Two Kiwi Chardonnays: Elephant Hill and Corofin

New Zealand is famous for Sauvignon, famous for Pinot Noir, but not yet famous enough for Chardonnay. Well, at least that’s what I think. It’s a grape variety capable of greatness in some parts of the country, and – more specifically, some parts of some parts of the country. This week I’ve tried two good ones, from very different places. The first is from Te Awanga in Hawke’s Bay, a cool coastal subregion that makes some smart Chardonnay. This was a sample.

Elephant Hill Chardonnay 2016 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. From Te Awanga, which seems to be suited to Chardonnay, this is taut, lean and quite mineral with some reductive hints and good concentration to the citrus and pear fruit. Still quite backward with keen acidity, this has a bright future ahead of it. Stony and taut on the finish. 94/100 (£19.95 Corney & Barrow)

The second is from Marlborough. It’s one of the wines from the impressive micronegociant operation Corofin, who I’ve reported on before. I bought this wine at the New Zealand Cellar in Pop Brixton, although I can’t find it on their website.

Corofin Chardonnay Carter Ashmore Vineyard North Corner 2015 Marlborough, New Zealand
14% alcohol. Tight and lemony with very fine toasty, spicy notes alongside citrus and pineapple fruit. Linear with some lovely restraint, but under the surface there’s power here, and – I suspect – longevity. Has a real energy to it. 94/100

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Privileged access

Last week I was in Bordeaux with a small group, and as well as tasting through most of the top 2017s, we visited a couple of prestigious Châteaux, and got a very brief look at the 2018 vintage. It was a lovely experience, and we really felt like we were being granted privileged access.

This week is primeur week, and increasingly the leading Châteaux aren’t taking part in the main tastings. Instead, they expect people to come to them to taste. It used to be just the first growths who did this, but now there’s a whole slew of Châteaux with big ambitions who see themselves as part of the elite group. The invited guests will get special treatment, and given that the top places will be seeing around 1500 visitors over the week, each Château will get through around two barrels of the Grand Vin.

All this hosting is a considerable expense, but to the Châteaux it is worth it. The point is that by granting top trade and press privileged access, it changes the social dynamic of the interaction. I’ve been inside a few Bordeaux Châteaux over the last few years, and pretty much all of the top places have renovated their cellars since they started making serious money a couple of decades ago. They are spotless, with state of the art equipment, and the barrel cellars resemble cathedrals more than working wineries. These are places of worship.

For aspirational Bordeaux Châteaux, where external money has flowed in and they are now trying to climb the social ranking, the expensive renovation and hyper-functional winery is an important display: it says ‘we are now part of the club, and you must take our wines seriously – things have changed.’

It is very hard as a visiting journalist or trade buyer not to be at least subliminally influenced by the grandeur of the top properties, and to feel grateful for the chance – at least for a short while – to feel part of this world. It takes a strong conscious effort to evaluate the wines fairly.

It’s not just in Bordeaux that privileged access is used as a tool to try to influence the gatekeepers and opinion leaders. The wine calendar is full of single-producer new release tastings. All the top Grand Marque Champagne houses expect you to come to their event to taste. Often they will tempt you with access to the chef du cave (this can be useful for interviews), a vertical tasting (this is always handy) or, at worst, a fancy lunch or dinner. In the new world, top producers such as Penfolds do a new release tasting on their own, rather than participate in larger events.

This privileged access is nice if you get it, but the problem with it is the unspoken threat: it can be rescinded. You are meant to feel lucky. You are in the club. What happens if you break club rules? You are out of the club.

It is a brave person who scores a first growth in the low 90s, or suggests that the wines are too polished, or picks the wine too late. Only a foolhardy Australian journalist would score Grange lower than 97 points, or for an international journalist, lower than 95.

What do consumers think? I suspect they are tired of the lack of transparency, and the endless positive reviews for the established leaders in each field. I applaud those critic publications who refuse to rate in situ and insist on tasting blind, but then true impartiality is only of use if the critics are good at what they do and have good taste. Not all tick these boxes.

