Monthly Archives: September 2013

The magic of old vines – one for the geeks

I was lucky enough to attend an Old Vine Seminar put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine last week. It was interesting on many levels, the speakers were engaging and the 13 wines spoke volumes about the sort of complexity and intensity that one can expect from old vines. The moderator, Nancy Gilchrist MW, set criteria for inclusion as being wines made from vines 80 years of age or older.  The speakers were from South Africa, Spain, California and Australia and so (with the exception of a Greek Assyrtiko) were the wines.

So, what is it about old vines that makes them produce such high quality wine? According to Rosa Kruger, viticulturist from South Africa, it is their structure rather than their root system (the thick stems and wood provide apt reserves to keep them going) and the fact that the vines produce only the amount of grapes the climate allows them to. Old vines are generally better at preserving acidity and don’t rely on irrigation much, therefore are able to thrive in dry climates such as we can see in the Barossa in Australia. Their leaves don’t wilt as easily, which is better for photosynthesis and the vines stay fresher and greener and also build more disease resistance. Although how disease resistant a vine is depends very much on the variety, also. Australian winemaker Dean Hewitson has a great example of this – his 160 year old Mourvedre is thriving in his Old Garden vineyard whilst neighbouring Shiraz vines of a similar age suffer from eutypa dieback and botrytis.

There is no doubt that old vines are capable of producing serious, dense, mineral wines but, to be honest, the budding MW in me was looking for a counterargument. It never came. The seminar was an ode to old vines. And whilst this is completely on my wavelength and I definitely worship at the altar of old vines, I can’t help but mention some examples of where ‘quality equals old vines’ does not compute. There aren’t many, but some high profile producers have differing opinions. Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most famous winery, famously rip out and replant vines once they’ve reached 60 years. This is because these older vines become more susceptible to disease and produce bad fruit. Equally, the average age of vines that comprise Chateau Lafite is 45 years. Considered a baby by Barossa standards. Much like Vega, Lafite replant vines once they’ve reached 80 years, for similar reasons.  Some of the greatest and most famous wines ever produced were made from young vines. Take the example of the famous 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet which won the Judgement of Paris tasting 1976 and put Californian wine on the map. It was made from 3 year old vines. And, from what I am told, it is still going strong.  I haven’t tried it though we do have the ‘74 in our cellar, which I look forward to trying soon!

Here are some interesting notes and observations I made, some you may know and some you may not:

          The oldest vineyard in the world is in Maribor, Slovenia and the vines are 400 years old

          The oldest vine still living in South Africa was planted in 1781 and produces 20 litres of wine

          Old vines don’t necessarily mean low yields – there are 80 year old Sultana vines in South Africa that yield 40 000 tonnes/hectare

          Old vines don’t respond well to shoot thinning and green harvest so this is often not necessary

          Spain, which has the highest amount of old vine Garnacha in the world, has gone from

189 000 ha in 2000 to 69 000 ha now, thanks to the EU vineyard grub up schemes.

In 1912 there were 44 varieties grown in Rioja, now there are only 7.

The wines shown at the seminar were:

1.       Assyrtiko de Mylos, Domaine Hatzidakis, Santorini 2011 (here the vines are woven into a basket to protect them from the fierce winds). I prefer the 2012 vintage of this wine, sampled recently at Vinoteca with my fellow monkeys, but I do love its saline, nutty, volcanic goodness and chalky texture.

2.       Soldaat Grenache, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (100% whole bunch, completely unoaked and made without additions aside from a small amount of SO2). Very elegant and restrained wine with lovely red fruit expression.

3.       T’Voetpad Field Blend white, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (Semillon, Semillon Gris, Palomino and Chenin, 108 year vineyard). This blew my mind with its aromatic, mineral and chalkboard nose and beautiful juicy mouthfeel with a touch of maltiness and a cantaloupe melon and waxy finish.

4.       Boekenhoutskloof, Marc Kent Semillon, South Africa 2004 This was quite evolved already with butterscotch and nuts, though still had the waxy lemon and lanolin texture. Probably my least favourite wine though.

5.       El Puno Garnacha, Calatayud, Spain 2009 Made by the flying Scotsman and one of the speakers, Norrel Robertson MW, I liked its sweet spice and strawberry scented fruit, fresh acidity and granular tannins and the anise finish.

6.       Pena El Gato Garnacha, Rioja Alta, Spain 2011 (14 m in large oak) This was cedary and savoury in the mount with a bitter chocolate tone and some fennel on the finish. Food wine for sure.

