Off to South Africa again

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So this evening I am flying to South Africa again. Just for a few days this time. And I’m going while it’s winter there, which is bad planning. There’s nothing like a dose of summer dropped into February or March to raise the spirits. Fortunately, Cape Town winters are pretty much like bad English summers, so I’ll not suffer too much.

The reason for travelling is to judge a new Chenin Blanc competition. I’m really looking forward to it, because Chenin is such a versatile grape variety and always shows really strongly in the Top 100 South African wines competition that I take part in each March. Hopefully, this competition will focus more attention on this variety, which South Africa can proudly lead with, and potentially claim some sort of ownership over. After all, Loire Chenin, which can be great, rarely has the name of the variety on the label.
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This is where I’ll be staying again, for the second time. It won’t be as sunny, but it’s a stunning view from each of the rooms, which all have their own private pool!

Winning best overall wine blog in the Wine Blog Awards

It was nice to wake up yesterday to a facebook message from Katie Myers telling me I’d won the best overall wine blog category at the Wine Blog Awards in the USA. It was only this evening, when the results were officially posted on the website, that I really believed it was true.

It’s a lovely affirmation to win awards like this. Tomorrow, I’m doing the final stage of judging this year’s Roederer awards, meeting with the fellow judges to decide who gets to win that award. I think the right attitude to have towards awards is this:

You enter. If you are shortlisted, or win, it’s a great bonus. If you don’t get shortlisted, or get shortlisted and don’t win, nothing is lost. It just wasn’t your year. Maybe one of the judges had a personal grudge against you. Or maybe your work wasn’t great. Or maybe your work was great, but it got lost in the crowd. Or maybe the judges just aren’t smart enough to appreciate what you do.

The important thing is never to get bitter or grumpy about the miscarriage of justice that evidently led to you not winning. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t, but if you never enter you never win. It’s always worth the effort entering because of the buzz you get when it’s your time, and you do succeed. You just have to deal with the disappointment (I should know, having been shortlisted a gazillion times for the Roederers, but never having won it.)

So I’m massively grateful to all those who voted for my blog, for all those who read my blog, and I’m massively apologetic to all those out there with much better blogs, but who – for one reason or another – it wasn’t their year.

Kitten Swish Chardonnay 2012

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One of the highlights of judging the Canadian Wine Awards a couple of weeks ago was hanging out with the fellow judges. One of them was sommelier Brad Royale, who possesses the most amazing language for describing wine. If you were to read his notes you’d find them far fetched, but when you are tasting the same wine you really get some of the descriptors he uses. A talent.

Brad has his own micronegociant wine operation where he bottles small quantities of wines under the Kitten Swish label. He gave me this bottle to taste, and I was really impressed when I tasted it. It’s a Chardonnay from the Stuhlmuller Vineyard in California’s Alexander Valley.

Kitten Swish Chardonnay 2012 Alexander Valley, California
Very fresh with ripe, clean, pure pear and white peach fruit as well as some toasty hints on the nose. The palate is delicately phrased with ripe pear and white peach fruit and subtle pithy notes. Bright and fruit driven with nice texture and weight. Real finesse. 93/100

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A classy natural South African - JM Meyer's Ivory White

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I don’t know a great deal about this wine, other than it’s a naturally made my Johan Meyer, who makes the wines of Mount Abora and Meerhof. Johan is based in the Swartland but for his own wines he sources from vineyards further afield. 1000 bottles of this were made and the UK agent is Indigo Wines.

JM Meyer Wines Ivory White 2012 Coastal Region, South Africa
12.5% alcohol. Deep yellow colour. Powerful nose of spice, ripe apples and pears with a hint of honeyed richness. The palate has a tangy, spicy, citrussy core with lovely acidity supporting the complex pear and apple fruit. A really attractive wine. 93/100

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Talking of natural wine, I'm in love with Racines Blanc 2011 from Claude Courtois

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This is just lovely. It’s a natural wine (in that it is made with no additions at all in the winery, from organically grown grapes in a farm that’s practising a form of polyculture) from the Sologne region of the Loire, next to Cheverney.

You can read about Claude Courtois and his domaine Les Cailloux du Paradis on Bertrand Celce’s fabulous blog. I really like the way that Bertrand paints a picture of each of the growers he visits with his words and photographs.

