Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhône Blanc 2009

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Found this in my brother-in-law’s fridge when I popped round to see some of my family who were pug-sitting (he wasn’t there), so cracked it open with lunch. I thought it might be a bit past it, but it was definitely still full of life. Maybe it’s the 30% Picpoul de Pinet that Louis Barruol blends in with 30% Roussanne, 20% Viognier and 20% Marsanne that gives the freshness and longevity? Winedirect have the 2012 at £14.50 a bottle, and Allaboutwine have the 2013 for £12.49 each per 6. This 2009 is lovely, but I might like it a bit more a year or two younger.

Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhône Blanc 2009 Rhône, France
Golden colour. Sweet nutty and a bit spicy with ripe pear fruit, a bit of citrus freshness and lovely texture. Broad yet with some freshness still, this is a deliciously rich Rhône white of real appeal. 91/100

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Les Terres d'Ocre Saint-Pourcain, a delicious Gamay Pinot blend

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Located in the Auvergne, Saint-Pourçain actually has more in common with the Maconnais than the Loire, with Chardonnay, Gamay and Pinot Noir the main varieties. (You can read more about this small but interesting appellation on Richard Kelley’s site.) This is an inexpensive but delicious wine that’s a 60/40 blend of Gamay and Pinot. Worth checking out if you like perfumed, sapid, lighter reds.

Les Terres d’Ocre ‘Instant T’ 2013 Saint Pourçain, Loire, France12.5% alcohol. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay from 25 year old vines. It shows fresh vivid cherry fruit on the nose with a green, sappy character. Brooding and pure. The palate is bright, fresh and berryish with good acidity and nicely integrated green notes. Juicy and delicious. 90/100 (£9.95 The Wine Society)

Why I have no beef with the Bordeaux primeurs

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As I write, the 2014 Bordeaux primeurs week has just finished. So my twitter stream has been full of complaints from the UK wine trade and several journalists complaining about the system and bemoaning the way that prices have been too high for the last few years. ‘Primeurs is broken,’ they cry. ‘It’s not fit for purpose.’ Still, though, the very same people travel dutifully to Bordeaux every year, and the same complaints are made, and the whole circus repeats itself endlessly.

From this, I conclude that even the ardent critics of the primeur system, with their recidivist visiting habits, actually quite like primeurs week. They positively enjoy it, judging by their instagram pictures. The normal behaviour for critics of a broken system would be for them to stop supporting it with their presence. But I suspect that they like the glamour, the big chateaux, the coming together of the world’s fine wine trade, the swanky dinners, and the chance to grumble some more.

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I’ve never been to primeurs. It’s not because I think the system is evil, or that I dislike Bordeaux. [Bordeaux is actually a magical place. You can’t help, as a wine lover, being wowed by all these super-famous vineyards with their sense of history.] It’s because there’s simply no point in me attending. I can’t justify a week out of my calendar to taste far too many cask samples, when my output wouldn’t add anything to what’s already published. Besides, while I love drinking great Bordeaux, it is not one of the areas I’ve focused on in detail simply because it is such well-trodden ground and the Bordelais are already well supplied with wine journalists who make this region their speciality. [Especially those journalists chasing the $$$, because they are extra-keen to write for rich people.] I also nurture a sneaking suspicion that if I scored all the 2014 samples by guesswork, given the reputation of the vintage and the track record of each chateau, then no one would notice that I hadn’t tasted the wines at all. Remember: an increasing number of top properties no longer allow you to taste their wine blind: you have to go there in order to assess their particular cask samples. Visit a first growth and it’s hard not to give it 96–98/100, or even more in a top vintage.

Besides, there’s an awful lot of rubbish written after primeurs week by journalists who should know better. Dudes, these are cask samples! You shouldn’t be writing extensive tasting notes on cask samples and then pretend you have a reliable assessment of that chateau’s grand vin. Go through any red wine cellar and taste cask samples of a wine that only finished fermenting four months ago, and you see differences, barrel to barrel. That’s what people are looking at during primeurs week. These samples give a glimpse of potential quality. A glimpse! The problem is, critic scores assigned during this week can have an anchoring effect when people assess the wines further down the line. But critics like to deal in certainty, even when there isn’t any. Certainty sells.

