Over the last few days we’ve tasted quite a few wines. It seems a bit unfair to pick favourites, but here are is a personal selection of some highlights.
Antica Townsend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Atlas Peak, Napa
This is from the Foss Valley, which is a valley in the Atlas Peak AVA above Napa Valley, at 1500-1800 feet. ‘We are not in the style of making monumental wines,’ says Glenn Salva, and from rocky hillside soils this is a really expressive wine. It is fresh, vital and floral with sweet blackcurrant fruit and lovely freshness and acidity. There’s a floral, black cherry character here, as well as good structure. Stylish and vivid with just a hint of roast coffee oak that should integrate in time. 95/100
Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow 2008 Napa
This wine has a lovely core of black cherry and blackcurrant fruit, and a structured, savoury side that I’d describe as gravelly and a bit tarry. It’s supple and quite elegant by Napa standards, with lots of potential for future development. Not showy – more brooding and restrained, yet certainly fully ripe. 93/100
Schramsberg Late Disgorged Brut 1999 Carneros, Napa
This deliciously rich sparkling wine is mostly Chardonnay, and was disgorged in 2012 . It’s toasty and rich with nice depth, and lovely citrus, pear and spice notes. Complex, rich and bold, it’s quite delicious in this bigger style. 93/100
Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1999 Napa
This is from hillside vines. It has a spicy blackcurrant nose with hints of earth and leather. Fresh with nice structure and lovely blackcurrant and spice flavours. Well balanced, this is drinking really well now. 93/100
Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1975 Napa
There’s a blood and iodine edge to the nose, which is showing some maturity, with spice and hints of earth. But it’s when you get this into your mouth that you realise what a superb wine it is. It’s really fresh and elegant with nice spiciness underpinning the lovely blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. It’s still got an amazing core of fruit, and now at almost 40 years old it is incredibly elegant and at ease with itself. Just 13% alcohol. 96/100
Niebaum Coppola Rubicon 1989 Napa
I liked this a bit more than some of my fellow tasters. It’s fresh, supple and balanced with lovely sweet blackberry and black cherry fruit, as well as a nice savoury spiciness. This midweight wine has aged beautifully and now has lovely focus and balance. 95/100
Corison Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Napa
It was nice to finally get to meet Cathy Corison (above). She was pouring here 2012, and it’s brilliant. Refined, pure and very fresh with lovely blackcurrant fruit, and hints of chalk and gravel. This doesn’t lack concentration, but it is so fresh and light on its feet. Smooth and elegant with pure, fresh black cherry and black fruits to the fore. 94/100
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So, I’m in the Napa Valley. This is actually day 3 (we arrived on Monday afternoon): I would have posted something earlier, but it has been full on with barely a moment to spare. So just some pictures and captions will have to suffice for now. Our first appointment took us into the hills out east – this is Somerston Estate, where we had an informal pizza evening with several Napa Valley vintners, including Vivien Gay of Silver Oak (below).
Then on Tuesday morning we began at Cain, with the thoughtful Chris Howell, discussing mountain viticulture versus valley floor. From the vineyards at Cain we looked down to see the valley floor still covered in fog.
Then it was off to Honig to discuss valley floor viticulture, and Silverado where we had a great tasting of some lovely Napa Cabernets – the highlight for me was the fresh, balanced, floral Antica Townsend Vineyard 2012.
This was followed by a ‘fireside chat’ (sans fireside) at Beringer, with Napa legends.
Beer followed. Ana’s, St Helena. Both nights so far.
Today was 0530 start for some balloon action. A great life experience.
We then had a really lovely tasting covering four decades at Black Stallion, in which this wine shone:
This was followed by a remarkable visit. Raymond, owned by Jean-Charles Boisset, who is married to Gina Gallo. He has done some fairly crazy things to his winery. Unlike any other winery I have seen.
A new discovery for me, courtesy of Roberson. The wines of Eleni and Edouard Vocoret. UK retailer Majestic used to stock the Vocoret Chablis in the early noughties, and they were OK if unspectacular. But Eleni and Edouard have taken over just a small slice of the family domaine (3.3 hectares), and are making these two wines. Dauvissat is the inspiration: Eleni works there part time and this is where they press their wine and get their barrels from, and do the bottling.