What’s amazing is that this wine is now three years old, has had no added sulfur dioxide, and it’s as fresh, vital and mineral as a daisy (is a daisy vital and mineral? Maybe not. As fresh as a daisy, vital and mineral then). It defies scientific explanation, really. There’s lots we don’t understand about wine, but this wine is not oxidised.

I think it’s mainly based on Sauvignon Blanc, but that there are quite a few varieties included in the blend, some in very small amounts. Remarkable stuff, but probably not for the faint hearted because of the keen acidity and linear nature of the mineral flavours. It would be a spectacular restaurant wine.

Claude Courtois Les Cailloux du Paradis Racines Blanc NV Vin de France
This is from the 2011 vintage. 12% alcohol. Pale yellow colour. Lively, pure, linear nose of citrus and bright apple fruit with a hint of the seaside. The palate shows fresh citrus fruit and is firm and taut with some apple notes and an amazing transparency, revealing a core of minerals, fine herbs and sea salt. Really pure, salty and mineral, with keen acidity. But the amazing thing is the quality of the acidity: it’s rounded and pure without any sharpness, and integrates beautifully with the other flavours. Refreshing and drinkable, but also profound. 95/100

UK agent Les Caves de Pyrene.

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I love natural wine, but...

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I love natural wine, but I worry that the natural wine movement (whatever that is), is becoming a subculture that’s self-contained, self-referential, and living in its own bubble.

Let me try to explain. I like interesting wine. Wine with a story to tell; wine with a sense of place (whatever that is); wine that is articulate in its expression of flavour; and, above all, wine that tastes good.

I really don’t care how much sulfur dioxide a winegrower uses. I don’t mind whether she or he uses cultured yeasts. I don’t mind whether they filter their wine or not. I don’t mind whether they acidify or chaptalize – I understand that sometimes this can be necessary. I don’t mind whether they ferment their wine in stainless steel, new oak or concrete eggs.

But before you stop reading, I need to clarify that I don’t care about these factors in an ideological way. I do, however, care about them when they impact negatively on wine flavour. What I have found is that ‘natural’ winegrowers tend to make the sort of wines I love. I have such fun at events like the Real Wine Fair, or RAW, where there are just so many great wines on show.

My experience is that working with low sulfur, with wild yeasts, with alternative methods of elevage (large oak, concrete), choosing not to filter, and avoiding acid additions tends to make more interesting wine. But should someone choose to work more conventionally and still make interesting wines, then I haven’t got a problem with it.

I do like the idea of adding nothing to wine. But I’d rather drink a wine that has a sense of place with some additions used in the winemaking process, than one that has lost its sense of place through the development of microbial problems.

But let’s not get too simplistic. In my experience, even where nothing has been added to natural wines, the incidence of ‘wine faults’ is surprisingly low. It’s wrong to characterize natural wine as being full of faults. And I’d also argue that there’s a place for some natural wines that display what wine scientists would classify as ‘faults’, such as brett, volatile acidity and some oxidative characters. It all depends on the context. Some wines just work, even with quite high levels of fault characteristics.

One further point. This is the large overlap between natural wine and conventional wine at the high end. Most of the world’s truly great fine wines are made quite naturally. We don’t have a fixed definition of natural wine, of course, but if you take the definition as follows:

    Organic/biodynamic viticulture
    No added yeasts
    No added acidity
    No sulfur dioxide additions, except a bit at bottling if needed
    No filtration

Then lots of fine wines that aren’t considered ‘natural’ would fit this definition. It’s for this reason that I think it’s important that the natural wine movement doesn’t disappear into an essentially private subculture, but stays connected with the rest of the wine world. Natural wine has already had quite an impact on winegrowers who wouldn’t count themselves as ‘natural’. It has encouraged people to work in more natural ways. It has probably helped, also, to shift attention away from the winery and the cult of the winemaker. So it’s important that natural wine stays part of the broader wine scene, in my view.
Natural wine should be inclusive and welcoming. It shouldn’t behave like a bad religion or a cult.

The diversity of wine

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Wine is unusual among drinks on many levels. And one of the most remarkable things about wine is its diversity.

It’s a function of the fact that wine quality is dependent on grape quality, which is largely determined by the physical characteristics of the vineyard site. There are gazillions of these, and there are 1400 different commercial grape varieties, to boot.

