. In contrast, the 2012 Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon, made by Jim Chatto, reflected its youth in fresh-tasting primary lime and grapefruit character. Long and balanced, this wine will age and build up complexity. Both wines are wonderful with food, in particular the aged Semillon which adds vivacity to grilled fish dishes.

Finding Mount Pleasant Semillon is fairly difficult, but Tesco’s mail order Wine by the Case has the 2005 vintage at around £8.99. Buy as much as you have room for; it will continue to age delightfully for at least another decade. Harrogate Fine Wine also occasionally has stocks of Lovedale Semillon, the flagship single vineyard wine, planted in 1945 on sandy soil which seems to give the wine a fabulous tight mineral character with citrus blossom aromas and zesty citrus peel flavours. It probably won’t appear on the shelves so you will need to ask for it.

I was also delighted to find a clutch of Alsace wines in various boxes. Alsace is a region that seems to have fallen from favour in recent years as producers decide whether to sell their wines dry or edged with sweetness. Trimbach’s Riesling 2012 (The Wine Society, £12.50 and some Majestic stores) is a definite dry style, with white peach and crisp red apple flavours, backed by lean, crisp, minerally crunch. Fish is the classic combination for this, but I enjoy Alsace wines with lightly spiced Thai dishes.

For a taste of something different, try Hugel’s Pinot Noir 2011 (Penistone Wine Cellars £15.77). Alsace Pinot is a fragrant, delicate wine, soft and silky, and it continues the food-matching theme of the whites. Pour this alongside a herb-spiked salmon or a light chicken dish.

And the top red from my rummage in the boxes? McHenry Hohnen Amigos 2010 from Margaret River, Australia (Bon Coeur £14.50). Packed with juicy, lively Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro, it has a sprinkle of spice and silky tannins.