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.
Super-impressed by these two sparkling wines from the ‘new world’ – specifically South Africa and Australia. They’re both available from UK retailer Marks & Spencer (I strongly suspect that the Rhona is the re-badged Blanc de Blancs from Graham Back; M&S like to have exclusive labels).
[A side note on scoring. I hate the 100 point scale, but I use it to give you, dear reader, an idea of how much I liked the wine. Nothing scientific: just putting my view out, for better or worse. And I use the 100 point scale because it is the most widely used and easiest understood. And it is a universal scale. So for these wines, if I give one 93/100 and give a Champagne 93/100, I'm saying that I believe these to be qualitative peers. I hate the idea of scores relative to peer groups, because in this case it would patronize the non-Champagne sparklers and confuse readers/buyers.]
Josef Chromy NV Tasmania, Australia
12% alcohol. A blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Quite pale in colour. Lovely aromatic nose of pear and peach with some subtle toastiness. Textured, broad palate of pear and ripe apple with a nice creaminess. Very stylish: it has richness but also finesse. World class fizz. 92/100 (£20 Marks & Spencer)
Graham Beck The Rhona Methode Cap Classique Blanc de Blancs 2009 South Africa
12% alcohol, disgorged August 2014.Very fine toasty nose with lovely white peach, melon and biscuit aromas. The palate is powerful with a hint of bacon savouriness, some toast, and ripe peaches. Deliciously expressive and decadent, this is lovely stuff. Drink now. 93/100 (£11 Marks & Spencer a stunning bargain!)
In an interesting development, Vinventions, the parent company that purchased the leading synthetic wine closure company Nomacorc earlier this year, has acquired Rudolf Ohlinger, a screwcap and natural cork manufacturer/distributor. This marks the beginning of the diversification of Vinventions, away from being a single closure-type company – and this is a significant step.
Nomacorc has been one of the most forward thinking wine closure companies over the last few years. Their current products are miles away from the plastic corks of old, and they have continued to innovate cleverly. In reaction to the criticism of the green credentials of plastic, they brought out the Bio, of which a large proportion is made from plant-derived polymers. They have also championed the idea of using closures with specific tailored oxygen transmission levels to suit different wine styles – the Select Series. And Nomacorc have been very successful, with sales of 2 billion closures a year.
However, there are long-term threats associated with a single closure strategy like this. In particular, Nomacorc’s biggest competitor is the screwcap. Once a bottling line has switched to screwcap, it’s very unlikely to switch back to in-neck closures such as natural or synthetic cork. And screwcaps are cheap, and now come with a range of new liners with targeted oxygen transmission levels. The other threat is that Nomacorc’s success has been quite market- and segment-dependent. It is unlikely that anyone in Australia or New Zealand (where screwcaps have the vast majority of the market), or Burgundy or Bordeaux (where natural cork rules, at least at the mid to high end) is going to start switching to synthetics, no matter how good they are. And almost all fine wine is natural cork sealed.
In January this year, Bespoke Capital Partners and the founder and chairman of Nomacorc, Marc Noël, bought Nomacorc from Summit Partners, taking full ownership of the company. This consortium then became Vinventions, and until recently Vinventions was effectively Nomacorc.
But last week, Vinventions announced that they had purchased Rudolf Ohlinger. This company is the main distributor of wine closures in Germany, and has just launched in Italy. But more than this, it is also a manufacturer of screwcaps (Weincap) and natural cork (Ohlinger recently bought Juvenal, a cork manufacturing company in South Africa) – and is the exclusive distributor of VinoLok (which since 2011 has been owned by and manufactured by glass company Preciosa).
‘Yes, we are indeed diversifying,’ says Dr Heino Freudenberg of Vinventions. ‘Vinventions will become the most innovative and trusted supplier of complete wine closures solutions to the still and sparkling wine industry. This will include not only the world-renown synthetic closures of Nomacorc, but also high-end natural corks, screwcaps and glass closures – supported by holistic service packages.’
The significance is that this once single-closure company has recognized that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for sealing wine bottles, and -depending on the wine style and the market demands – different closures may be appropriate for different wines. It’s a very smart strategy that puts Nomacorc (or its parent company to be more accurate), in a strong position for the future. ‘Customers prefer to buy all closures from one trusted hand, who can support the choice which closure to choose in detail for which wine as well as the implementation at the bottling line,’ says Freudenberg.
Just a few days ago I expressed my dissatisfaction with tasting notes, and their inability to capture the essence of the experience we have as we taste wine. So now I want to try to do better. I’m not sure I can, but I will attempt to express my experience in real time as I drink a wine.
I’ll begin with context. It’s 23:14 on July 23, and I have recently returned from a game of football, taken off my shinpads and socks, chilled a bottle down (rapidly, in the freezer), and now I am drinking it in the name of post-football rehydration. The house is beginning to quieten down. The dogs are asleep. My older son has his 19th birthday tomorrow and has two friends staying over, but they are in bed already as they have an early start in the morning.
The wine? It’s the Maximin Grünhäuser Abtsberg Kabinett Riesling 2011 from the Mosel. It’s the third bottle of a sixpack I bought en primeur a couple of years ago, and it wasn’t expensive.
Now we bring something to the wine drinking experience. Expectations, context and experience will all shape our perception. I admit that I am primed to like this wine. In part it is because I bought a six pack, so I’ve invested in it a bit. But it is also because it is a wine I have loved in previous vintages.
