Monthly Archives: April 2013

Riesling: to drink, or not to drink?

Riesling: to drink or not to drink?

You might think that the wine trade is all about selling wine. Simples, right? Then how come we in the trade can talk until we’re blue in the face about certain wine styles but consumers just don’t seem to get them?

This disconnect came up recently at a frankly fantastic Riesling masterclass I was at in Australia in the Clare Valley, hosted by Kevin Mitchell of Kilikanoon and Jeffrey Grosset of his eponymous winery. (And apologies as I know we monkeys have been posting rather a lot about our fabulous travels lately. If it makes you feel better our exams are now looming imminently and we are fast turning from the calm carefree monkeys of our travels to little stressball monkeys who are tearing their fur out with the amount of study ahead of us). But, I digress – onto the Riesling. We were lucky enough to be presented with a flight of 2012 Rieslings and then a flight of the same wines from older vintages back to 2003. As a whole the wines were superb. The 2012s were taut, citrus dominated wines with floral blossom notes adding prettiness. The older wines had developed some of those classic aged Riesling toastiness and honey notes along with stony minerality. All were bone dry with sharp-as-a-knife acidity.


Fast forward to the end of the tasting and a discussion about why consumers don’t seem to appreciate these wines. For as much as we were all bowled over by the precision, length and elegance of the wines, Riesling just doesn’t seem to be something that is on many consumers radar. And this is no recent phenomenon. For years there have been rumours among the trade of Riesling being The Next Big Thing, but it just hasn’t happened. First there was Marlborough Sauvignon, then Pinot Grigio and now it looks to be the turn of Moscato. And yet, on the face of it, Riesling isn’t so dissimilar from either Sauvignon or Moscato. It is another aromatic white grape, made in a fruity unoaked style – crisp and refreshing.
So, what is holding it back? Well, for a long time Germany and Liebfraumilch was blamed and the trade assumed consumers didn’t like Riesling as they thought it would be sweet. Well, a) I’m not sure that’s a valid argument anymore as those wines had their heyday at the end of the last century and I doubt consumers today remember them, and b) it turns out consumers actually quite like wines with a bit of sweetness. Most commercial Sauvignons will have a few grams of residual sugar to balance that zesty acidity and Moscato is made in an unashamedly sweet style. Personally I think it’s a simple case of price. The average bottle price in the UK is just over £5 a bottle. From a small bit of research, I can tell you at the time of writing Tesco currently sell at less than £6 a bottle 11 Pinot Grigios, 12 Sauvignon Blancs and a mere 1 Riesling. Ok, not the most scientific study ever but I suspect further analysis would help prove with my point: Riesling just isn’t that cheap. Now, whether that is consumer-driven or due to vineyard/winery factors is an entirely different (potentially quite interesting) matter.
Where does this leave Clare Valley Riesling? Well, interestingly, many of the winemakers have cottoned onto the fact that consumers like a bit of sweetness in their wines – and so there has been a recent emergence of new off-dry styles. These wines use a touch of residual sugar to balance that searing acidity, giving a softer – dare I say it? – more consumer-friendly wine. And talking to Jeffrey Grosset over dinner that evening I was left in no doubt that he sees big potential for this new style of Australian Riesling.
I’m not sure if Riesling will ever be the next big thing, but I’m also not sure that’s really a problem. For those of us who have discovered the variety and fallen in love with it, it is perhaps enough to enjoy the wines, share them with like-minded friends – and merely raise an eyebrow to those consumers who would rather be drinking Sauvignon Blanc. But that’s another story evil monkey will doubtless touch on in the future.

Barossa – the winds of change are blowing

Barossa Shiraz has a reputation for being the hairy armed Neanderthal of the wine world.  Driving into the parched valley; yellow grasses paying testament to the heat of the summer, it is easy to understand how it got this reputation.  However 3 days in this beautiful valley opened my eyes to the unique patch of dirt that these farmers have the fortune of working with.

