Category Archives: Travel

A visit to Gusbourne Estate

We’ve all heard of a busman’s holiday, well for the purposes of this blog I think it should be renamed a monkey’s holiday. For what would a holiday be to a wine monkey without a visit to a winery or cracking open a bottle or two of something special. Lenka and Alex have written previously about their monkey’s holiday experiences in Greece, Croatia and New Zealand – and now it is my turn. But for me it wasn’t the azure waters and sunny skies of the Med or the shires of Middle Earth – instead I stayed rather closer to home and enjoyed a week’s holiday right here in England.

Kent is called the garden of England because of its abundance of orchards and hop farms. But these days it is also home to some top-class wineries. And so on my recent holiday there it seemed only appropriate that we should visit one of them and learn more.

Gusbourne Estate as a property dates back to 1410, but its winemaking history is rather more recent, with the first vineyards planted in 2004. They now have over 60 hectares of vineyards (all estate owned), with two thirds planted on the estate near Appledore in Kent and the remainder planted in West Sussex. This is particularly interesting due to the differences in soil type. Despite what many people think, there are multiple soil types across southern England – vineyards are not all planted on chalk. So whilst Gusbourne’s Sussex vineyard is indeed on chalk, their main vineyards in Kent are on clay – and this gives very different profiles to the grapes.

Gusbourne Estate

Gusbourne Estate

We were lucky enough to taste some of the new 2017 wines from tank and were able to compare both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from clay and chalk soils. And the differences were quite marked with both varieties particularly showing higher acidity levels on the Sussex chalk soils. For the Chardonnay, chalk gave a much tighter, leaner wine whilst the clay soil Chardonnay was a bit riper with more weight. And for the Pinot, the clay soil gave a distinct savoury note whereas the wine from chalk soil was fruitier. It was fascinating to taste the differences.

In common with many English wineries, Gusbourne focuses on sparkling wine made from traditional varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Whilst they also make two still wines, these only account for around 5% of total production. After a tour of the vineyard and winery we got the chance to taste through Gusbourne’s three bubbles as well as both of the still wines.

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Gusbourne’s wines

Gusbourne Rosé 2013

Unusually this vintage is 100% Pinot Noir. Normally their rosé has 10-20% Chardonnay blended in, but in 2013 Charlie, the head winemaker, felt that the fruit suited being solely Pinot Noir. This is quite a serious style of rosé having spent nearly 3 years on lees which gives a vibrant, toasty note to the wine along with some bright red fruit as well as a savoury note – perhaps that Kent fruit showing through?

Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2013

55% Pinot Noir, 27% Pinot Meunier, 18% Chardonnay with 3 years on lees. Whilst this has that typical acid drive you expect in an English sparkling, here the richness and toasty core really holds that acidity in check and balances it out beautifully.

Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2013

100% Chardonnay. This was my favourite wine of the tasting – elegant with a real purity. Creamy in texture with some nutty notes and slight saline minerality all driven by a pure apple/lemon core of fruit. Delicious now, but this will surely age beautifully.

Gusbourne Guinevere Chardonnay 2014 (still wine)

From their Boot Hill vineyard in Kent, which Charlie believes to be their best vineyard. Toasty oak notes on the nose also give a richness to the palate which nicely balances the bright, zesty acidity.

Gusbourne Pinot Noir 2016 (still wine)

Boot Hill vineyard. Very young – only just released – but already very impressive. Red fruit dominated with cherries and crunchy redcurrants along with some savoury and spice elements. I’d defy anyone to correctly guess this as English in a blind tasting.

Thanks to Charlie and the team at Gusbourne for a wonderful visit. If you’re ever in the area I highly recommend visiting yourself – for details see their website.

Emma

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Visiting Canberra

It is fair to say that Canberra probably isn’t high on many tourist’s ‘must-visit’ lists when travelling to Australia. The capital of this vast country sits rather inconveniently in the middle of nowhere and, despite being the seat of Parliament and being home to an array of national museums, understandably it usually gets overlooked in favour of the bright lights of Sydney or Melbourne. Similarly, as a wine region it is not exactly well known and visiting wine lovers are much more likely to tour around Hunter Valley, the Barossa or Yarra Valley rather than step foot in Canberra. But it is for that very reason that I was so excited to visit Canberra last month and learn about the wine scene in this relatively undiscovered region.

