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Israel – a land of wine and fragile coexistence

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 21.29.58 Israel may not be your obvious holiday destination but I found it one of the most fascinating and emotive places to visit. The reliable sunshine, long natural sandy beaches and warm Mediterranean Sea may sound like a holiday paradise but the land and its people are tension-ridden.

Easyjet now fly from London Luton to Tel Aviv directly so you can be dipping your flat bread into an authentic humus in just over 5 hours. But you had better save up as being a tourist here is an expensive game. In some places this is totally justifiable and worth it. Mahane Yehuda (twin restaurant of London-based Palomar) in Jerusalem is undoubtedly the best meal in Israel.

The best way to travel round is by car. The heat can be unbearable even as late as in October so air-conditioning is essential if you want to stay cool. There are few buses and a new metro network is being built in Tel Aviv but apart from that currently there is a noticeable lack of local transport. Everyone drives everywhere, like in America. And most drive scarily fast and furious, no kidding.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 21.33.50A trip to Jerusalem is a must. The highlight for me were the Western Wall Tunnels whose 2,000-year-old stones have witnessed the Jewish people’s struggle, exile and birth as a new nation. This is the most important site for the Jews and others worldwide as it is the closest to the Holy of Hollies where the world & the first human Adam was created. Hundreds of Jewish men and women come to pray at the exposed outdoor part of the Western Wall. The intensity of the prayers and their devotion was an utterly moving experience.

As you continue, this captivating tour takes you through the stormy history of Jerusalem where each society fought for its life and future creating layer after layer of a religious significance. At the end, you have an option of exiting at the Via Dolorosa, the famous street where Jesus walked on to his crucification. Barely a stone thrown away, we found ourselves walking through the traditional Arab market, while being somewhat aggressively encouraged to part with our cash for small trinkets. There are three strongly rooted religions here that are constantly challenged by their extraordinary fragile coexistence.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 21.40.11I guess the Dead Sea would be the next must place to visit for many but we only managed to drive past the shores while driving on the way to Masada. Mind you the thought of coaches-full of people coming to the sea to cure their eczema somewhat puts me off the whole floating experience. But it was a pretty unusual experience to see the altitude drop down below sea level as you drive towards the shoreline.

Being winey sorts, we also headed for Judean Hills and Galilee. Together with the Golan Heights these are the three most important vine-growing regions in Israel. The combination of a rather fertile thin topsoil of Terra Rossa with limestone bedrock and hot Mediterranean climate with low summer rainfall bring many challenges to making wine. On the other hand, thanks to the heat and dryness, the vineyards are relatively disease free apart from the noticeable spread of leaf-roll that so far has meant none of the vineyards have been made organic or biodynamic. Many international and a few Mediterranean grape varieties are planted but none have yet been established as Israel’s wine “signature”. Maybe the recent research into indigenous varieties may offer a direction and put Israeli wine on the world wine map.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 21.42.58Domaine du Castel winery, established in 1990’s in Judean Hills as the first boutique winery with a focus on quality, is one of the most popular amongst the locals. Tasting through their selection, the appeal of heavily oaked character and blockbuster richness and extraction is obvious even if not everyone’s taste.

Virtually all medium to large wineries are kosher. This means that the winemakers are not allowed to touch grapes as soon as they are crushed. This however does not mean that the wines’ quality suffers. There are also few talented and entrepreneurial independent winemakers, such as my friend Ido Lewinsohn who is a winemaker for the famous Recanati but also makes his own wine Garage de Papa, literally in his dad’s garage. Despite the confined space, Ido’s wines are truly inspirational and magical.

Vineyards are usually situated far from their wineries, which brings many challenges in itself especially during the harvest. Planning rules class wine as an industrial product, so wineries are only permitted in industrial areas. One exception is Amphora, which has managed to establish a stunning stone walled winery along with a boutique visitor centre in Carmel region. Thanks to Michel Rolland’s influence here, the wines are amongst the most premium in Israel.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 21.45.22When going out, the wines from Tzora, Sphera, Recanati, Flam, Shvo and Clos de Gat are all worth trying. Tel Aviv has its measure of trendy bars and lively nightlife. The Brut wine bar has a modest but impressive selection of local and international wines. For vibrant atmosphere head to Vicki Christina, a chic tapas wine bar located at The Station. And for people watching and a relaxing lunch, head to Kitchen Market located in the heart of Tel Aviv port.

Israel is a young country with a very long history. It is thanks to the ambition of the people here that this country thrives. At the same time, it is this ambition that brings the tension. Despite the many challenges that people face here, and no sign of a solution or the prospect of any tranquillity, I was glad to dip my toes here and to meet the wonderful Ido, Adi, Eran and their friends, even if so very briefly.

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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London craft beers on tap

IMG_6260It’s late morning on Saturday and after a hearty breakfast we are off to tackle the famous London brewery crawl, the Bermondsey Beer Mile. This activity, still very much testosterone driven, is similar to a pub crawl except the challenge is to visit all five breweries running along the 1.5 mile long route south of the Thames in just 4 hours.