For me, most of my work is with less exalted producers. The privileged access there is the ability to visit them, talk and walk their vineyards, and taste together. Most of these people value honestly held opinions, though. They are happy when they get good ratings, but they tend to value transparency and honesty, and writers who make an attempt to understand what they are up to. This is a much happier place to be.

Ayunta: lovely wines from Etna, Sicily

Etna, in Sicily, is a special place for wine. And Ayunta is an exciting project in the region. I caught up with the man behind Ayunto, Filippo Mansion, to find out more.

Filippo hails from Sicily, although not from Etna, where he’s now a winegrower. He began Ayunta from scratch in 2011 and his first vintage was in 2012. He was already involved in wine, but in the other side of the business, as a sales person. He’d also experience working in publishing.

‘One day, I felt I wanted my own project,’ he said. ‘From a wine point of view, Etna was an obsession,’ he says. ‘From a taste profile of the wines you can make there, it is so interesting.’

One day, he found some old vineyards on the northern slopes of Mount Etna, in a contrada called Calderara Sottana. He took the plunge, and in the debut vintage made 1200 bottles. ‘After a couple of vintages I understood how to harvest the white and red grapes separately,’ he says. ‘All these vines are from small parcels close to each other. It’s a special spot: we have vines going up to 200 years old. Most are own rooted, and some are grafted.’ These are planted as field blends with whites and reds together.

Overall, there are four vineyard parcels, and production is 15 000 bottles annually.

For whites, Carricante is the main grape, but there’s also Cataratto and other native grapes such as Zibibbo (Muscat). Altitude is 700 m. ‘The old vineyards get to ripeness and don’t lose acidity.’

‘I’m obsessed with just using perfect grapes,’ says Filippo. He just adds a bit of sulfur after fermentation and then at bottling, so these wines are pretty natural.

For the reds, the varieties include Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio, Nocer and Alicante Bouschet. Harvest is at the end of October. ‘You need to be brave at harvest,’ says Filippo, ‘because at the end of October the weather can change.’ He likes to get good ripeness of the stems, skins and seeds. ‘The grapes aren’t there to make wines, they are there to make seeds to replicate. We force grapes to make wine. The berry is just the rest of the pip.’

The grapes are crushed, ferment spontaneously in open cement vats, and are then pressed as soon as fermentation finishes. No whole bunches are used. Then they are aged for a year in big barrels of 2500 litre (chestnut) and 3000 litres (oak). The results are profound.

UK agent is Red Squirrel.

Ayunta Piante Sparse 2016 Etna Bianco, Italy
Carricante (70%), Cataratto (20%), Inzolia, Zibibbo, Minella Bianca. Piante Sparse translates as stray vines and this wine is made from white grapes co-planted with reds. Filippo waits for veraison then picks the whites. They are crushed, have one night skin contact, and then are fermented and age on lees for a year. Ripe, nutty, intense and waxy with nice depth and richness. Shows almond, tangerine and herbs with lovely weight. Good concentration and focus. 94/100

Ayunta Pinte Sparse 2014 Etna Bianco, Italy
First vintage. This is detailed and salty with nice complexity and some structure. Lively, showing tangerine, citrus and some peach with a nice linear core. Has a savory edge and notes of sage and herbs, with a bitter sweet finish. Very fine. 94/100

Ayunta Navigable 2016 Etna Rosso, Italy
Navigable is the old name for the premium wines from the area: those that were shipped. This is very fine and expressive with nice tannic structure. Compact raspberry and cherry fruit with good grip and nice tannins. Medium bodied and structured, tending to elegance. Grippy finish. 93/100

Ayunta Navigable 2013 Etna Rosso, Italy
This is fine: structured and pure but with lovely sweet red cherries and raspberries. Such finesse. There’s a lovely stoniness to the palate with some floral, elegant, liqueur-like fruit and waxy notes on the finish. So textural. 95/100

Ayunta Caldera Sottana 2015 Etna Rosso, Italy
Hand-picked selection from all four vineyards. This has lovely concentration. It’s fine and expressive with raspberry and cherry fruit and some liqueur-like notes. There’s a lovely gravelly core with a stony edge. Supple and bright with some herbs and subtle ash notes, and some Campari character. Grainy and very serious. 95/100

Ayunta Parossismo 2012 Etna Rosso, Italy
This was the first wine, 1248 bottles made. Dense and grippy with a hint of mushroom, as well as wax and leather notes. Some herbs. Savoury and detailed with lovely focus to the red fruits, and nice grip. Showing a bit of maturity, and quite lovely. 94/100

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Selection des Vignerons 2015 Moulin-à-Vent, Beaujolais

Really impressed with this, a wine selected by the vignerons of Moulin-à-Vent. Ageworthy Gamay from the warm 2015 vintage.