There is a timelessness to this valley, a feeling of ancient power that radiates from those red soils that makes one acutely aware of how brief our history on this land has been.  It has highlighted our role of caretaker rather than owner in such a way that it has seen a distinct movement among the producers of the region.  Gone are the days of high volume fruit bombs reflecting nothing but a kowtow to profit, they have been replaced by a commitment to the earth and the history of the soil.  It has seen both the establishment of the Barossa Grounds Project, a vast undertaking not only mapping the huge diversity of the soils, but analyzing the impact of these soil types on the wine aromatics and structure.  This goes hand in hand with the Barossa Old Vine Charter, a record and protection for the old un-grafted vines of the region which range from the original vines brought from the Hill of Hermitage in the Rhone to 35 year old vines which are cuttings of these historic monuments and grown on their own roots.
The wines we tasted were a mirror providing a unique window into the soil through the gnarled roots of the hallowed old vines which have spent 165 years stretching deep into the world’s most ancient soil.  The ethereal perfume emanating from the ruby and garnet depths intrigued and excited the senses while the palate was a textural master piece of dark smoky perfume and intense minerality.  Fresh yet powerful, supple yet structured these wines showed soul and personality and the promise of longevity.  Shiraz is of course what we all associate with the Barossa and it is indeed something they do with aplomb, but overlook Grenache at your peril.  The Grenache and Grenache based blends were for me some of the most exciting and perfumed wines of the many that we tasted.  The fine boned Rieslings from the high hills of the Eden Valley were another beautiful encounter as they danced along the tongue and sent goosebumps up the spine. Perched up in the Steingarten Riesling vineyards with breath taking views down into the Barossa Valley, the cool breeze lifting your hair and the slopes in shadow, protected from the afternoon sun it was clear how the wines retained such beautiful aromatics and fresh acidity.
Though there are still a handful of bruisers clinging on to their Parkeresque past, the fact that these movements are still in their infancy promises the dawn of a bright new era for the Barossa Valley.  Pioneered by a dedicated group of intelligent and passionate men and women who are working to make a future that both protects their past and gives birth to a new style of fresh and perfumed wines.  The winds of change have started to blow.

Of Jedis and dentures – An ode to the 2010 vintage

Just like George Orwell wrote about 1984, I shall be writing about 2010. I will admit to liking a bit of dark dystopia so it may come as a surprise to those who know me that this post will be more of a utopian, technicoloured ode to a vintage that has so far, undeniably, been the highlight of the 21st century. This is not a bold statement, this is the truth.

I love 2010, both from a wine and a personal perspective. It was the year I met my soon to be hubby. It was also the year I went to the Burning Man festival in the USA, by far the best time I’ve ever had, running around in neon. I remember driving down Highway 1 en route to Santa Barbara wine country early September and wondering who teleported me to Scotland. It was foggy and cold. Californian winemakers were shaking their heads, predicting a terrible vintage. Terrible perhaps to the American palate, accustomed as it is to ripe, rich, extracted wines. What 2010 gave them is elegance, poise, bright fruit and wonderful natural acidity – a ‘European’ vintage. Having tried 2010 Monte Bello recently, it’s the dog’s bollocks. I am very happy to have an argument about it!

2010 was awesome almost everywhere , we are seeing more of this sort of uniformity with global warming. I’m talking very generally here but 2010 is characterised by vibrant, racy and salivating acidity. It cuts across your tongue like a lighsaber. It’s the Yoda of vintages. It has depth, concentration and surprising agility. I’ll tell you though, it wears no capes! In Germany, it is talked of as a freak vintage. Not in a Jar-Jar Binks kinda way, more in a ‘I am your father!’ sort of sense. When you taste 2010 German Rieslings, something happens to you. It’s a magical moment. It’s hard to put it into simple words, it’s like poetry. It goes something like this:


Close your eyes and take a breath

Fill your nostrils with the scent of autumn, summer and spring

And a sense of wonder fills your head

The flower beds, the fruit garden – it’s just your thing!


And take a sip, ever so slowly

A sword of steel dances on your tongue

But the lights, the colours, oh so lovely

This ain’t no ordinary gunk.


The journey is an odyssey, full of adventures

Where ancient gods are defied by queens and kings

The acid so high, you may end up with dentures

The finish so long, like Lord of the Rings.


Much like German Riesling, Burgundy and Northern Rhone inspire similar poetic moments. I was drinking a 2010 St Joseph from Vernay just last night and waxing lyrical about its beguiling perfume, structured tannins and lifted red fruit. Eye-wettingly beautiful, like looking at a picture of Thor. Ahem. Don’t get me started on Burgundy, we may be here for a while. If I cared much for Bordeaux, I’d be pinching myself, too. In the end, 2010 is a historic vintage. Anybody in their right mind should be filling their cellar with it. There were some reduced yields (a mercifully small crop of NZ Savvy, god did like me that year) and given the quality, these wines won’t be around forever. Buy, buy, buy but don’t drink just yet. Put away for a while. Though some of the ‘lesser’ Northern Rhones are oh so scrumptious now, especially St Joseph.

