Dinner at Gymkhana, with nice wine

So, last night I joined up with some of the New California Wine people (Jasmine Hirsch, Jon Bonne, Raj Parr, Wells Guthrie, Steve Matthiason, Raj’s cousin Mona, and Michael and Charlotte Sager-Wilde) for dinner at Gymkhana.

Now I’m not a restaurant reviewer, but I’ll give you my take. It’s a brilliant, high-end Indian restaurant. It’s expensive, but it’s very, very good. It was the best Indian food I have ever eaten. And we washed it down with decent wine, some of the list and some we’d brought along.


Every dish was pretty much perfect. I had the best, most tender, and most delicious lamb I have ever experienced, which had been marinated for ages to a tender wonderfulness, and expertly spiced. And the muntjac deer vindaloo, with its pastry top, was a work of culinary art.


To drink: we began with a couple of bottles of Drappier Grande Sendree 2005 (very nice indeed, £95 on the list), and followed this up with a pair of Egon Muller’s Scharzhofberger Kabinett 2012, a little bit of very delicious but naughty vinous infanticide (£105 on the list). The wine of the night followed: the fabulous Le Soula Blanc 2001, still reductive and taut with amazing precision and interest.

Then some reds: Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillots 2008, from a less celebrated vintage, but quite beautiful with its meaty depth allied with freshness. And from the Loire, Clos Rougeard ‘Les Poyeaux’ Saumur Champigny, which was textured and rounded with some spicy interest.

It was a remarkable meal. Expensive, for sure. But worth it.

My first Georgian supra


For one evening, a bit of Georgia – and the world’s oldest unbroken wine tradition – came to east London. It was the Georgian supra, part of the Real Wine Fair.



To make this occasion more authentic, various Georgian ingredients had been smuggled in peoples’ hold luggage. And as well as a number of Georgian winemakers, we had a recognized Tamada (a toast master, see top picture) who at regular intervals stood up and led a toast, as is customary in these gatherings.

Apparently, one of the qualities of a tamada, in addition to being eloquent, is to be able to hold large quantities of booze without showing visible signs of intoxication. Another feature of the evening is signing. We left this to the Georgians, and their harmonies were quite beautiful.

Above all, the supra is about fellowship. Sharing together, with the food, wine and chacha (grape spirit) binding us together in a spirit of friendship and shared endeavour.

The Georgian wine tradition is an ancient, unbroken one. Here we find wines made the way they would have been 1000 years ago, possibly longer. They key (and only) winemaking tool is the qvevri, the clay vessel used to ferment and store wine. For those interested, here’s a book in pdf form that tells you all you could possibly want to know about qvevri.
Temo Dakishvilli

We drank a number of wines. I was sitting next to Temuri (Temo) Dakishvilli, who is one of the youngest winemakers in Georgia. His Vita Vinea wines were lovely. THe 2012 Rkatsiteli is spicy, fresh and lively with apple and citrus notes. His Vitis Vinea Kisi is even better, with lively peppery, spicy notes as well as rich apricot fruit. The Vita Vine Saperavi 2011 has just 13% alcohol, and spends two weeks in one qvevri with skin contact, and is then pressed into another qvevri after fermentation. It’s delicious, with vivid, fresh raspberry fruit, and lovely grip and freshness.


I also tried a couple of the excellent Pheasant’s Tears wines. The Kisi is an orange gold colour, with a matchstick edge to the grippy herb, tangerine and lemon characters. The Rkatsiteli 2013 has notes of raisins, herbs and grapes, and is utterly delicious.

Other wines tried which impressed included the Okro’s Wines Saperavi 2010, the Chkhaveri Rose Dry 2013 and the Artenuli Kahka Berizhili Saperavi.

Saperavi is a wonderful red variety that makes immensely drinkable, dark coloured, chunky wines that respond well to being made in qvevri. Interesting factoid: out of a population of 4.5 million people, apparently 1 million of them make wine. Is this the world’s premier wine culture?

Here’s a short film from the supra:

Tapanappa Foggy Hill Pinot Noir 2012


I have been quite a fan of Brian Croser’s Tapanappa wines, since being introduced to them when I visited him back in 2005. Making fine wine is a long-term project, especially when you are planting new vineyards. It takes the best part of a generation for most to really believe in a new project, in part because most reviewers and authorities are reluctant to take a strong position on a new wine, and tend to give the established classics the benefit of the doubt, even when they don’t deserve this.