Although not quite as hard core as Three Peak Challenge, planning is crucial. Carbs and protein lined stomach, comfortable shoes and plenty of water reserves are highly recommended. And if you want to look the part, skinny jeans, pointy shoes and Ray Ban sunglasses would be perfect.

Undertaking this a second time, I believe the best option is to start at Fourpure. Arriving at 12.30pm and it is packed already with stag parties, hipsters clutching to their pints and a few tourists but let that not put you off. The vibe is friendly and no matter how full the tables are there is always a spot to squeeze your butt.

IMG_6245FOURPURE

22 Bermondsey Trading Estate, Rotherhide New Road, SE16 3LL

Taproom opens every Saturday 11m – 5pm

What to drink:

Skyline American Wheat Ale (4.8%) – 60% pale ale/ 40% wheat ale – American Galaxy hops – bready yeasty fresh taste with typical zesty touch of ripe lemon

London Beer City – Pacific pale Ale (4.3%) – bone dry, sour, thirst-quenching, light hoppy taste with floral summery feel
IMG_6253Amber Ale (5.1%) – Willamette hops – light, dry style, toasty, nutty with tropical and spicy notes, malty almost brandy like edge

Pilsner (4.7%) – stylish classic golden lager

Session IPA (4.2%) – my favourite session beer, just perfect balance between plenty of flavours yet being refreshing and satisfying
As of 5 September, Kernel no longer serve beer to drink at the brewery. Their popularity has meant that their space just could not accommodate all the beer enthusiasts. I agree with their decision as our experience of 20 minutes waiting for a drink in a humid sweaty dome seemed rather pointless. I truly hope that the plans to create a more suitable space will happen soon as their extensive range of IPAs and Pale Ales rock.

IMG_6249THE KERNEL

Arch 11, Dockley Industrial Estate, SE16 3SF

Taproom closed (temporarily)

What to drink:

Table Beer (3.1%) – the alcohol level ranges from 2.9-3.3% depending on the batch, the best example of low alcohol ale without compromising any of its hoppy flavours, my favourite lunch beer

Export Stout (7.1%) – rich dark chocolate, malty, almost caramel-like thickness with burnt espresso bitterness and sweet touch

Partizan beers are easily noticeable and memorable thanks to their unique artwork (courtesy of Alec Doherty) and ever changing American hop varieties for the IPAs and Pale Ales. They also offer Saisons galore if you like that bone dry sour style using some cool flavours such as Lemongrass, Lemon and Thyme, Raspberry and Lemon, Nelson etc.

IMG_6251PARTIZAN

8 Almond Street, SE16 3LR

Taproom opens every Saturday 11am – 5pm

What to drink:

Pale Ale Cascade, Chinook, Apollo, Willamette (4.5%) – edgy hoppy with zesty twist, fresh oranges, honeydew melon, candied fruits

IPA Mandarina Bavaria (4.5%) – tropical citrusy lift with ripe tangerines and oranges, sweet fruity flavours mingling with bitter hoppy herbal notes

Negroni Saison (6.5%) – was launch in August and unbelievably I have not tried it yet but I have a feeling it will be worth it…

IMG_6256BREW BY NUMBERS

79 Enid Street, SE16 3RA

Taproom opens every Saturday 10am – 5pm

What to drink:

Black IPA Yakima Valley (6.1%) – Amarillo, Chinook & Simcoe hops – dark chocolate, malty, sweet coffee, roasted walnuts, spicy

Barrel Aged Traditional Porter (8.5%) – aged in Jim Beam whiskey barrels – incredible intensity and concentration of rich bourbon, burnt caramel, roasted espresso and long strong finish

White IPA Citra Motueka (7%) – bitter grapefruit and lime with creamy bready hoppy mouth feel, very refreshing and satisfying, my favourite white IPA

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 12.25.17ANSPACH & HOBDAY

118 Druid Street, SE1 2HH

Taproom opens every Friday 5 – 9.30pm & Saturday 11am – 5.30pm & Sunday 12 – 5pm

What to drink:

The Smoked Brown (6%) – smoky, almost meaty style, malty and sweetly oaky finish

Table Porter (2.8%) – smooth light dark coffee notes, offers bags of flavours despite such low alcohol level

By the time the last drop of beautifully rich and complex Anspach & Hobday Porter was savoured, we were ready for more food. I highly recommend Jose Pizzaro – a sherry and tapas bar on Bermondsey Street.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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My favourites in NW1, NW3 and NW5

Michael Nadra – 42 Gloucester Avenue, NW1 8JDScreen Shot 2015-08-12 at 22.05.59

Best for Prix Fixe 3 courses lunch (£26) or dinner (£37) with staple favourites such as tempura of soft shell crab or steamed sea bass with prawn & chive dumplings and many seasonally changing dishes. The wine list is getting more interesting and a corkage of £20 per bottle is also offered. Ben and I love this place. It’s a short walk from Camden Town station but as it is tucked away behind the Camden Market and the Canal, it is favoured more by the locals. Be aware of their fresh bread rolls, made on the premise and so irresistible…

