Tag Archives: wine

Ornellaia Undressed: Understanding the wine behind the myth

Ornellaia.  We know the name and it resonates with power.  But do we know the wine?  Like a celebrity judged by the gossip pages of Hello, the true depth of personality is hidden behind the reputation.  Who is the wine behind the label?

 

The opportunity to taste the single terroir wines prior to blending that might (or might not) come to embody the famous Ornellaia was an extraordinary opportunity to discover just that.  A person’s character is only truly comprehensible when you understand the experiences that have shaped them and the same can be said for understanding how individual terroirs shape a wine.  It is a tasting which provides a glimpse into the soul of the wine before it is born.

 

Axel Heinz, the cellar master of this awesome estate flew to London to host this historic tasting, bringing with him 9 single terroir wines that would likely become the beating heart of Ornellaia 2015.  Each year they harvest and vinify between 80 and 90 individual terroirs and blend later than most so they can understand the evolution of each wine and thus ascertain more fully its potential contribution to the final blend.   Axel’s fastidious work fly’s in the face of the generally held assumption that Super Tuscan’s are a winemakers wine and not an honest expression of terroir.

 

Bolgheri’s climate forms a unique enclave in Tuscany.  It is a sub-region bathed in warm Mediterranean sunshine mitigated by the all-important cooling influences of the sea lying just 8km from the first of Ornellaia’s vineyards.  The rugged hills provide both freshening altitude and shelter to the vineyards while the diverse soils comprised of varying degrees of blue clay, clay, polygenic rubble and sand contribute to complexity and vine health.  The clay is the secret ingredient responsible for the vital retention of water protecting the vines from hydraulic stress in the warm summer days.

 

Vineyard 1 – Bolgherese – young Merlot on red sand with limestone pebbles at low altitude makes for an early ripening site.

A plush yet spicy plum nose leads to a mid-weight, peppery wine with velvety good looks, a chalky undertone and a cheerful freshness.  This lighter wine lacks the depth and gravitas one would expect from Ornellaia and as such is rarely as yet included.

The lighter style produced from these soils justifies a more conservative vinification approach to preserve freshness and to enhance rather than smother the aromatics.  A very gentle handling of the tannins further prevents any bitterness or austerity.

 

Vineyard 2 – Ginestraio – relatively young Merlot on pebbly clay over limestone

Immediately there is more concentration, weight and depth to the wine; dark powerful fruit is firmly encased is ripe yet firmly structured tannins leading to a savoury spicy finish.  Richness is offset by freshness and the beautifully integrated oak makes for a charming wine.  A restrained hand was used on the oak treatment as Axel waits to see if it will make the cut for Ornellaia.

 

Vineyard 3 – Bellaria – old vine Merlot on deep pebbly clay over limestone at low altitude but direct exposure to the sea.

A restrained power greets you on the nose, as yet giving little away.  The palate shows a wonderful coiled concentration, a powerful core of black cherry and plum fruit and a rich Christmas cake spiced breadth.  There is a sense of completeness to the wine with fragrant floral notes and some redder fruit emerging from the glass to compliment the intense dark fruit depths.  This is truly a lesson in what Merlot can achieve in the right site.

 

Vineyard 4 – Bellaria Alta – Old vine Cabernet Franc on pebbly clay over limestone

A classically beguiling floral, herbal nose enhancing the perfumed red berry fruit.  The palate shows darker fruit and spice with a hint of graphite beneath the floral notes, it is beautifully open with fine grippy tannins, beautifully concentrated fruit and high toned aromatics supported by a vibrant freshness.  Aromatic yet powerful; the signature of the limestone and clay soils are clear in the wines profile.

 

Vineyard 5 – Bellaria – Old vine Cabernet Franc on clayey sand

A poised nose with crunchy red fruit and a more lifted nose of complex garrigue herbs.  The fine silken black and red juicy fruit has a more linear, pure profile with great freshness and persistence.

 

Vineyard 6 – Olivino – young Cabernet Sauvignon on deep pebbly clay on limestone.

A powerfully concentrated nose with a ripe cassis perfume.  The palate is just fabulous; supple, concentrated and powerful with silken yet structured tannins.  The fruit is ripe and sweet with a subtle dusty note while the freshness lends it huge energy leading to an effortless elegance.  It is already showing authority and poise despite the youth of the vineyard.

