In Spain, at the Ecosostenible Wine conference

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I am in Vilafranca del Penedes in Spain, at the fourth Ecosostenible Wine conference, where I have been a participant.

It’s a technical conference examining organic wine production, sustainability and climate change. The discussions today were wide-ranging, covering aspects such as replacing copper in organic viticulture, life cycle assessments of the carbon footprint of wooden versus steel end posts, EU regulations (the boring frustrating bit – it takes 5-7 years for new regulations to be passed because 46 member states have to agree and lots of people make a living out of these sorts of extended discussions and committees), and new tractor engines the massively reduce carbon emissions.

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One thing was clear, though. The current regulations surrounding organic viticulture are too limited. Given the climate crisis we are facing, if you want to be sustainable and green in your wine production, the carbon footprint of wine production, and factors such as water use efficiency and waste water processing need to be included in any assessment. How can a winery boast about working organically when that very same work results in an increased carbon footprint? And is it acceptable for organics to allow copper fungicides when these accumulate in soils and reduce microbial diversity?

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We need a more clearly thought out, scientifically rational, holistic approach to ‘green’ wine production. Organics has a great name check value, so I think it would be fantastic if organics could embrace all aspects of sustainability, including carbon footprint, and revise the approach it has to dealing with fungicides. Allowing sulfur and copper products seems arbitrary and indefensible.Without any fungicides, wine production would not be possible.So there needs to be a compromise, and the existing compromise is unsatisfactory.

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On another topic, I’m staying at a remarkable hotel – Mas Tinell. It’s really luxurious and beautifully designed (it has only been open a short while). The hotel design is based on Cava bottles stacked up together, and each room represents one bottle. The window is spectacular, with its bubble design, looking out onto the vineyard. It’s winter, and raining, so the pictures I took don’t do it justice. The hotel’s website shows just how cool this place really is.

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Stepp Riesling 'S'

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This is a pretty serious Riesling. It’s made by Gerd Stepp, from a single vineyard, Kallstadter Saumage, with loess and loam rich soils with a high limestone content, in Germany’s Pfalz. The soils here have lots of tiny fossil shells, resulting in high calcium content. Apparently Saumagen translates as pig’s stomach. Gerd used to buy wines for Marks & Spencer, and now he consults more widely. He’s got this wine spot on.

Stepp Riesling ‘S’ Kallstadter Saumagen 2013 Pfalz, Germany
12.5% alcohol, 7.2 g/l sugar. Honey, citrus and melon npse. Lovely dry, mineral, fine palate with amazing texture. Pure and bright with lovely precision: a thrilling Riesling. 93/100 (£15 Marks & Spencer)

Wine critics and wine writers

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On Friday I wrote a piece for Tim Atkin’s website on the future of wine writing, considering the differing roles of critics and writers. In it, I suggested that if the future of wine writing is a move to wine criticism, where wines are assessed outside their context, then it’s not one I’ll welcome. My vision of hell is to spend my time in an office working my way through hundreds of samples. I’d rather be in the vineyards, finding stories and understanding the culture of a wine region. You can’t separate wine from place. You can consider it as just a liquid in a glass. And the idea that a professional critic can independently examine wine in a glass and deliver a definitive judgement on it is simply ludicrous.

There’s been a lot of response to this article, so I thought I’d attempt to clarify my stance here.

In reality, many of the critics are also writers, and some of them spend a good deal of time working the wine regions that they cover. Their core professional activity, however, is to generate ‘professional wine reviews’, as they like to call them (alternatively known as brief tasting notes with a score). The critic field has become overcrowded and competitive of late. This brings out poor behaviour in some, and also puts pressure on them to taste as many wines as possible. This usually means a lot of intense tasting sessions where over 120 wines must be tasted in a session. For an experienced taster, 120 wines isn’t a problem, as long as you are making broad distinctions (for example, awarding bronze, silver and gold medals, especially when you are tasting in teams). But for the precision that the 100 point scale implies, it’s very difficult to make nuanced judgements among wines when you are tasting a lot at a time.

The 100 point scale itself is a problem. It shouldn’t be, because it’s a good enough system. The problem is the compression at the higher end. The competition among critical voices has had an escalating effect on scores. The 85/100 of 20 years ago has become the 90/100 of today. You want to be the critic whose score is cited, so it’s very hard to resist the pressure to score highly. Australian critics have been the worst in this regard, where a solid commercial wine is frequently rewarded with a low-to-mid-90s score, leaving very little room for the decent stuff.