Croser is incredibly analytic, and is a strong supporter of the climate work of John Gladstones. He’s convinced that the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia is potentially a top spot for Pinot Noir, and I think his Foggy Hill Pinot shows this. With this 2012 vintage, the vines are now nine years old, and many would say that it’s around vine age of 10 years that Pinot really begins to hit its stride and show characters derived from the site, rather than just pure fruit. This vineyard is at 350 m and is close to the Great Southern Ocean, and has a heat summation of 1135 degree days. It was planted in 2003 with Dijon clones and is a north facing ironstone slope, with vines trellised low at 50 cm. 2012 was a slightly warmer year at 1205 degree days, and the wine was aged in French barriques, of which 30% were new.

Tapanappa Foggy Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 Fleurieu Peninsula, Australia
14.1% alcohol. Elegant, fine sweet cherry and plum fruit with some liqueur-like richness but also some sappy notes and fine spiciness, with savoury wood notes in the background. The palate is silky, but also has a savoury mineral dimension and some spicy warmth, as well as just a touch of mint. Real elegance here: youthful, but showing great potential for development. Cellar for a few years: this is the real deal. 94/100

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

Feedback on my post on critics and style preferences

My recent post on whether or not wine critics can judge wines without their personal style preferences coming into play got quite a bit of reaction, both in the comments section, and also on Twitter. I thought it would be worthwhile looking at some of the responses.

Most of the comments agreed with my point of view. This doesn’t, of course, mean that what I said was correct: majorities have been wrong before. It does expose, though, a divide between the wine critic model popular in the USA (where the critic sets aside her or his personal taste to try to deliver an objective assessment of the wine that will be useful for all readers), and the reality most of us who taste lots of wine experience (which is that it is virtually impossible to set aside our preferences when we come to interesting wine, and it is probably not all that desirable).

Here are some of the comments:

‘Critics should involve their style preference so they can develop a following of like-minded readers’

‘Just name your style preference when judging, public will judge your judgement accordingly’

‘Opinion is by definition subjective. Just be clear as to what you value to readers’

‘Those who can recognize and assess wine quality in spite of style and personal preference are pros’

The three following comments make a good point. A critic can set out to be objective in their work, and be self-disciplined and scrupulous, yet still display bias in their work based on their own biology as well as their personal preferences:

‘Kahnemann won a nobel prize for showing how much biases influence our thinking. Silly to argue tasting is immune.’

‘The brain needs a huge amount of interpretation to recall and identify flavours’

‘Can one transcend one’s own subjectivity? Worth a try but not sure about the outcome though…’

American wine writer Mike Steinberger made a good point:

Interesting topic, but it seems to me you have missed a key point. Critics and especially those who depend entirely on subscriptions have an economic incentive to be equal-opportunity point floggers, to embrace all styles. If the trash a particular style they risk offending people who enjoy that style. It might cost them current or future subscribers.

This is an interesting perspective. Does this economic incentive box the leading US critics into a corner where they have to judge wine with one eye on their subscriber base? As an independent, I try to respect all the wines I taste, and be as useful a critic to my readers as I can. But there are some styles of wine I really dislike, and I’m not going to do the silly thing of giving them high point scores because there might be some readers out there that like this style. It all gets a bit silly if you try to recognize well made versions of wines you don’t like versus badly made versions. Some people like super-ripe spoofy wines. As a critic, how do you distinguish good super-ripe spoofy wines from bad?

Where the discussion got more complicated was in relation to my slightly naughty comment that not all styles of wine are legitimate. Here, many thought I’d over-stepped the boundary. Surely, it should be for the market to decide what is legitimate? Some pointed out my apparent hypocrisy: a while back I made a video in which I tasted Gallo’s Apothic red wine with its elevated residual sugar levels. I commented that this was well made in its style: surely, if any style is illegitimate, it is sweetened up commercial red wines?

‘Certain styles of wine are not legitimate’ completely agree, good taste is not a democracy

‘The bigger issue is, can you say certain wine styles are not legitimate?’

‘Consumers choice to make legitimate or not’

‘Some “wines” should simply not be. Period.’

‘There are perhaps degrees of illegitimacy, depending on how utterly faked up/spoofulated a wine might be’

‘Our job is to comment on styles and put into context, not create them. Market does what it wants with info after that.’