 

Vineyard 7 – Bellaria Alta – old vine Cabernet Sauvignon on pebbly clay over limestone

A more open nose greets you with a complex array of red and black fruit.  The fine grippy tannins support the perfumed cassis giving the wine beautiful aromatic lift, freshness and a juicy elegance.  This vineyard, a stalward of the Ornellaia blend, shows the importance of blending, for it is not always power that Axel is searching for, in this case it is taut purity and aromatic lift.

 

Vineyard 8 – Ornellaia Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon on deep sandy clay

An earthier, dusty character melds into the rich, dark, powerful fruit reflecting this warmer site.  Concentrated cassis and plum is complimented by spicy oak and a hint of chocolate and mint.  The wine is beautifully structured with silken tannins and a long, compact finish.

 

Vineyard 9 – Bellaria Alta – old vine Petit Verdot on deep sandy clay

Intense purple colour with crunchy damson, sloe and violets.  The fruit is dense yet fresh and exuberant and the lovely fine ripe tannins lack the rusticity often associated with this variety thanks to the long slow growing season and ample sunshine.

 

The art of blending could not have been made more apparent as each wine, so distinctive and unique in its personality, could be woven together to form a multi-layered complex mosaic harnessing power from one vineyard, aromatics from another and freshness from a third. Axel’s single minded pursuit to understand every inch of his soil and how it can contribute to the greater whole has resulted in an extraordinary wine which is going to grow and evolve as the land reveals more of herself through the grapes.

 

  • Alex

 

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What does a monkey drink at Christmas?

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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!


Discovering fine Greek wine

A visit to Tinos island and T-Oinos winery

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A classic Greek scene

Greek wine is exciting. I have been saying this for a while. This has been reaffirmed to me by a recent visit to T-Oinos winery on Tinos island, organised by my fellow MW and Greek wine ambassador Yiannis Karakasis.

 

Tinos is a moderately-sized island (194 square kilometres) in the Aegean Sea and part of the Cyclades group of islands. This group includes the famous Santorini and neighbouring party capital Mykonos. Like many Greek islands, Tinos is a bit of a geological wonder. It is home to a Unesco World Heritage site – hills covered in huge granite boulders, according to mythology they were cast down by the Titans. As all wine geeks know, granitic soils are great for vine growing. So far, so easy. Except not. Tinos is a beautiful island alright, sprinkled with those charming white-washed little houses and over 700 churches and chapels. As lovely as it looks bathed in the sunshine, Tinos is also a very windy, dry and desolate place and this is hard terrain for viticulture. It doesn’t quite rain enough and there isn’t enough water for irrigation. In fact, T-Oinos only just manage to collect enough water for one irrigation run a year, reserved for their youngest vines.

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Tinos has as many chapels as you can shake a stick at

T-Oinos winemaking consultant Thanos Fakorelis explains that when the vineyards of Clos Stegasta were first planted in 2000, high density of 11,500 plants/ha seemed the best option. Less canopy means less water requirement as well as less bunches per vine. Being so close together also helps protect the vines from the harsh Northern winds that sweep through this open plateau, which sits at 450m altitude.

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Clos Stegasta vineyard

Walking through the Clos Stegasta vineyard made me wonder how the vineyard workers manage. The sandy soils (on granite bedrock) on a blustery day, the granite boulders in the summer heat. It isn’t easy, else everyone would be doing it. This is unique terrain, like that of another planet and for such hardship you can expect an equivalent price tag.

 

T-Oinos farm 11ha of vineyards, planted to Malagousia, Assyrtiko, Mavrotragano and Avgoustiatis. The first commercially released vintage was 2008. I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by the wines. They have elegance and poise, a clearly defined line of saline ‘minerality’ runs through all the wines, white and red.

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The three quality levels

Their Malagousia is a far cry from the overtly aromatic and a little simple whites that you will find elsewhere in Greece. The winemaker deliberately picks this grape at below 13% potential alcohol in order to avoid excessive aromatics, which are found above this percentage. Here, we’re looking at 11-12% abv. The wine has a restrained, tight nose which focuses on stony, grapefruit and lime aromas and a saline, oyster shell expression on the palate. It’s a delicious wine.

