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Virginwines UK Press Tasting

by Tom Cannavan, 08/01

It is a rare thing indeed for an Internet-only wine retailer to gather together a hundred wines from their range and invite the scrutiny of the nation's wine press. Whilst the large supermarkets and national chains do this regularly, the e-merchants have been slow to invite this critical appraisal of their wines.

This was a tasting of Virgin exclusives - wines they have had created especially for them, or lines for which they are the only UK retailer. In the early days of Internet-only wine retailing some sceptics thought the "faceless" nature of a web site would encourage unscrupulous retailers to offer sub-standard wines to an unsuspecting public, but this range showed that to be far from the case. From blue-chip certainties from top producers, to some exciting new discoveries, I was very impressed by this range overall, though of course there were one or two less successful examples too.

white wines

Contea di Castiglione (Italy) 'Colle Casa' DOC Roero Arneis 2000 - £6.99
Lovely gentle, honeyed nose. This is also quite mealy, with a weight of pear fruit. On the palate there's a flattering impressions of sweetness, with some candied character but plenty of bold, crunchy, white fruit flavour and good balance. Rich and full-textured, this is the best example from the Arneis grape that I've tasted. Excellent.

Auburn Hills (Australia) Care Riesling (Stelvin cap) 2000 - £5.99
My Wine of the Week in July 2001, this has a finely perfumed nose with exotic hints of lychee and tropical fruit, blossom and a light waxiness. The palate is weighty with a rich, oily texture and lots of juicy, ripe pear and apple fruit and hints of that luxurious tropical sweetness. The finish is long and pure, with good acidity leaving it dry and refreshing. Lovely stuff and very good indeed/excellent.

Baron d'Alsace (France) Tokay Pinot Gris 2000 - £6.49
Deep golden colour suggests richness and there certainly is, with plenty of lush fig, peach and butter and a fat, smoky quality to the nose. The palate is full and off-dry at first, with ripe, sweet exotic fruits of nectarine, guava and thick, pure juicy flavours. Powerful and large-scaled, there is powerful acidity all adding up to a large-scaled but impressive wine. Very good indeed.

Leaping Horse (California) Viognier 2000 - £5.99
Powerful nose with herbal nuances to quite fat, lush, peachy fruit with undertones of apricot and nutty, creamy richness. The palate is smooth and full of ripe fruit. Quite classy, it is powerful without being overblown and is very well made. Very good.

Castelliere (Italy) DOC Trentino Chardonnay 2000 - £5.99
Aromatic, crisp and clean nose of gentle peach and pear fruit with a pleasant edge of something green-beany and vegetal. Very cool, it has classy melon and pear fruit on the palate and a limpid, pure quality. Rich texture, but plenty of clean citrus acidity into a long finish. Very good.

JJ (South Africa, Paarl) Chardonnay 2000 - £6.49
Toasty and lightly-charred oak with notes of nuts and vanilla. The palate has a full body and tropical pineapple, banana and ripe mango fruit. There's also some juicy peach. Creamy texture in the mouth and some nice sour green apple acidity pushes through to cleanse the palate into the finish. Very good in a fuller style.

Zohar (Argentina) Mendoza Chardonnay 2000 - £5.99
There's warm fudge and buttered toast on the nose, with brazil nut and gentle peachy fruit. It has a rich texture and ripe, intense quality of sweet apricot and peach fruit, with little smoky nuances. Cool and pure on the palate, there are nuances of nectarine and orange. Very good length and balance. Very good indeed.

Garry Crittenden (Australia) Mornington Estate Chardonnay 2000 - £8.99
Fine, ripe quality on the nose. Little hints of butterscotch and honeysuckle and just a background toastiness. The palate is fresh though quite full, with sweet fruit and a yeasty quality, a little edge of spice adding drama to a long finish. Very good.

red wines

Rama Corta (Spain) Tempranillo 1999 - £4.99
Crisp, berryish fruit nose that is quite zippy and bright. The palate is clean and displays a nice bitter cherry edge to soft berry fruit. Creamy and juicy style, quite low tannins and acidity, but enough to balance. Good.

La Luna Nuova (Italy) 'Trevini' 2000 - £4.99
A blend of three classic Italian grapes, this is smoky and ripe on the nose with black cherry that is rich and sweet, suffused by a gentle liquorice depth. Fine, rich, sweet fruit on the palate with plenty of damson and blackberry that is soft, fat and deep. Juicy acidity freshens the finish, though it remains a bold, fruity style. Very good/very good indeed.

Rococo (Italy) Primitivo 2000 - £5.49
Slightly metallic, dull nose at first, with only modest baked plum fruit. The palate has good weight and texture, though only medium body. There is plenty of plum and berry fruit that is bittersweet and chewy. Nice tannins and very good balance into a decent finish. Good/very good.

