Cave St Verny make some lovely wines, from the Côtes d’Auvergne, a really interesting but obscure wine region pretty much in the middle of France, which is counted as part of the Loire. It’s based around a volcano, Puy de Dôme, at the edge of the Massif Central, which makes for some interesting terroirs. The Cave St Verny controls about 40% of the vineyards in the region, and consists of 86 farmers, with 180 hectares of vines between them. 40 of these are in Puy-de-Dôme IGP, while 140 are in the Côtes d’Auvergne AOP. The main grapes? St Verny have 90 ha of Gamay, 60 ha of Pinot noir and 30 ha of Chardonnay. [The co-op also make an excellent Pinot Noir and Gamay under the Puy de Dôme label.]
Cave St Verny The Lost Vineyard Les Coutayes Pinot Gris 2014 Puy de Dôme, Auvergne, France
This is a small experimental parcel of Pinot Gris from the Auvergne region. The 2012 vintage was eaten by rabbits and the 2013 suffered hail damage, so 2014 was the debut vintage. Textured, pure pear fruit with a bit of spice and nice grapiness. This has an appealing rounded, generous personality. It’s a lovely wine showing such prettiness. 93/100
Cave St Verny ‘Les Volcans’ 2014 Côtes d’Auvergne, France
The traditional local blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay. Lovely sappy, green-tinged raspberry and cherry fruit with some nice minerally, stony spiciness. Very fresh and full of interest, this is brilliantly drinkable. 90/100
UK availability: Dreyfus Ashby (note: this is not the same as the US wine company of the same name)
Top wines are very expensive these days. It must make it tricky for anyone dealing with the production side: a small mistake could prove costly. You can’t afford to discard too many barrels of Grand Cru Burgundy, and you probably don’t want to be too picky in sorting the fruit.
I did a few back of the envelope calculations about the sums involved, to get an idea of the cost of each grape berry that goes into an expensive wine. I chose the most expensive current(ish)DRC wine available by the bottle on Berry Bros & Rudd’s website: it’s the 2010 La Tache, at £3328 per bottle.
So, working on the following assumptions:
1.6 g per berry
750 litres of wine per tonne of grapes (1000 kg)
therefore 1 kg grapes produce one bottle
therefore 625 grapes per bottle
This means that each grape that goes into this bottle is worth £5.32
Of course, it is worth less to the winery than this (retailer’s margin and taxes take up a good slice of the purchase price), but it’s still a lot of money that’s being dealt with in the vineyard and winery.
Is wine on tap the future for the on-trade? At the London wine fair I had a chance to check out the Petainer Keg wine delivery system, which was being demonstrated on the Roberson stand. I quizzed business development manager Adam Green about it, and tried some wines.
Petainer is a wine delivery system for restaurants that is based on using 20 litre PET containers (kegs) of wine, which are then dispensed using nitrogen pressure. There’s flow control, so you can manage the dispense.
The PET kegs are flushed with nitrogen and then filled. They have a shelf life of 12 months after filling, and once they are tapped the wine is in good condition for at least two months. 20 litres is the equivalent of 27 bottles. [30 litre kegs are also available, and in the USA stainless steel returnable kegs are also an option.]
You don’t need sophisticated equipment to fill the kegs; simply a keg coupler. Roberson are importing wines in keg from Chris Brockway, Graham Tatomer, Pax Mahle/Wind Gap and Copain, as well as a few things from France. The great thing about this system is that the kegs don’t need to be returned, but can simply be recycled in the UK.
The Petainer system costs £4000 at its most basic. In some situations, Roberson are installing them for free in return for supplying the wine. ‘Aside from the financial cost of getting it in, I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to do it,’ says Adam Green. He cites the following reasons:
There’s a saving of 15% compared with the equivalent wine in bottle. The quality of service is better: you get the same pour at perfect temperature. There is often a cost saving for the customer, and it’s greener, because there’s much less waste (300 g of PET versus 27 glass bottles).
How does it fare in practice? I tried two glasses of the Wind Gap Trousseau Gris 2013: one from bottle and one that had been in the keg for 6 months. Both were lovely, but the keg version tasted a little bit fresher.
I then tried the Tatomer Meeresboden Gruner Veltliner 2014 from Santa Barbara, one from bottle and one that had spent a month in keg. I had a tiny preference for the bottled version, which was showing a bit more detail, but the difference was minimal.
I also tried the Broc Cellars Love Red 2013, one from bottle and one from keg (6 months). This time I had a slight preference for keg. All three wines showed that there’s no particular downside to using keg in terms of wine quality.
My conclusion? This is a really interesting option for wine by the glass programs in restaurants.
