Monthly Archives: March 2013

Hungarian shenanigans

At the beginning of the month I took a quick trip to Budapest for the annual VinCE wine fair. This is possibly the largest wine fair in central-eastern Europe and the organizers are always very keen to encourage foreign wine professionals to attend. They’re doing a very good job of it. I found myself in the illustrious company of Masters of Wine, fellow MW students and wine bloggers/educators. We were all there to take part in (or present) masterclasses and to taste interesting Hungarian wines made from unpronounceable varieties.
I was really looking forward to making some new discoveries and perhaps finding some interesting wines that may need to be brought into the UK. I always get rather excited about up-and-coming wine regions and countries so my hopes were high. So, whilst my other fellow MW students jumped from masterclass to masterclass (most of these were hosted by international producers), I mingled with the masses and attempted to taste as much Hungarian (and Romanian) wine as I could.
The quality of wine on show was relatively mixed. The stand out region without a shadow of a doubt was Somloi. There is something inherently fascinating about these wines. Whilst wines from most of the other regions appeared to try and emulate the international style, the Somloi wines showed a real personality of their own. Furmint, Harslevelű, Juhfark and Olaszriesling are the main varieties of Somloi, a region in the north-west of Hungary, known for its volcanic soils high in basalt and loess. The Furmints here are different from those made in Tokaj. They are inherently spicier, more full-bodied with alcohol levels rarely below 14%. Flavours of acacia and honey dominate, underpinned by an oxidative, perhaps slightly old-fashioned style of winemaking. But the minerality is very much still there. Juhfark is the real star of the show in Somloi. A native thin-skinned variety, high in acidity and really good at displaying minerality. The wines have a slightly phenolic character (which I love in whites) from skin contact, which is often employed. The flavours are of apricot skin and smoky minerality with a touch of bitterness that lends itself really well to food! I very much look forward to seeing more Juhfark in the UK.
I wasn’t so impressed with the reds, I have to say. I often have an issue with reds in central Europe, they just don’t stack up against the whites. In Hungary many reds, especially from Villany and Eger, are too big and sweet-fruited for my taste with the alcohols a little on the high side. But then I have a distinctly UK palate and we like our wines more on the elegant side. I think these wines would work really well in markets like the USA or Scandinavia, where full-bodied, modern reds are preferred.
Palates really are very different. I was asked by the organizers to be on the panel for one of the masterclasses organized. Termed ‘Sell me your wine’, it was a Dragon’s Den type workshop where we were asked to advise producers on what they could improve in order to make their wines exportable, all in front of an audience. On the panel was a Norwegian MW and we seemed to disagree on absolutely everything from label designs, suitability for our markets to the contents of the bottle. Whilst she thought a local white (from the Vulcanus variety, awesome name!) was too bitter and phenolic, I liked the high extract! Whilst I thought a Villany wine was too jammy and alcoholic, she commented that high alcohol was good. Well there you go.
And that’s it, really. If you’re interested in trying a Hungarian wine, start with a Furmint and work your way towards a Juhfark. Forget about the reds for the moment, we’ll give them some time to sort themselves out.

Minimum pricing: for or against?

Among the many things we have to keep abreast of being MW students are the various ‘hot topics’ in the wine world. These include things like climate change, fraud, supply and demand (an interesting one this as we have recently moved from oversupply to under supply) and contentious issues such as minimum pricing. Minimum pricing in the UK is currently being evaluated by parliament and a decision is due sometime in May, though if reports of a couple of weeks ago are to be believed, it seems that things are not progressing smoothly.

So, what are the arguments for minimum pricing? Well, figures from 2010 show that the cost of treating alcohol-related diseases in the UK was £2.7billion. Added to this can be other diverse costs such as to policing, child welfare, the justice system as well as private costs to individuals and private property. All of which adds up to a pretty significant cost to the economy. The government has estimated that a 45p minimum unit price would cut alcohol consumption by 3.3%, reduce the number of crimes by 5000 annually and reduce hospital admissions by 24,000. Which sounds pretty good doesn’t it?

