BK Wines One Ball Chardonnay 2015 Adelaide Hills, Australia

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This is was my drinking on Sunday night. I arrived in Adelaide late Saturday, jet-lagged as hell, and promptly crashed, sleeping through until Sunday morning. Then I woke early, breakfasted, braved the gym, showered, and went out to wander the town, after first having registered for the technical conference that I’m attending this week.

On my wanderings, I cam across East End Cellars, which is a lovely wine shop and bar just off the far end of Rundle Street. It’s got a great selection of Aussie and foreign wines, and this is one of the bottles I bought.

BK Wines One Ball Chardonnay 2015 Adelaide Hills, Australia
12.8% alcohol. This comes from a vineyard in the Kenton Valley, and the name comes from the fact that the grower is missing a testacle. Taut citrus fruit core with lovely lemon and lime notes, as well as a hint of orange peel. There’s a little peachy richness hiding under the fresh, zippy citrus, with a little toast and nut character from the oak, but this is firmly relegated to the background. Finesse and precision are the keys to this wine: it’s not giving too much away right now, but there’s a lot of promise for the future. On the back label it says ‘please decant me’, and this is one of those white wines that could really do with decanting. A taut, fine expression of Aussie Chardonnay that demonstrates the potential of the Adelaide Hills to good effect. 93/100 (A$30 East End Cellars, in the UK this is £22.50 from SWIG, and the 2013 is available from Berry Bros & Rudd for £24.95)

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In Adelaide: discussing wine science with a taxi driver

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So, I rolled into Adelaide airport at 8 pm on Sunday night, after a long flight from London via Dubai. On the plane I alternated between sleeping, working, and listening: of late, I have taken to listening to music on flights. Usually, new planes with decent in flight entertainment have a good selection, and if you bring your own headphones you can hear the music quite well. It’s a good chance to explore new stuff, and also revisit old favourites, as well as filling in gaps of things you really should know but you don’t.

On that subject, schools should teach music better. At school, we had formal music lessons as part of the curriculum until age 16, but they steadfastly ignored anything that wasn’t classical. Even jazz and blues didn’t get a look in. Our music master was pretty brutal, too. We were all scared of him, and he pulled stunts like getting us to each stand up and sing solo in front of the rest of the class. Being asked to sing ‘Early one morning just as the sun was rising,’ in a breaking teenage voice in front of your peers is worse than having teeth drilled without anaesthetic, at least in terms of the fear it induces. We need School of Rock!

I shared a cab to the hotel with Reinhard Töpfer, who is a well known grapevine breeding expert from Germany. Our cab driver, it turned out, seemed to be quite interested in wine science.

He began by telling us about a recent experience he had with a 20-year-old bottle of Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz. He opened it, and poured it, and it was very light in colour. He was disappointed, so he poured it into a decanter and came back a couple of hours later. It had regained its colour, and he very much enjoyed it.

He wanted to know why this happened, and the explanation he’d previously received concerned the effects of oxygen. I guess the story would be that anthocyanins are able to change their form, and that some forms are colourless and some coloured. Many years in bottle might cause the anthocyanins (which will all be complexed, no longer free) to largely be in a colourless state, and then when they are exposed to oxygen, they recover to the coloured state.

More was to follow. When I told Reinhard that I’d be speaking about terroir, the driver suddenly piped in: ‘I think terroir is so important,’ he said. He explained how he thought he could tell the difference between wines grown on different soils, and that if we gave him wines from McLaren Vale, or Barossa, or Coonawarra, he could spot the difference reliably. I had no reason to disbelieve him.

‘It’s because of the taste of the soil in the wines,’ he said. When he goes to these regions, he reaches down, grabs a handful of soil, and he can then smell it in the wine.

I just love that a regular wine consumer is so interested by wine, and concepts of terroir. I’m not sure I agree so strongly with his notion that you get to taste the soil in the wine: the influence of the soil is important, but it is an indirect one. But I enjoyed listening to a taxi driver with such an interest in the science of wine. If this is reflective of the general interest level of wine among Australian consumers, then the future of Aussie wine in the domestic market is bright indeed.

