Category Archives: Winemaking

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.


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.


Yalumba’s ‘Rare and Fine’ wines

You might think that when working in the wine trade your days are spent tasting wines, swirling, spitting and writing notes. Whilst this may be true on the days I spend judging at various competitions, on normal days I am much more likely to be found behind a computer. Talking about wine for sure, but not generally more than that. So it is always a pleasure to be invited along to a tasting, particularly when it involves chatting to a winemaker about their newest wine.

Earlier this week I had the chance to do just that when I went along to Yalumba’s ‘Rare and Fine Tasting’ led by winemaker Kevin Glastonbury. Kevin was in town to talk about Yalumba’s newest addition to their portfolio, The Caley – an ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz blend. But before we got to that we had five other wines to taste through first.

Yalumba's Rare and Fine Tasting

Yalumba’s Rare and Fine Tasting

First up was the Virgilius Viognier 2015, Yalumba’s flagship white. Yalumba was the first Australian winery to plant a commercial vineyard of Viognier, back in 1981 using cuttings from the Rhone Valley. So it seems fitting that their top white is not a Chardonnay or Riesling as you may expect, but instead is a Viognier. Whilst Kevin was talking us through the wines, the Virgilius is not his baby – but fellow Yalumba winemaker, Louisa Rose’s. “Louisa is such a good winemaker because she doesn’t do anything. It’s what we should all do.” High praise indeed.

The wine itself is perhaps not what you might expect from Viognier. Whilst it does have some hints of apricot fruit, it is not the opulent, heady, peaches-and-cream style that so many are. Instead, this is a wine that – counterintuitively for Viognier – is aiming for cellaring potential and a certain finesse. So along with that ripe apricot fruit there is also a real citrus freshness to it and cut of root ginger. And whilst the wine has a lovely texture to it, it is in no way creamy or over the top. A real benchmark for Viognier.

Next up was Tri-Centenary Grenache 2011, a wine made from a block of bush vines planted in 1889 – vines that have lived in three centuries. The Barossa Valley is blessed with a lot of old vines thanks to the fact it (and the whole of South Australia) is still phylloxera-free – meaning that whilst the vast majority of Europe’s vines had to be ripped out and replanted in the late 19th century, it never happened here. So it is now home to some of the oldest vines in the world and it never ceases to amaze me to think what these old vines have seen and how the world has changed – and yet they are still there and making incredible wine.

As I have mentioned before, I think Grenache is one of the most exciting varieties in Australia at the minute and there seems to be something very special about old bush vines and Grenache. Rather than the exuberant, juicy fruit of young vine Grenache, old vines tend to give more savoury, spicy notes and more structure. The Tri-Centenary is no exception and at 6 years old this is drinking so well. The added bottle age has further enhanced the secondary, savoury characters and it has a real crunch of black pepper spice to it. What most impressed me though was the perfectly judged balance between delicacy, fragrance and elegance with a real concentration and power behind it. Kevin admitted this was his favourite wine of the line up and I can’t help but agree with him.

Onto the Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 – a classic Coonawarra Cab. Again, a more savoury style than some with earthy, tapenade notes along with some dark, crunchy berry fruit. Taut, ripe tannin and bright acidity gives the Menzies a real structure and certain firmness. Whilst it is drinking beautifully now, I’d certainly hang onto this for a few more years – it’s got a long life ahead.

Kevin joined Yalumba back in 1999 and he said that the one wine he really wanted to evolve was the Octavius Shiraz – and with the 2013 vintage he showed us, he is now getting towards what he wants the style to be. In the past Octavius used to have much more new oak, and much more American oak, than it does now. Kevin has completely pulled back on oak use as well as refining the vineyard source – it is now predominantly Eden Valley fruit rather than Barossa Valley. Rather than 55% new oak, mostly American, the Octavius is now around 25-30% new and using French and Hungarian oak barriques (225l) and hogsheads (300l). The special 100l octave barrels made in Yalumba’s own cooperage that give the wine the name are still used, but only as second fill barrels – not when new. In total this has meant the wine has moved from a super-opulent, sweet fruited and sweet spiced wine to something which is much more refined. It still has a core of intense dark fruit, but this is balanced by fresh acidity, smoky spice notes and even some savoury, meaty complexity. The merest hint of mint gives a freshness on the finish and fine tannins give definition. A modern classic – and one that obviously appeals given its win over Craggy Range’s Le Sol at last month’s Wine Challenge.

