On Thursday a very interesting tasting was held. It has already been written up by Tim Atkin and Christian Eedes, the two journalists who put it together. They were joined by a star studded list of 14 of South Africa’s leading winegrowers to answer the question: just how good is South African Syrah in a global context?
So, top South African Syrahs chosen by Mr Eedes were pitted against some star Syrahs from elsewhere, including some Northern Rhone heavyweights. The South Africans did pretty well, as you can see from the analysis of Eedes and Atkin. What does this result tell us? Here are my thoughts.
I’m a strong believer in South African Syrah, so I’m not surprised at the results. This is an exciting category.
But blind tastings like this – while extremely valuable in countering prejudices – aren’t the final word. This is because knowledge of a wine’s origin changes the actual perception of that wine at a pre-conscious level. When I drink a bottle of Chave Hermitage I’d rather do it sighted, because I’ll enjoy it more that way.
Look at the individual scores given by the tasters here. I would suspect that the blind scores of Eedes and Atkin would be, wine for wine, a point or two lower than if they’d seen the bottle and knew what the wine was. If they were both to publish a list of their scores blind, we could then compare them with their sighted, published scores, and see a difference. I have found this myself when I’ve tasted blind in large flights.
Why is this? When you know what a wine is, you are able to interpret your perceptions more accurately and confidently. The small differences,which in terms of fine wine are quite significant, are suddenly more evident. Knowledge of identity helps expert tasters to use their full degree of expertise in understanding a wine. It can also introduce biases, but I suspect that tasting blind removes too much of this expert ability in exchange for the removal of bias, for it to be the final word.
Also, most of the South African wines in this line-up were current releases, while those from elsewhere were a few years older. This adds noise into the comparison. It would have been interesting to compare like with like. It would also be interesting to serve the different tasters wines in a different order. The wines neighbouring a particular wine can influence the perception of that wine – these presentation order effects are real.
It’s also useful to think about how results of a tasting like this should be analysed. Adding all the points from the tasters for each wine and then dividing by the number of tasters isn’t the best way to do it. If you are going to use that approach, then at least normalize everyone’s scores first. Using a ranking system might lead to more representative results. And restricting the field to fewer wines might also make for cleaner results.
Credit to Atkin and Eedes, though, for getting such a good line up of wines and tasters together. And neither are claiming more than their results suggest – that South African Syrah is to be taken seriously, because there are now some world class examples.
It was great to try these three Swiss wines from the Valais, from Domaine des Muses. They’re stocked in the UK by The Wine Society and Alpine Wines (who carry a fuller range). Of course, given the strength of the Swiss Franc, they aren’t cheap, but they represent the sort of quality that Switzerland is capable of, yet is rarely exported. I visited Switzerland for wine purposes back in 2006, and it was an eye opener.
Domaine des Muses Petite Arvine Tradition 2013 Valais, Switzerland
Beautifully framed aromatics of pear, citrus and ripe melon. Fresh but broad on the palate with great concentration of pure citrus and pear fruit. Clean but intense with real prettiness and a lovely texture. Long finish. 93/100 (£30 The Wine Society)
Domaine Des Muses Humagne Rouge 2013 Valais, Switzerland
Supple and juicy with lovely pure, sweet cherry fruit, with a grainy mineral core and real elegance. Supple, fine and expressive with lovely purity of fruit. Quite thrilling. 95/100 (£33 The Wine Society)
Domaine des Muses Fendant Classique 2013 Valais, Switzerland
Lovely ripe sweetly fruited nose with melon and pear fruit. Very enticing. Lovely balanced palate with some nice textured pear fruit and some lovely softness. Amost feels a little salty and soapy. Some spice on the finish. 90/100 (£19 The Wine Society)
Today was the Tesco press tasting, held at the Hospital Club in Endell Street. I headed there, fresh back from Cape Town this morning, after stopping off at home to greet the dogs (every time I travel they must wonder whether I will be coming back) and have a quick bath.
Here are some wines that I liked, ranging from cheap to relatively expensive.
First of all, the Chanoine Freres Vintage Champagne 2009 (£29.99). This tasted like a baby Bollinger Grande Annee, with a fine toastiness and a distinctive lively appley personality, with evidence of a bit of oxidative base wine ageing.
Then, a really nice red for just £4.20. The Tesco Simply Bulgarian Merlot NV. This is juicy, sweet and textured with fresh juicy red fruits: cherries and raspberries. It’s really nice wine, and carries 6 g/litre of sugar very well. I felt bad for liking it, but it was pretty tasty and not spoofy.