Right, blogging is a thirsty business. Sadly I am having a much needed dry day so shall postpone enjoyment of yet another 2010 for another day. But don’t let me stop you!

Lenka (The Evil Monkey)





Riesling and other lovely things

Having visited ProWein (the largest wine fair in Europe) last year and enjoyed it immensely and because you shouldn’t fix what ain’t broken, I decided to go again, though this time with my other half. I took things a little easier this time round, I have plenty of MW study examples and it’s a challenge to remember them all so I was certainly not looking to add to them. So, apart from a few interesting meetings and chats, I mainly concentrated on tasting. A couple of things I’d like to mention in particular. I can never resist making new discoveries in Spain, given that it’s one of my favourite countries. Amongst the most interesting discoveries were thewines from Castell d’Encus in the Costes del Segre, north-eastern Spain. The reds, including a Pinot Noir, Bordeaux blend and Syrah, are fermented outside in natural silica rock. I have never heard of anyone doing this before. Naturally, they are biodynamic, too. They have a chalky texture to them and are sweetly fruited but with fresh acidity, a trademark of biodynamy.

Feeling a little patriotic, I also tasted a range of Czech wines and attended a ‘masterclass’. It wasn’t great, I have to say. The speaker, whilst his English was ok, was sharing his incredibly boring tasting notes with everybody else, instead of talking about the varieties and regions and what it is that should excite us about an up-and-coming wine producing country that Czech Republic undoubtedly is. The wines shown were a mixture of crosses (like Malverina, Laurot, Palava and Neronet) instead of showing wines made from the noble varieties that actually produce decent wines. It’s such a missed opportunity. Sadly, some of these crosses are very popular domestically. They will never work internationally. Having tasted some really delicious Czech Rieslings, Gruners and Pinot Noirs, this is what I would suggest to the wine marketing body to show the world.

No ProWein trip is complete without a pork knuckle or two, several beers and German Riesling. I was mostly hanging out with the lovely types from Wine Australia so evenings were good fun. We found a lovely little wine bar in the back streets of the Altstadt, I’ll have to remember it for next time! I was very tempted to steal some fancy glassware there, I have to admit!

ProWein was followed by a trip to the Mosel and Rheingau. Quality, rather than quantity was the theme. I’ve grown tired of visiting too many wineries in one day. One can never fully appreciate what a producer is trying to do after spending an hour with them. So I selected a few producers that I really wanted to spend some time with. My favourite German is by far Reinhard Lowenstein from Heymann-Lowenstein. His wines are ethereal and other-wordly and he is possibly the nicest winemaker I have ever met. There is a sense of zen about everything he does. His winery, located in the extreme north of the Mosel, the Terrassen-Mosel, is designed according to feng-shui principles and is the most pleasant smelling, positively energised underground cellar I’ve been to. The wines reflect the character of the winemaker. Bottled by soil type (7 different types of slate), they have a rounded acidity and gentle minerality. They dance on the palate, it’s not flamenco, it’s ballet – precise and emotional. I won’t go into so much detail about the other visits, though they were marvellous. It was a privilege to taste Willi Schaefer’s portfolio of wines. These wines are extremely hard to find so I’m glad we’ve managed to grab a few bottles of the 2011 vintage from Bordeaux Index!

Mosel was followed by a short but enjoyable visit to the Rheingau, the slightly less pretty but equally prestigious region. Tasting the 2012s from rising star Eva Fricke were a highlight. It was also interesting to visit the sleek operation that is Robert Weil and taste through their entire range. Rather impressive set-up, I have never seen a winery like that. There is definitely money there! There’s also quality, luckily. Well, I think this will have to do on Germany. Next topic will certainly be Italy, as that’s where I’m off to now!


Semillon and Oysters in the Hunter Valley

‘Tonight is our night in the Hunter Valley’…fa la la la la

I am going to be honest, the bar was pretty low as far as my expectations went for Hunter, especially having heard rumours of it being an unattractive and damp mining town. We arrived in the rain and dark after the supposed 3 hour drive from Orange actually took our delightful but geriatric driver (and bus for that matter) Frank the Tank nearly 7 hours. I was in for one hell of a surprise when I woke up. I found myself in a gorgeous colonial styled hotel in the middle of beautiful green rolling hills leading up the edge of the Brokenback Range.

