Attitude at Altitude: exploring Australia’s cool climates

In a time where global warming is leading to increasing temperatures in wine regions around the world (despite what a certain US president may say) it is perhaps not surprising that so-called cool climate regions are getting more and more attention. In the southern hemisphere vineyards are being planted ever further south and here in the UK every day seems to bring a new article about the popularity of English sparkling wine and how many new vineyards are being planted.

But of course cool climates aren’t just found at high latitudes. Wine regions can also benefit from cooling influences by proximity to the ocean or large bodies of water – think of the likes of Sonoma, Elgin or Galicia. Alternatively, temperatures can be moderated by the third major cooling effect: altitude. The general rule of thumb is that for every 100m you ascend in altitude the temperature decreases by 0.65˚C. It is this final cooling influence that Sarah Ahmed recently explored in her seminar on Australian wine titled ‘Cool Climates: Altitude with Attitude’.

Australia's cool climate seminar

Australia’s cool climate seminar

In a country where most of the wine regions sit between 30 and 40 degrees south (a similar latitude to southern Europe), cooling weather influences are necessary to moderate the climate and create ideal conditions for viticulture. As such, many of Australia’s wine regions sit near to the south coast where the cold Southern Ocean has a cooling influence – such as with Mornington Peninsula, Great Southern and Tasmania.

However, whilst these maritime cool climates are now well known and sought after in Australia, other winemakers and viticulturists are paying more and more attention to those regions that are cool as a result of altitude. Less than 1% of Australia’s vineyard area sits at over 600m altitude – but this is where some of Australia’s most exciting cool climate wines are now coming from with regions like Orange, Tumbarumba, Canberra and New England slowly becoming better known.

Whilst these regions are often growing the same varieties as coastal cool climate regions, there is no doubt they have a very different style. These high altitude regions in Australia are situated along the Great Dividing Range – the main mountain range in Australia that sweeps along the south east coast of the country. As well as giving altitude to these regions it also acts as a rainshadow, meaning these regions tend to be relatively dry and low in disease pressure. However, the high altitude also increases risk of frost and hail – something not associated with coastal cool climes. Large diurnal temperature ranges means these regions get hotter in the daytime than coastal regions, but also much colder at night.

This means high altitude wines tend to have a long ripening time with slow sugar accumulation giving high levels of fruit flavour intensity – but the cold nights mean the grapes retain high levels of natural acidity keeping the wines balanced and precise. In terms of red wines, high levels of UV tend to soften the texture of tannins – so although these wines have structure, the tannins tend to be fine and integrated.

Tasting through a number of wines from vineyards over 600m really underscored these stylistic characteristics. The common thread through each wine whether white, red or rosé was that of fresh acidity and medium body. The effect of altitude seems to be a certain elegance to the wine style, regardless of variety, making the wines very drinkable. As for the reds (Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Saperavi), they all had a taut tannic structure encasing the fruit – but in each case it was fine tannin, ripe rather than drying.

Cool Climate by Altitude wines

Cool Climate by Altitude wines

Here are my top picks from the tasting:

Eden Road ‘Courabyra’ Chardonnay 2015, Tumbarumba – planted at 750m.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for a top Chablis if tasted blind. Unoaked with taut, citrus acidity balanced by savoury, cheesy notes from 15 months aging on lees. Amazingly fresh given this has been through full malolactic fermentation with even a slight saline note. Very long, very good.

Toppers Mountain Gewurztraminer 2015,  New England – planted at 900m.

New England is a region in northern New South Wales that has some of the highest vineyards in Australia, planted up to 1400m. I have to admit to not often being a major fan of Gewurztraminer, often finding them somewhat blowsy and overblown. But here the altitude has given a much more approachable style – whilst this is still rich and textured with heady notes of floral and ginger spice, a bright grapefruit-like acidity balances the wine and makes it eminently drinkable.

Tertini Pinot Noir 2015, Southern Highlands – planted at 715m

The Southern Highlands only boasts 12 wineries, all of them boutique in scale, so it is not a region you often come across. Which is a shame having tasted this characterful Pinot. A pretty, fragrant Pinot nose leads on to a spicy, concentrated palate with smoky, meaty notes and fine tannin. Elegant with vibrant acidity.

Cobaw Ridge Syrah 2012, Macedon Ranges – planted at 610m

I was really taken by this cool climate Syrah. Fragrant yet savoury in style with pepper and earthy characters along with a herbaceous undertone. Firm but fine tannin and taut acidity make this quite a serious style of Syrah that really shows its cool climate origin. Impressive.

Ballandean Estate ‘Messing About’ Saperavi 2015, Granite Belt – planted at 820m

The Granite Belt is one of Australia’s most northerly wine regions and Saperavi is a red variety from Georgia so to say this wine is unusual would be an understatement. But this is a fantastic example of how Australia can make its own style from an alternative variety. Saperavi is renowned for its very high levels of tannin, and those are certainly on show in this wine. But here that high tannin is balanced by lots of juicy, dark fruit along with a lifted herbal note and fresh acidity. The high sunlight intensity from a region at relatively low latitude (ie nearer the equator) results in that juicy fruit profile which acts to balance the high levels of tannin.

 

Sarah reported that Philip Shaw (a winemaker in Orange) thinks that altitudes over 600m have a ‘dramatic effect’ on wine – and this tasting certainly proved that. To me, these wines showed a focus and precision that was true regardless of specific region and variety – giving them a true sense of place. An attitude coming from altitude if you like.