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As for primeurs itself, I have no beef with it. The chateaux have a system that has worked very well for them. I don’t think that delaying the release of the wines for another year, and showing the wines a year later in their lives, would necessarily work all that much better. It would still be cask samples. And it would require a huge collaborative effort for this sort of decision to be reached, and it wouldn’t necessarily be in the interests of the Bordelais, so I can’t see it happening. The current system isn’t perfect, but it works, and the attendance at primeurs seems to indicate that the trade don’t dislike it as much as they make out.

One criticism has been the recent high prices. What the Bordeaux chateaux are doing when they set their prices is pitching them at such a level that no one else makes their margin. They aim to get them as close to the true market price as possible, so they first have to make a guess as to the real market price. It’s a gamble. If they sell below the market price, then someone else will make the margin. If they set the price too high, then they risk not selling much wine, or upsetting people who have bought the wine and then find it’s worth less than they paid for it. It’s not rocket science; it’s simple economics.

There is some buffer in the system. The chateaux and negociants can sit on stock, waiting for the right time to sell. Dribble it onto the market and you can keep the price high: supply and demand. So there’s room for movement, but not infinite room. After a few years where properties have got their prices wrong, charging above what the market will take, then the pipeline is full and people will simply stop buying.

But there is a side benefit from pricing high: it means that the value of the back catalogue will go up. If recent vintages are very expensive, then older vintages on the market will suddenly look as though they are competitively priced. So if they are going to err in pricing, it’s best for them to stray on the high side, as long as this doesn’t happen for too many vintages in a row.

After making a lot of money with the 2009 and 2010 vintages, wine merchants are a bit cross with Bordeaux for not feeding them lavishly in subsequent campaigns. 2011, 2012 and particularly 2013 weren’t very successful. So they’ve been talking of moving to other regions. Will Brunello save them? What about Barolo? Or the Rhône? Merchants love en primeur campaigns because it’s easy money: they just have to send an email out to their customers and process the order. The problem is, though, there’s no region quite like Bordeaux in financial terms.

Why? First, people are prepared to drop proper money on top claret, and they seem to be reluctant to spend the same elsewhere. Second, Bordeaux has such a strong image: the top chateaux are properly famous. Normal people have heard of some of them. Third, no other fine wine region operates on the same scale. The leading chateaux have big vineyards – some are as large as 100 hectares. The whole of Côte-Rôtie is just 240 hectares. Their biggest production wines are their grand vins, and so there’s plenty to go round.

It’s for these reasons that I don’t think there’s as much as a problem with primeurs week as people are making out. When people stop travelling to Bordeaux each March, then we can have a discussion. For now, it’s just a question of economics. They need to get the price sort of right, more often than not, and there needs to be a willing queue of customers waiting to buy. There’s no other region that has a chance of doing what Bordeaux does. While on a personal level it would be great if I could afford to buy the top wines on a regular basis, I can’t realistically predict the demise of Bordeaux as the world’s leading fine wine region. At least not for now.

Three brilliant Swartland wines from Mount Abora

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Here we have three brilliant Swartland wines from Mount Abora. They are really compelling, made with low alcohol in a natural way, with lots of interest. They are also living wines, that continue to evolve in the glass, and even overnight in the bottle: I visited them a number of times over a couple of days. UK agent is Indigo Wines.

Mount Abora Koggelbos Chenin Blanc 2012 Swartland, South Africa12.5% alcohol. Full yellow colour. Sweet pear and toast nose with some ripe apple/apple pie notes. The palate is all stone fruit and minerals, with lively spiciness and some honeyed richness. There’s good acidity and a nice tension here, as well as the richer notes. A serious Chenin with nice depth, and the good news is that it’s even better on day 2. 94/100

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Mount Abora Saffraan Cinsaut 2014 Swartland, South Africa
12.5% alcohol. The label says that this ‘harks back to the times of bright, luminous wines,’ and ‘the beauty of honest and elegant wines.’ I like it a lot. Slightly nervy, natural nose of bright red apples, spices, herbs, red cherries and raspberries. The palate is pure and lovely with fresh raspberries, some spice and tangy acidity. Very fresh, pure and detailed: fully ripe but with lovely grip and finesse. There’s also a hint of sappy greenness. This is lovely on day 2, too. 93/100

Mount Abora The Abyssinian 2012 Swartland, South Africa
47% Mourvedre, 32% Cinsault, 21% Shiraz. 12.5% alcohol. A monumental red, all reductive and closed in on itself initially, but which opens out beautifully. It’s juicy, bright, grippy and dense with a peppery, tannic Mourvedre character and fresh black fruits. Grippy and firm with raspberry and black cherry, as well as plums and some damson bitterness. Complex and taut. 94/100

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Some more pictures from the road

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Some more pictures from the road. I’m now back from the quick Spain and Portugal trip, but I thought I’d share these. First of all, a couple of pictures from the brief stop in Ribeiro, the region inland from Rias Baixas that is a hot spot for the Treixadura grape variety.