However, from my point of view, it is the other side of the argument that presents the stronger case. For a start, when debating minimum pricing it must first be determined that a) raising prices will reduce average consumption and that b) reducing average consumption will reduce harm. Alcohol consumption is already decreasing in the UK – since 2004 it has reduced by 13% and is predicted to decline by another 5% by 2018 without minimum pricing. But, while average consumption has been decreasing, harm from alcohol consumption is not – as a Saturday night out in any town centre will show you. This quite clearly shows that reducing consumption doesn’t necessarily reduce harm. 40% of the alcohol drunk in the UK is consumed by 10% of the population. It is these heavy drinkers that the government is most trying to influence with this policy. And yet, there is no research to show that raising prices will cause these heavy drinkers to drink less. In fact, an EU-wide study found that there was no relationship between price of alcohol and harm. In other words, people that want alcohol will buy it regardless of price.

I could give you all of my other anti-minimum pricing arguments, such as the fact that this is not a tax – but instead price increases will go straight into the pockets of the retailers so there is no added benefit to taxpayers, or that this will impact the poorest people the most (the government itself has estimated this will cost consumers an extra £1 billion a year due to the increased prices), or that the EU itself has said such a policy is illegal. But, the thing that really worries me is – what next? If minimum pricing of 45p a unit does go through, it seems pretty clear that this will have little positive effect on reducing alcohol harm. So, then what? A £1 minimum price? More? Or other draconian measures – perhaps raising the age limit to drink or limiting where or how you can buy alcohol? This seems to me like the start of a very slippery slope.

Yes, alcohol harm is a real problem in the UK and in many other countries around the world. I don’t have the solution to the problem, I just don’t think minimum pricing is it.


I left my heart in the mountains

This year’s holiday destination is slightly out of the ordinary.  The itinerary comprises surviving on 5 hours sleep a night, working from sunrise to well after sunset and being on your feet all day; regulated working hours and weekends off?  Forget it. I had chosen to work a harvest, but I had chosen the winery with care.  The remote and breathtakingly beautiful Cederberg Mountain conservation area is a vast and largely deserted place of stark red rock formations, 5000 year old San Bushman paintings and at 1100m high, South Africa’s highest altitude winery; Cederberg Private Wine Cellar.  This is my home, my job and my heart for three weeks.

My little cottage is nestled into the mountains which pulse red at sunrise and sunset, next to it runs a perfectly clear river, my neighbours are a troop of baboons and my house mate is a large spider that I have named Bert.  Up here, far from civilisation I feel free and able to breathe, it is an exhilarating and liberating feeling, especially with no mobile reception or internet access. I have a short drive to the cellar each morning through the vineyards just as the sun begins to rise bathing the vines in liquid gold.  By 6am I am hard at work.

Despite my lumbering ineptitude and continuous stream of questions the team at Cederberg have taken me under their wing and shown me the ropes, always pausing to explain a technical detail for the umpteenth time.  The camaraderie, the intelligence, the dedication and the unadulterated passion with which they work makes this close knit team a rarity to behold and a pleasure to be a part of, all be it briefly.  I would love to go into detail about the research and experimentation they do with clones, rootstocks, aspect, soils, extraction techniques, yeasts, blending and barrels but it would never do justice to the combination of science and art that makes these wines so special.  Rather you will see a snapshot of harvest through the eyes of a rather clumsy, completely unqualified English girl who, for three magical weeks is part of that dream team.

 The alarm is unpardonably early each morning; I leave barely time to dress and have a swift coffee before I am high-tailing it to the cellar to make it there by 6am. The usual gloom of an early morning is swept away by the awesome vista and the excitement for the day ahead.  As each variety, sub plot and clone is vinified and fermented separately each day is a case of juggling 60 balls at a time, keeping track of which tank or barrel needs what attention. There is crushing, destemming, chemical analysis, settling, pressing, racking, yeast rehydration, inoculation, fermentation, pump overs and punch downs, more racking, barrel aging, malolactic fermentation and blendings to contend with.  This is happening continuously and simultaneously over a 3 month period as the different grapes are harvested at different times.  Wine I have swiftly discovered, is like having small, temperamental children; they need constant monitoring, they need their temperatures and sugars taken regularly, they need to be fed and for the reds, they need exercising to get a good breath of fresh air in the form pump overs every 4-6 hours day and night.  2am and you know where you can find the winemaker, in the cellar talking softly to the wines as he takes their vitals.  I know many less attentive parents.

