Video: drinking Champagne Dom Pérignon 2004 and talking fizz

dom perignon

So, I open a bottle of Champagne Dom Pérignon with brother in law William Beavington, and we drink it, talk about it, and have a broad-ranging discussion about Champagne more generally. The film is here.

Dinner with Camille Lapierre and natural Beaujolais

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On Monday evening I caught up with Camille Lapierre, of domaine Marcel Lapierre, which she runs with her brother Mathieu.

The domaine was founded by their grandfather, who was one of the first to bottle in the area. It was their father Marcel, who died in 2010, who was largely responsible for the reputation Lapierre enjoys today. He took over in 1973, but in 1981 he met Jules Chauvet, who led him to work in a more natural direction.

The domaine consists of 16 hectares, and the latest additions were a couple of hectares in Côte de Py in 2012. They are farmed organically, but 2 ha are farmed biodynamically, as a trial. Camille says that they don’t see a lot of difference.

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Winemaking here hasn’t changed with the new generation. They make a selection on the vine so that they only bring into the winery clean, whole bunches, with no dried grapes and no unhealthy grapes. These are then put into wooden tronconic fermentation vats which takes 4 tons each. Carbon dioxide is used to fill the remaining space and the weight of the grapes causes some juice to pool at the bottom.

Fermentation starts inside the grapes with an enzymatic transformation and after 2-3 days alcoholic fermentation starts at the bottom of the tank. Altogether, it takes around 3 weeks for fermentation to take place and pressing occurs in a vertical press. The wines are then matured in older oak without any additions at all.

2015 was a weird vintage, she says, with very dry conditions, resulting in wines with high pH and high alcohol. They have a tendency to be unstable and liable to oxidation, so in this vintage they won’t be making any of their ‘N’ cuvée. Typically, each year they make and ‘N’ and ‘S’ cuvées, with the latter receiving a bit of sulphur dioxide at bottling, and the former none. Harvest for 2015 was on August 23rd, which is really early, and the potential alcohols were 15-16%, which is unprecedented.

I love these wines.

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Lapierre Raisins Gauloius 2015 Vin de France
From 20-30 year old vines, carbonic maceration. It’s bottled too early to call it Morgon, but too late to be Nouveau, so it’s vin de France, and it’s screwcapped. Camille says it is a wine to drink under the shower. Very lively, fresh and juicy with black cherry and raspberry fruit. Supple and drinkable with floral fruit and a bit of grip. Smashable. 90/100

Lapierre Morgon 2014 Beaujolais, France
Pure and focused with lovely warmth. Textural and fine with fine-grained tannins and generous silky cherry fruit with some raspberry too. Quite lovely. 94/100

Lapierre Morgon 2011 Beaujolais, France
Warm, supple and sappy with nice rich texture and some cherry and plum fruit. This has lovely fine grained structure, and it’s sweet and smooth with nice texture, as well as some fine spicy notes. 93/100

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The new releases from Testalonga, one of South Africa's most interesting wineries

Craig Hawkins

Craig Hawkins

Caught up with Craig Hawkins to try the new releases from Testalonga, one of South Africa’s most interesting and bravest wineries. Craig and Carla left the safety of being based at Lammershoek (which was owned by her parents) and have moved to a remote but beautiful farm on the very edge of the Swartland. The winemaking pushes boundaries, with low alcohols and precise, intense but delicate flavours. The labels are also quite striking, and have got ever more colourful and artistic.

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These wines aren’t to everyone’s tastes, but I love them. Here are my brief notes on the 2015 releases.