Sometimes it’s good to look back on a trip from a short distance. A couple of weeks ago I returned home from eight eventful days in Canada’s Niagara region (there have been trips to Portugal and South Africa since). It was a blast, and I brought back many fond memories. This was the first time I’d travelled on work with a family member in tow: I brought along younger son Louis, who’s 17. While I was touring the Niagara wine region and then judging wine, he was helping out round the back at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada (NWACs). Each day, after work, he got to join in the evening activities with the rest of us, which included some fun in boats and helicopters. He also got a chance to see me in action: just what does Dad do when he goes away on these trips? I have encouraged him to emphasize on his return that it is pretty much all hard work, and that there is only a limited amount of fun involved. [Sometimes it's best not to be completely truthful.]
It’s the second year that I’ve taken part in the NWACs, and it reconfirmed to me that this is a great competition. Both times I’ve been protected from the less good Canadian wines by skipping the first round of judging (giving me a chance to visit vineyards), and joining the other judges for the finals. This gives me a great chance to get a good overview of what’s going on in Canada. The standard of judging is high, bringing together top wine people from around the country, all of whom have plenty of experience and good palates. The organization is first-rate, too, making it easy to focus on the wine. And the social program in the evenings is really fun, and gives us a chance to hang out with key winegrowers from the region in a relatively informal setting. One of the most interesting things is that as soon as judging finishes, we get given a folder with all our notes and scores, plus the identity of the wines. Each of us can then see how we rated wines that we already know: for example, in one of the Chardonnay flights, I was pleased to find that I’d given the highest scores to one producer’s wines that I’ve plugged heavily here in the past.
Seeing our own scores is super-interesting on a number of levels. First, we need to be humble in the face of wine, especially when we are sitting down with a flight of 12 wines blind in a competition setting where all you know is the grape variety (or varieties). No one is perfect and sometimes you can get it wrong, giving a score that’s not appropriate for the wine. But there’s also the sense that blind tasting in this manner helps keep us honest. If I taste a wine sitting down with a convincing winemaker with a great reputation, that wine will tend to get the benefit of the doubt, and may get a higher score than if it had been tasted blind. It’s always possible that we might see complexity when there is none there. However, there is also the possibility that the lack of information could lead to a wine being under-rated: knowing where it has come from and who has made it – and the track record of earlier vintages of the same wine – can give us the confidence and trust that leads to an appropriately higher score. Great wines can sometimes suffer from being tasted blind, not because of us seeing things that aren’t there, but because we look harder in the right places and find things we might otherwise have missed.
Some highlights, in no particular order. Being welcomed once again into the wonderful family of WineAlign critics who are all super-nice people. The way Louis fitted into a team and worked hard without complaining as volunteer labour. Seeing the Niagara falls close up, then from the Hornblower (the boat on the Canadian side that takes us, plastic ponchoed up, close to the action), and then viewing them from above in a helicopter. Visiting some really good Niagara wineries for the first time. Getting another snapshot of the rapidly evolving Canadian wine scene. Nightclubbing in Niagara falls with my son.
Don’t mention this to the organizers, but I suspect that this week is such a highlight in the calendar that most of the WineAlign judges would do it for free!
Every now and then I meet someone in the wine trade who has lost their love for wine. [Maybe they never had it, but of all the trades to get involved with, wine has to be one of the prime candidates for a business you enter because of your love for the product you are working with.]
Don’t be that person! There must be nothing worse than peddling a product that you no longer have enthusiasm for. Even worse: what about wine journalists who are no longer excited about wine, but have to muster faux excitement for their poor readers or viewers? If that ever happens to me, I’m leaving.
How does it happen? How can it be avoided?
I think this relationship breakdown stems from knowing that what you are selling isn’t very good. Let’s face it, for most people, wine is a commodity. They want something that is red, white, pink or fizzy. They want it at the right price. And they don’t want any nasty surprises – such as too much flavour. There’s nothing wrong with commodity wine, but there’s a problem facing most people who make, sell and write about it.
The problem is that no one is prepared to admit that it’s just commodity wine. They pretend that it is delicious and profound. It often bears a place name promising some local character that doesn’t exist in the wine. It is frequently dressed up with winemaking trickery and additions so that it tastes like a more expensive wine. In truth: about these wines there is little to be said. But they promise the world, and deliver very little. The way they are made and sold frequently isn’t very honest.
I would be happy to make cheap wine and sell it, and even write about it, if I could do it honestly. The world needs good cheap wine, after all. But where are the honest cheap wines? I don’t see many of them on retailer’s shelves.
So, to keep your love for wine, don’t work with a range that promises more than it can deliver. It must be awful to be working for a supermarket or large retailer and have very few wines on the shelves that you’d actually like to take home to drink. Too many people end up sucked into this commercial end of the wine market and become disillusioned. They know the shortcuts that are taken; they have seen some of the sharp practices that occur in some wineries; they have to live with the marketing creativity that makes ordinary, rather neutral plonk sound like fine wine. In the face of this, it’s easy to become disillusioned.
