Tag Archives: Australia

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

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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

 


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.

Emma


Australia vs New Zealand: The Wine Challenge

Roger and Sue Jones are possibly two of the hardest working, most dedicated people in the wine industry. Not content with just running their Michelin-starred restaurant in Wiltshire, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, they also plan, organise and run a whole host of wine and food events both for the trade and their customers.

These events have included everything from setting up and running their own competition for Australian Wine, the Mamba Awards, to hosting pop-up events at wine trade tastings and even taking over top restaurants in far flung countries. Together they make an impressive team with Roger as head chef and Sue front of house – certainly a power duo, but also two of the nicest people in the trade who are incredibly passionate about all things wine and food.

So it is perhaps not surprising that a couple of years ago they set up another series of events – the Tri-Nations Wine Challenge: a series of dinners pitching the wines of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand against each other. Events have been held in Cape Town and Hawkes Bay as well as at The Harrow (see my blogpost on Aus vs SA here) and I believe they are hoping to take it out to Australia soon too.

Over the last 2 years there have been six rounds with the following results:

Win Draw Lose
South Africa 3 2 1
New Zealand 1 2 0
Australia 0 0 3

Not exactly happy reading for the Aussies.

Earlier this month the seventh round took place at The Harrow with Australia competing against New Zealand for the first time. Could this be the chance for Australia to redeem itself?

The dinner consisted of 6 courses, each matched to a pair of wines – one from Australia and one from New Zealand. All we had to do was decide which wine was our favourite in each flight and vote for it – something that sounds very simple but in some cases turned out to be anything but.

Australia vs New Zealand: The Wine Challenge

Australia vs New Zealand: The Wine Challenge

 

A glass or two of Hambledon’s excellent sparkling rosé kicked the night off in style – an English wine chosen so as not to upset any of the antipodeans present. And then we were off.

First up were two sparkling wines, served alongside ceviche of sea bass and bream with yuzu – a beautifully fresh dish to start. Wine 1 had a really pure, bright acidity to it but flavour-wise was very restrained, shy even. I expect it needs a bit more time in bottle to open up – but will equally age for many years to come. In contrast, wine 2 was much more open in style – quite rich and toasty with a certain hint of sweetness to it. Very different wines but in the end the vote went 26 – 37 to New Zealand.

Wine 1 – Arras Grand Vintage 2008, Tasmania

Wine 2 – No. 1 Family Estate Cuveé Virginie 2009, Marlborough

 

Roger Jones announcing the sparkling wine winner

Roger Jones announcing the sparkling wine winner

 

Course number 2 was a pair of Sauvignon Blancs, matched to citrus cured salmon. Of course everyone expected this to go to New Zealand and to taste a classic Marlborough style in one wine. But on first taste it became clear both wines had seem some oak ageing. And so the competition got a bit more interesting. Wine 3 appeared quite closed on initial pouring but after some vigorous swirling it opened up revealing a nicely textured wine with some mealy notes and a herbaceous core. In contrast the oak character on wine 4 was more apparent with some smoky notes and a softer, richer texture. Again, very different wines and this time Australia took the prize 28-35.

Wine 3 – Seresin Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Marlborough

Wine 4 – Larry Cherubino Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Pemberton

 

Next up was a pair of Chardonnays matched to lobster, scallop and langoustine ravioli with thai basil. And for me this was one of the hardest pairs to pick between: both were truly fantastic wines. Wine 6 perhaps showed a little more oak than wine 5, but both were complex and elegant with beautiful acidity. World class Chardonnay. And so I was more than a little surprised to hear how decisive the results were: 50-12 to New Zealand.

Wine 5 – Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2015, Nelson

Wine 6 – Tolpuddle Chardonnay 2013, Tasmania

 

So that meant the overall score was 2-1 to New Zealand after the whites and half way through the dinner. Time to move onto the reds…

Course 4 featured a pair of Pinot Noirs, served with perhaps one of the best risottos I have ever had the pleasure in tasting – perigord truffle risotto served with Scottish girolles and chicken & cep cream. Happily the Pinots were pretty good too – and similar to the Chardonnays there was not a lot to pick between them. Wine 7 showed a touch riper fruit, whereas wine 8 was a little more savoury – but overall they were both excellent and show just how good new world Pinot Noir is these days. The end result: 44-20 to Australia, taking the overall score to 2-2. With Shiraz and Cabernet to come suddenly the Aussies were detecting the scent of a win in the air.