In Seattle: Le Pichet and Bar Melusine

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There are few compelling reasons to be rich. But one of them is so that you have enough budget to eat out all the time. While I was in Seattle for the Riesling Rendezvous conference, I ate at two rather different places. I recommend them both.

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The first was Le Pichet. It’s a small French cafe in Pike Place, and it’s a delight. Simple, well prepared French dishes and a cracking wine list. No frills. Just the sort of place that you’d like to eat at every day, and could probably afford to, too. We stopped in for a quick lunch, and washed it down with a couple of glasses from Jean Paul Brun in the Beaujolais: the Terres Dorees Cuvée L’Ancien red 2014 (so elegant and refined) and the Terres Dorees Chardonnay 2014 (taut and mineral).

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The second was Bar Melusine. This relatively new, and it’s a distinctly themed, informal but stylish sort of place. The theme is the Atlantic coast of France: Normandy and Brittany. There’s a special emphasis on seafood, and the star turn here is locally sourced oysters.

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Four of us dined very well on lots of oysters, some fried fish skin, a salad, and roasted carrots. The wine list is quite singular, not trying to cover all the bases, but focusing on wines that serve this distinctive menu well. The result is great: lots of Muscadet, and some good representation from other parts of the Loire.

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Bar Melusine is the sort of place I’d like to eat out at often. Unlike Le Pichet, though, it isn’t that affordable. You can rack up quite a big bill here fairly quickly. I blame the oysters, but the food and setting are so good, it’s worth it.

How are you going to spend your money? On things? Or experiences? I vote for the latter.

The Riesling Rendezvous 2016, Seattle, Washington State

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Three days in Seattle. So much Riesling! The fifth annual Riesling Rendezvous was in town, and I attended it for the first time.

Riesling is a grape that has had to struggle a bit to gain the recognition it deserves. ‘We are hitting our heads against the brick wall of understanding,’ said Ernie Loosen, as he kicked things off with a short introductory speech. ‘But we are making progress.’

‘Most people will love Riesling once they taste a good one,’ he says. But it is difficult to simplify the message for normal consumers. ‘I can’t omit the fact that we are talking about a wine that has a particular taste because of how it is made and where it is made,’ said Loosen. ‘There are always a lot of discussion about how to find the most simple single message, but there is no holy grail message: the simple truth is that Riesling is complicated.’

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But rather than shy away from this complexity, it should be included as part of the story, and appeal, of Riesling. ‘We should truly embrace its diversity and complexity,’ says Loosen. ‘It is not just Riesling that is complicated – wine itself is complicated. If we winemakers don’t want to simplify what we are doing, why should we make it simple for the consumers? Why shouldn’t we challenge them?’

Loosen thinks that the first step is to get people to dry good dry Riesling and then build from there. ‘We shouldn’t try to make the story of Riesling too simple. We are here to find out how we can communicate our enthusiasm and passion.’

riesling rendezvous grand tasting

The event began on Sunday night, with a grand tasting at Chateau St Michelle in Woodinville, a thirty-minute drive out of town. This was superbly organized and enjoyed perfect summer weather, which is a good job because it was outdoors. And this is Seattle.

The wines being poured covered the world of Riesling pretty well, with a mix of famous names and newcomers. I really enjoyed it, but would have enjoyed it much more if the organizers had issued etiquette guidelines for tasting at this sort of event.

It all works beautifully if people take a pour, then exit the table to allow others to get a pour of the wine. But most consumers aren’t aware of this: they stand there, glass in hand, blocking access for others. Organizers can help a little this by not putting spittoons on tables. And then there are the producers themselves, who sometimes can be a little clueless, ignoring people waiting while they are involved in a lengthy discussion with others. This is made worse when attractive girls are involved and middle-aged guys are pouring. The German tables quickly became impossible to taste at.

Still, this was a benchmark example of a really good grand tasting, and I came across a lot of really great wines. I was driving. If I hadn’t been, I’d have probably just drunk lots and lots of Riesling. Then I’d have felt much better.