I have to say though, upon arrival Canberra itself wasn’t exactly inspiring. In retrospect that was more to do with the fact it was a public holiday and our hotel was smack in the middle of ‘Parliament district’ – so it felt like arriving into a ghost town with vast empty roads that I wouldn’t be surprised to see tumbleweed blowing down.

Parliament in Canberra

Parliament in Canberra – note the lack of people

But of course we all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and so the next day we hit the road with open minds ready to start tasting wine and learning about the region.

The first vines were planted in the Canberra district back in the 1840s and for a time a fair amount of wine was produced in the region. But by 1900 a combination of competition from South Australia, drought and the rise of the temperance alliance stalled the industry, gradually leading to the closure of all the wineries. It was not until the early 1970s that viticulture started again – predominantly led a number of scientists employed locally. Today Canberra accounts for approximately 0.1% of New South Wales’ total grape harvest, which itself is just 20% of Australia’s total. A mere drop in the ocean really.

The main defining characteristic of Canberra is the cool climate – it is the third coolest region in Australia. This is driven by a combination of altitude of up to around 900m and continental influence giving a large diurnal variation. So, whilst it might get pretty warm on summer days, it always drops cold at night – a key influence on retaining high levels of natural acid in grapes, something we would discover when tasting the wines.

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We visited a number of wineries across Canberra and I think it is fair to say that at the minute it is a region that is still finding its feet. On the one hand we tasted some wines that were absolutely sublime and that really spoke of the huge quality potential in the region. On the other hand, some wines were simply dull and disappointing. I am sure over the next few years or so, and as more winemakers move to the region and overall knowledge levels increase, this will only improve – for there is no doubting the underlying quality potential. But for now I think it is a region where it pays to know the names to look out for.

My top three picks from the region were Helm, Clonakilla and Eden Road. Ken Helm was one of the original people who restarted viticulture in the region, planting his vineyard in 1973. Now at a little over 70 years old he still makes the wine – although in his words “the vineyard produces the best Riesling, I’m just the custodian of the grapes”. Ken is a true raconteur – one of the real characters of the Aussie wine industry, and a fount of knowledge on any number of subjects. He also just happens to make some truly delicious Riesling and the most Bordeaux-alike Cabernet I have ever come across in Australia. Both more than worth your while hunting out.

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Ken Helm

Of course we knew before we visited that Clonakilla was going to be pretty special, and so it proved. Another one of the original wineries, planted by Dr John Kirk in 1971 – it is now run by his son Tim. Tim can probably be credited for really putting Canberra on the world map back in the early 90s when he released his first Shiraz Viognier, an ode to Guigal’s ‘La La’ Cote Roties that he said “changed my life” on a visit to the Rhone in 1991. The Shiraz Viognier won instant acclaim both in Australia and internationally, and it is now a real cult wine. Tim treated us to a vertical of the Shiraz Viognier spanning 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2009 ,2008, 2005 and 2004 – a very special tasting that I doubt I’ll ever be lucky enough to do again. Certainly it showed how special the wine is and how well it ages – but also the subtle variation from vintage to vintage. But actually for me, it was a different Clonakilla wine that really stood out – the Syrah 2015. The Hermitage to Shiraz Viognier’s Cote Rotie, I just fell in love with the wine and to me it had everything you could want in a cool climate Syrah – purity of fruit, lifted florals, smoke, a mineral stony element and gorgeous silky tannins. All in all, a very special wine – one of the top wines I’ve tried all year.

Clonakilla Syrah

We also tried some delicious Syrah at Eden Road, the Block 94 particularly standing out, along with an excellent Riesling and a host of elegant Chardonnays from Tumbarumba.

Although we tried wines from a number of different varieties, including a lovely Grüner Veltliner from Lark Hill, it is clear that Riesling and Shiraz are the two stars of the region. What really impressed me is the clear regional character that I found in both of the varieties. The Rieslings all had a floral blossom note, citrus fruit character and defining almost saline minerality along with really bright, fresh acidity – but never piercing. Quite a different style to the more classic Rieslings from Eden and Clare Valleys. And the Shiraz (or Syrah) all had a real elegance to them, based more around red fruit than black and often with a lifted violet note – and again that bright acidity giving length.

So whilst not all of the wines are at the same level at the minute, I have no doubt that is more down to the youth of the region than anything else. The quality potential is surely there and I am sure in time we will hear more and more about this exciting cool climate region.

