Elgin Chardonnay Colloquium: Elgin versus the rest of the world, a blind tasting

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This was very interesting: as part of the Elgin Chardonnay Colloquium, we did a blind tasting with 21 different wines, pitching Elgin’s finest against some international benchmarks. Michael Fridjhon and I tasted blind, too, and gave our comments on each wine before revealing their identity. These are my notes and scores as written blind, and unaltered after the reveal.

Neil Ellis Chardonnay 2011 Elgin, South Africa
Powerful with some spicy depth to the rich pear and white peach fruit. Has citrus brightness and good acidity. There’s a lovely depth to this wine, with some ripe fruit characters, but also a brilliant fine spiciness. Citrussy finish. 94/100

Billaud Simon Chablis 1er Cru Monte de Tonnerre 2013 Burgundy, France
Beautifully linear, intense, vivid lemony fruit with some mandarin orange spicy detail, and a hint of creaminess. So linear and pure with no oak apparent. Very expressive and quite mineral. Lovely complexity here. 95/100

Almenkerk Chardonnay 2012 Elgin, South Africa
Rich with pear and peach fruit, showing brightness but also some creamy, slightly toasty richness. This has lovely breadth and shows a bit of mealy richness on the mid-palate. Rounded and a bit toasty with lovely depth to it. Lots of flavour but balanced and delicious. 93/100

Catena White Bones Chardonnay Adrianna Vineyard 2012 Mendoza, Argentina
Distinctive with a slight flyspray edge to the nose. It’s bold, a bit pithy and very citrussy. Dense and compact, this is quite unusual with a very distinctive pithy personality. 89/100

Sutherland Chardonnay 2012 Elgin, South Africa
Very rich and dense with ripe, toasty fruit. Has some pithiness and a twist of herbs, with lovely weight and richness. Lively, bright and vivid with a juicy finish. A rich Chardonnay but it has developed nicely, showing peach, melon and pear fruit, with a pineapple twist. 91/100

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Oak Valley Groendanberg Chardonnay 2014 Elgin, South Africa
Some richness on the nose with ripe pear and peach fruit. The palate is generous but has lovely freshness and some attractive spicy notes. Generous but has good acidity and a lovely spicy edge. Quite modern and polished with lovely depth to the fruit. Stylish. 93/100

Comtes Lafon Meursault-Charmes 1er Cru 2014 Burgundy, France
There’s lovely focus and freshness here. Has keen lemony acidity, and a mineral, matchstick twist. Complex and reductive with a delicious spicy twist. Really linear and focused with great precision. Could age really nicely. 95/100

Paul Cluver Estate Chardonnay 2014 Elgin, South Africa
Very bright nose with tangerines and lemons. The palate is vivid with some pineapple richness and bright acidity. Fresh, tangy and focused with a nice lemon and grapefruit finish. Primary with lovely fruit purity. 93/100

Failla Haynes Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 California
Lovely aromatics here: has beautifully focused pear and peach fruit. The palate is expansive but focused with lovely fruit sweetness and smooth texture. Lots of depth, but very refined and pure. Ripe and sweet, but well balanced. 93/100

Richard Kershaw Clonal Selection Chardonnay 2014 Elgin, South Africa
Aromatic, toasty nose with fine spicy oak and appealing sweet fruit. The palate has some creamy, bready notes complementing the ripe peach and pear fruit, with some juicy citrus hints on the finish. Really attractive new world-style Chardonnay that is full of appeal. 92/100

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Hannay Chardonnay 2014 Elgin, South Africa
Very complex and taut with lovely acidity, as well as some ripe pear and peach fruit. There’s real intensity here with a lovely juiciness and good acidity. Has some ripe stone fruit character, as well as hints of green tea. Quite mineral and taut, with the riper fruit characters amply balanced by the fresh mineral intensity. 95/100

Dog Point Chardonnay 2014 Marlborough, New Zealand
Lovely mineral/matchstick edge to the citrussy fruit. Has some toasty, nutty richness, too, with a really lively spiciness. Beautifully balanced and really vital with keen acidity and a zippy, spicy finish. Very stylish and complex, with lots of potential. 95/100

Iona Chardonnay 2014 Elgin, South Africa
This is lovely. There’s a fine spiciness and some peachy intensity, but also lovely harmony to the ripe pear and white peach fruit. Broad, concentrated yet really refined with a touch of appealing cabbage complexity alongside the generous fruit. Very stylish. 93/100

Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2015 Macedon Ranges, Australia
Lively, aromatic citrus fruit nose with nice pear and peach fruit, and some tangerine and melon exotic notes. There’s a subtle herby edge, too. Very appealing with nice fruit weight. Has some brightness as well as sweet fruit. Quite mineral on the finish. 92/100

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South Hill King of the Hill Chardonnay 2015 Elgin, South Africa
Chunky with a pithy edge to the pear and peach fruit. Has a lively spiciness. Quite a dense wine with concentrated fruit flavours. It’s not terribly refined. Bold and slightly pithy on the finish. 89/100

Norman Hardie Cuvée L Chardonnay 2015 Prince Edward County, Canada
Bright and focused with linear citrus fruit. Lemony and mineral with well integrated matchstick flavours. Lean, but not too tart, with precision and elegance. Very zippy and vital. So lovely. 95/100

Highlands Road Chardonnay 2015 Elgin, South Africa
There’s generosity and ripeness here, but also fresh, zippy acidity. Electric on the finish with sweet, plump pear and peach fruit, with lovely purity and very bright acidity. Finishes sweet and lemony. 93/100

Boschendal Appellation Series Chardonnay 2015 Elgin, South Africa
This is delicious. Supple, elegant and ripe with broad pear and citrus fruit. This is really expressive with generous, broad fruit but also nice freshness. Fruit-driven and delicious. 93/100

