Tag Archives: Chardonnay

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


Exploring minerality

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

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

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

 

IMW Minerality seminar

 

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

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

Elements combine → minerals which then combine → rock.

Rock weathers → soil → vines uptake minerals from soil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Minerality

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma


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.

 

DSCN0247

 

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


An Australian lunch in Wiltshire at The Harrow

You might think that working in the wine trade means an endless cycle of wine tastings, lunches and dinners. Sadly the reality is rather more mundane; featuring a computer, a desk and the occasional cup of tea. Not exactly glamorous.

But, I have to admit, every so often the fantasy comes to life – and these occasions are real privileges.

Yesterday, one such occasion took me out into rural Wiltshire to enjoy a stunning lunch matched with a selection of great Australian wines at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn. There, husband and wife team Roger and Sue Jones have created the ultimate in English country dining –laid back and relaxed, and a real haven for foodies.

We started off out in the garden, soaking up the springtime sun and enjoying a glass of Charles Heidsieck NV champagne. Attention to detail is key in any restaurant – and at The Harrow that means that Roger and Sue had kept the champagne in their cellar for a number of months (“a minimum of 6… I prefer a year”) before selling it to their customers. This added bottle age had given the wine a wonderful golden hue and a great depth of toasty notes: really rather delicious and a great tip for any champagne lover.

To accompany the bubbles were two different canapés. First off was a Roger classic: foie gras macaroon. The creamy disc of foie gras with a dollop of salted caramel was sandwiched between a macaroon made with cep powder – an incredible savoury taste sensation that was so different to what you might expect. The second was a little pot of crab with a watercress sauce: delicate and refreshing, and the perfect counterpoint to the richness of the previous canapé.

Then we headed inside to our table to start the lunch properly. Our first wine was a Riesling from the Eden Valley: Pewsey Vale Contours Riesling 2009, served with ceviche of bream with wasabi sorbet. And what a great match that was: the dry, zesty Riesling complementing the delicate fish, and the toasty notes from extended bottle ageing counteracting the slight heat from the wasabi sorbet. Fresh and refreshing: the perfect starter.

Ceviche of Bream with wasabi sorbet

Ceviche of Bream with wasabi sorbet

From there we moved onto Chardonnay – and a wine from Margaret River in Western Australia: Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2009. This was paired with a lobster doughnut complete with red curry jam. Here the richness of the Chardonnay worked both to complement the meaty lobster and offset the curry flavour from the jam. Another take home message: Chardonnay can be a great match for curry dishes, particularly those which are spiced rather than overly spicy.

Lobster Doughnut

Lobster Doughnut

Our final white was much more unusual than the previous two: Aeolia Roussanne from Giaconda in Beechworth, Victoria. Unusual for the fact it is not a very well known variety and also because Giaconda stopped making this wine in 2012: so it is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. Roussanne as a grape variety tends to give rich, textural white wines with a notable savoury edge – and this was no exception.

Giaconda Aeolia Roussanne

Giaconda Aeolia Roussanne

The pairing with a dish of cod, chorizo and squid was really something special: one of those rare occasions where the duo go beyond being a good match and instead become something altogether different. A real case of where the whole is far more than the sum of the two parts.

Cod, Chorizo and Squid

Cod, Chorizo and Squid

Whilst, it has to be said, that was quite the highlight for me – there was more yet to come. The main course of Welsh lamb, Isle of Wight tomatoes and asparagus was served with Dawson and James Pinot Noir 2010 from Tasmania. The dark, smoky Pinot worked a treat with the pink lamb and fresh vegetables: a real array of flavours on a plate and beautiful to look at too.

Welsh lamb with Isle of Wight tomatoes and asparagus

Welsh lamb with Isle of Wight tomatoes and asparagus

Finally, it was time for dessert. Simply titled ‘Rhubarb’ on the menu, this turned out to be a celebration of this classic English vegetable with both rhubarb ice cream and sorbet, rhubarb sponge cake, poached rhubarb and rhubarb meringue. Delicious – and delightfully refreshing after the range of flavours we had encountered throughout the lunch. We didn’t have a sweet wine with the dish, but I would think a sweet, spritzy Moscato – perhaps the Innocent Bystander Moscato – would be a lovely addition.

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

So, as you can see – not exactly the toughest day in the office, and I can only say a huge thank you to Roger and Sue at the Harrow for their generosity in inviting us out to their little patch of foodie heaven. If you ever find yourself out in Wiltshire (or just take the hour-and-a-bit train from London) – go and visit the Harrow. You won’t be disappointed.

Emma

http://www.theharrowatlittlebedwyn.net/


A tale of Purley wine (part 2)

See A tale of Purley wine (part 1)

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

Young bunches of grapes…still a long way to go

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

Nearing ripeness

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

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

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

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

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

And then we were off! Ferment has begun…

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

Emma


Exploring Yarra Valley Chardonnay

My first impressions of the Yarra Valley were of lush greenness and rolling hills. Think of the Shire and you won’t be far off. I wasn’t quite prepared for how pretty it is with the larger mountains surrounding, the regimented vineyards on the lower slopes and cows and sheep grazing in the fields of the plains. But we weren’t here for the view, pretty as it is, but for the wines.