The last wine before we got to The Caley was The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz 2013. Cab-Shiraz blends are often called ‘The Great Aussie red blend’ and Yalumba have long been a proponent of this style, with the first vintage of Signature being made back in 1962. Kevin admitted this is the toughest wine to make for him as he’s not just trying to make a great wine, he also needs to make it be The Signature. He explains that the wine has its own style with a stamp across the decades. Whilst winemakers have changed, vintages have changed and fashion in wine tastes have changed over the years, The Signature has remained.

The Signature is always Cabernet-dominant: the 2013 is 54% Cabernet Sauvignon and 46% Shiraz and predominantly from the Barossa Valley, although there is always some Eden Valley fruit there too. Erring more towards the red fruit spectrum rather than dark fruits, this is a true blend: neither variety dominates. Savoury elements add complexity and above all the watchword here is elegance.

Finally it was time to taste The Caley: the new icon wine born of the superb 2012 vintage. It is named after Fred Caley Smith, Samuel Smith’s grandson, who has also been nicknamed the ‘Indiana Jones of wine’ by Yalumba’s great raconteur, Jane Ferrari. He earned this nickname due to his travels in 1893-1894 when he went on a world tour reporting for local newspapers about horticulture and to find new markets for Yalumba. In this time he wrote hundreds of letters home which remain to this day in the archives at Yalumba, an incredible historical record. This story and his influence on Yalumba’s horticulture and viticulture is what led this wine to be named after him.

A blend of 52% Coonawarra Cabernet, 27% Barossa Cabernet and 21% Barossa Shiraz, The Caley is designed to showcase these two great South Australian regions and their hero grape varieties. Of course when tasting a wine at this level (£225 in the UK) and with the winemaker there it can be hard not to be taken on the journey. But there is no doubting the pedigree and quality of this wine. Beautifully fragrant with lifted herbal notes on the nose and pure red and black fruits. Concentrated but elegant. Polished but in no way gaudy. This is a wine that at its heart speaks of its place and in time I am sure this will be known as one of the very best wines in Australia. One to watch.


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


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.




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).




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.


Tasting Ridgeview’s 2013 releases

After chatting frost prevention in the vineyard on my recent visit to Ridgeview (see my blog here) it was time to head into the tasting room to try some wine. Luckily for me, their 2013 wines had just been released so I got to taste through the range.

As you might remember, the 2012 vintage was a bit of a washout in the UK with a cool, wet summer meaning low yields and a lot of rot. Indeed, Nyetimber famously declared that the quality was so low they wouldn’t produce any wine that year. So it was with a bit of a sigh of relief that, after a cold winter, 2013 enjoyed a lovely warm summer perfect for ripening grapes and resulting in an excellent vintage for the UK.

Unlike many English producers, Ridgeview only make sparkling wine and solely from the three Champagne varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. But despite this they manage to create six diverse wines, ensuring there is something to suit everyone.

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2013

The Bloomsbury is perhaps Ridgeview’s signature wine and is certainly the most widely available. A blend of the three varieties, Bloomsbury is always Chardonnay dominant and the 2013 is 59% Chardonnay, 27% Pinot Noir and 14% Pinot Meunier.

This is a great example of English sparkling – bright and fresh with those classic green apple notes and toasty undertones. A perfect aperitif bubbles.

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2013

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2013 (as pictured in the Douro – the South Downs aren’t quite that hilly)

Ridgeview Cavendish 2013

The yang to Bloomsbury’s yin, Cavendish dominates on the red grapes – 40% Pinot Meunier, 26% Pinot Noir and 34% Chardonnay. This gives a very different character to the wine – richer and fuller bodied with deeper, red fruit characters rather than the brisk apple and citrus of the Bloomsbury. These richer flavours mean that I’d love to try this with some food – either some meaty fish or even some duck would be well matched by this beauty.

Ridgeview Blanc de Blancs 2013

As well as being Ridgeview’s only wine made from one variety (Chardonnay), this is also their only single estate wine with all of the grapes coming from their estate vineyard next to the winery.

Only released a couple of weeks ago, this wine unsurprisingly shows its youth being quite taut and linear. But I loved its oyster-shell minerality, racy acidity and pretty floral lift. I am sure with time it will soften and evolve more complexity too. My pick of the bunch.