Julien Schaal Evidence Chardonnay 2015 Elgin, South Africa
This has some toasty, nutty, spicy richness, alongside the sweet peachy fruit. Really big and bold, but not too ripe. Has a hint of fig and coffee as well as some pithy bitterness on the finish. A showy style. 91/100

Errazuriz Las Pizarras Chardonnay 2014 Aconcagua Costa, Chile
Minty herbal edge to the nose. The palate is lively and bright with keen acidity and a touch of greenness. Quite mineral and saline with a distinctive mintiness on the finish. An outlier. 90/100

Elgin Vintners Chardonnay 2015 Elgin, South Africa
Very refined with fresh citrus fruits. Nicely weighted with a bit of pithy freshness and some saline lemon and pear characters. Finishes long and salty, with well integrated acidity keeping things fresh. Compact, with a hint of fruit sweetness and good future potential. 93/100

 

Elgin Chardonnay Colloquium: tasting 16 Chardonnays from 2016

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This weekend is the second instalment of the Elgin Chardonnay Colloquium, and as part of yesterday’s proceedings, we tried 16 different wines from the 2016 vintage. This is a warmer, drier vintage than 2015, with slightly uneven fruit set. But despite this, the results were pretty good, as these wines showed. Elgin Chardonnay is in a good place right now.
Julien Schaal Evidence Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Really vivid and a bit pithy with nice acidity and a spicy edge to the keen lemon and pear fruit. Really good acidity and focus. Some spicy, mealy notes here. Lovely vivid wine. 94/100

Paul Cluver Estate Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
There’s a lovely purity and freshness to this wine. Linear with nice pear and citrus fruit. Has a subtle creaminess with lovely purity. A very pretty wine. 92/100

Oak Valley Groenlandberg Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
This is quite elegant and open with nice texture to the sweet pear and white peach fruit. Shows lovely acidity that integrates well into the wine. Very textural and quite smooth. 92/100

South Hill King of the Hill Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
This is pretty and fruity with nice light lemon and tangerine fruit, with a supple, open, fruity personality. Nicely balanced with clean fruit at its core. 91/100

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Paul Wallace Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Powerful, mealy and spicy with nice ripe pear and white peach fruit and some savoury spiciness. Has good weight. 89/100

Highlands Road Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Nice weight and focus here. Has lively grapefruit and lemon characters with good acidity and textural pear and citrus fruit on the palate. Nice weight with a spicy finish. 91/100

Hannay Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
There’s a lot of richness here: this has bold, lively pear and peach fruit with some nuts and spice. Really dense with lots of weight and spiciness. Distinctive stuff with quite a strong oak imprint and ripe fruit. 91/100

Neil Ellis Whitehall Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Really fresh, taut and brisk with keen lemony acidity. Has lots of richness, but it’s nicely focused. Full flavoured yet taut, spicy and intense. Covers all aspects of the flavour spectrum. 93/100

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Iona Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
There’s a subtle green herby edge to this wine, which shows taut citrussy fruit. Lovely brightness and purity with a linear personality. Compact with lots of potential, but a little subdued. 91/100

Almenkerk Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
This has lovely purity, showing linear, direct lemon and pear fruit with very fine toasty notes. Really good acidity. This is primary and taut with lots of potential for development. Peachy richness hides in the background. 92/100

Sutherland Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Beautifully focused with keen lemony fruit. Very intense with brisk acidity and some taut spicy, nutty notes, and a bit of mealy, toasty richness under the focused fruit. Very bright and lemony with lovely freshness. Really attractive stuff. 93/100

Boschendal Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Lovely bright tangerine and pear fruit here: this has lots of pure fruit, with a lovely texture and some grapefruit freshness on the finish. Lovely weight here. Approachable and fruity but with more than a hint of seriousness. 92/100

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Kershaw Elgin Clonal Selection Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
There’s a real richness to this wine, but it’s also fresh. Lively and pure with seamless integration of spicy oak, some brisk lemony fruit and also a bit ripe pear and apple, too. Juicy acidity on the finish. Very fine. 94/100

Lothian Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Great purity, freshness and concentration here. Linear with some fine spicy notes sitting under the fruit. Has really nice oak integration and ripe pear and apple fruit. Beautiful freshness. Very appealing. 92/100

Elgin Ridge 282 Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Unusual with a slightly cedary, nutty edge to the lemon and pear fruit. Savoury, nutty and spicy. The oak isn’t yet integrated. There’s an appley edge here. Needs time to find its feet. 89/100

Elgin Vintners Chardonnay 2016 Elgin, South Africa
Very citrussy with tangerine and lemon notes. Lively and fresh with bright lemony acidity. Fruit-driven and a bit simple, but attractive and fresh. Some apple and cabbage hints here. 89/100

Three lovely Hawke's Bay Chardonnays

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Hawke’s Bay is becoming quite well known for its Chardonnay. It’s a grape that New Zealand hasn’t really owned in the same way as it has for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but there are some really stylish Kiwi Chardonnays out there. I enjoyed these three quite a bit.

Vidal Legacy Chardonnay 2014 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. Just 16 barrels made of this, from three vineyards: Lyons, Kokako and Keltern. 10 months in French oak. Intense, spicy and toasty on the nose with vivid citrus fruit and a mineral twist. The palate shows concentrated, crystalline citrus fruit, with a bitter pithy twist and complex notes of toast, spice and hazelnut. Finishes very lemony, with lingering acidity. There’s incredible concentration of flavour here, and this wine has potential to develop over the next decade, or even two. There’s a touch of pineapple richness, but also very keen acidity and lemony purity. 94/100

Bilancia Chardonnay 2014 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
13% alcohol. This is really refined and just beautifully expressive. There’s a lively, mineral toastiness to the nose, with some nutty hints and bright citrus fruit. The palate is fresh, spicy and intense with a really keen, lively, mineral core. There’s a bit of richness, with a hint of apricot and lemon peel, but the driving force is the keen citrus fruit, with a grapefruit twist on the finish. This is really serious, and should develop nicely. 94/100

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Church Road Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2014 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
14.5% alcohol. Wild ferment in French oak. Powerful and intense with bold peach, apple and pear fruit, with some lively citrus fruit adding freshness. Nuts, spice and tangy apple notes add depth to the palate, and there’s also a roast coffee twist. There’s a ripe allure to this wine, but it still has freshness. Bold stuff with lots of impact. 93/100

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Score inflation is everywhere and it's killing wine criticism

These towers used to be the tallest....

