I was at a tasting recently, when a colleague whose opinion I respect asked me what I thought of a particular wine. He’d given it a score of 58/100.
It was the 2012 LAM white from Lammershoek (a leading winery from South Africa’s Swartland region), a blend of Chenin, Chardonnay and Viognier, priced very reasonably at £10.95. It’s a brilliant, brave wine (I think), with lovely savoury intensity, minerality, and some oxidative characteristics. Real personality: something that is sadly all too lacking in many affordable Chenin Blanc blends or varietal wines. I gave it 91/100.
Who’s right? There’s little point in asking this question. I think I am. My colleague thinks he is. We agree on most wines (we judge together often), but on this one we differ.
A third, less experienced taster came to the table. When pressed, she sided with my colleague. She didn’t like the wine. But I am not surprised: these flavours are challenging. This is not a simple, fruity, new world wine. I love the bravery that comes with making a wine like this, and I think it will succeed: some will hate it, but those who like it will really love it. It is the sort of wine you can keep coming back to. It grows on you. It seduces you slowly; it is not an instant attraction.
I wouldn’t serve this to guests who weren’t adventurous in their tastes. But I would take it along to a wine geek dinner, and I can’t think of many wines at this price that I’d say this about.
My conclusion? There are many wines that experienced professionals will almost all agree are serious, world class wines. But there is a subset of wines that are going to polarize even the most highly regarded wine professionals. Often, these are the most interesting wines of all.
This is a new wine for me, and I’m glad that I discovered it. It’s from Friuli, near the Slovenian border, and it’s a blend of mostly Sauvignon Blanc with a dribble of Picolit that adds some more tropical/peachy notes. When I tasted it I didn’t know the varietal composition, and I think that can be an advantage, saving me from preconceptions.
La Roncaia Eclisee Cuvee di Alta Classe 2011 Venezia Giulia IGT, Italy
Beautifully aromatic with lovely floral, tangerine, lemon and herb notes. Very expressive. The palate is fresh, lively and precise with lovely finesse and a really pretty personality, with grapefruit freshness and mandarin orange richness. Precise, concentrated, fine and fresh. 93/100 (£18 Matthew Clark)
I love Jamsheed. One of my favourite Australian producers. This Riesling has just a hint of sweetness but it finishes quite dry. It’s a serious effort, and a good bet for the cellar.
Jamsheed Garden Gully Riesling 2011 Great Western, Australia
11.8% alcohol. Hand picked Riesling from vines planted at the end of the 19th century, barrel fermented with natural yeasts in large French oak. There’s a lemony, pithy edge to the nose which is very bright and assertive with a hint of mint. The palate has lovely texture with a bit of sweetness balancing out the high acidity, and notes of lime, ripe apple and honey, with lovely purity and freshness. Just a baby now, this wine will probably outlive me. A classic Aussie Riesling, but with real finesse, too. 93/100 (£27.99 Selfridges, £25.50 Harvey Nichols)
I really like this Portuguese white. It’s a blend of Arinto, Gouveio and Fernao Pires from the coastal bit of the Lisboa region, and from fossil-rich clay/limestone soils. The vineyard is in its second year of conversion to organics, and natural yeasts and no oak is used. It’s available from Asda’s new wine shop, and has been sourced by Portuguese specialist Oakley Wines. It’s great value for money: a useful six-pack purchase, I reckon.
Fossil White Wine 2012 VR Lisboa, Portugal
Lovely weight to this fresh, bright and incredibly pure white wine. It has flavours of lemon, pear and white peach with some spicy minerality, as well as some melon and tangerine notes. Precise and rounded, this is a lovely wine. 91/100 (£8.50 Asda Online Wine Store here)
I have a worry. It’s that wine critics are doing too much tasting and not enough drinking.
The competition amongst the critics is becoming intense. As the Robert Parker era closes, there’s a bit of a power struggle. The point-scorers are vying for power. Who will have influence?
The wine world is now too big for one critic to cover. So what we see is teams of critics emerging. Their strategy is to try to be as comprehensive as possible. So they all try t0 out-taste each other. They try to be first. The result is that these hard-working critics taste hundreds of wines a session.
On one level I understand the approach. I can taste 150 wines in a day and give a relatively accurate verdict at the commercial level. But I cannot taste 150 fine wines in a day and discriminate among them. At the top end, we are talking about a level of discrimination that’s quite different.
For serious wine, we need to take our time. Drinking helps, too. I would rather jump off the competitive treadmill, taste fewer wines, and give a more considered, accurate, insightful opinion. My goal with wineanorak is to steer people towards the sorts of wines that I think deserve attention. The best way for me to do this is to combine large tastings (which are necessary for context) with some proper wine drinking. It is only when you sit down with a bottle that you begin to get to know it.
It’s the difference between shaking hands with someone, followed by a quick chat, and spending the evening with someone.