Let me explain why I said Apothic is good in its style, yet suggested that some styles are illegitimate. It’s about market segmentation. Different rules apply to inexpensive commercial wines and fine wine. What is acceptable (or excusable) for commercial wine might not be for fine wine. Tricked up commercial wine isn’t something I love, but I accept it and understand there’s a marketplace for it, and while I would rather commercial wines are more honest, I’m not going to go to war against them. But for wines playing in the fine wine sphere, fetching high prices, trickery and spoofulation are not acceptable. It’s a dual standard, but I think it’s justified.

Video: at the Real Wine Fair


So on Monday, after judging at the International Wine Challenge, I managed to hot foot it over to Wapping (via the wonderful Overground, which makes East-West travel in London so much easier) to catch a bit more of the Real Wine Fair. I’m pictured above with Daniel Honan, aka The Wine Idealist, who’d come over from Australia to present a seminar.

It was worth it: I made some new discoveries. But I still left a lot undiscovered, alas.

Anyway, here’s a short film of me reporting from the Real Wine Fair, to give you a feel for the event.

Wine and emotions

Yesterday I watched a film. It wasn’t a very good film, but it made me cry. As a bloke, this is hugely embarrassing. But there was something about the film that stirred my emotions.

What are emotions? What happens, physically, to cause tears to be released from the eyes? It’s all a bit odd, isn’t it – how our empathy allows us to feel another’s pain in such a way, even when it is portrayed badly in a film.

But the real question of interest here is this: can wine stir our emotions in such a way as to elicit this sort of level of reaction? Can wine make you blub?

On its own, I don’t think it can. For me, at least, the only time I have been really moved by a wine to the point of tears is with a profound wine coupled with a particular context, in which I was already a little emotionally vulnerable. My feeling is wine can make you cry if you are already softened up; if you have already been moved some distance along the emotional pathway before you taste the wine.

On its own a wine can be so good as to be moving. But not really in a welling-up sort of way. This is just my perspective, and – let’s face it – I am male, and I’m British, so I’m probably not the most emotionally fluent sort of guy.

I’d be interested to know of the experiences of others. What sort of emotions does wine stir in you?

At the Real Wine Fair

Carla Kretzel and Craig Hawkins, Testalonga, South Africa

Carla Kretzel and Craig Hawkins, Testalonga, South Africa

Today was a glorious day. Not only was it one of those rare English spring days with a vivid blue sky and freshness in the air, but also it was the day of The Real Wine Fair. It’s a wine fair that brings together producers of natural and authentic wines, for a two-day show in a beautiful setting, Tobacco Dock in Wapping, East London.


For me this is about as good as it gets. Interesting wines: wines that I can fall in love with. Wines that I just want to drink, made by interesting people with stories to tell. I arrived early, as the show was opening at 10 am, and tasted through to late afternoon.

Lots of new discoveries. For now, all I can manage is a few pictures of some of the people who I met. The fair is on tomorrow again: alas, I will be busy with wine challenge judging, or I would have been back for a second day.

Etienne Courtois

Etienne Courtois

Fabien Jouves, Mas de Perle

Fabien Jouves, Mas de Perle

Roberto Morales of Suertes del Marques, Tenerife, and also Envinate

Roberto Morales of Suertes del Marques, Tenerife, and also Envinate

Noble Rot Boys Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew

Noble Rot Boys Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew

Dominik Huber of the fab Terroir Al Limit, Priorato

Dominik Huber of the fab Terroir Al Limit, Priorato

Salvo Foti, Etna legend

Salvo Foti, Etna legend

Nicola Massa of Occhipiniti, Sicily

Nicola Massa of Occhipiniti, Sicily

The fab Cristiano Guttarolo from Puglia

The fab Cristiano Guttarolo from Puglia

Beeslaar Pinotage 2012, a fabulous debut

abrie beeslaar
Abrie Beeslar (above) is the winemaker at Kanonkop, and he’s doing a bit of homebrew. This, his debut vintage, is one of the most profound interpretations of the often tricky Pinotage grape that you can imagine. It’s the Grand Cru Burgundy of Pinotages: structured, fresh, complex, ageworthy and elegant despite its obvious concentration. Website is here. I’ve gone big on the score: I’m not afraid to even for a debut vintage when the wine is this good.