I liked the rather angular, reductive Chateau de Fauzan Minervois 2013 (£8.99). This is proper wine with bright, vivid raspberry and black cherry fruit with a mineral-like quality and hints of tar.
Next, a couple of vintages of Sociando Mallet, 2009 and 2010. I rated both 92/100. The 2010 is perhaps a bit fresher, but the 2009 has a lovely savoury, leathery, spicy development, and both have lovely fruit. They’re each available for £150 for a six pack, which works out at £25 per bottle.
This is the same deal for the Kanonkop Pinotage 2011. This is a lovely sleek, supple, ageworthy Pinotage that is one of South Africa’s most celebrated red wines.
Finally, don’t judge a book by its cover or a wine by its label. The three Faustino Riojas – VII Tempranillo 2012 (£7.49), VI Crianza 2011 (£9.49), I Gran Reserva 2001 (£17.99) – are all quite delicious, well balanced, traditional Riojas that overdeliver at these price points. I rated them 87, 89 and 92. and the terrible packaging of the I GR is forgiven because it’s a really stylish wine that should carry on ageing nicely.
Had a nice dinner last night with three lovely Rhône wines. I just love the Rhône. It’s inconsistent but can be so lovely.
Domaine St Prefert Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc 2010 Southern Rhône, France
Broad with nuts and spice and fine stone fruits. Lovely texture and mouthfeel with some spiciness under the pear and peach fruit. Stylish and quite beautiful. 93/100
Les Viennes de Vienne Sotanum 2004 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, Rhône, France
This is an intriguing wine that just gained freshness and complexity throughout the evening. It’s warm, spicy and quite rich with spice and iodine notes, as well as tar and herbs, and lovely supple raspberry and black cherry fruit. There’s freshness here and after a couple of hours it sheds a slight rusticity to reveal supple, elegant fruit. 93/100
Stéphane Robert Domaine du Tunnel Cornas 2004 Northern Rhône, France
Silky smooth, ripe and elegant with smooth, pure black cherry and plum fruit. It’s like a new world Pinot Noir, with lovely subtle peppery notes and a fine, fresh character. Quite thrilling and seamless. 95/100
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For the last few days I have been in St James, Cape Town, judging wine for the Top 100 South African Wines competition. It’s the fifth year of the competition, and many of our small judging team of seven have been here since the beginning. So it’s a nice family feeling. We’re led by uncle Tim Atkin, and then Richard Kershaw and I are deputy chairs. Making up my team are Greg Sherwood and Duncan Savage, while Richard has Justin Knock and Lizette Tolken.
The judging process is pretty rigorous. It’s based around flights of wines divided by category. For example, on day 1 our team had 44 Cabernets in the morning, followed by 31 Chenin Blancs in the afternoon. We have two glasses of each wine: a freshly poured glass and a decanted glass. There’s a lot of discussion and retasting. Panels work like this: often one person will spot a wine that’s really good and the others miss it first time round.
Judging wine blind is complicated and requires skill and concentration. It’s not an exact science, but if you have the right setting, efficient logistics, and a robust protocol, coupled with experienced tasters, you are more likely to produce useful results.
As for the setting? It’s a lovely time to be in the Cape, and St James is a beautiful place. Kalk bay is just a short stroll along the sea front and has nice bars and restaurants, as well as a sort of hippie feel. There’s a nice path that runs up to Muizenberg that’s good for an early morning loosening run. I’ve stayed here six times in the last five years, and it feels a bit like home from home. I have one more day here: I’m off to lunch at Longridge, and then it’s on the late flight home. A chance to watch bad movies and nurture some more precious memories of a good time in a lovely setting, with great people for company.
Last night we had a lovely dinner at Terroir, hosted by Keith Prothero. This is the restaurant on the Kleine Zalze estate, and the food was very good. The wine and the company were better though. In attendance Gary and Kathy Jordan, Rianie Strydom, Nicolette Waterford, Greg Sherwood and Keith and I. As usual, notes on most of the wines follow.
