Eight stunning grower Champagnes

These are all brilliant.

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Champagne Agrapart Cuvée Minerale Grand Cru Avize 2007
Lovely depth and finesse here, with toast and apple, pear and citrus. Lovely complexity. Dry, structured, pure and profound. 95/100

Champagne Michel Loriot Monodie en Meunier Vieilles Vignes Les Virtuoses 2007
Varietal Pinot Meunier. Rich but focused with notes of toast, ripe apple and spice. Lovely depth with some creamy richness and a complex finish, with some lemony freshness. Lovely breadth of flavour here, a distinctive richer style. 94/100

Champagne Moussé Special Club 2008
100% Pinot Meunier. Lovely toasty richness with ripe apple and citrus. Very pure but with lovely fruit richness. Powerful, brooding and balanced in a brilliantly fruity style. 95/100
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Champagne Charlot-Tanneaux Grand Cru 2006
From a single vineyard of 5 ares in Ay, aged on lees under cork, just 480 bottles made. Open appley nose shows fresh citrus fruit. The palate has lovely finesse and elegance with rich, ripe pear and apple fruit. Notes of peach and toast add richness, and there’s a lovely soft texture. Remarkable: generous yet complex. 96/100

Champagne René Geoffroy Rosé de Saignée Blanc de Rosé NV
This is remarkable. The first 10 boxes of grapes are fermented with the stems. Lovely peppery, bright fresh red cherry fruit. Amazingly open and elegant with lovely purity and focus. Great precision and purity here. Distinctive and beautiful. 94/100

Champagne Francis Boulard Les Rachais Brut Nature 2007
This blanc de blancs is fresh and lively with lemons and apples. Lovely purity. Lean and intriguing. 92/100
Champagne Bérêche et fils Le Cran Ludes Premier Cru Montagne de Reims 2006
100% Pinot Noir. Very fine, fresh and expressive with bright citrus, apple and pear fruit. Focused and complex with lovely taut finesse. 94/100

Champagne Eric Rodez Blanc de Noirs NV Ambonnay
100% Pinot Noir. Taut, lemony and bright with lovely complexity. Focused flavours of lemon and grapefruit. A serious wine with amazing precision. 94/100

Champagne Pascal Doquet Premier Cru Vertus 2004
Chardonnay. Subtle and sophisticated with nice toast and citrus notes. Complex with nice texture and depth. Balanced. 94/100

Some great wines with Professor Scholefield

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For my first three days in British Columbia, Canada, I was being shown around by David Scholefield (aka ‘The Prof’, pictured above). He’s a total dude and we shared some nice bottles together, which I thought I would write up.
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Sea Star Siegerrebe 2013 Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada
Not the greatest wine in the world, but of interest because of where it comes from. Very fresh, mineral and spicy with some sweet grapey notes, citrus, and a hint of pear. Nice focus and balance to this crisp wine, which smells a bit sweet but tastes very dry and mineral. 89/100
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Bartier Bros Semillon Cequeira Vineyard 2012 Okanagan Valley, Canada
Very fine, fresh, pure and bright with lemony fruit and a smoky, herbal twist. Lovely freshness and precision, with real varietal character. 91/100
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Clos des Fous is a collaboration between Pedro Parra (celebrated terroir expert), François Massoc and Paco Leyton (the winemakers), and Albert Cussen. The goal is to focus on interesting Chilean terroirs, and then make wines that express them. Pedro has been working with David Scholefield at Haywire, which is why David brought the wines along.

Clos des Fous Cauquenina 2011 Maule, Chile
This is a blend of 36% Carignano/Carignan, 18% Malbec, 15% Syrah/Shiraz and 15% Pais, fermented in cement. 13.5% alcohol. Fresh, supple and elegant with sweet cherry and plum fruit, with a hint of pastille-like character that made me spot it as Chilean when I was served it blind. There’s real finesse here, with supple, sweet raspberry and cherry fruit. Juicy and focused. 91/100
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Clos des Fous Grillos Cantores Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Cachapoal, Chile
Sweet blackberry and black cherry fruit with a smooth texture. There’s a hint of green sappiness, and even some green pepper. Quite Chilean, but with some real elegance. 90/100