Wine 7 – Paringa Pinot Noir 2013, Mornington Peninsula

Wine 8 – Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago

 

A pair of Pinot Noirs with the tastiest truffle risotto ever

A pair of Pinot Noirs with the tastiest truffle risotto ever

 

Shiraz was up next, served alongside melt-in-the-mouth fillet of aged Highland x Shorthorn beef. Whereas the last few flights there had been far more similarities than differences between the wines, here we had two that were poles apart. Wine 9 showed lots of fresh dark fruit alongside a real crack of black pepper. Wine 10 was plusher in terms of texture but still had lots of vibrant acidity to it and a lovely complexity. It is perhaps no surprise that Australia took the crown here with their number 1 grape variety, winning 23-41.

Wine 9 – Craggy Range Le Sol 2011, Hawkes Bay

Wine 10 – Yalumba Octavius 2013, Barossa Valley

 

Onto the sixth and final flight: Cabernet Sauvignon served with a welsh rarebit croquette. Here again were two very different wines. Wine 11 being leaner with some bell pepper notes, wine 12 showing a lovely fragrance and lift with a richer texture.  A drum roll and baited breath greeted the results announcement here: would it be an overall win for Australia or an even draw?

24–38 came the results……to Australia! That gave an overall score of Australia 4 : New Zealand 2. Finally, Australia had made it onto the leaderboard.

Wine 11 – Vidal Legacy Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013, Hawkes Bay

Wine 12 – Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Margaret River

 

Despite all of the celebrations and then heading up on stage to collect the trophy on behalf of Australia, I have to say it really could have gone either way. Both countries fielded some truly world-class wines and it seems slightly unfair that there should be a winner and a loser. But I guess that is the nature of competition.

Accepting the award for Australia

Accepting the award for Australia

 

For me though what the series really does is far more important than celebrating a winning country. Rather, it injects an (often much-needed) dose of fun into wine tasting and it focuses attention on the wine. Which is no mean feat given the quality of food they were served alongside. This is the sort of occasion any winemaker would be thrilled to have their wine served at: where the wine is the true star of the show and the bit that people remember. Long may it continue.

Emma


Attitude at Altitude: exploring Australia’s cool climates

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

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

Australia's cool climate seminar

Australia’s cool climate seminar

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Climate by Altitude wines

Cool Climate by Altitude wines

Here are my top picks from the tasting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Emma


The Golden Age of Australian Chardonnay?

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Age of Australian Chardonnay

Just some of the Aussie Chardonnays at the tasting

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

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

Emma


Women in Wine

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Emma


Chardonnay – the winemakers grape

Is a wine made in the winery or in the vineyard?

That wasn’t a question on one of my MW exams, but it could well have been. The argument about whether a wine is made in the vineyard or in the winery is long-lived and, in truth, there is no single answer to the question. Like every exam question an MW student has to answer it requires considering multiple differing, even polar opposite, opinions and illuminating them with real-life examples from vineyards and wineries worldwide.

This particular subject was brought into sharp focus at a tasting I attended recently where four cool-climate producers from different countries each discussed their philosophies when making Chardonnay. Winemakers or representatives from Domaine de Malandes in Chablis, Casas del Bosque in Casablanca, Chile, Philip Shaw from Orange in Australia and Jordan from Stellenbosch in South Africa all gathered in London to show two Chardonnays each.

From L-R: Philip Goodband MW, moderator, representative from Domaine des Malandes, Gary Jordan from Jordan,  Damien Shaw from Philip Shaw, Grant Phelps from Casas del Bosque

From L-R: Philip Goodband MW, moderator; representative from Domaine des Malandes; Gary Jordan from Jordan; Damien Shaw from Philip Shaw; Grant Phelps from Casas del Bosque

On the surface we had one old world producer and three new world, but all from cool-climate regions and all presenting Chardonnay – so how different could their winemaking techniques be? Quite, it turns out. Whilst there were indeed some similarities, these were eclipsed by the differences.

First up was discussion on what made these producers cool-climate. For Domaine de Malandes it was the northerly latitude of Chablis, whereas for Philip Shaw it was the altitude of vineyards at 900m above sea level. Casas del Bosque benefits from their proximity to the Southern Ocean with its cold Humboldt Current – resulting in fog and cold winds to temper the daytime temperatures. And Jordan has a combination both of altitude up to 400m and cooling influence from the Southern Ocean. All cool-climate, but all for different reasons.

Onto the winemaking. Grant Phelps, winemaker at Casa del Bosque, started his discussion by talking about his love for skin contact, with 100% of their Chardonnay undergoing skin contact for 5 days before pressing. He believes this extracts texture and flavour into the wine. In contrast, Gary Jordan doesn’t use any skin contact in his Chardonnay as he worries it could result in too high pH in the wine – meaning the wine could taste flabby and not age well. In his words “a few months on skins in the vineyard is long enough”.

Whether to use inoculated yeast or wild yeast was the next subject to be debated. Although Casas del Bosque have experimented with starting fermentation with wild yeast, they do inoculate in order to make sure the wine ferments to dryness – to avoid a so-called ‘stuck’ fermentation. In contrast, Philip Shaw use 100% wild yeast as they believe it gives more complexity and texture to the wine. And although Jordan do inoculate, Gary did point out that using wild yeast shouldn’t necessarily give a stuck ferment.

