So I’m off to Australia. Should be in the sky right now, somewhere between London and Singapore. Boarded the plane (BA0015), sat there for 2 hours, and then deplaned (is that really a verb?) because of a technical fault with the in flight entertainment system. Apparently, passengers will die if they don’t have access to Hollywood movies on a 12 hour flight.
So they told us to come back tomorrow, same time, same place. Yes: I lost a whole day of my trip because of technical issues with an in flight entertainment system! Initially, they wanted us to stay on the plane so they could feed us airline food before bussing us to hotels (I guess airline food is cheaper – it’s already on the plane and will be thrown away otherwise), but then they decided that because the flight would be moved fully 24 hours, that perhaps they should let those of us who wanted to get home, leave the plane.
When I eventually get there, I’m going to be taking part in Rootstock. No, it’s not a conference about rootstocks (which would be geeky and slightly boring for most). Instead, it’s a natural and authentic wine fair for consumers. The producer list is amazing. If you are anywhere near Sydney this weekend, you need to be there.
After that, I have a killer itinerary that takes me across a number of regions, visiting some of the most interesting producers. I am very excited by the prospect of making a lot of new discoveries. If I ever get there on BA0015. There’s even a news article on Wine Australia’s website about my visit!
Exton Park is based in the Meon Valley, in Hampshire’s South Downs. With its chalky soils, this area is rapidly becoming a hot spot for sparkling wine production, with Hambledon and Coates & Seely close by.
The first vineyards at Exton Park were planted in 2003. In 2009, just as a second planting phase had taken place, it was purchased by Malcolm Isaac. Malcom had recently sold his company, Vitacress, which sold watercress to supermarkets. For the first couple of years he sold the grapes to Coates & Seely, and then in 2011 he decided to expand the vineyard and make his own wines. So he hired Corinne Seely as winemaker, and built a new winery. These are the first releases, and they’re really good.
Exton Park only uses estate grapes, but with 55 acres under vine, they now have quite a few to play with. The quality of the pressing is a key aspect of sparkling wine quality, and Corinne uses a Bucher press fitted with the Inertys system, which is a sort of nitrogen lung that keeps oxygen away from the press.
Exton Park Blanc de Blancs 2011 Hampshire, England
11.5% alcohol. From the pure chalk soils at the top of the hill, this is the first vintage wine to be released from Exton Park. Fine, pure and fruity with real finesse. Hints of honey and subtle toast accompany the core of bright citrus fruit. Taut lemony palate with nice acidity and pure fruit flavours, with some quince and a hint of ginger. Distinctive and fine. 91/100
Exton Park Brut NV Hampshire, England
11.5% alcohol. 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Taut citrus fruit nose with some fine toasty notes. Linear, pure and bright with a subtle creamy texture. There’s purity and focus here. Bright and fresh, showing keen acidity. 90/100
Exton Park Blanc de Noirs NV Hampshire, England
11.5% alcohol. 85% older plantings, 15% younger vines. Fruity and aromatic on the nose with attractive citrus, cherry and ripe apple. The palate is lemony and precise with keen acidity. Such focus! Very youthful with high acidity. 91/100
Exton Park Rosé NV Hampshire, England
11.5% alcohol. Pale salmon pink. There’s a lovely green leafy, herby edge to the redcurrant and cherry fruit nose. The palate is appley with some red fruits and nice fresh, slightly sappy, herby hints. Very fruity with good acidity. Bright and laser sharp, but not harsh. 90/100
I was really taken by this. And especially by the label. It’s from Mike Roth, who was winemaker with Martian Ranch until 2014, and then launched his own label, Lo-Fi. I really like Mike’s mission statement, particularly about making wines that aren’t too expensive, so normal people can drink them. Some of the wines from the natural movement are lovely but are just really expensive, which kind of jars when they are made in a drinkable style. We want drinkable wines that we can actually afford to drink.
We believe in neutral barrels, native yeasts, little to no sulfur additions, and no adjustment of pH. We love whole cluster fermentation. We adore carbonic maceration . We embrace a nothing added, nothing taken away philosophy that gives birth to wines that are young, vibrant and alive. But in all reality Lo-Fi is less about what it is and more about what it is not. It is not over manipulated. It is not over extracted. It is not over ripe and it is not over priced.
There’s a lovely interview with Mike on Elaine Brown’s website here. This wine is a Cinsault from the Demetria Estate Vineyard in Santa Ynez. It’s at 1300 feet and is planted to Rhone varieties, all biodynamically farmed.
