Tag Archives: Fortified Wines

Going back to school with Wine Australia

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 15.44.09The idea of offering a one day wine school event in London first came from the talented Yvonne May, head of Wine Australia for UK & Ireland. Sadly her battle with illness cut her inspirational and tireless work short but her legacy championing Australian wine continues.

The aim of this compelling event is to make UK wine professionals aware of the diversity of Australian wines and provide them with up-to-date knowledge about new vineyard and winemaking techniques as well as a concise overview of todays developments, challenges and potential. As we can’t all fly to Australia, this is the next best thing.

So who better to guide us through the day than charismatic and knowledgeable Tim Atkin MW, UK wine journalist and the straight-talking and accomplished Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli in Yarra Valley. The tasting flights were organised by Emma Symington, UK events and education manager, who had the tough job of selecting wines that demonstrate best the typicity of the key regions and their distinctive styles.

The challenge for the speakers was not only to captivate the diverse audience but also to summarise the entire Australian story within one day. It would seem that Australia has had a complete personality change so regardless the level of knowledge or experience in the room, there was plenty to learn. And if you have missed it, here are the highlights.

Australia boasts some of the oldest vines in the world (Tahbilk still has ½ hectare of un-grafted pre-phylloxera Shiraz vines from 1860). Despite only 0.025% of the land being planted under vine, you can find any climate and type of soil here. The diversity of wine styles has few limits. The finest quality wines are produced between 30 and 40 South latitude but you may be surprised to know that you can find wineries pretty much anywhere in the country (for example Granite Belt in Queensland). But some of the best wines come from cooler parts of warm climate regions. This is achieved through either higher altitude (Orange, Canberra district, Pyrenees) or going south with proximity to ocean (Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania).

Australian wines have come a long way since 1845 when the first bottle was exported to the UK. Then the majority of wines were fortified and it was not until the 1970’s that table wines took over the reign. Thanks to introduction of temperature control, the focus on international varietal styles and an open-minded attitude towards marketing, brand Wine Australia established its reputation in the export market for high quality table wines by the 1980’s.

However, as with best things in life, success did not last forever and today Australia is being challenged by a strong Australian dollar hindering its export markets, an imbalance between demand and supply skewed to over-production, limited water access and risk of droughts (it is impossible to establish new vineyard without irrigation) and the seeming lack of strong big brands as the market diversifies.

According to Steve, reducing the vineyard area to 120 000 ha from the current 150 000 ha would help to reduce the overproduction. Furthermore, in order to maintain sustainable profitable growth for producers, limiting their production to wines that can achieve retail value of at least £7 per bottle is advisable if not essential.

Comparing wines from a decade ago to those made in the last couple of years shows obvious changes implemented in the vineyards and wineries. So when was the last time you had a glass of Australian wine? And if you have to think more then five seconds to answer this then you had better visit your local independent wine shop, right?

Many boutique wineries are focussing on organic and biodynamic farming with notable attention being given to the vineyards. Despite the new technology and possibly because of it, producers find it challenging but inevitable to let go and move towards minimal handling. Spontaneous alcoholic fermentations are slowly replacing or complementing the use of cultured yeasts. Earlier picking and only token use of new oak (more French less American) is being reflected in fresher, more balanced, lower alcohol wines.

Riesling is no longer only produced in cooler higher altitude sites of Eden (500m) and Clare Valley (400-570m). But new ventures have proven successful in Tasmania (Josef Chromy) and Western Australia (Plantagenet in Mount Barker) thanks to their proximity to the cooling ocean breeze. Also Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria with its unique granite soil is starting to be known for its fine Rieslings (Mac Forbes), some fermented in old French casks for richer texture (Fowles Wine). There is a move towards slower alcoholic fermentations especially at the end of the ferment in order to reach balance between acidity and residual sugar. The majority of styles are dry but a few are starting to experiment with residual sugar, Grosset from Clare Valley being one the earliest pioneers (try his Alea with RS 12g/l).

Chardonnay, love it or hate it, is Australia’s best grape according to Tim. First planted in South Australia in 1937, it has transformed from a peachy and buttery spotty teenager to more sophisticated elegant grown-up. The trend now is towards extracting more phenolics and focussing on dryness away from sunshine ripeness. The ability to access more suitable and a wider variety of clone material is improving the quality. The combination of earlier picking, more use of whole bunch press followed by spontaneous ferment and minimal oak treatment (more old than new French) is reflected in crisper, delicate Burgundian styles.

