Charles Smith The Honourable Riesling

charles smith honourable riesling

I admit it: I hadn’t really heard the Charles Smith story until I read about him on the blog of a Canadian friend, Nicole, even though I’d run into a couple of the wines (one stocked by Virgin Wines, and one by Wholefoods). How could I have missed him? What a back story! He seems like the essence of dudeness, and so I was delighted when I bumped into this wine of his, a deliciously focused and utterly drinkable Riesling. I like the balance: it’s a wine that you can just drink, but if you give it some attention, it will reward you with another dimension.

Charles Smith The Honourable Riesling 2013 Washington State, USA
13.5% alcohol. Lively and fresh with lovely grapefruit and lemon notes, as well as a hint of grapey richness. Very pure, friendly and full of interest with nice balance, and a hint of white pepper on the finish. Stylish Riesling that’s utterly delicious. 91/100 (£11.99 Marks & Spencer)

Les Griffons de Pichon Baron 2012, a serious effort

Griffons Pichon Baron Pauillac

This is a super wine. It’s a new launch from Bordeaux superstar Pichon Baron. Christian Seely describes it thus: ‘It is a second wine, made from grapes from the intermediate parcels that might sometimes make it into the Grand Vin, sometimes into Tourelles [previously regarded as Pichon's second wine]. Les Tourelles itself comes mostly from a specific terroir called St Anne.’ If I’d been tasting this blind, I wouldn’t have thought of it as a second wine at all.

Les Griffons de Pichon Baron 2012 Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
13% alcohol. Lovely focused sweet blackcurrant fruit nose with freshness and a subtle sappy, gravelly edge. Very pure and alluring but not in the slightest bit over-ripe. Pure, clean, refined palate with blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. Real focus and harmony. A brilliant expression of Pauillac that’s not trying too hard, and has lovely freshness and the sort of structure that makes you think this could be a good bet for mid- to long-term cellaring. I really like the freshness here. 94/100

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Iona Chardonnay 2013, a star from Elgin

iona chardonnay

My South African wine journalist friends have been raving about Elgin Chardonnay for ages. Do you know what? They may just be right. I’ve some good ones of late, including impressive examples from new boy Richard Kershaw, and this stunner from Iona.

Iona Chardonnay 2013 Elgin, South Africa
13% alcohol. A lovely Elgin Chardonnay that blends freshness with a bit of richness. Just beautifully balanced. Grapefruit, pear, white peach and subtle bready notes combine to create an expressive Chardonnay with real citrus precision. Real class. 94/100 (£14.99 Marks & Spencer)

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Just pick earlier!

ripeness pick earlier

I had a remarkable tasting a few weeks ago with Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro. He did an experiment: picking some of the grapes for Marques de Casa Concha a month earlier than they are currently picked. He says that he had to close his eyes when he looked at the seeds: they were still green. The wine was brilliant. So much so that he’s now picking everything a month earlier than normal. I tried the results: normally I find Marques de Casa Concha to be a bit boring and Chilean. The early picked version? I’m going to buy some when it’s released. It’s proper wine. He says he has to use far fewer oenological products in the winery, because the yeasts are much happier. I’ll be writing this interview up in full, but I wanted to mention it here, because I am going to make a plea to winemakers around the world:

Please, just pick earlier.

This fad for picking by taste, waiting for ‘phenolic ripeness’, and waiting for brown seeds is just nuts. Look at the fabulous wines coming from the In Pursuit of Balance wineries in California. Some of these are at 12% alcohol. From California. And they are brilliant.

I recently went to a US Cabernet tasting put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine. It was an incredible line-up of 88 wines, including most of the big names. But it was quite depressing in that so few of these wines showed freshness and definition. Most were picked too late. Alcohol levels were frequently far too high. And these wines are almost all REALLY expensive.

It is so depressing to see red wines routinely at 14.5% or 15% alcohol – or even higher – because they are rarely any good. Pick too late, and you end up with a wine that doesn’t express its site very well. You end up with struggling ferments, and an increased risk of Brettanomyces. Your wine becomes a more powerful solvent for extracting flavour from the oak. You lose structure and acidity, and you end up having to add acid and use oak to provide structure.