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 22.07.13Greenberry Café – 101 Regent’s Park Road, NW1 8UR

If it is just a light healthy snack or breakfast, this little café is open everyday from 9am to 10pm most days. Best for blackboard lunch specials and a surprisingly good selection of grower champagnes (available when asked). A stones thrown away from Primrose Hill Park, this is the buzziest place along Regent’s Park Road. Fantastic flavoursome cooking reasonably priced despite the location.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 22.08.52The Little One Coffee Shop – 115 Regent’s Park Road, NW1 8UR

The best coffee locally within NW1, NW3 & NW5. Using Monmouth coffee beans, their flat white is consistently unbeatable. Well at £2.60 a cup it should be. Avoid the crepes if you can and be aware it closes at 4.30pm.

IMG_6207Bottle Apostle – 172 Regent’s Park Road, NW1 8XN

Bottle Apostle is much more than just a wine shop. It opened a month ago and is already attracting the local crowd thanks to its awesome worldwide wine selection and craft beers from independent UK breweries. I work here so the service is top notch, of course. We have Enomatic tasting machines so you can sip away while I refill your wine rack…

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 22.11.24Marine Ices – 61 Chalk Farm Road, NW1 8AN

Camden’s iconic ice-cream parlour with proper Italian gelatos & fruit sorbets (£2.20 per scoop) and scrumptious sundaes.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 21.10.13The Gipsy Queen – 166 Malden Road, NW5 4BS

What a transformation! This pub used to be called The Bluebell and was a tired boozer stinking of bleach, sweat and garbage. In June, it was given a major facelift by the team behind The Grafton and has been transformed into a friendly gastro pub with a shiny open stainless steel kitchen and a stylish canopied garden. It has a great beer selection focussing on small independent breweries and now you can also buy refillable bottles and enjoy any of their brews at home. So far we have only tried their warm tasty sandwiches but the main menu looks equally delicious. Not cheap mind you, the classic beef burger will set you back £8.50 and Sunday roast £12-15.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 22.14.07The Stag – 67 Fleet Road, NW3 2QU

Our local pub prior to The Gipsy Queen re-opening. Ben and I have been coming here for years as this pub has truly versatile bottled beer selection from around the world and always has something thirst quenching and intriguing on draught. The food is honest if a bit rustic offering typical pub classics with an American twist. My favourite is their Freeman’s dip with warm flatbread and Jacobs Ladder beef rib with summer slaw for bigger appetite. Both the garden and bar get always busy so worth getting in earlier if you can.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 22.16.35Camden Town Brewery – 55-59 Wilkin Street, NW5 3NN

A crafty small brewery in the heart of Kentish Town and close to Camden Town, hence the name. Due to its growing success the brewery bar is now opened everyday except Mondays. The different street food stalls together with regular tours and events attract many locals. There is more to Camden Town Brewery than their most popular Hells lager and Pale Ale with regular limited releases.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Recognised as an ambassador of the Rhône Valley (July 2015)

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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

IMW student Daniela Shelton wins the 2015 Lallemand Bursary

IMW student Daniela Shelton wins the 2015 Lallemand Bursary

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Posted by on June 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Should the use of selected microorganisms for alcoholic or malolactic fermentation be considered as additives in wines?

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 13.19.07Winemaking is a fascinating creative process whose interpretation includes both craft and a science. While the majority of winemakers aim for a balance between both philosophies, divided opinions on what extent wine production should be manipulated and controlled to produce the best wines spark highly controversial discussions. Current conventional understanding of microorganisms used in the process of alcoholic and malolactic fermentation is to classify them as processing aids, regardless whether they are indigenous or selected. Nevertheless, the natural wine movement insists that anything added (e.g. lab-bred yeasts, enzymes or bacteria) to wine should be listed as an additive and therefore be declared on the label so that consumers can make an informed choice. However, what happens when wild yeasts are selected from a specific ecosystem for their individuality and then are reproduced for the following vintages in order to achieve reliability? And would consumers really benefit from this transparency reflected on labels or would it just create further confusion?

Both winemaking techniques – alcoholic and malolactic ferment – can be either controlled by inoculation with carefully selected yeast strains (specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae) or lactic acid bacteria (specifically Oenoccocus oeni, Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc & Pediococcus) respectively. Alternatively they can be carried out spontaneously thanks to indigenous cultures. Regardless the method, the microorganisms used as catalysts are technically defined as processing aids (not additives or ingredients) as they are substances that are transient and do not remain to a significant extent in the finished contemporary wines. Both yeasts and bacteria are killed by increased alcohol level or thanks to sulphur dioxide at the end of fermentation and are then removed from the finished wine by racking and/or filtration.

