Monthly Archives: October 2014

On the Sussex Winery Bus Tour

Last weekend I spent a day in the Sussex countryside touring English wineries. For once, this wasn’t to learn as much as possible to assist with my MW studies – but rather it was simply for the fun of it.

I have to admit to feeling like a bit of an undercover monkey on the tour – there’s no way I am your standard consumer. On the other hand, having not visited very many English wineries before, there was just as much opportunity for me to learn something new as everyone else. So, to quote a colleague, my plan was to “not MW the sh*t out of them” and to just enjoy the day.

The day began and finished in Brighton which did make for a rather early start on a Saturday morning for this Londoner. But happily the combination of a lungful of sea air and a delicious croissant handed to me as I got on the vintage Routemaster bus helped to push away the last remnants of sleep. Onto the wineries!


Our lovely bus for the day

Our first stop was Bolney Wine Estate, just south of Gatwick airport. Their vineyard was first planted in 1972 and they now have 40 acres of vines- putting them in the top 10 vineyards in the country. Enough for more than a few good parties then.

On arrival we were taken on a walk around one of the vineyards and everyone was keen to taste a few of the remaining grapes on the vines. These had either been missed during picking or, in the case of some of the Merlot, deliberately left as the sugars weren’t high enough. It is always a privilege to taste grapes in the vineyard – and so enjoyable at the end of the season when the sugars balance the acidity. You do have to watch out for those pesky pips though – something I think a few of our group weren’t expecting.

I was surprised by how high trained the vines were – well over a metre. This was explained to us as a combination of keeping the buds above frost level, helping to stress the plants – and so produce better quality fruit – and also to prevent wild roe deer from eating the grapes.


Bolney vineyard

So after talking to us about the vineyard and harvesting the grapes it was into the winery to see where the magic happens. Which immediately brought a smile to my face with that very particular smell of fermenting wine and slight rasp of carbon dioxide. A winery in action. All of the grapes had been picked, with harvest finishing a few days before – and so ferment was in full swing.

And then onto the part we had all been waiting for, the tasting. We were treated to 3 wines and then another two with lunch. First up was the Blanc de Blancs 2009 – and the only sparkling wine of the flight. A very delicate, elegant sparkling with just a hint of biscuity autolysis. The perfect aperitif. The rosé was another highlight, a blend of Rondo, Dornfelder and Pinot Noir. Salmon pink in colour, off-dry and full of pretty red fruit flavours. The star of the tasting for most of the group and I reckon it would be a lovely wine to have with a picnic on the beach in the summer.


After a rather delicious lunch in Bolney’s cafe we were back onto the bus and off to Court Garden – a winery I hadn’t come across before.

Family owned and run, Court Garden is a much younger winery than Bolney – their first vineyard was planted in 2005. It is also much smaller at only 12 acres and so made a fascinating comparison. Howard, the owner, first took us on a walk around the vineyards – with the tip “You’ll get the idea we’re a bit nutty here”. He then proceeded to regale us with tales of the Germans who planted the vines and their very accurate GPS systems, a guy called Rambo who they brought in to ‘remove’ the deer and a pheromone trap for light brown apple moth that is labelled on the outside “so they know where to go”. Nutty, maybe, but hugely engaging. Incidentally, Rambo let slip that apparently deer don’t like sheep – so now they keep sheep in the field between the vineyard and a nearby wood in spring to prevent the deer from eating the young buds. Although I rather got the impression Howard missed having fresh venison in his freezer..!


Autumn colours at Court Garden

Hugo, Howard’s son, then showed us around the small but perfectly formed winery where the gyropallets were helpfully in the process of turning – allowing for easy explanation of the process of riddling. Court Garden mostly produce sparkling wine with only a tiny amount of still, and so this was the perfect place for everyone to learn about how sparkling wine is made.

A tasting of their four sparkling wines followed: the Classic Cuvée (50% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir, 24% Pinot Meunier), Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé. Again it was the Blanc de Blancs that really stood out for me – this one was elegant with a slight minerality along with the biscuity notes. Around the table opinion was mixed between all of the wines, with the Blanc de Blancs and Rosé probably earning the most votes.