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Then on Monday and Tuesday, the main sessions of the conference took place. The centrepiece of the event was a pair of morning tastings, one each day, with 20 Rieslings served blind at each. Monday’s session covered dry styles, while Tuesday’s looked at wines with a bit or a lot of residual sugar. These tastings were global, and covered wines from cheap ($8) to very expensive price points. This made it very interesting. Hands up all those who gave the $8 Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling a high score. The good news for you: you can drink cheaply for ever.

Each day had a separate panel and Ray Isle (Monday) and Joshua Greene (Tuesday) managed these panels very well. My only criticism is that the panels seemed eager to like everything, and in a few cases should have been a little more critical, and that too much attention was given on day two to guessing the identity of the wines. Seriously, dudes, you do no one any favours if when you get on a panel you just issue polite platitudes, and patronise the wines from emerging regions with excessive praise. You have been hired for your opinion. Be critical.

I learned quite a bit from these tastings. Riesling is one of the varieties where separating old world from new is actually quite difficult in many cases. It’s an incredibly adaptable grape, making compelling wines across a range of different climates. It’s also quite a good interpreter of terroirs: Rieslings grown on different soil types taste quite different, and this is something I’d love to explore in greater depth. Then there’s the curve ball of residual sugar. I don’t know any other variety where sugar levels vary so widely. The ability to manage sweetness and still be in balance is helped by Riesling’s ability to maintain good acidity levels. There’s also the interesting issue of phenolics, and their contribution to texture and flavour.

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After the morning sessions, each afternoon had breakout sessions. On Monday I went to the Australian Riesling session, ably chaired by Mike Bennie. The classic Clare and Eden valley styles have always been bone dry. In part, this is a reaction to the cheap ‘Rieslings’ of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the name of the variety was used generically to describe the cheap slightly sweet whites that were popular at the time. I like the classic dry styles quite a bit, but I’m also very excited by the new wave of Aussie Rieslings that are exploring the Riesling flavour space a bit more fully.

On Tuesday I attended the session looking at the terroirs of Alsace. This was led by Thierry Fritsch of the Alsace Wine Bureau, and explored some very interesting concepts. In particular, we looked at the influence of soil type on Riesling flavour. Fritsch put up a slide showing how he thinks the different Alsace soil types influence Riesling flavour. We tasted some really interesting wines, but it would have been even better if they’d each been chosen to illustrate specific terroir influences. Instead, a few of them were from a mix of terroirs, and thus weren’t as instructive as they could have been.

This was a great event. There was a real community spirit, with Riesling nuts from across the world. The continued popularity of Riesling among wine trade people still contrasts with the fact that many normal consumers don’t quite get it, and aren’t prepared to pay good money for it. But, having said this, Riesling is a grape that can make pretty good inexpensive wines.

Riesling Rendezvous does have a bit of a feel of a religious convention though. I’m a believer, but I also believe in other varieties, too. I even like Sauvignon Blanc, although I didn’t tell anyone at the conference: I would have been booted out pretty quickly. And although Riesling is one of the most adaptable grape varieties, even die hard Riesling fans will have to concede to Chardonnay, which makes stunning sparkling wine, lovely crisp unoaked wines, and full flavoured complex barrel fermented wines. It doesn’t do sweetness well, so it has to concede this ground to Riesling.

Apart from coaching consumers on etiquette at the grand tasting, there’s nothing I’d change about Riesling Rendezvous, and I’d be back in a shot.

The judgement of... How useful are comparative blind tastings?

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It’s 40 years since Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgement of Paris (also a story in Greek Mythology). This was the tasting that is credited with opening the way for New World wines to stand as peers alongside the old world classics. Since then, this sort of format has been repeated in countries eager to show that their wines belong at the same table as the famous European benchmarks.

I have just written up the second instalment of the Judgement of BC, where wines from Canada’s British Columbia region were pitted against global benchmarks. A report on the first of these can be found here.