Testalonga El Bandito Cortez 2015
Matchstick notes on the nose. Quite pure, linear and with lovely citrus and pear fruit. So delicious with fine acidity. 94/100

Testalonga El Bandito Skin Contact 2015
Grippy and detailed. Savoury, spicy and firm with high acid. Very fresh and fine. 93/100

Testalonga El Bandito ‘Sweet Cheeks’ 2015
This is Muscat Alexandria, 18 days on skins. So pretty and floral with lovely aromatics. Fresh, lemony and grapey with pithy edge to the palate. 92/100

Testalonga El Bandito Manualizza 2015
This is the Hungarian grape Harslevelu. Lovely acidity: fresh and lemony with pure, bright brit. Precise and lemony and linear. Lovely. 94/100

Testalonga El Bandito Manualizza Skin Contact 2015
Grippy with high acidity. Spicy, detailed, linear and fine with some peach and pear richness. Lovely. 94/100

Testalonga El Bandito I wish I was a Ninja Pet Nat 2015
This is a fizz made from Colombard. Amazing with lovely purity and bright, sweet lemony fruit. It’s off dry and smash able with lovely acidity. 93/100

Testalonga ‘King of Grapes’ Grenache 2015
Very tight and a bit reductive. Fresh and linear with nice cherry and raspberry fruit. So lean and linear. 93/100

Testalonga ‘The Dark Side’ Syrah 2015
Slightly rubbery, closed, taut, closed nose with leather and herbs complementing the nice raspberry and black cherry fruit. Fresh with high acidity. Savoury and fascinating. 93/100

There are also three wines that are a bit more affordable called ‘Baby Bandito':

Baby Bandito Keep on Punching 2015
Pure, lemony and linear with nice weight. 91/100

Baby Bandito Stay Brave 2015
Skin contact Chenin. Textured and cloudy with a bit of grip, some spice and nice acidity. A super wine. 93/100

Baby Bandito Follow Your Dream 2015
This is a Carignan. Very fresh, pure and linear with bright cherry and raspberry fruit with lovely detail and precision. Very fresh with real grip. 92/100

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At the Real Wine Fair

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Yesterday and today (Monday), it’s the Real Wine Fair. This is one of two large natural wine fairs that takes place annually in London, and it’s completely, utterly fabulous. Around 150 winegrowers from around the world are gathered to pour their wines, and there’s also lots of food, and a seminar program. Sunday was the public day; today is the traded day.

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I was taking part in the seminar program, with a session titled ‘The strange appeal of natural wine.’ Basically, it was a wide ranging conversation with Doug Wregg, who asked me lots of questions. We covered ground such as aesthetics, the interpretative role of the vigneron, whether you can score or rate natural wines, whether we have to assess wine at all, and also the limits and constraints of language – and how our words can get in the way of our perceptions.

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I have a recording of it, but because it’s an hour long, I’m not sure how much of an audience there is for this! And there are some things we said that might have to be redacted…

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I would have loved to spend more time here, because I was blown away by some of the wines I tasted. This is the living, pulsing heartbeat of the world of wine. This is the future of fine wine. People working more naturally, more carefully, getting in the way less, skilfully guiding and protecting the wine in its journey from the vineyard to the bottle. Not everything here, of course, is great – but there is just such a lot of amazing, personality-filled wine to be discovered at a fair like this.

Natural wine/authentic wine is not a fad. It’s here to stay.

Kelley Fox: great Oregon Pinots

Kelley Fox: great Oregon Pinots

Craig Hawkins: brilliant elegant South African wines from the Swartland

Craig Hawkins: brilliant elegant South African wines from the Swartland

Scott Frank, Oregon (Bow & Arrow)

Scott Frank, Oregon (Bow & Arrow)

Annedria Beckham, AD Beckham - distinctive lovely amphora wines from Oregon

Annedria Beckham, AD Beckham – distinctive lovely amphora wines from Oregon

Daniel Landi - brilliant Spanish natural wines - Garnacha with elegance

Daniel Landi – brilliant Spanish natural wines – Garnacha with elegance

The Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, an important wine for Chile

marques de casa concha cabernet

This is an important wine for Chile. Marcelo Papa, chief winemaker with Concha y Toro, has been on a journey away from excessive ripeness. He has been picking as much as a month earlier for the Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon. While his experiments began in 2010, it’s only with this 2014 vintage that the wine was made entirely from early-picked grapes. In addition, Marcelo is moving away from small oak barrels towards large botti, although because of the cost, this shift is taking a little longer to complete.