Emma


Judging the McLaren Vale Wine Show

Wine shows (aka competitions) are an important part of the wine scene in Australia and operate on a number of levels. There are the big national shows such as the Sydney Royal Wine Show, then there are state shows such as the Wine Show of Western Australia and then there are also smaller regional shows. Beyond that there are specific shows for different categories of wine, such as the Alternative Varieties Show and the Cool Climate Wine Show. Wine show judges are, unsurprisingly, predominantly Australian and tend to be winemakers – each of whom will have completed an intensive four day wine assessment course led by the AWRI and have been associate judges for a number of years before progressing to full judge status. It is quite a different process to what happens in other countries and adds real rigour to the judging. Some shows also invite along an international judge to join the panel to add a different perspective. And this year I was invited to be the international judge at the McLaren Vale show – considered to be one of the top regional shows in the country. Lucky me!

So just last week I found myself in the barrel hall at Serafino winery in McLaren Vale with this scene in front of me:

McLaren Vale Wine Show Judging

The judging bench

Right, time to get stuck in!

I have judged at a number of wine competitions now, both in the UK and Europe, and have found each varied in terms of set up and method of judging. McLaren Vale was no different. We had three panels of judges, each with a chair judge, two judges and two associate judges (whose scores aren’t necessarily included, but opinions certainly are) and each panel judged around 100 wines a day for two days, with a third day of trophy judging. Throughout each day we’d be given a number of ‘classes’ of wines – say, Shiraz 2016 or younger, Rosé or Grenache dominant blends – which we would taste and score individually at our tables. Then at the end of each class the panel would get together, read out our scores and see where things stood.

Some wines would be easy – either not making the cut at all, or with all of us judging it in the same medal bracket (bronze, silver, gold). Other wines might be more controversial and would require discussion before deciding on an overall score. And for some wines that one or more of us gave a gold medal to, we would call them back and re-taste to come to a consensus. In many ways, this discussion was the most interesting part of the day – we could all learn from each other and with perhaps 25 wines in a class it is possible to ‘miss’ a wine. So, when another judge awarded a wine gold and you didn’t it was good to re-taste to see if you should give it a higher score, or indeed if the other judge was just being a bit generous.

Throughout my two days of judging my panel covered everything from rosé to fortified wine and encompassed all of the major red varieties in the region as well as some of the emerging Mediterranean varieties. It was a wonderful opportunity to really get under the skin of McLaren Vale and learn more about the varying wine styles, sub regional differences and vintage variation. I have written before about my love for Grenache so it was wonderful to see these wines really shining in the show – there’s no doubt in my mind that Grenache is a real star in the region. But throughout the classes I found wines of real interest and varietal typicity with – most importantly – a sense of place. It is that sense of place that made certain wines in all categories stand out during the judging, where winemaking had focused on allowing the bright fruit characters to shine through and not be dominated by either oak or whole bunch influence. I could see the beauty of the region reflected in these wines and hope this focus on the ‘less is more’ style of winemaking continues in the future.

After two days of pretty intensive judging (and teeth that seemingly got ever blacker), the third day of trophy judging was simply great fun. The top golds in various classes were drawn together and then the whole judging panel tasted the wines again to decide the trophies – such as Top White, Best Small Producer, Top Mediterranean red etc etc. Some trophies were easy to decide, whilst others split the room.

Trophy judging

Trophy judging

The final trophy, the Bushing Trophy, is awarded to best wine of show and we had seven wines to choose between, including a white, five different reds and a fortified. Not an easy decision to make. Although I was pleased that the wine I eventually chose was the one that got the most votes from the other judges too. The Bushing Lunch was held today in the Vale when all of the results were announced – and the Bushing Trophy went to the Kay Brothers Griffon’s Key Grenache 2016. A hugely worthy winner from the oldest winery in the region still in the founding family’s hands.

After all of the trophy judging was done, my fellow judges were able to relax with a refreshing ale. But for me, my work was not yet over – I had one more trophy to award: the International Judge’s Trophy. Suddenly the pressure was on: choosing this particular trophy was my responsibility and mine alone. So I worked back through all of my notes and picked out five wines that had stood out for me during the judging, but which hadn’t been awarded a trophy. And then I had to taste through them all and make my final decision. Easier said than done I can tell you. But after some contemplation it was clear to me that one wine stood out beyond the others and so that is what I gave my trophy to: Graham Stevens Vintage Fortified Shiraz 2017.