Emma


Judging Bacchus

Bacchus is Spain’s most important wine competition and this year Lenka and I were invited to be part of their judging team. More than 50 judges gathered at the grand Casino de Madrid in March for the competition – a mix of Spanish winemakers and sommeliers as well as a large number of international judges, including 18 MWs. And over the 4 days of the competition we sipped, spat and scored over 1700 wines between us from 21 different countries.

Judges at Bacchus

The Bacchus judges. How many MWs can you spot?!

I have judged at a number of different wine competitions now (see my previous post on judging at the IWC) and have to admit that the OIV system used at Bacchus is not exactly my favourite. Unlike other competitions where wines will be presented in flights by region and variety, with OIV the only information you are given on each wine is the vintage and residual sugar. Wines are also presented individually rather than in a flight– so you don’t have the opportunity to benchmark against other wines.

Bacchus scorecard

The OIV scoring sheet at Bacchus

Theoretically this is supposed to mean that each wine is judged solely on its quality which is certainly an admirable thing to aim for, but the reality is that wine is a product of its place and variety and it can’t be separated from them. It is how we all buy wine, and what gives us an idea of what to expect when we open a bottle. You’d be pretty surprised to open a bottle of, say, Pinot Noir and find it tasted more like a Shiraz. And so when judging wine, knowing the origin and variety gives you vital clues as to what you would expect – for how can you judge typicity (which is one of the factors in the OIV system) when you don’t know what it is meant to be?

Judging Bacchus at the Casino de Madrid

The grandest of judging locations

Gripes about the judging system aside, it was a real pleasure to judge Bacchus. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of wines were Spanish, but looking at my crib sheets I was surprised to discover we also tasted wines from as far as Mexico and Peru, as well as France, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia amongst others. By the end of the competition we awarded 529 wines with a medal – 332 Silver, 179 Gold and a mere 18 received the top gong of Great Gold Bacchus. You can see the full results here.

Whilst judging can be a lot of fun, it is also hard work so all of the judges really appreciated the extra activities and dinners that were organised around the judging. These not only gave us the chance to taste more wines in a relaxed environment, they also allowed us to get to know our fellow judges – and explore the beautiful city of Madrid. The three masterclasses that were organised were particularly interesting – with the Palo Cortado masterclass by Gonzalez Byass’ master blender Antonio Flores being a real highlight. Watch out for Lenka’s blogpost reporting on that soon.

Emma


Ornellaia Undressed: Understanding the wine behind the myth

Ornellaia.  We know the name and it resonates with power.  But do we know the wine?  Like a celebrity judged by the gossip pages of Hello, the true depth of personality is hidden behind the reputation.  Who is the wine behind the label?

 

The opportunity to taste the single terroir wines prior to blending that might (or might not) come to embody the famous Ornellaia was an extraordinary opportunity to discover just that.  A person’s character is only truly comprehensible when you understand the experiences that have shaped them and the same can be said for understanding how individual terroirs shape a wine.  It is a tasting which provides a glimpse into the soul of the wine before it is born.

 

Axel Heinz, the cellar master of this awesome estate flew to London to host this historic tasting, bringing with him 9 single terroir wines that would likely become the beating heart of Ornellaia 2015.  Each year they harvest and vinify between 80 and 90 individual terroirs and blend later than most so they can understand the evolution of each wine and thus ascertain more fully its potential contribution to the final blend.   Axel’s fastidious work fly’s in the face of the generally held assumption that Super Tuscan’s are a winemakers wine and not an honest expression of terroir.

 

Bolgheri’s climate forms a unique enclave in Tuscany.  It is a sub-region bathed in warm Mediterranean sunshine mitigated by the all-important cooling influences of the sea lying just 8km from the first of Ornellaia’s vineyards.  The rugged hills provide both freshening altitude and shelter to the vineyards while the diverse soils comprised of varying degrees of blue clay, clay, polygenic rubble and sand contribute to complexity and vine health.  The clay is the secret ingredient responsible for the vital retention of water protecting the vines from hydraulic stress in the warm summer days.

 

Vineyard 1 – Bolgherese – young Merlot on red sand with limestone pebbles at low altitude makes for an early ripening site.

A plush yet spicy plum nose leads to a mid-weight, peppery wine with velvety good looks, a chalky undertone and a cheerful freshness.  This lighter wine lacks the depth and gravitas one would expect from Ornellaia and as such is rarely as yet included.

The lighter style produced from these soils justifies a more conservative vinification approach to preserve freshness and to enhance rather than smother the aromatics.  A very gentle handling of the tannins further prevents any bitterness or austerity.

 

Vineyard 2 – Ginestraio – relatively young Merlot on pebbly clay over limestone

Immediately there is more concentration, weight and depth to the wine; dark powerful fruit is firmly encased is ripe yet firmly structured tannins leading to a savoury spicy finish.  Richness is offset by freshness and the beautifully integrated oak makes for a charming wine.  A restrained hand was used on the oak treatment as Axel waits to see if it will make the cut for Ornellaia.

 

Vineyard 3 – Bellaria – old vine Merlot on deep pebbly clay over limestone at low altitude but direct exposure to the sea.

A restrained power greets you on the nose, as yet giving little away.  The palate shows a wonderful coiled concentration, a powerful core of black cherry and plum fruit and a rich Christmas cake spiced breadth.  There is a sense of completeness to the wine with fragrant floral notes and some redder fruit emerging from the glass to compliment the intense dark fruit depths.  This is truly a lesson in what Merlot can achieve in the right site.

 

Vineyard 4 – Bellaria Alta – Old vine Cabernet Franc on pebbly clay over limestone

A classically beguiling floral, herbal nose enhancing the perfumed red berry fruit.  The palate shows darker fruit and spice with a hint of graphite beneath the floral notes, it is beautifully open with fine grippy tannins, beautifully concentrated fruit and high toned aromatics supported by a vibrant freshness.  Aromatic yet powerful; the signature of the limestone and clay soils are clear in the wines profile.