7.       Flor de Silos, Cillar de Silos, Ribera del Duero, Spain 2005 I am biased as I did vintage here in 2011 but this is made by lovely people and it’s ridiculously complex and young still. There is very little evolution here showing this has miles ahead of it with its finely grained tannins and fresh ,plummy fruit.

8.       Numanthia, Toro, Spain 2009 (recently bought by LVMH) This wasn’t my bag, big with with a dried fruit character, liquorice and a lot of oak evident. Concentrated though very ripe with a fig and date character and high alcohol.

9.       Old Hill Zinfandel, Ravenswood, California 2008 Pleasure in a bottle. Not ashamed of itself and we all loved it for it. Quintessentially American flavours with cherry cola notes , sweet liquorice but this beautiful raspberry chocolate note that carried through to the finish and gave it freshness.

      To Kalon I Block Napa Fume Blanc, Robert Mondavi, California 2010 For someone, who doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc unless it’s oaked, this was a delight with its lemon butter and passion fruit cream flavours  with a little vanilla and subtle grassy overtones.

11.   Elderton Command Shiraz, Barossa, Australia 2009 Made by the lovely people from the Ashmead family from vines planted in 1894. This has vibrant acidity and a spicy, peppery profile with blackberry juice flavours and the sweetness of American oak.

12.   Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre, Barossa, Australia 2010 Best vintage of Old Garden I have tasted to date and it’s the vintage we have this to thank for. This is normally very  intense and black-fruited but the 2010 has beautiful, seductive perfume and a red fruit profile with a touch of Chinese five spice.  Gotta put some away!

 Lenka (Evil Monkey)

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Exploring Yarra Valley Chardonnay

My first impressions of the Yarra Valley were of lush greenness and rolling hills. Think of the Shire and you won’t be far off. I wasn’t quite prepared for how pretty it is with the larger mountains surrounding, the regimented vineyards on the lower slopes and cows and sheep grazing in the fields of the plains. But we weren’t here for the view, pretty as it is, but for the wines.

Yarra is renowned for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but in the last 5 or so years these wines have both gone through some stylistic changes – with Chardonnay winemakers flirting with (or in some cases having a full-on affair with) reductive aromas and Pinot Noir makers experimenting with whole bunch winemaking. The issue of reductive flavours in Chardonnay particularly cropped up throughout our tastings and created lots of interesting debate both between winemakers and between my guests.

As any high school chemistry student will tell you, reduction is the opposite of oxidation. In chemical terms reduction occurs when a molecule, atom or ion gains an electron – and is always balanced by the opposite reaction: oxidation, which is the loss of an electron.

Whilst this is also true of wine, in wine tasting terms these words are used to describe a certain variety of flavours. In the case of reduction, at the lesser end of the scale aromas such as flinty or matchstick are called reductive – I also often detect this by a slight prickle at the back of the nose. Or to put it the Aussie way, as quoted by Tim, the winemaker from Giant Steps: “it’s like smelling your own farts and that slight pleasure you get from that”!

This then runs the whole gamut through to full-on reduction with really quite stinky rotten egg and cooked cabbage notes: a faulty wine. The level at which a reductive wine (showing these matchstick characters but them adding complexity and not dominating the wine) becomes a reduced wine (where these characters dominate and render the wine unappealing) is a completely personal one, hence the amount of heated debate that arose.

Until just a few years ago Chardonnay winemaking in the Yarra proceeded much as in the rest of Australia, and indeed in much of the rest of the world. The cool climate gave the bright acidity but the style was geared towards the soft peachy fruit character of the region. In no way the big, blowsy Chardonnay of yester-year, but also quite different to the more linear style of today. It now seems unclear where the trend towards more reductive styles started, but is likely partly due to young winemakers increasingly doing a vintage in Burgundy and being influenced by styles there and also due to the inherent interest in experimentation that Aussie winemakers have.

The end result has been more restrained, mineral wines with dialled-back fruit character, often a more prominent acid backbone and lifted matchstick aromas adding another layer of complexity.

At least, that is the idea. The reality is probably a little more mixed.

For sure there are those wines that get the mix between fruit roundness, acid zest and just a touch of reductive aromas bang on, and these are truly exciting wines and world-class Chardonnays. However, there are also those wines where the reductive notes overwhelm the fruit and edge into the realm of faulty reduction. I found this, perhaps surprisingly, a particular problem at the lower end of the scale for some wineries where the fruit just didn’t have enough concentration to balance the what-seemed-to-be house style of intense reductive aromas.