I can’t see this ending well for the critics. When Parker finally hangs up his pen and gets fed up of being trotted out at high ticket Wine Advocate events, there’s no one who has a chance of taking his place. The major publications operate now with teams of critics, and none of these look like being able to take his place as the superstar of wine rating. Couple this to the compressed point space at the high end (wine ratings are becoming increasingly predictable because there are only about five points left to play with), and it looks like the American-style critic model is close to collapse.

But there remains a need for criticism and rating of wines. People look to critics for guidance. Increasingly, though, I think consumers are realizing that wine is too complicated for any one critic to be an infallible guide. We look to critics whose palates and preferences we share to steer us to wines we will like. Despite protests to the contrary from some critics, it is impossible to set one’s own palate preferences (be they biological, aesthetic or stylistic) aside completely. So each critic will have something of them in their ratings, and smart consumers will choose their critic according to the usefulness of the advice to them.

My hope is that we’ll see a return to writing that places wine rating fully in context. Forget about trying to taste all the wines you can. Instead, tell me stories. Tell me about the wines that you love, and why you love them. Why does this wine move you? Why should I visit this region, and who should I check out when I arrive? Tell the stories of the people you meet, and the places you visit. It’s about them, after all, isn’t it?

Lunch with two great South African wines, and a good northern Rhône

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Had a lovely long lunch yesterday. It was at Bread Street Kitchen, part of the Gordon Ramsay empire, located next to St Paul’s Cathedral.

The dining room is huge. Really huge. Impressively huge. It’s beautifully finished in a faux vintage, semi-industrial style, but it’s really noisy. We could hardly hear the waitstaff as they talked to us.

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The food? It’s kind of a half way house between a good chain restaurant and a proper gastronomic destination. Some things worked (my seared tuna starter, and pheasant main), others were a bit contrived. You get the impression that this place is all about GPs and making money. It was full, and full of suits. Bread Street Kitchen knows its market, and serves them well.

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This isn’t meant to be as negative as it might sound, because we had a really nice experience. This was largely because of the wine list, which is creative and reasonably priced, and the excellent sommelier Gergely Barsi Szabó looked after us very well.

We drank three bottles, two from South Africa and one from the northern Rhône. They were all excellent.

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Boekenhoutskloof Semillon 2011 Franschhoek, South Africa
Lovely rich wine with pear, spice, white peach and vanilla notes. Lovely rich texture with some grapefruit and fennel characters. A powerful yet balanced white with real intensity and finesse. 94/100

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Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2013 Upper Hemel en Aarde, South Africa
This is a fabulous Pinot. Sweet, juicy and bright with pure, fresh red cherry fruit with plums and raspberry, as well as subtle herbal characters adding interest. Fresh and elegant with a fine texture. 95/100

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Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 30 2012 Northern Rhone, France
Lovely fresh raspberry and black cherry fruit. Juicy and bright with plums, berries and a bit of pepper. Fresh and tight with lovely precision, it’s so easy to drink now but may well put some weight on down the line. 93/100

Judging at the International Wine Challenge, 2015, Tranche 1

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For the last couple of days I have been at The Oval (one of London’s two major cricket grounds) judging in the International Wine Challenge. It’s the second year where the judging has been divided into two tranches. This is tranche 1 of 2015, and the second (and larger) tranche will be held in April over two weeks. The idea is that the competition catches both southern and northern hemisphere wines at the optimum time for judging. It also allows the competition to grow, without compromising the judging process.

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So for two days 14 tables, each led by a panel chair, have been sorting through the entries. This first stage involves deciding whether or not a wine is medal worthy. Anything kicked out is then retasted by one of the co-chairs who make sure no good wines have been unfairly eliminated. On Thursday we’ll be awarding medals to the surviving wines. Once again, co-chairs will check all the results, to ensure consistency. Any gold medal wines will he held for trophy judging at the end of tranche 2.

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I have had two fun days working with great panels, including an associate each day – the associates are there to learn, and it represents a really good educational opportunity. Also the panel leaves feedback on us panel chairs, and we leave feedback on our team’s performance. This helps ensure that the judging process is as good as possible. On Thursday I’ll be joining the co-chairs, helping them out, and that will be a tough – but fun – day too.

