Tag Archives: 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

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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


Judging Bacchus

Bacchus is Spain’s most important wine competition and this year Lenka and I were invited to be part of their judging team. More than 50 judges gathered at the grand Casino de Madrid in March for the competition – a mix of Spanish winemakers and sommeliers as well as a large number of international judges, including 18 MWs. And over the 4 days of the competition we sipped, spat and scored over 1700 wines between us from 21 different countries.

Judges at Bacchus

The Bacchus judges. How many MWs can you spot?!

I have judged at a number of different wine competitions now (see my previous post on judging at the IWC) and have to admit that the OIV system used at Bacchus is not exactly my favourite. Unlike other competitions where wines will be presented in flights by region and variety, with OIV the only information you are given on each wine is the vintage and residual sugar. Wines are also presented individually rather than in a flight– so you don’t have the opportunity to benchmark against other wines.

Bacchus scorecard

The OIV scoring sheet at Bacchus

Theoretically this is supposed to mean that each wine is judged solely on its quality which is certainly an admirable thing to aim for, but the reality is that wine is a product of its place and variety and it can’t be separated from them. It is how we all buy wine, and what gives us an idea of what to expect when we open a bottle. You’d be pretty surprised to open a bottle of, say, Pinot Noir and find it tasted more like a Shiraz. And so when judging wine, knowing the origin and variety gives you vital clues as to what you would expect – for how can you judge typicity (which is one of the factors in the OIV system) when you don’t know what it is meant to be?

Judging Bacchus at the Casino de Madrid

The grandest of judging locations

Gripes about the judging system aside, it was a real pleasure to judge Bacchus. Unsurprisingly the vast majority of wines were Spanish, but looking at my crib sheets I was surprised to discover we also tasted wines from as far as Mexico and Peru, as well as France, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia amongst others. By the end of the competition we awarded 529 wines with a medal – 332 Silver, 179 Gold and a mere 18 received the top gong of Great Gold Bacchus. You can see the full results here.

Whilst judging can be a lot of fun, it is also hard work so all of the judges really appreciated the extra activities and dinners that were organised around the judging. These not only gave us the chance to taste more wines in a relaxed environment, they also allowed us to get to know our fellow judges – and explore the beautiful city of Madrid. The three masterclasses that were organised were particularly interesting – with the Palo Cortado masterclass by Gonzalez Byass’ master blender Antonio Flores being a real highlight. Watch out for Lenka’s blogpost reporting on that soon.

Emma


What does a monkey drink at Christmas?

xmasmonkeys

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

Emma

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

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

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

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

Feliz Natal

Lenka

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

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

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

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

Merry Crimbo!

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas!

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


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.

 

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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


Tasting Ridgeview’s 2013 releases

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

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

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

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2013

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

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

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2013

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

Ridgeview Cavendish 2013

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

Ridgeview Blanc de Blancs 2013

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

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

Ridgeview Blanc de Noirs 2013

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

Ridgeview Rosé de Noirs 2013

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

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

Emma


Seedlip: a revolution in non-alcoholic drinks

As a winemonkey you might think that when I was pregnant not being able to drink wine must have been particularly tough for me. But actually I found that not drinking wine wasn’t really a problem – although I have to admit to savouring the odd glass of Champagne at special occasions. What I found harder was knowing what to drink instead of wine.

It wasn’t really during mealtimes that I had a problem – water was quite sufficient at that point. Instead it was those other drinking occasions: that pre-dinner tipple; when in a bar with friends or when everyone else was enjoying a cold beer on a sunny afternoon. At that point water seemed more than a little bit dull.

And so I experimented with various soft drinks and juices but quickly found that they were all far too sweet. Some were fine for a small glass, but I couldn’t have happily drunk more than that. I couldn’t seem to find anything that seemed like an acceptable non-alcoholic alternative that didn’t leave me feeling vaguely like I’d returned to childhood. Tonic water was my only saving grace, ticking the dry/bitter card – but it did always leave me feeling like I was missing an ingredient.

Then the other day I was introduced to a revolutionary new drink: a distilled non-alcoholic spirit. Yes, you read that right. It’s called Seedlip and I reckon it’s a game changer.

Seedlip - distilled non-alcoholic spirit

Seedlip – distilled non-alcoholic spirit

Seedlip is made with botanicals, just like gin – but without the alcohol. But rather than being based on juniper like gin is, Seedlip tastes of a complex mix of woody, heady spices like clove and cinnamon along with bitter citrus notes. Distinctly grown-up flavours.  I tried it mixed with some Fevertree tonic and discovered a delicious, refreshing drink with not even a hint of sweetness. Not dissimilar to a traditional g+t – but equally, something quite different. And completely non-alcoholic.

Launched at the end of last year, Seedlip is now available for sale in Selfridges and I hear it is also proving extremely popular in some of the top London bars and hotels as a base for non-alcoholic cocktails. I am sure the eye-catching label and elegant bottle design also don’t hurt – it certainly wouldn’t look out of place next to other premium spirits on a bar display.

So for all those mums-to-be out there, designated drivers or anyone who just fancies an alcohol-free day, you no longer need to feel like you’re choosing a drink from the kiddies menu. I just wish I’d discovered it when I was pregnant.

Emma