My nails have never been long nor manicured (to the disappointment of my mother), however I have swiftly seen the futility of having anything but clipped nails.  Lacking a clipper of any sort I have had to resort to biting my nails off one by one.  Each day I have a new fear to face.  Cleaning out the pneumatic press is the first I was challenged with.  This involves climbing into a large, cylindrical metal coffin, your access point is a small hole hovering over a rotating blade (hopefully inactivated at this point) within which you must scoop out the grape skins before hosing it out.  Claustrophobia was the least of my worries – being pressed alive was a far more pressing concern (excuse the pun).  However I have now discovered that the inside of the press has  wonderful acoustics and I keep my mind occupied by blasting out a self-composed compilation of dodgy 80’s anthems.   Apparently the press is not sound proof.  When I emerge 20 mins later I am soaking wet with grape skins clinging to my hair, eyelashes and clothes but you can eat your dinner off the inside of the press.

Shovelling the skins out of the tank for pressing is another fear factor moment.  This requires shimmying up the tanks (which are not at ground level) and manoeuvring yourself through a tiny hole in the side of the tank (an even harder endeavour on the return journey when you are slippery with juice) and lowering yourself into yet another metal coffin slick with skins often reaching waist height.  These have to be shovelled out of a small hole at the base of the tank into the press.  This is hard physical graft, a great substitution for the gym I have decided.   Topping the barrels (to prevent oxidation and make up for the ‘angels share’ lost to evaporation) is another job requiring acrobatic skills.  The barrels are stacked 5 high and I again find myself clinging precariously to the side of a sheer wall of barrels as the stack keens alarmingly to one side, hauling myself up until I am to reach the elusive top layer.

At the heart of the gruelling hours, the physical frenzy, the need for absolute accuracy and scientific understanding, not to mention being able to anticipate what each individual wine needs before it knows itself are the dream team:  David, Tammy, Luzaan and Alex (despite much confusion this is boy Alex rather than ‘Tannie Groot Lay Gat’, my affectionate – I hope – nickname).  A group of incredibly talented yet humble people who fill the winery with laughter, banter, energy and song (ok the latter is mostly my contribution) even when the heat is on.  This has cemented my belief that in order to make good wine one must first have great grapes (something the Cederberg has in spades due to the complete lack of virus or downy mildew) but in order to make a great wine you must have great people working with those great grapes, again something Cederberg has in spades.  Taste the soon to be released Wild Ferment Barrel aged Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir and you will see exactly what I mean.

I am bruised, I am cut, my feet are swollen and I am exhausted yet I have never been so happy or so inspired.


Chateau Haut-Bailly; a family affair

Chateau Haut-Bailly represented a surprising oasis of calm in a region frenetically competing for global market share.  There was a Jane Austen type of serenity and a quiet self-assurance that permeated the whole estate from the vineyards to the cellar and made one feel that the goal of the Chateau was to simply be the best they could be rather than competing against others for fame and fortune.

The winemonkey’s tasting was to be a selection of vintages stretching back to 1998 to celebrate 15 years under the ownership of Robert Wilmer.  I am not sure what I was expecting; a dramatic stylistic change or a gradual evolution charting his journey of discovery.  What I found both surprised and delighted me.  The wines were presented as a family, sharing a common identity but each with an individual personality stamped on it from the peculiarities of the vintage.  They couldn’t have been more right.  The characters that emerged from those garnet and ruby depths so easily conjured up personalities that I see in my own extensive family that I couldn’t help chuckling with glee at each new introduction.  Each wine had the trade mark grace and stony mineral finish of the H-B name, and it was this understated elegance and concentration that allowed you to have a conversation with the wine rather than it shouting at you as so many of the more modern extracted wines tend to do.
The 2008 was undoubtedly the oldest son and the apple of his parent’s eye.  The supple polished tannins, beautifully integrated fruit depths and the finesse of the wine showed him to be both handsome and charming.  The beautifully complex length gave him an intelligent rather than brash appearance while the accessibility of the fruit lent a note of kindness and dependability.  Any mother would be proud.
The 2006 was a different kettle of fish altogether: the headstrong and fiery eldest daughter.  This wine was vibrant and alive with beautifully taut tannins and a lively acidity.  There was attractive depth to the fruit with tertiary and mineral complexity beginning to emerge combined while the steely core of fresh acidity showed a woman of intelligent and drive.  The life and soul of the party; beautiful and charismatic, but beware, that steely core hinted at a sharp wit when crossed.
2002 was attractive, kind and softly spoken; a beautiful if somewhat ethereal motherly figure.  The fruit profile had softened with some age, but showed a wealth of different aromas and flavours.  The tannins were fine, soft and well integrated giving her an elegant, slender and perfumed character.  There was a note of the demure about her yet underneath the subtle perfume ran that signature H-B strength.
2000.  The youngest daughter, spoilt but beautiful.  The rich and sensual fruit had a much riper profile suggesting long glossy locks, flashing eyes and dramatic curves.   The fruit was showy and open with plush velvety tannins suggesting a superficial beauty, but looks can be deceiving.  Underneath all the glamour and giggles is that tell-tale gravelly mineral complexity lending it surprising length.
1998, is undoubtedly the father and the head of the house.  Beautiful tertiary aromas of worn leather and hints of tobacco suggested an elderly gentleman with fine set of whiskers and a smoking jacket.  The tannins have loosed slightly with age, as had his waist line and the lovely muted fruits and notes of forest floor suggested a compulsory afternoon nap in the chair.  However as with many men presiding over a house largely comprised of women, just because his eyes are closed does not mean he is not listening.  The palate showed a wonderfully steely minerality streaking through the core of the wine pointing to a formidable intellect while the finish was long, complex and poised showing a man of both control and power.  The beautiful whisper of soft fruit on the mid palate however makes it clear he has a kind and gentle side to his personality.

