If you were a wine, what wine would you be?
It’s an immensely silly question, but a fun one.
It’s actually even more fun to ask a friend: what wine am I? And then you get to reciprocate. I did this with a friend recently, and it turns out I am cru Beaujolais. It could have been better: we all secretly fancy ourselves as Grand Cru Burgundy, don’t we? But it could have been much worse – Beaujolais Nouveau rather than cru, or Apothic red, or a Pays d’Oc Merlot.
But is it so silly to think of describing wines in ways other than just as a list of flavours and smells? I think it is quite useful to think of wine in more global, more abstract ways. Is this a happy wine or a sad wine? What sort of emotion does it elicit in you? Does it remind you of a season or time of year? Can you relate it to a particular time in the day?
After all, we usually describe people in global rather than reductionist terms. So describing wines as people, or vice versa, is quite fun, and definitely appropriate.
I have a proposal for a fun wine dinner. Gather a small number of wine-loving friends – say 6-10. And get each to bring a bottle that they think matches with one of their fellow guests. Then it is everyone’s job at the dinner to decide who is represented by each of the wines. You might have to assign each person to another in some sort of secret way, so that everyone is represented by a wine. It would be highly amusing if anyone were to be able to match wine and person successfully.
There is obviously the possibility that this could go horridly wrong, so those taking part would have to be good natured and of robust psychology. But do you think it could work?
On my recent trip to South Africa, I had dinner at the lovely, super-luxurious Delaire Graff, preceded by a tasting with winemaker Morne Vrey and marketing manager Katherine Harris. Morne’s wines are just so consistent and pure, but they don’t lack personality. I’ve reviewed them before here. These are my new notes.
Delaire Graff Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Western Cape, South Africa
This is 60% Olifants River, plus Durbanville and Darling. Very fresh with nice bright flavours of green pepper, pear and spice. Nice weight here with fresh fruit. Stylish. 89/00
Delaire Graff Sauvignon Blanc Coastal Cuvée 2014 Western Cape, South Africa
From Durbanville, Darling and Stellenbosch. 5% barrel fermented Semillon in the blend. Highly aromatic with fresh pear and citrus fruit. Floral and expressive with a bit of greennness. 90/100
Delaire Graff Chenin Blanc Swartland Reserve 2014 Swartland, South Africa
This is from a fantastic vineyard with coffeestone (koffieklip) soils, and 40% is fermented in 2500 litre foudres. ‘I want to move away from new wood,’ says winemaker Morne Vrey. Very fine with lovely pear and spice, showing nice restraint and lovely finesse. Bright acidity. 92/100
Delaire Graff Chardonnay Banghoek Reserve 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
‘This was a technical vintage, as they say in Bordeaux,’ states Morne Vrey. ‘But we have some awesome wines from 2014.’ Assertive spicy nose with some cedar notes, ripe pear and white peach. There’s a lovely texture to the palate, with sweet pear and peach fruit and subtle nuttiness. 92/100
Delaire Graff Cabernet Franc Rosé 2015 Western Cape, South Africa
This is purposely grown for rosé. Very lively, pure and fresh with nice zippiness. Juicy and vivid with pure citrus, pear and red cherry fruit. 89/100
Delaire Graff Sunrise Brut NV Western Cape, South Africa
This is 68% Chenin Blanc, 34% Chardonnay and 8% Cabernet Franc. It’s all from 2013 although it is badged NV. Herbs, spice and lovely citrus and pear fruit. Some peach and grape notes, with nice brightness, richness and complexity. Very stylish and interesting. 91/100
Delaire Graff The Terrace Block Reserve Chardonnay 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Delaire has always been known for Chardonnay, and this is an 18 barrel lot from the farm. 4000 bottle production, retailing in SA at R450. Whole bunch pressed, no settling, straight to barrel, 40% new oak, no malo or battonage. Very fine and expressive with lovely clean fruit and spicy, mineral notes. Tight citrus and pear fruit. Superb. 94/100
Delaire Graff Botmaskop 2013 Stellenbosch, South Africa
45 000 bottles, retail R195. This is fresh and gravelly with lovely black cherry, plum and blackcurrant fruit on the nose. Linear, spicy and dense on the palate with lovely gravelly blackcurrant fruit. 93/100
Delaire Graff Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
A single-vineyard estate wine, 16 barrels, R450 retail. Dense but fresh with lovely structured black fruits and nice density. Real finesse, structure and freshness here. It’s still quite primary and tannic. 93/100
Delaire Graff Laurence Graff Reserve 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
This is 96% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Petit Verdot. 1400 bottles are made: its a barrel selection that is then aged a further 6 months in cask. 60% new oak. Powerful and spicy with lovely dense black fruits. Has some generosity but also lovely spicy structure, and hints of olive and herbs. Lovely finesse. 95/100
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I recently wrote about the wines from Caves Saint Vernay in France’s Auvergne, a volcanic terroir in the south of the Loire. Well, next stop on my Gamay journey is the Auvergne, and their varietal Gamay. Reds here are typically a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir, but on its own, the Gamay really shines. And it’s an incredible bargain at just £7.50, because this is proper, serious wine.