My commentary on the wine that was read out at the Bushing Lunch is as follows:

Amongst all the wines I tasted during the show judging, the Stevens Vintage Fortified Shiraz 2017 really stood out for me and so I am hugely pleased to award it the International Judge’s Trophy. For me, this wine reflects not only the rich history of McLaren Vale and fortified wine, but also the future of the region with its beguiling fragrance, bright blue fruited style and utter drinkability. Fortified wines are often overlooked these days, perhaps dismissed for being old fashioned or something your Gran would drink – quite at odds with the crunchy, juicy styles of red wines winning awards around the world. But here is a wine that couldn’t be further from that stereotype. Rather than a wine to fall asleep with in a cosy armchair, this has a vibrancy and energy to it that leaps out of the glass and you certainly don’t need to wait until after dinner to enjoy it. With a wine like this it is clear to me that McLaren Vale’s fortified wines aren’t just a part of the history books – but deserve their place in the future too.

Judging at the McLaren Vale show was a fantastic experience and one that I hugely enjoyed. The competition was brilliantly organised and run – big thanks to Liam and Scott and the rest of the show committee and all the helpers for doing such a wonderful job. I learnt a huge amount about the region and its wines, far more than I could ever have hoped to otherwise. Meeting and talking to my fellow judges was also enlightening and I learnt a lot from them during our discussions, thanks to you all too.

So, to the show committee and the MVGWTA – thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful show and to spend time in your beautiful region. I hope it’s not too long before I return.

Emma

For a list of the trophy winners and full results of the judging, please see here.


The importance of being inspired

Sitting in an office day after day it is easy to get caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of emails and spreadsheets and to forget about the bigger picture. Certainly no one enters the wine trade for the day to day minutiae of working life – but rather for a joy of wine itself. And every now and then we all need to be reminded of that.

I have just spent ten days travelling around some of Australia’s wine regions with a bunch of UK and Irish independent wine merchants. It’s been a fantastic trip and I will report on it in due course, but for now I just want to express my thanks to everyone we met along the way who shared their time, experience and passion for wine with us. It has certainly filled me with a renewed energy and enthusiasm.

And it’s not just those of us that sit in an office that benefit from a change of scene. Steve Flamsteed, winemaker at Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley, told me about going over to Central Otago to make wine which imbues him with an extra energy – and that he comes back home afterwards buzzing and with a renewed excitement for what he does. And that is exactly how I feel now.

We met so many wonderful people on our travels and to spend some time chatting to them and hearing their stories has been truly inspiring.

Standing in Bernard Smart’s Grenache vineyard in Clarendon in McLaren Vale and hearing about how the oldest vines were planted by his father in 1921, another block was planted by Bernard and his brother in the 1950s and the youngest block was planted by Bernard’s son in 1999 was quite extraordinary. The fact that Bernard at 84 years old is still managing the vineyard himself is just a testament to his family ties to that patch of dirt.

Bernard Smart in his family's vineyard dating back to 1921

Bernard Smart in his family’s vineyard dating back to 1921

Then there was Ken Helm at Helm winery in Canberra, a true raconteur who had us all in stiches within minutes of arriving – and who taught us the meaning of the word ‘trivia’ alongside tasting his delicious Rieslings. An anecdote that will stay with all of us for a long time to come.

In the King Valley the Dal Zotto family’s hospitality was fabulous. Inviting us along to join in their local salami festival, where father of the family Otto Dal Zotto cooked spit roasted porchetta for the 200 or so guests whilst their wine flowed freely was a special experience and made this bunch of poms feel right at home. The fact that we got thrashed by a bunch of aussie kids in a post-lunch cricket match should perhaps be glossed over though.

Otto Dal Zotto's porchetta

Otto Dal Zotto’s porchetta

And then up in the Adelaide Hills we had another long lunch with the Basket Range producers and their various low intervention/natural/organic wines. Of course that’s just one side of the incredibly diverse story of the Hills, but again it was the generosity and back to basics nature of the crowd that struck a cord.

As Steve so eloquently expressed to me, having time out in the vineyards and talking to so may different characters I now feel a renewed energy and excitement – and suspect the rest of the group would say the same. So, I have to say a huge thanks to all of the wonderful winemakers, viticulturists and winery owners we met along the way for reminding us of what a wonderful business we all work in.