Zohar (Argentina) Mendoza Tempranillo 2000 - £5.99
Big, full, fudge-sweet nose, packed with sweet berries and a gentle, earthy character. Lots of savoury black fruit on the palate, with the sourness of cherries and a smoky quality. Some grippy tannins and decent acidity grab the finish, but very good.

Garry Crittenden (Australia) Mornington Estate Pinot Noir 2000 - £8.99
Lots of charcoally, mineral-edged fruit at first over raspberry and leafy, herbal notes. Not at all jammy. The palate has a cool, classy feel with restrained bitter cherry, plum and raspberry, some savoury, mellow oak. Quite an old world style, balanced and long. Very good/very good indeed.

Contea di Castigilione (Italy) DOC Barbera D'Asti 2000 - £5.49
Soft, smoky, strawberry fruit with modest earthiness. Palate has cherry fruit that is restrained a cool, with a nice sour, savoury edge. Quite good.

Tabor (Portugal) Palmela DOC 1998 - £7.99
Big, sweet, baked fruit nose with a mint humbug quality, layered with fudgy oak and berry fruit. On the palate it is quite fresh with a juicy fruit quality - fine and full, the ripe fruit has an interesting herbal edge. Mouthfilling texture and braced by good acidity. Very enjoyable and very good.

Mount Langi Ghiran (Australia) 'Cherry Tree' 1999 - £8.99
A shiraz/grenache/cabernet sauvignon blend from a producer I like. Bright and breezy nose with hints of dark chocolate and tobacco beneath cherry, pepper and some creamy oak. There's a hint of something exotic - sandalwood perhaps. Full and really densely packed with ripe fruit, this has strawberry, raspberry and rich autumn berries. Nice fresh acidity and fine tannins complete an attractive picture. Very good indeed.

Vistalba (Argentina) Bonarda 2000 - £6.49
Juicy cherry nose; quite dark and glossy fruit with a background of hickory and briarwood. The palate is gripped by tight tannins that are ripe enough, but powerful. The fruit is terrifically dense and mouthwatering, and this has plenty of stuffing, powering into a long finish. Very good.

Indaba (South Africa) Merlot 2000 - £5.99
Plummy, deep, chocolate nose that is deep and sweet - lovely merlot character. Damsons and plums on the palate and an undertone of tobacco. Nice rounded mouth-feel and a long finish. Very good indeed.

Jerome Quiot (France) Côtes du Rhône-Villages Carianne 1999 - £6.99
Firm, slightly herbal red fruit and a little bit of creamy oak before some grilled meat aromas. The palate has a similar profile, with drying tannins but the palate showing plenty of juicy, ripe fruit and some oak bolstering the finish. Very good.

Sylvan Vale (South Africa) Devon Valley Reserve Pinotage 1999 - £9.99
Big, stinky meat and rubber nose. Over the top, with ripe, creamy berry fruit and full-on ripeness. The palate is full-bodied and quite tannic, with plum and mulberry fruit and just a little metallic edge. This is a blockbuster, but has some structure and is quite fine. Very good indeed.

Seghesio (California) Sonoma County Zinfandel 1999 - £13.99
Dense and deep peppery black fruit on the nose that is creamy, sweet and lush. Terrific sweetness on the palate; gloriously fat, rich and unctuous with crushed berries and plum. This is a real powerhouse wine that is long, tangy and intense with 14.5% alcohol. Of its style, very good indeed.

De Toren (South Africa) Fusion V 1999 - £14.99
Using all five Bordeaux grapes, this is slightly dumb and leathery at first, then aromas of mint and toffee, blackcurrant and cherry. Lovely palate, with elegant, cool black fruit and quite a savoury, cedary structure. Very good indeed.

Virgin Wines have been working with Australian winemaker Michael Goundrey on a number of projects including the following a range of varietal wines from the South of France. The Old Bush Vine Series come from vines some 90 yrs old. 'Jacques et Franck' are the brothers-in-law who introduced Michael to the plot of old bush vines. Some of these had been bottled just before the tasting, and a couple didn't show as well as I thought they might. It will be interesting to re-taste at some point.

Jacques et Franck Sauvignon Blanc VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.49
Fantastically pungent, herbal, leafy nettle nose. Plenty of gooseberry-fresh fruit and citrus crunch. The palate is weighty and rich, with zip from lemon and grapefruit flavours but also a little hint of tropicality. Very good.

Jacques et Franck Marsanne VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.49
Fairly muted nose. Some gentle peachiness. On the palate a weight of succulent, ripe peachy fruit emerges that is juicy and quite lush. There is enough acidity to freshen, and this should come together nicely. Good/very good.