Cave Saint Vernay Puy de Dôme Gamay 2013 Auvergne, Loire, France
Fresh and pure with lovely red cherries and plums. Nice bright fruit with good acidity and a subtle peppery note. Fresh, detailed and drinkable with a nice grippy edge. This is fabulous for the price. 90/100 (£7.50 The Wine Society)
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When white Burgundy is good, it is peerless. Well, almost, as the recent Kumeu River tasting showed.
This is a good one. It’s from Thierry and Pascale Matrot, and it’s a village-level Meursault that over-delivers. Shame it isn’t a bit cheaper, but that is modern Burgundy for you.
Thierry et Pascale Matrot Meursault 2012 Burgundy, France
Aromatic and quite intense with toast, pear, ripe apple, spices and mealy notes. The palate is powerful and direct with lemons, pear and spice, as well as a hint of creaminess. Lovely complexity and balance for a village wine, showing finesse, purity, perfume and good acidity. 93/100 (£37 Laithwaites)
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Charles Spence, the noted red-trousered Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University wrote one of my favourite books of late, titled The Perfect Meal. I think I had a lunch today that would get pretty close, at Social Wine and Tapas with Dan Keeling of Noble Rot.
Of course, I was primed to like it. Our expectations, after all, do alter our experience. Social Wine and Tapas comes with a good reputation, and Dan is good company. And our booking was for 2 pm on a Friday, so we had both cleared our desks for the weekend.
Laure Patry, the sommelier here, has chosen a fantastic list of very interesting wines, and wine really is at the forefront of the offering here. Even in the toilets: there’s a recording playing of a very posh, plummy English chap reading Matt Kramer’s Making Sense of Wine. It’s quite surreal.
The wine flights at Social Wine and Tapas
The wine glasses! They are Zaltos. How can any restaurant afford to use Zaltos? But I am glad they do, because they really enhance the experience of lovely wines.
So, we started off with grower Champagne – the l’Ouverture from Savart. This was exceptional (note below), and tasted all the better from being served in Zalto white wine glasses. We ordered several dishes, and they were all superb.
Highlights? Padron peppers: hard to go wrong here. Ham croquettes were very good, as were the jamon and manchego toasties topped with a quails egg. The star dish? It was chargrilled carrots, burnt aubergine, miso and walnut pesto. A triumph of a dish, and just £6.
I also really liked the heirloom tomato salad, truffle burrata and basil, and the seafood and rabbit Spanish rice was the best sort of comfort food.
In fact, all of the food was totally delicious and wonderful. The stuff around the food? The décor is not totally to my taste, but that’s OK. The service was excellent. The bill was high – this is not a cheap place to eat, especially if you plunder the wine list. But then it’s a central location, just off Oxford Street, and the rents must be huge.
Special shout out to the Ovarius decanter, which is like a glass teapot. Laure imports them herself, and they are available to buy from the shop for £55.
Champagne Savart L’Ouverture Premier Cru NV
This is 100% Pinot Noir, and it is fabulous. Lovely pure apple and citrus fruit nose with some pear notes. Fresh, detailed and drinkable wit nice lemony notes and real finesse, as well as subtle flavours of cherry and ripe apple. Perfectly poised. 93/100
Château Rayas Pignan Résérve 2004 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France
This is an incredibly Burgundian expression of Châteauneuf. It is silky and elegant with lovely finesse, and a fine spicy edge to the seductive sweet cherry fruit, with notes of white pepper and warm soy. It is perfumed and pure with lovely texture. Now drinking perfectly, there’s no need to hang onto it any longer. It just delivers pleasure. 95/100
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A friend alerted me to this blog post by the excellent Ray Isle, which contains an open letter by Californian winemaker Sean Thackrey on alcohol levels and wine. Thackrey is an eloquent and thoughtful voice in the wine world and his letter is worth a read.
While you are at it, you should probably also read Isle’s excellent article from last year – wine’s nastiest feud – which is on the same topic.