By this time everyone was chatting and getting on well – amazing what a few tastes of wine will do! It was a lovely setting there in the old barn at Court Garden discussing the wines and making new friends. A timely reminder that it can be all to easy to drily analyse wine without really experiencing it. And that a good glass of wine can create conversation and bring people together.

There was a definite air of excitement on leaving Court Garden – both of surprise and delight in the quality of English wines, and appreciation for the genuine people who make them. Bravo Bolney and Court Garden, you made some new fans for sure.


I was on the last trip of the Sussex Winery Bus Tour for 2014 – but there are already 25 trips planned for next year. I would highly recommend the day as a fun, educational outing – and maybe the perfect Christmas present for wine lovers out there. For more information –

Riedel Glass Tasting

I recently attended a glass tasting organised by famous Austrian glass manufacturer, Riedel, hosted by Georg Riedel. I had never been to one before so was quite intrigued to see what it’s all about. I do like experimenting with glassware and have often found that wine tastes different in different types of vessel. Back in the days when I studied for the WSET diploma, we were forced to blind taste wine out of tiny ISO glasses. I have always hated those as I find they mute the potential of a wine. Recently I have become a fan of Zalto, much like many of my peers in the wine trade. The thin glass, elegant shape and the subtle way the liquid enters your mouth really does make for a superior drinking experience. So I was looking forward to discovering what Riedel had in store for us.

We were treated to a preview of 3 new wine glasses from the ‘Veritas’ range aimed at particular styles of wine and also sampled the new Riedel coke glass.
The 3 Veritas glasses were: New world Pinot Glass (1), Old World Syrah (2) and New World Cabernet (3).

photo 1

The tasting began with water.  I know! I was hoping the water would turn into wine once poured into the glasses but to my disappointment they do not possess magical powers (just as well, that would be a rather dangerous prospect). The water was there to illustrate the way liquid enters your mouth from different types of glass. The flow of water from the New World Pinot glass, which has a slightly curved top, was towards the front of the mouth. The Syrah glass has a much smaller opening at the top, which forces you to tilt your head back and thereby allowing the liquid to flow further back into the mouth. The New World Cabernet glass is wide at the top and allows the liquid to glide across the mid-palate. Ok, got it. So far so good, we were all nodding our heads in agreement.

Next, we were going to taste wine, finally! First up, a Central Otago Pinot Noir from New Zealand.  It certainly showed the best tasted out of the glass it was intended to be served in (1). Glass 1 showed the wine’s balance and soft tannin but also accentuated its sweet red fruit. Glass 2, on the other hand, showed more earthy, spicy characters and darker fruit. We were told by Georg Riedel that the Pinot taste from glass 2 should be more salty. Well of course it was, after he’d said that! I am not convinced how objective a tasting is when you’re being told what to taste! I noted that the wine tasted more Syrah-like, diminishing the Pinot’s prettiness. Glass 3 performed poorest, making the Pinot taste alcoholic and acidic. New world Pinot our of a New World Pinot glass = easy marks!

On our table, next to the glasses, was a collection of chocolates which were apparently going to be a perfect match with each wine. Mr. Riedel was convinced that the white chocolate with vanilla was a perfect match with the Pinot. Personally I don’t think white chocolate goes with any wine, no matter how hard you try. I could not get its taste out of my mouth and it really killed the wine for me. Just did not work.

Next wine was a Crozes Hermitage from Guigal. Tasted out of glass 3, it was dull with top heavy oak and more frontal flavours. Tasted from glass 1, it showed more fruit but also more acid, which skewered the balance. Glass 2 was, predictably, the best glass for it, showing black fruit, spice and pepper, all hallmarks of a classic Northern Rhone Syrah. This wine was paired with dark chilli chocolate. Again, I did not think this pairing worked. The chocolaty character is often more pronounced in New World Syrah, which I think would be a more appropriate match.