Jacques et Franck Viognier VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.49
Restrained pear fruit and a gently floral note. Weighty palate and a focused core of pear and sweet, ripe apple with some gentle spiciness. Quite long, with juicy pear acidity. Good/very good.

Jacques et Franck Chardonnay VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.49
Gently toffeed nose, some sweet, nutty apricot with hints of butter and richer weight. The palate is cooler by contrast, showing apple fruit, a hint of rich nectarine and good weight. Chewy-textured and ripe, there is nice acidity into quite a long finish. Very good/very good indeed.

Jacques et Franck Old Bush Vine Grenache Blanc VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.49
Light orchard fruit nose with vague herbal nuances. Hints of honey and marzipan. The palate has lots of clean melon and apple fruit, with notes of pear and lemon. Moderate acidity. I felt this might show better on a future tasting. Good?

Jacques et Franck Merlot VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.49
Clean, slightly smoky, with black plum and hints of chocolate. Very juicy with a savoury palate, this has loads of crunching black fruit on the palate, with juicy blackcurrant, cherry and plum skins. Quite fine, good length, fine tannins and some decent structure. Very good indeed/excellent.

Jacques et Franck Syrah VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.49
Inky depth of colour with a layered nose of sweet, glossy fruit. There's lots of ripe, lush black fruit and a hint of oak. Full to medium-bodied, there are muscular tannins and compact, tight fruit giving a chunky character. The finish is dry, though the tannins are fine. Good.

Jacques et Franck Old Bush Vine Grenache VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.99
Big, peppery, rich fruit that is dense and jammy. Very attractive and gutsy. The palate shows a powerful structure with compact cherry and berry fruit, a hint of creaminess to the texture and good concentration. Well-balanced, tannins and acids beef up the finish. Very good.

Jacques et Franck Old Bush Vine Carignan VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.99
Firm, juicy fruit has a charcoal edge. Aromas of cherry and plum. The palate is gorgeously rich, sweet and ripe with up-front, vibrant black fruit. Fine tannins and citrussy acidity extend the finish. Pure and long, this is very good indeed.

Jacques et Franck Old Bush Vine Syrah VdP d'Oc 2000 - £5.99
Dark, concentrated, full-fruited nose with hints of pepper and cedar over firm cherry and raspberry fruit, a hint of sweet blackcurrant. Quite tight and chewy on the palate, there's a fine quality of concentrated black fruit that is meaty and dense, but with plenty of delicious ripeness. Very good indeed.

The following group of wines comes from Ngatarawa (pronounced na-tar-awa) of New Zealand. These are exclusive to Virgin in the UK.

Glazebrook Hawkes Bay Sauvignon 2000 - £7.99
There's a pleasantly fresh green bean and asparagus note on the nose with leafy gooseberry and plenty of herbal quality. Bright and fresh on the palate, there is good acidity, medium to full-body and lots of crisp fruit. Very good.

Ngatarawa Stables Sauvignon Blanc 2000 - £7.99
This also has plenty of leafy, green-bean crunch and zip, with slightly more tropical aromatics. Rich and zesty on the palate, there are notes of passion fruit and melon, as well as gooseberry acidity. Long and concentrated, this is very good/very good indeed.

Glazebrook Gisborne Chardonnay 2000 - £9.99
Lovely impression of sweetness on the nose, with a zesty citrus and quince character, hints of more lush apricot. The palate is full-bodied and very rich with downy peach fruit and juicy acidity. Long with just the merest hint of flattering residual sugar. Very good indeed.

Ngatarawa Stables Chardonnay 1999 - £7.99
Much more obvious oak, that is sweet, spicy and fudge-like. Notes of butterscotch and cream with a barrel-fermented nutty, yeasty character. The palate has succulent apple and peach fruit, hints of honeysuckle and a broad-based, generous appeal. Good length. Very good indeed.

Though they already offer over 55 South African wines, Virginwines claim they will be significantly increasing their offering over coming months to become "The Number One Retailer" of South African wines. Many of these wines are made by Graham Weerts of SONOP Wine Farms team, under the "fair trade" label Winds of Change. This aims to generate funding to put back into the Wine farm community from every bottle sold.

The Big Five Collection Sauvignon Blanc 2000 - £4.99
Creamy nose with tropical fruit: sweet guava and mango. The palate continues with those big, rich, guava, pineapple and passion fruit flavours. Good/very good.

Devon Hills Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2000 - £6.99
Much more herbal, with leafy aromas of greengage and gooseberry with sparky citrus notes. In the mouth it is succulent and quite fat in the mid-palate with grapefruit and citrus acidity giving plenty of crunch. Very good.

Winds of Change Semillon Chardonnay 2000 - £4.49
Quite crisp, with elegant gooseberry fruit and some clean, sharp apricot. Quite full and buttery on the palate, brightly styled with vivacious acidity and a crisp finish. Good/very good.