If critics carry on with their numbers approach (‘We’ve tasted and rated 2000 wines from this vintage’) they will prove increasingly irrelevant to wine lovers who can share their more considered opinions via social media.
So tonight, I have four Pinot Noirs open. A chance to do some comparative tasting.
I love Pinot Noir. It’s such a great grape variety. So, for me, this is a joy of an evening. How do the wines rate?
Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir 2011 Casablanca Valley, Chile
I actually opened this wine yesterday evening, and I didn’t like it then. But coming back to it a day later, it’s much better. Some chocolate and spice on the berry fruits nose. The palate has lovely vivid, meaty, fresh cherry and berry fruits. Quite supple and sweet but with nice elegance, and some grippy, spicy tannins from the wood. This has a lovely core of sweet cherry fruit, but it needs more time. At the moment it’s a little angular and closed in. 91/100 (available from Asda wine online, http://direct.asda.com/Wine/ £16.97)
Bouchard Pere et Fils Savigny-Les-Beaune 2011 Burgundy
Vivid cherry and spice, quite angular with some woody, grippy notes as well as the bright cherry fruit. Lacks the sweetness of fruit to carry the structure and comes across as angular and firm. 86/100 (£16.99 Waitrose)
Karl H Johner Spatburgunder Kaisterstuhl 2010 Baden, Germany
Highly aromatic with that sweet leafy, herby character that so many German Pinots possess, as well as supple, bright, floral red cherry fruit. The palate is sweet, fresh, fruity and silky with a distinct green herby edge to the fresh fruit, as well as a hint of Bovril. Not too serious, but silky and seductive. Good value. 91/100 (£13.95 The Wine Society)
Vina Leyda Lot 21 Pinot Noir 2008 Leyda Valley, Chile
Ripe, smooth, sweet raspberry and cherry fruit with hints of meat and spice. It’s a ripe style of Pinot, but there a smoothness and elegance here, as well as fine, spicy undercurrents. Concentrated and smooth, with real finesse, this is pretty serious. 94/100 (bought a few years ago from The Wine Society for around £16)
So three hits and a miss. The miss was the Burgundy. I’m not totally convinced by Chilean Pinot yet, but these were two good bottles.
Wine industry commentator Robert Joseph has recently written about wine on television. The reason we don’t have much wine on TV, he asserts, is because wine isn’t interesting as a subjectfor TV. It’s not visual enough. He lays down a challenge to anyone who disagrees: make a pilot program and see how many views you get on YouTube.
Robert is partly right. Wine doesn’t have the visual interest of food. But he misses (at least part of) the point. Successful television isn’t about the subject. It’s about people. It’s about personalities. Top Gear is the great example here. It used to be a show about cars, written for people with an interest in cars, and although it was good solid television, it had a limited audience, and was somewhat predictable.
Then they brought in three presenters and a format that changed everything. It became huge. People with little or no interest in cars still watched it because it was fun, it was fast paced, and the three presenters were engaging personalities, with James May and Richard Hammond acting as ideal foils for the super-talented Jeremy Clarkson.
What about wine? Well, look at Gary Vaynerchuck, who reached large audiences with a video segment that just involved him tasting wine on camera. He had an amazing talent for it, and lots of people wanted to watch him. Whatever Robert says, Vaynerchuck was huge (he’s stopped making wine shows now), and is now even huger as a social media marketing guru. It’s about the people. The personalities.
There are two types of wine television that could succeed. One is serious programs about wine, made for those with an existing interest in wine. Their audiences will be limited, of course, but there’s no reason they couldn’t work if they realized this from the outset. These shows won’t make prime time national TV, of course.
Then there are personality-driven shows with a fun element. What if, for example, a proper celebrity (and not just someone well known in the wine world) did a wine show? Then wine could really cross over into the mainstream. It’s not about the subject, it is about the people. People are interested in people. That’s the way we are made.
I don’t expect to see wine on prime time national TV any time soon, but unlike Robert, I am not ruling it out. I’d love to see people with talent do something different with wine TV, and I’m certainly not going to tell them not to bother from my vantage point on the sidelines.
Last night I headed over to the Grand Hyatt in Santiago for a remarkable wine festival. It was fortunate that of the two nights I was in town, one should coincide with this event. Organized by Patricio Tapia, It wasn’t cheap at 42000 Pesos (around £50), but there was an amazing array of Chilean wines on show, together with lots of gourmet food stands, all around the spectacular Grand Hyatt pool.
This is a consumer event, so not the place for tasting everything and making extensive notes. But geek I am, I felt it necessary to take notes and spit a few of the wines, and try to uncover some gems.
Marco de Martino
That I certainly did, with the help of inside knowledge. I found some thrilling wines, of the sorts not always associated with Chile. My first stop was at the wonderful De Martino, with Marco de Martino and winemaker Marcelo Retamal. These were superb, including two wonderful wines made in tinajas (amphorae). They do things right here: picking early, adding as little as possible, and avoiding new small oak barrels.