The result is a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon that tastes less of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and is actually quite serious. At it’s price point (c£12 in the UK), it’s a really lovely wine, and I picked a bottle up in Asda for £8.50 on special offer. It’s probably the best £8.50 wine on the market! Normally, I wouldn’t be that interested by Marques de Casa Concha’s Cabernets, because until now they have been solid, typically Chilean, ripe but dull. But I really like this wine.

Here, I taste it on camera.

 

 

The Wine Show: at last, wine on mainstream TV in the UK, but is it any good?

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So, wine is on mainstream TV. A new series of 13 one-hour episodes has just started airing on prime time Sunday evening ITV4, and will be repeated the following weekend at an earlier slot on ITV. It’s called The Wine Show, and this evening on catch up I watched the first episode. The wine trade has been quite excited to see this show arrive, and it’s had some very positive reviews. What did I make of it?

The series was made by Russ Lindsay’s Infinity Creative Media, which describes itself as making ‘investor funded television’. So they raise funds, make the series (they have made several similar series in this 13 x 1 h format) and then sell it to networks, rather than the usual commissioning method where a production company pitches an idea and pilot and then makes the series once it has been bought.

The Wine Show is built around four presenters. There are two actors, the Matthews Goode and Rhys, who are joined by wine experts Joe Fattorini and Amelia Singer. I have to declare here that I know both Joe and Amelia, who are really nice people, so this may slant my objectivity here. Both the Matthews are cast as the novices who need educating by Joe, who seems to be the main focal point of the show. In the first episode, Amelia is just filmed on location.

Things begin in an Umbrian villa, where both the Matthews are resident. The idea is that Joe brings back wines for them to try, and this then leads into a filmed segment showing Joe in situ finding these wines. For this first show, he’s in South Africa, telling the story of Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance. He finds himself in the vineyard at 4 am in the morning. Why am I here? he asks, as if he had no idea he was about to witness grapes being picked. While it’s nicely filmed, the segment sounds like an advertorial for Klein Constantia: it’s just so flattering and glowing (there was no payment for inclusion: this was purely an editorial decision, which makes the sycophancy even worse). When Joe gets to taste the wine, he builds up the reverence and excitement. It’s as if he’s never tried Vin de Constance before.

The next segment is back in Italy, where Joe is taking the Matthews through some wine gadgets. This also looks like an advertorial, even though it isn’t. After this, there’s a lengthy food segment, where a chef chooses a wine and then makes a dish to go with it. This will be repeated each week with a different chef.

Then we are back to Italy where Joe is tasked with introducing the Matthews to Italian wine by sending them around the country. Their first stop is Montepulciano, where they try some Vino Nobile with an Italian wine expert who talks jargon that must have left them quite confused. They have to select wine to take back to Joe. They clearly are well out of their depth. Then we see a barrel-pushing race in the town.

Next: Joe and Amelia are sent off to different locations to make wine. Amelia goes to the Clare Valley in Australia, while Joe goes to Château Margaux. Amelia does some punch downs, while Joe does some pump overs. This also gets jargon filled (the fault of the winemakers, not the presenters), and some of the terms are a bit confused: since when is pressing to barrel ‘clarification’, and when is a press a ‘crusher’?

I watched the whole hour and came away with mixed feelings. The locations are lovely, and all the presenters do a good job. You’d expect actors to be good on camera, but Joe and Amelia are also really good.

But the show itself is a mish-mash. If you are into wine, it’s not interesting. If you aren’t into wine, it’s not really interesting either. And the wines featured in the first episode are an odd bunch. Start a popular wine TV program with a sweet wine? Really? It’s lots of little segments, joined together, with no real narrative structure. It all feels a bit retrofitted: Joe and Amelia have travelled the world shooting material, and then someone has tried to stitch it altogether with the actors and the Italian filming, and some cookery segments thrown in for good measure. I’ll give it a second chance. But the Top Gear of wine it ain’t.

Two Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos: Billaud Simon and Louis Michel

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Over the last couple of years I have grown to love Chablis. Its appeal is a little less obvious than many other expressions of Chardonnay, but the best wines are definitely ones that repay cellaring. Indeed, one way to waste money is to drink Grand Cru Chablis young. What I love in good Chablis is the integrated acidity and the precision of flavour. And, of course, the ‘mineral’ character, which is a term that’s without a sensible definition, but one I like to use. Here are a couple of Grand Cru Chablis that were drunk as a pair, at age 7, which is around when these wines start showing their class. One was considerably better than the other.

Domaine Billaud Simon Les Clos Chablis Grand Cru 2008 Burgundy, France
Very fine and expressive with appealing citrus fruit and some fine mineral notes, alongside some waxiness. Pure, fine and intense, and thrilling. 95/100

chablis louis michel

Louis Michel et Fils Les Clos Chablis Grand Cru 2008 Burgundy, France
Lively, fresh and detailed but with a slight smoky edge to the nose. Hints of herbs and cabbage with a very keen, linear citrus core. Some stony notes, too, and some herbiness. 89/100

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Judging at the International Wine Challenge, day 1

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Yesterday was the first day’s judging at the International Wine Challenge (IWC). Taking place at the Oval Cricket Ground, which has been an excellent home to the challenge for the last few years, it’s a major operation with 20 tables of five judges working hard all day. This first week involves four days of sifting through all entries (and there are lots – there were around 15 000 last year, although numbers aren’t talked about openly because it just ends up in an arms race with another large UK-based competition). We are looking to see whether the wines are medal worthy or not, and those that pass through will come back next week to be looked at in more detail. A team of co-chairs checks all the rejected entries this week as a back-up mechanism to make sure that no good wines have been unfairly rejected, and also to harmonise standards.

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I had a lovely team yesterday. One of the strengths of the competition is that places to judge are sought-after, so the organizers can be picky about who they choose. Everyone is subject to peer feedback, including us panel chairs. If anyone shows a track record of poor performance, they don’t get asked back. If anyone excels, they can be promoted from associate to judge, then to senior judge, and eventually panel chair. Promotion is based on performance, and at the end of the two weeks we panel chairs get a report on how well we and our teams performed, showing areas where we need to develop and congratulating us where we have done well.

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So, this was how our day looked:

  • Flight 1 New Zealand sparkling wine – pretty good
  • Flight 2 Brouilly – some nice wines, some very commercial ones
  • Flight 3 South African Sauvignon Blanc – poor wines unfortunately
  • Flight 4 Cabernet-based reds from the Veneto – these were a bit strange
  • Flight 5 Barolo – as you’d expect, a few nice wines and some ordinary ones too
  • Flight 6 South African Chardonnay – pretty good, some nice wines
  • Flight 7 Minervois – not as good as we were expecting
  • Flight 8 Pouilly Fuissé – a small, strong flight
  • Flight 9 Spanish reds – a short flight of three oddities that weren’t nice
  • Flight 10 Douro reds – some smart wines here
  • Flight 11 Douro whites – a bit underwhelming
  • Flight 12 Greek reds – these weren’t very good alas, Greece can do much better
  • Flight 13 Turkish reds – ditto
  • Flight 14 20 year old tawny Port – a very strong flight and a good way to finish

As you can see, it’s a varied diet of wines, and this helps to keep the palate fresh. It’s also a great way to get a snapshot of what is going on across the world of wine. With 103 wines in all, it’s a comfortable number to taste because we aren’t taking detailed notes. Repeat this for two weeks, and the experience you gain as a taster is immense.

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On belonging

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For two weeks each year, around April, I’m reminded what it is like to go to work. Like normal people do. As in have a job. It’s the International Wine Challenge (IWC), and as a panel chair I’m there every day. I commute by train to Vauxhall station, and then wander down to the Oval cricket ground, where we are based. Each day, that pattern is repeated. The same journey: leaving, going to work, coming home. I commuted for 15 years into town, and although most bits about having a regular job I can live without (I just love the flexibility of being a freelancer), there are a few I still miss.

The main one – and this is part of the reason I enjoy the IWC so much – is the sense of belonging. There is something rich and satisfying about being in a joint venture with colleagues. I love the sense of belonging to something bigger than myself.

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The IWC is tough work: we have to taste a lot of wines, and we have to be disciplined to taste thoroughly and give every wine a fair chance. But it is so great to work as a team: each day I will be with four different people. Some I will know; some will be strangers. As a panel chair, my job is to help this team work well together to provide the right results (which isn’t the same as convincing them I am right). Panels are a great way to assess wines in a competition setting, when the team works well and there’s some discussion of the results.

The wine challenge is also great because each day there are 80-100 judges participating, and it’s an opportunity to catch up with peers and old friends. For a few weeks a year I feel I belong, and reminded that I’m part of something bigger than me.

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As a freelancer, this is valuable. It’s not just the wine challenge that provides me with a sense of belonging though. It happens with press tastings, where you bump into lots of your peers. We’re competitors, yes, but we all get on pretty well, like a sports team where there’s healthy competition for places. I also get a sense of belonging with collaborative ventures. For example, I’m now working with WineAlign, a superb Canadian outfit. For the last two years I have been a guest overseas judge at their National Wine Awards of Canada, and this year I’ll be doing it again, but now as a regular part of the team, contributing articles to their website. The NWACs are great fun, and WineAlign brings together most if not all of the leading communicators and writers from the Canadian wine scene in a way that I’ve not seen anywhere else. They are a lovely group, like a big and sometimes slightly crazy family, and it’s so great to be involved with them.

Belonging is human. I know and celebrate the fact that everyone is different. But I thing there’s a deep human need to belong. We’re wired to desire it, and much sadness results when people don’t feel they belong.

We want to belong with a significant other. [Although some people, by choice or circumstance seem to do singleness well, it is not an easy path for many.] The feeling of belonging to another in a special way, that neither of you share with anyone else, is a beautiful, deeply satisfying thing. It can also be incredibly painful when it goes wrong. This belonging is the source of inspiration for many songs, poems and novels.

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We also belong to a family. This is important, because it is our link with the past. This is where we came from, and it’s an important source of identity. Good families can provide a wonderful sense of belonging, but when things aren’t good, this can also be the cause of emotional and psychological devastation. Sometimes it’s hard to repair the damage done by loveless families.

Then there’s belonging to a network of good friends; belonging to a wider social circle; and belonging in tribes (for example, people drawn together with a common interest, such as support of a sports team or shared admiration for a band).

Then there is the more fundamental issue of belonging to the universe. We look into the night sky, consider the enormity and ever changing, expanding, evolving nature of the universe and think: I belong here. I am part of this.

I think art is one of the ways that we celebrate, explore and share our belonging together. That is why it is so important. To a degree, a culture of wine is also one of celebrating belonging. Wine is shared, with meals. Sitting down with someone and sharing a meal is a very intimate thing, and it is at the core of most families and societies. And wine is frequently part of this experience.

Although I love being a freelancer, I recognize the importance of being part of something bigger. I cherish the independence that being a freelancer brings, but acknowledge the loss that comes with it. For the next two weeks I’m going to be taking part in the IWC, and I’m looking forward to it a great deal.

Neudorf Rosie's Block Chardonnay 2015, with video

neudorf roses block chardonnay

This is the latest release from Nelson winery Neudorf, and it’s a new name for an old wine. Rosie’s Block is named after Judy and Tim Finn’s daughter Rosie, and used to be known simply as Neudorf Chardonnay. They also make a more expensive Moutere Chardonnay.

The wine comes from a block overlooking the home vineyard with a north-facing aspect and clay/gravel soils. The vines are dry grown, mature and the vineyard is managed organically (it’s in conversion). There’s also a bit of fruit from other Moutere hill sites in here. I really like this wine – it’s precise and detailed and should age beautifully.

Neudorf Rosie’s Block Chardonnay 2015 Nelson, New Zealand
Very lean and citrussy. Pure and quite mineral with a fine spiciness. It’s still primary with very direct lemony flavours and keen but well integrated acidity. Amazing finesse: so taut with nascent complexity. Drinking well now but will get better with a few years in bottle. 94/100

Here’s a short video of me tasting the wine:

 


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