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The best bit about all this? Hanging out with wine trade colleagues, and making new connections. It’s such a lovely business to be involved with, full of lovely, interesting people. Long may this continue.

 

Comparing the same wine sealed with cork and screwcap

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The closure debate has moved on quite a bit since the days when it was practically pitched warfare between the screwcap advocates (mainly Australia and New Zealand) and those who liked the traditional solution of natural cork. Now there’s a sort of truce.

For commercial wines, few have a problem with screwcaps. They’re taint free, they are consistent, and they are remarkably convenient. I drink screwcapped wines all the time, and I don’t have a problem with them.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that wines sealed with different closures do taste subtly different, and that this difference is exaggerated with time in bottle. We know this from cork alone: even in untainted bottles, old cork-sealed wines from the same case show some variation, presumably reflecting the variation in oxygen transmission that occurs with different natural corks.

So are screwcaps ideal for sealing fine wines? And fine red wines? Aside from the issue of reduction, which is too big to tackle here, the question is, what do you prefer based on the taste? Almost all screwcapped wines from Australia and New Zealand are sealed with a tin/saran liner, and the metal layer means that they have very little oxygen transmission. So wines sealed this way taste different to wines sealed with natural cork.

So, the big question is, given the choice – and assuming your cork is a good one – which do you think tastes better?

I had the chance to try this out at Pegasus Bay winery in New Zealand’s Waipara, over dinner. I tasted two versions of  the 2003 Pinot Noir, blind, at 10 years of age:

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (screwcap)
Fine, fresh and cherryish. Sweet, lively and aromatic with supple cherry fruit and also a bit of richness. Slightly cola-ish lively tangy finish. Drinkable style, now fully evolved and at its peak. 92/100

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2003 Waipara, New Zealand (cork)
Sweet and with a lovely texture, showing nice aromatics. Rich, bold, fine and expressive with cherry and plum fruit and a hint of earth. Expressive and wonderfully textured, showing some evolution. 94/100

More recently, I was sent two samples (by accident) of the Penfolds Bin 28 2012, one sealed with a natural cork, one sealed with a screwcap. I spent a couple of nights comparing the wines (one argument is that screwcapped wines need time to open out). Both were nice wines, but the cork-sealed wine was nicer. It had more harmony on the palate, and less edginess. Texturally it was finer. Small details, perhaps: they were both recognizable as the same wine. But these small details are what you pay your money for with top quality wines. The difference in scores was just a point, so it wasn’t a huge deal. But I had a preference.

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What about a triangle test? I was with Vincent Cruège at Chateau La Louviere in September and he had two bottles of the 2006 white, one sealed with screwcap and one sealed with cork. So he gave me a triangle test blind. Two glasses were poured from one bottle and one was from the other. Could I tell the difference? I thought that wine 1 was the outlier, because it reminded me a bit of an Australian white wine. 2 and 3 were the same, and nicer. The difference in score? 4 points. A strong preference.

Screwcap: distinctive limey fruit. Maybe a bit reduced. Spicy and vivid with some toast. Angular and a bit disjointed. 89/100

Cork: lovely focused wine with some richness. Great balance with pear and grapefruit characters, and just a hint of fennel and toast. 93/100

So this has all got me thinking. I hate cork taint, and the variation that occurs with cork. But when you get a good one, I seem to prefer the taste of the wine compared with a wine sealed with a tin/saran lined screwcap. What price do you want to pay for consistency? For commercial wines, does it matter? For fine wines, I think it might.

Port Philip Estate Chardonnay 2012 Mornington Peninsular

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Now this is an impressive Australian Chardonnay, from Sandro Mosele at Port Philip Estate. It’s a single site wine, from a 1.64 hectare vineyard block, and it shows massive potential for future development (on day 2, this wine was significantly better than just after opening), which might make my current score look conservative. It’s wild ferment, with 16% new oak.

Port Philip Estate Chardonnay 2012 Red Hill, Mornington Peninsular, Australia
13.5% alcohol. Very lively nose with struck flint/matchstick notes alongside fresh lemon and some sweet pineapple notes on the nose. The palate is powerful, fresh and complex with lemon, toast, fig and mineral notes. Richer pear and white peach notes are hemmed in by the fresh citrus character. A taut. complex wine with a bright future. 94/100 (UK agent Carte Blanche)

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2010, another fine English sparkling wine

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I’m getting quite excited by the progress of English sparkling wine. Here’s another good one. Gusbourne Estate is one of the most highly reputed of the English producers, and they’ve got sizeable vineyard holdings: 40 hectares in Kent and 22 in West Sussex. Gusbourne was founded by Andrew Weeber in 2004, and first vintage was 2006. This 2010 is lovely: the style is one of approachability and relative richness.

Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2010 England
12% alcohol. Fresh, clean, pure with lovely citrus and pear fruit. Very refined with some subtle toastiness and a bit of white peach. Fine acidity with a fresh lemony edge. Sophisticated stuff. 91/100 (Stockist list here. This sample was from Oddbins)

A week as a wine writer

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Hush Heath

So what does a week as a wine writer consist of? It’s hard to say. Every week is different. There’s travel. Attending tastings. Writing articles to deadlines. Lunches. Dinners. It all depends.

This week? It began on Monday with a day clear to write, and then dinner with Ryan and Michael at The Remedy, which I have reported on in this week’s blog posts.

Tuesday was another clear day f0r writing (I have a few pressing deadlines, including a project writing a monograph on screwcaps, and a commission to write about new world sparkling wine). But I had to head into town late afternoon for a tasting with Tim French of Fortnum and Mason, He’s a super-talented wine buyer, and he has put together an epic list of own-label wines. Some real stunners.

On Wednesday I headed down to Hush Heath Estate, a serious producer of English sparkling wine based in Kent. It’s a lovely place and the wines are really good. Then, early evening, I met with Felipe Tosso of Vina Ventisquero to taste some of the new-wave Chilean wines they are making, including impressive bottles from Attacama, in the far north.

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On Thursday, I worked at home in the morning and then headed into town in the afternoon. I had a meeting with Katie and Dean of Nomacorc, which we held in the Tate Modern espresso bar, followed by a meeting with the fabulously smart and engaging Laura Catena to discuss the science project I am doing with them, after my visit to Argentina last week. Then early evening I took part in a Google hangout with Helena Nicklin, Robert McKintosh and Brancott winemaker Patrick Materman. It was my first Google hangout, and I liked it a lot, although bandwith issues crept in a bit.

Hambledon

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And today? I headed down to Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire, to check out what they are doing. I was really impressed by the vision of Ian Kellett, who is making some stunning wines and has the vision to propel English sparkling wine into the mainstream. A seriously impressive operation.

Ian Kellett

Ian Kellett

That’s my week.

Some nice wines from Sivervis, Swartland, South Africa

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I met up with Ryan Mostert (above right) and Michael Roets (above left) to drink wine. Ryan was until recently assistant winemaker at Reyneke, and with his partner Sam recently moved to the Swartland. There, he’s teamed up with Michael to work on a new project, Avant Garde Wines.

They’ve been scouting top vineyard sites, and will be making around 14 different wines each vintage, although no Avant Garde wines have yet been released. Ryan has been working on them since the 2014 vintage, which was made at Reyneke. They’ll be moving to another winery for the 2015, probably in the Perdeberg.

These wines are from Avant Garde, released under the label Silvervis, and they were made at Chris and Andrea Mullineux’s winery in the Swartland. Michael bought the Nomblot concrete egg that was auctioned off at the 2010 Swartland revolution, and also the one that was auctioned in 2011, so a good portion of these wines was egg fermented. They’re lovely wines. The NV Smiley is a steal at around 65 Rand, and the Silvervis pair are also a bargain, at R250.

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Smiley Chenin Blanc NV Swartland, South Africa
12.6% alcohol. 30% 2012 wine made in a concrete egg, 70% 2013 tank fermented. Sweet, rounded and full with fresh ripe apples and nice citrus bite, as well as some pear and peach richness. Lively and ripe with nice complexity. 91/100

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Silvervis Chenin Blanc 2012 Swartland, South Africa
12.9% alcohol, 85% concrete egg, 15% barrel. Sweet, ripe apple and pear fruit. Generous texture and lovely mouthfeel. Rich and bold but also has finesse. Bright with lovely balance and nice pear, peach and citrus fruit. 93/100

Silvervis Cinsault 2013 Swartland, South Africa
Very fresh and bright with supple raspberry and cherry fruit. Bright and expressive with focused cherry fruit. Fine, fresh and pure with some peppery notes. Amazing freshness and purity here. 93/100