Chardonnay is produced almost everywhere from warm & humid Hunter Valley (Tyrrell’s), high altitude Orange (600m) to cool coastal regions in Yarra Valley (Oakridge Wines), Mornington Peninsula (Kooyong), Tasmania (Derwent Estate), Margaret River (Leeuwin Estate) and Adelaide Hills (Shaw & Smith). However, there are strong differences in opinion on what Australian Chardonnay should taste like. Some are manipulating flavours by purposefully oxidising must, using wild yeasts or experimenting with different vessels whereas others prefer minimal intervention and focus on terroir, letting the wines speak for themselves.

Pinot Noir is everyone’s darling. Numerous winemakers are obsessed with this variety and as a result produce some of the best examples reaching the heights of Cote d’Or. Gone are the days when Pinot Noir was boosted with a small portion of Shiraz. Balance and lower alcohol (sometimes managed by using open tanks which blows off some of the alcohol) is aspired for. The focus is not on creating a particular style but to reflect an individual terroir/vineyard site which is what Pinot Noir does best. Unconventionally, use of whole bunch in order to exaggerate perfume and stalky freshness has a strong following despite being rarely used in Burgundy. Maybe it is all that inspirational and extensive drinking of DRC or Dujac who use 100% whole bunch as a textural component, jokes Steve.

Most Pinot Noir is planted in Yarra Valley (De Bortoli) as it thrives in this relatively free draining clay/silt/limestone soil. However, there are great Pinots made in many areas with cooling influence. From Mornington Peninsula (Ten Minutes by Tractor), Gippsland (Bill Downie), Geelong (Farr), Tasmania (Stefano Lubiana), Southern Fleurieu (Tapanappa).

Semillon used to be called Hunter River Riesling. There is definitely a resemblance to German Riesling with its high acidity, lower alcohol, lemony zestiness and occasional kerosene aromas. Three distinctive styles are produced in Australia. Hunter Valley Semillon (Brokenwood) has low alcohol (10.5% abv) and is dry, fresh and lean thanks to the warm humid climate, very early picking, no MLF and no oak. Their potential to age is timeless (Tyrrell’s). Barossa Valley Semillon (Peter Lehman) is richer but despite being picked early its alcohol resembles classic white wine. Margaret River Semillon (Suckfizzle) has more vibrant character thanks to blending with pungent Sauvignon Blanc. Its style resembles Bordeaux Blanc in many respects thanks to similar gravel and clay soils and French oak barrel ageing. But even Semillon is changing now as the tendency is to make early drinking more instantly approachable wines, possibly to re-capture the interest in these undervalued and possibly misunderstood wines.

Shiraz is the signature varietal of Australia. I feel that to state that there are two styles of Shiraz now produced would not do justice to this exceptional and outperforming grape. The trend is towards producing fresher, peppery, lower alcohol styles using a portion of whole bunch and old French cask than new oak. Suitable climates vary from Yarra Valley – Beechworth (Jamsheed), Pyrenees (Dalwhinnie), Heathcote (Greenstone Vineyard), Canberra (Clonakilla) to traditional regions such as Barossa Valley (Penfolds), Eden Valley (Yalumba), Clare Valley (Taylors Wines), McLaren Vale (Wirra Wirra) and Hunter Valley (Brokenwood). But classic rich, dark fruit-flavoured, full-bodied highly concentrated styles are still around, collecting gold medals and being highly sort after (Torbreck).

Cabernet Sauvignon is the work horse of Australia and after Shiraz and Chardonnay the third most planted. It has been entirely transformed, many examples showing the typicity of bright cassis fruit with bitter sweet spice and fresh tannins. Arguably Coonawarra and Margaret River offer some of the best examples. Coonawarra (Wynns) is a unique region full of contrasting climatic conditions with hot temperature on one side and frequent spring frosts and rain at vintage. Margaret River (Cullen) with its terroir and climate resembling Bordeaux produces remarkable quality Cabernets. Clare Valley’s (Jim Barry) cool nights help to preserve fresh acidity and finesse in Cabernets and despite its relative remoteness it produces newsworthy wines.

Sparkling styles are still rare. Some of the best sparkling wines are produced in Tasmania taking full advantage of its cool climate. Both Jansz and Arras are well-established and distributed in the UK but there are many boutique producers that are waiting to be discovered in order to appear on British shores. The tendency is to produce Champagne style blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but surprisingly Pinot Meunier has not been planted yet in Tasmania.

Sweet wines have been made in Australia since 1982 and De Bortoli Noble One Semillon was one of the first successful brands. What may surprise you is that back in 1920’s botrytised Semillon was also made in a fortified style. These botrytised styles are now aged in new French oak creating a very similar style to Sauternes.

Fortified wines (rare muscats/topaques and ports) once accounted for almost all production but this has dramatically changed to the extent that only a few remaining producers such as Campbells and All Saints Estate in Rutherglen still excel at this blending art and Penfolds producing limited release ports in Barossa Valley.

