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All the latest and other musings from Simon.

Friday 20th November 2020 12:39pm

Five Essential Wine Styles for Christmas

Our Christmas list is now out. And yesterday morning I also heard the first Christmas songs on the radio, which got me thinking beyond the irritating white noise of Black Friday. Given the limited Christmas we might be permitted, what are the essential wines one might need? – and I came up with five styles.

Fizz - sparkling or Champagne?

Everyone needs fizz at Christmas: it’s the drink of celebration and a very cold glass is the best thing to pick you up on those mornings when you are feeling ever so slightly jaded from the night before. (BTW, it’s also the best thing to drink with fish and chips, but that’s another story).

If you can afford Champagne, enjoy it. When feeling flush (i.e. rarely) my tipple of choice is Taittinger, Prélude, Champagne Grands Crus, Brut, NV  (£48.50), from halves of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all from the best vineyards classified as Grand Crus, and given a minimum of five years ageing on the lees before release. It’s just so suave and polished.

An alternative is to seek out wines made in the same way as Champagne (i.e. with a secondary fermentation in the bottle creating the bubbles, as opposed to the bubbles in a tank of Prosecco) all over France and indeed the world. In France they are usually known as Cremants: a really good one from the cool hills of Limoux in the foothills of the Pyrenees is this: Laurens, Cremant de Limoux, Les Graimenous, Brut, France, 2018 (£15.75), a blend of 60% Chardonnay with 30% Chenin, 5% Pinot Noir and 5% Mauzac, and a dead ringer for Champagne.

Sauvignon Blanc for smoked fish

OK, not everyone eats smoked fish for Christmas but we do. And it may not be smoked salmon (as most is unethically farmed) but smoked trout – that from ChalkStream Trout is superb – or smoked eel or smoked anything fishy. That distinctive smokiness and the oily texture of smoked fish are both well-known wine killers. My advice is either stay on the fizz (as above) or move to a pungent, zesty Sauvignon Blanc which can stand up to them. Best known are wines from the famed central vineyards of the Loire, in particular Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé (for example this is superb, with poise and intensity -  Francis Blanchet, Pouilly-Fumé, Les Silice, 2018 at £16.95). However there’s good SB from lots of cool locations in the southern hemisphere. Marlborough in New Zealand is the obvious spot, plus coastal Chile, but I often like the steeliness of good South African SBs, for example the Cape Atlantic Sauvignon Blanc, Western Cape, 2019 (£9.95), sourced part from high mountain vineyards and part from near the southernmost tip of Africa.

New World Pinot Noir for the turkey

In nearly 50 years of drinking I have tried most pairings for turkey, from expensive red Bordeaux, Argentine Malbec to top Tuscan Sangioveses - and big whites too, from barrel-fermented Chardonnay to powerful Alsace Pinot Gris. Some time ago I decided that Pinot Noir was the best grape to pair with the Christmas bird (just as it’s best for guinea fowl and all feathered game). It’s not too heavy for white meat and a decent example has the aromatics for the occasion. But I have also concluded that the Christmas plate does not call for grand red Burgundy – there are just so many noisy flavours (sausages, bacon, chestnuts, cranberry sauce, etc. etc.) competing for attention that an aged or delicate wine is drowned out. So now I drink riper and fruitier new world Pinot Noir. Of course one can go expensive - for example the vibrant and savoury Hoddles Creek, 1er Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Australia 2018 (£31.50) is superb, but one doesn’t need to. Chile is the best source for great value Pinot. This is lovely, showing bright strawberry and red cherry fruit – and surprisingly concentrated for a Pinot at this price: Valle Frio, Pinot Noir, Maule, 2020 (£9.25)