Three days. Seven judges. 145 South African Chenin Blancs.
It was the second year of the new look Standard Bank Top 10 Chenin Blanc Challenge, and I had been invited back to be the overseas judge again. So I spent an enjoyable time at Longridge Estate, where the judging took place, poring over glasses of this, the flagship grape variety of South Africa.
Chenin Blanc is a versatile variety and produces lots of different styles. This means that judging is a little complicated, because you don’t just want to reward the ripest, richest wines, but recognize the best independent of style.
The judging panel was a good one, and it was a real pleasure to taste with them. To judge wine well you need to be a team player, because there will always be differences of opinion, even among experienced judges. Ego has to be set aside and consensus has to be reached, and the team worked really well. We spent two days tasting all the wines, and then selected 39 of them for the final.
Bettina Botha and Ina Smith
Fortunately, after averaging our scores in the final, 10 wines scored 16.5 or higher and these were our top 10.
I really like Chenin and I’m so looking forward to finding out the identity of the 10 we chose. The results are released on August 28th. Here’s my report from last year’s event, including the final result and all my own scores.
Had dinner with Ken Forrester and tried a few of his wines. Ken is the dude.
Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage 2014 Stellenbosch, South Africa
So impressed with this: inexpensive and deliciously drinkable. Single vineyard, 120 tons, Vin7 yeast. Fruity, generous and ripe with nice clean, ripe, sweet black fruits. Stylish and quite elegant. 88/100
Ken Forrester Renegade 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
A relatively inexpensive Rhone blend, this is actually really good. Shows fresh raspberry and cherry fruit with some spiciness. Grippy and a bit pepper, with a core of sweet black fruit. Very nicely judged. 90/100
The Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California 14.7% alcohol, from an 18 year old hillside vineyard. A collaboration between Ken Forrester and Jesse Katz. This is smooth, sweetly textured and delicious with black cherry and blackberry fruit. Textured and warm with some salty minerality, it’s definitely on the ripe side, but avoids spoofiness. 92/100
Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc 2000 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Who would have thought this wine would have aged so well? It’s the third time I’ve had it this year. Yellow gold in colour, it’s rich, toasty and nutty with white peach, toast and crystalline fruits. Textured, rich and appealing with a hint of marmalade and spice. 92/100
Ken Forrester The Gypsy 2011 Western Cape, South Africa
This blends Grenache from the Cederberg with Syrah and Mourvedre from Stellenbosch. It’s juicy, dense and tarry with spicy black fruits and some taut red fruit character. It’s spicy and tannic with real depth to the fruit. 92/100
Ken Forrester FMC Chenin Blanc 2013 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Native yeast ferment and 12 month’s ageing in barrel; five different pickings. Lovely grape, peach and apricot nose. Lively and spicy with some marmalade and pear notes as well as some sweetness. It’s a rich, ageworthy style of Chenin, and a bit of a modern classic. 93/100
Ken Forrester Barrel Selection Roussanne 2012 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Fermented in old Chenin barrels. Textured, fine, fresh and spicy with generous pear and peach fruit. This has lovely fruit and good acidity, and it’s really interesting. 91/100
So Ryan Mostert and Samantha Suddons, of new winery Terra Cura, popped round. They brought with them a couple of boxes of wine, so we sat, tasted and drank. Some very interesting bottles.
Sadie Family Skurberg 2010 Olifants River, South Africa
From a vineyard of decomposed sandstone planted between 1940 and 1955, this is Chenin Blanc. It’s complex with hints of cheese and herbs, with real precision and depth and lovely acidity. Developing slowly and beautifully, it’s really fresh despite 14.5% alcohol. Truly great. 94/100
Smiley Chenin Blanc NV Swartland, South Africa
This is a non-vintage Chenin, and it’s 30% egg. 12.6% alcohol. Very fresh with waxy lemon notes and a tiny savoury mushroom note. Pear, spice and citrus too, with lovely pithiness. Real interest. 92/100
Reyneke Reserve Chenin Blanc 2011 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Fermented in used barrels. This is reductive, mineral, taut and flinty with a lovely acid spine. Ripe apples and citrus. Fine. 92/100
Wine Cellar Chenin Blanc 2014 Swartland, South Africa
Made by Terra Cura as a Wine Cellar special. Supple, midweight, with herbs and tangerine notes, as well as some lemony freshness. Midweight, complex, fresh. 91/100
Silvervis 2014 Swartland, South Africa
This is a Cinsault, and it’s lovely. Fresh, pure and grippy with red cherries, raspberry and spice. Fine, expressive, juicy and with some savoury grip. Just 900 bottles made. 93/100
Wine Cellar Syrah 2014 Swartland, South Africa
Another Wine Cellar private label made by Terra Cura. This is fresh, juicy and spicy with nice peppery notes and raspberry and cherry fruit. Fresh and expressive, it’s a lovely wine. 91/100
Terra Cura ‘Radix’ Kasteelberg 2014 Swartland, South Africa As yet unreleased, this is a serious effort from a tricky vintage. It’s a grown-up Syrah that’s distinctly Northern Rhone in profile, with bright, peppery black cherries and plums. Savoury, structured and quite grippy with lovely balance and structure. 94/100
Jamet Cote Rotie 2006 Northern Rhone, France
The last bottle of a case of the wine that really turned Ryan and Sam onto wine in a big way, it was very cool to be able to share this with them. It’s savoury, meaty and engaging, with iodine, blood, sweet black cherries and fine herbs. Meat, spice and pepper dominate the palate, but there’s also some fruit sweetness, and olive/tapenade character, too. 95/100
There’s not much Gamay in South Africa – just 13.3 hectares planted. It’s for this reason that Alex Dale wasn’t keen for me to reveal to the world the location of the two vineyards he sources this wine from. It’s freshly bottled, and needed decanting before we tasted it, but this really is a lovely wine, even this early on in its life. Alex also makes a brilliant Cinsault under the same ‘The Thirst’ label.