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Next, a shot of the Quinta de Covela estate in Vinho Verde. This is right at the border with the Douro, but the soils here are the granite of the Minho, not schist. The estate went bankrupt, was left abandoned for a couple of years, then was purchased by the current owners. It has been restored to its former glory, with the previous team hired back. Production is now shifting from 50:50 red/white to 80% white with 20% red grapes for rose, and the speciality here is the fabulous Avesso grape (white), along with Arinto, and also the Chardonnay that helped make this estate famous in the first place.

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Lima Smith, current owners of Covela, also purchased Quinta da Boavista in the Cima Corgo of the Douro. It’s one of the regions great Quintas, and it will be interesting to see what they do with the wines. Nothing has been released yet. Boavista is beautiful, and has some extraordinary terraces.

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Olive trees are planted in these moratorios, which are old terraces that weren’t replanted after phylloxera. Below is the old lagar house. These lagars are beautiful, but Boavista probably won’t be using them for table wine.

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The Judas tree in bloom. It was a beautiful March day.

On the road in Spain and Portugal

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Today is the third day of a brief three day trip taking in Galicia (Spain) and the Minho (northern Portugal). I’m travelling with Nick Oakley, visiting his agencies in the region, so we’re covering quite a bit of ground, and I’m visiting these producers for the first time. I’m pressed for time, so a proper write-up will have to wait. For now, some pictures to give you a feel for this intriguing part of Iberia. Above – Rias Baixas; below – lamprey

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Above, Rias Baixas; below – Ribeira Sacra

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Above – the Sil river; below – Ribeiro

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Above – Ribiero; below – Arinto ready to plant, Vinho Verde

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Vinho Verde

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Seven organic or biodynamic wines from New Zealand

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These wines were part of a seminar at ProWein. The seminar, presented by Romana Echensperger, was a sell out, so I tasted these wines afterwards on the New Zealand Winegrowers’ stand.

Quartz Reef Brut NV Central Otago, New Zealand
‘L2012′ on the label indicates that the base wine here is from 2012. It’s a really nice fizz with subtle toast alongside the pear and citrus fruit. Showing lovely balance, this is tight but with some depth. 90/100

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Millton Te Arai Chenin Blanc 2014 Gisborne, New Zealand
I love this wine: it’s the pretty, friendly face of Chenin. Very attractive with open pear and apricot fruit, as well as taut lemony notes. Once again, lovely balance with direct fruit presence. 93/100

Huia Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Fresh and supple with nice pear and ripe apple characters. Very pure with an interesting texture. 90/100

Pyramid Valley Vineyards Lion’s Tooth Chardonnay 2012 North Canterbury, New Zealand
This is a distinctive, slightly unusual Chardonnay with some creamy, buttery notes and nice texture. Some dairy characters under the citrus and pear fruit with a touch of herbiness. Nice weight and a long finish. 91/100

Seresin Leah Pinot Noir 2012 Marlborough, New Zealand
There’s a savoury, spicy edge to the supple, fresh red cherry and plum fruit, Some fine spiciness but also a bit of robust meatiness. Beautifully expressive. 93/100

Felton Road Bannockburn Pinot Noir 2013 Central Otago, New Zealand
Ripe, supple and generous with a bit of meaty warmth as well as some spicy structure. Quite fine and already approachable. 93/100

Villa Maria Organic Merlot Private Bin 2013 Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
This was quite a surprise: lovely fresh, dark, pure, sweet black fruits. Vivid, full and quite stylish. 90/100

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Te Whare Ra Syrah 2011 Marlborough, New Zealand
Vivid, grippy and herby with lovely black fruits. Black cherries, pepper – fresh and vivid. 94/100

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What the Great South African Syrah tasting tells us

 

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.

Three from the Valais, Switzerland - Domaine des Muses

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.

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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)

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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)

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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)

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Some highlights from the Tesco press tasting today

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.