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Rassonas vineyard

Where Malagousia is the ‘entry level’ white (though about £20-25 on the shelf), the top white Clos Stegasta focuses exclusively on Greece’s best white variety – Assyrtiko. We were lucky enough to be treated to a vertical tasting of this fabulous wine, vintages 2011 – 2015. The style varies as Tinos offers vintage variation much like any other place. The amount of oak used also varies, it can be a vintage decision or a purely practical one – in 2012 the volumes were so small (1000l only) that it neatly fit into two 500l French barrels. This vintage was not my favourite as I felt the oak was somewhat dominant here, hiding the character of the grape. Both 2011 and 2014 are vintages that clearly show Assyrtiko’s varietal character. This is not dissimilar to Hunter Semillon with its waxy lemon and citrus oil notes. Both wines saw a small amount of oak (10%) and I think this benefits Assyrtiko by adding a layer of texture without obscuring the grape. Saying that, I absolutely loved the 2013 Clos Stegasta white. One of my fellow MWs refers to it as the ‘Greek Coche-Dury’ and I would not disagree with that. The 2013 was fermented 70% in wood and 30% in steel and shows an outstandingly well-managed oak character – that cornmeal reduction and creamy spice really tempers Assyrtiko’s stand-out acidity. Granted, this may not be a typical Greek white, in fact given blind I would go straight to Meursault or a high quality Aussie Chardonnay, but there is no denying that this is a world class wine. I think quite a few people would be surprised to learn this wine comes from an island in the Aegean!

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Fermentation is now done partially in amphorae

Now onto the reds, focused on Mavrotragano. This is an indigenous variety to the Cyclades and most famously planted in Santorini, where it fetches higher prices per kilo than Assyrtiko. Mavrotragano is a highly tannic and rustic variety and not easy to temper. In fact, some people in Greece are of the belief that it does not at all work in the volcanic soils of Santorini. Here at T-Oinos it seems to thrive on the granitic soils and produces wines with rounder tannins. T-Oinos produce two reds based on this variety – Mavro and Clos Stegasta. The latter is a single vineyard wine from the amphitheatre-like Rassonas vineyard. At 400m altitude it is a slightly warmer, more sheltered spot from the main Clos Stegasta site. Standing there, I was reminded of the terraced vineyards of Priorat. My favourite from this tasting was the 2013 Clos Stegasta Reserve red. It has a very seductive nose, showing wild herbs and lavender, plush morello cherry and almost a hint of orange. The tannins are tempered if still chewy and pencilly but have this with food and they disappear. At 14.5% abv, this may not look like a slight wine, but it is so balanced by that fresh, saline acidity, that you don’t even notice it.

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Bottles in the vineyard

T-Oinos is doing a great job bringing attention to Tinos island whilst equally making some of the most exciting wines in Greece. They are available to buy in France and the U.K. (Via Wimbledon Wine Cellar and Handford’s). They may not be cheap but there is no doubt they are fine.

 

LENKA

 


Greece is the word

Greek wine is the next big thing. Perhaps this is a strong statement but I have thought this for some time now. At the very least it should be the next big thing. If you look at the styles of wines that are currently popular among us in the wine trade and wine lovers, Greek wines fit the bill. Whether it is the quest for freshness and acidity or focus on old vines, indigenous varieties or low intervention, Greece has it all. For a country that is known for its incredibly reliable sunny skies and hot summers, its wines are often blessed with freshness and a lightness of touch so perfect for such weather. In fact, Greek wines often remind me of their Italian counterparts. Greece is also lucky to have grape varieties naturally high in acidity and its wines are incredibly versatile and food-friendly.

I was yet again reminded of this last month, when I visited the Oenorama wine fair in Athens (one of my favourite cities in Europe, as it were).  I got to try some wines I already knew quite well and many new wines that truly surprised and amazed me. I was also lucky enough to be invited to judge a blind tasting, organised by Greek producer La Tour Melas. The purpose of the tasting was to pit La Tour Melas (a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot) against three Right Bank properties (Ch. Lafleur, Ch. La Violette and Canon La Gaffeliere) and assess its potential to compete with Bordeaux at that level. It was certainly interesting and La Tour Melas stood up very well, beating Bordeaux in round 1 (2011 vintage) and coming second in round 2 (2012 vintage). Perhaps it was a relatively easy win in 2011, where La Tour Melas’s perfumed, plush and seductive style shone against the more leafy, restrained and tannic Right Bank examples. But in 2012, it was also my favourite wine, it showed promise for the future but was also lovely young. La Tour Melas works according to biodynamic principles and that biodynamic clarity really shows in the wine despite the use of 90% new French oak. This oak is clearly very good and well-integrated and does not detract from the fruit. All in all a very interesting tasting and I look forward to seeing the evolution and development of La Tour Melas in the future.