Selection des Vignerons 2015 Moulin-à-Vent, Beaujolais, France
This was selected blind from a hundred samples by the vignerons of Moulin-à-Vent. Whole cluster ferment, aged in stainless steel. This is dense yet supple with lovely raspberry and blackberry fruit and some charcoal and gravel hints, with fresh acidity. A really lovely structured, ageworthy wine with some grippy but refined tannins under the bold fruit character, as well as a savoury, stony, grainy character that I often get with good Gamay. Serious stuff: the essence of ageworthy Gamay. 94/100

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Nagano region, Japan (12) Takayashiro Farm

I visited Takayashiro Farm with the president of the company, Ko Takehada, and the winemaker Kenjiro Ikeda. It’s based in Nagano city. Ko Takehada previously worked for a subsidiary company of Suntory selling juice. After he got married he quit Suntory and moved to Nagano, selling liquor wholesale. In 1995 he started to grow all kinds of fruits: apples, table grapes (such as Kyoho), and peaches.

Kenjiro and Ko

In 1998 he first planted wine grapes, beginning with Cabernet Sauvignon, because he says he is a hard drinker and he wanted to drink wine. He sold the grapes he didn’t use himself to St Cousair. In the early 2000s, Manns Wine asked local farmers whether they could grow vinifera, so he planted more wine grapes. 1999 was the peak of the sales volume of wine in Japan. After 2000 the volume decreased drastically. The IT bubble burst caused this slump, although it has now recovered, but it meant that Manns stopped buying the grapes, so Ko decided to make more wine using the grapes he’d grown.

The mayor of Nagano City proposed that he should establish a winery, because at that time there was no winery in Nagano City. So he decided to start his own winery, establishing the company in 2003 and starting the winery in 2004. Initially, there were four farmers who contributed grapes to the winery, and Ko began growing lots of different varieties – 13 different ones including Chardonnay, Kerner, Riesling, Viogner, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Barbera, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Zweigelt. Right now they have 6.2 hectares of vines.

As well as using their own grapes, they sometimes buy in grapes if they are available. Ko thinks he has to contribute to the rural industry, which is why he sometimes accepts grapes from farmers who have some to sell. This area is famous for table grapes such as Shine Muscat or Nagano Purple. So if the weather is bad and these are unsaleable, he will take those grapes and make wine from them.

Total production is 35 000 bottles per year, in 20 different wines. They also make fruit juices and jams, and sell table grapes.

Takayashiro Farm Chardonnay Sparkling 2017
There’s a herby edge to the sweet pear fruit. Has some attractive fruit but there’s a slight rubbery character here. Juicy finish. Easy drinking style. 82/100

Takayashiro Farm Schonburger Sparkling 2018
A 200 bottle trial: Charmat method. Very aromatic and pretty. Grapey and sweet with attractive crisp fruit and some rose petal prettiness. Moscato style. 11% alcohol. 85/100

Takayashiro Farm Shine Muscat Sparkling 2018
Injection method. Fresh, aromatic, grapey and rich. Lychee and rose petal with lovely balance. Joyful, sweet and fresh on the finish: very effective. 88/100

Takayashiro Farm Nagano Purple Sparkling 2017
Fruity, quite delicate and expressive with sweet pear, table grape and subtle cherry notes. It’s pale pink in colour and relatively subtle, with some sweetness on the finish. 85/100

Takayashiro Farm Takayashiro Blanc Sparkling 2017
84% Sauvignon and 16% Kerner. Taut and herby with some rubbery, cheesy hints. Dry and tangy with lots offruit but a slightly awkward bitter, pithy edge. 81/100