Cotat La Grande Côte 2007 Sancerre, France
Fresh and lively with nice, youthful green grassy notes hovering gently over a powerful citrus and pear core. Textured, fine and mineral with lovely finesse and intensity. Big potential for further development. 94/100
Jacques Prieur Montrachet Grand Cru 2006 Burgundy, France
Always a treat to try something from Burgundy’s most famous white wine vineyard. This is bold and rich with spice, pear and quince as well as grainy, crystalline fruits. Quite powerful and rich in style with lots of interest, and delicious peachy intensity. 94/100
Domaine Michel Lafarge Volnay Clos des Chenes 1er Cru 1993 Burgundy, France
Fresh and vivid with spice, olives and black fruits. Spicy and dense with lovely bright raspberry and black cherry fruit. This still has a youthful feel to it even at 21 years of age, and my notes are quite consistent with those from tasting this last year. 94/100
Emmanuel Rouget Echezeaux Grand Cru 1996 Burgundy, France
This is a powerful, intense red Burgundy with lovely purity of fruit. Fresh, pure blackcurrant fruit dominates, and it is still so youthful, with a bit of grip. So pure and linear with a grainy, gravelly minerality. 95/100
Château Haut Brion 1988 Graves, Bordeaux, France
Fresh and really pure with bright blackcurrant fruit. Still so youthful and vibrant with a bit of grip and a linear, focused personality. A joy, and with time ahead of it. 95/100
Château Haut Brion 1995 Graves, Bordeaux, France
Youthful and tight, and a bit shy on the nose. Pure, quite elegant palate with black cherry and plum fruit. Dense, youthful and structured and in need of time, but lovely. 95/100
Château Margaux 1979 Margaux, Bordeaux, France
After a terrible time in the early 1970s, Margaux was back on form by the 1979 vintage, and this wine is holding on well. Spicy and earthy with some mushroom notes as well as blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. Has more fruit than you might expect, plus some spiciness. 92/100
Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 1970 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Sweet, rich, quite porty and bold with a spicy edge. This has cherries, warm spices and herbs, and tastes very much like a dry Port. Lovely richness here. 89/100
I’m in South Africa, judging the Top 100 competition. Last night we headed off to Klein Constantia, for a fine wine braai in the vineyards hosted by Hans Astrom (pictured below) and his team. It was a lovely evening with some great wines, including three old treats – one of which was the South Africa’s first decent Pinot Noir, made illegally in 1981 by Tim Hamilton Russell.
There was something very special about drinking great South African wine looking over where the first vineyards were planted in South Africa, back in 1685.
Hamilton Russell Grand Cru Noir 1981 Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, South Africa
This doesn’t have a vintage indicated, but it’s actually the first (illegal) vintage of Hamilton Russell’s Pinot Noir, and it’s remarkably vital and alive. Sweet, herby and spicy with berryish fruit and some brightness. Notes of herbs and iodine, with a mineral twist. Fresh, fine and detailed. This is drinking history. 92/100
Nederberg Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 Paarl, South Africa
There may well have been a good dollop of Cinsault in this: it was allowed at the time. This has aged beautifully, and it’s a remarkable wine. Sweet, richly textured and juicy with blackberry and cherry fruit. It’s a little Port-like with complex notes of tar and spice. Still quite pure and with lots of fruit, it’s quite lovely. 94/100
Klein Constantia Perdeblokke Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Constantia, South Africa
This is a richly textured Sauvignon with grapefruit freshness, sweet pears and some fennel. Lovely crystalline fruit quality here: bold and delicious. 91/100
Klein Constantia No 382 Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Constantia, South Africa
This was from a single block, made naturally with no added sulfur dioxide apart from a little before bottling – 25 mg/l total and 5 mg/litre free. Powerful, spicy and textured with grapefruit, apples and pears. Perfumed and intense with a lovely spiciness. There’s just a hint of funkiness here, but it adds complexity rather than distracting. 93/100
Klein Constantia Metis Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Constantia, South Africa
This is a collaboration with Pascal Jolivet: winemaker Matthew Day has spent vintage there and a winemaker from Jolivet has done vintage at Klein Constantia. It’s a wild ferment with dirty juice and no SO2 at crushing. Very taut and fresh with focused grapefruit and lemons, and subtle herbiness. Pure, focused and mineral. 92/100
KWV Crusted Port 1966 South Africa
This is great! Sweet, ripe and pure with lovely black fruits. Smooth and intense with liqueur-like fruit and real purity. Rich, direct and quite beautiful: it has aged fabulously. 93/100
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2011 Constantia, South Africa
Lively, intense and spicy with grape, white peach, grapefruit and raisin notes. Lovely detail here with a fine raisiny edge to the fruit. Shows precision and concentration, and in time this will be fabulous. 96/100
I visited Norman Hardie in Prince Edward County in 2013, and was blown away by the wines he’s making. So it was great to be able to taste his latest releases at The Wine Society’s HQ in Stevenage yesterday, courtesy of buyer Sarah Knowles. I also tried a couple of the 2012s that they are currently listing. These are really intriguing, elegant wines. He makes a pair of each Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, from both PEC and also Niagara. The different climates (Niagara is slightly warmer, and can be quite humid during the growing season) are evident in the wines.
