Tag Archives: Alex

What does a monkey drink at Christmas?


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


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

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

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

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

Feliz Natal


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

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

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

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

Merry Crimbo!

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas!

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

Princes, Poker and Haut-Brion: A tasting with Domaine Clarence Dillon

I arrived at Hedonism to be greeted by none other than Prince Robert of Luxembourg who would be hosting the tasting.  “Good evening, Robert of Luxembourg”… I thankfully refrained from replying “Alex of New Malden, lovely to meet you”.  I fear New Malden lacks the gravitas of Luxembourg.

The tasting was as expected, exceptional, with wines from the three Dillon Clarence properties ably presented by the winemaker Jean-Philippe Delmas: Haut Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and Chateau Quintus.

The first thing that struck me is that the Bordelais have the most fantastic poker faces.  Vintages ranged from ‘excellent’ (2010) to very good for the questionable 2011, a statement which prompted a rye eyebrow raise from yours truly.  Apparently Bordeaux don’t have bad vintages.

The one thing that was reinforced by this tasting was the clarity with which these properties spoke of both terroir and vintage.  2012 on the right bank was glossy, powerful yet fresh and elegant.  2009 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion was wonderfully perfumed, seductive and captivating, a murmuring of appreciation rippled across the room as people acquainted themselves with the wine.  2006 La Mission Haut-Brion, a powerful, concentrated wine was true to form a Marmite vintage with chewy, austere tannins that were making it clear just how much they had struggled with the previous year’s drought and that year’s vagary of heat and rain.  2004 Haut-Brion was beautifully evolved and showing itself in all its aromatic glory as notes of cedar, tobacco, mulch and subtle scented cassis enveloping the senses.  Though clearly it had the ability to continue developing it was comfortably ensconced in its drinking window.  No infanticide there as is so often the case in a tasting of top wines.

The tasting culminated with the whites and the rose.  The rose was surprisingly good showing a perfect combination of concentrated summer berries, vibrant acidity and elegance.  The well-meaning and somewhat inevitable “this pale rose is perfect for the ladies” caused a moment of awkwardness as the gentlemen present looked uncomfortably to the few ladies who all wore ‘oh really?!!’ expressions, whereupon one jovial gentleman piped up with a twinkle in his eye; “not just the ladies, I am partial to rose myself”.  Bless him!

Something that really struck me again was how underrated white Bordeaux is.  The Clarté de Haut-Brion really was a lesson in depth, texture, aromatic excitement and spine tingling freshness.

All in all it was an exceptional tasting deftly presented.  It is clear just how much energy, passion and investment is continually put into these properties to ensure they remain the epitome of quality.  I will certainly be keeping an eye on their latest vinous child, Chateau Quintus as it comes into its own.

  • Alex


Groundhog day: getting ready to face the MW exams. Again

Possibly the hardest thing about preparing to face my nemesis, the practical exam, is the repetitive emotional roller-coaster of the whole process. It is a ground hog day of early morning study, weekend study, psyche myself up, game face on, 12 wines blind followed by the crushing realisation that, once again, I have got the wines wrong.
As the MW reads out the variety and origin of the wines to a background of fellow candidates hissing ‘yessss’ accompanied by mini fist pumps, the dark clouds gather over my head and a cold feeling of sickness pervades the pit of my stomach. How did I not get that one right?? Again?
Back to my books, back to the endless dry notes, back to the hapless boyfriend/parent/friend pouring me yet another wine blind after a long day at work. Back to climbing out of that dark pit of despondency, analysing my errors, vowing to learn from them and starting that exhausting mental journey back into the sunshine of positive thought.
Last night an MW held a practice tasting for a few of us at his home after work. Deep breath. Here we go again. But last night things were different. Last night I was the one hissing ‘yessss’, certainly not for all of them, but enough for that dark cloud to recede and be replaced by the glimmer of something that at first I struggled to recognise… hope.
I have awoken today to the fledgling feeling of a genuine ‘can do’ attitude. I am not naïve enough to think that this war is won and I know that I am going to be revisited by my dark cloud again many times before I sit the exams in June, but for now I intend to build on this feeling.
And so here we are, days away from the 4 day residential course and the mock exam. And you know what. I am feeling positive.