Take two vineyards a few hundred metres apart, in a region such as Burgundy, and you’ll find that one makes 10 Euro wine while the other makes 100 Euro wine. This sort of complexity leads to a mind-blowing array of options once wine reaches the marketplace.

There are some 40 000 different labels on sale in the UK (this is an estimate). And quality varies massively. For professionals, this diversity is almost impossible to keep track of. Factor in the added complexity of vintage, and it’s quickly apparent that for normal people, wine is a fabulously confusing sector, with most purchasing decisions made blind.

Can we help punters by ironing out some of this diveristy? This would seem to be a noble goal. The problem is, would attempts to iron out diversity impact negatively on wine quality?

I think that, for all its frustrations, the diversity of wine is one of its strengths. I know there’s so much about wine that I’ll never understand or know, but this is a cause of hope and happiness, rather than frustration. We’re digging a rich seam, and there are plenty of surprises on the way. Why should everything in life be easy and immediately accessible? Isn’t it good to have something complicated, multidimensional and profound for us to sink our teeth into?

Of course, we want to encourage people to fall in love with wine. But wine’s lack of accessibility never stopped you or I from falling in love with it. So why should diversity be such a problem now?

Two 1996 Bordeaux wines: right and left

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Had a splendid afternoon with extended family today. Brother-in-law Beavington was kind enough to open two clarets (three bottles, we got through two of the VCC) from the 1996 vintage. It’s a vintage that is in a good place at the moment, it seems. Also, it reinforces the fact that you have to treat each wine on its merits, without filtering perceptions through knowledge of the vintage and producer.

Vieux Château Certan 1996 Pomerol, Bordeaux, France
Very aromatic and quite developed with cherries, herbs, sweet berries and some spice and undergrowth notes. The palate shows supple fruit with fine-grained chalky structure. Stylish, elegant and balanced with real finesse. Drinking perfectly now, with no need to hold any longer. Right bank isn’t supposed to be great in this vintage, but this wine is in a good place now, and is delicious. 95/100
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Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 1996 St Julien, Bordeaux, France
Grainy, chunky and spicy with lovely black cherry fruit and spice, as well as a savoury earthiness. Showing nice evolution and drinking well now, with good focus and structure. 93/100

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Terra Lemnia, a lovely pair of Greek wines from Limnos

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Terra Limnia is a new producer making impressive wines from local varieties grown on the island of Limnos. They’re made by Vicky Samaras (ex-pat Greek) and Jonas Newman of Hinterland in Canada’s Prince Edward County, in collaboration with a Greek partner (Nikos Vakirtzis).

The white is made from Muscat of Alexandria, which is a traditional variety here and produces really interesting wines. The red is made from the ancient Limnio variety, from volcanic soils on the east of the island. They both have a lot of personality.

Terra Lemnia Muscat 2012 Limnos, Greece
12.5% alcohol. First vintage. Very pretty, but with some substance: notes of citrus, grapes, fennel and some subtle pine and mint. Very pure but with an attractive texture. A really sophisticated dry Muscat with great food compatibility, and notes of minerals, herbs and scented Mediterranean evenings. 91/100

Terra Lemnia Limnio 2011 Limnos Greece
12.5% alcohol. Cherry red in colour with a slightly bricking rim. Nose of spice, herbs, earth and a hint of mint and pine as well as red cherry fruit. The palate is fresh, light and savoury with some grip. Good acidity and spicy cherry and plum fruit. A food-friendly style with grippy tannins – it reminds me a bit of Nebbiolo, in that there’s fruit but also grippy tannic structure and good acidity. 89/100

No UK agent yet.

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Domaine Saparale 'Le Saparale' 2012, a lovely Corsican red

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I’ve had a few really impressive Corsican reds of late. This is a lovely wine, a blend of 80% Sciacarello and 20% Nieulluccio, which spends 6 months in oak.

Domaine Saparale ‘Le Saparale’ 2012 Corse Sartene, Corsica
14.5% alcohol. Beguiling with hints of cherries, herbs and spice, as well as almonds, tea leaves and cedar. This leads to a textured, ripe, finely grained palate with supple cherry and plum fruit and a very fine structure. Warm, balanced, harmonious and quite beautiful. 93/100 (£14.95 Yapp)