Ridgeview Blanc de Noirs 2013

55% Pinot Noir, 45% Pinot Meunier. This offers a great contrast to the Blanc de Blancs and is perhaps more immediately approachable now. A deeper, more intense sparkling with red fruit characters and rich toasty notes. A contemplative wine this, one to sit back and enjoy.

Ridgeview Rosé de Noirs 2013

This is their top rosé (sadly the Fitzrovia rosé had sold out so I couldn’t taste it), made solely from Pinot Noir (59%) and Pinot Meunier (41%). Unlike the majority of English rosé sparkling (and Champagne for that matter) which is made by blending a small portion of red wine into the white base wine, this is made by the saignée method where the juice is left in contact with the skins before the grapes are pressed – meaning that some of the colour ‘bleeds’ into the juice.

This is a very pretty rosé, delicate pink in colour with crunchy red fruit and lifted floral notes. Fresh and elegant, just what you need for a garden party in the summer.


On the Sussex Winery Bus Tour

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

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

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


Our lovely bus for the day

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

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

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


Bolney vineyard

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

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


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

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


Autumn colours at Court Garden

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

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


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

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


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

Shoot for the Moon

I once went to the toilet (not the most attractive start to a blog I admit) and on the back of the door was scratched ‘shoot for the moon, even if you miss you will land among the stars’. It is a kitch statement, but then we all know that I am a romantic and that kind of artsy empowerment statement would appeal!

This got me thinking about wine, obviously, and winemakers who have gambled everything in order to pursue their dreams, and won, due to a fearsome combination of talent, determination and hard work.

Michael Kerrigan was an Australian radiologist who discovered a passion for wine, re-trained as an oenologist and ended up at Howard park competing among the finalists in 2003 for the tital of winemaker of the year. However as pressure on him increased to triple production of the mad fish wines he began to indulge in that holy grail of dreams; owning your own winery and producing wines that you want to drink. He had always loved one particular vineyard in Margaret River’s Willyabrup region where he had sourced grapes from, and so, when it came up for sale he persuaded some friends to invest and in 2006 Hayshed hill winery was reinvented. Through hard graft and sheer bloody mindedness Michael has made Hayshed hill into a multi award winning, James Halliday 5 star winery. Not bad from the man in hospital scrubs.

Johnny Nel is a full time chartered surveyor, wine didn’t exactly run in the family. However, together with his wife Gael, they went out on a limb and bought a stunning 2ha farm in South Africa’s Helshoogte Pass, which they christened Camberley, boasting such illustrious neighbours as Thelema and Tokara. This was not a rich man’s recreational ambition; to have a winery you can boast to your friends about but actually have no involvement other than paying the bills. Johnny continued working full time and at night would moonlight as a winemaker, phoning friends for advise and very much learning on the job. Seemingly operating on less sleep than Winston Churchill, Johnny had embarked on a steep learning curve that would result in his wines receiving international acclaim. Not content with producing outstanding red wines, Johnny decided the challenge was not over, and along came a fortified Shiraz and a sparkling Shiraz. I was cellar rat there for the inaugural fortified vintage and recall a phone call to a highly regarded winemaker friend following fortification: Johnny ‘what is it meant to taste like now?’ Friend ‘like shit’. Johnny ‘thank god for that!’ It takes balls of steel, passion and a damn good sense of humour to achieve what Johnny has.

Kevin Grant was a zoologist from Malawi (a pretty cool job in itself) when he got bitten by the wine bug. He retrained at Elsenberg as a wine maker and before long was regarded as one of South Africa’s elite. It was at Hamilton Russell winery that he solidified his reputation as the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir guru. As he said however, it is one thing to jockey someone else’s horse to victory, it is quite another to jockey your own horse. And so when a breath-takingly beautiful piece of land presented itself, nestled against the Babylonstoren mountains in the cool climate Walker Bay region of South Africa, Kevin followed his heart and bought the property, so giving birth to Ataraxia. Kevin is producing some astounding wines, and is walking every step of the journey with the vines he planted. You can clearly taste his intense love and respect for his soils reflected in his wines.

So what can we learn from this? Work hard, dream big, but don’t delude yourself that dreams come true; dreams are forged on the back of blood, sweat, tears, and often a kindly bank manager.