A vertical tasting of Grande Dame champagne

LGD 2006

As if launching the 2006 Grande Damn white and rose champagne was not an event within itself, Veuve Clicquot marked the occasion with a vertical tasting hosted by the softly spoken yet passionately engaging chef du cave, Dominic Demarville. While acknowledging with respect and admiration the history and tradition of the Grande Dame to date, Dominic has Grande plans of his own for the development and evolution of this great brand.  This is clearly not a prestige cuvee that will be sitting on its laurels but one to watch with interest as his plans for stylistic development come to fruition.  Already a Pinot Noir dominated cuvee (typically 60:40 with Chardonnay) Dominic envisions increasing the Pinot Noir component further, a plan he has started gradually implementing with his inaugural 2008 vintage and will continue to develop.

The Grande Dame represents just 1% of the Veuve Clicquot production and is designed to be significantly different to the vintage Veuve. We were presented with two flights, one of white and one of rose selected from vintages boasting a similar fingerprint; the same residual sugar levels of 8g/l, similarly warm vintages and similar acidity levels.  This gave the eager audience a wonderful insight into the type of development that we can expect from the 2006.  The white flight was 2006, 1998, 1989 and 1976.  The wines were unique in their aromatic expressions but each boasted a mesmeric restraint combined with a concentrated, vibrant core and a fabulously long, intense finish.   The 2006 is the 17th white vintage produced since the prestige cuvee was first introduced in 1962.

Tasting the flight of 4 wines was like walking through a beautiful garden during four different seasons; the same achingly lovely landscape in four different guises.

2006 Grande Dame

A gorgeous nose of citrus and marzipan with a chalky, smoky minerality leading on to a concentrated baked lemon, chalk and subtle oatmeal palate which shows astounding concentration. The structure is like fine bone china, delicate yet strong with a lovely harmony between the acidity, the fine mousse and the fruit concentration.  Dosage is relatively low at 8g/l allowing the fruit to provide the palate weight.  The result is both seamless and enchanting despite its youth and though engaging now, promises plenty more excitement in the future.

1998 Grande Dame

A nutty savoury nose with aromas of dried apricot and honey draws you in to the subtle caramel notes on the palate which are perfectly offset by the salty minerality, bright citrus acidity and smoky notes. The bright fresh core gives the wine energy and vibrancy while the fabulous concentration of fruit penetrates long into the finish.

1989 Grande Dame

There is elegance and restraint on the nose which has enticing savoury smoky cashew notes. The palate is developing the generosity of age with delicious golden oatmeal biscuits, honey and baked lemon encased in a fine chalky minerality which provides fabulous structure and yet again, that signature bright acidity giving it poise.  There is a glorious poetic indulgence to this wine which will keep you returning to it again and again.

1976 Grande Dame

The mature nose has delicious savoury cheese rind notes and is both retrained and concentrated. The palate shows surprising youth and energy with a poised lemon freshness and chalky minerality along with the deliciously complex smoky spice and toffee nut.  The seriousness of the nose is juxtaposed by the laughing, dancing palate; it is an absolute joy to drink.

All of these vintages were warm and yet there is such energy and freshness about the wines that seems at odds with the ripeness, especially considering all the wines underwent full malolactic fermentation. Dominic believes that the concentration of the wines, as well as the mineral structure enhances the sensation of freshness, while using grapes from their more northern and therefore cooler vineyards and keeping the dosage at a moderate 8g/l is also a contributing factor.

Grande Dame Rose:

There have been only 10 vintages of Grande Dame rose since its inception in 1988 and we were to taste a flight of 2006, 2004, 1998 and 1989, the latter from magnum. The rose is made using 15% of red Pinot Noir from their 1.8ha Clos Colin vineyard.  There is a newly renovated winery dedicated just to the production of this wine which adds freshness and some tannin to the wine, important for its longevity.

2006 Grande Dame Rose

Unlike its white counterpart which, though young, was drinking beautifully, the rose felt incredibly young and tight with a shy nose betraying hints of the wild berry and hedgerow fruit buried deep in its core. The palate was pure and bright with a mineral rich palate displaying some peppery spice and savoury liquorice notes.  Though just a baby, it holds much promise for the future.