Takayashiro Farm Pinot Noir Sparkling 2017
Red/pink in colour. Nicely savoury edge to the cherry and plum fruit with nice freshness. Has a bit of grip. Dry and satisfying with some hints of earth and spice. Nice food wine. 87/100

Takayashiro Farm Sauvignon Blanc 2014
Current release. This has a little evolution, and it’s showing nicely with a nutty, slightly spicy edge to the pear and citrus fruit. Waxy and fresh, with some subtle almond notes. 87/100

Takayashiro Farm Viognier 2015
Subtle and light with some varietal character and a soft mid-palate. Textured pear fruit with some nectarine, and a touch of lychee. Nice soft texture here: quite thought provoking. A light style. Works well, but would this have been better younger? 87/100

Takayashiro Farm Chardonnay Barrel Aged 2016
Nutty and spicy with some vanilla hints. Nice oak here, but it does take a lead role, which some might appreciate and others not. This is aged not fermented, which is why the oak isn’t so well integrated. Nice fruit though with good balance and acidity. 86/100

Takayashiro Farm Takayashiro Blanc 2016
A blend. Aromatic and fruity with nice weight and some sweetness. Very pretty and easy with nice balance. Clean and very well made for the price (Y1300). Off dry. 86/100

Takayashiro Farm Takayashiro Rouge 2016
Merlot-dominated blend, with 21% Fuji no Yume (hybrid) in the mix. Fresh, light and expressive with lovely clean, pure red cherry and raspberry fruit. Has a smoothness to it, with nice fresh fruit. Elegant, drinkable and delicious. Great for the price (R1300). 88/100

Takayashiro Farm Dew of Takayashiro 2016
Varietal Fuji no Yume, which has Merlot as one of its parents and which has small berries. Deep coloured. Lovely fleshy cherry and raspberry fruit with a lushness, and some suble meaty hints. Lovely richness to the fruit, which has great freshness and harmony. A lovely wine with lovely purity. You’d never guess this as a hybrid. 90/100

Takayashiro Farm Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Fresh, brooding blackcurrant fruit nose. Lovely palate showing some development with a hint of earth and spice. Very well made with nice savoury hints and supple blackcurrant notes, with some freshness. Tastes like a mature Cru Bourgeois: it’s really nice. Good development. 90/100

Takayashiro Farm Cabernet Franc 2014
Supple, light and elegant with a leady edge to the pure red cherry and raspberry fruit. This is a light style but the fruit is compact and balanced with nice red fruit core and fine green leafy hints. Shows a lightness of touch and real elegance. Very stylish. 90/100

Reflections on smell and life

Saturday was a gorgeous day. That sort of spring day that offers lots of hope – a secret glimpse of summer to come. On Friday night I headed up to Bury St Edmunds where my parents live, in a small village called Horringer. My sisters and I had travelled to spend the night there (just younger brother Arthur missing), as a surprise for my father’s 80th birthday.

He’s not been well for a while now, so this anniversary has a special poignancy. We ate together on Friday evening and the following morning went for a walk at Ickworth House, a National Trust property whose driveway is 200 metres away from my folks’ house. It was indescribably beautiful.

We were walking past the front of the house and suddenly I smelled something. It was a flowering viburnum. My father has always gained a lot of pleasure from smell. For as long as I can remember he’s been fascinated by plants and gardens, and his special interest is in aromatic plants. Is this obsession with smell something that I’ve picked up, that has then shaped my career choice?

The flowers of viburnum look very similar to those of jasmine, and the smell is sort of similar: it has some real bass notes to it, and quite an intensity. We stopped for a while and took it in. Smell is such an underrated sense, one that we only really value if we have it impaired or if we lose it. Its absence is usually keenly felt. But I also think it is a sense that we can develop, and by focusing on it more it can be a source of great pleasure.

Could working with olfaction in creative ways ever be considered art? I think the complexity of smell – we are only able to discriminate a few separate odours in a mix, and we desensitize and cross-adapt with prolonged exposure to specific odorants – would present challenges for an artist who wanted to work with it. Plus the different thresholds we all have, and the fact that smells diffuse – these factors would necessitate careful design of smell art.