Thackrey’s point? He thinks the move to picking earlier – thus producing wines with lower alcohol levels – is a fad. He thinks it is all a bit silly: wine is just a branch of the fashion world, and low alcohol happens to be in fashion at the moment. That’s all.
‘In fact, good wine is always made from ripe fruit, which means fruit ripe for the wine-maker’s particular purpose,’ says Thackrey. ‘So what’s the point of dogma in all this? Since no one disputes that excellent wine can be made from grapes comparatively lower in sugar, what is the point of arguing that this is so, when no one argues the contrary?’
He also suggests that those who claim that wine made with higher alcohol levels is undrinkable are merely making a noise for marketing reasons. I am not so sure.
I think Thackrey is railing against a straw man. Those of us who have a problem with overly alcoholic wines aren’t just being dogmatic or reactionary. Most 15.5% alcohol Cabernets taste disgusting, because they are picked too late. There may well be exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb, once you see a red table wine soar past 15% (and remember that label disclosure of alcohol can have quite a legal margin of error) it’s a good indicator – all other things being equal – that this wine won’t be very nice.
The problem isn’t the alcohol. It’s a style choice to pick late, and there are quite a few of us who don’t enjoy wines made from super-ripe fruit. I actually think that super-ripe fruit in red wines is a childish, beginners taste in wine. If you love those super-ripe red wines, that’s fine, but you will probably not like the sort of wines I recommend here. Besides, picking late results in wines that lose any sense of place. They also usually require interventionist winemaking to rescue them: addition of tartaric acid, addition of water, addition of yeast nutrients, and plenty of new oak to provide structure to bolster the soft tannins.
Thackrey may be right that the fashion is changing, moving away from these big, alcoholic wines. [In truth, they still have plenty of fans, although almost all my colleagues and most of the sommeliers and wine merchants I know don't like them at all.] But he’s wrong to dismiss it as a fad.
Yes, we should avoid dogma, and despite what I have said here, I’m open minded and I hate dogma – and I’m well aware of the blinkering effect of confirmation bias. But I really think this shift to more appropriate ripeness that is taking place across the wine world is a significant and much needed change. And wine is getting better and more interesting because of it.
There’s a place for ripe wines. After all, I love Vintage Port, with 20% alcohol and intense, rich fruit. But what we are seeing now is a shift back to the norm from a temporary collective insanity in the world of wine, and there’s still some more shifting to be done.
‘Dajoar’ means ‘as it used to be’, and this single-vineyard Riesling by Andreas Bender is made in a style that harks back to the traditional way Mosel wines would have been made in the past. From red shale soils, harvested at 40 hl/ha, these Riesling grapes are fermented with wild yeasts in oak. It’s quite lovely, and the good news is that it is affordable, too (retail in the UK is £14).
Bender Dajoar Zenit Riesling 2012 Mosel, Germany
11.5% alcohol. Full yellow/gold colour. Powerful, textured and rich, and just off dry, with complex spicy citrus fruit, and richer notes of melon, peach and honey. Beautifully detailed and textured, with hints of wax and quince. Drinking very well now. Almost profound. More please! 94/100 (UK agent Indigo Wine)
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I’ve been thinking a bit about brands of late, and it is coffee that prompted my thoughts.
I was in Washington State in June, and you just couldn’t get away from Starbucks. Every hotel had Starbucks coffee, aside from the ubiquitous Starbucks stores. My coffee geek friends tell me that Starbucks coffee isn’t very good. But it’s clearly popular. It is a very powerful brand.
If Starbucks isn’t great, why is it such a strong coffee brand?
It’s because it does what brands are supposed to do. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It is good enough, and it is consistently good enough. The brand reassures people that they are not going to have a bad cup of coffee, and they know what to expect when they order a Starbucks coffee.
For coffee geeks, reassurance and consistency are not good enough. They want great coffee. Clearly, for most people, good enough coffee is just fine. Quality is best defined as fitness for purpose, and for normal people a cup of coffee that isn’t bad is usually all that they want. After all, coffee is not just about the flavour. It is a psychological punctuation mark in the day; a ritual; a special moment. So according to our definition of quality – fitness for purpose – Starbucks is good quality, for most people.
Let’s extend this thinking to wine. Most people find wine brands reassuring, even though wine geeks usually find branded wines dull and uninteresting. As with coffee, normal people want a wine that isn’t bad, and the flavour of the wine isn’t the primary consideration in their purchase decision.
This applies to expensive wines, too. For people shelling out serious bucks, high-end wine brands – think Penfolds Bin Series, famous Napa Cabs, recognizable classed growth Bordeaux – are reassuring. Champagne brands are a great example here: you could show a normal person a grower Champagne that they prefer the taste of and they’ll still choose the Grand Marque that’s more expensive, because the branding is powerful and reassures them that they are drinking the right thing.