Lastly, we tasted a rather good Napa Valley Cabernet from Silver Oak. Tasted from glass 1, the wine showed everything, oak, acid, alcohol, tannins….lots of tannins. The wine looked showy and overworked. Glass 2 brought flavours of chocolate but more of an alcohol burn. Again the most appropriate glass, 3, worked the best. The open top allowed the more volatile notes to escape, showing a balanced if rich wine. This Cabernet was paired with plain dark chocolate….and it worked! Rich, chocolaty wine + chocolate = bingo. What I’ve been thinking all along.

photo 2

Last but not least we were treated to a Coca Cola tasting. This was quite entertaining. Firstly we poured some coke into a plastic cup. The bubbles clearly stuck to the side of the cup though the wine actually tasted less bubbly. Next, we poured it into the new thin Riedel Coke glass. No bubbles sticking to the side of the glass but more fizz in the mouth! Well there you go, if you see bubbles sticking to a glass, it means you may be losing out on the fizzy sensation in your mouth. I have learned something new!

After the masterclass, Riedel very generously allowed us to take the glasses home. I have since given the New World Pinot glass another trial. Last weekend I opened a rather lovely bottle of 2009 Morey-St-Denis from Domaine Dujac. Given the ripeness of the 2009 vintage I thought the wine could stand up to the glass. But just to be sure, I also tried it from a standard Riedel Burgundy glass and a Zalto Bordeaux glass.  The round Burgundy glass gave the best result!  I am hoping to give the Syrah glass a trial tomorrow, when I plan to open a bottle of Cornas. One has to keep on experimenting!

Whilst I did not need convincing that glassware makes a difference, I do like it to be  proved to me. And proved it was.

Lenka (The Evil Monkey)

Of Mice and Penfolds

A product of the 80s, my childhood TV-watching centred around a host of well-loved cartoons. Thundercats. The Mysterious Cities of Gold. Inspector Gadget. To name but a few. Each with its own iconic theme song which still have the ability to lodge in my head and take me back in time.

But the one that perhaps I think of most often is Danger Mouse. This time, not because of the theme song (although it is equally hummable), or even memories of the exploits the greatest superagent in the world got up to – but instead because of Danger Mouse’s sidekick, the rather meek and cowardly Penfold.

Ok, aside from the name, there is nothing much to connect the hamster Penfold with the giant of the Aussie wine industry that is Penfolds – but the child inside me always thinks “Cor!” or “Crumbs!” whenever I see the name. Followed closely by “Penfold, shush!”.

This is all a rather long preamble to say that it was Penfolds’ New Release tasting last week. Held at the RSA in London, it was a rather smart affair where the trade, media and a few lucky customers were able to taste the new vintages of Penfolds’ top wines for the first time. And I got to go along too. Crumbs!



Descending the stairs down into the RSA vaults where the tasting took place, part of the Danger Mouse theme kept playing through my head. “He’s the greatest, he’s fantastic…” For there was no denying it, this was quite the blinged-up tasting, designed to show off some of Australia’s finest wines. And yet, once you got past the neon red Penfolds signs, the backlit bottles and glossy catalogue – once you tried the wine, there was Danger Mouse again: “It’s Penfolds, shush”. For the wines really did deserve a bit of quiet, a bit of thought, a bit of stillness.

I won’t write out a long list of notes on the wines – there are plenty available on the Internet from numerous critics should you choose to look – but I have to admit to being quietly impressed with many of them. In keeping with the mood of the tasting the wines all showed a certain gloss – fine tannins and a lush texture. But this perhaps belied the power, concentration and elegance beneath. Grange 2010 was clearly the main drawcard, the pinnacle of the range and as iconic a wine as they get. Hugely complex and powerful yet simultaneously delicate and pretty, this was clearly built for the long term.


And yet for me the highlight of the night was the magnum of 2004 RWT Shiraz. Not part of the new release tasting, instead this offered insight into how well these wines can age – and this was still a baby. This was a beguiling wine, offering layer upon layer of complexity and interest. Delicate, fragrant, lifted, it somehow felt more ethereal than all of the other wines I tasted that night. And then it hit me – the main difference: the temperature of the wine. The magnum had been sitting on top of a metal grate which was pumping out cold air. This meant the wine was a few degrees cooler than all of the others I had tasted, and it’s amazing how much of a difference that can make – helping to accentuate the lifted aromas and also rein in the richer, riper aromas. A lesson in how best to serve red wine if ever there was one.