It was a fabulous tasting and I am certainly looking forward to visiting again to see how the family is getting on.


Setting the World to Rights

I suppose you could say the first proper wine tastings I went to were at university at the wine society there. My Dad might like to point out the various wine tastings he held at home for his friends over the years where I might get a sip of wine if I was lucky, but I’m not sure that really counts. The uni wine tastings were great – we’d get a lecturer or someone from Oddbins along to talk to us about a few wines and we’d enjoy learning about the wines whilst drinking our way through them (not sure we’d heard of spittoons in those days). We even had someone from Wine Australia come to take us through some aussie wines a few times.
Well, don’t things just come full circle – for there I was last week as that person from Wine Australia doing wine tastings for various university wine societies. And it struck me that not only do things come full circle, they also don’t change. There was still the slightly geeky boys in the corner frantically taking notes (though these days it seems pen and paper has been discarded in favour of iPads), the postdoc types who think they know rather more than everyone else about wine and aren’t afraid to show it, and the gaggle of girls who are interested in the wines but halfway through the tasting get waylaid by such conversations as ‘5 year plans’ and ‘where will we be when we’re 30’ and generally setting the world to rights. Well, I’m not afraid to say I was one of those girls at my uni wine tastings and never in a million years would it have crossed my mind that by the time I was (nearly) 30 I’d be working in the wine industry, studying for my MW and hosting those same tastings.
University wine societies are great. I made some fantastic friends through mine and we still see each other and enjoy a bottle or two of wine – and although the conversation has moved on somewhat, we do still like to discuss where we’ll be in 10 years time. But beyond that, it was these tastings that really instilled a love of wine in me – and shaped my career in the wine industry since then. It was heart-warming to see so much interest and enthusiasm from the students I talked to last week. With questions ranging from food matches, alcohol levels and soil types to debates on screwcaps vs cork and the potential effects of minimum unit pricing, there was clearly a huge willingness to learn about the whole subject of wine, as well as enjoying tasting the wines. As for the wines themselves, well we showed quite a range over the tastings at the five universities I visited including all of the main grape varieties and the main regions and surprisingly the top wine overall was voted to be a Riesling from Great Southern in Western Australia – Ad Hoc by Larry Cherubino. Surprising, as Riesling tends to be a grape variety that we in the wine trade love – but the general public don’t seem to have quite caught onto.
And that probably nicely sums up why I would encourage everyone with even the slightest interest in wine to join a wine society – at university or otherwise – and go along to wine tastings. Or even just to invite some likeminded friends over, open a few bottles and chat about the wines. For that is the best way to learn, to discover new wines and see for yourself what you like to drink. And that’s really what it’s all about. Setting the world to rights at the same time with a few friends is just a happy consequence.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

February and March are mercilessly the busiest months in the UK wine trade’s diary. I say mercilessly as whenever you think you can take a deep breath and let it out slowly, you gasp and choke instead. Because hey, there’s ANOTHER tasting to organise or go to. Some tastings are more fun than others. The ones that involve Spaniards are, in my book, the best. With them come associated food, laughter and that elevated state of mind called ‘being pissed’.

