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Quality counts in ‘new world’

SOMONTANO ‘under the mountain’ is one of Spain’s most exciting wine regions.

SOMONTANO ‘under the mountain’ is one of Spain’s most exciting wine regions.

The high green river valleys than run south from the Pyrenees (the French border is only 30 miles away) are perfect for growing high quality grapes, but their true potential has only recently been recognised and their best wine is probably yet to come.

Herve Malnati

Somontano was designated as a quality wine region in 1984 but many of its leading wineries were set up later.

Enate, which many consider to be top dog, was founded in 1991.

Unlike many new wineries in other parts of Spain, Enate was not able to buy up existing vineyards.

In Somontano, they simply weren’t enough. Almost everything had to start from scratch.

However, this brought an enormous benefit in that they were free, within a broad spectrum of choice, to plant what they liked. Although there are a few local varieties with promise (favoured by the local Regulatory Council), Enate decided to create what Hervé Malnati, their export manager describes as “A New World set up in Europe”.

And they plumped for international grapes, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.

I met Hervé last week at St James’s Park in Newcastle – not at a match (although I think he would have preferred it), but at a gourmet dinner hosted by the club. Hervé and his wines were the star attraction. When he had recovered from the news that his beloved Barcelona had been thrashed on this very ground a few years ago, he revealed that he wasn’t Spanish at all, but French and from a town famous for its water – Évian.

But it’s thoroughly in keeping with the innovative approach of Enate that they should appoint a Frenchman to such a senior position and, in Jesus Artajona, to also have a winemaker who, in another French link, learnt his trade at Bordeaux’s celebrated Château Margaux.

Hervé told me that Enate have continued to experiment with new grape varieties and are particularly excited by the results they’ve achieved with Syrah and Gewürztraminer, but the wines he brought were examples of the success of their initial choices. We began with a brilliantly clean, fruity, unoaked Chardonnay 2006 that was rich, nutty and melony but balanced by fresh pineapple and citrus acidity.

This was followed with a quite delicious pink Rosado 2006 made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes – quite deep coloured with wonderfully fruity raspberry and cranberry flavours. Hervé began to wax lyrical and tried to convince me that “it’s got the body of a white and the soul of a red”.

A blend of Cabernet and Merlot grapes from the 2004 harvest, aged just a few months in small French oak barrels was almost as good, with a vivid taste of fruits of the forest. “Anyone can enjoy this,” enthused Hervé. “It’s a democratic wine.” A 2003 red, aged longer in oak, did not appeal to me so much. I found the fruit a little baked and the balance with oak a little clumsy, but I wasn’t too disappointed. Rather, I take it as evidence that Enate is a winery on the up – as is Somontano as a whole. And 2003 was a beast of a vintage to master.

The climate of Somontano is quite different from that of Rioja and Navarra, its more famous neighbours to the west. The high Pyrenees shelter its green upland valleys from the north wind, and although winters can be fiercely cold, the warm, even hot summers mean that the grapes can be harvested by mid-August.

Hervé assured me that the 2007 vintage was no exception – quite astonishing really given that the Rioja harvest carried on right into October this year.

Normally such a short growing season is far from ideal, but Somontano’s salvation is a huge drop in temperature in the vineyards at night as cold air tumbles down from the mountains. Just the same happens in many of the best vineyards of Chile and Argentina and the result is wonderfully fragrant, flavour-filled grapes.

Enate’s wines can be found in a number of restaurants in the region. I recommend them warmly. Their Mouton Rothschild-like habit of commissioning great artists to design the labels also means that a bottle of Enate wine looks the business.

And look out for other wines from Somontano. Viñas del Vero is a very reliable and quite widely-distributed brand and Oddbins stock three good wines – red, white and rosé – from Pirineus Mesache, all at £5.99.

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Wine of the Week

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2007, £14.99 (Majestic, Waitrose and Oddbins)

The 2007 vintage of New Zealand’s iconic dry white has just arrived – and it’s possibly the best ever. I love this heady dry white with its flavours of passion fruit and gooseberry, but this year, for the first time, I noticed a lovely lingering mineral finish. Delicious! Enjoy it with sea food.

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Beaujolais Nouveau hard to find

BEAUJOLAIS Nouveau also arrived yesterday although, like last year, it’s hard to find.

The Co-op ordered Chamarré’s version, but the other big supermarkets now seem content to let the Japanese buy it all up, although the signs this year are that even their enthusiasm for it is now beginning to wane. If you can find it, all the signs are that this year’s version will probably be rather good.

I rather regret the way in which Beaujolais Nouveau no longer makes a grand entrance. It used to be a good excuse for a bit of a party. Still, there are plenty of other party wines out there to enjoy. I was particularly impressed recently by Griffith Park Sparkling Rosé from Australia – a bright fruity, creamy fizz with something of a cherry flavour. It’s a very good buy indeed at just £6.49 at Morrisons.

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