Beeslaar Pinotage 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This spends 17 months in French oak, 50% of which is new. It’s taut, dense and quite structured with fresh, expressive ripe red cherry and berry fruits. Concentrated and structured, yet still fresh and elegant with the oak perfectly integrated into the dense fruit. There’s a savoury, mineral dimension under the fruit. Like a Grand Cru Burgundy, this isn’t really ready yet (it’s still tight-wound and a bit burly), but should age into graceful elegance over 20 years. 94/100

UK agent: Vincisive

Judging the International Wine Challenge


So we are four days into judging the International Wine Challenge. Now, as a panel chair, contracted for all 10 days of judging, I am biased, but I think it’s the best and biggest blind tasting competition in the world.

Of course, not all wines enter. But well in excess of 10 000 do (the figure is around 15 000 I believe, but the actual number is not published, because the organizers don’t want to get into a ‘mine is bigger than yours’ squabble with the main competing event), and if you tasted through the gold medal winners, you’d be pretty impressed.

The strength of this competition is in its rigour, the quality of the judges, and the organization (the amazing IWC team have been in place for five weeks in advance of the tastings setting everything up).

Every wine is tasted at least twice. This week we have been tasting everything, deciding whether or not a wine is worthy of a medal, and therefore entry into round two. Any wine that is cast aside by the panels is then tasted again by the co-chairs, who are able to reinstate wines that they feel have been unfairly passed over. This safety net is vital.

Next week, we will be tasting all the wines that got through and assigning medals, with the option of not awarding medals if we decide the wine isn’t up to scratch. The co-chairs recheck any medal assignments to make sure that judging is consistent.

All wines are given a really good chance to show their potential, and the teams of four or five tasters are all assessed, as are the panel chairs, with a view to promoting those who perform best and getting rid of any tasters or panel chairs who aren’t up to scratch, or who don’t work well in a team.

This feedback means that the quality of judges is high, and we have a nice happy family of tasters, which makes for a rewarding experience for everyone. It’s two weeks of work that I look forward to a great deal each year. This year we have a new venue: The Oval. One of the world’s great cricket grounds, and ideally suited to what we are doing.

Should critics allow personal style preferences to influence their work?

Should wine critics allow personal stylistic preferences affect their judgments on wine?

I recently had a discussion on twitter with a respected US wine critic from a major publication, who kept emphasizing that personal stylistic preferences had no place in his ratings. He was quite insistent.

It’s a question I haven’t really considered before. I like the idea that a critic can be objective and assess wines for every palate. If you are a big magazine, and give a single critic the remit to rate the wines from one country or region, then you need to spin this angle, and instruct the critic to be even handed to all producers. The critic is, after all, writing for all the readers of a magazine.

Thus you have created the myth of an individual critic as a global arbiter of style.

Admirable as this sentiment is, I don’t think this can work in practice. At some level, a critic will have to make a call on style, because some wines force you into this. In practice, even critics who profess to leave their personal style preferences to one side when they assess wine, can’t seem to do this in practice.

Why? Because of balance.

Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call. This makes it quite personal.

Look at the tastings carried out by The World of Fine Wine. They have three expert tasters on each panel, and the individual scores are given. More common than not, there is wide divergence in the scores. You could conclude a number of things from this: that some tasters are better than others, for example. Or, that people have different tastes, and try as they may to be objective in their criticism, they can’t be, fully. I’ll settle for the latter.

Look at spoofulated wines (here I am exposing my style preferences). Take a new world red wine at 15.5% alcohol with lots of spicy new oak, and sweet liqueur-like dead fruit fruit, with added acidity sticking out like a sore thumb. As a critic, do you say ‘I don’t like this style of wine,’ and yet score it 94/100 because ‘it is very well made in its style’? Or do you say, ‘this wine is unbalanced and quite disgusting to drink,’ and give it a low score?

The sorts of critics who score these monster, childish wines very highly often say that they are not judging style. But put an elegant, fresh, pure Loire Cabernet Franc in front of them and there’s a good chance they will call it thin, weedy and undrinkable. We have probably all seen this happen! When they travel to the northern Rhône they fawn over the ripe oaky wines with no sense of place, and ignore the fresh, vital, peppery Syrahs that could have come from nowhere else.

I believe you have to be open-minded, and recognize well made wines in a variety of styles. But only to a point: certain styles of wine are not legitimate. A wine grower needs to produce and intelligent, sensible interpretation of her or his terroir. And for the writer, it’s just not possible to separate out style preferences from doing a proper job as a wine critic.

You can’t go so far as to hate entire genres of wines if you want to be a useful critic. But you do need to make a call on styles. It’s a myth to think that there is some objective measure of wine quality that professional critics can tap into. Yet many critics choose to project this image of wine criticism to their readers.