The Oenorama fair provided an excellent snapshot of modern Greek wines. From the usual suspects such as wines from Santorini, Nemea or Naoussa, there were also wines from lesser known regions and islands like Kefalonia and many an example of Savvatiano – a grape more commonly associated with Retsina but slowly trying to make a name for itself as a quality grape on its own. And, of course, I got to try grape varieties I’d never heard of, always a given in a country like Greece.

The wines that impressed me at Oenorama were a very diverse bunch. Here, I will pick my favourites. Some of these wines are available in the UK and some are not (yet, anyway!).

White

2014 Assyrtiko, Estate Argyros (Santorini)
Argyros is, in my humble opinion, the best producer in Santorini. Or it is certainly my preferred style of Assyrtiko. Very clearly mineral and saline, it has that trademark lemon balm note and precise, linear acidity. Not as reductive as some other producers but focusing more on precision and fruit expression. In 2015, Assyrtiko yielded grapes with thick skins so the wines will have a bit more phenolic grip.Available from Philglas & Swiggot.

2010 Thalassitis Assyrtiko Submerged, Gaia (Santorini)
Thalassitis Submerged Assyrtiko is aged for 5 years under the sea and sealed under Nomacork. This was an experiment to see how the wine would evolve. Gaia believes that ageing the wine under the sea means it gets zero OTR (oxygen transmission rate). They have found a lot of bottle variation among the submerged wines but don’t yet know why. The wine was tasted against the cellar aged version. Both wines have the same amount of SO2 yet show quite different characteristics. The submerged wine itself is very nutty with a waxy texture, herbal tones and lemon oil. Very interesting and on the reductive side though clearly varietally expressive.

submerged

 

2012 Nychteri, Sigalas (Santorini)
This is a very different style of Assyrtiko. As the name might suggest, traditionally the grapes were picked at night. The wines were often made from overripe grapes, too, and fermented and aged in barrels without topping up.  Stylistically, Nychteri therefore tends to be a richer, bigger expressions of Assyrtiko (which has to form at least 75% of the blend) at around 15% alcohol and a profile that goes more towards the oxidative spectrum of flavours; in this case with nuts and praline, spice and with a burnt sugar note on the finish.

2014 Vidiano Aspros Lagos, Douloufakis (Crete)
Aspros Lagos means ‘white rabbit’ and a little white bunny does indeed feature on the label. Vidiano is the most promising white grape of Crete, thanks to producers like Douloufakis who have helped resurrect it. This wine shows real complexity, a profile somewhere between Aussie Semillon (with its waxy lemon and tight acidity) and Roussanne (with its fragrant camomile note). It is textured but joyful to drink.

Vidiano

Rosé

2015 Idylle d’Achínos Rose, La Tour Melas (Achínos)
A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Agiorgitiko. Whilst I am not a regular rosé drinker, I would happily drink this on warm sunny days. There are several things I like about this wine. Firstly it’s the smart packaging. It would look great on the shelf and you could be forgiven to think it is a rosé from Provence. The colour is very pale, too, and the wine is made in the Provençale style with sweet red fruit and a rosy perfume. But what sets it apart is its acidity. I am someone who truly loves high acid wines and this rosé has bags more acidity than its French counterparts. A real thirst-quencher. Available from Bottle Apostle and Wimbledon Wine Cellar.

idylle

Red

2013 Daemon Grande Reserve, Ieropoulos (Nemea)
Ieropoulos is a winery that was founded in 2008. The vines are located at 600m altitude and planted on calcareous soils. Daemon is made from Agiorgitiko, the flagship variety of the Nemea region, and is the grown-up wine of this property. It is made according to Burgundian principes and aged in oak. Daemon shows real purity of fruit, spice, plums and fine, almost chocolaty tannins. It may be glossy and very well assembled but shows future promise, too.

daemon

2013 Rossiu di Munte Vlachiko, Katogi Averoff (Metsovo)
Rossiu di Munte means ‘red of the mountains’. Vlachiko is indigenous to mountainous Ioannina in mainland Greece. This one comes from the village of Metsovo at 1100m altitude, these are some of the highest vineyards in Greece. This is a variety I had not encountered before but was very pleasantly surprised about. It is a very elegant and light variety and this wine shows restrained and perfumed red fruit, peppery tones, stunning acidity and sandy, almost lavender-like tannins. This wine is not about ripeness, it’s about freshness and delicacy. A feminine wine and very much a style I love. More like this, please.

vlachiko 

2011 Rossiu di Munte Cabernet Sauvignon, Katogi Averoff (Metsovo)
THIS WINE blew my mind. All the more amazing because it’s a Cabernet, a variety I am not known to be a huge fan of. This is a very different style of Cabernet, mind. It is packaged in a Burgundy bottle and it is clearly evident why – this is an elegant, fresh expression of Cab. Rather than showing cedar and spice and all things nice, this is a feminine, perfumed and pretty wine. Margaux more than Pauillac, if you will. Perhaps it is the fact that this is Greece’s oldest Cabernet vineyard. It was planted in 1958 with cuttings brought from Château Margaux, as it were. I would love to see wines from this producer in the UK!