The non-interventionist or natural wine argument, on the other hand, uncompromisingly asserts that foreign/selected yeasts and bacteria are additives and therefore not accepted in their unofficial codes of practice. Their argument is supported by the fact that it has been proven that different populations of wild yeast species are specific to a region/vineyard. This means that the regionally different populations of wild yeasts and other fungi produce regional flavours and wine characteristics and therefore are closely tied to expression of a specific terroir. Global research has shown that both vineyards (grape skins, vine leaves, stems, soil) and wineries (interior, barrels etc.) are heaving with microbial life. Dr Mat Goddard, senior lecturer and yeast researcher of The University of Auckland, has proven that Saccharomyces cerevisiae is unique to a place/region. He found that yeasts in West Auckland, Kumeu River share less than 0.4% of their ancestry with other international strains. Similarly, David Mills, Professor in the Departments of Food Science & Technology at the University of California at Davis, found specific microbes within California’s wine growing regions (such as Acetobacter in Central Coast, Methylobacterium in Sonoma and Lactococcus in Napa Valley) after testing over 270 ferments.

Based on these findings, only indigenous populations of yeasts and bacteria result in wine that faithfully reflects the sense of place. The clearest solution therefore would be to consider indigenous cultures as processing aids, and commercial cultures from a packet as additives as they alter the wine style despite not remaining in the finished wine. However, the issue is how to make this sufficiently clear on labels in order to provide consumers with accurate information and enable them to identify the origin and quality level of the wine. Also, consideration is required on how to avoid misleading or confusing consumers by listing extra ingredients whilst not portraying the wine yeast additions as detrimental or unfavorable in the consumer’s mind. It is thanks to the wine yeast companies (such as Lallemand, Oenobrands) and their ongoing investment that the risk of stuck ferments, the formation of undesired characteristics or a high level of bacterial biogenic amines have been eliminated, and that better more consistent wines can be created.

In addition to this labeling issue, the discussion gets even more complicated as wild yeasts can and are commercially developed in order to produce the authentic effect of spontaneous ferment yet in a control way. There are some producers worldwide that select their own indigenous yeasts and reproduce the same species for the following vintage ensuring a reliable start and finish of the ferment and retaining the individuality of the place. Quinta de Azevedo in Minho, Portugal developed a yeast culture from their vineyards called QA23 which has been successful for starting and controlling fermentation. Vasse Felix in Margaret River, Australia has developed their own yeast culture for the combination of individuality and reliability and in order to create consistent aromas.

In conclusion, there is no single answer as to whether yeasts and bacteria that have been commercially selected should be considered as additives or whether they should remain to be officially classified as processing aids. There are two controversial camps of producers who present valid arguments. In addition, a new method of capturing the benefits of authenticity and control is starting to be explored thanks to new developments in viticulture and a better understanding of the microorganisms responsible for alcoholic and malolactic ferment. However, the combination of using wild microorganisms and reproducing them muddies the waters between what is a natural element and what is an additive/ingredient. Consumers may not be aware of the implications of these production methods but if labelling reflects the difference there it is likely that despite being more specific, labels will become more confusing and possibly misleading about the quality of wine. After all, regardless of the method used, both are instrumental in meeting global demand for high quality wines.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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How fair are government taxes on wine around the world?

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 00.19.37Government tax rates on wine differ significantly between countries and it is difficult and complex to accurately compare them. Different considerations and challenges such as economic, cultural, political and legal determine how taxes are applied. Whether they are fair or unfair depends on your point of view. The wine industry constantly fights to avoid increases in excise duty in order to protect their sales and profits. Producers that rely on local demand call for higher import tariffs in order to protect their domestic wine industry. Alternatively, those relying on exports call for free trade or tax rebates in order to sustain and grow their business. Consumers are principally against any type of tax. Whereas governments rely heavily on tax revenue, yet never seem to be satisfied.

There are huge differences in government taxes. For instance excise duty rates vary from €6 per bottle of wine in Norway to zero in Hong Kong. On the first glance, this significant rate difference seems unfair. Why should consumers pay so much for their favourite tipple in one country while others enjoy much lower pricing? However, comparison of taxes is complicated as the value of rates is based on different cultural, political and economic philosophies of countries. Following a period of alcohol prohibition, Norway’s high taxes are linked with strict restrictions by the government alcohol monopoly Vinmonopolet. Whereas Hong Kong, thanks to its global connectivity has had zero tax since February 2008 with a view to economic dynamism and liberalism.

However, even within the European Union where the majority of members share the same currency and similar economic goals, the excise duties vary so remarkably it can hardly be considered fair. The United Kingdom is one of the highest tax paying countries at £2.05 per bottle in comparison to traditional wine producing country such as France which only charges €0.03 per bottle. So if you buy £5 bottle of wine in the UK (being the average price), 57% is tax and about 28% is retail margin and the liquid is barely 25%, making it poor value for money for consumers. No wonder then that thousands of Brits travel across the channel every year to take advantage of the bargains in Calais.

Governments can receive a significant amount of funding through wine taxes. Some of this revenue is used to offset the cost of crimes and health damage that are related to alcohol abuse. The wine industry in the UK paid over £15 billion in duty and VAT to the government in 2010 yet the Institute of Alcohol Studies claims that alcohol related harm was estimated to cost society (England) £21 billion in the same year. This includes £3.5 billion of NHS cost, £11 billion of alcohol-related crime and £7 billion of lost productivity due to alcohol. This estimate suggests that alcohol consumption brings more financial losses then benefits to the government. However an accurate estimate of the economic cost of alcohol consumption is difficult to calculate due to the number of variables involved.