Beginnings and endings. We focus a lot on beginnings in our society and we do them well, but we are less good with endings. The result? Loss leaves us all at sea. We feel that we are the first ones ever to experience it, and when things end no one knows quite how to respond or what to do, because we have so little structure for dealing with endings. But the end is part of the beginning. Everything is finite and we need to integrate the end with the present. And nothing is ever really lost, or wasted. Saturday was a special day, and it is now banked. It meant something.


A Portuguese oddity: Quinta de Foz de Arouce Vinhas Velhas 2003

I remember visiting Quinta de Foz de Arouce a few years ago. It’s a really lovely estate in the Beiras region, just south of Bairrada, near coimbra, and I wrote a report on it. The soils are schist and the grape variety here is Baga, and this is the first vintage of a special bottling from old vines, and at age 15 it’s delicious and still has some time to go.

Quinta de Foz de Arouce Vinhas Velhas de Santa Maria 2003 Beiras, Portugal
13.5% alcohol. Very old Baga wines planted in schist soils, fermented in lagares and then aged in new oak. Bright and expressive with lovely tannic structure and focused black cherry and blackberry fruit. This has developed really well with nice freshness, hints of earth and spice, a twist of iodine, and really compact structure. The oak is perfectly integrated into the dense core of fruit. It reminds me of a modern but very expensive Barolo with real intensity and more than a hint of elegance. 94/100

Two lovely wines at The 10 Cases: Heitz and Gonon

Two lovely wines last night at the brilliant The 10 Cases. The first was a BYO that Gareth Birchley brought along (from Hedonism), and the second was off the list. The list at The 10 Cases is amazing.

Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon 1992 Napa Valley, California
This is an incredible wine from a slightly different era in Napa, before things got a bit too ripe. Lovely supple blackcurrant fruit with some plummy depth. There’s some savoury, gravelly grip here. Nice texture and lovely fruit intensity. Showing a bit of development and some minty hints. This is beautiful. Some lovely cedar, blackcurrant and mint. This wine is amazing now and has some distance to go. 95/100

Pierre Gonon Saint-Joseph 2016 Northern Rhône, France
This is a thrilling expression of Northern Rhône Syrah. I know Gonon is super-trendy now, but it deserves to be, and at £69 on the list this isn’t crazy expensive. Fresh and detailed with black cherries, plums, olives and meat. So floral and precise but also with nice grip and structure. Notes of blood and iron with nice precision. Essence of northern Rhône. 95/100

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Central Otago (14) Domain Road

The home vineyard, Domain Road

Graeme and Gillian Crosbie were, like many Dunedin residents, drawn to Central Otago for summer sunshine. ‘Everyone came to Central Otago for their summer,’ says Graeme, who made his money as a property developer, ‘so we’ve had a house here since 1987. All our adult lives we’ve been interested by wine, and when we saw what was happening around us the opportunity came to purchase this land and we jumped in.’

Graeme Crosby, owner, Domain Road

In 2002 they bought an old apricot orchard on Domain Road in the Bannockburn subdistrict and planted 6.5 hectares of vines. A decade later they purchased more land on Felton Road and popped in another 7.5 hectares, which they named the Defiance vineyard.

Defiance vineyard

Schist soils, Defiance vineyard

Loess soils, home vineyard

The area is marked by the gold rush of the 1860s, and from the home block you can see the sluicings: large areas where hillsides were washed away in the quest for gold. They are now protected as a historical feature: the act of desecration of a landscape now redeemed.

50% of their vineyard area is planted to Pinot Noir, which is a relatively low proportion for the region, which is Pinot focused. They do very attractive whites, too – including Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon and Pinot Gris.

But it has been a long and sometimes difficult journey, building a small winery in such a strong place. ‘A lot of people don’t realise that it’s a very long business to get up and running,’ says Graeme. ‘You do everything from growing the grapes, getting them into a bottle, getting the bottle away to some other part of the world, and then following it over there and selling it to someone. We are a small family business with 14 hectares of vines. I need all the skills that people would have if they had 14 000 hectares.’

Domain Road has an impressive new container-based tasting room on the Defiance Vineyard, which sits in a beautiful setting. This vineyard, on Felton Road, seems like a special site, and the inaugural Pinot from here, the 2016, is a very impressive wine. The wines are made at VinPro by Pete Bartle, and the 2017 Pinots tasted from barrel there looked really smart.