How useful are these comparative blind tastings? I think they are incredibly useful, if they are not taken too seriously. It’s not about which wine wins; it’s about seeing where the wines fit in the global landscape. You wouldn’t expect all tasters to agree on the ranking of the wines: wine is just too complex for this. Even highly trained, expert professionals will disagree, although in the Pinot Noir part of the BC tasting we pretty much all agreed that the Meomi wine was the worst of the bunch.

As a professional, I learn a lot about wines from tasting them blind like this. I also learn a lot about my own palate. Sometimes you rate a wine you like quite a bit quite low in the rankings. For example, I like the Tantalus Old Vines Riesling, but rated it in my bottom position when I tasted it blind. I got another chance to taste it blind last week at the Riesling Rendezvous, where I liked it a bit more but I still didn’t love it. It’s a difficult wine when you encounter it blind.

It’s only by being curious, tasting lots, and banking memories of flavours, smells and textures, that we can develop our palates and get more out of the wines we drink. So any serious taster should seize the opportunity to taste blind like this.

 

Underwood: Oregon wine in a can

underwood wine in a can

Underwood wines come in 375 ml cans. It’s striking packaging. I was curious, so I bought a pair to try, for $5.99 each from World Foods in Portland, Oregon. They are made by Union Wine Company. They have the admirable goal of demystifying wine and making affordable, decent wine available so everyone can enjoy it, not just wealthy dudes.

It feels a bit odd to be tasting wine from the same sort of can that you’d normally be consuming soft drinks from. Super weird, actually. The wine bottle and glass is so intrinsic to the wine-drinking experience. But these cans are just so practical. Why shouldn’t wine be served this way?

After all, for craft brewers, the can is the ultimate way to sell beer, because it allows no light or oxygen in. So if you can fill cans without too much oxygen pick-up, then it will keep the wine in top condition for ages. There is, of course, the risk of reduction issues with wines that are prone to this fault, in the absence of any oxygen transmission at all. But you can imagine having a really good time with these cans in the right situation: picnics, dining alone, at the beach, in casual restaurants.

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Packaging like this takes some of the fear out of the wine drinking experience. People are still afraid of wine: informal packaging makes it really approachable.

So how are the wines? Really good. Juicy and fruity and simple. No complications, but also quite appealing and dry, without too much make up. Perfectly judged for this packaging.

Underwood Pinot Gris NV Oregon
13% alcohol. This is simple, bright, zesty and juicy with ripe apple and grapefruit flavours. Balanced with a bit of spicy zip, and made lively with slightly elevated carbon dioxide. Drinkable and quite joyful. 86/100

Underwood Pinot Noir NV Oregon
13% alcohol. Light bodied, this Pinot has juicy flavours of sweet raspberries, cherries and rhubarb. There’s some chocolatey character, too. Fruity and lively with a simple, juicy personality and a hint of savoury meatiness. A fruity style that’s very drinkable. 87/100

Riesling Rendezvous: why analytical data don't tell us much about the taste of Riesling

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I’m at the Riesling Rendezvous conference in Seattle, Washington State. Held every three years, it’s an in-depth dive into this most distinctive of white wine grapes. It began on Sunday evening with a grand tasting outdoors at Chateau Ste Michelle in Woodinville, and yesterday and today we’re in Seattle for tastings and seminars.

One topic that kept coming up yesterday in the first of two grand blind tastings was the discrepancy between analytic data and the taste of the wines. Specifically, we’re talking about residual sugar (in grams/litre), total acidity (in grams/litre) and pH. Riesling is often a low pH wine with levels hovering around 3, and sometimes dipping below. The TA can vary from 6 to around 10 g/l, and residual sugar varies more with Riesling than perhaps for any other variety.

You’d think that a quick glance at the analysis would give you a clear idea of what to expect in the wine, in particular with regard to sweetness levels. But often this isn’t the case. Why?

First, there’s that interaction between acidity and sweetness. They seem to balance each other out, to a degree. A wine with low acidity and low sugar may taste just as sweet as a wine with high acidity and quite a bit of sugar. The latter will seem richer an full bodied, but not necessarily sweet. But if this were all there were to it, you could plug sugar levels and acid levels into a database and come up with a level of perceived sweetness.