Radford Dale The Thirst Gamay Noir 2015 Western Cape, South Africa
Very fruity, lively nose with red cherries and plums, and a bit of that carbonic maceration florality. The palate is juicy and delicious with vibrant red cherries, some spiciness, and just a little grip. It’s not trying to be serious, but isn’t just a simple glugger, either. 90/100
Before this tasting Breedekloof was totally off my radar. So it was great to catch up with three Breedekloof guys, Pieter Cronje, De Wet Lategan and Attie Loew to hear about a new Chenin Blanc initiative in the region.
Breedekloof is a relatively undiscovered area. You reach it by going through Paarl, through the tunnel in the mountain, and then it’s the first region you get to as the valley opens out, before you get to Worcester and Robertson. It has one-fifth of South Africa’s Chenin plantings. It’s a narrow part of the valley so the mountains have an influence. It also has more rain than neighbouring regions (twice that of Paarl, three times that of Robertson). Soils are washed out sand and sandstone with pebbles.
It’s an old agricultural area, with vineyards being planted here since 1840. It’s now pretty much dedicated to vines. 90% of the farms are farmed by the owners, and 80% of these are third generation or older. There’s late bud break after cold winters, and harvesting is quite late, in the later part of March, under moderate conditions.
This Breedekloof Chenin initiative started last year. Participating wineries were asked to do something different, to expess Chenin’s different personalities. The only rule was that they had to make at least three barrels, the minimum required by competitions. So they did things like use older blocks, play with wild ferments, use skin contact, lees work and so on.
There are 25 wineries in the region, ranging from small producers to large co-ops. Nine took part, and these are their wines.
Deetleefs Reserve Chenin Blanc 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
Old vines, 1300 bottles made. Textured and broad but still fresh with lovely white peach and pear fruit. Real finess here. Subtle creaminess and hints of cheese with nice texture and freshness. 92/100
Merwida Chenin Blanc 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
Very taut and fresh with some tangerine and pear fruit, as well as some spiciness. Textured, and in need of some time for the oak to settle down. 91/100
Dasch Bosch Steen 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
Lots of lees contact here, fermented and aged in old oak. Lovely complex marmalade, spice and pear aromatics. Has some nuts and honey on the palate. Real complexity here with some oxidative notes, and hints of cheese and herbs. 92/100
Goudini Cellar Mirabilis regis-filia Chenin Blanc 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
Rich, bold and spicy with peach and pear fruit. Powerful and rich with some warmth from the alcohol (14.5% alcohol). A bit oily. 87/100
Botha Kelder Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc Bush Vine 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
Nice spiciness. Lovely supple broad pear and peach fruit with nice texture and depth. Bold with nice fruit quality. 90/100
Bergsig Chenin Blanc Reserve 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
Lovely nose of grapefruit and tangerine with sweet spicy herby notes. Textural and quite fine with a nice spiciness. Warm nutty notes and lovely depth, as well as a hint of vanilla. 92/100
Breëland Chenin Blanc Royal 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
Complex and lively with tangerine, spice, lemon and apricot notes. Fresh and complex with nice pear and ripe apple fruit. Complex, lively and focused. 93/100
Opstal Estate Carl Everson Chenin Blanc 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
30 year old vines, wild ferment, old French oak. Lively and complex with nice pear and peach fruit showing some spiciness. Lovely density: warm but fresh with nice complexity and depth. 92/100
Lateganskop The Zahir 2014 Breedekloof, South Africa
From 21 year old bush vines. Very complex with a herby, cabbagey edge and fresh tangerines and spice, as well as some lemon fruit. Complex, distinctive and bright with a vivid personality. 91/100