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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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Fresh Face of California

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 21.52.44 What happens when a room brimming full of delicious, authentic and diverse wines coincides with a hipster crowd? You get The Dirty Dozen tasting. True to its name, one of the coolest and beardiest tasting events in London. Amongst all that “I don’t care looks” and skinny jeans, I discovered the new California and learnt a thing or two.

 Many Californian producers have been in a pursuit of finesse for years but it has been only recently that this new wave has washed onto UK shores. Mainly thanks to Roberson Wine team, pioneers of new trends and finders of the best regional wines, our perceptions and misconceptions of what Californian wines taste like are being challenged.

 A place that was once dominated by rich, powerful and highly alcoholic fruit bombs is now being replaced by newly emerging bright and fresh wines. The reputation for over-ripeness and heavy-handed oak treatments was legendary. However, whereas it’s great for collecting high scores and awards, it results in wines that taste very similar and are more difficult to enjoy.

 But thanks to early picking and a focus on diversity and balance, numerous winemakers are producing wines that people would actually like to drink. That is not to say that Californian producers have ceased to produce late-picked concentrated blockbusters but many are reacting to the changing emphasis toward lighter, purer more vibrant wines.

Flowers Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast (The Wine Treasury £48)

The 2011 was picked early showing higher acidity than expected from classic Chardonnay. Yet the low yields ensured full ripeness indicated by fruit richness and texture well-balanced by moderate alcohol (13.7%) abv thanks to the cooling Pacific Ocean influence (2 miles away) and delicate roasted almost nutty notes more reminiscent of flat white than espresso. 100% spontaneous alcoholic fermentation and ageing in French oak barrels for 14 months (only 18% new) ensured elegance and defined fruit vibrancy.

Sean Thackrey “Pleiades” [plee-uh-deez] (The Wine Treasury £32)

This is one of Sean’s famously controversial and experimental non-vintage blends of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Syrah, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre. With pretty aromas of pear, donut peaches and Toblerone white chocolate it is reminiscent of white wine but the taste brings you undoubtedly back to red. Despite its premium price, the wine is labelled as Table Wine due to its unique combination of different regions and vintages. The wine changes every year. Sean is not giving much importance to the terroir element or paying much attention to winemaking rules but the main focus is on sourcing the best fruit. Some suggest that this wine taste better the day after it was opened.

Broc Cellars Green Valley Valdiguié [val-dih-gee-ay] (Roberson Wine £22)

In comparison to Sean Thackrey, Broc wines are vineyard specific. Chris Brockway, the winemaker follows the philosophy of early picking, spontaneous whole cluster ferment with no/or low sulphur dioxide additions and minimal intervention. The Solano County Green Valley AVA is located southeast of the Napa Valley taking advantage of maritime climate with its cooling ocean influence mediating the summer heat. Valdiguiè is quite unique red grape variety, known in California as Napa Gamay, capable of producing fresh scented low alcohol (12%) wines. The 2012 is charming juicy tipple with lovely sour cherry streak and pretty floral brightness.

Wilde Farm Anderson Valley Pinot Noir “Donelly Creek” 2012 (Roberson Wine £39)

This is a single vineyard expression of Pinot Noir. Fresh, bright and beautiful on so many levels. Showing defined complexity full of rhubarb, cherry blossom and wild flower notes thanks to careful selection of Dijon clones. Nothing added nothing taken away this is a pure and magical Pinot.

Copain Syrah “Halcon” 2009 from Mendocino County (Roberson Wine £54)

For Syrah lover like me it only took seconds to fall for Halcon’s charms. Despite the warm and dry summer of 2009, the high elevation of Yorkville Highlands (760m) ensures that the wine achieves balanced moderate alcohol level (12.8%). Wells Guthrie, the winemaker, creates Syrah that shows Rhone attitude yet has Californian roots. The 2009 is perfect to drink now but if it does not match your budget try Tous Ensemble (‘all together’) Syrah 2012 which is available for the fraction of the price (£23). Still delicious but more approachable and blended from selected vineyards within Mendocino County.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in California

 

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There is more to New Zealand than good employment opportunities and green lush scenery!

Bear Despite producing less than 1% of total world wine production, New Zealand wines attract a lot of admiration from wine drinkers. Talking to Clive Donaldson, wine sourcing manager for Morrison’s, he confirms that New Zealand wines are amongst the most appreciated by their customers, offering exciting flavours and inspiring consumer confidence. It is true that the success is driven primarily by the eternal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – as it claims 85% of all NZ wine sold in the UK. But as Jancis Robinson says there is more to New Zealand than just Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand Winegrowers released their 2012 and 2013 vintages and several lucky Londoners had the chance to try over 150 wines from all regions yesterday. There was much ‘mmm’ and ‘ahhh’ around the Rieslings and Pinot Noirs and my guess would be that these two grape varieties have a particularly promising future.

About 2012 and 2013

The 2012 vintage was a very small crop year, 28% less than 2013, thanks to a very cool spring and summer which was only saved by warm dry days in April delivering the weather the grapes needed to ripen fully.