Beaujolais for Boxing Day

OK, so you have cold turkey and cold ham in quantity. You might not eat them for Boxing Day lunch (we find a stash useful for late night snacking) but you will have lots. So you need Beaujolais! Long under-appreciated (all because of the region’s disastrous adoption of Beaujolais Nouveau, the sheer reflux-inducing horror of which scarred many of us for years) Beaujolais, a pretty, crunchy, fruity and altogether life-enhancing drink from the south of Burgundy can be wonderful. It makes the perfect lunch wine – that bite cuts the fattiness of cold meats without overpowering them, it’s usually of moderate alcohol; and because it remains unfashionable it offers very good value. It all comes from the Gamay grape, which rather unusually, thrives in the granitic (and quite acidic) soils of the Beaujolais hills; and a series of hot, climate-changed summers mean that every vintage displays splendidly ripe fruit now. A juicy example is Montangeron, Beaujolais-Villages, 2019 (£11.25) but if you really want to open your eyes to the qualities of Beaujolais seek an example from the ten Cru Villages. In typically perverse French fashion, wines from Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, St. Amour, Brouilly et al often don’t even mention on the labels that they are in Beaujolais at all, or the name of the Gamay grape. You are just supposed to know (which may be why French winemakers then whinge that new world wines with grape varieties on the label are stealing their sales but tant pis). Hardly anyone knows where the Côte de Brouilly is, but the Lagneau family’s wine, from Gamay vines around 70-100 years old, is amazing in terms of its sharp black fruit and dense mouthfeel: Lagneau, Côte de Brouilly, 2018 (£14.50).  

Fortified (for, or instead of, Christmas pudding)

There comes a point (usually after one has drunk far too much already) when you don’t want any more white or red – but, yes, something sweet would be good, mmmmm. And one has to serve something excessively sweet with the Christmas pudding as that mound of dried fruit and spice is otherwise over-powering (whatever you do, don’t serve a Sauternes or similar – it will taste sour and be a waste). You need a fortified wine (and yes, that means a wine which has been “fortified” by having distilled grape spirit added to beef it up, so expect alcohol levels of 15-20%). Port is a traditional winter choice – and this year we are offering the worthy 2014 Grahams Late Bottled Vintage at £11.50 - but these two are more fun: first, a super-sweet sherry, made from dried Pedro Ximenez grapes and given at least five years oxidative ageing in American oak vats. Coming in with a whopping (and horribly fattening, but who cares about that at Christmas) 400 grams of residual sugar per litre, the Barbadillo, La Cilla, Pedro Ximenez, Spain, NV (£19.95) is unctuous and full of the flavours of finest, squidgy dried fruit and sticky toffee. Think of it as good for you, the sweetest and most soothing cough medicine – and you can even pour it over vanilla ice cream. Second, if you want something even more wonderful, try this: Domaine Fontanel, Rivesaltes Ambré, France, 2010 (£21.50). From late-picked, 60 year-old vines of Grenache Blanc and Gris, the Ambré - literally amber - tone develops after years of mildly oxidative ageing in barrel. This offers intriguing fumes: dates, cooked autumnal fruit and a hint of sherry-like oxidation. Dried fruit flavours dominate, with accompanying subtleties, including coffee and caramelised oranges. It’s a wonderful partner not just to pudding but to hard cheese, dried fruit and nuts.

Monday 18th May 2020 15:08pm

A Wine Merchant in the time of Covid

Strange times indeed: in late March I was really worried about the future of SVS – the closure of the on-trade looked like a huge 40% sized hole in our turnover. I wrote a letter to our customers expressing considerable trepidation, and to encourage sales we decided to reduce our minimum spend for free delivery to £75; and we increased our discount on unsplit dozens of the same wine to 10%.

Fortunately our customers responded magnificently – it was great to get so many orders with messages of support.  But now I am a little embarrassed. The last week of March was insane (remember when the supermarkets were rationing people to three bottles of wine and people were panic buying Pinot Grigio) but whilst this waned we are still running flat out. We sold more wine in April than we did last December, always the biggest month of the year in the wine trade.

So why are we so busy?  I think a lot of different (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) things are going on at the moment, but these factors seem to be benefiting us.

