Recently, I discussed the way that the internet has changed the landscape of wine writing. I considered the impact on wine writers of an enormous increase in the volume of published wine media. Against all this noise, I asked, how can a professional wine writer ensure that their voice is heard?
Now I’d like to address a pair of related questions: has the increase in volume of wine media resulted in increased choice for consumers of this media? And has quality suffered as quantity has risen? Are we drowning in a sea of mediocrity?
We have certainly seen a vast increase in accessible wine media over the last decade. In the past, though, almost all wine media used to pass through gatekeepers – editors. Now, a large portion is self-published, in the form of blog posts, content-based personal websites, social media, and even apps. I have no data on just how much wine media is self-published versus the amount that passes through editors, and I’m not sure you could compare the two even if you could develop a metric. Some professional writers are now taking a hybrid approach, with a slice of their output bypassing editors in the form of social media and self-published books.
Lovers of traditional print publications might suggest that despite the increased volume of accessible wine media, quality has actually gone down. They may have a point. Good editors do an important job in commissioning competent writers to produce valuable articles. Decent editorial budgets allow good writers to make a living out of writing. With print, you end up with more talented writers, who, given a decent fee, can do the necessary research and produce writing that is worth reading.
The internet has squeezed editorial budgets and reduced the range of print publications that can pay for content. Writers are paid less and have to write faster to make a living, as well as taking gigs that can compromise their independence. Editors have been leant on by their commercial departments and have to produce content that keeps potential advertisers happy.
While there’s a lot of free, self-published content on the internet, much of it is of poor quality. The twin gate-keeping jobs of editors – hiring people who can actually write and then editing their work to improve it – was an important quality filter, and without it, there’s a lot of unreliable, mediocre material being published.
But the counter view is that even before the internet put the squeeze on print publications, wine media weren’t exactly experiencing a golden age. Wine magazines were still full of advertising, the features were mostly boring and stereotyped, and editors weren’t doing a whole lot of editing. The roster of writers represented a bit of a closed shop, and some were pretty complacent. By lowering the barrier for entry, the internet has allowed new voices to emerge on the basis of merit. Also, social media has allowed everyone to join in the conversation, which is really exciting. Gone are the days of the expert dispensing wisdom to the reader with no further interaction.
I would love it if someone were to pay me to write one in-depth, illustrated, properly edited 8000 word article a month, funding my travel so I could be completely independent, allowing me the time to produce something exceptional (assuming, of course, that I am capable of exceptional work). In this way I’d love to be the wine writing equivalent of a low-yielding old vine. It would be incredibly satisfying. All I’d need is enough monthly income to cover my living costs. Imagine a publication filled with articles like this, in a magazine with high production values. Sadly, it’s not a business proposition in the current climate, and I don’t think there has ever been a wine magazine that has done this.
So, for now, I do what I do. I’m a high-yielding vine. I do the best I can within the existing constraints, and I try to make a living while adding something meaningful and lasting to the world of wine that I’m part of. This means embracing both print (with editorial gatekeepers), traditional book publishers (with commissioning editors), and the internet. I love what I do. I’d just like to be able to do it a bit better, I suppose.
So, today. Lunch at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. My first time. This is a remarkable restaurant housed in an old bike shed, and it’s only open weekday breakfast and lunchtimes. And it has no licence, so it’s BYO. But the food is amazing. Serious, and delicious.
Tucked away in a courtyard – part of an old school – there’s no sign telling you that you are actually here, in the right place. You press a buzzer on the gate and wander through, across the lawn, and there it is. Established a few years ago by Margot Henderson, wife of Fergus (of St John fame), this is an insiders’ sort of place. I had smoked eel with bacon and mash, and it was simple, perfectly cooked and utterly delicious. The potato & radicchio bake, and drumhead cabbage sides were also brilliant, and the quince crumble and jersey cream was worth getting fat for.
I brought two wines: corkage is just £5. The Norman Hardie Niagara Chardonnay 2013 was as delicious as I was expecting it to be, and then a rare bottle from Luis Pato. Far too young, but delicious anyway.