A tale of Purley wine (part 2)

See A tale of Purley wine (part 1)

November 3rd was an important day in my wine calendar for it marked the start (and end) of the 2013 harvest of my grapes. After the perfect weather for flowering and fruit set back in July the grapes gradually swelled over the summer, enjoying the warm weather as much as we all did. My 2 large bunches and 5 rather smaller ones seemed pretty happy and other than the odd addition of fertiliser everything progressed nicely.

Young bunches of grapes…still a long way to go

As the long summer days turned a bit cooler my grapes finally softened and turned from bright green to a more dusky yellow/green. This indicates a stage called veraison when ripening occurs – and indicated that harvest wasn’t far away. Visions of the wine we could make loomed large – this wasn’t just going to be any Chardonnay but really rather top-notch Chardonnay. Chardonnay that would please my fellow monkeys.

Nearing ripeness

But I had forgotten the key facet of a winegrower’s year – its not over until its over. As great as the grapes may look on the vine all it takes is the weather to turn to change the whole course of a vintage. A winegrower’s eyes should be as much on the skies as on the vines.

Rain at and around vintage is the fear of winegrowers throughout the world. It can damage grapes in two ways – firstly by swelling the grapes and so diluting the flavours and potentially splitting the skins, and also by promoting the growth of both mildew and rot. Both of which can negatively affect both yield and quality and add off-aromas into the wine.

So the cool weather and rain in the run up to our harvest wasn’t ideal and meant we had a bit of rot to contend with when we did pick the grapes. Luckily when processing such tiny quantities of grapes, hand destemming and sorting is not really an issue – so we were able to easily remove the rot-affected grapes, though it did impact on our yield. Here follows a photo journal of the first stage of our harvest from picking, destemming, pressing, cold settling and inoculation.

Harvest time
Our grapes
Some of the rot affected grapes
After destemming and sorting
Into some old tights for crushing and pressing
The juice begins to flow
After cold settling in the fridge – note the layer of gross lees at the bottom
Racking with some straws and gravity
Clear juice after racking

As you can see we didn’t exactly get much juice from our grapes. Not so much micro vinification as nano vinification. But that wasn’t going to stop me. First up was a touch of chaptalisation to increase the potential alcohol of the wine by literally adding some sugar. 17g/l of sugar is enough to increase alcohol by 1%. and as we estimated the amount of juice at a mere 108ml, 1.8g of sugar was deemed to be sufficient. A touch under half a teaspoon. Next up was inoculation. Gavin Monery, winemaker at the new urban winery London Cru, had helpfully announced on twitter a few days previously that he had some open packets of yeast looking for a good home. So, I swiftly snapped up some VL2 yeast which should be perfect for Chardonnay. However, it turns out yeast packs deal in addition amounts per hectolitre….not per 100ml, so a sprinkling seemed like the best amount. Perhaps not the most scientific addition ever, but hopefully it will be enough.

And then we were off! Ferment has begun…

I’ll report back once the wine has stopped fermenting. Looking forward to the first taste already.


New Fizz-Kid on the Block – Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois gets the wine monkey treatment.

Champagne is a complex masterpiece involving multi staged blending procedures, multiple fermentations, extensive autolytic ageing, dosage and disgorging carried out over many years which makes Champagne the ultimate display of science, patience, knowledge and art. 

Admittedly this is of little interest to the majority of champagne drinkers.

It is the lifestyle that Champagne encapsulates; the hedonistic world of power boats, polo and (if you are lucky) princes.  It is the drink of the ‘beautiful people’.  This luxury association is one of the great successes of the Champagne houses. 

However, Champagne, especially younger Champagne, has a fairly racy acidity which is suited to food rather than the aperitif occasions for which it seems to be predominantly drunk. Maybe we are getting old, but all this racy acidity is a recipe for heart burn which does not quite fit the glamorous lifestyle of the rich and famous.  The problem is that it requires patience for the acidity to soften and integrate through ageing, and quite often consumers are adverse to the added complexity and richness that aged Champagne assumes. 

So, for all you Champagne Charlie’s with heart burn who don’t feel like gulping Gaviscon in between crystal flutes of champers, the wine monkeys have happened upon the perfect Champagne for you.

It is the newest cuvee from the pedigree stable of Billecart-Salmon; the Billecart-Salmon Sous Bois.  Now, not only are we Champagne lovers, but we also love to taste something a bit different so this fitted the bill nicely.  Unlike the majority of Champagne’s on the market the Sous Bois is entirely vinified in oak. 

