Wine: Year of grape expectations

Kangaroos in the vineyards in Australia
Kangaroos in the vineyards in Australia
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Christine Austin looks forward to 2014 as she reviews a year spent hunting down the world’s best vineyards.

I have enjoyed some great bottles over the Christmas and New Year festivities, not least because they were shared with family and friends. But as the empties are carted off to the bottle bank I am tempted to review some of the best bottles and trips of 2013, and to look forward to some more flavours and more travels in 2014.

The year started off with the quickest turn-round of the Fiendish Quiz in its history. To ensure that we made the best of the weather down under I had questions marked, the winner selected (at random, from all the correct entries) within days of the closing date and just a few weeks later I walked into a Sydney hotel to meet up with Yorkshire Post reader Hilary Coutts and her husband Ian, for several days of fabulous wine tasting and visits courtesy of McGuigan wines.

The Hunter Valley was looking its best as chief winemaker Peter Hall drove us around the vineyards, stopping frequently to allow us to take photos of the kangaroos that roam between the rows of vines. We tasted grapes, toured the winery and enjoyed dinner and a wine-tasting with Neil McGuigan. Neil has won more international winemaking awards than anyone else I can think of and the sheer enthusiasm of this organisation, from vineyard to winery and through to sales oozed out of the team.

I was particularly impressed by the range of Semillons which show complex honeyed-lemon flavours with an astonishing ability to age. McGuigan wines are available at Sainsbury’s and I really enjoyed the smooth, elegant Classic Cabernet (£7.99), the clean lively Sparkling Brut (generally £10.79 but frequently on offer) and the gorgeous Classic Semillon (£7.99). If you happen to be in Tesco McGuigan also make the Tesco Finest Denman Hunter Valley Semillon (£8.99) which consistently shines out with lemon and honeysuckle flavours and it makes a terrific partner to cold meats, quiches and Thai-spiced stir-fries.

Having acquired just enough of a tan to make the family jealous, I headed back to the UK and was quickly occupied with the usual round of tastings and visits. A quick trip to Tuscany showed how wine tourism is developing on wine estates. The Ferragamo family, more famous for its fashion than wine, has two estates where guests stay in unrivalled luxury.

Il Borro (www.ilborro.com) is a complete hilltop village where the houses have been converted into guest apartments. This is 15th century living with good plumbing, comfortable beds and a fine-dining restaurant just down the hill in case you don’t want to cook.

My apprentice at The International Wine Challenge was Australian Alex Kennedy who made such a good impression around the tasting table that he eventually worked his way into a wine job in Yorkshire. In a few weeks I will start the hunt for another apprentice to help judge some of the 12,000 wines that are submitted to the IWC in the hope of gaining a medal. The day is long and intense but each one of the apprentices who have joined me over the last decade has thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Watch out for the notice in this column, or just send me an email.

One of the highlights of the year was the fabulous tasting and dinner at Middlethorpe Hall in York. With just 12 people around the table in the 17th century dovecote we tasted a range of sensational champagnes, Sir Winston Churchill 1998, Krug and Dom Pérignon 2003 each one with a different course, demonstrating the different styles and tastes of top-notch champagne.

A main course of Dales lamb was perfect with Pomerol Ch Hosanna 2003 while Ch Rieussec was a dessert on its own, although I did managed to polish off an excellent vanilla cheesecake with strawberries. The 1966 Dow’s port was fabulous, growing as it developed in the decanter to show its fleshy damson fruit with elegant, silky tannins and a long, coffee and chocolate finish.

There are plans afoot to hold another such dinner party but you should register your interest now with Middlethorpe Hall (call Nicola on 07974 079735) because tickets get snapped up.

Naturally the York Festival of Food and Drink was exciting for the sheer numbers of people who flocked into York

Master of Wine David Bird presented a fine range of Tokaji wines from The Royal Tokaji company including a 5 Puttonyos 2008 which comes in tiny 25cl bottles (Waitrose, £12.29) that is surely a taste of heaven. Eduardo Stark from Chile presented a fine range of Montes wines while I lined up nine champagnes to demonstrate that quality in the glass is entirely independent of the size of the champagne house.

Exciting plans are already being made for the 2014 York Festival in September so make sure you clear some space in your diary. A week-long visit to Rioja at harvest-time brought home the challenge of growing grapes and making wine. Hailstones the size of golfballs had cut through the vines and some vines were shredded back to the wood. Top producers in the Rioja region include Murrieta, Muga, Lopéz de Heredia, Allende and Contino but there are many others.

Next year’s travel diary is already starting to look interesting with visits to the Loire, Portugal, and Chile already in place and other trips in the pipeline. Meanwhile in these first few weeks of January I shall attempt to hold to my three key New Year resolutions: To pull the corks on some of those fine wines I have had for far too long; to ignore bargains in favour of flavour and to share the joy of a good bottle with as many people as possible. A good wine always tastes better when it is shared with friends.

Happy New Year!