I’ve been fortunate enough to exchange laughs and several glasses of posh booze with Spain’s two arguably top estates. Last week saw the arrival of Los Dos Palacios, namely Alvaro and his nephew Ricardo, who have properties in three regions of Spain: Rioja, Priorat and Bierzo. They were in London to show us their 2012s and boy, were they good. Ricardo is the hippie, biodynamic winemaker in Bierzo. I am a little in love with Bierzo, it’s one of those regions that, when you go there, makes you go ‘OMG!’ if you’re American, ‘Strewth!’ if you’re Aussie or ‘Oh my!’ if you’re English. I am none of those so I had a ‘Wowza!’ moment instead. I’ve been to Bierzo a few times, I’ve worked vintage there (I nearly said I made wine there but one should not be so presumptuous, I am not a winemaker after all!) and made vegetable juice. People often say that a wine should reflect the place where it comes from. The Mencias from Palacios really do. Bierzo is wild, untamed, real, earthy and smells wonderful – of wild herbs: thyme and lavender. And so do the wines.  They are ethereal, perfumed and earthy. Kinda amazeballs, really. You need to get some. Seriously. Right now. I’ve put myself down for a case of 2012 Las Lamas (tiny 1.7 ha vineyard on a ridiculously steep slope). I’ll have to wait a year or so to get my hands on it so I shall have to exercise patience, something I have never had much of.
Now, the second outstanding producer I have been hanging out with this week is Vega Sicilia from Ribera del Duero. THE most famous winery in Spain. And deservedly so for their wines are also amazeballs. If I were really mean I’d tell you a lot about the 26 vintage vertical tasting of their top wine, Unico, I organised last summer but that would be really, really mean. Even for me. Sadly we did not taste (drink) 26 vintages of Unico but rather we launched the 2003 vintage as well as 2008 Valbuena, 2009 Alion and 2009 Pintia (Toro). Now, you really wouldn’t be using such words as ‘elegant’ or ‘fresh’ with regards to wines from the hot 2003 vintage. So I was quite surprised my notes said exactly that. I was reminded by Javier, the winemaker that Spain is kind of a warm country anyway so in a vintage like 2003 the temperatures went up by 1-2 degrees, not much more. The wine had vibrant acidity! Yay! I love acid. Of the vinous kind, anyway. I was also mightily impressed by the new release of Pintia from Toro. This is by far the most elegant, perfumed, supple Pintia with rather fine grained tannins. Yawn, wine-speak. I know, I know. I should mention the excellently fat lunch that followed this particular tasting where we couldn’t find a decanter big enough to pour a jeroboam of 1990 Unico into but that would also be slightly mean.
I’m getting boring now, I know. So I shall stop, I don’t want to turn into Sauvignon Blanc! Those who know me will understand this reference. As for the rest of you, well ‘Savvy’ deserves a post of its own so watch this space!
Lenka (The Evil Monkey)

A fine cup of tea

Have you ever had one of those eureka moments when suddenly something just makes sense, a light switches on and – ah hah – you’ve got it! Well that happened to me a few weeks ago when I was contemplating tea. Well, we can’t drink wine all of the time after all. Now, I came to tea quite late in life – for many years coffee was my hot drink of choice (actually still is most of the time). It took me a while to appreciate the flavour and bitter tannin of tea. I know, rather surprising from a wine lover when I drink tannic red wine quite regularly, but somehow that is different. I am still amazed by people who drink tea black – milk is definitely key from my point of view to give a sweeter taste and less tannin. And that is when it struck me: adding milk actually changes the structure of the tea and removes some of the tannins – leaving those gritty bits at the bottom of your mug. And this is where the link to wine is – when making red wine winemakers will often ‘fine’ the wine to soften it and remove some of those bitter tannins. And one of the ways to do that is to add milk. It’s not often that my geeky wine knowledge can have some practical aspects outside of wine so I was pretty pleased with myself when I made this connection.
Now, please don’t get confused and think the next bottle of red wine you drink may contain milk. We’re not talking cheap ‘beef’ that has been mixed with horse meat in order to cut costs. In fact the process of fining removes the milk protein from the wine – the positively charged milk protein binds to the negatively charged tannins and together they settle out of the wine. Rather like those bitter, gritty bits you find at the bottom of your mug of tea. All the winemaker then has to do is remove the wine from the sediment (or in winemaking terms rack it) and – hey presto – you have smoother wine that is ready for drinking.
So there you go, geeky winemaking knowledge as applied to a cup of tea. As to whether milk  should be added to the cup before or after the tea, well that’s entirely up to you.
Right, time to put the kettle on…..