These towers used to be the tallest….

Back in 1984, I sat my ‘O’ level exams at the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe. I was a quiet, geeky pupil – a classic in-betweener, friends with some of the cool set but not part of it, and an ally of the square, loser kids. And lazy with my homework (it used to bore me). It’s perhaps for this reason that my teachers were surprised when I came away with 10 ‘A’ grades and a solitary ‘B’ (in French…). Those were exceptional results because they were rare, even in a good school like this. I surprised myself. Step forward 30 years, and the ‘O’ levels have been replaced by GCSEs, and suddenly every smart 16-year-old kid is getting straight ‘A’s to the point that these exams have lost their power to differentiate at the top end, and the elite universities can no longer use them to separate out the very smartest pupils. With government pressure to improve standards, their use of exam results as a metric, and a desire to make education more inclusive, there was a subtle pressure that ended up leading to a gradual score creep: each year, exam results improved slightly, and this creep compounded year on year.

There’s a parallel with wine criticsm.

Whatever you think about the merits of scoring, it is fundamental to the practice of rating wines. But it is being undermined by a gradual creep upwards in the scores being given by wine critics.

When Robert Parker began dishing out 100 point scores, he definitely used a wider range than is currently practised by the Wine Advocate. Back in the early 90s, the 89/90 boundary used to be a big deal. (See this analysis by Blake Gray.) And as a novice wine lover, the 86As (inexpensive wines, designated by A, that scored 86/100 points) used to be a happy hunting ground for me

Now, 90 is a very normal score, and 86 is a fail. No one wants to see an 89

Why have scores gone up? Has wine quality got better? To a degree, average wine quality has improved. But I don’t think this explains the creep at the top end.

This score inflation is caused by competition among critics, big egos, and the fact that these critics like being liked.

Competitive scoring began when Parker had competition from the Wine Spectator. And then a new generation of critics emerged, all doing the same sort of thing. There are a whole range of critical voices now, whose business model is based around attracting subscribers, selling reports, selling stickers, selling certificates, and putting on events paid for both by consumers and wineries.

What the point-scorers realised was that if they gave higher scores, the wineries were delighted. And they started quoting them in their marketing materials. And buying their stickers, and paying to be included in events, and displaying certificates they’d purchased in their tasting rooms. And retailers used the point scores at point of sale.

Basically, if you scored more generously than the competition, you would be the one quoted, and the wineries and retail stores would give you free publicity. And so the critics became addicted to this frenzy of dishing out high scores and being celebrated and loved

But there’s also the effect of affirmation from producers. If, as a critic, you have some personal insecurities, then it can feel great to be loved. If you give a high score, then you make producers very happy, and they like you and affirm you. You feel like you’ve made a bit of a difference. And when you see your scores being quoted, it makes you feel a bit more significant. There’s a psychological pressure right there to err on the side of generosity.

Even very good people have become sucked into this silly game. 95 is the new 90. There’s very little room left at the top end. People who should know better have found themselves unable to show some restraint. Their competitive spirit has sucked them in. They can’t kick the habit.

Look at the Australian situation: it’s probably the worst. Honest but ordinary table wines with 95 points. An Aussie said to me last week that you need 98 points, or else a score just isn’t any use in marketing these days.

Ultimately, the act of dishing out elevated scores to get attention, be quoted more, and make more money from wine producers themselves, is essentially a selfish act. It muddies the water for the rest of us, who are trying not to allow our scores to creep upwards. It’s greedy and destructive.

95 and above should be reserved for truly exceptional, world class wines.

I’m not sure whether the 100 point scale can be saved. These critics show no signs of slowing down, and the score creep continues. The only hope? The absurd situation of score extension beyond 100! Be it symbols or extra points, just wait and see…

The amazing Vanguardist Wines, from South Australia

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I was really pleased to try these wines (thanks to Christina Rasmussen for getting these samples to me). They’re from a relatively new project, Vanguardist, which is a collaboration between three people, Alexandra Maurisset, Edouard Maurisset-Latour and Michael Corbett. Corbett is the winemaker, and is based in the Clare Valley, but he’s a Kiwi: the three originally met and hatched their plans in 2012 in Hawke’s Bay. Production is small: 150 cases in the debut vintage of 2014 has grown to 800 in 2016, and there are plans for limited growth in the future. The wines are really lovely.

This is what they say:

In an industry that is awash with overly commercialised wines produced by corporates who take up all the elbow room, shout noisily across the table and flood the market with mass produced wine that are often guised as ‘boutique wines’, we wish to make a humble stand and be vanguardist in our methods. V is a nod to the small guys looking to keep it real, forever striving to unlock the imagination and inspire those with curious palates.

There are two tiers to the range: there are the more simple, but smashable C’est Facile wines, and then the top, wax-sealed bottles with initials as their names.