The other issue that came out of the tastings was with some wines acid-fruit balance where the quest for leanness and restraint seemed to have edged worryingly into hard green acidity rather than zesty lemon acidity. This seemed a particular issue for the cool 2011 vintage. Interestingly, many of these wines hadn’t gone through malolactic fermentation which would have softened this harsh green acidity.

Darren, winemaker at Yering Station, said this was because they get such high malic:tartaric acid ratios in the juice that MLF gives too high diacetyl characters to the wine – adding too high a level of popcorn-style aromas: not something he wants in his wines. However, if you compare this to Chablis which has the same high malic acid issue, those wines routinely go through MLF and do not show these aromas – so I wonder if it is more a case of them not using/having access to the right bacteria to inoculate with to manage diacetyl levels, or just not managing their MLF right. At any rate some of these very lean wines could do with a little more fruit ripeness to balance this firm acidity.

But for all that, tasting these wines really showed what the Yarra Valley is doing with Chardonnay these days. Listening to the winemakers and understanding their desire to keep perfecting their wines, experimenting and creating new styles is exciting and could be easily seen in the Chardonnays we tasted. And as a winemonkey, the best tastings are those that create debate and where some people like some wines and not others and vice versa. Everyone has different palates and so everyone has different preferences and tastes – and discussing these tastes is part of the fun of enjoying wine.

Wines tasted:

Mac Forbes Hoddles Creek 2010

Yering Station Reserve 2010

Yeringberg 2011

De Bortoli Reserve 2011

Punt Road Napoleone Vineyard 2012

Phi 2011

Giant Steps Tarraford Vineyard 2012

Giant Steps Arthur’s Creek Vineyard 2012

Oakridge Over the Shoulder 2012

Oakridge Lusatia Park 2012

Seville Estate 2012

Airlie Bank 2012

Rob Dolan 2012

Yering Station Reserve 2012

Yering Station Reserve 2005

Yarra Yering Chardonnay 2011

Of these, my particular favourites were the mac forbes, De Bortoli Reserve, Giant Steps Arthur’s Creek and Phi (which handily for me are all available in the UK) – but there were certainly people in the group who would argue for other top picks, so my suggestion would be to get out there and grab a bottle to see for yourself.

Emma

Disclaimer: One of the great treats of working for Wine Australia is that every so often I get to lead a trip to Australia taking a group of trade and media around some of the wine regions. Sadly this time I wasn’t able to squirrel along either of my fellow monkeys to join me, so it is solely up to me to coalesce some of my thoughts and feelings for the regions into a readable blog post. So, whilst I am here for my job, this is very much me writing as me and not as a Wine Australia employee.


Is drinking alone sinful or saintly?

Current thinking dictates that drinking on your own is socially frowned upon.  It is obviously the start of a slippery slope to alcoholism and personal degradation. Or is it?   I am going to make a stand, risk becoming a social pariah, and declare that drinking alone is a saintly past time.  I am not talking about drinking special brew out of a brown paper bag when no one is looking, nailing a bottle of vodka a night or not remember making it to bed each night and so before the anti alcohol lobby pitches their tents outside my flat and sharpens their pitchforks let me explain my reasons.

1)      Firstly, when drinking alone I am more likely to open something really good, as at no point is it going to be wasted on someone who isn’t going to appreciate it to the full.

2)      I can completely submerge myself in the wine without being distracted, it is a little like sinking into a hot bath and letting your senses run away with you.

3)      Extensive personal study has proven that I drink considerably less when alone as I savour each sip rather than losing track of the number of glasses that have disappeared between the chatter.

That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy sharing a good bottle of wine with a worthy companion; discussing it’s virtues and chewing the fat, just that it is by no means a prerequisite to vinous enjoyment.  In fact, that feeling of indulgence that comes with opening a bottle of something lovely, just for you, makes it taste that much better.  As Cheryl Cole keeps telling me… it’s because I’m worth it.

And so, although it is not glamorous or sexy to admit that I am currently sitting cross legged on the sofa, on my own with a damn fine glass of Vina Pedrosa Crianza 2006 from Ribera del Duero, the wine couldn’t taste better if it tried.  Bridget Jones be damned, there is a saintly side to solo drinking.

-Alex