On initial examination we must admit we were under-whelmed by the label. Though it was obviously depicting the age rings of a tree, it is the colour of caramel Angel Delight which brings back less than attractive memories of school dinners circa the 1980s.

The proof, however, is in the pudding.  The nose is a beautifully seductive and richly elegant combination of toffee, yeast and baked apples. The palate is unashamedly upfront with a sweet American toffee apple and vanilla entry. The mid palate is a delight, the acidity, though fresh, has a softness to it that allows the wine to caress the palate, the autolytic notes are subtle but dance in the background enhancing the vanilla oak notes.  As one would expect from Billecart-Salmon, the mousse is fine and persistent, the finish long but mellow.

Though the Sous Bois doesn’t have the intense complexity and depth of the other top oaked Champagne’s, and its modern vanilla toffee notes could be considered somewhat ‘nouveau riche’ in style by more traditional tasters, it is undoubtedly a beautifully made, premium, crowd-pleasing wine.  This is an attribute far too often over looked by many wine geeks, especially when catering for weddings or large celebrations.  It is most certainly the Champagne of choice to be drinking at the next exclusive polo event, where its glamour and enjoyment will last beyond a single chukka.


A tale of Purley wine (Part 1)

On a visit to Denbies winery near Dorking a couple of years ago I bought a Chardonnay vine on the spur of the moment. For really, what is a wine monkey without a vine? (As a quick aside – if you ever happen to be near Dorking, Denbies is worth a visit – if only for the hilarious ‘wine train’ tour of the cellars. Anyone who has been will know what I mean. Denbies is also the largest vineyard in the UK and produces quite a range of different wines, including a rather nice rosé if memory serves as well as the obligatory bubbles). Anyway, said vine was really a stumpy little thing, not much of a looker, but was duly planted in the garden in a sunny, south-facing spot. Cue huge excitement the following spring when the first buds appeared and began to burst. However, visions of the delicious wine we could produce were shattered when said buds were nibbled off by a passing squirrel overnight. Thus ended the first vintage of Purley wine.

The first buds before the squirrel ate them

The first buds before the squirrel ate them


This spring the vine was carefully enrobed in chicken wire when the buds began to appear to prevent the hungry squirrels striking again. And happily the buds burst and quickly grew to form lots of lovely shoots and leaves. The last couple of months have seen the vine growing nicely. We did have one slight worry when the leaves turned yellow – but a quick look at my MW books suggested a nutrient deficiency (likely magnesium, but molybdenum and manganese were also possibilities) and happily a swift application of fertiliser helped to solve that problem. And that put paid to any thoughts of organic production. Then, just a few weeks ago, I spied the first inflorescence amongst the leaves. This is the part of the vine that forms the flowers – and then the grapes. It actually looks like the stem of a mini bunch of grapes. It was the first indication that we might get a crop of grapes this year.

Now all we needed was some good weather to trigger flowering. And – lo and behold – that’s exactly what we have. So I am very happy to report our vine is flowering nicely, and I hope to see the first tiny grapes appearing in the next few days or so. Now, for any of you who haven’t seen vine flowers before, they’re not the most beautiful in the world being both tiny and with a catch-it-and-its-gone smell. I actually got engaged recently and one of my friends suggested having a bouquet of vine flowers. Which sounded like a great plan until I showed her what a vine flower looks like. Plus, of course, I doubt any winemaker would be very impressed with me picking the vast number of vine flowers that would be needed to make a bouquet as it would mean that those vines would then produce no grapes.

Vine flowers

Vine flowers


The current weather we’re experiencing with warmth and little wind is perfect for flowering so fingers crossed we should get a good fruit set (essentially each flower to self-pollinate and form a grape berry). And now the fun begins…just what is the best way to make wine from 1 vine? This is something I am going to ponder over the next few weeks. Quite a lot needs to be considered – how best to decide the picking date (for I cannot pick too many grapes to taste or I shall have none left), how best to crush and press the fruit, what vessel to ferment in, whether to add yeast or not and also whether to add sulphur dioxide (and where to source some). And that’s not even considering whether to chaptalise or not (this is when you add sugar prior to ferment to increase alcohol in the wine – done routinely in cool climates around the world). So, any thoughts on how best to produce my Purley wine? All helpful comments gratefully received!

I shall keep you all updated with how the vine fares over the summer and autumn – and I am anticipating a harvest date towards the end of October. Then all things being well the monkeys may get to taste some Purley wine!