2004 Grande Dame Rose

A blockbuster wine from a blockbuster vintage. The nose has incredible concentration and power with a mesmerising combination of red fruits, black cherry, spice, liquorice and brioche richness.  It is seductive yet poised with phenomenal weight, complexity, concentration and freshness that just lasts and lasts. It lives up to everything that you would expect from the exceptional 2004 vintage.

1998 Grande Dame Rose

A lovely mature nose with savoury notes of mulch and quince leads on to a delicious creamy strawberry and cherry richness on the palate. Smooth and silky with a fine mousse which highlights the delicate seam of spicy minerality underpinning the ripe fruit and gentle brioche notes, and of course the trade mark freshness running through the wine and into the long effortless finish.

1989 Grande Dame Rose

Fabulous nose revealing complex layers of flavour from crystallised ginger and pink grapefruit to coffee bean and cocoa. The palate is beautiful, complex and incredibly vibrant; it is literally jumping for joy in your mouth. It is a wonderfully classy wine with fine, chalky minerality, ginger spice and a gloriously long toasty finish.  Absolutely fabulous and what a way to finish the tasting!

  • Alex


A Confession

When I started the MW course I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. I knew it would take dedication, time management, determination and hard work and none of these prospects scared me; I have always applied myself to any challenge.  What I didn’t know was that as the course progressed it would reach insidiously into my very core, probing my deepest insecurities and challenging me in ways I have never before been challenged.

It has made me face failure for the first time, not once, but twice and like Damocles sword, the threat of failure again looms large on the horizon. For a perfectionist and a control freak failure doesn’t just mean that you have failed one aspect of a notoriously tough exam, it calls into question your self-worth.  It sounds melodramatic but to fail at the one thing you are ‘supposed to be good at’ is a very difficult mental hurdle to overcome.

My first failure was at my first attempt at the theory and practical exams. I had foregone ‘pleasure’ reading for 9 months and had been getting up at 5am to study every weekday.  I passed theory, but I failed 2 of the 3 practical exams.  I gained no joy in the theory pass, all I could see was the failure.  I persevered, re-enrolled and redoubled my efforts, but deep down I had stopped believing in myself.  When the results came through I had passed 2 of the 3 practical papers, an overall failure.  By this point my marriage had disintegrated into an acrimonious divorce and my father was battling cancer.  I had failed at my studies, I had failed at my marriage and I was worried that in my selfish MW cocoon I was failing as a daughter and a sister as well.

I took a year out and tried running away; I quit my job and moved to the sticks. That didn’t work.  Tormenting ghosts have a habit of following you.  I finally stopped running, both mentally and physically.  I finally began to see that the MW is not about passing or failing, it is about learning and growing.  I had got sucked into an MW bubble where nothing but passing matters and the fear and shame of failure came to dominate everything.  I had forgotten the reason I started this marathon in the first place which was to become a better, more knowledgeable wine professional.

With the help of incredible friends who have trodden the same path as me, albeit at a somewhat quicker pace, and an incredibly talented but more importantly, unbelievably patient mentor I am back in the game and studying to resit in 2016, but for the right reasons. I can now see there is no such thing as failure, I might never be able to put MW after my name, but I will become better at what I love in the process of trying.

This is my confession. My name is Alex.  I have failed. I might fail again.  But failure is subjective and in the end I will succeed.confession

Wine is Not a political statement

I am hosting a tasting of wines from unusual regions and I have been hugging myself gleefully as I plan the delights that will be in store for the lucky tasters.  There will be Koshu from Japan, Agiorgitiko from Greece, Pinot Grigio from Slovenia, Teran from Croatia and, following an unforgettable tasting trip I was excited to present a wine from Israel.  I spoke to one of my suppliers to check on the availability of their Israeli wine only to find it had been delisted as it was proving too hard to sell.

Frustrated, I countered that Israeli wine was just the kind of challenging sell that they should relish.  I naively thought it was a quality perception that was proving to be the insurmountable hurdle. Many consumers are unaware that Israel produce wine, and if they are aware, they often believe that being Kosher will negatively impact the quality; that it is simply the equivalent of communion wine.   The time I spent there showed me this was simply not true.  Quality levels are generally exceptionally high, and the restrictions of kosher winemaking makes the winemakers deft forward thinkers as they work to ensure Sabbath does not fall in the first ¼ of fermentation – the danger zone for stuck fermentations.  This is a point I relished demonstrating to consumers through a blind tasting.   But I was both surprised and disappointed to find that it was actually political objections that were causing the majority of potential customers to reject the wines.