Oh crikey! Danger Mouse would be proud.


The Triumph of Burgundy

My boyfriend is looking for a new motorbike so the other day we donned our leathers and headed out to test drive the Ducati Monster and the Triumph Street Triple…  oh yes, I am swiftly becoming a ‘biker chick!’

He forewarned me that he wanted a formal retrospective analysis of each ride and a pronouncement of my preferred chariot… in other words he wanted to know which my favourite was and I was intending to take the assignment seriously.


So we mounted up and headed into the proverbial sunset.  Had I not been clinging on at the back for dear life I would have had my notebook out taking notes on comfort, thrill and emotional response.

Perhaps inevitably the only parallels I could draw were wine related! Both bikes had big reputations but that is where the similarity ended. The Ducati was Bordeaux; a ballsy classic like Pauillac from 09. It was powerful and rich with a broad back and a throaty roar. At traffic lights people stopped and stared, just as they would if a bottle of Lafite appeared at the neighbouring table in a restaurant. The Ducati salesman would have been right at home in the Place de Bordeaux; brash, image driven, disbelieving that anyone could consider another bike. It was impressive, fast and showy but somehow it lacked the finesse and romance that I was searching for.

The Triumph was completely different. It was Burgundy; agile, swift and thrilling. It flew under the radar, not getting the stares at the traffic lights, but it was a seamless performance. Like great Burgundy it connected with something deep inside, especially when it accelerated. The salesman was down to earth and quiet, he let the bike do the talking – a Burgundian through and through.

Now this wasn’t quite the answer my boyfriend was expecting, but luckily his taste in bikes is similar to mine in wine. The Triumph triumphed.

– Alex


Inspiring wine

A recent event I had to organise for work was called the ‘Inspired Tasting’. It consisted of 102 wines all chosen by members of the wine trade who had visited Australia over the last two years – with the instruction that they each choose a wine that inspired them on their trip. A fabulous hook for a tasting – and just one of the many effective ideas dreamt up by my wonderful boss, the late, great Yvonne May.

Walking around the wines and reading the descriptions each person had given, it was fascinating to see how everyone defined ‘inspiring’.

There were vivid descriptions of wines enjoyed in the vineyard: surrounded by the vines it had come from, standing on the ground that had produced it and in the company of the man or woman who had made it. Others remembered a particular dinner where the wine was drunk and enjoyed with like-minded friends, where the wine helped to elevate the evening to another, more memorable, level. Still more talked of a moment of clarity on tasting that particular wine that helped them to truly understand the style, or helped them to debase an old preconception.

What was true of all of these descriptions was that they talked as much of a feeling experienced as of the wine that was tasted. That wine helped to elevate a particular moment in time, freeze it in their memory, and so enable them to share it with other people days, months or even years later.

It is this feeling that for me is the pinnacle of wine. Something that you look for often but only rarely find. On first sniff the hairs on your arms begin to stand up and then as you swirl the glass a shiver might go up your spine. It is when you realise you’ve been smelling the wine for minutes, lost in it’s scent, and you haven’t even taken the first sip. And then when you do, you close your eyes, a smile lifting the sides of your mouth. Time slows; for a minute you are lost, revelling in the experience of the taste.

But that is not all, there is one missing element. Someone else to share the experience, to discuss the wine with and enjoy it together. Wine cannot be inspirational on its own. You need to share that with someone else – and in the sharing can also come the inspiration.

When Alex and I were in the Hunter Valley last year, the young Semillon we drank on Brokenback Ridge would perhaps just have been enjoyable on its own. But when drank on that ridge with a stunning view over the vineyards, accompanied by friends and winemakers (and the odd oyster), it became something more. The combination of wine, people and place made that occasion truly special, even inspiring.

These special wines and their ability to resonate in your memory long after the last drop has been drunk may not come around everyday, but that is part of their lure – and part of what we monkeys are searching for with each new wine tasted. It is what makes wine so fascinating, intoxicating in both senses of the word, and, yes, so inspiring.