There’s also the issue of fruitiness. Fruit flavours can taste quite sweet. How often have you used the term ‘sweet’ in the tasting note of an essentially dry wine?

More than this, we are not measuring devices. The brain creates flavour after some interesting processing of the signals that come from the tongue, mouth and nose, and combines this information with input from vision and even hearing, and adds in information from our prior experience and our expectations.

This computing happens below the surface, before we are consciously aware of what we are experiencing in our mouth and nose.

One example of this sort of processing is our ability to perceive ‘sweet’ smells. Wines often smell sweet, but sweet is a taste. Our noses can’t taste sweet. What has happened is that through our experience we have come to associate certain smells with sweet tastes. A great example would be fruity smells. Young wines often have fruity smells, and with time these smells diminish. Thus older wines often taste less sweet because they have fewer of the fruity aromas.

David Schildknecht, a wine critic specialising in Germany and Austria, talks of hidden sweetness in Riesling: this is in wines with quite high residual sugar, but they don’t display it. And Bob Bertheau, winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle, says that his older Rieslings do dry out with time.

These fruity aromas make what is in our mouths taste sweeter. It’s really interesting. You can illustrate this complex perception of sweetness by a simple experiment. Prepare four sugar solutions, but make one double the strength. To one of the normal strength solutions add some fruity esters (fruity smelling chemicals). To another add some acid. If people are asked to rank them in sweetness order they will typically put the double strength solution first. Then of the three single strength solutions, the one with the fruity aromas will taste sweetest, and the one with the acid will taste the driest.

So trying to tell how sweet a Riesling will taste from the analysis alone is really difficult.

Three days in Portland, Oregon

 

Powell's, Portland's world famous bookshop

Powell’s, Portland’s world famous bookshop

Portland is one of the USA’s most vibrant cities. It’s known for its food and drink scene, and for being a hub for artistic, creative and alternative types. And I’ve only ever spent a few hours there. So on this trip, I decided to take some time to look around, spending three days here, with some local guidance about where to go. Here are some of the things I experienced and loved.

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The Woodsman Tavern, in the suburb of Richmond, is proper old school. We had a lovely seafood tower in all its retro splendour, paired with a bottle of Domaine de l’Ecu Gneiss Muscadet, which was gorgeous. The wine list here is exceptional, with a brilliantly chosen selection that’s particularly seafood friendly.

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Expatriate (pictured above) is a really nice bar. You come here for cocktails and small bites. There’s a wine list, but it’s pretty bad. The cocktails are fab, though. And the bar snacks are brilliant. Expatriate’s bar is run by Kyle Linden Webster, and the snacks are from his wife Naomi Pomeroy, a celebrity chef whose restaurant Beast is over the road from here.

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One of the highlights was the informal street-like Indian food at Bollywood Theatre. This is a casual restaurant serving deliciously eclectic Indian dishes, and it’s counter service. You can eat well and inexpensively. There’s some decent craft beer on tap to wash it down, too.

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Suckling pig, Chesa

Suckling pig, Chesa

Chesa is a new Spanish small plates/tapas restaurant that’s run by chef Jose Chesa. The food here is superb, the ambience great, and there’s a really good wine list to boot. We had a really lovely 2005 vintage from Juve y Camps, and the beautifully bright, elegant Bastión de la Luna, a red from Rias Baixas that includes some Caino and Loueiro, among other varieties.

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Bar Vivant

Bar Vivant

Perhaps the highlight, though, was Bar Vivant. It’s the tapas restaurant that’s a sister establishment to Pix Patisserie, and it’s a proper tapas bar. You can stand up here, eat delicious pintxo, and throw your napkins on the floor. You can also sit down, like we did, and raid the USA’s best list of grower Champagne. The tapas is delicious and authentic, and there’s also an amazing sherry list. With a Champagne list like this, it’s hard to look elsewhere. If you don’t have a Champagne budget, the the sparkling wine list is impeccable, too.