Vanguardist Wines C’est Facile Riesling 2016 Clare Valley, Australia
11.3% alcohol. 80% stainless steel and 20% barriques. This is really pure, lemony and dry with a lovely delicacy. There’s some mineral character here, with an almost spicy undercurrent to the citrus fruits. Lovely detailed finish. 92/100

Vanguardist Wines CVR 2016 Clare Valley, Australia
11.7% alcohol. 100% Riesling. One third was fermented in an open top fermenter, like a red wine, and then basket pressed. Full yellow colour with a slight haziness. Lovely fresh, mineral, spicy citrus fruits dominate. It’s dry and really textural with a hint of green tea and a bit of tannin hiding under the fruit. A hint of apple and wax, but the driving force is a lovely lemony purity. Nicely complex and long. 94/100

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Vanguardist Wines C’est Facile Grenache 2016 McLaren Vale, Australia
13.8% alcohol. 25% whole bunch, wild ferment, aged in old barrels. There’s a real freshness to this wine with bright, linear black cherry and blackberry fruit, plus hints of sappy greenness, fine spices and ginger. It’s superbly drinkable, with silky texture and a fresh, pure personality. Elegant and quite Pinot Noir-like, with focused fruit but also a hint of warmth, and just enough structure and acidity to keep things well balanced. A lovely wine. 93/100

Vanguardist MVG 2016 McLaren Vale, Australia
13.7% alcohol. 100% Grenache from old, dry grown bush vines in the high sands of the Blewitt Springs. Initially a tiny bit stinky, this settles down to reveal a beguiling aroma of sweet cherry fruit with fine spices and a hint of citrus. The palate has lovely concentration, but this never gets in the way of the beautiful poise to the spicy, slightly grippy, textured cherry and strawberry fruit, with some fine waxy, sappy hints. There’s fruit here, and some of the fruit characters are quite ripe, but there’s also freshness and a strongly savoury, spicy dimension. There’s earth, leather and herbs as well as liqueur-like red fruits. Lots of potential for development here, too. 94/100

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New releases from Neudorf, Nelson, New Zealand

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Just tried a lovely set of new releases from leading Nelson winery Neudorf.

Neudorf Rosie’s Block Chardonnay 2016 Nelson, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. This has lovely richness, but because it’s combined with a zippy freshness, it’s not overblown. Fine spicy notes complement the ripe tangerine, lemon and pear fruit, with some mealy depth and there’s nice weight and structure. The acidity is high but well integrated, and there’s a crystalline quality to the citrus fruit that forms the base of this wine. Finishes long and fresh, with potential for development. 94/100

Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2016 Nelson, New Zealand
From Moutere clay/gravels, this is organically farmed with no irrigation. Wild ferment and natural malolactic with 12% new oak. Unfined and unfiltered. Finely spiced with keen citrus fruit and good acidity, this is tightwound and complex, showing precise flavours of pear, lemons and a bit of grapefruit pith. There’s a bit of warm spiciness from the oak, but it’s very well integrated. With high acidity and restrained fruit ripeness, this has all the ingredients needed for happy development in bottle over the next 10 years. Great concentration and intensity, but no heaviness. Currently very tight and backward, as you’d expect. 94/100

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Neudorf Tom’s Block Pinot Noir 2015 Nelson, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. Unfined and unfiltered. Clay/gravel soils from sites in the Moutere hills. This has a seductive nose with floral, tar and herb notes as well as sweet black cherry fruit. The palate has sweet dark fruits but also a brooding, more savoury character. It’s expressive and a bit grippy on the finish, balancing the sweet fruit with savoury notes in a really attractive way. 92/100 (UK retail c. £21)

Neudorf Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Moutere 2015 Nelson, New Zealand
13.5% alcohol. From the clay/gravel slopes of the Neudorf home vineyard, this is wild yeast fermented and aged in French oak for 12 months. Unfined and unfiltered. There’s a warm perfume to this wine with notes of cinnamon and dried herbs hiding behind the sweet cherry and plum fruit. Lovely texture in the mouth, showing a silky elegance but also some savoury spiciness. There’s fresh cherry fruit, some cedary spice and some hints of meat and herbs. This could be a nice mid-term ager, but it’s already drinking quite well. 93/100 (UK retail c. £31)

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Is elevated atmospheric CO2 to blame for rising alcohol levels in wine?

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Lisa Perrotti-Brown of the Wine Advocate recently published an article that caused quite a stir on the Internets. Lisa begins by saying that that the rise in alcohol levels in many wines is inexplicable. It has left her scratching her head. She’s puzzled, as are many of the winemakers that she’s been speaking with. Baffled, in fact:

Based on my experience and many conversations with winemakers, I can assure you, we critics and winemakers have been scratching our heads. Here’s our baffling modern era phenomenon: we can see that ripe phenolics (e.g. tannins) and flavors (a myriad of different compounds) are lagging further and further behind sugar accumulation in grapes with practically every vintage. And for sure, in not every case are higher than average growing season heat, sunshine days, modern vinicultural practices and/or stylistic preferences the obvious reasons. It appears that, to achieve the same physiological ripeness and qualities of wines we have known and loved in the past, we’re having to accept wines at higher and higher alcohol levels, seemingly with every vintage.

As I’m writing this I’m drinking a Pinot Noir from California (Jamie Kutch’s Signal Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge), that’s just 12% alcohol, and tastes beautifully ripe. And yesterday I met with Francisco Baettig of Errazuriz who has brought alcohol levels down in their icon wines from close to 15% to bang on 14%, and the wines are better for it. Mick and Jeanine Craven make a lovely Faure Syrah from Stellenbosch (warm climate) that’s below 12% alcohol and isn’t hard and mean! So I’d begin by questioning Lisa’s view on what constitutes ripeness, and her assertion that this is all that baffling. If you pick late in warm climates, you’ll end up with high alcohol levels. But more on that later. The real issue I want to address is the theory Lisa proposes for this problem with high alcohol.

Here’s the million dollar question: Why do the sugars in grapes appear to be rising at a much faster rate than rising temperatures (or not) around the planet alone would account for? The obvious culprit to consider is the impact of the dramatic increase in CO2 in our atmosphere since the industrial era.