•    First, there’s no question that more people currently have the time to read and engage with our printed lists. There are not that many old-fashioned mail order merchants left – and now many people have more time at home they can browse lists at leisure.  Likewise wine drinkers may have a little more time to engage with our website rather than just doing the default of running off to the supermarkets or Majestic.

•    “Localism” – people are showing a desire to support local businesses rather than anonymous far-off giants.  We hear this often now.

•    People like the fact we can offer better service; and in particular a fast and firm delivery date rather than the vague guideline offered by the big boys (if you can get a slot at all).

•    Just as people are being more adventurous with their cooking at home, so they are more prepared to experiment and try different wines (again, rather than default to old favourites). We stand to benefit if people choose to bake their own sourdough rather than eat sliced bread – it shows they care what they put in their mouth and will appreciate artisanal wines.

•    Changing purchase patterns.  Some people are taking larger quantities of cheaper wines than usual (perhaps they have young adults at home who should normally be in London or at university); and others are definitely trading up as decent wine is one of the few accessible pleasures now. Whichever, it's more turnover!

Of course the new way of working can be challenging and labour intensive. Instead of (pre March) dropping 5-10 dozen at a local pub we are picking, packing and delivering a lot of single cases, often of 9-12 different bottles. But who’s frightened of work?

The one thing I regret is shutting the shop.  We just don’t want anyone near us. If one of the core team gets ill the remainder of the staff will all have to self-isolate and we would have to shut down temporarily.  That woud be sad when we have so much wine to give!  We will survive.....

Saturday 1st June 2019 15:52pm

Fenavin 2019

Fenavin: Biting the Hand that Fed me

I got back from Fenavin, the Spanish wine fair which takes place in Ciudad Real, on the 8th May. As a fair, it works: fly to Madrid, taxi to station, an hour on an impressively comfortable, reasonably priced and extremely fast train (puts ours to shame) and you are there, albeit in a slightly soulless town.  The fair isn’t too large, the buildings are air-conditioned and it’s not too crowded. I was also a guest of their International Buyers programme, so enjoyed free travel and hospitality. So I entered with an optimistic air, hopeful of uncovering both value and quality. Here are the the positives I encountered:
•    Galicia. This north-west, Atlantic facing region has a climate not much warmer than Cornwall. It’s the source of lovely aromatic whites, the best known being Albarino; but also fine white blends from Ribeiro – and delicate Mencia too.
•    Gredos. Super Garnacha / Grenache, pure and fine
•    Valencia. All sorts of interesting local grapes here and fascinating blends as a result.
•    And, above all, value.. Spain has dramatically good wines for us to sell at under £10 a bottle – whites from Macabeo and Garnacha Blanca; and reds from Tempranillo, Garnacha, Syrah, Carignan and, above all, Monastrell (Mourvèdre) from Jumilla and Yecla.

BUT….I don’t think Spanish wine is in a good state at all. I was last at Fenavin in 2013, and, disappointingly, little in the wine scene seems to have changed for the better - if anything for the worse, certainly for British palates – and eyes.  Here goes - first visually (has no-one told them it’s the liquid in the bottle that matters? That it’s not about marketing but growing quality grapes and crafting wine?):

•    Presentation.  So many horrors: thuggishly heavy glass, bottles in ugly (they presumably think distinctive) shapes, both squat and elongated; adorned with shouty labels with little sense of sound design.
•    Naming. Why do so many Spanish wines come with English names?  And why so crass? “Crazy Grapes”, “Time Waits for No-one” and even the (surely untrue) “Fucking Good Wine”? This is a denial of Hispanic culture: it implies a sense of inferiority, an inability to confidently promote the grapes and/or the origin of their wines; and it can only be a desperate attempt to attract attention, presumably from millennials. (Most here have more sense, but perhaps it works in Chengdu).