 

Vineyard 5 – Bellaria – Old vine Cabernet Franc on clayey sand

A poised nose with crunchy red fruit and a more lifted nose of complex garrigue herbs.  The fine silken black and red juicy fruit has a more linear, pure profile with great freshness and persistence.

 

Vineyard 6 – Olivino – young Cabernet Sauvignon on deep pebbly clay on limestone.

A powerfully concentrated nose with a ripe cassis perfume.  The palate is just fabulous; supple, concentrated and powerful with silken yet structured tannins.  The fruit is ripe and sweet with a subtle dusty note while the freshness lends it huge energy leading to an effortless elegance.  It is already showing authority and poise despite the youth of the vineyard.

 

Vineyard 7 – Bellaria Alta – old vine Cabernet Sauvignon on pebbly clay over limestone

A more open nose greets you with a complex array of red and black fruit.  The fine grippy tannins support the perfumed cassis giving the wine beautiful aromatic lift, freshness and a juicy elegance.  This vineyard, a stalward of the Ornellaia blend, shows the importance of blending, for it is not always power that Axel is searching for, in this case it is taut purity and aromatic lift.

 

Vineyard 8 – Ornellaia Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon on deep sandy clay

An earthier, dusty character melds into the rich, dark, powerful fruit reflecting this warmer site.  Concentrated cassis and plum is complimented by spicy oak and a hint of chocolate and mint.  The wine is beautifully structured with silken tannins and a long, compact finish.

 

Vineyard 9 – Bellaria Alta – old vine Petit Verdot on deep sandy clay

Intense purple colour with crunchy damson, sloe and violets.  The fruit is dense yet fresh and exuberant and the lovely fine ripe tannins lack the rusticity often associated with this variety thanks to the long slow growing season and ample sunshine.

 

The art of blending could not have been made more apparent as each wine, so distinctive and unique in its personality, could be woven together to form a multi-layered complex mosaic harnessing power from one vineyard, aromatics from another and freshness from a third. Axel’s single minded pursuit to understand every inch of his soil and how it can contribute to the greater whole has resulted in an extraordinary wine which is going to grow and evolve as the land reveals more of herself through the grapes.

 

  • Alex

 


Mood wine; is your attitude the most important pairing?

How many times have you got home after an unpleasantly stressful day at work and decided to ease the strain with a really lovely glass of wine? But rather than sinking into the velvet depths of a beautiful and much anticipated bottle of red, your first sip reveals itself as bitter, hard and thoroughly disappointing. The cherry on the cake of a really shoddy day.

 
I hate to say it but there is an important lesson there; your mood can play havoc with your taste receptors. Stress and anxiety greatly heighten your perception of bitterness and astringency, thus opening a bottle of tannic red wine when you are angry and frustrated will cause the wine to appear excessively aggressive and hard edged. That same bottle, had on a lazy Sunday surrounded by the gentle repartee of your loved ones will appear elegant and nuanced.

 
The same can be said of white wine, when you are stressed, oak will become far more prominent, dominating the fruit and the perfume. So what to do to sooth the strains of the day? Rather reach for a beautiful Kabinett from the Mosel; let the touch of residual sugar take the edge off your angst, and the crystalline acidity boy your flagging spirits. With no oak to fight with you it will be a far smoother ride.

 
If you are thinking red, then look towards softer, low tannin wines with little or no oak influence, much like you would if you were pairing a wine with a spicy curry. Think soft, fruit driven Grenache from Australia, velvety unoaked reds from Alentejo, or juicy, perfumed whole bunch Cinsault from South Africa and save the Barolo and Bordeaux for when you are in your happy place. Next time you are in a foul temper, you will know what to do to open, pour and be yourself once more.

 
So what exactly is happening in your mouth to make it react so fiercely to the tannin and oak? Studies’ have shown that heighten levels of stress make one more sensitive, thus heightening the awareness to sensations such as astringency. This is because taste buds themselves are targeted by stress hormones. A study conducted by Anxiety.org showed that in the case of acute stress, your adrenal glands immediately ‘release glucocorticoids (GCs). GCs flood into the blood stream and then travel throughout the body where they have significant effects on cells and tissues that express the GC receptor. We found that GR is … selectively expressed in the type of taste cells that respond to sweet, umami (savoury), and bitter taste stimuli.’ The plot thickens.

 
This sensitivity is compounded for those of us known as ‘super tasters’. Sadly this this not quite as auspicious as it sounds and is not a one way ticket to blind tasting glory but is more accurately described as a ‘hyper taster’. More specifically still, it is a hypersensitivity to certain bitter compounds that you are either born with or not. A final layer to the conundrum, highlighted by Dr. Jamie Goode is your saliva flow rate. Those people who have either a high or low saliva flow rate are far more sensitive to astringency than someone with a medium saliva flow.

 

rough-day

 

So rather than debating whether you should be roasting or searing your duck to ensure you are creating the perfect pairing for your wine, maybe you should first be considering what your physiology and state of mind is telling you; if you are a highly stressed hyper taster with a very low saliva rate, beware of drinking a highly tannic, heavily oak red wine after a tough day!

Alex

 


What does a monkey drink at Christmas?

xmasmonkeys

It’s that time of the year when the most important thing on any wine monkey’s mind is what to drink at Christmas. Fear not, we have some ideas and we’re not afraid to share them!

Emma

Fortified wines really come into their own in the cold winter months – there is something rather special about curling up on the sofa with a warming glass of port whilst it’s cold and dark outside. So it is no surprise that this is the time of year when port sales rocket – and you can generally find a good bottle on offer somewhere.