Emma

 


Harvest Celebration with Gerard Bertrand

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Clos d’Ora vineyard 

Recently I was invited to come down to sunny Languedoc and spend a weekend celebrating harvest with Gerard Bertrand and his crew. And 299 others, mostly journalists, bloggers and importers from 14 different countries (though the majority came from the US; clearly the biggest market for Gerard’s wines). An organisational challenge but one that was met and executed brilliantly.

This is only the second time that I have visited the Languedoc; the first was about 6 years ago and involved far too much driving to and from wineries. It is not a small place after all. The Sud de France, which includes Languedoc-Roussillon, claims the largest surface area under vine in France but also the highest concentration of organic vineyards.

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Meat roasted over dead vines

Organics and, more importantly, biodynamics play centre stage in Gerard Bertrand’s operation. The former rugby player swears by homeopathy and his philosophy extends into the vineyard. At 500 ha, Gerard’s are the biggest biodynamically farmed estates in France, if not the world. Biodynamics is one of those subjects that causes controversy and debate. I have no doubt that it works because I have tasted the positive results many times. Though I, like many, also believe that what gives these great results is not just the rigorous application of preparations and processes in line with the biodynamic calendar but also all the extra time that invariably has to be spent in the vineyard.

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On day one we were treated to a tasting of 13 wines from the various estates, led by one of the winemakers, Stephane. In fact there were two tastings, one organised for the European group and one for the Americans, each showing wines deemed stylistically appropriate for each market, i.e. we got the more elegant ones and the US crowd the sweeter, bigger wines. I thought this was really clever and showed Gerard’s commercial aptitude. This (European) tasting helped to highlight the definite style of Gerard’s wines and what he is trying to achieve. Gerard is, as Stephane put it “looking to translate the sunshine of the Languedoc into the wine”. He wants very smooth and soft tannins in his reds. In the vineyard it was clear to see that he is pushing for sur-maturite and the style of wines reflects this – they are plush, velvety and without rough edges. But they also show a sense of place, none more than his top estate and wine, Clos d’Ora, which we visited on day two.

Clos d’Ora is a stunning estate in Minervois La Liviniere. It was first discovered relatively recently in 1997. Back then, it was planted just to Carignan, now 60-70yr old. The place is so serene, Gerard comes here sometimes to meditate. The lovely smell of garrigue follows you around the 8 plots (9ha in total). Here you will find two distinct microclimates – the south-eastern side is affected by sea wind and has mostly marl soils. The north-west side is cooler and drier with continental influence and hard limestone soils. The estate is planted mostly to Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Mourvèdre lives on stone terrasses where it can get the sun and long ripening time it needs, whilst Carignan is planted just below. The Carignan grape bunches are kept a little shaded as this variety is prone to sunburn. When we visited it was a root day (and therefore time dedicated to working the soil) and viticulturist Nicolas was busy tilling the soil with the help of his mule ‘Victorieux’ and his lovely, if a little shy dog Link.

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Vitorieux

The first vintage of Clos d’Ora was 2012 so it is a relatively young wine. Over the weekend we were treated to a vertical of 2012-2015. These were undoubtedly the best wines of the trip with a clear sense of place and that classic black olive, reglisse and wild thyme character but also those very soft, velvety tannins that Gerard is so fond of.


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.

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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


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

 


A visit to Ridgeview

Last Friday I was standing in the vineyards at Ridgeview on a beautiful sunny spring day and it was hard to believe that just the previous week they had been battling severe frosts and had experienced their first ever snowfall. Late spring frost is one of a viticulturist’s biggest fears as it can damage or even completely destroy the tender young buds – meaning a hugely detrimental effect on the harvest that autumn.

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This year old Jack Frost caused havoc across many regions in Northern Europe, with reports of widespread damage – including up to 80% crop loss in the Aube region of Champagne. If you haven’t seen the photos of the vineyards in Chablis tackling frost with burners illuminating every row it is well worth a look – see here. Ridgeview also use these burners (or bougies to give them their proper name) to protect their vineyards. This year the viticultural team had to light them on 8 separate nights (far more than usual) in the early hours anytime between 11pm and 3am when the vineyard temperature fell to critical levels. Impressively it takes the team just 40 minutes to light all the burners across 2.5ha of vineyard. The burners are dotted every few vines along each row and act to raise the air temperature around the vines just enough to stop the young buds getting frosted. It obviously works as, aside from some light leaf burn, Ridgeview haven’t had any major frost problems this year and so their potential crop hasn’t been affected.