As for what's in the bottle, sadly all too often marred by:

•    Oak.  Yes, oak barrels, new and old, in Spanish bodegas usually made from American but also French oak. Oak, the stuff that leaves one after a day’s tasting with a furry palate flavoured with sweetish, vanilla-tinged gunk. Does anyone under the age of sixty like this old-fashioned, cigarette butt-y nuance any more (if they ever did)?  And it’s not just the reds….try the oaked Chardonnays and Viogniers (or rather don’t).
•    Alcohol. The elephant on the label. The AVERAGE alcohol level of the reds I tasted must have been 14.5%. Certainly there were several over 15% and most of the labels probably understate by the legal .5%.  This is bullying. I want to pour more wine down my throat, not fall over.

A couple of British merchants in our group were huge fans of Spanish reds: applauding the “fruit concentration” and “oak integration”.  But alongside this laudable density, often based on juice from old vines, goes, all too often, a lack of freshness, a dreary heaviness and occasionally a savagery (try most Toro!).  The Spanish still seem to be able to sell these lumpen reds into northern Europe, but our customers don’t ask for them. Victims as they are of climate change, suffering from increasing temperatures and minimal rain, could Spanish winemakers do better? 

Thursday 15th November 2018 16:17pm

Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships Awards Dinner, 24th October

On with the black tie, off to Merchant Taylors Hall for two purposes: first to accompany Megan Parnell (pictured) of Domaine des Dieux in Hemel-en-Aarde; and second, to ensure I tasted as many rare and expensive bottles (most of which were being poured from magnums) as possible.

Megan did the business, picking up the trophy for best South African Sparkling Wine just pipping our friend David Niewoudt of Cederberg (who really only makes his fizz so that family and friends can drink it – but it is delicious).  The Parnell family’s 2012 Claudia MCC (i.e. made in the same way as Champagne, with a secondary fermentation in bottle) is superb, rich and bready, so much more enjoyable to drink than a lot of Champagne (and not just cheap Champagne either)  - but sadly it’s not that easy to sell here, stuck as it is in the unvisited foothills between the elitist peaks of Champagne and the fashionable sea of Prosecco.  But as Claudia has just also won the Amorim Trophy for the best MCC in the Cape (in a field of 127 entries) we can confidently state that here at SVS we sell the top South African fizz for a mere £17.95.

As for the Champagnes, these weren’t shabby either. I couldn’t (without using sharp elbows) taste everything but these were my favourites (and preferred to Cristal 2008).

  • Lanson Gold Label, 2008: Very yeasty / autolytic style, very dry and very long. Rather magnificent.
  • Maison Mumm RSRV 4.5 NV: a new one on me. Again, impressively dry, almost austere and classic
  • Piper-Heidsieck 2008: Refined perfume (smells Chardonnay based, 52% apparently); very ripe attack and then attractively doughy.
  • Veuve Clicquot 2008: wow, mouthfilling, so much energy.
  • And top (not just because I was sitting next to Hervé Deschamps of Maison Perrier-Jouet, ensuring it was on tap) was Perrier-Jouet, Belle Epoque, Blanc de Blancs 2008: absolutely my kinda Champagne, tasting like the finest sparkling white Burgundy (Corton-Charlemagne?), with such finesse and purity. Memorable.




Saturday 14th April 2018 11:22am

Eduardo Chadwick: Decanter Man of the Year Award Dinner, The Lanesborough, 5th April 2018

It’s an interesting award, as it isn’t given solely to people who make great wine; but rather distinguishes those who make a difference to how one thinks about wine.  Eduardo, owner of Errazuriz and founder of Sena and Chadwick, has earned it for doing more than any other person to put Chile on the international fine wine map: he is THE MAN for Chile.  His bravest moment came in 2004 when, in emulation of Stephen Spurrier’s 1976 Judgement of Paris  (which pitted California Chardonnay and Cabernet against white Burgundy and left bank Bordeaux) he held a blind tasting in Berlin matching his top Chilean reds against First Growths and top Bordeaux blends from Italy. It could have been a case of overweening hubris but Eduardo was vindicated: his Chileans took three of the top four spots. About 25 similar tastings have been held since, all over the world. There were those who sneered: vulgar New World wines were simply more showy in youth than the long-lived but less approachable clarets – but in more recent events Eduardo has been showing that his wines last beautifully too.