In our household though, port is for life, not just for Christmas. Even in the height of summer a chilled glass of 10 year old tawny can really hit the spot – surprisingly refreshing and just the right amount of indulgent.

But when Christmas rocks around it is time to bring out the big guns and we tend to enjoy some decent vintage port and aged tawny. This year we are spending the holidays in Porto with my husband’s family so the fact that we will drink some excellent port is a given. Just what it will be we will have to wait and see.

So rather than taking port to Porto to share with the Symingtons – which would be even more unnecessary than the proverbial coal and Newcastle – we will be taking out some Ridgeview sparkling. What better thing to have at an Anglo-Portuguese Christmas than English bubbles followed by port (with a glass or two of Douro red thrown in for good measure)? I can’t wait.

Feliz Natal

Lenka

I’m feeling very Christmassy his year. This is not very like me but may be simply due to the fact that I only really celebrate Christmas once every two years. As someone who has always preferred the warmth of the sun to the warmth of the fireplace, I have a tendency to disappear somewhere warm every other year. And when it falls on a holiday year, I usually pack Riesling and Champagne.

This year I am staying put in misty, not so white London and will therefore give into Christmas tradition. In our household, that means duck and Burgundy. Not a traditional Christmas meal perhaps but a Czech-Australian couple makes its own rules – it’s not quite warm enough to put another shrimp on the barbie and there isn’t enough carp around (thankfully) to go fully Czech. So roast duck or confit duck is what we like to eat on Christmas Eve (I am Central European after all) and what generally goes with that is a bit of Burgundy. The white choice usually goes to Comtes Lafon, whatever we have hiding in the Eurocave and supplies permitting! Red does tend to vary from year to year but we like to open nice bottles from pretty classic names like Mugnier, Meo-Camuzet, de Montille and so on. Last Christmas we gave our hearts to a stunning G. Mascarello Barolo (a bit off piste!) but generally we do keep the theme to Burgundy. So it may be Messieurs Lafon (Meursault) and Mugnier (Nuits-St Georges) come Saturday.

Unlike Emma, I am not big on fortified wine. But this year I am determined to change that. I have some lovely old Barbeito Madeira that I brought back from the island a few years ago, a birth year Tawny port and some VORS sherry so these bottles may very well get some action next week.

No Christmas is complete without bubbles. My sparkling wine habits are pretty simple – I tend to keep to Champagne and decent Cava so there is a very high probability that you may find a photo of Cava Gramona or Villmart Champagne on my instagram feed.

Merry Crimbo!

Alex
Christmas is always a delicate balancing act when it comes to wine choices. I come from a large family of wine lovers which has its benefits, wide appreciation of classic and quirky wines, and its drawbacks, no open bottle lasts long. The mantra ‘you snooze you lose’ is yelled with reckless abandon down the dinner table as yet another bottle is finished before completing the rounds.

I am keeping a stunning bottle of Margalit cabernet franc 2008 from Israel, a wine of effortless classic charm, for a special occasion, however in light of the gannets that will be congregating it might stay hidden away!

In the Tilling household bigger is better so I think I will go for a magnum of the indomitable Birgit Eichinger Erste Lage Riesling Gaisberg Reserve 2015 from the Kamptal in Austria. It is a wine of spine-tinglingly purity, immense concentration and of course a fabulous acidity that means it will go a treat with the complex array of foods on offer from gravadlax to Turkey with bread sauce.

And with the Christmas pudding? I am going off-piste with the Masseria Li Veli Aleatico passito, an unctuously sweet, tremendously complex desert red from Puglia which a rich, chocolatey, spiced dried fruit profile that will be a match made in heaven.

Happy Christmas!

Merry Christmas from The Wine Monkeys and all the best for 2017…..we really hope 2017 pulls itself together!


Exploring minerality

‘Wine producers like to kneel in their vineyards and scoop up a handful of dirt for you to admire. “See this gneiss (or schist, or limestone)” they’ll say. “Minerality. You can taste it in the wine”.’

The idea that the rock type that a vineyard’s soil is based on can affect the flavour of a wine, giving it so-called minerality, has been knocking around for a long time. It is certainly a romantic thought that you can go into a vineyard, look at the soil and be able to ascribe certain aromas and flavours in the wine to it. There is something about the sensory nature of soil – you can see, touch, smell and even taste it – that makes it easy to apportion wine flavour to. But is this idea of minerality really accurate, or is it just a romantic notion used by marketeers to add to wine’s mystique?

The thorny topic of minerality formed the basis of a recent seminar held by the Institute of Masters of Wine and aimed to shed light on these questions. By the end of it would a room full of MWs be able to agree on what minerality is? We were about to find out.

 

IMW Minerality seminar

 

The first part of the presentation was hosted not by a wine professional, but by geology professor Alex Maltman from the University of Aberystwyth and was titled ‘Why ‘Minerality’ is not the taste of vineyard minerals’. So, stating his position very firmly then.

Thus followed a quick chemistry class in minerals, how they are formed from constituent elements and how they are bound in rocks, followed by the disconnect with how vines take up nutrient elements from the soil to grow. Essentially, geological minerals are made up of compounds formed of eight elements. These minerals bind with each other to rigid aggregates aka rocks. Over a long time rocks can be weathered to sediment, which mixes with moist humus (organic matter) and water and becomes soil. Vines need 14 essential nutrients to grow which they can take up from soil when dissolved in water. So, on the surface it sounds like:

Elements combine → minerals which then combine → rock.

Rock weathers → soil → vines uptake minerals from soil.