Whatever the future holds with all its challenges, I believe that UK and Australia will continue their strong symbiotic relationship. The UK still remains Australian number one export market despite the stick that Brits sometimes give to Aussie wines, historically being too ripe and now for being too lean. Brits seek Australian innovation and their easy-to-understand wines that don’t break the bank. As the worldwide focus thankfully tends to premium wine production with individual site distinction improving quality and profitability, Australia is well positioned. After all I believe that this spectacular country is still at a learning stage and the best wines are still to be made and discovered by us.

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Posted by on October 5, 2014 in Australia


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“If you like bottled electricity you will like Madeira” (Rui Falcao)

Madeira Wine Tasting with Rui Falcao in London

23rd October 2012

I love Madeira wine and only wish that I learnt to appreciate its unique taste and experience much earlier in my life. It is difficult to find the array of flavours that Madeira can offer in a single sip – its never ending finish and understated value for money – in any other fortified wine. So while your bottle is chilling in the fridge here is a bit more info you may want to get your teeth into…

Why is Madeira so unique?

The vineyards are located on one of the most inaccessible and remote mountainous islands in the Atlantic Ocean, 560km off the coast of Morocco. The terraced vineyards are built on volcanic fertile soils and are trained on 1-2 metre high pergolas that make the harvest a real back breaking job.  The majority of the growers own small plots from 5 hectares to a couple of plants, similar to the Douro Valley. You could see a grower harvesting just a couple of baskets worth with tremendous pride. The steep vineyards make it impossible to use mechanisation so everything has to be done by hand.

The subtropical climate creates humid and foggy weather that does not allow for the grapes to ripen fully and provides an ideal atmosphere for mildew and grey rot. If this wasn’t enough the vineyards compete for existence with other more commercial agricultural products such as bananas. Only 500 hectares are planted under vines now but even with some new plantings of almost forgotten Bastardo, Madeira is very much a niche product.

The extremely limited production is further driven by the fact that only 15% of the total plantings is of traditional accredited varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. The majority of wine is made of Tinta Negra Mole with small amounts of Terrantez, Bastardo, Moscatel and Complexa. The advantage of having so many varieties is that they can be vinified in many styles from dry to sweet*. The term dry could be possibly a bit confusing here as even the driest styles have at least 20 g/l of residual sugar.

But why I think Madeira is so unique is for its astonishing acidity and intense complexity that defines its style amongst other fortified wines, and other wines for that matter.  A combination of factors achieves this unique character. High acidity is defined by volcanic soil, which is naturally acidic, and its fertility encouraging high yields.  The foggy and misty climate makes it tricky to achieve full ripeness and the varieties used retain naturally high acidity. The complex distinctive flavours are the results of an extensive estufagem** or canteiro*** ageing. Due to this treatment, Madeiras can survive a couple of centuries. Once I tried 19th century Bastardo and the freshness yet intensity just blew me away.

What is the future for this great nectar?

Overall sales have dipped 20% in the last 5 years to 3 million litres in 2011 driven largely by a drop in demand from its biggest market – France.  Luckily some new markets such as Japan and Belgium are showing more interest in Madeira. British drinkers represent a steady 10% of global consumption.

But if Madeira wants to become more popular it needs to make some big changes in its image and straighten out the confusion it creates with the bewildering number of styles available and its unimaginative labelling.

Many think that Madeira is a drink for the older generation. No wonder, as the majority of Madeira enthusiasts are over fifty or knowledgeable trade people. If you had a chance to join the latest Madeira tasting in London you would notice that 90% of the attendees were males of moustache age. Both woman and the under 40’s were in the minority.

The key is to get more and younger drinkers to try it and show them how to enjoy it. Whether it is through a glass offering in bars and restaurants or more informal and entertaining consumer tastings with the focus on demystifying Madeira. Price should not be a problem here as Madeiras are one of the best value wines in the world. Furthermore, once a bottle of Madeira is opened it can keep fresh up to one year.

There is really no excuse for any sommelier not to get behind quality Madeira. I wish more care was taken when selecting the fortified section of any wine list, often it seems to be just ‘ticking the box’ without any thought to what might excite customers. Also I believe that tastings would attract younger and more adventurous consumers if they were organised in more informal (even trendy) settings and focused on food matching and how to taste & appreciate Madeira.

There is a wealth of Madeira styles.  In some ways that is its beauty, but it can also cause confusion and not only amongst consumers. For a start, all Madeiras are sweet, as the fermentation is stopped by fortification so none of the styles reach full dryness. Not only is the sweetness scale easily misrepresented but it is sometimes omitted from bottle labels altogether. This means that consumers are expected to know what level of sweetness each variety represents. And then there is the huge range to choose from – Frasqueira, Vintage, Colheita, 3/5/10/15/20/30/40 Years Old, Reserve, Old Reserve, Special Reserve, Solera and Rainwater****.  At the moment, only four allowed varieties can appear on the label, with Tinta Negra joining the group next year. If Terrantez and Bastardo were to follow it would be a sign of a new era for Madeira, both reviving old traditions and at the same time making things easier for consumers to understand.