It’s true that brands mean different things to different people. You could argue that for the natural wine crowd names such as Ganevat are powerful brands. Here, the brand becomes more aspirational than reassuring. There are somm-bait and geek-bait brands, just as there are brands appealing to affluent dudes who like a bit of conspicuous consumption.
Overall, though, the role of the brand is to reassure those who are looking to spend and consume in safety, with no nasty surprises. And this is what wine brands do, and it is largely why they are so successful.
Continuing the Gamay quest, we are off to New Zealand. There are just 7.3 hectares of Gamay Noir in New Zealand. And the producer who has led the way with his variety so far has been Te Mata, in Hawke’s Bay. This is their Gamay, and it’s pretty good. [The other famous example from Kiwi land is Rippon's, from Central Otago, which I have yet to try, but which I suspect will be incredible.]
It is made from 1995 plantings of a superior clone of Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc that Te Mata was responsible for introducing into New Zealand. And it’s a single-vineyard wine from the Woodthorpe vineyard, which is on a north-facing terrace. Winemaking is 50% carbonic maceration and 50% normal red wine fermentation, and it is matured for three months in older French oak.
This isn’t the world’s greatest ever Gamay, but it is really good and delivers pleasure.
Te Mata Gamay Noir 2014 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
13% alcohol. Floral and very fruity with juicy cherry and plum fruit. Hints of earth in the background as well as tar. Opens up very nicely with time to take on better texture with sweet cherry fruit. This has a bit of stony, grainy minerality. Real interest and finesse with drinkability: decant this before drinking. 90/100 (£12.95 The Wine Society)
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This morning I was driving. And, as I usually do when I am driving, I listened to Radio 4. [If I were ever to leave the UK, I think one of the things I would miss most about this small, quirky country is the BBC, and specifically Radio 4.] It was Desert Island Discs, and the interviewee was Professor Monica Grady. She is Professor of Space Science at the Open University. One of the things she talked about was the beauty of a moon rock.
She explained that when a very thin slice is examined under a microscope, it is incredibly beautiful, in part because there has never been any rain on the moon.
What is beauty? How can a rock be beautiful? How can a wine be beautiful? What is it about a person that makes them beautiful?
These are all questions I have been thinking about over the last few days. These are some of my thoughts.
Beauty is not the same thing as perfection. And beauty is not an absence of flaws. In fact, you could argue that flaws are an important part of beauty. The quality of silence is only made apparent by small noises (‘flaws’) that interrupt that silence. Imagine a hallway in a country house. It is the quiet ticking of the grandfather clock at the end of the hall that makes the quietness apparent, bringing into relief the absence of noise. And some noises have an intrinsic peaceful quality to them, even though they are not quiet: for example birdsong in the woodland, or a bubbling brook.
Think of the physical appearance of a loved one. Cultural messages on beauty promote an airbrushed fantasy, whereas real people have a beauty that requires no re-touching: any ‘flaws’ become an integral part of true beauty, and are integrated into that beauty to the point that it would be absurd to call them ‘flaws’.
For wine, I find that some of my true moments of beauty have come with bottles that have elements to their flavour that a technician might describe as faults. Great wines can carry and integrate ‘flaws’, so that these elements become integrated to the point that they are part of the beauty. Think of hints of greenness, or reduction, or oxidation – or even Brettanomyces. There are wines that are truly beautiful, but which contain one or more of these elements.To dismiss these wines as faulty seems like – to me at least – to be taking the cultural airbrush view of beauty.
Some more thoughts.
Is beauty a property of the object, or something conferred on the object by the observer? Think of Professor Grady’s moon rock. Most people would not immediately describe a rock as beautiful. But to her, it is beautiful. She is ascribing beauty to the rock. A wine is not intrinsically beautiful, but there are some wines that I find beautiful. I confer beauty on the wine as I drink it and appreciate it.
A tragedy: there are many beautiful humans out there who don’t feel beautiful; no one is making them realize that they are. Often, the awareness they have of their flaws stops them hearing that they are beautiful, because they don’t realize that flaws are part of beauty itself.
Some people are good at recognizing beauty. They become so attuned to it that they recognize it in the mundane, or in unexpected places. That is a good capacity to possess.
There is also a temporal aspect to beauty. It can creep up on you and surprise you. As you journey with your fellow humans, you slowly begin to appreciate their beauty. You just hadn’t been looking closely enough before. Beauty can grow; given the right environment it flourishes. We should each make the recognition and nurturing of beauty one of our life’s goals.