From the wine industry’s point of view, there is a danger that taxes reach a level where reduced consumption materially impacts sales and profits. In order to avoid this, the UK duty increase was postponed in 2014 (as a result of the Call Time on Duty initiative). It was estimated that action will save the industry £175 – 230 million and protect over 6,000 jobs. On the other hand, the French government (starting from a much lower base) is keen to drastically increase the tax from €0.03 to somewhere between €0.30-0.60 per bottle, estimated to bring an extra €2 billion to the state government.

Taxes vary depending on whether wine is imported or locally produced. For example in Shanghai, tax for imported wines adds 48% to the cost of a bottle compared to domestic wine which only adds 30% to its cost. This protects the local industry. However, in India, the import tax is so high (a whopping 150% of the value of the wine), that a bottle of Jacob’s Creek costs US$40. Imported wines are therefore incredibly expensive and difficult to access for an average consumers. In order to make imported wine more available and pricing more affordable, discussions about reducing the duty to 40% are underway.

In Australia the tax is the same for wines regardless whether they are imported or locally produced. Thanks to the WET rebates, New Zealand wine exports to Australia have increased by 139% since 2005 when it was introduced. This is currently causing a lot of issues for local producers despite its fairness in free trade terms. In order to protect the Australian wine industry and control overseas competition, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia is calling for Wine Equalisation Tax reform to address this issue. It is believed that the reform could earn the Australian government AU$25 million a year.

The notorious complexity of US taxes have been known to discourage wineries from trading directly to consumers. The original idea to lift restraints of the three-tier system in 37 states (including California) was to help the availability of wines produced by small and less known wineries and to promote selling wine directly to consumers. Whereas federal excise duty tax is fixed according to alcohol level, and for still wine up to 14% abv is charged at $0.21 per bottle of wine, state tax is much more complicated. Each state has its own rules and regulations, each requires different record keeping and payments. This challenging tax regime limits the number of states that wineries are prepared to work with and limits consumers’ choice of wine from other states.

Keeping tax systems simple and consistent may seem to be a good idea from administrative point of view. But when it comes to the link between taxes and the alcohol level of wine, there are some who call for more versatile tax bands. It is no coincidence that the majority of red wines do not reach an alcohol level over 15.5%. For example, in the UK still wines with alcohol between 5.5% and 15.5% are taxed the same. The result is that nearly all wines end up being taxed by the same amount which may be considered unfair. In order to encourage responsible drinking, promote lower alcohol wines and introduce fairer trading, many producers together with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association are therefore proposing a different alcohol tax band between 9% and 12% abv.

Government taxes on wine are so sensitive and impactful that their fairness and subsequent challenges or benefits are being reviewed constantly. Arguably, many governments struggle to balance fairness when applying their taxes. What some producers may view as fair trade others view as a threat to their profits and a limit to their growth. What some view as a restriction of free choice others view as beneficial control of alcohol consumption. However, what is certain is that hardly anyone believes that taxes on wines are fair to them and there will always be groups who lobby for change.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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The joy of taking the Master of Wine exam

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Ever wondered what it is like to take the Master of Wine exam? Notoriously one of the most demanding exams in the wine world consisting of three flights of 12 wines tasted blind and 11 theory papers all over four days. It has been two weeks since I attempted this challenge in London but the feeling is still very much fresh and racing through my mind. There is not a day that I am not asked what it was like and how I did. So here it goes.

The first day of this exam marathon is about to start and we (the candidates) stand nervously around waiting to be shown to our tables. Barely a word is spoken. The hall is filled with the future crème de la crème of the wine trade but anxious smiles and tense breathing belie that. Never mind how well prepared we are or how talented we may be, there is a palpable air of barely concealed panic.

We are all aware of the hopeless statistics of acing this exam. There is less than 10% pass rate on the tasting, the theory shows touch more success. Some people are more natural in blind tasting and others are more comfortable writing structured essays but I believe that anyone can learn both skills. I guess if I didn’t I wouldn’t be here.

Sitting at the end of the well-lit but rather soulless industrial room, I have a view of all 40-odd candidates. The overwhelming thoughts of who will be the lucky one this year come to my mind. This is our time to shine but all I can do at this point is breathe in shallow gulps and try and force some positive thoughts.

It seems like a century before we can start pouring our wines and then we are off like racing greyhounds. The wines are cold at first (Paper 1 is always whites) so you hold on to the glasses with your palms as if your life depended on it. I sniff all wines first and quickly assess what they could be. No grids for me. One thing I have learned is that the first initial judgement is usually the best and most accurate.

In order to calm my nerves I start with the flight of questions that I am most comfortable with. This time we were blessed with four lovely Rieslings that were instantly recognisable. Tasty too. A couple of swallows to build some courage, the heart rate starts to slow down and a hint of welcome relief follows. Before you know it we are asked to stop writing and put our pens down.