I am all for people taking a political stance and like most, have my own opinions on this complex subject.  I appreciate that for many consumers choosing what you buy is one of the limited ways we can make a political statement.  However, having met a number of wine farmers, and I use that term deliberately as they are simply agricultural farmers not political movers and shakers, it is saddening to think that they are being penalised for the politics of the region.

One producer I encountered came from a family that had farmed grapes in the Gaza strip for decades, but now it is such a politically volatile area no one will buy her wine or even the grapes. An accident of geography has left her on the brink of ruin.  She has no interest in politics beyond wanting enough stability to enable her to work her land, produce a product she loves and sell it based on its quality.

Another producer who is situated on a hillside facing Lebanon described how, one year during the war, they were busy harvesting while rockets flew over their heads, fired from the bank opposite them and destined for the town a few miles behind them.  He said with a wry smile and sad eyes that it was one of the best vintages they had produced.  This resignation to the sad reality of their situation, combined with a determination to continue to make wine (an admirable mentality which can be found on both sides of the border), is what I have come to learn, embodies the type of person drawn to the wine industry.

I am proud that the international wine community is an all embracing institution where people and wines are judged on their own personal merits and not tarred with politics and accidents of geography.  I understand the heightened emotions surrounding the Middle Eastern politics but I wish that consumers could, for a moment, look beyond that and remember the men and women working the soil and trying to make a living with no thought of political power play. So before you disregard wine for political reasons remember that sometimes it is simply humble fermented grape juice trying to make its way in the big bad world.

– Alex

Have a Little Faith

Recently I took on a challenge that was to give me a number of sleepless nights.  It was a seemingly simple task; to recreate a wine list for a high quality seafood restaurant in Dorset.  Now, when I arrived the list was pretty much par for the course with every other restaurant and pub in Dorset, if not the majority of England.

It boasted a cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc with a more expensive option from Marlborough (along with a whopping 7 other Sauvignon options!), a cheap Veneto Pinot Grigio with a more expensive Italian option in the form of Gavi di Gavi.  It had a confusing array of reds considering it is a seafood restaurant with a hot and ballsy Cabernet from Napa and an equally rich Chateauneuf du Pape.  It was a wine list by numbers, showcasing very little of the amazing wine talent that we have available at all price points.  However, I was assured, as I am at each restaurant boasting a similar selection that ‘this is what the customers want’.  Really?!! They want it? Or it is the only thing they are being offered?   I was warned that there would be some very irate customers if I were to try and change things too drastically.  Bring it on!

Throwing caution to the wind I decided a full make over was in order.  If the customer wanted the very recognisable grapes (Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc) then they could have it by the glass, but it would be a stunning example and certainly not the 2 cheapest wines on the list.  I introduced a beautiful, rich Pinot Grigio from Goriska Brda in Slovenia, and for the Sauvignon, one from the cooler Hemel en Aarde Valley in South Africa (sorry Marlborough, if they want a wine from you they can have a delicious Pinot Gris/Riesling/Gewurztraminer blend).  These were to be the two most expensive whites by the glass.

If they wanted a cheaper option I would offer them something stylistically similar but from a grape they were less likely to be familiar with and therefore more likely to offer great value.  In place of the Sauvignon I introduced a lovely crisp Colombard from South West France, and in place of the cheap Pinot Grigio, a Cortese from Piedmont.  The Merlot met a similar fate; it was replaced by a lovely juicy blend of Aragonez and Trincadeira from Alentejo in Portugal at the lower price point, and a lovely red fruited Garnacha from Calatyud in Spain as the more premium option.

Having removed the wine crutches from the list, the next step was to put it into a format that was going to encourage exploration rather than ordering by price point.  Previously it had been listed according to the type of food it would pair with which was a nice idea until you had two people eating from two different food types.  Instead I introduced the categories of:

‘CLASSIC; tried and tested.  Well known grapes from well known areas’,

‘QUIRKY AND FUN – step out of your comfort zone and be rewarded.  Amazing wines from lesser known regions and weird grapes’,

‘RETRO CHIC – they went out of vogue but these hot producers have revolutionised these wines – modern and exciting versions of an 80’s classic’

And finally ‘JUST TRUST ME – can’t pronounce it? Didn’t know they made wine? You are in for a treat!’.