She then goes on to propose a theory that rising CO2 levels increase plant photosynthesis, which results in higher production of carbohydrates. This in turn, she says, causes sugar levels in grapes to rise, and in advance of phenolic/flavour ripeness. If we want our wines to have proper flavour, she asserts, we are therefore going to have to live with higher alcohol levels. Lisa then proposes that one solution to these higher alcohol levels would be watering back wines, so that you can have ripe flavours and sensible alcohol levels.

She concludes:

This discussion clearly needs more dedicated research in order to draw definitive conclusions, but I strongly feel it is time to open this discussion. In my view, this is one of the most important issues facing our wine industry and, even more importantly, our food chain.

So, I’ll take the invitation she offers and join the discussion. The theory she proposes sounds quite interesting: but is it scientifically plausible? Does higher atmospheric CO2 result in faster accumulation of sugars in grape berries, making it hard to harvest ripe grapes without high potential alcohol? Let’s dig a bit deeper into this issue.

First of all, there is no doubt that CO2 levels have risen. From 1700-1850 they were pretty steady at around 280 ppm. Then, around 1900, things started changing, with vastly increased CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. By 1960 they had reached 320 ppm, then by 1990 they hit 350 ppm, and now they are at around 400 ppm. Projections are that by the end of this century, they’ll be around 700-800 ppm.

And there’s also no doubt that elevated CO2 levels are going to affect plant growth. But before we discuss that, let’s take a quick look at the process of photosynthesis. All life on the planet, with the exception of some weird things that live near deep sea hydrothermal vents, depends on photosynthesis. It’s the process by which plants take light, carbon dioxide and water, and make glucose and oxygen. The significance of glucose is that it’s the way the plant fixes carbon: everything in a plant is made using this process, and this carbon provides the skeleton for the organic (containing carbon) molecules that make up the structure of plants. The plant takes up mineral ions and nutrients from the soil, and uses these to combine with carbon skeleton to make stuff. Basically, plants are very sophisticated chemical factories.

Photosynthesis can be limited by three factors: light, temperature and carbon dioxide. If all three are increased, then the rate will increase, until one of the three is in short supply. Generally speaking, CO2 is the limiting factor quite a bit of the time. Part of the reason for this is that opening up the special pores on the leaf surface, known as stomata, allows precious water vapour to escape. So the plant does a calculation: I need the CO2, but I also need the water. When water is short, and I’m losing too much of it, I’ll close my stomata, and just stop photosynthesizing.

So, we have global warming. CO2 is playing two roles here: its role as a greenhouse gas in elevating global temperatures, and also its role as a frequent limiting factor in photosynthesis. And temperature also stimulates photosynthesis, up to a point: if temperatures are too high the plant will close its stomata and stop photosynthesizing. So if we think about plants adapting to climate change, we need to explore the potential dual roles of elevated CO2 concentrations.

This has been widely researched in important crop plants. Elevated CO2 levels increase the rate of photosynthesis. But they also decrease water use by plants: this is because plants don’t need to open their stomata so often to get the same dose of CO2. The production of leaf ‘non-structural’ carbohydrates increases, and the levels of nitrogen decrease. This is likely because there is a lower need for water, so fewer nutrients (dissolved in water) are taken up by the roots. This decreases the rate at which nitrogen is incorporated into organic products made by the plant: in other words, plants produce more carbohydrate and less protein.

This is where we need to start thinking about the implications for ripening of grape berries. Lisa’s assertion is that more photosynthesis means more sugar production, which in turn results in more sugar accumulation in grape berries, in advance of flavour ripeness. This ignores the fact that grape berries are themselves individual, sophisticated chemical factories.

Berry ripening consists of two distinct phases, separated by a lag phase. Berries are for the birds, and they are designed as a dispersal mechanism for seeds. In the first phase of growth, the seeds develop, and the berry chemistry is designed to make these developing berries unpalatable. They accumulate high levels of acids, tannins and methoxypyrazines, and they taste nasty. Then there’s the lag phase: they stop growing. The seeds mature. And then there’s veraison, where everything changes. This is where the berry decides it is going to put all its focus into making itself appealing to birds. It changes colour, the skin softens, it swells, the acid levels drop, the tannins begin to change and nice flavours begin to develop. And, of course, it becomes sweet.

But this ripening is a tightly regulated biochemical process. For the preceding four months or so the vine has been busy photosynthesizing, but sugars haven’t been accumulating in the berries. It’s now that the berry begins to accumulate sugars, and this is an active process. There are proteins in the cell walls that decide to let sugars through: they don’t just turn up uninvited. There are three families of proteins important in this process (acidic invertases, sucrose synthases, sugar transporters), and there’s also some biosynthesis of sucrose within the berry itself. This is not a simple matter of the vine photosynthesizing more and the sugar levels correspondingly increasing in the berries. This fact is reinforced by the observation that plant hormones such as abscisic acid (ABA) and brassinosteroids play a crucial role in berry ripening. The environmental signaling, mediated by these hormones, has a strong role in ripening. Viticultural interventions such as leaf removal, dropping crop, canopy management and deficit irrigation, for example, rely on influencing plant signaling which in turn affects ripening in complex ways.

So let’s look at attempts to study this in grape vines. One Italian group have worked on this using a technique called FACE, which stands for free-air CO2 enrichment, which is a good technique because it avoids using chambers, which can alter growth patterns. They found that when CO2 was elevated, the acids and sugars increased in the developing grapes. But by grape maturity, there were no differences in berry composition caused by higher CO2. As for global warming, their conclusion was that higher CO2 on its own had very little effect and that any yield-increasing effects were mitigated or cancelled by the higher temperatures that rises in CO2 cause. In the discussion in their paper, they point out that while for annual and perennial plants elevated CO2 increases biomass, crop yield and light/nutrient/water use efficiency. But for a crop like a vine, that sees this increase over many years, the initial increase in photosynthesis might be down-graded because of the plant’s response to excess accumulation of carbohydrates.