Dinner was stodgy (not the company or indeed the speeches, but the food: langoustine ravioli that one needed a hacksaw to cut; and an orange croquette of Reblochon that was akin to a blob from Aldi) but the six wines from the Chadwick’s stable shone. First up were the two top wines from the new plantings at Manzanar near the Pacific, the 2015 Pizarras  Chardonnay, still quite oaky but also silky and super-refined; and the 2016 Pizarras Pinot Noir, showing intense red fruit: both with years to go before their prime. Next Kai 2005, Errazuriz’s top Carmenere, delivering forceful varietal personality with flavours of roast coffee bean and seaweed; and Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve 2014, perhaps the only dull wine on the night, as this Cabernet was rather monolithic. The climax was Sena 1996 poured with Vinedo Chadwick 2000. The latter still showed plenty of mocha oak, but also a gamut of secondary nuances: grilled meat and vegetables; earthy and powerful.

Sena 1996 - only the second vintage but amazing

1996 Sena, the Bordeaux blend collaboration with the Mondavi family (but now wholly owned by the Chadwicks), on the other hand, was blissfully pure and youthful. Showing svelte blackcurrants just tinged by Chilean eucalyptus this was so graceful and harmonious, and good for at least another decade. The class is all the more remarkable as it was only the second vintage of Sena. Eduardo (more than aided by master winemaker Francisco Baettig) fully deserve his award.

Come to our Chardomanic / Pinotpath day in London on May12th and you can taste the two top Pizarras wines, plus two other Errazuriz Chardonnays and the Aconcagua Costa Pinot Noir 2016: I would argue this is one of the best £15 Pinots in the world. Come and see what you think!

Wednesday 4th April 2018 14:15pm

Blast from the Past: Talosa, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano Riserva, 2007

An occasional series, revisiting a wine SVS used to sell: last night I took out a bottle of Talosa's Vino Nobile de Montepulciano Riserva 2007. Looking back to a Tuscan list from June 2012 I see this won a rare gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Here is the original tasting note: "Ample aromas, with liqueur cherries dominant. Hugely  energetic, with generous tannins almost covered by layers of black cherries. Creamily rich. Very long, and the finish too shows that same cherry tone. Huge potential. Best 2013-2017". It's from 100% old vine Sangiovese grown on hillside vineyards very close to the town; and the wine was aged for three years in traditional botte, large, old oak vats.

First, one can see how conservative our drinking window was. This wine was absolutely a point, still showing vibrant cooked cherry fruit, but wreathed in amazing aromatics and secondary hints of coffee and gravy. It was potent too (14.5%, perhaps it's only flaw) and wonderfully long; and made a brilliant match to the house speciality (Vegans look away now), unromantically known as "Pig Three Ways" - a really tender and tasty fillet of Hampshire pork filled with seasoned (pre-coooked) sausage meat and wrapped in bacon, cooked over onions and mushrooms and served with broad pappardelle.That lovely Italian acid cut through the fat and richness of the dish.

Most important, it really lived up the expectations of the six year old tasting note. It cost £20 in 2012. We are now offering the 2013 vintage at £25. If it develops even near as well as this dramatic 2007 then it might offer rather good value at only 25% more than six years ago... 

Tuesday 21st November 2017 12:08pm

Slovenian Rhapsody

Taste Slovenian Wine here!

It took just an hour to fall in love with Ljubljana: that’s how long it to arrive in the city centre from touchdown.  It’s a beautiful city - a toy town, to be sure, with a population of just 275,000 - with the style of Italy and a touch of the elegance of Vienna mixed with an idiosyncratic, multi-coloured Portmerion-like (think The Prisoner) character all of its own.  A large part of the centre is pedestrianised, making it the quietest capital city I have ever visited, and one can wander freely among the mix of 17th century Baroque churches, worthy civic palaces, bustling market and art nouveau facades. I urge you to go – and off season, as I did, to best enjoy the charming peace.