Domaine Eleni et Edouard Vocoret Chablis Le Bas de Chapelot 2013 Burgundy, France
12.5% alcohol. Complex, powerful and lively with ripe pear, peach and citrus fruit. Mineral and a bit smoky with high acidity. A lovely linear wine with real depth. Just a faint hint of cabbage and a lovely stony edge. Simply brilliant. 94/100 (£22.95 Roberson)
Domaine Eleni et Edouard Vocoret Chablis 1er Cru Les Butteaux 2013 Burgundy, France
12.5% alcohol. So aromatic, lively and perfumed with grapefruit, lemons and some spicy, rich pear and apple fruit. The palate is concentrated and shows richness and freshness, with pear, grapefruit and minerals, as well as some tangerine. Textured and mouthfilling, this is just sensational. 95/100 (£49.95 Roberson)
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This wine blew me away today at Sager & Wilde. It’s a varietal Trousseau (aka Bastardo) from the Stolpman Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. The soils here have a feature that’s quite rare in California: limestone. The Stolpman property is 220 acres and 153 are under vine. In 2013 they grafted across just one acre to Trousseau, and the following year had the first crop. And this is the debut release, made by Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman. They nailed it: this is a truly fabulous, drinkable, elegant, textured wine. It’s three-quarters whole cluster, and no oak was used in the elevage. Not much made, so hurry if you want to try it.
Stolpman Vineyards Ballard Canyon Trousseau ‘Combe’ 2014 Santa Barbara County, California
13% alcohol. This is sensational. Light in colour it has lovely sweet red cherry with a hint of marzipan and some meatiness. Such a lovely texture: almost weightless with amazing silky finesse. This has astonishing drinkability. A faint hint of green sappiness, too. 94/100
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I have discovered cycling. Don’t worry: I’m not about to don lycra, spend thousands of pounds on a racing bike, and start posting (boasting?) my Strava stats on social media. It’s just that I have discovered the pleasure that cycling can bring. Suddenly, on two wheels, any journey is fun.
I have my new Finnish friends Heidi and Matti to thank (pictured above). On Tuesday morning, after the wine symposium, they took me cycling round Tampere. Heidi’s boyfriend lent me his bike, which was very kind of him. It was great – although it had a pedal-backwards rear brake. I’ve never experienced one of these before, and it takes some getting used to.
We rode through parks, along woodland tracks, and beside a lake. We climbed quite high (at one point I confess I walked the steepest bit), and stopped to admire the view. We also stopped to climb a tower (the Pynnikki observation tower) and ate some of the world’s greatest donuts. And then headed back into town for some lunch in the marketplace (Kauppahalli).
It was such fun. So today I decided to replicate the exercise – to cycle in this corner of west London. First, I needed a bike. Younger son has a decent adult sized bike – a Ridgeback – but it hadn’t been used in ages, and he’d made some modifications that rendered it unusable. The handlebars were too loose, so I had to construct a shim out of garden wire, which worked nicely. The brakes needed adjusting. And the seat was far too thin: my bottom was still sore from Tuesday. So I bought a cheap soft gel saddle. But it didn’t fit the mount, so I had to improvise with a new seat pole, which was too thin. This had to be made thicker with plumbers tape – a total bodge, but it worked.
Along the Crane to Twickenham. Along the Thames to Richmond. Across the bridge and along the river to Teddington. Cross over the lock, then a pint of Sierra Nevada at the Anglers. Then through Bushy Park to Hampton Court. Then a coffee back in Bushy. Then home. So much fun. I think I shall be cycling more.
Yesterday Tim Atkin released his South African wine report. It’s created quite a bit of discussion, and it’s also raised once again for me the question of single critics versus panel tastings. Which is the best?
Tim has worked very hard tasting a lot of wines, as do the competing critics from the big publications such as The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator. And then of course, there’s also Jancis Robinson (and team), and James Suckling (and team) and the new Gallioni/Tanzer grouping. There are critics everywhere, making a living selling access to scores and tasting notes. The competition is fierce, and they are all chasing the same consumers.
The critic model champions one person’s opinion. But the unspoken assumption behind many of these publications is that their critics are so skilled that they can effectively taste objectively, and reveal (or get very close to) the truth about a wine. This assumption is that if several critics are equally highly skilled, they will reach the same judgement about any particular wine. And each critic would probably like you to think that they are especially skilled – they have a gift – and so their judgments are worth paying $$$ for.