2014 ΠΑΛΙΕΣ ΡΙΖΕΣ (Palies Pizes, meaning ‘old roots’), La Tour Melas (Achínos)
Made from pre-phylloxera Agiorgitiko vines with an average age of 108 years. Again, this is very much my style of wine. Aside from a great label (perhaps a touch similar to ‘Psi’ from Pingus and that could make it confusing) it shows perfume, plum and cherry yogurt notes but a really savoury finish and structural complexity. Available from Wimbledon Wine Cellar.

pre-phylloxera

2010 Xinomavro, Elinos (Naoussa)
Xinomavro is the Nebbiolo of Greece. It shows a similar profile – high acidity, lots of dry tannins and that red cherry fruit. This wine was one of my favourite new discoveries from Naoussa (N.B.my favourite producer is Thymiopoulos and their Earth and Sky Xinomavro, which is simply stunning), it is quite ferric and ‘bloody’ but also showing leather and truffle and a gorgeous tannic structure.

Greece has plenty for everyone to choose from and I really hope the wines properly take off in the years to come.

Lenka


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Alex

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A few thoughts on New Zealand

Recently I found myself reading Oz Clarke’s article on Sauvignon Blanc. I found myself disagreeing with it on an epic scale. It also reminded me that I owed you all a blog post relating to my recent trip to the land of gooseberry and passion fruit, New Zealand. So here goes. Spoiler alert: it is NOT about Sauvignon.

In fact, throughout my whole time in New Zealand, I drank Sauvignon Blanc just once. Well, ‘drank’ may be an overstatement, it was more of a case of it being ‘forced down my throat’ by my lovely friend Kat and swiftly gargled with a much nicer drink, Seresin Chardonnay. So I did well then. Yes, NZ produces wines other than SB!

This was actually my first trip to Middle Earth and wine was not the no.1 item on the agenda. That was to follow in the footsteps of the Fellowship of the Ring, do some hiking and indulge my obsession with volcanoes (volcano-spotting, if you will). Of course I can’t help being an MW student and therefore had to visit at least a couple of wine producing regions to learn a bit more about them. And when I wasn’t prancing around vineyards, I was tasting in bottle shops or drinking in wine bars.

What follows are a few observations about the regions and wines. I should stress that I am no expert on New Zealand wine. I don’t often drink NZ wine at home due to my Sauvignon phobia but I know that NZ can offer so much more. Here are 5 observations:

1. NZ Riesling is getting pretty good. Perhaps it’s because the vines are growing up, perhaps it’s better winemaking. In any case, by the end of the trip, Riesling became my restaurant white of choice. My favourite producers were Pegasus Bay and Valli. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Pegasus Bay, it’s simply stunning and not far from Christchurch.

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2. Central Otago needs a rogue. Perhaps they have one and we simply did not encounter him/her. This is a young wine region, granted, but I could not help feel that the wines we tasted were somewhat samey, especially in the case of Pinot Noir. Often picked far too ripe and showing that sweet rhubarb character accompanied by liquorice. No tannin whatsoever. Consumer-friendly to the tee but perhaps not challenging enough for me. This is by no means a bad thing, merely a personal preference (I like tannin!). I just feel like I want to see someone break the mold and do something brave, make a wine on the wild side. The best Pinots I tried were Felton Road 2014 Calvert (more elegant than the opulent Cornish Point) and 2012 Burn Cottage, the latter from a cool vintage and therefore showing savoury, sappy fruit.

3. Syrah is where it’s at. Whether from Hawke’s Bay or Waihiki, Syrah is the variety to get excited about. No news there, I know, but it’s nice to be reminded. I loved the restrained style of Te Mata (the 2014 Bullnose is classy) and the structured intensity of Elephant Hill’s 2013 Airavata. It has tannin! And 30% whole bunch! Yay! And then there is the famed La Collina, a wine that isn’t afraid to show a little funk.