But herein lies the disconnect: just because some geological minerals are in the soil, it doesn’t mean that they are able to be taken up by the vine. And on top of that, weathering is such a slow process that it cannot provide all of the nutrient elements that a vine needs. Instead, these nutrient elements come from the humus – the recycled organic matter in the soil (dead leaves etc). On top of that, the three main essential nutrients that vines need are sodium, phosphorus and sulphur and these can only come from humus, not weathered geological elements.

So Professor Maltman proved quite succinctly that minerals in the rock are not taken up by vines – let alone find their way into grapes and onwards into your glass. He then went further, arguing that beyond the geological arguments, you simply can’t taste minerals themselves. He gave the example of flint, a wine descriptor that often occurs in so-called mineral white wines. Flint itself is silica which is flavourless, odourless and tasteless. The aroma we link to flint is actually the smell of flint being struck – striking flint releases sulphur and iron impurities into the air, giving a distinctive smell. It is not, however, the smell of flint itself. Professor Maltman concluded by noting that minerality is a metaphor – you have to be alluding to something else. ‘Whatever minerality is, it’s not the taste of vineyard minerals’.

So, if minerality is not from vineyard minerals then what is it? What does it mean?

Well, in the words of pre-eminent viticulturist Dr Richard Smart, ‘Minerality as a wine descriptor is a nonsense…..I think that it is a deliberate method to mystify wine by wine writers’.

So, is mineral a term used by wine trade but not understood by consumers? The final two speakers, wine sensory scientists Dr Jordi Ballester and Dr Wendy Parr, were on hand to share their research on what minerality means to people.

Dr Ballester’s research asked people simply to define minerality. Perhaps unsurprisingly the wine experts (Burgundian winemakers) came up with many descriptive words, all of which were positive – with the most used ones including gunflint, acidity and shellfish. On the other hand, consumers lacked any sort of consensus over descriptors and these were not always positive. This seems to indicate that whilst the wine trade knows what they mean by minerality, consumers do not – and aren’t sure if it is a good thing or not. The other result of note was the lack of consensus on descriptors from the wine experts – 34 people were surveyed resulting in 17 groups of words, including everything from gunflint to salty to flower. Not exactly a ringing consensus of what minerality means.

Dr Parr then expanded on this by talking about her research which looked at French and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc producers to ascertain whether minerality is a specific character (or characters) in a wine – or if it is driven by expectation: the idea that you think something is mineral and therefore you taste it.  She found that the French and New Zealand producers could both smell and taste minerality and that there was cross-cultural consensus on what flavours were associated with minerality. Simply put, there was definitely something in the wine driving a description of minerality. And in general these wines tended to be more citrus/fresh with an absence of passionfruit and green characters. But, she also reported that the wines had been put through a rigorous chemical analysis and they didn’t find anything that ‘minerality’ can be attributed chemically.

This research seems to show that minerality as a concept does exist and can be tasted in a wine – but there is a lot of variability in terms of the actual descriptors used by different people. So, could a room full of MWs and their guests agree what minerality was? We were about to find out.

What followed was a blind tasting, first of 5 Chardonnays and then of 10 Sauvignon Blancs. We had to taste each wine and score it on a scale of 0 (no minerality) to 10 (high minerality). Easy, you might think. Well, the results were fascinating.

 

Minerality

 

This graph shows the results for the Chardonnays and the number of attendees who scored each wine as ‘the most mineral’. As you can see there wasn’t much consensus! There was a similar result for the Sauvignon Blancs, leading Dr Parr to comment ‘the notion of mineral doesn’t tell us a lot’.

An open discussion with the room then asked what we mean when we say mineral. The comments included chalky, acid, salty, palate weight, lack of sweetness, hardness, tension and friction amongst others – an interesting mix of true flavours, textural ideas and even more semantic concepts.

So if a group of MWs can’t agree on what minerality is, means, or tastes like – what hope do consumers have?

Indeed, Dr Parr ended up by arguing that minerality is an umbrella term with many aspects to it and that we as wine professionals should be more specific when describing mineral aspects in a wine. So just as using the descriptor ‘fruity’ is very generic and can be broken down into the type of fruit, whether they’re ripe or unripe, fresh or cooked – so minerality should be dissembled and wines should be described as salty, stony or steely – or any of the many other descriptors out there. Not only would that be more understandable for consumers it would also open up the world of minerality further and shed light on what we are really describing in a wine.

So, if minerality can be tasted in a wine but it does not come from vineyard soils – where does it come from? That sadly is a question still to be answered – quite simply, the research hasn’t yet been done. Professor Maltman commented that there is a possibility that geology could influence soil bacteria somehow – which then might have some effect on the vine and resulting wine. Certainly, the microbiology of soil in vineyards is a topical subject at the minute and might shed some light. Or perhaps it is some climatic influence happening at a local level.

For now we simply don’t know what causes minerality in a wine. It will just be another one of wine’s mysteries until the right research happens.

Emma


Discovering fine Greek wine

A visit to Tinos island and T-Oinos winery

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A classic Greek scene

Greek wine is exciting. I have been saying this for a while. This has been reaffirmed to me by a recent visit to T-Oinos winery on Tinos island, organised by my fellow MW and Greek wine ambassador Yiannis Karakasis.

