Planet of the grapes

Condrieu in the Rhone where the best Viognier grows
Condrieu in the Rhone where the best Viognier grows
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I am generally a glass-half-full kind of person, taking an optimistic view on life but just for the next few weeks I shall change to a glass-half-empty personality.

This is not some form of January blues, just my way of thinking my way through the naturally abstemious period which is January. If I imagine that I am only drinking half a glass of wine, then I am thinking my way thin enough to fit into those nice trousers I bought just before Christmas and haven’t quite managed to do up yet.

With the remains of the Christmas goodies lurking in deep drifts around the house, now is the time to hide the half-eaten box of luxury chocolates, give away the cheese and dispose of the tag end of the Christmas pudding which is sitting at the back of the fridge. January is no time to waste calorific intake on these extravagances.

There are many people who give up alcohol in January. This is definitely a personal choice and while I try to give my liver a rest after all the Christmas excess, I find that the occasional half glass is the only way to liven up the kind of rabbit food that the annual January diet demands. A small glass of wine contains about 120 calories which is about the same as a couple of small chocolate biscuits, so why waste calories on chocolate when you can sip a glass of wine?

And while there may be less wine in my glass for just a couple of weeks, I try to maintain a certain level of quality if only to compensate my tastebuds for their otherwise boring existence during this period. To relieve the tedium I have decided to review some of best bottles of last year, some of which have not yet made it into these pages,

The major highlight of the year was a two-week trip to New Zealand which started in the north with a ferry ride out from Auckland harbour to Waiheke Island. This beautiful small island is dotted with vineyards such as Man O’War, Cable Bay, Mudbrick and Kennedy Point, all making good wines with a focus on Syrah and Chardonnay but because there is thriving tourism from Auckland most of the wine is drunk right there in the smart restaurants of the island. Some escapes to the UK and Corking Wines in York ( have the savoury perfumed, cassis-rich Man O’War Cabernet France 2009 at £23.10 a bottle.

From Auckland I flew to Hawkes Bay where the wines of Te Mata gleamed with confidence and elegance. The peppery, raspberry-rich Bullnose Syrah 2009 (£24.50, Halifax Fine Wine) is one of my favourites from this friendly, family-run winery but this visit showed me just how good their Chardonnays are with tight structure and balance. Also in Hawkes Bay is the impressive Craggy Range (Waitrose) but this is a lot more than just a showpiece winery. The quality of the wines across the range has improved dramatically and now hits the spot from Riesling to Syrah. One of my favourites from the tasting is Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2010 which showed real savoury character among the floral and cherry-spiced fruit. In contrast, the one-man-band Alluviale run by Frenchman David Ramonteu, originally from Domaine Cauhapé in Jurançon is a sure signal that you don’t need to invest $70m to make outstanding wines. His range, made in tiny quantities along organic lines is remarkably complex and deep-flavoured although you will have to go to New Zealand to find them.

With Martinborough, Marlborough, Waipara and Otago all proving to be fascinating stops on the trip I have decided, for now at least, that New Zealand is the most diverse, quality-led wine region in the world, as well as being one of the most beautiful. If you get the chance to go, then do so.

Springtime saw me out in the vineyards of the Vinho Verde region in northern Portugal where the granite in the soil makes it sparkle like diamonds. I have visited this region before but on this trip I was astounded by the improvement in quality. Attention to grape varieties, yield and winemaking is now producing crisp, clean citrus-charged wines that accompany fish and spring-time foods with ease. Head to Field and Fawcett in York for Soalheiro Alvarinho 2010 (£16.20) which is not just good to drink now but has to capacity to age quite wonderfully.

A trip to the Rhône took me to the special place that is Condrieu and the wonderful wines of Georges Vernay, now run by his daughter Christine. Viognier is now grown all around the world but in its rightful home, on that curve of the river, it manages to gather more silky power, concentration and minerality than any Viognier wine I have tasted before.

A summer break on Canada’s west coast brought the vineyards of the Okanagan within reach of my palate and I enjoyed seeing a relatively new region carve itself out of the hillsides and develop its style.

Not all my favourite bottles come from my travels. Grand tastings such as the one where I sat in front of 22 glasses, each one containing some of the best wines I have ever tasted, stands out clear in my mind. I still can’t decide between the 2000 and the 1961 Mouton Rothschild – perhaps I’ll have to try them again.

Next year’s travel diary is already starting to look interesting and of course there will be the usual two weeks judging at The International Wine Challenge in April. I shall be looking for an apprentice to come along to that, so keep an eye out for the invitation. My New Year’s resolutions include trying to use social media more to let you know about events, offers and tastings which just don’t make it into these pages. And I shall stick to just a half-empty glass of wine until I can get into those trousers – well, maybe.

Happy New Year!