I was thrilled by the Tara white from Ventisquero’s vineyards in the Atacama desert (pictured above, Felipe Tosso and Alejandro Galaz of Ventisquero). Sadly only made in limited quantities: a beautiful, slightly cloudy Chardonnay of amazing complexity. And then I found the wines of Matias Michelino, which are just brilliant natural wines. One of these is a Malbec from Casablance, made in Tinajas with stems and no added sulphur dioxide, and it is one of the most exciting Chilean wines I’ve experienced.
More conventionally, I enjoyed the two Talinay wines from Tabali (a Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir), and the Syrah from Vina Leyda. So there is some hope for Chilean fine wine!!
Tara White 2012 DO Atacama, Chile
This is a remarkable Chardonnay, made from red clay over chalk soils in Huasco in the Atacama desert. Just two barrels were made, one of which was seventh-use oak, the other of which was stainless steel. Super-stylish and slightly cloudy with ripe, rich, white peach and pear fruit countered by lovely mineral precision. Amazing combination of complexity, freshness and richness. Fabulous wine (it’s the second release). 94/100
Esparando Las Bárbaros 2012 Casablanca, Chile
Made by Matías Michelini in partnership with Patricio Tapia, this is a Malbec made with stems in tinajas (clay amphorae) with no added sulfites. It’s amazingly fresh, vivid and sappy with blackberry and red cherry fruit. It’s just so natural, with lovely precision and a beautiful sappy quality. Just so thrilling and expressive. 94/100
De Martino Alto los Toros Syrah 2011 Elqui, Chile
From a vineyard at 2000 m altitude, this has 10% Petit Verdot in the blend. Lovely olive and pepper edge to the black fruits. So expressive. The palate is fresh, vivid and bright with nice blackfruits seasoned by pepper and spice. Lovely precision and spice here. 95/100
De Martino Viejas Tinajas Muscat 2012 Itara, Chile
This is dry farmed Muscat from a cool climate region, Itara, 18 km from the coast. No SO2 is added save for a little at bottling, and this wine spends 6 months on its skins in tinajas (clay amphorae). Wonderfully complex, lively and intense with citrus, pear, grape and mineral notes. Lovely texture and depth, with freshness and complexity, and just a little grip on the palate. 94/100
So this morning was a conference on lighter-style lower alcohol wines here in Santiago, for the Chilean wine industry. I was one of the speakers. This is a growing category that looks set to get quite big. Only today New Zealand Wine Growers announced a seven-year project researching lighter-style wines with NZ$17 million funding.
The bottom line is that while in the UK we have seen mostly 5.5% alcohol wines because of the favourable tax break at this level, the real future for the category is with wines at 8-9% alcohol. These actually taste of wine if they are made well, and can be premium products. The current crop of 5.5% wines are a bit of a sorry bunch, and they are filling in at the bottom end of the UK market as duty rises have pushed up the price of normal strength wine. Many of these wines are made with dilution and the addition of fruit juice. The more serious products at 9% alcohol are made with a mixture of vineyard work, early picking, and sophisticated alcohol reduction (spinning cone, reverse osmosis or Memstar).
For Chile, there’s no point in making 5.5% alcohol wines. If they are to enter the lighter wine category they should be looking at making more serious wines at 8 or 9% alcohol that taste and work just like higher strength wines.
After the conference, I went for a wander round in the sunshine, followed by a gym session. I’m back home tomorrow morning after a hideously brief trip, but it has been great to get back to Chile, however briefly. Tonight there’s a Chilean fine wine event at the Hyatt which promises to be interesting. Then it’s onto a plane early tomorrow.
So, I am in Santiago, Chile. I arrived here this afternoon, after a fairly gruelling flight on an old BA 777 (predictably, the Highlife entertainment system wasn’t working, so I couldn’t watch any films) and then a quick hop over the Andes with LAN Chile. I’m just here for a couple of days to take part in a conference, so I made the most of this afternoon, having a hot bath (I love baths), going for a walk in a park near my hotel, getting a little bit of sunshine, then going for a gym session at the hotel. Now I am feeling fresh and ready for an evening out.
Andi Schloss of Casa Marin kindly left a bottle of one of his wines in my room (he’s also taking part in the conference), so I thought it would be a great way to start the evening (I’d emptied out the minibar and chilled it down). And it has been. It’s a more serious expression of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.
Casa Marin Cipresses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 San Antonio Valley, Chile
13% alcohol. This is a rich, bold expression of Sauvignon, combining riper notes of pear and quince with minerals, fresh grapefruit and some green pepper characters. It’s textured and quite intense, showing good concentration. I love the way that it flirts with bigness, but gets away with it, flirts with greenness but gets away with it, and also manages to keep a keen edge of minerally acidity. A thought-provoking Sauvignon of real interest. 92/100