Norman Hardie Niagara Chardonnay 2012 VQA Niagara Peninsula, Canada
Fine, taut lemon and toasty nose. Real tension here, with some lime and mineral characters, and lovely pure fruit, with very subtle toasty richness. This is remarkably fine and expressive with a hint of matchstick in the background. 94/100
Norman Hardy Niagara Chardonnay 2013 VQA Niagara Peninsula, Canada
There’s some richness and generosity here with pear and white peach fruit. Quite rich with some toast and spice and nice texture. Bold style but with some finesse. 93/100
Norman Hardy County Chardonnay 2013 VQA Prince Edward County. Canada
Matchstick and spice on the nose. The palate is fresh and mealy with nice density and lively citrussy notes. Real presence on the palate with keen acidity and a mineral core. Pear and citrus. 94/100
Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir 2012 VQA Prince Edward County. Canada
Beautifully pure and aromatic with fine raspberry, red cherry and redcurrantnose. The palate is juicy and fresh with nice fine spicy cherry fruit and bit of spicy warmth under the very fresh fruit. Subtle hints of meat and herbs, too. Very pure and fine. 94/100 (£23 The Wine Society)
Norman Hardy Niagara Pinot Noir 2013 VQA Niagara Peninsula, Canada
Sweet, juicy, nice bright focused berry and cherry fruit. Quite generous but with detail and precision. Subtle meatiness and nice tannins. 94/100
I headed down to Stevenage today for a tasting at The Wine Society. It was amazing: such good wines at really good prices. Here are a few wines that I’ll be buying. But there were just too many highlights for one post!
Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Gracher Domprost Riesling Spatlese 2001 Mosel, Germany
Lovely wine – rich and a bit toasty with lanolin and grapefruit, as well as ripe apple and melon fruit. Sweet, creamy, textured and more-ish. This is beautifully balanced and in a good place for current drinking. Long melony finish. 93/100 (£14.95 The Wine Society)
Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais L’Ancien Les Pierres Dorées 2013 Beaujolais, France
Beautifully fresh, aromatic cherry and raspberry fruit nose. Pure and focused on the palate with a stony, mineral core to the fresh raspberries. Just a beautiful, focused wine of real purity and with a bit of grip. A gem. 92/100 (£10.95 The Wine Society)
Delas Grignan Les Adhémar 2013 Rhone, France
A lovely grenache-syrah blend. Fresh, juicy berry and cherry fruit with a real silkiness to the ripe berries. This is a fabulous textured lighter-style red with a bit of pepper. Remarkable value, so utterly drinkable. 89/100 (£6.95 The Wine Society)
Cruz de Piedra Seleccion Especial Garnacha 2013 Calatayud, Spain
Ripe, sweet and so pure with lovely spicy berry and cherry fruit. It’s really lovely with a distinct spicy peppery note and generous but focused ripe fruit. Fabulous stuff for the price. 90/100 (£8.25 The Wine Society)
Domaine Gilles Robin Crozes Hermitage Papillon 2013 Northern Rhone, France
Fresh floral black cherry fruit with a bit of black pepper and some tapenade character. Has some silkiness under the ripe fruit. Very satisfying and direct, and totally typical. 92/100 (£11.95 The Wine Society)
As a Manchester City fan, it was a little uncomfortable watching last night’s game against Barcelona. The Catalans were much the better team, and had it not been for the heroics of Joe Hart, the City goalkeeper, the scoreline could have been a lot worse than the 1-0 it ended up as. Lionel Messi, one of a scary Barcelona front three, was just a genius. There’s perhaps only one other player in world football who is in his league.
Messi’s talent is something he was born with. If you could coach this talent, then because of the value of a player like this, there would be incredible resources directed towards producing new Messis. Certainly, good coaching is needed to produce the finished article, but without the raw talent in the first place – and at Messi’s level this is clearly incredibly rare – you won’t get there.