Luis Pato Pe Franco Valadas Vineyard 2011 Bairrada, Portugal
This is from a 0.4 hectare vineyard on chalky soils with ungrafted vines planted 8 years before this wine was made. Pato also has another ungrafted vineyard planted on sandy soils. This is a super-rare bottling, with only 23 magnums and 20 bottles made. Mine was number 16. Really, this was broached about a decade early, but how was I to know? It’s dense, rich and vivid but also has a nervous freshness to it, with a bright chalky quality to it, showing blackberries and cherries steeped in alcohol, with firm tannins masked by the fruit and good acidity. There’s maybe a touch of oak here, but it’s not troubling. Structured and youthful with real potential. 95/100
So the Swartland Revolution is no more. After six events, this remarkable wine festival has called it a day. It seems sad, but it’s a wise and brave decision. Everything has its time, and just as there is a time for beginnings, there is a time for endings. It takes courage to end something: it’s so much easier just to keep going, and only finish when you are forced to. But that’s rarely the best option.
I attended only once, back in 2011. It was superb, and everything was still fresh and vibrant. The Swartland really was where it was happening in South Africa at the time. Now though, there’s a vibrant wine scene drawing on vineyard sources throughout the Cape winelands. Many of the exciting young winemakers are now sourcing grapes from interesting vineyards across a range of regions.
So to carry on directing all this attention just to the Swartland seems a bit narrow. There’s still a lot of interesting stuff taking place in the region, for sure, but it’s no longer the epicentre of interesting South African wine that it once was. You can be young and hipster and source your grapes from Stellenbosch, now, and people will still talk to you.
Change. It can seem threatening and dangerous. Our natural tendency is to avoid it. But in wine as in life, you can’t stop time and preserve things just as they are. Time always progresses, and there are seasons and rhythms, and we have to adapt and progress. We can’t stand still, even if we’d quite like to stop the ride and get off for a bit.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the Swartland Revolution (and the associated producer’s association, the Swartland Independent), for the impact that they’ve had on South Africa’s fine wine dimension. They have provided a narrative theme around which lots of interesting, risk-taking, smart winegrowers have gathered. And the energy and creativity in the region has influenced others further afield.
Six years ago many of the Swartland guys were young. Now they’re older. So there remains the possibility that the real reason they pulled the plug on the revolution is that they can’t take those late nights anymore. As an international observer of what’s going on in the South African wine scene, I think they made a good call. There’s never been more great, interesting wine being made in South Africa, and what the Swartland guys have started has now really spread. I’m all for the contagion of interesting wine.
This wine is made by Giles Cooke and Fergal Tynan of Alliance Wine, in conjunction with Aussie winemaker Peter Leske. It’s a single vineyard, old vine Grenache from the Barossa, and it captures the more Pinot-like side of this variety, which I think is a good thing. Winemaking is small batch, with open fermenters, hand plunging, and ageing in large, mainly older oak. Giles says he’s looking for ‘vitality, energy, aromatics and texture,’ and I think he’s achieved that here. There’s also a Thistledown Vagabond Grenache from Blewitt Springs in the McLaren Vale, which is also really good. But my favourite is this Thorny Devil, with its floral aromatics and lovely texture.
Thistledown Thorny Devil Grenache 2014 Barossa, Australia
From the southern edge of the valley, this is highly aromatic with floral red cherry fruit and a lush, liqueur-like raspberry fruit quality. Supple and smooth in the mouth with bright fresh red cherry fruit. This is a bit Pinot-like, but has a grippy, spicy edge. Such a pretty expression of Grenache. 92/100
I’ve admired Craig Hawkins’ Testalonga wines for a while now. They are just so brave. And delicious. [See here, here and here for reviews.] This is his Chenin that’s made without skin contact. It’s fully beautiful, and has no additions at any point: it’s a truly natural wine. Just 10.5% alcohol, too!
Testalonga ‘Cortez’ El Bandito 2014 Swartland, South Africa Organically farmed vines from Tom Lubbe’s Observatory block in Bosgaasfontein; 42 year old vines. Pure, fresh and lemony with nice pithy notes. Direct and fine with nice ripe apple fruit, showing lovely purity. Linear with great acidity and a saline, mineral core. 94/100 (Slurp have it for £22.95, a few others have it for £25)
I’ve never really been all that interested in Sancerre Rouge before. But when you look at the terroirs, and then consider that it wasn’t all that long ago that this used to be a predominantly red wine appellation, you begin to think that there’s potential for some good Pinot Noir here. This is a lovely wine that’s not too expensive.
Eric Louis Sancerre Rouge ‘La Côte Blanche’ 2013 Loire, France
12.5% alcohol. This is a lovely sappy, textured Pinot with red cherry and plum fruit, as well as a nice spicy, herby, undergrowthy quality on the margins of this slightly tentative but satisfying lighter red. There’s a stony, mineral core, and it shows great balance. 92/100 (£15 Morrisons)
On the spur of the moment stopped in for a late Friday lunch at Social Wine & Tapas. This is such a good place to eat. The food is superb: creative, flavoursome and comforting. And the wine list is exceptional, especially if you are of the brave inclination, prepared to give wines with a bit of natural character a try.
