Regular readers will know that I have been quite a fan of Fino En Rama, ever since Gonzalez Byass reintroduced the concept a few years ago. Here’s the en rama 2015 edition from one of the most celebrated of all sherry producers, Equipo Navazos. It’s available in the UK from their agent, Alliance Wine.
Equipo Navazos Fino En Rama Saco de Mayo 2015 NV Sherry, Spain
15% alcohol. Full yellow colour. Mellow, slightly salty, nutty nose with fine citrus and spice notes. The palate is fresh and tangy with nuts, herbs and some spice. Very attractive and quite elegant; nothing sticks out. It has lovely depth of flavour but it’s not too salty or tangy. 92/100 (RRP £9.99 for 37.5 cl)
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Dave Bowley, the Vinteloper, came round to dinner. And he bought this: one of the best Australian Pinot Noirs that I have tasted. It’s from a single Vineyard in Lenswood, Adelaide Hills that was planted in 1986. The slope faces east; the clone is D5V12; the elevation is 550m.
Winemaking: pigeage by hand & foot, wild yeast, 50% whole bunch, one third new French oak. The lovely label art is by @fauxnonfaux. It’s so exciting to find wines like these. Yes, it’s made in small quantities, and it’s quite expensive (A$95). But it shows what is possible. This sort of wine is the future of Australian fine wine. Australia has some amazing terroirs, and lots of different climates and regions. It’s a bit of a shame hat high-ticket multi-region old-style blends hog the limelight a bit.
Vinteloper Odeon Pinot Noir 2012 Adelaide Hills, Australia
Sappy, pure and very stylish. Silky with hints of leather. Very fine and expressive with sweet, pure, seamless cherry fruit. I just love the fact that this combines prettiness an finesse with some structure. It’s a beautiful wine with potential for development. 95/100
UK agent: Red Squirrel Wines
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Rosé is a very exciting category at the moment, and Provence is the world’s premier region for this increasingly popular wine style. Sometimes, though, it is hard to really get excited about rosé. It’s a style that’s easy to enjoy, for sure, especially in the right situation. But it doesn’t get wine geeks buzzing. I don’t know why this is.
Here’s an example of rosé as a fine wine. It’s made by Gassier, and the name comes from the height of the Sainte Victoire Mountain, which is 946 m high. This is a blend of white grape Rolle (aka Vermentino) with Syrah and Grenache grown at 330 m. Some oak is used in the elevage. It’s really fine – one of the best rosés I’ve had.
Château Gassier 946 Rosé 2014 Côtes de Provence Saint-Victoire, France
12% alcohol. Quite a full vivid pink colour. Nicely textured and generous with fine pear fruit as well as some red cherry notes. Real finesse here: quite silky but not sweet. Just lovely fruit with lots of layers and a long, pure finish. 93/100
UK agent is Enotria
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Fields, Morris & Verdin have long had an enviable portfolio of great producers. This was bolstered a few years ago by the acquisition of Richards Walford in 2012, of course, and now the line up of producers they represent is a great and the good of the wine world. So when they do a portfolio tasting, you just have to be there. Of course, there’s a daunting amount of great wine at an event like this, so I just focus on a manageable portion, and spend time being thorough with a small subset of the producers. But what today reinforced to me was just how lucky I am to be a wine journalist in the UK, where we get so many opportunities like this to try great wines.
I had some really good encounters at yesterday’s trade tasting they put on. Here are a few of the people I met. Pictured top is Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes. I really like his wines: they’re the more elegant, Burgundian expression of Chateauneuf du Pape.
Sticking with Chateauneuf du Pape, Isabel Ferrando of Domaine St Prefert is making thrilling wines. No destemming, late-ish harvest, and protecting the wine from oxygen are her hallmarks, and I loved the 2013s she was showing. It’s supposedly a difficult vintage, but the wines are elegant and pure.
It was so nice to meet Veronique Drouhin for the first time. Her Domaine Drouhin wines from Oregon are beautifully balanced and elegant, delivering lovely texture and purity.
John Williams was making organic, balanced, moderate alcohol, dry grown Napa Valley wines before John Bonne finished school. It was great to meet him and to taste his portfolio, plus some older wines that had aged beautifully.
Another first, meeting celebrated Californian winemaker David Ramey. He’s rightly famous for his Sonoma Chardonnays, including some very smart single vineyard wines. These wines are really well balanced, lacking neither richness nor precision.
Great to taste and chat with Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda. He’s making some of Australia’s best wines, and we had a lengthy discussion about matchstick notes in Chardonnay. I learned a lot.