We were picked up in the morning by the force of nature that is Bruce ‘Bruiser’ Tyrell, the equally engaging Simon Steele from Brokenwood and Greg Westwood from McWilliams sporting facial hair that would make the movember men quiver with jealousy. We were driven up to the top of the Brokenback Ridge and poured a glass of Semillon as we paused to soak up the stunning views across the valley from our 600m high perch, as the oysters were passed around. It was spectacular, the cool breeze of altitude and the early morning sun perfectly matched the pure crystalline lime and lemongrass spiced Semillon that was happily swirling round my mouth. In a fit of extreme bravery I was talked into trying an oyster… I must learn to trust my gut instinct more, it was utterly disgusting and the consistency of snot. Luckily the Semillon was flowing like water and helped me regain my zen.

Forced from our vantage point by virtue of the fact that the bottles were empty we descended in to the Hunter Valley for a whirlwind vineyard tour. Understanding the nuances of soil, its impact on vine growth and how that translated into the wine quality could not have been better illustrated than by standing in the vineyard under an autumnal blue sky talking to the winemakers so lit up with passion that it was impossible not to be infected by it, sipping the product of their endeavours. In this fashion we visited McWilliams, Brockenwood’s Graveyard vineyard and Tyrrell’s 4 acre vineyard (which in true auzzie fashion is 1.7acres)

Following this we settled down to a Semillon masterclass, a Chardonnay masterclass and a shiraz masterclass. These were brilliantly presented tastings. 3 varietal wines from different producers and 3 wines of the same wine from different vintages. It was a brilliant way to explore vintage, regionality and varietal expression. And of course that we were presented verticals of Vat 1 and Brokenwood made it all the more sweet! Hats off boys.

The quality of the wines were exceptional and despite what the winemakers fondly call the Hunter Paradox – that humidity and poor weather often produces their finest wines – there was a thrilling sense of place, exuberance of fruit and a linear fresh mineral driven spice and refreshingly low alcohols in both the red and the white wines that made them a joy to drink in their youth. It was the ethereal magic that the wines gained with age however that really sealed the deal for me.

To cap off what had been a pretty unbeatable day we were hosted at the lovely Cellar restaurant by Bruiser and the boys. Dinner was delicious and the wines we were presented with took some beating so we took it upon ourselves to make our vote of thanks at the end of the evening a little more in keeping with the energy of the day. During the day, led by the indomitable Roger Jones of Harrow on Little Bedwyn we had rearranged the lyrics of ‘Is this the way to Amorillo’ to reflect our adventures in the Hunter. On screening the group for any musical talent we made the surprise discovery that Michael Buriak, long time lecturer at the WSET was in fact in a Ukranian dance troop. The combination of our enthusiastic lyrics, hearty singing and Ukranian dancing quite literally brought the roof down and brought to a close a memorable day in the Hunter.
Alex (Monkeyspaz)

The future’s bright, the future’s Orange

Orange is a region that is full of contradictions: called Orange it is of course famous for its cherries, an aussie wine region but cool climate. Now you would be forgiven for being sceptical when linking the words cool and Australia. Indeed we have all heard that term banded around hopefully by various new world wine regions, and I think the majority of us Europeans have concluded that our definition of cool is fundamentally different. Orange however, I can testify with goosebumps on my arms is distinctly cool climate. It is the only GI that is defined by altitude and ranges from 600m above sea level to 1100m and that, my friends, gives them snow in the winter, long sunshine hours, moderated temperature and blessedly cold nights – the perfect recipe for premium wines.

Beyond these idyllic conditions what really stood out about the Orange wine growing community was the excitement and sense of frontier adventure that permeated the air. It is a young producing region, the old hands have been going for a mere 25 years, and as such they are masters of their own destiny, unfettered by history and free to define their style as they see fit. They have all the latest technology at their fingertips as far as soil mapping, clonal research and training methods go, not to mention many vintages under their belt making wine across the world. This combined with the obvious passion and excitement for their own wines, and the wines of their neighbours promises a very exciting future.

We had the pleasure of tasting wines from Logan, Philip Shaw, Cumulus, Brangayne, Borrodell, De Salis, Ross Hill, Faisan and Highland Heritage. There was a distinct fingerprint that made these wines uniquely Orange: elegance, freshness, subtlety, fine boned structure and lingering nervy finish combined with depth and vitality defined both whites and reds making them invigorating and memorable to taste. And yet each wine was beautifully reflective of the winemaker, their personalities as distinct and likable as each of their creators. The region is just on the start of their march to greatness and it is a journey I will be following with great interest.

The future is bright, the future is definitely Orange.