The 2013 vintage is described as “a vintage to remember” by Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, “with an outstanding summer providing near perfect conditions for growing grapes”. Sir George of Villa Maria agrees “15 years of advancement in winemaking technology paired with perfect growing conditions means this year is set to exceed all previous vintages”. However, Duncan McTavish, winemaker of Man ‘O War, admits that as it was a very hot and dry year, particularly in the North Island, it will affect yields and quality.

Ones to remember:

Felton Road Riesling Bannockburn, Central Otago 2013 (9.5% abv / RS 55 g/l / RRP £15)

Felton Road Block 1 Riesling Bannockburn, Central Otago 2013 (9% abv / RS 65 g/l / RRP £18)

Don’t get put off by the level of residual sugar.  Riesling’s vibrant acidity tricks your palate to hardly noticing its sweetness. These wines are bursting with fresh, juicy peach and tropical fruits and are very enjoyable and comforting with that delicate structure and gracefulness of Mosel Riesling.

Pegasus Bay Riesling Canterbury 2010 (12.5% abv / RS 26 g/l / RRP £16.50)

Priceless racy acidity matched with vibrant citrus orchard fruits. Reminded me of zesty orange marmalade margarita, minus tequila of course.

Brancott Estate Flight Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2013 (9% abv / RS 13 g/l / RRP £10.50)

This wine is due to be launched in the UK very soon and I have a feeling it will do very well. Low & lower alcohol wines, despite their healthy credentials, tend to be boring. But not this one! Naturally low in alcohol (no reverse osmosis), it has bags of typical green grass and gooseberry fruit. Off-dry (to be technical) but I dare say the majority of casual drinker will not pick up on that and will just enjoy the fruity flavours of this crisp clean Sauvignon Blanc.

Staete Landt Viognier Rapaura, Marlborough 2012 (14% abv / RS 4.5 g/l /RRP £ 18)

Very fresh and crisp aromatic Viognier, Very enjoyable.

Seresin Rachel Pinot Noir Marlborough 2010 (14% abv / RRP £ 25)

Cherry cherub flavours with distinctive reduced balsamic notes and earthy spicy finish. Rather seductive and a real crowd pleaser.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2013 in New Zealand

 

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Could these be the most expensive wines from New Zealand?

Sherwyn Veldhuizen & Marcel Giesen

Sherwyn Veldhuizen & Marcel Giesen

BELL HILL VINEYARD TASTING AT POLLEN STREET SOCIAL

LONDON – 17th SEPTEMBER 2013

It is always a great pleasure to taste exclusive wines of older vintages. It gives you a foresight into how the current releases may develop and age. But it’s also heart-breaking to know that none of us will be able to buy and enjoy these wines again. Aged wines from New Zealand are just not available. Bell Hill wines from North Canterbury are no different. The industry is relatively young, producers sell out of any age-worthy wines upon release due to the minimal production, holding back stock for producers is financially unreasonable and for consumers very rare.

Marcel Giesen (one of the famous three Giesen brothers) and Sherwyn Veldhuizen are the owners of Bell Hill vineyard. They were thought to be crazy when they bought 2.5 hectares of old lime quarry in the Weka Pass in North Canterbury back in 1997 with the aim of planting vines there. However, no-one is laughing now. Their wines have become some of the best and the most exclusive in New Zealand. The price tag follows the success. A bottle of current release Chardonnay 2010 will set you back round £80 and Pinot Noir 2010 close to £100 (retail price).

Production is minimal and I really mean minimal. Only 1,400 bottles were made in total of the 2010 vintage which will be snapped up before you can sneeze. If you want to get hold of any for your wine stash, you had better talk to Armit – the UK agent. There are one or two bottles of Bell Hill Chardonnay 2009 left on Providores wine list, so I am told, but Tim Atkin MW has his beady eyes on them so hurry!

So what is so special about these wines? Growing vines on limestone soil is no walk in the park. The high pH & high risk of chlorosis demands a specific French rootstock 161-49 which is tolerant to active limestone. However, Marcel and Sherwyn have chosen this vineyard particularly because of this. The high pH helps to preserve a vital acidity and freshness that makes these wines unrecognisable from Cote d’Or. What is amazing is that the focussed and long acidity is consistent across all the wines we tasted from 2003 to 2011.

Another challenge is the annual frost. This is not uncommon in the South Island and temperature programmed wind machines seem to take care of the worst. However, Marcel and Sherwyn told us that it is actually getting the right staff with commitment and passion that is the hardest job for them. They manage their vineyard with great attention to detail, hard work and just a hint of unorthodox thinking. No use of irrigation once the young vines are established, high density planting 11,363 vines per hectare to reduce yield, and limiting soil access forcing the roots to grow deeper.

But their work is not done yet. They are only just starting to realise the fruits of their hard labour and as they are working towards biodynamic certification, there is still much they have to learn about their babies, as they call their vines.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in New Zealand, Uncategorized

 

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