Why not just pick earlier?

Hambledon Classic Cuvee, a brilliant new English sparkling wine

hambledon

Hambledon Vineyard has history. It was established in 1952, the first of the new era vineyards in the UK. The village of Hambledon is also the cradle of the sport of cricket.

Hambledon Vineyard was bought by Ian Kellett in 1999, and he decided fairly soon on that the future for England is sparkling wine. He bought in outside investors, and grew the vineyard from the paltry 4 acres it had declined to, to its current size of 50 acres. There’s also a new gravity-fed, state-of-the-art winery. Since 2011, Hervé Jestin has been in charge of winemaking here. In April this year Hambledon also bought the neighbouring 46 acre Meon Hill vineyard.

hambledon vineyards home of cricket

So, this is the first release of the new era, and it’s a really impressive sparkling wine. More, and presumably even better, is to come in the future.

Hambledon Vineyards Classic Cuvee NV Hampshire, England
12% alcohol. Taut and quite complex with ripe apples, citrus, pear and even some fig, with a bit of creaminess. The palate is crisp and bright with high acidity clamping down on the fruit, but there’s still some apple and pear character. Subtle bread and toast notes begin to emerge after a while. Very young but pretty serious. 91/100 (rrp £28.50 Berry Bros & Rudd, Fareham Wine, Hawksmoor, Scotts, Bird of Smithfield, Skylon, RFH)

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Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2014

cloudy bay sauvignon blanc

I’ve tasted this – the new version of the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc – three times in the last week. I think it’s one of the best ever. I know that it’s a brand that has enjoyed celebrity status in the UK, so much so that it has even had to be allocated and/or bundled by retailers, because everyone wants some. And it hasn’t always lived up to the reputation. But the 2014 vintage is a classic example of top-quality Marlborough Sauvignon, with exotic notes yet also lots of finesse. You pay for the quality, of course (around £20 retail), but it’s just such a lovely wine with a great back story.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. Really aromatic with lovely green pepper and grapefruit as well as some exotic passionfruit notes. Quite delicate and expressive with lovely balance. Real finesse on the palate with the riper, more tropical notes balanced by fine, mineral, chalky and subtly green notes. I’d buy and drink this as young as possible for the lovely delicate aromatics, or I’d cellar it to get something rather different – a 1996 tasted recently was lovely. 92/100

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Two superb whites: Radikon 1993 and Shobrook Giallo 2013

radikon

So, on Wednesday evening I had one of the best pizzas I have ever experienced. I met up with buddy and fellow Beer Anorak Daniel Primack for a spot of dinner at Pizza Pilgrims. We each bought a bottle, both white it turns out, and they were both fantastic. It was such a nice evening.

Radikon Slatnik di Oslavia 1993 Vino di Tavola, Italy
What right does this wine have to be so fresh? Full yellow colour. Very delicate and fine with hints of vanilla, white plums, cooked lemons and marzipan, with bready notes and a hint of hazelnut. Nice fresh grapefruit notes, too. real finesse and purity, and after a while in the glass you get some lovely apricot character. 94/100

giallo

Shobrook Wines Giallo 2013 Adelaide Hills, Australia
11.5% alcohol. I’ve really enjoyed this wine in the past, and the new vintage doesn’t disappoint. It’s beautifully aromatic with tangerine, apricot and passion fruit. Lovely freshness and detail with bright fruit, good acid and some pink grapefruit characters. Such a brilliant wine. It’s a skin contact Sauvignon, if you must know. 95/100 (UK agent Les Caves de Pyrene)

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A day in Paris

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Although I’m often travelling through it, and have stayed a few times on business, I realized that I hadn’t been a tourist in Paris since I was 15. And some super cheap Eurostar deals created the opportunity: spend a day in this great city doing some really touristy things.