4. There are 7ha of Gamay planted in NZ. 6.7ha of those belong to Te Mata in Hawke’s Bay whilst the rest can be found at Rippon in Wanaka. I happened to try both! Very varietal and fresh, great reds for hot NZ summers. I believe Te Mata Gamay is even available in the UK so check it out.

5. I found a Gewürztraminer that I liked. It is called The Gallery and it is made by Misha’s Vineyard in Central Otago. The 2013 vintage had pared down aromatics, textural mouthfeel and actual acidity! All natural!

And that is it, my friends, short and sweet. Like I said, it was a holiday. We had hobbitses to visit and a ring to dispose of. If you haven’t been to NZ, I would strongly urge you to go. Even if you have no idea what a hobbit is.

Lenka
The Evil Monkey


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

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

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South Africa riding high

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South Africa riding high

I spent yesterday afternoon tasting my way through a frankly impressive line-up of wines at the New Wave South Africa tasting, organised by a group of UK importers. The tasting aimed to convey some of the vibrancy and excitement that has been building in the country for some time now. It brought memories of my trip down there earlier this year. South Africa has only really been on my map for the recent few years; I have to admit that the ‘classic’ South African style of wines had never really appealed to me and to some extend I still don’t much care for Stellies Bordeaux blends or banana-chocolate Pinotage.

This new wave of producers, mostly from the cool (temperature-wise very hot in fact!) Swartland region, is really reinvigorating the industry with their take on what is fast becoming the ‘new’ South African style: think texture, acidity, whole bunch, lower alcohols, old vines and atypical varieties. Drinkable wines as well as wines that challenge.

There are so many ‘young guns’ doing interesting things, it’s impossible to talk about them all. Aside from the great wines they’re producing, it is their camaraderie and unpretentious demeanours that really draw you in and make you want to be part of the revolution.

I think overall the white wines have the most potential as they are wonderfully textured and full of life whilst the two red varieties showing the best potential are undoubtedly Syrah and Cinsault.

Here’s my pick of the bunch:

Craven, Stellenbosch

Aussie dude Mick and South African belle Jeanine are causing a bit of a stir different in good old Stellenbosch. Their skin contact Clairette Blanche is honeyed and fragrant, the 10.7% Pinot Noir is fresh and vibrant but their best wine is a vivid, peppery Syrah from the Faure vineyard, oh so drinkable and red fruited.

Kershaw, Elgin

Chardonnay and Syrah made by English Master of Wine Richard Kershaw in cool Elgin. The Chardonnay is in a different league and I’m confident in saying it is one of the best currently made in South Africa.

Eben Sadie, Swartland

Eben needs no introduction. The man who put the Swartland on the map is not sleeping on his laurels though. His wines are constantly improving, the 2013 Palladius is quite possibly his best to date. I can’t wait to taste his Mencia at some point in the future and see how the Assyrtiko, Fiano and Greco he’s planted turn out!

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Porseleinberg, Swartland

Callie Louw makes just one wine from the schist soils of the Porseleinberg, a 100% whole bunch Syrah. In 2013 it’s fermented in a mix of concrete egg and foudre and is all structure, finely balanced sandy tannins, fresh acidity and concentrated black fruit scented with wild herbs.

Mullineux, Swartland

The single terroir wines are truly special, the 2013 Schist Syrah was, for me, the best wine at yesterday’s tasting. Such varietal purity and structure is not often seen outside of the Northern Rhone. Real class. Very hard to get, alas.

Crystallum, Hemel-en-Aarde

Sublime classy Chardonnays, ‘The Agnes’ draws comparison with the modern Aussie styles, showing a subtle struck match and grapefruit pith character. The ‘Clay Shales’ is supercharged with terroir and soil expression. The ‘Peter Max’ Pinot Noir shows soft, elegant hedgerow fruit and lovely balance, too.

Alheit Vineyards, Western Cape

Alheit’s white blend, Cartology, is considered one of the finest whites currently made in South Africa and it’s easy to see why. This wine is all about finesse and texture. It has richness and spice but also balance and floral elements.

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And i am also very much looking forward to seeing Ryan Mostert’s Silwervis wines in the UK! Only tried the whites so far but have been very impressed. The NV Smiley is already on pour in Kensington Wine Rooms.

Lenka


Wine is Not a political statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Alex


Have a Little Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the restaurant in question visit:

http://www.west-beach.co.uk

– Alex aka monkey-on-a-mission