Tag Archives: Shiraz

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


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


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


Celebrating the 120th birthday of Elderton’s Command vineyard

It’s not every day that you get invited to celebrate the birthday of a vineyard. But then, this wasn’t just any birthday, or indeed, any vineyard.

2014 marked the 120th birthday of Elderton’s Command vineyard in the Barossa Valley. To celebrate I was invited to a masterclass of Command Shiraz led by Elderton’s co-Managing Director, Cameron Ashmead. Leaving aside the fact that this particular party was really a belated birthday (happening a week ago – firmly in 2015), it made a fantastic hook for a tasting of these old vine wines.

Elderton Command Shiraz

Elderton Command Shiraz

When the Command vineyard was planted in 1894 it was in quite a different world. Queen Victoria was still on the throne here in the UK. Aeroplanes, world wars and the civil rights movement were all still yet to happen. And we three monkeys were not even a twinkle in our grandparents’ eyes. So much has changed in the world in those intervening 120 years, and yet that vineyard is still there and still producing wine from its gnarly old vines. Impressive stuff.

The story of the Command Vineyard begins rather unusually in a country not known for its love of alcohol: Saudi Arabia. There Cameron’s father Neil made a living selling tractors, whilst also making his own ‘wine’ for home consumption from grape concentrate. The family returned to the Barossa in the late 1970s and started looking for a home to buy. Eventually Neil found a suitable house he liked in Nuriootpa and was told by the agent “If you buy the house I will give you the surrounding 72 acres of old vines for nothing”. Of course, he bought the house – and that vineyard is now known as the Command Vineyard and has gone from being worthless to being considered as one of the top single vineyards in the Barossa. I wonder if it was really the house that attracted Neil – or, after time making ‘wine’ in Saudi Arabia, it was the vineyard that did it.

After a few years of selling the grapes to local wineries, Neil decided to try his hand at making his own wine in the early 80’s – and in 1984 produced the very first vintage of Command Shiraz from those old vines: then labelled as Command Hermitage. Since then there have only been three vintages where Command Shiraz has not been made: in 1989 and 2011 due to very wet years, and in 1991 due to the recession. In typical Aussie tell-it-like-it-is style, Cameron explained that his parents needed cashflow that year and so downgraded the Command fruit into the standard Estate Shiraz blend. With less time ageing in oak and bottle, it could be released for sale much earlier than the Command Shiraz could have been.

To celebrate the 120th birthday of the vineayrd, Cameron presented us with seven vintages of Command, spanning 2010 to 1992. As well as allowing us some insight into the wine’s capacity for bottle ageing, this also highlighted the difference closures can make. Both the 1998 and 1992 were under cork and Cameron had brought along three bottles of each. Of these, 1 bottle of 1992 and 2 bottles of 1998 were corked. As Cameron put it: “soul-destroying”. He also told us that last year he had overseen the recorking of all of the wines from the 1980s and up to 50% of each vintage was either corked or oxidised. No surprise then that the wine has been 100% under screwcap since 2006.

Onto the wines:

2010 – This was my favourite of all of the vintages, showing a lovely freshness and real elegance. Vanilla and coconut aromas from the American oak were obvious on the nose, but on the palate these softened into more savoury brown spice notes. Driven by juicy, red fruit with fine, taut tannin and bright acidity – clearly made for the long haul.

Cameron said this new, fresher style was something they were aiming for and a slight departure from the more intense styles of previous vintages. He thinks it is the best they’ve ever made.

Winemaking – the grapes were handpicked in four different picks, each at a different level of ripeness in order to give more complexity as well as retaining acidity. Fermented in open tanks at 20-24C: a surprisingly low temperature for reds. This was explained by Cameron as a method of stopping too much overextraction and preventing any baked character in the wine. After ferment the wine was aged in new oak for 18 months – 65% American and 35% French – and then a further 12 months in old oak. It was then stored in bottle for one year before release.

2008 – Softer fruit, plums and blackberries. Concentrated and layered with hints of herbaceousness. Not quite as fine as the ’10, somehow a little blurry around the edges.

2007 – A hot year with only 20% of their normal yield, showing in the slightly paler colour and more baked nose. This showed more herbal, minty notes than the 2008 did and lacked the fruit concentration both the 2008 and 2010 had. One to drink sooner rather than later.

2006 – Served in magnum. Incredibly deep, inky colour: indicating the intensity of the wine to come. Despite being nearly 9 years old this was still full of primary dark fruit flavours with notes of mocha, pepper and spice giving complexity and depth. Dense and concentrated with lots of fine tannins: this has a very long life ahead and I’d love to try it again in another 5-10 years.

2004 – At 10 years old this was just beginning to show some evolution with a core of lingering juicy fruit surrounded by more savoury, complex aromas. Still that concentration of flavour, but here the tannins were softening and allowing the layers of complexity to shine through. Very long and at a lovely stage in its development – unlike the 2006 I could happily drink this now.

1998 – Just a hint of oxidative character around the edges. Much more delicate texture than the younger wines, although that core of dark fruit was still there along with a real exotic spice mix: caraway and fenugreek.

1992 – Somehow fresher than the 1998. Delicate with brown spice notes along with that savoury mocha character that was present in many of the other vintages. Tannins have softened and integrated, with just a whisper of grip on the finish to keep everything together. Complex and really quite pretty.

All in all this was a fascinating tasting. Happy birthday Command vineyard.

Emma


Sing-a-long Barossa

As you might remember from previous posts, two of the monkeys are rather partial to singing along to Disney on long journeys and know many of the songs word perfect. Well, after their hugely successful performance of ‘Amarillo’ in Hunter Valley with the rest of their group (“this is our evening in the Hunter…”) they were given the task of composing a new song to sing in the Barossa. There was only one choice really – the brilliant ‘Part of their World’ song from the Little Mermaid that had previously featured on the monkeys’ Bordeaux tour. So, after much thought and consideration the words were changed and they were very pleased with the result. Only to then sing it to the rest of the group who all had somewhat bemused faces. “Whats that song?” “I dont know the tune” and “Disney? Really?” were just some of the comments received. So after discussion the monkeys were overruled and instead Bon Jovi’s Summer of ’69 was used instead (to much less success in our opinion).

But, we can’t be the only Disney fans out there – so for posterity here is our rather fabulous re-working of the Little Mermaid.
Enjoy!
Emma and Alex
Look at this wine
Isnt it neat?
Wouldn’t you think our collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think we’re the group
The group who has everything?
Look at this trove
Treasures untold
How many bottles can one cellar hold?
Looking around here you’d think
Sure, they’ve got everything
 
We’ve got Bordeaux and Burgundy aplenty
We’ve got Champagne and Sherry galore
You want Vintage Port?
We’ve got twenty!
But who cares?
No big deal
We want more
We wanna drink wanna drink some Shiraz
We wanna see wanna see Barossa
Walking around through these, what do you call ’em?
Oh – vines!
Drinking European wine doesn’t make us happy 
Barossa Shiraz is what we want 
A great big glass and a steak on the barbie
Up the valley, in the hot sun
Oh we will have so-oh much fun
Drinking Shiraz wish we could stay
In Barossa
What would we give if we could live in Australia?
What would do to live here in the hot sun?
Betcha back home it’s snowing
Hailing, raining, chilly, windy
Its miserable, sick of winter
Ready to tan
And ready to learn what the winemakers know 
Ask ’em our questions and get some answers 
What is yeast and why does it – what’s the word 
Ferment?
When’s it our turn?
Wouldn’t we love, love to buy lots of Shiraz 
Having lots of fun 
In the hot sun 
Barossa Valley