Malolactic fermentation – whether to convert the harsher, green malic acid into softer, creamier lactic acid – was another topic where opinions differed. For Domaine des Malandes 100% MLF is necessary due to the cool climate without the high sunshine hours found in the new world. Softening the high levels of malic acid is important in order to create a palatable wine. In contrast, Philip Shaw only does 20-30% MLF and Casas del Bosque don’t do any at all.

Onto the oak regime, and surprise surprise here were yet more differences in opinion. For their basic Chablis, Domaine des Malandes don’t use any oak – the wine is aged 100% in stainless steel tank. Even for their premier cru Montmains, they only use 20% oak and a mix of new, 2nd and 3rd year. Contrast this to Casas del Bosque where their Gran Reserva is aged for 11 months in 100% oak, 35% of which is new. Jordan’s Nine Yards Chardonnay sees even more new oak – it is all aged in oak for 13 months – 93% of which is new oak. In fact probably the only similarity here was that the oak was French for all the wines.

During barrel ageing winemakers can increase the texture of the wine and add rich complexity by stirring the lees (essentially the dead yeast cells leftover from fermentation) in the bottom of the barrels. Even here opinions differed. Casas del Bosque use the perhaps more traditional method of battonage – literally stirring the lees with a rod, whereas Jordan use barrel rolling so that they don’t have to remove the barrel bungs: meaning less oxygen contact with the wine.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these differing winemaking decisions resulted in completely different wines. Styles ranged from the steely, intensely mineral Chablis of Domaine des Malandes to the full bodied, fruity and smoky style of Casas del Bosque with Philip Shaw giving textural, delicate wines and Jordan ably walking the tightrope between ripe fruit and bright acidity. Each winery had its own unique signature, a result of considered winemaking decisions alongside each winery’s particular climate and terroir.

It was an enlightening tasting and I just wish I had been able to be a fly on the wall post-tasting as I’m sure the discussions and debate between the winemakers continued after the room had cleared. As with many topics in the world of wine, there is no right or wrong or black or white – winemakers simply have to make the right decision for them based on their grapes, climate, resources and a multitude of other factors. It makes for a fascinating discussion.

Emma


South Africa vs Australia: the Wine Challenge

Australia 1: South Africa 5.

No, that’s not the score from an alternative Ashes series (with an extra test thrown in for good measure). That was the score at a dinner held at the Vineyard Restaurant in Cape Town in January where South African wines were pitted blind against Australian wines and guests were asked to choose their favourite match. A bit of a wipeout for the Aussies and perhaps a result of the locals innately preferring the styles of wines they were more familiar with. So, a rematch was conceived on neutral ground.

The original dinner was the brainchild of Aussie-wine loving Roger Jones, owner and chef at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn (a rather lovely Michelin starred restaurant in Wiltshire) and so where better to hold the rematch than at his restaurant. And so a couple of weeks ago a group of 60 or so attendees converged on the Harrow with taste buds at the ready, primed to sip, sniff and slurp to discern the best wine matches for each course. Who would win the second series? At this stage there was all to play for.

Roger and Sue Jones getting the evening started

Roger and Sue Jones getting the evening started

After a crisp, refreshing glass of Welsh rosé from Ancre Hill as an aperitif it was down to the serious business of dinner and the blind tasting. Six courses lay ahead, each served with a pair of wines: one Aussie,one South African. A numbered tag on each glass meant we couldn’t lose track of the wines and for each pair we simply had to hand in the tag of the wine we preferred. Simple, right? Well, that was the idea.

First up were two sparkling wines served with a pot of Torbay crab and pea mousse. The first sparkler was a rosé, pale pink in colour with delicate berry fruits. In comparison, glass number 2 was a deep gold colour with intense toasty, spicy notes – a complete contrast. This was a tough decision as wine 2 clearly had more complexity, but sadly was just too intense for the food – it overpowered the delicate, summery flavours of crab and pea. In contrast, wine number 1 whilst perhaps less impressive to taste was a perfect match for the dish. So, the first course went to wine 1 for me and also for the room. Round 1 to South Africa by 37 to 29 votes (L’Ormarins Brut Rosé 2012, Franschhoek vs Brown Brothers Patricia Sparkling 2008, King Valley).