So after a very early start, we arrived at Gare du Nord by 10 15 and ready for some fun. Soon I realized that Paris is a city of queues, and this is something you have to build into your schedule. From queuing at a cashpoint in Gare du Nord, to queuing to get a carnet at the Metro, to queuing to get into all the touristy attractions, quite a bit of time is taken up in this fashion.

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First stop, Notre Dame (a short walk from Metro Citie). The sun was shining, and it was looking fabulous. But we’d been admiring it for barely three minutes when we witnessed a queue fight. Two older men who should have known better. A stocky white haired guy in his 60s and his wife had tried to jump the long (but fast moving) line to get into the cathedral. A taller, academic looking bloke in his 50s physically pushed the stocky guy away from the queue line. There was lots of shouting, lots of pushing, but I didn’t detect any punches thrown, or headbuts, and security were on the scene after about two minutes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We carefully joined the end of the queue and within a few minutes, without any fighting, were inside. It was very impressive.

The windows in Sainte-Chapelle -13th century

The windows in Sainte-Chapelle -13th century

 

Next, a short distance away, and a rather longer queue (plus 8.5 Euros each) later, we entered the Sainte-Chapelle. It’s a much smaller church than Notre Dame, but arguably more beautiful and stunning because of its incredible windows. The effect was spoiled somewhat by the fact that a third of them were covered up for renovation, but it was well worth seeing.

Les Fines Gueules

Les Fines Gueules

It was time for lunch. We walked across Pont Neuf, then up the Rue du Louvre, past the famous museum, then left down Etienne Marcel, to Les Place des Victoires, where we found Les Fines Gueules.  It’s a lovely wine bar/restaurant in an interesting building, and we lunched well, on cod on aubergine, and tuna tartare. To drink – Domain de l’Ecu Gros Plant du Pays Nantains ‘Gros Pet’ 2011  (slightly oxidative, minerally, acidic and nice) and Alexandre Coulange ‘Le Pourboire du Vigneron’ 2012 Vin de France (from the Aude, a natural-style, meaty, open red wine with some chalky notes).

 

The clock in Musee d'Orsay

The clock in Musee d’Orsay

After lunch we wandered through the grounds of the Louvre, crossed over the Seine and headed to the Musee d’Orsay. Now this is a totally cool gallery in a beautiful building converted from a disused railway station in the 1970s. Of course, there are queues here, too – one to get past security screening, and one to buy your ticket. But once inside, it was surprisingly peaceful. Even the spectacular impressionist and post-impressionist galleries with their super-famous works weren’t too busy.

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After this we headed to Montmartre, to do the famous climb up to the Sacre-Coeur. Montmartre is a bit sketchy, and even those famous stairways don’t feel as special as I remember them from my teen years. It’s more touristy than a Spanish seaside resort, with gazillions of ‘artists’ trying to pimp spectacularly bad canvases, and street vendors flogging plastic Eiffel towers. Still, it has to be done. Back to Gare du Nord with a few minutes to spare – a great day out.

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Unwritten rules for wine writers

sainsburyspresstasting

I was recently at a supermarket press tasting, and one of the buyers – new to the game – commented that he was surprised how well we (the wine journos) all got along. ‘After all, you’re competitors,’ he noted.

I was pleased he made this observation. We do get along. But it hadn’t really occurred to me that we should behave any differently, and I don’t think of my fellow wine writers as competitors. We all (perhaps with one or two exceptions) co-exist really well, and attending tastings feels like mixing with your colleagues at work. As a freelancer, it’s nice to feel that you are part of a bigger community.

How is this cohesion maintained? It’s as if there are some unwritten rules for wine writers that we all strive to abide by, and which keeps the community together. They would be something like this:

  • Be collegiate. Be nice to your fellow wine writers and behave as part of a team. When you go on press trips, join in – have a drink at the bar at the end of the day. Show interest in others. Greet fellow writers with a friendly smile, a kiss, a hug.
  • No prima donnas allowed. I know we are each managing our own media brand, but we need to remember that in the grand scheme of things, none of us matter, so let’s keep our egos in check.
  • Don’t lie. In your self-promotion, don’t exaggerate your readership figures or your webstats, or do silly things like buy twitter followers.
  • As much as it is humanly possible, share in the joy of others’ success. Your turn will come.
  • Don’t be a dick and behave competitively. Show other wine writers respect on social media and don’t be unnecessarily argumentative. Don’t have a thin skin if others rib you.
  • Follow the basic rules of being a nice human: always think the best of others, be kind where you can, and forgive people quickly if they offend or hurt you.
  • Be supportive and welcoming towards newcomers, and younger writers. We don’t want to be a closed club. We want to avoid cliques. We need new, young, talented writers to keep us on our toes!
  • Don’t sell out, and don’t behave parasitically. If you wanted to get rich you should have gone into the financial world. Keep your integrity in the face of £££ or you will be letting us all down. And don’t keep trying to take money from wine producers by various schemes. They have a bad enough time with supermarkets and major retailers coming after them for cash (‘promotional support’). Don’t muddy the water for the rest of us.

Some highlights from the Waitrose Press Tasting

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We wine journos are in the middle of press tasting season at the moment, with all the major supermarkets showing off their ranges. Buying standards for UK supermarkets are very high, but what makes life difficult for the buyers are their margin requirements, especially in the days of 25% off entire range special offers. So they end up paying relatively little for the wines they list (did you know that on average supermarkets will pay producers less than 3 Euros for a wine they list at £9.99?). So what we are faced with at these tastings tends to be well made but dull wines that lack real personality. There are exceptions, though. Here are just a few of my picks from the Waitrose press tasting last week.

Feiler-Artinger Blaufränkisch 2013 Burgenland, Austria
Biodynamic viticulture, clay limestone soils. Juicy, bright and fresh with nice raspberry and cherry fruit with a bit of grip. Very stylish and appealing. 89/100 (£11.29 Waitrose)

Tikveš Aemelia Shiraz/Vranec/Petit Verdot 2013 Macedonia
45% each of Shiraz and Vranec with the balancing 10% Petit Verdot. 13.3% alcohol. Beautifully floral blackberry and blackcurrant nose. Sweet, ripe, pure textured palate with amazing purity of fruit. Quite delicious. 90/100 (£8.99 Waitrose)

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Stemmari Pinot Noir 2012 Sicily, Italy
Normally I wouldn’t expect much from a Sicilian Pinot, but this is rather good. From chalky soils at an altitude of 250 metres, it’s juicy, bright, berryish and very tasty, with supple red cherry fruit and some leafy notes, as well as plums and spice. 88/100 (£7.99 Waitrose)

Terredora di Paolo Aglianico 2011 Campania, Italy
13% alcohol. From calcareous soils, just 7 days on the skins. Juicy, bright and mellow with nice spicy, grippy structure under the red berry and cherry fruit. Quite stylish: a lighter interpretation of Aglianico. 90/100 (£12.99 Waitrose)

La Rioja Alta Viña Arana Reserva 2006 Rioja, Spain
This is just classic Rioja. Sweet berries, cream, coconut, spice and vanilla notes all merge together to form a coherent whole, with some nice fruit meshing with the secondary characters very well. Mellow and delicious. 93/100 (£22.49 Waitrose)

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Escarpment Kupe Pinot Noir 2011 Martinborough, New Zealand
Beautifully silky and textured, yet really well defined with black cherry and plum fruit. Real substance here with layers of flavour and good structure, and some floral, meaty overtones. 94/100 (£32.99 Waitrose)

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Ghost Corner Pinot Noir 2013 Elim, South Africa
11 year old vines. This is fabulous stuff, and shows the potential of Elim. Pale coloured with lovely fresh, subtle, leafy red cherry fruit. Nice texture and some fine spiciness. This wine has real finesse and elegance. 93/100 (£19.49 Waitrose)

Château Rahoul 2010 Graves, Bordeaux, France
I do like good white Bordeaux, and this wine falls into that category. 65% Semillon, 35% Sauvignon Blanc, pressed with inert gas and fermented and aged for 8 months in oak. Very fresh, fine and linear with citrus and pear fruit. Real finesse and delicacy here. 92/100 (£16.99 Waitrose)