Clos Des Fous Locura Chardonnay 2012 Alto Cachapoal, Chile
A taut Chardonnay with notes of pear, spice, herbs and minerals. Ripe, pithy and lively with nice precision. 90/100
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Vincent Delaporte Sancerre Rouge 2011 Loire, France
Lovely texture: ripe and sappy with lovely warmth and a distinct mineral quality. Nice grainy structure under the black cherries and plums. Really lovely weight to this wine. 93/100
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Domaine Confuron-Cotetidot Chambolle Musigny 1er Cru Derrière la Grange 2010 Burgundy, France
Cherries, herbs and ripe fruit, with a warm texture. Minerally and smooth with nice graininess under the ripe fruit. There are hints of chalk and mint in the background. Just so easy to drink. 93/100
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Ridge Lytton Springs 2005 California
77% Zinfandel, 17% Petite Sirah and 6% Carignan. 14.4% alcohol. I was served this blind, and was really impressed. It tasted like a ripe, high end, aged Bordeaux, with real complexity. It turned out to be a Zinfandel, but from Ridge! Warm, sweet, spicy blackberry and black cherry fruit with lovely chalky, minerally texture. Delicious, warm and really complex. 94/100

Terres Dorées L’Ancien 2012 Beaujolais, France
Very fresh and supple with some lively, sappy cherry fruit as well as peppery hints and a sweet, silky texture. Delicious and fine with a lovely texture. 92/100

Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2011 Okanagan, Canada
Very lively with apples, citrus and pear fruit, as well as some herbal overtones. Precise palate with keen acidity and good concentration, showing herbs and minerals. Dry, with real intensity. 92/100

Thinking out loud about Canadian wine

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Now that I’ve visited both of Canada’s main winegrowing areas, Ontario and British Columbia – and after having tasted through lots of wines at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada, I thought I’d share some of my impressions.

Niagara and the Okanagan are completely different. They are physically a very long way apart – it costs a lot of money to fly from Toronto to Vancouver, and there’s a three hour time difference – and they have very different climates. So this makes it tricky to generalize about Canadian wine.
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Let’s focus on the Okanagan, where I have been for the last week. It’s visually very pretty, arranged around two interconnecting lakes (Okanagan, the main one, and Skaha), with hills rising on each side. The vineyards aren’t wall to wall, and it doesn’t particularly seem like a wine region. Except for in the south of the appellation, the vineyards tend to be dotted around in pockets on either side of the lakes, which makes for quite a range of microclimates.
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Also, Lake Okanagan is long. The climate at the north end of the lake is totally different from that of the south. Add in the difference between the east and west banks of the lake (one gets afternoon sun, the other morning), plus the soil differences, and it soon becomes difficult to generalize even about the Okanagan as a wine region. You can grow a lot of varieties here successfully, depending on where you are.

As with Ontario’s regions, the Okanagan is a young region, in that Vitis vinifera varieties haven’t been grown here all that long. It has a cool climate, if you look at the heat summation data, but in reality it’s a cool-ish climate with a compressed growing season, hemmed in at either end by frosts. Good natural acidity is a feature of the wines here.

This is a dry region, with around 250 mm rain a year. It’s not enough to grow wine grapes, so irrigation is essential, with the exception of just a few spots where the ground water reserves can take a vine all the way through the season.
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So, back to the broad picture. What varieties does Canada have a talent for? First of all, Cabernet Franc. This can be really good across all regions. It makes lovely wines here. Second, Riesling – another star performer in both Ontario and BC. Third, Gamay. This may surprise some people, but Canada makes some superb Gamays. Niagara is the leader for Gamay, but I tried some lovely BC Gamays also. I wish more was planted, because it can be brilliant, with a bit more intensity than it gets in Beaujolais.

I had some brilliant Syrahs this week. These were mostly from BC, and when Syrah is made with a light hand, in a fresh, more elegant style, it’s just fabulous, combining ripeness and peppery freshness. I’m going to investigate further. I’ve had some good Cabernets, Merlots and Bordeaux blends, too, but I think these haven’t been quite as exciting.
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Pinot Noir isn’t the easiest grape to grow in Niagara (Ontario’s main region), and it needs cooler sites in the Okanagan to show its best. But it is showing great potential, and I experienced some impressive Pinot Noirs this week. One to watch: it could be commercially very significant in the Okanagan over the next few years. If they aren’t already, I reckon Pinot Noir and Syrah could become the lead reds in the Okanagan.

For the Okanagan, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc can make some interesting wines from the right sites. I think these are also worth watching out for. I also need to mention Chardonnay. It’s a variety that I have been a bit underwhelmed with in Canada generally. Some really good Chardonnays are being made, but overall, the Okanagan Chardonnays sometimes have a pithy, subtly bitter reductive edge, and the Ontario Chardonnays often lack presence, with a slightly hollow mid-palate. Chardonnay will always have a place, but I don’t think Canada should lead with Chardonnay in export markets.
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Canadians are great people. At least the ones I have met are. I have had such fun this week, with lots of late nights, singing on the pier at Penticton and never-ending room parties. Plus an judges’ football game, running (three times in six days), swimming and a yoga session (my first ever). Summer in the Okanagan is pretty epic, with very comfortable sunny weather, great views, and a laid back feel to it.

Fellow judge Bill Zacharkiw

Fellow judge Bill Zacharkiw

Canada is lucky in that it has some great wine writers and judges. The WineAlign judges are highly competent and well travelled, and it was painless judging with them. The organization of these wine awards, which involved opening over 4000 bottles, pouring flights for each judge, and then collating the results in real time, was superb. Which means that judges can get on with the process of judging wine. The process was thorough, and every wine was given respect and time to show its best. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results.

Now I have a plane to catch. Goodbye Canada: once again, it has been fun.

Some pictures from the Okanagan

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Had a great day touring round the Okanagan yesterday. It’s a very scenic wine region. We began at Mission Hill, the really impressive winery owned by Anthony Von Mandl.

Anthony Von Mandl

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Then it was a visit to Tantalus, who are making super-impressive Riesling and very good Pinot Noir. Kiwi ex-pat David Paterson is the winemaker here.

David Paterson

David Paterson

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Next visit was Cedar Creek, which since February this year has been owned by Von Mandl. Block series Pinots impressed, as did a precise Ehrenfelser. Von Mandl is building a five story gravity fed cellar next door to this property which will be home to Martin’s Lane, one of his high-end labels, with a focus on Pinot Noir.
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We then took the remarkable unpaved Chute Lake road with some stunning views of the lake, ending up at Naramata. We stopped to look at the 650 acre property, previously known as Paradise Ranch, that Mission Hill now own, and which has some lovely vineyard parcels.

View from Chute Lake Road

View from Chute Lake Road

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In the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

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I am in the Okanagan! David Scholefield (below) and I drove up here yesterday morning. It’s a lovely four-hour drive through some spectacular scenery. Although there’s the possibility of flying from Vancouver to Penticton, the drive is worth it for the views. On the way I got to see my first ever wild moose, and also a peregrine falcon. No bears yet, though.
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We were joined by the other judges for the WineAlign National Wine Awards at the super-cool Okanagan Crush Pad winery in Summerland. This is owned by Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie, and David has a role here, too. It’s home to Haywire, which is their wine brand, and also the wines of several clients, who get to use the superb winemaking facilities here, as well as the expertise of winemakers Michael Bartier and Matt Dumayne, and the marketing skills of Christine. The winery, built by Steve, is just a few years old (2011) and is really well kitted out, including some stylish concrete fermenters and Nomblot-style eggs made by Sonoma Cast Stone.
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Michael Bartier addressing thr group in the Switchback vineyard, along with vineyard manager Theo Siemens

Michael Bartier addressing thr group in the Switchback vineyard, along with vineyard manager Theo Siemens

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Alberto Antonini consults here, as does terroir expert Pedro Parra. The home vineyard is the 10 acre Switchback Vineyard, which is planted to a single clone of Pinot Gris. Pedro Parra did an electro conductivity survey of the vineyard, producing map, and on the basis of the map decided to dig 32 different pits to look more closely at the subsoil. He then split the vineyard into five more-or-less homogeneous blocks, which are harvested separately and kept separate in the winery. On the basis of the soil properties Parra was able to predict what each of the wines would be like, and even the final blends, before the wine was made.
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We also visited a new vineyard site, Garnet Valley Ranch (above). It’s a pristine 312 acre ranch at altitude, and previously the only agricultural activity here was a small patch of alfalfa. They have already planted the first 10 acres, to Pinot Noir.
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The vineyard will be run biodynamically, and as well as vines there will be cows and other crops such as hops (five varieties have been planted as a trial). The next plantings will be two clones of Chardonnay and some Riesling. It will top out at around 40 acres when everything is completed. Pedro Parra was involved from the start, and when they were considering this property he was very excited by what was under the ground. As with the rest of the Okanagan, there’s insufficient rainfall here for vines to be grown without irrigation (around 250 mm rain per year), but if you irrigate the right way the roots do go deep enough to interrogate the subsoil.

After this we went back to Crush Pad for a tasting with some other local wineries, followed by some food. It was a really fun evening, and I was excited to be able to start exploring some of the Okanagan wines. More on those to come…

In Vancouver

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For one night only. I arrived in Vancouver yesterday afternoon, just in time to watch the second half of England v Uruguay at a bar in the airport with my host David Scholefield, who I am driving down to the Okanagan with this morning. It wasn’t the right result.

Then, after checking in to the new and wonderfully modern Blu hotel, it was time to begin a multi-stage evening. We began at Homer St Cafe and Bar, where we raided the really eclectic, naturally oriented wine list that sommelier Alex Thornley has put together. Alex is an ex-pat brit (Yorkshire) who has been out here for a while.

This wine list raid included the Bartier Bros Semillon 2012 from BC, which was pure and precise, and also two lovely Gamays: the Terres Dorees L’Anicen 2012 and the Christophe Pacalet Fleurie 2010.

Then it was off to Vij’s, a brilliant Indian restaurant. The food here was pretty epic, and we enjoyed some nice wines, including Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2011 from the Okanagan, and the Bartier Schofield Gamay Rose 2011, also from the Okanagan.

Penultimate stop of the evening was PiDGiN where we drank some wine, after beginning with a Negroni. Alsace was quite a focus, and I remember some Trimbach and Weinbach action, although I wasn’t taking notes. I did take a note on a really super Okanagan Rose: the Haywire Switchback 2012, which was made in concrete eggs. It was textured and detailed, and quite delicious.

By 1 am I was feeling a bit sleepy, with the jet lag and all. But we had a final stop at a bar for some beer. There wasn’t a lot open in town by this stage. Now I need to pack and leave for the Okanagan.

On sweetness

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I love Alsace wines. More so for just having come back from this most beautiful of wine regions. When can I visit again? I want to plan another trip.

One of the issues of Alsace wines is that of sweetness. Unless you are seriously knowledgable, you just don’t know whether you are going to be opening something sweet, off-dry, sweetly fruited, or bone dry. It depends on the producer’s style, the vineyard, and also the vintage.

As a result, many Alsace bottles now have a sweetness scale on the back label. This is a good thing, but only to the extent that it actually works in practice.

One of the problems is the EU labelling regulations, which allow for the designation of four levels of sweetness (see here and also explained in more detail here). This is insufficient for the discrimination among the different styles of Alsace white wines.

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The other problem is attempts to devise a sweetness scale with too much influence of wine analytical data. Yesterday in the Hengst Grand Cru vineyard in Alsace, Christophe Ehrhart of Josmeyer outlined his Expression Indices for Alsace Grand Cru wines. The scale runs from 1 to 5, and it’s pretty good, but the fatal flaw is that it relies on analytic data for residual sugar.

This means that it doesn’t work in practice. This is because sweetness isn’t just about the sugar. Christophe, of course, knows this, and point 1 in the scale bears acidity in mind. This is because acidity mitigates the sensation of sweetness, which is why Brut Champagne can taste dry at 10 g/litre residual sugar.

It is further down the scale, where simply sugar is taken into account, that it loses its way. Sweetness depends on acidity, sugar levels, alcohol levels (alcohol tastes sweet), fruitiness (fruity aromatics give an impression of sweetness), and even dry extract. We tried some wines at level 2 that tasted considerably sweeter than those at level 3.

If a sweetness scale is to work, it has to be done by sensory analysis, ignoring analytic data. This is the only way for it to be useful to consumers. Taste the wine. How sweet does it taste? Simple.

There’s also the way that sweetness changes with age. Alsace wines can, with age, ‘eat’ the sugar, and become more savoury. This is a complicating factor. Still, I think that all Alsace wines should have a sweetness scale on them, and I think the best way to do this is to get a number of tasters to taste the wine, and score it on a visual analogue scale – one where they have a line with dry at one end and sweet at the other, and they mark on this line where they think the wine sits.

in Alsace

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So nice to be back in Alsace. It is such a beautiful wine region. I’m here for just a few days with a big group of UK wine journalists and sommeliers for Millesimes Alsace, a large tasting with more than 90 top producers, and associated dinners and gatherings. For now, a few pictures of the highlights, but lots more to come. Pictured above: Jean Boxler’s wines were a real highlight. Amazingly elegant.
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Deiss makes such distinctive wines, with field blends of the noble varieties, harvested together. When it works, the results are great.
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I was so impressed with Ostertag’s wines. Sensational line up.
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Nice to meet Julien Schaal, who makes negociant wines in Alsace (from 12 Grand Cru vineyards) and South Africa.
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The Rolly Gassman wines are superb across the board. Rich style. Lovely.
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Melanie Pfister is doing good work. Really nice wines.
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Leon Bayer – very traditional, ageworthy dry Rieslings. They need time.
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Pierre Frick’s wines are very distinctive, in a slightly oxidative style, but I like them.
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Zind Humbrecht’s 2012s are really linear and pure, with amazing concentration.
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And finally, Chapoutier’s Alsace operation is showing promise.

Why judging super-expensive wines is difficult

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I always like Emile Peynaud’s quote about how expensive wines tasted blind frequently disappoint. Along similar lines, there’s the well known scientific experiment where subjects had their brains scanned while they were tasting the same wine, but being given different price information each time. They liked the wine more – and their brains responded differently – when they believed it to be expensive.

Judging wine blind is difficult. But judging wines sighted has its own problems. In particular, it’s really difficult to judge super-expensive wines sighted. The knowledge we have about their price gets in the way, and even changes out perception. We give the wine the benefit of the doubt, and can even see complexity, harmony and balance where there is none.

This is something that producers can take advantage of. They like to show their expensive wines at grand lunches in top restaurants, or at tutored one-on-ones with the winemaker. If I want to taste the top Champagnes, then I’ll likely have to do it at one of these occasions, and it certainly can skew things in favour of the wine. Penfolds are very clever in this regard: I think most of the times I have tasted current and older vintages of Grange have been in the presence of the talented, energetic Peter Gago, who acts as a winemaking ambassador for Penfolds’ Bin Series wines. They are also quite selective at showing off their new releases to on-message journalists in settings that they control. Like the top Champagne houses, Penfolds’ wines are now targeted clearly at the luxury goods marketplace. The first growth Bordeaux Chateaux won’t allow their wines to be tasted blind alongside all the others during the primeurs week: you have to go to them, if you are lucky enough to score an invite. No exceptions are made, even for publications whose normal behaviour is to taste blind.

Tasting old wines can also have a similar effect. It’s so hard to assess, objectively, great old vintages of top wines. In part, this has made things easier for fakers. Several high profile wine journalists – who regularly get invited to high ticket events where grand old wines are served – have fallen for fake wines. How is this possible? It is actually much easier to get it wrong when you assess super expensive bottles because you are psychologically primed to like the wine a great deal.

Holly's Garden Pinot Gris 2013, a Victorian gem

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Neil Prentice’s Holly’s Garden wines are made from biodynamically tended vines grown in Whitlands, Victoria, at 750 m altitude. Normally, the prospect of drinking Australian Pinot Gris doesn’t thrill me, but this wine is different. Neil showed his commitment to it by planting 6 hectares, which along with 4 hectares of Pinot Noir constitutes his vine holdings here. It has energy, life and complexity, and I’m very impressed. Neil’s day job is farming Wagyu beef at his parents’ property in Gippsland, where he also has the Moondarra vineyard.

Holly’s Garden Pinot Gris 2013 Victoria, Australia
12.5% alcohol. Very distinctive honeyed, spicy, grapey nose with a bit of smokiness. The palate is textured and ripe yet fresh with ripe apples, citrus, some honey and some grapey richness. Lovely mineral notes and good complexity, in a dry style. Thought provoking and an amazing bargain. 92/100 (UK agent Indigo Wines; Noel Young stock this for £11.99)

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