Lo-Fi Wines Cinsault 2014 Santa Barbara County, California
Cloudy. Vivid, bright and focused with nice spicy, grainy cherry and plum fruit, with a distinctive meaty, earthy, slightly natural edge. This is edgy and quite savoury and has a distinctive ‘natural’ personality. It’s amazingly drinkable and pleasurable wine, as long as you don’t want things super pure and fruit-driven – but this is not meant as a criticism at all, because I love drinking this sort of wine. 92/100 (UK agents Les Caves de Pyrene)
This is a lovely wine that I got to try this week courtesy of winemaker Youki Hirayama, who was over to judge at the International Wine Challenge. I reviewed one of his other wines a while back. This is a 100% Koshu, Japan’s indigenous variety that’s been grown in the Yamanashi region for some 1200 years. This is made by the Katsunuma Winery.
Adega d’Aruga Bosque 2014 Yamanashi, Japan
Attractive stony, mineral nose. Lovely texture here: mineral, focused and very pure with a hint of smokiness. A pretty, expressive wine with a saline minerality and lovely purity, and real precision. 92/100
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This is the first release from a new English sparkling wine producer, Black Dog Hill. This is a vineyard based in Ditchling, East Sussex, at the foot of the South Downs. Here, the three Champagne varieties are grown on chalky soils, and the 5 hectares of vines were planted in 2007.
This wine was disgorged in 2015 after 33 months on the lees, and it’s really nice.
Black Dog Hill Classic Cuvee 2011 Sussex, England
Bright and citrussy with lovely pear, white peach, bread and subtle toast notes. There’s a hint of ripe apple here, but the key driver is a lovely citrus core. Lively but quite elegant and balanced, with a bit of structure. A lovely wine. 91/100 (£28.95 SWIG)
Recently, I discussed the way that the internet has changed the landscape of wine writing. I considered the impact on wine writers of an enormous increase in the volume of published wine media. Against all this noise, I asked, how can a professional wine writer ensure that their voice is heard?
Now I’d like to address a pair of related questions: has the increase in volume of wine media resulted in increased choice for consumers of this media? And has quality suffered as quantity has risen? Are we drowning in a sea of mediocrity?
We have certainly seen a vast increase in accessible wine media over the last decade. In the past, though, almost all wine media used to pass through gatekeepers – editors. Now, a large portion is self-published, in the form of blog posts, content-based personal websites, social media, and even apps. I have no data on just how much wine media is self-published versus the amount that passes through editors, and I’m not sure you could compare the two even if you could develop a metric. Some professional writers are now taking a hybrid approach, with a slice of their output bypassing editors in the form of social media and self-published books.
Lovers of traditional print publications might suggest that despite the increased volume of accessible wine media, quality has actually gone down. They may have a point. Good editors do an important job in commissioning competent writers to produce valuable articles. Decent editorial budgets allow good writers to make a living out of writing. With print, you end up with more talented writers, who, given a decent fee, can do the necessary research and produce writing that is worth reading.
The internet has squeezed editorial budgets and reduced the range of print publications that can pay for content. Writers are paid less and have to write faster to make a living, as well as taking gigs that can compromise their independence. Editors have been leant on by their commercial departments and have to produce content that keeps potential advertisers happy.
While there’s a lot of free, self-published content on the internet, much of it is of poor quality. The twin gate-keeping jobs of editors – hiring people who can actually write and then editing their work to improve it – was an important quality filter, and without it, there’s a lot of unreliable, mediocre material being published.
But the counter view is that even before the internet put the squeeze on print publications, wine media weren’t exactly experiencing a golden age. Wine magazines were still full of advertising, the features were mostly boring and stereotyped, and editors weren’t doing a whole lot of editing. The roster of writers represented a bit of a closed shop, and some were pretty complacent. By lowering the barrier for entry, the internet has allowed new voices to emerge on the basis of merit. Also, social media has allowed everyone to join in the conversation, which is really exciting. Gone are the days of the expert dispensing wisdom to the reader with no further interaction.
I would love it if someone were to pay me to write one in-depth, illustrated, properly edited 8000 word article a month, funding my travel so I could be completely independent, allowing me the time to produce something exceptional (assuming, of course, that I am capable of exceptional work). In this way I’d love to be the wine writing equivalent of a low-yielding old vine. It would be incredibly satisfying. All I’d need is enough monthly income to cover my living costs. Imagine a publication filled with articles like this, in a magazine with high production values. Sadly, it’s not a business proposition in the current climate, and I don’t think there has ever been a wine magazine that has done this.
So, for now, I do what I do. I’m a high-yielding vine. I do the best I can within the existing constraints, and I try to make a living while adding something meaningful and lasting to the world of wine that I’m part of. This means embracing both print (with editorial gatekeepers), traditional book publishers (with commissioning editors), and the internet. I love what I do. I’d just like to be able to do it a bit better, I suppose.
So, today. Lunch at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. My first time. This is a remarkable restaurant housed in an old bike shed, and it’s only open weekday breakfast and lunchtimes. And it has no licence, so it’s BYO. But the food is amazing. Serious, and delicious.