This is wrong. Tasting is personal. Judging wine is personal. However objective we try to be, we can’t be, fully. I have style preferences. I like certain wines. Whether or not you find my tasting notes and recommendations useful depends on whether or not you like my palate preferences. That’s my branding, if you will. The major critics would like you to think that their pronouncements are relevant to all drinkers. Well, they aren’t.
Look at the way that experts – all skilled and experienced – disagree when faced with interesting wines. The World of Fine Wine tastings (where the scores of each taster are published) illustrate this beautifully. It’s not that some of them are doing a bad job. It represents a genuine disagreement about what constitutes a great wine.
So what about panel tastings? Are they of use? Yes, they’re really valuable. I take part in them regularly. The International Wine Challenge, the National Wine Awards of Canada, the South African Top 100 and the Standard Bank Top 10 Chenin Blanc competitions are all excellently run, with great judges, and produce results that are useful for producer and consumer alike. The averaging of several opinions provides robustness to the results. But it does have the side effect that it doesn’t serve edgy, distinctive and unusual wines very well – the varying opinions get averaged out and the wines will get lost in the middle.
So we really need both. I like to read reviews from critics whose palate I agree with. But when it comes to awards, trophies and classifications, I think the panel method is more robust. This is where I am slightly uncomfortable with Tim’s Cape Classification, because it’s attempting to produce something that is taken seriously by the industry, yet is based on one person’s opinion (albeit a very valuable opinion). We need to be a bit humble in the face of wine, and any attempt to produce an authoritative ranking is best done on the basis of several pooled expert opinions (as withe the annual Platter Guide’s five star wines).
I was blown away by this rich, distinctive Blanc de Noirs from Ulysse Collin. It’s sensational, and it has a good back story.
Olivier Collin’s family had been farming vineyards from their base in Congy since 1812, but were renting out their 8.7 hectares of vineyards to a negociant. But Olivier wanted these vineyards back: he felt he could do someting special with them. So he began studying law (useful for getting the vineyards back) and winemaking. While he was studying, he also worked as an intern with Jacques Selosse, who he admired.
In 2003 Olivier got back the first 4.5 hectares, but because of the difficult season he had to sell all the grapes. In 2004, healthy yields meant he could finally start making his own wines. Inspired by Selosse, all his fermentations were in oak (they still are; since 2001 he has some foudres as well as the smaller barrels to play with). In 2005 he got back the remaining 4.2 hectares.
The vineyards weren’t in great shape when he began farming them, and so he has been concentrating on working on soil health. But he isn’t organic, because he doesn’t like using copper. The mildew pressure is high in Champagne, and if you use copper, he maintains, then you damage the soil microbes. He also thinks that copper thickens the skins of the grapes, and can lead to some bitterness in the wines.
Between 20 and 40% of the wines each year are kept back as reserves. The barrel ageing of the base wines has crept up from 10 months in 2004 to 13 months in 2006.
This cuvee is a Pinot Noir from a 6 hectare lieu dit called Maillons, which has heavy clay soils over chalk. Olivier owns 2.5 hectares here, and his vines average 40 years old. It’s a truly amazing wine, with lots of personality.
Champagne Ulysse Collin Blanc de Noirs Les Maillons Extra Brut NV France
This was disgorged in March 2012, and it’s based on the 2008 vintage. A full colour, it has a rich nose of nuts, marzipan, ripe apples and toast. The palate is powerful and spice with concentrated citrus fruit and rich toast, wax and marzipan characters. Dense, complex and lovely. 94/100
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Lunch at Greg Sherwood’s place (christening his new kitchen!). So it was Sunday, and we were off to Greg Sherwood’s gaff in St Margarets for some food and wine. It is probably close to the truth to suggest that when I accepted the invitation, I suspected that an extended lunch was in prospect. Joined by Gareth Birchley and Neal Martin, we ended up having a proper wine trade gathering, and some good bottles were opened.