I was there for the 20th Slovenian wine festival, held in two city centre hotels, a chance to taste wine from all over this small country. The grapes grown in the different wine regions in part reflect the country’s neighbours:  Malvasia (Malvoisie) on the Istrian shores of the Med; Sivi Pinot (Pinot Grigio), and Rebula (Ribolla Gialla) and Refosk (Refosco) in the northern parts of the Primorska , the western region near Friuli; the reds Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch in the north east near Austria. Secondly, all over the country there is surprisingly good Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay; Merlot , Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon (often blended). A real discovery was excellent Pinot Noir, usually in a restrained, old world vein, from the Vipava Valley.

What are my conclusions after just a couple of long tasting sessions?  Well, as a catholic wine drinker, I came across lots of wines that I would enjoy drinking myself; but then the protestant merchant side kicks in and thinks, yes, this glass is impressive, but are SVS customers ready for deep gold, dense, four year old, Rebula?  Or 2017 Svicek, a crisp, young red wine to be consumed immediately? Or, frankly, most Refosk, whether from the famed red soils of Kras or not.  Some of the reds, are, without beating about the bush, problematic.   There’s often a lack of complete ripeness; and off flavours which are reminiscent of low-level cork taint and may reflect poor cellar cleanliness.  However, one can see the point of some of these raw and youthful Refoscs and Zweigelts: their acid bite would go well with the local diet, and in particular the numerous pig dishes (a starter in a Slovenian restaurant one night served up pig six ways: two types of ham, smoked sausage, liver pate, little morsels of crackling and, for moisture, white and creamy pork fat!).  The crunchy local reds, as young Loire Cabernet Franc, can cut that richness.

The whites, which fortunately make up over 2/3 of production, are definitely more interesting, successful and marketable.  The examples from the north-west are just as fine as those from Friuli across the border in Italy. I tasted one Sivi Pinot (Pinot Grigio) which was sensational: mid gold, honeyed and powerful, yet totally dry. Likewise in the right hand even Tocai Friulano - which is actually the humble Sauvignonasse - could give excellent results.  Perhaps most distinctive are Rebula and Sipon (Furmint), the former made in a wide range of styles from light and fresh to oaked and weighty.  The locals often seem to like their dry whites - even Sauvignon Blanc - aged, with mid to deep gold colouring, and complex flavours of bitter oranges, taffeta  and mushrooms. Fascinating as these are, like old Savennières, are they commercial outside Hackney and Hoxton?

As I write I have barely seen a price – all depends on that. The good growers sell their wine with ease locally (most wine produced is drunk within this prosperous country) and only time will tell if they might drop their prices to satisfy the begging of an impecunious British merchant offering a devalued currency and in order to see their wine drunk in the most interesting and competitive wine market in the world.

Wednesday 18th October 2017 16:40pm

Adelaide Hills Shiraz

“Working” in Australia IV: Conclusions

Before we get to the dull, gritty bit about wine, here are some observations about life down under:

•    Unless you are very wealthy or live very close to a city centre, you live in a bungalow
•    Wildlife: whilst I saw numerous kangaroos as roadkill, they were only spotted twice in the wild. Likewise the scores for koalas, wombats, bandicoots, echidnas, snakes etc. were all zero. Far more exciting are the birds; the galahs, parakeets, sulphur-breasted cockatoos, even the pesky dive-bombing magpies are spectacular looking and their dawn chorus is exotic and thrilling, full of liquid trills and the notes of strange wind instruments
•    Southern Australia in the spring is stunningly beautiful: a vivid green landscape punctuated by the white trunks of eucalyptus, and the full dams reflecting the blue sky.  Much of it looks like exotic English parkland!
•    It’s a wealthy country. The average income is over Au$80,000, so nearly twice the average income in the UK (at the current depressing exchange rate); and I bet they get to keep more of it too. Aussies are quite happy to drop into the cellar door and pay Au$40-70 (£24-42) for a bottle…