 

Tinos is a moderately-sized island (194 square kilometres) in the Aegean Sea and part of the Cyclades group of islands. This group includes the famous Santorini and neighbouring party capital Mykonos. Like many Greek islands, Tinos is a bit of a geological wonder. It is home to a Unesco World Heritage site – hills covered in huge granite boulders, according to mythology they were cast down by the Titans. As all wine geeks know, granitic soils are great for vine growing. So far, so easy. Except not. Tinos is a beautiful island alright, sprinkled with those charming white-washed little houses and over 700 churches and chapels. As lovely as it looks bathed in the sunshine, Tinos is also a very windy, dry and desolate place and this is hard terrain for viticulture. It doesn’t quite rain enough and there isn’t enough water for irrigation. In fact, T-Oinos only just manage to collect enough water for one irrigation run a year, reserved for their youngest vines.

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Tinos has as many chapels as you can shake a stick at

T-Oinos winemaking consultant Thanos Fakorelis explains that when the vineyards of Clos Stegasta were first planted in 2000, high density of 11,500 plants/ha seemed the best option. Less canopy means less water requirement as well as less bunches per vine. Being so close together also helps protect the vines from the harsh Northern winds that sweep through this open plateau, which sits at 450m altitude.

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Clos Stegasta vineyard

Walking through the Clos Stegasta vineyard made me wonder how the vineyard workers manage. The sandy soils (on granite bedrock) on a blustery day, the granite boulders in the summer heat. It isn’t easy, else everyone would be doing it. This is unique terrain, like that of another planet and for such hardship you can expect an equivalent price tag.

 

T-Oinos farm 11ha of vineyards, planted to Malagousia, Assyrtiko, Mavrotragano and Avgoustiatis. The first commercially released vintage was 2008. I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by the wines. They have elegance and poise, a clearly defined line of saline ‘minerality’ runs through all the wines, white and red.

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The three quality levels

Their Malagousia is a far cry from the overtly aromatic and a little simple whites that you will find elsewhere in Greece. The winemaker deliberately picks this grape at below 13% potential alcohol in order to avoid excessive aromatics, which are found above this percentage. Here, we’re looking at 11-12% abv. The wine has a restrained, tight nose which focuses on stony, grapefruit and lime aromas and a saline, oyster shell expression on the palate. It’s a delicious wine.

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Rassonas vineyard

Where Malagousia is the ‘entry level’ white (though about £20-25 on the shelf), the top white Clos Stegasta focuses exclusively on Greece’s best white variety – Assyrtiko. We were lucky enough to be treated to a vertical tasting of this fabulous wine, vintages 2011 – 2015. The style varies as Tinos offers vintage variation much like any other place. The amount of oak used also varies, it can be a vintage decision or a purely practical one – in 2012 the volumes were so small (1000l only) that it neatly fit into two 500l French barrels. This vintage was not my favourite as I felt the oak was somewhat dominant here, hiding the character of the grape. Both 2011 and 2014 are vintages that clearly show Assyrtiko’s varietal character. This is not dissimilar to Hunter Semillon with its waxy lemon and citrus oil notes. Both wines saw a small amount of oak (10%) and I think this benefits Assyrtiko by adding a layer of texture without obscuring the grape. Saying that, I absolutely loved the 2013 Clos Stegasta white. One of my fellow MWs refers to it as the ‘Greek Coche-Dury’ and I would not disagree with that. The 2013 was fermented 70% in wood and 30% in steel and shows an outstandingly well-managed oak character – that cornmeal reduction and creamy spice really tempers Assyrtiko’s stand-out acidity. Granted, this may not be a typical Greek white, in fact given blind I would go straight to Meursault or a high quality Aussie Chardonnay, but there is no denying that this is a world class wine. I think quite a few people would be surprised to learn this wine comes from an island in the Aegean!

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Fermentation is now done partially in amphorae

Now onto the reds, focused on Mavrotragano. This is an indigenous variety to the Cyclades and most famously planted in Santorini, where it fetches higher prices per kilo than Assyrtiko. Mavrotragano is a highly tannic and rustic variety and not easy to temper. In fact, some people in Greece are of the belief that it does not at all work in the volcanic soils of Santorini. Here at T-Oinos it seems to thrive on the granitic soils and produces wines with rounder tannins. T-Oinos produce two reds based on this variety – Mavro and Clos Stegasta. The latter is a single vineyard wine from the amphitheatre-like Rassonas vineyard. At 400m altitude it is a slightly warmer, more sheltered spot from the main Clos Stegasta site. Standing there, I was reminded of the terraced vineyards of Priorat. My favourite from this tasting was the 2013 Clos Stegasta Reserve red. It has a very seductive nose, showing wild herbs and lavender, plush morello cherry and almost a hint of orange. The tannins are tempered if still chewy and pencilly but have this with food and they disappear. At 14.5% abv, this may not look like a slight wine, but it is so balanced by that fresh, saline acidity, that you don’t even notice it.

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Bottles in the vineyard

T-Oinos is doing a great job bringing attention to Tinos island whilst equally making some of the most exciting wines in Greece. They are available to buy in France and the U.K. (Via Wimbledon Wine Cellar and Handford’s). They may not be cheap but there is no doubt they are fine.

 

LENKA

 


The Golden Age of Australian Chardonnay?

A recent tasting organised by the Institute of Masters of Wine focused on only one grape variety from just one country. But when the variety is Chardonnay and the country is Australia there was no chance of it becoming a one-trick tasting. Instead, the wines were chosen to showcase the diversity of styles and regional differences in this vast country. With the tasting booklet asking two incisive questions, the task was on for the attendees to see for themselves: Has the search for restraint led to market-unfriendly austerity? Or, has the reaction against the bold, rich styles of the 1990s led to generally greater complexity, terroir expression and age-ability?

Alongside Shiraz, Chardonnay was one of the grapes that put Australia on the global wine map back in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time the style was all about ripe, tropical fruit flavours combined with sweet oak and a buttery texture. Consumers worldwide embraced this new style and Aussie Chardonnay production sky rocketed from less than 40,000 tonnes in 1990 to 340,000 tonnes in 2015.