So why, you may ask, have vineyards elsewhere experienced such devastating crop loss from these frosts? Well firstly the fact that England is so far north is an advantage in this case. For vineyards further south, budburst would have occurred earlier – meaning that by the time the frosts hit there were many more new shoots for the frost to damage. For once here in England we can be happy for the colder weather! Then there are also some legal issues to consider. In Champagne for example bougies are outlawed for environmental reasons. Something I’m sure many vineyard owners are grumbling about this year. Back at Ridgeview they’re also aware of these environmental concerns and so are experimenting with heated cables along some rows instead of the bougies. These run along the fruiting wire of the trellis, are powered by the electricity grid and are thermostatically controlled to turn on as soon as the temperature dips below a programmed level. Meaning the added benefit of the vineyard team not having to get out of bed in the middle of the night. So far the experiment is proving very successful – this year the vines with heated cables showed no frost damage whatsoever, not even any leaf burn.

The heated cable at Ridgeview protecting the young shoots from frost

The heated cable at Ridgeview protecting the young shoots from frost

Of course there are still many months ahead before harvest will begin at Ridgeview and a lot can happen in that time. Indeed, the risk of spring frost doesn’t really pass until the end of May. But for the viticultural team the first major hurdle of their season is almost out of the way and things are looking good for now. Let’s hope that continues as the summer arrives.

I’ll report on Ridgeview’s new 2013 releases in my next post.

Emma


Greece is the word

Greek wine is the next big thing. Perhaps this is a strong statement but I have thought this for some time now. At the very least it should be the next big thing. If you look at the styles of wines that are currently popular among us in the wine trade and wine lovers, Greek wines fit the bill. Whether it is the quest for freshness and acidity or focus on old vines, indigenous varieties or low intervention, Greece has it all. For a country that is known for its incredibly reliable sunny skies and hot summers, its wines are often blessed with freshness and a lightness of touch so perfect for such weather. In fact, Greek wines often remind me of their Italian counterparts. Greece is also lucky to have grape varieties naturally high in acidity and its wines are incredibly versatile and food-friendly.

I was yet again reminded of this last month, when I visited the Oenorama wine fair in Athens (one of my favourite cities in Europe, as it were).  I got to try some wines I already knew quite well and many new wines that truly surprised and amazed me. I was also lucky enough to be invited to judge a blind tasting, organised by Greek producer La Tour Melas. The purpose of the tasting was to pit La Tour Melas (a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot) against three Right Bank properties (Ch. Lafleur, Ch. La Violette and Canon La Gaffeliere) and assess its potential to compete with Bordeaux at that level. It was certainly interesting and La Tour Melas stood up very well, beating Bordeaux in round 1 (2011 vintage) and coming second in round 2 (2012 vintage). Perhaps it was a relatively easy win in 2011, where La Tour Melas’s perfumed, plush and seductive style shone against the more leafy, restrained and tannic Right Bank examples. But in 2012, it was also my favourite wine, it showed promise for the future but was also lovely young. La Tour Melas works according to biodynamic principles and that biodynamic clarity really shows in the wine despite the use of 90% new French oak. This oak is clearly very good and well-integrated and does not detract from the fruit. All in all a very interesting tasting and I look forward to seeing the evolution and development of La Tour Melas in the future.

The Oenorama fair provided an excellent snapshot of modern Greek wines. From the usual suspects such as wines from Santorini, Nemea or Naoussa, there were also wines from lesser known regions and islands like Kefalonia and many an example of Savvatiano – a grape more commonly associated with Retsina but slowly trying to make a name for itself as a quality grape on its own. And, of course, I got to try grape varieties I’d never heard of, always a given in a country like Greece.

The wines that impressed me at Oenorama were a very diverse bunch. Here, I will pick my favourites. Some of these wines are available in the UK and some are not (yet, anyway!).

White

2014 Assyrtiko, Estate Argyros (Santorini)
Argyros is, in my humble opinion, the best producer in Santorini. Or it is certainly my preferred style of Assyrtiko. Very clearly mineral and saline, it has that trademark lemon balm note and precise, linear acidity. Not as reductive as some other producers but focusing more on precision and fruit expression. In 2015, Assyrtiko yielded grapes with thick skins so the wines will have a bit more phenolic grip.Available from Philglas & Swiggot.