Before moving on to a discussion about the  wine, first I have to qualify any remarks by stating that I did not visit the Riverina, or see the bulk side of Australia (i.e. vines broiling in sub-tropical heat ripening huge volumes of grapes swollen by irrigation). Instead the focus of my trip was on the cooler, quality-focussed regions, where I witnessed a vibrant, healthy, exciting wine industry. Here are the impressive strengths amongst the wines:

•    Fantastic, ageworthy Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from all over the cooler zones, and in particular the higher parts of the Yarra Valley and the Adelaide Hills
•    Stunning Grenache – best I think on its own rather than within a GSM blend – from McLaren Vale
•    Cool climate Shiraz / Syrah (as the latter is creeping on to Aussie labels) from Canberra, the Yarra and the Adelaide Hills. This can be beautifully perfumed - think violets and roses – lightly spicy and highly refined
•    In the making – super reds from Italian varieties, especially Nebbiolo and Sangiovese
And the future is great, as there is infinitely more land suitable for vineyards – in cooler zones; on south-facing slopes; and on low fertility, ancient rock-based soils.

Here are the challenges:

•    A strong economy.  The minimum hourly wage is Au$17.70, or £10.50, an hour. If the Cambodians who do the vineyard work are all being paid this - and their managers, the winemakers, salesmen etc. a whole lot more -  then it has to impact on the cost of production.
•    Water / Climate Change. The elephant in the room.  It may have been freezing on a windswept hilltop in the Strathbogie Ranges in September, but the sun is evilly hot down under.  Already the industry is working hard to manage the vineyards accordingly (for example planting rows east –west rather than north-south to reduce exposure). A shortage of water, necessary for irrigation in the long hot summers, may also cramp development.
•    Disease: Phylloxera and Eutypa.  Who would believe the Phylloxera bugs which devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century are still munching their way across Australia? But they are, recently moving into the Yarra Valley. Optimistic Australians look on the necessary replanting as “an opportunity” but it would be tragic if the ancient bush vines in the Barossa, for example, had to be grubbed up. Eutypa is a fungal disease which causes arms or the trunk of a vine to die back (hence d’Arenberg’s Dead Arm). You can spot it in the vineyards – not a pretty sight.

And here are the man-made errors:

•    A tendency to pick too early, making for weedy Chardonnays, flavourless Viogniers and even green and stalky Cabernet Sauvignons. Presumably this is in the pursuit of “elegance”, lower alcohol - and being wilfully different - but these styles don’t do it for me.
•    Oak.  This is complicated. Australians used to put their wine in barrels made from American oak, lending that vanilla sweetness to wines of old, but now most producers are using smarter and less strongly scented French oak. I find they are still using just a bit too much new or nearly new oak for my taste, in particular with Grenache, which really doesn’t take to oak at all, but also with Shiraz and Pinot Noir. When the fruit is as good as it is why not let it shine more?
•    Wines called “The …….”.  Chester Osborn at d’Arenberg may have started this 30 years ago (The Dead Arm Shiraz etc.) , but the moment has surely long gone. One producer near Canberra, the capital produced a whole range of “The Frontbencher”, “The Ambassador”, “The Press Gallery” etc.  Arggh.  I am now so bored of “The…….” wines that they may be banned from SVS shelves.  
•    My blind spot - dry Riesling from all over Oz.  Tasted lots, sorry, just can’t get that excited: the wines are obvious and one-noted.

So that's it - over two weeks: I tasted examples from over 110 wineries; I have notes for over 390 wines (but tasted a lot more over mildly inebriated dinners); and I ate wonderful food, from sweet oysters and delectable Asian dishes to barbecued sucking pig and Wagyu beef. Thanks to Wine Australia for financing this extraordinary and memorable trip.

END – back to grey Blighty….