Jamon, manchego toastie, quail’s eggs. Comfort food of the highest order.
Chargrilled carrots, burnt aubergine, miso, walnut pesto. Who could have thought carrots would taste so good? The burnt aubergine is a perfect accompaniment.
Slow-cooked egg, ox cheek dashi, creamed potato, black pudding. This is just so delicious. Savoury heaven.
Braised octopus, roast chorizo piperade. A nice combination; The coriander seedlings really brought it to life.
And to drink: something from the lower reaches of the wine list. £32, but still utterly delicious.
Domaine de Belle Vue Granit 2014 Muscadet, Loire, France This really captures the character of the Melon grape perfectly (and, yes, it does have character when it’s done well). Lovely fresh lemon and grapefruit flavours with a subtle nuttiness, a hint of green apple and tingly acidity. Pure with freshness but also a lovely mouthfeel – so drinkable. 90/100
A couple of years ago, northern Rhone producer Graillot bought a couple of parcels of vines in Saint Amour, Beaujolais. They made their first wines in 2014, including this wine. They then bought 3 hectares in Fleurie, and the first vintage from these vines is the 2015. It’s so interesting to see all this interest in Beaujolais and the Gamay grape. And this, the first wine they’ve released, is really good – and spectacular value, too.
Domaine de Fa Beaujolais en Besset 2014 France
Sweetly aromatic with red cherries, plums and some spiciness. The palate is fresh with juicy red cherry cherry fruits and lovely supple structure, It’s quite fresh and mineral with a lovely bright core. Sappy, spicy and quite peppery on the finish. 92/100 (£12.50 Yapp)
It’s an exciting time for English sparkling wine. I shot this short segment as an introduction for a blind tasting that was being held in Vancouver, including the first English fizz to be imported into Canada (Coates & Seely, through Lifford). But I thought I’d also share it here. It’s a quick 5 minute summary of the state of play.
I’m in the Veneto, in northern Italy for a couple of days. First stop was Masi. They are specialists in Amarone, and we got to see the grapes – Corvina, Rondinella and Molinari, as well as rediscovered grape Oseleta – drying in bamboo racks. This is the process of appassimento.
Masi has 15 drying lofts, including an experimental, computer controlled on at the winery, where their Technical Group has done a lot of research on the drying process. The grapes spend 120 days on these racks (Masi uses only bamboo). Typically, they’d be picked at 12% potential alcohol with 5.5-6 g/l of acid and a pH of around 3.3. After the drying process they will have lost 30-40% of their weight, and the acidity and sugar are conserved. So by fermentation time they will be at 16.5% potential alcohol with 6-6.3 g/l acid and a pH of around 3.5. Three kilos of fresh grapes are needed to make one bottle of Amarone.
It was great to spend some time with the fab Sandro Boscaini, head of Masi. ‘2015 is my 50th vintage,’ he says, ‘and it will be one of the top vintages. It’s fantastic because of the quality of the grapes, with no disease at all.’ The grapes drying on the racks certainly look beautiful.
Masi could dry as much as 65% of their grapes, but they are led by the market, and dry around half of them. Sandro says that the reputation of Amarone is under threat because of low quality products, made from vineyards outside the classico zone. ‘This year there will be 18-19 million bottles of Amarone made, when the market is 13 million,’ he says. Just 6 million of these come from the classical vineyards. ‘Amarone is in danger of having its reputation damaged. The cooperatives never made Amarone in the past. They jumped on the bandwagon 10 years ago.’
Six years ago, 12 companines including Masi decided to do something together in reaction to the low quality Amarones that were flooding the market. The group, called Famiglie dell’Amarone, wanted to defend historic Amarone, by introducing tighter quality guidelines.
They ended up getting taken to court by the Consorzio, in an action that commenced a couple of months ago. The Consorzio were unhappy that the Famiglie were describing their Amarones as better. ‘I’m paying to take my self to court,’ says Sandro. ‘I’m not afraid for me; I’m afraid for Amarone.’
We had an extensive tasting of Amarone, and also a vertical of Campofiorin (1985 and 1988 had aged beautifully, which is remarkable for such an inexpensive wine – around £12 in the UK). These are interesting, distinctive wines, combining complexity, concentration, fruit intensity and a lovely rounded texture. They also age very well.