Dauvissat Chablis 1er Cru ‘La Forest’ 2013 Burgundy, France
Lively and keen with lovely acidity, and notes of minerals and lemons. Quite pure with nice density of stony citrus fruits. 93/100
Sadie Family Skurfberg 2012 Olifantsrivier, South Africa
Very lively, fresh and detailed with pear and citrus fruit as well as subtle nuttiness. Fresh considering the alcohol (14.5%), with nice fruit and a bit of fennel character. Such a lovely wine. 94/100
Cape Point Vineyard Isliedh 2011 Cape Point, South Africa
Complex, detailed and interesting with ripe apple, nuts and citrus, as well as a subtle vanilla streak. Very fine and expressive with complexity and some richer oxidative notes meshing well with citrus and mineral notes. 93/100
Kershaw Chardonnnay 2014 Elgin, South Africa
Lively and citrussy with lovely pear and spice notes, as well as some nuttiness. This is fresh with lovely mineral characters and some sweet fruit. Nice texture and depth with real finesse. 94/100
Maximin Grunhaus Riesling Abstberg Kabinett 1973 Mosel, Germany
Hint of mint on the nose and lovely liminess, with some honey and fine spice notes. The palate has lemons, mint, tangerine and a little sweetness. This is mature and delicious, and still very much alive. 93/100
Maximin Grunhaus Riesling Abstberg Spätlese 1973 Mosel, Germany
Fresh, lemony and pure with lovely honey and grapefruit notes, as well as some complex tangerine characters. Complex, textured and powerful with lovely density and nice grapefruit. So lively with appealing richness and some sweetness. 94/100
Château Calon Segur 1970 Saint-Estephe, Bordeaux, France
Sweet and a bit earthy with some berry fruits and a cedary edge. Quite ripe and warm with evident age. Has supple black fruits still and a mushroomy edge, but there’s finesse here too. 91/100
Uitkyk Carlonet Cabernet Sauvignon 1976 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Iodine, earth and spice with some herbs and mushrooms. Minerals and spice, too. Iodine and earth notes give away its age, but this is a good wine offering a lot of pleasure, and it fooled a few of us into thinking it was old Bordeaux. 92/100
Rene Engel Vosné Romanée 1er Cru Les Brulées 2001 Burgundy, France
Earthy and iodine notes with some savoury spiciness under the cherry and plum fruit. Juicy and focused with nice lemony acidity and subtle herby notes. Expressive. 93/100
Domaine Fourrier Gevrey Chambertin Combe aux Moines Vieilles Vignes 2007 Burgundy, France
Warm herbs and spice with some earthy edges to the bright cherry and plum fruit. Sweet black cherries here with nice density and texture, and a lively finish. 93/100
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Tried this superb gin in Finland. It’s a small-batch rye gin from the Kyrö Distillery Company in Isokyrö. This was set up by a group of five friends (Miika, Miko, Mikka, Kalle and Jouni), and originally focused on producing Finland’s first rye whisky (naturally, being Finland, they conceived the idea in a sauna). They set up a distillery in a former cheese factory, and then once they’d had some success with whisky they set their sights on gin. And this has been tremendously well received, winning a trophy at the International Wine and Spirits Competition.
This is made with 16 botanicals, including meadowsweet, sea buckthorn, cranberries and birch leaves, giving a distinct Finnish twist. It’s brilliant stuff.
Napue Gin, Finland
Amazing aromatics: powerful, exotic, herbal and spicy with some green notes. Spice and juniper work nicely in tandem. This is edgy and powerful with notes of pepper, aniseed and nuts. Remarkable depth of flavour. 9/10
We tasted quite a few wines at the Tampere Wine Symposium, and one of the highlights was this flight of three whites. These aren’t expensive wines, but they’re really compelling and delicious.
Gramona Ovum Xarel-lo 2013 Catalunya, Spain
From a 4 hectare vineyard, fermented and aged in concrete eggs and amphorae. Lovely complex wine with nuts, lively citrus, spice and minerals. Has a nice stony quality in the mouth, and some exotic citrus, pear and melon fruity notes. Quite serious. 93/100
Lammerschoek LAM 2012 Swartland, South Africa
This affordable, naturally made Swartland white is quite delicious, and it’s just 10.5% alcohol. Lovely nose: peach, pears, mineral/matchstick notes, fine citrus too. Very high acid palate with lovely spicy, lemony core. Such precision: really detailed and alive, with a bit of apple and a tangy finish to it. Lambic notes! 93/100
Montinore Estate Borealis 2012 Willamette Valley, Oregon
This biodynamic Oregon white is a blend of Muller Thurgau, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. Textured, rich, very exotic with lovey ripe melon, peach and grape notes. Has some sweetness and depth to it. Beautiful balance. 91/100
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