Let’s not cook with it but drink it and enjoy it

1. Vinho Barbeito Malmsey 20 Years Old – Barbeito is one of the smallest operations on the Island out of total of only 6 producers – fresh hazelnuts, milk chocolates, raisins  (RS 120-130 g/l)

2. Justino’s Madeira Colheita 1996 – blend of 95% Tinta Negra and 5% Complexa bottled in 2002 – tawny colour with golden rims, walnuts, dark chocolate, balsamic spices and orange marmalade (RS 80 g/l)

3. Henriques & Henriques Verdelho 20 Years Old – H&H are the experts on Verdelho – very fruity style, bags of ripe and dried tropical fruits, milk chocolate, green tea with salty and nutty notes (RS 60 g/l) 

4. Blandy’s 20 Year Old Terrantez – golden colour with pink hue, grapefruit and smokiness on the nose, very gentle and delicate flavours and texture with bitter finish being the trademark of Terrantez (RS 80-90 g/l)

5. Pereira D’Oliveira Terrantez 1977 – bottled on 2011, this style is very unique where the barrels are not topped up and therefore the wine is exposed to more oxygen until bottling – an explosion of tropical fruit aromas, passion fruit, mango, pineapple, lychee with rich balsamic vinegar, toffee, caramel,  chocolaty, nutty flavours – wow- more delicate on the palate yet lingers on the finish for ages

“If you like bottled electricity you will like Madeira” (Rui Falcao)

*Types of Madeira wine – Sercial = dry (RS 18-65 g/l), Verdelho = medium dry (RS 49-78 g/l), Boal – medium rich (RS 78-96 g/l), Malvasia = sweet (RS 96-135 g/l)

**Estufagem – the process of heating wine in either stainless steel or concrete tank for at least three months allowing hot water (45-55C) to circulate the container which is meant to duplicate the effect of a long sea voyage. For better quality wine, large wooden casks are used, placed in a heated room (a type of sauna) for six months to year.

***Canteiro ageing – oxidative ageing in casks for at least two years. The casks are placed on the top floor where the temperature (heat of the sun) is higher and the circulation of air causes wine evaporation.


Frasqueira (= Vintage) – made from a particular vintage from traditional noble varieties and aged for at least 20 years before bottling

Colheita – from single harvest, like a vintage, can be from single variety or blend and can be bottled only after 5 years of ageing

3/5/10/15/20/30/40 Years Old – made from a single variety but a blend of different vintages with designated age which is the indication of the youngest wine in that blend

Reserve (=Mature) – indicates wines with a minimum of 5 years ageing

Old/or Special Reserve (=Very Mature) – indicates wines with minimum of 10 years of ageing

Solera – a batch of wine aged through the solera system where only 10% of the existing batch is bottled at a time and no more than 10 additions are allowed, after which the wine may be bottled at once

Rainwater – a younger style of medium dry Madeira with golden colour. There are a couple of stories how this style got its name but you can be ensured that no rainwater is harmed during production.

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Posted by on October 26, 2012 in Portugal


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The Big Fortified Tasting

 The Big Fortified Tasting 2012
Glaziers Hall, London SE1 9DD
Wednesday 2nd May 2012

I had the pleasure of working with Danny Cameron and Ben Campbell-Johnston on the day of the “BFT” and experienced the event from both back stage and front of house. I probably shouldn’t be surprised by the high number of attendees and the general enthusiasm of tasters that came through the door, yet I wish this energy and keenness by the trade translated to consumers. I suppose there is still much work to be done in that respect.

So how did the day look in numbers?

Incredibly, 600 trade professionals registered – that is around 150 more than last year! My guess is that at least 75% of these made it to the tasting, which is not a bad statistic. 50 producers showed their gems with Sherry and Port taking up most of the floor. More than 400 bottles were available for sampling from Marsalas, Sherries, Ports, Madeiras, Moscatels, Maury, Banyuls, Rivesaltes, Topaques and Muscats. And to keep us all refreshed numerous coffees and teas were served throughout the day with some cheeky hot chocolates!

Why should you not miss out on this event next year?

Some are attracted by the racy freshness and complexity of Madeiras, some by the luscious caramel sweetness of Rutherglen Muscats, some prefer the rich concentration and power of aged ports, some come for the lively atmosphere and to catch up with old friends, some are more interested in the organised seminars and discussions and some well some just pop in for a quick sip and a tasty sandwich. Whatever your preference, if you have never been this tasting should be in your diary next year!

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Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Uncategorized


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