Wednesday Wines – Episode 50

Episode 50 – 10th March 2021


All reds this week and there is a certain symmetry in my selection, too.  First two Cabernet-dominant wines from two legendary properties and then six Tuscan heroes, three each from two of the finest estates in Montalcino.

2014 Château Capbern, Saint-Estèphe, Bordeaux, France (£20.68,  

I have long been a fan of Château Capbern, formerly Capbern Gasqueton (it dropped Gasqueton in 2013).  Situated between Saint-Estèphe legends Calon Ségur and Montrose and owned and made by the winemaking team at Calon Ségur, this is an estate to follow very closely indeed because chances are that the wine will be terrific and the value extraordinary, too.  I have never tasted a vintage that I didn’t like and there are very few affordable wines to which this statement applies.

Back in April 2015, in my 2014 Bordeaux En Primeur Report, I noted the following – ‘78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot, 14.2% alc., 60% new oak.  This is a very smooth, silky and sooty, blackberry style of wine.  It is delicious, forward, a little simple but moreish and juicy.  The alcohol is on the rich side but with this large slug of Cabernet, it works well.  It’s destined to be a classic, inexpensive, Sunday lunch favourite.’

It turns out that this prediction has come true and for twenty quid this is the definition of a classy, accurate and yet eminently affordable Saint-Estèphe.  I cannot think of a finer nor more rewarding twenty pound Cab on the planet right now.  Hurry to secure your stock.

2018 Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Rabelais, Stellenbosch, South Africa (£55.00, reduced to £49.50 each by the case,

I wrote up the 2017 vintage of this wine in my MoneyWeek column late last year and it sold out overnight.  Here is an edited version of this article to give you some background on this phenomenal label –

‘Forgive me for stealing some text from the Thelema website, but this snippet of history sets the scene for this truly magnificent wine.  Here is an edited quote – ‘François Rabelais was a monk, doctor and writer (about wine among other subjects) in sixteenth-century France.  He imagined a utopian abbey on the banks of the Loire that admitted both men and women, encouraging them to live together in great luxury.  Only one law governed its members: “Fay ce que vouldras” – Do what thou wilt!  This was, of course, the Abbey of Thélème.’  Gyles Webb used this name as the inspiration behind his estate on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, which he acquired back in 1983.  Rabelais is the name of the top wine here and Gyles’s son Thomas sent me a bottle of this 2017 to taste and it completely blew my mind.  A highly sophisticated Cabernet Sauvignon / Petit Verdot blend, this is the most complex, controlled and intriguing Cabernet blend I have ever tasted from the Cape.  Layered and ultra-fine, this is a far cry from the powerhouse wines which usually hog the headlines.  Even though it spends 20 months in 100% new French barriques this is one of the most elegant and luxurious wines of the year.’

Next week, the 2018 vintage arrives in the UK and it is another spectacular wine.  Once again, Thomas Webb kindly sent me a preview sample a month or so ago and it took my breath away and I have been waiting patiently to be able to write it up.  With a slightly more honed and tempered approach than the intensely flavoured 2017, this is a highly sophisticated wine with layer upon layer of stunning fruit.  What I adore about this pair is that while they are regal and imposing they also retain an enviable level of freshness which gives them lift and precision.  Do not miss out on this wine.  If you managed to snare some 2017 you have to have this follow-up vintage.  If you missed out on the 2017, then shame on you, and I insist that you start your Rabelais odyssey today with this celestial 2018.  The balance is so sublime that you can drink it today, but I venture it will run for a decade and more with ease!

2016 Cielo d’Ulisse, Brunello di Montalcino, Podere Le Ripi, Tuscany, Italy (£46.95,

I will start this write-up with a quote from the inspirational man behind the biodynamic havens which make up the Podere Le Ripi estate, Francesco Illy.

‘Curiosity leads to Culture leads to Sensitivity leads to Enthusiasm leads to Love leads to Magic leads to Universal Love. Because Everybody feels the Magic. Therefore, Curiosity is a Universal Gift.’ 

This dreamy prose is echoed on the label of this enchanting wine.  It features ‘The Sky of Ulysses’, scattered with stars, the sea and a boat, recalling Ulysses ability to navigate by looking at the stars without needing a compass.  As Francesco notes, ‘it is no coincidence that the vineyards of the Cielo d’Ulisse are placed in an area so remote that the sky full of stars can be enjoyed to its fullest’.  Winemaker Sebastian Nasello embraces the wild terrain and the even wilder Sangiovese fruit that they farm on this estate and there is an honesty and depth of flavour here which is often found wanting in the celebrated wines from this famous wine region.  Coming from Camigliano, in the western flank of the region, only 10000 bottles of this amazingly expressive wine were made and I have no doubt that this is the most expansive and rewarding vintage of this label to date.  Sebastian manages to encourage his schist, limestone and sedimentary alluvial soils, rich in silt and sand, which ranges from blue galestro to alberese, to imbue his Sangiovese grapes with the most rousing and elemental minerality imaginable and after 33 months ageing in oak barrel and 12 months in cement tanks, the results are part soul-searching and part anthemic.  It is possible to drink this wine now, but the magnificent, high tensile finish will make itself heard but if you prefer a more mellow wake behind this particular boat then experience suggests that you ought to wait a further four or five years before you dive in.  Either way, this is a sensational wine and you ought to grab as much as you can.  There are two more extraordinary Brunellos in this portfolio, which I had the pleasure of tasting, and they both come from the home vineyards surrounding the winery in Castelnuovo, on the south-eastern side of the region.  These two single-vineyard wines come from different soils and they play a correspondingly different tune.  2016 Brunello di Montalcino Amore e Magia (£75.00) is a more layered and succulently ripe wine than Ulisse and it brings with it foresty tones and hedonistic touches, while 2015 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Lupi e Sirene (£85.00) is the captain of the team and it is as joyous, intense and riveting as any wine made from the noble Sangiovese grape.  My advice is to start with my featured Cielo d’Ulisse and then graduate when you feel secure.  Also, take a look at the Podere Le Ripi website because it is packed with fascinating information and it also has a superb gallery that includes photos of one of the most incredible and ambitious wineries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Biondi-Santi, Tenuta Greppo