And it was so cool to meet Telmo Rodríguez for the first time. He’s making a range of very interesting wines, mainly from north west Spain, picking top sites and expressing them beautifully, without over-ripeness or excessive oak.
I was bowled over by the enthusiasm that Elisa Ucar and Enrique Basarte showed for their old vine Garnacha vineyards in Navarra. Their Domaine Lupier wines are dense and full of interest. Their biodynamic farming practices have transformed these old vines, apparently. Spain has such a heritage of old vineyards, and it’s great to see them in the hands of people like Elisa and Enrique.
I was impressed by this new English sparkling wine, made by Justin Howard-Sneyd, high-flying wine buyer and owner of a small domaine in the South of France. Justin sourced the grapes – a mixture of all three Champagne varieties – from a vineyard in Ross on Wye, Herefordshire (soils chalk and clay), and the wine was made at Ridgeview. It’s bold and rich, yet fresh at the same time.
Hart of Gold 2010 English Sparkling Wine
12% alcohol. Rich yet very fresh with a lovely appley edge to the pear and spice notes. It has tension but also depth of flavour, and a hint of sweetness on the finish. Baked apple, spice, citrus and subtle toasty notes in the mix here. Lovely. 91/100 (£30 available direct – £24 for members)
Mac Forbes was in town so we lunched at 28:50 in Maddox Street. I’ve long been a fan of his wines, and wrote about him at length here. But I can’t believe it has been almost four years since we last caught up properly!
He’s currently in a happy place, after going through a more difficult period.
’12 months ago I was discouraged,’ he shares. The main problem was the arrival of phylloxera in the Yarra Valley, which was looking to threaten some of the older vineyards he’s working with. ‘It’s our biggest challenge,’ he says. All the vineyards he leases are planted on their own roots; the youngest is 20 years old and the oldest is 38. And although Mac doesn’t own any vineyards, he spends a lot of money on the ones he leases, and now has three skilled vineyard people working for him. ‘It’s a lot cheaper just to buy fruit.’
He takes a lot of care not to let phylloxera get into his vineyards, but some of the other wineries aren’t so careful. ‘There are trucks turning up covered in dirt coming from regions in phylloxera zones from big wineries,’ says Mac. He quarantines every vineyard in terms of equipment, and uses disposable body suits for pickers (who will have been in other vineyards). So the challenge now is to see how it is possible to get resistant rootstock into vineyards without sacrificing vine age. And Mac has a clever plan.
The idea is to plant American rootstock vines as close as possible to existing trunks. Then, if phylloxera comes, he can graft this rootstock into the existing vine. Yes, the root system of the rootstock vine won’t be fully developed. But vines don’t die immediately from phylloxera, so there might be a five year handover period. It could just work.
Mac says he is learning a lot from seeing how his vines have adapted to the vineyard sites. An ex-employee of his is now doing a PhD on epigenetics and vine age. Are vines adjusting to the particular patch of dirt that they find themselves in? It’s an interesting question.
‘I’ve just had the finest vintage I have ever had,’ says Mac. ‘A few years ago I was pulling my hear out. It’s a bloody interesting time to be in the Yarra.’ He’s now completed 10 years of his solo project. He’s shifted his emphasis from valley floor vineyards by letting a couple go and taking on some new ones. He’s also more relaxed about letting each site and vintage express itself. ‘When we started, winemaking was outcome driven,’ he says. ‘We wanted to make wines that were elegant. Now, because of the strength of our key sites, I don’t worry where the wines will end up. The outcome will take care of itself if we do everything right along the way.’
Mac has some interesting things to say about picking. There’s no easy way to determine whether grapes are ‘ripe’ or not. On one site, he was ready to pick Pinot Noir because the tannins and acidity seemed just right, but there were no flavours in the grapes. But he picked anyway, and it turned out to be the Pinot with the most flavour and intensity in the winery. All the flavours were bound when they were in the grape, only to be revealed during the winemaking process. The key factors for him are the vitality and the tannins. He cites a two day difference in picking date in Woori; the earlier picked wine was vital, the wine made from grapes picked just two days later was dull.
In warmer sites with his Pinot Noir he has been using more stems. After experimenting (trials are ongoing) he says he favours hand destemming (to protect the stems) and then adding the stems back, which seems to give the best results.
We tasted some wines, although it was clear that Mac doesn’t think they are all his best. He found 2013 a very hot year, and cautioned me that this isn’t the most representative sample of what he’s up to now. But they still tasted pretty smart.
Mac Forbes Woori Yallock Chardonnay 2013 Yarra Valley, Australia
Textured and fine with lovely pear, peach and citrus fruit, with just a hint of minerally matchstick. Lovely purity here with nice texture and real finesse. It may be from a very warm year but it is balanced and harmonious. 94/100
Mac Forbes RS16 Riesling 2013 Strathbogie Ranges, Australia
The pressings weren’t used this year. Mostly fermented in large oak (Stockinger). Very floral, rich and pure with textured fruit and a bit of sweetness. Lovely generosity and purity here, with silky lemony fruit. 92/100
Mac Forbes RS33 Riesling 2014 Strathbogie Ranges, Australia
Very pretty with melon, grapefruit and a bit of spice. Lively, intense and floral with a hint of ginger spice (skin derived). So lovely. 93/100
Mac Forbes Pinot Noir 2013 Yarra Valley, Australia
Fresh and a bit peppery with a hint of ginger, and sweet focused berry fruits. Nice juicy, sappy style that’s very drinkable. 91/100
Mac Forbes Coldtsream Pinot Noir 2012 Yarra Valley, Australia
This is the only lower Yarra vineyard Mac works with now. Supple, sweet red cherry fruit with nice detail and precision, as well as some raspberry freshness. Detailed and fine, showing depth and freshness, even though it is from a warmer site. 94/100
Mac Forbes Hugh 2011 Yarra Valley, Australia
Named after his father, this is a Bordeaux blend made from a vineyard in Gruyere that Mac started working with in 2007. ‘This is the blend that built the Yarra,’ says Mac, ‘and no one shows respect to it. People say you can’t make medium-bodied Cabernet any more. This is a lovely wine: fresh, gravelly and a bit spicy with a lovely mix of red fruits and black fruits, with sweet blackcurrant and a nice greenness in the mix. So elegant. 94/100
Tasted these six interesting bottles from British Columbia, Canada, courtesy of Canadian wine writer Treve Ring.
Orofino Riesling 2013 Similkameen Valley, British Columbia, Canada
From a small valley adjacent to the Okanagan, this is a really impressive Riesling. Honeyed, spicy and limey with taut. fresh fruit intensity and a lively finish. 90/100
Little Farm Riesling 2013 Similkameen Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Fresh, lemony and a bit appley with lovely focus. Bright and quite mineral with a lovely texture and subtle honeyed notes. A lovely wine. 92/100
Little Farm Rose 2013 Similkameen Valley, British Columbia, Canada
A varietal Cabernet Franc. Pale pink with a hint of copper. textured with red cherries, herbs and a bit of spice. Rounded in the mouth with a stony edge and a savoury character. 90/100
Lock & Worth Winery Square One 2013 Naramata Bench, Okanagan, Canada
Varietal Cabernet Franc from vines planted in 1995. Sweet, smooth and pure with a hint of meat and some black pepper alongside the black fruits. Nicely defined with some raspberry freshness. A bright, supple, detailed wine. 93/100
Synchromesh Cabernet Franc 2012 Naramata Bench, Okanagan, Canada
From Turtle Rock Farms. Grainy texture to the fresh blackberry and black cherry fruit. Stytlish with nice weight. A really focused wine. 93/100
La Stella Fortissimo 2012 Okanagan, Canada
A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon with a splash of Sangiovese. Supple and vivid with nice blackberry fruit, and some spicy, minerally notes. Nice definition and wears its high alcohol (14.9%) well. 92/100
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Consider the natural wine movement. I do, often.
It is not perfect, but at least most people who align themselves with this movement care. They believe in something, and it matters to them. It drives them; it motivates them; it underpins their work.
Oftentimes, I worry that I don’t care enough.
I want to be surrounded by people with conviction.
Yes, conviction has its baggage. But lack of conviction is even worse: if you lack it, you don’t do too much wrong, but that’s because you don’t do anything.
So give me people who care. People who are brave, and who act. In the wine world, we owe a great debt to people who, driven by strong conviction, have cared enough to take risks and pursue their vision. And let’s spare a thought for those who have taken this approach and, for one reason or another, have failed. They are the wine world’s unsung heroes.
Wakefield, known in Australia as Taylors, are a leading Clare Valley producer, and they have recently begun making two very high-end wines: The Pioneer Shiraz and The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon. I tasted the 2012 releases. These are very fine, expressive wines, not just relying on power and concentration. They are fermented in upturned barrels, which are sealed for a post ferment maceration, then cleaned and re-used to mature the wine in.
