Wine: Rich pickings

Are the southern hemisphere 'ultra-premiums' worth the money? By Anthony Rose
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Earlier this year, I was asked if I'd fancy a weekend in Chile, for the launch of a wine, but I decided to wait for the mountain to come to Muhammad, which it did. Sena, the offspring of a Chile-California joint venture, was duly launched in London at the end of April with all due fanfare by Eduardo Chadwick and Tim Monavi at the ritzy dining club, Teatro.

Sena is a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the rare Carmenere grape. It's a 1995 vintage of the best of Don Maximiano Reserve, Errazuriz's top-of-the-range red. Although still young, Sena was the centrepiece of the dinner. The idea of drinking a top claret that young would raise eyebrows in Bordeaux, but like most young Chilean reds, Sena's smooth black cherry and blackcurrant fruitiness is relatively soft and approachable. Whether or not it will significantly improve with age remains to be seen. Its producers obviously hope so because they've given it an ambitious pounds 28 price tag - close to pounds 100 a bottle with a suitably fancy restaurant mark-up.

Shortly before Sena got off the ground, Aurelio Montes launched Montes Alpha M 1996, a single-estate red from his La Finca Estate in the small Apalta Valley of Santa Cruz (Colchagua). This is an attractive Cabernet Sauvignon, with ripe, approachable cassis-flavoured fruitiness, but I'm not sure you'd want to lay it down for any great length of time and take the risk that its appeal might fade. Especially at pounds 30 a bottle.

Sena and Montes M are a manifestation of a new southern hemisphere phenomenon. They're what the marketing types like to call "ultra-premium" wines, fancy reds, that is, mostly, at ultra-fancy prices. Australia has been at it for some time, but now Chile, Argentina and New Zealand are leaping on the bandwagon. The phenomenon is inspired by two key factors. The first is a genuine desire by producers to raise the profile of their wines. The second is the knock-on effect of the insatiable global demand for quality red wine, which has seen prices soaring and speculators moving in to make a killing.

I'd rather spend my money on a wine I'd like to drink, such as the unusual non-vintage blend, Caballo Loco Number Two from Valdivieso. This is the brainchild of Luis Simian, who initiated Valdivieso's premium wine project. Isolating a few excellent offcuts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and even some Carignan, he blended them as Caballo Loco (Crazy Horse) Number One. Now the aim is to make such a blend every year. If Number One was promising, Number Two, at pounds 11.95, from Fuller's, Safeway Bibendum, delivers a package of toasty oak, smoothly ripe blackcurrant fruit sweetness, and a price tag that's not out of proportion.

Catema Alta is Argentina's contribution to the current spate of ultra- premiums. Paul Hobbs, who came from California to work for Catena in 1991, identified vineyards he thought had the potential to make world-class wine. He and Pedro Marchevsky, Catena's vineyard director, then selected limited quantities of a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Malbec, each from different vineyards. I haven't tried the Agrelo Vineyard Cabernet, but the rich, citrus-laden California-style Chardonnay from Tupungato is a complex white and, arguably, South America's best Chardonnay (pounds 19.95, Wine Society, Bibendum). The 1996 Lunlunta Vineyard Malbec (pounds 24.95, arrives Bibendum October) is even more promising. Inky, dense and brimming with concentrated, sweetly tarry, damsony fruit, this brooding, powerfully structured red is a genuinely impressive standard-bearer for the Malbec grape.

Aiming to make a benchmark New Zealand red, husband and wife team Bruce and Anna-Barbara Helliwell established Unison in Hawkes Bay in 1993 with 50 per cent Merlot, 35 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 per cent Syrah on the much sought-after, gravelly soils of the Gimblett Road area. Only 250 cases were made of the first vintage, the 1996 Unison (Hawkes Bay, pounds 15.95, Waitrose Inner Cellar). Pricey but not overhyped, this deep-hued red from Hawkes Bay with its crisp, mulberry-like fruitiness and elegantly balanced, supple tannins, will give encouragement to all those who haven't yet uprooted their black grapes in favour of Pinot Noir.

In Australia, Grange's track record spans nearly 40 vintages, so neither consistency nor ageing potential are in themselves an issue - unlike price. Now, alongside Penfolds Grange, Bin 707 and Henschke's Hill of Grace, the latest wine to be celebrated is Astralis, a low-yielding, old- vine Syrah from Clarendon Hills inspired by Guigal's fabled Rhone Valley red, Cote Rotie La Mouline. La Mouline it isn't, but having caught the eye of infleuntial American critic Robert Parker, the big-boned Astralis, good wine that it is, is selling at great wine prices.

A handful of expensive reds coming through from Australia do justify an elevated price tag. Katnook's Odyssey 1992, pounds 20, Bibendum, is a limited barrel selection of 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon kept apart for its special quality from the main Katnook label by winemaker Wayne Stehbens. Already six years old, this Coonawarra red is a vigorous beast, still youthful but maturing nicely, with super-aromatic cinnamon and liquorice spice, plenty of mulberry fruit and a whack of tannin. And Torbreck's 1995 Barossa Valley Run Rig Shiraz/Viognier, Australian Wine Centre, is a superbly crafted, blackberryish blend of Barossa Valley old-vine Shiraz and Viognier sourced by Dave Powell from old Barossa vines and blended with 15 per cent Viognier to make Cote Rotie, Aussie-style. The 1995 is sold out, but watch out for the 1996 when it arrives at the Australia Wine Centre later in the year

White of the week

Primavera - Spring, Greco di Puglia, pounds 4.99, Thresher Wine Shops, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Made by Australian winemaker Kym Milne with Puglia's Augusto Cantele, this aptly named southern Italian dry white from the 1997 vintage has a delicate fragrance, spicy undertones and a refreshing spritz, adding zing and zip to the distinctive, ripe fruitiness of the native Greco grape.

Red of the week

1996 Villa Pigna Rozzano, pounds 4.99, Asda. In the tall, elegant bottle, this modern Italian rosso from the Marche region on the Adriatic not only looks sexy, but tastes pretty good, too. Made from Montepulciano grapes and aged in French oak casks, the ripe, cherryish fruit flavours mingle with the oak in a harmoniously smooth blend. It will go nicely with a simple roast chicken or do a risotto proud.

Illustration by David Foster