2010 Thalassitis Assyrtiko Submerged, Gaia (Santorini)
Thalassitis Submerged Assyrtiko is aged for 5 years under the sea and sealed under Nomacork. This was an experiment to see how the wine would evolve. Gaia believes that ageing the wine under the sea means it gets zero OTR (oxygen transmission rate). They have found a lot of bottle variation among the submerged wines but don’t yet know why. The wine was tasted against the cellar aged version. Both wines have the same amount of SO2 yet show quite different characteristics. The submerged wine itself is very nutty with a waxy texture, herbal tones and lemon oil. Very interesting and on the reductive side though clearly varietally expressive.

submerged

 

2012 Nychteri, Sigalas (Santorini)
This is a very different style of Assyrtiko. As the name might suggest, traditionally the grapes were picked at night. The wines were often made from overripe grapes, too, and fermented and aged in barrels without topping up.  Stylistically, Nychteri therefore tends to be a richer, bigger expressions of Assyrtiko (which has to form at least 75% of the blend) at around 15% alcohol and a profile that goes more towards the oxidative spectrum of flavours; in this case with nuts and praline, spice and with a burnt sugar note on the finish.

2014 Vidiano Aspros Lagos, Douloufakis (Crete)
Aspros Lagos means ‘white rabbit’ and a little white bunny does indeed feature on the label. Vidiano is the most promising white grape of Crete, thanks to producers like Douloufakis who have helped resurrect it. This wine shows real complexity, a profile somewhere between Aussie Semillon (with its waxy lemon and tight acidity) and Roussanne (with its fragrant camomile note). It is textured but joyful to drink.

Vidiano

Rosé

2015 Idylle d’Achínos Rose, La Tour Melas (Achínos)
A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Agiorgitiko. Whilst I am not a regular rosé drinker, I would happily drink this on warm sunny days. There are several things I like about this wine. Firstly it’s the smart packaging. It would look great on the shelf and you could be forgiven to think it is a rosé from Provence. The colour is very pale, too, and the wine is made in the Provençale style with sweet red fruit and a rosy perfume. But what sets it apart is its acidity. I am someone who truly loves high acid wines and this rosé has bags more acidity than its French counterparts. A real thirst-quencher. Available from Bottle Apostle and Wimbledon Wine Cellar.

idylle

Red

2013 Daemon Grande Reserve, Ieropoulos (Nemea)
Ieropoulos is a winery that was founded in 2008. The vines are located at 600m altitude and planted on calcareous soils. Daemon is made from Agiorgitiko, the flagship variety of the Nemea region, and is the grown-up wine of this property. It is made according to Burgundian principes and aged in oak. Daemon shows real purity of fruit, spice, plums and fine, almost chocolaty tannins. It may be glossy and very well assembled but shows future promise, too.

daemon

2013 Rossiu di Munte Vlachiko, Katogi Averoff (Metsovo)
Rossiu di Munte means ‘red of the mountains’. Vlachiko is indigenous to mountainous Ioannina in mainland Greece. This one comes from the village of Metsovo at 1100m altitude, these are some of the highest vineyards in Greece. This is a variety I had not encountered before but was very pleasantly surprised about. It is a very elegant and light variety and this wine shows restrained and perfumed red fruit, peppery tones, stunning acidity and sandy, almost lavender-like tannins. This wine is not about ripeness, it’s about freshness and delicacy. A feminine wine and very much a style I love. More like this, please.

vlachiko 

2011 Rossiu di Munte Cabernet Sauvignon, Katogi Averoff (Metsovo)
THIS WINE blew my mind. All the more amazing because it’s a Cabernet, a variety I am not known to be a huge fan of. This is a very different style of Cabernet, mind. It is packaged in a Burgundy bottle and it is clearly evident why – this is an elegant, fresh expression of Cab. Rather than showing cedar and spice and all things nice, this is a feminine, perfumed and pretty wine. Margaux more than Pauillac, if you will. Perhaps it is the fact that this is Greece’s oldest Cabernet vineyard. It was planted in 1958 with cuttings brought from Château Margaux, as it were. I would love to see wines from this producer in the UK!