Another experiment was carried out on Touriga Franca grapes in the Douro region of Portugal, this time using chambers. They looked at a range of parameters, and found significant differences between the control plants and those grown in higher CO2. But when it came to berry composition (they also made wines from the different treatments) there were no significant differences. The quality of the wines produced was pretty much unaffected by the higher CO2 levels.

More recently, a project has begun in Australia, and the preliminary results have been published (although this project is ongoing). Rachel Kilminster and colleagues have collaborated in studying a Shiraz vineyard in the Murray Darling region. So far they have studied the effects of elevated CO2 and temperature on the vines over two growing seasons. They have found that elevated temperature has a stronger effect in advancing the phenology (the rate at which the vine goes through its growth stages) than elevated CO2. The higher CO2 affects starch levels (known as non-structural carbohydrates) because of a higher rate of photosynthesis. There was no difference seen in the water-soluble carbohydates (sugars), suggesting that sugar levels are actually quite tightly regulated in vines. The higher CO2 treatments increased the carbohydrate status of the plants (vines store carbohydrate in their trunks and roots as a reserve), and the result of this was increased grape yield. Interestingly, higher CO2 resulted in better acid levels in the grapes, but there were only minor differences in anthocyanin and tannin levels.

So where does this leave Lisa’s hypothesis that higher alcohol in wine is a result of runaway sugar levels in grapes caused by elevated atmospheric CO2?

The science doesn’t seem to back it up. The reality is much more complex than the simplistic picture that she paints. A faster-growing, bigger vine, doesn’t necessarily mean higher sugar levels in grapes as they develop.

Nor do anecdotal observations. Atmospheric CO2 levels have risen in an almost linear fashion, but high alcohol wine suddenly became a problem in the mid-to-late 1990s, almost out of nowhere. And it’s quite region specific: regions where American critics, with a stylistic preference for sweeter-tasting wines with very soft tannins from the outset, have been powerful. The evidence suggests that alcohol became an issue with changing stylistic preferences for bigger, sweeter red wines.

There’s no doubting that climate change is having an effect on the world’s wine regions, and in many cases there are problems where harvest time is being pulled into summer conditions, where sugar levels rise rapidly in a short space of time, rather than the more customary autumnal conditions. But there’s no need to invoke a direct effect of higher CO2.

In many regions, there’s a move to picking earlier, and the resulting wines are often purer, taste nicer, will age better, and require less adjustment in the winery. This seems to suggest that higher alcohol levels, to a large extent, are an avoidable consequence of the ill-advised flirtation by many winemakers with sweeter, riper red wines, and a misconception of the nature of appropriate grape ripeness. The wine world had a moment of madness, and it seems that in many regions good sense is now prevailing. If you are picking late, looking for soft, ripe, smooth tannins and a sweet fruit profile in your red wines, then you may well have a problem with higher alcohol levels. Good viticulture (trying to get even ripeness) and picking at the right time is the answer to this.

Note added later: I’ve seen some of the responses to this piece, and I thought I’d emphasise that I’m not doubting that in some regions, it is getting much trickier to harvest certain varieties at good flavour ripeness but sensible potential alcohols. It’s just that we don’t need to invoke rising CO2 as a direct contributor because of its effects on photosynthesis and then berry sugar accumulation, particularly when there’s no evidence yet that this relationship exists. But CO2 could be having an indirect effect: higher levels of photosynthesis (if there is no acclimation by the vine) could increase vine carbohydrate reserves. And this could have the effect of advancing phenology, bringing harvest into a warmer part of the year. Rising temperatures (global warming) will also affect phenology. It’s this advancing of the ripening cycle that leads to the issues with high rates of berry sugar accumulation, I suspect. I’d also point readers to another article on this topic from Dr Glen Creasy, a researcher from New Zealand, here.

Tasting the icons and Pizarras wines from Errazuriz with Francisco Baettig

Francisco Baettig

Francisco Baettig

Yesterday I met with Errazuriz winemaker Francisco Baettig, tasting some new releases. He’s the man behind the ‘icon’ wines of Errazuriz owner Eduardo Chadwick, and also the new venture in coastal Aconcagua, Las Pizarras. In recent years, Francisco has been on a journey which has seen him change the style of the icon wines significantly, and they are much better for it.

‘I started to struggle to drink my own wine around 2007,’ he recalls. ‘Then I started to think how to change the style a bit.’ He met with fellow Chilean winemaker Mareclo Retamal in 2008, and the two of them tasted together. ‘I thought I should try to take the alcohol and oak down. I started to put this in place little by little.’

But it’s not easy turning a big ship around. ‘The icons had a history and style so I had to be cautious,’ he says. He started in 2010 by picking a bit earlier, working on the winemaking, using less new oak and selecting coopers that produced barrels with less impact on flavour. ‘All these wines were 14.5% alcohol on the label,’ Francisco explains, ‘which means nearly 15%. From 2010 on they went to 14%. 2013 and 2014 saw a change. I’d been managing the vines differently and could pick earlier. But 2015 is the real shift in style.’

Francisco adds that over the last 15 years, his own tastes have changed. ‘When you start making wine at 25 where you don’t have a lot of wine from overseas and don’t travel much, you try to satisfy the market.’

‘My own change moved from sweet to acid and dryness. It’s a natural evolution. You start like a child liking sweetness, then you like olives and acidity, and once you get there you can’t go back.’ He now values balance, freshness, drinkability and tension.