 

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What else to do in Portland? Well, if you are wine and beer shopping, there’s a really superb selection at World Foods, which is highly recommended. There’s also coffee: lots of it. Two of the best are Heart and Stumptown in the ACE hotel. And I was really impressed by Made Here PDX, which showcases local craft. Expensive but beautifully made local items.

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In Oregon: Beckham Estate Vineyard

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Andrew and Annedria Beckham (pictured above) are making some of Oregon’s most compelling wines, and they have a great story, too.

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We visited their property in Parrett Mountain (in the Chehalem Mountains AVA) on a gorgeous afternoon. They have 6.5 acres of Pinot Noir, plus an acre of Riesling, which they farm organically. They are planning to move to biodynamics in the near future. Allied with this transition, winemaking has moved from conventional towards natural.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They are best known, though, for the use of clay amphorae. Andrew is a high-school ceramics teacher (he still teaches), and he has spent the last few years perfecting the art of producing amphorae suitable for wine.

They’ve just build a new worksop, shuttle kiln and a jigger, to make the manufacturing of these amphorae less labour intensive. Soon Andrew will be selling them, at a price that undercuts the Tuscan amphorae that some producers are now importing.

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By next September, 500 and 1000 litre amphorae will be on the market, and then in time a 2000 litre version. Different sizes and shapes suit different wines: conical bottoms are best for Pinot Gris, Qvevri for red wine ferments, and Tinajas for storage (they have smaller openings).

They bought their home in December 2004, and it was in the middle of woods. They cleared the area for planting with vines, and made their first wine in 2009 (just 250 cases). 2013 was a pivotal year because it was when they started with organics, started making their own wine, and also started making some wine in clay.

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They have just planted another 8 acres with rootstock, on more cleared ground. This rootstock will establish itself, and when they can get the new vinifera planting material they will graft it over. The varieties they are planning to plant include Trousseau, Savignan, Ploussard and Chardonnay – spot the Jura influence.

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The Beckam Estate wines are made using more conventional elevage, and the AD Beckham wines are made using clay. Both are fabulous.

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We began with the dry Rosé 2015, which is pretty and bright with lovely texture and finesse. Then we looked at the regular Pinot Noir and the Dow’s (a reserve bottling) in 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 versions. I really liked these: particular preferences were for the 2014 Dow’s, the 2013 Estate and the 2012 Dow’s. They are brilliant.

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Then: the amphora wines. There are two versions of 2014 amphora Pinot Noir: Lignum and Creta. Both are fermented in amphora, but Lignum leaves and spends the rest of its upbringing in oak, while Creta stays in amphora for its entire elevage. Both are quite brilliant. The Lignum is probably my favourite, with less impact from the amphora, but still a lovely elegance and mouthfeel that sets it apart from the regular conventional elevage Pinot, made from the same fruit. The Creta is a distinctive wine, and it’s lovely. There’s an impact from the clay in terms of the flavour, but it works really well.

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In 2013 just the lignum-style version was made. It’s also compelling.

We also tried the Creta from 2015 (an amphora sample!), which for me was potentially profound. It is early days for this wine, but it looks very pure and expressive.

Pinot Gris is also made in amphora here. The 2014 is a complicated, detailed, edgy wine that spent 40 days on skins in amphora, and it’s just remarkable. I’m not sure how it will develop, but it’s just so interesting.

In Oregon: heading to the coast and Cannon Beach

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In a gap between visiting wineries in the Willamette Valley, I had the chance to visit the Oregon coast for the first time.

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We stayed at Cannon Beach. It has a spectacular beach, with a distinctive feature – Haystack Rock. This looms up some 230 feet from the beach and is home to seabird colonies, including puffins.

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Cannon Beach is famous as the location for 1985 film The Goonies.

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We stayed in the Stephanie Inn. It’s a lovely beachfront hotel. There’s something special about staying close to the sea like this. And walking on the beach is quite special: the slight saltiness in the air; the light; the sand underfoot.

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Just under two hours’ drive from wine country, the Oregon coast is a really great destination. It’s worth thinking of combining a trip to the Willamette Valley with some time in Portland (a really great city) with some time on the coast. I’m itching to get back.

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