Saturday 14th October 2017 07:46am

“Working” in Australia III: Adelaide Hills; the Clare, Barossa and Eden Valleys; McLaren Vale

The last leg on my Australian tour, and the pace has accelerated. In four days I went through:

•    A superb tasting of the wines at Ashton Hills, the tiny but historic vineyard planted by Stephen George in the 1980s – every one superb, from fizz  to Riesling to one of Australia’s top Pinot Noirs.
•    A mad (and drunken) tasting of mainly natural wines from Basket Ranges: as usual encompassing the spectrum from the very good to the bad and the ugly (if I wanted my wine to taste like beer I would buy beer – it’s cheaper). See below for the Sunday afternoon carnage

A quiet Sunday afternoon at Lost in a Forest

•    Short flights of top quality Clare Valley Riesling and stellar Barossa Shiraz. We were spoiled – personally I preferred the elegance and purity of Henschke’s 2014 Mount Edelstone Shiraz to the more earthy (and much more expensive) 2012 Hill of Grace.
•    A fascinating tasting of Barossa wines from what Wine Australia called “next generation winemakers”.  (This seems to imply anyone younger than me! ). Some brilliant and not over-priced wines here from, among others, Dave Lehmann at David Franz, Ben Chapman at Tomfoolery Wines and Michael Hall Wines (unbelievable coincidence – Michael was one of my former colleagues at Sotheby’s who dumped the glamour of the Geneva Jewellery auctions, retrained in wine in Australia and now makes some very fine Syrah / Shiraz and Chardonnay).
•    Flights of cool climate Adelaide Hills Chardonnay and Shiraz from Geoff Weaver, Tappanappa, The Lane and Shaw & Smith (the latter particularly impressive given they make decent quantities of their M3 Chardonnay and estate Shiraz).
•    Two wide-ranging tastings of “alternative” varieties from the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale; whites from Gruner, Fiano and Savagnin (for some time time planted as Albarino and largely grubbed up once the locals realised they had been sold a pup); and reds from Italian and Spanish red grapes, sometimes blended. (It seems to me Tempranillo is a waste of time in Australia - or will be for a long time until the vines age – as I tasted confected rosés and simple reds in every region).
•    Superb McLaren Vale Grenache (and Grenache blends) from Thistledown, Gemtree, Chapel Hill, Ministry of Clouds and others – wines which rival the best of the southern Rhône, and often from even older vines.
•    A valedictory dinner (and sunset over the ocean) at the Star of Greece restaurant, at which so many wines were poured that I can’t remember any bar d’Arenberg’s famed (and pretty impenetrable) Dead Arm Shiraz, brought by the extrovert Chester Osborn.

Saturday 14th October 2017 06:34am

Cool and damp Yarra - perfect for Pinot and Chardonnay

"Working" in Australia II: the aspiring, the established and the Italian: Canberra; Yarra Valley; and King Valley.

This is a tale of three Australian wine regions. First up was Canberra, centre of a small but reportedly up-and-coming wine industry. With two notable exceptions, Clonakilla (fabulously perfumed and ageworthy Shiraz of great elegance) and Helm (crisp Riesling and smooth Cabernet) the wineries here disappointed. This may be a cool climate zone with huge potential but too wide a choice of grape varieties and a lack of gritty grape growing skills and winemaking expertise are holding the wineries back.

From there it's a short plane hop to Melbourne and nearby Yarra Valley. The contrast could not be more marked: in the Yarra there's a bunch of highly experienced pros who know their strong suits are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, have already identified the best vineyard sites  and are now making superb wines from vines of decent age. There were stand-out tastings at Mac Forbes and historic Yeringberg (vines first planted in the 1850s, pulled out in the 1920s and replanted in the 1960s) but there were excellent wines at numerous cellars.Watch this space..



Three hours drive north is the King Valley. Many of the first settlers here were Italian, and with that heritage many of the local growers have planted not just Sangiovese, Nebbiolo (some examples suggest a great future) and Pinot Grigio, but also Arneis, Garganega, Prosecco (as the Glera grape used to be called before the Italians appropriated it for their fizz), Verduzzo (a white new to me), Barbera and Canaiolo. As in the Yarra a clear focus is bringing great results, for example at Dal Zotto and Pizzini.

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