No doubt if I had more time, this would be so much easier but this exam is about the skill of wine knowledge as much as decision making and fast writing. There are 300 marks to be had and to pass you need to get at least 195 marks. You have a minute or two to decide what each wine is and then spend the rest of the time justifying your decisions on region, grape variety, quality, age, commercial potential, winemaking etc.

Fresh air tastes so good after the first exam I tell you, even with all the traffic heading towards Blackfriars Bridge. A quick cup of tea and a bite to eat and we are back in our seats getting ready for the first theory paper. It’s simple – you have 3 hours to write 3 essays that will be marked with equal importance. This is where true geeks shine.

This year the questions were tough but pretty fair – from management of the vineyard through quality control procedures to brand building and wine industry legislation. They are designed to test our breadth of knowledge but some were very specific so you really needed to be confident about the subject before answering. Choosing the right question is always crucial.

The biggest challenge here is the timing. Three hours may sound like a long time. In that time you could run a marathon if you were fast or half marathon if you were slow. But to write three academically structured essays filled with well-chosen global examples in a confident and critical manner is what gives this that punishing edge.

For the next two days you follow the same format. The pressure and stress lessens somewhat but the fatigue and lack of sleep start to play their toll. On the fourth day, we are allowed to show off our personality tackling more contemporary issues. The final whistle went off just after midday on Saturday, followed by generous helpings of Bollinger.

And how did I do? Well – we will find out in September!

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Viticulture exploiting climate change

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What impact climate change has on viticulture worldwide and how can producers moderate the effects?

Forget what happened in 2012 and 2013. If you want to understand the impact of climate change on viticulture, simply observing yearly snapshots is misleading. Nigel Sneyd, director of International Winemaking at Gallo, argues that “climate change is a along-term phenomenon and people too readily take three-year or at best ten-year trends as unequivocal signs, they should be looking at centuries of data”.

Our climate is naturally variable (some regions getting colder and some hotter) and the change is so slow. Researchers at the University of Southern Oregon carried out extensive research and reported that the average temperature in thirty classic high quality wine producing regions worldwide has risen by 3 degrees in the last 50 years. They also predicted a rise of 2.5 to 4.7 degrees by 2050. Dr Richard Smart, an Australian viticulturist, claimed that just one degree of temperature rise can wipe out an entire grape growing region. However, there is strong evidence that growers are managing to moderate climate change effects successfully through careful vineyard management and location.

For several decades Chilean, Argentinean and South African producers have been taking advantage of unique coastal and altitude conditions that guarantee sustainable production of high quality wines in areas that would otherwise be too hot or arid. Cold ocean currents and cool air coming down from the Andes at night helps to stabilize temperatures and moderate very warm and dry climate with infrequent rainfall.

High temperatures have always been a reality in the Douro. However, Fernando Alves of the Association for the Development of Viticulture in the region warns that “intense exposure to sunlight and repeated periods of drought in recent years have put deep stress on the vine and soil”. One way of tackling this issue is to plant grapes at various elevations. Mr Alves suggests that “one variety that thrives now at 600 meters might be planted at a site 100 meters higher or situated with a different exposure to the sun, and so be coaxed to adapt to its new growing conditions”.

Awareness of climate change on vineyard location is key for sustainable viticulture. For example, on-going research by Prof. Silvia Guidoni of the University of Turin in the vineyards of G.D.Vajra in Piedmont discovered that south facing vineyards that used to have perfect exposure now are too hot in some years. It is west-southwest vineyards that now seem to be more successful as they benefit from the sun taking longer to warm them therefore avoiding reach high temperature exposure.

The way we interact with our environment is directly influenced by climate change. Producers may choose to modify row orientation in order to minimize sunburn. In regions that lack cloud cover, canopy management can be used for better protection and shade with the possibility of overhead trellising. Whereas in cooler climates, open canopy allows required sunlight to reach the grapes and allow full ripeness. For example, in Tasmania, Andrew Hanigan of Derwent Estate chooses to remove leaves at the bottom of the vine in order to reduce methoxypyrazine concentration in his Sauvignon Blanc.

Similarly, delayed pruning encourages delayed budburst, which decreases the risk of spring frost damage. In order to tackle this seasonal damage, Albert Bichot in Chablis uses electric wire in the vineyards and Hattingly Valley, UK sparkling wine producer is experimenting with Frost Guard that can create temperature fluctuation reducing ice crystal formation. In extreme cold temperatures such as in Ontario or Northern China, producers may choose to bury their vines mitigating their bud loss.

By careful selection of clones and rootstocks that are more resistant to extreme temperatures and saline soils, vines can better tackle heat waves or rain storms. Chris Williams of Meerlust in Stellenbosch is experimenting with Paulsen 1103 rootstock for their Merlot as it is better suited to drought conditions and has a very good tolerance to salt.