Domain Road Bannockburn Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Central Otago, New Zealand
Has a barrel portion (20-30% depending on the year, but this vintage, which was quite small, had 40% barrel ferment), as well as some tank ferment. Very pretty and lively with nice focus. There’s some tropical richness, a bit of elderflower, and good acidity. There’s a hint of fig, too. Lovely texture here. 90/100

Domain Road Chardonnay 2017 Central Otago, New Zealand
From the Defiance vineyard, 100% barrel fermented. Pressed off into tank overnight, and then to barrel after it is inoculated. This is quite delicate and bright with subtle toast, cedar and spice from the oak, as well as a solid citrus core, some floral notes, and really appealing peachy richness, too. Good acidity and a bit of structure, with lots of potential for development. Give this time. 93/100

Domain Road The Water Race Dry Riesling 2017 Central Otago, New Zealand
Taut, fresh and lemony with brightness and focus. Dry and linear with good acidity (pH 2.88, 5.5 g/l rs) and a bit of tangerine exoticism on the finish. Good concentration of flavour here. 90/100

Domain Road Duffers Creek Riesling 2017 Central Otago, New Zealand
11% alcohol, 14.7 g/l residual sugar. Lovely delicacy here with a bit of sweetness balancing out the high acidity. Very linear with a lovely tangerine and melon character as well as some limey brightness. Very stylish, finishing taut. 92/100

Domain Road Defiance Pinot Gris 2018 Central Otago, New Zealand
Rounded and textural with nice fresh melon and table grape notes, with a bit of sweetness. Has a very smooth texture. Attractive, rounded and pretty. Subtly smoky. 89/100

Domain Road Defiance Pinot Gris 2017 Central Otago, New Zealand
13% alcohol. This is quite delicate, but it also has plenty of flavour. It’s quite stony and mineral with nice brisk acidity, but also some grapey richness and hints of bacon and smoke. 90/100

Domain Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2016 Central Otago, New Zealand
This is fresh and supple with bright red cherry and raspberry fruit. There’s good acidity and some nice tannic structure. Bright and red fruited, this has lovely focus. There’s a bite on the finish, too. Very stylish and quite serious, with nice grip and potential for development. 94/100

Domain Road Defiance Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 Central Otago, New Zealand
First harvest from Defiance was 2015, and all the Pinot was used for making rosé. So this is the first proper Pinot from this vineyard. Not all of the Pinot is used for the Defiance. About 7 barrels are selected for the final wine, and everything else goes into the Bannockburn Pinot Noir. Textural and fine with some silkiness, but also nice sour cherry and raspberry fruit, with some structural bite. There’s generosity but also freshness. A really impressive wine. Such a joy right now but with potential for development. 95/100

Domain Road Paradise Pinot Noir 2015 Central Otago, New Zealand
This is from the home vineyard, and it’s a barrel selection: in 2015 three barrels were chosen, given 15-18 months in barrel. Not too showy, but with lovely assured tannic structure. Harmonious with fine-grained tannins. Has a savoury edge to the cherry and plum fruit, and a sense of elegance. Good structure here. 94/100

Domain Road Symposium 2018 Central Otago, New Zealand
Late-harvested Sauvignon picked at 32.5 Brix. 120 g/l residual sugar. Fermented a percentage in barrel, and used one of those for this wine – the second will progressively be used in future years. This is a third of the blend, and the rest was tank fermented. Very lively and fruity with good acidity, still, and lovely tropical and elderflower notes. Clean, fruity and sweet, but not fully sweet because of the acidity. Lovely fruit expression here. 92/100

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In Bordeaux

I’m in Bordeaux. Tomorrow I get to taste most of the top 2017s in bottle, which will be my first look at this vintage. But this afternoon I had a few hours spare, so I wandered around the city on a perfect spring day and took some pictures and made a short film. It’s a lovely city these days, and I always enjoy my time here. Tonight we dine at Malartic-Lagravière with a focus on the wines of the Graves, and then tomorrow after the tastings it’s off to Cos and Pédesclaux. Then home Wednesday morning.

The short film: