Why 'like what you like' is generally bad advice when it comes to wine

Here, I’m addressing some questionable comments made about wine tasting, including the oft-proffered advice, ‘like what you like.’

The first is that the trade is full of wine snobs. Usually, these wine snobs tend to be older males. This is not my experience at all. I travel a lot and I hang out with wine people in many cities. Most of them are younger than me, often by quite a lot, and I’d say the majority are female. And they aren’t snobs. I generally find these people curious about wine, and eager to help others discover interesting things. They usually have better palates than some of the famous critics, too.

The wine snob may not be completely dead, but he’s living in a care home on life support and doesn’t get out all that often these days, so you are unlikely to run into him. Mostly, when he is invoked, it is as a straw man by one of the wine populists, who – eager to win some argument – feels the need to control both sides of the debate. This way these populists can be right even quicker.

The second annoying thing is that people assume that if you have any wine expertise, you no longer have the ability to understand how normal people experience wine. This effectively sidelines the experts and leaves the field open for the populists. No doubt there are some people who are so absorbed in their field of interest that they are out of touch with ‘normal’ people, but it is vastly irritating when people make the assumption that this applies to me and all my peers who actually know quite a bit about wine.

In my case, I didn’t develop an interest in wine until I was 25, and I was married to someone who had no particular interest in wine (apart from drinking it) for 23 years, and all of our friends were non-wine geeks. Trust me: I have a lot of experience of how non-wine-geeks (non-involved consumers, to use the jargon) approach the wine category. I also interact with lots of non-wine product categories on a non-expert basis, and it doesn’t take much to use this experience to have some understanding of what wine must be like for normal people.

The third thing is where any criticism of wine is ruled illegitimate because it is rubbishing the taste of those who enjoy that wine. Stated like this, it sounds a silly thing to say, but it’s a surprisingly widely held viewpoint, especially by wine populists. This is the like what you like position.

One way the argument works is this. A particular wine sells millions of bottles a year. The populist says that because so many people enjoy this wine, therefore it is wrong of you to criticise it, because you are criticising the taste of normal people. If they like the wine, isn’t that all that matters? Another way the argument works is that a presenter will stand in front of consumers at a tasting. Eager to dispel the fear that these consumers feel about getting it wrong when it comes to wine (more on this later), they tell them: like what you like! There is no right and wrong when it comes to wine; it’s just what you like. And don’t let those wine snobs tell you that you are wrong in your tastes!

I have some sympathy with this position, but the problem with it is that it’s confused. Stated like this, the two viewpoints render all criticism illegitimate. Criticism isn’t illegitimate, of course, it’s just that there’s a problem with the underlying theoretical basis of these positions.

First, there’s a difference between personal preference and aesthetic appraisal. In the wine trade we compare our views on wine all the time, and we discuss our experiences and also give quality ratings. If what we were doing was merely to express our own hedonics (how much we liked the wine), it would be a little pointless. Then it’s just autobiography, and it’s not really relevant to anyone other than ourselves. Instead, in this context, our judgement is expected to have wider application: we think of it as being somewhat normative. That is, when I describe and rate a wine, I’m practising aesthetic appraisal. I am suggesting that my experience of the wine may have some relevance to you, the reader. If we sit down with a wine together we may talk about it, and as well as trying to describe its characteristics, we are assessing its merits. Personal preference and aesthetic appraisal are very different, and shouldn’t be confused, but often they are.

Say I sit down with you and there are three wines in front of us. The first is YellowTail Chardonnay; the second a Droin Premier Cru Chablis; the third a Kumeu River Chardonnay. We taste together. You state a preference for the YellowTail Chardonnay. If that’s all you are doing, then you are perfectly within your rights to prefer that wine to the others, and I would leave it there: I’d never suggest to you that you are ‘wrong’, or try to educate you, or rubbish your tastes. But if you had come to me as a student of wine, or had you expressed an interest in developing your understanding of wine, then we’d have a different discussion. Aside of your personal palate preferences at that time, we might discuss why the second wine is regarded to be a very fine expression of Chablis, and why the third was regarded to be one of the top Chardonnays from New Zealand. Then we might explore why the wines tasted the way they did given where they came from. And we could compare this with how the Yellowtail Chardonnay is made (including the scale of its production and how it gets the flavours it does). That is a very different conversation.

And it is perfectly legitimate to criticize something that is popular. We must also remember that just because millions of people purchase and consume a product, it doesn’t mean they enjoy it, and that they wouldn’t enjoy something else more. If I drive a certain car, it doesn’t mean that that is my preferred car – other factors influence my choice, not least of all economics. When it comes to wine, consumers can only buy what is in front of them, and fearful of making a poor choice they might settle for a brand that gives them a merely adequate experience. Remember also that for many people, wine is simply a commodity, and the pleasure comes from the consumption occasion, and the fact that it contains alcohol (a bit of self-medication perhaps?). The actual wine that is consumed is, for many, completely substitutable.

Now, let’s go back to the fear factor. It is true: if you bring a bunch of normal people into a room and give them six different wines to taste, then quite often they will express a fear of getting it wrong. Populists blame this fear on the wine trade, for not making wine accessible enough, and planting seeds of fear in the hearts of consumers that may one day germinate into a hatred of wine. It is of course, experts like me who are to blame, for not recommending their familiar brands in my column, and for saying that some wines are bad while others are good. It is said that the same consumers don’t have the same fear about beer or spirits. It’s the wine trade that is to blame.

This is all ridiculous. First of all, wine is a complicated product category. It’s vastly complicated and even wine professionals can feel a little intimidated at times. There’s nothing that can be done about it. And for most people in most situations, this isn’t a problem. They are happy ordering a glass of Chardonnay in a pub without any fear, or navigating the wine list in a bistro and picking a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, just as they might order a beer or a gin and tonic. But the situation where we see this fear emerge is a very unusual one: they are in a wine tasting! It’s an artificial situation. If you put me in a coffee tasting (a product category I have little real knowledge of) then I’d feel the same: I’d be afraid of getting it wrong, even though I wasn’t being tested. Yet we extrapolate from seeing the way non-involved consumers behave in a wine tasting in some village hall in the home counties, and think that therefore everyone is scared of the wine category, and it’s all the fault of the wine experts.

Thus we are all being urged to ride this wave of wine populism, where the very essence of what makes wine interesting and attractive has to be eliminated (or at least well hidden) and the people who help people on their journey into wine (the experts – sommeliers, buyers and writers) are cast as the baddies and ruled to be illegitimate. It’s crazy.

Tasting some wines from Uruguay

I tasted through a selection of Uruguayan wines with Wines of Uruguay ambassador Gabriela Zimmer. This organization brings together 22 of Uruguay’s 180 wineries who are focused on export. Most of them are family wineries.

Uruguay has 6400 hectares of vineyards, mainly spread around the perimeter of the country, with a focus on the Atlantic coast. The country has a temperate climate with a maritime influence. There’s very little influence of altitude (the highest point is 300 m), and in terms of soil types, clay/limestone soils predominate with gravelly soils in Maldonado.

There are no official subregions, nor are there any rules on grape varieties. Six of the 19 departments have significant vineyards, and I’ve included these in each note, but they aren’t official appellations. The variety split? Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc dominate the whites, but Albariño is becoming very popular, and Petit Manseng and Viognier have a following. For reds, Tannat is the flagship red grape, with 1700 hectares planted. Marselan and Cabernet Franc also feature.

As you can see, I found plenty to like with these wines.

Brisas Altos de José Ignacio 2018 Maldonado, Uruguay
Brisas is part of large winery Garzón. Bold and rich with nice texture, and ripe peach and apricot fruit. Shows its 14.5% alcohol: there’s real richness here. But despite the size there’s nice freshness, with some stony, spicy detail. Pretty and expressive on the finish. 89/100

Bouza Albariño 2018 Uruguay
This comes from Montevideo (Melilla) and Canelones (Las Violetas). 10% fermented in oak, six months on the lees. Fine and delicate with a slightly salty edge to the pear and apricot fruit. There’s some richness (14.5% alcohol) but also freshness and detail. Supple and expressive with nice weight and balance. 91/100

Carrau Juan Carrau Petit Manseng Gran Reserva 2017 Canelones, Uruguay
14% alcohol. 10 months in oak. Honeyed nose. Powerful and exotic with sweet peach and pear fruit with some melon richness, as well as marmalade and spice. Such depth and intensity here, with a sweet finish. Really distinctive. 90/100

Familia Traversa Noble Alianza 2017 Canelones, Uruguay
50% Tannat, 30% Marselan, 20% Merlot, 13.5% alcohol. Sweetly fruited nose with liqueur-like cherry fruit. Fresh chalky palate with nice bright, ripe, clean berry fruits and some red cherry character. Has nice fruit expression. Supple and quite balanced, with fine tannins. 88/100

Varela Zarranz 1888 Marselan 2018 Canelones, Uruguay
No added sulfites. Fermented in open barrels. Deep coloured, this is ripe and generous with luscious sweet cherry and plum fruit, with a slight saltiness. Has very rich fruit, but also freshness. A seductive style that just manages to stay on the right side of ripeness, and it’s clean and delicious. 91/100

Viña Progreso Cabernet Franc 2018 Canelones, Uruguay
14% alcohol, 6 months in oak. Experimental winery by the winemaker of Pisano, Gabriel Pisano. Seamless and stylish with smooth, ripe cherry and berry fruits. This is really attractive with some freshness. There’s a silkiness to the palate, which finishes with some fine-grained structure. 92/100

Pisano Family RPF Tannat 2015 Canelones, Uruguay
13.5% alcohol. Lovely concentration and balance here with sweet blackberry and cherry fruit. Has some structure with lovely brightness of fruit, as well as a bit of savoury depth. Somewhere between old and new world in style, with ripeness but also freshness and structure. 92/100

Varela Zarranz Open Cellar Tannat 2016 Canelones, Uruguay
13.4% alcohol. 12 months of oak. So fresh and supple with a nice subtle green edge to the vibrant, structured cherry and blackberry fruit. Lovely brightness and structure here: this shows amazing presence, and the tannins are beautifully integrated into the focused black fruits. Serious effort, carrying a tiny bit of oak on the finish. 93/100

Campotinto Tannat Gran Reserva 2017 Colonia, Uruguay
13% alcohol, 12 months in oak. Floral, aromatic nose. Concentrated palate with dense, sweet blackberry and cherry fruit, with nice ripeness. Fine with subtle green hints, a touch of seaweed, some pine and bayleaf, as well as liqueur-like fruit. A really impressive wine. 91/100

Batovi Tannat T1 2016 Cerro Chapeau, Rivera, Uruguay
This is from an inland region. 13% alcohol, 12 months in oak. Tar and gravel on the nose with sweet blackberry fruit. The palate is fresh with bold, ripe black fruits and some undergrowth elements and some gravelly notes on the finish, as well as ash and tar. Stylish wine, with real freshness. 90/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

 

 

London for wine lovers: the best places to drink good wine

I keep getting asked by people about places to drink in London, so here, off the top of my head, is a list of places that I can heartily recommend. They are in no particular order (although the first three are pretty much where I’d start), and I apologise to anyone who I’ve missed out who really should be here (I’ve not included places that are primarily restaurants in this list, or else it would be huge). I will try to revise this list from time to time. London is a great city for wine lovers right now.

 

Noble Rot

One of the best wine lists you can possibly imagine. Book for the restaurant area if you want to eat (top notch), or take your chances and do a walk in in the bar area (at the front; you can still eat but off a smaller menu). It’s only been with us for a few years, but I can’t imagine life without this place. They work hard to get hold of top mature wines, so there are often some quite special things on the list here.

 

Terroirs

Another favourite. Terroirs has been around for ages – in fact, it kicked off the natural/authentic wine scene in London. Food is excellent (very French, small plates) and the wine list is deep, and thrilling. Drinking and eating here is a life-affirming, happy experience. Champagne is the only weakness (there are only a few and they are expensive).

 

Newcomer Wines

Head out to Dalston for one of the most interesting wine lists in town, where you can drink some of the planet’s top natural wines more affordably than anywhere else. Particularly strong on Austria, which is a very exciting wine country at the moment. Food options limited but good (charcuterie and cheese), but you come here to open special bottles. I get very excited here. [It’s a retail wine shop as well as a wine bar.]

 

Winemakers Club

Tucked under the railway arches in Farringdon, this is a gem of a place. Lots of atmosphere, and a cracking wine list. Quirky is good. I don’t come here nearly often enough. It’s a retail outlet, too. Pricing is very fair (drink-in is retail plus £12!)

 

The Remedy

A brilliant wine bar. Compact, with a really superb list, and really nice small plates. Natural/authentic style, but plenty for all tastes.

 

The Sampler

An excellent wine shop which pioneered the use of enomatic machines for allowing customers to try wines before they buy. Brilliant selection, especially strong on grower Champagne, but covering lots of territory.

 

The Good Wine Shop

With branches in Kew and Chiswick, this is one of the best wine shops in the capital, with a brilliant selection. Worth checking out.

 

The Ten Cases

Centrally locates, this is one of London’s top wine spots. Informal dining with a brilliant wine list at decent prices. Lots to get excited about.

 

Hedonism

Astonishing wine shop. Yes, it’s blingy, and there are some crazy expensive wines on the shelves. But also some really cool things. And they have enomatics, so you can do some sampling. A museum of vinous excess. (Nearby Hide restaurant, under the same ownership, allows you to drink anything from Hedonism for £30 corkage, which makes it the cheapest place to drink super high end wine in London.)

 

Berry Bros & Rudd

Not a cheap place to buy wine, but an excellent selection in a lovely retail space at 63 Pall Mall. They hate natural wine, but this is a great place to come for high-end conventional, and fancy kit if you are feeling spendy.

 

Soif

Super cool natty wine bar with good food options and a stellar list. They are owned by Les Caves (as are Terroirs), but often the rare stuff on the list won’t be raided as quickly here as it is in Terroirs. Worth trecking out to Clapham for.

 

Brawn

Used to be owned by Les Caves, now independent. Haven’t been for a while but reliably informed that it’s totally on form at the moment. Great natty list here. Small and beautiful is the way to go.

 

Wine Rooms

Kensington and Brackenbury both host outposts of this stylish wine bar, with good food options and a lovely list, ticking lots of boxes but particularly strong on new wave South Africa. Big selection of wines on enomatics so it’s good to taste through and explore.

 

Vagabond Wines

I haven’t spent much time in Vagabond, but they are another wine bar with decent food options and a good list that covers lots of ground, with lots of wine to sample on enomatic. Retail, too. Three locations in town.

 

The Wine Place

Based in South Kensington, this is a stylish wine bar that’s especially strong on Italian wine. It used to be exclusively Italian, but they’ve begun listing other wines, and they also have a large selection available to taste on enomatics. One to watch.

 

Vinoteca

If you want good food, good wine, and you don’t want to end up with an enormous bill, this is a really good option. Various branches, and I’ve always had a good experience here, and found plenty of good drinking on the list. Five locations in town.

 

The Laughing Heart

Haven’t been nearly often enough. Brilliant wine bar with a cracking list of interesting, authentic/natural wine, and a great atmosphere. Bonus: it’s open till late (2 am most nights).

 

Drop

The cheapest place to drink good wine in the Capital. It’s a small wine shop with a brilliantly alternative list of cool wines (this isn’t a natural place), and you can drink in for just £5 corkage. There’s also an associated app. This is a hidden gem.

 

Sager & Wilde

Both the small wine bar and the restaurant on Paradise Row are absolute destinations for wine lovers. Cocktails at Paradise Row are also quite special.

 

New Zealand Cellar

Part of POP Brixton, this small but very cool shop has an amazing selection of Kiwi wines. They also do some great tastings, too.

 

Handford Wines

Superb selection of wines in this shop. Very strong on South Africa and the classics – you can buy fancy things here if you need them.

For most wines, glass bottles make no sense

Me, in a vineyard in Spain – on a camping holiday c. 1980

In many classic wine-producing countries it used to be normal to visit a winery and buy wine directly from the tank, filling up your own container. This is a good thing: many wines don’t need to be bottled

How did you spend your childhood holidays? I have three siblings, and the four of us were taken camping every year by my parents. They were quite brave: the first time, my twin sister Anne and I were just over four, and my younger brother Arthur was fresh out, and my sister Hester was somewhere in between. And they took us camping to France. The first year we went to somewhere on the Atlantic coast and it rained solidly for two weeks, with only the occasional glimpse of the sun. 8mm home movies show flickering moving images of us all in coats, avoiding rain showers, and playing with the snails who were enjoying the weather.

My parents learned the lesson, and in subsequent years headed to the Mediterranean coast. Provence was next, but then there’s always the risk of the Mistral, and getting sand blasted on a beach isn’t so much fun. And even then, back in the late 1970s, it was busy as during August. After a few years they settled on Spain; first, Tarragona, and then a campsite near Valencia that was to become a perennial favourite. When my father went freelance in the early 1980s, the holidays became longer. One mammoth trip was six weeks, our entire school summer break. It was hot and sunny, and because it was even hotter inside the tent, we were outside all the time. My parents loved to relax on the beach and drink wine. And then, in the evenings, cook and drink wine. And they frequently visited bodegas in town where they’d take their own containers and fill them with inexpensive wine straight from the tank.

In many wine regions, buying en vrac like this (to use the French term) was the norm. It made sense: why bottle a wine when it is to be consumed in the very near future? It’s a waste of glass, and there’s also something wonderfully visceral and immediate about filling your own vessel with an honest, inexpensive wine straight from tank. The wine doesn’t have to taste all that nice: this isn’t the point. It is a daily staple, usually relatively light in alcohol and thirst quenching and digestible and true and affordable. Wine for the people.

There are many wines that really should never see a bottle. Of course, if you live some way from a wine region, the wine must be transported and kept in good condition during this journey. But there are alternatives to bottles, and I’m all for them, whether it is bag in box or bladder pack, or the new thing in restaurants: wine on tap. Two wine on tap systems are being widely used in the on trade: Petainer and Key Keg. They are both fabulous. The restaurant can either pour by the glass from the tap, or use the tap to top up carafes or bottles (which are then washed and re-used). It saves a lot of glass, and the wine is always in good condition. I welcome moves away from selling inexpensive wine in bottle. It really isn’t necessary.

 

Three from Marimar Estate in Sonoma, California

I tried these three wines from Marimar Estate.

Marimar is the second generation of the Torres wine dynasty, and sister of Miguel Torres Jr who until recently ran the Torres wine venture in Spain. In 1975 she married wine critic Robert Finigan and moved to California, and although the marriage lasted just four years, she stayed in California running Torres’ Sonoma outpost, named Marimar Estate. The Don Miguel vineyard was planted in 1983 at high density. 30 acres were planted to Chardonnay, and shortly after another 30 acres of Pinot Noir went into the ground. The location she chose was in the Russian River Valley appellation of Sonoma, some 10 miles from the Pacific and 50 miles north of San Francisco.

A second vineyard, Doña Margarita, was planted in 2002, in the Sonoma Coast appellation. There are 60 plantable acres here, although just 12 were planted in 2002 followed by a further 8 in 2005. All are Pinot Noir. After trials went favourably, the Don Miguel vineyard was converted to organics in 2003. Tilling is used for weed control rather than herbicides; cover crops such as peas, vetch, bell beans and oats are used, and composting is preferred over synthetic fertilizers.

Marimar Estate La Masia Pinot Noir 2014 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
14.5% alcohol. Organic. This is supple, savoury and spicy. There’s some ripeness here, with a glossy sheen to the red berry and cherry fruit, but also a distinctive savouriness, with notes of cedar, spice and leather. Quite structured, suggesting a good future ahead. Will reach a mellow maturity: currently the oak needs more time to integrate, although it’s already developing some harmony. 92/100

Marimar Estate La Masia Chardonnay 2017 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
13.5% alcohol. Peachy and intense, but with some nice yellow plum and mandarin notes, too. Has richness allied to freshness, showing generous stone fruit and a savoury, slightly cedary, fine grained edge. A lovely ripe expression of Chardonnay, showing good balance. Very fine. 94/100

Marimar Estate Acero Chardonnay 2017 Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
13.5% alcohol. This unoaked Chardonnay shows lively, ripe peachy fruit with some pineapple tropicality and also a bit of grapefruit freshness. The oak isn’t missed at all: its absence allows the intense fruitiness to show through. 91/100

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Some interesting bottles: Pico, Filippi, Field Recording, Haut-Bergey, Droin, Goodfellow

Some interesting bottles recently tried:

Goodfellow Whistling Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 Ribbon Ridge, Oregon
Planted in 1990, sedimentary soils, 20 months in French oak. Midweight in body with sappy, elegant red cherry fruit. Has lovely elegance and finesse, with a red fruit drive and nice fine-grained. Has such purity and focus. There’s redcurrant brightness and beautiful delicacy. Really nice acid line and purity, with restraint and elegance, but also layers of flavour. 95/100

Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin Chablis 1er Cru Montmains 2016 Burgundy, France
13% alcohol. Montmains, on the left bank, has a good proportion of clay in the soil, and makes richer wines with a resemblance to white Burgundy. This is a bold, complex wine with faint hints of cabbage and dried herbs. There’s lovely compact, bold fruit with toast, spice and pear fruit, with some white peach. It has a lovely mouthfeel, with many layers of flavour, showing hints of pith as well fine toast, and good acidity underpinning the rich fruit. This isn’t a steely, linear Chablis, but instead offers generosity and concentration, while retaining a good degree of precision. 94/100

Thomas Pico Chardonnay NV Vin de France
This is Thomas Pico’s (Chablis star) wine from the south of France, and although it’s NV the lot code indicates the vintage (2016). I tried it blind and my immediate thought was Jura Chardonnay. It’s very natural and expressive with baked apple, tangerine and a lovely spicy, mineral core. It’s quite open and expressive, with real finesse. Has some oxidative hints but they fit in beautifully. Fine grained and really textural in the mouth. 93/100

Filippi Castelcerino 2017 Soave Colli Scaligeri, Italy
70 year old Garganega vines, basalt soils, wild ferment, 18 months on lees. A bright, pretty, vital wine with a grainy structure under the bold apple and lemon fruit. Has some richness and a nice mineral streak. Lovely complexity here: the subtle oxidative hints really bring out the fruit and minerality in a very nice way. Proper wine. 92/100

Field Recording Chenin 2017 Central Coast, California
From three vineyards, planted in 1972, 1978 and 1981. This is complex and brooding, with some rich, honeyed notes framing the pear and apple fruit. There’s a bit of structure here, as well as some exotic tropical character. Lots of layers of flavour here: a really interesting Chenin that’s on the richer side but keeps its tension well. 93/100

Chateau Haut-Bergey 1999 Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux
This has some development, but it’s drinking really nicely now, with sweet plummy fruit and some black cherry, as well as hints of earth and undergrowth. This is mellow and harmonious, with some hints of malt and caramel, but still a core of good fruit. Has a fine spiciness, with some silky texture and some sour cherry on the finish. A great example of a Bordeaux red drinking at peak – it might not be the best wine of all, but it’s in a really good place and delivers a lot of pleasure. This is why we cellar Bordeaux. 93/100

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Some current releases from Aussie star producer Penfolds

These are some of the current releases from Penfolds, possibly Australia’s most famous producer. When I first got into wine in the early 1990s, Penfolds was a company I fell in love with, for their flavoursome reds – the Bin Series. There was the famous Bin 95 Grange (this was £35 a bottle and a little spendy for me), then the brilliant baby Grange, Bin 389 (about £12), then the Bin 28 and Bin 128 Shiraz wines for around a tenner. Bin 2 appeared on the market a bit cheaper, and sealed with a plastic cork (if I recall correctly)! And there was Koonunga Hill, which at that stage was a bargain and was agreeable (the grapes came from proper wine regions). Then, a few years later, things changed, and the top wines suddenly leapt up in price, and I started looking elsewhere.

Here’s a review of their wines from 2001, and another from 2015 (one of the benefits of having one of the first wine websites is this historical continuity).

This is a selection from the current range.

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling 2017  Eden Valley, Australia
12.5% alcohol, pH 2.87. This is really quite serious, with some richer tangerine notes alongside the powerful limey fruit. It’s quite seamless with hints of honey and toast, finishing a bit spicy with a twist of marmalade. A lovely wine. 92/100

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Chardonnay 2017 Southeast Australia
13% alcohol. This is sweetly fruited and generous with a hint of coconut and vanilla supporting the ripe peach and pineapple fruit. Has a hint of honeycomb, too. 85/100

Penfolds Max’s Chardonnay 2017 Adelaide Hills, Australia
12.5% alcohol. 20% new oak, 80% seasoned. This is powerful yet really fresh, with a brisk lemony edge to the bold pineapple and peach fruit on the palate. Quite seamless with some support from the spicy oak. Fresh, linear finish. Compact and finishes a bit austere. Well made. 90/100

Penfolds Bin 311 Chardonnay 2017 Australia
Used to be single region Tumbarumba; this vintage it’s Tumbarumba, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania. 12.5% alcohol, 8 months in French oak, 25% new. This is very fresh and linear with a bright citrus core and some supporting notes of flint, minerals, toast and spice. There’s some linearity and austerity here: a fresh, structured style that should age beautifully. Bold, concentrated and linear. 94/100

Penfolds Reserve Bin 17A Chardonnay 2017 Adelaide Hills, Australia
12.5% alcohol. 40% new oak. This is lovely. Made in a focused, linear style it has amazing freshness and intensity with lovely lemony fruit, and delicate spiciness, as well as some mineral notes. There’s a hint of struck match, some subtle almond and cashew nuttiness, and a long finish with well integrated acidity. Quite profound, and a benchmark example of the new style of Australian Chardonnay. 96/100

Penfolds Bin 144 Yattarna Chardonnay 2016 Australia
First vintage, 1995, was launched in 1998. This is the 22nd release, and it’s a blend of Tasmania, Henty, Adelaide Hills and Tumbarumba. 13.5% alcohol, 8 months in French oak, 35% new. Concentrated and quite dense, combining peach and spice richness with some lemony freshness. There’s some cashew nuttiness, a bit of brioche breadiness, and bold peach and nectarine richness. This is stylish wine, currently showing a bit of oak, with something going on at all points in the flavour spectrum. Needs time to integrate and develop some individuality. Lots of potential. 93/100

Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2017 South Australia
14.5% alcohol. 12 months in seasoned oak. Barossa, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Langhorne Creek, Coonawarra. Lovely nose of aromatic blackcurrant and blackberry fruit with some cherry notes and a pleasant green twist. Lovely balance on the palate, with some sweet fruit, nice juiciness, some green notes and a hint of chocolate and olive. 89/100

Koonunga Hill Seventy Six Shiraz Cabernet 2017
85% Shiraz, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.5% alcohol. Dense with rich, structured blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. Has some structure, a hint of mint, some rich tarry, spiciness and an acid bite on the finish. Very classic in style and should age nicely in the mid term. 90/100

Penfolds Max’s Shiraz Cabernet 2016 South Australia
McClaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Padthaway, Langhorne Creek, Barossa Valley. 14.5% alcohol. Aged in French and American oak with a very small proportion new. Juicy and generous with rich, sweet blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. Generous, rounded and smooth with subtle tar and mint notes alongside the lush fruit. 90/100

Penfolds Kalimna Bin 28 Shiraz 2016 South Australia
Named after the famous Barossa vineyard, this is now a multiregional blend. 14.5% alcohol. This is ripe but beautifully defined. There’s some black olive and cured meat savouriness here, alongside raspberry jam and black cherry, as well as a touch of blackberry. It’s fully ripe, but there’s also some nice savoury tension and a lovely grainy structure under the fruit. Very stylish expression of warm-climate Shiraz. 93/100

Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2016 Barossa Valley, Australia
This is aged in a mix of French and American oak, with a bit of new. 14.5% alcohol. It’s very fresh with good grippy structure under the focused but extremely ripe blackberry fruit. There’s some clove and juniper spiciness, and a twist of tar and wild herb, but the super-ripe fruit is the main theme here. Finishes quite tannic with a little bit of sour cherry and tar. A fairly serious, ageworthy, ripe Barossa Shiraz. 93/100

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2016 South Australia
This has now overtaken Grange as the most cellared wine in Australia. 14.5% alcohol. 12 months in American oak Hogsheads, 37% new. Barossa, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Wrattonbully. Concentrated and dense with lovely integrated ripe blackcurrant and blackberry fruit merging well with the spicy oak characters. Warm, fresh and concentrated, and already showing some generosity with the oak melting into the sweet fruit, but there’s clearly enough structure here – and this wine has a track record for this – to age very well. Satisfying and dense, and only really hinting at what this is capable of right now. 94/100

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2015 South Australia
First commercial release of this was 1957. Matured in large French oak vats. 14.5% alcohol. This is very ripe and exuberant, but with lovely freshness and structure. Dense blackcurrant and blackberry fruit with some hints of tar. No oak in the way, just lots of lush, layered black fruits, with a slight saltiness. This is really structured, but you can miss the structure because of the lushness of the fruit. It will age really well, even though it’s quite seductive right now. 95/100

Penfolds Bin 798 RWT Shiraz 2016 Barossa Valley, Australia
14.5% alcohol. 12 months in French oak, 72% new. This is a dense, ripe, seductive wine with sweet blackberry and black cherry fruit, supported by refined, spicy oak, and with some grippy tannins lurking in the background. This is a modern, polished, ripe expression of Shiraz which will develop very nicely. Perhaps pushing ripeness a little far, but it gets away with it, and the result is accessible and seductive, but also quite serious. Grippy, grainy finish. 93/100

Penfolds Bin 169 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Coonawarra, Australia
14.5% alcohol, 13 months in new French oak. Sweetly fruited and showing good concentration and freshness, this blends together refined blackcurrant fruit with spicy, cedary French oak. It’s seductive and appealing. Very ripe, but not over-ripe, this is certainly aiming at those who love lush fruit in their wine, but it has the substance to age well. Lovely stuff. 95/100

Penfolds Father Grand Tawny 10 Year Old
18.5% alcohol. Orange red in colour. Complex, very sweet and quite delicious with raisins, spice and notes of cherry, marmalade and fudge. This has a lovely sweet, seamless character, and it’s probably best served chilled. Long finish. 90/100

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London restaurants (5): The Ledbury

I’ve eaten out a lot. And this was one of the very best experiences I have had. The Ledbury has two Michelin stars, but I can’t imagine a restaurant being any better. I’d been before, on a few occasions, but not for a few years (the last trace I can find of a meal here on my blog is from 2009, a decade ago!). It was excellent then; it is better now.

What is so good about it? The whole experience, but particularly the staff. Incredibly professional, not at all fussy, and no duplication of effort. Perfect pace to the meal (we were first in at 1830, and last out – they don’t turn the tables here, even on a Saturday night), and a beautifully designed dining room that is busy without getting at all noisy. At this level, acoustics matter.

So, Saturday night at the Ledbury: you have two choices. A tasting menu of six courses, for £130. Or of eight courses, for £150. We opted for the former. I should add – and this is a policy I agree on – that a credit card is required to secure a booking, and if you don’t show, you still pay (£125 for dinner…). It’s a good policy that stops no-shows, which for a restaurant like this would be a problem, because there will never be any walk-ins. Of course, The Ledbury can do this. Most other restaurants can’t, alas.

Always good to start with a glass of Champagne, and this was a good one. The Ledbury opened in 2005, with the then young Brett Graham as chef (he’s still there). It got its first Michelin star in 2006, and a second followed in 2012. The proprietor is Nigel Platts-Martin, who also has La Trompette, half of Chez Bruce and the Glasshouse. All are among London’s best. Nigel also knows quite a bit about wine, too.

The wine list is just what you’d expect. It’s diverse, and functional, in that it covers all the bases, meeting the varied needs of the various customers here. There’s fancy, spendy stuff, but also safe havens for wine geeks. We ordered Domaine Labet’s La Reine Chardonnay, which is a stunning wine. Jura Chardonnay like this ticks a lot of boxes, and is versatile enough to work with the multi-course approach.

A mature red Burgundy: the Domaine Bachelet VV Gevrey-Chambertin 2009. Quite lovely.

Beaujolais: I was tempted by something more natural, but the 2014 Croix des Vérillats from Ch Moulin-à-Vent is a really lovely wine: classic and structured, with a silky sheen, and it won out.

Cheeseboard heaven to finish a beautiful meal. I can’t fault anything. Expensive but worth it, completely.

London restaurants:

Sea Star, wines from the Gulf Islands, British Columbia, Canada

You probably haven’t run into all that many wines from British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. Here’s a producer to look out for, though: Sea Star. They are located on Pender Island, which is in between Vancouver and Victoria at the foot of Vancouver Island, and make wines from grapes grown here and also on neighbouring Saturna Island. Not surprisingly, given their location, these are brisk, maritime wines with fresh acidity, and they are really nice.

Sea Star Stella Maris 2018 Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada
A blend of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Schoenberger and Ortega, organically farmed. Very aromatic and delicate with pure, fine citrus, table grape and pear fruit. Shows zippy acidity and lovely brightness, with just a hint of sweetness. Fresh, highly drinkable and nicely pure. 89/100

Sea Star Salish Sea 2018 Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada
Ortega and Siegerrebe. This is crisp and bright, with lovely linear, approachable, delicate grape and jelly notes with a touch of mandarin. Such purity and fruit intensity. Has a hint of sweetness on the finish. 90/100

Sea Star Siegerrebe 2017 Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada
Fruity and expressive with bright citrus and pear notes, as well as some lychee, tangerine and table grape. Has a bit of sweetness as well as bright acidity. Very pretty. 90/100

Sea Star Ortega 2018 Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada
11.9% alcohol. Fresh, pure and with nice precision and complexity. Shows mandarin and apricot notes, with a bit of melon, too. Has an intriguing texture and a long, spicy finish. Ripe and appealing with an expanding finish. It’d dry but the fruit profile is quite sweet. 91/100

Sea Star Vineyards Blanc de Noir Rosé 2018 Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada
Juicy and bright with redcurrants and cherries and a lovely citrus core. Very crisp and lively. 89/100

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Fun in Canada: Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria, for Top Drop

A Harbour Air seaplane flies over the Lion’s Gate bridge, Vancouver

I’ve just been out to Canada to take part in an event called Top Drop, which was held in three cities in the west of the country: Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria.