This raises an interesting question. Are some wine tasters simply better than others by means of raw talent? Do some wine critics have an innate gift that sets them apart from others? Or are those of us who taste wine and write about it all more or less in the same boat with regard to raw tasting ability? Is wine tasting about experience and intelligence in interpreting and applying the information we get from our palates? Could most people become effective wine critics given the right aptitude and experience, aside from any innate tasting gift?
I was prompted to ask these questions by a comment on a post I made on when critics disagree a few years ago. Neal Martin of The Wine Advocate commented: ‘The probability is that the most gifted taster in the world might have no interest, nor have ever have tasted a single wine.’ This suggests that Neal thinks that being a great wine taster relies on innate ability, in the sense that just as there may be an undiscovered Messi out there who has never tried playing football, there might be a supremely gifted taster who has never had a chance to taste wine.
But what would such a gift consist of? Are some people naturally endowed with incredible palates? The top critics seem to quite like this idea, because it makes them unchallengeable. ‘I have a gift,’ they might say. ‘To me, the ability to understand and rate a wine comes naturally. I was born with it.’ If they are cast as rare geniuses who can lead us to the ‘best’ wines, then their talent becomes highly marketable. It’s also pretty much unchallengable: which critic would subject themselves to the likes of the Australian Wine Research Institute’s AWAC, where palate abilities are measured and fed back to participants?
Let’s look a little at the individual differences in flavour perception.
There is, of course, the distinction between hypertasters (also known as supertasters) and non-tasters. This relates to the ability to taste specific bitter compounds, and it’s quite a controversial field. Some people are more sensitive to these bitter compounds (notably propylthiouracil, PROP), and it is said by some psychophysicists that these people live in an enhanced taste world where all taste sensations are more intense. It seems that the different PROP taster status groups have more or less foliate papillae on their tongues which would account for this observation, but the relationship isn’t totally clear. There’s a really good discussion of this in an article in Contemporary Aesthetics which looks at whether supertasters would make ideal critics.
Then we have the thermal taster status, a more recently discovered phenomenon where certain individuals have a phantom taste with a change in temperature on their tongues. This doesn’t correlate with PROP taster status. Interestingly, there seem to be a number of different individual differences in oral sensation across individuals that may be independent of PROP taster status, but these haven’t been well researched.
One thing that no one seems to talk about is salivary flow rates. These differ across individuals, and saliva has a key role in the mouthfeel of red wines and, in particular, in the sensation of astringency. People with low and high flow rate experience astringency more intensely than people with medium flow rate.
Then we have smell. In Patrick Süskind’s best selling novel Perfume, set in 18th century France, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into poverty but possesses a remarkable talent: he can smell better than anyone else. Much better. Grenouille finds his vocation, creating wonderful scents. But he knows he is missing a magic ingredient, and to find this he embarks on a grisly, murderous quest. It’s an interesting idea: are some people just so much better at smelling that others they inhabit a different world? For most of us the sense of smell is imprecise and somehow incomplete. It’s a sense that has the ability to communicate in a very direct and raw way with our emotions, but much of the time it is strangely muted. I know from walking my dog that there is a whole world of olfactory sensations out there, which, to us humans, is out of our reach. The idea that someone could inhabit that world is a really interesting one. Is there a wine tasting Grenouille?
It’s clear that we all have different sets of olfactory receptors, and this means that some people can hardly smell particular chemicals while others are very sensitive to them. A great example is rotundone. In general, though, unless your sense of smell is diminished by illness or old age (smell does fall off with age, much more so than taste), it doesn’t seem that overall there are massive differences among individuals across all odours. But there are certainly individual differences: for some brett is more of a problem than others, and some people aren’t good at spotting cork taint, even though they might be very good tasters.
The flavour of wine is, of course, a combination of taste, smell, vision, touch and hearing. But our learning, expectations and context all feed into our perceptions directly, outside our own conscious control. Because of this, I don’t think that being a talented wine critic is something innate. It may well be that those who are drawn to wine as a career are self-selected because they gain particular pleasure from flavour, but the large part of being a good critic is using intelligence and working hard to gain the right experience, and then being able to make the right calls about individual wines, and communicate this effectively. Having a good memory for taste and smells is probably also an important contributor.
It’s an interesting topic and there’s a lot more to be said about it. I haven’t even mentioned ‘liking’, and the way that we can grow to love flavours that we initially find repellent or distasteful, which shows that we can over-ride our biology. If we are going to discuss wine tasting practically and intelligently we need to consider all these issues.
There is, I suspect, no Messi of wine tasting.