2014 ΠΑΛΙΕΣ ΡΙΖΕΣ (Palies Pizes, meaning ‘old roots’), La Tour Melas (Achínos)
Made from pre-phylloxera Agiorgitiko vines with an average age of 108 years. Again, this is very much my style of wine. Aside from a great label (perhaps a touch similar to ‘Psi’ from Pingus and that could make it confusing) it shows perfume, plum and cherry yogurt notes but a really savoury finish and structural complexity. Available from Wimbledon Wine Cellar.

pre-phylloxera

2010 Xinomavro, Elinos (Naoussa)
Xinomavro is the Nebbiolo of Greece. It shows a similar profile – high acidity, lots of dry tannins and that red cherry fruit. This wine was one of my favourite new discoveries from Naoussa (N.B.my favourite producer is Thymiopoulos and their Earth and Sky Xinomavro, which is simply stunning), it is quite ferric and ‘bloody’ but also showing leather and truffle and a gorgeous tannic structure.

Greece has plenty for everyone to choose from and I really hope the wines properly take off in the years to come.

Lenka


A few thoughts on New Zealand

Recently I found myself reading Oz Clarke’s article on Sauvignon Blanc. I found myself disagreeing with it on an epic scale. It also reminded me that I owed you all a blog post relating to my recent trip to the land of gooseberry and passion fruit, New Zealand. So here goes. Spoiler alert: it is NOT about Sauvignon.

In fact, throughout my whole time in New Zealand, I drank Sauvignon Blanc just once. Well, ‘drank’ may be an overstatement, it was more of a case of it being ‘forced down my throat’ by my lovely friend Kat and swiftly gargled with a much nicer drink, Seresin Chardonnay. So I did well then. Yes, NZ produces wines other than SB!

This was actually my first trip to Middle Earth and wine was not the no.1 item on the agenda. That was to follow in the footsteps of the Fellowship of the Ring, do some hiking and indulge my obsession with volcanoes (volcano-spotting, if you will). Of course I can’t help being an MW student and therefore had to visit at least a couple of wine producing regions to learn a bit more about them. And when I wasn’t prancing around vineyards, I was tasting in bottle shops or drinking in wine bars.

What follows are a few observations about the regions and wines. I should stress that I am no expert on New Zealand wine. I don’t often drink NZ wine at home due to my Sauvignon phobia but I know that NZ can offer so much more. Here are 5 observations:

1. NZ Riesling is getting pretty good. Perhaps it’s because the vines are growing up, perhaps it’s better winemaking. In any case, by the end of the trip, Riesling became my restaurant white of choice. My favourite producers were Pegasus Bay and Valli. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Pegasus Bay, it’s simply stunning and not far from Christchurch.

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2. Central Otago needs a rogue. Perhaps they have one and we simply did not encounter him/her. This is a young wine region, granted, but I could not help feel that the wines we tasted were somewhat samey, especially in the case of Pinot Noir. Often picked far too ripe and showing that sweet rhubarb character accompanied by liquorice. No tannin whatsoever. Consumer-friendly to the tee but perhaps not challenging enough for me. This is by no means a bad thing, merely a personal preference (I like tannin!). I just feel like I want to see someone break the mold and do something brave, make a wine on the wild side. The best Pinots I tried were Felton Road 2014 Calvert (more elegant than the opulent Cornish Point) and 2012 Burn Cottage, the latter from a cool vintage and therefore showing savoury, sappy fruit.

3. Syrah is where it’s at. Whether from Hawke’s Bay or Waihiki, Syrah is the variety to get excited about. No news there, I know, but it’s nice to be reminded. I loved the restrained style of Te Mata (the 2014 Bullnose is classy) and the structured intensity of Elephant Hill’s 2013 Airavata. It has tannin! And 30% whole bunch! Yay! And then there is the famed La Collina, a wine that isn’t afraid to show a little funk.

4. There are 7ha of Gamay planted in NZ. 6.7ha of those belong to Te Mata in Hawke’s Bay whilst the rest can be found at Rippon in Wanaka. I happened to try both! Very varietal and fresh, great reds for hot NZ summers. I believe Te Mata Gamay is even available in the UK so check it out.

5. I found a Gewürztraminer that I liked. It is called The Gallery and it is made by Misha’s Vineyard in Central Otago. The 2013 vintage had pared down aromatics, textural mouthfeel and actual acidity! All natural!

And that is it, my friends, short and sweet. Like I said, it was a holiday. We had hobbitses to visit and a ring to dispose of. If you haven’t been to NZ, I would strongly urge you to go. Even if you have no idea what a hobbit is.

Lenka
The Evil Monkey