Adaptation of different grape varieties is also one of the solutions counteracting climate change. For example Touriga Nacional, known for ability to photosynthesize for a much longer period than many other grape varieties, could be planted more widely outside Portugal. Introducing new grape types however could result in a loss of regional character and it may be problematic since many Designated Origin wines are related to the type of grape used. Less restricted areas such as England are already taking an advantage of their freedom. A more Mediterranean climate in southern England has spurred a boom of new plantings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which now account for more than 50% of all England’s plantings and are destined for sparkling wine production.

However, for some growers who are short of money following several bad vintages, it may now be too late to act. It is estimated that over 200 Beaujolais producers are in danger of bankruptcy after frost and hail affected the 2012 harvest particularly badly. As a consequence, many are lacking finances to move from the goblet to the trellis system in order to better manage the vines and rely less on chemical fertilizers and pest control.

The impact on the Champagne region is rather more controversial. There are those such as Arnaud Descôtes, environmental manager for the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, that believe that global warming is a good thing. There is a higher number of released ‘great’ vintages as the average flowering is now earlier due to warmer climate, hence the grapes are ripening earlier (14 days earlier according to CIVC) and therefore they are less prone to poor weather at the end of the growing season. It also allows more vines to be planted in the region. On the other hand, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have a very narrow ideal average temperature band during the growing season (Pinot Noir 14-16°C/Chardonnay 14-18°C) and it is likely that any deviation from this range will produce less distinctive wines lacking full-body elegance.

The situation in Piedmont indicates a similar predicament. Whereas rising temperature had a positive effect overall with a string of good to outstanding vintages since 1996 (except 2002) and significant improvement of lower quality Barolo, unpredictable rainfall is causing significant soil erosion. Despite overall rainfall remaining fairly constant, its unpredictable distribution is creating more very dry and very wet periods, with the local silty soil crusts struggling to cope with the extremes.

Philippe Guigal, chief winemaker of Maison Guigal in Rhone is positive but cautious about climate change. He says that there is “a much better correlation between the physiological maturity and the phenolic ripeness of Syrah in the north of the region now”. 25 years ago chaptalisation was a regular procedure but now grapes have a natural potential strength of 13% to 13.5% that is perfectly satisfactory. However, recent research by Conservation International warns that production in the Rhone will decline as warming climate will make it harder to grow grapes here by 2050.

In Bordeaux many producers have also noticed a slow yet significant change in growing conditions. The shift to a compressed growing season is resulting in uneven grape ripening and sugar accumulation, reflecting in unbalanced yield and low-acid wines that lack complexity. It has been proven by recent research by the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation (GWRDC) supported by Treasury Wine Estate. Open-top chambers were designed where temperature was increased by 2°C above ambient to represent warming projections for wine growing regions under realistic vineyard conditions. The key finding was that there was a shorter harvest period, putting logistical pressure on producers and directly affecting wine quality.

Luckily, vines are much more resilient to climate change than we give them credit for. However, the recent rapid spread of new pests and disease is a visible sign of warmer temperatures according to Dr Richard Smart. The multi-coloured Asian ladybird that taints wines with methoxypyrazines is already causing problems in Canada, Italy, Spain, France and England now too.

Dr Smart also warns that Esca, a type of trunk disease linked to climate warming, could pose a far greater risk to our viticulture than phylloxera. It has been spreading rapidly in Burgundy, particularly affecting Sauvignon Blanc as the fungal pathogens affect a vine’s vigour and life span through delayed and stunted growth. Louis-Fabrice Latour of Maison Louis Latour confirms that Burgundy is producing less wine now than in the 80s and 90s as a result. However, climate change is only one factor blamed for spreading this disease. Sodium arsenite fungicides, historically used to kill trunk disease, were banned 10 years ago due to their destructive impact on soil. In addition, electric pruning shears are increasingly used which make bigger cuts when cutting the old wood, creating more infection.

To think that in 20 to 50 years, Champagne will be over-shadowed by sparkling wine production on the coast of Scandinavia or that Southern Rhone producers will grow pineapples and mangoes instead of their beloved Chateauneuf-du-pape, seems far-fetched. There is still no visible proof that countries such as Sweden, with its mere 50 hectares currently under vine, are benefiting from any of these changes. In fact, wine production in these countries is still very much in its infancy.

Of importance are increasingly extreme weather patterns and their unpredictability. Hail, frost, storms, snowballs the size of potatoes, sudden rainfalls, heat waves and prolonged droughts have a direct affect on vineyards worldwide. Whereas change of temperatures can create new opportunities while influencing vine physiology, berry composition and wine attributes, extreme weather conditions have severe consequences. Sudden hails storm can ruin a chateau’s annual production in a few minutes.

Burgundy’s new regional association (ARELFA) invested this year in a new technology to protect the region from devastating hailstorms. Spurred by continuous crop loss over the last 15 years, ground generators were developed in order to control weather patterns in the sky. Test already showed 50% success and is more affordable (€10 per hectare) than anti-hail rockets.

South African and Australian producers are used to heat waves and droughts and are very much aware that access to water will become increasingly important. Whereas South African growers lack the scope to move polewards, Australian growers are exploring cooler regions such as Tasmania, already showing great potential for sparkling wine production.