‘In the end it is about us beginning to interpret the Chilean terroir. It’s not Bordeaux.’ He’s managed to tone down the sweetness of the fruit, the wines are now purer, and he thinks they will age better. ‘I got rid of the eucalyptus and mint notes and the wines are cleaner and purer.’

He describes this shift as like following a path. ‘The wine has to be successful in the market place. I took a few steps in the direction, and we kept getting good results. Errazuriz already had good vineyards: it was fine tuning – a refinement of what we had, in a cautious way.’

Errazuriz Don Maximiano 2015 Aconcagua, Chile
14% alcohol. The main estate in Panquehue, which is a bit warmer, 80 km from the ocean. Most of the vineyards here are colluvial, but most of this comes from Max 5 which is alluvial. It has better drainage and is a little cooler. ‘I got rid of a good proportion of sweetness in the palate and there is more tension,’ says Francisco Baettig. ‘It still has very round tannins, but with more intensity and vibrancy. I diminished to new oak proportion to 70%, and added some other varieties to lift the nose.’ The blend is 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Carmenere, 8% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. 6000 cases produced. Sweet, intense, pure blackcurrant fruit here with some structure on the palate. Has a nice tension: this is a ripe wine, but it’s in balance. There’s a bit of blackcurrant pastille character, with just a hint of rubber in the mix. Good focus and structure, with a slight floral twist to the fruit. Shows good balance and will likely age very well. 93/100 (See this report on a visit here)

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Seña 2015 Aconcagua
13.5% alcohol. In the middle of the Aconcagua valley in a cooler place, 40 km from the ocean. The structure of the tannin is a bit more firm, says Francisco. 22 months in barrel, 65% new, and 12% is aged in Stockinger Foudres. 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 201% Carmenere, 12% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. This shows lovely restraint, with good structure and acidity underpinning the sweet black cherry and blackcurrant fruit. There’s some floral lift and a hint of olive, giving a slightly Mediterranean feel to the fruit profile, but the palate seems dry and structured, with real potential for development. Lovely weight and focus. 94/100 (5500 cases) (see this report on a visit to Seña)

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Viñedo Chadwick 2015 Maipo
13.5% alcohol, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Historically, I harvested this on 15 April. In 2014 I picked half in March, half in first two weeks of April. In 2015 I picked everything in March. In 2016 it was late, everything was picked in first two weeks of April, and in 2017 it was picked in March again (a small, early crop). 15% Foudres (2500 litres), and overall 70% new oak. Sweet and textural yet really fresh with lovely elegance and purity. There’s a freshness and directness to the blackcurrant and black cherry fruit, with good acidity. I love the combination of silky, pure fruit with good acidity, freshness and structure. This should age beautifully. 95/100 (800 cases) (see this report on a visit)

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Las Pizarras is the new project in the coastal Aconcagua. ‘2015 was all about the Chardonnay, but the 2016 I’m very happy with the Pinot. We did roughly 15% whole cluster, and the new oak is 33% for 14 months. I do mainly pump over and not a lot of punch down.’

‘In the past I used to send the wine straight to barrel but had to rack some lots because they were reduced. So now I finish the fermentation and decant them for around 10 days to get rid of the heavier lees, then I send them to barrel and don’t have to rack them for the next 12 months, and there are no reduction problems. I take a month to do the SO2 correction: if you do it in one shot the wine will recover but not 100%, so I do it very slowly.’

Errazuriz Las Pizarras Pinot Noir 2016 Aconcagua Costa, Chile
Beautifully fresh and perfumed with lovely red cherry and plum fruit. Such haunting perfume, with real detail. Bright and focused on the palate with a hint of sappiness, and good structure and acid sitting under the silky, pure red fruit. There’s a hint of savoury blood and iodine character adding interest. Lovely mineral edge, too. Fresh and pure with potential for development. This is a beautiful wine, up there with the best new world Pinots, and the best I’ve had from Chile yet. It’s just a shame that it’s not more affordable, but even for a wine without a track record, it sells (£70). 96/100 (500 cases)

Errazuriz Las Pizarras Chardonnay 2016 Aconcagua Costa, Chile
13% alcohol. Whole bunch pressed, wild ferment, 50% malolactic, 14 months in French oak, with 15% new. pH 3.15, which is low, but the 2015 had a bit more tension. This is taut and focused with lovely sweet pear and apple fruit, with some citrus freshness. There’s good acidity, but also some generosity to the fruit, with ripe characters and a touch of mealy, nutty character. The oak is really well integrated. Currently in quite a tightwound, dumb phase, with with the potential to age really well. Serious effort. 94/100

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New releases from urban winery Ldn Cru, Gavin's last

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Gavin Monery, winemaker, Ldn Cru

Yesterday afternoon I met with winemaker Gavin Monery, to taste through the new wines from urban winery Ldn Cru, plus the previous vintage. It was Gavin’s last tasting, but he was keen to show the wines because he’s very proud of them.

london cru

There have been changes at Roberson, the wine agency company behind Ldn Cru. Cliff Roberson’s daughter Talya has taken over from her father, and for various reasons it means that Gavin is no longer able to work with the same vineyards going forwards, and for him this was a significant change, as he’d spent a long time sourcing these and also cultivating relationships. So Gavin is moving on, to Vagabond Wines to do a similar project in Battersea, and he will also be making some wines for Vagabond in situ. For example, In February will be going down to South Africa to make Old vine Cinsault and Chenin. Vagabond have customers already who can buy even small parcels of wine, whereas Ldn Cru had to sell to restaurants, which made the project a bit tougher.

But he leaves on good terms. ‘Roberson is a great company and I love what they’ve done,’ says Gavin. ‘I’ll always be really grateful to them.’