One of Vancouver’s beaches, reached by walking around the Stanley Park sea wall

These are a series of wine tastings designed to showcase interesting wine producers, who might otherwise not get seen at the larger trade tastings. The first edition of Top Drop was held in Vancouver, which is the largest of the three events, including a series of seminars, a trade tasting, and a public tasting. This year’s Calgary event was the second edition, and had a similar format. The inaugural Victoria event was a pop-up in conjunction with the Vessel wine store, and was solely a tasting (trade and public). My job was to give a couple of talks and also generally hang around the events. This is the Top Drop mission statement:

We believe in the importance in farming one’s own fruit and/or being constantly engaged with grape-growers to ensure sustainability and a high standard of viticultural practices. We believe in wines that reflect their vintage, and wines that aren’t suffocated by vinicultural trickery. We believe in winemaking decisions that are made by a winemaker, and not by a board of directors or marketing team. We believe in those who take chances.

It was great fun to take part in these well-supported, buzzy shows. I also got to see some of the culinary and wine scene of each of the cities.

Proof Bar, Calgary

It was my first time in Calgary, and I enjoyed it. I arrived in the evening and went straight to a brilliant cocktail bar called Proof. My goal was to stay up late enough that I’d sleep all the way through: good sleep on the first night is the key to making jet lag slightly less of a killer. I succeeded in this goal, with the help of a cocktail, a mescal and a craft beer.

Metrovino, Calgary

The next day, as well as the event, I went over to see the folks at Metrovino. This is a really good wine shop with a diverse selection of interesting wine. Alberta (the province that Calgary is in) has liberal liquor laws compared with other Canadian provinces that all have monopoly systems, and so the selection of wine in stores is usually pretty good. It was great to meet a wide range of hospitality folk in Calgary, and they were very welcoming and engaging.

Nightingale

Vancouver is a lot of fun, and has a thriving food and drink scene. I’ve been there are few times now. On the first night, a group of us dined at Nightingale, and I went back there for some brunch the following day. It’s a sister restaurant to the famous Hawksworth, and as well as impeccable cooking it has a really good wine list, which we raided quite extensively, with some good assistance from their sommelier team.

Buttermilk chicken at Nightingale: next level

Xisto and oysters at Nightingale

In the afternoon, I went to see a private liquor store, Legacy. It’s a big place in the Olympic village, with a large selection covering a wide range of prices and styles. But there are some really good niche things here, too.

Legacy wine store

Craft, Vancouver

I also drank some beer at Craft Beer Market, which is a large beer hall with over 100 craft beers on tap. We ate pickles and fries, and it was quite lovely.

Beer at Chambar

After the trade tasting on Friday I went out exploring with some of my new chums. With Maude (who I’d met previously when she worked for the Lifford wine agency), I hit Chambar. It’s a really great restaurant that I’ve eaten at before, and we had epic Belgian beer by the bottle with moules frites.

Juice Bar

Juice Bar with Maude

Then we headed over to Juice Bar, which is a natural wine joint offering well-priced bottles and small plates. We were joined by Kelcie, the wine director at Chambar, and her partner Michael, and we drank well and ate some things.

L’Abbatoir

Maude had to go to dinner, but the three of us who remained decamped to l’Abbatoir, another of Vancouver’s best places to eat and drink. (I had a quick lunch at sister restaurant Coquille the previous day – it’s a really nice seafood place.)

Top Drop folk

Then it was time for the after party at the Vancouver Club, where I was (conveniently) staying. It was one of those excellent late and memorable nights with an incredible energy and positivity to it.

Harbour Air on a good day

Saturday morning came too soon, and with it horrible rainy weather and zero visibility. We were due to take Harbour Air (the world’s largest commercial float plane operation) over to Vancouver, but it was clear that these flights were going to be cancelled. This was a shame: I was looking forward to flying with them again.

Instead, I had to wait five long hours to catch the Helijet out at 1530, which meant I missed the Victoria pop-up. Still, I had a relaxing couple of days on the island, including a lovely brunch at Sherwood, where my friend Treve does the drinks list that she’s titled ‘all day drinking,’ focusing on a small, well chosen list of lighter cocktails and precise, bright wines, including a good local selection. We tried a few, and I also had a Caesar, a uniquely Canadian take on a bloody mary with clamato (clam and tomato) juice instead of just regular tomato.

Ross Bay, Victoria

Brunch at Sherwood

Caesar!

Looking forward to heading back to western Canada again in July, when I’m returning to the Okanagan. Can’t wait.