Soil salinity is also a threat in Australia and the use of saline tolerant vines that are able to absorb water will become significant. This problem, caused by imbalance of the hydrological cycle or irrigation, is particularly significant in Western Australia, South Australia and Murray-Darling Basin according to CSIRO, the national science agency.

Water management and the sustainability of water sources is on everyone’s mind. Permitting irrigation where currently appellation laws forbid it for the production of high quality wines (PDO and PGI) is an obvious change that producers are bound to fight for.

It has been estimated that in order to produce a bottle of wine, 1,500 litres of water is used, therefore conserving water for use in vineyards and cellars will be a key factor in water resource planning. Growers will be competing with another as well as (and arguably more importantly) other agricultural areas. Areas such as California are considering enforcing mandatory water restrictions due to 7 years of consecutive droughts and after experiencing one of the driest year’s on record in 2013. The price of irrigation water in Riverland, Riverina and Murray Valley has tripled in recent years and 40% of producers are struggling to afford it. But there are smart vineyard practices that help to balance the cost increase. Bryson Brothers at Morambro Creek in Australia use mulch cover which protects evaporation and saves 20-30% of water.

Dramatic and unpredictable vintage changes harm individual producers much more then the overall average temperature rise. As more extreme weather conditions occur greater vintage variations appear, highlighting the importance of innovative viticultural techniques. To become sustainable, producers will need to better understand their vineyard locations and their water sources. There is much work to be done in the vineyards and the emphasis will shift significantly towards the vigneron’s work alongside the winemaker’s. However, there will be plenty of new opportunities and plantings in new areas, that should hush any warnings of global wine shortages.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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32 shades of pink

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 20.48.34

Spring is here and so the love of rosé resurfaces like daffodils. The supermarket shelves will soon be covered by beautiful pink hues and our glasses will be filled with many different shades of blush. For several months, rosés will rule the world yet again.

Rosé wines are becoming very popular and not only amongst the ladies. We are drinking more rosé than we ever did and all the signs point to further growth. Those new to wine are more likely to pick a bottle of rosé as it is more accessible and palatable more than many reds or whites. The figures reflect this trend, the worldwide production of rosé has increased by 13% in the last 8 years becoming an important category now within the drinks business and accounting for 10% of total wine production (CIVP).

French lead the way as they both produce and drink the biggest share. In fact they consume more than they can produce at the moment. But consumption trends differ very much depending on the country. Americans and Germans are said to be fond of residual sugar whereas French and Spanish prefer dry styles.

So what type of rosé wine drinkers are most Brits? The trend is not as one sided here as the stock on shelves suggests demand for both dry and sweet styles. However, the overriding trend is lighter and more off-dry styles at affordable prices. Indeed, it is the style that leads the category as opposed to the region of origin. This is brilliant news to any winemakers that are willing to listen to consumers and create rosé styles that are in demand.

Whatever the style, Brits are becoming very fond of rosés despite the variable weather. In fact, one in eight bottles of wine bought is rosé now and Brits spend close to £700 million per year on this category (Nielsen).

Despite all this success, there are still many, like me, that would rather have a good bottle of white or red. To me, rosés are like movies that never became a blockbuster. A good cast but the plot lacks depth and interest. The fact that rosés are rarely made in their own right, and despite all the best intentions, quality is compromised as generally only degraded/left-over red varieties are used in production.

A recent blind tasting of 32 top rosés has not persuaded me otherwise. The wines consisted of 2012 and 2013 vintages, priced at premium £15 – £30 and the range was 70% from Provence, and the rest from Loire Valley, Rhone, Bordeaux, Navarra, England, Piedmont, Australia and New Zealand.

The first thing that struck me was the amount of reductive notes (rubber, struck match) and even a couple of cases of reduced taint (cabbage, onion) across this range. To me, the reason why rosés are so successful is due to their attractive colour and seductive perfume. Reduction unfortunately spoils the fun.

What also did not help was that the majority of wines lacked fruit. I would have hoped that even serious rosés such these would offer some fruit pleasure. All the wines were dry, but despite my personal preference I believe that just a touch of residual sugar would lift those hidden (or should I say restrained) aromas and flavours.

However, the packaging didn’t disappoint. In fact I think that these days rosés have amongst the smartest and most aesthetically pleasing packaging, with a clear message and presentation. Colours are so versatile from a pale shade of strawberry to bright cherry lollipop so that everyone can find their preferred shade.

All in all, here are my top 5 rosés from the tasting:

1. Sancerre Rose Chavignol, Dom Laporte 2013 Loire Valley – £16.50 – Lea & Sandeman

2. Chene Bleu 2013 Ventoux (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault) £15, Justerini & Brooks

3. Domaine des Diables Rose Bonbon 2013 Provence – £13.95 – Lea & Sandeman

4. Domaine Sainte Lucie L’Hydropathe 2013 Provence – £15.95 – Lea & Sandeman

5. Domaine Tempier 2012 Provence – £23.95 – Lea & Sandeman

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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