But of course trends change with time, and a decade or so ago consumers started to move away from the rich, buttery styles of Chardonnay – looking instead for more restrained, crisp styles of white wine. And so the pendulum began to swing. The focus shifted to cooler climate regions such as Yarra, Mornington and Tasmania and to earlier picking, older and larger format oak, no MLF and increased use of indigenous yeast fermentation. For some winemakers this was what they had been doing quietly all along, for others it was breaking new ground.

It is fair to say that in some cases the pendulum swung too far and the wines became too skinny and acidic, lacking a core of fruit. But that was perhaps an understandable result as winemakers spent time experimenting and perfecting their styles. Which brings us back to the tasting and the chance for the attending MWs and MW students to taste and compare a selection of today’s Australian Chardonnays.

The wines in the tasting were arranged regionally, allowing attendees to pick out the stylistic differences from each of the 15 regions featured. These crossed the breadth of Australia from Margaret River in Western Australia to Hunter Valley in New South Wales and featured cool-climate regions such as Tasmania alongside warmer, inland Riverland.  Established names such as Leeuwin Estate Art Series and Shaw & Smith M3 shared the spotlight with lesser-known newcomers like Ochota Barrels The Slint and Ministry of Clouds: a true cross-section of contemporary Australian Chardonnay.

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Just some of the Aussie Chardonnays at the tasting

For me, and others I talked to, the tasting more than demonstrated Australia’s credentials as a producer of world-class Chardonnay. Where once there would have been lashings of tropical fruit, now there isn’t a pineapple in sight. Instead lemon, peach and apple form the ripe fruit core of the wines, surrounded by layers of mealy oak – occasionally smoky, but never buttery – all wrapped up with bright, zesty (and, importantly, natural) acidity. Indigenous yeast and high solids ferments certainly lent a funky, textural edge to many wines and the reductive, struck match note on some wines added a controversial element, splitting opinion in the room. But this just served to underscore how far Australia has come from the ‘sunshine in a glass’ one-size-fits-all type of Chardonnay. Instead there were wines to suit all palates and all occasions.

So, have we entered the golden age of Australian Chardonnay? Certainly this tasting showed the pendulum has settled and found its sweet spot between ripe fruit and bright acidity. But with winemakers continuing to search out the best vineyard sites in their respective regions, with vine age getting gradually older and with continued experimentation in the winery who knows what else Australia has got to come in the future. We will just have to wait, watch and taste.

Emma


Women in Wine

It is fair to say that men dominated the wine industry for the majority of the 20th century. With a few notable exceptions, wines were made by men at wineries owned by men, imported by men and sold by men. Even the MWs were all men – the first male MWs passed their exams in 1953 but it wasn’t until 1970 that the first woman, Sarah Morphew Stephen MW, joined their ranks. But of course times have changed and now whilst only 33% of all MWs are women, a full 48% of MW students are female – just one sign of the increasing numbers of women working in the wine industry.

This increase in numbers has been followed by a move in various parts of the wine industry to focus specifically on the achievements of women – both as a way to celebrate women working in the wine and also to encourage more women to join their ranks. In the last decade we have seen the first wine producing company owned, controlled and managed by women, founded in South Africa in 2006; the first wine competition judged solely by women, founded in USA in 2007 and the first global Women in Wine Symposium, held in Napa in 2015. Closer to home, a group of women working in the industry in London formed a collaborative networking group in 2016 called Women in Wine LDN.

It is against this backdrop that Lenka and I presented a masterclass in Prague recently entitled ‘Women in Wine’. Although Czech is perhaps a bit behind other countries in terms of the number of women working in wine, it was wonderful to talk to a room full of women, many of whom worked in the local industry, and to highlight the achievements of a small selection of female winemakers from around the world. We chose six wines to present from wineries in five different countries – and the link connecting all of the wines was the incredible women who helped to make them.

 

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First up was Petra Unger’s Oberfeld Alte Reben  Grüner Veltliner 2014 from Kremstal in Austria. Petra took over the running of the estate from her parent’s in 1999 and quietly produces deliciously drinkable wines. Indeed this wine was a real showcase for classic Grüner with those spicy white pepper notes that can often be so hard to find. Petra is also a member of the marketing cooperative ’11 Frauen’ – a group of the top 11 female winemakers in Austria who work together to help increase their profiles globally. Another example of an increased focus on women in wine – and something that would have been hard to imagine happening a couple of decades ago.

The second wine took us from Austria to Argentina, with Catena Chardonnay 2014. Here the focus was on Laura Catena, a truly inspirational woman in wine by anyone’s judgement. Although born into a winemaking family, Laura decided to follow her own dream and study medicine, becoming an emergency doctor working in California. It wasn’t until she stood in for her father at a tasting in 1999 that she realised she could help to give Argentina and its wines the kickstart they needed on the world stage. This took her back to Mendoza where she founded the Catena Institute of Wine – a research body focusing on viticulture. With the scientific rigor Laura applied to the work they do, the Institute is now a world-class research body. Laura has also written a book on the history and future of Argentinian wine and now splits her time between working as a doctor in San Francisco and at the winery in Mendoza where she tastes and approves all wines before release. Oh, and she is also a mother to three children. Hats off. The Chardonnay itself showed that typical Argentinian character of ripe tropical fruit combined with bright acidity from the high altitude vineyards (here between 900-1400m above sea level) all neatly woven with some well-judged oak character giving a nutty, mealy texture.