I am thrilled to report that Biondi-Santi is in a state of flux.  This might sound like a strange thing to proclaim but I have often found the old wines from this historic estate too pale, lean, attenuated and introverted for my tastes and while they manage to age for an eternity I don’t seem to like them any more when they are mature than I did when they were born.  Of course, some vintages are gems, and this is why Biondi-Santi has built its stellar reputation, and it has also been around since the 1860s, so they certainly have experience in this region!  I also recognise that these wines are revered by wine critics worldwide and the prices for these wines are certainly extremely high, too, so there is obviously a demand.   But I somehow I require more fruit, more flavour, more depth and more obvious nobility to be able to justify spending a fortune on a bottle of wine and I have yet to fully understand and appreciate this estate and its wines.

So when this renowned property sold a majority share to Christopher Descours, the owner of Charles Heidsieck, Piper-Heidsieck and Château la Verrerie, in December 2016, I was rather more excited than perhaps many of the traditionalist onlookers.  After an hour on Zoom with the winemaker and management this week, it was clear that they see huge potential in this acquisition and this means huge change – music to my ears.  They were insistent that the mantra for Biondi-Santi was ‘evolution not revolution’ but I have heard this many times before and it usually means that the wines will become more expressive over time as the vineyards are brought back to life.  In fact, the major investments at this estate are being ploughed into understanding precisely what they have under the ground as well as what they are growing in it.  They have also invested in buying more high altitude real estate in order to cope with the inevitable and ever-present issue of climate change.  This is a wise idea and it shows that they are very serious about making Biondi-Santi one of the world’s most famous and respected estates (again).  They are carrying out extensive trials on various plots of grapes, too, to see how their terroirs impact on the flavour of the resulting wines.  It would appear that this has never been done before and the results will inform them how to move forwards with complete confidence.  I tasted three wines, one of which is already on the market and two which are yet to be released.  The 2017 Rosso was the only wine that was ‘made’ by the new team while the 2015 Brunello and 2013 Riserva were inherited ‘in barrel’.

2017 Rosso di Montalcino, Biondi-Santi (approx. £80, Handford Wines, Hedonism)

With a red cherry and cranberry fruit theme, countered with beautiful freshness and purity on the finish, this is a light, but persistent wine with a complex herbal core and an ethereal tone throughout.  I can appreciate that this is the first wine that the new team has made from scratch and it already looks clean and expressive.  The price tag seems a little steep to me, but I will certainly be buying a few bottles to taste over the next two or three years to see how it evolves.  With one foot in the traditional camp and one in a more expressive and fruit-pure mode, this is a promising wine.

2015 Brunello di Montalcino, Biondi-Santi (guide price £175, stock lands end April)

With a deeper, richer mid-palate, thanks to the warm conditions in 2015 coupled with the elevated alcohols level (14.5%), this is a fuller-framed wine but it has none of the perfume found in the delightful 2017.  Foresty on the nose and very dry and hard on the finish, while I don’t doubt that this wine will age for a long time I cannot see much beauty behind the solid, gruff façade.  This vintage is certainly a good example of the flavours and stance that I have struggled with in the past and while it is only a baby, I think that in ten or even fifteen years it will still be an old-fashioned /authentic Biondi-Santi, which means that, for my palate, I am unlikely to fall in love with it.

2013 Brunello di Montalcino, Riserva, Biondi-Santi (guide price £550, stock lands end April)

Mushroomy and slightly dank on the nose (there was mention of an upgrade happening in the winery for barrels which need to be replaced) this is an even more sour and blunt wine than the 2015 and while I don’t doubt that this traditional style might still be celebrated by many critics and collectors I cannot understand the appeal here.  Tasters at the Zoom event seemed collectively impressed, so perhaps I am missing something here, but the fruit is too stewed and belligerent to stand a chance of singing and so I will pass on this wine.

Conclusion – In spite of my rather downbeat opinion of the two Brunellos, I came away from this tasting feeling remarkably positive and this is largely thanks to the vivacity of the 2017 Rosso and the energy, enthusiasm and positivity of CEO Giampiero Bertolini and his talented team.