Indeed, a bit of research reveals that I have previously written an extended tasting note on this wine, from a trip to Japan back in 2003 (when I still had aproper job, as a science editor: we were holding a conference there). I also found my blog post from this visit (it’s here, you’ll need to scroll down to the September 28th entry). It was the evening I spent with this wine in Tsukuba that created a memory I carry with me, and which partly explains my ongoing affection for the Grunhaus Abs Kab, which is supplementary to the fact that it’s a really good wine. It was unexpected, and I found a beauty in the wine when I experienced it in this context.
So, I’m drinking the wine tonight. How do I find it? It’s quite beautiful, delicious, transparent and weightless. It is harmonious and fine.
It’s like the quality of the light on an autumn morning, where the fog is just clearing. A crisp morning with the promise of sunshine to come. There’s a brightness to this wine, but also some honeyed richness that speaks of later summer or autumn, rather than the spring that the citrus suggests.
At 9% alcohol, there’s a brightness and lightness to its body, and it is easy to drink.
Descriptors? If we were to do sensory analysis, then we would sit round a table and agree on which descriptors could apply to this wine, and we’d then analyse it, scoring it on various parameters. So I’m getting citrus, honey, melon, pear, toast, grape and dried herbs, with a big emphasis on the citrus and honey. In the mouth, it’s off-dry and nicely textured, with the sweetness giving some rounded characters. There’s a bit of spice on the finish, although ‘spice’ as a descriptor is notoriously imprecise.
There’s nice precision to the flavours. That is, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end to this wine. It can be separated out, in terms of its flavour, on a temporal dimension. It begins with the rich, sweet, citrussy aromas, there’s then a linear citrus kick in the mouth, and then it fills out in the middle with the sweetness and rounded richer fruit flavours. Finally, it finishes with a bit of pithy spicy detail that frames the sweet fruit very nicely.
When you drink wine, there’s an extra dimension to the experience that we often forget about. Wine contains alcohol, and as we drink we are changed by what we drink. There’s a real interaction here. We drink wine and it becomes part of us. It alters our thinking; it changes our perspective. Is wine really a virtuous intoxicant, as some have claimed? I think it may be. It’s interesting, because the taste of wine is based on an interaction between us and the wine, so if we are changed by the wine, then the wine’s taste will change as we drink it – often in subtle ways, but sometimes in more noticeable ways.
Another way to describe this wine: by comparison. So you have had a few Mosel Kabinetts? This is on the lighter side, in that it is a proper Kabinett and not a declassified Auslese. It is quite sweet, for sure, but it has freshness and a lightness of body. There’s purity here, with a focus on clean, ripe fruit. The acidity is appropriate. It is a well balanced, typical, high quality Kabinett.
It’s drinking very well now. It has developed a bit of weight and richness, but not too much, If you have some, you don’t need to drink it now, but it is the ideal time to start opening and drinking this wine. It will pick up weight and complexity over the next few years, but I will open my remaining bottles over the next 12 months because I think it is currently in a happy place.
The bottle is now finished. Mosel Riesling, with its lower alcohol, is just so drinkable. I’m not sure that I have managed to capture it all that well in my real-time tasting note, but I have tried.
This is a lovely wine. It’s a varietal Mencia from Galicia, from the Valdeorras appellation, which is quite a bit inland on the river Sil. Some background on the wine from importer Ben Llewelyn of Carte Blanche:
Biobra is a Mencia from a tiny vineyard in the eastern end of Valdeorras produced by the excellent Gallegos-speaking Manuel Campo do Gacio. I found this purely by accident whilst driving about Galicia and tasting it in one of only three restaurants he sells too (and who take most of his commercially sold stock). I visited his place up a track, round a bend and past some barking dogs with a few mates and was touched by his honesty and integrity. This is the only biodynamic wine I know of in Valdeorras, and to his knowledge he is one of the only ones in the region as it is hard to have these principles in Galicia. Work is by horse and brute determination on gently sloping clay and limestone soils. All stainless steel and bottled 12 months after ferment.
Barcelos de Biobra 2014 Valdeorras, Spain
13% alcohol. Naturally made from biodynamically grown grapes with no added sulfur dioxide. Vivid purple/black colour. Lovely sweet, pure, floral black cherry fruit. Lovely texture here with nice grippy but fine-grained tannins. Tastes just a little natural (in a good way), with lovely purity of fruit. So utterly drinkable and beautiful. A great expression of Mencia, a lovely grape variety. 93/100 (UK agent Carte Blanche)
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I was intrigued by this new wine. It’s a non-vintage Champagne from Lallier, but it’s particularly honest about its component parts. Francis Tribaut, the owner/winemaker at Lallier has decided to label it R.012, indicating that it’s mostly from the 2012 vintage. But by using reserve wines – in this case 19% of the blend is from 2008, 2004 and 2002 – he’s creating a wine which captures the character of the vintage, but with the benefit of older wines to achieve greater complexity, or to make up for something missing in this particular vintage. It’s a blend of 62% Pinot Noir and 38% Chardonnay, with 85% of the blend coming from Grand Crus.
Champagne Lallier R.012 NV
12.5% alcohol. This house is based in Aÿ, and the blend is 62% Pinot Noir, 38% Chardonnay. 81% of the wine is from the 2012 vintage. Very fruity with a citrus and apple nose, showing a bit of toastiness and some sweetness to the fruit. Very appealing: this is quite a rich style that’s creamy, bold and spicy. Easy to enjoy. 90/100
UK agent: Boutinot
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