The ‘Just Trust Me section included some fairly challenging wines such as an Assyrtiko from Santorini, Forestera from Ischia, Treixadura from Galicia, Mencia from Bierzo, Cannonau from Sardinia and Agiorgitiko from Nemea…. the restaurant goers of Dorset were not in for an easy ride, and neither were the poor waiters.  The idea of the list was to encourage dialogue between the customers and the staff who would have to be trained up to their eyeballs on the wines.

The night before the list launch proved to be a sleepless one for me.  Each time I closed my eyes I saw myself being chased down the beach by a mob of angry customers demanding bottles of cheap Sauvignon Blanc.


Thankfully that was not a premonition and my faith in the customers open minded approach to wine was well founded.  Some customers will ask for a house Merlot or Sauvignon but they are more than willing to try something obscure that represents great value when it is recommended.  The more adventurous customers have dived into the ‘just trust me’ section with glee and are discovering the delights of some of the worlds more obscure offerings.

In my humble opinion it is simply not acceptable to offer poor quality wine just because the ‘brand’, be it grape or region, will sell.  It is lazy and disrespectful to a clientele who, no matter how much or how little wine knowledge they have, deserve to get a great glass of wine, at any price point.  It is the job of the restaurant, wine shop or supermarket to give the customers the opportunity to indulge in great and exciting wines.

For the restaurant in question visit:


– Alex aka monkey-on-a-mission

The Triumph of Burgundy

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

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


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

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

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

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

– Alex


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.


Time to Fall in Love Again…

For 3 years now I have been tearing wine apart; probing it, questioning it, analysing it, resenting it and loving it in equal parts.   It was a slippery slope as my emotional response to wine was replaced by systematic analysis. What is the alcohol level, the acidity, the residual sugar? Can one detect the presence of malolactic fermentation/lees aging/oak aging? Is the oak new or old? Is it French, American or Slovenian? Is it 225 litre barrels or large botti? How long has the wine been in oak? Pedantic? Yes. Necessary? Sadly, also yes. Love was in danger of being sacrificed at the cold table of scientific analysis with the High Priest of the IMW looking down in judgement.

Despite the MW practical exams finishing at the beginning of June, I have still been tasting wine in a frenzied state of analysis – a vinous version of PTSD I fear. I have been so busy analysing the wine that I have been forgetting to ‘feel’ the wine, to let the flavours and textures wash over me, to allow my senses to run wild with the pure, holistic, sensory joy of good wine. Like someone with a nervous tick it was proving difficult to throw off.

However, last weekend, for the first time in a long while I was tasting with my heart and not with my head.  The result was completely self indulgent and utterly marvelous! It was Emma – aka ‘Science Monkey’s’ – much anticipated wedding which meant for once, though I was in a wine region I was not manically taking notes and firing out questions to bemused winemakers but sitting back and indulging in non-vinous conversation (well, for the most part). I was enjoying being surrounded by great friends, bathed in sunshine and enjoying some of the world’s most dramatic wine-scapes of the Douro valley.

IMG_0275 .

I was drinking good wine in the setting it was designed to be enjoyed… a chilled magnum of crisp Albarino by the pool in the blazing sun with Lenka, (evil monkey); a delicious supple Mencia in the evening playing a rather competitive game of rummy; a romantic bottle of Alvarhino over a lengthy tapas lunch in sun drenched Porto. And that is not even touching on the Pol Roger flowing like water into my glass on the big day (it always pays to make friends with the waiter early on!), and the grand vinous finale on the wedding day was Dow’s 1977 port, laid down at the groom’s christening many years before, and received with great pleasure by the eager guests.


Though scientific understanding of what is in the glass is exciting and invigorating, and analysing the wine rewarding and challenging it is equally important to remember to sit back, smile, forget about the science and just be enveloped by the sheer pleasure of the aromatic beauty that is in your glass.

Thank you Emma and Miguel, not only for a truly beautiful wedding, but for reminding me why I love wine so much.


–          Alex