Yarra is renowned for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but in the last 5 or so years these wines have both gone through some stylistic changes – with Chardonnay winemakers flirting with (or in some cases having a full-on affair with) reductive aromas and Pinot Noir makers experimenting with whole bunch winemaking. The issue of reductive flavours in Chardonnay particularly cropped up throughout our tastings and created lots of interesting debate both between winemakers and between my guests.

As any high school chemistry student will tell you, reduction is the opposite of oxidation. In chemical terms reduction occurs when a molecule, atom or ion gains an electron – and is always balanced by the opposite reaction: oxidation, which is the loss of an electron.

Whilst this is also true of wine, in wine tasting terms these words are used to describe a certain variety of flavours. In the case of reduction, at the lesser end of the scale aromas such as flinty or matchstick are called reductive – I also often detect this by a slight prickle at the back of the nose. Or to put it the Aussie way, as quoted by Tim, the winemaker from Giant Steps: “it’s like smelling your own farts and that slight pleasure you get from that”!

This then runs the whole gamut through to full-on reduction with really quite stinky rotten egg and cooked cabbage notes: a faulty wine. The level at which a reductive wine (showing these matchstick characters but them adding complexity and not dominating the wine) becomes a reduced wine (where these characters dominate and render the wine unappealing) is a completely personal one, hence the amount of heated debate that arose.

Until just a few years ago Chardonnay winemaking in the Yarra proceeded much as in the rest of Australia, and indeed in much of the rest of the world. The cool climate gave the bright acidity but the style was geared towards the soft peachy fruit character of the region. In no way the big, blowsy Chardonnay of yester-year, but also quite different to the more linear style of today. It now seems unclear where the trend towards more reductive styles started, but is likely partly due to young winemakers increasingly doing a vintage in Burgundy and being influenced by styles there and also due to the inherent interest in experimentation that Aussie winemakers have.

The end result has been more restrained, mineral wines with dialled-back fruit character, often a more prominent acid backbone and lifted matchstick aromas adding another layer of complexity.

At least, that is the idea. The reality is probably a little more mixed.

For sure there are those wines that get the mix between fruit roundness, acid zest and just a touch of reductive aromas bang on, and these are truly exciting wines and world-class Chardonnays. However, there are also those wines where the reductive notes overwhelm the fruit and edge into the realm of faulty reduction. I found this, perhaps surprisingly, a particular problem at the lower end of the scale for some wineries where the fruit just didn’t have enough concentration to balance the what-seemed-to-be house style of intense reductive aromas.

The other issue that came out of the tastings was with some wines acid-fruit balance where the quest for leanness and restraint seemed to have edged worryingly into hard green acidity rather than zesty lemon acidity. This seemed a particular issue for the cool 2011 vintage. Interestingly, many of these wines hadn’t gone through malolactic fermentation which would have softened this harsh green acidity.

Darren, winemaker at Yering Station, said this was because they get such high malic:tartaric acid ratios in the juice that MLF gives too high diacetyl characters to the wine – adding too high a level of popcorn-style aromas: not something he wants in his wines. However, if you compare this to Chablis which has the same high malic acid issue, those wines routinely go through MLF and do not show these aromas – so I wonder if it is more a case of them not using/having access to the right bacteria to inoculate with to manage diacetyl levels, or just not managing their MLF right. At any rate some of these very lean wines could do with a little more fruit ripeness to balance this firm acidity.

But for all that, tasting these wines really showed what the Yarra Valley is doing with Chardonnay these days. Listening to the winemakers and understanding their desire to keep perfecting their wines, experimenting and creating new styles is exciting and could be easily seen in the Chardonnays we tasted. And as a winemonkey, the best tastings are those that create debate and where some people like some wines and not others and vice versa. Everyone has different palates and so everyone has different preferences and tastes – and discussing these tastes is part of the fun of enjoying wine.

Wines tasted:

Mac Forbes Hoddles Creek 2010

Yering Station Reserve 2010

Yeringberg 2011

De Bortoli Reserve 2011

Punt Road Napoleone Vineyard 2012

Phi 2011

Giant Steps Tarraford Vineyard 2012

Giant Steps Arthur’s Creek Vineyard 2012

Oakridge Over the Shoulder 2012

Oakridge Lusatia Park 2012

Seville Estate 2012

Airlie Bank 2012

Rob Dolan 2012

Yering Station Reserve 2012

Yering Station Reserve 2005

Yarra Yering Chardonnay 2011

Of these, my particular favourites were the mac forbes, De Bortoli Reserve, Giant Steps Arthur’s Creek and Phi (which handily for me are all available in the UK) – but there were certainly people in the group who would argue for other top picks, so my suggestion would be to get out there and grab a bottle to see for yourself.

Emma

Disclaimer: One of the great treats of working for Wine Australia is that every so often I get to lead a trip to Australia taking a group of trade and media around some of the wine regions. Sadly this time I wasn’t able to squirrel along either of my fellow monkeys to join me, so it is solely up to me to coalesce some of my thoughts and feelings for the regions into a readable blog post. So, whilst I am here for my job, this is very much me writing as me and not as a Wine Australia employee.


A tale of Purley wine (Part 1)

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

The first buds before the squirrel ate them

The first buds before the squirrel ate them

 

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

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

Vine flowers

Vine flowers

 

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

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

Emma