Tucked away in a courtyard – part of an old school – there’s no sign telling you that you are actually here, in the right place. You press a buzzer on the gate and wander through, across the lawn, and there it is. Established a few years ago by Margot Henderson, wife of Fergus (of St John fame), this is an insiders’ sort of place. I had smoked eel with bacon and mash, and it was simple, perfectly cooked and utterly delicious. The potato & radicchio bake, and drumhead cabbage sides were also brilliant, and the quince crumble and jersey cream was worth getting fat for.
I brought two wines: corkage is just £5. The Norman Hardie Niagara Chardonnay 2013 was as delicious as I was expecting it to be, and then a rare bottle from Luis Pato. Far too young, but delicious anyway.
Luis Pato Pe Franco Valadas Vineyard 2011 Bairrada, Portugal
This is from a 0.4 hectare vineyard on chalky soils with ungrafted vines planted 8 years before this wine was made. Pato also has another ungrafted vineyard planted on sandy soils. This is a super-rare bottling, with only 23 magnums and 20 bottles made. Mine was number 16. Really, this was broached about a decade early, but how was I to know? It’s dense, rich and vivid but also has a nervous freshness to it, with a bright chalky quality to it, showing blackberries and cherries steeped in alcohol, with firm tannins masked by the fruit and good acidity. There’s maybe a touch of oak here, but it’s not troubling. Structured and youthful with real potential. 95/100
So the Swartland Revolution is no more. After six events, this remarkable wine festival has called it a day. It seems sad, but it’s a wise and brave decision. Everything has its time, and just as there is a time for beginnings, there is a time for endings. It takes courage to end something: it’s so much easier just to keep going, and only finish when you are forced to. But that’s rarely the best option.
I attended only once, back in 2011. It was superb, and everything was still fresh and vibrant. The Swartland really was where it was happening in South Africa at the time. Now though, there’s a vibrant wine scene drawing on vineyard sources throughout the Cape winelands. Many of the exciting young winemakers are now sourcing grapes from interesting vineyards across a range of regions.
So to carry on directing all this attention just to the Swartland seems a bit narrow. There’s still a lot of interesting stuff taking place in the region, for sure, but it’s no longer the epicentre of interesting South African wine that it once was. You can be young and hipster and source your grapes from Stellenbosch, now, and people will still talk to you.
Change. It can seem threatening and dangerous. Our natural tendency is to avoid it. But in wine as in life, you can’t stop time and preserve things just as they are. Time always progresses, and there are seasons and rhythms, and we have to adapt and progress. We can’t stand still, even if we’d quite like to stop the ride and get off for a bit.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the Swartland Revolution (and the associated producer’s association, the Swartland Independent), for the impact that they’ve had on South Africa’s fine wine dimension. They have provided a narrative theme around which lots of interesting, risk-taking, smart winegrowers have gathered. And the energy and creativity in the region has influenced others further afield.
Six years ago many of the Swartland guys were young. Now they’re older. So there remains the possibility that the real reason they pulled the plug on the revolution is that they can’t take those late nights anymore. As an international observer of what’s going on in the South African wine scene, I think they made a good call. There’s never been more great, interesting wine being made in South Africa, and what the Swartland guys have started has now really spread. I’m all for the contagion of interesting wine.
This wine is made by Giles Cooke and Fergal Tynan of Alliance Wine, in conjunction with Aussie winemaker Peter Leske. It’s a single vineyard, old vine Grenache from the Barossa, and it captures the more Pinot-like side of this variety, which I think is a good thing. Winemaking is small batch, with open fermenters, hand plunging, and ageing in large, mainly older oak. Giles says he’s looking for ‘vitality, energy, aromatics and texture,’ and I think he’s achieved that here. There’s also a Thistledown Vagabond Grenache from Blewitt Springs in the McLaren Vale, which is also really good. But my favourite is this Thorny Devil, with its floral aromatics and lovely texture.
Thistledown Thorny Devil Grenache 2014 Barossa, Australia
From the southern edge of the valley, this is highly aromatic with floral red cherry fruit and a lush, liqueur-like raspberry fruit quality. Supple and smooth in the mouth with bright fresh red cherry fruit. This is a bit Pinot-like, but has a grippy, spicy edge. Such a pretty expression of Grenache. 92/100
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I’ve admired Craig Hawkins’ Testalonga wines for a while now. They are just so brave. And delicious. [See here, here and here for reviews.] This is his Chenin that’s made without skin contact. It’s fully beautiful, and has no additions at any point: it’s a truly natural wine. Just 10.5% alcohol, too!
Testalonga ‘Cortez’ El Bandito 2014 Swartland, South Africa
Organically farmed vines from Tom Lubbe’s Observatory block in Bosgaasfontein; 42 year old vines. Pure, fresh and lemony with nice pithy notes. Direct and fine with nice ripe apple fruit, showing lovely purity. Linear with great acidity and a saline, mineral core. 94/100 (Slurp have it for £22.95, a few others have it for £25)
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