We showed the third and fourth wines together as they came from the same winery, Lopez de Heredia in Rioja. The bastion of traditional-style Rioja, Lopez de Heredia wines surely can’t have changed much in terms of winemaking or style since the winery was founded in 1877. Today it is run by Maria José, the great-granddaughter of the founder, alongside her sister Mercedes. Maria José is not only responsible for making these unique wines but also acts as the winery’s ambassador, travelling the world to talk about her family and their wines. She is an incredible asset to Rioja as a whole and never fails to have a story (or ten!) to tell. As for the wines, first up we showed the Lopez de Heredia Gravonia Crianza 2005 – and yes, that’s the current vintage. 100% Viura aged for 4 years in barrel – a style that used to be common in Rioja, but now is unique to Lopez de Heredia. We showed the wines blind and one of the women suggested that this might come from Jerez and in some ways it is like an unfortified dry sherry – savoury with notes of salty almonds and lemon pith. Whilst the Grüner earlier had been a ‘drinking’ wine, this was most definitely a ‘thinking’ wine. As for the red, we showed Lopez de Heredia Cubillo 2007 – a blend of 65% Tempranillo, 25% Garnacha and the remainder a mix of Graciano and Mazuelo. It showed true Tempranillo character – full of red fruits with a herbal undertone, pretty impressive for a 9 year old humble Crianza.

The second red took us from the traditional to the alternative: Occhipinti Nero d’Avola Siccagno 2013 from Sicily. Like Laura Catena, Arianna Occhipinti is from a famous winemaking family – her uncle is Giusto Occhipinti who owns COS in Sicily. However, she has forged her own path, making wines under her own eponymous label.  Arianna made her first wine in 2004 at age 22 from a mere 1ha of abandoned vines and quickly rose to prominence in the natural wine scene for making elegant, perfumed wines quite different to mainstream Sicilian styles. She now owns just over 23ha of vineyards and makes wines that in her own words are a “mirror of the place”. This wine was a real eye-opener for many of the attendees, being very different to what they expected from Sicily. Like me they really enjoyed the delicate style and it was a big hit on the night.

To finish we presented Wynns Reserve Shiraz 1999 from Coonawarra, Australia. I have to admit to being a little nervous about this wine when we tasted it – at 17 years old would it still be holding up ok? – but in the end it turned out to be the wine of the night for many of us. Classic Coonawarra in style: medium bodied with lingering red fruit notes, spice and pepper and that cigar-box aged Aussie Shiraz note. Not only holding up, this was really delicious and showed just how well Aussie wines can age. The woman behind the wine is Sue Hodder and whilst she is perhaps not quite as widely known as some of Australia’s other female winemakers, that is more down to her quiet, thoughtful personality than anything else. She is in fact one of the most highly respected winemakers in Australia and won the prestigious Winemaker of the Year award in 2010 (awarded jointly to her and Wynn’s Chief Viticulturist Allen Jenkins).

 

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All in all it was a privilege to present these six wines and to talk about the amazing women behind them. Of course the very act of focusing on wines made by women raises the question as to whether female winemakers make wines in different styles to men. It may be tempting to generalise that female winemakers make more elegant, delicate wines and male winemakers make bigger, more intense wines. You could even hypothesise that the current trend towards lighter, fresher styles of wine coincides with the increasing number of female winemakers globally. However, as with any sweeping statement, this ignores the many winemakers who are making the ‘other’ style of wine (be they female or male) and in my opinion does nothing to help foster equality. Rather than focusing on women as being something ‘different’, let’s just focus on the wines they make.

My hope is that in another decade or two the thought of hosting a masterclass on women in wine wouldn’t cross anyone’s mind for the simple reason that there is nothing unusual about being a women in wine.

Emma


The Coravin Revolution finally reaches the Tilling house

I hold my hands up and admit I am a luddite.  I tend to view most technology whether it’s a computer or an iphone with a mixture of intrigue, confusion and fear.  Mostly fear of breaking it.  Enter the Coravin, a clever gadget founded in 2011 that penetrates the cork with a needle, drawing out wine and replacing it with inert gas to prevent oxidation thus allowing a wine to be drunk over months without compromising its condition.  It is something I have admired from afar as a ‘clever new-fangled gadget’ (I know, it is hard to believe I’m 34 not 84) and have always been happy to be rewarded with a glass from it as long as I didn’t have to manhandle it myself.

I’ll admit it proved particularly useful while studying for the MW practical exams, tasting from 15 bottles without opening them (and then being obliged to drink your way through the open bottles) Yet thanks to my study buddy (who was blissfully aware of this rather strange state of affairs) I was not obliged to work the contraption myself as she did all the pouring.

However, a month ago my boyfriend bought one for us to use at home in a bid to reduce waste.  It sat in its box exuding an unnerving ‘gadgety’ malevolence which had me resolutely drinking screw cap wine.  This week finally saw the end of the Coravin stand-off as my tech savvie boyfriend walked me through what is in reality a ridiculously easy and un-technical piece of equipment that a five year old could handle.  Suddenly a whole world of wine wonderment opened before me.

In this short time the Coravin has liberated me from the constraints of traditional drinking; rather than having to drink the same wine as your partner, now you can pick and choose according to your mood or your food and to hell with them!  More than that, you can indulge in a glass of something truly delightful when you are on your own, for the world of fine wine has become an everyday indulgence.  Suddenly mini victories can be toasted and tough days can be dissolved in a cloud of organoleptic pleasure without leaving you, like Odysseus being wooed by the Sirens call of the open bottle.  Is there the danger of constantly sneaking back to the Coravin for another glass? Possibly, but it is far less likely if you are as lazy as I am!

So to all you wine lovers, gadget-phobes or not, this snazzy piece of kit really is the dog’s and well worth the investment.

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