Wakefield The Pioneer Shiraz 2014 South Australia
14% alcohol. Fresh, vivid nose of pure cherries and plums with some hints of mint and spice, as well as a bit of blackberry. The palate is vivid and fresh with nice precision to the berry fruits and some fine spiciness. There’s a juiciness here as well as good concentration of fruit, and everything is nicely supported by fine-grained tannins. Sleek and refined, and not in any way a monster, with real elegance. This should have a long future. 94/100
Wakefield The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Clare Valley, Australia
14% alcohol. Lovely aromatics: very Aussie with blackcurrant bud, mint, spice and cedar notes acting together in harmony. The palate shows sweet blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with some fine black cherry notes. There’s a nice savoury spiciness here and a real sense of harmony. Great potential for further development. 94/100
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Travelling companions Richard Hemming and Treve Ring
The last day of a really interesting trip. The subtle temptation when you are touring wine country is to be nice and like every wine you taste. People love praise, and dishing it out makes you feel good. Besides, even the people who make spoofy wines are often nice humans. But if praise is dished out indiscriminately, then you are a lousy wine writer. Producers might love you, but readers will soon tire of your cheap affirmation of the good and bad alike.
I have tasted some great wines on this trip, but also some fairly lousy ones. If you want to be bad, the climate in Washington State can facilitate your evil winemaking (as can the law that allows you to water back must to 22 Brix: so if your customers have a predilection for sweet fruit, you can pick late – at dead fruit stage – and then correct cheaply in the winery. This sort of manipulation isn’t evil of itself, but it can be abused.)
Anyway, back to the last day. From Walla Walla we drove along the Columbia River, past the famous Wallula gap, and on to the Horse Heaven Hills wine region, where we visited Columbia Crest, an enormous winemaking facility that’s part of the Chateau Ste Michelle group. They have 100 000 barrels here: this should give you some idea of the scale of the operation. It’s not only the Columbia Crest wines that are made here, but also some of the other related brands.
Columbia Crest make lots of perfectly good, simple, inexpensive wines, but there’s not much to be said about these bottles. Moving up slightly in price, for $12, I quite liked the H3 Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay and Cabernet, which were decent wines. At the more expensive end ($35) they make a good Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot-based Walter Clore Private Reserve. They are good, but have quite a bit of winemaking to them.
Then we headed further along the river to the Columbia Gorge AVA. Suddenly, we’re out of the very dry, almost desert-like scenery of most of the Columbia Valley, and we’re dealing with some greenness; some trees. There’s rainfall here, and it’s possible to dry-grow vines in certain spots.
We met with four different producers who are based in this AVA at the Maryhill tasting room, which has some lovely views.
First of all, Maryhill. It’s an interesting 75 000 case winery making 57 different wines from 33 different varieties, which might be something of a record. My favourite was the Sugarloaf Vineyard Carmenere, with its supple, elegant, rounded blackberry and raspberry fruit.
Then Idiot’s Grace/Memaloose, who farm vineyards on both the Oregon and Washington State sides of the border. Brian McCormick makes really elegant, fresh wines here, and I particularly liked his Dolcetto and Cabernet Franc, which are beautifully focused and pure. Viticulture is organic. One to watch, for sure.
COR cellars is interesting. They have a focus on Bordeaux varieties, but also play with some other things. Cor is Latin for heart, but it was also a term that we used as kids as a generally enthusiastic and sometimes crude term of positive affirmation. Winemaker Luke Bradford wasn’t around, but we were ably hosted by assistant winemaker Dan Greer. The Alba Cor, a textured blend of Gewurztrminer and Pinot Gris from the Celilo Vineyard, is stylish and elegant. I also liked the Hogsback Ridge Vineyard Malbec, which comes from a cool site and has really pretty black cherry and raspberry fruit. I’ve had a few interesting Washington State Malbecs this trip.
The final producer of the trip: Syncline, with owner James Mantone. Pronounced ‘Sin-Clin’, the wines are a product of the place, where the wetter western Columbia Gorge meets the drier, eastern side. James says that he has ‘a crazy love affair with Champagne,’ and has worked with JL Denois. His Scintillation Brut Rosé, pale in colour, is quite special. I loved his Gruner Veltliner and his Celilo Vineyard Pinot Noir (delicate, elegant), and I was also a fan of his Grenache/Carignan Blend from the Horse Heaven Hills. This was officially the last wine of the trip, and it was lovely.