So, the wines. From 2015 onwards all the wines got a special cuvee name related to the variety they are made from, and a date underneath indicating vintage. ‘Because we ship fresh grapes we are not allowed to use the variety or vintage,’ Gavin explains. These latest releases are very impressive wines.

ldncru

Baker St Bacchus 2016 England
Sandhurst (Kent) and Great Whytman in East Anglia (Essex). The Essex fruit comes in a bit riper. Beautiful aromatics here. Very fresh and tangy with floral, grassy, elderflower notes. Crisp with good acidity and a hint of pith. Really bright and convincing. 89/100

Abermarle St Albariño 2015 Rias Baixas
From a vineyard in Salnes. Very lively and pure with real intensity to the lemony fruit. So fresh and lively with keen acidity. Hints of pith with a bit of grip. Pure, direct and very impressive. Finishes lemony and vivid. 91/100

Charlotte St Chardonnay 2015 Limoux
12% alcohol. Limestone soils. The soil here is white. 1 new barrel out of 18 this year. There’s a lovely freshness to the bold pear, apple and white peach fruit. There’s some richness to this wine, but also a lovely taut, mineral character, with just a hint of nut and toast from the oak. Very fine and expressive. 92/100

Chardonnay 2014 Limoux
12% alcohol. Did a bit of work with turbidity this year. There’s lovely freshness, with lemons and tangerine, and a bit of citrus pith, too. This has a linear personality, with nice bright fruit and some subtle nutty notes. Finishes with a hint of bitterness. 91/100

Pimlico Road Pinor Noir 2016 Limoux
Pure limestons soils. Two tanks, one had 40% whole cluster, the other 30%. Very little extraction. Went into old barrels. Very pure, vivid, juicy and supple with red and black cherry fruit as well as some spiciness. There’s a hint of rhubarb, with nice grip under the fresh fruit. Youthful and vivid, and needing a little time to open up. This is impressive, with nice acidity. 90/100

Grenache 2014 Calatayud, Spain
90 year old bush vines, 1000 m altitude, open fermenter, one punch down a day. Beautifully fresh with fine-grained raspberry and cherry fruit with nice weight. Hints of leather and liquorice. Has nice acid structure. 92/100

Gresham St Grenache 2015 Calatayud, Spain
Silky and vivid at the same time with lovely ripe raspberry fruit, and some cherry liqueur notes. Sweetly fruited yet really fresh with some bitter plum notes on the finish. Juicy and really vivid. Has potential for development. 92/100

Barbera 2014 Piedmont, Italy
20% new oak. Spicy, vivid and lively with high acidity and a bit of grippy structure, but also lovely pure fruit. This is silky and fresh with pure berry and cherry fruits as well as a bit of spice, pepper and tar. Juicy and bright. 91/100

Barbican Barbera 2015 Piedmont, Italy
20% new oak, to season the barrels for the other varieties. This has real grip and intensity, with some tannic grip and a bit of tar and spice. There’s direct blackberry and cherry fruit with a tarry twist. Fresh and intense with a taut personality but also lovely expressive fruit. 91/100

Kings Cross NV
65% Syrah, with some 2016 as well as a majority of 2015, 15% Barbera, 15% Grenache, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Ripe but restrained with good concentration of berry and blackcurrant fruit. Nice spiciness and lovely liqourice and leather hints. Sweet and a bit spicy with good structure. 91/100

Syrah 2014 Calatayud, Spain
40% whole cluster. Juicy and fresh with some pepper and liquorice, as well as smooth but well defined black cherry and blackberry fruit. Has lovely focus and nice structure. There’s high acidity, but the wine tastes ripe. Very fine. 92/100

Sydney Street Syrah 2016 (barrel sample) Calatayud, Spain
12.8% alcohol. Low alcohol, high acid. 950 m altitude, in Calatayud. Very fresh and expressive with ripe raspberry and red cherry fruit. There’s some lovely peppery detail with juicy acidity helping provide structure. Grippy and taut, this has lots of potential. 91-93/100

Sydney Street Syrah 2015 Calatayud, Spain
50% whole cluster. Nice concentration and some real elegance here, with pepper and spice. Notes of liquorice, dried herbs and nice weight. Lovely weight here: fine and fresh with lovely ripe berry fruits and some raspberry freshness. This is really good, and will get better. 93/100

Cabot Sq Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 Languedoc
Red clay over limestone. Lovely vivid blackcurrant fruit with nice acidity and good tannins. Structured and well defined with nice juiciness and lively acidity. Taut, backward and with potential to develop. 93/100

Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Languedoc
Structured and dense with nice grip. Lovely sweet raspberry fruit with a savoury, spicy, slightly earthy edge to it. Firm and drying on the finish. A wine for the long haul. 92/100

Previous reviews of Ldn Cru are here, here and here.

Quinta da Romaneira Vintage Port 2015

quinta da romaneira

I’ve been enjoying this wine over the last few evenings. It’s a superb expression of a very fine year in the Douro, the 2015 from Quinta da Romaneira. I have no idea why this vintage wasn’t widely declared. Romaneira is a spectacular, well situated property in the Cima Corgo region of the Douro, and it has been revitalised by a team headed up by Christian Seely. Originally there was a hotel project here, but that died fairly quickly (the sorts of folks who want to spend €1000 a night on a hotel don’t have the time to schlep up the Douro, and when they do they generally need more entertainment than is on offer here), so now the vineyard project is separate from the accommodation side of things (now a private residence).

Quinta da Romaneira

Quinta da Romaneira

Quinta da Romaneira Vintage Port 2015 Douro, Portugal
19.5% alcohol. Deep coloured, this young vintage port has a highly floral nose with sweet blackberry jam and black cherry fruit. The palate is powerful and focused with sweet, intense, yet elegant black fruits. There’s a slight saltiness and some tarry, spicy detail, but overall this is a sort of Burgundian expression of Vintage Port, aiming at elegance yet not sacrificing longevity. 95/100

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