The Big Five Collection Chardonnay 2000 - £4.99
A little honeyed, subtle butterscotch character with moderate fruit, plenty of citrus and mineral acidity. Good.

Petit Berg Unfiltered Chardonnay 2000 - £5.99
Fine, nuanced toffee, cream and fudge nose with very sweet pear fruit. The palate is cool and creamy with sparky, fresh, zesty orange and lemon fruit and good length with fine acidity. Very good.

Winds of Change Merlot Pinotage 1999 - £4.99
Dry, dusty, rich red fruits with red berries, a hint of chocolate and black damson. This has big, sweet tannins and open and crunchy red fruit. There's a little hint of plum-pie, with a baked, earthy note and some depth. Very good.

The Big Five Collection Merlot 1999 - £5.99
Earthy, slightly leafy nose with plenty of autumnal fruit. Drying tannins on the plate and quite lean, though this is a wine with some structure and lots of freshening acidity. It finishes stylishly, with more fruit emerging. Very good.

The Big Five Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 - £55.99
Fir, glossy black fruit that is tight and powerful. Palate is immediately quite grippy with noticeable tannins and acidity, but also firm, supple black plum fruit that pushes through powerfully into a decent finish. Very good.

Rustenberg (South Africa) Stellenbosch Chardonnay 1999 - £8.99
Serious, charry, new French oak nose. Smoke and toast, with lots of luscious ripe fruit. Really sweet apricot and peach floods the palate, with a hint of residual sugar that is flattering, a charry quality in the finish and full, powerful length. Very good.

Rustenberg Five Soldiers Chardonnay 1999 - £15.75
Extremely buttery brazil nut, marzipan and refined citrus nose. This is classy and shows a real sweetness of fruit, with pear, peach and fine apple acidity. Such ripeness, and though mouthfilling, a lovely core of mineral acidity. very long and very good indeed.

Rustenberg Stellenbosch Red 1998 - £9.99
80% Cabernet, 20% Merlot. Very ripe nose with black fruit character, a little bit of leather, cedar and some mint-leaf nuances. The palate is savoury, with fine, ripe fruit and a silky texture, though there are rather big, dry tannins that muscle in. Quite classy and good length, in a slightly old-fashioned but well-made style. Very good.

Rustenberg Peter Barlow Red 1998 - £18.49
100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Very dense, creamy, fudge nose with classy, gently toasty oak and a savoury, cedary quality. Firm tannins grip the palate and add a lot of backbone to tightly-structured liquorice, aniseed and black cherry fruit. Bittersweet, there's some deep blueberry character and a balanced finish. Very good.

These are wines new to the UK and exclusive to Virginwines. In fact, the Donnelly River winery is a brand new producer in Pemberton, Western Australia, one of the fastest growing regions.

Donnelly River (Australia) Pemberton Mist Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2000 - £7.99
Good nose that strikes a pleasant balance between leafy, herbal crunch and apple and citrus freshness, with just a hint of custardy weight. The palate is juicy and quite rich, with peachy fruit, full-body and decent length. Very good.

Donnelly River Pemberton Sauvignon Blanc 2000 - £8.99
Much more leafiness here, with grassy, herbal notes and some greengage fruit. The palate is quite full, with tropical sweetness of quince and guava and still a sense of crispness. Good balance and length. Very good indeed.

Donnelly River Pemberton Chardonnay 2000 - £9.99
Leesy, rich, full fruit with peaches and cream and hints of hazelnut. The palate is rich and has a weighty texture, with a nice fruit and acid balance and moderate oak. Long and very good.

Donnelly River Pemberton Pinot Noir 1999 - £9.99
Nine months in new French oak gives lots of sweetness on the nose with full, jammy fruit, cream and toast. Palate is fruity and juicy with orange acidity, decent tannins and a spicy finish. Good/very good.

Donnelly River Pemberton Karri Shiraz/Cabernet 2000 - £7.99
45% Shiraz and 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, with 10% Pinot Noir in the blend. Bright, zippy, full nose with plenty of rich berry fruit, cassis and charry notes. Chewy palate with mouth-filling texture and plenty of fruit in an easy-drinking style. Good.

Donnelly River Pemberton Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 - £11.99
Fantastically sweet, ripe nose that is toffeed and filled with mint and blackcurrant, a little liquorice depth. The palate is quite full-bodied and is powerful with a silky texture, some fine background tannins and good length. Very good.

Donnelly River Pemberton Shiraz 1997 - £9.99
Peppery and rich on the nose, hints of dark, meaty, gamy quality. Quite fragrant. The palate has plenty of stuffing and ripe fruit, lots of zingy raspberry to cut across bold, meaty black fruit. Finishes with sweetness and power. Very good/very good indeed.