Sparkling wine with Torbay crab and pea

Sparkling wine with Torbay crab and pea

Citrus cured salmon with hummus, a quail egg and caviar salt was up next – an intense, deeply flavoured dish that at first taste suggested it might be a tough one to find a match for. We had two Rieslings to match this course, and again two completely different styles. And this is where I began to fear a little bit for the Aussies, for on tasting wine 1 I knew just what it was: an aged Aussie Riesling. A fabulous wine, completely dry with a smoky, mineral complexity to it – quite different to wine 2 which was floral and fruity and just slightly off dry. Personally I thought the Aussie wine was a much better match: the savoury notes complementing the earthiness of the dish – but I also worried that the style might be too left-field for some whereas the SA wine was perhaps easier to drink. So no surprises when the results were announced, round 2 comfortably to South Africa by 41 to 24 (Peter Lehmann Wigan Riesling 2010, Barossa vs Hartenberg Occasional Riesling 2012, Stellenbosch).

Riesling with Citrus cured Salmon

Riesling with Citrus cured Salmon

The Chardonnay course followed, to match Lobster Dumpling served with a carrot and ginger purée and chilli jam. Again, a flavoursome dish. This was probably the toughest pair to decide between – really I could have chosen either. Wine 1 showed a bit more oak influence with a buttery, nutty flavours. The extra body in the wine from the oak meant that it matched the texture of the dumpling really well. In contrast, wine 2 still had some oak influence, but was fresher with brighter acidity and more minerality – something that really helped it to cut through the rich food. As I said, a tough decision. After much deliberation I finally settled on wine 2, preferring the fresher style. When the scores came in it seemed that it must have been an easier choice for many: another decisive win for South Africa 43 to 23 (Waterford Estate Chardonnay 2013, Stellenbosch vs Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay 2013, Adelaide Hills).

Chardonnay and lobster dumpling

Chardonnay and lobster dumpling

Onto the Pinot Noirs and surely it was time for an Aussie superstar? The dish was monkfish tail with chorizo, tomatoes and spinach – a great combination that should be a good match for a Pinot. Wine 1 proved to be a simple, fruity style full of red fruit flavours and a hint of star anise spice and some smoky, baked earth notes. Wine 2 was quite different – a more serious wine with real intensity and concentration. Along with red and black fruit flavours there was a lovely savoury herby flavour and bright acidity. It was a great match for the spicy chorizo. Probably the easiest choice of the night for me and the room agreed. Finally, Australia was on the board winning 40 to 26 (Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2014, Hemel en Aarde vs Dalrymple Single Site Pinot Noir 2012, Tasmania).

Pinot Noir with Monkfish,Chorizo, Tomatoes and Spinach

Pinot Noir with Monkfish,Chorizo, Tomatoes and Spinach

The final savoury course of braised pork cheeks with truffles, morels and mash was served with a pair of Shiraz. Wine 1 was a bit of a monster, full of sweet dark fruit, chocolate, spice and smoky notes. Dense and voluptuous – but balanced by bright acidity. In contrast wine 2 was more medium bodied with red fruit and a fresher style. However, it also had an overpowering charred flavour to it that for me dominated the wine. A shame as otherwise it would have been a clear winner. But, clearly the rest of the room disagreed and once again South Africa took the round – 40 to 25 (Penfolds Bin 150 Shiraz 2010, Barossa vs Eagles Nest Shiraz 2012, Constantia).

Shiraz with braised pork cheek

Shiraz with braised pork cheek

Finally, it was the turn of the pudding wines. Could Australia take back another point? The dessert was a combination of strawberry in different guises – pannacotta, gateau, parfait, macaron – all completely delicious, but all far too delicate for the sticky sweeties. A glass of moscato would have been perfect – as it was I chose the wine then pudding option: all the better to savour the wines. And actually there wasn’t a huge amount in it: both were seriously impressive. Wine 1 was full of dried fruit, candied peel and honey along with a lifted floral note to balance. Wine 2 was perhaps a touch more savoury in flavour – dominating on the caramel, marmalade and toffee notes – but overall sweeter in style. After some serious consideration (well, both were delicious so it seemed only fair to keep tasting them) I eventually plumped for wine 1. And when the results came in it was the closest score so far: 36 to 30 with South Africa taking the final round (Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2008 vs De Bortoli Noble One 2009).

So, there you have it – once again South Africa won 5 to 1. Pretty impressive, and I have to admit a bit of a surprise. Personally I think both countries fielded some truly excellent wines and the score could have gone either way. Perhaps some of the South African wines were a touch more easy-drinking and perhaps the large table of (very vocal) South Africans swayed the score. But, that would be taking too much away from the individual wines. The scores don’t show just how much analysis, conversation and interest these pairs created among the attendees. For once the wines were the stars of the night and it was fascinating to listen to what everyone thought, how they argued for their favourites and eventually decided their choices. It wasn’t an easy task and the food definitely took the back seat while everyone discussed the wines. At the end of the day South Africa won hands down – but Australia needn’t hang its head in shame.

And there’s always the next series where they will take on New Zealand…..

Emma